[Plura-list] Privacy Without Monopoly; Broad Band; $50T moved from America's 90% to the 1%
doctorow at craphound.com
Sat Feb 13 13:22:57 EST 2021
This weekend, I'm participating in Boskone 58, Boston's annual sf
Tonight, on a panel called "Tech Innovation? Does Silicon Valley Have A
Mind-Control Ray, Or a Monopoly?" at 530PM Pacific.
* Privacy Without Monopoly: A new EFF white paper, co-authored with
* Broad Band: Claire L Evans's magesterial history of women in computing.
* $50T moved from America's 90% to the 1%: The hereditary meritocracy is
* This day in history: 2006, 2011, 2016
* Colophon: Recent publications, upcoming/recent appearances, current
writing projects, current reading
🥶 Privacy Without Monopoly
Today, EFF published "Privacy Without Monopoly: Data Protection and
Interoperability," a major new paper by Bennett Cyphers and me.
It's a paper that tries to resolve the tension between demanding that
tech platforms gather, retain and mine less of our data, and the demand
that platforms allow alternatives (nonprofits, co-ops, tinkerers,
startups) to connect with their services.
It starts from the premise that tech companies abuse our data because
they *can*: because they know we're locked into their silos, because
they know we have few alternatives even if we decide to abandon our
social ties and move elsewhere.
Demanding better data protection from tech companies works well, but
fails badly. It's great when companies respond to public pressure or
legal changes by protecting our data, but if they don't, and there isn't
any alternative, well...
The upshot is that alternatives represent an important piece of the
privacy puzzle: both as a force to discipline big companies tempted to
abuse our data, and as an escape valve when they yield to temptation.
Interoperability is complicated. There's some legislative energy for
mandating interop - last year's US ACCESS Act, the pending EU Digital
Services and Markets Acts.
There's also a lot of antitrust litigation around the US and the world,
and companies might settle these with a requirement to open up APIs. And
there are other levers: government procurement rules, or requirements
for participation in standards bodies.
Mandatory interoperability represents a good floor, but it's a lousy
ceiling. Monopolists who are required to allow interoperability to allow
alternatives might sabotage the mandate by shifting around their
operations so the interop doesn't do much.
The ceiling on interop needs to be competitive compatibility (comcom,
AKA "adversarial interoperability"), when a new service plugs into an
existing one against its wishes, say, by scraping data on behalf of a user.
Comcom was once the norm in tech, but the same companies that owe their
existence to comcom have used their monopoly rents to obliterate the
legal framework that permitted comcom, ensuring no one does unto them as
they did unto the companies they disrupted.
Restoring comcom can come through a mix of new laws, better
interpretations of existing laws, and through the same levers we might
use for mandates: antitrust settlements, procurement rules, conditions
of participation in standards-setting.
So that's the ceiling; what about the floor? We enumerate three flavors
of interop from existing law and legislative proposals:
I. Data portability - this is already a feature of state privacy laws in
the US and the EU's GDPR - the right to get your data from a company
II. Back-end interoperability: forcing companies to expose the same
interfaces they use to allow their internal business units to
communicate (eg the interface between Facebook, Whatsapp and Instagram).
III. Delegatability (AKA front-end interoperability): allowing a third
party to automate clicks and mouse movements to connect to your account
on a service on your behalf.
Both mandates and comcom expose users to privacy risks - as does
business-as-usual. If we take away companies' legal weapons so they
can't use the law to block interoperators, they will lose a tool they
use to protect users' privacy.
But users will gain ways to interact with social media that are more
privacy-preserving than the big companies are willing to stretch to.
The answer to this isn't to count on big companies to have our best
interests in heart - and to defend those interests by abusing copyright
and cybersecurity law. We need a federal privacy law - one that binds
both Big Tech and new rivals.
A federal privacy law would also safeguard users' privacy where there's
an interop mandate in play, and because a mandate is managed and
orderly, big companies can shut down APIs or limit access when someone
breaks the rules.
Big Tech doesn't have a monopoly on good ideas or the ability to provide
a platform for discussion, socializing, and political and civil
engagement - but they *do* have a monopoly on platforms where these
things take place.
We can - and should - demand better of the platforms, but we should also
encourage (lots of) alternatives, federated with one another, so you can
choose a platform without giving up your friends, customers or audience.
🥶 Broad Band
One of the most Monkey's Paw things about my life is my relationship to
books. When I was a teenager, I read all the way through the school and
public libraries, spent everything I had on books, and still couldn't
get enough and dreamt of more.
Today, as a reviewer, I have more books than I can possibly read, huge,
teetering mountains of books that I'm desperate to read, far beyond my
ability to ever get through them. Periodically, I declare "book
bankruptcy," sweep away the backlog and start over.
Even then, my eyes are bigger than my stomach: I keep back a few books
that I can't bear to part with and promise myself I'll read them
someday. Usually I don't, but I just did, and boy did I ever make the
right call with Claire L Evans's BROAD BAND.
I have read a *lot* of histories of computing, and I had a front row
seat for a lot of the events depicted in this book - people I worked
with, people I worked against - and yet I was surprised over and over
again with details and perspectives I'd never encountered.
For example, for some reason, my ninth grade computer science course
included lengthy readings on ENIAC, Univac, the Mark I and the Mark II,
but none of those mentioned that they were all programmed exclusively or
primarily by women.
And Evans doesn't just explain this fact, but - because she is a
brilliant and lyrical writer - she brings these women to life, turns
them into fully formed characters, makes you see and feel their life
stories, frustrations and triumphs.
Even the most celebrated women of tech history - Ada Lovelace, Grace
Hopper - leap off the page as people, not merely historical personages
or pioneers. Again, these are stories I thought I knew, and realized I
Some of this can be chalked up to the haze of history - I don't know
much about the lives of Lovelace's contemporaries regardless of gender
or class - but the main culprit here is erasure, obviously.
These women were written out of the record from the beginning, and the
process only accelerated over time. The professionalization of
programming - the coining of "software engineer" - coded a female trade
as a male profession and precipitated a mass exodus of women.
But despite this, women continued as tech pioneers, excelling in the
marginalized, disfavored parts of the field: UX, community, "girl
games," hypertext, multimedia and so on.
The specialities that men turned up their noses at, until women proved
out their significance (and/or profitability) whereupon men rushed in to
dominate them, shouldering women aside.
Reading this outstanding, important book, I found my views on erasure
and exclusion evolving, first being brought into focus by Evans's
skilful weaving of biographies, interviews and historical source
documents, which made the abstract idea of erasure concrete.
From there, Evans demonstrated how marginalized people move into
marginalized subfields, defying odds and overcoming hurdles that their
mainstream - white, male, affluent - contemporaries don't face, and then
elevate these subfields to centrality.
This dynamic is present in many fields of endeavor - think of how Black
music (blues, jazz, rock, hiphop) went from the margins to the center
when it was co-opted by white musicians who often did a worse job for
more money and fame.
It's another example of what John Scalzi calls "living life on the
lowest difficulty setting," and it's the basis for affirmative action.
Consider two candidates: one who attains the top of their field after
being trained and supported by the best of the best, and the other who
trails them by a step or two - but never had their advantages. Which one
has the most potential?
Broad Band isn't just a tale of the women whose stories were erased -
it's also the implied story of all the people (not just women) whose
stories never got to happen.
Telling the erased stories of people who excelled against all odds
through luck and brilliance exposes a void: the people who didn't have
that luck, that brilliant, who never got to make a contribution.
After all, the women pioneers in computing trend whiter and wealthier
than the median person in America. The notable exceptions - like the
Black women who made the space program possible - demonstrate this
disparity arises from exclusion, not a lack of aptitude or desire.
Broad Band isn't merely a celebration of the hidden heroes of the
computing revolution - it's also an epitaph for all the people whose
talent, aptitude, dreams and contributions were squandered by a system
based on mass exclusion.
What's more, it's a tale that shows that the differences between fields
are socially - not biologically -determined. The women who break through
to male-dominated roles as CEOs and VCs are just as prone to selling out
workers and users as their male counterparts.
I'm so glad that I saved my copy of Broad Band from my repeated book
bankruptcies since 2018, but I confess that I didn't read that print
copy - rather, I listened to the audiobook, which Evans herself reads.
Evans isn't just a superb writer, interviewer and researcher - she's
also a brilliant voice actor, whose reading is gripping, exuberant,
sorrowful and enraging by turns. I love hearing a book read by its
author...when the author is a good reader. Evans is the whole package.
🥶 $50T moved from America's 90% to the 1%
Inequality requires narrative stabilizers. When you have too little and
someone else has more than they can possibly use, simple logic dictates
that you should take what they have.
The forbearance exercised by the many when it comes to the wealth of the
few isn't down to guards or laws - rather, the laws and the guards are
effective because of the *story*, the story of why this is fair, even
Think of the story of monarchy and its relationship to the Church: the
Church affirms that the monarch (and the aristocracy) was chosen by God
("dieu et mon droit") and the monarchy reciprocates by giving the Church
moral and economic power within the kingdom.
Capitalism replaced the story of divine will with a story of a
self-correcting complex system: humans are born and raised with a
variety of aptitudes and tastes, and at any moment, historical
exigencies dictate that some individuals are better suited than others
to do well.
When it's railroad time, there are people who were born to oversee the
laying of track and the coordination of rail networks: markets find
those people, allocate capital to them, and allow them to mobilize that
capital to produce shared prosperity for all of us.
They get a larger slice of the pie than the people who lay the tracks,
but they also made the pie bigger - their wealth represents three goods:
I. The incentive to make us all better off,
II. a reward for doing so, and
III. proof they earned it.
Implicit in this theory is the idea that markets are elevating people
based on their suitability to a time and circumstance, for the benefit
of us all.
You didn't strike it rich because you just weren't the right person to
lead in your time and place.
But because the right person *did* strike it rich, your life - and the
lives of the people you love - were all improved. Your kids got a better
start, and they might turn out to be the right person in the right place
when they grow up.
That's the true significance of rags-to-riches: not that anyone can
strike it rich, but that the people who did strike it rich deserved it,
and anything you do to stop them will make YOU worse off, because they
know how to maximize all our wellbeing in this moment.
But that's not actually how it works. As Thomas Piketty showed in
CAPITAL IN THE 21ST CENTURY, the biggest predictor of whether you'll get
rich is whether you're rich already:
Markets reward capital at a higher rate than they reward growth. Bill
Gates founded the most successful company in world history, but made
less money from it than L'Oreal heiress (and useless parasite) Liliane
Bettencourt made over the same period.
But then Gates retired and became an investor - someone who allocated
capital to people who did things, rather than doing things himself. And
almost immediately, his fortune grew larger than either Bettencourt's or
All other things being equal, markets allocate capital to people who
have capital, not people who have ideas that will make us all better
off, and so the story begins to break down. The tale of meritocracy is
hard to credit when the richest people started off rich.
If that's a meritocracy, then it's a *hereditary* meritocracy, an idea
straight out of eugenics. In a hereditary meritocracy, markets don't
serve to locate people with the best ideas for this moment and place -
rather, they locate people with the best blood.
Think of how many times we heard Trump boast about his "good blood."
Capitalism went full circle, becoming a new form of monarchism, where
the hereditarily wealthy assert their right to rule by dint of the
divine scripture of neoliberal economists who assure us all is well.
But being born rich doesn't make you a good capital allocator, it makes
you a useless parasite. Some might escape the prison of birth to
parasitehood, but they don't have to - you can be Donald Trump, or Don
Jr, and still amass millions.
When our capital allocations are dominated by plutes, we end up in a
society where evidence-based policy can only be made if it doesn't gore
a plute's ox, and the plutes own all the oxen. So we end up with lethal
healthcare, agriculture, climate and other policies.
We see the evidence of this daily, in headlines like "Inadequate
healthcare has killed more Americans than Covid":
"The US trailed the rest of the advanced world in life expectancy since
the 1980s... it's 3.4 years shorter than other G7 countries."
Death and privation chip away at the narrative of beneficial inequality,
a system that elevates those who do the best for us all. I think we're
at an inflection point now, as the storylines that started with Occupy
are proven out by the pandemic and leap to the mainstream.
How else to explain Time headlines like "The Top 1% of Americans Have
Taken $50 Trillion From the Bottom 90%—And That's Made the U.S. Less
The article reports on a Rand Corporation paper that estimates the
wealth of the bottom 90% if American wealth distribution had held steady
at the postwar levels, the most equal America had been since manumission.
It traces the real consequences of this inequality - the health and
lifespan difference, the political instability, the mounting budget for
guard labor to restabilize a system made untenable by the near-universal
breakdown in a belief in its fairness.
"Are you a typical Black man earning $35,000 a year? You are being paid
at least $26,000 a year less than you would have had income
distributions held constant."
"Are you a college-educated, prime-aged, full-time worker earning
$72,000? Depending on the inflation index used (PCE or CPI,
respectively), rising inequality is costing you between $48,000 and
$63,000 a year."
Systems are stabilized by law and the force of the state, but these are
rounding errors compared to the stability imparted by narrative, the
consensus that things are fair. Once you lose that, no amount of guard
labor can keep it all from toppling over.
🥶 This day in history
#15yrsago Google Video DRM: Why is Hollywood more important than users?
#10yrsago Nokia’s radical CEO has a mercenary, checkered past
#5yrsago I was a Jeopardy! clue
Today's top sources: Kottke (https://kottke.org/), Naked Capitalism
* My next novel, "The Lost Cause," a post-GND novel about truth and
reconciliation. Friday's progress: 514 words (110389 total).
* A short story, "Jeffty is Five," for The Last Dangerous Visions.
Friday's progress: 251 words (5077 total).
Currently reading: Analogia by George Dyson.
Latest podcast: Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town (part 30)
* Boskone, 58, Feb 12-15, https://boskone.org/
* Keynote, NISO Plus, Feb 22,
* Technology, Self-Determination, and the Future of the Future (Purdue
CERIAS), Feb 17,
* Mellon Sawyer Seminar on Contemporary Political Struggle: Social
Movements, Social Surveillance, Social Media (with Zeynep Tufekci), Feb
* World Ethical Data Forum keynote, Mar 17-19,
* Interop: Self-Determination vs Dystopia (FITC), Apr 19-21,
* Chop Shop Economics
* Monocle Reads
* Hedging Bets on the Future (Motherboard Cyber):
* "Attack Surface": The third Little Brother novel, a standalone
technothriller for adults. The *Washington Post* called it "a political
cyberthriller, vigorous, bold and savvy about the limits of revolution
and resistance." Order signed, personalized copies from Dark Delicacies
* "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
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
Quotations and images are not included in this license; they are
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basis of a separate license. Please exercise caution.
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"*When life gives you SARS, you make sarsaparilla*" -Joey "Accordion
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