Several United States companies have suspended the sitting President of the United States, Donald Trump, from their digital platforms. Twitter, his ‘personal newspaper where he gets to write his daily headlines’, was perhaps the most significant. This act illustrates the overwhelming power private companies have to shape social order, especially during time sensitive processes.
It reminds me of the power most presidents (or those of similar rank) around the world have during elections – shutting down the Internet via Internet service providers to maintain national seurity (almost always a cover for regime security). In a reversed role, the U.S. president has been shut out of the Internet supposedly to keep the rest of the country together.
How would this look like if these platforms shut down a sitting president in a country other than the U.S during a critical time like contested transfer of power or genocide? Uganda goes to the polls next week and I wonder how that would look like if Museveni was kicked-off digital platforms. He has shutdown Twitter and YouTube and Facebook before - and in some situations everything digital including mobile money. Museveni and many others across the world have deployed ‘just in time’ Internet blocking mostly under ‘national security’ justifications.
I think the fundamental question here is to what extent sovereignty will shape relationships between multinational companies and sovereign states. This should not just be understood from the ‘evil’ dictator v ‘good’ multinational platforms. History is littered with examples of U.S. companies that have conspired to overthrow sovereign governments, or working with cruel tyrants against civil society.
This is as good time as any for the global civil society to think how they will defend the public square that is actively being encroached by surveillance companies and authoritarian systems of government. One simple way out may be to balkanize and keep national boundaries alive in governing the Internet. Surprisingly, this knee-jerk thought is common in several countries. The lack of capacity to implement this thought is the main hinderance to actualizing it. China did it, and they seem to have effectively kept their control of the Internet in their country, effectivly dominating the puboic square, and keeping the economic extracts under their control, much to the chagrin of the United States and its global influence circles.
The other option could be to seek regulations that restrain these digital platforms from overstepping their functions in a healthy society. This keeps the existing global structure in place while giving an illusion of more say in what those digital platform companies do within said jurisdiction. This is the most common option so far, but also the most ineffective, as it takes resources away from thinking of alternatives by promising a better public square while limiting responsibility on keeping the networks up.
A third option for civil society may be to work on an interoperable system that overcomes balkanization while limiting centralization, both by private companies and states. While this sounds like a reasonable position, it has significant hurdles to civil society, when the actual work needed to run such platforms is investigated while placed against platforms that seem to be working almost all fine.
But if we are to have a socially adaptive public square, we cannot leave it to private companies in their walled digital gardens nor can we leave it to states to do as they wish to preserve their political settings. At some point, responsibility must be in creating decentralized public squares that overcome spliting or privatizing the global public square.
Some efforts have gone into this, like the ActivityPub protocol, that allows federation across different platforms – discussions on Lemmy, microblogging on Mastodon, video sharing and streaming on PeerTube – among many other new ideas. These options require time, human resources, and strategic thinking. If the global civil society really means it when they claim the Internet is broken, perhaps the events of this week in Washington D.C may offer a chance to start repairing the square instance by instance. Donating, self-hosting, speaking about alternatives, and actually using them as a act of resistance may help lay a better foundation for the future of the global public square.
This way, whether it is a president shutting down social media or it is social media shutting down the president, the public square would remain vibrant. It is not balkanization. It is common sense.