Future Tense Newsletter: A Rocky Legal Future for an Open Internet

A woman checks her cell phone as she waits in line to enter the U.S. Supreme Court.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

Greetings, Future Tensers,

On Monday, President Trump announced Judge Brett Kavanaugh as his pick to fill Justice Anthony Kennedy’s soon-to-be-vacated Supreme Court seat. If confirmed, Kavanaugh will likely serve on the court for decades, during which time he’ll rule on wide range of the country’s most pressing legal issues—including those that will shape the online world. For those concerned about an open internet, the nomination may spell bad news. As Slate’s April Glaser writes, Kavanaugh’s past decisions show a judge who is “more sympathetic to the handful of companies that control the internet … than to the hundreds of millions of Americans who use it.” His past opinions have also alarmed those concerned about combatting climate change. As Sofie Werthan reports, the judge has consistently based decisions on a belief that the Environmental Protection Agency’s “expansive attempts to regulate pollution and combat climate change go too far”—a stance that worries environmental experts and advocates.

There are, however, eight other justices on the court. For a closer examination of what they’ve been up to in “the Cyber Age,” we recommend last week’s episode of our podcast If Then, in which hosts April and Will speak with Slate justice reporter Mark Joseph Stern about the highest court’s recent rulings on privacy, antitrust, and online speech—and what might be coming next.

Kavanaugh’s decisions aren’t the only rulings taking heat. Last week, Facebook came under fire for flagging and temporarily removing a community newspaper’s Fourth of July–themed post. The contents? Excerpts from the Declaration of Independence, which the social network’s systems had apparently flagged as hate speech. Slate’s Amy Pollard explains what may have triggered it, and how it highlights the difficult business of algorithmically aided content moderation. Facebook’s been making headlines for other recent snafus, too. Last week, the company had to issue an apology to some 800,000 users that may have been affected by a glitch that unblocked profiles the users had previously blocked. It also finally released its answers to more than 1,000 questions Mark Zuckerberg received during his congressional hearing earlier this year. Aaron Mak gives us the rundown of what Facebook admitted and omitted from the 747-page response. Facebook still isn’t done answering for privacy issues yet, either. A security researcher recently revealed that, as recently as June, another quiz app exposed data belonging to 120 million Facebook users. Who knew figuring out which Disney princess you are could be so risky?

Other things we read between contemplating our reflection in a $1,199 smart mirror:

Meat market: If meat is grown in a lab, as opposed to coming from a living animal, should it still be called meat? Rose Eveleth explores the question that has sparked a labeling war among federal agencies, the cattle industry, and cultured-meat manufacturers.

Patience for the process: J.P. Nelson writes that efforts to “discover” alien life won’t culminate in a single moment. Instead, they will involve a painstaking sorting of signal from noise.

Updating your “om”: Why does almost every yoga and pilates studio use the same online booking system? Heather Schwedel investigates.

Space nation: Slate’s Joshua Keating interviews the newly inaugurated president of Asgardia, a proposed space nation that may change the way we think about statehood in our galaxy.

Troubling testing: The Trump administration is using DNA testing to reunite migrant families it previously separated at the border. But without robust privacy safeguards for this genetic data, Natalie Ram writes, there’s serious potential for misuse.

Transparency test: Could an algorithmic risk assessment help judges make better sentencing decisions? Stephanie Wykstra reports on how policymakers in Pennsylvania are weighing this question—and what it may tell us about the limits of algorithmic transparency.


·     Should we communicate with aliens? On Thursday, Future Tense will host a happy hour discussion to consider how humans might interact with extraterrestrial life—and the potential consequences of doing so. RSVPs are now closed, but you can find more info about the event here.

·     Join Julia Turner, Slate’s editor-in-chief, for the latest installment of our “My Favorite Movie” series. She’ll be hosting a screening of Network at D.C.’s Landmark Theatres E Street Cinema on Wednesday, July 25. RSVP here—if you don’t, we’ll be “mad as hell.”

Wishing Face ID would accept my morning face,

Mia Armstrong

For Future Tense

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University.