Disinformation and Dystopia

Whose disinformation efforts should we really fear―and why we should also fear regulation to stop disinformation

Mis- and disinformation about matters of public concern is much in the news, and has been, on and off, for the last five years. First kindled by real and imagined interference in election campaigns, interest in the subject has flared up with the present plague. Yesterday’s developments, however, highlight the dangers of utterly wrongheaded responses to the issue, one that would will lead to a consolidation of government power and its use to silence critics and divergent voices.

First, we get a hair-raising report by David Pugliese in the Ottawa Citizen about the Canadian Armed Forces’ strong interest in, and attempts at, engaging in information operations targeting Canadians over the course of 2020. Without, it must be stressed, political approval, and seemingly to the eventual consternation of Jonathan Vance, the then-Chief of Defence Staff, the Canadian Joint Operations Command sought to embark on a “campaign … for ‘shaping’ and ‘exploiting’ information” about the pandemic. In their view “the information operations scheme was needed to head off civil disobedience … and to bolster government messages”. They also saw the whole business as a “learning opportunity” for what might become a “routine” part of their operations.

Nor is this all. At the same time, but separately, “Canadian Forces intelligence officers, culled information from public social media accounts in Ontario”, including (but seemingly not limited to) from people associated with Black Lives Matter. This, supposedly, was “to ensure the success of Operation Laser, the Canadian Forces mission to help out in long-term care homes hit by COVID-19 and to aid in the distribution of vaccines in some northern communities”. A similar but also, apparently, unrelated effort involved the public affairs branch of the Canadian Forces, which want its “officers to use propaganda” peddled by “friendly defence analysts and retired generals” and indeed “information warfare and influence tactics”, “to change attitudes and behaviours of Canadians as well as to collect and analyze information from public social media accounts” and “to criticize on social media those who raised questions about military spending and accountability.”

And in yet another separate incident,

military information operations staff forged a letter from the Nova Scotia government warning about wolves on the loose in a particular region of the province. The letter was inadvertently distributed to residents, prompting panicked calls to Nova Scotia officials … [T]he reservists conducting the operation lacked formal training and policies governing the use of propaganda techniques were not well understood by the soldiers.

To be blunt, there seems to be a large constituency in various branches of the Canadian forces for treating the citizens whom they are supposed to defend as enemies and targets in an information war. Granted, these people’s enthusiasm seems to outstrip their competence ― but we know about the ones who got caught. We can only hope that there aren’t others, who are better at what they do. And it’s not a happy place to be in, to be hoping that your country’s soldiers are incomptent. But here we are.

Also yesterday, as it happens, the CBA National Magazine published the first episode of a new podcast, Modern Law, in which its editor, Yves Faguy, interviewed Ève Gaumond, a researcher on AI and digital technologies, about various techniques of online persuasion, especially during election campaigns. These techniques include not only mis- and disinformation and “deep fakes”, but also advertising on social media, which need not to untruthful, though it may present other difficulties. Mr. Faguy’s questions focused on what (more) should Canada, and perhaps other countries, do about these things.

Ms. Gaumond’s views are somewhat nuanced. She acknowledges that “social media is not the main driver of disinformation and misinformation” ― traditional media still are ― and indeed that “we’re not facing a huge disinformation crisis” at all, at present. She points out that, in debates about mis- and disinformation, “the line between truth and falsehood is not so clearly defined”. And she repeatedly notes that there are constitutional limits to the regulation of speech ― for example, she suggests that a ban on microtargeting ads would be unconstitutional.

Ultimately, though, like many others who study these issues, Ms. Gaumond does call for more and more intrusive regulation. She claims, for instance, that “[i]f we are to go further to fight disinformation”, online advertising platforms should be forced not only to maintain a registry of the political ads they carry and of the amounts the advertisers spent, but also to record “[t]he number of times an ad has viewed” and “the audience targeted by the ad”. This would, Ms. Gaumond hopes, deter “problematic” targeting. She also wants to make advertising platforms responsible for ensuring that no foreign advertising makes its way into Canadian elections, and tentatively endorses Michael Pal’s suggestion that spending limits for online advertising should be much lower than for more conventional, and more expensive, formats.

Ultimatelty, though she doesn’t “think that we should tackle speech per se”, Ms. Gaumond muses that “[w]e should see how to regulate all platforms in a way that we can touch on all possible ways that disinformation is spread”. This means not only spending limits but also that “[y]ou cannot pay millions of dollars to microtarget … what you’re saying to people that believe the same thing as you do without oversight from other people, from Election Canada”. And beyond that

not only regulating social medias [sic], but also all of the environment that has created the disinformation crisis. That means education, funding and great journalism, the media ecosystem is one of the important components of why we’re not facing such a big disinformation crisis.

There are a few things to say about Ms. Gaumond’s proposals ― keeping in mind Mr. Pugliese’s report about the activities of the Canadian forces. The overarching point is the one suggested by the juxtaposition of the two: while researchers and politicians fret about disinformation campaigns carried ou by non-state and foreign actors, the state itself remains the most important source of spin, propaganda, and outright lies with which we have to contend. Unlike bots and Russian trolls, the state can easily dupe the opinion-forming segments of society, who are used to (mostly) believing it ― partly out of ideological sympathy, but partly, and it’s important to stress this, because the state is also an important source of necessary and true information which such people rely on and relay.

This means that we should be extremely wary of granting the state any power to control information we can transmit and receive. Its armed agents think nothing of manipulating us, including for the sake of propping up the government of the day. And it is no answer that we should grant these powers to independent, non-partisan bureaucracies. The Canadian Forces are also an independent, non-partisan bureaucracy of sorts. I’m pretty confident that they weren’t trying to manipulate opinion out of any special affection for the Liberal Party of Canada, say. They are just on the side of order and stability, and any civilian bureaucratic structure would be too. It would also be likely to be tempted to squish questions about its own budget and functioning, and to develop an unhealthy interest in people it regards as trouble-makers. Civilians might be more suspicious of right-wing groups than of BLM, but the ones have the same right to free speech and to privacy as the others.

Another thing to note is the confusion among the different issues clustered under the general heading of concerns about mis- and disinformation. Concerns about the targeting of advertising may be valid or not, but their validity often has little to do with the truthfulness of the ads at issue. Concerns about foreign influence may be magnified when it is being exercised through misleading and/or microtargeted ads, but they are not necessarily linked to the issues either of disinformation or of microtargeting. Spending limits, again, have little to do with disinformation. No doubt a knowledgeable researcher like Ms. Gaumond would be more careful about such distinctions in a paper than she sometimes is in the interview with Mr. Faguy. But can untutored policy-makers, let alone voters, keep track?

In light of all this, Ms. Gaumond’s suggestions, though sprinkled with well-intentioned caveats about “not saying ‘you cannot say that'”, should give us serious pause. Even increasing disclosure requirements is far from a straightforward proposition. As Ms. Gaumond notes, Google simply refused to carry political ads rather than set up the registry the government required. Facebook and Twitter might follow if they are forced to make disclosures that would reveal the functioning of their algorithms, which they may have good reasons for keeping out of their competitors’ sight. More fundamentally, the idea that all (political?) speech should at all times be tracked and monitored by the state does not strike me as healthy. Political debate is a fundamental right of citizens, not something we can only engage in on the government’s sufferance. We are not children, and government ― including Elections Canada ― is not a parent who needs to know what we are getting up to online. Last but not least, because of the government’s track record of spin and deceit, it cannot be trusted with educating citizens and funding media in a way that would solve the problems of the “environment that has created the disinformation crisis”. The solution must come from the civil society, not from the state.

Lastly, let me note in my view Ms. Gaumond may be far too optimistic about the willingness of Canadian courts to uphold constitutional limits on government regulation of electoral speech. Their record on this issue is generally abysmal, and the Supreme Court’s reasoning in the leading case, Harper v Canada (Attorney General), 2004 SCC 33, [2004] 1 SCR 827, is itself misinformed and speculative. If government actors take the initiative on these matters, the courts will not save us.

The issue of mis- and disinformation is at least much a moral panic as a genuine crisis. As Ms. Gaumond points out, the trouble is to a considerable extent with traditional media and political forces outside anyone’s easy control; as Mr. Pugliese’s reporting makes clear, we must fear our own government at least as much as any outside force. Yet fears of new technology ― not to mention fear-mongering by media and political actors whose self-interest suggests cutting social media down to size ― mean that all manner of new regulations are being proposed specifically for online political discussions. And the government, instead of being reined in, is likely to acquire significant new powers that will further erode the ability of citizens to be masters in their own public and private lives.

Modern Mailmen

Back-of-the-envelope thoughts on what the history of postal services and their competitors can teach us about the regulation of social media

This post is co-written with Akshaya Kamalnath[*]

One of us (Akshaya) recently visited the Postal Museum in Washington DC. Looking at the historical development and role of the postal services in the US brought to mind our modern forms of communication—social media platforms—and their value, especially in terms of free speech. We often associate free speech with the press but, as a quote by Nat Hentoff in the Postal Museum informs visitors, it was the post that brought news to the press and then brought newspapers to the public.

Today, social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Google (YouTube) play a role similar to that of the postal service by acting as intermediaries for communication. They are, in a sense, the high-tech descendants of the postal services. The post physically transports letters and parcels from one person to another, while Facebook electronically transmits speech that one person wants to convey to others. The tech platforms have just made it easier to convey messages to a number of people at once. Tech platforms also help transmit news content—just like the post delivers newspapers. In fact, the use of postal services to deliver newspapers was considered the most important information technology in the late 1700s.  

As lawmakers are talking about regulating speech on social media platforms, a comparison with postal services is instructive. The postal service is not required or even allowed to scrutinize people’s mail and make decisions about whether or not to deliver it. So why should its technologically more advanced relatives have to identify and remove misinformation or statements supposed to be “hate speech”? Of course, social media can be used to commit crime, including engaging in hate speech as defined in the criminal law of some countries including Canada. The post collaborated with law enforcement where necessary to investigate fraud and other criminal activities and social media companies should do the same. Social media companies should obviously comply with court orders if someone is found to have committed a crime. The issue is whether they should be expected to engage in preventive enforcement.

The further question about whether we should require these tech platforms to service all users equally, like the postal service is expected to, is more complicated. This is because the dominant postal service is usually run by the state, while the tech platforms like Facebook are run by corporations in the private sector. While we can ask a state-run enterprise to provide services to all equally, more thought needs to be given before private enterprises are held to the same standard. Yet, government regulation is being considered because, among other things, there are complaints about the spread of what activists deem to be “hate speech”, and also complaints about the silencing of conservative voices on social media.

Overall, we have to tread carefully with government regulation. In addition to interfering with their freedom of expression and association, heavy-handed regulation of online platforms would have the effect of making it harder for new and, at least initially, smaller players to enter the social media market, which ought to be the real solution to the concerns about the existing platforms’ behaviour. It will be highly unlikely that we see university students create the next Facebook or Google from their dorm rooms or garage if regulation becomes burdensome.

The history of the postal services can again serve as a warning to resist government-backed monopolies, which Facebook and the few other social media giants can in effect become if government regulation becomes burdensome. It is telling that the Postal Museum makes no mention of Lysander Spooner who tried to set up a private postal service in 1844.

Spooner argued against state monopoly over the postal service, saying:

The present expensive, dilatory and exclusive system of mails, is a great national nuisance—commercially, morally and socially. Its immense patronage and power, used, as they always will be, corruptly, make it also a very great political evil.

He added (referring to the US Constitution’s First Amendment protection for free expression) that

any law, which compels a man to pay a certain sum of money to the government, for the privilege of speaking to a distant individual, or which debars him of the right of employing such a messenger as he prefers to entrust with his communications, “abridges” his “his freedom of speech”.

Although Spooner’s business was eventually forced to close by a tightening of legislative protections for the government post’s monopoly, it had the temporary impact of bringing down the cost of postal services.

Government regulation requiring Facebook and other social media platforms to set up a complex decision-making system to enforce restrictions on what messages they can be used to convey will increase the cost of operating such platforms. Any new platform will be required to spend heavily on human moderators, artificial intelligence systems capable of assisting them, or, likely, a combination of the two. While established platforms like Facebook will not find it difficult to invest in complying with such regulations, the cost will be prohibitive to outsiders who want to set up competing social media platforms. This should explain why Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, is in favour of government regulation.

Heavy regulation of speech on social media also runs the risk of government using social media to their political advantage—a modern version of the political abuses of the power over the transmission of ideas that Spooner denounced, which we are already seeing in some countries. In France, it emerged that the President’s office circulated a doctored video on social media, despite the President himself being committed to censorship of “fake news”. In Austria, a politician asked Facebook to take down a post calling her a “lousy traitor of the people”, a “corrupt oaf” and a member of a “fascist party” none of which amounted to hate speech under Austrian law.

The converse possibility, regulation requiring Facebook and other platforms to host all users irrespective of their opinions, would also be problematic, because it would infringe the platforms’ ability to hold and act on their own views, as well as to provide an environment in which they think their customers will be happiest. Just like restaurants may ask misbehaving patrons to leave so others may enjoy their dinner, social media platforms should be able to decide where to draw the line so that a large majority of their users are able to enjoy the platform. Or, to return to the postal analogy, suppose a private delivery company insisted on reading the letters or examining the content of the packages we wanted it to deliver for us and refuse to deliver those it deemed morally objectionable. The appropriate response for a person who did not want his or her letters read, or who submitted to the exercise and had a letter rejected, would be to go to a competitor—or to establish one, like Spooner did—rather than to force his message on a party unwilling to deliver it. Similarly, when Facebook or other online platforms set out standards with regard to the type of content and members it will allow, they make specific choices as private actors, and should be free from the government’s interference.

All this is not to say that the large social media platforms should do nothing to address the problems associated with their use. Companies like Facebook are under pressure from their shareholders and consumers. Facebook’s shareholders recently demanded a change in management since the current management had not dealt with misinformation and hate speech. Even though Mark Zuckerberg holds the majority voting power in the company, the shareholder proposals convey a message. Facebook’s management is aware of the market pressures and has taken a number of measures, including releasing its public content-moderation rules and a proposal for an independent body to hear appeals regarding decisions by Facebook regarding content moderation. (That said, presumably, the independent body would still be working under guidelines that Facebook has drafted or at least is in agreement with.)

While not perfect, these are voluntary responses to market sentiment against problems of misinformation and censorship that big social media companies have chosen to invest in. Facebook’s taking such measures does not preclude a new company from starting a modest platform without having to invest in these systems at the outset. As they get bigger, the new competitors could devise their own solutions on different principles, rather than having to follow a pattern imposed by legislation, not only enacted at Facebook’s suggestion but, quite possibly, drafted based on its proposals. Just like new courier companies have differentiated themselves from postal services based on GPS tracking, expedited delivery or convenient package pick-up options, new social media companies may exploit gaps especially if the big social media companies preclude certain views on their platforms.

[*] Dr Akashaya Kamalnath is a corporate and insolvency law scholar. She is currently teaching at Deakin University, but will be joining the Auckland University of Technology Law School shortly. You can read her papers here, and follow her on Twitter.

The Blog of John Henry

A comment on Nick Barber’s thoughts on “The Legal Academic in the Internet Age”

How is the internet going to change the ways in which legal academics teach, publish, and engage with the outside world in the medium term? Nick Barber addresses this question in a provocative post over at the UK Constitutional Law Blog. Blogs, he argues are the way of the future, while both social media should be resisted, and traditional lectures are destined for the dustbin of history. You might think that as a blogging enthusiast I would agree, or at least find the idea exciting. But prof. Barber doesn’t think that the future belongs to any old blogs; he has a specific type of blog in mind ― professional, edited outfits (like the UK Constitutional Law Blog itself), which will fuse with more traditional journals. A future in which such outlets are the dominant medium does not strike me as blogging utopia at all.

I will not say too much about prof. Barber’s views on the future of teaching. He thinks

that lectures will increasingly be replaced by shorter, fifteen or twenty minute, vlogs that will be designed for the medium; that is, they will consist of lecturers talking to camera, perhaps with slides incorporated into the broadcast. A series of these vlogs will then combine to cover the material that used to be covered in the lecture.

This will be both less demanding for the lecturers, who will be able to re-use recordings, and less boring for the students, who will be able to consume them in more digestible chunks and at their own pace. Prof. Barber thinks that by replacing lectures, “the rise of vlogs will free up time for more interactive teaching” to small groups of students. It’s a tempting vision, as I’m planning my lectures next term to classes of, potentially, 270 and 60. But whatever the chances that it will be realized at Oxford, where prof. Barber teaches, or at similarly well-heeled institutions, I don’t see how law schools like the one at which I am will have the resources to replace my four hours of pontificating to 330 students by the appropriately astronomical number of hours needed to afford them all small group teaching.

Similarly, I will not say too much about prof. Barber’s dismissive attitude to social media (i.e. Facebook and Twitter), which he says “encourage folly and, worse, they then go on to preserve this folly for posterity”. Steve Peers has responded with a Twitter thread that points out that Twitter, in particular, enables people to interact over the barriers that separate different professions (or branches of the legal professions) and academic disciplines, which (at least sometimes) makes it possible for conversations that would otherwise happen within these different groups to be enriched, for the benefit of all involved. I would only add that social media also help break down geographical barriers in a way that not only traditional publications, or even good old email, do not, and also the barriers of rank or standing within each profession or discipline. I understand why some people will prefer to heed prof. Barber’s call for caution, and do not agree with people who occasionally come close to saying that every academic ought to be on Twitter, but I am pretty sure that many will find it useful. I know I do; indeed I think that I have benefited a great deal from my (initially very reluctant) embrace of that medium. (To give just one example, I’m not sure if my collaboration with Benjamin Oliphant would have come about if we hadn’t been interacting on Twitter, as well as reading each other’s blog posts.)

I want to comment in some more detail on prof. Barber’s views on the present and future of blogs. Prof. Barber is enthusiastic about “the emerging capacity of blogs to permit academics to engage with important constitutional issues as they unfold”, without being constrained by the “glacial” pace at which articles, even short and topical ones, in traditional publications come out. Moreover, ” the rise of the blogs has also brought with it a welcome relaxation of style”, allowing scholars to engage with lay audiences. At the same time, as with social media, prof. Barber worries that

[t]he ease and speed with which material can be published increases the risk of error and of ill-considered scholarship. This may be partly due to the laziness of scholars but it is, also, the product of a collective pressure to publish quickly.

Half-baked or outright mistaken arguments that would never have made their way onto the printed page can appear in blog posts, and live on forever in cyberspace.

Prof. Barber sees the solution to this problem in the professionalization of blogs. “We need”, he argues, “to create structures that will make use of the speed and accessibility of the Internet whilst avoiding the risks of sloppy scholarship and blow-hard opinionizing.” Already, prof. Barber says, “[t]he best law blogs, like journals, now play an editorial role, reviewing and critiquing submissions before they are posted.” Whether these structures develop as part of what are now blogs or what are now journals, they will cause the quality of blog output to improve. This, in turn, will lead to academia finally crediting blog posts similarly to more traditional publications for the purposes of promotion, and also cause “the era of the personal blog as a serious academic enterprise [to] come to an end”, as independents are out-competed on quality by “edited blog[s]”.

Unlike prof. Barber, I do not see these developments as something to be wished for. It’s not that I’m against quality, of course ― I try to achieve it with my own posts here. But I know that I occasionally produce bloopers, and suspect that I am not quite alone in this. So I can see the attraction of prof. Barber’s position ― if we think that the most important thing for us (as scholars or as lawyers) is that everything written on law be of high quality. But I don’t think that this is the only thing that matters, and I’m afraid that rather more will be lost ― and perhaps less gained ― in the quest for quality than prof. Barber cares to admit.

For one thing, I’m skeptical about the ability of blogs to “play an editorial role”, at least a meaningful one, in a timely fashion. As they become more institutionalized, less the preserve of enthusiasts who pour the hearts into blogging without counting the hours, and especially if the volume of contributions (and perhaps the competition to get published) increases, as prof. Barber expects that it will, edited blogs will be likely to acquire some of the less pleasant characteristics of the journals, the “glacial” pace among them. The more quality assurance one wants to have ― the more editing and stages of peer review ― the slower the process becomes, until the only time savings over the traditional journals are those made by eliminating printing.

More importantly, the institutionalization of blogs and the disappearance of independent blogging would likely close down an important avenue that is now available to people who lack the exalted status and distinguished credentials of prof. Barber and his fellow contributors to the UK Constitutional Law Blog for communicating their ideas about the law. When I started this blog, I was a graduate student with exactly one academic publication to my name. Nobody would have given me a platform in a serious edited blog. But less than three years later, Double Aspect was named the best law blog in Canada. Paul Daly had a much fuller CV and a higher perch when he started Administrative Law Matters, but he too was “only” a junior academic at that point. Yet within a couple of years his blog was an indispensable resource on public law, and he also won (well deserved, in his case!) recognition as the best in Canada. Independent blogging democratizes academic and professional conversations about law by allowing upstart voices to join in and, just possibly, be heard if they have something interesting to say.

Independent blogging can also be an avenue by which unorthodox ideas that might not pass the test of editorial quality control can be developed. I doubt that any blog editor would have cared much for my early musings about originalism. Two peer-reviewed articles later, I can say that they were not as silly as they might have seemed at the time, though of course the process of working on those articles with Mr. Oliphant involved developing and clarifying my (and his) initial ideas a great deal. But without those early unedited musings, the articles would not have happened. And, to repeat, if I didn’t have my own blog, and had to count on the good will or open mind of an editor ― who would, in the nature of things, be an established, and more or less orthodox, academic ― to get them published, I doubt that they would ever have seen the light of day.

I also think that personal or (relatively) small-group blogs (such as the Volokh Conspiracy or Balkinization) have another advantage over institutional ones: they require, and thus select for, commitment. Institutional blogs make it possible for any given person to contribute at large intervals, perhaps only sporadically. That can of course be a good thing ― people who only sometimes think they have something to say in blog post form have an outlet for those occasions. (For this same reason, I think guest-posts are generally great, and am delighted to have hosted a number of them of the years.) But I do think that there is something to be said for committing to a platform that leaves you no cover and forces you to blog not just now and then, but week in and week out. It’s bloody hard ― as my occasional bouts of silence show, even maniacs like me sometimes find it impossible ― but as with so much else, there are benefits to regular practice. It makes one develop one’s voice and style; it allows one to cover a variety of subjects in some depth; it provides one with a well-developed record of one’s observations and opinions that can be useful for other purposes (like teaching, or simply keeping track of legal developments) in the future.

Even if the personal blog cannot compete with a professionally edited platform for high-level scholarship on pure quality, it has its own, different value. It can be a way for new and rebellious voices to enter into and enliven the conversation. It can be a proving ground for people and ideas. It can be the record of a coherent or developing thought process. In can, in short, be many things that a edited blog cannot. Call me a blogging romantic if you will,

But before I let your steam drill beat me down,
I’d die with a hammer in my hand, Lord, Lord,
I’d die with a hammer in my hand.


Free Speech

This is the third post in the series about my most recent article, “‘Third Parties’ and Democracy 2.0″, (2015) 60:2 McGill LJ 253. On Monday, I introduced the paper, which deals with the repercussions of political and technological changes on our framework for regulating the participation of persons other than parties and candidates in pre-electoral debate. Yesterday, I discussed political the political changes of the last 45 years, which have resulted in political parties more or less deserting the realm of policy debates, and leaving a void which can only be filled by those whom our electoral law considers to be “third parties” and relegates to the sidelines of pre-electoral debate.

Today, I take up the issue of technological change ― and especially the development of various “web 2.0” technologies and business models ― that has made political (as well as other) speech free not only in the legal, but also in the financial sense. I describe this change as the “separation of spending and speech.” I posted about it long ago, when I was writing the first draft of the article. But the issue is important enough to be worth re-emphasizing, and anyway only a few hardy souls were reading this blog at the time.

The idea is a simple one, but its implications are considerable. Up until ten years ago, at most, the only way a message (political or not), could be made to reach substantial numbers of people was through the print or electronic mass media ― either as content a media organization itself chose to run, as part of a news item or an editorial, or as an op-ed, or as a paid advertisement. Unless the media took up your message on its own volition ― and it had limited space to do so, especially for messages transmitted in the form chosen by their authors (such as newspaper op-eds), you had to pay for it to do so ― and pay a lot. The vast majority of individuals could not afford it ― when acting on their own, anyway, because organizations, notably trade unions, are in a different position thanks to their ability to pool together resources from large numbers of people.

Canadian election laws were written with this reality in mind. Those of them that regulate the participation by persons and entities other than candidates and political parties, a.k.a. “third parties,” address these the various types of communications and treat them differently depending on whether the third party has to pay for the transmission of the communication. Communications taken up by the media ― news reports, interviews, or op-eds ― are exempted from the definition of “election expenses” and thus not regulated. Paid advertisement is counted as an expense and strictly limited.

The combination of statutory spending limits and the limitations imposed by the technologies and business models of traditional mass media on the amount of third-party communications not covered by these limits served to circumscribe third party participation in pre-electoral debates. Political parties, by contrast, operate under much relaxed versions of these twin constraints. Spending limits to which they are subject are much higher than those imposed on third parties, and the media are more interested in giving them a voice ― even when, as I explained in yesterday’s post, the parties don’t really have anything interesting to say. Political parties could thus remain at the centre of the discussion.

Web 2.0 ― the websites that allow users to easily generate and communicate their own content, such as social networks, YouTube, and various blogging services ― changes things by removing one of the two constraints on the ability of third parties to communicate with voters. The spending limits are still in place, but it is no longer necessary to spend in order to speak. In Harper v. Canada (Attorney General), 2004 SCC 33, [2004] 1 S.C.R. 827, which upheld the federal restrictions on third party advertising, the dissent pointed out that these restrictions were so low as to prevent a third party from taking out advertisements in the national press, or in the electronic media. The majority responded by observing that most people could simply not afford to do so anyway. Both of these facts were and still are true. But now, thanks to the separation of spending and speech made possible by the technologies and business models of web 2.0, both may also be increasingly beside the point. Even a single person’s rant about a political party can easily be seen by hundreds of his or her “friends” on Facebook ― at no financial cost to him or her. Ten years ago, reaching the same audience would probably have cost a substantial sum of money, if it had been feasible at all. And of course the possibilities of “sharing” and hyperlinking increase the potential audience one may reach exponentially, at no additional expense ― which, again is a dramatic departure from the pre-Web 2.0 days.

To be sure, the Web 2.0 means of communication have not yet entirely displaced the traditional media as a means of reaching large numbers of people. But they have added a crucially important avenue through which third parties can express themselves throughout an election campaign, and thus reduced the severity of the effects of the spending limits on their ability to do so. Conversely, they have have deprived political parties of their near-monopoly on the political debate at election time ― which they were using to avoid policy discussion to the greatest extent possible. In my next post, the last in this series, I will argue that the law should keep this avenue open, and suggest some (relatively modest) reforms to ensure that it does so.

Pistes de réflexion

Dans mon billet de vendredi, j’ai discuté de la complexité de la pondération du droit à l’image et à la vie privée et de celui à la liberté d’expression et à l’information dans le contexte de la publication d’une photo d’une personne sans le consentement de celle-ci. Comme je l’ai expliqué, je crois que les tribunaux québécois, dont notamment la Cour supérieure dans son récent jugement dans Hammedi c. Cristea, 2014 QCCS 4564, n’accordent pas suffisamment d’importance à la liberté d’expression et au droit du public à l’information, et ont une conception trop large du droit à l’image. L’équilibre voulu par le législateur québécois, qui a, à l’article 36 du Code civil, posé l’intérêt public comme limite au droit d’une personne de ne pas voir son image publiée sans son consentement, n’est pas atteint. Dans ce billet, j’aimerais proposer quelques pistes de réflexion supplémentaires pour ce débat qui, comme je l’expliquais vendredi, a parfois manqué de nuances.

La première piste dont j’aimerais parler a été tracée par Pierre Trudel dans son sage billet sur le jugement Hammedi, oû il a soulevé l’arrêt de la Cour suprême dans Alberta (Information and Privacy Commissioner) c.Travailleurs et travailleuses unis de l’alimentation et du commerce, section locale 401, 2013 CSC 62, [2013] 3 R.C.S. 733, dont j’ai discuté ici. La Cour y a invalidé la législation albertaine de protection de la vie privée en vertu de laquelle un syndicat avait été condamné pour avoir pris et publié des photos de personnes traversant une ligne de piquetage. La Cour suprême a statué que la législation ne reflétait pas une pondération appropriée du droit à la vie privée, qu’elle protégeait de façon excessive, et du droit à la liberté d’expression, qu’elle négligeait. Le prof. Trudel voit en ce jugement la preuve de ce que, pour la Cour suprême, «  la liberté d’expression protège le droit de capter et d’utiliser des images prises dans un espace public ». Il a peut-être raison ― j’aimerais, même, qu’il ait raison ― mais je n’en suis pas certain. Le jugement rédigé par les juges Cromwell et Abella insiste spécifiquement sur l’importance, pour un syndicat, « de communiquer avec le public et de le convaincre du bien‑fondé de sa cause, compromettant ainsi sa capacité de recourir à une de ses stratégies de négociation les plus efficaces au cours d’une grève légale » (par. 38). Il s’agit peut-être d’un argument plus ou moins superfétatoire employé par des juges qui sont probablement les deux membre les plus pro-syndicaux de la Cour suprême. Mais peut-être est-ce une indication que le contexte particulier de l’affaire avait une importance réelle pour la décision, et que, dans une autre situation, celle en cause dans Hammedi par exemple, la Cour suprême ne pondérerait pas la liberté d’expression et le droit à la vie privée de la même manière. Du reste, la Cour souligne que sa « conclusion ne nous oblige pas à cautionner toutes les activités du syndicat ». Elle se contente d’indiquer que les restrictions à la liberté d’expression imposées par la loi albertaine sont inacceptables, sans préciser, comme elle le fait pourtant souvent, quelle pondération des droits en cause serait constitutionnelle. Je soupçonne, en fait, qu’elle ne le sait pas elle-même. Son jugement mérite certainement d’être invoqué dans le contexte québécois, mais il ne nous fournit pas toutes les réponses, loin de là.

Un autre arrêt de la Cour suprême qui pourrait alimenter la réflexion sur la pondération du droit à l’image et de la liberté d’expression est Grant c. Torstar Corp., [2009] 3 RCS 640, 2009 CSC 61. La Cour y a statué que le droit de la diffamation, en common law, ne respectait pas suffisamment la liberté d’expression. Pour la Cour suprême, le droit à la réputation, que le droit de la diffamation protège,  est lié, dans une certaine mesure à celui à la protection de la vie privée et aussi à la dignité de la personne.  On peut donc soutenir que l’arrêt Grant, même s’il n’est pas directement pertinent en droit québécois, témoigne donc lui aussi d’une volonté de la Cour suprême de donner plus de poids à la liberté d’expression de sa pondération avec des droits reliés à la vie privée et à la dignité, dont le droit à l’image est un aspect, selon le Code civil. Cette volonté résulte entre autres de la conscience de la Cour de l’effet paralysant (« chilling effect ») que peuvent avoir les règles insuffisamment protectrices de la liberté d’expression sur la communication de messages qui devraient pourtant être entendus dans le cadre de la recherche de la vérité et du libre débat démocratique.

Un autre facteur dont la Cour suprême a tenu compte et qui mérite qu’on s’y attarde en réfléchissant à la meilleure interprétation de l’article 36 du Code civil est le rôle des médias. La solution adoptée dans Grant consistait en la création, en droit de la diffamation en common law, d’une défense de « communication responsable concernant les questions d’intérêt public ». S’inspirant de pratiques du « journalisme responsable », la Cour a tout de même voulu protéger tous les « propagateurs de nouvelles et d’information », y compris ceux qui utilisent « de nouveaux modes de communication (beaucoup d’entre eux en ligne) permettant de traiter de questions d’intérêt public et ne faisant pas appel à des journalistes » (par. 96).  La Cour a souligné qu’une publication qui respecte les normes du journalisme pourrait ne pas résister à une analyse devant un tribunal et que, par conséquent, « exiger que la couverture des questions d’intérêt public atteigne à une certitude judiciaire peut aboutir à empêcher la communication de faits qu’une personne raisonnable tiendrait pour fiables et qui sont pertinents et importants pour le débat public » (par. 53). La situation dans Hammedi, où la Cour supérieure, sans véritablement se demander si la photo en cause était pertinente au débat public et pouvait faire avancer celui-ci, ou si sa publication était justifiée comme une pratique journalistique responsable, a imposé sa compréhension de ce qui était « nécessaire » pour publier l’article qui l’accompagnait ressemble à celle que la Cour suprême a cherché à corriger en matière de diffamation.

Une dernière piste de réflexion que je voudrais proposer, mais non la moindre, concerne l’impact des nouvelles technologies sur la mise en oeuvre du droit à l’image. Encore à l’époque où la Cour suprême a décidé, dans Aubry c. Éditions Vice‑Versa, [1998] 1 R.C.S. 591, que la publication d’une photo d’une personne sans son consentement constituait une faute, seuls des journalistes et quelques hobbyistes avaient les moyens de prendre et de publier de telles photos. Or, les choses ont bien changé. Presque tout le monde a désormais un téléphone cellulaire doté d’une caméra, et deux Québécois sur trois sont sur Facebook. Et il est rare qu’on demande le consentement préalable d’une personne avant d’en publier la photo sur Facebook (ou un autre réseau social). Dans la mesure ou cette personne accepte par la suite d’être « taguée » (désolé, j’ignore s’il y a un terme français!) dans cette photo, on peut en inférer son consentement rétrospectif, mais qu’en est-il de celle qui ne l’accepte pas ou, simplement, n’est pas sur Facebook, ou encore de celle dont on publie une photo sur une plateforme qui n’offre pas de fonctionnalité équivalente? Il me semble bien que ces personnes là pourraient poursuivre l’auteur de la photo. Est-ce un résultat souhaitable? Et même si ce l’est, force est de constater qu’il existe un écart très considérable entre la règle juridique, telle que posée dans le Code civil et dans Aubry, et la norme sociale qui a émergé en réaction au changement technologique après l’adoption de cette règle.

On le sait, la publication sur internet d’images intimes de personnes qui n’y ont jamais consenti est un problème réel et grave. Les conséquences, pour les personnes affectées, sont affreuses, voire même tragiques. Tant mieux si l’article 36 du Code civil pourrait aider les victimes à obtenir réparation des responsables. Cependant, une règle qui est appropriée dans le cas d’images qui, en raison de leur contenu, sont vouées à rester (très) privées ne l’est pas nécessairement pour celles qui sont parfaitement banales, et encore moins pour celles qui peuvent raisonnablement servir à illustrer des sujets d’intérêt public. Comme le dit le prof. Trudel, il est temps que la Cour d’appel et, éventuellement, la Cour suprême se penchent sur les nombreuses questions que le droit à l’image et sa mise oeuvre en droit québécois soulèvent en 2014. Le législateur aussi, d’ailleurs.

New Ideas and Old

Time to emerge from my holiday hibernation. And it seems fitting to start off the new year with some reflections, or at least a re-hash of some reflections, on the subject of social, technological, and legal change. The immediate occasion for doing so is a column by Washington Post’s Robert Samuelson on the widespread outrage provoked by revelations of the NSA’s data-collecting activities.

Mr. Samuelson argues that these revelations are commonly “stripped of their social, technological and historical context.” The context in question is the fact that “millions upon millions of Americans have consciously and, probably in most cases, eagerly surrendered much of their privacy by embracing the Internet and social media.” For people who disclose all sorts of information about their lives to strangers and to the social media companies to complain about the government collecting some limited kinds of information about them, subject to legal constraints, is “hypocritical.” Besides, the NSA’s activities are also not nearly as intrusive as past government programmes for spying on citizens: during the Vietnam War, “the CIA investigated 300,000 anti-war critics.” However questionable the need for or effectiveness of specific NSA programmes, Mr. Samuelson adds, “[i]n a digitized world, spying must be digitized.” In short, our views on privacy need to take the context of 2014 into account. Some of you may recall an early post of mine in which I discussed a paper by Chief Judge Alex Kozinski, of the US Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, arguing that privacy is pretty much dead, because courts treat as private the things that citizens expect to be private, and if citizens, through their online behaviour, demonstrate that they do not expect any information about them to be private, then the courts will act accordingly. Chief Judge Kozinski was worried by this possibility. Mr. Samuelson does not seem to be. Should we?

Mr. Samuelson is right to insist on context, both historical and social, before getting outraged. It is easy to forget that new technologies often do no more than give a new form to things which existed long before. As I suggested here, “[n]ew technologies seem not so much to create moral issues as to serve as a new canvass on which to apply our old concerns.” And there may well be something hypocritical in failing to care about disclosing all kinds of personal information to companies that (try to) make money out of it, yet being furious at governments using similar information to (try to) prevent terrorist attacks. What the NSA does is arguably not as big a deal as some of the outraged think. Yet that does not fully justify Mr. Samuelson’s unconcern. Both he and Chief Judge Kozinski forget that the end of privacy as we had known it need not, and arguably does not, mean the end of privacy tout court. Old norms about what is and what is not private are breaking down under the pressure of technological change. But that does not mean that new ones do not emerge.

In particular, the norm that seems to be replacing near-categorical prohibitions on using certain sorts of information is one that makes all sorts of personal information fair game subject to the consent of the person concerned. Attempts to prohibit email providers from “reading” the contents of our messages look silly considering the hundreds of millions of people who use Gmail knowing that Google does just that ― but the point is that they know what is going on. Similarly, people accept to share information on Facebook, so long as they know they are sharing it ― but they are unhappy when Facebook tries to expand the visibility of the things they shared without telling them. This example also hints another important norm in the new privacy universe ― one of differentiated, rather than categorical, privacy. The fact that we accept to share information with some people or organizations does not mean that we are willing to share it with others.

Arguably, these norms aren’t exactly new. For instance, we always shared some things with our friends that we kept from our parents, and told parents things we wouldn’t admit to our friends. Even before Facebook, few things were private in the sense of nobody knowing about them. But new technologies make the choices to tell and not to tell more pervasive, more nuanced, and more explicit than they perhaps had to be before. They also make the relativity of privacy more apparent.

The problem with the NSA data collection, as others have said before, is arguably not so much its substance as the lack of consent and awareness of those affected. That, rather than the collection of personal information as such, is what contravenes the key norms of the new privacy paradigm. And to the extent that the outrage about the NSA’s activities caused by this violation, it is not all hypocritical.

I’m not sure there is much of a point to these ramblings. I’m still trying to write my way into the new year.

Ne parlez pas en bien, ne parlez pas en mal

Radio-Canada a mis en ligne une entrevue avec Denis Dion, un porte-parole du Directeur général des élections du Québec, portant, pour l’essentiel, sur l’application éventuelle de la Loi électorale, et notamment de ses règles concernant les « tiers »,  aux médias sociaux, vu l’importance du rôle qu’ils pourraient jouer dans la prochaine campagne électorale. C’est un sujet qui attire beaucoup d’attention dernièrement. D’ailleurs, je l’avais évoqué ici il y a quelques semaines.

M. Dion soutient que « [l]a Loi électorale n’a certainement pas pour but de limiter les débats dans la société québécoise durant les 33 jours de la période électorale ». Ce n’est pourtant manifestement pas vrai. En imposant des limites sévères aux dépenses des partis et des candidats, et en interdisant presque toute dépenses par quelque autre personne, la Loi électorale a pour effet de limiter les débats, et cet effet est tellement fort et prévisible qu’il est difficile de prétendre que telle n’était l’intention du législateur lorsqu’il adoptait la loi. En fait, M. Dion en est conscient. Comme il dit lui-même, la Loi électorale « exclut la participation des personnes qui viendraient à côté des … partis pour faire des dépenses ce qui désiquilibrerait ce que la loi veut équilibrer » – c’est-à-dire les ressources des différents partis politiques, qui sont, comme je le soulignais ici, les acteurs centraux, dominants, du système électoral. (D’où le choix révélateur de la préposition « à côté » par M. Dion.) On pourrait envisager plusieurs façons – certaines plus pratiques que d’autres ― d’atteindre cet équilibre. La Loi électorale représente un choix clair en faveur d’un système qui préserve cet équilibre en baillonant tous ceux qui risqueraient de le rompre.

Pour ce qui est de l’application de la Loi électorale aux médias sociaux, M. Dion confirme ce que j’écrivais il y a deux semaines et demie: la communication d’un message électoraliste par les médias sociaux n’est pas une dépense électorale au sens de la loi, puisqu’elle ne coûte rien à son auteur. Par ailleurs, il rappelle aussi qu’un message ne sera pas couvert par la loi s’il ne tend pas à favoriser ou à défavoriser l’élection d’un parti ou d’un candidat en particulier. Ainsi, dit M. Dion, « votez contre ceux qui soutiennent la hausse des frais de scolarité » est un message partisan qui sera couvert par la loi si son auteur paie pour le diffuser, alors que « votez pour l’accès à l’éducation » ne l’est peut-être pas. Finalement, rappelle M. Dion, on peut aussi échapper à l’effet de la Loi électorale « [s]i de par votre notoriété il y a toujours un journaliste qui vous court après » et que tout ce que vous dites se retrouve dans les médias, sans que vous n’ayez à payer. Un rappel, probablement pas intentionnel, du fait que la Loi électorale favorise les groupes bien établis au détriment des nouveaux-venus, dont les journalistes ne font pas la promotion gratuite.

Les médias sociaux auront-ils un effet important sur la prochaine campagne électorale? Difficile de le dire pour l’instant. Cependant, c’est une possibilité. Si ça s’avère éventuellement être le cas, dit M. Dion, « peut-être faudra-t-il adapter nos lois étant donné l’évolution de la façon dont les messages sont diffusés ». J’aurais bien aimé qu’on lui demande dans quel sens cette modification pourait aller. Comme je l’écrivais ici, on pourrait conclure que, puisque les médias sociaux permettent à quiconque de diffuser des messages électoralistes de façon plus ou moins illimittée, les limites imposées à la diffusion de tels messages par les moyens traditionnels ne sont plus utiles. Cependant, on pourrait aussi conclure que la seule façon de garder les partis politiques au centre du débat pré-électoral, c’est de commencer à censurer la diffusion de messages électoralistes sur les médias sociaux. M. Dion et son patron ont-ils les ressources et la volonté pour le  faire?

The Separation of Spending and Speech

I commented yesterday onVincent Marissal’s column in La Presse about the impact of social media on the upcoming election campaign in Québec – and the way in which the social media undermine the regulation of the electoral process that limits the electoral expenses of “third parties” – citizens, groups, or organizations that are neither political parties nor candidates for office. I want to return to this topic, focusing now on its theoretical, rather than its practical, implications.

The current schemes for the regulation of electoral campaigns in Canada are premised on the idea that one must, generally, spend in order to speak – or at least, in order to make one’s speech heard by any significant number of people. So long as this premise holds, a limit on electoral spending is a limit on electoral speech. And, subject to a few exceptions (such as the publication of letters to the editor or op-eds in newspapers, at the newspapers’ expense), which were also exempt from the electoral regulations, that premise did in fact hold true until the advent of social media.

It no longer does. A tweet might be read by thousands, even hundreds of thousands of people. A YouTube video can be seen by millions. And their authors will not have to pay a dime for the dissemination of their messages. Spending and speech have come apart – and a key assumption underlying the regulation of elections in Canada no longer holds true. So what becomes of our current regulatory schemes? Should we discard them as obsolete? And if so, what should we replace them with?

The answer to these questions depends on the purpose for which we regulate electoral campaigns. The trouble is that our current regulations have not one, but two purposes On the one hand, as I noted in an op-ed Cyberpresse published in April, our electoral regulations aim to suppress the influence of money on the electoral process, which they assume to be unfair and/or pernicious. On the other, they aim, as I suggested in a recent post, to put political parties at the centre of the electoral process, by consigning “third parties” to the margins. These two purposes worked together so long as spend-to-speak model of electoral communications held, because limiting electoral expenses by third parties served both. But now it no longer does. It still works to reduce the influence of money, but limiting or prohibiting electoral expenditures by third parties no longer prevents them from speaking, loudly and to very large audiences, though social media. That is a central point of Mr. Marissal’s column – political parties can no longer be sure of controlling the electoral debate, and outsiders can easily play an important role in it.

So if our main concern is with the role of money, we can keep our electoral regulations as they are. Indeed, they are arguably less troubling now than they once were, since they do not actually prevent people from speaking out on political issues. In effect, they only direct that third parties must, during election campaigns, speak through social media. Only, I wonder if such a rule has any point. It is not money, after all, that our current regulations try to subdue, but the people who have a lot of it, individually or collectively. And if these people are able to speak anyway, through social media, what do we care to prevent them from spending their money on something they can get for free? If, however, our concern is to maintain the party- and candidates-centred model of elections, the current regulations are obsolete and utterly inadequate to the task. New rules are required – as well as the will and the means to police their application to the internet’s wilderness. I doubt that our governments have either.

Une campagne 1.9

Vincent Marissal a publié une chronique intéressante dans La Presse ce matin, sur “la première vraie campagne 2.0” que le Québec vivra lorsque les élections seront déclenchées – vraisemblablement dans les prochains mois. Contrairement aux États-Unis, où internet et, surtout, les réseaux sociaux ont transformé les campagnes électorales dès 2004, et certainement en 2008, le changement a tardé à se faire sentir au Québec. M. Marissal relève une autre différence: alors qu’aux États-Unis ce sont les candidats (notamment Barack Obama) qui ont donné aux nouveaux médias un rôle central dans les campagnes électorales, “la révolution 2.0 au Québec viendra probablement des électeurs plus que des partis politiques.” Comme toute révolution digne de ce nom, celle-ci va heurter les habitudes et les normes établies, non seulement sur le plan politique, qui n’est pas de mon ressort ici, mais aussi sur le plan juridique. Je me concentre, dans ce billet, sur les aspects pratiques des changements qu’elle amène, gardant une réflexion théorique pour un autre, bientôt.

Comme le souligne M. Marissal, la Loi électorale québécoise essaie de circonscrire les interventions dans une campagne électorale aux partis politiques. Les dépenses des “tierces parties” – c’est-à-dire tout le monde sauf les partis politiques enregistrés et les candidats – sont très sévèrement limitées. Or, dit-il,

Twitter, Facebook et surtout YouTube permettent ce que la loi électorale québécoise interdit: des interventions de tierces parties, non officiellement associées à un parti politique, anonymes le plus souvent et dont les interventions ne sont pas comptabilisées dans les dépenses électorales. …  [P]lusieurs groupes, en particulier du côté des artistes, sont très mobilisés contre le gouvernement Charest et … ils ne se gêneront pas pour intervenir lors de la prochaine campagne électorale sur les réseaux sociaux. En fait, c’est déjà commencé. … Encore là, toutefois, l’univers 2.0 appartient à tout le monde, et rien n’empêche des groupes favorables aux libéraux (ou opposés au PQ, à la CAQ ou à Québec solidaire) de jouer aussi cette carte [ce que certains font déjà].

Cependant, les choses ne sont pas si simples. La Loi électorale s’applique, en principe, aux interventions sur les médias sociaux. À cet égard, comme en d’autres matières, elle est plus restrictive que la Loi électorale du Canada, ainsi que la législation équivalente de certaines autres provinces. L’article 319 de la loi fédérale, par exemple, exclut de sa définition de la “publicité électorale” qu’elle réglemente et limite “la diffusion par un individu, sur une base non commerciale, de ses opinions politiques sur le réseau communément appelé Internet.” La loi québécoise ne contient pas d’équivalent de cette exemption (elle-même plutôt étroite puisqu’elle n’applique pas, notamment, à l’expression pré-électorale de groupes).

Par contre, elle ne contrôle que les “dépenses électorales”, c’est à dire “le coût de tout bien ou service utilisé pendant la période électorale” pour aider un candidat ou un parti ou leur nuire (art. 404). En supposant qu’il s’agit du “coût” à la personne qui communique un message, la communication d’un message électoraliste sur les médias sociaux n’est pas couverte par cette définition, puisqu’elle est gratuite. Cependant, peu importe le moyen de communication choisi, la production d’un message électoraliste sera couverte par la définition de la Loi électorale si elle entraîne des dépenses.

Donc si vous tapez une missive anti-PLQ chez vous et la diffusez sur Facebook, vous ne contrevenez pas à la loi, puisque vous ne dépensez que votre temps. Mais si vous tournez une vidéo dénigrant ce même PLQ, dont la production et le montage en coûtent quelques centaines de dollars, et que vous la diffusez sur ce même Facebook ou sur YouTube, vous avez engagé une dépense électorale – ce que la loi vous interdit de faire.

Bref, M. Marissal a raison de dire que les médias sociaux changent ou, du moins, permettent de contourner, les règles du jeu établies avant leur apparition. Mais ils ne permettent pas de s’en affranchir tout à fait. Comme après la plupart des révolutions, l’ancien droit est tenace. On n’aura pas peut-être pas une campagne tout à fait 2.0 – mais au moins, 1.9.

No New Thing in the Cloud

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has a new entry on “Information Technology and Moral Values,” by John Sullins, a professor of philosophy at Sonoma State University. It is a useful summary of (many of) the moral issues that information technology raises, and a reminder that issues that we are used to considering from a policy standpoint also have moral dimensions. At the same time, it is a reminder that there is no new thing under the sun – itself an old observation.

Generally speaking, the moral issues which prof. Sullins thinks information technology are pretty much the same moral issues that you would expect a left-leaning intellectual to worry about in just about any context – income inequalities, gender inequality, “justice”. (I might be wrong to attribute these leanings to pof. Sullins of course; I have no other ground for this attribution than the article. And yet it feels like ground enough.) A libertarian or a conservative would probably have written a substantially different-sounding piece on the same topic; different-sounding, but equally predictable. New technologies seem not so much to create moral issues as to serve as a new canvass on which to apply our old concerns.

A couple of specific examples seem also to confirm the timeless cynicism (or is it wisdom?) of Ecclesiastes. One is given by prof. Sullins himself:

The move from one set of dominant information technologies to another is always morally contentious. Socrates lived during the long transition from a largely oral tradition to a newer information technology consisting of writing down words and information and collecting those writings into scrolls and books. Famously Socrates was somewhat antagonistic to writing and he never wrote anything down himself. Ironically, we only know about Socrates’ argument against writing because his student Plato ignored his teacher and wrote it down.

Socrates worried that writing would cause people to stop learning stuff – why bother when you can look it up a book? Just imagine what the grumpy old man would have said about Google and Wikipedia.

The second example came to mind when reading prof. Sullins’ discussion of the concerns raised by the “Moral Values in Communicating and Accessing Information.” Among the concerns he explores under this rubric are that with “[w]ho has the final say whether or not some information … is communicated or not” and that over the accuracy of the information communicated about someone or something (and the problem of who bears the burden of ensuring accuracy, or perhaps of dealing with the consequences of inaccurate information being communicated).  This reminded me of the passage in The Master and Margarita where Yeshua Ha-Notsri – Jesus – tells Pilate that he “is starting to worry that this whole confusion” about what he told the people “will go on for a very long time. And it’s all because he is writing down my words incorrectly.” “He” is the Levi Matvei – Matthew. As Yeshua goes on to explain, Matvei follows him “with a goat-skin and writes all the time. But I once looked at this goat-skin, and was horrified. I never said anything, anything at all of what’s written there. I begged him: for God’s sake, burn your goat-skin! But he tore it from my hands and ran away.” He might as well have been trying to get Facebook to delete some information about him, right? As the ensuing confusion shows, there are indeed dangers in recording information about someone without his consent, and then communicating it to all sorts of not always well-intentioned people.

So there is nothing new in the cloud, where this text will be stored, any more than under the sun, on goat-skins, or anywhere else, is there? Yet it is just possible that there is nothing new only because we do not see it. Perhaps new technologies really do create new problems – but we are so busy trying to deal with old ones that we do not notice.