Facebook sent me a congratulations today. Eleven years ago I joined what has become one of the world’s most popular social media platforms. At the time it had less than 100 million users. Now it has more than two billion. But Facebook is changing as it grows. It has become more Orwellian, changing its algorithms as it decides what is best for us to see. This is part of the maturing of the Internet and marks an end to the Internet age which began in the 1990s.
The promise of the Internet age was an unparalleled explosion of access to information. It began in earnest around 1995 when Netscape burst onto the scene as a Web browser, soon to be fighting with Internet Explorer. Along the way the Internet age has become a graveyard for failed models such as AOL, which was worth $125 billion in 2000. With the maturing of the Internet the promise it held in the late 1990s and 2000s has changed abruptly in the last decade. A variety of factors have changed the nature of the Internet from a place offering people access to a kaleidoscope of information, to a place where governments and large corporations quietly shackle citizens and use the power of the Internet to both control them and stifle dissent.
Initially the Internet was a fantasy-land of innovation, where free markets rewarded new ideas and competing platforms. Over time, however, almost every piece of the Internet has been carved up into monopolies. According to Business Insider
, in May 2017 Google and Facebook made up 80% of referral traffic online. “That puts publishers in the precarious position of being extremely reliant on one or maybe two services to survive, with only so much web real estate to go around.”
George Soros, with whom I generally disagree on many things, made a good point on February 15 at The Guardian.
“These companies,” he said, “have often played an innovative and liberating role. But as Facebook and Google have grown ever more powerful they have become obstacles to innovation, and have caused a variety of problems of which we are only now beginning to become aware.” He argues that their “near monopoly distribution makes them public utilities and should subject them to more stringent regulation.”
The promise of the Internet age was to free people from government regulation. Many services online catered to the desire of consumers to be free of monopolies and predatory pricing. Crowd-sourcing services and other models allowed people an unprecedented freedom to choose. Whether it was Uber for ride-sharing or Waze to help people get where they are going or Airbnb for hospitality, these services have given people freedom.
But the tendency toward monopolies and then the way in which giants such as Google strive for vertical integration, buying up more and more pieces of the Internet, inevitably erode the free market consumers want. Why is the Internet like this? Why aren’t there two Facebook-like entities, the way we have McDonalds and Burger King? Why is there usually only one go-to Internet platform for each thing people want?
As the Internet has matured and one or two companies began taking over 80% of Web traffic or searches or referrals, the ability of governments to control what people see has increased. All they need to do is target Facebook, Twitter and YouTube and most content they don’t like can be removed. Instagram, for instance, recently took down posts related to bribery accusations.
“When governments believe that something on the Internet violates their laws, they may contact companies and ask us to restrict access to that content. We review such requests carefully in light of local laws and where appropriate, we make it unavailable in the relevant country or territory,” an Instagram spokesperson told CNBC.
Little by little the Internet has become a tool of governments to wield power over the people, rather than a tool with which to challenge government power. Totalitarian regimes and dictatorships have found it easy to use the power of the Internet age to control people. Some governments, such as North Korea, China and Iran, have sought to simply block platforms such as Twitter. Many other countries simply use and exploit Twitter to censor what they don’t like, while pushing propaganda.
For instance numerous members of Iran’s regime actively use Twitter to spread regime propaganda, while they ban Twitter among their citizens. This is the ultimate symbol of the future of the Internet. In the future the people will be restricted regarding what they can post, while governments and companies will use the same platforms to forcefeed people what they want to tell them. Iran is the future of the Internet.
But it’s not the only future. Dozens of other countries that censor “blasphemy” or dissent are also becoming the future. Where the Internet once held the promise that people living under totalitarian religious extremist regimes might be exposed to diverse opinions and lead them to be more tolerant, the opposite has happened. In Bangladesh secular bloggers are hunted down and hacked to death. Eventually the religious extremist sermons have more place online than those who preach tolerance.
Totalitarian regimes don’t satisfy themselves with controlling the Internet at home, they also go after dissidents abroad. Kurdish activists who oppose Turkey have found themselves quietly targeted, their social media accounts closed for unclear reasons. There’s no rigorous appeals process at social media giants. Posts are removed and people banned for unclear reasons.
These same social media giants did little to prevent the rise of Islamic State (ISIS) in 2014 and the circulation of beheading videos and extreme hate speech. Yet today they claim that they confront extremism online. Yet the definition of “extremism” can easily be manipulated so that Kurdish dissidents are “extremists” while far-right Islamists are allowed to keep spreading bile.
Social media giants have sought to ban video or pictures of terrorist attacks, suggesting that this somehow fights terrorism. This is a bit illogical, as if banning images of KKK lynchings is what made the KKK go away. Simply banning information about something doesn’t defeat it, in fact it often allows the crimes to go unpunished. Rather than tracking ISIS-linked accounts, just deleting them allowed them to go unpunished for the hate speech they spread.
Orwell runs the Internet
Perhaps even more Orwellian was the decision by Twitter to take away its “verified” blue check marks from users associated with the far Right and “white nationalism.” While this appears to have been well-intentioned, the method used was to allegedly take away “verified” status based on people’s activity on other platforms or in private life.
If a person had been deemed to be “promoting hate and/ or violence, or directly attacking or threatening other people,” they might lose their blue badge. It’s unclear though why the far-right extremists from Iran’s regime didn’t lose their verification.
Facebook also decided to target what it deemed “fake news.” This also seemed like a well-intentioned decision. But how does one determine what is “fake news” versus “news I don’t agree with”?
It is part of a much larger restructuring by Facebook to determine what users see. Whereas the platform used to reward those posting video or photos, it has changed to rewarding users who interact more. So a user with 3,000 friends won’t see posts from all of them. Facebook has become the main newsstand of the 21st century.
But imagine the power of the 20th century news stand if almost all of them were owned by the same company and if every few months they simply removed some of the magazines and newspapers they didn’t think you should see? Not based on what consumers were buying but on what the owners thought they should?
Tabloid newspapers, for instance, were the “fake news” of the 20th century. But shouldn’t a consumer have the ability to choose if they want a tabloid or “real” news? It’s one thing to put certain newspapers up front, it’s another thing to disappear them altogether. What Facebook has done is take power away from the user. Maybe the user wants to see content from their 3,000 friends. Facebook increasingly decides that you don’t know what you’d like to see. The future looks bleak. With governments playing an increased role in censoring online content and using the Internet to reach beyond their borders to go after dissidents, people are losing their ability to access information. Compounded with the massive power of several companies to decide what we “should” see online, the consumer is facing the prospect of having less access to information and choice. George Soros says governments should step in an regulate. That might be one solution. But governments have shown they are not good stewards of freedom. Faced with the power of government and corporate regulation we may look back on this period of 1995 to 2015 as a peak of freedom. The doors are likely closing on the Internet age.Follow the author @Sfrantzman.