January 18, 2017

The Next Step towards an Open Internet

Now that the FCC has finally acted to safeguard network neutrality, the time has come to take the next step toward creating a level playing field on the rest of the Information Superhighway. Network neutrality rules are designed to ensure that large telecommunications companies do not squelch free speech and online innovation. However, it is increasingly evident that broadband companies are not the only threat to the open Internet. In short, federal regulators need to act now to safeguard social network neutrality.

The time to examine this issue could not be better. Facebook is the dominant social network in countries other than Brazil, where everybody uses Friendster or something. Facebook has achieved near-monopoly status in the social networking market. It now dominates the web, permeating all aspects of the information landscape. More than 2.5 million websites have integrated with Facebook. Indeed, there is evidence that people are turning to social networks instead of faceless search engines for many types of queries.

Social networks will soon be the primary gatekeepers standing between average Internet users and the web’s promise of information utopia. But can we trust them with this new-found power? Friends are unlikely to be an unbiased or complete source of information on most topics, creating silos of ignorance among the disparate components of the social graph. Meanwhile, social networks will have the power to make or break Internet businesses built atop the enormous quantity of referral traffic they will be able to generate. What will become of these businesses when friendships and tastes change? For example, there is recent evidence that social networks are hastening the decline of the music industry by promoting unknown artists who provide their music and streaming videos for free.

Social network usage patterns reflect deep divisions of race and class. Unregulated social networks could rapidly become virtual gated communities, with users cut off from others who could provide them with a diversity of perspectives. Right now, there’s no regulation of the immense decision-influencing power that friends have, and there are no measures in place to ensure that friends provide a neutral and balanced set of viewpoints. Fortunately, policy-makers have a rare opportunity to preempt the dangerous consequences of leaving this new technology to develop unchecked.

The time has come to create a Federal Friendship Commission to ensure that the immense power of social networks is not abused. For example, social network users who have their friend requests denied currently have no legal recourse. Users should have the option to appeal friend rejections to the FFC to verify that they don’t violate social network neutrality. Unregulated social networks will give many users a distorted view of the world dominated by the partisan, religious, and cultural prejudices of their immediate neighbors in the social graph. The FFC can correct this by requiring social networks to give equal time to any biased wall post.

However, others have suggested lighter-touch regulation, simply requiring each person to have friends of many races, religions, and political persuasions. Still others have suggested allowing information harms to be remedied through direct litigation—perhaps via tort reform that recognizes a new private right of action against violations of the “duty to friend.” As social networking software will soon be found throughout all aspects of society, urgent intervention is needed to forestall “The Tyranny of The Farmville.”

Of course, social network neutrality is just one of the policy tools regulators should use to ensure a level playing field. For example, the Department of Justice may need to more aggressively employ its antitrust powers to combat the recent dangerous concentration of social networking market share on popular micro-blogging services. But enacting formal social network neutrality rules is an important first step towards a more open web.

My Experiment with "Digital Drugs"

The latest scare meme is “digital drugs” or “i-dosing”, in which kids listen to audio tracks that supposedly induce altered mental states. Concerned adults fear that these “digital drugs” may be a gateway to harder (i.e., actual) drugs. Rumors are circulating among some kids: “I heard it was like some weird demons and stuff through an iPod“. In a way, it’s a perfect storm of scare memes, involving (1) “drugs”, (2) the Internet, and (3) kids listening to freaky music.

When I heard about these “digital drugs”, I naturally had to try them, in the interest of science.

(All joking aside, I only did this because I knew it was safe and legal. I don’t like to mess with my brain. I rely on my brain to make my living. Without my brain, I’d be … a zombie, I guess.)

I downloaded a “digital drug” track, donned good headphones, lay down on my bed, closed my eyes, blanked my mind, and pressed “play”. What I heard was a kind of droning noise, accompanied by a soft background hiss. It was not unlike the sound of a turboprop airplane during post-takeoff ascent, with two droning engines and the soft hiss of a ventilation fan. This went on for about fifteen minutes, with the drone changing pitch every now and then. That was it.

Did this alter my consciousness? Not really. If anything, fifteen minutes of partial sensory deprivation (eyes closed, hearing nothing but droning and hissing) might have put me in a mild meditative state, but frankly I could have reached that state more easily without the infernal droning, just by lying still and blanking my mind.

Afterward I did some web surfing to try to figure out why people think these sounds might affect the brain. To the extent there is any science at all behind “digital drugs”, it involves playing sounds of slightly different frequencies into your two ears, thereby supposedly setting up a low-frequency oscillation in the auditory centers of your brain, which will supposedly interact with your brain waves that operate at a very similar frequency. This theory could be hooey for all I know, but it sounds kind of science-ish so somebody might believe it. I can tell you for sure that it didn’t work on me.

So, kids: don’t do digital drugs. They’re a waste of time. And if you don’t turn down the volume, you might actually damage your hearing.

CITP Expands Scope of RECAP

Today, we’re thrilled to announce the next version of our RECAP technology, dramatically expanding the scope of the project.

Having had some modest success at providing public access to legal documents, we’re now taking the next logical step, offering easy public access to illegal documents.

The Internet Archive, which graciously hosts RECAP’s repository of legal documents, was strangely unreceptive to our offer to let them store the world’s most comprehensive library of illegal documents. Fortunately, the Pirate Bay was happy to step in and help.

Interested in seeing what’s available? Then you might want to watch our brief instructional video.