In Conversation With Craig Newmark


Julian Hayda (JH): Thanks for joining us today, Craig—thanks for chatting about the things that the both of us care about and for supporting the Trustworthy Internet and Democracy program.

Craig Newmark (CN): Hey, it’s my pleasure. It’s a privilege to have the ability to help protect our democracy here and around the world.

JH: I’ve really been meditating on the name of this program. What does it mean to have a trustworthy internet, and will we recognize it when we arrive there?

CN: It’s pretty pragmatic, down-to-earth stuff. When you connect to a site, you want to be sure that you’re really connecting to that and nothing else. When you’re getting emails, you want good protection against phishing. The deal is that you always want to be sure of knowing who you’re talking to and where you’re visiting. And that site operators have your back.

JH: So it’s just like how you can trust people in person—when you meet them face-to-face, you can recognize them for who they are. But you don’t necessarily have that when you have a digitally mediated conversation. So is it a matter of getting people comfortable with digitally-mediated communication?

CN: It’s a combination of providing a reliable, secure internet and then working on the perception of its security. We have real issues at the moment which will persist for years—optimistically speaking! As things get better, we need to provide credible assurance that things are better. People crave authenticity and reliability, and we need to provide it. Changing perception may be as challenging as changing the technology.

JH: Give me an example of that.

CN: Specific examples include protections against phishing, or different kinds of interception of traffic. It would be good to get some kind of warning if you’re visiting a fraudulent site. It would be nice if providers would stop servicing IP addresses that really go someplace else. The idea is to minimize and eventually eliminate the ways where bad actors can fool around with where you think you’re going.

JH: And this is really getting down to the nuts-and-bolts of our shared work, right? I think of when I was a child, you’d walk down to the corner, shove a quarter into a box, and pull out the newspaper. You know that the paper you’re getting is the actual paper because there’s a big header on the front page identifying it. Inside there’s a masthead so you see all of the people responsible for it, and their reputations depend on it. But it’s a lot easier to pretend to be who you aren’t in the digital space.

CN: What we need on the net is a trusted and trustworthy service. That would give us some idea of sites and news that we can trust. One example is the Journalism Trust Initiative from Reporters Without Borders. Another path might be the major, frequent, and loud repetition of journalistic ethics. And maybe calling out the major spreaders of disinformation. The ethics of news distribution says, “hey, it is not right to spread disinformation.” It would be useful if we could convince people in mass media or social media to follow that rule. Meaning, if there’s someone around who is a super spreader of disinformation, then you may not want to give their words exposure. A variant of that is false equivalence, or “bothsidesism.” Because people said in the past, there’s two sides to every story. Sometimes there aren’t. But to maintain the pretense of objectivity, a newspaper or news channel might bring on someone to represent a side of the story knowing full well that they’re going to lie—and they still get the air time.

JH: In part it’s a content-filling problem. If you’re a 24 hour TV network competing with hundreds of channels, or a news site on the internet competing with tens of thousands of similar sites, you feel pressure to keep the content relevant and up-to-date. In an age before cable news, the Federal Communications Commission that licensed TV channels required broadcasters to present controversial topics honestly and fairly. Maybe we need a ‘Fairness Doctrine’ for the internet.

When did you realize that you were personally empowered to make a meaningful difference in the realm of a trustworthy internet?

CN: It was a pretty slow gradual understanding with major milestones. In 2006 or so I attended an Aspen Institute conference on communications. People in journalism and related fields started educating me, even though I didn’t know at the time that I was getting educated. But I’d learned enough that around 2016 I realized that a trustworthy press, what I called the immune system of democracy, was a failing immune system. A lot of disinformation had been planted successfully by both our foreign adversaries and their domestic allies.

But even further back, in 1970, my history teacher taught us about the role of a trustworthy press in the context of the Bill of Rights and the Constitution. And going back further—really old school—I guess it all got started with Mr. and Mrs. Levin in Sunday school who told me that it’s wrong to bear false witness. So that’s really where it started. But it accelerated in a great amount in 2016.

JH: So people just need to develop a good gut for that.

CN: I need a much thicker skin. And I need help. People of goodwill need to protect each other.

JH: This is a serious topic among journalists today as well—the ones doing the most important work are putting themselves out there a lot. Why do you think harassment persists? I know that’s a big question that can’t easily be answered.

CN: Harassment exists, sometimes, as a kind of information warfare. If bad actors want to flood the zone with disinformation, they may need to get good actors, honest reporters offline. Then there are just some people who are a bit on the cruel side. Sometimes there are people who’ve been manipulated by others who are running a disinformation campaign. I’ve seen all of the above, and none of it is okay. We need to think of better and better ways to deal with it. Better forms of accountability might help.

JH: Since we’re on the subject, the easiest person to typically harass is someone who is most vulnerable. And the way that they can protect themselves is by maintaining their privacy. But an increasing number of tools that journalists depend on—that give them access to stories—don’t allow them to remain entirely private. How do we begin to kind of understand privacy as a best practice for all sorts of people, as opposed to something that people do when they’re trying to hide?

CN: Well, basic cybersecurity hygiene is required. You need to protect your own systems and you need to prevent things from leaking out. That protects your privacy. And beyond that, the Global Cyber Alliance provides a bunch of tools for journalists or election officials to protect their security. It’s a start, and it’s a necessary start. You got to get started someplace. 

JH: It’s worth noting that the tools were put together in part through your generosity and the generosity of others who ensured they would be free. It isn’t cost-prohibitive to follow certain practices and use certain tools. So that helps.

CN: Well, it helps if you’re going to provide the tools that they are free. The challenge is to get the word out, and then get the word out more.

JH: I read a quote from you in The New York Times a few years ago about privacy. It was about your support of Consumer Reports, and the work they’re doing to evaluate the privacy of various products. You said “I love TVs. I love watching TV. I don’t love TV watching me.” So I’m wondering what the effects are when we, whether it be journalists or typical consumers, default to the things that are most readily available, even if it comes at the risk of putting their privacy in jeopardy?

CN: Well, there’s frequently a trade off between privacy, effectiveness, and convenience. There are times when we accept the use of a service like free email; as part of the social contract, we give permission to the company providing an email service, and agree that they look at the emails to serve us ads which meet our needs better. That’s a trade off. People need data—disclosure—to make sense of. But there needs to be informed consent. And again, we make that decision very frequently when we sign that we’ve read the Terms of Service.

That actually needs to be explored by people much smarter than I am. But even though there is a trade off, that doesn’t relieve anyone of some responsibility for thinking about what their security and privacy involves. Because their reputation is at risk. The reputation of their friends, family, and associates is at risk. We all have to pay some attention to this. Because even if the services we use help protect us, we’re still responsible for some of these things.

JH: Yeah. I think a lot of people don’t necessarily internalize some of that.

So you’ve been in tech for a long time and you’ve seen it all. By no means does that mean you have a magic ball, but with regards the safety of journalists online, and the general protection of people on the internet where do you  think we’ll be in five years? Are you hopeful, or are we bound to repeat some mistakes?

CN: Well, I think internet infrastructure will be much reformed and improved. Better DNS and better underlying protocols will happen if, well-informed groups like the Global Cyber Alliance get the word out with increasing volume and frequency, that these things need to be improved. Internet providers have to play their part. In that case, I think in five years, the internet infrastructure will be a much safer place. And as the ethics of news distribution improves, and is recognized and acted on, things will be safer from that point of view. So I am pretty optimistic. My optimism is in part because I work with a lot of groups pushing ahead these matters, and I’ll continue to do so. And that puts me in a position that’s, I guess, ahead of the curve. But I’ll do so discreetly because the people I support need time to get it done. But for my part, a nerd’s gotta do, what a nerd’s gotta do.

JH: With conscience, most importantly.

CN: You know, people who are genuine nerds of the 1950s, even in our naivete, tend to be people who were paying attention in Sunday school—that part about not bearing false witness.

JH: Well, that’s a gospel that I can certainly preach. And you’re certainly helping in what seems to be a David and Goliath dynamic: we’re a nonprofit going against all these providers with more resources. So again, thank you for doing your part. Because our work at the GCA wouldn’t be possible without it.

CN: Hey, it’s my pleasure. Let’s keep doing more and then we do more.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

View the full interview.