If you wanted to start a delivery service, you would need vehicles of some sort to make your deliveries. You would need to hire drivers and people to help figure out the logistics of delivering whatever it is you intend to deliver. The other thing you would need is permits to operate your delivery vehicles on the road. The reason for that is the roads belong to the public. The job of the state is to maintain the roads and part of that is regulating how the roads are used. That means you have to obey the rules in order to use the roads.
This may seem obvious, but it is not something that was always obvious. For most of human history, the concept of a “public good” did not exist. In a feudal economy, everything belongs to the king or lord. The common grazing lands would be used by everyone, but they belonged to the king and so did the animals. The military, which defended the king’s lands, was the king’s army, because it was explicitly for the use of the king to defend his possessions. In feudalism, there were no public goods.
Under communism, in theory at least, everything is a public good. The people own the land and the capital that is accumulated through labor. In reality this is a fiction, of course, as it is the state that owns everything. The party controls the state and those who control the party essentially own everything. This is not a lot different from feudalism, except that the guy in charge is not the leader of “his people” in the ethnic sense. Otherwise, all goods, excludable and nonexcludable are held by whoever runs the party.
It is only in participatory government where we have to think about public goods. Things like parks, highways, seaports, rivers, the military and even the air are considered public goods. How these are used and regulated is determined by the people’s representatives in government. All of us get the benefit of these things so all of us have a say in how they are regulated. It’s why a city has to issue permits for parades and protests, when the participants are unpopular. Even the ugly and annoying get to use public goods.
The concept of public goods, like the concept of participatory government, did not spring from nothing. It evolved over time as people worked through how to conserve and manage things like natural resources. The American national park system was created because it solved the problem of managing the great natural wonders of the country. The government manages fisheries, because we slowly figured out, due to over fishing, that even the coastal waterways are public goods and must managed as such.
This notion of public goods is what drives the idea of universal suffrage. The government itself is seen as a public good. The military does not just protect property holders or natives. The police don’t just patrol the streets of land owning white males. If all of us are going to get use of the government, good and ill, then all of us should have some say in how the government runs, within reasonable limits. We bar criminals from voting, for the same reason we ban the insane from voting. These are exceptions that prove the rule.
This link between democracy and public goods is important to keep in mind when thinking about the on-going efforts by Progressives to shut-off dissent from the Internet. Like trucking companies, outfits like YouTube could not exist without the information super highway, owned by all of us. It’s why these big content providers fight to prevent the ISP’s from throttling their content. If Comcast can block NetFlix from its networks, Comcast can suddenly operate like a protection racket, stripping these services of their profits.
Now, it is not unreasonable to demand companies like YouTube pay some special tax for their use of the Internet. They use this resource way out of proportion than anyone else, so a special use tax is a way to address it. Trucking companies pay special use taxes, because heavy trucks are more damaging to the road than your car. Similarly, parade organizers are often charged for police details and other security measures, because these are above and beyond normal use of the streets.
Like the parade route or the public park, there is an overriding issue and that is these public goods are intertwined with our democratic form of government. Controlling access to the park for a rally, is no different than controlling access to the public square for a political speech or access to the ballot for a political party. Even if a public park is managed by a private operator, a common thing these days, the rules governing this public good still apply. Regardless who who cuts the grass, the park is ours.
That’s what needs to apply to these large social media companies. Like it or not, the internet is now the public square. These services like Twitter and YouTube only exist because the public square exists and the concept of the public good exists. If Twitter goes away tomorrow, the internet still exists. If the internet goes away tomorrow, all of the social media platforms go with it. In this regard, they are no different from a vendor operating in a public park. They must abide by the same rules as the public.
As far as the argument that these are private companies goes, well, that is true, but again, they cannot exist without this commonly held thing called the internet. If FaceBorg had to build out its own infrastructure to deliver cat videos and virility ads to your grandmother, it would have to charge granny millions for the service. In other words, these services benefit from this public utility we call the internet, the trade-off for them, like a public broadcaster, is they have to adhere to the rules the public sets for regulating that utility.
The rules we apply to holding rallies in public parks, holding parades on public streets and issuing permits for conducting commerce on public thoroughfares need to be applied to businesses that operate on-line. If Twitter wants to charge users like a private club, then they can impose ideological rules. If they want to operate as a public square, then they must operate like one. This is the California model that is now going to be used in a lawsuit against Twitter. It needs to be the model nationally so we can have a public square back.
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