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Media Or Tech Company? Facebook's Profile Is Blurry

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies before Congress on Tuesday in Washington, D.C.
Zach Gibson
Getty Images
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies before Congress on Tuesday in Washington, D.C.

Among the many questions Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg wrestled with as he testified before Congress Tuesday and Wednesday was one of a more existential nature: What, exactly, is Facebook?

Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) asked Zuckerberg whether the social networking website was a tech company or a publisher.

Zuckerberg replied, "When people ask us if we're a media company — or a publisher — my understanding of what the heart of what they're really getting at is, 'Do we feel responsibility for the content on our platform?' The answer to that, I think, is clearly yes."

His answer matters because what Facebook is determines how lawmakers regulate it. Issie Lapowsky, senior writer for Wired Magazine, says Facebook is a lot of things — and they still don't necessarily understand it.

"Obviously these hearings were just a matter of Washington getting a firm grasp on how Facebook works in order to figure out how to address it," Lapowsky says. "Because ... they haven't seen anything like Facebook before."

Interview Highlights

On whether Facebook is a media or tech company

I think Facebook is a lot of things. Mark Zuckerberg would like to tell you Facebook is a tech company. But as he noted today, Facebook does a lot of things, including building drones that can beam the Internet to parts of the developing world. They build tools that allow you to send money to friends. So are they a financial institution? Are they an aerospace company?

I think it's pretty clear that Facebook has completely changed the way the media industry works. And that's why regulators, and sometimes the public, have such a tough time really defining whether Facebook is a news entity, because we haven't had a platform like this that is both so dominant in news but that also is not committing journalism itself. It's really just pulling in all this news from the rest of the Web – some of that legitimate news, some of it not.

On how existing law treats Facebook

The laws that allowed the Internet to really become what the Internet has become give platforms wide latitude in terms of what responsibility they have for what people publish on their platforms. So that's why Mark Zuckerberg and certainly the heads of other social networks like this have really maintained that "We are the platform not the publisher." Because they want to be a neutral platform, which means that they are not subject to any laws requiring that they monitor illegal activity and things like that.

On Facebook taking responsibility for its content

That is an absolute departure [from the past]. So many of these tech CEOs have started repeating this cliché: "We don't want to be the arbiters of truth." And I think that Mark Zuckerberg is seeing that that is not playing so well in the public. And time and again, they've seen how these problems really escalate, and the more extreme examples that we see of ways that it could go wrong, I think the more Mark Zuckerberg has had to come around to the idea that yes, they are responsible for this content.

Jessica Cheung and Emily Kopp produced and edited the audio story. Sydnee Monday adapted it for the Web.

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Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
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