CNN columnist compares user-generated content to conventional media and warns amateurs on freedom of the press

Brian Stelter offers a very constructive op-ed on CNN today , “Whose Freedom Is It?” in a series, “Free Press: What’s at Stake”.

Stelter takes the practical position (as have I) that many social media users and bloggers have become quasi-establishment journalists, supplementing the major media, and helping with “keeping them honest”, as Anderson Cooper often says.  So amateurs need to take fact-checking seriously.

This freedom may well be undermined by a number of concerns explored here recently. These include erosion of downstream liability protections for service providers (the Backpage-Section 230 problem), increasing legal exposure to “amateur” journalists for certain kinds of hyperlinks and embeds, the fake news scandals of the past year (really, the observation that “average joe” social media users tend to follow tribal crowds rather than read critically), and particularly the ease with which teens and young adults seem to be recruited into violence, which includes but is by no means limited to radical Islam and gang activity.  As I’ve noted here before, these kinds of concerns can make amateur journalism seem “gratuitous” (e.g unnecessary and capable of being shut down) although Trump seems much more concerned about the establishment (Fourth Estate) press than the newbies (Fifth Estate).

But you have to take seriously he demands made on social media platform and search engines to “pre-censor” user ouput.

Consider this article by Karl McDonald, “The Daily Mail Fundamentally Understands What Google Is”    Search engines are particularly having to deal with “the right to be forgotten” outside the US (as well as “digital laundry”).

Speakers on the Internet benefit in different ways from search engines, social media sites (some like Facebook create more opportunity for permanent “publication” than do others, like Snapchat), and shared or dedicated third-party hosting for conventional or blog sites; these providers also usually provide domain name registration. Users  also benefit from security services like Cloudflare and SiteLock.   Generally, social media sites are taking more “responsibility” for certain kinds of damaging speech (hate speech, bullying, or terror recruiting) than are neutral site hosts.   However, after the Daily Stormer matter (post Charlottesville), a few hosts participated in kicking off at least one neo-Nazi site from domain registration.

The “Mediator” Jim Rutenberg wrote a piece “Terrorism Is Faster than Twitter” Nov. 5 in which he traces how NYC bicycle lane terrorist Sayfullo Saipov followed terror recipes exactly, and tries to explain where he found them.  There are supporting details in a Nov. 2 story by Rukmin Callimachi   There is reference to the magazine Rumiyah (related to Dabiq).  A web operation called “Site Intel Group” tries to trace how this material is distributed on the web.  Much of it moves to the Dark Web or P2P.  Generally, it appears that material from these groups disappears quickly from better known social media and from conventionally hosted sites and moves around on offshore providers a lot.  There are articles on the Internet Archive (“WayBack”) which require specific logon (rather uncommon for less controversial material). In general, it does not appear that the sort of material that the Boston Marathon or other domestic “lone wolf” or small cell terrorists tried to use came from the more conventionally accessed and indexed parts of the Web.  Most of it seems pretty underground (after initial recruitment) with various encrypted apps.  We’re left to ponder what is making some of these young men (and sometimes women) tick, and have to face that modern civilization, with its individualized hypercompetitiveness, seems to offer them only failure and shame.

(Posted: Sunday, November 12, 2017 at 6:45 PM EST)

 

Scathing government report contradicts Trump on climate change, but that starts a whole discussion on media responsibility

Friday November 3, 2017 the USGCRP issued a scathing report (“Highlights of the Findings of the U.S. Global Change Research Program Climate Science Special Report“)  analyzing the runaway train effect of global climate change, and pinning the “blame” on human activities since the industrial revolution.  Of course, this publication goes against everything that Donald Trump has said to mollify his own base.

Vox has a detailed commentary by Umair Irfan, pretty standard for mainstream and progressive media companies.

And this brings me to my next big point. The mainstream media has done a pretty good job of presenting the case that we need to take climate change very seriously, particularly if we take our responsibility to future (unconceived as well as unborn) generations as a moral issue (Point 5 of “DADT IV”)

Trump has played the denial game to his base with shocking effect, most of all when he announced June 1 that he was pulling out of the Paris accords on the day I was looking at the recovery from wildfires in Shenandoah.

The more mainstream conservative media (Fox, OANN) have demurred a bit but still covered the bases.  Yet, we aren’t to the point that there is a bipartisan political will to face the problem with federal action, but there is obviously a lot incentive in private American hands.

On other issues that I view as “hidden in plain sight”, I could say that the major media have covered issues of fiscal sustainability (social security, population demographics, debt ceiling) with some consistency but again without the result of a political will to face the issue squarely, partly because the demographic component (longer life spans, fewer kids) seems so intractable.

So I come to the starkest issues that give me an incentive to “stay in the game” as a blogger.  Notable, it’s hard for me to “join the movement” for an “oppressed group” when I think there are big issues that could blow our entire civilization (and make my whole life’s Akashic record pretty irrelevant and forgettable). And the biggest of these is the stability of the three major US power grids.

Part of the controversy concerns whether there really exist relatively inexpensive fixes (like neutral ground circuits) that (for maybe $10 or so per American, that is, a few billion dollars) make the grid far more resistant to terrorist or enemy attacks (especially E3 level) as well as to big “Carrington” solar storms. I’ve read that utilities in Virginia and Maine in particular have a head start on this issue.

Another part of the controversy really concerns the likelihood that an enemy (most recently in view, North Korea, as well as radical Islam) could credibly carry out an EMP attack (which doesn’t necessarily have to be nuclear) instead of a conventional thermonuclear strike. Again, the mainstream press has demurred on this somewhat.

So part of my own personal mission is to try to encourage the mainstream press, maybe starting with some of the more conservative news companies (Fox, OANN, Sinclair – which has reported on this as reported on this blog already) to give the public an objective assessment on the problem.  Yes, I’m ready to get on planes and go interview people.

There are other problems that need this kind of approach.  One is filial responsibility laws, part of the whole population demographics problem mentioned above.  Another is, of course, the threats to our permissive atmosphere of user generated content on the web – ranging from Section 230 (the Backpage controversy) to fake news and enemy (especially by ISIS) recruitment, as just reported last night on AB 20-20 on a scathing report by Diane Sawyer (“ISIS in America”).

I have a particular take on the whole Russia fake-news and social media trolling thing. I have long been personally concerned that foreign enemies could target individual people (and those connected to these people, like family or business associates), such as what we saw from North Korea at the end of 2014 with the Sony Pictures hack.   What I did not see was that enemies would try to goad “oppressed minorities” (BLM) or reactionaries to these minorities (less educated white males connecting back to white supremacist groups) into forming movements and fighting each other internally.

Diane Sawyer’s report (just mentioned) makes the good point that the asymmetry of the Internet (and user-generated content) makes young men who feel “powerless” or “left behind” individually dangerous in a way we haven’t seen before.  That is part of the old inequality paradox: you need to accept inequality and ego to have innovation that benefits everyone, but then people need to somehow “pay their dues” or you get instability (the “Epilogue” or Chapter 6 of my DADT III book in 2014).

I write all this today by using other funds (some inherited, but mostly my own) to support my own news commentary activities.  At some point, I need to partner up with someone to tackle some of the bigger problems I mentioned here (no, I really want to do better things with my life than scream in demonstrations for mass movements, but even my saying that is provocative). It’s true I am a globalist and somewhat “elitist’ but I call myself conservative (but in the libertarian sense, not Trump-ian). But I wanted to note that billionaire Joe Ricketts just shut down some local news sites he owns because they couldn’t pay their own way.  His own WordPress blog post on unionization is interesting.

(Posted: Saturday, November 4, 2017 at 1 PM EDT)

Update: Friday, Nov. 10 (12 noon EST)

I have to note this article in Vox on the effect of “tribal elites” especially on the climate change debate.   Sorry, I really do try to investigate the world’s woes (like the power grid exposure) “hands separately”.  I could say, “tribalism is for losers”, ha ha. And I’d get executed or beheaded quickly and there would be no funeral.

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)

Activism, watcherism, and subtle vigilantism: those just outside the “systematic oppression” zones

CNN has run an op-ed by John Blake, “White Supremacists by Default: How ordinary people made Charlottesville possible.”

Yes, to some extent, this piece is an “I am my brother’s keeper” viewpoint familiar from Sunday School. But at another level the piece has major moral implications regarding the everyday personal choices we make, and particularly the way we speak out or remain silent.

I grew up in a way in which I did not become conscious of class or race or belonging to a tribe, or people. I was not exposed to the idea of “systematic oppression” against people who belong to some recognizable group. My self-concept was pretty separated from group identity.

I gradually became aware that I would grow up “different” especially with respect to sexuality. But I believed it was incumbent on me to learn to perform in a manner commensurate with my gender, because the welfare of others in the family or community or country could depend on that capacity. My sense of inferiority was driven first by lack of that performance, which then morphed into other ideas about appearance and what makes a male (or then female) look desirable.

I remember, back in the mid 1990s, about the time I was starting to work on my first DADT book, an African-American co-worker (another mainframe computer programmer) where I worked in northern Virginia said that he was teaching his young son to grow up to deal with discrimination. Another African-American coworker who had attended West Point said I had no idea what real discrimination was like, because I could just pass. (That person thought I lived “at home” with my Mother since I was never married.)  I would subsequently be a witness in litigation by a former black employee whom I replaced with an internal transfer, and the “libertarianism” in my own deposition seemed to be noticed by the judge dismissing the case.

Indeed, the activism in the gay community always had to deal with the “conduct” vs. “group identity” problem, particularly during the AIDS crisis of the 1990s. Libertarians and moderate conservatives like me (I didn’t formally belong to Log Cabin Republicans but tended to like a lot of things about Reagan and personally fared well when he was in office) were focused on privacy (in the day when double lives were common) and personal responsibility, whereas more radical activists saw systematic oppression as related to definable gender-related class. Since I was well within the upper middle class and earned a good income with few debts and could pay my bills, both conservatives with large families and radical activists born out of disadvantage saw me as a problem.

The more radical commentators today are insisting that White Nationalists have an agenda of re-imposing or augmenting systematic oppression by race, even to be ultimate end of overthrowing normal civil liberties, reintroducing racial subjugation and other forms of authoritarian order. The groups on the extreme right are enemies (of people of color) as much as radical Islam has made itself an enemy of all civilization. Radicals insist that those who normally want to maintain some objectivity and personal distance must be recruited to actively fighting with them to eliminate this one specific enemy.  This could lead to vigilantism (especially online) to those who speak out on their own but who will not join in with them. Ii do get the idea of systemic oppression, but I think that meeting has a lot more to do with the integrity of individual conduct. But this goes quite deep. Refusing to date a member of a different race could be viewed as active racism (June 26).

The possibility of including ordinary independent speakers or observers (or videographers) among the complicit indirect systematic “oppressors” should not be overlooked. Look at the comments and self-criticism of Cloudfare CEO Matthew Prince, about the dangers of new forms of pro-active censorship by Internet companies. This does bear on the Backpge-Section 230 problem, and we’ll come back to this again. In a world with so many bizarre asymmetric threats, I can imagine that Internet companies could expand the list of certain speech content that they believe they cannot risk allowing to stay up (hint: Sony).

I want to add, I do get the idea that many left-wing activists (not just limited to Antifa) believe that Trump was elected in large part by white supremacists and that there is a more specific danger to everyone else in what he owes this part of his base. I have not taken this idea very seriously before, but now I am starting to wonder.

(Posted: Saturday, August 19, 2017 at 6:15 PM EDT)

Firing of Google engineer for internal “manifesto” highlights problems with speech and the workplace, vs. “identity politics”

The recent “free speech” meltdown on the Google campus has a few angles to it that deserve exploring, and compare to some of my own past.

David Brooks, the moderate-to-conservative “moralizer” on how we can be good as individuals, called for the resignation of Google CEO Sundar Pichai, after the dismissal of Google software engineer James Damore, 28, who distributed an internal “manifesto”   I enjoy reading Brooks, who for the most part is about where John McCain would be on a lot of issues and on how elected officials should behave.

Brooks points out that it is reasonable to discuss statistical genetic differences between identifiable groups of people (by gender, race, geographic origin, maybe sexual orientation) while maintaining that in employment (including the military) and public accommodations people should always be treated equally as individuals.  Well, practically always.  I don’t think a female could hit home runs the way Bryce Harper or Aaron Judge can.  But I do think that some day that Major League Baseball will have to deal with the controversy over having a (female-to-male)  transgender relief pitcher.  (And, by the way, professional sports leagues have to be totally with it on the idea that sexual orientation, gender, and gender identity are all very different things.)

Before moving on from all this, I’ll add that my own youth (born 1943) created a world where conformity to binary gender roles was seen as essential to fitting into the group and carrying one’s own share of the common risks.  Later, individualism took over my life, and discrimination became less urgent personally. But when external coercion happens, it gets important to belong to the “larger group”, so smaller groups (even “intersectionality”) start to matter.

Yet, Pichai and the identity politics crowd apparently would hear none of Damore’s pedantic provocations, which made him seem aloof to the real world.  Somehow, even bringing up biological statistics invited enemies of various marginalized people in these groups.  We’re all the way back to the demonstrations against Milo Yioannopoulos and the whole ridiculous Leslie Jones fiasco.

Damore’s 10-page memo has been called an anti-diversity “screed”.  The language may seem tedious to some, analytical for others, or maybe a joke (I remember the Pentagon’s “123 words”  — “Homosexuality is incompatible with military service” etc. by comparison, indeed the “mouthful of words” that Randy Shilts had so much fun with in “Conduct Unbecoming”).  His comment on empathy is interesting – people really do need emotion for “Staying Alive” (like John Travolta).  It’s also important to remember that biology relates to the likelihood of having kids and family responsibility, which Google has wisely tried to defuse by offering paid parental leave, regardless of gender. Vox published a “Big Idea” page that “ladysplain’s” the issue of sexism in the technology workplace.

It’s important to remember that this was an internal memo;  it was published online only after it became controversial.  I once got into some minor trouble at work in 1992 for sending a SYSM (a mainframe email program within a data center installation) criticizing others for copying software disks, possibly illegally (in the days with the Software Publishers Association was starting to audit companies for possible copyright and software license infringement). Indeed, some of the security and legal controversies today had their predecessors of the pre-Internet old mainframe world of the 70s through the 90s. Let me add that from 1972-1974 I worked for Sperry Univac (Unisys) which for its time was one of the most progressive companies in hiring female engineers.

What can be more troubling is when someone posts controversial material online on his own dime with his own social media account, blog, or hosted domain, and others find it through search engines.  I’ve already discussed how this played out with a fictitious screenplay I had posted when I was substitute teaching (July 19, 2016).   There was a situation in my IT career where I transferred to another location because of the possibility of a perceived public conflict over publishing my book involving gays in the military (May 30, 2016 link).

In the early 2000’s we saw human resources people write articles on proposed “blogging policies” at their companies.  I think when someone has direct reports or underwriting responsibilities, there is a real risk that if someone finds opinionated material online even written at home, a hostile workplace issue can come up.  I had written an article explaining this back in March 2000 as Google was starting to make me “famous”.

Here’s a story about a writing conference in Minneapolis canceled because of the “lack of diversity” of the presenters.   I lived there 1997-2003 and went to some events sponsored by the local National Writers Union.  I didn’t run into this then. Ditto for a screenwriting group.

The recent reports that Google canceled an employee town hall over external threats and targeting, are disturbing again and remind me of the unrest over campus appearances by Milo Yiannopoulos and Charles Murray.

(Posted: Friday, August 11, 2017 at 7:30 PM EDT)

Update: Saturday, August 12, 2017 at 6 PM

James Damore has his own explanation in the Wall Street Journal of his firing here.

The New York Times has a detailed story today about how the internal memo gradually became more public involving internal tools called Memegen and Dory.  The “leak” appeared partly through Breitbart, which reports that WikiLeaks has offered Damore a job.

The Washington Post has an op-ed in Outlook Aug. 13 by Fredrik deBoer, “Corporations are cracking down on what employees say, even outside of work“.  He cites examples, like a stadium worker for criticizing the Philadelphia Eagles on Facebook, or a military contractor fired for publicly supporting Barack Obama. Digital technology has made second lives impossible.  This may have helped overturn “don’t ask don’t tell” but it can gradually erode the “right” of people to speak for themselves and send them running to organizations and lobbyists begging to be paid to speak for them.

Social media companies and economic value: what happens when everybody believes “It’s free, it’s free”, like at the public library

There’s a rather shocking and strident article in the Washington Post today, by Larry Downes. “Google and Facebook contribute zero economic value. And that’s a big problem for trade.”

The article specifically talks in terms of Gross Domestic Product, as economists define it. And online services contribute, well, zero, because all the content they deliver is free.

Well, not exactly.  Advertisers pay these services, especially for clicks or, even better, a little commission (that sometimes goes to writers) when consumers make real world purchases.  And Madison Avenue companies had, I thought, always counted in the GDP, at least in Big Apple speak.

On a bigger view, tech certainly contributes to GDP.  Telecom companies charge consumers more or less the way utility companies do.  It’s not free.  And there are even some glimmers, or rumors, that in a no-net-neutrality environment, big telecom may eventually charge websites (or hosting companies and service companies like Google and Facebook) to be hooked up more efficiently.   That idea may be contributing to the development of intermediary platforms for certain artists and writers, like Bandcamp and Hubspace.  By the way, Google is facing fines for the way it uses its “monopoly” for “promoting” its own stuff in Europe, an idea that parallels the net neutrality problem in the U.S. now.

It’s true, we’ve gotten used to the fact that a lot of good web content is free.  A lot of economists or other moralists think that’s not a good thing.  But we need to view these statements with some degree of balance.  Many newspapers and quality periodicals now have paywalls.  Many platforms charge for legal downloading, although often less than things cost in the physical world (like watching new movies on Amazon), and others have monthly subscriptions to bundle charges (Netflix) resulting in lower costs for consumers over time.

Furthermore, and this is important, some websites offering “free content” do support sales of real products (like books) or services (like insurance) in a tangible way   So in that sense, these kinds of sites pay their own way.  “Blogtyrant” (Ramsy Taplin) has explored his issue recently with postings and lively comments threads (June 12).

I agree, that a pundit like me poses certain “moral” questions.  Most of my content is viewed free, and I don’t actually personally need for my own web activity to be self-supporting, the way things are set up now (and have been so since the mid 1990s).  As I’ve noted before, it is very difficult for me to become somebody else’s mouthpiece, and it is very difficult to enter into a “real” relationship where others with “needs” depend on me and where I find that personally rewarding.   There’s a chicken and egg problem:  maybe you need to have (or at least adopt) kids first, or belong to some identity group and feel partial to that group, first.

It is true that people, especially teens and young adults, need to grow up in the real world.  No, I’m not ready to go off the grid to a cabin in the woods, because, given what I have done, I have to keep things going all the time.  And the idea of a teacher’s “bribing” students to give up screen time one day a week in the summer seems silly to me.

But I do think teens should take advantage of all real-world opportunities first (sports, drama, music, outdoors, travel [not to North Korea]) first.  I know of a teen who directed a church play a few years ago, “Wise Guys”, and as far as I know, it’s never become a film. My challenge to a recent college graduate might be, produce it!   I had my own opportunity with piano lessons and even composition contests n the 1950s through very early 1960s.   The manuscript shown here, handwritten from the 1959-1960 winter snow days, attests to my own grounding in the physical world.  But my activity was personally expressive and self-driven, not social or relational or needs-based.  The logical outcome is that not everyone wins, not everyone gets recognized as a star.  Some people lead, and the rest of us become the “meek little followers”, whether singing in a mixed chorus in high school (oh, those Spring concerts), or working as an activist, and even for people whose needs make them fall far short of examples of libertarian examples of “personal responsibility”.

I wish Reid Ewing would bring back his three short films “It’s Free” from 2012 (with Igigistudios).  They would make a real point now. Maybe to “be free” you have to help people enough that they want to pay for your stuff.

Mozilla has its own podcast page about the future of free stuff,

(Posted: Tuesday, June 27, 2017 at 5 PM EDT)

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)

“Nobody’s Tool”

In Terry Gilliam’s artsy futurist film “The Zero Theorem” (2013), precocious and charismatic teen Bob (Lucas Hedges) tells the besieged computer operator Qohen Leth (Christoph Waltz), “I’m nobody’s tool”.  (Hedges would play a similar role in “Manchester by the Sea”.)

It’s true, I “went public” with a controversial persona narrative with my first “Do Ask, Do Tell” book in the 1990s – specifically striking a nexus between the past history of conscription with the debate over gays in the military (as it had evolved then under Bill Clinton).  I would wrap every other issue, mapped onto the tension between individualism and the need to belong to the group, around it and become a commentator, a pundit, someone who, however, needed to keep a certain objectivity and distance (even emotional aloofness) expected of journalists.

As President Trump complains, it’s too easy to criticize when you sit on the bench ad don’t play.

So, in the “aftermath” of the book(s), websites, blogs and now social media accounts, I have made it absolutely impossible for me to earn money (in “retirement”) by selling somebody else’s message, or being someone else’s spokesperson.  No, I can’t have Sean Spicer’s job.

After my layoff and forced retirement from old-style mainframe I.T. as a post 9/11 sequel at the end of 2001, at age 58 (73 now), I learned “the truth” about what the world seemed to expect of retirees: Sell! One of the earlier interviews (while I was still in Minnesota) as with PrimeVest   The interviewer became defensive about my questions over his presentation, even though I agree that for some consumers, converting whole life to term is a reasonable strategy. But a $40 trillion market?  The interview was concerned over how “analytical” I seemed. I checked and investigated everything.  “We give you the words,” he said.  To a writer who has followed his own direction, that phrase sounded very insulting, like throwing an inadequate tip at a bartender (which I once did).

There would other attempted offers to throw husckerism at me. True, life insurance agent or financial planner sounds legitimate enough. But I don’t want to troll people’s Internet ad hits in order to cold call them.

I also find myself resisting attempts to get me to “join a resistance”.  HRC is on my regular donation list, but I felt a little taken back by a recent email inviting me to be trained to become a grassroots activist or part of a resistance.  I know that Barack Obama was a “community organizer” in Chicago at one time, I have my own message set.  I don’t need to have an organization tell me what to say.

Even worse was a similar ploy from the political right. GOP candidate for a runoff in a Georgia House race, Karen Handel, writes, addressing me personally (by an automated plugin – again insulting) “This is the email I didn’t want to have to write. But after seeing the latest public polls – I have no choice.” She whines that bigwing Democrats have raised so much money for her opponent, so “Will you help me fight back?”

No, I like to think of myself as better than that (including any public participation in overtly partisan politics).  But of course I know the argument.  I saved well when I was working.  But I also have some of what the left-wing considers a poison pill, inherited wealth.  I don’t have to make everything I do pay for itself.  I don’t have to sell other people’s messages for a living. But I can imagine people thinking, if there weren’t people like me around to dilute them, they could make a living by “selling” because everyone else would have to.

I’ve railed about identity politics here before, but the way I argue policy issues is relevant here.  Of course, I agree that current GOP plans for health care (variations of the Americam Healthcare Act) could, as structured now, throw millions off affordable health insurance, while solving problems of premium hikes for unneeded coverages for some people adversely affected by Obamacare’s implementation (and probably exacerbated by some states). I agree that the changes could affect racial minorities adversely.  They could also affect gay men (depending on what happens with PrEP and protease inhibitors).  But I don’t argue something because it hurts “me” or anyone as a “member of a group” (even though “belonging to groups” has become, unfortunately, the legal cornerstone of the way equal protection of the laws works).  One of the reasons AHCA would affect people in certain groups is the way it would shift the responsibility for Medicaid back to the states.  So it becomes a federalism problem.  States should do the right things, but we know from the history of Civil Rights through the 1960s that sometimes they didn’t (and we lost young men like Goodman, Schwerner and Cheney as a result in what was the moral equivalent of crucifixion).

I don’t respond personally to “Leftist” appeals for “resistance” because this policy hurts members of their particular client groups (even if I belong to one of them, and everyone belongs to something). I think you have to solve the problem analytically.  Some countries, like Switzerland, have kept an effective private health care sector in a way that works, and we could do that. I think you can have assigned risk pools again, so that rich people with pre-existing conditions can pay their own way (an inherent advantage of the GOP setup) but you have to subsidize the premiums of people in the middle class and below (tax cuts alone aren’t enough, you need subsidies, but you don’t need to use Medicaid as the vehicle for subsidies), or use reinsurance for excess claims.  You have to be determined to make it work, and you have to pay for it.  So maybe you can’t give the rich all their tax cuts.

Likewise, I reject group-oriented resistance politics on an issue like police profiling.  I understand Rudy Giuliani’s claims about how “broken windows” policing in the 1990s made New York City much safer than it had been in the 1970s when I lived there. But I have so say, that particularly a couple of independent films (“Whose Streets?” and “The Prison in Twelve Landscapes” and well as “I A Not Your Negro”) have pointed out that in some communities, police departments have regularly extorted fines from black residents with the “garbage jail” approach. This is illegal and even criminal and not acceptable.  Why won’t the usual system of litigation put a stop to this?

I’m left to ponder the mentality of the doomsday preppers, who think that civilization cannot be depended on, and that it is morally imperative for everyone to learn to become self-sufficient locally and within the family.

(Posted: Monday, May 22, 2017 at 11:30 AM EDT)

Could undoing Network Neutrality rules really mean smallfry sites would have to pay off telecomm providers to be connected? Really?

Let’s imagine an entrepreneur invents some new superfast FIOS or cable technology that would be very effective for long high-definition videos, perhaps 3-D, perhaps even holographic or virtual reality.

A telecommunications company like Verizon, ATT or Comcast wants to offer it to some residential customers. It invites high profile, high-volume content distributors like some major movie studios, some (perhaps selected) cable channels, Amazon, and social media giants like Facebook to sign on and pay extra for the more efficient streaming of their content to largely more affluent consumers in some urban communities. Furthermore, these companies give price breaks for connecting to content that they own (for example Comcast has direct ties to NBC and Universal Pictures and Focus Features).

This sounds like it would not be allowed now under Obama’s network neutrality (after the FCC ruled that telecommunications companies were the legal equivalent of telephone companies of the monopolistic past, even after the breakup of “Ma Bell”, which, by the way, gave me more than a few job interviews when my own adult career started around 1970). It sounds as though the new FCC chairman, Ajit Pai, appointed by Donald Trump, wants this to be allowed.

Is this really a problem? If the service were available to home consumers (even only in certain locations) as an add-on to normal service, I don’t see a problem. Ordinary internet sites, including those owned by small businesses and free commentary blogs like mine, would work for consumers the same way they always had. However, a consumer who wanted to watch a 3-D comics-based movie on her home entertainment center when it first came out and wanted to pay for it this way with extra service would be able to.

Where I would be more concerned is if the hypothetical new service replaced the old one, and because of the physics of how it is offered, ordinary sites were no longer available. Only high-volume sites from large companies (especially those owned by one of the telecoms) that had paid to be connected to this service would be available on this hookup to some consumers. Such a consumer might believe that her smart phone with ordinary 4G LTE wireless provides adequate access to “ordinary” sites, which need to be mobile friendly anyway. That’s not so much of a problem for bloggers any more, because WordPress and Blogger make sites mobile-easy automatically anyway.

How probable this scenario really is, would depend on looking at how the hardware works.   I remember community college courses on the OSI model back in the 1990s. It’s that kind of stuff.

The reason I paint this scenario is largely that a number of advocacy organizations have been publishing veiled warnings that ISP’s might actually charge individual sites to be connected to their networks. This would obviously be devastating to small businesses, especially those that depend on niche blogs (the way Ramsay Taplan, the Australian “Blog Tyrant”) says the way they should be marketed. That lays aside rogue independent journalists like me who offer our blogs “free” in order to be noticed, and more about that later. In fact, the “DearFCC” petition letter promoted recently by the Electronic Frontier Foundation seems to pander to this idea (legacy post). Even “mainstream” news sites like the Washington Post have dropped these hints. Sometimes I wonder if this does border on “fake news” and if Donald Trump could actually be right.

An environment where every domain had to pay every company to be connected could favor “free service” publishing services: that is, Blogger, WordPress, Tumbler, etc., which are predicated on there being just one domain to connect. There’s the interesting side observation that it is already much easier to make “free service” blogs encrypted under SSL and “https everywhere”, because that works by domain name.  That goes against conventional wisdom that a blog is much viewed as much more “professional” when it is tied to a domain named and paid-for domain name. BlueHost and other vendors have developed ways to equate these to “add on” subdomains, so the SSL issue may change in the relatively near future. That would imply, to me at least, that in a non-net-neutral world of the future, hosting companies (like BlueHost) would take care of the connection fees.  It’s also important to note that “free service” platforms don’t offer direct support and can terminate users wrongfully and capriciously (the “spam blog” problem).  And will the business model for free services hold up forever?  It’s always “risky” to put all your marbles on someone else’s free service, so conventional wisdom goes.  You have to add that people use Facebook (especially fan pages as opposed to “friends”, along with controversial news aggregation), Myspace (in the more distant past — the way Ashton Kutcher used it), Instagram and Twitter to supplement self-publishing, and these mega-rich services would always be able to pay for special treatment in a non-neutral environment.

Other sites have noted that Ajit Pai claims he will secure pseudo-voluntary compliance promises from big telecoms that they will not interfere with ordinary operation of the Internet for ordinary content providers and consumers. There is some question as to how “voluntary” these promises would remain and whether the FTC (not FCC) could enforce them with fines. If Pai is credible, then the net neutrality scare talk (not all of it from the Left) is indeed “hot air”, about a problem that doesn’t exist.

Another observation is that we have had years of Internet service, from the late 1990s until 2015, when net neutrality became formal under Obama, without any of these rumored consequences. Frankly, the world in which I started writing online, around 1997, with 56K modems through AOL, wasn’t all that bad. I actually stood out more then than I do now! But, as Timothy B. Lee recently wrote in Vox, ISP’s have tended to “voluntarily” stay on good behavior since about 2008 because they expected Net Neutrality to come about, even before Obama was elected.

It’s a fair question, too, to wonder what happens in other western countries – Europe, UK, Australia, and Canada especially. My impression is that they have some strong neutrality rules.

Furthermore, it seems relevant that some companies have already tried super-fast Internet in some local areas, like Google FIOS, which I thought had been set up around Kansas City, Chattanooga, Austin, Atlanta, and a few other places, but has a clouded future. Could the specifics of hookup to these networks affect the way any new innovative services want to charge for providing fast lanes for their content?

Finally, I’ll add a remark that some pundits seem to think that people shouldn’t give away content “for free” on the Internet at all, that everything published online should carry its own weight, as I noted on a legacy blog post yesterday. I would like to see Reid Ewing’s little film “It’s Free” become available again. But the details of that are for another day.

(Posted: Thursday, May 11, 2017 at 1 PM EDT)

Authoritarianism and combativeness threaten free speech (mine at least)

Two days before the inauguration of Donald Trump, I have to pause for a moment and think about two behaviors that can become existential threats to me:  authoritarianism, and combativeness.

I’m particularly concerned with behavior that is intolerant of the expression of views or beliefs that contradicts those of one’s own tribe (religious or national), or that is somehow critical or somehow mocks authority figures, whether political or religious.

One of the most notorious examples of combative behavior (with respect to speech) was the Jyllands Posten Muhammad Cartoon Controversy, well documented in this wiki  and covered by Flemming Rose in his “Tyranny of Silence” .  This led to a violent incident in Paris and killing of Charlie Hebdo and other journalists in January 2015.

Young adults, especially young men (and fewer but still substantial numbers of women) join radical mass movements often out of a need for “brotherhood” and meaning, when the circumstances of the upbringing don’t afford the capacity of engineering their own lives as individuals the way “Western values” (or “democratic capitalism”, a term the Washington Times uses, but which the Left sees as an oxymoron) now expects.  Religion and faith may be a unifying factor (sometimes with apocalyptic, end-of-days theology), but so can be collective secular political ideology, as with some violent elements of the radical Left (the Symbionese Liberation Army, for example) in the 1970s.

But such persons, when recruited, often feel that tolerating any question of their beliefs is itself giving in to some kind of oppression, often with inter-generational  inherited roots.

Resistance and protest groups often develop their own internal political structures which become authoritarian in a manner psychologically similar to the authoritarian tendencies of national political leaders, even men like Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, as well as China’s leadership.

Authoritarian leaders believe that the people they “rule” must face a hostile world with many threats, and that people must remain somewhat cohesive and free from distraction as for certain beliefs.  Authoritarianism fears that the individual who is “different” will view that “difference” as making him or her “special” and will drain the resources from the overall safety of the group without contributing their fair share of the risk-taking.   And leadership also fears that criticism will reduce its credibility with the people, and leadership rationalizes the idea that loss of leadership authority actually attracts enemies.

It is true that in various circumstances, authoritarian and even combative attitudes can give an illusion of prosperity and stability.  This often means persecuting the “others”.  But it is often a long time before the main population understands what is really happening than things start to unravel.  To many Gentile Germans, Nazi Germany seemed stable and prosperous in the late 1930s and it was not to last.  But even the rest of the world was fooled.

This whole area of authoritarianism and combativeness, often relabeled as “activism” and “solidarity”, makes my speech quite troubling for some people.  In several episodes in my life, I have questioned over-simplified, group-think ideas about policy needs, with arguments that potentially can undermine the group’s achieving its goals if the arguments are heard by enough people. Call it playing “devil’s advocate” or deploying “I told you so.”   Back in the 1980s, even before there was an effective public internet, I was a thorn in the side of some activists, who wanted to present people with AIDS simply as “victims” based on being in a disliked group.  I’ve covered this in my books and other posts (like here ).  Regarding gays in the military, I voiced unusual arguments involving shared risk-taking going back to the practices of the Vietnam era draft, and conceded that in the past people were more easily distracted by “cohesion” concerns (like in college dorms) than young adults would be today.  That argument (far afield from the usually politically correct arguments about disliked groups)  seemed to stick and stay in circulation and may have helped contribute to the DADT Repeal in 2010-2011.  In more recent times, with respect to Internet speech issues (COPA for example) I’ve admitted that we could have come up with automated pre-screening tools for some security issues (including child pornography, sex trafficking, and especially terrorist recruitment or cell-plotting) or we could lose out on the right to continue “user generated speech” altogether.  That’s especially true now that we have a president somewhat hostile to globalism, automation, and who will ask if Internet behavior is paying its own way, when compared to the risks of allowing it (even as that president uses Twitter to reach his own audience in an asymmetric way, but he won’t need it for long).

I certainly have attracted criticism from others for putting my stuff out for free (mostly), allowing others to find it, not insisting that it make money on its own (or help other people get and keep their jobs).  Have your skin in the game, they say, before you speak out.  That quickly translates to, have your own family first.  Otherwise, you could endanger others and attract harm to others connected to you, from real enemies.

But I also get flak for not “belonging” to the group, and sometimes for respecting the leadership of the group.  I play “devil’s advocate”, bracing to say “I told you so” later.  Group leadership will think this gives credibility to “enemy” arguments (that otherwise get overlooked) and keeps things from getting done to benefit most of the people in the group (or even country).  Trump is not the first person I’ve encountered to react to having his authority questioned.  My own father could react that way.  And in some job interviews in the past, people would ask why I’m not more assertive and authoritative myself.

I do have a tendency to regard almost any engagement with others (in a relatively private or personal group) as having potential public significance, which can become troubling to others even without names being mentioned.  Any group needs boundaries about what affects the outside world and tends to need people to enforce those borders.

(Posted: Wednesday, January 18, 2017, at 2 PM EST)