Who watches the watchmen? Harini Calamur writes about the problem with censoring by Big Tech

01:41 AM Jun 07, 2021 | Harini Calamur

On June 1, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari made his government’s equivalent of “goli maaro saalon ko” tweet. Sending out a stern warning to dissidents he said “Many of those misbehaving today are too young to be aware of the destruction and loss of lives that occurred during the Nigerian Civil War. Those of us in the fields for 30 months, who went through the war, will treat them in the language they understand.’’ Twitter deleted the tweet. Nigeria suspended Twitter. And the impasse continues.

Simultaneously, Facebook is on the verge of changing its rules for how it handles political speech. In India too, there has been a faceoff between social media platforms and the Indian government. The issues are multi-layered – from the companies not complying with Indian law to the government being extremely thin-skinned about criticism. Both Google and Facebook had fiercely opposed the Australian parliament on payments to news platforms, before they complied. In the EU, the tech giants have been facing ongoing investigations into privacy, and have been resisting with their full might. Google, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft, Twitter and others give us unprecedented advantages and access. The world has become more democratised.


Web 2.0


Never in history have ordinary people had the opportunity to interact with their elected leaders without intermediation. Similarly, for the first time in history, elected leaders had a direct view of what people were saying, sans filters. Web 2.0 – big tech platforms that allow user generated content and social participation – has been the driver of the reach and engagement of the internet. People joined up to communicate, express, debate, and share – essentially do human things, using technology. Web 2.0 unleashed an unprecedented era of user generated content. Suddenly every platform was a publisher. But, without the process of an editorial filter that traditional publishing platforms had. And this was touted as a virtue. The absolute right to say and express anything – true of false; incendiary or not – was defended as a god-given right.

In her book on Surveillance Capitalism, author Shoshana Zuboff talks about how the big tech companies weaponised the first amendment. She writes, “Surveillance capitalists vigorously developed a ‘cyberlibertarian’ ideology that Frank Pasquale describes as ‘free speech fundamentalism’. Their legal teams aggressively assert First Amendment principles to fend off any form of oversight or externally imposed constraints that either limit the content on their platforms or the ‘algorithmic orderings of information’ produced by their machine operations”.

No-filter content

And this strategy of vigorously defending their right to publish anything, without filters that we would use and expect in the real world, has had devastating consequences the world over. Search engines, for example, tend to show us more of the links clicked by others. This does not discriminate between link clicks of a fake news piece, and a verified piece. Similarly, the more you share a piece on social media, the more it is likely to appear on other people’s timelines. All platforms have insisted that they merely provide the technology and are not responsible for content. It is in this context we need to look at the issues that social media platforms are facing with governments the world over.

Social media platforms want to act as the gatekeeper to information and access, without wanting to take on any of the responsibilities of the gatekeeper. For the longest time, Facebook, Google, and Twitter have been using their algorithms to drive both usage, and engagement. And, this has had devastating consequences. When Twitter banned Trump, when it censored Buhari, when Facebook is contemplating being stricter with politicians using its platform – they are essentially not just saying they are responsible for content, but also the right to censor content that they deem ‘unsuitable’ by their standards. They in effect, become the self-appointed watchmen of greater global morality.‘‘Quis custodiet ipsos custodes’’ the Latin phrase loosely translates to “Who will watch the watchmen?”

When we talk about social and search platforms that work without impunity across borders, transforming societies to uglier versions of themselves in their quest for eyeballs and engagement, the question is who watches them? It is convenient to look at the battle as Bad Government v/s individual rights – but the story is far more layered. It is Big Tech v/s Sovereign Republics and their elected representatives. We have methods of holding elected governments and representatives accountable. We also have methods of getting rid of dictators. But what do you do with globe-spanning Big Tech platforms that are accountable nowhere?

The writer works at the intersection of digital content, technology and audiences. She is a writer, columnist, visiting faculty and filmmaker

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