Is social media really any different than other media? Is it a force for good or evil? Does it need to be regulated? Can it be regulated? If so, how? All good questions, here are some suggested answers.

Social Media

Media means communication channels, social means interaction between people. So, social media means channels for communication between people. If so, then it’s not new. Setting aside talking to each other, I guess the original social media must be tablets of stone, then papyrus, paper, print, post, telegraph, telephone, radio, television, tape, film, vinyl, compact discs, and then, finally the internet. The internet is a brilliant exploitation of technology that makes it possible to communicate everything to everybody, everywhere at any time. The internet is infrastructure that carries a variety of media and this is what has become known as ‘social media’ which is seemingly, magically, different from all previous channels for communication between people but I can’t see how.

Social media is without doubt a force for good. It enables us to communicate with friends, family and the public. It enables us to seek out information, to learn and to share. It enables just about everything in society to function more effectively and efficiently. It is marvellous, fantastic, brilliant and fabulous. Unfortunately, any medium can be used by bad people to do bad things and the internet, just as it makes every good thing better, makes the bad things worse. Propaganda, grooming, radicalising, fraud, false news, scams, hate, violence, all are more easily spread, more pervasive, more dangerous.

I would not choose to live without the internet any more than I would choose to live without a car. But I do recognise risk when I see it and, just as a car can be dangerous, so can the internet. For me, regulation is not an option, it is an absolute necessity, the only question is how.

Regulation of the Media

Regulation of the media is a balance of rights and responsibilities. There are the rights of individuals to privacy, freedom of speech and fair treatment. There are the rights of press, journalists, broadcasters, authors, politicians, educators, entertainers and so on to free speech and to publish information in the public interest (not the same as what the public is interested in!). There are the commercial rights of business and charities to advertise their products and services, and to raise funds. Then there is the responsibility of individuals, service providers and publishers to act within the law, codes-of-practice and regulations, to protect the rights of individuals and to act in a manner acceptable to society at large. There is, and always has been, a degree of tension between these conflicting rights and responsibilities. To ensure that all parties comply with their obligations, a variety of regulatory bodies have been established, some with statutory authority and some with voluntary compliance. In the event of disagreement, to resolve the tension, any party has recourse to the jurisdiction of the courts.

The internet has blurred the boundaries between services. Whereas, pre-internet, media were single-functional, book, film, newspaper, television, on-line service providers offer a mix of functionality. Often in a single application, it relies on users to decide the service through the choice of settings and many don’t know how to stay private. Pre-internet service providers were restricted by the medium they operated on and new services emerged as new media were developed. Regulation followed the emergence of each new means of communication and is medium and service specific rather than generic. This background creates the illusion that internet service providers are doing something new and need their own unique form of regulation. This is not the case.

The reality is that there are only two forms of generic media services, private communication and public communication. The difference between them is the presumption of privacy and this is a significant difference. Private, or closed, communication, such as postal services, telephony, or video-calling between individuals or private groups is very different than public, or open, communication like newspapers, television, cinema, podcasts, blogs and so on. Only two forms of regulation are required to match the two forms of communication, one focussed on privacy and the other on content. In one, there is a presumed right to privacy and the service provider has no responsibility for content. In the other, there is no privacy and both the user and the service provider are responsible for content. Pre-internet, those principles have applied to all service providers, such as broadcasters, film-makers and newspapers, and their contributors, although the system of regulation varies from medium to medium.

Regulation of Social Media

Whilst the better approach might be to revisit the whole question of regulation of the media in general and design a generic solution that embraces all existing services and caters for all foreseeable future services, that will take some time. There is no reason to wait in order to regulate ‘social media’ alongside all other traditional media. Using the straightforward distinction between private and public communication makes it possible. Simply require all internet service providers like Facebook, YouTube and Instagram, regardless of medium, to have demarcation between their services, make it clear which are private and which are public. Then clarify the shared responsibility of users and service providers for the content of any public communication service. This is no more onerous than the current situation for broadcasters, publishers, film-makers, record producers and so on. Finally, extend the responsibility of existing regulators to cover internet services and the job is done. Then, as it is now for all other media, it would be the responsibility of regulators and the courts to determine whether there has been any breach of laws or codes-of-practice in respect of content. Already, the Advertising Standards Agency has broadened its remit to include advertising on social media, so it can be done.

There are thorny issues to be dealt with, age verification, parental responsibility, country of origin and so on. These could all be better dealt with in the context of a regulatory framework as suggested. How would it look in practice? Consider this blog. I own the domain,, and I am the service provider. As a user, I write the posts. A blog is public communication and I am therefore doubly responsible for the content. I have set up ‘comments’ so that they do not automatically appear on the blog, they come to me. ‘Comments’ is a private communication service and my responsibility is to protect the privacy of the users. By clarifying this on the blog, not hidden in terms of use or complicated settings, I would be compliant. A simple example but none-the-less true.

I have considerable sympathy for service providers. Whatever they think privately, it would be madness bordering on commercial suicide for any one of them to take a lead on controlling the content of their public communication applications when no other provider is doing so. It’s not that they can’t do it but why would they when they don’t have to and they would put themselves out of business. I believe that many of them see the need and are waiting for a lead from legislators and regulators. Witness this quote from Mark Zuckerberg “I believe we need a more active role for governments and regulators. By updating the rules for the internet, we can preserve what’s best about it – the freedom for people to express themselves and for entrepreneurs to build new things – while also protecting society from broader harms.” I agree.

I have no sympathy with politicians and bureaucrats who will not take that lead, will not act to prevent ongoing harm to individuals and society in general. Whilst they continue to hide behind the excuse of ‘it’s too hard’, service providers will continue to argue that ‘we are platform providers not publishers’, and I don’t blame them. It is up to those elected by the people to govern for the people to take the lead and do it now.