The illusion that corporations like Facebook or Twitter are public utilities is not only naive, it's positively pernicious.
Those whom the gods wish to destroy, they first render naive. That means us, folks. A prime case in point is provided by our (ie Anglo-American) response to the latest French initiative in internet control. The background is that earlier this month the Conseil supérieur de l’audiovisuel (CSA), France’s media regulator, ruled that the country’s TV networks and radio stations will no longer be able to explicitly mention Facebook or Twitter on air, except when discussing a story in which either company is directly involved.
In ruling thus, the regulator was implementing a 1992 government decree that makes it illegal for media organisations to promote brands during news broadcasts, on the grounds that doing so might inhibit competition. This means that French broadcast journalists cannot invite viewers or listeners to “follow” them on Facebook or Twitter but instead have to resort to circumlocutions like “your favourite social network”.
A spokesperson for the CSA explained the thinking behind the ban. “Why give preference to Facebook, which is worth billions of dollars,” she asked, “when there are many other social networks that are struggling for recognition? This would be a distortion of competition. If we allow Facebook and Twitter to be cited on air, it’s opening a Pandora’s Box—other social networks will complain to us saying, ‘Why not us?’ ”
Quite. You can imagine the derisive reaction to this in the Anglo-American media, old and new. The broadcasting ruling was linked with President Sarkozy’s clueless remarks at the G8 summit about “civilising” the internet, and interpreted as a sign of cultural resentment at American dominance in cyberspace. “Poor old Frenchies,” was the general tenor of the commentary, “they just don’t get it.”
Actually, the joke’s on us. As it happens, the French do “get” it. To appreciate that, just do a simple thought-experiment. Suppose, for a moment, that BBC News started to use “Dyson” instead of “vacuum cleaner” in its reports of dust-mite infestations, or “Bollinger” instead of “champagne” in its coverage of the drinks industry. We’d be outraged. Yet that is effectively what we are thoughtlessly doing when it comes to dealing with phenomena like social networking: taking the dominant commercial brand and pretending that it’s generic.
What’s going on, in other words, is that our media are treating Twitter and Facebook as if they were public utilities, like the open web. In fact it’s even worse than that, as Dave Winer, one of the web’s elder statesmen, pointed out last week. “The Library of Congress,” he writes, “which is part of the government, is subsidising Twitter by doing a complete archive of Twitter before making a serious attempt at archiving the web. This helps cement Twitter as the medium of record, which is ridiculous. The market is just getting started. How can you justify the government taking sides over other equivalent [or better] ways to communicate, that are not owned by a company [like the web, for example]. If this isn’t against the law, to use taxpayer funds to help a company achieve dominance over competitors, it should be against the law.”
Spot on. The illusion that corporations like Facebook or Twitter are public utilities is not only naive, it’s positively pernicious because it enables them to get away with the pretence that they are solely forces for good, rather than single-minded corporations whose loyalties are ultimately to their shareholders, no matter how soothing their bedside manners are.
Naivety about social networking was much in evidence at the excellent conference on “Power and Media” organised by Charlie Beckett and his colleagues at the London School of Economics on 10 June. There was a lot of heady talk about the role of social media in the Arab Spring. Nothing, we were given to understand by some speakers, would ever be the same again. But a question (from me) about the downside of having companies such as Facebook and Twitter exercising what amounts to political power was met with uncomprehending stares, and a charming and very articulate Egyptian blogger explained patiently to me how the people had taken over Twitter and bent it to their will.
As it happens, we may see Facebook flexing its muscles sooner rather than later. There was some feverish speculation last week about whether Zuckerberg’s monster might have peaked. This was accompanied by stories about Facebook looking wistfully eastwards, where huge—and as yet untapped—markets beckon. If Zuckerberg and Co do indeed expand into, say, China, I’m sure they will prove endlessly accommodating to the powers that be. And then we’ll have to admit that perhaps the French do get it. Sacrebleu! - guardian.co.uk