United States White House former chief strategist, Steven Bannon had said Google and Facebook have become so dominant and essential that they should be regulated like public utilities. Bannon’s position is that these services have become an essential component of modern life, yet tend towards a natural monopoly status. Hence, like water and energy suppliers, they should be regulated to protect consumers. Such regulation could be broadly similar to that imposed on cable and telephone operators, whose control of vital infrastructure led to legislation to control prices and encourage competition. Bannon’s basic argument, as he has outlined it to people who’ve spoken with him, is that Facebook and Google have become effectively a necessity in contemporary life. Indeed, there may be something about an online social network or a search engine that lends itself to becoming a natural monopoly, much like a cable company, a water and sewer system, or a railroad
Met With Widespread Derision in The Tech World
Regulating a company as a utility does not mean that the government controls it, but rather that it is much more tightly regulated in what it is able to do and prices it is able to charge. And it doesn’t mean every element of the company would be regulated in that way. His contention was met with widespread derision in the tech world. After all, these services are both free and optional; nobody will freeze to death in their house or catch dysentery because they can’t pay their Facebook bill. And even if they are monopolistic, their particular monopolies do consumers no harm.
Google and Facebook have been dominating the online advertising industry in recent years, with analysis company Pivotal Research reporting recently that Google and Facebook combined accounted for 99% of all online ad industry growth in 2016. Traditional news outlets recently requested an antitrust exemption for congress in order to negotiate with companies like Google and Facebook in relation to advertising partnerships. The idea however, went down badly in political circles. It flies directly in the face of the US government’s bid to abolish net neutrality, which demands that broadband is treated as a public utility and obliges internet service providers to make it available at a reasonable price. Opponents want to allow ISPs to privilege certain websites, loading some faster than others, for example. Search, online shopping and socialising are woven into the fabric of life, and avoiding them is increasingly inconvenient. The currency we exchange for them is personal data.
Technology Changing Rapidly
A much bigger issue is the social cost of information monopolies. Facebook’s footprint as a distributor of news, for example, is expanding without any of the oversight you might expect from a press freedom watchdog. Yet we know that Facebook is a prolific vehicle for fake news, and that political agitators exploit the platform for their own ends. Right now, efforts to filter out the most harmful content are largely a voluntary exercise undertaken by Google and Facebook when their bottom lines are under threat. Such action is better than nothing, but as the old saying goes, self-regulation stands in relation to regulation the way self-importance stands in relation to importance.
The sensible option would appear to be some form of regulation, and the utilities model is a good starting point. A reminder to everyone regarding Facebook and Google: there are other social media outlets and search engines out there. There’s Twitter, GAB, and MySpace, plus LinkedIn, and Slack. Yahoo! Search, Bing, DuckDuckGo, Quora, etc. Technology is changing so rapidly, there’s no guarantee Google and Facebook will be the major players out there in ten, let alone, five years. There’s no reason for the government to start regulating these like utilities, even if it seems like a good idea.