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New Approaches to Regulating Internet Intermediaries

The morning session on this second day at Future of Journalism 2017 starts with Leighton Andrews, who begins by highlighting the role of Internet intermediaries as gatekeepers for news; over the last year we've also seen the early signs of a regulatory turn that has seen lawmakers take a greater interest in addressing the implications of their role.

One concern here is the emergence of platforms (originally AOL, now Facebook and others) as 'walled gardens' that control information flows and lie outside of EU or U.K. regulations. Further, the algorithms by which these sites operate are largely unknown and outside of the control of users and regulators, too.

That's not to say that Facebook does not also have genuine uses, from sociability to news consumption – but it has also been criticised as enabling partisan, criminal, and extremist activities, as supporting the interference of rogue governments in electoral processes, or the algorithmic targetting of individuals.

It and other social media platforms have also been an important space where 'fake news' circulates, and there are considerable questions over the role of these platforms in sustaining 'echo chambers' and 'filter bubbles'. Some of these concerns may also be exaggerated, however, and represent moral panics rather than actual, widespread problems. Further, such platforms are also seen as posing a threat to the public sphere, by potentially fragmenting what has conventionally been seen as a unified space.

This raises a number of regulatory issues. The network effects attendant to these platforms have made them major, key players in communication and information, but their internal operations remain largely intransparent, and it is difficult to grasp their role in markets by using conventional market indicators – not least because people aren't paying for these services with money, but with their social labour and personal data, so conventional measures of media plurality no longer fully apply, for instance.

Over the past year there has now been a significant regulatory turn, focussing especially on Facebook. Advertising industry players have attacked Facebook's frequent changes to its ad metrics, for instance; there are allegations of digital advertising fraud on the platform; and the dependent relationship between media companies and platform providers like Facebook has been highlighted as deeply problematic.

Regulators like Ofcom in the U.K. have become increasingly interested in this space, then; EU bodies have also begun to address the power of these platforms more aggressively. Political actors have increasingly taken steps to tighten regulations here, too (dealing both with market matters as well as with abuse, hate speech, and the use of platforms for extremist purposes). One problem here remains the question of whether such platforms are defined as media or carriage services, but this question has served as a distraction and needs to be overcome.