from the power-and-moderation dept
Content moderation frameworks and toothless oversight boards legitimize the concentration of power in the hands of infrastructure providers and platforms. This gives them, and not democratic processes and structures, the discretion to egregiously shape the public debate.
In 1964 Marshall McLuhan wrote that content is a “juicy piece of meat carried by the burglar to distract the watchdog of the mind” (McLuhan 2013). I will argue that today this is more true than ever. If we want to solve the issue of human rights violating content, we will need to look at the structures that allow for the production of it. Therefore, I will argue that “content” is a false category, and that infrastructure is often misunderstood as a largely material object whereas it is a complex assemblage of people, practices, institutions, cultures, and devices. To address the false premises on which the concept of “infrastructural content moderation” is based, I propose an analytical framework that does not separate the context from the content but rather offers an integrative approach to address online discourse production.
Aristotle famously wrote that there is no matter without form and no form without matter. Similarly, Bergson said that color does not exist as an abstract category, but only as a quality of a substance. The same holds true for content on the Internet. A Facebook post is something different than a post on Tiktok, a blog post, a tweet, or a YouTube comment. One understands these messages differently. Just like one understands a sentence spoken in a comic club differently than one spoken in parliament, and a sentence uttered in a forest is different from one in a theater.
It has taken centuries for legal and social rules for public and private spaces to develop. The Internet is a relatively new space that practically is largely private, but feels like the world’s largest public space. It will take time for rules to sediment for this space. In the development of new rules, one should commence the interrogation of different possibilities with a simple question: Cui bono? Who profits?
Julie Cohen describes in her book ‘Between Truth and Power’ that the shift in the image from the Internet as an “electronic superhighway” to a “cloud” should by no means be taken lightly. At least a highway has rules, a cloud has none. In the image that the Internet infrastructure industry has shown us, the Internet infrastructure is a given. A modular space on which things can be built, a neutral platform for economic growth and development, that would only suffer from regulation.
But Keller Easterling explains that “infrastructure sets the invisible rules that govern the spaces of our everyday lives” and that “changes to the globalising world are being written, not in the language of law and diplomacy, but rather in the language of infrastructure.” She describes the practice of the development, implementation, and operation of these infrastructures as “extrastatecraft,” because these powers used to belong to nation states, but are now taken up by transnational corporations.
The development, standardization, and implementation of Internet infrastructure is inherently political. Janet Abbate particularly says that: ‘the debate over network protocols illustrates how standards can be politics by other means. Denardis’ 2014 book ‘Protocol politics’ furthers the work by Abbate and showcases how “debates over protocols bring[ing] to light unspoken conflicts of interest.” Whereas the work of DeNardis focuses mostly on Internet protocols, she does emphasize that “politics are not external to technical architecture.”
When one looks at the infrastructure that undergirds the exchange of discourse, we should not see it as a neutral foundation for platforms and services, but rather as a shaping force that has both direct and indirect power. This shaping power is what sets the rules for everything that happens on top of it, which is more influential than the haphazard removal of a particular user or group. This shaping power is deeply entrenched in the standardization and governance bodies where the Internet infrastructure is produced.
Upon interrogation of these standards and governance bodies, one cannot help but notice, as the research by Corinne Cath-Speth shows, that the bodies can be characterized by a laissez-faire approach to technology development and defy any strong accountability measures. This culture is characterized by a libertarian, American, masculine approach that values individualism. It is exactly these qualities that perpetuate the idea that regulation will “break the Internet” and that individual choice and responsibility is the only way forward for the Internet infrastructure.
This attitude is deeply ironic because for the first half of its existence the Internet was heavily funded by states, and the second half has been characterized by oligopolies. However, this sense of individual engineering pride keeps the status quo intact, which means a continuous exclusion of those who do not want to succumb to this culture, mostly women, people of color, and those from outside of Europe and the United States. This in turn strengthens a network topology that reinforces power structures of dominance and extraction based in the United States and Europe. Submarine cables now cover the whole world, but network traffic still largely centers in Europe and the United States, maps that very much resemble those of colonial trade routes.
The Internet infrastructure and its standardization and governance regime exist to increase interconnection between transnational corporations, largely based in the United States and Europe. Expanding the data flows to and through these networks is what these networks and their governance is optimized for. This has transformed the Internet from a medium of connection to a medium of extraction. Solely focusing on the outgrowths of this culture and regime by focusing on content moderation would be naive at best, and legitimizing an extractive practice at worst.
Reflections on the practice of content moderation should not solely focus on the content that should, or should not be, moderated, but rather on the structures that incentivize and perpetuate such speech. It is the responsibility of communication infrastructure providers to meaningfully engage with the human rights impact of their actions, and their chain responsibility. Thus far, hardly any Internet infrastructure provider has done so sufficiently. The industry’s lack of meaningful adoption and integration of the United Nations Guiding Principles for Business and Human Rights reminisce of the tobacco industry’s opposition against health codes, and their lobbying budgets reflect the same fear for regulation.
Civil society should not be afraid to present strong alternative network ideologies that rely on free association and self-determination by end users. The priority of the networking and content provision industry should be to address problems of inequity and inequality, not to extract more private data to be sold to advertising and surveillance companies (which are anyhow based on flawed premises). The Internet is the public square of the world, we should better reimagine it as one. This means that the strongest actors should live up to their responsibilities, and not seek to wait for civil society to organize themselves and demand accountability, and fix their problems. Here we can only refer back to Spiderman: with great power, comes great responsibility. It is high time that the Internet infrastructure sector lives up to that.
Niels ten Oever is a postdoctoral researcher with the ‘Making the hidden visible project at the Media Studies department at the University of Amsterdam.
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