Tag Archives: Public interest

Barlow as Rorschach test

An op-ed by Joshua Benton on the first quarter-century of John Perry Barlow’s Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace on the Nieman Lab website.

Unpacking the different facets of Barlow’s personality and worldview goes a long way toward mapping out early internet ideology: most everyone finds parts to admire as well as intimations of disasters to come. The protean nature of the author of the Declaration helps in the process. Was Barlow Dick Cheney’s friend or Ed Snowden’s? Was he a scion of Wyoming cattle ranching royalty or a Grateful Dead lyricist? Was he part of the Davos digerati or a defender of civil rights and founder of the EFF? All of these, of course, and much besides. Undeniably, Barlow had a striking way with words, matched only by a consistent ability to show up “where it’s at” in the prevailing cultural winds of the time (including a penchant for association with the rich and famous).

Benton does a good job highlighting how far removed the techno-utopian promises of the Declaration sound from the current zeitgeist regarding the social effects of information technology. But ultimately we see in Barlow a reflection of our own hopes and fears about digital societies: as I previously argued, there is no rigid and inescapable cause-effect relationship between the ideas of the ’90s and the oligopolies of today. Similarly, a course for future action and engagement can be set without espousing or denouncing the Declaration in its entirety.

Free speech and monetization

Yesterday, I attended an Electronic Frontier Foundation webinar in the ‘At Home with EFF’ series on Twitch: the title was ‘Online Censorship Beyond Trump and Parler’. Two panels hosted several veterans and heavyweights in the content moderation/trust & safety field, followed by a wrap-up session presenting EFF positions on the topics under discussion.

Several interesting points emerged with regard to the interplay of market concentration, free speech concerns, and the incentives inherent in the dominant social media business model. The panelists reflected on the long run, identifying recurrent patterns, such as the economic imperative driving infrastructure companies from being mere conduits of information to becoming active amplifiers, hence inevitably getting embroiled in moderation. While neutrality and non-interference may be the preferred ideological stance for tech companies, at least publicly, editorial decisions are made a necessity by the prevailing monetization model, the market for attention and engagement.

Perhaps the most interesting insight, however, emerged from the discussion of the intertwining of free speech online with the way in which such speech is (or is not) allowed to make itself financially sustainable. Specifically, the case was made for the importance of the myriad choke points up and down the stack where those who wish to silence speech can exert pressure: if cloud computing cannot be denied to a platform in the name of anti-discrimination, should credit card verification or merch, for instance, also be protected categories?

All in all, nothing shockingly novel; it is worth being reminded, however, that a wealth of experience in the field has already accrued over the years, so that single companies (and legislators, academics, the press, etc.) need not reinvent the wheel each time trust & safety or content moderation are on the agenda.

Market concentration woes

Just followed the Medium book launch event for the print edition of Cory Doctorow’s latest, How to Destroy Surveillance Capitalism (free online version here). The pamphlet, from August 2020, was originally intended as a rebuttal of Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism [v. supra]. The main claim is that the political consequences of surveillance capitalism were not, as Zuboff maintains, unintended, but rather are central and systemic to the functioning of the whole. Hence, proposed solutions cannot be limited to the technological or economic sphere, but must be political as well. Specifically, Doctorow identifies in trust-busting the main policy tool for reining in Big Tech.

With hindsight of the 2020 election cycle and its aftermath, two points Doctorow made in the presentation stand out most vividly. The first is the link between market power and the devaluing of expert opinion that is a necessary forerunner of disinformation. The argument is that “monopolies turn truth-seeking operations [such as parliamentary committee hearings, expert testimony in court, and so forth] into auctions” (where the deepest pockets buy the most favorable advice), thereby completely discrediting their information content for the general public. The second point is that most all of the grievances currently voiced about Section 230 (the liability shield for online publishers of third-party materials) are at some level grievances about monopoly power.

Addiction vs. dependency

A long, powerful essay in The Baffler about the new antitrust actions against Big Tech in the US and the parallels being drawn with the tobacco trials of the 1990s. I agree with its core claim, that equating the problem Big Tech poses with a personal addiction one (a position promoted inter alios by the documentary The Social Dilemma) minimizes the issue of economic dependency and the power it confers on the gatekeepers of key digital infrastructure. I have argued previously that this is at the heart of popular mistrust of the big platforms. However, the pursuit of the tech giants in court risks to be hobbled because of the lasting effect of neoliberal thought on antitrust architecture in US jurisprudence and regulation. Concentrating on consumer prices in the short run risks missing the very real ways in which tech companies can exert systemic social power. In their quest to rein in Big Tech, US lawmakers and attorneys will be confronted with much deeper and more systemic political economy issues. It is unclear they will be able to win this general philosophical argument against such powerful special interests.

Babies and bathwater

Just attended an EFF-run ‘Fireside Chat’ with US Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) on Section 230. As one of the original drafters of the legislation, the Senator was eager to point out the core values it was meant to shield from legal challenge, permitting the full deployment of constitutionally-protected speech online without imposing an undue burden of liability on those hosting such speech.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation and other digital rights organizations find themselves in a complicated political position, for, having spoken out against the risks and abuses originating from Big Tech long before there was widespread public consciousness of any problem, they now have to push against a bipartisan current that has crystallized in opposition to Section 230. Even some generalist news outlets have seized on the matter, giving scant play to the values and legitimate interests the law was originally intended to safeguard.

It seems fairly clear that mainstream political discourse has been extremely superficial in considering key aspects of the problem: Section 230 has become a symbol rather than a mere tool of governance. It may also be the case that the wide bipartisan consensus on its ills is in fact illusory, simply being a placemarker for incompatible views on how to move beyond the status quo, with the most likely outcome being paralysis of any reform effort. However, the risk that the imperative to do something cause the passage of hasty measures with lasting damage is real.

In a way, the present situation is the poisoned fruit of a narrative that linked the unfettered expansion of the Big Tech giants over the past decade to the libertarian and countercultural ideals of the early internet: when the former came to be perceived as intolerable, the latter were seen at best as acceptable collateral damage. Most of the popular animus against Section 230 that politicians are attempting to channel stems from resentment at the power of social media platforms and digital gatekeepers. Therefore (and although there may well be a case for the need to curb mindless amplification of certain types of speech online), perhaps antitrust action (in Congress or in the courts) is more suitable for obtaining the results the public seeks. Comparative policymaking will also be extremely relevant, as the European Union pursues its own aggressive agenda on content moderation, permissible speech, and monopoly power.