Friday, February 04, 2011

Recent reading: ships passing

The Next Digital Decade: Essays on the Future of the Internet (ed. Berin Szoka & Adam Marcus): free download available. A good survey of a certain segment of thinking about the internet, with some big names represented (Yochai Benkler, Jonathan Zittrain, Tim Wu) condensing and de-footnoting things they’ve said elsewhere. Largely antiregulatory in its thrust, with occasional representatives of other views. The free market can fix anything! Even bad regulations or at least cross border regulatory conflicts. Key quote: “Insofar as collective governance is necessary and unavoidable, a denationalized liberalism strives to make Internet users and suppliers an autonomous, global polity, with what might be called neodemocratic rights to representation and participation in these new global governance institutions. ...Such a liberalism is not interested, however, in using global governance institutions to redistribute wealth.” Whew. I was a little worried for a second there.

No one but Ann Bartow seems aware that Kathy Sierra exists, likewise that internet freedom works differently for different people. The authors mostly think that individuals need no non-market help navigating complex products offered by sophisticated businesses; the only entities that can fool consumers are non-businesses with their crafty non-businessy agendas: “During the last few years, Facebook has repeatedly landed in trouble for its mostly-admirable efforts to craft a working privacy regime for its now 500 million users. The generally poor response to these efforts, I think, stems from a growing privacy paranoia fueled by the media and governments….”

The Offensive Internet: Privacy, Speech, and Reputation, ed. Saul Levmore & Martha C. Nussbaum: This is the equally frustrating inverse of the previous book; unfortunately, this one’s not available for free download. This time, the internet is full of haters, attacking people—mostly women—and violating their privacy (with occasional assists from institutions engaging in privacy violations for very different, commercial reasons). There are some thoughtful essays on the meaning of free speech, some elitist condemnations of the proles who speak online, and one very good analytic piece by Nussbaum on what it means to try to drag someone (again, most likely a woman) down with words—even though I don’t agree with the piece’s conclusions about legal reform.

The reform most of the contributors agree on is amending Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act so that internet service providers would risk liability if they didn’t take down material on their sites posted by users that was (alleged to be) defamatory or invasive of privacy. I was uncertain about this fix the first time I encountered it, and further experience (with, among other things, the notice and takedown provisions of the DMCA, which have the same regime applied to copyright, not with great results) has only hardened me further against it. The proponents of such a change are, as far as I can tell, basically indifferent to the argument that ISPs won’t investigate claims of legal violation; if they may be liable if the content is defamatory etc., they will simply take that content down and avoid any risk. We know well from the DMCA that even people with good fair use claims rarely counternotify to restore the material, and if you think fair use can be tricky, take a look at how hard it is to determine whether content is defamatory or invasive of privacy. I would support a change in the law that 230 immunity should not cover instances in which the person seeking the takedown has in hand a ruling from a court of competent jurisdiction that the material at issue is unlawful, but without some requirement other than an unadjudicated claim of unlawfulness this is just another way for people to shut each other up.

What would be pretty interesting would be to get some of the main contributors to each book together and have them engage in a dialogue. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen.

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