SESTA clears Senate committee, and Congress seems serious about stopping trafficking, even if it requires sacrifices from Internet users — and it seems superluous

Electronic Frontier Foundation has reported that the Senate Commerce Committee has approved a version of SESTA, the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act, S. 1693.  Elliot Harmon’s article calls it “still an awful bill”.   Harmon goes into the feasibility of using automated filters to detect trafficking-related material, which very large companies like Google and Facebook might be half-way OK with. We saw this debate on the COPA trial, about filtering, more than a decade ago (I attended one day of that trial in Philadelphia in October 2006). No doubt, automated filtering would cause a lot of false positives and implicit self-censoring.

Apparently the bill contains or uses a “manager’s amendment”  (text) floated by John Thune (R-SD) which tries to deal with the degree of knowledge that a platform may have about its users.  The theory seems to be that it is easy to recognize the intentions of customers of Backpage but not of a shared hosting service. Sophia Cope criticizes the amendment here.

Elliot Harmon also writes that the Internet Association (which represents large companies like Google) has given some lukewarm support to modified versions of SESTA, which would not affect large companies as much as small startups that want user-generated content   It’s important to note that SESTA (and a related House bill) could make it harder for victims of trafficking to discuss what happened to them online, an unintended consequence, perhaps.  Some observers have said that the law regarding sex trafficking should be patterned after child pornography (where the law seems to work without too much interference of users) and that the law is already “there” now.

But “Law.com” has published a historical summary by Cindy Cohn and Jamie Williams that traces the history of Section 230 all the way back to a possibly libelous item in an AOL message board regarding Oklahoma City (the Zeran case).  Then others wanted to punish Craigslist and other sites for allowing users to post ads that were discriminatory in a Civil Rights sense. The law need to recognize the difference between a publisher and a distributor (and a simple utility, like a telecom company, which can migrate us toward the network neutrality debate).   Facebook and Twitter are arguably a lot more involved with what their users do than are shared hosting sites like BlueHost and Verio, an observation that seems to get overlooked.   It’s interesting that some observers think this puts Wikipedia at particular risk.

I don’t have much an issue with my blogs, because the volume of comments I get is small (thanks to the diversion by Facebook) these days compared to 8 years ago.  When I accept a guest post, I should add that Section 230 would not protect me, since I really have become the “publisher” so if a guest post is controversial, I tend to fact-check some of the content (especially accusations of crimes) myself online.

I’d also say that a recent story by Mitch Stoltz about Sci-Hub, relating to the Open Access debate which, for example. Jack Andraka has stimulated in some of his Ted Talks, gets to be relevant (in the sense that DMCA Safe Harbor is the analogy to Section 230 in the copyright law world). A federal court in Virginia ruled against Sci-Hub (Alexandra Elbakyan) recently after a complaint by a particular science journal, the American Chemical Society  But it also put intermediaries (ranging from hosting companies to search engines) at unpredictable risk if they support “open access” sites like this. The case also runs some risk of conflating copyright issues with trademark, but that’s a bit peripheral to discussing 230 itself.

Again, I think we have a major break in our society over the value of personalized free speech (outside of the control of organizational hierarchy and aggregate partisan or identity politics).  It’s particularly discouraging when you look at reports of surveys at campuses where students seem to believe that safe places are more important than open debate, and that some things should not be discussed openly (especially involving “oppressed” minorities) because debating them implies that the issues are not settled and that societal protections could be taken away again by future political changes (Trump doesn’t help). We’ve noted here a lot of the other issues besides defamation, privacy and copyright; they include bullying, stalking, hate speech, terror recruiting, fake news, and even manipulation of elections (am issue we already had an earlier run-in about in the mid 2000s over campaign finance reform, well before Russia and Trump and even Facebook). So it’s understandable that many people, maybe used to tribal values and culture, could view user-generated content as a gratuitous luxury for some (the more privileged like me) that diverts attention from remedying inequality and protecting minorities.  Many people think everyone should operate only by participating in organized social structures run top-down, but that throws us back, at least slouching toward authoritarianism (Trump is the obvious example). That is how societies like Russia, China, and say Singapore see things (let alone the world of radical Islam, or the hyper-communism of North Korea).

The permissive climate for user-generated content that has evolved, almost by default, since the late 1990s, seems to presume individuals can speak and act on their own, without too much concern about their group affiliations.  That idea from Ayn Rand doesn’t seem to represent how real people express themselves in social media, so a lot of us (like me) seem to be preaching to our own choirs, and not “caring” personally about people out of our own “cognitive”  circles.  We have our own kind of tribalism.

(Posted: Wednesday, Nov. 15, 2017 at 2 PM EST)

 

“Scruffy hospitality”: especially for having friends over to watch baseball

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On a humid Wednesday morning, July 29, 1959, about a month before I was to start my junior year in Washington-Lee High School in Arlington VA (with that American history class from the world’s greatest social studies teacher of all time, Simon Korczowski ) and compose my big D Minor piano sonata (on snow days 6 months later), I rode over with my father to the barber shop (still there) in Westover in Arlington VA.  This was the first morning back after we had ridden home from Kipton, Ohio on the Pennsylvania Turnpike (four tunnels then) and the Washington Post newspaper delivery hadn’t been restarted yet.  Right outside the barber shop, I saw a news stand with the morning Post, and a sports banner on top, “A’s Hop on Pascual, too, 6-1” (game )

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The Washington Senators, who had started out the baseball season decently, had just lost their tenth game in a row.  The Kansas City Athletics had won their ninth.  This had been a “late” game in the Midwest (and at the time, KCMO didn’t have DST), but somehow the Post edition at the barber shop was late enough to have all the scores.  Less than ten years later I would complete graduate school in that area.  Camilo Pascual had been the Nats one ace (comparable to Stephen Strasburg or Max Scherzer this year). The Senators would lose every game on a western trip (in those days, the West comprised Kansas City, Chicago, Detroit, and Cleveland), for the first time ever.  The streak would end at 18 at home a week later with a second game twi-night 9-0 shutout over the Cleveland Indians, tossed by Tex Clevenger.

How well I remember baseball then – us kids even had, at one time, run a “league” in our own backyards (previous post).  OK, the point of this sermon – I could “feel” I was part of something “bigger than myself.”  From my earliest beginnings of hating sports, I rooted for the doomed Senators, in a representing a Nation’s capital city polarized by racial divisions that nobody would talk about, a city seriously compromised by the lack of democracy (call it “home rule”.  From a self-interest viewpoint, rooting for losers like the Senators made no sense. (The Redskins didn’t do well then, either.)  The Senators would do much better in the 1960 season, then suddenly move to Minnesota (where I would live 1997-2003 – funny how what goes around returns).

I recall that I didn’t even understand how baseball worked until third grade – that balls are batted and caught or fielded.  The physics (watching batted balls ricochet off the Green Monster in Fenway Park in Boston) was tantalizing. My third grade teacher and reported about my demanding too much attention and not having any feeling of affinity for my team or “group”.  How often today in MLB do we hear about “team” wins when a key star player had been injured?

Let me jump to another scenario, a sermon a few weeks ago at Trinity Presbyterian Church in Arlington VA, by Judith Fulp-Eickstaedt, where she spoke of “scruffy hospitality”.  She’s referring just being prepared to welcome guests in your home at any time without the necessity for ritual cleaning to perfection for company. That follows on a sermon from Oct. 27, 2012 when she talked about “radical hospitality”  one day before Hurricane Sandy was due.  (We had been through the power outages from the June 29 derecho).  As it would happen, there was little damage or inconvenience from Sandy here – the brief period of sudden low barometric pressure (and brief high winds) actually cleared up some hip arthritis I was having – nature’s cure.   I’ve heard the hospitality thing before – once being asked if I would consider using my home for a partisan fundraiser – oh, where was this coming from?   Of course, the hospitality thing comes up with so many real disasters – wildfires in the west, floods in West Virginia and recently Ellicott City, MD, but we’ll come back to that.

As for incidental hospitality, most of the social gatherings I attend are in public venues, often bars and restaurants (or, depending on the group, church gyms ready for “Godly play”, or even major league sports stadiums).  Not many are in private homes any more.  They were a lot more common when I was growing up (and, yes, my mother cleaned for them – I remember those shrimp creole dinner parties on winter Saturday nights.)

But “scruffy hospitality” goes along with another idea, something like “Lotsa Helping Hands”.  Churches (synagogues, and mosques) typically set this community up among their own fellowships.  Here’s were “socialization” comes down.  “You” are a member of a group before you express yourself as an individual.  Your content has no meaning until others benefit from it.  Others need to matter to you in a way that’s up close and personal.

The “helping hands” mentality is at odds with an individualistic “mind your own business” culture, to be sure.  When someone like me “returns” to a mainstream church – no matter how liberally politically (and today more and more mainstream churches support ideas like marriage equality, whatever the fringes are trying to do with “religious freedom” and the “bathroom bills”).  It is very difficult for me to step into a world like this and feel very welcome, because, for one thing, I never had my own kids.  I would be difficult for me to accept the idea of a “free ride” at work for a “new mom” (paid maternity leave) without wondering if I were being compelled to “sacrifice” for someone else’s benefit that I would never use.

So here we get to the heart of socialization – you have to start by belonging somewhere.  That was the point of Martin Fowler’s book on the subject.  If you “belong” you will feel natural empathy and willingness to chip in, even (to quote Judith) “when it costs you something”.  There’s been a lot written about this the past few days – in reaction to the aggressive hyper individualism of Donald Trump.

For example, David Brooks invokes Sebastian Junger’s new booklet “Tribe” in his piece “The Great Affluence Fallacy”; and then there’s a dual between Robert Putnam and libertarian Charles Murray over communitarianism, as implied in this book review invoking “I v. We” on Vox of Putman’s “Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis”.   Then an effective LTE (“Loners can’t be fixers” ) slams Kathleen Parker’s libertarian interpretation of conservatism  in the Washington Post , Parker curiously had invoked Russell Kirk’s “10 Conservative Principles”, rather moralistic and proto-communitarian, where Kirk writes (in point 9) that power is, in political terms, “the ability to do as one likes, regardless of the wills of one’s fellows”.

The place where most people develop socialization is supposed to be the “natural family”, to borrow a term from a 2009 “manifesto” by Carlson and Mero.  (Sounds like saying “Most people walk in the direction they’re heading” – Shane’s famous admonition to Danny in “Judas Kiss”.)   Particularly, older kids are likely to learn to take care of younger siblings.  (I remember a mother’s saying that to me when I was working a Census survey in 2011 – like this was an off-the-wall moral imperative.)  That means that older kids in a family may have more opportunity to learn the personal value of “family” in relation to personalized achievement goals.  That may be one reason why younger kids may be less conventional or more “liberal” or rebellious, and insistent on their own paths.  Younger sons may be more likely to be gay for biological reasons having to do with epigenetics, but they also may have less opportunity to learn the “value” of becoming a future father and provider.   This all gets blown out – in reviewing a silly mainstream Hollywood comedy film on July 28 I noted David Skinner’s old-fashioned take on a supposed duty of men to become providers and protectors. And without the “reward” of having a family of one’s own (which in my generation required procreative sexual intercourse in most cases) it’s hard to fit in to a community centered around caring for other generations.  Family is the first place you learn to “love” people in a closed space unconditionally, regardless of “ability” (to borrow from Marx); it’s the first community where you learn to have each other’s backs.  In practice, that’s a big reason to need “relationships”. If you really want to learn more about “family values”, study the “distributed consciousness” of the (non-human person) orca (story). Cetaceans know no geography (or “Global Pursuit”).

Of course, that’s changing – with acceptance of gay marriage and of same-sex couples as parents.  That doesn’t “help” me “fit in” all that much.  I have to run on the record I have, and on what was possible earlier in my life in setting myself up.

So, then, what about all the other “communities” I “joined” during my adult life.  The most important may have been the Ninth Street Center  in New York in the 1970s.  Various others included the Oak Lawn Counseling Center in Dallas and then Whitman Walker in Washington, to volunteer for PWA’s, and social groups like Chrysalis and Adventuring, and there are others.  And of course there are political groups.  But in a couple of cases there have been incidents where I believe I did an “OK thing” and someone else thought something I did was wrong because I somehow didn’t “belong” enough to the group to know what was really going on behind the lines.

That leads to another place – whether knowledge should really be acquired in the “It’s Free” mode – the debate about open access, and even kicked off by Reid Ewing’s little short film about a public library.  A lot of people think that knowledge should come down through a family or social structure.  The Rosicrucian Order teaches that mystical knowledge is acquired as one moves through various levels of initiation (but then, so does Scientology).  Then, there is the “no spectators” mentality so well acted in the recent sci-fi film “Rebirth” (indeed, no “alien anthropologists” like me or Mark Zuckerberg).

There is a practical reality that today many people may not have total freedom to join other communities (for “socialization”) beyond their original family.  Of course, that’s the case in authoritarian societies, but even in democratic cultures, aging populations tend to keep people tethered.  The hard reality is that people need to take care of others outside of their own scope of choice sometimes, and find meaning in doing so.  We find this a hard thing to say.

Families do indeed have a problem letting go.  “Family” is supposed to be the place people learn to belong to a community, but some families never allow their members to move on beyond “taking care of their own”.  (See the David Brooks piece, July 15;  Murray had explained this in terms of social capital types, like “bridge capital” which grows out of “bonding capital”, but not always reliably.)

Many churches actually do reach out abroad, sending youth or college-age groups overseas, to Central America or sometimes even Africa, for missions or service — setting up a process where young adults learn to bond with others from cultures very different (and much less individualistic) than theirs.  The church mentioned above has a summer mission trip to Belize, and has even made a short film showing the bonding,  worthy of festival submission (like DC Shorts), in my view, at least.

As for me, I find it hard to stomach the idea of wearing somebody else’s uniform in public, or someone else’s protest flag.  Yes, earlier in my life, some of “identity politics” made sense (I marched in my first “Christopher Street Liberation Say” in New York City in 1973).  Individualism, and the narrow idea of personal responsibility (focused most of visible consequences for deliberate personal choices) has actually served me well in most of my adult life (for example, avoiding HIV). I’ve gotten away with viewing most people through the lens of “upward affiliation”, not from the meaning that would come from actually being needed in more down-to-earth ways by them.  But I’ve been lucky.  Yet, I do hold to the belief that no matter what happens to someone or what someone is born into, some of the responsibility for that person’s karma stays with that person, isn’t the automatic obligation of social policy.

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As for baseball:  Yes, Richard Harmon wants to pitch one game for his favorite San Francisco Giants, and thanks to Max Scherzer’s wife for helping set up Pride Night at Nationals Park.  One day, MLB will have a transgender pitcher; it’s sure to happen.

(Posted: Wednesday, August 10, 2016 at 2 PM EDT)

“Open access”: scientific journal articles need to be easily accessible, but they have to be paid for

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Jack Andraka recently re-tweeted the URL of his 2013 article (written at 16) “Why Science Journal Paywalls Have to Go”.  Andraka, now 19 and ending his freshman year at Stanford, won a major Intel science fair award in 2013 for his project that used carbon nanotubes to provide an inexpensive early detection test for pancreatic cancer.  It is likely (even according to my own personal physician at Virginia Hospital Center in Arlington) that some form of his test will eventually get FDA approval and be in regular use, and he will at least share a lot of the credit and financial reward for it. It is even likely that variations of the test could detect other tumors early.  He describes his work in a best seller book named “Breakthrough” from Harper (2015).

Jack’s basic premise is that the expensive paywalls on science journals might have prevented his science fair project from even happening.

But when you read the post it may come across as self-serving. Of course, once someone is a student at a university or medical institution, one can generally use the school’s subscription.  But Jack needed the subscription before being a student.  Jack admits that he could have trudged into Baltimore (from home near Annapolis) at the University of Maryland and gotten an account and read the articles there.  That he indeed did eventually to do the project.  (I wondered, does he have a car now at Stanford, or does Google provide all the transportation, LOL).

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In fact, some journal subscriptions are so expensive that many university libraries are saying even they can’t afford them all.

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Let me back up a bit into my own life.  Back around 1983, when it suddenly and rapidly became apparent that AIDS would become a major health crisis for the gay male community (and create a political crisis, to boot), I drove my little Chevette (or Colt) to the Texas Health Sciences Center on Harry Hines in Dallas and read every print research article I could get my hands on.  Absolutely everything was there, free to the public.  By chance, a manager at work at Chilton in Dallas had a print Lancet subscription and gave me his copies.

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Then, I think back to high school.  For major term papers (I remember one in eleventh grade on James Fenimore Cooper and his treatment of women in his novels) I rode the #2 bus (pre-Metro) into Washington and used the DC public library (near what is now the Convention Center at Mount Vernon Place) to find enough material – the Arlington library in Clarendon at the time just didn’t have enough (now it would).  My parents thought it was absurd that we had to take so much time to find the materials for a simple term paper.

I’m introducing the area we call “open access”, of course.  It crisscrosses a number of areas, including copyright law, the way science gets paid for (the “peer review” process adds to expense, of course), and the peculiar economic problems with business models for products with low transaction volumes with customers.  Not to be overlooked is the “publish or perish” mentality still in much of the academic world.

The best summary of the problem may be an essay by Justin Peters on Slate, April 5, 2016, “Why is it so expensive to read academic research?” with the subtitle “Content piracy may be illegal but price gouging is at least as despicable”.  There is a lot of discussion of how publisher Elsevier (the “Books In Print” and ISBN people) works.  In some cases, pharma companies may have an incentive to keep their research hard to get.  But pressure on the journal industry grows. Many contracts with NIH or other government agencies require that papers be offered free or on open access platforms after a maximum of one year from publication (link).

So, then, we rehearse the history of “illegality”.  Most of us have become familiar with the tragic story of Aaron Swartz, “The Internet’s Own Boy” (and “Killswitch”).  Indeed, I have tried to use JSTOR online and found the process clumsy as well as expensive.  (And part of Swartz’s “crimes” originally had involved propagating PACER court documents that should have been free and in the public domain.)

More recently we’ve paid attention to the graduate student Alexandra Elbakyan from Kazakhstan, hiding out in Russia (like Edward Snowden) after creating Sci-Hub as a repository for “illegal” copies of research papers.  Her life narrative leads Kate Murphy in a New York Times piece in March 2016 to ask “Should all research papers be free?” Murphy discusses other models for solutions, like PLOS, the Public Library of Science, but then researchers apparently have to pay heavily to self-publish peer-reviewed material (in an industry set up to get around the idea of third-party oversight).

It’s useful to compare the science paper problem with another issue for some people – paywalls for regular newspaper sites.  I do subscribe to the Washington Post, New York Times and Wall Street Journal (and Scientific American and Time).  These paywalls (typically about $100 a year or so) are a lot more reasonable in price than for science journals, because the business model still needs a large customer base.  I do find the stories on these major newspaper sites more comprehensive than even on free media sites like NBC, ABC, CNN. Vox, and find the comments more lively.  I do give links to them from my blogs, which means individual visitors could run into paywalls. Some smaller newspapers have put them up, which pretty much makes them useless out of town. In fact, some smaller papers also joined in the copyright troll “Righthaven” a few years ago suing bloggers who posted articles or pictures from their sites, in a forlorn attempt to protect their business models.

I do detect an attitude among some people that knowledge is a perk that should come with power, or with competing successfully in a social or political pecking order.  Today, that sounds like the attitude of authoritarian statist capitalist countries like Russia or (“Communist”) China (let alone North Korea and most of the Islamic world). But when I was growing up, mostly in the 1950s, I encountered this with my own father.  He resented the idea that I could even then “read” things with progressive ideas (like playing “Tin Drum” and consciously avoiding “fats” or smoking or playing football) that countered the cultural pressures of my own family and social environment, which feared gradual loss of status and privilege as a group. These modern notions that I “read” would turn out to be right as the calendar marched on. But I had to learn to live with the idea of being “right-sized” by others who had proved they could compete.   So the open access issue for me sounds not so much about “privatization of knowledge” (as the Aaron Swartz tragedy is presented) as making knowledge an adjunct to social and political hierarchy, even lineage.

I do see appeals for donations for sites (like “Truthout”) that mention the issue and claim they need volunteer help to speak for “us”.  But I don’t need anyone to speak for me!

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As for Jack Andraka, let’s not forget the science accomplishments (in environmental  safety of coal  mines) of his older and now less flamboyant brother Luke (finishing engineering at Virginia Tech).  Or look at the accomplishments of Taylor Wilson, who built a nuclear fusion reactor at 14.  Was access to journals critical for them, too?   The capabilities of the most brilliant kids to work at the graduate level before finishing high school has indeed captivated many and taught us a lesson about “control”. Although we can argue that kids can go slow and go through proper channels to get access “legally”, we could lose out on our next big invention, whether that be new treatments for cancers without chemotherapy, or new technology to protect the power grids from terrorists. Jack comes from Maryland indeed, and I think of governor Larry Hogan, in remission from his own lymphoma, a moderate, pragmatic Republican who would have made a desirable presidential candidate (more so than who we have), someone who could be Andraka’s patient ten years from now.  By the way, also, Jack’s blog post got an interesting perspective from a Canadian perspective, “Open Learning Limitations”, here.

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In 2012, Reid Ewing and Igigistudios made an eight-minute satirica, mockumentary short film “It’s Free”, set in a public library in Los Angeles.  I wish the film were available now.  We need it to anchor the next debate.

(Published: Wednesday, May 25, 2016 at 2:30 PM EDT)