Twitter: storms ahead

The company could be in danger as governments crack down on irresponsible internet giants

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“You  have no sovereignty where we gather”: John Perry Barlow, author of the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace (©JOL VIA FLICKR CC BY 2.0)

Twitter feels dead. As a business, it looks like a bubble waiting to burst. As a means of communication, it is running out of luck.

Donald Trump may splutter his hatreds on it. Journalists may treat it as more important than their newspapers. Legions among its 320 million users might believe that their Twitter persona is the most vital face they present to the world. But it has never made a profit, because Facebook and Google have cornered the online advertising market.

No one looks to me for investment advice. But I’m going to give it anyway. Sell. Dump Twitter stock. Pass it on to the greater fool. If the next panic resembles the dot.com crash of the late 1990s, then Twitter is ready to go down, and not only because of the overvaluations of a euphoric market. The freedom that lets tech companies make what money they can is dying. Child pornography, Russian cyber-warfare and terrorism are killing it.

The 1996 Communications Decency Act inaugurated the Internet Age in the US. The law was classic gesture politics. The politicians struck an unlikely pose as upholders of godly living by seeking to regulate porn. They could appeal to conservative voters safe in the knowledge that nothing much would happen because the courts would strike the law down. This they did, as a breach of the US Constitution’s protection of freedom of speech in the first amendment.

But a clause inserted into the act to meet the needs of then emerging tech industry proved more durable: “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”

Like feudal exemptions for nobility and clergy, the privileges of the tech companies once had a rationale. How could a site be responsible for everything its users uploaded? Twitter does not vet every tweet as an editor vets every article that appears in the newspaper. As their lobbyists told everyone who would listen, they are no more responsible for what appears on social media than a phone company is responsible for what callers say. Suppose neo-Nazis or Islamists phoned each other up to plan an attack. Or, to take a more common scenario, imagine a man threatening a woman with rape and death threats. Blaming a mobile provider would be pointless. Telling the mobile provider to stop all misogynists would be worse than pointless. It would be absurd.

It’s impossible to imagine the modern world without the freedom of the web. Perhaps something like the Trump presidency would have happened anyway. Maybe Russia would have found different ways to manipulate Western opinion. The culture wars that dominate politics started long before the web was running, and would still be fought, web or no web. Technology isn’t destiny. But it can feel that way when one form of technology dominates, the more so because Silicon Valley’s ideologues insisted that we had no choice. It’s not just that the web should not be regulated, they maintained, it could not be regulated.

“Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel” began the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s portentous Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace, “You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather.”

The declaration was issued in 1996 at Davos, the winter resort for the corporate elite. Naturally, it suited the interests of tech companies nicely. They were free from the legal constraints and penalties that bound the old media. They did not have to carry the costs of employing thousands of editors and lawyers to approve posts as fit for publication, or lose market share by banning foul users. They had a freedom no publisher in history had enjoyed.

Yet that freedom was built on a half-truth. Facebook and Google had codes of conduct and employed poorly trained and utterly miserable moderators to enforce it at $15 an hour. “Every day people would have to visit psychologists. Some couldn’t sleep or they had nightmares,” one told the Guardian anonymously as she related the vile content they had to read.

The public can’t speak to moderators. Indeed it’s impossible to find a UK phone number to speak to anyone at Twitter. But the fact of their existence falsifies the claim that Facebook and Twitter are no different from telephone companies.

The parent of a teenager driven close to suicide by online abuse or a woman deluged with hatred can appeal online to the faceless adjudicators. And when, as happens nearly all the time, the company says the lies and the insults must stand, it has made an editorial decision. Equally, when it takes money from everyone from Kremlin propagandists to religious cranks, it is choosing to accept their business. However much they may hate the comparison, when they make these choices, Facebook and Twitter are no different from the editors of the “dead tree press”.

Across the West politicians are asking the obvious follow-up: why can’t they also be liable, as the editors of the dead-tree press always have been?

If Facebook’s march to global dominance is reversed, the Trump election will be the moment it all went wrong. Not only did Facebook take the money of a hostile foreign power, but it stands accused of creating “filter bubbles” in which users have their prejudices confirmed rather than challenged. Democrats and patriotic Republicans are appalled by Russian interference. Their regulatory backlash is all the fiercer as Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg is a classic modern hypocrite, who mouths liberal pieties while lining his pockets with dirty money.

Elsewhere, the US Congress is demanding that internet companies which facilitate sex-trafficking be held criminally liable, after a site called Backpage.com ran adverts selling sex with 14-year-old girls. Incredibly, to my mind, Google, Facebook and the Electronic Frontier Foundation opposed it, but the measure is coming in none the less.

The world is changing. Governments, those “weary giants of flesh and steel” that the Electronic Frontier Foundation mocked, must respond to the crimes and pain the web enables. Facebook is already warning that its profitability will be hit by Russian attempts to manipulate US politics. It’s rich enough to survive. Feeble Twitter, by contrast, looks vulnerable, the more so as it is the favourite site for the worst type of swinish troll.

If it goes, I will miss it. But eventually I suspect, we will look back on the immunities it enjoyed with the incredulity with which we look back on the privileges of the feudal aristocracy.