I remember when I first started to use the internet in the very early 2000’s, it was a mess of uncoordinated websites, blogs, forums and music browsers. One could make their own “website” with a reasonably acceptable extension (www.jakescott.blogspot.com, for instance - and no, its not real) or join forums expressly designed to bring together like-minded individuals. The first steps away from this were websites like MySpace that acted as directory sites - rather than gong directly to music sites such as Bandcamp, you could find music and band information on MySpace. It also allowed you to customise your own page that others could easily view, cutting out the cumbersome url extensions that made “your website” a pain to tell anyone about.
Though the last fifteen years have progressed rather quickly, looking back the direction of development was obvious - the (comparatively) rapid centralisation of networking has become the hallmark of modern internet usage. And Facebook is the unwitting progeny of this.
Consider my comments about forums - it used to be that I would join multiple forums for my different interests. Discussion forums dedicated to music, gaming, tabletop gaming, literature, poetry etc. were all disparately separates across the vast internet space in such a way that a persona I could curate on one site would never find its way to the other site. If I wanted to be desperately elitist and pretentious on a poetry forum (which I am wont to do), I could be rebellious and inclusive on a music board with no obvious incongruence in identity - because fundamentally no single identity existed.
Now, the forums have haemorrhaged their user bases onto Facebook, where the ability to associate yourselves into groups that, unless explicitly stating otherwise, act as echo chambers allows users to catch up on all their need-to-know stuff without leaving the convenience of a single, user-friendly website. It is the digital version of a food court, slowly leeching life from the high street of forum-restaurants and cafes.
The same is true of “personal websites” compared to profiles. With a handy place to store your pictures, favourite memories, facts about yourself, “inspirational quotes”, crotchety opinions (yes, I am talking about me), and introduce strangers to your life, why would you bother with the old websites? Similarly, as I have seen many people doing, why bother with blogs if it’s just you writing? Why not publish notes or set up your own page?
Stepping away from personal interaction, I remember - roughly before 2010 - if I wanted to get the latest news on a band or artist’s releases or tour information I would visit their own websites, or even fan clubs. There, I could see old releases, tour photos, upcoming singles, you name it - now, I just go to their Facebook profile.
None of this really matters when one believes the internet to be founded on the principle of “net neutrality”. The internet is perhaps one of the greatest inventions of all time - it is certainly the finest set-up for the greatest social experiment of all time. The endless possibilities for spontaneous and enterprise associations emerging, would baffle anyone in the mid-20th century alone, never mind the ‘republic of letters’ figures of the Enlightenment.
But when the largest tool for the dissemination of ideas and information - Facebook - takes it upon itself to decide which of that information makes it to the readers, the hyper-fast development of the internet slams head-first into the only major obstacle it has ever faced. Questions over censorship, social responsibility, public liability etc. didn’t seem to matter when people found their own way to forums that propagated a particular view. In many ways, the old doctrine that allowed businesses to refuse custom to someone was the perfect example of the early internet - forums were predicated on the acceptance of certain rules decided by the members, and if a forum moderator believed someone was on the forum with the intention of challenging or disrespecting those rules, he was within his right to remove the violator. And that person’s usage of the internet was in no way violated - he could choose from a million other forums, or even set up his own, if he was so determined to share his views.
With Facebook, the issue is complicated - as a central network for many other association-style groups, denying a member access can severely limit his internet usage. Plus, so much is influenced by Facebook now - many websites, on their sign-up page, offer a handy little “login with Facebook” button. The crux of the problem lies in the emergence of networks within this network: groups, in the same style as old forums, can determine their own rules, limit who has access, punish transgressors and so on. But sometimes those rules violate Facebook’s own: hate-groups have very little influence in social media, as they are rightly ridiculed out of existence; but if someone in a group offers an extremist opinion that no-one else in that group reports, how can Facebook possibly know? Outside of snooping into every single thing that is written - and with 2,000,000,000 monthly users, I doubt any software is sophisticated enough to do so, or an employee paid enough to bother.
So we circle back to the same answer - kick the transgressors from the group. But the difference between banned from an Internet forum and kicked from a Facebook group, is that the internet has no overarching laws. It is, fundamentally, anarchic, within which different actors - such as Facebook - carve out their own little bubble of order. But when you are removed from a Facebook group, you can then be banned from Facebook for, more often than not, the same reason.
And again, none of this matters if you don’t care - I know several people who aren’t on Facebook. It’s almost become a point of narcissistic pride, reminiscent of the “grain free” scene from a Black Mirror episode.
But it leads us to a serious question - how far should Facebook be regulated? Niall Ferguson brings up a fantastic point in this week’s Spectator in which he addresses Matthew Prince, Jeff Bezos, Larry Page, Satya Nadella and Mark Zuckerberg’s almost hegemonic ability to limit internet access to anyone they disagree with. Zuckerberg’s defence of Facebook’s need to remain unregulated is that “Facebook provides the tools, not the content”, arguing that Facebook is as neutral as, say, a printing press, compared to a newspaper, in regards to the dissemination of ideas.
The fact that Facebook recently hired 3,000 “content regulators” and the narcissistic assumption to neutrality aside, I find this defence extremely unpersuasive. In fact, the main focus of this week’s Spectator was very much the definitional problem of Facebook: some are urging Parliament to legislate to recognise Facebook as a publisher. Personally, my answer would be to the think the following: the internet is the printing press, Facebook is the newspaper, and the users are the columnists. When Facebook wields such immense power as to decide who can say what in the digital age, the fear is that no accessible space exists on the internet to disseminate ideas.
I would like to conclude with a positive note - believe me, I would. But I don’t think there is one - when Facebook controls the spread of popular ideas, even if it doesn’t control the spread of ideas per se, the principle of net neutrality must be a ballast against which the liberty of digital expression rests. But, as Matthew Prince, the CEO of internet service provider Cloudflare himself said following the closure of white-supremacist website The Daily Stormer, “my whims... shouldn’t be what determines what should be online”. Whether we agree with Prince’s action (as I personally do) doesn’t matter - we should not agree with his power. The principle of net neutrality only really exists when the net itself is neutral - and that is no longer the case.