Martin Sorrell, chief executive of WPP Plc, the world’s largest communications services group, probably touched a raw nerve when he said in New Delhi recently that firms like Google and Facebook should not be treated as technology companies.

Sorrell was responding to queries from the media at a press conference organized ahead of WPP’s board meeting held in the Indian capital a couple of weeks ago.

He does not believe that Facebook and Google are technology companies, Sorrell told journalists. “They are media companies. They still take the position publically that they are technology companies. And I think that is wrong. Like newspapers, digital channels and TV channels are held responsible in many countries legally for content and the accuracy of the content that they print or propagate or publish; I believe these technology companies have to take responsibility for their content," he said.

Sorrell argued that legislative frameworks have not managed to catch up with technological change and cited the example of cab hailing service Uber versus black taxis in the UK.

Although consumers would be devastated if Uber was withdrawn in the UK, “the black cabs are saying that they (Uber) are not subject to the licencing and restrictions that we are," Sorrell said. Similarly, Airbnb can compete against a hotel without restrictions on food safety, physical safety or fire precautions because legislation hasn’t caught up.

“So, they are not subject to the same rules. I am sure Amazon, in a number of its activities like logistics, is not subject to the same rules as UPS or FedEx," he said.

The same thing applies to news, he said, adding that control on traditional media is more rigorous than somebody writing a blog on Facebook. “Whether you are right or wrong, it is immaterial. You can’t have people putting out the stuff on these channels—and they are channels of distribution and media—without some influence, control; otherwise there will be mayhem. And anyone who has been subjected to an attack rightly or wrongly on social media knows what I am talking about. You should be responsible for the content," he said, adding that “these technology companies have to step up to the fact they are media companies. Admit it, get on with it and be responsible."

Media experts and editors are in complete agreement with Sorrell. Television news anchor and consulting editor at India Today group, Rajdeep Sardesai, believes that any media company that puts information in the public domain is accountable for it.

A platform like Facebook is prima facie accountable for information shared on its platform, one reason why a transparent filtering policy and due diligence is necessary. “Content rules cannot be different for social media any longer—at the end of the day, the hyper Information Age cannot be misused for slander and abuse in particular," he feels.

N. Ram, chairman of The Hindu Group Pvt. Ltd and former editor-in-chief of The Hindu, says, “Martin Sorrell is absolutely right in taking a stand against the invidious differentiation sought to be made between media companies and these ‘technology’ companies, especially the all-conquering global giants, Facebook and Google. The stance that these technology companies are in the nature of ‘utilities’ that provide universal access and therefore cannot be held accountable for the content they carry—including hate speech and extremist messaging—is both self-serving and untenable."

In Ram’s view, Facebook, Google, Twitter and also the lesser services such as Reddit, Tumblr, Vimeo, and Yahoo’s Flickr should squarely be held to account under the law of the land, civil as well as criminal, for infringements—in much the same way media companies, publishers, editors, other individual journalists, and ordinary citizens are held accountable under these laws.

He says that essentially, the same laws and rules of the game that apply to newspapers, news television, radio, websites, blogs, and other forms of the media, and to individual journalists and citizens, should apply to these ‘technology’ companies. However, he adds, “I said ‘essentially’ because in practical terms, all countries, including China, provide in their laws and regulations some measure of protection, ‘safe harbour’ clauses and so forth, for certain types of non-deliberate or unknowing infringement, for example, of copyright."

However, while designing regulations for ‘technology’ companies, it should be remembered that it’s not as though India has a liberal legal regime protecting freedom of the press and free speech. “The law of criminal defamation…not to mention the sedition law and other draconian provisions of the Indian Penal Code that have been deployed against journalists, writers, artists, and other citizens—these cast a dark shadow over freedom of expression. There is need for a radical overhaul of this legal regime but until that is done, it is only just that the same rules should apply," he argues.

The most important regulatory change that is needed is hard-nosed, no-nonsense regulation against the transmission, distribution, and amplification of hate speech by these ‘technology’ companies, says Ram. He even recommends for India a law and a regulatory regime modelled on what Germany has most recently put in place.

Germany, which witnessed a disturbing rise in racist, anti-immigrant hate speeches, enacted a law that would force Facebook, Google, Twitter, and other social media companies to crack down on hate speech on their digital platforms.

Ram cites a report that says the new German law aims at regulating social media platforms to ensure they remove hate speech within set periods of receiving complaints. Fines of up to €50 million can be imposed on social media platforms that fail to comply, the report adds. He says, India must learn from and build on this model.

Shuchi Bansal is Mint’s media, marketing and advertising editor. Ordinary Post will look at pressing issues related to all three. Or just fun stuff.

Respond to this column at shuchi.b@livemint.com

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