President Donald Trump has been removed from Twitter, Facebook, Youtube, Snapchat, Twitch and Reddit.
Stripe suspended payment processing for Trump’s campaign, Shopify removed stores affiliated with Trump merchandise, and even Trump’s email providers suspended his service. Parler, a social networking app promising refuge for Trump supporters, was removed by both Apple and Google from their app stores before Amazon Web Services pulled it offline altogether. Facebook banned the Trumpist rallying cry, “Stop the Steal.”
In a world in which most communication takes place on platforms like these, that’s a lot of censorship, justified or not. Whether it’s effective is another matter.
In all cases, the rationale was pretty much the same: Trump used the internet to provoke his supporters before they stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, just as Congress was preparing to certify Joe Biden’s victory in November. Using online services to promote lies about election fraud, the reasoning went, made Trump a threat to democracy that needed to be stopped.
These are private companies, after all, with their own constitutional rights. People who disagree with their policies are free to build their own platforms. Or so the popular defense of heavy-handed content moderation goes.
It’s not quite that simple in real life. If Trump wants to create his own social network, he must also be prepared to build his own app store, cloud server, payment processor and email service to continue his theatrics online.
Still, deplatforming Trump is likely to serve as a catalyst for creating alternatives to the service providers dominating the internet. The urgency is felt not just by Trump supporters, but by foreign companies that rely on American tech infrastructure. German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Mexico’s President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador have expressed concern over Trump’s deplatforming for that very reason. French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire called big tech “one of the threats” to democracy. If Silicon Valley companies are willing to silence the president of their own country, what will they do to other world leaders?
Self-hosted infrastructure is more accessible than in the decades when tech giants accrued power. Falling hardware costs and open-source server management tools make it possible for platforms to purchase and run their own servers. Decentralized operating systems, IP address lookups and social networks make it easier to avoid any central point of control.
It’s always cheaper to turn to a tech giant that has economies of scale, but as we’ve seen with Bitcoin, people are willing to accept some cost and complexity for an alternative to a service controlled by people or institutions they don’t trust.
Back in the 1980s, it was easy to host your own social network. All you needed was a computer running a bulletin board system and a telephone landline. Anyone with a modem could dial in and post on the message board. Public discourse tended to be cordial. Posts had limited distribution, reducing the incentives for personal attacks and competitive outrage.
But now, like it or not, the owners of any central source of information have to think of themselves as arbiters of human interaction and accept the burdens that status imposes.
Twitter chief executive Jack Dorsey probably meant it when he proclaimed in 2015 that “Twitter stands for freedom of expression.” A commitment to free speech is politically expedient and avoids contentious decisions. Or at least it was and did.
All the big tech platforms would love to stop getting yelled at. As a former Facebook policy spokesperson explained, “Most big content-moderation decisions are a reaction to policy makers, negative press coverage or advertisers.” For the last four years, tech executives have resisted incessant demands from the public and their own employees to remove Trump from their platforms. Now that Trump is headed out the door, it’s easier for them to go along.
Amazon’s removal of Parler escalated censorship concerns, as infrastructure services are generally uninvolved with content moderation. In Parler’s case, Amazon Web Services hosted the data that was served in the app that a user had to download from app stores where it had already been banned.
The situation is similar to one faced by the web infrastructure company Cloudflare in 2017, when chief executive Matthew Prince lamented that it was hard to decide whether to kick a neo-Nazi website off his company’s content delivery network, comparing Cloudflare to the pipes and plumbing of the internet. Fair enough. Infrastructure providers shouldn’t feel pressured to monitor their customers’ content any more than a sewage company should be expected to examine the output of a customer’s toilet.
With the Democrats in control of Congress and Trump leaving office, tech companies could finally remove the president’s account without fear of retaliation. But basing content moderation policies on election outcomes is not a good strategy. Given the number of Republican congressmen on Parler and Democratic complaints about the power of big tech, regulation appears all but inevitable.
There may never be another online version of a true public square. And that may be fine. The distributed bulletin board known as Usenet was once a fount of knowledge, populated by university students and computer nerds with their own parlance and culture. Usenet met its demise when AOL users arrived and dragged the level of discourse into the gutter. Even Twitter was more bearable back in 2015. Trump was already on the platform, but his peanut gallery didn’t arrive until the 2017 inauguration.
It’s inevitable that unsavory communities will form on the internet. Over the weekend, Dorsey tweeted an image of the Signal messaging app along with a heart emoji. Maybe it was a hint for angry Twitter users to build their own communities elsewhere.
Elaine Ou is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist.
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