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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?