Regulating The Internet? Not the Tubes Themselves…

If Net Neutrality is an argument about economics (and federal administrative law), Content Regulation is an argument about ethics and culture.

Net Neutrality is becoming an old hobby horse for a lot of people. It gets a lot more attention than most telecommunications policy issues. Even though questions about copper wire lines vs fiber optic cables actually affects more people, the internet is generally united by the fact of its own existence.  This is about regulation at the highest level, determining the equality and/or equity of access to content. No one online is indifferent to the internet—the only debate about net neutrality is which policies are best for the consumer and the telecommunications marketplace (or, in the United States, “telecommunications marketplace”).

But there is another layer of regulation that is quickly gaining attention. If Net Neutrality is about the form of the internet (its structure and broad organization), there is a growing need to consider questions about the regulation of the content of the internet. Over the years, the internet has been a vector for some amazingly good and amazingly bad actions by humans. The differences in the kind of regulatory concept at play are hard to understate. Rather than comparing it to different video games, I would compare it to the difference between a video game and a tabletop game.

1) I’ve always been fascinated by the dawn of the computer age. My childhood was the tail-end of a world in which homes did not have internet access. By the start of law school, everyone looked up famous cases and Latin phrases on Wikipedia during class (except for the people who did the reading the night before- they looked it up before class). I’ve often compared the early days of the internet to a kind of Wild West setting: a lawless frontier where fundamental questions about the mold of civilization were not yet settled. I thought most of those questions would be settled by 2015. We are not close to a consensus on rules. Indeed, we are still testing what types of rules are feasible or desirable.

Video games are literally made of rules: the computer code that constitutes the game itself. Tabletop games are made of… usually cardboard, or some kind of paper. (Occasionally, they have some plastic – or even metal if you got the collector’s edition.) This may sound like a silly or vacuous distinction, but it has important ramifications for the kinds of problems that can happen in a game, and the kinds of solutions that will (or won’t) be effective.

2) Lawlessness can lead to problems. This was probably not known until 2 decades of unfettered internet, but now we know. Free to do anything, people have tried very hard to do everything. Every app, platform, hosting site, game, or program online that gets big enough eventually starts to experience just about every problem type that humans can present. From intellectual property disputes to death threats, from fraud to manslaughter, the internet has been a way for people to discover criminal behaviors that past generations could never have the opportunity to access. The unethical choices of both multi-national companies and village simpletons are available for repeated viewing.

In a video game, the code can sometimes glitch and create problems for players. The code can also execute perfectly, but there may be complaints about the design of the game itself (a level being too difficult or some power or tactic being of an unsuitable level of power). With some difficulty, players can cheat by actually breaking the code, but more games can detect this (and especially so in professional e-sports settings). In a tabletop game, anyone can cheat, the rules may be wrongly applied (or not applied at all), and all manner of chaos can ensue. DDoSing an opponent during a game might be a little bit akin to literally flipping a table during a game of Monopoly or checkers,

3)  YouTube’s takedown system is already an example of an effort to regulate content, and it already shows some of the challenges with instituting a content regulation system: people will find ways to game that system. Any system of regulation will have two negative outcomes: it will penalize the innocent, and it will be dodged by the guilty. The most you can hope for is that it will protect most of the innocent and it will penalize most of the guilty. The US justice system, even when working as intended, will sometimes produce undesirable results: a guilty person will go free, and an innocent person will go to prison. The hope is that this happens very infrequently.

The most common reaction to bad behavior online has been for authoritative parties to do nothing. The most common reaction by authoritative parties to actually do something has been to ban the bad actor. The most common reaction to this ban is to come back with a different username or account.

In video games, cheaters are often banned (if they are making the game worse for other players). But in table top games, people who ruin the game are just not invited back. No one will play with them anymore. People might hang out with someone less if they behaved in a wildly unacceptable way during a casual weekend game of Risk or Werewolf. In a video game, bad behavior has very limited consequences. In a tabletop game, bad behavior can have lots of meaningful implications.

 

4) What would it look like to regular content? Getting it wrong is easy — which is the primary reason that’s what’s going to continue to happen. Whether trying to penalize criminals or regulate behavior online, creating a fair and ethical system that consistently produces more good results than bad ones is difficult. One problem is that incentives are at odds: most platforms want to turn a profit, and if bad behavior yields a net gain, the platform needs a solution that will actually make more money than the current bad behavior (plus the cost of implementing the remedy). Another problem is that platforms tend to think of regulating their content the way that most Americans think about regulations: an appointed governing authority (or combination of authorities).

 

Conclusion

You can’t make people be good, but you can keep deleting all of their manifestations of their behavior on the internet: You can suspend or ban accounts, and eventually IP addresses. You can automatically censor strings of characters, and continually update the list of banned strings. These will continue to be the solutions offered, and they will continue to mostly fail while they almost half-succeed.

Over a decade ago, Lawerence Lessig asserted that laws are of four types: market, cultural, legal, and architectural. It turns out that enforcing the legal type of law in a digital space is very difficult. But cultural norms practically enforce themselves. And architectural laws are always already enforced. Market rules can be fickle, but persuasive. A lot of efforts to regulate content will fail because they will hinge on the concepts of legal enforcement.

The lack of rules and regulations is what made the internet a place where amazing things could happen. Without rules to stop imagination and creativity, people created art, solved problems, built positive communities, and enriched themselves and each other. In that same landscape: without rules to stop hate and anger, people created harassment and bullying, invaded privacy, ruined lives, occasionally killed people, and destroyed a lot of good in the world. Lawless frontiers are the best opportunity for the most beautiful, important, and inspiring expressions of humanity. They are also the best opportunities for the most despicable, dangerous, and damaging expressions of humanity. What the internet becomes will be decided—has always been decided—by what people bring to it.

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Horizon: The Dawn of Zero Privacy?

Horizon: Zero Dawn is a problem because I don’t know which game I have to slide out of my top 5 in order to fit it into that list. (It might be have to replace “Child of Light,” which pains me, but replacing any would pain me… maybe “Outlaws” will move to #6 …) It’s an incredible game in its own right, with beautiful artwork, well-written characters, and genuinely fun gameplay. I find its story especially fascinating—and particularly relevant as we grapple with a framework for governing and living in an age of digital information and interconnected devices. Though its central technological focus is on Artificial Intelligence and the future of humanity, it touches a multitude of topics- including data privacy.

Although Judge Richard Posner famously decried privacy as a way for bad people get away with bad things, privacy is important for personal development and free association. Privacy is essential to our culture, and it is only valuable inasmuch as it is protected and reliable. Our expectations of privacy follow us into our digital extensions. However, one of the best methods of securing privacy is impractical in the face of consumer demands for interconnection and convenience.

I. Can We Have Privacy by Design When We Demand Designs that Compromise our Privacy?

The Federal Trade Commission’s favored method for protecting Privacy is “Privacy By Design.” In simple terms, this often means designing a product to rely as little on privacy as possible. After all, if no data is collected, there is no data to steal. However, there are serious questions about the feasibility of this approach in the face of consumer expectations for interconnected devices.

Privacy by Design is a much better idea than the sophomoric idea of increasing security measures. Designing a house not to be broken into is better than trying to just put a good lock on the front door. To put it another way: Think of it as building a dam without holes rather than trying to plug all of the holes after you finish building.

I’ve heard tech entrepreneurs talk about “The Internet of Things” at conferences for many years, now. They talk about it like it’s a product currently in development and there’s an upcoming product launch date that we should be excited about- like we can line up for outside of a retail store hours before the doors open so we can be the first to get some new tech device. This is not how our beloved internet was created. Massive networks are created piece by piece- one node at a time, one connection at a time. The Internet of Things isn’t a tech product that will abruptly launch in Q3 of 2019. It’s a web of FitBits, geolocated social media posts, hashtags, metadata, smart houses, Alexas and Siris, searches, click-throughs, check-ins, etc. The “Internet of Things” is really just the result of increasingly tech-savvy consumers living their lives while making use of connected devices.

That’s not to diminish its significance or the challenges it poses. Rather, this highlights that this “Coming Soon” feature is really already here, growing organically. Given that our society is already growing this vast network of data, Privacy by Design seems like an impossible and futile task. The products and functions that consumers demand all require some collection, storage, or use of data: location, history, log-in information- all for a quick, convenient, personalized experience. One solution is for consumers to choose between optimizing convenience and optimizing privacy.

II. A Focus on Connected Devices

Horizon: Zero Dawn is a story deliberately situated at the boundary of the natural world (plants, water, rocks, trees, flesh and blood) and the artificial world (processed metals, digital information, robotics, cybernetics). As a child, Aloy falls into a cavern and finds a piece of ancient (21st century) technology. A small triangle that clips over the ear, this “Focus” is essentially a smart phone with Augmented Reality projection (sort of… JawBone meets GoogleGlass and Microsoft Hololens). This device helps to advance the plot, often by connecting with ancient records that establish the history of Aloy’s world (it even helps with combat and stealth!).

It’s also a privacy nightmare. The primary antagonist first sees Aloy -without her knowledge- through another character’s Focus. Aloy’s own Focus is hacked several times during the game. A key ally even reveals that he hacked Aloy’s Focus when she was a child and watched her life unfold as she grew up. (This ultimately serves the story as a way for the Sage archetype to have a sort of omniscience about the protagonist.) For a girl who grew up as an outcast from her tribe, living a near-solitary life in a cabin on a mountain, with the only electronic device in a hundred miles, she manages to run into a lot of privacy breaches. I can’t imagine if she tried to take an Uber from one village to the next.

Our interconnected devices accumulate deeply astonishing volumes of data- sometimes, very personalized data gets captured. In a case heard by the Supreme Court this month, a man in Ohio has his location determined by his cell phone provider. The police obtained this information and used it as part of his arrest and subsequent prosecution. The Supreme Court recently heard a case about the use of warrants for law enforcement to access cell phone data. (This is different from the famous stalemate between the FBI and Apple after the San Bernadino shooting, when Apple refused an order to unlock the iPhone of a deceased criminal.)  As connected devices become omnipresent, questions about data privacy and information security permeate very nearly every side of every facet of our daily lives. We don’t face questions about data the way that one “faces” a wall; we face these questions the way that a fish “faces” water.

From cell phone manufacturers to social media platforms, the government confronts technology and business in a debate about the security mechanisms that should be required (or prohibited) to protect consumers from criminals in myriad contexts and scenarios. In this debate, the right answer to one scenario is often the wrong answer for the next scenario.

Conclusion: Maybe We Don’t Understand Privacy In a New Way, Yet

The current cycle of consumer demand for risky designs followed by data breaches is not sustainable. Something will have to shift for Privacy in the 21st century. Maybe we will rethink some part of the concept privacy. Maybe we will sacrifice some of the convenience of the digital era to retain privacy. Maybe we will try to rely more heavily on security measures after a breakthrough in computing and/or cryptography. Maybe we will find ways to integrate the ancient privacy methods of the 20th century into our future.