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Published: Thu, 22 Mar 2018 00:00:00 -0400

Last Build Date: Thu, 22 Mar 2018 23:04:41 -0400


$20 Fee for Porn Access Proposed in Rhode Island

Mon, 05 Mar 2018 14:08:00 -0500

(image) Rhode Island has joined a host of other states in considering an irrational measure to regulate online porn by charging consumers a $20 access fee. But the Rhode Island bill actually beats others like it in terrible and unconstitutional requirements, such as requiring the blockage of not just nude imagery or porn sites but any content that "affront(s) current standards of decency"... whatever that means.

The bill, sponsored by state Sens. Frank Ciccone (D-Providence) and Hannah Gallo (D-Cranston), is packed with ill-defined terms and extreme mandates.

To start, it would require all internet-enabled devices sold in the state to come with "a digital blocking capability that renders inaccessible sexual content and/or patently offensive material." But as many previous schemes to block sexual content have shown, it's nearly impossible for automated censors to distinguish pornographic sexual content from sexual wellness websites, reproductive health organizations, ancient art, educational information, and all sorts of other non-obscene or pornographic stuff.

And the Rhode Island bill wouldn't just block overtly sexual content but anything deemed "patently offensive," too–even though there's no clear definition of this term. The state currently defines "patently offensive" as material "so offensive on its face as to affront current standards of decency."

Makers of computers, smartphones, and other internet-enabled products would be left to determine for themselves what exactly "current standards of decency" means and how to put that in algorithmic terms.

The proposal doesn't stop there in terms of confusing and unconstitutional dictates, though. It would also require devices to automatically block "any hub that facilitates prostitution"—again, not a legal or well-defined category of content.

And device makers would also have to "ensure that all child pornography and revenge pornography is inaccessible" on their products—something that sounds great but is completely technically infeasible. If it were that easy to stop the spread of child porn, companies would be doing it already.

What makes all of this especially ridiculous is that under Ciccone and Gallo's proposal, anyone over 18-years-old could have the filter removed by making a request in writing and paying a $20 fee. The money would go to the state's general treasury "to help fund the operations of the council on human trafficking." (But... if people are paying the state $20 to access prostitution sites, doesn't that make the state a trafficker?)

The fact that lawmakers think blocked "patently offensive" material should be able to be accessed for a low price just shows how toothless their proclamations that the legislation is necessary to protect public health or morals. But what lawmakers would get out of the measure is a nice new source of steady income and a registry of people who want the filter removed.

Plus, the fees imposed on individual consumers would be pocket change compared to the money the state could make shaking down tech companies. Under Ciccone and Gallo's proposal, failure to implement the technically impossible filtering requirements could mean being sued by the state or any Rhode Island resident, being held liable for civil damages, and being charged up to $500 "for each piece of content that was reported but not subsequently blocked."

Balaji Srinivasan: Technology Will Lead to a Borderless World

Wed, 28 Feb 2018 12:14:00 -0500

"Soon you'll be able to join a VR world, and earn virtual currency in virtual reality," says Silicon Valley entrepreneur Balaji Srinivasan. "Which means that, for a good chunk of people in the world, the majority of their waking hours are going to be spent in the Matrix." Srinivasan believes that new technologies—mobile devices, cloud computing, cryptocurrencies—are rapidly taking us into an era when geography, nationality, and other limitations on our labor and freedom fade away. He says that this evolution will empower individuals and erode the authoritarian capabilities of the state. Srinivasan is a modern-day polymath who venture capitalist Marc Andreessen has called the person with "the highest output per minute of new ideas of anybody I've ever met in my life." A Ph.D. in electrical engineering, a co-founder of the genetic testing firm Counsyl, and a Stanford computer science lecturer, Srinivasan was also on Donald Trump's short list to head up the Food and Drug Administration. He believes in technology's power to provide a way for individuals to migrate away from ossified institutions and destructive policies. Borrowing a framework from a 1970 political science treatise by Albert O. Hirschman, Exit, Voice, and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations, and States, Srinivasan described his vision in a much-discussed 2013 talk titled "Sillicon Valley's Ultimate Exit." Today, he spends most of his time running the cryptocurrency-based startup, which allows users to get paid for small tasks, like responding to emails and completing surveys. It is ultimately, he says, a tool for creating a "frictionless digital workforce." He imagines providing users with a new type of decentralized employment based purely on their skills. Participants would log on, see a feed of tasks they needed to accomplish, and then be compensated accordingly. While teaching at Stanford a decade ago, Srinivasan and his brother Ramji founded the genetic testing firm Counsyl, which offers a single assay that tests for every major Mendelian genetic disease. The company aims to lower costs, empower parents, and improve the way genetic diseases are identified and treated. In a wide-ranging discussion, Reason's Nick Gillespie spoke with Srinivasan about his current ventures; how the FDA and other regulatory bodies should adapt to new technologies; the controversy over genetic testing and "designer babies;" how the 1997 book The Sovereign Individual has influenced his thought; his intellectual heroes; and how he's contributing to "Silicon Valley's ultimate exit." Interview edited by Justin Monticello. Camera by Paul Detrick and Monticello. Music by Grégoire Lourme, Silent Partner, Blue Giraffe, and Hare. Subscribe to our YouTube channel. Like us on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter. Subscribe to our podcast at iTunes. The interview has been edited for clarity. Check all quotes against the audio for accuracy. Balaji Srinivasan: One of the things I think a lot about is, if you've got an existing system, and it's ossified, there's at least two responses to it. There's more than two, but at least two. One is, you know, voice, which in its extreme is revolution. Revolution is extreme voice, where it's saying, "Oh, I'm so dissatisfied, let's take the whole thing over." And then democracy is, you know, like a much more limited version of that, but still also effective in many cases. You know, you could actually vote to go and change things. Alternatively, if you believe that it's going to be too hard to change things that way, but you're also cognizant of the fact that certain people like it that way, there's an alternative you can pursue, which is exit. You say, "Okay, I'm not going to be able to change the system, I recognize why you guys have it the way it is, but it doesn't suit my preferences, so I'm going to leave and start something new." All progress is really the process of: You exit, you build something up, and then it gets ossified, and the next generation exits again. For example, a startup[...]

What’s Hot in Porn Tech: Blockchain, Cam Girls, and Snapchat

Thu, 01 Feb 2018 10:45:00 -0500

Virtual reality is a dud so far, the Trump administration has been better than expected, and new technologies from the blockchain to Snapchat are helping the porn industry adjust to government regulations and give more power to adult performers. That's the gist of reports from a wide-ranging roster of industry professionals who spoke last week in Las Vegas at the AVN Adult Entertainment Expo and the Internext conference for adult webmasters. I attended the annual AVN event in 2016. At the time, virtual-reality porn was all over the Expo floor and porn-industry veterans were scared about the possibility of a Donald Trump presidency and a California rule mandating condoms. This year, I wasn't able to get out to Vegas. But the plethora of detailed dispatches put out by AVN make sure that at least the business side of these events doesn't just stay at these events. At both the AVN Expo and Internext, cryptocurrency, webcamming, social media, and age-verification were big topics, as panelists discussed the political, technological, and social trends shaping adult entertainment in 2018. Here's a look at how these trends are changing the way people produce, consume, and make money from porn. Power to Performers Since streaming online video got so simple, "tube sites" offering thousands of free porn clips have been frustrating porn-industry professionals, who expect—not unreasonably—to get paid for people watching their work. Performers and producers regularly complain that these sites are depressing their earnings (by offering free pirated versions of their paywalled videos) and their market potential (by flooding the web with amateur porn). But recent years have seen rising ​interplay​ between porn professionals and the tube sites as they attempt to find business models that will benefit both. AVN CEO Tony Rios told the Las Vegas Sun that the past year saw "a lot of cooperation with performers and the tube sites." Pornhub, for instance, just announced that Asa Akira would be joining Aria—former host of The Sex Factor and AVN's 2013 Female Performer of the Year—an one of the site's ambassadors. Social media has also been a big boon for adult-video stars and for webcammers, by providing a means for self-promotion and fan outreach as well as ways to make money directly. "Snapchat has become massive and performers are using it like crazy," Rios told the Sun. "And they're even doing premium Snapchats now, and finding a way to charge for Snapchat." Rios also noted that performers were effectively mobilizing their social presence for advocacy purposes. "We saw that with Prop 60 [the failed California condoms-in-porn ballot proposal] in 2016," said Rios. "The performers went to social media and they were able to affect legislation." For webcammers—most of whom work through a webcam platform like or Chaturbate—social media has made it possible to be more proactive in finding viewers, rather than relying solely on the platforms to bring eyes in. "Before cam models used to sit in the room and wait for the cam site to send traffic, but it's completely turning around as they take control of their brands on social media and with clip stores," said Jim Austin, head of business development for cam-site Stripchat, during one Internext panel. "They're like mini entrepreneurs with multiple revenue streams." The whole thing has shifted "the power...toward the models now" and "away from cam sites," he said. Camming from the @MyFreeCams booth at @AEexpo with @MxPraxisPhanes and @MissAvaPark !! — Momoka-Hime (@Momoka_Koizumi) January 25, 2018 Overall, the proliferation of marketing venues and opportunities to reach fans directly has shifted more burden to performers than before but also given them more potential too. Savvy adult video stars and webcammers are launching sites offering custom clips and photos for a one-time fee or on a subscription basis. "Last year was the breakthrough year for clip sites," said Yuval Kijel of CamBuilde[...]

This Boring British Cops Clone May Show the Future of American Mass Surveillance

Wed, 31 Jan 2018 15:50:00 -0500

BBC's popular reality show Traffic Cops is not so far from what a stereotype-inclined American might imagine if told "it's like Cops, but British." It also shows a worrying future-that-might-be of mass surveillance in America. Traffic Cops may not be a montage of helmeted and mustachioed bobbies puffing after pickpocketing orphans on cobblestoned streets. But to American eyes, the constables of Traffic Cops do seem terribly proper and polite. Compared to the show's ever-controversial American cousin, there's very little shouting, wrestling, cracking of skulls, or brandishing of firearms. In fact, to Americans used to seeing copious amounts of such activities in our cop shows, Traffic Cops (and its spinoff, Motorway Cops) can seem downright boring. Sure, you get the occasional familiar chase-bail-run-tackle sequence. But thanks to strict national restrictions on engaging in high-speed chases, pursuits often end with the cops taking down a plate number and letting the fugitive drive away. This might sound like a pleasant alternative to American civil libertarians, but there's a sinister twist that sours the picture: mass surveillance. The really boring thing about the show is how much time the constables spend just waiting for alerts from Britain's driver surveillance network to pop up on their squad-car screens. Some background: Britain's major roads are among the most heavily surveilled on earth. Every day, more than 8,500 Automated Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) devices placed along the country's roads and in police vehicles read and store the location of between 25 and 35 million license plates, potentially capturing more than half of Britain's entire population of 65 million. Driving in the United Kingdom is also regulated more heavily than in many parts of the U.S. In addition to being licensed and insured, British drivers must pay an annual per-vehicle excise tax meant to discourage private car ownership. The Ministry of Transportation is also supposed to inspect each car annually for compliance with environmental standards. The Ministry of Transporation and the United Kingdom's tax collection service share all their vehicle data with a vast law enforcement data management system called the Police National Computer (PNC). All private car insurers are required to do this as well. And the PNC is connected, of course, to the ANPR network. As such, the ANPR cameras are able to determine, within moments, the license, insurance, tax, and inspection status of every car they see. When the system spots a violation, it alerts the Traffic Cops. src="" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" frameborder="0" height="315" width="560"> Occasionally, the ANPR helps the cops recover a stolen vehicle or locate a missing person. At other times it flags cars "known to be associated with drugs," cars possessed by people with unpaid tax debt, and cars whose owners have a history of "anti-social driving," whatever that is. But the great majority of the infractions it uncovers seem to involve skirting the high costs of compliance with Britain's burdensome driving regulation scheme. To judge from the show, the typical penalty seems to be a stiff fine and seizure of the car—a punishment the cops readily explain (with exquisite politeness) is imposed purely as a deterrent. In straight-to-camera bits filmed in the backs of police cars, "outlaw drivers" often confess that they haven't paid their road tax or renewed their inspection because they can't afford to, but still need to drive to get to work, take children to school, and so on. The cops nod sympathetically while writing out the ticket and calling the tow truck. These encounters typically end with frustrated driver and passenger standing by the side of the road as the constable, driving off, shakes his head sadly and reminds the audience that "driving is a privilege, not a right." What's perhaps most unsettling about this routine is how mu[...]

Free Banking for Bitcoin? How the Lightning Network Could Help

Tue, 30 Jan 2018 08:15:00 -0500

It's been a big few months for bitcoin, and with increased media attention and monetary valuation comes enhanced scrutiny of the technology underlying the world's first peer-to-peer digital currency. For years, an intense debate surrounding the perceived trade-offs between bitcoin's daily usability as a medium of exchange and its core value proposition as a censorship-resistant currency has ravaged the development community. Simply put, many believed that the properties that made bitcoin a great decentralizing tool also rendered bitcoin an expensive and slow medium of exchange. Yet some exciting new developments with an above-chain project called the "Lightning network" could put many of those old fears to rest. If successful, the Lightning network (or a Lightning-like solution) could help bitcoin to more closely resemble the gold-backed banknote systems of the "free banking" era. Bitcoin's scaling debate Bitcoin is important because it allowed individuals to transact directly with each other without needing to rely on a trusted third party like a bank or a payment processor for the first time. This means that bitcoin transactions are "censorship-resistant," and no government or corporation or outside group can prevent a voluntary trade so long as both parties have an Internet connection and some value to exchange. This breakthrough in peer-to-peer exchange was revolutionary, and it propelled a new wave of interest and development in distributed payment applications. Yet even in the early days, enthusiasts, including Satoshi himself, noticed a problem. The way the bitcoin network was set up worked quite well in its infancy when only a few people used the network. But if bitcoin were ever to become a global payment system, used multiple times a day by billions of people, early adopters feared that the network could become congested. Rather than a fast and cheap payment option, bitcoin could become an expensive luxury available only to those willing to fork over high fees to miners or pay in the form of exorbitant wait times. Why bother to use a distributed payment system at all? People might as well just stick with PayPal and Bank of America rather than use a slower and more expensive, albeit decentralized, alternative. To say that the bitcoin community had a hard time settling on a path forward would be quite an understatement. One group of users, largely consisting of business-minded parties, favored a technological fix in the form of a "hard fork," or backwards-incompatible change, to the bitcoin protocol which would increase the "block size," like a page of transactions in the bitcoin ledger, to allow more transactions per cycle. While such a change could introduce chaos into the network, and affect decentralization and security in unknown and potentially negative ways, the "big block" bitcoin camp argued that their solution was preferable to doing nothing and risking the slow death of the network. Another, more conservative group of users promoted patience and roundabout fixes to handle bitcoin scaling. They believed that scaling problems were not as urgent as their counterparts, and had faith in the ability of developers (indeed, many in this camp were core bitcoin developers themselves) to gradually make improvements without a dramatic and risky hard fork. Furthermore, they were not convinced that every single bitcoin transaction had to necessarily clear on the core blockchain, which was necessarily expensive to run and delicate to maintain. Rather, they agreed with bitcoin pioneer Hal Finney that other technologies could be developed to interact with the bitcoin network and handle scaling "above chain." How the Lightning network works The Lightning network is a decentralized network of "payment channels" that sits atop of the bitcoin blockchain. Users who download the Lightning software and connect with the network have the option of opening up payment channels with other users. These channels operate in a[...]

FakeApp: Finally, a Program that Will Let You Seamlessly Put Donald Trump in Porn!

Thu, 25 Jan 2018 00:50:00 -0500

Over at Reddit, user deepfakes has released a program that allows users to create "deep fakes," or nearly seamless manufactured images. As with about 99 percent of all tech-related innovation, the first use and proof-of-concept has to do with porn. Specifically, the app allows you to face swap your favorite person's face onto a porn actor's: I've completed a desktop app /w GUI to create deepfakes. Here is a what it looks like. For anyone unfamiliar with this subreddit, deepfakes are neural network-generated faceswap videos created with a machine learning algorithm designed by /u/deepfakes. Check the sub wiki for more info. Here is an excellent example of a deepfake of Daisy Ridley produced with this app in less than a day by /u/nuttynutter6969. This app is intended to allow users to move through the full deepfake creation pipeline—creating training data, training a model, and creating fakes with that model—without the need to install Python and other dependencies or parse code. The download link is in the comments. Here's an example in which actress Jessica Alba's face was planted on a porn actress': src="" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" width="560" height="340" frameborder="0"> If the first use of new tech is related to porn, a close second is politics. And as Vice's Motherboard reports, one user of the app stitched Adolf Hitler's mug on top of Argentina's president, Mauricio Macri: src="" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" width="560" height="340" frameborder="0"> Motherboard seems deeply troubled by all this. The site's headline reads "We Are Truly Fucked: Everyone Is Making AI-Generated Fake Porn Now" and Samantha Cole writes: An incredibly easy-to-use application for DIY fake videos—of sex and revenge porn, but also political speeches and whatever else you want—that moves and improves at this pace could have society-changing impacts in the ways we consume media. The combination of powerful, open-source neural network research, our rapidly eroding ability to discern truth from fake news, and the way we spread news through social media has set us up for serious consequences.... Deborah Johnson, Professor Emeritus of Applied Ethics at the University of Virginia's school of engineering, told me there's no doubt this technology would get so good that it'd be impossible to tell the difference between an AI-generated face swap and the real thing. "You could argue that what's new is the degree to which it can be done, or the believability, we're getting to the point where we can't distinguish what's real—but then, we didn't before," she said. "What is new is the fact that it's now available to everybody, or will be... It's destabilizing. The whole business of trust and reliability is undermined by this stuff." That's one way of looking at all this and it's not without merit. But a year ago, two-thirds of Americans already believed that the media was awash in fake news and fully "eighty-four percent of voters said it is hard to know what news to believe online." So assuming FakeApp really does go mainstream (and despite its relative ease-of-use, it's light years beyond the reach of all but a few web users), it will simply accelerate an ongoing trend toward near-absolute skepticism and cynicism toward the media. Especially from a libertarian angle, there are many reasons to be deeply concerned about the erosion of trust in society. But when it comes to media consumption, the only way forward is to cultivate a reflexively critical attitude toward all truth claims, including those involving images. Whether near-perfect Donald Trump face-swap porn ever becomes a thing or not (shudder), all of us must become first-rate media critics. For those in the journalism world, we also need to work extra hard to develop a reputation for accuracy, fairness, and, as important, transparency when it comes to ad[...]

Regulations Prevent Some People from Using Google Arts & Culture's Portrait-Matching Feature

Wed, 24 Jan 2018 09:55:00 -0500

(image) Tons of people recently downloaded the Google Arts & Culture app to discover which famous work of art they resembed, filling the internet with side-by-side images of selfies and portraits. While those in Illinois or Texas may be curious if they look like a Rembrandt portrait or Botticelli's Birth of Venus, Google refrained from releasing this portrait-matching feature in those states due to their stringent biometric regulations.

While the app itself has existed for a few years and offers additional features, the selfie feature went viral as scores of people began posting their accurate, or sometimes cruelly inaccurate (and hilarious) matches on social media. Using facial recognition technology, the app compares the image of its user to the thousands of famous portrairs housed in its database, offering up a series of "matches," so users can find their artistic dopplegangers. But people whose phones are registered in the state Illinois and Texas discovered they were unable to use this feature (though they could ask their out-of-state relatives to find their matches for them).

That's because the app uses biometrics or "biometric identifiers," according to the National Law Review, which include fingerprints, voiceprints, and facial geometry that can be used to identify a specific individual. Illinois in particular has led the forefront in biometric privacy lawsuits and regulations—having passed the illinois Biometric Information Privacy Act ("BIPA") in 2008. While other states like Washington and Texas have passed their own versions of BIPA, Illinois remains the most onerous. As a result of this legislation, companies like Facebook, Shutterfly, and others have all been the target of large class action lawsuits regarding their use of biometric data.

Though Google requires users to accept a disclaimer before using the feature that states the app only stores data as it actively seeks for matches, the company feared these security measures may not be enough to satisfy Illinois law. Unlike other states, in Illinois BIPA allows private citizens to sue companies for damages, when typically suits of this nature must be brought by the attorney general of that state.

Consequently, this regulation has deprived citizens of Illinois from enjoying other, possibly more useful features and products. Nest—another company specializing in thermostats and home security—declined to sell a doorbell technology that can recognize visitors in the state.

According to BIPA and the National Law Review, BIPA is an essential regulation, because unlike Social Security numbers and passwords that can be changed if necessary, biometrics are biologically unique and, when compromised, leave an individual without recourse, making this type of potential identity theft all the more dangerous.

But there are tradeoffs. As Matthew Kugler, an assistant professor at Northwestern University's Pritzker School of Law, told The Chicago Tribune, "(Maybe) people would much rather have their selfie feature than this privacy protection. That's something we'll have to see."

Major Computer Chip Bugs Show the Need for Open Security Research

Tue, 09 Jan 2018 08:30:00 -0500

2018 rang in with a bang in the computer security world, as two serious and extensive processor vulnerabilities were discovered in early January. Last week, researchers with Google's Project Zero and various universities and private security shops announced their troubling findings that the majority of the world's computer chips manufactured over the past two decades had been susceptible to two exploits—named "Meltdown" and "Spectre"—for years. (Yes, that means your computer, smartphone, and tablet are affected.) The researchers who discovered the bugs have assembled a helpful website full of information about the vulnerabilities, with links to incident responses by various technology companies. Computer programs are not supposed to be able to read certain data from other programs. Yet the Meltdown and Spectre hardware bugs could allow a malicious actor to bypass memory isolation and access "secrets stored in the memory of other running programs"—like passwords, photos, emails, communications, and personal documents. While serious vulnerabilities affecting browsers and other software are unfortunately rather common, the Spectre and Meltdown bugs are noteworthy both for the extent of their reach and the fact that they affect the very chips that make all of our devices run. Both exploits affect processors in similar ways, but there are differences between them. The Meltdown vulnerability affects Intel and Apple processors and effectively "melts down" the protections that the hardware normally enforces. Meltdown mostly concerns desktop, laptop, and cloud computers. The Spectre vulnerability, on the other hand, tricks Intel, ARM, and AMD chips into executing commands that could expose sensitive information to other applications. Spectre is a problem for smartphone and tablet users. While patches for both vulnerabilities have been pushed out on the software level, the researchers note that the Spectre bug does not have an easy fix and will "haunt us for some time." (Also noteworthy: the Meltdown patch, called KAISER, may slow down processing speeds by up to 30 percent—an annoying headache that will surely make users grumble.) Intel's stock price took a mighty hit upon news of the exploits, although the characterization of Meltdown and Spectre as an "Intel bug" is not quite right. The vulnerabilities affect popular chipmakers ARM and AMD as well, not to mention Apple hardware. Some have speculated that the vulnerabilities will require a complete recall and redesign of how processors are made to fully steel systems against these bugs, perhaps especially so in the case of the tricky Spectre bug. A security alert from US-CERT, the Department of Homeland Security's primary cybersecurity coordination body, notes that "patching may not fully address these vulnerabilities" because they exist "in CPU architecture rather than software." This means that the software fixes pushed so far may only be an intermediary step to a full solution. Yet Intel has perhaps not surprisingly sought to downplay the general threat, stating that a software patch will be sufficient to render their products "immune" from the exploits. How to protect yourself So what do the Spectre and Meltdown bugs mean for the average person? Don't panic: it's highly unlikely that hackers would first look to target average Joes like you and I. They would be much more likely to attack the big guys like Amazon Web Services and Microsoft Azure because that's where the money's at. Still, it's always good to be proactive. If you haven't already, it's probably a good idea to cease sharing sensitive data on compromised devices—which includes basically all computing products, save for perhaps the trusty Nokia 3310—until you verify that the necessary fixes have been installed. While no known malicious uses of the vulnerabilities have been discovered yet, test cases have been succes[...]

Franklin Foer's Tech-Panic Manifesto

Sat, 23 Dec 2017 06:00:00 -0500

World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech, by Franklin Foer, Penguin Press, 272 pages, $27 If you want to sell a book about tech policy these days, there's an easy formula to follow. First you need a villain. Google and Facebook should suffice, but if you can throw in Apple, Amazon, or Twitter, that's even better. Paint their CEOs as either James Bond baddies bent on world domination or naive do-gooders obsessed with the quixotic promise of innovation. Then you repackage some old chestnuts about commercialism or false consciousness. Add a dash of pop psychology and behavioral economics. Be sure to include a litany of woes about cognitive overload and social isolation. Finally, come up with a juicy Chicken Little title. Maybe something like World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech. Wait—that one's taken. It's the title of Franklin Foer's latest book, which follows this familiar techno-panic template almost perfectly. Foer's arguments may not break any new ground, but he has managed to bring together in one tome the three dominant fears of modern tech criticism: the death of journalism and high culture, the growth of unstoppable tech conglomerates, and the rise of isolated, distracted individuals. This trifecta of troubles is leading us down a "terrifying trajectory," Foer says. It is eroding "the integrity of institutions," even "altering human evolution." It all sounds quite ominous. But it isn't any more convincing than those other anti-technology texts. Foer, a correspondent for The Atlantic, begins by admitting he's more than a little bitter about his own run-in with a Silicon Valley do-gooder. Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes bought a stake in The New Republic in 2012, then hired Foer to serve as editor of the magazine. But the relationship deteriorated quickly, and Foer was dismissed two years later. Foer's experience with Hughes serves as the foundation for his fusillade against the technology sector. Echoing themes already developed in books by Andrew Keen (The Cult of the Amateur), Lee Siegel (Against the Machine), Jaron Lanier (You Are Not a Gadget), and Mark Helprin (Digital Barbarism), Foer rails against Silicon Valley's "assault on journalism" and "war on professional writers," charging the internet with the "death of the author" and the "collapse of the economic value of knowledge." Like many in his profession, Foer isn't a fan of journalism being a business at all. While originally viewing Hughes as a "savior" ready to subsidize a magazine, Foer soured on him once the dreaded demands of popularity and profitability entered the picture. His indictment goes well beyond that, though. Foer lambasts what he calls the GAFA cabal (Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon) for an ethos that is allegedly "disrespectful of authority." GAFA isn't just undermining journalism: Its members are fighting a "war on free will" and aim "to impose their values and theological convictions on the world." Yet Foer is all for the theology of the old media order. He falls into a long list of critics who are nostalgic for a time when supposedly enlightened gatekeepers served as the "guardians of intellectual seriousness." Foer suggests that the recent artisanal food movement and "buy local" farmers market model might offer a framework for a better media age. But there already are plenty of specialized community websites and digital services tailored to almost every imaginable interest. Foer just doesn't like so many of them being associated with big platforms like Facebook. So the erstwhile editor wants the government to step in. Specifically, he wants Washington to "wage war" against these "ascendant monopolies" that "aspire to encompass all of existence." With this call to antitrust arms, Foer joins the big-is-bad chorus of Tim Wu (The Master Switch), Jonathan Zittrain (The Future of the Internet[...]

FCC Head Ajit Pai: Killing Net Neutrality Will Set the Internet Free

Tue, 21 Nov 2017 17:40:00 -0500

In an exclusive interview today just hours after announcing his plan to repeal "Net Neutrality" rules governing the actions of Internet-service providers (ISPs) and mobile carriers, Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Ajit Pai has an in-your-face prediction for his critics: "Over the coming years, we're going to see an explosion in the kinds of connectivity and the depth of that connectivity," he said this afternoon. "Ultimately that means that the human capital in the United States that's currently on the shelf—the people who don't have digital opportunity—will become participants in the digital economy." Pai stressed that regulating the Internet under a Title II framework originally created in the 1930s had led to less investment in infrastructure and a slower rate of innovation. "Since the dawn of the commercial internet, ISPs have been investing as much as they can in networks in order to upgrade their facilities and to compete with each other," he says. "Outside of a recession we've never seen that sort of investment go down year over year. But we did in 2015, after these regulations were adopted." In a Wall Street Journal column published today, Pai says Title II was responsible for a nearly 6 percent decline in broadband network investment as ISPs saw compliance costs rise and the regulatory atmosphere become uncertain. In his interview with Reason, Pai stressed that the real losers under Net Neutrality were people living in rural areas and low-income Americans who were stuck on the bad end of "the digital divide." Proponents of Net Neutrality maintain that rules that went into effect in 2015 are the only thing standing between rapacious businesses such as Comcast, Verizon (where Pai once worked), and Spectrum and an Internet choking on throttled traffic, expensive "fast lanes," and completely blocked sites that displease whatever corporate entity controls the last mile of fiber into your home or business. Pai says that is bunk and noted that today's proposed changes, which are expected to pass full FCC review in mid-December, return the Internet to the light-touch regulatory regime that governed it from the mid-1990s until 2015. "It's telling that the first investigations that the prior FCC initiated under these so-called Net Neutrality rules were involving free data offerings," says Pai, pointing toward actions initiated by his predecessor against "zero-rating" services such as T-Mobile's Binge program, which didn't count data used to stream Netflix, Spotify, and a host of other services against a customer's monthly data allowance. "To me it's just absurd to say that the government should stand in the way of consumers who want to get, and companies that want to provide, free data." The FCC is not completely evacuating its oversight role. ISPs, he says, will need to be completely transparent with customers about all practices related to prioritizing traffic, data caps, and more. Pai believes that market competition for customers will prove far more effective in developing better and cheaper services than regulators deciding what is best for the sector. "In wireless," he says, "there's very intense competition—you have four national carriers and any number of regional carriers competing to provide 4G LTE, and a number of different services. In those marketplaces where there's not as much competition as we'd like to see, to me at least, the solution isn't to preemptively regulate as if it were a monopoly, as if we're dealing with 'Ma Bell,' but to promote more competition." Pai says that one of the major mistakes of Net Neutrality is its pre-emptive nature. Rather than allowing different practices to develop and then having regulators intervene when problems or harms to customer arise, Net Neutrality is prescriptive and thus likely to serve the interests [...]

The Whiskey Making Was Hard, But the Government Was Easy

Thu, 09 Nov 2017 09:57:00 -0500

George Washington's rebuilt distillery at Mount Vernon recently celebrated its 10th anniversary with a team of master distillers from around the country producing a commemorative rye whiskey using the old-fashioned methods of Washington's time. When Mount Vernon farm manager James Anderson pitched the idea of opening a whiskey distillery to Washington in 1797, it was hardly a novel idea. Many early Americans distilled alcohol and whiskey surpassed rum as the young nation's spirit of choice after the Revolutionary War. Despite a somewhat saturated market, Washington quickly distinguished himself in the whiskey business—his distillery would become one of the largest in the country, producing 11,000 gallons during its peak years. Washington's success should not obscure the fact that making whiskey at the turn of the 18th century was hard. Everything about the whiskey-making process—from milling the grain, to stirring the mash, to firing the stills—was an order of magnitude more difficult than today's mechanized and streamlined process. What stood out about this process was the intense amount of manual labor it took to run Washington's distillery. Nearly a dozen members of the Mount Vernon Historic Trades team were on hand on anniversary day to re-enact firing the pot stills, loading the mash pits with grain, and monitoring the temperature of the fermenter. One historical re-enactor spent all day chopping firewood with an ax. Another demonstrated how mash barrels were made by hand in that era. After a long day of work, the distillers and re-enactors produced the equivalent of 40 liquid gallons of 50 percent alcohol rye whiskey. Even mid-sized whiskey distilleries today can produce more than 2,000 gallons a day or more than 1 million gallons a year. An expert cooper during Washington's time would have been able to produce a single barrel in a day. Brown-Forman cooperage in Louisville, Kentucky, currently pumps out 2,500 a day. Entrepreneur that he was, Washington would be awed by the technological advancements in distilling capitalism has created—advances that, ultimately, have resulted in the wonderfully consistent and smooth whiskeys we enjoy today. His awe would surely turn to disgust if someone tried to explain to Washington the modern-day nightmare that is the Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Commission. For all of the hard work to produce liquor in his time, dealing with the government was easy. Washington was never forced to sell his alcohol exclusively through government-run liquor stores. Or send all the revenue from his sales at Mount Vernon to ABC headquarters, and receive a paltry 46 percent in return. Or pay the nation's third-highest liquor tax. Washington's customers would have been just as frustrated. ABC allows visitors at distilleries to sample no more than three ounces of spirits (served in half-ounce pours), even though they can drink as many IPAs as they want at the local brewery. Virginians often pay significantly more for a bottle of booze than consumers in neighboring states, with the state's high mark-ups and liquor taxes. Virginia's liquor laws are among the worst in the country, but almost every state in the Union has its share of outdated and backward booze laws. These laws survive largely from the post-Prohibition era, when states rushed to fill the federal void. States adopted something called the three-tier system, mandating the separation of producers, wholesalers and retailers of alcohol, something not required of the vast majority American industries. Within this artificial structure, producers of alcohol are forced to sign away their sales rights to third-party distributors, rather than being able to freely sell their spirits directly to consumers. The three-tiered system also produces a patchwork of irrational and comp[...]

Brickbat: Behind the Times

Mon, 25 Sep 2017 04:00:00 -0400

(image) The United Kingdom's National Health Service uses 10 percent of all the world's remaining pagers. It uses 130,000 of the devices at an annual cost of 6.6 million pounds ($8.9 million).

Ohio Republicans Move to Ban Sexting Between Teens

Fri, 22 Sep 2017 11:28:00 -0400

Ohio state lawmakers have proposed a bill that would ban sexting between teenagers, potentially turning thousands of ordinary young Ohioans into sex offenders. Its sponsors are pitching this as a step against overcriminalization, since the state would no longer have to prosecute minors—or anyone ages 18 to 20—with possession of child porn when they consensually exchange explicit pics with their peers. There is some weight to their argument, topsy turvy as it is. Ohio authorities are already bringing charges against young people for sexting with one another, and the only applicable charge is child pornography. The same goes for 18- to 20-year-olds sexting with those slightly younger than them. The bill "is drafted to be sensitive to the age differences of a couple that may have met in high school, where a 17-year-old could conceivably be in a relationship with a 19-year-old," Gretchen Klaber, legislative aide to Rep. Brian Hill (R–97th District), tells me. Hill is co-sponsoring the bill (H.B. 355) with Rep. Jeffrey Rezabek (R–43rd District). It was inspired by a case in Hill's district in which a young man killed himself after being arrested for sexting. "The sponsors of the bill hope to give young people involved in situations like this a second chance with a diversion program, rather than having them permanently labeled as felons and sex offenders," Klaber says. While this might indeed be a step in the right direction, why criminalize sexting between a 17- and a 19-year-old at all? And why explicitly create a crime of sexting between minors of the same age? Legislators could instead amend state statute to exempt teens exchanging pics between themselves, and people a few years over 18 texting with those a few years younger, from laws that treat them as child-porn producers and consumers. Prosecutors could decline to bring these charges against sexting minors, and schools could decline to hand these cases over to cops. Instead, this bill would create the new misdemeanor crime of "possession of sexually explicit digital material," banning the creation, production, distribution, presentation, transmission, posting, exchange, dissemination, or possession "through a telecommunications device any sexually explicit digital material" by anyone under age 21. (An exception would be made for married couples in possession of pictures of a spouse.) The law defines sexually explicitly material as "any photograph or other visual depiction of a minor who is in any condition of nudity or is involved in any sexual activity." Those found guilty of sexting would be sentenced to eight hours of community service, or whatever (greater or lesser) sentence a court sees fit. In some cases, young people could avoid a criminal record by completing anti-sexting education. (The program would not apply to anyone previously convicted of sexting or of any other sex-related offense.) All courts would be required to devise and operate their own "sexting educational diversion program" and may allow people charged under the new sexting statute to do the program as an alternative to prosecution. These programs would focus on not just "legal consequences of and penalties for sharing sexually explicit digital materials" but also the effect of sexting "on relationships, the possible loss of educational and employment opportunities, and the possibility of being barred or removed from school programs and extracurricular activities," and "how the unique characteristics of cyberspace and the internet, including searchability, replicability, and an infinite audience, can produce long-term and unforeseen consequences for sharing sexually explicit digital materials." So sexting teenagers might not get labeled child pornographers, but the[...]

Shove Your Manufactured 'Bodega' Vending Machine Outrage

Thu, 14 Sep 2017 12:50:00 -0400

Today's lesson in "branding in an era of instant outrage": If you are perceived as a "tech bro," tread very carefully. Yesterday, Fast Company introduced the world to a couple of former Google employees who are developing what appears to be a logical tech upgrade to the old vending machine. Here's how Fast Company's writer describes what it does: [It] sets up five-foot-wide pantry boxes filled with non-perishable items you might pick up at a convenience store. An app will allow you to unlock the box and cameras powered with computer vision will register what you've picked up, automatically charging your credit card. The entire process happens without a person actually manning the "store." If an average young American saw one of these during a trip to a Japan, they'd probably take a picture of it and post in Instagram and talk about how adorable it is. "They have vending machines for everything!" they might say. But the two guys behind the company decided to call their innovation "Bodega," after the small neighborhood stores in cities like New York and Los Angeles, and somehow all hell broke loose. Part of the problem was with the way Fast Company reported on Bodega: Two ex-Googlers want to make bodegas and mom-and-pop corner stores obsolete — Fast Company (@FastCompany) September 13, 2017 It's the story, not the company, that pushes the idea that this vending machine is a threat to mom-and-pop shops. The founders merely present their tool as a convenience for places like offices, gyms, and dorms. It's true that if such a machine is placed in an apartment building, it could occasionally save somebody a trip to the nearby store. But even if these little pantries are extremely responsive in adjusting to the residents' needs, there is absolutely no way they're going to replace a bodega in most communities. It's simply not possible. But few actually took the time question the assumption presented by Fast Company and instead decided to be angry on Twitter, accusing the Bodega bros of facilitating gentrification and cultural appropriation and trying to destroy small businesses. And that allowed other media sites—like Teen Vogue here—to piggyback with lazy "here are some angry tweets" journalism. So let's state what should have been immediately obvious to anybody who stopped and looked at this thing for a moment: These "Bodega" machines are more likely to show up in the offices of Teen Vogue than in a community where lower-income or working-class minorities walk to their corner stores. I should know. I live in one of those very communities here in Mid-City Los Angeles. I'm the minority in my own primarily Latino and African-American neighborhood. The bodega a couple blocks over is run by an Indian family (so please stifle the screams of "cultural appropriation"). This is a neighborhood of houses, small apartment buildings, and quadplexes, so there are very few places in my neighborhood where these machines would work the way the company's founders envision at all. And that holds true for huge swathes of the Los Angeles area. The Daily Beast's Spencer Ackerman claimed on Twitter that such machines might create "food deserts." Well, their deployment in my neighborhood would not lead to a food desert. It would lead to Bodega losing money. So this is not a story about gentrification or "evil tech bros" at all. Nevertheless, CEO and co-founder of Bodega Paul McDonald had to go on the internet to apologize for the fact that people were just reflexively outraged for no reason. No, McDonald says, they're not trying to put corner stores out of business: Corner stores have been fixtures of their neighborhoods for generations. They[...]

Groups File Suit to Stop Warrantless Tech Searches at Borders

Wed, 13 Sep 2017 15:30:00 -0400

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) are suing the federal government to stop warrantless searches of tech devices at border entry points. They're representing 10 United States citizens and one permanent resident. Each has faced demands by Department of Homeland Security officials to hand over or allow access to tech devices, such as phones or laptops, when returning to the country. The officials did not have warrants. None of these plaintiffs were accused of any illegal behavior. But officials nevertheless confiscated and/or attempted to access their devices. Some examples of what they dealt with, courtesy of EFF: Plaintiff Diane Maye, a college professor and former U.S. Air Force officer, was detained for two hours at Miami International Airport when coming home from a vacation in Europe in June. "I felt humiliated and violated. I worried that border officers would read my email messages and texts, and look at my photos," she said. "This was my life, and a border officer held it in the palm of his hand. I joined this lawsuit because I strongly believe the government shouldn't have the unfettered power to invade your privacy." Plaintiff Sidd Bikkannavar, an engineer for NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, was detained at the Houston airport on the way home from vacation in Chile. A U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CPB) officer demanded that he reveal the password for his phone. The officer returned the phone a half-hour later, saying that it had been searched using "algorithms." Another plaintiff was subjected to violence. Akram Shibly, an independent filmmaker who lives in upstate New York, was crossing the U.S.-Canada border after a social outing in the Toronto area in January when a CBP officer ordered him to hand over his phone. CBP had just searched his phone three days earlier when he was returning from a work trip in Toronto, so Shibly declined. Officers then physically restrained him, with one choking him and another holding his legs, and took his phone from his pocket. They kept the phone, which was already unlocked, for over an hour before giving it back. Though this lawsuit covers only 11 people, we know that Customs and Border Patrol agents are actually searching thousands of phones and tech devices each month, all without warrants. The lawsuit argues these searches violate the defendants' First and Fourth Amendment rights. It asks the court to enjoin border officials from confiscating or searching anybody's tech devices absent a warrant based on probable cause, and to make them expunge any information they've collected from the plaintiffs' devices. The lawsuit leans on the Supreme Court's decision in Riley v. California in 2014 for support. In that case, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that a warrant was needed to search a person's cellphone when that person is arrested. Historically, though, courts have given federal authorities much more leeway to engage in warrantless searches near the borders. Read the lawsuit, Alasaad v. Duke, here. Note that some members of Congress are trying to fix this problem legislatively by introducing a bill mandating that border officials get warrants before searching the tech devices of Americans crossing the border.[...]