Did The Early Internet Activists Blow It?
February 20, 2020 4:06 PM   Subscribe

With all of the issues we've seen with the internet these days - abuse, disinformation, doxxing, and so on - many people have been arguing that the early pioneers of the internet miscalculated and set the stage for what has been happening. In a longform piece for Slate, Wikimedia Foundation and former EFF counsel Mike Godwin argues that while there have been missteps, their position is still sound. (SLSlate)
posted by NoxAeternum (47 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
 
This feels like an article primarily about Mike Godwin feeling better about his movement's role in where we are today, versus a real accounting of the failings of the online free speech advocacy movement. He devotes an enormous amount of time vaguely condeming those he tries to paint scarily as "too-much-free-speech-folks" while basically hand-waving his own shitty past positions as having "evolved", despite that evolution basically being in line with what the scary "too-much-free-speech-folks" crowd has been saying since before he would listen.

Hey Mike: the people who are saying there's been too much of a focus on free speech above all aren't the weird social conservatives you want to pretend they are. They're people who didn't need decades of evidence thrust into their face to acknowledge that there are in fact some kinds of speech that should never be given a platform, regardless of what the absolutist free speech movement you yourself were a champion of believed.
posted by tocts at 4:22 PM on February 20, 2020 [18 favorites]


Fucking christ. Was this written by a millennial or a PR flack? The internet of today sucks for a Reason. You. Can. Fix. With. This. One. Simple. Trick.

We pulled the goddamned rug out from under what the internet could have been as a public service, with the backbone supported by public dollars and an open-source framework accessible to all, and instead let moneyed interested aggregate, and then monetize, the fuck out of it. Enjoy your click-bait, shell corporations, consumer profile farming, and 3-letter agency propaganda.

We deserve it.

Love,
The last Gen X-er.

p.s. Here's a glimpse of what was possible in 1998:
- publicly owned infrastructure
- free email/web/messenging service as a right, rather than a for-profit-service
- digital content dominated by the public library model, rather than the MPAA copyright model
- fucking unicorns and kittens for everybody. We were gods of the digital age, and now you idiots pay cash for loot boxes.
posted by metametamind at 4:28 PM on February 20, 2020 [81 favorites]


So, I posted this piece because I found it interesting, but not in the way Godwin intended. It's clear that he intended this piece to be an argument for the relevance of his position in today's age, but (at least for me) it instead comes across as an illustration of the the ideological blinkers that not only led those early pioneers to "blow it", as he put it, but to continue to be blinded to the reality of today's internet and the issues threatening it.

The first thing that struck me when reading through it was his constant use of euphemistic language when discussing the rise of hate speech online. Not once does Godwin use the term hate speech - at best he calls it "hurtful", showing an inability to grasp the actual nature of hate speech online, and later uses the term "disturbing dissent". This inability to acknowledge the reality of hate speech - how it makes people fear for their lives and retreat from the commons for safety, thus silencing them - makes it impossible to address it, because as the saying goes, "the first step in dealing with a problem is acknowledging that it exists."

More questionable are statements like this:
Those who think there needs to be more top-down censorship from the tech companies imagine that when censorship efforts fail, it means the companies aren’t trying hard enough to enforce their content policies. But the reality is that no matter how much money and manpower (plus less-than-perfect “artificial intelligence”) Facebook throws at curating hateful or illegal content on its services, and no matter how well-meaning Facebook’s intentions are, a user base edging toward 3 billion people is always going to generate hundreds of thousands, and perhaps millions, of false positives every year.
Trying to argue that the problem is just that the issue is too massive for Facebook to deal with comes across as willful blindness when we have reports such as Facebook refusing to actually deal with propaganda thanks to conservative activists in the company. The reports of the ways that many of these companies avert their eyes from dealing with hate speech and abuse have been many, and refusing to acknowledge that they exist is just sticking one's head in the sand at this point.
posted by NoxAeternum at 4:31 PM on February 20, 2020 [15 favorites]


Surprise! It turns out that almost every decision we made about how the Internet Should Be between the years of 1994 and 1999 was a godawful mistake, and now we're paying for it.
posted by Xyanthilous P. Harrierstick at 4:32 PM on February 20, 2020 [4 favorites]


I finished this with a sense of "that's it?" and had to go back through it to see what point the author was making, if any.

To recap:
- The EFF failed to predict the current form of the internet, but its policy recommendations and goals remain the same.
- The concern of the EFF's opponents is now around genocide, violence and hate, not pornography.
- The EFF believes that any solution which weakens Section 230 is bad because platforms will be forced to moderate heavily.
- In conclusion, the EFF was right then and is still right now.

I don't see how the conclusion follows from anything he said.

On preview: his aside about his position "having evolved" is nonsensical.
I’ve come to believe our society should take reasonable steps to limit intentionally harmful speech, but I also find myself increasingly embracing a broader, more instrumentalist vision of freedom of speech than I typically championed in the 1990s
That might as well be "I've come to believe in a globe Earth, but I also find myself increasingly embracing a broader view of flat Earth mechanisms." followed by a discussion about the color of the dome.
posted by Anonymous Function at 4:32 PM on February 20, 2020 [3 favorites]


I thought this was a really good and thoughtful article. I'm surprised by the dismissive comments.

The utter disaster that is modern big media should really make people think twice before they do anything that might have the effect of limiting online speech. While the NYTimes is platforming Nazis but doesn't cover massive anti-police protests in its own back yard, guess what: the internet is there to pick up the slack.
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 4:34 PM on February 20, 2020 [8 favorites]


The utter disaster that is modern big media should really make people think twice before they do anything that might have the effect of limiting online speech. While the NYTimes is platforming Nazis but doesn't cover massive anti-police protests in its own back yard, guess what: the internet is there to pick up the slack.

A lot of why modern big media is an utter disaster is because of the internet (see: Facebook lying about video, crippling many media outlets; Google basically forcing news agencies to provide them content for free.) And let's not forget that a lot of the major internet platforms are quite happy to platform Nazis as well.
posted by NoxAeternum at 4:40 PM on February 20, 2020 [13 favorites]


Was this written by a millennial or a PR flack?

Mike Godwin was born in 1956.
posted by tobascodagama at 4:54 PM on February 20, 2020 [4 favorites]


I would have liked to see more awareness in the article that the free speech battles of the early Internet were done by and for the particular demographics that dominated the early Internet. For example having free access to pornography was important to the majority male users of the early Internet, and popular "secret" books like the Anarchist Cookbook were popular with white supremacist types, who were not direct threats to the majority white users of the early Internet.

It's interesting to consider what the early Internet would have looked like had it been primarily driven by, say, middle-aged mothers, and how that might have resulted in a different baseline that we would today defer to as precedent.
posted by bright flowers at 5:03 PM on February 20, 2020 [14 favorites]


It's interesting to consider what the early Internet would have looked like had it been primarily driven by, say, middle-aged mothers, and how that might have resulted in a different baseline that we would today defer to as precedent.

I think this is a meaningless hypothetical - the early internet was driven by the kind of people who thought the idea of the internet was interesting despite the fact that you couldn't really do anything with it. Middle-aged mothers are generally not time-rich or early adopters; for middle-aged mothers to be the primary drivers of the internet, the world would have to be wildly different.

I think there is a question of how different the internet would have been had the California Ideology not been the driving force behind the internet, or, hell, if more people had paid attention to A Group Is Its Own Worst Enemy, which lays out the kind of patterns that Facebook and Twitter should have built but didn't.

I also think that we're at the tail end of social media - I don't think TikTok will be the next Twitter, because I think people will be looking for a new paradigm that gets away from the problems everyone is sick of from social media (and no-one's going back to forums). Family WhatsApp groups, Slack and Discord communities, WeChat. That's what we're running into the ground in the 20s.
posted by Merus at 5:20 PM on February 20, 2020 [6 favorites]


as a 'gen z' programmer who grew up in the bay area, i'm always kind of surprised that to be a radical in tech so often means free software libertarianism. i imagine this probably worked great in the early days, but today, technological power resides in platforms, not Access to Tools. if you could read facebook's source code, would its platform actually have less power? i'm not so sure.

if your code is truly valuable, i wonder if these days giving it away for free often helps corporations more than people — take a look at redis vs. amazon
posted by rlio at 5:49 PM on February 20, 2020 [10 favorites]


The thing that no one was really talking about back in the 90s, and that seems blindingly obvious in hindsight, is that a medium that massively reduced friction in certain kinds of transactions and eliminated many barriers of distance and time was OBVIOUSLY and inevitably going to lead to massive consolidation and monopoly type situations, unless really robust mechanisms existed to counter that.

The "Google" that works 5% better than the other is the one that everyone is going to flock to, obviously.

The online retailer that can sell things 1% cheaper than the other, and/or that has more of the market and thus more available options than the other, is going to dominate all the others, obviously.

A lot more time and thought should have gone into figuring out how to active counter those very strong tendencies. And I guess, should still be happening now.

And . . . let's talk about internet governance. Why in the world a domain name should cost more than maybe $1 or $2 per year, and why any private company should own the .org name registry are both questions that don't have any good answer.
posted by flug at 5:57 PM on February 20, 2020 [8 favorites]


Merus: I think this is a meaningless hypothetical - the early internet was driven by the kind of people who thought the idea of the internet was interesting despite the fact that you couldn't really do anything with it. Middle-aged mothers are generally not time-rich or early adopters; for middle-aged mothers to be the primary drivers of the internet, the world would have to be wildly different.

I agree that swapping out middle-aged mothers for men and keeping everything else the same is unlikely but we can imagine the Internet having developed somewhere entirely different. The Soviet Union, maybe. Anyway we can acknowledge that some of the early fights about free speech on the internet revolved around pornography and edgy bomb-making books and that it didn't have to be that way, and we shouldn't give undue weight to arguments made in that context.
posted by bright flowers at 6:00 PM on February 20, 2020 [4 favorites]


(and no-one's going back to forums)

Damn! Just, damn! I (very old guy) just see Twitter as a novelty toy for disseminating information and news, and Facebook as, well, Soylent Green/"To Serve Man" dystopic nightmare stuff. Godwin and the EFF are demented fanatics with more ego than humanity.
posted by Chitownfats at 6:01 PM on February 20, 2020 [1 favorite]


> no-one's going back to forums

I usually visit several forums every day.

But, whatevs . . .
posted by flug at 6:03 PM on February 20, 2020 [4 favorites]


Sorry to double-post in the same thread, but I just remember how old I am, and how young some of you are. I **cannot believe** the author of this piece didn't mention that this is the same Mike Godwin who originated "Godwin's Law,": See also: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mike_Godwin
posted by metametamind at 6:11 PM on February 20, 2020 [8 favorites]


this is the same Mike Godwin who originated "Godwin's Law,"

the thing that lets every idiot think they are making some kind of clever remark whenever the topic of Nazism comes into scope
posted by thelonius at 6:21 PM on February 20, 2020 [3 favorites]


the thing that lets every idiot think they are making some kind of clever remark whenever the topic of Nazism comes into scope

also the thing that assumed that there basically wouldn't be anyone on the internet actually espousing Nazi views

I usually visit several forums every day. But, whatevs . . .

Sure, but you never left, just like there are people who never left email discussion lists. I imagine some people would go back to forums, accidentally necro a thread, or even worse start a discussion that happens to be one of the perennial noone-agreed-and-noone-reads-the-old-thread discussions, or try and work out how far back to read in the threads that people make to hoover up general discussion into one thread, and remember why they left in the first place.
posted by Merus at 6:26 PM on February 20, 2020 [3 favorites]


It's interesting to consider what the early Internet would have looked like had it been primarily driven by, say, middle-aged mothers

Allow me to introduce you to the direct descendant of the tell-all mommy blog, The Influencers. It was when the middle aged moms’ buying decisions went online that certain pockets of the Internet became horror shows.
posted by warriorqueen at 6:39 PM on February 20, 2020 [4 favorites]


"Meanwhile, the poor Babel fish, by effectively removing all barriers to communication between different races and cultures, has caused more and bloodier wars than anything else in the history of creation."

The Internet is our Babel fish. It is the human subconscious, its id, its dreamscape, freely-shared. And it horrifying.

Mike and the other idealists believed that enhancing the exchange of knowledge across all of the old barriers, of country, of class, of race, of space and time would result in an Encyclopedia Galactica, a vast raising of human thought and consciousness on a par with the written word and the printing press. I know this is true, because I was one of these true believers, who held the faith that if we could only talk to one another, across every wall of space and time, we'd all work things out.

I guess, in retrospect, we'd been so dazzled by the light of a New Enlightenment that we forgot our Freud. Yes, the "clicks-and-views" economy has bent the Internet, but I remember Usenet and realizing even then that we should show more discretion in baring our innermost thoughts.

Facebook, Twitter, YouTube: you can, in abstract, consider these great strides forward in human communication. And indeed they are. But what they are telling us about ourselves is almost Lovecraftian in its cosmic horror: that you are ultimately alone in a world of monsters.

Well, and cat photos.
posted by SPrintF at 6:40 PM on February 20, 2020 [16 favorites]


I **cannot believe** the author of this piece didn't mention that this is the same Mike Godwin who originated "Godwin's Law,"

I kind of assume that anyone I read about with the last name Godwin is the person who originated "Godwin's Law". Always seems to work.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 6:43 PM on February 20, 2020 [2 favorites]


Godwin has added some updates.

"Godwin's law itself can be abused as a distraction, diversion or even as censorship, fallaciously miscasting an opponent's argument as hyperbole when the comparisons made by the argument are actually appropriate.[10] Mike Godwin himself has also criticized the overapplication of Godwin's law, claiming it does not articulate a fallacy; it is instead framed as a memetic tool to reduce the incidence of inappropriate, hyperbolic comparisons. "Although deliberately framed as if it were a law of nature or of mathematics," Godwin wrote, "its purpose has always been rhetorical and pedagogical: I wanted folks who glibly compared someone else to Hitler to think a bit harder about the Holocaust."[11]

"In December 2015, Godwin commented on the Nazi and fascist comparisons being made by several articles about Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, saying: "If you're thoughtful about it and show some real awareness of history, go ahead and refer to Hitler when you talk about Trump, or any other politician."[12] In August 2017, Godwin made similar remarks on social networking websites Facebook and Twitter with respect to the two previous days' Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, endorsing and encouraging efforts to compare its alt-right organizers to Nazis.[13][14][15][16]

"In October 2018, Godwin said on Twitter that it is acceptable to call Brazilian politician (later became President) Jair Bolsonaro a "Nazi".[17][18]

"In June 2019, after Chris Hayes invoked Godwin's Law in a discussion of whether it was appropriate to call the United States's refugee detention centers "concentration camps," Godwin explicitly stated his belief that the term "concentration camps" was appropriate."
posted by Nancy Lebovitz at 6:47 PM on February 20, 2020 [11 favorites]


A lot of why modern big media is an utter disaster is because of the internet (see: Facebook lying about video, crippling many media outlets; Google basically forcing news agencies to provide them content for free.) And let's not forget that a lot of the major internet platforms are quite happy to platform Nazis as well.

Naw, the NYTimes platformed Naziism a long time ago.

The only reason black people, or women, or trans people, or any other marginalized group that doesn't buy ads are able to get their interests discussed at all is because they don't have to go through the (mostly Republican-or-further-right) ubercreeps who gatekeep traditional media

I guess if you feel 100% represented by IDK, some mix of CNN and the Post, good for you, but I remember the 90s. It fucking sucked.
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 7:23 PM on February 20, 2020 [9 favorites]


ive seen things you people wouldnt believe
green card spam on alt.fan.karl-malden.nose
i watched animated gifs on metafilter
all those moments will be lost like tears in the rain
time to logout
posted by entropicamericana at 7:32 PM on February 20, 2020 [13 favorites]


What happened to the internet was profit. It's the same fundamentalist marketization happening to everything else in our life.
posted by Ray Walston, Luck Dragon at 8:51 PM on February 20, 2020 [6 favorites]


. I know this is true, because I was one of these true believers, who held the faith that if we could only talk to one another, across every wall of space and time, we'd all work things out.

That was the problem, though - there was the expectation that the answer to all social ills was for people to talk - including having victims of bigotry and prejudice to sit down (so to speak) with the very people who victimized them, and then blaming those victims when they quite understandably felt unsafe in doing so. The problem has always been the idea that the bigot should be allowed a seat out of some sense of "viewpoint diversity", instead of bigots being shown the door.

The only reason black people, or women, or trans people, or any other marginalized group that doesn't buy ads are able to get their interests discussed at all is because they don't have to go through the (mostly Republican-or-further-right) ubercreeps who gatekeep traditional media

No, they just had to fight through online gatekeepers who demanded that they give time to the people who attacked them because of "free speech". Whether in traditional media or online, the dispossessed have had to fight for their spaces.
posted by NoxAeternum at 9:51 PM on February 20, 2020 [5 favorites]


The argument that Facebook is somehow unable to moderate their content is just stupid. They do moderate nudity with 100% effectiveness. That they don't moderate Nazis is a choice.
posted by patrick54 at 10:33 PM on February 20, 2020 [17 favorites]


It's still good! It's still good!
posted by flabdablet at 11:20 PM on February 20, 2020 [2 favorites]


My strong sense is that tools to silence people often silence the people with the least power. Black friends get their accounts reported and can't post. White people saying stuff either don't have to be as blatant because they can dog whistle and people will know what they mean, or just get the benefit of the doubt, and don't have issues. We've seen how shit works with SESTA/FOSTA. It's expensive to handle speech, and cheaper not to handle it if it's at all risky. But that's not really a good governance model for a free exchange of ideas or for forums in which members of disadvantaged groups can speak for themselves and self organize. And when there's no real competition, competing on free speech or good moderation or not being racist isn't worth the effort.

Many, not all but many, of the issues I see on the internet relate to fair markets being distorted, and I think we would be better off if we had a robust system of antitrust enforcement, where anti competitive actions, regardless of whether consumers are explicitly harmed, are seen as problematic because concentrated power even not in a monopoly is inherently anti competitive, and where corporations need to compete on what they provide to users.

Big tech companies have done very well in no small part because they can block out or simply buy competitors, thus consolidating their grip rather than competing in a real market.
posted by gryftir at 2:17 AM on February 21, 2020 [2 favorites]


I also thought this was a really interesting article.
posted by grouse at 4:10 AM on February 21, 2020 [1 favorite]


p.s. Here's a glimpse of what was possible in 1998:
- publicly owned infrastructure
- free email/web/messenging service as a right, rather than a for-profit-service
- digital content dominated by the public library model, rather than the MPAA copyright model
- fucking unicorns and kittens for everybody. We were gods of the digital age, and now you idiots pay cash for loot boxes.


Not disagreeing with you, metametamind, but I do wonder how much of this perspective is inherent to the early internet, and how much of it is due to being Of A Certain Age when the early internet was taking off. I was also a True Believer that the interconnectedness of people via software would be a game-changer, and that the ideals of free-as-in-speech and free-as-in-beer software would transcend whatever hurdles capitalism could throw at it. I was also 14. And not a particularly canny 14. I was a power user and an early adopter of everything, and saw that same future paved with kittens and unicorns, and I really and truly believed that the RIAA's crackdown on Napster, or the CIA putting backdoors into crypto, were just speedbumps that we could overcome by leaning into the collectivist ethos that would democratize online access while not consolidating power into the hands of the moneyed elite. I believed those things mostly because I was a naive simp who hadn't studied enough history or sociology. (I'm also still a naive simp who hasn't studied enough history or sociology, but I was then, too </mitch hedberg>)

The activists spoken of in this article may have had their hearts in the right place, but I suspect the kind of blind faith they had--that the ideals of personal freedom would triumph and result in a better world for everyone, not just the elite--was driven by some weapons-grade naivete. And our blinkered idealism left a gap capital was eager to exploit, so ARPANET got eaten by Facebook and Amazon, and now we're all stuck with platforms that encourage misogyny and white supremacy.
posted by Mayor West at 5:57 AM on February 21, 2020 [3 favorites]


The argument that Facebook is somehow unable to moderate their content is just stupid. They do moderate nudity with 100% effectiveness. That they don't moderate Nazis is a choice.

Yes, and they are already able to moderate for Nazi content, since the law in Germany requires them to eliminate it. The argument that they can't moderate for content is a lie.
posted by fuzz at 6:46 AM on February 21, 2020 [2 favorites]


For those who never saw it, in 2003 Autodesk founder John Walker predicted much of this in "The Digital Imprimatur" (cw: long)
posted by CheesesOfBrazil at 6:58 AM on February 21, 2020 [2 favorites]


Not disagreeing with you, metametamind, but I do wonder how much of this perspective is inherent to the early internet, and how much of it is due to being Of A Certain Age when the early internet was taking off.

I’ve written about this elsewhere, so please forgive the copypasta, but yeah, “of a certain age” is on point.
The blind spots of this worldview are the products of a time where someone on the inside could comfortably pretend that all the other systems that had granted them these opportunities and freedoms simply didn’t exist. Those access controls were handled, invisibly, elsewhere; university admission, corporate hiring practices or geography being just a few examples of the many, many barriers between the network and the average person.

And when we’re talking about blind spots and invisible social access controls, of course, what we’re really talking about is privilege.
I kept thinking, over and over while reading Godwin’s article: wow, dude must be pretty comfortable.
posted by mhoye at 7:01 AM on February 21, 2020 [4 favorites]


No, they just had to fight through online gatekeepers who demanded that they give time to the people who attacked them because of "free speech". Whether in traditional media or online, the dispossessed have had to fight for their spaces.

There aren’t that many effective online gatekeepers in the traditional media sense. Anyone who is marginalized and remembers the 90s-2000s knows how much better and easier it is to find content and people like you online. It’s been getting worse in the last few years for various reasons (including SOSTA-FESTA). But it’s still way, way better. Again, marginalized people tend to value the internet highly, including social media. Being able to communicate with each other, in relative safety, is a phenomenal gift.

Also, forums still exist, just like cars still exist even though they don’t look like Model Ts anymore. Reddit hosts a bunch of forums. Slacks are basically chat rooms. Etc. etc. etc.
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 8:18 AM on February 21, 2020 [6 favorites]


I'm liking it less that he's been saying yes.
posted by flabdablet at 8:49 AM on February 21, 2020


There aren’t that many effective online gatekeepers in the traditional media sense. Anyone who is marginalized and remembers the 90s-2000s knows how much better and easier it is to find content and people like you online. It’s been getting worse in the last few years for various reasons (including SOSTA-FESTA). But it’s still way, way better. Again, marginalized people tend to value the internet highly, including social media. Being able to communicate with each other, in relative safety, is a phenomenal gift.

This continues to miss the point. The reason things are better for marginalized people online today is because of the hard work of activists supporting them - activists who often found themselves having to fight against the free speech "absolutists" who made up the cadre of early internet activists. From my perspective, a large part of why the opposition to FOSTA/SESTA had a rough time was because those free speech "absolutists" locked them into a position of "Section 230 must not be altered" - a position that was already weak at that point, and just got weaker when Backpage admitted they used it as a shield to protect themselves from liability resulting in their involvement in trafficking. Had the opposition been able to argue that while FOSTA/SESTA was not the answer, changes were needed with Section 230 - they wouldn't have conceded so much ground to their opponents.
posted by NoxAeternum at 9:03 AM on February 21, 2020


It's precisely because the early advances were so miraculous that it has taken so long to recognize the downsides. I remember the feeling in 2001 when I found the other 12 people on earth who were interested in the kind of wines I was. Obviously, in retrospect the worst people on earth were also finding each other, but I didn't think about that because my own experience was so positive. It's the same way that fossil fuels took a very long time to be recognized as the eldritch horror they are, because the benefits of being able to use energy are obvious.

The real question is whether the activism at the time could have prevented the problems. My personal guess is probably not. Remove the Electronic Frontier Foundation and you probably would have poor-quality government encryption plus Nazis on Twitter. Government-mandated censorship plus massive tech monopolies. Activism is well-suited to fighting off top-down governmental action, but the problems of the Internet are almost entirely those of connecting the entire world at low cost with narrowcast communications. Well-organized advocacy organizations (which didn't exist anyway, the EFF was the biggest and they were still a tiny bunch of nerds, I participated in some of the early protests) don't have the ability to make people not shitty.
posted by wnissen at 11:33 AM on February 21, 2020 [2 favorites]


Anyone who believes that Facebook is unable technically to moderate content effectively should try posting an ad selling a breast pump on Facebook marketplace or on a buy sell group. It'll be down within ten minutes, I'm not kidding. The same goes for anything that Facebook deems to be medical equipment.
posted by peacheater at 11:55 AM on February 21, 2020 [2 favorites]


Well-organized advocacy organizations (which didn't exist anyway, the EFF was the biggest and they were still a tiny bunch of nerds, I participated in some of the early protests) don't have the ability to make people not shitty.

Except that they do - for example, many LGBTQ advocacy groups focus on outreach to educate people and make them less shitty to queer individuals. It's not going to reach everyone, but even if you only reach some, it's still a worthwhile effort. Again, the problem comes back to ideological blinders by those early internet activists, who came out of the free speech "absolutist" culture in the tech community, which was often an attempt to put a layer of varnish on "I shouldn't be held accountable for what I say by other people, no matter how hateful or bigoted." There's a reason the EFF tends to be poor on topics like online harassment or revenge porn - they tend to be more concerned about potential overreach of laws fighting these than about the actual harm being done.
posted by NoxAeternum at 12:23 PM on February 21, 2020 [1 favorite]


A few things, in some kind of order: (aside: I'm Director of Strategy at EFF, but this is much more my personal opinion as a Mefite then a well-crafted position paper from EFF)

First, maybe obvious: I love Mike, but neither he nor I would ever claim *he* is speaking for EFF in this piece. In fact, right now, we're pretty much on opposite sides of a big fight at the moment -- the .ORG domain name fracas, with Mike as a board member of ISOC arguing that it's a good deal, and us leading the charge to challenge the deal. That's okay: indeed, almost by definition, we're all going to throw ourselves into defending each other's right to disagree. That's what we do, right?

Second, and I guess more personal and Metatalk-y, I and the other Mefites who work on these issues at EFF don't tend to jump into these discussions -- I think because our collective prediction is, as we drove into the finer details, it would mostly end up being a long, drawn-out threadsit between us and NoxAeternam, which is almost the definition of the kind of online argument that doesn't really shine much light on the topic, doesn't sit well within MeFi, and certainly isn't necessary for any of us to make our arguments public and independently considerable.

There are plenty of pulpits elsewhere where you can here EFF talk about our positions: this is Nox's home, where I come to hear them make smart arguments against us. But I would say that I think Nox expresses that case against us excellently, they do far less well when extrapolating what EFF thinks, or the background to our battles both now and in the past.

Third, and why despite saying all that, I am here, utterly failing to keep stoically silent: Nox's description of what happened in the CDA 230 SESTA/FOSTA fight really isn't accurate, and I think it's important to understand why, and the dynamics of important battles that you will see play out now, and will be encouraged to join with.

I hope this isn't too off-topic for this thread, because it describes some of the continuing limits of movement by civil liberties and digital rights groups, and why it's important to model everybody's incentives correctly to stop well-meaning reform turning into nightmares.

Nox's argument is that maybe SESTA/FOSTA wouldnt' have passed if "free speech absolutists" hadn't been so defiant and simply conceded that Section 230 needed reform, simply doesn't fit the facts.

SESTA/FOSTA is *explicitly* a reform of Section 230 -- and one that had the overwhelming support of both Democrats and Republicans, because it seemed an absolutely minimal change to it. If you concede that intermediaries deserve to have a little bit of liability for the communications of their users -- which is to say, to pierce CDA 230's protections -- really the clearest, most undeniable and politically palatable version of that reform was imposing liability for sex trafficking. This is one of the worst crimes, and to the extent that sites might enable it, it's absolutely the simplest argument you can make against CDA 230. And that's what SESTA/FOSTA did.

Nobody stood against SESTA/FOSTA in traditional politics. More importantly, the tech companies ultimately supported it, and Facebook ended up leading the charge to pass it. The left and the right united in favour of it -- the right, for moral and religious reasons around sex, the left because the tech companies needed to be made responsible, and eliminating the intermediary protections had long been agreed as the best way of doing this.

The only people, in the end, who opposed it, were those described as CDA 230 "absolutists", i.e. us - who predicted it would result in speech harms for sex workers, because of our model of how the CDA 230 incentives work. Oh, and organized sex workers themselves, who are constantly erased from this discussion because they absolutely could see what was going to happen, but were railroaded over the established power nexuses that make these policy choices.

And, despite this being an almost universally approved law, a veritable test-bed of what happens when you weaken CDA 230, what happened next was *exactly* what we "absolutists" and sex worker community predicted. I'm not going to give you a link dump of the consequences of SESTA/FOSTA because this is already too long, but basically: the day after, Craiglist shut down personals, Facebook globally re-wrote their terms of service to limit sexual language and behaviour, and sex workers forums were shuffled off the Internet, leading to absolutely, documentable harm to them. Don't listen to me: listen to the people everybody should have been listening to in the first place.

None of this is contested: AOC and others are now working to repeal SESTA/FOSTA.

But the only *slightest* chance we had to stop SESTA/FOSTA at the time, and Gods I wished we'd done it better, was to argue that messing with CDA 230, while seeming benign, has these crazy consequences, and that reforming it is not some magical fix, nor is it the secret sauce that makes the online oligarchs so powerful today.

There simply wasn't a coherent position to stake out that said "CDA 230 reform is in general perfectly reasonable, but SESTA/FOSTA will silence the vulnerable and cause sex workers to have to go back onto the streets, and make their lives more dangerous." We mapped out the incentives! We listened, as we do, to those we suspected of being most vulnerable to this change! We amplified, and continue to amplify and support their voices. We did that, because we're free speech activists, and that's what actual free speech activists do.

And we're going to do it again, because this week Attorney General Barr held a big conference where people on the left and the right put aside their differences to argue that CDA 230 should be undermined some more to , because apparently we didn't manage to stop child exploitation with SESTA/FOSTA and what we really need to do is stop listening to the people who were right last time, and pass another bill, which happens to give all the power to Attorney General Barr.

You're going to be asked to support this bill, and you're going to be asked to support many other bills to pierce CDA 230, and they'll be wonderful bi-partisan efforts, and they'll even have the tacit support of the tech companies, and you'll be told that only free speech absolutists are opposing because we're in the pay of Big Tech, or somesuch. We'll try and make better arguments at EFF, and not just rant for 1000 words here, but please, please, exercise some caution in offers to fix the Internet that seem a bit too simple to be true -- otherwise you risk making, what I believe to be far worse, far more unforced mistakes than anyone made in early days of the Internet.
posted by ntk at 1:03 PM on February 21, 2020 [23 favorites]


Again, from my perspective, the problem with FOSTA/SESTA is that it was a bad law written to hurt sex workers - this was not an accident of it piercing Section 230, the cruelty was the point. I do believe that you can create a targeted rollback that would specifically address sex trafficking without harming sex workers - but to do that, you have to acknowledge that you are going to have to modify the law.

As for the argument that Section 230 isn't blanket indemnification - when we have things like Facebook arguing that Section 230 means that they cannot be held liable for providing employers the tools to discriminate with their ads (which in turn comes off of Craigslist being held to not be liable for housing ads that violate the Fair Housing Act), or Reddit refusing to take action against one of the largest releases of nonconsentual pornography until it was revealed that there were underage images contained within, resulting in Reddit then nuking it from orbit and salting the ashes - it makes the argument ring hollow. It's become clear that if a service provider can provide a fig leaf that it's the users providing the content, then they can't be held liable - hence why Facebook is happy to allow politicians to lie in the ads they buy from the company, and to allow defamatory videos to remain online.

And yes, I'll be asked to support attempts to pierce the Section 230 veil, and many I'll reject because of their nature (again, I have said over and over that SESTA/FOSTA is bad law.) But if someone puts up a well crafted and tailored law to roll back the blanket in an area that I think it needs to be rolled back in - like making it clear that no, you don't get a pass on making a site devoted to revenge porn if you make sure that it's only the users providing the images - yes, I'm going to support that law. The argument that the dangers of bad regulations means that regulation is bad is a longstanding libertarian bad penny - the dangers of bad regulation means that we should think our decisions through carefully and craft our laws well - not abandon the idea completely.
posted by NoxAeternum at 4:15 PM on February 21, 2020 [2 favorites]


I hadn't been too familiar with the ins and outs of section 230 until I started seeing articles on the subject come across sites like Ars Technica, but the arguments I was seeing in favor of it absolutely floored me. This was part and parcel of the despised Communication Decency Act! This was what all us young idealistic netizens hated so vehemently back in the day, giving corporations on the net all the power of editorial control over content but none of the consequences for their decisions!
There simply wasn't a coherent position to stake out that said "CDA 230 reform is in general perfectly reasonable, but SESTA/FOSTA will silence the vulnerable and cause sex workers to have to go back onto the streets, and make their lives more dangerous."
If you want to be the kind of EFF I wanted you to be all this time, please find such a position.
posted by traveler_ at 4:45 PM on February 21, 2020


traveler_: No, the activism was around the anti-indeceny and anti-obscenity the other bit of the Communications Decency Act (well, another bit of the 1996 Telecommunications Act -- the CDA language was sort of already confusing at the time, because they were amendments to the Telecom Act that were merged at a later moment.). As I understand it the part that became section 230 was added there in order for it be understood as a compromise. Those who wanted to place broad US-led censorship of the Internet introduced the Communications Decency Act. At the time, intermediaries (including bulletin board systems) were caught between two different liability regimes -- one where you could be sued if you *didn't* do anything about what your users were saying, and one where you were only liable if you *did* do something. So 230 was intended to make clear that it was the users, not the intermediaries that were civilly liable for what they said -- which gave moderators the legal clearance to choose what was said on their platforms.

What I meant about the tension about reforming CDA 230 is that the theory behind doing so is largely that if you provide civil liability to intermediaries, then they will step in to wisely and thoughtfully moderate their users, because if they don't then they will have civil liability. SESTA/FOSTA was a fine version of that: you say that intermediaries are liable for the sex trafficking on their site. So Facebook, Craigslist, etc, will work diligently to make sure that that doesn't happen.

The civil liberties argument against piercing CDA 230, is that that's not how the incentives work. Any intermediary won't want to risk anything touching liability because the cost of making a mistake is entirely on the side of letting something go through. How do you know if something is sex trafficking, or two consenting adults hooking up? Sex traffickers disguise themselves as consenting adults all the time in order to avoid detection. How do you know if something is defamation, or somebody speaking the truth about a powerful person? For an intermediary facing liability, our argument was that the primary way you can avoid this is just by not accepting that kind of speech on your platform, in such broad strokes as to silence that speech entirely.

Who is right? In the case of SESTA/FOSTA, those arguing for the latter model of CDA 230 were undeniably correct. I guess you can argue that the next time advocates of intermediary liability will learn from SESTA/FOSTA -- but so far, mainly what we hear is people saying, "oh that was a bad one because it had bad people involved who don't care about sex workers." But it also had a lot of well-meaning people involved who simply didn't believe that increasing liability would cause the very problems that we said it would.

The disaster of SESTA/FOSTA comes from its model of how increased liabilities work, not because the wrong people wrote it. Everybody *but* the people worried about liability, on the left and the right, thought it was fine.
posted by ntk at 5:58 PM on February 22, 2020 [3 favorites]


More on the history of what became the CDA: it was a wild mashup of Sen. Exon's "Communications Decency Act" (which outlawed certain online speech) with Rep. Cox and Wyden's "Internet Freedom and Family Empowerment Act" (which had what became 230). The ACLU promptly sued and the Supreme Court struck down the censorship part, leaving the immunization part standing (with an odd name associated).
posted by away for regrooving at 7:51 PM on February 22, 2020


The other issue with intermediary liability is that any regulatory regime---espeically one that will be shaped by the big players in the regulated industry, which it will---tends to crowd out lower-resourced entities because of the cost of regulation. In many industries, whatever, but in an industry with so much entrenched monopoly power, making the competition picture worse by making it impossibly expensive to start up something new is a real concern.
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 7:54 PM on February 22, 2020 [7 favorites]


CANNOT RESIST TRYING TO HAVE LAST WORD

But in a more conciliatory tone: Fraud Detective is of course right. One of the strategies to combat this general problem with reforming the regulatory regime -- that the tech giants are now also at the negotiating table -- is to create regulations that are conditioned on entity size.

This is a potentially promising idea if your plan is for the internet giants to face greater legal responsibility, but the more you look at it, the more it doesn't match what people want from particular reforms. In the case of CDA 230 reform, the challenge is that the framing of the problem, on its own terms, *shouldn't* be related to size. If what you want is intermediaries to feel incentivized to tidy up their act through legal threats, why should size matter? Does it matter if people are only making a small profit from the filthy behavior of their smaller set of scofflaw userbase? Everyone should be incentivized in the same way: what's good for Facebook is good for Metafilter, in other words.

We faced this with the Copyright Directive in the EU, with its copyright filters and news publishers' link license fee, and such -- that was pretty much aimed explicitly directly at the Googles and the Facebooks, but was (initially) written to target every intermediary. When MEPs wanted to create some carve-outs because they were rightly concerned this would affect small European alternatives to FAANG, the creators of the Directive stressed that protecting copyright was an *ethical* and *moral mandate* that applied equally to everyone, big and small, and in fact having carve-outs was just condoning piracy outside of the big tech combines.

So the carve-outs were whittled away to the point that I'm not sure they're that useful anymore -- and the entertainment industry and their lawyers will certainly keep chipping away at them. This is the danger of conflating a moral issue with a re-arrangement of economic (or legal) incentives, which is I think where intermediary liability reform, as a project and a strategy, stumbles.

We favor ultimately a more direct approach. Section 230 enabled an Internet where Metafilter could exist, and enables its existence now; the tech giants emerged from that same Internet, but the problem isn't that past Internet, it's the tech giants behaviour *now*. Your best bet is to fix the problem directly: break 'em up, or (I guess) regulate them as monopolies. Don't try to get them indirectly with the laws that enable what's good about the Net to still exist in their hopefully short-lived shadows.
posted by ntk at 8:27 PM on February 24, 2020 [2 favorites]


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