Bowing to their better civic natures, and the pleas of James Foley's family, Twitter and YouTube have pulled down videos and photos of his murder. They had every right to do so, and in my view they did the right thing.
So why am I so uncomfortable with this? Because it's not clear what's too vile to host. And, even more, because Twitter and YouTube are among a tiny group of giant companies with greater and greater power—and less and less accountability—over what we read, hear, and watch online.
Who gave them this power? We did. And if we don’t take back what we’ve given away—and what’s being taken away—we’ll deserve what we get: a concentration of media power that will damage, if not eviscerate, our tradition of free expression.
For the moment, it's reasonable to dismiss the widely repeated accusation that removing the Foley videos was an act of censorship. When Twitter worked with the Turkish regime to remove certain accounts, that was censorship, if by proxy, because it was done on the orders of a government. And, of course, when governments directly block Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, and other services, as some do, that is direct censorship. But when Twitter and YouTube took down a murder-as-propaganda video, that was editing. (Show me evidence that the U.S. government persuaded Twitter and YouTube to do this, as it almost certainly did when the major payment systems cut off Wikileaks' funding several years ago, and I'll revise that view.)
Editing, yes, but on an epic scale—and critics are absolutely right to raise some stark questions. What precedent does this set? What actual policies are at work? Are the policies being applied consistently? If it's appropriate to take down these videos and pictures, why not the images of so many others who've been the victims of ISIS and other criminals?
All are important questions, but the reason they're so important, again, is the clout these services exert in the information marketplace. There was little uproar, after all, when the anything-goes LiveLeak—which hosts videos that most others find beyond the pale—vowed not to post any ISIS beheading videos, on the reasonable grounds that it’s wrong to help murderers do public relations.
What makes so many free-speech protectors fret in the current situation, again, is not the instinct to protect an unwary public from encountering the worst of humanity, or to avoid helping barbarian propagandists. It is the slippery slope issue, and this is getting more worrisome every day with the growing domination of Facebook, Google, and Twitter over our media flow.
They’re dominant not because they’ve taken control, but because we’ve given them control—and not for all bad reasons. These services are enormously useful and convenient. But because we aren’t paying for these services, we users are, as the saying goes, the products being sold to advertisers. We have no rights beyond what the companies give us in their terms of service, where quaint ideas like the First Amendment have no application. When Facebook decides what you see in your timeline, you have no recourse—because you “agreed” to terms of service that are grossly one-sided and not constrained by the Bill of Rights.
I’m a frequent Twitter user, in part because the company has for the most part been a strong protector of free speech. I confess to some misgivings about my own tendency to put so much of what I do into a proprietary service that increasingly makes clear that it controls the experience. Even as it was taking down the Foley videos, Twitter was expanding its unilateral tweaking of users’ timelines,inserting posts that the users did not ask for—a major breach in the bargain Twitter made with us from its early days. (I don’t trust Facebook at all, and use it rarely, and have been using DuckDuckGo, which doesn’t track users, as an alternative search engine—though I do use some Google services.)
Journalists have been especially short-sighted in their eagerness to use social networks, feeding enormous amounts of content into third-party services they do not in any way control and which get, by far, the best of the bargain in the long run. Guess what, journalism companies? Facebook is going to be your biggest competitor in the long run. Twitter is a media company, too. And Google’s eating your lunch every day.
So what can we do, beyond waking up to what’s happening? We need, as web inventor Tim Berners-Lee has urged, to re-decentralize the Internet, and restore its promise as a medium where the action takes place at the edges of networks—where we wouldn’t need permission to communicate and innovate.
The first way we users of Internet services can re-decentralize is to create—and make use of—our own home base online. In practical terms, this means getting your own domain name and creating, at a minimum, a blog where you establish your own identity. The page you think is yours at LinkedIn, Tumblr, Instagram (Facebook), or any of the other centralized services is emphatically not truly your own; it’s theirs.
You can also keep an eye on a small but growing movement among some software developers who are working quietly to give us some vital tools. I’m a big fan of what the “Indie Web” people are doing—for example, creating ways so I can post on my personal blog and have it show up on Twitter (and elsewhere), and then having replies automatically show up as comments in my blog. Separately, longtime software developer Dave Winer, a pioneer in some essential web technologies, is working toward similar ends with some super-intriguing results.
Crucially, you can recognize the even greater emerging threat to your freedom of expression in the dominance of telecom companies that want absolute control over the Internet by killing what’s known as network neutrality, the idea that people who buy Internet access, not the providers of the access, should make the decision about what content they want, and in what priority. Comcast, Verizon, and the other big U.S. carriers are, if anything, more problematic than Facebook, which is saying something.
This is a pivotal time for our communications ecosystem. As we cede control to governments and corporations—and as they take it away from us—we are risking a most fundamental liberty, the ability to freely speak and assemble. Let’s not trade our freedom for convenience.