by Ian Rumsby
August 13th, 2012

The Advertising Standards Board’s (ASB) decision to make companies liable for user comments posted on branded Facebook pages raises more questions than it answers.

The gathering storm of corporates bemoaning the prospect of a Herculean online community-management task is already here. But it’s consumers who will feel more constrained by this decision. And that, inevitably, will only serve to create more tension in the corporate/ consumer relationship.

The consumer concern is justified. By raising the self-regulation bar, the ASB has inadvertently given organisations the mandate to remove comments that they may argue are offensive, but that are also considered detrimental to their own brand. The opportunity for the orchestrated management of brand-damaging commentary is hard to ignore.

We should not be surprised by the consequences of such action: a series of legal precedents around interpretation are bound to follow; consumers will cry ‘foul’ at the decisions made; and we’ll see a spike in negative (ie. defamatory) commentary about the decisions made. The outcome will be, in many respects, a self-fulfilling prophecy.

For the ASB decision to resonate, the self-regulatory circle needs to be completed. That demands clear policy guidelines that anticipate the interpretation of issues, yet accommodate what will undoubtedly be a moving legislative target.

The UK’s own standards body, the Advertising Standards Authority, has been grappling with similar issues for some time. By necessity, it has found itself gravitating towards the application of a “common-sense” test, which has instilled some public confidence. But that is administratively cumbersome and remains subjective in its approach. After all, one man’s aggravated commentary is another man’s unsubstantiated criticism.

Back in Australia, the debate has naturally become a political hot potato. Opposition leader Tony Abbott has publicly stated that he’ll be setting up a Coalition Taskforce to review social media, including “stronger take down powers for the regulator”. But that, too, may be under-estimating the challenge of re-applying a mainstream media regulatory model to a predominantly consumer-driven operating environment (in which content is often created outside of Australian jurisdiction).

There’s no easy fix to managing online content. Few would disagree with the need to curb the availability of material that is explicitly offensive in a corporate-hosted environment. But a simple shift of blame and responsibility by the regulatory authority is not the answer when undertaken in the absence of guidelines.

Regulators need to build mutual confidence into the system, not apply the rules of old to the problems of the future. The voice of the media and the voice of the people are wholly different beasts.

Ian Rumsby is chairman at Weber Shandwick Australia and executive vice-president, strategic development at Weber Shandwick Asia Pacific

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