Putin’s Cock, Colbert’s Mouth, and Pai’s Tongue

The FCC is back in the news—this time for a possible action to fine late night funny man Stephen Colbert for lewd humor aimed at the President.

The FCC almost certainly isn’t fining CBS or its affiliates over Colbert’s tirade, but FCC Chair Ajit Pai definitely could have handled this issue more deftly in a talk radio interview this week. Combined with his poor net neutrality messaging last week, Pai has shot himself in the foot twice, in rapid succession, with poor messaging.

It would be easy to read Pai’s interview answers on Colbert as an implicit attempt to chill edgy criticism of the President. After a careful listen to the interview, I don’t think that was his intent, but it shows that Pai has a lot to learn about the current media environment.

Last Sunday, April 30, President Donald Trump gave an interview to the CBS news show Face the Nation. In it, he described the show as “fake news” and said that he calls it “Deface the Nation.”

The next night, in retribution, Colbert unleashed a string of insults of the President, including, “the only thing [Trump’s] mouth is good for is being Vladimir Putin’s cock holster.” The phallic first part of that last phrase—a phrase that is new even to this profane soul—is bleeped out, and Colbert’s mouth is blurred out as well. (Colbert is receiving legitimate criticism that this trope is homophobic.)

Colbert’s show airs on broadcast TV. This level of edginess—even with the bleeping and blurring—might draw a fine before 10 pm. Before 10, kids are presumed to be in the room, so “indecent” material is forbidden by FCC rules. These rules thus forbid naughty language and even partially naked people—but permit all but the most graphic violence. These standards have been vetted and shaped by Supreme Court precedent, but they still stand.

After 10 pm, though, material must be “obscene” for the FCC to bring the hammer down. “Obscene” material is way worse than “indecent” content. The First Amendment doesn’t go away merely because material is indecent, but the Supreme Court has held that obscene material isn’t protected at all. So the feds can stop distasteful stuff just because kids might be around (before 10 p.m.), but it has to be utter filth before the state can try to stop adults from seeing it.

The agency’s own website states, “The Supreme Court has indicated that this test is designed to cover hard-core pornography” and not material with any artistic merit. So Basic Instinct (with its merely softcore sex scenes and nontrivial plot) would likely be okey-dokey on your local NBC affiliate starting at 10:01 pm—as far as the FCC is concerned.

Some people complained to the FCC about the Colbert bit. This is not news. In fact, anyone can do this without any basis in fact or court precedent. I could file complaints accusing Daniel Tiger of cursing like a sailor; the online system would accept the complaint, and the FCC would make some token investigation pending available staff resources to do so.

In other words, the fact that someone has complained, and that the FCC will investigate a complaint, is not at all the same thing as there being any real threat of a fine or other penalty.

On Thursday May 4, FCC Chair Ajit Pai gave an interview with Philadelphia-based AM talk show host Rich Zeoli. In it, Pai acknowledged the complaints and said that the agency will investigate. He noted that mere indecency is fineable before 10 pm, but that it takes full-on obscenity to get a fine for late night content.

Yet he didn’t actually clarify these legal standards.

Pai was invited to share his opinions on Colbert’s bit, and he declined in an effort not to prejudice the investigation. (Kudos, of course.) He also said that their goal is actually to complete these investigations instead of letting them sit on the shelves, which is what has mostly happened with them in the recent past.

None of this is actually news, either, except that the news media have made it news. (With their margins being what they are, I can’t even blame them.)

The Hill’s Friday headline reads, “FCC to investigate, ‘take appropriate action’ on Colbert’s Trump rant.”

Rolling Stone raves (I always wanted to say that), “FCC Considers Fining Stephen Colbert Over Controversial Trump Joke.”

Countless similar headlines abound. They’re all fair, too. It’s what Pai said, on the record.

So by this weekend, some folks are fearing an imperious, censorious FCC might shut down some criticism of the administration. On first read, I even assumed Pai’s intent was at least to chill some criticism of the President. Instead of settling for reading the excerpts, though, I decided I had to listen to the interview myself and see what he actually did with his words—instead of what others have done with them.

Listen for yourself. I think you’ll hear a high-level administration official being a bit cagey and giving no definitive answer, even though an implicitly clear answer is what’s called for here.

What he should have done is highlight the agency’s own clarification—that a finding of obscenity requires that the content consist of hardcore pornography. Within that context, he could have demurred about whether Colbert’s bit qualified, but it would have answered the question well enough for the listening public without prejudicing the investigation.

Something like, “We haven’t determined whether it’s obscenity, but the Supreme Court has ruled that it basically has to be hardcore porn to be obscenity, so that’s the standard we’ll use as we investigate.”

If he says that as part of his answer, this interview is likely a non-event, nobody gets upset about possible FCC fines, and Pai looks a lot better by not getting bad press. Being against censorship in this case is a pretty easy, bipartisan stance; even the conservative host says he doesn’t want Colbert fined over this. Instead, in a hyper-partisan and hyper-paranoid (justifiably or otherwise, depending on your politics) political environment, Pai is cast as potentially censorious.

It’s ironic that the Federal COMMUNICATIONS Commission head would fail to adapt to the current media environment in this way.

This follows on another, more substantial error in media strategy, on an issue about which Pai actually cares. Late last month, he practically described network neutrality as a Communist plot, pushed through by the NGO Free Press. He radically misrepresented that group’s goal as the nationalization of the internet, when they want no such thing.

Further, he blatantly hides the massive multi-sector coalition behind this push. The coalition ranges from legal scholars (most of whom support at least the Title II classification the last FCC orchestrated) to major industry players (such as Google and Facebook) to a broad range of nonprofit actors and more.

Not only was this intellectually dishonest, it’s a genuine strategic mistake. The biggest threat to Free Press isn’t that Pai badmouths them; it’s obscurity and the resulting inability to raise money and mobilize internet activists. If he hates them so much, his best move is to ignore them, not to cast them as the heroes of network neutrality. (Along with Public Knowledge, they are especially prominent members of the NGO wing of that side of the debate, but these groups are in pretty good company.)

Moreover, network neutrality is an incredibly complicated technical issue that’s hard to mobilize around, but the pro-network neutrality crowd has the stronger incentives to mobilize. This is exactly what Minjeong Kim and I found in our research on the issue, and the finding was duplicated by Lee, Sang, & Lu in 2015, and by a team at Harvard’s Berkman Center in 2016. The more the net neutrality debate is brought into the public sphere, the more the pro-net neutrality side mobilizes.

This is why the last anti-net neutrality crusading FCC head, Michael Powell, made it as boring as possible. He basically parroted industry talking points about congestion and economic incentives. (A funhouse mirror version of these talking points can be heard in then-Senator Ted Stevens’ wonderfully incoherent 2006 rant about the “series of tubes.”)

Phrased in these terms, the debate would put anybody to sleep, and even those who try to make it exciting often struggle. This is not just my opinion. I met Chris Hayes at a house party some years back, when he was still subbing for Olbermann. Just weeks before, Hayes had done an interview with a major net neutrality advocate. (I won’t name this advocate, but they are an exceptionally good communicator, and I was impressed by their performance in the segment.) I brought this up, and Hayes said that their ratings had dropped by HALF versus the previous segment.

“Comcast might censor the internet” is the only framing that sparks enough interest to mobilize the public. Everything else pushes it deep into wonk territory. And that’s where Pai wants it!

By throwing out easily disproven character assassinations of his opponents, Pai instead draws it further into public view, where the public can better be mobilized. He invites people to see what Free Press has to say on the issue.

This is an obvious strategic mistake, and (again) the head of the Federal COMMUNICATIONS Commission should know at least that much about political communication and political mobilization.

So, to recap:

The FCC is almost certainly not going to fine Colbert for his bleeped-out “cock holster” comment.

It is almost as certain that they will strip away the network neutrality protections that took a Sisyphean decade of work to enact.

And Ajit Pai is cocking up the messaging for both.

the 70th anniversary of Japan’s surrender

today’s a public holiday in hong kong.

which one? it’s a really strange one. it’s my first one and my last one. we only have it this year. it’s the 70th anniversary of Japan’s surrender.

two weeks ago, according an op-ed in a Party sponsored newspaper, Japan is forgetting its history:

A great country and nation has the courage to face up to its history. To forget history is to betray, and to deny a crime is to repeat it.

earlier this week, according to Baidu, the only significant events that happened on June 4th, 1989?

    Walesa being elected in Poland as premier
    Ayatollah Khomeini being chosen as Iran’s supreme leader.

that’s really not okay.

after all, a great country and nation has the courage to face up to its history. to forget history is to betray, and to deny a crime is to repeat it.

thanks to fei chang dao for inspiring this post.

why we need decentralized funding for independent journalism

Whether we can continue to get the journalism we need, given the declining revenues and funding in journalism, is a concern of many people around the world, including in Hong Kong. To what extent is it possible to have independent journalism under such economic conditions? Before we get there, let’s ask first, what does it mean for journalism to be “independent”? What exactly should it be independent of?

Journalism is often at its best when it can “speak truth to power”, when journalists can ask the questions nobody else wants to ask, or even speak out against the powers-that-be when nobody else has the courage to do so. It is why it is important to think about how journalism is funded, who pays the bill and who subsequently can exert pressure on editors and journalists. For example, newspapers rely on advertisers (57%) more so than circulation (36%) for their revenues (Pew, 2015). That means it is important for newspapers to keep advertisers happy. It also means that these advertisers can exert disproportional pressure and influence: this is a problem if we agree that journalism is not only a business, but also serves a larger, indeed a public function to society. It is a lesson Hong Kong learned the hard way when House News, an online news outlet, closed down in 2014 because several major advertisers pulled out because of political pressure (SCMP, 2014). In the words of Tsoi, the founder of House News:

“Despite our popularity, many big companies don’t place advertisements on our website because of our critical stance towards the government and Beijing”.

So how can we have “independent” journalism and what kind of funding would this require? We need to start thinking about what I call models of “decentralized funding” for journalism. “Centralized funding” is when your funding comes from only a few, and subsequently, powerful and influential sources. In contrast, “decentralized funding” is when funding comes from many small amounts provided by multiple funders, or indeed, citizens. If all these small amounts add up to something significant, then that creates a situation where no particular source is powerful enough to exert meaningful influence, and where journalism can be more or less “independent”. But is that possible? Here are a few examples of journalism that rely on “decentralized funding”. This is not meant to be an exhaustive list, nor do I claim these are entirely new phenomena; that said, new technologies have given rise to several interesting ideas and opportunities worth exploring.

Crowdfunding: websites like Kickstarter, Indiegogo and Fringebacker are online platforms that enable a project to raise funds from a large number of people. Recent cases of journalism funded this way in Hong Kong include Factwire and Hong Kong Free Press. Patreon is another example of a crowdfunding platform, but instead of a one-time fundraising effort to jumpstart a project (like Factwire and HK Free Press) it instead allows people to be a “patron”; that’s to say, to financially support an individual or project on a regular basis.

Subscription: traditional subscription still exists, even online. For example, Malaysiakini, an online news website in, you guessed it, Malaysia, receives significant funding from its many subscribers who are willing to pay a sum every month. People are willing to subscribe, and pay money, because whereas the traditional media in Malaysia are highly censored, the online media are still relatively free and open: the internet is where they can get actual news. Malaysia’s situation is a bit peculiar like that: thanks to a pledge it made in 1998 in an attempt to attract foreign investment, the government will not censor the internet (Open Net).

Micro-payment: for the longest time, micro-payment was seen as the holy grail that would save quality journalism. While this has yet to happen, and I am not sure if it ever will, that doesn’t mean there are no interesting changes in this domain: in China, several platforms now allow users to “tip” content they like. For example, WeChat allows its users to tip writers for posts they like.

Centralized, but independent: Last but not least, independent journalism does not necessarily require “decentralized funding” to exist. Traditionally, foundations have always played an important role in funding important works of journalism. A recent example is ProPublica, funded by the Sandler Foundation, whose aim is to do quality investigative journalism. That said, many places around the world do not have the necessary foundations that have an explicit mission to serve the public interest, including in Hong Kong, a society that is already relatively well-off (I’ve never seen so many luxury cars than here in Hong Kong).

It is paramount that we start thinking and experimenting with models of “decentralized funding” for journalism; so that we can continue to get the journalism we need. If you know of any examples of decentralized funding that I should learn more about, I’d love to hear about them!

Blurred Lines: Offensive, but Probably Not Copyright Infringement

At least in my circles, it’s pretty much taken for granted that Robin Thicke’s megahit “Blurred Lines” is shamelessly offensive.

I can’t imagine telling a woman “You the hottest bitch in this place!” I definitely can’t get behind the song’s no-means-maybe-means-yes message. The video is practically a parody of itself. (Here’s an actual parody that reverses the genders; much better.)

I also think it’s safe to say that Marvin Gaye gets a good bit more love and respect, even if nobody’s calling him a great feminist thinker. Further, “Blurred Lines” is just the latest example in a loooooong tradition of white artists appropriating musical styles developed by minority artists.

So, as forward-thinking people looking at the ongoing copyright dispute between the artists, it should be a slam dunk all-around agreement that, considering the striking similarity between “Blurred Lines” and the classic Gaye song “Got to Give It Up”, we should all hope that Gaye’s team sues Thicke for all he’s worth — or, at least, much/most/all of the truckloads of cash “Blurred Lines” has hauled in. (And let’s throw in Pharrell Williams, too, for producing and co-writing this bit of musical larceny.) Right?

Not so fast.

Before beginning a (brief) legal analysis, let’s set aside the very valid critiques of the gender politics in Thicke’s song and video (to say nothing of the shameful gender politics and troubling racial messaging of the Thicke/Miley Cyrus VMA performance).

If there’s one thing Larry Flynt got right about free speech law, it’s that we are better off if free speech protections also extend even to scumbags like Larry Flynt.

Under current law, “Blurred Lines” is probably not infringing, assuming no samples were used — that is, assuming that all the sounds were independently re-recorded for the new song, and Thicke and Farrell claim not to have sampled Gaye’s song.

Without sampling, an infringement case here requires proof of “substantial similarity” between the original and the newer work. Here’s a Billboard article where you can listen to both “Blurred Lines” and “Got to Give It Up”, side by side.

The rhythmic similarities are substantial, but according to literally every expert on musical similarity in copyright that I’ve ever read/heard/spoken with, that counts for very little — again, assuming the sounds were independently re-recorded. Here’s a bit from the Music Copyright Infringement Resource, a joint project of the law schools at Columbia and USC, explaining how melody is the key to establishing substantial similarity between two musical compositions:

A work’s melody is what we consider the tune of a piece. Indeed it is most usually the melody of a piece that we hum when trying to recall it; a piece’s melody is typically its most distinctive and memorable feature. As such, melody is the musical element that most easily lends itself to claims of originality. …

Melody is overwhelmingly the single most important feature of a musical work in evaluating the merits of copyright infringement claims. The entire corpus of judicial opinions in the area of music copyright infringement dwells on melody as the single most idiosyncratic element of the works in question, and almost entirely the locus of the economic worth of a song. Accordingly, the more melodically similar two works are, the more likely a court will determine that the later created work infringes upon the earlier.

So, for evaluating the question of musical infringement, the drums and backup instrumentals all take a way-in-the-back backseat to the melody. (We’ll come back to whether this should be the case in a bit.) With all this in mind, go back and re-listen to each song. A brief bit of each will do.

I’m not a trained musician, but I mixed house and drum & bass records for years (at the tail end of when it meant mixing actual vinyl records), so I notice rhythmic similarities much more readily than melodic similarities. In terms of rhythmic elements, the speed and the drum patterns are so similar as to be “I could mix these two songs together in my sleep” close, which most non-DJs would describe as the two songs “feeling” very similar.

The rhythmic similarities are the bedrock of the two songs’ similar feel. They’re well within the same genre, and it’s not at all shocking to hear Thicke say that he was deliberately trying to recreate the groove of Gaye’s song. Yet even in terms of drum patterns — where the similarities are the strongest, even if the impact in a potential infringement suit is smallest — there are real differences.

I can hear (and can even visualize, as would be represented in a step sequencer) a host of differences. Most folks could probably hear the differences, though it may take some patience to listen to each song enough times; it took me a few listens each.

Melodically, the two songs are substantially more different. They are still well within the same genre here as well, but the melody should be transparently different even to the untrained ear. I should know, because I have just such an untrained ear (ask my karaoke victims, er, audiences) and I can hear the differences pretty easily.

In the case law, the closest analog I know of is Bright Tunes Music v. Harrisongs Music, 420 F. Supp. 177 (S.D.N.Y. 1976). The plaintiff, Bright Tunes, held the copyright in the composition of the doo-wop hit “He’s So Fine” — written by Ronnie Mack, who died of cancer as the Chiffons recording of his song was rocketing up the charts in 1963.

When George Harrison wrote and recorded “My Sweet Lord” in 1970, “He’s So Fine” was not at all on his mind, but he wound up creating a melody very similar to the older tune.

The similarities are striking, and importantly for the copyright question, it is the melodies of the two songs that are so similar. Here, somebody has helpfully created a mashup of “He’s So Fine” and “My Sweet Lord”, so you can listen to them simultaneously. They don’t line up perfectly, but it’s pretty clear that the melodies are pretty similar.

Harrison didn’t realize the similarities, but once they were pointed out to him, he says, “I thought, ‘Why didn’t I realize?’ It would have been very easy to change a note here or there and not affect the feeling of the record.” (Again, this isn’t part of the legal analysis, but I actually give Harrison much more credit here than I do Thicke on the “How badly is this white musician exploiting black musical culture” question. Intent matters for ethical and cultural criticism, but how much we like people and think they’re doing the “right” thing is not the same question as whether or not the law is on their side.)

Anyway, Harrison was essentially found to have subconsciously infringed on Mack’s song — to have infringed without having done so deliberately. This even though the two melodies are not identical — just very similar.

In light of all of this case law, for songwriters to have a deliberate intent to borrow is, if anything, helpful for them. Thicke and Pharrell surely know that it’s the melody that gets you in trouble — and they definitely acted accordingly. It doesn’t take much imagination to listen to the Gaye and Thicke songs and hear the latter’s notes as deliberately dissimilar to the former — thus, creating far more daylight between the two melodies than in the Bright Tunes case.

There’s actually an art to this that can pay handsomely if one composes music for TV commercials. If a songwriter wants too much to license a hit song that an advertiser covets, the advertisers can just hire a composer to bang out a not-quite-copy for a fraction of the price. This happens all the time; here are just a few examples.

Anyway, I hope it’s pretty clear by now why “Blurred Lines” really isn’t infringing. Don’t believe me? Three independent industry insiders also hold this view.

I’ll end with a few words about whether the similarity standard we have now really should be the case. (Can you smell the journal article burning? What follows is the “This is a blog post and I need to go to bed” version.)

I don’t want a copyright system where I can’t create a song (or book or movie) that has a similar overall feel to anything that’s been done in the last hundred years. Because, guess what: If that’s the rule and it’s enforced at even a moderate rate (say, 10% or more), then creativity either comes to a screeching halt or goes largely underground. Building on previous cultural milestones is how culture works.

I’m even disturbed by the Bright Tunes standard: If we put two otherwise dissimilar songs next to each other, at just the right points, are most of the notes of some parts of the melody the same? Consider how scary this standard is in light of the musical simplicity of pop melodies. If this is the standard, are there any songs that aren’t infringing left to be written? I’m scared there may not be.

If Bright Tunes-style plaintiffs get just a bit more of a toehold in the case law, what’s to stop copyright trolls from buying up old songs that are just-similar-enough to big hits and demanding exorbitant payments? The ownership of the copyrights in studio recordings is more consolidated (mostly, these copyrights are owned by labels), but the rights to compositions are everywhere and can often be bought for relatively low prices.

If a hobbyist composer hopes to make it big but looks at this landscape in my not-unlikely-enough dystopian near-future, shouldn’t s/he be scared and consider maybe not even to bother? After all, even the mighty George Harrison claims never to have made a single dollar on one of his most beloved songs — all because he accidentally made the melody too similar to a very different song. What hope is there for somebody just starting out, who’s not also an expert musicologist walking around with a century of musical knowledge?

The Bright Songs standard is already too easy for plaintiffs. If Gaye’s heirs were to win a decision that “Blurred Lines” is infringing, it would send a pretty discouraging message to today’s would-be musical composers.

I say all of this as somebody who has a bone to pick with the “melody is everything” theory of musical composition that guides our law today. Distinctive rhythms can make or break a song, and the drums can themselves be the most memorable, marketable part of a song. (See: Stubblefield, Clyde.)

There are also unfortunate racial connotations to this paradigm. It’s not too far down the chain in the Apollonian/Dionysian dichotomy, where Apollo represents mind/discourse/melody/whiteness and Dionysus represents body/movement/rhythm/blackness.

Don’t think this still carries water today? Then why does popular discourse still treat blacks so prominently as athletes and dancers, generally discarding what they have to say? And why is it really important to hear what white people have to say, even when the very basis for their fame is a physical gift? (See: Tebow, Tim) Why is music from non-white parts of the world called World Beat and African music generally sold as AfroBeat?

The racial critique of this emphasis on melody is valid and important, but I still don’t want a copyright system where “Blurred Lines” is infringing, even though I just spent a whole paragraph arguing that the part where it’s most like “Got to Give It Up” shouldn’t be treated as so relatively unimportant by the law. While some have tried to reconcile this melody/rhythm inequity by pushing copyright in the direction of broader protection for rhythmic elements, I think the better solution is to put less emphasis on melody as separated from the whole composition and instead to put the whole composition in context.

Looked at as an entire composition, “My Sweet Lord” is pretty different from “He’s So Fine”. The lyrics are 100% different. The instrumentation is pretty different. The sound and feel are remarkably different. It’s only the focus on melody that led the court into what I think was a mistake.

On the other side, “Blurred Lines” and “Got to Give It Up” are more similar on most counts except lyrics and melody. They sound and feel very similar, though even the drum pattern is clearly not identical. Looked at holistically they’re still pretty different songs, built in large part on the very different lyrics and melody.

I don’t think we should set up a copyright system where “very rhythmically similar” is, by itself, grounds for a finding of infringement. The change I’m advocating is that we should also apply that standard to melodic similarity.

Just as inventors really want to keep the lawyers out of the lab, I really want to keep them out of the music studio. If the price of being able to compose without an attorney on retainer is that, sometimes, crass capitalists push the line of exploiting the feel of successful works, it’s a price I think we as a society should pay.

If we swing the other way, to the point that something like “Blurred Lines” equals legal hot water, that means pretty much all popular music puts you in legal hot water. Which would mean that only those who can afford attorneys — in advance — will have any business making music. And that’s a far higher price for we as a society to pay.

P.S. Speaking of prices paid, I hope we forward-thinking folks can all agree not to pay for “Blurred Lines.” If you like that song’s groove, allow me to suggest a Marvin Gaye tune I know. It’s not exactly the same; it’s better.

Dear Government Snoops: Just Come Get Me Now

For a number of (really good) reasons, I’ve not been able to spend much time following the endless, ever-forthcoming details about the US government’s decision to vacuum up as much of our communication data as possible.

Even from such a less-than-ideal base of knowledge, and even though it will take months or years for everything to come out (if ever), I already believe the following:

What Edward Snowden did is one of the most heroic, medal-worthy acts by an American so far this century. I say this even though I’m also horrified that somebody with his scant qualifications was in such a position.

No mountain of prestigious journalistic prizes can repay the debt owed to the Guardian and Glenn Greenwald by the citizens of this country.

President Obama should immediately grant Snowden a full presidential pardon — and, further, give Snowden his own (prematurely given and, as is now clear, unearned) Nobel Peace Prize as a token of his gratitude.

Concerns about the steady erosion of civil liberties and all-too-quick slide into a surveillance state are finally starting to get a sliver of the traction they should have gotten since roughly the end of 2001.

The erosion of civil liberties via state surveillance has been accompanied by an ever-shrinking capacity for citizens to monitor the state. This ranges from the mundane (e.g., police officers routinely harassing, arresting, injuring, and/or falsely charging people for photographing or recording them in public) to the profound (e.g., charging journalists as “co-conspirators” for soliciting restricted information).

There is perhaps no better test of whether technology activists will be able to mobilize the public en masse on behalf of a desired change — rather than, as in the SOPA blackout, against an unpopular proposed change.

Whether or not an anti-surveillance movement can effect major changes in policy is not a fair measure of whether and how well such a movement performs as a movement; better measures include people mobilized to action, mainstream coverage, and policymakers and allies recruited.

Regardless of whether it is fair to measure an anti-surveillance movement based on policy outcomes, such policy outcomes may be a fair way to measure the viability of our democracy. If we can’t get people on the left, right, and center to join together to take back the Fourth Amendment, the promises of our Constitution are pretty hollow indeed. (Satire or not, this hits close to home.)

If I were in the position of Snowden, Greenwald, or the Guardian, I hope and believe that I would make pretty much the same decisions.

I say all of this publicly, even though I no longer have faith that I can do so without fear of retribution (yes, I use that term deliberately) by the state.

So, to the snoops that are undoubtedly listening — even though it’s unlikely that any human will ever actually read this tiny speck in an ocean of data — come and get me.

If what Snowden did lands him in prison, being there next to him would be an honor. If blowing the lid off a giant, proto-police-state phone and internet surveillance operation is wrong, I don’t want to be right. If leaking state secrets in the public interest puts one in danger of torture, indefinite detention, exile, or being disappeared, we’re all in danger — and for most people, this will be because too few will be brave enough to take such a risk to protect the citizenry from the state.

So consider me part of the conspiracy, Mr./Ms. Snoop. Tell your supervisors that we have a dissident who needs closer scrutiny and maybe a visit from an agent.

I’d rather go to prison, right now, for the rest of my life than to live in complicity as we slide ever-closer toward becoming a bona fide police state.

And just to increase the odds that a real human does see this: bombs Al Qaeda assassinate infidels fertilizer kill death murder planes airports President Obama Capitol White House 9/11 TNT flying with liquids in containers larger than 100 ml (3 oz. for you SAE holdouts) and not taking off my accursed shoes. So there.

P.S. If there’s one consequence I do fear as a result of this post specifically, it’s being put on the no-fly list — itself a particularly apt illustration of the intersection of terrorism paranoia, unchecked executive branch power, and rank bureaucratic incompetence.

On PRISM: Orwell’s or Huxley’s America

It’s been a whirlwind news cycle over the past 48 hours.  Welcome to the 21st century surveillance state.  We’ve been living here for some time, but no one bothered to say so until now.  In grappling with it all, I keep returning to a few literary classics.

Neil Postman begins his magnum opus, Amusing Ourselves to Death, by ruminating on two distinct visions of our dystopic future, portrayed in George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World:

“Contrary to common belief even among the educated, Huxley and Orwell did not prophecy the same thing.  Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression.  But in Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history.  As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo the capacities to think.

What Orwell feared were those who would ban books.  What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one.  Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information.  Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism.  Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us.  Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance.  Orwell feared we would become a captive culture.  Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture…  In 1984, Huxley added, people are controlled by inflicting pain.  In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure.”

(emphasis added)

On a Thursday afternoon panel at Personal Democracy Forum, Zeynep Tufecki argued that big data in campaigns is paving the way for a future that is equal parts Orwell and Huxley.  The threat comes less from electoral campaigns themselves than from well-financed economic players who will replicate and enhance the new market techniques in other arenas.  Our powers of monitoring and distraction are growing at an outlandish pace.

Through cosmic coincidence, the first news about PRISM broke just after her panel.  Along with monitoring all of our phone calls through Verizon, it seems the NSA is also capable of accessing all communications via Google/Gmail/YouTube, Microsoft/Skype, Facebook, Yahoo, Apple, Aol, and Paltalk. According to the career intelligence officer who leaked the information, “They quite literally can watch your ideas form as you type.”

PRISM is Orwell’s America. Really, what else can you call it? If, two weeks ago, Someone told me that the government was soaking up all our online data, capable of reading things while we type them, I would have backed away slowly, wondering where they left their tin foil hat. Then the Washington Post told me instead.  The depth and breadth of this domestic spying program is just astonishing.

But Huxley’s vision is the reason this Orwellian architecture can be constructed.  Consider:

RT @AdamKilgoreWP Friday on A1 of WaPo: The govt is reading yr email. Saturday: The Nats’ season has been a real drag http://wapo.st/15JSxGU 

And it’s not just the front page of the Washington Post.  Tune in to your Twitter stream tomorrow, around 9:30PM EST.  I guarantee you that no one will be discussing PRISM.  They’ll be talking about Daenerys Stormborn and Arya Stark.  They’ll be talking about Lebron James and Tony Parker.  They’ll be trading jokes about Don Draper and Joan Holloway.  It’s like Kurt Cobain said, “With the lights out, it’s less dangerous. Here we are now, entertain us.”

I see room for just a bit of anti-Huxley hope.  Also at Personal Democracy Forum, Sara Critchfield talked about Upworthy.com.  Upworthy has only been around for a year and a half, and it already reaches 2/3rds of all Americans.  Their business model is surprisingly simple: find “socially positive” stories, repackage them with more engaging headlines, and help them go viral.  Eli Pariser founded Upworthy after he wrote The Filter Bubble (see my review here).  It was founded on the premise that people actually want more than cat videos and celebrity gossip.  Provide engaging, inspiring, thought-provoking, or enraging content and people will read it, share it, and discuss it.  We just have to get better at marketing the quality content as well as we market the junk content.

Upworthy’s success gives reason for hope.  Sunday night, I’ll be watching the NBA Finals and Game of Thrones.  But Monday, I’ll probably see some PRISM-related content from Upworthy in my media stream, and I’ll share it and participate further in the public conversation.  How much hope we should have is directly proportional to how large of a niche companies like Upworthy will eventually occupy.  How widely are those diverse preferences for substantive and entertaining comments spread?  Can we sustain national attention around issues like PRISM for long enough to demand answers and action from public officials, or will we quickly flip to the next story?

I don’t know.  But, as we marvel at this newly unveiled Orwellian surveillance state, it’s these Huxley-esque questions that will concern me most.

We don’t arrive at this surveillance regime through a perpetual state of fear.  We get there through perpetual distraction.

Neglect and Uncle Sam, not the Internet, Killed the Middle Class

In an interview with Salon and his newest book, “digital visionary” (Salon’s words) Jaron Lanier claims that the internet has destroyed the middle class. Kodak employed 140,000 people, while at the point of its sale to Facebook, Instagram employed just 13, and (without much exaggeration) thus, the internet killed the middle class. QED.

What a crock.

Lanier is apparently incapable of stepping back from technological determinism and looking at the actual causes of our ballooning economic inequality — which, to cut to the chase, is primarily a result of our policy choices. Yet the role of government in determining the overall shape of the economy is too often understated or outright ignored by those who wring their hands about growing economic inequality.

With some noted exceptions, those who criticize Lanier still mostly point at the old standby twin bogeymen of automation and outsourcing. The HuffPost chat in which all of the guests are willing to challenge Lanier’s conclusions is typical on this count but hardly alone. To his credit, Buffalo State College economist Bruce Fisher starts heading in the right direction with his concerns about fostering and preserving the political and social engagement of those who are being left out, but he fails to take it the next step and discuss the major policy changes and political neglect that have brought us to this point.

The best explanation that I’ve seen of America’s growing wealth inequality is Winner-Take-All Politics, in which Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson start with a simple look at other industrialized countries to show that inequality isn’t an inexorable outcome trade and automation. The Germans and Swedes certainly have similar chances to outsource their manufacturing and use technology to reduce labor forces.

Not only does the rest of the industrial world have the internet, too, better telecom policy means they generally have faster connections and cheaper prices. Yet as measured by the Gini Coefficient, a measure of economic inequality, their economies have far more equal distributions of income in take-home pay and wealth.

The wealth distribution in particular is just shocking — the US has a wealth Gini of .801 (where 1.000 is “one person owns everything”), the fifth highest among all included countries and almost exactly the same as the distribution of wealth across the entire planet (.803). Think about that for a second; we have the same radically unequal distribution of capital within the US as among the entire population of the world across all countries — from Hong Kong and Switzerland to Nigeria and Haiti.

With our paper-thin social safety net and highly unequal distribution of income and wealth, we’re left with an economy where tens of millions struggle to get by while wealthy Manhattanites are hiring handicapped “relatives” for $1,000 per day to be able to skip the lines at Disney World.

Across countless major policy areas —health care, education, financial regulation, taxation, support for the unemployed, and many more — the rest of the industrialized world generally does far more to make their societies fairer for all. Our shrinking protections for workers may be the greatest single cause of the shrinking middle class. Of course, this can be done badly — I would certainly not want to swing as far as Italy and Spain, where it’s nearly impossible to fire somebody once they’re a regular, fulltime employee. Yet we should not allow employers to fire union organizers with near impunity. We should not force organizers to wait for months between card check and votes to unionize so that employers can “educate” their captive audience workforce with the most pernicious disinformation and intimidation. We should not sit idly while nearly half of states fail to meet even “minimum workplace-safety inspection goals, due to state budget cuts and reduced staffing.”

It’s true that the middle class is being gutted in the US, but this is primarily due to how our political system turns the act of surviving and thriving into a high-wire act for an ever-larger slice of the population. Laid-off baby boomers, even those with desirable skills, are having a devil of a time finding work in a country where age discrimination is only nominally illegal. Meanwhile, our children attend public schools with an unconscionably unequal distribution of funding, so moving or being born into a more affordable neighborhood may cost kids their futures, too.

Teens and laid off workers alike are told that college is the route to a better future, but the cost of education is skyrocketing as states and the feds slash public investment in higher education. Many families — even many families with health insurance — are one major medical problem away from unemployment and bankruptcy. Since it’s totally legal to use credit reports and current employment status in making hiring decisions, being laid off or losing one’s job after a medical problem can quickly become a death spiral. None of this is due to outsourcing or automation, but is instead the result of a noxious combination of deliberate policy changes (the privileged seeking to strengthen their own hand) and policy drift (the rest of us sitting idly by or being ignored when we do speak up).

Frankly, I’m glad that Lanier has released this book, sloppy though it may be. (The people raving about this book as a carefully wrought masterpiece are deluding themselves — and not, as Lanier accuses others of doing, “diluting themselves”.) This is not primarily because he has some insights here and there, but because we need to talk about the gutting of the middle class as loudly and as frequently as possible. We must do so, however, in a way that examines how our collective decisions have gotten us to this point. That includes making international comparisons with other “laboratories of democracy” to see how we can do better.

After even a cursory glance abroad, we will see that we should stop returning to the too-easy explanations based on globalization and technology. These forces are at play across the world, and the other wealthy industrialized countries have generally not had the same dismal results. The more likely culprit is in the halls of government.

Dear Commissioner Copps: Thank You for Your Public Service

On Monday evening, the Hunter College Roosevelt House is hosting an event on media policy and reform, featuring former FCC Commissioner Michael Copps. Sadly, it’s in the middle of my Monday class, so I will be unable to attend — and it’s oversubscribed, so I can’t urge you to attend either.

Still, I’m really excited for my colleague Andrew Lund, who is leading the conversation with Mr. Copps, as well as the many Hunter students and faculty who will be able to attend. Thus, I wanted to share a bit about what I’d like them (and the world) to know about this great public servant.

To fully appreciate how exceptional Copps was as an FCC Commissioner, a role he fulfilled from 2001 to 2011, you need to know how thoroughly the Commission has traditionally been a “captured” agency — that is, generally doing the bidding of the industries that it was constructed, in principle, to regulate.

You should also know how the “revolving door” of government works: After working in government in a position of any real importance, many former public servants often take plum jobs in the private sector where they can leverage their regulatory knowledge and even their interpersonal connections to the advantage of their new employers.

Once he started his term at the FCC, Commissioner Copps knew that, after his time in government, he could easily walk into a plum job in the private sector. After all, this had been the route taken by many of his predecessors — as well as many of his colleagues who stepped down in the interim.

Unfortunately, when looking at the decisions that many of these FCC folks who turned that experience into very-well-paid private sector jobs, one could be forgiven for wondering whether many of them truly had the public interest at heart. Some of their decisions suggest that they were, at least in part, also thinking about their long-term earning potential. I won’t name names, but all of us who follow communication law reasonably closely know the most obvious examples.

When looking at Commissioner Copps’ decisions, however, nobody could possibly doubt that his true allegiance really was with the public for the full decade of his service. Media reform groups like Free Press and Public Knowledge finally had an unabashed, reliable ally with his hand on the levers of power, on issues from broadcasting to telecommunications to pluralism and diversity.

Want a sense of where Copps stands on the issues? Go listen to this interview with Democracy Now. Or this one. Read this collection of speeches or this collection of op-eds. Over and over again, you see him supporting the importance of using the power of the state to shape a more democratic, fair, and representative media system.

Copps is probably best known for his opposition to consolidation in ownership between media companies. He “was the one vote against approving Comcast’s takeover of AT&T’s cable systems in 2002” (p. 261), but this was just a warm-up.

The real sea change on ownership came in late 2002 and 2003, as then-Chair Michael Powell proposed a substantial roll-back in the rules against media consolidation. Copps and fellow Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein pushed to have substantial public discussion around the proposal, including multiple, well-publicized hearings. Powell said no — allowing just one hearing — so Copps and Adelstein went on tour, holding 13 unofficial hearings.

Through this and other efforts, working alongside public interest-minded NGOs, Copps helped bring major public attention to Powell’s proposal, ultimately bringing it to a halt. This slowed (though certainly did not stop) the process of media consolidation, through which ever fewer companies control ever more of our media landscape.

Copps has continued to be known for his opposition to media consolidation — though unfortunately, when Adelstein stepped down in 2009, Copps lost an important ally in the fight. Echoing the 2002 vote, Copps was the only Commissioner to vote against allowing Comcast to purchase NBC-Universal in 2011.

I would love to say a great deal more about Copps’ time at the FCC, but I’ll say just a few more words on one more issue: broadband regulation. He came in just in time to dissent from the FCC’s decisions to give away the keys to the kingdom on broadband interconnection, in the decision that led to the Brand X ruling by the Supreme Court.

The FCC ruled that broadband infrastructure companies — the folks who’ve used imminent domain and massive public subsidies as key tools as they’ve laid the cable, phone, or fiber lines over which broadband is transmitted — are not obligated to share their “last mile” systems with competitors. (This requirement for “interconnection” was already in place for landline local and long-distance telephone service, which led to an explosion of competition and plummeting prices.)

The Supremes held that the FCC was within their rights to make the decision, not that it had to come out that way; if Copps had won the day, we wouldn’t be dogging it in the horse latitudes of poor service, high prices, and slow broadband speeds as the world runs past us on all three counts. In the years after, Copps made the best of a bad regulatory position, serving as the most reliable vote for for mandatory network neutrality.

Again, though ownership and broadband policy are among his best-known issues, Copps was a tireless voice for the public interest on virtually every issue imaginable that came before the Commission. Even though he stepped down from the Commission over a year ago, he continues the work today.

Even as a former Commissioner who spent a decade being the thorniest thorn in the sides of those seeking to make a quick buck at the public’s expense, Mr. Copps could still quickly make a quick buck himself working for industry. There are a large number of companies, industry trade groups, and swanky D.C. law firms that would be quite happy to give him a huge salary, cushy office, and first class travel budget to speak on their behalf.

Instead, Copps has moved on to work for Common Cause, one of our nation’s strongest voices fighting for the best interests of ordinary people. This is just the latest in a long line of decisions in which he has chosen to fight for the public interest, even though it’s easier and more lucrative to fight for those who already have disproportionate money and influence.

For public interest advocates, Michael Copps was, at a minimum, the greatest FCC Commissioner since Nicholas Johnson retired nearly 40 years ago — and perhaps the greatest ever. His work at the Commission will be missed, but I look forward to seeing him continue to have a major role in pushing for a fairer, more just media system for many years to come.

One more point, for anybody who’s read this far: As of now, Copps’ Wikipedia page is a mere stump — the Wikipedia term for an article that is too short and needs to be expanded. In this case, a great deal more needs to be said in order to do its subject justice. I call on you to help me do this in the coming weeks. Mr. Copps was and remains a tireless and effective servant of the public, and this is but a small favor we can do in return.

Research Note: The Trouble With Studying Big Data in Campaigns

What are political campaigns doing with our data?  How would we know?

Sasha Issenberg, author of The Victory Lab, gave a talk at GW last night.  The book offers a strong take on the impact of the Analyst Institute on American political campaigning.  It traces the emergence of more sophisticated (and more widely available) voter data, and also traces the emergence of rigorous social scientific experiments that help campaigns optimize their outreach tactics.  It’s well worth your time.

During Q&A, an interesting tangent came up: political campaigns won’t talk with reporters about their data practices.  They didn’t want to give anything away that their opponents could use.  The Obama campaign told its staff not to talk to Issenberg.  When other reporters write articles about campaign data mining, the campaigns don’t offer corrections if they’ve gotten it wrong.  What little public record we have of these activities is based on reporters’ best guesses, without the usual corrective of sources shouting them down via the blogosphere.

This morning, one of those potential sources weighed in.  Ethan Roeder, data director of Obama for America, wrote an Op-Ed for the New York Times titled “I Am Not Big Brother.”  Pushing back against some of hype, he tells us, “You may chafe at how much the online world knows about you, but campaigns don’t know anything more about your online behavior than any retailer, news outlet or savvy blogger.”

The truth is probably somewhere between Roeder and the underinformed headlines.  It’s true that campaigns don’t know anything more about our online behavior than retailers like Target, but what those retailers know is pretty disturbing.  And c’mon, the Obama campaign operates at a scale and complexity far greater than any “savvy blogger.”  That scale matters for what questions the campaign is going to ask, and what it is going to do with our information.

As a researcher who studies how organizations adapt to the digital environment, the real trouble here is that it’s nearly impossible to move beyond vague impressions.  Campaigns have an incentive not to talk to reporters.  They have an even greater incentive not to talk to academic researchers (at least without a non-disclosure agreement firmly in hand…).  When the journalistic coverage gets basic facts wrong, scholars have little way of knowing.  When campaigners disagree after-the-fact, we can’t tell whether they’re correcting the public record or trying to smooth away rightful mistrust.

Academics at our best offer healthy skepticism to the public discourse.  There are important conversations for us to have about the implications of refined digital marketing, management, and persuasion techniques for a healthy democracy.  But it’s going to be systematically difficult to engage in those conversations, because the underlying facts just aren’t going to be very clear.


Jaron Lanier’s technologist myopia

Jaron Lanier is at it again.  Two weeks ago, at Personal Democracy Forum, Lanier unveiled the central thesis of his next book: computer networks are causing the demise of the American middle class, threatening Democracy as we know it.  New information technology has exacerbated the distribution of wealth.  The Internet has undermined a set of “levees,” including academic tenure, copyright, and taxi medallions (???).  All sorts of social problems — from Wall Street shenanigans to the decline of unions — can be laid at the feet of technologists.  And, in Lanier’s eyes, these technological problems have technological solutions.  We simply have to rewrite the entire Internet, embrace Ted Nelson’s failed Project Xanadu and rebuild from the hyperlinks on up.

If that sounds extreme, don’t worry.  It’s supposed to be.  Jaron Lanier is the Great Curmudgeon of the Internet Community.  An influential technologist in the 1980s and 1990s, Lanier later began to ask “what hath our efforts wrought” sorts of questions.  He thinks on a grand and abstract scale, he does not like what he sees, and the Internet Community regularly provides a platform for him to voice his objections.  Among my friends and colleagues in the Internet research community, everyone either loves or hates what Lanier has to say.  But he is always provocative, and that indeed is largely the point.

We need good curmudgeons (or skeptics, at least) in the world.  Particularly in the technology & society community, which has a habit of falling into boundless optimism.  Good curmudgeons force smart optimists to engage in healthy self-reflection.  For that, if nothing else, they should be thanked.  My problem with Lanier, however, is that I don’t think he’s a particularly good curmudgeon.

As usual, there’s a kernel of truth in his work.  Technologists ought to be mindful of the values that they encode in software.  The individuals who construct our digital environment make up an increasingly important social elite.  Facebook and Google are, indeed, monetizing our every action – we create value, they harvest that value and turn a profit.  We ought to think through the social consequences of technology-driven disruptions.

But, as with his last book, the power of his critique evaporates due to a pair of gaping flaws.  The first is a problem of style, the second an error of analysis.

Stylistically, Lanier writes the way he talks — stream of consciousness, hoping from one example to another.  If you have trouble following his argument in the book or in the video, that isn’t because he’s just so brilliant.  Like many technologists, he likes to begin from first principles, designing his arguments basically from scratch.  That’s a fine method for create operating systems.  It’s a poor tool for social analysis though.  There are too many complicated moving parts, too much that cannot be simplified or assumed away.

His haphazard style exacerbates a habit of treating correlations as causation.  Lanier sees the rise of computer networks and the decline of unions in America and thinks “this is all connected!”  Yet unions began their decline well in advance of personal computing.   He sees computer networks driving wealth creation, but seems to forget that past advances in technology drove wealth creation as well.  History cannot be neatly divided into “pre-Internet” and “post-Internet” categories.  In doing so, he fails to take history seriously.

The bigger problem is Lanier’s error of analysis: Technologists are an elite, not The Elite.   The decline of unions (particularly the recent union fights in Wisconsin and Ohio) is not caused by the new information environment.  It is caused by motivated political elites, enacting policies that favor their own narrow interests.  The Wall Street crash was orchestrated by “quants” using computer networks, but it was made possible by the repeal of Glass-Steagall.   The decline of the American middle class has not been caused by technology.  The solutions to that decline lie not in the realm of bits and bytes, but in the realm of policies and votes.

A better skeptic would take other social forces into account.  To borrow from Larry Lessig, the information environment is shaped by four forces: laws, norms, markets, and architecture.  Indeed, one of the lessons from SOPA was that, if internet architects don’t exert political pressure, then Hollywood will reforge the internet.  Lanier looks at the Internet and sees the rise of a digital elite.  He then makes the moral argument that they should give up their power, creating an egalitarian internet along the lines of Ted Nelson’s original vision instead. Better skeptics, like Siva Vaidhyanathan, also see the rise of a digital elite.  But instead, Siva concludes that we should think of companies like Google and Facebook as though they were utilities, and regulate them accordingly.  Siva’s perspective is not just more realistic, it’s also more nuanced and accurate.

We dealt with the old robber barons (eventually) by regulating their influence.   Even if you agree with Lanier’s claim that technology is undermining the old “middle class levees,” the solution is to create new ones through public policy.  Blaming Facebook and Google for our social problems may be gratifying, but it lets the real culprits off the hook.

For Jaron Lanier, All Roads Lead to Code.  That perspective has made him the most popular internet curmudgeon.  Lanier has the ears of the entire tech community.  He occupies a space in a network – the space reserved for the critic.  With that role comes the responsibility to use it well!  Sloppiness either in thought or execution makes it too easy for his audience to dismiss all such criticism.  I can only hope that, as he transforms his PDF talk into his next book, he takes this responsibility seriously.  Technologists are not the only architects of our society.  We should be mindful of the values encoded in our technologies, but just as mindful of the values embraced by our public policies.