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. Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera
    @TitusTechera

    Jamie Lockett (View Comment):

    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.

    I’m not sure this is how America works. I’m fairly sure that if Mr. Trump wanted to do it, he could persuade lots of Americans to stand on their outrage at being treated like second-class citizens.

    • #31
  2. skipsul Inactive
    skipsul
    @skipsul

    Jamie Lockett (View Comment):
    When he was a cartoonist should he have been able to regulate the newspapers that didn’t carry his cartoon?

    That’s rather a different case.  He had a syndication contract with a network of newspapers, and papers either signed on for his distribution terms or they didn’t, and he had an obligation to produce the content they paid for.  Those doing the syndication were buying and agreed-upon product from him, and those who were not buying were not in the contract.

    Twitter is different – it effectively says “Hey, we’ll send your content to whoever wants it” but then (so he accuses) choses to block some of it.

    • #32
  3. skipsul Inactive
    skipsul
    @skipsul

    Jamie Lockett (View Comment):

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

    For brevity (my essay was already approaching unwieldy lengths) I omitted quoting his troubles with Instgram’s own shenanigans.  They too have (again, so he claims) arbitrarily punished him.

    • #33
  4. Jamie Lockett Inactive
    Jamie Lockett
    @JamieLockett

    skipsul (View Comment):

    Jamie Lockett (View Comment):
    When he was a cartoonist should he have been able to regulate the newspapers that didn’t carry his cartoon?

    That’s rather a different case. He had a syndication contract with a network of newspapers, and papers either signed on for his distribution terms or they didn’t, and he had an obligation to produce the content they paid for. Those doing the syndication were buying and agreed-upon product from him, and those who were not buying were not in the contract.

    Twitter is different – it effectively says “Hey, we’ll send your content to whoever wants it” but then (so he accuses) choses to block some of it.

    Yes – just as he signed up to terms with Twitter.

    Read the TOS posted above in this thread. They can do whatever the hell they wish. He signed up for that.

    • #34
  5. Jamie Lockett Inactive
    Jamie Lockett
    @JamieLockett

    skipsul (View Comment):

    Jamie Lockett (View Comment):

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

    For brevity (my essay was already approaching unwieldy lengths) I omitted quoting his troubles with Instgram’s own shenanigans. They too have (again, so he claims) arbitrarily punished him.

    Sounds like one man whining about perceived victimization to me.

    • #35
  6. skipsul Inactive
    skipsul
    @skipsul

    Jamie Lockett (View Comment):

    skipsul (View Comment):

    Jamie Lockett (View Comment):
    When he was a cartoonist should he have been able to regulate the newspapers that didn’t carry his cartoon?

    That’s rather a different case. He had a syndication contract with a network of newspapers, and papers either signed on for his distribution terms or they didn’t, and he had an obligation to produce the content they paid for. Those doing the syndication were buying and agreed-upon product from him, and those who were not buying were not in the contract.

    Twitter is different – it effectively says “Hey, we’ll send your content to whoever wants it” but then (so he accuses) choses to block some of it.

    Yes – just as he signed up to terms with Twitter.

    Read the TOS posted above in this thread. They can do whatever the hell they wish. He signed up for that.

    I did read them.  But TOS aside, it at the very least is shady practice on their part to put out that they provide X when they really do not.

    • #36
  7. skipsul Inactive
    skipsul
    @skipsul

    Jamie Lockett (View Comment):

    skipsul (View Comment):

    Jamie Lockett (View Comment):

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

    For brevity (my essay was already approaching unwieldy lengths) I omitted quoting his troubles with Instgram’s own shenanigans. They too have (again, so he claims) arbitrarily punished him.

    Sounds like one man whining about perceived victimization to me.

    What if his perceptions are accurate though?

    • #37
  8. Chuck Enfield Inactive
    Chuck Enfield
    @ChuckEnfield

    Mustn’t a thing have utility in order to be a utility?

    • #38
  9. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    Jamie Lockett (View Comment):
    Sounds like one man whining about perceived victimization to me.

    It isn’t just one man.

    • #39
  10. Jamie Lockett Inactive
    Jamie Lockett
    @JamieLockett

    skipsul (View Comment):

    Jamie Lockett (View Comment):

    skipsul (View Comment):

    Jamie Lockett (View Comment):
    When he was a cartoonist should he have been able to regulate the newspapers that didn’t carry his cartoon?

    That’s rather a different case. He had a syndication contract with a network of newspapers, and papers either signed on for his distribution terms or they didn’t, and he had an obligation to produce the content they paid for. Those doing the syndication were buying and agreed-upon product from him, and those who were not buying were not in the contract.

    Twitter is different – it effectively says “Hey, we’ll send your content to whoever wants it” but then (so he accuses) choses to block some of it.

    Yes – just as he signed up to terms with Twitter.

    Read the TOS posted above in this thread. They can do whatever the hell they wish. He signed up for that.

    I did read them. But TOS aside, it at the very least is shady practice on their part to put out that they provide X when they really do not.

    Sounds like a reason not to patronize such business.

    • #40
  11. Jamie Lockett Inactive
    Jamie Lockett
    @JamieLockett

    skipsul (View Comment):

    Jamie Lockett (View Comment):

    skipsul (View Comment):

    Jamie Lockett (View Comment):

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

    For brevity (my essay was already approaching unwieldy lengths) I omitted quoting his troubles with Instgram’s own shenanigans. They too have (again, so he claims) arbitrarily punished him.

    Sounds like one man whining about perceived victimization to me.

    What if his perceptions are accurate though?

    Leave the service.

    • #41
  12. skipsul Inactive
    skipsul
    @skipsul

    Chuck Enfield (View Comment):
    Mustn’t a thing have utility in order to be a utility?

    Well, I have no use for it personally so this discussion is (for me) academic, but then my great-great grandparents didn’t have electricity so electrical utility regulation would have been academic for them too.  Whether social media is (or will become) a necessity is one of the questions I asked above.  Anyone wanting to take a stab at that one?

    • #42
  13. Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera
    @TitusTechera

    Arahant (View Comment):

    Jamie Lockett (View Comment):
    Sounds like one man whining about perceived victimization to me.

    It isn’t just one man.

    It is easier for people to organize–they should be reminded that Mr. Lockett thinks they’re all of them, just one man who has to suck it up–it doesn’t always take more than that to persuade Americans to react in anger and organize to complain legally or politically.

    There is also the possibility of turning this anger to a kind of hatred of some part of public America… Whether that sort of anger at being told to suck it up can be contained to what TR called the lunatic fringe remains to be seen-

    • #43
  14. Jamie Lockett Inactive
    Jamie Lockett
    @JamieLockett

    Arahant (View Comment):

    Jamie Lockett (View Comment):
    Sounds like one man whining about perceived victimization to me.

    It isn’t just one man.

    Great. Sounds like there’s a market opportunity.

    • #44
  15. skipsul Inactive
    skipsul
    @skipsul

    Jamie Lockett (View Comment):
    Sounds like a reason not to patronize such business.

    Jamie Lockett (View Comment):
    Leave the service.

    OK, but there is a larger issue raised – how vital is social media in general (not just right now, but 5 or 10 years out)?  Would letting Twitter and the other few major services punish political expression now be setting a terrible precedent for later if social media is considered vital?

    • #45
  16. Jamie Lockett Inactive
    Jamie Lockett
    @JamieLockett

    Titus Techera (View Comment):

    Arahant (View Comment):

    Jamie Lockett (View Comment):
    Sounds like one man whining about perceived victimization to me.

    It isn’t just one man.

    It is easier for people to organize–they should be reminded that Mr. Lockett thinks they’re all of them, just one man who has to suck it up–it doesn’t always take more than that to persuade Americans to react in anger and organize to complain legally or politically.

    There is also the possibility of turning this anger to a kind of hatred of some part of public America… Whether that sort of anger at being told to suck it up can be contained to what TR called the lunatic fringe remains to be seen-

    I have no issue with these alleged victims getting together and boycotting the service. Or creating their own service. Or patronizing another service. All of that sounds great.

    Using government to dictate how private businesses behave is unwise, unconservative and unamerican.

    • #46
  17. skipsul Inactive
    skipsul
    @skipsul

    skipsul (View Comment):

    Jamie Lockett (View Comment):
    Sounds like a reason not to patronize such business.

    Jamie Lockett (View Comment):
    Leave the service.

    OK, but there is a larger issue raised – how vital is social media in general (not just right now, but 5 or 10 years out)? Would letting Twitter and the other few major services punish political expression now be setting a terrible precedent for later if social media is considered vital?

    Adding to this question: what if there is active collusion by these services to isolate and censor expression?

    • #47
  18. Jamie Lockett Inactive
    Jamie Lockett
    @JamieLockett

    skipsul (View Comment):

    Jamie Lockett (View Comment):
    Sounds like a reason not to patronize such business.

    Jamie Lockett (View Comment):
    Leave the service.

    OK, but there is a larger issue raised – how vital is social media in general (not just right now, but 5 or 10 years out)? Would letting Twitter and the other few major services punish political expression now be setting a terrible precedent for later if social media is considered vital?

    You mean like cable news?

    • #48
  19. Jamie Lockett Inactive
    Jamie Lockett
    @JamieLockett

    skipsul (View Comment):

    skipsul (View Comment):

    Jamie Lockett (View Comment):
    Sounds like a reason not to patronize such business.

    Jamie Lockett (View Comment):
    Leave the service.

    OK, but there is a larger issue raised – how vital is social media in general (not just right now, but 5 or 10 years out)? Would letting Twitter and the other few major services punish political expression now be setting a terrible precedent for later if social media is considered vital?

    Adding to this question: what if there is active collusion by these services to isolate and censor expression?

    Foxwitter coming soon from News Corp.

    • #49
  20. skipsul Inactive
    skipsul
    @skipsul

    Jamie Lockett (View Comment):

    skipsul (View Comment):

    Jamie Lockett (View Comment):
    Sounds like a reason not to patronize such business.

    Jamie Lockett (View Comment):
    Leave the service.

    OK, but there is a larger issue raised – how vital is social media in general (not just right now, but 5 or 10 years out)? Would letting Twitter and the other few major services punish political expression now be setting a terrible precedent for later if social media is considered vital?

    You mean like cable news?

    Ironically it was the “old tech” of AM talk radio that started to crack that.

    • #50
  21. skipsul Inactive
    skipsul
    @skipsul

    Jamie Lockett (View Comment):
    Foxwitter coming soon from News Corp.

    I hope their marketing department has a better brand strategy than that, that’s a horrible name.

    • #51
  22. Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera
    @TitusTechera

    Jamie Lockett (View Comment):

    Titus Techera (View Comment):

    Arahant (View Comment):

    Jamie Lockett (View Comment):
    Sounds like one man whining about perceived victimization to me.

    It isn’t just one man.

    It is easier for people to organize–they should be reminded that Mr. Lockett thinks they’re all of them, just one man who has to suck it up–it doesn’t always take more than that to persuade Americans to react in anger and organize to complain legally or politically.

    There is also the possibility of turning this anger to a kind of hatred of some part of public America… Whether that sort of anger at being told to suck it up can be contained to what TR called the lunatic fringe remains to be seen-

    I have no issue with these alleged victims getting together and boycotting the service. Or creating their own service. Or patronizing another service. All of that sounds great.

    Using government to dictate how private businesses behave is unwise, unconservative and unamerican.

    You do not get to decide what is un-American. Americans have done all sorts of strange things to limit business. As for un-conservative, it is certainly against the principles of the free market. But that is not all of conservatism.

    I think you’re on your strongest ground when you note unwisdom. But that is no bar to action, in America or elsewhere-

    • #52
  23. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    Titus Techera (View Comment):

    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.

    Who defines obscenity? The government?

    No.

    • #53
  24. Jamie Lockett Inactive
    Jamie Lockett
    @JamieLockett

    skipsul (View Comment):

    Jamie Lockett (View Comment):
    Foxwitter coming soon from News Corp.

    I hope their marketing department has a better brand strategy than that, that’s a horrible name.

    That’s why I’m in finance and not marketing.

    • #54
  25. Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera
    @TitusTechera

    Percival (View Comment):

    Titus Techera (View Comment):

    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.

    Who defines obscenity? The government?

    No.

    One hopes. But I assure you, if the populism in American politics continues, the kind of see-no-evil libertarianism on freedom of speech the liberal SCOTUS started practicing in the mid-century is going to be over in a hurry.

    • #55
  26. Jamie Lockett Inactive
    Jamie Lockett
    @JamieLockett

    Titus Techera (View Comment):

    Jamie Lockett (View Comment):

    Titus Techera (View Comment):

    Arahant (View Comment):

    Jamie Lockett (View Comment):
    Sounds like one man whining about perceived victimization to me.

    It isn’t just one man.

    It is easier for people to organize–they should be reminded that Mr. Lockett thinks they’re all of them, just one man who has to suck it up–it doesn’t always take more than that to persuade Americans to react in anger and organize to complain legally or politically.

    There is also the possibility of turning this anger to a kind of hatred of some part of public America… Whether that sort of anger at being told to suck it up can be contained to what TR called the lunatic fringe remains to be seen-

    I have no issue with these alleged victims getting together and boycotting the service. Or creating their own service. Or patronizing another service. All of that sounds great.

    Using government to dictate how private businesses behave is unwise, unconservative and unamerican.

    You do not get to decide what is un-American. Americans have done all sorts of strange things to limit business. As for un-conservative, it is certainly against the principles of the free market. But that is not all of conservatism.

    I think you’re on your strongest ground when you note unwisdom. But that is no bar to action, in America or elsewhere-

    As an American I certainly have some claim as to deciding what is and is not American.

    • #56
  27. skipsul Inactive
    skipsul
    @skipsul

    Titus Techera (View Comment):
    You do not get to decide what is un-American. Americans have done all sorts of strange things to limit business. As for un-conservative, it is certainly against the principles of the free market. But that is not all of conservatism.

    I think you’re on your strongest ground when you note unwisdom. But that is no bar to action, in America or elsewhere-

    Moreover, consider this the opening round on this issue.  More people will, I suspect, be arguing for utility-like regulation of social media and internet access in the coming years.  This isn’t going away anytime soon.

    • #57
  28. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    Jamie Lockett (View Comment):

    Arahant (View Comment):

    Jamie Lockett (View Comment):
    Sounds like one man whining about perceived victimization to me.

    It isn’t just one man.

    Great. Sounds like there’s a market opportunity.

    As I already pointed out, someone is on it.

    • #58
  29. skipsul Inactive
    skipsul
    @skipsul

    Jamie Lockett (View Comment):
    As an American I certainly have some claim as to deciding what is and is not American.

    And so do 300 million others.  What will be American will likely be the average of all of those claims.

    • #59
  30. livingthehighlife Inactive
    livingthehighlife
    @livingthehighlife

    Clavius (View Comment):
    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.

    Same with a retail store.  Or just about any other business.

    Whether it’s an app that’s built, a website that gets designed or a storefront that’s filled with goods for sale, the challenge is competing for the users, eyes and buyers.

    Facebook took down MySpace, so the argument that it couldn’t happen again doesn’t hold water.  In fact, teens are already moving away from Facebook to other platforms (it’s for “old people”, dontchaknow).

     

    • #60
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