The rise of alt-tech
“Alt-tech” is the name that has now been given to various alternatives to “Big Tech” (FB, Twitter, Google,…). In light of recent events, Alt-tech is likely to get more attention, and more usage.
While it is clear that alt-tech takes the form of software services similar in nature to social media (Parler & Gab for example), as I wrote on the weekend, it is not clear whether it will take hardware forms. I doubt that it will, because that is much harder to realize, but who knows; will countries like China pounce on alt-tech seekers all over the world, to realize its dream of separate Internets? All ramblings on these subjects are purely speculation at this time, AFAIK.
What is clear, is that everyone in the content game, individuals and business, will need to rethink their acceptable use policies, enforcement of them, and content moderation approaches.
In 2017, Ali Alexander (Akbar), a prominent activist and conspiracy theorist, reportedly sent an Alexandria_Ocasio-Cortez fan the following message: “I would *literally* put you down if you came near me, Marxist. I would call 911 to come retrieve your body. Have a Good Friday!” For which he was reportedly banned by Twitter for an afternoon. That kind of response is probably not going to cut it anymore. We can no longer sustain a thriving market place of ideas in a world that is spiraling ever downwards into the depths of personal attacks and threats.
Everyone who moderates content needs to step up, move our conversations in a different direction, and do it consistently, regardless of whether the person posting is friend or foe. This is a moral necessity, a cultural necessity, and it will likely become a legal necessity as well. Regardless of legal arguments about whether some enterprise is a public utility or not, a scenario of inconsistently applying acceptable use policies is not sustainable, IMO.
Speaking of acceptable use policies, the focus has landed so far on content creators/hosters and devices. However, network operators have acceptable use policies (AUP) as well, and I do wonder how long before the spotlight shifts there, especially as alt-tech becomes stronger.
As an example, the Comcast AUP refers explicitly to current topics of discussion: “Certain activities and communications are inherently criminal or dangerous, no matter where and how they are communicated. Some examples are threatening someone’s life, encouraging or promoting other violent, illegal activity, or harassing someone online.” If other operators and ISPs have similar AUPs, then they would certainly be entitled to enforce them in the context of current online activity which is raising concern. Notwithstanding that access ISPs are closer to what many consider utilities than Cloud titans.
I am told that network operator AUPs are more often enforced for blocking traffic to a specific location that is owned and operated by a bad actor, not to an otherwise legal hosting arrangement. That might be exactly the situation that occurs with more frequency, as alt-Tech grows and fringe content (left and right) is pushed off mainstream platforms.
As “Big Tech” necessarily dives deeper into moderation, it will have the inevitable effect of driving the growth of alt-tech. Not only because some views that are truly repugnant are being censored, and should be censored, but because there will be mistakes, and free speech has always been a complicated issue. Not to mention the general level of polarization and intolerance to differing views.
As mainstream device manufacturers / app store managers (1) (Apple, Google,…) and Social media platforms crack down on acceptable speech, the focus most likely shifts to the remaining enablers of alt-tech, the Internet itself (networks), and devices. Network operators will need to decide what role they are going to play, and alt-tech will need to decide whether it can create alt-hardware ecosystems. Alt-tech users might be satisfied with laptops/PCs, but they may not be.
With so much tech now based on open source, will open source be dragged into this mess as well?
Complicating this issue will be good actors pursuing alt-tech. Good actors who want a more distributed web that enables individuals and protects personal information. It will be easy to label these good actors as bad actors, and society-wide we will want to be very careful not to do that. Culture capture could be as every bit damaging to innovation as regulatory capture. The bright light of innovation must be kept alive, even if it is occasionally used in unacceptable ways.
Personally, I have blocked content posters, and severed relationships with people, simply for insisting they are entitled to respond to my online content with nasty personal attacks on other people. This falls well short of death threats, but it is where I draw the line. Disclaimer: I am human, I make mistake, I will do my best to own those mistakes when I make them.
Two consequences of the events of the last week:
· Content moderation / acceptable use policies are likely to be more in the spotlight. They will need to be enforced more vigorously, and they will need to be enforced consistently. This may have implications for everyone involved in online content.
· Alt-tech is likely to be energized, with many different future realities being possible, including walled Internets. Network operators will have to decide what role they are going to play in this dynamic.
A third interesting question is whether alt-tech moves into the hardware domain, specifically handsets/smartphones.
Separating alt-tech used by good actors from alt-tech used by bad actors, may also become a challenge.
None of this gets to the root of the problems we face as a society and culture, these are just the whack-a-mole symptoms we have to deal with.
Note: (1) It seems easy enough from my own personal experience to compile and load an application directly on a smartphone, notwithstanding the signing mechanism, so will be interesting to see if alt-tech goes down that road.