A couple weeks ago, it would’ve been hard to identify a great deal of common threading between Mark Zuckerberg, the Facebook billionaire, Daniel Ek, the Spotify billionaire, and Brian Armstrong, the Coinbase billionaire.
More recently, a link between the three has become pretty apparent: none of them want an active role deciding what belongs on their sites. This won’t shock anyone familiar with the past five years for Zuckerberg, who has long insisted it shouldn’t be his company’s responsibility to referee what belongs on the web. But it’s not something we’ve thought a lot about in connection to Ek and Armstrong, who seem willing to withstand the same hellish conversation and debate around content moderation that has enveloped Facebook (and other social media companies) for much of the last decade.
Armstrong is the latest to wade into this thicket. Late Friday evening, he published a new blog post to Coinbase’s website, outlining a strategy for deciding what NFTs will trade on the exchange once it adds the tokens to its platform: In short, Coinbase will allow pretty much everything—as long as its not funding something illegal. “We believe that governments, not companies, should be deciding what is allowed in society,” he writes, sounding quite Zuckerbergian. The only thing that could get Coinbase to change its mind, Armstrong says, is pressure from a partner like Apple or Google. They might (very theoretically) threaten to remove Coinbase from their app stores if it doesn’t take down a controversial NFT. “Our approach is to be free speech supporters, but not free speech martyrs, and to make accommodations if it is essential for us to function as a business,” Armstrong writes (the bold emphasis his).
Until this, Armstrong hasn’t really needed to express any views on free speech or content moderation, issues not really applicable to cryptocurrencies like bitcoin or ether. NFTs are different, though, and the digital images, art and collectibles effectively combine crypto and content together. During the past boom year for NFTs, most of the criticism has revolved around the skyrocketing prices for these assets, which lack any underlying financial value. Those increasing prices have brought greater attention to the space, more NFTs being created. The ability to trade them on a more mainstream platform like Coinbase will only widen this further. And Armstrong is girding himself for a debate about whether Coinbase should allow, say, a right-wing group’s NFTs to trade on Coinbase. That’s a harder call to make than whether to pull down an obvious scam or fake, one redolent of the discussion that has risen over what Facebook should permit on its site.
Ek has adopted a similar stance. Like Coinbase, Spotify had largely avoided any content moderation controversies. But like Coinbase, its expansive attitude has pushed it to contend with one now. How’d that happen? Joe Rogan happened. Over the last few weeks, criticism for his remarks about covid and use of the N-Word have mounted, prompting calls for Spotify to cut ties with him. But he is a prize asset for the company, one reportedly costing it $100 million, the amount Spotify pays as his show’s exclusive distributor.
The exclusivity makes Rogan’s relationship with Spotify is different than the ones the app has had with most artists placing content on its platform, who are free to post it elsewhere, too. Plenty of people have argued the exclusivity makes Spotify Rogan’s publisher, and as a result, Spotify should act more like a traditional publisher would in dealing with Rogan.
Ek doesn’t buy this and maintains Spotify is a platform, which lets him argue that the company doesn’t control any of the people publishing on its site, including Rogan. Fundamentally, it’s the same argument Armstrong makes about Coinbase. As such, both men would argue it’s not their job to police speech on their apps. Whether that freedom of expression involves a podcast or an NFT.
What’s most striking about Ek and Armstrong’s willingness to take this stand on content moderation: doing so hasn’t gone particularly great for Zuckerberg.
Since the 2016 presidential election, Zuckerberg has sung the same tune that Ek and Armstrong have now picked up. Over those years, Facebook and Instagram have taken some steps to curb toxic content. Holocaust denialism, for example, is now banned, a change from a few years ago but only an incremental change—as most such moderation shifts have been at Facebook. Zuckerberg has mostly stuck to his beliefs, even as it has meant a recent plummet in stock price, declining growth at Facebook and jettisoning the Facebook brand last year to rebrand his company around plans for a new social network based around virtual reality, the metaverse.
No one is sure what the metaverse will look. But experts have been clear that the emergence of the new technology—and increased interest around it—will likely add to concerns around moderation rather than tamp them down. Not all too dissimilar to the circumstances now surrounding Ek and Armstrong.