Public networks instead of social networks?

A reflection on some discussions after Trump’s getting banned from Twitter

The conversation so far

The following comments on Trump being banned from Twitter/ the removal of Parler from Android and iOS stores were, somewhat aptly, inspired by two threads on Twitter itself: the first by the British-Canadian blogger Cory Doctorow and the other by Canadian scholar Blayne Haggart. The point of this post ideally is to start the conversation from where Doctorow and Haggart have left it and involve more people from our team. Ideally, nobody will be censored in the process :p

Doctorow insists that the big problem with Apple and Android removing Parler is not so much censorship – ultimately different app stores can have different rules and this should be the case – but rather the fact that there are no alternative app stores. Thus, the core of his argument is that the US needs to enforce anti-trust laws that would allow for a fair competition between a number of competitors. The same argument can be extended to breaking up social media monopolists such as Facebook and Twitter. What we need is more competition.

Haggart attacks this argument in three ways:

First, he reminds that “market regulation of the type that @doctorow wants requires perfect competition. This is unlikely to happen for a number of reasons (e.g, low consumer understanding of platform issues, tendency to natural monopoly)”. Thus, the most likely outcome becomes the establishment of ‘a few more corporate oligarchs’. This basically leaves the state as a key regulator — much to the disappointment of cyber-libertarians who have argued against state regulation for decades.

The problem is, and this is Haggart’s second key point, that “as a non-American, it’s beyond frustrating that this debate (like so many internet policy debates) basically amounts to Americans arguing with other Americans about how to run the world. Other countries need to assert their standing in this debate” . This point had been made years ago also in Martin Hardie’s great paper ‘Foreigner in a free land’ in which he noticed how most debates about copyright law focused on the US. Even progressive people such as Larry Lessig built their whole argumentation on the basis of references to the US constitution. But what about all of us – the poor souls from the rest of the world who don’t live in the US?

Of course, Facebook, Twitter, Alphabet, Amazon, etc. are all US tech companies. But they do operate globally. So even if the US states interferes in regulating them, the regulation it imposes might not chime well with people in France or Germany, let’s say. The famous American prudence with nudity is the oft quoted example of different standards when it comes to content regulation. No French person would be horrified by the sight of a bare breast (at least if we believe stereotypes) so why should nude photos be removed from the French social media. If we want platform governance to be truly democratic, the people affected by it should ‘have a say in that decision’. But as Haggart notes “This cannot happen so long as platforms are global, or decisions about them are made only in DC”.

So what does Haggart offer? Simple: break social media giants not along market lines but along national lines. Well, maybe not that simple…

If we take the idea of breaking up monopolies along national lines seriously…

This post starts from Haggart’s proposal to break up social media along national lines, assuming it is a good proposal. In fact I do this not for rhetorical purposes or for the sake of setting a straw man but because I actually think it is a good proposal. So the following lines aim to take the proposal seriously and consider different aspects of it discussing what potential drawbacks/problems should we keep in mind.

How to do this??

The first key problem is: who on Earth, can convince companies such as Facebook/Twitter to ‘break along national lines’. These companies spend fortunes on lobbying the US government and they are US national champions. Why would the US support breaking them up along national lines? (As a matter of fact, the question of how is also a notable problem in Deibert’s ‘Reset’ — his idea that hacktivism, civil disobedience, and whistleblowers’ pressure can make private monopolists exercise restraint is very much wishful thinking). There are historical precedents for nationalization of companies but they seem to have involved either a violent revolution or a massive indebtedness of these companies making it necessary for the state to step in and save them with public money. Are there any precedents for nationalizing a company and then revealing how it operates to other states in order to make these states create their respective national versions of it? Maybe. But it seems highly unlikely that anyone in the US would want to do this.

Which leaves us with the rather utopian option two: all big democratic states get together and develop interoperable social media. The project is such a success that people fed up with Facebook and Google decide to join and the undue influence of private monopolists finally comes to an end. But this utopian vision itself opens up a series of new questions.

Okay, assuming we can have state platforms operating along national lines..

Inscribing values in design is not always as straight-forward as it seems, as discussed in the fascinating conversation between Solon Barocas, Seda Gurses, Arvind Narayanan and Vincent Toubiana on decentralized personal data architectures. But, assuming that states can build and maintain (or hire someone to build and maintain) such platforms that don’t crash, are not easy to hack and are user friendly, the next question is: who is going to own the infrastructure and the data?

Who will own the infrastructure and the data?

One option would be for each individual citizen to own their data but this might be too risky and unpractical. Another option would be to treat the data as public data — the same way we treat data from surveys and national statistics. The personal data from current social media platforms is used for online advertising/ training machine learning. If states own their citizens’ data, we might go back to a stage in which the best research was done by state bodies and universities rather than what we have now — the most cutting edge research is done in private companies, often in secret from the public. Mike Savage described this process of increased privatization of research in his brilliant piece The Coming Crisis of Empirical sociology. If anything, the recent case with Google firing AI researcher Timnit Gebru reveals the need to have independent public research that is not in-house research by social media giants or funded by them. It would be naive to think such independent academics can do such research in the current situation when the bulk of interesting data to be analysed is privately owned.

How to prevent authoritarian censorship and surveillance?

Finally, if we assume that states will own their own online public networks — fulfilling the same functions such as Facebook, but without the advertising, the one million dollar question is how to prevent censorship, overreach and surveillance. As Ron Deibert discusses in ‘Reset’, most states are currently involved in some sort of hacking and surveillance operations of foreign but also domestic citizens. What can be done about this? Here Haggart’s argument about the need for democratic accountability reveals its true importance and relevance. State-owned online public networks would have to abide by standards that have been democratically discussed and to be accountable to the public.

But what Hagart means when discussing democratic accountability should be expanded. Democracy and satisfaction with it have been declining in many Western nations with more and more decision-making power delegated to technocratic bodies. Yet, what the protests from 2010s in the US and the EU clearly showed is that people are dissatisfied with democracy not because they want authoritarianism but because they want more democracy, that is democratic deepening. Or in the words of the Spanish Indignados protesters:

“Real democracy, now”

Thus, to bring to conclusion the utopia of state public networks, the decisions about their governance should be made not by technocratic bodies or with ‘democratic accountability’ used as a form of window-dressing which sadly is often the case now. Instead, policy decisions should be discussed broadly through a combination of public consultations, assemblies and in already existing national and regional assemblies in order to ensure people have ownership of the policies decided. State public networks should be not only democratically accountable but also democratically governed. Such a scenario would be one of what I call ‘democratic digital sovereignty’ that goes beyond the arbitrariness of decisions by private CEOs but also escapes the pitfalls of state censorship and authoritarianism.

To sum up: we need state-owned interoperable online public networks. Citizen data gathered from the use of these media would be owned by the state and would be available for public academic research (which would be open access in order to encourage both transparency and innovation). The moderation policies of these public platforms would be democratically discussed and decided. In short, these will be platforms of the people and for the people. Nothing more, nothing less.

This article was originally published on 13 January 2021 at the blog of The Minderloo Centre for Technology and Democracy, which is the inaugural node in a planned international network of academic programs established to rebalance power and restore agency in a world dominated by digital platforms. The Minderloo Centre for Technology and Democracy is part of the Centre for Research in the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences (CRASSH), Cambridge.

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