Europe

Europe Is Right to Call Facebook a TV Company

The social media giant shouldn't have an unfair advantage against legacy competitors.

Laws are a necessary nuisance.

Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

There is a clear tendency in the European Union to call the bluff of U.S. tech companies and regulate them in the same way as legacy companies in the same industries. That may sound retrograde, but it's an approach that goes to the heart of the difference between Europe and the U.S. when it comes to technological progress.

This week, a meeting of EU nations' ministers agreed that the rules that were written for television broadcasters, such as those banning hate speech and the propaganda of violence and terrorism, should also apply to social networks with a lot of video content and to on-demand video services such as Netflix. This approach may soon become EU law if the European Parliament approves it, and it's highly likely to do so.

This follows decisions in many countries -- and a suggestion by the European Court of Justice advocate general that might lead to EU-wide rules -- that Uber should be treated as a taxi company, not a tech platform.

In effect, European regulators are sending a clear message to Silicon Valley: No matter how you try to dress up your businesses in futuristic finery, we know you are doing more or less what your analog predecessors did. 

The companies' responses typically stress that the tech-based services weren't built to comply with such rules. Uber says it's just an intermediary between drivers and customers, so it's not supposed to obey the same regulations as a taxi firm. Facebook complains that, unlike a traditional media company, it's simply too big to police itself. In a recent manifesto, its chief executive officer Mark Zuckerberg wrote that the company reviewed more than 100 million pieces of content every month and was unable to get every case right.

These arguments are not getting a sympathetic hearing, and it's clear why. Regulators feel that services should have been designed with compliance in mind, and if they can't afford it or figure out a way to follow pre-existing rules, it's their own fault.

If Uber charges customers' credit cards for trips and then pays drivers, it does what taxi firms do. If Facebook uses video content to attract advertisers, it does what television stations do. Both companies compete with players forced to follow the rules. They shouldn't have an unfair advantage.

Facebook's case is especially revealing. Instead of instructing staff to follow local laws in every country of operation, it has written its own set of rules. Some of these guidelines were revealed by The Guardian last week: Animal abuse and non-sexual child abuse are generally OK if there's no "sadism and celebration" in the way they are framed; threats of violence are fine unless a Facebook employee finds them credible; it's all right to say "Let's beat up fat kids," but "Someone shoot Trump" is not allowed.

If I were writing these rules, I'd allow both of the latter examples because it's highly unlikely that, upon seeing them, a Facebook user will go out and hurt overweight children or Donald Trump. But that's the whole point: Facebook wants to write its own rules rather than have legislators dictate what's allowed and what isn't. Though it has its own detailed editorial policies -- or censorship policies, as some might say -- it insists that it's fundamentally different from a media company that would have to comply with laws first and write its own internal rules second. 

Laws are a nuisance. Some of them don't make sense. I live in Germany but I much prefer U.S. free speech laws to German ones; "hate speech" is a concept that invites censorship, and banning politically incorrect talk doesn't lead to a lower hate crime rate. Laws in some European countries that set national content quotas for broadcasters are silly for the reasons Netflix, which may soon be subject to them, criticizes them. There is no evidence that they boost local content production.

The tech companies are awash in money. They have the resources to lobby for better laws and fight in the courts to the bitter end. But they shouldn't just be doing it for their own sake. For better and for worse, they are part of established industries. They have brought technological innovation to them, changing the behavior of other players and often undermining their business models. That's been disruptive enough; they should at least play by the same rules, and when the rules change, they should change for the whole industry.

European regulators aren't just enforcing rules that are often unreasonable, they're enforcing a level playing field for newcomers and "legacy" players in old markets. That's part of the European focus on fairness, sometimes to the detriment of quick growth and progress. And, all things considered, that focus is not necessarily backward.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Mike Nizza at mnizza3@bloomberg.net

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