Governing the Social Media Consumer-Producer: Examining the Policy Implications of User-Generated Content

Posted: 2 Apr 2013

See all articles by Jonathan A. Obar

Jonathan A. Obar

York University; Quello Center - Michigan State University

Brandon Brooks

Queens University of Charlotte

Date Written: March 31, 2013


Transformative ICTs often provoke policy debates about the role of government in technological evolution. A common early consideration is the extent to which pre-existing legal and regulatory frameworks and institutions are capable of addressing the challenges raised. Should existing frameworks fall short, regulators must then consider whether the transformative nature of the new ICTs should be met by a correspondingly innovative approach.

The initial response is often the former, with regulators bending and expanding current law and policy to address the challenges posed. The centrality of stare decisis, or precedence to the American legal system suggests how common this approach can be when legal intervention takes place. As Frieden (2003) notes, “courts often use legacy models to conserve judicial resources and to display restraint based on the view that they interpret law rather than make policy.” (p.111) Government legislators and regulators have also demonstrated repeatedly their interest in this approach “consistently interpret(ing) new media technologies within the context of older media technologies” (Napoli, 1998) and shoehorning new communication technologies into pre-existing legal and regulatory models (Werbach, 1997; Napoli, 2001).

Critics concerned with the shoehorn approach often emphasize how regulators fail to understand the nuances of the new ICT. Writing about the FCC’s evolving approach to Internet regulation, Oxman (1999) noted, “new technologies, while perhaps similar in appearance or in functionality, should not be stuffed into what may be ill-fitting regulatory categories […] the Commission should continue the approach of studying new technologies and only stepping in where (appropriate).” (p. 24-25)

This paper intends to address these challenges to ICT policymaking in the context of social media. At the heart of a myriad of novel policy questions increasingly being raised is the challenge of the user’s centrality. User-generated content (UGC) is the lifeblood of the social media ecosystem. Text, photos, audio, video, links, game results, ‘Likes,’ social network lists, selections, de-selections, and an evolving number of other online behavioral manifestations are all forms of UGC. As social media seamlessly blends our roles as content consumers and content producers, privacy concerns abound, as do ‘consumer’ protections. The policy challenge is enhanced by the fact that UGC is often a form of personal self-disclosure, not necessarily designed with audience consumption in mind (an important distinction from the creation of traditional media products). Whereas traditional media systems are directed by a limited number of professional content producers, UGC-driven social media presents the policy challenge of governing a vast, constantly expanding digital media ecosystem where millions of ‘amateur’ content consumer-producers are self-disclosing all hours of the day and night.

This paper aims to contribute to the vibrant governance of social media debate currently taking place by examining the question of how to govern a user-centric social media ecosystem. It will include a discussion of three early challenges to pre-existing policy (Twitter’s 2009 hack, the Google Buzz case, and Noam Galai’s Stolen Scream) demonstrating both the transformative nature of social media and the lack of appropriate regulatory frameworks. Policy recommendations will suggest that regulatory innovations will be necessary, beginning with the creation of a Federal Office of Privacy Policy (Swire, 2012), and correspondingly innovative regulatory models that ensure the protection of social media’s consumer-producers.

Works Cited

Frieden, R. (2003). Regulation for Internet-mediated communication and commerce, in Madden, G. (ed.), Emerging telecommunication networks, vol. 2, Cheltenham, U.K.: Edward Elgar, 107-128.

Napoli, P.M. (1998). The Internet and the forces of “massification.” The electronic journal of communication, 8(2).

Napoli, P.M. (2001). Foundations of communication policy: Principles and progress in the regulation of electronic media. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press.

Oxman, J. (1999). The FCC and the unregulation of the Internet. FCC Office of Plans & Policy, OPP working paper no. 31.

Swire, P. (2012) Why the Federal government should have a privacy policy office. Journal on telecommunication and high technology law 10: 41-51.

Werbach, K. (1997). Digital tornado: The Internet and telecommunications policy. FCC Office of Plans and Policy Working Paper no.29.

Suggested Citation

Obar, Jonathan A. and Brooks, Brandon, Governing the Social Media Consumer-Producer: Examining the Policy Implications of User-Generated Content (March 31, 2013). Available at SSRN:

Jonathan A. Obar (Contact Author)

York University ( email )

4700 Keele Street
Toronto, Ontario M3J 1P3

Quello Center - Michigan State University ( email )

East Lansing, MI 48824
United States

Brandon Brooks

Queens University of Charlotte ( email )

Knight School of Communication
1900 Selwyn Avenue
Charlotte, NC 28209
United States

Here is the Coronavirus
related research on SSRN

Paper statistics

Abstract Views
PlumX Metrics