Posts about regulation

How harmful is it?

As the UK gets ready to regulate harmful (including legal but harmful) speech online, the appointed regulator, Ofcom, released its annual survey of users. It’s informative to see just how concerned UK citizens seem to be about the internet. Not terribly.

First, a list of potential “harms” encountered.

Let’s look at these. Scams (27%). Yes, We get those through every possible medium: phone, mail, and net. Misinformation (22%). Well, that requires definition. “Generally offensive or ‘bad’ language” (21%). Oh, that is so broad; it is in the ear of the beholder; and — even without a First Amendment — does government want to be in the position of policing “bad” language? Unwelcome friend requests (20%). Sounds like a bad cocktail party; one may easily walk away. Content encouraging gambling (16%). Gambling is legal in the UK and promoted by many newspapers, which profit from it.

The sixth and seventh complaints are ones worthy of attention and are mostly native to online: trolling (15%) and discriminatory content (11%). Other categories worthy of attention include objectification of women, bullying, unwanted sexual messages, and content about body image (each 8%).

Now how concerned are these users about their complaints? 15% are “really bothered.”

What did the complainers do about it? 30% scrolled past, 20% reported it, 20% unfollowed whoever posted the offending content, 18% did nothing, 11% closed the app or site…

That’s the complaint side of the report. It does not alarm me about the extent of online harm users are reporting to their regulator.

To its credit, Ofcom also asked about the benefits of the net for its citizens. These results are striking.

“Being online has an overall positive effect on my mental health.” Only 14% disagreed; two and a half times more users agreed that the net is good for their mental health.

Oh, but isn’t the net addictive and taking over our lives? To this statement — “I feel I have a good balance between my online and offline life — a solid majority of 74% agree; only 9% do not.

“I can share my opinions and have a voice.” I consider this a critical difference between the net and mass media. 44% agree; only 17% disagree; a third don’t share an opinion about sharing their opinions.

“I feel more free to be myself online.” A third agree; almost a fifth disagree; half, being British, shrug.

Many people see the net less as a means of self-expression and more as a useful helpmate. “Accessing goods and services online is more convenient for me.” A whopping 83% agree; a mere 3% disagree.

Rather than being imprisoned by the desires of algorithms, it seems people see themselves as individuals following their own desires. “It gives me space to pursue my hobbies and interests.” Almost two-thirds — 63% agree — while 11% do not.

So far, as I read the survey, people feel predominantly positive about their use of the net and they do not seem terribly concerned about their complaints. The reason for a regulator to step in would be if users thought themselves incapable of handling problems there. Ah, but UK internet users do not paint themselves as desperate. To the contrary, they are confident: 79% call themselves very or fairly confident as internet users; not so much, 8%.

Well, what about attempts to pull the wool over their eyes by unscrupulous marketers? How confident are they that they can recognize online advertising? 78% are; 7% are not.

But data is/are a problem, everyone agrees, yes? Sure people feel they have lost the ability to manage their personal data online? Not so. A majority — 58% — are confident managing their data; 18% not.

OK, then fake news must be terrorizing citizens. News media say so. How many feel confident judging the truthfulness of online information? 69%; 9% feel otherwise.

A

But young people are the most vulnerable to online disinformation — that’s why there are so many interventions to teach them news literacy, right? How do young people compare with their elders? 29% of users aged 16–34 are very confident, and it goes downhill from there.

Most people feel pretty strongly about their own abilities online. But when asked about others, well, they need help. Two thirds of users agree with the statement, “Internet users must be protected from seeing inappropriate or offensive content.”

There we see the third-person effect at work. Coined by sociologist W. Phillips Davison in 1983, the third-person effect “predicts that people will tend to overestimate the influence that mass communications have on the attitudes and behavior of others…. Its greatest impact will not be on ‘me’ or ‘you,’ but on ‘them’ — the third persons.” The third-person effect, I argue in my upcoming book, is the basis of so much regulation and censorship of media since Gutenberg. Ofcom and fellow citizens want to protect them from the internet whether they think they need it or not.

All of this would seem to me to auger against the urgent need for Ofcom and the UK government to guard its citizens from the net.

But perhaps, as we hear in a constant media drumbeat, internet companies are negligent of doing anything to address the problems — problems that humans cause — on their platforms. Ofcom reports the moderation activity of the three big companies:

Facebook took down 153 million pieces of content in the third quarter of 2021 alone, 96% found by its algorithms. Is Facebook censoring too much, as America’s right-wing would claim? Only 2% of its decisions are challenged.

I know I’m being sassy here. I am not arguing against all regulation. The net is already regulated. Neither am I defending its current proprietors. I wish for a more distributed web (a la Jack Dorsey’s Bluesky). But keep in mind that a more distributed web will be much harder for regulators to regulate. And a more distributed web will make it more difficult for moral-panicking media to find folk-devil moguls to blame for all our ills.

Interventions in the internet and our newfound freedom of speech online need to be based on empirical evidence of actual harm, clearly defined. This, it would appear, is not that.

Who’s breaking the news?

This will not make some people happy. Here is a statement I submitted to my senator, Cory Booker, as a member of a Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Competition Policy, Antitrust, and Consumer Rights, which is holding a hearing called “Breaking the News—Journalism, Competition, and the Effects of Market Power on a Free Press.” The title reveals much.

The gist of my statement is that I worry about news organizations lobbying the institutions they are meant to watch; it is a gross violation of journalistic independence and integrity.

It so happens that the day before, The Intercept dropped a report about media companies lobbying against regulation of advertising targeting. Now I happen to think that both advertising and targeting — in some form, likely with regulation — will be necessary for news media’s survival. I think positioning targeting as “surveillance advertising” is moral panic. But my argument against lobbying is the same.

In both instances, news organizations are portraying themselves as victims of big, bad tech — the companies media cover without ever acknowledging the conflict of interest in their coverage. They paint themselves as virtuous and necessary agents of democracy. It’s bad enough that news organizations seek access from the powerful; now they seek favors. Here is my statement:


I write to the Subcommittee as a journalist, editor, journalism entrepreneur, and journalism educator concerned about continuing efforts by legacy mass-media news companies to lobby for protectionist legislation and regulation. I worry that in doing so they compromise the independence and integrity of my field. Their efforts might affect freedom of expression online. And they could disadvantage the new, more diverse, and innovative competitors so needed in both the media and technology industries.

My credentials: I am the Tow Professor of Journalism Innovation and Director of the Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism at the City University of New York’s Newmark Graduate School of Journalism. Prior to this, I was president and creative director of Advance Publications’ online arm, where I started Newhouse Newspapers’ local news sites. I was also creator and founding editor of Entertainment Weekly magazine at Time Inc.; media columnist for The Guardian; Sunday editor and associate publisher of the New York Daily News; TV critic and editor in magazine development at TV Guide and People; and an editor and columnist on the San Francisco Examiner and Chicago Tribune. I have consulted for many news media companies and sat on the board of media startups. At CUNY, I started initiatives and raised funds — in disclosure, including from internet companies — to support efforts to combat disinformation online. I also helped build and now advise Montclair State University’s New Jersey News Commons.

All that is to say that I have considerable experience in media, having spent almost thirty years since the advent of online news trying to get media companies to change. Sadly, this means I have also been witness to many of their failures to adapt to the new reality of a connected world.

These companies have insisted on pursuing the only business strategies they have known: advertising and subscription. In the heydays of print, many of them ran local monopolies, which enabled them to overcharge advertisers for generations, and so it should come as no surprise that their customers fled to more effective and efficient marketing outlets when the internet arrived.

As they fail at advertising, publishers are retrenching behind ever-higher paywalls. The net result is the redlining of journalism. Quality, reliable news is ever more the province of the privileged few who can afford it, while disinformation will always be plentiful and free. That is a dangerous situation, especially at this perilous moment for American democracy. I fear that some of the legislation being proposed will only entrench news deeper inside walled gardens.

Now publishers and their trade-turned-lobbying associations resort to their last strategy: blaming new competitors for their own failures and trying to influence legislators and regulators for protectionist intervention designed to disadvantage not only those existing competitors but also others that might or not might not be able to start in the future. They seek nonmarket intervention to support primarily, though not entirely, legacy newsrooms and their paywall strategies. It should be noted that many legacy newsrooms have failed to adequately diversify their staffs to represent their communities (see: googletrends.github.io/asne2019/?filter=race). In various states, publishers also lobby legislatures to continue the practice of paying tax dollars to print legal ads; they claim this government subsidy as their right even though the internet now provides an efficient means to share public notices for free.

Call me old-fashioned, but I shudder at the sight of news organizations and their associations lobbying politicians. With all due respect, it is our role as journalists to remain reliably independent of you as the holders of power in the institution of government, so as to build trust at a time when trust is in short supply. Yet around the world, we see barons of news cashing in their political capital for the sake of protectionist advantage over new competitors: See the role of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. in Australia’s media code and the Tory campaign against the BBC in Great Britain; see Axel Springer’s lobbying for so-called ancillary copyright in Germany and the EU; and now see news trade associations’ lobbying efforts in Washington.

All the while, these news media have turned to attack not only their online competitors but the internet as a whole. That is what gives me concern for the future of freedom of expression online, as voices too long not heard in mass media finally have their say, but some would restrict these newfound freedoms in, for example, the debate over Section 230. I do not mean to paint all journalists in all legacy newsrooms with this brush. But the pattern of lobbying among their publishers is clear.

I urge the Committee to read the work of Dr. Nirit Weiss-Blatt in her 2021 book, The Techlash, in which she analyzes data to track the moment when media coverage of the net flipped from utopian to dystopian. I, too, have been tracking this shift in coverage. Never do I see news outlets acknowledge their conflict of interest in reporting on companies with whom they compete for audience attention and advertising dollars.

I ask the Committee not to assume that journalism as it was is journalism as it should be, or that its past practitioners and proprietors are necessarily its best protectors in the future. According to the Reuters Institute at Oxford, two-thirds of news subscriptions in the U.S. go to just three brands: New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal. The other third is shared by the entirety of the rest of the news industry. Media remains a winner-takes-most industry.

The majority of American newspaper chains are now controlled by hedge funds. I was a member of an advisory board to a news company owned by one of them and I saw first-hand how that owner would not invest in innovation but instead sold hard assets and siphoned off cash. Beware that some of the subsidies contemplated by Congress will benefit not journalists and not the public but these funds’ limited partners.

I love journalism. I love newspapers and magazines. I train the new journalists who are our best hope. They often go to work for new outlets that are rebuilding our field — for example, Chicago’s City Bureau, Detroit’s Outlier Media, and New York’s The City and the Marshall Project. In my journalism school’s Center for Community Media and its Latino and Black Media Initiatives, I see much innovation aimed at serving communities that were too long underserved by mass media — see, for example, this week’s launch of Capital B. These are the reasons why I hold deep optimism for the future of my field.

This spring I am teaching a course at CUNY called Designing the Internet, to demonstrate to our students that they have the agency and the responsibility to design the future of the net and society on it. It is early days for the internet. After Gutenberg’s development of movable type, it took a century and a half before there came a tidal wave of innovation with print: the invention of the newspaper, the creation of the modern novel by Cervantes and the essay by Montaigne. It took another century to arrive at a sustainable business model for media with the creation of copyright. And it took yet another century for the development of changes in the technology of printing that would lead to the birth of mass media.

The net is yet young. We cannot yet know what my students, your children, and their grandchildren will create with it. I urge the Committee to support their future, not their ancestors’ past. Please support innovation and experimentation, new competition, diversity of ownership, training in new skills, and research on the impact of the net to date to build a better internet and society rather than to protect outmoded, legacy media owners.


Here was my statement to an earlier House hearing. 

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.

How the Dystos Defeated the Technos: A dystopian vision

History 302 — Fall semester, 2032 — Final essay

[This is not prediction about tomorrow; it is extrapolation from today -Ed.]

Summary

This paper explores the victory of technological dystopians over technologists in regulation, legislation, courts, media, business, and culture across the United States, Europe, and other nations in the latter years of what is now known as the Trump Time.

The key moment for the dystos came a decade ago, with what Wired.com dubbed the Unholy Compromise of 2022, which found Trumpist conservatives and Warrenite liberals joining forces to attack internet companies. Each had their own motives — the Trumpists complaining about alleged discrimination against them when what they said online was classified as hate speech; the liberals inveighing against data and large corporations. It is notable that in the sixteen years of Trump Time, virtually nothing else was accomplished legislatively — not regarding climate, health care, or guns — other than passing anti-tech, anti-net, and anti-data laws.

In the aftermath, the most successful internet companies — Alphabet/Google, Facebook, Amazon — were broken up by regulators (but interestingly Comcast, Verizon, AT&T, Microsoft, Twitter, and the news behemoth Fox-Gatehouse-Sinclair were not). Collection and use of data by commercial entities and as well as by academic researchers was severely curtailed by new laws. Moderation requirements and consequent liability for copyright violations, hate, falsehood, unauthorized memories, and other forbidden speech were imposed on social-media companies, and then, via court rulings, on media and news organizations as well as individuals online. New speech courts were established in the U.S., the European Union, and the former United Kingdom countries to adjudicate disputes of falsehood and hate as well as information ownership, excessive expression, and political neutrality by net companies. Cabinet-level technology regulators in the U.S., the E.U, Canada, and Australia established mechanisms to audit algorithms, supported by software taxes as well as fines against technology companies, executives, and individual programmers. Certain technologies — most notably facial recognition — were outright outlawed. And in many American states, new curricula were mandated to educate middle- and high-school students about the dangers of technology.

Unintended consequences

The impact of all this has been, in my opinion, a multitude of unintended consequences. The eight companies resulting from the big net breakups are all still profitable and leading their now-restricted sectors with commanding market shares, and many have quietly expanded into new fields as new technologies have developed. Their aggregate market value has increased manyfold and no serious challengers have emerged.

Academic studies of divisiveness, hate, and harassment — though limited in their scope by data laws — have shown no improvement and most have found a steady decline in online decency and respect, especially as trolls and sowers of discord and disinformation took to nesting in the smaller, off-shore platforms that regularly sprout up from Russia, lately China, and other nations unknown. Other studies have found that with the resurrection of media gatekeepers in a more controlled ecosystem of expression, minority voices are heard less often in mainstream media than before the Compromise.

Even though news and media companies and their lobbyists largely won political battles by cashing in their political capital to gain protectionist legislation, these legacy companies have nonetheless continued and accelerated their precipitous declines into bankruptcy and dissolution, with almost a half of legacy news organizations ceasing operation in the last decade even as legislatively blessed media consolidation continues.

I would not go so far as to declare that we have reached the dystopia of the dystopians, though some would. In his final book, The Last Optimist, Jeff Jarvis wrote:

Far too early in the life of the internet and its possibilities, the dystos have exhibited the hubris of the self-declared futurist to believe they could foretell everything that could go wrong — and little that could go right — with internet and data technologies. Thus in their moral panic they prematurely defined and limited these technologies and cut off unforeseen opportunities. We now live in their age of fear: fear of technology, fear of data (that is, information and knowledge), fear of each other, fear of the future.

There are many reasons to be angry with the technology companies of the early internet. They were wealthy, hubristic, optimistic, expansionist, and isolated, thus deaf to the concerns — legitimate and not — of the public, media, and government. They were politically naive, not understanding how and why the institutions the net challenged — journalism, media, finance, politics, government, even nations — would use their collaborative clout and political capital to fight back and restrain the net at every opportunity. They bear but also share responsibility for the state of the net and society today with those very institutions.

Doctrines of dystos

In examining the legislation and precedents that came before and after the Compromise, certain beliefs, themes, and doctrines emerged:

The Doctrine of Dangerous Data: It would be simplistic to attribute a societal shift against “data” solely to Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica scandal of 2016, but that certainly appears to have been a key moment triggering the legislative landslide that followed. Regulation of data shifted from its use to its collection as laws were enacted to limit the generation, gathering, storage, and analysis of information associated with the internet. Scores of laws now require that data be used only for the single purpose stated at collection and others impose strict expiration on the life of data, mandating expiration and erasure. Academics and medical researchers — as well as some journalists — have protested such legislation, contending that they all but kill their ability to find correlation and causation in their fields, but they have failed to overturn a single law. Note well that similar data collection offline — by stores through loyalty cards, banks through credit cards, and so on — has seen no increase in regulation; marketers and publishers still make use of mountains of offline data in their businesses.

News companies and their trade associations demonized the use of data by their competitors, the platforms. In our Geoffrey Nunberg reading, “Farewell to the Information Age,” he quotes Philip Agre saying that “the term ‘information’ rarely evokes the deep and troubling questions of epistemology that are usually associated with terms like ‘knowledge’ and ‘belief.’ One can be a skeptic about knowledge but not about information. Information, in short, is a strikingly bland substance.” “Data,” on the other hand, became a dystopian scare word thanks to campaigns led by news and media companies and their trade associations and lobbyists, using their own outlets.

The Debate over Preeminent Data Ownership: In the 2020 American elections and every one following, countless politicians have vowed to protect consumers’ ownership of “their data” — and passed many laws as a result — but courts have still not managed to arrive at a consistent view of what owning one’s data means. Data generation is so often transactional — that is, involving multiple parties — that is has proven difficult to find a Solomonic compromise in deciding who has preeminent rights over a given piece of data and thus the legal right to demand its erasure. In California v. Amazon Stores, Inc. — which arose from a customer’s embarrassment about purchases of lubricating gels — the Supreme Court decided, in an expansion of its long-held Doctrine of Corporate Personhood, that a company has equal rights and cannot be forced to forget its own transactions. In Massachusetts v. Amazon Web Services, Inc., an appellate panel ruled that AWS could be forced to notify individuals included in databases it hosted and in one case could be forced to erase entire databases upon demand by aggrieved individuals. Despite friend-of-the-court filings by librarians, educators, and civil libertarians, claims of a countervailing right to know or remember by parties to transactions — or by the public itself — have failed to dislodge the preeminence of the right to be forgotten.

Privacy Über Alles: Privacy legislation — namely Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) — led the way for all net legislation to follow. Every effort to track any activity by people — whether by cameras or cookies — was defined as “surveillance” and was banned under a raft of net laws worldwide. In every single case, though, these technologies and their use were reserved for government use. Thus “surveillance” lost its commercial meaning and regained its more focused definition as an activity of governments, which continue to track citizens. Separate legislation in some nations granted people the expectation of privacy in public, which led to severe restrictions on photography by not only journalists but also civilians, requiring that the faces of every unknown person in a photo or video who has not given written consent — such as a birthday party in a restaurant — be blurred.

The Doctrine of Could Happen: A pioneering 2024 German law that has been — to use our grandparents’ term — xeroxed by the European Commission and then the United States, Canada, Australia, and India requires that companies must file Technology Impact Reports (TIRs) for any new technology patent, algorithm, or device introduced to the market. To recount, the TIR laws give limited liability protection for any possible impact that has been revealed before the introduction of a technology; if a possible outcome is not anticipated and listed and then occurs, there is no limit to liability. Thus an entirely new industry — complete with conventions, consultants, and newsletters — has exploded to help any and every company using technology to imagine and disclose everything that could go wrong with any software or device. There is no comparable industry of consultants ready to imagine everything that could go right, for the law does not require or even suggest that as a means to balance decisions.

Laws of Forbidden Technologies: As an outcome of the Doctrine of Could Happen, some entire technologies — most notably facial recognition and bodily tracking of individuals’ movements in public places, such as malls — have been outright banned from commercial, consumer, or (except with severe restrictions) academic use in Germany, France, Canada, and some American states. In every case, the right to use such technologies is reserved to government, leading to fears of misuse by those with greater power to misuse them. There are also statutes banning and providing penalties for algorithms that discriminate on various bases, though in a number of cases, courts are struggling to define precisely what statutory discrimination is (against race, certainly, but also against opinion and ideology?). Similarly, statutes requiring algorithmic transparency are confounding courts, which have proven incapable of understanding formulae and code. Not only technologies are subject to these laws but so are the technologists who create them. English duty-of-care online harms laws (which were not preserved in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland after the post-Brexit dissolution of the United Kingdom) place substantial personal liability and career-killing fines on not only internet company executives but also on technologists, including software engineers.

The Law of China: The paradox is lost on no one that China and Russia now play host to most vibrant online capitalism in the world, as companies in either country are not bound by Western laws, only by fealty to their governments. Thus, in the last decade, we have seen an accelerated reverse brain-drain of technologists and students to companies and universities in China, Russia, and other politically authoritarian but technologically inviting countries. Similarly, venture investment has fled England entirely, and the U.S. and E.U. in great measure. A 2018 paper by Kieron O’Hara and Wendy Hall posited the balkanization of the internet into four nets: the open net of Silicon Valley, the capitalist net of American business, the bourgeois and well-behaved net of the E.U., and the authoritarian net of China. The fear then was that China — as well as Iran, Brazil, Russia, and other nations that demanded national walls around their data — would balkanize the net. Instead, it was the West that balkanized the net with their restrictive laws. Today, China’s authoritarian (and, many would argue, truly dystopian) net — as well as Russia’s disinformation net — appear victorious as they are growing and the West’s net is, by all measures, shrinking.

The Law of Truth and Falsity: Beginning in France and Singapore, “fake news” laws were instituted to outlaw the telling and spreading of lies online. As these truth laws spread to other countries, online speakers and the platforms that carried their speech became liable for criminal and civil fines, under newly enhanced libel laws. Public internet courts in some nations — as well as Facebook’s Oversight Board, in essence a private internet court — were established to rule on disputes over content takedowns. The original idea was to bring decisions about content or speech — for example, violations of laws regarding copyright and hate speech — out into the open where they could be adjudicated with due process and where legal norms could be negotiated in public. It was not long before the remits of these courts were expanded to rule on truth and falsity in online claims. In nation after nation, a new breed of internet judges resisted this yoke but higher courts forced them to take on the task. In case law, the burden of proof has increasingly fallen on the speaker, for demonstrating falsity is, by definition, proving the negative. Thus, for all practical effect, when a complaint is filed, the speaker is presumed guilty until proven innocent — or truthful. Attempts to argue the unconstitutionality of this doctrine even in the United States proved futile once the internet was ruled to be a medium, subject to regulation like the medium of broadcast. Though broadcast itself (radio and television towers and signals using public “airwaves”) are now obsolete and gone, the regulatory regime that oversaw them in Europe — and that excepted them from the First Amendment in America — now carry over to the net.

Once internet courts were forced to rule on illegal speech and falsity, it was not a big step to also require them to rule on matters of political neutrality under laws requiring platforms to be symmetrical in content takedowns (no matter how asymmetrical disinformation and hate might be). And once that was done, the courts were expanded further to rule on such matters as data and information ownership, unauthorized sharing, and the developing field of excessive expression (below). In a few nations, especially those that are more authoritarian and lacking in irony, separate truth and hate courts have been established.

The Doctrine of Excessive Expression: In reading the assigned, archived Twitter threads, Medium posts, academic papers, and podcast transcripts from the late naughts, we see the first stirrings of a then- (but no longer) controversial question: Is there too much speech? In 2018, one communications academic wrote a paper questioning the then-accepted idea that the best answer to bad speech is more speech, even arguing that so-called “fake news” and the since-debunked notion of the filter bubble (see the readings by Axel Bruns) put into play the sanctity of the First Amendment. At the same time, a well-respected professor asked whether the First Amendment was — this is his word — obsolete. As we have discussed in class, even to raise that question a generation before the internet and its backlash would have been unthinkable. Also in 2018, one academic wrote a book contending that Facebook’s goal of connecting the world (said founder Mark Zuckerberg at the time: “We believe the more people who have the power to express themselves, the more progress our society makes together”) was fundamentally flawed, even corrupt; what does that say about our expectations of democracy and inclusion, let alone freedom of speech? The following year, a prominent newspaper columnist essentially told fellow journalists to abandon Twitter because it was toxic — while others argued that in doing so, journalists would be turning their back on voices enabled and empowered by Twitter through the relatively recent invention of the hashtag.

None of these doctrines of the post-technology dysto age has been contested more vigorously than this, the Doctrine of Excessive Expression (also known as the Law of Over-Sharing). But the forces of free expression largely lost when the American Section 230 and the European E-Commerce Directive were each repealed, thus making intermediaries in the public conversation — platforms as well as publishers and anyone playing host to others’ creativity, comment, or conversation— liable for everything said on their domains. As a result, countless news sites shut down fora and comments, grateful for the excuse to get out of the business of moderation and interaction with the public. Platforms that depended on interactivity — chief among them Twitter and the various divisions of the former Facebook — at first hired tens of thousands of moderators and empowered algorithms to hide any questionable speech, but this proved ineffective as the chattering public in the West learned lessons from Chinese users and invented coded languages, references, and memes to still say what they wanted, even and especially if hateful. As a result, the social platforms forced users to indemnify them against damages, which led not only to another new industry in speech insurance but also to the requirement that all users verify their identities. Prior to this, many believed that eliminating anonymity would all but eliminate trolling and hateful speech online. As we now know, they were wrong. Hate abounds. The combination of the doctrines of privacy, data ownership, and expression respect anonymity for the subjects of speech but not for the speakers, who are at risk for any uttered and outlawed thought. “Be careful what you say” is the watchword of every media literacy course taught today.

One result of the drive against unfettered freedom of expression has been the return of the power of gatekeeper, long wished for and welcomed by the gatekeepers themselves — newspaper, magazine, and book editors as well as authors of old, who believed their authority would be reestablished and welcomed. But the effect was not what they’d imagined. Resentment against these gatekeepers by those who once again found themselves outside the gates of media only increased as trust in media continued to plummet and, as I said previously, the business prospects of news and other legacy media only darkened yet further.

Wide impact

The impact of the dystos’ victory can be seen in almost every sector of society.

In business, smaller is now better as companies worry about becoming “too big” (never knowing the definition of “too”) and being broken up. As a result, the merger and acquisition market, especially in tech, has diminished severely. With fewer opportunities for exit, there is less appetite for investment in new ventures, at least in America and Europe. In what is being called the data dark ages in business, executives in many fields — especially in marketing — are driving blind, making advertising, product, and strategic decisions without the copious data they once had, which many blame for the falling value of much of the consumer sector of the economy. After a decade and a half of trade and border wars of the Donald/Ivanka Trump Time [Hey, I said it’s a dystopia -Ed.], it would be simplistic to blame history’s longest recession on a lack of data, but it certainly was a contributing factor to the state of the stock market. Business schools have widely abandoned teaching “change management” and are shifting to teaching “stability management.” One sector of business known in the past for rolling with punches and finding opportunity in adversity — pornography — has hit a historic slump thanks to data and privacy laws. One might have expected an era of privacy to be a boon for porn, but identity and adult verification laws have put a chill on demand. Other businesses to suffer are those offering consumers analysis of their and even their pets’ DNA and help with genealogy (in some nations, courts have held that the dead have a right to privacy and others have ruled in favor of pets’ privacy). But as is always the case in business, what is a loss for one industry is an opportunity for another to exploit, witness the explosion not only in Technology Impact Report Optimization but also in a new growth industry for fact-certifiers, speech insurers, and photo blurrers.

In culture, the dystos long-since won the day. The streaming series Black Mirror has been credited by dystos and blamed by technos for teaching the public to expect doom with every technology. It is worth noting that in my Black Mirror Criticism class last semester, we were shown optimistic films about technology such as You’ve Got Mail and Tomorrowland to disbelieving hoots from students. We were told that many generations before, dystopian films such as Reefer Madness — meant to frighten youth about the perils of marijuana — inspired similar derision by the younger generation, just as it still would today. It is fascinating to see how optimism and pessimism can, by turns, be taken seriously or mocked in different times.

I also believe we have seen the resurgence of narrative over data in media. In the early days of machine learning and artificial intelligence — before they, along with the data that fed them, also became scare words — it was becoming clear that dependence on story and narrative and the theory of mind were being superseded by the power of data to predict human actions. But when data-based artificial intelligence and machine learning predicted human actions, they provided no explanation, no motive, no assuring arc of a story. This led, some argued, to a crisis of cognition, a fear that humans would be robbed of purpose by data, just as the activities of the universe were robbed of divine purpose by Newtonian science and the divine will of creation was foiled by Darwin and evolution. So it was that a cultural version of the regulatory Unholy Compromise developed between religious conservatives, who feared that data would deny God His will, and cultural liberals, who feared that data would deny them their own will. So in cultural products just as in news stories and political speeches, data and its fruits came to be portrayed as objects of fear and resentment and the uplifting story of latter-day, triumphal humanism rose again. This has delighted the storytellers of journalism, fiction, drama, and comedy, who feed on a market for attention. Again, it has done little to reverse the business impact of abundance on their industries. Even with YouTube gone, there is still more than enough competition in media to drive prices toward zero.

The news industry, as I’ve alluded to above, deserves much credit or blame for the dysto movement and its results, having lobbied against internet companies and their collection of data and for protectionist legislation and regulation. But the story has not turned out as they had hoped, in their favor. Cutting off the collection of data affected news companies also. Without the ability to use data to target advertising, that revenue stream imploded, forcing even the last holdouts in the industry to retreat behind paywalls. But without the ability to use data to personalize their services, news media returned to their mass-media, one-size-fits-all, bland roots, which has not been conducive to grabbing subscription market share in what turns out to be a very small market of people willing to pay for news or content overall. The one bright spot in the industry is the fact that the platforms are are licensing content as their only way to deal with paywalls. Thus these news outlets that fought the platforms are dependent on the platforms for their most reliable source of revenue. Be careful what you wish for.

In education, the rush to require the teaching of media literacy curriculum at every level of schooling led to unforeseen consequences. Well, actually, the consequences were not unforeseen by internet researcher danah boyd, who argued in our readings from the 2000-teens that teachers and parents were succeeding all too well at instructing young people to distrust everything they heard and read. This and the universal distrust of others engendered by media and politicians in the same era were symptoms of what boyd called an epistemological war — that is: ‘If I don’t like you, I won’t like your facts.’ The elderly and retired journalists who spoke to class still believe that facts alone, coming from trusted sources, would put an end to the nation’s internal wars. Back in the early days of the net, it seemed as if we were leaving an age overseen by gatekeepers controlling the scarcities of attention and information and returning to a pre-mass-media era build on the value of conversation and relationships. As Nunberg put it in 1996, just as the web was born: “One of the most pervasive features of these media is how closely they seem to reproduce the conditions of discourse of the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when the sense of the public was mediated through a series of transitive personal relationships — the friends of one’s friends, and so on — and anchored in the immediate connections of clubs, coffee-houses, salons, and the rest.” Society looked as if it would trade trust in institutions for trust in family, friends, and neighbors via the net. Instead, we came to distrust everyone, as we were taught to. Now we have neither healthy institutions nor the means to connect with people in healthy relationships. The dystos are, indeed, victorious.

[If I may be permitted an unorthodox personal note in a paper: Professor, I am grateful that you had the courage to share optimistic and well as pessimistic readings with us and gave us the respect and trust to decide for ourselves. I am sorry this proved to be controversial and I am devastated that you lost your quest for tenure. In any case, thank you for a challenging class. I wish you luck in your new career in the TIRO industry.]

[This paper will get an A. -Ed.]

News Publishers Go To War With the Internet — and We All Lose

Around the world, news industry trade associations are corruptly cashing in their political capital — which they have because their members are newspapers, and politicians are scared of them — in desperate acts of protectionism to attack platform companies. The result is a raft of legislation that will damage the internet and in the end hurt everyone, including journalists and especially citizens.

As I was sitting in the airport leaving Newsgeist Europe, a convening for journalists and publishers [disclosure: Google pays for the venue, food, and considerable drink; participants pay their own travel], my Twitter feed lit up like the Macy’s fireworks as The New York Times reported — or rather, all but photocopied — a press release from the News Media Alliance (née Newspaper Association of America) contending that Google makes $4.7 billion a year from news, at the expense of news publishers.

Bullshit.

The Times story itself is appalling as it swallowed the News Media Alliance’s PR whole, quoting people from the association and not including comment from Google until hours later. Many on Twitter were aghast at the poor journalism. I contacted Google PR, who said The Times did not reach out to the person who normally speaks on these matters or anyone in the company’s Washington office. Google sent me their statement:

These back of the envelope calculations are inaccurate as a number of experts are pointing out. The overwhelming number of news queries do not show ads. The study ignores the value Google provides. Every month Google News and Google Search drives over 10 billion clicks to publishers’ websites, which drive subscriptions and significant ad revenue. We’ve worked very hard to be a collaborative and supportive technology and advertising partner to news publishers worldwide.

The “study” upon which The Times (and others) relied is, to say the least, specious. No, it’s humiliating. I want to dispatch with its fallacies quickly — to get to my larger point, about the danger legacy news publishers are posing to the future of news and the internet — and that won’t be hard. The study collapses in its second paragraph:

Google has emerged as a major gateway for consumers to access news. In 2011, Google Search combined with Google News accounted for the majority (approximately 75%) of referral traffic to top news sites. Since January 2017, traffic from Google Search to news publisher sites has risen by more than 25% to approximately 1.6 billion visits per week in January 2018. Corresponding with consumers’ shift towards Google for news consumption, news is becoming increasingly important to Google, as demonstrated by an increase in Google searches about news.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is great news for news. For as anyone under the age of 99 understands, Google sends readers to sites based on links from search and other products. That Google is emphasizing news and currency more is good for publishers, as that sends them readers. (That 10-billion-click number Google cited above is eight years old and so I have little doubt it is much higher now thanks to all its efforts around news.)

The problem has long been that publishers aren’t competent at exploiting the full value of these clicks by creating meaningful and valuable ongoing relationships with the people sent their way. So what does Google do? It tries to help publishers by, for example, starting a subscription service that drives more readers to easily subscribe — and join and contribute — to news sites directly from Google pages. The NMA study cites that subscription service as an example of Google emphasizing news and by implication exploiting publishers. It is the opposite. Google started the subscription service because publishers begged for it — I was in the room when they did — and Google listened. The same goes for most every product change the study lists in which Google emphasizes news more. That helps publishers. The study then uses ridiculously limited data (including, crucially, an offhand and often disputed remark 10 years ago by a then-exec at Google about the conceptual value of news) to make leaps over logic to argue that news is important on its services and thus Google owes news publishers a cut of its revenue (which Google gains by offering publishers’ former customers, advertisers, a better deal; it’s called competition). By this logic, Instagram should be buying cat food for every kitty in the land and Reddit owes a fortune to conspiracy theorists.

The real problem here is news publishers’ dogged refusal to understand how the internet has changed their world, throwing the paradigm they understood into the grinder. In the US and Europe, they still contend that Google is taking their “content,” as if quoting and linking to their sites is like a camera stealing their soul. They cannot grok that value on the internet is concentrated not in a product or property called content — articles, headlines, snippets, thumbnails, words — but instead in relationships. Journalism is no longer a factory valued by how many widgets and words it produces but instead by how much it accomplishes for people in their lives. I have tried here and here and in many a meeting in newsrooms and journalism conferences to offer this advice to news publishers — with tangible ideas about how to build a new journalistic business around relationships — but most prove incapable of shifting mindset and strategy beyond valuing content for content’s sake. Editors who do understand are often stymied by their short-sighted publishers and KPIs and soon quit.

Most legacy publishers have come up with no sustainable business strategy for a changing world. So they try to stop the world from changing by unleashing their trade associations [read: lobbyists] on capitals from Brussels to Berlin to London to Melbourne to Washington (see: the NMA’s effort to get an antitrust exemption to go after the platforms for antitrust; its study was prepared to hand to Congress in time for its hearings this week). These trade associations attack the platforms without ever acknowledging the fault of their own members in our current polarization in society. (Yes, I’m talking about, for example, Fox News and other Murdoch properties, dues-paying members of many a trade association. By our silence in journalism and its trade associations in not criticizing their worst, we endorse it.)

The efforts of lobbyists for my industry are causing irreparable harm to the internet. No, Google, Facebook, and Twitter are not the internet, but what is done to them is done to the net. And what’s been done includes horrendous new copyright legislation in the EU that tries to force Google et al to have to negotiate to pay for quoting snippets of content to which they link. Google won’t; it would be a fool to. So I worry that platforms will link to news less and less resulting in self-inflicted harm for the news industry and journalists, but more important hurting the public conversation at exactly the wrong moment. Thanks, publishers. At Newsgeist Europe, I sat in a room filled with journalists terribly worried about the impact of the EU’s copyright directive on their work and their business but I have to say they have no one but their own publishers and lobbyists to blame.

I am tempted to say that I am ashamed of my own industry. But I won’t for two reasons: First, I want to believe that the industry’s lobbyists do not speak for journalists themselves — but I damned well better start hearing the protests of journalists to what their companies are doing. (That includes journalists on the NMA board.) Second, I am coming to see that I’m not part of the media industry but instead that we are all part of something larger, which we now see as the internet. (I’ll be writing more about this idea later.) That means we have a responsibility to criticize and help improve both technology and news companies. What I see instead is too many journalists stirring up moral panic about the internet and its current (by no means permanent) platforms, serving — inadvertently or not — the protectionist strategies of their own bosses, without examining media’s culpability in many of the sins they attribute to technology. (I wish I could discuss this with The New York Times’ ombudsman or any ombudsman in our field, but we know what happened to them.)

My point: We’re in this together. That is why I go to events put on by both the technology and news industries, why I try to help both, why I criticize both, why I try to help build bridges between them. It’s why I am devoting time and effort to my least favorite subject: internet regulation. It is why I am so exasperated at leaders in my own industry for their failure to recognize, adapt to, and exploit the change they try to deny. It’s why I’m disappointed in my own industry for not criticizing itself. Getting politicians who are almost all painfully ignorant about technology to try to define, limit, and regulate that technology and what we can do with it is the last thing we should do. It is irresponsible and dangerous of my industry to try.