The Internet as a Physical Thing

Arguments are swirling about free speech and privacy on the internet — should odious content be deplatformed and banned? Apps like Uber and AirBnB are wreaking havoc with existing laws and business like Uber and AirBnB (termed disruption in polite circles). Then there’s the talk of of tech addiction, monopolies and regulation.

The premise underlying all of these discussions is that the internet is some sort of unique digital world. It’s different. The digital world is inherently libertarian, indubitably open. Think Tim Beners-Lee proclaiming this is for everyone.

The problem, of course, is that this is hogwash. The internet, the world wide web, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Amazon — all of it — are physical entities inhabiting the physical world just like every other medium used by humans before the internet.

That’s not to say the web hasn’t been revolutionary. Rather, it’s merely revolutionary in the way the printing press was — the idea of a separate digital space is the imposition of Cartesian dualism on top of something that’s just as much a physical thing as anything else.

The physicality of the web

Looking at the minimalist chic that’s popular in tech circles, it’s easy to miss the bulk, size and pollution generated by the internet. Other than the last few feet covered by wifi, you’re literally and physically connected to computers around the world by a vast network of cables.

Even the most digital of experiences are facilitated by very real engineers on physical infrastructure, even if watching it all on a iPad masks that reality.

The internet, powered by servers and data centers, is a massive consumer of electricity. The complete environmental picture is rather bleak.

Some website are taking notice and trying to reduce their physical footprint. The Susty WordPress theme has inspired many of my decisions to keep my own site as low impact as possible. Although, just because a site looks minimal that doesn’t mean it’s not quietly belching out smoke.

One of the least hagiographical but still not polemical takes on the internet comes from James Ball. His work is a good place to jump off from if you’re looking to take a deeper dive.

Letters to the editor

Suppose I were to write a letter to the editor of a venerable physical newspaper. That paper is under no obligation to publish it, nor would anyone seriously cry that freedom of speech is being impinged when my letter goes unpublished.

Supposing further, a newspaper editor would be crazy to publish a letter inciting violence or something blatantly illegal. Were the letter credible and serious, the editor would likely turn it over to police. Even for content that’s legal but merely objectionable enough, a newspaper would withhold publication or risk losing subscribers and advertisers.

With that in mind, let’s say a publisher came up with a new concept for a newspaper: the only content is letters to the editor, but the paper would publish all letters received without reading the contents before publication. The idea would be laughed away as a serious business, yet that’s precisely how social media operates.

If we view social media as a letter to the editor, the whole question of censorship and deplatforming evaporates. There’s one catch though: social media companies have manipulated the law to not be held responsible for the content posted on their platforms. Thus they reap the profits of being a media company without any of the responsibilities.

The obvious objection is that there’s no way Twitter or Facebook could preemptively moderate all content and remain profitable. Well yeah, that’s sort of the point. Social media is a viable business model only if society is left to foot the bill for social media’s externalities.

The responsibility question

Reasonable people would agree that the phone company isn’t responsible for a contract killing arranged over the phone. If someone took out an ad in a physical newspaper for a contract killing, the newspaper would have some legal responsibility for having run the ad.

Is social media the newspaper or a phone company? Newspapers monetize content, phone companies don’t.

I don’t mean to trivialize where the line for content responsibility should fall, but it’s worth taking cues from physical world. This means that domain registrars and hosting companies bear the least responsibility, much like landlords aren’t usually culpable for the actions of their tenants.

Child abuse images are a useful example. If a person hides such images in a safe deposit box at the bank, the bank isn’t responsible. Likewise, the postal service isn’t responsible (and is actually forbidden from in most cases) checking the contents of individual correspondence. Thus encrypted cloud storage and messaging apps shouldn’t be responsible for content.

The owner of a physical bookshop can’t sell child pornography under the guise that the bookshop is a mere platform and thus not responsible for the content therein. Yet search engines do exactly that — Microsoft and Google are literally profiting off of kiddie porn.

The argument in defense of big tech always returns to scale. Search engines couldn’t possibly moderate the content they display. Yet, telephone directories and bookstores have to moderate their content. Microsoft and Google don’t deserve a free pass because they’re big.

This isn’t an ode to censorship and nany-state regulation, rather we need to stop treating digital space as anything other than a physical businesses. Monetizing online content should come with the same obligation as distributing content with ink and paper. Selling online services should carry the same regulation as brick-and-mortar businesses. No more, no less.

The future of responsible tech

The current model of providing free services for a tiny margin at scale isn’t sustainable if tech companies are actually responsible for the content they host. While this will change the way the internet currently works, that’s no great loss.

Smaller scale online communities that have modest subscription fees sound much better than the race to the bottom that is Facebook. Going back to sharing pictures with family and friends directly instead of fishing for likes from strangers is an unmitigated good.

The whole tech thing starts to make a lot more sense when we skip the fantasy that the digital world is somehow removed from the physical world.