It's time for young digital upstarts, Google, Facebook and their like to grow up, take responsibility and get regulated
Facebook’s not so fresh-faced anymore and Google’s grey hairs are sprouting fast. They’re having to accept responsibility for the content they enable more than ever before. Mark Zuckerberg is fretting over Facebook’s role in amplifying fake news, and Google has updated its code of practice to reduce the visibility of file sharing sites in search responses.
The digital media giants used to claim that they were fundamentally different from old-style broadcasters and publishers, because they made no content. They were simply platforms and couldn’t be held responsible for any of the content.
No need for Ofcom or lengthy policies on taste and decency, they were as far removed from the content as a mobile phone network is from our selfies.
But this is changing fast, as regulation and policy make their presence felt in digital media. Uber can’t claim to be "just an interface" anymore. A landmark ruling has decreed that Uber drivers are bona fide employees.
Airbnb has had to introduce a 90-day limit on all its accommodation in London to stay on the safe side of being classed as "a hotel". Even Mark Zuckerberg’s language betrayed a growing editorial voice when he said: "Our approach will focus less on banning misinformation, and more on surfacing additional perspectives and information, including that fact checkers dispute an item's accuracy."
The vanguard of the digital revolution have matured into corporate players in the "establishment". All companies grow up and do this. They accept regulation and develop codes of conduct.
The trickier issue for this particular cohort is how they will exercise editorial judgement. It’s one thing to sign up to a policy, but how will Facebook decide what "additional perspectives" to showcase?
How will they determine what really is and isn’t misinformation? How will they oversee a balance of views? Will they be screening for taste and decency?
Legacy media, those who created or commissioned content, were adept at those skills. Content and distribution weren’t separated, which meant media had an inherent responsibility to audiences, usually within a clear Ofcom-style framework of governance.
The BBC has reams of policy, forged over decades, around taste and decency. Ofcom still polices the watershed and still has the ability to kick a raunchy Rihanna video into the wee hours.
As the young digital upstarts take their place in the establishment, how will they learn to exercise editorial judgement? Is it now time for Facebook to take a leaf out of the BBC’s book?