Law in the Internet Society

Commercial Activity's Role on the Web

-- By ZainHaq - 28 Dec 2017


In this course, we debunked assumptions that undergird the commercial web today. Three assumptions were of particular interest to me because of articles I read challenging our debunkings. First, we established that creation doesn’t demand the commercial incentive that often justify megacorporations. Second, we considered the proprietary versions of software as technologically inferior or as being repackaged open-source software. Third, we highlighted the threats to privacy and freedom created by the data-driven regime. I will discuss the complications for each and conclude.

The Miracle of Creation

We discussed at length about the need for genius to manifest – that genius doesn’t “respond to incentives.” I agree with the premise; great minds cannot be contained. We also noted the opportunity for the net to give heretofore undiscovered potential the chance to grow and shine.

But there is a flipside: many peoples’ creative processes are not only not genius, they can be just plain nasty. That was an insight I took from this article about Evan Williams, the former CEO of Twitter. Williams is trying to change internet creation to get better engagement; a quote early in the article highlights his disappointment with the internet’s tendency to reward attention, not genius.

The article discusses expressive work, but the concept translates to technical work. The web services that users reward, over and over, are networks: first Myspace, then Facebook, and now Twitter and Instagram. These networks are neither genius nor essential, but they flourish regardless. The prominence of these networks, therefore, challenges the wisdom of letting flowers bloom.

A Five-Letter Word

Sales. To many, the word itself is a pejorative. While we did not discuss sales prominently in our class, the dismissive attitude we held towards Apple products, and the overall disappointment in the ascendance of inferior products, suggested a resentment for (or an opposition towards) the role of sales in tech.

That’s why this article stood out to me. In it, a startup mentor highlights the benefits of sales teams. He says companies need both product and sales teams to win. He gives a convincing reason why sales matters: sales teams show consumers all a product’s capabilities, capabilities that consumers might otherwise miss.

Sales teams matter even more free and open-source programs than they do for proprietary programs. Sales teams show why and how “inferior” products win. A simple formula for thinking about user adoption is the value of the product divided by the difficulty of adoption – and sales teams can help free software solutions both increase the numerator and decrease the denominator in that formula.

Protecting Privacy

The overall theme of this class, in my experience, is that data aggregation and analysis creates a threat to human empowerment and freedom. How does this threat grow? Our class suggested it grew by taking advantage of ignorance or indifference in the developed world. The refrain that bounces around in my head is Professor Moglen’s reminder that “no one in the USSR would trust their data to the Communist Party.” It reminds us that the relatively free take it for granted, and that those who are not free know better than to rely on such a privilege.

But what if people in the USSR would rely on this privilege? It seems as though what’s happening, per this article, in the world’s largest authoritarian state - China. The article discusses Sesame Credit, an Alibaba service that uses their vast amount of data about users to develop a “social credit score”. It’s unclear from the article how widely the system has been adopted (and how much of that adoption was voluntary), how the public feels about it, and how it impacts dissenters (save for one anecdote about a journalist not allows onto a flight.) Nevertheless, it’s startling to see any meaningful number of citizens in today’s pre-eminent authoritarian regime willingly feed their data into the machine.

This observation suggests that mere awareness of authoritarian regimes’ practices won’t inspire more cautiousness about the services people use. So then what might get users to demand more security from their services? A commercial relationship, possibly. If I spend money to use your app, my anger at the betrayal might be more acute – perhaps acute enough to spur action. But for consumers to have this expectation, they need to have commercial relationships with these enterprises. This is an awkward conclusion because we spent much of the semester building the case against private enterprise’s role in this sphere.


Maybe we shouldn’t take these stories as impartial evidence. After all, the first two articles feature leaders (Evan Williams and Peter Levine, a partner at Andressen Horowitz) in the commercialized web, and that the third depends on a commercial web to survive. If these articles are biased, or blinded to the possibility of radical change, maybe their perspectives are limited.

In fact, however, these stories’ sources have thought seriously about what the web is and could be. Williams says that he thought a connected network would be good, and that he hadn’t accounted for needing to build a web with locks and doors; the second author, in writing his article, opens with initial belief that the best products “should” win. This suggests that their experiences overrode their initial beliefs. The article about Sesame Capital, meanwhile, makes no bones about the US’ vulnerability to these types of systems, noting that such systems may operate in the US without our knowledge.

I think that the takeaway is that we shouldn’t expect the web to function in autarky. We shouldn’t automatically expect the cream to rise to the top on the web; we shouldn’t expect users to recognize and optimize the best products; and we shouldn’t expect individuals to resist threats to freedom sua sponte. I believe that a web with commercial applications to curate and manage the web, with strictures on how those applications can use data, is the scheme that most effectively serves short-term user interests and protects long-run integrity of our political freedom.

What does this "scheme" actually involve? The belief that it is good should have something to do with whatever it is, but the rest of the essay has been about something else.

Once again, I think the best way forward is organizational precision. What is the point that the essay wishes to get across? Proving that people will not always choose "wisely" (in the view of the self-appointed wise) is unnecessary. That we can nonetheless make social policy and implement some approximation of that policy through political process doesn't need proving either. So the idea that you want to give the reader will be advanced more clearly if those points aren't given extended discussion, and we can see from the outset of our reading what the destination is.

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r2 - 31 Mar 2018 - 16:56:15 - EbenMoglen
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