deplatforming

Latest round of online deplatforming shows why we need increased competition and decentralization

Another week means another politically-charged rampage of deplatforming of social media profiles and entire social media networks.

Following the storming of the U.S. Capitol by some of his supporters, President Trump was promptly suspended from Twitter and Facebook and later dozens of Internet services including Shopify and Twitch.

Even the image-sharing site Pinterest, famous for recipes and DIY project presentations, has banned Trump and any mention of contesting the 2020 Election. He’ll have to go without sourdough recipes and needlework templates once he’s out of office.

Beyond Trump, entire social media networks have also been put in the crosshairs following the troubling incursion on Capitol Hill. The conservative platform Parler, a refuge for social media dissidents, has since had its app pulled from the Google and Apple stores and had their hosting servers suspended by Amazon’s web service company AWS.

This pattern of removing unsavory profiles or websites isn’t just a 2021 phenomenon. The whistleblower website Wikileaks – whose founder Julian Assange remains in prison without bail in the UK awaiting extradition to the United States – was similarly removed from Amazon’s servers in 2012, as well as blacklisted by Visa, Mastercard, PayPal, and their DNS provider. Documents reveal both public and private pressure by then U.S. senator and Intelligence Committee Chairman Joe Lieberman was instrumental in choking Wikileaks off from these services.

Then it was politicians pressuring companies to silence a private organization. Now, it’s private organizations urging companies to silence politicians.

However the pendulum swings, it’s entirely reasonable for companies that provide services to consumers and institutions to respond quickly to avoid risk. Whether it’s due to governmental decree or public backlash, firms must respond to incentives that ensure their success and survival.

Whether it’s Facebook, Twitter, Gab, or Parler, they can only exist and thrive if they fulfill the wishes and demands of their users, and increasingly to the political and social pressures placed on them by a cacophony of powerful forces.

It’s an impossible tightrope.

It is clear that many of these companies have and will continue to make bad business decisions based on either politics or perception of bias. They are far from perfect.

The only true way we can ensure a healthy balance of information and services provided by these companies to their consumers is by promoting competition and decentralization.

Having diverse alternative services to host servers, provide social networks, and allow people to communicate remains in the best interest of all users and consumers.

Such a mantra is difficult to hold in today’s hostile ideological battleground inflated by Silicon Valley, Washington, and hostile actors in Bejing and Moscow, but it is necessary.

In the realm of policy, we should be wary of proposed solutions that aim to cut off some services at the expense of others.

Repealing Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, for example, would be incredibly harmful to users and firms alike. If platforms become legally liable for user content, it would essentially turn innovative tech companies into risk-averting insurance companies that occasionally offer data services. That would be terrible for innovation and user experience.

And considering the politically charged nature of our current discourse, anyone could find a reason to cancel you or an organization you hold dear – meaning you’re more at risk for being deplatformed.

At the same time, axing Section 230 would empower large firms and institutions that already have the resources to manage content policing and legal issues at scale, locking out many start-ups and aspiring competitors who otherwise would have been able to thrive.

When we think of the towering power of Big Tech and Big Government, some things can be true all at the same time. It can be a bad idea to use antitrust law to break up tech firms as it will deprive consumers of choice, just as these companies are guilty of making bad business decisions that will hurt their user base. How we respond to that will determine how consumers will continue to be able to use online services going forward.

All the while, every individual Internet user and organization has it in their power to use competitive and diverse services. Anyone can start up an instance of Mastodon (as I have done), a decentralized micro-blogging service, host a private web server on a Raspberry Pi (coming soon), or accept Bitcoin rather than credit cards.

Thanks to competition and innovation, we have consumer choice. The question is, though, if we’re courageous enough to use them.

Yaël Ossowski is deputy director at the Consumer Choice Center.

The Social Media ‘Deplatforming Purge’ Will Only Make the Internet a Seedier Place

At the dawn of the social media revolution, our first instincts were on the money.

Instantaneous communication, blogging and social networks were the ultimate innovations for free speech. Millions of people were given a voice beyond the reach of traditional gatekeepers. It was glorious.

Now that we’ve lived through two decades of this revolution, however, the gatekeepers have returned.

Facebook has banned several controversial account holders from its site and related properties such as Instagram, including conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, radical black nationalist minister Louis Farrakhan, and a whole host of alt-right commentators.

The company says they’ve been removed as they’re classified as “dangerous individuals and organizations” who “promote or engage in violence and hate, regardless of ideology.”

YouTube underwent a similar process in March, shutting down the accounts of hundreds of conservative voices in response to pressure from activists who seek to “deplatform” those with whom they disagree.

In a way, it’s difficult to place blame directly at the feet at the platforms like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. They’re only reacting to the feverish outcry of politicians in Washington and the new mantra of social justice that pervades major cities across the nation.

Banning fringe voices from social media networks may be popular among tech and political elites, but it will only further embolden the people with truly dangerous ideas.

The fresh wave of censorship is being led by the reaction to the actions of the deranged terrorist, motivated by very bad ideas, who opened fire on peaceful worshippers at mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, in March, killing 51 people and leaving 41 injured.

He livestreamed the entire rampage, peppering his deadly killing spree with commentary and phrases found on seedy online chat rooms and websites.

Political leaders in western nations want global regulations on the social media platforms used by the shooter, which you or I use everyday to communicate with our friends and family.

In the rush to prevent another attack, however, we should be warned against any crackdown on social media and Internet freedom. These are the tools of dictatorships and autocracies, not freedom-loving democracies.

But penalizing social media companies and its users for a tragic shooting that took place in real life abrogates responsibility for the individual alleged of this attack, and seeks to curb our entire internet freedom because of one bad actor.

What’s more, trying to play whack-a-mole with bad ideas on the internet in the form of bans or criminal liability will only embolden the seediest of platforms while putting unreasonable expectations on the major platforms. And that leads us to miss the point about this tragedy.

Social media platforms like Facebook or Twitter already employ tens of thousands of moderators around the world to flag and remove content like this, and users share in that responsibility. It will be up to these platforms to address concerns of the global community, and I have no doubt their response will be reasonable.

But on the other hand, this tragedy occurs in the context in which Big Tech is already being vilified for swinging elections, censoring speech of conservatives, and not reacting quickly enough to political demands on which content should be permissible or not.

As such, we are set to hear anti-social media proposals that have very little to do with what happened on that tragic day in Christchurch in idyllic New Zealand.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison wants the G20 to discuss global penalties for social media firms that allow questionable content. Democrats like Sen. Elizabeth Warren, among many congressional Republicans, want to use antitrust regulations to break up Facebook.

A recent national poll found that 71 percent of Democratic voters want more regulation of Big Tech companies.

In the wake of a tragedy, we should not succumb to the wishes of the terrorist who perpetuated these attacks. Overreacting and overextending the power of our institutions to further censor and limit online speech would be met with glee by the killer and those who share his worldview. Reactionary policies to shut these voices out so they cannot read or listen to alternative views will only embolden them and make the internet a seedier place.

Many individuals and companies are now fully reliant on social media platforms for connecting with friends, attracting customers or expressing their free speech. They are overwhelmingly a force for good.

Yes, internet subcultures exist. Most of them, by definition, are frequented by very small numbers of people who are marginalized. But clamping down on social media will only radicalize this minority in greater numbers, and maybe lead to more blowback.

Cooler heads must prevail. Social media does more good than harm, and we cannot use the actions of a fraction of a minority to upend the experience for billions of users.

We can use these tools to condemn and prevent extremist ideas and behavior rather than the force of law or outright bans of controversial figures who make convenient targets.

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