A Declaration of Accountability for Cyberspace

August 20, 2018

Remarks by Charlie Rivkin, President and CEO, the Motion Picture Association of America
TPI Aspen Forum, August 20, 2018
As Delivered

I’m honored and delighted to address all of you at the Aspen Forum for the first time as President and CEO of the Motion Picture Association of America.

My colleagues are long-time participants at this conference. And one of the many things they love and appreciate about the Forum is the tradition of not only bringing your laptop but your hiking boots.

This is a place where some of the greatest minds of the tech space come to discuss the timeliest issues of the day – from AI to algorithmic bias – and then extend those conversations on lovely walks like the Sunny Side Trail. So I’ve been looking forward to this event for quite some time.

Coming here, I’m reminded of another spectacular corner of America. Sun Valley, Idaho. About 11 hours’ drive from here. I only manage to get out there once a summer. And when I do, I go fly fishing.

For me, it’s about the quiet and the solitude. Waist deep in the Big Wood River. Just you, the waters, your line… and hopefully some trout.

But that’s when you also realize, you can never be truly alone. There are ecosystems all around you, whether it’s the natural terrain in front of you, or the rod and reel in your hand that connects you to a wider community of fly fishers. And there are the rolling series of ecosystems that this mighty river connects in its winding journey to the Pacific Ocean via the Snake and Columbia rivers.  

My point is, there are ecosystems everywhere – and their success is governed by natural rules of interdependence.

All too often, we only appreciate the importance of those rules after abuses have caused those ecosystems to break down. But if we are proactively respectful and vigilant, we can ensure their longevity.

Today, I want to address one of the most vibrant and interconnected ecosystems in human history. That, of course, is the internet. And as we meet, the healthy and vibrant internet that we all want is in serious jeopardy.

The title of this speech is “a declaration of accountability for cyberspace”—a reference I’m sure is not lost on this audience. And my call for accountability stems from a problem known to everyone here today: An avalanche of harms is taking place across online platforms and placing great strain on our society and the values, laws and norms that have long defined and shaped who we are.

Just to name a few, these include election meddling, hate speech, and a primary concern for my industry – online piracy. It’s further proof of the digital ecosystem’s reach that I just have to say a few words and everyone knows what I mean, from Cambridge Analytica to Infowars. And that’s just in the past few months.

Today, before this group, which represents the wellspring of tech policy and thoughtful debates about its future, I am calling for a conversation.

A national conversation about how we can return the internet to its original promise: a place for vibrant but civil discourse – not one where false reports are retweeted thousands of times around the world before the truth has a chance to log on …

A marketplace – for businesses big and small – where we can conduct legitimate commerce – not one that more closely resembles an ungoverned bazaar where far too many goods are fraudulent and counterfeit.

This conversation could explore any number of options.

Online platforms could increase their voluntary efforts to work with those affected to curb abuse of their services. Or perhaps Congress could recalibrate the online immunities to more explicitly require proactive steps as a condition of those protections.

I am also asking for the recognition that accountability and interdependence must always be at the foundation of an internet that supports free speech, expression, commerce, creativity and innovation.

Online platforms must do more to mitigate the harms they are enabling and we must work collaboratively to address them.

We are not alone in this call.

Fifty leading civil rights organizations recently sent a letter to Congress expressing their concern with “tech companies’ inability – or unwillingness – to police their own platforms.”

Seventeen leading conservative groups did the same, declaring that “fundamentally, many of the internet’s problems result from a lack of accountability.”

Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle, have joined the chorus, too, including House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Chairman of the Judiciary Committee Bob Goodlatte; and Senators  Richard Blumenthal, Lindsay Graham, Rob Portman, Mark Warner, and Ron Wyden, who coauthored the original legislation that shielded internet companies from virtually all legal responsibility for what occurs on their platforms.

Platform leaders themselves are beginning to acknowledge their responsibility. Mark Zuckerberg admirably led the way, saying in his Congressional testimony: “I agree we are responsible for the content” on Facebook.

Uber’s new CEO Dara Khosrowshahi put it even more bluntly when he said. “We have to stand for the content of our platforms… We can’t just say we’re a platform and our job is done.”

Even Tim Berners-Lee, founder of the World Wide Web, has expressed profound disappointment in an internet that, in his words, has “failed instead of served humanity.”

The crescendo is rising within our ecosystem. The message is getting louder by the day: Internet platforms must bear responsibility. And they must do more to address the harms that, wittingly or not, they facilitate.

But we all have a role to play in this. As the internet becomes ever more embedded in our lives, globe-spanning problems can only be solved if we address them together.

Before I talk about how and when we went astray, as well as present a few ideas about how we can work together, I’d like to share some highlights of the journey that brings me here today – and informs my perspective on this ecosystem.

I worked as a CEO in the film and television industry for close to 20 years.

At the Jim Henson Company, I was proud to head a creative organization whose iconic characters, such as Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy, and the Muppets, had such a positive, entertaining, and educational impact on children and families the world over.

We produced fantasy and sci-fi classics like “Labyrinth,” “Farscape” and “The Dark Crystal” that redefined the genre. And at Wildbrain, I was proud to be one of the executive producers of the innovative, children’s educational show “Yo Gabba Gabba!”

For more than 8 years – first as U.S. Ambassador to France – and then as Assistant Secretary of State for Economic and Business Affairs, I worked at the intersection of the public and private sectors, at a time when the internet truly transformed both of those worlds.

As ambassador, I frequently advocated for the commercial interests of technology companies like Google, Facebook and Amazon’s in France and across Europe – as we worked to remove barriers to digital trade and open new avenues for American companies in global internet commerce.

As Assistant Secretary, I led the Bureau at the State Department that had the interagency lead on U.S. internet policy around the world. From multilateral conferences to international plenipotentiaries, we worked hard to stand up for free speech and strengthen internet governance.

Now, as Chairman and CEO of the Motion Picture Association of America, I am proud to represent this iconic and storied industry. Our founding mission is to defend the First Amendment, free speech, and creativity — values that I know are shared by everyone in this room.

But I am also proud to stand for an industry that embraces the transformative power of the digital age. As consumers’ digital viewing choices have shifted, we have embraced the digital revolution.

Our companies are active players in the streaming content market. The content that we produce is available on more than 450 legal online distribution services worldwide. And we announce innovative new deals all the time.

Disney for example, is launching an exciting new streaming service next year. Comcast (the parent company of MPAA member NBC/Universal) is making Amazon Prime Video available on its X1 home entertainment platform. And several of the studios that I represent are backing Jeffrey Katzenberg’s latest venture, a mobile-first video service called NewTV.

Long before this era of digital transformation, my industry recognized that we needed our own accountability to our audiences.

As you know, the MPAA’s movie ratings system – the only such system in the world that is run by a private entity, not the government – is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.

Amanda Lotz, a Peabody Media Center Fellow and Media Studies professor at the University of Michigan, has discussed how today’s platforms face many of the same challenges that other media organizations such as the MPAA have long since faced – and addressed.

We were the first among media companies to develop voluntary standards and practices that allow television networks and movie makers to tell their own stories without interference from governments, respect the wishes of their audiences, and defend against government encroachment on freedom of expression. We, in fact, self regulated to prevent censorship 50 years ago and it continues to serve our industry today.

Given the list of disturbing online crimes and abuses I talked about earlier, combating piracy may seem like a small concern in the greater scheme of things. But the theft of creative content is a serious and deeply personal threat, from our biggest studios to small but beloved production houses like the Henson company.

I occasionally check in with Lisa Henson, the current CEO of Henson, whose many productions range from the Emmy-nominated “Sid the Science Kid” on PBS to “Julie’s Greenroom” on Netflix.

Lisa represents so many things, including the small and medium sized enterprises that contribute so much to our industry and the entire U.S. economy. And she tells me that the internet has now become the greatest source of her company’s revenues.

But at the same time, illegal streaming and other forms of piracy could lead – at any time – to her having to have 100 heartbreaking farewell conversations with people she considers family: the puppeteers, sound engineers, writers, directors and other employees of her company.

For Lisa Henson, the Henson Family and other creative companies, piracy is not some abstraction. It really is personal.

There’s an even bigger point to be made. Online piracy is also the proverbial canary in a coal mine. The same pervasive theft that my industry faces is part of a continuum of toxic developments that harm all of us in this ecosystem – consumers, creators, and commercial operators alike.

Which leads me to yet another point – about who we are.

In his book “Television is the New Television,” Michael Wolff shared a story in which entertainment lawyer Michael Morris convened a group of leading lights from Silicon Valley and Hollywood and asked: “Are we all in this together?” he asked.

To which Marc Andreessen replied: “We are against each other. This is a zero-sum game.”

Unfortunately, “zero sum” has come to define Silicon Valley’s relationship with many industries and institutions, not just our own. And it has led to environments where cooperation can be difficult.

Let me be clear. My industry is not defending old business models. Quite the opposite, in fact. As I pointed out earlier – like you – we are at the leading edge of technological change.

But in a world in which – as Andreessen once observed – software is eating everything, we have become more interdependent than ever: distribution platforms, content creators, consumers, users, government and industry.

If we want to bring back the internet we all want, it’s better to work together than cut each other off at the knees.

TPI board member Laura Martin (who was unable to be here today), made a similar point in a recent research note about the future of media.

In her words, “The US TV ecosystem spent 35 years together building one of the most successful US consumer products of all time.”

That ecosystem, she continued, “has proven robust because it has hundreds of frenemy corporations negotiating … unique long-term contracts with each other that forward their own best interest.”

The implications are clear. Tomorrow’s “smartest people in the room” will be the ones who recognize that ecosystem interdependence, defined by strong competition, the rule of law and good faith contractual negotiations is a model that should apply to all markets and ecosystems.

So where did this all go astray?

It’s worth examining how we got to this situation in the first place: where some believe that platform immunity—in other words, a complete absence of legal accountability – is a necessary condition for a vibrant internet.

In the early 1990s, the internet was a nascent industry with limitless potential. Internet pioneers made a convincing argument. They needed immunity from the legal obligations that govern most businesses in the physical world.

Like a hothouse plant, this nascent industry needed protection if it was going to innovate and be competitive.

Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act and the safe harbor in Section 512 of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act codified those aspirations into law. But a clear assumption came with this blanket immunity – that online platforms would act responsibly and voluntarily to combat online abuses.

Internet pioneer John Perry Barlow promised as much in 1996, when he issued his famous “Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace.”

“Where there are real conflicts, where there are wrongs,” he said, “We will identify them and address them by our means.”

He and his fellow pioneers of cyberspace would draft their own Social Contract, he continued. They would follow the Golden Rule: Do unto others.

Not only have they failed to do that, the internet of the late 1990s is no longer the internet of today. As I often said when I led the Economic Bureau at the State Department, the internet economy became THE economy. E-commerce just became commerce.

The internet has become our one-stop destination for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. And we’ve become a neighborhood of interconnected creators, consumers and contractors. Ten years ago, that online neighborhood was 50 million users. Now it’s more than two billion.

The internet policies that we still have in place were written at a time when the online platforms were nascent. But they are nascent no longer. We live in an AI world that is still operating on an AOL policy framework. Yet many platforms still cite statutes written to address the specific conditions that existed in the 1990s to avoid accountability.

I recently laid out some of these views in a letter to Congress, concluding, “There was a vision for the internet, and this is not it.” It’s time to realign our expectations and the incentives that will help us meet them.

I must admit I was disappointed and a bit surprised when some publicly called this perspective an “anti-consumer” effort by “pre-internet industries” to “defend old business models.” But I think you’ll agree the case for internet accountability could not be more modern or more critical to every single consumer and industry.

Which brings me to the million-dollar question: Where do we go from here?

It seems like a century ago when Sony Pictures was maliciously hacked by North Korea. But on the heels of that terrible incident, Michael Schrage wrote a piece in the Harvard Business Review, in which he applied the “broken windows theory” of urban crime and decay to the internet ecosystem.

As the theory goes – and it came originally from James Q. Wilson and George Kelling – if one broken window is left unrepaired, it is a clear signal that this community tolerates not only this – but even greater – lawbreaking.

It’s just a matter of time before all the windows are broken and crime has completely overtaken the neighborhood.  

At that time, Schrage rightly concluded that we were rapidly witnessing and experiencing the accelerating erosion of civil digital society.

His point was clear: Just as any community must work together to fix those broken windows, we must do the same for digital civil society, or face an escalation of harms and ills.

Right now, that commitment doesn’t exist in the digital space, in theory or practice.

But from our perspective, we’ve seen powerful examples of how we can begin the collaborative effort to turn the tide in the right direction.

We’re honored to call Amazon, one of the biggest and most important of the internet platforms, a partner in the Alliance for Creativity and Entertainment (or ACE), a global anti-piracy initiative whose members include the six MPAA studios, HBO, Netflix and two dozen other global companies. We are grateful that they have put proactive programs into place that protect trademarks and help curb counterfeiting.

For example, Amazon’s Brand Registry gives rights owners advanced tools, including search capabilities, to protect their brands from counterfeits. And a system of theirs known as “Transparency in the US,” which uses alphanumeric codes to authenticate products, is designed to achieve similar outcomes.

At the MPAA, we work with the advertising community to help companies keep track of where their ads are going.

We are also working with payment processors such as Mastercard, Visa and Paypal to prevent pirates from using those organizations’ financial networks to fund their unlawful online activities.

But there is so much more to be done. And ladies and gentlemen, the case for online platforms to step forward and become accountable at this time could not be more clear.

Thanks in large part to the protections that nurtured them, they have become some of the best-resourced and most sophisticated companies in the world.

They’re not only morally duty bound, they’re supremely qualified to solve these problems at their very core.

When we think about consumers and the constellation of aspirations, dreams and economic prosperity they can bring to the internet, there is no other recourse. We can and must do better.

There are too many online windows broken and left unfixed for us to do anything but take collective action – and take it now.

Well, you’ve now heard my perspective—informed by my time leading creative companies in the private sector and leading internet policy while serving at the U.S State Department. I have had the opportunity to see these issues from many different sides, and I am greatly encouraged that this dialogue is going to continue on the next panel, where we’ll hear many other perspectives.

This conversation is important to us. We intend to be constructive participants as it continues to unfold. And I know Ben, Greg and Neil on my staff will be here for the next few days to continue the dialogue.

Again, I am so honored to have the chance to talk to you and before I depart, I’d like to leave you with these thoughts.

At the State Department, my bureau convened global entrepreneurship summits to support the aspirations of entrepreneurs everywhere. And one of those summits brought us to Silicon Valley itself – which was the promised land for so many of these international dreamers.

What I saw there was some amazing technology. But I also saw the human spirit behind it. These minds were never daunted by what others told them was impossible. They were too busy working towards “yes” to take “no” for an answer.

I’ve seen what Silicon Valley is capable of. I’ve witnessed it. And I can’t help but imagine the success if the online platforms could evolve from being at the heart of the problem to being architects of our shared success.

Every stakeholder, including us, must be a player in that shared success.

All of us teaming our collective technological might with our common resolve.

All of us working together to create safeguards against abuses.

All of us fixing those broken windows and restoring order to our digital neighborhood.

And like those brilliant minds in Silicon Valley, all of us working towards “yes.”

At the end of the day, we all want this ecosystem of ours to thrive for generations to come.

Thank you.