A Moment of Pause
Like many, I greeted the news of Donald Trump's permanent suspension from Twitter with baffled amusement. Was that it? Was it finally over? The Orange One's daily gripes, complaints, insults and shrieks of self-pity had become part of my mental universe. Sadly, they were the sun around which others' turned. Trump's summoning of a flash-mob protest that degenerated into an attack on the House of Congress proved a bridge too far for Jack Dorsey. I can't say I blame him. Jack snatching away Trump's digital megaphone gave me the same giddy relief theatre patrons must feel when that asshole who keeps interrupting the film by screaming 'fire!' finally gets the boot. Good-bye and good riddance, @realDonaldTrump. You will not be missed.
But my amusement grew to fascination as the afternoon wore on. Twitter's stock price dropped 4% within a few hours, finally closing at -1.6% by day's end. And a mass exodus of users to Parler took on seismic significance when Apple and Google responded to Trump's migration there by pulling the app from their online stores. The situation was escalating into a full-blown information war across the Digisphere, with politics, big tech and big mouths merging in a crazed synergy of greed, ideology and political maneuvering.
Let's admit it: online and real life have now blurred irrevocably. Where just a few years ago, someone who hung out on Twitter was an eccentric nerd, now the platform is essential to so many for communication, business, research and advertising. The same could be said of Facebook and Instagram (they also banned Trump). This large-scale migration of human activity into the online world, accelerated by technology leaps and Covid lockdowns, has had the effect of ghettoizing the internet. There goes the neighborhood!
Conservative? Then Parler's your club. Moderate, progressive, lefty? Use Twitter. Apple and Google can serve up your news, chat groups and movies so well that you can pretend to have a butler. What you can't pretend is that the online world is unimportant. Not when what started there short weeks ago ended with the death of five people and the wounding of 54 police officers in the first attack on the House of Congress since 1814.
Another thing we might as well admit is that the tech industry is generally leftish in bias. This is not an unreasonable assertion considering how the workforce skews toward youth of a liberal bent. Men like Jack Dorsey and Mark Zuckerberg are themselves in the first blush of middle age, and exhibit the same peppy idealism as the Boomer generation that launched the computer age. Liberalism and a quasi-60s ethic inform high tech culture as a whole. This has historically led to policies of generosity, openness and tolerance where free speech and access to a platform are concerned. But in Trump and the Deplorables, high tech met its Darth Vader. And as always happens in such stories, the young idealist must fight to save his soul.
Make no mistake: I applaud Jack Dorsey's decision to silence Trump. (Seriously, fuck that guy.) And I like Facebook and believe Google has brought some genuinely great things to the world. I view folks like Zuck and Jack and the kids at Google (- I have two friends, in fact, who work at the Mississauga headquarters -) with a lot of respect. They have navigated the pitfalls of guiding a techno-sociological revolution with intelligence and an impressive display of moral principle. I also believe it's fair to say that they are now entering a new phase of that revolution - one characterized by uncharted waters. Put simply: beyond here be dragons.
Look, we have never done this before - built a planetary communications network that simultaneously encompasses the public and private, financial and political, artistic, spiritual, emotional and intellectual bandwidths of human civilization. Much of what is important in our world today happens online, and the events of recent years have proven beyond a doubt that social media is a potent political tool. Silicon Valley senior management, in fact, includes several members of the last two Democratic administrations and the Hillary Clinton campaign. Savvy politicians have done more than cha-cha AOC-style on a live feed: they have communed deeply with the culture and personalities of big tech. It's reasonable to assume that there will be much interplay between tech corporations (Google especially) and the incoming Biden administration.
The close interoperation of government and private sector actors with control of digital tools that touch and provide access to every aspect of our personal lives is unprecedented. These are the uncharted waters into which the tech titans and our politicians are steering us. It is perhaps wise to take a moment of pause before voyaging into the domain of dragons.
Data privacy is one of the most robust fields in high-tech. Billions are made each year furnishing everything from secure data encryption to firewalls to secure payment gateways to confidential packet transfer services. Ideally, hackers (and Big Brother) only have as much access to your data as you care to allow, because big tech offers the best security money can buy.
But even sophisticated security tools rely on data and hardware architecture, which is exactly what Google and Apple provide. That kind of access is the equivalent of a skeleton key to the locked house of secure personal data. If we do see closer interoperations between government and big tech - which is both likely and beneficial (in my view) - there will be serious legal and ethical issues to consider, one of which will be close adjacency of government to our data. This has real significance.
Say, for example, the US government decided to allow its IRS to partner with Google Corporation in an effort to streamline the income tax process. Given the tech giant's robust data architecture and financial services toolkit, it seems a logical solution. The only downside is that the same company that files your taxes also provides payment service gateways to most banks and credit card providers. In effect, there would be a glass wall between what you owe Uncle Sam and the amount you currently have in your bank account. I don't know about you, but I consider that some cause for alarm. And this alarm is propounded when I consider public and private communications on platforms like Facebook and Twitter.
Let us return for a moment to the Duck Dynasty Putsch. Here was an act of domestic terrorism coordinated via social media. It is therefore reasonable that domestic law enforcement should consult social media in its investigations. They already do. And will most certainly be doing so with greater frequently if H.R. 5602 - the Domestic Terrorism Prevention Act of 2020, passed in the House - is ratified by the Senate and signed into law under a Biden administration.
Increased surveillance by domestic intelligence will doubtless involve big tech and fiat access to public and private social media accounts of suspected terrorists. Presumably white nationalist organizations, particularly armed groups such as Atomwaffen, will be the focus of attention. Had the Senate passed and Trump signed H.R. 5602 into law, the events of 6 January would likely never have happened. An architecture such as that provided for in the resolution would be capable of using these same tools to counter threats from any point on the ideological spectrum. This is very much as it should be. But I get uneasy when I imagine big tech-enhanced law enforcement tools providing instant access to my private communications, Facebook pictures, text messages. And I get really uneasy remembering how concerned we all used to be about that stuff ... once upon a time before Edward Snowden fucked off to Moscow to write books and appear on talk shows with Vladimir Putin.
If domestic terrorism is to be one focus of this 117th Congress, then gun violence is most certainly another. The most dangerous elements of the white nationalist underground movement engage in weapons trafficking and laundering through private sales and gun shows. The architecture of H.R. 5602 is useful here, too, in a variety of ways. The hunt for illicit and/or underground weapons would be rendered that much easier with access to bank account information, private e-mail and social media communications. All of these could come into play enforcing any of the proposed gun bills put forward by this Congress.
It is beyond the scope of this essay to consider the political ramifications of this legislation if passed. However, there is no doubt that law enforcement partnerships with big tech would be not only worthwhile but likely under the current climate. Biden has placed the NRA prominently on his list of domestic policy priorities. A solution to the long-standing problem of gun violence in America may be on the political horizon, but it will require a vast amount of state attention and resources. 200 additional ATF will help, but they are only a start. Changing gun legislation is viewed as a challenge to fundamental aspects of the American way of life by some. So, in addition to the problem of tackling white nationalist weapons trafficking, LEOs will have to contend with citizen offenders refusing to turn over weapons for inspection or confiscation. In both cases, big tech's adjacency to personal data will provide a tempting avenue for law enforcement to follow. This opens a whole different legal can of worms - one best left for a future essay.
In summary, we are likely to witness increased synergy between a left-leaning tech industry and a sympathetic Biden government, enabled by a network of mutual professional contacts, many of whom are government insiders. One area of concern in this regard will be the adjacency of big government/big tech to our personal data. Smart use of big tech/law enforcement partnerships will enable pursuit of domestic terrorists as well as enforcement of pending firearms legislation but will pose legal and ethical challenges. The combination of these circumstances, and the possible ramifications of their synergy, should give us all a moment of pause.
Jamie Mason is the author of ECHO, KEZZIE OF BABYLON and THE BOOK OF ASHES. His novella TIME OUT is forthcoming from Wolfsinger Publications. He lives on Vancouver Island. Learn more at jamiescribbles.com