Social media companies finally get the time to reflect.

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.

Nonetheless, it has been fascinating reading the current debate raging across US media, which is entirely driven by ideology. Most liberals seem delighted, conservatives distraught, with a non-negligible centrist contingent that are somewhat troubled. There are lots of inconsistencies on display, and the debate appears to be centred on the meaning and breadth of freedom of speech. As the US has been home to a form of free speech absolutism for a long time, the current debate is mostly about trying to draw the lines of acceptable censorship. For many of us in Europe, where legal limits on speech are perfectly acceptable and desirable against hate speech, some of the debates seem rather outdated. Many of us understand the need to have some limits that exist in the law and do not rely on incomprehensible and contradictory terms of use and the good will of the feudal landlords and moderators.

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’.

 


5 Comments

Aarvi · January 10, 2021 at 7:17 pm

I strongly concur with your views, however, there is a saying that when America sneezes, the world catches cold. What Trump did is a recognised form of lawlessness easily punishable under the law. In past countries like India and Pakistan faced similar (diluted form of similar) constitutional crisis and the person responsible was booked under the law but which law is going to book big tech. It’s not American problem, remember their role in Myanmar and other jurisdictions. The whacking the mole approach that the big tech are attempting by banning any conservative Trump linked channels is going to decentralise the extremists and open rebuke is better than secret love. So, now how these extremists will united will be hard to find than before.
Another key issue is the extreme divide in every nation. I fail to understand why left think it’s only they who are democracy saviours and why right think it’s only them who are protecting social morality. It’s tiring to see the divide but with every hate post that each side does to condemn the other for failure of democracy, it’s actually failing democracy. Anything you say or criticise, you have to choose a side but why? We might blame Trump, big tech but we are equally accomplice to this hatred. Here I am talking of Capitol attack but what’s happening all over the world.
My concerns for big tech regulation is that when do we know what is within democratic boundaries and what is not? For example a country having minority starts self determination and now gather momentum on Twitter or FB, tell me how these big tech should work then because ideally they are going against the nation but again a minority wants to leave that country? Also, another scenario is Capitol incident where we knew that it was hateful attack so the ban is justified but what if it’s another country with a good leader but insurgents disrupting the nation. There are so many permutations and combinations that the very involvement of big tech is unwarranted and unacceptable. Maybe we are all changing the meaning of democracy itself, let’s see big tech version of democracy lives or ours.

Brad · January 11, 2021 at 11:45 am

You are absolutely right: taking down an entire platform is a very dangerous precedent.

One of the articles I read about de-platforming the right was on Ars Technica. One comment on the article called for conservatives to be killed, and supported this with an explicit picture of a pile of corpses. No one protested, no one called this out – instead, it was highly upvoted, and others explicitly quoted and approved the idea and the image.

Setting the blatant hypocrisy aside, the left seems utterly oblivious to the forces that they are calling into being. Today, the people being silenced are people they disagree with. Tomorrow may be different.

daviddeweerdt · January 11, 2021 at 3:45 pm

I am also concerned by the broader implications and frankly do not know how I think the pileup of issues should be sorted out. It should not be done in a rush. The Common Law’s concern with protection of the many from the State and powerful few must be carefully, judicially, applied to the digital commons. I know there are better minds like yours that will work on these issues on behalf of the rest of us. For all of us, I wish you the best of luck!

Wendy M. Grossman · January 23, 2021 at 9:13 pm

I think banning Trump and taking down Parler made sense as emergency moves – to disrupt whatever further destructive plans there may have been with the inauguration pending. Long-term, though, the actions inevitably have consequences in that the various plotters and insurrectionists are moving/have moved to other channels where they’ll be harder to monitor. The moves haven’t bought much time in which to think…

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News of the Week; January 13, 2021 – Communications Law at Allard Hall · January 20, 2021 at 9:28 am

[…] Trump, Parler, and the internet regulation fallout (Andres Guadamuz) […]

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