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)

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)