Why user-generated content (mine at least) seems to be near a precipice

Recently, Facebook announced it would make various changes to its newsfeed algorithms and policies to encourage people to interact personally more online and engage less in passive news posting and -gathering behavior. We can debate exactly what they want to accomplish and whether this policy change will reduce fake news (there are signs from overseas it might not, and other criticisms), but it is right to stop and wonder how we balance broadcasting our thoughts to others online (or in other vanity efforts like self-published books or vlogs) with real interactions.

Recently, a good friend on Facebook (whom I do see personally and whose professional career has him dealing with some of the national security questions I pose on this blog – and I don’t know any specifics) wrote an in-line post critical of the gratuitous nature of free content on the Internet.  We expect our writers to work for free, he essentially said.  We can’t expect that of plumbers or electricians or people with “real jobs”.  Oh, I can recall debates back in the 1980s as to whether (then mainframe) “data processing” gave us “real jobs”.

My friend’s post begs the question, what is a “writer” anyway?  Is he/she someone who writes what others want so that it will sell (like Joan Didion or Armistead Maupin, both the subjects of indie film biographies last year)?  Or can someone who wants to write a personal manifesto and achieve fame with it a real writer?  Manifestos, however “from on high” they seem, remember, have a bad rap;  a few authors of these screeds have then done some very bad things (like with guns).

So that comes to my own content, which appears to be “free” in the most anti-competitively abusive sense.  I think of Reid Ewing’s 2012 short film “It’s Free” set in a public library (to be followed by “Free Fish”).  Most of my online content appears in four WordPress blogs (set up in 2014 and then 2016) or one of sixteen “Blogger” blogs (starting in 2006).  But there is also a lot of older legacy content on “doaskdotell.com”, all flat html, and this includes all the text of my books.  And, yes, “it’s free”. Like attending my first gay talk group in February 1973.

It’s true that I have Google Adsense on Blogger, but right now my WordPress blogs and flat sites have no advertising, no pop-ups,, no donation jars, no “calls to action”, and no email lists  (The WordPress does invite the user to share on Facebook, Twitter. Or Google-Plus when brought up, with comments, as an individual post).  I don’t run “other people’s” donation (or political candicacy) campaigns on my sites, and I don’t pimp causes from a partisan stance. To a lot of people, it seems, that means I won’t “play ball” with them.

Yet, I’m a fan of Australian blogging guru Ramsay Taplan’s “Blogtyrant” world, and most of his recommendations do apply to small, niche businesses that want to reach consumers, sometimes even some “real” authors (like what Author’s Guild means) and musicians (who sell on Bandcamp as well as Amazon).  Aggression with mailing lists and promotions pays if you have legitimate customers whose needs you can really meet. Otherwise it would fall into spam.

So that brings me to the question, how can I sustain this?  The transparent answer is that I have other money, so it hasn’t had to pay its own way. A lot of it was saved when I was working, because I was able to avoid debt.  (Not having kids means no big mortgage is necessary.)  Some of it is inherited (and that gets into the issue of my own and mom’s trusts, out of scope here).  And I got lucky in 2008.  I probably benefited from it. (Seeing it coming, and some conservative values, helps.)  So call me a rentier, an abusive capitalist, ripe for expropriation by Antifa if you like.

It’s useful for me to go back and recall how I got into self-publishing, long before the Internet became available to newbies.  I probably got my first little article published in 1974, where I argued for gay rights from a libertarian perspective, a “mind your own business” plea to the world.

In the 1980s, I did network with the medical and public health community, the Dallas Gay Alliance, and right wing elements, all by mailed letters, trying to get some sort of political compromise, during a time when Texas (in early 1983) considered passing a very draconian anti-gay law.  I was quite concerned about the shallowness of arguments sometimes put out by traditional “activists” seeming to expect to be viewed as victims merely by belonging to a “class”.  I was particularly attentive to the clinical information as it unfolded.  There was a period when the conventional way of resisting was “don’t take the test” once an HIV test was available.  I did volunteer as a “baby buddy” at the Oak Lawn Counseling Center during that time.

In the 1990s the issue of gays in the military came onto center stage.  The components of the debate at the time (such as “privacy” in the barracks, as well as “unit cohesion”, not quite the same thing) cut across many other issues in an unusual way. I began getting published in some LGBT and libertarian journals (list).  I wanted to get the arguments right at an individual level, without appeals to morally dubious claims of group oppression. Because of my own situation and personal history, I entered the debate, and in August 1994 I decided firmly, while on vacation in Colorado, to write my first DADT book, which I finally issued in July 1997.  Partly to avoid a public conflict of interest which I have explained elsewhere (as in the DADT III book), I took a convoluted corporate transfer to Minneapolis at about the same time. I actually did sell copies of the book reasonably well for the first 18 months or so, but by the middle of 1998 I had discovered I could draw a lot more attention to my work by simply placing the book text online and letting the search engines find it, which they did.  (I paid nothing to do this, other than the nominal fees for a domain – the guy operating the service was a personal friend through work – and I did not need to code metatags or secure SEO to get it found.  It seemed use of free content online for self-promotion was rather novel at the time;  during the dot-com boom, not that many people really did it this way.)   The search engines proved to be effective.  On a few occasions, when I made a controversial addition to material on the site, I got email feed back the next day.  My use of the “It’s free” technique seemed very effective but came under threat from the 1998 “Child Online Protection Act” for which I would become a sub-litigant under the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s sponsorship.

Over time, my commentary would cross over many other issues, particularly with regard to libertarianism for most social and economic issues, and expand out after 9/11 into how you protect personal liberty in a world with external threats, sometimes borne out of populist “politics of resentment” as well as religious fundamentalism (by no means limited to radical Islam) and possibly resurgence of communism (North Korea now). After 9/11, one or the proponents of Bill Clinton’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, Don’t Pursue”, Charles Moskos, argued publicly for resuming the military draft (to include women), and dropping the military ban altogether.  That fit into my arguments perfectly.  As personal and job circumstances changed over the years (DADT III again) I kept my material online, and my staying out there so long played a significant repeal in the eventual repeal of DADT in 2011 with Obama in office.

I have contemplated ideas like “opposing viewpoints” automation (book series), which sites like Kialo and Better Angels take on, and I well look into these. Hubpages could provide another opportunity.

Over the years, there have been various threats to the sustainability of the way I work.  These include the undoing of network neutrality and the weakening of Section 230 (the Backpage controversy) as well as various efforts by established media to tighten copyright and trademark laws, not only to combat real piracy (a legitimate concern) but to undermine competition from people (like me) who could compete with them with much lower costs by staying outside the union and guild world.  Another issue, less important in the US than in Europe, is the supposed “right to be forgotten”, which my own use of search engines confounds. As this gets back to libertarian issues (right to work) and to the SOPA debate in 2011.  A critical concept behind all of this is that social media companies and hosting companies not share undo downstream responsibility or liability exposurefor the actions of their users, otherwise they could not let us create user-created content without gatekeepers.

Another possibly grave threat could be personal targeting from (foreign) enemies, or causing others (family members) associated with a speaker like me to be targeted.  I actually was concerned about this while my mother was alive.  This has not happened to me as I don’t seem to be as visible a target as, say, Milo Yiannopoulos (or Pam Geller or Mary Norris), even though I share and communicate some similar beliefs.  But, if you think about this with a Tom Clancy-type novelist’s mind, you can imagine this as another way an enemy could subvert American democracy.  That’s the Sony hack issue at the end of 2014 from North Korea.  Instead, Russia, in particular, noticed that speakers like me tended to be noticed by the “choir” (other academics and policy makers) but not by the “average joe’s”, whose everyday needs we seemed oblivious to.  So the Russians pumped Facebook and Twitter with fake news which gullible people would believe and such a way that Asperger-like people like me (not quite the same as schizoid), trying to influence policy with passive search engine strategy, wouldn’t even notice or care.  For them it worked, and Trump won.

I think a fair criticism of me would be that I don’t actually have anything to sell to customers that meet their needs, so no “Blogtyrant” strategy of playing ball could work. Do I have content that people would “want” and would pay for?  Well, that’s the novel (and to some extent the fiction in DADT-III, which could make a nice two-part indie film), and the music.  In fact, I have worked on my own composed music (finishing what I had started in high school and the early college years, at about the time of the William and Mary expulsion) and, because it is post-romantic, it may actually be capable of “crowd pleasing” in a way that a lot of the manipulative music from established young composers today (under 40) does not.

I do need to “stay on point” with my own work, so it is very difficult for me to respond to pleas from other parties to join their efforts, in activism and resistance.  It is also difficult to give away time in “service” unless I find niche-like service opportunities that are closer to my own skill set.   A good example could be directing chess tournaments which invite underprivileged youth, or arranging concerts for other musicians.

I do get concerned over two big questions.  One is that the permissive environment that has allowed so much user-generated content to reach readers and consumers may not be sustainable for a combination of reasons:  rampant user abuse, security, and the ability of companies to make money legitimately without fake news, bots, intrusive ads, and all kinds of questionable technique.  I don’t know if, for example, Google and WordPress would find it profitable to keep their free platforms forever.  And I can imagine ways it could become much harder in the future to get reasonable hosting than it has been until today.  The recent incidents where alt-right sites (at least one) were banned by most hosts over their content is part of my concern.  You can have a specific objection to, say, neo-Nazism, but then it’s a slippery slope:  radical Islam, communism (Stalinism or gulag-ism, which is where Antifa could find itself headed), all kinds of other complaints based on “intersectionality” or “populism” threaten the whole expectation of legitimacy of free speech.  You could, for example, require that every website, by certain accounting rules, show that it pays its own freight (although that would seem to invite porn back, wouldn’t it).   It’s hard to “pay your own way” without admitting to group preferences and “partisanship”, and showing social “loyalty” and even “community engagement”.  All of this is in tension with my insistence on looking at human rights as an individual’s property, regardless of any membership in a group that claims some sort of systematic oppression (and eventual intersectionality).  But there is no constitutional principle that guarantees that anyone has the right to distribute his own personalized speech without the cooperation of others.

This brings me back to the whole idea of social contract between the individual and his society.  You can call it “rightsizing”, but that’s a dangerous idea that leads to authoritarianism, either on the far right (or alt-right) or far left.  (Yup, a smaller country like Singapore can get away with this, and China is trying to come up with some way to grade people’s social compatibility by 2020!)  Yet, on a personal level, there’s something wrong when we think of others as “unworthy” of becoming prioritized to enter our lives because they aren’t “good enough” and didn’t “make it”.  That used to be hidden more, but there is an implicit understanding that if too many of us think that way, we invite especially right-wing totalitarianism in the door (consider Logan Paul’s movie “Thinning” as a warning).  That may be one reason why I do see so much “pimping” of “other people’s causes” with appeals for “calls to action” all the time.  On one level, I resist getting involved with all these public “knocks on the door” but I probably can’t avoid them forever.  As Martin Fowler wrote in his 2014 book, everyone belongs “somewhere” in some group, and has to bond with people who are imperfect, far less than teen Clark Kent’s.  Everyone’s karma, and whatever fragmentary after life follows (and I think there is one, however fleeting and combinatorial) is greatly affected by what they depended on – and that means groups.  I resist “joining” resistances (and marching and shouting in demonstrations for specific groups), but I know that eventually there comes a point where it is probably impossible to survive without doing so, even without coming in your shorts.

There is a political point here.  If legal or practical considerations made it impossible for businesses to allow me my own platforms, changing what has has been the case since late 1996, I would be forced to work through groups, and advocate for or personally assist people who individually I did not approve of apart from the group.  But this could be better for a lot of people and could address some of the underlying causes of inequality.  This all relates to the “implicit content” problem with free speech, or the “skin in the game argument”.

Perhaps what I am seeing is something like an attack on introversion, a demand that every endeavor somehow relate to other people’s needs. Yet, as “The Good Doctor” shows us, every introverted people sometimes meet real needs, and save us.

Earlier legacy piece on the “free content” idea.

(Published: Sunday, January 14, 2018 at 6:30 PM EST)

Alexei Wood’s acquittal in the J20 trial gives independent journalists uneasy relief

Journalist Alexei Wood and five other defendants were acquitted of charges that could have led to decades in prison, after they were picked up by police in a “kettling” operation to stop the rioting in downtown Washington DC on Inauguration Day, protesting Donald Trump’s presidency.

Democracy Now presents an interview here between Amy Goodman, Brett Cohen and Mr. Alexei Wood, along with a 51-minute video here.

Other sites (such as Truthout, even more so than this one) have used this case as a reason to phrase appeals for money for independent journalism, claiming that the current government is hostile to journalists.

There is a lot going on here.  First, the Trump administration is a bit hostile (on Twitter especially) to established liberal media (like CNN).  He has not turned out to be hostile to independent bloggers or “citizen journalists” as I had once feared he might (as on my Nov. 7, 2016 post).  Perhaps he sees independent bloggers as calling out the media on insufficient reporting on some aspects of national security threats (like North Korea and EMP).   In countries like Egypt, Turkey, and particularly China, governments have been very harsh on independent media and sometimes have control of the more established channels.  Trump is nowhere close to that.  But Trump’s joking about wanting to reserve the right to jail political opponents whom he defeated (Mrs. Clinton) is not funny.

Secondly, there is the effect of social media tribalism, which now seems to have infected both the right and left.  There is an impression that someone who reports on a controversial group just to make a name for himself (if not already part of a journalistic establishment) is merely giving credibility to dangerous groups.  By that reasoning, reporters who filmed the J20 protests were giving credibility to Antifa-like protests but moreover to the violence that would accompany any “revolution”.  In that sense, the reporters are thought to have incited violence, despite the usual standard of “imminent threat of lawless action”. This sort of thinking has been particularly applied to people who might have wanted to to cover extreme right-wing groups or white supremacists.  This kind of reporting might be more acceptable if done by an established journalist supposedly from the other side (like Kamau Bell’s series “United Shades of America” on CNN covering the KKK).

I recently traveled to Washington VA and Flint Hill VA, to report the aggressive lawn pamphleting in the area by KKK elements. (Oh, please, don’t mention the People’s Party’s lettuce boycotts in the early 1970s.)  Does my doing so only give importance to such activity?   But I did not even know about the Charlottesville rightwing march on Aug. 11 in advance, although I might have been tempted to “watch” and film had I known.  I did know about the protests planned for Inauguration Day but simply stayed home to listen to the speech.  It’s conceivable that had I been there and filmed I could have been kettled and charged.  I have covered BLM marches but mainly filmed and “participated” minimally.  I visited Baltimore Sandtown right after the riots, but some independent journalists reported being pinned down by weapons fire and combat during the 2015 event.

Progressive interview with Mr. Wood.

(Posted: Wednesday, Dec. 27, 2017 at 11 PM EST)

The shame of speaking only through a heckling mob, if limited to that

Recently the New York Times ran a constructive op-ed by Michelle Goldberg “The Worst Time for the Left to Give Up on Free Speech”, featuring a split demonstration poster demanding to “Shut Down Milo Yiannopoulos”.

The editorial makes a central point that democratic societies typically feel they need to take certain topics off the table as legitimate content for discussion. For example, the essay gives, the idea that women and people of color should be subordinate to white men (you can expand that to cis white straight men).  The editorial relates an incident at William and Mary recently where an ACLU speaker was heckled and disrupted for supposedly working for white supremacists, which activists demand there be zero tolerance for.

There are plenty of similar examples, such as bans on neo-Nazi speech in present day Germany.  The most obvious bans are usually intended to protect groups defined by race or religion (and sometimes ethnic nationality) from being targeted again by future political developments.

By way of comparison, many people believed, back in the 1950s, that there was a legal ban on discussing communism.  The federal government, for example, who not employ people who could not ascertain they had never been members of the Communist party. Communism could be banned if it was construed as embedding violence (or the attempt to overthrow the US government) as part of its definition (as compared to socialism, even Bernie Sanders style).  But Communism generally, as defined, did not target specific races or religions (although we can certain argue that Stalin persecuted people of faith, including Jews, and so did Communist China).

You could have a similar discussion about trying to overanalyze the roots of homophobia and gender or sexuality related discrimination and persecution in the past, and today in many authoritarian countries. Much of my own writing has dealt with this for the past twenty years, especially the three “Do Ask, Do Tell” books.  I’ve generally (as in my post here Jan. 4, 2017) offered arguments that a lot of it had to do with family patriarchs keeping their own confidence in their own power to have biological lineage (procreation).  I’ve also paid heed to the past public health arguments that got made in the 1980s in the early days of the AIDS epidemic, before the cause was identified.  In my writings I’ve paid particular heed to the history of military conscription and past deferment controversies.

A lot of people don’t appreciate my rehearsing the ghosts of the past (John Carpenter’s metaphorical “The Ghosts of Mars” (1995)), for fear that I could be legitimizing lines of thinking long thought debunked and bringing them back.  Sound familiar?  Is this what people fear from Donald Trump, or, more properly, the people he has chosen in his group?  (How about Mike Pence?)

Goldberg doesn’t go there, but the Left is in a real quandary when it wants to shut down all biological speech   The Left has demonstrated against and protested Charles Murray for his past writings on race and biology.  They object to James Damore for his Google memo on biology (whether this expression belonged in a privately owned workplace is a different discussion). They would probably object to Nicholas Wade’s 2014 book “A Troublesome Inheritance” (media commentary, July 24, 2017). But then what about the gay Left’s dependence on immutability to demand gay equality?  I do think there is scientific merit to discussion of genetics (especially with regard to gender identity) and epigenetics (especially with regard to sexual orientation, most of all in non-first-born men)   I don’t think that replaces libertarian ideas of focus on “personal responsibility”.  But if you want to discuss homosexuality and biology (as in Chandler Burr’s monumental 1996 book “A Separate Creation”) with possible political change as a result, you have to accept discussions of biology, evolution and race.  Admittedly, some people can skid on thin ice when they ponder these things, as they consider plans to have or not have their own children (eugenics used to be an acceptable idea a century ago).

That brings me back to a correlated area: that the identity of the speaker matters, as well as the predictable behavior of the listener of speech (possibly creating risk for the original speaker or others connected to him) — what I have called “implicit content”, a most disturbing and sometimes offensive notion.  The most obvious example in current events news is, of course, the manipulation of social media especially by the Russians to sow discord among different American classes or quasi-tribes, beyond simply influencing the outcome of the 2016 presidential election.  The Russians and other enemies used fake accounts and posted fake news in supposedly legitimate-looking news sites and in advertorials.  All of this follows earlier concerns about the misuse of social media, especially Twitter, for terrorist recruiting (by ISIS), as well as cyberbullying or stalking and revenge porn.  The Russians seemed to have noticed that Hillary-like “elites” would not pay attention if “deplorables” could be lured by silly, divisive supermarket tabloid-like content and false flags; elites tend not to care about people “beneath” themselves in this “mind your own business” world much until those people suddenly knock at the door for personal attention (which is something that happens to speakers who make themselves conspicuous, especially on social media).

You can raise a lot of questions here. Is fake news libel?  Maybe.  Litigation is often impractical because it involves criticism of public figures (actual malice, etc). You get to Trump’s ideas about using Britain’s standard on libel.  But a bigger idea is that the fake news fiasco shows why authoritarian leaders keep a tight lid on dissent, even on individual bloggers’ speech, perhaps maintaining that the dissemination of news to the public need be “licensed” to guarantee (alternative) “truth” (sic).  That hasn’t really happened with Trump, yet at least; Trump seems to admire individual speakers even as he hates the established liberal media.

A related idea is whether political ads, and whether commercial ads, are protected by the First Amendment the same way as other speech.  That topic was covered in the second session at a recent Cato conference (Oct. 3, 2017 posting here). Generally, the answer is yes. But this topic has become controversial with regard to campaign finance reform, long before Trump.

In fact, back in the 2002-2005 period, there was a concern that even “free content” of a political nature posted by bloggers like me could constitute illegal campaign contributions (as if not everything in life can be measured by money). The June 12, 2017 post here gets to that, as does this 2005 editorial in the Washington Times, which wormed its way into a major incident when I was working as a substitute teacher then.

That brings us to what I do, which is put out my own series of article and blog posts on the news, augmenting my three “Do Ask, Do Tell” books, under my own brand(s). No, this doesn’t pay its own way.  I have exactly the situation the 2005 Washington Times editorial was talking about.

I’ve been at this since the mid 1990s.  I originally entered the world of self-publishing as a way to participate in the debate over gays in the military (and the “don’t ask don’t tell” policy from Bill Clinton’s compromise that predates Trump’s current transgender ban controversy).   I made a lot of unusual, very individualistic arguments, often but not always consistently connected to libertarianism.  Generally, most of what I have said starts with the individual, apart from any group he or she belongs to. The first book sold decently (in 1997 and 1998, especially) but then became old hat.  The subsequent POD books have not really sold all that well, and I get hassled about it because “other people” can’t keep their jobs based on my books, I guess.  I did have the resources from a well-paid job and from stock market good luck under Clinton (Democrats can be good for the stock market, as Hillary’s elite knows). I got lucky with the 2008 crash and that turned out well for me.  (Short selling?)

But you see where this is heading.  In line with the thinking of McCain-Feingold, one person can have political influence, with no accountability for how the funds were raised.  I actually focused on issues, not candidates (which a lot of people seem not to get), and have very little interest in partisanship.  I could even claim that I know enough about policy and am temperate enough in my positions that I could function in the White House better than the current occupant, but I don’t know how to raise money for people, or for myself.  I but I know the right people to get health care to work, for example.  (Do the math first.)

Then, there is the issue of the left-wing boogeyman, “inherited wealth”.  Yes, I have some (from mother’s passing at the end of 2010).  My use of it could be controversial, and I may not have been as generous (yet) as I should be.  But I have not needed it to fund the books or blogs or websites. (I I had, that could be a problem, but that’s too much accounting detail to get into right here.  But I can’t just turn into somebody else’s safety net.)

I do get prodded about other things I “should” be doing, as a “prole”, because others have to do them.  Let’s say, accept “the free market cultural revolution” and prove I can hold down a minimum wage job (like in Barbara Enrenreich’s book “Nickel and Dimed”).  My life has its own narrative, and that narrative explains my personal goals now.  They’re my goals;  they don’t need to be anyone else’s.  I don’t need to appear on Shark Tank to justify my own “business model”.  But I’m corkscrewing into a paradox: if morality is indeed about “paying your dues” before you’re heard, then it’s really not just about group solidarity.

Both sides of a polarized political debate, but especially the Left, would like to see a world where individuals are not allowed to leverage their own speech with search engines the way I have (with an “It’s Free” paradigm, after Reid Ewing’s 2012 short film, where blog postings become “free fish”), but have to march in step with larger groups that they join.  Both sides want to force others to join their chorus of some mix of relative deprivation (the alt-right), or systematic oppression (the Left).  Both (or two out of three) sides want mass movements (as in Eric Hoffer’s 1951 manifesto, “The True Believer”). Religious groups often follow suit, demanding people join them in proselytizing (which is what an LDS mandatory missionary assignment is all about).  It is certainly personally shameful to walk in a (Charlottesville) torchlight march screaming “You shall not replace us”, but I find carrying anyone’s picket rather shameful.  Other’s will tell me, get over it.  Well, you get over it only if you’re on the  “right” (sic) side?  I won’t bargain away my own purposes.

To me, the existential threat is being forced or coerced (maybe even with expropriation) to join somebody else’s chorus, or hiding from personal responsibility behind a curtain of “systematic oppression”, to be allowed to speak at all. Some pleas for donation to political opinion sites (from both the Right and Left) make insulting, hysterical clams that only they can speak for me, as if I were impotent and had no right to my own branded voice.  They want to force me to join their causes to be heard at all.  It would be more honorable to become a slave on a plantation, or at least a minimum wage worker, whose turn it is now to be exploited just as he was once the undeserving exploiter, until dropping dead.  And then there is no funeral.

But, you ask, why not “raise people up” in a personal way, when they knock, in a way “you” had not considered before you were so challenged.  Is it up to me to make others “all right” in a personal way if others once did that for me?  Maybe. But that’s entirely off line. It doesn’t seem like “accomplishment” (maybe it’s a “creative” challenge for someone who did not have his own kids).  It doesn’t replace my mission of delivering my own content first.

(Posted: Monday, October 9, 2017, at 2:30 PM EDT)

Cato Institute covers many First Amendment topics in day long forum; what about downstream liability concerns?

Last Thursday, September 28, 2017, I attended a day-long event at the Cato Institute in Washington DC, “The Future of the First Amendment”.  I could call it aka “the future of free speech” in the U.S.

Cato has a link for the event and has now uploaded all the presentations, which you can view here. The videos include embeds of the slides and of the audience members asking questions as professionally filmed, better than I can do on my own at an event.

The “table of contents” in the link shows the topics covered as well as identifying the credentialing the many invited speakers, and indeed the presentation was segmented and topical and tended to focus on many narrow, separate issues.  I’ll come back at the end of this piece as to what I would like to have seen covered more explicitly.

The earliest morning session focuses particularly on partisan political speech related to elections (the “Citizen’s United” problem) and on commercial speech, including whether companies or commercial entities are separate persons.  One concept that stuck out was that listeners or receivers of messages are entitled to First Amendment protections. I would wonder how that concept would play out given more recent reports of Russian attempts not only to influence the 2016 elections but also to spur social instability and resentment in American society, based particularly on the idea of relative collective deprivation (which is not the same idea as “systematic oppression”).  There are understandable concerns over wanting to regulate paid political ads (especially if supplied by foreign agents), but we should remember back around 2005 when there were concerns based on a particular court interpretation of the McCain-Feingold Campaign Finance Reform Act that even free blogs (written without compensation and without ads) could be construed as “political contribution” if they expressed political viewpoints.  The discussion of commercial speech recognizes that advertisements sometimes do express points of view going beyond immediate ad content, and that valuable speech, such as well-made studio Hollywood movies about major historical events, made with good faith, can express political viewpoints while being funded through the open securities markets available to publicly traded companies.  But one auxiliary idea not explicitly mentioned was something I encounter: that speech available to the public should pay its own way.

The second segment dealt with “religious liberty in the post-Obama era”.  Here we have the dubious idea that an employee of a business open to the public is engaging in religiously-connected “speech” when she sells certain products or services to a person of a different faith or who engages in certain intimate personal relationships as now recognized by law (especially same-sex marriage).  One speaker in particular (Robin Fretwell Wilson) suggested that states should carve out laws that require public accommodations to serve all customers but allow individual employees (even in government agencies, such as with Kim Davis in Kentucky) to turn over the duties to someone else.  While I would support such a solution, if can mean an unequal workplace (such as the catse when some employees observe Sabbath’s explicitly and others cover them without getting any compensation in return, which I have done – an extreme extension of this idea is the “conscientious objector” problem with the past military draft).  It’s also true that sometimes “religious speech” can serve as a mask for personal moral ideas that in fact are not really founded in recognized interpretations of scripture, for example, political aversion to working with inherited wealth.

The keynote speaker for the second floor luncheon(well catered with deli sandwiches) was Eugene Volokh, of UCLA Law School and the Volokh conspiracy blog.  Volokh gave a spirited presentation on how the Internet has accelerated the application of libel law (well before Donald Trump noticed) because the Internet allows speakers with no deep pockets and little formal publishing law experience to be heard, and also because the “online reputation” damage from defamation, as propagated by search engines, is permanent, as opposed to newspaper defamation in the past.  Volokh made the interesting point that sometimes cases are settled with court injunctions that could prohibit a blogger from mentioning a particular person online again anywhere.  (That could matter to bloggers who review films or music performances, for example). At 41:07 on this tape, I ask a question about Backpage and Section 230. Volokh’s answer was thorough and more reassuring that it might have been, as he indicated that “knowingly” standard could be included in service provider downstream liability exposures. (He also explained the distinctions among utility transmission, distribution, and publication.) He also got into the question as to whether fake news could be libel.  Usually, because it largely involves politicians, in the U.S. it does not. But it might when applied to celebrities and companies.

The afternoon session featured a presentation by Emily Ekins on the 2017 Free Speech National Survey. A number of startling conclusions were presented, showing partisan divides on what is viewed as hate speech, and also a lack of understanding that most hate speech is constitutionally protected. There is a tendency among many voters and especially many college students to view words as weapons, and to view speakers as morally accountable for the actions of the recipients of their speech, even when there is no direct incitement for rioting or lawless action. Many respondents showed a shocking dislike of journalists as “watchers” who don’t have their own skin in the game.  A majority seemed to take the pseudo-populist position that a heckler’s veto on speakers was morally OK, and a shocking substantial minority thought that government should heavily sponsor speech to protect special groups.  A shocking minority accepted the idea that hate speech should sometimes be met with political violence.

The final session talked about censorship and surveillance.  The speakers included Flemming Rose (“The Tyranny of Silence” and the cartoon controversy).  Rose mentioned, in an answer to an audience question, that in some countries speakers were arrested for “qualification of terrorism” in public statements.  All the speakers noted a desire from the EU to force tech companies to export their rules to the US, especially the supposed “right to be forgotten”.  Daniel Keats Citron from the University of Maryland Law School mentioned the Section 230 controversy in an answer, as she talked about  distinguishing “good Samaritans” from “bad Samaritans”

At the reception afterward, a speaker from Cloudflare noted that Hollywood has been lobbying heavily on Congress to force service providers to prescreen content, as motivated by the Backpage controversy. Hollywood, he said, has been pressuring agents and Wilshire Blvd law firms to join in the effort. He mentioned the DMCA Safe Harbor, which has a similar downstream liability concept but applies to copyright, not to libel or privacy.  The tone of his remarks suggested that this goes way beyond piracy;  Hollywood does not like dealing with the low cost competition of very independent film that is much less capital intensive, and taking up much larger audience share than in the past..  Even Mark Cuban admitted that to me once in an email.  Cloudflare also said that the law, unchanged, would today handle sex trafficking the way it handles child pornography, with a “knowingly” standard, which seems adequate already.

All of this brings me back to what might not have been hit hard enough in the conference, the idea, as I said indicated in the title of my third book, of “a privilege of being listened to” (my 2005 essay), which sounds a little scary to consider and seems to lie beneath authoritarian control of speech.

I insist on managing my own speech, much of which is posted as “free content”.  I get pestered that I don’t sell more physical copies of my books than I do and don’t try to be “popular” or manipulative in order to sell. (That helps other people have jobs,  I guess.)   I get told that my own skin should be in the game.  I get sent into further deployments of the subjunctive mood (“could’a, should’a, would’a”), like in high school French class. – I should have children, or special needs dependents, or be in the trenches myself before I get heard from.  (This could affect how I handle the estate that I inherited, which can get to be a Milo-Dangerous topic.)   Content should pay its own way (which, ironically, might encourage porn.)  Individual speakers weaken advocacy groups by competing with them and not participating.  Before I get heard from myself, I should join somebody else’s cause against “systematic oppression” and not be above walking and shouting in their demonstrations. I should run fundraisers for other people on my webpage. I should support other publications’ fund raisers who claim (on both the right and left) to be my voice, as if I were incompetent to speak for myself.  Or, as if that capacity will be taken away from me by force.  Even the world of writers. I get confrontational ideas, that “real writers” get hired to portray other people’s narratives other than their own. (Okay, I might really have had a chance once go “ghost-write” so-to-speak one of the other “don’t ask don’t tell” soldier’s stories.)

One of the most serious underreported controversies is indeed the idea that speakers should be held responsible for what their readers might do, particularly because “you” are the speaker and not someone else.  This is related to the notion of “implicit content” (Sept. 10). This concept was behind my own experience in October 2005 when working as a substitute teacher, see July 19, 2016 pingback hyperlink).  That certainly comports with the idea that Section 230 should not exist, and that people should not speak out on their own until they have a lot of accountability to a peer group (family or not).  This is far from what the First Amendment says but seems to be what a lot of people have been brought up to believe in their own home and community environments. It goes along with ideas of personal right-sizing, fitting in to the group, and a certain truce on social justice.  In the past two or three decades (compared to when I was in high school and college), there has been a weakened presentation of the First Amendment (and Bill of Rights in general) in the way it is taught in high schools and to undergraduates.  I could even say based on my own substitute teaching experience from 2004-2007 that even public school staff (including administration) is poorly informed on the actual law today, so you would not expect students to be getting the proper learning on these matters.

Individuals have natural rights, just as individuals;  but people don’t have to belong to oppressed groups or claim “relative deprivation” to claim their natural rights.

(Posted: Tuesday, October 3, 2017 at 12 noon)

Sort out the NFL protests on the flag and racism: libertarian views win out

OK, let’s lay things out in the whole problem of the player protests in the NFL and NBA over racism during the playing of the National Anthem at games.

First, I can’t imagine how kneeling (or locking arms) is disrespectful of the flag, or offensive.  At least personally.

The best information suggests that NFL and NBA owners seem so support the protests, and are not doing so out of fear of player “rebellion”.

Players do have a First Amendment right to protest when a national symbol is displayed as far as the government is concerned (including president Trump) but their employers have a legal right to constrain what they say on the job, and sometimes off the job in public mode if the speech can cause disruption to legitimate business interests (essentially “conflict of interest” in speech).

The NFL and its associated professional sports franchises are private businesses.  Same with MLB, NBA, NHL, soccer, etc.  They can regulate what players say on the job, or what they do on social media if behavior affects business.  But they don’t have to.  If the leagues and the owners want to single out the issue behind the protests (especially police racial profiling and BLM) they are free to do so.

Apparently, yesterday, the support for the protests in the NFL was overwhelming, including at the Washington Redskins’ game  (a 27-10 win)Sunday night (and this is ironic given the controversy over the team name and trademark as a potential slur against Native Americans).

In the past, however, the owners were not as supportive.  Consider the history if Colin Kaepernick.  This morning, Bob Costa said on CNN that Colin has said before that voting was useless because of the current power structure (reportedly he said that before the 2016 election).

I do have problems with a couple of areas.  One is if another group (BLM or anyone else) decides that its issue must be implemented in such a way that anyone else (like me, as an individual speaker an author) must somehow pay them homage to have a voice at all.  There are many examples of oppression, and I can’t say that one is always more demanding than another (Charlottesville and Trump’s “both sides” notwithstanding).    Along these lines, Juana Summers piece on CNN “It’s impossible for black athletes to leave politics off the field”.

Another is that I had my own issue back in the 1990s, where I had a potential “conflict of interest” over my planned speech on gays in the military when I was working for a company that served members of the military as a fraternal provider. I wound up transferring to Minneapolis (and having some of the best years of my own life).  There was a time when a family medical emergency (Mother’s surgery in 1999) might have forced me to come back, conceivably costing me my job as a result.  I did not have the right to “hide” behind “systematic oppression” as an out.  Fortunately, this worked out OK on its own.

President Trump was certainly out of line Saturday night in Huntsville AL when he “demanded” that NFL owners “fire” players for protesting.  The President doesn’t have the right to tell private businesses what protests to support or allow on the job.

Major league sports have come a long way in dealing with discrimination, particularly MLB with its various statements including sexual orientation.

But the NFL may have problems with its own treatment of players regarding head injuries (the recent revelations about Aaron Hernandez are among the worst).  Trump wanted to deny even football brain injuries (WSJ editorial).

I want to mention Margaret Sullivan’s Washington Post (Style section) article today about new state laws restricting protests that disrupt traffic or businesses.  She says that the kinds of protests that ended the Vietnam War (and the draft) might be illegal in many states (well, remember Kent State in 1970). We’ll have to come back to this.

I also want to mention Villasenor’s study for Brookings on attitudes toward free speech on campus.  Younger adults, without the same grounding in civics classes that my generation had, seem to gravitate to a more authoritarian concept of how speech works in society.  That is, the intended effect and likely actions on the listener or watcher matter (“implicit content”), as does the idea that words can be weaponized (even if by Russia on Facebook).

(Posted: Monday, September 25, 2017 at 11 AM EDT)

“Implicit content” may become the next big Internet law controversy; more on Backpage and Section 230

It is important to pause for a moment and take stock of another possible idea that can threaten freedom of speech and self-publication on the Internet without gatekeepers as we know it now, and that would be “implicit content”.

This concept refers to a situation where an online speaker publishes content that he can reasonably anticipate that some other party whom the speaker knows to be combative, un-intact, or immature (especially a legal minor) will in turn act harmfully toward others, possibly toward specific targets, or toward the self. The concept views the identity of the speaker and presumed motive for the speech as part of the content, almost as if borrowed from object-oriented programming.

The most common example that would be relatively well known so far occurs when one person deliberately encourages others using social media (especially Facebook, Twitter or Instagram) to target and harass some particular user of that platform.  Twitter especially has sometimes suspended or permanently  closed accounts for this behavior, and specifically spells this out as a TOS violation. Another variation might come from a recent example where a female encouraged a depressed boyfriend to commit suicide using her smartphone with texts and was convicted of manslaughter, so this can be criminal.  The concept complicates the normal interpretation of free speech limitation as stopping where there is direct incitement of unlawful activity (like rioting).

I would be concerned however that even some speech that is normally seen as policy debate could fall under this category when conducted by “amateurs” because of the asymmetry of the Internet with the way search engines can magnify anyone’s content and make it viral or famous.  This can happen with certain content that offends others of certain groups, especially religious (radical Islam), racial, or sometimes ideological (as possibly with extreme forms of Communism).  In extreme cases, this sort of situation could cause a major (asymmetric) national security risk.

A variation of this problem occurred with me when I worked as a substitute teacher in 2005 (see pingback hyperlink here on July 19, 2016).  There are a couple of important features of this problem.  One is that it is really more likely to occur with conventional websites with ample text content and indexed by search engines in a normal way (even allowing for all the algorithms) than with social media accounts, whose internal content is usually not indexed much and which can be partially hidden by privacy settings or “whitelisting”.  That would have been true pre-social media with, for example, discussion forums (like those on AOL in the late 1990s). Another feature is that it may be more likely with a site that is viewed free, without login or subscription. One problem is that such content might be viewed as legally problematic if it wasn’t paid for (ironically) but had been posted only for “provocateur” purposes, invoking possible “mens rea”.

I could suggest another example, of what might seem to others as “gratuitous publication”.  I have often posted video and photos of demonstrations, from BLM marches to Trump protests, as “news”.  Suppose I posted a segment from an “alt-right” march, from a specific group that I won’t name.  Such a march may happen in Washington DC next weekend (following up Charlottesville).  I could say that it is simply citizen journalism, reporting what I see.  Others would say I’m giving specific hate groups a platform, which is where TOS problems could arise. Of course I could show counterdemonstrations from the other “side”. I don’t recognize the idea that, among any groups that use coercion or force, that one is somehow more acceptable to present than another (Trump’s problem, again.)  But you can see the slippery slope.

When harm comes to others after “provocative” content is posted, the hosting sites or services would normally be protected by Section 230 in the US (I presume).  However, it sounds like there have been some cases where litigation has been attempted.  Furthermore, we know that very recently, large Internet service platforms have cut off at least one (maybe more) website associated with extreme hate speech or neo-Nazism. Service platforms, despite their understandable insistence that they need the downstream liability protections of Section 230, have become more pro-active in trying to eliminate users publishing what they consider (often illegal) objectionable material.  This includes, of course, child pornography and probably sex trafficking, and terrorist group recruiting, but it also could include causing other parties to be harassed, and could gradually expand to subsumed novel national security threats. But it now seems to include “hate speech”, which I personally think ought to be construed as “combativeness” or lawlessness.  But that brings us to another point:  some extreme groups would consider amateur policy discussions that take a neutral tone and try to avoid taking sides (that is, avoiding naming some groups as enemies instead of others, as with Trump’s problems after Charlottesville), as implicitly “hateful” by default when the speaker doesn’t put his own skin in the game.   This (as Cloudflare’s CEO pointed out) could put Internet companies in a serious ethical bind.

Timothy B. Lee recently published in Ars-Technica, an update on the “Backpage” bills in Congress, which would weaken Section 230 protections. Lee does seem to imply that the providers most at risk remain isolated to those whose main content is advertisements, rather than discussions; and so far he hasn’t addressed with shared hosting providers could be put at risk.  (I asked him that on Twitter.)  But some observer believe that the bills could lead states to require that sites with user-logon provide adult-id verification.  We all know that this was litigated before with the Child Online Protection Act (COPA), which was ruled unconstitutional finally in early 2007.  I was a party to that litigation under Electronic Frontier Foundation sponsorship. Ironically, the judge mentioned “implicit content” the day that I sat in on the arguments (in Philadelphia).

I wanted to add a comment here that probably could belong on either of my two previous posts.  That is, yes, our whole civilization has become very dependent on technology, and, yes, a determined enemy could give us a very rude shock.  Born in 1943, I have lived through years that have generally been stable, surviving the two most serious crises (the Vietnam military draft in the 1960s and then HIV in the 1980s) that came from the outside world.  A sudden shock like that in NBC’s “Revolution” is possible.  But I could imagine being born around 1765, living as a white landowner in the South, having experienced the American Revolution and then the Constitution as a teen, and only gradually coming to grips with the idea that my world would be expropriated from me because an underlying common moral evil, before I died (if I was genetically lucky enough to live to 100 without modern medicine). Yet I would have had no grasp of the idea of a technological future, that itself could be put it risk because, for all its benefits in raising living standards, still seemed to leave a lot of people behind.

(Posted: Saturday, September 9, 2017 at 9 PM EDT)

A couple ways individual people can be silenced online, and they sound a bit chilling to me

On Aug. 4, I wrote a piece here to the long-term threats to user-generated content on the Internet, and continued that on Aug. 7 with another post on recognizing citizen journalism.

Today, I’d like to perform an inside-out swing (Fenway Park style) and look at two (or maybe three) ways individual speakers could be “shut up” (or shut down, as you were).

The discussion seems motivated in part by the growing rash of incidents starting in maybe 2005 where a person gets fired for something he/she said on social media (using a personal account off the workplace) about a controversial workplace or media-reported situation. This has particularly happened to teachers (even public employees). As I’ve written here before, I had a major incident when working as a substitute teacher at the end of 2005, complicated by an improbable combination of coincidences. In fact, Heather Armstrong started her lucrative career as a mommy blogger after being “dooced” at the Utah software company where she was working on 2002 over something she had said about the company in her own blog.

At the same time, companies and individuals started realizing that their “online reputations” could be damaged by attacks from others, or (specifically for small companies), “bad reviews” on sites like Yelp. In numerous cases, businesses have sued consumers over bad reviews, saying that the transparency created by review sites can put them out of business with fake information. Some businesses (even physicians) have tried to force consumers to sign “gag clauses” (or non-disparagement contracts) before providing consumer service. Congress addressed this problem with a Consumer Review Fairness Ac t in January 2017 (story 1, story 2).

I have not had many big consumer problems, but I have made it my own practice not to use review sites (other than Amazon for books and films). I generally don’t mention my own providers online because I may need service again. When there is a problem, I try to settle it privately.

About the time Y2K had finished, the business world was starting to notice that blogging or personal websites of employees or customers had the capability of creating problems, through search engine discovery. Occasionally, one would see an article about “employee blogging policies.” Generally, model policies would say that employees, if they mentioned the company, must state that the opinions were their own and not made in official capacity, and that trade secrets or internal office disputes must not be mentioned.

By 2004, pundits were also noticing an incidental, unintended problem: personal blogs about political candidates could be construed as illegal campaign contribution, according to the 2002 campaign finance reform law. That issue coincidentally figured in to my own incident at the end of 2005. But in time, the concern “blew over”.

And about 2006, we started hearing about the term “online reputation”, which in the days before Facebook became public, had mainly to do with search engine results which could include material posted by others (and which could involved mistaken identity, easily). People with common names as opposed to unusual ethnic names were affected differently.

But, in sum, the main gag on ordinary speakers would tend to be subject specific, especially when dealing with specific employers, service companies, perhaps specific residential communities (apartment buildings or condos) or dealing especially with consumer information and PII. This did not normally necessarily with individual speech in a substantial way.

There’s another way this could have been approached, as I had noted in a white paper I had written back in March 2000.

That is to say, if you have a particular position in a company where you have direct reports or other discretionary authority (like underwriting) you don’t publish anything at all yourself without a third party gatekeeper. In social media, full privacy settings must always be used, restricting access to known “friends” or “followers”. I haven’t yet heard of a case where this requirement was demanded.

One reason for this concern is that subtle search results could show prejudice, which could affect a workplace situation. On my “doaskdotell.com” site I have hundreds of short movie reviews. Sometimes I have made wisecracks about various characters or actors that would suggest a certain personal belief in “body fascism”, which some readers could construe as indirect racism or sexism. That could contribute, for example, to a hostile workplace situation. When I had the 2005 fiasco as a substitute teacher, my site logs showed many search requests with search arguments suggesting that the reader was looking for this. Since that time, Google has stopped allowing search arguments to be logged partly for that reason.  Another danger could be that an employee, by his web presence, could show a proclivity to write about a company after leaving it.

But it’s interesting to recall how Facebook started – at first as a true social network on one campus, then on connected campuses. It didn’t become available to the entire public (over 13) until late 2006. Gradually it augmented itself from a pure social networking facility to a self-publishing platform, with the concept of pages and followers as well as “friends”. The algorithms by which it serves articles have become controversial since the “fake news” issue in the 2016 election.

Imagine, at least as a thought experiment, a world in which all social media accounts have to be whitelisted, that is, you have to approve everyone, and in which no user generated content on websites was allowed (say, if Section 230 went away).   You would only be able to network with people you had met first “in the real world”. That was pretty much how a lot things were, probably, until maybe 1996. A lot of people would say, no big loss; we need to learn to be together in the real world again anyway. Obviously, much of the Internet business sector would collapse, along with their stock prices, but the business models of UG and hosting companies may be more fragile than we realize.

A third area worth mentioning goes back to where my own self-publishing started: I had covered most of this ground on July 8, 2016. I wanted to reinforce the idea that some POD or “cooperative book publishing” companies are putting much more pressure on authors to actually sell books (not just Kindle) than previously. I’ve noticed this trend since about 2012. That may mean that an author will need to establish her own business identity , and deal with home-based business regulations in their locality (usually not much of a problem) but also residence, which may become particularly troubling for condos, partly because the physical home address usually must be listed with the state (for sales tax) or local government (for business license and equipment property taxes). I may be coming back to this topic later.

(Posted: Sunday, August 20, 2017 at 8:30 PM EDT)

Firing of Google engineer for internal “manifesto” highlights problems with speech and the workplace, vs. “identity politics”

The recent “free speech” meltdown on the Google campus has a few angles to it that deserve exploring, and compare to some of my own past.

David Brooks, the moderate-to-conservative “moralizer” on how we can be good as individuals, called for the resignation of Google CEO Sundar Pichai, after the dismissal of Google software engineer James Damore, 28, who distributed an internal “manifesto”   I enjoy reading Brooks, who for the most part is about where John McCain would be on a lot of issues and on how elected officials should behave.

Brooks points out that it is reasonable to discuss statistical genetic differences between identifiable groups of people (by gender, race, geographic origin, maybe sexual orientation) while maintaining that in employment (including the military) and public accommodations people should always be treated equally as individuals.  Well, practically always.  I don’t think a female could hit home runs the way Bryce Harper or Aaron Judge can.  But I do think that some day that Major League Baseball will have to deal with the controversy over having a (female-to-male)  transgender relief pitcher.  (And, by the way, professional sports leagues have to be totally with it on the idea that sexual orientation, gender, and gender identity are all very different things.)

Before moving on from all this, I’ll add that my own youth (born 1943) created a world where conformity to binary gender roles was seen as essential to fitting into the group and carrying one’s own share of the common risks.  Later, individualism took over my life, and discrimination became less urgent personally. But when external coercion happens, it gets important to belong to the “larger group”, so smaller groups (even “intersectionality”) start to matter.

Yet, Pichai and the identity politics crowd apparently would hear none of Damore’s pedantic provocations, which made him seem aloof to the real world.  Somehow, even bringing up biological statistics invited enemies of various marginalized people in these groups.  We’re all the way back to the demonstrations against Milo Yioannopoulos and the whole ridiculous Leslie Jones fiasco.

Damore’s 10-page memo has been called an anti-diversity “screed”.  The language may seem tedious to some, analytical for others, or maybe a joke (I remember the Pentagon’s “123 words”  — “Homosexuality is incompatible with military service” etc. by comparison, indeed the “mouthful of words” that Randy Shilts had so much fun with in “Conduct Unbecoming”).  His comment on empathy is interesting – people really do need emotion for “Staying Alive” (like John Travolta).  It’s also important to remember that biology relates to the likelihood of having kids and family responsibility, which Google has wisely tried to defuse by offering paid parental leave, regardless of gender. Vox published a “Big Idea” page that “ladysplain’s” the issue of sexism in the technology workplace.

It’s important to remember that this was an internal memo;  it was published online only after it became controversial.  I once got into some minor trouble at work in 1992 for sending a SYSM (a mainframe email program within a data center installation) criticizing others for copying software disks, possibly illegally (in the days with the Software Publishers Association was starting to audit companies for possible copyright and software license infringement). Indeed, some of the security and legal controversies today had their predecessors of the pre-Internet old mainframe world of the 70s through the 90s. Let me add that from 1972-1974 I worked for Sperry Univac (Unisys) which for its time was one of the most progressive companies in hiring female engineers.

What can be more troubling is when someone posts controversial material online on his own dime with his own social media account, blog, or hosted domain, and others find it through search engines.  I’ve already discussed how this played out with a fictitious screenplay I had posted when I was substitute teaching (July 19, 2016).   There was a situation in my IT career where I transferred to another location because of the possibility of a perceived public conflict over publishing my book involving gays in the military (May 30, 2016 link).

In the early 2000’s we saw human resources people write articles on proposed “blogging policies” at their companies.  I think when someone has direct reports or underwriting responsibilities, there is a real risk that if someone finds opinionated material online even written at home, a hostile workplace issue can come up.  I had written an article explaining this back in March 2000 as Google was starting to make me “famous”.

Here’s a story about a writing conference in Minneapolis canceled because of the “lack of diversity” of the presenters.   I lived there 1997-2003 and went to some events sponsored by the local National Writers Union.  I didn’t run into this then. Ditto for a screenwriting group.

The recent reports that Google canceled an employee town hall over external threats and targeting, are disturbing again and remind me of the unrest over campus appearances by Milo Yiannopoulos and Charles Murray.

(Posted: Friday, August 11, 2017 at 7:30 PM EDT)

Update: Saturday, August 12, 2017 at 6 PM

James Damore has his own explanation in the Wall Street Journal of his firing here.

The New York Times has a detailed story today about how the internal memo gradually became more public involving internal tools called Memegen and Dory.  The “leak” appeared partly through Breitbart, which reports that WikiLeaks has offered Damore a job.

The Washington Post has an op-ed in Outlook Aug. 13 by Fredrik deBoer, “Corporations are cracking down on what employees say, even outside of work“.  He cites examples, like a stadium worker for criticizing the Philadelphia Eagles on Facebook, or a military contractor fired for publicly supporting Barack Obama. Digital technology has made second lives impossible.  This may have helped overturn “don’t ask don’t tell” but it can gradually erode the “right” of people to speak for themselves and send them running to organizations and lobbyists begging to be paid to speak for them.

Social media companies and economic value: what happens when everybody believes “It’s free, it’s free”, like at the public library

There’s a rather shocking and strident article in the Washington Post today, by Larry Downes. “Google and Facebook contribute zero economic value. And that’s a big problem for trade.”

The article specifically talks in terms of Gross Domestic Product, as economists define it. And online services contribute, well, zero, because all the content they deliver is free.

Well, not exactly.  Advertisers pay these services, especially for clicks or, even better, a little commission (that sometimes goes to writers) when consumers make real world purchases.  And Madison Avenue companies had, I thought, always counted in the GDP, at least in Big Apple speak.

On a bigger view, tech certainly contributes to GDP.  Telecom companies charge consumers more or less the way utility companies do.  It’s not free.  And there are even some glimmers, or rumors, that in a no-net-neutrality environment, big telecom may eventually charge websites (or hosting companies and service companies like Google and Facebook) to be hooked up more efficiently.   That idea may be contributing to the development of intermediary platforms for certain artists and writers, like Bandcamp and Hubspace.  By the way, Google is facing fines for the way it uses its “monopoly” for “promoting” its own stuff in Europe, an idea that parallels the net neutrality problem in the U.S. now.

It’s true, we’ve gotten used to the fact that a lot of good web content is free.  A lot of economists or other moralists think that’s not a good thing.  But we need to view these statements with some degree of balance.  Many newspapers and quality periodicals now have paywalls.  Many platforms charge for legal downloading, although often less than things cost in the physical world (like watching new movies on Amazon), and others have monthly subscriptions to bundle charges (Netflix) resulting in lower costs for consumers over time.

Furthermore, and this is important, some websites offering “free content” do support sales of real products (like books) or services (like insurance) in a tangible way   So in that sense, these kinds of sites pay their own way.  “Blogtyrant” (Ramsy Taplin) has explored his issue recently with postings and lively comments threads (June 12).

I agree, that a pundit like me poses certain “moral” questions.  Most of my content is viewed free, and I don’t actually personally need for my own web activity to be self-supporting, the way things are set up now (and have been so since the mid 1990s).  As I’ve noted before, it is very difficult for me to become somebody else’s mouthpiece, and it is very difficult to enter into a “real” relationship where others with “needs” depend on me and where I find that personally rewarding.   There’s a chicken and egg problem:  maybe you need to have (or at least adopt) kids first, or belong to some identity group and feel partial to that group, first.

It is true that people, especially teens and young adults, need to grow up in the real world.  No, I’m not ready to go off the grid to a cabin in the woods, because, given what I have done, I have to keep things going all the time.  And the idea of a teacher’s “bribing” students to give up screen time one day a week in the summer seems silly to me.

But I do think teens should take advantage of all real-world opportunities first (sports, drama, music, outdoors, travel [not to North Korea]) first.  I know of a teen who directed a church play a few years ago, “Wise Guys”, and as far as I know, it’s never become a film. My challenge to a recent college graduate might be, produce it!   I had my own opportunity with piano lessons and even composition contests n the 1950s through very early 1960s.   The manuscript shown here, handwritten from the 1959-1960 winter snow days, attests to my own grounding in the physical world.  But my activity was personally expressive and self-driven, not social or relational or needs-based.  The logical outcome is that not everyone wins, not everyone gets recognized as a star.  Some people lead, and the rest of us become the “meek little followers”, whether singing in a mixed chorus in high school (oh, those Spring concerts), or working as an activist, and even for people whose needs make them fall far short of examples of libertarian examples of “personal responsibility”.

I wish Reid Ewing would bring back his three short films “It’s Free” from 2012 (with Igigistudios).  They would make a real point now. Maybe to “be free” you have to help people enough that they want to pay for your stuff.

Mozilla has its own podcast page about the future of free stuff,

(Posted: Tuesday, June 27, 2017 at 5 PM EDT)

How an article on the workplace and automation leads us back to network neutrality and other potential issues for Internet user-generated content

A guest post by 30-year-old Australian blogging (and physical fitness) guru Ramsay Taplin (aka “Blogtyrant“), in “Goins, Writer” about how to deal with the invasion of robots and artificial intelligence in the workplace (when these innovations threaten to replace you) rather accidentally re-ignites the debate over the future of the Internet and ordinary speech on it in the United States.  (Before I go further, I’ve love to meet the huge cat on Ramsay’s Twitter page.)

Ramsay’s post seems to be a bit in the tradition of libertarian George Mason University Professor Tyler Cowen’s book “Average Is Over,” outlining how middling people need to deal with the changing modern workplace.  At a crucial point in his essay, Ramsay, after suggesting that employed people consider starting small businesses on their own time, recommends most business owners (as well as professionals like lawyers, financial planners, agents, and even book authors) stake out their property in “modern real estate” with a professionally hosted blog site.  But then he dismissively adds the caveat, “unless the Internet changes dramatically through removing net neutrality…”

Later, he writes “make sure everything you do on the Internet helps someone,” a very important base concept that I’ll come back to. He gives a link to a compelling essay on personal and workplace ethics in a site called “Dear Design Student”, about how you can’t lead a double life and be believed forever.  You can see my conversation with him in the comments.

Whoa, there.  OK, Ramsay works (“from his couch”) in Australia, part of the British Commonwealth, and, like most western-style democratic countries, the Aussie World maintains statutory network neutrality regulations on its own turf (I presume).  But, as we know, under the new Trump administration and new FCC chair Ajit Pai, the Obama era’s network neutrality protections, largely set in place (in 2015) by maintaining that self-declared “neutral conduit” telecommunications companies are common carriers, will almost certainly be disbanded late this summer in the U.S. after the formal comment period is over.  Pro-neutrality advocates (including most tech companies) plan a “Day of Action” July 12, which Breitbart characterized in rather hyperbolic farce.

That situation puts American companies at odds with the rest of the capitalist democratic world (definitely not including Russia and China).  There are plenty of political advocacy pressure groups with “Chicken Little” “Sky Is Falling” warnings (along with aggressive popups for donations) about how exposed small companies and individual speakers online may be intentionally silenced (as I had outlined here on May 11).  Right away, I rebut by noting that not only is there to be (according to Pai) “voluntary compliance”, but also every major general-purpose telecom company in the US seems to say it has no intention to throttle ordinary sites.  In fact, most consumers, when they sign up for Internet, want full access to everything out there on the indexed web, so doing so would make no business sense.

Even so, some comparison of the world now to what it was a few decades ago, when I came of age, is in order.  Telephone companies were monopolistic but were regulated, so they couldn’t refuse service to consumers they didn’t like.  None of this changed as ATT break-up into the Bell’s happened (something I watched in the 80s-job market for I.T.)  But until the WWW came along in the mid-90s, the regulations only protected consumers getting content (phone calls), not wanting to upload it with no gatekeepers for pre-approval.  Back then, in a somewhat regulated environment, companies did make technological innovations for big paying customers (like DOD).  Pai would seem to be wrong in asserting that all regulation will stop innovation.

It’s also noteworthy that the FCC regulated broadcast networks, especially the number of television stations they could own (I remember this while working for NBC in the 1970s).  Likewise, movie studios were not allowed to own theater chains (that has somewhat changed more recently).

But by analogy, it doesn’t seem logical that reasonable rules preventing ordinary content throttling would stymie innovation where there are real benefits to consumers (like higher speeds for high definition movies, or for emergency medical services, and the like), or, for that matter, better service in rural areas.

There are also claims that new telecom technologies could enter the market, and that Obama-like net neutrality rules would stifle newcomer telecom companies.  Maybe this could bear on super-high-speed FIOS, for example, that Google has tried in a few cities.

Then, some of the punditry get speculative.  For example, a faith-based ISP might want to set up a very restricted service for religious families. It sounds rather improbable, but maybe that needs to be OK.  Or maybe a Comcast or Verizon wants to offer a low-end Internet service that doesn’t offer all websites, just an approved whitelist.  Maybe that appeals to locally socialized families with little interest in “globalism”.  That sounds a little more serious in its possible impact on other small businesses trying to reach them.

Another idea that cannot be dismissed out of hand, is that telecom companies could be prodded to deny connection access to illegal content, such as terror promotion or child pornography, or even sex trafficking (as with the Backpage controversy).

If we did have an environment where websites had to pay every telecom company to be hooked up to them, it’s likely that hosting companies like Bluehost would have to build this into their fees to take care of it.  I actually have four separate hosted WordPress blog domains.  It’s significant that Bluehost (and probably other companies) allow a user just one hosting account with a primary domain name.  Add-on domains are internally made subdomains of the primary and converted internally.  So, the user would probably only he “charged” for one hookup, regardless of the number of blogs.  (It’s also possible to put separate blogs in separate installations of WordPress in separate directories, I believe, but I see no reason now to try it.)   But one mystery to me is, that if Bluehost does have a “primary domain” concept with subdomains, why can’t it make the entire network https (SSL) instead of just one “real” domain?  I expect this will change.  SSL is still pretty expensive for small businesses to offer (they can generally outsource their credit card operations and consumer security, but there is more pressure, from groups like Electronic Frontier Foundation, to implement “https everywhere” for all content).

It’s also worthy of note that “free blogs” on services like Blogger and WordPress use a subdomain concept, so there is only one domain name hookup per user to any ISP.  That’s why Blogger can offer https to its own hosted blogs but not to blogs that default to user-owned domain names.

We can note that search engines like Google and Bing aren’t held to a “neutrality” policy and in fact often change their algorithms to prevent unfair (“link farming”) practices by some sites.

So, here we are, having examined net neutrality and its supposed importance to small site owners (nobody really worried about this until around 2008 it seems).  But there are a lot of other issues that could threaten the Internet as we know it.  Many of the proposals revolve around the issue of “downstream liability”:  web hosting companies and social media companies don’t have to review user posts before self-publication for legal problems;  if they had to, users simply could not be allowed to self-publish.  (That’s how things were until the mid 1990s.)  But, as I’ve noted, there are proposals to water down “Section 230” provisions in the US because of issues like terrorism recruiting (especially by ISIS), cyberbulling, revenge porn, and especially sex trafficking (the Backpage scandal).  Hosts and social media companies do have to remove (and report) child pornography now when they find it or when it is flagged by users, but even that content cannot be screened before the fact.  And Facebook and Twitter are getting better at detecting terror recruiting, gratuitous violence, fake news, and trafficking.  But widescale abuse by combative and relatively less educated users starts to raise the ethical question about whether user-generated content needs to pay its own way, rather than become a gratuitous privilege for those who really don’t like to interact with others whom they want to criticize.

In Europe and British Commonwealth countries there is apparently less protection from downstream liability allowed service providers than in the U.S., which would be the reverse of the legal climate when compared to the network neutrality issue.  And Europe has a “right to be forgotten” concept. Yet, user-generated content still seems to flourish in western countries besides the U.S.

I mentioned earlier the idea that a small business or even personal website should help the reader in a real-world sense.  Now Ramsay’s ideas on Blogtyrant seem most applicable to niche marketing.  That is, a business meeting a narrow and specific consumer need will tend to attract followers (hence Blogtyrant’s recommendations for e-mail lists that go beyond the fear of spam and malware).  It’s noteworthy that most niche markets probably would require only one blog site (despite my discussion above of how hosting and service providers handle multiple blogs from one user.) It’s pretty easy to imagine what niche blogs would be like:  those of lawyers (advising clients), financial planners, real estate agents, insurance agents, tax preparers, beauty products, fashion, and games and sports (especially chess).  It would seem that gaming would create its own niche areas.  And there are the famous mommy blogs (“dooce” by Heather Armstrong, who added a new verb to English – note her site has https –, although many later “mommy” imitations have not done nearly so well).  I can imagine how a well-selling fiction author could set up a niche blog, to discuss fiction writing (but not give away her own novels).

Another area would be political activism, where my own sense of ethics makes some of this problematical, although Ii won’t get into that here.

In fact, my whole history has been the opposite, to play “Devil’s advocate” and provide “objective commentary” and “connect the dots” among almost everything, although how I got into this is a topic for another day (it had started with gays in the military and “don’t ask don’t tell” in the US in the 1990s, and everything else grew around it).   One could say that my entering the debate this way meant I could never become anyone else’s mouth piece for “professional activism” or conventional salesmanship (“Always Be Closing”).  I guess that at age 54 I traded queens into my own (chess) endgame early, and am getting to the king-and-pawn stage, looking for “the opposition”.

There’s a good question about what “helps people”.  “The Asylumist” is a good example; it is written by an immigration lawyer Jason Dzubow specifically to help asylum seekers.  Jason doesn’t debate the wisdom of immigration policy as an intellectual exercise, although he has a practical problem of communicating what asylum seekers can expect during the age of Trump – and some of it is unpredictable. On this (my) blog, I’ve tried to explore what other civilians who consider helping asylum seekers (especially housing them personally) could expect.  Is that “helping people” when what I publish is so analytical, tracing the paths of speculation?  I certainly have warned a lot of people about things that could get people into trouble, for example, allowing someone else (even an Airbnb renter!) to use your home Internet router connection, for which you could be personally liable (sorry, no personalized Section 230).  Is the end result (of my own blog postings) to make people hesitant to offer a helping hand to immigrants out of social capital (and play into Donald Trump’s hands)?  I think I’m making certain problems a matter of record so policy makers consider them, and I have some ample evidence that they do.  But does that “help people” the way a normal small business does?

Getting back to how a blog helps a small business, the underlying concept (which does not work with my operation) is that the business pays for itself, by meeting real needs that consumers pay for (let’s hope they’re legitimate, not porn).  Legitimate business use of the Internet should come from “liking people.”  If blogging were undermined by a combination of policy changes in the US under Trump, it might not affect people everywhere else (although Theresa May wants it to), and it would be especially bad for me with my free-content model based on wealth accumulated elsewhere (some of it inherited but by no means all of it); but legitimate for-profit businesses will always have some basic way to reach their customers.

There has been talk of threats to blogging before.  One of the most serious perils occurred around 2005, in connection with campaign finance reform in the U.S., which I had explained here.

(Posted: Monday, June 12, 2017 at 12 noon EDT USA)