Critical Websites as Public Utilities, Part 1

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ADOTAS – powerlines_smallWhy does it matter to society in general how Google or Facebook treat their advertisers? Why is it of concern if Facebook refuses to allow the marijuana reform movement to advertise in Facebook?

These sites have such a strong monopoly position that access is something without which you have diminished rights as an individual or, in the case of Google, diminished chances of survival as a business. These sites are utilities — they provide essential services. They have a greater monopoly position as utilities than existing physical utilities such as electricity and telephone providers.

Facebook and Google, practically speaking, both have no competition. In the field of search marketing, Google’s competitors, such as MSN and Yahoo, are effectively insignificant as advertising outlets, as search engines and as sources of business.

If you are unconvinced that Google is a utility, contemplate the alternatives: What would your life as an individual be like if you had no access to Google, but everyone else did? How would your business cope if it was not in Google and was not able to run AdWords? How much use would the web be if there were no search engines at all? What would 500 million lives be like if social networking were impossible?

The way these utilities operate directly impacts on the public good, and as such what they do is a matter of public importance — it’s not just a matter of private corporations pleasing their customers or share holders. The way Google operates is a matter of importance to the entire society at large because it affects all of society in an important manner.

As such, society has the right to demand that the provider of that service act in ways which are in accord with the manner the society wishes them to act.

If you don’t agree that how Facebook conducts itself is a matter of public interest, how would you feel about the people getting any of these (fictional) messages from Facebook management:

  1. Your Facebook account has been closed because you campaigned for Obama.
  2. Your Facebook account has been closed because you’re divorced.
  3. Your Facebook account has been closed because you’re Jewish.
  4. Your Facebook account has been closed because you’re black.
  5. Your Facebook account has been closed because you’re gay.
  6. Your Facebook account has been closed because you’re unemployed.

If Facebook has the right to refuse one group because of their political opinion, it has the right to refuse any group on any grounds. Either Facebook has the right to impose its owners opinions on users, or it doesn’t. Facebook is either open to all, or an active participant in civil rights issues with a specific position to promote.

It can’t be neutral and yet refuse some groups and not others. You can repeat these messages with “Google” replacing “Facebook” and the implication is the same.

It is not automatic that such services as social networking or search should be provided by private organizations. In all countries there are certain services which the public have decided are best controlled by state or semi-state bodies. If a society decides that it is OK for private corporations to play in this market, it can regulate how they do so, just as every country regulates private commerce to some degree.

These are highly profitable utilities, the most profitable in history. Therefore society has a right to claim certain terms and conditions for the privilege (and it is a privilege) of being Google or Facebook. Being Google is not something the people who founded Google have a right to, even though they invented it and they own all the intellectual property.

We already recognize that society has the right to limit or control how inventors and manufacturers deploy their products. Cars are regulated in terms of how they can be built, sold and used; drugs are required to undergo tests and licensing before they can be available. There are very few, if any, products or services which we allow to operate in a totally free and unregulated fashion.

Google’s position in society is of such importance that people have a right to say how their lives shall be affected by it. Furthermore, it’s so lucrative that the people have a right to impose special conditions for the privilege of being Google.

Taxation is only part of it — society has the right to layer additional terms regarding conduct because of the impact of that conduct on the public good. If the society does not have the right to impose conditions on the agency operating such critical utilities as web search, then what right does it have to impose terms or limits on any organization or even state body?

If your position on the structure of society is not that of an extreme libertarian and if you believe society has the right to, or should, impose restrictions on public utilities or other aspects of society which affect the public good, then it is a logical necessity that society should legislate to control the agency providing web search or other ubiquitous services.

It may be that Facebook acquires a ubiquitous position as the interactive social space of the web. If that is the case then society has the right to impose terms and conditions on how Facebook conducts itself within that space.

Look for part 2 on Tuesday, Sept. 7.

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