Network effects are wonderful for a technology firm when it’s growing. Early movers can gain an advantage that is very hard to displace, because once everyone else is using Microsoft Word or a Playstation, there’s a cost to switching away. On the other hand, investors (and antitrust lawyers) often assume that network effects are more durable than they actually are. In fact, they can be quite fickle. Once your network starts shrinking, the collapse can be sudden, because every node that gets subtracted from your network makes it less valuable to the people who remain. Networks that start growing often start shrinking — and a modest decline can quickly prompt a stampede for the exits. Anyone remember MySpace?
And so the problem that Reddit has is this: Having attracted a bunch of people on the promise that they could say anything they wanted, the company risks alienating those people, shrinking the network and shrinking itself right out of existence. Reddit would probably be a better place if the fat-shaming hobbyists and racist trolls were surgically excised. But they won’t be; they’ll be forced out bluntly, along with others, and that will drive away many of the users Reddit would like to keep.
Deciding what is offensive is inherently a political act, because one man’s deep truth is often another person’s deep offense. To take one obvious example, do you treat conservative Christians who say terrible things about gay rights activists the same as gay rights activists who say terrible things about conservative Christians? Men’s rights activists the same as feminists?
We are all more attuned to the offenses against our own beliefs than we are to what may seem terribly offensive to others. And with the culture war raging hot, it is going to be very hard to make choices that don’t look as if you’re taking sides. Even if you try to be scrupulously fair, chances are that you will miss something, causing one side to understandably point out: “See, they crack down on us, but not on those equally offensive other people!”
Reddit is trying to avoid this by splitting the baby in half: designating much of the worst content as questionable, and then segregating it, but not banning it. It’s far from clear, however, that this compromise will work. I don’t think a lot of people are going to mourn when the racist subreddits are segregated. But those are among the most notorious cases precisely because most people can agree that racist epithets are not okay. The border cases are likely to be more numerous, and the decisions will convince some users that Reddit is not for them.
Megan McArdle, “Policing Reddit Could Kill Reddit”, Bloomberg View, 2015-07-17.
September 5, 2015
September 1, 2015
Allum Bokhari claims to see a rising tide of cultural libertarians in our future:
A new force is emerging in the culture wars. Authoritarians of all stripes, from religious reactionaries to left-wing “social justice warriors,” are coming under fire from a new wave of thinkers, commentators, and new media stars who reject virtually all of their political values.
From the banning of Charlie Hebdo magazine across British university campuses on the grounds that it promoted islamophobia, to the removal of the video game Grand Theft Auto V from major retailers in Australia on the grounds that it promoted sexism, threats to cultural freedom proliferate.
But a growing number of commentators, media personalities and academics reject the arguments that underpin these assaults on free expression, in particular the idea that people are either too emotionally fragile to deal with “offence” or too corruptible to be exposed to dangerous ideas.
In a recent co-authored feature for Breitbart, I coined a term to describe this new trend: cultural libertarianism. The concept was critically discussed by Daniel Pryor at the Centre for a Stateless Society, who drew attention to the increasing viciousness of cultural politics in the internet age.
There is a reason for the sound and fury. Like all insurgent movements, the emergence of cultural libertarianism is creating tensions, border skirmishes, and even the occasional war with lazy incumbent elites. Some of these rows can be breathtakingly vitriolic, as self-righteous anger from social justice types collides with mocking and occasionally caustic humour from cultural libertarians.
August 31, 2015
Published on 25 Aug 2015
The Motion: This House Believes the Right to Free Speech Always Includes the Right to Offend.
Debate speaker 1 of 6. Watch all the speakers for this debate in order of appearance: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BtWrl…
Brendan O’Neill is the editor of Spiked Online and a columnist for The Australian and The Big Issue.
ABOUT THE OXFORD UNION SOCIETY: The Union is the world’s most prestigious debating society, with an unparalleled reputation for bringing international guests and speakers to Oxford. It has been established for 192 years, aiming to promote debate and discussion not just in Oxford University, but across the globe.
H/T to Samizdata for the link.
August 28, 2015
Techdirt‘s Mike Masnick points and laughs at a self-described consumerist organization’s attempt to force Google to apply EU law to the rest of the world, by way of an FTC complaint:
If you want an understanding of my general philosophy on business and economics, it’s that companies should focus on serving their customers better. That’s it. It’s a very customer-centric view of capitalism. I think companies that screw over their customers and users will have it come back to bite them, and thus it’s a better strategy for everyone if companies focus on providing good products and services to consumers, without screwing them over. And, I’m super supportive of organizations that focus on holding companies’ feet to the fire when they fail to live up to that promise. Consumerist (owned by Consumer Reports) is really fantastic at this kind of thing, for example. Consumer Watchdog, on the other hand, despite its name, appears to have very little to do with actually protecting consumers’ interests. Instead, it seems like some crazy people who absolutely hate Google, and pretend that they’re “protecting” consumers from Google by attacking the company at every opportunity. If Consumer Watchdog actually had relevant points, that might be useful, but nearly every attack on Google is so ridiculous that all it does is make Consumer Watchdog look like a complete joke and undermine whatever credibility the organization might have.
In the past, we’ve covered an anti-Google video that company put out that contained so many factual errors that it was a complete joke (and was later revealed as nothing more than a stunt to sell some books). Then there was the attempt to argue that Gmail was an illegal wiretap. It’s hard to take the organization seriously when it does that kind of thing.
Its latest, however, takes the crazy to new levels. John Simpson, Consumer Watchdog’s resident “old man yells at cloud” impersonator, recently filed a complaint with the FTC against Google. In it, he not only argues that Google should offer the “Right to be Forgotten” in the US, but says that the failure to do that is an “unfair and deceptive practice.” Really.
As you know by now, since an EU court ruling last year, Google has been forced to enable a right to be forgotten in the EU, in which it will “delink” certain results from the searches on certain names, if the people argue that the links are no longer “relevant.” Some in the EU have been pressing Google to make that “right to be forgotten” global — which Google refuses to do, noting that it would violate the First Amendment in the US and would allow the most restrictive, anti-free speech regime in the world to censor the global internet.
But, apparently John Simpson likes censorship and supporting free speech-destroying regimes. Because he argues Google must allow such censorship in the US. How could Google’s refusal to implement “right to be forgotten” possibly be “deceptive”? Well, in Simpson’s world, it’s because Google presents itself as “being deeply committed to privacy” but then doesn’t abide by a global right to be forgotten. Really.
July 21, 2015
July 15, 2015
At Popehat, Ken White explains what to look for in how the media subtly (or not-so-subtly) introduce pro-censorship memes when it covers free speech issues:
American journalists and pundits rely upon vigorous free speech, but are not reliable supporters of it. They both instruct and reflect their fickle audience.
It’s easy to spot overt calls for censorship from the commentariat. Those have become more common in the wake of both tumultuous events (like the violence questionably attributed to the “Innocence of Muslims” video, or Pamela Geller’s “Draw Muhammad” contest) and mundane ones (like fraternity brothers recorded indulging in racist chants).
But it’s harder to detect the subtle pro-censorship assumptions and rhetorical devices that permeate media coverage of free speech controversies. In discussing our First Amendment rights, the media routinely begs the question — it adopts stock phrases and concepts that presume that censorship is desirable or constitutional, and then tries to pass the result off as neutral analysis. This promotes civic ignorance and empowers deliberate censors.
Fortunately, this ain’t rocket science. Americans can train themselves to detect and question the media’s pro-censorship tropes. I’ve collected some of the most pervasive and familiar ones. This post is designed as a resource, and I’ll add to it as people point out more examples and more tropes.
July 11, 2015
Published on 7 Jul 2015
You may have already heard about how the government tried to stifle Reason‘s free speech.
Federal prosecutors based in New York sent a grand jury subpoena and letter to Reason, commanding editors to hand over the records of six commenters who wrote hyperbolic statements about federal judge Katherine Forrest below a blog post at Reason.com. Forrest sentenced Ross Ulbricht to life in prison without parole for creating the Silk Road website.
Then came a gag order from U.S. District Court, meaning Reason could not write or speak publicly about the subpoena or gag order — even to acknowledge either existed. But between the subpoena being issued and the gag order being issued, one legal blogger managed to figure out what was going on.
“I got an email and I looked at it and I thought wow, this is a federal grand jury subpoena to Reason magazine,” says Ken White, a writer at the legal blog Popehat who is himself a former federal prosecutor. White sat down with Reason TV to talk about how he broke the story and what he thinks it means for press freedom and open expression online.
“What’s upsetting is that there is no indication whatsoever either that the prosecutor or the judge gave any consideration to the fact that this was being aimed at a reporting organization about a First Amendment issue,” says White. What’s more, White stresses that the comments named in the subpoena are commonplace for the internet and especially at Reason.com, a site, he notes, “whose clever writing is eclipsed only by the blowhard stupidity of its commenting peanut gallery.”
The scrutinized comments ranged from taunts such as “I hope there is a special place in hell reserved for that horrible woman” to “Its (sic) judges like these that should be taken out back and shot,” but none, say White, come close to qualifying as “true” threats or anything other idle chatter. It remains unclear why the U.S. Attorney’s Office was interested in such internet fodder, how often these sorts of subpoenas get sent out to news organizations, and how often they comply. Nevertheless, White points out that federal prosecutors hold an enormous amount of power over human lives and rarely reflect on how they use — and abuse — their position.
“A fish doesn’t know that it’s in water,” says White. “A federal prosecutor doesn’t know that they are swimming in power. They could do it, so they did.”
Produced by Paul Detrick. Shot by Zach Weissmueller and Justin Monticello.
June 14, 2015
At the Foundation for Economic Education, Ryan Radia discusses the free-speech-quashing subpoena issued by a federal prosecutor in New York state:
In late May, Judge Katherine Forrest, who sits on the US District Court for the Southern District of New York, sentenced Ulbricht to life in prison. This sentence was met with mixed reactions, with many commentators criticizing Judge Forrest for handing down what they perceived as an exceedingly harsh sentence.
A few Reason users, some of whom may have followed Reason’s extensive coverage of the fascinating trial, apparently found Ulbricht’s sentence especially infuriating.
One commenter argued that “judges like these … should be taken out back and shot.” Another user, purporting to correct the preceding comment, wrote that “it’s judges like these that will be taken out back and shot.” A follow-up comment suggested the use of a “wood chipper,” so as not to “waste ammunition.” And a user expressed hope that “there is a special place in hell reserved for that horrible woman.”
Within hours, the office of Preet Bharara, the US Attorney for the Southern District of New York, sent Reason a subpoena for these commenters’ identifying information “in connection with an official criminal investigation of a suspected felony being conducted by a federal grand jury.”
This doesn’t mean a grand jury actually asked about the commenters; instead, in federal criminal investigations, it’s typically up to the US Attorney to decide when to issue a subpoena “on behalf” of a grand jury.
Even if this subpoena is valid under current law — more on that angle in a bit — the government made a serious mistake in seeking to force Reason to hand over information that could uncover the six commenters’ identities.
Unless the Department of Justice is investigating a credible threat to Judge Forrest with some plausible connection to the Reason comments at issue, this subpoena will serve only to chill hyperbolic — but nonetheless protected — political speech by anonymous Internet commenters.
June 12, 2015
Every now and again, it’s easy to believe that we’ve somehow slipped down a hole in time to a less free, more authoritarian time. This is the kind of thing you could easily imagine happening in Fascist Italy or Franco’s Spain rather than in the United States in 2015:
The United States Department of Justice is using federal grand jury subpoenas to identify anonymous commenters engaged in typical internet bluster and hyperbole in connection with the Silk Road prosecution. DOJ is targeting Reason.com, a leading libertarian website whose clever writing is eclipsed only by the blowhard stupidity of its commenting peanut gallery.
Why is the government using its vast power to identify these obnoxious asshats, and not the other tens of thousands who plague the internet?
Because these twerps mouthed off about a judge.
Last week, a source provided me with a federal grand jury subpoena. The subpoena, issued by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York, is directed to Reason.com in Washington, D.C.. The subpoena commands Reason to provide the grand jury “any and all identifying information” Reason has about participants in what the subpoena calls a “chat.”
Regrettably, The Government Can Probably Abuse the Grand Jury Subpoena Power This Way
The grand jury’s investigative power — exercised nominally on its behalf by the U.S. Attorney’s office — is nearly unchecked. It’s not like a stop-and-frisk or search; the government doesn’t need reasonable suspicion or probable case to use grand jury subpoenas to seek information. In general, one can only challenge grand jury subpoenas when they are irrationally burdensome (like demanding that Apple produce every document about iPhones in its possession) or for an improper purpose (like using the grand jury to improve trial evidence after an indictment has already been returned) or, very rarely, when privacy or constitutional issues are in play.
Reason.com — or the anonymous commenters — could file an action in federal court seeking to quash this subpoena. We know how that would likely come out, because someone recently did it. During the 2012 election cycle a juvenile but prolific Twitter personality named “Mr. X” tweeted “I want to fuck Michelle Bachman in the ass with a Vietnam era machete.” The government subpoenaed Twitter for Mr. X’s identifying information; Mr. X filed a motion to quash the subpoena. The United States District Court for the District of Columbia rejected the motion.
May 22, 2015
May 19, 2015
I should say I’m no free-speech absolutist. I think the notion that we should treat pole dancing like constitutionally protected speech while we try to ban actual political speech is just one of the loopiest manifestations of our popular confusion over the First Amendment. In fact, government support for the arts doesn’t offend me in theory, it’s just how they do it in practice that bothers me.
Specifically, I cannot stand the way New Class bureaucrats think they must be autonomous from the taxpayers who pay their salaries. Imagine if we lived in anything like the “Christianist” theocracy so many lefties live in quaking fear of. Evangelical bureaucrats would likely fund art they liked. The professional Bohemians would shriek — with some justification — that the state was imposing its values on the rest of us. But when those same people are in driving the gravy train, they think there’s nothing wrong — and everything right — with imposing their values.
Of course, this is a problem that extends far beyond outposts like the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). Public teachers’ unions and ed-school priests hate the idea that parents and other taxpayers should have a real say in how education money is spent. Bureaucrats in general have become a kind of secular aristocracy that resents second-guessing by the people who fund their will-to-power.
When voters say that bureaucrats shouldn’t spend money on X, the bureaucrats shriek “censorship!” But it is only the equivalent of censorship if you work from the assumption that it’s all the government’s money anyhow. As Bill Clinton once said about the federal surplus, “We could give it all back to you and hope you spend it right.” But if we did, alas, not enough of you would spend it on urophagic art.
Jonah Goldberg, “Bureaucrats Use Taxpayer Money to Subsidize Their Own Values — and No One Else’s”, National Review, 2015-05-09.
May 12, 2015
An interesting article in Salon:
Whatever her views on other matters are, Pamela Geller is right about one thing: last week’s Islamist assault on the “Draw Muhammad” cartoon contest she hosted in Texas proves the jihad against freedom of expression has opened a front in the United States. “There is,” she said, “a war on free speech and this violent attack is a harbinger of things to come.” Apparently undaunted, Geller promises to continue with such “freedom of speech” events. ISIS is now threatening to assassinate her. She and her cohorts came close to becoming victims, yet some in the media on the right and the center-right have essentially blamed her for the gunmen’s attack, just as far too many, last January, surreptitiously pardoned the Kouachi brothers and, with consummate perfidy to human decency, inculpated the satirical cartoonists they slaughtered, saying “Charlie Hebdo asked for it.”
One must, though, call out New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof for backing up Affleck on the same show, and, later, in an editorial. Kristof, after all, should know better. He trades in words and ideas, and his acceptance of the fraudulent term “Islamophobia” contributes to the generalized befuddlement on the left about the faith in question and whether negative talk about it constitutes some sort of racism, or proxy for it. It patently does not. Unlike skin color, faith is not inherited and is susceptible to change. As with any other ideology, it should be subject to unfettered discussion, which may include satire, ridicule and even derision. The First Amendment protects both our right to practice the religion of our choosing (or no religion at all) as well as our right to speak freely, even offensively, about it.
One must, however, recoil in stupefaction and disgust at the consortium of prominent writers who just signaled de facto capitulation to the Enforcers of Shariah. I’m referring, of course, to the recent decision of 204 authors to sign a letter dissociating themselves from PEN’s granting the Toni and James C. Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award to the brave, talented surviving artists of Charlie Hebdo. (Disclosure: I have friends among Charlie Hebdo’s staff.) The authors objecting did so out of concern, according to their statement, for “the section of the French population” – its Muslims – “that is already marginalized, embattled, and victimized, a population that is shaped by the legacy of France’s various colonial enterprises.” A “large percentage” of these Muslims are “devout,” contend the writers, and should thus be spared the “humiliation and suffering” Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons allegedly caused them.
Europe’s colonial past and the United States’ current (endless) military campaigns in the Islamic world, as well as prejudice against nonwhites in Europe, have predisposed many to see, with some justification, Muslims as victims. But apart from the blundering wrongheadedness of the PEN writers’ dissent (Charlie Hebdo’s undeniable courage won them the award, not their artwork) and putting aside the question of whether France’s Muslims are necessarily “devout” (French law prohibits religion-based polling, so who could know?), or uniformly “humiliated” by Charlie Hebdo, or necessarily “embattled,” one thing transpires with arresting clarity from the authors’ declaration: Among the left, the confusion surrounding Islam and how we should relate to it imperils the free speech rights without which no secular republic can survive. We have to clear this up, and fast.
There is no legitimate controversy over why the Kouachi brothers targeted Charlie Hebdo. They murdered not to redress the social grievances or right the historical wrongs the PEN authors named. They explicitly told us why they murdered — for Islam, to avenge the Prophet Muhammad. Progressives who think otherwise need to face that reality. Put another way, the Kouachi brothers may have suffered racial discrimination and even “marginalization,” yet had they not been Muslims, they would not have attacked Charlie Hebdo. They would have had no motive.
March 24, 2015
A fascinating … and disturbing … post from a Tumblr blog called White Hot Harlots on the pervasive fear among some academics. Not fear of the troglodytes of the right, but fear of their own students:
Personally, liberal students scare the shit out of me. I know how to get conservative students to question their beliefs and confront awful truths, and I know that, should one of these conservative students make a facebook page calling me a communist or else seek to formally protest my liberal lies, the university would have my back. I would not get fired for pissing off a Republican, so long as I did so respectfully, and so long as it happened in the course of legitimate classroom instruction.
The same cannot be said of liberal students. All it takes is one slip — not even an outright challenging of their beliefs, but even momentarily exposing them to any uncomfortable thought or imagery — and that’s it, your classroom is triggering, you are insensitive, kids are bringing mattresses to your office hours and there’s a twitter petition out demanding you chop off your hand in repentance.
Is paranoid? Yes, of course. But paranoia isn’t uncalled for within the current academic job climate. Jobs are really, really, really, really hard to get. And since no reasonable person wants to put their livelihood in danger, we reasonably do not take any risks vis-a-vis momentarily upsetting liberal students. And so we leave upsetting truths unspoken, uncomfortable texts unread.
There are literally dozens of articles and books I thought nothing of teaching, 5-6 years ago, that I wouldn’t even reference in passing today. I just re-read a passage of Late Victorian Holocausts, an account of the British genocide against India, and, wow, today I’d be scared if someone saw a copy of it in my office. There’s graphic pictures right on the cover, harsh rhetoric (“genocide”), historical accounts filled with racially insensitive epithets, and a profound, disquieting indictment of capitalism. No way in hell would I assign that today. Not even to grad students.
March 6, 2015
It seems to be forgotten that the current American theory that political heresy should be put down by force, that a man who disputes whatever is official has no rights in law or equity, that he is lucky if he fares no worse than to lose his constitutional benefits of free speech, free assemblage and the use of the mails it seems to be forgotten that this theory was invented, not by Dr. Wilson, but by Roosevelt. Most Liberals, I suppose, would credit it, if asked, to Wilson. He has carried it to extravagant lengths; he is the father superior of all the present advocates of it; he will probably go down into American history as its greatest prophet. But it was first clearly stated, not in any Wilsonian bull to the right-thinkers of all lands, but in Roosevelt’s proceedings against the so-called Paterson anarchists. You will find it set forth at length in an opinion prepared for him by his Attorney-General, Charles J. Bonaparte, another curious and almost fabulous character, also an absolutist wearing the false whiskers of a democrat. Bonaparte furnished the law, and Roosevelt furnished the blood and iron. It was an almost ideal combination; Bonaparte had precisely the touch of Italian finesse that the Rough Rider always lacked. Roosevelt believed in the Paterson doctrine in brief, that the Constitution does not throw its cloak around heretics to the end of his days. In the face of what he conceived to be contumacy to revelation his fury took on a sort of lyrical grandeur. There was nothing too awful for the culprit in the dock. Upon his head were poured denunciations as violent as the wildest interdicts of a mediaeval pope.
The appearance of such men, of course, is inevitable under a democracy. Consummate showmen, they arrest the wonder of the mob, and so put its suspicions to sleep. What they actually believe is of secondary consequence; the main thing is what they say; even more, the way they say it. Obviously, their activity does a great deal of damage to the democratic theory, for they are standing refutations of the primary doctrine that the common folk choose their leaders wisely. They damage it again in another and more subtle way. That is to say, their ineradicable contempt for the. minds they must heat up and bamboozle leads them into a fatalism that shows itself in a cynical and opportunistic politics, a deliberate avoidance of fundamentals. The policy of a democracy thus becomes an eternal improvisation, changing with the private ambitions of its leaders and the transient and often unintelligible emotions of its rank and file.
H.L. Mencken, “Roosevelt: An Autopsy”, Prejudices, Second Series, 1920
March 4, 2015
Published on 2 Mar 2015
Time to stop indulging privileged militant “progressive” puritan student bigots.