Joho the Blog » policy

November 17, 2013

Noam Chomsky, security, and equivocal information

Noam Chomsky and Barton Gellman were interviewed at the Engaging Big Data conference put on by MIT’s Senseable City Lab on Nov. 15. When Prof. Chomsky was asked what we can do about government surveillance, he reiterated his earlier call for us to understand the NSA surveillance scandal within an historical context that shows that governments always use technology for their own worst purposes. According to my liveblogging (= inaccurate, paraphrased) notes, Prof. Chomsky said:

Governments have been doing this for a century, using the best technology they had. I’m sure Gen. Alexander believes what he’s saying, but if you interviewed the Stasi, they would have said the same thing. Russian archives show that these monstrous thugs were talking very passionately to one another about defending democracy in Eastern Europe from the fascist threat coming from the West. Forty years ago, RAND released Japanese docs about the invasion of China, showing that the Japanese had heavenly intentions. They believed everything they were saying. I believe this is universal. We’d probably find it for Genghis Khan as well. I have yet to find any system of power that thought it was doing the wrong thing. They justify what they’re doing for the noblest of objectives, and they believe it. The CEOs of corporations as well. People find ways of justifying things. That’s why you should be extremely cautious when you hear an appeal to security. It literally carries no information, even in the technical sense: it’s completely predictable and thus carries no info. I don’t doubt that the US security folks believe it, but it is without meaning. The Nazis had their own internal justifications. [Emphasis added, of course.]

I was glad that Barton Gellman — hardly an NSA apologist — called Prof. Chomsky on his lumping of the NSA with the Stasi, for there is simply no comparison between the freedom we have in the US and the thuggish repression omnipresent in East Germany. But I was still bothered, albeit by a much smaller point. I have no serious quarrel with Prof. Chomsky’s points that government incursions on rights are nothing new, and that governments generally (always?) believe they are acting for the best of purposes. I am a little bit hung-up, however, on his equivocating on “information.”

Prof. Chomsky is of course right in his implied definition of information. (He is Noam Chomsky, after all, and knows a little more about the topic than I do.) Modern information is often described as a measure of surprise. A string of 100 alternating ones and zeroes conveys less information than a string of 100 bits that are less predictable, for if you can predict with certainty what the next bit will be, then you don’t learn anything from that bit; it carries no information. Information theory lets us quantify how much information is conveyed by streams of varying predictability.

So, when U.S. security folks say they are spying on us for our own security, are they saying literally nothing? Is that claim without meaning? Only in the technical sense of information. It is, in fact, quite meaningful, even if quite predictable, in the ordinary sense of the term “information.”

First, Prof. Chomsky’s point that governments do bad things while thinking they’re doing good is an important reminder to examine our own assumptions. Even the bad guys think they’re the good guys.

Second, I disagree with Prof. Chomsky’s generalization that governments always justify surveillance in the name of security. For example, governments sometimes record traffic (including the movement of identifiable cars through toll stations) with the justification that the information will be used to ease congestion. Tracking the position of mobile phones has been justified as necessary for providing swift EMT responses. Governments require us to fill out detailed reports on our personal finances every year on the grounds that they need to tax us fairly. Our government hires a fleet of people every ten years to visit us where we live in order to compile a census. These are all forms of surveillance, but in none of these cases is security given as the justification. And if you want to say that these other forms don’t count, I suspect it’s because it’s not surveillance done in the name of security…which is my point.

Third, governments rarely cite security as the justification without specifying what the population is being secured against; as Prof. Chomsky agrees, that’s an inherent part of the fear-mongering required to get us to accept being spied upon. So governments proclaim over and over what threatens our security: Spies in our midst? Civil unrest? Traitorous classes of people? Illegal aliens? Muggers and murderers? Terrorists? Thus, the security claim isn’t made on its own. It’s made with specific threats in mind, which makes the claim less predictable — and thus more informational — than Prof. Chomsky says.

So, I disagree with Prof. Chomsky’s argument that a government that justifies spying on the grounds of security is literally saying something without meaning. Even if it were entirely predictable that governments will always respond “Because security” when asked to justify surveillance — and my second point disputes that — we wouldn’t treat the response as meaningless but as requiring a follow-up question. And even if the government just kept repeating the word “Security” in response to all our questions, that very act would carry meaning as well, like a doctor who won’t tell you what a shot is for beyond saying “It’s to keep you healthy.” The lack of meaning in the Information Theory sense doesn’t carry into the realm in which people and their public officials engage in discourse.

Here’s an analogy. Prof. Chomsky’s argument is saying, “When a government justifies creating medical programs for health, what they’re saying is meaningless. They always say that! The Nazis said the same thing when they were sterilizing ‘inferiors,’ and Medieval physicians engaged in barbarous [barber-ous, actually – heyo!] practices in the name of health.” Such reasoning would rule out a discussion of whether current government-sponsored medical programs actually promote health. But that is just the sort of conversation we need to have now about the NSA.

Prof. Chomsky’s repeated appeals to history in this interview covers up exactly what we need to be discussing. Yes, both the NSA and the Stasi claimed security as their justification for spying. But far from that claim being meaningless, it calls for a careful analysis of the claim: the nature and severity of the risk, the most effective tactics to ameliorate that threat, the consequences of those tactics on broader rights and goods — all considerations that comparisons to the Stasi and Genghis Khan obscure. History counts, but not as a way to write off security considerations as meaningless by invoking a technical definition of “information.”

1 Comment »

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: 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.


January 26, 2012

European Parliament has official look into ACTA. He then resigns in disgust.

From Techdirt:

Kader Arif, the “rapporteur” for ACTA, has quit that role in disgust over the process behind getting the EU to sign onto ACTA. A rapporteur is a person “appointed by a deliberative body to investigate an issue.” However, it appears his investigation of ACTA didn’t make him very pleased:

I want to denounce in the strongest possible manner the entire process that led to the signature of this agreement: no inclusion of civil society organisations, a lack of transparency from the start of the negotiations, repeated postponing of the signature of the text without an explanation being ever given, exclusion of the EU Parliament’s demands that were expressed on several occasions in our assembly.

As rapporteur of this text, I have faced never-before-seen manoeuvres from the right wing of this Parliament to impose a rushed calendar before public opinion could be alerted, thus depriving the Parliament of its right to expression and of the tools at its disposal to convey citizens’ legitimate demands.” …

ACTA is what SOPA would be if you believed in global conspiracies writing secret agreements to do roughly the same thing. Except ACTA is real. This is not one of the issues where the Obama administration, which I overall enthusiastically support, is making me real happy.

1 Comment »

November 30, 2011

Are “data hogs” the problem?

Benoît Felten and Herman Wagter have published a follow up to their 2009 article “Is the ‘bandwidth hog’ a myth?.” The new article (for sale, but Benoit summarizes it on his blog) analyzes data from a mid-size North American ISP and confirms their original analysis: Data caps are at best a crude tool for targeting the users who most affect the amount of available bandwidth.

Read Benoît’s post for the details (or at least a fairly detailed overview of the details). But here’s the gist:

Benoît and Herman looked at the actual usage data in five minute increments of broadband customers sharing a single aggregation link. They looked both at the total number of megabytes being downloaded (= data consumption) and the number of megabits per second being used (= bandwidth usage).

They found that there is indeed a set of users who download a whole lot: “The top 1% of data consumers…account for 20% of the overall consumption.” But half of these “Very Heavy consumers” are doing so on plans that give them only 3Mbps, as opposed to the highest tier of this particular ISP, which is 6Mbps. So, even with their heavy consumption, their bandwidth usage is already limited. Further, if you look at who is using the most bandwidth during peak hours, 85.3% of the bandwidth is being used by those are not Very Heavy users.

Here’s the point. ISP assumes that Very Heavy users (= “data hogs” = “people who use the bandwidth they’re paying for”) are responsible for clogging the digital arteries. So, the ISPs measure data consumption in order to preserve bandwidth. But, according to Benoît and Herman’s data, the vast bulk of bandwidth during the times when bandwidth is scarce (= peak hours) is not taken up by the Very Heavy users. Thus, punishing people for downloading too much inhibits the wrong people. Data consumption is not a good measure of critical broadband usage.

Put differently: “42% of all customers (and nearly 48% of active customers) are amongst the top 10% of bandwidth users at one point or another during peak hours.” The problem therefore is not “data hogs.” It’s people going about their normal business of using the Net during the most convenient hours.

I asked Benoît (via email) what he thinks would be a more effective and fair way of limiting usage during peak hours, and he replied:

throttling everyone indiscriminately during actual peaks (ie. not predetermined times that could be considered peak) would be a fairer solution, although the cost of implementing that should be weighed against the cost of increasing the capacity in the aggregation, core and transit. The economics don’t necessarily work. And of course, that would affect all users, and might create dissatisfaction. But it would be fair and more effective.

In any case, the data suggest that “data hogs” are not the main culprits causing bandwidth scarcity. The real problem is you and me using our bandwidth non-hoggishly.


July 25, 2009

The racial divide in Internet devices

A Pew Internet report says that while 56% of Americans have accessed the Internet wirelessly, there’s a stark racial divide in the devices we use. About half of the African-American and English-speaking Hispanic population accesses the Net through cellphones and other handheld devices, but only 28% of white Americans have ever done so.

Three bullet points quoted from the report:

* 48% of Africans Americans have at one time used their mobile device to access the internet for information, emailing, or instant-messaging, half again the national average of 32%.

* 29% of African Americans use the internet on their handheld on an average day, also about half again the national average of 19%.

* Compared with 2007, when 12% of African Americans used the internet on their mobile on the average day, use of the mobile internet is up by 141%.

We can read this in many different ways:

  • Mobiles are helping to end the digital racial divide

  • Mobiles are extending the digital racial divide by providing second-class Net access to African Americans

  • For a far greater percentage of African Americans than white Americans, the Net is less generative and participatory

  • We’d better make sure that the carriers become device independent and Net neutral

[Tags: ]


July 23, 2009

Putting the Mao back into ROFLMAO

TheOnion has been bought by a Chinese fish company. Hilarious. (Be sure to click on the op-ed titled “The Internet Allows for a Free Exchange of Unmitigated Information.”)

[Tags: ]

Comments Off on Putting the Mao back into ROFLMAO

July 7, 2009

Eszter cries “Grinch!” on MJ lottery

Eszter Hargittai uses the lottery for tickets to view Michael Jackson’s corpse to illustrate her point about the existence, persistence, and importance of the digital divide.

[Tags: ]

Comments Off on Eszter cries “Grinch!” on MJ lottery

June 26, 2009

[reboot] Government officials take it on the chin

I went to a fascinating breakout at Reboot at which two government guys came to talk about national policy. The government guys were culturally of the Reboot crowd (or so it seemed to me), and one of them came to his position straight out of a tech start-up. But the group of thirty people in the small, converted men’s room (!) met their openness with pent-up hostility. I was surprised at the anger. The gov’t guys ought to listen (which is what they were doing at this meeting), should not expect ideas for free, need to maybe do nothing, need to get the country over the digital divide, should give grants to small businesses, should stay clear of small businesses, don’t be afraid to lose control, build communities, participate in communities, stay out of communities… My untutored sense was that the Web community felt frustrated that this initiative was so late at getting started. As an American, I was actually impressed with the government folks’ openness and webbiness.

Afterwards, I talked with my friend Morten Kamper. He wasn’t at the session, but he said that there was concern that the government’s broadband committee is comprised of the telcos without sufficient citizen or webizen participation, and that Net neutrality is indeed an issue, as the telcos assume they can prefer some of their bits to others.

BTW, I asked the room if there was reluctance on the part of the government to be transparent, and, if so, where’s the Danish version of the Sunlight Foundation. The general answer I got was: There’s no official reluctance, but it’s going too slowly. And Ton Zijlstra said that in the Netherlands, the official policy is to be transparent but there are cultural resistances.

I also asked, at the beginning, if it was clear that the “broadband policy” they were talking about was actually committed to delivering an open, unfiltered, non-discriminatory Internet. The answer was “Yes,” with an implied, “Why would you even have to ask?” (And the answer to that implied question is: Because it’s not clear in America.)

[Tags: ]


June 23, 2009

Isenberg on the WSJ on Iran on Nokia

David Isenberg questions the veracity of the Wall Street Journal’s report about Iran using Nokia equipment to do deep packet inspection. Interesting on its own and also as yet another example of smart bloggers raising journalism’s bar.

[Tags: ]

1 Comment »

June 7, 2009

Broadband isn’t the Internet

Here’s a comment aimed at the FCC that reminds the FCC that (a) broadband and the Internet are not really synonymous, (b) the value of broadband is that it gives access to the Internet, so, (c) when designing a national broadband package, we should make sure that it supports the value of the Internet.

[Tags: ]

1 Comment »

Next Page »