A Rising Moral Panic

This is just what I fear: fear itself. See that exchange above. Nick Thompson, the very impressive editor-in-chief of Wired, touted a column by one of his writers who idly wondered whether the #10YearChallenge meme could be a conspiracy created by Facebook to get us chumps to provide it with photos and data to enable facial recognition over time.

Just maybe. What if?

Except that’s ridiculous, on its face. At its public I/O developers conference more than three years ago, Google demonstrated that it could identify the same person in photos from infancy to elderly. And Facebook hardly needs two random photos from a smattering of people when it has huge stores of dated photos of people who identify themselves. (Disclosure: I raised money for my school from Facebook but we are fully independent and I receive no funds personally from any platform.)

pointed out this logic on Twitter, and Nick — who, I want to emphasize again, has done wonders with Wired and made it better than it has been in years and who is often on the same, sane, calm side of the debate over with me — immediately acknowledged in response that Facebook said it did not start the #10YearChallenge meme (reporting that, in my opinion, would have best been done before the column was posted). So, to quote the immortal Emily Litella:

Nonetheless, Nick’s original tweet to his 100k followers lives on and we know that people reach conclusions from a tweet or a headline without always reading on. Then today Keith Olbermann repeats this to his more than 1 million Twitter followers. What if? becomes WTF!! becomes OMG!!! A meme is born, a doubt is raised, paranoia is spawned. What’s my fear? Regulation will follow and the internet will suffer. See, as one of many examples, this tweet calling all regulators.

See also this presentation I gave to Munich Media Days on the unintended consequences of regulation. In a nutshell: Regulators and courts wanted to take power away from the platforms but ended up giving them more.

  • Germany’s ancillary copyright (Leistungsschutzrecht) was intended to make Google pay for snippets but gave Google greater negotiating power because publishers needed the eggs.
  • With the stricter Spanish link tax, publishers cut off their nose to spite their face and Google cut off Google News and with it much traffic to them.
  • The right to be forgotten court ruling gave Google the power of God (a power it did not want) to decide what should and should not be remembered and set a precedent Europe should beware of rewriting and erasing history.
  • Germany’s NetzDG hate-speech law gives Facebook similar power and all but kills satire in Germany. (I provide the straight line, you provide the joke.)
  • Europe’s sweeping privacy regulation, GDPR, did good things but also balkanized the news web with thousands of US publishers cutting off European readers and made expensive requirements that are burdens for small companies in Europe but are nothing to Google and Facebook, which could end up being even more competitive as a result.
  • And now we have the the noxious new EU copyright law with Articles 11 and 13 threatening our ability to quote and share what was formerly known as content and now is known as conversation.

That is what I fear. The atmosphere created by paranoid memes such as the one I write about here — and it’s just one and one of the more minor of many examples — empowers media to raise alarms, which empowers politicians to pass more such legislation.

Am I opposed to all regulation? No, of course not. Every human activity on the internet is already subject to law and regulation and it’s human activity — lies, fraud, manipulation, hate, misogyny — that is causing us trouble today, not so much the underlying technology. It is too soon to say that we know what the internet is and what its impact will be and so it is too soon to define and limit and regulate it as if we can be sure of the consequences of our actions. We risk cutting off opportunities we cannot anticipate, especially from people who were never well-represented and served by the old power structures.

Thanks to research I’m doing lately, I just reread James Dewar’s prescient 1998 RAND paper, The Information Age and the Printing Press. Learning lessons from Gutenberg’s disruption, Dewar sees parallels to the disruption we face now. “The future of the information age will be dominated by unintended consequences,” he says. “It will be decades before we see the full effects of the information age.” I might argue that could be centuries. He concludes: “The above factors combine to argue for: a) keeping the Internet unregulated, and b) taking a much more experimental approach to information policy.” He cautions: “This is speculation of the highest order.”

I emailed Dr. Dewar and he said that two decades on he still thinks its too early to say what the internet’s impact is or even what the internet is. I agree. In his paper, Dewar warns: “Countries that failed to take advantage of the printing press fell behind Europe. Those that strictly suppressed the printing press … were eclipsed on the world stage. Even in Europe countries that tried to suppress ‘dangerous’ aspects of the printing press suffered. This strongly suggests that the advantages of the printing press outweighed the disadvantages. Further, it suggests that, in retrospect, it was more important to explore the upside of the technology than to protect against the downside.”

Scholars Elizabeth Eisenstein and Adrian Johns and many others have debated about the printing press and technological determinism and thus about its alleged impact. Six centuries from now scholars will feud about the same questions regarding our networked age. At this moment, we are arguing about that impact of the net on our daily lives. Some have said to me that this fuss about the #10YearChallenge meme is helpful because people are talking about the issues at hand.

I have one response: Let that debate be based on facts and evidence, not on baseless provocations and what-if worries, which fuel a moral panic that comes to blame all our troubles on technology and assume malign motive for every action the technologists take. Journalists do not have license to relax their standards of fact and evidence and should be informing the debate, not fueling the panic.

Just to show you how fearless I am, I went into Flickr to save my photos from ages past and found this one of me 10 years ago. I look like a dork. Now Facebook, Google, and every one of you knows that. And no one is surprised.