We have opened up the Pandora’s Box of balkanization, regulation and the crimping of free speech. It will be hard to put that genie back in the bottle.
It was on 8th January 1656 when the oldest running newspaper in the world, Weeckelycke Courante van Europa was set up in the sleepy village of Haarlem in Netherlands. Just 142 years later, on the 8th of January again, half a world away, the 11th Amendment to the American constitution was adopted, that effectively prohibited an individual from suing the state, establishing the sovereignty of the state. And then, on January 8th, 2021 Twitter banned the President of the United States.
That the arc of history should pass so neatly through this one date is, doubtless, a coincidence. But one must appreciate that the significance of this latest event on our collective histories will be no less significant. By silencing the maniacal voice of one of the most divisive individuals with that kind of power, who was intent on staging a coup in his own nation, Twitter did right. It also has set up the stage for the most tumultuous changes we will see in how the Internet is governed and accessed.
Let us contextualize the incident: first, there are loud and powerful voices that have been crying foul (on almost all sides of any political divide) about the unchecked power of the tech majors, particularly as it relates to shaping public narrative. Second; this same power is under attack for creating gigantic monoliths that seem to evade all anti-trust and monopoly regulations. Third: the scale of these behemoths makes any attempt at subverting them as futile as throwing pebbles at a mountain to topple it. And fourth: there are increasing efforts from increasingly right-wing and authoritarian governments the world over to censor the internet, further balkanizing what was once the tech equivalent of the Garden of Eden.
And then Twitter went ahead and banned the President of the United States.
The power of broadcasting is well understood by most governments. It is no coincidence that most developed and developing nations have strong regulations pertaining to broadcast: licenses are required for airwaves, FDI is either prohibited of strongly curbed and monitored, and censorship of one form or the other is imposed. Governments find it unsafe to let everyone say what they think, and worse, have others listen to it. This worked well - until about a decade and a half ago. The internet changed that control in the most fundamental of ways. Content was now free of borders, and you now had access to news and information, and critically, views from the globe at your fingertips. A more fundamental inflection occurred a decade ago, when not only could you listen, but you could talk. Content creation, that holiest of holy barriers to entry, was suddenly toppled. And with the advent of pokes and TikTok dances and Tide Pod Challenges, came also the world of the Tweet that could gather a crowd to topple a government and usher in the Arab Spring.
Suddenly, the pokes began to poke. And what’s worst, authorities could not muster the moral authority in the face of the vociferous Masses to reverse the threat. Attacking the ‘harmless’ platform would do much to alienate the very people they wanted to save from the voices these platforms were introducing them to.
And then Twitter went ahead and banned the President of the United States. As did Instagram, Facebook and Youtube. And Snapchat.
The stage was set for the first serious debate on this issue. Moral authority has been restored. How can you not regulate an entity - a private company - that has the power to silence the most powerful man in the world? How can you trust that power in the hands of a CEO, who is not elected, who is not accountable to the people? And unfortunately, these are all good questions.
The reason we are here, unfortunately, is because both sides didn’t want to engage to really solve the problem. In the US, both Democrats and Republicans bemoaned the power of these platforms but never put forth a serious mechanism to clamp its teeth, for fear of backlash. Naturally, the platforms were in no hurry to be proactive about this either.
Trump’s ban, though morally right in every way, is unfortunately a reprehensible example of how things can get out of hand if they are not controlled in time. If a due process is not put in place to anticipate and react to changes that will inevitably happen faster than you could anticipate them. Had the Trump ban happened as a result of a judge’s ruling, or of a government department’s directive, all would be well with our world tomorrow. Instead, it was a decision taken unilaterally by a company.
And now we have opened up the Pandora’s Box of balkanization, regulation and the crimping of free speech. It will be hard to put that genie back in the bottle.