Free speech up for sale

When I was planning to post this article a couple of weeks ago, Elon Musk’s bid to buy Twitter and take it into private ownership was looking unlikely to succeed. Musk had just declined to take up the offer of a seat on the Twitter board, following which the board adopted a poison-pill defence against a hostile takeover. And just as I was about to go to press at my usual time, the news broke that the original bid had now been accepted by the board, so I hit the pause button instead and waited a day to see what the public reaction was. What a difference 72 hours (and US$44bn) can make… It seems “free speech” does indeed come with a price.

Of course, the Twitter transaction is still subject to shareholder approval and regulatory clearance, as well as confirmation of the funding structure, since Musk is having to raise about half the stated purchase from banks.

Musk’s stated objective in acquiring Twitter was highlighted in a press release put out by the company:

“Free speech is the bedrock of a functioning democracy, and Twitter is the digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated,” said Mr. Musk. “I also want to make Twitter better than ever by enhancing the product with new features, making the algorithms open source to increase trust, defeating the spam bots, and authenticating all humans. Twitter has tremendous potential – I look forward to working with the company and the community of users to unlock it.”

This latest development in Musk’s apparent love/hate relationship with Twitter is bound to further divide existing users as to the billionaire’s intentions, as well as raise concerns about the broader implications for free speech. Musk himself has encouraged his “worst critics” to stay with the platform. Meanwhile, founder and former CEO, Jack Dorsey has renewed his love of Twitter, despite only recently stepping away from the top job to spend more time on his other interests.

Personally, I’m not overly concerned that a platform such as Twitter is in private hands or under single ownership (subject, of course, to anti-trust rules, etc.). Far from creating an entrenched monopoly, it may actually encourage more competition by those who decide to opt out of Twitter. What I am less comfortable with is the notion that Twitter somehow acts as an exemplar of free speech, and as such, is a bastion of democracy.

On the positive side, we will be able to judge the veracity of Musk’s objectives against his actual deeds. For example, will Twitter actually introduce an edit button, make its algorithms open-source, exorcise the spam bots, verify users, and reduce/remove the platform’s reliance upon advertising?

On the negative side, what credible stance will Twitter now take on “free speech”, short of allowing an “anything goes” policy? If Musk is sincere that Twitter will be a platform for debating “matters vital to the future of humanity”, he may need to modify what he means by public discourse. Personal slanging matches with fellow-billionaires (and those less-able to defend themselves) do not make for an edifying public debating forum. Musk’s own disclosures about Twitter and his other business interests will also come under increased scrutiny. We know from past experience that Elon’s Tweets can move markets, and for this alone he should be aware of the responsibility that comes with ownership of the platform.

We have long understood that free speech is not the same as an unfettered right to say what you like in public – there are limits to freedom of expression, including accountability for the consequences of our words and actions, especially where they can cause harm. The broader challenges we face are:

  • technology outpacing regulation, when it comes to social media
  • defining what it means to “cause offence”
  • increased attacks on “mainstream media” and threats to freedom of the press

1. Just as the printing press, telegraphy, telephony, broadcasting and the internet each resulted in legislative changes, social media has continued to test the boundaries of regulation under which its predecessors now operate. Hitherto, much of the regulation that applies to social and digital media relates to privacy and data protection, as well as the existing law of defamation. But the latter varies considerably by jurisdiction, and by access to redress, and availability of remedies. Social media platforms have resisted attempts to treat them as traditional media (newspapers and broadcasters, which are subject to licensing and/or industry codes of practice) or treat them as publishers (and therefore responsible for content published on their platforms). (Then there is the question of how some social media platforms manage their tax affairs in the countries where they derive their revenue.)

The Australian government is attempting to challenge social media companies in a couple of ways. The first has been to force these platforms to pay for third-party news content from which they directly and indirectly generate advertising income. The second aims to hold social media more accountable for defamatory content published on their platforms, and remove the protection of “anonymity”. However, the former might be seen as a (belated) reaction to changing business models, and largely acting in favour of incumbents; while the latter is a technical response to the complex law of defamation in the digital age.

2. The ability to be offended by what we see or hear on social media is now at such a low bar as to be almost meaningless. During previous battles over censorship in print, on stage or on screen, the argument could be made that, “if you don’t like something you aren’t being forced to watch it”, so maybe you are deliberately going in search of content just to find it offensive. The problem is, social media by its very nature is more pervasive and, fed by hidden algorithms, is actually more invasive than traditional print and broadcast media. Even as a casual, passive or innocent user, you cannot avoid seeing something that may “offend” you. Economic and technical barriers to entry are likewise so low, that anyone and everyone can have their say on social media.

Leaving aside defamation laws, the concept of “hate speech” is being used to target content which is designed to advocate violence, or can be reasonably deemed or expected to have provoked violence or the threat of harm (personal, social or economic). I have problems with how we define hate speech in the current environment of public commentary and social media platforms, since the causal link between intent and consequence is not always that easy to establish.

However, I think we can agree that the use of content to vilify others simply based on their race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, economic status, political affiliation or religious identity cannot be defended on the grounds of “free speech”, “fair comment” or “personal belief”. Yet how do we discourage such diatribes without accusations of censorship or authoritarianism, and how do we establish workable remedies to curtail the harmful effects of “hate speech” without infringing our civil liberties?

Overall, there is a need to establish the author’s intent (their purpose as well as any justification), plus apply a “reasonable person” standard, one that does not simply affirm confirmation bias of one sector of society against another. We must recognise that hiding behind our personal ideology cannot be an acceptable defence against facing the consequences of our actions.

3. I think it’s problematic that large sections of the traditional media have hardly covered themselves in glory when it comes to their ethical standards, and their willingness to misuse their public platforms, economic power and political influence to undertake nefarious behaviour and/or deny any responsibility for their actions. Think of the UK’s phone hacking scandals, which resulted in one press baron being deemed “unfit to run a company”, as well as leading to the closure of a major newspaper.

That said, it hardly justifies the attempts by some governments, populist leaders and authoritarian regimes to continuously undermine the integrity of the fourth estate. It certainly doesn’t warrant the prosecution and persecution of journalists who are simply trying to do their job, nor attacks and bans on the media unless they “tow the party line”.

Which brings me back to Twitter, and its responsibility in helping to preserve free speech, while preventing its platform being hijacked for the purposes of vilification and incitement to cause harm. If its new owner is serious about furthering public debate and mature discourse, then here are a few other enhancements he might want to consider:

  • in addition to an edit button, a “cooling off” period whereby users are given the opportunity to reconsider a like, a post or a retweet, based on user feedback or community interaction – after which time, they might be deemed responsible for the content as if they were the original author (potentially a way to mitigate “pile-ons”)
  • signing up to a recognised industry code of ethics, including a victim’s formal right of reply, access to mediation, and enforcement procedures and penalties against perpetrators who continually cross the line into vilification, or engage in content that explicitly or implicitly advocates violence or harm
  • a more robust fact-checking process and a policy of “truth in advertising” when it comes to claims or accusations made by or on behalf of politicians, political parties, or those seeking elected office
  • clearer delineation between content which is mere opinion, content which is in the nature of a public service (e.g., emergencies and natural disasters), content which is deemed part of a company’s public disclosure obligations, content which is advertorial, content which is on behalf of a political party or candidate, and content which is purely for entertainment purposes only (removing the bots may not be enough)
  • consideration of establishing an independent editorial board that can also advocate on behalf of alleged victims of vilification, and act as the initial arbiter of “public interest” matters (such as privacy, data protection, whistle-blowers etc.)

Finally, if Twitter is going to remove/reduce advertising, what will the commercial model look like?

Next week: The Crypto Conversation

#Blockchain heralds a new railway age?

Last week, I suggested that digital currencies might be the new portals. Reflecting further on my work with Brave New Coin*, it also occurs to me that the growth of Blockchain resembles the railway mania of 19th century Britain. Hopefully it won’t end in the same over-investment and asset bubble – but there are some interesting similarities.

“Railway Mania” – Image sourced from Business Pundit

First, the railways displaced the canal system, just as canals overtook roads as the key means of transportation. For these purposes, if we compare roads to the Internet, and canals to the World Wide Web, then Blockchain is the next generation of the “information superhighway”. Blockchain and distributed ledger technology, along with crypto-currencies, digital assets and smart contracts are powering the “new” internet – the Internet of Things, the Internet of Money, the Internet of Value Exchange.

Second, and in a similar vein, the Internet was designed primarily as a means of communication. Then, the web enabled e-commerce, content distribution and on-line interaction. Now, Blockchain technology is supporting a range of new activities – such as tokenizing tangible and intangible assets; securing personal data and financial accounts; decentralizing networks, exchanges and registries; and validating immutable transaction data.

Third, the proliferation of public, private and permissioned Blockchains is prompting the development of technical standards for the design, architecture, security and taxonomy associated with this technology – as railway systems have implemented common safety and operating standards. There is also the need for interoperability between Blockchains, just as railway networks have had to address different track gauges among competing operators.

Of course, on the downside, railway mania led to heightened speculation, failed or over-optimistic prospectuses, and duplication of competing networks as developers sought to secure the most lucrative routes.

And let’s not overlook the issue of forking, which Blockchains are having to address in order to meet the demand for increased processing capacity and/or to iron out potential design weaknesses. In some ways this resembles the creation of railway branch lines – in some cases, these subsidiary routes would become more important than their parent main lines; and may even have outlived them, following the Beeching restructures in the 1960s.

Finally, for all the benefits that Blockchain undoubtedly holds, challenges remain with “on-ramp / off-ramp” access – a bit like disconnected transport interchanges or uncoordinated train timetables.

*Note: the opinions expressed here are my own, and do not represent the views of Brave New Coin or their clients.

Next week: Long live experts….

 

 

 

Sharing the love – tips from #startup founders

Startup Victoria, with support from inspire9, BlueChilli, PwC and the Australian Computer Society brought together a mix of expert speakers who shared their insights, experience and advice for aspiring startups. The evening took the form of a series of lightning talks, and again demonstrated the contribution and importance of the Lean Startup Melbourne Meetup events to the local startup community.

First up, Adam Stone from Speedlancer reflected on his experience of the 500 Startups accelerator program, via 6 simple lessons:

  1. Make sure you connect, network and avoid all marketing BS in your pitch
  2. Achieve the target of three growth hacks a week
  3. Work out your Unit Economics
  4. Remember to hustle – it’s important to secure market tests and investor meetings
  5. Play ping-pong (a lot)
  6. Target angel investors rather than VCs

Next, Kristeene Phelan, who was the first regional employee at Etsy, explored the theme of communication, when working with global and remote development teams:

  • Choose your collaboration tools carefully, and have a backup for your backup
  • Know your international time zones (and daylight saving changes…)
  • Compromise the scheduling of cross-border conference calls
  • Slow it down when talking live to multicultural and multilingual teams
  • Get the team together in person whenever possible, and also make time for 1:1 dialogue – face to face time is important

Then, Thomas Banks, Creative Director at the Centre for Access made a very personal and impassioned presentation on website accessibility: about 99% of websites are inaccessible to people with disabilities, underscoring the importance of having an inclusive approach to web and app design.

Geoff Dumsday talked about the significant work CSIRO is doing in accelerated innovation. Most of us probably know about CSIRO’s role in inventing WiFi and polymer banknotes. But perhaps less well-known is the fact that CSIRO work with around 1600 clients, including 350 multi-national companies, and have over 300 commercial licenses in use for technology and inventions coming out of the work their scientists and researchers do. As Australia’s innovation catalyst, CSIRO is enhancing the entrepreneurial culture through evidence-based R&D. Such as the invention of non-animal gelatine for use in biomedicine, food and cosmetics.

LIFX co-founder Daniel May pitched the need to make products that add value or make a difference to the world. As examples, he referred to his new project, AgreeTree, which is trying to take the pain out of drafting commercial contracts; and also to the work of the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre and how it is engaging entrepreneurs via an accelerator program.

Finally, Layla Foord from Envato covered the topic of building successful teams, especially when hiring early-stage employees. Using the theme of “pitch in, not mark territory”, she emphasised leveraging attitude and mindset over job titles.

This smorgasbord of ideas and content was a useful reminder to aspiring founders and entrepreneurs that while a great idea (backed by a solid business plan, market traction and protectable IP) will help get you motivated, the human touch is vital to gaining momentum for your project.

Next week: #FinTech – A Tale of Two Cities: Melbourne vs Sydney

Online Pillar 3: #Education

Students don’t need to attend formal classes anymore – they can YouTube a tutorial, sign up for a MOOC, watch a TED talk, Google the answer to a question, or research a Wiki entry. And that’s just the free stuff. Online seminars and workshops, especially in the area of software programming and code writing, are big business; and even vocational courses are looking to deliver more content via the web.

This week is the final part in my mini-series on the Three Pillars. (See Health and Finance.) Of the three, Education has probably done the most to embrace online – it’s certainly been at the forefront of the Internet and the web, both of which have their roots in academia. Yet of the three, it is the one vertical segment that is most vulnerable to disruptive technologies and changing business models.

Lifelong learning is going to become vital in keeping ourselves informed, skilled, up-to-date, relevant and employable (whether as hired labour or as self-employed freelances). Even in retirement, services like the University of the Third Age (U3A) can help in maintaining our mental wellbeing.

Few of us establish long-term relationships with schools or educational establishments we have attended – at best, we may join an alumni group, but in my experience, many such organisations are designed around fund-raising activities, “old boy” networks, quasi-masonic rituals and/or sadomasochistic memory recall at the annual reunion; and they don’t do so well when former students become increasingly mobile in the global workplace. On the other hand, the ability to attend so many different educational establishments and be exposed to different types of education services makes for a richer learning experience.

Online academic reference and research services have been around since the 1980s, and it’s now possible to source post-grad dissertations and PhD papers via vast online library databases. Part of this is driven by the academic need to “publish or perish”, part by changes in the publishing and information industry, part by the need to foster collaboration via better dissemination of primary research.

For myself, I participated in my first online seminar about 15 years ago, and webinars are commonplace for professional development, distance learning and collaborative projects. I have also enrolled in online tutorials for one-off courses on very specific topics – less about getting a qualification, more about enhancing my knowledge.

Students today, including those in primary and secondary education, are expected to participate online, even though they may still attend daily “in person” classes:

  • tablet devices are mandatory – for access to textbooks, and for managing assignments
  • students interact with their teachers and classmates via Learning Management Systems
  • undergraduates are expected to develop online CVs as well as use dedicated social media platforms run by their colleges
  • ebooks are capable of being personalised and customised – e.g., uploading your own notes, accessing peer comments, and interacting with teachers

Mass Open Online Courses (MOOC) are a logical extension of the webinar model – but of course, you don’t get the same certificate or diploma you would receive (assuming you get one at all) if you had enrolled for the class, completed the assignments and passed the exams. Some universities and colleges license their content (syllabus and curriculum) for local delivery by another institution – a bonus for students in remote locations, or unable to access more expensive colleges. Maintaining the integrity and quality of this “distributed” learning is still a challenge, and mutual recognition of qualifications (as well as certification and authentication) may yet be a barrier to student mobility.

Recognition of prior learning is a key feature of vocational education – but I can see a demand for more services that help me validate what I know and what I have learned (in the absence of a formal qualification) as well as helping prospective employers in candidate selection. There are also challenges in monitoring mandatory Continuing Professional Development (CPD), especially in areas such as health services, where even relatively junior nursing and ancillary staff in hospitals are required to maintain an online learning diary or journal as well as evidence of training completion and competence. (Question: who would be responsible if a nurse engaged by a hospital via a labour service provider failed to maintain currency in patient care, resulting in avoidable harm?)

Ultimately, the role of lifelong learning is in helping to plan, manage and develop our careers. Just as we might have a financial plan (to prepare for the future), and we would expect to manage our health (via regular check-ups and preventative measures), why wouldn’t also have a career plan, supported by a learning pathway? And if we are increasingly comfortable accessing content via mobile apps and the web, why wouldn’t we expect to pursue our learning needs online as well?

Next week: Another #co-working space opens in #Melbourne