Periscope Piracy and the Tao of Tech Writers

Last December, a few of glasses of Rioja and I wrote a pretty grumpy rebuttal to Washington Post tech writer Caitlin Dewey, accusing her of cheerleading for media piracy.  A few respondents, including Dewey herself, said that I was unfair, that her article about The Pirate Bay was merely reporting facts without editorial.  Of course, with certain styles of communication, it can be very difficult to tell the difference between dishonesty in intention and ignorance of how one sounds.  Is the author choosing her words carefully in order to engage in a zen-like OpEd, in which she advocates an agenda without clearly declaring so?  Or is the author unaware that her words have connotation and tone that imply a point of view she doesn’t really have?

Here’s the sound of straight reportage by Rhiannon Williams for The Telegaph:

“Game of Thrones is the most illegally-downloaded TV programme internationally, accounting for a quarter of all pirated downloads from 100 torrent sites. The programme was downloaded over 1.4 million times between January and February this year – nearly 50 per cent more than its nearest rival The Walking Dead.”

And here’s a work of unequivocal editorial by Grace Dent for The Independent.

“Fans wanted to see all-new Game of Thrones right then, right now. The fact that this was plain theft, or that it might offend lots of their beloved actors, producers and TV bigwigs made no difference. Morals? Ethics? Who are you, the Dalai Llama? It was the weekend, time for some “me time”, and Game of Thrones fans – with Britain topping the list for thievery – wanted to shove all four episodes instantly into their greedy snaffling eye-holes.”

And here’s Caitlin Dewey writing about the new phenomenon of using Periscope to live stream an episode of GoT:

“…tens of thousands of people pirate that show every day — but the mere possibility of more people live-streaming has HBO running scared. The company promptly declared Periscoping “mass copyright infringement,” despite the utter lack of any audience approaching “mass.” And yesterday, the company sent a series of takedown notices to Periscope over GoT. Which is extra-peculiar, since HBO usually takes a pretty chill stance toward “Game of Thrones” piracy.

This, however, is piracy of a totally different breed. There are no torrents, there are no files, there are no thumbdrives or DVDs. That makes Periscope a bit of a challenge — not terribly dissimilar from the era when VCRs threatened TV.”

It is admittedly a little hard to tell if Dewey is only reporting or also commenting here.  Is she aware of her provocative choice of words, or is she just being careless?  For instance, HBO does not have a “chill stance” toward GoT piracy; the company, like any other rights holder, has a strategic stance, which wise or not, is entirely at their discretion.  Thus, there is nothing peculiar, from either a strategic or legal perspective, about making distinctions between one form of piracy and another. So, by suggesting that all piracy of GoT ought to be viewed equally in HBO’s eyes, Dewey is expressing an opinion, and a very unconsidered one to boot.

In fact, the lack of recording media to which Dewey alludes is just one reason why Periscope is very much dissimilar to the Betamax case, which is what she means when she refers (and is also editorializing) to “the era when VCRs threatened TV.”  She’s correct that a DMCA takedown request is meaningless in a situation where no data is stored that can be “taken down,” but her general thesis (if there is one at all) appears to be that Periscope represents a potential form of mass piracy that lurks in muddy legal waters with regard to copyright.  And I doubt this is the case because the use of Periscope in this manner rather clearly infringes on the right of public performance — an illegal broadcast — which is territory fairly well covered by copyright law.

For readers who haven’t heard, Periscope is a live streaming app owned by Twitter that enables just about anyone with a smart phone to live stream whatever is in front of the lens.  So, what happened with Game of Thrones was that some users pointed their cameras at their TV’s  during the broadcast of a recent episode, and a whole bunch of people watched the show via the app on their handheld screens.  Yes, it’s a pretty lame way to view a multi-million-dollar, high-production-value TV show, and Dewey says as much at the end of her article.  But neither she nor I are copyright attorneys, so we’re the kind of writers who should try to be careful about making mashups of caselaw, particularly those that are entirely unrelated to the story at hand.

For instance, Dewey’s two comparisons to the VCR are meaningless distractions in an article about  a technology like Periscope. The right to time-shift by recording broadcasts for later viewing (i.e. the decision in the Betamax case) involves privately stored media that has both legal and functional limits — limits that stop the program recorder from infringing on the right of public performance.  For instance, you may record Game of Thrones on your VCR, DVR, or even some other medium for viewing alone or with friends and family later, but you may not exhibit that recording in, for example, a public theater or coffee house, either for free or for money, and you certainly may not broadcast it.

The right to record for the purpose of time-shifting bears no resemblance to a technology that enables live broadcast to hundreds or thousands or potentially millions of viewers.  The functional differences are observable by common sense and don’t require any knowledge of copyright law.  That said, my colleague Terry Hart, who does know something about copyright law, explains, “The drafters of the 1976 Copyright Act clearly anticipated that new communications technologies would allow the exploitation of works without any copies changing hands. They created a new right of public display to apply to static works like books and images. And they drafted the right of public performance to include transmission and communication ‘by means of any device or process.'” Citing the 1965 Supplementary Register’s Report on the General Revision of U.S. Copyright Law, Hart also shares this:  “… in certain areas at least, ‘exhibition’ may take over from ‘reproduction’ of ‘copies’ as the means of presenting authors’ works to the public, and we are now convinced that a basic right of public exhibition [later replaced with the word display] should be expressly recognized in the statute.”  So, not only is copyright likely well-armed for a technology like Periscope, but it’s been anticipating the need for at least half a century.

Dewey also grazes the subject of transformativeness with regard to using Periscope; and this might raise some interesting questions. If I live stream a TV show, or even a live performance, while making commentary along the way, or if I turn the whole thing into a new work of performance art, would the use be transformative?  Probably. But that does not mean every use in this manner would be a fair use when judged according to the four factors applicable in such cases.  Every use would have to be judged individually; so, just streaming a football game with your own commentary, for instance, would probably fail with regard to assessing the amount of original work used and the potential economic harm to the original.

More broadly with regard to Dewey’s style of commenting on these matters is that she sounds to me like someone sponsoring a general point of view predicated on the idea that when technology makes a particular process or behavior possible, the relevant legal framework must be dismantled in order to “make way for progress.”  Maybe that’s not her view, but I do think articles written in her style, and bearing an imprimatur like The Washington Post, feed this general attitude among readers.  And whether we’re talking about Periscope or any other innovation, this perspective forgets the purpose of legal frameworks in the first place. After all,  “Progress” has been the generic excuse of every vested interest that ever wanted to get away with doing harm in the pursuit of personal fortune. “Progress” has been the argument for pollution and poor working conditions, too; and that’s why we create leal frameworks that say, “Bullshit, you’ll have to figure out a way to make money without dumping sludge in the river.”  At least we try to do this.

So, if Caitlin Dewey’s point is that copyright law is indeed unclear with regard to an application like Periscope, then is she presenting her story by way of identifying a legal loophole in need of closing?  I doubt it.  As with her article about The Pirate Bay “creating the Internet,” as we know it, I’m at least confused as to what point she’s making at all about copyright, piracy, or technology.  Because in the absence of a clearly stated opinion, one looks to reporters for straight facts, and that doesn’t quite seem to be her bag either.   After all, the article is titled,  The future of online piracy is easy, free and already in your pocket.  In my experience, that headline is what we call advertising.

Posted in Copyright, Digital Culture | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

Pirate Movement is Dead, Long Live the Cause?

So, I stumbled across this TorrentFreak post by The Pirate Bay founder Peter Sunde, in which he not only concedes that the “pirate movement” is dead but also exhorts the faithful to get over it and find new ways to further the “cause.”  Writes Sunde:

You’ve all heard it. The “pirate movement” is dead, diminishing and what not. But ignore that. What are the causes that we talk about here? Freedom of information, freedom of speech, surveillance, state corruption, corporate overlords, control of our infrastructure, the right to access education and culture, plenty. Are these discussions dead? No. But are we moving anywhere with them? I’m afraid not.

I’ll stop short of saying The Pirate Bay is to any of these causes as the Weather Underground was to the anti-war movement, but only because the Swedish trio didn’t set off any bombs.   My colleagues and I talk a lot about the casualties of piracy — the authors and artists, the labor force that supports creative works, the macro-economic losses, and the folly of rationalization posing as reason — but Sunde raises an interesting point that is usually a parenthetical note in these conversations.  And that’s the belittling of otherwise perfectly good causes worthy of real energy and attention.

Of course, each of the issues to which Sunde refers must be defined in order to give any movement direction other than centripetal griping; but that delta notwithstanding, if Sunde and his fans are indeed committed to any of his stated concerns, perhaps the post-mortem assessment on the “movement” ought to begin with the premise that the “service” provided by The Pirate Bay and similar sites is not anything like a foundation for social change. Forget that digital theft of popular media is illegal, immoral, and rude; it’s also far too pedestrian to serve as a catalyst for political action that would effectively contend with a thorny problem like surveillance or ascend such lofty heights as universal education.

In the past, I’ve made snarky statements like this:  some American teenager illegally downloading a Thor movie is not how one speaks truth to power.  But there’s a second part to this, which is the potential damage to political will and intelligence that would occur if millions of young people actually think otherwise.  What a fabulous way to breed a namby-pamby generation of whiners that no corporate or government power would ever have to take seriously.  Fortunately, I don’t really think the millions of committed users of pirate sites around the world ascribe that kind of significance to act. Yes, Sunde paid lip service to this idealism in defense of TPB; and the bizarrely convoluted Rick Falkvinge founded a whole pirate party; and a smattering of followers buzzed about for a bit. But then, people can make a religion out of an old gym sock and a kazoo given the right conditions. In what way could the “movement” aspect of piracy not be DOA?  Writes Sunde:

“So fuck the ‘pirate movement’. Rename it, re-brand it, do whatever you want. Just fucking don’t be a pirate. Be something more awesome. Be a world citizen that cares about the same topics. Join other parties and make them understand the topics at hand. Infiltrate them. Cooperate and have people join all the parties in your nation, make sure they all agree. Be a fucking undercover ninja for all I care. Just don’t sing songs about pirate booty, looting and shit.”

I don’t know, Peter, maybe media piracy is just about ripping people off, and political action on complex issues is something else? As such, I wonder who he is addressing in this post.  I’d love to read the mission statement for No-Longer-the-Pirate Movement 2.0, but it’s naive to think that millions of people who just want free stuff on their computers have ever been a political base.

Avanti popolo!

Posted in Digital Culture, Politics | Tagged , | 4 Comments

Is Speech Preserved by More Speech Alone? – Part I

“The more speech the merrier,” was the central argument made by Justice Scalia in writing the majority opinion on Citizens United, but that case suggests, at least to many of us, that the mechanism of the speech matters a great deal. Yes, in many ways, money can be speech; but at the same time, I think Scalia conjured an illusion of more, which obscures the practical reality that the SCOTUS ruling ultimately provides a bigger voice for a privileged minority.  So, what about speech delivered via the mechanisms of social media and other networked communications? Nobody can argue that there is more of it. But does placing too much emphasis on volume alone risk overlooking the complex, even occasionally painful, ways in which speech, as we define it in the U.S., is preserved?

“The value of intellectual freedom is far from self-evident,” writes George Packer in his New Yorker editorial Speech Crisis.  “It’s hardly natural to defend the rights of one person over the feelings of a group; to put up with all the trouble that comes with free minds and free expression; to stand beside the very people who repel you.” Even among free nations, the United States is unique in policy and in its sustained public support for the absoluteness of speech.  But as networked communications alter our relationship to speech, new social dynamics emerge that can produce as many new forms of censorship as new forms of expression.  Quoting Packer again, he cites Joel Simon thus:

“Joel Simon, the executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, argues in his book ‘The New Censorship’ that the explosion of data in digital media keeps us from seeing how extensively information is controlled. ‘Repression and violence against journalists is at record levels,’ he writes, ‘and press freedom is in decline.’”

Interestingly, Packer begins his article with the description of a brutal murder of a Bangladeshi blogger, but his main thesis is a warning against the pitfalls of self-censorship, even here in the tolerant United States.

But, in some ways, an even greater danger than violence or jail is the internal mute button known as self-censorship. Once it’s activated, governments and armed groups don’t have to bother with threats. Here self-censorship is on the rise out of people’s fear of being pilloried on social media. In Russia, Vladimir Putin has been masterful at creating an atmosphere in which there are no clear rules, so that intellectuals and artists stifle themselves in order not to run afoul of vague laws and even vaguer social pressure.

Packer’s assertion that self-censorship is “on the rise out of people’s fear of being pilloried on social media” exemplifies why I would caution against overemphasizing volume of speech in order to insure its universality as a right.  Personally, I believe that only when we uphold the right of the minority speaker above the majority’s capacity to silence that speaker, is speech as a right actually sustained.  Yes, this means American Nazis were given permission to march through the Jewish Village of Skokie, and it means Fred Phelps repeatedly made a public performance out of disrespect for grieving military families.  But such examples, when filtered through populist media like Twitter, seem to confuse support of the minority voice with unwavering tolerance of the offensive; the two are not necessarily intertwined. The offensive can also be the silencing mob.

Take the chronic occurrence of rape and death themes that flare up like herpes on Twitter when a woman says something a particular group of men doesn’t like. Setting aside actual threats, which are already criminal, wishing for sexual assault upon someone is offensive yet protected speech.  We the majority of ordinary citizens must, in the name of speech, tolerate the minority of apes, who have nothing better to do than tweet “I hope somebody rapes you,” to Ashley Judd because she dissed their basketball team or Emma Watson because she commented on women’s rights. But while speech defendants rush to make this point clear in these instances, we don’t seem to pay much attention to the potential or actual self-censorship of the original speaker.   Naturally, if the speaker is a celebrity, she has resources that inoculate and empower her to speak back, but not every individual with something to say is so blessed; and one consequence of this round-the-clock, global speech-a-thon we call the Internet is that it can certainly make almost anyone famous or infamous for a day.  Thus, one of the pitfalls of placing too much faith in more speech as a preservative of speech istelf is that both the dynamics and the economics of social media foster new types of crowds and new types of minority speakers. And the only real difference between a crowd and a mob is whether you’re with it or against it.

Meanwhile, the notion of tolerance itself, the basic idea that the health of speech depends on allowing or even embracing unpalatable ideas, seems to be changing online and in our national dialogue.  Paradoxically, from quarters like academia, one hears the refrain of what sounds like a new orthodoxy of “tolerance,” which is of course a form of censorship.  More on that in Part II.

Posted in Digital Culture, Free Speech | Tagged , , | 5 Comments

Like’s Labour’s Lost – Facebook Advertising

Beauty is bought by judgment of the eye,
Not uttered by based sale of chapmen’s tongues.

So, like, what’s a Like worth anyway?  I mean a Facebook Like.  Well, for starters, like, Facebook is valued at like more than 120 times its earnings, so, like, the concept “value” is like, y’know, hard to define. Likes are indeed currency, though good luck trying to figure out the exchange rate.  For most of us, a Like is just a casual, and usually literal, means of expressing appreciation among friends.  Like the new baby pics, Like that smart or funny comment you made, Like that you wished me good luck or Happy Birthday, and so on.  And while all that Liking does yield data for Facebook, which is fed into the box of dark magic that conjures what may or may not be useful market research in the social media age; Likes for business, organization, or cause promotion are another matter altogether.  And you know this because if you create a Facebook page for one of these things, Facebook will immediately let you know that you can broaden your exposure by paying for Facebook advertising.

There’s a classic advertiser’s quote, often attributed to David Ogilvy (though maybe not correctly), that says, “I know half my advertising budget is wasted, I just don’t know which half.”  Waste is the advertiser’s dilemma; nobody wants to spend money advertising to people who will never be customers, and the best traditional solutions to this have been based in demographics and broad market research, which trades in old-school likes (e.g. consumers who like football also like beer).   The advertiser of a sports car, for instance, can’t entirely avoid waste, but he can put commercials against programs known to be watched by his most likely customers based on market research.

The Internet is supposed to do better than that for advertisers. Rather than spray-and-pray sports car ads at men in a target demo, the hope has been that the advertiser can reach Steve, who is actively looking for a sports car right now. Much of the design of the Internet as we know it is built with an aim to achieve this goal and not whatever altruistic, social progress is being spun in the PR departments of social media giants.  One irony, to me anyway, is that I actually find Facebook to be a largely positive social network, which is not where it derives its market valuation; yet, I am very skeptical of its worth as an advertising network, which is where it derives market valuation.  I won’t lie:  I’ve enjoyed connecting with old friends, making new friends, keeping up with people, and kibitzing on Facebook; but I bet I’m not alone in saying that I am probably less brand aware today than I ever was in the days when I only had one screen in my life and a limited number of channels.

If anything, I find the obvious advertising on Facebook is either utterly missable or utterly obnoxious.  The only times ads have caught my attention on the network have been negative attention.  For instance, when Facebook tells me that a friend “Likes” a certain big corporation (e.g. Sam Likes Bank of America), it only attracts because I know it isn’t true, and I find myself wondering a) where Facebook gets the nerve to say this?  b) what idiot thinks this is good marketing for BofA? and c) what am I endorsing that I don’t know about?  Similarly, I’m sure we all notice that Facebook will very quickly feature ads for items we browsed online within minutes of said browsing, and maybe this is an effective sale closer sometimes, but certainly not if it’s an item we just bought. In this case, the ad just elicits a well-deserved sneer.

So, in the pursuit of “Steve,” that real customer, I often wonder whether these rather ham-handed efforts do not represent the new “waste” in advertising, particularly in light  of what has surely been lost in recent years, which is consumer relationships built on brand identity.  In the 1990s, advertisers were still very much talking about relationships, but today, it seems the word is engagement, meaning interactions through social media.  And believe me, I honestly think there are a million smart ways to build relationships through these platforms, but it’s not clear that there is much value to the Facebook Like.

The owner of a business, organization, or cause page on Facebook can purchase Likes through two mechanisms — one supposedly above board, the other not so much.  Paying for Facebook ads is the legit, and at least somewhat organic, way to attract valid, engaged interest in a page.  The not so kosher approach is to buy clicks through a third party that simply pays foreign labor in what are called “Click Farms” to sit and click on things at a rate of about $1 per 1000 clicks.  (I know, it’s a job that just screams innovation and prosperity, right?)  But this is how many a Facebook page acquires tens of thousands of Likes, which are less than worthless in the pursuit of engaged prospective customers, readers, or supporters of your cause.

Unfortunately, according to Derek Muller, creator and host of the YouTube science and tech series Veritasium, buying Facebook ads seems to generate roughly the same worthless pile of Likes as buying third-party Likes.  In fact, Muller explains that, based on the way Facebook algorithms test and then broaden the reach of posts in response to apparent engagement, having tens of thousands of bogus Likes actually reduces exposure to people who are legitimately interested in your page. The reason Muller gives for the Facebook ad buy attracting just as many fake Likes is that Click Farmers actually click on stuff for free (i.e. pages they haven’t been paid to click on) in order to hide their identities in the vast confusion of clicks throughout the network.  In short, so that nobody notices a sudden Like spike on one particular page from, say, the Philippines.  Muller doesn’t accuse Facebook of intentionally selling fake Likes, and this probably fair; but I still wonder what a real Like is really worth.

I recommend watching the video.  Muller is very entertaining, and the whole series looks great.  Had I first seen it on Facebook, I like totally would have Liked it.

Posted in Advertising, Digital Culture | Tagged , , , | 5 Comments

Is Tech Populism Stifling the Potential of the Internet?

Last week, the ITIF (Information Technology & Innovation Foundation) hosted a panel discussion on a theme familiar to readers of this blog. The title of the discussion, based on a report of the same name, was How Tech Populism is Undermining Innovation. The lead author of that report and host of the conversation, ITIF president, Robert D. Atkinson stated that it is time for tech populism to be replaced by tech progressivism, the thesis being that debate over most, if not all, issues pertaining to the digital age — from SOPA to NetNeutrality — is governed not by dialogue grounded in a rational search for sound policy, but by wild, emotionally-charged, populist spin that disguises individual selfishness in a cloak of insincere public interest. To quote the report:

“Populism draws its strength from individuals’ fears, misunderstandings, or distrust, appealing to the prejudices of crowds and relying on demagoguery, distortion, and groupthink. Tech populists focus on maximizing self-interest and personal freedom, even if it comes at the expense of broader public interests. While tech populists are not necessarily anti-technology, many perversely oppose certain technologies because they do not trust societal institutions to establish or enforce reasonable controls over their use. The populist view is that elites, especially big business and big government, will prevent useful rules from being established—or, if those rules are established, will find ways to bypass them at the expense of the broader public. They distrust the private sector because they believe corporations are driven purely by profit, and they distrust the public sector because they believe government is ineffectual and overbearing. As a result, they decry even the most pragmatic of policy solutions.”

Variations on the theme of tech populism have been part of this blog since its launch, but I wanted to address one set of comments from panelist Elliot Maxwell, Chairman of e-Maxwell and Associates. To paraphrase, Maxwell described the ITIF report as a caricature of one side in the debate on tech issues, raising the subject of balance, saying that all parties are responsible for rejecting rhetoric and hype in favor of reasoned debate based on facts. Fair enough, but by way of example, he cited scientific studies funded by the NIH and what he described as unsupported exaggerations made by the scientific publishing community over the long-term effects on research if these studies were made publicly available for free.

I cannot comment on what was or was not said by publishers and/or what data Maxwell reviewed to conclude that the publishers were guilty of hyperbole. I also don’t want to get too bogged down in that specific squabble and lose sight of the larger point about leveraging populist sentiment to generalize away nuanced and complex issues. For instance, even with regard to scientific works produced with public dollars, Maxwell is glossing over the role of publishers in making those works available in a manner most useful for their intended readers. To quote the introduction from a published paper by Adam Mossoff of the Center for the Protection of Intellectual Property at George Mason University of Law:

This paper fills a gap in the literature by providing the more complete policy, legal and economic context for evaluating scholarly publishing. It details for the first time the $100s millions in ex ante investments in infrastructure, skilled labor, and other resources required to create, publish, distribute and maintain scholarly articles on the Internet and in other digital formats.

As I say, this post is not really about this specific issue, but Mossoff’s 41-page paper titled How Copyright Drives Innovation in Scholarly Publishing demonstrates that there is complexity in the relationship between scholarly works and the copyright incentive in producing quality, peer-reviewed publication of those works. From Mossoff again:

“Copyright provides the necessary incentives for scholarly publishers to create, invest in, and sustain the business models that make possible the dissemination of reliable, high-quality, standardized, networked, and accessible research that meets the differing expectations of readers in a wide-ranging variety of academic disciplines and fields of research.”

And this seems to be the point being made by the ITIF — the populist, sentimental notion (i.e. all publicly-funded research should be automatically published online for free) oversimplifies a process in the short term whereby society may well lose something in the long term. And this is a subtle but insidious component of populism: that we must always entertain the idea that there are two equal sides to any argument even though this is not always the case. In fact, the populist view is usually the more generalized or simplified argument demanding that the opposing view must “play fair” despite the fact that the latter is often much more complex and nuanced.

To that point, Maxwell segued from his NIH example to broadly promote the positive aspects of “sharing” online, even referring to media like motion pictures that he swept into his larger theme that all parties are responsible for reasoned debate. He acknowledged that populist attitudes about behaviors like “file sharing” may in fact be selfish in nature, but he then implied that the opposing views are likewise selfish because there is usually a profit motive at stake. That might sound fair, but is it?

What Maxwell seemed to be saying is that the shoplifter is selfish but that so is the shop owner because his interest is making money; so these competing, yet equally selfish interests should be balanced, and the shop owner is responsible for contributing to a reasonable debate on the subject. But even if the shop owner were to exaggerate the damage caused by the theft of a single candy bar and rend his garments in a ridiculous display of feigned agony, this would in no way lend credence to the underlying rationale supporting the interest of the shoplifter. And the logic (or lack thereof) does not change if we scale the example to Hollywood and movie piracy. Yet, this is what the debate often sounds like. Just because populist sentiment wants to call piracy “file sharing” so that it sounds friendly and humanist and socially beneficial, that does not mean rational people are obligated to treat this rhetoric with the respect due to a legitimate, progressive proposal. But in a populist climate as we have today, there is little distinction between a public policy proposal and raw self-interest. To quote the ITIF report:

“Populists support weakening copyright protections because they focus almost exclusively on how they personally benefit from weaker laws, ignoring the tangible, economic harms brought by copyright infringement.”

Of course, contemporary populism, which I do believe has been amplified by social media, is affecting issues far more acute than copyright. As a simple but useful example, Popular Science, in October of 2013, discontinued comments on its website because discussion on its pages disintegrated rapidly (as they so often do) into social, political, or religious arguments, none of which further the interest of science. Science does not care if you personally feel threatened by Darwin, but if you do, boy does the populist Internet have places for you to express those gripes with likeminded scaredy cats. See, I just offended people who believe that there are two sides to an evolution debate, and that’s because even entertaining the idea that a debate exists at all is a useless, regressive aberration of the notion of “fairness” that has been distorted by populism, which itself has been intensified by social media.

Of course, the irony in citing this particular example (and I’ve raised this point before) is that the tech populist cheers for an unfettered Internet on the premise that “information and culture” must flow freely to enrich society, yet this view fails to recognize that the same populism simultaneously produces school boards that will insist evolutionary biology be taught alongside “intelligent design.” In other words, there is no reason to assume populism can only produce progress. Quite often it does not.

Consider that contemporary populism is why we’re suddenly having “debate” in this country over so-called religious freedom laws. These are, I have to say, a bizarre twist on the idea that “freedom” must now extend to the right to persecute, disrespect, or mistreat an individual who does not conform to the orthodoxy of another individual. The logic is circular, one that says, “Telling me not to discriminate against that guy infringes my right of religious worship.” This is the narcissistic psychology that occurs when one’s sense of “fairness” becomes warped by the gravitational force of one’s ego. And this same narcissism is the primary ingredient in tech populism as well. The rhetoric of Internet freedom claims to serve public interest, but it is often just self-interest that, when aggregated by social media, will produce fleeting moments of apparent consensus. And far too often, consensus swarms around information that is reported inaccurately.

In my home state of California, some nut job introduced a ballot measure that would effectively create an American Taliban, granting legal authority to anyone who wants to kill gay people. The ballot measure won’t go anywhere, and sadly, neither will psychos with heinous ideas; but the outlandishness of this example is why I’ve never really liked the fact that anyone with a ballpoint pen can potentially get a measure on the state ballot. And that’s kind of how I feel about the Internet right now as a tool for democratic, social, and economic progress. It could become all those things, but not if it remains a populist Wild West, largely run by just a handful of companies that figured out how to monetize the madness itself posing as debate. From the conclusion of the ITIF report:

“Tech progressivism offers a path forward for both parties. Policymakers should embrace government regulation to provide community benefits, but narrowly craft rules to mitigate specific harms. They should respect the power of markets and the innovativeness of the private sector by engaging in light-touch regulation so as to not stall much-needed innovation. And they should evaluate technology issues holistically and objectively to develop pragmatic policy solutions. By adopting the tenets of tech progressivism, policymakers can encourage innovation, productivity and broad-based growth, while also protecting individual rights, fostering a free and open Internet for all, and advancing the public good.”

Posted in Digital Culture | 30 Comments