Our honeymoon period with Facebook is now well and truly at an end. The rose-tinted glasses are peeling, and we’re finally seeing exactly who we’ve married and plan to spend the rest of our days with. Social media is no longer a new product/concept, its novelty gone. And has been for some time. It’s well and truly integrated into the structural fabric of our society. And yet their still granted greater latitude of freedom in terms of accountability and regulation than other sectors of business and society. At some point the ‘wild west’ has to be tamed, regulated and held to account for the consequences of their actions.
So what level of accountability should be applied to Facebook and social media in comparison to other sectors of society? And what are the issues?
Media vs Phone Company
One issue is when a person is slandered in public, who’s responsible and liable for damages? If classed as a publisher, facebook would be personally responsible for its content. And could be sued for slander. Whereas phone companies, search engines etc. are not personally liable for its content. Liability here lies with the person producing the content. Facebook is unusual as a business because its content is itself produced by its customers and the general public. And no matter how thoroughly its being moderated, if held to the same regulations as a publication, it probably couldn’t survive with such regulations. If for nothing else, they would become easy targets for scam artists.
However, in the US social media companies often argue to be classed a publication for prosecutions in the US. While arguing the opposite in the EU. This is because in the US the constitution guarantees the right to free speech to a much higher degree than in Europe. The 1998 Communication Decency Act in the US said that social media companies are not responsible for the content posted by its users. Liability here lies with the person posting material. (Similar in the UK). But many argue that this should change. In addition to the fact that it’s not always possible to track down the person responsible for the content, this has created a liability vacuum where it may not be possible to hold anyone to account. The anonymity afforded by social media has often led to more extreme abuse.
Car manufacturer vs Tobacco company
There’s increasing evidence of a link between social media and mental health problems. Many suicides and acts of violence have also been directly attributed to content appearing on social media. So how much responsibility should social media companies take for the consequences of its content? Road accidents has become a major cause of injury and death since its invention. But unless it was caused by a fault in the design or manufacturing process, their not responsible or liable. On the other hand, despite there being many causes of cancer, tobacco companies have been held completely responsible for incidents of lung cancer, even for those who’ve never used their product.
A high level of liability here would be very difficult to manage. Consequences of a product in the general population is very difficult to predict. Moderating content against any potential damage in this way could become impossible. Whereas compensation claims in this areas are often cripplingly large for companies concerned.