In 1906 President Theodore Roosevelt signed the Pure Food and Drug Act into law. It had been a long time coming and corporate interests had done their best to derail and delay reformers who advocated the contents of the act. The meatpacking industry had been a major focus of reform as was the over the counter drug industry, each for different reasons.
Meat was unwholesome especially in the warm weather. Cattle were driven by cowboys to railheads in Kansas City Missouri and then transported live by rail to Chicago which became a major distribution point after the American Civil War. Meat packers slaughtered cattle in Chicago and shipped to markets in the east. This prompted the need for refrigerated railroad cars or reefers. At first, reefers were cooled by ice and not necessarily very well. People in the east got sick from tainted meat and Upton Sinclair’s novel, The Jungle was a story about abuses in the industry that led to unsafe products.
Over the counter drugs contained high quantities of alcohol and opioids and their makers over promised what they could do for patients. Newspapers, which relied on advertising revenues from the drug companies, were enjoined from expressing support for legislation regulating the drug industry on pain of losing their ad revenue.
Muckraking which we might call investigative journalism today, came into its own and crusading journalists like Sinclair and many others published exposés of abuses that led to the Pure Food and Drug Act as well as the Federal Meat Inspection Act which Roosevelt signed into law together.
A century later, the meat supply still has occasional problems, but no one tries to hide the truth and both producers and regulators work to correct issues when they arise. Also, producers rigorously test over the counter drugs both for safety and efficacy before going to market. Libertarians and conservatives might want to complain about the added costs involved or the rights of participants in free markets in other situations, but they are largely silent here.
The social networking industry today is in a similar position to meat packing and pharmaceuticals more than a century ago. Our news is full of stories such as Cambridge Analytica stealing 50 million Facebook profiles while that company did little to protect its users. The US intelligence services all point to Russian active measures in interfering with the 2016 presidential elections by using the tools available with social networks as they were designed.
All of this is awakening many people to the understanding that social networks are not free because they collect a fee in kind; namely consumer data which they use to model profiles and sell to advertisers. Some have suggested that in the face of these revelations that Facebook might be doomed or that social networking in general may be. But nothing could be further from the truth.
Social networks are at the same place that meatpackers and drug companies were in 1906. Regulation was and is a way to enable the people to influence markets in such ways as to not interfere with any single company. Regulations apply equally to all those regulated and businesses should, after a period of adjustment continue as they were in the newly regulated markets.
My two bits
Regulation can take many forms. I’ve previously advocated for treating the social networks as utilities and that’s certainly one approach. Another is simply to put forward legislation like the Pure Food and Drug and the Federal Meat Inspection Acts of 1906. The Pure Food and Drug Act ultimately spawned the Food and Drug Administration which regulates industries without treating them as utilities.
The history of regulation in the US and much of the west has involved setting standards and fines for violation. Government agencies randomly sample many aspects under their direction and in some cases government meat inspectors work at slaughterhouses. But the regulation and enforcement is largely something that individuals take on because they are good for business.
The point is that regulation can work well with business and it doesn’t necessarily mean the end of an industry or crippling rules. A level playing field is good for all and often increased the size of markets.
Social networks, and the Internet more generally, need some regulation right now for the good of the society they serve. There are approaches and models that we can adopt. The current issues we face are not unique in history and we should heed its lessons.