Book Review: The People’s Platform: Taking back Power and Culture in the Digital Age

I just finished reading “The People’s Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age” by Astra Taylor  I really found this book to be interesting. I believe it offered a very different critique on the digital age than Evegny Morozov’s “Click here to Save everything” where he focused on the arrogance of the algorithm and total solutionism of the movement, Taylor focused on the cultural cost of our digital economy. I think combined the philosophizing of Morozov with Taylor’s discussion of the value of culture and the economic forces behind these changes is an extremely powerful argument. Alone they are both excellent, but I think they offer balancing points that compliment each other well.

First of all, I don’t think everyone will like this book. I don’t think a lot of my readers will like large portions of the book. However, even the most libertarian will agree with some portions of it. I think that’s the power of this book. It’s not really fair to one side or the other, although is really obvious she has a bias – which she wears pretty proudly. Knowing this bias is there allows the reader to decide which portion is Occupy Wall street dreaming or which is really a problem (of course one can go too far either direction).

Taylor’s cultural argument is powerful because we are all part of that economy. We all consume cultural artifacts or perhaps, like myself, make them. The fact that these have been commoditzed to a cost of nothing while still valuable is something we deal with daily. The choice between pirating a movie, renting, streaming it on Netflix, or buying it all are choices we decide on a regular basis. I think that even the most hardcore pirate buys a lot of cultural goods.

Many of us, even if we don’t produce cultural goods, know someone that does. You might watch a video game streamer, you might have a friend or two that are in various bands, you might read my blog or another friend’s blog. All of these people want to use these artifacts to either live on or perhaps enhance their career in some fashion.

However, in the digital space most of the companies that share or distribute cultural activities are funded by ads. Twitch makes most of it money from ads, Google makes $50 billion/year on ads, Facebook makes the most money on an ad whenever a friend “Sponsors” that ad with or without our active agreement to “sponsor” the ad.

Taylor argues that we need to help develop a cultural public space that helps create value for other cultural goods that you may not actually consume (which is why I wrote this blog).

Many of the ideas in the book are anti-corporation, but not because they make money. Instead, it’s because they make money in ways that aren’t obviously ads and that control our cultural destiny. She is pro-net neutrality, she supports companies making profits from ads, but she argues for more transparency that an article is actually sponsored.

Her argument isn’t that we should tear down companies, but instead that we pull back some of the power that these companies have simply taken without any real conversation. We need to look at the ethics behind the algorithms they are using and understand their biases. We need to enable true conversations about these topics. Ad driven content leads to self-censorship and lower quality products.

Is this book perfect? Not by a long shot, but it really made me think about some topics and I think that we need to have more conversations about not just ads, but also about why companies behave the way they do. We need to find a better balance than we currently have.

I rate the book 5/5 for making me really think about topics

Content and implicit threats

I’m reading “consent of the Networked” right now. The book is about digital rights, privacy, government and the internet. Once i finish I will write a review for the Urban Times. I found out about the book through TechDirt’s book club. One of the major points the author makes about repressive regimes is the activities of pronationalist actors that are not truly part of the government.

These actors are typically regular people and act as hackers, journalists or progovernment rally organizers. They are found in many countries including China, Iran, the former regime of Tunisia and Libya. In a way these groups are a counter weight to “organizations” like Anonymous, dissent groups and the “liberal” media. However, these organizations are unlikely in the US and Europe right?

Well according to the author now. These groups do exist in the US and in some cases are formal business like HBGary. Some of them actually work for the US government and others do with a wink and a nod. These groups help monitor internet users and potential members of groups like Anon. In many cases this extends the impression of continual  observation by the government and other actors, which can lead to self censorship and self selection for activities.

Has this happened to me? You bet it has, but I didn’t really think much of it at the time or how it could really impact me. One of the times happened during a Facebook conversation about Wikileaks, which I was supporting. The person I was discussing doesn’t like me much and thinks I’m “a rube.” He suggested that I should get a job which requires security clearance so I would get an understanding of how things actually work and that I was niave. Of course I disagree with the fact that I’m niave and I view the world in a much more complex manner than his black and white view. However, I had been thinking of applying to a government type position and he told me I should be careful what I say, which he is correct. This then led me to rein in my views and self censor. This had serious implications on how I discussed topics for some time.

The other times are slightly different and after I started blogging. For one my brother is in the Boarder Patrol which gives him clearance and my sister does stuff she can’t talk about. So, to some extent, I don’t want to negatively impact their ability to work either. This does have a moderating affect as well.

The final source was actually my dad writing to me about my post about anonymous and my discussion of using DDoS as potentially a source of public demonstration on the internet. I was not surprised that he suggested I be careful, he did retire as a Major in the Army Reserves. However, when responding I told him I was already being careful with my wording due to self censorship. I already expect that I’m likely to have my material spring up on someone’s radar due to the content I write about. So, I do try to be careful.

In a democracy where these threats should be minimized we have to worry about it. Why should the rest of the world be different or any less oppressive?

Entitlement for copyright owners

Business Insider had an article today about Reddit’s FIA. In my article in the Urban Times last week I addressed some of these issues before he wrote this article. However, he raises points that I don’t mention there and I feel that it’s extremely important to discuss them.

First he says that the law would make the internet “Hugely Difficult to monitor.” This raises a few questions. What does he mean by the internet? I helped define that in FIA, which I defined it as any data network including the web, social networks, FTP, peer to peer, email and a slew of other things. If he means this; then do we want the web to be easy to monitor? He trots out the case against it as child pornography of course, which I addressed in my Urban Times article. It’s a powerful argument because it hits upon two competing sets of social norms, rights of privacy and abhorrence to child abuse.

The use of child porn is a technique that is designed to end the conversation and shut down dissent. It places supporters of privacy in a position that is not congruent with their belief system. Additionally, the connection between copyright and child porn mixes different issues and seriously different belief systems. This difference is extremely important as there have become two different competing sets of norms. The incumbent belief that copyright is stealing, and the one new that has been developed by Web Kids.I strongly suggest reading the previous link as it provides powerful arguments for the changing sets of norms that my generation and younger entail. (I’d be on the rather old side of that generation).

Using a somewhat bad analogy, we’re using the “internet superhighway” and like the real highway people don’t want everyone driving by to know what you have in your car. Even if you aren’t doing anything illegal, do you want the cops to know that you have 5 cases of beer in the back and are going to be floating down a river all day? Probably not, cause they have no reason to know what you’re doing. Now, our data is similar to those cases of beer. Using encryption puts that into the back of the trunk where a cop is required to have justifiable cause (in the US) to inspect it’s contents. The person looking at the data would know the general direction your going and some of the ways you’re getting there, but nothing more. Yes, it makes it more difficult to identify bad stuff, but it’s difficult to do that on a real highway too. Just ask boarder patrol, and they have the right to inspect whatever they want.

Second, he essentially argues that copyright owners should have their content monitored by others. This is a huge subsidy for the copyright industry that will be paid for by other services. I’m going to use a physical world comparison, it doesn’t work perfectly but it works reasonably well. Let’s say that YouTube is similar to a Wal-Mart, or even Amazon.com. The author is arguing that YouTube needs to monitor as soon as the video is put on the web to ensure it is not infringing on copyrighted material. This would be similar to requiring Wal-Mart or Amazon.com to search for patent infringing technologies.

Why does this analogy work? In both cases these rights are state sanctioned monopolies. In both cases they are protecting a manifestation of an idea. Something that needs protection because it is extremely easy to protect. However, in Patent suits things are extremely different. The owners of the patent are required to sue companies that infringe on the patent. Wal-Mart and Amazon.com are both protected from the suit.

If Apple was allowed to sue Wal-Mart for the fact that an infringing technology is being sold there, Wal-Mart would have to bear the cost of policing their inventories for infringing material. In addition it would be in their benefit to be overly caution and remove potentially infringing products before anyone can see them. Part of the cost of owning a patent is the cost of policing products that may be infringing. By removing that burden from the copyright industry we are reducing the cost of the ownership of copyright and placing it on services like YouTube. This stifles innovation in services like YouTube because they have to include the extra cost of policy copyrighted material. A competitor to YouTube has a huge hurdle to overcome before they can even open.

Finally, he argues that the bill supports file sharing. I don’t think that it does other than being based off of a different set of norms. I’d argue that the bill supports innovation over old business models. You can disagree with me on this, however it’s been shown in several studies and some anecdotal evidence that increasing legal access to copyrighted content reduces pirating. If it is easier for a company to create interesting ways to provide access to content while paying the copyright industry then everyone wins. However, as Falkvinge puts it, “I don’t care about industry profits.” Realistically, I don’t care about most companies profits, because I’m only dealing with the company to buy a product or service I want at a price that I believe is reasonable. If all the legal sources that are available to me to watch a show or listen to a song when a person wants to, it is not unreasonable for them to look for it elsewhere and then try to find it legally later if they liked it.

If the company is making bad choices for their business, why should the law change to improve their business model’s chances of surviving? Anyone that supports free market capitalism should be horrified by this sort of industrial policy making. Essentially, these companies are being faced with disruptive technologies and working to push the government to protect them. It’s similar to what has happened with the auto industry in the US.

In closing, FIA represents a dramatic change from the current norms and aligns more directly with a younger generation. This generation does not understand why companies prevent them from viewing content that they want to see. While being an open generation on Facebook, they also understand the importance of protecting the data that has been given to companies. They choose what information they share and with whom. They want an open internet so they have the ability to innovate like their parents generation. They believe that it should be a fundamental human right to have access to data and communicate with whoever they want. An industry that is not innovating should not have the ability to destroy the internet.

Crowd Source Legislation

Crowd sourcing, is a name for a group of people taking part in something from all over the place. One of the first initiatives like this is open source software, a more recent version is Crowd source funding for businesses. These started as initiatives to give micro loans in Africa and other developing countries. More recently, websites like Kickstarter have allowed everyday people to help get new ventures starting (I plan on writing more about this later).

So what’s the deal with the legislation? Well, essentially, this is building upon the momentum Reddit and other websites generated during the SOPA/PIPA protests. Members have decided to create something like an internet bill of rights. The idea is the create a better balance between content holders, private companies, governments and users. In China there’s a great deal of censorship and Google and Twitter have both announced censorship based on the location of the user. This type of censorship would have killed the Arab spring before it happened.

OK? but that’s not going to effect me in the US. Well, we don’t know that. Yes, we have provisions against free speech, but that’s against governments censoring speech. It’s difficult to know what a private company will censor when this speech is in a quasipublic/private space. Facebook routinely censors groups and speech on their site. Additionally, look at what’s happening with MegaUpload.com and their users. There was legitimate use on the website and the Department of Justice doesn’t care. The EFF and the hosting company are working to find the legitimate data held on the site.

One of the goals of the act would be to reduce the ability of sites to censor speech. It’s clear that this is an important goal of the act. Additionally, there are programs, like TOR, that have been developed to allow people behind censorship to circumvent it (See my post about how TOR works). However, there could be penalties for people that use TOR in the US to help people circumvent the censorship. These types of ideas are what the goal of FIA is.

If you’re interested in taking your anger at SOPA/PIPA into a new direction and potentially become more involved in our government check it out here: http://www.reddit.com/r/fia/

But that’s US based stuff. Yes, sure it is. It seems like most of the users interested are from the US. Many of the users involved would like to see this become a treaty instead of just a law. In that case involvement from many different countries would be ideal and requested. Additionally, there is no reason why this type of legislation should be restricted to the US. These ideas are universal.

Which bill is worse NDAA or SOPA?

I was posed this interesting question by my friend Jurriën, 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?

Biggest threat to internet innovation

Regardless where you live, the largest threat to the internet is the US Congress/Department of Justice and close second may be the UK court system. In this post i’m going to focus on the US congress and DOJ because what they are doing is fairly ridiculous. The US Congress is currently considering a bill called Stop Online Piracy Act or SOPA, critics like to call it the E-parasite act. This act, according to various sources, this bill amounts to online black-listing. It’s also being called the Great FireWall of America. This is a complete disaster in my opinion. The internet is one of the fastest growing parts of our economy. Anyone can start up a web based company. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy at first, but over time you’ll get more sophisticated.

The EFF notes three extremely popular sites that are in the cross hair of SOPA. Etsy, because there are simply too many little shops that could be selling illegal material. For instance, the US Supreme Court Ruled that you couldn’t resell AutoCAD, the likelihood of that happening might be low, but what about a screen printed shirt with some band logo? That’s just as illegal. Another site is Flickr, which is pretty obvious because it’s so easy to claim a picture as your own. The last they mention is Vimeo for the same reasons. I would also expect YouTube to be on that list as well.

So aside from a black list what does the actual bill do? What legal censorship isn’t enough for you to be outraged against this bill? I mean we’re talking about Turkey and Pakistan level of censorship of sites here. It’s not unrealistic to expect facebook and Google to get black listed with this law. Facebook could get hit if some one quotes stuff illegally or posts video with copyrighted material on it. Since you’re able to post and stream through facebook, it might raise some questions over copyright.Google of course links to a huge amount of copyright material that a user can get illicitly.

Ok, what else is there you really want to know? The rights holders can request payment processing companies (read Visa, Mastercard and ad companies) to block payments to your site. For some people that will mean no more YouTube money, for others it will be a death sentence. Does the court get involved with any of this? Nope. The companies have 5 days to respond to a payment stop. Which means even if you are in the clear, if a request happens, you likely won’t get paid. Check the EFF’s break down for more details.

But this is ‘Merica! Surely something like this won’t happen. They’ll take our jerbs! Yes, they could in fact take away your jobs. Is anyone fighting against this? Yep. Google, Facebook, Zynga, Twitter, Michelle Bachmann (Yes the crazy lady), Ron Paul (Yes the crazy in a different way guy) and a small list of Congress members from both sides of the aisle are banding together to try to kill the bill. They are arguing that the bill is too broad and doesn’t appropriately address the problem is trying to “fix.”

What do most Americans feel about copyright legal action? As a whole they are against it. In fact most only think that a small fine of a maximum of $100 is appropriate for a downloaded song. Many have indicated that as more legal alternatives have appeared users have been less likely to use the illegal versions. Of course this is self reported data so it could be skewed, but even if you add 10 points it’s still showing that legal alternatives are best deterrent for illegal downloading.

You can email your representatives here. I strongly suggest you do. The more voices that speak out in protest the more likely at least a few people will hear. Personally, I don’t think the US government should even be talking about copyright right now. They need to be working on jobs.

The different meanings of internet freedom

This week we have seen some incredible riots in London. Interestingly, some of these riots were actually predicted by some of the youths a few weeks back, at the end of the video one of the youths mentions that there will be riots. David Cameron had some choice points about the use of social media, Ars Technica has a good discussion about the different sides of social media. However, it is mostly discussing it in terms of causing the riots as well as leading to the clean up of the cit of London.

I find the reaction that we’re seeing on the internet to the usage of Black Berry Messenger and Twitter interesting. These are the same forces that while in affect in countries like Tunisia and Egypt, social media were forces to be praised. However, now that they are being used in England instead they are being vilified. Also, we are seeing pressure from the government to use social media to arrest the members of these gangs.

First, I think what these groups did was horrible. If I was able to I’d try to help the victims of these crimes. However, we need to be aware of the precedence we are setting in the response to this. While there are some differences in the actions, there was looting in Egypt and Tunisia, there are also differences in the situation. The major difference comes from the leaders being elected compared to being despots.

Based on the interviews the Guardian conducted we can see that the youths are unemployed and marginalized. This is similar to what was going on within Tunisia and Egypt. High unemployment and lack things for the kids to do. It’s something of a structural issues. Which Cameron acknowledged yesterday in a speech. So some of the reasons are similar between the rioters in London and with the Arab spring.

However, since it is England asking for data from Twitter and BlackBerry, they are much more will to cooperate with the police. I’m not entirely sure this would have happened in any of the countries involved in the Arab Spring. Leverage over Twitter during the Arab Spring could have killed it. Do we pick and choose which riots we support? I think it’s clear that we do.

We just need to be aware of the precedence we are setting and that all countries around the world are going to emulate the response of the US and England in this riot. There’s no reason why China, Iran, North Korea, or any other country shouldn’t expect Twitter to comply with them if Twitter complies with England.

The actions that our governments take in this case could have long term implications in regards to internet freedom. It also will indicate if there are two different classes of countries when it comes to the allowable types of internet freedom.

I don’t condone what happened, but we need to really understand the repercussions of the actions in wake of these riots.