Protester holding sign saying 'Error 404 Demokratie not found'

Over the course of 2020, we’ve seen increased censorship from every major digital content platform. It culminated with both Facebook and Twitter blocking a New York Post article, which alleged Joe Biden’s son was involved in illegal activity and corruption1. Meanwhile, the New York Times published a scathing article on Donald Trump’s tax returns. None of the major networks restricted access to the tax story, even though it was likely those tax records were obtained illegally2, and nothing in the returns was truly out of the ordinary3.

People are calling for reform to Section 230 of the Communication Decency Act4, the law that keeps Internet platforms from liabilities often reserved for publishers. However, I do not believe more legal restrictions will solve the issues surrounding tech and free speech. The only viable solution is better use of technology. The Internet was not founded by media giants. It was originally hundreds of thousands of small, independent websites and service providers. The solution to our current censorship woes, lies in the archives of Internet next to animated hamsters, under construction GIFs, and bright pink animated Geocities sites.

The Internet of the 90s was a place of wonder. I started my journey on the Internet using a dial-up modem on a Windows 3.1 PC with Trumpet WinSock. Netscape Navigator was a far cry from the ANSI art and RIP graphics of bulletin boards. I started creating and editing websites with Netscape Composer, before eventually writing my own HTML. Some of my very first websites were run from a computer under a desk in my cousin’s cubicle. Meanwhile, many of my friends were experiencing the early Internet through American On-Line. With its keywords, chat rooms and instant messaging, its built in web browser felt like more of an afterthought. Even though AOL eventually implemented their own WinSock layer, allowing traditional Internet applications and browsers, AOL would lose relevance under a mountain of free trial CDs, as people moved on to local dial-up and broadband Internet service providers (ISPs).

Every broadcast format started with a free flow of information. At one time, newspapers were run cheaply and independently, spreading information via travelers from town to town. Radio was an open medium as well, with people independently hosting all kinds of news, music and religious programming, before the FCC began splitting up and regulating frequencies5. The Internet shouldn’t suffer from the same limitations as radio or TV broadcasts. Where those frequencies were limited and needed to be sliced up, the Internet allows direct point-to-point communication between individuals and servers, with vastly scalable bandwidth capacities. Members of the tech community have long pushed for Network Neutrality legislation, with fears that major network backbone providers would limit the quality of service for independent websites.

However, there is another major factor in controlling the flow of information the Internet: the growth and prominence of Internet megasites. Although I recently copied all my videos to my private PeerTube server, independent video sites do not have the scale and discoverability of YouTube. Although I only use Facebook and Twitter to promote material I host outside of those websites, by not interacting with people via those platforms, my content doesn’t have the same reach due to the black box of social media algorithms and the silent bob effect.

Censorship

In the United States, our Bill of Rights protects the speech of individuals against censorship from the government. However, private companies are allowed to exercise control over their own platforms. When it comes to Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and even Reddit, their reach is absolutely massive. When the New York Post broke its article about Hunter Biden, Facebook said it was “reducing its distribution” on their platform6. Twitter blocked the New York Post from accessing their own accounts, along with several others who reposted the article. Twitter also blocked direct messaging of the article, and even listed the Republican Judiciary Committee’s official website as being unsafe when the House posted their own response to the Biden investigation.

Twitter Marking a Link to The Republican House Judiciary Committee Website as Unsafe

In July, Reddit banned over 2,000 communities7. Discord has started shutting down communities for misinformation8. On October 15th, YouTube purged dozens of channels9. Many of these channels had over 100,000 subscribers, and the total count for all the subscriptions lost was over 7 million10. Even though these voices have not been censored by a government entity, corporate censorship is still censorship. Furthermore, we are now seeing corporations limiting access to information provided by the government, pushing narratives that further their agenda, and overtly influencing, if not downright interfering, in the American election process.

“Where we’re seeing [arrogance] now, where it is the most frightening of all is the god damn tech sector. Right? These people actually think that they know what is true, with sufficient clarity, that they’re going to go about labeling beliefs as false … for example … We highlighted two heterodox papers about COVID on our last live stream. Now one of them I must say I have some trepidations about; the Yan paper. But the Yan paper makes arguments that one can evaluate. Now some of those arguments, I think, raise questions … and in fact, I’ve gotten some correspondence from people who spotted various things that seem wrong … Nonetheless, the tech sector has decided, ‘Well this is dangerous information’ and they have suspended her [Twitter] account…and they’re forbidding the posting of the paper or labeling it misinformation…“ -Bret Weinstein, DarkHorse Podcast11

The hubris of the tech sector is especially troubling when it comes to deciding what facts are true or scientific. In July, Dr. Li-Meng Yan, a doctor who specialized in virology and immunology at the Hong Kong School of Public Health, accused the Chinese government of covering up information about COVID19 including early reports of human-to-human transmission12. In September, Twitter suspended Yan’s account, in response to her claims of a lab origin for the SARS-CoV2 virus13. Such claims can be open to discussion and examination, but the big technology companies show their arrogance by proclaiming their knowledge as the truth. This has led to censorship of any dissenting viewpoints, even by other medical professionals.

In George Orwell’s novel 1984, the Ministry of Truth was a government organization that edited the past to fit the current state of the major political party. In today’s world, the Ministry of Truth is analogous to the technology sector. The fact checks they place on posts and content are pure arrogance. They are essentially telling the world, “You are too stupid to do your own analysis, so we will tell you what to think.”

Technology as a Solution

“The Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it.” -John Gilmore14

There are many centralized alternatives to the big platforms. Facebook has bought several of them including WhatsApp and Instagram. There are also several decentralized platforms that are independently run, yet can communicate with one another. I currently run my own PeerTube server, a Mastodon Instance and a Pleroma+SoapBox server. These are platforms running open source software, which I host on servers I pay for. They can communicate with each other using a protocol called ActivityPub, which can be thought of as an e-mail (SMTP) protocol, but for social networking. They obviously do not have the reach of the big players, but they are capable alternatives which use the technology of the Internet to route around the censorship of big tech.

Fediverse Logo with Connected Graph (Expected) next to Fediverse Logo with Broken Graph (Reality)

Obviously, these platforms have issues as well. People who run servers often block certain lists of servers they may not agree with. There is censorship and there are echo chambers within this system of federated social networking servers (colloquially known to many as The Fediverse). However, if you are unhappy with the way a particular server’s administrator is moderating posts or choosing what servers to communicate with, you can create an account on another server instead. If you have the technical background or are willing to learn, you can set up your own server. Unlike Reddit or Discord, one organization doesn’t control every single community. Each community is individually funded and hosted, making them difficult to censor.

Put in the Effort

I’ve given a few friends invitations to my servers. I try not to be a Fediverse evangelist, as trying to get people to embrace it had similar results to promoting Linux as a desktop operating system back in the 90s and early 2000s. Many people who join a Mastodon server may be overwhelmed by the Federated Timeline. Fenollosa, an engineer out of Barcelona, recommends that people look at the local time lines of different servers, finding one that fits their interests and tastes15.

Still, many people are persuaded to join other centralized platforms after their accounts, or communities they follow, are banned. This creates a diaspora of Internet users from some platforms, often with specific politics or directed anger. This can lead to alternative centralized platforms such as Voat, which become one-sided and polarized. Gab was such a platform, and after getting banned from both the Google and Apple app stores16, attempted a short run of joining the Fediverse. Their platform was met with heavy resistance, blocked from most servers and Fediverse apps and, for better or worse, eventually defederated themselves.

We are in an unprecedented era of large scale news and information bias by the large media and technology conglomerates. They are actively using their position and reach to influence elections. For years, we’ve had the technology to navigate around this new era of censorship, and to explore alternative narratives to those put forth by those entities. Adoption of different social media networks has slowed, open protocols have become more constrained and controlled, and a browser market once dominated by Microsoft has shifted almost entirely to Google. Most citizens of the Internet take the easy and happy path which leads to a very narrow, one directional view of the world.

Breaking past the narrow constraints of Facebook, Google, Twitter, Reddit and others is not simply a technological hurdle. It requires a change in mentality for the average Internet citizen, to seek out and demand alternatives. It means we all need to be more technologically aware of the differences between advertiser funded centralized websites and user supported distributed networks. It requires that everyone question the stories we are told about the world, and engage respectfully with those whom we disagree with.

I’m not sure if such a shift is even possible. When I was younger, one of my old roommates convinced me to read Glenn Reynolds’s book An Army of Davids. Reynolds painted a rosy picture of the future where technology would allow the small individual Davids of the world to utilize technology to challenge corporate Goliaths. I do not think Reynolds truly appreciated how the Goliaths would simply shift to dominate the platforms the Davids would need for their work to be discoverable; locking creators into another era of dependency.

Although the large providers may think they’ve tamed the Internet, things are changing, and a new era of exploration may be upon us. The era of MySpace is practically over, websites are no longer built with Internet Explorer 6 compatibility, and American On-Line is a shadow of its former self. The shift away from these platforms came not from regulation, but new competing platforms. I look forward to the day when Facebook becomes the new Geocities and Twitter is forced to implement ActivityPub simply to stay relevant. The Internet needs to move on past the current monoculture that is choking it, which means people need to stop being complaisant cattle milked by the free social platforms that have grifted us for advertising revenue. The Internet used to be the frontier where anything was possible. As we begin a new decade, a plethora of new possibilities lie ahead.

  1. Smoking-gun email reveals how Hunter Biden introduced Ukrainian businessman to VP dad. 14 October 2020. Morris. Fonrouge. New York Post. 

  2. HL-47: Trump Taxes LEAKED - Is it CRIMINAL? Viva & Barnes HIGHLIGHT. 28 Sep 2020. Viva Frei. (Video) 

  3. Did New York Times BREAK THE LAW on Trump Tax Story?. 29 Sep 2020. Viva Frei. (Video) 

  4. 47 U.S. Code § 230 - Protection for private blocking and screening of offensive material. Cornell. Retrieved 22 October 2020. 

  5. Human Lobotomy - Save the internet. 5 January 2007. (Video) 

  6. While I will intentionally not link to the New York Post, I want be clear that this story is eligible to be fact checked by Facebook’s third-party fact checking partners. In the meantime, we are reducing its distribution on our platform.. 14 October 2020. @andymstone. Tweet. 

  7. Banned subreddits with > 10 daily users. Retrieved 30 June 2020. 

  8. Discord starts shutting down communities for “misinformation”. 21 October 2020. Parker. Reclaim The New. 

  9. More Banned YouTube Channels: Propertarian. 15 October 2020. Boomie789. Reddit. 

  10. Update on the Purge - Technological Harassment. 20 October 2020. Amazing Polly. (Video) 

  11. Bret and Heather 46th DarkHorse Podcast Livestream: RBG, Scalia, and the Court Supreme. 19 September 2020. (41m:00s) (Podcast) 

  12. EXCLUSIVE: Chinese virologist accuses Beijing of coronavirus cover-up, flees Hong Kong: ‘I know how they treat whistleblowers’. 10 July 2020. Chakraborty. Diaz. Fox News. 

  13. Twitter Suspends Account of Chinese Virologist Who Claimed Coronavirus Was Made in a Lab. 16 September 2020. Murdock. Newsweek. 

  14. First Nation in Cyberspace. 6 Dec 1993. Elmer-Dewitt . TIME International, No. 49. 

  15. You may be using Mastodon wrong. 18 October 2020. Fenollosa. 

  16. Google explains why it banned the app for Gab, a right-wing Twitter rival. 8 Aug 2017. Lee. Ars Technica.