Social media as a public utility
Social Media as a Public Utility is a theory implying that social networking sites (such as Facebook, LinkedIn, Google+, Google Search and Twitter) are public necessities that should be regulated by the government. Applying utility-status regulation to social media websites has been a debatable topic within the Internet policy arena for over the past decade.
- 1 Background
- 2 Why Social Media Should be a Public Utility
- 3 Why Social Media should not be a Public Utility
- 4 Social Media Trends
- 5 See also
- 6 References
What is Social Media?
Social Media is defined as "a group of Internet-based applications that build on the ideological and technological foundations of Web 2.0, and that allow the creation and exchange of User Generated Content."  Furthermore, the New Zealand Government of Internal Affairs describes it as "a set of online technologies, sites and practices which are used to share opinions, experiences and perspectives. Fundamentally it is about conversation. In contrast with traditional media, the nature of social media is to be highly interactive." 
Moreover, the term social media is described as online tools that let people interact and communicate with each other. This has become a standard word for online cultural exchange and a dominant way for individuals to engage on the internet. By using social media individuals become more closely and strongly connected than ever before.
A Public Utility
The traditional definition of the term public utility is "an infrastructural necessity for the general public where the supply conditions are such that the public may not be provided with a reasonable service at reasonable prices because of monopoly in the area."  Conventional public utilities include water, natural gas, and electricity. In order to secure the interests of the public, utilities are regulated. Public utilities can also be seen as natural monopolies implying that the highest degree of efficiency is accomplished under one operator in the marketplace. Public Utility regulation has been largely criticized because people believe it produces undesirable and indirect effects. However, others argue that truly effective government regulation is valuable. Social media as a public utility can be crucial debate because utilities get regulated, so marking social media websites as utilities would require government regulation of various social media websites and platforms such as Facebook, Google, and Twitter.
Social Media as a Public Utility
Applying the term public utility to social media implies that social media websites are public necessities, and, consequently, should be regulated by the government. While social media is not as essential for survival as traditional public utilities such as electricity, water, and natural gas, many people believe it has become vital for living in an interconnected world and without it, living a successful life would be difficult. Therefore, many people believe that social media has reached utility status and should be treated as a public utility. However, others believe that this is not true because social media is constantly revolutionizing and giving such platforms "utility status" would result in government regulation, which would consequently hinder innovation. Over the past decade many have debated and questioned whether or not "Internet service providers should be considered essential facilities or natural monopolies and regulated as public utilities." 
A monopoly is defined as "a firm that is the only seller of a product or service having no close substitutes."  A natural monopoly is when the entire demand within a relevant market can be satisfied at lowest cost by one firm rather than by two or more, and if such a market contains more than one firm then the firms will "quickly shake down to one through mergers or failures, or production will continue to consume more resources than necessary." In a monopoly competition is said to be short-lived, and in a natural monopoly it is said to produce inefficient results."  Public utility companies can be regulated to prevent them from gaining monopolistic control. In November 2011 AT&T's proposal for merging with T-Mobile was rejected because it would have "diminished competition,"  and have led to the company having monopolistic power within the telephone industry. Such regulation is permitted because the telephone industry is a public utility. Similarly, Microsoft has also been prevented from taking various business actions that could result in the company gaining monopolistic power. If social media were a public utility then regulations of Google and Facebook would similarly dictate what they could and could not do.
Why Social Media Should be a Public Utility
Advocates of this theory believe that social media websites already act like public utilities, and therefore regulation is needed. Additionally, advocates argue that in the 21st century, using such websites are as necessary for communication as using traditional public utilities such as water, electricity, and natural gas are for other everyday uses. Specifically, advocates note that Google search should be treated as a public utility and needs to be regulated because it dominates the search engine market and no website can afford to ignore it. Furthermore, advocates claim that a social media website such as Google "is a common carrier and should be regulated as such (Newman 2011)." 
On the individual level, advocates of social media as a public utility believe that Internet presence using social media websites is imperative in order to adequately take part in the 21st century as an individual, and consequently, these sites are public utilities and need to be regulated. Specifically, social media researcher Danah Boyd has argued that the social media site Facebook is obtaining public utility characteristics, and due to such characteristics she concludes that regulation will eventually take place in the future. She asserts "Facebook may not be at the scale of the Internet (or the Internet at the scale of electricity), but that doesn’t mean that it’s not angling to be a utility or quickly becoming one," 
Additionally, Boyd points out that just like water, power, and sewage, most people will not give up Facebook regardless of how much they hate it. She argues that Facebook is becoming a public utility, and regulation is imminent. Specifically she states, "[w]e can argue about whether or not regulation makes things cheaper or more expensive, but we can’t argue about whether or not regulators are involved with utilities: they are always watching them because they matter to the people." 
Furthermore, an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, Zeynep Tufekci expresses that social media is a public utility and is optional in the same sense that electricity, telephone, and modern medicine are optional. Tufeci claims websites such as Facebook act as a "phone directory" in the lives of young people. Additionally, she expresses that maintaining a social media profile is not an easy endeavor and users are highly unlikely to duplicate this effort across multiple services. She claims this is "the same way multiple electric companies don’t put down parallel cables to each neighbor to compete with each other." 
The research done by both Tufekci and Boyd illustrate the way advocates of social media as a public utility feel about social media websites. Specifically, these advocates claim that such websites are the equivalent of "social utilities" or "social commons," and are essential to one’s social existence. According to Tufekci, "[p]resence on the Internet is effectively a requirement for fully and effectively participating in the 21st century as a citizen, as a consumer, as an informed person and as a social being".
Advocates of social media as a public utility argue that social media services dominate the Internet and are mainly owned by three or four companies that have unparalleled power to shape user interaction, and because of this power such businesses need to be regulated as public utilities. Zeynep Tufekci, University of North Caroline Chapel Hill, claims that services on the Internet such as Google, Ebay, Facebook, Amazon.com, are all natural monopolies. She argues that these services "benefit greatly from network externalities[,] which means that the more people on the service, the more useful it is for everyone," and thus makes it hard to replace the market leader.
Advocates of social media as a public utility believe that the government should impose restrictions on social media websites, such as Google, that are designed to benefit its rivals. Due to the recent substantial growth of social media websites such as Google, advocates claim that such a website "might need search neutrality regulation modeled after net neutrality regulation and that a Federal Search Commission might be needed to enforce such a regime."  Additionally, Danah Boyd expresses a future issue which the government may have to deal with in her research: Facebook is becoming an international social media website, specifically prevalent in Canada and Europe which are "two regions that love to regulate their utilities." 
Furthermore, recent books by New America Foundation Senior Fellow Rebecca MacKinnon and law professor Lori Andrews advise society to start considering Facebook and Google as nation-states or the "sovereigns of cyberspace." 
Overall, advocates of social media as a public utility believe that due to the immense popularity and necessity of social media websites, it is imperative that the Government imposes regulations in the same manner they do for electricity, water, and natural gas.
Why Social Media should not be a Public Utility
Opponents of this theory argue that social media websites should not be treated as public utilities. because these platforms are changing every year, and because they are not essential services for survival as common public utilities are, such as water, natural gas, and electricity.
Furthermore, opponents fear that imposing "utility" status on a social network site, and forcing regulation might lock such a site in as a real monopoly, which consequently, will stop innovation, and counteract competition. Opponents point out that because social media is constantly evolving, innovation and competition are necessary for its growth. But that argument does not take into consideration that a middle path regulation could be, for example, to free the code so that they would use open source software, which promotes participation, collaboration, innovation, learning, transparency, confidence and cost reduction. Reasons that have made GNU/Linux, as well as many other open source programs, systems and services (like Apache web server, Wikipedia, etc.), the most popular systems on the Internet. GNU/Linux has become the mostly used operating system on the most powerful computers and the preferred operating system for most system administrators around the world. Besides, protocol standards or connectivity between social networks (to guarantee cross-posting, for example) could be made compulsory so that one company cannot place barriers to communication among citizens in order reinforce their monopoly.
On an individual level, opponents argue that treating social media websites as regulated public utilities "would harm consumer welfare because public utility regulation has traditionally been the archenemy of innovation and competition." 
Director of the Public Utility Research Center at University of Florida, Mark Jamison specifically points out that "our economies effectively shut down without traditional public utilities such as electricity, water, and natural gas because utilities occupy unique positions and provide public services (Glaeser 1927)"  Opponents to social media as a public utility claim that our economy would not shut down without social media websites. Additionally, Mark Jamison brings up a situation in 2009 which illustrates how consumers can easily find alternatives to social media sites such as Google search. "For about an hour on the morning of January 31, 2009, Google search results contained a noticeable error. During that period of time a large number of customers switched their search activity to Yahoo! and probably to other search engines (Google 2009; Vascellaro 2009)."  Such an incident shows that while social media sites are extremely popular, they are "not essential to our social and economic functions in the way that electricity and water are." 
Additionally, opponents argue that social media websites are relatively new, and that new ones continue to displace the old ones. Individuals are rapidly discovering new alternatives for social media websites. For example, opponents point out that MySpace was the market leader long before Facebook became active, and was expected to have continued success. However, once the platform Facebook was created, users jumped to this new social media website, and within a short period of time MySpace lost the majority of its users, was forced to cut costs, and therefore may disappear in the near future. Opponents argue that due to such discoveries, social media is not a public utility because a utility is considered an "essential facility" that has no good alternatives.
On a business level, opponents fear that if social media websites become public utilities then providers of these sites will be treated as vital facilities and such a situation "threatens to convert predictions of "natural monopoly" into a self-fulfilling prophecy."  Additionally, opponents to social media as a public utility argue that those who advocate regulation of social media websites such as Google "fail to give adequate weight to the changes that constantly occur in the search business, the ways that rivals benefit from Google’s investments, the negative impacts of forcing Google to reveal its search algorithms, and regulation’s stifling effect on innovation." Additionally, these opponents claim that because such websites and markets are constantly evolving, regulation would consequently be expensive. Specifically, Mark Jamison points out that the regulation of Google would be costly both in terms of the administrative costs and in terms of the delays in innovation that regulation would cause.
Opponents to this theory also argue that economic regulation of social media sites could decrease investment, and consequently harm customers and rivals. For example, if a social media site such as Google search were regulated, it could "result in at least partial public disclosure of Google’s search algorithms, which would allow other businesses to behave strategically to improve their search rankings without benefitting consumers."  Furthermore, social media services are constantly evolving, and consequently, despite the massive user base that sites such as Facebook and Google have, opponents believe that the disappearance of these businesses are "only a masterpiece of software away."  Traditional businesses classified as public utilities, such as water and electric companies have a monopoly over their services, making these business irreplaceable, and opponents argue that such is not the case with social media websites.
Opponents to this theory believe that imposing utility status on social media websites would consequently cause government regulation, which could result in an unfair change for both businesses and individuals. For example suggested by such opponents is the fear that these websites would start to charge a fee in adjustment to the new rules imposed by the government.
Additionally Mark Jamison points out in his research that government-imposed standards for presenting Google search results would halt innovation, "as happened in telecommunications, government oversight was imposed with the intention of protecting telephone companies’ rivals; instead, it delayed technological progress and decreased innovation (Prieger 2002)." 
According to Adam Thierer, George Mason University, "social media sites 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." Thierer and other opponents to social media as a public utility believe that the providers of social media websites should have the right to decide how their own platforms are configured along with what content is allowed to appear on them, and that the government should not force such restrictions caused by regulation .
Social Media Trends
Opponents of this theory claim that social media websites are not public utilities because new social media websites continually come into existence and replace the old. Such evolution does not happen with common public utilities like water, electricity, and natural gas. To illustrate this argument, the following lists popular social media websites. Many were very popular in the past, and have been displaced by similar websites of the present.
GeoCities, Tripod.com & Yahoo! Groups: common websites of the mid-nineties. GeoCities and Tripod offered tools that allowed users to publish web pages that others could discover. Yahoo! offered a free ad-supported alternative to America Online 
Twitter: launched in 2006, social networking and microblogging service that allows users to post updates that are up to 140 characters long. Currently one of the most popular social networks of today.
Here is a full list of social networking websites
Overall, opponents of social media as a public utility believe that a new platform will be created in the future that will replace the most popular social networks today such as Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, and Twitter. Therefore, they argue that marking these websites as public utilities will stop the creation of future innovative platforms.
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