Originally published in 2007.
The government finds it very easy to regulate traditional media. Not only has traditional media been around for a very long time, giving the government time to act, but when companies create content that has negative effects on society, government can step in and regulate in order to limit the negative content. But what happens when the people creating the content don't work for a company, and in fact aren't even considered to be a part of the media industry?
This is the new world we're living in with Web 2.0. Social networking sites like MySpace and YouTube rely on user-created content for their survival. The public creates and maintains the content on the sites, and the sites reap the benefits from recieving a loyal following and repeat visits.
In the coming years the government will be challenged to find ways to regulate this new media environment. A number of questions will need to be answered. Who will regulate sites like MySpace? The FCC? A trade group? Will the content creators be regulated in the same way as media companies are today, or will they be treated as if what they post online was said to someone in real life? Government will need to define the role of the user as content creator in this new media environment.
It's common knowledge that, except for in extreme emergencies, government legislation happens very slowly. The slow process of regulating media worked fine in the old days (15 years ago), when the most prominent and influential media was television.
Television is mainly controlled by large companies that have a financial incentive be on the straight and narrow. If a network broadcasts something indecent, they could be fined, lose their license, or possibly worst of all, lose their audience and advertisers. There are also a limited number of channels on television, making it easy for government to survey and regulate the small number of outlets.
The difference between television and Web 2.0 sites is in who is creating the content. Social networking sites simply act as a conduit of information, but they don't actually create the site's content (not including advertising and other promotional materials). The users themselves create content, and each user's profile on MySpace or Face Book or LiveJournal can be compared to a television channel.
Another important difference between television and Web 2.0 sites is that users have no financial incentive to regulate themselves. They need no license to broadcast their messages, they fear no loss of audience, and they don't need to answer to shareholders. If a MySpace user crosses the line and site shuts down the user's profile, he or she can just start a new profile with a different e-mail address. This anonymity eliminates all accountability in the information being delivered on MySpace.
Finally, since the internet is constantly evolving, with new types of sites that offer new ways for users to interact popping up all the time, the slow process of government regulation can't keep up with the constant change. Offering blanket solutions to growing problems don't work, since the growing problems are constantly evolving.
There are many issues that could face regulatory scrutiny in the next several years. As an example, suppose a teen harasses another teen on MySpace. The teen doing the harassing writes posts on his MySpace page telling lies about the other teen. Is this considered harassment, or is the teen doing the harassment considered media since his message is being broadcast to a wide audience? If the teen is considered media, could he be charged with libel as well as harassment? What rules apply in the digital world?
Government may want to make a distinction between media with a commercial interest, such as CNN, MSNBC, or Fox News, and media without a commercial interest, such as a teen on MySpace. If the users themselves aren't held liable for damage done to another person, could the conduit itself be held liable? Many lawsuits have been filed against MySpace due to this very issue. Some believe MySpace has a responsibility to protect its users, and to be responsible if some damage is done by one of its users.
Only time will tell what type of regulation, if any, will be used as a solution to the growing phenomenon of everybody being an active participant in the media.