So far, at least, the U.S. government has yet to appoint a chief censor. But Silicon Valley’s coastal elites have been eager to volunteer their services gratis.
The last year has marked a dispiriting new low in the “deplatforming,” or banning from various online channels, of dissident voices. The ax fell on Infowars’ Alex Jones, actor James Woods, the editorial director of AntiWar.com, the director of the Ron Paul Institute, and radio talk show host Jesse Kelly. (Some of these accounts have since been reinstated.)
Lawmakers have encouraged these social media bans. Congressional hearings have been called to interrogate tech execs on how their products are being used. Last August, Sen. Chris Murphy (D–Conn.) urged an even broader crackdown, proclaiming on Twitter that “the survival of our democracy depends on it.”
Rep. Bennie Thompson (D–Miss.), chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, must have been listening. In March, Thompson sent a letter to Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and Microsoft insisting that they remove “toxic and violent” content, even if it is legal to distribute in the United States. (The platforms already prohibit illegal content.) If the companies are “unwilling” to do so voluntarily, Thompson warned, Congress will “consider policies” to compel their cooperation. Left unexplained was how any such requirement could comply with the First Amendment.
In this report, we explore two important ways structurally decentralized systems could help address the risks of mega-platform consolidation: First, these systems can help users directly publish and discover content directly, without intermediaries, and thus without censorship. All of the systems we evaluate advertise censorship-resistance as a major benefit. Second, these systems could indirectly enable greater competition and user choice, by lowering the barrier to entry for new platforms. As it stands, it is difficult for users to switch between platforms (they must recreate all their data when moving to a new service) and most mega-platforms do not interoperate, so switching means leaving behind your social network. Some systems we evaluate directly address the issues of data portability and interoperability in an effort to support greater competition.
This research report is fascinating.