The censorship by big technology companies has generated a lot of discussion last week. The New York Post newspaper published certain emails that indicated a relationship between a Ukrainian energy company and Hunter Biden. It must be noted that Hunter Biden is son of Democratic Presidential nominee Joe Biden. These mails were from a time when Joe Biden was Vice President and are a possible indication of use of the influence of the then VP to gratify certain persons. Biden has not disputed the authenticity of the emails.
Amusingly, these emails were leaked when a laptop, purportedly belonging to Hunter, was given for repair in a shop in Delaware and then abandoned. It is reported that last year the shop owner then emailed a copy of the hard drive to FBI, which overlooked the evidence. These details apart, the recent discussion is about the censorship imposed on New York Post when they ran the story.
The new censorship
Facebook, “reduced the distribution” of the story and Twitter locked the entire Twitter account of the New York Post! Not only that Twitter banned the story from its platform and no tweets with the link could be sent, privately in DMs or publicly as tweets. Not only that, Twitter locked the personal account of White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany for sharing screenshots of the story! Now, NYP is an old and respected institution. Founded by Alexander Hamilton in 1801, it is currently the fourth largest read newspaper in USA!
Twitter replied to the controversy by saying that it does not allow the use of its service “to distribute content obtained without authorization”. The basic argument is that they are unsure about the origin of the content and cannot, thus, run the story. This policy is apparently in existence since 2018.
However, the same Twitter happily ran a story about tax returns, not legally obtained, of Trump some time ago. In context of Bharat, let us not forget the malicious propaganda by communist mouthpiece The Hindu in the runup of 2019 elections. The confidential official documents related to Rafale deal were selectively leaked and a false narrative of corruption was created. The story was shared without any “reduction in distribution” on social media platforms.
New centers of power in Digital Age
The censorship used to be the domain of Christian religion in medieval Europe and with modern times, came to be a function of the state. The state was often criticized for censorship by the liberals, specially in democracies. There were ,of course, no liberals in communist countries to criticize the all pervasive censorship by the “liberals” themselves.
In the age of internet, large private players have now started to censor information for us. They have thus emerged as centers of power, and much like the Church and autocratic governments, with little or no accountability. They have become centers of power, much like multinational companies in certain sectors became powerful in previous centuries. However, their domination is much more pervasive and the danger to countries much more hidden.
Danger to sovereign nations
In the 16th century, companies and commercial interests from western Europe started colonizing countries in Asia, Africa, Americas and Australia. The next few centuries saw indiscriminate exploitation of “natives” by these companies. It includes the what East India Company did in Bharat.
By 19th century, textiles was the major article of trade that kept the colonies poor and made the western countries rich. It partially financed the industrial revolution and the money from “free trade” was used to keep Bharat and other such countries under the thumb of Britain and its west European peers.
In the 19th century, it was textile that determined who will rule the world. Thus the mills of England consumed large amounts of cotton and churned out machine made clothes that impoverished Bharatiya weavers and concentrated wealth, and by extension, power in Britain. It emerged as the paramount world power and remained so until the end of first world war. This was classic colonialism.
The 20th century can be seen as a series of wars for energy sources that fed the industrialization in Europe and USA. Oil became the new reason for war and has remained so until our times. The second world war in Europe could be won only after Germany had been deprived of oil by allied bombing of its oil assets. Oil is famously cited as the reason for wars in the middle east. However, the character of colonialism changed and neo-colonialism emerged in which political authority remained with natives but economic system was dominated by foreign firms and political landscape could be changed for interests of foreign firms. The “banana republic” is the famous motif from this era.
Data is emerging as the new oil. It is all pervasive and can be used to micro manage the lives of humans in a manner that was previously thought impossible. At all the stages of data from generation to indexing, search, distribution and consumption, large corporations seek to establish monopolies. Interestingly, this is the first time since invention of canons that private entities have more power in any domain than sovereign nations. After canons, the nation states became powerful and feudalism declined as not all could afford canons and later warships, combat aircrafts and tanks etc. All these were exclusively controlled by nation states, but data is controlled by large corporations like Google, Amazon, Apple and Facebook. This presents unique and unprecedented challenges for sovereign nations.
That companies can exercise great power over how people perceive the world and how they can influence their decisions can be seen in the present case. Bharat also saw meddling in elections by Cambridge Analytica a few years ago. The dangers of data dependency or data colonization cannot be overstated. This is the reason that nations like China and Russia have created a national digital ecosystem and banned or restricted companies like Google, Facebook and Twitter in their cyberspace and developed their domestic alternatives.
Just yesterday, Amazon refused to appear before a Lok Sabha panel, in connection with Data Protection Bill. In USA, Twitter finally allowed distribution of New York Post article, which apparently does not violate its rules anymore. So the question is, are these companies above law?
Bharat needs to frame rules to protect data of its citizens and also invest political, diplomatic and economic capital in creating a national digital ecosystem. History does not give second chances. Hopefully, we have learnt our lessons from our experience as a colonised country.
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