Pluralistic: 19 Jun 2020

Today's links

Trump wants to dismantle the OTF (permalink)

For years, Congress allocated funds to the United States Agency for Global Media for the Open Technology Fund, a nonprofit that makes grants to internet freedom tools like Tor and Wireguard, as well as research projects, conferences and initiatives.

I've been a (not hugely active) volunteer member of the advisory board for years, which means that periodically I hear from people who want to know – given the US's long history of overseas spook fuckery – why they shouldn't assume this is a CIA front.

I have a great answer for them! You can tell this isn't a nefarious scheme to backdoor the tools that marginalized and oppressed people around the world (and in the USA) rely on because all that code is free and open. You can audit it for backdoors. Others can too. They have.


The Trump admin wants to nuke the OTF and give all its money to a bunch of grifty, closed-source privacy and firewall-circumvention tools. These tools are NOT auditable, and the companied that make them stand to make BANK from the move.

I have no idea whether these companies are CIA fronts, but I tell you what, if i was a Uyghur in Xinjiang or a dissident in Tehran, I would NOT trust my life to these tools. No goddamned way.

Even if these companies aren't fronts for spooks, they could be in the future. Because if the companies that made these tools – companies that had been dealt a huge favor by the US government – were suborned for surveillance later, it would be very hard to catch them.

OTF's ironclad rule of funding open, free code isn't just a way to allay suspicions about the tools' true purpose – it's also a preventative against corruption, because the projects OTF funds can't insert spy code without being caught right away.

Based on this administration's track record, I'm about 70-30 that this is just a bro deal that lets some cronies suck up millions in corporate welfare while hanging out tools used by vulnerable people around the world to dry.

But even if that's the case, I'm also 70-30 that spook agencies will get a twofer out of it, by suborning the beneficiaries of those bro deals.

Here's the petition. Remember, Congress allocated this money for the OTF, not as pork for a bunch of connected insiders.

This money built the tools that Black Lives Matter protesters use, to say nothing of the Hong Kong protests and many other movements around the world.

It will be a genuine, deep, widespread tragedy if this move isn't stopped.

Algonuts (permalink)

One of my all-time favorite techno-artists is Shardcore, whose experiments in machine learning never fail to delight.

Case in point: Algonuts, his latest project.

Shardcore scraped 18,000 Peanuts scripts (63,800 panels!) and fed them to styleGAN2 to produce a model that generates an uncanny, shifting set of Peanuts panels.

StyleGAN2 is a "generative adversarial network," a tool that uses two competing machine-learning models to produce amazing outcomes.

In a GAN, one model (the generator) makes things in accord with its training data; the other (the discerner) scores the generator's creations based on its training data, either saying "Ooh, that's a good one" or "Nah, try again."

In the way that a predator carves the prey and the prey shapes the predator, the discerner and the generator train one another, ascending a gradient towards uncanny accuracy.

In this case, weirdly plausible Peanuts cartoons from a parallel universe.

Shardcore: "In some ways, the model represents the disembodied essence of the Peanuts aesthetic, but do I have Charles Shulz soul? For many obvious reasons, I do not – this model knows nothing of the motivations, desires and intentions behind Charles Shulz and his works. "

"Does this model represent a threat to this intellectual property? In practical terms, no, not unless I aim to pass off the works as Shulz originals. But even then, at what point does a novel image ‘inspired’ by a body of work constitute a copyright violation?"

Trump's covid "test-tubes" are contaminated miniature soda bottles (permalink)

The Trump admin has awarded 2.6B in coronavirus contracts to first-time bidders, many of them unqualified grifters who played Trump and his administration for suckers and got away clean.

Exhibit A: Fillakit LLC, who got $7.3m to provide sterile test-tubes. Instead, they shipped FEMA soda-bottle "preforms" – these are miniature soda-bottles that you fit into a pressure blower that inflates them up 2l bottles.

Not only are these miniature soda-bottles and not test-tubes, they are also in NO WAY sterile. Here's how they were packed:

"Fillakit employees, some not wearing masks, gathered the miniature soda bottles with snow shovels and dumped them into plastic bins before squirting saline into them, all in the open air."

Writing for Propublica, J David McSwane and Ryan Gabrielson paint a picture of a semi-competent conman who made a fortune while helping to destroy America's capacity to fight the pandemic of the century, abetting mass murder and economic collapse.

It's not surprising Fillakit had never earned a federal contract prior to coronavirus. The company was formed "just six days" before it won its contract.

Its founder? Paul Wexler, "an ex-telemarketer repeatedly accused of fraudulent practices over the past two decades."

But, you know, maybe tiny, contaminated soda bottles have some medical value?

"They’re the most unusable tubes I’ve ever seen. They’re going to sit in a warehouse and no one can use them. We won’t be able to do our full plan." – "top public health official," unnamed state.

"Wexler, Fillakit’s owner, has a background in law and real estate, not medical supplies. In 2012, the Federal Trade Commission accused Wexler and his telemarketing firm of illegal robocalling, making unauthorized charges to consumers’ bank accounts and falsely claiming to be a nonprofit org. Wexler’s firm allegedly misrepresented itself as a credit counseling service for several years, charging customers for work it did not do, according to court records."

"Wexler denied a request to tour the warehouse. Asked about the lack of sterile conditions and the use of soda preforms, Wexler screamed, 'What’s your problem, man?'"

(He seems nice.)

To recap: a telemarketing grifter with a background in real estate sold Trump $7.3m worth of fake, contaminated test-tubes that undermined multiple states' covid testing capacity.

Ladeez and gennulmun, I give you: the art of the deal!

Avia, c'est mort (permalink)

Last month, France adopted the Avia bill, a law that gave online platforms one hour to remove terrorist speech. This law was not a good law.

Start with whether France's authorities use such powers wisely.

They do not.

A year ago, the French Internet Referral Unit sent notice to the Internet Archive demanding the removal of more than 15,000,000 documents for violating anti-terrorism rules. These documents included the Archive's repository of Grateful Dead music.

Thankfully, France's highest court has struck down these provisions of Avia, partly in response to an amicus brief filed by EFF.

"We applaud the court for recognizing that citizens’ rights of free speech and expression are paramount in a democratic society, and the bill’s deadlines for removal were so inflexible and extreme that those rights would be violated under France’s constitution." -Christoph Schmon.

Austerity in disrepute (permalink)

A new poll from Morning Consult and Politico finds that >75% of Americans favor maintaining or expanding the extended unemployment payments from the pandemic stimulus bills.

But GOP politicians intend to terminate the payments, and they've been clear about why: poor people won't risk death or permanent disability in order to serve cocktails or give manicures unless the alternative is homelessness and starvation.

This is a monumentally unpopular position, with only 13% support nationwide (even limiting the poll to registered Republicans yields a mere 21% support).

Microsoft criticizes Apple's monopolism (permalink)

Microsoft knows a monopoly when it sees one!

The company has made a veiled accusation of antitrust violations against Apple for the way it operates its App Stores (the company spoke out against app stores in general).

Micros~1's president Brad Smith spoke on the issue in a Politico videoconference, citing the "rules," "the prices," and "the tolls."

Smith's remarks come as EU antimonopoly regulators launched an investigation into Apple's store.

While the issues – pricing, terms, etc – are the easiest to point at and study, they are effects, not causes, of anticompetitive action.

The root cause is lock-in. Apple's mobile devices are designed so that owners of these devices can only buy their apps from Apple.

Section 1201 of the US Digital Millennium Copyright Act and Article 6 of the EU Copyright Directive both hold criminal and civil sanctions for rivals that offer to install competing stores in Apple's devices (and other devices that use DRM to enforce app store monopolies).

Apple has vigorously defended this radical interpretation of copyright law, insisting that copyright is somehow served when a copyright owner – a software developer who made an app – is prohibited by law from selling their work to Apple customers without Apple's blessing.

Apple's store policies have been unilaterally altered at several junctions in Apple's history, often to the detriment of Apple's software vendors. These vendors weren't able to respond by selling their apps in a rival's store.

This is an absolutely unequivocal anticompetitive environment. It literally forbids competition. You don't get more anticompetitive than that.

But Microsoft is still playing with fire. After a period of battle-scarred forbearance following from the DoJ's failed antitrust action against the company, it has returned to its monopolistic ways with real gusto.

Much of the company's "growth" has been acquisitions – Microsoft isn't a "making things" company, it's a "buying things" company.

It's true that US regulators have all but abandoned this element of antitrust law, but it's still there, waiting.

If Microsoft thinks it can wake America's antitrust guardians from their 40-year slumber merely to attack Apple's App Stores, they're in for a rude shock. If App Stores wake them, they will not return to their hibernation. They'll keep going.

To be fair to Microsoft, they're not alone in thinking that antitrust may be for thee, not me. Cable monopolists have lobbied hard for antitrust enforcement against the tech companies that wanted Net Neutrality and other tech-friendly, telecoms-unfriendly policies.

They, too, are sadly mistaken. If antitrust takes on tech as an appetizer, there are plenty of other concentrated industries, from cable to cosmetics, banking to eyewear, oil to chickens, for them to enjoy for dinner.

This day in history (permalink)

#1yrago UK government quietly cancels "age verification" system that would have compiled a database of every Briton's sexual fantasies

#1yrago Multilingual "red cards" to help immigrants assert their rights during ICE shakedowns

#1yrago KPMG is in the middle of an unbelievably dirty cheating scandal that keeps on getting uglier

#1yrago To help the news business, subject Big Tech to antitrust — but don't forget Big News's antitrust problem

#1yrago Ajit Pai promised that killing Net Neutrality would spur investment and improve service: a year later, service and investment have declined

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. Yesterday's progress: 533 words (29183 total).

  • A short story, "Making Hay," for MIT Tech Review. Yesterday's progress: 335 words (1934 total)

Currently reading: Adventures of a Dwergish Girl, Daniel Pinkwater

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