Is Twitter a utility like water?

by on February 15, 2011 · 2 comments

Speaking at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona today, Twitter CEO Dick Costolo [said](http://www.readwriteweb.com/mobile/2011/02/twitter-goal-to-be-like-water.php) he wants the service to become as ubiquitous and simple as tap water. But he should be careful what he wishes for.

Search Engine Land is already asking, “[Twitter As Utility, Like Running Water?](http://searchengineland.com/twitter-as-utility-like-running-water-thats-goal-says-ceo-64803)” The thing about water is that it tends to be an indispensable natural monopoly, and therefore regulated. Twitter today controls [access to its "firehose"](http://networkeffect.allthingsd.com/20110202/twitter-offers-metered-pricing-for-firehose-of-tweets/) of tweet data, but access to utilities like water is mandated open and prices are set by regulators.

As I discussed [recently on the podcast](http://surprisinglyfree.com/2010/08/30/danny-sullivan-on-search-neutrality/) with Danny Sullivan, some have already suggested Google should be treated like a utility and brought under a regime of “search neutrality.” Harvard’s danah boyd has been banging the “[regulate Facebook as a utility](http://www.zephoria.org/thoughts/archives/2010/05/15/facebook-is-a-utility-utilities-get-regulated.html)” drum for quite some time. And Just today Wharton’s Kevin Werbach put out a draft of his new law review article: “[The Network Utility](http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1758878).”

Of course, as I already mentioned, it’s unsurmountable monopolies that should be regulated, and it would be a stretch to say that either Facebook or Twitter qualify. But I fear we’ll be hearing more and more of this “utility” language in the near future.

  • http://www.techliberation.com Adam Thierer

    My thoughts on this appear in this old TLF essay on why “Facebook Isn’t a “Utility” & You Certainly Shouldn’t Want it to Be Regulated As Such”: http://techliberation.com/2010/05/16/facebook-isnt-a-utility-you-certainly-should-want-it-to-be-regulated-as-such

    I think the critical fact all proponents of such regulation overlook is just how horrendously anti-innovation “utility” regulation can be. The goal of public utility law is to ensure that the regulated entity becomes a “plain vanilla” service, available to all at a cheap price. But these modern tech platforms and services are already available to all and are usually free! So, considering how anti-innovation utility regulation can be in practice, why would we want to go down this path with Twitter, Facebook, etc.?

    Moreover, people need to broaden their timelines a bit and look at the big picture. For God’s sake, Facebook didn’t even exist 8 years ago! And Twitter has only been around for a couple of years. A decade ago, by contrast, some worrywarts were telling us Microsoft and AOL were “utilities” and need to be regulated as such. My, how quickly things change–and for the better–in the tech space.

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