As the punchline goes, “Now that we’ve established what you are, we’re just negotiating over the price.”
Something similar just happened with the tech companies. Reversing all of their previous “hands off the internet!” argumentation about the need to keep the internet free and open, they have now embraced the logic of regulation and censorship. Now the only question is who gets to be the censor.
I also fear that Google and Apple haven’t thought very far down the game tree. One of the arguments for leaving the meta-platforms alone is that they are facially neutral with respect to content. But if Google and Apple are explicitly exercising their power over speech on moral and political grounds then they open themselves up to regulation. If code is law then don’t be surprised when the legislators demand to write the code.
The internet companies have been the beneficiary of an incredibly hand-off approach by the government. Telecom legislation in the 1990s exempted internet services from most regulation that had historically applied to telecom. It exempted internet platforms from any liability for content posted on their sites (the idea being that they were simply platforms, not publishers). They were given tax exemptions, etc.
Many attempts were made to add regulation to the internet, but these companies were able to successfully fend them off by arguing that the internet needed to remain free, open, and uncensored. For example, a great new article in the New Yorker called “Who Owns the Internet?” talks about the case of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA):
Google entered and more or less immediately took over the music business when it acquired YouTube, in 2006, for $1.65 billion in stock. As Taplin notes, just about “every single tune in the world is available on YouTube as a simple audio file (most of them posted by users).” Many of these files are illegal, but to Google this is inconsequential. Under the Digital Media Copyright Act, signed into law by President Bill Clinton shortly after Google went live, Internet service providers aren’t liable for copyright infringement as long as they “expeditiously” take down or block access to the material once they’re notified of a problem. Musicians are constantly filing “takedown” notices—in just the first twelve weeks of last year, Google received such notices for more than two hundred million links—but, often, after one link is taken down, the song goes right back up at another one. In the fall of 2011, legislation aimed at curbing online copyright infringement, the Stop Online Piracy Act, was introduced. It had bipartisan support in Congress, and backing from such disparate groups as the National District Attorneys Association, the National League of Cities, the Association of Talent Agencies, and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. In January, 2012, the bill seemed headed toward passage, when Google decided to flex its market-concentrated muscles. In place of its usual colorful logo, the company posted on its search page a black rectangle along with the message “Tell Congress: Please don’t censor the web!” The resulting traffic overwhelmed congressional Web sites, and support for the bill evaporated. (Senator Marco Rubio, of Florida, who had been one of the bill’s co-sponsors, denounced it on Facebook.)
Google and these other firms have now forfeited any moral claim to stand for an uncensored internet. They have fully embraced the logic of censorship – with themselves in the role of censor.
This might hold in the US, with its supine approach to corporations, but other countries will not so impressed. Who do you think Xi Jinping wants censoring China’s internet, himself or Mark Zuckerberg? The answer is obvious, and other countries are likely to come to the same conclusion very soon.
Even some of these corporate CEOs now seem to have belatedly discovered that because of their own actions they no longer stand on solid ground. Matthew Prince, CEO of CloudFlare, a DDoS protection service, who kicked off Nazi site the Daily Stormer after he, in his own words, “woke up in a bad mood,” wrote a WSJ op-ed saying that maybe he shouldn’t have that power:
When standing up to government requests or angry Twitter demands to silence unpopular speech, it was powerful to be able to say we’d never terminated a customer due to political pressure. I’m not sure we can say that anymore.
I’d like to fall back on the First Amendment. I’m the son of a journalist. I grew up with discussions around the dinner table on the importance of freedom of speech. But the First Amendment doesn’t compel private companies to let anyone broadcast on their platforms. Moreover, Cloudflare operates infrastructure in 70 countries, few of which have anything approaching American-style speech protections.
Yet in all nations, there is (or should be) a reasonable expectation of due process. It is the idea that no one is penalized without first receiving a fair hearing and a fair shake. In civilized societies, the law is applied equally by independent decision makers, not capriciously by mobs and tyrants.
Did we meet the standard of due process in this case? I worry we didn’t. And at some level I’m not sure we ever could. It doesn’t sit right to have a private company, invisible but ubiquitous, making editorial decisions about what can and cannot be online. The pre-internet analogy would be if Ma Bell listened in on phone calls and could terminate your line if it didn’t like what you were talking about….My moral compass alone should not determine who gets to stay online.
Prince clearly sees that by setting himself up as the arbiter of who can be online, even someone like the Daily Stormer no one is sorry to see go, he has mortally wounded his own company’s ability to resist not just the pressure of the crowd, but government pressure as well.
As a recent Axios piece by David McCabe put it, the walls are closing in on Silicon Valley’s tech giants. Conservatives are concerned about political bias from Silicon Valley’s far left politics. But a host of leftist critics are also baying at the door. The social justice crowd has some pointed questions about their hiring practices, for example. That New Yorker piece, from a center-left publication, also gives voice to concerns over concentrated power, saying:
Thirty years ago, almost no one used the Internet for anything. Today, just about everybody uses it for everything. Even as the Web has grown, however, it has narrowed. Google now controls nearly ninety per cent of search advertising, Facebook almost eighty per cent of mobile social traffic, and Amazon about seventy-five per cent of e-book sales. Such dominance, Jonathan Taplin argues, in “Move Fast and Break Things: How Facebook, Google, and Amazon Cornered Culture and Undermined Democracy” (Little, Brown), is essentially monopolistic. In his account, the new monopolies are even more powerful than the old ones, which tended to be limited to a single product or service. Carnegie, Taplin suggests, would have been envious of the reach of Mark Zuckerberg and Jeff Bezos.
And a recent must-read piece on Facebook by John Lancaster in the London Review of Books is scathing.
The fact is that fraudulent content, and stolen content, are rife on Facebook, and the company doesn’t really mind, because it isn’t in its interest to mind. Much of the video content on the site is stolen from the people who created it. An illuminating YouTube video from Kurzgesagt, a German outfit that makes high-quality short explanatory films, notes that in 2015, 725 of Facebook’s top one thousand most viewed videos were stolen. This is another area where Facebook’s interests contradict society’s. We may collectively have an interest in sustaining creative and imaginative work in many different forms and on many platforms. Facebook doesn’t. It has two priorities, as Martínez explains in Chaos Monkeys: growth and monetisation. It simply doesn’t care where the content comes from. It is only now starting to care about the perception that much of the content is fraudulent, because if that perception were to become general, it might affect the amount of trust and therefore the amount of time people give to the site.
Silicon Valley has acted, and continues to act, in a very arrogant manner. That mentality worked when they were young upstarts, but is now drawing critical attention. They seem to want to take over everything and run the world. Maybe they will. But if outside forces eventually hobble those ambitions, this period of time in which they abandoned the idea of the free internet in favor of the regulated and censored one may be seen as the turning point in their history. No one will ever take them seriously as champions of openness again.