By Amy Peikoff and Benjamin Chayes
We would be the last to tell you that you should or shouldn’t like, post, or share cat pics. That’s not our business. Really, it’s nobody’s business. But at the rate things are going, we won’t be surprised when even the safe haven of the cat pic—that pure, sweet, unassuming and harmless piece of purring peace—will somehow manage to become contentious, too. Because once it’s on the Internet, it seems pretty much anything becomes debatable, controversial, even ban-worthy, eventually. Why is it that anything on the web seems to become subject to the political polarization that makes it more and more difficult to have a civil conversation?
Many of us—or at least most who still believe that private property is a right that offers us protection against arbitrary abuse of power, by both the powerful and by the masses—have long defended social media and tech platforms. Whenever one of them would favor or disfavor one opinion, identity, or orientation over another, we would shrug and say: “I don’t like it, but they’re a private company. They have the right to use their own tools the way they see fit. I can always take my business elsewhere or […wait for it…] start my own platform.”
But if we look back on the past 10-15 years and compare our recollection of events to the evidence trickling out in the form of “Twitter Files” or “Facebook Files,” we realize we may have been not fully awake. In 2010, Arab Spring broke out in countries far away. At a safe distance, we were able to recognize that these distant countries represented all that can be wrong about government: authoritarianism, abuse, lawlessness, and lack of respect for individual rights. Moreover, we saw that, all of a sudden, social media allowed the disenfranchised to communicate, associate and assert their rights out in the open, for all to see. But we also became aware, over time, of the requirements ‘our own’ tech companies were confronted with when doing business in places governed by these totalitarian regimes. It turned out that Google, Amazon, Apple and the rest (even Disney—hear that, cats?) could be pressured to adapt their products according to the whims of authoritarian dictators. Were we naive to assume the same thing wasn’t happening here at home?
Under the guise of a series of threats and emergencies, various and sundry government bodies and political organizations have, for several years now, availed themselves of the wonderful tools for information warfare that tech companies have made possible. Ironically, it often has been the pretext of foreign threats that our own government used to impose hearanguing upon hearanguing on executive after executive from Big Tech. The goal? To nudge them to remove more and more “objectionable” content. What we are seeing in the numerous “Files” being released is just the lifting of the veil covering all the hidden ‘requests’ by government agencies and politicians to do the same. (And let’s not get started on our government’s data envy, most eloquently manifested in the Biden Administration’s attempt to co-opt, rather than ban outright, the mother of all manipulative, snooping, data-mining apps, TikTok.)
So what have our government officials and politicians tried to obtain? A safe space in which privately owned companies may operate, free from harassment by foreign authorities? Or have they instead tried to grab the same toys for themselves? It is sad to be forced to conclude that, under the guise of fighting off interference from totalitarian dictators, our own politicians and bureaucrats have proven to have similar aspirations.
When will the era of innocent, benevolent cat pictures return? So long as tech companies fail to find the spine to act with integrity and fight the authoritarians, so long as they fail to defend the system that—in the not-so-distant past—allowed them to develop and thrive, we should assume they are continuing to participate in the “public-private partnership” which has trampled on our rights and transformed the Internet from a realm of unlimited possibilities into an anxiety-provoking miasma. The “Files” are an important first step toward making online discussions—and cat pictures*—great again. But it’s just the first.
*The authors state for the record that they have nothing against dogs, and apologize in advance to anyone who might have been triggered by the exclusion of dogs from this essay.
Amy Peikoff is Head of Policy and Legal for Parler; Benjamin Chayes is a historian