By Dipayan Ghosh, Hindustan Times
Are leading Internet firms such as Facebook, Twitter and Google, as operators of social media platforms, publishers of editorialised content (much like the Hindustan Times is), or are they indiscriminate platforms that offer open access to anything that you might wish to see?
The debate sounds nerdy at first — a sort of philosophical enquiry that should only concern professors and legal scholars as a matter of business regulation. But this seemingly narrow intellectual question is increasingly becoming a central matter of urgent concern in the context of Indian democracy — and, indeed, democracy and the free flow of information around the world. Foreign governments are moving to impose new responsibilities on dominant tech firms. Australia, for instance, is forcing Facebook and Google to pay news companies for displaying their stories; French antitrust officials have ordered Google to negotiate with local media firms to pay for displaying their content; and in the United States, a fierce political war rages on between liberals and conservatives on this very issue.
Let’s go back to that philosophical question for a moment, though. Publishers have always held a vaunted position in society. Traditional media formats — daily newspapers, broadcast television networks and radio stations — once consumed the public’s attention. My grandfather would comb through newspapers and news magazines every day, while my grandmother listened to the radio all day, every day — not uncommon for those of their generation. The result was that we came to know not only the voices and faces that graced these outlets, but the publishing houses and media personalities behind the businesses. This intense aura about the media ecosystem — a world that could make someone famous — gave news organisations great power. They had the power to convey the news — and with that power, came great responsibility.
As with any line of business, news organisations cannot be expected to necessarily and voluntarily demonstrate that responsibility — by, for instance, not spreading political falsehoods, hateful messaging, and other vitriol. To put it differently: Absent meaningful regulation, businesses operating in a free market economy, including media outlets, will do whatever they wish to maximise shareholder returns. Profit displaces social considerations.