Nerd fatalism, nerd determinism: the problem with nerd politics

My latest Guardian column is "The problem with nerd politics," and it discusses the twin evils of "nerd determinism" and "nerd fatalism" -- both convenient excuses for people who care about technology policy to avoid politics.

In "nerd determinism," technologists dismiss dangerous and stupid political, legal and regulatory proposals on the grounds that they are technologically infeasible. Geeks who care about privacy dismiss broad wiretapping laws, easy lawful interception standards, and other networked surveillance on the grounds that they themselves can evade this surveillance. For example, US and EU police agencies demand that network carriers include backdoors for criminal investigations, and geeks snort derisively and say that none of that will work on smart people who use good cryptography in their email and web sessions.

But, while it's true that geeks can get around this sort of thing – and other bad network policies, such as network-level censorship, or vendor locks on our tablets, phones, consoles, and computers – this isn't enough to protect us, let alone the world. It doesn't matter how good your email provider is, or how secure your messages are, if 95% of the people you correspond with use a free webmail service with a lawful interception backdoor, and if none of those people can figure out how to use crypto, then nearly all your email will be within reach of spooks and control-freaks and cops on fishing expeditions.

What's more, things that aren't legal don't attract monetary investment. In the UK, where it's legal to unlock your mobile phone, you can just walk into shops all over town and get your handset unlocked while you wait. When this was illegal in the US (it's marginally legal at the moment), only people who could navigate difficult-to-follow online instructions could unlock their phones. No merchant would pay to staff a phone-unlocking role at the corner shop (my dry-cleaner has someone sitting behind a card-table who'll unlock any phone you bring him for a fiver). Without customers, the people who make phone-unlocking tools will only polish them to the point where they're functional for their creators. The kind of polish that marks the difference between a tool and a product is often driven by investment, markets and commercialism.

The problem with nerd politics

Yochai Benkler explains SOPA

The Guardian: Blueprint for Democratic Participation from The Guardian and The Paley Center for Media on FORA.tv

Here's Yochai Benkler -- author of Wealth of Networks, one of the most important books written about how the Internet changes society -- describing the fight to stop SOPA with laser clarity and precision, cutting through the DC/media consensus that "Google killed SOPA" or "Wikipedia killed SOPA" and showing instead how the ecosystem of people who care about networks collaborated to do the unprecedented.

The Guardian: Blueprint for Democratic Participation (via Michael Geist)

Reddit's TestPAC is campaigning to defeat Lamar Smith, SOPA's daddy

TestPAC, the PAC founded on Reddit to carry on the momentum from the SOPA fight earlier this year, is in the midst of its inaugural campaign: seeking to oust long-term Texas congressman Lamar Smith, who authored the bill and attempted to ram it through his committee without any substantive debate, after taking large campaign contributions from the entertainment industry through several election cycles. Now, TestPAC has "boots on the ground" in Smith's home district and the campaign is in full swing, and seeking your support:

As some of you are aware, for the last 3 months, TestPAC has been working tirelessly to put together a comprehensive campaign to increase awareness about Lamar Smith’s legislative irresponsibility with the ultimate goal of defeating him in the May 29th primary.

It’s amazing to see what we have accomplished in the last 3 months. We went from a handful of Redditors passionate in their opposition of SOPA to a membership base of over 1,200 subscribers, we have over 500 followers on Facebook, and almost 600 on Twitter. We have funded a billboard in Lamar’s backyard, produced a professionally done advertisement, and have been featured in some major media outlets like Mashable, Mother Jones, BoingBoing and TheNextWeb.

In addition to all of this, today we are proud to announce the launch of our field campaign.

Boots are on the ground, led by Andy Posterick, TestPAC’s Treasurer who drove 12 hours from Phoenix, AZ to Kerrville, TX to lead a group of 10 volunteers to assist with handing out fliers, putting up signs and interacting with the voters in Lamar’s district. We are stepping out from behind our keyboards and monitors and getting out into the streets. We are making it happen, and we are here in TX-21 every weekend for the next 3 weeks.

Lamar Smith knows TestPAC is knocking. Several reporters who wrote about us have contacted him and his staff for comment. They know we are out there working to send him home from Washington. Now it’s time that he sees us in his district, connecting with voters and working to send him packing.

We need Reddit's Help

We're holding a 5k moneybomb today, in order to double our TV exposure and help fund the ground campaign. Reddit, every day there are posts about SOPA, PCIP, or CISPA. TestPAC is turning those words into actions. Can you help us?

If you can donate, here is the link to do so. If not, please spread the word on Facebook & Twitter.

If Canadians were allowed to donate, I would donate. As it is, all I can do is ask you to kick in to support the campaign.

TestPAC has boots on the ground in Lamar Smith's district. Our field campaign has started. Our TV ad is ready to go. Reddit, let's do this thing. (self.politics)

SOPA-fighting champs DemandProgress want to hire a lead writer

DemandProgress, the activist organization that was one of the main movers in the history-making fight against SOPA, is looking to hire a "Lead writer," who lives in NYC (or can relocate). Co-founder Aaron Swartz explains,

It’s a pretty incredible job: you’ll be leading a new lab to try to pioneer innovative ways of thinking about what works in online campaigning. And because it’s so experimental, it doesn’t require a whole lot of experience—in fact, not having any preconceptions might be a plus. It’d be perfect, for example, for a smart kid straight out of college.

They've also got some internships available.

Incredible opportunity: looking for a writer

Why a pro-SOPA MPAA technologist changed sides and went to work for ISOC


My latest Guardian column is "Why did an MPAA executive join the Internet Society?" which digs into the backstory on the appointment of former MPAA CTO Paul Brigner as North American director of the copyright-reforming, pro-net-neutrality Network Society group, which manages the .ORG domain name registry.

I asked Brigner whether his statements about DNS blocking and seizure and net neutrality had been sincere. "There are certainly a number of statements attributed to me that demonstrate my past thoughts on DNS and other issues," he answered. "I would not have stated them if I didn't believe them. But the true nature of my work was focused on trying to build bridges with the technology community and the content community and find solutions to our common problems. As I became more ingrained in the debate, I became more educated on the realities of these issues, and the reality is that a mandated technical solution just isn't a viable option for the future of the internet. When presented with the facts over time, it was clear I had to adjust my thinking.

"My views have evolved over the last year as I engaged with leading technologists on DNSSEC. Through those discussions, I came to believe that legislating technological approaches to fight copyright violations threatens the architecture of the internet. However, I do think that voluntary measures could be developed and implemented to help address the issue.

"I will most definitely advocate on Internet Society's behalf in favor of all issues listed, and I share the organization's views on all of those topics. I would not have joined the organisation otherwise, and I look forward to advocating on its behalf."

Update: Joly sez, "After his appointment we (ISOC-NY) did pull Paul up on the carpet to explain himself - you can find the salient MPAA passage here

Why did an MPAA executive join the Internet Society?

(Image: Stop SOPA!, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from 51295441@N07's photostream)

CISPA is SOPA 2.0: petition to stop it

CISPA, the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act of 2011 (H.R. 3523), is a successor, of sorts, to the loathesome SOPA legislative proposal, which was shot down in flames earlier this year. EFF's chilling analysis of the bill shows how it could be used to give copyright enforcers carte blanche to spy on Internet users and censoring the Internet (it would also give these powers to companies and governments who'd been embarrassed by sites like Wikileaks).

Under the proposed legislation, a company that protects itself or other companies against “cybersecurity threats” can “use cybersecurity systems to identify and obtain cyber threat information to protect the rights and property” of the company under threat. But because “us[ing] cybersecurity systems” is incredibly vague, it could be interpreted to mean monitoring email, filtering content, or even blocking access to sites. A company acting on a “cybersecurity threat” would be able to bypass all existing laws, including laws prohibiting telcos from routinely monitoring communications, so long as it acted in “good faith.”

The broad language around what constitutes a cybersecurity threat leaves the door wide open for abuse. For example, the bill defines “cyber threat intelligence” and “cybersecurity purpose” to include “theft or misappropriation of private or government information, intellectual property, or personally identifiable information.”

Yes, intellectual property. It’s a little piece of SOPA wrapped up in a bill that’s supposedly designed to facilitate detection of and defense against cybersecurity threats. The language is so vague that an ISP could use it to monitor communications of subscribers for potential infringement of intellectual property. An ISP could even interpret this bill as allowing them to block accounts believed to be infringing, block access to websites like The Pirate Bay believed to carry infringing content, or take other measures provided they claimed it was motivated by cybersecurity concerns.

There's a DemandProgress petition against CISPA (DemandProgress was one of the leaders of the SOPA fight).

MPAA boss: we're cooking up a new SOPA behind the scenes

Former Senator Chris Dodd, head of the MPAA, has hinted to the Hollywood Reporter that he's already greasing the wheels for a new version of SOPA, though he's shy about revealing details because of the public outcry that might ensue. Dodd is the guy who went on the record to tell Obama that he would instruct his members to stop donating to the Democratic party because Obama didn't usher in the laws they wanted.

DemandProgress has whomped up a petition asking Obama to end the practice of writing American copyright laws in smoke-filled back rooms.

THR: Are there conversations going on now?

Dodd: I'm confident that's the case, but I'm not going to go into more detail because obviously if I do, it becomes counterproductive.

THR: Did you feel personally blindsided by Obama over SOPA?

Dodd: I'm not going to revisit the events of last winter. I'll only say to you that I'm confident he's using his good relationships in both communities to do exactly what you and I have been talking about.

This exchange comes days after the White House issued a report that urges a redoubling of efforts to crack down on piracy.

Hollywood and Obama should've learned: No form of censorship will be acceptable to Internet users, and we're fed up with corrupt, back-room deals that are driven by the rich and well-connected. Any major Internet policy changes should be negotiated in the light of day, so the millions of people who'd be affected can have their say too.

Please tell President Obama to reject Hollywood's backroom deals -- just add your name at right.

Chris Dodd Suggests Backroom Negotiations On New SOPA Are Well Underway

Reddit-based PAC takes aim at SOPA-sponsor Lamar Smith


Test PAC, the Reddit-based PAC founded to raise money to support opponents of Lamar Smith, the author of SOPA, has placed its first billboard and is set to run its first advertisements. The materials direct people to unseatlamar.com. Ajpos from TestPAC explains:

Analytics take a few days to come in, and the billboard has been up for only about three hours.

I want to stress that the PAC has about 300 members right now and we have plans to air two commercials, so the billboard serves a few other purposes besides getting Texans to visit the website:

1.) This is an example of the internet flexing its muscles and showing that we can make political speech. This is Test PAC's first venture into the "real world" and shows that we have some teeth. The NYT, Guardian, and Forbes all wanted to do an article on us but ultimately decided not to until we've grown a bit. This is the first example of how we're growing.

2.) We hope this will generate some publicity nationally so people from other districts and states can generate more public support for the campaign. 300 members is not enough, in my opinion, to air two commercials.

3.) It also gives both Mack and Morgan something to use in their own campaigns. They can show how people besides their campaign staff are interested in them. We are a "tertiary" campaign, so we cannot do their campaigning for them, but this certainly helps.

Of course, we would absolutely be thrilled if we start getting hits from San Antonio, and I'll be disappointed if we don't, but it's not the end of the world.

That Reddit-funded billboard in Lamar Smith's district is up (i.imgur.com)

Cross-section of America's electronic freedom campaigners

Forbes's Carol Pinchefsky profiles "4 Public Interest Groups Who Are Fighting for Your Digital Freedom" including EFF, Public Knowledge, TechFreedom and the Center for Democracy and Technology. It's a great cross-section of the different approaches that activist groups take to technology and freedom (but I would lobby for the inclusion of some of the newer groups, like AmericanCensorship.org and DemandProgress.org, who were so key to the SOPA/PIPA fight). This is part one, focusing on Public Knowledge and EFF.

Cohn said, “We continue to battle the warrantless wiretapping that was started by the Bush administration and continued by the Obama administration. The administration has been trying to avoid a court looking at what they’re doing by hiding behind the state’s secrets privilege, so we’ve had to have a lot of fights around that.”

Among other battles, the EFF is fighting copyright trolls, people who “use copyright claims to try to shake down people. The business model is not about the lawsuit, it’s about the strategy of extracting money.” For example, Camelot Distribution Group blanketed the users of a peer-to-peer downloading site with threatening letters, claiming that the users illegally downloaded the “nunsploitation” movie, Nude Nuns with Big Guns.

According to Cohn, Camelot Distribution Group told users, “You can pay us a thousand dollars and this whole thing will go away.” She said, “People feel intimidated by this, whether or not they did it, because even if they fight this and they’re exonerated, they’re going to be forever linked to Nude Nuns with Big Guns.”

Worse, the lawsuits are usually created in locations that are geographically undesirable for the defendants, which makes it hard for them to defend themselves. Cohn said, “We’ve been filing amicus briefs and getting appointed by courts across the country to defend these people and to develop some processes that is more fair than the trolls want to do it.”

4 Public Interest Groups Who Are Fighting for Your Digital Freedom (part 1) (Thanks, Carol!)

Last chance for Canadians to weigh in on Canada's SOPA

Michael Geist sez, "Open Media, which launched the most successful Canadian online petition in history on usage based billing, is now encouraging people to speak out on copyright reform. The group makes it easy to speak out against SOPA-style reforms, harms to fair dealing, and unduly restrictive digital lock rules. This is the last chance for Canadians to be heard with the final committee changes coming on Monday." Cory

Reddit PAC aims to kick SOPA's daddy Lamar Smith out of Congress

Mike sez, "With the Texas Primaries coming up in May, I thought you would be interested to know that some of the Redditors that were involved in the boycott on GoDaddy.com and 'Operation Pull Ryan' (where Reddit raised money for Rep. Paul Ryan's opponent), have started TestPAC, a non-connected, registered PAC, with the goal of defeating Lamar Smith in the Republican Primaries."

You'll remember Lamar Smith from such stupid Internet laws as SOPA and the Protecting Children from Internet Pornographers Act of 2011 (AKA "the Spy on Everyone Always Act"). He's a 25-year incumbent and a powerful committee chairman. And he's kind of a tool.

What we aim to do is a bit unorthodox: use Texas’ semi-open primary system to edge Smith out in favor of another Republican candidate. When voters identify themselves to the election officials, they must request a party’s specific ballot. As explained on Wikipedia:

Only one ballot is cast by each voter. In many states with semi-open primaries, election officials or poll workers from their respective parties record each voter’s choice of party and provide access to this information. The primary difference between a semi-open and open primary system is the use of a party-specific ballot. In a semi-open primary, a public declaration in front of the election judges is made and a party-specific ballot given to the voter to cast.

This means that Republicans, Independents and Democrats can participate in the choosing of either party’s candidate in the primary election. While Democrats who choose to participate in the Republican primaries are exempt from also voting for their own party’s candidate, it is important to note that their actions would speak volumes in regards to changing the political landscape in their district. Keeping in mind the fact that Smith has enjoyed comfortable margins of victory over the years in a district that heavily favors Republican candidates, a vote for another candidate in Texas’ open primary would possibly have a greater effect than simply voting in the Democratic primary and ultimately losing the race.

Mr. Smith Comes Back From Washington (Thanks, Mike!)

Canadian copyright consultation drawing to a close - time to contact your MP

Michael Geist sez,
The long road of Canadian copyright reform is nearing an end as the Bill C-11 committee concluded hearing from witnesses yesterday and indicated that it will begin a "clause-by-clause" review of the bill starting on Monday. While there will still be some additional opportunities for debate - third reading in the House of Commons, Senate review - the reality is that next week's discussion will largely determine the future of Canadian copyright law.

For the thousands of Canadians that have participated in consultations and sent letters to their MPs, there is reason for concern. On one side, there are the major copyright lobby groups who have put forward a dizzying array of demands that would overhaul Bill C-11 including requiring Internet providers to block access to foreign sites, take down content without court oversight, and disclose subscriber information without a warrant. On top of those demands, the industry also wants individuals to face unlimited statutory damages and pay a new iPod tax.

On the other side, there are groups such as Access Copyright that are calling on their members to urge the government and committee MPs to undo the Supreme Court of Canada's CCH decision on fair dealing. While many of these demands are clearly far beyond "technical amendments" and should be ruled out of order, the last minute push must be met by Canadians who favour a balanced approach to copyright reform that retains the best of Bill C-11 and makes some modest changes to digital locks, the one remaining area of concern. My message to the MPs focuses on three simple principles:

1. No SOPA-style amendments. That means no website blocking, no warrantless disclosure of subscriber information, no expanded enabler provision, no unlimited statutory damages, no iPod tax, and no content takedowns.

2. Maintain the fair dealing balance found in C-11 by expanding the provision to include education, parody, and satire and relying on the Supreme Court's six-factor test to ensure that the dealing is fair.

3. Amend the digital lock rules by following the Canadian Library Association's recommended change linking circumvention to actual copyright infringement.

The message is going to my local MP, the Ministers and to Bill C-11 committee members.

Closing Time on Canadian Copyright: Help Stop the Final Push for SOPA-Style Reforms & Efforts to Gut Fair Dealing (contains links to contact your MP and the committee members)

Canadian record industry demands SOPA-style censorship

Michael Geist sez,

The Canadian committee on copyright reform conducts its final witness hearing today and not a moment too soon. Based on the demands from music industry witnesses this week, shutting down the Internet must surely be coming next. The week started with the Canadian Independent Music Association seeking changes to the enabler provision that would create liability risk for social networking sites, search engines, blogging platforms, video sites, and many other websites featuring third party contributions. It also called for a new iPod tax, an extension in the term of copyright, a removal of protections for user generated content, parody, and satire, as well as an unlimited statutory damage awards and a content takedown system with no court oversight. CIMA was followed by ADISQ, which wants its own lawful access approach that would require Internet providers to disclose subscriber information without court oversight based on allegations of infringement (the attack on fair dealing is covered in a separate post).

Yesterday the Canadian Music Publishers Association added to the demand list by pulling out the SOPA playbook and calling for website blocking provisions. The CMPA argued that Internet providers take an active role in shaping the Internet traffic on their systems and therefore it wants to "create a positive obligation for service providers to prevent the use of their services to infringe copyright by offshore sites."

The net effect of the music industry demands represents more than a stunning overhaul of Bill C-11 as it is effectively calling for a radical reform of the Internet in Canada. Taken together, the proposals would require Internet providers to block access to foreign sites, take down content without court oversight, and disclose subscriber information without a warrant. On top of those demands, the industry also wants individuals to face unlimited statutory damages and pay a new iPod tax. It also wants an expanded enabler provision that is so broadly defined as potentially capture social networking sites and search engines.

The Other Shoe Drops: Music Reps Want SOPA-Style Website Blocking Added To Copyright Bill

Irish SOPA signed into law

The "Irish SOPA" law, which makes provision for arbitrary, ISP-level national censorship without court orders, has been signed -- despite the law's unpopularity and the widespread protests against it.

The Irish Minister for Research and Innovation, Sean Sherlock, is insisting that the final version of the bill is much more limited than earlier proposals, and that it took guidance from recent EU Court of Justice rulings that say ISPs shouldn't have to be proactive about blocking. That still means that copyright holders can petition to force ISPs to block all access to various websites, and as we've seen in other countries in Europe, you can bet that the major record labels and studios will be doing just that very soon (if they haven't already) -- though their track record on properly calling out infringement isn't very good.

Ireland Signs Controversial 'Irish SOPA' Into Law; Kicks Off New Censorship Regime

SOPA's author wants everything you do online logged and made available without a warrant

Lamar Smith (R-TX), author of the ill-starred SOPA Internet regulation, has an even dumber idea for the Internet. In the name of fighting child pornography, he wants to force ISPs to log everything you do online, then make it available to police and government agents without a warrant. Leslie Meredith has a writeup on the mounting opposition to Smith's latest act of unconstitutional lunacy:

However, under Smith’s bill, records of both suspects and ordinary citizens would all be available to any government agency at any time, no warrant required.

"This type of legislation goes against the fundamental values of our country where individuals are treated as innocent until proven guilty," Reitman said. "H.R. 1981 would uproot this core American principle, forcing ISPs to treat everyone like a potential criminal."

The bill has been forwarded from committee to the full House of Representatives for consideration, which is expected later this year. There is no sign of a Senate version at this time.

If the past is any indicator, Smith may be in for a hard fight with activists. He was also sponsor of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) bill that would have shut off access to foreign websites accused of hosting pirated content. But he was forced to withdraw the legislation after massive protests by many of the same opponents who likewise thought the remedy was too harsh for the problem.

Child porn law could affect everyone's privacy