Politics & Media
Jul 31, 2023, 05:57AM

The Biggest Threat to the Internet

Hint: it's governments.

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The Washington Post is publishing a series of lengthy editorials called "Annals of Autocracy." Each installment shows the centrality of "internet regulation" to the world's most oppressive governments. The article that appeared on Friday, focusing on the situation in Myanmar under military rule, was a remarkable piece of reporting as well as an implicit argument for freedom of expression.

In April, the government of Myanmar bombed Pazi Gyi, a village that seemed sympathetic to the resistance to their junta. They killed at least 175 of their own citizens, including at least 40 children. Then they started rounding up people who mentioned or mourned the massacre online. The government set up its own doxing group on Telegram, urging people to turn in dissenters and to give their specific current locations. “He lives on the ground floor of an apartment in front of elementary school, No. 17, 14th Street, 86th Street,” was one response. The Post calls it a "snitch channel," and was able to report a number of specific cases in which posting a black square as an expression of mourning led immediately to arrest. It says about 25,000 people, from pop stars to peasants, have been arrested for political offenses. 20,000 or so are still jailed.

The Myanmar editorial was a follow-up to an important article the Post published in February, which "detailed how young people around the world were imprisoned by authoritarian regimes for merely posting freely on social media." The headline: "They clicked once. Then came the dark prisons." Here the Post managed to portray specific young people from all over the world, places like Iran, Egypt, Belarus, Cuba, Ethiopia, Libya, Morocco, Myanmar, Rwanda, Turkey. The situation is particularly acute in China, where "The Great Firewall" has long set the state of the art in expression repression.

Considering the popularity of internet repression with right-wing autocrats and its disastrous effects on dissent, you'd think that lefties might have some misgivings about controlling social media through government regulation. But everyone from mild Biden liberals to radical socialists wants much more regulation. Or maybe it's not that surprising. Almost anyone would silence their opponents if they could and think they'd done the world a favor. But at least until the moral panic about AI kicked in, every leftist seemed to blame everything that went wrong on social media, more or less just leaving it at that. The Atlantic called Facebook a doomsday machine and the largest autocracy on earth. Hillary Clinton agreed.

Wrong: Belarus, Egypt, and China are autocracies. Facebook is a communication platform. I can't imagine how you got this confused, but I know that, in your confusion, you’re an enemy of human freedom.

We should keep these situations in mind as we ponder the court order issued July 4, barring Biden administration officials from "meeting with social media companies for the purpose of urging, encouraging, pressuring, or inducing in any manner the removal, deletion, suppression, or reduction of content containing protected free speech posted on social-media platforms." The First Amendment is one of the few things still standing between us and the junta, and Judge Doughty's order is a relatively straightforward application.

The Biden administration's health officials largely succeeded, for example, in keeping the “lab leak” account of Covid's origins suppressed. They held that as misinformation. Perhaps some ofthe people and agencies urging the speech suppression, including Anthony Fauci, also contributed to funding gain-of-function research on coronaviruses.

Another example cited by Judge Doughty: “The FBI… likely misled social media companies into believing the Hunter Biden laptop story was Russian disinformation, which resulted in suppression of the story a few weeks prior to the 2020 presidential election.” This is a beautifully clear example in which apparently neutral internet regulation was applied directly to staving off personal and political problems for the leader himself.

These aren’t the same as arresting dissenters for black squares. But they show the extreme problems with government control of the internet. Governments are people too, if they’re not bots. They have their self-interest, their publicity strategies, ideological or other sorts of belief distortions. Give the Biden administration control over Instagram, and it’s very likely to effectively prohibit criticism of the President's family.

The New York Times' article on the court order (which has since been stayed) stands out as one of the most slanted news stories ever to appear in that paper, describing it in the first sentence as “a ruling that could curtail efforts to combat false and misleading narratives about the coronavirus pandemic and other issues." They slam their opponents (in a news story) in the way the Times does: experts say there's no first amendment issue. Sometimes, it's hard to tell the experts from the comedians.

It may strike you, liberal person, that this is really an emergency and we need to stop the spread of right-wing hatred and lies. Think about this. Obviously, the executive branch has been consulting with social media companies, in order to effectively achieve prior restraint on content. You appreciate this, because you think this particular sort of content ("right-wing conspiracy theories," say) should be suppressed.

And all these mechanisms that the Biden administration has conjured for controlling social media content, all these mechanisms enthusiastically endorsed by Kamala Harris and Anthony Fauci, are likely to be in the hands of Donald Trump or Ron DeSantis, soon, and perhaps will be applied retroactively. If you're down with prohibiting criticism of Hunter, are you down with prohibiting criticism of Donald Trump, Jr.? Also, I'd think twice about posting that black square.

—Follow Crispin Sartwell on Twitter: @CrispinSartwell


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