Saturday, January 24, 2015

Could "user generated content" without gatekeepers be on the firing line?


I have to confess a mental knee-jerk whenever I hear comments that young adults in the West are being recruited to radical causes (right now, it’s radical Islam, but in the future it could be something else) easily by social media. 
   
Remember the underlying process for social media today:  there is no gatekeeper, and no pre-screening, and generally no downstream liability for facilitators.  The accompanying byline is “user generated content”, or UGC.  There are two ways people become “famous” and generate influence, without supervision.  One is primarily the Web 1.0 model, being found by search engines, which took a lot less effort than people thought.  (YouTube primarily belongs to this model.) The other is embedded largely in Web 2.0 and 3.0, social media (the two biggies being Facebook and Twitter), predicated on building substantial lists of “friends” or “followers”, who find your content directed to them.  Social media typically lies in the “deep web” and is largely not indexed.  Except that stand-alone blogs are rather a hybrid, as they get indexed, but often offer a mechanism for followers, though they tend to not attract nearly as many.  Flat websites also had ways of inviting people to join mailing lists, but these have largely been supplanted by modern social media.
  
I got into this as a successor to self-publishing books, starting in the late 1990s.  I found I could cover a tremendous range of interrelated content (all in orbit around my own connection to the military gay ban in the early 1990s as Clinton took office), and influence political debate by the idea that I was “always there” and being found.  My actual numbers did not matter particularly. I did not need to depend economically on unit sales, so my interest was always in the content itself, not on sales distribution strategies. And the content was predicated on a certain model of journalistic objectivity, to be able to mention all points of view, and all facts, even if bringing some points up could possibly place me in danger or even others connected to me. 
  
Needless to say, over time, I got a lot of ear over this.  In the middle 2000’s, II would be approached about joining ventures that would end my former “double life” and, as I would soon figure out, force me to use my online presence to develop “leads” (out of social media “friends” or “followers”) to sell somebody else’s wares, not my own.  I would also have to fend off calls about why I wouldn’t join mass campaigns in order to generate mass hardcopy sales of my books, at high prices.  That might help somebody else make a living, but it really didn’t matter to disseminating the content or being “famous”.
  
You can see where this heads or leads.  I haven’t had a lot of responsibility to provide for others in my life.  Once one has dependents, one has to earn income and one has to take sides, become partisan, and in some sense compete with others for the sake of dependents.  The personalized “journalistic objectivity” model for living becomes an insular indulgence, a non-sustainable pipe dream.  One interesting aspect of my self-publishing experience is that once I was quasi-famous, others would try to get me involved in their own lives in ways that previously hadn’t been “my business”. 
  
A couple of things.  One reason I didn’t have dependents is that my sexuality didn’t lead to procreation – to having my own children.   Earlier in life I rather viewed all this as a personalized choice, but in public terms almost an “afterthought”.  As I’ve gotten older, I’ve had more reason to wonder about the importance of lineage. But it was the eldercare experience with my mother that impressed on me that “responsibility” doesn’t always wait for procreation.  Nevertheless, my “social aloofness” presented a certain kind of chicken-egg paradox.  I didn’t have the ability to “protect” women and children like a “normal man” (that is, I wasn’t “competitive” enough to play in the normal big leagues) so I went in my own direction.  Society became technological and more permissive, and offered opportunities at an individual level impossible for previous generations.  But I can see I really could have been even more “successful” had I been born a few decades later.  (What would Mark Zuckerberg have amounted to had he been born in 1943?  That’s another existential paradox.)  In any sense, I’ve encountered “demands” for others from a certain compassion, almost feminine and submissive stance with respect to others immediately in my world, particularly with respect to eldercare (until 2010) but in other ways before.
  
The other thing is that I came out of the estate situation better off than might have been expected.  I did “inherit” some capital, which is bone to the radical Left that finds the “rentier” immoral in exploiting the labor of others.  But I has also saved a lot when working.  I benefitted from conservative spending habits when I was working (I didn’t have education debt, and I didn’t have dependents, so I didn’t need to worry about the loan sharks of the world), and my father, in particular, had been very conservative with the family’s assets, getting the house paid off, and investing in utilities and energy, when they earned a lot.  Yes, oil and gas (including literally one well in Ohio owned by a relative) gave me a ride.
  

So, I realize people can rightfully expect some things from me.  I’ll come back to these in another post soon (Oh no!)  I do think that the way people in my situation behave, publicly, does have an impact on the faith that less fortunate “others” have in the system – whether they really have a “chance” and whether the world will really work for them.  It’s both economic and, curiously, personal, even in a “mind your own business” world.  Since life cannot be “fair”, I understand how people turn to religion and faith to get answers to questions that, at an individual level, provide an unacceptable ethical impasse.  It’s too bad when religion gets wrapped up in tribalism rather than rational individual ethics.
  
So here I am, making a career of UGC, which, because of the “conflict of interest” and “implicit content’ ideas I’ve developed here before, has precluded almost any other career involving becoming anyone’s tool (even “Christ’s”).  Becoming a math teacher was perhaps an “almost”. 
  
Yet, it’s troubling.  The permissive attitude toward UGC does allow harm to come to others.  We all know how:  pornography, cyberbullying, increasing risks of cybersecurity, and now an apparently easy recruiting tool for “enemies”.  After 9/11, there was concern that ordinary amateur sites might be hacked to provide steganographic instructions to terrorists (and I had a hack in April 2002). 
    
It must be said that many responsible sources question if the “recruiting” is “that easy.”  British Prime Minister David Cameron says a lot more must be going on to explain why some relatively well-off youths become radicalized.  It doesn’t happen, he thinks, because one social media post or one website.  Inequality goes much deeper than just income and wealth (or even unearned capital) and physical possessions;  it digs deep into personal values.
  
Nevertheless, it seems that our UGC environment seems amazingly permissive. 
  
The obvious place that this discussion starts is censorship.  The Supreme Court has said that content-based government censorship is unconstitutional.  We know that from the COPA trial in 2007 (my “fil” blog).  Censorship is allowed only for narrowly defined categories of illegality, like obscenity or child pornography.  Classified (military and police) information will fall into this area (yes, Wikileaks makes some legal questions obscure).  Indeed, Martin London, on p. A19 of the New York Times today, January 24, 2015, argues “Why tolerate terrorist publications?”, link here. He gives a cogent discussion of Inspire (which does not come up in major search engines).
  
But there are other familiar traps.  Most of them involve downstream liability.  In 2013, state attorneys general wanted Congress to limit the effect of Section 230.  We all know how SOPA (2011), intended to fight piracy (itself a legitimate aim) could have undermined downstream liability copyright immunity (Safe Harbor) from ordinary posters.
  
Other traps could include the idea that individual users share more responsibility for the possibility that others can misuse the services that their (and my) self-expression is predicated on.  One can imagine mandatory liability insurance (which no insurance company right now can underwrite, although it gets into the tricky subject of umbrella insurance).  Or one could expand the digital executor idea and require that every individual social media or personal web account (even for an adult) have a co-signer, at least to know what to do if something happens to the original speaker. (A less drastic variation could be to require all web account holders to be able to log on and respond to messages at least once per established time interval, to handle problems or complaints -- an issue for people who travel a lot, especially to some areas overseas,)  Or one could limit UGC to whitelisted environments: you could only distribute content first to people who know you and acknowledge you.

Would this be constitutional?  Although content-based restriction on speech is unconstitutional (generally), restrictions on self-distribution (as without insurance) might not be,  Or does COPA cver that, too? 

The latter would be particularly catastrophic for me.  I put it out and let people find it, and they do.  I don’t recruit people to sell them things or get them to “follow me” (pun).  I’m not personally competitive enough, at 71, to do that – and I never have been “masculine” enough (in a Rosenfels sense) indeed to do that. (Or, like J. Alfred Prufrock, not potent enough, if you believe T.S. Elliot).  And “nobody else’s cause” is good enough. No, I don’t “belong” in that sense.  (See Book reviews, Fowler, Aug. 27, 2014).  No one owns me, I’m “nobody’s tool” (as with the teen character Bob in “The Zero Theorem”, Movies, Sept. 23, 2014). 
  
And even one more hooker is the resistance of most people to advertising, which is what supports all the ‘free content” on the Web. "Do not track" figures into this. I don’t need the advertising income myself, but companies that provide the service platforms do need it, although there are new concerns about keeping drive-by malware out of ads. And there is a question about how this works out with fully paid shared hosting. 

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