In 1873, Union Pacific completed the final tracks linking the two halves of the transcontinental railway by bridging the Missouri River between Council Bluffs, Iowa, and Omaha, Nebraska. The mega-project inaugurated a new industrial era in the United States that transformed the nature not just of work and life, but also of time and space.
Soon a new phrase would be used to describe the locations of workplaces, people, goods and entire cities. They were either “on-line” or “off-line,” the line being the railway itself. Either you were connected (or traveling on that connecting line) or you weren’t. This distinction had consequences.
Online, which lost its hyphen sometime before AOL launched, now refers to our connection to the internet and its millions of active websites. Our phones are almost always connected to the internet, but we tend to consider ourselves online when we are actively engaging on a website, usually some kind of social media platform.
The problem of Facebook, the most popular such platform in the U.S., is in part a problem of metaphors. This much was made clear during Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s hearings on the Hill earlier this week. Lawmakers seemed to operate from very different conceptions of the social media giant. Is Facebook a publisher? wondered Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska). Is Facebook a “self-regulated superstructure for political discourse”? mused Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Md.). “If I buy a Ford and it doesn’t work well and I don’t like it, I can buy a Chevy,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) in a line of inquiry that went to the heart of the Facebook question. “If I’m upset with Facebook, what’s the equivalent product that I can go sign up for?”
Last fall, New York Magazine’s Max Read listed various proposed comparisons for Facebook that he’d come across: “a state, the E.U., the Catholic Church, Star Trek’s United Federation of Planets.” More metaphors have bloomed in the aftermath of the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Facebook is like a record company. Facebook is like a fashion designer.
How can we begin to work on the question of what to do with Facebook if we can’t even agree on what Facebook looks like?
But perhaps the answer is as plain as the ground beneath Facebook’s sixth U.S. data center, which is currently under construction just outside Omaha. The center will open in 2023, exactly 150 years after the transcontinental railroad was completed nearby.
Maybe history has handed us the right metaphor: Facebook is like the railroads.
In a sense, it’s hardly a metaphor at all. The internet and the railroads share the same physical space, as Ingrid Burrington explained in an article for The Atlantic in 2015 and David A. Banks explored in a scholarly journal article published the same year. Railroad right-of-ways have been used by every communication medium from telegraph wires to telephone lines to fiber optic cables. Now, digital platform corporations build their data centers on these same lines.
The late Sen. Ted Stevens was right: The internet is best thought of as “a series of tubes” (not “a big truck”). Just like the railroads before them, platform companies like Facebook and Google are pieces of infrastructure, albeit a new type of infrastructure. They connect people and transform society, politics, the nature of time and space itself. And like the railroads and phone companies before them, they can be regulated or broken up ― whether they provide a physical service or not.
This is important to acknowledge now as discussions about regulation move forward in Washington following the revelations about Cambridge Analytica, a political consulting firm that harvested data from approximately 87 million Facebook users. Facebook, like Google, like Amazon, is a thing, or more precisely a concatenation of things. These digital platforms are not unearthly beasts that exist apart from the real world. They are real-world entities that possess corporeal form. What their owners do with them and what their users do on them are real actions that have real consequences. Just look at the past four years if you have any doubts.
Notions that the internet is separate from real life have existed since the dawn of the web. While comedians like Dave Chappelle mine this sentiment for jokes, the real beneficiaries of this idea are the corporate executives who run the giant online platforms currently eluding regulation. If people believe that online life is distinct from what we now call real life, that digital capitalism is somehow less real than the industrial capitalism on which it is quite literally founded, then the impression will settle in that online companies can’t be regulated in the way offline companies are regulated. How can you write an agency rule about a phantom? How can you pass a bill about a cloud?
Yet it’s quite clear that what happens online matters in offline life. Nearly 80 percent of Americans have a Facebook account. Political campaigns are spending an increasing amount on digital advertising. Social movements, including neo-Nazis, are organized on digital platforms. Those platforms have also become the best distribution tool for disinformation and propaganda, as they favor individual emotional expression over reasoned discussion. People have funerals for their online friends in massive multiplayer online game universes. And, of course, the president of the United States occasionally threatens nuclear holocaust on Twitter.
Much of this activity, however, doesn’t need to be regulated. Americans can still vote out their president in the next election if they don’t like his rage tweets about cable news stories. Congress doesn’t need to regulate anyone’s speech.
But Congress could regulate the business side of the digital platform economy. Or force the platform giants to shrink to a size at which no individual platform could alter society with the tweak of an algorithm. That’s being debated in policy circles right now and could soon be debated by congressional lawmakers.
Therein lies the value of the railroad metaphor. It zeroes in on the thingness of Facebook, sidestepping the free speech issues that so consumed many of the politicians questioning Zuckerberg in the capital this week. Congress can intervene for the same reason it intervened to regulate the railroads more than a century ago: Power over infrastructure is political power.
Railroads were the engine of 19th-century industrial capitalism, and as they became economic monopolies, their market power translated into political power. Controlling the lines that people and business rode on, railroads could pick winners and losers by setting rates to benefit friends or cripple individual businesses. John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil monopoly colluded with the railroads to privilege his product over others. Railroad companies worked to take over the political apparatus of state governments and the national government by handing out free rail passes to their preferred political party, installing railroad allies in office, shortchanging states by evading taxes and, of course, directly trading stocks, gifts and cash for public goods.
The concentrated private political influence of monopoly violated the long-standing American democratic spirit of one man-one vote. As corporations built nationwide networks of infrastructure that held power over governments, monopoly mattered even more. This is what the muckraking journalist Henry D. Lloyd wrote in 1881, when he argued that the “railroad problem … may indicate whether the American democracy, like all the democratic experiments which have preceded it, is to become extinct because the people had not wit enough or virtue enough to make the common good supreme.”
That “railroad problem” was that the railroads themselves were captive to an even bigger monster, Standard Oil, which used its massive market position to crush competitors by forcing the railroads to raise rates on other oil producers. This then altered the economic and political life of states subject to Standard Oil’s decision.
Congress began to take action against the “railroad problem” in 1890 when it enacted the landmark Sherman Antitrust Act. The law’s author, Sen. John Sherman (R-Ohio), decried the power of monopolistic railroads on the floor of Congress. “If we will not endure a king as a political power,” he said, “we should not endure a king over the production, transportation, and sale of any of the necessaries of life.” It was clear to Sherman that economic power was political power. His law was later used to break up Standard Oil under the administration of President Teddy Roosevelt.
Today, digital platform behemoths like Facebook and Google are the major private designers of American life. They make decisions that affect the flow of information and pick political winners and losers with little democratic input. News organizations find themselves at the whim of algorithms determined by digital platforms, the campaigns of future lawmakers who would oversee digital platforms are dependent upon them to reach voters, and meanwhile, those platforms spend tens of millions of dollars on lobbying and campaign contributions to influence politics to their benefit.
Once again, this is market power translating to political power. Some lawmakers see this clearly, as evidenced by their questioning of Zuckerberg.
“Do you think you have a moral responsibility to run a platform that protects our democracy?” Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) asked.
Rep. Bill Flores (R-Texas) stated outright that Facebook operates as a monopoly just like Standard Oil and Ma Bell, the nickname for the telephone giant that began as Bell Telephone and ended as AT&T. Those corporations either colluded with and abused infrastructure monopolies to their benefit (Standard Oil) or were infrastructure monopolies themselves (Ma Bell).
“These companies were started by entrepreneurs and their companies grew and eventually became detached from everyday Americans,” Flores said. “And then what happens is policymakers had to step in and re-establish the balance between those folks and everyday Americans.”
The congressman then veered into aggrieved irrelevancies about a constituent whose “conservative postings” were supposedly being “banned or stopped,” but for a moment Flores had been saying something useful and insightful. He was talking straightforwardly about Facebook as a thing, a thing with power that needed to be handled as such. “I mean,” he said, “we’ve seen it before.”