Gresham’s Second Law

Sir Tim Berners-Lee, who with Robert Cailliau created the World-Wide Web 28 years ago with the specification for HTML, has published an open letter to the Web’s 2 billion users today.

The text is here, in English, French, Spanish, Portuguese and Arabic. He invites everybody to share it, so I’ll save you the fatigue of clicking on the link to reproduce it below the jump. Some quick comments from me to get you going.

Internet users by country, 2011

1. Berners-Lee is one of the few people who can speak with real authority on this stuff. If he says we have big problems, it’s a safe prior that we do. If he says they can be fixed, there is a very good chance they can.

2. The approach is too narrow. I rely here on another authority, Mike O’Hare of this blog. He has writtenabout the crisis in society created by the arrival of transmission and reproduction of information at near-zero marginal cost, leading to the implosion of subscriber revenues for journalism and the dramatic thinning out of newsroom staff.

Let’s give this insight a catchy name: Gresham’s Second Law.

Robert Gresham was an English financier of the Elizabethan era, who has given his name to the first genuine economic law: that is, a generalisation based on solid observation, explained by a robust theory. (He had eminent predecessors including Copernicus so the attribution is a little unfair.) The Law reads:

Bad money drives out good.

That is, with a bullion specie currency, when the king debases it by reducing the bullion content of the coins, the price of the metal rises in nominal terms, and anyone who can get hold of the old, fatter coins can make a quick doubloon by melting them down. So the good old coins disappear.

Gresham’s-nth-granddaughter’s Second Law, which I have just invented, is similar:

Bad information drives out good.

The cost of production of good information – science, literature, accurate reporting – is high. The cost of production of lies, bullshit, smears, pornography, and rumours is negligible. On the consumption side, bad information is designed to appeal to our lower human nature (Kahneman’s System 1). Good information is often difficult, unwelcome or both, and requires the support of the lazy System 2. So the good information always has a struggle to be heard.

Now consider a technical innovation that lowers the cost of reproduction or transmission of information: say from hand copying to print, or print to the Internet. In the print era, Adolf Hitler had to struggle to get his message across. He had to find a printer for Mein Kampf (the title was accurate). He had to build a united movement from the hard-right flotsam floating round Munich, through endless face-to-face meetings in beer halls. Even in favourable conditions, it took him a decade before he could mount a credible challenge to gain power. Contrast Donald Trump. Starting from nowhere politically in 2015, he won an election in a much larger country with little more infrastructure than a Twitter account and support from the Breitbart website.

The contrast can be explained in terms of  Gresham’s Second Law. The drop in transmission costs removes an obstacle to the dissemination of bad information, and releases its advantage in lower costs of production. So the problem has got worse.

3. Berners-Lee is right that we need to brake bad information. His example of political advertising linking to fake news is just one abuse. Americans in particular need to rethink free speech absolutism. Citizens United represented to many of us a reductio ad absurdum. As legal persons, corporations are slaves, with inferior, not equal rights to the humans they serve. Should corporate bodies – with access to much bigger megaphones than individuals – be held to a higher standard of care in their public speech? Companies that mislead their stockholders face severe sanctions, and deception in advertising is limited to suggestio falsi and suppressio veri, outright lies being banned. I don’t see why the privilege of corporate political and cultural speech should not face analogous restrictions.

4. We also have to think positively: how can the good information be paid for? The answer for science has been socialism leavened by philanthropy. Literature and music seem to be doing all right in the market system, though that’s just a non-expert impression. A sufficient number of customers for music seem prepared to pay one or two dollars for a song rather than pirate everything, a convention that relies more on an honesty-box ethic than on sanctions. The immediate crisis is in reporting. It’s good news that Sir Tim’s team will be looking at micropayments. They should be looking at socialism too. It’s already how we pay for education and health.

* * * * * *

Three challenges for the web, according to its inventor
Web Foundation · March 12, 2017

Today marks 28 years since I submitted my original proposal for the world wide web. I imagined the web as an open platform that would allow everyone, everywhere to share information, access opportunities and collaborate across geographic and cultural boundaries. In many ways, the web has lived up to this vision, though it has been a recurring battle to keep it open. But over the past 12 months, I’ve become increasingly worried about three new trends, which I believe we must tackle in order for the web to fulfil its true potential as a tool which serves all of humanity.

1)   We’ve lost control of our personal data
The current business model for many websites offers free content in exchange for personal data. Many of us agree to this – albeit often by accepting long and confusing terms and conditions documents – but fundamentally we do not mind some information being collected in exchange for free services. But, we’re missing a trick. As our data is then held in proprietary silos, out of sight to us, we lose out on the benefits we could realise if we had direct control over this data, and chose when and with whom to share it. What’s more, we often do not have any way of feeding back to companies what data we’d rather not share – especially with third parties – the T&Cs are all or nothing.

This widespread data collection by companies also has other impacts. Through collaboration with – or coercion of – companies, governments are also increasingly watching our every move online, and passing extreme laws that trample on our rights to privacy. In repressive regimes, it’s easy to see the harm that can be caused – bloggers can be arrested or killed, and political opponents can be monitored. But even in countries where we believe governments have citizens’ best interests at heart, watching everyone, all the time is simply going too far. It creates a chilling effect on free speech and stops the web from being used as a space to explore important topics, like sensitive health issues, sexuality or religion.

2)   It’s too easy for misinformation to spread on the web
Today, most people find news and information on the web through just a handful of social media sites and search engines. These sites make more money when we click on the links they show us. And, they choose what to show us based on algorithms which learn from our personal data that they are constantly harvesting. The net result is that these sites show us content they think we’ll click on – meaning that misinformation, or ‘fake news’, which is surprising, shocking, or designed to appeal to our biases can spread like wildfire. And through the use of data science and armies of bots, those with bad intentions can game the system to spread misinformation for financial or political gain.

3)   Political advertising online needs transparency and understanding
Political advertising online has rapidly become a sophisticated industry. The fact that most people get their information from just a few platforms and the increasing sophistication of algorithms drawing upon rich pools of personal data, means that political campaigns are now building individual adverts targeted directly at users. One source suggests that in the 2016 US election, as many as 50,000 variations of adverts were being served every single day on Facebook, a near-impossible situation to monitor. And there are suggestions that some political adverts – in the US and around the world – are being used in unethical ways – to point voters to fake news sites, for instance, or to keep others away from the polls. Targeted advertising allows a campaign to say completely different, possibly conflicting things to different groups. Is that democratic?

These are complex problems, and the solutions will not be simple. But a few broad paths to progress are already clear. We must work together with web companies to strike a balance that puts a fair level of data control back in the hands of people, including the development of new technology like personal “data pods” if needed and exploring alternative revenue models like subscriptions and micropayments. We must fight against government over-reach in surveillance laws, including through the courts if necessary. We must push back against misinformation by encouraging gatekeepers such as Google and Facebook to continue their efforts to combat the problem, while avoiding the creation of any central bodies to decide what is “true” or not. We need more algorithmic transparency to understand how important decisions that affect our lives are being made, and perhaps a set of common principles to be followed. We urgently need to close the “internet blind spot” in the regulation of political campaigning.

Our team at the Web Foundation will be working on many of these issues as part of our new five year strategy – researching the problems in more detail, coming up with proactive policy solutions and bringing together coalitions to drive progress towards a web that gives equal power and opportunity to all. I urge you to support our work however you can – by spreading the word, keeping up pressure on companies and governments or by making a donation. We’ve also compiled a directory of other digital rights organisations around the world for you to explore and consider supporting too.

I may have invented the web, but all of you have helped to create what it is today. All the blogs, posts, tweets, photos, videos, applications, web pages and more represent the contributions of millions of you around the world building our online community. All kinds of people have helped, from politicians fighting to keep the web open, standards organisations like W3C enhancing the power, accessibility and security of the technology, and people who have protested in the streets. In the past year, we have seen Nigerians stand up to a social media bill that would have hampered free expression online, popular outcry and protests at regional internet shutdowns in Cameroon and great public support for net neutrality in both India and the European Union.

It has taken all of us to build the web we have, and now it is up to all of us to build the web we want – for everyone.  If you would like to be more involved, then do join our mailing list, do contribute to us, do join or donate to any of the organisations which are working on these issues around the world.

Tim Berners-Lee

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]