Posts about speech

Concede defeat to bad speech

What if we concede that the battle against “bad speech” is lost? Disinformation and lies will exist no matter what we do. Those who want such speech will always be able to say it and find it. Murdoch and Musk win. That is just realism. 

Then what? Then we turn our attention to finding, amplifying, and supporting quality speech.

A big problem with concentrating so much attention and resource on “bad speech,” especially these last five years, is that it allows — no, encourages — the bad speakers to set the public agenda, which is precisely what they want. They feed on attention. They win. Even when they lose — when they get moderated, or in their terms “censored” and “canceled,” allowing them to play victim — they win. Haven’t we yet learned that?

Another problem is that all speech becomes tarred with the bad speakers’ brush. The internet and its freedoms for all are being tainted, regulated, and rejected in a grandly futile game of Whac-A-Mole against the few, the loud, the stupid. Media’s moral panic against its new competitor, the net, is blaming all our ills on technology (so media accept none of the responsibility for where we are). I hear journalists, regulators, and even academics begin to ask whether there is “too much speech.” What an abhorrent question in an enlightened society. 

But the real problem with concentrating on “bad speech” is that no resource is going to good speech: supporting speech that is informed, authoritative, expert, constructive, relevant, useful, creative, artful. Good speech is being ignored, even starved. Then the bad speakers win once more.

What does it mean to concentrate on good speech? At the dawn of print and its new abundance of speech, new institutions were needed to nurture it. In my upcoming book, The Gutenberg Parenthesis (out early next year from Bloomsbury Academic), I tell the story of the first recorded attempt to impose censorship on print, coming only 15 years after Gutenberg’s Bible.

In 1470, Latin grammarian Niccolò Perotti begged Pope Paul II to impose Vatican control on the printing of books. It was a new translation of Pliny that set him off. In his litany of complaint to the pope, he pointed to 22 grammatical errors, which much offended him. Mind you, Perotti had been an optimist about printing. He “hoped that there would soon be such an abundance of books that everyone, however poor and wretched, would have whatever was desired,” wrote John Monfasani. But the first tech backlash was not long in coming, for Perotti’s “hopes have been thoroughly dashed. The printers are turning out so much dross.” 

Perotti had a solution. He called upon Pope Paul to appoint a censor. “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.”

Note well that what Perotti was asking for was not a censor at all. Instead, he was envisioning the roles of the editor and the publishing house as means to assure and support quality in print. Indeed, the institutions of editor, publisher, critic, and journal were born to do just that. It worked pretty well for a half a millennium. 

Come the mechanization and industrialization of print with steam-powered pressed and typesetting machines — the subject of future books I’m working on — the problem arose again. There was plenty of proper complaint about the penny press and yellow press and just crappy press. But at that same time, early in this transformation in 1850, a new institution was born: Harper’s New Monthly Magazine. See its mission in the first page of its first issue:

Rather than trying to eradicate all the new and bad speech suddenly appearing, Harper’s saw the need to support the good, “to place within the reach of the great mass of the American people the unbounded treasures of the Periodical Literature of the present day.”

Magazines — which Ben Franklin and Noah Webster had tried and failed to publish — flourished with new technology, new audiences, and new economics as good speech begat more good speech. 

I am not suggesting for a second that we stop moderating content on platforms. Platforms have the right and responsibility to create positive, safe, pleasing, productive — and, yes, profitable — environments for their users. 

But it is futile to stay up at night because — in the example of the legendary XKCD cartoon — someone is wrong, stupid, or mean on the internet. People who want to say stupid shit will find their place to do it. Acknowledge that. Stop paying heed to them. Attention is their feed, their fuel, their currency. Starve them of it.

I also am not suggesting that supporting good speech means supporting the incumbent institutions that have failed us. Most are simply not built to purpose for the new abundance of speech; there aren’t enough editors, publishers, and printing presses to cope. 

Some of these legacy institutions are outright abrogating their responsibility: See The New York Times believing that the defense of democracy is partisan advocacy. Says the new editor of The Times: “I honestly think that if we become a partisan organization exclusively focused on threats to democracy, and we give up our coverage of the issues, the social, political, and cultural divides that are animating participation in politics in America, we will lose the battle to be independent.” No one is suggesting this as either/or. I give up. 

Instead, supporting good speech means finding the speech that has always been there but unheard and unrepresented in the incumbent institutions of mass media. Until and unless Musk actually buys and ruins Twitter, it is a wealth of communities and creativity, of lived perspectives, of expertise, of deliberative dialogue — you just have to be willing to see it. Read André Brock, Jr.’s Distributed Blackness to see what is possible and worth fighting for. 

Supporting good speech means helping speakers with education, not to aspire to what came before but to use the tools of language, technology, collaboration, and art to express themselves and create in new ways, to invent new forms and genres. 

Supporting good speech means bringing attention to their work. This is why I keep pointing to Jack Dorsey’s Blue Sky as a framework to acknowledge that the speech layer of the net is already commodified and that the opportunity lies in building services to discover and share good speech: a new Harper’s for a new age built to scale and purpose. I hope for editors and entrepreneurs who will build services to find for me the people worth hearing. 

Supporting good speech means investing in it. Millions have been poured into tamping down disinformation and good. I helped redirect some of those funds. We needed to learn. I don’t regret or criticize those efforts. But now we need to shift resources to nurturing quality and invention. As one small example, see how Reddit is going to fund experiments by its users. 

We need to understand “bad speech” as the new spam and treat it with similar disdain, tools, and dismissal. There’ll always be spam and I’m grateful that Google, et al, invest in trying to stay no more than one foot behind them. We need to do likewise with those who would manipulate the public conversation for more than greedy ends: to spread their hate and bile and authoritarian racism and bigotry. Yes, stay vigilant. Yes, moderate their shit. Yes, thwart them at every turn. But also take them off the stage. Turn off the spotlight on them. 

Turn the spotlight onto the countless smart, informed, creative people dying to be seen and heard. Support good speech. 

Free speech is not a privilege. It is a journalistic responsibility.

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All across Europe yesterday, newspapers stood in solidarity with Charlie Hebdo published the cartoons that supposedly motivated the murder its staff. They informed the public. Not in America, not in the land of free speech.

Apart from the Jewish Chronicle, whose rationale for not running the cartoons is obvious, I find the excuses and the behavior of others to be cowardly and illogical. The New York Times told BuzzFeed — BuzzFeed — that it does “not normally publish images or other material deliberately intended to offend religious sensibilities. After careful consideration, Times editors decided that describing the cartoons in question would give readers sufficient information to understand today’s story.”

I call bullshit. The images of terrorists shooting innocent policemen are offensive in the extreme but The Times chose to run them. Why? To inform. That is our journalistic mission. So how is it not in the journalistic mission of The Times to run the cartoons? I don’t buy that journalism should not offend. I don’t buy that describing them is sufficient. Even though I worship at the obelisk of the link, I also don’t buy the rationale that readers can find the cartoons elsewhere (hell, most everyone I know tweeted them yesterday). No, if you’re the paper of record, if you’re the highest exemplar of American journalism, if you expect others to stand by your journalists when they are threatened, if you respect your audience to make up its own mind, then damnit stand by Charlie Hebdo and inform your public. Run the cartoons.

I’d say this is a case for Margaret Sullivan.

The same goes for you, CNN, NBC, ABC, Fox, the Telegraph, the pixelating New York Daily News … and the theater chains that would not show The Interview.

First, they came for the satirists. Then they came for the journalists. Who will be left to speak for you?

– – – –

Yesterday, I posted this piece on Medium under the headline, “Freedom of Speech is a Human Right, not an American Privilege.” Here it is:

After the Charlie Hebdo murders, I tweeted about the attack on free speech that had just been perpetrated, about my hope that news editors and producers would show the courage to share with their readers the cartoons that led to the deaths of these brave and honest journalists, and about my disgust with some news organizations that pixelated or refused to run the images for their audiences.

Predictably and unfortunately, I received responses arguing that this devotion to free speech was peculiarly American and that I should take account of the offense that Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons would cause for some readers and viewers.

This discussion reminded me of a journalists’ conference I attended at the BBC a few years ago at which some participants argued that people in China did not want free speech. I’ve also heard people say that people from Arab nations are not ready for free speech.

Bullshit.

I choose that word carefully. As an American, I am privileged to be able to use a word that some call offensive and even profane, for “bullshit” is political speech.

Standing for free speech is not American. It is logical. If one allows a government to control—to censor—offensive speech, then no speech will be allowed, except that which government approves, for any speech can offend anyone and then all speech is controlled.

The idea that speech should be controlled to limit offense is itself offensive to the principles of a free, open, and modern society. That is what the Charlie Hebdo murders teach us.

We are Manning

I have just one problem with David Carr’s good column decrying government opacity in the prosecution and trial of Bradley Manning: He lets us in the press (as well as in the chattering blog class) off easy.

Carr doesn’t mention the wrist-slap given The Times by its own public editor, Margaret Sullivan, for not sending a reporter to the Manning hearings.

He also gives newspapers as a group a too-easy excuse for not covering Manning: “Yet coverage has been limited, partly by the court’s restrictions and partly because an increasingly stretched news media business often does not have the time, or the resources, to cover lengthy trials.”

We aren’t going to use that excuse all the time now, are we? “Oh, we couldn’t cover that story vital to the nation and the fate of a free press because not enough of you are paying or because retail advertisers are dying or because Google took our customers.” Yes, our resources are scarce — always have been — and getting scarcer. But this is still a matter of news judgment. What was covered while Manning wasn’t? I’ll bet we can find stories to have sacrificed.

If we’re going to argue that the public still needs editors and their news judgment, then it’s a tad disingenuous to say that this is a story of vital national interest that the government has been trying to hide from us but we don’t have the time to cover it. Isn’t that precisely the story we should be covering? Isn’t coverage just what is needed to keep a watch on government and its efforts at secrecy?

The Guardian’s Ed Pilkington, whom Carr quotes, has maintained coverage of the Manning story long after the splash of the Wikileaks revelations that both papers carried — thus he helps to secure the Guardian’s role as a truly international news organization. Greg Mitchell has also been diligent in pursuing the story. Beyond that, there has been too little coverage from The Times and other U.S. news organizations.

And there has been too little discussion from bloggers like me, I’ll confess. I care about openness, about journalism, and about over-aggressive prosecutions and legislation that demonize technology. So I should have been talking about Manning more and also about the case of Aaron Swartz. These are stories central to the fate of free speech. In both cases, I fear the attention came too little, too late, which makes it all the more vital that we concentrate on them now, for every reason Carr gives.

Roll over, Gutenberg

Germany, I fear, is not the land of innovation. It is a land of institutions.

This week the German Bundestag passed a law created by publishers — primarily Axel Springer and Burda — to force internet companies — read: Google — to pay for quoting — and thus promoting and linking to — their content. The legislation, the Leistungsschutzrecht, was known as the Google tax.

lsr_banner13In the end, compromise legislation exempts precisely what the publishers had been going after: snippets of text of the sort that search engines quote. The bill now generously says that single words or very few words — it is not precise in its definition — remain free. But of course that exception only proves the absurdity of the effort: Who could ever own a word or a phrase? Or a thought?

So now, if the bill passes the next house of the legislature, lawyers will make a fortune debating how short is too long. No matter the length, speech suffers. Don’t the publishers see that they live by the quote? Their content is made up of what other people say. Their content gains influence when other people quote it.

But that is beside their point. They want to tax Google. They say it is not fair — imagine a kindergartener stomping his little feet — that Google makes money as they lose money. They think they deserve a share, though the truth is that their content makes up very little of what people search for. And, besides, every time Google links to them it is up to the publishers to establish a relationship with that user and find value in it. That publishers have failed to do this almost two decades into the web era is not Google’s fault; it is their fault. Rather than innovating and finding the necessary opportunity in their disruption, these publishers — conservatives who otherwise would diminish government — go running to the Chancellor and her party to pass their Leistungsschutzrecht.

To be fair, this is not purely a German disease. It is a European ailment as well. In France publishers hide behind government’s skirt to blackmail Google into paying into a fund to support innovation by publishers who’ve not innovated. The French government is also looking at taxing the gathering of big data — a tax, then, on knowledge. Belgian publishers rejected Google’s links and then thought better of it and finally extorted Google into advertising in their publications to avoid that nation’s version of a Leistungsschutzrecht. The internet causes a certain insanity the world around. In the U.S., we had SOPA and PIPA, laws like the Leistungsschutzrecht meant to protect ailing industries — though they were defeated. Then there is ACTA, an international attempt to protect the copyright industry.

But there are more issues in Germany. It is leading the privacy technopanic in Europe. Government leaders have urged citizens to have pictures taken from public places of public views of the facades of buildings blurred in Google Street View; they label this their Verpixelungsrecht. A privacy extremist in one state in Germany has tried to outlaw Facebook’s “like” button. That same state tried to overrule Facebook’s requirement to use real names.

And another: In entrepreneurial circles, Germany is known as the land of internet copycats. Again and again, German entrepreneurs have copied American services and business models, though their real business model is to get bought by the American originals.

Mind you, I love Germany (though to many Americans, that seems like an odd statement). There’s nowhere I’d rather visit. I have many friends there. I have met many talented technologists there. I marvel at its book culture and at its lively — if also suffering — market for serious journalism.

But today I worry about Germany. It is an industrial wonder in a postindustrial age. Government and media are embracing each other to defend their old institutions against disruption and the opportunity that can come with it. As I wrote in my book Public Parts, I’m concerned that Germans’ will to be private, not to fail, and especially not to fail publicly put them at a disadvantage in an entrepreneurial age when failure is a necessary product of experimentation. I fear that entrepreneurs, investors, and internet companies will shy away from Germany’s borders given the hostility that is shown especially to American internet companies.

I am disappointed that the land of Gutenberg, the land that invented the ability to share knowledge and ideas at a mass scale and to empower speech is now haggling over the control and ownership of a few words. As they say in German, schade. What a shame.

[This post has been translated into German and adapted as an op-ed at Zeit Online here.]

Related: I respond to Albert Wenger, a wise and German VC, regarding the #LSR here: http://disq.us/8cfp8h

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Defend our net (from Germany, this time)

At long last, Google is standing up to fight the ridiculous ancillary copyright (Leistungschutzrecht) bill heading to law in Germany, a law that would require Google and others — you? — to pay publishers to quote them, to link to them (to benefit them).

On a site called “Defend Your Net,” this video shows a wealth of searches and answers and at the end says (my translation):
“For more than 10 years, anytime you want, you can find what moves you. A planned law will now change that. Do you want that? Take action. Defend your net. Continue to find what you seek.”

Sign the petition to defend our net here.

More information about the bill (in German) says it will hurt the German economy, threaten diversity of information, cause legal uncertainty (for bloggers, too), and cause a setback for innovative media. The paradox, Google says, is that publishers can pull their content off Google search — and lose the many clicks it sends their way — whenever they want.

This is a horrid collusion of two institutions — media and government — threatened by the disruption of technology.
I’ve been shouting about this travesty. I’m glad Google is finally — if tardily — making its voice heard.