“Men fear thought as they fear nothing else on earth – more than ruin, more even than death.
Thought is subversive and revolutionary, destructive and terrible; thought is merciless to privilege, established institutions, and comfortable habits; thought is anarchic and lawless, indifferent to authority, careless of the well-tried wisdom of the ages.
Thought looks into the pit of hell and is not afraid. It sees man, a feeble speck, surrounded by unfathomable depths of silence; yet it bears itself proudly, as unmoved as if it were lord of the universe.
Thought is great and swift and free, the light of the world, and the chief glory of man.”— Bertrand Russell
One of the most momentous events in recent Internet history was when Cloudflare kicked a neo-Nazi website off the Internet. In stark contrast to Cloudflare’s sincere concern over what they had done, Apple’s Tim Cook declared that it was a “sin” not to expunge from their platform people or groups that Apple (unilaterally) deems to be “undesirable.” Does Tim have a point or is this just pretentious moral buffoonery? Exactly when should a company like Cloudflare or Apple deny services to a customer?
The answer given by most large Internet companies nowadays seems to be purely cynical: they deny services not from any moral principle, but as a means of mitigating boycott and thereby maximizing revenue. Some companies have offered moral window dressing as cover for this basic motive to censor. But we don’t buy it, for the simple reason that the moral narratives they proffer never make any philosophical sense, and when the offered reason doesn’t make sense then it’s reasonable to suspect that there is a deeper motive that does. In this case the profit motive is the obvious candidate. At best these companies want to appear as if they are ethical, without thinking carefully about what it would mean to actually be so.
The common refrain is that “It’s their company, they can ban who they want.” We don’t disagree that they can, we ask whether they should. Furthermore, we observe that, for various reasons, these social media companies are a de facto government-backed monopoly. One such reason why they are is the blocking of competitors by government-approved payment processors. Qua government-backed monopoly, these companies and their “Terms of Service” represent an attempt to evade the existing rule of law, replacing a transparent judicial process with their own opaque and arbitrary systems of censorship and political activism.
So long as this insidious monopoly privilege exists, any free-market arguments that they can “ban who they want” are irrelevant; these social media giants are a de facto government bureaucracy and should therefore be held to the standards of such, in particular they should assiduously respect The American Bill of Rights. (We observe violations of several Amendments; a detailed analysis is beyond the scope of this article).
There ought to be urgent action to resolve this problem on several fronts, not the least of which is a thorough Congressional investigation and a class-action lawsuit by those who have been harmed by payment processors and by those harmed by de facto monopolists purging minority viewpoints from their platforms. The ultimate ideal we would hope for is that the government privilege handed to these monopolists would be fully revoked – they would then be free to ban who they wanted, and everyone else would be free to create alternative platforms. However, the insidious nature of this monopoly privilege means it’s not so simple as correcting a single policy.
Massive investment has made “The Cloud” super-convenient, however, it is also incredibly dangerous; it is a technology for tyrants, for it “makes one neck ready for one leash”. Bulk censorship is just one facet of this.
Cloud-based social media providers embody an abusive relation to their users: the users provide nearly all the value, while the provider not only exclusively profits from it (typically sharing none of the profits with the users), but also manages and controls the users, as if they were an employee. Perhaps the best term would be “digital serf”. As I wrote earlier this year, “we should always assume that owners of centralized content regimes will abuse their data serfs. Really what software developers should be doing is making it easier for each of us to rule our own content. The people who built [centralized data serfdoms] are doing a disservice to humanity. They should be liberating the individual not subjecting him to control by unaccountable elites.”.
Beware any solution to these problems that “solves” them by providing yet another cloud-oriented service. Regardless of even the best intentions, when a single company owns and controls your data, and particularly when that same company governs the data of thousands of other users as well, it creates a single point of failure and means of control. The true goal should be individual ownership and control of their data, governed only by a transparent and just rule of law and not by any company’s “Terms of Service.”
How can technologists who embrace the American values of liberty and independence mitigate the damage being done to our society by the encroachment of atavistic monopolies? Our answer is to put the control and ownership of data back into the hands of the individual users. We believe that it’s technologically possible to make individual ownership and control of data just as convenient as “The Cloud”, eventually giving all the power and control back to individuals, but it is going to take time and investment to make this method viable to a complete extent and in every sphere. Technologists and venture capitalists have been neglecting this sort of possibility for a very long time; we are going to need a new breed of visionaries to work our way through the solutions in every area of Internet technology.
Small online communities should feel free to curate and censor in accordance to their purposes, creating their own local style of discourse, and individual members should be free to leave and join others whenever they want. But truly massive, nation-dominating and world-dominating speech platforms should act in some sense as if they were an ethical federal government. Namely, they should respect the individual rights of their users, which is indeed how old-school mass platforms such as Cloudflare typically have behaved.
No corporation offering mass-scale Internet services to the public should attempt to subvert or replace the American judicial process; we have our traditions of laws, courts, judges, and juries for a reason and no one should be censored or “unpersoned” from the unaccountable whims of sclerotic corporate giants. It is true that our legal system is imperfect, however, it is far less imperfect than the opaque impunity of big corporations in pursuit of one thing: their own profits.
Our censorship policy at Wissler-Jensen is a thoroughgoing endorsement of the American Bill of Rights and American principles of governance. We are an American company and so yield to American law, and only yield to foreign law in those instances where the American law requires it.
We endorse the principles of localism and federalism as a solution to the dilemma of social media censorship: small locales should be free to self-govern (including curating, censoring, and deleting accounts) their platforms by virtue of their property rights; but on the national and global scale of the Internet, there should be a frontier, with no censorship or account purging at all, except regarding illegal activities as defined and adjudicated by a rationally defensible rule of law.
At present, Wissler-Jensen offers three kinds of solutions:
The most important of these is the Self-Hosted option, which gives individuals and businesses complete control of their data, in precisely the same sense as when they license any typical software product, such a Microsoft Word. When you buy a copy of MS Word, Microsoft doesn’t govern what you write, who you can share your writing with, and so on. You write what you want, share it with whomever you want, and take all the consequences therefrom (whether legal or financial). Your data is truly yours; it is your property and none of our business, which lands squarely within domain and protections of The Bill of Rights.
In the Self-Hosted and WJ-Managed option, we handle the IT management for you. But this entails working for you, and we reserve the right to refuse our services to anyone for any reason.
The WJ-Hosted (Cloud) option is the traditional cloud approach – since we are hosting your content on our platform, we (necessarily!) govern it, according to our own “Terms of Service.”