One of the central tenets of the Constitution is equal access to information. This flow was recognized as essential in the commissioning of the US Postal Service, which ensured the delivery of mail. With the advent of the telephone service, a later generation of political leaders recognized that every citizen required access to the system, regardless of their proximity to urban centers. AT&T was established as a regulated monopoly to ensure that urban subscribers subsidized service provision to rural subscribers.
AT&T’s last accomplishment before deregulation was completion of a portable billing service that allowed numbers to cross geographical boundaries. This was the foundation for diversification of telephone service into cellular and VOIP (voice over internet protocol) services. But the physical infrastructure of the phone system was also the foundation for the internet, empowering services like YouTube, Facebook and Instagram to provide content to all citizens.
Those service providers live in a regulatory gray zone. To support service creation, early ISPs were exempted from the standards imposed upon publishers of magazines and newspapers. Most importantly, in recent days, were exemptions from fact-checking of content. Classical publishers hired reporters and were exposed to liability claims when stories damaged the reputation or finances of those covered. In claiming that they were merely providing access to information without paying for content, ISPs were considered exempt. When Facebook and others established social media platforms, they registered themselves as ISPs, and also claimed those exemptions.
This is not to say that social media platforms do not provide financial incentives to content creators. Far from it. Popular “channels” receive a share of advertising revenues. Now the lines are becoming grey: classical publishers do buy content from “freelancers,” but still retain responsibility for insuring the accuracy of reporting. Could social media creators be seen as “freelancers?” If so, the social media platforms appear to be appropriately seen as “publishers.”
One argument against this is that social media platforms do not package content as a publication. There is no “Facebook News” service. But a publication is simply a way of attracting attention to branded content. Social media services do attract such attention, by recommending “content you might like” that is headed by popular channels. Popular creators receive more attention, and thus crowd out less popular creators. As these “recommendations” come under the branding of the social media site, they are in effect publications customized for the individual user, but actually guiding the user into conformance with the views of others like them.
The concern is most heightened in regard to political content, which has always been a rough-and-tumble game. In the thirty years since the founding of the internet, it has become clear that many consumers expect to be entertained by their news. On the left, The Daily Show arose, but under that aegis of a classical media empire that monitored the accuracy of content. On the right, Rush Limbaugh and then Alex Jones did not honor such constraints. Their goal was to cater to the grievances of their listeners with outrage, and to maintain that fever pitch, their fantastical claims became wilder and wilder.
The most outrageous among these were the “PizzaGate” and “Sandy Hook Hoax” stories promulgated by Jones. As well as suffering the loss of their children, Sandy Hook parents have faced harassment and death threats, and PizzaGate drove a listener to an armed invasion of the property.
With Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, I agree that it is time to hold Facebook and YouTube responsible for financing such incendiary content. When creator earnings reach a level commensurate with freelance work, they should be responsible for validating the content, and subject to liability for failing to take action when victims signal that they are being harmed.
In that case of Facebook and YouTube, such moves may be a matter of “too little, too late.” They are effectively monopolies. At this point, it seems prudent to tax revenues to establish external review boards to police content. They must be regulated, as AT&T once was, by overseers to ensure that our information systems serve the public interest.