Joho the Blog » politics

September 13, 2014

Something positive about Ronald Reagan

On Christopher Lydon‘s excellent Radio Open Source program, I heard him interview the historian Rick Perlstein about his book The Invisible Bridge. Kissinger tells it in his memoir.

When Kissinger was in the White House, he had to call Reagan, whom he despised. This was during the 1973 Yom Kippur War. In the course of the conversation he said that the Egyptians were claiming to be shooting down an absurd number of Israeli planes. Everyone knew they were lying, but the White House wasn’t sure how to counter the propaganda.

Ronald Reagan immediately said, “Well, Henry, announce that the US will replace every downed Israeli plane, one for one.”

Yes, Ronald Reagan had a brilliant idea.

Tomorrow: You won’t believe what Sarah Palin told the Dalai Lama that changed his life forever.

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July 26, 2014

Municipal nets, municipal electric power, and learning from history

The debate over whether municipalities should be allowed to provide Internet access has been heating up. Twenty states ban it. Tom Wheeler, the chair of the FCC, has said he wants to “preempt” those laws. Congress is maneuvering to extend the ban nationwide.

Jim Baller, who has been writing about the laws, policies, and economics of network deployment for decades, has found an eerie resonance of this contemporary debate. Here’s a scan of the table of contents of a 1906 (yes, 1906) issue of Moody’s that features a symposium on “Municipal Ownership and Operation.”

Scan of 1906 Moody's

Click image to enlarge

The Moody’s articles are obviously not talking about the Internet. They’re talking about the electric grid.

In a 1994 (yes, 1994) article published just as the Clinton administration (yes, Clinton) was developing principles for the deployment of the “information superhighway,” Jim wrote that if we want the far-reaching benefits foreseen by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (and they were amazingly prescient (but why can’t I find the report online??)), then we ought to learn four things from the deployment of the electric grid in the 1880s and 1890s:

First, the history of the electric power industry teaches that one cannot expect private profit-maximizing firms to provide “universal service” or anything like it in the early years (or decades) of their operations, when the allure of the most profitable markets is most compelling.

Second, the history of the electric power industry teaches that opening the doors to anyone willing to provide critical public services can be counterproductive and that it is essential to watch carefully the growth of private firms that enter the field. If such growth is left unchecked, the firms may become so large and complex that government institutions can no longer control or even understand them. Until government eventually catches up, the public may suffer incalculable injury.

Third, the history of the electric power industry teaches that monopolists will use all means available to influence the opinions of lawmakers and the public in their favor and will sometimes have frightening success

Fourth, and most important, the history of the electric power industry teaches that the presence or threat of competition from the public sector is one of the best and surest ways to secure quality service and reasonable prices from private enterprises involved in the delivery of critical public services.

Learn from history? Repeat it? Or intervene as citizens to get the history we want? I’ll take door number 3, please.

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July 24, 2014

Michelle Obama on working parents

In case anyone has forgotten what honesty sounds like:

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June 29, 2014

[aif] Government as platform

I’m at a Government as Platform session at Aspen Ideas Festival. Tim O’Reilly is moderating it with Jen Pahlka (Code for America and US Deputy Chief Technology Officer ) and Mike Bracken who heads the UK Government Digital Service.

Mike Backen begins with a short presentation. The Digital Service he heads sits at the center of govt. In 2011, they consolidated govt web sites that presented inconsistent policy explanations. The DS provides a central place that gives canonical answers. He says:

  • “Our strategy is delivery.” They created a platform for govt services: gov.uk. By having a unified platform, users know that they’re dealing with the govt. They won the Design of the Year award in 2013.

  • The DS also gives govt workers tools they can use.

  • They put measurements and analytics at the heart of what they do.

  • They are working on transforming the top 25 govt services.

They’re part of a group that saved 14.3B pounds last year.

Their vision goes back to James Brindley, who created a system of canals that transformed the economy. [Mike refers to "small pieces loosely joined."] Also Joseph Bazalgette created the London sewers and made them beautiful.


(cc) James Pegrum

Here are five lessons that could be transferred to govt, he says:

1. Forget about the old structures. “Policy-led hierarchies make delivery impossible.” The future of govt will emerge from the places govt exists, i.e., where it is used. The drip drip drip of inadequate services undermine democracy more than does the failure of ideas.

2. Forget the old binaries. It’s not about public or private. It’s about focusing on your users.

3. No more Big IT. It’s no longer true that a big problems requires big system solutions.

4. This is a global idea. Sharing makes it stronger. New Zealand used gov.uk’s code, and gov.uk can then take advantage of their improvements.

5. It should always have a local flavour. They have the GovStack: hw, sw, apps. Anyone can use it, adapt it to their own situation, etc.

A provocation: “Govt as platform” is a fantastic idea, but when applied to govt without a public service ethos it becomes a mere buzzword. Public servants don’t “pivot.”

Jen Pahlka makes some remarks. “We need to realize that if we can’t implement our policies, we can’t govern.” She was running Code for America. She and the federal CTO, Todd Park, were visiting Mike in the UK “which was like Disneyland for a govt tech geek like me.” Todd asked her to help with the Presidential Innovation Fellows, but she replied that she really wanted to work on the sort of issues that Mike had been addressing. Fix publishing. Fix transactions. Go wholesale.

“We have 30-40,000 federal web sites,” she says. Tim adds, “Some of them have zero users.”

Todd wanted to make the data available so people could build services, but the iPhone ships with apps already in place. A platform without services is unlikely to take off. “We think $172B is being spent on govt IT in this country, including all levels.” Yet people aren’t feeling like they’re getting the services they need.

E.g., if we get immigration reform, there are lots of systems that would have to scale.

Tim: Mike, you have top-level support. You report directly to a cabinet member. You also have a native delivery system — you can shut down failed services, which is much harder in the US.

Mike: I asked for very little money — 50M pounds — a building, and the ability to hire who we want. People want to work on stuff that matters with stellar people. We tried to figure out what are the most important services. We asked people in a structured way which was more important, a drivers license or fishing license? Drivers license or passport? This gave us important data. And ?e retired about 40% of govt content. There was content that no one ever read. There’s never any feedback.

Tim: You have to be actually measuring things.

Jen: There are lots of boxes you have to check, but none of them are “Is it up? Do people like it?”

Mike: Govts think of themselves as big. But digital govt isn’t that big. Twelve people could make a good health care service. Govt needs to get over itself. Most of what govt does digitally is about the size of the average dating site. The site doesn’t have to get big for the usage of it to scale.

Jen: Steven Levy wrote recently about how the Health Care site got built. [Great article -dw] It was a small team. Also, at Code for America, we’ve seen that the experience middle class people had with HealthCare.gov is what poor people experience every day. [my emphasis - such an important point!]

Tim: Tell us about Code for America’s work in SF on food stamps.

Jen: We get folks from the tech world to work on civic projects. Last year they worked on the California food stamps program. One of our fellows enrolled in the program. Two months later, he got dropped off the roles. This happens frequently. Then you have to re-enroll, which is expensive. People get dropped because they get letters from the program that are incomprehensible. Our fellows couldn’t understand the language. And the Fellows weren’t allowed to change the language in the letter. So now people get text messages if there’s a problem with their account, expressed in simple clear language.

Q&A

Q: You’ve talked about services, but not about opening up data. Are UK policies changing about open data?

Mike: We’ve opened up a lot of data, but that’s just the first step. You don’t just open it up and expect great things to open. A couple of problems: We don’t have a good grip on our data. It’s not consistent, it lives in macros and spreadsheets, and contractually it’s often in the hands of the people giving the service. Recently we wanted to added an organ donation checkbox and six words on the drivers license online page. We were told it would cost $50K and take 100 days. It took us about 15 mins. But the data itself isn’t the stimulus for new services.

Q: How can we avoid this in the future?

Mike: One thing: Require the govt ministers to use the services.

Jen: People were watching HealthCare.gov but were asking the wrong questions. And the environment is very hierarchical. We have to change the conversation from tellling people what to do, to “Here’s what we think is going to work, can you try it?” We have to put policy people and geeks in conversation so they can say, no that isn’t going to work.

Q: The social security site worked well, except when I tried to change my address. It should be as easy as Yahoo. Is there any plan for post offices or voting?

Mike: In the UK, the post offices were spun out. And we just created a register-to-vote service. It took 20 people.

Q: Can you talk about the online to offline impact on public service, and measuring performance, and how this will affect govt? Where does the transformation start?

Jen: It starts with delivery. You deliver services and you’re a long way there. That’s what Code for America has done: show up and build something. In terms of the power dynamics, that’s hard to change. CGI [the contractor that "did" HealthCare.gov] called Mike’s Govt Digital Service “an impediment to innovation,” which I found laughable.

Tim: You make small advances, and get your foot in the door and it starts to spread.

Mike: I have a massive poster in my office: “Show the thing.” If you can’t create version of what you want to build, even just html pages, then your project shouldn’t go forward.

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February 3, 2014

The awesomeness of songify

The latest from the Schmoyoho Bros is awesome in every direction. I love it as political satire, but I think it’s pretty great just as a piece of music. And then keep in mind that the Gregory Brothers (the family behind the pseudonym) have pretty much invented a new form of music and satire, just as Reddit invented a new form of journalism with the AMA. The pace of invention of new rhetorical forms is itself awesome.

Awesome.

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October 1, 2013

[berkman] Molly Crabapple on art when images are ubiquitous

I’m at a Berkman lunch where Molly Crabapple [twitter:MollyCrabapple] is giving a talk titled “Art in the Age of the Ubiquitous Image.” Tim Maly introduces Molly as a “hustler,” in the good sense. After Occupy, she “hustled her way” into Gitmo. She and Tim were “Artists are the most lucky little foofoos in the world. We spent a century excusing every drpravity if with ‘But we’re an artist.’ …The best individual

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.

She begins by telling us about the only two people who have ever gotten angry at her drawing their picture. First was a religious person in Morocco. She wanted to distinguish herself from the culturally arrogant tourists, so she’d sit on a sidewalk and draw. She made friends, except for one guy who looked at the drawing pad and tore it to pieces. The second was a NYC police officer. She was sitting in a court with Matt Taibbi and watching poor people being shaken down for offenses such as riding a bike on a bicycle. A court officer saw her drawing him and said that anyone looking at him is “asking for trouble.” “Drawing can mock power,” she says.

She says she’s an artist in the old sense: She puts paint on a surface until it looks cool. She also does illustrated journalism. She shows drawings from Zuccotti Park during Occupy. She used her sketchbook to show that people were not in fact “dirty hippies.” She went to Athens to show what life as like with the rise of fascism during the Eurozone crisis. At Guantanamo, she drew happy faces on the guards because you’re not allowed to draw their faces. If she’s censored, she wants to show the censorship.

When she was young, she longed for the days when artists dominated image-making. Before cameras, artists drew whatever needed reproduction. She shows a plate from Goya’s The Disasters of War to show how art can editorialize in a way that photos can’t. Drawings can show the truth of what happened.

Another example from the Paris Commune: a woman guarding a hotel. Otto Dix’s drawing of a veteran with skin grafts shows “only the essential, not the extraneous. Even fashion was the domain of artists before photo. E.g., Kenneth Black’s drawings.

Otto Dix skin graft

But photography has an advantage in that we assume what we see is true. E.g., Goya’s execution painting never actually happened. But now everyone has camera phones, and every is being surveilled. There are more images now than ever before in human history. Where does that leave art?

Goya: Disasters of War

There are two symbols of global rebellion: the Guy Fawkes masks and arms outstretched holding camera phones. When a kid got beaten up, a crowd of peers formed with their camera phones out. “You will become an Internet meme,” they were saying. Camera phones make people accountable. The Net takes every image that has resonance and spits it back out transformed. Officer Pike, who pepper-sprayed protesters at UC Davis, has become an Internet meme.

Pike as meme

The flip side is that the government now can view us unceasingly. Soon the line between what we’re viewing and how they’re viewing us is blurred: the gov’t views us through our phones by which we view our world. Some of the coolest art plays with this. E.g., William Betts does paintings based on CCTV stills.

Williams Betts. Thanks, WB!

But as photography becomes ubiquitous, our faith in its truth is chipping away. E.g., Kerry used a photo of wrapped bodies to justify a strike on Syria, but it was taken in 2002 in Iraq. Photos are not the truth and they never were. And even when photos are indisputable, it’s not enough. Police still get away with murder. The videography is less important than the power structure.

We live in a world where everything is captured, so what’s the point of my drawing things? What possible significance can it be? “Or am I just picking scabs? It’s just my personal compulsion?”

Art has always absorbed new tech: Big canvases during the Renaissance, use of the camera obscura. She shows a drawing of the Golden Dawn fascists being confronted by local shop owners. For the drawing, she took many many photos, they looked online to find more posters, and you end up with a drawing that’s a collage. You never now have trouble figuring out what thnigs look like. “Even that is a gigantic change brought by the Internet.”

 Molly Crabapple Golden Dawn

One of her projects last name was “Shell Game“: taking the Occupy protest and Arab Spring and retelling massive “alter pieces” for them, votives. But when she was drawing them, she wasn’t just drawing what was in her head. She was researching them the way journalists do. She interviewed people. E.g., a Tunisian blogging collective told her that the term “Jasmine REvolution” as “hideous Western branding” and please don’t use it.

Molly Crabapple Shell Game example

She shows a Rembrandt drawing of Haksen the elephant. IT was the first time people had seen it. Now, the image of elephants has become ubiquitous.

Her friend Paul Mason when toOccupy Gezi. He took photos. She drew them, but only after crowdsourcing the translation of signs on Twitter.

Molly Crabapple occupy gez

Guantanamo is simultaneously the most private and the most surveilled. Every cell has a camera checked every 3 mins. Even the location of the cameras is secret; if she drew them, the sketch would be confiscated. She spent 2 wks there on 2 differenttrips. “What became important to me was to draw the censorship.” She wasn’t allowed to draw anyone’s faces, even though their identities are well known. So she had to scratch out the prisoner’s faces. [The face-blocked prisoner drawings are amazing.] She also isn’t allowed to draw anything that would give a sense of the layout of the camp. The Opsec briefing tells you the only three angles you’re allowed to draw from.

Molly Crabapple guantanamo

She shows a drawing from life of the Chelsea Manning verdict.

There are other reasons people might not want to be drawn. She shows a drawing of Syntagma protesters with prominent facial scars, so she drew him holding his logo over his face. She shows a drawing of Maxence Valade who had an eye shot out. He let her draw him.

There are places where there are just no cameras. She was jailed for 11 hours during Occupy. It was incredibly boring. She drew pictures in a styrofoam cup and tried to commit the cell to memory. When released, she drew it.

Joe Sacco has drawn images of Palestinians being interrogated. “Artists can take memories and make them real.”

Access can be taken from us. The Internet can be shut off. They can take your camera phone. But drawing cannot be stopped. E.g., David Choe was in solitary for a while. He had nothing to do but draw. He drew with soy sauce and his own urine.

“The art of drawing something sets it apart.” She shows the official Red Cross photo of Hisham Sliti in Gitmo and then her drawing. “I wanted to set him apart. I want you to remember who he is.”

“We need the chaos of multiplicity. We need raw data. We need everything. But we also need the singular. And that’s what artists do. We need people who can be stealthy and subtle, and can go where photographs cannot.” Visual art has no pretense of objectivity. “Images have power.” An illustrator in Syria had his hands broken. “Images get past fatigue. Images get past the raw edges of your heart.”

Q&A

Q: You’re comparing image production before the flood of images and now. How about how crowds are pulling from the flood now?

A: Artists are always of their age. I use the Internet as an artist, but also to look for steak in the morning to eat. We dive into the multiplicity, pull out the singular, and then that’s pulled back into the crowd.

Q: The Guy Fawkes mask comes from V for Vendetta. The image is owned by Warner Bros.

A: And there’s also the real Guy Fawkes, a Catholic subversive whose politics none of us would find inspiring. Then there were the folk festivals. Then V for Vendetta, retaking the mask as a symbol of rebellion, but more as a carton symbol. Then you have 4chan and Anonymous bringing it back to its original meaning of rebellion.

Q: How do your images find a way through all of that. You talk about using the network as a repository of possible influence, as an expanded canon of images one might interact with. Once an image is produced, how does it find its life in the world?

When Occupy Wall St. hit, it had no images. I did a vampire squid. It showed up on protest signs. Schlocky t-shirts were selling it. The image had a life. She also did a free Pussy riot poster. A week alter there was an Al Jazeera news piece saying “Some people will make money on anything,” focusing on Russian t-shirt makers making unauthorized copies. Madonna tweeted it, and Time said she made it. Memes show up in burlesque shows. Many bad tattoos based on her art. (“That always hurts and artist.”) “The network eats all.”

Molly Crabapple vampire quid

Q: Do you get criticism from journalists for not being fact-check-able?

A: I work with fact-checkers when facts are involved. When I can’t take photos, I hew as closely to reality as I can. But there’s always an editorial slant to any photo or drawing. E.g., the photo of the Vietnamese police officer executing a suspect has an emotion.

Q: Who are you drawing your political art for?

A: One of my problems with political art is that it draws on the same canon: Soviet, black and red. Very cool. But people know immediately if it’s for them. I want to make art for people who don’t think political aesthetics is for them. Maybe they relate more to fairy tales, or…

Q: Has the nature of cooptation change? What’s the difference between an image being made commercial and an image becoming a meme?

A: In some ways I think it’s cooptation. If someone used my Pussy Riot illustration to advertise their t-shirt shop, with tags like “glam,” yeah, that’s cooptation. Political campaigns do this, as when musicians objected to their songs being used to introduce Sarah Palin. You should fight back against that, but it happens because the world is intensely interconnected.

Q: In the 19th century there was an exhibition of dioramas. The Beehive Collective is doing something similar. Do they understand the diorama? Can we revivify it?

A: The Beehive Collective does this incredibly detailed, gigantic pen and ink drawings of subjects like strip mining, environmental policy, etc. The topics are very complex. They go to the local areas and revise and revise their thing until the locals think it’s a truthful representation. They are telling very complicated stories without depending on language or literacy. It’s an intensely important thing to do.

Beehive Collective

Q: Do you do that consciously with some of your larger displays?

A: Yes. I always try to get beyond language. One of my first jobs was as house artist at a swanky club. That was my lockpick. Art is totally a lockpick.

Q: What’s been most jarring or unexpected for you?

A: Guantanamo is the most bizarre and jarring place I’ve ever been to. It’s a cheerful American town with a Macdonald’s and karaoke bar, next to a super-max prison dedicated to guarding 169 middle age guys most of whom have been cleared. There’s a pantomime of security there. Everything says that you’re about very dangerous people, but it’s a small American town.

Q: So it’s like North Korea.

A: Exactly.

Q: The network mainly displays images at 19″ maximum usually, but you draw much bigger than that.

A: I want to do art that’s really big. It affects you differently. It surrounds you. It’s a dominating relationship. But it doesn’t reproduce on line. Diego Rivera was much more known in his time, but now Frieda Kahlo is. That’s because you have to go to a Rivera to see it in real life, but Kahlo reproduces well on a smaller screen. So, how do you take really really big life and give it a digital life that’s somewhat as interesting as real life is.

Q: Panorama stitchers? Microsoft has one that lets you zoom in or out. E.g., the AIDS quilt. Cf. gigapans.

Q: What does the physicality of the drawing do for you.

A: There’s an egomaniacal bit of artists. When I make a large painting, I feel like I’m falling into them. My next project is going to be a show of large paintings about hackers. I want to do a 20-foot wide painting. It’d be bullshit to do something on the network and not have it be on the network.

There are things you can’t see online. I use zinc white, which is toxic, but it’s super transparent, warm white. It doesn’t reproduce in photos. There’s a lot of art you can’t get from photos or on the Internet. We forget that there are all sorts of things you have to be there to see.

Q: The way that experience gets remediated and ported back out to the Internet, it can underscore that they can’t be reproduced on a mobile device.

Q: There are places you can’t bring cameras onto. E.g., courtrooms.

A: I don’t know what they don’t allow cameras. It seems like a rule from wayback when camera flashes made smoke. I know that with the KSM courtroom, they didn’t want any of their cameras shown, or the doors, or the faces. It would have been impossible to get photos there. I think it’s misguided but I also sort of like it because it allows one place where my people can king.

Q: Do you ever encounter people who area trying to learn to draw so they can get around censorship and share emotions?

A: Prison art. I profiled a Gitmo prisoner who learned to draw for that reason.

Q: Dr. Sketchy?

A: Dr. Sketchy is my alternative drawing class done in a bar with drag queens and models, done in a subversive way. I want people to learn to look without asking for permission. Artists are the creepiest people around [laughter]. Drawing is a way that I was allowed to look, where looking wasn’t taken as an invitation but as something else.

Q: Susan Sontag says that people thought that showing violence would lead to peace, but that images of violence in fact can provoke more violence.

A: That happens when pictures of atrocities can spur revenge. But drawings can also get past people’s defenses. But maybe I’m just being hopeful.

[Great and very special presentation. Thanks, Molly!

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August 1, 2013

Progressivism implies we’re never done

Now, as part of the settlement, the school district has agreed to treat the child as a boy. Thus does an entire institution find itself compelled to accept the cultural left’s moral categories and priorities. This is why the Times labels transgender “the next civil rights frontier.” There’s always one, isn’t there?

This is from Ron Dreher’s post at The American Conservative about “Progressivism’s Next Battle.”

But what interests me is his comment, “There’s always one, isn’t there?” You can practically hear the sigh.

Well, yes, Ron, there is always one. Progressives are progressive because we believe in progress, and we believe in progress because — generalizing, of course — we believe three basic things.

First, human understanding is conditioned by history, culture, language. We are products of our times.

Second, our understanding tends towards some serious errors. For example, we tend to prefer the company of — and to trust — people who are like us. Worse, we go seriously wrong in judging the relevant ways people are like us, giving far too much weight to differences that make no real difference.

Third, we humans are capable of learning. When it comes to policies and institutions, the great lesson that we keep learning and need to keep learning is that few of the differences actually matter. Put positively, we need to keep learning that people are actually more like us than we thought. The great progressive impulse is to find more and more common humanity, and to adjust our policies around that truth. (And, as an aside that I both believe, and I hope Ron Dreher will find annoying: Nope, it doesn’t end with humans. We need to stop torturing and killing animals because we like the way they taste.)

So, yes, there always is a next frontier. But it’s not because progressives are sneaky land grabbers who are never satisfied. It’s because we are committed to the endless process of discovering our common humanity, and thus becoming fully human.

I’m ok with that.

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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 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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