Saturday, February 25, 2012

MacKinnon: "Consent of the Networked" (review)

Author: Rebecca MaKinnon

Title: “Consent of the Networked: The Worldwide Struggle for Internet Freedom

Publication: 2012, Basic Books, ISBN 978-0-465-02442-1, 294 pages, hardcover, indexed, endnotes, Preface, Introduction, 5 Parts, 14 Chapters

Amazon link

The website for the book is here

Perhaps more than any major book published so far on the capacities of and challenges to Internet free speech, MacKinnon’s opus lays out how the Internet can be reworked by authoritarian governments and complicit companies into an instrumentality of social and political conformity.  I’ve noticed this paradigm shift myself as the Web 2.0 (and beyond) world evolved, taking the Web (in the broadest sense of the word) out of the world of simple self-broadcast and passive networking.

She starts her book by talking about the rather well-known problems overseas, explaining how China maintains a fa├žade of “democratic” openness while strictly monitoring and stifling political criticism.  It isn’t long, however, before she gets into the existential issues facing users in the West.

One of her strongest points, made early on, concerns the way the US government and supposedly liberal Obama administration jumped on the Wikileaks problem, jawboning major companies (credit card processors and PayPal, Amazon and various Internet hosting companies) into stopping doing business with Julian Assange, she makes the point that private companies can feel pressured to drop clients whose controversial content or actions could bring them risk.  This has been a concern ever since 9/11.  I could add something here:  when attempts have been made to offers bloggers liability insurance, companies have balked at customers who write about controversial topics, including LGBT issues.

The behavior of people who generate content under a “free entry” system has indeed created risks for others, ranging from cyberbullying, reputational damage (sometimes short of legal defamation), targeting, and (in the copyright area) piracy. 

She explains well, in several places, the problem of expecting “intermediary liability” (or “downstream liability”, as I’ve usually called it), trying to hold providers like YouTube responsible for pre-screening possibly libelous or inciteful content, or for copyright infringement.  Section 230 and DMCA Safe Harbor both protect providers from downstream liability (for different problems) and effective remove what would be a big “barrier to entry” for small speakers.   Nevertheless, the permissive environment allows others (often less well off to start with and less savvy) to be put at risk by the impetuous actions of others.

She discusses the Senate’s proposed Protect-IP Act (or PIPA).  The book was written before the House version, called SOPA, and well before the Wikipedia-led one day blackout in January. She says that even current law allows Customs (ICE) to seize domains even for linking to piracy sites (without hosting the pirated content itself); I was surprised to see this.

Another issue is the “ideology” or perhaps business model of the newer social networking companies, especially Facebook, which has been determined to follow a policy of requiring users to have use one true legally recognized identity.  Facebook has sometimes caught dissidents flatfooted with sudden changes that could expose dissidents overseas.  There was hope that Google+ would be more flexible, and maybe it has somewhat, but even this service by and large insists on using true identity.

She also discusses a case where Apple withdrew an application because it promoted ex-gay groups.  She says that she personally disagrees with what the app tries to say, but that companies should not interfere with speech even though they have a First Amendment right to do so. 

Since these companies are so dominant, it puts their management, or in the case of Facebook, founders, in the position of “ruling the world” based not only on business models but personal belief systems. An extraterrestrial suddenly falling to Earth would probably want to meet Mark Zuckerberg before bothering with the president or any of the candidates.

The president’s summit meeting in mid 2011 with Silicon Valley executives (including Zuckerberg) was probably motivated in part by concern over how their sites could affect protest movements overseas (as well as be misused, for example, by flash mobs).

Toward the end, the author discusses the politics of the domain name system, with the many trademark issues, which an squash small fry. ICANN has a loose connection with the US Commerce Department, and this causes some political problems with the rest of the world.  Were ICANN to come under more foreign influence, there could be consequences for US speakers.

She also explains how “Internet Freedom” is a loaded term, and closes with a discussion of “personal responsibility” on the part of netizens, with a discussion of the case of Ali Weiwei in China.

Here is a YouTube video of Mackinnon’s address at the New America NYC.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

NatGeo: "100 Scientific Discoveries that Changed the World": reflected in sci-fi novel "Sandstorm" by Rollins

At some local retail outlets you can pick up an interesting National Geographic compendium, “100 Scientific Discoveries that Changed the World”, 128 pages, glossed, heavily illustrated, with Bridget English as primary editor. (Website is here.)

The discoveries are presented in random order as to chronology, giving the reader a sense of “time travel”. A few, such as nanomedicine, terraforming (with a compelling illustration of Mars after ecopoiesis), and augmented reality, are seen as ongoing and don’t have dates.   One of the oldest is the abacus (3000 bc), or the wheel (3500 BC, which the Maya did not use in this hemisphere).  Some discoveries appeared surprisingly early, such as electricity in 1745.

The discoveries are organized into four groups: (1) The Power of Informaiton; (2) Engineering the Body; (3) Invisible Forces; (4) This World and Others.

One of the most curious is the Bucbyball (p. 13, named after Buckminster Fuller). The novel “Sandstorm” by James Rollins (link) (aka Jim Czajkowski), 2004 (Avon/Harper Collins) uses the concept of buckyballs  (drawings pp 484-486 in paperback) as party of the plot denouement (he also gets into antimatter and the CERN collider).

The novel (which I read in 2005, sometimes on sub teaching assignments while the kids did their classwork!) would obviously translate well to a genre Hollywood thriller (or maybe even a cable television series), but I don't see it on imdb.  I see two other (post 2004) movies with this title that seem unrelated. I'm actually surprised it hasn't been "made" yet. 

Youtube on the science of “Buckyballs” (not the toys):

Michio Kaku on the cheapest way to terraform Mars:  Use “global” warming!

Wikipedia attribution link for drawing of fullerite.

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Robert Frank: "The Darwin Economy": Even the most "productive" individuals depend on others, even if they won't admit it

Author: Robert H. Frank, economics professor at Cornell
Title: “The Darwin Economy: Liberty, Competition, and the Common Good
Publication: 2012, Princeton University Press, ISBN 978-0-691-15319-3, hardcover, 240 pages, indexed, twelve chapters

The Amazon link is here

Maybe the book could be titled “The Spencer Economy”, after the 19th Century British sociologist  Herbrt Spencer, who preached survival of the fittest.

Frank starts his argument by examination of how nature (Darwinism) favors “positional” or “relative” behavior among animals of a species, to be the strongest in their group to pass on their genes.  But that may not produce offspring which are optimally equipped to make the species as a whole survive.  For instance, some animals have larger antlers who advertise masculinity but which hamper running from predators (although they might facilitate counterattack). Among one type of sea lion, the male is enormous, in order to attract the most females, but that hinders escape from hazards and increases food requirements for the group.  Many animals are polygamous, which is not necessarily good for the group as it is for the alpha male. 

In human economics, there are many behaviors which tend to promote the welfare of one’s own family and which the free market system tends to encourage. But these behaviors may lead to instability and may not maximize freedom and autonomy for people in the long run.  That forms the argument for some kind of benevolent government regulation of some things, and for some kind of progressive tax policy that actually works.

It’s easy to come up with many examples. An obvious one is how people behaved when they bought homes they couldn’t afford during the subprime years, bidding up the price of homes (and then school systems) for everyone, indirectly forcing other families into risky and reckless personal behavior.  Only some kind of regulation can tame this.

Frank goes into the topic of “cost-benefit” analysis of policy problems, as if they constituted a 1970s-style operations research (maybe linear programming) technique.  He proposes “Noah’s ark survivor” thought experiments on group policy choices, which might fit into science fiction scenarios for explorers settling Mars or Titan.  He makes interesting observations about non-monetary values, such as safety and public prestige, which tend to lead to anomalies (or stratification of society into inefficient segments) without practical policy choices and accepting better regulation.  He sounds a bit like George Soros.  I think his observation that for some people to have superior social status (royalty, maybe), others must "bear the cost" of lower status, is interesting.  (Think about that with social animals.) 
Many of his observations are on mark. During the energy crisis of the 1970s, Jimmy Carter wanted a gas tax, which might help fund public transportation and lessen dependence on foreign oil. It was shot down (although gas prices rose quickly), and gas lines resulted. 

Likewise, a free society has to be able to defend itself, using taxes (maybe conscription?); otherwise external forces will take over and take away freedoms anyway.  Frank mentions taxes in taking care of the elderly, but fails to address the idea that in principle retirement needs (including medical) could be met with a well-managed “ownership” savings concept, and that Social Security is really partially an annuity based on contributions (not true taxes) now.

The author believes that the most effective tax systems would be on “harmful” consumption.  This might sound intrusive or regressive, but he focuses most of his attention in areas like carbon or sulfur emissions, and some attention to issues like tobacco and safety helmets and seat belts, where indirect harms to others can be shown. He gives us some dire warnings, that global warming just might be dire enough (because of methane) to cause the end of civilization.
Frank largely avoids the areas of sexuality.  He accepts immutability for what it is,  and (avoiding rhetorical moralizing) is concerned about people’s making choices – and maintains that the common good is necessary to optimize the opportunity for choice.  It’s easy to apply his ideas to the issue of declining family size.  As, in an individualistic society, parenting incurs enormous costs, we’ve created a society where there may be a growing disincentive to have or raise children, which has obvious consequences for the “common good.” The idea of “equality” is a deceptive concept.  People who take on less risk and less responsibility may be able to work for less (he does touch on this point when he tries to unsettle the libertarian notion “it’s your money”) but that could lowball the system for families.  On the other hand, when people get public benefits for marriage and parenting, others who do not share the responsibility sometimes wind up subsidizing what amounts to the (marital) sexual behavior of others.

But, as we know from the health care debate, some sort of “pay or play” is necessary in many situations to provide for a stable infrastructure that is there for everyone when they need it.  Frank somewhat discounts the idea of the “self-made hero” (a la Ayn Rand), because every successful person in modern society depends somewhat on an infrastructure already provided by the labor and sometimes the sacrifice of others.    Referring to Malcolm Gladwell’s work  (here, Nov. 27, 2008), he talks about the role of luck and circumstance in personal success.  He pays particular attention to classical musicians (quoting Sherwin Rosen on p. 150), mentioning that technology has made them more productive but has also tended to create a “winner take all” world in compensation, just as it has in business and in many other media areas.  It appears Frank has a background in music, as he mentions the qualities that make one a successful performing artist.  Sure, it takes dedicated practice and determination to succeed at piano or in any artistic or performance-based endeavor (include pro sports here), but the ability to achieve this level of productivity and focused expertise through hard work is in itself partly genetic and partly luck.  The Jonas Brothers are all hardworking, but their qualities are in a sense “inherited” through their family.   As for the aforementioned modern disincentive to take on parenting, even libertarian scholars at Cato Institute  (Bryan Kaplan, “Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids”, Basic Books, 2011) partly through biology,  my main blog, May 25, 2011;  have said that parenting should not be viewed as the burden it is because the qualities that enable people (that is, “good kids” that every parent wants) to persevere their way to success are so largely genetic.
In the world of public health, the “common good” comes into play, and it might invoke restrictions on individual choices more than the common issues like taxes or energy.  The vaccination debate provides one example.  Another is the enforced “social distance” that could be required to control pandemics.  Back in the 1980s, the religious right tried to make HIV into a logically existential argument against permitting “chain letters” among men .

Even though Frank is mainly concerned with posing public policy choices that would optimize freedom “for the many” in a progressive society in ways that mainly address regulation and taxation, it’s fair to look at his concerns from a personal viewpoint, too.  When do the needs of others in the “common good” affect the deep values-based directional choices that one makes and emotional priorities that one sets?  In any free society, people have to take care of people. 
Here is an 80-minute YouTube video where the author speaks for the New America Foundation.

Compare this book to Corey Robin "The Reactionary Mind", reviewed on this blog Dec. 23, 2011.