Facebook seems unable or unwilling to clearly define its own understanding of its status in the world: is it a platform for third-party content, or an actual publisher?
A lot is riding on the answer to this, given the number of legal protections under US law given to social media websites that are not seen as publishers. But Facebook is, surprisingly, not always clear on this point.
This week, at last, the tech giant claims that it is not a platform. Representatives of Facebook, Twitter, Google, and Irish ISPs appeared before an Irish legislative committee to testify about what actions they were taking to protect users from online harassment and other harmful behaviors.
Facebook denied the accusation that it profits from content such as live streams of shooting accidents and upsetting imagery – and all three American social media giants denied that they are publishers.
For Facebook, this is a surprising about-face compared to what the company recently claimed in a motion to dismiss a lawsuit filed against it by conservative commentator Laura Loomer.
To be fair, even in that single filing Facebook behaves in a contradictory manner – first calling itself a publisher by stating that “under well-established law, neither Facebook nor any other publisher can be liable for failing to publish someone else's message.”
Facebook's motion to dismiss then refers to the US Communications Decency Act (CDA) Section 230, which provides the company and other social made websites safe harbor from legal liability for content posted by others – but specifically, by treating them as non-publishers.
Google is handling this issue potentially very harmful to its interests more consistently and certainly more carefully, and so the Irish committee heard that while legislators have a right to say otherwise – the company disagrees it's a platform.
And not only that, but Google Ireland executive Ryan Meade warned legislators to consider the claim “through to its conclusion” as a danger apparently not so much to the giant, as to the open internet.
“On YouTube, there are hundreds of hours of video uploaded every minute,” Meade said. “If we were publishers, we would have to monitor all of that beforehand. It's open to legislators to decide that that's what we should do but it would fundamentally change the service.”
And there are many ways to editorialize content – censorship, bans, downranking, and algorithmic filtering being some of them. But Twitter's representative appearing before the committee opted to go for the simplest definition, denying the publisher status, and saying, “We have no editorial control over any of the live content. That's not to say we don't take our responsibilities seriously.”