But it is more than simply hosting. If it were just this, the scope of the moral commitment could easily become enormous. Facebook is a platform with over a billion users. Some of the content and social activity on Facebook is racist and sexist in the same way as Reddit. Does that make the use of Facebook ethically suspect?
This gets even more fraught if you dive deeper into the the structure of the web. Amazon operates S3, a hosting service that serves as the backend infrastructure for a huge portion of sites online. Arguably, providing attention to one ad-based platform hosted on S3 also indirectly provides support for infrastructure that likely plays “landlord” to other platforms that are home to racist hate. It cannot be that one drop of objectionable behavior renders a whole platform ethically problematic.
What appears to be relevant in the Reddit case is the notion that the company has exercised a kind of negligence towards the organic behavior emerging on the platform. While Reddit does not create the content or even promote the content, the failure to act makes continued use of the platform tantamount to a moral complicity in the emergent behavior of other users. Platforms, in short, are deemed morally responsible for the consequences, even unintentional, of the spaces they create online.
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There is nothing absolute about “the Internet.” From the history of the web to a look at the structure of the network across countries, it is obvious that the configuration of networks, code, and people that make up what we call the Internet evolves continuously.
To date, one notion around this has been what David Weinberger calls the “Argument from Architecture,” the idea that values embedded in technical features of the web generate certain norms in society. These values, as he writes, include “open access to information, the democratic and permission-free ability to read and to post, an open market of ideas and businesses, and … bottom-up collaboration among equals.”
These norms are argued to have follow-on effects in society at large, and are also supposed to produce interventions that themselves sustain this notion of what the Internet is. Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, for example, famously grants platforms a legal immunity in ways that forward these “architectural” values.
Both the refusal to link and the refusal to click invert the idea that the technical aspects of the web necessitate certain norms. Instead, they seem to affirm the belief that the ethical norms of users and platforms can and must constrain the open structure of the web, rather than the other way around. In the very least, it suggests that the ubiquitous economics of advertising currently in effect demand a different relationship between users, ethics, and platforms.
Refusing to link affirms the idea that individual users have personal moral duties to constrain open access to information when to not do so would furnish financial benefit to unethical behavior. In that respect, it rejects the idea that all content is made equal for the purposes of citation online, and adopts a view that how content is produced is ethically important.