Surprise, you don’t own your phone, your tablet, laptop, or any part of the internet

Amazon, Apple, and Google wipe Parler from the web, our phones, and our computers, but have no problem supporting murderous regimes, protecting terrorists, and helping organize mobs tearing down statues.  What’s wrong with this picture?

The internet isn’t free.  A top-flight phone costs around a thousand dollars, plus the monthly service fee to keep it connected and up-to-date.  A tablet computer can cost between $250 and over a thousand.  A decent laptop will run you $500 to much more.  The internet connection at your house likely costs around $960 per year.

Amazingly, you don’t actually own any of these things, nor do our technology overlords believe you have the right to use them even according to such niceties as the Bill of Rights and the Constitution.  Of course, marginally you own the brick of a device itself.  You can use your fancy new iPhone as a decoration or smash it for some modern art project if you like, but as far as using it the way you really want, accessing the software you want, connecting with the people you want, doing the things you want, your will is subject to what oligarchs like Tim Cook, Jeff Bezos, and Sundar Pichai think best.

Technically, this has always been true, but never has it been made more explicit than last week, when Google and Apple announced they would no longer be carrying Parler on their App Stores, and then Amazon went one step further and removed Parler from their servers entirely.

Quick note:  I’m not on Parler.  I have no plans to be on Parler.  I’ve never even seen Parler.  Parler isn’t the point.  The point is that none of these companies believe you have any rights to your own device.  They willingly take your money and then decide what’s best for you on your behalf, all while supporting some of the worst people on the planet and political violence they happen to agree with.

Apple rationalized the ban by claiming they have “always supported diverse points of view being represented on the App Store, but there is no place on our platform for threats of violence and illegal activity.  Parler has not taken adequate measures to address the proliferation of these threats to people’s safety. We have suspended Parler from the App Store until they resolve these issues.”

Google said something similar: “We’re aware of continued posting in the Parler app that seeks to incite ongoing violence in the US.  We recognize that there can be reasonable debate about content policies and that it can be difficult for apps to immediately remove all violative content, but for us to distribute an app through Google Play, we do require that apps implement robust moderation for egregious content.”

Neither company provided any further details.  What were the specific threats?  What moderation techniques would they accept?  What is their definition of egregious content? Are they going after all egregious content or just some?

There is no public appeals process, no time-frame for the company to reasonably comply, no equivalent of a court where Parler and its users can get a fair hearing. Instead, it is simply the will of the oligarchs, only their will isn’t consistent.  In fact, it’s nakedly political.

Right now, literally as I type these words, Twitter hosts an account “Destroy This Statue.”  The creators of the account describe it as “This bot finds the more than 700 #ConfederateMonuments in the US and gives you directions to them.  Time for a road trip.  Data from @splcenter.”

Just this past summer, accounts exactly like this were used to organize flash mobs to violently tear statues down, resulting in numerous injuries.  Erin L. Thompson is a professor at John Jay College, an art crime specialist.  She took to Twitter repeatedly, providing cheeky instructions to destroy monuments.  On June 10, she tweeted, “I’m a professor who studies the deliberate destruction of cultural heritage and I just have to say…use chain instead of rope and it’ll go faster.”  She then proceeds to retweet PSAs on how to safely pull down certain types of statues.

These incidents weren’t limited to the United States.  At the same time in Britain, Madeline Odent, curator of the Royston Museum in Hertfordshire, shared tweets describing how it would be “extremely difficult” to fix statues damaged by corrosive substances.

These tweets and these accounts are still live on Twitter.  The Twitter app is still available on Apple and Google.  No action was taken to stop these clearly violent and illegal actions, or the use of the platform to incite violence.  Even if you accept that 93% of the protests were peaceful, does Twitter accept that 7% of the time it’s role in organizing these demonstrations was violent?  Does Apple or Google?

Furthermore, Twitter itself has a long history of helping to organize protests, many of which have turned violent.  There’s even a book on it, Twitter and Tear Gas by Zeynep Tufekci.  According to the publisher, the book is “A firsthand account and incisive analysis of modern protest, revealing internet-fueled social movements’ greatest strengths and frequent challenges.”  In a similar vein, David Priest writing for CNET on June 8, 2020, noted that, “Social media might be impeding the revolution as much as it’s facilitating it.”  Twitter Revolution is actually an entry on Wikipedia.

The sudden moral posturing and concerns about violence from Apple and Google are especially ironic considering their recent history on the subject.

Apple has repeatedly denied the United States Department of Justice help in unlocking even terrorist iPhones.  Also in 2020, wow what a year, the Department of Justice asked for help unlocking phones belonging to Mohammed Saeed Alshamrani, who killed three people at a naval air station in December 2019.  They took the same stance in 2016 during a similar investigation.

Amazingly, Apple claims it completely lacks the capability to unlock a phone, saying, “The false claims made about our company are an excuse to weaken encryption and other security measures that protect millions of users and our national security.”

Of course, apps running on Apple and Google software have long been used by terrorists.  Writing for Wired on January 9, 2019, Rita Katz noted, “HEADS UP, TECH companies: If your product appeals to the masses, it likely also holds allure for terrorist groups like ISIS.”  In 2018, Katz wrote, “Despite YouTube’s crackdown, extremist groups are still exploiting Google’s other platforms.”

For example, RocketChat is an app originally designed for business that has been used by ISIS.  “The platform is both mobile and desktop enabled; since its founding in 2015 it has grown to 10 million users,” Katz writes. “Nashir News Agency, the ISIS-linked media dissemination group, urged supporters to join the app, stating, ‘God willing, media will be published on RocketChat before Telegram.’  Many other ISIS-linked media groups embraced RocketChat nearly simultaneously. Some provide instructions for carrying out terrorist attacks, while others mirror content from ISIS’s mother-channels on Telegram.”

As of this writing, RocketChat is still available on both Apple and Google.  Apple, of course, does most of its manufacturing in China, where violence is a fact of life.

Apple even went so far as to remove an app at the request of the Chinese government in October 2019.  This app was being used by pro-Democracy protestors in Hong Kong.  At the time, Vox.com noted, “The company’s decision to bow to the Chinese government will have extensive implications around the world.” Google’s dealings in China are also well-known, including helping the government create spying software and tailoring their search engine to the censors.

Twitter can’t be left out either. It regularly hosts content provided by dictatorial and autocratic powers with a history of violence.  Just last week, it took them a full 48 hours to remove a tweet from the Chinese embassy praising forced abortions and sterilizations.  “Study shows that in the process of eradicating extremism, the minds of Uygur women in Xinjiang were emancipated and gender equality and reproductive health were promoted, making them no longer baby-making machines. They are more confident and independent.”

Why is Twitter still allowed on any platform?

In addition to Apple and Google barring the Parler app from their stores, Amazon took the unusual step of barring Parler from their servers, entirely.  Meaning, according to Amazon, Parler doesn’t have the right to exist anywhere on the web.

The only problem is:  Amazon Web Services is also available in China.  In fact, they were involved in a hardware based hacking scandal just a couple of years ago.  In 2018, Bloomberg claimed, “Amazon’s security team conducted its own investigation into AWS’s Beijing facilities and found altered motherboards there as well, including more sophisticated designs than they’d previously encountered. In one case, the malicious chips were thin enough that they’d been embedded between the layers of fiberglass onto which the other components were attached, according to one person who saw pictures of the chips.”

Amazon vehemently denied the claim and ultimately sold the hardware to another company to avoid any further embarrassment, but they continue to operate the same software as service web hosting and servers in China that they are denying Parler.  They allow these services to be provided at the whim of the Chinese government itself, including the shutting down of any site that violates their autocratic rules.  How much would you like to bet that the Chinese government uses Amazon Web Services itself?

Now, however, Americans aren’t allowed to fully use these products created by American companies and funded by American consumers.  You don’t own anything you bought with your hard-earned money.  You have no recourse to ensure you can access the services you want or just get your money back.  You do what they tell you and they do what they want, including supporting their preferred protests and riots, terrorists, and murderous regimes.

Does anyone really believe this is a sustainable future?  Does anyone actually believe this is even legal?

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