My testimony before a Senate committee on copyright

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I testified — virtually — before a sub-committee of the Senate yesterday (the Canadian one) about Bill S-225, which wants to create a new copyright scheme to help ailing newspapers get money from Facebook and Google. Here’s what I told them (if you want to watch a livestream of testimony from myself and others, including Jason Kee from Google, followed by questions from the senators, you can see that here)

Good evening, honourable members of the committee. I’d like to thank you all for having me here to talk about Bill S-225. I don’t want to take up too much of your time before answering your questions, but I want to give you a brief overview of why I think that this Bill, although directed at a very real and pressing problem, is fundamentally misguided in the way that it proposes to solve that problem.

The preamble to this Bill states several things that are true. Journalism is important in a free and democratic society, there are a number of excellent Canadian journalism organizations, and digital platforms have disrupted the advertising industry. But the preamble also says something that is not quite true, which is that these platforms “supply their sites with the journalistic work generated by traditional media.”

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The challenges of content moderation in the global south

Note: This was originally published as the daily newsletter for the Columbia Journalism Review, where I am the chief digital writer

The difficulty of moderating the ocean of content that gets posted on social networks by billions of users every day was obvious even before Donald Trump’s presidential trolling forced Facebook and other platforms to block his accounts earlier this year. Trying to determine what constitutes genuine harassment or abuse vs. friendly banter, identifying images and videos that are inappropriate or harmful from the tens of millions uploaded every day, distinguishing between authentic political messages and professional trolling operations, and so on is hard enough just for English-speaking audiences in North America, but these challenges are compounded when different languages and cultural norms are involved. What sounds like innocuous phrasing when translated into English could be dangerous hate speech in another language or culture, and automated systems — and even human moderators — are often not good at making those distinctions.

On top of these kinds of social or technical hurdles, there are political ones as well. Countries with authoritarian regimes have become expert in navigating the terms of service for the major platforms, and using them to flag content they don’t agree with, and some countries have used problematic content such as “fake news” as an excuse to legislate the truth. How are the digital platforms handling these challenges? And what are the potential downsides of their failure to do so? To answer these and related questions, we convened a virtual panel discussion using CJR’s Galley platform, with a group of experts in content moderation and internet governance and policy around the world.

The group included Jillian York, the director of international freedom of expression for the Electronic Frontier Foundation; Michael Karanicolas, executive director of the Institute for Technology, Law, and Policy at UCLA; Emma Llansó, director of the Free Expression Project at the Center for Democracy and Technology; Jenny Domino, who leads the Internet Freedom Initiative for the Asia-Pacific region at the International Commission of Jurists; Sarah Roberts, an associate professor of information studies at the UCLA; Rasha Abdulla, a professor of journalism at The American University in Cairo; Agustina Del Campo, director of the Center for Studies on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information at the University of Palermo in Argentina; and Tomiwa Ilori, a researcher at the Centre for Human Rights at the University of Pretoria in South Africa.

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Donald Trump shuts down his blog, irked by low traffic

Note: This was originally published as the daily newsletter for the Columbia Journalism Review, where I am the chief digital writer

After being banned from both Facebook and Twitter for his role in spreading disinformation about the election and the January 6 attack on the US Capitol, former president Donald Trump’s team of advisors started talking about a “new social platform” he would soon be launching, which they said would provide a direct conduit for his views, and restore him to his rightful place at the top of the social-media firmament. Trump advisor Jason Miller told Fox News in March that Trump would be returning to social media “in two or three months, with his own platform,” which Miller said would be “the hottest ticket in social media,” and would “completely redefine the game.” On May 4, the Trump website unveiled a new social feature, but it was more like a recapitulation of an old game rather than the definition of a new one: in sum, it was a blog, with short posts in Trump’s voice (although most were likely not written by him) and a series of buttons with which to share his comments on the social platforms where he could no longer post them himself.

Now, less than a month after this much-hyped launch, Trump has shut down the blog, according to a number of reports. The page formerly known as “From the Desk of Donald J. Trump” has been removed from the site and will not be returning to it in the future, Miller confirmed to CNBC on Wednesday. According to a report from the Washington Post, based on interviews with anonymous sources close to the Trump camp, the former president’s decision was driven by the relentless mocking the feature got from established media outlets and political commentators, combined with a significant lack of traffic and engagement. “Upset by reports from The Washington Post and other outlets highlighting its measly readership,” the paper reported on Wednesday, “Trump ordered his team Tuesday to put the blog out of its misery.”

In May, NBC News looked at data from a social-media analytics company called BuzzSumo and found that the Trump blog as a whole had only attracted about 200,000 forms of engagement, including links and other social interactions (likes, shares, etc.) on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and Reddit. Before he was banned from those and other platforms, a single tweet from the former president would often be liked or reshared hundreds of thousands of times within a matter of hours, thanks to his 88 million followers. The Post reported that on the final day of the blog’s existence, the Trump website got just 1,500 shares and comments on Facebook and Twitter.

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