Hennepin Bridge (2)

Others are also taking note of a natural tendency for some goods to migrate from private goods over to public goods.

Anjana Susaria writes in The Conversation:

Facebook begins to shift from being a free and open platform into a responsible public utility

Social media sites do have a public feel. Anyone with an internet connection can access the space, just as anyone can walk into a park or along a public road. Unlike parks and roads, the participants are not geographically hindered which enlarges the public grouping to include anyone falling into a large segment of the worldwide population, eliminating the old-school geopolitical boundaries.

She takes the angle that there are thugs hanging out along this electronic parkway of ideas and exchanges, and that the public is in need of protection against

hate speech, fake news and interference in the democratic process.

A sense of security and necessary protections against political propaganda attacks differentiates social media platforms from other utilities but demands:

Utility companies need to be accountable to the public, offering transparency about their operations, providing accountability when things go wrong, allowing verification of their claims and obedience to regulations meant to protect the public interest.

I do see the attributes that give Facebook the appearance of a public utility: the user accessibility and the need for consumer protections. The local history of the Hennepin Ave Bridge reveals that this infrastructure started life in a similar manner. Entrepreneurs initiated the crossing and built the very first structure spanning the Mississippi, but over time concerns about safety as well as financial issues shuffled the spanning infrastructure over to city ownership.

Social media is distinct in that there is tremendous advertising wealth being generated by Facebook et al. This gives management ample incentive to work with public concerns regarding transparency and some sort of user monitoring, which is already underway. Their efforts have resulted in the discovery of organized attacks as reported today in the Washington Post: Sprawling Iranian disinformation campaign discovered on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

As with the skyways which are owned by the building owners, social media sites benefit commercially by providing and maintaining a public space that allows the open and free flow of people. If the skyways were unsafe or polluted, shoppers would not use them and would avoid downtown shops. If the media platforms allow users to incite political outrage and hate speech, users will shift to Instagram or Snapchat or Twitter.

We will see how the relationship between the social media giants and the public unfolds. But for now I see them as private entities that are growing in their role as service providers that benefit from advertising as do magazines, television or radio.

(And for those who miss David Bowie: Ch-Ch-Changes)

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