Humans have seen a rapid-growth in our evolution because of the digital age. We are in the infancy and we already have serious problems that have been ignored instead of resolved. The low level of technological literacy and understanding in general poses a grave threat to our future. Our politicians in the United States of America are among the least educated about the internet. Too few of our journalists source information about technology and internet from real experts, and too many of them choose to espouse their own points of view from a seat of false authority.
We may not all remember the time when an elected United States Government Representative stood in the Senate and without a touch of irony proclaimed the internet to be “a series of tubes”.
We snickered at that. I was about a year out of high school at that point.
I was one of the first 1000 users of Reddit and in the first round of users when Facebook became accessible nationwide exclusively to users with .edu email addresses. I, and many others in my generation, felt superior to that dinosaur on C-SPAN because I had grown up with computers and dial-up internet service. We never thought, back then, that we would have any real trouble because of congressional ignorance about technology. Surely, someone with working eyes and a social life would intercede to set the record straight on official channels.
It does not appear to have ever happened.
Right now, the most digitally-adept members of our government only have the savvy required to manipulate public opinion through the use of social media applications like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, SnapChat, Parler, Gab, and probably a few others I feel better not knowing about. And these people have their sights on reforming the internet. What they’re actually going to do is ruin it because they have an ignorant misconception of what the internet is.
That’s truly scary.
There is a lot of talk right now (January 2021) about censorship, social media, and the internet. The majority of the loudest voices clearly demonstrate their ignorance to those of us who are experts.
Shortly after the seditious riot that ransacked the nation’s capitol building, Donald Trump was silenced across all American social media platforms. Many vendors pitched in too. This move sparked a fervent debate across the world about freedom of speech, censorship, monopolies, and more.
It appears that those choosing to label the move by Twitter and Facebook as a violation of the First Amendment of the US Constitution have no idea what the internet is. Nor do they appear aware of the reality of America’s Freedom of Speech guarantee.
Social media platforms have for years aimed to make it so their products stand between humans and the internet. Facebook notoriously aimed to ensure many Africans could only have access to Facebook. Twitter has recently denounced Uganda’s effort to block social media sites from their country in the run up to their election. The problem with this statement isn’t that they’re mad about their own service being blocked. It’s the fact that they imply that blocking Twitter is equivalent to shutting down the internet. I could not take issue reasonably with a statement that left that part out.
But Twitter didn’t leave that out. They went full force into an effort to further portray their own website as “The Internet.”
Losing access to a social media site is NOT censorship. It is NOT a violation of the First Amendment. Full stop.
You are free to buy your own domain (they’re dirt cheap) and host your own website or app from your own home. It is not something that is extremely difficult to do. It does not cost much money. Anyone with a steady job can throw down $15 a year and spend a few hours setting it up. Any middle class American can easily afford $100 a year to host their website on a reputable cloud company’s servers in any country on Earth.
On that website that you made and you own, you can say whatever you want whenever you want. If the United States Government blocks your domain, then you have a legitimate argument against censorship and the violation of your rights assuming that site is an expression of your own thoughts and speech. You could not make this argument if your site demanded an insurrection, violence, or the blatant violation of US law.
This is not complicated, unlike a lot of what is happening in the world.
The EFF has put out the only statement I’ve seen that cites the legal right of website owners to do whatever they want with their sites.
Reporters like Glenn Greenwald gained international acclaim when the NSA Leaks perpetrated by Edward Snowden became public. They reported on high-level hacking and surveillance technology and did their best to explain their function to a world of casual and business computer users. Greenwald, et al. came off as friendly guides to a world of ultra-sophisticated and advanced technology few of us ever needed to know about intimately.
Unfortunately, these same reporters have failed to help the population at large understand the internet as it really is: a network of information exchanges. Instead, they have espoused, either through ignorance or bad faith (which is worse?), that Facebook, Twitter, Google, Amazon, and Apple are the internet and that they are unstoppable monopolies that must be taken down in order to preserve personal freedom and liberty. The aforementioned platforms haven’t helped (why would they?) by constantly taking public stances of preserving public interest while legally stating that they’re just harmless companies in the courtroom.
Glenn Greenwald is guilty of not only bad-faith reporting, but outright lies in the above-linked article titled How Silicon Valley, in a Show of Monopolistic Force, Destroyed Parler.
He lambastes Facebook, Twitter, and Amazon as monopolies on the web. They’re not. There are alternatives to each on the internet. You just have to dig. Just because they’re the only sites many people ever visit does not mean they are the internet. I don’t personally like any of them nor do I use them for any services. The fact that this site is even viewable proves they’re not monopolies.
Greenwald also mentions that Parler is innocent in the Capitol riot event because all the planning was done on Facebook and Twitter. He further claims that no known Parler users entered the Capitol. This is provably false.
I used to hold Glenn Greenwald in very high regard. His work in exposing PRISM was a landmark and a legacy accomplishment for journalism. For that, I regarded him as a globally elite journalist whom I should keep tabs on. That changed in 2020.
His numerous appearances on Tucker Carlson’s entertainment news show in the last few years have looked pretty bad. His unhinged ranting about how Russia never would lift a finger to harm the United States in any way rushes past reasonable objectivity and appears suspiciously asymptotic to what we would expect from Soviet propaganda.
I cheered his criticism of the Democrats in the United States Government. But then it started to feel like he was purposefully omitting crucial perspectives from the narrative. It became clear that he had an agenda when he raised such a ruckus and rage-quit The Intercept. He alleged censorship. The editors at The Intercept claimed he was flouting standard fact-checking.
Now he presumes to speak to me about the nature of the internet. He might think that by implying that these feckless mega-corporations milking their users for coin are actually The Internet that we will all suddenly jump onboard with Parler and their users, stand up against censorship, and fight for free speech.
Greenwald appears sycophantic and his stance on the matter seems divorced from reality. Just like the official statement from Twitter about Uganda’s choice to block social media in the aim to protect their elections.
Furthermore, Greenwald has no true authority to write, speak, or imply anything about the structure, architecture, or landscape of The Internet. He is a former lawyer turned investigative journalist. He helped Edward Snowden inform the world about PRISM. He doesn’t have experience in technology beyond what any first world consumer has. He has not demonstrated any wherewithal to use technology in a productive manner outside of imposing his own reality-tunnel on others. One seemingly small, but rather glaring proof of this fact is that he published his writing on Substack.
If he had any ability with internet technologies, Greenwald would be publishing from a domain that he owned outright. But he doesn’t. Substack is a service just like Facebook or Twitter that monetizes the behavior of its visitors. Either he pays them to publish his words or they pay him to use their platform so they can raise their visibility on the back of his name.
Let’s turn to Parler.
If you have not already heard about how Parler was taken offline then you have succeeded in staying unplugged from the American News Hurricane.
Ignorant politicians, journalists, and civilians have been in a huff over this move because they claim this is monopolized censorship. It’s not.
The reason Parler went offline is gross incompetence and nothing more. The matter of Parler’s content is not something I care about.
Let’s list out all the ways Parler was technically terrible.
- Clearly, no true infrastructure engineers on staff
- Incompetent back end programming
- Amateur security practices
- Chose to buy hosting from a provider that struck an exclusive deal with their direct competitor.
The first point of bad infrastructure engineering is apparent to any professional Network Engineer, DevOps Professional, Cloud Architect, or whatever. If you have a service that must stay up, then you make it globally redundant with seamless failover and load-balancing. If one of your hosting providers decides to give you the boot, you shouldn’t have any service interruption unless you foolishly placed all assets in the same data center. This is basic Operations Infrastructure Engineering.
The second and third are proven by the fact that anyone in the world, without authentication, could pull all data from Parler’s API. This just hurts to think about. This is the sort of thing you’re supposed to figure out before you even tell someone you have an app. The inability to secure their data allowed for hackers to pull down every bit of data and back it up without technically breaking any laws or Terms of Service. Parler looks like a dumpster fire built through a series of cheap Fiverr contracts. Or maybe they thought they could get ahead of everyone else by complying with the GOP’s desire to eliminate secure encryption and data security.
What’s worse about that is Parler marketed itself to be private and secure. Instead it served them all up to their political adversaries on a silver platter.
The final point of incompetence lies in their choice to place all their eggs in the Amazon Web Services basket. Especially when they knew that AWS had signed an exclusive deal to provide federated infrastructure to Twitter so that company could grow their footprint beyond their own datacenters.
It’s expensive to run a datacenter for your own needs. But Parler had billionaire investors. They could have easily paid for the infrastructure to ensure their service never went down. Not only that, they could have easily purchased backup hosting with another vendor. This goes back to the false narrative that Amazon is a web hosting monopoly. Just because their commercials proclaim they run the internet does not mean they run the internet. America has hundreds, if not thousands, of capable competitors. Or, if you’re a billionaire, just spend a couple $100k on some servers and call it a day.
I’ve pointed out why Parler sucked from a technical standpoint, why social media sites banning users isn’t a crime, and how a false narrative about the nature of the internet is being pushed by journalists and social media companies.
But there is still a problematic issue to all of this. This isn’t something I’ve yet seen reported and that is concerning.
The United States Government was silenced on the internet by private companies. Love or hate Donald Trump, he is (for now anyway) the President of the United States of America. Legally, his voice is the official stance of the American Government. That voice was forcibly removed from every social media platform at once. That’s a significant event. The chief voice of the United States Government has been banned from online public spaces without any repercussion.
We need to carefully consider what this means for the future. This precedent feels like it could dawn a new age of communication from the US Government to the rest of the world. Could we possibly encounter serious problems in the future when Twitter, Facebook, Google, and Amazon can insert themselves between us and our leaders voice?
Sure, Donald Trump is not silenced completely. He has the Emergency Broadcast System. He can hold a press conference and all TV news outlets will air it live. But who watches TV anymore? I don’t. My television gets video from a web server fed into it from a Raspberry Pi. I would go to YouTube or the PBS website to see a live presidential address. This doesn’t seem like a big deal when it’s Donald Trump for obvious reasons. But this could be a big deal in a national emergency. It could be helpful to have our nation’s leader live tweet that a dangerous event is about to unfold. That would get out to us all well before a television broadcast could be configured and executed.
The atomic bomb is about the only instance I can think of where Americans wielded unprecedented power and then decided to never use it again. Will Donald Trump’s removal from social media follow that same path? Or will Twitter ban a future President when s/he decides to sanction the company? That certainly wouldn’t be illegal, assuming the laws then are as they are now. But would it be a good thing to do?
There are a lot of unanswered questions about social media, the internet, legality, and morality. We’ve only just dipped our toes into the digital age and we haven’t figured any of it out. Based on the way we have legislated, and amorally exploited internet users in such a short time since its access became publicly ubiquitous, it is hard to imagine a world where we figure out how to use it as the utility it appears to be instead of an avenue of unfettered consumption and human exploitation.