Yelp Claims Contradictory Rights

Chameleon photos by leisuretime70

Imagine Elizabeth Proctor runs a corner café in a small town and that Abby Williams has held a grudge against Elizabeth ever since the former beat her out for cheerleader captain back in high school.  So, feeling especially vindictive one afternoon, Abby writes a nasty review of Lizzy’s café on Yelp, complete with invented details about bugs and other health violations.  In response, Elizabeth sues Abbigail for defamation and wins her case, and the court issues an injunction that includes an order for Yelp to remove the libelous reviews.  But the website refuses to remove the reviews even though they’ve been held to be defamation under the law …


Perhaps it’s folly to contradict the opinions of I don’t know how many attorneys who filed a dozen amicus briefs on behalf of Yelp in a case now heading to the California Supreme Court, but I’m gonna.  Because I believe the concerned parties—and this includes news media publishers whom I consistently support—may be overstating the hazardous implications of the California Appeals Court decision in the case of Hassell v Bird.

In 2013 Ava Bird posted negative reviews about San Francisco attorney Dawn Hassell on Yelp. Hassell believed the reviews to be defamatory rather than honest criticism. She sued Bird and won on a default judgment because Bird failed to appear in her own defense. Whether the reader would agree or not that Bird’s reviews were defamatory is immaterial at this point for two reasons: 1) the default judgment settles the matter as far as the law is concerned; and 2) in the context of what this case is now all about, let us at least agree that online reviews can easily be abused by a bad actor, or a competitor, to defame a person or business.  (On a side note, Hassell’s firm has a lot of positive reviews on Yelp.)

In its judgment, the court issued an injunction, which included an order for Yelp to remove Bird’s reviews.  This is a standard form of relief provided by courts in such cases. When an entity is not a named party in a litigation (i.e. they bear no liability for any harm), but this non-party is indirectly supporting some harm being done, the non-party can be prevented from continuing to support the harmful conduct. (See earlier post about Equustek v. Google.)

A typical example would be a court order that Visa and MasterCard stop processing payments for a named defendant in a case, regardless of the fact that these companies bear no liability for any harm that may have been done to a named plaintiff.  If you were harmed by defamatory statements on a web platform, and proved defamation in court, you would naturally want the material removed even if you would not—and could not—hold the platform responsible for the harm you received.

But when it comes to complying with this type of injunctive relief, the owners of web platforms get a little antsy; and this includes the news media platforms, who filed an amicus brief in this case emphasizing the importance of comment sections to the overall vibrancy of journalism in the digital age.  Other amici, including the EFF, the ACLU, and several web platforms, all assert that if the injunction ordered by the California Court of Appeals is upheld, this will harm due process, free speech, and the liability shield in Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (1996) that is accorded to online service providers.

Although it is a habit of many site owners to behave as though the removal of any content is a slippery slope toward censorship, let’s remember that in just this one case, the plaintiff had to prove defamation in court and pray for injunctive relief—and that was in 2013, which is about 730 trillion tweets ago, just for perspective.  But the real complication in this story comes when websites assert their interests under both the First Amendment and Section 230, because the two are fundamentally at odds.

First Amendment or Section 230:  Pick One

In simple terms, Section 230 of the CDA protects websites and other service providers from liability stemming from the actions of its users.  The underlying premise for this protection is that the platforms and providers are not “publishers” of the content (i.e. they are not the speakers).  Section 230 is an important protection and one that indeed enables sites to function without undue risk of litigation.  But the amici filing on behalf of Yelp also claim that Yelp and all web platforms have First Amendment rights at stake in Hassell, and the problem is this:  if you’re not the speaker, you can’t claim a First Amendment right of speech because you’re not speaking! (read that as Lewis Black).

Yelp wants it both ways.  They want the liability shield afforded by Section 230 on the basis that it is not the speaker but also want to claim First Amendment rights as if it were the speaker.  Sometimes, web platforms claim to be protecting the free speech rights of their users, and this can be a valid claim in many instances.  In fact, this concern appears central to the news media sites, who unquestionably have a right to support the free speech inherent in the dialogue between their journalists and the readers who write comments.  These parties even point to several intriguing statistics suggesting that reader comments can, in many ways, improve the quality of their own reporting; and this should not be undervalued.

Nevertheless, I would argue that a site like Yelp, which trades substantially in consumer reviews of businesses on a local level, is already a very different forum from the comments section of a news site. More to the point, it is a forum that is uniquely vulnerable to someone acting with malicious intent to defame a specific proprietor. It seems that it would be far easier to demonstrate how a libelous review might meet the standard of “defamation” under the law than it would be to prove that a comment on a news story rises to this level of harm.

Still, if a comment on a news site were to spark events akin to a “Pizzagate,” the party who wrote the comment can be sued; and the site(s) hosting the defamatory content should be ordered to remove it—though I would think they’d want to do so voluntarily for the sake of their own reputations.  What if Bird had said that Hassell was running a child porn ring through her law firm? Would we still be seeing the same response from Yelp and the other petitioners? Because from a purely legal standpoint, she might as well have written something equally outrageous since free speech does not protect defamation, regardless of how extreme or mild the defamation may be.  And although it is true that websites often rightly defend the speech of their users, that motivation simply does not apply in this case because Bird’s reviews became unprotected speech the moment they were held to be defamatory.

Section 230 is Not a Blank Check

The due process piece of this puzzle gets a little deep into the weeds, and I will admit that there may be procedural complaints at play of which I am unaware; but as a general observation, the crux of Yelp’s due-process argument here appears to be based on the same paradoxical premise that the site can be both a speaker and a non-speaker at the same time.  For instance, I offer the following from Yelp’s brief filed in 2016:

“The court reached its conclusion only by pretending that Yelp is nothing more than the ‘administrator’ of its website, ignoring Yelp’s role as a publisher of third-party authored speech and its First Amendment right to control its own website. [Emphasis added]

The court of appeal combined its unwarranted rejection of Yelp’s due process and First Amendment rights, with an unprecedented narrowing of the previously robust protection provided by the Communications Decency Act, 47 U.S.C. § 230 (“Section 230”), to deny Yelp the federal immunity it would have received if Hassell had sued it. The court exalted the form of the action–namely, the fact that Yelp was tactically not named as a party—over the plain language of Section 230 and Congress’ clear intent in enacting it to protect websites from actions that treat them as publishers or distributors of third-party content.” [Emphasis added]

In paragraph one, Yelp is a publisher; and in paragraph two, it is not a publisher. Yelp asserts its First Amendment right to control its own website, which is certainly the case; but the liability shield provided by Section 230 is still predicated on the assumption that said control does not place them in the role of publisher (or speaker). But  Yelp seems to be implying that if Hassell had named them in the suit–something she had no reason to do–they would then be defendants accorded a hearing and consequently have been able to argue their Section 230 right to not remove Bird’s reviews.

But nowhere in the statute is there any implication that a website does not have to comply with a court order to remove specific content, whether the site is a party or non-party to a litigation. In fact, the CDA actually began as an enforcement provision—a legislative effort to keep online pornography away from kids. Make of that what you will, but the addition of Section 230 was designed solely to limit the liability of service providers from any harm that may stem from content posted by third-party users. Neither its language nor its intent appears to excuse web companies from complying with generally applicable law; and an injunction directed at a non-party is a generally-applicable, standard form of relief. Website owners have no more right to ignore these orders than the payment processors mentioned hypothetically above.

While I sympathize with some of the principles being argued by Yelp and the other petitioners–particularly those of the news media sites who are both publishers and hosts of third-party content–I believe the arguments being made are seeking a decision that would be unbalanced. Any party that is held in a court of law to be harmed by some conduct should have access to the same remedies in the digital age as in the pre-digital age. Moreover, the cost of causing harm via the web is virtually zero while the cost of proving harm under the law still requires a substantial investment of time and financial resources.  This alone should allay the fears of site owners that the decision of the appeals court in this case potentially swings the pendulum toward greater censorship online.

Posted in Digital Culture, Law & Policy | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Can “Charging Bull” Artist Have “Fearless Girl” Removed?

When the story first broke about the “Fearless Girl” statue, I didn’t pay it much more attention than I had ever given to the “Charging Bull” that the girl now faces in her defiant, wind-blown pose.  I always assumed the bull simply represents the financial industry the same way I assume “The Garment Worker” statue on Seventh Avenue represents the fashion industry.  Then, when “Fearless Girl” arrived, I figured somebody was making a dual statement—one about women in business, the other about voracious capitalism—and my reaction was somewhere between ambivalence and supportive amusement. I liked the spirit of “Fearless Girl” on first impression but had little interest in all the discussion about it.

Of course, one of the most intriguing aspects of art—and perhaps this is even more pronounced with public art—is that context changes everything.  Appropriation art is usually meaningless without context, and there is an extent to which “Fearless Girl” is an appropriation. Credit for making me think about this goes to author/photographer Greg Fallis, who wrote a blog post after getting some social-media flack for saying that “Charging Bull” sculptor Arturo DiModica “has a point” in requesting that “Fearless Girl” be removed from its installation.

This is of course the outer layer of context:  once a work is in the public eye and has been imbued with a particular significance (in this case feminism tinged with anti-corporatism), then any complaint or comment about the work is apt to be distorted by that lens. And woe to the critic as a result.  Mayor DeBlasio’s office, in response to DiModica’s request to remove the new statue, tweeted “Men who don’t like women taking up space are exactly why we need the Fearless Girl.” On this point, I agree with Fallis that the Mayor’s statement is both true and perhaps entirely beside the point with regard to the nature of DiModica’s complaint.  You may not be surprised that it has something to do with copyright. (And spoiler alert:  I don’t think he has a case.)

I didn’t know until reading Fallis’s blog that Arturo DiModica owns “Charging Bull” and that he produced and initially installed the work at his own expense of roughly $350,000.  An Italian immigrant, inspired by the kind of patriotism unique to immigrants, DiModica began working on the bull in response to the malaise that followed a major financial markets crash in 1986.

The bronze, three-and-a-half-ton work took more than two years to produce; and in the early morning of December 15, 1989, DiModica and his friends “dropped” the bull on Broad Street in front of the New York Stock Exchange—a gift to the city that was, as Fallis eloquently writes, “…maybe the only significant work of guerrilla capitalist art in existence.” The NYSE did not appreciate the gift and had the bull removed; but citizens, the Parks Commissioner, Mayor Koch, and the Bowling Green Association worked to place the “Charging Bull” where it has stood ever since, at the northern end of Bowling Green.

For DiModica, “Charging Bull” was not so much a statement about the swaggering bronze balls of capitalism but was meant, according to the artist’s website, as a “gift of encouragement to New York and the world.”  As symbols go, one might consider that the southern tip of Manhattan—originally colonized by the Dutch—is the birthplace of America’s more entrepreneurial, culturally diverse, and free-spirited nature.  So, the bull charging northward out of this part of the city can certainly be considered in a broader context, but let’s face it:  an eighteen-foot bronze bull standing in the heart of the Financial District can no more escape its capitalist connotations than it can run to the Upper West Side to shop at Zabar’s.

Enter “Fearless Girl,” which was made under very different circumstances.  In short, she is an advertisement for a socially-conscious investment product called SHE, offered by State Street Global Advisors with over $2.4 trillion in assets under management.  The girl standing up to the bull was commissioned by this Wall Street firm, conceived by advertising giant McCann, and purposely “dropped” in front of the bull the night before International Women’s Day.  So, it’s guerrilla art-ish—if corporate backing, ad-agency planning, and city permits count as guerrilla.

What Are DiModica’s Rights?

The commercial nature of “Fearless Girl” may or may not sully her relevance in the eyes of the public, but it is central to DiModica’s complaint and desire to have her removed.  Placed in defiance of the bull, DiModica contends, that the girl changes the meaning and intent of his work from something positive to something negative. In this regard, “Fearless Girl” is appropriating “Charging Bull” by changing the context of the original work; but because this appropriation has been done to promote a product sold by SSGA, attorneys for DiModica are considering whether or not to file suit under a law known as the Visual Artists Rights Act (VARA).

Passed in 1990, the VARA is part of the Copyright Act, §106(A), and it primarily concerns the right of an artist to protect his/her reputation by preventing the misuse of his/her name.  Rights pertaining to reputation of the artist rather than those solely focused on the works are referred to as “moral rights,” and they are a particular subset of intellectual property.   The part of the VARA statute that would theoretically pertain to DiModica’s complaint would be the artist’s right to the following:

(A) to prevent any intentional distortion, mutilation, or other modification of that work which would be prejudicial to his or her honor or reputation, and any intentional distortion, mutilation, or modification of that work is a violation of that right.

According an article by Isaac Kaplan about this possible legal case, attorneys for DiModica will look at both the commercial aspect of “Fearless Girl” and at the fact that the city apparently allowed for an extension of the cobblestone foundation to accommodate the new statue.

If the cobblestone base can be considered part of the original work, this would potentially implicate the VARA statute prohibiting “modification,” but that modification has to be “prejudicial to [the artist’s] honor or reputation,” which sounds unlikely to prevail to this layman’s ear.  Moreover, the original circumstances pertaining to the installation of “Charging Bull” in 1989 appear to indicate that only the bull itself belongs to DiModica but not any vision of placing it on a cobblestone base at the tip of Bowling Green.

I suspect the commercial nature of “Fearless Girl” would also be unlikely to persuade a court that the work infringes DiModica’s rights under VARA, though this argument certainly gets into an area that could theoretically harm an artist’s reputation.  In this case, DiModica’s attorneys would presumably have to demonstrate that the appropriation negatively alters the original “meaning” of the work to the extent that it reflects negatively on the artist himself.

On the one hand, it seems like a difficult argument to make that VARA can protect any artist’s originally-intended meaning in any work; and this seems especially tricky with “Charging Bull.” Once a work is placed into public view, the artist no longer gets to decide how it is perceived; and as indicated above, I think any reasonable person who first encounters “Charging Bull” will make the same assumption I always have—that it is very much a celebration of unbridled capitalism.

If this were not the case, “Fearless Girl” would probably never have been conceived as either “pure” art or advertisement.  SSGA, artist Kristen Visbal, and McCann are all clearly relying on a general interpretation of “Charging Bull” as a symbol of aggressive capitalism in order to provide a context for “Fearless Girl” to be saying anything at all. And it seems clear from public response that this is the context in which “Fearless Girl” has been interpreted.

On the other hand, DiModica’s reputation is linked to how people perceive “Charging Bull,” and it would be tough to argue that “Fearless Girl” is not at least a bit of a fuck-you as well as an ad for a corporation But, commercial or not, is the work truly a gesture at the meaning DiModica originally intended, or is it a gesture contemporaneous with evolving feelings about capitalism and the role of women in the market?  I would argue that it’s the latter and that any artist who puts a sculpture into a public space cannot hope to control how that sculpture may be viewed against the backdrop of history.

Still, if another corporation were to make a more outlandish alteration of the bull for commercial purposes—like a steakhouse chain paints the classic cuts of meat outlines on the bull’s bronze skin and photographs it—that would certainly seem to be actionable under both traditional copyright infringement and VARA statutes. Not to mention city ordinances prohibiting vandalism.

As Fallis points out, DiModica could take his bull and go home; it is his physical property as well as his intellectual property.  This would leave “Fearless Girl” standing up to the southern tip of Manhattan for no apparent reason, although the fun part of that hypothetical scenario is that viewers would begin to apply new and various meanings to the work as a stand-alone piece.  So, in this regard, “Fearless Girl” is not purely a work of appropriation.

For all the fuss, there is at least a whiff of (yep) bullshit about the fact that “Fearless Girl” is defiantly marketing a product for a giant investment firm. Of course, advertising can be art and vice versa, especially in America; and one could make an argument that, for better or worse, this blend of culture and commerce is part of the same spirit DiModica was tapping into with “Charging Bull.” I can certainly sympathize with the artist’s feelings even while I am dubious about his legal standing under VARA.  Moreover, it turns out that I had a lot to say about a story that didn’t initially grab my attention.  Context changes everything.

Posted in Advertising, Art, Copyright | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Copyright is Not About Defending Old Models

Photo by DelmasLehman

Pretty much since Napster (1999), tech pundits have been presumptuously lecturing pro-copyright creators about economist Joseph Schumpeter’s principle of “creative destruction.”  This is the observation that the market will naturally produce innovations which will displace existing products or services, often rendering the older models obsolete.  Take Schumpeter, add hubris and piles of money, and you get the “disrupt everything” culture of Silicon Valley—one that is so arrogant that it treats anyone who won’t join the disrupt rodeo as a Luddite and a fool.

Typically, anti-copyright pundits like to repeat the buggy whip cliché, claiming that the individuals and institutions who defend copyright are “clinging to the buggy whip industry while automobiles wiz by them on the highway.”  It’s an effective talking point if nobody’s paying much attention.  And since the internet itself hasn’t exactly helped in the paying attention department, the buggy whip analogy became an even easier pitch with the arrival of social media and the 140-character debate.

It’s a message that even many creators and artists bought up to a point; but the misdirection in the analogy distracts many observers from noticing the false comparison being made.  Because if we stick with the metaphor, then it is accurate to say that copyright advocates do not argue the cause of buggy whips in a world of automobiles; they merely assert that transportation is still in demand, regardless of how people and goods are to be conveyed.

The hidden truth in this faux-Schumpeter exercise is the fact that nothing has actually displaced consumer desire for creative works. We still want movies, books, TV shows, music, etc.  What has changed—and only for a segment of the market—is the means of conveyance for these products. The copyright proponent doesn’t really care whether the CD or vinyl album remains relevant—only that music itself is still in demand.  The principle of creative destruction doesn’t even belong in this conversation (though one could argue that a destructive form of creative thinking is at play.)

Apropos of my recent post When Copyright Criticism is Something Else, it is easy to confuse the subject of intellectual property rights with the efforts of an industry or business to “cling” to market share tied to a fading product. That some record labels sought to squeeze every dollar out of CD sales before their obsolescence is to be expected, but this has little to do with the principle that copyright should continue to protect the makers of music—and should be revised wherever it is failing to do so.  Even the mistakes made by the recording industry, through its stumbling adaptation to the internet, should be viewed as separate from a broad defense of copyright’s purpose.

The buggy whip analogy, in this context, is a lie.  And what’s most galling about this particular lie is that it is still aggressively evangelized by the one industry best suited to exacerbate the non-competitive trends that have shaped (or mutated) the American economy since at least the 1980s. The internet industry promises Schumpeter-like results—a vow to repeal and replace, if you will—for authors of creative works, if they are willing to abandon traditional notions of a property interest in their work. Not only has this proven to be a con in the world of creative arts, but the industry’s influence, even among tech entrepreneurs, hardly makes a compelling case for fostering competition and innovation.

A recent article in The Economist reports on a summit held at the University of Chicago, where academics have begun to rethink the state of competition in the American market resulting from the trend away from regulatory influence that began nearly 50 years ago. “Those that make a high return on capital can sustain their returns for longer, suggesting that less creative destruction is taking place. The number of new, tiny firms being born is at its lowest level since the 1970s,” the article states.  A little later, the article says the following about Big Tech:

“An analysis by The Economist in 2016 suggested that about half the pool of abnormally high profits is being earned by tech firms. The big five platform companies—Alphabet, Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Microsoft—earned $93bn last year and have high market shares, for instance in search and advertising. They are innovative but sometimes behave badly. They have bought 519 firms, often embryonic rivals, in the past decade, and may stifle them. The data they gather can lock customers into their products. They may also allow firms to exert their market power “vertically” up and down the supply chain—think of Amazon using information on what consumers buy to dominate the logistics business. Investors’ sky-high valuations for the platform firms suggest they will, in aggregate, roughly triple in size.” [Emphasis added]

The internet industry presents its products and services—and frankly its ideology—as the antidote to decades of competition-killing in the market; and a big bullet point in this message is that a legal framework like copyright is an obsolete barrier stifling your potential. It’s an economic fairy tale meant to imply that if it weren’t for copyright being wielded by big corporations, you would have an easier time becoming the next YouTube star or killer-app developer. If that sounds like an exaggeration, I’ll remind readers of the time Julie Samuels of the EFF said in context to the “future of copyright” (2013) that “We want a thousand more YouTubes.”  I’m not repeating this silly declaration to pick on Samuels per se, but to highlight the fact that copyright advocates are frequently accused of standing in the way of absurd projections dressed up as legitimate market potential.

It is a political tactic—not a serious economic discussion—to predict an impossible outcome and then blame a group or a particular legal regime for preventing that outcome.  And I am intrigued by the extent to which so-called progressives fall for this narrative given how similar it is to the false argument that “all regulation is a barrier to jobs and prosperity.”  There seems to be a blind spot to the reality that the industry, which insists that copyrights are stifling opportunity in the digital age, comprises the companies with some of the worst track records for fostering any innovation they do not own.

It would be wrong not to include global media conglomerates (i.e. major copyright holders) in the universe of entrenched corporations that have benefitted from this trend of consolidation.  No question they have–even to the extent of self-parody as when Tina Fey’s series 30 Rock (2006-2012) consistently lampooned the relationship between product giant GE, its network NBC, and the late-night comedy show Fey’s character writes. But the deregulatory policies, dating back at least a half-century, which have resulted in some of the ill-effects of mega-mergers and massive consolidation, cannot be blamed on copyright law, even if copyright plays a small role in that larger narrative.

For individuals—especially artists and creators—to abdicate copyright in response to  corporate domination is as irrational as giving up the right of free speech because we don’t like the SCOTUS ruling in Citizens United.  Copyright is one of many policy areas in which we must decide either to continue tweaking the system or to abandon the underlying principles altogether.  By inappropriately invoking Schumpeter in this debate, the internet industry seeks to disguise the fact that it has roughly the same attitude toward copyright’s protection of creators as the extraction industries have to environmental law’s protection of the biosphere.  Perhaps it’s time for copyright skeptics to recognize that the most outdated aspect of this whole conversation is their stupid buggy whip analogy.

Posted in Copyright, Economics | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments

Online Harassment & The Internet Experiment

In last weekend’s New York Times Magazine, staff writer Jenna Wortham asks Why Can’t Silicon Valley Fix Online Harassment? Citing some alarming statistics from a 2104 Pew Research study, she writes …

“… 40 percent of adult internet users have dealt with online harassment. And those numbers go up among young adults (especially women) and nonwhite users. Women are significantly more likely than men to report being stalked or sexually harassed on the internet, and 51 percent of African-Americans and 54 percent of Hispanics said they had experienced harassment, compared with 34 percent of whites.”

Online harassment is no joke. At scale, it can be emotionally devastating and legitimately terrifying for victims. It has been known to cause economic and social harm and to catalyze both physical assault and suicides. While we extoll the virtues of connectedness fostered by an “open” internet, harassment is the mutant howling in the basement nobody wants to talk about. And Wortham rightly observes that the monster is a byproduct of Silicon Valley’s unique blend of new-money libertarianism built on a foundation of faded, hippie idealism—incongruous doctrines that were, for many, synthesized in the manifesto A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace, delivered by John Perry Barlow at Davos in 1996.

But if online harassment is a disease and the first step to recovery is admitting there’s a problem, then perhaps that first step is to properly contextualize Barlow’s Declaration as the naive and petulant outburst it was. A moment of whimsy rather than the foundation for a sustainable, or even humane, proposal. Nevertheless, the belief that cyberspace remains some magical realms beyond the normal boundaries of society continues to delay rational discourse on any number of problems specifically caused or exacerbated by the technology.

Although harassment will occur on a public forum like Twitter, it often begins by brewing on a site like 4Chan, a “discussion” board populated by mostly males from pre-teen to mid-30s, who, in every sense of the cliché, have too much time on their hands. And although everyone on 4Chan is anonymous—it is in fact the site where the hacktivist group Anonymous began—they might collectively be seen as that mutant creature borne by Barlow’s Declaration. Like most adolescents, the thing they seem to hate most is being told what to do—hence the the harassment-filled shitstorm known as “Gamergate.”

Although I would never condone harassment, I think I understand how at least some of it starts. This blog has very occasionally elicited accusations of racism or sexism because there are people in the world who will filter literally any topic through such lenses, even when there is no rational basis for doing so. If I were an adolescent who spent inordinate time among other adolescents in a forum like 4Chan, the temptation to retaliate against these absurd accusations by weaponizing overt racism or sexism—at least for my own amusement—could be very great. And once it begins, it’s easy enough for a little spark to become a flash fire.

In all likelihood, the majority of trolls out there are young men who harass for the lulz—an expression derived from the acronym LOL. Think of this class of trolls as easily excitable chimpanzees who will gather around a target of ridicule and pile on, but who are also easily bored and distracted by the next shiny object. So, if the target of their ridicule or cruelty doesn’t respond, this group usually returns to its natural state of online gaming and metaphorically throwing feces at one another.

But if the target of their ridicule does respond, this only increases the opportunity for lulz, which means the chimps remain engaged and incentivized to keep raising the bar of harassment of their target. Hence, the truly hideous invocations of rape and murder—complete with photographic depictions of these acts—that are so commonly employed by harassers of this nature. From this phenomenon comes the common-sense directive Don’t Feed the Troll, which is fine up to a point but can also be a form of victim-blaming as the volume and virulence of the harassment increases.

Wortham notes the apparent futility of “counterspeech,” which she describes as “the practice of bystander intervention that overpowers aggressors in an attempt to deter them.” I’m not at all surprised the EFF endorses this self-governing tactic as a “solution,” seeing as the organization (co-founded by Barlow) remains mesmerized by the fallacy that the internet naturally enables good to triumph over evil as long as pesky rules don’t get in the way.

I’m also not surprised that the two organizations Wortham highlights as designed to deploy “counterspeech” seem to be finding the method ineffective. If the general rule of thumb is Don’t Feed the Troll, then an attempt to surround a victim in a barrier of Twitter-hugs is like dipping her in chocolate and Cheetos. It’s only going to whip the trolls into a feeding frenzy. As stated above, it is important to remember that a large segment of the people who engage in this kind of harassment HAVE NOTHING BETTER TO DO. This is a hobby for many a young male, who really needs to get a life; and it is therefore difficult for people who do have lives to outlast or overwhelm the harassers.

Presumably, there are casual harassers as well—people who don’t spend time seething on 4Chan, but who obey an impulse to add their 140 characters of vitriol when they see a trend piling onto a target they don’t like or who has pissed them off. And I suppose we have to assume at this point that people can be harassed by bot swarm as well. But the fact that a real human being can be remotely and anonymously hounded to the point of being harmed or harming herself is a very real problem we have yet to confront in any substantive way. What is the responsibility of one voice in a million that feeds the proximate cause of a suicide? I don’t know, but it sure as hell belies Barlow’s dreamy assumptions.

Of course the thesis question Wortham asks is this: Can Silicon Valley do anything about online harassment? In theory, why not? As stated in several other posts, the internet companies are telling a half truth at best when they claim to have free speech obligations. They may wish to support free speech, and that’s fine, but the individual platforms are no more bound by the First Amendment than a retail store or restaurant in the physical world. Wortham is right to view the deciding factors as both ideological and financial, and in that order—a story of what happens when hippies become billionaires.

The policy positions and Terms of Service that still flow from Barlow’s Declaration have made the internet into a computer model of a social experiment which—to an extent—places people in philosopher John Locke’s hypothetical state of nature. Like Locke, the model then asks whether or not Man really needs to make a bargain with the State in order to protect his sovereignty as an individual. In 1996, Barlow declared the internet to be a “home of Mind,” a place where the legal conventions of statehood (namely law) have no purpose—an ideal based on the assumption that people are basically good and law is exclusively coercive.

But in 1689, in his Second Treatise of Government, Locke argued that Man in a state of nature (i.e. without government) is more free but also more vulnerable to human predators, who may enslave him, kill him, or take his property. Hence, the bargain one makes with the State is to trade as little freedom as possible in exchange for relative security. Thus, if a woman in a Target store were harassed in Twitter style (i.e. told by a swarm of men that they hope she gets raped and killed), the security and police who will soon arrive on her behalf are a manifestation of that Lockean bargain.

In principle, the major platform owners can take steps to mitigate online harassment, and they will likely discover this ability the moment there is a financial incentive to do so. But in the meantime, we might learn something from the computer model, which reveals exactly what can happen in a stateless and lawless “community.”

Consider the rash of hate crimes and threats following the election—all presumably committed by people who believed Trump’s presidency granted them permission to act upon latent antipathy. But how many Swastikas have been spray-painted by committed Nazis and how many by teenagers doing it for the lulz? Hard to say, but it’s likely that both motivations are present and that this is one way in which real life comes to resemble cyberspace rather than the other way around. And that may prove to be the most dangerous phenomenon of all.

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Critics Build House of Canards to Trash USCO Bill

Photo by jeancol1503

Well, here we go.  The network of copyright critics seems to be working out their main talking points for hating on H.R. 1695, which proposes to make the Register of Copyrights a presidential appointee (with Senate approval) rather than an employee of the Librarian of Congress.  Mike Masnick, founder/editor of Techdirt, has written a piece for The Verge that comprises (I think) all of the Greatest Hits from the anti-copyright songbook, including the popular jingle referred to in my last post about Mickey Mouse being the major force behind the 1998 Copyright Term Extension Act.

While it’s tempting to respond to each of the window-dressing fallacies deployed in Masnick’s article, it would also be tedious. (I just can’t come up with any more ways to mock the invocation of SOPA by that crowd.) As usual, Masnick wants to sell us an epic tale of Copyright vs. The Internet with statements like, “The copyright questions raised by the internet are existential.” He says this as though copyright law has never contended with technology before, or as if to imply that the internet is just a litigation or two away from being shut down.  And, of course, this “existential” threat will be masterminded by Hollywood and the RIAA through the new Register of Copyrights if the position were to become an appointee of the Executive.

This defies both historical evidence and common sense, concluding with the fact that the major rights holders are, at this point, all-in on this whole internet thingy. Like those companies that said “no thanks” to Trump’s EPA rollbacks because they’ve already invested substantially in going green, the proverbial, sinister Hollywood really has no interest in “breaking the internet.” Again, in reference to my last post, how much has Marvel invested in growing its franchise just on the Netflix platform alone?  Right. So, let’s put the doomsday hyperbole back in the crazy drawer where it belongs and talk about reality.

Politicizing to Criticize Politics

Masnick asserts two big bullet points in this article, one which coincides with one of EFF’s first responses, and one which coincides with Representative Zoe Lofgren’s testimony on Capitol Hill.  (Rep. Lofgren (D-CA) represents Silicon Valley’s district and is highly critical of copyright.)

The first major point Masnick (and the EFF) asserts is that if the Register position were to become a presidential appointee, this would “politicize” the role more than it already is and make the Register more vulnerable to industry influence.  With regard to bi-partisanship, the bill was introduced by Representatives Goodlatte (R-VA) and Conyers (D-MI) and passed out of committee with a vote of 27-1.  But beyond Congressional consensus, this “influence” allegation is an interesting one coming from a crowd that has already accused the last Register (by way of a smear campaign) of being about as subservient to major rights holders as one might imagine.

Nevertheless, Masnick et al seem to feel the next Register could “go to eleven” and be even more extra totally double-secret “captured” by Hollywood. And the way this will happen is by reorganizing the USCO relative to the LOC.  It’s an argument based on innuendo, laced with emotional triggers for readers (see references to SOPA & Disney); but there is no substantive case being made as to why this reorganization will increase the potential for inappropriate deference to major rights holders.

Let’s clear something up right now.  If you have a fairly high-profile job in the federal government, your role is at least a little bit political.  The Librarian can be politicized as can the Register of Copyrights no matter where he/she sits on the org chart. So, can we cut to the chase and just say that Masnick and other copyright critics are especially opposed to this change at this time because they see Dr. Hayden as a fellow copyright skeptic, and they would really like her to perhaps appoint another skeptic as Register?  In other words, they’re more than happy to have the role politicized as long as it furthers their view of the right agenda.

Meanwhile, there is no reason to assume that a supposedly “more political” pendulum will inevitably swing toward major rights holders like Hollywood studios. After all, the current President has a guy named Peter Thiel among his top advisors who absolutely espouses a world view consistent with the views of the internet industry.  I don’t see anyone from the recording or motion picture industries with such close ties to the White House at the moment; but this bill doesn’t actually give that much power to this or any other President. H.R. 1695 gives more power to Congress (ergo more public oversight than the status quo), and an amendment added by Rep. Jackson-Lee (D-TX) requires that the President choose a Register from a list of candidates approved by both the Congressional leadership and the Librarian of Congress.

As for who might end up on that list, it’s worth noting that in the quiet reality behind all this drama, there are probably a handful of candidates in the country who most copyright experts would agree are even qualified for the job.  Some of these favor stronger copyright protections, others favor copyright’s limitations.  Some are more ideological, others more centrist than the public might expect. And here’s a little secret:  they generally know one another, are in contact with one another, and respect one another’s differing views.

Misrepresenting the Role of the USCO

The second point Masnick stresses in his article is less speculative but not actually relevant to the purpose of H.R. 1695; and it is predicated on a misunderstanding about the role of the Copyright Office. He writes:

“Managing copyrights — effectively a giant database of creative works — is very much a librarian-centric job. Librarians are custodians of information, helping to catalog and organize it while also helping people research and find what theyre looking for. The Copyright Office today, like many old libraries, is filled with card catalogs.”

For a guy worrying about politicizing this issue, this is pure spin. In fact, Masnick is actually mirroring a tactic employed by Rep. Lofgren, who has tried to make this organizational change a referendum on Librarian Hayden herself. First, Masnick wants readers to think of the USCO as performing a library-like function; then he wants to point to past failures to properly modernize that function; and finally he wants to say that Dr. Hayden—and nobody questions that she is highly-qualified in her field—has a plan for modernization that will be disrupted by this organizational change.

But the Copyright Office is not a “giant database of creative works.” The complex, consultative function on copyright policy provided by the CO is an essential role performed by dozens of professionals with vastly different expertise than librarians. And both copyright experts and policymakers have known this for a long time.  To the extent that former Register Pallante, former Librarian Billington, or any past office-holders, are responsible for failures to implement IT initiatives, that’s on them and their tenures; but this has no bearing on the rationale for making the organizational change proposed in H.R. 1695. Moreover, former Representative Howard Berman (D-CA) writes the following in an editorial for The Hill:

“Claiming, for example, that former Register Pallante had done nothing on IT modernization rings hollow when it was Pallante who initiated and implemented a public consultation process, which led to publication of the most forward-looking IT modernization plan in the history of the Copyright Office.

The Library has thus far blocked implementation of that plan. While GAO reports have catalogued IT shortcomings at both the Library and the Copyright Office, these reports acknowledge that the problems at the Copyright Office are relatively few. Indeed the GAO has concluded these problems stem from the much larger, fundamental problems with the Library IT department, to which the Copyright Office is beholden.”

This suggests the very plausible conclusion that any past IT implementation failings were at least shared between the Copyright Office and the Library, and this provides no more grounds to abort the organizational change than it would be reasonable to hold Dr. Hayden responsible for past project-management problems.  Still, the over-simple argument Masnick wants to make is that a librarian will be better at the physical, data-management aspect of Copyright Office modernization.  Of course, that’s not why he and his colleagues are criticizing this bill. They’re hoping instead that Dr. Hayden will take a more hands-on approach to copyright policy, which has never really been a role the Librarian has played before or since the USCO was first established.

Masnick and other critics want to argue that the functional relationship between the Register and the Librarian is something more intrinsic than a circumstance of history that occurred 120 years ago.  But this simply isn’t the case.  As I’ve noted in other posts, the first Register was appointed in 1897 after influencers like Melville Dewey envisioned a new, national leadership role for the Library of Congress.  (And Dr. Hayden seems exceptionally well-suited to continue that vision.)

This change in direction for the Library led to the creation of a separate office for handling copyright registrations and, in a fledgling way, advising Congress on copyright policy. No Librarian ever truly performed the function of national expert on copyright as this would be inconsistent with both the function of the Library and the evolution of copyright law in the mid-late 19th century.

Right from the start, the Librarian and the Register were divided according to both function and expertise; and those roles have continued along separate, though related, paths as each department has grown. Attempts to frame this long-overdue, organizational change as a power-grab by Hollywood are unsupported by both history and by the process Congress is implementing to effect this change.

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