• Tag Archives social media
  • Tearing Down Social Platforms Like Gab Won’t Stop the Violence

    Last weekend, a horrible tragedy occurred when a gunman opened fire in a Pittsburgh synagogue, killing 11 people. In the wake of this tragedy, a devastated public has been seeking to make sense of this act of mass violence. But as is common when dealing with grief, sadness often turns to anger and confusion, and there is then a sense that justice must be served, not just on the perpetrator but even on those indirectly involved.

    When an individual commits a violent act, only that person should be held directly responsible. But our country has lost its sense of personal responsibility, and when something goes wrong, the default response is to widely cast blame on anyone or anything that can conceivably be linked to the act. Following the Pittsburgh shooting, many have decided that punishing alternative social media platforms will somehow avenge the lives lost. Unfortunately, this is not the case. And by arbitrarily pointing fingers, we completely abandon the principle of personal responsibility.

    Immediately following the massacre, it was discovered that the suspected gunman had made several anti-semitic social media posts, many originating on the platform Gab. In response, PayPal sent a letter to Gab stating that it would no longer offer payment services to the network. PayPal gave no specific reason for this action aside from specifying that it had the right to terminate business relationships at its own discretion, which, as a private company, it absolutely does.

    However, PayPal later told The Verge:

    The company is diligent in performing reviews and taking account actions. When a site is explicitly allowing the perpetuation of hate, violence or discriminatory intolerance, we take immediate and decisive action.

    Shortly thereafter, Gab received word that its web hosting provider, Joyent, would also be ending their business relationship in light of the gunman’s social media presence on its site. GoDaddy has cut its ties with the platform, as well. Gab told its users that it would be working on finding alternatives, but these losses will surely cause the social networking site many problems in the coming weeks.

    Adding expropriation to injury, the payment processing company Stripe sent a letter to Gab, saying:

    While we continue our investigation, we are suspending transfers to your bank account, effective immediately. Your Stripe account will continue to be able to receive payments from your customers, but you will not receive payouts until we re-enable them.

    Again, these companies certainly have the right to cut ties, but their decision does not make a whole lot of sense. After all, Gab is not the only social media platform that has been used by murderers and other monsters of humanity. At its peak, the terrorist group ISIS frequently made use of Twitter as a means of recruiting members. Twitter has also been used by several other users who were later discovered to be murderers. However, Twitter itself was never held responsible for these users’ actions.

    In addition to Twitter, Facebook has also been utilized by many murderers, some even boasting about their kills on the popular social media site. Yet Facebook has never had to face the same negative backlash that Gab is currently having to endure. And to make matters worse, Gab is one of the few social media platforms that has committed itself to free speech even in our current climate of censorship hysteria. As Facebook and Twitter continue to ban users, we need to preserve as many alternative social media sites as possible.

    Over the last several months, both Facebook and Twitter have been deleting the accounts of users whose profiles and pages have been flagged as racist or offensive. While Facebook claims that many of the 800 accounts it banned recently were a result of spamming violations, many of the banned pages have denied these allegations. Additionally, many of the pages deleted were right-leaning groups. And given the proximity to the midterm elections, the whole thing is highly suspect.

    Now, many users fear that their accounts might also be banned for simply expressing an opinion that doesn’t align with those who control these platforms. And many have begun to abandon these popular platforms in search of alternatives that do not threaten to ban users for expressing their opinions—no matter how radical or unfavorable these opinions may be.

    Gab has been one popular haven for those fleeing traditional social media platforms as it prides itself on being “The Home of Free Speech Online.” But this mission has been threatened by PayPal and Stripe cutting off its accounts and Joyent dropping the site from its servers.

    Yes, all these entities are allowed to freely associate or disassociate with whomever they please. Nevertheless, as the ability to freely express ourselves is quickly becoming limited at almost every turn, the shunning of Gab is a chilling sign of where we are headed as a society.

    True, the gunman’s profile on the site was riddled with hateful rhetoric, but his words were his own and no one else’s. Punishing Gab would be akin to punishing a homeowner for a violent crime that occurred just outside of his home, even if he played no role in the altercation.

    It should also be noted that as soon as Gab realized the gunman had a profile on its site, it promptly turned over all relevant information to the FBI. Gab was merely protecting his right to voice his opinion, they were not protecting him from the consequences of his actions.

    Gab commented on the whole debacle, saying:

    We refuse to be defined by the media’s narratives about Gab and our community. Gab’s mission is very simple: to defend free expression and individual liberty online for all people. Social media often brings out the best and the worst of humanity.

    And if we are being honest with ourselves, by exiling the “worst” of humanity and banishing it to remote corners of the internet, we do more harm than good. First, isolating hateful people only allows their hate to fester in fringe groups where they stay isolated from new thoughts that could potentially positively alter their worldviews. Additionally, by keeping these people hidden, we miss out on vital feedback that tells us that we may not want to associate these people.

    Heinous acts of violence shake us to our core and leave us feeling vulnerable and confused. But this vulnerability should not cloud our reason. And by holding social media platforms accountable for someone else’s crime, we remove the personal responsibility that should fall on those who actually committed the murders.

    Source: Tearing Down Social Platforms Like Gab Won’t Stop the Violence – Foundation for Economic Education


  • Regulate Google, Facebook, and Twitter as Public Utilities? Bad Idea.

    Free markets can be hard. They might not produce outcomes you personally like. This is why we have such extensive literature on economic inequalitypublic goods, or merit goods, among other alleged market failings.

    Government provision or regulation is usually the proposed solution to these market failings. But advocates for free markets will point out that this cure is, in many cases, worse than the disease. Economics undergraduates will hear much in their classes about “market failure,” but the problem of “government failure” is at least as widespread.

    However, even for free-market advocates, it can be a tough principle to cling to when the market isn’t doing what they would like. For some, it is too tough. When faced with a market outcome they disapprove of, some embrace the very government intervention they usually oppose.

    A case in point is the Internet, specifically websites such as Twitter, Google, and Facebook. Many conservatives believe these companies are politically biased and are “censoring” conservative content in various ways or promoting their opponents. They propose increased government regulation of these companies. They are said to be “public utilities” that require the hand of government a little heavier on their shoulder than other businesses.

    Personally, I can readily believe these websites are biased and do discriminate against certain political views. But what should the government do about that? Should it do anything?

    Underlying this argument is the notion that public utilities are a class of producer apart from most others we leave to the discipline of the market. What sets public utility producers apart?

    Nothing. My old (1992) edition of the Penguin Dictionary of Economicsdefines a public utility as follows:

    An industry supplying basic public services to the market and possibly enjoying monopoly power. Usually, electricity, gas, telephones, postal services, water supply, and rail and often other forms of transport are regarded as public utilities. These services all require specialized capital equipment and elaborate organization.

    Capital is heterogeneous; it is all, to some degree, specialized. Is the capital required to produce automobiles more specialized than that required to produce postal services? Is the organization of a bus company really so much more elaborate than that of Amazon that it belongs in a different, more tightly regulated class of business? More useful is my old (1965) Everyman’s Dictionary of Economics definition:

    Public Utilities, groups of industries in a monopoly position supplying “essential” goods and services, subject to public regulation designed to ensure that they operate “in the public interest.” It is difficult to say which industries fall within this definition since what constitutes “the public interest” or “essential goods” is a matter of personal and political opinion.

    In an age where we can choose between countless different handsets and competing networks, where I can watch live English football on my phone while traveling through rural Minnesota, it might seem bizarre that telephones were once considered something that should be provided by the same people who brought us the Veterans Administration. At one time, even such a staunch advocate of free markets as Milton Friedman thought this. In the 1975 edition of his book An Economist’s Protest, he wrote that “there are some cases, of which telephone is probably one, where technical considerations enforce monopoly.”

    Why has our attitude toward telephones changed?

    Technological progress is part of the answer. This has changed the “technical considerations” Friedman cited back in 1975. There is no longer any technical argument that all telephone users need to be on one network that government is required to regulate.

    But the proximate cause is a change in regulation itself. In the 1920s and 1930s, government became concerned that “competition resulted in duplication of investment.” It stepped in to restrain such duplication by granting monopolies. In an attempt to safeguard the consumer from the effects of this intervention, government intervened again. The Communications Act of 1934 authorized the Federal Communications Commission “to impose service requirements priced at regulated rates. Any deviations in product or service required government approval, a laborious process then as now,” explained Diane S. Katz in a 2004 paper published by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.

    This is how “AT&T secured its dominance over telephone service for decades to come, controlling more than 80 percent of all telephone lines and assuming family status as ‘Ma Bell.’” There was nothing “natural” about the monopoly—it was created by government regulation in the first place.

    And, when regulation changed, the monopoly it had created collapsed. As LiveMint has pointed out:

    The company’s monopoly was broken up in 1984, with the parent retaining long-distance telephony and the seven regional “Baby Bells” becoming de facto local monopolies providing local services. Long-distance services became heated with competition, with the entry of MCI and Sprint. Due to AT&T’s break-up, the charges that long-distance carriers had to pay regional Bells became transparent. Until 1984, these charges were opaque, and mother AT&T actually used to subsidize local calls. In fact, after the break-up, the local calls became more expensive, rising faster than the rate of inflation. This was also the period of the entry of VOIP (voice over Internet protocol) into telephony.

    As we look back at the saga of the AT&T break-up, it looks strange and archaic. That’s because the emergence of the Internet, the mobile phone and cable plus satellite television was mostly post 1984…

    Just as the monopoly in telephony was a consequence of government regulation, so, also, was the technical progress that makes such a mockery of the notion that telephony is a monopoly a consequence of deregulation.

    In contrast to the blunt instrument of government regulation, producers in free markets are regulated by competition and consumer tastes.

    Facebook, Google, and Twitter may look like monopolists requiring tighter government regulation now, but so did MySpace back in 2007.

    In February 2007, The Guardian asked: “Will MySpace ever lose its monopoly?” In April 2008, Facebook overtook MySpace in the Alexa rankings, and in 2009 Myspace lost half of its user base. As the example of telephony after 1984 demonstrates, if individuals and businesses are allowed to innovate in a free market, they will. For all the talk about “network effects,” “economies of scale,” or whatever else, MySpace’s vaunted “monopoly” was destroyed in a year by such innovation. In contrast, government regulation granted AT&T a monopoly and protected it.

    Facebook, Google, and Twitter may look like unbeatable monopolists requiring tighter government regulation now, but so did MySpace back in 2007. If Facebook’s potential competitors are allowed to innovate in a free market, they will. And, one day, perhaps Mark Zuckerberg will simply be an affectionate memory, like Tom of MySpace fame.

    Source: Regulate Google, Facebook, and Twitter as Public Utilities? Bad Idea. – Foundation for Economic Education


  • Border Security Overreach Continues: DHS Wants Social Media Login Information

    Now more than ever, it is apparent that U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and its parent agency, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), are embarking on a broad campaign to invade the digital lives of innocent individuals.

    The new DHS secretary, John Kelly, told a congressional committee this week that the department may soon demand login information (usernames and passwords) for social media accounts from foreign visa applicants—at least those subject to the controversial executive order on terrorism and immigration—and those who don’t comply will be denied entry into the United States. This effort to access both public and private communications and associations is the latest move by a department that is overreaching its border security authority.

    In December 2016, DHS began asking another subset of foreign visitors, those from Visa Waiver Countries, for their social media handles. DHS defended itself by stating that not only would compliance be voluntary, the government only wanted to access publicly viewable social media posts: “If an applicant chooses to answer this question, DHS will have timely visibility of the publicly available information on those platforms, consistent with the privacy settings the applicant has set on the platforms.”

    As we wrote last fall in comments to DHS, even seeking the ability to view the public social media posts of international travelers implicates the universal human rights of free speech and privacy, and—importantly—the comparable constitutional rights of their American associates. Our objections are still salient given that DHS may soon mandate access to both public and private social media content and contacts of another group of foreigners visitors.

    Moreover, as a practical matter, such vetting is unlikely to weed out terrorists as they would surely scrub their social media accounts prior to seeking entry into the U.S.

    Such border security overreach doesn’t stop there.

    There have been several reports recently of CBP agents demanding access to social media information and digital devices of both American citizens and legal permanent residents. Most disturbing are the invasive searches of Americans’ cell phones, where CBP has been accessing social media apps that may reveal private posts and relationships, as well as emails, texts messages, browsing history, contact lists, photos—whatever is accessible via the phone.

    Such border searches of Americans’ digital devices and cloud content are unconstitutional absent individualized suspicion, specifically, a probable cause warrant. In light of the DHS secretary’s statements this week, we fear that DHS may soon take the next step down this invasive path and demand the login information for American travelers’ online accounts so that the government can peruse private, highly personal information without relying on access to a mobile device.

    Source: Border Security Overreach Continues: DHS Wants Social Media Login Information | Electronic Frontier Foundation