If, like me, you were brought up a Catholic or in another Christian denomination, likely you will know 6th January is celebrated by the faithful as the “Feast of the Epiphany.“ Well, in a secular sense, 6th January 2021 definitely was an epiphany for us all, meaning a moment of profound revelation.
Witness five dead bodies in or around the US Congress and a televised attempt to frustrate the outcome of an election in order to preserve in office a liar and a cheat who openly incited violence while actively seeking to undermine the Constitution.
Of course the events of that day did not come out of nowhere. They reflect a deeper malaise and divisions. Rooted in disillusionment, the American Dream is not delivering for them, a great many angry people found confirmation bias in the constant stream of falsehoods and distortions fed to them by Trump and his fellow conspirators. Never have the consequences of allowing a “Post-Truth” society to emerge and grow been more clearly in evidence.
Can there be any real doubt about the role social media companies played in creating, sustaining and amplifying the societal fissures that brought us to 6th January? Let’s not get into the practical, organizing role social media also played in orchestrating the murderous assault. That’s for another day. Will we ever know how much was done through strongly encrypted channels? Probably not.
It doesn’t stop there
The aftermath of 6th January 2021 then saw private entities, companies, silencing the President of the United States and effectively shutting down a speech app (Parler) altogether or very substantially. In so doing Silicon Valley added insult to irony.
They gave Trumpism a megaphone and, in the name of free speech, timorously stood back, letting it blossom as the dollars rolled in. It was only when Trump went almost foaming-at-the-mouth insane and the scenes of 6th January were televised, that the inescapable and repeatable logic of the laissez faire s.230 nightmare was fully, unavoidably exposed.
Then some of the same companies decided to shut Trump up. It’s hard to think of this either as a step too far or as a step in the right direction because in a better and more rational world the need for it to be taken at all would never have arisen. What started as a benign experiment with technology brought the USA, and therefore the world, to the edge of disaster.
The amount of sympathy I have for Trump or Parler can be measured only in large minus quantities. That is not the point. What is the point is the egregious presumption of private bodies deciding to make public policies in areas of fundamental importance to our whole way of life. De haute en bas they float above us mere mortals and tell us when we meet their exacting standards and punish us when we don’t. Sadly they are constantly deflected by the desire to earn money. This clouds their vision from time to time.
Fundamentally this is a failure of governance
A great many idealistic people who were disgusted with the shortcomings of mainstream politics either in their own country or globally, or both, saw the internet as a way of establishing a whole new set of possibilities.
Then the money moved in. The money saw different opportunities and did something really smart. Cynical, but smart. Not only did they get s. 230 adopted in the USA and copied elsewhere, they also managed to implant in people’s minds the idea that the absence of regulation was the same as “freedom”. Any attempt to regulate the internet (meaning them or their businesses) was portrayed as an actual or potential attack on “freedom”. Politicians and judges stepped back. Unsure of themselves. In truth the absence of regulation was just another way of creating room to make more cash.
After the money came the totalitarians. They learned a lot from what they observed elsewhere. In particular they learned from surveillance capitalism. Often the very same companies and engineers that helped Palo Alto were now helping Pyonyang.
Meanwhile we have a UN body called the Internet Governance Forum which, since 2006, has pretended to have some influence on matters of the kind discussed here. I predict it is not long for this world. It has been coming for a while. 6th January sealed its fate. That’s a shame in many ways because the Forum has great strongpoints.
Mozilla’s plans to encrypt DNS queries in Firefox
What has the main argument I am making in this blog got to do with child protection? Everything. If you doubt that just read a consultation document published by Mozilla. In particular look at this sentence:
“Numerous ISPs today provide opt-in filtering control services, and (we intend) to respect those controls where users have opted into them.” (emphasis added).
To put that slightly differently, Mozilla has decided not to “respect” those controls where users have not “opted into them”.
A self-appointed techno-priesthood has decreed that one approach to child protection is acceptable and another is not. Can I resist pointing out Mozilla’s global HQ is in a place called “Mountain View”? No I cannot. I do so as a service for those wondering where the latterday Olympus is to be found.
Inertia is at the root of many evils in the internet space, particularly among the less literate and less knowledgeable, people who are often also among the most vulnerable e.g. children. Whatever an individual ISP may have lawfully decided to do, Mozilla seem to be willing to expose children to the risk of harm unless and until their parents get their act together and choose to opt in to protective filters. Wrong answer. By a mile.
Mozilla’s consultation document was written before 6th January, 2021. What it truly shows is Zeus needs to go back to the drawing board.