[Plura-list] Peter Thiel was right; Google bans anticompetitive vocabularies; Free the law; Jailed for pen-testing

Cory Doctorow doctorow at craphound.com
Sat Aug 8 13:00:27 EDT 2020

Today's links

* Peter Thiel was right: Capitalism is incompatible with democracy.

* Google bans anticompetitive vocabularies: But not anticompetitive conduct.

* Free the law: The PACER rent is too damned high.

* Jailed for pen-testing: Kafka in Iowa.

* This day in history: 2010, 2019

* Colophon: Recent publications, upcoming appearances, current writing
projects, current reading


🤿 Peter Thiel was right

Peter Thiel styles himself a defender of liberty, and every time he
does, someone points out this article he wrote in which he said that
democracy is incompatible with freedom and women shouldn't be allowed to


He's right: the capitalist freedom - to have dominion over how your
capital is worked by laborers -  is in tension with democracy. Richard D
Wolff's "Why capitalism is in constant conflict with democracy" lays it
out with admirable clarity.


The owner of a business is the dictator of the business. They have the
final say over who is hired and fired, and what workers must do on the job.

Workers can quit (assuming they haven't been coerced into noncompete
clauses and that they aren't trapped in a monopsonic market for their
labor), but they don't get a vote.

But they DO get a vote when they're not on the job - they get a vote at
the ballot box, where it's one person, one vote. There are a *lot* more
workers than bosses, so, in theory, workers can vote for laws that make
workplaces more democratic.

They can vote for pro-union laws, for labor protections, for
antidiscrimination laws, for health and safety rules, for rules banning
sexual harassment and discrimination based on race, sex, politics,
sexuality, age, etc.

The boss's freedom to be the boss can be taken away by the workers'
freedom to vote for laws that boss the bosses around. Socialists have
said this for centuries, but capitalists usually pretend it's not true.
Thiel just said the quiet part aloud.

In a democracy, the freedom of bosses is dependent on getting workers to
vote against their freedom to boss bosses around. When this fails,
bosses often back military dictatorships, in the name of (boss) freedom.

That's why "freedom advocates" like Hayek and Friedman flew to Chile to
help Pinochet kidnap and murder his political opponents. The
opposition's freedom to advocate for democracy was in conflict with
bosses' freedom to be bosses.

But military dictatorships are the last resort. Before we get to
military dictatorships, bosses just try to get turkeys to vote for

They might tell the turkeys that they're temporarily embarrassed
millionaires, and any anti-boss laws will bite them in the ass when
they, too, become bosses.

But when decades of wage stagnation, declining standard of living, and
precarity make the story of future millionairedom harder to believe,
bosses usually just start smashing the racism button.

"Turkeys of America! If you want to keep the chickens, ducks and other
undeserving foreign poultry out of the farmyard, VOTE FOR THE CHRISTMAS

Republicans are better at getting turkeys to vote for Christmas than
Democrats are, though both parties try. Also, Republicans really throw
amazing Christmas feasts with a lot of really delicious turkey for the
invited guests: tax cuts, deregulation, anti-union laws.

But when the GOP loses elections, the farmer class simply switches sides
and backs pro-Christmas Democrats. The Democratic party has a strong
pro-turkey/anti-Christmas faction, and suppressing that wing becomes the
Dems' major project - moreso even than defeating the GOP.

This all gets a lot hotter during crises, and this is the worst crisis
in a century (though worse ones are ahead of us, thanks to the climate

Wolff: "Endless political maneuvers around hegemonic blocs with
alternative sections of the employees allowed capitalism to survive.
However, eventually those contradictions would exceed the capacity of
hegemonic maneuvers to contain and control them. A pandemic combined
with a major economic crash may provoke and enable progressives to make
the break, change U.S. politics, and realize the long-overdue social

(In case you were wondering, Thiel thinks women shouldn't be allowed to
vote because they're more likely to want to keep children from starving
and so they'll vote to make rich people feed them).


🤿 Google bans anticompetitive vocabularies

Google is facing anti-monopoly enforcement action in the EU and the USA
and the UK, with more to come, and the company is starting to get nervous.

It's just issued guidance to employees advising them against using words
in their internal comms that would be smoking guns in these
investigations: "market," "barriers to entry," and "network effects"
among them.


The memo detailing the new linguistic rules leaked to The Markup, with
the anodyne title "Five Rules of Thumb for Written Communications.”


The memo cites other companies that got into trouble when internal memos
came to light, such as Microsoft's infamous stated internal goal of
"cutting off Netscape's air supply." It advises workers to discuss their
plans in pro-competition terms.

Googlers are advised to discuss customer retention through product
quality, not through "stickiness" or other euphemisms for lock-in; to
explain how new products will succeed without "leveraging" existing
successes, and to steer clear of "scale effects" as corporate goals.

They're enjoined from celebrating Google's market dominance, to discuss
how Google "dominates or controls" its markets, or even to estimate what
share of a market Google controls. They're also not allowed to define
their markets, which would let other estimate their share.

This is going to make for some tortured backflips! Google's going to
struggle to (say) improve "search" without defining what "search" is.

Ironically for a leaked doc, the doc advises the reader to assume every
doc their produce will leak (!), but OTOH, points for realism.

For me, the most interesting thing about the memo is that it marks a
serious turning-point in the way that business leaders talk about
competition. Peter Thiel famously said that "competition is for losers."


Thiel's the quiet-part-aloud guy, but he's not alone. Famous investors
like Warren Buffet and Andreesen-Horowitz openly boast of a preference
for investing in monopolies, and creating monopolies is Softbank's
stated purpose.

Every pirate wants to be an admiral. Capitalists who dream of dominance
want competition. Capitalists who attain dominance want to abolish it.


🤿 Free the law

We think of laws as being the texts of bills that pass out of Congress
and get signed by the president. But the law is really defined by the
judicial interpretation of those bills - the transcripts and outcomes of
court cases.

These are in the public domain (like all US government works) but they
cost $0.10/page to access, through a Clinton-era system called PACER
that is literally just a drive full of PDFs that isn't even searchable.

The system is supposed to run on a break-even basis, but it pulls in
more than $150m/year (again, for a drive full of PDFs). PACER remains
the world's largest paywall, though activists have worked hard to chip
away at it.

For example, RECAP is a browser plugin for PACER users; when you pay for
a page, RECAP sends a copy of it to the Internet Archive for open
access. Other RECAP users who request that page from PACER are
automatically redirected to the free RECAP copy.


RECAP has turned up all kinds of dirty secrets about the "the secretive,
hierarchical judicial branch."


When Aaron Swartz and friends liberated a huge tranche of PACER docs,
they discovered that court clerks were not redacting victims' personal
info - SSNs, the names and home addresses of sexual assault survivors
(including children), etc.

They blew the whistle on the courts and in retaliation, the FBI
investigated Aaron for "stealing" these public domain court records.


Aaron beat the rap, but the same prosecutors and Feebs that he thwarted
came after him for downloading scientific articles from MIT's network
and hounded him to his suicide in 2013.

RECAP's comrades-in-arms are the Free Law Project, who have liberated
massive tranches of US law from PACER's paywall:


In 2016, a district court ruled that PACER had to operate on a
break-even basis - not extract additional revenues to fund unrelated
courtroom expenses. The US Government appealed, and, last week, they lost.


The ruling should end this, but it won't. The as Fix The Court's  Gabe
Roth told Bloomberg, the courts are likely to continue arguing that a
networked drive full of PDFs costs $100m/year to operate, and keep
charging Americans to find out what the law says.

But on the plus side, the appeals court ordered the DoJ to reimburse
people who paid too much to read the law.

The latest budget request from the judiciary seeks $142m for PACER
(again, this is a networked hard-drive full of PDFs).


🤿 Jailed for pen-testing

Last year, the information security world was baffled and frustrated by
the tale of Justin Wynn and Gary DeMercurio, penetration testers who
were hired to break into a Des Moines courthouse by its managers, then
arrested for fulfilling their contract.

Penetration testers evaluate the security of physical and digital
systems by breaking into them, with permission from their owners, as a
way of identifying and shoring up weaknesses. Wynn and DeMercurio work
for Coalfire, a leading pen-tester company.

The state of Iowa hired Coalfire to break into its Dallas County
courthouse. Wynn and DeMercurio picked the locks, entered the building,
and, as instructed, they left the alarm armed, and set out to see how
much data they could get before it brought a response.

The tale of how they landed in jail for doing their jobs is a taut
technothriller-cum-legal-thriller, narrated by Andy Greenberg for Wired.


Greenberg describes how the testers waited for the police to arrive,
presented themselves to the officers, identified themselves, and
explained that they were supposed to be doing this, showing them an
official letter from the State of Iowa authorizing them.

But the Dallas County Sheriff Chad Leonard didn't care: the courthouse
was county property, not state property, so the pen-testers were
trespassing. He ordered their arrest on trespassing and felony burglary

The "Kafkaesque small-town politics" mired Wynn and DeMercurio in a long
legal wrangle - but the real story is how easy it was for them to break
into all five of the buildings they'd been hired to investigate, and how
easy it would have been for them to subvert justice.

"We could have fixed a case... corrupted evidence... identified jurors.
You name it." -DeMercurio

Some of their tactics were cool and high-tech - using compressed air to
trick an infrared sensor and open a door.

But a lot of the time, security was much simpler to defeat some doors
were so flimsy they could be opened by pushing them until they flexed
enough to reach around them and push the crash-bar.

But that wasn't Sheriff Leonard's concern: he was more worried about his
turf, defying state orders to let the pen-testers go and telling state
officials he considered them "accessories" to a crime.

To make things worse, the magistrate who arraigned them, Judge Andrea
Flanagan, refused to believe their story, despite their official letters
from her own employer, Iowa's judiciary: "You’re going to have to come
up with a better story than that."

And the prosecutor successfully argued that because they were
out-of-staters, they needed high bail. The fact that none of the Iowa
officials who'd hired them bothered to show up did not help - the state
was now "disavowing" the contract

The state issued a release apologizing to the counties, saying that they
hadn't "intended, or anticipated, [Coalfire’s] efforts to include the
forced entry into a building." Later, it claimed it hadn't even been
aware of parts of the op, that it has explicitly authorized.

All of this was bullshit. An outside law-firm hired to investigate the
matter concluded that Iowa explictly hired Coalfire to perform "physical
attacks" on its buildings and to "focus on breaking in after hours."

To its credit, Coalfire ignored legal advice to throw Wynn and
DeMercurio under the bus, and continued to work in their defense.

Meanwhile, Iowa officialdom arranged a circular firing squad, with
apologies from the Chief Justice of its Supreme Court, angry
grandstanding from state senator  Tony Bisignano, and threats of charges
against the state officials that hired Coalfire.

(It may be that the only thing that saved those officials from arrest
was the sudden death of the Supreme Court's Chief Justice and the chaos
that ensued).

Iowa prosecutors offered Wynn and DeMercurio the chance to plea down to
misdemeanors. They refused. Finally, the charges were dropped. State
senators are still calling pen-testers "bandits" in public.

It's not clear whether any of the vulnerabilities Wynn and DeMercurio
identified have been addressed.

They gave a presentation on their order at last week's Black Hat:



🤿 This day in history

#10yrsago Resistance: YA comic about the kids who served in the French
resistance https://boingboing.net/2010/08/09/resistance-ya-comic.html

#1yrago The voting machines that local officials swore were not
connected to the internet have been connected to the internet for years

#1yrago As police scrutiny tightens, Hong Kongers use Tinder and Pokemon
Go to organize protests

#1yrago Group sex dating app has "the worst security for any dating app"

#1yrago Uber projected $8b in losses for 2019, but it just booked $5.2b
in losses in a single quarter


🤿 Colophon

Today's top sources: Andy Greenberg (https://twitter.com/a_greenberg),
Naked Capitalism (https://www.nakedcapitalism.com/), Slashdot

Upcoming appearances:

* Virtual event with Christopher Brown for his novel "Failed State," Aug

* Induction into the CSFFA Hall of Fame, Aug 15,

Latest book:

* "Little Brother/Homeland": A reissue omnibus edition with a new
introduction by Edward Snowden:
https://us.macmillan.com/books/9781250774583; personalized/signed copies

* "Poesy the Monster Slayer" a picture book about monsters, bedtime,
gender, and kicking ass. Order here:
https://us.macmillan.com/books/9781626723627. Get a personalized, signed
copy here:

Upcoming books:

* "Attack Surface": The third Little Brother book, Oct 20, 2020.

This work licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 license.
That means you can use it any way you like, including commercially,
provided that you attribute it to me, Cory Doctorow, and include a link
to pluralistic.net.


Quotations and images are not included in this license; they are
included either under a limitation or exception to copyright, or on the
basis of a separate license. Please exercise caution.


🤿 How to get Pluralistic:

Blog (no ads, tracking, or data-collection):


Newsletter (no ads, tracking, or data-collection):


Mastodon (no ads, tracking, or data-collection):


Twitter (mass-scale, unrestricted, third-party surveillance and


Tumblr (mass-scale, unrestricted, third-party surveillance and advertising):


*When life gives you SARS, you make sarsaparilla* -Joey "Accordion Guy"

-------------- next part --------------
A non-text attachment was scrubbed...
Name: signature.asc
Type: application/pgp-signature
Size: 195 bytes
Desc: OpenPGP digital signature
URL: <http://mail.flarn.com/pipermail/plura-list/attachments/20200808/30815cbf/attachment.sig>

More information about the Plura-list mailing list