As CEO of the GA Latino Film Alliance, whose background includes twenty-five years of telecommunications, technology, sales, marketing, management and film experience, I’m keenly aware of the opportunities and challenges of the internet. On the one hand, it’s an incredible platform for speech, commerce and expression. On the other, it’s a tool for discrimination, hate-speech, misinformation, theft and more.
In recent months, the role played by online platforms in facilitating harms has exploded into the public consciousness. Indeed, almost fifty leading civil rights organizations recently sent a letter to Congress calling for legislation that applies the principles of equality, privacy and accountability we expect offline to the online world.
Today, I’m proud to join 16 leading multicultural film festivals and professional, educational and advocacy organizations in a letter highlighting our own perspective on these issues— specifically, how the lack of accountability for dominant internet platforms harms creators of color and undermines trust online.
Anyone who’s been paying attention to the internet over the past few years is understandably appalled by fake news and privacy abuses. What’s more, diverse communities are shocked and saddened by instances of algorithmic discrimination, such as Facebook’s complicity in illegal housing discrimination, and Google’s recommendation of white supremacist videos.
For creators, an unaccountable internet also makes it harder to produce and distribute stories because massive online theft undermines the value of creative works.
As our letter explains:
While superhero movies backed by large studios have the scale, reach and anti-piracy resources to withstand online theft, movies and shows produced with different audiences in mind often do not. For instance, according to Box Office Mojo, the 2017 Best Picture winner Moonlight grossed $65 million worldwide theatrically, which translates to approximately 9 million tickets sold. From its release until shortly after winning the Best Picture Award, online analytics firm MUSO calculated that there were roughly 60 million piracy transactions – over 650% more than paid ticket sales. If 5% of the pirated transactions had been paid theatrical ticket sales, the film would have earned an additional $21 million. If just 5% of the pirated transactions had been paid downloads at a conservative price of $3.00 per download, the film would have earned an additional $9 million.
Those kinds of numbers are life or death for an independent film.
Whether it’s misinformation, algorithmic discrimination or online theft, internet platforms bear little legal responsibility for enabling these harms because over-broad “safe harbor” laws largely free them from liability for publishing abhorrent and illegal content on their services. While a pawn shop owner is responsible for selling stolen goods and a hotel owner can’t knowingly allow its property to be used for drug deals or prostitution, online businesses have been granted a special exemption from any equivalent accountability.
Silicon Valley’s power brokers are certain to push back on the idea that Congress has any role to play in cleaning up the mess they’ve made of the internet, but a seemingly endless stream of headlines uncovering new examples of harm belies assurances these problems will be solved voluntarily.
While platform CEOs appear contrite in their public appearances, acknowledging the responsibility they bear for the content on their services, their surrogates have responded with bizarre and over-the-top rhetoric to calls for platforms to help foster a healthier internet, saying “pre-internet industries … are looking to defend old business models” while at the same time obliviously refusing to change their own.
However, I’m heartened that other, more thoughtful actors recognize that artists can be vital allies in service of improving the online environment. For instance, Mozilla recently launched a $225,000 awards program to fund art and advocacy projects that can help technologists and the public better understand and anticipate the dangers of artificial intelligence. And NPR’s All Things Considered recently published a piece discussing how internet pioneer Vint Cerf didn’t envision the potential downsides of his invention, while science fiction author William Gibson did (even coining the term “cyberspace” in the process).
The piece concludes: “But the father of the Internet thinks inventors need the artists…The artists are the ones who recognize a fundamental truth: Human nature hasn’t changed much since Shakespeare’s time, no matter what fancy new tools you give us.”
The truth is that the internet remains one of the most revolutionary tools for innovation and creative expression in the history of mankind. The potential for the internet to be a force for good, progress and human connection are even stronger today than when Congress first grappled with these questions back in the dial-up era. But the consequences of the decisions made at that time are now preventing the internet from realizing its full potential.
It’s not too late to fix – but it isn’t going to fix itself.