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THE PURGE?

In a breathtaking display of outright Orwellian censorship, four major tech companies – Facebook, Apple, YouTube and Spotify- colluded last month in what appeared to be a coordinated decision to de-platform Infowars, a popular and highly successful online news organization. For many people, this aggressive display of power by big tech is a matter of serious concern.

On 6 August 2018, within only hours of each other, YouTube terminated The Alex Jones Channel which has 2.4 million subscribers, Facebook removed four of Jones’s Infowars pages – the Alex Jones Channel page, the Alex Jones page, the Infowars page, and the Infowars Nightly News page and Infowars podcasts were removed from both Spotify and Apple. In a single day, Alex Jones was literally “unpersoned” – erased and disappeared from four major online platforms.

Not unexpectedly, given their track record, the reasons given by the four tech companies for their decisions to de-platform Alex Jones and his brand, Infowars, were both spurious and opaque. A YouTube spokesperson told the Washington Post that “all users agree to comply with our terms of service and community guidelines when they sign up to use YouTube. When users violate these policies repeatedly, like our policies against hate speech and harassment or our terms prohibiting circumvention of our enforcement measures, we terminate their accounts.” YouTube’s decision to terminate Jones’ account,the spokesperson added, came after Jones had tried to circumvent a 90-day live streaming ban by promoting a different lifestream on other channels. After giving Jones a warning, the company learned of the violation, and saw fit to terminate the channel. In a blog post relating to community standards, Facebook claimed Infowars had violated Facebook’s “hate speech” and “bullying” policies by “glorifying violence” and “using dehumanizing language to describe people who are transgender, muslims and immigrants” No specific examples of the “violations” were cited. Spotify said Jones had repeatedly violated its rules against what it calls “hate content”. “We take reports of hate content seriously and review any podcast episode or song that is flagged by our community,” the company said in a statement to The Washington Post without citing any examples of “hate content”. In similar vein, an Apple spokes person told the same newspaper that “Apple does not tolerate hate speech, and we have clear guidelines that creators and developers must follow to ensure we provide a safe environment for all of our users.” Again, no specific instances of so-called “hate speech” were given.

For most reasonably-minded observers, there is little doubt that Alex Jones was censored and de-platformed by “big tech” to stifle his voice. In a piece for the New York Times,top attorney, David A. French, argued that big tech’s decision to de-platform Jones should leave people “deeply concerned” because it was a “likely abuse of power”.

After making it clear that he despises Alex Jones and Infowars, French still argued that the purge was extremely troubling. “In short, the problem isn’t exactly what they did, it’s why they did it,”wrote French. He noted that instead of “applying objective standards that resonate with American law and American traditions of respect for free speech and the marketplace of ideas,” Facebook, Apple and YouTube “applied subjective standards that are subject to considerable abuse.” French went on to assert that what constitutes hate speech is “extraordinarily vague” and that, “We live in times when the slightest deviation from the latest and ever-changing social justice style guide is deemed bigoted and, yes, “dehumanizing.”The attorney cited the example of the Southern Poverty Law Centre, a far left group which works with big tech to define “hate speech”. The SPLC recently had to pay Maajid Nawaz, a muslim reformist, $3.375 million for labeling him an “anti-muslim extremist.”French concluded that “libel” or “slander” should be the bar for content being banned, not “hate speech,” given the fact that it is wide open to interpretation. Meanwhile, a New York Times poll which asked if Twitter should also ban Alex Jones and Infowars from their platforms was won overwhelmingly by those against a ban. “Facebook, YouTube, Pinterest and Apple have removed Alex Jones and InfoWars from their platforms. Should Twitter follow suit?” asked the poll. 78 per cent said no, with just 14 per cent saying yes.

The UK-based Index on Censorship, which is chaired by award-winning London Times journalist David Aaronovitch, said in a statement that “Index believes that all speech eccentric, contentious, heretical, unwelcome, provocative and even bigoted should be protected unless it directly incites violence”. While noting that social media and tech companies as private entities had the right to set whatever terms they chose, Index said the terms of service policies should maintain the widest possible scope for free speech online. “This means we as users will have to tolerate the fraudulent, the offensive and the idiotic. The ability to express contrary points of view, to call out racism, to demand retraction and to highlight obvious hypocrisy depend on the ability to freely share information across the evenest possible playing field. Any other course of action will in the end diminish everyone’s right to free expression.”

Dr. Robert Epstein, a senior research psychologist at the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology joined SiriusXM hosts, Rebecca Mansour and Joel Pollak, on Breitbart News Tonight to discuss the ban. Epstein said that although he was not a political conservative and “certainly no fan of Alex Jones,” he saw the ban as a disturbing threat to free speech and democracy“I think the big issue here is not even a free speech issue” he said“The issue is: Who should be making these decisions about what people see and don’t see? That’s the question. Who on earth gave these private companies the power to make decisions about what everyone in the world is going to see or not see?” he asked.

Epstein went on to argue that big tech had become too powerful. It now had the ability to influence millions of votes in national elections through censorship and algorithm manipulation. “Nobody has thought this through” he said. “There are no relevant laws or regulations in place, at least in the United States. If people really started thinking about this, they would realize again, no matter what their feelings are about Donald Trump, or Alex Jones, or anyone else wait a minute, these companies shouldn’t have that power  period!” Epstein cited a piece he wrote for U.S. News and World Report entitled “The New Censorship” in which he gave evidence that Google was blocking access to millions of websites every day. He recalled that in 2017 Google had blocked access to every single website in Japan for ten minutes and on January 31, 2009, blocked access to virtually the entire internet all over the world for forty minutes.

THE FAANGS

Facebook, Apple and Google (which owns YouTube) are among the five key tech stocks, known as the “Faangs”,which also include Amazon and Netflix. The total value of the five companies amounts to a staggering 19 percent of US gross domestic product.

Although Facebook’s stock market value plunged earlier this year by more than $118 billion the largest one day drop in corporate history following the Cambridge Analytica data scandal, the company made more than $5 billion profit in the three-months period May-July which was slightly ahead of expectations Some three million Europeans have quit the website amid concerns about what Facebook does with personal data.

Apple made history last month by becoming the first public company to be valued at $1 trillion, reaching the landmark 42 years after the company was founded and two decades after it almost went bankrupt. Financial results for the three-months period May-July showed revenues of over $53 billion. The company shipped more than 41 million phones. This was slightly less than anticipated but because the expensive iPhone X has proved to be popular, the average price consumers paid for them went up. The engine of Apple’s business, the iPhone, generated 60% of the company’s profits

Google’s parent company Alphabet smashed Wall Street’s profit expectations, sending its shares soaring to a record high. Net profit was actually lower than last year–down from $4.9 billion to $3.5 billion but that included a $2.7 billion fine levied on the company by the European commission for anti-competitive behavior. The company is set to appeal, so could still get its money back. The business raked in more than $26 billion of revenue in the three-month period May-July well up on the $21 billion recorded in the same period last year.

Turning to the big tech argument that the companies were “private companies” and that they had the right to exclude whoever they wanted, Epstein said this was complete nonsense.“They only make that argument when it’s convenient” he said. “There are times when they argue just the opposite, saying they’re just passive platforms and they don’t make editorial decisions. What we all saw today in the Alex Jones situation was some of that power being exercised, mainly in just one area, but there are at least nine other huge ways in which these companies are exercising power every single day over the decision making of over 2.5 billion people around the world. It will grow in the next two to three years to over 4 billion people. So something is completely wrong here,” he said. Epstein also rejected the argument that it’s not truly “censorship” if a private company decides material falls beneath its standards and refuses to publish it, rather than a government agency expressly forbidding publication.

Epstein pointed to an internal eight-minute Google video called “The Selfish Ledger” that captured senior Google personnel celebrating the company’s ability to “shape humanity”. “There are people there who, in their minds, they’re doing……humanity, a big favour by thinking about ways to reshape us in a way that somehow matches company values” he said. For a thorough exploration of those “company values”, Epstein recommended the work of Jonathan Taplin, the author of “Move Fast and Break Things: How Facebook, Google, and Amazon Corner Culture and Undermined Democracy” in which Taplin argues that many of the big tech executives are actually megalomaniacs. “They are not just greedy, but they also feel like they have a duty” said Epstein. “They’re superior people and they have a duty to humanity to reshape it in a form that they approve of” He recalled President Dwight Eisenhower’s famous speech in January 1960 warning about the “military-industrial complex.”“If you actually go back and read the speech, you’ll be really impressed, because he’s not just warning about those people. He’s warning about the rise of a technological elite” he said.

Epstein said it was inevitable that regulatory solutions to the power of big tech would be proposed, although he doubted the answer lay in that direction.“I keep getting invited to conferences on anti-trust actions. Yes, anti-trust would be nice. That’s the kind of thing the EU has done, and let’s allow them to levy these huge fines against Google – first a $2.7 billion fine last year, and now a $5.1 billion fine against Google, and a third one is coming soon,” he said.“Anti-trust, regulation, legislation that’s all nice, but you know that stuff takes forever,” he continued. “It moves so slowly that these companies will be light-years ahead of any regulations, any new laws that are put in place. I just don’t think it’s going to help that much,” he said.“My recommendation, my focus these days is on another way to deal with the problem, and that is by setting up large-scale monitoring systems” Epstein said he and his business partners together with academic colleagues on three continents were in the process of building large-scale monitoring systems to detect manipulations by tech companies, in some cases, within minutes “In my opinion, monitoring is the way to go: fighting tech with tech.” he said“That would allow us to keep up with them, maybe even stay ahead of them, because we could move lightning fast which would never happen with regulations and laws”

So what is to be done? The inventor of the world wide web,Sir Tim BernersLee, believes an online “Magna Carta” is needed to protect and enshrine the independence of the medium he created and the rights of its users worldwide. In an interview with the UK’s Guardian newspaper in March 2014 he said the web had come under increasing attack from governments and corporate influence and that new rules were needed to protect the “open, neutral” system. Speaking exactly 25 years after he wrote the first draft of the proposal for what would eventually become the world wide web, Berners-Lee proposed a “global internet constitution” or “bill of rights”. Unless we have an open, neutral internet we can rely on without worrying about what’s happening at the back door, we can’t have open government, good democracy, good healthcare, connected communities and diversity of culture. It’s not naive to think we can have that, but it is naive to think we can just sit back and get it.” he said. While regional regulation and cultural sensitivities would vary, Berners-Lee said he believed a shared document of principle could provide an international standard for the values of the open web. The plan has since been taken up as part of an initiative called “the web we want” which calls on people to generate a digital bill of rights in each country a statement of principles he hopes will be supported by public institutions, government officials and corporations.

Berners-Lee starred in the London 2012 Olympics, typing the words “this is for everyone” on a computer in the centre of the arena. He has stuck firmly to the principle of openness, inclusivity and democracy since he invented the web choosing not to commercialize his model. Rejecting the idea that government and commercial control of such a powerful medium was inevitable, Berners-Lee said it would be impossible: “Not until they prise the keyboards from our cold, dead fingers.”