Social media agency: Facebook and Google as publishers

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How do you see Facebook and Google? A social network and a search engine, or tools for spreading information online? This is the big question that has been asked several times over already, not least on this PR, marketing, comms, and social media agency blog.

Do these familiar digital brands really represent what they used to, or has the tide changed directions, and are they actually serving a much more complex purpose today?

Facebook’s Instant Articles is a prime example whereby the network has repositioned itself as a publishing tool. It may not be responsible for the writing of the articles as such- hence publishers and journalists feeling put out that they don’t get much of a share in the cash these posts generate. But it is hosting that content. To draw a loose comparison, when a newspaper uses syndicated work, for example from Press Association, it could be held liable for anything within those words, as they appeared in the paper’s own pages.

Google is also well-versed in providing articles for people to read, and curating the nature of news feeds based on user histories. This again brings it much closer to a publishing platform than ever before.

With this in mind, it’s no surprise, nor before time, to read that the UK government is taking a very close look at the status of both Facebook and Google, with the possible idea of reclassifying both as publishers. This has been brought on due to a combination of issues; copyright infringement- i.e. whether or not the web giants are technically using other people’s work without paying their dues- fake news- for example potential libel, misrepresentation, and defamation incidents- and extremist material, which would contravene the laws governing publishing standards and offensive material.

At the moment, quite amazingly, there is very little regulation over the information that is spread on Facebook, and similarly with Google. Smoking Gun’s MD, Rick Guttridge, has written about the need for this to be tightened on more than one occasion, most recently here, and as such it’s good to see that the authorities are beginning to pay some real attention to the subject. However, it’s a complicated situation.

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“We need to get the balance right so that we have a free vibrant internet that we can harness all the benefits from while protecting the intellectual property that is ultimately the thing that differentiates the United Kingdom from other parts of the world,” Culture Secretary Karen Bradley is quoted as saying in The Guardian today.

“We need to get the balance right so that we have a free vibrant internet that we can harness all the benefits from while protecting the intellectual property that is ultimately the thing that differentiates the United Kingdom from other parts of the world,” she continues.

“I am looking into this. I am not sure the publisher definition in UK law would necessarily work in the way that people would like it to work. I think it would end up being very restrictive and make the internet not work in the way we want it to work.

“We need to be careful here that what we do is not a sledgehammer to crack a nut – a piece of legislation where we say under UK common law these platforms are now publishers, which could impact on freedom of speech, civil liberties and the ability of people to enjoy the benefits that the internet brings. But we have to do this in a way that doesn’t allow harm.”

The plot thickens, then.