Teaming up against terrorism, Facebook, Microsoft, Google and Twitter enter officially the political sphere
In a soft public statement, four of the top tech companies in the world — Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter and Google — announced Today that they will partner in order to contrast the spread of extremist content on their platforms. In other terms: they are officially entering politics. Holding more capital than many leading Countries, the three companies have means to make an impact. Moreover, free from any political decision making system and bureacratic burden, they can put immediately in practice their intents. Finally, what is even more important after Today’s statement, “Fighting terrorisms” is one of the major concern for citizens (accordingly to polls held during the French primaires de droite in November, it is the priority n°1,) and a key point of the agenda of the Country these companies are based in, US. By announcing they will do something about it, they enter the political sphere: although it would be naif to claim they have been completely apart from it so far, it is the first time they are constituting an alliance and putting together concrete measures to tackle a challenge with so many political implications.
The pace of the application of this new shared program about ‘dangerous content’ is rocket science compared to the classic political institutions one: the European Commission started discussing it last year at the EU Internet Forum, and no conclusion has been made official. The Forum seems to involve only industry representatives, excluding civil society representatives and leaving unanswered transparency requests of civil and human rights organisations such as EDRi, prompting an Ombudsman investigation on EU Internet Forum.
Fighting terrorist content is certainly a good cause: social media and the Web played a major role in spreading extreme messages and enrolling new people to the Islamic State cause. But as much as they helped the ‘evil’ part, they also contributed to mobilise people for good causes. The argument is not new: the medium has few responsibilities in front of how people actually use it. Telegram encryption system made impossible to the police to detected Bataclan’s terrorists conversations, but I am still happy I can communicate with the people I care through a truly private application. We are in front of two opposite ethics scenarios, one of complete relativism, where media are just a medium that can’t be controlled in a centralised way without cutting liberty, and consequently these companies should do nothing — or as less as possible — about ‘terrorism’. But this is utopia for the time being, because the second, control through centralisation, is already happening. These companies will elaborate algorithms and launch new departments in charge of terrorisms, and most probably governments will force them to share these data. As much as the European Commission is teaming up with private companies in tackling terrorism, single states initiatives — such as the new UK law about personal data surveillance going under the name of Snoopers’ Charter — get more pervasives, setting the scene for a new phase. If so far Google collected your data for commercial purposes (direct ones, positioning of ads, but also more subtile ones, like demographics), now it is officially gaining a censorship power over them, with the blessing of the State, which is doing the same on its side.
Who is entitled to define ‘extremist content’? The task can be differently interpreted by the politicians we voted for, and surely we wouldn’t want some tech companies to do that. We already seen what happened a few months ago, when Facebook censored the famous picture of the girl running away from Napalm bombing because it violated its standards about nudity. We would tend to answer that defining extreme content is common sense, but to common sense (as we “commonly” intend it) most of the claims that make successful Trump or Marine Le Pen are extremists.
I suspect efforts to limit the widespread of certain messages can not only be superficial (information always find a way, and big tech companies have still a long way to go before controlling the Deep Web as much as they control the Web), but also dangerous now that the biggest companies of the world are sharing data (the biggest currency) among themselves and putting into practice their own definition of good and evil.