Social Media Regulation: Speak of the Devil and in Walks Zuck

In a recent column on the mating dance between Big Government and Big Tech, I noted that “Big Tech wants to be regulated by Big Governments because regulation makes it more difficult and expensive for new competitors to enter the market.”

Two days after I hit “publish” on that column, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg called for government regulation of social media in a Washington Post op-ed.

Zuckerberg offers expansive arguments for regulating four areas of social media content, but those arguments are specious. My own claim as to his real reasons leers visibly over the shoulder of each argument he makes.

Zuckerberg’s first proposed regulatory area is “harmful content.” “Regulation,” he writes, “could set baselines for what’s prohibited and require companies to build systems for keeping harmful content to a bare minimum.”

Who’s best equipped to build such systems? Facebook, with assets of nearly $100 billion and annual revenues of $56 billion? Or a new site started by some middle class guy (or even an affluent Harvard student like Mark Zuckerberg 15 years ago) with a great idea and some spare time?

The second regulatory area is “protecting elections.” Zuckerberg: “Our systems would be more effective if regulation created common standards for verifying political actors. … We believe legislation should be updated to reflect the reality of the threats and set standards for the whole industry.”

Facebook, of course, has already invested billions in developing technology to identify users and advertisers and connect the two types of parties — all in-house.  Most startups don’t have the money to develop their own such systems. They hook into a third party advertising service or a standardized ad sales plug-in. The effect — and the intent — of those “updates” would be to protect Facebook from those startups (and the American political establishment from its own would-be competitors).

“Third, effective privacy and data protection needs a globally harmonized framework. … it should establish a way to hold companies such as Facebook accountable by imposing sanctions when we make mistakes.”

Facebook can easily accommodate “sanctions” that would kill most potential competitors. It already has big bucks in the bank (unlike a new company that may be years away from turning a profit), and that “globally harmonized framework” will almost certainly be built around its own standards and practices.

Finally, “data portability. If you share data with one service, you should be able to move it to another.” What will the “standard data transfer format” Zuckerberg calls for look like? Existing formats for handling user data. Who handles the most user data now? You know who. New competitors will be forced to build systems like Facebook’s, and forbidden to try their own, possibly better, user data handling schemes.

The Internet’s potential is encapsulated in the expropriated Maoism “let a hundred flowers blossom.” Zuckerberg agrees, but only if each of those hundred flowers is cloned from a geranium grown in his proprietary nursery.

Regulation, not competition, is where monopolies come from. Facebook isn’t a monopoly yet, but Zuckerberg clearly wants to make it one.

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Big Government and Big Tech versus the Internet and Everyone

Governments around the world began trying to bring the Internet under control as soon as they realized the danger to their power represented by unfettered public access to, and exchange of, information. From attempts to suppress strong encryption technology to the Communications Decency Act in the US and China’s “Great Firewall,” such efforts have generally proven ineffectual. But things are changing, and not for the better.

The European Parliament recently passed a “Copyright Directive” which, if implemented, will force Internet platforms to actively monitor user content instead of putting the burden of proving copyright infringement on those claiming such infringement. The Directive also includes  a “link tax” under which publishers will charge aggregation platforms for traditionally “fair use” excerpts.

The US government’s Committee on Foreign Investment is attempting to force the sale of Grindr, a gay dating app, over “national security” concerns. Grindr is owned by a Chinese company, Beijing Kunlun. CFIUS’s supposed fear is that the Chinese government will use information the app gathers to surveil or even blackmail users in sensitive political and military jobs.

Those are just two current examples of many.

Big Governments and Big Tech are engaged in a long-term mating dance.

Big Governments want to regulate Big Tech because that’s what governments do, and because, as with Willie Sutton and banks, Big Tech is where the Big Tax Money is.

Big Tech wants to be regulated by Big Governments because regulation makes it more difficult and expensive for new competitors to enter the market. Facebook doesn’t want someone else to make it the next MySpace. Google doesn’t want a fresh new face to send it the way of Yahoo.

It’s a mating dance with multiple suitors on all sides.

The US doesn’t like Grindr or Huawei, because FREEDUMB.

The Chinese don’t want uncensored Google or Twitter, because ORDER.

The EU is at least honest about being sexually indiscriminate: It freely admits that it just wants to rigorously screw everyone, everything, everywhere.

Big Tech wants to operate in all of these markets and it’s willing to buy every potential Big Government as many drinks as it takes to them all into the sack.

Everybody wins, I guess. Except the public.

Governments and would-be monopolists are fragmenting what once advertised itself as a Global Information Superhighway into hundreds of gated streets.

Those streets are lined by neatly manicured lawns per the homeowners’ association’s rigorously enforced rules, and herbicide is sprayed on those lawns to kill off the values that made the Internet the social successor to the printing press and the economic successor to the Industrial Revolution.

As Stewart Brand wrote, “Information Wants To Be Free. Information also wants to be expensive. … That tension will not go away.”

Big Tech and Big Government are both coming down, increasingly  effectively,  on the side of “expensive” and on the side of Ford’s  Model T philosophy (“you can have any color you want as long as it’s black”).

They’re killing the Internet. They’re killing the future. They’re killing us.

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Suppressing Discussion Doesn’t Solve the Problem; It is the Problem

Everywhere one looks these days, the world seems to be moving away from debate on contentious subjects and toward demands that those who have unpopular opinions — or even just ask impertinent questions — be forcibly silenced.

“You will never hear me mention his name,”  prime minister Jacinda Ardern said of Brenton Tarrant, the sole suspect in two deadly attacks on mosques in Christchurch. “He may have sought notoriety but here in New Zealand we will give him nothing — not even his name.”

That’s fine as a personal decision, I guess, but not as a top-down decision for her fellow New Zealanders. Even as Ardern spoke,  police working for her government  were arresting at least two people for sharing the shooter’s live-streamed video of the attacks on social media.

Across the Tasman Sea, Australian prime minister Scott Morrison is calling on the governments of G20 countries to implement measures “including appropriate filtering, detecting and removing of content by actors who encourage, normalise, recruit, facilitate or commit terrorist and violent atrocities.”

Let’s be clear about what Morrison, other “world leaders,” and significant segments of activist communities and even the general public, are demanding (and to a frightful degree already implementing): Internet censorship.

This isn’t really a new development. The mosque attacks are merely the latest incident weaponized by politicians and activists in service to a long-running campaign against public discussion and debate that requires them to make arguments and persuade instead of just bark orders and compel.

The fictional “memory hole” of the IngSoc regime in George Orwell’s 1984 stood for more than half a century as an oft-cited and wisely acknowledged warning. Now that hole is opening up beneath us for real and threatening to suck us down into a new Dark Age of “thoughtcrime” and “unpersons.”

The threat is content-independent. Renaming climate change skeptics “deniers” and demanding “investigations” of them, or pressuring media to ban discussions of policy on vaccines, is just as evil as suing Alex Jones for promulgating bizarre theories about the Sandy Hook massacre.

The only appropriate response to “bad” speech — that is, speech one disagrees with — is “better” speech.

Attempting to shut down your opponents’ ability to participate in an argument isn’t itself a winning argument. Forbidding your opponents to speak to a problem doesn’t solve that problem.

In fact, those tactics are tantamount to admitting that your arguments are less persuasive and that your solutions can’t withstand scrutiny.

Freedom of thought and expression are primary, foundational rights. They make it possible for us to hash out issues and solve problems peaceably instead of by force. Any attempt to suppress them is itself a call for totalitarianism and the alternative to those liberties is social and political death.

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I’m Shocked — Shocked! — that Wealthy Parents Love Their Kids Too

In the film version of Forrest Gump (but not, if memory serves, in the novel), Forrest’s mother tries to convince the local elementary school principal that her son belongs at  his local elementary school rather than at an institution for what we would now call “special needs” students. The two reach an understanding on Mrs. Gump’s remarkably squeaky bed while Forrest waits on the front porch.

That scene popped to mind uninvited in early March when fifty parents, test administrators, and college sports coaches were indicted in a nationwide college admissions bribery scandal.

Coaches allegedly took bribes to accept students as fake athletic recruits to get around academic standards. Test prep services supposedly taught students how to cheat on tests and bribed proctors to smooth the way for the cheating. An “admissions consultant,” William Singer, is accused of orchestrating the scheme to the tune of $25 million.

None of which, obviously, is According to Hoyle.

I’m surprised, though, at the vitriol directed at the parents in particular.

I suspect most movie viewers empathized with the fictional Mrs. Gump, who did whatever she felt she had to do to secure the best education possible for her child.

Real-life parents like actors Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman — the two most famous of the indicted parents — did whatever they felt they had to do to secure the best educations possible for their children as well.

The difference, of course, is that the fictional Mrs. Gump was poor, while Loughlin and Huffman are wealthy.

The public heartburn over Loughlin and Huffman seems less about them bribing their kids into good schools than about them being able to AFFORD to bribe their kids into good schools.

Suppose the scandal had unfolded in a different way. What if, instead of rich people writing checks they could afford,  it was working class parents scraping together money they really couldn’t afford, or trading menial work or even sexual favors a la Mrs. Gump, for illicit “admissions assistance?”

In that alternative scenario, I suspect most would regard the parents as victims, not as evil-doers.

In that alternative scenario, I expect that most parents could see themselves doing exactly the same things in the same circumstances.

“Let me tell you about the very rich,” wrote F. Scott Fitzgerald. “They are different from you and me.” True. But not when it comes to loving their children. I won’t condemn them for that.

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Social Media Companies “Struggle” to Help Censors Keep us in the Dark

According to CNN Business,  “Facebook, YouTube and Twitter struggle to deal with New Zealand shooting video.”

“Deal with” is code for “censor on demand by governments and activist organizations who oppose public access to information that hasn’t first been thoroughly vetted for conformity to their preferred narrative.”

Do you really need to see first-person video footage of an attacker murdering 49 worshipers at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand?

Maybe not. Chances are pretty good you didn’t even want to. I suspect that many of us who did (I viewed what appeared to be a partial copy before YouTube deleted it) would rather we could un-see it.

But whether or not we watch it should be up to us, not those governments and activists. Social media companies should enable our choices, not suppress our choices at the censors’ every whim.

If Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube had been primary news sources in 1915, would they have permitted us to view footage  (rare, as film was in its early days)  of New Zealanders’ desperate fight at Gallipoli?

How about the attack on Pearl Harbor?

The assassination of president John F. Kennedy?

The second plane hitting the World Trade Center?

Lucinda Creighton of the Counter Extremism Project complains to CNN that the big social media firms aren’t really “cooperating and acting in the best interest of citizens to remove this content.”

The CEP claims that it “counter[s] the narrative of extremists” and  works to “reveal the extremist threat.”  How does demanding that something be kept hidden “counter” or “reveal” it? How is it in “the best of interest of citizens” to only let those citizens see what Lucinda Creighton thinks they should be allowed to see?

CNN analyst Steve Moore warns that the video could “inspire copycats.” “Do you want to help terrorists? Because if you do, sharing this video is exactly how you do it.”

Moore has it backward. Terrorists don’t need video to “inspire” them. Like mold, evil grows best in darkness and struggles in sunlight. If you want to help terrorists, hiding the ugliness of their actions from the public they hope to mobilize in support of those actions is exactly how you do it.

Contrary to their claims of supporting “democracy” versus “extremism,” the social media companies and the censors they “struggle” to assist seem to side with terror and to lack any trust in the good judgment of “the people.”

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Will Elizabeth Warren Take on the Biggest Monopoly of All?

For a “progressive” presidential candidate, US Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) is remarkably, well, conservative. Her proposals are neither new nor of the “democratic socialist” variety.  In fact, her aim is, as Matthew Yglesias puts it at Vox, “to save capitalism”  with stock proposals from the first half of the last century.

Much of her campaign platform co-opts Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s  1930s “New Deal” emphasis on social welfare, job creation, infrastructure, and highly progressive taxation to pay for it all — solutions she considers proven, for problems she considers similar.

Her latest proposal, though, takes an earlier Roosevelt as its model. Like  “Trust Buster”  Teddy Roosevelt, she wants to use regulation and antitrust enforcement to “break up monopolies and promote competitive markets.” Her initially announced targets for the idea included Facebook, Google, and Amazon. A couple of days later, she added Apple to  the list.

Interestingly, in her search for monopolies to slay, she ignores the biggest, most powerful, and most lucrative monopoly in America: The US government.

In 2020, the federal government expects revenues of about $3.4 trillion.

That’s more than 60 times what Facebook brought in last year. 25 times as much as Alphabet’s 2018 revenues (Alphabet is Google’s parent company). More than 14 times Amazon’s total 2018 take. Nearly 13 times Apple’s haul.

And then there’s market share. No one really has to do business with Facebook, Google, Amazon, or Apple. There are numerous alternatives to the offerings of each, and many consumers choose those alternatives.

Uncle Sugar, on the other hand, boasts 100% market share for his offerings. You’re required to be his paying customer whether you like it or not. Many of the alternatives are outright illegal, and among the ones that aren’t, you’re required to pay for them in addition to, not instead of,  the federal government’s services.

That’s the very definition of “monopoly.” And it’s the monopoly Elizabeth Warren wants to serve as CEO of.

Is Senator Warren is serious about “breaking up monopolies” and “promoting competitive markets?”

If so, I look forward to her proposal for breaking up the federal government and allowing real alternatives to compete for its market share.

A good start would be 100% federal tax deductibility for the purchase of private sector services that replace the government’s offerings, or a pro rata clawback for binding agreement to not use a particular government service.

Absent such a proposal, seems to me she’s just another greedy monopolist looking to suppress the competition.

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