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$100 million worth of embarrassment
On Spotify's choice over Joe Rogan, the costs of siding with misinformation, and why corporations are (still) people
Musical artists like Neil Young and Joni Mitchell are using the presence of their music to try to punish the streaming service Spotify for placing a spotlight on the podcast of Joe Rogan. Young ignited the dispute with a letter taking issue with Rogan's use of his program to promote viewpoints on Covid-19 that don't square with medical standards of care.
■ Platform sites like Spotify, YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter are in a position that remains ambiguous, and it seems they like it that way. On one side, they resort to language that suggests they exist to facilitate a sense of community: Facebook users are "friends" and the site's policies are "community standards". On the other side, the platforms are comfortable disclaiming any responsibility for the content they carry.
■ To the extent that any platform is behaving according to the spirit of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, they should be generally free to remain at arm's length from the content they host -- while reserving the right to remove content that is harmful. Those protections in Section 230 have largely shown themselves to be good for individual freedoms as they are expressed online.
■ But when the platforms step from facilitating the liberal distribution of content to specifically mixing and arranging the content in order to maximize their profits from the content, something else is afoot. In Spotify's case, paying a huge sum (some say it's $100 million) for exclusive access to Rogan's program. In Facebook's case, it's the knowing use of content-recommendation algorithms intended to increase users' attachment to the site -- in ways that appear to have directed people down foreseeable paths to radicalization.
■ These situations offer clear illustrations that it can be dangerous to pigeonhole certain questions as matters for "business ethics", as opposed to the ethics of individual responsibility. Within an organization, it can be tempting to pass the buck or to treat the institution as a sentient being with its own sense of responsibility.
■ But the reality is that every firm, every government agency, every church, every club, and every other institution is comprised of people. And people have to decide, sometimes, that a decision with obvious rewards (like profits) isn't worth an ethical compromise.
■ Mitt Romney took a beating for telling an audience at the 2011 Iowa State Fair that "corporations are people". But anyone who listened to Romney critically should have understood that he was really saying that "corporations are [made up of] people" -- that people are the employees, managers, customers, and shareholders of corporations.
■ And that understanding isn't just useful for those times we think about matters like corporate tax rates. It's important, too, for understanding that there are standards aside from corporate law or government regulations that ought to apply to making right and ethical decisions.
■ Content hosting platforms ought to have reasonable legal protections, mainly in the interest of preserving the benefits of individual liberties like the freedom of speech. But the people who run those platforms shouldn't mistake the boundaries of the law for the boundaries of what is right.