Friday, August 31, 2018

As Line Between Platform and Publisher Blurs, We Need More Freedom for All

It is not so easy these days to clearly and unmistakably delineate what a “platform” is and what “media” is. Facebook says it is a “technology” company, not a media company. And Facebook execs sometimes have said the difference is between telling stories and building tools.

Others might point out that business models sometimes play a role. “Media” companies sometimes have business models based on business-to-business sales (advertising or content or products) and sometimes on business-to-consumer subscriptions, or a mix of those models.

It is not so clear that one can delineate based on revenue model. Amazon is a commerce platform, but also makes revenue selling advertising, and that role seems to be growing. And one might argue that Facebook’s hosting of a platform for people to communicate is akin to the communications platform provided by AT&T or Verizon, where end users supply their own content.

In principle, a platform is supposed to be content- and content-creator-agnostic, allowing end users to produce content that the platform then distributes.

“Publishers,” on the other hand, make their own decisions about what content to create or distribute. Publishing is not classically about “user generated” content, but “professionals creating content.”

So telcos and social media outlets are both platforms. And platforms are not responsible (legally) for the content that is posted.

Publishers, on the other hand, do create or curate content, and are responsible, but with the major caveat that publishers also have free speech rights in terms of their content. They are not “regulated” as common carriers, for example.

Everything has gotten fuzzier, and the lines between the two roles are less clear and the actual activities undertaken by platforms are fusing with content creation as well. And some entities already seem to be hybrids. Firms such as BuzzFeed, Huffington Post, Bleacher Report and so forth combine “professional” and “user generated” content.

And that poses new problems. If it becomes less possible to clearly separate platform from publisher, and if the roles use different regulatory models (unregulated for data services or traditional publishers; a bit of regulation for broadcasters, radio, cable TV; heavily regulated common carrier (telcos), when those industries fuse, we have to figure out which model to apply.

And the fundamental choices always are “more or less.” We can use the lighter-regulation approach to all, or the heavier-regulation to all. And that is where, in the U.S. policy framework, “freedom of the press” plays a key role.

Some might approve of greater restrictions on freedom of expression, typically for “good reasons.” Some might argue we can clearly separate when the platform model makes sense, and when the publisher model makes sense, even when those are co-mingled roles.

Personally, as hard as it might be, I’d argue for greater freedom for all. That is a better framework than “less freedom for all.”

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