My Take On 230

A good friend on social media asked for my opinion on why Donald Trump would be so adamantly opposed to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996. For years it is precisely Section 230 that has allowed him to expand his unedited voice and create his vast following. Now he’s banned on most of these platforms including Twitter and Facebook, which some would argue are at long last exerting a form of editorial oversight. Rather than hide behind their legal ability to allow him to rant, they have essentially silenced him.

Ironic, huh? Not exactly what he wanted in limiting this broad permission.

Has something good or bad happened? I think the answer is neither, but something evolutionary is unfolding, and depending on where that takes us, we can decide later like most history if it was good or bad.

Confusing stuff, no question. Let me try to unpack some of it as someone who has been working in this space almost since day one of the commercial internet.

While personally I would say my life has improved without the constant noise of Trump tweets, I’m afraid the world is not that simple. The resolution of this exercise may have frightening connotations in the abstract. Many are worried about free speech and arbitrary limits on the power of a single individual to curtail the public expression of another, which is something that matters dearly to all of us.

I’m not a legal professional by any stretch, but I don’t think a specific defense of ex-President Trump is what matters here. Trump no more understands Section 230 than he understands global trade and tariffs. He wants his speech free and speech against him controlled, like any dangerous autocrat. Let’s set him aside (doesn’t that feel great?) and think about the real risks and privileges waltzing into the arena of public discourse.

For reference, the historic 26 words that constitute Section 230 read: “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”

As simply stated as possible, that means the technology platforms are not liable for what they publish. They don’t want to be considered authors, publishers, or broadcasters. If the Wall Street Journal prints something that bothers you and you think is unfair or sloppy, you can sue it. Same with legacy brand survivors like CBS, NBC, ABC, Fox, CNN, Us Weekly, or your local talk radio station. You can sue the person who said it or wrote it, too. If you think you have been libeled, you can sue everyone. You are way more likely to lose than win, but your case can be heard in court.

These kinds of traditional media companies have accepted the responsibility to abide by legal standards of accuracy and honesty of some sort, and they must stand by the messages they share. Mostly they print retractions when they find themselves wrong, but that doesn’t stop you from seeking damages. It’s an imperfect system dependent on evolving standards, and whether we like it or not we have learned to live with it.

If you don’t like what I say about you on Facebook or Twitter, you can sue me. You can’t sue Facebook or Twitter.

What’s the difference? Section 230.

Why is there a difference? That’s what’s about to be debated heavily.

Why was the exception created? That will also widely be debated in the months and years ahead, but having been there at the outset, my sense is that it was because federal lawmakers wanted the internet to grow. They wanted to increase free speech, so we all could bring our voices to the marketplace of ideas. They probably had an inkling some of us were wacky and would make up lunatic fringe falsehoods like QAnon, but they also knew if they held the platforms liable for everything published, very little would get published. The internet would have the same filters on it as traditional media, a funnel and a gatekeeper on opinions that limited expression with editorial oversight. They hoped for something more accessible.

Remember, this was a quarter-century ago. Better angels were optimistically anticipated.

The problem here is the division is not clean when all of our voices are collected. If the technology platforms exert no control, we have the chaos we have experienced. If they exert traditional editorial control to manage or reduce liability, all internet dialogue becomes gated, and as a practical matter, the scale of the task makes it impossible to be done by humans. That would put the editorial control at the mercy of algorithms, which at this point in their evolution given the nuance of language will be even less successful than humans.

That brings us to the present conundrum. If a platform now and again edits a comment to conform to its terms and conditions, has it crossed over to becoming an editor liable for everything else on the platform? According to current law, as private companies, these platforms have a right to state terms and conditions and assert the right to enforce them.

The real question becomes whether multiple infringements of terms and conditions can justly lead to the banning of an individual, like Trump. This is the heart of the matter: Do we want an individual company or CEO deciding who gets to have a public voice and who doesn’t?

I think the banning of Trump is going to open a huge can of worms to the platform companies because they just made policy on the fly and that can’t be extrapolated fairly.

Free speech is an interesting corollary, but only because we largely understand it must have limits to work in practice. Today we know there are legal restraints on free speech because it has been tested and adjudicated. While we now understand that a Nazi group had the right to march in Skokie, we also know that is not the same as yelling fire in a crowded theater. We didn’t always know that. It took a lot of time and argument to unfold and reveal itself to multiple courts. It’s been messy, and yet free speech survives.

I think we’re there with Section 230. It’s the right big idea, but 25 years later with wildly consolidated corporate power and big new media money at play, it requires a great deal of interpretation, nuance, and finesse. It’s no more an absolute than free speech. Yes, we really can disallow direct, personally threatening hate speech without fully destroying the First Amendment. The reasoning is not straightforward except in hindsight, when we consider the more pernicious alternatives.

Regulation here is our friend, not our enemy. My sense is the dialogue we need to have is not about throwing out Section 230, but reasonably debating the rights and responsibilities of social media platforms without making them liable for every post crossing their servers. Here is where it gets even more tricky, because the law clearly allows a private business to ban an individual for violation of its stated terms and condition, yet provides very little in the way of enforcing those standards evenly beyond obvious discrimination.

One person gets banned, another does not. How does one challenge or appeal the equal application of silencing rules? In the final analysis, what ensures us or at least gives us confidence that authority is anything but arbitrary? There is no such thing as goodwill or trust when the profit motive of the platform benefits enormously from throwing kerosene on the fire of controversy—fueling viral engagement equates to generating revenue—yet it can eliminate its critics at will under the guise of decency. That is a mega problem we aren’t even close to solving!

We don’t want to make the economic consequences of our discourse addressable only at a practical level by silence. Likewise, we don’t want any business individual with a profit motive to have the power of doling out silence for convenience. Hearst had that kind of power. Zuckerberg can’t.

The Trump legacy may be the bookends that form around Section 230, which clearly are necessary because the platforms are neither fish nor fowl. This is new ground. Internet platforms are not voices per se, but the application of needed editorial standards around facts and lies does not make them voiceless. As I write often, technology advances much faster than our ability to understand its ethical consequences.

Sadly, this morass is likely to be argued largely on economic grounds, because the remedies surrounding liability are compensated in our system through cash settlement of lawsuits. The key problem with lawsuits is they favor the well funded, and while legal, that will never approximate the ideal of fairness. I think there is a lot more at stake than whether a company might be brought to bankruptcy paying fines and settlements, which might cause it to be overly cautious, or bold and flagrant if it has deep pockets to defend itself. Financial penalties can’t be the point, be they absorbable or game-ending. There is a public-interest necessity in our ability to express ourselves. Our government has to protect that and let the business of the internet expand.

Yes, we can.

As for Trump’s point of view, he has demonstrated repeatedly that he only cares about what serves his agenda, not nuance or principle. He has succeeded in blasting open this door, but his own point of view remains self-serving. He is purposefully ignorant, a blunt object in a fragile ecosystem that requires reflection.

We are once again facing the question of whether we do truly relish the marketplace of ideas, or if this only matters when it is safe, convenient, and nominally polite. We don’t need to open the door to criminal insurrections that put our democratic nation at risk; the off switch just worked well in that regard and I’d comfortably welcome it again, if for nothing more than a badly needed time-out.

We have addressed this before, however imperfectly, and I have great faith that given the breadth of legal minds in our nation we will begin to solve it again. Trying to make it an either/or decision is a fool’s errand. We need to retain the big idea of Section 230 and add some guard rails. Once they are tested, we can adjust them. This is likely to be a combination of legislation and judicial resolution. It will be slow and complicated and evolving. It’s worth the ambiguity to sort it out carefully.

Let the real debate begin.

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Photo: Pixabay

Lost in Noise is Learning

We are so bombarded by noise at times it’s hard to think. The raging debates around coronavirus public policy, racial injustice, and the presidential election form a perfect storm of noise. A cacophony of this magnitude only naturally sends us to seek shelter from the storm.

Don’t give in to the temptation of numbness. Where there is noise there is a signal. Sometimes you have to listen hard for it, but it’s worth the effort.

Where there is crisis there is learning.

During the entirety of the Covid-19 crisis, my own company has been digging deeper into data, questioning every one of our prior assumptions, revisiting foundational convictions that have proven to be upended by circumstances. It’s been meticulous work, exhausting in many ways, but every bit of analysis has been worth the long hours of difficult discussion. Through a highly Socratic process, we have reinvented our business model for the better.

All of that has me thinking: What else might these crises be telling us? What else can we learn from the turmoil all around us if we don’t allow ourselves to hide from the rhetorical barrage?

Here are a few ideas penetrating my consciousness in the realms of global warming, trusted communications, and government core competency.

Everyone Doesn’t Have to Drive Every Day

I live in Los Angeles. I look outside and the air is clear. The freeways are empty. Coincidence? An accidental moment without significance? Perhaps that’s the case, as some have argued the temporal reduction in emissions and anecdotal benefits of fewer cars on the road, but what if it were sustainable? Could one of the answers to climate change be so obviously right before our eyes? I’m not a scientist with the credentials to make such an assessment, but I certainly would like the problem studied objectively.

Until a few months ago, we woke up daily with the habit of getting in our cars and driving to work no more questioned than brushing our teeth. It was just something we did. In no previous discussion of environmental distress did I hear anyone credibly propose getting more than half our cars off the road, because the proposition would have been a non-starter. Then one day a bunch of us stopped getting in our cars. Poof, just like that, we were working from home. We also got the commute time back for more productive work, and while I’m at it, how about all of those car accidents that stopped because people behind the steering wheel weren’t texting. We will go back to the office regularly at some point, but does it have to be every day, for every person? Not in my world. The benefits are yet to be understood. Let’s understand them.

Media Desperately Needs Reinvention

We don’t understand fake news. We don’t even have a common definition of fake news. Some of us define fake news as the biased reporting of a media brand. Others identify it as the blatantly false information peddled to the public for effect without fact-checking. I remain a fan of journalism and consume branded media daily with my own filter for accuracy, but my litmus test for truth will never be yours. Until we can agree on some form of objectivity, we will continue to debate the source of our information rather than the implications of the information’s validity.

This is not healthy. If we can’t agree on what constitutes an empirical fact, the clear and present danger to our decision making is likely to have a catastrophic impact. No source, however reputable, is without fault. The New York Times isn’t sure what belongs on its op-ed page. Facebook as a public platform of democratic exchange has become an unmitigated disaster in its inability to parse purposely placed disinformation in unending disguises, free or paid. Elections are won cynically on ad volume, fueled by cash, fueled by special-interest investment in yet more noise. We know we need journalism, but given how few people want to pay for it and how compromising its ad base has become, its business model has failed. Whoever reinvents this business model is going to change the world. I believe this will happen, because accurate information is not a luxury but a necessity.

Readiness Is Pragmatic

Perhaps my most troubling observation is how flat-footed the United States has been caught with the ramifications of the pandemic. Of course no one knew any sooner than late 2019 that Covid-19 could interrupt every aspect of our lives, but we’ve been around long enough to know pandemics exist. How could we have so few of the necessary medical supplies or personal protective equipment in stockpiles for such a calamity? How could we not have a clear chain of command between federal, state, and local authority? How could we shut down the nation for three months and not make strides on healthy measures to address the next semester of student education?

We are a pragmatic nation known to focus our vast resources on innumerable global crises throughout our history, but have we become so focused on the here and now that we aren’t paying enough attention to scenario planning and game theory? If we don’t think carefully about reallocating resources to planning for the unknown, the chances we will be struck down even harder by the next surprise attack would seem to be 100%.

Do yourself a favor: Tune out the noise, but tune in the learning. Opportunity is always around us if we muster the discipline to trade demoralization for inspiration. That’s how we get better.

The alternative is to stick with what we’ve got. I hope we’ve learned that’s not much of an option.

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Image: Pixabay

Sam and Rosie: An Odd Couple

I can’t defend Samantha Bee because the harsh, offensive language she used this week was wrong. I have been a fan of her show since it launched, but I actually think it has gotten progressively worse as she has allowed her indignation to overcome her humor. My sense for some time is that she is not currently at her best.

Indignation is the call to fight. Humor is the sword that slays dragons.

A strong producer could steer her back on track. I don’t see a lot of evidence she has one, and I think her talent is taking a hit as a result. If she looks to some of her peers and mentors, she’ll see where she may be losing ground on that illusive concept of “crossing the line.” I’d like to see her rebound because she does have a unique, important voice in our nation’s dialogue.

When Roseanne Barr launched her latest damning tweet, I believe she was in an entirely different universe of free expression.

Here are a few points on the false equivalency:

1) There is no equivalency between a random racist tweet and a few unnecessary hateful words deployed in the context of making a point about the morality of separating parents from children. Lenny Bruce pretty much died for this point. Context is inseparable from language.

2) Complain all you want about who should get fired or cancelled, but the two performers have different employers. It’s the employer’s decision to exercise a response to the free speech exercise of an employee or contractor. Had it been the same employer, there might be an opening to hypocrisy, but even then, don’t mistake what happened. These were considered business decisions.

3) If you want to know the true horror of our nation, do a few internet searches and see what some of Roseanne’s supporters are saying about the underlying truth in her remarks. The defensive outcry over an alleged double-standard does little more than fuel the fire of racism as some kind of macabre social norm too many people can easily dismiss as overblown. Racism is institutionalized hatred bolstered on ignorance. Celebrities choosing to fan that flame know what they are doing. To the contrary, you might find a few people defending Samantha’s rotten choice of words, but for reasons of emphasis, not denigration of gender. Again, context matters, particularly as a rallying cry. There are degrees of invective. The hierarchy stems from purpose.

Far be it from me to defend Samantha, but I believe her intention was motivated by a positive force of social criticism. She threw away that timely opportunity with a few poorly chosen words. Roseanne was just being herself, using her humor to irresponsibly reinforce a longstanding platform of inciting the biases of her base.

The two incidents are not the same. Far from it.

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Image: GQ

Movies That Most Influenced My Life (So Far)

Shortly before the 90th Annual Academy Awards aired this past weekend, I took an online quiz asking how many of the 89 previous Best Pictures I had seen. Somewhat to my shock, the answer was 70. While many of these were late-night film society screenings during college when I was a projectionist, that’s still a lot of wasted youth.

Or was it?

With this year’s Oscars behind us, I thought it an apt time to confess the 10 (actually 20) most significant commercial motion pictures that have impacted my thinking and creative process. You probably know I read a lot of books, but I wanted to share with you some of the filmed stories that have most shaped me as a writer.

Although a few of those 70 Best Pictures are noted below, many of my choices are further off the ranch. Should you agree or disagree, I hope you might share your own favorites with me privately or publicly, particularly as they have influenced your creative thinking.

These are not in specific order, although they are directionally stacked. They all matter to me, and while my reasons are kept deliberately brief, I hope some of the influences come through in my own writing as you may experience it. No apologies, this aesthetic is a bit of who I am!

1. Apocalypse Now (1979)

It’s based on Joseph Conrad’s forever-haunting Heart of Darkness. It was supposed to be Marlon Brando’s crown achievement, but that honor went to Martin Sheen. This Francis Ford Coppola masterpiece breathes the existential and freezes in time the horror of the Vietnam War with natural metaphor and nuance. “The End” by The Doors is the glue in its arc, and Robert Duvall demonstrates in a few brief lines that insanity is a product of subjectivity. The movie poster has been in my home office for over 30 years. It means that much to me.

2. All That Jazz (1979)

Bob Fosse’s unforgettably dark self-portrait took his kinetic style of dance and nonlinear storytelling from stage to screen. When I first saw Roy Scheider smoking in the shower it strangely gave me solace to know I wasn’t the only person who did that. I gave up smoking long ago, but not the image of this wildly imperfect creative force. Curious it was released the same year as Apocalypse Now. It is just as creepy, just as thought-provoking, and just as hard to imagine ever being replicated in rhythm or texture.

3. Amadeus (1984)

The stage version of Amadeus changed my life by forcing me to look into the eyes of gift and mediocrity, so the film version should have been doomed by physical separation of the ephemeral. Joyously it made it through the system unblemished and leapt off the screen with passion, suffering, orchestral grandeur, and tragic demise. Milos Forman’s adaptation to the screen has everything going for it except Tim Curry, and if you don’t know he’s supposed to be there, the rest is superb. As the Emperor Joseph II repeatedly concludes, “Well, there it is.”

4. Casablanca (1942)

If there were ever a need for proof that a movie could simultaneously be a romantic love triangle, a piercing polemic, an adventure story with life-and-death stakes, and a slice of life that looks at war caustically through the lives of individuals, this is the perfect brew. Toss in the eternal Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman and you barely notice the Nazis surrounding them. Well, you do notice them, you’re supposed to know they’re there. That’s what ups the stakes and allows the endless deflection of one-liners to be etched into memory.

5. The Wizard of Oz (1939)

It’s a perfect movie, from a perfect book, with perfect music and a perfect cast. It’s a living time capsule, and if anyone is delusional enough to think they’ll ever prove the American musical is not a serious form of art, make them watch this once a year for the rest of their lives. You’re probably starting to see from this list that I have a leaning toward musicals, but only when they have an edge, and only when they become a part of the soundtrack of our lives. That obsession begins with Dorothy and her rainbow.

6. The Right Stuff (1983)

Sam Shepard as Chuck Yeager in an adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s lyrical New Journalism account of America’s entry into the space race—if there is anything that can be put on-screen better, I’ll be first in line and watch a day’s worth of repeat showings. We can never forget this seminal chain of events in American history, because in so many ways the Mercury astronauts bridged the Second World War to the scientific present. Sam, Chuck, Tom, all heroes of mine, and director Philip Kaufman stitched together the launch plan and fired it into orbit.

7. Lenny (1974)

Before Dustin Hoffman gave into being the movie star version of himself, he played Lenny Bruce in a remarkable character study also brilliantly directed by Bob Fosse. I have been a student of Lenny Bruce all my life, and while there have been many renditions of who he was and why he mattered, Fosse pulled off the definitive portrait by pulling Hoffman’s strings and using editing as an interpreter to punctuate the sting of language in a world that needed to listen.

8. Stand by Me (1986)

I was never much of a Stephen King fan. His short story upon which this film is based, “The Body,” changed that forever. This grounded tale is presented as a simple coming-of-age story that is wildly not simple, but instead a real-life parable of the naive courage and joy of childhood that becomes the fear and challenges of our adult lives. Once in my life I hope to write a line of dialogue as solid and well placed as “Suck my fat, one you cheap dime-store hood.”

9. Patton (1970)

With Francis Ford Coppola behind the typewriter and George C. Scott owning the wide-screen, this “blood and guts” gem proved to me it was possible to make a highly political film that confirmed the biases of every side of the aisle. It’s pro-war if you want it to be, anti-war if you want it to be, and proof that a literary interpretation of history is a compelling way to get people talking with each other about decisions and consequences that matter.

10. Yellow Submarine (1969)

Please don’t laugh milk through your nose on this one, but if you know me, you know Pepperland is forever part of me. Okay, so I attempted to write a sequel when I was 17 because I loved The Beatles that much and knew I always would, but why is the toy sub on my desk, the iconic blanket on  my sofa, and the logo clock on the wall? I will never shake those Blue Meanies.

To be fully confessional, here are my 10 runners-up with even more restricted commentary, begging your imagination to extend my expository:

11. The Deer Hunter (1978)

Meryl Streep arrives in an epic yarn where the horror of Vietnam is actually fictionally manipulated to make the idea of war even more horrible than the reality. The creative license pushes credibility to the wall, but with reason and deliberate intention to make change happen.

12. Field of Dreams (1989)

Fathers, sons, loss, regret, unanswered voices, spiritual rebirth, Iowa cool, and baseball. If you never played the game it still makes you feel its gravitational essence.

13.  2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

Kubrick and Clarke saw a future spectrum the rest of us wouldn’t inhabit for decades. Scoring it with Richard Strauss and Johann Strauss was even more mind-blowing.

14. Network (1976)

Paddy Chayevsky sculpted the words and Peter Finch enshrined them: “I’m mad as hell and I’m not gonna take it anymore.” Now we live this.

15. The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988)

Love, sensuality, and fleeting artistry exploded by the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. Author Milan Kundera distanced himself from the film, but director Philip Kaufman never lets your eyes leave the characters on-screen.

16. Hair (1979)

Another Milos Forman interpretation of culture and generations run amok, proving that stage-to-screen musicals can last forever when they hit every note. The Age of Aquarius lives embedded in Central Park.

17. Pink Floyd The Wall (1982)

Director Alan Parker puts his blustery visual stamp on one of the most enduring rock concept albums and alienation conceits of all time. Fascism is revealed for skeptics in connect-the-dots human unraveling.

18. Dead Poets Society (1989)

Behold the living argument against cynical compromise that makes poetry relevant and teachers the vital yet imperfect heroes to our younger selves.

19. Midnight Express (1978)

This nerve bender could be the case study for “Just Say No.” If this Alan Parker film written by Oliver Stone didn’t scare you off from crossing borders with the wrong stuff, your bravado was misplaced.

20. Young Frankenstein (1974)

It’s a slapstick comedy with literary roots that never stops being funny. Mel Brooks is a national treasure.

Well, that’s a wrap. I told you it was an eclectic and eccentric list, but some of each of these is in the stories I tell, the characters I share, and the images I try to illustrate. I hope this sheds some light on my world and opens a dialogue between us.

Dialogue, yeah. I do like dialogue!

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Photo: Pexels