The cyber history repeats itself

With a new unicorn popping up seemingly every other week, it’s easy to forget that the new behemoths that shape our lives, the technology firms, existed more than a few years. Behind the shiny veneer, however, there is a rich history of how this world came about to be. And just like any other history, it’s one that keeps repeating itself.

The latest iteration of the history, though, is not its finest one. Nazis are back.

A quick recap. The informed citizens of the greatest country on earth have collectively voted to elect a white supremacist sympathizer, with overt, covert, voluntary, and involuntary help of practically every tech company and its acolytes. By the time we all woke up to what we did, it was too late; the Nazis were emboldened, chanting in the streets of Virginia, among many places. Then a guy woke up, literally, and decided to kick the Nazis off the internet, until they find a new home.

“I woke up this morning in a bad mood and decided to kick them off the Internet.”

— Matthew Prince, Cloudflare CEO

For some observers of the technology, this latest kerfuffle might just be a new chapter in the upcoming book by a Vanity Fair writer. For those a bit more in the know, they would note that the Nazis (a word I am using as a short for white supremacists), never really left the internet. They practically populated the every platform you did; they were on newsgroups, mailing lists, 4chan, reddit, Facebook, Twitter, and probably still are.

But, go down a bit farther back in the Wayback Machine, and it’s easy to remember that Nazis and some part of their history was on the internet as far as 2000s, and it points to one of the most interesting tensions of the Internet with capital I; the constant tension between the borderlessness of it, yet the levers of it being controlled just a few. This is subject of this essay; how the current gatekeepers of the internet’s aims to create a new type of statelessness state is just a clumsy reiteration of past attempts.

“Your legal concepts of property, expression, identity, movement, and context do not apply to us. They are all based on matter, and there is no matter here.”

— John Perry Barlow, EFF CO-Founder

The aspirational extraterrestrial culture of the internet is a messy and deep subject but the “Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace” is a good start. Penned by John Perry Barlow, one of the founders of Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), at a World Economic Forum, the declaration pulls no punches. In fact, more than just statelessness, you can hear the subtext of cyberspace being not just an international entity but almost an supranational one. It is a good read, both as a way to understand the libertarian thinking of early residents of the cyberspace and also as a Marxist approach to how zero marginal cost of production of technology changes the entire dynamics of economy and of course societies. It is also remarkably prescient, not necessarily in the types of world early adopters would eventually create but the conflicts they would face.

Scroll your way up to 2000. Not just to the days Before iPhone or Before Facebook but Before Google. In 2000, a French human-rights organization discovers that Yahoo, on its auction platform, allows sale of Nazi and Third Reich memorabilia. While still not tasteful and unpresidential at the time, such activity was not illegal under US law, but quite so under French law. In what’s considered a landmark case, French court eventually ordered Yahoo to not just pull such items from its French store (fr.yahoo.com) but also make the items in the US store inaccessible in France.

Front page of the internet, 2000 Front page of the internet, 2000

The entire discourse around the case is extremely fascinating, and some of the statements from both sides have a very timeless quality. To an American audience, where only freedom of speech is more paramount to right to carry a firearm, an interference by a French court of all courts, is an international overreach of unseen proportions. However, this analysis misses the continent-wide trauma Europeans experienced with Nazism in 1940s. While America has its fair share of World War 2 scars, it pales in comparison to the destruction Europe endured. This suffering was so profound, so widespread and so deep, and Nazism such a vile idea that the entire continent’s new identity, European Union is largely built around this reaction.

It is worth pulling out a few quotes here especially, just to see how prescient some of the predictions from the French philosophers are. Mark Knoebel, the French activist whose letters sparked the entire shebang says that American internet is becoming a “dumping ground” for racists all over.

Any discussion of censorship on the internet would be amiss without bringing up everyone’s once-favorite liberal reformer turned autocrat strongmen Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the president of Turkey. Even as far back as 2008, just 4 years after Google’s IPO, the Turkish government was in cahoots with YouTube over a couple of videos making fun of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkish Republic. In what would become the norm for Turkish government (or already was, depending on your ethnicity in Turkey), the state decided to block YouTube entirely, and demand the videos be taken down. The case went on for literally years, during which time YouTube stayed blocked in Turkey for almost two years. Turkish bloggers took the matters to their hands, where they shut down their own sites to protest the government’s block. However, the block itself was so ham-fisted that even the then Prime Minister Erdogan himself mentioned that “everyone knows how to access YouTube”.

“I think the Decider model is an inconsistent model because the Internet is big and Google isn’t the only one making the decisions”

— Nicole Wong, Google

Still, the details of this 2008 already signals the awkward situations tech companies would themselves with government. Impossible to imagine now, though, Google employees felt comfortable jokingly calling themselves “The Decider” with a New York Times journalist in the room. The employees in charge, many with law degrees, were aware of their power, felt obviously uncomfortable with the levers they held, but, in the end they held on to them.

A common theme that underlies most of the Silicon Valley thinking is that computers, internet and associated technologies changes everything; from mode of production to distribution to how information is generated to how it is disseminated. No incumbent is too big to not upend, no industry without with inefficiencies a couple of scripts can eliminate. A common complaint of the less-STEM focused side of the world, then is that Silicon Valley’s casual disregard for the history and the rules of the world is bordering on recklessness.

This is largely a political argument, which means it’s an everything argument, but the singular point is that sometimes the Internet company’s casual disregard for history is not just hurtful for the entire world, but also for themselves (a statement whose irony is quite obvious to yours truly).

Silicon Valley companies love to invoke legal talismans, a phrase (I think) coined by Kendra Albert. In short, they love to evoke feelings of a legal proceeding, such as a due process, where there is none, to mostly justify their own decision making. But sometimes, such invocations are just symptoms of delusions of grandeur and they do come with consequences for everyone, as mentioned, including the companies themselves.

Consider the time Twitter UK General Manager called Twitter not just a bastion of free speech but the “free speech wing of the free speech party” in 2012 and try not to cringe. But you can definitely see a direct line from the EFF declaration to such an inane statement. A new world is being born, called the cyberspace (as opposed to what, meatspace?) and the rules are written by whoever is creating this world. Considering the current situation Twitter find itself in right now, with user growth barely chugging along, a stock hugely under its IPO levels, its value possibly held up significantly by an orange White House resident, it’s hard to imagine Twitter would be behaving the same way if they had a better understanding of the nuances of free speech laws, and how it protects people from state because, unlike corporations, state is allowed to jail and sometimes, kill, its people.

“That means more than one-sixteenth of the average user’s waking time is spent on Facebook”

Of course, this aspirational statelessness of guardians of the cyberspace does go the other way too. It’s easy to write off your overzealous application of freedom of speech as a mistake,  but harder to do, when you do the opposite. When a tech company counts  ⅓ of the world’s population as its users (and 80% of online Americans), and those users spend a considerable amount of their waking moments looking at things pushed on to them by that company, it’s practically impossible to for a one-in-a-million event to not happen with exceeding frequency when you are dealing with billions.

Probably one of the more eye-opening cases of this American overreach into cultures involves bodies, or more specifically naked ones. For Americans, a sight of a covered breast at a sporting event is a cause of national debate, but for many Northern Europeans, nudity is just another state of undress, as normal as any other. Especially so, when it is presented in a historical, artistic or just non-sexualized context. And even more especially so, when it is the Conservative Norwegian Prime Minister who happens to share a Pulitzer-prize winning photo. Is Facebook, run largely by a bunch of white men in America, not making cultural statements about an unashamedly progressive country?

Banned in California Banned in California

It is easy to write off these high profile instances as simple mistakes, and having worked in a similar user-generated content site before, it is mind-blowing to me that Facebook is as free of spam as it is. But what does that mean when these types of  incidents happen so often that you slowly start shifting values of other cultures to your own, which whether you like it or not, were shaped by your own American upbringing? One cannot just create a culture in such a transactional manner.

It is one thing, as an academic exercise to imagine a world without governments, a libertarian paradise. And if someone wants to take his academic exercise to the seas or to other planets, it is only within their rights to do so.

But for a generation that wants to eventually not just govern the cyberspace but also one of the most important states in the world, the utter clumsiness of the entire enterprise should give one a pause. A common joke in Silicon Valley, the place about the Silicon Valley, the hit HBO show is that many of the absurd plot twists in the series is really toned down to be believable to the general public.

Consider the case of Reddit. When a bunch of celebrity’s iCloud accounts got hacked and their private photos were posted on the site, the company decided, reasonably, to remove that content. But in doing so, the CEO of the company said that they were considering reddit not just a private company, but “a government for a new type of community”. He even went to describe how he sees the actions by the moderators akin to law enforcement officers. But, how do you reconcile such great ambition with the fact that your CEO, or president, resigns from the government because of a seating arrangement issue? (Disclaimer: I worked at a Reddit competitor briefly, around 7 years ago, partly because I was and still am quite interested in the space. I even wore a Reddit t-shirt when they came to visit us)

“We consider ourselves not just a company running a website where one can post links and discuss them, but the government of a new type of community”

— Yishan Wong, Former Reddit CEO

Building a new world, one that is more just, more humane, one that is safer, cleaner, more efficient all great goals. When I decided to study computer science in 2005, my main motivation was similar. I grew up in a town in Turkey where I didn’t always fit in and it was through the internet where I could see more of the world easily enough and find people that I could connect with, on many levels. I wanted to extend that world, which seemed reasonably better than the one I lived in, more to the real world.

And personal politics matter too. As an immigrant to US, unlike most of my more left-leaning friends, I find the idea of statelessness, or a post-nation-state world an experiment that humanity owes itself to try. While the supranational organizations such as the EU and World Trade Organization do have their flaws and globalization comes with this unsettling feeling of homogeneity, I stay largely optimistic that as a species, we are better off in a more integrated society.

However, that does not mean I advocate for a world where we outsource our thinking, our values, our cultures, our judicial decisions and certainly not our free press wholesale to a small number of people, who are unelected, unvetted, and largely unaccountable.

What I would like to see, however is less of the reckless attitude but a more thoughtful approach. An informed, inclusive, global debate about the kind of digital world we can create together. One that learns from our previous mistakes, and does better. Time for this discussion is running out, and we have repeated our mistakes enough times. We need to do better now.

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