Tuesday, February 05, 2019

Could Internet "free content" be collared as a genuine national security (if political) risk?

Since Donald Trump is going to talk about “national security” tonight at least in terms of the southern border and about the idea of a declaration, I think we do need to stop for a moment and ponder the national security implications of how Internet use has gone in the past few years.
The most obvious issue is the vulnerability to foreign and sometimes domestic enemies who want to leverage the fact that our “neo-liberalism” and hyperindividualism (starting especially with Reagan and shareholder capitalism) have left so many people behind.  Now, it’s not just government;  major corporations are wondering if the absolute commitment to individualized personal responsibility can work, and if freely self-distributed speech (more than just “hate speech”) that does not take into account the literacy of “average” users, especially of social media, is sustainable.

A lot is made of the growing security vulnerabilities and malware and threats to infrastructure and power grids (across air gaps – and thankfully the “liberal” media is finally waking up to the ideas in Ted Koppels’ “Lights Out” (Books, Nov. 10, 2015).  A lot is made of surveillance capitalism and the compromise of user privacy, built into big Tech business models. But the biggest problem seems to have been the gullibility of “average” users particularly in social media echo chambers, created by algorithms and fed my curious personal addictions and some breakdowns in real world interpersonal relationships.

Someone else will say it if I don’t, so here we go with “I told you so.”  You could shut down this problem if you didn’t allow any Internet content to be free.  That’s pretty extreme and maybe unworkable and I’ll get into the obvious variations in a moment.  In the days of Web 1.0 when people used search engines to find what they wanted, echo chambers weren’t much of a problem, although “online reputation” shaping up as an issue.

The problem is not tweets and Facebook posts themselves, it’s the articles that they can dynamically preview and link.  As we know, particularly since about 2014, increasingly these have come from foreign troll farms. And the underlying characteristic is that they’re usually “free”.    That is also true of the manipulated video clips that fed the explosive false narrative that fooled mainstream media two weeks ago with the Covington-MAGA Internet smear storm.

Some observers (music composer Jaron Lanier, for example) have suggested that every piece of content linked by social media (or posted) result in a micropayment (maybe even digital currency tokens) to the creator. That might give social media companies incentive to become more restrictive on what can be posted – and they would probably become more like publishers, without downstream liability protection. That seems to be the direction that Europe has proposed with Articles 11 and 13 (although these may suddenly be running into more resistance during trilogue, thankfully).

Another idea is that all web content is either behind a paywall, or else actually sells something.  That would pretty much shut down blogs like mine, because I can’t reasonably expect people to pay to subscribe it. 
Of course, there are variations.  Many sites are supported by ads and surveys – but many more which offer them are not self-supporting this way.  And crowdfunding or patronage (despite the recent censorship scandal with Patreon and payment processors) is very popular.  If a podcaster does receive patronage income, at least he/she has shown that the audience wants what “they” have to offer. Partronage sites often offer much of their content free (some with paywalls), but they could be prodded to go to fully subscription models.

I’ve written before that a lot more could be done (technically, with new startups) to consolidate access accounts to publications with paywalls at discounts (rather like the consolidated magazine subscriptions of the 60s and 70s) to give average readers reasonably priced access to more newspapers and quality opinion periodicals, rather than just depend on one or two.

The tech community could, however, grow wary of sites that seem to be self-funded and have relatively low audience volume or engagement (as shown by analytics, like Google’s own product or by Urchin, etc) with intense, even if centrist, political or issue-oriented content. They could be concerned about invisible “Black Swan” risks not covered by operating income, or lack of transparency.  They could become concerned that, political content especially, becomes fodder for algorithm stuffing, even if picked up by foreign agents.  I see no evidence that this has actually happened with mine, but I can’t prove a negative – that it couldn’t’ happen.

In the past, when there little self-publishing (until the 90s) content had to generate revenue to stay in circulation.  Books that didn’t sell went out of print and could disappear, except from used books shops and resellers.  Today, in the POD industry, they can stay up, but that could change eventually, inasmuch as in the past few years (since maybe 2012) POD companies have been much more aggressive with authors in encouraging them to sell and actually run businesses, not just talk. 

I have to mention, of course, that all of these observations are very bad especially for anonymous speech, which Electronic Frontier Foundation has vigorously defended.

All of this builds up in a polarized political environment where free speech (especially when self-published) seems much less supported by ordinary people than it was maybe even just three years ago. The combative nature of identarian groups, which regards any gratuitous remarks about them as a possible threat, is part of the problem. We saw this before with radical Islam but now we see it especially with the US Far Left (and curiously European far right). Identarianism tends to attract people who experience life much more as part of a group than do individualistic speakers who run YouTube channels. But another idea is Taleb’s “skin in the game”:  at some point, talk must lead to taking action, or else it suggests that the speaker doesn’t real “care” at a “human” level about real people.  This reminds me of the antagonism between balanced and unbalanced personalities in my days in New York exploring Rosenfels’s polarities. Politically, this idea points to the concern that individualized political or issue-driven speech weakens solidarity and makes it much harder for "groups" to get their concerns respected; but, moreover, it weakens overall citizen participation in ordinary politics (beyond just voting) like candidate fund raising, and leaves politics hollowed out and taken over by the extremes, which reinforces corruption. 

So could I face a day where I get questionnaires from providers on my funding, my monetization, participation with real commerce (legitimate advertising) or warnings about low volume, calls for community engagement (like Facebook’s “add button” for non-profit requests) or “gratuitous” political speech?  I think that in time this is becoming likely.  The world we got used to for the past twenty years isn’t completely sustainable in this world of tribal inequality.  We will be expected to take more responsibility for others as the entry criteria for a global speech brand.  There have been some discussions in the past, as far back as 2008 (before the financial crisis, which hid everything) about ideas like mandatory insurance for account holders and even mandatory provisions for digital executors.  They've never gone anywhere.  But this could change.
 There even remains a cultural disagreement of what it means to be a journalist, and to be a writer, as two separate things. Many people in the literary world (the "writing to sell" meme) think that writers should be forced to "pay their dues" by offering what other people want before expressing their own views.  I think I've embedded this before, but this is a good time to review my 4-minute video from April 2018, "A Dangerous Thought Experiment".
Personally, processing all this leads me into some serious personal contradictions, which I will cover with other posts (if I can keep dog-paddling).  Voluntarism is not as simple an answer for a non-tribal person like me as it may sound.
Let me close, however, by noting that I have started to “play ball” more by placing actual ads for my books on my Facebook page.  There is an important New York Times piece at least tangentially related to all this, Feb. 1, by Edmund Lee, "Digital Media: What Went Wrong?"   He says dependence on Facebook algorithms, but how do sites make money then? 

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