Reconstructing Public Utility Networks: A Program for Action
As COVID-19 has spread, the power and reach of tech and networking companies have expanded and their transgressions against the commonweal have multiplied, provoking calls to make them more accountable. How might this be accomplished? I argue that a renewal of public utility regulation will be essential, regardless of whether it is accompanied by government antitrust action. I offer a historical sketch of how 19th- and early 20th-century reformers developed conceptions of networks as public utilities to establish democratic norms and practices in telegraph and telephone service provision. Big business and the state mobilized during World War I and defeated the movement to nationalize U.S. telecommunications via a takeover of networks by the U.S. Postal Service but, meanwhile, a different road to public utility status had opened: regulation by state and federal administrative commissions. After reviewing this conflicted history, I enumerate necessary features of a regenerated public utility framework, from popular education about network issues and policies of nondiscrimination to public control over social networks and search engines and decommodification of profit-driven network industries.