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Freedom From Censorship: Inside The Battle To Build A Second Internet

The Los Angeles skyline early in the morning. Söki/Flickr.

It was just above freezing on Capitol Hill the night of Jan. 8, when Twitter banned President Donald Trump from messaging his nearly 90 million followers.

The censorship of a sitting American president by unaccountable and unelected billionaires in California was a dangerous escalation, but here in Washington, Democrats were overjoyed, most Republicans were relieved, and the corporate press was ecstatic. To even question the decision publicly in D.C. was to support an imagined “insurrection.”

That night, as friends and I discussed the damage done and the battles ahead around my kitchen bar, we foresaw a world where these kinds of sweeping actions would become common to the point of mundane, losing any fig leaf of justification along the way. As the hours wore on and the beer animated our discussion, one of our company, Martín Avila, sat aside and said little.

It was strange: Avila was a technologist who stayed in a guest room when he was in town. He’d been predicting this moment for years, but the night it happened he chose to retire with barely a word.

Early the next morning, I heard the engine start on his ‘94 Range Rover as he pulled the truck into the winter air. He was heading to North Carolina to meet with some old friends.

A Second Internet

President Trump was far from the first to be banned by Twitter, but his permanent suspension marked the start of a long, dark night, when anyone anywhere might be banned for anything at the whim of a technocrat.

We’d seen warnings the sun was setting on a free internet: Mozilla Firefox President and cofounder Brendan Eich was fired over his Christian religion in 2014; Google worked openly to demonetize content it didn’t like in 2020; and that same year social media giants censored a true story from a major newspaper founded by Alexander Hamilton in order to assist their political allies. Treating the U.S. president worse than a terrorist spokesman, however, was something new.

In response, President Trump’s followers flocked to Parler, a Twitter competitor that hadn’t banned him from their platform, quickly making it a top-downloaded app in the Apple and Google Play stores. Seeing the threat to their censorship, on Saturday both stores announced they would ban the company’s app. That evening, their web host, Amazon Web Services, took Parler entirely off the internet.

These actions can’t be overstated: To ban an app from the major stores is to essentially ban it from being used by any of your customers — and at the moment of its greatest momentum. To ban it from the very servers it uses is to lower it into its grave. For three of the most powerful companies on the planet to do so in concert is nothing less than the end of a crucial idea — that if you don’t like the way something’s done, you can do it yourself, and if you’re good and lucky enough you might even succeed. We called that idea the American dream.

But the very existence of men like Eich, as well as the ongoing occasional leaks and small rebellions within the tech giants, speak to a community of dissidents throughout Silicon Valley that until this final moment had seen few reasons to start something new. By the end of the weekend, that calculus had irrevocably changed — and Avila and a small number of other conscientious objectors had launched the first salvo against the core of Big Tech by starting a new company called RightForge.

The mission is simple on its face: create an internet governed by the principles enshrined in our Declaration, Constitution, and Bill of Rights. The execution, however, requires something more than previous attempts to combat Big Tech supremacy: Instead of playing whack-a-mole by challenging platforms and software, go after the rot at the core, creating a separate, sprawling infrastructure built on hard work, skill, and servers. That is, a second internet.

It’s a fundamental problem we’d never had to think about before. What happens when the companies that own the ground say you can’t build here anymore if you’re a conservative, a free-thinking scientist, an upset parent, or simply a Christian?

That’s no hyperbole: Just last month, GoDaddy cut the legs out from Texas Right To Life for providing a forum to protect the constitutional right to life by reporting violations of the state’s new law. The publicity GoDaddy received from the corporate press was so unanimously positive, a company called DigitalOcean jumped on the bus, crowing that they deserved credit for deplatforming Christians they weren’t even officially doing business with yet.

The tyrants who seek to control aren’t brave, nor are they new — and it’s far from the first time the lords who own the land have told the rest they can’t build there anymore. Four hundred years ago, the Puritans set sail for the Americas under just such circumstances. They’d hoped to land in the colonies down south, just as Americans had hoped for a free internet, but forces outside their control had a different plan — so they chartered their own founding and forged their own destinies.

RightForge seeks to do just that, because today that is the only way forward. While I’ve devoted my life to journalism, everything is at stake; if the internet is not free, honest journalism itself is threatened — along with honest political debate, education, science, and the rest.

“Wherever despotism abounds,” President Calvin Coolidge warned the American Society of Newspaper Editors nearly a century ago, “the sources of public information are first to be brought under its control.”

Few in politics, the press, or tech recall his warning; worse yet, few still believe it. The most powerful insiders in the world have turned on the American people and the heritage of liberty we cherish, proudly taking aim at our open society. The only choice remaining is to create an alternative; if we don’t forge our own path free from their control, this night we’ve entered will only grow darker — and longer.

So, on the first Monday of the month I joined them in their fight as chief communications director, where I’ll be defending — and expanding — an internet where people of all politics and religions can communicate, interact, and conduct commerce free from arbitrary power.

This mission stands in support of honest journalism and against those who seek to censor it, so far from leaving, I’ll be remaining at The Federalist. We’re on the front lines of every single battle for our culture and country, and I’m anxious for the fray.

This fight is a crucial one. One by one, from science and the universities to banking and commerce, press and opinion, conservatives are losing access. We may soon need alternates to all these things — and will need access to an internet infrastructure to build them.

It’s as easy to be optimistic as it is pessimistic — neither posture requires much effort beyond a smile or a frown. Assuming everything will be OK — that the rulers will overreach and grow weary, or that some mythical “backlash” is coming — isn’t realistic, and is as incompatible with the American way as defeatism in the face of difficult odds. Big Tech might be big, but we’re a strong people with the intelligence, the technology, the means, and the grit to fight for our freedoms and forge our own destinies.

We’ve done it before; we’re doing it again.

Christopher Bedford is a senior editor at The Federalist and chief communications officer at RightForge.