Platforms might have been something new, but they sure did a lot of things that previous information intermediaries had. “Their choices about what can appear, how it is organized, how it is monetized, what can be removed and why, and what the technical architecture allows and prohibits, are all real and substantive interventions into the contours of public discourse,” Gillespie wrote.
Yet for years the internet platforms mostly denied that they were much of an intervention at all. When Senator Joe Lieberman tried to get YouTube to take down what he characterized as Islamist training videos in 2008, the YouTube team responded with free-speech bromides. “YouTube encourages free speech and defends everyone’s right to express unpopular points of view,” they wrote. “We believe that YouTube is a richer and more relevant platform for users precisely because it hosts a diverse range of views, and rather than stifle debate we allow our users to view all acceptable content and make up their own minds.”
Facebook drew on that sense of being “just a platform” after conservatives challenged what they saw as the company’s liberal bias in mid-2016. Zuckerberg began to use—at least in public—the line that Facebook was “a platform for all ideas.”
But that prompted many people to ask: What about awful, hateful ideas? Why, exactly, should Facebook host them, algorithmically serve them up, or lead users to groups filled with them?
These companies are continuing to make their platform arguments, but every day brings more conflicts that they seem unprepared to resolve. The platform defense used to shut down the why questions: Why should YouTube host conspiracy content? Why should Facebook host provably false information? Facebook, YouTube, and their kin keep trying to answer, We’re platforms! But activists and legislators are now saying, So what? “I think they have proven—by not taking down something they know is false—that they were willing enablers of the Russian interference in our election,” Nancy Pelosi said after the altered-video fracas.
Given how powerful and flexible as the rhetoric has been, the idea of the platform will not simply exit stage right. “The platform” once perfumed the naive, meretricious, or odious actions that allowed these companies to expand. But as the term rots, it has begun to stink, and anybody who catches a whiff of it might notice what had been masked. These companies are out to grow their businesses, and every other thing is a means to that end.