This is part 2 in a series on the past, present, and future of the Internet
“De-platforming” is a bad framing of an important concept. Not being able to find a company to make your presence on the Internet easy is fundamentally different from having a government actively blocking access to you. We should be asking why these companies are choosing to allow the use of their platforms for hatespeech, violence, and undermining democracy instead of asking why specific people or companies doing this are being “de-platformed”, as if a right to free speech somehow guarantees also a right to a soapbox and a megaphone.
Let’s take Parler’s journey, but you could sub in Gab, 8chan, or a host of other extremist sites.
But c’mon. Parler was going full-tilt at getting kicked off the “easy mode” of the major internet platforms from the start. Their incredibly lax content moderation combined with active courting of a violent extremist groups was going to end up in at best some drawn out legal wranglings and/or a perhaps slower and more planned bouncing from host to host until it found a site that would not kick it out. There is no reason not to cheer for its boot from easy and popular cloud hosting into … whatever collection of solutions it will manage to continue to cobble together.
How good things happen through a collection of bad things.
Let’s talk about the various platforms which provided space for hatespeech.
First up, Twitter, Facebook, Youtube, and more. Imagine if any of these had followed their own content moderation principles … well, at any point in history? How many horrible events could have simply not happened or have been not magnified. We should have community standards, and we should expect them to be applied fairly. At some level, these sites have grown too large and with specific business and design decisions which have undermined most reasonable attempts for communities to self-moderate, which is a separate and important issue. That said, sometimes people are shown the door. Getting kicked off of major social media platforms is often seen as an accomplishment, and honestly I wish it happened more and more reliably. Ongoing presence on major platforms is seen as a sign of broad societal acceptance, and that very specifically creates a dangerous echo chamber for extremist thought.
App Stores Both Google and Apple also kicked Parler out of their app stores. For Android, this is not impossible for users to get around; but on iOS it requires relatively difficult options. Anyone with the app still loaded will be theoretically able to use the resurrected app; but it will have a hard time getting new users, and they will be forced to use the mobile website version. App store censorship hits a bit different than platforms – it erodes user control over the devices they’ve paid for; and can put users at risk by blocking apps which could provide them safe, censorship-free paths onto the global Internet. Here though, Apple/iOS is actually a problem case, as there’s simply not a responsible path to side-load apps. Apple made this decision for calculated gains on security, but it has serious costs in a world where Apple blocks human rights-protecting apps in certain locations as well as tightly control their own app store - but of course, Apple has backed off and is re-allowing the app.
And next; Amazon/AWS and Cloudflare “Censorship” at this more infrastructure-y level is not unheard of, but is much more rare (reminder, Amazon still hosts National Enquirer, which … uh… well, I’ll bet Jeff Bezos isn’t a subscriber?) I am actually impressed Amazon acted here. Cloudflare, in their decision to stop providing services to The Daily Stormer, gave a good walk-through of potential places to regulate content online. Related to this decision, Cloudflare’s CEO, Matthew Prince is quoted from an internal memo as saying “No one should have that power.” (to kick someone off the Internet). I… agree? But I disagree that Cloudflare (or AWS) has this unilateral power. Cloudflare refused to continue providing services to a site. Yes, this had substantial impact on the site, but there are other services which appear to not have such concerns, and they did come back online, but not without some challenges.
Even deeper: Infrastructure and Domain Name Registrars One group which has largely avoided this discussion thus far has been DNS registrars - the companies providing the key link between the domain names and the actual servers behind them. DNS providers have faced increasing pressure here as well, with sites bouncing around, adding new names, and eventually ending up at a registrar of last resort or using options that don’t rely on the DNS system directly.
You can lose this all and still not be censored!
Yes, this has all been a protracted explanation of an xkcd comic
Even if you fall all the way down the entire stack, there are multiple options you can use to keep your content, no matter how vile it is, available – but you suddenly have to do work.
Being booted from social media is hard, but you can continue to publish on your own site and on other platforms. If you get kicked off of hosting providers, it gets significantly more difficult. There are many good and detailed descriptions of why these not-quite-monopoly monopolies like AWS or Cloudflare are incredibly difficult to swap out for other vendors, but it is possible. Once we get to app stores and DNS, we are definitely in the “hard mode” of staying online. So sure, it’s maybe a bit nervous making that these are increasingly centralized, and that these “lower level” core infrastructure businesses are wading in to content moderation, but … I’m just really struggling to give a flying fuck here.
The reality is that “de-platforming” works, and it limits the spread of dangerous disinformation and hatespeech, and de-platforming is not censorship. A right to express your opinion does not provide a right to a megaphone, and none of these companies are somehow morally or contractually bound to serve horrific content on anyone’s behalf.
So yes, you should be pissed off about a centralized Internet infrastructure and quasi-monopoly companies controlling enormous power online; but focus this concern less on an edge case and more on the broader problem here. Let’s be worried about which laws and governments and online pressure campaigns these systems respond to, let’s consider different framings of what platforms and infrastructure really are but let’s also accept that regardless, there is a path forward for whoever – “good” or “bad” – is kicked off of these to continue to speak their piece.
Free Speech actually is free (and open source) – but not easy.
So you’ve been kicked off of the major platforms, and you no longer have their massive technology to use as a soapbox. Have fun setting up your 100% from scratch on self-hosted infrastructure. Welcome to your email and sites being outright blocked while also getting DDoS’ed into silence. Welcome to working to inform your community on how to connect over onion sites, and how to discuss safe side-loading of apps.
It turns out there is an incredibly resilient safety net for free speech – in an amazing set of decentralized, secure tools that were built to be the last line of defense for this universal human right. But free speech, when you don’t get a global amplification platform for free, actually takes both a lot of work – and an authentic and dedicated community.
If this sounds hard, it is. I have the amazing privilege to serve and work with communities around the world fighting for a chance at equality, at recognition, and simply for their own safety. Building community and exercising one’s human right of free expression can be hard, and it can be dangerous.
Does this all mean these same tools that are the last and only vanguard for free speech also get used for hate speech? Yes, it does. This is the tip of the iceberg of a constant and raging debate. I choose to share the belief that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice” (as quoted by MLK. Communities using on these tools to pursue equal rights will inevitably prevail, and those hiding behind them to spread hate speech and discord will wither.
Freedom of expression is a universal right, but not always an easy one.