Holding platforms to account in 2018: Part Two

Well, the best-laid plans of mice and men…

Only one week since we mooted the possibility that 2018 would be the year Facebook and Google would be held to account as publishers, Mark Zuckerberg stymies our plans for a part two by announcing that Facebook would no longer be a platform for quality news. It’s hard to imagine a neater sidestepping of an issue.

In the latest Monday note, Frederic Filloux points out that publishers in Europe have a tendency to run to regulators when they get unhappy, and that that might have had an impact on the decision:

“Dealing with media companies is especially complicated. Three constant features characterize publishers: a deep sense of entitlement (“We are the news, you owe this and that to us”), a lack of technical competence (they expect FB to come up with ready-to-use products), and, in Europe, a propensity to call on Daddy (the government) and Mommy (Brussels) when things go awry.”

There are other reasons, of course. With midterm elections coming up in the US, a social platform that has been burned by its association with distribution of misinformation (it was undeniably responsible for the creation of an ecosystem that rewarded ‘fake news’) has every incentive to walk away, to avoid the spectre of regulation if nothing else.

Cynically, you could also suggest that since Facebook warned that it was approaching saturation point for the amount of ads that could be appear in the newsfeed last year, and that raising ad prices would be the best way to compensate for slowing growth in that area, that this is a way to get more brands to pay to play in the newsfeed.

However, it still might not have implemented these changes but for the ongoing phenomenon of ‘context collapse’ at Facebook. In the post announcing the changes, Zuckerberg notes that user feedback influenced the decision:

“But recently we’ve gotten feedback from our community that public content — posts from businesses, brands and media — is crowding out the personal moments that lead us to connect more with each other.”

Ultimately, Facebook’s ‘product’ is the users who spend time on it. Keeping them appeased benefits the business, and this time it was quality journalism that was sacrificed to keep them happy.

The real question is whether this will be enough to save the social giant from increased oversight and potential classification as a publisher in much the same way that Uber has been classified as a transport company by the ECJ. After all, even Facebook’s vice-president in charge of newsfeed Adam Mosseri notes that news will still be distributed on Facebook, just not necessarily in the newsfeed:

“So news content, some news content that is shared and talked about a lot will receive some sort of tailwind from this. And news content that is more directly consumed by users—that they don’t actually talk about or share—will actually receive less distribution as a result.”

Condé Nast’s Wolfgang Blau even obliquely references regulation and oversight in his breakdown of Facebook’s strategic priorities over the coming year:

“News journalism has become a strategic burden for Facebook in its critical need to be a truly global player, which it isn’t. Not as long as they are not in China and always at risk of being thrown out of Russia or Turkey. There is zero strategic interest for Facebook to become a ‘publisher’, just like Apple has no reason to buy the New York Times, despite that being the object of never-ending speculation in the industry”

In the UK at least, talk about reclassifying the platforms as publishers – with all the implications for free speech and oversight that contains – erupts every so often. Last October Patricia Hodgson, the chairman of regulator Ofcom, announced that the organisation was considering the possibility of redefining the platforms according to UK law, a position that was slightly echoed by the then-Culture Secretary Karen Bradley.

The wider response was one of cynicism and disbelief. The UK government has an obsession with ‘fixing’ cyber-bullying (it being one of the few things everyone can agree is bad, and therefore catnip to a Tory government seen as cruel by younger generations), and it was noted that this, and not misinformation, was the government’s actual focus with regards to Facebook.

Meanwhile, as has been demonstrated by Google’s own ongoing issues with antitrust rulings and fines over hate speech in Europe, regulating platforms is like trying to hit moving targets that fight back. Speaking to Digiday Paul Mead, executive chairman of media agency VCCP Media, said:

“If [the government] thought Google and Facebook were publishers, they’d have classified them as such long ago. This is a case of trying to fit a square peg into a round hole and applying 20th-century mentality to 21st-century business models.”

And there are obvious concerns around free speech and freedom of expression if the platforms were to be regulated as publishers, though the issue of ancillary copyright laws has been mitigated somewhat by the latest news.

Despite that, there have been indications that the means by which the platforms make money – via ads – has the potential for greater oversight. The Honest Ads Act (where do they come up with these names?) which was mooted last year in the US received unilateral support, and though there is pushback against it from the platforms in Europe there are frameworks already in place to consider antitrust measures against the platforms.

So even if Facebook has managed to sidestep the issue about regulation of news on its platform it isn’t out of the woods yet. The issue for those who want increased oversight is that the old examples of industry-wide regulation – eg, that of the oil, steel and railway companies in the 20th century – didn’t have anywhere near the complexities that regulating global tech companies does today. It requires updating thinking – and that’s in short supply.

Chris Sutcliffe

[email protected]


Martin Tripp Associates is a London-based executive search consultancy. While we are best-known for our work in the TMT (technology, media, and telecoms) space, we have also worked with some of the world’s biggest brands on challenging senior positions. Feel free to contact us to discuss any of the issues raised in this blog.