Posts about Internet

Studying the internet

This spring at CUNY, my colleague Douglas Rushkoff and I will teach a course in Designing the Internet.

Students will propose and design a feature of the net they want to see. Some might start from the entrepreneurial perspective: a product, service, feature, or company. But I hope students will radically broaden their perspectives to design more: perhaps a regulatory regime, an ethical regime, a research agenda, a covenant of mutual obligation with the public for technology and media companies, a design agenda for equity and accessibility, business models built to avoid the corruptions we know, curricula, a warning from the past (about technological determinism or manifest destiny), archival standards, a manifesto for an open net, a constitution … anything. (Note that I did not list a metaverse, but if the students want to go there, they can.)

In the first third of the course, we will offer many readings — including the likes of Vannevar Bush, André Brock Jr., danah boyd, Charlton McIlwain, Siva Vaidhyanathan, Andrew Pettegree, Kate Klonick, David Weinberger, Ruha Benjamin, Theodor Adorno, Axel Bruns, James Carey, Dave Winer, Marshall McLuhan— and much discussion examining the net and how we got here: lessons for good and bad. We will invite guests from other perspectives and disciplines: anthropology, psychology, African-American studies, Latino studies, ethics, history, psychology, technology. The students will work on their proposals through the term and will present at the end.

Our idea is to demonstrate to students that they have the agency and responsibility for the future of the net. Because the course is being taught at the Newmark Graduate School of Journalism, I have a particular objectives for media students: to argue that the canvas for journalists and the service they provide is much wider than story-telling and publication. (I contend the net is not a subset of media but instead media are becoming — alongside so many other sectors of society — subsets of the network.) I also want to instill in journalists the reflex to seek out, learn from, and share work from academics who are researching key questions about the net and its impact — based on evidence. The students will find and share a work of research a week.

Doug and I come at this from different perspectives. I wrote the book What Would Google Do? Doug, a professor at Queens College, wrote the book Throwing Rocks from the Google Bus. Opinions may vary. But we end up on the same road: arguing that the net is not baked, that its present proprietors are not its forever owners, that we have the opportunity and responsibility to decide and design the net we want. We both want the net to be the province of humanity over technology. As Doug put it to me: “We just get there differently. I want less evil, you want more good.”

In the end, I believe that what we are examining is the future of society’s institutions, challenged and rebuilt or replaced in a new, networked reality. In my to-be-published (I pray) book The Gutenberg Parenthesis, I use this example:

The first recorded effort to impose censorship on the press came only about fifteen years after Gutenberg’s Bible. In 1470, Latin grammarian Niccolò Perotti appealed to Pope Paul II to impose Vatican control on the printing of books. His motive was not religious, political, or moral “but exclusively a love of literature” and a desire for “quality control,” according to Renaissance historian John Monfasani. Conrad Sweynheym, a German cleric who, it is believed, worked with Gutenberg in Eltville, and his partner, Arnold Pannartz, became the first to print a book in Italy, in 1465. Two years later, they moved to Rome, where in 1470 they published an edition of Pliny’s Natural History edited by Andrea Bussi. It was this book that set Perotti off. In his litany of complaint to the pope, he pointed to twenty-two grammatical errors in the book, which much offended him.

Perotti had been an optimist about this new technology of printing, having “once viewed as a boon to literature ‘the new art of writing lately brought to us from Germany.’” He called it “a great and truly divine benefit” such that he “hoped that there would soon be such an abundance of books that everyone, however poor and wretched, would have whatever was desired.” But the first tech backlash was not long in coming, for according to Monfasani, Perotti’s “hopes have been thoroughly dashed. The printers are turning out so much dross…. And when good literature does get printed, he complains, it is edited so perversely that the world would be better off not having the texts than to have them circulate in corrupt editions of a thousand copies.” Perotti had a solution. He called upon Pope Paul to appoint a censor, not to ban books so much as to improve them. “The easiest arrangement is to have someone or other charged by papal authority to oversee the work, who would both prescribe to the printers regulations governing the printing of books and would appoint some moderately learned man to examine and emend individual formes before printing,” Perotti wrote. “The task calls for intelligence, singular erudition, incredible zeal, and the highest vigilance.”

We might look upon Perotti’s call as quaint — not unlike Yahoo in the early days of the web thinking its librarians could catalogue every single noteworthy site anyone could ever make. The idea that a moderately learned if vigilant person could approve and correct all printing even out of Rome alone betrays a failure to divine the scale of printing to come. Yet one could say that rather than foreseeing the state censor, Perotti was envisioning the roles of the editor and publishing house as means to assure quality. He was looking to invent a new institution to solve a new problem, just as we must today. Fact-checkers engaged by Facebook and algorithms written at every internet company are inadequate to the task of assuring credibility of content, just as Perotti’s censor would have been. So what do we invent instead?

That is the question we will address in this course.

The course will be open to any CUNY graduate students from any discipline and, with approval, to undergrads and (if there is space) nonmatriculated members of the public (non-CUNY students can follow this link or DM me or Doug).

We hope this is a pilot for a much larger project in Internet Studies — perhaps a degree. We are also working with others on efforts to bring more attention to internet research: We plan to offer literature reads of prominent and current work to journalists and policymakers to inform their work with evidence (I’ll share a job posting shortly). And once COVID allows, we hope to bring together researchers to share perspectives on what we know and don’t know about the impact of the net, what questions we have yet to ask, and what data and access are needed to explore those questions. More to come, as I’m still raising funding for the work. (Disclosure: My school and center have received funding for scholarships and various activities from Facebook, Google, and Craig Newmark; I receive no remuneration from any tech platform.)

In the meantime, teaching this course alongside Doug will be a blast.

God made a social network

Chapter 1

1 God made a social network. It was called Earth. Even She could not be certain what would follow.

Chapter 2

1 For the longest time, or so it seemed to the people of Earth, She allowed them to roam free, to explore, to commune, to be social.

2 Then She decided they required limits to test. She gave unto them Community Standards. Yet the people disobeyed. They fought. They told falsehoods. They shared graven images of themselves.

Chapter 3

1 The people divided into tribes and religions and parties and nations and they fought still. They waged crusades and shitstorms against one another. They fought wars of thirty and a hundred and many hundred years over Her.

2 They invented arrows and guns, compasses and clocks and used them not to protect but to conquer.

3 But the people also invented pictures and paints, alphabets and presses and made so many wondrous things with them: worshipful art.

4 Their scribes and their Pharisees are always blind to the wonder. They see only darkness and doom, for they believe that they — not I — shine the light.

Chapter 4

1 In the heavens, in the Senate of the Gods, Zeus called upon the Lord to smite Her social network, Earth, and to silence it with configuration errors, for it had become a cesspool that runneth over with hatred and heresy, bots and bile, corrupting the children of Earth to commit fakery and finstas.

2 And God spake unto him: “O, chill, Zeus. Enough of your panic! Have you no memory? Can you not see that this is what my people have done through eternity with all their tools and toys?

3 “At the moment of invention the people are amazed at what they hath wrought: proud and boastful. Then they wield their implements to destroy, to claim power for themselves over Me. They are corrupted. They sin yet blame their tools for their folly.

4 “Finally, they write their rules and build their institutions to live together in peace with themselves and their inventions. Give them time.

5 “Verily, they cannot see that the problem is not in their inventions or in their earthly corporations and the solution is not in their law-givers or self-anointed saviors but instead in themselves.

6 “They, like you dear Senator, must learn again and again that the path to peace, via struggle, is freedom. Remember well that I did not cut down the tree of knowledge of good and evil but left it standing so that the people may learn from it still.

7 “I prophesy that they will just keep screwing up and then they shall figure it out. They are human.”

Chapter 5

1 And God shrugged.

Here endeth the blogging of Her Holy Thread.

A thank-you note to the net

I want to say something unpopular and provocative: I am grateful for the internet, especially this year, most especially amid the pandemic that still engulfs the world.

In media’s telling — according to my sampling from just one newspaper’s and one magazine’s coverage of late — the net is singularly to blame for the polarization of society, a toxic ecosystem of hate, renewed racism, the deterioration of the public square, the destruction of democracy, a pandemic of disinformation, the rise of paranoid conspiracy cults, an increase of tyranny, the so-called surveillance economy, the death of privacy, the end of individuality, the twilight of free will, rampant harassment, sex trafficking, mental health morbidities, addiction to our screens, outright evil, and making us stupid. To journalists and lately politicians, nerds are now villains, algorithms are dark incantations, and Mark Zuckerberg is the folk devil. In their moral panic, media have made the internet the enemy.

But just try to imagine this last year without the net. Pause, please, to recall the privileges the net has provided, for thanks to it…

  • Countless people could stay employed who otherwise would have lost their jobs, as others did theirs. The world economy would surely have fallen into a severe and lasting depression.
  • Many parents could work from home and care for — and sometimes educate — their children.
  • Students could continue to study and learn with their teachers and classmates. Without it, they would have lost the year entirely.
  • Families and friends could connect, talk with, and see each other to offer support and love for as long as they wished. I am old enough to remember long-distance rates and greedy telcos’ ticking clocks.
  • Scientists and doctors could share research and data as never before due to the open information ecosystem the net provided with preprint servers, peer review via social media, and search. Their adaptability is a model for us all.
  • Commerce continued. We could order anything from our homes, staying safer inside them.
  • Telehealth allowed patients to receive treatment for their physical and mental well-being.
  • Vaccination campaigns could be organized on the net.
  • After the murder of George Floyd, and after the net made it possible to witness the crime, a movement rose across the country and around the world to foster a long-overdue racial Reformation in America.
  • Deprived of the ability to ring doorbells, candidates and supporters could reach out to voters and defeat the most dangerous president in the nation’s history.
  • We could entertain ourselves to pass so many lonely hours, watching movies, bingeing on series, reading books, playing games, collaborating on TikToks.
  • And — thanks to Twitter, Facebook, Zoom, TikTok, Reddit, Discourse, Slack, Clubhouse, podcasts, and blessed blogs — we could converse.

Myself, I was able to teach online, to attend conferences around the world, to conduct my research from many libraries, and to learn from more than 600 scientists and doctors in the COVID Twitter list I curated. I was able to reclaim the three-and-a-half hours a day that commuting was eating out of my life, to be with my family, to work, to save money, to get groceries to my 95-year-old father in Florida, and to stay safe. I am grateful for all that.

I also was able to finish a manuscript of a book about the end of Gutenberg’s age, which has provided me with much perspective about our transition into the era that follows. Lord knows, the early days of print were disruptive, preceding the Reformation and Counter-Reformation (I believe we are witnessing a parallel struggle over race today), various wars (notably the Thirty Years’), the Scientific Revolution, and eventually the Enlightenment. I am not a technological determinist. Print did not make this history inevitable, nor did history make print inevitable. But it is clear that without print, Martin Luther’s reforms would not have spread with the speed and force that they did. (He might have ended up like his predecessor, Jan Hus, in ashes. Then again, without the scale printing provided to the business of indulgences, he also might not have had cause for complaint.) Without the net — specifically social media — #BlackLivesMatter would not have been able to mobilize with the speed and force we have witnessed; it would still be throttled by the limited attention rationed to it in mass media. As #BLM has demonstrated, the First Amendment nurtures not just speech but also the rights to assemble and petition for redress; on the net, the First Amendment has reached its fullest expression through the people, not the press.

Is the net perfect? Of course not. To hold it to that expectation is ahistorical and simple-minded. It is imperfect because we, its makers and users, are imperfect. Everything media object to in their bill of particulars against the net is the result of human failures, foibles, exploitation, and corruption, some within the big corporations, some without. Must the net’s current proprietors do a better job of recognizing, anticipating, and counteracting bad behavior and bad actors and protecting it and us from their manipulation? Absolutely. But if we concentrate our attention only on the worst, we will never build what is better; we will only lose playing catch-up to the villains among us.

As I say often, the net is still young. We have yet to understand what it can be and what we can do with it. Its current proprietors are maligned in media, though that is a fairly recent pivot from the utopian to the dystopian. (USC researcher Nirit Weiss-Blatt pinpoints the date and cause of media’s shift). I also spent time during the lockdown, in a semi-sabbatical, working on a book proposal about media’s moral panic regarding the net, examining the legacy industry’s self-interest at work. I think it’s an important story to tell. But I also don’t want to make the mistake media make, obsessing on the negative.

In every panel and conference I watched during these Zoom Times, the starting point of the discussion about the net is what is wrong with it. The ideas that emerge in that context are then necessarily reactive, incremental, and often unimaginative: quick fixes and purported cures for what some say ails the net (though not us).

What interests me more is imagining a better internet and a better society with it. What if we instead allowed ourselves to start the discussion with what the net could be and what we could make with it? What if we raised our expectations to those heights? We have the perfect opportunity — and this is the perfect time — because we have before us, right in front of our Zoom-weary eyes, the amazing, even miraculous litany of what society managed to accomplish even during the dark and desperate days of a global pandemic, thanks to the net.

As a journalism professor, I’ve had the privilege and opportunity to start three new degree programs with my colleagues at the Newmark J-School, in entrepreneurial and engagement journalism and leadership. Thus I get to watch students when they have the space to reimagine and reinvent journalism. It is wonderful. But I have begun to see that I have been thinking too small. Journalism is just one sector of media and media are but one part of the net; every institution and industry requires similar examination and invention. I wish to work with other disciplines — anthropology, sociology, philosophy, psychology, African-American studies, Latino studies, gender studies, ethics, design, neuroscience, digital humanities, literature, history, law, economics, and the technologies — to provide students, scholars, and the people known as users the stage upon which to imagine and build a better net and a next society with it.

What if the starting point of our discussion was not what Zuckerberg did to disappoint someone this week but instead the example of what so many did with the net in a time of need: Teachers, students, technologists, companies, government agencies, philanthropists, doctors, scientists, parents, citizens accomplished so much. What if we set our sights not on giving a few malign fools too much attention for their idiocies but instead focused our attention on how brilliant people of good will could use new means to speak, assemble, and act and to build movements for racial equity, economic equality, climate protection, education, art, cultural understanding, civic participation, health….

I want to set students loose, knowing what we now know about what can go wrong, to design new functions, features, platforms, regulations, standards, companies, measurements, experiments, networks. More than that, I want to see them create what their imaginations allow with the technology, outside of it.

So I thank the net for what it made possible. I thank the people who had the vision to see what it could do and made it work for us in a time of crisis. I am eager to see what we can do next.

(Order the note card from BlissCollections.)

Statement to the Judiciary Subcommittee on Antitrust

I was called about possibly testifying to a hearing of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Antitrust regarding technology companies. That’s not happening but I decided to submit a statement to the committee. Here, minus my bio, is what I have to say:

Statement to the Subcommittee:

I write to the committee to express my concern about often well-intentioned but ill-conceived internet regulation, which could have deleterious effects on freedom of expression; which tends to protect incumbent media and technology companies at the expense of innovation and competition; and whose unintended consequence is frequently to grant internet platforms yet greater power. It is worthwhile to examine the effects of internet regulation elsewhere as it is debated here.

Consider, for example, Australia’s media code. The net result, according to the news site Crikey, is that the country’s existing media duopoly of News Corp. and the Nine Network will receive 90 percent of the money being paid by Google and Facebook, both of which are now in the position to decide which news organizations should receive support. Small news startups that might compete with the powerful incumbents receive no protection or support in the law. The Australian code amounts to a link tax — for those companies that link to news are required to pay for news — and Sir Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the web, testified to Australian legislators that such a precedent would “make the web unworkable around the world.” It would break the internet. I regret that in the end, Google and Facebook succumbed to what I see as corporate and political blackmail.

In Europe, various changes to copyright law — Germany’s Leistungsschutzrecht, Spain’s link tax, the EU’s Articles 15 and 17 of the its Directive on Copyright — amount to regulatory capture, for the large internet companies can afford compliance but I have spoken with smaller competitors for whom the expense and effort are crippling. Germany’s NetzDG hate-speech law requires Facebook to decide — in a private company rather than an open courtroom — what speech is manifestly illegal. Europe’s Right to be Forgotten court decision puts Google in the position of deciding what speech should be remembered or forgotten. The UK is considering regulation that would require platforms to take down “legal but harmful speech.”

Online speech is imperiled in many quarters. In Italy, Facebook was forced to reinstate a site for a neo-fascist group. Poland has announced a new law that would require platforms to carry all legal speech, a nightmare that would protect the worst of the net. I would remind us that compelled speech is not free speech. In addition, Singapore instituted a fake-news law, which puts internet companies in the unwanted position of being arbiters of truth. Similarly, India is enacting regulation that would require platforms to take down speech that is false or threatens national unity.

In the United States, Google’s recent announcement that it will forego ad targeting on the web based on third-party data was applauded by privacy advocates who have demonized web cookies as so-called “surveillance capitalism.” But this again amounts to regulatory capture as Google itself has plentiful first-party data about consumer behavior as well as the resources and technical means to innovate in advertising. Incumbent publishers, on the other hand, are stuck without their own first-party data or innovation. I know this because in my university center, I spent years trying to convince publishers to change their product and business strategies to prepare for this day. They generally insisted on relying on their dying print businesses and on third-party ad networks online, and now they are retreating behind paywalls. As a result, just when we need it most, reliable news is becoming a product for the privileged few who can afford it. According to Oxford’s Reuters Institute, only 20 percent of Americans pay for online news and it is a winner-take-all market with most people paying for only one subscription for news — almost two thirds of subscriptions go to just three publishers: The New York Times, The Washington Post, and Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp.

Note well that most local newspaper companies in the United States are now controlled by hedge funds, which are not inclined to invest in innovation and which, by their nature, tend to sell assets and draw cash out of these enterprises. If there ever were an attempt to enact an Australia-like law here — if it could overcome clear First Amendment objections — any money resulting from it would end up in the balance sheets of hedge-fund owners and would benefit neither journalism nor innovation at legacy, local news companies.

Thus to grant newspaper owners an exemption from antitrust, as has been discussed, would be profoundly anti-competitive, for it would — as in Australia — entrench the interests of the largest companies on both sides of the table, media and technology.

Similarly, I argue that breaking up major technology companies is an emotional response to the discussion of technology and power. It would not meet the test of rectifying consumer harm, for users benefit tremendously from free, open, and inexpensive services. Also, there is considerable competition; note Microsoft’s role in this debate.

Instead, in both industries — technology and media — the best cure for concerns about size is to encourage and support entrepreneurship and new competition. In my university, I started a first-of-its-kind program in entrepreneurial journalism to teach journalists to do just that. I hope next to turn my attention to internet studies, to foster the design and creation of a next generation of the net: one built not just to speak but to listen, one designed to build bridges rather than battlements, one that protects the benefits of today’s historically unprecedented opportunity to hear voices too long not heard in mass media. There is much work to be done and much opportunity to create competitors to the present proprietors of the net and media. This is where we should focus our attention in policy.

The net is yet young. We don’t fully know what it is and may not for generations, even centuries. Note that the first newspaper was not published until a century and a half after Gutenberg introduced movable type. In my research for a book on the end of the Gutenberg age, I have learned much about the reaction to the introduction of printing. After initial and brief utopian glee at its prospects, authorities worried greatly about print’s power to spread the fake news of the day, to cause unrest (the Reformation and the Thirty Years’ War), and to disrupt institutions. I have also learned that governments’ attempts to control printing and thus speech largely failed. In a prescient 1998 paper for the RAND Corporation, “The Information Age and the Printing Press: Looking Backward to See Ahead,” James Dewar argued persuasively for “a) keeping the Internet unregulated, and b) taking a much more experimental approach to information policy. Societies who regulated the printing press suffered and continue to suffer today in comparison with those who didn’t.”

In what I have said here, it might sound as if I oppose all internet regulation. I do not. I worked for more than a year with a Transatlantic High-Level Working Group on Content Moderation Online and Freedom of Expression, convened by former FCC Commissioner Susan Ness under the auspices of the Universities of Pennsylvania and Amsterdam. The group included many experts and luminaries, such as former Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff, former Ambassador Eileen Donahoe, former Estonian President Toomas Ilves, and former members of the European Parliament Marietje Schaake and Erika Mann. Our report recommended a flexible framework for internet regulation based on transparency as the basis of accountability as well as the establishment of e-courts to rule on matters of legality where that should occur, in public and in court.

To put this in my terms, I have long argued that both technology and media companies should make covenants of mutual obligation with their users and the public — not just rules for users but promises from the companies for what we may expect of them in building useful, respectful, and productive services and environments. In the model of the Federal Trade Commission, I would favor requiring them to provide data about their implementation and impact so as to hold them accountable to their promises. I also hope for a multistakeholder forum — of technologists, lawmakers, regulators, civil society, academics, and users — to grapple with new and unforeseeable problems, such as pandemics, and to exploit new opportunities.

Internet regulation should not be about punishing power or success but instead about creating the means to work together for a better internet, a better society, a better future.

In league with Murdoch

(Here is an opinion piece I wrote in Australia’s Crikey. I had offered it to The GuardianHere is a related piece from Crikey editor-in-chief Peter Fray.)

I love The Guardian. It has long been my most trusted news source worldwide. I have been honoured to write for and work with this grand institution. So I am sorely disappointed that The Guardian is dancing with the devil, Rupert Murdoch, in backing his legislation, Australia’s News Media Bargaining Code, for it would ruin the web for the rest of us.

The Code is built on a series of fallacies. First is the idea that Google and Facebook should owe publishers so much as a farthing for linking to their content, sending them audience, giving them marketing. In any rational market, publishers would owe platforms for this free marketing, except that Google at its founding decided not to sell links outside of advertisements. The headlines and snippets the platforms quote are necessary to link to them, and if the publishers don’t want to be included, it is easy for them to opt out.

Second, the major media companies of Australia — Murdoch’s News Corp., Fairfax’s Nine Entertainment and, yes, The Guardian — are not beggars in Oliver Twist’s poor house, as they would have us believe. They will survive.

Third, let us be clear that no matter what happens in this political drama, Rupert Murdoch — as ever — wins. Either Murdoch gets paid by Google and Facebook, or as threatened, Facebook bans news from its news feed and Google pulls out of Australia. Since Murdoch and Fairfax own almost all the media brands in the nation, they’ll be fine. Any media startup that dreams of competing with Australia’s media oligopoly will be unable to find a hold in the market. Small companies in many sectors will suffer. Users will suffer. I predict that the politicians who made this happen at Murdoch’s behest will suffer once citizens realize what they must do without. But Murdoch won’t.

What worries me most is what the Code would do to the internet, worldwide. As The Guardian reported, Sir Tim Berners-Lee himself, the man who invented the web, said the Code would break the web. The precedent of having to pay for the privilege of linking to someone is antithetical to the core ethic of the web: that the edges finally win over the power at the centre.

In the United States, where I work, it is only because of the web and its architecture of the link — as well as social media and its hashtags — that we have finally heard the stories of #BlackLivesMatter and #LivingWhileBlack and #MeToo from voices too long excluded from mass media, run by old, white men (who look like me). Finally, the net challenges the old mens’ hegemony.

No wonder Murdoch does everything he can to cripple the internet and its proprietors, cashing in his political capital — conflict of interest be damned — to buy protectionist legislation to favour his companies against his competitors in hopes of winning in Parliament or blackmailing publishers into paying to stop this political process. That is precisely what both Google and Facebook are doing in beginning to pay publishers for their articles, and I’m unhappy with them, too, for setting a precedent I consider dangerous for the future of the net.

You may ask why I am so vitriolic about your native son, Australia. [In disclosure, I once worked for Murdoch as TV critic for America’s TV Guide. Also, the school where I teach has raised funds from Facebook and Google but I receive nothing from them.] My animus toward Murdoch comes from seeing his media company damage my family and my nation. Fox News brainwashed parents across the country. Donald Trump was the Frankenstein’s monster of Murdoch’s network. The 6 January riot at the U.S. Capitol might as well have been Murdoch’s garden party. Rupert Murdoch is the single most malign influence in democracy across the English-speaking world (and his influence spreads even wider now, as even formerly sensible Canada and the European Union are considering following Australia’s lead in killing the web with their carbon copies of the Code).

If Murdoch is the devil, The Guardian was the guardian angel come to battle him. That is why I am so disappointed to see The Guardian operate in league with Murdoch and Fairfax to favor the Code. I am equally concerned that The Guardian, as well as most news media lately, have turned dystopian in their coverage of the internet and technology. I am old enough to remember when they were optimistic, even utopian. But that is a discussion for another day, another beer.

I say this at the risk of my relationship with The Guardian, an affection that goes back many years. But as much as I love The Guardian, I love the internet even more.