Unfettered Conversations

pirate wires #31 // facebook vs. the australian government, a fleeting chinese freedom, should we try a little tyranny at home?, and picking the low-hanging fruit

Dearest friends: on account of absolutely ravenous popular demand, Pirate Waves, the official Pirate Wires Clubhouse chat, will henceforth go live every Tuesday night (which means I’ll see you all later today). If you’re a subscriber and want to join, click here for your ticket to the Pirate Nation. If you’re not a subscriber and would like to join, I’ve got some exciting news for you:

Now, the DRAMA.

How I learned to stop worrying and love the Great Firewall. The Australian government is perhaps hours from passing the News Media and Digital Platforms Mandatory Bargaining Code, a law that will fundamentally transform the technology industry’s relationship with media. The thinking goes something like this: “news” is important, media companies that produce “news” are bad at making money, tech companies that link to “news” should give media companies money. Last week, Google conceded. But in a world where the only winning move is often not to play, Facebook took its ball and went home. With the Thanos snap of Mark Zuckerberg’s fingers, the people of Australia were no longer able to share news articles on the largest social media platform in the world.

While the ensuing fury was considerable, Zuckerberg ultimately secured a local victory. After a week of political brinksmanship, which almost immediately influenced global policy, further negotiations between Facebook and the Australian government resulted in a series of amendments to the troubled legislation. The New York Times reports:

… Facebook returned to the negotiating table after the Australian government granted a few minor concessions. Under several amendments to the code, Facebook would get more time to cut deals with publishers so it would not be immediately forced into making payments. The amendments also suggested that if digital platforms had significantly contributed to the Australian news industry, the companies could avoid the code entirely, at least for now.

But these don’t strike me as minor concessions. Deals, of some kind, will be made in some ambiguously-defined future. More importantly, “contributions to the news industry,” also ambiguously-defined, will be factored into payments. It looks like the Australian government punted the conflict’s conclusion. This means we’ll have to wait and see how all of this shakes out, but any scenario where Zuckerberg has more time to strategize against a bumbling clown car of thoughtless politicians is, in my opinion, a scenario favorable to Zuckerberg.

The premise of a “pay to link” policy never made much sense. To justify the law, we’re told internet companies have stolen something from publishers. But speaking as media tycoon, I assure you this simply isn’t true. Not many people would be reading Pirate Wires if I didn’t live on Twitter. Then again, for the Rupert Murdochs of the world, is that perhaps the real problem?

By its free and open nature, the internet favors individuals and small media upstarts over institutions and powerful media incumbents. In a world of easy-to-use tools for creator-monetization, and with the ascendance of subscription-model publishing services like Substack and influencer-driven platforms like Clubhouse, the trend in media toward individuals has never been more obvious. This has led to 1) a tedious surge in think pieces on the subject, and more importantly 2) furious techlash from incumbent media players, which is never so transparently dishonest as it is in the context of concurrent reporting on China.  

A couple weeks back, the Chinese Communist Party banned Clubhouse. In a great piece on the stunning but predictable censorship, the New York Times’ Amy Chang Chien and Amy Qin paint a vivid, heartbreaking picture: mainland Chinese citizens connecting with each other, and with strangers beyond the Great Firewall, to discuss every forbidden subject from the Tiananmen Square Massacre to the Uighur genocide. For thousands of people living under authoritarianism, it was a rare taste of freedom before once again losing the natural rights to assembly and speech.

“To many users in mainland China,” reported the Times, “it was a brief window into an unfettered social media.”


Following the news, the Poynter Institute, an American (!) school for journalism (!!) and owner of the International Fact-Checking Network (!!!), published its own piece on Clubhouse, lambasting the company for platforming “misinformation,” and employing the chilling, concluding phrase “If Xi Jinping’s administration isn’t ignoring Clubhouse, why should fact-checkers? Why should you?” If one were looking to straw man the position that American journalism is increasingly dominated by actual authoritarian thinking, it would be difficult to do better than this verbatim quote on a real ass tyrannical dictator. At least, this is what I thought until the New York Times tech team chimed back in on Clubhouse, and I once again found myself wishing they would simply read the work of their colleagues covering China. Here is how they framed their story:   


To be clear, if polled on Xi Jingping’s job as dictator, I suspect a majority of Times employees would not approve of the man’s work. Were Times employees asked whether they favored China’s decision to ban Clubhouse, I suspect a slimmer majority — but still a majority — would disapprove of so clear and sweeping an act of censorship. But what about a little censorship, for a treat?

The Times’ has been in an open state of highly-personal conflict with Clubhouse for the last nine months, and, broadly-speaking, has really been an innovator in the thought space of “people talking to each other freely is a bad thing, maybe.” But if we steel man the position, I think their argument comes down to misinformation. Americans appear increasingly divorced from any sense of consensus reality, and this is dangerous. I agree. Many Americans believe in batshit crazy things, which can lead to real-world negative outcomes. I agree! A more aggressive content moderation is the answer. I strongly disagree. Honestly, and I mean this literally: what are you people talking about?

I’ve asked these questions before, and I probably won’t stop asking them until our media’s contingent of pro-censorship reporters start providing answers, or at the very least acknowledge these concerns are legitimate: what specifically are we suggesting in terms of moderation? Is it centralized at the federal level? If not, how is corporate censorship in the context of monopoly speech platforms meaningfully different than censorship centralized at the federal level? Who will be moderating? How, on contentious and often polarizing subjects, will we be determining the “truth” on behalf of 300 million people? As every robust system of censorship in the history of the world has been weaponized against the politically powerless, who will provide a check on the newly- and incredibly-powered moderators? If one is looking to “fetter” the conversations of a free people, they must surely have some answers to these rather basic questions. Right?

I agree the technology industry hasn’t done enough to address our present information crisis. Fortunately, there’s a lot of low-hanging fruit here. As an argument over what is true and what is not true is almost always the bottleneck in our conversations on misinformation, let’s table the contentious stuff for now and focus on a very narrow class of uncontroversial misinformation: when a piece of information goes viral, an author should be granted a correction. If the information proves, to the author, inaccurate, the author should be allowed a one-time private message to every single person who liked or shared the error. If the tool is abused, ban the abuser. God knows we’re capable of that much. Then, as the unstable and fundamentally new element of our world continues to be virality, not misinformation, can we daily cap the reach of all posts to five or ten thousand daily shares? This wouldn’t prevent misinformation, but it would add stability to our conversations. In the context of ephemeral audio, would it be helpful to record and post chats over five or ten thousand listeners, and provide a transcript? From here, we would at least have a record. We will undoubtedly continue to disagree on what is and is not true. But at least these conversations will be grounded in some foundational piece of objective truth: here is what was said, exactly, and here is the recording.

I’m not saying I’ve discovered the answers, and I don’t believe the end of our discourse dystopia is a few new products away. But that we aren’t focusing on any uncontroversial but nonetheless meaningful policies leads me to believe this conversation isn’t about the verifiable question of, for example, whether or not it’s raining outside. This conversation is about controversial subjects with no objective answers. In other words, I’m pretty sure we’re talking about politics. I’m pretty sure we’re talking about what kinds of thinking are and are not acceptable according to a small and powerful class of people, many of whom are not elected. Have you google image searched the word “fetter” lately? The query delivers a series of pictures of people in chains.

Be honest, what are you really asking for right now?


Link Library // February 23, 2021

If you’re looking for a little more on Zuckerberg’s Thanos snap: a thoughtful Stratechery piece on the Australian media legislation from Ben Thompson.

Then, because the topic is important and people named Mike are often correct, dip into this piece from Mike Masnick in Techdirt.

Last but not least, Jonathan Schieber addresses the endemic failure of government, and the important but often overlooked question of our public infrastructure.