The first week of September saw the heads of tech companies hauled to Capitol Hill yet again to explain themselves to a bunch of grumpy senators. Whenever this happens, the hearing inevitably begins with hours of bloviation about "the public interest" before someone raises the idea that social media sites should be treated "like public utilities." Rep. Steve King (R–Iowa) is a big fan of this line of questioning, raising it in the previous go-round with Google in July: "What about converting the large behemoth organizations that we're talking about here into public utilities?"
The notion that Twitter or Google are as vital to American citizens as water and electricity—and therefore must be subject to a much higher level of government scrutiny and regulation, or perhaps even government ownership—is misbegotten on several fronts. But at the root of the whole debate is a conflation of different definitions of the word public, writes Katherine Mangu-Ward.
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