danah boyd wrote a blog post arguing that Facebook ought to be regulated like a utility. What exactly it means to be a utility, and why utilities ought to be regulated in general, is not the main focus of her piece, and she adds in an addendum that the issue is not so much that FB is a utility as that it is trying to be one. But, in any case, I want to push against the utility analogy with one of my own.
I take it that the reason why utilities ought to be regulated is that they are monopolies, and in a single-provider market, people can’t realistically use the threat of leaving for a competitor as leverage for bargaining with the monopolistic company. To claim this is the case for Facebook is surely an overstatement: people can and do opt out of using Facebook, and certainly there are enough other social options out there to block the analogy between them and “people who are building cabins in the woods” (an analogy suggested by boyd). Even if Facebook is dominant, it’s not a monopoly in the way that utility companies are, so the same arguments for regulation don’t really work.
The government sees fit to regulate in other sorts of cases, though. Take the meat industry. The government regulates certain aspects of the meat industry (however lax or ill-conceived USDA oversight might be). The justification here is not that the meat industry is monopolistic (though I’m sure it is mostly controlled by a couple conglomerates, and insofar as this is true it should be additionally regulated as a monopoly). Instead, the justification seems to be: 1) this kind of industry has the potential to do great harm if left to its own devices (E. coli and stuff like that), and 2) it is unlikely that many (or any) consumers of this industry’s goods are in a position to verify independently the claims of the industry (not many have access to labs where they can test for bacteria, etc). The government is justified in protecting its citizens at their most vulnerable (you might even say this is the primary reason for government). So they’re justified in regulating the meat industry.
The case of Facebook is parallel. 1) Because people keep a lot of their most important stuff in Facebook, a large amount of harm could be done if Zuck decided to start selling it to advertisers or something more nefarious still. 2) It’s difficult, if not impossible, for most people to verify the claims of FB with respect to how FB claims to store and use data. For one thing, the “privacy” settings are arcane to the point of incomprehensibility. And even if you figure out the settings, without access to FB’s software and servers, you can’t really know whether they’re living up to their word. Thus, government regulation might be justified.
Someone needs to write The Jungle, Part II: Zuckerpunched.