How You Can Survive in this Orwellian Quagmire of Greed, Selfies, Posts and Porn
By Roger Paradiso
There are many people fighting for our rights and lives in this internet jungle. I spoke to Ruth Vitale, a former founder and co-president of Paramount Classics and President of Fine Line Features when independent film thrived. In 2013, Ruth and her team took on the crusade of fighting pirates and other strange creatures on the internet. The organization she heads is named Creative Future because she still believes in the creative power of artists in the (currently dystopian) world of social media. Facebook is supposed to be bringing the world together and Google is supposed to be making it easier to search the web. Unfortunately, these Silicon Valley giants are doing some very bad things also. For one thing, they are too big.
Forbes lists Alphabet (Google’s parent company) at number 4 among digital companies on the planet; Facebook is number 10. Google has an estimated 1.7 billion users worldwide; Facebook has 2.4 billion active users worldwide. Both companies are positioned in every continent on this planet and in almost every country. Inside Google are small companies like YouTube, Chrome, Android, Google Maps, among others. Facebook has Instagram and WhatsApp among other companies.
Roger Paradiso: Ruth, what is Google doing that keeps you up at night?
Ruth Vitale: What aren’t they doing that keeps me up at night? I have to tell you, I used to feel just like most people—that Google was an important and essential part of the internet and had changed the world for the better. But this job has opened my eyes to their immense lobbying effort on Capitol Hill, an effort aimed at dismantling the copyright protections that creative people rely upon, as well as ruthlessly protecting the legal immunities that allow them to profit from illegal content, whether it’s piracy or opioids or hate speech or terrorism.
Google, its sibling YouTube, and Facebook have almost single-handedly fueled the rise of a massive global digital marketplace of “shared” and stolen creative work (journalism, music, photography, film, and television) that has increased their bottom lines and made them into the largest, most profitable companies in the world. YouTube is the largest streaming site globally, and their entire business was built on the creative artworks of people who were never compensated for their work.
RP: Villagers with children want to know: would you let YouTube be your kid’s babysitter while you’re not home?
RV: This is actually a very serious question that many parents do not think about nearly enough. In addition to the make-up tutorials, music videos, cat videos, and movie trailers one can find on YouTube, there is a dark side that is just as big—a cesspool of hate speech, terrorism propaganda, conspiracy theories, fake news, and violence. We know that pedophiles use YouTube to lure and exploit children, and to network with each other. Even worse, we know that YouTube has known this as well, FOR YEARS, and has looked the other way. In addition to all this, YouTube has a perverse, yet shockingly prevalent, community of users who create videos with the sole intent of disturbing and frightening children. So, in short, absolutely not—I would never leave a child alone with YouTube!
RP: Hollywood anointed Zuckerberg and Facebook as the kings of the new world order in their overly praised film “The Social Network” way back in 2010. How has FB affected the film business?
RV: If YouTube has a dark side, Facebook is equally dark. White supremacists, terrorists, pedophiles, Russian bots, drug dealers, illegal gun sellers, and large-scale piracy networks have one thing in common—they all have a home on Facebook. Cyber pirates are using their Watch Party tool to host illegal movie marathons for thousands of viewers, and Facebook Groups are widely used for sharing stolen movies. Just like YouTube, Facebook knows all this. They’ve known it for years, and they’ve made billions of dollars by fueling this Wild West frontier.
So how does that affect our business? We absolutely cannot compete with free. And, if most people spend a good chunk of their day on platforms like Facebook, where they can search for content and find free pirated versions of our movies, why would anyone pay?
RP: What is FB doing that drives you to keep fighting them?
RV: Just like Google, Facebook spends millions of dollars each year lobbying the government, fighting against the interests of creative people to preserve the safe harbors that give them immunity from accountability. So, I will never stop fighting. Unless, of course, they decide to come to the table and work with us on common sense solutions that would eliminate the criminal activity on their platform and better safeguard creative works.
Believe it or not, I don’t want to fight Facebook. I would welcome their partnership. But right now, they aren’t even maintaining the bare minimum of what should pass for a safe and secure online environment; and that cannot stand.
Look at it this way: if I opened a store on Bleecker Street selling guns, opioids, bootleg DVDs, and children, it would be shut down in a day. How is it that Google and Facebook are allowed to facilitate an online marketplace for the same exact illegal goods with impunity?
RP: You say that Google is the largest search engine in the world and a monopoly. What is the dark side of Google in their quest to dominate the internet world?
RV: According to Statista, Google handles almost 88 percent of all search queries with no other search engine obviously coming even close in market share. It is indisputably a monopoly, and that might be the source of all our problems. Google has no incentive to change. That leaves regulatory forces as the only way to stop them. And even with Congress being very aware of the issues, that will take years.
The dark side of Google’s monopoly power in both Search and streaming (through their sibling YouTube) is that it forces everyone to agree to the terms they set. If you’re an advertiser on Search or a musician on YouTube, if you want the world’s largest audience, you must “negotiate” with them. And, as you can imagine, that negotiation is more like a robbery than a negotiation. This lopsided negotiation is just one side effect of Google’s unchecked monopoly power, but it affects almost every business and every worker in America.
RP: You mentioned in your latest issue of Creative Future that Facebook and YouTube’s terms of service are all they need to keep criminals of all kinds off their platforms. Could you please explain?
RV: It’s not all they need, but it would be a very good start—if only because it wouldn’t require any new laws to be passed. All they would have to do is honor what they have already promised all of us. Take YouTube’s terms of service, for example. They couldn’t be clearer; they require that the user agree that any content they upload to the site “will not contain third party copyrighted material, or material that is subject to other third party proprietary rights.” Furthermore, they require that none of the more than 300 hours of video uploaded to the site every minute be “contrary to the YouTube Community Guidelines”—guidelines, we might add, that forbid “harmful or dangerous content,” “hateful content,” content involving “child endangerment,” and “videos that someone else owns the copyright to,” among other harms. What about someone who violates one or more of these guidelines? “YouTube may at any time,” their terms of service continue, “without prior notice and in its sole discretion, remove such Content and/or terminate a user’s account for submitting such material in violation of these Terms of Service.” That all seems pretty clear, and Facebook’s terms have similar language. That’s why it’s so shocking that these platforms remain active hubs of activity like piracy, illegal drug sales, and a lot of hate, because they already pledged to police things like that, and they’re simply looking the other way.
RP: What kind of help are we getting from Congress in protecting us Villagers from the modern-day robber barons called FB and Google?
RV: Well, until 2016 we had a small number of allies in Congress who understood that Google and Facebook were bad for our democracy. Then we saw how the Russians used social media to manipulate the election, and how Cambridge Analytica and Facebook worked together to steal data and manipulate all of us. And then the waterfall of bad news and negative press started, which continues to this day. So now we have more and more allies in Congress who understand that something needs to happen to regulate these monopoly platforms.
RP: What can Villagers do to protect themselves and their families from the dark side of the internet?
RV: Stay away from it! Take a walk on the West Side Highway [Hudson River Park] and enjoy the fresh air. See a movie at the Angelika! Go to Three Lives and buy a book. Support creative livelihoods with your hard-earned dollars, if you can afford to. As much as the internet has changed the world for the better, the current state of the internet is broken. And do not let them tell you otherwise.
Next month we will talk to Ruth and Creative Future about copyright issues as well as the newest human right called data rights. The MIT Technology Review states, “It’s time for a Bill of Data Rights designed to protect your privacy, liberty and freedom in the digital age.” To see more about data rights, search for Roger Paradiso’s review of “The Great Hack” at WestView News online.
Roger Paradiso is a writer and filmmaker whose latest film, “The Lost Village,” explored the conditions destroying Greenwich Village and our country.