Terms of Service in lieu of Legal Governance
I’m going to try to keep my personal feelings about the riots and what lead to them out of this post. I do need to say that what happened on January 6th, 2021 is a result of lack of balance, lack of understanding that at some point, when debate moves into lies and inciting violence a line is crossed, and we need ways to define and enforce those lines.
But as a technologist, I have a problem with leaving it in the hands of the corporations. Twitter has banned Donald Trump’s Twitter account. Facebook has 'suspended' it indefinitely. Google and Apple have removed Parler from their mobile device stores, and now, AWS, the cloud hosting for well over a third of everything on the Internet, AWS has suspended Parler’s ability to host.
The reason that these companies are able to suspend the President of the United States’ accounts and remove entire platforms is because of a 'violation of terms of service.' Now I put that in quotes in part because those terms always have a clause that says the terms can change at any time, and that those terms are not law.
So, while I am angry, frightened and sad by what we’ve seen with the echo chambers and the misinformation and outright lying, leaving it in the hands of 'terms of service' is exactly what we should not do – we need clarity, not arbitrary ToS violations.
Companies like Twitter and Facebook took so long to do anything because they are not the arbitrators of truth. They are tech companies that are pushing the boundaries of communications platforms and building new ways for human beings to connect.
Human beings, of course, are flawed creatures that don’t always connect very well, which is why we have governance. We cannot assume corporations have the good of the community first and foremost, in fact we have to assume they have the good of the shareholders first and foremost because that’s baked into corporate law.
We can be frustrated that Twitter allowed things to go as far as they did. We can be angry that AWS makes money from hosting platforms like Parler. But we have to remember that they are not the arbitrators of truth – we are.
If we really want to balance the innovation and growth we’ve seen with the Internet and cloud technology, we need to start talking about where the lines are, what questions are okay to ask, and when exploring ideas becomes lies and propaganda.
I always say we define rules so we know when we’re breaking them. It’s okay to break the rules sometimes, it’s part of civil disobedience and it’s part of growth and discovery. But we define those rules so we know when we’re breaking them. I honestly feel that a lot of people don’t realize how far beyond reasonable discourse the rhetoric has gone. And that’s because we don’t have clear rules to operate under. A clear set of rules, that we all follow, not just one company’s Terms of Service, means small, innovative companies know where they stand when using platforms like AWS, they can reference a body of law, not constantly review the ToS for the half dozen providers they need to make their venture work.
In the vacuum of regulation, using Terms of Service violations to enforce social justice is the only option. And while I’m glad to see these companies stepping up, I’m afraid that without strong legal backing, actual rules to help us define truth and lies, debate and insurrection, these companies are stuck acting as judge and jury without true authority, and this way leads to chaos.