Regulating Online Speach

There’s a very active discussion happening right now about free speech online after the removal of Trump from Twitter.

The least informed arguments state that this is a violation of the 1st Amendment for the banned people. This is obviously not true as the 1st Amendment applies to the power of the government and not private companies.

The more nuanced discussion moves on to accepting that these companies should be allowed to moderate. There are many examples of threatening and violent speech that require moderation. However, there is no clear standard on where that line should be and who should make that determination. Twitter’s current policies have been confused. They didn’t apply a single consistent moderation policy to all users. Twitter made the case that the United States President had newsworthiness that forced them to keep him on the platform even if they had to label his tweets.

David Sacks* has made the case that the oligopoly of Big Tech companies like Twitter, Facebook, Google, Apple, and Amazon are so large that when they apply content moderation policies and squelch someone’s voice that they are functioning as a de facto government institution and should be held to the 1st Amendment bar. He argues that the 1st Amendment was created when the idea of the internet didn’t exist. That the founders couldn’t have imagined it and that the town square is now the equivalent of your Facebook or Twitter timeline.

Sacks just tweeted that “My content moderation policy is the First Amendment. What’s yours?” The 1st Amendment, as a standard, is a horrible idea. Anything is allowed as long as it’s not so heinous or threatening that it would require us to charge you with a crime because of the words you used. No civil, productive discussion could flourish under these rules.

At the founding of this country, we had the concept of different public and private spaces in a town. Each of these spaces had different rules for acceptable behavior for the people using them. If you are unruly in a restaurant, you will be asked to leave. If you are screaming and shouting, you will be kicked out of the public library. If you don’t dress appropriately, you won’t be allowed into a fancy restaurant.

None of this means that the government is forcing you to dress a certain way or to only whisper. But it does mean that you are required to abide by the rules of a location to use that location. If you want to get together and play music with some friends, you need to find a suitable place. The 1st Amendment doesn’t mean that you can roll up anywhere and do what you please.

I believe that this relates to the online free speech discussion similarly. Each location is owned and operated by a company, and they’re free to decide how they want to moderate. If you’re not happy with how those decisions are being made, then you’re free to spend your time elsewhere. The argument that Facebook is so large that it should behave like a government is wrong. The argument should have been that we should foster alternative locations.

If a restaurant is so popular in a town that it puts all other restaurants out of business, that doesn’t mean that it now needs to function as a government service and serve food that everyone agrees with. If you’re not happy about the menu choices, you should start another restaurant and compete with it. Of course, you’re not guaranteed that your new restaurant will be very popular or profitable, but you’re free to start and run it.

Sacks has pointed to the case of Parler.com as an example of starting your own restaurant not working, but I don’t think the argument stands up. Parler was able to create an app and got a large number of people to sign up. However, they continued to distribute heinous speech and were very loose in moderating it. We live in a community, and Parler relied on other vendors to provide their service. When it became clear that they weren’t going to moderate the content, the vendors decided to cut their business associations. No one banned Parler from existing, but others were not required to help them out either.

To put this into an analogy that could apply offline, you could create a restaurant that served only talking parakeets for dinner. You walk in and listen to all of the live birds talking away and then pick the bird you want to eat. The experience would be alarming to many people, but it might not technically be illegal.

All of the other vendors needed to support running this business (drink service, cleaning services, laundry) could be shocked and choose not to do business with the restaurant. This wouldn’t be a violation of the restaurant’s rights. It’s just a choice that we’re free to make in this country.

The argument for more choices applies again at the next level down. If you don’t like that AWS won’t support Parler, then don’t use AWS. If you don’t like that Twilio won’t support Parler, then don’t use Twilio. Create your own competing services and back up Parler. I don’t think there are many people that will be leaving AWS because of the decisions they’ve made.

Finally, Sacks argues “If your views are preferred by tech oligarchs, you can instantly get distribution to millions. If not, you can stand in the street yelling like a lunatic. No undue influence over our democracy there“. I agree that we have a problem in that a tiny number of companies have so much power, but I have to disagree with the remedy. I believe that just as we have many choices for offline locations, we need more varied locations to gather online. But, no company is an island unto itself. We all have to work together as a community.

*I don’t mean this to come across as if I’m attacking David. I actually think he’s thought long and hard about this and is trying to have a reasoned debate. I chose his arguments as some of the most reasoned conservative arguments that I’ve seen.

My Representatives

With MyElectedRep, I get a view into the people that are representing me. Whether I agree with the votes that they’re making on my behalf or if I would like them to vote another way.
To help me make decisions on votes, I can look at how some trusted organizations recommend I vote and read the analysis that they’ve provided.
With each Representative, I can vote on upcoming legislation, so that they can determine how the district feels. I can also go through their past votes and either agree or disagree with the votes that they’ve made. If I feel strongly about certain votes, I can contact my Representatives directly to let them know how I feel.
Once I’ve gone through the different bills and voted on the ones that I wanted to, I can look at how each Representative scores. They get a district score as well as a personal score. I can then use this score to determine if I should vote for this person to be my Representative again next time or if someone else would do a better job.
My Representatives are:

Money in Politics

This article on CNN today expresses a lot of the reasoning behind why I created MyElectedRep.
With 3 of the 4 Republican candidates for President being heavily sponsored by single donors with $100+M in assets are you feeling more or less confident that after the next election cycle our elected officials will represent us and not the super wealthy that paid for their campaigns?
The only way we can keep our Representatives accountable is if we vote and show them how we want to be represented.
We need a place to point to, where we can show elected officials that they’re not doing their job. A place where we can show that on a certain item a district wants to vote one way. Then we can score our Representatives on whether or not they listened.
By measuring the votes that each Representative makes, it becomes less important to control the money that they receive.

Evening news displays its intellectual dishonesty again

Lead story and headline on the NBC evening news again tonight talked about the “Controversial statement by President Obama about the NY Mosque”.  If the news editors were being honest they might say that “President Obama today reaffirmed a belief in freedom of religion that has been a foundation of our country for 200+ years”. But of course that isn’t as exciting as saying that Republicans are trying to stir up fear and hatred of foreigners again.
It is quite sad to see this spin. Journalism’s purpose is to find the truth in the story instead of making up their own spin to sensationalize. But we’ve gotten to the point where the corporate interests behind the News has an interest in keeping the crossfire between the right and the left going. If this means taking some liberties, then they’ve shown that they’re willing to do so.
I wouldn’t be terribly sad to see almost every major news body we have today collapse. They’ve strayed too far from their true purpose. There will still be a need for honest news gathering and there are people willing to devote their lives to that purpose. The way just needs to be cleared for these people to come to the fore again.

Rachel Maddow went too far tonight

In tonight’s interview with Dan Stein, the head of FAIR, I believe that Rachel went over the line. She brought up some very questionable position points from a handful of people that are or were connected with the organization. The worst being some ideas taken from a founder of FAIR written in the 1980s.
As the interview went on though, I actually found myself agreeing with Dan Stein that this was McCarthy style journalism. Taking a single point from years ago and using it to paint an entire organization. I think Rachel was riled up and went into attack mode too quickly. The proper way to ask about these points would have been to have asked if FAIR, as an organization, still supports the beliefs that she brought up in her research or whether they’ll disavow the positions. If they won’t disavow the racist positions, then there is a story there, but for Rachel to make the accusation that because someone once said something reprehensible that the entire organization was racist was itself unfair.
Usually I’m a big fan of her reporting, but I think that in this instance she should have looked at what she had and decided that it wasn’t enough to build a story off of. She’s developing a great reputation as being a journalist that will stand up to anyone and ask tough questions, she’s just got to make sure that the quality of the story is there.

TV news is no better than following twitter

Saw some blog posts today discussing the provably wrong statements that Guiliani is making on the TV news stations and it’s led me to belief that TV news is no better than following twitter. It’s not real journalism. There is no control for making sure that the statements made are accurate. You’ll probably getter a more accurate, broader view of what is going on in the world today by watching raw twitter updates.
Maybe live TV is just not conducive to news. The excuse that the host just doesn’t have time to fact check everything that is said has just gotten old. Every day, lie after misstatement after miss characterizations are made continually. How many times does the Daily Show have to embarrass them before they listen?
If as an agency you can’t control the quality of what is being said, then maybe it shouldn’t be shown live. What would stop the stations from filming an interview with different talking heads and then having the interns fact check what was said. Why is there the need to let someone who once did something a long time ago spout off live on TV?
Of course the problem may be that it was never really news to begin with.

Journalism Isn't Dying, Newspapers Are

journalismI just finished reading the article “The Story Behind the Story” in this month’s Atlantic Magazine where Mark Bowden goes through the backstory and context of the videos of now Justice Sotomayor. The article takes on the fall of real journalism and its replacement with political hit jobs. As someone raising an infant at home and often having the news channels on during the day, I can definitely attest to the fall in quality at the 24 hours news networks. All of them can best be described as News Entertainment rather than any type of real journalism.
In all of the discussions I’ve read about the death of news, journalism, and newspapers the argument seems to be that if these businesses die, then no one will pay for journalism. That without a newspaper, there is no way we could get the real story. I don’t think that this is necessarily what needs to happen though. As the big media companies race to the bottom and look more each day like an episode of Jerry Springer, there are real journalists out there that want to search for and print the truth. These people have the highest standards and will continue to do their craft long after the newspaper has shut down or moved entirely to tabloid coverage. The good news is that these determined men and women are finding ways to get paid to do the work that they love.
What I see as the issue today is that in the past we could pick up the New York Times and know that we could trust the reporting within, the people that wrote there were held to the highest standards, we didn’t even have to really think about it. However as the unit of journalism moves from the newspaper to the actual journalist we need a way to quickly transfer that same level of trust of what we are reading. What I’m proposing is that to manage the need for a transfer of trust that a body of respected journalists, either through a journalism school or a group of professional journalists, creates a set of standards for professional journalists. This group would then accredit individual writers that met the standard of professional journalism.  Accredited journalists could be local bloggers reporting on the local government meetings or large columnists that have found it more to their liking to strike out on their own.
As the internet has given everyone a printing press, what we need is a way to quickly determine who is worth reading. Writers could begin to publish and as they reached a level of published content they could ask for accreditation and if received post this on their site. Each individual writer could determine how they wanted to get paid for their work, whatever made sense for them, it could even be working at a newspaper. This would not inhibit others from publishing whatever they wanted, but if you wanted to get accreditation and keep it, you must hold yourself to the standards.
Of course the running of the  journalism board would cost money and have its own issues, but I’m sure that there are some people out there that would be willing to pay for such a service if it meant that high quality journalism could continue.

Is Obama playing with the courts?

There have been a couple of actions taken by the Obama Administration that have left people scratching their heads. The first occurred soon after taking office when his Justice Department, instead of doing as everyone thought that they would and not continuing Bush’s State Secrets claims, instead pushed the idea of State Secrets even further than Bush’s lawyers ever went.  Another occurred today with Obama reversing course on the lawsuit to release photos of Army’s abuses of prisoners. The Justice Dept had initially stated that it would not seek further appeals in blocking the photos release.  However, today they pulled a 180 saying that they would indeed appeal the release.
Of course all of the talking heads on the news outlets talked about how this a complete reversal of policy by the Obama administration and that the transparency is gone. I’ve got a bit of a different opinion as to what’s going on though. Obama is a trained lawyer, married to a lawyer, and definitely believes in the rule of law.  One of the things about the law is that it’s based in large part on previous case precedents. So given the facts of a case, you can predict with some degree of certainty how a judge will rule. I believe that Obama may be using the courts to appear to be a bit more of a centrist than he really wants to be.
With the State Secrets case, I’m fairly certain that he didn’t want to carry it forward. The problem was that by immediately reversing all of Bush’s policies he could lose the right half of the political spectrum. But if he pretends to take a tough stance on certain aspects, but has his lawyers push for an over the top result, that they know they’ll never get and will be thrown out by any judge, then it’s not him being weak, it’s the judges that the right already dislikes. So Obama scores political points, appears to be a centrist, even though he gets exactly what he wants.
With todays decision, the talking news heads kept going on as if this decision was up to Obama. What everyone seems to forget is that it’s a lawsuit in the courts and that Obama has no real power to influence the outcome. All he can do is to let the Justice Dept know that he would like them to continue with the appeals process. The case has already been ruled on by a judge and there’s no evidence that the government will win on appeal. But Obama scores all sorts of points with the military and can counter Cheney’s attacks that he’s releasing damning evidence of the Bush Administration’s wrong doing. Because it’s now not him releasing the photos, it’ll be the courts deciding that he must. I’m sure the Justice Dept lawyers have looked at the case and can be fairly certain what the outcome will be. But Obama gets to have it both ways with this strategy.
If this is indeed what he’s doing I’m not sure how I feel about it. In one sense it reinforces the rule of law, but it would also be using the court system as a political tool.

I enjoyed watching the democratic convention tonight

It was nice to see Bill Clinton speak, there’s just something about that guy. It was pretty funny when the crowd looked like it could keep cheering for hours when he got up on stage.
I also enjoyed seeing Joe Biden speak. There were some bits that were repeated out of his speech with Barack on Saturday but overall I thought he did alright.
The main thing that I really liked was when Biden laid out how the media narrative is that McCain has all of the experience with foriegn policy and that Barack doesn’t, but how with almost every single foreign policy issue that’s come up since the campaigning began Obama has been proven right and McCain was forced to take the correct position after being wrong. Biden and Clinton need to be out on every news cast from here to Nov repeating this until the media gives in and stops giving McCain credit for things he’s gotten wrong.
Obama says he’s been trying to run a clean campaign, but I think there’s a difference between going negative, which McCain has jumped into with both feet, and pointing out where you honestly believe the other side has made mistakes and used poor judgement. There are all sorts of issues that the Democrats need to bring up, Clinton and Biden just barely got started tonight. If Obama is going to win I really think someone needs to bring them up repeatedly. The American people just don’t seem to react well to leaders that they don’t believe are sticking up for themselves.