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)