Is Facebook a Tech or Media Company?

This Just In

U.K.-based Richard Jebb writes about the events industry.

Facebook’s senior representatives, including founder and CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, have been facing questions following reports that UK-based research firm Cambridge Analytica improperly gained access to the personal data of as many as 87 million Facebook users.

“I consider us to be a tech company, not a media company,” Zuckerberg said during his testimony on Capitol Hill last week, when asked if he considered Facebook to be a publisher. “I consider us to be a technology company because the primary thing that we do is have engineers who write code and build product and services for other people.”

While Zuckerberg acknowledged that Facebook pays “to help produce content,” he said, “We build enterprise software. We build planes to help connect people, but I don’t consider ourselves to be an aerospace company.”

His answer is important because however Facebook is categorized will determine how lawmakers regulate it. Currently, Facebook does not fall under media regulation, but the nub of what is going on here is to determine how this online giant is regulated in the future.

Discussing the subject on BBC Radio 4, Times columnist Hugo Rifkind said, “For a long time we have considered a tech company like Facebook as somehow smaller than a media company, in fact, it’s something that is much, much bigger than a media company, so the way in which it is regulated, I don’t think you can look at how TV or media otherwise is regulated, you’re more looking at the laws that regulate society generally, and how you can make them apply more forcefully online.”

Like Facebook, the event industry is a medium, or platform, for people to speak, offer their views and present information, yet our industry also does not fall under media regulations. Should we be worried that a change in the way the industry is regulated encompasses the media of conventions, conferences, and events? Many conference organisers already check the content of their speaker’s sessions, mostly for relevance to the conference programme — but should they be held legally responsible for its accuracy?

The main trope of the Cambridge Analytics scandals relates to influencing the outcome of the 2016 US Presidential Election, aiding Donald Trump’s victory. When you consider that his victory was also aided by the huge rallies he held at venues across America — where much of the content of his speeches was deemed as factually exaggerated or incorrect and shared to millions across social media platforms, such as Facebook — it is easy to see the role the event industry played. Moreover, it becomes clearer where the two — social media and events — are aligned.

However, the complaints about Facebook go wider. As well as illegal data access, it is held as responsible for the growth and proliferation of “fake news” as well as hosting legitimate news that it pays no royalties for — all due to a thirst for advertising revenue.

A Forbes article written in 2016 by contributing writer Charles Warner responded to Zuckerberg’s claims then that Facebook is not a media company and it is a “crazy idea” that Facebook influenced the election. Warner wrote: “Zuckerberg is no dummy. He took the idea of a digitized facebook from some Harvard classmates and was good enough at coding to put one up on Harvard’s servers. As Picasso said, ‘Bad artists copy; good artists steal.’ Zuckerberg was smart enough to get into Harvard, smart enough to take a good idea and smart enough to continue innovating at his new company to leave Friendster and MySpace in the dust.

“But when the company became successful, Zuckerberg didn’t want to admit that Facebook was a media company, even though he eventually managed it like other media companies are managed, i.e. to maximize advertising revenue. At the beginning of Facebook, Zuckerberg didn’t like advertising because he thought it hurt the product. However, he soon learned, like Larry Page and Sergey Brin learned at Google, that users weren’t going to pay for the service, so in order to grow he had to accept advertising.”

The likelihood is that, eventually, a compromise will be reached and Facebook and social sites like it will have to succumb to some form of regulation, but not as a media companies. It will likely be bespoke legislation that protects the services they provide — and that so many of us enjoy the benefits of — while forcing them to accept a reasonable level of responsibility about the data they share and the content they prolificate.

A wise event industry will take note of the outcome, as it may pertain to the work that we do.

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