Media Or Tech Company? Facebook's Profile Is Blurry

Apr 11, 2018
Originally published on April 12, 2018 8:54 am

Among the many questions Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg wrestled with as he testified before Congress Tuesday and Wednesday was one of a more existential nature: What, exactly, is Facebook?

Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) asked Zuckerberg whether the social networking website was a tech company or a publisher.

Zuckerberg replied, "When people ask us if we're a media company — or a publisher — my understanding of what the heart of what they're really getting at is, 'Do we feel responsibility for the content on our platform?' The answer to that, I think, is clearly yes."

His answer matters because what Facebook is determines how lawmakers regulate it. Issie Lapowsky, senior writer for Wired Magazine, says Facebook is a lot of things — and they still don't necessarily understand it.

"Obviously these hearings were just a matter of Washington getting a firm grasp on how Facebook works in order to figure out how to address it," Lapowsky says. "Because ... they haven't seen anything like Facebook before."


Interview Highlights

On whether Facebook is a media or tech company

I think Facebook is a lot of things. Mark Zuckerberg would like to tell you Facebook is a tech company. But as he noted today, Facebook does a lot of things, including building drones that can beam the Internet to parts of the developing world. They build tools that allow you to send money to friends. So are they a financial institution? Are they an aerospace company?

I think it's pretty clear that Facebook has completely changed the way the media industry works. And that's why regulators, and sometimes the public, have such a tough time really defining whether Facebook is a news entity, because we haven't had a platform like this that is both so dominant in news but that also is not committing journalism itself. It's really just pulling in all this news from the rest of the Web – some of that legitimate news, some of it not.

On how existing law treats Facebook

The laws that allowed the Internet to really become what the Internet has become give platforms wide latitude in terms of what responsibility they have for what people publish on their platforms. So that's why Mark Zuckerberg and certainly the heads of other social networks like this have really maintained that "We are the platform not the publisher." Because they want to be a neutral platform, which means that they are not subject to any laws requiring that they monitor illegal activity and things like that.

On Facebook taking responsibility for its content

That is an absolute departure [from the past]. So many of these tech CEOs have started repeating this cliché: "We don't want to be the arbiters of truth." And I think that Mark Zuckerberg is seeing that that is not playing so well in the public. And time and again, they've seen how these problems really escalate, and the more extreme examples that we see of ways that it could go wrong, I think the more Mark Zuckerberg has had to come around to the idea that yes, they are responsible for this content.

Jessica Cheung and Emily Kopp produced and edited the audio story. Sydnee Monday adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Let's zero in on one of the more existential questions Zuckerberg had to wrestle with as he testified this week. Here is Republican Senator Dan Sullivan of Alaska wondering...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DAN SULLIVAN: What exactly Facebook is.

KELLY: The senator pressed, is Facebook a tech company? Is it a publisher? Here's Zuckerberg.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARK ZUCKERBERG: I think that when people ask us if we're a media company or a publisher, my understanding of what the heart of what they're really getting at is, do we feel responsibility for the content on our platform? The answer to that I think is clearly yes.

KELLY: That answer matters because what Facebook is determines how lawmakers may go about trying to regulate it. Issie Lapowsky is a senior writer for Wired magazine, and she joins me now. Welcome.

ISSIE LAPOWSKY: Thanks for having me.

KELLY: Is it clear to you whether Facebook is a media company or a publisher or what?

LAPOWSKY: Well, I think Facebook is a lot of things. Mark Zuckerberg would like to tell you that Facebook is a tech company, but as he noted today, you know, Facebook does a lot of things, including building drones that can beam the Internet to parts of the developing world. They build tools that allow you to send money to friends. So are they a financial institution? Are they an aerospace company?

I think it's pretty clear that Facebook has completely changed the way the media industry works, and that's why regulators and sometimes the public have such a tough time really defining whether Facebook is a news entity because we haven't had a platform like this that is both so dominant in news but that also is not committing journalism itself. It's really just pulling in all this news from the rest of the web, some of that legitimate news, some of it not.

KELLY: Well, you're describing a company that is in some ways sui generis. Lawmakers can't figure out how to regulate Facebook because nothing like Facebook has ever existed before.

LAPOWSKY: Exactly. And yesterday, Mark Zuckerberg was asked, who are your competitors? Lindsey Graham asked him this question.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LINDSEY GRAHAM: Is there an alternative to Facebook in the private sector?

ZUCKERBERG: Yes, Senator. The average American uses eight different apps...

GRAHAM: OK.

ZUCKERBERG: ...To communicate with their friends and stay in touch with people...

GRAHAM: OK, which is...

ZUCKERBERG: ...Ranging from texting apps to email to...

GRAHAM: Does it have the same service you provide?

ZUCKERBERG: Well, we provide a number of different services.

GRAHAM: Is Twitter the same as what you do?

ZUCKERBERG: It overlaps with a portion of what we do.

GRAHAM: You don't think you have a monopoly.

ZUCKERBERG: It certainly doesn't feel like that to me.

GRAHAM: OK.

(LAUGHTER)

LAPOWSKY: That might be true. He might feel that Facebook's dominance is constantly under threat, but that doesn't mean that in fact it is.

KELLY: How does existing law treat Facebook? Is it as a utility, as a publisher or what?

LAPOWSKY: So the laws that allow the Internet to really become what the Internet has become give platforms wide latitude in terms of what responsibility they have for what people publish on their platforms. So that's why Mark Zuckerberg and certainly the heads of other social networks like this have really maintained that, we are the platform, not the publisher because they want to be a neutral platform, which means that they are not subject to any laws requiring that they monitor illegal activity and things like that.

KELLY: Which is why I thought that statement from Mark Zuckerberg was so interesting - him acknowledging Facebook feel responsibility for the content on our platform. That's a departure from where Facebook and other giants of Silicon Valley have landed in past.

LAPOWSKY: That is an absolute departure. So many of these tech CEOs have started repeating this cliche. We don't want to be the arbiters of truth. And I think that Mark Zuckerberg is seeing that that is not playing so well in the public. And time and again, they've seen how these problems really escalate. And the more extreme examples that we see of ways that it could go wrong, I think the more Mark Zuckerberg has had to come around to the idea that, yes, they are responsible for this content.

KELLY: So at the end of these two days of much-anticipated, much-watched testimony, it sounds like in your view, this question of what Facebook is remains an intriguing and somewhat open question.

LAPOWSKY: It's definitely an open question. I think this has to be sort of the beginning of the conversation, not the end because lawmakers seem to come to these hearings somewhat uninformed about how Facebook works. And so a lot of what Mark Zuckerberg has been doing has been explaining how Facebook works and at times dodging their tough questions about it. But obviously these hearings were just a matter of Washington getting a firm grasp on how Facebook works in order to figure out how to address it because you're right; they haven't seen anything like Facebook before.

KELLY: That's Issie Lapowsky. She covers tech, politics and national affairs for Wired magazine. Thanks so much.

LAPOWSKY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.