Saturday 17 October, 2020

‘Development opportunity’

Well, if self-isolation’s your thing.

Quote of the Day

“If things were simple, word would have got around”

  • Jacques Derrida

Musical replacement for the morning’s radio news

Mozart – Lacrimosa


What lies ahead

It’s such a strange time. Everywhere I look (at any rate, inside my particular filter bubble) I sense a growing conviction that Trump will lose the popular vote, perhaps by quite a margin), but might still win a majority in the Electoral College (as he did in 2016). I also pick up a growing foreboding that he and his allies will create chaos by contesting the result, drawing it out with malicious litigation and egging on the Second Amendment freaks with their capacity for intimidation and worse. It’ll be like Gore v. Bush in 2000, but this time with armed mobs in the streets. And if it goes like that, then — as in 2000 — the decision of who is President will come to the Supreme Court, which Trump has already packed with two conservative appointments and to which the Senate is primed to confirm a third conservative justice, Amy Barrett. So even if Trump loses convincingly on November 3, his most enduring legacy will be a Supreme Court with an unbreakable 6-3 majority which could last for decades (Barrett, for example, could serve for 40 more years.) Which is why her Confirmation hearings have such significance.

As it stands, Edward Luce writes in today’s FT Magazine,

“Barrett’s confirmation is likely to be hurried through the Senate the week before the election — a breathtaking move when liberals are already livid about the anti-democratic direction of America’s judiciary. The controversy could light the dust that ends in a full-blown crisis over America’s founding creed. “I think it’s hard to overstate how shocking this move is'” says Norman Ornstein, a leading scholar of US politics at the American Enterprise Institute. Barrett’s confirmation could escalate the already existing nuclear arms race between liberals and conservatives. It cannot end in a good place.”

Barrett is an “originalist” — someone who adheres to the belief “that the country’s limits are defined by the words of America’s founding fathers, or the intended meaning behind their words”. As Sarah Churchwell, the historian, observed on the Talking Politics podcast this week, the Constitution is to originalists as the Bible is to religious fundamentalists: every word of it is sacred.

The absurdity of this legal doctrine is as staggering as the way it is still worshipped by conservatives. In the first place, the Founders wouldn’t have entertained the notion that Amy Barrett (a mere female) could be a judge, let alone a candidate for the Supreme Court! Secondly, those same authors of the sacred text were not designing a democracy, but a republic, which is not necessarily the same thing at all. In fact they weren’t overly attached to the idea of democracy. They expressly denied citizenship to slaves, for example, defining a slave as three fifths of a human being — thereby granting the Southern states more congressional representation than warranted by the number of their white male citizens. Thirdly, the Electoral College was expressly designed to ensure that winning the majority vote would not guarantee that the presidency went to the winner. And the Senate gives two seats to every state, which means that thinly populated rural states have the same representation as populous ones like California. So the idea that a document written in the late 18th century when America had only four million people, most of whom were farmers, should be a guide to how to run a modern society is, well, preposterous.

For these and other reasons, I’m with another FT columnist, Henry Mance, who writes in his column today:

“I no longer see an American dream — I see a broken society. Indeed its so easy to see the US’s flaws from 2,000 miles away that I have a new respect for for foreign critiques of the UK. All countries have systemic problems. But the US is exceptional. It has a geographic and historic bounty that made other countries jealous. Now it has a political system that makes us terrified. You can’t have a two-party system if one side ceases to believe in democracy. You can’t make a constitution that relies on bipartisanship if one party refuses to participate. You can’t fix the socio-economic malaise until you fix the politics”.

He’s right. And it ain’t going to happen, unless Biden suddenly discovers how to be a radical.

But here’s a cheerier thought. Supposing Trump does win, but the Democrats win control of both the Senate and the House. Then they can impeach Trump at their leisure, making his second term the shortest on record. And pack the Supreme Court into the bargain.

How to amend Section 230

For readers who are not as interested as I am in finding ways of controlling the power of tech companies, Section 230 of the 1996 US Communications Decency Act (which is wrapped inside the sprawling Telecommunications Act) is the get-out-of-gaol-card that has enabled Internet platforms like Google, Facebook, Twitter and others to profit from viral untruths and other crap without having to take legal responsibility for it and the societal damage it wreaks. It says:

“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.”

There were arguably good reasons for such protection in 1996 (because there was a prospect that liability for what people posted would mean that everything on your site would have to be vetted by lawyers before being published. If that had been the case, then the growth of the Web — and the networked public sphere — would have been much less dramatic).

But that was long before social media.

It remains the case, though, that S230 could be the “kill switch’ for social media if the liability shield were removed. And the US Congress could, if it were so minded, pull that switch. If it did, though, there would be harms as well as benefits: much of what is published on the Web is good and we would all be poorer if it were not available. So the question is: is there a way of modifying S.230 so that we keep most of the good things while reducing the bad?

Joe Moreno has an interesting suggestion on his blog:

Here’s my solution that doesn’t violate the First Amendment:

Section 230 should differentiate between platforms that amplify content (e.g. retweeting on Twitter, resharing on Facebook, etc) and platforms that don’t allow amplification (e.g. Instagram, WordPress, etc). If a platform allows amplification, regardless if it’s done through manual curation or via an automated algorithm, then it’s no longer a service provider but rather a publisher.

If this degree of editing and censorship sounds like an administrative burden then take a look at the lack of child porn found through search engines like Google, Bing, Yahoo, etc. There is none, but certainly not from a lack of trying. And while the CAN-SPAM Act doesn’t eliminate all spam, it does a great job (certainly much better than the wireless network providers when it comes to spoofing caller ID, etc).

Just as a news service doesn’t pass along fact as fiction without liability (libel) neither should social media. This clarification to Section 230 will cut into the profitability of social media companies, but they’ve reaped the benefits (and revenue) and now it’s time to take responsibility.

There might be something in that.

CORRECTION The link to the Lancet‘s series on syndemics in yesterday’s edition was incorrect. The correct link is:


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