Char­lottesville: Test case for the In­ter­net as pub­lic square

Pawtucket Times - - OPINION - By THOMAS L. KNAPP Thomas L. Knapp (Twit­ter: @thomaslk­napp) is di­rec­tor and se­nior news an­a­lyst at the Wil­liam Lloyd Gar­ri­son Cen­ter for Lib­er­tar­ian Ad­vo­cacy Jour­nal­ism (the­gar­rison­cen­ter.org).

In a re­cent col­umn, I cel­e­brated the phe­nom­e­non of “So­cial Pref­er­enc­ing” and the boost Char­lottesville gave to an on­line, crowd­sourced, so­cial me­dia ver­sion of it, “@YesYoureRacist,” which makes it easy for ev­ery­one to “os­tra­cize a Nazi.”

That col­umn re­ceived quite a bit of push­back from read­ers with a darker view of the sit­u­a­tion, point­ing to the like­li­hood of shat­tered in­no­cent lives (due to mis­taken iden­tity or in­ten­tional fraud) and pre­dict­ing an era in which un­pop­u­lar views are sup­pressed by the dig­i­tal equiv­a­lent of lynch mobs.

Those read­ers are right: Both sce­nar­ios are in­deed play­ing out even as I write this.

Univer­sity of Arkansas pro­fes­sor Kyle Quinn re­ceived death threats and de­mands that he be fired af­ter he was mis­tak­enly iden­ti­fied as one of the “white na­tion­al­ist” marchers in Char­lottesville. He’s still deal­ing with the fall­out. Pre­sum­ably oth­ers are in the same boat. But mis­taken iden­ti­ties and false ac­cu­sa­tions are not unique to so­cial me­dia. They’re just mag­ni­fied by it. And the tools which cre­ate that mag­ni­fi­ca­tion can also be used to cor­rect the er­rors and false­hoods. This is just a mat­ter of scale, not a new or in­sol­u­ble prob­lem.

On the other hand “guilty” in­di­vid­u­als like Christo­pher Cantwell and or­ga­ni­za­tions like the Daily Stormer web site are los­ing ac­cess to their soap­boxes (and their liveli­hoods) as they’re dropped by web hosts (GoDaddy), pay­ment pro­ces­sors (PayPal), so­cial me­dia out­lets (Face­book and Twit­ter), in­ter­me­di­ary util­i­ties (Cloud­flare) and even, in Cantwell’s case, dat­ing sites (OKCupid).

As vo­cif­er­ously as I dis­agree with peo­ple like Cantwell and or­ga­ni­za­tions like the Daily Stormer, I agree that this is a prob­lem.

It’s not a prob­lem with the Wak­fer model of So­cial Pref­er­enc­ing, which ex­plic­itly calls for “ac­ces­si­ble per­sonal dis­clo­sure” of the kind be­ing pre­vented by these ex­clu­sions from, ef­fec­tively, the pub­lic square. But it’s a prob­lem nonethe­less.

While the ac­tions of these large firms are not, strictly speak­ing, cen­sor­ship (the par­ties in­volved are not owed plat­forms by any par­tic­u­lar providers and are free to seek the ser­vices they need else­where), it’s a sim­ple fact that they hold mar­ket po­si­tions which can at least tem­po­rar­ily cre­ate the same ef­fect. They are us­ing those po­si­tions to cre­ate that ef­fect.

John Gil­more fa­mously noted that “The Net in­ter­prets cen­sor­ship as dam­age and routes around it.” Lib­er­tar­i­ans like me view the mar­ket in much the same way. This sit­u­a­tion is a prac­ti­cal, nuts and bolts test of those views. There’s a great deal rid­ing on the out­come.

If GoDaddy, Face­book, Twit­ter, PayPal et al. are in ef­fect creat­ing dam­age to the pub­lic square -- and I say they are -- can the Net and the mar­ket ef­fec­tively route around that dam­age?

Us­able pub­lish­ing plat­forms (Di­as­pora, Steemit, Minds.com, Gab.ai, and so on) and pro­ces­sors (Bit­coin and other cryp­tocur­ren­cies) are al­ready in place and there’s noth­ing to stop oth­ers from launch­ing.

Will the big play­ers pay a pref­er­enc­ing price (to the ben­e­fit of those other plat­forms) for their at­tempts to de­cide for us what and whom we may view and hear? Here’s hop­ing they do.

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