The New Y2K?

20 September 2018

At 22, I have had the privilege of having being raised with one foot in reality, the other in the fiction of social media. The monopoly on communication Facebook holds today hadn’t fully set in during the years that shaped my pre-adolescent self. By 2014, it certainly had, and only now are traditional media outlets and legislators noticing and anxiously catching up in their fashionably late style. Legislators have realised that monopolies such as Facebook just might have an impact on political discourse and the outcome of democratic elections, notably after the internet allegedly ‘created’ Donald Trump in 2016. Trump does not concern me. What does concern me is that well-meaning governments in the Anglosphere now feel justified in combatting the rise of those like him in a manner echoing more totalitarian approaches toward the Internet. Is our own trepidation silently ushering in the end of the internet, much as the “Y2K” millennium bug of 2000 was supposed to?

In the United Kingdom for example, Labour MP Lucy Powell put forward a motion for consideration of a bill ‘banning’ private Facebook groups, something she considers a conduit to ‘the rise of the far right’, a recurring theme in the government’s recent attempts to catch up with the potential for online political discourse. Across the channel, the European Parliament voted in favour of the Copyright Directive on September 12th, an act which even World Wide Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee claims could lead to the “death of the internet” by severely impeding the free flow of information. We should not forget that following the September 11th attacks of 2001 public appetite for a war on terror allowed organisations such as the American NSA and British GCHQ to carry out mass online-surveillance on the global public. An equally voracious appetite for a war on the so-called ‘far right’ has the potential to further strip us of our civil liberties. We later regretted this the first time around, so it is certainly something of which we must remain mindful.

If one wishes to look for early examples of censorship of ‘political extremes’ in action, one need not look further than Russia. In 2012, Russia introduced a ‘single register’ which censored IPs, URLs, and Domain names which fell under into the ‘Federal list of Extremist Activities’. This is also a good example of political censorship gone awry; the list has been frequently abused to suppress alternative ideas, online representation of the LGBT community, and of course, outspoken criticism of the federal or local government (according to NGO Freedom House). China was 10 years ‘ahead of its time’ in taking broad-brush moves against the political dangers of the internet like those suggested by Lucy Powell. The nation did not stop at private Facebook groups: it outright blocked Facebook nationally in 2009. This was a time before citizens in the Anglosphere were taking ‘social media breaks’ or even knew how to pronounce meme, let alone suggest such things may well be responsible for electing president Trump.

So just why exactly are we attempting to emulate these illiberal schemes in the name of appearing ‘woke’ to the threat of the right? Are governments in the Anglosphere remorseful for being on the wrong side of the Berlin Firewall? The European Union appears to be. Article 13 of its recently amended Copyright Directive effectively requires that all data uploaded to sites such as YouTube, Facebook, or Twitter in compliant countries must be scanned to stop users from sharing unlicensed copyrighted material, a notably Soviet approach to appeasing capitalistic license holders. Not only is this an incredible burden for smaller platforms and sites who lack the revenue to carry out this monumental task, but more worryingly, a mechanism easily applied to widespread censorship. Machine learning has already proved that highly specific information can be detected en masse when it comes to music licensed by WMG or Sony; compared to this, alleged incidences of political dissent or retroactively-identified hate speech from over ten years ago are easy pickings.

Article 11, on the other hand appears at first to be an example of beneficial “policing” of the internet. It attempts to hold the Mark Zuckerbergs of the world economically accountable, encouraging them to pay their way in the countries their service operates in. While this sounds appealing, Article 11 is effectively a compromise to the taxation deadlock the E.U. and Silicon Valley have been in for some years now. The rationale behind what critics have called the ‘link tax’ is that if sites like Facebook wish to continue to avoid greater taxation in E.U. countries they must subsidise and distribute approved regional news-outlets as a preferable alternative. When looking at Articles 13 and 11 together, it appears the E.U. is not only diminishing the potential for the individual to express ideas, but is also effectively propping up floundering sources of information in a second-rate attempt to challenge Silicon Valley’s unyielding monopoly on the online world.

While the E.U. attempts to champion an establishment comprised of copyright license holders and print-media to spite the online world, Labour MP Lucy Powell, writing in the Guardian, suggests that the ability for individuals to peacefully assemble online is the real problem. Powell states that private Facebook groups are ‘online echo chambers are normalising and allowing extremist views to go viral unchallenged’ while in the “real world”, such extremist views would be challenged. Indeed, extremist views are challenged all the time, both online and not, by people like Powell and by many others; the question is, is this the role of the state, or the services on which these debates occur?

Powell’s belief that private Facebook groups contain dangerous elements is not only state-interventionist, but reminiscent of Blair and Bush’s steadfast belief that Iraq contained weapons of mass destruction. The proposed bill cannot be justified on faith alone. In the spirit of Russia and China’s approaches, Powell doesn’t mean that radical views aren’t being ‘challenged’. What she means is that these views aren’t being punished. She may not say this in her Guardian piece, but her motion for consideration of the bill states that too few people have been prosecuted under the United Kingdom’s Communications Act, which criminalises online hate speech. When the limits of a crime are as nebulously open to expansion as ‘hate speech’ currently is, we must be cautious that such calls for prosecution of this order do not devolve into the prosecution of those merely uttering opinions that the government has officially declared hateful and off-limits.

It’s not only governments who are weighing in on the problem of political pluralism online, but naturally, the sites themselves are too. In April 2018 the U.S. summoned Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to both the Senate and House for the sale of users’ data to third parties such as the (Trump ally) Steve Bannon-funded Cambridge Analytica; this, as is argued, made Facebook complicit in swinging an election. It isn’t a new phenomenon however, but it only gained attention once its consequences pertained to the “far right”. A series of tweets by Carol Davidsen, director of media analytics for Obama for America in 2012, revealed that Facebook had done this previously, allowing the pro-Democrat organisation to “suck out the whole social graph” in order to add users to email chains. Davidsen even admitted that “[Facebook] came to office in the days following election recruiting & were very candid that they allowed us to do things they wouldn’t have allowed someone else to do because they were on our side.”

It appears Facebook is relatively unconcerned with your use of their private groups, unless that group happens to contain a large enough number of people who enjoy a particular thing. After all, Facebook’s business model is, and long has been, to harvest data on personal habits and sell it to advertisers; it is little wonder that political campaigns use this in the same manner as, for example, detergent companies, but with far greater consequences. While the focus here is on the CEOs who attempt to stick close to the ruling party, the issue remains the same: liberal-minded nation states are anxious to control the genie that is social media, and it has long escaped their bottle.

After almost 30 years of its existence, we are still adjusting to the nature of public discourse on the world wide web. The knee-jerk reaction of nation-states in the last ten years has been to strip the web of its ‘world-wide’ status wherever possible, and then nationally control the information that is available. It is only now that we face not only limitation but the threat of punishment. Perhaps this will be the real “Y2K”: the internet, in its accessible form, is certainly due to ‘shrink’ on account of the Copyright Directive if, as is likely, it passes a final vote in January 2019. To my mind, it is the right of everyone in an audience to listen and hear, should they want to. Upon silencing someone, you are denying yourself the right to hear something, perhaps this is something the West is forgetting. In all these cases, your right to be exposed to information is as much involved as is the right of the other to express their perhaps outrageous or appalling views. In the past, we have been complicit in eroding our civil liberties in the name of preventing terrorism following 9/11, and have regretted it. Once again, we are zealously repeating this pattern in an attempt to stop ‘far-right’ threats, but, once again, we are unlikely to find any recognisable ‘weapons of mass destruction’ other than, perhaps, the odd meme whose punchline didn’t land.