RAUL ARBOLEDA/AFP/Getty Images
No, Martin Lewis won’t bring down Facebook, or not on his own. But the legal action he has announced today against the social media giant for allowing fake adverts using his name to run on its platform is a glimpse of the messy future facing Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and co.
Astonishingly, investors in tech don’t really seem to have woken up to the potentially catastrophic implications for Facebook and its finances of what is about to happen.
Facebook’s entire business model has rested on the bogus idea that it is not a publisher, that it is simply a groovy neutral network that connected people in a groovy way. It provided a “free” service, which in reality rested on hoovering up user data and – along with Google – selling it to advertisers, in the process creating the greatest ad business in history. Unlike a traditional publisher, it had no responsibility for what appeared on its pages, it said. The legislation in the US – for now, drafted in the early days of the web – gives it quite a lot of protection. Expect that to change.
Now, the bogus line that Facebook is not a publisher has been breached.
How? Once you got beyond all the tributes to Zuck following his appearance in front of a Congressional committee recently – “bit nerdy but so cool dealing with all those crumbly old Senators asking silly questions!” – it becomes apparent that the silly old politicians knew what they were doing. They asked stupid or simple questions (that is the best questions) for a reason. To get Zuck on the record. To establish in public the big, essential truths that most (not all) in the tech community have been obscuring or refusing to acknowledge.
Facebook is a publisher. So treat it like any other publisher. Hold it responsible for fake ads and much else besides. Put all publishing on a level playing field.
From that development flows so much, potentially. If Martin Lewis can sue and win, or get a settlement, then what else is going to be the subject of legal cases, including class actions in the US?
What of parents of children murdered by terrorists radicalised by videos shared by social media sites? What of parents or school management in the US when a shooter prepared by watching endless videos on YouTube about guns? What of angry consumers misled? Or voters fed fake political advertising by a foreign power?
A lot of it is a grey area. It will take years. Some cases will fail, but the US, the UK, and the EU, in their own distinct ways are epic legal machines now cranking up. This current row about Facebook and its status isn’t a temporary blip before Facebook’s upward trajectory continues uninterupted. Facebook status? “Status screwed” in the long term when this plays out.
In that way, Martin Lewis bravely taking on Facebook – and traditional publishers who use ad software that recycles those fake Facebook ads on their own sites – is a taste of things to come.