Enrique Dans
Published in

Enrique Dans

IMAGE: Jon Phillips — CC BY

How about an internet where Alex Jones would be free to say what he likes?

The sequence of events leading up to the de facto banishment from the web of Alex Jones and InfoWars, which will culminate in the expulsion of his app from Android’s Play Store, offers an opportunity to reflect on the growing importance of the internet in our lives.

On July 24, YouTube removed four InfoWars videos on the grounds they violated its usage policies, suspended Jones’ live content, issuing a first warning or strike. Since then, many other major internet players have joined in, moving swiftly from warnings and temporary blockages to closing Jones down.

On July 27, Facebook suspended Alex Jones’ profile for 30 days, removing the same videos YouTube had. On August 5, Apple removed five podcasts from InfoWars, as did Spotify. On August 6, Facebook removed four Alex Jones pages, saying they advocated violence and hate speech. The same day, YouTube took down the InfoWars channel. In addition, Mailchimp expelled Alex Jones for hateful behavior, forcing him to look for another way to send his newsletters. Amazon eliminated recommendations for his line of “survival products” that provided him with a source of income. Twitter, which had initially refused to take any action, suspended his accounts for two weeks after intense media pressure aimed at proving violations of the company’s code of conduct and, finally eliminated all related accounts after the retransmission via Periscope of a meeting with a journalist and announced it would try to close any new accounts he tried to open. To top it off, on the 8th, Apple removed the InfoWars app from the App Store, which had proved highly popular as a result of the media brouhaha and was one of the few remaining channels left open to him.

Contrary to what Jones and many others thought, the measures have not made him more popular: his reach has been seriously diminished, and his potential to spread conspiranoias and hatred has been slashed. For the moment, Jones has his website and Android app, although Google looks set to remove it as well.

The situation is reminiscent of what happened with the neo-Nazi pamphlet The Daily Stormer in August 2017, when it was first expelled from its domain by GoDaddy, later by Google and, after trying to take refuge in a Russian domain also canceled a few days later, and finally saw how Cloudflare, the most important provider of DNS, protection and content distribution on the network, also withdrew its services.

I’m not going to get into a discussion here about what type of content should be excluded from the web or about respecting the freedom of expression of intolerant and undesirable figures such as Alex Jones or publications like The Daily Stormer; instead, my question is how many people or organizations have to agree to effectively banish somebody from the web? If Larry Page, Mark Zuckerberg, Tim Cook and a few others put their minds to it, anybody can be left out in the cold. In some ways, this is what happens in countries like China, where a single decision is enough to make a site inaccessible: a long way from the original ideas of decentralization and freedom of speech that characterized the Internet in its origins.

Some of the conclusions at the Decentralized Web Summit held in San Francisco between July 31 and August 2, attended by Tim Berners-Lee, are very interesting in this regard. Defenders of a decentralized web, or Dweb, want to build a better web based on decentralization, allowing users to communicate without having to rely on large companies that collect their data for profit as well as facilitating government surveillance and censorship. Such an approach would require a different protocol based on point-to-point connectivity, where each computer not only requests services, but also provides them, protocols that would identify the contents not based on where they are, but what they are. Such content orientation would be similar to P2P schemes and would make it possible for websites and files to be stored and passed on in many forms from computer to computer, instead of always relying on a single server as the conduit for the exchange of information.

Such an approach would make it much more difficult to censor or control the internet. The problem, of course, is that this kind of distribution is a double-edged sword, mainly due to the difficulty of generating oversight systems. Knowing that the web can be exploited and subjected to abuse for purposes ranging from the subversion of democracy to encouraging hatred or intolerance, is it a good idea to decentralize to the point that we create a structure over which there is no control? The idealism of the early years of the web has given way to a skepticism that raises the question as to the usefulness of creating structures that allow anybody to say what they want.

Technically, a completely decentralized and distributed website can be created, and there are already many applications and developers working on it. It is quite possible that, as usually happens with technology, the discussion about its suitability is sterile, because given the appropriate conditions, it is not possible to prevent it from being created. But from a philosophical point of view, knowing the consequences of what we have seen over the short life of the internet… is it advisable? How are the libertarian ideas that flourished in the early years of the web’s popularity changing as we see more and more parties intent on taking advantage of the lack of oversight.

(En español, aquí)

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