Is Facebook really a public utility?

August 6th, 2013 by Doc Searls

In Reason  asks if Facebook a public utility and gets an answer of “yes” from filmmaker Cullen Hoback. “At this point I would say that Facebook is basically a public utility,” he says. “You’ve got over a billion people using this service. That’s not a choice for many people. Certainly not for a lot of teenagers. It’s kind of social suicide to not be a part of that.”

Release of Cullen’s new documentary Terms and Conditions May Apply is the occasion for the interview with Paul. I saw the movie recently here in New York and highly recommend it. I also agree with Cullen that Facebook’s popularity is utility-grade in its popularity.

While facebook has utility for many people, does that fact make it a public utility?

What makes a utility public — in the technical, administrative and legal senses of that word — are local, state and federal agencies with professionals in position to know what’s going on inside the providers of necessary services that sustain civilization.

At the state level in the U.S., utilities are overseen by PUCs — public utility commissions. As the graphic above () shows, there are basically five kinds of public utilities recognized today by PUCs: transportation, electricity, natural gas, telecommunications and water/wastewater. ( also includes steam, which is usually a byproduct of electric power production. It also covers many nations other than the U.S.) So, by that definition, Facebook isn’t a public utility, even in the telecom sense, because it isn’t a phone or cable company.

But it is important to also note that PUCs’ comprehension of the industries they regulate often drags behind the times. We see that with the dated cell phone image above, and in the Wisconsin PUC’s image of a touch-tone landline phone. Still, there are at PUCs people that at least they know something about what’s happening inside the utilities they oversee. The problem with giant Web services — especially Google and Facebook — from a PUC perspective, is that nobody outside those companies knows what’s happening, exactly, inside them.

Perhaps with the specter of future PUC oversight in the future, Google has recently been forthcoming about its vast data centers, inviting visitors to “see where the Internet lives”. (An overstatement, but less extreme than it ought to be.) Like many big companies in need of PR coverage, they brag about their public-minded compliance with the letters and spirits of regulatory interests. Thus they brag,

Environmental, health, and safety

Certifying our high standards:

Google is the first major internet services company to gain external certification of our high environmental and workplace safety standards throughout our US and European data centers. More specifically, all of our US and European data centers have received voluntary ISO 14001 and OHSAS 18001 certifications. Additionally, we’re the first company in the United States to obtain multi-site ISO 50001 Energy Management System certification, covering 6 US data centers.

Our environmental, health, and safety policy:

Google owned and operated data centers will lead the industry in environmental protection, pollution prevention, health, and safety. We will take a proactive approach in our activities and aim to continually improve data center environmental, health, and safety (EHS) performance. We will comply with applicable EHS legal requirements, and as appropriate for other EHS matters, we will implement voluntary standards or best management practices.

Yet the infrastructural graces Google provides (e.g. search, mapping, traffic) are not visible in those policies or photos of data center racks and plumbing. For what these things actually do, those data centers are boxes no less black than the NSA’s.

So now let’s say we actually do want Facebook and Google regulated to the same degrees as, say, transportation, power and water companies. We would expect government experts to make sure these companies are serving the public well, right? Especially, say, around issues the public cares about, such as personal privacy, which has been a big issue lately — and the bulls-eye of Cullen’s documentaries. (His next is Track Off Us.)

But we don’t have that. Not even close. Instead we have governments enlisting the help of these companies (and ones in telecom) for spying on citizens. It’s an unpleasant irony.

There are no easy solutions here;  just an urgency toward reversing twin trends toward opacity and impunity by the Googles and Facebooks of the world, and by the government bodies taking advantage of them.

[Later…] Find some additional conversation with @CullenHoback here on twitter.

 

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