The Mueller indictments, identity theft, social media, independent speech, and issue-focused activism

So, what is the impact of the findings of the huge indictments against thirteen Russians over fraudulent use of social media to sow political discontent and affect the 2016 elections?

Let’s start with a copy of the indictment, which is available on Politico.

One of the most glaring problems is count 41.  Identities of real US citizens were used to open social media accounts, paypal, and various vehicles for subsequent “propaganda” efforts.  I have not heard a lot of stories of people’s credit being ruined by this – I say this while noting at the same time the damage from the Equifax hack seems to have gotten worse, and there could be a connection.

In 2016, a fake Facebook account was opened in my name, but it was caught quickly by a friend and closed before any content was posted.  This has not happened to me on Twitter.  That’s one reason why the Twitter verification issue can matter – but it is hard to get if you are not an “established celebrity”. When I opened Instagram in 2014, I found a dummy account already there, with no content.  I had to close it to open my legitimate account.  I do not use  Snapchat, but it’s possible an account could exist that I don’t know about. It’s easy to imagine the possibility of an ordinary person’s being “framed” by a crime associated with this whole effort, although I haven’t heard that this has actually happened in conjunction with the Russian problem.  Still, for a particular individual it could cause an existential crisis.

I also note that I don’t normally run “other people’s campaigns” with my own social media pages, but I have to come back to that again.  Still, I suppose this could have happened.

Let’s move on to the whole issue of fake news, ads bought by fake companies, fake social media groups, and even the organizing of rallies and protests.  I generally don’t go to “rallies” unless I really know they are reputable.  I work alone rather than reporting through a group – which is itself a double-edged assertion.

My own Facebook feed comes from a balanced mix of sources.  I did not see a large volume of material from the sorts of groups mentioned in the indictment.  But because I blog myself, I go to many different news sources on my own, regardless of what social media feeds me.

It may seem odd that manipulating the news to affect an election is a crime (if done by a foreign agent). Normally fake news may subsume a civil libel risk, but domestically it is not usually a criminal matter.  But here has been legal controversy before over whether bloggers can “unfairly” affect elections of positive coverage of a candidate is viewed as a barter-like contribution (See Pingback on June 12, 2017 post).

And there is also the question about citizen journalism (the “Fifth” v. “Fourth” estate problem) and how much integrity it has.  In democratic countries, citizen journalism can add richness and nuance to policy debates and tone down hyper-partisanship and tribalism. This seems at odds with the idea that in other sectors of the public, amateur journalism seems driven by tribal sources, increasing divisions, and this is what the Russians exploited.

There is a tendency for intellectual “elites” who don’t spend a lot of time in social contact with others unlike themselves, not to care what others “beneath them” believe.  They may not notice if enemies are manipulating other bases of voters.  That also seems to have happened here.  (I actually recall shortly after my William and Mary expulsion in 1961, my father warning me, “Sometimes you really do have to worry about what other people think about you, whether true or not.”)

In general our free speech tradition has believed that an unfiltered firehose of information (or of “condemnation”, as the “dooce” site says) is a good check on politicians.  Authoritarian societies, however, see a lot of speech as “gratuitous” and as exacerbating social tensions over otherwise unavoidable inequality; hence the “skin in the game” problem.

I can remember, when I worked as a substitute teacher, than in social studies classes sometimes the jids had newspaper assignments (the Washington Post and New York Times always provided free copies). Some of the kids would make paper airplanes out of newsprint on articles about radical Islam – they didn’t have a clue.  I can remember in my own history class in high school we had pop quizzes on current events (this was before Kennedy was elected). In government class, we had to memorize the names of some of our local representatives and officials, so that we understood where activism could start.

That leads me to a proposal.  Social media – most of all, Facebook, should consider taking on the newspaper paywall problem (which is partly driven by business model problems and ad blockers).  Facebook could set up a subsidiary company to offer bundled digital subscriptions, so that users are encouraged to look at news in credible and professionally managed newspapers, which would have a reason to see participation (in bundles) as a sign of their credibility. My own resume, with experience in billing systems and especially consolidated billing, ought to make me a fit to work on an effort like this. Of course, Zuckerberg could see this as a distraction from his desire to see people reach out to each other more in personal matters in creative ways that used to be viewed as over the top by earlier generations (like mine).

I wanted to note that the way I manage my blogging and book publishing seems at odds or in conflict with my participating publicly in political or narrow-issue lobbying campaigns (right now, gun control, for example) organized by others over an urgent people-centered need.  (This gets bad with the “you even join us or you’re against us” meme – especially directed at independent speakers.)  Indeed, I can see if there were too many “of Me”, organizing could he harder.  I’ve never been a member of a union; as an adult without a family, I used to brag that I could lowball others in the workplace to keep a job if I had to.  I can say that, at any particular time, focusing on just one issue will protect or help one set of people but sometimes make it harder to help others later as the “speech capital” is expended on one issue.  I do not approve of political hostage taking (as with DACA), but issues are always multiply connected, and simple solutions won’t solve problems completely.

Note this New York Times op-ed:  The Russians wanted to get caught, to teach us a lesson about gratuitous speech.

(Posted: Sunday, February 18, 2018 at 8 PM EST)

Capital punishment, weapons, free speech, and stoicism, after another mass shooting

Given what happened this week on Broward County Florida (the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting), I wanted to get one topic that I haven’t taken up here before “out of the day”.  That is, capital punishment, the death penalty.

Hillary Clinton had said during the 2016 campaign that she believed that capital punishment should be reserved for the most extreme cases, namely terrorism, and for where there is no chance of wrongful conviction.  This event in Florida is domestic terrorism.

There is the Eight Amendment, and the ban on cruel and unusual punishment.  And the data keeps coming in, that a painless event is no sure thing for the condemned (and total painlessness may not be necessary).  I won’t belabor the details, but here are three references, “Death Penalty Info”, the New York Times about a case in Oklahoma, and CNN.  It is getting harder for states to get the drugs for lethal injection.  Ironically, beheading, which was so horrific with ISIS, is probably more humane than any of the legal methods.   I do remember the film “Dead Man Walking” by Tim Robbins (with Dean Penn) back in 1995. Timothy McVeigh was executed exactly three months before 9/11.  John Allen Muhmmad was executed about seven years after his spree in Virginia, Maryland and DC.  Dzhokhar Tsarnaev has been sentenced to death.  After Jack Ruby got the death penalty in 1964, Texas DA Henry Wade bragged about justice – Ruby would die of cancer early – as if the public really was getting retribution indirectly for Kennedy’s assassination.

The end of life is difficult in many circumstances.  When I was growing up, men often died of massive heart attacks.  We know now that these can be excruciating. Furthermore, we don’t know how time itself behaves at the end of life.  It may stretch out and prolong experience.

I won’t belabor what happened to the victims Valentines Day, but you can say that about all such incidents, including Las Vegas and Pulse.

The most obvious and glaring question is why, in Florida, as I understand it, you can buy an AR-15 at 18 but a handgun only at 21.  And it’s obvious there are gaping holes in our background check systems.

It’s pretty obvious that a civilian doesn’t need a military-style (“nuclear”) weapon for legitimate self-defense at home.  Well, the doomsday prepper crowd will disagree with that.  One of the problems with the extreme positions taken on the extreme Right with the NRA is that they imply a lack of confidence that society as we know it, with technology, law and order, can continue.  That itself is destabilizing. But there is a view, among a lot of combative people and with some enemies, that all civilians are potential soldiers (the whole draft and conscription mentality I grew up), and now this includes women. In that mindset, the obvious arguments for assault weapons bans (which Bill Clinton got passed [only to expire] and which I certainly supported in the 90s, even as I wrote about gays in the military) get weaker.

I need not dawdle over the damage done by an AR-15, but I do remember in the Army being told that the M-16 did a lot more physical damage than the M-14 that we were trained with in Basic.

Much of the civilized world is much less sympathetic to the existential right to self-defense than the US is, with moral implications for how personal risk-sharing is to happen.  Vox, for example, writes this about Australia.

A lot is made of the Florida suspect’s social media posts.  There is confusion as to whether he was an extreme Leftist or extreme Nazi-like radical, and whether he was sympathetic to ISIS.  He seems to have  had no consistent ideology but was disgruntled. (This the “horseshoe effect” in the ideology of political violence and authoritarianism). He reportedly admired both the Santa Barbara terrorists and Elliot Rodger.

I am concerned about the effect of social media on unstable people like the suspect, as a secondary trigger.  The day before the attacks I had, as a normal course, posted about the “Unabomber manifesto” in a discussion of violent people writing manifestos to be heard first.  That was linked by Blogger label to an earlier posting about Rodger.  What if police find he had just looked at  my postings before the rampage?  Very unlikely, but possible or imaginable and chilling.  Where does “personal responsibility” start?  This feeds into the “gratuitous speech” problem (Jan. 30).

There are demands from students and one parent in particular for people to “take action”.  A Vox editorial reduces this call (from one articulate student) to Congressional politics, removed from people.  Truth-Out makes this sound much more personal.  and seems to demand that introverted writers like me join up.

Here’s a piece by French Canadian Umarie Haque, “Why is America the Rich World’s Most Ultraviolent Society?”  He describes a personal value system based on “stoicism”.  I would call it existentialism.  I recognize that this attitude, if not addressed at some very personal levels within every community, can invite or justify political authoritarianism in time, which may be one reason for the political problems we have had since 2016. After a tragedy life goes on for the remaining (maybe “The Leftovers”). I don’t like to personalize or honor victimhood, and I would not want this done for me if my end came in a violent act, all the more if even partially politically motivated.  I do give to a victim’s fund through a trust, but I let the fund decide who to help, and privately, rather than make a (possible public on social media) choice myself of whom to “remember”.

(Posted: Friday, February 16, 2018 at 2:30 PM)

More on my own passive paradigm for user-generated content

I want to revisit some grounds I covered on January 14, 2018 about user generated content.

Again, I want to restate that a very profound addition to communication techniques got quietly introduced to western civilization in the mid to late 1990s (after the public Internet was opened up in 1992). That is, it became possible for anyone to post content without the need for gatekeeper review or for financial justification (because of very lo cost), and, with the help of rapidly evolving search engines, anyone on the planet could see it very soon, if near a computer or other device (eventually a cell phone but not at first) with connection.

The main reasons for posting speech could be artistic expression, or political and social (to make the case for change, based in part on personal narrative as well as research) or for commercial reasons, to provide services to consumers or to reach them with sales efforts.

In the earliest years, a lot of this happened with “flat websites” with simple html, or with discussion forums. Some services, like Hometown AOL, simplified the process for amateurs. Forums tended to be semi-private, although usually anyone could join them (and it time they grew into sites like Reddit). For more restricted access, people set up email listservers or closed pseudo-intranets that could be logged on to from home (as for work).

More or less around the time of Y2K blogging was slowing taking off.  Social networking seemed supplementary with MySpace, but really took off with Facebook by 2008.

But, as noted in the earlier piece, the permissive “wild west” attitude became sobered with an awareness of the multiple personal risks, particularly for minors, and especially after the first dot-com bubble burst. By around 2006, people had become acutely aware of “online reputation” merely because of search engine activity, although concerns that employers needed “blogging policies” were starting to be articulated just before 9/11.

With social networking sites and a switch to real time apps and away from web surfing, people started using the Internet with more limitations, through privacy settings, of which groups of people, in various “circles” (intersecting or sometimes concentric) could access their content. At the same time, sensational items could go “viral”, fads caught on, and social media and especially YouTube made some people instant celebrities. New legal problems developed with “quasi piracy” over whether old fashioned media models could continue working.  But over time, people tended to hang out with their own crowds (“alone together”), and a certain tribal polarization developed which is much more noticeable today than it was in the late 1990s when “I made my own name for myself” for a while.

I want people to understand that in the late 1990s it was very simple for me to reach my audience with almost no marketing effort as we know it today.  I had my book, I had free copies online, and there were search engines.  I didn’t have a lot of competition.  And I had an issue, gays in the military, backed up by an unusual personal narrative, which was not polarizing in the usual sense but still twisted an ironic, and which tended to migrate attention to other issues (“family values”, religion, etc).  I was able to have some impact on the people (including established media pundits and politicians of the day) who debated the issue without impressive numbers (and without reaching a lot of consumers in the usual sense).

it’s ironic, but it’s possible that my passive setup may have helped encourage the founding of Facebook. Mark Zuckerberg was a freshman at Harvard the year gays in the military was a hot topic on campus (with aban on recruiters). It is likely he would have found me online and understood what I was trying to do at the time.

Although I switched mainly to blogs in 2006 and started using hosted WordPress a lot more 2014-2016, my overall approach remained pretty much the same.  At the same time, the world whizzed by.

So, indeed, the “permissive” Internet environment (compared to what it might have been, given the critical legal evolution of downstream liability [DMA Safe Harbor and Section 230, especially, and net neutrality, less so] invited me to brand myself as an “objective” conservative-to-libertarian “pundit journalist”, who stood above the need to join movements or resistances like “ordinary people”.

As I noted in the Jan. 14 posting, without this permissiveness, there would be much more pressure on me to “join up”, and compromise on my “positions” and support other people’s causes in return for mine – conventional politics.  There would be more pressure on me to function well in the volunteer world of service, and take orders from others.  That sounds like it would for me to do my own fair share, interpersonally, in reducing inequality.  That sounds like “a good thing” (a term from “Call Me by My Name”). But there is a downside to coercing people to take sides – even more polarization. Eventually, one side loses, and we know from history what can happen.

So I’ve liked my role of probing holes in the positions that both sides on any issue take to please their bases, even though that implies I have no skin of my own in the game, no one to have to go to bat for. There’s a logical question, why be involved in the debate, unless I “care” enough about someone who really needs the special assistance.  But in a free society, “taking care of others” has to be voluntary, expanding out from families and communities, and not the primary responsibility of government.  Especially in the context of the previous post (social credit systems, Jan 28), if we want every human life to matter, we have to be have personally as if we really believed it.  And obviously we don’t.  And look who is president, railing about “losers”.  The invitation of fascism through the front door may be very much the sum of personal behaviors.

That brings us to what most modern day “blogging” is about.  I mentioned “Blogtyrant” before here, and his aggressive program for self-promotion seems, to me at least, to work best when a blog supports a business offering a consumer product or service that otherwise is sound enough (and satisfies “real” consumer need or desire enough) to be successful.   That’s a dangerous idea, because we would want to throw out porn, for example. But let’s say an artist or musician (especially a composer as well as performer) has a blog to support his career.  Composers usually need to get commissions for new works to make a living, so it’s logical that the blog needs to appeal to people who might hire him/her with a commission offer.  A musician, or perhaps a chess grandmaster, might be making extra money by offering lessons on a blog; in that case, a good part of the content would become available only to subscribers and paying customers (which goes along with the idea that a lot of content should be behind privacy or restricted access settings).  Another good example would be an author’s blog.  I do think my own history is very unusual.  Most authors need to have their books sell to stay available indefinitely, so they can’t give away all their content.  My own model of “gratuitous publication” (note below) probably isn’t sustainable for many others; so if it weren’t allowed, I would in a personal pickle, as I noted above.  (I won’t take up book self-publishing here, but that expands on the idea of wanting to be recognized as a content creator, rather than a follower of a tribe, or a servant.

In this regard, Blogtyrant’s latest missive, on people “giving up”, may outline what it takes for a blog to make money by itself, but most of the time the underlying business needs to be sound anyway.   But there are business models surrounding the blog itself, like “mommy blogging” (which has gotten harder according to most accounts, since Heather Armstrong’s “dooce” (“An unfiltered fire hose of flaming condemnation”) set up in 2002 after she was fired from a job for criticizing her employer in a public blog – hence “dooced”)    Food blogs would probably be associated with chefs or restaurants but might stand on their own.  And the marketing work – and sometimes financial investment — required to make a blog generate real numbers can be quite considerable.

It’s not so surprising, then, that the integrity of the entire “numbers” or “currency” part of the user content world could unravel, not just with bots and fake news and foreign influence on the illiterate. The New York Times has published a long but stinging expose (“The Follower Factory”) of the process of buying followers, who are often made up of fictitious entities or sometimes made from fake online copies of real people, which could ruin their own reputations.

I’m seeing a trend that tries to connect the need for visibility and popularity with charity. I’ve noticed more advocacy by both charities and political groups to get people to run fundraising campaigns or drives under their own social media brands, as part of a citizenship thing, along the lines of building “social capital” or “social credit” as in my previous post. That’s something I’ve resisted; I’ve always had my hands full with my own content and ideas.

And my content indeed often deals with reporting on and connecting the dots among “externalities”.  Some authoritarian governments believe that ordinary people should not be allowed to do this without professional license.  It’s obvious that such a requirement would be self-serving for a government wanting to protect a power base (and its credibility for staying in power), but in principle there is still a good question as to whether the “Fifth Estate” (me) should be viewed as part of the press, when they could do “other things” much more locally.

(Posted: Monday, Jan. 29, 2018 at 10 PM EST)

Update: Friday, February 16, 2018, 10 AM EST

It’s well to remember that when the World Wide Web was released to the public (as early as 1992) and search engine companies appeared (by the mid 1990s) the default was that any site could be indexed publicly. Although there was a lot of literature at the time about metatags, you really didn’t need them. In those days (say by 1998), controversial posts had a good chance of being found quickly by many people by default, in a few cases resulting in emails to me the next day.  The monetization (advertising engines and email lists) would develop later as people needed to make a living (as did the companies themselves).  Listservers on email, however, functioned somewhat the way friends do on social media today, and discussion forums were common (as on AOL;  I also remember a libertarian-oriented “Independent Gay Forum”).

I use a term “gratuitous speech” for speech that is posted publicly within the sight of search engine discovery without the need for other monetization to stay up.  Typically it is speech that makes an argument but does not respond to a specific need in the sense of normal consumer markets.  This idea could become more important as responsibility for mass tragedy events (perpetrated by unstable people easily set off) gets debated. It is related to “implicit content”, interpretation of the speech in the view of the presumed motives and situation of the speaker. This idea came up when I worked as a substitute teacher, as I have documented before.  Private tech companies act as if they are more aware of this today than they were before, but how you handle this is essentially a policy choice, which may start in the private sector.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Uber attracts controversy over people with disabilities; Airbnb wants hosts to provide hotel-like reliability

Here’s an interesting story. If a company’s services or products are based on the sharing, grass-roots economy, does it still have to bend over backwards to accommodate all possible customers, especially people with disabilities.

The Washington Post has a Metro section front page story in the Washington Post today by Faiz Siddiqui, “Groups sue Uber for excluding wheelchair users from its basic door-to-door service“.

The fact pattern may seem a little muddy. In Washington DC, Uber’s biggest offense seems to be that it would not allow a driver whose car allowed non-fold-up wheel chairs to be loaded – that means, a rather large vehicle. It is hard to understand why the company would do this, unless it doesn’t want the complications of dealing with special-needs customers. But the company does route such customers to a somewhat inconvenient and alternate taxi service. The company does not require drivers to be so equipped (the logical converse of what it actually did).

Now, I do have some reservations about using the sharing economy a lot. For one thing, I don’t personally want an “online reputation” as a consumer. I have to admit, Uber reliability has been very good. It saved me with a prepaid movie ticket one day when Metro broke down. I haven’t used Airbnb, and I’ve read about pressures from Airbnb on its hosts to behave more like “hotels” so that consumers know they have a clean and equipped room when they need it, with no questions asked. I’ve also read about issues of discrimination by hosts.

I understand that the sharing economy is controversial. It can encourage people to consumer less, which sounds good for sustainability. But it can also undermine the autonomy and privacy a lot of adults are used to. It can involve taking more personal risks than many providers (drivers or hosts) and possibly consumers could be accustomed to. For example, in previous posts I’ve covered (sometimes personal) risks associated with providing Internet router access.

And when people provide services as independent contractors with their own cars or homes, they may often expect more personal say in whom they serve or how they do it. That cuts across ideas we have in “public accommodations” law regarding discrimination against certain customers. In some specialized small businesses (like the wedding cake business), we see similar expectations by some small business owners, to be left alone, when dealing with consumers whom they perceive as presenting them with personal or religious challenges.

I sometimes have to ponder this in my own book authoring “business”, especially as I contemplate putting out a novel (finally) within the next year. I get pressure from my POD publishers to buy volumes of printed books at deep discounts and set up my own retailing (which I do have a formal shell for) rather than depend on the passive (but reasonably effective) system of Amazon, Barnes and Noble, search engines, and word of mouth (and social media really is effective on that point). Imagine if I was viewed as a public accommodation (albeit a small business) and had to provide braille, large print, and audio as well   I don’t have the commercial scale for that, even though I seem to have some political visibility in the policy areas (as I did with the DADT repeal), even today with (for better or worse) the Trump administration.   I may be getting beyond the scope of this post, but my mission is to encourage critical thinking and connect the dots, not to placate understandably needful consumers in various identity groups (who could possible provide volume sales for those writers who will sell to their specific needs) . I’m fortunate enough to be able to afford to do this, but I watch the political and legal climate carefully.

(Posted: Thursday, June 29, 2017 at 3 PM EDT)

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)

 

Do security companies overstate privacy risks on social media, maybe for political motives?

Every time I go into Twitter or Facebook on my new laptop, I get a lecture from Trend Micro on my lenient privacy settings.

Particularly I get warned that the Public can see my Facebook posts and Twitter messages, that others can tag me in photos, and that others can see personal information.  On the last point, only “business address and phone” information ever gets posted online, anywhere.  In fact, I normally don’t have circles of security clearances among who can see what information about me online.  It’s all or nothing.

Some of my curiosity about this was motivated by the video in the previous post, where the speaker (a television station reporter)  said that allowing anyone but approved “Friends” (Faceook) or approved “followers” (Twitter) would create gratuitous security risks that insurance companies would find unacceptable behavior on the part of consumers.

Facebook has different concepts, like Friends, Pages, and Groups.  Many people have Pages with followers.  They cannot be made private (you can block comments from specific people).  You can make a Group by invitation only, which is closer to the concept Trend seems to be encouraging.  The conventional wisdom has been that you allow only Friends to see your posts on your Friends page.  But Facebook allows up to 5000 friends.  It is common for people to have over a thousand.  Many, perhaps most, Facebook users don’t carefully screen who gets approved as a friend.  I do allow friends from overseas (including Arabic names).  I generally disapprove of minors only.  (Posts made by others on your timeline in public mode can normally be seen by “friends of friends”).

Some people, after being friends, do behave in an unwelcome way.  Some send greetings or messages and expect to be answered back.  A couple have made pleas for “personal” help with matters I can do nothing about (at least lawfully).  One female kept making silly posts on my Timeline claiming to tag me in sexual pictures when the individual was not me.  I did unfriend her and the posts stopped.

I also had one occasion where someone created a fake copy of my account with no posts.  A legitimate friend (the person who copyedited my books) caught it and reported it to Facebook and the entry was removed before I knew about it.

Tagging has crept up as a problem, for users who allow it.  I’ve noticed that some people are more sensitive about being photographed in bars or discos than they used to be, say, before 2010.  A few social establishments have started prohibiting photography inside their facilities.

In Twitter, it is possible to set up your account so that all followers have to be approved.  Relatively few users do this, but they will block followers who seem stalky or who don’t follow supposed etiquette (by replying to too many tweets when not being co-followed), although etiquette standards are changing again rapidly.

As a practical matter, limiting visibility of posts to “Friends” or approved followers probably doesn’t increase security very much, because it is so easy to be approved and because, to be successful and have an outreach, people need friends and followers.  Indeed, it wouldn’t stop “catfishing” (as in Nev Schulman’s 2010 film “Catflish” for Rogue pictures, as with a recent incident from a fake female catfisher in Manitoba).

On Facebook, I notice that some Friends (even with privacy set to “Friends only”) will “check in” with that red dot that lets others track their movements;  I don’t think this is a good idea myself.  But part of this is that I don’t want anyone to “take me for granted”, beyond security.  Likewise, I don’t announce (even to Friends) what events I will attend, even if I report on the events after the fact on blogs.  Maybe that isn’t playing ball.  I think back to the days of my upbringing in the 50s;  my parents probably “shared” their lives with about ten other families, as with Thanksgiving and Christmas gift sharing that I remember so well (and with the Ocean City beach trips with one family I remember, too). As for services like Snapchat:  I feel that if I need a conversation that doesn’t go anywhere, I just have it by smart phone or in person.  I don’t like the idea of sharing video or photo that disappears.  (Kathy Griffin should know.)

 

All of this is interesting because Zuckerberg invented Facebook at the time that Myspace had become popular (to the extent that Dr. Phil had programs about misbehavior on Myspace), and, despite winning out over several competing ideas (the movie “The Social Network”; the books “The Accidental Billionaires” by Ben Mezrich, or “The Facebook Effect” by David Kirkpatrick).  Zuckerberg originally intended to set up Facebook for campus environments.  It wasn’t fully public until about 2007 and it didn’t get into its controversial news feed aggregation (so plagued by the fake news that is said to have helped elect Donald Trump) until maybe about 2010 (when Time Magazine honored Zuckerberg as person of the year, the “Connector”).

What such a practice would do, however, is try to discourage online self-publishing with free content.  Social media was built on the premise that known lists of people see your content, more or less like email listservers (or restricted membership sites) that were popular before modern social media.  When people are popular and have lots of “fans”, the practical effect is that social media account is public anyway. It is true that actual friends or followers are more likely to see posts even on public accounts. Blogs can also have “followers” and, with Blogger, can be made “private” (as can YouTube videos), but the normal result is that few people would see them.  Blog following has become less popular since Facebook took off, although YouTube channel subscription is still somewhat popular.

The relevant point seems to be that when you publish a hardcopy (or Kindle or Nook) book, you don’t have the “right” to know who bought it.  That’s the traditional idea or model of “open publication”.  Self-instantiation by open self-publication, with leaving a lot of content free, seems to be a morally suspect or gratuitous practice (even if it purports to offer alternative viewpoints and critical thinking as I think mine do) in the minds of some people:  if it doesn’t pay its own way, it competes unfairly with writers who do need to make a living at it;  it discourages professionalism and facilitates fake news, it can attract cultural enemies (to others as well as the self), leading to the insurance concerns, and (probably most of all) it breaks up political solidarity for those (on both the (alt) right and left) who want to recruit loyal volunteers and who want to control the (often polarized and tribally-centered) message.  “Belonging” to some group seems to be imperative.  The election and  relentlessly tribal and boorish behavior of Donald Trump seems to have brought this point home.

In fact, in the eyes of intellectual property law, this isn’t quite right.  “Publication” in defamation law is communicating the false defamatory claim to even one person who understands the message (which can be one approved friend or follower, or just one email recipient).

I opined before, back in 2000, that “open” self-publication can become an unethical practice for people in some positions (like those with direct workplace reports, when there is a concern over possible workplace results).  Now it’s a possible security issue, especially in asymmetric warfare where civilians can attract enemies who view civilians as combatants.  Yet it’s odd that security company like Trend Micro gets to define what that means, for everybody.

Some observers (like Ramsay Taplan, “Blogtyrant” of Australia) urge an inside-out approach to blogging, focusing on consumer niches that are inherently profitable, the narrower the better.  Then, he says, become aggressive in building email lists from actual customers who need you wand welcome hearing from you, which confounds the conventional wisdom today about spam.  But this practice refers to writing that supports an inherently commercial product or service, not self-expression online for its own sake or even for promoting critical thinking on political or social controversies.

(Posted: Saturday, June 3, 2017 at 11:15 AM EDT)

The electronics “travel ban” (from a few overseas airports for now) begs big future questions about staying connected “on the road”, especially for small businesses

In late March, the United States and then the UK instituted a ban on most electronics (larger than a smart phone) in the cabins of direct flights from a number of airports in the Middle East and Africa, largely Muslim countries.  The UK list is slightly smaller than the US list.  So far, other western countries have not yet followed suit.

NBC News produced a story by Harriet Baskas March 22 on how travelers were irked here.  Obviously there could be issues about cancellations and trying to change to connecting flights in Europe.  I’ll come back to that.

Firday, March 31,  CNN produced (in a story by Evan Perez, Jodi Enda, and CNN Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr) what it calls an exclusive story on the intelligence behind the travel ban.  The claim is that associates of Al Qaeda, largely in enclaves in Yemen, have developed ways to hide plastic explosives inside laptops, possibly in a DVD bay, in such a way that laptops would still start if travelers are challenged at airports.  There is concern that terrorists might have acquired prototype screening machines to test their devices.  Presumably these devices can be detonated only manually.  But theoretically, devices could be improvised that could be detonated by cell phones even if stored in cargo bays, if close enough to other similar devices.

DHS would obviously be concerned that terrorists could communicate in different parts of the world and spread this “expertise”.  Through the dark web, such information might become available to disaffected “lone wolf” or small cell groups in the U.S.,

Confounding the logic of the ban is the recent concern over the safety of lithium batteries in cargo. A few older laptops from the middle 2000s have caught fire, at least when charging, as happened with some teens in California recently.   But the concern for safely of lithium batteries in laptops is much less than for other devices, including some Samsung smart phones (some makes may not be brought onto planes) and hoverboards, which have caught fire in apartments and private homes while charging.

Also countermanding this picture are recent reports of research (as at Stanford) showing that aluminum based batteries may be safer than lithium and could be engineered to be acceptable replacements for many devices.

AC360, Anderson Cooper’s news analysis program, interviewed some experts on May 31,  Saturday, April 1, 2017. CNN interviewed Mary Schiavo, former Inspector General for the US Department of Transportation.  Later Robert Baer was interviewed.  Most of these guests expressed the obvious view that the Mideast cabin laptop ban begs the question as to whether it will be expanded, and could eventually become routine, even on domestic US flights.

DHS says that it has multiple layers of security, which includes the latest screening machines.  DHS apparently believed that airports in the affected countries did not have the same level of security.

Some observers have even claimed that the laptop bans were instituted out of Trump-style “protectionism”.

Business travelers generally need to carry their electronics with them and work on planes.  Owners of small businesses also would need to, as would “professional” journalists.

The worst case scenario would be sudden bans of all electronics on flights, even though in the West hundreds of millions of people fly with no intention of harming others.  This sounds like the “trojan horse” argument in the immigration debate, which Donald Trump has leveraged.

Tech companies could envisions solutions.  Until now, the TSA has always told air travelers not to check laptops and tablets, possibly because of the lithium issue, but largely because the devices are likely to be damaged.  It is possible to imagine sturdy (and explosion-proof) containers in which they could be packed, with the cases sold on Amazon or by stores like Best Buy.  It is possible to imagine expedited services to ship electronics for longer trips by UPS or FedEx to airport stores to be picked up on arrival, for use  after arriving.  There have been issues with bringing conventional photo film home on planes in the past, and I have mailed it home (just USPS)  before to get around the issue.

Frida Ghitis wrote on CNN about her experience with having to pack her laptop and other devices suddenly. CNBC reports that at least two Mideast airlines loaned passengers corporate laptops for inflight use, which works for passengers who have saved their data on memory sticks or in the Cloud.

Its also possible to envision a ground rental industry comparable to car rentals (maybe rented with cars).  But security for the devices would be a huge issue requiring innovation.  Right now the travel industry is not prepared to offer these services, because it has always assumed (since the late 1990s at least) that most travelers want to carry their own electronics.

Hotels do have business centers, which are generally inadequate with only one or two not very secure computers.  I use these only to print boarding passes before returning.

Back in the period between 1997 and up to 2006, after I had established my online sites (doaskdotell.com and the prior hppub.com) I sometimes traveled without electronics.  At the time, it was common for airports to require laptop startup (not always).  More recently, laptops in TSA-approved bags have not had to be started.  But in the early 2000’s there were more facilities in hotels or nearby Kinkos’ stores for checking email.  At that time, I often checked my sites to make sure they were up but did not try to update them online.  I did use my AOL email online.  I did this one on week-long trip to Phoenix and Las Vegas from Minnesota in 2000, probably checking email four times.  One hotel had Kinkos next door.  In Europe, in both 1999 and 2001, I carried a primitive cell phone, but no computers.  A hotel in Bilbao, Spain had a really large business center with very good response time and plenty of terminals.  I was able to find well run Internet cafes in London.  But I don’t know if I could find this level or service today.

Since taking up blogging at the start of 2006, I feel it is important to be able to update Blogger every day (almost), and WordPress blogs like this one somewhat less frequently.  Were I to receive a “complaint”, I need to be able to fix a problem when “on the road”.  (I don’t get the last at-bat, by analogy to baseball.)

My understanding that only “mobile” blogs on Blogger can be updated by phones (this may have changed, typical link). Mobile blogging on WordPress is possible (link).  I am not sure now whether these techniques could work with my setup now.  A small keyboard would help.  The last time I tried, Blogger could not be updated from an iPad without third party apps.  All of this I would need to check into later.

All of this could preview an environment where eventually web hosting companies could require third party contacts to update content in case of complaints and the owner could not be reached.  I’ve never heard this idea mentioned, but it sounds plausible.  (This would lead to discussion of the digital executor issue, which I’ve covered on my main legacy blog on Blogger).

Conventional social media (Facebook, Twitter, and especially Instagram) are much more easily used in a mobile-only environment without access to computing resources.   But these don’t serve the same self-publishing interests that true web hosting (including embedded Blogging) services.  I can also become relevant whether one is posting on a “free blog” or whether it is hosted (which right now, to my understanding, happens only with WordPress).

The ability to stay connected on the road is potentially very critical to the way I conduct my own business.  I will stay abreast of it and report.

(Posted: Saturday, April 1, 2017 at 7:30 PM EDT)

Update: Wednesday, April 5, 2017, 12 noon EDT

CNN has a report that more airports and countries may be added to the electronics ban, but expansion of the ban is not necessarily eminent.

Updated: Tuesday, May 9, 2017 at 7:30 PM EDT

CBS reports that the TSA and DHS are considering adding all or most European and UK airports to the electronics ban.  The policy would seemingly affect only flights to the U.S.  It is not clear if it makes sense to put a lot of lithium batteries in checked luggage, and the policy would contradict previous TSA guidance that laptops are likely to be damaged in checked luggage.  Can proper containers be designed and sold?  Could users instead just ship laptops back home by FedEx, UPS (or ordinary mail)?  I used to do that with photographic film because it could not survive carry-on security machines.  Do we need to build an adequate computer rental (like car rental) business for travelers. at least for international?

 

Here’s my own combo speech — Inauguration and State of the Union — where I pretend I won the election (hint for Donald Trump)

People say I’m dangerous.  I can make right-wing ideas seem reasonable, sensible, justifiable.  I can keep someone like Donald Trump (that is “(t)Rump”)on point if I write his speeches for him and design his policies.  I’m even called the Elder Milo.

If I were hired to help Donald Trump write his inauguration speech, or State if the Union address, or something composite of the two, here is what I would come up.  Let me be the dangerous faggot #2.

Is America Great now?  I think it is.  Was it Great before?  I’m glad that I didn’t make the personal sacrifices of the Greatest Generation, or serve in a segregated Army against a common enemy, or endure the racism suffocating in the 60s.  I did catch the “homophobia of resentment”.  But if we want America to be Great, here is what we have to keep in mind.

Area 1:  We must protect, preserve and sustain our way of life, and build on it: Infrastructure.

That starts with national security.  I personally believe what I thought when I was writing the notorious Chapter 4 of my DADT-1 book, that North Korea is our most dangerous enemy.  The threats vary, from rogue states of extreme communism – the Cold War is not over – to the asymmetric actors of radical Islam.  And some enemies want to treat ordinary citizens as combatants, as if they could target anyone and make an example of him.  This sounds like what we associate with ISIS, but it is rhetoric I heard from some sectors of the extreme Left in the early 1970s when I was coming of age myself as a young adult.

In fact, I recognize that there is a significant subculture in our own country today, the prepper community, which believes that no civilization is permanent, and that every person has a responsibility to learn to survive on his own without technology in a decentralized, primitive environment.  How these remarks will affect individual people, myself included, I will come back to.  But it is clear that our dependence on technology is unprecedented, and it does make us vulnerable to sudden catastrophe.  That is no longer a fantasy of the extreme right or alt-right.

But I want to counter with the idea that we can “work smart”  We can do a lot more to protect and preserve our technological infrastructure.  First, let me mention what we should be doing overseas:  we should continue finding and securing all caches of nuclear material that may be lost around the world.  We don’t hear much about this.  But Sam Nunn and the Nuclear Threat Initiative are right.  There are unusual materials that terrorists could get their hands on.  We have to do much better at pursuing this. Now let me move to what we should do at home.  Our power grids and other infrastructure systems are vulnerable.  There is a lot more we need to start doing to protect them.

We need to make sure that our infrastructure grids are kept as separated from the public Internet and hackers as we keep the Pentagon and our own NSA.  There simply should no way someone could get to a power station from this computer, period.

But we also have to be smarter about the way we manage power itself.  I know this because much of my own family’s investment wealth, some of which I inherited, came from oil and gas and particularly utilities. I get to see oil and utility company materials.  Shareholders put pressure on utilities to maximize profits from the ability to share loads quickly.  But that capacity also makes us dependent on large transformers, which can be overloaded by deliberate sabotage.  And we don’t make enough our own transformers at home.  We can’t replace them.  We can’t get them from overseas quickly or move them around.  So we need both to move much of our infrastructure component manufacturing back home, and we need to build smaller stations and make individual nodes more self-reliant.  This can be done with modern natural gas plants and even small underground fission plants, as Taylor Wilson has proposed.  But this would take tremendous private and public investment.

The possible threats to the grids are multiple:  extreme solar storms (we barely dodged one in 2012), cyberterror, physical attacks, and some kinds of nuclear and even non-nuclear flux detonations.

Note that fixing this problem adds well-paying, high-skilled jobs at home. It also favors cleaner technology.  It even encourages people to have their own power sources, including solar panels, at home.  This sounds like a win-win.

The dependability of infrastructure and utilities does affect the standard of living and the capability of less fortunate people to lift themselves up.

Area 2:  Sustainability and climate change

Most religious heritages believe the people living today have a moral responsibility for future generations, at least what our kids and grandkids, considered collectively, will face as adults.  The fact that human activity has added carbon dioxide to the Earth’s atmosphere and that ice caps are melting is undeniable.

But what is less clear is how many incidents today are directly the result of climate change.  Tornadoes and hurricanes and extreme storms have happened in the distant past.  The droughts and wildfires seem to be the most likely results of climate changes, as well as the loss of high latitude communities to warming, which is much more noticeable near polar areas than in temperate zones.

What also is not completely clear is how other forces will play out.  While sudden escalations of warming are possible, as with methane release, so is sudden cooling, as with volcanic eruptions, or certain features of the way the Gulf Stream works.

But we must take the science on this problem seriously and not run from it.

Area 3: Sustainability and public health

We do face the possibility of novel pandemics.  HIV-AIDS seemed unprecedented in its diabolical nature when it broke out in the 1980s, but we now know that it may have been here long before igniting. Today, however, the biggest threats come from conventionally contagious diseases, not from sexually transmitted ones.  These include super-influenzas and respiratory diseases, and possibly exotic tropical blood disease like Ebola, and some of these might be insect-born.

The science tells us that vaccines work.  We can be more active in staying ahead of the curve in developing vaccines for “bird flu” for example.  We can protect college students from sudden and shocking amputations associated with meningitis with vaccines.  We may eventually have a vaccine for HIV.

People continue to question whether they are placing their kids at theoretical risk of autism by giving them vaccines.  The science tells us that this risk is extremely miniscule and theoretical if it exists at all.  There are herd effects.  If there is a risk at all, parents who refuse to “take the risk” are riding on the willingness of others to do so to maintain a population immunity to preventing any possibility of a pandemic breaking out.

Area 4: Trade

American consumers should not take advantage of products made with slave-labor overseas.  In the long run, America will benefit if more products are made at home.  In many circumstances, companies can be convinced to keep jobs here.  Innovation is making it profitable to keep jobs at home.

At the same time, the sudden imposition of tariffs would be harmful to the economy.  And particularly in Mexico and Central America, the growth of jobs there would tend to reduce the need for emigration to the US

But many of the terms of some proposed agreements, such as TPP, have terms that are potentially harmful to many American businesses, workers and entrepreneurs.

Area 5: Immigration

It is true that uncontrolled immigration presents some security problems for America.  It is true that in some areas, the “Wall” or the “Fenway Park Green Monster” needs to be strengthened.  But a Wall is not a fix-all for all our problems with jobs.  Many studies show that as a whole, immigrants commit fewer crimes than domestics, and that immigrants add to the economy.  Many immigrants take jobs Americans don’t want or couldn’t even do.

We have to be extremely careful about admitting people from some parts of the world.  That is true.  One question, when it comes to Syrian refugees, is why we don’t pressure the wealthy Muslim countries to do more of their parts in providing areas for them to move to.  Dubai, Qatar, UAE, even Saudi Arabia, should step up to the plate.

Broad-based bans of certain religions or countries are not likely to be effective.  In fact, some domestic attacks have come from people who have been here legally for a long time, or from their second-generation kids.

It is not reasonable to reverse all of the previous president’s policies.  In fact, president Obama was aggressive with deportations of those with criminal records or who entered the country illegally and don’t have credible asylum claims.  I would continue this policy.  I think the adult kids covered under DACA should stay and be given paths to legal residency and citizenship as long as they don’t have criminal records.

Area 6: Health care and services:

An underlying problem with health care and other benefits is “moral hazard”.  People will tend to use services that they can get other people to pay for.  We can propose benefits and policies, such as paid workplace family leave, but we must consider how we will pay for them.

With health care, whatever one can say about escalating premiums and various breakdowns of Obamacare. It’s clear that to replace it we should solve two big problems:  One is handling pre-existing conditions.  There is no question that pre-existing condition create a tremendous anti-selection issue for privately run insurance companies.  I think we have to admit that pre-existing condition need so be handled largely by public funds.  The claims related to pre-existing conditions could be reimbursed through a private-public reinsurance agency.  These reinsurance companies could be set up in each state, possibly managed by Blue plans.  People will not have premiums jacked up for ordinary care to cover those with pre-existing illnesses.  We could have a nasty debate, however, on what counts as pre-existing.  Does something related to behavior – drug use, smoking, obesity, or STD, count as pre-existing? How we handle end stage renal disease (with Medicare today) could serve as a philosophical model.

The other (second) part of this health issue is covering people with low incomes, where tax credits aren’t useful.  We need to continue Medicaid mechanisms to cover these, and probably do this through block grants to states (which is what the GOP always wants).  (Writer’s note:  my own work resume includes a lot of experience with Medicaid, Medicare, life insurance, and similar issues.)

When it comes to paid family leave, well, we must pay for it.  I like the idea of small payroll deductions, which could be waived for lower income jobs.  I like the idea that it is gender neutral:  that new fathers get it as well as mothers, and that it covers adoption.  That is the policy of most high-tech employers today.  But it costs more to expand it beyond maternity leave.  The deduction would make childless people stop and think, that they need to become involved in family and raising children at some point if they are going to use it otherwise they are paying for other people’s lives (moral hazard again).  It’s pretty clear that responsibility for others doesn’t just stop with deciding to have the act that can produce a child.

Area 7:  Identity politics.

I look at people as individuals, not as members of groups who get their rights by consideration of the special issues of their groups from the past.  Of course, we have to be careful about monitoring police behavior, but we run the risk that nobody will want to become a police officer.  We should use the facts, not mob emotion, in evaluating incidents.  Every identity issue has its own special concerns.  Most of these don’t have big impact on policy.  But we need to have a proper understanding of the history behind all these issues.  On LGBTQ rights, I think a lot of people in the past have seen this as (besides religion) a proxy for refusal to participate in procreation and raising another generation, and history has shown this perception to be largely misleading.

Area 8:  Second amendment:

European countries have much stronger gun control than the United States, but this, while reducing local crime, may make them even more vulnerable to asymmetric terror cells who circumvent the laws.  Gun control is a careful balance.  Yes, we need to close the loopholes and tighten the background checks and police procedures with seized weapons. But in some situations, self-defense is a good skill to have.

Area 9: Service:

I did deal with the Vietnam era male-only military draft, serving 1968-1970, and with the socially divisive deferment system I’ve had to deal with the idea of my life as being a fungible bargaining chip for my country’s foreign policy, however well intended. The modern volunteer system sometimes seems like a backdoor draft, with the stop-loss policies during deployments.  I think we have a moral issue in that we don’t share the risks of participating in a complex modern society equitably, and many of the risks are not very transparent. All of this figured into how I argued for the end of the military gay ban an “don’t ask don’t tell” over the years 1993-2011.

Talk of reinstating a draft did pop up after 9/11, but today we should ask, if we don’t want one, why do we need a Selective Service System and registration for young men?

Outside of the military armed forces and the Peace Corps, I have some doubts over how effective nationally run service can be, given the bureaucracy. Even the large private volunteer organizations need more transparency as to what people are getting into.  But service does help communicate the idea that the playing field can become more level and more meaningful.  But then it has to get personal.

Area 10:  First Amendment

This gets to be an area that leads us to consider personal values and personal impact.

But first, let me mention one rather straightforward area in the speech area: tort reform.  We need to reign in on frivolous lawsuits, which includes those filed by so-called “patent trolls”.  For SLAPP suits, we should consider a federal law, and we should give judges the power to order “loser pays” to discourage abusive litigation intended to silence critics.

But a bigger problem, and one that is murky and seems ambiguous, comes from the permissive climate centered on user-generated content on the Internet.  And this issue has grown in tandem with our dependence on technology as I mentioned at the outset.

The growth of user-generated content certain helps supplement the flow of news information and interpretation in a way that places all the nuances of current events on the table and forces politicians and leadership to think again before acting. But some material is intentionally deceptive or untruthful, and many people are unwilling or unable to process information that doesn’t already fit into their world views. Furthermore, many people have used the open Internet for harmful purposes.  These include cyberbullying, terror recruiting, and even sex trafficking.

The modern Internet would not be possible without laws that limit service provider liability for what users post online, in a way that follows the way utility immunity from liability worked with traditional phone companies and mail.   These laws include Section 230 of the 1996 Telecommunications Act and the Safe Harbor provision of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.  Many people point out that service providers and social media companies, and certain online bulletin trading companies, become profitable from illicit and activity of their users, mainly from advertising-driven business models, and that out of general concerns for public safety, companies must take more responsibility for what they seem to be empowering their users to do.  It’s also true that while some users and bloggers can make a living online, many more use the services as a form of ego-boost and sense of importance, and participate in a form of communication that shields them from unwelcome contact with people that would have been necessary in the past.  In short, the Internet has enabled a kind of vanity self-publishing that eliminates the need to be aware of how one meets the needs of others or sells to others.  But this sort of vanity publishing depends on a certain permissiveness that encourages the placing of other people in danger.

The courts have been very supportive of the enhanced free speech on the Internet and web, in litigation involving such laws as the Communications Decency Act, and later the Child Online Protection Act (COPA).  The courts have enforced Section 230 vigorously. But it is not completely clear that the right to self-distribute one’s speech without supervision or market accountability is as fundamental to the First Amendment as the freedom to keep the government out of meddling with the actual content of the speech itself.  Self-distribution was not possible until the 1990s with the Web, and we lived without it before.

Given the seriousness of certain kinds of issues, like terrorism promotion and sex trafficking, the public is certainly going to demand that government look at regulating service providers and even users somewhat.  We need to ask questions:  how dependent on these downstream liability protections are companies like Google and Facebook in operating as they do now?  We need to quantify this.  Of course, we know, for example, that some of these services are not allowed at all in some authoritarian countries like China and user behavior is severely curtailed in more moderate countries like Turkey, so we know that this matters.  On the other hand, these companies seem to do well in western Europe, where downstream liability protections are less pronounced than in the United States – they have to deal with, for example, “the right to be forgotten.” We need to ask whether some automated filtering tools can be effective.  We know, for example, that digital watermarks for some child pornography images can be detected when they are stored or even before they are posted.  We need to see whether a narrowly drawn limitation on liability protection is reasonable.

Candidate Trump had talked about living “locally” in an earlier speech, which I discussed here January 2.  That seems to fit into the concerns over our dependence on globalization, technology, and loss of local community, too.  Trump talks about our working “together“, based on local engagement first.  But one needs to have some specifics laid out, or else it sounds like a call for unpredictable sacrifice and coercion.

(Posted: Saturday, January 14, 2017 at 3:30 PM EST)

California case from early 2016 on “right of publicity” could endanger practical use of Section 230 with user generated content; so can Backpage

There is a dangerous controversy brewing in a case, Jason Cross aka Mikel Knight v. Facebook, complaint. (Jason Cross is the stage name for Mikel Knight.)

Cross filed what seems to be a SLAPP suit against Facebook, after a variety users made criticisms of the rap singer’s operations on Facebook.  A trial court in California state court dismissed most of the claims (rather like “tortious interference” in Michael Mann’s 1999 film  “The Insider” about the tobacco industry) in May 2016 under Section 230 and California SLAPP, but allowed a claim that Facebook may have violated Cross’s “right of publicity” to stand (May 2016 ruling )  outside of Section 230 intermediary safeguards.  The actual trial has not yet taken place, and Facebook has appealed the case to a California court of appeals.

The application of right of publicity in this context seems bizarre.  The complaint is not against the user, but against Facebook itself for placing ads, which might be chosen in a manner related to the user’s content, on the page (or mobile display) next to the postings.  The theory is that the advertiser somehow benefits from the fame of the artist.

A much more common use of the right of publicity tort has to do with using the likeness of a famous person directly for commercial purposes, as in your own ad.  There would seem to some theoretical scenarios where some user content (as on a blog or hosted site) from an “amateur” draws more attention because the likeness of the public figure is on the page.  This would be more problematic if the blogger somehow implied that the public figure had endorsed the use of the public figure in the user’s content.  An amateur user, who had not “competed” or “paid his dues” in the usual sense, could leverage his own chance for become better known for his own work by first drawing on the famous person as someone to be compared to.  Possibly, providing multiple reviews of the work of the famous person could get viewed this way.  On the other hand, generally amateurs have a “right” to review all the works of any particular celebrity or better known person separately.

On it’s face, however, this very posting, because it shows the real person in the explanatory YouTube video below next to an ad, could be viewed as a “right of publicity” violation of that person, it taken very literally.  Theoretically, I sift off some undeserved ad revenue from that person’s being more deserving of fame than me.  I think even Milo (Breitbart) would think this is a ridiculous argument.

The biggest concern in the legal community is that the lower court’s preliminary ruling seems to gut the use of Section 230, allowing litigation (at least in California) whenever the substantial mention of a real-life celebrity (or conceivably any living person or even estate) in physical proximity to ads (for example, as served by Google Adsense) could prove tortious, even if the ads were not directly related to the user content.  There are multiple discussions of this case,  one by Paul Alan Levy from June 2016 here and a more detailed one today by Daniel Nazer at Electronic Frontier Foundation, “EFF to Court: Don’t Let the Right of Publicity Eat the Internet” with the amicus brief here.

It will take a long time for this case to work its way up.  Note that Facebook users are not named as defendants.  EFF makes arguments about whether “right of publicity” is really about intellectual property or about (ironically) “privacy” (or perhaps unwanted attention), or even false advertising.

Donald Trump seems hostile to amateur content, even though he uses Twitter himself.  He acts like the thinks that the winners have to keep the losers or “the Proles” in line.

Update: January 12, 2017

Electronic Frontier Foundation has a sobering article about Backpage today. One of the points is that Section 230 protects service providers as long as they don’t create or modify the illegal content (which Backpage may be doing, get back to that in a moment). Cope had already discussed the SAVE Act in January 2015 (article). Nicholas Kristof touched on sex-trafficking, Backpage (and ad modification) in an op-ed in the New York Times January 12.

Backpage closed down its adult section (reportedly) under pressure of Senate hearings very recently (Techdirt story with “censored” graphic). It looks like they took the 5th in Senate hearings (USA  Today story). I wrote a “Twitter storm” about this early 1/13 (and also a big Facebook post). ABC Nightline aired a scathing report early 1/13 here.  The Los Angeles Times offers an instructive comparison to how Backpage and Airbnb invoke Section 230 here.  According to news sources, Section 230 was also used to drop criminal charges against the CEO after an arrest (story).  Daily Beast has a (libertarian) perspective on why “banning Backpage” would actually endanger more women.

We have a new president who is not sympathetic (“no computer is safe”) to the spontaneity of they way many users express themselves with UGC (user-generate content), not only in social media but blogs and personal sites;  he sees these as not “local” or not “real life” or evasive of competing like adults with real responsibilities for dependent families. That’s one reason why the coincidence of two problems (publicity and trafficking) occurring at the same time in the media (on the same blog post by me, at least)  seems really ready to push Section 230 down a slippery slope, and with it the whole business model for much of today’s Internet (most of all social media). And it’s only one week until the inauguration as I write this.

However, it should be possible to question whether ads could be handled differently by the law than non-commercial user posts.  It would also seen that the reported behavior of modifying ads could nullify Section 230 protection even as current law stands.

I note on YouTube that since credit card companies have voluntarily given Backpage official shunning, users are fleeing to bitcoin to use the site.

I do agree with Ashton Kutcher (“A+K”) that “real men don’t buy girls” (or boys).  I wish Kutcher were president right now instead of Trump.

(Posted: Tuesday, January 10, 2017, at 11 PM EST)