Pluralistic: 13 Jun 2020

Today's links

Hank Green and me in conversation (permalink)

On July 7, Hank Green's publishing "A Beautifully Foolish Endeavor," the sequel to his outstanding 2018 debut "An Absolutely Remarkable Thing."

That also happens to be the day that Tor is reissuing Little Brother and its sequel Homeland, in a new omnibus edition with an intro by Edward Snowden (!).

I read "Endeavor" for a blurb and just loved it, so when Hank asked me if I'd do a virtual bookstore event on Jul 10 with Minneapolis's Magers and Quinn as part of his tour, of course I said yes!

Hank's virtual tour includes several other stops, many with his brother John Green, and also with Ashley C Ford and Roman Mars.

Facebook Workplace can block employees from discussing unionization (permalink)

Facebook makes a Slack competitor called "Facebook Workplace," with marquee customers like the government of Singapore, Walmart, Discovery Communications, Starbucks, and Campbell Soup Corporation.

On Wednesday, the company demonstrated a new suite of features for Workplace, including the ability to censor certain words or topics from the system. The example they chose? "Unionize."

The company took the presentation down the next day and told Lee Fang that "this example was poorly chosen and should never have been used. The feature was only in early development and we’ve pulled any plans to roll it out while we think through next steps."

As Fang points out, Facebook has a curious approach to content moderation, maintaining that it cannot remove Donald Trump's calls for protesters to be shot, while equipping employers with tools to prevent employees from discussing collective bargaining.

This is particularly salient in an age of telework, where employees may no longer be gathering face to face (and indeed, many tech workplaces are proposing to continue telework after the pandemic is over).

In the time of the company town, firms used the pretense that they owned the houses workers slept in and the streets they walked to work as an excuse to ban labor organizing, saying that these activities were banned by the owners of this private property.

We've inverted this in the 21st century, where your employer can force you to convert your private home into a branch office of their company, and then order you to conduct yourself as though you were on their property.

Such an obviously inequitable demand won't work on its own: it needs an enforcement mechanism. Your employer isn't ready to send Pinkertons with fixed bayonets to your spare room (yet), but Facebook, as ever, is ready to be the robopinkerton, omnipresent and ever-vigilant.

Secrets of a seventeen year old scraper (permalink)

Even if you don't follow Avi Schiffmann, you're probably familiar with the 17-year-old's work: he's the creator of and, the two leading tracking tools for covid cases and protests you can join.

In an interview with Tanya Basu for MIT Tech Review, Schiffmann describes how he taught himself to build these dashboards when he made a site that scraped his school's athletic stats portal and made it legible and useful.

When he decided to use those skills to build his covid tracker, he put a call out on some coding sites and attracted a dozen high-school aged volunteers, many in Asia, who helped write the scrapers that pull in the data for

As the project grew more sophisticated and then begat his protest tracker, he used online tutorials and communities to acquire the knowledge he needed to overcome new challenges ("The thing is, you can learn anything online").

Since the first days of the maker movement, it's been clear that the ability to search and discuss is the major thing that differentiates "makers" from earlier generations of tinkerers, like the radio and electronics hobbyists that kept Modern Mechanix in business.

Schiffmann is a self-confessed "bad student" with a 1.7GPA and 60% attendance, which he attributes to his consuming passion for his programming projects. It's a testament to how much of pedagogy turns on getting out of the student's way when their passions are inflamed.

I read my first novel – Alice in Wonderland – one day in second grade. I pulled it off the shelf before class started and sat on the carpet to read it, and my teacher, Bev Panikkar, saw that I was engrossed in it and didn't call me to class.

She let me sit there for two consecutive school days while I read, and while I was kicking off a lifelong passion for literature (also, I married a woman called Alice!).

As interesting as the pedagogical and makerish implications of Schiffmann's story, I'm also fascinated by the role that scraping plays in making these essential information resources.

Scraping went from a honorable practice (the core of Google Search, for example) to a potential felony over the course of decades, as companies that made their fortunes scraping others turned around and sued, banned and blocked anyone who returned the favor.

But scraping is one of the key tools for attaining Adversarial Interoperability, which once kept tech dynamic and responsive to users, and the absence of which has contributed greatly to its stagnation and corruption.

Facebook endorses Terra Nullius (permalink)

The people who perpetrated genocidal settler colonialism needed a way to square their slaughter and theft with their conception of themselves as moral actors. They settled their consciences with the doctrine of "terra nullius."

Terra nullius – empty land – is a variation on Locke's labor theory of value, the idea that the only thing you can be said to truly own is your body and its labor, and when you blend your labor with natural resources, the finished product is yours.

Locke is a key grifter thinkfluencer, because at the core of Locke's theory is the idea that there are natural things that no one else is using for you to come along and pick up and blend with your labor to turn into property.

Inevitably "stuff no one is using" turns out to be a fancy way of saying "stuff that is widely used by people I consider to be subhuman."

So when settler colonialists arrived in Australia, they declared it to be empty land, and the people who'd lived there for as long as behaviorally modern humans have existed to be non-persons.

This relegation to subhuman status created the conditions for genocide, enslavement, torture, rape, and more.

The Australian establishment's means of escaping this legacy is to simply pretend it doesn't exist.

That's why Australian PM (and noted piece of shit) Scott Morrison's response to the Black Lives Matter protests in Australia by flatly stating that there was "no slavery in Australia" and accusing protesters of not being "honest about our history."

Morrison's claims are easily refuted. For example, the State Library of Western Australia has an 1896 image of enslaved aboriginal people in neck-chains, outside Roebourne Gaol. This image was posted to Facebook as part of the discourse of Australia's history of slavery.

But it was immediately removed by Facebook's nudity filter, a fully automated machine learning system that enforces the system's "community standards." The user who posted it had his account restricted in punishment for violating these standards.

Facebook removed 39.5m "nudity" images in the first quarter of this year. At that rate, you won't be surprised to learn that more than 99% of these removals were fully automated and untouched by human hands.

It's true that FB is largely free from nudity, and this fact is often cited by advocates of other kinds of filtering – say, copyright filtering – as evidence that FB COULD block the content they object to, but it chooses not to.

In a sense, those critics are correct. FB has demonstrated that it is willing to accept immense collateral damage from its filtering – whether that's censoring survivors of terrorist atrocities in the name of filtering out "extremist content."

Or blocking images that prove the genocidal history of a nation at a moment when its leadership is denying that history even exists.

FB doesn't intend to block this speech, but it knows this "overblocking" is inevitable when it turns over moderation to automated filters.

By its actions, FB is telling us that this is an acceptable price to pay.

But that doesn't mean that filtering on broader criteria – harassment, profanity, libel, copyright infringement – is just more of the same. These categories are FAR broader than "nudity."

What's more, the consequences of overblocking are far more damaging to the purpose these filters are supposed to serve. A copyright filter that is supposed to protect artists and then goes on to censor artistic work that's mistaken for infringement harms artists.

An "extremist content" filter that is supposed to protect us from terrorist violence and then goes on to block the images and stories of survivors of that violence literally adds insult to injury.

An anti-harassment filter that blocks the discussions of harassment targets who describe the words used to harass them helps harassers, not their victims.

FB got 2.5 million takedown appeals in Q1/2020, and restored 613,000 pieces of content. Even if you accept the dubious claim that FB's human checkers got it right, that's 613,000 acts of illegitimate censorship.

As for the photo of the enslaved aboriginal people, it was restored too — after The Guardian's Josh Taylor asked FB embarrassing questions about the removal.

"Getting reporters to take up your cause" is not a scalable solution to errors in mass automated filtering.

FB can't moderate at scale. No one can. Adding filters "works" in the sense that you can block most "bad content" if you don't care how much good content gets blocked by mistake alongside of it.

And the fallout from this overblocking is not evenly distributed. Not only are some disfavored minorities (sex workers, queer people, people of color) more likely to have their discussions censored.

They're also less likely to have access to reporters who'll embarrass FB and it into taking action.

The answer isn't to lard FB with more censorship duties for it to fuck up even worse – it's to cut FB down to size, to a scale where communities can set and enforce norms.

Because the problem with FB isn't merely that Mark Zuckerberg is uniquely unsuited to making decisions about the social lives and political discourse of 2.6 billion people.

It's that no one is capable of doing that job. That job should not exist.

PS: Scott Morrisson retracted his no-slavery claim:

PPS: if you try to post about this to FB, your post will be blocked for "nudity".

This day in history (permalink)

#15yrsago Tiny cartoon penis disqualifies Ulysses comic from iPad store

#15yrsago Using Wikipedia entry as a pandemic-prevention clearinghouse,F2400_P1001_PUB_MAIL_ID:1000,29165

#10yrago Peer review provides £209,976,000 public subsidy to commercial publishers

#5yrago Man who channels alien from the future bombards Tumblr GIF artists with takedown notices

#5yrsago Unicorn on a Roll: more comics in the tradition of Calvin and Hobbes

#5yrsago Man Who Sold the Moon wins the Sturgeon Award!

#5yrsago Terry Pratchett's daughter says she will not write or authorize more Discworld books

#5yrsago US Government Office of Personnel Management has a second, much worse breach

#1yrago Facebook execs are worried that Zuck's emails show he never took his FTC privacy obligations seriously

#1yrago Hong Kong's #612strike protest movement: a million strong, leaderless, wireless and smart as hell

#1yrago Couture fashion company Vetements is selling an unauthorized €800 Pirate Bay hoodie

#1yrago In Alabama, it's traditional for sheriffs who lose their elections to steal and waste money, destroy public property

#1yrago After American juvenile offenders are released, they can be re-imprisoned for failing to make restitution payments

#1yrago Majority of American millionaires support a wealth tax on American millionaires

Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources: Naked Capitalism (, Slashdot (

Currently writing:

  • My next novel, "The Lost Cause," a post-GND novel about truth and reconciliation. Friday's progress: 505 words (26982 total).

  • A short story, "Making Hay," for MIT Tech Review. Friday's progress: 334 words (657 total)

Currently reading: Adventures of a Dwergish Girl, Daniel Pinkwater

Latest podcast: How Big Tech Monopolies Distort Our Public Discourse

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

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One thought on “Pluralistic: 13 Jun 2020”

  1. “No, sir, I was not discussing organizing; merely combining 2 or more sets of enum flags!”

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