new paper: The Perils of Classifying Social Media Platforms as Public Utilities

by on March 19, 2012 · 0 comments

The Mercatus Center at George Mason University has just released my new white paper, “The Perils of Classifying Social Media Platforms as Public Utilities.” [PDF] I first presented a draft of this paper last November at a Michigan State University conference on “The Governance of Social Media.” [Video of my panel here.]

In this paper, I note that to the extent public utility-style regulation has been debated within the Internet policy arena over the past decade, the focus has been almost entirely on the physical layer of the Internet. The question has been whether Internet service providers should be considered “essential facilities” or “natural monopolies” and regulated as public utilities. The debate over “net neutrality” regulation has been animated by such concerns.

While that debate still rages, the rhetoric of public utilities and essential facilities is increasingly creeping into policy discussions about other layers of the Internet, such as the search layer. More recently, there have been rumblings within academic and public policy circles regarding whether social media platforms, especially social networking sites, might also possess public utility characteristics. Presumably, such a classification would entail greater regulation of those sites’ structures and business practices.

Proponents of treating social media platforms as public utilities offer a variety of justifications for regulation. Amorphous “fairness” concerns animate many of these calls, but privacy and reputational concerns are also frequently mentioned as rationales for regulation. Proponents of regulation also sometimes invoke “social utility” or “social commons” arguments in defense of increased government oversight, even though these notions lack clear definition.

Social media platforms do not resemble traditional public utilities, however, and there are good reasons why policymakers should avoid a rush to regulate them as such. Treating these nascent digital services as regulated utilities would harm consumer welfare because public utility regulation has traditionally been the archenemy of innovation and competition. Furthermore, treating today’s leading social media providers as digital essential facilities threatens to convert “natural monopoly” or “essential facility” claims into self-fulfilling prophecies. Related proposals to mandate “API neutrality” or enforce a “Separations Principle” on integrated information platforms would be particularly problematic. Such regulation also threatens innovation and investment. Marketplace experimentation in search of sustainable business models should not be made illegal.

Remedies less onerous than regulation are available. Transparency and data-portability policies would solve many of the problems that concern critics, and numerous private empowerment solutions exist for those users concerned about their privacy on social media sites.

Finally, because social media are fundamentally tied up with the production and dissemination of speech and expression, First Amendment values are at stake, warranting heightened constitutional scrutiny of proposals for regulation. Social media providers should possess the editorial discretion to determine how their platforms are configured and what can appear on them.

This 63-page paper can be found on the Mercatus site here, on SSRN, or on Scribd.  I’ve also embedded it below in a Scribd reader. Eventually, a shorter version of this paper will appear as a chapter in a MIT Press book.

Social Networks as Public Utilities [Adam Thierer]

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