Commentary

Tech Companies Keep Creeping Into Publishers' Territory

Tech companies that depend on advertising as their primary source of revenue like to describe themselves as mere platforms to share content, but their similarity to publishers grows every year.

Google, Facebook, Twitter and Snap have made editorial interventions to scrub themselves of objectionable content, fake news and divisive political propaganda. They’re not completely blind to the content they distribute.

They’re also investing more heavily in original content to give viewers another reason to stick around their apps and websites.

For years, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has described his company as a tech firm, given its teams of engineers and developers. But Facebook and other social-networking companies get paid to deliver eyeballs to advertisers, much like a publisher or broadcaster.

Chipmakers like Intel and Nvidia, or software developers like Microsoft and Oracle, are purer tech companies that sell a product. Apple is a hybrid systems company that develops hardware and software, but its fastest growth is in services to distribute content.

iTunes, the App Store and Apple Music are part of this business, and Apple is building a virtual newsstand of magazines and newspapers after buying Texture in March.

Part of Facebook and Google’s insistence that they’re not media companies is rooted in Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996. The rule was designed to protect online services from being held responsible for user-generated content.

The policy has meant that Amazon and Yelp can publish product and service reviews, Google’s YouTube and Vimeo can stream amateur videos and Facebook, and Twitter can let people connect with friends, family and followers.

The problem with this protection: These companies aren’t neutral platforms like a phone company, internet service provider or virtual private network. As the Cambridge Analytica scandal highlighted, a social-media network like Facebook can be manipulated into spreading unregulated fake news and misinformation to sway political opinion.

Facebook’s reputation has suffered since the days when books like “The Facebook Effect” by David Kirkpatrick praised the company for bringing people together to form online communities and organize peaceful protest marches in countries like Colombia. The entire community of man appeared to be on the verge of joining hands, singing campfire songs and luxuriating in everlasting peace.

Unfortunately, the dark side of the social network has become more evident. Hate groups use the platform to incite violence in countries like Sri Lanka, Myanmar and India. Facebook increasingly gets blamed for tearing people apart.

Google also has been accused of spreading misinformation that manipulates public opinion. Last week, Google CEO Sundar Pichai estified before Congress that his company’s search and indexing algorithms aren’t biased. Critics scoffed at his claim, saying Google’s algorithms can develop a bias based on a user’s search history.

Websites continually try to game Google’s algorithms, and search engine optimization has become a respectable profession.

It won’t be surprising if tech companies invest more heavily in original content they can control more directly, much like Netflix has done to wean itself off digital reruns of TV shows. Facebook, Snapchat, Amazon and Twitter are also investing heavily in original content, including episodic series, live concerts and sporting events.

By exerting direct control over content creation, platforms like Facebook and Google’s YouTube can better ensure their offerings are “brand-safe” and won’t offend audiences.

That may open more opportunities for publishers to license their content and maintain more predictable revenue. It is one welcome change for publishers that have seen their web traffic rise and fall with the whims of algorithms beyond their control.

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