Tech Giants Build Their Own Terrorist Watch List — Raising Difficult Questions


Elliott Brown | Flickr

Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter, and YouTube are “partnering to help curb the spread of terrorist content online.” They’ve announced a joint plan to use hashes (“digital fingerprints”) as a way to share that they’ve taken down a particular article or video. Get something banned from one service and it will now be much easier for the other services to block it, too (Ars Technica).

Sounds great! We’ve all read stories about “self-radicalizing” loners who watch one too many ISIS/Daesh recruiting videos and become dangerous. It makes sense for the big platforms to cooperate in fighting this problem, right?

But, but, but: There are so many free-speech dilemmas and booby traps in this plan it’s hard to know where to begin. ISIS is the easy case. Virtually everything else is harder. Who defines “terrorist content?” What about protesters and activists, left or right? What about the Kurds — our allies, Turkey’s terrorists? What about the guy who just shot up a Washington, D.C. pizzeria because he read bogus stories that Hillary Clinton was enslaving kids there?

Multiply this dilemma by the millions and you see how bottomless a problem these platforms are creating for themselves. Longer-term, they’re building the foundation for a censorship machine that might help defeat ISIS today — then, tomorrow, turn into an authoritarian leader’s handy weapon against dissent. Before you build an automated blacklist, be sure you have a plan to keep it out of the hands of a despot.

Has Airbnb Stopped Being Nice?

Airbnb’s recent capitulation to new restrictions on its service in New York is just one battle in a bigger war that many communities are fighting with the company. Critics charge that its service is taking housing off the market by making it more profitable for owners to sell short-term rentals than traditional leases (Quartz). Airbnb argues that it’s empowering homeowners to make some extra cash and blames the resistance, and the regulations, on the “hotel cartel.”

These are legitimate controversies, but the Quartz article’s frame — that Airbnb started out as the “nice” good guy of the on-demand economy but has become “a corporation like any other” — is simplistic and unhelpful. Of course Airbnb is a corporation. Every corporation has a different culture. With its acceptance of New York’s rules, its new “One Host, One Home” system in San Francisco and New York, and its “Community Compact,” Airbnb still seems like a more conciliatory outfit than, say, Uber. The important question isn’t how “nice” Airbnb is, but how much of its original culture it can hang on to as it keeps growing like crazy and tries to go public.

Why Uber Will Never Make Money

Speaking of Uber, here’s an exhaustively researched, marathon four-part argument that the company is never going to make any money unless it’s able to spend its way into a monopoly (Naked Capitalism). Analyst Hubert Horan’s case is simple: Uber is unprofitable now and will always be so. Its costs are high and aren’t going to come down. It has no advantage that a competitor can’t easily match. It’s weaponizing investment capital to try to build a monopoly rather than to eke out new efficiencies that could benefit the public.

Uber really is disruptive, Horan says — but not how you think. “It is disrupting the idea that private wealth creation requires the development of companies with superior products and superior efficiency than existing competitors. A key innovation is the use of massive private funding to block the signals that markets require to efficiently allocate resources, to overwhelm more efficient competitors and to nullify the laws and regulations that democratic governments had enacted to ensure that taxi services benefited a wide range of citizens.”

Here’s How We Can Afford a Universal Income

People across the political spectrum today are intrigued by the concept of a universal basic income as an antidote to inequality and technology-induced unemployment. But how can we afford it?

Here’s one way, courtesy of Credo Mobile’s Peter Barnes (NewCo Shift): Put a price tag on access to all sorts of commonly owned public goods and use that revenue to fund the universal paycheck. Charge for natural goods and charge for charge for “using key compo­nents of our legal and financial infrastructure”; collect fees from polluters and from financial traders. Pay citizens as “joint owners of our universal assets”; charge “those who use these assets in proportion to their use.” It’s not a tax, because government doesn’t receive or spend the money. Instead, think of the system as “pay­ments to all of us for value generated by our jointly owned assets.”

Joi Ito’s Disruption Survival Kit

In a new book, Joi Ito, the maverick geek who runs the Media Lab at MIT, outlines a set of principles for “how to survive our faster future”: mantras like “compass over maps,” “pull over push,” and “emergence over authority.” It’s as if you took some giddy ‘90s-era Internet idealism and then sobered it up with a cold bath in the harsh realities of the present-day network.

In an interview with Steven Levy (Backchannel), Ito provocatively argues that Donald Trump may be more “tuned in” to his message than Hillary Clinton was. He also says that “culture movements and art and punk rock thrive under bad presidents,” and talks about the power of non-violent action in the information age. He also suggests that the problem with universal basic income schemes won’t lie in how to pay for them but in figuring out how to make people’s lives meaningful in the absence of traditional employment: “Work is not just about money. It’s about purpose.”

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