Are Social Media Platforms Publishers?

We all have something to say and social media provides a platform from which we can speak. Platforms amplify speech. Social media platforms allow individuals to publish whatever they choose, generally without censorship, or editorial interference. They are a useful and cheap way to communicate to the world at large. They are also an environmentally friendly way to communicate.

There is a long tradition of people wanting to communicate; centuries ago some published pamphlets; others wrote books. These communications could only reach a mass audience because of the invention of the printing press. Today even the President of the United States of America frequently communicates through twitter.

Most nations have laws which prevent, or seek to prevent, the dissemination of material which is defamatory or severely pornographic or which induces hatred or which espouses violence in some form or other. If such material were printed in a newspaper or in a book the publisher would face the same legal sanctions as the author. However, if such material is communicated on a social media platform the social media company faces no legal sanction. It may, if the material is drawn to its attention, take it off the platform, but the internet is a complex beast and once something is published on it, the material usually stays on it, somewhere or other.

Governments are now looking to see how such material can be regulated on the internet. One way is to make the platform liable in the same way that traditional publishers are responsible for their publications equally with the author. However the sheer volume of material put on to social media is a problem. Perhaps social media companies could spend much more of their vast resources policing their own platforms, but they are loathe to do this voluntarily. Germany has enacted laws which require a stringent policing by social media companies, so I am sure that this could be done in other jurisdictions.

We do not want to get to a state where platforms are censoring what people put on social media. There are many opinions which I personally find extremely offensive and disgraceful, but I do not want to prevent people expressing their ideas. The expression of an idea is the right of everyone in the world; free speech, however, is limited to the expression of ideas: hatred, propaganda (now fashionably called fake news) instructions to build bombs and encouragement to violence are not ideas.