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The megalomania of US tech oligarchs is balkanising the internet

Targeted censorship and inept enforcement of terms of service are pouring fuel on the factional fire and driving millions of people to alternative platforms.

A week is a long time in tech. It’s just seven days since Amazon Web Services denied service to Parler, a social networking platform found guilty of upsetting a few activist Amazon employees. Their complaint concerned Parler’s alleged failure to remove posts inciting violence, but there was no equivalent complaint against the giant social media incumbents, despite widespread criticism of the role they played in facilitating the Capitol riot in question.

The AWS move, combined with the apparently coordinated decisions by other Silicon Valley giants to both attack Parler and exclude the US President from their platform, seem likely to mark an inflection point in the public perception of them. While many people found previously untapped reserves of laissez-faire sentiment by insisting that the tech giants are free to do whatever they want with their platforms, regardless of the wider societal consequences, it seems others have become alerted to the dangers presented by their unregulated, unaccountable power over the digital world.

Balkanization is a term used to describe the process of breaking something up into smaller, often mutually hostile parts. It’s derived from the country once known as Yugoslavia, which has a historical tendency towards separatist movements and consequent conflict. The term increasingly applies to the global community that is the internet, thanks mostly to the tendency of its largest companies to place their thumb on the scales when it comes to its policing.

The decisions by social media giants and now even infrastructure providers to exclude significant proportions of the world from the environments they control, thanks to claimed breaches of their constantly changing terms of service, couldn’t be better designed to fracture the internet. They may have succeeded in squashing Parler for now, but that has simply led to a surge in popularity for other alternatives, such as Gab. Even alternative search engines are enjoying surging popularity.

Meanwhile Facebook brilliantly managed to compound the alienation of many of its users by apparently making the long-anticipated announcement that it WhatsApp users must share their data with the mothership. As a result, and thanks in part to an endorsement from the richest man in the world, privacy-focused messaging app Signal experienced such a surge in demand that it crashed late last week.

In a free society censorship and suppression are at best a game of whack-a-mole, in which those silenced immediately seek other ways to speak. Another WhatsApp alternative is Telegram, which has also faced a recent surge in use, so the establishment now has that app in its crosshairs. Even podcasts, as a general concept, are being primed for censorship.

Thus we hear from Revolution Populi, an organisation focused on ‘returning digital power to the people’. It’s headed-up by Yale Professor of Computer Science Dr David Gelernter who, in a recent interview with ZDNet, said “Whether you are right or left, the blatant arrogance with which people like Zuckerberg and Dorsey have stepped into the political world is a shock to people who trusted these guys to be fair-mind, neutral messengers.”

Revolution Populi is all about the blockchain, which they reckon can be used to create a decentralized social media in which individuals have control over their own data. “Three or four guys have colonized the Internet, and it’s wrong,” said CEO Rob Rosenthal. “The model is broken: you can’t have a neutral public square and have one guy determine what can be said.”

The balkanization is also becoming literal, with countries and regions pushing back on the prospect of having their public square policed by a few megalomaniacal American geeks. The EU launched the Digital Services Act last month with the aim of creating ‘a safer and more open digital space, with European values at its centre.’

Poland is set to take this a step further, with a new law designed to prevent social media platforms deleting content or banning users who do not break Polish laws. National law has always been the natural limit of the jurisdiction of internet platforms over their users and the further they stray from it the more they expose themselves.

Something’s got to give. The Ugandan President recently tried to ban social media due to his resentment of its alleged meddling in Uganda’s internal politics. Whatever the reason, the unelected rulers of the internet are voting themselves new powers over the rest of the digital world every day. There will be a reckoning and the history books may reflect that early 2021 represented their high-water mark.


21 comments

  1. Avatar P S 18/01/2021 @ 2:52 pm

    How about Revolut users blocking access to their own bank accounts because they had their app installed on an unlocked device ( aka rooted?)

    a bit over the top eh?

    • Avatar John 23/01/2021 @ 10:10 am

      Use magisk, if you rooted the phone you should be able to install magisk and then hide root to apps, always refer to xda of course.

  2. Avatar Todd 18/01/2021 @ 2:56 pm

    Really!?! So companies taking such actions are exercising unbridled power which needs to be brought into check, but then certain companies zero rating or giving preference to their content and even sometimes limiting their competitors content is not? If you plan on shining a light on corporate behavior which has the ability to be abusive, at least shine it constantly.

    • Scott Bicheno Scott Bicheno 18/01/2021 @ 4:14 pm

      Strawman

  3. Avatar Andy Tiller 19/01/2021 @ 10:41 am

    The options are:
    1. Completely free, open and uncensored Internet – this is a valid and consistent position to take, but it promotes extremism and conspiracy theorists (because people love that stuff so it gets clicks, and surprisingly large numbers of people believe what they read)
    2. Government censorship – this is also a valid and consistent position, it makes the authorities take responsibility for creating good laws about what’s allowed on the Internet, and enforcing compliance with them. The trouble is mainly that it’s very hard to decide what these laws should be, and consequently the law is often inappropriate and always out of date, and meanwhile the volume of potentially illegal content grows exponentially
    3. Devolve responsibility to the tech firms to censor their platforms – this leads to the balkanisation Scott is talking about.

    Neither #1 nor #2 provides a good answer, so #3 becomes the default position.

    • Scott Bicheno Scott Bicheno 19/01/2021 @ 10:47 am

      I’ll go for #1 please boss.

      • Avatar Andy Tiller 19/01/2021 @ 3:27 pm

        Your faith in human nature is admirable, Scott 🙂 I might agree with you if people weren’t so dumb. I don’t mind 12 million Americans believing that the world is run by alien lizards https://cutt.ly/2jPHPrR, but I’m not so comfortable with the Internet magnifying anti-vaccination conspiracies.

        • Scott Bicheno Scott Bicheno 19/01/2021 @ 4:08 pm

          How many thought the US President was controlled by the Kremlin?

          • Avatar Andy Tiller 20/01/2021 @ 6:59 pm

            Well, yes – exactly! Healthy skepticism about what we read on the Internet is what we need (but are not seeing) from the public. Can we really rely on the general population to make their own grown-up assessments of all the uncensored content out there? Public education on how to read the Internet needs to be part of a holistic approach to solving this.

          • Scott Bicheno Scott Bicheno 21/01/2021 @ 9:11 am

            Education good, censorship bad.

    • Avatar Robert 19/01/2021 @ 9:35 pm

      Option 1 is the least damaging in our current stage of evolution. We need to grow up and learn to filter!

  4. Avatar Phil Harvey 19/01/2021 @ 11:51 pm

    re: ” there was no equivalent complaint against the giant social media incumbents… ”

    If you were referring to Twitter in the above bit, Twitter is an AWS customer but doesn’t run its Tweets or UGC on AWS. Parler did run its posts via AWS, so the liability (and scope of punishment) is quite different.

    • Scott Bicheno Scott Bicheno 20/01/2021 @ 9:17 am

      and?

      • Avatar Phil Harvey 20/01/2021 @ 2:29 pm

        There’s nothing more to add. I just did some reporting and filled in some details.

        • Scott Bicheno Scott Bicheno 20/01/2021 @ 2:36 pm

          Miaow! Must have been nice for you.

  5. Avatar Phil Harvey 19/01/2021 @ 11:57 pm

    re: “a social networking platform found guilty of upsetting a few activist Amazon employees… ”

    AWS said it was in conversation with Parler for several weeks before a group of Amazon employees voiced complaints. The letter it sent to Parler seems to back up that timeline.

    • Scott Bicheno Scott Bicheno 20/01/2021 @ 9:17 am

      So?

      • Avatar Phil Harvey 20/01/2021 @ 2:34 pm

        You accused the company of enacting policies to placate activists. They deserved a phone call to give them the right to reply.

        • Scott Bicheno Scott Bicheno 20/01/2021 @ 2:37 pm

          No I didn’t.

  6. Avatar Phil Harvey 20/01/2021 @ 12:13 am

    re: “it seems others have become alerted to the dangers presented by their unregulated, unaccountable power over the digital world.”

    Exactly. Totally agree. Social media companies need to be subject to smart regulation (with actual enforcement) that makes them accountable for the content they allow, encourage and promote.

    Another observation – FB and Twitter didn’t really start acting on their T&Cs until after the GA election when it became clear that every Senate and House committee in Congress will be chaired by Democrats. All investigations called, all enforcement actions recommended, etc. In my opinion, they didn’t have a change of heart as much as they saw a shift in power.

    • Scott Bicheno Scott Bicheno 20/01/2021 @ 9:18 am

      The politicisation of business is fascistic.

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