Fighting for the future of the internet

January 30, 2021
Photo: Gerd Altmann / Pixabay

The recent Reddit-user intervention to defend video game retailer GameStop’s shares from falling has caused anxiety for hedge funds. But this has had a ripple effect for capital as even the White House has taken note and is now monitoring the situation.

Trading platforms are now restricting the ability to buy shares. A certain indignation has emerged.

Whether that is defying hedge fund firms or the growth of reactionary movements (alt-right Neo-Nazis, incels and QAnon), the internet can be be a dangerous place.

Will capital decide that there is too much danger associated with the internet? Or will government intervene?

Debate over the “downsides” of free speech has been a theme for a while, with editorials suggesting that, as one 2019 New York Times piece proclaimed, “Free Speech is Killing Us”.

So far there has been a kind of deregulated regulation whereby corporations regulate users and users regulate users through establishing rules for online conduct. Such regulation may blur the line between private and public action.

But, could there not be a move to adopt measures such as a firewall like China has?

Already, though admittedly for very different purposes, the federal Coalition government has introduced regulation to prevent the ease at which news is shared and make Google and Facebook answerable to media companies/oligopolies, mandating that they pay news organisations.

The old gods of printed media may be dead, but they still demand sacrifice.

Former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd alleges that Murdoch’s fingerprints are all over the legislation. While Rudd has his own biases, it is difficult not to draw the conclusion that Murdoch detests Big Tech given his hostility to the NBN.

It would be natural for there to be tensions between the old media moguls and tech capitalist entrepreneurs. After all, reactionaries like Murdoch made their money through printed tabloids and the most wealthy figures in the world tend to have made their money in tech, engendering resentments from other capitalists.

Recall, for instance, Trump’s criticisms of Jeff Bezos and his initial demands on Apple.

Meanwhile, some progressives push for more government oversight. This already points to corporations taking action, both to prevent overt regulation by government but also to pre-empt regulation, working at the behest of politicians and government.

Indeed, politicians have been calling on social media to take a more active and censorial role.

As early as 2019, Kamala Harris was calling on Twitter to ban President Donald Trump. It is telling that it was only when the Republicans lost the US election and Harris was assured the vice presidency that Twitter did finally ban Trump. It is clearly an issue the companies themselves are conflicted on.

As public and private actors gear up to regulate the “untamed” online world, more and more power is being ceded to algorithms and machine learning because oversight of such vast networks of communication by humans would be prohibitively expensive.

Such algorithms can be notoriously inaccurate, but also come with their own biases, learnt from the data they are trained on.

All of this underscores the dangers of how the internet currently exists as privatised space.

While the ability to curate one’s feed — an Orwellian-sounding term if ever there was one — may create the illusion of control, we, the users, remain in the power of lawmakers and corporations.

The left remains internally divided as to whether to defend the censorship of online reactionaries, or whether to fear the awesome might of Twitter and Facebook. After all, Facebook is already turning on the left under the pretext of combatting extremism on both sides.

In short, there will be difficult times ahead.

More and more our lives are mediated through social networks and the internet generally. As socialists we must clearly make the point that private companies alone — concerned only with their profits and maintaining their vast monopolies — cannot be allowed to dictate the terms on which we all relate to each other.

The internet is made by workers, and should be run by workers too.

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