Last year the US Congress passed SESTA/FOSTA, an "anti-sex-trafficking bill" that has resulted in the shuttering of all the services formerly used by sex workers to vet their johns, massively increasing the personal physical risk borne by sex-workers and reinvigorating the dying pimping industry, as sex workers seek out protectors.
Not incidentally, SESTA/FOSTA has led to an overall hair-trigger on the part of platform operators, who — facing massive liability for allowing a single prostitution ad through — have simply shut down the places where sexuality is discussed (even Craigslist shut down adult-oriented message section).
Then, last month, the EU passed the Copyright Directive with Article 13 intact, forcing platforms to filter user speech — including images, sounds, videos and every other copyrightable media, down to Minecraft mods — for "copyright infringement," at a massive cost that will destroy small and independent forums for communication. The system has no checks and balances, allowing anyone to claim copyright over anything to see it censored Europe-wide — it doesn't even allow platforms to ignore future claims from known hoaxters or censors.
Then, in the wake of the Christchurch mosque attacks, Australia — already a world leader in shitty internet policy — passed a law requiring platforms to remove "extremist" or "violent" content within an hour. Getting it wrong means fines of up to 10% of global gross revenue.
And now, the British Parliament, in a bid to cement its status as the decade's most dysfunctional of all legislatures, is considering legislation that would create a Chinese-style internet censorship ministry that would instruct the country's ISPs and online services about which subjects are and are not permissible, and force them to monitor all user communication in order to prevent any "illegal content" from appearing online. Domestic services that do not comply will face fines or shutdown, and noncompliant foreign services will be stopped at the border with the Great Firewall of Cameron — the national, secret, unaccountable, unappealable blacklist created in 2015 under the rubric of preventing children from seeing (otherwise legal) pornography.
Since the earliest days of the internet, there has been a fringe movement that wanted to shut it down and replace it with something like cable TV: a system where all expressive material is first vetted by lawyers who have an eye on an errors-and-omissions insurance policy. Under that system, the billion-channel internet would be replaced with the 1980s dream of a "500-channel cable universe" where there was plenty to see, but precious little room to be seen.
Along the way, different constituencies have joined forces, alarmed by threats, some of which are grave (online harassment, the rise of white supremacist movements, recruiting for jihadi fighters) and some of which are parochial (bluenosed rage at information and images of consensual sexual acts between adults, or frank discussion of recreational drugs, or information about assisted suicide, or penny-ante copyright infringement). These unlikely bedfellows have — like the blind men and the elephant — found a corner of the internet that alarms them and advocated for its shutdown or regulation without regard to the impact this would have on everyone else.
This is not to say that it's impossible to address these problems online: just that any solution that takes account of all equities and interests — cybersecurity, free speech, privacy, etc — will be leaky around the edges. And rather than tolerate those leaks, we've created regimes that have centralized power on the internet into the hands of a few giant tech companies, while making it effectively impossible to build a new and better system, and (again, not incidentally), giving authoritarian states easy levers to grasp if they want to control public discourse in their borders.
Ironically, the big platforms are both accelerants and beneficiaries of this crackdown on online speech. Whenever they are faced with real problems created by their centralized power and central role in our social, civil and political lives, they publish high-minded, impossible promises about how they will solve these problems. Then, when they fail to live up to these promises, we "punish" them by imposing more duties on them that make it harder for anyone else to compete with them, and make it even harder to break up their monopolies into pieces small enough to manage — because those pieces will also be too small to manage the duties we've piled on them.
The reality is that the reason Facebook fails to be a wise steward to 2B+ peoples' lives is that no one is qualified to be the steward of 2B+ peoples' lives (see also: why Google isn't qualified to be the single authoritative source of answers to every query, and why Apple isn't qualified to decide which software everyone who owns its products get to use).
In China, the growth of massive tech platforms has been an essential part of the national controls on speech and dissent. Centralizing power into a few platforms creates bottlenecks that serve as sites for control and surveillance. And while China's tech platforms wield incredible economic and infrastructural power, they are also so thoroughly interwoven with — and dependent on — the state for that power, that they are virtually guaranteed never to wield it against the state.
We are witnessing the realtime, high-speed Chinafication of the western internet, at a pace that can only be described as "shock and awe." There has never been a moment at which the motto "hard cases make bad law" was more true. The monopolization of the internet isn't just a side-effect of the rise of authoritarian governments: it is a necessary precondition for it. I've genuinely scared about what's going on in the world's legislatures. The forces of control and reaction have weaponized our legitimate grievances against the tech platforms, and, in the name of "taming them," now propose to crown them as eternal emperors of our online lives, with authoritarian states serving as regents who use their power to dictate our lives to the finest extent.
Both EFF and the UK Open Rights Group are fighting this in the UK, and could use your help. But even more so, I ask you — beg you — when your friends start to talk approvingly of "punishing" the platforms, ask them to consider whether these are really punishments, or just a quid-pro-quo in which the platforms trade being tasked with policing functions in exchange for being granted the eternal right to dominate our lives.
Honestly, if you think Facebook, Google, Twitter, Apple, Amazon and the other companies suck at moderating content now, how will it be that making them moderate faster, with stiff penalties for failing to block things both quickly and broadly, will make any kind of improvement?
An as-yet undefined internet regulator would be created to enforce the rules, with tools that go beyond the typical fines. The regulator could block offending sites from being accessed in the UK, and force other companies—like app stores, social media sites, and search engines—to stop doing business with offenders. The regulator could even hold executives personally accountable for offenses, which could mean civil fines or criminal liability.
Among the new requirements, the regulator would be expected to specify "an expedient timeframe for the removal of terrorist content" in cases like the Christchurch, New Zealand shootings, and outline steps for companies "to prevent searches which lead to terrorist activity and/or content." There would be similar rules for dealing with hate crimes. The rules also would require that companies "ensure that algorithms selecting content do not skew towards extreme and unreliable material in the pursuit of sustained user engagement."
Critics, while endorsing some of the goals of the proposals, say they may be unattainable in practice. Among other things, they pointed to the lack of specifics in the definition of "harmful." In a statement, Jim Killock, executive director of the UK's Open Rights Group, a nonprofit that advocates for privacy and free speech online, said the proposal would unfairly regulate "the speech of millions of British citizens" and would have "serious implications for legal content that is deemed potentially risky, whether it really is or not."
The UK's Tech Backlash Could Change the Internet [Paris Martineau/Wired]