A Digital Iron Curtain Descends Over the Internet
Why free speech on the web - as we once knew it - will be over within a decade.
Daniel Greenfield, a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the Freedom Center, is an investigative journalist and writer focusing on the radical Left and Islamic terrorism.
A generation of economic pressure failed to regulate the internet. Outraged movie studios and record companies managed to cripple some file sharing pioneers, but broke their teeth on Google’s YouTube. Dot coms like Amazon, Google, Cragislist, eBay and Netflix casually wiped out entire retail industries from the local paper to the video rental place, costing tens of thousands of jobs. And nothing.
No amount of pressure from business interests could close down the internet. Politicians were still too invested in a vision of progress fueled by the growth of something that they did not understand.
"An iron curtain has descended across the Continent," Winston Churchill once warned. A digital iron curtain is now descending over the internet. Free speech as we once knew it will be over in a decade. The internet will still be a noisy place, but it will be a managed noise of echo chambers, a moderated system in which dissenting views will be treated as trolling and purged as quickly as they are identified.
The political causes of both curtain falls are the same. The Soviet Union and the American Left had both triumphed and inherited a large chaotic region that they had to consolidate under their control. The Soviet Union’s triumph had been a military one over physical territories while the American Left had conquered the messaging territories of the old cultural realm, media, entertainment and advertising.
Having won those, it’s expanding its control over big corporations and big government. And to do that, it has to eliminate the independent voices on the internet that pose a threat to its messaging monopoly.
The consolidation of the internet by a handful of monopolies, the politicization of corporate leadership and the panic over Trump and Brexit created a once in a lifetime opportunity. The official pretext for the power grab was “fake news”: a loosely defined term taken to mean misinformation. The fake news panic relied on familiar panics over the internet’s unregulated ability to influence society. But this time it was attached to the Russians, a classic foreign threat, that made free speech too dangerous to maintain.
The fake news crisis argued that foreign influence over the public square was a national security threat. This was a dangerous argument with roots in everything from the Alien and Sedition Acts to the Cold War. A few years ago, the idea of internet censorship to meet a national security threat would have seemed an implausible movie plotline. But the growing cultural power of the American Left allows it to quickly take a bizarre idea and mainstream it into a policy mandate in a matter of months or years.
“Four legs good. Internet censorship better.”
American elections had to be protected from the Russians by regulating, monitoring and censoring the internet. Direct government censorship was still illegal. But the consolidation of the internet under a handful of monopolies made it easy to apply downward pressure on a handful of platforms. Social media companies that had formerly been open were being redefined as publishers tasked to fight “fake news”.
The lack of accountability for user submitted content had allowed companies like Google, its YouTube subsidiary, Amazon and Facebook to grow huge without facing legal sanctions from the companies whose content and rights were being casually violated by their users. It meant that Google’s search engine could index and link to all sorts of copyright violating material. And that Facebook wasn’t held accountable for the pictures that users uploaded to their profiles, even as it profited from them.
This utopia was made possible by the Communications Decency Act, a mostly forgotten piece of legislation from the Clinton era meant to protect children from pornography. The “decency” part of the CDA was quickly struck down by courts as a violation of the First Amendment. But one particular sentence in the CDA, “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider” has provided an almost limitless level of immunity for dot coms from government regulation.
In plain language, it meant that if you uploaded a snippet from your favorite Marvel movie to YouTube, Google couldn’t be sued by Disney. The providers weren’t responsible for what their users did.
The CDA had been meant to regulate the internet, instead it all but completely deregulated it.
That was why YouTube thrived while Napster died. The CDA helped make the huge dot com monopolies possible by giving them a pass. But that made internet freedom more vulnerable, not less. Google and Facebook got huge without having to worry about government regulation or corporate lawsuits.
But once a powerful political movement in control of the culture decided that it was time to censor the internet, it could quickly impose its will on a handful of internet monopolies that mostly agreed with it.
This time around there would be no government regulation. Social pressure exercised by the Left through media outlets, already heavily motivated to go after the social and search platforms that controlled their traffic, combined with hearings and action by the Europeans would do the trick.
The platforms would be transformed into publishers, and tasked with the obligation, not of serving their free users or even their paid advertisers, but the social good, as defined by the media echo chamber. Their job would be to promote politically good content, such as that of the media, and penalize politically bad content, such as that produced by conservatives. And then the digital curtain falls.
The two driving forces, the cultural consolidation of the American Left, and the economic consolidation of internet monopolies, are colliding and colluding to form a new environment. In that environment, free speech, and any kind of individualism that is outside the trend, is a dangerous phenomenon.
Internet monopolies that measure their user bases in the hundreds of millions and even the billions can only treat users as collective wholes, tracked, measured and shaped by machine learning algorithms into profitable channels. And the American Left, like its Soviet predecessor, believes that while there might be an infinity of genders, there is only one right way to approach any of its many politicized issues.
Big Data and Big Brother both make money and gain power when they can predict what you will do and nudge you to do it. Big Brother offers Big Data techniques for shaping user behavior through peer pressure while Big Data offers Big Brother new ways to track and manipulate human attitudes.
The soul of the internet was once as anarchic as its infrastructure. As the infrastructure consolidated, the internet became a collectivist environment. And individuality came to be seen as “trolling”.
A centralized environment will be inherently collectivist. It’s impossible for it to be anything else. And when a handful of companies control the internet, they become its political and cultural weak point. Any government or totalitarian movement that can compromise them will control the internet.
If we want an open internet, then we must once again envision it as a chaotic environment of competitive companies, none of whom can get so big that they hold its future and ours in their hands.
Government regulation has a meaningful role to play, but not in controlling monopolies, a misguided policy that would inevitably lead to the end of free speech, but in undermining them and breaking them up. The consolidation of a formerly free market under a small number of monopolies is not purely an internet problem, but is being mirrored across vast sectors of American life from health care to finance.
Internet censorship is the manifestation of that larger problem. As is the growing power of the Left.
The Left never feared huge corporations. They’re easy to take over or intimidate. What it feared was a dynamic open society with many rising and falling power centers and no easy levers for total control. It’s built to take over static power structures. When a society is open, then it can’t win.
Free markets are not an abstract idea that can exist in the absence of the dynamic friction of active competition. When a handful of monopolies control your phone service, your internet and your health care, how you pay at the grocery store and where you shop, your freedoms will also be monopolized.
A society of corporate monopolies will inevitably become a society of political monopolies.
The only way to stop the rise of Big Brother is to break up Big Data.