Seeking answers from Big Tech — and continuing to be stonewalled
Facebook and other popular gathering places on the Internet are fast becoming the equivalent of a public commons, where many of our essential personal, professional, and governmental interactions take place, and a portal through which we access a large and growing variety of goods and services.
Yet I have no right to access or remain in this corporate-controlled space, from which I can be ejected at any moment for any reason, with no meaningful ability to appeal that decision, plead my case, or even learn about what prompted my corporate masters to cast me into exile.
That's what I learned last week when Facebook mistakenly removed a page that I created two years ago to promote my book, The Tribes of Burning Man — ostensibly for "bullying" — and then temporarily suspended my personal posting privileges. My inquiries to find out what happened were ignored until I threatened to turn up the journalistic heat, and even then I couldn't get any explanation beyond Facebook's admission that "The removal was a mistake."
Not that I expected any real substance or accountability. If there's one thing I've learned from covering the technology industry over the last few years — from challenging the tax breaks designed to keep Twitter in town two years ago to my recent revelations that Airbnb is refusing to pay the Transient Occupancy Tax it owes the city — it's that these companies address issues of public access, rights, and equity on their terms or not at all.
That's even the case in the emerging realm of wiring cities with fiber to offer high-speed Internet access to all citizens, where Google is moving quickly to short-circuit municipal broadband efforts like the plan San Francisco is now considering. GoogleFiber is making Kansas City and other cash-strapped jurisdictions offers they can't refuse, while simultaneously undermining the long-established principle of requiring telecommunications companies that use public rights-of-way to offer universal access.
"Telecommunications remains a utility," says Matt Wood, policy director for Free Press, which works on net neutrality and municipal broadband issues .
I heard Wood speak in a May 24 conference call that The Media Consortium organized for journalists. He was joined by a Kansas City official and Institute for Local Self-Reliance member. Google refused to provide a representative.
Wood emphasized "the need for a public oversight role and commitment to universal access" by Google and other companies that contract with cities to lay fiber, similar to how phone companies were required to serve every household, and he told us that "no rules will apply if certain companies get their way."
But even though the federal government created the Internet and still has clear legal authority to regulate telecommunications access and fairness — and even though Facebook's billion-plus users give it unrivaled market share and power — Wood (a Harvard Law School graduate) doesn't think private citizens have any rights in that realm or expectations of accountability.
In other words, in the virtual world it created — regardless of how extensively and aggressively it partners with other companies to make Facebook membership a prerequisite to accessing goods and services offered by hundreds of companies — Facebook is in charge, period.
I've read stories about Facebook users futility fighting decisions to ban posts that should enjoy free speech protections — from breastfeeding photos and diagrams of female reproductive systems to radical political speech — while allowing content that is racist or misogynist, and their difficulties in getting the company to explain its decisions.