Technology × Freedom

BRICSCoin and the North Korea Conflict Are Both About the Same Thing - Fighting US Hegemony

September 5, 2017 invisiblehand

The North Korea conflict has escalated tensions between the US on one side and Russia and China on the other. The narrative being regurgitated by US media's many talking heads is, "America good, North Korea bad." Former US Ambassador to the UN, John Bolton, recently told Fox News:

I think the only diplomatic option left is to end the regime in North Korea by effectively having the South take it over.

Michael Rozeff rebuffs Bolton and his ilk by laying bare their real desire:

What he’s actually proposing, hidden inside the notion of attacking N. Korea, is rule by force of U.S. arms of as much of the planet as the U.S. can get away with.

The assumption among Americans is that the US is always good and right, because, well, we're the US. It's understandable, though not defensible, to think in this egocentric way. Yesterday, an acquaintance said to me, "We can't nuke North Korea because it's right next to South Korea, and a lot of Americans are living there." To which I replied, "And a lot of South Koreans, too." The argument could be extended to North Korea: We can't nuke the North because there are a lot of North Koreans living there. Suppose North Korea was threatening to nuke a country we didn't like, such as Iran? Would we be as morally outraged? A nuclear attack on Iran would kill as many innocent Iranians as an attack on the US would kill innocent Americans. Never mind that

for the last three weeks, Japan, South Korea and the US have been engaged in large-scale joint-military drills on Hokkaido Island and in South Korea. These needlessly provocative war games are designed to simulate an invasion of North Korea and a "decapitation" operation to remove the regime…. Monday’s missile test (which flew over Hokkaido Island) was conducted just hours after the war games ended.

"In other words," Mike Whitney writes,

the test was not a "bold and provocative act" (as the media stated) but a modest and well thought-out response by a country that has experienced 64 years of relentless hectoring, sanctions, demonization and saber rattling by Washington.

Going back to Rozeff, he gets what this North Korea conflict is really about. It's about US global hegemony.

That's also what the BRICSCoin is about.

It's no coincidence that as tensions over North Korea escalate, the hot topic at this year's BRICS Summit is the creation of a cryptocurrency to improve trading among the emerging economies of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa (BRICS). The Duran writes on the implications of this hypothetical BRISCCoin:

While the US Dollar remains the most popular global trading and reserve currency, this is rapidly changing. A BRICS backed cryptocurrency may be both the proverbial ‘Dollar buster’ as well as a ‘sanctions buster’.

In many ways, the most powerful asset the US has internationally is the Dollar. If the effective hegemony of the Dollar is broken, it could be a substantial opportunity for emerging markets to assert their monetary and consequentially fiscal independence.

BRICS nations such as Russia and China - semi-allies and trading partners of North Korea - are trying to beat back the heavy hand of US hegemony, both militarily and monetarily. Regardless of what you think about national governments creating their own cryptocurrencies, it would be inconsistent of us American citizens who advocate cryptocurrencies to criticize Russia and China for wanting the same thing we want: freedom from the US Dollar.

2018 Intelligence Authorization Act Labels WikiLeaks a "Hostile Intelligence Service"

August 30, 2017 invisiblehand

The 2018 Intelligence Authorization Act has been passed by Congress and is awaiting the Senate and President Trump's approval. In it appears section 623, which states:

It is the sense of Congress that WikiLeaks and the senior leadership of WikiLeaks resemble a non-state hostile intelligence service often abetted by state actors and should be treated as such a service by the United States.

This section, however, wasn't there when Congress passed it. Per BullTruth:

The section of concern, section .623, does not make it’s appearance in the document until after it passed through congress. There is no mention of section .623 in The Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence report (H. Rep. 115–251) which took place on July 24, 2017, nor is it found in any of the four versions leading up to and including July 31, 2017 when it was introduced to the Senate.

Sen. Burr introduced H.R. 3180 to the Senate Calendar where it became known as S. 1761 on August 18, 2017 (less than three full days after [California Congressman] Rohrabacher met with Assange), and voilasection .623 had mysteriously been added to the text.

Strange, isn't it? Interestingly, the section still doesn't appear on the version of the bill posted on the congressional intelligence committee's website.

In any event, the passage of the bill could have dramatic repercussions on free speech, according to former Congressman Ron Paul:

This language is designed to delegitimize WikiLeaks, encourage the federal government to spy on individuals working with WikiLeaks, and block access to WikiLeaks’ website. This provision could even justify sending US forces abroad to arrest WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange or other WikiLeaks personnel.

If the government is successful in shutting down WikiLeaks by labeling it a “hostile intelligence service,” it will use this tactic to silence other organizations and websites as well. The goal will be to create a climate of fear to ensure no one dares publish the revelations of a future Edward Snowden or Chelsea Manning.

He goes a step further:

If President Trump supports the war on WikiLeaks, after candidate Trump proclaimed his love for WikiLeaks, it will be further proof that he has outsourced his presidency to the deep state.

Dang.

If you think it will make a difference, you can sign a change.org petition to remove section 623 from the bill.

No, Smartphones Don’t Cause Teen Depression

August 28, 2017 invisiblehand

If you’ve read the September 2017 issue of The Atlantic, you might have noticed an attention-grabbing headline: “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” The author, Jean Twenge, is a professor of psychology at San Diego State University and author of Generation Me and iGen. That latter book title is Twenge’s preferred term for the post-millennial generation, so you can pretty well surmise what her answer will be. After all, if the most predominant feature of the upcoming generation is the fact that they use Apple products, what else but the use of Apple products could be to blame for all of that generation’s problems?

To Twenge’s credit, she doesn’t make this conclusion outright. But it’s strongly implied:

Around 2012, I noticed abrupt shifts in teen behaviors and emotional states. The gentle slopes of the line graphs became steep mountains and sheer cliffs, and many of the distinctive characteristics of the Millennial generation began to disappear. In all my analyses of generational data—some reaching back to the 1930s—I had never seen anything like it.

…The biggest difference between the Millennials and their predecessors was in how they viewed the world; teens today differ from the Millennials not just in their views but in how they spend their time. The experiences they have every day are radically different from those of the generation that came of age just a few years before them.

What happened in 2012 to cause such dramatic shifts in behavior? ….[I]t was exactly the moment when the proportion of Americans who owned a smartphone surpassed 50 percent.

If the implied connection isn’t strong enough, she later opines:

Rates of teen depression and suicide have skyrocketed since 2011. It’s not an exaggeration to describe iGen as being on the brink of the worst mental-health crisis in decades. Much of this deterioration can be traced to their phones.

For someone with a PhD, Twenge’s reasoning here smacks of shallowness. Correlation is not causation, nor is a symptom the same as a disease. But this kind of pseudo-academic postulating is part and parcel of scientism, which has run amok in academia. As I’ve mentioned before, scientism is the misguided application of the scientific method outside of the natural sciences of physics, biology, and so on. In this case, Twenge has applied the scientific method to a social and cultural trend, treating as data and deterministic forces things that aren’t clearly quantifiable or experimentally controllable. Thus, her preposterous suggestion that a piece of technology has “destroyed a generation.”

Here’s a key question Twenge fails to consider: Why do some teens use smartphones and social media far less frequently than their average peers? And are there major differences between these teens’ family and social environments and those of their smartphone-obsessed peers? For example, are heavy social media users more likely to have divorced parents? Are they more likely to attend a public school versus a private school or homeschool? Are they more likely to live in urban, suburban, or rural areas? Are they more likely to be active members of a local religious community? Are their parents more likely to allow them unsupervised, unrestricted access to social media versus having parental controls or a social media “curfew” at night? Twenge herself acknowledges:

Eighth-graders who are heavy users of social media increase their risk of depression by 27 percent, while those who play sports, go to religious services, or even do homework more than the average teen cut their risk significantly.

Her choice of words is telling here. She presumes that using social media is what “increases their risk” of depression, instead of the more accurate statement that social media is associated with an increased rate of depression. Her equivocations blur the line between correlation and causation. But more telling is her failure to address the obvious question: what are the underlying factors that cause some kids to prefer other activities (sports, religious services, homework) over using social media, and might these underlying factors also have something to do with the unequal rates of depression? Twenge doesn’t seem interested in following the chain of correlation back more than one or two links. Social media users are depressed; that’s enough. No more information is needed.

It comes down to this: Twenge mistakes effect for cause. Teens are always on social media; therefore, they feel isolated and depressed. Rather, could it be that the familial, social, spiritual, philosophical, educational, etc. environments in which today’s teens grow up have created a psychological void, and that the emotional problems that result are merely exacerbated when teens turn to social media falsely expecting that it will fill the preexisting void?

But in our politically correct, increasingly egalitarian-minded society, there is a stigma associated with any criticism of someone else’s personal choices or feelings. This includes any criticism of the culture at large, the decisions that teenagers make, or various parenting styles (unless any of those things themselves are critical or intolerant of others). So, technology takes the blame. Politicians and media do the same thing when they blame the Internet and social media for radicalization and terrorism, or for neo-Nazi hate groups, or for unfavorable election results (fake news did it!). This is a boon for the politicians, as government intervention is almost always called for in these cases.

In reality, social media use – and technology in general – is probably more of a barometer than a cause. How much teenagers use social media – and the effect it has on them – is, I would guess, a decent indicator of the kind of emotional and psychological state they were already in. But that won’t stop politicians from demanding regulations be placed on social media companies to, for instance, curb cyberbullying. Many state laws define cyberbullying to include “social exclusion” – i.e. not inviting Jimmy to your birthday party – and public schools are required to address these issues. Why shouldn’t social media be held accountable, too? This idea is already being discussed. Of course, regulation will only mask the symptom. It won’t cure the disease.

A California Judge Rules That Public Data Is, Um, Public

August 24, 2017 invisiblehand

In a twist on the “free and open internet” argument, a judge in San Francisco has ruled that LinkedIn can’t stop third-party companies from trawling publicly available user data. BBC reports:

The row began in May when LinkedIn sent HiQ Labs a cease and desist letter demanding it stop trawling LinkedIn’s public profiles for data - something that takes place, according to HiQ’s website, roughly every two weeks.

But HiQ won the court battle over one simple fact:

“HiQ doesn’t analyze private sections of LinkedIn,” a spokeswoman for HiQ Labs said via email on Monday. “We only review public profile information. We don’t republish or sell the data we collect. We only use it as the basis for the valuable analysis we provide to employers. Moreover, LinkedIn doesn’t own the data contained in member profiles. It is information the members themselves have decided to display publicly, and it is available to anyone with access to a web browser."

As BBC notes, this is really a simple case of LinkedIn (and its users) wanting to have their cake and eat it, too.

The usefulness of LinkedIn is in part due to its data being easy to access. If you’re hunting for a job you naturally want people to be able to find you. But in doing so, you don’t want your information being used in ways you did not anticipate.

That’s what LinkedIn is arguing it is trying to protect, and this ruling makes it hard for users to have one without the other.

I side with the judge, Edward Chen, on this one. If you want to be a nudist, you can’t demand that no one look at you as you parade around town in your birthday suit. Besides, I’m sure there are ways to code around this problem. I’m no programmer, but there must be a way for LinkedIn to set up access rules that can distinguish between a potential employer and a third-party data trawler.

Of course, the U.S. courts could always strong-arm consumer data protections via arbitrary legislation. But by picking winners, it would also create losers – namely, employees of the data trawling companies and the business owners who find their services valuable enough to pay for. This is exactly what the European Union is moving toward with its recently proposed Article 29 guidelines, which would make it illegal for employers to use social media to check on potential job candidates.

You might be tempted to consider such “protections” reasonable. They’re anything but. Such a law as the EU is proposing is essentially dictating that the owner of a private business isn’t allowed to view information that has been publicly posted by another individual because it might lead to discriminatory hiring practices. (Because how dare you think that the way a person conducts his personal life might have any correlation to his conduct as an employee!) Just like a nudist walking down the street might elicit harsh or demeaning reactions from onlookers; therefore, instead of stopping the nudist, we must stop the onlookers! Avert your gaze – ‘tis the law! The poor nudist must be protected!

Google, Shill of the Establishment

August 21, 2017 invisiblehand

In case you missed it, nitsuj offers a list of tech companies and sites that have abandoned content neutrality in the wake of the Charlottesville event - including Airbnb, Facebook, Reddit, Spotify, Apple, PayPal - and, oh yeah, Google.

Speaking of which, Renegade Inc. has published a thought-provoking piece on Google's ongoing adjustments to its search algorithms, revealing that many independent media sites have experienced diminished search traffic, and suggesting that this is intentional. In a unique twist, the Renegade article points to Google's victims on the left:

New data released by World Socialist Websites (WSWS) revealed that sites such as Wikileaks, The Intercept, Electronic Frontiers Foundation, the American Civil Liberties Organisation, CounterPunch and many other organisations with the audacity to provide context about the activities of federal governments not reported in mainstream publications have experienced a significant drop in traffic after Google altered its algorithm.

The data released by WSWS shows that since Google altered its algorithm, Wikileaks experienced a 30% decline in traffic from Google searches. Democracy Now fell by 36%. Truthout dropped by 25%. Its own traffic dropped by 67% percent over the same period. Alternet saw a 63% decline in traffic. Media Matters saw a 36% drop in traffic. Counterpunch.org fell by 21%. The Intercept fell by 19%.

But wait, you say, I thought Google was a leftist tech company! What are they doing shunning progressive sites from their search results? I pose that the problem lies in the fact that not every political ideology falls neatly in line with the left-to-right spectrum with which we've come to categorize them. In fact, if you were to compare the political right and left of the early 20th century with today's "right" and "left," you'd be hard-pressed to find many similarities. What we've witnessed over the last 100 years is the slow-boiling frog of America's political spectrum that has resulted in the unnoticed death of fundamental principles on both sides. For example, conservatives of the old days were hardline anti-war. Compare that to the Bushes and McCains of today's "conservatism." Likewise, the progressives of the old days were highly distrustful of corporate power and big believers in economic equality. Compare that to former President Obama, who backed Wall Street and bailed out the big banks - or Hillary Clinton, who with her husband has raked in $153 million in speaking fees from large corporations and banks since 2001, and whose foundation appears to be more of a racketeering front than a charitable organization.

Of course, you can't judge the right or the left by its figureheads, which is my point. The genuine political left and right still exist in great numbers and in many varieties among the American population. But the establishment, the "State" - and the official narrative that it tries to peddle through its fourth organ, the media - wants to destroy the genuine right and left with fabricated, effigial versions. Why? Because it becomes easier to contain and control dissenting political views that challenge the status quo when you control people's perceptions about them. Case in point: today's right is now an "alt-right" that is increasingly associated with racism, neo-Nazism, and neo-fascism, while the left is increasingly associated with anarcho-communism, Antifa, and Black Lives Matter. In reality, these extremist factions are relatively small and not representative of most people's views or values. But the media obsesses over these groups' activities, creating a false perception of their prevalence and relevance. By straw-manning anti-authoritarian sentiments on both the right and the left and pitting these sides against one another, the State essentially deflects growing discontent away from itself and creates a political gridlock that allows the status quo - and thus its own power - to continue.

It's true in one sense that Google is left-leaning. But I think it's more helpful to think of Google as establishment-leaning - it wants to preserve the official narrative that benefits, above anyone else, the State. In this way, you can just as easily call Google a neoconservative company, since the neoconservatives that presently control the GOP and the centrist liberals who control the Democratic Party have uncannily similar platforms. Both want perpetual overseas wars, a monopoly central bank cartel, a corporate-government revolving door, a national healthcare and welfare system, and unchecked foreign and domestic surveillance programs. Meanwhile, the neo-Nazi/Antifa narrative is a useful - and some might say deliberately orchestrated - distraction from, and distortion of, the principled, old-school right and left, both of which are pro-freedom, anti-war, and anti-authoritarian. (I disagree with what I call the "principled left" on most economic and some social issues, but that is another matter.)

What I'm describing is what some have rightly called the process of Cultural Marxism, although I prefer the term that blogger Bionic Mosquito uses: Cultural Gramsci-ism. Antonio Gramsci was an Italian communist and dialectical materialist (Hegelian) who believed a utopian society could only be created by destroying traditional Western culture and Christianity in particular. Bionic quotes Gary North:

While firmly committed to global Communism, [Gramsci] knew that that violence would fail to win the West. American workers (proletariat) would never declare war on their middle class neighbors as long as they shared common Christian values. So the Italian communist – a contemporary of Lenin – wrote an alternative plan for a silent revolution. The main weapons would be deception, manipulation and infiltration. Hiding their Marxist ideology, the new Communist warriors would seek positions of influence in seminaries, government, communities, and the media.

Gramsci himself rejected Christianity and all its transcendent claims. Nevertheless, he knew Christian culture existed…. For that was the force binding all the classes… into a single, homogeneous culture. It was a specifically Christian culture, in which individual men and women understood that the most important things about human life transcended the material conditions in which they lived out their mortal lives.

Here's my point. Regardless of what you think about Christianity or "traditional culture," it has remained one of the few forces that has called individuals to a higher allegiance than to the State. Thus, if the State were to seek to destroy anything that stood in the way of centralizing power, then Christianity - or any system that teaches the primacy of one's spiritual over one's material condition - would be Enemy Number One. Why do you think Chinese communists uprooted confucianism, or the Soviets tried to suppress the Russian Orthodoxy?

It's not impossible to suppose that the State has co-opted Gramsci's strategy, knowing what Gramsci was too naive to know: once a unifying culture and value system is destroyed, people do not suddenly become enlightened and selfless, making any need for authority obsolete. They only transfer their allegiance to the State to ensure they get their fair share of the egalitarian utopia they were promised (and maybe a little more).

There's no good reason for Google to politicize its algorithms. That it does speaks to one of two possibilities. Either Google has lost touch with the market and is trying to cater to what it believes to be consumer demand, or else Google is being influenced by the State to facilitate its Gramsci-ist strategy.

Major Tech Companies Leave Behind Content Neutrality in the Wake of Charlottesville

August 18, 2017 nitsuj

In the days after events unraveled in Chrlottesville, pressure began mounting on major tech companies to make a decision: remain so-called “content-neutral” and allow white supremacists to continue using their platform – and weather the backlash that would entail – or kick them off. As many commentators have been quick to point out since the James Damore / Google memo brouhaha, these private companies have the right to choose who they employ and allow as customers, which is true. (If only they’d remember that principle when it’s not so convenient for their argument.) So, legally, they could choose either decision.

As we saw over this past week, many of the majors chose to kick them off and become “content-biased” if you will – although many like Facebook and PayPal were already well down that road. Here’s a summary of the major decisions, in case you missed any:

Cloudflare was one of the final holdouts, choosing to remain content-neutral even as the pressure mounted. That ended on Wednesday, however, when Cloudflare terminated service to the Daily Stormer.

Unlike the generic corporate denouncement of white supremacy that came out of many tech companies’ PR departments, Cloudflare CEO Matthew Prince sent a very thought-provoking email to his employees (quoted in its entirety in the Gizmodo article linked above). In particular, he explains why he made the decision after days of Cloudflare saying it would remain content-neutral:

My rationale for making this decision was simple: the people behind the Daily Stormer are assholes and I’d had enough.

Let me be clear: this was an arbitrary decision. It was different than what I’d talked talked with our senior team about yesterday. I woke up this morning in a bad mood and decided to kick them off the Internet. I called our legal team and told them what we were going to do. I called our Trust & Safety team and had them stop the service. It was a decision I could make because I’m the CEO of a major Internet infrastructure company.

Having made that decision we now need to talk about why it is so dangerous. I’ll be posting something on our blog later today. Literally, I woke up in a bad mood and decided someone shouldn’t be allowed on the Internet. No one should have that power.

In the blog post he mentions, Prince fleshes out why his decision, as the overseer of a company that handles ~10% of internet requests, is so dangerous. Not only can he largely determine what can and cannot be online – literally in this case, as Cloudflare protected the Daily Stormer from being DDoS’d offline – but it also opens the door to political pressure in the future. Since beginning to publish their semi-annual transparency report in 2013, Cloudflare has been able to say that they’ve “never terminated a customer or taken down content due to political pressure,” which is one of four “warrant canaries” included in the report. But now:

We're going to have a long debate internally about whether we need to remove the bullet about not terminating a customer due to political pressure. It's powerful to be able to say you've never done something. And, after today, make no mistake, it will be a little bit harder for us to argue against a government somewhere pressuring us into taking down a site they don't like.

This is true not only of Cloudflare, but of any of the players that bring the internet to our devices. Prince counts no less than 11 different categories, including platforms like Facebook, domain registrars like GoDaddy, and browsers like Chrome. And don’t forget search engines like Google that a majority of the population relies upon as their jumping off point to the internet. Which category of infrastructure should be tasked with content policing? Prince doesn’t believe it’s at the level where Cloudflare resides, but doesn’t know the right answer.

Perhaps that’s because the right answer isn’t on his list: the individual. There’s no one better than the individual to decide what content they access online. If the decision is made at any higher level, it will always lead to one worldview being favored over another. Among left-leaning tech companies, this means a progressive worldview is favored over a conservative one, but it can of course go both ways.

But, one might object, this is a worldview of white supremacy we’re talking about! While I agree that it’s unquestionably vile and deserves full rebuke, censoring such a worldview is not the solution, as invisiblehand explains in his must-read article. The Daily Stormer may not be able to register their domain through GoDaddy or communicate through Reddit, but they’ll inevitably resurface elsewhere (like they already have on Tor), even more fired up for their cause than before.

Instead, the solution is to fight ideas like white supremacy with better ideas. Understand their arguments, engage them through words, and leave it to each individual to decide which idea is better. Relying on tech companies to make that decision for the entire internet will only cause the problem to become worse.

Charlottesville, Internet Hate Speech, and the Perils of Positive Law

August 16, 2017 invisiblehand

On Saturday, violence erupted during a “Unite the Right” rally protesting the removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee from a public park in Charlottesville, Va. The clash, involving protestors from the “alt-right” movement and counter-protestors, led to 30 people being injured and one woman, Heather Heyer, being killed after a car drove into a crowd of counter-protestors. Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe said of Heyer:

She was doing what she loved. She was fighting for democracy, free speech, to stop hatred and bigotry.

Keep these words in mind as you consider what comes next.

The Verge reports that Neo-nazi news site the Daily Stormer was given 24 hours to move its domain to a new host after its registrar, GoDaddy, said it would cut off support. The ultimatum was given after the Daily Stormer published an article about Heather Heyer titled “Woman Killed in Road Rage Incident was a Fat, Childless 32-Year-Old Slut.” GoDaddy said the article “could incite additional violence” and thus violated the company’s terms of service. Joseph Cox, writing for Motherboard:

The events in Charlottesville, Virginia, in which 32-year-old Heather Heyer was killed, and their subsequent fallout have triggered a debate around the responsibility of tech companies hosting or providing services to extremist content.

It appears the Daily Stormer has since relaunched on the dark web via Tor. As Cox notes:

Running as a Tor hidden service means the site will be largely immune to some of the issues the Daily Stormer has faced over the past few days. It doesn't rely on a domain registrar, such as GoDaddy or Google, so those companies can't decide to stop providing services. And it is typically not possible to see what company is providing web servers to the site itself, making it unclear where to direct any complaints or takedown requests.

We’re beginning to get to the heart of the matter. Perhaps no one yet has articulated it better than Daphne Keller at the Center for Internet and Society of Stanford Law School:

Most people I talk to think that Facebook, Twitter, and other social media companies should take down ugly-but-legal user speech. Platforms are generally applauded for taking down racist posts from the White Nationalist demonstrators in Charlottesville, for example. I see plenty of disagreement about exactly what user-generated content should come down – breastfeeding images? Passages from Lolita? Passages from Mein Kampf? But few really oppose the basic predicate of these removals: that private companies can and should be arbiters of permissible speech on their platforms.

At the same time, if the people I talk to are geeky enough, they usually support Net Neutrality. They believe that ISPs, as providers of core Internet infrastructure, should not get to be arbiters of content. ISPs should allow the bits to flow equally – not suppress or favor particular messages or sources.

This week’s upheaval over the Nazi-inspired Daily Stormer news site raises questions about the spectrum between the two – between ISPs as neutral infrastructure, and platforms as content arbiters.

In the wake of Charlottesville and the Daily Stormer controversy, two conflicting values have emerged from within the same ideological camp: content neutrality on the one hand and intolerance for hate speech on the other. The conflict could be easily resolved by treating hate speech as an exception to the rule of content neutrality, i.e. all ISPs and domain registrars are to remain content-neutral unless and until that content violates hate speech laws.

But that raises a new problem. How and under whose guidance will hate speech and online censorship laws be written and enacted? In the U.S., legislation restricting free speech has not fared well against public opinion and would likely be struck down as unconstitutional in the higher courts (especially in the now majority-conservative U.S. Supreme Court). But even supposing that censorship laws could be passed and upheld, how would these laws define hate speech? Is it even possible to offer a legal framework for hate speech that seals off any possible avenue for ever-broader and more liberal interpretations? It’s not beyond the realm of possibility that hate speech, once outlawed, could expand to encompass perceived “micro-aggressions” in tone or body language, or even refusal to speak (i.e. not explicitly denouncing a given belief, group, or event). The future of the U.S. in this regard may be similar to present-day Europe, where a French comedian was arrested for so-called hate speech and German police raided the homes of 36 people accused of hateful or racist social media postings.

A principled and consistent approach to defining hate speech is impossible, since it must always be defined in relation to the recipient’s group status. Take this definition, for example:

Hate speech encompasses verbalizations, written messages, symbols, or symbolic acts that demean and degrade, and, as such, can promote discrimination, prejudice, and violence toward targeted groups. Hate speech often stems from thoughts and beliefs such as hatred, intolerance, prejudice, bigotry, or stereotyping.

As a result of its collectivist underpinnings, hate speech is only considered hate speech when directed at a legally protected class – African-Americans, homosexuals, etc. Those in a protected class can call the Charlottesville protestors and members of the alt-right neo-Nazis, fascists, and KKK members (even though 99% of them aren’t) without any fear of legal repercussion. In essence, hate speech is based on legal fiat, endlessly redefinable according to whatever legislative body or administration happens to be in power. Glenn Greenwald at The Intercept documents this inconsistency through a compilation of Twitter posts directed at the ACLU after the legal advocacy group defended the free speech rights of the Charlottesville protestors, some of which are recounted here:

@shanley: FUCK THE ACLU […] ACLU CELEBRATES CAUSING DEATH TO ANTI-FASCISTS AT THE HANDS OF NAZI AND KKK […] "FREE SPEECH" IS FASCISM

@ztsamudzi: The ACLU of Virginia has blood on their hands through defending these Nazis' "right" to assemble.

@ChaoticRambler: you just confessed to being white supremacists. You don't get to defend them and claim separation. You. Are. Their. Allies.

To those on the radical, collectivist left, anyone they deem to be a white supremacist or fascist has no right to free speech, no right to peacefully assemble, and no right to due process or legal defense. Recall Governor McAuliffe’s words that Heather Heyer was fighting for “free speech” and “to stop hatred and bigotry.” In this case, she couldn’t have been fighting for both. Politically, these things are at odds. In Greenwald’s worlds:

The flaws and dangers in this anti-free speech mindset are manifest, but nonetheless always worth highlighting, especially when horrific violence causes people to want to abridge civil liberties in the name of stopping it. In sum, purporting to oppose fascism by allowing the state to ban views it opposes is like purporting to oppose human rights abuses by mandating the torture of all prisoners.

But to argue that hate speech laws are dangerous because they’re not principle-based or consistent is futile, because principled thinking and consistency are ideals valued neither by the collectivist mindset nor the positive-law tradition that springs from it.

Positivism is the school of law that places the origin and validity of human rights in legislative decree. It is the antithesis of natural law, which claims that all human rights flow unchangeably from human nature itself and are “inalienable” – meaning they cannot be added to or erased by any legislative decree. For more on this, consult the brilliant Andrew Napolitano. Napolitano makes the point that positive law, even in a self-proclaimed enlightened and democratic society, always ends in tyranny once it takes hold. Why? Because it untethers law to anything but its own temporary usefulness in meeting the goals of legislators, their beneficiaries and benefactors.

We can see this tyranny of legislative decree play out in the aftermath of events like Charlottesville. The media immediately begins to construct a narrative around the event to place it in a broader narrative context, one that is also constructed by the media. Partly to economize and partly to pique reader interest, these narratives separate individual actors into pre-defined groups along one or two political or social lines. As more details emerge in subsequent weeks and months that bespeak a more complex and nuanced reality, these details are easily overlooked or ignored in favor of the simpler, tidier original narrative. Unfortunately, legislation is rarely proposed in light of the later, more nuanced understanding of events, but is based instead on the clean-cut and ultimately misleading public narrative.

The problem in America is that we’ve combined majoritarian democracy with positivist legislation. This has created a dangerous form of collectivism that pits groups against one another in a zero-sum game of social and political power. This democratic-positivist system, far from erasing the selfish, prejudiced, and tribalist tendencies in human nature as many supposed, has instead intensified them, both on the right and the left.

Technology only exacerbates the problem. Tribalist factions form their own insular online communities that serve as echo chambers for their beliefs. Now that the Daily Stormer has been pushed to the dark web, its followers – now confirmed in their perceived victimhood – will only become more extreme and antisocial now that they’re cut off from and unaccountable to the mainstream online community. Their views will no longer be regulated and tempered by more moderate groups with which they formerly crossed paths through online forums and threads.

This is why online censorship isn’t the answer to the problem of extremist sites like the Daily Stormer, just like prohibition wasn’t the answer to alcohol abuse and the war on drugs wasn’t the answer to the drug problem. If anything, forcing ISPs or domain registrars to take down extremist content will cause them to err on the side of caution to avoid burdensome fines, thus restricting any content that could be considered controversial at all. To get at a real solution, we have to awaken ourselves to the system that is tribalizing us. We have to stop being the unwitting animals in this politically orchestrated cockfight.

Government Regulators Have Their Sights On the New Digital Currency Derivatives Market

August 15, 2017 invisiblehand

In a recent CoinDesk article, Benjamin Sauter and David McGill warn that government regulatory agencies are likely to increase their scrutiny of digital currency trading in the near future. They write:

There is more than meets the eye to recent announcements that LedgerX and CBOE will soon be offering digital currency derivatives in the U.S.

With digital currency derivatives trading set to begin, the CFTC may well have found the jurisdictional allies it needs to breach the wall. At a minimum, one can expect the CFTC to assert authority over trading practices on the underlying digital currency markets that provide reference prices for the newly approved derivatives products.

But because the digital currency markets and related derivatives markets are all linked through arbitrage, there may be no natural stopping point once the CFTC crosses the threshold. That could mean a new regulator sitting on the digital throne.

But there's another sheriff in town: the Securities and Exchange Commission. And it also wants a piece of the regulatory-power pie.

The SEC's recently published "Report of Investigation" on The DAO and Slock.it signals that new coin offerings may be deemed "securities" subject to SEC oversight.

A key implication of this finding is that the secondary trading of these securities would fall under the SEC's Section 10(b) anti-fraud mandate – including its prohibitions on market manipulation and insider trading. In other words, the SEC appears to have just carved for itself a large slice of the underlying digital currency markets, at least with respect to newly issued digital currencies.

What about existing cryptocurrencies? That remains to be seen. But the newfangled derivatives market could be the perfect back door government regulators need to get at the underlying digital currencies and slowly expand their jurisdiction. The authors' conclusion is not promising:

Regardless of whether the SEC, the CFTC or both ultimately assert power over trading in the digital currency markets, recent developments suggest that a new regime is coming. Digital currency traders in the U.S. and abroad should prepare for a long winter of uncertainty and, ultimately, regulatory scrutiny of trading practices.

Sauter and McGill are members of the Digital Currency & Ledger Defense Coalition, "a group of over 50 lawyers dedicated to protecting US blockchain innovators."

James Damore and His Anti-Diversity Manifesto Ignites Alt-Tech

August 11, 2017 nitsuj

Kevin Roose, writing for The New York Times, on the growing backlash against Silicon Valley technology companies that the firing of Googler James Damore has punctuated:

For the last several months, far-right activists have mounted an aggressive political campaign against some of Silicon Valley’s biggest players. Extending their attacks beyond social networks like Facebook and Twitter, tech’s typical free-speech battlegrounds, they have accused a long list of companies, including Airbnb, PayPal and Patreon, of censoring right-wing views, and have pledged to expose Silicon Valley for what they say is a pervasive, industrywide liberal bias.

The rise of “alt-tech” – a term I like in that it easily categorized alternative, freedom-valuing technology, even at the expense of being too closely associated with the alt-right – has been happening for some time now, but was missing the match to light the whole movement on fire. It certainly appears that they’ve found their fire starter in James Damore.

While we are not alt-right at this site, there are a few areas where our opinions overlap, including our disdain for censorship in the name of political correctness. As such, I’m thrilled that this drama has people talking about alternatives like Hatreon, Gab, and RootBocks, all of which are mentioned by Roose. These services provide a vital opt-out from the increasingly hostile agenda mainstream technology companies are pushing through their policies and services.

It’s a tech company’s right, of course, to bar whomever it wishes. The First Amendment, often cited by right-wing activists as a bulwark against censorship, does not apply to the activities of companies, and tech companies almost always have terms in the fine print that give them the right to cut off access to users for any reason.

Absolutely. But that doesn’t mean it’s not disappointing to see a company that once hosted Ron Paul move so far in the opposite direction publicly.

Former Employee Says Google Is Trying to "Demote" Non-PC Search Results

August 10, 2017 invisiblehand

A lot has happened since our analysis of James Damore's controversial internal memo criticizing Google's diversity initiatives and the broader "ideological echo chamber" of the company's culture. For one thing, the Google software engineer has been fired for violating Google's code of conduct by advancing "harmful gender stereotypes." He was then quickly offered jobs by WikiLeaks and alt-tech social media company Gab. Damore also gave interviews with "controversial" YouTube personalities Stefan Molyneux and Jordan Peterson.

Now another controversial online presence, Breitbart.com, is releasing a serious of anonymous interviews with a number of Google employees - "Rebels of Google" - who side with Damore about the company's stifling PC culture. The most notable thus far is an interview with "Emmet," in which he claims there are efforts to build a leftist bias into Google's search algorithms:

"I know there are efforts to demote anything non-PC, anti-Communist and anti-Islamic terror from search results. To what extent that has been successful, I don’t know."

Emmett says he personally witnessed efforts from leftists within Google to bias YouTube’s algorithms to push anti-PC content off the platform’s “related videos” recommendations.

“I have read internal mailing list e-mail from SJWs absolutely incensed that there’d be, say, a Sargon of Akkad video appearing as a video related to one of their favorite SJW vloggers. This is what happens when you have unbiased algorithms, which at the time, was true. I don’t have to tell you that, in that e-mail, the SJW was quite literally asking that the ‘related videos’ function be perverted so that such a thing would stop happening.”

At this point, it sounds to me like a lot of hearsay and he-said-she-said, so I wouldn't put much weight on it. Still, it's a story worth following as it develops. At the very least, it will be entertaining to watch both sides of the politicized media have a meltdown over it.

A Word on the AI Technopanic

August 9, 2017 invisiblehand

There are many out there raising the alarms about artificial intelligence, claiming that the advent of AI will cause widespread harm in the form of job loss and unfair concentration of wealth. Some are even calling on a universal basic income to offset the AI job loss pandemic.

As usual, it requires only a basic understanding of economics to refute these claims. Jonathan Newman explains better than I could:

The robophobic are also worried about income inequality — all the greedy capitalists will take advantage of the increased productivity of the automated techniques and fire all of their employees. Unemployment will rise as we run out of jobs for humans to do, they say.

This fear is unreasonable for three reasons. First of all, how could these greedy capitalists make all their money without a large mass of consumers to purchase their products? If the majority of people are without incomes because of automation, then the majority of people won’t be able to help line the pockets of the greedy capitalists.

Second, there will always be jobs because there will always be scarcity. Human wants are unlimited, diverse, and ever-changing, yet the resources we need to satisfy our desires are limited. The production of any good requires labor and entrepreneurship, so humans will never become unnecessary.

Finally, Say’s Law implies that the profitability of producing all other goods will increase after a technological advancement in the production of one good. Real wages can increase because the greedy robot-using capitalists now have increased demands for all other goods.

For a real-life example, consider Amazon. Adam Thierier writes:

If the techno-pessimists are right and robots are set to take all the jobs, shouldn’t employment in Amazon warehouses be plummeting right now? After all, Amazon’s sorting and fulfillment centers have been automated at a rapid pace, with robotic technologies now being integrated into almost every facet of the process.

And yet…Amazon is looking to immediately fill 50,000 new jobs, which would mean that its U.S. workforce “would swell to around 300,000, compared with 30,000 in 2011.”

How can this be? Shouldn’t the robots have eaten all those jobs by now?

History has an abundance of empirical evidence to support the claim that "job-stealing" technologies actually produce widespread benefits. An MIT study shows that in the 1880s, the typical American worked 10 hours a day, 6 days a week. That dropped to 8 hours, 5 days a week by 1940. And the American in 1880 was working to provide basic necessities. Today's worker can work half the time of his 1880s counterpart and, even in poverty, enjoy far more luxuries than his ancestor could have imagined. Why the improvement? Industrial technologies.

One of my favorite anecdotes comes from Hans Rosling's TED talk, "The magic washing machine":

My mother explained the magic with this machine the very, very first day. She said, “Now Hans, we have loaded the laundry. The machine will make the work. And now we can go to the library.” Because this is the magic: you load the laundry, and what do you get out of the machine? You get books out of the machines, children's books. And mother got time to read for me. She loved this. I got the “ABC’s” — this is where I started my career as a professor, when my mother had time to read for me. And she also got books for herself. She managed to study English and learn that as a foreign language. And she read so many novels, so many different novels here. And we really, we really loved this machine.

And what we said, my mother and me, “Thank you industrialization. Thank you steel mill. Thank you power station. And thank you chemical processing industry that gave us time to read books.”

Or take the words of author Kevin Kelly:

Industrialization did more than just extend the average human lifespan. It led a greater percentage of the population to decide that humans were meant to be ballerinas, full-time musicians, mathematicians, athletes, fashion designers, yoga masters, fan-fiction authors, and folks with one-of-a kind titles on their business cards.

Of course, technopanics are nothing new. Mechanical looms, trains, electricity, and the telephone were all met with the same doom and gloom. Where do these techno-pessimists get it wrong? They believe that an innovation is simply a new-fangled toy, divorced from any economic considerations. But market forces are what drive technological innovation, and market forces are what bind individual human action to the prosperity of the whole group.

And here you were thinking capitalism was heartless.

An Update on Net Neutrality

August 9, 2017 nitsuj

We haven’t written much on net neutrality here recently. Partly because we’ve already covered it many times before, and partly because the topic reached max hysteria on July 12 when the EFF and others took part in a “day of action.” It didn’t take long for the same arguments, repeated over-and-over – not just on that day, but for the past three years – to burn me out.

The extreme divisiveness of the net neutrality debate doesn’t help either. If you come out against the idea, you’re labeled a shill for either the government or big telecom, or both. Recent letters sent by the House and Senate to the FCC were signed by 32 Democrats, 1 Independent (Bernie Sanders), and 0 Republicans. Even libertarians are divided.

In short, between the burn out and divisiveness of the net neutrality debate, little gets me excited about it these days. But that’s just me. It’s still an important topic, and spreading counter viewpoints is still a worthwhile endeavor.

Thankfully, a few have been doing just that.

Ryan McMaken, writing for the Miss Institute, hits on the troubling issue of regulatory capture:

Supporters of net neutrality, however, are claiming that the FCC will somehow necessarily work in the “public” interest and against the special interests who — experience tells us — tend to hold the most influence with regulatory agencies.

In practice, the natural outcome of regulatory schemes like net neutrality is “regulatory capture,” in which the institutions with the most at stake in a regulatory agency’s decisions end up controlling the agencies themselves. We see this all the time in the revolving door between legislators, regulators, and lobbyists. And you can also be sure that once this happens, the industry will close itself off to new innovative firms seeking to enter the marketplace. The regulatory agencies will ensure the health of the status quo providers at the cost of new entrepreneurs and new competitors.

Rick Falkvinge, writing for Privacy News Online, sees a similar problem with lobbying, and considers a “bigger picture” solution:

The bigger problem isn’t net neutrality, or the absence of it.

The problem is that politicians in the United States and some other places are giving communications monopolies and tax breaks to entrenched legacy industries – telco and cable – which have an enormous strategic incentive to prevent the Internet from ever reaching its potential, but pretend to embrace it.

The issue of Net Neutrality will not ultimately be resolved by governmental intervention. It will be resolved by lack of governmental intervention, but the lack of such intervention needs to happen about a mile further down the rabbit hole than where the Net Neutrality discussion happens. When cities are fibered, like in Japan and South Korea, and politicians in the West stop pretending last-century industries can solve the problems of this century, only then will Net Neutrality be resolved. You’ll know it’s been resolved not when people talk about and decide on it forcefully, but when people stop talking about it at all, because it’s taken completely for granted in an offering between dozens of ISPs over fiber, none of which are telco or cable companies.

Finally, Brent Skorup, writing at The Technology Liberation Front, exposes the massive loopholes in the existing Open Internet Order:

Applying 1934 telegraph and telephone laws to the Internet was always going to have unintended consequences, but the politically-driven Order increasingly looks like an own-goal, even to supporters. Former FCC chief technologist, Jon Peha, who supports Title II classification of ISPs almost immediately raised the alarm that the Order offered “massive loopholes” to ISPs that could make the rules irrelevant. This was made clear when the FCC attorney defending the Order in court acknowledged that ISPs are free to block and filter content and escape the Open Internet regulations and Title II. These concessions from the FCC surprised even AT&T VP Hank Hultquist:

Wow. ISPs are not only free to engage in content-based blocking, they can even create the long-dreaded fast and slow lanes so long as they make their intentions sufficiently clear to customers.

So the Open Internet Order not only permits the net neutrality “nightmare scenario,” it provides an incentive to ISPs to curate the Internet. Despite the activist PR surrounding the Order, so-called “fast lanes”–like carrier-provided VoIP, VoLTE, and IPTV–have existed for years and the FCC rules allow them. The Order permits ISP blocking, throttling, and “fast lanes”–what remains of “net neutrality”?

Googler's Anti-Diversity Manifesto Touches the Third Rail

August 7, 2017 invisiblehand

Third Rail: An issue so controversial that it is untouchable, such that anyone who attempts to broach the subject will be politically or socially ostracized.

A term typically applied to politics, but equally applicable to social issues in a society so politicized that society and politics is no longer meaningfully different. I'm talking, in this case, about gender.

But this is a tech site!

I wouldn't touch the Third Rail myself were it not for all the hooplah surrounding a Google software engineer’s 10-page "screed" against the company's diversity initiatives, which has been published in full by Gizmodo. The memo, titled "Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber", asserts that these diversity initiatives are misguided because they assume that more women don't pursue jobs in the technology sector because of gender discrimination and oppression, when in reality software engineering gigs simply don't appeal to most women. In his words:

I’m simply stating that the distribution of preferences and abilities of men and women differ in part due to biological causes and that these differences may explain why we don’t see equal representation of women in tech and leadership. Many of these differences are small and there’s significant overlap between men and women, so you can’t say anything about an individual given these population level distributions.

Read those words carefully. Now read former Google engineer Yonatan Zunger's interpretation:

“I think one-third of my colleagues are either biologically unsuited to do their jobs, or if not are exceptions and should be suspected of such until they can prove otherwise to each and every person’s satisfaction.”

Then these tweets from outraged readers:

@rakyll: Write a doc about how inferior women are, then try to be a hero by offering help to save the vulnerable Still shaking in anger.

@aimeeble: Today's rage-read (at work): doc essentially saying that women are unsuited for tech because they like people, whilst men like things.

A sure sign of having touched the Third Rail: your opponents immediately strawman your argument into the most extreme position. What was originally "More men than women might be software engineers because software engineering appeals to more men than women," has suddenly turned into "Women are inferior and shouldn't be in tech."

Let's be clear about this. Nowhere does the memo writer prescribe that women not be software engineers. He only offers a descriptive reason for why more women aren't. He says himself (in the above quote) that there is "significant overlap" in the preferences and abilities of men and women, and that you can't prejudge an individual based on general group characteristics. Elsewhere he writes:

I’m also not saying that we should restrict people to certain gender roles; I’m advocating for quite the opposite: treat people as individuals, not as just another member of their group (tribalism).

Let's recontextualize the argument for a moment to see if it holds merit. Most highly introverted men have no desire to be sales reps. It's also true that because they're highly introverted, they would make poor sales reps. Of course, it's possible that a highly introverted man might for some reason really want to be a sales rep, and if the desire is strong enough, he could find a way to circumvent his natural introversion and become a great sales rep. But if a company's sales department started an initiative to recruit and train highly introverted people to fill their vacant sales rep positions, wouldn't it be reasonable to argue that such an initiative might be a waste of company resources?

Such is the memo writer's argument. But no matter how reasonable it may be, it must be denounced. Because it has to do with gender equality. And gender equality is part of that untouchable Third Rail. All along he's careful to qualify his statements, avoid absolute language, or make prescriptive statements about women's roles in society or business. But again, to hell with all that; he's touched the Third Rail!

The backlash to his memo only proves his larger point:

My larger point is that we have an intolerance for ideas and evidence that don’t fit a certain ideology.

Case in point, Zunger again, dismissing the memo in one broad sweep:

Not all ideas are the same, and not all conversations about ideas even have basic legitimacy.

Or as Google's Vice President of Diversity, Danielle Brown, stated in response to the memo:

I found that it advanced incorrect assumptions about gender.

Because, as Zunger and Brown would have us believe, the science is "settled." Gender is a social construct. There is no "male" or "female" brain. Zunger writes:

if anyone wishes to provide details as to how nearly every statement about gender in that entire document is actively incorrect, and flies directly in the face of all research done in the field for decades, they should go for it. But I am neither a biologist, a psychologist, nor a sociologist, so I’ll leave that to someone else.

Leave it to who, though? Only the scientists that fit your ideology about gender constructs? I could cite study upon study supporting the theory that gender is binary, all from respected, fully credentialed scientists. Whether you or I personally agree with this or that research is beside the point. The point is that dialogue should never be considered illegitimate, because science is never settled - especially when it comes to social science, the realm to which modern gender studies belong. Social issues - such as gender roles and identities - are treated today with the same methods as the physical sciences, a practice known as scientism. Austin Hughes, in his essay "The Folly of Scientism", writes that the fundamental error of scientism is that

…it assumes the practitioners of science to be inherently exempt, at least in the long term, from the corrupting influences that affect all other human practices and institutions. Ladyman, Ross, and Spurrett explicitly state that most human institutions, including “governments, political parties, churches, firms, NGOs, ethnic associations, families … are hardly epistemically reliable at all.” However, “our grounding assumption is that the specific institutional processes of science have inductively established peculiar epistemic reliability.” This assumption is at best naïve and at worst dangerous. If any human institution is held to be exempt from the petty, self-serving, and corrupting motivations that plague us all, the result will almost inevitably be the creation of a priestly caste demanding adulation and required to answer to no one but itself.

This "priestly caste" of modern social scientists - practitioners of scientism, that is - is undoubtedly who Zunger is deferring to on matters of gender "science," assuming that any expert in the field of gender studies will be less biased than those approaching the topic from a philosophical, ethical, cultural, or economic point of view.

But again, what science does or doesn't suggest about the differences between men and women is a secondary matter. The real issue is how Google as a company responds to dissenting opinions. Back to Google's Diversity VP:

Part of building an open, inclusive environment means fostering a culture in which those with alternative views, including different political views, feel safe sharing their opinions. But that discourse needs to work alongside the principles of equal employment found in our Code of Conduct, policies, and anti-discrimination laws.

Which is as much as to say, alternative views are acceptable unless they aren't.

But hey, Google is a private company; they can make whatever policies they want. Right? Theoretically, yes. But what if their inter-company policies bled into their external business practices - into their products? And what if their products represented the means by which the majority of humans access information? As it turns out, this is already happening. To that end, I love what Shane Greenup at Medium writes about Google's new algorithms excluding sites like Natural News, InfoWars, and even the World Socialist Web Site:

So when you gloat over the fact that “those conspiracy idiots” are being pushed out of Google and Facebook, just remember that 42% of the US population believes God created humans in their current form. 63% of the population think genetically modified foods are not generally safe to eat, despite overwhelming consensus among scientists. 50% don’t believe climate change is due to human activity. Infowars.com has between 2 and 4 million visitors every month.

In other words: these ‘idiots’ that we are so eager to see ostracised by Google and Facebook are the people we work with. They are our families. Our acquaintances. Our neighbours. They are the average person.

Get out of your highly educated intellectual bubble for just a few minutes and realise that you are talking about 90+% of the population when you gleefully rejoice in ostracising people who believe things which are demonstrably not true.

And I would add… according to you.

China's Online Trolling Army Posts Half a Billion Comments Per Year

August 3, 2017 invisiblehand

Researchers from Harvard, Stanford, and UC San Diego recently published a study in the American Political Science Review journal about the infamous 50 Cent Army. In case you're unfamiliar, 50c is a group of "undercover pro-government Internet commenters" paid by the Chinese government to "neutralize undesirable public opinion by pushing pro-Party views through chat rooms and web forums." In other words, State-sponsored social media trolls. Their name suggests the rumor that members are paid 50 cents per online comment.

The new study, titled "How the Chinese Government Fabricates Social Media Posts for Strategic Distraction, Not Engaged Argument", claims to be "the first systematic empirical evidence for the content of 50c party posts, their authors, and the government’s strategic objectives."

As to the size and structure of the 50c operation, the researchers conclude:

It…appears that the 50c party is mostly composed of government employees contributing part time outside their regular jobs, not, as has been claimed, ordinary citizens paid piecemeal for their work. This, nevertheless, is still an enormous workforce that, we estimate, produces 448 million 50c posts per year.

More illuminating is the authors' conclusion about the underlying strategy of 50c:

Since disrupting discussion of grievances [against the government] only limits information that is otherwise useful to the regime, the leaders have little reason to censor it, argue with it, or flood the net with opposing viewpoints. What is risky for the regime, and therefore vigorously opposed through large-scale censorship and huge numbers of fabricated social media posts, is posts with collective action potential.

Contrary to common assumption, the Chinese government doesn't care that much about the millions of individual complaints about government abuses being lodged in the public record. What they care about - and what their censorship and "reverse" censorship efforts are directed against - is any sentiment that could grow into an organized movement.

It's safe to say the same holds true of U.S.-backed trolling - which, yes, does happen. We know, for example, that the Pentagon has spent millions of dollars trying to manipulate social media.

Anyone who has spent any time on social media, online forums, or popular news sites can spot a troll from a mile away. I've always wondered why these trolls exist - certainly they don't think anyone will be convinced by their grammatically incorrect ramblings and half-baked arguments? But of course the purpose of trolling, especially of the government variety, isn't to win an argument. It's to create confusion and derail momentum. The strategy of government trolling is to create enough "noise" that attentions are redirected. It's possible, even, that the strategy is not to quell collective action, per se, but simply to redirect it. Towards, for instance, "racial injustice," "economic inequality," "Islamic extremism," "fake news," Russia, etc. This way, everyone's brewing dissatisfaction with problems that were caused by government policy is deflected away from government and can even strengthen calls for more government policy.

On a final note, it's interesting to reflect on the subtler ways a large, centralized state degrades the integrity and usefulness of the Internet. Just imagine what the Internet in China would be like without the Chinese government. For starters, there would be 448 million fewer trolling comments every year eating up bandwidth and taxpayer money.

Why Still Bitcoin?

July 31, 2017 nitsuj

With the explosion of cryptocurrencies (altcoins) has come a growing question surrounding the grandfather of them all: Why still Bitcoin? Why choose it today over seemingly more exciting projects and initial coin offerings (ICOs)? This very question has been on my mind since getting into cryptocurrencies – and even led me to push Bitcoin to a minority position in my portfolio – with no good answer.

That is, until Nick Tomaino answered in unequivocal terms over at The Control:

Meanwhile, newer and shinier cryptocurrencies like Ethereum and Zcash emerged. These cryptocurrencies seemingly offer everything that Bitcoin offers plus more (a Turing-complete scripting language for ETH and an encrypted blockchain for ZEC). They also seem to be supported by more cohesive communities led by benevolent dictators (Vitalik for ETH and Zooko for ZEC). Given all of these factors, one might assume that Bitcoin may be on the decline.

That assumption would be dead wrong though. Bitcoin has a few things that no other cryptocurrency has and the past few years have proven the genius of Satoshi’s design:

1.) No one central party controls Bitcoin

2.) The lack of a founder and undisputed leader means that the protocol is extremely difficult to change (even seemingly obvious changes like the block size take years to change) 3.) People around the world can use the protocol with a high degree of confidence that its core features (total coin supply of 21 million, a block reward that decreases by half every 4 years) won’t change

Bitcoin is the purest cryptocurrency that uses cryptography and incentives to achieve social scalability. That social scalability is achieved because you’re not putting any trust in any central party when you use Bitcoin and you can be fairly certain that the protocol will not change much over time. Bitcoin has no competition in that respect today and the strongest brand and network effect as a result of this social scalability.

Why still Bitcoin? Wonder no more.

Despite Technology, Freedom Is Not Inevitable

July 31, 2017 invisiblehand

A good reminder from Mises Institute President Jeff Deist (forgive the length):

It has become trendy to imagine that technology creates a new paradigm, a new “third way” that will make government obsolete without the need for an intellectual shift. The digital age is so flat, so democratic, and so decentralized that it will prove impossible for inherently hierarchical states to control us. The free flow of information will make inevitable the free flow of goods and services, while unmasking tyrannies that can no longer keep the truth from their citizens.

While I certainly hope this is true, I’m not so sure. It seems to me that states are shifting from national to supra-national, that globalism in effect means more centralized control by an emerging cartel of allied states like the EU and NGOs — not to mention calls for a convergence of central banks under a global organization like the IMF. We should be suspicious of the determinist notion that there is an inevitable arc to human history.

And while we all benefit from the marvels of technological progress, and we especially welcome technology that makes it harder for the state to govern us — for example bitcoin or Uber or encryption — we should remember that advances in technology also make it easier for governments to spy on, control, and even kill the people under their control.

So I suspect that while humans continue to exist, their stubborn tendency to form governments will remain a problem. The choice between organizing human affairs by economic means or political means was not undone by the printing press, or the industrial revolution, or electricity, or any number of enormous technological advancements. So we can’t assume liberation via the digital revolution.

As much as it feels this way to some of us, a belief in the moral and practical value of personal freedom is not innate. Humanity doesn't naturally tend toward loving freedom. Like other political philosophies, freedom must be fought for, defended, and convincingly articulated to others. We can't rely on new technologies alone to save humanity from oppressive forces. All revolutions - bad or good - start with an idea so compelling that it is worth living and dying for. Technology is merely a tool. Freedom is the glorious idea.

Journalism Should Be Decentralized

July 26, 2017 invisiblehand

Former Politico editor Tom McGeveran has co-founded a new company called Civil, which aims to use Ethereum-based smart contracts to radically change journalism's centralized and bureaucratic business model. A white paper published last week explains Civil's vision for "self-sustaining journalism." CoinDesk reports:

[Civil] divides journalism into three marketplaces that interact as a "mesh" of services that can be broken down into a series of core components.

Newsrooms enable coverage by identifying "niche and local" topics that audiences members, or "citizens", can either express interest in or not. "Stations" are monetization platforms that allow journalists to price their work "however they want." While "fact-checking-as-a-service" uses tokens to incentivize audience members to identify libel, plagiarism, errors and more.

Listen to what Civil's co-founder Matthew Iles told CoinDesk:

There's costs involved in the centralized business model that we don't think go towards the creation of valuable journalism. And we think there's an opportunity to create efficiencies in that business model that would enable journalism to exist where it currently can't.

I agree, and frankly it was only a matter of time before blockchain started being applied to the failing news industry. The internet has already eroded the power of yesteryear's news conglomerates; the only question was what sustainable business model would replace it. In my mind, a decentralized environment for journalism - one where independent journalists and readers make direct exchanges without the unnecessary overheard and politicalization of a corporate structure - will create more competition and produce better journalism in the long run.

Elon Musk’s “Innovations” Make the Middle Class Poorer

July 24, 2017 invisiblehand

Last week, business magnate Elon Musk tweeted that he had received “verbal” approval from the U.S. government to build an underground Hyperloop between New York and Washington, D.C., which would whisk passengers from one city to the other in a mere 29 minutes at a brisk pace of 700 mph. Sounds like a wonderful innovation, and certainly a boon for the Mid-Atlantic, no?

Not quite.

See, I have a bone to pick with Elon Musk. Everyone fawns over the self-styled Tony Stark as if he were a god among men, a golden boy who will usher in a new age of clean energy, private space exploration, and speed-defying mass transit. And while Mr. Musk (ahem, his team of engineers, ahem) may very well achieve these technological feats, that doesn’t make them good.

A good innovation is something that allows a person to enjoy a higher standard of living for a price they’re willing to pay. Henry Ford’s production line system enabled cars to be manufactured cheaply enough that millions of Americans could suddenly afford a product that had previously been enjoyed only by the wealthy few. Elon Musk is the master of bad innovations.

I don’t mean that clean energy, private space exploration, or speed-defying mass transit is bad. In fact, I’m all for these things – if and when they become economical. Right now they’re bad innovations because they aren’t economical – or at least, there’s no way of knowing if they are.

That’s because all of Musk’s innovations are built on the sands of taxpayer money. By 2015, Musk’s companies had successfully solicited nearly $5 billion of government funding. (That’s not counting the $72 million in Tesla stocks the Michigan Department of Treasury bought last year to fund the pensions of retired state workers.)

The same will likely be true of the new Hyperloop. Big Think reports:

Replying to those who can’t wait to have this happen in their own city, Musk also encouraged people to contact their elected representatives to drum up support for building hyperloops.

“Support” meaning, among other things, tax subsidies.

Consider what Eric Peters writes about Tesla:

If [Musk] could design and build an electric car that could be sold without subsidies – and at a profit – then he would. But he can’t. No one can. Or at least, no one has.

Electric cars will only be “the future” if either most people somehow become much more affluent and so cost considerations no longer apply or the cost of electric cars comes way down, such that they can be viewed as other than an indulgence. As an economically sensible alternative to an internal combustion-powered car. That day may come. But for now, it hasn’t.

And until it does come, carny barking crony capitalists like Elon Musk are only pushing off the day when it may come. By distorting the market.

Elon Musk’s government-funded innovations actually delay the day when these innovations could have a net benefit to society. But by bypassing the market and using tax money to accelerate the development of these new technologies, Musk is simply impoverishing the many to satisfy the few.

He does this in one obvious way, through carbon credits. The government has legislated (thanks to the lobbying efforts of folks like Elon Musk) that auto manufacturers that don’t make zero emission vehicles (ZEVs) have to pay a carbon tax. These taxes are then transferred to companies like Tesla that do make ZEVs, in order to make their cars seem more affordable. But the automakers that are taxed simply pass on that extra cost to the consumer through higher prices. This bait and switch means that a large number of taxpayers are subsidizing the small number of people who actually buy Teslas. Thus, the Tesla is a bad innovation because it doesn’t actually improve the overall standard of living for everyone. It only improves it for some – namely, the already well-off buyers of Tesla – to the detriment of everyone else – the working-class buyers of all other car brands.

But Tesla, SpaceX, and companies like them also hurt the working class in a subtler way. I touched on this when discussing Amazon, as well as Estonia’s tech bubble. The idea is that when the Federal Reserve pumps the economy full of new money (they’ve added over $2 trillion to the money supply since 2008), it creates an environment of easy credit. The cost of money itself gets distorted and lenders start lending willy-nilly. This leads to real wealth (capital) being allocated to activities that are uneconomic – i.e. don’t create additional value. Instead of creating wealth, you’re now simply consuming it.

Frank Shostak explains it much better than me:

…we can conclude that recessions are the liquidation of economic activities that came into being solely because of the loose monetary policy of the central bank.

Additionally, once it is realized that so-called real economic growth, as depicted by real GDP, mirrors fluctuations in the money supply rate of growth, it becomes clear that an economic boom has nothing to do with real and sustainable economic expansion. On the contrary such a boom is about real economic destruction, since it undermines the pool of real wealth — the heart of real economic growth.

Hence despite "good GDP" data, many more individuals may find it much harder to make ends meet.

In other words, while all the economists tells us that jobs are being created and the economy is growing, the average middle-class American strangely finds that his financial position isn’t advancing, but rather slipping. Meanwhile, all the real wealth is being siphoned off by people like Elon Musk and their wealth-destroying “boom” companies.

When the Federal Reserve pumps the economy with new money, they do so through quantitative easing, wherein the Fed purchases bonds and other securities from banks. This inflates the value of everyone’s stock portfolios. Since the wealthy own about half of all stocks and bonds, they essentially get 50 cents for every new dollar the Fed creates. And since wealthy people finance their lifestyles with the dividends of their stock investments – whereas a working-class individual relies on the value of the stocks themselves as his future retirement income – the boom-and-bust cycle doesn’t affect the Elon Musks and Jeff Bezoses of the world nearly as much as it does the average American.

The long and short of it is this: Musk, Inc. is a boom company, but one that, like Amazon, will weather the storm of an inevitable bust because it’s subsidized by the government.

Before you join the Cult of Elon, remember: you’re singing the praises of the very people who are destroying your hard-earned wealth.

Will Individuals Stand a Chance Against Quantum Hacking?

July 20, 2017 invisiblehand

First, the cool stuff:

Quantum computing offers processing power so vast it may soon make today’s supercomputers look as crude as 1980s PCs. There’s a downside — the technology might also render the most secure encryption systems obsolete, cracking codes in a matter of minutes rather than months or years. Gregoire Ribordy says he has a solution. And it’s selling fast in China.

For the past 15 years, the former University of Geneva physics professor has been developing something called quantum key distribution — a system that uses the technology to encrypt data so securely that Ribordy says it can’t be deciphered even by an advanced quantum computer. “The cybersecurity community must recognize the risks of quantum computing,” says Ribordy, a former researcher with Nikon Corp. in Tokyo. “Our challenge is to help governments and businesses be ready.”

The Bloomberg article goes on to describe the current arms race of sorts going on between China and the U.S. to develop the latest quantum key distribution (QKD) technology and deploy a virtually unhackable quantum computing network. And that's well and good for governments, but what about us ordinary citizens?

A pair of ID Quantique’s servers sells for about $100,000, and there’s a limit to how far the machines can be from one another: Quantum computers communicate by firing photons over fiber-optic lines, which become unreliable at distances beyond a few hundred miles.

So while governments will have the funds to setup these expensive quantum computer networks and "render the most secure encryption systems obsolete," individuals won't. And that will create an unfair advantage of (forgive the pun) quantum proportions. In the words of Motherboard's Bryson Masse:

…once these powerful quantum computers hit the market, only elite, well-funded players will have access to them. That means that the Russian government, for example, or the NSA will have the resources to break any crypto that an ordinary citizen could use today.

What's more, the high cost of quantum computing technology will probably remain high for a long time, for two reasons. First, that pesky patent system will keep competition out of the quantum computing market. For exmaple, QTEC, a company that's currently developing the technology for China and claims to have already built the world’s first commercial network secured by quantum technology between Shanghai and Hangzhou, has already applied for more than 30 patents. Second, when governments purchase technologies on a massive scale, it distorts the supply-and-demand balance, which also keeps costs prohibitively high for commercial markets.

But there's hope. The U.K.’s National Cyber Security Centre

predicts the cost of quantum key distribution will drop rapidly, and many researchers say it’s almost inevitable that quantum computing itself will spur sales of more secure encryption technologies.

And Futurism.com's new, crazy infographic suggests that "a satellite network using entangled photons for quantum-key distribution will create a fully secure, unhackable internet" by 2034. Yet in the gap between when governments can afford quantum computing and when indvidiauls can afford it, what's to stop the former from using it against the latter?

The Origin of Cypherpunk and Crypto-Anarchy

July 19, 2017 nitsuj

We’ve thrown around the term “cypherpunk” (and the synonym “crypto-anarchy”) a few times in the past – most notably in invisiblehand’s Anticapitalism and the Cypherpunk Movement – without really explaining its origin. While it has become more anticapitalist over the years, it started out very libertarian and “anarcho-capitalist” (versus just “anarchist”) in philosophy.

Thomas Rid, in a fascinating excerpt from his book Rise of the Machines: A Cybernetic History, dives deep into the origin of cypherpunk and highlights this theme:

For the libertarian minded, crypto anarchy meant that “men with guns” could not be brought in to interfere with transactions that all participants mutually agreed on. Taking violence out of the equation had two wide-reaching consequences. Two types of men with guns would find crypto hard to cope with. The first were the police and agents of federal law enforcement. No longer would they be able to trace and find those who refused to declare income or deal in illegal goods. The state, in short, would lose a good deal of its coercive power. If financial transactions became untraceable, enforcing taxation would be impossible. And that, of course, was a good thing. “One thing is for sure,” [Timothy] May told Kevin Kelly of the Whole Earth Review already in late 1992, “long-term, this stuff nukes tax collection.”

But crypto wouldn’t affect only the government and the rule of law. The other kinds of men with guns were criminals. And the same applied to them. Criminals would also lose their power to coerce others with threats of physical violence. If the buyers of drugs, for instance, would be untraceable not just for the Feds but also for gangs, then markets that were chronically plagued by violence and abuse would become nonviolent and abuse would stop. Anonymously ordering LSD online was much less risky than going to dodgy street corners and talking up shady pushers.

Strong crypto, made widely available, enabled totally anonymous, unlinkable, and untraceable exchanges between parties who had never met and who would never meet. The anarchists saw it as a logical consequence that these interactions would always be voluntary: since communications were untraceable and unknown, nobody could be coerced into involuntary behavior. “This has profound implications for the conventional approach of using the threat of force,” May argued in the Cyphernomicon. It didn’t matter if the threat of force would come from governments or from criminals or even from companies: “Threats of force will fail.”

The whole read is glorious and added a slew of people, ideas, and books to my list for further investigation.

Of particular note is the importance “digital cash” has been to the movement from the beginning. Now that cryptocurrency is upon us, are we closer than ever to seeing the cypherpunk philosophy fully realized? I wonder what Tim May would say.