Tag: Internet

Will “Internet Addiction” Be Our Next “Crisis?”

report on National Public Radio’s Morning Edition today discusses growing concerns about “internet addiction,” especially among adolescents. The reporter mentions that “internet addiction,” sometimes called “social media addiction,” is not recognized as a mental health disorder in the US, where the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) published by the American Psychiatric Association categorizes it as a “condition for further study.” This is not insignificant in light of the strong economic incentives for the psychiatric profession to medicalize behavioral problems. 

The World Health Organization recently recognized “internet gaming disorder” as an addiction in its eleventh revision of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11), and China, South Korea, Japan, and other countries now consider “internet addiction” a mental health disorder.

The NPR report interviews a psychiatrist who believes that internet addiction is indeed a mental health disorder and laments the paucity of programs available to treat afflicted adolescents. Because it is not recognized as a disease in the US, treatment is not usually covered by health insurance. The psychiatrist tells the reporter that some clinicians creatively assign as a diagnosis one of the psychiatric co-morbidities that accompany almost all of their patients with internet addiction, in order to get insurance to pay for it. The fact that almost all cases come with attached co-morbidities creates a “chicken or egg” situation that is one of the reasons why many researchers are reluctant to conclude internet addiction is a distinct disorder. 

Therapists usually engage in treatment techniques that are similar for the treatment of other addictive disorders. The report highlights a 12-step program (similar to Alcoholics Anonymous) recently begun in Minnesota, whose director encourages the recognition of internet or social media addiction as a disease, in order to promote the proliferation of affordable rehab and other treatment programs across the country that would be covered by health insurance.

I have written about the dangerous tendency to medicalize behavioral patterns, so-called “social media addiction” in particular, and to overuse the label of addiction. This report from a respected media source can be expected to fuel more animated discussions about internet or social media addiction in the public square.

As I pointed out in a recent article at Reason.com, a meticulous examination of the evidence is crucial before concluding internet/social media addiction is an actual disorder. Such a determination may not just impact the fiscal stability of the health care system but, more importantly, may pose a potential threat to freedom of speech.

The Federal Election Commission Is Bad Enough

Chris Hughes, a founder of Facebook, has proposed Congress create a new agency to “create guidelines for acceptable speech on social media.”

As Hughes notes, this proposal “may seem un-American.” That’s because it is. At the very least, Hughes’ plan contravenes the past fifty years of American constitutional jurisprudence, and the deeply held values that undergird it. Let’s examine his case for such a momentous change.

He notes that the First Amendment does not protect all speech. Child porn and stock fraud are not protected by the First Amendment. True threats as harassment are also illegal. Incitement to violence as understood by the courts can also be criminalized. All true, though more complex than he admits.

The fact that the courts have exempted some speech from First Amendment protection does not mean judges should create new categories of unprotected speech. Hughes needs to make a case for new exemptions from the First Amendment. He does not do so. Instead he calls for an agency to regulate online speech. But, barring drastic changes to First Amendment jurisprudence, his imagined agency would not have the authority to broadly regulate Americans’ speech online.

However, Hughes’ old firm, Facebook, can and does regulate speech that is protected from government restrictions. In particular, Facebook suppresses or marginalizes extreme speech (sometimes called “hate speech”), “fake news” about political questions, and the speech of foreign nationals.

Facebook is not covered by the First Amendment.  You can support or decry their decisions about such speech, but it would be “un-American” to say Facebook and other private companies do not have the power to regulate such speech on their platforms. And I might add that you can exit Facebook and speak in other forums, online and off. A federal speech agency would not be so easily avoided.

Hughes may think that Facebook is doing a poor job of regulation and that its efforts require the help of a new government agency (which would be subject to the First Amendment). But if we ended up with government speech codes imposed by private companies, the courts might well swing into action on the side of free speech. In that sense, the new agency would actually vitiate private efforts at content moderation. We might well end up with more of the online speech Hughes and other critics want to restrict.

In sum, Hughes’ agency is a bad idea in itself. It is unlikely to accomplish his goals. The agency might even weaken private efforts to limit some extreme speech. Of course, if judicial doctrines changed to accommodate new speech restrictions imposed by this new agency, America really would change for the worse. It is encouraging, however, how little support and how much criticism Hughes’ proposal has received from his fellow Progressives. (See the critiques by Ari Roberts and Daphne Keller linked here).   Conservatives should feel free to chime in.

What’s Missing from Facebook’s Oversight Board

Facebook has set out a draft charter for an “Oversight Board for Content Decisions.” This document represents the first concrete step yet toward the “Supreme Court” for content moderation suggested by Mark Zuckerberg. The draft charter outlines the board itself and poses several related questions for interested parties. I will offer thoughts on those questions in upcoming blog posts. I begin here not with a question posed by Facebook, but rather by discussing two values I think get too little attention in the charter: legitimacy and deliberation.

The draft charter mentions “legitimacy” once: “The public legitimacy of the board will grow from the transparent, independent decisions that the board makes.” Legitimacy is commonly defined as conforming to law or existing rules (see, for example, the American Heritage Dictionary). But Facebook is clearly thinking more broadly, and they are wise to do so. Those who remove content from Facebook (and the board that judges the propriety of those removals) have considerable power. The authors of banned content acquire at least a certain stigma and may incur a broader social censure. Facebook has every legal right to remove the content, but they also need public acceptance of this power to impose costs on others. Absent that acceptance, the oversight board might become just another site of irreconcilable political differences or worse, “the removed” will call in the government to make things right. The oversight board should achieve many goals, but its architects might think first about its legitimacy.

The term “deliberation” also gets one mention in the draft charter: “Members will commit themselves not to reveal private deliberations except as expressed in official board explanations and decisions.” So there will be deliberations, and they will not be public (more on this in later posts about transparency). The case for deliberation is strengthened by considering its absence.

The draft could have said “members will commit themselves not to reveal private voting….” In a pure stakeholder model of the board, members would accurately represent the Facebook community (that is, they would be diverse). Members would consider the case before them and vote to advance the interests of those they represent. No deliberation would be necessary, though talk among members might be permitted. And, of course, such voting could be both transparent and independent. But the decision would be a mere weighing of interests rather than a consideration of reasons.

Why would those disappointed by the decision nonetheless consider it legitimate? Facebook could say to the disappointed: The board has final say on appeals of content moderation (after all, it’s in the terms of service you signed), and this is their decision. Logically that deduction might do the trick, but I think a somewhat different process might increase the legitimacy of the content moderation in the eyes of the disappointed. 

Consider a deliberative model for the board. A subset of the board meets and discusses the case before them. Arguments are offered, values probed, and conclusions reached. But the votes on the case would be informed by the prior deliberation. Members will represent the larger community in its many facets, but the path from representation to voting will include a collective giving and taking of reasons. That difference, I think, makes the deliberative model more likely to gain legitimacy. Simply losing a vote can seem like an expression of power. Losing an argument is more acceptable, and later the argument might be renewed with a different outcome.

The importance of deliberation implicates other values in the charter, especially independence. The draft places great weight on the independence of the board from Facebook. That emphasis is understandable. Critics have said Facebook will turn a blind eye to dangerous speech because it attracts attention and thereby, advertising dollars (Mark Zuckerberg has rebutted this criticism). The emphasis on independence from the business contains a truth: a board dedicated to maximizing Facebook’s quarterly returns might have a hard time gaining legitimacy. But the board’s deliberations should not be completely independent of Facebook. Facebook needs to make money to exist. Doing great harm to Facebook as a business cannot be part of the remit of the board. 

Here, as so often in life, James Madison has something valuable to add. In Federalist 10, Madison argues that political institutions should be designed to protect the rights of citizens and to advance “the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.” Facebook is a community. The Community Standards (and the board’s interpretation of them) should serve the permanent and aggregate interests of that community. The prosperity of the company (though perhaps not necessarily at every margin) is surely in the interest of the community. The interests represented on the board are a starting point for understanding the interests of that community, but in themselves they are not enough for that.  Deliberation might be the bridge between those interests and the “permanent and aggregate interests of the community.” Looked at that way, most users would have a reason to believe in the legitimacy of a deliberative board as opposed to a board of stakeholders.

Facebook’s draft charter evinces hard work and thought. But it could benefit from more focus on the conditions for the legitimacy of the oversight board. Deliberation (rather than simple interest representation) is part of the answer to the legitimacy question. As deliberations go forward, perhaps the charter’s framers might give more attention to how institutional design can foster deliberation.

Why ‘Net Neutrality’ Is a Problem

Yesterday, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai announced his intention to reverse Obama administration “net neutrality” rules governing the internet that were put in place in 2015. Some commentators are criticizing the announcement as a give-away to large telecom companies and an attack on consumers. But the Obama rules create some serious problems for consumers—problems that Pai says he wants to correct.

Under the Obama rules, internet service providers (ISPs) are subject to “rate-of-return” regulations, which the federal government previously applied to AT&T’s long-distance telephone service back when it was a monopoly more than 50 years ago. Ostensibly, rate-of-return regulation gives government officials the power to review and approve or reject ISP rates. In reality it basically guarantees ISPs government-enforced market protection and profitability, in exchange for regulators ensuring that ISPs won’t be too profitable.

As explained in this 2014 post, rate-of-return regulation involves more than just telecom. It is an attempt to settle fights between “producers” and “shippers”—whether those are farms, mines, and factories on one side and railroads and shipping lines on the other, or Netflix and Hulu on one side and ISPs on the other. In all those cases, the producers and shippers need each other to satisfy consumers, but they fight each other to capture the larger share of consumers’ payments. If shippers charge more, then farmers, factories, and Netflix must charge less in order to maintain the same level of sales.

The political resolution of the producer–shipper fights was the Interstate Commerce Act of 1887 and its rate-of-return regulations, which were initially written with railroads in mind. Similar efforts were later extended to trucking, air transportation, energy, and telecom. It took about 100 years for policymakers to accept that those efforts hurt consumers much more than it helped them, forcing on consumers too many bad providers with high prices and poor quality.

European Criticism of American Internet Platforms

The Guardian reports on calls by German chancellor Angela Merkel for internet platforms to “divulge the secrets of their algorithms”:

Angela Merkel has called on major internet platforms to divulge the secrets of their algorithms, arguing that their lack of transparency endangers debating culture.

The German chancellor said internet users had a right to know how and on what basis the information they received via search engines was channelled to them.

Speaking to a media conference in Munich, Merkel said: “I’m of the opinion that algorithms must be made more transparent, so that one can inform oneself as an interested citizen about questions like ‘what influences my behaviour on the internet and that of others?’.

“Algorithms, when they are not transparent, can lead to a distortion of our perception, they can shrink our expanse of information.”

An algorithm is the formula used by a search engine to steer a request for information. They are different for every search engine, highly secret and determine the significance or ranking of a web page.

Merkel has joined a growing number of critics who have highlighted the dangers of receiving information that confirms an existing opinion or is recommended by people with similar ideas.

“This is a development that we need to pay careful attention to,” she told the conference, adding that a healthy democracy was dependent on people being confronted by opposing ideas.

“The big internet platforms, through their algorithms, have become an eye of a needle which diverse media must pass through [to access their users],” she said.

My sense is that some Europeans are frustrated at how American companies dominate many aspects of the Internet. However, instead of trying to compete with the American companies in the marketplace (which would be a welcome development, as more competition is good), they have decided that regulating these companies (e.g., through antitrust scrutiny) is their best strategy for reducing American dominance.

Appeals Court Approves Net Neutrality Rules

The United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia upheld on Tuesday June 14, 2016 so called “net neutrality” rules issues by the Federal Communications Commission in February 2015.  Two previous attempts by the FCC to regulate the internet under different sections of the Telecommunications Act were overturned by the same court in 2010 and 2014 reflecting the traditional policy distinction between heavily regulated traditional telephone landline service and so-called information services involving computers that were not regulated.

The rule issued by the FCC in 2015 reclassified internet services as falling under the same legal regime as traditional telephone service.  Yesterday’s Appeal Court decision accepts that reclassification and the legal authority that goes with it.

Regulation has published four articles in the last two years year criticizing traditional public utility regulation of the internet.  Christopher Yoo from the University of Pennsylvania argues that traditional telephone regulation envisions a monopoly service and government oversight ostensibly intended to limit prices and expand service provision. But the expansion of wireless high-speed Internet has allowed multiple competitive providers to provide service to a large majority of American consumers while restraining capital costs.  “What Hath the FCC Wrought”, by former FCC chief economist Gerald Faulhaber, argues that service quality will suffer to the extent that internet access providers can’t charge more for streams that impose greater costs on the system. Kansas State professor Dennis Weisman argues that internet regulation will likely protect competitors from competition rather than serve consumer interests just like the old telephone regulatory scheme. And Larry Downes from the Georgetown Center for Business and Public Policy argues that the movement to re-regulate telecom is propelled by some firms’ quest for rents under new regulation, and by Federal Communications Commission attempt to regain political power and the benefits that come with it. 

Internet Industry More Popular Than Ever-60% Have Favorable View

New polling from Gallup finds that more Americans view the internet industry favorably than any time since Gallup began asking the question in 2001. Today, 60% of Americans have either a “very positive” or “somewhat positive” view of the industry, compared to 49% in 2014.

Favorability toward the Internet industry has ebbed and flowed during the 2000s, but today marks the most positive perception of the industry. Compared to other industries, Gallup found that the Internet industry ranks third behind the restaurant and computer industries.

Perceptions have improved across most demographic groups, with the greatest gains found among those with lower levels of education, Republicans and independents. It is likely these groups are “late adopters” of technology and have grown more favorable as they’ve come to access it. Indeed, late adopters have been found to be older, less educated and more conservative. Pew also finds that early users of the Internet have been younger, more urban, higher income Americans, and those with more education. Indeed, as Internet usage has soared from 55% to 2001 to 84% in 2014, many of these new users come from the ranks of conservative late adopters.

These data suggest the more Americans learn about the Internet the more they come to like it and appreciate the companies who use it as a tool to offer consumer goods and services.

Please find full results at Gallup.

Research assistant Nick Zaiac contributed to this post.

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