Europe Against the Net

I’ve spent a worrisome weekend reading three documents from Europe about regulating the net:

In all this, I see danger for the net and its freedoms posed by corporate protectionism and a rising moral panic about technology. One at a time:

Articles 11 & 13: Protectionism gone mad

Article 11 is the so-called link tax, the bastard son of the German Leistungsschutzrecht or ancillary copyright that publishers tried to use to force Google to pay for snippets. They failed. They’re trying again. Reda, a member of the European Parliament, details the dangers:

Reproducing more than “single words or very short extracts” of news stories will require a licence. That will likely cover many of the snippets commonly shown alongside links today in order to give you an idea of what they lead to….
No exceptions are made even for services run by individuals, small companies or non-profits, which probably includes any monetised blogs or websites.

European journalists protest that this will serve media corporations, not journalists. Absolutely.

But the danger to free speech, to the public conversation, and to facts and evidence are greater. Journalism and the academe have long depended on the ability to quote — at length — source material to then challenge or expand upon or explain it. This legislation begins to make versions of that act illegal. You’d have to pay a license to a news property to quote it. Nevermind that 99.9 percent of journalism quotes others. The results: Links become blind alleys sending you to god-knows-what dark holes exploited by spammers and conspiracy theories. News sites lose audience and impact (witness how a link tax forced Google News out of Spain). Even bloggers like me could be restricted from quoting others as I did above, killing the web’s magnificent ability to foster conversation with substance.

Why do this? Because publishers think they can use their clout to get legislators to bully the platforms into paying them for their “content,” refusing to come to grips with the fact that the real value now is in the audience the platforms send to the publishers. It is corporate protectionism born of political capital. It is corrupt and corrupting of the net. It is a crime.

Article 13 is roughly Europe’s version of the SOPA/PIPA fight in the U.S.: protectionism on behalf of entertainment media companies. It requires sites where users might post material —isn’t that every interactive site on the net ?— to “preemptively buy licenses for anything that users may possibly upload,” in Reda’s explanation. They will also have to deploy upload filters — which are expensive to operate and notoriously full of false positives — to detect anything that is not licensed. The net: Sites will not allow anyone to post any media that could possibly come from anywhere.

So we won’t be able to quote or adapt. Death to the meme. Yes, there are exceptions for criticism, but as Lawrence Lessig famously said “fair use is the right to hire a lawyer.” This legislation attempts to kill what the net finally brought to society: diverse and open conversation.

Cairncross Review: Protecting journalism as it was

The UK dispatched Dame Frances Cairncross, a former journalist and economist, to review the imperiled state of news and she returned with a long and well-intentioned but out-of-date document. A number of observations:

  • She fails — along with many others — to define quality journalism. “Ultimately, ‘high quality journalism’ is a subjective concept that depends neither solely on the audience nor the news provider. It must be truthful and comprehensive and should ideally — but not necessarily — be edited. You know it when you see it….” (Just like porn, but porn’s easier.) Thus she cannot define the very thing her report strives to defend. A related frustration: She doesn’t very much criticize the state of journalism or the reasons why trust in it is foundering, only noting its fall.
  • I worry greatly about her conclusion that “intervention may be needed to determine what, and how, news is presented online.” So you can’t define quality but you’re going to regulate how platforms present it? Oh, the platforms are trying to understand quality in news. (Disclosure: I’m working on just such a project, funded by but independent of Facebook.) But the solutions are not obvious. Cairncross wants the platforms to have an obligation “to nudge people towards reading news of high quality” and even to impose quotas for quality news on the platforms. Doesn’t that make the platforms the editors? Is that what editors really want? Elsewhere in the report, she argues that “this task is too important to leave entirely to the judgment of commercial entities.” But BBC aside, that is where the task of news lies today: in commercial entities. Bottom line: I worry about *any* government intervention in speech and especially in journalism.
  • She rightly focuses less on national publications and more on the loss of what she calls “public interest news,” which really means local reporting on government. Agreed. She also glances by the paradox that public-interest news “is often of limited interest to the public.” Well, then, I wish she had looked at the problem and opportunity from the perspective of what the net makes possible. Why not start with new standards to require radical transparency of government, making every piece of legislation, every report, every budget public? There have been pioneering projects in the UK to do just that. That would make the task of any journalist more efficient and it would enable collaborative effort by the community: citizens, librarians, teachers, classes…. She wants a government fund to pay for innovations in this arena. Fine, then be truly innovative. She further calls for the creation of an Institute for Public Interest News. Do we need another such organization? Journalism has so many.
  • She explores a VAT tax break for subscriptions to online publications. Sounds OK, but I worry that this would motivate more publications to put up paywalls, which will further redline quality journalism for those who can afford it.
  • She often talked about “the unbalanced relationship between publishers and online platforms.” This assumes that there is some natural balance, some stasis that can be reestablished, as if history should be our only guide. No, life changed with the internet.
  • She recommends that the platforms be required to set out codes of conduct that would be overseen by a regulator “with powers to insist on compliance.” She wants the platforms to commit “not to index more than a certain amount of a publisher’s content without an explicit agreement.” First, robots.txt and such already put that in publishers’ control. Second, Cairncross acknowledges that links from platforms are beneficial. She worries about — but does not define — too much linking. I see a slippery slope to Article 11 (above) and, really, so does Cairncross: “There are grounds for worrying that the implementation of Article 11 in the EU may backfire and restrict access to news.” In her code of conduct, platforms should not impose their ad platforms on publishers — but if publishers want revenue from the platforms they pretty much have to. She wants platforms to give early warnings of changes in algorithms but that will be spammed. She wants transparency of advertising terms (what other industries negotiate in public?).
  • Cairncross complains that “most newspapers have lacked the skills and resources to make good use of data on their readers” and she wants the platforms to share user data with publishers. I agree heartily. This is why I worry that another European regulatory regime — GDPR — makes that nigh unto impossible.
  • She wants a study of the competitive landscape around advertising. Yes, fine. Note, thought, that advertising is becoming less of a force in publishers’ business plans by the day.
  • Good news: She rejects direct state support for journalism because “the effect may be to undermine trust in the press still further, at a time when it needs rebuilding.” She won’t endorse throttling the BBC’s digital efforts just because commercial publishers resent the competition. She sees danger in giving the publishing industry an antitrust exception to negotiate with the platforms (as is also being proposed in the U.S.) because that likely could lead to higher prices. And she thinks government should help publishers adapt by “encouraging the development and distribution of new technologies and business models.” OK, but what publishers and which technologies and models? If we knew which ones would work, we’d already be using them.
  • Finally, I note a subtle paternalism in the report. “The stories people want to read may not always be the ones they ought to read in order to ensure that a democracy can hold its public servants properly to account.” Or the news people need in their lives might not be the news that news organizations are reporting. Also: Poor people — who would be cut off by paywalls — “are not just more likely to have lower levels of literacy than the better-off; their digital skills also tend to be lower.” Class distinctions never end.

It’s not a bad report. It is cautious. But it’s also not visionary, not daring to imagine a new journalism for a new society. That is what is really needed.

The Commons report: Finding fault

The Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee is famously the body Mark Zuckerberg refused to testify before. And, boy, are they pissed. Most of this report is an indictment of Facebook on many sins, most notably Cambridge Analytica. For the purposes of this post, about possible regulation, I won’t indulge in further prosecuting or defending the case against Facebook (see my broader critique of the company’s culture here). What interests me in this case is the set of committee recommendations that could have an impact on the net, including our net outside of the UK.

The committee frets — properly — over malicious impact of Brexit. And where did much of the disinformation that led to that disaster come from? From politicians: Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson, et al. This committee, headed by a conservative, makes no mention of colleagues. As with the Cairncross report, why not start at home and ask what government needs to do to improve the state of its contribution to the information ecosystem? A few more notes:

  • Just as Cairncross has trouble defining quality journalism, the Commons committee has trouble defining the harm it sees everywhere on the internet. It puts off that critical and specific task to an upcoming Online Harms white paper from the government. (Will there also be an Online Benefits white paper?) The committee calls for holding social media companies — “which is not necessarily either a ‘platform’ or a ‘publisher’,” the report cryptically says — liable for “content identified as harmful after it has been posted by users.” The committee then goes much farther, threatening not just tech companies but technologists. My emphasis: “If tech companies (including technological engineers involved in creating the software for the companies) are found to have failed to meet their obligations under such a Code [of Ethics], and not acted against the distribution of harmful and illegal content, the independent regulator should have the ability to launch legal proceedings against them, with the prospect of large fines being administered….” Them’s fightin’ words, demonizing not just the technology and the technology company but the technologist.
  • Again and again in reading the committee’s report, I wrote in the margin “China” or “Iran,” wondering how the precedents and tools wished for here could be used by authoritarian regimes to control speech on the net. For example: “There is now an urgent need to establish independent regulation. We believe that a compulsory Code of Ethics should be established, overseen by an independent regulator, setting out what constitutes harmful content.” How — except in the details — does that differ from China deciding what is harmful to the minds of the masses? Do we really believe that a piece of “harmful content” can change the behavior of a citizen for the worse without many other underlying causes? Who knows best for those citizens? The state? Editors? Technologists? Or citizens themselves? The committee notes — with apparent approval — a new French law that “allows judges to order the immediate removal of online articles that they decide constitute disinformation.” All this sounds authoritarian to me and antithetical to the respect and freedom the net gives people.
  • The committee expands the definition of personal data — which, under GDPR, is already ludicrously broad, to include, for example, your IP address. It wants to include “inferred data.” I hate to think what that could do to the discipline of machine learning and artificial intelligence — to the patterns and inferences that will compose patterns discerned and knowledge produced by machines.
  • The committee wants to impose a 2% “digital services tax on UK revenues of big technology companies.” On what basis, besides vendetta against big (American) companies?
  • The Information Commissioner told the committee that “Facebook needs to significantly change its business model and its practices to maintain trust.” How often does government get into the nitty-gritty of companies’ business models? And let’s be clear: The problem with Facebook’s business model — click-based, volume-based, attention-based advertising — is precisely what drove media into the abyss of mistrust. So should the government tell media to change its business model? They wouldn’t dare.
  • The report worries about the “pernicious nature of micro-targeted political adverts” and quotes the Coalition for Reform in Political Advertising recommending that “all factual claims used in political ads be pre-cleared; an existing or new body should have the power to regulate political advertising content.” So government in power would clear the content of ads of challengers? What could possibly go wrong? And micro-targeting of one sort or another is also what enables small communities with specific interests to find each other and organize. Give up your presumptions of the mass.
  • The report argues “there needs to be absolute transparency of online political campaigning.” I agree. Facebook, under pressure, created a searchable database of political ads. I think Facebook should do more and make targeting data public. And I think every — every — other sector of media should match Facebook. Having said that, I still think we need to be careful about setting precedents that might not work so well in countries like, say, Hungry or Turkey, where complete transparency in political advertising and activism could lead to danger for opponents of authoritarian regimes.
  • The committee, like Cairncross, expresses affection for eliminating VAT taxes on digital subscriptions. “This would eliminate the false incentive for news companies against developing more paid-for digital services.” Who said what is the true or false business model? I repeat my concern that government meddling in subscription models could have a deleterious impact on news for the public at large, especially the poor. It would also put more news behind paywalls, with less audience, resulting in less impact from it. (A hidden agenda, perhaps?)
  • “The Government should put pressure on social media companies to publicize any instances of disinformation,” the committee urges. OK. But define “disinformation.” You’ll find it just as challenging as defining “quality news” and “harm.”
  • The committee, like Cairncross, salutes the flag of media literacy. I remain dubious.
  • And the committee, like Cairncross, sometimes reveals its condescension. “Some believe that friction should be reintroduced into the online experience, by both tech companies and by individual users themselves, in order to recognize the need to pause and think before generating or consuming content.” They go so far as to propose that this friction could include “the ability to share a post or a comment, only if the sharer writes about the post; the option to share a post only when it has been read in its entirety.” Oh, for God’s sake: How about politicians pausing and thinking before they speak, creating the hell that is Brexit or Trump?

In the end, I fear all this is hubris: to think that we know what the internet is and what its impact will be before we dare to define and limit the opportunities it presents. I fear the paternalistic unto authoritarian worldview that those with power know better than those without. I fear the unintended — and intended — consequences of all this regulation and protectionism. I trust the public to figure it out eventually. We figured out printing and steam power and the telegraph and radio and television. We will figure out the internet if given half a chance.

And I didn’t even begin to examine what they’re up to in Australia…