Joho the Blog » politics

June 21, 2013

How I supported the NRA this afternoon

I just got a phone call from a firm getting paid to do a survey for the NRA. They’re calling patriotic gun rights supporters in Massachusetts. Would I be willing to listen to a message from Wayne LaPierre (the NRA leader) and answer a few questions?

“Sure,” I said.

Wayne then told me that the government wants to take all our guns from us and “refuses to catch the bad guys.” Because if there’s one credible criticism about Obama, it’s that he’s not going far enough in trying to catch bad guys.

After the message, a live human asked me if I agreed with Wayne LaPierre.

“Absolutely not,” I said.

“Thank you very much,” the guy said as he was about to hang up.

“You’re hanging up on me because I disagree? That’s how you do a survey? That’s completely corrupt.”

“Ok, fine, you want to answer the questions, I’ll be happy to ask them.”

The questions were both of the “Did you know that Obama is on record saying…” sort. One was about banning all guns. The other was about taxing guns.

I answered truthfully “No” to both.

So, in the end, the NRA won.

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April 9, 2013

[berkman] Derek Khanna on connecting the dots

Derek Khanna is giving a Berkman talk on trying to connect the dots so that policy-makers “get it.” “How do we even frame discussions about the economy and innovation?” Copyright law hasn’t been re-assessed in at least 15 yrs, he says. He begins with his bakcstory: He’s from Mass. Worked for Romney and Scott Brown. (Derek wrote the copyright reform report for the Republican Study Group.)

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

Rule 1: “Being right is just part of the battle.” Rule 2: “It’s less important what you say…It’s most important who says it.” Rule 3: “Control the framing of the issue.” E.g., we [copyright reformers] frame copyright very differently than does Capitol Hill.

Take SOPA. He quotes Adam Green saying it’s not a matter of right vs. wrong but old vs. new. Staffers had been warning about SOPA, but suddenly the public engaged. The result was astounding: Co-sponsors became opponents of the bill. Derek says it wasn’t Google that killed SOPA. It was the 3 million people reaching out to Congress that killed it. “People like Elizabeth Stark, Alexis Ohanian [reddit] and Aaron Swartz.” The RIAA and MPAA like to frame it as having lost to Google rather than having lost to the American people. (He points to a Mario Savio speech that begins “There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious…”) SOPA remains very much on Congress’ mind, he says.

The framing was “perfect”: SOPA will censor the Internet and inhibit innovation.

Most conversations about copyright are framed as: Piracy is rampant, costing American jobs. Content is a crucial export, “the only thing produced in US any more.” Copyright is thus good, but more copyright is better.

Derek set out to reframe it in his “Three Myths of Copyright.” At a panel he asked “Who thinks terrorism is bad? Who thinks the TSA is only the way to protect us?” Likewise, is copyright the only way to protect content when it makes 23M Americans into felons? He points to the difference between the original copyright law and the current one. To conservatives, it can be framed as looking like a wild divergence from the original intent.

The “Three Myths” memo went out and was supported by conservatives until 24 hours later when it was pulled. A few weeks later, Derek was fired. He’s continuing but he thinks that when you’re on the outside, you have to fight small, strategic battles.

Idea + Movement + Effort = Legislation

A few weeks ago the head of the copyright office endorsed many of the reforms in “Three Myths,” updating copyright for the digital generation. The day before the content industry made the old argument in Roll Call. The other side isn’t countering. The content lobby knows that Roll Call is read by Congress. We need similar expertise.

How do we start?

  1. Don’t wait for the next SOPA. They’re going to be much subtler in how they do it next time. Sites are still being taken down, e.g., Megaupload. Also funding mechanisms were cut off for ThePiratesBay. Also, Google was forced to take down links to torrents, etc. So, why would they come up with another SOPA? Instead they’re using international treaties to codify the DMCA forever, using stock language that gets replicated in treaties. These treaties only require Senate approval, or through executive actions. Therefore, we have to be more activist.

  2. We have to analyze existing law.

  3. We need support from both the left and the right

  4. We need to focus on areas of common interest where we can form a collective whole

  5. Asymmetrical warfare: Where are we strong and they’re weak? Where have they overplayed their hand? E.g., if you want to take on copyright law, that’s not asymmetric because there’s a strong argument on the other side.

“We lack the institutional capacity to quickly intervene in the political process in the way the content industry has. We therefore need to be smarter and more tactical.” We should start with smaller battles. We should avoid the narrative of “fighting the Man,” that companies are evil, etc. That won’t win over a party that sees itself as a party of business. “Instead, foster a David v. Goliath narrative.” That media like that narrative.

We should not talk about piracy. And even if the DMCA needs to be replaced, that’s a non-starter on Capital Hill.

Derek’s first campaign was on cellphone unlocking, after the Librarian of Copyright said it was now illegal (i.e., ending the DMCA exemption) to enable your phone to be used on a different carrier. Unlocking would increase competition among carriers. Derek wrote an article for The Atlantic that pointed out that the technology for the blind also has to be exempted every three years, a clear example of how the system is broken. Derek expected this issue to be hard. It didn’t get any mainstream media attention. It has a $32M lobbying effort on the other side. “That’s a problem on Capitol Hill: We don’t have a lobby for the future.” IT requires making hypothetical arguments.

But as the argument went on, examples emerged. E.g., Republic Wireless offers very cheap connectivity, but it depends on users bringing in unlocked phones.

Derek started a White House petition that got 114,000 signatures, the largest at the time. In part this worked because of people’s prior experience with SOPA. There were positive arguments on Left and Right. Left: It’s a matter of fairness. Right: Property rights. Derek added to this the value of innovation as a cross-party value.

After the petition, the FCC announced an investigation, and the White House came out in favor of unlocking. Before that, Derek had urged Congressfolks to come out in favor of it, if only because he was worried that after Obama came out in favor of repeal, the right would take the other side. But shortly after Obama endorsed, some conservatives came out in favor. Bills were introduced in both chambers.

Unfortunately, we have no way of mobilizing the 114,000 people who signed the petition; the names couldn’t be captured.

Why was it successful?

  1. They made it simple. (Also with SOPA: SOPA = censorship)

  2. Leveraged social media

  3. Utilized video

  4. Created a diverse coalition

  5. Gained mainstream credibility

  6. Channeled energies into a measurable demonstration of support

  7. Kept Congress in the loop

  8. Solid media narrative

  9. Avoided talking about piracy. Instead: competition, innovation, and property rights.

  10. It was unfair

  11. Everyone has a phone…

Derek presented this at a conservative org and got called a Marxist. Fox Business also: “You’re just against contracts.” “When you take up an issue, you have to know where your third rails are.” Response: The contract is between you and your carrier; the feds shouldn’t be arresting people for violating a contract.

Why is it important? It’s the first time Congress has questioned the DMCA. We might get a hearing on it. Congress is unaware of the implications of the DMCA. It also helped Congress realize that international treaties are being used as a backdoor for these restrictions. It may affect the Trans-Pacific Partnership treaty. And it helped identify allies.

Bottom line: “A free society shouldn’t have to petition its govt every 3 years to allow access to tech.” It’s akin to free speech, he says.

On the CFAA: “The statute is terrible.” There’s consensus about this. “But no one has written about in Weekly Standard or Politico.” It hasn’t reached Congress’ attention. Most members of Congress think that the sky is falling when it comes to cybersecurity. Every time a cybersec bill comes up, Congress has experts telling them that we are in deep peril. “Essentially the arguments for CFAA are that we need to reduce the DoJ’s discretion.” You have to defeat that training. Meet with Rogers or McCain or the other cyber-hawks and convince them that the CFAA needs to be reformed, that we can target hacking with a more narrowly focused bill.

Q&A

Q: Can we try to drive a wedge in the opposition?

A: Yes. The RIAA’s and MPAA’s policies don’t foster innovation in their own industry. Over a 100 wireless carriers supported us on unlocking.

Q: You said that people who “get” tech are on the side of openness, etc. That optimistically suggests that if we educate people, they’ll take more common sense positions on tech.

A: Not entirely. Congress listens to people they trust, who are the RIAA, MPAA…

Q: …But even if Congressfolks fully understood tech, would the funds they get from the content industry still sway them?

A: Yes, some understand and still oppose us. But the ones who understand generally agree with us. The story is more complex: The MPAA/RIAA are very liberal, but the right still tend toward copyright protection.

Q: Why is the content industry so powerful, given the size of Google, etc.

A: AT&T and Verizon are both in the top ten of lobbying companies: $32M. Google spends about $6M on lobbying. “No tech company had a DC presence until Microsoft” when it was about to be broken up. Also, as the tech companies invest heavily to survive, say, patent law, why would you favor wholesale patent law change? Also, when the RIAA/MPAA sue kids, the money goes back into lobbying, not to the artists. They’re self-funding. But the tech industry has to justify why they’re spending money on lobbying.

Q: In Pakistan, piracy is rampant. Doesn’t that hurt innovation?

A: Piracy is real. But, those generally weren’t loss sales. The obsession with piracy is the problem.

Q: How about the role of public interest groups?

A: I’m a big fan of Public Knowledge and EFF, etc. But they need supplementing with more activist movements.

Q: If we focus on small victories, will people think we’re not doing enough? Will you have to keep winning bigger and bigger?

A: You can exist at a level for a while, if you’re strategic about it. Eventually you have to move on to bigger battles.

Q: How about the importance of multistake partnerships?

A: You need as many allies as you can. E.g., I’m interested in orphan works: in copyright but you can’t find the copyright holders. Our interests are in line with the RIAA.

A: Are we in a moment like the environmental movement before it formed under a single banner?

Q: I’m not an expert on the environmental movement. There are lots of lessons to be learned from them.

Q: Is there a schism in the conservatism over copyright reform?

A: I haven’t seen much of a schism. The best argument I’ve heard is the natural rights one: copyright ought to exist forever. But that’s not the system we’ve adopted. Our founding fathers rejected it. I’d like to build a cross-party coalition, but that’s a longtime goal.

Q: Did you get pushback on using the WH petition mechanism?

A: I got some from privacy folks.

Q: When we win a battle, the other side comes up with something more drastic. E.g., we won a first sale argument, but the right may be preparing something much more drastic. How can we avoid that?

A: I’m not sure they’re going to try to reverse the first sale doctrine, but we need to have our eyes open.

Q: What should we do right now?

A: We’d like to start to bring together the CISPA coalition.

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February 12, 2013

[2b2k] Margaret Sullivan on Objectivity

Magaret Sullivan [twitter:Sulliview] is the public editor of the New York Times. She’s giving a lunchtime talk at the Harvard Shorenstein Center [twitter:ShorensteinCtr] . Her topic is: how is social media is changing journalism? She says she’s open to any other topic during the Q&A as well.

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

Margaret says she’s going to talk about Tom Kent, the standards editor for the Association Press, and Jay Rosen [twitter:jayrosen_nyu] . She begins by saying she respects them both. [Disclosure: Jay is a friend] She cites Tom [which I'm only getting roughly]: At heart, objective journalism sets out to establish the facts, state the range of opinions, and take a first cut at which arguments are the most rigorous. Journalists should show their commitment to balance by keeping their opinions to themselves. Tom wrote a memo to his staff (leaked to Romenesca
) about expressing personal opinions on social networks. [Margaret wrote an excellent column about this a month ago.]

Jay Rosen, she says, thinks that objectivity is an outdated concept. Journalists should tell their readers where they’re coming from so you can judge their output based on that. “The grounds for trust are slowly shifting. The view from nowhere is getting harder to trust, and ‘here’s where I’m coming from’ is become more trustworthy.” [approx] Objectivity is a cop out, says Jay.

Margaret says that these are the two poles, although both are very reasonable people.

Now she’s going to look at two real situations. The NYT Jerusalem bureau chief Jody Rudoren is relatively new. It is one of the most difficult positions. Within a few weeks she had sent some “twitter messages” (NYT won’t allow the word “tweets,” she says, although when I tweeted this, some people disagreed; Alex Jones and Margaret bantered about this, so she was pretty clear about the policy.). She was criticized for who she praised in the tweets, e.g., Peter Beinart. She also linked without comment to a pro-Hezbollah newspaper. The NYT had an editor “work with her” on her social media; that is, she no longer had free access to those media. Margaret notes that many believe “this is against the entire ethos of social media. If you’re going to be on social media, you don’t want a NYT editor sitting next to you.”

The early reporting from Newtown was “pretty bad” across the entire media, she says. In the first few hours, a shooter was named — Ryan Lanza — and a Facebook photo of him was shown. But it was the wrong Ryan Lanza. And then it turned out it was that other Ryan Lanza’s brother. The NYT in its early Web reporting said “according to early Web reports” the shooter was Ryan Lanza. Lots of other wrong information was floated, and got into early Web reports (although generally not into the N YT). “Social media was a double edged sword because it perpetuated these inaccuracies and then worked to correct them.” It often happens that way, she says.

So, where’s the right place to be on the spectrum between Tom and Jay? “It’s no longer possible to be completely faceless. Journalists are on social media. They’re honing their personal brands. Their newspapers are there…They’re trying to use the Web to get their message out, and in that process they’re exposing who they are. Is that a bad thing? Is it a bad thing for us to know what a political reporter’s politics are? I don’t think that question is easily answerable now. I come down a little closer to where Tom Kent is. I think that it makes a lot of sense for hard news reporters … for the White House reporter, I think it makes a lot of sense to keep their politics under wraps. I don’t see how it helps for people to be prejudging and distrusting them because ‘You’re in the tank for so-and-so.'” Phil Corbett, the standards editor for the NYT, rejects the idea there is no impartial journalism. He rejects that it’s a pretense or charade.

Margaret says, “The one thing I’m very sure of is that this business of impartiality and balance should no longer mean” going down the middle in a he-said-she-said. That’s false equivalence. “That’s changing and should change.” There are facts that we fully believe are true. Evolution and Creationism are not equivalents.

Q&A

Q: Alex Jones: It used to be that the NYT wouldn’t let you cite an anonymous negative comment, along the lines of “This or that person sucks.”

A: Everyone agrees doing so is bad, but I still see it from time to time.

Q: Alex Jones: The NYT policy used to be that you must avoid an appearance of conflict of interest. E.g., a reporter’s son was in the Israeli Army. Should that reporter be forbidden from covering Israel?

A: WhenEthan Bronner went to cover Israel, his son wasn’t in the military. But then his son decided to go join up. “It certainly wasn’t ideal.” Should Ethan have been yanked out the moment his son joined? I’m not sure, Margaret says. It’s certainly problematic. I don’t know the answer.

Q: Objectivity doesn’t always draw a clear line. How do you engage with people whose ideas are diametrically opposed to yours?

A: Some issues are extremely difficult and you’re probably not going to come to a meeting of the minds on it. Be respectful. Accept that you’re not going to make much headway.

Q: Wouldn’t transparency fragment the sources? People will only listen to sources that agree.

A: Yes, this further fractures a fractured environment. It’s useful to have some news sources that set out to be in neither camp. The DC bureau chief of the NYT knows a lot about economics. For him to tell us about his views on that is helpful, but it doesn’t help to know who he voted for.

Q: Martin Nisenholz] The NYT audience is smart but it hasn’t lit up the NYT web site. Do you think the NYT should be a place where people can freely offer their opinions/reviews even if they’re biased? E.g., at Yelp you don’t know if the reviewer is the owner, a competitor… How do you feel about this central notion of user ID and the intersection with commentary?

A: I disagree that readers haven’t lit up the web site. The commentary beneath stories is amazing…

Q: I meant in reviews, not hard news…

A: A real ID policy improves the tenor.

Q: How about the snarkiness of twitter?

A: The best way to be mocked on Twitter is to be earnest. It’s a place to be snarky. It’s regrettable. Reporters should be very careful before they hit the “tweet” button. The tone is a problem.

Q: If you want to build a community — and we reporters are constantly pushed to do that — you have to engage your readers. How can you do that without disclosing your stands? We all have opinions, and we share them with a circle we feel safe in. But sometimes those leak. I’d hope that my paper would protect me.

A: I find Twitter to be invaluable. Incredible news source. Great way to get your message out. The best thing for me is not people’s sarcastic comments. It’s the link to a story. It’s “Hey, did you see this?” To me that’s the most useful part. Even though I describe it as snarky, I’ve also found it to be a very supportive place. When you take a stand, as I did on Sunday about the press not holding things back for national security reasons, you can get a lot of support there. You just have to be careful. Use it for th best possible reasons: to disseminate info, rather than to comment sarcastically.

Q: Between Kent and Rosen, I don’t think there is some higher power of morality that decides this. It depends on where you sit and what you own. If you own NYT, you have billions of dollars in good will you’ve built up. Your audience comes to you with a certain expectation. There’s an inherent bias in what they cover, but also expectations about an effort toward objectivity. Social media is a distribution channel, not a place to bear your soul. A foreign correspondent for Time made a late-night blog post. (“I’d put a breathalyzer on keyboards,” he says.) A seasoned reporter said offhandedly that maybe the victim of some tragedy deserved it. This got distributed via social media as Time Mag’s position. Reporters’ tweets should be edited first. The institution has every right to have a policy that constrains what reporters say on social media. But now there are legal cases. Social media has become an inalienable right. In the old days, the WSJ fired a reporter for handing out political leaflets in a subway station. If you’re Jay Rosen and your business is to throw bombs at the institutional media, and to say everything you do is wrong [!], then that’s ok. But if you own a newspaper, you have to stand up for objectivity.

A: I don’t disagree, although I think Jay is a thoughtful person.

Q: I blog on the HuffPo. But at Harvard, blogging is not considered professional. It’s thought of as tossed off…

A: A blog is just a delivery system. It’s not inherently good or bad, slapdash or well-researched. It’s a way to get your message out.

A: [Alex Jones] Actually there’s a fair number of people who blog at Harvard. The Berkman Center, places like that. [Thank you, Alex :)]

Q: How do you think about the evolution of your job as public editor? Are you thinking about how you interact with the readers and the rhythm of how you publish?

A: When I was brought in 5 months ago, they wanted to take it to the new media world. I was very interested in that. The original idea was to get rid of the print column all together. But I wanted to do both. I’ve been doing both. It’s turned into a conversation with readers.

Q: People are deeply convinced of wrong ideas. Goebbels’ diaries show an upside down world in which Churchill is a gangster. How do you know what counts as fact?

A: Some things are just wrong. Paul Ryan was wrong about criticizing Obama for allowing a particular GM plant to close. The plant closed before Obama took office. That’s a correctable. When it’s more complex, we have to hear both sides out.


Then I got to ask the last question, which I asked so clumsily that it practically forced Margaret to respond, “Then you’re locking yourself into a single point of view, and that’s a bad way to become educated.” Ack.

I was trying to ask the same question as the prior one, but to get past the sorts of facts that Margaret noted. I think it’d be helpful to talk about the accuracy of facts (about which there are their own questions, of course) and focus the discussion of objectivity at least one level up the hermeneutic stack. I tried to say that I don’t feel bad about turning to partisan social networks when I need an explanation of the meaning of an event. For my primary understanding I’m going to turn to people with whom I share first principles, just as I’m not going to look to a Creationism site to understand some new paper about evolution. But I put this so poorly that I drew the Echo Chamber rebuke.

What it really comes down to, for me, is the theory of understanding and knowledge that underlies the pursuit of objectivity. Objectivity imagines a world in which we understand things by considering all sides from a fresh, open start. But in fact understanding is far more incremental, far more situated, and far more pragmatic than that. We understand from a point of view and a set of commitments. This isn’t a flaw in understanding. It is what enables understanding.

Nor does this free us from the responsibility to think through our opinions, to sympathetically understand opposing views, and to be open to the possibility that we are wrong. It’s just to say that understanding has a job to do. In most cases, it does that job by absorbing the new into our existing context. There is a time and place for revolution in our understanding. But that’s not the job we need to do as we try to make sense of the world pressing in on us. Reason can’t function in the world the way objectivity would like it to.


I’m glad the NY Times is taking these questions seriously,and Margaret is impressive (and not just because she takes Jay Rosen very seriously). I’m a little surprised that we’re still talking about objectivity, however. I thought that the discussion had usefully broken the concept up into questions of accuracy, balance, and fairness — with “balance” coming into question because of the cowardly he-said-she-said dodges that have become all too common, and that Margaret decries. I’m not sure what the concept of objectivity itself adds to this mix except a set of difficult assumptions.

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February 1, 2013

Humane microtargeting is here

At an amazing dinner last night — amazing because of the dozen people there, although the food was good, too — the conversation turned to shared cynicism about the lessons the 2012 presidential campaigns learned about the use of the Internet. Both sides seem to have taken away the idea that victory depends upon evermore tightly targeted ads. Once the campaign can figure out that you are a 37 year old woman, who is a lapsed Catholic who owns a hunting rifle but favors rigorous background checks, who has a daughter with a chronic medical condition, whose sister married a woman from Colombia, and who once ate a panda and secretly liked it, the campaign can target you with marketing material that will press all your buttons and only your buttons.

This wouldn’t be a problem if the campaigns used this micro-specific information to appeal to our reason and judgment. But the campaigns are marketing machines that aim at getting us to make a one-time “purchase decision” and if they can do so by appealing to our lizard brains, they will.

I share much of this cynicism, and all the more acutely because my rose-colored glasses were polished by the 2004 Dean campaign. It used the Net to raise unheard of amounts of money via email campaigns, but it also tried to scale intra-supporter conversations by having supporters connect laterally. The Dean campaign was really focused on winning the nomination [SPOILER: It didn't], but it was also genuine in its belief that the Net would enable a new type of connectedness that could subvert (at least to some extent) the hierarchical nature of campaigns and of governments. (Source: Joe Trippi‘s book. Also, I got to watch up-close.) That makes it all the more disappointing to me that the campaigns are focused on the Net as a medium for personalized marketing, rather than as tools of connection. (We’ll see what Organizing for America becomes.)

Nevertheless, I am not as cynical as most of my dinner companions, perhaps because I’m old and remember politics before the Internet, or because I’m old and foolish, or, most likely both.

So, we can and should bemoan the failure of the two major parties’ campaigns to more fully embrace the Net as more than a cheap way to broadcast messages. We should be cynical about the top-down, one-way, manipulative, non-conversational “messaging” that has become the main way campaigns communicate. But we should also remember that we have a powerful example of microtargeting being used for building multiway, lateral conversations: The Web.

I mean something obvious. In the days before the Internet, our news came from a handful of TV and radio channels and newspapers. If you wanted to know a candidate’s position, you went down to his (yes, almost always his) headquarters and picked up the handful of position papers they kept there. You of course argued with your friends and co-workers, but those conversations and the ideas they generated stayed very local.

All of that has been changed by the Web. We can get endless amounts of information and can engage in endless conversations. Of course much of that information is bad and many of the conversations are stupid-making. Still I would not trade our current vibrant democracy of conversation for the prior media regime that delivered the news in a rolled up bundle of pages once a day.

But you already know that. The question last night was whether we’ll ever see micro-targeting that is lateral, conversational, and not, well, evil. And my answer is: yes, it exists appropriately transformed on the Web. Blog posts, for example, are globally available, but are not exactly broadcast. Rather, a self-selected group comes to read them, and sometimes some people in that group recommend a post to one of their own networks. Likewise, tweets go to followers, and to the followers of those who re-tweet them. Likewise, on mailing lists people circulate links that are “targeted” to the interests that hold those lists together. The Web is what conversational, lateral microtargeting looks like.

Granted we tend not to think about the Web that way because the term “targeting” is so obnoxious. But take the war out of targeting and you have the idea that appropriate content is put in front of appropriate people, which is how the Web — wildly imperfectly wildly imperfectly wildly imperfectly — works.

But there’s more than language at stake here. If we are feeling cynical and depressed about our political processes because the political parties are using the Internet as a medium for aiming messages straight at the reptilian brains of the citizenry, then, yes, we should despair. But if we look outside of the campaigns at the general political ecosystem, we are indeed seeing the sort of lateral, conversational engagement that the Web promised us. The problems with this Web ecosystem — legion and serious — are due primarily to how the affordances of the Web engage fallible humans (i.e., humans). So, we may still feel depressed and cynical, but not because the political system seems to have structural reasons why it cannot reform itself. Reform is possible outside of that system.

We should therefore feel depressed and cynical for better reasons.

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January 29, 2013

[berkman] “LOIC [low-orbit ion cannon] will tear us apart”: The impact of tool desiogn and media portrayals in the success of activist DDOS attacks

Molly Sauter [twitter:oddletters] (from Berkman and the Center for Civic Media at MIT) is giving a lunchtime Berkman talk. She’s going to focus on Operation Payback, the Dec. 2010 action by Anonymous against those financial services that cut off Wikileaks after Wikileaks made available a massive leak of State Dept. cables. Operation Avenge Assange tried to bring down the sites of those services. Molly sees this as an evolution in media activism, expanding on the use of DDOS tactics by groups in the 1990s; [DDOS = distributed denial of service: flooding a site beyond its capacity to respond, and doing so from multiple sites.]

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

Molly begins with a simple explanation of DDOS. The flooding can come from a single computer (unlikely), via a volunteer botnet, or botnets that infect other computers; the botnets communicate with a central computer, pounding on the target until it can’t handle the traffic.

Old school activists think of DDOS as a form of censorship, and thus it is not acceptable. For many digitally-enabled activists (e.g., Electronic Disturbance Theater) DDOS is a form of disobedience. For EDT, DDOS is an auxiliary form of activism: “DDOS is something you do when you’re out on the streets so your computer can be at home protesting.” DDOS is sometimes seen as a type of sit-in, although Molly thinks this is inapt. For some, DDOS is a direct form of protest, and in others, it’s an indirect and symbolic action. Anonymous melds these approaches: influence via technology + influence via media + direct action disruption.

Electronic Disturbance Theater [EDT] used Flood Net, a tool that “hurls bits” but that also lets you send a message to show up in the target computer’s error log. Cleverly, if your issue is human rights, the log might read “Human rights is not found on this server.” But, Molly says, these logs are only read by the admin, so it’s really a way for the activist to yell something for the sake of yelling. The EDT restricted targets of Flood Net and set scheduled times. EDT open sourced it in 1999. The language on the Floor Net site is comprehensible only to people who already know about the issues, e.g., Mexican Neo-Liberalism. It is intimidating for those outside of the circle. It is also very tied to a view of activism that ties actions to individuals â?? anonymous individuals, but using Flood Net requires the action of a person.

LOIC — low orbit ion cannon— was developed maybe around 2006, and forked in 2008. By Dec. 2010, versions could run on just about anything — Windows, Mac, on mobiles, within a browser… Molly goes through the differences in the different versions of it. They let you type in a URL, set some options that are set to defaults, and then you press a button. Done! (LOIC is the boss weapon from the game Command & Conquer). The button you press in the abatishchev version is labeled “IMMA CHARGIN MAH LAZER,” a popular meme. It has the same messaging functionality as Flood Net. The default message derives from a 4chan bestiality rape meme that Molly urges us not to google. This version “is focused on the 4chan Anonymous culture set.”

She then compares this to the NewEraCracker version. Very similar. Same “Imma chargin mah lazer” meme, but the rape meme is gone. Instead, it says “u done goofed,” the popular Jessi Slaughter meme. Jessie pissed off Anonymous, so Anonymous sent lots of pizza to her house. Her father posted a defensive video that wasn’t very smart about the Net, which got widely distributed, and which contained the line “you done goofed.” This message is more confrontational than the other version which the recipient would be unlikely to understand at all. This version of LOIC also has a “fucking hive mind mode” that lets you automate the process entirely by plugging it into an IRC server to use volunteer computers [I think].

These tools, especially the second, created a community of activists, especially in hive mind mode. There are many LOIC tutorial videos on YouTube. This reaches out to new people to join, unlike EDT’s use of language that appeals only to those already in the know. Because anyone can use it, it helps Anonymous become a community of trust.

Anonymous has also pushed DDOS as a media manipulation tactic, and used media for recruitment. Molly doesn’t know if it was a conscious decision, but DDOS ended up as a recruitment tactic.

During the four days of Operation Payback, the media coverage was very confused. For example the media weren’t sure that DDOS is illegal. (It is.) Even Gizmodo got wrong how risky DDOS is for the attacker; it wrongly claimed that the target’s log files don’t record the incoming connections during DDOS. Experienced users know to anonymize their packets, but those who came in new and used this easy-to-use tool often did not protect themselves. The Paypal 16 now under indictment were caught because PayPal stored the top 1000 IP addresses. Much of the coverage just quoted Anonymous at length. “Anonymous is a very horizontal org and there’s no press person to talk to,” but, Molly says, there was a “press IRC channel” but the media didn’t know how to use it. Some mainstream articles linked to download sites for LOIC, which may have encouraged people to download it without understanding the legality of using it.

Conclusions: “Operation Payback’s success was due to a confluence of tech, community, and news media factors. Anonymous’ use of DDOS represent an innovation in participant population and tool design. And Anonymous pushes the reframing of DDOS as a tool of media manipulation and biographical impact [how the participants think about themselves], not direct action.”

Q&A

Q: Is the paypal list public?

A: Nope.

Q: Can you bring your research up to date?

A: I’m writing my thesis now. So, no.

Q: How does being identified play into the historical mindset?

A: I got into this topic because I wanted to do my thesis on activism and anonymity. Anonymous challenges the assumption that if you’re anonymous, you’re not serious about your activism. The cultural preference for identified activism comes from the 1960s civil disobedience movement, which in turns comes from Thoreau: you break the law and accept punishment for it. But that privileges those who won’t lose their house and their family if arrested. This puts activism on the shoulders of a particular class. Anonymous disagrees. It says you can engage in civil disobedience without personal consequence.

Q: The Federalist Papers were anonymous because it implicitly was saying that the ideas are important enough not to need names attached. Anonymous not only escapes punishment, it makes it effortless â?? the amount of effort you put in is indistinguishable from that of someone whose computer was infected by a bot.

A: This is the slacktivism argument. Slacktivism challenges the expectations about what activism does. One version says you’re supposed to change something or have a solution. But slacktivism (or clicktivism) is valuable for the biographical impact.

A: Studies have looked into whether eating organic food affects your self image so that you do more, or that you merely congratulate yourself.

A: The ladder of engagement says that the big step is getting on the first rung. My view of slacktivism is that it’s widened that run. Pressing the LOIC button gets people started, and I’m in favor of people starting somewhere, when it is in a considered and useful way.

Q: How about The Jester?

A: He’s an Army veteran who explicitly aligns his morals with pro-US, anti-jihadist, anti-Anonymous DDOS. He claims to be working by himself. I don’t think his actions are ethical because they’re about silencing content. [Molly tells us that she has a presentation on DDOS ethics.]

Q: Why is “fuckng hive mind mode” a community? People are donating bandwidth. But the manual mode, where people actively decide to participate in something, is much more like people being in a community. The participants in FHHM don’t necessarily view themselves as joining in a community, although the federal govt is claiming that they are.

A: I agree. My point with FHHM was that it opens up ways of accessing that community in ways that were not possible before.

Q: LOIC is hosted at github and sourceforge, and tutorials at YouTube. Any attempts to remove?

A: LOIC and tools like it are listed as “stress-testing” tools. And it can be used that way if you aim it at your own server. It’s like a head shop selling a pipe for tobacco. During the four days of the operation, Twitter did try to shut down the Anonymous twitter account.

Q: You seem to be saying that Anonymous is becoming more respectful, shifting out of the “otherized” world of 4chan. Is there quantitative data supporting this?

A: Biella Coleman has done the most research on this. That’s where I’ve gotten my data.

Q: How many people participated?

A: It’s been downloaded hundreds of thousands of times.

Q: When an org provides a press contact, a journalist can always orient around that, bounce off of it. But Anonymous doesn’t work that way. How does Anonymous’ play affect coverage?

A: The media doesn’t know how to deal with orgs like Anon and Occupy. They just speak with random people, none of who speak for the org (because no one does). The opening of the press IRC channel was great, for those who found it. It let the press engage at length. But Anon is usefully weird, and thus hard for the media.

Q: [me] So, will LOIC tear us apart? Civil disobedients accept consequences in part to raise the bar so that people don’t too easily break the law. LOIC lowers that bar. If Anon were attacking services that you like, would you be as sanguine?

LOIC isn’t much used now because it’s dangerous, and there are new tools. It’s hard to take down a site.

Q: As the tools get better?

A: Permanent arms race.

Q: Arrest of Sabu?

A: It won’t kill Anonymous.

1 Comment »

January 21, 2013

Popular for the right reasons?

Note that I understand that in what follows, I am wildly projecting my own feelings, without any data to support my hypothesis. So be it!

Americans by and large like Barack Obama. They like his wife more, but they do like the guy. My hypothesis is that people like Obama for the right reasons.

People liked W, too. I mean, I didn’t, but I’m a shallow, petty person. But people famously liked W because he’d be good to have a beer with. My data-free hypothesis is that people like Obama for better reasons. He isn’t particularly fun to have a beer with (although I am totally open to that invitation, Mr. President), but he is a thoughtful, sincere person who accords each person dignity.

If you’re one of those who don’t like President Obama as a person, none of this applies to you. But if you’re one of us who think it’d be fun to hang out with him (note to White House: Operators are standing by), I bet it’s for perceived qualities that are actually admirable.

4 Comments »

December 15, 2012

I’d rather we had a right to an open Internet than a right to bear arms.

No, I’m not suggesting that we amend the Constitution to guarantee American citizens a right to access the open Internet. I’m suggesting that it’s weird that from all the rights we could imagine — a right to an education, to adequate health care, to equal pay for equal work — we continue to enshrine a right to carry guns.

Why guns of all things? Because of a fear of an armed federal take-over that made sense in 1787 but now is merely paranoia? Besides, when the feds have actually used armed force against states claiming rights, the states were defending slavery and segregation. Besides, if you’re hoping to defeat the US military, you better be pressing for a right to own tanks, jets, and, for those states with beachfronts, some battleships.

So, no, I’m not suggesting we pass an Internet Rights amendment. I am suggesting that we pass an amendment nullifying the right to bear arms. Let guns be regulated the way we regulate other objects that can harm us and kill our kids.

6 Comments »

December 10, 2012

Senator Colbert? Meet Beppe Grillo

Those of us who are not-so-secretly hoping that Stephen Colbert might actually run for Senate should take a look at Beppe Grillo‘s career in Italy.

A controversial political comedian and a leading blogger — he’s got some Al Franken and some George Carlin as well as some Colbert in him — Grillo formed the Five Star Movement, which organizes Italian citizens to back politicians who support the movement’s anti-corruption, green, Euro-skeptical, pro-Internet principles. In October, it led the voting in Sicily. Now the Five Star Movement is holding an online vote to choose which candidates to support.

There are certainly skeptics. But Grillo’s career as a comedian and blogger who has become a political force is pretty amazing.

6 Comments »

November 18, 2012

An open letter to Rep. Joe Kennedy on seizing the copyright initiative

Dear Joe,

Congratulations on your victory! I’m proud to have you as our new Congressperson from the 12th district here in Brookline and environs. Barney Frank has left you some big shoes to fill, and I’m looking forward to watching you lace up.

Barney did a great job representing our local interests. But our district, and our Commonwealth, has always looked beyond what’s good for us locals. We’ve always had an eye out for the larger common good. That’s why we keep electing Kennedys.

An issue has arisen that not only needs your support, but could help you make exactly the right kind of early mark. Forgive me if you are already on top of it, but, briefly, the Republican Study Committee on Friday issued a report on copyright reform that was — from the point of view of many of us on the Web — shockingly helpful. I say “shockingly” because Congress overall has been woefully one-sided and antiquarian on the question of copyright, taking laws designed for previous centuries and actually making them far worse.

That was Friday. By Saturday afternoon, the Hollywood lobbyists had forced Paul Teller, the head of the RSC, to withdraw the report on the specious grounds that it had not gone through “adequate review.” If so, perhaps Paul Teller should resign. But, I’m willing to bet 10,000 RomneyBucks that instead the young author of the report, Derek Khanna [twitter:dkhanna11], will take the fall.

Anyway, the report punctures three myths about copyright, and proposes four areas of reform:

  • Statutory damages reform

  • Expand Fair Use

  • Punish false copyright claims

  • Heavily limit the terms for copyright, and create disincentives for renewal

I urge you to take a look. Imagine a world with copyright reformed in this way. And if you think the proposals are wrong-headed, impractical, or whatever, at least embrace them as a starting point for a conversation this country very much needs.

This could be a great issue for you, Joe. You’ll find a whole lot of constituents who would be thrilled to see you take a leadership role in this important discussion.

And it won’t just be your constituents. You’ll find yourself surfing a wave — the Internet constituency that represents the future of our party, nation, and globe.

Looking forward to seeing you show the bold leadership your family is famous for and that has so many of us excited about your first term in Congress — the first of many, we hope!

Best,

David Weinberger
Constituent

Note: The original report was here, but people have put up extra copies in case the RSC physically removes the report from the Web. Here’s the copy I posted.

16 Comments »

November 15, 2012

The person who beat Nate Silver – DailyKos and journalism

One political analyst was actually ever so slightly more accurate than Nate “Poll God” Silver: Markos Moulitsas, the founder of DailyKos.

I’ve always checked in on DailyKos occasionally, but over the past year or so it’s become a multi-daily stop, and was one of my primary sources of news about the campaign. It embodies a lot of the good stuff the Net is doing to news, and some of the bad.

DailyKos is obviously a partisan site. It’s perfectly clear about that. In fact, it wants to build its followers into an effective political force. The news it presents takes sides. Yet, I find it a really useful source of political news, for a few reasons:

1. I’d rather have the bias visible than hidden.

2. My understanding itself is biased: I have political views and commitments. DailyKos generally is in line with my views. So, when I want to understand the impact of some event political event, DailyKos’ contextualization is immediately helpful; I don’t have to read through it, unpacking the assumptions that I don’t share. Reading the Republican contextualization is an interesting and even an important anthropological exercise, but DailyKos gets me to understanding much faster.

3. Although it’s a partisan site, it’s also reality-based. For example, when DailyKos happily reports today that opposition to Obamacare is at its lowest, it prominently adds, “That doesn’t mean that America is suddenly in love with Obamacare, though. The support/oppose numbers remain in the range they’ve been in since the law was passed…” It’s what keeps DailyKos from being a standard-issue echo chamber.

4. It’s a community. The people writing on the front page are generally on staff, but there are thousands of bloggers (or “diarists” in Kos nomenclature) writing on the site and a useful system for bringing them to attention.

5. It’s funny. Often the humor is biting, and it frequently is more negative and personal than I’m comfortable with. But it’s also frequently damn funny.

You can find as much to not like at DailyKos as you want. With all those diarists, there’s no shortage of bad ideas and nasty edges. And the staff writers give plenty of materials to critics. So? DailyKos is one good model for tribal news.

But…

Of course I’d say that. People in echo chambers always think their echo chambers are Halls of Truth. That’s what it means to be in an echo chamber. So, is DailyKos any better than, say, Fox News?

I think so. But, again, that’s #1 and trending at ThingsPeopleInEchoChambers Say.com.

I’d point to a few reasons DailyKos is (a) a better echo chamber than Fox, (b) is not an echo chamber, (c) is a good echo chamber, (d) something else.

1. DailyKos seems to me to be more willing to point to negatives in its own positive news — it’s got more respect for reality.

2. DailyKos seems to me to be more often right at the level at which facts are checked. It also has not been caught as often at Photoshopping (taking “Photoshopping” literally and metaphorically). There have been times when I think DailyKos has taken candidates’ remarks out of context — I still think Romney’s “Corporations are people, my friend” may have meant to point to the consequences for real people when corporations fail. But I haven’t seen (or haven’t recognized) the massive and I believe Fox’s knowing editing of quotes to get them to sound like people are saying something entirely different (“You didn’t build that”).

3. DailyKos seems to me not to spend as much time on paranoid theories. There is nothing that I know of that DailyKos has pursued that sinks to the level of birtherism, or that is pursued with as much single-minded intensity as “You didn’t build that.”

4. DailyKos is genuinely committed to building a community in which all have a voice. Yes, not everyone has an equal voice, but the upvoting mechanism and the ability to follow favorites helps people further down the long tail.

5. DailyKos does not pretend to be non-partisan as the news part of Fox News does. Of course, no one is fooled by Fox’s protestations.

I may be falling prey to the Echo Chamber Fallacy — the belief that my echo chamber isn’t really an echo chamber — but even if I am, there’s no reason to think that all echo chambers are equally bad. And there is, I believe, reason to think that an echo chamber can in fact be a useful way of getting information…and of forming a movement that can then act on that information.

 


I sent the link to this post to Markos, and he replied in part:

I often see people accuse me of “preaching to the choir”. My response is if that’s so bad, why do churches exist?

People want that tribal experience. So Daily Kos is like a church for the progressive movement — a place where people come to get informed, get validated, find community, and get organized so they can evangelize outside its walls.

Not to mention, anyone who thinks that Daily Kos is an echo chamber didn’t see the site in 2010, when we spent months preparing our readers for the electoral catastrophe that would inevitably hit in November. We were the exact opposite of Republicans this year.

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