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Brislen on Tech

Paul Brislen, Editor. 10 August 2018, 4:00 pm

Free Speech isn't free

"You're an egg."

No, worse. "You're an egg and you smell funny."

OK, that's not so bad. Easily dismissed. But how about this?

"You lied on your resume, you're incompetent and you've been cheating on your significant other."

Well, now we're in a whole new world and that's not as easily waved away.

So what about this?

"You've broken the law, you've stolen money from your employer, you owe me money and you're a danger to society."

Well, at this point you're probably talking about defamation, certainly libel and slander and several other legal terms and it's time to call in the lawyers.

Free speech is not free, but nor is it what we've been discussing ad nauseum (and ad nauseasness) for the past couple of weeks.

A lot of people are confused about what free speech is. They seem to think anyone can say whatever they like and be given a platform to say it, and that there's nothing you or I can do because it's their right to say it.

That's untrue.

You are free to say whatever you like, about whatever you chose, but nobody has to host your content, nobody has to listen to it and if you tell lies and defame (that is, bring someone's character into disrepute without proof or legal fallback) then you can be sued.

It's not a "breach of your freedom of speech" to kick someone off your network for abuse of your terms and conditions. Far from it - those platforms that don't police their own T&C and don't police their own legal requirements are in for a world of pain, probably from the offices of Sue, Grabbit and Runne but also from the court of public opinion.

Yet for some reason this month we've seen nothing but chatter about what is and what is not free speech.

Locally it's been a confused issue, and it's not really part of the remit of this newsletter to get into whether Don Brash should have been turned away from Massey University or similar.

But internationally, this is critical in the tech world, because the world's publishing model has been totally overhauled in the last few years and now "new media" is in charge.

Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and all the rest are the new kings of all they survey, and they refuse to accept that they are in any way responsible for the content that is published on their platforms.

But if the publishers of content are the people that use these platforms, and mostly they're anonymous (even the ones who include their real names aren't verified generally speaking), then the model of libel we have in play today doesn't quite work.

And if these platforms want to continue making billions of dollars a day as they currently do then they need to ensure they have that social licence to continue to operate. But they claim they don't need to - they're totally agnostic and make no judgement on the content they provide.

This is patently and provably untrue. Germany, for instance, has a range of laws about content relating to Nazi memorabilia and all the social media platforms make sure to abide by those laws. China has laws relating to publication of a raft of various things (Air New Zealand has been hauled over the coals for referring to Taiwan as a country when clearly it's a breakaway republic and should be treated as such, or something) and the social media players either abide by them or they are not operating within China.

They can and do police their networks for content that will make operations difficult, when it suits them.

Many years ago I was given a blindingly insightful insight into the insightful world of sales. There is one rule for sales people - they are coin operated. Give them money and they'll do stuff. Take the money away and they'll stop doing stuff.

All companies are sales-based organisations and that's how they respond.

Forget the fine words and rhetoric - if they are able to make money by doing something, they will, right up to the point where they're either told it's illegal (and they wail and gnash their teeth and rend their garments) or they're fined for doing it (and then they tend to back off if the fines are of a certain proportion of their earnings).

Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and all the rest need to learn that they cannot continue to operate with any kind of social licence if they continue to use (or allow) content to be delivered via their platforms that break the law.

That's not a free speech issue. That's simply the way the law works.

It's high time we encouraged our governments to remember who's in charge of the way we live our lives. Hint: it's us.

This issue shouldn't be considered a tech issue, but it is. ICT has created a fabulous jewel in humanity's crown. A network of content that is so rich, and so powerful it has swept all other content before it. As important an innovation as the printing press, the internet has enabled anyone to be a publisher of content, anywhere, any time. This is the kind of power that has toppled empires and deposed dictators and rightly so. When the Soviet military staged a coup and tried to lock up Mikhail Gorbachev in 1991 it failed because the people had this new fangled technology called cellphones and they used them to get organised. Communication must be free and open, but it must also be truthful. As soon as fantasy masquerades as truth, it's no longer a question of freedom of speech but of defending the bastions of society.


The Verge - Apple crushed Alex Jones - then tossed him a lifeline

Vox - Apple banned Alex Jones's Infowars. Then the dominoes started to fall

The Mercury News - Twitter defends giving Alex Jones a platform

Engadget - Twitter doesn't have the spine to ban Alex Jones

Fast Company - Brand WTF of the Week: Twitter decides to help Alex Jones spread lies

Huffington Post - Alex Jones' Lawyer Seeks To Make Sandy Hook Parents' Home Addresses Public

NY Times - With Alex Jones, Facebook's worst demons abroad begin to come home

XKCD - Free Speech


Vote early, Vote often

Speaking of cartoons, this week XKCD has a lovely toon on the perils of online voting (see below).

We've canvassed this subject pretty fully at Techblog over the years and the camps are as ever fully entrenched in the "Sure, why can't we" and the "ZOMG no never do this" and never the twain shall meet.

Internationally there is a lot of discussion about the use of online voting, and given the level of interference in voting in the US (and potentially in the UK as well, among others) at both a social level but also apparently at a technical level, this is something we haven't seen the last of.

One US electorate is, however, pressing on and not content with just putting votes into the electronic realm, they're now looking at smartphone voting systems.

West Virginia is apparently looking to introduce legislation that would allow some citizens to vote via cellphone and comments range the full gamut from "ghastly" to "unthinkable".

While influencing voter choice is one thing (and we've covered that elsewhere) the idea of hacking in and changing votes is something else entirely and despite all the noise about Russian interference in the US election, there's scant evidence of that kind of interference taking place.

Before the 2016 election, the FBI did alert the public about possible attempts to hack state election offices after intruders hacked voter registration databases in Illinois and Arizona, but that's about as far as it goes. Hacking the actual vote count seems not to have taken place. Which is not to say what went on was a good thing, but it's not quite in the same league. And it's also not to say that such hacking hasn't been planned for the mid-term US elections or others.

Concern has also been raised about Russian investors buying into a company that looks after elections for Maryland - although the company is quick to point out the investors have no access to any of the voting machines directly. Tensions remain high over the issue, particularly as the US moves towards the mid-term elections later this year.

All told it's safe to say now is not a good time to be introducing novel, untested election processes unless you've got deep pockets to tackle the ensuing legal challenges.

XKCD - Voting software

Security Boulevard - That XKCD on voting machine software is wrong

Techdirt - Voting By Cell Phone Is A Terrible Idea, And West Virginia Is Probably The Last State That Should Try It Anyway

USA Today - Senate report: No evidence that Russians changed vote tallies in 2016

CNN - Could Russia hack California's elections? It would be hard, but not impossible

CNN - 2016 Presidential Campaign Hacking Fast Facts

The Baltimore Sun - Data firm says Russian investors had no access to Maryland's voting system


No CTO but

While the search for New Zealand's Next Top CTO goes on (might be time to pull the plug on this one chaps) there is light at the end of another government tunnel - the one that lures local companies into the tender process and gently throttles them.

For those who aren't familiar with the current way government agencies select vendors for work they need completing it appears to go something like this:

  1. Develop long list of potential candidates.
  2. Remove New Zealand companies from said list to create short list of US vendors.
  3. Chose large US vendor, preferably one with three letters in its name.
  4. Discover huge previously undeclared issues that will of course drive up the cost of the project.
  5. Realise your contingency budget was spent on booze at the first all-hands meeting.
  6. Decide to adopt an agile process and issue a new tender looking for a different solution to the original problem.
  7. Go to step 1.

I jest, but having heard from a number of parties about the procurement process, this would seem to be part of the game that is played. The deck was stacked, goes the view, against smaller providers, against local providers and doubly so against smaller, local providers.

A new "digital procurement marketplace" has been tested and is set to go live shortly. It's about time too - this one (originally the "Cloud Marketplace") has been in the pipeline for literally years.

To begin with, the marketplace will provide government agencies with a smorgasbord of Cloud-based services from which to pick and choose. Eventually it will include other products and services, but it's ready to go with the basics and that's as good a launch as any.

Minister of all-things tech related, Clare Curran, says the new model should create a step-change in the way government agencies do business.

"It will dramatically reduce barriers for suppliers engaging with government - and make procurement easier for agencies."

Perhaps they need to tender for a new CTO and see what they can find in the new marketplace?

Reseller News - Government ICT marketplace poised for go-live with cloud catalogue

Stuff - Bigger slice of $3b government ICT spend could go to small, young firms


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Mike Dennehy 13 August 2018, 10:53 pm

An interesting, if slightly disingenuous post on what is one of the most fundamentals of a democratic society - the right to freedom of expression.

Subject to already existing, perfectly adequate safeguards concerning (genuine) safety, defamation, slander and libel, the right to free speech is absolute. You either believe in free speech or you don't - there is no honest way to say "I believe in free speech, but..."

Placing our trust in huge corporations, often working hand in hand with governments e.g. China, to know what is "true", what is "safe" and what is "hate speech" is a very risky undertaking indeed.

I don't believe granting Apple, Google and YouTube, Facebook, Spotify, Pinterest, Vimeo or Microsoft the ability to police content is a remotely sensible thing to do. Notwithstanding the enormous rod they've made for their own backs - the sheer effort involved will be horrendous - they have opened themselves up to all sorts of claims and legal action which will only clog up the courts and enrich the lawyers.

Far more importantly, this is the beginning of shutting down difficult discussion about controversial topics. Politics has become ever more polarised and divisive, and no sensible person can believe that the way to bridge that divide is to have faceless corporates deciding what we can and can't say, hear, read or view.

The open and honest discussion of opposing views may well be a fast disappearing art, but allowing corporations to decide for us is no way to resurrect it, and there's no guarantee they'll get it right. In fact they will most certainly get it wrong, and often.

Here's the Washington Post as recently as yesterday: "Internet companies have removed millions of posts and images over the past decade and suspended hundreds, perhaps thousands, of user accounts. These silenced voices span the political spectrum and the globe: Moroccan atheists, women discussing online harassment, ads featuring crucifixes, black and Muslim activists reposting racist messages they received, trans models, drag performers, indigenous women, childbirth images, photos of breast-feeding. Platforms have taken down documentation of war crimes in Syria, Myanmar and Kashmir, arrests in North Dakota and police brutality across the United States."

The best way to deal with conspiracy theories, ridiculous claims and misinformation is not to ban the person that says it, but for the public to view it, discuss and debate it, and decide for themselves if it has merit.

Paul Brislen 14 August 2018, 6:34 am

Thanks for your comment, Mike.

I'm not at all suggesting the FAANG group be given more power - far from it. I'm suggesting they be required to abide by the law in the first place.

Defamation, libel, slander. Presenting lies as news (let's call them what they are, not fake news but outright lies) and pretending they don't have a role to play and aren't responsible... Either they abide by the law of the land in which they operate or they don't operate.

See also the tax situation. It should be intolerable to allow companies to take profits out of the country, pay no tax and yet retain power and influence at the highest levels.

This isn't a matter of free speech at all. It's about representation, taxation, legal requirements and the social contract that allows companies to operate.

However, it's usually dressed up as free speech because that's the meme of the day. It is fashionable, particularly among those who are in power, to claim their right to say whatever they like is being restricted by those "snowflakes" who disagree with them. That's not the case at all - rather it's a matter of holding those (like Alex Jones) to account and saying "OK if you think this is true then prove it" as has been the case with or without the internet for as long as we've been publishing content.

Mike Dennehy 14 August 2018, 10:28 pm

Thanks for you reply Paul. It would be one thing if they said to Alex Jones "OK if you think it is true then prove it" but they're not doing that.

They're saying "OK if you're prepared to say something that we don't like, then you don't get to say anything on our platform."

As corporate entities that is their right, but I make the case that it's a very slippery slope to start allowing (an even wider group than) FAANG to decide what is true or not.

Besides which, Jones and others have been banned from a number of platforms not for telling lies, but for telling uncomfortable truths. Many have been arrested, prosecuted and even jailed for telling the truth.

I believe free speech is far too important to dismiss it so casually as to call it fashionable or "the meme of the day", but that's the beauty of free speech - we're both entitled to our views and can discuss it reasonably. Thanks for the interesting comments.

Paul Brislen 15 August 2018, 6:54 am

What these social media platforms should be saying is "you've broken our terms of service, this is the penalty". They haven't been applying that rule evenly across all users because they've shied away from applying it at all - users are what they sell to advertisers so they need more users, not fewer.

But they do have these rules for a reason and it's nothing to do with free speech and everything to do with abiding by the law.

Free speech does not mean a publisher is required to publish someone else's views regardless of legality, factuality or even based on style choice. Free speech means you can say what you want, nobody has to amplify it or even listen.

This current round of "free speech" debate isn't about free speech at atll.

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