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.
Recent developments have made it clear that the link has grown between all three. Neither wants to take an active part in choosing what content belongs on their respective 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 person to enter this maze. 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. Armstrong claims that the only thing that can get Coinbase to reconsider its position is pressure from partners like Apple and 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 advocates, not martyrs for free speech 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. However, NFTs offer a different approach. The digital images, art, collectibles and collectibles seamlessly combine crypto and content. Most of the negative criticism surrounding NFTs’ boom year has focused on the skyrocketing price for such assets that lack any financial value. With the increasing market prices, there has been more NFTs created. This will increase as more NFTs can be traded on mainstream platforms like Coinbase. 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 follows a similar approach. Spotify, like Coinbase had avoided content moderation controversy. Spotify, like Coinbase has had to deal with one because of its bold attitude. How’d that happen? Joe Rogan happened. In the course of these weeks, there has been a lot of criticism about his comments on covid and the N-Word. There have also been calls for Spotify’s disengagement. 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. The freedom to express oneself via podcasts or NFTs is up for debate.
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.
Ek Armstrong, Armstrong, and Zuckerberg all have been singing the same songs since 2016. Facebook and Instagram took some measures to reduce toxic content over the years. 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 is a firm believer, even though it led to declining stock prices, declining growth, and the abandonment of the Facebook brand to focus on his plans to create a social network that uses virtual reality.
Nobody knows what the future metaverse might look like. 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. Similar to Armstrong and Ek.