The centralisation of the web and the constraints on academic speech

A great essay by Ethan Zuckerman, which raises the crucial question of infrastructural dependency within the digital university. We can overcome this partly through cultural change (e.g. the importance of a domain of one’s own and boycotting companies like but there are institutional factors limiting the potential reach of these strategies. To what extent is mandated engagement expected to proceed through these channels? How do procurement and provision decisions made at an institutional level lock scholars into these systems?

Early proponents of the power of digital publishing celebrated the ways in which the Internet, and in particular the world wide web, democratized both access to information and the ability to disseminate knowledge to wide audiences. News organizations might evade government controls of the press by publishing on servers outside their nations’ borders. Dissidents could organize in the digital public sphere, evading controls that prevented freedom of assembly in the physical world. Scholars could disseminate work in progress directly to the web either outside of the process of peer review or under the aegis of new types of online journals.

It’s possible this utopian vision reigned for at least the early years of the consumer web, when independent online publishing was common. It’s also arguable that this has always been a fantasy, and that chokepoints like the domain name system and large internet service providers have always had the power to control speech. But since 2010, publishing online has centralized on a few commercial platforms, notably Amazon Web Services (which provides hosting and backend for over a million different websites, including those for publishers like Netflix, Instagram, and GitHub ); Facebook, which hosts content produced by over 1.7 billion people; Google, whose YouTube service hosts a significant portion of the web’s video content; as well as smaller players like WordPress and Wikimedia.

These platforms have immense power over what speech is possible, and their decisions are opaque and not subject to external review. When Facebook decided to prohibit Nick Ut’s Pulitzer-winning photo of Kim Phúc running from a napalm attack, public shaming was the only option Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten found for appealing the decision. Publishing platforms face intense pressure from governments to block controversial content, from Israeli government pressure to remove critical content from Facebook to the “blockade” against Wikileaks that caused the leaks organization to lose web hosting, domain name services, and services to accept donations.1Examples abound of Google’s power to discriminate through indexing of information, and the results merit close study.Far more subtle forms of content control happen every day, from organized campaigns to “flag” and demand removal of content a group of coordinated individuals find offensive,2 from Buddhist Burmese flagging pro-Rohingya content to Palestinian and Israeli activists attempting to silence each other.

There are many ways to publish without these centralised systems but we remain dependent upon them for discovery. Unfortunately, as he puts it, “the ability to publish without the ability to be discovered is an empty promise” and “In a world of scarce attention, those who control curation and discovery systems control what we encounter and what we know.” This is bringing about a radical transformation of the knowledge system:

As we consider the transformations in the production, publication, and archiving of social research under digital conditions, it is essential that we understand that scholarly publishing and discovery, a space traditionally controlled by university presses and scholarly peers, is now centralizing around a small number of technically sophisticated commercial firms. The good news in this development is that we have the opportunity to make collective cause with those seeking to ensure online publishing and discovery systems are transparent, fair, auditable, and distributed. The bad news is that we find ourselves joining a profoundly uphill battle, where many of our goals are merely infeasible and others may be technically impossible.

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