The Lessig Lawsuit (sung to the tune of “The Reynolds Pamphlet”).

Cyberlaw Twitter has been mildly abuzz recently over the news that Professor Larry Lessig. Has decided to sue the New York Times for defamation. Specifically, Lessig claims that a NYT article describing this essay on Medium, explaining his position around the mess at MIT Media Lab and an anonymous donation from the late and utterly unlamented Jeffery Epstein. In his complaint, Lessig accuses the NYT of using a deliberately misleading headline and lede knowing that the vast majority of people do not click through to read the actual content they share with others and that therefore this “clickbait defamation” (as Lessig calls it) was knowingly defamatory even under the exacting standard of NYT v. Sullivan.

 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, in light of both the connection with Jeff Epstein and because newspapers don’t like to be sued, folks have reacted with particularly scathing criticism of this lawsuit. Many view this as contradictory to Lessig’s previous advocacy for an open internet and information freedom. Some have gone so far as to accuse Lessig of filing a “Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation” (SLAPP) complaint. Meanwhile, legal Twitter has been awash with rather melodramatic proclamations of how Lessig has lost his way by suing a newspaper, even if it did screw him over bigly.

 

Perhaps it is just the sheer overwrote nonsense that gets me contrarian here, but I’m going to disagree with the broader tech Twitter community on this. The Lessig Lawsuit actually raises a rather interesting new question of defamation law with a high degree of relevance in the modern world. It also highlights one of the things defamation law is concerned about — the ability of people to spread false statements that have very serious impact on your life or profession with virtually no repercussions. The complicated dance between needing defamation to protect people from harassment and potentially having their lives destroyed and the First Amendment protections for speech and the press has been pumped up on steroids in the information age — but we still need to remember that it is sometimes complicated. It is also important to keep in mind that while defamation law is frequently abused, it also plays a very important role in pushing back on deliberate misinformation and using a fairly powerful megaphone to make other people’s lives miserable — such as with the lawsuit by Sandy Hook families against Alex Jones. Defamation law requires a balance, which is why we cure the problem of SLAPP suits with Anti-SLAPP suit statutes rather than simply eliminating ye olde common law tort of defamation.

 

So I’m going to run through the Case for the Lessig Lawsuit below. To be clear, I’m not saying I agree with Lessig. Also, as someone who himself has a tendency to overshare and think things through online, I rank trying to work out complex highly emotionally charged issues online as up there with Hamilton’s decision to publish the Reynold’s Pamphlet.  On the other hand, the chilling effect on open and honest discussion from “clickbait defamation” is an argument in favor of finding for Lessig here. Indeed, I have hesitated to say anything because the “chain of association cooties” and the ancient legal principle of “why borrow trouble.” (I am so looking forward to headline before my Senate confirmation hearing under President Warren with the title “Nominee supported Taking Jeff Epstien donation at MIT” — despite the fact that nothing in this blog post could reasonably suggest such a thing and the likelihood of my being nominated for anything requiring Senate confirmation ranks just behind my winning MegaMillions.) But I am hoping that obscurity combined with mind-numbing historical and legal discussion about one of my favorite traditional actions at common law will save me from too much opprobrium. Besides, the actual legal question is interesting and highly relevant in today’s media environment, and deserves some serious discussion rather than dismissive mockery.

 

More below . . . .

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Can Trump Really Have The FCC Regulate Social Media? So No.

Last week, Politico reported that the White House was considering a potential “Executive Order” (EO) to address the ongoing-yet-unproven allegations of pro-liberal, anti-conservative bias by giant Silicon Valley companies such as Facebook, Twitter, and Google. (To the extent that there is rigorous research by AI experts, it shows that social media sites are more likely to flag posts by self-identified African Americans as “hate speech” than identical wording used by whites.) Subsequent reports by CNN and The Verge have provided more detail. Putting the two together, it appears that the Executive Order would require the Federal Communications Commission to create regulations designed to create rules limiting the ability of digital platforms to “remove or suppress content” as well as prohibit “anticompetitive, unfair or deceptive” practices around content moderation. The EO would also require the Federal Trade Commission to somehow open a docket and take complaints (something it does not, at present, do, or have capacity to do – but I will save that hobby horse for another time) about supposed political bias claims.

 

(I really don’t expect I have to explain why this sort of ham-handed effort at political interference in the free flow of ideas and information is a BAD IDEA. For one thing, I’ve covered this fairly extensively in chapters five and six of my book, The Case for the Digital Platform Act. Also, Chris Lewis, President of my employer Public Knowledge, explained this at length in our press release in response to the reports that surfaced last week. But for those who still don’t get it, giving an administration that regards abuse of power for political purposes as a legitimate tool of governance power to harass important platforms for the exchange of views and information unless they promote its political allies and suppress its critics is something of a worst case scenario for the First Amendment and democracy generally. Even the most intrusive government intervention/supervision of speech in electronic media, such as the Fairness Doctrine, had built in safeguards to insulate the process from political manipulation. Nor are we talking about imposing common carrier-like regulations that remove the government entirely from influencing who gets to use the platform. According to what we have seen so far, we are talking about direct efforts by the government to pick winners and losers — the opposite of net neutrality. That’s not to say that viewpoint-based discrimination on speech platforms can’t be a problem — it’s just that, if it’s a problem, it’s better dealt with through the traditional tools of media policy, such as ownership caps and limits on the size of any one platform, or by using antitrust or regulation to create a more competitive marketplace with fewer bottlenecks.)

 

I have a number of reasons why I don’t think this EO will ever actually go out. For one thing, it would completely contradict everything that the FCC said in the “Restoring Internet Freedom Order” (RIFO) repealing net neutrality. As a result, the FCC would either have to reverse its previous findings that Section 230 prohibits any government regulation of internet services (including ISPs), or see the regulations struck down as arbitrary and capricious. Even if the FCC tried to somehow reconcile the two, Section 230 applies to ISPs. Any “neutrality” rule that applies to Facebook, Google, and Twitter would also apply to AT&T, Verizon, and Comcast. 

 

But this niggles at my mind enough to ask a good old law school hypothetical. If Trump really did issue an EO similar to the one described, what could the FCC actually do under existing law?

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I Accidentally Write A Book On How To Regulate Digital Platforms.

Some of you may have noticed I haven’t posted that much lately. For the last few months, I’ve been finishing up a project that I hope will contribute to the ongoing debate on “What to do about ‘Big Tech'” aka, what has now become our collective freak out at discovering that these companies we thought of as really cool turn out to control big chunks of our lives. I have now, literally, written the book on how to regulate digital platforms. Well, how to think about regulating them. As I have repeatedly observed, this stuff is really hard and involves lots of tradeoffs.

 

The Case for the Digital Platform Act: Market Structure and Regulation of Digital Platforms, with a Foreword by former FCC Chair (and author of From Gutenberg to Google) Tom Wheeler, covers all the hot topics (some of which I have previewed in other blog posts). How do we define digital platforms? How do we determine if a platform is ‘dominant’? What can we do to promote competition in the platform space? How do we handle the very thorny problem of content moderation and filter bubbles? How do we protect consumers on digital platforms, and how do we use this technology to further traditional important goals such as public safety? Should we preempt the states to create one, uniform national policy? (Spoiler alert, no.) Alternatively, why do need any sort of government regulation at all?

 

My employer, Public Knowledge, is releasing The Case for the Digital Platform Act free, under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license (v. 4.0) in partnership with the Roosevelt Institute. You can download the Foreword by Tom Wheeler here, the Executive Summary here, and the entire book here. Not since Jean Tirole’s Economics for the Common Good has there been such an amazing work of wonkdom to take to the beach for summer reading! Even better, it’s free — and we won’t collect your personal information unless you actively sign up for our mailing list!

 

Download the entire book here. You can also scroll down the page to links for just the executive summary (if you don’t want to print out all 216 pages) or just the Tom Wheeler foreword.

 

More, including spoilers!, below . . .

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How Not To Train Your Agency, Or Why The FTC Is Toothless.

You know your agency is pathetic at its job when Tea Party Republicans tell you to go harder on industry — especially in a Republican Administration that makes deregulation an end in itself and where despising government interference in “the market” is religious orthodoxy. So it was quite noteworthy to see Freshman Senator Josh Hawley (R-MO) tear the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) a new one for its failure to do anything about how tech companies generally (and Google and Facebook specifically) vacuum up everyone’s personal information, crush competition, swear general allegiance to Gellert Grindelwald and sell us out to the Kree. “The approach the FTC has taken to these issues has been toothless,” Hawley accused in his letter (apparently not meaning this adorable night fury over here).

 

I’m not going to argue with Senator Hawley’s characterization of the FTC. But since he is new in town I think it is important for him to understand why the FTC (and other federal agencies charged with consumer protection) have generally gone from fearsome growling watchdog to timorous toothless purse dog with laryngitis. Short answer, Congress has spent the last 40 years training agencies to not do their job and leave big industry players with political pull alone by abusing them at hearings, cutting their budgets, and — when necessary — passing laws to eliminate or massively restrict whatever authority the agency just exercised.   Put another way, Congress has basically spent the last 40 years conditioning consumer protection agencies to think about enforcement in much the same way Alex DeLarge was conditioned to think about violence in A Clockwork Orange, keep applying negative stimulus until the very thought of trying to enforce the law against any powerful company in any meaningful way makes them positively ill.

 

I explain all this, and the problem with “public choice theory” as applied here in Policyland, below . . .

 

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We Need To Fix Media, Not Just Social Media — Part III

This is part of a continuing series of mine on platform regulation published by my employer, Public Knowledge. You can find the whole series here. You can find the original of this blog post here. This blog post is Part 3 of a three part series on media and social media. Part 1 is here, Part 2 is here. This version includes recommendations that are my own, and have not been reviewed by, or endorsed by, Public Knowledge.

 

And now . . . after more than 6,000 words of background and build up . . . my big reveal on how to fix the problems in media! You’re welcome.

 

Somewhat more seriously, I’ve spent a lot of time in Part 1 and Part 2 reviewing the overall history of the last 150 years of how technology and journalism inter-relate  because two critically important themes jump out. First, the evolution in communications technology always results in massive changes to the nature of journalism by enabling new forms of journalism and new business models. Sometimes these changes are positive, sometimes negative. But the dominance of the large media corporations financing news production and distribution through advertising revenue is not a natural law of the universe or necessarily the best thing for journalism and democracy. The Internet generally, and digital platforms such as news aggregators and social media specifically, are neither the solution to the dominance of corporate media as optimists hoped it would be or the source of all media’s problems as some people seem to think. Digital platforms are tools, and they have the same promise to utterly revolutionize both the nature of journalism and the business of generating and distributing news as the telegraph or the television.

 

In Part 2, I looked at how activists and journalists connected to social media used these tools in ways that changed the way in which the public observed the events unfolding in Ferguson in 2014, and how this challenged the traditional media narrative around race and policing in America. Combining the lessons from this case study with the broader lessons of history, I have a set of specific policy recommendations that address both the continued solvency of the business of journalism and steps to regain public trust in journalism.

 

More below . . .

 

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Why You Should Treat Any Predictions About Telecom/Tech Policy in 2019 Skeptically.

Under Section 217, Paragraph (b), sub (1) of the “wonk code of conduct,” I am required to provide some immediate analysis on what the election means for my area of expertise (telecom/tech, if you were wondering). So here goes.

 

  1. Everyone will still pretend to care deeply about the digital divide, particularly the rural digital divide.
  2. The MPAA, RIAA and all the usual suspects are probably already shopping their wish lists. This is great news to any recently elected member of staffer who was worried about needing to get tickets to “Fantastic Beasts” or whatever other blockbuster they will screen at MPAA HQ.
  3. Everyone will still talk about the vital importance of “winning” the “race to 5G” while having no clue what that actually means.

These predictions rank up there with “New England Patriots will play football, and everyone outside of New England will hate them” or “The media will spend more time covering celebrity ‘feuds’ than on major health crises like the famine in Yemen or Ebola outbreak in Congo.” They are more like natural laws of the universe than actual predictions. As for substance, y’all remember that Trillion dollar infrastructure bill Trump was gonna do in 2017? I suspect predictions about how federal policy is going to sort itself out will be just as reliable.

 

Why? Because at this stage there are just too many dang meta-questions unresolved. So rather than try to predict things, I will explain what pieces need to fall into place first.

 

Also, it’s worth noting that we had action on the state level that impacts tech and telecom. Start with Phil Weiser winning the election for State AG in Colorado. As Jon Oliver recently pointed out, don’t underestimate the importance of state AGs. This is particularly true for a tech savvy AG in a techie state. Then there is California’s governor-elect Gavin Newsom, who tried to address the digital divide as Mayor of San Francisco with a community wireless network back when people were trying that. Will he continue to make digital divide a major issue? But I’ll stick to my forte of federal policy for the moment.

 

Anyway, rather than try to predict what the policy will be, here’s what is going to have clarify first.

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Hurricane Michael A Wake Up Call On Why Total Dereg of Telecom A Very Bad Idea.

Readers of Harry Potter should be familiar with Cornelius Fudge, the Minister of Magic who refuses to believe Voldemort will return because believing that would require taking precautions and generally upsetting lots of powerful and important people. Instead of preparing for Voldemort’s return, Fudge runs a smear campaign to discredit Potter and Dumbledore, delaying the Wizarding World from preparing to resist Voldemort until too late.

 

I was reminded of this when I read Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Ajit Pai’s statement of frustration with the slow pace of restoring communications in the Florida in the wake of Hurricane Michael. Pai explicitly echoes similar sentiments of Florida Governor Rick Scott, that carriers are not moving quickly enough to restore vital communications services. Pai is calling on carriers not to charge customers for October and to allow customers to switch to rival carriers without early termination fees.

 

What neither Pai nor Scott mention is their own roll in creating this sorry state of affairs. Their radical deregulation of the telephone industry, despite the lessons of previous natural disasters such as Hurricane Sandy, guaranteed that providers would chose to cut costs and increase profits rather than invest in hardening networks or emergency preparedness. That is how markets actually work in the real world (as opposed to in the delightful dereg fantasy land dreamed up by hired economists). But rather than take precautions that might annoy or upset powerful special interests, they chose to mock the warnings as the panic of “Chicken Little, Ducky Lucky and Loosey Goosey proclaiming that the sky was falling.”

 

Now, however, the Chicken Littles come home to roost and, as predicted, private market incentives have not prompted carriers to prepare adequately for a massive natural disaster. This result was not only predictable, it was predicted — and mocked. So now, like Cornelius Fudge, Chairman Pai and Governor Scott find themselves confronted with the disaster scenario they stubbornly refused to believe in or safeguard against. And while I do not expect this to change Pai’s mind, this ought to be a wake up call to the 37 states that have eliminated direct regulatory oversight of their communications industry that they might want to reconsider.

 

Still, as Public Knowledge is both suing the FCC to reverse its November 2017 deregulation Order, and has Petitioned the FCC to reconsider its June 2018 further deregulation Order, perhaps the FCC will take this opportunity to rethink the certainty with which it proclaimed that carrier’s have so much incentive to keep their customers that they would never cut corners and risk service going down. Or perhaps Congress will now pay attention and decide that their constituents need enforceable rights and real protections rather than promises and platitudes.

 

I provide a lot more detail below.

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We Need To Fix The News Media, Not Just Social Media Part I

A substantially similar version of this appeared on the blog of my employer, Public Knowledge.

Focusing blame Google and Facebook for the decline of in-depth news reporting and print journalism ignores the real and long-standing problems that lie at the heart of our troubled relationship with corporate media. Insisting that these companies should fund existing corporate media, or that we should solve the problem by allowing even more consolidation, would be a disaster for democracy.

Almost 20 years ago, I left private practice to work for a nonprofit law firm called Media Access Project (MAP). MAP focused on promoting policies designed to encourage the production of diverse news and views in the electronic media. When I joined MAP in July of 1999, we were facing a crisis of consolidation in the news industry, the rise of polarization, and the dissemination of “fake news” for both commercial and political purposes. Academics and pundits lamented the death of serious journalism, the tyranny of the ever faster news cycle, and the poisoning public discourse with increasingly coarse, angry, and vile commentary that pandered to people’s worst instincts. A new class of wildly popular and increasingly influential pundits sowed distrust for the “MSM” (“mainstream media”) and denounced anyone who disagreed with them as enemies of freedom. Meanwhile, the increasingly vertically and horizontally concentrated news industry cut costs by dramatically cutting reporting staff and reporting resources, and chased “synergies” by using the news to shamelessly cross-promote their entertainment and publishing products. News coverage was increasingly turning into “infotainment” (or, more politely, “soft news”). To the extent political coverage existed outside the polarized world of political punditry, it was reduced from genuine analysis to “horse race” coverage. No one in the news, it seemed, wanted to discuss actual substance – only which political party or politician was “winning” or “losing.” Even worse, a new cottage industry emerged to create and promote “fake news” in the form of Video News Releases and national syndicated broadcasts designed to appear both local and live.

Small wonder that audiences for news increasingly declined, and distrust of the media reached historic levels. To make matters even worse, the “cure” proposed by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) was to relax the remaining broadcast ownership rules, inviting further consolidation. Only by increasing consolidation, the industry argued, could the news industry survive in the face of fragmenting audiences, emerging competition from the internet, and declining newspaper revenues.

That was back in the late 1990s and early 00s. To quote Yogi Berra, “it’s déjà vu all over again.” Except this time, instead of blaming “the internet” and the public’s supposed lack of interest in real news, people now blame Google and Facebook. Why? Because they are big. Because they derive their revenue from digital advertising at a time when print journalism has seen revenue from classified advertising drop precipitously low. Because “Google and Facebook, we hates it precious!,” and one should never miss an opportunity to link a problem to Google and Facebook and proclaim “delenda est!” Likewise, the proposed remedies have a very familiar feel. Allow the news media to consolidate further by relaxing the FCC ownership rules and creating exemptions to existing antitrust law, and/or preserve their historic revenue stream from classified ads (either by destroying Google and Facebook or making them pay tribute to existing media companies). These solutions have particular appeal to incumbent publishers, as they simultaneously absolve the existing media of any responsibility for the current state of journalism and cement the dominance of the existing corporate media giants.

It is precisely because the stakes are so high, however, that we need to look with extreme skepticism at proposals primarily designed to prop up the current consolidated and dysfunctional media landscape. If we want to address the very real problems created by a dysfunctional media, we need to separate which of these problems can properly be attributed to dominant platforms and which to structural problems in the traditional news industry. Additionally, legitimate fears of the ability of dominant platforms to act as gatekeepers, or concerns about their outsized influence on the economics of news production and dissemination, should not justify solutions that destroy the extremely important role these platforms have played – and continue to play – in civic engagement and enhancing the creation of new and independent outlets for news.

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Stoping the 5G Digital Divide Before It Happens.

About 10 years ago, the telcos and the cablecos argued that they needed “franchise reform” to deploy fiber to the home high speed broadband. Anyone offering cable services (which, at the time, were a necessary part of any bundle including broadband — yup, times change) needs to get a franchise. At the time, all franchises were local. They also usually required the franchisee to serve the entire franchise area with same quality service. This requirement to serve the entire service area with the same quality service is called an “anti-redlining” provision. It is designed to ensure that providers of service do not avoid traditionally unserved communities (particularly communities of color), who were on the wrong side of the “red line” drawn by real estate developers to separate the whites only neighborhoods from the “colored” neighborhoods. (For more info, see this clip from Adam Ruins The Suburbs.) While we no longer have laws mandating segregation, the combination of stereotypes about urban neighborhoods dominated by people of color, combined with the unfortunate economic reality that non-whites systemically earn lower incomes than whites often means that providers simply ignore these neighborhoods when they offer services and focus investment on whiter (and wealthier) areas. Anti-redlining laws are designed to prevent that from happening.

 

To return back to the mid-00s, telecos (later joined by cable cos demanding a level playing field) pushed states to reform their franchise laws to (a) replace local franchising with state franchising; and, (b) eliminate most of the requirements of the franchise — including eliminating the anti-redlining provisions. The carriers argued that OF COURSE they intended to provide FTTH everywhere, including communities of color. But if they had to deal with local franchise authorities dictating deployment schedules and demanding all sorts of conditions to get a franchise, then — gosh darn it — they just would not be able to invest in FTTH no matter how much they wanted to do so. Although I and my then employer Media Access Project worked with the handful of local and national orgs fighting repeal of local franchises generally and anti-redlining provisions specifically, we lost bigly.

 

Today, I am once again feeling the Cassandrefreude. As predicted 10 years ago, in the absence of anti-redlining provisions, carriers have not invested in upgrading their broadband capacity in communities of color at anything close to the same rate they have upgraded in wealthier, whiter neighborhoods. As a result, the urban digital divide is once again growing. It’s not just that high-speed broadband is ridiculously expensive, although this is also serious barrier to adoption in urban areas. It’s also that in many low-income and predominantly non-white neighborhoods, speeds on par with those offered in wealthier and whiter neighborhoods are not even available.

 

This problem is further compounded by the belief that we have solved the problem of urban deployment and the only places where deployment (as opposed to simply cost of access) remains an issue is in rural America. But while the problems in rural America are very real, we need to recognize that the digital divide problem is actually growing in urban areas as carriers rush to provide gigabit speed in some neighborhoods while leaving other neighborhoods in the digital dust.

 

With the focus on 5G deployment, however, we have a rare opportunity to avoid repeating past mistakes. Just once, just once, we could actually take steps to prevent the inequality before it happens.

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“A Woman of Valor Who Can Find?” Farewell to Commissioner Mignon Clyburn.

This week has been the going away for Chairwoman Mignon Clyburn, often called “the Conscience of the Commission.” Not some soppy, Jiminy Cricket-style conscience sitting helplessly on your shoulder pleading and wheedling to try to get you to be good. Clyburn has been a conscience that kicks ass and takes names. The fact that, despite these hyper-partisan times, so many of her Republican colleagues and former colleagues were positively clamoring at her official FCC send off to praise her with genuine warmth for her empathy, graciousness and passion proves (as I once said about Jim Cicconi, who came out of retirement to add his own praise at Clyburn’s official farewell), you can be extremely effective without being a total jerk.

 

Many people understand the duty of public service. But for Mignon Clyburn, it is a calling.

 

As you can tell, I’m a big fan. If you wonder why, read her going away speech from the appreciation/going away party the public interest community held for her last Wednesday — although simply reading the words cannot convey the stirring passion and eloquence with which she read it. Too many people who care deeply about social justice dismiss communications law as a wonky specialty. Those with the passion to follow the instruction of the prophet Isaiah to “learn to do good, seek justice, comfort the oppressed, demand justice for the orphan and fight for the widow” often chose to go into fields where this struggle is more obvious such as civil rights or immigration law. But as Clyburn made clear through both words and actions, we desperately need this same passion in communications law. “The communications sector does not just intersect with every other critical sector of our economy, society, and democracy; it is inextricably intertwined. Healthcare, education, energy, agriculture, commerce, governance, civic engagement, labor, housing, transportation, public safety—all rely on this modern communications infrastructure. Any weaknesses or shortcomings, systemic or isolated, will have ripple effects that can be difficult to discern, but are unmistakable in their impact.”

 

Some reflections on Clyburn’s tenure below . . .

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