"If you want to read a blog to get a sense of what is going on in Hong Kong these days or a blog that would tell you what life was like living in colonial Hong Kong, this blog, WALTER'S BLOG, fits the bill." Hong Kong Blog Review
"Did Facebook and Twitter overstep the mark by cutting off an elected official?"
The civic-minded folk of the Wimborne Militia, Dorset, England are re-enactors who help keep alive English Civil War history. This merry band of about 50 receive a small stipend from the local council, and for this, they carry out several public functions.
Each year they escort the outgoing mayor to the town hall and welcome the successor. A vital role rewarded afterwards with pints of beer down the local pub. They also maintain a public garden, which is the home to medicinal and culinary plants.
A couple of times a year — under normal circumstances — they'd gather to 'play' battles from the English civil war. This sort of quaint English eccentric behaviour is common the length and breadth of the country.
Unfortunately, super-nerd Mark Zuckerberg wasn't having any of that. His algorithms first banned the group in December 2020 and then allowed them back. Following the January 6th assault on the US Capital, Facebook again ejected the Wimborne Militia as suspected right-wing paramilitary types. Only in recent days, following an appeal, and plenty of media coverage was the group reinstated.
A misunderstanding you might say. Yet, something more sinister is going on here. Facebook, Amazon, Twitter, Google and Apple now control the space for public discourse and our access to information. FATGA, as they've become known, are the de facto gatekeepers on speech, ideas and our freedoms.
They decide who can talk and what prominence individual voices receive in the public Internet square. These private corporations are dominating communication like no other entity since the Catholic Church in the pre-Reformation era. And, as we all know, that went well.
Do a quick audit of how many of FATGA products you use. My score is four. I'll guarantee that most of us score at least three. For the most part, the dominion exercised by the likes of Zuckerberg is unregulated. And, as the Parler case has shown, these companies will use their clout to protect their commercial interests against the competition.
These corporations are now woven into the very fabric of our societies at multiple, intersecting points. For example, Amazon Web Services is the largest cloud computing platform globally, providing hosting for most news outlets, Netflix and Twitter, and the industrial giants General Electric and Unilever.
In 2013, Amazon signed a $600m deal with the US government to host its various intelligence agencies' top-secret workloads, including the CIA and NSA. Please don't assume that Jeff Bezos made his money selling stuff to us; it goes much further than that.
Alarm bells should be ringing that the Overlords of Silicon Valley can cut off a serving US president. Now, to be clear, I don't condone what Trump did in the final days of his presidency. As he scrambled to keep power in a deranged attempt to overturn the election, the man exhibited borderline insanity.
Nevertheless, Trump's actions don't change a critical question. Did Facebook and Twitter overstep the mark by cutting off an elected official? Given the prevalence of cancel culture with corporations scrambling to appease specific agendas, this is all rather unsettling.
Today, as I logged onto the Apple Store to make a purchase, up pops a message. I'm invited to educate myself about the 'black and brown' experience. When did Apple presume I needed such a lecture? This hectoring is all rather tedious and counter-productive.
Besides, it's not gone unnoticed that Apple and Google initially failed to act when an App appeared that allowed violent protesters to track Hong Kong Police vehicles to ambush officers. Likewise, Twitter still hosts various nasties, including virulent anti-Semites, vaccine conspiracists and groups who glorify violence. If these companies only enforce policies against particular political leanings, what does that say about our freedoms?
We should be asking what the correct response to the likes of Trump is? Do we feel comfortable allowing FATGA to call the shots? What if next time they decide you are the target for cancellation?
But it also goes much deeper than that. I hope we all agree a set of protocols that keeps the criminals, terrorists and outright lunatics off the Internet is needed. Though deciding who can exercise that judgement of exclusion is the issue. Existing mechanisms are failing. After all, the courts are too slow, politicians too partisan and FATGA is getting it wrong.
Zuckerberg repeatedly stated he does not favour censorship. But that's what he's doing, while his shotgun approach sweeps up innocent bystanders like the Wimborne Militia. I doubt the nerds imagined they'd be in this position nor do they welcome the role.
Some people are excusing the actions of FATGA by asserting that anyone unhappy with censorship may opt to set up their own platforms. Parler sought to do that. In response, the Big Guys denied access to the Parler App. Amazon even went a step further by rendering Parler unusable on its platforms. In effect, FATGA closed the gates to the market square of public discussion.
As these channels of communication close off, the nut-jobs get driven deeper into the recesses of the Internet. It is risky to assume they've gone away. They're adapting by acquiring encrypted networks and IP address switching. In effect, FATGA has prompted them to go covert, making law enforcement harder. For sure, the potency of unintended consequences is relentless.
After the events in Washington, pundits loved to claim 'I could see this coming'. Well, if you censor angry, paranoid people on the Internet, guess what happens? Next time, we may not see it coming.
Maybe we need an independent Internet ombudsman who can act with speed to remove or shutdown stuff deemed to have breached the rules. Of course, an appeal mechanism and final adjudication by the courts will be necessary. It won't be pretty, although I reckon it is better than the ongoing process leading down a slippery path.
If we continue with the current approach, here is my prediction. Henceforth, all sides in any political debate will clamour for the other to be banished from the Internet, de-platformed and excommunicated.
They'll conjure up claims of 'hate speech' and perceived threats, conflating past violence. The oligarchy of Internet kingpins may yet come to regret that they opened the floodgates by taking out a sitting United States President.
The die is cast.
Walter De Havilland was one of the last of the colonial coppers. He served 35 years in the Royal Hong Kong Police and Hong Kong Police Force. He's long retired.