Guest column: Communication corner: Trees, air and the debate on the regulation of Big Tech | Opinion
Republicans say Facebook and Twitter censor conservative opinion. Democrats say Big Tech is a monopoly. Thus, conservatives have applauded Elon Musk’s bid to buy Twitter, a move they say could break progressives’ hold on social media. For their part, liberals feared that a single individual could wield so much power over online discourse.
Still, Musk’s recurring chord makes me think of everything, trees and air.
The medium that carries newspapers, magazines and books is paper – which comes from trees, a renewable resource. Historically, printed communications are only loosely regulated because no private interest can monopolize the paper supply.
The medium that carries broadcast and wireless communications is the air – or rather, the electromagnetic spectrum. Although electromagnetic waves vary from infinitely short to infinitely long, only a finite portion is usable for electronic communications.
The United States allows private ownership of electronic communication facilities – radio and television stations, cable and satellite systems, wireless communication networks. However, waves are public property like a street or sidewalk. Because usable waves are limited and could be monopolized if left unregulated, the Federal Communications Commission licenses specific wavelengths to users who pledge to serve “the public interest, convenience, and need”. The purpose of this policy is to protect public access to various information and ideas.
Seven years ago, the FCC ruled that internet service providers are “common carriers,” like telephone companies, and must treat all internet traffic the same. Three years later, the FCC reversed.
ISPs argued that they needed to invest in improved fiber optic technology. The money could come from creating “fast lanes” where Netflix, Hulu and Disney pay ISPs for preferential download speeds. Opponents have argued that such privileged treatment would put smaller streaming services and startups at a competitive disadvantage.
This brings me back to Elon Musk, Twitter, Facebook and Big Tech. There is historical and legal precedent for regulating the airwaves to prevent private monopolies and protect public access to diverse speech. Yet modern electronic communication systems are expensive to build and operate, and quality broadcast programming and digital content are expensive to produce.
Victoria is a small media market. Our local media vitally respond to the needs of specific local audiences. Yet we also depend on outside media providers large enough to serve our rural area.
The Victoria Television Group, which broadcasts locally on 11 channels, is part of Morgan Murphy Media – which in turn is headquartered in Wisconsin and operates television and radio stations that reach six other states. New York-based Townsquare Media, with four Victoria radio stations, is the third-largest radio station owner in the country with 356 local stations in 74 media markets. And the Victoria Advocate is published by Mr. Roberts Media, a chain with five other East Texas newspapers.
Proponents of media industry consolidation argue that publishers, broadcasters and digital broadcasters need scale to build audiences and compete for advertising. Advertising then enables these providers to continue to deliver quality programming and content to audiences, including audiences in smaller markets like Victoria.
But we also see media entities continuing to grow. Big Tech is Exhibit A for those who argue that Amazon, Google, Facebook, and Microsoft engage in predatory monopolistic practices that crowd out competition.
How do you draw the line between big enough and too big? Some argue — rightly — that social media platforms, as private companies, can monitor content without violating users’ First Amendment rights of expression. On the other hand, the platforms operate on public airwaves.
Social media has become America’s digital public square. Should these platforms be regulated as “common carriers” like telephone companies? Is antitrust action necessary to dismantle Big Tech and stimulate competition? Or should the platforms, as private companies, remain free to control themselves without government interference? Does Big Tech need scale to deliver the services the public wants?
There is room for a reasoned bipartisan discussion. Understanding the difference between trees and air can help.