Sunday, July 14, 2019

public-service announcement quietly morphs into awesome attack on Big Tech

I had no idea what I was getting into when I started watching the Ann Reardon video below (scroll below the video for further remarks):

Reardon is an Australian YouTuber who vlogs (vlogging = video blogging) about food science. In the above video, she takes on what is essentially a fake-news video posing as a public-service announcement about different kinds of unsafe food and how to know whether the food you're consuming is unsafe. Reardon carefully shows how the video goes wrong with its unscientific and even self-contradictory methodology. Most of Reardon's video is done in a bland and pleasant style, which is why I perked up in surprise when Reardon suddenly—and quietly—made a clarion call, toward the end of her spiel, for Big Tech firms to take responsibility for the content uploaded to platforms like YouTube.

If you've been following the Big Tech debate, about which I've been blogging quite a lot lately, you know that the Big Tech firms have been walking the razor's edge between being thought of as public utilities, or platforms, or publishers. For our purposes, we can put utilities/platforms on one side of the dichotomy, and publishers on the other side. The Big Tech problem started when online conservatives began to notice inconsistencies in the meting-out of justice regarding unsafe or otherwise untoward content: righties were getting banned, demonetized, and deplatformed far more frequently than lefties. Lefties who threaten to "milkshake people," jihadis who threaten death to the West, etc., were all allowed to remain on Big Tech venues like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, but righties were instantly dealt with and often given severe punishments. Folks in the alt-media then began noting that the left was also being affected by the "algorithms" supposedly being used by Big Tech to hunt down putative Nazis and other bigots: a leftie trying to post about the horrible history of the Nazis would get deplatformed simply for showing a swastika as part of his or her presentation about Nazis. So the net effect of all this repressiveness has been the slow-but-steady killing of free speech online. People on the right have gotten louder and louder, over the past two years, about insisting that Big Tech platforms take a stand and choose an official self-definition: are they simply platforms? Are they public utilities? Are they publishers of content?

The right's contention is this:
• If these venues are merely platforms or public utilities, then there should be no banning of content, however vile, for this is a clear violation of free speech. A white supremacist on an AT&T phone line can say that whites will rule the world, and AT&T (a public utility) won't be blamed for the supremacist's twisted views—as it shouldn't be. Why should AT&T be expected to police all the content crossing through its wires?
• If these venues are publishers, then they become liable for the content they publish and can be sued. If, for example, jihadi terrorists publish content that inspires a mass shooting, then the publisher (Facebook, YouTube, etc.) can be sued for having played a role in the mass shooting (I'm talking about inspiration, not actual incitement, which is already illegal). Because Big Tech firms are currently policing uploaded content (albeit in a left-biased way), they're effectively acting as if they were publishers: they clearly feel some measure of responsibility for the content that's on their sites. If Knopf publishes a modern version of Mein Kampf by a white supremacist from Alabama, then Knopf can be seen as having given the supremacist a pedestal from which to broadcast his twisted views. Knopf can't plead wide-eyed innocence: publishing implies a measure of support.

I'd say that it's in the venues' interest to choose to call themselves platforms, then to cease all repression of rightie content, and to cease using algorithms that repress speech on both the left and the right. But Ms. Reardon, above, quietly makes the argument that these venues should actively take responsibility for their content, i.e., they should think of themselves as publishers. To be honest, I'd be OK with this, too, mainly because it would mean thousands of lawsuits against Big Tech firms for allowing content like the content Ms. Reardon is fighting against. Facebook would be among the first to fall if such lawsuits went forward; YouTube would probably crumble soon after, and so would Twitter. Viewed as an international social experiment, Big Tech platforms have proved to be an utter disaster, creating widespread toxicity in the lives they touch. We introverts probably aren't as affected by all this, but that matters little when society is crumbling around us.

Anyway, I salute Ms. Reardon for taking a principled stance. Her choice isn't my first choice: I'd rather see YouTube, et al., be legally considered total free-speech platforms, but if her way leads to mass lawsuits against Big Tech, I don't have much of a problem with that, either.


motorrad said...

I agree 100%, but neither will happen. Enough legislators will be bought off to ensure the status quo. See MLB's special monopoly exemption.

Kevin Kim said...

The swamp will never be drained, eh? You may be right.

motorrad said...

I'm a child of Reagan and voted for him in my first election in 1984 when I turned 18. I read a lot of what are probably now considered alt right blogs but I don't consider myself radical by any definition. However i can't shake one common theme from those blogs. That is that Trump is a warning shot to the swamp. The next Trump will be an actual Fascist if things don't change. Not sure if I believe it and i have lived in Korea for the past 3 years so I'm not sure how bad things really are at home. The media knows what sells and they are probably making it out to be worse than it is. That being said, the USA is definitely a nation of people watching the same screen but seeing two different movies. Interesting times.

Kevin Kim said...

Well, for what it's worth, Glenn Reynolds at Instapundit just wrote about "the real America" that the media aren't showing you. See here. As commenters to that post note, the media seem invested in fomenting civil war, but the on-the-ground reality is that decent folks do still abound.

For what it's worth.