This morning I have a post up at the Hedgehog Review on “Our Manorial Elite.” The core idea, as you’ll see if you click through, comes from Cory Doctorow, or rather a historian friend of Doctorow’s. “[Bruce] Schneier calls [our current arrangement] ‘Feudal Security,’ but as the medievalist Stephen Morillo wrote to me, the correct term for this is probably ‘Manorial Security’ — while feudalism was based on land-grants to aristocrats who promised armed soldiers in return, manorialism referred to a system in which an elite owned all the property and the rest of the world had to work on that property on terms that the local lord set.”
What the rabble who stormed the Capitol building have unwittingly done is to consolidate (a) the social power of the enormous transnational tech companies and (b) the intimacy of those companies’ connection with the United States government. Given the recent usefulness of Facebook, Twitter, and Amazon to the currently dominant political party, what are the chances that a Democratic Congress will pass legislation curbing their power, or that, should some such bill emerge, a Democratic President would sign it into law?
So let me bang this antique drum one more time: You need to own as much of your turf as you can. I explain why and how, in detail, in this essay. Avoid the walled gardens of social media, because at any moment they could appeal to digital eminent domain and move the walls somewhere else, and if they did you’d have zero recourse.
Now, to be sure, even when you “own your turf” you don’t really own your turf — as the people who run Parler have recently discovered: they didn’t just lose their access to Apple’s App Store and Google Play, and their data storage account with Amazon’s AWS, they lost their text message and email service provider. I was reminded of just how vulnerable my own digital presence is last year when there were plans to sell the .org domain to a private equity firm. That situation has been avoided for now, thanks in large part to the efforts of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, but there are no guarantees going forward. When I’m on the open web, I own my data — which is a big deal, since the owners of the walled gardens also own your data — but I don’t own the power to share my words and images with others.
I hold no brief for Parler, which I am glad to see shut down — it has been a foul thing by any reasonable measure — but as I note in my Hedgehog post, the big social media companies are making up their rules as they go along, and in so doing setting the standards for other, smaller companies to follow. So are the other big companies: As Glenn Greenwald points out, the planning for the assault on the Capitol wasn’t done on Parler, it was done on Facebook — yet we don’t see Apple banning Facebook from its App Store, do we?
The smaller, the more vulnerable. If I were to say something controversial enough, my own hosting company, the wonderful Reclaim Hosting, could give me the boot. It’s not at all likely, of course, but my point is that it’s possible. I could be fired by Baylor, Google and Apple could shut down my accounts, I could probably be cut off by my ISP. I think the only thing left would be a landline phone, which, if I’m not mistaken, we in the USA still have fairly strong rights to use. But I don’t have a landline. (Maybe I should remedy that?)
It’s possible, then, for any of us to be not just shamed or dragged on social media but really and truly digitally shunned — to be completely cut off from every possibility of electronic discourse and community. I don’t see how you can’t be concerned about this possibility. So even a lawyer for the ACLU — which has in recent years explicitly refused to support speech that it doesn’t approve of — says, “I think we should recognize the importance of neutrality when we’re talking about the infrastructure of the internet.”
Until that neutrality in enshrined in law, we are all at the mercy of our manorial technocracy. But if we stay outside the walled gardens, we are safer and more free. I would encourage all of you to ditch Twitter, ditch Facebook (including Instagram), ditch all of them and learn how to live once more on the open web. The future of our democracy just might depend on it.