Social Media Sites Should Be Required to ID Many Users

Greetings. I write the following with no joy whatsoever.

I have reluctantly come to the conclusion that it may be necessary to legislate that any social media user who wishes to have their posts seen by more than a small handful of users will need to be authenticated by any (significantly-sized) sites, using government IDs.

This identification information would be retained by the firms so long as the users are active and for some specified period afterwards. Users would *not* be required to use their real names for posts, but the linkages to their actual IDs would be available to authorities in cases of abuse under appropriate, precisely defined circumstances, subject to court oversight. 

This would include situations where a post may be forwarded to larger audiences by others, which will be a technical challenge to implement.

The ability to reach large audiences on today’s Internet should be a privilege, no longer a right.

It is very sad that it has come to this.


Internet Users’ Safety in a Post-Roe World

UPDATE (1 July 2022): My Thoughts About Google’s New Blog Post Regarding Health-Related Data Privacy

UPDATE (24 June 2022): As expected, the U.S. Supreme Court today overturned Roe v. Wade, bringing the issues discussed below into immediate focus.

TL;DR: By no later than early this July, it is highly probable that a nearly half-century nationwide precedent providing women with abortion-related protections will be partly or completely reversed by the current U.S. Supreme Court (SCOTUS). This sea change, especially impacting women’s rights but with even broader implications now and into the future, would immediately and dramatically affect many policy and operational aspects of numerous important Internet firms. Unless effective planning for this situation takes place imminently, the safety of women, the well-being of Internet users more generally, and crucial services of these firms themselves will in all likelihood be at risk in critical respects.

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Since the recent leak of a SCOTUS draft decision that would effectively eliminate the national protections of Roe v. Wade, and subsequent remarks by some of the associated justices, it is now widely assumed that within a matter of days or weeks a partial or total reversal of Roe will revert the vast majority of abortion-related matters back to the individual states. 

Many politicians and states have already indicated their plans to immediately ban most or even all abortions, including in some cases those related to rape and incest, and even those to preserve the health of the woman, with only narrow exceptions even to save mothers’ lives. Some of these laws may effectively criminalize miscarriages. Some may introduce both civil and criminal penalties related to abortion, possibly bringing homicide or murder charges against involved parties, potentially including the pregnant women. 

Various states plan to try extending their bans and civil/criminal penalties to include anyone who “participates” in making abortions possible, even if they are in other states, as when a woman travels to a different state for an abortion (the legality of one state attempting to impact actions in another state in this manner is unclear, but with today’s SCOTUS no possibilities can be safely ignored). Actions by some states to try ban obtaining, ordering, or providing various abortion drugs are also already being enacted. Note that SCOTUS has to date permitted to continue the Texas mechanism for suing abortion providers, which has largely blocked abortions in that state.

“Trigger laws” already in place in some states along with the statements of state legislators indicate that near total or total abortion bans will immediately become law in various states if the anticipated SCOTUS decision is announced. 

Anti-abortion and affiliated factions are already planning — using the reasoning of the expected SCOTUS decision as a foundation — for follow-up actions pushing for national abortion bans, limits on contraception, banning gay marriage, rolling back LGBTQ+ rights, and related activities. U.S. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell has recently proclaimed that a nationwide abortion ban is possible if the GOP retakes the House, Senate, and presidency. 

These events are creating what could become an existential threat to many Internet users and to key aspects of many Internet firms’ policy and operational models.

Given the sweeping and unprecedented scope of the oppressive laws that would be unleashed on pregnant women and anyone else who becomes involved with their healthcare, especially given the civil and even criminal penalties being written into these laws, it seems inevitable that demands for access to data in the possession of many Internet and telecommunications firms relating to user activities will drastically increase.

Search histories (both server and browser) and potentially even stored email data could be sought looking for queries about abortion services, abortion drugs, and numerous other related topics. Location data (both targeting specific users, and data from broader geofence warrants associated with, for example, abortion providers) could be demanded. A range of other resulting data demands are also highly probable. It is also expected that there would be even more calls for government-mandated backdoors into end-to-end encrypted messaging systems.

Women may put their health and lives at risk by not seeking necessary health services, for fear of these abortion laws. Women’s partners, other family members, friends, associates, and healthcare providers may reasonably believe that their livelihoods or freedom may compromised if they are found to be providing or aiding in any manner related to abortion services. 

Many users may cease using Internet and various telecommunications services in the manners that they previously would have, out of concerns that their related activities and other data could ultimately fall into the hands of state or other officials, and then be used to track and potentially prosecute them under these abortion-related laws.

This situation is a Trust & Safety emergency of the first order for all of these firms.

While some firms already provide users a range of search/location history control tools, I would assert that most users do not understand them and are frequently unaware of how they are actually configured.

I believe that the best mechanism at this time to help protect women and affiliated others who would be victimized by these state actions is to not save the associated data in the first place, unless a user decides that they desire to have that data saved.

One possibility would be for these firms to proactively offer users the option to not save (or alternatively, very quickly expunge) their search, location, and other user activity data associated with abortion and important related issues — both on company servers, and within browser histories if practicable. Users who wished to have any of these categories of data activity saved as before could choose not to exercise this option.

Unfortunately, a database of users who opt out of having this data saved may itself be an attractive data demand target by parties who may assume that it mainly represents individuals attempting to hide activities related to abortions. This possibility may argue for the preferred default behavior being to not save this data, and offering users the option of saving it if they so choose.

While these changes could be part of a desirable broader effort to give users more control over which specific aspects of their “personally sensitive” activity data are saved, this would of course be a significantly larger project, and time is of the essence given the imminent SCOTUS ruling. 

Obviously I am not here addressing the detailed legal considerations or potential technical implementation challenges of the proposals above, and there may exist other ways to quickly ameliorate the risks that I’ve described, though practical alternatives are not obvious to me at present.

However, I do feel strongly that the status quo regarding user activity data in a post-Roe environment could create a nightmarish situation for many women and other Internet users, and be extraordinarily challenging for firms from Trust & Safety and broader policy and operational aspects. 

I strongly recommend that actions be taken immediately to protect Internet users from the storm that will likely arrive very shortly indeed.


Big Tech and the Internet Are Not Our Enemies

It seems like only a few years ago, the entire world was enamored of Big Tech and the Internet — and pretty much everyone was trying to emulate their most successful players. But now, to watch the news reports and listen to the politicians, the Internet and Big Tech are Our Enemies, responsible for everything from mass shootings to drug addiction, from depression to child abuse, and seemingly most other ills that any particular onlooker finds of concern in our modern world.

The truth is much more complex, and much more difficult to comfortably accept. For the fundamental problems we now face are not the fault of technology in any form, they are fully the responsibility of human beings. That is, as Pogo famously said, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

What’s more, most users of social media and other Internet services don’t realize how much they have to lose as a result of the often politically motivated faux “solutions” being proposed (and in some cases already passed into law) that could literally cripple many of the sites that billions of us have come to depend upon in our daily lives.

Hate speech, for example, was not invented by the Internet. While it can certainly be argued that social media increased its distribution, the intractable nature of the problem is clearly demonstrated by calls from the Right to leave most hate speech available as legal speech (at least in the U.S. — other countries have different legal standards regarding speech), while the Left (and many other countries) want hate speech removed even more rapidly. Both sides propose draconian penalties for failures to comply with their completely opposite demands.

In the U.S., some states have already passed laws explicitly prohibiting Big Tech from removing wide ranges of speech, much of which would be considered hateful and/or outright disinformation. These laws are currently unenforced due to court actions, but not on a permanent basis at this time.

The utter chaos that would be triggered by enforcement of such laws and associated attempts to undermine crucial Communications Decency Act Section 230 are obvious. If firms are required by law not to remove speech that they consider to be dangerous misinformation or hate speech, they will almost certainly find themselves cut off from key service providers that they need to stay in operation, who won’t want to keep doing business with them. Perhaps laws would then be passed to try require that those providers not cut off social media firms in such cases. But what of advertisers who do not wish to be associated with vile content? Laws to force them to continue advertising on particular sites are unlikely in the extreme.

Similar dilemmas apply to most other areas of Big Tech and the Internet that are now the subject of seemingly endless condemnation. There are calls for end-to-end encryption of chat systems and other direct messaging to protect private conversations from outside surveillance and tampering — but there are simultaneously demands that governments be able to see into these conversations to try detect child abuse or possible mass shooter events before they occur. Another enormous category of conflicting demands will arise as the U.S. Supreme Court drastically scales back fundamental protections for women.

Even if encryption were banned (a ban that we know would never be anywhere near 100% effective), the sheer scale of the Internet in general, and of social media in particular, are such that no currently imaginable combination of human beings and artificial intelligence could usefully scan and differentiate false positives from genuine threats among the nearly inconceivably enormous volumes of data involved. False positives have real costs — they divert scarce resources from genuine threats where those resources are desperately needed.

Big Tech now finds itself firmly between the proverbial rock and the hard place. Governments, politicians, and others are demanding changes that in many cases aren’t only in 180 degree opposition (“Take down violating posts faster! No, leave them up — taking them down is censorship!”), but are also calling for technologically impractical approaches to monitoring social media (both public postings and private messages/chats) at scale. Many of these demands would lead inevitably to requiring virtually all social media posts to be pre-moderated and pre-approved before being permitted to be seen publicly. Every public post. Every private chat. Every live stream throughout the totality of its existence.

Only in such or similar ways could social media firms meet the demands being strewn upon it, even if the inherent conflicts in demands from different groups and political factions could somehow be harmonized, even leaving aside associated privacy concerns.

But this is actually entirely academic at the kinds of scales at which users currently post to social media. Such pre-moderation is not possible in any kind of effective way without drastically reducing the total volume of user content that is made available.

This would leave Big Tech with only one likely practical path forward. Firms would need to drastically and dramatically reduce the amount of UGC (User Generated Content) that is submitted and publicly posted. All manner of postings — written, video, audio, prerecorded content and live streams, virtually everything that any user might want other users to see, would need to be curtailed. A tiny percentage compared with what is seen today might continue to be publicly surfaced after the required pre-moderation, but this would be a desert ghost town compared to today’s social media landscape.

There are some observers who upon reading this might think to themselves, “So what? To hell with social media! The Internet and the world will be better without it.” But this is fundamentally wrong. The ability of ordinary people to communicate with many others — without having to channel through traditional mass media gatekeepers — has been one of the most essential liberating aspects of the Internet. The appropriate responses to the abusive ways that some persons have chosen to use these capabilities do not include permitting governments to decimate a crucial aspect of the Internet’s empowerment of individuals.

Ultimately might governments expand their monitoring edicts to include email? Will attempts to ban VPNs become mainstream around the planet? There’s no reason to assume that governments demanding mass data surveillance would ultimately hesitate in any of these respects.

Of course, if this is what voters really want, it’s what their politicians will likely provide them. Possible alternatives that might help to limit some abuses — one suggestion at least worth discussing is requiring social media firms to confirm the identities of users posting to large groups before such postings are visible — may not be seriously considered. We shall see.

Unfortunately, most users of the Internet and social media are ill-informed about the realities of these situations. Most of what they are seeing on these topics is political rhetoric devoid of crucial technological contexts. They are purposely kept uninformed regarding the ramifications of the false “remedies” that some politicians and haters of Big Tech are spewing forth daily.

We are on the cusp of having major parts of our daily lives seriously disrupted by political demands that would wither away many of the services on the very sites that are so important to us all.