My own existentialism

Throughout much of my I.T. career, especially the last fifteen years or so, I was often preoccupied with the possible consequences of any mistakes by me as an individual contributor.  I did have to get used to it. But in retirement, the idea that one can fall by making enemies or being on the wrong side, has made a troubling comeback, sometimes with ironic recalls of pressures earlier in my life to fit in vertically to social structures set up by others, to value other people in these communities more than my own head.

There is a lot more attention to asymmetry today, and to the randomness of “bad luck” and misfortune. I’ve never been OK with playing up victimization, especially when enhanced by belonging to an oppressed group. I go to memorial services, too; but I don’t brand myself by going to bat publicly for everyone out there on social media who is losing out because of disadvantage.

One idea that seems very critical to me is that, when something happens to “you”, especially because of someone else’s wrongdoing, recovering from it still starts with “you” before anyone else.  That’s not politics or social values; that’s just plain logic.  Otherwise, life will go on without you.  Of course, the full weight of the law or other agency (like military force) can be brought against perpetrators, terrorists, or ordinary bullies. But, I’ve never seen “sacrifice” as particularly honorable.  That kind of thinking played out bigtime in the days of the Vietnam era draft, when people with less privilege wound up making more of the sacrifices in combat. Likewise, it has, even with a volunteer army but a “backdoor” stop-loss draft, followed suit in more recent wars, like Iraq. You still see this today with risky civilian volunteerism, where overseas or in local volunteer fire departments.

So, then, we come to the inequality debate, which I covered today again in reviewing Robert Reich’s movie “Saving Capitalism”.   Much of the traditional debate has to do with classes of people, groups, and the way power structures reinforce themselves.  Yet, I still feel this all traces back to what we expect of every individual.

The unpredictability of personal tragedy plays out in many possibilities.  Besides the usual risks of drunk drivers and some older street crime, we have to deal today with ideologically driven terrorism, as if reaches those who have fallen behind in a hyperindividualistic society.  That plays into the immigration debate.  It’s still true, that in the US, the risk of dying from a lone wolf terror act is much lower than most other accidental perils, and such observations are used to justify a kinder policy on immigration (including asylum) than Trump will allow (or promised his base). But it also underscores the idea that those who resent our “elitism” are sometimes turning our free speech, especially on the Internet (with ungated speech) against us, with the terror recruiting, and the ease of finding destructive information online.  (But, remember, it wasn’t that hard in print before the Internet.  Remember Paladin Press?)

I say I don’t like to get into intersectionality or helping people leverage their collective oppression. Yet, everyone belongs to something, to various groups, often starting with family of origin. Hostility happens to groups as well as individuals, so people wind up as individuals pay the price for what their groups are perceived (often wrongly) to others.

That gets us back to the grim possibility of a real national catastrophe promulgated by a determined enemy, most recently by North Korea, as in recent posts.

That is what drives the moralizing of the doomsday preppers (like The Survival Mom on Facebook), who want everyone to have local, vertical value to others in very personal ways working with their hands, before they get any traction in a more global and abstract experience.  This is not a good thing for the dilettantes of the world, although it is possible that sometimes a self-absorbed  “austistic” person like “Shaun Murphy” has such indispensable talents in some area that still fits in.  For the rest of those people “like me”, it very much becomes a matter of “pay your dues” and “right-sizing”.  A lot of people believe that, before you are heard or listened to, you need to fit in to community engagement, as defined by the needs of others. In the future this idea of “no spectators” and putting “your own skin in the game” before you speak, could get formalized.  Morality finally gets allocated down to the individual from all his groups (my “DADT-IV” sequence).

All of that means that there is a great deal of moral premium in an individual’s adapting to whatever circumstances he or she must live in, because others can be affected or targeted, or have to take risks in “your” stead.  That was certainly the case when I was growing up (when “cowardice” was a real crime against the group).  Many protest movements turn out to be manipulative or based on overblown or frivolous interpretations of policy changes, where activists try to shame others into joining and become belligerent on their own. On the other hand, once in a while, you do have to “enlist”.  You have to figure out when it’s for real.  Dealing, as an individual, with the collective combativeness of others has indeed become a real problem.

These are ominous times for individualistic speakers who map out the flaws of everyone else without any particular commitment.  Is that what my own “do ask do tell” and “connecting the dots” have come to?  Despite perceptions to the contrary (and the illusion provided by some court wins as with COPA in 2007).  Although the issue is protracted and complicated, issues like the revoking of net neutrality and of Section 230 downstream liability protections, could seriously erode the continuation of independent speech, without the tribal influences of organizations on one side of another, constantly wanting to take over my voice with their partisan pimping.  Yet, “tribalism” at least raises the questions of how much people really matter (to me), both horizontally (minorities) and vertically (“taking care of your own first”).  Why speak if you don’t care about the people (personally) whose lives you purport to affect?  This is, at least, a “puzzlement” as in “The King and I”.  Well, if they aren’t “good enough” for me (absorbed by my own world), then why will I never show up in my shorts?   And it – addiction to the leverage of one’s own past shame — can become life threatening.  But for many “victims”, it is already too late.

(Posted: 10:45 PM EST Tuesday, Dec. 12, 2017)

Pondering “loss of net neutrality” and Masterpiece Cakeshop — the underlying debates are similar

There are useful parallels in the issues behind both the network neutrality debate (that is, the Trump administration’s determination to end it all on Dec. 14) and the Masterpiece Cakeshop case regarding (in over-simplified rhetoric) balancing anti-discrimination (against gay couples) with free speech and property rights (the latter may be more relevant in the end).  True, net neutrality isn’t back in court yet, but it probably soon will be.

I’ll walk this plank starting with the net neutering (pun?) first.  I have to admit, I personally would feel more comfortable if telecom companies were forced to keep the legal designation as utilities (common carriers), which will end some time after Dec. 14.  But regulating the designation category of any business can have unintended consequences.

So, first, we have to ask ourselves:  may we regulate very large businesses more closely than some small businesses?  Libertarians may not like the idea, but in practice the need to do that is very well established in our system.  We needed “better regulation” after 2008 of large financial institutions to prevent massive Ponzi setups.  Likewise, we’ve long had some regulation in broadcast television.  We’ve had rules that prevent movie studios from owning theaters (they seem to be circumvented sometimes), supposedly to prevent too much power in which films consumers see staying with the largest studios. It’s easy for me to imagine extensions of these rules that would prevent me from producing a film literally from my own books, in order to enhance employment opportunities for union writers. Ajit Pai is correct in opposing too much regulation.  But – it’s true – with big companies, we have different concerns, like anti-trust laws.  The FTC and DOJ can still enforce these against anti-competitive practices by the Comcasts of the world.  As a single author and micro-business person, I can’t monopolize an industry or threaten it.

So then we ask, what is a “utility”.  A telephone company (Ma-Bell in the past) is a utility, but a TV network is not – the later is a content company (and it is regulated because airwave space, like real estate, is finite).  A cable company, however less regulated than a legacy airwaves network, is a content company.  A telecom company offers Internet, digital voice phone, and cable, so it is a hybrid of common carrier and content company.  A social network like Facebook is a content company (and that gets into Section 230 as to whether Facbook is really a “publisher”).  A hosting provider like Blue Host functions like it was a utility for Internet content publishers, but it’s possible imagine that such a company has some influence over content (look at what happened after Charlottesville and the Daily Stormer problem). Most of these companies have fiduciary responsibilities to investors, so regulation is a sensitive issue.  Where does the public interest fit in?  There seem to be competing interests and various ideological scenarios that can play out.  For example, I could imagine (after Charlottesville) some day winding up with a system where no one self publishes until he/she demonstrates some “community engagement”.  But it’s also hard to imagine how such a rule could comport with economic self interest (even if the abrogation of net neutrality would let it happen legally).

I do think that over time small business has reason to worry, if Congress and the courts don’t force some sort of regulatory balance.  Small business could be forced into franchising to afford the branding that large favored websites have.  They could have new requirements for security (https everywhere), website rating, or “pay your own way” reportability some day.  And hurting “really small business” in favor of the oligarchs will not promote local manufacturing; it will not “make America great again” as Trump wants.  So the “Dems” have some reason to want to regulate.  Yet, I have no right to demand that the regulatory environment protect me from more accountability myself, even if that means that a couple years from now many consumers might not be able to access this posting through their own Internet Service provider (which I still doubt will really happen).

I’ll interrupt myself for a moment – and note the PBS interview where one speaker notes that in Portugal, there is no net neutrality and only one provider, and consumers have to pick “bundles”.  Can ordinary sites be accessed in Portugal, like on a hotel’s broadband?  (I was there in 2001 and could.)   The important thing from my perspective is that a consumer be able to get access to everything as today in one package, still reasonably priced if at the high end (as with cable offering all possible channels).

A quick check of Godaddy and other hosting companies still shows inexpensive hosting and an expectation that their business would continue as usual.

I’m left grasping for straws on what the principled answer to Aji Pai’s libertarian-leading claims should be.  You need some regulation, but where do you draw the line?

So then, we circle back to “gay rights” and “marriage equality”  — where we’ve made so much progress even as the safety of the country is threatened (previous post) and as tribalism frays the political process (as with Trump’s election and his horrible appointments in some areas, even if Trump is all right on gay people himself). And we come to the Masterpiece Cakeshop case, argued before the Supreme Court Tuesday.

There are three areas at issue:  property rights, free speech (as connected to religion), and discrimination.  Although I sympathize with the libertarian focus on private property rights (as Jacob Hornberge explains on Intellectual Takeout), civil rights law with respect to public accommodations (retail businesses open to the public) is well established.  The owner can’t rightfully refuse to sell a cake to a gay couple.  Saying we don’t serve “gay weddings” is a bit more ambiguous. I am sympathetic to the idea that the cakeshop owner shouldn’t have to design a cake showing a same-sex couple as décor – but what if his business is based on made-to-order cakes?  What if an artist at a county fair refuses to draw black people, or even transgender people?  The artist has made himself a public accommodation.

How all these things could affect me – it’s all pretty distal.  I could, for example, start a small press (I’ve thought about it) or a small movie production company – because I’m aware of a few projects around the country that could use help that have something in common with what I do.  As a small business – yes, unfettered Internet access from the public would matter (so net neutrality could matter). But the right to chose my own content to promote would matter.  Publishers, and movie studios, like any content-oriented business, pick the content that they want to promote. “Property rights” is what allows them to do that (which they can’t do the same way in places like Russia and China, where the government demands the content producer serve some higher statist common good, just like movie studios had to during WWII). It’s all too easy, though, once I start selling to consumers with a store – what about providing for other kinds of consumers – like blind ones – that I don’t have the scale to serve. I’ve been pestered quite a bit in the past few years to become more involved with scalable operations – to the point that it jeopardizes my time to spend on content and research.

Supplementary legacy posting in network neutrality ending.

Supplementary legacy posting on Masterpiece Cakeshop and legally married same-sex couple in Colorado.

(Posted: Friday, December 8, 2017 at 11:30 AM EST)

Update: Wednesday, December 13, 2017 at about 8:30 PM EST

I visited the start of the FFTF demonstration and vigil at the FCC today, my video here.  Note also the Wall Street Journal links, like that on the fake comments.

Activists warn users about FCC vote Dec. 14 to reverse net neutrality rules; will telecom companies really do anything drastic?

Here we go again.  Yesterday, shortly before boarding a plane to return from a long weekend in “Paradise” (the south Florida beaches – and the Keys, not in such good shape), I got a coercive email form FTFF (Fight for the Future) urging donations and “taking action” for a call-in (link)  The FCC, if you haven’t heard, will vote on suspending Obama’s network neutrality rules, taking the vote on Thursday Fec. 14, 2017.  It’s a little unclear how long the “unchanges” would take to happen.  Expect more litigation.  Ajit Pai gives us his own words on this PDF.

The Washington Post this morning produced a brief article by Brian Fung almost as menacing, hinting that the FCC will soon allow the cats into the refrigerator, with telecom companies dictating which sites readers can have.  (More details in Post here).

Back around the time of the July 12 protest more moderate sites like Vox had opined, and warned on a slower, less equal Internet as probably inevitable.  Indeed, panicky protests from activists scaring readers with sensational emails aren’t

Kate Cox from the Consumerist has an analysis of NCTA’s informal promise (June 30 here) to honor free speech from the small fries. “18 cable companies promise to honor net neutrality; none will guarantee you in writing.”   Along these lines, Comcast had made a lukewarm reassurance to users in this blog post. And see “broadbandforAmerica” weigh in here.

Bloomberg, with its modestly libertarian leanings, has several articles.  The first one I found is a bit muddy, but the Tyler Cowen offers a reassuring perspective here.

Along these lines, it’s important to remember that the regulatory authority would move from the FCC back to the FTC, which cannot make rules about throttling content, but can enforce rules about “transparency.” The FCC would also abandon its classification of backbone telecom companies as “Title II” utility providers.

But a formal editorial in Bloomberg suggests Congress intervene, and require what sounds like common sense: that telecom companies not interfere with normal access to legal websites as it works today, but allow paid fast lanes when the scope is limited (like for medical services, enhancements for gaming or streaming, etc).  Speculation in the past has suggested that doing so would degrade ordinary service, but not if bandwidth in a geographical area has enough capacity (which it doesn’t in some poorer areas). Bloomberg mentions the incidents after Charlottesville this summer when Cloudflare and then other major Internet companies denied Daily Stormer the capacity to be connected or register through their services, so you can make the argument that private companies already have the ability to control what their users are allowed to see based on somewhat arbitrary grounds.  (Daily Stormer’s content was called “immoral”, but not, compared to child pornography or perhaps sex trafficking ads, illegal). While the Stormer content seems quite extreme and unprecedented in the minds of average users, this does sound like a slippery slope.  But Comcast, at least, has promised it would never block lawfully permitted (even if offensive) content (NYTimes article 11/22) and hopefully other major companies like Cox and Verizon will say the same thing.

Bloomberg is hinting, however, that the threat that activists perceive that the loss of net neutrality (which we didn’t have until 2015) to small business or to small websites face, needs to be viewed in the context of other problems, such as erosion of Section 230 (with the Backpage controversy), and concerns over terror recruiting and fake news.  Companies in both telecom transmission and content hosting or service businesses have to wonder about their fiduciary responsibilities to investors, and it could get harder to serve users whose content doesn’t pay its own way. So, yes, the editorial suggests a sensible compromise, which needs Congress.

I would add that DOJ’s litigation to hinder merging of Time Warner with ATT does suggest that “even” the Trump administration is concerned  (in the anti-trust sense) about monopoly and lack of competition.  So, if there is any competition at all, will large telecom companies have any reason to hinder consumer access to all legal content?  I would think not – but we do wonder about incidents like Stormer and rising extremism.

I noticed when on a Southwest flight yesterday that the airlines do their own version of withdrawing net neutrality.  They offer free wifi to passengers, but only to show their content.  You can pay $8 for regular access.

The Wall Street Journal has a fairly balanced perspective by John McKinnon Nov. 20 here.

Wired has a comprehensive story (leading to other links) by Klint Finley explaining that the Administrative Procedure Act, design to prevent capricious regulatory policy changes following partisan administration change, could form the basis to a legal challenge to Pai’s intentions.

“Leftist” Truthout gives this analysis, getting into the regulatory environment pretty well.  Trickle down doesn’t trickle?   Think Progress also talks about erosion of a program giving poor people phone service — and I can recall in my early days of retirement job hunting that distribution of phone cards came up as a possibility.

On Nov. 14, I had posted a legacy blog summary of Pai’s reappointment, and on Oct. 28 this one about his recent testimony in House hearings.

(Posted: Tuesday, Nov. 21, 2017 at 6 PM EST)

Update: Wednesday, Nov. 22, 2017 at 1 PM

The Wall Street Journal weighs in heavily again today, as with Ajit Pai’s own libertarian op-ed that says that loosening regulations will help most users and consumers.  Yes, Reagan-style Republicanism (not Trump) is good for a lot of more sentient consumers.  MacKinnon and Knutson have a newer piece predicting that telecom companies will make deals with large content companies like Facebook and Google to speed up their content.  That worries me because small businesses and niche bloggers who have their own separate hosted sites need to set themselves up this way to “brand” themselves rather than depend on “somebody else’s free service”.  Ajit Pai probably believes that hosting companies (like BlueHost) can set up deals with the large providers (Comcast, Cox, Verizon, etc) and pass the benefits (for slight increases in hosting prices) on to customers who have their own sites.  I suspect it would take some time for all of these changes to happen, maybe most of 2018.

It’s interesting that FCC Commissioner Clyburn has his own piece opposing Pai’s move on the FCC site, here. It’s noteworthy that he thinks telecom companies could disrupt small site access “on a whim”, which sounds unlikely in a real world. There were few such disruptions before 2015 (although I do remember a controversy about BitTorrent).

Trump’s threat to media broadcast licenses, while silly and self-contradictory, shows the dangerous paradoxes of his populism

The media is indeed swooning at Trump’s latest supposed outrages, including his veiled threat to broadcast licenses after NBC supposedly reported his plans for increasing US nuclear supremacy.

Oliver Darcy and Brian Stelter have a typical summary on CNN.

There’s a potpourri of obvious legal problems if Trump were to try to do this. The biggest is that it is owned stations that have licenses, not the networks.  I remember this from my own days working for NBC as a computer programmer in the 1970s. I was responsible for an accounting ledger for “owned and operated stations”.  I remember networks were allowed to own five. Often, individual stations are owned by one company and affiliated with a network, like WJLA is owned by Sinclair and affiliated with ABC.  Often the stations don’t follow the bidding of owners.  Sinclair is a “conservative” media company that has played up the power grid threats which I have reported here, but WJLA has toned down these reports, even though I’ve encouraged WJLA (which knows me) to take them seriously.

Another interesting point is that the president doesn’t have the full legal authority to order the FCC exactly what to do. Furthermore Trump’s appointment, Ajit Pai, has favored loosening and eliminating Obama’s network neutrality rules in a way that would benefit Comcast, which owns NBC.  Even so, loosening of network neutrality rules really hasn’t in big companies like Comcast trying to throttle smaller businesses and individual speakers from having fair treatment in access to self-broadcast on their telecom pipes (something that the “liberals” feared more than the gutting of Section 230 as a threat to user speech).

It’s ironic that, in his propagation of “the people” and populism, Trump really hasn’t gone after individual elites (like standalone bloggers) as much as he had certain big companies (mainstream liberal media) whom he can portray to the “people” as their enemies with fake news.  But, of course, it is the world of user-generated content that the Russians infected with their fake news barrage in order to divide the people further.  But Trump wants the people divided. He believes that it is the strongest tribes that survive, not the strongest individuals.  Yet, in Trump’s individual behavior, it’s obvious that Trump admires strong young adult individuals – look at who he hired on “The Apprentice”.  At a personal level, he probably does admire young scientists, young tech entreprenuers, and even young conservative journalists who would show him up.   More contradictions on the LGBT side: he seems to admire plenty of LGBT individuals, but attacks the intersectional politics of the LGBT activist establishment with all his appointments.

The mainstream media’s reaction to this latest flap over violating the first amendment (the freedom of the press standards apart from the more general freedom of speech in the First Amendment) has sometimes been a bit silly and hyperbolic.  Look at how the Washington Post (“Democracy dies in darkbess”) asks “can he really do that?” by dragging you into listening to an overlong podcast.  By now everybody has forgotten all about “opening up libel laws.” British style (as Kitty Kelly explains in 1997, truth doesn’t always defend against libel, especially if absolute truth no longer exists).

Trump’s latest action on health care (like with immigration) shows he is willing to let “ordinary people” become pawns as he makes his ideological points, which really do have some merit.  Yup, making health young people buy coverage they don’t need sets a bad example for other areas.  Yes, it may really be illegal for the Executive to continue premium and copay support for poor people until Congress does its job, does its math, and can explicitly authorize it (sounds like how he handles DACA).

And, yup, previous administrations may have appeased North Korea too much, and a “domino theory” that tends to enlist ordinary citizens as potential combatants may have some real merit (as I covered particularly in my first DADT book).  But all of this, right now, sets up a very dangerous situation, the most perilous for the safety of ordinary Americans since the Cuban Missile Crisis, even more so than 9/11.  If Trump really wants his zeal for populism to wind up with martial law (as one friend on FB suggests), or a “purification” (as another puts it), he might have his duel in the Sun.

I also wanted to point out Sean Illing’s compendium on Vox, “20 of America’s top political scientists gathered to discuss our democracy. They’re scared”.  One out of six Americans is OK with military rule (like in the Philippines — that’s like saying one out of six movies should be a horror movie).  Our society of individualism requires a talent for individualized abstraction.  That tends to leave out a lot of “average joes”.  But all of us find more meaning in power structures and “station in life” than is healthy for freedom.

(Posted: Friday, Oct. 13, 2017 at 11:30 PM EDT)


Petitions to elected officials on largely special interest bills

I just wanted to make a note about the effectiveness of online petitions to contact politicians in “emergency” situations to block all kinds of harmful bills.

A recent good example was a call in the New York Times for public “blowback” by David Leonhardt, “Citizen Action on Health Care”, which came out right before the Senate was voting on a Repeal-only bill.

I generally do post petitions on by blogs or social media feeds. Usually I don’t personally respond to them.

I feel that sending elected representatives form letters written by others (even if the non-profit has provided tools for personalizing the letter) wastes “speech capital”, and lessens the impact later when a more substantial and constructive approach on a bill of more relevance to e would really work.

Opposition to many “bad” bills is often well-founded on anticipated unintended consequences.  But frequently the likelihood that the harm will really happen is speculative, and predicated on associated failures of other layers of government or lack of trust in companies.

For example, much of the opposition to the various health care bills is predicated on the idea that down the road the states will refuse to do their jobs for less fortunate constituents.  In a federal system, it is always an issue how far the federal government should go to protect citizens within states.  But I know from gay issues, as with the history of sodomy laws (and a particularly disturbing close-call in the Texas legislature in the 1980s) that even I can be wanting that “federal” consideration. And we certainly know that with southern states and civil rights in the past.

So rather than opposing every bill that gets proposed because somebody gets hurt, I’d like to see us solve the problem.  How to we cover everybody, keep health care costs reasonable, avoid the waiting lists, handle the pre-existing conditions?  Subsidies, reinsurance, policies about end-of-life?  You have to do the math.

Opposition to other bills in my world is speculative.  On the network neutrality petitions, I’m asked to believe that telecom companies really do have an incentive to cut off smaller businesses from even being reachable through them.  This doesn’t make much business sense, and flies against what trade associations say.  Yet, still, I’m concerned.

On the recent Backpage-driven erosion of Section 230, I’d be more concerned about the hype (which the major media haven’t quite caught on to yet).  There’s an existential problem if indeed states (federalism again) could force every service provider or hosting company to prescreen every user poser for sex traffkcking, and I wonder how well the public understands this – it takes a certain level of cognition.  There’s also the idea of “subsumed risk” or shared responsibility, as I’ve hinted before.  The apt comparison would be to use measures that work for controlling child pornography now – it usually requires that a service producer have knowledge, when then creates a duty to report.  It isn’t perfect (and could lead to framing of people) but it seems like a balance.

Even so, an emergency call-in campaign at some point in the future to defeat SESTA sounds unlikely to work.  (I do remember SOPA in 2011-2012.)  We do have to figure out how to solve this problem.

I can imagine the petitions that will go around if we have a debt ceiling crisis at the end of September.  But, no, it’s not as likely seniors stop getting Social Security as the doomsday sayers claim.

I wanted to note also that I don’t usually have a direct relationship with most of my readers, so I don’t do mailing lists, subscriptions, tip jars, giveaway contests, fund raising for organizations (illustration),  or various specific marketing campaigns often (I have done some for the books through Facebook and through the publisher).  Part of the reason is that my content is about “connecting the dots” and covers very broad areas.  I’m not anybody’s life coach.  Yet, when you put yourself out there, people approach you as if they expected you to be.  In this FEE article by Richard Ebeling, point 3 seems applicable.  Real immediate needs of consumers ought to matter, too.

(Posted: Thursday, Aug. 10, 2017 at 2:30 PM EDT)

Who “gets to be recognized” as a legitimate “journalist”?

So, who gets to call the self a journalist?

The recent queasiness in Congress and the FCC about matters like Section 230 and network neutrality bring this question back.  Yes, I’ve talked about the controversies over “citizen journalism” before, like the day before the Election on November 8, 2016.  And recently (July 19) I encountered a little dispute about access requiring “press credentials”.

The nausea that President Donald Trump says the “media” gives him seems to be directed at mainstream, larger news organizations with center-liberal bias – that is, most big city newspapers, and most broadcast networks, and especially CNN – he calls them all purveyors of “fake news” as if that were smut.  More acceptable are the “conservative” Fox and OANN.  Breitbart and Milo Yiannopoulos (with his own new site) seem to be in the perpetual twilight of a tidally locked planet.  Perhaps I am in the same space;  Trump doesn’t seem to have the same antipathy (or hostility) to “independent” or “citizen” journalists (which I had feared he would when he said he didn’t trust computers), but a lot of other people do.

I digress for a moment. Coincidentally has set up his “Trump News Channel” on Facebook (Washington Post story) but the URL for it reverts to “Dropcatch”, with Twitter won’t even allow as a link as supposed spam.

The basic bone politicians and some business people pick with journalists is that “they” spectate, speculate and criticize, but don’t have to play, like right out of the script of the Netflix thriller “Rebirth”.  Politicians, hucksters, sales professionals, and perhaps many legitimate business professionals, and heads of families – all of them have accountabilities to real people, whether customers or family members.  They have to go to bat for others.  They have to manipulate others and concern themselves with the size of their “basis”.  Journalists can do this only through double lives.

I could make the analogy to kibitzing a chess game, rather than committing yourself to 5 hours of concentration in rated game.  (Yes, in the position below, Black’s sacrifice hasn’t worked.)

But, of course, we know that renowned journalists have paid their dues, most of all in conflict journalism. Sebastian Junger broke his leg working as an arborist before writing “The Perfect Storm”. Bob Woodruff has a plate in his skull but recovered completely after being wounded in Iraq. Military services actually have their own journalists and public affairs.  Young American University journalism graduate Trey Yingst helped found News2share before becoming a White House correspondent, but had done assignments in Ukraine, Gaza, Rwanda, Uganda, Ferguson, and was actually pinned down at night during the Baltimore riots in April 2015.

That brings us back to the work of small-fry, like me, where “blogger journalism” has become the second career, pretty much zoning out other possible opportunities which would have required direct salesmanship of “somebody else’s ideas” (“We give you the words”), or much more ability to provide for specific people (maybe students) in directly interpersonal ways.

Besides supporting my books, what I generally do with these blogs is re-report what seem like critical general-interest news stories in order to “connect the dots” among them.  Sometimes, I add my own footage and observations when possible, as with a recent visit to fire-damaged Gatlinburg.  With demonstrations (against Trump, about climate change, for LGBT) I tend to walk for a while with some of them but mainly film and report (especially when the issue is narrower, such as with Black Lives Matter).  I generally don’t venture into dangerous areas (I visited Baltimore Sandtown in 2015 in the day time).

I generally don’t respond to very narrow petitions for emergency opposition to bills that hurt some narrow interest group.  What I want to do is encourage real problem solving.  Rather than join in “solidarity” to keep Congress from “repealing” Obamacare by itself, I want to focus on the solutions (subsidies, reinsurance, the proper perspective on federalism, etc).  But I also want to focus attention on bigger problems, many of them having to do with “shared responsibility” or “herd immunity” concepts, that don’t get very consistent attention from mainstream media (although conservative sites do more on these matters).  These include filial responsibility, the tricky business of reducing downstream liability issue on the Web (the Section230 issue, on the previous post, where I said Backpage can make us all stay for detention), risks taken by those offering hosting to immigrants (refugees and asylum seekers), and particularly national security issues like the shifting of risk from asymmetric terror back to rogue states (North Korea), and most of all, infrastructure security, especially our three major electric power grids.

My interest in book self-publication and citizen journalism had started in the 1990s with “gays in the military”, linking back to my own narrative, and then expanded gradually to other issues about “shared risks” as well as more traditional ideas about discrimination.  I had come into this “second career” gradually from a more circumscribed world as an individual contributor in mainframe information technology. “Don’t ask, don’t tell” had suddenly become a particularly rich issue in what it could lead to in other areas.  So, yes, I personally feel that, even as an older gay man, the LGBTQ world has more to worry about than bathroom bills (Pulse).  I think the world we have gotten used to could indeed be dialed back by indignation-born “purification” (as a friend calls it) if we don’t get our act together on some things (like the power grid issue).  But I don’t believe we should have to all become doomsday preppers either.  We should solve these problems.

A critical component of journalism is objectivity and presentation of Truth, as best Truth can be determined. Call it impartiality. You often hear Trump supporters say that, whatever Trump’s crudeness and ethical problems, what Trump promotes helps them and particularly family members who depend on them.  Of course many journalists have families without compromising their work. But this observation seems particularly relevant to me.  I don’t have my own children largely because I didn’t engage in the desires or the behaviors than result in having that responsibility.  I can “afford” to remain somewhat emotionally aloof from a lot of immediate needs.

In fact, I’ve sometimes had to field the retort from some people that, while some of the news out there may be dire, I don’t need to be the person they hear it from.  I could be putting a target on my own back and on others around me.  Indeed, some people act as if they believe that everything happens within a context of social hierarchy and coercion.

My own “model” for entering the news world has two aspects that seem to make it vulnerable to future policy choices (like those involving 230 or maybe net neutrality). One of them is that it doesn’t pay its own way.  I use money from other sources, both what I earned and invested and somewhat what I inherited (which arguably could be deployed as someone else’s safety net, or which could support dependents, maybe asylum seekers if we had a system more like Canada’s for dealing with that issue).  That means, it cannot be underwritten if it had to be insured, for example.  I can rebut this argument, or course, by saying, well, what did you want me to do, get paid to write fake news?  That could support a family.  (No, I really never believed the Comet Ping Pong stuff, but the gunman who did believe it an attack it claimed he was an “independent journalist.”  I do wonder how supermarket tabloids have avoided defamation claims even in all the years before the Internet – because nobody believed them?  Some people obviously do.)   No, they say. we want you to use the background that supported you as a computer programmer for decades and pimp our insurance products. (“We give you the words,” again.)  Indeed, my withdrawal from the traditional world where people do things through sales middlemen makes it harder for those who have to sell for a living.

The other aspect is that of subsumed risk.  I can take advantage of a permissive climate toward self-distribution of content, which many Internet speakers and small businesses take for granted, but which can be seriously and suddenly undermined by policy, for the “common good” under the ideology of “shared responsibility”.  I won’t reiterate here the way someone could try to bargain with me over this personally – that could make an interesting short film experiment. Yes, there can be court challenges, but the issues litigated with CDA and COPA don’t reliably predict how the First Amendment applies when talking about distribution of speech rather than its content, especially with a new literalist like Gorsuch on the Supreme Court.

A lot of “Trader Joe” type people would say, there should be some external validation of news before it is published.   Of course, that idea feeds the purposes of authoritarian rules, like Vladimir Putin or Xi Jinping, or perhaps Donald Trump.  But we could see that kind of environment someday if we don’t watch out.

(Posted: Monday, August 7, 2017 at 4 PM EDT)

Will user-generated public content be around forever? The sex-trafficking issue and Section 230 are just the latest problem

It used to be very difficult to “get published”.  Generally, a third party would have to be convinced that consumers would really pay to buy the content you had produced.  For most people that usually consisted of periodical articles and sometimes books.  It was a long-shot to make a living as a best-selling author, as there was only “room at the top” for so many celebrities.  Subsidy “vanity” book publishing was possible, but usually ridiculously expensive with older technologies.

That started to change particularly in the mid 1990s as desktop publishing became cheaper, as did book manufacturing, to be followed soon by POD, print on demand, by about 2000.  I certainly took advantage of these developments with my first “Do Ask Do Tell” book in 1997.

Furthermore, by the late 1990s, it had become very cheap to have one’s own domain and put up writings for the rest of the world to find with web browsers.  And the way search engine technology worked by say 1998, amateur sites with detailed and original content had a good chance of being found passively and attracting a wide audience.  In addition to owned domains, some platforms, such as Hometown AOL at first, made it very easy to FTP content for unlimited distribution.  At the same time, Amazon and other online mass retail sites made it convenient for consumers to find self-published books, music, and other content.

Social media, first with Myspace and later with the much more successful Facebook, was at first predicated on the idea of sharing content with a known whitelisted audience of “friends” or “followers”.  In some cases (Snapchat), there was an implicit understanding that the content was not to be permanent. But over time, many social media platforms (most of all, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram) were often used to publish brief commentaries and links to provocative news stories on the Web, as well as videos and images of personal experiences.  Sometimes they could be streamed Live.  Even though friends and followers were most likely to see it (curated by feed algorithms somewhat based on popularity in the case of Facebook) many of them were public for all to see,  Therefore, an introverted person like me who does not like “social combat” or hierarchy or does not like to be someone else’s voice (or to need someone else’s voice) could become effective in influencing debate.   It’s also important that modern social media were supplemented by blogging platforms, like Blogger, WordPress and Tumblr, which, although they did use the concept of “follower”,  were more obviously intended generally for public availability. The same was usually true of a lot of video content on YouTube and Vimeo.

The overall climate regarding self-distribution of one’s own speech to a possibly worldwide audience seemed permissive, in western countries and especially the U.S.   In authoritarian countries, political leaders would resist.  It might seem like an admission of weakness that an amateur journalist could threaten a regime, but we saw what happened, for example, with the Arab Spring.  A permissive environment regarding distribution of speech seemed to undercut the hierarchy and social command that some politicians claimed they needed to protect “their own people.”

Gradually, challenges to self-distribution evolved.   There was an obvious concern that children could find legitimate (often sexually oriented) content aimed for cognitive adults.  The first big problem was the Communications Decency Act of 1996.  The censorship portion of this would be overturned by the Supreme Court in 1997 (I had attended the oral arguments).  Censorship would be attempted again with the Child Online Protection Act, or COPA, for which I was a sublitigant under the Electronic Frontier Foundation.  It would be overturned in 2007 after a complicated legal battle, in the Supreme Court twice.  But the 1996 Communications Decency Act, or more properly known as the Telecommunications Act, also contained a desirable provision, that service providers (ranging from Blogging or video-sharing platforms to telecommunications companies and shared hosting companies) would be shielded from downstream liability for user content for most legal problems (especially defamation). That is because it was not possible for a hosting company or service platform to prescreen every posting for possible legal problems (which is what book publishers do, and yet require author indemnification!)  Web hosting and service companies were required to report known (as reported by users) child pornography and sometimes terrorism promotion.

At the same time, in the copyright infringement area, a similar provision developed, the Safe Harbor provision of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998, which shielded service providers from secondary liability for copyright infringement as long as they took down offending content from copyright owners when notified.  Various threats have developed to the mechanism, most of all SOPA, which got shot down by user protests in early 2012 (Aaron Swartz was a major and tragic figure).

The erosion of downstream liability protections would logically become the biggest threat to whether companies can continue to offer users the ability to put up free content without gatekeepers and participate in political and social discussions on their own, without proxies to speak for them, and without throwing money at lobbyists.  (Donald Trump told supporters in 2016, “I am your voice!”  Indeed.  Well, I don’t need one as long as I have Safe Harbor and Section 230.)

So recently we have seen bills introduced in the House (ASVFOSTA, “Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Trafficking Act”) in April (my post), and SESTA, Stop Enabling of Sex Traffickers Act” on Aug. 1 in the Senate (my post). These bills, supporters say, are specifically aimed at sex advertising sites, most of all Backpage..  Under current law, plaintiffs (young women or their parents) have lost suits because Backpage can claim immunity under 230.  There have been other controversies over the way some platforms use 230, especially Airbnb.  The companies maintain that they are not liable for what their users do.

Taken rather literally, the bills (especially the House bill) might be construed as meaning that any blogging platform or hosting provider runs a liability risk if a user posts a sex trafficking ad or promotion on the user’s site.  There would be no reasonable way Google or Blue Host or Godaddy or any similar party could anticipate that a particular user will do this.  Maybe some automated tools could be developed, but generally most hosting companies depend on users to report illegal content.  (It’s possible to screen images for water marks for known child pornography, and it’s possible to screen some videos and music files for possible copyright, and Google and other companies do some of this.)

Bob Portman, a sponsor of the Senate bill, told CNN and other reporters that normal service and hosting companies are not affected, only sites knowing that they host sex ads.  So he thinks he can target sites like Backpage, as if they were different.  In a sense, they are:  Backpage is a personal commerce-facilitation site, not a hosting company or hosting service (which by definition has almost no predictive knowledge of what subject matter any particular user is likely to post, and whether that content may include advertising or may execute potential commercial transactions, although use of “https everywhere” could become relevant).  Maybe the language of the bills could be tweaked to make this clearer. It is true that some services, especially Facebook, have become pro-active in removing or hiding content that flagrantly violates community norms, like hate speech (and that itself gets controversial).

Eric Goldman, a law professor at Santa Clara, offered analysis suggesting that states might be emboldened to try to pass laws requiring pre-screening of everything, for other problems like fake news.  The Senate bill particularly seems to encourage states to pass their own add-on laws. They could try to require pre-secreening.  It’s not possible for an ISP to know whether any one of the millions of postings made by customers could contain sex-trafficking before the fact, but a forum moderator or blogger monitoring comments probably could.  Off hand, it would seem that allowing a comment with unchecked links (which I often don’t navigate because of malware fears) could run legal risks (if the link was to a trafficking site under the table).  Again, a major issue should be whether the facilitator “knows”.  Backpage is much more likely to “know” than a hosting provider.  A smaller forum host might “know” (but Reddit would not).

From a moral perspective, we have something like the middle school problem of detention for everybody for the sins of a few.  I won’t elaborate here on the moral dimensions of the idea that some of us don’t have our own skin in the game in raising kids or in having dependents, as I’ve covered that elsewhere.  But you can see that people will perceive a moral tradeoff, that user-generated content on the web, the way the “average Joe” uses it, has more nuisance value (with risk of cyberbullying, revenge porn, etc) than genuine value in debate, which tends to come from people like me with fewer immediate personal responsibilities for others.

So, is the world of user-generated content “in trouble”?  Maybe.  It would sound like it could come down to a business model problem.  It’s true that shared hosting providers charge annual fees for hosting domains, but they are fairly low (except for some security services).  But free content service platforms (including Blogger, WordPress, YouTube, and Facebook and Twitter) do say “It’s free” now – they make their money on advertising connected to user content.   A world where people use ad blockers and “do not track” would seem grim for this business model in the future.  Furthermore, a  lot of people have “moral” objections to this model – saying that only authors should get the advertising revenue – but that would destroy the social media and UGC (user-generated content) world as we know it.  Consider the POD book publishing world. POD publishers actually do perform “content evaluation” for hate speech and legal problems, and do collect hefty fees for initial publication.  But lately they have become more aggressive with authors about books sales, a sign that they wonder about their own sustainability.

There are other challengers for those whose “second careers” like mine are based on permissive UGC.  One is the weakening of network neutrality rules, as I have covered here before.  The second comment period ends Aug. 17.  The telecom industry, through its association, has said there is no reason for ordinary web sites to be treated any differently than they have been, but some observers fear that some day new websites could have to pay to be connected to certain providers (beyond what you pay for a domain name and hosting now).

There have also been some fears in the past, which have vanished with time.  One flare-up started in 2004-2005 when some observers that political blogs could violate federal election laws by being construed as indirect “contributions”.   A more practically relevant problem is simply online reputation and the workplace, especially in a job where one has direct reports, underwriting authority, or the ability to affect a firm to get business with “partisanship”.  One point that gets forgotten often is that, indeed, social media sites can be set up with full privacy settings so that they’re not searchable.  Although that doesn’t prevent all mishaps (just as handwritten memos or telephone calls can get you in trouble at work in the physical world) it could prevent certain kinds of workplace conflicts.  Public access to amateur content could also be a security concern, in a situation where an otherwise obscure individual is able to become “famous” online, he could make others besides himself into targets.

Another personal flareup occurred in 2001 when I tried to buy media perils insurance and was turned down for renewal because of the lack of a third-party gatekeeper. This issue flared into debate in 2008 briefly but subsided.  But it’s conceivable that requirements could develop that sites (at least through associated businesses) pay for themselves and carry media liability insurance, as a way of helping account for the community hygiene issue of potential bad actors.

All of this said, the biggest threat to online free expression could still turn out to be national security, as in some of my recent posts.  While the mainstream media have talked about hackers and cybersecurity (most of all with elections), physical security for the power grid and for digital data could become a much bigger problem than we thought if we attract nuclear or EMP attacks, either from asymmetric terrorism or from rogue states like North Korea.  Have tech companies really provided for the physical security of their clouds and data given a threat like this?

Note the petition and suggested Congressional content format suggested by Electronic Frontier Foundation for bills like SESTA. It would be useful to know how British Commonwealth and European countries handle the downstream liability issues, as a comparison point. It’s also important to remember that a weakened statutory downstream liability protection for a service provider does not automatically create that liability.

(Posted: Thursday, Aug. 3, 2017 at 10:30 PM EDT)

Bloggers, press credentials, and “legitimacy”

Last week I went to a small demonstration about the lapsing of network neutrality on the Capitol grounds.  After all the speeches, Sen. Markin (D-MA) asked if there were questions, from the press (non-restrictive, I thought). But when I didn’t have a media company employing me (I said I was “independent”) I was “silenced”. Here is my legacy blog account of the incident.

Then, yesterday “it” happened again.  I got an email from a PR company about an opportunity to interview a particular transgender activist, who was going to speak in Washington at a meeting of the American Federation of Teachers.  I asked if I could just go to the meeting.  Apparently, only if I worked for a media company.  I got the impression the PR person wouldn’t have offered the interview had he realized I work solo.

In fact, I get a lot of emails asking if I would interview someone.  Some, but probably a minority, of them mention the possibility of articles on one of my legacy Blogger sites (like “Bill of GLBT Issues”) which obviously don’t come from a “professional news organization.” Most of these invitations are with persons with very narrowly focused niche issues (sometimes embedded in identity politics), or sometimes very specific products or services to sell (of the “self-help” variety), not of broadband interest, so I usually don’t try to follow up.  But what if I got an invitation to talk to someone involved in an issue I view as critical and underreported by the mainstream press, like power grid security?

One of the best links on this issue seems to come from NPPA, “The Voice of Visual Journalists”, which poses the blunt question “How do I obtain press credentials if I do not work for a newspaper or magazine or I am a freelancer?”

There is a US Press Association which appears to offer cards for a membership fee, and I’m not sure how well recognized it is by the industry.

Some videos suggest that “YouTubers” and Bloggers can get press passes for trade shows (like CES) if they are persistent enough.

But many other sources on the Web (for example, WikiHow) suggest that you need to work for someone, and get paid for what you do, at least with a contractual agreement if not an actual employee.   It would be a good question if you can work for your own company in this sense.  Maybe you would have to register your business with the state you live or work in, or show that it pays its own way with normal accounting.

Of course, it’s obvious that many events have to keep the audience small and limited because of space and security reasons (White House briefings).

On the other hand, many events (such as QA’s for newly released motion pictures at film festivals) are open to the public (buying tickets) and take questions from anyone.  Most of the video I present on my parallel “media reviews” blog (older than this one) come from this setup.

There’s a potential dark cloud down the road regarding the issue of press credentials or legitimacy (v. amateurism).  Imagine a world a few years from now where all network neutrality has been eliminated, and only the websites of “credentialed” organizations can be connected to ISP’s   Sounds like Russia or China, maybe.

On the other hand, Donald Trump has expressed a dislike of mainstream “liberal” media companies (CNN, most of the television broadcast networks, most of the big city newspapers), but respects only outlets like Fox, OANN, and maybe even Breitbart, maybe even Milo.  Maybe he actually respects me.

For the record, let me say that I am interested in working with news outlets on some critical issues.  I can’t give more details right now.

(Posted: Wednesday, July 19, 2017 at 11 AM)

As “Internet-Wide Day of Action to Save Net Neutrality” approaches, the doomsday debate heats up

Just as “The Event” approaches July 12, I got into more debate over network neutrality expiration in the U.S. on Facebook yesterday, and here is a summary of the latest in my own following of the topic.

If you want to make a comment to the FCC (before July 17), go to the “browse-popular-proceedings” link, where you can search and look for comments people have already made. The proper from to submit an “express comment” seems to be this one.

The FCC has already been bombarded by spam comments, some of them hateful or even racist toward the FCC chairman, according to this story on the Verge (Vox Media).

The Internet and Television Association makes this comment, reaffirming its commitment to an “open Internet”, which it followed up with paid print newspaper ads.  The New York Times had thrown cold water on Pai’s promised of “voluntary compliance” with no-throttle ethics in this editorial late in April.

But back in April, Rand Fishkin, on a Marketing Industry WhiteBoard, wrote a particularly telling predictive analysis of what could happen over time. The comments (closed now) add a lot to the debate and are well worth reading.

The most likely adverse scenario (which would probably take two or three years to develop) sounds like it comes out of the T-Mobile’s “illegal” plan a few months back to offer a bare-bones service that didn’t offer full Internet. There would seem to be a possibility that the telecom industry could treat websites as cable channels. It sounds like cheap, basic plans could offer families (especially consumers not particularly interested in the Web, or those wanting to shield small children) only a few sites favored by the ISP. More expensive plans could offer everything, as we know it today, with the Cadillac plans offering super high speeds in some areas. A small business owner could have to consider whether to pay for hookup so that lower-income or less wired people could find the business online. It might not be worth it. This could be a serious hindrance for some kinds of small businesses, especially tech innovations. But I’ve seen elements of this debate before, as with COPA a few years ago (as to how to screen objectionable content from minors).

This kind of development might not affect a blogger (with my “do ask do tell” model) like me much, because, frankly, I probably interact mostly with the choir, with people who want to be wired all the time anyway. Not to be offensive, but I doubt very many “blue collar” families in “Trump country” find me anyway.

This sort of a development sounds like a bigger threat to artists and musicians who often sell directly through their own domains (which POD publishers today try to goad authors into doing with volume discounts, bypassing Amazon laziness).

That’s one reasons there are some “collective” sites like Bandcamp (musicians) and Hubspace (writers) which probably offer some supervision and could offer bargaining power in a no-net envurinment. Bandcamp is interesting, as I know a number of composers and performers (especially in the classical music area) in New York, Los Angeles, and overseas. The classical music industry has a commissioning business model for new works, which can create certain ethical tensions. Some artists are starting to rely on Bandcamp more, and even want to train consumers to learn to buy from it, and get used to PayPal, rather than the laziness of the rich-man’s Amazon. Bandcamp was also developed as a way to encourage consumers to pay reasonably for content rather than use illegal downloads or get lazy with Youtube; it tries to balance out the “Its free” problem (previous posting).

Until now, it’s been considered more “professional” for artists and writers to develop their own WordPress sites under their own domain names. “No-net-neutrality” could change this, encouraging collectives and also throwing people back to free platforms like Blogger and free WordPress – but can we count on the business models for these platforms to last forever, given the resistance of the public to (including me) to engage ads (partly out of valid security and privacy concerns)? In the past few years, I’ve generally come to agree with pundits (like Blogger’s Nitecruz) that you shouldn’t depend on someone else’s free service.

I’ve also noted that hosting companies like Blue Host could help assuage the problem with subdomain and add-on structures that they have already set up. I recently had an informal chat with Site Lock on how all this works.

I note the debate over whether bloggers need specific attention to SEO, and whether that would change as net neutrality in the U.S. dissolves. I think it’s particularly important for people who depend on selling to others from a small business and whose website really can bring in sales.  That’s not true of all small businesses, and it’s not true of “provocateur” (yes, Milo!!) blogs like mine.  For these, the content text itself seems to carry in visitors.  “Blogtyrant’s” idea of email subscription mailing lists (in these days when people fight off spam as a security threat) seems to make the most sense to narrow niche businesses with customers who have specific needs that the business owner serves, including with its online activity. Remember the listservers (pre-social media) of the 1990s.

Still, the long range fallout from a “no net neutrality” position in the US could be pressure on small, neighborhood businesses. I think about my favorite gay disco, Town DC, which will close because of pressure big corporate real estate in another year. My favorite Westover Market and Beer Garden in Arlington could face similar pressures eventually, after all it has put into the business. I think of the independent book stores (that used to include Lambda Rising) which my POD publisher pesters me to cater to. I think of independent authors who sell books in higher volumes from their own sites than I do. Some local businesses are truly “local” and may not be affected as much by national web policies as they already depend on foot traffic. But the overall trend from loss of net neutrality could even be more pressure on small businesses to disappear or be bought out by large corporations.

In a recent op-ed, David Brooks noted that conservative philosophy, properly applied, emphasizes local activity, people helping one another, and local ownership of enterprise, and initiative.  That accompanies personal freedom at individualized levels, as Andrew Sullivan argued so well in the 1990s. What worries me is that the Trump administration seems to view conservatism as Putin-style oligarchy, where everyone is “rightsized” into some role of national purpose.

I’m not much into joining collective demonstrations simply against the “rich” or those “better off” than I am, as I am likewise more privileged than some people. I like to target my activity where I can make a real difference in how a policy turns out (I did this pretty well with “gays in the military” some years ago) by encouraging critical thinking. As a general matter, telecom, like any industry (most of all, banking), needs some regulation in the public interest once there are too few companies for genuine competition. (That’s partly what anti-trust is all about.) But you could say an individual like me, who doesn’t have a stake in life with specific dependents, ought to be reined in when my operations don’t pay their own way. Fairness looks both ways. When seeking regulation (just as with health care) be careful what you ask for.

(Posted: Friday, June 30, 2017 at 1:45 PM EDT)

Update: July 12

Report on my visit to a demonstration at the Capitol, here.

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)