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Social media are the public square of the 21st Century

In 1997, twenty years ago, I wrote an overview piece on what I thought would be the “horizon” issues telecom regulators should think about. It was a book chapter in a book edited by Bill Melody: Samarajiva, R, (1997). “Telecommunication regulation in the information age,” in Telecom reform: Principles, policies and regulatory practices, ed. W. H. Melody, pp. 421-39. Lyngby, Denmark: Den Private Ingeniorfond. I organized the material using a structure of functions I took from the ancient public spaces such as the Greek Agora and the Roman Forum: marketplace; place of political expression; place of symbolic communication and simply a place of interaction.

Back then we could not imagine what social media could be like. Bulletin Boards were as close as we got.

But now, we have the US Supreme Court intensely debating whether it is Constitutional to bar a person from social media under law. This is not in the form of a positive right to Internet that some promote, but in the form of a classic negative right: the state does not have to provide, but it cannot deny, access:

Justice Anthony M. Kennedy said that social media sites had become, and in some ways had surpassed, the public square as a place for discussion and debate.

“The sites that Justice Kagan has described and their utility and the extent of their coverage are greater than the communication you could have ever had, even in the paradigm of public square,” Justice Kennedy said.

The North Carolina law has economic consequences, too, Justice Sonia Sotomayor said.

“Take something like LinkedIn, which many, many people in our society today are looking for jobs there, but high school students are permitted to look for jobs and to post their personal data on that site,” she said.

Looks like the decision will be in favor of the plaintiff. And the former DG of our Telecom Regulatory Commission could pat himself on the back, for being ahead of the US Supreme Court.

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