Subject: May there be shared blocklists
Date: 1/14/2018 03:58:00 PM To: myself, others in my industry Bcc:

A reminder:

Unconstrained media access to a person is indistinguishable from harassment.

It pains me to watch my grandfather suffer from surfeit of communication. He can't keep up with the mail he receives each day. Because of his noble impulse to charity and having given money to causes he supports (evangelical churches, military veterans, disadvantaged children), those charities sell his name for use by other charities (I use "charity" very loosely), and he is inundated with requests for money. Very frequently, those requests include a "gift", apparently in order to induce a sense of obligation: a small calendar, a pen and pad of paper, refrigerator magnets, return address labels, a crisp dollar bill. Those monetary ones surprised me at first, but they are common and if some small percentage of people feel an obligation to write a $50 check, then sending out a $1 to each person makes it worth their while (though it must not help the purported charitable cause very much, not a high priority). Many now include a handful of US coins stuck to the response card -- ostensibly to imply that just a few cents a day can make a difference, but, I suspect, to make it harder to recycle the mail directly because it includes metal as well as paper. (I throw these in the recycling anyway.) Some of these solicitations include a warning on the outside that I hadn't seen before, indicating that it's a federal criminal offense to open postal mail or to keep it from the recipient. Perhaps this is a threat to caregivers to discourage them from throwing away this junk mail for their family members; I suspect more likely, it encourages the suspicion in the recipient that someone might try to filter their mail, and that to do so would be unjust, even criminal, that anyone trying to help them by sorting their mail should not be trusted. It disgusts me.

But the mails are nothing compared to the active intrusiveness of other media. Take conservative talk radio, which my grandfather listened to for years as a way to keep sound in the house and fend off loneliness. It's often on in the house at a fairly low volume, but it's ever present, and it washes over the brain. I suspect most people could never genuinely understand Rush Limbaugh's rants, but coherent argument is not the point, it's just the repetition of a claim, not even a claim, just a general impression. For years, my grandfather felt conflicted, as many of his beloved family members (liberal and conservative) worked for the federal government, but he knew, in some quite vague but very deep way, that everyone involved with the federal government was a menace to freedom. He tells me explicitly that if you hear something often enough, you start to think it must be true.

And then there's the TV, now on and blaring 24 hours a day, whether he's asleep or awake. He watches old John Wayne movies or NCIS marathons. Or, more accurately, he watches endless loud commercials, with some snippets of quiet movies or television shows interspersed between them. The commercials repeat endlessly throughout the day and I start to feel confused, stressed and tired within a few hours of arriving at his house. I suspect advertisers on those channels are happy with the return they receive; with no knowledge of the source, he'll tell me that he "really ought to" get or try some product or another for around the house. He can't hear me, or other guests, or family he's talking to on the phone when a commercial is on, because they're so loud.

Compared to those media, email is clear and unintrusive, though its utility is still lost in inundation. Email messages that start with "Fw: FWD: FW: FW FW Fw:" cover most of his inbox; if he clicks on one and scrolls down far enough he can get to the message, a joke about Obama and monkeys, or a cute picture of a kitten. He can sometimes get to the link to photos of the great-grand-children, but after clicking the link he's faced with a moving pop-up box asking him to login, covering the faces of the children. To close that box, he must identify and click on a small "x" in very light grey on a white background. He can use the Web for his bible study and knows it can be used for other purposes, but ubiquitous and intrusive prompts (advertising or otherwise) typically distract him from other tasks.

My grandfather grew up with no experience with media of these kinds, and had no time to develop filters or practices to avoid these intrusions. At his age, it is probably too late to learn a new mindset to throw out mail without a second thought or immediately scroll down a webpage. With a lax regulatory environment and unfamiliar with filtering, he suffers -- financially and emotionally -- from these exploitations on a daily basis. Mail, email, broadcast video, radio and telephone could provide an enormous wealth of benefits for an elderly person living alone: information, entertainment, communication, companionship, edification. But those advantages are made mostly inaccessible.

Younger generations suffer other intrusions of media. Online harassment is widely experienced (its severity varies, by gender among other things); your social media account probably lets you block an account that sends you a threat or other unwelcome message, but it probably doesn't provide mitigations against dogpiling, where a malicious actor encourages their followers to pursue you. Online harassment is important because of the severity and chilling impact on speech, but an analogous problem of over-access exists with other attention-grabbing prompts. What fraction of smartphone users know how to filter the notifications that buzz or ring their phone? Notifications are typically on by default rather than opt-in with permission. Smartphone users can, even without the prompt of the numerous thinkpieces on the topic, describe the negative effects on their attention and well-being.

The capability to filter access to ourselves must be a fundamental principle of online communication: it may be the key privacy concern of our time. Effective tools that allow us to control the information we're exposed to are necessities for freedom from harassment; they are necessities for genuine accessibility of information and free expression. May there be shared blocklists, content warnings, notification silencers, readability modes and so much more.