The big story recently in the tech world concerns moderation and, as some elements of the right wing of the political spectrum would have you believe, censorship. Putting aside the definitional quibbles over that controversial word, this is an issue that’s been variously a concern of both the left and right wings of the political spectrum — for very different reasons.
So… What caused this flareup in discussion around moderation? You probably already know the initiating event (the terrorist attack on the US Capitol), but the ramifications are only just beginning to be felt. Some repercussions were swift — Donald Trump was banned from Twitter, as were a few other government accounts from which he tried to tweet, along with any accounts linked to the QAnon conspiracy theory.
The big story, though, is that Parler was “banned”. If you’ve not heard of Parler, count yourself lucky. It’s a Twitter-esque platform ostensibly setup to promote free speech online, but is essentially a platform filled with self-professed white-supremacists, Nazis, and the alt-right.
Donald Trump’s a fan, as are many Fox News presenters, and it’s gained quite the reputation as a conspiracy theory filled, moderation free, alt-right platform. It was instrumental in organising the Capitol attack, for example, and hosts explicit calls to murder various Democratic elected officials (among many other issues).
Because of this, Parler was “banned” after the Capitol attack just over two weeks ago. I put “banned” in quotation marks here, however, because in a strict sense that’s impossible.
The internet is built on a rich network of interconnected computers, and is fundamentally decentralised in its design; there’s actually no centralised company that could “ban” Parler. Instead, we saw three companies (among others) exercise the vast power they wield to effectively ban Parler.
First Apple, then Google, banned Parler from their respective App Stores (ostensibly because of Parler’s lack of moderation). The final straw came when Amazon (who provide the computers that host vast swathes of the internet, including Netflix and many others) effectively “turned the app off”.
And so Parler dropped off the internet. They’re trying to get back online, of course, and (at of the time of writing) are believed to be exploring a Russian hosting company as an alternative to Amazon.
Now let me be clear — Parler deserves to die; it’s an awful platform with no redeeming features. Donald Trump also deserved to be banned from Twitter; the Capitol attack was the last straw in this argument.
But what are the consequences of these platforms (Twitter, Google, Apple, Amazon) wielding this kind of power? They’re completely unaccountable, make opaque decisions with no visibility into the decision-making process, and hold huge power over the ways we hear information — all while not being democratically elected.
It’s far past time to regulate Big Tech, but as the saying goes: the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago, the second-best time is now.