With a new unicorn popping up seemingly every other week, it’s easy to forget that the new behemoths that shape our lives, the technology firms, existed more than a few years. Behind the shiny veneer, however, there is a rich history of how this world came about to be. And just like any other history, it’s one that keeps repeating itself.
The latest iteration of the history, though, is not its finest one. Nazis are back. A quick recap. The informed citizens of the greatest country on earth have collectively voted to elect a white supremacist sympathizer, with overt, covert, voluntary, and involuntary help of practically every tech company and its acolytes. By the time we all woke up to what we did, it was too late; the Nazis were emboldened, chanting in the streets of Virginia, among many places. Then a guy woke up, literally, and decided to kick the Nazis off the internet, until they find a new home.
For some observers of the technology, this latest kerfuffle might just be a new chapter in the upcoming book by a Vanity Fair writer. For those a bit more in the know, they would note that the Nazis (a word I am using as a short for white supremacists), never really left the internet. They practically populated the every platform you did; they were on newsgroups, mailing lists, 4chan, reddit, Facebook, Twitter, and probably still are.
But, go down a bit farther back in the Wayback Machine, and it’s easy to remember that Nazis and some part of their history was on the internet as far as 2000s, and it points to one of the most interesting tensions of the Internet with capital I; the constant tension between the borderlessness of it, yet the levers of it being controlled just a few. This is subject of this essay; how the current gatekeepers of the internet's aims to create a new type of statelessness state is just a clumsy reiteration of past attempts.
The aspirational extraterrestrial culture of the internet is a messy and deep subject but the “Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace” is a good start. Penned by John Perry Barlow, one of the founders of Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), at a World Economic Forum, the declaration pulls no punches. In fact, more than just statelessness, you can hear the subtext of cyberspace being not just an international entity but almost an supranational one. It is a good read, both as a way to understand the libertarian thinking of early residents of the cyberspace and also as a Marxist approach to how zero marginal cost of production of technology rewrites everything. It is also remarkably prescient, not necessarily in the types of world early adopters would eventually create but the conflicts they would face.
Scroll your way up to 2000. Not just to the days Before iPhone or Before Facebook but Before Google. In 2000, a French human-rights organization discovers that Yahoo, on its auction platform, allows sale of Nazi and Third Reich memorabilia. While still not tasteful and unpresidential at the time, such activity was not illegal under US law, but quite so under French law. In what’s considered a landmark case, French court eventually ordered Yahoo to not just pull such items from its French store (fr.yahoo.com) but also make the items in the US store inaccessible in France.
The entire discourse around the case is extremely fascinating, and some of the statements from both sides have a very timeless quality. To an American audience, where only freedom of speech is more paramount to right to carry a firearm, an interference by a French court, of all courts, is an international overreach of unseen proportions, which does feel true. However, this analysis misses the continent-wide trauma Europeans experienced with Nazism in 1940s. While America has its fair share of World War 2 scars, it pales in comparison to the destruction Europe endured. This suffering was so profound, so widespread and so deep, and Nazism such a vile idea that the entire continent’s new identity, European Union is largely built around this reaction.
It is worth pulling out a few quotes here especially, just to see how timeless some of the predictions from the French philosophers are. Mark Knoebel, the French activist whose letters sparked the entire shebang says that American internet is becoming a “dumping ground” for racists all over.
Of course any discussion of censorship on the internet would be amiss without bringing up everyone’s once-favorite liberal reformer turned autocrat strongmen Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the president of Turkey. Even as far back as 2008, just 4 years after Google’s IPO, the Turkish government was in cahoots with YouTube over a couple of videos making fun of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkish Republic. In what would become the norm for Turkish government (or already was, depending on your ethnicity in Turkey), the state decided to block YouTube entirely, and demand the videos be taken off. The case went on for literally years; where YouTube stayed blocked in Turkey for almost two years. Turkish bloggers took the matters to their hands, where they shut down their own sites to protest the government's block. However, the block itself was so ham-fisted that even the then Prime Minister Erdogan himself mentioned that "everyone knows how to access YouTube".
Still, the case is fascinating where in 2008, Google employees felt comfortable jokingly calling themselves “The Decider” with a New York Times journalist in the room. The employees in charge, many with law degrees, were aware of their power, felt obviously uncomfortable with the levers they held, but still, in the end they held on to them.
A common theme that underlies most of the Silicon Valley thinking is that computers, internet and associated technologies changes everything; from mode of production to distribution to how information is generated to how it is disseminated. No incumbent is too big to not upend, no industry without with inefficiencies a couple of scripts can eliminate. A common complaint of the less-STEM focused side of the world, then is that Silicon Valley’s casual disregard for the history and the rules of the world is bordering on recklessness.
This is largely a political argument, which means it’s an everything argument, but the point here is that sometimes the Internet company’s casual disregard for history is not just hurtful for the entire world, but also for themselves (a statement whose irony is quite obvious to yours truly).
Silicon Valley companies love to invoke legal talismans, a phrase (I think) coined by Kendra Albert. In short, they love to evoke feelings of a legal proceeding, such as a due process, where there is none, to mostly justify their own decision making. But sometimes, such invocations are just symptoms of delusions of grandeur and they do come with consequences for everyone, as mentioned, including the companies themselves.
Consider the time Twitter UK General Manager called Twitter not just a bastion of free speech but the “free speech wing of the free speech party” in 2012 and try not to cringe. But you can definitely see a direct line from the EFF declaration to such an inane statement. A new world is being born, called the cyberspace (as opposed to what, meatspace?) and the rules are written by whoever is creating this world. Considering the current situation Twitter find itself in right now, with user growth barely chugging along, a stock hugely under its IPO levels, its value possibly held up significantly by an orange White House resident, it’s hard to imagine Twitter would be behaving the same way if they had a better understanding of the nuances of free speech laws, and how it protects people from state because, unlike corporations, state is allowed to jail and sometimes, kill, its people.
Of course, this aspirational statelessness of guardians of the cyberspace does go the other way too. It’s easy to write off your overzealous application of freedom of speech as a mistake, but harder to do, when you do the opposite. When a tech company counts ⅓ of the world’s population as its users (and 80% of online Americans), and those users spend a considerable amount of their waking moments looking at things pushed on to them by that company, it’s practically impossible to for a one-in-a-million event to happen with exceeding frequency when you are dealing with billions.
Probably one of the more eye-opening cases of this American overreach into cultures involves bodies, or more specifically naked ones. For Americans, a sight of a covered breast at a sporting event is a cause of national debate, but for many Northern Europeans, nudity is just another state of undress, as normal as any other. Especially so, when it is presented in a historical, artistic or just non-sexualized context. And even more especially so, when it is the Conservative Norwegian Prime Minister who happens to share a photo of the Napalm girl. Is Facebook, run largely by a bunch of white men in America, not making cultural statements about an unashamedly progressive country?
It is easy to write off these high profile instances as simple mistakes, and having worked in a similar user-generated content site before, it is mind-blowing to me that Facebook is as free of spam as it is. But what does that mean when these types of incidents happen so often that you slowly start shifting values of other cultures to your own, which whether you like it or not, were shaped by your own American upbringing?
And maybe, the clumsiness that happens year after year is the scariest of it all. It is one thing, as an academic exercise to imagine a world without governments. And if they want to take their academic exercise to the seas or to other planets, more power to them. And sometimes, the mistakes are outright hilarious, to the point where you wonder if this entire thing is an extremely elaborate performance art, a prequel to the hit HBO show.
Consider the case of Reddit. When a bunch of celebrity's iCloud accounts got hacked and their private photos were posted on the site, the company decided, reasonably, to remove that content. But in doing so, the CEO of the company said that they were considering reddit not just a private company, but "a government for a new type of community". He even went to describe how he sees the actions by the moderators akin to law enforcement officers. But, how do you reconcile such great ambition with the fact that your CEO, or president, resigns from the government because of a seating arrangement issue? (Disclaimer: I worked at a Reddit competitor briefly, around 7 years ago, partly because I was and still am quite interested in the space. I even wore a Reddit t-shirt when they came to visit us)
Building a new world, one that is more just, more humane, one that is safer, cleaner, more efficient all great goals. When I decided to study computer science in 2005, my main motivation was similar. I grew up in a town in Turkey where I didn't always fit in and it was through the internet where I could see more of the world easily enough and find people that I could connect with, on many levels. I wanted to extend that world, which seemed reasonably better than the one I lived in, more to the real world.
And personal politics matter too. As an immigrant to US, unlike most of my more left-leaning friends, I find the idea of statelessness, or a post-nation-state world an experiment that humanity owes itself to try. While the supranational organizations such as the EU and World Trade Organization do have their flaws and globalization comes with this unsettling feeling of homogeneity, I stay largely optimistic that as a species, we are better off in a more integrated society.
What I would like to see, however is less of the reckless attitude but a more thoughtful approach. The history is full examples. We can learn from them.</p