Web entrepreneurs expect more pressure for censorship from activists regarding private-running political commentary site; campaign finance law leaves lingering concerns over PACs

I had an important meeting at a restaurant in Washington yesterday about the rapid increase in Internet censorship from various sources, but most of all from private platforms, as we know from Facebook’s Purge last week.

I have to keep my comments general for now. Let me preface them by noting that the 'world', as a whole, places much less value on protecting self-published speech than it did two years ago. It is not because of anything Donald Trump has done; it is about the 'autoimmune reaction' (cytokine storm) to his presidency. Actually, the problems have been accumulating for a long time.

(Caption video above): I discuss freedom of reach (at Chesapeake Beach, MD June 2022

Back in the 1990s, the narrow libertarian idea of 'personal responsibility' was a much easier sell than it is now. Partly due to post 9/11 reaction to terrorism and partly because of the cumulative effects of 'winner take all' capitalism, a lot more people today feel “left out” and are likely to identify with tribal interests. On the Left particularly, there is a growing combative attitude that any speech that encourages even some unstable or illiterate people to harm members of oppressed minority groups should be oppressed, even if the speech is relatively analytic and acceptable by more customary standards of public decency.

There is also a problem with 'karma', so to speak. In retirement, I use self-owned and self-directed speech as a way of branding my own political participation, avoiding becoming a spokesperson for somebody else's message, wearing someone else's 'uniform' or shouting as part of 'somebody else's mob' (as if these were 'beneath me'). I am certainly responsible for my own speech, but I have benefited from a permissive atmosphere (aided by Section 230 and DMCA Safe Harbor) that limits downstream liability for platforms and web hosts. This same permissiveness allows others to use these platforms to do great harm. (Just today, the New York Times reported on misuse of Facebook by Myanmar to do genocide). Some, especially today, would say I must assume personal accountability if I make easy use of a platform that others can use because of artificially easy barriers to entry. The attitude behind the passage of FOSTA certainly reflects this attitude.

The recent Facebook purge does seem to be driven by algorithms looking for misuse of essentially duplicate accounts, which are more often connected to certain topics. But, as discussed yesterday, there is another looming problem, with sites set up to discuss political candidates and particularly issues themselves, when there is no underlying commercial motivation. The concern tracks back to the early and mid 2000s when there was concern, expressed especially well in the Washington Times, about the notion that after the 2002 McCain-Feingold law that self-published political blogs could be considered as hidden soft political contributions. It is generally believed that Citizens United and then McCutcheon (2014) made this go away. But some people believe that political blog authors could be viewed as 'non connected PACs' who must report financial results. I don’t know of any litigation that has tested this idea, and it might seem like a good thing to have a conservative Supreme Court if there ever is. But the very idea could lead activists (particularly on the Left) to chase platforms – in this case webhosts – to monitor their customers.

Charlottesville seems to be the watershed, after which activists were much more likely to go after web hosts and domain registrars as well as 'big' social media. Until then, they were viewed as largely neutral. However, there had been a few scattered cases (such as a vitriolic anti-gay site inNew Zealand shut down in 2011).

In recent months, may websites and YouTube channels have become much more aggressive in asking for donations (when not having paywalls). A few vloggers will state that they do this for a living. It seems as thought the Internet world views websites owned by individuals or small orgs not needing financial support from the public are coming to be viewed with suspicion.

Keep in mind, while the greatest attention has been paid to social media's (especially Facebook’s) driving naïve users into echo chambers, the existence of 'fake news' sites, especially overseas, intentionally set up to pump 'propaganda' to illiterate visitors, is, arguably, itself part of the 'problem'. On the other hand, individual site operators like me can argue that we are a valuable brake against excessive influence of paid lobbying.

So its easy to imagine more pressure even on ICANN to require more accountability for customers and domain owners. Websites that actually sell products and services (unless porn, pharmacies, etc) to consumers in a conventional way may attract less suspicion than political or issue sites (even this one) that ask for nothing. In these days on not wanting spam and robocalls, that’s an irony.

Other possibilities could be requiring backup support contacts and insurability – the later got some attention in 2008 and was largely forgotten after the financial crisis.

There is also some concern about 'lowballing' – sites that don’t seem to be popular or have a large number of visitors but that still get ideas into discussion with politicians. There are some crude tools like Site Stats that could be used to single out such sites if someone wanted to.

Along these lines its interesting to note the recent interest in putting web posts on block chains, like Steemit, to protect them from deletion should radical Internet policy happen in the future.

I think I have mentioned before the interest in using blockchain to properly support independent journalists, with the new site called 'Civil'.

The biggest practical objection to sites like mine could be the dilution of conventional activism. If people were not allowed to operate the way I do, they would have to join up in 'solidarity' with other people's causes to be heard at all, to protect their own interests. But that is exactly the point: activism based more on collectivist goals (remedying social and economic problems by intersectional 'group' rather than the individual) needs critical mass to get anything done.

I even hear talk of a 'war on introverts'. It’s true, when individualized speech (not so much provocateurship but just influence) enters the policy debate and gets heard, the resulting policies tend to track more toward libertarian or Reagan-style conservatism, with much less support for group remedies (even affirmative action). So, as the Left and alt-Right note, the results of extreme capitalism don’t get addressed.

There is an ethical concern when people have influence but don’t interested in working with less advantaged people personally, as with voluntarism. If you have been raised up yourself in life, the best way to protect your freedom may be to use it to raise up someone else – and that gets very hard socially for someone not used to being 'popular'.

In the meantime, an important strategy for me could be to announce a plan to actually sell products in a more conventional way. I should be able to do that late 2019 with my novel (and maybe some music, which would add popularity) but I need to become committed to a much more specific schedule.

(Posted: Tuesday, October 16, 2018 at 7:30 PM EDT)