Issue 80

Platform or publisher, redux

Happy Western Australia Day. What a week for social media, and not in a good way. Let's recap:

  • 26 May: Twitter added a fact-check link below two of Donald Trump's tweets about mail-in voting.
  • 27 May: Donald Trump tweets that Twitter "is completely stifling FREE SPEECH, and I, as President, will not allow it to happen!... We will strongly regulate, or close them down".
  • 28 May: Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg gave an interview to Fox News, stating that "We have a different policy than, I think, Twitter on this... I just believe strongly that Facebook shouldn't be the arbiter of truth of everything that people say online. Private companies probably shouldn't be, especially these platform companies, shouldn't be in the position of doing that."
  • 28 May: Donald Trump signed the "Executive Order on Preventing Online Censorship", taking aim at Section 230 of the "Communications Decency Act", which essentially says companies can't be held liable for the things their users put on their platforms.
  • 29 May: Twitter censors one of Donald Trump's tweets about George Floyd, alleging it "glorifies violence". Trump responds by tweeting "Section 230 should be revoked by Congress. Until then, it will be regulated!".

I wrote about social media as a platform vs. publisher over a year ago. My view was that Twitter was gradually shifting away from being a pure platform by engaging in actions more akin to that of a publisher ('content provider'), weakening its protections under S230 and opening itself up to litigation.

It seems that has now happened (sort of), although in terms of Trump's executive order, Twitter should be fine. Twitter's liable for the fact-check - which is its own content - but nothing more. This isn't a First Amendment issue and Trump has no rights to force a private company to display his messages, or to give him an account in the first place. The only reason he hasn't been banned already is probably due to his status and that he's quite lucrative in terms of advertising (until he erodes S230 and Twitter becomes liable for his tweets).

But by pissing Trump off, Twitter has put itself at risk of future laws. Just because it’s protected under S230 right now doesn’t mean a politician won’t come along and regulate those protections away in the future (antitrust, anyone?).

Already Senator Ted Cruz, in a letter sent last Friday to the Justice and Treasury departments, has laid the groundwork by calling for "a criminal investigation of Twitter over allegations the company is violating U.S. sanctions against Iran". When in doubt, use the national security card / blame Iran, a favourite strategy of Trump's:

Trump says (and signs) lots of things he doesn't believe. There's no doubt his feud with Twitter is nothing more than a distraction from the coronavirus pandemic and the death of George Floyd in Minnesota. But that doesn't mean he won't follow through with his threats.

Interestingly, the rest of the major social media players have either remained silent or pushed back against Twitter. Facebook's vice president of global policy management, Monika Bickert, had this to say:

We do not believe that a private technology company like Facebook should be in the business of vetting what politicians say in the context of a political debate. As is the case with the President’s tweets, speech from candidates and elected officials is highly scrutinized and debated. We think people should be allowed to hear what politicians say, make up their own minds and hold politicians to account.

That sounds almost as though Facebook believes a body of persons entitled to vote in an election should hold politicians accountable for their speech. Fair enough, although I should note Facebook is rolling out its own "Oversight Board", which will soon begin making "decisions on what content Facebook & Instagram should allow or remove, based on respect for freedom of expression & human rights". Sounds very dystopian, and I worry that it won't be long before the White House has its very own "Department of Social Media Oversight".

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The good news is an alternative already exists. It's called the 'Fediverse', and it's a fully decentralised, distributed, interoperable group of servers, each with their own rules. According to the Wikipedia entry:

The software spanning the fediverse are all free. Some of them vaguely resemble Twitter in style (for example, Mastodon, Misskey, GNU social, and Pleroma, which are similar in their microblogging function), while others include more communication and transaction options that are instead comparable to Google+ or Facebook (such as is the case with Friendica and Hubzilla).

The services mentioned above all use the ActivityPub protocol, which was recently made a recommended standard by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), the main international standards organisation for the web. In laymen's terms, ActivityPub allows anyone to operate/select their own server with its own content rules, but still follow anyone on any other server.

To simplify further, the fediverse is like email but for social media, with the currently dominant Twitter/Facebook model more akin to email if you could only contact other people using the same provider (e.g. if GMail accounts could only email other GMail accounts).

I haven't been following the fediverse space that closely but decided to dive in again following Trump's S230 order (back-story: I operated a now-defunct pump.io node on the fediverse several years ago).

A little research revealed that Mastodon is by far the most popular service on the fediverse, although it's quite resource-intensive from a sysadmin point of view. Being the cheapskate I am, I discovered Pleroma, a relatively new option (first stable release ~Feb 2019) that can run on as little as a Raspberry Pi. A few hours later, Detrended.net was born:

I quit social media several years ago, but will use Detrended.net to post short comments on interesting articles I stumble across for use in this newsletter. If you want the early scoop, feel free to register or follow me from any other instance on the fediverse.

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It's a shame that Trump decided to use the government to try and force Twitter to change its rules when he could easily order someone at the White House to set up his own competing server. But when all you have is a hammer...

Enjoy the rest of this week's issue. Cheers,

— Justin

Other bits of interest

The good, the bad and the ugly of contact tracing

The good:

The bad:

The ugly:

You can't "reopen" an economy

"...official government stay-at-home orders didn’t seem to affect the percent of people staying at home," because:

The best answer I can come up with is that most people are risk-averse and started staying at home before the official lockdown. A few risk-tolerant people didn't, but they are disobeying the lockdown as much as they can anyway. And the cases where risk-tolerant people can’t disobey the lockdown aren’t numerous enough to show up in aggregated cell phone data.

The coronavirus changed consumer behaviour and patterns of specialisation, and those won't simply revert to how they were before.

Some jobs won't come back

Silicon Valley has cut more than 40,000 jobs following the coronavirus pandemic. Many will come back, but many more will need to take a different form. Bloomberg provides a nice graphic of the industries/companies hardest hit in the tech sector:

Even the mighty Google "has rescinded offers to several thousand people who had agreed to work at the company as temporary and contract workers", due to "a significant and sudden slowdown" in advertising.

Here is where some of those new jobs will be:

Amazon plans to offer permanent jobs to about 70% of the U.S. workforce it has hired temporarily to meet consumer demand during the coronavirus pandemic, the company told Reuters on Thursday.

That's all for now. If you enjoyed this issue, feel free to share it via email


Issue 80: Platform or publisher, redux was compiled by Justin Pyvis and delivered on 01 June 2020. Join the conversation on the fediverse at Detrended.net.