We tend to think that those who run online systems like Facebook, Twitter, Friendfeed and the grand poo-bah Google make them passive robot-like vehicles for democratic action. That’s not exactly true. At the very least someone wrote the code in a certain way to achieve a certain outcome. It doesn’t have to be a nefarious plot to inadvertently cause harm.
Still, there are living, breathing people behind these companies who watch their technology grow and develop and make money. These people have ideologies and philosophies and the ability to manipulate their domain either very specifically or generally. Imagine a developer constructing a neighborhood. He can mess things up passively–use the wrong kind of pipe fittings that causes leaks in all the homes. Or he can mess things up specifically–hang the cabinets wrong, “forget” some special hardware, order the wrong tile for a customer he doesn’t particularly like. Software developers can do the same thing. Heck, hardware developers can too. Sony was found to have put a chip in their machines to collect data.
A couple years ago, there was a big internet stink over a psycho lefty who was harassing and threatening a conservative blogger. I was watching and writing about the episode. The conservative blogger ended up with a denial of service attack. Around the same time, a DOS attack happened to my blog. And then, my blog just disappeared. Whoosh! At the time, I was using Blogger (hosted by Google). Another conservative blogger, Betsy Newmark, had her blogger domain name taken and given to someone else. Blogger just “lost” her whole archive of blog posts. This is Google we’re talking about. They lose nothing. After two weeks of wrangling, Google “found” her domain and archives and restored them.
So now, a conservative Twitterer is wondering if the same sort of manipulation is happening to him. Remember the Motrin Moms? I barely blogged about it because it seemed like another tempest in a D-cup, typical feminist fare. The women got worked up because they were offended by a stupid (and it was stupid) Motrin commercial.
Here’s the thing. It IS possible for these companies to censor and manipulate and they can do it all behind a technological shroud. I’m not for being a conspiracy theorist, but I do think that it’s wise to realize that the internet and its businesses are a sea of people driving technology, not the other way around.
It is in everyone’s interest to keep these operators honest.