Tuesday, October 06, 2015

Section 230 does have the benefit of refining political debate by giving everyone direct input

I want to return to the attack on Section 230 by Arthur Chu (link yesterday), continuing by noting first his invocation of subjunctive mood in characterizing the purpose of the provision:  “the people who dole out the power to publish anything they (the users) want online should bear no responsibility or risk”.  He believes that the powerless and disadvantaged are most at risk by the “power” given to users indirectly by relieving intermediaries the responsibility for any third party review or liability. He also says “I’m no libertarian” and indeed he is not.

I’ve even questioned whether, as a constitutional manner, the right to “self-distribute” at almost no cost is embedded in the free speech concept of the First Amendment.  But Supreme Court opinions on a number of cases (like COPA), while saying there can be no constitutionally acceptable “content-based” restriction on free speech, had tended to imply that distribution facility is connected intrinsically to content, because of the resources of the speakers.

Until the mid 1990s, when the WWW started to become available and desktop publishing made book production cheaper (leading soon to “print on demand”) we were used to a world in which normally, to “get published”, a third party had to find that a large diverse base of people (not just your own choir) had to be likely to become paying customers for your words or images before they could be released to the world.  In one sense, you had to be “popular” to be listened to, which (following the title of my third DADT book) was then perceived as a “privilege”.  In 1990 or so, that was still normal and uncontroversial.

My own perspective on this focuses particularly on how “instant self-publishing” did have the power to change the way political debate is conducted.  Traditionally, people form interest groups, which lobby legislatures to get their way for their constituents.  Most of us feel that political processes based on policy from paid lobbyists on K Street leaves a lot to be desired in terms of intellectual honesty, on all kinds of issues.  Conservatives and libertarians may be a little more aware of this than liberals. 

There is a tendency for advocacy groups and non-profits (and their lobbyists) to present their clients as members of “groups” that are somehow victimized or disadvantaged.  Sometimes the people are, but when arguments are made this way (at a group level) most subtlety gets lost.  Political change occurs with solidarity and organizing, and the willingness of individuals to give up harping on being right about the details.  Socialization becomes its own virtue.  I do get this, and that seems to be where Mr. Chu is coming from.

With self-publishing online, a speaker could make large numbers of other readers aware of the deficiencies in the way established groups had presented issues.  In my own case, the triggering issue was the debate over gays in the military as it “erupted” in 1993, with President Clinton’s presidency.  True, this was about discrimination in the classic liberal sense, but it was an issue with many nooks and crannies, about people living together in intimate spaces not of their choosing, that at the time seemed like an unprecedented issue to consider.  Classical liberal comparisons to Truman’s integration of the military with respect to race in 1948 missed a lot of the point of the debate. A related issue, usually overlooked by both sides, was that men still had to register for Selective Service, and that we could in the future consider the issue in combination with a draft (about which there were discussions after 9/11). Although my book sales were relatively modest (in the hundreds) my free content online (eventual copies of the book for those who didn’t want to “pay”) did make some of these issues known to hundreds of thousands of visitors.  I am fairly sure I had a big impact on getting all the details into the debate over the years.  I made a point of this in my own affidavit for the COPA litigation in the 2000’s.
Over time, visible and effective user generated content on political issues has shifted from personal blogs and websites (and self-published POD books) to comments on news stories on major newspaper or television network sites, and especially to comments on the social media (most of all Facebook) pages for these sites.  These comments, at least the best of them, do get read by the newspaper editors and broadcast network news analysts.  In many issues, the comments add detail and “devil’s advocacy” that is nearly almost overlooked by politicians. This is born out with many issues, including gun control, “black lives matter”, the debt ceiling,  and (especially interesting) paid parental leave. Almost no politicians or major news editorial supporting mandatory paid leave is willing to face openly the idea that the non-parents would have to make personal sacrifices, in doing the work that their leave-taking coworkers got time off from but still got paid for.  Once that is recognized, that has further significant ramifications for our debate about family values and marriage (including same-sex marriage).

Without spontaneous amateur voices, the detail we need in robust debate gets lost.  Making it becomes a matter of belonging to the right club, and succeeding the social pecking orders of whatever affiliations a particular individual has (families, labor unions, non-profit PACS, political parties, churches).  And the world becomes even more partisan.  But it will not include “parlour timocracy”. (And that reminds me, how emerging artists and musicians use the spontaneity of the Internet to build their careers.)

Indeed, the CNN documentary last night "#Being 13"  (TV blog) pointed out the double irony, that kids are aggressive on social media for local reasons:  they know they have to make it in tie world of immediate social combat to be heard by the larger world. 
I am someone who wants to “get it right”.  But I do see that some people see “Staying Alive” (especially if you’re John Travolta) as  more important than “being right”.

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