[Note: What follows is satire, in the spirit of Jonathan Swift’s 1729 “Modest Proposal” (to solve the problem of Irish poverty by selling Irish children as meat). Most people I know have lost their sense of humor, and those of us who haven’t yet are at risk of losing it, so a warning label in order].
Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel, Donald Trump’s least favorite world leader, has emerged as a champion of free speech for the beleaguered U.S. president and his supporters, while America’s tech monopolies censor and suppress social media according to their whims. As the whole world knows, Trump’s once-hyperactive Twitter account is in permanent suspension due to the alleged “risk of further incitement of violence” after last week’s Capitol Hill riot.
The U.S. president stands convicted in no court of law, and opinions differ as to whether his boisterous address to demonstrators outside the Capitol was incitement or not. Andrew McCarthy, the distinguished former prosecutor turned journalist, says he did; Trump appointee Jeffrey Scott Shapiro says he didn’t. Nonetheless Twitter pronounced summary judgment on Trump.
That is an ominous, in fact terrifying, turn of events. Trump was elected by the people of the United States and is still president, and the action of a handful of social media moguls to prevent a president from communicating with the people is an arrogation of power without precedent in American history. Twitter and Facebook will suspend you for too enthusiastic a defense of the president. Google and Amazon, meanwhile, shut down Parler, an alternative social media platform popular with the American right, and Apple and Google have banned it from their smartphone app libraries and Amazon has closed its website.
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Even foreign leaders who hate Trump are aghast.
On Monday, Merkel’s press spokesman characterized Twitter’s silencing of the president as troubling, declaring, “The fundamental right to freedom of opinion is a fundamental right of primary importance. This fundamental right can be impinged only by law and within the bounds that the legislature defines—not by the decision of the management of social media platforms,” Die Welt reported.
Meanwhile, French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire said he was “shocked” that “the digital oligarchy” could decide to silence a president, calling the big tech companies a “threat” to democracy. “The regulation of digital expression cannot be done by the digital oligarchy itself. The digital oligarchy is one of the threats weighing on states and on democracies”, Le Maire said Jan. 11 on France Inter. “Regulation is necessary, but must be done by the sovereign people, by the governments and by the judiciary.”
Hu Xijin, the editor of China’s official foreign-language newspaper Global Times Jan. 10 tweeted a viral meme from Chinese social media. It shows Trump asking a small child, “Kid, can I borrow your Twitter account?” The boy replies, “I don’t use Twitter, but you can use my TikTok account.” The joke, of course, is that Trump tried to ban TikTok, a social media app that might come in handy for him at the moment.
Hu Xijin meant this as a joke, but it points to a possible solution. During the so-called “color revolutions” in Eastern Europe and Central Asia of the 2000s and the misnamed “Arab Spring” of the 2010s, Western democracy advocates hailed social media as an instrument of subversion against tyrannical governments. A Chinese military website in 2019 denounced the United States for using the Internet to destabilize Hong Kong and, prospectively, Russia. “Utilizing social media to organize anti-government protests in a ‘decentralized’ way, abetting the protesters to challenge the rule of law on the pretext of ‘democracy, freedom and human rights,” and causing conflicts between them and the police – this is exactly a carbon copy of ‘Color Revolution’ that has been staged in East Europe, West Asia and North Africa in the past 20-plus years,” wrote Nie Shuyi and Mao Li on the China Military website.
Perhaps a combination of European and Chinese tech companies could return the favor, and rescue free speech in the United States. An idea this far out of the box hasn’t occurred to me since 2008, when I proposed Putin for president of the United States.
To start with, Chinese cloud hosting services like Tencent, Alibaba, and Huawei could provide support for alternative social media platforms like Parler. If Internet providers try to block access to these foreign websites, Americans would have access to Virtual Private Networks, the same device that Chinese use to access Google from behind the Great Firewall of China. Several major Chinese cloud computing companies, including the big three, have extensive operations in Europe, and European governments could encourage them to provide alternative sites to the ones shut down by Amazon Web Services.
Google and Apple have removed Parler from their web stores, and could make the smartphone version of the Internet platform incompatible with the Android and Apple operating systems. But Huawei has already launched an alternative, namely Harmony OS. If Huawei teamed up with Parler and other social media platforms that eschew censorship, its engineers could find a week for Android and Apple users to side-load the app onto smartphones. Huawei smartphones are hard to find in the United States, but some of the European tech companies could rebrand phones with the Huawei operating system and sell them to Americans who want access to banned social media platforms. And Huawei is now offering proprietary encryption using a quantum chip that generates random numbers.
One of Trump’s Parthian shots at China last week was an executive order barring Americans from using Chinese payment apps, including the popular Alipay. On Jan. 11 the credit card processor Stripe stopped accepting payments for Trump campaign websites, and the e-commerce firm Shopify blacklisted retail outlets associated with Trump and his campaign. Alipay, We Chat Pay, Tencent QQ, and other Chinese payment apps could step in to correct this unprecedented interference in politics by private entities. And if American banks won’t cooperate, the Trump campaign could move its accounts to Chinese banks and, if necessary, do business in RMB.
China, to be sure, doesn’t allow free speech. On Dec. 28, journalist Zhan Zhan was sentenced to four years in prison for social media posts that Chinese prosecutors called “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.” Of course, China doesn’t pretend to foster free speech. As Hu Xijin quipped on Twitter Jan. 8, “Even US president’s account could be suspended due to serious risk, this shows freedom of speech does have boundary in every society. No country is capable of guaranteeing absolute freedom of speech. The lack of such capability is regrettable.”
That’s China’s practice which—as an American—I find repugnant. But nothing prevents Germany, France, and even China from helping Americans to get access to the technology they require to exercise free speech.