The main criteria for the essay are: "the research paper will run between 8-10 pages, will integrate sources from a diverse array of resources using MLA style, will have a clear thesis/research question as the backbone of the paper, will avoid fallacious rhetoric, and will construct logical arguments to advance the ideas in the paper."
"Protecting the Public Interest on Social Media Platforms"
In the modern era, it seems impossible to avoid social media sites without completely disconnecting from the world. People rely on social media to keep up with friends, become informed, and share their opinions and experiences. More people use Facebook to collect their news than any other source, and one can hardly watch cable news without coming across coverage of the President's Twitter page (Tobin). In terms of commerce, every business worth its salt has a presence on the major platforms in order to stay competitive, and individuals typically have a hard time finding jobs without having social media pages that potential employers can evaluate them by. Platforms like Facebook and Twitter give ordinary users the unprecedented ability to reach large audiences, and consequently the capacity to take part in public discourse. However, the incredible communicative power social media offer is not without its downsides. The concentration of such extraordinary influence in the hands of a small number of private, unregulated firms lends itself to the abuse of users and the public, as well as an undermining of the free market which stifles innovation and productivity.
Astute individuals are likely to be aware of the massive spiritual distance between the nascent social media sites of yesteryear and their contemporary versions, which seem bent on aggrieving the public in a never-ending litany of scandals. It is with remorse that this author witnesses the ongoing transformation of once-benevolent technological innovations into tools of a dystopian future where the individual is at the mercy of behemothic corporations. The purpose of this work to help steer the destiny of the online world back toward a utilitarian and user-driven mode founded on American principles.
As a solution to the aforementioned issues, the United States can regulate social media in order to protect user privacy, prevent monopolization, and defend freedom of speech in the modern public square.
The United States has a long legal tradition of regulating certain industries which have either a tendency toward monopoly-formation or near-indispensable downstream influence on other industrial sectors and ordinary citizens' lives. For example, this set of criteria compels the government to regulate water, telecommunication, electricity, gas, and rail companies as "public utilities" in order to protect the public interest. Regulation prevents these industries from engaging in unfair and damaging practices, such as price gouging or the whimsical denial of these critical services. Social media platforms fulfill the same criteria that subject other industries to regulation as public utilities. Specifically, social media platforms form natural monopolies and qualify as critical infrastructure that average citizens require access to in order to maintain a reasonable quality of life.
A natural monopoly is an industry whose infrastructure-heaviness precludes the sufficient entry of competition into the market (Rahman). In traditional industries, this situation can be fairly obvious. For example, if three companies attempt to provide water to a city's residents with three competing, but overlapping, systems of pipework, an enormous amount of inefficiency is present, and none of these companies are likely to generate a profit. The efficiency of such systems effectively depends on scale and the degree of monopolization. Social media platforms are similar, although the industry's infrastructure is somewhat different than the roads, pipes, cables, and so forth of traditional, physical industries. Instead, the greatest infrastructure a social media platform has is its userbase. A site's utility is directly correlated to the number of individuals who use it, meaning that newer, competing platforms have a massive barrier to entry relative to old ones which already have large user populations. As a result, newcomer platforms, even if theoretically superior in quality, suffer from an inability to dislodge the well-established technology giants. The net result is that the public has only one serious contender to choose from in each niche of the social media world.
The second traditional impetus to regulate to social media as public utilities stems from their criticality to other industries and to individuals' ordinary lives. The potential to access these platforms constitutes a necessity for full participation in civil and commercial society. Modern businesses require access to social media in order to flourish. There is no better way to interact with the broader public than through social media, and companies use these platforms for purposes ranging from providing timely and effective customer service to managing public relations. Perhaps the greatest advantage that social media platforms provide to businesses is visibility. One can safely assume that businesses which fail to enjoy these benefits are easily outperformed by competition that does make use of these platforms.
Non-commercially, the platforms also dominate as focal points for individuals. People depend on social media to stay current with family, friends, professional acquaintances, and so on. Some people use the platforms to coordinate real-world activities with their peers. For others, use of the platform itself is what constitutes the greater part of their social lives. Ultimately, the centrality of social media platforms to the public's personal and professional lives is hard to overstate. This gives social media corporations the broad and unmitigated power to impact the lives of ordinary citizens.
There are some people argue that social media does not qualify as a public utility, or otherwise that the government should simply not regulate the industry. A common claim is that social media companies are private businesses like any other, and that regulation has the downside of placing the industry under political control (Suderman). However, nothing prevents government from regulating private firms with monopolistic status or critical infrastructure. Further, regulation does more to prevent political control than to exacerbate it, so long as the regulation is designed to protect the public's rights. There are many facets of the public's social media experience that can be improved upon by regulation.
One of the main benefits of regulating social media is the opportunity to better protect users' privacies. Violations of privacy occur frequently on social media platforms, for many reasons and through many avenues. Sometimes, innocent-looking apps like Facebook's FarmVille and Family Tree leak private data, including identifying information, to other companies without user permission. This occurs when third-parties receive the "access token" that users agreed only to give to the app and its developers. In other notable scandals, like Facebook's Cambridge Analytica fiasco, parties with authorization to access user data ultimately sell or redistribute the data to firms that do not have authorization to access that data. The unfortunate reality is that technological corporations have a vested interest in violating their users' privacies. Serving targeted advertisements to users requires detailed knowledge about individuals (Balkin). Companies are also often in a position where they must take part in local governments' surveillance programs in exchange for access to such nations' user bases (Balkin). The sum of these corporate and foreign governmental pressures leads to the breeching of these sites' terms of service agreements, which are very intrusive to begin with.
However, regulating social media as a public utility places legislative oversight over users' rights, and allows for the reduction of such privacy violations. Meaningful change may require a fundamental restructuring of the current business model that platforms use, such as incorporation of nominal monthly fees to compensate for lost revenue from selling personal data. All the same, regulating social media privacy to American Constitutional standards can protect users all over the world from the abuses of more infringing governments and overzealous corporations.
A second reason to regulate social media platforms is to prevent the implementation of unfair trade practices that stifle competition and industry development. A range of issues plagues the industry in its current state. One is the drive by platforms to create walled-off digital ecosystems from which it can be difficult for users to escape (Andrejevic). For example, Facebook does not provide any mechanism for users to transfer submitted posts and pictures cleanly to another site, even though users should have unfettered agency over the content they provide. Vertical integration forms another set of problematic and questionably ethical practices. Many social media companies share parent companies or close partnerships with search engines. A classic case of this sort of conflict of interest is Youtube being owned by Google. Google naturally gives its own subsidiary priority when it comes to search listing results. Finally, there is the problem of established social media platforms conspiring with payment processors like Paypal, and app stores like those of Google and Apple, to arbitrarily deny service to emerging competitive platforms. The use of these approaches by market-dominating corporations to maintain a small, privileged club is in clear violation of the spirit of a free and open market. Regulation of the social media industry can allow the government to respond more vigorously to violations of antitrust laws and prevent such abuses of vertical integration in technological firms.
The most important benefit that can come from regulation of social media platforms by the United States is the defense of freedom of speech in the modern public square. Social media platforms are the nexus of the greater majority of political conversation, the only place where ordinary people can enter their opinions into the greater national debate. Currently, though, free speech is under unrelenting attack on every major platform. Some of this is the result of market pressures. There is a corporate imperative to accrue users, particularly because social media is an economy of scale. Companies consequently take the proactive approach of curtailing speech that might make users feel uncomfortable or unsafe, in order to prevent such users from leaving the platform. An additional market force is that some advertisers do not want to be associated with platforms that host disagreeable content. The flight of advertisers causes a loss of revenue, so platforms suppress content that advertisers do not wish to be associate with.
Perhaps the most significant reason for suppression of free speech is the political bias present in the social media companies themselves. Silicon Valley's residents are famously politically left-leaning relative to the general U.S. population, and the management and staff at the Valley's technology firms are no exception. Many sites' Terms of Service include rules that are entirely partisan in nature. Examples include policies relating to transgender individuals. A statement as simple, and genuinely defensible, as, "men aren't women," on Twitter is likely to result in a permanent ban if a user has any previous violations. Another example political bias is the partisan concept of "hate speech," which companies demonstrably enforce arbitrarily depending on the group in question. There are numerous examples of conservative commentators reposting copies of journalists' racially-charged tweets with the word "white" changed to "black" or "Jewish," resulting only in the selective banning of the parodic commentators. Additionally, some sites, such as Youtube, delegate the role of "trusted flaggers" to biased and agenda-driven groups such as the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League, who in turn clamp down on their political opposition.
Free speech is critical to any functional democracy, and censorship only occurs when the goals of a censoring party are at odds with the goals of the people being censored. This is the reasoning behind the protections that the First Amendment offers. Particularly, the goal of the First Amendment is to protect unpopular or divisive political speech, because popular speech needs no special protections. Social media platforms are the avenue of choice for people contributing their ideas and opinions to the public discourse. There is no effective substitute to these platforms for the common individual. According to Jack Dorsey, Twitter's CEO, "People do see us as a digital public square, and that comes with certain expectations." (Suderman)
Some precedent exists for considering certain fractions of social media platforms as public forum. Current jurisprudence rules that President Trump cannot block people from his Twitter page, even though there are theoretically alternative ways of reaching him. In blatant contrast to this position, though, is the fact that Twitter is able to arbitrarily prevent users from accessing the entire site, which naturally precludes access to the President's page and therefore the same legally protected public forum.
It makes sense to further regulate social media as public utilities to expand the protection of the public forum and to prevent companies from refusing access to individuals through capricious or malevolent crackdowns of entirely non-criminal speech. Public utilities, like water or electric companies, cannot shut off their services to people who simply do not hold or express the "right" opinions. By the same token, government regulation requires the commission of demonstrable legal wrongs to cut off services and offers the opportunity for recourse to individuals or groups affected by rescinded access.
If social media platforms remain unregulated, the public can only expect further deterioration in the realms of online privacy, technological competition, and freedom of speech at the hands of self-interested and monstrously powerful corporations. The potential exists, however, to reverse these trends and to reclaim the cyber frontier for the common citizen. By recognizing that social media platforms constitute natural monopolies and critical infrastructure, and regulating these platforms as public utilities, the United States government can fulfill its fundamental role in preserving the rights of its citizens, as well as the well-being of netizens around the world. The transition to an internet as fair and free as American society should be requires only one bold leap.Works Cited
Andrejevic, Mark. "Public service media utilities: rethinking search engines and social networking as public goods." Media International Australia incorporating Culture and Policy
Ardito, Alissa. "Social media, administrative agencies, and the First Amendment."
Balkin, Jack M. "Free Speech Is a Triangle." Columbia Law Review
Murtagh, Alex. "Is it time to turn social media into a public utility?" UWIRE Text
Rahman, K. Sabeel. "REGULATING INFORMATIONAL INFRASTRUCTURE: INTERNET PLATFORMS AS THE NEW PUBLIC UTILITIES." The Georgetown Law Technology Review
Suderman, Peter. "The Slippery Slope of Regulating Social Media." ProQuest
Tobin, Jonathan S. "Social media and the hate-speech slippery slope." Jewish Advocate[Boston, MA]