The events of last week require no introduction. The world looked in shock as the QAnon-MAGA mob stormed the US Capitol, disrupting the certification process for the US election. Disbelief, anger, sadness, in some circles. In others glee at the decay of a once great democracy. For me it felt like watching The Crown, where you can tell the exact point in which a country stops being what it once was.
The riot shocked everyone, but it was felt specially hard in technology circles. There was a small period of self-reflection in which tech giants finally asked themselves “are we the baddies?” The weight of history was perhaps felt for the first time in Silicon Valley, so retribution was swift. In a couple of days Donald J. Trump had been practically eradicated from social media, and the conservative social media app Parler had been removed from Apple and Google app stores, and then most importantly Amazon removed it from Amazon Web Services, practically knocking it out of the Internet.
I will not argue at length about the merits of Trump’s Twitter ban. I understand why it was done, and that there is considerable intelligence that there’s clear and present danger of further incitement to violence. Trump has been exhibiting behaviour that would have had him banned for a long time, so this should come as no surprise. However much I despise him, the ban leaves me troubled for reasons that I can’t quite express. I’m left feeling like a person who has spent the last four years waiting to go on holiday, only to arrive to a broken down hotel with horrible food and bad service. In short, I’m worried that this could have darker implications down the road, and that the happiness felt by many will be short-lived.
But the real debate is yet to come. We can expect further calls to demolish section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, an act that could have deep implications for internet regulation. Any change to the law could leave platforms open to liability, and there are clear battle lines between its defenders and detractors. I tend to be in favour of maintaining a limitation of liability for technology services, but the next couple of years will bring about considerable pressure on the principles in which the modern Internet was built. These are already under attack in Europe, so Trump’s ban could trigger regulatory action to further erode those limits. Already in the UK, Health secretary Matt Hancock has used Trump’s ban to call for further curbs to technology platforms.
I have found Parler’s demise more troublesome for various reasons. While it is almost certain that Parler will survive, the bans that it received serve as evidence of just how entrenched is the practical centralisation of the Internet. The fact that there are platforms that hold such power over apps should be troubling for anyone who is interested in maintaining an open and free internet. I’m happy with banning users from a service, even if I may disagree with some decisions from time to time. But the removal of an entire platform seems to be more problematic. I still remember how they tried to attack peer-to-peer technology because of infringement, and the various attacks to end-to-end encryption. Banning an entire platform should always be discouraged, I’m sure that we would all like to think of all of those inhabiting Parler as radicalised troglodytes, it’s just another platform with potential for good and bad uses. I also fear that this will drive the radicals further to darker sites, entrenching their conspiracy theories.
Furthermore, I have noticed an increasing split between US commentators and international audiences about the bans. I quipped on Twitter that there’s growing realisation at the international level that we’re all at the mercy of a few Silicon Valley billionaires, and I think that this is perhaps the most worrying element of this. The show of power exhibited by quasi-monopolistic centralised services has been eye-opening for many, and while I and others have been warning about the dangers of growing centralisation for over a decade, it is interesting to see more people noticing that this is not the Internet that we loved.
Finally, I have been surprised by the lack of accountability in traditional media to what has happened. It is evident that social media and Internet platforms have acted as hotbeds of radicalisation, and are rightfully being castigated for their share in the mess we’re in with regards to the spread of disinformation. But the Internet was not alone in the rise of Trumpism, the mainstream media happily shared disinformation, and often was the source of quite a lot of it. Yes, Parler was being used to spread hatred, but so are Fox News, Newsmax, the Daily Mail, The Sun, and OANN.
Whatever happens in the next few weeks, I suspect that Internet regulation is about to become one of the hottest legal topics in the World.
Buckle up, the ride is about to get bumpy. Edited suggestion: ‘Buckle your seatbelt Dorothy, because internet regulation is going bye-bye’.