Facebook’s challenges demonstrate it is time to level the regulatory playing field

This week’s joint senate hearing on Facebook’s privacy and transparency policies raised the question, does the public expect Facebook to act like a information utility? Reactions on Facebook to Mark Zuckerberg’s testimony before the U.S. Senate’s commerce and judiciary committees ranged from calling the 33-year old CEO a “shitbag” to praising him for confidently addressing questions from a 44 senators, a significant number of whom gave the impression that they had no clue as to what Facebook’s model is.

Consumers have been bitching and moaning about Facebook for years, expressing displeasure whenever the company changed the configuration of its pages, added or subtracted icons, or changed its algorithms in order to present what it thinks is more pertinent information to its users. Most users access Facebook’s content at no out-of-pocket cost to them and I personally know of no one who clicks on the ad links that pop up along the right hand side of our timelines. Yet, a significant number of users have expectations about how Facebook treats them, especially when they get put in “Facebook jail” for stating positions that may not be in keeping with the Facebook’s “righteousness police squad.”

If any senator yesterday came close to summarizing my personal sentiments on Facebook it was Orrin Hatch, Republican of Utah. The 42-year senate veteran, in the five minutes allotted to each senator, was able to get across that Facebook was not a utility; that if people were not satisfied with the product that they could go elsewhere on the internet. I don’t view Facebook as a necessity although I admit I probably spend too much time posting there albeit not as much eleven years ago when I was invited to join the Facebook community.  It can see where it can be addicting, but in the end it is not a utility.

With a utility there is an understanding that in exchange for a service generated with the use of natural resources purchased by the utility, you the consumer will compensate the utility for the generation and distribution of said service. And if that utility is regulated, the regulator is following a mandate to balance the consumer’s interest in fair and reasonable rates and consumer protection with the utility’s interest in maximizing its shareholders’ wealth. The senators that seemed adamant about Facebook not being considerate of its user community seemed to come very close to wanting to treat Facebook like a utility, but were very far from considering Facebook’s investor needs.

If Congress wants to regulate Facebook like a utility, it will have to come to terms with the fact that Facebook has only one set of consumers; the firms that purchase its advertising services. The users that Congress is so concerned about are the fuel for Facebook’s advertising platform, specifically the information attached to each user. The user is extracted, organized, and packaged as a fuel cell for advertisers, creating the eyeballs to which company advertising is targeted.

Unlike coal, oil, or natural gas, the fuel for Facebook delivers itself voluntarily over broadband access infrastructure. Whether by wired or wireless access, these transmission pipes are a necessary part of Facebook’s “information utility” business. No fuel, no eyeballs for advertisers. As former Federal Communications Commission chairman Tom Wheeler argued, the consumer experience on the internet should be seamless. Consumers should be able to access websites like Facebook without broadband access providers throttling speeds or otherwise determining which websites would get access to the consumer at certain speeds and vice versa. Also, to create the seamless experience, broadband access providers had to exercise a great degree of transparency regarding their management practices while protecting the privacy of data used to fuel the information utilities, such as Facebook, that deliver services on the edge.

The problem with the Wheeler approach is that the framework balkanized regulation of the internet. Wheeler and other progressives favored archaic transparency and privacy of information rules based on the Communications Act of 1934 applied to broadband access providers. Edge providers, like Facebook, Google, and Twitter, were to remain outside of this regulatory framework where they would be allowed to innovate and not have their information utility business model threatened by AT&T, Comcast, or Verizon. But Facebook’s current dilemma, Russian use of its platform and the trade in its user private data by unauthorized third-parties, demonstrates that if policy makers and elected officials want a seamless internet that projects transparency, all stakeholders will have to be placed on a level regulatory playing field.

Transparency can’t end at a broadband access provider’s point of presence and then enter an edge provider’s black hole.  If consumers want their data to stay private and advocate for policies that keep that data private along and throughout the internet, policymakers will have to ensure that privacy policies extend from the modem in the consumer’s home to the servers that store the data that social media collects on its users. If Congress cannot deliver seamless regulation, then yesterday and today’s hearings will equate to the mindless twerking we see on Instagram.