On the other side of the Atlantic, there’s a shitstorm brewing over censorship, communications, and the right of private companies to censor and edit what you say and do online. We’ve felt its chilly gusts before, but the winds which threatened to become gales always petered out before any major damage was done to the structure and landscape known as the internet.
As right now, gusts from the ongoing Trump / Twitter spat look set to strengthen into a force nine hurricane which could destroy the online world as we know and love it.
The American president is not a discreet man.
We think it’s fair to assume that even his most ardent supporters and followers appreciate that their leader may not always think things through before saying them. And the tweets which fly from his fingers at 3am may not always be the most considered, accurate, or truthful statements ever made.
Here at Planet Earth Press, we’re not American, and what news we receive about the doings and sayings of the US chief of staff is filtered through the lens of what we consider to be sensible publications.
But many people do listen to him, and without doing further critical research are happy to drink aquarium cleaner, take dangerous, unproven drugs , or whatever other steam of consciousness bullshit pours from his mouth and his fingers.
Twitter is not a public platform in the same way that a shopping mall is not actually a public space. It’s privately owned, and as long as the public keeps revenue streams rolling in and doesn’t behave too egregiously, they’re not going to kick anyone out.
Like a big spender who shits on the floor of a mall car showroom before buying a LaFerrari Aperta and recommending his wealthy friends do the same, Mr Trump would have to behave very badly indeed to be escorted from the building.
That doesn’t mean that mall management can’t stick a security guard with him to try and make sure he behaves himself and to warn other patrons of the big steaming pile in the entrance to Ikea.
In essence, that’s what Twitter management has done. They want to keep Mr Trump inside the mall, attracting other visitors and maintaining a steady cash flow for them, but they also want to warn people that the parasite-laden droppings he leaves behind can, like Hydroxychloroquine, cause you to go blind.
A content warning for factually untrue information or outright lies isn’t too much of a big deal is it? Most users posting the same content as Mr Trump would be banned from the platform without warning or argument.
Yeah but no but yeah.
Twitter is censoring Mr Trump. Yes, he really needs it, and yes, his statements are some mixture of harmful, wrong, and malicious, and yes they are legally allowed to do it.
The issue is bigger than Twitter and it’s bigger than the US president (difficult as that is to believe).
The unfortunate fact is that for most people, almost all online communication is done through privately owned platforms and your communications and data whether they’re public facing or not, can be scanned censored or altered.
Twitter’s reasons for vetting Mr Trump’s statements are sound and we have no problem with them at all. Twitter operates a privately owned public space, they can do what the hell they want.
We’re going to make a few assumptions here.
You use either Gmail or Outlook for email. You use either Google Drive, Dropbox, or Onedrive for storage. If you own a website or blog, it’s probably hosted on the Blogger platform or Amazon Web Services, or Google servers.
Your online services are probably all owned and operated by private companies, all of which have the legal power and technical ability to monitor your emails, your ‘secure’ storage, your website and your blogs.
We’re leaving Facebook out of this because frankly, we couldn’t give a shit about Facebook users.
Google scans your emails for advertising reasons, to train its AI, and for somewhat nebulous legal purposes. It’s not really a secret, and most people know this and carry on using the service anyway. But what if they found that the content of your communications was potentially harmful to the recipient? Could they censor that? Could they boot you on the strength of something you said in a private conversation. Of course they could. You agreed to certain terms when you signed up.
“don’t abuse or harm others or yourself (or threaten or encourage such abuse or harm) — for example, by misleading, defrauding, defaming, bullying, harassing, or stalking others… This license allows Google to modify your content.”
Google already actively censors users by preventing them from sending or receiving certain types of file using the gmail ‘service.’
And what about your online storage – the cloud as it’s colloquially known these days? Google has you covered there as well, and reports have been surfacing about Google dipping into people’s drives to delete documentaries which have been classified as harmful.
Google is a privately owned company. Its supposedly private spaces such as email and storage aren’t private at all – you don’t own them and you don’t have rights. You’re sleeping in a high class hotel room for free on the understanding that there are cameras in the wall, in the light fittings, and inspecting the contents of your porn collection.
The storm that’s brewing between Twitter and the US president has the potential to blow that hotel down. If hosting platforms are to be held liable for their users content, as Mr Trump seems bent on making happen, the snooping, the censorship, and the file deletions will only get worse.
In our opinion that’s a good thing.
Because who wants to use a platform like that? With services such as Google, Twitter and Amazon being forced to do their snooping openly, users are going to start looking for alternatives. They may even start hosting their own services, sites, and feeds on webservers at home where they have physical possession of the hardware, and can run open source software to interact with others out in the world.
Imagine a truly decentralised internet, where Twitter and Facebook have been replaced by self hosted instances of Mastodon and diaspora, and where Google focuses its efforts back on search instead of surveillance capitalism. It would be nice. It would be fairer, and it would be a little more like how the internet was meant to be.