I am happy that I’m not going to indadvertedly click a link on twitter and find myself watching a video of the beheading of James Foley. But the removal of this video and other content from Google, Twitter and Facebook raises important questions about media, freedom of expression and control of information.
In the digital age, we are nearing the point where an idea banished by Twitter, Facebook and Google all but vanishes from public discourse entirely, and that is only going to become more true as those companies grow even further.
As is pointed out here, this is not a question of censorship. Rather it is an editorial decision, made on perfectly reasonable moral and taste grounds and at the request of the family of James Foley. And while we might completely agree with the decision in this instance, are we happy for Facebook to delete content created by Syrian dissidents? Or not remove videos of other gruesome actions that do not involve Western journalists. Or allow the publication of live tweets of IDF military actions against Hamas? These complex religious and geopolitical issues are throwing up new moral, social and editorial challenges for technology companies. But as these companies morph into not just media companies, but media itself, it is becoming important to ask what precedents are being set? What actual policies are at work?
We have no rights beyond what the companies give us in their terms of service, where quaint ideas like the First Amendment have no application.
The huge centralized web services such as facebook and google, the Stacks as Bruce Sterling calls them, are making these editorial decisions because we’ve both asked and allowed them to. They are incredibly useful services and incredibly convenient services and incredibly free services to use. We might not pay with our wallets, but instead we pay with our views, our content, our shares, likes, retweets and our profiles. If you’re not paying for it, you’re the product being sold. We know this. Facebook and Google and Twitter ultimately can decide what goes through their pipes – if we don’t like their decisions we can take our cat photos elsewhere, however inconvenient that might be.
So, if we’re the product, who are the customers? Brands, obviously, who love the convenience and the scale and the data and metrics they get from their paid-for relationships with The Stacks. And brands too, make sacrifices when they embark on these relationships. The world of brand microsites was one of variable quality, but vast variety. Today’s uniformity of branded voice and imagery, the identikit, out-of-the-box formatting solutions provided by tumblr and facebook and youtube can almost induce nostalgia for the visual assault of the World Wild Web. Again, google and twitter and facebook have the right to design their pipes their way – if brands don’t like the formats on offer they can take their content elsewhere, however inconvenient that might be.
I am relieved that my kids can watch youtube without clicking on a thumbnail and seeing James Foley’s horrific murder. But I am also telling them that if they want a place on the internet where they are not the product, a place where they are the editor, where they set the precedents and make the policies, a place that is theirs, then they will have to own it and pay for it and make it. They’ll have to buy a domain and manage some hosting and create some content and establish their own digital identity. And they’ll have to deal with the inconvenience and freedom that comes with it.