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Who needs Skynet?

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We humans are giving up control over our lives to non-human entities that don’t have our best interests at heart. No, that isn’t strong enough. We’re inviting it.

This isn’t some bizarre conspiracy theory. It isn’t some sensational but unlikely rise-of-the-machines here-comes-Skynet fear mongering.

It’s a conclusion that’s inescapable if you’re even minimally aware of current events. Consider:

Factoid #1: Not only humans are persons

Starting with Santa Clara County v Southern Pacific Railroad and continuing recently with Citizens United v FEC, corporations now have the legal right to influence our elections, on the theory that corporations are persons too, or, if not persons entirely, than imbued with significant levels of personhood.

I’m not going to argue with SCOTUS. But I do have a question: Shouldn’t reciprocity reign? If corporations are people, why can’t all people be corporations? In addition to a lower tax rate, we’d get more deductions, too. After all, when a corporation buys a car it can depreciate it on its tax returns. Human persons can’t. Why not? Because we aren’t allowed to be corporations.

Factoid #2: Algorithms

In case it’s escaped your notice, the stock market has been what’s euphemistically described as “volatile” recently. Those who write about such things are calling it a correction, as they think the market was overvalued, not that many of them said so before the volatility began. But some are also suggesting that algorithmic trading has had a lot to do with, if not the market’s decline in value, then very likely the wild swings we’ve seen during the decline.

Algorithmic trading is something done by non-human entities. Automata. And the decisions made by these automata have a significant influence on our economy and financial wellbeing.

Factoid #3: The rise of the ‘bots

Recent research reveals that more than 25 million Tweeters are actually ‘bots — 9 % or more, which in the last election accounted for an estimated one out of every five political tweets or more.

Are these automata influencing things? After all, just retweeting something … or Liking it if we’re talking about Facebook … isn’t an act of persuasion, merely an act of repetition. It makes someone’s voice louder, not more convincing. Except that it does, in two respects.

First, ‘bots don’t announce “Hey, this is just one ‘bots’ opinion!” in their retweets. They pose as humans, and they adopt a demeanor that says they’re the same sort of people as their intended audience. That people like themselves think in a certain way is, to many people, quite a strong influencer. ‘Bots might not broadcast debate-team-worthy rhetoric, but they do broadcast the message “Here’s what members-in-good-standing of our tribe believe.”

When 25 million of them broadcast that message, many of those who want to be Members of Tribe in good standing will find themselves thinking the same way without spending much time to ponder, let alone to independently research the topic, whatever it is.

Worse, they’re likely to become even more tribal through the same dynamic.

Even those who aren’t tribalists are likely to be influenced by Twitter ‘bots, too, because when to all appearances 25 million people appear to have adopted an opinion … more when you add tweets by actual humans to the numbers … it legitimizes a view that reasonable human beings might otherwise consider utterly preposterous.

So here’s what I’m thinking: If everyone who lives in a democracy is concerned about covert Russian influence over our elections … and that certainly isn’t an unreasonable concern to have … then shouldn’t we be even more concerned that increasingly, non-humans are taking control of our economy, politics, and lives?

I suggest some civic-minded lawyer bring a fundamental question to SCOTUS, namely, what are the boundaries of the rights of non-human persons? Start with the First Amendment and whether it applies only to human persons, or whether all entities, human and non-human alike, should enjoy its protections.

The existing carve-out for the press should certainly be maintained, although what constitutes “the press” might need a bit of clarification.

Beyond that, though, it should be neither difficult nor controversial to insist that only we human-being-style persons have the unrestricted right to express ourselves.

Sure, if aliens from another planet or human-like androids become our friends and neighbors we might need to revisit all this, just as the United Federation of Planets did when Commander Data’s humanity was called into legal question.

But we aren’t at that crossroads just yet. Right now we find ourselves faced with just one last question: Is this supposed to be satire, or should you take it seriously?

I only wish I knew.

Comments (26)

  • >*than* imbued with



    P.S. I just love how you think. You see, corporations aren’t people – until someone attacks how “greedy” they are…

    >everyone who lives in a democracy is concerned about covert Russian influence over our elections

    Now where did I hear this before? Oh yeah, a book. Title? “What Happened”

    >The existing carve-out for the press should certainly be maintained

    Why? CNN, NYTimes are human? And haven’t we been passive observers to their bias?

    • Answer to your last question: Personally, I think the 1st amendment has served us quite well, and insisting that the press remain unfettered is utterly essential to the functioning of a free society. The press carve-out is essential because investigative reporting requires financial resources beyond what individual bloggers can bring to the party. More, professional press organizations impose processes to ensure the accuracy of their reporting that’s largely unrecognized by the general public.

      In this, the press bears some resemblance to scientific research, where again, there are processes put into place to prevent incorrect conclusions from becoming widely accepted.

      Which isn’t to say either of these institutions are perfect, just that they’re better than the individuals who comprise them, and are self-correcting as well.

      In fact, if you want an easy metric for determining whether a given news source is “fake news” or not, look at their history of printing retractions. Legitimate media do, routinely. “Fake news” media rarely, if ever, acknowledge that anything they’ve published was wrong.

  • If you think corporations have a lower tax rate you are certainly not paying attention.

    As for deductions, read up on what a corporation can and can’t do with a car which it deducts, and see if you really still want to deduct your car. In fact as a person with an undoubtedly lower tax rate, if you are willing to follow all of the rules for when a corporation could deduct a car, you actually also can deduct the car. (or other vehicle) Of course it is simpler and has less rules if it is a truck, which includes a larger suv.

  • That bots can pass the Turing Test speaks more about your average Tweeter.

  • Very weak column this week.

    I had a plan to follow if Hillary had become President and implemented bans on corporate speech like you seem so badly want.

    I would create an LLC consisting of myself and a handful of others. My company would then print flyers, posters, and maybe even buy advertising campaigning against Hillary that would be not allowed by the new law. Regardless of what the restrictions are, my company would consciously violate them.

    If told to stop advertising, my company would not, if fined, the company would not pay. Eventually they would come for me and other company officers and jail us for failing to comply with the law.

    Companies are made of people and they have the RIGHT of speech.

    Nearly EVERY major news outlet is a corporation that gets free speech for themselves. Your suggestion that rules be set up for the “press” is equally repulsive. In my mind anyone who prints stuff (yes even on a website) should be granted press protections.

    I am genuinely disappointed in your belief that government should get to ride roughshod over speech by people who choose to organize as corporations or as “the press”.

    • Yes, corporations are, in part, comprised of people. They’re also comprised of processes, many of which are dehumanizing. Unlike human beings their moral center is shareholder value. The people who work in corporations have, according to our foundational documents, inalienable rights. Non-humans do not have unalienable rights, whether the non-humans are cattle, canines, or corporations, and there’s no reason to think they should have them.

      The press is unique in this respect in that the 1st amendment assigns it inalienable rights, even though it consists of organizations. But as organizations might be formed by malicious actors that are legally “press” but that consist entirely of ‘bots programmed to misinform the public, we need to do some careful thinking about the intersection of the two.

      You bring up advertising. Surely you’re aware that commercial speech is not afforded the same protections as political speech. Namely, false advertising is illegal. False political advertising is protected speech. I’d be quite comfortable holding political speech that’s bought, paid for, and distributed by non-press corporations to the standards of commercial speech, without even once worrying that the government is riding roughshod over my rights.

      Quite the opposite: Just as the government is protecting my rights by insisting that commercial speech bear some connection to accuracy, so it would be protecting my rights by insisting that corporate actors not just make stuff up in order to trick me and my fellow human beings into voting for something that favors corporate interests over human interests.

      The individual human beings who comprise corporations? They’re free to say whatever they want.

  • How about unions? Don’t forget they are corporations. But they are corporations which control even more than your employer if you can work and work at all in your field. IE: they control your ability to get employment which will get you the best money for your skills and training. But yet they then spend your money/dues in a manner that in this day and age is becoming less and less likely to be the way you want to vote. And how about when they require that their members engage in “volunteering” in order to keep their jobs. Again forcing people to work for free in order to keep their jobs for a poltical cause they likely object to?

    I don’t see anyone or very many anyones complaining about this.

    As for requiring that corporate speech be accurate. How about the corporate speech coming out of the main stream press today. Its connection to reality if very very limited. I have personally been involved in a number of incidents so know the facts. I notice that only one of the press outlets we call mainstream got them even close to correct. And in come case two of them had video of me (along with a bunch of other people) and literally photo shopped different logos on our tee shirts and claimed we were with the other side of the political argument. And guess what no retraction there. They did take the video down.

    • Having worked for a daily newspaper, and written for the trade press, I have some acquaintance with the protocols and procedures followed by the so-called “mainstream media” to get the facts right. While far from perfect, they’re much better than they’re generally given credit for, and usually print retractions when they get something wrong. I know less about cable and television news; that’s also a more complex question given that location reporting is so much more expensive in this domain.

      In any event, unions and other advocacy groups are an interesting challenge. On the one hand, they’re just about the only way citizens with limited financial resources can equalize the abilities of wealthy individuals to influence things. Despite their flaws, unions provided a political counterbalance to corporate interests. As unions have declined, the influence of large corporations over out political system has increased. This is, I think, causal and not just correlation.

      So I think we probably would need a carve-out for advocacy groups, but with strong controls for financial transparency so we know who is funding them.

  • You seem to be misunderstanding freedom of the press in the First Amendment. In that document “press” means a printing press. It does not create a special carve out for those who are doing reporting, rather it allows people to speak and print ideas without (initially Federal, the 14th amendment expanded it to State) government interference.

    This is why saying corporations don’t have rights is a straw man. The people who run corporations have rights, including the right to say whatever they want. To say otherwise is to say that the government can confer a benefit (the tax and liability benefits of a corporation) on condition that the recipient give up rights. This has not been allowed by the Supreme Court. If it were, then the government could condition your receipt of Social Security on refraining from criticizing anything that it wanted to.

    Under current constitutional law, if the New York Times has the right to publish the Pentagon Papers it is only because corporations retain the rights of the people who own them, not because there is some special press carve out in the First Amendment.

    Sure we might imagine an ideal world where the right to speak freely is conditioned on the responsible use of that right, but history has shown that the reason we need a First Amendment is not because it produces ideal results of only true facts and reasonable opinions being published, but rather despite the fact that it allows all kinds of lies, obnoxious, offensive opinions and content to be published since the alternative is so much worse.

    • I agree that, as you say, “The people who run corporations have rights, including the right to say whatever they want.” I disagree that the corporation itself should have free reign to say whatever it wants.

      As I’ve pointed out in this space numerous times, our society is built on the premise that people are presumptively moral actors – that most people, most of the time, will behave in ways that conform to a rough consensus as to what constitutes moral behavior (see “golden rule” as a starting point). Corporations act so as to maximize shareholder value. That, and not the golden rule or any of its derivatives, is the moral core of a corporation.

      Corporations, that is, have emergent properties that make them distinct from the people who staff them, and distinct in ways that make them, from our perspective, entirely amoral.

      Which in turns suggests that giving them the same legal rights and privileges as actual human beings might not be in our best interests.

      BTW: I doubt “freedom of the press” means the printing press itself. It seems quite clear in the histories I’ve read that it’s the use of a printing press to express and promote ideas that’s unrestricted, and it’s those who do so who are protected. The device itself? I don’t see it.

      • Bob,

        You keep conflating corporation with publically traded corporation. You do this to mislead.

        Citizens United is a privately incorporated group. There are no shareholders (outside the group members) who influence it. They have more in common with the afore mentioned unions you are perfectly ok with. As a group, incorporated, they have free speech rights.

        And as the other poster noted, your magic definition of the “press” is bogus. Freedom of the press covers anyone printing anything. Printing falsehoods is covered by liable law for anyone trying their hand at being the press as a way to keep them accurate.

        You are extremely biased on this point. I would think you would understand the libertarian viewpoint here, but you are steadfastly not budging.

      • I do this to mislead? Seriously? That telepathy of yours must come in handy.

        Speaking of inaccuracies, Citizens United is a privately incorporated group. The Citizens United v FEC, which is what I referenced, is a Supreme Court decision in which the court found that (1) political spending is a form of protected speech under the First Amendment, and that First Amendment protections apply to corporations in general – public and private, for profit and not-for-profit – not only human beings.

        Oh, I do have to point out a bit of arrogance on your part. There’s a difference between understanding the libertarian viewpoint and agreeing with it.

    • Spot on. You are completely correct.

      I’ve never seen our esteemed host be more wrong with a post.

  • Freedom of the press means the right to use a printing press just like freedom of speech refers to the right to use speech, not that speech as a disembodied entity has freedom. Don’t believe me, believe Black’s Law Dictionary: https://thelawdictionary.org/freedom-of-the-press/

    • Okay, I checked Black’s Law Dictionary. It says Freedom of the Press is: “a guarantee of the 1st and 14th amendment that gives people to the right to publish as they see fit.” Ignoring the grammatical error, what this definition fails to do is to define “Press,” which appears to be the point in dispute.

      So what’s misleading is citing a resource as saying something it doesn’t.

      • Freedom of the Press = Freedom of the Printing Press = Freedom to Publish.

        That is how you get from one to the other. I would think the inference is obvious, but if you want the full treatment, you can read all about it in a scholarly article here: https://www.pennlawreview.com/print/old/EugeneVolokh.pdf

        To quote the conclusion:

        “The historical evidence points powerfully in one direction – throughout American history, the dominant understanding of the “freedom of the press” has followed the press-as-technology model. This was likely the original meaning of the First Amendment. It was almost certainly the understanding when the Fourteenth Amendment was ratified. It remained the largely unchallenged orthodoxy until about 1970.

        Since 1970, a few lower courts have adopted the press-as-industry model, but this has been a decidedly minority view. The Supreme Court continues to provide equal treatment to speakers without regard to whether they are members of the press-as-industry. And though several Supreme Court opinions have noted that the question remains open, the bulk of the precedent points toward equal treatment for all speakers—or at least to equal treatment for all who use mass communications technology, whether or not they are members of the press-as-industry.”

      • If your point is that the 1st (and 14th) amendments protect everyone’s right to make use of press technologies, well, sure. But it’s unconvincing to claim this is separate from the freedom of speech also mentioned in the First Amendment, unless you want to claim that it’s only “speech” when it passes through someone’s lips.

        I suggest you turn this whole thing around and ask yourself: If the institutions of the press are judged to have no protections beyond the freedom to use press technologies, how long do you think it would be before the government imposed oversight over their information-gathering activities? After all, gathering information isn’t speech. It’s listening.

  • Is Fox News a corporation or media outlet? Seems Sean Hannity should be able to say whatever he wants regardless.

    • Fox is pretty clearly a member of the press. Sean Hannity can say pretty much whatever he pleases, as can Keith Olberman if he’s still around, whether what they say passes a fact check or not, because the alternative is having the government decide what constitutes accuracy and what doesn’t. Political speech enjoys very broad protection and it should.

  • Always enjoy your provocative commentary.
    Would you like to take a stab at defining what or who qualifies as “press”?

    • Nope. It used to be reasonably clear. In the age of the Internet it’s quite a lot fuzzier. Like, for example, me. Does KJR and my use of it to publish opinion pieces make me a member of the press? Hard to say, and tricky, because any governmentally imposed certification requirements would be an immediate breach of the First Amendment, but without some form of legally defined attributes that makes one organization Press but others Not Press, we’re right back where we started.

      It will take more profound legal thinkers than me to figure this one out.

      • Again, myself and other posters here go with anyone printing anything as the “press”.

        All the special definitions and profound legal thinking are just other words for “removing people’s rights”.

        As you can tell I’m a free speech absolutist. Basically I’m against any laws that try and “figure this out”. The only thing I support, as mentioned previously, is the ability for liable to be adjudicated. Otherwise any speech, all the time.

      • Where I think we disagree is this: Human beings have inalienable rights. Establishing a corporation is not one of them, nor, to my way of thinking, should corporations be considered to have inalienable rights.

        From what I’ve read the Constitution’s framers were quite suspicious of the power of large enterprises, given the British East India Company’s influence over King George III and the British Parliament. You’ll note there’s nothing in the Constitution that establishes any framework for corporations to exist.

        Which is why legislation was required to establish the parameters under which they may be formed and operated.

  • Interesting article. My view is different those who responded earlier:

    1. Until such time as a corporation can be put in jail or even executed, without resurrection through bankruptcy court, the concept that a for-profit corporation is a “person” is both ludicrous and dangerous.
    2. I think your question is sound that if corporations can have the entitlements of humans, why can’t humans have the entitlements of corporations? No double standards in a democracy can be allowed.
    3. My view of the ‘bots is that the 1st Amendment doesn’t protect them because they are a tool, rather than sentient entities, created to amplify a view by fraudulently portraying their content as fact, even implicitly.
    4. The 1st Amendment never was intended to protect fraud, and, to my knowledge, fraud has never been legal. ‘Bots misrepresent and act to shape political opinion and fact, without personal accountability and are a genuine threat to our democracy through their amplifying effects of minority views to pressure and mislead the citizenry on issues of popularity and fact.
    5. What is “the press”? It’s an expression outlet with explicit protocols for the veracity of what is expressed, including presenting an accurate stating of both sides, and explicit labeling of everything else as opinion.

  • Like most of the responses here, I disagree with most of the points you make.

    Corporations don’t pay taxes, only people pay taxes. Mainstream economists find that 25% of corporate taxes are paid by employees and 75% by shareholders. You can argue with the split but it’s still people paying. And that profit is taxed twice. Once at the corporate level and a second time as dividend or short term gain. Before the tax law change the total tax was usually higher than what an individual would pay as ordinary income tax. That’s one reason why people wanted to lower the corporate tax.

    The first amendment does not guarantee the freedom of the press. SCOTUS interpretation of the first amendment guarantees the broad protection. You seem to like and agree with those decisions but are against Citizens United. But like it or not the Supreme Court knows the constitution and law better than you and me and as a citizen living in a civil society, you need to accept both as being what the constitution intended.

    You like corporate unions much more than the the corporations they work with but neither is a moral entity. They both exist to profit their members, shareholders for corporations and workers for unions. Both sets of members are people. It’s also not reasonable for you to believe that only corporate entities that you like should have protected freedom of speech and the one’s you don’t like should not.

    We can get into the bots but that’s a much longer discussion and academic researchers have already found that their effect on the last election was zero.

    • Without getting into a point-by-point, a few notions occur to me:

      * If corporations don’t pay taxes, why does anyone care about the corporate tax rate?

      * The whole notion of money being taxed twice is questionable. A different interpretation is that the taxes in question are collected when money changes hands. Corporate profits are taxed as a net of money changing hands into the corporation (revenue) netted against money changing hands out of the corporation (expenses). Dividends are taxed as income received by shareholders – a new and different transaction.

      * Or … and I like this one the best … money isn’t taxed. Taxable entities — corporations and individual human beings — are taxed based on their receipts and payouts of money in different kinds of transactions.

      * One more point – this isn’t a situation in which one interpretation is right and the others are wrong. They’re different, and possibly complementary perspectives on the same subject.

      * I like unions more than corporations? Once again telepathy raises its head in these discussions. You’re correct that neither unions nor corporations are moral entities. What I like about unions is that they provide … “provided” might be more accurate as their influence continues to wane … a political counterbalance to the power of large corporations. Unfettered corporate power is plutocracy and is widely recognized as a path to fascism. Unfettered union power leads to an unbalanced social welfare state, and potentially to socialism. Keep them roughly in balance and we human beings have a chance at influencing things.

      * The first amendment doesn’t guarantee the freedom of the press? Depends on what you mean by “guarantee.” It certainly guarantees its freedom from governmental restrictions, as it says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” That’s no law abridging the freedom of the press.

      I guess I did fall into a point by point response. Oh, well.

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