Against the “moderation of content” and the concentration of power

of power-and-moderation department

Content moderation frameworks and toothless watchdogs legitimize the concentration of power in the hands of infrastructure providers and platforms. This gives them, and not democratic processes and structures, the discretion to blatantly shape public debate.

In 1964, Marshall McLuhan wrote that the content is a “juicy piece of meat worn by the burglar to distract the mind watchdog” (McLuhan 2013). I would say that today it is more true than ever. If we want to solve the problem of content violating human rights, we will have to examine the structures that allow its production. Therefore, I will argue that “content” is a false category and that infrastructure is often misunderstood as a largely material object when it is a complex assemblage of people, practices, institutions, cultures and devices. To respond to the false premises on which the concept of “infrastructural content moderation” is based, I propose an analytical framework that does not separate the context from the content but rather proposes an integrative approach to address the production of online discourse.

Aristotle famously wrote that there is no matter without form and no form without matter. Likewise, Bergson said that color does not exist as an abstract category, but only as a quality of a substance. The same goes for content on the Internet. A Facebook post is something different from a Tiktok post, blog post, tweet, or YouTube comment. We understand these messages differently. Just as one understands a phrase spoken in a comic book club differently from that pronounced in parliament, and a phrase spoken in a forest is different from that pronounced in a theater.

It took centuries for legal and social rules to develop in public and private spaces. The Internet is a relatively new space that is virtually largely private, but resembles the largest public space in the world. It will take time for the rules to settle for this space. In the development of new rules, it is necessary to begin the questioning of the various possibilities with a simple question: Cui bono? Who benefits?

Julie Cohen describes in her book “Between Truth and Power” that the shift from the image of the Internet as an “electronic highway” to a “cloud” should by no means be taken lightly. At least one highway has rules, a cloud doesn’t. Like the Internet infrastructure industry has shown us, Internet infrastructure is a given. A modular space on which things can be built, a neutral platform for economic growth and development, which would only suffer from regulation.

But Keller Easterling explains that “infrastructures set the invisible rules that govern the spaces of our daily life” and that “changes in the globalized world are written, not in the language of law and diplomacy, but rather in the language of law and diplomacy. language of infrastructure ”. She describes the practice of developing, implementing and operating these infrastructures as an “extra-state craft”, as these powers once belonged to nation-states, but are now assumed by transnational corporations.

The development, standardization and implementation of Internet infrastructure is inherently political. Janet Abbate says in particular that: “The debate over network protocols illustrates how standards can be political in other ways. Denardis’ 2014 book “Protocol Politics” delves into Abbate’s work and shows how “protocol debates contribute[ing] to highlight unspoken conflicts of interest. While DeNardis’ work mainly focuses on Internet protocols, she emphasizes that “politics is not external to technical architecture”.

When looking at the infrastructure that underpins the exchange of discourse, we shouldn’t see it as a neutral foundation for platforms and services, but rather as a shaping force that has power to do with it. both direct and indirect. This formatting power is what sets the rules for everything that goes on top of it, which is more influential than the random deletion of a particular user or group. This shaping power is deeply embedded in the standardization and governance bodies where the Internet infrastructure is produced.

When questioning these standardization and governance bodies, one cannot help but notice, as Corinne Cath-Speth’s research shows, that organizations can be characterized by a laissez-faire approach to technological development and challenge any strong accountability measure. This culture is characterized by a libertarian, American, masculine approach that values ​​individualism. It is precisely these qualities that perpetuate the idea that regulation will “break the Internet” and that individual choice and responsibility is the only way forward for Internet infrastructure.

This attitude is deeply ironic because during the first half of its existence the Internet was heavily funded by states, and the second half was characterized by oligopolies. However, this sense of individual engineering pride keeps the status quo intact, meaning a continued exclusion of those who do not want to succumb to this culture, primarily women, people of color, and those outside of it. Europe and the United States. This in turn reinforces a network topology that reinforces the dominating and extracting power structures based in the United States and Europe. Submarine cables now cover the entire world, but network traffic is still largely concentrated in Europe and the United States, maps that closely resemble those of colonial trade routes.

The Internet infrastructure and its regulatory and governance regime exist to increase interconnection between transnational corporations, primarily based in the United States and Europe. Extending data flows to and through these networks is what these networks and their governance are optimized for. It transformed the Internet from a means of connection to a means of extraction. To focus solely on the growths of this culture and regime while focusing on moderation of content would be naive at best, and at worst legitimize an extractive practice.

Reflections on the practice of content moderation should not only focus on what content should or should not be moderated, but rather on the structures that incite and perpetuate such discourse. It is the responsibility of communication infrastructure providers to become significantly involved in the impact of their actions on human rights and in their chain responsibility. So far, virtually no internet infrastructure provider has done this enough. The lack of meaningful adoption and integration by the industry of the United Nations Guiding Principles for Business and Human Rights is a reminder of the tobacco industry’s opposition to health codes, and their budgets. lobbying reflects the same fear of regulation.

Civil society should not be afraid to present strong alternative network ideologies that are based on the free association and self-determination of end users. The priority of the networking and content delivery industry should be to address issues of inequity and inequality, not to extract more private data to sell to advertising and surveillance companies (which are anyway based on wrong premises). The Internet is the world’s public square, we should better imagine it as such. This means that the strongest actors must assume their responsibilities and not seek to wait for civil society to organize itself, hold it to account and solve its problems. Here we can only refer to Spiderman: with great power comes great responsibility. It is high time the Internet infrastructure industry rose to the challenge.

Niels ten Oever is a postdoctoral researcher in the framework of the project “Making the hidden visible” at the department of media studies of the University of Amsterdam.

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