Democracy, Corrupted

Several years ago I read a great book called Republic, Lost by Lawrence Lessig. Wrote a blog about it back when Occupy Wall Street was a thing. Lessig has since ran for President and subsequently dropped out of this year’s race, but I think the points in his book are a salient now as ever. His platform was to eliminate corruption government by changing campaign finance laws. Of the remaining candidates, I believe Bernie is the only one that has portion’s of Lessig’s platform in his. As I mentioned in my blog a few days ago, money influences people even when they don’t believe that it does. In fact, simply having a conversations with someone can either normalize or prime a certain behavior. For example, a lobbyist may call from the cable industry to discuss some topic that’s going to be up for vote in some time, they also mention donating to the next election cycle. That same day an unrelated bill may be up for vote that tangentially impacts the cable industry, because of this priming the politician will be more sympathetic to the cable industry than they may have been otherwise. In some cases this type of priming or normalization can result in some pretty disastrous policies for the American people.

This is a horrible problem caused by us vs. them mentality of current politics. It’s also caused by the need to raise money. The ability to disenfranchise voters is powerful, because it robs them of their voice and replaces their voice with a special interest voice. These voters aren’t being disenfranchised for no reason. This is a systematic effort to eliminate the influence of a group of minorities that would push for dramatic changes in the criminal justice system. This impacts a large number of groups, private prison companies, law enforcement, lawyers, etc. As the Pennsylvania Republican points out at the end of the segment, this voice has serious impact on the direction a state can go in a general election thus impacting policy.

All of the other things I write about are the result of policy, which fundamentally comes from who is in office. When elected officials abuse their position to prevent other people, who I might not agree with, from voting our Democracy is corrupt. It is important to note that the actions described in the video above, while likely coordinated by the RNC, happens at the state and city levels. These are areas that people, myself included, largely ignore when thinking of voting. With so much focus on the national elections, these smaller roles largely don’t seem to matter to voters. These policies impact us as much, or in some cases more, than national polices. These are the policies that prevent cities from deploying their own broadband or the lead to the militarization of police departments in cities like Ferguson.

Lessig started a group called Mayday.us which highlights candidates, mostly at the national level, that are working for eliminating corruption in government. I supported them last year and plan to do so again this year. I also believe it is time for me to get more actively involved in this and other movements to address the fundamental corruption issues in government. This is truly the only way to level the playing field so that the best ideas win out rather than the biggest budget.

Kickstarter to end Government Corruption

In my blog yesterday I talked about the value of culture, we know that it intrinsically has value because all participate in it – we just don’t want to pay for that culture. Serious problems. One of the biggest conflicts we have right now is within the internet users relates to content and other cultural icons. A lot of people want it to be easily accessible and other people want it tightly controlled. This of course has been playing out in our courts over the past decade or so.

One of the first people that’s influenced me in regard to culture and sharing and so on, has been Lawrence Lessig. He’s written a few really accessible books about copy right. However, he’s since moved on from fighting copyright extremism to fighting corruption in the US government. I wrote a review about his first book in this arena, he’s written two other since. He’s a big fan of how the internet works and truly believes in platforms like kickstarter (Which could help address some of my concerns from yesterday over keeping a vibrant market place of cultures).

To this end, he’s decided to create a super pac in the spirit of a Kickstarter campaign. He’s calling it MayOne in honor of “May Day” admitting that he’s using it as a call for help. A call to help fix the US government.

I think that this platform offers an interesting opportunity for all of those folks out there that hate our current political system. The initial campaign is to influence 5 congressional seats as well as push for 5 specific acts that will create real reform. Here’s a link to the reform bills they’d want to push form.

I’ve pledged money for this. Why? Because I think that we need to create change in the US government and I believe that Lessig’s plan has the best chance to work. He’s taking the long view and has a real plan for driving change. It’s not going to be an immediate fix it’s going to take several years for real change to happen. This is also a way to influence change with only a few dollars. The goal is to raise $1 million and Lessig will match that million. Their next goal is 5 million, which he will then also match setting up the war chest for 2016. His goal is to help get multiple reform candidates elected to effect change.

I think that this is a way forward and that most of the candidates that MayOne will support will also support things like Net Neutrality, Copyright reform, and similar topics that most of my readers are concerned with.

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.

Review: Republic Lost. Or the hand book for OWS

I just finished Republic Lost by Lawrence Lessig last night. If it’s not obvious by now, I’m a big Lessig fan. I find his work extremely interesting and relevant to the changing world. It is a bit dry to be honest, all of his writings deal with how society, the market and laws interact.

In my opinion this book should be the handbook for anyone interested in the Occupy movement. I’ll explain why in a few steps. First, he mentions various different cases of inequity which are highly promenient in the US. He specifically addresses the 99% argument and does it a great deal of good. He fully explains what it means to be in the 99% in a way that has been missing in the dialogue. He actually says that the 1% isn’t the biggest problem it’s actually a much smaller percentage, but the 1% can cause a lot of damage as well.

In the book he systematically explains how and why money is a problem in the system. In many cases it’s not that there is quid pro quo corruption going on. More that it seems like there is corruption going on because of the money involved. As an outsider it’s hard to trust a system where the Teachers union (or wall street or exxon) can say I will give $1 million dollars to any candidate that supports tenure (or bail outs or deep water drilling). This is an implicit threat because if you don’t support these topics your opponent will, because it will give them campaign donations. As donations play a huge amount of time for a congressman (30-70%) anything that makes it easier to get money the congressmen will campaign to support.

There have been studies that question if these gifts actively change legislative voting behavior, but many quotes from former congressmen explaining that there is a sense of obligation to the donor. This isn’t a tit for tat type exchange, Lessig argues it’s more of a gift economy. Like what buy a round of beers for your friends, you don’t want money for it, you want them to buy you the next round. The fact that you bought instills (in most people) a sense of obligation to buy the next round. This analogue is perfect in fact, as Lessig argues that congress is dependent on these funds like an alcoholic. This is an illicit dependency as he shows that Congress should be “dependent on the People alone.”

Lessig builds an extremely will supported case that donations impact the legislative process by impacting what congressional leaders allow debate on. Even if it doesn’t impact votes, it impacts what is considered important by the congress. This is one of the ways that congress seems out of touch with regular people. I believe Lessig builds a strong enough case to demonstrate that something must be done. He actually has a few suggestions on how to deal with the problem.

The first is the old fashioned way of trying to build support through congress to enact real campaign reform. Lessig doesn’t believe this is realistic and gives it about a 0% chance of success. His next idea is to get about 300 well known people to run as super candidate to force the issues. Have these people run in multiple different districts (it’s legal) and garner enough attention to force the politicians to say they will vote for reform. Do this in enough state and in the right states and it might work. He calls this a kind of political terrorism. He gives it a 5% chance of working once you get started.

His next idea is to have one of those types candidates run for the of president making the promise to hold congress hostage until the reforms are made, BUT resign as soon as the reforms are completed. He argues that this is required for people to honestly believe that the changes would happen and for congress to actually enact the changes. There would be no negotiations other than making sure all the normal people get paid and services don’t impact most business. He also gives this one a 5% chance of working.

The final suggestion is to push for a constitutional convention. This would require 38/50 states to OK the convention. He, at length, describes all the potential problems and legal issues with the convention, which matter once the ball gets rolling. In addition to this he suggests creating about 300 shadow conventions where regular people are given the opportunity to make constitutional amendments. These could then be the basis for what is sent to congress.

In total, if you are part of the OWS movement you need to read this book. It will help give more firepower for your arguments against the 1% and it will give some guidance on what the first priority should be. I agree with Lessig that until we get money out of the system no other reforms are possible. We will not have a function government until the People are the only thing the government relies on for choices of legislature.

Internet and Social Media books: A comparison between Lessig and Shirky

Recently I’ve read two books related to the internet and to some extent social media. The first book I’ve mentioned and quoted repeatedly, Code 2.0 by Lawrence Lessig. The second is a book I just finished called Cognitive Surplus by Clay Shirky which is about how as the internet has evolved and grown we have been able to create our own content instead of simply being passive consumers.

Despite the fact that Code 2.0 was originally written in 1999 and then updated in 2006 and Surplus was written in 2010 I feel that Code is still more relevant. Some of this can be attributed to the approach of the authors. In both cases the authors discuss specific websites and how they impact social interaction between different actors. As side from arguing that the free time and the increased ability to create, Shirky focuses on social connections and ignores other considerations related to content creation. He oversimplifies the skills required to create new content and ignores vested interests ability to prevent content creation.

Lessig on the other hand, creates a framework where it is possible to analyze the interactions between the various actors that interact on the internet. He looks at the market forces, social forces, regulatory forces, and social norms that interact with the internet in different ways. In this way Lessig is able to create recommendations to improve the interaction with the various forces acting on the internet. His goal is to create a safe internet that allows privacy, transparency, great places where economic exchanges can happen and required controls to prevent abuse of the internet.

There are some other differences between these books. Shirky reminds me of Thomas Friedman’s the World is Flat. It’s an incredibly optimistic view of the internet. Effectively the author can’t find anything wrong with the social interactions that occur on the internet. He isn’t concerned with the privacy issues with sites like Facebook, hacking issues both white and black hat and censorship at any level. He ignores these issues and looks at the community aspect. Which is fine, but he should at least mention these factors as they can seriously impact the quality of a community that’s being created. Lessig has a much less optimistic outlook and in fact believes that the internet will allow the government unprecedented access to our personal information and control over the information we control.

I think that these two books represent well the different ways that people look at the internet. I personally have a Lessig outlook. This maybe for a few reasons. I’ve read a few of his books, I can be cynical and I don’t have endless optimism for any technology. I think that the internet is an amazing thing. That people are creating more content, but it’s going to take some time before it gets to the point that Shirky is dreaming of. One of my friends over at KBMOD things that within a few years everyone will have a YouTube account the way that everyone has a Facebook account. I’m skeptical of this. I think there’s more time required to be effective at being a YouTuber than being a Facebooker. Which will decrease the number of people that are willing to take up a hobby. Facebook takes about 10 seconds to update, with YouTube you have to feel comfortable in front of a camera or talking over some sort of content. I think it’ll happen over time, but I think there will be something of a U shape of users. I think older generations that have more free time will pick it up.

I think both books have a positive outlook on the internet and social media. They both think that the more connections that happen the more connections that can occur. Overall, I personally think that if you’re interested in the different forces interacting in the internet Lessig’s book is for you. If you’re interested in a rosy outlook on the positive impact of the internet then read Shirky’s book.

Pseudonymity and Anonymity II

Yesterday I gave an extensive overview of the debate that is ongoing between “Real name” supporters and “Pseudonym/Anonym” supporters. If you haven’t read it I suggest you check it out. There are quiet a few different groups of people discussing it, American and International.

Why do I think it’s a big deal though? I mentioned yesterday that I made a personal choice to use my real name instead of a pseudonym. This is partially because I’m really bad at coming up with them, but also because I try to speak with my real voice as much as possible. I’m also aware that this is could have some repercussions depending on what I try to do after I graduate. I haven’t also been the most supportive of the US government. At  one point when I was debating with a hardcore conservative he pointed this out to me as well.

The problem is that we don’t know who has our information. We lose control of it as soon as it’s put on the internet. I have no idea who has access to the conversation I’m talking about. I know that Facebook and the people involved in the conversation do, but I don’t know if that information got passed onto any sort of governmental body.

This is a huge change from what has happened in the past. We had control over who we gave our information to. It was easy because it had to be face to face or perhaps through a letter. Once that conversation was finished unless notes were taken or it was recorded most of the information would only be remembered only imperfectly by the people involved. This is not the case now. it can be stored and recalled perfectly through the internet and web records.

This permanence is dangerous, as the past will haunt people for decades to come instead of only a few years and only with their friends. However, that is not all. Forcing people to use their real names in all cases causes a chilling affect on activism as governments try to stamp down on it. Twitter will be a more popular communication tool for activists than Google + or facebook because of their pseudonym policies.

Regardless of if we like it or not, Facebook, Twitter, Google + and other social networking sites have become our public forums. We don’t have a town square to meet and discuss life. We don’t have the community unity that once used to pervade life so we use the tools that we have. However, all of these new meeting places are controlled by corporations that are required to give data to the US government and other governments as well. The ability to protect your identity from the government, other organizations and from people you don’t want to have find you is important. It allows people to be honest and investigate different parts of themselves or try to fight to bring down repressive regimes.

Pseudonyms are part of the internet’s social norms, a method to protect free speech and to protect yourself. They are very important and we need to fight to keep them. The US government should be seeking to protect our ability to have pseudonyms and not fighting against them. The State Department claims they support internet freedom. Supporting pseudonyms and the ability to be anonymous on the internet is the best way to do so.

Pseudonymity and Anonymity

There are so many different things going on right now that I don’t even know where to start. There’s tons going on with patents, software patents and copyright, there’s been many things going on with internet freedom and Anonymity/Pseudonymity that I’m not sure where to even start. However, you have to start somewhere. So I’ll start with this: Randi Zuckerberg said pseudonyms should go away. What’s the big deal with that?

Well, Google and Facebook both require real names on their website. There are a few links that have commented on why this is a big deal. Tom from Myspace thinks it’s a bad idea, he has a friend that is an expert in social media privacy policies, Danah Boyd, and she claims that forcing real names is an abuse of power, Tech Dirt agrees withBoyd’s assessment indicating that there’s a great amount of danger in moving away from pseudonyms. The Atlantic also notes how different with normal speech tying all actions to a single person online has become.

One of the common reasons for banning pseudonyms, which Zuckerberg argues, is that it changes online behavior. It basically forces users to comply with offline social norms. Norms that the person may actually be attempting to escape for whatever reason. Boyd also argues that Google + originally had a cultural norm without “Real names.” She pulls in Lessig’s Code book that I’ve mentioned on here a few times to support her claim. It’s a really important point she’s making. Cultural norms are established by early adopters. The early adopters of Google + didn’t go with real names. They liked their nicknames.

While Zuckerberg claims that it’s the users fault and their pseudonyms that cause the problem, others claim that the person who owns the website needs to control this. Basically by creating cultural norms that prohibit the ability to be an asshole/troll online. So when my friend bpost over at KBMOD talks about avoiding feeding the trolls, he’s either reinforcing or preventing trolling behavior. A set stance by the moderators of KBMOD should be established to control trolling behavior.

De Spiegel notes that the actions of governments and corporations amount to a war on anonymity on the web.
Which has lead to the arrest of many members of Anonymous and other hacking groups like that. This war has a few benefits like the recent ring of 72 child pornographers that were caught. Unfortunately for most users the days of freedom to untag your photos may be passed. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon have developed off the shelf products to analysis people freely from pictures pulled from facebook. To me, this is really scary, as we have no control over the privacy settings of our friends. If I’m drinking a tasty beer in a picture it could have employment ramifications. Two years ago a teacher was fired for having pictures of beer while in Europe. This is one example there are many others. While, third parties will likely create applications to determine who is whom in a given facebook picture, Germany is suing facebook over their ability to do say, and are saying it’s illegal.

So, what’s all of this mean? There’s been a lot of people talking about this and why should people care? Well, personally I have made a choice to use my real name. Well, it’s still a nickname, but I made a choice to do that. However, since I was aware of the choice when I set my handle as my last name I am conscience of what I should and should not say on the public record online. The first three Google searches for “Kapsar” are for me. Sadly, none of them is for my blog. Thus my online activity easily follows me.

That being said, I fully support the right and the ability of people to use any different name or no name online. It’s the right thing to do morally, and for freedom of speech.

In my next post I’ll discuss some of the speech issues a little bit more. Many of the people I’ve linked too have commented on these issues as well.