Platform vs. Publishers

Feb 7, 2022

How do you distinguish between a platform and a publisher? The debate has been reignited with the backlash against Joe Rogan's Spotify podcast. Some have accused Rogan of spreading misinformation about COVID on Spotify. Spotify isn't taking Rogan down and its important to note that Spotify has a $100mm+ exclusive deal with Rogan for his content. Is Spotify a neutral audio platform? Or is Spotify a publisher?

First, this isn't a legal question. There's been a lot of arguments invoking Section 230 when talking about Spotify/Rogan. The law says:

No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.

For example, take two individuals who foraged and ate poisonous mushrooms after reading a book that erroneously stated that those mushrooms were safe to eat. They sued and the courts found that the publisher wasn't liable (source). The law makes no distinctions between publishers and platforms.

The more interesting question (for me, at least) is whether Spotify's business acts more like a platform or a publisher – both groups with different incentives and business models.

There's a prevailing idea that subscription-based businesses are less susceptible to misinformation than ad-supported ones. Whether or not Rogan is actually spreading misinformation, Spotify's situation shows that its not as clear cut as ads vs. subscriptions. In fact, in many cases removing questionable content is much tougher for a subscription business than ad-supported. Ditching Rogan means parting ways with engagement that $100mm paid for.

Netflix originals now make up more than 40% of the Netflix US content (source). I'd argue that makes Netflix a media company that publishes content, not a technology platform. Another example is Substack. The publisher touts itself as a platform, but provides financial advances and support to newsletters under its Substack Pro subscription. Substack is financially aligned to push these newsletters more than others – like highlighting them on their discovery page.

Content is becoming such an important driver of businesses that it's important to figure out where a business stands – publisher or platform. Even venture capital firms are becoming publishers (see a16z Future).

It will be interesting to see how the Spotify-Rogan debate turns out.

Having built one of the great technology platforms in the world (Windows), Bill Gates once gave a definition:

A platform is when the economic value of everybody that uses it exceeds the value of the company that creates it.