Social Networks. Are they publishers or platforms and why it matters?

Social Networks. Are they publishers or platforms and why it matters?

Are social media networks legally responsible for your status updates or are they immune for any damage a status update can cause under the 1st Amendment?

Online, there are a lot of people that I agree with and even more that I disagree with. I believe in the 1st Amendment which gives you the freedom of speech. Just as a refresher, here’s what it says;

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

1st Amendment of the United States Constitution

Now, I just want to say that I like how Facebook has transformed the way I keep in touch with my family and allows me to stay informed as to the goings on and highlights of important events around the people I care about. This is not about that.

I’m concerned about the massive power these companies have to filter the information I receive and fundamentally influence public opinion by omitting or censoring voices they do not agree with.

I want clarification on a few issues that I have with figuring out what we can and cannot do to ensure we are making informed decisions about the world around us.

I’m speaking about platforms and publishers. I want to know what Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and other social networks are.

If they are ‘Platforms’ then, by definition, they are companies that enable content and distribution of information. This would be similar to the phone company. If social networks are a platform, then they are not responsible for the material that is posted on their networks. You can’t sue them for defamation if someone publishes libelous content. They just provide the platform, not the message.

If on the other hand, they are not just platforms, if they are ‘Publishers,’ then the situation changes. (by definition, a publisher is someone who curates and distributes content, like a newspaper.) A publisher has full legal responsibility for the material that is posted.

Now that the difference between platforms and publishers has been established, we can take a step back and apply this to Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and any other social networks out there. Currently, these companies are defining themselves as online platforms which people can use to come together and share ideas. This sounds to me like they are ‘platforms’ (it’s right there in the definition). This means that they can’t be held accountable for the content published on their sites. This also means that they are NOT publishers and therefore should NOT be curating content.

The problem is that they are shifting away from being platforms and appear to be acting like publishers. Especially with their decision to ban certain types of content. This is disturbing, to say the least. If you have an opinion that is not in line with the views of the social network you use, then you run the risk of being banned and silenced.

Mark Zuckerberg told Congress that they are “responsible for the content” and that is why they shut down and silenced certain groups and political opinions they didn’t agree with.

If we are to hold Facebook, as Zuck said, “responsible” then they are in a precarious situation. They are liable for any non-licensed photo or text content that is published on their site. They would be responsible for anyone that’s been bullied on their network. They are open to lawsuits.

I don’t think they want to be sued. I believe Social Networks need to take a moment and figure out if they really want to be a publisher or remain a platform.

Regardless of what they decide, I think they need to provide us much more precise definitions of the rules and guidelines which we can use to NOT get our voices silenced.

It’s a lack of clarity that creates chaos and frustration. Those emotions are poison to any living goal.

Steve Maraboli

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