Freedom of … stuff

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No, don’t thank me.

Last year I proposed what I’m now calling the Shut the ‘Bots Up Act of 2019 — legislation limiting the First Amendment right to free speech to organic humans only.

California has just passed legislation that, while not quite so all encompassing, still takes an important step, making it “… unlawful for any person to use a ‘bot to communicate or interact with another person in California online with the intent to mislead the other person about its artificial identity.”

You’re welcome.

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Speaking of rights I wonder if it’s time to recognize that states’ rights interfere, with greater or lesser seriousness, from your average company’s ability to do business.

For example: Every state in the union has its very own regulatory rules and regimes governing the same sorts of services. Fifty separate sets of rules place a significant compliance burden on companies that would have been happier to comply with any one set of rules — any — than with having to comply with all of them.

Except, that is, for the mega-providers who can afford a platoon-ful of lawyers to contend with these regulations. For them, 50 PUCs are a formidable barrier to entry for new competitors.

Getting back to California, it will have to figure out whether and how it can enforce its new Truth in ‘Botfulness Act against offenders whose ‘bots aren’t located in California, just as the federal government, should it decide to make foreign interference in our elections illegal (wait … it is illegal!) would have trouble enforcing a ban on foreign ‘bot-based interference when it comes from ‘bots located outside the 50 states.

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More about free speech: Once upon a time I figured if you prevent stupid people from speaking, others might think they’re idiots, but if you let them speak they’ll remove all doubt.

That was when I lived in the Chicago suburbs and the ACLU defended the right of the National Socialist Party (aka the Nazis) to hold a march in Skokie.

But back then it was safe, because the Nazis were a harmless fringe group.

Sadly, that’s no longer the case and I’m a bit more cognizant that the line dividing speech from incitement is, although fuzzy, critical.

Nazis are still idiots, but their fringiness is steadily decreasing. Enough of our citizens are embracing it that we need to aggressively keep its promoters inside the speech/incitement dividing line.

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The question of defending Nazis’ freedom of speech versus preventing them from inciting violence brings up an esoteric but still important notion. Call it the Principles Scaling Rule. What it is: Take any fundamental principle that’s near and dear to your heart. My guess is that when you think of one of these principles it’s in the context of a small, close to home example.

For example, in the Good Old Days the local butcher knew that Mr. Phillips loved pork chops. He used that knowledge to recommend them to Mrs. Phillips when she entered his shop. It was early CRM.

My principles about companies knowing their customers’ preferences are built on this model. The digital model that scales this up to millions of customers whose on-line behavior companies mine to their sales and marketing advantage? That’s more complicated.

The Principles Scaling Rule states that when you scale a principle, nuances and complexities start to matter.

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Closer to home, where do you think the line is that separates your right to free speech from your employer’s right to restrict it so you don’t say or publish something that might embarrass it?

There’s more to this question than the speech itself. There’s also the question of how employers might find out about infractions. So before we get to freeing speech from employer interference …

Before we get to that we need to establish the line that separates an employer’s right to surveille its employees from their employees’ right to insist that whatever they say in their private lives is none of their employer’s business.

It’s an old topic, made new again by the digital technologies businesses use to mine social media so their marketeers know what customers are saying about their products and services.

HR can use the exact same technologies to track down employee-generated content and evaluate its impact.

And by the way, I’m hardly unbiased on this topic, given that I’m gainfully employed by an utterly marvelous technology services firm while also publishing books and articles whose content has little to do with the company’s official stances.

Utterly marvelous. Hey, you — the HR ‘bot — did you catch that? It’s a compliment! You don’t need to flag it. It can be our little secret.


Comments (8)

  • 1. Thanks for sharing the The Principles Scaling Rule.
    2. Philosophy time:
    A. Godel’s theorem of incompleteness says there will always be logically consistent statements within in a system that can logically both be proved true and logically proved false. Forbidding employee for hate speech may be such a statement.
    B. Wittgenstein’s “the meaning is the use and the use is the meaning” says that words and sentences can’t exist in a vacuum separate from the user, his intention, and his context. So, hate speech to yourself or in a non-amplifying context (friends, family) could be okay. But, since any digital context is amplifying, (that is what any automation does) hate speech that historically acts as a tool oppression (using the “N” word, disparaging comments about women, as a group, for example) is subject to review and consequences.

    This approach allows for the inclusion of historical fact, especially if the organization is trying change or improve the functionality of its culture.

    No easy answers, so far, but your thoughts and those of others, create the dialogue to find what we cannot yet see.

  • Well written Bob – the classic slippery slope free speech challenge. I have a slightly different take.

    For me the “fringe” was quieter because they did not have an international megaphone. Technology solved that problem with the Internet and then of course Facebook and Twitter. Now any nutcase can have a cause and get followers. I have no idea how any laws or rules can tame that without also taming what we would consider valid speech (the slippery slope).

    (I’ll give you a moment to take your Alex Jones vitamins while you consider that)

    As you point out, we are also battling some very large businesses that are collecting our data and creating more and more pinpoint target marketing and messages. Yes those businesses love that every state has different rules. I normally disagree with California politics, but the anti-bot movement is a good one.

    I am currently in the middle of working through the ever-changing privacy laws for each state. They are brutal to track. I would say a Federal rule would be a great answer – but that would take 20 years of bickering and lobbying to get done.

    I have always been a pure freedom of speech person. We all have the right to choose to not listen (and sadly many do that by only watching the news coverage for their side). But even I see that the rules have changed and the fringe is getting the noise.

    Great topic without many easy solutions. Somehow Putin keeps speech quiet in Russia. Maybe we should ask him 🙂

  • Principles Scaling Rule reminded me of Target where complexities matter. They discovered by tracking 41 items, they could tell when a person in the household was pregnant (one of the 3 times people are most likely to change their shopping habits).

    They sent congratulatory letters to houses and really irritated one dad who said no one in the house was pregnant (found out later his 16-year-old daughter had a secret).

    Now target just changes the ads they send to include more baby products.


    For freedom of speech, I used to sign any ballot measure, even ones I wasn’t voting for, on the assumption (principle?) of let the voters decide. But when the county/State decided the ballot was too long, they dropped a bunch of initiatives off the ballot.

    As far as privacy, employment and social media, it gets more confusing. I do have a right to a _private_ opinion, but announcing it at work makes it non-private. Joining a legal assembly to march for Pride makes a statement that shouldn’t get you fired from a job; however, if the businesses customers complain, then it’s a lot iffier.

    Get rid of the employee aspect altogether to view the real issue. Look at entertainers. Any entertainer can take a stand on any political issue but it will probably always cost them fans. Minor entertainers looking to get big can get a boost from controversy, but big stars cannot.

    If I’m an employer and your “private” speech on the fBook or uToob or during a demonstration is costing me customers and profits, why do I have to financially support your freedom?

    I’m with the Godel comment. I believe in the Principle Failing Rule.

    • I confess to being unimpressed with Godel’s incompleteness theorem (which probably just demonstrates I know too little about it). To my eye, what he’s proved is that when there are an infinite number of possible grammatically correct declarations, not all of them can be proved with a finite set of assumptions.

      To me the question is why we would ever have thought that a finite set of assumptions would do the job.

      • As I understand his proof, the problem he uncovered was not that all grammatically correct statement derived from a given system of values or assumptions could be proved (or not), given a finite or even an infinite (small infinity) of assumptions.
        His proof looked at proving something true or false strictly within the framework of that given system. Astonishing to me, he proved that there will always be statements that can logically be proven true and also logically proven false, completely without inconsistencies.
        Thus, when you are trying to hold someone doing harm accountable to a standard, if you recognize that the standard happens to be an undecidable statement, it can give you a heads up that you may have to use other means or add additional factors beyond pure logic to “do the right thing”. Like the history of the use of the hate language under examination.

  • I’d like to switch gears a little to the state regulatory issues. In many areas we think we want just one standard: sales tax, building codes, zoning, privacy. It could also be argued that the 180ish various countries all have their own regulatory regime that a company must contend with. Wouldn’t just one regime be easier? Of course it would.

    But at what cost? It is certainly theoretically true that there is one “best” answer. What are the odds 12 people in a room (or 1200 in a bureaucracy) will find that “best” answer? What happens when they don’t? We all suffer until it gets fixed, if it ever does.

    In any society the best decisions will consistently be made as closely as possible to the people influenced by that decision. This is why we have multiple levels of government in the first place. It’s why the federal government mostly funds Interstates and airports and your municipality paves the downtown Main St. We should be working to move as much authority as possible to as low a level of government as possible.

    Additionally, I believe our country would be better served by more smaller businesses. This is particularly true in the retail, restaurant, and most service industries. To the extent state and local rules slow the spread of retailers and restaurant chains, that is a positive. I promise you the local owner of a tire store or a coffee shop gives back more to your community than Tire Kingdom or Starbucks ever will.

  • “…but their fringiness is steadily decreasing. Enough of our citizens are embracing it that we need to aggressively keep its promoters inside the speech/incitement dividing line.”

    I hear things like this in news reporting from time to time, but none of that reporting has any supporting data, just opinion. Can you do any better?

    The owner of a company I once worked for taught me, “Apart from numbers, it’s all politics and turf wars.”

    Experience has proven him right repeatedly.

    • I’m afraid I don’t have time to provide links, but if you do some searching you’ll find that terrorist incidents committed by domestic actors affiliated with white nationalist groups and philosophies outnumber terrorist incidents committed by any other affiliations.

      I’ve also seen statistics on the rising numbers of social media activity promoting white nationalist ideals. Again, while I don’t have the time to track down the details they shouldn’t be hard to find.

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