I was prompted to write this article by the demise of the 8Chan website a few days ago and by the ensuing flight of some of its users to ZeroNet.
The urban dictionary gives several definitions for the internet. The second is: "A virtual place where everyone feels they have the right to force their opinions, offend, and engage in verbal barbarism between other users". (No, I did not make this up.) This is just the sort of definition one might expect to be written by someone who is opposed to free speech on the internet. As an proponent of free speech, I would give a definition of what the internet was in the past but is no longer: A virtual place where everyone is allowed to express their opinions, regardless of who holds opposing viewpoints, and engage in the sharing of truth as they perceive it between other users.
Some may say free speech is still alive on the internet. I would argue that if it is not dead, it is at least on its deathbed. I've been thinking a lot about this lately. So, I decided to write a death certificate for internet free speech--mostly to explain the cause of death, for those who are in the dark about how it happened, or how it is about to happen.
Internet Free Speech
Free speech on the internet was made possible by those who created the internet: DARPA, CERN, Dr. Vinton Cerf, Dr. Robert Kahn, Tim Berners Lee, and many others. As far as I know, Al Gore was not involved.
Free speech on the internet came into existence as an oversight. Someone forgot that giving people a way to communicate freely meant that they would do so.
The internet was born in 1969 with the ARPAnet, the world's first multi-site computer network. ARPA, the Advanced Research Projects Agency, was funded by the US military, which changed its name to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency in 1972. The ARPAnet was designed to be a way for the military to communicate with each other in the event of a nuclear attack. Later, the ARPAnet was extended to include colleges and universities. TCP (Transmission Control Protocol) and IP (Internet Protocol), the protocols upon which the modern internet is based, were created in the 1970's by 2 DARPA engineers--Vinton Cerf and Robert Kahn. The two are often known as the fathers of the Internet. DARPA then hired University College London and BBN Technologies to develop operational versions of the TCP and IP protocols. In 1982, ARPAnet switched to TCP/IP. Between 1989 and 1991, Tim Berners Lee led a team of scientists and engineers at CERN in Geneva, Switzerland in the development of the World Wide Web. This effort included the definition of HTML (Hypertext Markup Language) and URLs (Uniform Resource Locators).
True free speech can be identified by the following characteristics:
Free speech initially thrived on the internet, because no one knew how to prevent it in the early days of the internet, or even realized they had a reason to. The first websites were created by hobbyists who could say whatever they wanted on line. Governments did not even become aware of the internet until it had been around long enough for corporations to begin to be interested in it.
Gradually, between about 1990 and 2010, the complacency of those in power ended. It began to subside as corporations and advertisers found their places on line. It decreased even further as large corporations grew and created near-monopolies and giant fortunes--companies like Amazon with online shopping, Facebook with social media, and Google with search. Once these near-monopolies were created, the organizations that owned them were able to exercise control in ways that were detrimental to their users, because these organizations understood that users realistically had few or no alternative platforms to which to flee.
Once the number of viable platforms had narrowed to only a few key players, governments found it much easier to pressure them. Instead of tens of thousands of companies to harass, governments were able to concentrate their efforts on the largest dozen or so, knowing that the rest would eventually fall into line. For reasons that I will explain in the next section, this wasn't even difficult to do. Once laws were in place, China could ban Google if it didn't deliver its data on Chinese citizens to computers in China where Chinese authorities could monitor (and punish) them. The US government could threaten telecommunications companies in the US with secret court trials if they didn't play ball. Unfortunately, governments exempt themselves from Rico laws.
In short, governments have used giant corporations to find ways to prevent most, if not nearly all, free speech on the internet, even in so-called "free" countries. The fact that I can say what I'm saying now without fear of being deplatformed is only due to the fact that I run my own website. However, should I become too offensive to my government, they can still resort to silencing me by pressuring my domain name provider into taking away the domain name for my website.
Free speech on the internet is either dead or dieing for the following reasons. First, internet users have allowed themselves to be corralled like cattle onto platforms created by giant corporations like Microsoft, Facebook, Amazon, Google, and others.
These corporations are not interested in protecting free speech on line. It is a rather well-known phenomenon that large organizations of all kinds attract sociopaths into their senior leadership positions. See here, here, and here. Therefore, giant corporations, having no moral compass, rarely push back when governments exert pressure to "slaughter the cattle" by identifying, tracking, and silencing anyone who dares exercise true free speech on line. Apple's protection of the privacy rights of its users is a notable exception. One could argue, however, that Apple does this for business reasons. Because Apple sells a product by advertising it as something that protects the privacy of it's users, their product must appear to actually do that in order to sell as well as possible.
The second reason free speech on the internet is either dead or dying is that the slow wheels of government bureaucracies have now had sufficient time and motivation to gain some understanding of the internet and to pass laws concerning it. Governments around the world have been threatening to hold platform providers responsible for the speech on their platforms. Most intelligent people realize that governments find terrorist acts embarrassing, because they highlight the impotence of governments when it comes to doing what governments ostensibly exist to do: protect their citizens. A few governments have reacted to their embarrassment by passing or threatening to pass laws against the uploading or viewing of videos of acts of terrorism on social media platforms. See here and here. Once laws are firmly in place to prevent the uploading of videos of acts of terrorism, it is a short step to "strengthen" those laws to prevent the uploading of videos of public riots, anti-war protests, police officers arresting citizens, anti-government speeches, gay rights marches, feminist marches, and anything else governments happen to find embarrassing or distasteful.
Unfortunately, there will be no funeral, real or symbolic, because of a lack of understanding and a raging apathy among the world's peoples. Very few will morn the death of free speech on the internet, because they never understood the need for it. Many will never know what it once looked like or that it even existed at all. But, the real shame is that its death could have been prevented by citizens leaving the giant monopolistic platforms, standing up to their governments, and refusing to be pressured into giving up their free speech.
That is the end of my internet-free-speech-death certificate. I hope it made a strong enough impression on you to cause you to ponder possible ways of correcting the situation in which we now find ourselves.
As I alluded to earlier, one way to perhaps keep free speech alive a little longer is to leave the "centralized" internet, the one controlled by the giant corporations. Internet users can move to decentralized social networks, like Frendica, Diaspora, ZeroNet, and others. I'm noticing new decentralized networks coming on line every day. All users have to do is make the effort to find them and use them. I noticed a huge increase in users on ZeroNet yesterday, August 7th, as newly-platformless 8Chan users looked for another place to express themselves. I also noticed that many of the cat video posting types didn't appreciate ZeroNet very much. It think that was probably because they had no idea what to do with it. ZeroNet was never designed to share cat videos and compare sandwich recipes. It was designed to provide a platform for those who are serious about discussing what needs to be fixed in countries around the world while remaining anonymous--something that is no longer possible on centralized platforms. If you would like to use ZeroNet for that, I'm sure that others there will welcome you with open arms.
Decentralized platforms, however, are not the ultimate solution to the death of online free speech. Eventually sociopathic corporations and governments will find methods of controlling even decentralized networks, as China is now in the process of doing. The final solution to the problem of the death of free speech is for citizens around the world to recognize the need for its existence and to stand up to their governments by publicly demanding it.
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Guide to Computers and the Internet. All rights reserved.