Mediapluralism, gatekeepers and governance

Feeding debates, bringing news and exposing people to relevant content is not any longer a privilege of the traditional media. New players in the competition for the attention of users have entered the scene, including search engines, social networks and e-commerce and transaction platforms. And some of them are very powerful. Mathias Döpfner’s open letter to  Google’s Eric Schmidt echoes the concerns of many about the influence of the new players on information markets, public spheres and individual minds but also for the realization of central public values, such as media diversity.

When policy makers and academics speak about search engines, social networks, app platforms  and their impact on media pluralism, the notion of “gatekeeper” and “bottleneck” is often not far away. The qualification of the new information intermediaries as gatekeeper is not only a matter of rhetoric. From the legal and public policy point of view, we have a long tradition of disciplining gatekeeper control, also and particularly if such control threatens the realization of important public policy goals, such as media diversity and functioning competition at the market place of ideas. This is why classifying Google, or Face book or ITunes or any of the ‘new information intermediaries’ a gateway or bottleneck to diverse media markets can have far-reaching regulatory consequences. And, indeed, as this study will show, many of the traditional tools of “platform regulation” have also been brought forward in one way or other, in the ongoing debates about the new information intermediaries, such as Google, Twitter and Facebook. What is often overlooked in these debates is that the notion of “gatekeeper” is a rather colourful one, with different meanings across and even within disciplines, and with different regulatory consequences.

The goal of this cooperation together with Katharina Kleinen- von Königslöw, a communications scholar and Rob van der Noll, from the area of economic research is to show that the ongoing academic and public policy discourse would benefit from a systematic and a shared understanding of what are the factors and conditions that constitute a “gatekeeper” in a networked environment. Building upon the theory of Network Gatekeeping from Barzilai-Nahon, this study will explore the media law & policy implications of a more dynamic understanding of gatekeeping power, one that also and particularly takes into account the potential of gatekeepers to exercise influence over the  gated.