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.”

© 2015, David Newhoff. All rights reserved.

Follow IOM on social media:

30 comments

  • “….it ( the internet ) 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.”

    Brilliant.

  • “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”

    File sharing and shoplifting are not equivalent in terms of circumstance or impact. Physical media is not the same as digital media, and ideas expressed through media(or through the publishing of scientific research) are not equivalent to candy bars, DVDs, dish soap etc. What you are essentially doing is equating something with a pre-defined value to something that has value determined by the end user. This is the nature of the CURRENT system in regards to digital media, regardless of the source. I am not saying it is the only way, or it is the right way, only that as it stands these things are not equivalent.

    “In other words, there is no reason to assume populism can only produce progress. Quite often it does not.”

    You are making the assumption that what you view as “progress” is the only way. This ignores the fundamental right of humans to be wrong and thus learn from their mistakes. You are also placing more value in the things you perceive to be true, while ignoring the fact that someone who believes something else would see no such value, or find value in something different. These views are not necessarily mutually exclusive, even if diametrically opposed. It is only when you must pick one path or the other that these differences become relevant. And in a lot of debate such as this, in practical every day matters, neither idea has very much impact.

    “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.”

    Again, more assumption. You are saying that in order for there to be equality, that there must be acceptance in regards to ideals. That simply is not the case. I don’t believe in the Bible, but the fact that it exists does not stop me from doing what I want to do. I also don’t think our sexuality is a “right”, any more than our favorite color, or any other preference that is inherent to us as we grow and develop. I don’t get bent out of shape by someone telling me that blue is better than red. And I would not go to a store who only sold blue items and claim discrimination when they refused to sell me something that is red. In that case we are both equal in regards to our ability to choose with whom we do business.

    “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.”

    Then you are lacking the basic understanding of how our society and its laws are designed. This is an extreme example, and you are correct, that dude is loony, but there is a reason why he can be a loon, and why you and I must trust society to react accordingly. The laws aren’t in place to allow lunacy, they are in place to allow everyone to have a voice. Lunacy may be a bi-product, but it is not the norm and it is far from what is accepted as reasonable in this day and age.

    “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.”

    The internet is a tool. Nothing more, nothing less. The only true danger in such a tool is apathy in how it is used. Educate people on it’s benefits and pitfalls and you will find that we are all more than capable of navigating it safely.

    • AV –

      Yes, I am guilty of defining progress as having direction, but then so are all the utopians who naively think that making more stuff available makes a more enlightened society. Ultimately, there’s no way to have that conversation without defining “enlightened,” and I make no apologies for saying that would manifest as a society in which people could not be, for instance, denied medical care because the practitioner holds certain religious beliefs. I have no interest in “balancing” the opposing view, which I think is part of the theme of the post.

      • I think that it is possible to agree on a base definition of progress in regards to a particular discussion. I just think it must be part of the initial discussion. Assuming that everyone agrees on what “progress” means is what leads to endless debates about the definition and allows the true issues to be lost in the process.

        “and I make no apologies for saying that would manifest as a society in which people could not be, for instance, denied medical care because the practitioner holds certain religious beliefs.”

        These are two separate issues. There are certain services that must remain neutral and unbiased because choice is not necessarily and option. As such in an argument as to what is “right” we have to agree that essential services do not fall under the same category.

      • I agree that, for instance, a pharmacist should not be allowed to hold that job if his religious beliefs will interfere with the neutrality of his role in medical care. Yet, others seem to feel otherwise, and this is my point. What is popular can go very backward indeed, and I have no problem defining that pharmacist scenario as “backward.”

      • My point is that the law already protects against true discrimination in regards to essential services. I am not trying to get into a long argument we you as we agree these things should not be discriminatory, just pointing out that being able to buy a pizza(one the examples prevalent in the media) and not being able to see a doctor, or get a prescription, or call a policeman, etc. are not the same thing, but they are being portrayed as such, which I believe undermines the core argument for both sides.

      • Forgive me, but you’re aware that there are proposals out there — and I believe some cases — involving “religious freedom” and medical services, right? I’m not making that up as a hypothetical.

      • If you are referring to the case in which a pediatrician decided that she was not the best fit for a lesbian couple, then yes I am aware of that particular instance. There are other factors involved in that case that do not seem relevant to what we are discussing.

        However, there is no law that I have read that makes any provision for discrimination of any kind. If you have a specific example I would in fact be interested in reading more.

        As for religious freedom, a private business should be able to deny service for whatever stupid reasons they see fit and suffer the financial consequences accordingly. Not because I think that they are justified, but rather because the alternative, in which the state dictates what is allowed in regards to personal property and business is a bad idea.

        I am of mixed race. The civil rights act happened several years before I was born. Up until around 2000 I experienced prejudice and discrimination periodically(more so when I was young) based on the color of my skin. The law is not what changed that. It did not make people accept. Society did that, over time.

        There are definitely core aspects of this debate that unfortunately need to be protected by law. However, that is primarily due to the fact that there are laws in place with the intent of creating equality.

        I am a human being. My gay friends are human beings. We are all citizens of this country. Every law that is enacted to make us “equal” IN MY OPINION only serves to promote the idea that we are somehow inherently less than someone else and therefore need a boost in order to be considered the same. We do not.

        As society has progressed, I should only need invoke my rights as a citizen of this country, not fall back on some field leveling amendment put in place to try and force one group of people to ACCEPT another.

        Essential services are different because there is no way to guarantee choice, so they have to force people who provide those services to be neutral. All we need to is define what is and is not essential and leave it at that. IMO.

      • David Newhoff

        This is just one example from 2013, but it’s a trend, some of which is just debate and noise, some of which actually makes it into legislatures: http://newwest.net/topic/article/idaho_pharmacists_allowed_to_refuse_to_dispense_medication/C564/L564/

        As for the distinctions between acceptance and laws, I fundamentally agree with you, but not quite. Laws don’t create acceptance, but they do play an important role, particularly in normalizing acceptance over time. But even before that, laws and cases are how a society defines what words like equal and free actually mean. Sure, we could agree that to be free must include the freedom to discriminate, but then, how does that not reverse the process back toward Jim Crow laws in a particular town or county or state? You may be okay with one rogue jerk with a diner who doesn’t want to serve gay people or people of color, but why not assume it’s the hardware store, the grocer, the pharmacist, and the doctor, too? Now, it’s a whole community, and the law says it’s okay because this community voted to have it that way. Is that even America anymore?

        Fundamentally, I agree that culture (society) leads policy, but I do not agree that what we write into law plays no role or is some form of nanny-government telling us how to behave. Quite the opposite. Law, at its best, expresses how we feel about these issues. And I happen to think that we do a pretty good job of balancing the protection of one’s right to be a bigoted asshole and yet keep that right limited to the extent that it may not acted upon in a way that does harm.

      • I think the example you used illustrates a need for more discussion on the matter. That bill was proposed for pretty specific reasons. I am not a huge fan of people(in general, not you specifically) basing their reactions based on what they think will happen and therefore refusing to even consider the stated purpose.

        The point being, yes these types of laws must be written carefully. Of course, they mustn’t limit access to ESSENTIAL services. The choice of faith must also be weighed when a profession is labeled as such. And to be fair, there are already laws that prohibit discrimination in a lot of these matters.

        I, personally, don’t consider birth control an essential service, BECAUSE, there are and should remain many options for obtaining what is necessary. As there are with Pizza places. Churches, wedding chapels, florists, etc. So long as there are options that are freely available, there is not reason to force anyone to serve someone they don’t want to, no matter what the reason.

        “But even before that, laws and cases are how a society defines what words like equal and free actually mean.”

        The supreme law of this country already defines such things. All that is necessary for equality is that we follow its tennants. Yes it was written at a time of slavery. And yes slaves were given a monetary value. As soon as this was corrected and they were given status as citizens, there was no need for any other laws. As soon as women were recognized as well, same thing, there was no need for LEGISLATIVE equality because it already existed.

        “Now, it’s a whole community, and the law says it’s okay because this community voted to have it that way. Is that even America anymore?”

        That is how America was intended. That is the whole point. Our constitution was not put in place to define what WE are allowed to do, no, the purpose of that document was to define VERY clearly what the government was allowed to do. That was the intent. And understand from the beginning, in regards to things such as slavery and suffrage, it was the government that made special laws to allow for such things, not the people. That system was defined by the government of that time. And it was all about money. Yes it is easy to see someone who looks different as less than you. That is how they justified it. That is how regular folks who could give a shit about the color of someones skin could be manipulated into either acceptance or apathy. Now consider generations of that mindset. And now, rather than accept that it will take generations for that damage to be undone. The GOVERNMENT tell you that these people are the same. Forget all you have learned, forget all you believe. WE, the GOVERNMENT, have decided that you should accept them and get along. See how that is problem?

        Yes David, there should be little racists towns. There should be homophobic shops. There should be sexist bosses. Not because those things are right, or that we should ACCEPT them. They are not, and we most certainly should not. No they need to exist so that they can eliminated from our society naturally, BY our society. Not at the end of a gun. And yes, the government, it’s a gun. Do as we say or else. That is not how things were intended. And every time they meddle with the original formula, people become more and more divided.

        The government’s job is to make sure there are pharmacists who WILL serve anyone. That there are bakers who would love to cater a gay wedding. And that there are provisions for people who CHOOSE to view the world based on faith, no matter how deep that goes, so long as those things do not DIRECTLY infringe on someone else’s right to freedom.

        When there is only one baker, then we can talk about discrimination. When there is only one pharmacist, we can have a discussion on morality. Until then, everyone should be free to choose how and who they do business with. I am not “ok” with being discriminated against. Trust me, it is not something I have found to be pleasant at ANY point in my life, but I refuse to force someone to accept me if it means pointing a gun at them, even if that gun is figurative, because I know that there have many times in our history when it was literal.

  • If you back hundreds of years (probably thousands?) you can find political authors complaining about populism and generally how easily masses can be manipulated to action. I don’t think it’s as much of a technology problem as it is a biology problem. It fascinates me too, how entire masses of people can be made enamoured by the happenings of people who literally have done nothing interesting or useful.[1] Considering how long this has been a problem in society and across societies, populism must be a fluke of cognition innately written in our genetic code.

    So I think your main allegation here is technology interests have been able to leverage human psychology better then media interests, and have used such leverage to derive outcomes more beneficial to them. Which is interesting indeed. The media industry by definition works is a field that exists to leverage human psychology. Media is a kind of communication. It’s unique in that the level and spread of the effect of that communication on others is what is innately valued!

    It’s kinda sad, yet refreshing that a bunch of nerdy technocrats seem to be better at understanding human behavior then the media machines of the world. These days at least. Perhaps the nerd’s social skills are underrated. Many computer scientists take class(es) on artificial intelligence in school, a field that is quite interested in scientifically interrogating how the human mind works. Maybe computer scientists know a little about how the mind works then they are given credit for? Hmm?

    [1]: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dkv0KCR3Yiw

    • Damn you are historically ignorant. Enamourment in Royalty is a modern phenomena. You won’t find it in the medieval period, deference yes, but not any form of worship heads of state either as monarchs, or some other type of leaders amongst the population. First you have to establish a national identity which in itself is a recent development. You need mass communication for that, and the birth of the modern state.

      • So ancient societies didn’t do these things? All of those paintings monuments and sculptures were just kind of because? Or in deference to whomever was in power? They were not influenced in any way by their beliefs or what they were told? No shared identity?

        Next time you decide to be an asshole, you might want to think about what you are typing first.

      • There wasn’t the shared identity that we associate with now. You were anchored to your village, manor, maybe town. The ‘French’ and ‘English’ for example were a small elite, same in other places, and other times.

      • You can look at the history of religion, with the myriad of ‘local’ saints and beliefs. Many of which the central authorities attempted to suppress from time to time as heresy, or not part of the canon.

        A peasant working in the fields of France had zero identity with the French State which was in essence a handful of families. Most of the regions of France were semi-independent, most areas were controlled by one family even down to the local level. You see that in the flux of allegiances in the 100 year war for example.

      • Fair points. So then what of shared culture? Maybe people were not loyal to their “leaders” so to speak, but their culture did help define them, no?

        I took his point to be that while technology and modern society allow for more direct manipulation of the masses, a sense of belonging is inherent to all people. Be it cultural, ideological, physical. People have always been manipulated by those with power and influence by using this aspect of human nature.

        A peasant might have been a peasant when interacting with a nobleman, but at the core he was still “French”, or “Catholic”, etc.

        I think all that greater communication has done is fragment society into even more groups, as well as allow people to feel as if they belong to multiple.

        I do see your point though.

      • I think that the problem we have is that rarely do we see the past through anything but the eyes of a societies elite or their scribes. We see a small section of the society and think it applies to the whole.

        But I don’t think you can get to ‘shared’ culture outside of locality. There are certainly ways of life at the hunter gatherer level, same for nomads, and farming communities, and a shared culture of sorts. but can you say that each Amazonian tribe has the same culture? We know that they have different languages, perhaps descended from a common base, but different nevertheless. Example from California would be Ishi who’s Southern Yahi dialect was very different from that of the Northern Yani. It was certainly a language that the Indian tribes living around Sacramento couldn’t understand.

        Communication systems like the Catholic church certainly spread veneration of certain saints throughout western Europe and there was a degree of shared culture in celebrating certain feast days. But each had its own specialties. You can pick this up in the Cathedrals and Churches of France. Amiens has St Firmin, Evreux St Taurin, Rouen St Romain, etc. Chartres whilst dedicated to the Virgin Mary is heavily themed on making wine and baking bread, the Val de Loire beind especially noted in the 12th century for its wheat fields and vineyards. Various parts of a church, side chapels and altars, would be the preserve of particular trade guilds.

        Brittany, Normandy, Burgundy, Limousin, Auvergne, Aquitaine, Poitou, Languedoc all had their own distinct culture and paid scant regard to the court in Paris. Did the medieval peasant in Orleans have the same culture as the one in Toulouse? Did the ancient Egyptian tending the fields have the same culture as that of the Pharaonic court, did she even consider herself as Egyptian?

  • I confess, I found this paper rather unconvincing both in its underlying framing and in the examples chosen.

    In particular, the binary definitions offered of both populism and progressivism seemed ahistorical.

    The big problem with certain strains of “internet freedom” thinking isn’t that it’s too suspicious of corporations, but that it’s too trusting in myths about technological and scientific progress, faults associated with “progressivism”, not populism.

    One of the reasons that Net Neutrality proponents enjoyed such a big victory is that their tent was so big. Views on that issue don’t necessarily correlate with a particular point of view on copyright enforcement, corporate power, or the role of government generally, even as I’d make the case that Title II was ultimately the progressive position AND the populist position.

  • For once I agree with the Angry Villager. Piracy is much more like looting, you know where everyone else is doing it, so it’s okay, kind of the mob mentality where people do things they wouldn’t ordinarily do. If the whole house of cards wasn’t so self-serving a lot fewer people would actively participate in destroying other peoples earning power. I mean come on. The Internet made me do it because I’m just making a free copy.

    As I said at the beginning of this comment screed. This one sentence alone far exceeds your cost of admission to Mr Newhoff’s brilliant mind. If nothing else resonates with you, drop a few brain sells right here:

    “….it ( the internet ) 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.”

    I’ll say it again. Brilliant.

  • AV- “I am not a huge fan of people(in general, not you specifically) basing their reactions [of proposed legislation] based on what they think will happen and therefore refusing to even consider the stated purpose.”

    Oh, so you weren’t in the kill SOPA/PIPA at all costs crowd?
    (sorry couldn’t resist)

  • David–

    “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.”

    Yeah, I read the report. It was hilariously bad. If it were about urban planning I would swear on a stack of “Death and Life of Great American Cities” that the report was written by Robert Moses. 

    The report could probably best be summed up as: The establishment is always right, and on the rare occasion that the people aren’t 100% wrong, they’re 99% wrong and should just leave things up to the establishment, which has already anticipated the issue. The fears that anyone in business or government could be untrustworthy, incompetent, self-interested, or corrupt, no matter how these fears have been borne out in the past, are just the products of ignorance. 

    “[T]he 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.”

    He’s too clumsy for me to take seriously, though. In every example he claims to show how his favored position is right on the money. A smarter guy would’ve made some concessions, e.g. that lawful cellphone unlocking is fine because, as has actually happened, the cellphone companies can adapt their business models and offered plans, and international examples of such markets prove that it isn’t disastrous. But he got greedy and prideful and to the extent that it wasn’t already obvious, he showed his hand. 

    “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.'”

    But as both you and the author of the report forget, just because you’re paranoid that doesn’t mean that no one is ever out to get you. Mistrust of government and big business exists because it has been earned in the past. Often, excellent reasons to mistrust those sectors still exist on an ongoing basis.

    “Maxwell described the ITIF report as a caricature of one side in the debate on tech issues, raising the subject of balance”

    Well, it’s one sided, but I don’t know if that makes it a caricature or just garbage. 

    “Adam Mossoff of the Center for the Protection of Intellectual Property at George Mason University of Law”

    Yes, that absolutely sounds like an institution dedicated to an unbiased, objective approach to copyright. (Actually, George Mason is a joke; it amounts to little more than a front for the Koch Bros. I’m surprised to see the citation, but I guess your ideology makes for strange bedfellows)

    The Mossoff paper is basically arguing for something similar to a stationer’s copyright; that the labor of publishers deserves protection, regardless of the complete rejection of the sweat of the brow theory for authors, and the rejection of vesting copyrights in non-authors. While copyright seeks to incentivize both creation and publication (there’s really no point in protecting works which are not published, and are not intended to be published, from unauthorized publication — better that pirates take up the slack than that the work is allowed to languish), Mossoff goes way, way, too far with it.

    “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.”

    Not really. The notion, which is a sound one, is that people should not suffer double-billing. Given that academic publishers have no expenses other than those they gin up for themselves — the papers are based on research the publishers didn’t fund, are submitted for publication at no cost, and the peer reviewers also generally are free. While the publishers may add something — slightly improved typesetting, maybe — they’re clearly taking full advantage of being the main for-profit entities in the loop.

    I won’t bore you with the details of my own recent misadventure with a legal treatise published by the local state bar association (really Lexis; the bar folks indicated that all they did was forward the MSS to Dayton), but there’s a huge mismatch between the prices being charged and the value being provided by the publisher, as the only entity that is making any money in the process.

    If private individuals want to put up with that, then that’s their choice, of course. But as a taxpayer, I expect to be able to enjoy the benefit of what I’m paying for. If researchers know it will cost x amount of dollars to publish, this should be built into their request for funding. Better would be to provide a publicly-funded publisher who had a non-exclusive right of publication of any tax-funded research, and who was obligated to do so as part of its mission.

    What’s next, requiring the Library of Congress to pay for best copies?

    “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.”

    That has nothing whatsoever to do with populism. That’s just the fallacy of false balance. Lots of entities do that. I still vividly remember all the jingoism surrounding the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the government was treated as having a valid argument, even though they did not.

    “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.”

    Yes, actually. Sure, we don’t need to rehash whether and to what extent property is justifiable during each and every consumer transaction, that would be tedious and needlessly repetitive. But where issues appear not to be wholly settled, as seems to be the case given the realities of copyright and how people interact with it, there’s no harm in reasonable debate, and as it happens, both sides do have valid arguments.

    “Just because populist sentiment wants to call piracy ‘file sharing’ so that it sounds friendly and humanist and socially beneficial”

    I got a big laugh out of this statement. You seem to have forgotten that authors called unauthorized copying “piracy” so that it sounded threatening and universally evil and hostile. In fact, they were doing that in the golden age of real, high seas piracy. If authors were asked to pick a word with the same emotional impact now, as “piracy” had then, it would probably be “terrorism.” So perhaps you should cast the beam out of your own eye first.

    “there is no reason to assume populism can only produce progress.”

    Did anyone say that it can only have beneficial effects? Are you therefore adopting the position that ignoring populism altogether can only have beneficial effects?

    I think that good ideas can come from anywhere. Ignoring ideas based on their source will exclude both the good and the bad. If you truly want to sort the wheat from the chaff, you must do so on the merits of each idea, standing on its own, without regard to where it comes from, or whether it supports or challenges the reigning dogma.

    “The logic is circular, one that says, ‘Telling me not to discriminate against that guy infringes my right of religious worship.'”

    Actually, I think it’s your statement that is circular: You appear to be saying that enacting a law against discrimination doesn’t infringe on freedom of religion, because freedom of religion isn’t infringed on by laws against discrimination.

    I see no reason why a particular religion cannot have, as a tenet, discriminatory practices. For example, Jews are commanded by God to practice genocide against the descendants of Amalek; to kill the men, women, children, and livestock.

    But in a civilized society with a secular government, we place limits on religious practice (though not belief) so that we don’t revisit the horror of wars of religion. It’s illegal to murder an Amalek merely because of his lineage. This absolutely infringements on freedom of religion. But it’s an acceptable infringement. It’s absurd to imagine, however, that prohibiting murder, even when God demands murder, isn’t really an infringement.

    “‘Tech progressivism offers a path forward for both parties.'”

    No, it’s just an attempt to protect the status quo. The whole thing is just the usual old wine in a new bottle, and intellectually dishonest throughout. Shame on you for either falling for it, or presenting it as a new idea, knowing that it isn’t.

    *********

    digitalrightsactivist–
    “Piracy is much more like looting, you know where everyone else is doing it, so it’s okay, kind of the mob mentality where people do things they wouldn’t ordinarily do.”

    Oh, I completely disagree. I think that piracy is an example of people doing things that they would always ordinarily do. I find it to be — at least when it’s non-commercial — nearly universal in practice, and not considered to be anything but innocuous.

    “The Internet made me do it because I’m just making a free copy.”

    No, it’s more that the Internet (and other things) are finally empowering people in the way that they always wanted.

    Did you never see this? (Based on an anti-piracy PSA from the MPA) http://i0.kym-cdn.com/photos/images/original/000/451/368/f5f.jpg

  • anonymous- “I think that good ideas can come from anywhere. Ignoring ideas based on their source will exclude both the good and the bad. If you truly want to sort the wheat from the chaff, you must do so on the merits of each idea, standing on its own, without regard to where it comes from, or whether it supports or challenges the reigning dogma.”

    in the same response: “Yes, that [CPIP] absolutely sounds like an institution dedicated to an unbiased, objective approach to copyright. (Actually, George Mason is a joke; it amounts to little more than a front for the Koch Bros. I’m surprised to see the citation, but I guess your ideology makes for strange bedfellows)”

    While I certainly have zero respect for the Koch bros, are you dismissing any and all arguments they make out of hand, ignoring ‘the merits of each idea’?? after the lecture you just put forth?

    • The entire university is a front for the Koch Brothers? Ergo Mossoff works for the Kochs, ergo I’m in bed with the Kochs by citing Mossoff? What if I cite (as if) the anti-copyright crowd over at The Mercatus Center at GMU? Also snogging with the Kochs? Indeed that was a particularly bizarre rebuttal.

      • indeed..

      • AudioNomics–
        It’s a fair cop. I stand by my earlier position that we should judge ideas on their merits, and not on their source. Perhaps I should’ve just said that I am extremely skeptical, though still open-minded, about a paper coming out of George Mason. It really is little more than a front for the Koch Bros., but that alone doesn’t make them wrong.

        I’ll leave you with my recollection of one of those Jack Handey ‘Deep Thoughts’: It takes a big man to admit that he’s wrong, but it takes a bigger man to laugh at that man.

        David–
        It’s not a front in the sense that if you opened the right door, you’d see a ninja training room like in a bad movie. It’s more like an academic version of those think tanks and political advocacy groups with vague but reasonable-sounding names that ultimately share common sources of funding and ideology. A moment’s googling turned up this New Yorker article: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2010/08/30/covert-operations

        “Indeed that was a particularly bizarre rebuttal.”

        I just found it odd. For myself, I wouldn’t want the help of a sketchy ally.

        Still, if that was the only point of the rebuttal you found fault with, I guess I did pretty well.

      • If Adam Mossoff is a sketchy shill for Koch Industries, well then damn, it’s a darker world than I thought. No, that’s not the only fault, but I don’t have time these days to respond to long rebuttals. Happy to approve your comments, though, and let readers take what they will from the big picture.

        And again, I would think my citing the Mercatus Center ought to be sufficient to dismiss your generalization of GMU in this context. If I were to side with Tom Bell or Derek Khanna, would this also be tacit support for the Koch Brothers? MIT has a long relationship with the military, so I guess all the ideas that come out of that place are basically in service of war-mongering. And the truly amusing part of this particular criticism is the unprecedented degree to which Google alone has its money spread throughout policy-influencing academia and independently funded “think tanks” like so many chips on a roulette table.

      • anonymous-
        Please don’t take the lack of a response as anything other than I really don’t have time to do homework for your classroom lectures.

        When they come downstairs from their Ivory Towers, idealists are very apt to walk straight into the gutter.
        -Logan Pearsall Smith

      • anonymous- ” Perhaps I should’ve just said that I am extremely skeptical, though still open-minded, about a paper coming out of George Mason. It really is little more than a front for the Koch Bros.”

        I call bullshit on that statement. GMU have (2) Nobel prizes in economics… surely getting one donation from a wealthy donar bought that honor?
        And I’m sure if the Kochs or any other deplorable wealthy individuals donated to Harvard that we should think that all you say automagically becomes the mouthpiece of that individual? hmm.. dare we even look @ your donar list? don’t open a can of worms that will eat through your casket..

Join the discussion.