Sir Martin Sorrell, Chief Executive of WPP, “the world’s largest communications services group,” was quoted a short time ago in a video interview in The Guardian filmed at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity, castigating—by implication—Google, Yahoo! and Facebook, for not owning up to their position as media rather than technology companies.
“I can remember the first Cannes debate that I did here about five years ago, we had someone from Google, Yahoo!, Facebook and AOL … The first question I asked them … was: Are you a technology company, or a media company? To which they all answered, and said: We’re a technology company. Well, they’re hiding behind it. If you have responsibility for the pipes, you can’t ignore the responsibility for the editorial content. It’s no good saying: I’m just an engineer tightening the nuts on the pipe, making sure that it works. You have to be responsible for the editorial content too. You can’t abrogate responsibility.”
Given the Guardian‘s editing, the complete context of Sorrell’s remarks is unclear—they appear roughly a minute into the video after his comments on PRISM. But Sorrell himself is hardly a disinterested commentator in the debate—WPP’s status as a group that holds many advertising and marketing assets makes this debate, and the regulatory and fiscal implications of it, something that immediately concerns him. Plus, Google, Facebook and their ilk are not exactly in favor in the UK at present after all the public debates over their tax positions.
So does Sorrell speak true? Is Google responsible for video posts on YouTube, or publications in Google Books? Is Amazon responsible for works published or self-published for the Kindle Store?
Well, for one thing, the whole debate assumes that Google et. al. are abrogating responsibility. Evidence is they aren’t. YouTube’s community guidelines, for instance, are very clear and explicit about what is not tolerated. Some commentators do hold up Amazon and Barnes & Noble’s track record on self-published pornography for censure. Yes, Kindle Direct Publishing’s content guidelines do state specifically that: “We don’t accept pornography or offensive depictions of graphic sexual acts.” But adult fiction and erotica sits so well on the platform that erotica authors are even complaining about Amazon’s attempts to make their productions less obvious.
Sorrell may be trying here to subtly elide from the moral debate of accountability for content online, to the formal admission that you are a media company for legal and regulatory purposes. The two are not the same.
“Will regulators also start to see these U.S. media-tech giants as media companies? If they did and took away their legal protection, which is the same as that given to telecommunications companies, it would result in a massive jump in business costs. They would have to hire tens of thousands of workers to monitor content before it is published,” notes Tom Foremski in his coverage of Sorrell’s statements. And as he adds, “WPP’s $16.1 billion in revenues relies heavily on media buys with traditional media companies. It’s a far more profitable line of business than running Google AdWord campaigns for clients.”
I wouldn’t recommend any self-published author or e-book publisher, let alone a technology platform or a distributor, to start embracing self-censorship on the strength of comments from a source that has such a strong interest in the outcome of the debate.