For a long time I lamented on the inability of government regulators to state the obvious when it comes to internet tech companies like Google, Twitter and Facebook and that is – they are, and should be regulated as public utilities. In a blog I wrote last year entitled Examining the Role of Private Social Media Companies and the Tragedy of the Digital Commons, I stated:
“Not long ago, PFIR’s Twitter account was frozen while thousands of followers were lost, purportedly to allow Twitter the chance to “investigate” our views on immigration. Earlier this year, without any warning or opportunity to dispute or file a complaint, PFIR’s Facebook account was shut down and contact with over 5,000 subscribers to the page were lost!
And it wasn’t just PFIR. In July, Wikileaks revealed that Facebook had engaged in the suppression of organizations whose views they did not agree with. In many cases, stories were either suppressed by tweaking how stories were ranked for inclusion in the “Trending” corner, or simply blacklisted altogether.
These actions have us pondering the influence of private social media companies in and what can arguably be considered a digital “COMMONS”, a place where citizens should not only have the ability, but the right to express their views unfettered by a BIG BROTHER.”
So, I was pleased to hear that Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) called for tech companies to follow the same net neutrality principles that the federal government has applied to companies that compose the backbone of the internet like Verizon, AT&T and Comcast. According to the Washington Post, Franken stated “we must begin a thorough examination of big tech’s practices in order to secure the free flow of information on the internet.”
We know that companies like Google and Facebook have been playing fast and loose with the First Amendment and getting away with it by using the defense that they are private companies. Looking at the prejudiced manner in which they have taken down videos on YouTube or put people in “time out” on Facebook, they have become in many respects the henchmen of the deep state.
Echoing Sen. Franken’s sentiments, I believe the time has come to impose on them the status of a public utility. So, what does this entail?
For starters, here in the United States utilities are viewed as natural monopolies and as such require varying degrees of government regulation and oversight. Given how entrenched just a handful of companies have become and the barriers to entry that exist for competitors, I don’t think there is any arguing Google and Facebook are monopolies.
According to Wikipedia, “a public utility (usually just utility) is an organization that maintains the infrastructure for a public service (often also providing a service using that infrastructure). Public utilities are subject to forms of public control and regulation ranging from local community-based groups to statewide government monopolies.”
Wikipedia further states, “the term utilities can also refer to the set of services provided by these organizations consumed by the public: electricity, natural gas, water, sewage, telephone, and transportation. Broadband internet services (both fixed line and mobile) are increasingly being included within the definition.”
So where to now? The time has come to evolve how we view companies like Facebook, Google, and Twitter and come to the natural conclusion which is to acknowledge the monopolistic power they have over a way of life that has come to include “social media” and regulate them accordingly.