May 01, 2011 | Jim Killock

Corporations may not protect your free speech and privacy

Exactly how and why fifty Facebook radical groups’ user profiles were taken down is still being debated, although, perhaps surprisingly, it seems to be that more or less anyone can cause such profiles to be blocked.

As we have said, this is not reasonable and amounts to censorship in the case of legitimate organisations, even when they may be technically in breach of terms and conditions.

But there are two wider questions: firstly, how do you make human rights considerations a priority for private platforms, especially when they are balancing other concerns like Spam or government pressure; and secondly, do we really want corporations making these decisions for us?

It’s easy for us to imagine that laws and public pressure can hold corporations in check, and therefore this is the most important thing to do. In practice, holding corporations to account is very difficult, and power relations tend to hold the day.

This ought to be the lesson we learn from the Internet and digital revolution. Over twenty or more years, we have had a huge rebalancing of power towards citizens, as we are able to communicate and network with each other much more easily. We are able to directly influence political discourse. No longer do a handful of media and political organisations act as gatekeepers to the public. They no longer act as exclusive mediators.

Nothing is perfect, of course, and the net has rebalanced rather than replaced media power of discourse. But let’s just for a moment examine what the nature of our newish powers are:

  1. We act as distributed nodes in a network, able to talk directly to our peers
  2. We have the power of our immense calculating machines, computers, and can decide to do whatever we like with them
  3. We can route round censorship
  4. There are few weak points in the network, and no single, central point which government can easily pressurise
  5. If government impose laws and censorship, our morals, rather than government’s power tends to decide whether we avoid that censorship

Let’s now look at what we get from services like Facebook:

  1. We act as users within a platform, able to talk to our peers through the platform
  2. The power of our calculating machines is limited by the platform’s decisions about how we interact with it
  3. We can route around censorship, but are very vulnerable to account deletions, takedowns and service cancellations
  4. There is a strong single point which government can easily pressurise
  5. If government imposes laws and censorship, their power tends to prevail

Now there are benefits, especially in finding other people, and using simple tools. But what I would like the activists who feel aggrieved to think about is this: while we all use these platforms without growing the alternatives, we increase the likelihood that our power and autonomy reduces.

Yesterday, a number of people from these groups signed up to the still raw and experimental Diaspora, through independent co-operating ‘pods’ like My Seed.

Diaspora, and other open source social platforms, seek to be a network of independent servers, each hosting some users, who can move between them, and talk to people using other servers. While these platforms are still in their infancy, this approach means they can be decentralised, privacy-friendly and censorship resistant.

While activists should absolutely demand their rights wherever they are, they should also seek to reclaim their power through networks they can control. Do it now!