Our Corporate Overlords, Technology and The Law

Packingham: The Danger of Confusing Cyberspace with Public Space

A recently decided Supreme Court case has triggered a debate about how much (or little) governments can regulate the use of online spaces. Specifically, in Packingham v. North Carolina, a case about a state prohibitions on social media use by sex offenders, the court has weighed in with an opinion that would seem to suggest that social media sites and services are no different than streets or parks where the First Amendment is concerned. While I tentatively agree with the majority that the government should not issue sweeping restrictions on internet access based on an individual’s criminal record, justifying this position by portraying internet sites and services as public space is misleading and, in my opinion, dangerously naïve. Writing as if he had just read the collected essays of John Perry Barlow, Justice Anthony Kennedy writes in the majority opinion: “in the past there may have been difficulty in identifying the most important places (in a spatial sense) for the exchange of views, today the answer is clear. It is cyberspace…” Kennedy correctly asserts that ‘cyberspace’ plays an increasingly important role in people’s lives, but he overlooks how the spaces and places provided by the internet are fundamentally different from those that can more accurately be described as public spaces, such as streets and parks.

On Facebook, for example, users can debate religion and politics with their friends and neighbors or share vacation photos. On LinkedIn, users can look for work, advertise for employees, or review tips on entrepreneurship. And on Twitter, users can petition their elected representatives and otherwise engage with them in a direct manner. Indeed, Governors in all 50 States and almost every Member of Congress have set up accounts for this purpose…In short, social media users employ these websites to engage in a wide array of protected First Amendment activity(emphasis added.)

Like many observers who have written paeans to the free-wheeling uses and democratizing potential of the internet, the majority opinion in Packingham demonstrates an ill-informed exuberance about the freedoms enjoyed by users of social media platforms. Even Justice Samuel Alito in his concurrence with the majority criticizes what he calls the court’s “loose rhetoric,” stating, “there are important differences between cyberspace and the physical world…” Yet Alito only criticizes the breadth of Kennedy’s claims while similarly failing to recognize the myriad ways our civil rights cannot be asserted on the internet. The resulting opinion promotes a popular but inaccurate narrative about the beneficence and neutrality of the internet in general, and social media platforms in particular.

Let’s be abundantly clear: social media sites and services are not public spaces and those who use them are not free to use them as they please. Social media platforms are wholly owned and tightly controlled by commercial entities who derive profit from how they are used. While, as is argued in Packingham, governments may be limited as to the extent they can tailor regulations over the access or use of an internet resource, social media users are already subject to the potentially sweeping choices made by site operators. Through a combination of architecture (code) and policies (terms of service), social media users are guided and constrained in what they can do or say. Twitter, Facebook, and other platforms routinely block users and delete content that would most likely be considered protected speech if it took place in a public venue. So, while we can probably agree that social media platforms have become central to the social lives of many millions of people, this means only that these services are popular. It does not make them public.

Justice Kennedy attempted to link the free speech rights that have been upheld in cases concerning other venues, such as airports, with the rights that should be available on the internet. While I do not disagree that the full extent of our constitutional protections should be available in online venues, the fact of the generally unregulated status of the internet and the commercial ownership of most of its infrastructure means that cyberspace bears very little resemblance to ‘realspace.’ Airports, for example, are public institutions operated by government agencies. A social media site—almost the entire internet now—is more like a shopping mall. In much the same way that social media platforms reproduce features of life in public places like city streets, shopping malls only mimic the interactive spaces they have come to supplant. A mall is neither street nor park. Different rules—and laws—apply to malls. When the Mall of America in Minneapolis shut down a Black Lives Matter protest in December, the mall operators were able to assert their property rights over the expressive and assembly rights of the protestors. A municipality would have risked a civil rights lawsuit had they broken up a peaceful protest on a city sidewalk or in a public park.

Packingham is a case about constitutional rights that overlooks the increasing privatization of those rights. It is also part of a larger problem of misrepresenting cyberspace as a zone of freedom. This transformation in our relationships to rights, and our perceptions about those rights, is aided by the invisibility of power online. Facebook, Twitter, etc., by providing expressive spaces in which their users supply the visible content, do not appear to us much as actors in this drama. We are led to believe that they simply provide appealing services that we get to use so long as we follow some seemingly benign ground rules. We fail to recognize that those rules are not designed for the best interests of users, but for the goals of the platforms themselves and their advertisers. Facebook in particular has worked hard to encourage dramatic changes in human social behavior that have enabled them gain deep knowledge about their users and to monetize that knowledge.

Justice Kennedy’s opinion is especially irksome because, while it purports to preserve important rights as our lives migrate online, it overlooks the distressing trend of privatization of the very rights that the constitution promotes. Yes, we may engage in first amendment activities online without undue interference by government officials, but the ability to do so is not guaranteed by the government because the government is barely involved. Ever since the internet ceased being a project of the Department of Defense, most of it has been privately owned and the government has avoided regulating most of the activities that take place there. While it may be true that an unregulated internet is a good thing, a side effect of this approach has been the growth of enormously powerful online businesses based on manipulating and spying on users and profiting from the resulting data. Every single communication and transaction that takes place on the internet passes through infrastructure belonging to dozens, even hundreds of private companies; any of whom may be asserting their combinations of architectural and policy restrictions on how that infrastructure is used. Where it suits a company to operate with total neutrality and openness, they do so. When it does not, they act in whatever manner suits the bottom line. Facebook, by example, is frequently lauded for its capacity to support political organizing as well as other modes of first amendment activity. But if Facebook decided tomorrow to block access to an NAACP page or to prevent the use of its messaging system to organize a legal street protest, there is nothing but the potential for consumer backlash to prevent them from doing so. If Google decided to choose the next U.S. president by subtly shaping “personalized” search results, there are no law on the books to prevent it. Packingham says nothing about this kind of power over free expression, which dwarfs that of the government when it comes to online activity. Until the government and the courts begin to address the privatization of our rights online, court opinions celebrating our online freedoms will continue to ring hollow while amplifying perceptions of government irrelevance in the internet age.

 

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Our Corporate Overlords, Technology and The Law

Copyright Shaming Won’t Work

I’ve been reading Cory Doctorow’s latest book: Information Doesn’t Want to Be Free and it’s a good read. There is a lot of good stuff in here, even if I don’t exactly agree with his insistence that the world is as good as ever for artists who want to create work and get paid for it, despite the abundance of new ways to share that work online. Doctorow does offer a fresh perspective to the “copyfight” and his foundational arguments are compelling.

Including this one: shaming and prosecuting people for copying digital artworks without permission is futile and it’s mean. I’m not talking about people who are making money from ripping and reselling exabytes of digital art. (I refuse to resort to the stark and depressing term “content” to describe what humans make to express themselves.) I’m talking about the threats and actions being taken against individuals who acquire media from unauthorized places or in unauthorized ways for their own use, and who share it with friends, which is what most “piracy” is. Don’t get me wrong, I am very concerned about artists getting paid. I tried to making living as an artist for many years and I know many people who do it now. I want them to get paid for their work and I struggle with how complicated it has gotten for that to happen, but this is nothing new. Being a professional artist has always been very very hard. I also think that the companies that publish and distribute creative work deserve to get paid. But the problem we’re facing is not simply that a bunch of people are sitting at home copying files and thereby negatively impacting the incomes of artists and their enablers, it’s the entire ecosystem of arts and entertainment that has changed radically, and the villains in the highway robbery known as the “entertainment business” are still the same villains as 20 years ago–the major record labels, the movie studios, and, as Doctorow points out, the newly powerful “intermediaries” like Apple and Amazon. Working adversarily at times, and in concert at others, “the industry” has reimagined important parts of the arts business model in ingenious and artist-cheating ways that offer few, if any, additional benefits to “honest” consumers. While reinventing the business, the industry has gone to astonishing lengths to create new crimes and to increase the seriousness of old ones, and their motivations have virtually nothing to do with artists. It’s unfortunate that most working artists have to labor under the overbearing advocacy of the arts and entertainment industry, because artists still do have rights to assert. It’s just not clear that they would choose to assert them the way Sony and Universal and Amazon do.

I have copied music and movies. Lots of them. So have you I imagine. In the prime of my music-making and consuming life in the 1980s, 90s and early 2000s, I inhaled new music. I bought a great deal of music, but I also made cassette tapes and burned CDs of other people’s records, tapes and CDs. I watched entire seasons of The Sopranos on VHS tapes lovingly mailed by a girlfriend’s mom. These things were and still are illegal and I had some vague understanding that this might be “wrong,” but I didn’t care. Why? Because I was still paying good money for the stuff all the time. I was (and still am) supporting artists in myriad ways, and a lot of people still do, albeit in new ways that may not be tabulated as “units” like the old days. A key difference has transpired in the relationship between consumers and creative products. In the days when most media arrived in some sort of package, I felt I had complete ownership rights over what I bought. Total control of it once it was in my hands. The emerging business model now is “licensing.” You pay to use some intangible media, but you can’t do anything else (legally) with it, like share it with your spouse or friends. This is a significant paradigm shift for consumers who have been passing around books for hundreds of years, and recorded media for over a century. This radical shift how creative works are bought and paid for–especially the new limits inherent in the deal–is totally frustrating for people who just want to buy a record and then lend to friends. The business model of “use it for a moment and it’s gone” wasn’t built for us, and it pisses us off and makes us fairly sanguine about breaking the rules so that it does work for us. This is exacerbated by the fact that the same technology that makes media increasingly intangible, also makes it much easier to share. This is not the fault of the sharers, and the industry has also benefited and found lots of new ways to make money from the same intangibility. Copying files remains very easy to do, and since it’s easy, we’re all going to use the objects we have at our disposal because that’s what free, imaginative people do.They don’t wring their hands and recite honor codes handed down by corporations when they want to hear a song. That’s why I owned a tape-to-tape deck in the 1980s and used it to copy music. Trying to convince people not to use the tools in front of them is simply untenable. Making us all outlaws over it is a Kafkaesque absurdity.

Here is a scenario: My wife Sarah and I take a trip together and bring our Kindles, each loaded up with four books. Sarah finishes a book and says “you’ve got to read this.” I say “great, I just finished my book. Give me yours.” The problem is that its stuck on her Kindle and she wants to read one of her other books. She’s not much interested in the rest of mine. Here is where the trouble starts: I just want to borrow a fucking book. I don’t want to manage user accounts or visit an Amazon website to arrange a 14 day loan, or whatever laughably paltry solution they offer. If, at that moment, someone handed me a little box that could make the two Kindles share books, but it ran an illegal program and using it violated some non-negotiable terms of service I was forced to agree to in order to have any technology in my hands at all, I would very likely say “fuck it” and “yes please.” In one form or another, this is what is happening everywhere, except that it’s a lot simpler to copy using the Internet, and it’s not going to get any harder. Making it a crime is not the solution.

This is a rant that does not offer solutions to the bottom-line challenges for artists, and I know that. There are serious problems with the business of being a working artist in the 21st century and file-sharing does play a role. But it’s technically infeasible to stop people from sharing media files, and the sharing is as old as the means to record and preserve the work. It’s incredibly easy to right-click and choose “save,” which is why it feels like, at worst, a “thought crime” and not a real crime at all. No amount of shaming is going to stop that, and prosecuting people only demonstrates a very scary sort of corporate power that we are seeing more and more throughout society. There are other ways to get people to pay for art, and a lot of that reward the artist directly rather than through huge entertainment corporations. Live performance, pay-what-you-will schemes, merchandising, etc. These aren’t optimal money-makers for all creative artists, but it works for some artists, and arguably has given rise to new types of creativity. Whether or not the new deal rescues art-as-we-knew-it is an open question, but I don’t think we can continue to rely on the arts-business models of the 1950s and 60s. It was a good time, but things have changed.

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