Promoted from the Ricochet Member Feed by Editors Created with Sketch. Regulate Twitter as a Utility?

 

Should Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram be considered as Public Utilities and regulated accordingly? This was the question posed yesterday by Scott Adams, of Dilbert (and election 2016 prognostication) fame. Of course the question itself assumes that the existing regulation of utilities, in their operations and services, is already a good (or least a necessary) activity of government, and that regulation in turn requires us to define what a Public Utility is. Merriam Webster’s definition is, to my mind, unsatisfactorily circular:

a business organization (as an electric company) performing a public service and subject to special governmental regulationhttps://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/public%20utility

Other definitions are more expansive and cogent:

A public utility is a business that furnishes an everyday necessity to the public at large… Typically a public utility has a Monopoly on the service it provides. http://legal-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com/Public+Utilities

The first condition listed above is “an everyday necessity to the public at large.” Looking strictly at traditional utilities, we would all agree that water, electricity, sewage disposal, and natural gas are “everyday necessities”. Increasingly, internet access is considered essential too. The companies (or in many cases the municipalities) that provide these to us are providing them to all comers (for a price) within their service areas. Are the issues of necessity and “to the public at large” the only factors, however, in the motivation for regulation?

The corollary condition above: “Typically a public utility has a monopoly on the service it provides,” is key to understanding the motivation for government regulation. After all, our electricity, tap water, sewage disposal, natural gas, and cable TV / internet are nearly always sole source to us as end users – that is to say we lack any competitive choice because it is highly unlikely that there would be multiple sources of any of these services available at our homes or businesses; sewers, water pipes, gas, and electric lines are expensive to lay and there just is not room to have competing branches of these under our streets and foundations. For entirely natural reasons, we are all largely stuck with what’s there. These are natural local monopolies, and we have more than a century of legal precedent for treating monopolies differently from other businesses. These services are deemed necessary, we are all stuck with monopolies providing them, and so our state and federal governments regulated them.

Why the regulation? The justification usually given is that this is for our own protection. Monopolies (so the argument usually goes) will act with caprice towards their captive customers, inflate prices beyond what is fair, arbitrarily deny necessary services, restrict services beyond reason, and otherwise abuse customers who cannot seek redress through a competitive marketplace. In other words, utilities have no competition and so there is no natural limit to what they might do to us, including cutting off service just because they do not like us, or do not approve of us for racial, religious, political, or social reasons. (mind you, I’m not saying I agree with this rationale, I’m just laying it out)

A public utility, once regulated, is restricted in how it conducts its business. Its prices are negotiated with the government. Its services are dictated by the government. Its every-day practices and rules are set by the government. For instance, if you are late in paying your water bill, your water company cannot immediately turn off your water – it must follow a defined process and give you ample time to make your account current. The utilities cannot put undue restrictions on what you do with the service either, nor arbitrarily change its terms of service. Whether you decide to use your electricity to play video games all day, run a wood shop, or write for a white-supremacist website, your electric company cannot stop or censure you (with exceptions being made for activities or equipment that could damage the grid or degrade service for your neighbors). So long as you pay your bills (and whatever you are doing is legal), they have to let you use their product at your own discretion, and they cannot punish you or cancel your service.

Now to the meat of Adams’s argument (emphasis mine):

My sketchy understanding of the law is that the government is only responsible for making sure the government itself is not abridging free speech. I think most of us agree that we don’t want the government volunteering for any more work than the constitution says it should be doing.

But shouldn’t the federal government get involved if a few monopoly corporations start to control the national conversation by filtering out voices that disagree with them?

Why is Adams looking at this?

For example, Twitter is apparently “shadowbanning” me because of my past Trump tweets, or so I assume. That means my tweets only go out to a subset of my followers. The rest don’t know I tweeted. My followers tell me this is the case. They have to visit my timeline to see my tweets…

Realistically, can I quit Twitter and be a successful media personality without it? Not in today’s world. The only way I could make that work is by having a huge presence on Facebook or Instagram.

But that might be a problem too…

Adams here is a necessity for being “a successful media personality”, which on its own hardly seems to about “an everyday necessity to the public at large”, but is it a necessity in a more general sense? Is Twitter a necessity for the public at large outside of celebrities and pundits? Is it a public necessity to be able to broadcast your thoughts to anyone who wants to listen? Has social media in general (which Adams also addresses) turned into a necessity in our lives? Strictly speaking, electricity is not a necessity per se, but even the Amish find ways to use it within their lives. Has mass communication capability offered by social media raised to the level of necessity as well? One could argue that social media is turning that way as it is now a means open to all for the spread of news (or disinformation), opinion, and gossip, and that it bypasses the traditional outlets and gatekeepers of information.

Is Twitter monopoly-like? If it is a monopoly, is it exhibiting the worst behaviors so feared of monopolies? Twitter is certainly proving to be arbitrary and capricious with its users, if reports from Adams and others are true. If a customer is using the service in a way that Twitter does not approve, then Twitter will remove the user, but the terms under which this is done are opaque. If Shadow-banning (that is filtering or blocking communications without admitting to it or citing just cause) is a real phenomenon, is Twitter not abusing its customers? Is Twitter restricting service to its customers because of their personal politics?

If social media is a public necessity, something that, like electricity and running water, should be equally accessible to all under equal terms, and if Twitter is a monopoly for its particular type of service, should it then be audited and regulated by state or federal governments to ensure its good behavior?

I can’t be 100% sure that Twitter is shadowbanning me to limit my political speech. They might have a bug in their system, for example. But it would be a big coincidence if they are not, given how many Trump supporters were targeted by Twitter in the past year.

…That lack of transparency is just as much of a problem as an actual abridgement of free speech. if I can’t know whether my freedom of speech is being limited by corporate overlords, how can I have trust in the Republic? And without trust, the system falls apart.

I want to trust my government, but without freedom of speech, I find that impossible. That’s why I support creating a law requiring the government to audit the major social media sites to certify that freedom of speech still exists for all classes of users. (Within reason.)

You might think there is not much risk of losing the right of free speech in the United States. But keep in mind that I have already lost my free speech in a practical sense. The social media tools you take for granted are not available to me in their full form.

Is Adams right here? Is Twitter interfering in the free speech of Americans, and should it be tamed? Or should we allow the marketplace to eventually sort this out, letting competitors eventually break its monopoly on communication?

There are 196 comments.

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  1. Eustace C. Scrubb Member

    No.

    • #1
    • January 27, 2017, at 12:37 PM PST
    • Like
  2. Clavius Thatcher

    Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

    • #2
    • January 27, 2017, at 12:43 PM PST
    • Like
  3. Jamie Lockett Inactive

    No

    • #3
    • January 27, 2017, at 12:48 PM PST
    • Like
  4. SkipSul Coolidge
    SkipSul Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Eustace C. Scrubb (View Comment):
    No.

    Clavius (View Comment):
    Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

    Given that other countries already explicitly dictate what social media can and must do (China being the poster boy here), and with terrible consequences, I am certainly very skeptical that our own government could be at all trusted here.

    Personally, if I were Adams, I’d be threatening to sue Twitter for breach of contract if I found my own communications were deliberately blocked.

    • #4
    • January 27, 2017, at 12:57 PM PST
    • Like
  5. SkipSul Coolidge
    SkipSul Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Jamie Lockett (View Comment):
    No

    If Twitter is acting with bias towards its customers, what would your solution be?

    • #5
    • January 27, 2017, at 12:57 PM PST
    • Like
  6. livingtheLoneStarlife Inactive

    skipsul: “Typically a public utility has a monopoly on the service it provides,” is key to understanding the motivation for government regulation. After all, our electricity, tap water, sewage disposal, natural gas, and cable TV / internet are nearly always sole source to us as end users – that is to say we lack any competitive choice

    The lack of competitive choice comes from the high barrier to entry. It’s hard to build a new water supply or get the right of way to dig new cable/fiber lines.

    It’s not hard to build a new Twitter or Facebook (in fact, Facebook itself is a replacement of MySpace). What’s hard will be the market acceptance, but that’s just capitalism at work.

    Regulating social media as a utility is a very bad idea.

    • #6
    • January 27, 2017, at 12:58 PM PST
    • Like
  7. Titus Techera Contributor

    I see a possibility of this. There’s the envy & resentment that creates suspicions that create a demand for equality. It seems hard to me to do the politics for it in public debate, on TV, on internet, and in Congress. But a president with the right kind of anger and shamelessness could do it, I suspect.

    Partly, these businesses are defended by the reputation of Silicon Valley / tech / economic success. Partly, they’re almost immune to these kinds of concerns because people now are moving, as Mr. James Poulos keeps saying, from putting a premium on their property rights to putting a premium on access to stuff. This means people want also, however they may not spell it out, to keep other people out–witness social media… There is exclusivity tied up with entitlements, but there is also less of the mindset for legal rules involved in this new way of associating.

    • #7
    • January 27, 2017, at 12:59 PM PST
    • Like
  8. Clavius Thatcher

    skipsul (View Comment):
    Personally, if I were Adams, I’d be threatening to sue Twitter for breach of contract if I found my own communications were deliberately blocked

    His ability to sue would depend on the terms of service. And given this paragraph, I don’t think he can sue (my emphasis):

    We may suspend or terminate your account or cease providing you with all or part of the Services at any time for any or no reason, including, but not limited to, if we reasonably believe: (i) you have violated these Terms or the Twitter Rules, (ii) you create risk or possible legal exposure for us; (iii) your account should be removed due to prolonged inactivity; or (iv) our provision of the Services to you is no longer commercially viable. We will make reasonable efforts to notify you by the email address associated with your account or the next time you attempt to access your account, depending on the circumstances. In all such cases, the Terms shall terminate, including, without limitation, your license to use the Services, except that the following sections shall continue to apply: II, III, V, and VI.

    • #8
    • January 27, 2017, at 12:59 PM PST
    • Like
  9. Titus Techera Contributor

    skipsul (View Comment):

    Eustace C. Scrubb (View Comment):
    No.

    Clavius (View Comment):
    Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

    Given that other countries already explicitly dictate what social media can and must do (China being the poster boy here), and with terrible consequences, I am certainly very skeptical that our own government could be at all trusted here.

    Personally, if I were Adams, I’d be threatening to sue Twitter for breach of contract if I found my own communications were deliberately blocked.

    How about the British plan to introduce a default to internet provision that blocks obscene material? Didn’t pass, but it might. I wouldn’t put it past modern governments to take some steps for outlawing stuff; or using governmental powers to strangle or at least discourage stuff not outright illegal online. If the kind of social libertarianism of youth continues, you will see massive growth in the big government liberalism surrounding healthcare, hate crimes, and any number of other things that America’s future electorate worries about–including student debt, I should think, a bubble waiting to burst… But the changes I can see coming are almost entirely in the vein of PC.

    • #9
    • January 27, 2017, at 1:03 PM PST
    • Like
  10. Jamie Lockett Inactive

    skipsul (View Comment):

    Jamie Lockett (View Comment):
    No

    If Twitter is acting with bias towards its customers, what would your solution be?

    Quit the service.

    • #10
    • January 27, 2017, at 1:12 PM PST
    • Like
  11. livingtheLoneStarlife Inactive

    skipsul:I want to trust my government, but without freedom of speech, I find that impossible. That’s why I support creating a law requiring the government to audit the major social media sites to certify that freedom of speech still exists for all classes of users. (Within reason.)

    You might think there is not much risk of losing the right of free speech in the United States. But keep in mind that I have already lost my free speech in a practical sense. The social media tools you take for granted are not available to me in their full form.

    Adams is complaining about the delivery of his speech. His freedom of speech is not being infringed in any way.

    • #11
    • January 27, 2017, at 1:13 PM PST
    • Like
  12. MarciN Member

    A great summary of the compelling arguments on both sides of this issue. Thank you.

    No. I don’t think we should regulate speech in any way. Yes, it’s true some hateful things will be said, but the antidote is for good things to be said. If you start squelching free speech, you lose the good things too.

    Not to mention the chilling effect such regulation has on the American psyche.

    So, no.

    • #12
    • January 27, 2017, at 1:13 PM PST
    • Like
  13. Jamie Lockett Inactive

    Should we bring back the fairness doctrine for radio? What about regulating all of the internet as a public utility via net neutrality? What about newspapers – should the government dictate their content too?

    • #13
    • January 27, 2017, at 1:15 PM PST
    • Like
  14. SkipSul Coolidge
    SkipSul Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Titus Techera (View Comment):
    How about the British plan to introduce a default to internet provision that blocks obscene material? Didn’t pass, but it might. I wouldn’t put it past modern governments to take some steps for outlawing stuff; or using governmental powers to strangle or at least discourage stuff not outright illegal online.

    Sure, but that’s different than treating internet communications as a utility. By and large, when something is treated as a utility there are few restrictions on its use, and the utility company itself doesn’t set them except insofar as they pertain to capacity (water as an example) or possibility of system damage (electrical faults, backfeed issues, phase corruption etc). Blocking the transmission (or actually the receipt as that is how the filter works) of obscene material could be thought of as blocking your sprinkler system but not your kitchen faucet.

    • #14
    • January 27, 2017, at 1:15 PM PST
    • Like
  15. Arahant Member

    skipsul (View Comment):

    Jamie Lockett (View Comment):
    No

    If Twitter is acting with bias towards its customers, what would your solution be?

    Start a competing service that is explicitly free speech?

    • #15
    • January 27, 2017, at 1:16 PM PST
    • Like
  16. Judge Mental Member

    Isn’t there a competing service that has started that does not filter at all? If so, shouldn’t the market favor that one and send Twitter the way of MySpace?

    • #16
    • January 27, 2017, at 1:16 PM PST
    • Like
  17. Clavius Thatcher

    livingthehighlife (View Comment):

    skipsul: “Typically a public utility has a monopoly on the service it provides,” is key to understanding the motivation for government regulation. After all, our electricity, tap water, sewage disposal, natural gas, and cable TV / internet are nearly always sole source to us as end users – that is to say we lack any competitive choice

    The lack of competitive choice comes from the high barrier to entry. It’s hard to build a new water supply or get the right of way to dig new cable/fiber lines.

    It’s not hard to build a new Twitter or Facebook (in fact, Facebook itself is a replacement of MySpace). What’s hard will be the market acceptance, but that’s just capitalism at work.

    Regulating social media as a utility is a very bad idea.

    The barrier to entry here is building the network. Setting up a new service may be easy but it doesn’t get you the traffic.

    • #17
    • January 27, 2017, at 1:16 PM PST
    • Like
  18. SkipSul Coolidge
    SkipSul Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Jamie Lockett (View Comment):

    skipsul (View Comment):

    Jamie Lockett (View Comment):
    No

    If Twitter is acting with bias towards its customers, what would your solution be?

    Quit the service.

    He claims it is necessary for his business.

    • #18
    • January 27, 2017, at 1:16 PM PST
    • Like
  19. Jamie Lockett Inactive

    skipsul (View Comment):

    Jamie Lockett (View Comment):

    skipsul (View Comment):

    Jamie Lockett (View Comment):
    No

    If Twitter is acting with bias towards its customers, what would your solution be?

    Quit the service.

    He claims it is necessary for his business.

    So what? If every business could use government to regulate other businesses they rely on in order to obtain more favorable terms in what meaningful way do we have a free market?

    • #19
    • January 27, 2017, at 1:17 PM PST
    • Like
  20. SkipSul Coolidge
    SkipSul Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Clavius (View Comment):

    livingthehighlife (View Comment):

    skipsul: “Typically a public utility has a monopoly on the service it provides,” is key to understanding the motivation for government regulation. After all, our electricity, tap water, sewage disposal, natural gas, and cable TV / internet are nearly always sole source to us as end users – that is to say we lack any competitive choice

    The lack of competitive choice comes from the high barrier to entry. It’s hard to build a new water supply or get the right of way to dig new cable/fiber lines.

    It’s not hard to build a new Twitter or Facebook (in fact, Facebook itself is a replacement of MySpace). What’s hard will be the market acceptance, but that’s just capitalism at work.

    Regulating social media as a utility is a very bad idea.

    The barrier to entry here is building the network. Setting up a new service may be easy but it doesn’t get you the traffic.

    I had a cousin involved in a failed social startup. The back end stuff was the easy part (so he claims) but building a self-sustaining network of users was beyond them. You need a critical mass of users to get rolling.

    • #20
    • January 27, 2017, at 1:18 PM PST
    • Like
  21. Titus Techera Contributor

    skipsul (View Comment):

    Titus Techera (View Comment):
    How about the British plan to introduce a default to internet provision that blocks obscene material? Didn’t pass, but it might. I wouldn’t put it past modern governments to take some steps for outlawing stuff; or using governmental powers to strangle or at least discourage stuff not outright illegal online.

    Sure, but that’s different than treating internet communications as a utility. By and large, when something is treated as a utility there are few restrictions on its use, and the utility company itself doesn’t set them except insofar as they pertain to capacity (water as an example) or possibility of system damage (electrical faults, backfeed issues, phase corruption etc). Blocking the transmission (or actually the receipt as that is how the filter works) of obscene material could be thought of as blocking your sprinkler system but not your kitchen faucet.

    I know what you mean, but I’m not sure that this cannot change.

    Also, weren’t there rules for water usage in Cali recently, during the drought? Some kind of rationing?

    • #21
    • January 27, 2017, at 1:19 PM PST
    • Like
  22. SkipSul Coolidge
    SkipSul Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Jamie Lockett (View Comment):

    skipsul (View Comment):

    Jamie Lockett (View Comment):

    skipsul (View Comment):

    Jamie Lockett (View Comment):
    No

    If Twitter is acting with bias towards its customers, what would your solution be?

    Quit the service.

    He claims it is necessary for his business.

    So what?

    He built his business on it, and claims it was arbitrarily taken away for his politics. It was (so he’s claiming) like the power company killing the line or browning him out.

    • #22
    • January 27, 2017, at 1:20 PM PST
    • Like
  23. MarciN Member

    MarciN (View Comment):
    A great summary of the compelling arguments on both sides of this issue. Thank you.

    No. I don’t think we should regulate speech in any way. Yes, it’s true some hateful things will be said, but the antidote is for good things to be said. If you start squelching free speech, you lose the good things too.

    Not to mention the chilling effect such regulation has on the American psyche.

    So, no.

    As she wrote from her safe space on Ricochet! :)

    • #23
    • January 27, 2017, at 1:20 PM PST
    • Like
  24. Jamie Lockett Inactive

    skipsul (View Comment):

    Jamie Lockett (View Comment):

    skipsul (View Comment):

    Jamie Lockett (View Comment):

    skipsul (View Comment):

    Jamie Lockett (View Comment):
    No

    If Twitter is acting with bias towards its customers, what would your solution be?

    Quit the service.

    He claims it is necessary for his business.

    So what?

    He built his business on it, and claims it was arbitrarily taken away for his politics. It was (so he’s claiming) like the power company killing the line or browning him out.

    This was well within the terms of service he agreed to when he signed up. I don’t like it (although I don’t believe it’s true), but it’s on him that he built his business that way. When he was a cartoonist should he have been able to regulate the newspapers that didn’t carry his cartoon?

    • #24
    • January 27, 2017, at 1:20 PM PST
    • Like
  25. SkipSul Coolidge
    SkipSul Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Titus Techera (View Comment):

    Also, weren’t there rules for water usage in Cali recently, during the drought? Some kind of rationing?

    Sure, but that was due to limited capacity to supply. I’m sure that supply issues apply to social media (to judge by cat videos anyway, of which there is no shortage).

    • #25
    • January 27, 2017, at 1:22 PM PST
    • Like
  26. SkipSul Coolidge
    SkipSul Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Jamie Lockett (View Comment):
    If every business could use government to regulate other businesses they rely on in order to obtain more favorable terms in what meaningful way do we have a free market?

    Is it a case of obtaining favorable terms, though, or simply asking for even-handed non-opaque terms?

    • #26
    • January 27, 2017, at 1:24 PM PST
    • Like
  27. Jamie Lockett Inactive

    skipsul (View Comment):

    Jamie Lockett (View Comment):
    If every business could use government to regulate other businesses they rely on in order to obtain more favorable terms in what meaningful way do we have a free market?

    Is it a case of obtaining favorable terms, though, or simply asking for even-handed non-opaque terms?

    Again, if he finds the terms unacceptable he can leave. There are many alternatives out there. Facebook, Instagram, etc.

    • #27
    • January 27, 2017, at 1:25 PM PST
    • Like
  28. Jamie Lockett Inactive

    skipsul (View Comment):

    Jamie Lockett (View Comment):
    If every business could use government to regulate other businesses they rely on in order to obtain more favorable terms in what meaningful way do we have a free market?

    Is it a case of obtaining favorable terms, though, or simply asking for even-handed non-opaque terms?

    He could sue them for violating their own TOS but somehow I doubt they have.

    • #28
    • January 27, 2017, at 1:26 PM PST
    • Like
  29. Arahant Member

    Judge Mental (View Comment):
    Isn’t there a competing service that has started that does not filter at all? If so, shouldn’t the market favor that one and send Twitter the way of MySpace?

    And you get 320 characters instead of 140. Bonus.

    • #29
    • January 27, 2017, at 1:28 PM PST
    • Like
  30. Judge Mental Member

    Judge Mental (View Comment):
    Isn’t there a competing service that has started that does not filter at all? If so, shouldn’t the market favor that one and send Twitter the way of MySpace?

    Arahant (View Comment):

    skipsul (View Comment):

    Jamie Lockett (View Comment):
    No

    If Twitter is acting with bias towards its customers, what would your solution be?

    Start a competing service that is explicitly free speech?

    Ah.

    • #30
    • January 27, 2017, at 1:30 PM PST
    • Like

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