Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg spent hours testifying before Congress Tuesday and Wednesday, but it was one sentence of his testimony that may end up having the biggest impact on the company’s bottom line.
It came in response to a question from Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas.
“We’ve been told that platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and the like are neutral platforms, and the people who own and run them for profit … bore no responsibility for the content,” Cornyn said. “Do you agree now that Facebook and other social media platforms are not neutral platforms but bear some responsibility for the content?”
Zuckerberg’s somewhat surprising response was, “I agree that we’re responsible for the content.”
— ABC News (@ABC) April 10, 2018
That could be a game-changer for Zuckerberg and his company.
Companies like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Craigslist, Google, Instagram and dozens of others have always described themselves as technical platforms for their users. If people say something offensive, try to sell something that’s counterfeit, or do an internet search and come across something that claims to be true but isn’t, the sites can always claim, “Hey, we’re not responsible for what’s put on our site. We’re just the provider of the platform.”
And there’s legal precedent to back up that claim. The publisher of a newspaper that runs a classified ad for a used car can’t be held liable if you buy that car and it breaks down on the way home, just like you can’t sue Craigslist if you buy a used lawn mower for $50 and it never starts when you get it home.
There’s also a law protecting internet platforms called the Communications Decency Act. Section 230 of the CDA states, “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”
But if Zuckerberg believes his company is indeed responsible for the content on its site, he may have opened a legal can of worms.
Ben Shapiro of The Daily Wire explains why Zuckerberg’s admission could spell trouble for Facebook.
“Zuckerberg may have just opened himself up to a world of legal hurt,” Shapiro said. “Platforms are generally not held legally responsible for the content posted on those platforms — so liability issues ranging from copyright violation to slander aren’t serious concerns for platforms. You can’t sue AT&T if somebody slanders you on a telephone call carried by their satellites. But that’s not the case with publishers. Publishers are responsible for the content that is added to their platforms. The Daily Wire bears legal liability for the content that goes up at The Daily Wire.
“If the same were held to be true for Facebook, the company would immediately become subject to hundreds of millions of dollars in legal liability. For example, copyright violation bears a statutory penalty of between $750 and $30,000 per violation. How many unlicensed photos are posted on Facebook daily? On a minute-by-minute basis? Now, instead of a photo journalist suing the person who posted the photo, the photo journalist could sue Facebook itself.”
The Daily Wire found Zuckerberg’s admission so startling, it’s headline of his testimony predicted, “It may have bankrupted his own company.”
Later in his testimony Tuesday, Zuckerberg attempted to walk back his comments just a bit.
“I agree that we’re responsible for the content, but we don’t produce the content,” Zuckerberg said.
If Facebook wants the government to consider the company a neutral third-party platform, it will have to truly act in a neutral manner — not a self-proclaimed gatekeeper of what is “real” news versus “fake” news, or what political viewpoints get exposure if they don’t fall exactly in line with that of the company or its CEO.
Heck, the company is even spending as much as $1 billion to produce its own TV shows exclusively distributed on its site. Does that sound like a publisher or a platform provider?
It will be interesting to see what the ramifications are from Zuckerberg’s admission for Facebook in the coming months.
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