In 1986, science and technology studies scholar Langdon Winner wrote, “The issues that divide or unite people in society are settled not only in the institutions and practices of politics proper, but also, and less obviously, in tangible arrangements of steel and concrete, wires and transistors, nuts and bolts.” To that list, we might add the algorithms, data structures, and policies of Silicon Valley.
Yet, the myth that online platforms are neutral pervades the tech industry. Indeed, “[t]his notion that Facebook is an open, neutral platform is almost like a religious tenet inside the company.” That is the conclusion of the editor-in-chief and contributing editor of Wired magazine upon interviewing fifty-one current and former employees of the world’s biggest social network company. Facebook is hardly alone in insisting on its neutrality. This is a typical ethos of information platforms more generally. Platforms emphasize their passivity—they simply pass along the speech of their users to those users’ networks, without editorial input.
In this sense, these platforms represent the natural continuation of the role often asserted by engineers, i.e., they are apolitical and neutral with respect to the various controversies raging around them. That their role is to build infrastructure and offer tools to the rest of the public. The tools they offer are not themselves good or bad. What the public does with them is its own fault, or perhaps the fault of rotten governments.
This Article challenges this claim.