Trunk Line

Is Facebook really a public utility?

August 6th, 2013 · No Comments

In Reason  asks if Facebook a public utility and gets an answer of “yes” from filmmaker Cullen Hoback. “At this point I would say that Facebook is basically a public utility,” he says. “You’ve got over a billion people using this service. That’s not a choice for many people. Certainly not for a lot of teenagers. It’s kind of social suicide to not be a part of that.”

Release of Cullen’s new documentary Terms and Conditions May Apply is the occasion for the interview with Paul. I saw the movie recently here in New York and highly recommend it. I also agree with Cullen that Facebook’s popularity is utility-grade in its popularity.

While facebook has utility for many people, does that fact make it a public utility?

What makes a utility public — in the technical, administrative and legal senses of that word — are local, state and federal agencies with professionals in position to know what’s going on inside the providers of necessary services that sustain civilization.

At the state level in the U.S., utilities are overseen by PUCs — public utility commissions. As the graphic above () shows, there are basically five kinds of public utilities recognized today by PUCs: transportation, electricity, natural gas, telecommunications and water/wastewater. ( also includes steam, which is usually a byproduct of electric power production. It also covers many nations other than the U.S.) So, by that definition, Facebook isn’t a public utility, even in the telecom sense, because it isn’t a phone or cable company.

But it is important to also note that PUCs’ comprehension of the industries they regulate often drags behind the times. We see that with the dated cell phone image above, and in the Wisconsin PUC’s image of a touch-tone landline phone. Still, there are at PUCs people that at least they know something about what’s happening inside the utilities they oversee. The problem with giant Web services — especially Google and Facebook — from a PUC perspective, is that nobody outside those companies knows what’s happening, exactly, inside them.

Perhaps with the specter of future PUC oversight in the future, Google has recently been forthcoming about its vast data centers, inviting visitors to “see where the Internet lives”. (An overstatement, but less extreme than it ought to be.) Like many big companies in need of PR coverage, they brag about their public-minded compliance with the letters and spirits of regulatory interests. Thus they brag,

Environmental, health, and safety

Certifying our high standards:

Google is the first major internet services company to gain external certification of our high environmental and workplace safety standards throughout our US and European data centers. More specifically, all of our US and European data centers have received voluntary ISO 14001 and OHSAS 18001 certifications. Additionally, we’re the first company in the United States to obtain multi-site ISO 50001 Energy Management System certification, covering 6 US data centers.

Our environmental, health, and safety policy:

Google owned and operated data centers will lead the industry in environmental protection, pollution prevention, health, and safety. We will take a proactive approach in our activities and aim to continually improve data center environmental, health, and safety (EHS) performance. We will comply with applicable EHS legal requirements, and as appropriate for other EHS matters, we will implement voluntary standards or best management practices.

Yet the infrastructural graces Google provides (e.g. search, mapping, traffic) are not visible in those policies or photos of data center racks and plumbing. For what these things actually do, those data centers are boxes no less black than the NSA’s.

So now let’s say we actually do want Facebook and Google regulated to the same degrees as, say, transportation, power and water companies. We would expect government experts to make sure these companies are serving the public well, right? Especially, say, around issues the public cares about, such as personal privacy, which has been a big issue lately — and the bulls-eye of Cullen’s documentaries. (His next is Track Off Us.)

But we don’t have that. Not even close. Instead we have governments enlisting the help of these companies (and ones in telecom) for spying on citizens. It’s an unpleasant irony.

There are no easy solutions here;  just an urgency toward reversing twin trends toward opacity and impunity by the Googles and Facebooks of the world, and by the government bodies taking advantage of them.

[Later…] Find some additional conversation with @CullenHoback here on twitter.


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Following Sandy

October 29th, 2012 · No Comments

If Hurricane Sandy lives up to expectations, it will be the biggest storm to hit the Northeast in recent history, if not in all of it. With attention to infrastructure, I’m listing infrastructure-grade information sources here, and following the stories over at Riding out the storm, on my personal blog.

Web links:

TV and Radio (going southwest to northeast):



→ No CommentsTags: Emergency · Media · Radio · Roads/Bridges · Weather

Sustainable production vs. consumption

November 10th, 2011 · No Comments

I first heard “sustainable consumption” when John Wilbanks uttered it yesterday. At first I thought he was joking about his work around large international well-meaning entities such as the World Economic Forum. By that I mean, large economies with large industries wishing to keep consumption by served populations up to economy-sustaining levels. It was later that I looked it up and found at Wikipedia that a definition dates back to the Oslo Symposium on Sustainable Consumption, which called it,

the use of services and related products which respond to basic needs and bring a better quality of life while minimising the use of natural resources and toxic materials as well as emissions of waste and pollutants over the life cycle of the service or product so as not to jeopardise the needs of future generations.”

So my assumed definition was at odds with the Oslo one, and others raised since. I therefore sit corrected, but wish to retain the ironies around the topic.

And, since nobody had blogged anything here in a long time and I’d like to fire the blog up again, I thought I’d flag the whole topic, since in the long run it is bound to bear on infrastructure.

Not speaking of which, a service called Zemanta, which works as a plug-in with WordPress, suggests these as related bonus links:

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Xtreme wiring

July 27th, 2010 · 1 Comment

Check out Cable Blues: Tangled & Crazy Wiring, Part 6 at Dark Roasted Blend. You have to scroll down a bit before the pix show up, but they’re all pretty amazing. Many of the subjects are a triumph of infra over structure.

→ 1 CommentTags: Fun · Photography

A new definition for boring

June 29th, 2010 · No Comments

“Therefore, we’re going to dig conduit directly through the Earth’s Crust from the sub-basement of 60 Hudson in NYC all the way to 350 East Cermak in Chicago,” says “a purported representative of DeepBore Networks” to Rob Powell of Telecom Ramblings.

A ruse, of course. But it suggests some fun thinking about infrastructure.

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Digging Andrew Odlyzko

June 20th, 2010 · No Comments

For anybody interested in the history of infrastructure, and lessons to be learned from many points in the history of the Industrial Age, Andrew Odlyzko, of the University of Minnesota, is required reading.

Here is a reading list.

Note the pieces on railway mania. Highly relevant stuff.

I’m writing this right now while leveraging one of the older forms of Industrial Age transport: canals. We are currently on one in Lorraine, France. Built in the early 1800s, it remains in use occasionally for barges, but is better known now for leisure boating. That’s what we’re doing here. It’s a small but thriving industry.

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Our Infrastructure Flickr Stream

June 10th, 2010 · No Comments

A few months back, partly in anticipation of this blog, I created a Flickr account for the Berkman Center‘s Infrastructure group. To my surprise, no account with the name “Infrastructure” was taken, so I grabbed it, and the site is now here:

All the photo sets so far are mine, but I trust many more will come from other folks in our group. Here’s a rundown on what’s there now:

  • Shots exploring Domodossolla, Italy, during a day trip from our family’s ski vacation this past winter in Zermatt, Switzerland. The trip was recommended by Urs Gasser, Executive Director of the Berkman Center.
  • The rapidly-changing spire atop the Empire State Building, on a day pilots call “severe clear.” It is interesting to see how much electronic stuff has encrusted the blunt winged art deco made familiar by King Kong, and how much of that same stuff has been replaced many times over the years. Much of what’s still there is obsolete analog VHF TV transmitting antennae, that I expect will come down. What I’d like to see, personally, is the old building restored to something close to its original shape. Since most transmissions are now on much shorter wavelengths, using smaller antennas, this should be do-able.
  • Fiberfete, a “celebration of our connected future,” in Lafayette, Louisiana. Lafayette is the first city in the country, I believe, to have a municipal fiber optic network that passes every home in town (more than 100,000 people live there), and can deliver 100Mbps service within the town. That’s interesting infrastructure right there. What should be done with it? That was a focus of the gathering.
  • Tracking flights. For most of the history of aviation, following airplanes in and out of airports electronically — watching weather alongo the way — was a privilege only of a few professionals. Now it’s something anybody can do, with the help of services such as FlightAware. Here I tracked my 13-year-old son on his first solo passenger flights coast-to coast, all in one weekend.

Infrastructure sets with other Flickr accounts include:

As a bonus link, here’s the Infrastructure Photo Pool at Flickr.

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Defining Infrastructure

September 29th, 2009 · 1 Comment

Trunk Line is about studies in infrastructure.  So what is infrastructure?

[Fr. (1875 in Robert), f. INFRA- + STRUCTURE n.]
A collective term for the subordinate parts of an undertaking; substructure, foundation.

substructure: That part which supports something else.

foundation: The solid ground upon which another structure is erected.

(OED usage dates to 1927.)

Encarta Thesaurus:

(1) substructure, organization, structure, setup, arrangement, groundwork, frame, foundation, base

(2) public service, public transport, communications, power supply, water supply, broadcasting, telecommunications, networks, transportation

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