September 24, 2017

Every software company where I’ve worked has aspired to build “platforms.” A platform is a way of turning specialized software into a generalized offering that everyone can rely on and, ideally, pay for. In other words, rather than building a lamp, a tech company would prefer to make itself into the electric company. The only problem with this plan is that these companies, trying to build utilities, actually end up building hotels instead. This is not only good, but essential.

What are the differences between utilities and hotels? Both offer services for a metered rate. Both carry expectations of quality and virtue: you can opt for clean energy, sustainably-operated lodging, and so on. The major difference I see is that a utility is required to serve all customers irrespective of ideology, whereas a hotel can be shamed for who it does, or who it does not, choose to serve. Nobody accuses the electric company of enabling a hate group, but when a hotel accommodates such a group, they can expect to receive equal and opposite political reactions for doing so. A hotel, in acting or declining to act on these reactions, makes a political statement. A utility is merely performing its regulated duty.

When I worked at Amazon and saw Jeff Bezos speak about the company’s web services, he at first shunned the term “cloud computing” to describe them generally. He preferred the term “utility computing”, as did some in the press, to describe a world in which computing became another nondiscretionary monthly expense for every company. Along with electricity, Internet access, water, and other basic needs, computing power would be delivered and billed regularly and businesses couldn’t live without it. Although the term “utility computing” never caught on, the concept certainly did, and smart companies now spend their IT budget on metered services instead of on bespoke data centers.

Cloud computing is clearly a success, but it is hardly a utility. Amazon and other providers of hosted services, including my current employer, have faced calls to delete content that is politically unpopular, such as Amazon’s hosting of Wikileaks documents. Amazon claimed that it withdrew hosting for those documents because they were stolen, but that’s not consistent with how utilities operate; for example, a stolen laptop can still connect to Comcast’s Internet pipes. Given the lucrative appeal of government contracts, these business decisions are wise, and they are comparable to a hotel canceling an event hosted by an anti-government organization for fear of losing government business. They do not represent the apolitical moves of a utility.

In 2017 it’s become apparent that online forums, platforms for discussion, have to impose limits of their own and, like hoteliers, throw their bad guests out. I’ve evolved on this: as a high school student I was a staunch free-speech absolutist, but as an adult I’ve seen the types of harassment, bullying, and anti-democratic demagoguery that truly uncensored forums enable. Even Facebook, which conveys a reluctance to restrict speech on its own platform, owes its existence to the selective universities to which it was initially restricted. Many forums, notably Wikipedia, have produced great benefit while also imposing limits on participation.

The desire of most Internet users to get web hosting for free is now meeting advertisers’ reluctance to be associated with content they abhor, and as a result advertisers are finally driving media companies to tame the monsters they’ve built. There is a long, long way to go on this point and the solution will inevitably involve replacing algorithms with people at more key decision points in Internet companies’ processes.

In my life I’ve seen online media go from an academic curiosity to an industry-destroying behemoth to a small oligarchy of powerful ad-supported players. Forums, as well, have come a long way from the fringes of society to the mainstream. There is no such thing as an apolitical medium anymore. Not taking action against violent, abusive, or harassing persons is itself a political decision. The idea of the hands-off amoral Internet giant, the Internet company treated as if it were the electric company, is dead. Long live the hotel, and may we the guests hold our hosts responsible.