The concept of “free speech” is not a traditional technology topic. But in a world where everyone communicates, sends and receives money, transacts and gets entertained based on a technology platform controlled by a small number of very large, very powerful and very leftist Silicon Valley giants, the very idea of “freedom” is under attack
BY RANTING MR P
The story of the 2020 United States Presidential Elections has been told a million times and over, and boils down to a retelling of Kenya’s stolen 2007 Presidential Election:
One candidate was the runaway leader going into the long night of counting, those counting the votes inexplicably decided to pause the exercise until the next morning, and then, sometime in the night, huge vote dumps – all of them favouring the trailing candidate – appeared from nowhere and, by morning, the previous night’s faraway leader in the polls was trailing badly. By “10 in the morning”, as we say in Kenya, the race was all but over. The media, of all whom favoured the winner, closed ranks. Dissenters were told to go to court. The courts obligingly refused to review any evidence presented, declaring only that they had no interest in “overturning the will of the people”. Anger mounted, murmurs of war were muttered, and angry protesters descended on the capital city and the houses of legislature. In fact, so closely does the US Election parallel Kenya’s 2007 Election that it might be the case that the Democrats literally studied Kibaki’s laughable “win” in order to engineer Joe Biden’s equally hilarious “victory”.
In the aftermath of Kenya’s stolen election, something curious started happening. Social and media commentators who dared question Kibaki’s “win” were swiftly excluded from all media outlets. Experienced, respected commentators on the political scene were shunted off their platforms for daring to question the official narrative. Editors penned long, angry diatribes deriding anyone who dared to veer off the approved storyline, reporters were sacked from major newspapers, radio stations were silenced. It became taboo to so much as whisper the truth, that Raila Odinga won the 2007 Presidential Elections at a canter. The new normal – that Kibaki was our “duly elected president” was reinforced with a highly-secured night swearing-in, and life slowly went back to “normal” – not the normalcy that we had been used to, but a new normal that was chilling and deadly, for we – the people, the media, the public space – knew what had happened, we whispered about it, but we had no way of openly discussing it.
In the aftermath of the US Presidential Election, the US followed Kenya’s script to an astonishing degree. Once Donald Trump had run out of legal and constitutional options to mount a challenge to Joe Biden’s coronation by the news networks, he turned to his followers, summoning them to Washington DC on the day that Biden was to be certified as winner of the election. It was to be a fateful decision. Among the one million-plus Trump fans – or “Trumpets”, as their detractors derisively call them – who turned up, there appears to have been a hardcore element of troublemakers that Trump and his cabal claim were planted to cause mayhem. No matter, for cause mayhem they did. They easily broke into the US Capitol – itself suspiciously lightly guarded for a day when Congress was in session – and terrorised lawmakers in the debating chambers of Congress. A certain amount of Trumpet catharsis must have been had by this rowdy mob as they saw their legislators cowering under desks and hiding behind desk-fans, a scene bizarrely reminiscent of Raila Odinga cowering under the table during the fracas that erupted at the infamous Thika Ford-Kenya Elections of 1997. So far, so political. But then in came the technology.
America leads the world in technology, and nowhere is this clearer than in the use of social media. Donald Trump, clearly very socially awkward, prefers to use social media to reach out to his followers and communicate to his countrymen. For about a decade, Trump had used the micro-blogging service Twitter to post and interact with his social circle, to the point that his Twitter account had over 80 million followers. When he became president, his use of Twitter drove millions to join the service so as to follow each of his tweets. Sometime in 2017, though, Twitter – whose hard-left social and political stance has never been concealed – got tired of Trump’s hard-nosed conservative tweets. But this was the president of the United States, so Twitter put up with his tweets – and reaped billions in advertiser revenues from Trump’s huge following, which had also inspired many other world leaders to join Twitter.
Super-large technology platforms like Twitter are vast consumers of Cloud Computing services. Twitter has over 300 million active users, which means the amount of data it processes is stupendous. To manage all this traffic and store all the data, Twitter would need to build many data centres and employ a vast army of engineers and administrators, as well as managing all the minutiae of running those data centres – physical and logical security, power supplies, cooling, server servicing and replacements, operating systems upgrades and patching, troubleshooting, and a million other things that a data centre management team must handle.
But this is 2021, and no self-respecting computing end-user still handles their own server stuff. Instead, everyone – or almost everyone – simply consumes cloud services. In the case of Twitter, the platform is hosted on Amazon Web Services, AWS, the pioneer Cloud Computing Service owned by Jeff Bezos, the richest man in the world. Twitter uses AWS for data storage, data processing (‘compute’), database services, content delivery (distribution of tweets, images, video and other content), and Twitter timelines. Twitter thus does not need to worry about buying servers, or increasing capacity, or any of that: it just pays AWS and in turn is able to use Amazon’s vast sea of servers around the world, scaling its usage up or down as demand peaks or falls. This is the joy of Cloud Computing – it takes the worry away from the users and on to the Cloud Provider. It becomes like the electricity supply to your house: you don’t worry about where and how the power is generated or transmitted, you just flick a switch, the lights come on, and you receive a bill at the end of the month. Easy and convenient, right?
Not so much. In the aftermath of Trump’s protest in Washington, DC on January 6, a wave of faux-outrage engulfed the leftist urban centres of America. Some commentators called it an attempted coup, which was laughable for people who have actually lived through attempted coups: the notion that a ragtag mob of fat Americans dressed in cow horns and waving Confederate flags somehow attempting a coup in the world’s most heavily armed country is obviously nonsense.
Nevertheless, the Democrats and their friends in the American media had the perfect Reichstag-fire excuse they needed to swiftly win the culture wars they have been waging against Conservatives since at least the Reagan administration. Media outlets that had spent six months cheering on as the far-left Antifa and “Black Lives Matter” mobs burnt towns and destroyed homes – live on TV – suddenly decided that the January 6 protests were the worst thing to have ever happened. They turned to their two most reviled targets: Trump himself, and his followers.
Twitter immediately banned Trump from its platform and deleted his account and those of his most vocal followers on the platform. Facebook followed suit. Commentators on CNN, the New York Times and MSNBC, the Washington, DC, Establishment’s mouthpieces of choice, wondered aloud whether Trump’s followers should be herded into re-education camps similar to Stalin’s Gulag. Trump’s army of Twitter followers, meanwhile, had had enough of the platform’s censorship – many of them had their tweets deleted, followers removed, accounts suspended, the like – and they began leaving Twitter en masse, congregating first on the alternative social media platform Parler.
Parler is a recent platform, founded by a group of Conservatives outrage by Twitter’s censorship and its open bias in favour of leftist causes. Like Twitter, Parler was hosted on the AWS Cloud Service. Unlike Twitter, Parler did not censor content, and did not moderate discussion unless there was a direct threat of violence. This resulted in the usual marketplace chaos: Parler was known as much for its open debate as for the unsavoury characters one could encounter on the platform. Most importantly, though, it was known for one thing: on Parler, you could say anything you wanted. There was freedom of speech on Parler, and there was also freedom after speech. As many of Trump’s Twitter followers exited Twitter, most of them ended up on Parler, driving up traffic so fast that, within days, Parler became the most-downloaded software application in the world – for both Apple and Android devices. But it is well-known that Apple and Google – the owners of Android – heavily favour leftist social causes: for example, Apple’s CEO is openly homosexual. As Parler’s popularity grew, Apple and Google simultaneously deleted the Parler app from their respective stores. Users of the service now had to access it using a browser. And not for long: a couple of days later, Aws gave Parler 30 hours to find an alternative Cloud host. Parler could not, and so AWS shut down its Parler virtual servers, claiming that Parler did not have “adequate moderating procedures”. And, just like that, Parler was dead.
In the aftermath of that coordinated action by the left-leaning Silicon Valley tech giants, Parler tried in vain to find alternative cloud hosts. It failed – it had become radioactive once Trump supporters migrated to it, and no Western Cloud hosting service will now touch it. If Parler is to come back, it would need to build its own servers, write its own software – most social media platforms lease and rebrand software from giants like Twitter, Facebook, and Google – and more than likely set up its own internet connections. That is almost impossible in today’s world – and, in any case, none of the serious server manufacturers would sell Parler a virus, let alone computing hardware.
Parler’s experience is a cautionary tale that another micro-blogging service has so far avoided repeating. Aside from Parler, there is another “free speech” service: Gab. Unlike Parler, Gab complies with some moderation demands from the giants of Silicon Valley, so one cannot really say anything on Gab. Also unlike Parler, Gab does not use AWS or any of the big cloud providers (Microsoft’s Azure or Alphabet’s Google Cloud). As a result, Gab does not have the capacity to “scale up” or “scale out” as rapidly as Parler could. When Parler’s service was shut down by AWS, millions of Parler users migrate to Gab. Such was the traffic that Gab virtually ground to a halt while its engineers scrambled to build enough servers to meet demand. At the time of writing this, Gab is still slow, but most users are just happy to have a place where they can say almost anything without fearing that their account will be nuked, or – even worse – that their details will be leaked so that they lose their jobs and become social pariahs.
The concept of “free speech” is not a traditional technology topic. But in a world where everyone communicates, sends and receives money, transacts and gets entertained based on a technology platform controlled by a small number of very large, very powerful and very leftist Silicon Valley giants, the very idea of “freedom” is under attack. What one can say is determined not by one’s context any more – it is decided in the boardrooms of Silicon Valley. During the recent Ugandan Presidential elections, the Twitter accounts of several senior Ugandan officials were deleted after those officials reiterated President Museveni’s open opposition to homosexual and other western “progressive” lifestyles. When Museveni then blocked Twitter from being accessed in Uganda, the outraged technology giant penned a long diatribe denouncing the Ugandan leadership as “a dictatorship” – the irony, apparently, completely lost on them.
Cloud services have come a long way. But with western technology giants using their monopolies to police free speech and decide who can be accessible and who must be deplatformed, African companies would do well to have a fall-back just in case. It is all very well to have your data and servers and everything digital in the cloud – but what happens if, like an electricity supply, your cloud service is cut off for whatever reason by your provider? In that case, you’d do well to have a backup generator or solar power. Cloud services are good when you are on good terms with your cloud provider. However, you need an alternative!
The author has chosen to remain anonymous. All opinion expressed are the author’s