The dream of internet freedom has died. What a dream it was. Twenty years ago, nerdy libertarians hailed the web as the freest public sphere that mankind had ever created. The Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace, written in 1996 by John Perry Barlow, warned the ‘governments of the industrial world’, those ‘weary giants of flesh and steel’, that they had ‘no sovereignty where we gather’. The ‘virus of liberty’ was spreading, it said.
Now it seems that the virus has been wiped out. We live our online lives in a dystopian nightmare of Twittermobs, ‘safety councils’, official procedures for ‘forgetting’ inconvenient facts, and the arrest of people for being offensive. The weary giants are asserting their censorious sovereignty.
This week it was revealed that Facebook has been suppressing news stories from conservative sources. Facebook, used by 1.6 billion people, bigs itself up as a neutral distributor of news and facilitator of global chat. Yet, according to a former editor there, popular conservative stories are often kept off Facebook’s trending bar, either because the curator ‘didn’t recognise the news topic’ or ‘they had a bias’.
People log on to Facebook imagining that the stories they see are chosen by user ‘likes’, rather than by editors who decide what us web plebs should and shouldn’t know. In truth, this stuff is curated for us by our moral betters in Silicon Valley, who dish up decent liberal stories that might enlighten our mushy minds while hiding weird conservative news that might turn us Obama-phobic or funny about immigration.
The most surprising thing about this Facebook story was that anyone was surprised. Social media sites, vast planets of cyberspace, may advertise themselves as free meeting points for humanity, but for a couple of years now they’ve been casting out moral undesirables, blocking the offensive and engaging in political censorship.