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?

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  1. Arjay Member
    Arjay
    @

    Damocles (View Comment):

    Arjay (View Comment):

    Chris Campion (View Comment):
    If he generates income off Twitter then I’d adhere to their rules so as not to damage the income stream,

    But the rules are secret. And so are some punishments.

    And determined by the Trust and Safety Council.

    https://about.twitter.com/safety/council

    I can’t find any rules. Did I miss something or are they still a secret?

    • #151
  2. Phil Turmel Coolidge
    Phil Turmel
    @PhilTurmel

    Damocles (View Comment):
    The takeaway from this thread so far:

    • If you’re concerned about being attacked by the SJW left, don’t count on conservatives to have your back.

    I think this is why the alt-righters are correct that they say the alt-right community will gradually supplant the conservative community in terms of influence.

    Oh, please!  Twitter and Google and Facebook and whomever a free to do as they please, and we are free to whine about it.  Claiming social media as a utility simply boggles my mind, and I utterly reject it.  I do think broadband’s “last mile” is a public utility whenever a locale grants a monopoly franchise, but that’s it.  Fwiw, I would approve of an FCC rule barring broadband monopolies on the last mile, too — itty bitty wires and fibers are certainly small enough to double and triple install if one is so inclined.  Places that have multiple cable providers have remarkably low rates — imagine that.

    • #152
  3. Jamie Lockett Inactive
    Jamie Lockett
    @JamieLockett

    The Reticulator (View Comment):

    Jamie Lockett (View Comment):

    Damocles (View Comment):
    The takeaway from this thread so far:

    • If you’re concerned about being attacked by the SJW left, don’t count on conservatives to have your back.

    I think this is why the alt-righters are correct that they say the alt-right community will gradually supplant the conservative community in terms of influence.

    You want conservatives to abandon one of their longstanding principles – that private companies should be free from government control because one cartoonist believes he’s being picked on?

    False dichotomy.

    Uh…what?

    • #153
  4. BD1 Member
    BD1
    @

    2008 GOP nominee John McCain called the Dixie Chicks Cumulus Radio ban “an incredible, incredible act…..to restrain their trade because they exercised their right to free speech to me is remarkable.”

    What longstanding principles are we talking about?

    • #154
  5. Damocles Inactive
    Damocles
    @Damocles

    Arjay (View Comment):

    Damocles (View Comment):

    Arjay (View Comment):

    Chris Campion (View Comment):
    If he generates income off Twitter then I’d adhere to their rules so as not to damage the income stream,

    But the rules are secret. And so are some punishments.

    And determined by the Trust and Safety Council.

    https://about.twitter.com/safety/council

    I can’t find any rules. Did I miss something or are they still a secret?

    No, you’re right, they’re a secret.

    • #155
  6. Damocles Inactive
    Damocles
    @Damocles

    Phil Turmel (View Comment):

    Damocles (View Comment):
    The takeaway from this thread so far:

    • If you’re concerned about being attacked by the SJW left, don’t count on conservatives to have your back.

    I think this is why the alt-righters are correct that they say the alt-right community will gradually supplant the conservative community in terms of influence.

    Oh, please! Twitter and Google and Facebook and whomever a free to do as they please, and we are free to whine about it.

    Sure they are.  My statement is nothing about how those companies are free to act.  My statement is about how you can’t trust conservatives to have your back.

    If anything you’ve said contradicts this, I’ve missed it.

    • #156
  7. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    Jamie Lockett (View Comment):

    The Reticulator (View Comment):

    Jamie Lockett (View Comment):

    Damocles (View Comment):
    The takeaway from this thread so far:

    • If you’re concerned about being attacked by the SJW left, don’t count on conservatives to have your back.

    I think this is why the alt-righters are correct that they say the alt-right community will gradually supplant the conservative community in terms of influence.

    You want conservatives to abandon one of their longstanding principles – that private companies should be free from government control because one cartoonist believes he’s being picked on?

    False dichotomy.

    Uh…what?

    I think I’ll pretend not to understand your question.

    • #157
  8. Damocles Inactive
    Damocles
    @Damocles

    Jamie Lockett (View Comment):

    Damocles (View Comment):
    The takeaway from this thread so far:

    • If you’re concerned about being attacked by the SJW left, don’t count on conservatives to have your back.

    I think this is why the alt-righters are correct that they say the alt-right community will gradually supplant the conservative community in terms of influence.

    You want conservatives to abandon one of their longstanding principles – that private companies should be free from government control because one cartoonist believes he’s being picked on?

    Nope, and I didn’t say  that.  I said that you can’t count on conservatives to have your back.  If you’ve said anything that contradicts that I’ve missed it.

    • #158
  9. Chris Campion Coolidge
    Chris Campion
    @ChrisCampion

    Arjay (View Comment):

    Chris Campion (View Comment):
    If he generates income off Twitter then I’d adhere to their rules so as not to damage the income stream,

    But the rules are secret. And so are some punishments.

    So don’t use their service.  Or ask for clarification from them.  He doesn’t have a right to Twitter.  Neither do you or anyone else.  ABC has rules regarding advertising content.  Meet them or don’t, up to you.  Keep throwing the “secret” thing around; it’s like it’s a mystery what corporate Twitter doesn’t like.

    As stated above, Twitter’s not a utility.

    • #159
  10. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    Chris Campion (View Comment):

    Arjay (View Comment):

    Chris Campion (View Comment):
    If he generates income off Twitter then I’d adhere to their rules so as not to damage the income stream,

    But the rules are secret. And so are some punishments.

    So don’t use their service. Or ask for clarification from them. He doesn’t have a right to Twitter. Neither do you or anyone else. ABC has rules regarding advertising content. Meet them or don’t, up to you. Keep throwing the “secret” thing around; it’s like it’s a mystery what corporate Twitter doesn’t like.

    As stated above, Twitter’s not a utility.

    Before the Civil War there was a principle that states should be allowed to do what they want within their borders, subject to the limitations imposed by the Constitution. So one approach would have been, “You don’t like slavery? Then don’t have one.” However, living together with slave states turned out not to be that simple.

    I’m not saying the same will happen in this case, but if Abraham Lincoln comes along and says, “This nation cannot endure half Twitter and half free speech,” we might have to think a little harder than the easy answer, “Don’t have one. Don’t use their service.”  We’ll see, I guess.

    • #160
  11. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    By the way, there were people before the Civil War who protested against slavery by refusing to buy products made in the south.  It didn’t solve the problem. Maybe it would have worked better if there had been more such people.

    • #161
  12. Damocles Inactive
    Damocles
    @Damocles

    Chris Campion (View Comment):

    Arjay (View Comment):

    Chris Campion (View Comment):
    If he generates income off Twitter then I’d adhere to their rules so as not to damage the income stream,

    But the rules are secret. And so are some punishments.

    So don’t use their service. Or ask for clarification from them.

    In case you haven’t been paying attention, people have been asking for clarification ever since the Trust and Safety Council was formed.

    • #162
  13. skipsul Inactive
    skipsul
    @skipsul

    BD1 (View Comment):
    2008 GOP nominee John McCain called the Dixie Chicks Cumulus Radio ban “an incredible, incredible act…..to restrain their trade because they exercised their right to free speech to me is remarkable.”

    What longstanding principles are we talking about?

    Does McCain have principles though?

    • #163
  14. Arjay Member
    Arjay
    @

    Chris Campion (View Comment)

    So don’t use their service. Or ask for clarification from them.

    People have asked. They won’t tell you.

     

    • #164
  15. BD1 Member
    BD1
    @

    skipsul (View Comment):

    BD1 (View Comment):
    2008 GOP nominee John McCain called the Dixie Chicks Cumulus Radio ban “an incredible, incredible act…..to restrain their trade because they exercised their right to free speech to me is remarkable.”

    What longstanding principles are we talking about?

    Does McCain have principles though?

    Not mine.  But McCain is a member in good standing (unfortunately) of the Republican Party.  So anyone saying Trump-supporter Scott Adams is the one introducing ideas previously unacceptable to conservatives is incorrect.

    • #165
  16. Jamie Lockett Inactive
    Jamie Lockett
    @JamieLockett

    Damocles (View Comment):

    Jamie Lockett (View Comment):

    Damocles (View Comment):
    The takeaway from this thread so far:

    • If you’re concerned about being attacked by the SJW left, don’t count on conservatives to have your back.

    I think this is why the alt-righters are correct that they say the alt-right community will gradually supplant the conservative community in terms of influence.

    You want conservatives to abandon one of their longstanding principles – that private companies should be free from government control because one cartoonist believes he’s being picked on?

    Nope, and I didn’t say that. I said that you can’t count on conservatives to have your back. If you’ve said anything that contradicts that I’ve missed it.

    In what way does not wanting to regulate Twitter as a utility constitute not “having the back” of someone else?

    • #166
  17. Jamie Lockett Inactive
    Jamie Lockett
    @JamieLockett

    Let’s pose another hypothetical:

    Should bakers be regulated like a utility so that they are required to provide equal services to anyone who wants them?

    • #167
  18. Joe P Member
    Joe P
    @JoeP

    The Reticulator (View Comment):
    Before the Civil War there was a principle that states should be allowed to do what they want within their borders, subject to the limitations imposed by the Constitution. So one approach would have been, “You don’t like slavery? Then don’t have one.” However, living together with slave states turned out not to be that simple.

    Because that’s a reasonably analogous situation with Scott Adams tweets not being propagated as widely as he would prefer. He’s stuck on the present day Digital Plantation, right off the Information Super Highway.

    I’m not saying the same will happen in this case, but if Abraham Lincoln comes along and says, “This nation cannot endure half Twitter and half free speech,” we might have to think a little harder than the easy answer, “Don’t have one. Don’t use their service.” We’ll see, I guess.

    “Don’t use their X and start your own” has worked really well in the United States of America for:

    • Churches
    • Political parties
    • Book publishers
    • Newspapers
    • Radio stations
    • Movie studios
    • Television stations
    • Cable television
    • Satellite radio stations
    • Every other part of the Internet except Twitter
    • Everywhere else the First Amendment and applies

    So I think it’s actually a good answer. If there’s confusion, we should explain how the freedom of speech works, and how it is a good thing. Unlike slavery, the First Amendment is a feature of the Constitution that is good and worth keeping.

    • #168
  19. Damocles Inactive
    Damocles
    @Damocles

    Jamie Lockett (View Comment):

    In what way does not wanting to regulate Twitter as a utility constitute not “having the back” of someone else?

    There’s a serious problem, and one that puts conservatives at a strong disadvantage in the culture wars.

    Your only response is “it’s the free market so I don’t see a problem with it.”

    Nothing you’ve said or done indicates you will have the back of individuals attacked by the SJW.  I’ve seen by their example that the alt right will.

    There’s a non-hypothetical case for you to consider!

    • #169
  20. Jamie Lockett Inactive
    Jamie Lockett
    @JamieLockett

    Damocles (View Comment):

    Jamie Lockett (View Comment):

    In what way does not wanting to regulate Twitter as a utility constitute not “having the back” of someone else?

    There’s a serious problem, and one that puts conservatives at a strong disadvantage in the culture wars.

    Your only response is “it’s the free market so I don’t see a problem with it.”

    Nothing you’ve said or done indicates you will have the back of individuals attacked by the SJW. I’ve seen by their example that the alt right will.

    There’s a non-hypothetical case for you to consider!

    So the Alt-Right will use government to control the behavior of private citizens and you want me to think that’s a good thing? In this respect the alt-right is no different than the SJW you decry.

    I strongly support Scott Adams right to speak his mind, I condemn Twitter if they are indeed doing what he claims they are doing, I will encourage people, including Mr. Adams, to use alternate means of communication. That is the limit that any conservative should be comfortable with.

    • #170
  21. Chuck Enfield Inactive
    Chuck Enfield
    @ChuckEnfield

    Jamie Lockett (View Comment):
    Let’s pose another hypothetical:

    Should bakers be regulated like a utility so that they are required to provide equal services to anyone who wants them?

    Yummmm, Pie.  Absolutely.

    • #171
  22. Chuck Enfield Inactive
    Chuck Enfield
    @ChuckEnfield

    Jamie Lockett (View Comment):
    In what way does not wanting to regulate Twitter as a utility constitute not “having the back” of someone else?

    I’m afraid it’s in the same way that when my wife is mad at a friend and I have the nerve to question her behavior that I’m taking the friends side.

    I know I can’t have everything I want, so I am willing to compromise some of my principles for the benefit of the team, but if this is what winning requires count me out.  It may be possible to win as a party, but we cannot win as a country.

    • #172
  23. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    Joe P (View Comment):
    Every other part of the Internet except Twitter

    Correction: Twitter and Facebook.

    • #173
  24. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    Jamie Lockett (View Comment):
    So the Alt-Right will use government to control the behavior of private citizens and you want me to think that’s a good thing? In this respect the alt-right is no different than the SJW you decry.

    I strongly support Scott Adams right to speak his mind, I condemn Twitter if they are indeed doing what he claims they are doing, I will encourage people, including Mr. Adams, to use alternate means of communication. That is the limit that any conservative should be comfortable with.

    I would hope they’d go a little further than that.   There’s a lot of space between that and asking the government to control behavior.

    • #174
  25. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    Joe P (View Comment):
    So I think it’s actually a good answer. If there’s confusion, we should explain how the freedom of speech works, and how it is a good thing. Unlike slavery, the First Amendment is a feature of the Constitution that is good and worth keeping.

    States’ rights was a feature of the Constitution, too.

    • #175
  26. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    Jamie Lockett (View Comment):
    Let’s pose another hypothetical:

    Should bakers be regulated like a utility so that they are required to provide equal services to anyone who wants them?

    No, they should remain unregulated so they can poison selected customers without telling them what they’re doing.

    • #176
  27. Damocles Inactive
    Damocles
    @Damocles

    Jamie Lockett (View Comment):

    Damocles (View Comment):

    Jamie Lockett (View Comment):

    In what way does not wanting to regulate Twitter as a utility constitute not “having the back” of someone else?

    There’s a serious problem, and one that puts conservatives at a strong disadvantage in the culture wars.

    Your only response is “it’s the free market so I don’t see a problem with it.”

    Nothing you’ve said or done indicates you will have the back of individuals attacked by the SJW. I’ve seen by their example that the alt right will.

    There’s a non-hypothetical case for you to consider!

    So […]

    Nope.  Here’s an interesting thing about your responses.  Every time you start of with “So …”, you end up misconstruing what was said to you.  Have you noticed that?

    I strongly support Scott Adams right to speak his mind, I condemn Twitter if they are indeed doing what he claims they are doing, I will encourage people, including Mr. Adams, to use alternate means of communication. That is the limit that any conservative should be comfortable with.

    Yep, and that’s why, when the going gets tough, people are foolish to think they’re going to get any support from the conservatives.  Milo, Vox Day, the Gamergaters, the Foul Minions… those are the people you will be able to count on when the going gets tough.

     

    • #177
  28. Chuck Enfield Inactive
    Chuck Enfield
    @ChuckEnfield

    The Reticulator (View Comment):
    No, they should remain unregulated so they can poison selected customers without telling them what they’re doing.

    Yes. That’s what freedom looks like.

    • #178
  29. Jamie Lockett Inactive
    Jamie Lockett
    @JamieLockett

    Damocles (View Comment):

    Jamie Lockett (View Comment):

    Damocles (View Comment):

    Jamie Lockett (View Comment):

    In what way does not wanting to regulate Twitter as a utility constitute not “having the back” of someone else?

    There’s a serious problem, and one that puts conservatives at a strong disadvantage in the culture wars.

    Your only response is “it’s the free market so I don’t see a problem with it.”

    Nothing you’ve said or done indicates you will have the back of individuals attacked by the SJW. I’ve seen by their example that the alt right will.

    There’s a non-hypothetical case for you to consider!

    So […]

    Nope. Here’s an interesting thing about your responses. Every time you start of with “So …”, you end up misconstruing what was said to you. Have you noticed that?

    I strongly support Scott Adams right to speak his mind, I condemn Twitter if they are indeed doing what he claims they are doing, I will encourage people, including Mr. Adams, to use alternate means of communication. That is the limit that any conservative should be comfortable with.

    Yep, and that’s why, when the going gets tough, people are foolish to think they’re going to get any support from the conservatives. Milo, Vox Day, the Gamergaters, the Foul Minions… those are the people you will be able to count on when the going gets tough.

    Uh huh.

    • #179
  30. skipsul Inactive
    skipsul
    @skipsul

    Jamie Lockett (View Comment):
    Let’s pose another hypothetical:

    Should bakers be regulated like a utility so that they are required to provide equal services to anyone who wants them?

    I do believe the French tried that prior to 1787.

    • #180
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