I belong to the generation lovingly known as the millennials. I grew up with the Internet. I lived through the rise and fall of IRC, AIM, MySpace, and now Facebook. I have friends today who I met on IRC in the 90s, and we’re still friends today, albeit the medium has changed (these days we use Telegram).
I owe the Internet everything: it taught me how to write software, it helped me emigrate to a new country, find jobs (including a job at one very successful Internet company), apartments, roommates, how to make friends, where to find friends, how to dress like a respectable person, how to fix and repair things, and much more. If not for the Internet, I doubt I would have found the same level of success in life as I have today.
The Internet has profoundly affected the world, largely for the better. The free flow of information has made it very difficult for public figures to engage in nefarious activities, and has largely increased accountability. The Internet has given birth to new language and terminology, and we can thank the Internet for the Streisand effect, which is what happens when you try to censor things which are newsworthy. The Internet has lifted an untold number of people out of poverty, and provided them with the information they need to succeed.
At the same time, the Internet has made it easy for misinformation to spread, such as the “fake news” clickbait phenomenon of the 2016 US election. The Internet has also created the “1099 economy”, which is the phenomenon of US Internet companies bypassing minimum wage laws and their obligation to provide benefits to employees by pretending they’re contractors.
That last point brings me to my thesis: I believe that–excluding climate change, nuclear war, or an asteroid–the biggest threat to humanity is Internet censorship.
Tim Berners-Lee recently published a letter on the 30th birthday of the Web (which is related to, but not quite the same thing as the Internet). In that letter, he outlined some of the dysfunction the Internet has:
Tim is spot on. Especially #2 and #3. The first bullet describes something that exists with or without the Internet, so I’m going to ignore it. The second two bullets, however, describe a big problem on the Internet today due to the the combination of an advertising-based funding model, and the virality of clickbait content.
The next paragraph is where Tim’s letter takes a turn:
Here’s where Tim and I start to diverge in opinion. The reason for the Internet’s success is that it has not suffered from stifling regulation and political correctness. The freedom of the Internet means that information is difficult to hide or censor. This is not true within walled garden platforms like YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, or Instagram. Those ad platforms are proud of their censorship.
The Internet should not take sides. The Internet’s place is not in deciding what’s right and wrong, what’s moral, or what’s fashionable. The Internet is just a platform that should forever remain unrestricted, unfettered, and uncensored.
Let’s talk about incentives
Why are the Internet giants censoring content? The answer is quite simple: each of these platforms earns they keep in the same way, by generating advertising revenue. Thus, their customers are the people buying ads, not their users. Their platforms are optimized for the best interests of advertisers, not users.
All these platforms have arrived at the nearly same formula that’s incredibly effective. What do advertisers want? Engagement. How do you get engagement? Outrage. What do advertisers pay for? Eyeballs. How do you get eyeballs? Clickbait. How do you keep users coming back? Dopamine. How do you generate dopamine? Notifications, likes, subscribes. It’s a virtuous cycle.
At this point, most people can see why this is bad, and how it’s time to do something about it. Tim’s definitely right about that. But censorship is the wrong thing to do. The way to combat these closed, toxic platforms is with open platforms.
Reacting to current events
After the recent NZ terror attack, I noticed there was a reaction in mainstream media focused on the wrong issue: a bunch of articles popped up about how Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube were scrambling to censor the video on their platforms.
Why were they censoring it? Presumably because advertisers don’t want their ads shown alongside that content. They might tell a different story (“the poor children don’t want to see gore!”–the curiosity of my 12 year old self disagrees), but their incentives say otherwise.
Censoring the content is wrong: it’s akin to book burning. I certainly don’t condone glorifying the terrorists, but censoring the evidence is wrong.
Censorship is wrong because it restricts the flow of information, information which might otherwise be used to learn from. In a world where the flow of information is restricted, we would live in a delusional state, a sort of fiction. Reality is no longer reality, it’s an opinion, a story, it’s someone’s spin or personal take.
Censorship is a form of rewriting history. Anyone with something to gain or lose, such as big media companies, are going to actively engage in rewriting history on their platform to pad the bottom line. In fact, they might go so far as to hire people to rewrite history on Wikipedia.
Lucky for us, you can’t censor history on Wikipedia, and it provides a transparent log of all history. It’s easy to see when someone has been trying to rewrite Wikipedia articles. However, most Internet companies do not hold themselves to the same high standard that Wikipedia does.
Companies like Facebook and Google operate completely in the dark, and under a cloak of secrecy. They do this because it’s easier for them to hide their actual intent from the public, which is–first and foremost–to maximize shareholder value. There’s nothing wrong with companies trying to maximize shareholder value, but there is something wrong with them lying their actions and their incentives.
What if governments mandate censorship?
My thesis here is that censorship is a huge threat to freedom, liberty, and prosperity. Governments are becoming less and less relevant over time, especially as the Internet has largely made governments obsolete. The fact that we still elect representatives to governments in a time when every citizen can participate directly in democracy is a joke.
So what happens if governments start to pass laws to censor information which usurps their power? That, I’m afraid, is where the problems will start. Dealing with the Zuckerberg bullshit is one thing: but what happens if the government starts blocking “bad” websites or putting people in jail for sharing the wrong ideas?
Under the guise of “safety” or “security”, governments will use tragedies to pass sweeping laws that erode civil liberties. In fact, this has already happened. The Patriot Act, for example, was passed with very little opposition, and it essentially gave law enforcement a carte blanche over anyone they even suspect of being a bad guy.
When it comes to information, I do not want protection. I do not want safety. I do not want curation. I do not want your opinions, either. I want the facts, and just the information, without your spin.
What can we do?
We, as normal people, can choose to reject censorship. Demand censorship resistant platforms. Demand an uncensored Internet. Demand censorship resistant money, like cash and Bitcoin. Reject platforms that force censorship upon users.
About me: I’m an artist, blogger, programmer, and all-round very Internet-y person. You can follow me on Twitter if you’d like.