By Sam Hoober, Alien Gear Holsters
Currently, the beginning of a national conversation about Big Tech and what to do with them is starting to happen. Yes, they are a big problem for gun rights.
A few days prior to this writing, the site AR15.com – pretty much the biggest gun forum in existence – was kicked off its servers by GoDaddy.com, the site AR15.com went through for its hosting, according to The Federalist.
Then we have the months and months and years of increasingly strict moderation of gun-related content by Facebook.
Google has never allowed firearms manufacturers or sellers to advertise on its advertising networks (no Adwords for you, come back one year) and YouTube has been a little weird. Certain kinds of gun content are not allowed, and gun-related channels have at times been subject to some – let’s call it “selective enforcement”.
In short, what could nebulously be called part of “Big Tech,” meaning the social networks and search engines, is not hospitable to the firearms industry. It is not hospitable to gun rights, and if you step too far out of line they’ll spank you.
But it gets worse. A lot worse. In fact, this is an enormous problem. Not only that, it goes way beyond gun content.
If you think that Big Tech is a problem because they censor conservatives, or that President Trump got kicked off Twitter, or they aren’t doing that to Antifa you just don’t get it. It’s bigger than that. You’re just concerned about the effects on a particular group of people.
This is actually a huge problem. There also isn’t a simple solution that will make everyone happy.
Let’s start with data.
First, your data is sold all the time. If this hasn’t dawned on anyone yet (news flash).
Social media networks are not in the social media business. Search engines are not in the search engine business.
Much like how McDonald’s is only incidentally involved in food (they actually rent real estate to franchisees) that primary activity is what gets them noticed but that is not how they make their money.
Google, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and so on are actually in the advertising business. And so is Amazon, though to a lesser degree; Amazon is mostly concerned with retail of course.
Your email address. Your demographic and location information. Web browser cookies. Purchase history. Sold or rented, thousands of times per day, to anyone willing to pay for access. Wonder why you get more junk mail than actual emails? That would be why.
Their use of that data? Part of the terms of service. Granted, there are some alternatives; you can use DuckDuckGo for browsing (totally private browser) and you can stay off social media, but still.
And that’s just the sites you use. How do you use those sites? Through a desktop or a smartphone, and yes, they’re gathering data on you too. And that data is sold to advertisers. Cellphone data is even used to track how well people have been social distancing.
This data is sold and rented to advertisers all over the world, all the time. And that’s just some of what the private sector does with it. Point being, your data including name, vital info, location, behavior, is being trafficked. And there is nothing, at present, that you can do about it.
And then there’s the public sector.
Nominally, the government is not supposed to have access to communications and so on unless it has a compelling interest (e.g. probable cause) and a warrant to go with it. That’s what the constitution says and that’s also what the Wiretap Act says.
Granted, the constitution hardly stopped J Edgar Hoover (COINTELPRO, anyone?) and, well, there’s nothing new under the sun as it turns out.
In the public sphere, part of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act Amendments Act of 2008 was codification that the National Security Agency, the FBI and other law enforcement and/or intelligence entities could wiretap or otherwise electronically surveil anyone without a warrant for up to 7 days.
Prior to that, it was learned that warrantless wiretapping and surveillance had been ongoing up until 2007, authorized by presidential memorandum. What FISAAA (feels like it should get an exclamation point, but never mind) was supposed to do was restrain warrantless searches, so they didn’t get out of hand.
This, of course, led to the creation of the PRISM program, begun under the Bush administration and continued under the Obama administration (you thought parties matter? Silly rabbit) for the purposes of obtaining information from cell phone service providers, social media networks and search engines about searches and activity concerning particular keywords and topics.
The existence of PRISM was leaked by Edward Snowden, who remains a controversial figure because of it.
The way PRISM is supposed to work is that law enforcement/intelligence agencies should only have access to targeted data, meaning communications and activity directly related to criminal activity that they’re looking to combat.
How it actually worked, per Snowden’s revelations, is that the government has access to all electronic data and can parse it at will to hopefully find what they’re looking for.
In other words, everything electronic you do is monitored, logged and available for them to look at it, and without probable cause, a warrant, or even judicial review.
Not only that, but FISAAA and the Protect America Act of 2007 also make it so the states can’t even ask telecoms companies (e.g. Big Tech) about what data is being gathered or remitted, and those same companies are shielded from liability about handing that data over.
What the government said about mass collection of data on Americans?
The old saws “You don’t have anything to worry about if you have nothing to hide,” and “well, we get your concerns about abuses of power but we promise to try real hard not to.”
Speaking of J. Edgar Hoover, here’s how the government approaches potential suits or legal challenges to abuses of power:
They have more money and more lawyers than the citizenry, and it’s easier to beg for forgiveness rather than ask for permission. In other words, they do things until they get caught, and then bury the complaint in paperwork.
Yes, there is a FISA court that supposedly provides review, but it was also found the approval rate of FISA court requests was 99.7 percent. That either means the government with insane ethical regard, or the FISA court is rubber-stamping the requests.
Given human history and behavior, which sounds more likely?
Big Tech, regardless of your political affiliation, your beliefs, what content you consume or what you say on social media, is collating and selling your data to advertisers, and collating and providing your data to the government.
Granted, the major telecoms, search engines and social networks all insist that they only hand over data and account info when they’re asked and maybe they’re telling the truth.
And there is almost nothing that you can do about it.
Now let’s get onto content.
Obviously, “Big Tech” or whatever you want to call them, moderate content either directly or a site or network can be moderated by whomever provides their internet service provider or hosting services.
This is done to make advertisers happy. It’s also done to mitigate, minimize or abrogate any potential liability. Or it’s done because of the political proclivities of whomever runs those companies.
While the topic of conservative bias or anti-gun bias is certainly worth talking about, it’s broader and deeper than it would appear at face value, so we’re going to leave that alone for now. Let it be granted, however, that it certainly appears to be the case at face value.
Depending on the network or website’s stance on gun-related content, this means that the full topic of everything gun-related, from enthusiast groups to shooting and training discussions to buying and selling, are rarely able to take place online, if at all.
Further still, it may well be that even pictures of guns are forbidden.
So what is to be done? What can even be done? Clearly, there are a certain number of people that want a moderation-free space, or at least a more limited space in which to interact with others.
Here’s where the problem that most people aren’t even aware of comes in. This is an issue beyond just guns, concealed carry and so on; this is a problem inherent to social media and the online sphere and a big one.
This was a topic of a recent episode of InRange TV, where the host Karl Kasorda more or less laid out a lot of what’s covered further.
First, Google, Facebook, Twitter, Reddit and so on are private companies. While obviously there are plenty of regulations that govern the behavior of private companies, there are also some areas in which there basically are none.
Private companies cannot be mandated to have or not to have a dress code, except in case of federal safety regulations. Private companies cannot be told they can’t restrict certain kinds of speech in the workplace.
In essence, once you enter the internet, you no longer actually enjoy the freedom of speech. You may be granted the privilege of it, but it can be taken away.
This presents a conundrum.
On the one hand, there is clearly some speech or communication or content that is almost universally despised and/or illegal. Clearly, nobody thinks anyone should be free to distribute child pornography.
Most people would also say that regular pornography – hate it you might, but it’s legal – should be restricted to certain areas or have gatekeeping to prevent access from the underage as well as not having it in everyone’s face all the time.
As to “hate speech,” even if there was an agreeable standard on what it was, not everyone is in agreement that it should be moderated and those who engage in it deplatformed. On one hand, racists, misogynists, religious fanatics and so on are hard to drum up much sympathy for. On the other, not moderating them also means they’re out in the open, so we know who they are.
In other words, some moderation is almost inevitably necessary. The hitch is drawing the line where it should stop, and not everyone agrees on where that line is.
Then we have the problem of compelling private entities to be neutral on content that is displayed on their website or app, what websites they host on their servers, and what sites and content users consume via their internet service which the government currently has no purview, at all, to do unless said sites or content constitute commission of a crime.
Someone might, at this point, interject something about “the free market.” In theory, the free market could provide a solution.
In practice they can’t.
For one, to have any sort of online space, a few things are needed. You need servers to host the website. You need payment processing, so your site and business can make and receive payments via bank, credit card or other means.
You also need internet service, so you can use those servers and have a website.
The hitch there is that the government can’t tell businesses what or whom they can refuse to do business with unless it’s discriminatory, meaning unless there’s discrimination on the basis of color, creed, gender, nationality, age, disability or sexual orientation.
The private businesses that offer web hosting, that do payment processing, that provide internet, are completely free to do so.
To reverse that would go against the capitalist ethos that most Americans cherish.
As to the free market providing alternatives, good luck. Major payment processors are leery of anything gun-related except for purchase of some firearm accessories or of purchasing guns through retail channels.
This includes both credit card companies and digital wallets such as PayPal.
“Well Bitcoin” something something. Perhaps that may become an alternative as more people acquire and use Bitcoin as an alternate currency, but is hardly a viable solution for now. So you have to take payment by cash or check provided the banks are participating.
The firearms industry is hardly alone in this; several other industries that are perfectly legal (either federally or in a number of states) are also prohibited from participating in typical payment methods.
Then you have the server problem. You could get your own, but hoo-boy is it expensive to set up and then you have to have the IT and dev support to run and maintain it, and that isn’t cheap.
For the hobbyist? It’s doable. For a nationwide or worldwide platform at scale? Good. Freakin. Luck. That’s why most companies just rent it from a hosting service.
Then there’s the internet service provider issue, namely your ISP has to be okay with what you’re doing and depending on what that is, not all of them necessarily will be.
The other issue is what kind of ISP that you’re trying to set up. There are three tiers, called Tier 1, Tier 2, and Tier 3. Tier 1 providers have free, unfettered access to the whole internet. Tier 2 has to direct some traffic (called “peering”) to a Tier 1 provider, but is otherwise direct to the consumer.
Tier 3 has a middleman involved, often a Tier 2 ISP if not more than one, who then direct traffic to a Tier 1 ISP. Most ISPs, such as the cable company you might get your connection through, are Tier 3 ISPs.
Oh, but what about a private Tier 1 ISP. There are 7 in the United States. Three of them are Sprint/T-Mobile, AT&T, and Verizon. Good luck.
And that, dear reader, is where Net Neutrality comes in. Net neutrality is an idea that no ISP can prohibit, block, or throttle bandwidth for any form of content, and that there should be government regulation to that effect.
Unfortunately, a net neutrality law (the Save The Internet Act) was shot down by the US Senate in 2019, so unless it comes around again there’s just not much to be done about content moderation.
Other possible solutions include a Digital Bill of Rights, which would guarantee certain rights in the online space, which any digital service provider (social media, ISP, what have you) would be bound by law to respect.
The idea has been floated of national broadband, setting up a nationwide ISP as a public utility but that isn’t likely to happen.
Then you have the possibility of digital commons, digital communal spaces. Think of them as like a city park or national forest, just existing online. Wikipedia and other wikis are examples, but these are digital spaces where ownership of all information is communal as are policies regarding it.
Instead of corporate ownership, the community decides for itself. Sometimes democratically, and in others they may take it in turns to act as a sort of executive officer for the week, but all the decisions of that officer have to be ratified, by maybe a simple majority or perhaps a two-thirds majority in case of something more serious.
Point being, internet users could start and migrate to social networks and content distribution networks that are digital commons rather than corporate entities but this requires convincing enough people to do so, which is no easy task.
So, what’s the point?
The point is that when it comes to censoring or moderating gun content, or censoring or moderating conservative thought or conservative content Big Tech is obviously a problem.
But this is a REALLY BIG problem that goes beyond just the stuff people say, or the memes or pictures people post wherever. It’s a problem of information security. It’s a problem of access and use being dominated by a small number of corporate megaliths.
What could be done about it? Nothing that will make everyone happy. The point here is that censorship or content moderation or whatever you want to call it is just the tip of a big, nasty iceberg.
Sam Hoober is a Contributing Editor to AlienGearHolsters.com, a subsidiary of Hayden, ID, based Tedder Industries, where he writes about gun accessories, gun safety, open and concealed carry tips. Click here to visit aliengearholsters.com.