[Plura-list] Break 'Em Up; Unauthorized Meat; Let's force Big Tech to interoperate

Cory Doctorow doctorow at craphound.com
Wed Jul 29 12:13:57 EDT 2020

Today's links

* Break 'Em Up: Zephyr Teachout's trustbusting program for the 21st century.

* Unauthorized Meat: Mellow Sous Vide journeys to the Internet of Shit.

* Let's force Big Tech to interoperate: Here's why...and how.

* No consequences for police violence at BLM actions: Propublica
followed up on viral videos showing gross misconduct and found...crickets.

* The Internet Archive defends online libraries: First filings from the
Hachette lawsuit.

* Bitcoin is not a socialist's ally: Yanis Varoufakis responds to Ben Arc.

* Where "software" comes from: "In October, 1953, I coined the word

* This day in history: 2005, 2015, 2019

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


🔪 Break 'Em Up

"Break 'Em Up" is Zephyr Teachout's outstanding book on competition,
corruption, monopolies and the revival of America's glorious tradition
of trustbusting. It just came out. It's GREAT.


Sector by sector, industry by industry, Teachout shows how monopolists
do their work. Her writing starts with the first-person, wrenching tales
of workers, small businesspeople, and bystanders in monopoly's blast zone.

These are a jumping-off point for engaging, fascinating histories of how
industries from taxis to chicken-rearing, tech to finance, have become
more and more concentrated, and how these monopolies connect to the real
personal harms she's shown us so vividly.

Monopolistic institutions are the most banal of evils, obscured by
deceptive economic jargon and legal rubbish. Teachout has a gift for
slicing through the bafflegab and revealing that the grifter's patter
disguises nothing more than unimaginative, sociopathic scams.

For example, Teachout's chapter on "binding arbitration" swiftly and
assuredly flenses away the legalistic BS and reveals this for the con it
is: a system where companies replace courtrooms and judges with private

When one of these companies defrauds you or maims you or kills a loved
one, you don't go before a judge - you go before an "arbitrator" (who
works for the company that wronged you) and seek "justice." Put in those
terms, it's blindingly obvious that this is an outrage.

Teachout also strips bare the "industry associations" that seem to have
dozens or hundreds of members, but, in reality, work for one or two
dominant companies, who pay their bills and send them to Washington to
win special favors that strengthen their positions.

Best of all is the last third of the book, in which Teachout sets out a
program for reversing the flood of corporate power and dethroning
oligarchy. She dispatches the notion of "personal responsibility" and
"consumer power" as a means of ridding ourselves of monopoly.

She correctly identifies this as a scheme to make us feel helpless and
compromised: if you can't fight Amazon while shopping at Amazon, then
you probably can't fight Amazon at all. Fuck that. The problem with
monopolism isn't where we shop - it's how we regulate.

And for all that this is a popular, accessible book, it delves into some
really deep and nuanced territory: in the next-to-last chapter, Teachout
digs into the "regulate or nationalize" debate.

This invites the reader to take a thoughtful, rigorous approach to which
parts of monopolistic industries are actually better off when
concentrated - like fiber optic lines, say.

And to consider hybrid models where these concentrated elements are
under democratic, public control - while firms use that neutral, public
infrastructure to compete with one another.

Teachout connects this antimonopolistic, infrastructural approach to our
most pressing existential problem: the climate emergency. She shows how
any #GreenNewDeal will require muscular trustbusting and mass-scale

As you read these words, Congress is holding its most significant
anti-monopoly hearings in a generation. The world is moving on and
"Break 'Em Up" is a map guiding us to a better place.


🔪 Unauthorized Meat

I cannot stress this enough: my short story Unauthorized Bread - in
which smart appliances are a slippery slope to full oligarchic dystopia
- is not intended as a fucking suggestion.


I mean, fuck you, "Mellow Sous Vide" (if that *is* your real name) and
your decision to brick your meat-bathing gadget for customers who
decline to pay the annual $48 "subscription fee" that you just
unilaterally added to devices you'd *already sold*:


I mean, this is the hackiest dystopian writing I've read in years, and
believe me, I consume a *lot* of hacky dystopian writing:

"The Premium Subscription will also allow you to create your own
sous-vide recipes for all your favorite ingredients, and you can even
schedule them for whatever time you want just as easy as when you are
cooking a Mellow Recipe."

Who the fuck do you think you are, BMW?



🔪 Let's force Big Tech to interoperate

Congress hauling the CEOs of four giant Big Tech companies to testify
before them this week feels like the start of something new and maybe
even something wonderful.

Now we just need to make sure they don't fuck it up.

One thing we *don't* want is for Big Tech to cement its dominance by
being "punished" with the responsibility to police users in ways that
mean that the companies get to lock out all competitors from
interoperating with them.

Having your monopoly deputized as a de facto arm of the state can be a
drag, sure, but the upside is that once you're part of that apparatus,
you can wave your "public duty" around every time you're threatened with
breakup or face a competitor.

Don't get me wrong. Let's fine 'em. Let's make rules for 'em. Let's make
'em pay their taxes.

But while we're at it, let's force them to interoperate - to let co-ops,
tinkerers, and commercial competitors plug into their platforms and give
us *real* choice in how they work.

Writing for EFF's Deeplinks blog, my colleague Bennett Cyphers (with
some contributions from me) has published a fantastic breakdown of what
interoperability could do, and how it could work:


"If Facebook and Twitter allowed anyone to fully and meaningfully
interoperate with them, their size would not protect them from
competition nearly as much as it does. But platforms have shown that
they won’t choose to do so on their own."

We need to set a floor under interoperability: mandates to offer
interoperable interfaces to competitors. And we need to set a ceiling:
competitive compatibility (ComCom), allowing competitors to expand these
without permission from platforms.

There's already proposed legislation to do some of this, Mark Warner's
ACCESS Act, which proposes three kinds of mandates: Data Portability,
Delegatability, and Back End Interoperability.


Data Portability ("users can take their data from one service and do
what they want with it elsewhere") is the low-hanging fruit. It's
already in laws like the #GDPR. It's your data, you should be able to
get your hands on it.

Back-end Interoperability ("enabling users to interact with one another
across the boundaries of large platforms"): forcing Facebook to let
Diaspora plug in (ditto Twitter-Mastodon). Companies expose the same
APIs to competitors that they use between their own services.

Delegability ("users delegate third-parties to interact with a platform
on their behalf"): Alternative UIs that block dark patterns, sort by
chrono, etc. These parties would be regulated and have legal duties to
their users, and couldn't monetize user data.

All of this needs to be done carefully because it could turn into a
security and privacy nightmare. Users should have control over their
data, and "no data should flow across company boundaries until users
give explicit, informed consent" (which can be withdrawn).

Sometimes, dominant actors might shut down an API to fix a security bug:
these downtimes have to be regulated to, to last only as is technically
necessary, lest they become a pretense to block competition.

These mandates are the floor on interop, things dominant companies MUST
do. Competitive Compatibility is the other half of the equation:
stripping companies of the legal right to punish competitors for
figuring out other ways to interoperate.

That is, we fix copyright, patent, anti-circumvention, cybersecurity and
other laws so that they can't be used to block interoperators. Every
dominant platform today relied on ComCom to attain dominance, and then
they kicked the ladder away:


"Comprehensively addressing threats to competitive compatibility will be
a long and arduous process, but the issue is urgent. It’s time we got
started. "


🔪 No consequences for police violence at BLM actions

The Black Lives Matter uprising has been attended by hundreds of viral
videos of ghastly, reckless, potentially lethal police violence. This
Greg Doucette thread gathers hundreds of them.


These videos are incontrovertible evidence of misconduct that should
result - at the very least - in disciplinary proceedings, and in many
cases should lead to termination and criminal charges, along with
lengthy custodial sentences for the (ex-)cops pictured.

What happened to those cops? Uh, nothing.

Propublica investigated a representative sample of the officers
pictured, contacted their departments, and asked what - if anything -
had been done.


The departments stonewalled: it's "under investigation." Or, "charges
against the brutalized were dismissed so it's 'as if it never
happened.'" "Police union rules mean we can't discuss this with you."

"The department declined to comment further and said it is 'bound by
contractual language that prevents us from disclosing the contents of
any personnel matter.'"

Meanwhile, many of these crimes have farcically short statutes of
limitations, thanks to police union lobbying, and the clock is already
running out.



🔪 The Internet Archive defends online libraries

The Internet Archive is a library, and, like any library, it is allowed
to scan the books in its collection and circulate them to its patrons
(under precedent set in the Hathi Trust case).

It does so using Controlled Digital Lending - AKA DRM - the same tool
that publishers insist that other libraries use.

The Archive also works with many academic and municipal libraries across
the country to help them digitize and circulate their collections.

These ebooks - most of which have no official electronic edition - are
widely used by print-impaired patrons, including visually impaired
people, people with dyslexia, and people with physical disabilities who
struggle to handle books.

The Archive's library is especially urgent in this moment, when
libraries across the country are shut and most of the books they have
purchased are not available to the people whose taxes or fees paid for

Particularly keen is the need of returning students, who will have
neither the benefit of their public libraries nor their school libraries
as they struggle not to fall behind in their education.

Despite all this, a coalition of major publishers - Hachette,
Harpercollins, Wiley and Penguin/Random House - have sued the Internet
Archive, seeking to prohibit Controlled Digital Lending and to destroy
1.5m ebooks.


I daresay that the vast majority of these publishers' authors rely on
the Internet Archive's various holdings and collections (I know I
certainly do).

Moreover, these are not fragile, frail institutions. Harpercollins is
owned by Rupert Murdoch and routinely pays millions for mediocre,
poor-selling books by far-right figures as a way of legally transfering
money to those Murdoch seeks favor with.

Wiley is an ed-tech monopolist whose textbook prices have spiraled out
of control over the past decade, gouging students and bribing profs to
require new "editions" with trivial updates, while destroying the used
textbook market.

Penguin/Random House is a division of Bertelsmann, the largest publisher
in the world, grown larger through the monopolist's tried-and-true
tactic of mergers between major competitors, a sin they compounded by
passing on the chance to rename the company "Random Penguin."

Hachette pioneered the tactic of forcing writers to give up their
worldwide English rights as a condition of selling to them, depriving
authors of the chance to get paid separately for their rights in
multiple territories.

The Internet Archive, by contrast, is a donor-supported nonprofit
devoted to preserving all human knowledge and promoting access around
the world.

I know whose side I'm on.


🔪 Bitcoin is not a socialist's ally

In an infinite universe, even very improbable things may be found

Also, someone wrote an article explaining why Bitcoin is an ally to the
socialist project.


The article was an open letter from Ben Arc, addressed to Yanis
Varoufakis. Varoufakis responded with a devastating critique.


tldr: You say that Bitcoin will "break the cronyist chain linking
central banks and private bankers. However, it does not undermine the
cronyism of the network of bosses, politicians and private bankers."

First: Bitcoin "lacks the shock absorbers necessary to prevent
capitalist crises from doing untold damage to the working class."

During financial crises (uh, hello), we need massive public spending to
replace the mass extinction of private spending.

But the whole point of Bitcoin is that you can't arbitrarily increase
the supply when you need more of it. Instead, you'd have to rely on "a
spontaneous majority of Bitcoin’s users to agree to a massive increase
in the supply of money."

Which won't happen.

Instead, you'll get prolonged, brutal depressions of the sort that give
rise to fascist movements. It's hard to maintain massive ASIC
mining-pools when civilization is crumbling around you.

Second: "Bitcoin’s dominance will not democratise economic life." Most
BTC is owned by rich people. Redenominate the world's assets in BTC
instead of dollars and...they'll still be owned by rich people

To top it off, you'll still have inflation, because private banks will
"find ways of creating complex derivatives based on Bitcoin –
derivatives that will soon (just like Lehman Brothers’ CDOs prior to
2008) function as ...private money."

"Massive bubbles denominated in Bitcoin will build up and they will
burst just as they did in the 19th century under the Gold Standard. And

For all that he's no fan of Bitcoin, Varoufakis is actually pretty
positive about blockchains: "I remain as enthusiastic on blockchain’s
capacities and as unimpressed by Bitcoin’s ability to help us either
civilise or (as any socialist dreams of) transcend capitalism."

I can see some applications for having unalterable public ledgers - a
lot of problems can be solved if you assume a neutral, incorruptible
trusted third party - but I'm not sure who would bother computing the
blockchain without Bitcoin incentives, so...


🔪 Where "software" comes from

In 1953, Paul Niquette coined the term "software."

At the time, computers were colloquially called "giant brains" but they
were inert until a program inputted semipermanent routines in the
computer's memory.


It wasn't really possible to move a program from one computer to another

Niquette's coinage - a play on "hardware" - came to him while he was 19
years old, programming UCLA's SWAC, and it made him chuckle at the time.

He found the word "too informal to write and often embarrassing to say"
but slowly started to incorporate it into lectures and interviews. He
had a reputation as a practical joker and his colleagues largely laughed
it off.

The story of the coinage is in the introduction ("Chapter 0") of
Niquette's online memoir, which I just skimmed. It's an engaging and
witty history of some of the seminal moments in computing!


🔪 This day in history

#15yrsago EFF's trusted computing guru sums up MSFT's lockware strategy

#15yrsago Potemkin East Village coming to Vegas

#5yrsago Check whether Hacking Team demoed cyberweapons for your local
cops https://www.muckrock.com/news/archives/2015/jul/23/hacking-team/

#5yrsago Self-aiming sniper rifle can be pwned over the Internet

#5yrsago Phil Gramm: "exploited worker" AT&T; CEO "only" got $75m

#1yrago Podcast: Adblocking: How About Nah?


🔪 Colophon

Today's top sources: Naked Capitalism (https://nakedcapitalism.com/),
Four Short Links (https://www.oreilly.com/feed/four-short-links).

Currently writing:

* My next novel, "The Lost Cause," a post-GND novel about truth and
reconciliation. Yesterday's progress: 516 words (42863 total).

Currently reading: The Deficit Myth, Stephanie Kelton

Latest podcast: Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town (part 11)

Upcoming appearances:

* Do Androids Dream of Electric Cars? Public Transit in the Age of
Google, Uber, and Elon Musk, Aug 4,

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

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.

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

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