John Herman writes: The recent rise of all-encompassing internet platforms promised something unprecedented and invigorating: venues that unite all manner of actors — politicians, media, lobbyists, citizens, experts, corporations — under one roof. These companies promised something that no previous vision of the public sphere could offer: real, billion-strong mass participation; a means for affinity groups to find one another and mobilize, gain visibility and influence. This felt and functioned like freedom, but it was always a commercial simulation. This contradiction is foundational to what these internet companies are. Nowhere was this tension more evident than in the case of Cloudflare, a web-infrastructure company. Under sustained pressure to drop The Daily Stormer as a client, the company’s chief executive, Matthew Prince, eventually assented. It was an arbitrary decision, and one that was out of step with the company’s stated policies. This troubled Prince. ‘‘I woke up in a bad mood and decided someone shouldn’t be allowed on the internet,’’ he wrote in an email to his staff. ‘‘No one should have that power.’’
Social platforms tend to refer to their customers in euphemistic, almost democratic terms: as ‘‘users’’ or ‘‘members of a community.’’ Their leaders are prone to statesmanlike posturing, and some, like Mark Zuckerberg, even seem to have statesmanlike ambitions. Content moderation and behavioral guidelines are likewise rendered in the terms of legal governance, as are their systems for dispute and recourse (as in the ubiquitous post-ban ‘‘appeal’’). Questions about how platforms like Twitter and Reddit deal with disruptive users and offensive content tend to be met with defensive language invoking free speech.
In the process of building private communities, these companies had put on the costumes of liberal democracies. They borrowed the language of rights to legitimize arbitrary rules, creating what the technology lawyer Kendra Albert calls ‘‘legal talismans.’’ This was first and foremost operationally convenient or even necessary: What better way to avoid liability and responsibility for how customers use your product? It was also good marketing. It’s easier to entrust increasingly large portions of your private and public life to an advertising and data-mining firm if you’re led to believe it’s something more. But as major internet platforms have grown to compose a greater share of the public sphere, playing host to consequential political organization — not to mention media — their internal contradictions have become harder to ignore. Far before Charlottesville, they had already become acute. [Continue reading…]