When, a decade ago, the term Web 2.0 entered our lexicon, we were still collectively dreaming of a vision of cyberspace where no government dared enter, a cyberspace ‘naturally independent of the tyrannies’ of regulation and law enforcement.1 This space, as we imagined it, would be the great equalizer, opening up closed societies and connecting us with kindred spirits the world over.
These dreams combined with the dreams of Silicon Valley magnates to create large-scale centralized platforms where all could gather. Within two years of the popularization of Web 2.0, we could look up our friends on Facebook, post our creative endeavours to YouTube, and Tweet whatever we were thinking. These slick corporate platforms rapidly replaced the spaces where we’d previously gathered, promising in bright colours a ‘free’ product with features beyond our wildest imaginations.
Today, these are truly global platforms. They are centralized, free and easy to use, and as such, attracting masses from around the globe who utilize them both as they were intended and marketed – to connect with friends and share information. And in ways less planned – to engage in political discourse, organize protests and, more nefariously, to harass, intimidate and recruit people into various causes.
These global platforms have in many ways taken on the role of the public sphere (as described by Habermas: ‘Society engaged in critical public debate’). Yet they remain private spaces, with users bound to the whims of their billionaire owners and shareholders. The rules and regulations that govern these spaces respect no laws, apart from those by which they are legally bound.
Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights promises the right to freedom of opinion and expression, the right to receive and impart information and ideas ‘through any media and regardless of frontiers’. Surveillance and censorship imposed on the greater internet by governments have compromised this promise, but challenges to these infringements on civil liberties remain possible through the law.
Not so for privately governed spaces, which operate without the consent of the networked, as scholar Rebecca MacKinnon has described it.2 Instead, users are made to be arbiters of speech, handed tools for flagging problematic content under rules created by oligarchic leaders. These leaders are, by and large, wealthy, white, American and male.3 The impact of their demographic make-up on the systems that they build and the rules by which they expect users to abide should not be underestimated. Where nudity is banned, violence is okay. Hate speech against women abounds, but political speech is at times censored. Celebrities are given special dispensation with verifi ed accounts and dedicated phone lines, while average users are sometimes unable to appeal when their accounts or content are taken away.
Flagging – or community report – can be in and of itself a way of silencing speech. Scholars Kate Crawford and Tarleton Gillespie argued in a recent paper that flagging ‘act[s] as a mechanism to elicit and distribute user labor – users as a volunteer corps of regulators’.4 While in theory this allows for users of social platforms to report harassment, impersonation, or other potential harms, in practice it also allows for misuse.
In recent months, a number of drag performers found themselves unceremoniously kicked off Facebook, forced to choose between submitting legal identification and changing their accounts to reflect their legal or birth names; or leave the site – and their networks and followers – behind.5 Facebook’s policy requiring ‘real names’ may be an aberration in the sphere of the social web, but it is nonetheless representative of a larger problem. The policy is couched in the language of harm prevention, described as a mechanism of protection, but is ultimately – like numerous other policies imposed by corporations on users – an attempt to ‘civilize’ online spaces.
But just as, historically, civilizing missions by Western countries have been used as pretence for colonization, so is the mission of private companies to ‘civilize’ the social web an attempt to colonize the internet, to make the public sphere a place for ‘respectable’ commentary. This is accomplished by circumventing the laws meant to govern speech with private codes, by giving internet users the false choice of engaging with the network or being left behind, by selling the idea of ‘free’ spaces purchased with private data that, once given, cannot be taken back.
The real options that remain for those who wish for truly free online spaces are to engage in actions that ensure our voices are heard by corporate powers, to build new spaces that are decentralized and inherently open, and to continue the fight to ensure that all of the internet, corporate or not, remains the space for free expression that we dreamed it to be.
In order to do this, we must first recognize the ongoing shift from government to corporate regulation and address it accordingly. Corporate online spaces work to obfuscate their own role as censors, using transparency as a mechanism to divert attention to governments as the sole infringers on expression. Once we have recognized this role, we will be able to stand up against these corporate powers and demand better… or we can make the choice to walk away.
John Perry Barlow, ‘a declaration of the independence of cyberspace’, 8 February 1996; nin.tl/1z9gVaa ↩
Maxine Williams, ‘Building a more diverse facebook’, f newsroom, 25 June 2014 ↩