Mark Zuckerberg, Jack Dorsey and colleagues – masters of the digital universe of FATGA (the acronym stands for Facebook, Amazon, Twitter, Google and Apple) – control what we see, hear and read. They run the contemporary agora, the planetary public square that stretches from Andorra to Australia.
In the beginning, just 30 years ago, the Internet was boundless liberty, a free-for-all without fences and fees – a democratic dream come true. FATGA loved it because these platforms, soon serving and making billions, bore none of the chains carried by normal publishers thanks to the US Telecommunications Act of 1996. An ordinary newspaper is liable under civil and criminal law if it spreads falsehood or defamation. Not so providers who just set the table with content cooked up by others. So, sue them!
It gets better still. Unleashed from constitutional guarantees of free speech, FATGA may kick anything off the menu they consider “obscene, filthy, excessively violent, harassing, or otherwise objectionable,” as the 1996 Act has it. Wonderful, this law allows us to have it both ways. The state cannot force us to police the Net to evade profit-denting penalties, nor stop us from doing it ourselves. We decide what is proper and pleasing or what defies “community standards”. So, out with the noxious stuff. And: heads I win, tails you lose.
With unbridled power comes temptation and imposition, in this case privatized censorship that would have put Metternich or the 20th cen Stasi to shame. These enforcers of correct thinking had to break seals or steam open envelopes to unearth enemies of the state. Today’s gatekeepers just let their algorithms prowl the Net, sifting through trillions of data voluntarily handed over by us – the profiteers of borderless knowledge. We pay…