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  • Strange Comparison, Dangerous Conclusion

    Posted by David Foster on March 25th, 2018 (All posts by )

    About a week ago, the WSJ ran an article titled Mark Zuckerberg is No James Madison.  The article argues that a constitution is similar to a block of computer code—a valid point, although I would argue it is also true of legislation and contracts in general…both the code, and the constitution/law/contract must be sufficiently clear and unambiguous to be executable without reference to their originators.

    Then the article goes on to say that ‘the Constitution understands human nature.  Facebook, dangerously at times does not.  In designing the Constitution, Madison managed to appeal to people’s better angels while at the same time calculating man’s capacity to harm and behave badly. Facebook’s designers, on the other hand, appear to have assumed the best about people. They apparently expected users to connect with friends only in benign ways. While the site features plenty of baby and puppy photos, it has also become a place where ISIS brags about beheadings and Russians peddling misinformation seek to undermine the institutions of a free society.’

    The attempt to create a parallel between Zuckerberg and Madison is a strange one, IMO, given the completely different nature of the work the two men were doing. Madison was attempting to create a new model for a self-governing country, Zuckerberg was attempting to make money for himself and his investors, and maybe to provide a little fun and value for his users along the way.

    What I find especially problematic is the ‘therefore’ that the author draws:

    Facebook insists it is not a media company. Maybe so. But unless it takes on the responsibilities of an editor and publisher by verifying the identities of users, filtering content that runs on its platform, and addressing the incentives to post specious or inflammatory “facts,” Facebook should expect to be policed externally.

    But is Facebook really a publisher, or it is it more of a printer?  If someone..Ben Franklin in the mid-1700s or some corporation today…is running a printing shop, running printing jobs for all who will pay, should he or it be held accountable for validating the truth of the material printed and verifying the identities of the customers?

     

    A traditional web hosting company, I would argue, is far closer to a printer than to a publisher: it is providing technical services for the distribution of content which is originated and controlled by others. A social media company such as Facebook, which prioritizes some content over other content in its feeds, disallows certain content, sells advertising closely linked to highly granular user characteristics, etc..is not so close to a traditional printer, but neither is it a traditional publisher: it is really a new sort of entity.

    In my view, it would be highly dangerous to legally require FB (or any other social media company) to verify the identities of users and especially to require users to post under their real and identifiable names.  This could be an opening wedge leading us back in the direction of licensing printers and requiring an imprimatur on publications.  Requiring social media companies to flag and delete posts that involve death threats or other threats of violence certainly seems reasonable–but, especially in today’s fevered political climate, it would likely shade into also requiring the suppression of ‘hate speech’, to be defined as anything sufficiently outside the Overton Window of conventional thinking, as that conventional thinking exists at any particular point in time.

    There are serious issues with social media, but the solution should not involve returning to a world of ‘gatekeeper’ media, still less reversing this country’s and the world’s progress toward freedom of the press.

    Thoughts?

     

    23 Responses to “Strange Comparison, Dangerous Conclusion”

    1. PenGun Says:

      Facebook is gonna abuse the platform, just everybody does, and its a problem.

      What it does, as well or better than anyone else is hook people up. That requires a wide open linking strategy that accesses all the user data available. This can be extended, and has, as various apps and sites affiliated, accumulate data as their ‘real’ main function while hooking into various real and created social memes.

      Facebook’s platform is mature and very powerful. Some of the best minds one can hire have worked on that portal of evil. Cambridge Analytical just levered this into Trumps voter data base. Obama’s people did exactly the same thing only with Zuckerberg’s approval.

      I have never felt the slightest inclination to join any of these social networks, but I know how they work.

    2. David Foster Says:

      Also in the linked article:

      “The head of Facebook’s advertising unit took pains to tweet that Russian-backed ads mostly ran after the 2016 election—and thus did not influence the outcome—when it was Russian-backed phony content, not ads, that had an impact on U.S. opinion. A retweet from President Trump forced the company to disavow its own executive.”

      The writer makes the assertion that ‘Russian-backed phony content’ DID have an impact on US opinion…but he provides no evidence at all supporting this assertion.

    3. Brian Says:

      This is ridiculous. The outrage is that Trump won, and the plan now is to make sure that anything that possibly helped Trump win, i.e., every way he went around the establishment gatekeepers, must be brought under firmer establishment control to ensure no other outsider candidates are allowed to do anything similar ever again.

      I don’t even do facebook, wish everyone would stop using it, think Zuckerberg is clearly a socially dysfunctional creep, so I have no particular interest in their well-being, but the notion that the government needs to intervene to make sure facebook is being used “correctly” is nothing but creeping tyranny. Actually, not even creeping, more like full out sprinting.

    4. Bill Brandt Says:

      If a printer got a job from someone advertising a cross burning from the Ku Klux Klan, should they print it or not? Can they just claim they are simply a printer and it’s not their job to censor?

      Both Facebook and the country are associations of people.

      To the immediate problem I don’t see how Facebook can police itself.

    5. Brian Says:

      OK, so on day 1, they ban the Klan and Nazis, because we all agree they are unacceptable to civil society. Then on day 2 they ban all conservatives for the same reason.

      No thanks.

      This isn’t even slippery slope arguing, this already happens, and it never happens the other way. Justin Peterson and Dennis Prager get banned from YouTube, but I’ve never heard of anyone on the left getting the same treatment. Not ever.

    6. Kirk Says:

      First thing I thought when I first encountered “social media” was that this was a high-tech version of small-town gossip, and about as socially useful. Instead of that mostly malicious BS being restricted to a small, isolated community, now it metastasized to spread across entire regions and heretofore isolated family members.

      It’s not a healthy thing, either. You used to be able to move away from the toxic people in your life, and with the witting assistance of these online venues, that becomes increasingly harder to do.

      Personally, I’ve never thought that any of this stuff was particularly healthy, or useful in any productive way. So, I’ve never had any of it, restricting myself mostly to posting on sites like this one. The whole FacileBok BS has always left me cold, and I wouldn’t even venture onto the damn thing at all, except for the fact that it’s become necessary because some idiot companies seem to think that it substitutes for a real internet presence.

      Ah, well… Like most fads, I suspect it’s going to die. Just like MySpace did.

    7. PenGun Says:

      You could compare Google and Facebook. They both do pretty much the same thing, but Google makes no bones about the fact it is a data aggregator, while Facebook pretends a higher calling.

      “To the immediate problem I don’t see how Facebook can police itself.”

      Its completely dependent upon its reputation as a cool and good place. They have suffered a hit they might never recover from. This lack of due diligence, on data they supposedly sought to enhance their user experience, and instead treated sold, just like Google, may be fatal. ;)

    8. Ginny Says:

      If I wouldn’t copy something (in my copy shop), my competitor down the street would. (Though frankly I can’t remember anything except copyrighted stuff I wouldn’t copy – and sometimes they’d do those as well.) While I suspect it will make for more silos where we aren’t even seeing the same facts let alone the same opinions, the main counter to Facebook is surely a competitor that is more attractive (more careful – or differently careful – about data; more innovative, more fun). I hate to comment on computer possibilities, so maybe this is impossible. But most monopolies have died when regulators didn’t give them controls over their competitors.

    9. David Foster Says:

      Kirk…”First thing I thought when I first encountered “social media” was that this was a high-tech version of small-town gossip, and about as socially useful. Instead of that mostly malicious BS being restricted to a small, isolated community, now it metastasized to spread across entire regions and heretofore isolated family members.”

      I posted on this theme here: Freedom, the Village, and the Internet

    10. Anonymous Says:

      I believe that Kirk and Ginny have clarity on this topic. The root issue is who owns your personal info. These sites (Facebook and Google as examples) have created user agreements where you essentially give up control of your data in exchange for free of payment use. As owners of the data, they sell it to any organization who will pay or allow free access to those they favor for whatever reason they choose (such as research). The fact that their platforms are so vast in scope, data volume and filtering development makes this highly profitable and forms the basis of their business model. It also creates an extremely high barrier to entry as the value of the data and services is based largely on the scope and quantity.

      Their commercial secondary revenue source allows them virtual autonomy in indulging in whatever filtering, exclusions or manipulations they choose with no practical user alternatives other than non-participation (which I likewise choose). That’s good enough for me, but my fear is the manipulation of our political dialogue and processes on a vast scale. There is a larger, more global security threat from such a vast and concentrated collection of sensitive data due to the current dominance of only a couple of players. They are so secure in their market positions. I would guess there is little pressure for security of the data compared to expanding the mining, sale and accumulation.

      I would propose a way to open competition is to prohibit or restrict the sale or transfer of individual data to a second party. This could be done as a general, universal prohibition or by requiring specific individual consent each time an individual’s personal information is transferred. There are some definitional issues to work out, but this is no more difficult than what is required for current privacy laws. This does not require a new regulatory apparatus, just a fairly clean law with appropriate legal remedies.

      I believe this would so limit the financial barrier to entry that competition would quickly arise and we could more readily choose the entity we judge to be best aligned with our trust and ethics.

      Death6

    11. Brian Says:

      The fact is that nobody cares about privacy. The trivial number who do aren’t on facebook, unless they’ve been pressured to in order to keep up with family. This isn’t about privacy at all. It’s about leftist gatekeepers furious about Trump’s victory determined to suppress any outside communication channels they can. It’s a purely political power grab going on.

      Of course facebook would LOVE to be regulated. The way it would happen would of course let them keep their cash and prevent any competitor from ever being able to match it because no one would ever be able to monetize an alternative network (I think you’re 100% wrong, Death6–if you can’t make money off your members, then facebook will never be challenged). Similar to how amazon now is a huge advocate for internet sales taxes, since that will make it all the more difficult for anyone to ever do to them what they did to brick and mortar retailers last decade.

      The real threat to google/facebook will come when someone figures out how to a) prove how pitiful the ROI on ads with them truly is, and b) develops an alternative ad targeting and delivery system.

    12. David Foster Says:

      Brian….”Similar to how amazon now is a huge advocate for internet sales taxes, since that will make it all the more difficult for anyone to ever do to them what they did to brick and mortar retailers last decade.”

      There are now some tools available which make it much easier for an on-line merchant to deal with state & local income taxes. One provider of such tools is Avalara, which also provides tools for dealing with international taxation.

      The amount of $ they have had to invest to create this software is pretty appalling, though.

    13. PenGun Says:

      “The real threat to google/facebook will come when someone figures out how to a) prove how pitiful the ROI on ads with them truly is, and b) develops an alternative ad targeting and delivery system.”

      LOL. You should understand that Google makes its money with ads, targeted ads. They are very good at this and their ROI is enough to make them one of the largest corporations in the world. Pitiful it is not.

      As to Facebook, its money comes from ads as well mostly. Keeping its walled garden healthy is its most important focus, with the sale of data being a less important revenue stream.

    14. Brian Says:

      As always, Penny, you completely miss the point. The ROI of course refers to the ROI for the customer, i.e., the people paying google & facebook. Of course I know how they make their money, you pinhead. And the fact is that people are shoveling money to G&F with absolutely no reason to think they’re getting anything back for it, in almost any case.

      What happens when you google “home depot”? You get an ad for home depot, which is a link to their website, right above the first return, which is a link to their website. Why are they paying for an ad to be placed on a search for their own company name?????

    15. PenGun Says:

      “Why are they paying for an ad to be placed on a search for their own company name?????”

      To always be at the top of that list. Its not like it was. You could make good money just tweaking the headers the Google alog uses and getting stuff to, or near the top. That’s not easy anymore and many companies just pay to stay at the top. I’m sure that’s worth it.

      People don’t pay Google a cent, just the organizations who want both targeted ads and page rank pay Google. The moment that stops being worth it they will stop. People don’t pay Facebook either, its free. ;)

    16. David Foster Says:

      One thing that would help reduce toxicity on social networks, and in the society in general: ***death threats need to be prosecuted*** They have really gotten out of hand. An Americaln cartoonist has had to go into hiding because of (apparently credible) death threats from Islamists. There have been many threats of violence against scientists and executives by “animal rights” activists. A professor recently received death threats because of an article he published in a rather obscure academic journal.

      From what I understand, there are federal as well as state law against making death threats. President Trump could do us all a great favor by establishing a special task force to ensure that these threats are quickly investigated, and, where warranted, prosecuted vigorously.

    17. Kirk Says:

      I think you could fix a lot of problems by making everyone’s personal information their private property.

      Want to market to me? Want to know about me, track my digital footprint? Pay my ass. If you don’t, you don’t get access to my information.

      I wouldn’t object to telemarketing if the bastards calling me were doing so in a manner that respected my damn property rights–I pay for that phone line, and the talk time on my cell phone. You want to use it? Pay me. If I don’t want my phone used, I pay for it myself. I want a cheaper rate, I let people market to me on that line when I want it–Say, two hours a day when I’m open to telemarketing calls, and I have to take a certain percentage of those in order to get the subsidized “open-to-advertising rate”.

      Likewise, if my information is mine…? You want to use it, Amazon? Pay me. Same-same Google, or any of the other ones. My name appears in a database linked to metadata or other information? I get a cut of the licensing. Period.

      As well, liability ought to accrue to all parties using my information: You let a data breach happen, compromising my credit card information…? Bare minimum, you pay my ass. Period. Same-same with government data breaches–The truly egregious breach at OPM early in the Obama administration should have led to every single responsible party being bankrupted for life, indentured servitude if need be. You don’t get to f**k up on that level of magnitude and walk away from it, saying “Too bad; so sad… Not my fault, not my responsibility…”.

      You want to start fixing this crap? Monetize it, make the information belong to the person it’s about, and then starting holding people accountable for misusing it. FaceBook should be sued into non-existence for having monetized private information and selling it on. Yeah, there were EULAs, but the opacity with which those were written and will he-nil he changed? That whole set of chicanery should be answerable in a court of law. If there was ever a case for a class-action lawsuit, that’s one, right there…

    18. David Foster Says:

      Did Facebook’s ‘favors’ for the Obama campaign violate Federal Election Commission regulations?

    19. OBloodyHell Says:

      }}}} the constitution/law/contract must be sufficiently clear and unambiguous to be executable without reference to their originators.

      Aaaaaand how do you propose to construct such wording? We have been arguing for nigh-on 70-odd years about the meaning of “Congress shall pass no law…”

      The Godel Incompleteness Theorem says you cannot do the above with MATH. What makes you imagine you can do it with something as deliberately slippery as English or any other Human language advanced for the industrial age…?

    20. OBloodyHell Says:

      Oh, and we had a PotUS a few years back attempting to debate the meaning of the word “No”.

    21. David Foster Says:

      “The Godel Incompleteness Theorem says you cannot do the above with MATH. What makes you imagine you can do it with something as deliberately slippery as English or any other Human language advanced for the industrial age…?”

      Interesting point.

      Goedel’s Proof says that in any mathematical system of a certain complexity, there will always be theorems that are true, but cannot be proved to be so…and you can keep on adding axioms, but some such undecidable theorems will still remain. (It seems strongly related the Turing’s proof that there can be no universal computer program that will look at *any* other computer program and determine whether or not that program will ever reach a stopping point)

      In any large and complex computer system, there are always likely to be bugs, ie, behaviors of the code in a way not anticipated by its designers….so in software, ‘maintenance’ is a thing even though software is an abstract entity that doesn’t break doesn’t suffer physical wear-and-tearm. In law, thee will always be ambiguities—one of the roles of the legislature should be to observe ambiguities in the legal code and attempt to correct them. Some will always remain, but that doesn’t mean that law should be abandoned and we should trust to the personal rule of judges.

      See also Peter Drucker’s thoughts about the inherency of governments of paper forms and my comments about this.

    22. OBloodyHell Says:

      I believe it’s already been established, in a court of Law, that you don’t own your own DNA.

      How much “more personal” data have you got?

    23. OBloodyHell Says:

      David: i believe that judges rule about the ambiguities, but the legislatures can then go back and rewrite & repass laws with wordings designed to make a different slant than the judicial decision assigned.