Regulating Social Media as a Public Utility

By James Dail (CMC ’20)

On April 10th and 11th, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testified before Congress over the revelation that Cambridge Analytica, a British Data Analytics firm, compromised the data of more than 50 million Facebook users in order to try and influence the 2016 Presidential Election. The hearings were about Facebook’s ability to protect user privacy and monitor fake news, but Facebook’s failings extend far beyond that. Facebook and other forms of social media promised a digital utopia that would bring people together, but the opposite has become true. Social media is driving Americans apart, and is actively making their lives worse. Fortunately, this does not have to be the case. Social media websites operate as public utilities, and they should be regulated as such in order to achieve the utopia of connectivity that Mr. Zuckerberg promised.

The ways that social media are negatively affecting American life are numerous, but there are two of them that can be sufficiently redressed through regulation. To begin with, there is a profound and growing lack of privacy online. Cambridge Analytica was able to use a quiz app to harvest the data of users and their Facebook friends without them knowing. If social media companies such as Facebook cannot prevent these occurrences from happening, then the right to privacy online is nonexistent. The second way social media negatively affects American life is that it has degraded the news cycle. Social media companies make money by running ads on their websites, and as such they have an incentive to keep users attention on their site for as long as possible. In order to do that, Facebook promotes news articles that are the most likely to get user attention. These articles often have sensationalized, flashy headlines, and are often blatant appeals to partisanship based on one’s political views. As a result, many news stories are blown wildly out of proportion, and the news has become tribal. This has coarsened our discourse and has turned Americans against one another.

Given that social media has led to a wide variety of social ills, appropriate regulation of the platform would be a way to correct this and allow social media to be used for productive, life-enhancing purposes. Fortunately, accomplishing this can be a relatively simple task without the introduction of any new complex legislation. All that would be needed is a vote by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). This is because it is possible that Congress could choose to classify social media companies as public utilities.

A public utility is a company that maintains some form of infrastructure for community use. It originally started as applying only to electric companies, but in recent years the FCC has gradually expanded the number and types of firms that fall under this definition. In order for the FCC to expand its jurisdiction to a firm, it must meet two requirements, and most social media companies meet both. First, the company must operate in an industry that provides a necessary service to the public. Second, the firm must operate as a monopoly. To use Facebook as an example for the first criteria, its necessity for networking purposes in the workplace and its widespread use in recreation means that it easily meets the FCC’s first criteria. As for the second, social media companies such as Facebook and Twitter are monopolies because they exist in unique spheres and have no true competitors. They have very different business models, and there is no other firm with comparable market share that offers a replica of their services. By contrast, firms like Coca-Cola and Pepsi are different companies that produce what is essentially the same product.

Regulation could take on a number of different forms under the FCC public utility classification, but it would most likely take a two-pronged approach. There could be a complete ban on data harvesting by any firms besides the social media companies themselves. Currently, it is perfectly legal for an outside firm to harvest data off of a social media website. The illegality comes in when that data is sold without the consent of the users. However, after the data is harvested, the social media companies have difficulty keeping track of what is done with the data. It would therefore be much simpler if the problem was stamped out at its source, and there was a ban on data harvesting altogether. That way, neither the FCC nor the social media firms would have to take on the complex task of tracking what other individuals or firms do with the harvested data. The second prong could take the form of a fee-based user model. If users had to pay a set monthly fee in order to access social media, then that would significantly decrease the need for advertising revenue. Since monthly earnings would no longer rely on how much time a user is spending on social media, firms would no longer have any incentive to push sensationalized news story to the forefront of users’ feeds. This would be an excellent first step in reducing the toxicity surrounding current political discourse online.

Social Media has contributed to a large number of our current social ills, and it is actively making American lives worse. Mr. Zuckerberg and other social media CEOs have repeatedly failed to deliver any adequate forms of self-regulation to address these societal problems. They have only given vague lip service. Many social media companies have the makings of a public utility. The FCC should regulate them as such.

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