Pluralistic: 20 Apr 2020

tax evasion,stock buybacks,stimulus,there is such a thing as society,denmark,great danes,science fiction,sex,books,coping strategy,early adopters,machine learning,porn,zoom,anu,australia,auspol,education,proctoring, infosec,security,invigilation,education, nyc,transit,scholarship,urban theory,,amazon,antitrust,monopoly,dingo babysitters,a fox for every henhouse,a gator for every swamp,att-time-warner,sprint-t-mobile,institute for local self-reliance,athena,stacy mitchell

Denmark: no bailouts for companies headquartered in tax havens; Zoom claims it uses AI to stop sexytimes; Ten minutes with Coode Street; Australian academic spyware; Cars correlated with contagion in NYC; 94.5% of "small business" money went to giant corporations; Trump's antitrust report card: F-; Amazon is stronger – and weaker – than ever

Pluralistic: 20 Apr 2020


Today's links

Denmark: no bailouts for companies headquartered in tax havens (permalink)

Like the US, Denmark has a bailout that hands out money to corporations that hit by coronavirus. However, in Denmark, only companies that pay their taxes are eligible to receive the bailout. If they are registered in tax-havens, they're excluded.

Also excluded: any company that pays dividends or engages in stock buybacks.

Margaret Thatcher kicked off decades of tax-evasion, lawlessness and sociopathy when she declared "there is no such thing as society."

It turns out there is such a thing as society, and you don't get to choose to join it only when you need it.

Zoom claims it uses AI to stop sexytimes (permalink)

People in lockdown are still horny, so they're organizing virtual videoconference orgies, which is absolutely in keeping with the historic early adoption of technology by the sex industry.

Some of these are mutual affairs, others are performances put on for money by sex-workers.

People are getting really good at videoconferencing, and that's fuelling the boom, because they're good at staging, lighting, sound, camerawork, etc.

But Zoom is really upset about this. They say it violates their terms of service and claim they've written a nudity-detecting AI that monitors all your video streams and will shut down ones that they think have nudity in them.

This is the same Zoom that keeps going back and forth on whether they have end-to-end encryption (the definition of e2e is that it can only be decrypted by the endpoints, that is, the participants, and not the company that provides the service).

Some of the companies that sprang up to make these services available are now folding because they're being blocked from using the major streaming platforms.

Some users are also concerned that their fellow participants could be recording sessions, either using Zoom's recording facility, OS-level screen recorders, or by pointing a camera at their screens.

Before I go, I want to talk a little about why it is that the sex industry is so active in technology. Like you, I grew up being told that somehow, sex goes hand in hand with technophilia.

But John Gilmore explained what was really going on to me and it was a revelation.

The thing is, when a new communications technology comes along, the people who have the most incentive to figure out how to use it are the people for whom the existing technology channels are not working.

Using the thing that already works is free, whereas figuring out something new costs you time and energy. But if you can't use the thing that already works, then expending the effort to learn to use the new thing is a bargain.

Why was porn the first industry to adopt Betamax and then VHS? Because distributing porn movies was much harder than distributing nonpornographic movies. Going to a dirty movie house was stigmatized, and many cities and towns straight up banned these theaters anyway.

That's also why porn adopted 8mm film, Polaroids, etc etc. It's why porn came early to BBSes and Usenet, to 900-line phone numbers, and to the Web.

It's also why everyone else whose communications are disfavored, surveilled or blocked adopt technology.

It's what political radicals, kids, religious extremists, terrorists, conspiracists, and criminals all have in common: using the established communications channels is expensive for them, so it's worth expending the effort to master the new ones.

I think that Zoom is probably bullshitting about using machine learning to catch nudity. ML is terrible at this (see: Tumblr). But the reality is that Zoom asserts the right to decide what subjects you can discuss in your private conversations.

That has serious implications, and not just for the people whose conversations are disfavored today.

Ten minutes with Coode Street (permalink)

The longstanding and brilliant Coode Street sf podcast is running a special pandemic series called "Ten Minutes With…" in which authors talk about how they're coping, what they're reading and what they've got coming up.

Recent guests include Al Reynolds, Ian McDonald, Fran Wilde, Tade Thompson, Liz Williams, Lavie Tidhar, Angela Slatter, Alex Irvine, Tamsyn Muir, Andy Duncan, Ellen Klages, Garth Nix, Naomi Kritzer, Jeffrey Ford, Tochi Onyebuchi, Alix Harrow, Nisi Shawl, Sarah Pinsker…

And most recently…me.

I talk about my current reads (Lauren Beukes's Afterland, Jo Walton's Or What You Will, and Anna Weiner's Uncanny Valley) as well as my upcoming books.

Also, I reveal my coping strategy: I sleep with soft Bluetooth headphones/eyemask through which I play loops of old, beloved Terry Pratchett audiobooks. Yeah, I know.

Here's the MP3 of my episode:

Hope you enjoy it!

Australian academic spyware (permalink)

Students at the Australian National University and other Australian educational institutions have signed up with US "invigilation" companies that produce anti-cheating spyware for students' computers. Students and faculty are furious.

There are lots of reasons not to like this stuff. I wrote a whole article about it last week:

In short:

  • These aren't necessarily "student" laptops – they're often family laptops, shared among many members of a household, and constituting the family's only lifeline to employment, social activity, education, romance, political and civic engagement, etc.
  • Invigilation software, by design, runs even when the owner of the computer tries to stop it from running, and also by design, does not reveal how it works or what measures it takes to keep from being abused
  • By design, invigilation software inspects every file on the computer, covertly operates the camera and mic – some even sniffs network traffic to explore other devices on the same wifi network and ensure none of those are being used to aid cheaters
  • Invigilation software isn't any more secure than other software that is sold to a customer (university IT departments) for mandatory use by someone else (university students)
  • University IT is busier than they have ever, ever been, and are also potentially losing key staff to illness or even death due to the pandemic. IT staff are working remotely and hamstrung when it comes to securing their systems (and they weren't good at it to begin with)
  • If the back-ends of the invigilation tools are compromised, attackers will have the run of students' (and students' families') laptops, including rummaging for employer trade secrets, details for bank and telemedicine logins, and even remote camera/mic access.

So yeah, these are a terrible idea at the best of times, and a catastrophic, irresponsible, reckless and unforgivable idea right now.

They also are a stark highlight of how much Australian tertiary education relies upon pedagogically discredited, useless high-stakes tests.

It's not just students who are fighting this stuff – masses of faculty members are petitioning their universities NOT to use this.

Meanwhile, ANU has produced a hilarious "privacy impact statement" that blithely concludes that "no personal information is sent to or held in the system" and "no third parties will have access to or be provided with the personal information."

It's like we asked them what steps they're taking to fight coronavirus transmission at their grocery store and their answer is "No one will have coronavirus in our store, and if they do, they won't exhale."

Cars correlated with contagion in NYC (permalink)

You may have seen an NBER paper written by MIT's Jeffrey Harris claiming "NYC’s multitentacled subway system was a major disseminator – if not the principal transmission vehicle – of coronavirus during the initial takeoff of the massive epidemic."

It's a really bad paper.

In Market Urbanism, Salim Furth highlights the methodological failings of Harris's paper, showing that infection was negatively correlated with subway use, while there is a strong correlation with "automobile commute sharing" and infection.

The reason for these diverging conclusions from the same data is methodological. Furth gets into some pretty deep weeds on this.

Beyond this one study, Fruth makes this important point: "Globally, transit-dependent cities have not been hit particularly hard."

The pandemic has given a bad-faith weapon to people who've advocated for the abolition of mass transit all along, but the data isn't on their side. Mass transit systems – and the well-organized, highly resourced governments that enable them – are correlated with resilience.

94.5% of "small business" money went to giant corporations (permalink)

Remember the $349B "Paycheck Protection Program" that was supposed to save jobs in small businesses? It's gone and 94.5% of it went to giant corporations, largely owned by private equity funds, who sometimes pocketed the money and declared bankruptcy.

PPP was supposed to give <$10M loans to businesses with <500 employees, but it had massive loopholes, like exemptions for hotel and restaurant chains. That's how Ruth's Chris (5700 employees) got $20M out of the program.

Longview Power is 40% owned by KKR, the notoriously rapacious private equity fund. It got its PPP on Friday and filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy on Tuesday. The bankruptcy turns the PPP loan into pure profit for its new owners.

How did all this "small business" money disappear into the pockets of the largest companies and richest people in America? They lobbied. Like crazy. US lobbying firms have taken on 140 new clients for covid-related projects since the crisis started.

Lobbyists are why "surprise billings" at hospitals were not banned in the stimulus bill (these are unavoidable, massive bills generated by private equity owned doctors' groups that prey on the dying and critically ill and injured).

Today is the deadline for disclosures of lobbying spending and activity during Q1 2020. There's more to come.

Trump's antitrust report card: F- (permalink)

The American Antitrust Institute's report on the Trump administration's handling of antitrust makes for some really grim reading, but it's important stuff.

Starting with Reagan, every president, R or D, has nerfed antitrust law to make it comport with the absurd fantasies of the Nixon co-conspirator Robert Bork, who said monopolies are only a problem when the raise prices in the short term (the "consumer welfare" standard").

But the Trump administration's antitrust approach puts every other president's antitrust malpractice in the shade. Karl Bode's summary is really good on the highlights:

For starters, the Trump admin's signature antitrust achievement – making incoherent noises about Big Tech – has come to less than nothing. In 2017/18, the DOJ's antitrust division opened zero investigations. It's the longest dry spell in division history.

At the same time, Trump's DOJ nerfed the fines it assesses for monopolistic conduct, offering robber-barons a 45% discount on the (already gentle and loving) fines the Obama administration extracted from convicted corporate criminals.

The Trump admin actually switched sides in the suit to block the AT&T-Time; Warner merger and cheered on the T-Mobile-Sprint merger (once T-Mobile's CEO deleted his Trump-critical tweets and started renting rooms at Trump hotels).

The Institute's report covers events before the pandemic crisis. Now that businesses are failing (and 94.5% of the "small business" PPP fund has been gobbled up by huge companies), you can expect waves and waves of mergers and acquisitions.

This, at the moment when we're learning that monopoly ISPs can't be trusted to serve as our societal nervous system, and monopoly ecommerce platforms can't run safe logistics and warehousing, and monopoly videoconferencing platforms can't be trusted with our free expression.

Amazon is stronger – and weaker – than ever (permalink)

The pandemic has made Jeff Bezos – already the world's richest person – $24B richer, but that's not the whole story. Even as Amazon usage has soared to unimaginable heights, another unimaginable thing has happened: its reputation has cratered.

From Amazon warehouse workers' plight (50 coronavirus outbreaks and counting) to warehouse worker walkouts, to firing labor organizers and tech employees who support them, to the company's starring role in neutering Seattle's homelessness measures, it's a LOT of bad news.

It's the moment the Institute for Local Self Reliance has been waiting for, along with Athena, and especially Stacy Mitchell, a board member of the former and founder of the latter. Mitchell is the subject of a long, important profile by the New York Times's David Streitfeld.

The article makes the crucial point that while Amazon has never been more central, it has alse never faced more critical scrutiny. As Rebecca Solnit wrote, the medical meaning of crisis is a "crossroads of recovery and death."

We have two futures before us: one where Amazon takes over from the murdered post office and becomes the gate-keeper, rent-seeker and toll-collector for everything lockdown America does, and one in which the immediacy of that threat galvanizes action.

One thing the article doesn't mention: Amazon has nearly zeroed out its affiliate link system, which encouraged publications large and small to provide free advertising to Amazon in exchange for commissions for the sales these ads generated.

This is a deathknell for publications that depend heavily on this revenue, but just as importantly, it annihilates an army of tacit Amazon cheerleaders – people who might have felt that they weren't swayed by the payments they got from Amazon but almost certainly were.

A week ago, putting curbs on Amazon threatened millions of bloggers, vloggers, news organizations, reviewers, etc. Amazon just alienated all those stakeholders forever (at the company's moment of highest-ever profits!).

That means that Amazon is now in the doghouse with: workers, cities, labor rights groups, environmental groups, trustbusters, homelessness advocates, writers, news organizations, reviewers, small businesses, publishers, writers…

Yes, it's making more money than ever. But it's also more vulnerable than ever. I'm not saying that this is the moment when we will definitely tame Amazon. I'm saying it's the moment when we have the best chance of doing so — so far.

This day in history (permalink)

#15yrsago New copyright bill panders to Christian Right, copyfighters, Hollywood,1283,67269,00.html

#10yrsago Spying school took "thousands" of photos of students with covert webcam app, caught kids sleeping, half-dressed

#10yrsago Magazine by and for the volcano-stranded

#10yrsago Carbon offsets: fraud, exaggeration, and poorly run projects

#1yrago Copyright filters are automatically removing copies of the Mueller Report

Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources: JWZ (, Matthew Rimmer (, Naked Capitalism (, Ernesto Falcon (

Currently writing: My next novel, "The Lost Cause," a post-GND novel about truth and reconciliation. Friday's progress: 539 words (5299 total).

Currently reading: I'm getting really into Anna Weiner's memoir about tech, "Uncanny Valley" and Jo Walton's forthcoming novel "Or What You Will."

Latest podcast: Podcast swap: Wil Wheaton on Little Brother
Upcoming appearances:

Upcoming books: "Poesy the Monster Slayer" (Jul 2020), a picture book about monsters, bedtime, gender, and kicking ass. Pre-order here:

"Attack Surface": The third Little Brother book, Oct 20, 2020.

"Little Brother/Homeland": A reissue omnibus edition with a new introduction by Edward Snowden:

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