from the that's-not-what-common-carriage-is-for dept
There’s been an unfortunate movement in the US over the last few years to try to argue that social media should be considered “common carriers.” Mostly this is coming (somewhat ironically) from the Trumpian wing of grifting victims, who are trying to force websites to carry the speech of trolls and extremists claiming, (against all actual evidence) that there’s an “anti-conservative bias” in content moderation on various major websites.
This leads to things like Ohio’s bizarre lawsuit that just outright declares Google a “common carrier” and seems to argue that the company cannot “discriminate” in its search results, even though the entire point of search is to rank (i.e., discriminate) between different potential search results to show you which ones it thinks best answer your query.
There is even some movement among (mostly Republican) lawmakers to pass laws that declare Facebook/Google/Twitter to be “common carriers.” There’s some irony here, in that these very same Republicans spent years demonizing the idea of “common carriers” when the net neutrality debate was happening, and insisting that the entire concept of “common carrier” was socialism. Amusingly (if it weren’t so dumb), Republican-proposed bills declaring social media sites common carriers often explicitly carve out broadband providers from the definitions, as if to prove that this is not about any actual principles, and 100% about using the law to punish companies they think don’t share their ideological beliefs.
Unfortunately, beyond grandstanding politicians, even some academics are starting to suggest that social media should be treated like common carriers. Beyond the fact that this would almost certainly come back to bite conservatives down the line, there’s an even better reason why it makes no sense at all to make social media websites common carriers.
They don’t fit any of the underlying characteristics that made common carrier designations necessary in the first place.
While there were other precursor laws having to do with the requirement to offer service if you were “public callings” the concept of “common carriers” is literally tied up in its name: the “carrier” part is important. Common carriers have been about transporting things from point A to point B. Going back to the first use of the direct concept of a must “carry” rule, there’s the 1701 case in England of Lane v. Cotton, regarding the failure to deliver mail by the postal service. The court ruled that a postal service should be considered a common carrier, and that there was a legitimate claim “[a]gainst a carrier refusing to carry goods when he has convenience, his wagon not being full.”
In the US, the concept of the common carrier comes from the railroads, and the Interstate Commerce Act of 1887, and then to communications services with the Communications Act of 1934, and the establishment of an important bifurcation between information services (not common carriers) and telecommunications services which were common carriers.
As you look over time, you’ll notice a few important common traits in all historical common carriers:
- Delivering something (people, cargo, data) from point A to point B
- Offering a commoditized service (often involving a natural monopoly provider)
In some ways, point (2) is a function of point (1). The delivery from point A to point B is the key point here. Railroads, telegraphs, telephone systems are all in that simple business — taking people, cargo, data (voice) from point A to point B — and then having no further ongoing relationship with you.
That’s just not the case for social media. Social media, from the very beginning, was about hosting content that you put up. It’s not transient, it’s perpetual. That, alone, makes a huge difference, especially with regards to the 1st Amendment’s freedom of association. It’s one thing to say you have to transmit someone’s speech from here to there and then have no more to do with it, but it’s something else entirely to say “you must host this person’s speech forever.”
Second, social media is, in no way, a commodified service. Facebook is a very different service from Twitter, as it is from YouTube, as it is from TikTok, as it is from Reddit. They’re not interchangeable, nor are they natural monopolies, in which massive capital outlays are required upfront to build redundant architecture. New social networks can be set up without having to install massive infrastructure, and they can be extremely differentiated from every other social network. That’s not true of traditional common carriers. Getting from New York to Boston by train is getting from New York to Boston by train.
Finally, even if you did twist yourself around, and ignore all of that, you’re still ignoring that even with common carriers, they are able to refuse service to those who violate the rules (which is the reason that any social media bans a user — for rule violations). Historically, common carriers can reject carriage for someone who does not pay, but also if the goods are deemed “dangerous” or not properly packed. In other words, even with a common carrier, they are able to deny service to someone who does not follow the terms of service.
So, social media does not meet any of the core components of a common carrier. It is hosting content perpetually, not merely transporting data from one point to another in a transient fashion. It is not a commodity service, but often highly differentiated in a world with many different competitors offering very differentiated services. It is not a natural monopoly, in which the high cost of infrastructure buildout would be inefficient for other entrants in the market. And, finally, even if, somehow, you ignored all of that, declaring a social media site a common carrier wouldn’t change that they are allowed to ban or otherwise moderate users who fail to abide by the terms of service for the site.
So can we just stop talking about how social media websites should be declared common carriers? It’s never made any sense at all.