What if individual blogs and social media accounts had to pay their own way (to the speaker, not the providing company)?

This Monday morning (like the 60s song), I waited in line at the US Post Office to buy stamps behind people with much more complicated transactions. I asked the manager why the machines were no longer around, and she said that the particular branch doesn’t make enough revenue.  I squawked about customer service.  (Yes, it’s faster at UPS or FedEx, totally private companies.) When I finally bought my stamps on a debit card, it did not have the security chip.  Was that because that branch didn’t do enough business?

Now I turn to the seemingly unrelated topic of user-generated content on the Web, especially those belonging to individuals, ranging from sites (usually embedding blogs), to free-standing free blogs (Blogger, WordPress, Tumblr, etc), to  “true social media” to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram,  and similar (Myspace?)

Niche blogs, as I noted in the previous post, will go right off the hook here.  Generally they support small businesses selling very specific products (which may be authored books or music) or services to customers wanting to pay for them.  I know, porn can be profitable and can skew the remaining discussion.

My content, however, presents a more troubling scenario.  It doesn’t pay for itself.  Yes, I have the money to afford it.  Some of it is inherited, which raises its own moral questions for another day. But even before my “retirement” in 2001, I had saved pretty well and had a decent nest egg from my own career. My first book (1997), however self-published, was easily paid for by gains in Bill Clinton’s stock market with profits of real companies.  Why should there be anything wrong with this? Isn’t that just supporting free speech with the normal mechanics of democratic capitalism?

Yes, I get pestered as to why I don’t go on tours trying to sell books, or run by own retail businesses.  Or why I don’t play ball and try to make the advertising opportunities profitable on their own.

No, I seem to be a Professional Spectator (the bane of the Netflix film “Rebirth”).  Call me a low-level provocateur, a more socially acceptable Milo.   I commit the sin of “criticizing” the proposals of others to solve social justice and national security problems without having to put my own skin in the game.  So you can see how some people could see me as messing with them, trying to deny them the safety net they might otherwise have (or maybe even indirect claims on my own estate).

What I’m trying to do is account for everything that can affect any political debate than can affect “me”.  So I have a repository of playing “devil’s advocate”.  I want to make sure that policy makers really do consider everything.  And there is plenty of evidence that my “free content” has often reached “people who matter”, even though I seem to be “preaching to the choir”, especially given the way today’s news get aggregated by social media according to the visitor’s previously tracked behaviors.

I am very concerned about the future of user-generated content, as I have written several times before on this blog (especially with my post on citizen journalism on Nov. 7, the day before the Election). While some of us feel personally proud of our own knowledge dissemination, the majority of users seem relatively frivolous at best, vulnerable to manipulation by outside powers (the fake news problem), or, at worst, hostile or criminal, engaging in cyberbulling or revenge porn, sex-trafficking or stalking, or criminal hacking (big with overseas users from some parts of the world), or recruiting for terrorism and radicalism.  The degree or volume of “mal-use” has become shocking on the past few years, especially since Syria fell apart (and maybe we can blame Obama if we want to).  As I’ve noted before, both Trump and Hillary Clinton had hinted at wanting some sort of Internet kill switch to stop gratuitous activity on the Web if justified by asymmetric warfare threats (statements back in December 2015).  Both seemed naïve about how much of the recruiting takes place on the Dark Web or under high encryption, a long way from ordinary social media.

The biggest legislative threat may be the gutting of Section 230, for which there is already some legislation floating in Congress related to the Backpage scandal.  We’d need to know how service providers operate profitably in Europe where downstream liability protections are weaker than in the U.S.  But the basic premise remains:  a social media company, or even a web hosting company, cannot continue to offer its service (even if paid for by user subscription) if it is required to pre-screen every post before it goes public.

I can think of another threat, at least on paper, related to my USPS analogy.  (Yes, “The Postman Always Rings Twice” and “Body Heat”: I’ve seen the classic films).  Imagine if every user had to make his or her own content pay for itself.  In the POD book world, that would mean that books that don’t sell get taken down and off Amazon and BN.  In the blogging world, the content would have to show it was connected to products or services that earn their own way by normal accounting.  OK, this is Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal”.  I hope so.

The way this would happen would be (ironically) the extension of Obamacare to Internet liability activity. No one would be able to justify the insurance if the activity did not make money on its own.  Schemes like his were attempted in 2001 (with the National Writers Union) and later 2008 but don’t seem to have been particularly successful (obviously, anti-selection and the subjectivity of the underwriting is a problem;  combining this with umbrella policies reflects a superficial idea of the problem).

The ”moral” justification, or legal one in First Amendment terms, starts with recognizing that a speaker may have the right to say what she wants (outside of “fire in a crowded theater” stuff) to people who are available because of her own direct contacts in “normal life” (the narrowest legal concept of “publication” in my previous post here).  She has the right to assembly and petition.  She has the right to participate in organizing into larger groups that can speak for her.  These can include political PACS on the one hand or media companies with the scale to be profitable (freedom of the press).  Religious speech (or “the church” or synagogue or mosque, etc) may have more protection.  But what’s not so clear (especially now with a conservative majority again in the Supreme Court) is that global ungated self-distribution, which has become within the reach of the average person since the mid 1990s through the Internet and WWW, is by itself a “Fundamental Right”.  Previously, people could normally be published only by third parties who believed they could sell, satisfy consumers and actually make money, whatever the objective cultural value of the content. There was a small, clumsy, expensive subsidy publishing industry which did not have a good reputation.

Of course, there are counter-arguments.  Some of the language in the COPA opinion in 2007 (and perhaps the Supreme Court rulings in 2002 and 2004), as well as the way the Supreme Court handled the original Communications Decency Act in 1997 (I went to the oral arguments), might be construed as supporting a “right to distribute” as embedded indirectly into the First Amendment.  Again, the law sometimes doesn’t like to conflate “manufacture” with “distribution”;  look at how this could play out if applied to the network neutrality debate (not the way we want).

You would wind up with a world where only “established” businesses and organizations would be able to generate their own speech (that would still include authors who actually make money on their books)  Everyone else would have to belong to and remain loyal to and in solidarity with organizations claiming to give them a voice.  Intellectual honesty would disappear.  (Think how Trump played to his base, but think again how the Left often does the same thing.)   Some non-profit or activist groups would love it, because they would be able to control the message.  Solidarity would become an essential virtue again, in a world where no one was allowed to claim credit for much all by himself.  People would have to accept other people’s goals and make personal compromises that in an individualistic world would seem to undermine personal integrity.  All of this seems to aim toward a controlled world of personal “right-sizing” favored by states like Russia and particularly China (and authoritarian leaders like Putin and Xi Jingping), where discipline of individual expression is seen as essential to a populist version of stability and protection of “the people” from marginalization by “the elites” and “know-it-alls”.

And. of course, it sounds like such a policy, if ever enacted by Congress, would destroy social media companies and maybe even hosting companies if ever enacted – including all their asset values.  So I hope it just can’t happen (despite the December 2015 threats).  The British Prime Minister Theresa May sounds to be on a real warpath.  She wants the whole world to control itself to recognize the grievous security problems especially in Britain and Europe.  Ironically, this makes Donald Trump’s “America First”, even his Paris accord pullout, sound a little reassuring.

One can imagine other ideas. For example, an Internet “driver’s license”.  You could apply this thinking style to the world a century ago when who should have a personal car and be allowed to drive could construct a similar controversy.

One aspect of the “asymmetry” of the modern world is indeed very hard to manage, especially given the axiomatic nihilism of one particular enemy.  That is to say, it is nearly impossible to decide whether some speech could be read as an indirect threat to be taken down (which is a problem Theresa May will run into right away).  This gets back to the “implicit content” problem or what I call my “West Potomac High School Problem of 2005”.  I could be seen as the Milo Yiannopoulos Problem, too;  is his speech simply designed to goad people into overreaction because the speaker knows “weaker” people will react violently? In an asymmetric world, anyone is a combatant, and the normal idea of well-separate personal responsibility starts to disintegrate.

All of this is quite troubling to me.  I pride myself in finding the flaws or weaknesses of almost any proposed policy and of rehearsing the mistakes of the past (especially as shown by my own narratives).  But often allies of mine – conventional activists – don’t want all the library-archived but forgotten facts mentioned again or reviewed because showing past “dirty laundry” will simply give the “other side” ammunition to continue “oppressing” weaker members of their constituent groups.  (A good example of this would be the “chain letter” argument regarding gay men and HIV, a weapon of the religious right in the 1980s but largely forgotten now;  another example might be bringing up the possibility of conscription.)

I have another personal side of this.  It’s true, I’m not willing to become someone else’s mouthpiece, but I also don’t seem to find much “meaning” just in meeting the real needs of someone that claims to be oppressed or “powerless”.  I have a real problem with trying to sell (or “pimp”) victimhood or even trying to remedy it personally, unless I caused it – but we’re finding that what we are as a community means a lot more than what I used to experience.

(Posted: Monday, June 5, 2017 at 10:30 PM EDT)

 

Behind Trump’s weakening of Obama’s Internet privacy protections, a lot of chaos on what privacy means (esp. to insurance companies)

The Washington Post recently documented “how Congress dismantled federal Internet privacy rules” in a piece by Kimbery Kindy on May 30.

The writer notes a collusion between telecommunications provider companies (that is, Internet ISP’s, like Comcast, Verizon and ATT)) and social media and content servicing providers (like Facebook, Google Twitter, Amazon, Apple) in Silicon Valley. Politics emits strange bedfellows (so libertarians say), and the common interest between the backbone technology interests and the content servicing interests on the ad opportunity inherent in relaxing privacy rules is logical, but in contradiction to the general nature of the disagreement between these big industrial sectors over network neutrality. That disparity seems remarkable to me. Particularly remarkable was the donation of money so quickly as Trump took office to roll back Obama’s end-of-term work. I don’t play K-street Monopoly myself.

But there’s not much question that users do benefit from the existence of ads, which pay for all the free user-generated content platforms. The ethical question at the individual level comes down to the old dilemma of spectators vs. actual players. We can’t flourish just as a society of watchers. People need to be willing to see ads, even those selected algorithmically for them, and sometimes people need to be willing to engage them. Both clicks (Adsense) and actual product purchases (Amazon) do help some people make a living by publishing on the Internet.   Freedom implies (somewhat ironically) a need to some new openness to sharing on terms other than one’s own (as in the film “The Circle“).

Where there is a problem, though, can be with security, and, to some extent, online reputation. Users are sometimes reckless on the web. To the extent that users apply privacy settings and they work, that’s not too bad; but often users place gratuitous material online which could attract harm to them and to others connected to them. That has to become a concern for the insurance industry, for example (yesterday).

In fact, there’s a sliding continuum, in most people’s minds, between privacy and reputation. People post legitimate (not porn) interesting stuff because it makes them appear cool, knowledgeable, or desirable in some way for others, or just politically and socially influential. Sometimes you can do this and maintain a certain amount of privacy (wait until you’re back home or near the end of the vacation before posting public images and videos of your good time at P-town or Disney’s new Pandora). I say this noting that some Facebook friends let Facebook post all of their movements on their timeline to friends on geographical maps. (That makes them feel important.)

Employers have been concerned about watching associate (and especially job applicant) personal social media for about a decade now (giving rise to the whole Reputation industry). They have legitimate concerns, for example, about managers inadvertently creating a legally hostile workplace by expressing their views online even in their own personal accounts. That’s especially true now that in the world of Trump, society seems to be getting more polarized into worlds of identity politics. Businesses may not even want some polarizing people as customers (as Richard Spencer found out from Sport and Health recently).

This problem can spill over into insurance, where we know that insurance companies (both health and property) sometimes scan consumer social media accounts or other blog or content posts for possible claims fraud. They could also get a sense of increased consumer loss risk from some social media content (obviously health risks like STD’s, smoking, drugs, and the like, or risky hobbies like skydiving; imagination goes wild on this.)   Here are a couple of discussions about the problem: Huffington, and Insurance Quotes.  This problem can quickly connect itself to social justice and identity issues.

In fact, the end of the Denver TV station video envisions a world where insurance companies don’t want users to post any vacation details in public mode at all. I haven’t heard that said so bluntly before, but since I dug into it, I have to report it. One immediately problem with this idea is that pages (as opposed to friending accounts) are, almost by definition, public. And there are “friends” and there are “pseudo-friends”. Not everyone expects a personal conversation or relationship with each “friend” as “trusted:. The idea seems not very well thought through.

(Posted: Wednesday, May 31, 2017 at 3:45 PM EDT)

Why the “mandatory coverages” in Obamacare set a bad stage for future Internet law; Trump is actually on to something

Let’s think a moment about how mandatory insurance can work, in different areas, like health, auto, property.

Generally, you have to have auto insurance to have a driver’s license (how it’s required varies by state) you need property insurance for a mortgage, and with Obamacare (and previously Romneycare in Massachusetts) health insurance.  And Medicare and single payer in most other countries can be viewed as mandatory health insurance, paid for by much higher taxes.

Obamacare (the Affordable Care Act) is partly driven by requirement that “healthy” young people will buy coverages they as individuals are almost certainly not going to need, to support otherwise much higher premiums for people who do need them.  I’ve said here that we probably need publicly funded props (subsidies — not just tax cuts — and reinsurance, to help pay for health care for the sickest people), which would affect the deficit and maybe require cuts elsewhere (maybe in Social Security, for example, slowly increasing age eligibility) to control spending.  I may be OK with some of the aspects of “community rating” – that is, men have to buy pregnancy coverage because it takes two to tango – and we want, as a policy matter, some sort of gender equality. (It wouldn’t hurt me some day if PrEP were covered, although at my age it’s not real likely.)

But requiring people to buy add-on coverages for other people’s risks (“moral hazard”) is generally a dangerous idea, that can set up a bad precedent for other misuse.  That’s one reason why I am somewhat behind “TrumpCare” or “RyanCare” or “PriceCare,” if you really get serious about covering everybody somehow.  The Republicans want the states to take more responsibility for this area.  Under a federal system (compared to a unitary system like China’s) that seems appropriate.  We no longer trust the states to manage their own ideas of “equal protection” (from the 14th Amendment all the way to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, ending with Stonewall) but we generally allow states a lot of leeway in just how they want their residents to pay for services or how much to privatize some services.  States vary on whether or not they have their own income taxes, and to what extent they want to charge user fees or tolls.  As California found out in the late 1970s, they can have their own battles on using property taxes to fund public education.  So, yes, the OMB is appropriate concerned about how the reddest states will handle a block grant approach to health care. But our Constitution and federalism limit just how much coercion the federal government can use, even for worthwhile policy goals.

In the past twenty years, auto and property companies have been combining normal property or physical liability (and damage loss, from accidents and storms) with cyber liability from Internet use.  The latter liabilities can include the cost of defending frivolous defamation suits (as with review sites) and copyright or even incidental trademark or patent infringement (from trolls), but they can also include losses due to identity theft or cybercrime (recently, ransomware).  In some cases, the higher limit auto policies are available only in umbrella policies that have all these other coverages (which have nothing to do with the likelihood of causing an auto accident or of being hit by a tornado).  In fact, as we know from the attempts around 2001 or so by the National Writers Union to buy media perils coverage for its members (and another push for this in 2008, shortly before the financial crisis), the risk for an individual consumer of being sued for Internet behavior is extremely hard to underwrite and predict, compared to the risks in the physical world.

I can imagine (especially from the “Left”) pushes to make cyber insurance mandatory components of property policies, and I hope the GOP would apply the same skepticism to this idea it has to health insurance mandatory coverages.  You can imagine the pressures:  because I have an unusual last name, I’m not as prone to identity theft as someone with an Anglicized name, but should I have to subsidize the premiums of someone more likely to experience it?  Because of the “gratuitous” nature of my self-publication (it doesn’t pay its own way) activity “in retirement” (maybe that’s like “in relief” in a baseball game’s bullpen), I don’t face the same risks as other people who actually need to support families with their writing, but I face my own unusual perils (mostly related to “implicit content” as I found out with a bizarre incident in 2005 when I was working as a substitute teacher – the concept has to do with attracting politically or socially motivated targeted risk to others connected to “you”). The main prevention is to know what I am doing.  (I do;  for example, I know how to recognize scams.)

But the permissive legal environment that has allowed user generated content to flourish does raise serious questions for me, involving some personal matters (how I place value on interactions with others who have more intrinsic need, and how I am willing, with volunteerism, to fit in and belong to a group and speak for its needs – accept “partisanship”).  The legal props include Section 230 and DMCA Safe Harbor, all of which makes me wonder how the Web still works in Europe, where these kinds of protections are weaker and where there is even an enforced “right to be forgotten” (and where, as Trump points out, defendants have to prove they told the truth in libel cases).  The permissiveness seems to have led to an world where there is a lot of recklessness and abuse, ranging from cuberbullying or stalking or revenge porn, to outright terror recruiting — largely because writers with sincerely put arguments wind up preaching to their own choirs, created by news aggregation.  Again, I could be silenced if I had to be insured, because my speech is not “popular” enough to pay its own way, especially in a mandatory insurance world.

(Posted: Wednesday, May 30, 2017 at 6 PM EDT)