In defence of its policies, Facebook calls itself a publisher
NEW DELHI: Under pressure from various quarters over its data and privacy policies, social media giant Facebook is overturning its long-standing position of not being a publisher.
According to an article by The Guardian newspaper this week, lawyers for Facebook presented a different message from the one that executives have so far made before the US Congress, in press interviews and in public speeches as they argued against a lawsuit in a courtroom in California’s Redwood City on Monday. Facebook, they repeatedly argued, is a publisher and a company that makes editorial decisions, which are protected by the first amendment under US law.
“The suit, filed by an app startup, alleges Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook founder) developed a ‘malicious and fraudulent scheme’ to exploit users’ personal data and force rival companies out of business. Facebook, meanwhile, is arguing its decisions about ‘what not to publish’ should be protected because it is a publisher,” according to the article.
Former startup Six4Three filed the suit in 2015 after Facebook removed app developers’ access to friends’ data. Access to a Facebook user’s friend’s data is at the centre of the controversy that began with revelations around British data firm Cambridge Analytica illegally mining data to influence elections, including the 2014 US presidential elections.
Lawyers for Six4Three alleged that Facebook first attracted developers such as the startup to the platform with the promise of long-term access to its huge amounts of valuable personal data but they later cut off this access, “effectively defrauding them.” Facebook’s defence is to say it’s a publisher and seek protection under rights similar to those enjoyed by newspapers and other publishers.
While arguing the matter in court, Sonal Mehta, a lawyer for Facebook, drew comparison with traditional media and said, “The publisher discretion is a free speech right irrespective of what technological means is used…” She added that Facebook’s decisions about data access were a “quintessential publisher function” and constituted “protected” activity, adding that this “includes both the decision of what to publish and the decision of what not to publish.”
According to The Guardian, David Godkin, Six4Three attorney, later responded, “For years, Facebook has been saying publicly that it’s not a media company. This is a complete 180° (turn).”
Facebook’s latest stand, however, may land the Menlo-Park, California-based company in more trouble since calling itself a publisher may mean more responsibility for the content posted on its website – something that Facebook has been trying to avoid. Even in India, Facebook’s troubles have multiplied after the government sent a stern missive to WhatsApp, asking the Facebook-owned messaging platform to immediately stop the spread of “irresponsible and explosive messages filled with rumours and provocation” through the application of appropriate technology. Such messages led to dozens of people being lynched.
At a press conference on Wednesday, Union minister for electronics and IT Ravi Shankar Prasad said that social media companies have to be more accountable, responsible and vigilant. “They can’t say that we are a technology company and we have created a product and now we don’t know what to do,” he said. If companies like WhatsApp are reaping huge monetary gains from India, they also have to take the security of its people more seriously, the minister said.