Are gigantic technology companies like Facebook, Google and Twitter platforms or publishers? That's not just an academic question. It's a very practical issue important to the future of all of us.
And here's a related question: Have these companies grown so massive that they are monopolistic and too-powerful gatekeepers in the flow of news and information?
When the "information highway," as we used to call it, was emerging as an important component of society, it was thought that this thing called the Internet would be a great equalizer and disrupt large, centralized, bureaucratic organizations.
After all, the Internet allowed anyone to become a publisher or broadcaster and to instantly communicate with anyone, anywhere in the world. You didn't have to own a printing press or expensive broadcast equipment. Myriad and diverse businesses could be built around this magical resource that facilitated unlimited, two-way audio, video and data communications at very low cost. Advertisers and advocates could reach targeted audiences at affordable prices.
In such a free-for-all environment powered by advanced technology, it was thought that no company, or handful of companies, could dominate. Small, agile, innovative companies would always disrupt the big guys.
Well, it didn't work out that way. Certainly, the information world became much more fractured. And the traditional news media, especially printed newspapers, were disrupted and destroyed as most advertising dollars went to the Internet.
But a handful of companies, especially Google, Amazon, Twitter and Facebook, created on-line services and platforms on which billions of other individuals and companies could provide information, services, conduct transactions, and communicate in groups and networks. Those few companies became the gatekeepers of much of the global flow of information.
Thus, instead of dispersing power and control of information and commerce, the digital world has centralized incredible power, control and money in a very small number of companies.
Certainly, anyone can still become a publisher. Certainly, anyone can create a web site or blog, or sell goods and services over the Internet. But the practical reality is that if you want to grow large, if you want to reach the masses, you almost always have to do it, at least in part, through Google and its search platform, Facebook with its billons of active users, and/or Twitter with its massive reach and ability to instantly spread information locally, nationally and globally.
Virtually every business imaginable today has a digital department, or someone who knows how to use social media, and most of their time is spent promoting information, services or products through Google search, Facebook and Twitter.
A mature Internet has given massive power and control to just a few multi-billion dollar firms. Anyone who is trying to sell a product or service, or is trying to attract votes or promote a cause, will tell you that Google's search algorithms will make or break them. And you essentially have to pay Google to get high placement in search results. Google is not a neutral search engine with a level playing field. It's really pay-to-play..
Likewise, rules established by Twitter and Facebook might determine whether a post can be distributed or not.
Which brings us to the question of whether these companies are platforms or publishers. If they are merely neutral platforms, they should not be held responsible, or be legally liable, for what is posted on their pages. But if that's the case, they should also not be controlling what can or can't be communicated.
But if they are publishers, then, like a newspaper or broadcast station, they should be responsible for what is published on their pages and they should be subject to defamation and libel lawsuits if they publish false or slanderous information.
The trouble is, these companies want it both ways. They want, legally, to be platforms, so they can't be sued over their content. But they also want the right to reject content that doesn't meet their rules or standards.
To be fair, these companies are in a very difficult spot. They are victims of their incredible success, growth and reach. Very evil and corrupt people want to use their platforms to spread lies, chaos and disinformation. Thus, these firms have platoons of content editors that seek to take down fake and inappropriate content. But it is an almost impossible job.
And during an intensely contested political year, some political advertising, campaign posts, and advocacy messages are being taken down or restricted. That smacks of playing political favorites or tipping the scales in favor of a particular party or candidate. The famous case-in-point is the recent New York Post stories on the Biden family's overseas business dealings, bolstered by numerous email messages and other documents.
Twitter's decision to prevent the Post from posting links to the story and to lock up accounts and block retweeting of particular posts has enraged Republicans and conservatives. If candidates and interest groups can't get their messages out through these companies with their massive reach, then they are placed in a serious disadvantage.
The bottom line is that these companies have become far too large and powerful. It is unhealthy for a few companies to be gatekeepers of the flow of information, news, and other messaging. It is unfortunate that these companies have destroyed thousands of newspapers and instead of democratizing and decentralizing society, they have re-centralized power and multi-billion dollar fortunes in their own hands.
I don't have the solutions to this dilemma. These companies are both publishers and platforms and it will be difficult to craft a legislative remedy that properly threads the needle.
Perhaps we should all get off Facebook and Twitter and join smaller, independent networks of families, friends and interest groups. Let the crazy people go wild on Facebook and Twitter and the rest of us ignore them.
It is ironic and remarkable that what was supposed to decentralize society and pull down massive bureaucracies has instead created the most immense monopolies and concentrations of power and riches in the history of the world.