Ethics in Politics?

“Who put the question mark there, you all know he’ll read whatever is on the prompter!” Mostly a quote from the movie Anchorman. The point is, should that question mark be there or not? In the US, the STOCK Act, designed to prevent insider trading by Congressmen, is moving forward for debate in the Senate. This type of law, even if there are debates about the need for this specific law because it should already be illegal, really drives the point home. Clearly, this is something that the majority of us would consider unethical. In business ethics courses (heh), this type of action is typically considered a big no-no and at many work places is considered very bad as well.

A personal example for me came from working at Verizon Wireless. My first co-op rotation there I was an equipment engineer, where I bought equipment and work with companies to build cell sites. For a Sophomore in college this was pretty awesome. I was buying stuff that was worth something like $40,000 like it was nothing. Pretty cool stuff right? Well, I started to deal with vendors and learned that no vendor was allowed to buy any of us lunch. Not even lunch. If anything was worth more than $25 as a gift, we had to return it.

Now, if you put this into perspective of what insider trading or campaign contributions, we can see where there’s an ethical problem. I was making $16/hour at the time, so $25 bucks was almost a quarter of a work day’s salary. Pretty big deal. Insider trading has made congress members a much higher return on their salary than that 25 bucks was for me. The perks provided by Lobbyists are even worse than lunch. They’ll buy you lunch, but it won’t be at Primanti Brother’s, it will be at some place that’s $100 a plate plus wine, then take you golfing later.

So where does this disconnect come from? If this is something that I knew was wrong when I was 20, why don’t these Congress members understand that at 50 and older? One of the problems are social norms, if everyone is doing it, why aren’t you? These social norms can be extremely powerful, as teenagers we were always warned about peer pressure to do drugs and stuff, cause drugs are bad, m’kay? The problem would become when everyone around you was doing this, and it was the only way to survive the situation there are powerful urges to conform.

Once someone has conformed, these social norms become their own self reinforcing type of “ethical” behavior. This begs the question if the end justify the means? Well, we also need to be aware if the ends are justified at all. I think in many cases, the ends are so influenced in both conscious and unconscious ways, that we don’t even know what the ends the politician set out to achieve are any more.

This is why it is important to have independent watch dog organizations and an independent judicial system. It is also why it is important to get money out of politics. Once money is out, the choices aren’t captured by the interests of the people paying you. Independence allows impartial review and a manner to determine which course is actually best for the whole.

Americans prize their rights, however, rights are threatened whenever there are powerful interests that want to limit those rights. Despite the fact that I talk about the US on here a lot, these ideas are transnational, and all citizens need to work to remove the influence of money from their political system. There are ways to do it. For the US Lawrence Lessig has proposed one idea in Republic, Lost and Reddit is working on their on PAC and Free Internet Act as another solution.

When I finish with my thesis I plan to become active in both Reddit activities and I suggest you look to find something similar.

Creationism coming to a school near you in the US

While the UK has effectively banned the teaching of creationism in sciences courses through an application of incentives, the US is going the other direction. Recently, Indiana’s Senate Panel just OK’d the teaching of creationism in science courses. It’s not completely confirmed yet, it still needs to be ratified by the full State Senate, but this is a step in the incorrect direction.

I’m not saying this because of any religious beliefs on my side, which I’m against creationism as a whole, but because it will have a massive impact on any scientific future for these students. None of these students will have the proper understanding of biology to be a doctor, biologist, virologist, biomedical engineer and the list goes on. These are just professions that they are being directly impacted on. The secondary professions will be most of science and engineering professions.

Why? Well as Neil de Grasse Tyson argues, the moment you start saying God did it, you’re useless in the lab. Not because you can’t research or you’re religious, but because that means you’ve lost the burning desire to know “why?” A researcher needs to have a desire to explain what has been unexplained. To investigate the how and what of making things work.

This can also have a chilling effect on entrance into science based universities. Essentially, these students, to the universities point of view, would have had no biology what so ever and the rest of their scientific education may be suspect as well. If creationism is allowed in biology, what sort of impact could this have on their physics and chemistry courses?

Will this ultimately pass in the larger Senate? I honestly don’t know. Should it pass, I hope that there will be an injunction before this is instituted and a case to determine the constitutionality of this law. While the law is likely written to be rather aspecific on what religions it is not supposed to be from, it is obvious to most observers that this is based on Christianity. Essentially, this would be a state endorsing a religion. Thus many people could object to this including Muslims, Christians that don’t support the Young Earth Creationist view, Hindus, and of course atheists.

Now, if you want to send your kid to a private school to learn about creationism then go ahead. That’s why there are options. But I know if I ever have children, they are not going to be educated in a public school system that allows creationism to be taught next to evolution.

Continued fall out from MegaUpload arrests

A few days ago I discussed some of the actions taken by the hacker community and the impression that the MegaUpload arrests were related to SOPA. After some time we see that this arrest didn’t happen over night, you could argue the announcement and the timing was done poorly. However, I think that we should be paying attention to the ramifications of these arrests. Torrent Freak is reporting that there has been a massive response from the Cyberlocker companies. These cyberlockers were similar to MegaUpload in that a user would be able to upload a song and then anyone would be able to download it or stream the video. Now these companies are removing the search capabilities from their website and are restricting users to only their files.

While, what MegaUpload may have done may be illegal, the impact of the arrests is a foretelling of the impact of a law like SOPA. Internet companies argued that SOPA would be a job killing bill that it would kill innovation and break the internet. I think that this action clearly demonstrations that they are correct. For instance, Torrent Freak mentioned that several companies are shutting their doors and others are changing their services. Since it’s space based service, it is likely that each of these companies only has a few employees. However, they make a good chunk of change. MegaUpload was making several million and their competitors were likely making millions a month.

All of that money is going to be gone by next billing cycle. Not a single one of those companies where users were paying a premium will pay them another dime. Ad revenue will dry up, MegaUpload made almost a million alone since 2007 on ads. All of this money was getting put back into the economy through the purchase of servers, software and other equipment. It allows employees to buy stuff and was making a positive contribution to the economy.

From the different companies there was obviously innovation occurring. MegaUpload never allowed duplicates on its servers and when a duplicate was uploaded it would find another version of it and supply the link to the end user. Infringing content would just have the link removed, not the actual content. This would make searching for the real version difficult for copyright holders as it would be a game of wack the mole where the content would appear here, then with another link and so forth.

What other solutions could have been reached? I think there’s plenty of space here for further innovation for a business model. As users are using sites like this for personal storage and for video streaming, users are paying for content as well as clicking and viewing ads. Clearly there should be a way for the content owners to make money off of it as well. However, I have yet to read an article or a comment about the content industry approaching any of these companies, other than through DMCA, about working to pay some sort of royalty or set up a license agreement.

I think that a way to bring the balance back from the power being exclusively in the hands of the RIAA and MPAA (I’m just going to type RIAA from here on out), companies like Pandora.com, Spotify, Last.FM, MegaUpload (or any of its competitors), Google/YouTube, Vemeo and anyone else that uses licensed content should form their own consortium. Let’s just call it Content Users and Managers of America or CUMA for sure (I couldn’t think of anything really witty there (it doesn’t have to be just of America)). CUMA would provide a counter balance to the RIAA in that it provides equal footing and a way to combine the might of the end users. There are demands for these products, but the products simply do not demand the price premium they used to demand. Since these products aren’t able to demand the premium and the RIAA thinks that it should, they are overcharging as there are freely available alternatives which people flock to. Essentially, the RIAA needs to realize that for the websites allowing people to access the are getting paid pennies (if that) for a single view on a website. So for most sites, they can make more money if they don’t pay licensing fees. Lowering licensing fees is something that CUMA would be able to work for, to put it inline with expected ad revenue. This would allow for broader innovation in the market and reduced piracy.

It’s obvious from the amount of money that MegaUpload made that people are willing to pay to be able to watch as much content as they can when they want it. I feel like a broken record here (ha HA!), but people are willing to pay for content if it’s easily accessible.

I expect additional fall out from this. If SOPA or some similar style bill ever passes, expect this type of reaction to occur in other segments of the online industry. Online content is one of the places with a great deal of innovation and killing it would be a shame when there are possible solutions to this problem without resorting to industrial policy making and picking winners.

Update: I just saw this article Looks like MegaUpload has figured out a way to allow musicians to make money off of free downloads for original works through their site. This is some seriously awesome innovation.

The Government Strikes Back

The internet had thought it won a great victory with the black out of some seriously major websites, however it was a short lived victory as the Fed and its allies the vicious RIAA and MPAA have regrouped and launched a stunning counter attack destroying a rebel outpost on Hoth… errr Actually, The US government has shut down MegaUpload.com and arrested several employees for copyright infringement. You may remember MegaUpload for recently being involved in a dispute with Universal over a YouTube video. Where Universal issued false DMCA take down notices which required YouTube to take down the video. However, this video wasn’t infringing and MegaUpload sued Universal for the false claims. The interesting thing about this video is that it’s about all the legal ways you can use MegaUpload. The video is essentially an attempt by the company to show that there are legitimate uses for their services which, I’m assuming, was an attempt to get them into the safe harbor provisions of the DMCA.

To me, this action really shows that the US government doesn’t need SOPA to pass for it to censor the internet. It already has the ability to do so. SOPA would just put a rubber stamp approval on the actions that the government is already taking. This should be a wake up call. Yes, we had one with the joke of hearings for SOPA previously, however this is a slap in the face of the internet. It’s basically saying, sure we heard you, but you know what? you don’t matter.

Sure it might not be as easy as it would have been with SOPA passing and it’s not breaking the internet the way that SOPA would, but it’s still happening. As much as I hate Maddox, he’s right in his post about SOPA. We really have been pretty complacent, myself included. Yes, I’ve written a bunch, signed petitions and emailed my senators and congressmen multiple times, but big deal. Right now this is a hot button topic, but this isn’t going to go away. No one spoke up about the NDAA because it didn’t impact your ability to read Reddit or surf wikipedia. That law is as bad or worse than SOPA depending on what you think of freedom and civil liberties.

When I got home last night and saw that MegaUpload had been shut down, I was miserable. It made me feel completely impotent. That I was unable to impact the way the US government acts in any meaningful way. At this point, I’m not really sure what to do about this. If any other government would be doing this the US would be up in arms (perhaps literally) and would put a stop to it. Our government is doing this in our name and it’s horribly depressing that I can’t do anything to stop it.

Maddox is right. SOPA only failed because we were paying attention and we were able to get the tech giants behind us on it. SOPA will rear its ugly head again and we might be sleeping. The empire has struck back and we need to decide what we are going to do about it. Are we going to get some ewoks and take it down or are we going to keep signing petitions?

Anonymous has decided to fight back and has launched a large number of attacks on internet websites. As citizens that are deeply concerned with the MegaUpload action we need to ask ourselves, is this an appropriate response? Is this a way of protesting and assembling in an online space? Should anonymous be locked up for doing this? I think that this is a type of protest. Anonymous is as frustrated as I am and have decided to do something in response. It’s obvious that they felt like this is a direct attack on the internet in response to the SOPA protests and the “abuse of power” the internet displayed in taking down websites to protest SOPA.

It also begs the question, what will these website attacks actually accomplish?

What are some of your thoughts on this?

Update 1: I just saw that some 9,000 Hackers have joined Anonymous

Update 2: Apparently Anonymous is using a link that directs users to a Low Orbit Ion Canon DDoS tool that uses the users computer to attack a website. This is an interesting tactic as it will make it very difficult for agents to determine who was malicious and those that were  ignorant of what they were doing. Thus making the tool a more effective protest tool. It will be interesting to see what the ramifications of this new tactic are. I think it will be used again in the future and will make it as “easy” as signing a petition to join a DDoS without having to do the hard work of setting up the LOIC on your computer. Interesting.

Did yesterday’s internet black out save the internet?

I’ve seen a lot of commentary about how the web may have been saved because of the internet’s “abuse of power.” How parts of the internet shut down for a day. I’m sure this impacted a great deal of people, may have actually hurt our economy a little bit. However, one day of action won’t save the internet.

I’ll agree it made a huge impact as support for SOPA/PIPA has plummeted. Yes, this round of attack by the MPAA and RIAA may have been twarted, but this is just the beginning of the fight for the internet. Ars Technica, has an excellent write up for a plan for how to address some of the concerns of copyright holders in a much better fashion. A manner which would not destroy the internet like SOPA/PIPA.

However, I think that this is a case of industrial policy legislation that is picking winners. In several blogs and posts at the Urban Times, I have written in favor of using some policies to enact changes of behavior. However, in these cases it’s because a novel technology isn’t being adopted that leads to benefits for the social good. In the case of copyright holders, these policies aren’t for the common good, but are being put into place to protect an aging business model that is not innovative. The policies I recommend are to help innovators compete against the status quo.

Data has shown that increasing the availability or decreasing the availability impacts the rate of piracy for television shows. Which indicates to me, policies should be striving to push companies to increase access to copyrighted material, not to go after pirating website. The responsibility for dealing with pirates should be with the copyright holder. They have the means to actually reduce piracy through reducing the amount of licensing fees and increasing accessibility.

We should be pushing our government leaders to put initiatives in places that require massive concessions from copyright holders, if they abuse their copyright position, including losing that copyright. Subscription services like Spotify and Pandora allow users to get access to content either free, with ads, or for a small price. However, these services don’t allow users to access everything. This leads to frustration. If I was able to listen to whatever on Spotify, there’d be no reason to pirate.

What does this mean? Well, we can celebrate the change in positions of congressional members, however this isn’t over yet. OPEN act may be the next step in this battle. Free internet should be our goal, free as in speech not beer. However, people are willing to pay and I think in this case, business models need to catch up with technology.

Which bill is worse NDAA or SOPA?

I was posed this interesting question by my friend JurriĆ«n, which bill is worse the most recent NDAA or SOPA. What is the NDAA? Well it’s a yearly bill called the National Defense Authorization Act, however there were some incredibly important changes to this years bill. This years NDAA turned the United States into a battle field and gave the US government the right to arrest anyone for any reason. It also includes provisions for allowing the indefinite detention of any US citizen. Something like this has already occurred with the PATRIOT Act, which allowed the President to go after so called “enemy combatants.” Most of these prisoners are currently being held in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

What does this bill mean to you and me? Well, the basic argument is if you’re doing nothing wrong it won’t impact you. However, I see in this bill the potential to return to McCarthyism at it’s worst. Only instead of Communists we’ll be seeing terrorists everywhere. Likely it could eventually lead to oppression of anyone that appears to be Arabic, Pakistani, Afghan, or similar skin tone. This type of power is ripe for abuse and might be extended to fight the “War on Drugs” as many of those groups are essentially terrorists in Mexico.

What about SOPA? I’ve written about that fairly extensively, but tomorrow we’re going to get to see a preview of what life might be like under SOPA. Tomorrow Reddit, Wikipedia, imgur and many other smaller websites are going to black out all of their content. Nothing will be readable as a protest against the law. In addtion, the Senate counter part PIPA (Protect IP act) is up for a hearing on Jan 24 so be sure to contact your Senator

Both laws I think are going to be abused by the US government and by agencies that are given additional powers. In many ways they are similar in that they restrict our Constitutional Rights as Americans. We will lose our 6th Amendment right to a trial by jury and our 8th Amendment Rights, which prohibits excessive, cruel and unusual punishments. Based on this, Chris Hedges has sued Obama over the passing of this bill. This might have a good chance of succeeding in overturning the law.

SOPA/PIPA aren’t on the books yet. I think that we can prevent these two from passing and will for a time save the internet. It will take a lot of continual effort and we will have to remain vigilant against surprise sessions where they attempt to pass the laws.

I worry that the NDAA will not be revoked in its current form and will be used to dramatically harm US citizens. Additionally, I fear any attempt to link SOPA/PIPA to national defense which would surely pass. So at this point, NDAA is worse only because it has passed. Once SOPA/PIPA pass, the three combined could be a nightmare for us, but a dream come true for dictators around the world. What could we say to future Saddam’s when they are able to point to US law and say, you can do it why can’t we?

What is the right to assemble online?

Sorry for the long delay in posts. I’ve been a little busy and I’ve had some trouble coming up with topics as well. So, if there are any topics you’d like to see written about feel free to shoot me a message.

In the US we have an amendment to our constitution which ensures our right to assemble. This amendment is important because it allows us to protest governmental action and activities we do not like. We do not always like the way that this right is being expressed, such as the Westboro Baptist Church protesting fallen soldiers, gay suicides and a range of other things. It also protests our right to counter protest the WBC.

In the case of a protest over a company, it’s possible to protest in front of their headquarters or in front of individual branches such as Bank of America. In many ways these tactics are effective because it drives media attention do to it’s location. If someone is protesting a bank in small town America, such as my home town, Grove City, PA no one is going to care. You might get a piece written about it in the Allied but it’s unlikely to attract the attention of the Pittsburgh Post Gazette which is only 60 miles south. Even if some how it did make the news in Pittsburgh, it’s unlikely to remain in the news, which that’s something a protest in Pittsburgh would actually be able to do.

Why does this matter? Well, for a company like Amazon.com much of it’s physical locations are in small town America. They don’t have large presences in many major cities. How do you effectively protest a large internet based company? How do you protest a company when the people that want to do the protesting are scattered throughout the world?

In the past I’ve written about LulzSec and Anonymous, these groups still operate and have had some interesting ideas about how to protest. The first is what is called a Denial of Service (DoS) attack, where a company’s website is overwhelmed with requests for access to the site and it kills the server. This would be the physical equivalent of creating a lined of linked arms across the doorway to the company’s headquarters or branch. Typically, these sort of attacks don’t last very long because IT departments have become very good at finding the sources of these attacks and stopping them.

It is not possible to respond by moving across the street to continue protesting where people to see you. It is also not possible to post ads in the area as a form of protest. However, it is possible to buy ads on Google or other such sites that will display something if you type Bank of America, however, I’m not sure if this is effective or not.

Another type of protest employed is the internet petition. I’ve signed plenty of them, but it’s fairly obvious that these are as worth as much as the paper their printed on (which is to say none). These really just make you feel better, without much work.

At this point, I think that when it has come to massive protests online, Reddit has created the blueprint. Redditors have worked extremely hard to protest SOPA. This has included call your senator day, getting websites to agree to an internet blackout day, where sites will completely black out all content. This is a representation of the impact of censorship that SOPA will enact.

However, this type of protest isn’t really possible for all types of government or private business action. While the denial of service attacks aren’t very effective, they do raise awareness and have lead to other types of attacks, such as hacking and the release of data that users thought was secure. Despite the fact that it is theft of data, these actions have done more to change company behavior than any other type of internet based protests.

Is that the future of assembly online? I don’t know. It’s easy to block websites that act as a rallying point, so it will be important for people to actually meet to do their protesting as protesting on the internet doesn’t really have the same impact, unless something big gets leaked. We do need to define what is acceptable as a society for online protesting. DoS might be a way to allow protests.