The dream of a free internet — if it was ever more substantial than a fantasy — is crumbling. This decade began with the Arab Spring and the belief that technology powered movements for liberty across the globe could triumph over despotism. Instead the decade closes with the growing realization that technology is driving events in unpredictable ways. Confused, people are left feeling less not more in control of their lives. And a sketch is being made — however faintly — for a new form of despotism: Big Tech.
Big Tech is unaccountable, opaque and deeply embedded within the lives of billions. Since 2016 it has been dumped on from both the left and the right, and former Big Tech workers. ‘We have three companies,’ Dave Rubin tells me, ‘Google, Twitter, and Facebook, that control most of our information. We got everything free for 20 years, except they took our souls. We have no idea about the ways we’re being manipulated; through algorithm manipulation, through de-platforming, through shadowbanning.’
Rubin is an interviewer, comic and member of the ‘Intellectual Dark Web’, so this is personal. He relies on the digital public square that these companies have effectively become to share his content with a large audience of fans and subscribers. As Rubin sees it, that public square has become increasingly hostile to free speech and free enquiry.
His solution? A new platform: Locals. ‘It’s an attempt to flip everything the internet is on its head, from the bottom-up, focused on creators first,’ Rubin says. ‘There’ll be communities for creators where they can do monthly subscriptions. They will own the content, and set their own rules within the communities they build. Locals won’t sell your data. There’ll be video and audio on there; feeds won’t be manipulated by algorithms.’
Rubin’s new platform will crack down on trolls by scaring them off with a subscription-based model. ‘If someone comes into your community and pays for a subscription, you’re likely to have less trolls and bots, as they’re not going to pay for content.’
He hopes that Locals will attract all kinds of creators, not just political influencers. Since the announcement of its launch, Rubin’s site has received positive press on Fox News, the Federalist, TheBlaze, the Daily Wire, the Post Millennial and NewsBusters — a truly diverse array of publications.
I put it to Rubin that Locals, as nobly intended as it sounds, may end up replicating the classic Big Tech problem of echo chambers. Wouldn’t building gated communities on Locals involve the creation of more safe spaces, something Rubin has effectively criticized for years? Surely for the kind of political influencers that Rubin no doubt hopes to attract to the platform, there has to be a way of confidently taking ideas out into the world, where they can prove their durability and attractiveness.
Rubin denies that he’s in the safe-space making business. ‘I’m not trying to create an exclusive safe space for my content because I’m afraid of what the world thinks. I think a subscription-based community, where you can set your own rules, your own subscription rate, will foster incredible conversations. It’s the reverse of everything Twitter is…it will solve 95 percent of people’s problems with the internet. Not everybody’s problems, but most people’s problems.’
Like Locals, other platforms such as Gab and Dissenter have emerged in the last few years in an attempt to move the conversation and the culture away from Big Tech. Rubin’s friend Dr Jordan Peterson is building his own free speech platform — Thinkspot. Given the similarity of their audiences and aims, would it not have made sense for them to work together?
‘We are definitely not in competition,’ Rubin says, ‘there are many ways to skin a cat. If ThinkSpot solves problems that we aren’t solving, and if Locals solves problems that they aren’t solving, and we could figure out how to work together that would be fantastic.’
Rubin will continue to put his content on YouTube, Twitter and Facebook, and has no plans to stop conducting interviews even as he embarks on this new venture in technology.