The Irish Times view on digital platforms

A duty of care to the audience

Facebook eventually moved to bar right-wing conspiracy-monger Alex Jones from its platform. Twitter has done the same with Donald Trump. And the music streaming giant Spotify is now faced with a similar challenge over star podcaster Joe Rogan for broadcasting Covid misinformation on his show.

Spotify has paid over $100 million for exclusive rights to "The Joe Rogan Experience" but seen veteran rock-folk stars Neil Young and Joni Mitchell pull their catalogues from the service. Young called Spotify "the home of life-threatening Covid misinformation", while Mitchell wrote that "irresponsible people are spreading lies that are costing people their lives".

Their gestures cut €1.8 billion off the company's shares, though these have since rebounded following a pledge in future to label content about Covid and to enforce its own rules by removing or suspending users and podcasts that promote dangerous falsehoods. And a promise of sorts from Rogan to mend his ways. Spotify's stated rules prohibit material "that promotes dangerous false or dangerous deceptive content about Covid". The policy is very similar to those adopted by Facebook, YouTube and Twitter.

At issue is one of the central ethical/legal dilemmas of the online media age: to what extent should “host” platforms be morally and legally held responsible for the content of their output, much of it unsolicited and almost all unvetted by the platforms. What duty of care do they have to their audience to protect it from a range of online content, from the illegal, promotion of political or sexual violence or bullying, to legal pornography, harassment, infringement on privacy, dangerous medical misinformation, and even fake political propaganda?

There is no serious argument any more about the principle that a duty of care does exist – initially contested by ultra-liberal proponents of online freedom – only about where the line is drawn on what should be acceptable, what should be removed or simply countered by fact checking, and whether and how the state has a part to play in policing the wild west of the online world. New legislation currently before the Dáil will try to reconcile the potential conflicts between safeguarding and dangerously eroding freedom of speech.

There are other ways to constrain the online giants: in Spotify’s case the power of its own stars to move markets and hit the company’s pocket, while other cases have seen advertisers do likewise, not wanting to associate their products with unacceptable online content. These, ahead of growing international state regulation, have certainly focused the minds of the online giants on introducing internal vetting of content. But these have yet to prove convincing or more than half-hearted; after all, Spotify has rules but seemed unable to enforce them.