Treating social media as a public utility is not the answer

A solution that commonly is proposed regarding social media censorship and de-platforming is to “treat social media as a public utility.” This suggestion has become so commonplace that there is even a Wikipedia article about it. But just by thinking it through, it becomes obvious why this is a terrible suggestion.

First, social media companies and utilities have nothing in common. Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube are free. Electricity, gas, phone service, and water are not. This means that utilities have a direct financial incentive to not cancel customers even if they disagree with their political views, but no such incentive exists for social media. People frame this argument in a way that presupposes that utilities are ‘rights’ that people are constitutionally entitled to. They are not rights; rather, they are services that people pay for.

Second, utilities don’t have the issue of negative externalities. A utility providing service to customer A does not affect the service of customers B, C, D, etc. If customer A increases his consumption, rather than draining power from the other customers, the company increases A’s bill accordingly. If customer A is a white supremacist, for example, it’s not like customer B is in any way negatively affected by this; electricity and water are still electricity and water.

A social network is different in that the behavior of a specific user can affect other users, whereas water consumption does not have such an externality. If A & B are friends, and B & C are friends, but A & C are not, then B sharing content from C hurts A, who did not consent to it. What about a user who creates a negative experience for hundreds of unconsenting users. Banning such a user may be justified from a utilitarian perspective. What about spammers who create thousands of accounts, or people who intentionally harass other users. There are too many “what about” questions.

Likening a social network to a utility just does not hold up to even the faintest of scrutiny.

People are also wondering if Trump will do anything about social media censorship, immigration, and so on. Again, same as before: almost certainly nothing will happen until early 2021 at the soonest. Trump, like most boomers, typifies the “I got mine, so tough shit” type attitude of indifference. Although Trump administration unveiled a form for people to report censorship and other problems, I don’t think much will come of it.