Monday, January 11, 2021

We Need a Digital Bill of Rights

I’m old enough to remember when the internet held the enormous potential of democratizing free speech on a level unlike anything the world had ever seen. For the first time, you could communicate instantly with anyone around the world. You could exchange and discuss ideas freely.

Then, seeing dollar signs, the corporations moved in. Cutting in line ahead of even government regulators, the corporations grew and grew, essentially unchecked by anyone, until they amassed so much power that they ended up becoming the gatekeepers of the internet. If you wanted your voice heard, or if you wanted to hang out online with your friends, you had no choice but to go through the gatekeepers, who made you click a checkbox saying you had just agreed to their terms of service.

You might as well have signed your soul away to the devil.

Suddenly, you were no longer in control of what you said online. They were. Sure, you could leave if you didn’t like the terms, but where were you going to go? They held all the cards.

And when the government gave them protection from liability from the things you might say on their platforms, they abused the incredibly generous gift they’d been given and censored you anyway. They would point to violations of their TOS, or they’d claim you were spreading “dangerous misinformation,” but in reality they were just controlling their own narratives. In true Kafkaesque fashion, they might not even tell you what you were guilty of doing. And if you appealed, they could just say no, leaving you with no recourse.

And then… and then, they banned the leader of the free world. The president of the United States.

And suddenly, you realized that these tech titans, rich and powerful beyond anyone’s dreams, now held infinite power in their hands. Not even governments could rein them in. They were accountable to no one.

And that’s why we need a Digital Bill of Rights.

The U.S. Constitution includes a Bill of Rights because enough people at the time of the framing wanted explicit guarantees that the people would be free from the kind of oppression the Redcoats had visited on the American colonists before and during the Revolution.

That was almost two and a half centuries ago, when no one could have foreseen that private companies would ever grow large enough to ruin our lives with the click of a button, or powerful enough to silence the president.

So what do we do? We have constitutional protections against government overreach, but very little to protect us from massive tech monopolies with virtually unlimited money and power. (Apple’s market cap alone would make it the eighth largest nation on the planet in terms of GDP.) There is no constitutional amendment protecting you from having your access to credit and banking services shut off. No Digital First Amendment protecting your right to free speech in the Virtual Town Square, nor a Digital Fourth Amendment that would prevent these same tech oligarchs from digging through your personal data and either selling it to advertisers, using it an excuse to cancel you, or blackmailing you with it to ensure you don’t speak up.

Yes, we have antitrust laws, but we don’t appear to have anyone in D.C. with the fortitude to use them to either break up or regulate these monopolies — presumably because the corporations own the politicians or have enough digital dirt on them to keep them quiet. Probably both.

And so we live under the de facto rule of a tiny handful of billionaires controlling what we can say, what we can believe, and whom we can associate with, leaving us powerless to do anything when our banks, credit card companies, email providers, domain registrars, Web servers, and ISPs can simply cut us off on a whim, socially and financially isolating us. The gulags are here, just in a different form from what Solzhenitsyn experienced in his lifetime.

The problem is made worse when all of our institutions of power — media, education, entertainment, business, and government — are controlled by people sympathetic to the tech tyrants. If we’ve seen anything in recent years, it’s that these institutions are perfectly comfortable with promoting cancel culture and a Chinese-style social credit system to monitor and control our behavior. And in a matter of days, we’ll have a presidential administration sympathetic to their cause as well.

The techno-authoritarians have shown us quite clearly that they’re the ones in charge, and they have virtually every institution of power on their side. A sympathetic federal government can’t legally silence you, but it can get our tech overlords to simply do an end-run around the First Amendment on their behalf.

Can you see why it’s well past time to stop saying private companies can do whatever they want? Not only is the premise false — think ADA compliance, health-department codes, child-labor laws, antidiscrimination statues, and so on — but making excuses for their prejudicial behavior only lets them amass more power and control over your life and the lives of everyone else. (Plus, if private companies can do whatever they wanted, then the lockdowns would be over and small businesses everywhere would be back open.) And make no mistake: The power that you might enjoy seeing wielded against your enemy today can very easily be turned around on you tomorrow.

That’s why this fight matters. That’s why you fight to defend the rights even of those you disagree with. Remember, the First Amendment wasn’t written to protect popular speech, uncontroversial ideas, or only the things you agree with. Popular, mainstream ideas don’t need constitutional protection, because no one is attacking them. But what happens when, tomorrow, someone decides your opinion constitutes hate speech and you get canceled? What then? Who or what will protect you?

Woke capitalism is literally calling all the shots now. Government only exists to carry out its edicts and expand its power. And unlike our elected politicians, the people who run these companies answer to no one.

So the question remains: What do we do about it?

We can stop expressing our opinions online so that we don’t get canceled, in which case the tech overlords win anyway. Or we wait on those with the means (paging Elon Musk) to create digital infrastructure systems that are friendly toward free expression. Or we go back to writing letters and using landline phones, and/or learning how to use radio communication like CBs, walkie-talkies, and ham radio. (Of course, ham radio requires licensing, which means the government could even shut you down there.)

In the short term, the most you can do is to minimize or eliminate your use of Big Tech’s products and services. Find a local company or online small business to buy from instead of Amazon or Walmart. Use alt-tech social media like Gab, MeWe, and Minds (and Parler, once it comes back). Shut down your Facebook and Twitter accounts. Use Brave instead of Chrome for your browser. Use DuckDuckGo, Gibiru, SearX, Swisscows, Qwant, StartPage, or some other search engine not named Google. Use Bitchute or Rumble or Odysee instead of YouTube. Ditch Gmail for ProtonMail.

You can even write to your senators and congressman if you want. Encourage them to take up antitrust legislation against the tech behemoths. Tell them to work toward amending Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act to force social media companies to allow all legal speech on their platforms. It’s unlikely that your pleas to D.C. will get anywhere, for the reasons already stated, but it doesn’t hurt to try.

Ultimately, starving these tech behemoths of revenue is the only thing that will get their attention. They respond to money and power. Deprive them of the former, and maybe they’ll eventually lose the latter.

That battle has to begin with us, and the choices we make. Until we get a Digital Bill of Rights — and don’t count on it anytime soon — we have few other options.

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