The Impact of Application Convergence on Regulation: The Case of Social Media

Posted: 16 Mar 2018

Date Written: March 16, 2018


Internet regulation has traditionally focused on services associated with packet carriage and provided by ISPs. The debate around network neutrality is an obvious example. We are now seeing a shift in attention to the services at the application layer, which have their own regulatory histories that have not been fully resolved in the context of the Internet ecosystem.

The traditional approach at these higher layers has been to classify actors into different industry sectors, such as providers of telephony or providers of video content, and to impose regulation specific to these sectors. Regulators have confronted many challenges in attempting to define and classify IP versions of telephony and television services as a result of network convergence, or what we call Convergence 1.0. We see further, more complicated, challenges related to classification as a result of application convergence, which we call Convergence 2.0.

Applications focused on personal communication, i.e., conversation, have evolved from telephony to email to messaging to video conferencing, etc. Likewise, applications focused on content distribution have evolved from “broadcasting” professional content to “sharing” a wide range of professional and user-generated content. As they advance along their respective trajectories we are seeing the integration of technical and business functions from these previously distinct sectors into new hybrid services, namely social media. Applications like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Snapchat manifest aspects of both conversation and content in ways that are both complementary and interchangeable, thereby disrupting the content/conversation dichotomy that has characterized the nature of communication services over the last century.

With respect to regulation, social media applications originated as social utility tools more in line with telephone calls, emails, and texts, but did not carry regulatory burdens like accessibility, lawful intercept, or 911 access. They have now entered the media industry ecosystem without being subject to media regulatory oversight regarding program access, must carry, closed captioning, etc. Many have resisted classification to avoid the burden and costs of compliance.

The paper provides a high-level framework for re-conceptualizing the nature of communications from the point of view of both firms and policy makers, with a focus on the complicated and nuanced role of social media in the larger communications ecosystem. We consider how to define social media, and whether applications fit in existing communications market structures and policy frameworks. We identify four core drivers of Convergence 2.0 relating to the interplay of content and conversation.

The core issue addressed in this paper thus concerns the ambiguity of product definitions, market boundaries, and industrial classification schemes as they concern social media, and the increasingly problematic relationship these applications have to policy. We conclude that regulation cannot proceed based on distinct classes of services and actors, whether based on traditional or new classification schemes. Rather, any regulatory objective must be based on the clear articulation of unacceptable social and market outcomes, independent of where in the ecosystem that behavior manifests. While an outcomes-based approach comes with its own problems, we consider it more appropriate for today’s amorphous Internet ecosystem. 

Keywords: Internet policy, social media, application convergence, convergence 2.0

Suggested Citation

Klym, Natalie and Clark, David D., The Impact of Application Convergence on Regulation: The Case of Social Media (March 16, 2018). Available at SSRN:

David D. Clark

MIT CSAIL ( email )

Stata Center
Cambridge, MA 02142
United States
617-253-6003 (Phone)

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