The tech giants in Silicon Valley are no friends to democracy. Knowledge of this basic fact is necessary to understand the modern world.
The social media and other internet monopolies which dominate their respective sectors have immense, unaccountable power, with next to nothing in the way of rules or regulations holding them to account.
Some of the most basic and fundamental internet technologies and protocols are useful only because they are relatively open and can be accessed and implemented by pretty much anyone. For example, anyone with the technological know-how and a modest level of resources can run their own email or web server.
You can’t say the same about Facebook, for example. The social media giant is an entirely closed system, completely and utterly controlled by a single company. There is no accountability, redress, or alternative when it conducts itself badly, and compelling it to change its behaviour is very difficult.
By presenting itself (in the early days) as a free and fun environment for staying in touch with friends, Facebook has been able to build a purported user base of 2.2 billion people. As with any advertising fuelled medium, it’s important to remember that these users are not so much the audience as they are the product. These users are essentially sold to advertisers who crave their eyeballs and clicks.
And as the Cambridge Analytica scandal showed, Facebook also went further and actually sold private user data to some very shady operators.
The open nature of many parts of the basic infrastructure of the internet has allowed a massive expansion of communication around the world, and to some extent it has democratised communications technology, opening it up to mass adoption.
But the more open internet technologies, like email and the web, while being viewed as a positive benefit by most people are viewed by the giant tech monopolies in Silicon Valley with suspicion. It’s hard to make a profit out of a technology you have to give away for it to work (as Tim Berners-Lee did with the world wide web).
It’s easy to forget now, but in the early days of the web in the mid-nineties, internet giants like AOL and Compuserve actually built and promoted their own proprietary alternatives to the web, which users had to pay to access. These walled gardens were short lived, and the companies learned the hard way that crucial to the web’s success was open, transparent and common standards which could be adopted widely all over the world.
With companies like Facebook having a seemingly ever-increasing hold over our means of communication, questions of democracy and accountability come into play more and more.
With many people increasingly getting their news via social media, calls for regulation of the industry are growing louder. If Facebook continues to have its way, it will be able to keep unilaterally deciding which voices deserve to be heard and which don’t.
While the media has been obsessed with the plague of “fake news,” far too often this term has been used to suppress the free speech of valid journalism considered to be outside the “mainstream”.
Longstanding Marxist and anti-war source the World Socialist Website last year revealed how systematic changes Google made to its search algorithms led to marked and noticeable falls in traffic to left-wing and progressive news websites. This included the journalism of The Intercept, Democracy Now! and Alternet. Using the “fake news” hype as a pretext, Facebook has carried out similar measures.
Inevitably caught up in this Silicon Valley suppression of progressive news sources have been websites that focus on the issue of Palestine. But it goes deeper than a drop in traffic.
Facebook has been actively working with the Israeli and US governments to delete accounts of Palestinian news sources. Facebook has censored journalists by removing the page of the Palestinian press agency SAFA, disabling the accounts of Palestinian journalists and even supressing evidence of Israeli crimes against Palestinians.
The latest giant internet monopoly to wage war on the movement for Palestinian human rights is PayPal – the dominant online global payments system.
Not content with barring Palestinians in the West Bank from access to PayPal (while at the same time granting access to the Jewish settlers that illegally occupy the exact same territory), PayPal is now actively suppressing Palestine solidarity efforts in the West.
In July, an undeclared agent of the Israeli government in the US succeeded in exerting enough pressure on PayPal to close down the account of the French online publication Agence Media Palestine.
PayPal did not give Agence Media Palestine any recourse to appeal, or even a specific justification for the shutdown, thereby making it impossible to address and make good any alleged breach of their terms of service.
But the reason for PayPal’s shutdown seems to have been the French group’s support for BDS, the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement.
Like the rest of the unaccountable Silicon Valley giants, PayPal is no friend to democracy.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.