Monday, September 27, 2021

Texas Moves to Ban Social Media Banning


On Sept. 9, Texas Governor Greg Abbott signed HB 20, a law designed to keep social media companies with more than 50 million subscribers from blocking users whose viewpoints the company disapproves of.  Scheduled to take effect in December, the law has already attracted controversy and threats of lawsuits to keep it from going into effect.


Currently, if a user is de-platformed from a large site such as Facebook, there are not a lot of alternatives.  The overarching law in the U. S. pertaining to such situations is Section 230 of the federal Communications Decency Act, which prevails if there is a conflict between it and a state law.  However, there is wiggle room that Section 230 leaves, at least according to State Rep. Briscoe Cain, who authored the Texas statute.  Cain regards social media in the same light as telephone companies—that is, "common carriers" whose business it is to take on any and all comers and not discriminate among them based on content. 


Such discrimination happens all the time, as one unconfirmed incident I heard of recently attests.  A man at the church I attend volunteers at a local pregnancy resource center, which is holding an online fundraising event in a few weeks.  He told me that the center has found that some of their emails sent to supporters have mysteriously disappeared, implying that the internet service providers' spam filters had been adjusted to block emails from the center. 


Another example taken at random from a web search concerns Ryan Moore, a self-described writer and advertising broker, who tried to advertise a video he made in the spring of 2019 in which he was wearing a red "MAGA" (Make America Great Again) hat.  While I have not viewed the video (I checked the link and it is now "unavailable") his description of it sounds mild enough—criticism of the Christchurch, New Zealand terrorist bombing, good wishes for a nice St. Patrick's Day, and so on.  Not only did Google refuse his ad to promote his video, it permanently banned him from ever having a Google ad account again, and confirmed this decision when Moore inquired, saying "Since this decision is final, the account will not be reinstated." 


I could multiply such instances that range everywhere from a single post being blocked to the wholesale destruction of an entire business when the Parler app and website were de-platformed by Google and Apple in 2019. 


Not everyone who gets de-platformed is defensible, and even Rep. Cain probably does not want to allow hard-core child pornography to go unrestricted on the Internet (although it probably does if you look hard enough).  But HB 20 is an attempt to redress the huge power imbalance that happens when an individual or small organization has its access to social media blocked by a giant well-funded firm that exercises essentially monopoly powers.


Either the Texas attorney general or the wronged entity could sue under the new bill, and this may be a point of vulnerability, in that opponents of the bill claim it may interfere with the ability of social media companies to regulate their own content.  Of course it will.  NetChoice, a trade association which counts Google, PayPal, and Facebook among its members, issued a statement condemning the passage of HB 20 and saying that it will probably be blocked by a federal court once it goes into effect.  NetChoice's position is that social media firms, as private entities, are entitled to carry only content that they choose, and by using their facilities, users put themselves at the mercy of the firm's discretion. 


This reminds me of a scene out of the 1940 Disney animated film "Fantasia," which set to music cartoon characters both familiar and otherwise.  In time with the famous ballet music "Dance of the Hours," viewers are greeted by a company of baby hippopotamuses, each with a frilly pink lace tu-tu encircling her waist.


The analogy is clear—we have a troop of baby-hippo Big Tech giants stomping over the public stage, asking us to believe that their private-firm tu-tus, which might have been appropriate in the very early days when legacy media such as TV and newspapers overshadowed them, mean that whatever they decide about their content is their own business because it affects so few people. 


The tu-tus no longer fit, if they ever did.  Big Tech now operates a lot of 900-pound gorillas, to mix the animal metaphor, who do exactly as they please with regard to content that currently will not gain attention any other way than being filtered through the social-media monopoly.  The Texas legislation is one state's attempt to make dealing with social media a little less unfair.


I note a disturbing trend of which this controversy is only one example.  A nation, to be a nation, must share a common pool of underlying principles or philosophies, in order to endure.  By their behavior in China, for example, Big Tech firms such as Apple, Google, and Facebook make it clear that nations mean little or nothing to them when it comes to the bottom line.  Of course they need to stay within the law, but "the law" is a slippery and many-faceted thing, especially when you have deep enough pockets to hire enough lawyers to keep even states busy for years just trying to keep from being overwhelmed with lawsuits. 


In past controversies involving freedom of speech in this country, opposing sides could at least agree on the statement, "Well, at least we're all Americans."  But I have a hard time picturing the leaders of Big Tech freely admitting such a thing even in public, let alone in private.  Great wealth confers great power, and as Lord Acton said, power corrupts.  It is not yet time to despair that the systems of government that the founders deeded to us can overcome the exercise of raw power with the rule of law, which is all we have to guard ourselves against despotism.  But the upcoming battle over the implementation of HB 20 will be yet another skirmish in the war that is currently being fought over the right of free speech, which Big Tech increasingly wants to define for itself. 


Sources:  I referred to a Texas Tribune article "Social media companies can’t ban Texans over political viewpoints under new law" at and an article from The Verge at  Ryan Moore described his permanent ban from Google advertising in the Des Moines Register on Sept. 26, 2019 at

Monday, September 20, 2021

Carr's Fix for Social Media: The Digital Communication Act


Nicholas Carr is a writer whose book The Shallows:  What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, published in 2010, gained considerable attention by pointing out how new technologies have affected our basic thought processes, and not always in a good way.  In the fall 2021 issue of The New Atlantis journal, he proposes a legislative initiative he calls the Digital Communications Act that would, if adopted, go far toward alleviating some of the worst harms that social media currently cause.  But to understand the thrust of his proposals, a little historical background is in order.


Electronic media basically do two different kinds of things:  personal communication and broadcasting.  Until the Internet came along, these two different activities were done by more or less completely different kinds of technology.  The telegraph and telephone are classic examples of the first kind:  personal communication, one person to another.  As regulations evolved in the twentieth century to deal with issues of privacy arising from the fact that telegraph and telephone operators could eavesdrop on personal communications through their systems, legislatures and courts came up with what is called a "common-carrier" doctrine. 


Borrowed from the transportation field, the concept of a common carrier is that some industries do things that are so vital to the public good that they need to be regulated in order to enforce goods such as fairness and privacy.  The first quasi-independent federal agency of any magnitude, the Interstate Commerce Commission, was established to enforce common-carrier rules on railroads, which had previously engaged in discriminatory and predatory pricing to exploit farmers who had no other way to sell their crops in wider markets than local ones. 


When Western Union and the Bell System came along, the federal government applied common-carrier rules to them.  The tariffs, as they were called, could get quite complicated, but the overarching principle was simple:  treat all communications as private and treat all (or most) customers the same. 


Broadcasting, on the other hand, had to be treated differently once people figured out that one person in a studio could potentially talk to millions of others nationwide.  The Federal Radio Commission of 1927, predecessor to the current Federal Communications Commission (FCC), came up with a phrase that described how broadcasters must treat the privilege, granted by an FCC license, of addressing thousands or millions at once:  "the public interest, convenience, or necessity," sometimes abbreviated PICON.  Over the decades, PICON has dictated how broadcasters must behave in order to retain their broadcasting privileges.  As the nature of the public changes continually, PICON standards change as well.  From the 1940s through the 1980s, the FCC imposed what was called the "fairness doctrine," which required broadcasters to give equal time to opposing sides in a political contest, for example.  After the FCC abandoned the doctrine in 1987, religious and partisan political broadcasting flourished, but the net benefit to the public is debatable, to say the least.


When the Internet came along, it put all these nice separate types of communication in a super-speed blender and mixed them all together.  From the same computer, I can email one friend, or if I'm a super-influencer, I can send the same image of my latest clothing style to ten million people.  But the two categories—personal communication and broadcasting—still apply, and it's not that hard to separate them by either intent or by statistical means.  As Carr puts it, "An Instagrammer [or an engineering ethics blogger] with a hundred followers can be assumed to be engaged in conversation;  an Instagrammer with a hundred thousand followers is a broadcaster."  Carr says—and I agree with him—that the psychological or humanistic categories of personal communication and broadcasting are still useful, and should be used to discriminate between two types of regulation that his proposed Digital Communications Act would apply to social media and internet service providers.


For personal communications, ranging from emails, to Facebook posts to a few friends, to search-engine inquiries, the Act would require companies to respect one's privacy.  No more searching for snow shovels online and getting buried in emails and pop-ups for snow shovels, dirt shovels, and snow cones.  No more talking about driving to a fast-food outlet and having your phone overhear your conversation and throw ads at you for that chain, or a rival one.  We've almost gotten used to it, but I know people who have gotten used to living with cancer.  That doesn't mean it's a good thing to have cancer.


For broadcasting, which means anything anybody does that reaches more than a certain threshold number of people, something like the old PICON doctrine needs to be imposed.  Carr is perhaps intentionally vague on what a 2021-era version of the fairness doctrine would look like.  Much of the really harmful stuff that runs around the Internet is spontaneous, as "going viral" is not something one particular person can infallibly bring about.  But the process itself is easily monitored and encouraged by the social media companies, as things like that are their bread and butter.  And it wouldn't be hard to set up rules or software to regulate the process—technically, I mean.


Politically, it's another can of worms altogether.  In what could qualify as the understatement of the year, Carr says his proposed Act "would be complicated and controversial.  It would be resisted by many powerful private interests."  Yes, only Google, Facebook, Apple, Amazon, well, you know the list.  It would be opposed mainly because it would cut off one of their main revenue streams, which is advertising targeted by means of snooping into your private communications, and that would be barred under the Act.  A snowball has an excellent chance inside Mt. Vesuvius compared to this bill, at least under present circumstances. 


But times and circumstances change, and maybe some day an outrage may occur that is so universally deplored that the political will of the country will favor such a move.  As Carr points out, it was the sinking of the Titanic in 1912 that catalyzed international regulation of the radio waves, because interfering stations made it hard to conduct rescue operations by radio.  We have had numerous political disasters that social media have played a part in, but nobody has been killed yet, at least not directly. 


Anyway, I think Carr has done us all a great service in basing his argument for a Digital Communications Act on a sound historical footing, and now all we need to do is enact it.  Stay tuned, so to speak.


Sources:  Nicholas Carr's article "How to Fix Social Media" appeared on pp. 3-20 of the Fall 2021 issue of The New Atlantis.  I also referred to a Wikipedia article on the fairness doctrine. 

Monday, September 13, 2021

Worldwide Health Journal Editors Call for Climate Dictatorship


Maybe I exaggerate, but only a little.


In a recent National Review piece, Wesley J. Smith highlighted an editorial that was recently co-written and published by editors of some eighteen medical journals, including such prestigious ones as The Lancet and PLOS Medicine.  In essence, they're saying, "Hey, you see how much government-caused disruption we've stood for to fight COVID-19?  Let's do even more to fight global warming, combat biodiversity loss, and, yes, incidentally, even improve public health." 


They take global warming very seriously, saying "The risks to health of increases above 1.5º C are now well established.  Indeed, no temperature rise is 'safe.'"  Because global warming was caused by countries that emitted more carbon dioxide, and those tend to be wealthier ones, the editors call for a form of retributive justice:  "Wealthier countries will have to cut emissions more quickly, making reductions by 2030 beyond those currently proposed, and reaching net-zero emissions before 2050."


So how should we go about doing these things?  Here it gets juicy:  "To achieve these targets, governments must make fundamental changes in how our societies and economies are organised and how we live . . . . Governments must intervene to support the redesign of transport systems, cities, production and distribution of food, markets for financial investments, health systems, and much more." 


Who will pay for all this?  Why, the wealthy countries, of course.  As a famous bank robber said when asked why he robbed banks, "Because that's where the money is."  Rich countries need to increase their spending on poor countries with grants, not loans.  And after all, having these big differences in wealth is apparently bad for public health too:  " . . . the changes cannot be achieved through a return to damaging austerity policies or the continuation of the large inequalities of wealth and power within and between countries."  In other words, let's have global socialism so that everybody has more or less the same income.


If we took that advice literally and divided up all the world's wealth and income evenly, every person in the world would end up with about $34,000.  That sounds nice, but it ignores the literally Hellish world-government system it would take to do that.  If you think Venezuela is bad, where only tiny steps toward this goal have been taken, wait till you try to apply it to the whole world.


Perhaps when these editors stick to matters of medicine, they make sense, but in their attempt to address a complex problem that has huge diplomatic, political, and philosophical implications, I think they bit off more than they can chew.


First, what about the idea of making the most wealthy countries suffer the most?  If you look at total carbon dioxide emissions from 1750 to 2019, it turns out that the two largest contributors are Europe and the U. S., with about a fourth each, followed by China and the rest of Asia with about a sixth each, roughly speaking. 


That obscures the fact that currently, China emits about twice as much carbon dioxide as the U. S. does. So if you're talking about reducing current emissions, a radical action such as putting the entire U. S. economy in a deep freeze would not make as much difference as if China simply reduced their carbon emissions by two-thirds. 


What I'm trying to get at is the underlying philosophy of the editors' call to action.  They clearly are going beyond science, and admittedly, medicine is more than just science.  But in conformity with a notable liberal tendency to see solutions to problems as more straighforward than they are, they view the world in a scientistic way in which humans are reduced to pawns or nodes in a giant network that simply needs some adjusting to make it work right.


Too many resources over here and not enough over there?  Why, just move the ones that belong to the rich countries over to the poor countries.  If it was a matter of underpowered neighborhoods and a surplus of electric power elsewhere, you really could solve the problem by building a transmission line to move the power where it needs to go. 


But how did those wealthy countries get wealthy in the first place?  By their governments allocating everything according to some formulas devised by economists, or even editors of medical journals?  I don't think so.  Economist and author John C. Médaille has said, "Values are created only from human labor applied to the gifts of nature.  There is nothing else."  Historically, the most wealthy countries encouraged human labor to apply itself to the gifts of nature by treading lightly on rights of private property, which includes "transport systems, cities, production and distribution of food, markets for financial investments, health systems, and much more." 


If wealth is treated simply as a government-controlled asset that can be sent here and there like electricity on a transmission line, said governments will very soon discover that there is no wealth to send.  The fact that this has happened over and over again in socialist and communist countries seems to make no impression on certain types of people, apparently including the types that edit medical journals.


Should we just ignore global warming and go on our merry way?  Not necessarily.  It is an unfortunate byproduct of human ingenuity, and we would be foolish to look for anything other than more human ingenuity to get us out of the situation.  But human ingenuity cannot be trammeled and ordered around like so many million barrels of oil, or anything else.  Governments can guide and encourage, but the heavy-handed global dictatorship called for by the medical-journal editors would not get us there.  Instead, it would result in a worldwide economic crash and famine from which the world economy might never recover, and which would incidentally kill millions of people in the process.  So much for improved health care.


Some people might be happy to see the future as a vastly reduced number of people eking out a subsistence living in the empty skeleton-shells of cities, hunting deer in Central Park and living on thirty-year-old canned goods, as envisioned in the forgotten Stephen Vincent Benét short story "By the Waters of Babylon."  But that is not where I wish to reside for my time remaining, thank you.  After I'm gone, you can please yourself.


Sources:  The editorial in question, "Call for emergency action to limit global temperature increases, restore biodiversity, and protect health," appeared in the British Medical Journal (and many other similar journals) at  The data on historical and current carbon-dioxide levels is from,released%20410%20billion%20metric%20tons.  The world's wealth evenly divided was calculated at  The Médaille quote is from his Toward A Truly Free Market (ISI Books, 2010), p. 66.  And Benét's short story can be found in a number of older short-story anthologies, and is also online at

Monday, September 06, 2021

Firefly's Alpha and Rocket Pollution


Last Thursday, a small startup spaceflight firm called Firefly Aerospace launched its first unmanned rocket design, Firefly Alpha, from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.  Things went fine for the first minute or two, and then the dreaded word "anomaly" was heard over the audio feed.  The rocket went off course and officials of the U. S. Space Force, who were apparently acting as safety officers, "terminated" the flight, meaning they triggered a self-destruct process that exploded it over the Pacific Ocean.  Nobody was hurt, except perhaps emotionally and financially, and investigators and engineers will be combing through the data for months to figure out what went wrong.


As prototype rocket launches go, this was not an unexpected outcome.  The rival spaceflight firm SpaceX blew up quite a lot of hardware before they got things right enough to risk putting people on board their rockets.  This is an interesting time in the history of space flight, comparable to the early 1920s in the history of conventional aviation.  Issues that no one has given much thought to up to this point will start to emerge in the coming years as rocket launches for everything from low-orbit satellites to Martian manned flights will come along.  One of these issues is the question of pollution from rocket launches.


Different kinds of rockets use different kinds of fuel.  The old Saturn V that took U. S. astronauts to the moon burned a refined kind of kerosene with liquid oxygen.  This produced nothing more harmful than carbon dioxide and water vapor, and the launches were infrequent enough to have a negligible effect on the worldwide environment.


But rockets designed to launch low-earth-orbit satellites often use solid propellants that typically combine powdered aluminum, ammonium chlorate, and an organic carbon-containing binder.  A solid-propellant rocket is much simpler to build than a liquid-fueled one, as it is basically a giant can of propellant with some kind of igniter at the end.  They are usually used for the initial booster stage from ground level through the stratosphere, and that's where the pollution trouble begins.


According to Martin Ross and Darrin Toohey, aerospace scientists writing in the American Geophysical Union's journal EOS, solid-rocket fuel leaves behind lots of solid particles, mainly carbon and alumina (aluminum oxide).  Currently the world is experiencing a rapid increase in annual rocket launches, some 8% a year, and the estimated annual amount of black carbon (BC) soot particles this produces is about 225 tons.  If you spread that much carbon soot over the whole surface of the earth, it wouldn't do much, but that's not where it goes.


A substantial amount is emitted in the stratosphere, which is an unusual place atmospherically.  The troposphere, which extends from ground level up to about 7 to 20 km, depending on latitude (4.3 to 12 miles), is constantly churning due to convection, and small particles are likely to be caught in raindrops and wash out pretty quickly.  But there's no rain in the stratosphere—it's too cold, way below freezing.  And worse yet, anything you put there is likely to stay there, because winds move mainly horizontally—there's essentially no vertical convection.


So these tiny particles of soot, less than a millionth of a meter in diameter, slowly drift downward but tend to stay in the stratosphere for years.  Ross and Toohey did one of the few estimates carried out so far of what such pollution will do to the climate, and their results are mixed.


They assumed rocket launches would increase to emit 600 tons of BC a year, and found that over the poles, this would warm the surface by an average of 1 degree C.  But over the midlatitudes, where most of the BC would be released, the result would be cooling by about the same amount.


Well, with all the worries about global warming, what's so bad about that?  Overall, they found that the effect of the prospective BC pollution would be neutral in that regard.  But they emphasize that theirs is about the only study of such effects, and urge the scientific community to look at other possible effects, on the ozone layer and on other atmospheric issues that people haven't even thought of yet.


From the viewpoint of engineering ethics, Ross and Toohey are doing a good thing in raising a question that most people haven't even considered:  what are the possible negative
externalities that could result if we have a whole lot more rocket launches per year than we do now?  Getting ahead of possible problems is one trademark of good engineering.  As for their results, it sounds like there is nothing to worry about right away from rocket air pollution, although already it has a contribution to BC emissions equal to that of the entire conventional aviation industry, simply because rockets are a lot dirtier emitters than jets. 


In view of Firefly's recent anomaly, the more immediate concern to my mind is how we are going to deal with the first fatalities of paying customers in space flight.  Because sooner or later, you know it's going to happen.  I have not tried to buy a ticket into space, but if I did, I wager there are a lot of papers to sign first, and some of those papers throw all the risk and responsibility onto the passenger.  That's all well and good, but the deaths of a few billionaires on a holiday junket to the first Lagrangian point is going to be a lot harder to dress up as heroism compared to, say, the 1986 death of Christa McAuliffe, the schoolteacher who died in the Space Shuttle Challenger accident.


Most of the volume of commercial rocket launches in the future will be for unmanned utilitarian purposes such as minisatellites and so on, and the worst that can happen there is if something blows up and falls on somebody, generally speaking.  But space tourism has begun, and it will be interesting to see how the industry deals with its first paying-customer accident.  Maybe that will just make it more exciting and attractive, like drag racing does for some people.  And from a libertarian point of view, if somebody wants to spend a ton of money risking their lives on a rocket ride, I suppose it's none of my business. But life is too valuable to waste it on cheap thrills, or even expensive ones.


Sources:  Martin N. Ross and Darrin W. Toohey wrote "The Coming Surge of Rocket Emissions" which appeared on the EOS website at  I also referred to Wikipedia articles on the stratosphere, Firefly Aerospace, and Christa McAuliffe.