[Plura-list] My first-ever Kickstarter; IP; FTC about to hammer Intuit; Antitrust trouble for cloud services

Cory Doctorow doctorow at craphound.com
Tue Sep 8 11:20:11 EDT 2020

Today's links

* My first-ever Kickstarter: Help me change publishing with the
audiobook for Attack Surface, the third Little Brother book.

* IP: The longest, most significant Locus column I have written in my
14-year run.

* FTC about to hammer Intuit: Billions in fraudulent tax-prep earnings
under scrutiny.

* Antitrust trouble for cloud services: Italy's competition regulator
says Terms of Service are bullshit.

* This day in history: 2005, 2010, 2015

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


🛀🏻 My first-ever Kickstarter

I have a favor to ask of you. I don't often ask readers for stuff, but
this is maybe the most important ask of my career. It's a Kickstarter -
I know, 'another crowdfunder?' - but it's:

a) Really cool;

b) Potentially transformative for publishing.

c) Anti-monopolistic

Here's the tldr: Attack Surface - AKA Little Brother 3- is coming out in
5 weeks. I retained audio rights and produced an *amazing* edition that
Audible refuses to carry. You can pre-order the audiobook, ebook (and
previous volumes), DRM- and EULA-free.


That's the summary, but the details matter. First: the book itself.
ATTACK SURFACE is a standalone Little Brother book about Masha, the
young woman from the start and end of the other two books; unlike
Marcus, who fights surveillance tech, Masha builds it.

Attack Surface is the story of how Masha has a long-overdue moral
reckoning with the way that her work has hurt people, something she
finally grapples with when she comes home to San Francisco.

Masha learns her childhood best friend is leading a BLM-style uprising -
and she's being targeted by the same cyberweapons that Masha built to
hunt Iraqi insurgents and post-Soviet democracy movements.

I wrote Little Brother in 2006, it came out in 2008, and people tell me
it's "prescient" because the digital human rights issues it grapples
with - high-tech authoritarianism and high-tech resistance - are so
present in our current world.

But it's not so much prescient as *observant*. I wrote Little Brother
during the Bush administration's vicious, relentless, tech-driven war on
human rights. Little Brother was a bet that these would not get better
on their own.

And it was a bet that tales of seizing the means of computation would
inspire people to take up digital arms of their own. It worked. Hundreds
of cryptographers, security experts, cyberlawyers, etc have told me that
Little Brother started them on their paths.

ATTACK SURFACE - a technothriller about racial injustice, police
brutality, high-tech turnkey totalitarianism, mass protests and mass
surveillance - was written between May 2016 and Nov 2018, before the
current uprisings and the tech worker walkouts.


But just as with Little Brother, the seeds of the current situation were
all around us in 2016, and if Little Brother inspired a cohort of
digital activists, I hope Attack Surface will give a much-needed push to
a group of techies (currently) on the wrong side of history.

As I learned from Little Brother, there is something powerful about
technologically rigorous thrillers about struggles for justice - stories
that marry excitement, praxis and ethics. Of all my career achievements,
the people I've reached this way matter the most.

Speaking of careers and ethics. As you probably know, I hate DRM with
the heat of 10000 suns: it is a security/privacy nightmare, a
monopolist's best friend, and a gross insult to human rights. As you may
also know, Audible will not carry any audiobooks unless they have DRM.

Audible is Amazon's audiobook division, a monopolist with a total
stranglehold on the audiobook market. Audiobooks currently account for
almost as much revenue as hardcovers, and if you don't sell on Audible,
you sacrifice about 95% of that income.

That's a decision I've made, and it means that publishers are no longer
willing to pay for my audiobook rights (who can blame them?). According
to my agent, living my  principles this way has cost me enough to have
paid off my mortgage and maybe funding my retirement.

I've tried a lot of tactics to get around Audible; selling through the
indies (libro.fm, downpour.com, etc), through Google Play, and through
my own shop (craphound.com/shop).

I appreciate the support there but it's a tiny fraction of what I'm
giving up - both in terms of dollars and reach - by refusing to lock my
books (and my readers) (that's you) to Amazon's platform for all
eternity with Audible DRM.

Which brings me to *this* audiobook.

Look, this is a *great* audiobook. I hired Amber Benson (a brilliant
writer and actor who played Tara on Buffy), Skyboat Media and director
Cassandra de Cuir, and Wryneck Studios, and we produced a 15h long,
unabridged *masterpiece*.

It's done. It's wild. I can't stop listening to it. It drops on Oct 13,
with the print/ebook edition.

It'll be on sale in all audiobook stores (except Audible) on the
13th,for $24.95.

*But!* You can get it for a *mere $20* via my first Kickstarter.


What's more, you can pre-order the ebook - and also buy the previous
ebooks and audiobooks (read by Wil Wheaton and Kirby Heyborne) - all DRM
free, all free of license "agreements."

The deal is: "You bought it, you own it, don't violate copyright law and
we're good."

And here's the groundbreaking part. For this Kickstarter, *I'm the
retailer*. If you pre-order the ebook from my KS, I get the 30% that
would otherwise go to Jeff Bezos - *and* I get the 25% that is the
standard ebook royalty.

This is a first-of-its-kind experiment in letting authors, agents,
readers and a major publisher deal directly with one another in a
transaction that completely sidesteps the monopolists who have profited
so handsomely during this crisis.

Which is where you come in: if you help me pre-sell a *ton* of ebooks
and audiobooks through this crowdfunder, it will show publishing that
readers are willing to buy their ebooks and audiobooks without enriching
a monopolist, even if it means an extra click or two.

So, to recap:

* Attack Surface is the third Little Brother book

* It aims to radicalize a generation of tech workers while entertaining
its audience as a cracking, technologically rigorous thriller

* The audiobook is amazing, read by the fantastic Amber Benson

If you pre-order through the Kickstarter:

* You get a cheaper price than you'll get anywhere else

* You get a DRM- and EULA-free purchase

* You'll fight monopolies and support authorship

If you've ever enjoyed my work and wondered how you could pay me back:
*this is it*. This is the thing. Do this, and you will help me
artistically, professionally, politically, and (ofc) financially.

*Thank you!*


PS: Tell your friends!


🛀🏻 IP

I have been writing a column for Locus Magazine for 14 years (!) and
it's been some of my best work.

Blogging (and tweet-threading) is a good way to keep track of the ideas
and events that seem significant - breaking them down for an audience
helps me make sense of them.

The value of all that short-form work comes together when it's time to
do something longer and more synthetic, pulling on all these threads
that I've carefully teased out and organized in my own personal memex.

Today, Locus published my longest, most substantial column ever, a piece
that I wrote in something of a white heat about a month ago, called
(somewhat ironically): "IP."


It's a long read and I'm not even going to try to summarize it all, but
I'll sketch out the main thesis here.

The term "IP" drives activists nuts because it's so vague - trademarks,
copyrights and patents aren't really related, and they also aren't
really "property."

But if you pay attention to how people actually use "IP" a coherent
(albeit colloquial) definition emerges:

"IP is any law that I can invoke that allows me to control the conduct
of my competitors, critics, and customers."

IP is any rule that lets you block interoperability, that lets you bind
your critics to silence, that lets you force your customers to arrange
their affairs to benefit your shareholders instead of themselves.

The historical term that preceded "IP" is "author's monopoly," a term
that drives copyright advocates nuts. They say (correctly) that having a
copyright on a book or a song doesn't make you a monopolist in the sense
of having "market power."

Giving a creator more copyright doesn't let them extract higher fees
from publishers or labels or studios. Yes, they have a monopoly in the
narrow sense of "only I can sell the rights to my books" but that
doesn't translate into the kind of monopoly that Amazon or UMG has.

But here's the thing: we *do* live in a monopolized age: a time when a
small number of companies exert enormous market power, deciding what's
for sale, who can sell it, what it costs, and what the buyers are
allowed to do with it.

And these monopolists are extremely hungry for IP. It started with
traditional entertainment companies, who amassed huge catalogs of
"creator's monopolies" that they used to bolster their "market power

If you want to release music with samples in it, you have to sign with a
label; doing so puts your music in their exclusive catalog, so the next
person who wants to sample has an even greater incentive to sign with a

And while traditional monopolists have to worry about competitors using
the law to punish them for operating monopolies, dominant firms that
include "creator's monopolies" get to use the law to punish competitors
for trying to undo their monopolies.

The musician who samples the UMG catalog without a license puts their
fortune on the line and risks brutal litigation.

And while this was invented by entertainment companies, software has
spread "IP" into every class of device.

"IP" is how car companies and ventilator manufacturers fight Right to
Repair and it's how smart light-socket companies force you to buy their

But software IP isn't just a lever to force you to arrange your affairs
to benefit a manufacturer's shareholders.

Software is also a tool for automating enforcement of your subservience
to those shareholders' interests. Many products have come with
restrictions, but if you defeated those restrictions in the privacy of
your home, you would likely never be caught.

Software-enabled IP isn't just illegal to subvert - it also *knows when
you try*, and rats you out. It is a tightening noose around our lives -
not just our digital lives, but every aspect of them.

This all came to me after I started researching the history of the Free
Software movement for a conference talk. On the way, I was privileged to
have several long discussions with colleagues who helped me work through
the hard parts.

So before I sign off, I want to thank them: Benjamin "Mako" Hill, Zephyr
Teachout, Pamela Samuelson and Seth David Schoen. Any of the smart stuff
in this longest of Locus columns is down to them - but the stupid stuff
is probably my fault.

Also, I'd like to thank the audience at HOPE 2020 who let me beta-test a
version of this argument on them as a conference talk.

I hope you enjoy it!



🛀🏻 FTC about to hammer Intuit

In most of the world's democracies, tax prep is really easy: the
government uses its own employer-supplied payroll records to estimate
your taxes, fills in a tax return for you and mails it to you.

If it looks good, you sign it and return it. If not, you amend it (or
hire an accountant to do so).

But not in the USA: here, the tax-prep industry makes billions charging
Americans to gather information the IRS already has and send it to the
IRS (again).

Naturally - this is America ca. 2020, after all - the tax-prep industry
is highly concentrated, with a few megafirms capturing nearly 100% of
the business, and when industries are that concentrated, they get to
write their own rules.

They do that in three ways:

I. Concentrated industries are small enough that they can readily agree
on a common lobbying position;

II. They extract monopoly rents and can mobilize these excess profits to
lobby on their common position; and

III. They so dominate their industry that their own regulators are drawn
from their executive ranks and/or hope to cycle out of public service
and into the firms' executive structure

Big Tax Prep did all of these things - but at long last, it's catching
up with them.

The worst offender of all is Intuit, makers of Turbotax, whose fraud is
matched only by the company's weird culture, built on a literal
personality cult around the company's longtime CEO Brad Smith:


Smith didn't just orient the whole company around literal worship of his
person: he also transformed the company's longtime opposition to free
government tax-prep into the centerpiece of its political activity.

It was under Smith's leadership that Intuit convinced the IRS to kill
plans for free tax prep and replace them with "Free File" - a program
where Big Tax-Prep offered free tax prep services to low-income Americans.

Free File is an *incredible* grift. Free File companies used deceptive
tactics to make it virtually impossible to use, and they were
successful. Almost no one has heard of Free File - and of the people who
have, almost no one has successfully used it.


Instead Free File became a sales-funnel: low-income filers who tried to
use it would get diverted into expensive for-pay alternatives.

That sales-funnel came in handy after the Trump tax plan eliminated the
need for high-earners to itemize deductions - that when Intuit targeted
elderly people, people with disabilities, and students to make up the


How did they get away with this?



Stealing IRS internal files.

You know: "business."


But here's a Smurfs' Family Christmas miracle for you: thanks to
relentless, deep reporting from Propublica, led by Justin Elliott and
Paul Kiel, the IRS actually cracked down on Intuit and the rest of Big

Last New Year's Eve, the IRS and Intuit announced that Intuit was now
banned from hiding its Free File offerings, and the IRS announced that
it would drop a policy banning it from creating its own Free File


And the hits keep on coming! The FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection has
been investigating Intuit's Turbotax scam for more than a year. In May,
the FTC sent Intuit a wide-ranging subpoena, demanding both documents
and sworn testimony from company execs.

Intuit sued to block the subpoena, but they just got their asses handed
to them by a bipartisan vote of FTC commissioners:


The commissioners rejected Intuit's claim that handing over documents
and giving testimony was "burdensome," in light of both the depth of the
inquiry and the pandemic.

The FTC joins at least four states that are investigating Intuit:


A group of taxpayers who were tricked into paying Intuit for "free"
services are suing the company, having beaten its bid to force them into
binding arbitration (where people are forced to argue in front of a
corporate "arbitrator" instead of a judge):


Chances are you've already filed your taxes, but just in case, here's
Propublica's guide to successfully using Free File. If you have simple
taxes, you should never have to pay for tax-prep:



🛀🏻 Antitrust trouble for cloud services

There are two reasons that no one ever reads terms of service.

The first is obvious: they're garbage. Performatively dull, deliberately
obfuscated, impossible to read and understand (literally - they are
comparable to academic journal articles).


The second reason is also important: if you somehow manage to figure out
what you're "agreeing" to, you'll quickly realize that you don't agree
to any of it. ToS all boil down to "By being stupid enough to be my
customer, you agree that I get to abuse you any way I see fit."

In a just world, "adhesion contracts" (agreements you don't get to
negotiate) would have limitations on them - anything that no person
would ever freely agree to would be judged "unconscionable" and thus

We don't live in that world, alas. But things are changing. There's an
anti-monopoly mood in the air, and lawmakers and regulators are getting
the sense that the public will have their back if they challenge
corporate giants and force them to pay for their bad deeds.

Which explains why the AGCM (Italy's antitrust regulator) is probing
Google, Apple and Dropbox over the manifest unfairness of their terms of


The probe addresses half a dozen abusive elements of these "contracts":

I. Collecting user data for commercial purposes without valid consent

II. Forcing arbitration and making users surrender their right to sue in
a real court

III. Reserving the right to shut down or suspend the service without
giving users notice and the ability to extract their files

IV. Limiting liability for loss of user data due to negligence or

V. Reserving the right to unilaterally alter the contract without
negotiation or notice

VI. Defaulting to English, making it hard to access the Italian version
of the terms


All of this is self-evidently unfair, and it does great violence to the
very idea of an "agreement" - the cornerstone of civilization.

There's a classic Lenny Bruce bit about this: civilization begins with
an agreement about where to shit, sleep and eat: "We’ll sleep in Area A,
is that cool? OK good. We’ll eat in Area B, good? Good. We’ll throw our
crap in Area C."


The transformation of freely agreed-upon terms into adhesion contracts
undermines the very basis for our civilization, by equating actual
contracts with "By standing there shouting 'hell no I don't agree,' you
agree that..."

This is just a baby-step, but man is it overdue -- and a hopeful sign
for the future. Bravo!


🛀🏻 This day in history

#15yrsago Gold Rush-era sailing ship ruin excavated in San Fran

#15yrsago BBC Creative Archive pilot launches

#15yrsago Guerrilla drive-ins with digital projectors and FM
transmitters https://gizmodo.com/guerilla-drive-ins-124118

#15yrsago Men offer "fresh starts" to single NOLA women on Craigslist

#10yrsago Secret copyright treaty: USA caves on border laptop/phone/MP3
player searches for copyright infringement

#5yrsago NZ bans award-winning YA novel after complaints from
conservative Christian group

#5yrsago Your baby monitor is an Internet-connected spycam vulnerable to
voyeurs and crooks

#5yrsago Inept copyright bot sends 2600 a legal threat over ink blotches

#5yrsago FBI used Burning Man to field-test new surveillance equipment

#5yrsago Fury Road, hieroglyph edition

#5yrsago Words about slavery that we should all stop using

#5yrsago Little Brother optioned by Paramount

#5yrsago Record street-marches in Moldova against corrupt oligarchs

#5yrsago Antihoarding: When "decluttering" becomes a compulsion


🛀🏻 Colophon

Today's top sources: Slashdot (https://slashdot.org/).

Currently writing: My next novel, "The Lost Cause," a post-GND novel
about truth and reconciliation. Yesterday's progress: 510 words (58328

Currently reading: Gideon the Ninth, Tamsyn Muir

Latest podcast: Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town (part 14)

Upcoming appearances:

* Keynote for Law Via the Internet conference, Sept 22,

* Writing into an Uncertain Future, Afterwords Festival, Oct 1,

Latest book:

* "How to Destroy Surveillance Capitalism": an anti-monopoly pamphlet
analyzing the true harms of surveillance capitalism and proposing a

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

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