Time coming for Facebook to open up about its news feeds

Is Facebook a news med­ium or is it a communications platform?

It sounds like an arcane question that might be of interest only to students of the internet, but it’s an important distinction that could determine the rules under which the social network – and other online giants – end up having to operate.

Against that backdrop, the correct answer may be “both”.

Facebook kicked up a fuss last month with the revelation that some of its employees were allegedly suppressing right-wing views and news outlets in its Trending Topics section.

According to an unnamed former employee who spoke with the technology site Gizmodo, Facebook’s news curation team was made up of left-leaning individuals who routinely omitted conservative-orientated topics from the influential trending section of the website.

The Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg denied the allegations and wasted little time in setting up a meeting with prominent American conservatives, including popular TV personality Glenn Beck and an adviser to Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump. His mission: to reassure conservative users that the social network is in fact neutral.

The episode kicked off a debate over free speech rights on social media, with some observers calling for a sort of online First Amendment that would apply to likes of Facebook and Twitter.

In a post on blogging site Medium, BuzzFeed editor-in-chief Ben Smith and the site’s assistant general counsel Nabiha Syed called for more transparency on how social media services make their decisions.

Since these services are entirely dependent on their users to generate content, those users should have more information – if not a say – in how that content is presented.

“The trust we place in [social media services] is ultimately about whether we trust them to manage our own collective expression,” the duo wrote. “For this trust to endure, these platforms must be transparent about their own policies and be consistent in their enforcement.”

Those responsibilities expand beyond just free speech rights, given how important the likes of Facebook, Twitter and other social media are to the businesses that rely on them.

Facebook’s deeper crime in omitting links to conservative news outlets, if it actually did so, may be that it would have cost those sites traffic and therefore money.

Estimates suggest Facebook is responsible for between a quarter and a third of all traffic that news sites receive, making it even more important than Google in some measures.

With many news sites counting on advertising revenue as their main source of revenue, which is in turn dri­ven by traffic numbers, any sort of bias from Facebook can have deleterious effects on their bottom lines.

That power brings up the spectre of net neutrality, the principle that internet service providers shouldn’t discriminate between the content that runs over their networks.

Regulators in many countries have enacted net neutrality rules to prevent such abuses so that ISPs and wireless carriers cannot pur­posely or even inadvertently pick which online endeavours become winners and which end up as losers.

If broadband and wireless networks are considered platforms whose neutrality should be protected by law, it’s perhaps time to look at the digital platforms that ride atop them in the same manner.

Since Facebook has so much power in deciding who wins and who loses, perhaps it too should be subject to a more specific form of net neutrality – or platform neutrality.

The same goes for other ­social media and internet companies, including Google. The online giant is currently facing an antitrust lawsuit in Europe for alleg­edly favouring its own services in search results.

Businesses of all stripes rely on Google just as much as media companies depend on Facebook, so the problem is the same. If Google is guilty, its crime is also of the same severity, in that it caused untold damages to who knows how many other competing online businesses.

Google is as opaque about how it sorts search results as Facebook is about the algorithms that decide what ­users see in their timelines. The time is rapidly approaching when this opaqueness is no longer going to be accept­able because it has the potential to interfere with free speech rights and the ability of businesses to fairly compete.

The big names of the internet aren’t just heading for one set of regulations that will force them to be more open. If they don’t voluntarily become more transparent, there will be a whole raft of rules coming for them.

Peter Nowak is a veteran technology writer and the author of Humans 3.0: The Upgrading of the Species

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