Has the time come to regulate social media?

Nicholas Carr is a writer whose book The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, published in 2010, gained considerable attention by pointing out how new technologies have affected our basic thought processes, and not always in a good way.

In the fall 2021 issue of The New Atlantis journal, he proposes a legislative initiative he calls the Digital Communications Act that would, if adopted, go far toward alleviating some of the worst harms that social media currently cause. But to understand the thrust of his proposals, a little historical background is in order.

Electronic media basically do two different kinds of things: personal communication and broadcasting. Until the internet came along, these two different activities were done by more or less completely different kinds of technology. The telegraph and telephone are classic examples of the first kind: personal communication, one person to another. As regulations evolved in the 20th Century to deal with issues of privacy arising from the fact that telegraph and telephone operators could eavesdrop on personal communications through their systems, legislatures and courts came up with what is called a "common-carrier" doctrine.

Borrowed from the transportation field, the concept of a common carrier is that some industries do things that are so vital to the public good that they need to be regulated in order to enforce goods such as fairness and privacy.

The first quasi-independent federal agency of any magnitude, the Interstate Commerce Commission, was established to enforce common-carrier rules on railroads, which had previously engaged in discriminatory and predatory pricing to exploit farmers who had no other way to sell their crops in wider markets than local ones.

When Western Union and the Bell System came along, the federal government applied common-carrier rules to them. The tariffs, as they were called, could get quite complicated, but the overarching principle was simple: treat all communications as private and treat all (or most) customers the same.

Broadcasting, on the other hand, had to be treated differently once people figured out that one person in a studio could potentially talk to millions of others nationwide. The Federal Radio Commission of 1927, predecessor to the current Federal Communications Commission (FCC), came up with a phrase that described how broadcasters must treat the privilege, granted by an FCC license, of addressing thousands or millions at once: "the public interest, convenience, or necessity," sometimes abbreviated PICON.

Over the decades, PICON has dictated how broadcasters must behave in order to retain their broadcasting privileges. As the nature of the public changes continually, PICON standards change as well. From the 1940s through the 1980s, the FCC imposed what was called the "fairness doctrine," which required broadcasters to give equal time to opposing sides in a political contest, for example. After the FCC abandoned the doctrine in 1987, religious and partisan political broadcasting flourished, but the net benefit to the public is debatable, to say the least.

When the internet came along, it put all these nice separate types of communication in a super-speed blender and mixed them all together. From the same computer, I can email one friend, or if I'm a super-influencer, I can send the same image of my latest clothing style to ten million people. But the two categories—personal communication and broadcasting—still apply, and it's not that hard to separate them by either intent or by statistical means.

As Carr puts it, "An Instagrammer [or an engineering ethics blogger] with a hundred followers can be assumed to be engaged in conversation; an Instagrammer with a hundred thousand followers is a broadcaster." Carr says—and I agree with him—that the psychological or humanistic categories of personal communication and broadcasting are still useful and should be used to discriminate between two types of regulation that his proposed Digital Communications Act would apply to social media and internet service providers.

For personal communications, ranging from emails, to Facebook posts to a few friends, to search-engine inquiries, the Act would require companies to respect one's privacy. No more searching for snow shovels online and getting buried in emails and pop-ups for snow shovels, dirt shovels, and snow cones. No more talking about driving to a fast-food outlet and having your phone overhear your conversation and throw ads at you for that chain, or a rival one. We've almost gotten used to it, but I know people who have gotten used to living with cancer. That doesn't mean it's a good thing to have cancer.

For broadcasting, which means anything anybody does that reaches more than a certain threshold number of people, something like the old PICON doctrine needs to be imposed. Carr is perhaps intentionally vague on what a 2021-era version of the fairness doctrine would look like. Much of the really harmful stuff that runs around the internet is spontaneous, as "going viral" is not something one particular person can infallibly bring about. But the process itself is easily monitored and encouraged by the social media companies, as things like that are their bread and butter. And it wouldn't be hard to set up rules or software to regulate the process—technically, I mean.

Politically, it's another can of worms altogether. In what could qualify as the understatement of the year, Carr says his proposed Act "would be complicated and controversial. It would be resisted by many powerful private interests."

Yes, only Google, Facebook, Apple, Amazon, well, you know the list. It would be opposed mainly because it would cut off one of their main revenue streams, which is advertising targeted by means of snooping into your private communications, and that would be barred under the Act. A snowball has an excellent chance inside Mt. Vesuvius compared to this bill, at least under present circumstances.

But times and circumstances change, and maybe some day an outrage may occur that is so universally deplored that the political will of the country will favour such a move. As Carr points out, it was the sinking of the Titanic in 1912 that catalyzed international regulation of the radio waves, because interfering stations made it hard to conduct rescue operations by radio. We have had numerous political disasters that social media have played a part in, but nobody has been killed yet, at least not directly.

Anyway, I think Carr has done us all a great service in basing his argument for a Digital Communications Act on a sound historical footing, and now all we need to do is enact it. Stay tuned, so to speak.

Sources: Nicholas Carr's article "How to Fix Social Media" appeared on pp. 3-20 of the Fall 2021 issue of The New Atlantis.

This article has been republished from the Engineering Ethics blog.


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