Author Archive | David Thompson

The Future of Privacy: Facial Recognition, Public Facts, and 300 Million Little Brothers

It’s been a pleasure to blog this week.  I hope you’ve enjoyed this conversation and I’d love to continue it.  If you’re interested in reading more, check out our book, Wild West 2.0.  It is the most-discussed Internet policy book of 2010 (Jimmy Wales called it “an invaluable guide” to the “brave new world of the Internet”) and it sold out once already.  Or, contact me directly through my site at  Thanks again to Eugene and the whole Volokh Conspiracy for inviting me to participate this week.

This week, we’ve discussed the “Wild West 2.0” metaphor for the Internet.  Today, I’m going to present a few quick ideas that didn’t make it into this week’s posts.   I don’t have enough space to flesh them all out, but I hope to provoke some thoughts and discussions that will continue beyond this week.

What will widespread surveillance and facial recognition do to privacy?

It’s always been the law in the U.S. that images you take in public are yours to use non-commercially.  There are a few exceptions around security, peeping Toms, and so-called “upskirt” photography, but basically you can take a photo from any public place and make any non-commercial use of it.

There are good reasons for this policy, ranging from a basic respect for the free press and free expression, to the First Amendment.

But, today, facial recognition is quickly becoming available on a wide scale.  For just one example, an application called allows Facebook users to use photo recognition to find their friends in photos (even if they have not been tagged, or if they have removed their tag).  Using the tool, it’s often possible to find hundreds of untagged photos of your friends (or yourself) posted by other people.

The developers [...]

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Fixing the CDA 230 Subsidy While Preserving Online Anonymity

Thanks again for the great responses in comments.  I’ve learned a lot about how people think about the Internet of 2010 and whether it fits the “Wild West 2.0” model.

On Monday, we discussed why the Internet of 2010 resembles the closing of the Wild West frontier.  On Tuesday, we talked about whether CDA 230 is appropriate for the Internet of 2010.  Yesterday, we talked about why CDA 230 is a subsidy to online libel.

Today, I want to present some ideas to preserve the best parts of anonymous free expression, while fixing the subsidy that Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act gives to libelous speech.  I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Online Anonymous Speech is a Good Thing

Anonymous online speech can be powerful and beneficial.  You are free to leave anonymous or pseudonymous comments on this site, which encourages free discussion of political issues.  Protesters in Iran can spread ideas, corporate whistleblowers can speak out, and the government is deterred from at least one form of intrusion into personal life.  On a personal level, you can explore your identity, research controversial causes or issues, or just vent frustration.  All of these are good things and worthy of preservation.

But in the offline world there is also accountability for anonymous speech that is libelous or invasive of privacy.  By taking control of the media away from The New York Times and putting it in the hands of individual bloggers, the Internet have empowered free expression and opinion, but also empowered hundreds of millions of people to anonymously libel each other and invade each others’ privacy.

Updating the Assumptions Underlying CDA 230

CDA 230 was based on a number of guesses about how the Internet of the then-future would work.  We’ve had almost fifteen years to [...]

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Google Changed Reputation and Privacy Forever

In the early Internet, it was impossible to find isolated references to people, places, and things.   Many users navigated using directories like the original Yahoo, and early search tools like Gopher (structured documents) and Archie (FTP) were limited .

The search engines changed everything.  Starting with Lycos and AltaVista, information was freed from obscurity.  Suddenly, no matter where on the Internet your name might be mentioned, a search engine could find it.

On Monday, we discussed why the Internet is a new frontier.  On Tuesday ,we questioned whether Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 still fits the Internet of 2010.  Today, I’ll explain how the rise of search engines since 1996 has changed reputation and privacy, and why CDA 230 subsidizes libel by preventing speakers and facilitators from internalizing the costs of their actions.

Google Has Changed How Information is Consumed

I don’t think Google is evil.

But Google is far from perfect.  Google creates the illusion that just ten search results reflect some meaningful judgment on a person’s life.  For example, the top five Google search results for any search term get 88% of the clicks.  The over-attention given to the first few Google results is partly user error, but it’s also a form of rational ignorance on the part of searchers: Google gives good enough results most of the time, so there is little incentive to look deeper.

The attention given to the first few Google results would be fine if Google always provided accurate, balanced, and relevant information.  Unfortunately, it doesn’t.  Google has no way to measure whether websites contain information that is true, fair, or proportionate.  Instead, Google uses rough heuristics—most notably the number of links to a page—to try to calculate a page’s popularity.  Popularity substitutes for relevancy, often [...]

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The Communications Decency Act of 1996 Meets the Closed Frontier

(Thanks for the great comments!  I’ll be speaking in Las Vegas this afternoon 3:45 pm today at the EduComm conference at the Mirage, Ballroom D.)

Anonymous and pseudonymous speech dates back at least to the early days of the printing press.   Anonymous online speech has been a powerful force for change in situations ranging from simple campus disputes to political protests in Iran.  And the technology of the Internet makes it unlikely that any attempt to eliminate anonymous speech could succeed.

That said, the fact that there always will be anonymous online communication does not tell us whether it deserves subsidy.  Yesterday, I explained why the Internet is a new frontier.  Today, I challenge that Section 230 the Communications Decency Act of 1996 provides a subsidy to anonymous online speech, and ask whether that subsidy is sustainable in the closed frontier era of the Internet.

To be clear: I am in favor of anonymous online speech, and sometimes I’m also a user of it.  I disagree strongly with Eric Schmidt’s opinion of privacy and anonymity.  My goal this week is not to destroy anonymous online speech, but instead to figure out how to best preserve its value while curbing abuses, especially in light of the growing regulatory pressure that arises at the close of a frontier.

Offline Speech Combines Practical Anonymity with Legal Accountability

Offline, speech has never been absolute.  In the offline world, the right to speak comes also comes with the responsibility of the familiar speech torts.  If someone publishes false statements about you, you can sue them for libel.  If someone publishes “peeping tom” photos of you or other true-but-private information, you may sue them for invasion of privacy (and they may also be criminally prosecuted).  And so on.

What makes this legal regime [...]

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The Closing of the Internet Frontier?

A gold rush.  A wide-open anything-goes frontier.  Prostitution.  Gambling.  Drugs.  Lax law enforcement. Vigilantism and mob justice.  Petty scammers at every turn.

The subject?  Not the dusty Wild West of American history, but instead the Internet of just 10 years ago.

In the last decade, the Internet has gone from open frontier populated by a select few, to a regular part of life for a majority of Americans and Europeans.   Predictably, the change from sparse frontier to societal integration has caused rather significant cultural clashes between early adopters and latecomers.  Disputes rage about whether we should view and regulate the Internet like an open frontier or like the rest of “offline” society.

This week, I will try to answer that question by exploring the similarities between the Internet and the original Wild West frontier.  I’ll examine what the close of the Wild West frontier teaches us about the next 10 years of the Internet.  As an example, I’ll focus on what the frontier experience tells us about online privacy and laws like Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.  On Friday, I also hope to take a quick look at the broad impact of the Internet on the future of privac.

I look forward to discussing these issues with readers; this site has managed to consistently attract some of the brightest and most civilized commenters online.  I’m happy to take questions, comments, and suggestions.  And thank you, Eugene, for the kind introduction; I’m proud to be able to contribute to such an important community.

The Internet as Frontier Experience

The history of the Internet echoes the history of the American West.  We go into much greater detail in the book (Amazon), but even at a glance the parallels between Wild West 1.0 (1800s America) and Wild [...]

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