I used to read Techdirt, and Mike Masnick in particular, with genuine reverence when Futurismic was still a running concern. He was tech-critical long before it was fashionable to be so, but from a position that challenged my own thinking quite a bit, and still does: in short, Masnick’s about as close to First Amendment Fundamentalism as I’ll go. (I used to go a fair bit closer than I do these days; insert your own wistful reminiscences of more innocent times on the still-somewhat-utopian internet of the Noughties here.)
These days my greatest and enduring interest in Masnick’s work comes from his maintaining the old (and seemingly all-but-forgotten) distinction between protocols and platforms. As presumably foreshadowed by the preceding paragraph, this is largely in service of “free speech” — though Masnick’s notion of free speech is notably more thought-through and pre-problematised than the one you encounter most often. I guess we might say he’s one of the last intellectually honest techno-libertarians.
Here’s Masnick introducing a long piece at Columbia U’s Knight First Amendment Institute, where he argues in favour of a return to an internet based on open protocols rather than proprietary platforms:
Moving to a world where protocols and not proprietary platforms dominate would solve many issues currently facing the internet today. Rather than relying on a few giant platforms to police speech online, there could be widespread competition, in which anyone could design their own interfaces, filters, and additional services, allowing whichever ones work best to succeed, without having to resort to outright censorship for certain voices. It would allow end users to determine their own tolerances for different types of speech but make it much easier for most people to avoid the most problematic speech, without silencing anyone entirely or having the platforms themselves make the decisions about who is allowed to speak.
In short, it would push the power and decision making out to the ends of the network, rather than keeping it centralized among a small group of very powerful companies.
Now, regular readers will likely have picked up some hints in recent years that I no longer assume competition between commercial actors will necessarily, or even possibly, result in the emergence of an optimal solution. (YA RLY.)
That said, I think there’s an argument to be made that a lot of the sociopolitical issues we’ve seen in the last decade have been exacerbated by the ubiquitous reach of certain proprietary platforms of communication. A very reductive way of putting it might be to observe that if a platform and the set of rules by which it is used (which we might call its interface) are considered as a game, then two things are likely to happen: a) highly motivated people will find a way to win the game by pushing at the edges of the rule-set, and b) highly motivated people with access to money will lean on the curators of the rule-set to make their pushing at its edges more successful. All of this will happen within a broader ecology where almost all the strong incentives to action tend to be driven by and towards the accumulation of profit and/or power.
(Or, more succinctly: Facebook, and its abuse for political and financial influence, is inevitable in a capitalist context which does not actively mitigate against the existence of Facebooks.)
But Masnick’s spot on when it comes to the power of protocols — because both he and my anarchist self recognise that replacing Facebook with a state-run monopoly platform, however well intended, would result in similarly dysfunctional results. (This is another sense in which the big comms/tech companies are infrastructures, and thus very similar to the rapacious railway companies from which they are descended.)
I don’t have the time (and you likely don’t have the patience) to revisit some of the more woolly implications of my PhD thesis today, and in the end the protocol/platform distinction didn’t make as strong a showing in the final work as originally expected — but nonetheless it’s a distinction that matters a great deal in my theoretical model of sociotechnical change. To simplify hugely, the reason why a state-run monopoly platform is little better than a privately-owned monopoly platform is not that they are both monopolies; on the contrary, any geographically inelastic distribution system (be it a railway or a communications network) should, nay MUST be a monopoly, because breaking the network up into subnetworks reduces both its functional and its economical efficiency.
Rather, the problem with platforms is that, to use my preferred theoretical nomenclature, they control both the infrastructure layer and the interface layer. A protocol, by contrast, is provided as an open opportunity (or capacity) by an infrastructure layer in order that all comers are able to to develop their own compatible interfaces thereto; those interfaces will work with the clearly delimited capacities and potentialities of the infrastructure layer, and package them in such a way as to fulfill the teleology of a particular practice-as-performance.
(Regrettably, the full elucidation of my theoretical work has yet to make it into any publications, and I’ve not had the time to write it up for its own sake. I’m hoping that an SI proposed in the aftermath of last year’s RGS conference, plus a paper I’m hoping will be accepted for this year’s Petrocultures, will give me the chance/reason to get this stuff down in print and out in the world.)
Looping back to Masnick, then: my theory broadly agrees with him on the point about “pushing power out to the ends of the network” — but with the proviso that the network (which cannot be disentangled from the organisation charged with running and maintaining it) must necessarily be a closely regulated and functionally restricted monopoly in order for his proposed freedom of use-cases to be possible; the total organisational separation between the infrastructure layer and the interface layer must be maintained. This is not an ideological position, but an argument from function which can be illustrated with pretty much every infrastructural development in history.
And that’s the core thesis one of the handful of books I’d really like someone to pay me to write… but as no one’s gonna even think about paying me until it’s been written, I guess I’d better find the time to write it while I’m being paid to do other things, eh?