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Published: Sun, 18 Feb 2018 00:00:00 -0500

Last Build Date: Sun, 18 Feb 2018 18:50:31 -0500


When an Echo Chamber Gets Worked Up About Echo Chambers

Wed, 14 Feb 2018 11:40:00 -0500

The fear of filter bubbles has only grown stronger since Eli Pariser popularized the term at the beginning of the decade. Americans, he warned in his 2011 book The Filter Bubble, are "more and more enclosed in our own little bubbles. Democracy requires a reliance on shared facts; instead we're being offered parallel but separate universes." If you follow elite political discourse, you've probably heard several ever-more-worried versions of that idea. Or at least I keep hearing them. It's possible that they just seem ubiquitous in my own particular bubble. Pariser's portrait may be popular, but that doesn't mean it's well-grounded. Four academics—Andrew Guess, Benjamin Lyons, Brendan Nyhan, and Jason Reifler—have just published a skeptical take on the topic. Summarizing several studies, they argue that "the 'echo chambers' narrative captures, at most, the experience of a minority of the public." For example: In controlled experiments, people do prefer congenial information over uncongenial information—a tendency that is especially prevalent in the domain of politics. People also tend to self-report a filtered media diet. But studies that actually track people's behavior tell a different story. On television, media outlets with a significant partisan or ideological slant simply do not reach most of the U.S. population. The audience of Fox News and MSNBC peaks at 2 million to 3 million for well-known shows by hosts like Sean Hannity and Rachel Maddow in prime time. By comparison, about 24 million Americans tune into nightly network news broadcasts on NBC, ABC, and CBS and over 10 million viewers watch these networks' Sunday morning political talk shows. These audiences are in turn dwarfed by those for entertainment, where programs like The Big Bang Theory and Sunday Night Football attract as many as 20 million viewers. The point here isn't that the network newscasts are themselves free of ideology (they aren't!) or that viewers are getting their news from The Big Bang Theory. It's that people aren't as politically self-segregated as the narrative has it, and that the most popular media-consumption tribes aren't organized around news or political commentary at all. Guess & co. suggest that one reason the filter-bubble narrative is so popular in the press is because it's much more likely to be true of political writers and the people they cover. In the authors' words, "polarized media consumption is much more common among an important segment of the public—the most politically active, knowledgeable, and engaged. This group is disproportionately visible online and in public life." As a result, the idea that echo chambers are growing more common "has ironically been amplified and distorted in a kind of echo chamber effect." (Morris Fiorina made a similar argument in a recent Reason interview.) Some of us have been beating this drum for a while. Back in 2011, for example, I panned Pariser's book for missing the ways the internet has reduced rather than intensified the filter-bubble effect. I'll wrap up with an excerpt from that: Yes, our media consumption is increasingly personalized. But personalized does not mean isolated. Pariser imagines the Internet becoming a stagnant "city of ghettoes" where "connections and overlap between communities" disappear. But how many people belong to just one online community? A personalized Internet is an Internet geared toward your particular combination of interests, and therefore to your particular combination of human networks. If you're a Methodist Democrat in South Baltimore who watches birds, follows basketball, and loves Elvis, you might be in touch online with people who share your faith but not your politics, and vice versa; your neighborhood but not your hobby, and vice versa; your taste in sports but not in music, and vice versa. That isn't a city of ghettoes. It's a city of crossroads. And while there may be many good reasons to hate Facebook, an insufficient diversity of views isn't one of them. One of the chief effects of using the site, after all, is to discover your f[...]

John Perry Barlow, The Thomas Jefferson of Cyberspace, R.I.P.

Wed, 07 Feb 2018 19:15:00 -0500

John Perry Barlow, a co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), has died. EFF compactly but effectively eulogized him here. His most prominent contribution to American political culture is his barnburning 1996 manifesto, "A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace," which was a central document helping establish a generic libertarian sensibility in the rising digital culture of the 1990s. (He was not alone in doing this, of course; Wired magazine, a cultural thought leader for that world, was co-founded by libertarian and friend of Reason Louis Rossetto.) Some of his ringing words from that manifesto that marked him as a Thomas Jefferson for this century: Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather. We have no elected government, nor are we likely to have one, so I address you with no greater authority than that with which liberty itself always speaks. I declare the global social space we are building to be naturally independent of the tyrannies you seek to impose on us..... Governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed. You have neither solicited nor received ours. We did not invite you. You do not know us, nor do you know our world. Cyberspace does not lie within your borders. Do not think that you can build it, as though it were a public construction project. You cannot. It is an act of nature and it grows itself through our collective actions. You have not engaged in our great and gathering conversation, nor did you create the wealth of our marketplaces. You do not know our culture, our ethics, or the unwritten codes that already provide our society more order than could be obtained by any of your impositions. You claim there are problems among us that you need to solve. You use this claim as an excuse to invade our precincts. Many of these problems don't exist. Where there are real conflicts, where there are wrongs, we will identify them and address them by our means. Barlow's overall politics shifted to a more standard Obama-supporting sense that big government was a necessary and important counterpoint to corporate power (and the kind of general attitude that, well, government is good when it does good things and bad when it does bad things), as he began discussing with me in his 2004 feature interview for Reason. Still, he remained on the side of the libertarian angels when it came to the debate over net neutrality, even as EFF was not. Barlow knew he was trying to create a cultural myth with his declaration of independence, later saying "I knew it's also true that a good way to invent the future is to predict it. So I predicted Utopia, hoping to give Liberty a running start before the laws of Moore and Metcalfe delivered up what Ed Snowden now correctly calls 'turn-key totalitarianism.'" While the question of exactly how libertarian the industries and industrialists of modern computer tech are, and how on balance its liberatory powers will overcome the surveillance powers of "turn-key totalitarianism" is still up in the air, Barlow's work in staking out the reasons to see what we used to call "cyberspace" and is now just where we all live all the time as properly a realm of total human liberation was a vital building block of the world we live in. (That thought leaders in the "cyber" world are rapidly running away from the idea that, for example, free expression in the world of the internet is a primary good is unfortunate and shows that no ideological battles for freedom are ever fully won.) Personally, Barlow was a delightfully loving grouch and after we met for that Reason interview, it was always a joy running into him occasionally in the next decade holding court and pontificating at Burning Man, where he was a beloved elder statesman of sorts. The lyrics Barlow wrote to the music of his childhood chum Bob Weir of the Grateful [...]

"Change Is Good" and Other Lessons from the "Heroic Era of the Internet": Podcast

Sun, 04 Feb 2018 17:30:00 -0500

(image) "[Donald] Trump is a refreshing reminder that the guy that's in the White House is another human being," says Louis Rossetto, the co-founder of Wired and author of the new book Change Is Good: A Story of the Heroic Era of the Internet. "The power of the state is way too exalted [and] bringing that power back to human scale is an important part of what needs to be done to correct the insanity that's been going on in the post-war era."

In 2013, Rossetto was the co-recipient of Reason's very first Lanny Friedlander Prize, an award named after the magazine's founder that's handed out annually to an individual or group who has created a publication, medium, or distribution platform that vastly expands human freedom. Rossetto is also a longtime libertarian who knew Friedlander personally.

While still an undergraduate at Columbia University, Rossetto co-authored a 1971 cover story in the New York Times Magazine titled "The New Right Credo—Libertarianism," writing that "[l]iberalism, conservatism, and leftist radicalism are all bankrupt philosophies," and "refugees from the Old Right, the Old Left and the New Left, they are organizing independently under the New Right banner of libertarianism."

Reason's Nick Gillespie sat down with Rossetto to talk about his new book (the paper version was lavishly designed and crowdfunded on Kickstarter), the 1990s tech boom, and why Trump "diminishes the power of the state" in our heads.

Interview by Nick Gillespie. Edited by Ian Keyser. Cameras by Paul Detrick, Justin Monticello, Zach Weissmueller.

Machinery by Kai Engel is used under a Creative Commons license.

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Trump Diminishes the Power of the State in Our Heads: Wired Co-Founder Louis Rossetto on Heroism, Politics, and the Dot-Com Bubble

Thu, 01 Feb 2018 14:30:00 -0500

"Trump is a refreshing reminder that the guy that's in the White House is another human being," says Louis Rossetto, the co-founder of Wired and author of the new book Change Is Good: A Story of the Heroic Era of the Internet. "The power of the state is way too exalted [and] bringing that power back to human scale is an important part of what needs to be done to correct the insanity that's been going on in the post-war era." In 2013, Rossetto was the co-recipient of Reason's very first Lanny Friedlander Prize, an award named after the magazine's founder that's handed out annually to an individual or group who has created a publication, medium, or distribution platform that vastly expands human freedom. Rossetto is also a longtime libertarian who knew Friedlander personally. While still an undergraduate at Columbia University, Rossetto co-authored a 1971 cover story in the New York Times Magazine titled "The New Right Credo—Libertarianism," writing that "[l]iberalism, conservatism, and leftist radicalism are all bankrupt philosophies," and "refugees from the Old Right, the Old Left and the New Left, they are organizing independently under the New Right banner of libertarianism." Reason's Nick Gillespie sat down with Rossetto to talk about his new book (the paper version was lavishly designed and crowdfunded on Kickstarter), the 1990s tech boom, and why Trump "diminishes the power of the state" in our heads. Interview by Nick Gillespie. Edited by Ian Keyser. Cameras by Paul Detrick, Justin Monticello, Zach Weissmueller. Machinery by Kai Engel is used under a Creative Commons license. Photo Credits: Chris Kleponis/ZUMA Press/Newscom - Jonathan Ernst/Reuters/Newscom - Abaca Press/Douliery Olivier/Abaca/Sipa USA/Newscom This is a rush transcript—check all quotes against the audio for accuracy. Nick Gillespie: What's the plot of, Change is Good? It's a novel right? Louis Rossetto: That's an easy question to start with. Gillespie: Yeah. Rossetto: There are six characters, each of them have their own stories. I suppose for you, at this moment, the most interesting thing about the book is the focus on that time. The book is set in the 1990's. The 1990's were this pivotal moment in world history, where ... Well, cast your mind back. It was a period of unbelievable optimism. Gillespie: The Cold War is over. The internet is taking off. It's becoming a mass medium. Rossetto: The Cold War end- Gillespie: The economy is doing great. Rossetto: The Cold War ends at the beginning of the 90's. The internet takes off with the arrival of the web. The period ... There's drugs: ecstasy. The rave culture. Multiple different levels there are massive changes going on that are affecting all aspects of our life. The 90's is this pivotal moment where there's this burst of optimism. Young people are arriving in this new space, the internet, the web, digital technologies in general. There's a sense that the future is utterly malleable. For the first time in a long time, after the Cold War, the fear and anxiety of the Cold War, now there's this open running room. It's the end of history, literally. Fukuyama says so. Now, anything's possible. Any weird, crazy idea that you have, is no longer bound by normal restrictions, like finance, or law, or even physical bounds. Gillespie: It is incredibly hard to go back to those early days of even pre-internet culture. Even AOL, American Online, had the walled-garden, where people were anonymous. You had fake names that you would use and talk about anything. Usenet groups. You could reproduce things cheaply. DVD players were 7$, or whatever. Rossetto: I mean, companies that had zero income had billion dollar valuations. Companies were more valuable than General Motors that were selling in the tens of millions of dollars. It had Bill Clinton saying the era of big government is over. There were all sorts of things happening in society, at that moment, and all levels of society, that were pointing toward a millennial future that wa[...]

What’s Hot in Porn Tech: Blockchain, Cam Girls, and Snapchat

Thu, 01 Feb 2018 10:45:00 -0500

Virtual reality is a dud so far, the Trump administration has been better than expected, and new technologies from the blockchain to Snapchat are helping the porn industry adjust to government regulations and give more power to adult performers. That's the gist of reports from a wide-ranging roster of industry professionals who spoke last week in Las Vegas at the AVN Adult Entertainment Expo and the Internext conference for adult webmasters. I attended the annual AVN event in 2016. At the time, virtual-reality porn was all over the Expo floor and porn-industry veterans were scared about the possibility of a Donald Trump presidency and a California rule mandating condoms. This year, I wasn't able to get out to Vegas. But the plethora of detailed dispatches put out by AVN make sure that at least the business side of these events doesn't just stay at these events. At both the AVN Expo and Internext, cryptocurrency, webcamming, social media, and age-verification were big topics, as panelists discussed the political, technological, and social trends shaping adult entertainment in 2018. Here's a look at how these trends are changing the way people produce, consume, and make money from porn. Power to Performers Since streaming online video got so simple, "tube sites" offering thousands of free porn clips have been frustrating porn-industry professionals, who expect—not unreasonably—to get paid for people watching their work. Performers and producers regularly complain that these sites are depressing their earnings (by offering free pirated versions of their paywalled videos) and their market potential (by flooding the web with amateur porn). But recent years have seen rising ​interplay​ between porn professionals and the tube sites as they attempt to find business models that will benefit both. AVN CEO Tony Rios told the Las Vegas Sun that the past year saw "a lot of cooperation with performers and the tube sites." Pornhub, for instance, just announced that Asa Akira would be joining Aria—former host of The Sex Factor and AVN's 2013 Female Performer of the Year—an one of the site's ambassadors. Social media has also been a big boon for adult-video stars and for webcammers, by providing a means for self-promotion and fan outreach as well as ways to make money directly. "Snapchat has become massive and performers are using it like crazy," Rios told the Sun. "And they're even doing premium Snapchats now, and finding a way to charge for Snapchat." Rios also noted that performers were effectively mobilizing their social presence for advocacy purposes. "We saw that with Prop 60 [the failed California condoms-in-porn ballot proposal] in 2016," said Rios. "The performers went to social media and they were able to affect legislation." For webcammers—most of whom work through a webcam platform like or Chaturbate—social media has made it possible to be more proactive in finding viewers, rather than relying solely on the platforms to bring eyes in. "Before cam models used to sit in the room and wait for the cam site to send traffic, but it's completely turning around as they take control of their brands on social media and with clip stores," said Jim Austin, head of business development for cam-site Stripchat, during one Internext panel. "They're like mini entrepreneurs with multiple revenue streams." The whole thing has shifted "the power...toward the models now" and "away from cam sites," he said. Camming from the @MyFreeCams booth at @AEexpo with @MxPraxisPhanes and @MissAvaPark !! — Momoka-Hime (@Momoka_Koizumi) January 25, 2018 Overall, the proliferation of marketing venues and opportunities to reach fans directly has shifted more burden to performers than before but also given them more potential too. Savvy adult video stars and webcammers are launching sites offering custom clips and photos for a one-time fee or on a subscription basis. "Last year was the breakthro[...]

FakeApp: Finally, a Program that Will Let You Seamlessly Put Donald Trump in Porn!

Thu, 25 Jan 2018 00:50:00 -0500

Over at Reddit, user deepfakes has released a program that allows users to create "deep fakes," or nearly seamless manufactured images. As with about 99 percent of all tech-related innovation, the first use and proof-of-concept has to do with porn. Specifically, the app allows you to face swap your favorite person's face onto a porn actor's: I've completed a desktop app /w GUI to create deepfakes. Here is a what it looks like. For anyone unfamiliar with this subreddit, deepfakes are neural network-generated faceswap videos created with a machine learning algorithm designed by /u/deepfakes. Check the sub wiki for more info. Here is an excellent example of a deepfake of Daisy Ridley produced with this app in less than a day by /u/nuttynutter6969. This app is intended to allow users to move through the full deepfake creation pipeline—creating training data, training a model, and creating fakes with that model—without the need to install Python and other dependencies or parse code. The download link is in the comments. Here's an example in which actress Jessica Alba's face was planted on a porn actress': src="" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" width="560" height="340" frameborder="0"> If the first use of new tech is related to porn, a close second is politics. And as Vice's Motherboard reports, one user of the app stitched Adolf Hitler's mug on top of Argentina's president, Mauricio Macri: src="" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" width="560" height="340" frameborder="0"> Motherboard seems deeply troubled by all this. The site's headline reads "We Are Truly Fucked: Everyone Is Making AI-Generated Fake Porn Now" and Samantha Cole writes: An incredibly easy-to-use application for DIY fake videos—of sex and revenge porn, but also political speeches and whatever else you want—that moves and improves at this pace could have society-changing impacts in the ways we consume media. The combination of powerful, open-source neural network research, our rapidly eroding ability to discern truth from fake news, and the way we spread news through social media has set us up for serious consequences.... Deborah Johnson, Professor Emeritus of Applied Ethics at the University of Virginia's school of engineering, told me there's no doubt this technology would get so good that it'd be impossible to tell the difference between an AI-generated face swap and the real thing. "You could argue that what's new is the degree to which it can be done, or the believability, we're getting to the point where we can't distinguish what's real—but then, we didn't before," she said. "What is new is the fact that it's now available to everybody, or will be... It's destabilizing. The whole business of trust and reliability is undermined by this stuff." That's one way of looking at all this and it's not without merit. But a year ago, two-thirds of Americans already believed that the media was awash in fake news and fully "eighty-four percent of voters said it is hard to know what news to believe online." So assuming FakeApp really does go mainstream (and despite its relative ease-of-use, it's light years beyond the reach of all but a few web users), it will simply accelerate an ongoing trend toward near-absolute skepticism and cynicism toward the media. Especially from a libertarian angle, there are many reasons to be deeply concerned about the erosion of trust in society. But when it comes to media consumption, the only way forward is to cultivate a reflexively critical attitude toward all truth claims, including those involving images. Whether near-perfect Donald Trump face-swap porn ever becomes a thing or not (shudder), all of us must become first-rate media critics. For those in the journalism world, we also need to work extra hard to develop a reputation for accuracy, fairness, and, as important, transparency when it comes to ad[...]

Dianne Feinstein Ignores GOP Lawmakers, Blames #ReleaseTheMemo on Russians and Social Media Instead

Wed, 24 Jan 2018 12:35:00 -0500

Trust Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) to try to turn a political controversy into an excuse to censor social media. A bunch of Republican lawmakers have been rallying around a classified memo by House Intelligence Committee Chair Devin Nunes (R-Calif.). The memo purports to show FBI abuses connected to the secret surveillance of people involved with Donald Trump's presidential campaign. The push to declassify the document was national news last week, complete with a hashtag campaign, #ReleaseTheMemo. It was discussed by every major news outlet. Several GOP lawmakers tweeted the hashtag. Feinstein and Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) are upset because a bunch of Russian-operated Twitter accounts may have jumped on this and attempted the magnify the hashtag campaign's reach. The two of them have sent a letter to Twitter and Facebook pretty much demanding that they investigate the extent of the Russian involvement in the hashtag campaign. And they want a response in three days: If these reports are accurate, we are witnessing an ongoing attack by the Russian government through Kremlin-linked social media actors directly acting to intervene and influence our democratic process. This should be disconcerting to all Americans, but especially your companies as, once again, it appears the vast majority of their efforts are concentrated on your platforms. This latest example of Russian interference is in keeping with Moscow's concerted, covert, and continuing campaign to manipulate American public opinion and erode trust in our law enforcement and intelligence institutions. Feinstein is confusing a symptom for a problem, as politicians often do when they have agendas to pursue. It's absurd to hold Russia responsible for the hashtag in any meaningful sense, given that Republican lawmakers were openly, overtly screaming it from the rooftops, on Twitter, and in front of every news camera they could see. A source familiar with how Twitter works told The Hill that the growth of the hashtag appeared to have happened organically. If Russian trolls and bots were involved, they were at most magnifying a conflict that was already underway. They didn't set this fire, and they weren't the chief force spreading it. Feinstein's political machinations here are twofold. She's trying to make the case that the feds must regulate social media because of foreign involvement in American elections; and second, she's using the familiar guilt-by-association logical fallacy to discredit her political opponents. Feinstein's love of censorship is well known. She flat-out wants to suppress online content that she deems dangerous. This lack of respect for Americans' speech rights and privacy is one of the few things she has in common with Trump. As for the guilt-by-association issue, it's remarkable how little people on either side are interested in engaging the surveillance issues that undergird this fight and instead want to make it all about attacking or defending Trump. I've already mocked Republicans acting outraged about the Nunes memo because a bunch of them just voted to expand the feds' power to snoop on American citizens for purposes unrelated to terrorism and espionage. On the very same day this hashtag campaign was launching, Trump signed that bill into law. The discussion of actual surveillance policy got drowned by constant efforts to either discredit Trump (by any silly memes necessary) or to discredit the FBI investigation. What's most obnoxious about Feinstein and Schiff's response here is how it simply does not engage the complaint that the surveillance state might have abused its powers when it snooped on and possibly unmasked the identities of people in Trump's orbit. Personally, based on my experience covering the federal surveillance apparatus, I doubt the Nunes memo actually reveals illegal conduct by federal officials. That's actually part of the problem—it's too easy for th[...]

"Fake News" is Not an Excuse to Regulate the Internet: New at Reason

Wed, 17 Jan 2018 13:30:00 -0500

src="" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" width="560" height="340" frameborder="0"> President Trump promised that today he'll announce the recipients of his "Fake News Awards," an honor he's sure to bestow upon unflattering coverage that displeases him, a category that will almost certainly include the book Fire and Fury, Michael Wolff's insider tell-all of life in the Trump White House. But with "fake news" back in the real news, it's worth reflecting upon how both Republicans and Democrats have utilized the amorphous term to lay the groundwork for the regulation of speech on the internet and why that's a very bad idea. Shortly after her defeat, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton held a press conference decrying the prevalence of fake news on social media, calling it "a danger that must be addressed." In October of last year, Democrats in both chambers of Congress took up her call, grilling the attorneys for the tech giants Facebook, Twitter, and Google about Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election and the role of so-called "fake news" in sowing discord and confusion among the electorate. "You have been identified as major purveyors of fake news," Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) told lawyers at one hearing. Some Democrats were explicit in their threats to regulate the companies if they didn't do a better job weeding out trolls, bots, and fake news. "You have to be the ones to do something about it," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), "Or we will." While Democrats seem concerned that tech companies don't do enough to police content on their platforms, Republicans and conservatives have expressed concern that they do too much to cultivate their users' newsfeeds. "Your power sometimes scares me," admitted Sen. John Kennedy (R-Okla.) at one point during a hearing. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) questioned the social media giants over whether or not they consider themselves "neutral public fora" and cited a study that claimed to have found political bias in Google search results. Former White House adviser Steve Bannon has called for Facebook and Google to be regulated like public utilities, and conservative Fox News host Tucker Carlson made a similar case on his show after Google fired software engineer James Damore for writing an internal memo questioning some of the company's diversity policies. But both Democrats and Republicans are missing the mark when they call for the government to regulate the flow of information on the internet. Treating social media as some sort of public utility is quite simply a power grab that all but guarantees that politicians and unelected bureaucrats will decide what information should appear in Americans' newsfeeds and would likely grant the government even greater access to our private communications than it already has. This is not the first time governments have tried to control new tools of mass communication. Much like the internet, the advent of the printing press provoked panic and backlash among the elite institutions it disrupted. America's first multi-page newspaper was shut down after a single edition because it spread rumors about the sex lives of government officials and published what the colonial government described as "uncertain reports," or what we might today call "fake news." For the crime of publishing without a license, the government imprisoned and later ran out of town another early colonial newspaper's editor: James Franklin, older brother to Benjamin Franklin who went on to run that paper and do a few other notable things. A few decades earlier, John Milton criticized the British government's regulation of materials produced by the printing press, writing in 1644 that, "Truth and understanding are not such wares as to be monopoliz'd and traded in by tickets and statute." Instead, wrote Milton, better to "Let [Truth] and F[...]

Democrats' Latest Plan to Save Net Neutrality Is All Bark, No Bite

Wed, 10 Jan 2018 11:55:00 -0500

(image) Senate Democrats think they've found a way to preserve Barack Obama's net neutrality rules. Like their plans to reimpose the rules at the state level, the new gambit has a roughly zero percent chance of succeeding.

Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) has introduced a resolution to stop the rollback of net neutrality regulations via the Congressional Review Act (CRA), a 1996 law that gave Congress a way to block rules crafted by executive agencies. Little-used for many years, the CRA has recently become a popular way for Republicans to undo regulations they dislike; Markey's bill suggests that the Democrats are watching and learning.

But that doesn't mean their effort will work.

Once a new regulation has been entered in the Federal Register, the CRA gives the Senate 60 days to submit a resolution stopping the rule under an expedited process. In order initiate this process, a CRA requires 30 co-sponsors. Democrats have indeed reached this 30 co-sponsor mark: A full 43 senators have signed on. But that is pretty much all they have.

For starters, the net neutrality rollback announced by the FCC last month has yet even to be entered into the Federal Register, so Democrats currently have no actual rule to review. Getting 30 co-sponsors is for the moment meaningless.

But that will soon change. The more important problem: To pass this resolution Democrats will have to get majority votes in both houses of Congress, each of which is currently Republican-controlled.

Passage in the Senate is conceivable, given that two Republican senators, Susan Collins and John Thune, have said they'd be open to a legislative restoration of net neutrality rules. Collins has even said she would support Markey's bill. But Republicans command a larger majority in the House—and the expedited process allowed in the Senate doesn't apply there. And even if by some miracle enough House Republicans cross party lines to pass the bill, it will still have to be signed by President Donald Trump. That isn't exactly likely.

Given those obstacles, this plan looks less like a serious policy proposal and more like a show for the voters. And that's for the best: The rollback of these rules returns us to the light-touch approach that allowed the internet to grow and thrive. That isn't something to block; it's something to celebrate.

Warning: The President Wants to Censor 'Fake News'! The President of France

Fri, 05 Jan 2018 13:45:00 -0500

President Donald Trump is commanding a lot of attention for his lawyers' attempts to scare Michael Wolff and Wolff's publisher out of releasing Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House. This attempt to censor the press definitely deserves our attention and condemnation. But if their threats against Wolff stand out, it's not because there's something new about politically powerful people trying to suppress reports that make them look bad. The only norm Trump is breaking here is the one that says not to be so openly self-serving about it. If Trump had the sense to act as though his calls for censorship were about "preserving democracy," he'd be in much better shape. That's exactly what's happening in France. French President Emmanuel Macron, like Trump, is not happy about "fake news." Like Trump, he wants to stop it. But unlike Trump (so far), he's trying to use his power as president to actually censor the internet. Macron claims that he merely wants to protect the people from "fake news" during elections. The Guardian reports: In his new year's speech to journalists at the Élysée palace, Macron said he would shortly present the new law in order to fight the spread of fake news, which he said threatened liberal democracies. New legislation for websites would include more transparency about sponsored content. Under the new law, websites would have to say who is financing them and the amount of money for sponsored content would be capped. For fake news published during election seasons, an emergency legal action could allow authorities to remove that content or even block the website, Macron said. "If we want to protect liberal democracies, we must be strong and have clear rules," he added. Is it really liberal democracies that Macron wants to protect? The Guardian notes that Macron faced fake news stories during his presidential campaign that accused him of hiding funds in offshore accounts. Like many Hillary Clinton supporters in America, he claims that Russia-linked outlets spread propaganda to harm him. All this suggests that what Macron really wants to censor is "fake news" that threatens his political fortunes. Fake claims during political campaigns are hardly new. They're less a "threat" to liberal democracies than they are a natural, albeit frustrating, side effect of having campaigns in the first place. Meanwhile, there's not much evidence that "fake news" has had much of an impact on election outcomes. A new report from a trio of political scientists found that in the run-up to the presidential election in America, one out of four people who participated in their study had visited a site with fake news stories. But only a much smaller number, 10 percent, were regular consumers of fake news—mostly older, more conservative voters who weren't likely to vote for Hillary Clinton in the first place. While the report was not able to determine whether people actually believe the fake news the read, what did seem to be clear is that people's exposure to fake news seemed to track their desire to consume news about the candidate they already supported. The fake news was a complement to the rest of their news consumption. The fake news told them what they already wanted to hear, which probably tracks the experiences of anybody who has had a Facebook friend post a link to a report that was obviously false. There's something particularly reprehensible about trying to connect the preservation of democracy with the censorship of speech that makes a candidate look bad, regardless of whether that speech is true or false. Given the absence of evidence that fake news stories have been tipping elections, Macron's actions have the same whiff of self-preservation as Trump's. Macron is hardly alone. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) has threatened to use her position as a lawmaker to forc[...]

GAO Agents Tried 72 Times, Failed to Buy Guns on the (Normie) Internet

Fri, 05 Jan 2018 12:56:00 -0500

(image) Government Accountability Office employees posing as sketchy buyers tried and failed in 72 attempts to purchase firearms on the internet, part of a failed investigation called for by a trio of Congressional Democrats.

While the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms & Explosives (ATF) insisted in its most recent strategic plan, as cited by the GAO, that "the privacy of the Internet makes it an ideal means for gang members, violent criminals, terrorists, and juveniles to traffic and obtain illegal firearms," the new report released by the (GAO) could not corroborate any of it.

The GAO did not fare much better on the so-called "Dark Web." Agents made 7 attempts and were successful just twice, purchasing an AR-15 and an Uzi.

There's not much in the report for Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Maryland) and Sens. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) from which to demand stricter internet gun laws, but it may not stop Democrats from trying to impose new laws anyway.

It's unclear what kind of internet-specific gun laws there could be other than a blanket ban (LOL trying to enforce that) or enhanced sentencing (a dubious legal tool to say the least).

In all, 56 sellers refused to complete the requested transactions; 29 said they wouldn't ship the requested firearms and 27 refused after the agents disclosed they were prohibited from purchasing firearms. One five separate occasions, the GAO trolls were also banned from the websites where they were inquiring about murky purchases.

"The results of our testing are for illustrative purposes only and are not generalizable," the GAO wrote in a letter to the three Congressional Democrats about the results of the report.

The GAO was also asked to assess how ATF was enforcing firearms laws on the internet, since Cummings, Schatz, and Warren say they worry there are no specific laws about firearm sales on the internet. (As the GAO report notes, a bevy of laws on the book apply to firearm sales that happen to be made on the internet)

Nevertheless, the GAO found that ATF does coordinate investigative work on internet sales through an Internet Investigations Center to "ensure they have the necessary training to operate online in an undercover capacity."

According to the GAO, the ATF center, founded in 2012, uses free open-source software "to analyze online content for investigations," claiming that this allowed "analysts to glean information from public websites without violating users' privacy rights."

In any case, the technology that makes all kinds of commerce easier, including firearms-related commerce, isn't going anywhere. So-called e-commerce continues to grow while other technology, like 3D printing, promises to make government attempts to control all kinds of products, including firearms, even harder.

It's a bright future.

Lack of Net Neutrality Can't Stop the FCC's 'Harlem Shake' Video, But Copyright Law Might!

Fri, 15 Dec 2017 14:15:00 -0500

(image) As part of his campaign to roll back the net neutrality rules imposed in 2015, Federal Communications Commission Chair Ajit Pai released a short parody video listing some things you'll still be able to do online after the vote. (The quick version: pretty much everything.) Toward the end of the video, Pai does the Harlem Shake, a dance that became a meme back in 2013.

Pai has attracted the ire of many an ill-informed opponent of the rollback. One of them, apparently, is Baauer, the producer behind the Harlem Shake. Baauer has announced he's taking legal action against the video.

Opponents of the rollback claim it threatens a "free and open" internet, but onerous intellectual property laws pose a far greater threat to a free and open internet than Pai's mild deregulation. It is copyright, after all, that Baauer is using to suppress a video whose message he doesn't like.

The Federal Communications Commission appears to have pulled the video off its YouTube channel (although it still appears on the Daily Caller website). That's unfortunate but not unsurprising. Baauer doesn't have a case: The use of the song pretty clearly falls under fair use as a parody (it appears in a portion of the video about driving memes to the ground). But copyright laws make bullying like this easy, and they've had an undeniable chilling effect on free expression online. Most content creators don't have the resources to fight even a specious takedown order, and so they often back down when facing a legal threat instead of trying to fight for their rights.

If you supporting Baauer's tactic, you don't actually support a free and open internet. Or at the very least, you don't have a good grasp of what a free and open internet entails.

The FCC Just Voted to Roll Back Obama-Era Net Neutrality Rules

Thu, 14 Dec 2017 13:13:00 -0500

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted on a party line vote today to rescind the net neutrality rules passed by the agency under President Obama. Two Republican-appointed commissioners joined agency Chairman Ajit Pai in a 3-2 vote to rescind the order and return to a standard that closely resembles the way the internet has been regulated for most of its existence. The vote was briefly delayed after security cleared the hearing room in the middle of Pai's remarks in order to conduct a search. The Obama era rules reclassified internet service from a Title I information service to a more heavily regulated Title II telecommunications service, essentially treating it as an early 20th century utility, like the phone system. (As part of the reclassification process, however, the FCC declined to exert some of its regulatory authority.) The rules generally required internet service providers to treat most pieces of information that flowed over the internet equally, effectively setting up a non-discrimination standard for network management, content, and pricing. Those requirements will no longer be in force. Instead, the FCC will require ISPs to be transparent about their services, meaning that bandwidth throttling or other network management practices, which have sometimes been opaque to consumers, would have to be clearly labeled. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC), meanwhile, would be empowered to regulate anti-competitive or anti-consumer behavior, stepping in when internet companies make promises to provide a service that they do not keep. Pai has framed the move as a return to the sort of "light-touch" regulation that has governed the internet since the Clinton era. "Under my proposal, the federal government will stop micromanaging the Internet," Pai said in November when details of his plan were released. In a statement today, FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr, a Trump appointee who voted in favor of undoing the Obama era rules, noted that the internet would still be subject to federal oversight, noting that prior to the Title II reclassification, the FTC brought numerous privacy actions against ISPs and that federal antitrust law would still apply to internet service. "We are not giving ISPs free reign to dictate your online experience," he said. "Our decision today includes powerful legal checks." The Obama-era regulations came with numerous exceptions and exemptions, and called for the FCC to make many decisions about how ISPs could manage network traffic on a case-by-case basis rather than on clear rules. Supporters argued that the goal was to avoid undesirable rule-driven outcomes, but the effect was to empower federal regulators to decide which internet management innovations would be allowed and which would not. The regulatory rollback has been the subject of intense criticism from Democrats and activists, and even a small number of Republican lawmakers: In recent days, both Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Colorado) requested that the FCC delay the vote. Sen. John Thune (R-South Dakota) called on Congress to pass net neutrality legislation, but the idea has so far gained little traction amongst Republicans. The FCC began its net neutrality push during the Bush administration with a series of policy guidelines supporting the principle of nondiscrimination. But the effort to install stronger rules became a priority under President Obama, who campaigned on setting up internet nondiscrimination regulations. The rules took multiple forms, and were consistently challenged in court. It is possible, and perhaps even likely, that today's move will end up the subject of legal challenges as well. The Obama-era rules focused the FCC's regulatory authority on ISPs over other typ[...]

Government Is the Cause of—Not the Solution to—Online Censorship

Thu, 14 Dec 2017 08:15:00 -0500

While Americans are screaming at the Federal Communications Commission about their fears of private censorship if "net neutrality" goes away, the reality is that governments, in the United States and overseas, are consistently the driving force behind attempts to control what people are allowed to see and read online. Some supporters of net neutrality have gotten it into their heads that an absence of government-enforced net neutrality will lead private internet providers to institute cost-based access gatekeeping that will serve as a form of censorship. This belief is misguided (as Andrea O'Sullivan has explained very thoroughly), and yet the amount of public pushback FCC Chairman Ajit Pai is getting over the vote to overturn the "Open Internet Order" is much more furious than the response to lawmakers and politicians who openly demand authority to censor what is and is not permitted to be on the internet. At the same time Pai and the FCC are making their decision, the Committee on Standards in Public Life in the United Kingdom is encouraging Prime Minister Theresa May to change the law so that it can hold social media companies like Facebook, Twitter, and Google legally liable for content the country deems to be illegal. Its latest report says: We understand that they do not consider themselves as publishers, responsible for reviewing and editing everything that others post on their sites. But with developments in this technology, the time has come for the companies to take more responsibility for illegal material that appears on their platforms. The report notes that the European Union's online commerce regulations treat these tech companies as "hosts," not publishers. The report also notes that Brexit is a thing, so after the United Kingdom leaves the European Union, they're recommending British laws be changed to treat these tech companies more like media outlets. "What could go wrong?" is baked right into this report, focused as it is on trying to control abusive and harassing speech directed at public officials, particularly members of Parliament. Some of this communication includes threats of violence. The United Kingdom, however, does not have as broad a view of free speech as the United States and outlaws "hate speech," as well as speech that harasses or causes "distress" to individuals. Even with the European Union's regulations, other countries aren't much better. Facebook has agreed to hire hundreds more people to respond to demands by the German government to censor and remove content they have declared illegal. Otherwise they could face huge fines. Demands by governments to censor will expand if they're not stopped. Westerners tend to associate internet censorship with oppressive countries like China, forcing Apple to remove apps from its store. But focusing on the extreme ignores censorship threats on our own doorstep. Danielle Keats Citron, in a policy analysis paper hosted by the Cato Institute, warns of the potential long-term consequences of allowing these European countries to set the terms for free speech across the globe: Definitional ambiguity is part of the problem. "Hateful conduct" and "violent extremist material" are vague terms that can be stretched to include political dissent and cultural commentary. They could be extended to a government official's tweets, posts critiquing a politician, or a civil rights activist's profile. Violent extremist material could be interpreted to cover violent content of all kinds, including news reports, and not just gruesome beheading videos. Censorship creep isn't merely a theoretical possibility—it is already happening. European regulators' calls to remove "illegal hate speech" have quickly ballooned to [...]

Posting or Hosting Sex Ads Could Mean 25 Years in Federal Prison Under New Republican Proposal

Mon, 11 Dec 2017 15:55:00 -0500

Looking forward to a future when federal agents monitor Tinder? We won't be far off if some folks in Congress get their way. Under a proposal from Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R–Va.), anyone posting or hosting digital content that leads to an act of prostitution could face serious federal prison time as well as civil penalties. This is obviously bad news for sex workers, but it would also leave digital platforms—including dating apps, social media, and classifieds sites such as Craigslist—open to serious legal liability for the things users post. In effect, it would give government agents more incentive and authority to monitor sex-related apps, ads, forums, and sites of all sorts. And it would give digital platforms a huge incentive to track and regulate user speech more closely. Goodlatte's measure was offered as an amendment to another House bill, this one from the Missouri Republican Ann Wagner. The House Judiciary Committee will consider both bills on Tuesday. Wagner's legislation (H.R. 1865) would open digital platforms to criminal and civil liability not just for future sex crimes that result from user posts or interactions but also for past harms brokered by the platforms in some way. So platforms that followed previous federal rules (which encouraged less content moderation in order to avoid liability) would now be especially vulnerable to charges and lawsuits. The bill currently has 171 co-sponsors, including ample numbers of both Republicans and Democrats. Specifically, Wagner's bill would amend Section 230 of the federal Communications Decency Act, which says that websites and other online platforms should not be treated as the creators of user-posted content. What this means in effect is that these third-party platforms can't be sued or prosecuted for users' and commenters' illegal speech (or illegal actions resulting from speech)—with some major exceptions. Digital platforms do not get a pass for content they actually create "in whole or part," for instance. As it stands, states cannot generally prosecute web services and citizens cannot sue them when user-generated content conflicts with state criminal law. Rep. Wagner's bill—like the similar and more-hyped "Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act" (SESTA) in the Senate—would end this state and civil immunity for digital platforms in cases of "sex trafficking" or "sexual exploitation of children." But while that may sound like a small concession, it actually opens up a huge range of activity for liability. At the federal level, the above offenses encompass everything from the truly horrific and unconscionable (like sex trafficking by force) to things like sexting between teenagers. And at the state level, definitions can be even more varied and blurry. Wagner's bill doesn't just stop at carving out a new Section 230 exception. It also creates a new crime, "benefitting from participation in a venture engaged in sex trafficking," and makes it easy to hold all sorts of web platforms and publishers in violation. Any "provider of an interactive computer service" who hosts user-posted information "with reckless disregard that the information in furtherance of [sex trafficking] or an attempt to commit such an offense" could face a fine and up to 20 years in prison, the bill states. And nothing "shall be construed to require the Federal Government in a prosecution, or a plaintiff in a civil action, to prove any intent on the part of the information content provider." So in cases like, say, Hope Zeferjohn, the teen girl convicted of sex trafficking for talking to a younger teen on Facebook about prostitution, Facebook could be facing a federal charge for participating in a sex t[...]