Edge Needs Algorithmic Fairness Mandate

Washington — If social media sites don’t clean up their act, newspaper publishers want the government to mandate “fairness” in the algorithms they use to prioritize and filter news content for their users.

That idea came in testimony two weeks ago from News Media Alliance president David Chavern, but it is a point they have been trying to drive home since they called on Facebook founder, chairman and CEO Mark Zuckerberg to start prioritizing their content over non-sourced, unpaid-for content.

Calls for mandating fairness sounded to some like the return of the Federal Communications Commission’s old fairness doctrine applied to new media, but there is at least one big difference.

The FCC doctrine, which from 1949 until 1987 required broadcasters to air both sides of controversial issues, was applied to acknowledged publishers of news. Broadcasters have always owned their status as such publishers, even being christened by what was then called Broadcasting magazine as the “Fifth Estate,” one generation beyond the Fourth Estate moniker for the print press.

Social media sites argue, as Zuckerberg did repeatedly on Capitol Hill last month, that they are simply tech companies, and while they have some responsibility over the content that appears on the site, they are a neutral platform rather than the publisher. There is precedent for that view in the 1996 Telecommunications Act, which carved out social media sites from liability for user-generated content.

But Facebook and Twitter have grown into such powerful platforms for disseminating news through what sites they send their users to that the lines between “tech company” and “publisher” have blurred. “They decide what news is delivered and to whom — and they control the economics of digital news,” Chavern said, indicating that this is where news — fake, citizen-created or CNN — are increasingly moving.

Information Overload

The News Media Alliance said that if Google and Facebook are tech platforms, then the government should step in to make sure the algorithms used to filter news content are fair, by which they mean prioritizing real, curated, edited, paid-for news over what Chavern called a “sea of bad information.”

Washington has already been wrestling with the issue of what responsibility social-media sites have over content in relation to sex trafficking, recently passing legislation that weakens edge provider liability immunity and making them responsible for content if they knowingly abet such trafficking.

But the latest flashpoint, ignited by fake news and Russia election meddling and the realization in D.C. that edge providers are no longer plucky upstarts, is how the edge shapes news consumption and the implications this holds for the traditional model of edited, fact-checked journalism that is expensive to produce.

That point was driven home in Chavern’s Hill testimony on the filtering practices of social media sites, whose growing power must come with “new responsibilities.”

And while Chavern represents primarily print and digital news outlets, his association is providing strong backing to a call by NCTA-The Internet & Television Association for bringing edge providers under any new legislative net neutrality regime.

“The First Amendment prohibits the government from regulating the press,” Chavern told a House panel. “But it doesn’t prevent Facebook and Google from acting as de facto regulators of the news business. Neither Google nor Facebook are — or have ever been — neutral pipes.”

But should the government be in the business of requiring edge providers to prioritize traditional media over what Chavern bluntly called “free garbage that feeds the inherent need for people to feel passionate and angry about something?”

That is the question Washington is being asked. The answer could determine the future of paid, professional journalism.

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.