Pluralistic: 08 Aug 2020

Today's links

Peter Thiel was right (permalink)

Peter Thiel styles himself a defender of liberty, and every time he does, someone points out this article he wrote in which he said that democracy is incompatible with freedom and women shouldn't be allowed to vote.

He's right: the capitalist freedom – to have dominion over how your capital is worked by laborers – is in tension with democracy. Richard D Wolff's "Why capitalism is in constant conflict with democracy" lays it out with admirable clarity.

The owner of a business is the dictator of the business. They have the final say over who is hired and fired, and what workers must do on the job.

Workers can quit (assuming they haven't been coerced into noncompete clauses and that they aren't trapped in a monopsonic market for their labor), but they don't get a vote.

But they DO get a vote when they're not on the job – they get a vote at the ballot box, where it's one person, one vote. There are a lot more workers than bosses, so, in theory, workers can vote for laws that make workplaces more democratic.

They can vote for pro-union laws, for labor protections, for antidiscrimination laws, for health and safety rules, for rules banning sexual harassment and discrimination based on race, sex, politics, sexuality, age, etc.

The boss's freedom to be the boss can be taken away by the workers' freedom to vote for laws that boss the bosses around. Socialists have said this for centuries, but capitalists usually pretend it's not true. Thiel just said the quiet part aloud.

In a democracy, the freedom of bosses is dependent on getting workers to vote against their freedom to boss bosses around. When this fails, bosses often back military dictatorships, in the name of (boss) freedom.

That's why "freedom advocates" like Hayek and Friedman flew to Chile to help Pinochet kidnap and murder his political opponents. The opposition's freedom to advocate for democracy was in conflict with bosses' freedom to be bosses.

But military dictatorships are the last resort. Before we get to military dictatorships, bosses just try to get turkeys to vote for Christmas.

They might tell the turkeys that they're temporarily embarrassed millionaires, and any anti-boss laws will bite them in the ass when they, too, become bosses.

But when decades of wage stagnation, declining standard of living, and precarity make the story of future millionairedom harder to believe, bosses usually just start smashing the racism button.

"Turkeys of America! If you want to keep the chickens, ducks and other undeserving foreign poultry out of the farmyard, VOTE FOR THE CHRISTMAS PARTY THIS NOVEMBER!"

Republicans are better at getting turkeys to vote for Christmas than Democrats are, though both parties try. Also, Republicans really throw amazing Christmas feasts with a lot of really delicious turkey for the invited guests: tax cuts, deregulation, anti-union laws.

But when the GOP loses elections, the farmer class simply switches sides and backs pro-Christmas Democrats. The Democratic party has a strong pro-turkey/anti-Christmas faction, and suppressing that wing becomes the Dems' major project – moreso even than defeating the GOP.

This all gets a lot hotter during crises, and this is the worst crisis in a century (though worse ones are ahead of us, thanks to the climate emergency).

Wolff: "Endless political maneuvers around hegemonic blocs with alternative sections of the employees allowed capitalism to survive. However, eventually those contradictions would exceed the capacity of hegemonic maneuvers to contain and control them. A pandemic combined with a major economic crash may provoke and enable progressives to make the break, change U.S. politics, and realize the long-overdue social changes."

(In case you were wondering, Thiel thinks women shouldn't be allowed to vote because they're more likely to want to keep children from starving and so they'll vote to make rich people feed them).

(Image: Chetsford, CC BY-SA, modified)

Google bans anticompetitive vocabularies (permalink)

Google is facing anti-monopoly enforcement action in the EU and the USA and the UK, with more to come, and the company is starting to get nervous.

It's just issued guidance to employees advising them against using words in their internal comms that would be smoking guns in these investigations: "market," "barriers to entry," and "network effects" among them.

The memo detailing the new linguistic rules leaked to The Markup, with the anodyne title "Five Rules of Thumb for Written Communications.”

The memo cites other companies that got into trouble when internal memos came to light, such as Microsoft's infamous stated internal goal of "cutting off Netscape's air supply." It advises workers to discuss their plans in pro-competition terms.

Googlers are advised to discuss customer retention through product quality, not through "stickiness" or other euphemisms for lock-in; to explain how new products will succeed without "leveraging" existing successes, and to steer clear of "scale effects" as corporate goals.

They're enjoined from celebrating Google's market dominance, to discuss how Google "dominates or controls" its markets, or even to estimate what share of a market Google controls. They're also not allowed to define their markets, which would let other estimate their share.

This is going to make for some tortured backflips! Google's going to struggle to (say) improve "search" without defining what "search" is.

Ironically for a leaked doc, the doc advises the reader to assume every doc their produce will leak (!), but OTOH, points for realism.

For me, the most interesting thing about the memo is that it marks a serious turning-point in the way that business leaders talk about competition. Peter Thiel famously said that "competition is for losers."

Thiel's the quiet-part-aloud guy, but he's not alone. Famous investors like Warren Buffet and Andreesen-Horowitz openly boast of a preference for investing in monopolies, and creating monopolies is Softbank's stated purpose.

Every pirate wants to be an admiral. Capitalists who dream of dominance want competition. Capitalists who attain dominance want to abolish it.

Free the law (permalink)

We think of laws as being the texts of bills that pass out of Congress and get signed by the president. But the law is really defined by the judicial interpretation of those bills – the transcripts and outcomes of court cases.

These are in the public domain (like all US government works) but they cost $0.10/page to access, through a Clinton-era system called PACER that is literally just a drive full of PDFs that isn't even searchable.

The system is supposed to run on a break-even basis, but it pulls in more than $150m/year (again, for a drive full of PDFs). PACER remains the world's largest paywall, though activists have worked hard to chip away at it.

For example, RECAP is a browser plugin for PACER users; when you pay for a page, RECAP sends a copy of it to the Internet Archive for open access. Other RECAP users who request that page from PACER are automatically redirected to the free RECAP copy.

RECAP has turned up all kinds of dirty secrets about the "the secretive, hierarchical judicial branch."

When Aaron Swartz and friends liberated a huge tranche of PACER docs, they discovered that court clerks were not redacting victims' personal info – SSNs, the names and home addresses of sexual assault survivors (including children), etc.

They blew the whistle on the courts and in retaliation, the FBI investigated Aaron for "stealing" these public domain court records.

Aaron beat the rap, but the same prosecutors and Feebs that he thwarted came after him for downloading scientific articles from MIT's network and hounded him to his suicide in 2013.

RECAP's comrades-in-arms are the Free Law Project, who have liberated massive tranches of US law from PACER's paywall:

In 2016, a district court ruled that PACER had to operate on a break-even basis – not extract additional revenues to fund unrelated courtroom expenses. The US Government appealed, and, last week, they lost.

The ruling should end this, but it won't. The as Fix The Court's Gabe Roth told Bloomberg, the courts are likely to continue arguing that a networked drive full of PDFs costs $100m/year to operate, and keep charging Americans to find out what the law says.

But on the plus side, the appeals court ordered the DoJ to reimburse people who paid too much to read the law.

The latest budget request from the judiciary seeks $142m for PACER (again, this is a networked hard-drive full of PDFs).

Jailed for pen-testing (permalink)

Last year, the information security world was baffled and frustrated by the tale of Justin Wynn and Gary DeMercurio, penetration testers who were hired to break into a Des Moines courthouse by its managers, then arrested for fulfilling their contract.

Penetration testers evaluate the security of physical and digital systems by breaking into them, with permission from their owners, as a way of identifying and shoring up weaknesses. Wynn and DeMercurio work for Coalfire, a leading pen-tester company.

The state of Iowa hired Coalfire to break into its Dallas County courthouse. Wynn and DeMercurio picked the locks, entered the building, and, as instructed, they left the alarm armed, and set out to see how much data they could get before it brought a response.

The tale of how they landed in jail for doing their jobs is a taut technothriller-cum-legal-thriller, narrated by Andy Greenberg for Wired.

Greenberg describes how the testers waited for the police to arrive, presented themselves to the officers, identified themselves, and explained that they were supposed to be doing this, showing them an official letter from the State of Iowa authorizing them.

But the Dallas County Sheriff Chad Leonard didn't care: the courthouse was county property, not state property, so the pen-testers were trespassing. He ordered their arrest on trespassing and felony burglary charges.

The "Kafkaesque small-town politics" mired Wynn and DeMercurio in a long legal wrangle – but the real story is how easy it was for them to break into all five of the buildings they'd been hired to investigate, and how easy it would have been for them to subvert justice.

"We could have fixed a case… corrupted evidence… identified jurors. You name it." -DeMercurio

Some of their tactics were cool and high-tech – using compressed air to trick an infrared sensor and open a door.

But a lot of the time, security was much simpler to defeat some doors were so flimsy they could be opened by pushing them until they flexed enough to reach around them and push the crash-bar.

But that wasn't Sheriff Leonard's concern: he was more worried about his turf, defying state orders to let the pen-testers go and telling state officials he considered them "accessories" to a crime.

To make things worse, the magistrate who arraigned them, Judge Andrea Flanagan, refused to believe their story, despite their official letters from her own employer, Iowa's judiciary: "You’re going to have to come up with a better story than that."

And the prosecutor successfully argued that because they were out-of-staters, they needed high bail. The fact that none of the Iowa officials who'd hired them bothered to show up did not help – the state was now "disavowing" the contract

The state issued a release apologizing to the counties, saying that they hadn't "intended, or anticipated, [Coalfire’s] efforts to include the forced entry into a building." Later, it claimed it hadn't even been aware of parts of the op, that it has explicitly authorized.

All of this was bullshit. An outside law-firm hired to investigate the matter concluded that Iowa explictly hired Coalfire to perform "physical attacks" on its buildings and to "focus on breaking in after hours."

To its credit, Coalfire ignored legal advice to throw Wynn and DeMercurio under the bus, and continued to work in their defense.

Meanwhile, Iowa officialdom arranged a circular firing squad, with apologies from the Chief Justice of its Supreme Court, angry grandstanding from state senator Tony Bisignano, and threats of charges against the state officials that hired Coalfire.

(It may be that the only thing that saved those officials from arrest was the sudden death of the Supreme Court's Chief Justice and the chaos that ensued).

Iowa prosecutors offered Wynn and DeMercurio the chance to plea down to misdemeanors. They refused. Finally, the charges were dropped. State senators are still calling pen-testers "bandits" in public.

It's not clear whether any of the vulnerabilities Wynn and DeMercurio identified have been addressed.

They gave a presentation on their order at last week's Black Hat:

This day in history (permalink)

#10yrsago Resistance: YA comic about the kids who served in the French resistance

#1yrago The voting machines that local officials swore were not connected to the internet have been connected to the internet for years

#1yrago As police scrutiny tightens, Hong Kongers use Tinder and Pokemon Go to organize protests

#1yrago Group sex dating app has "the worst security for any dating app"

#1yrago Uber projected $8b in losses for 2019, but it just booked $5.2b in losses in a single quarter

Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources: Andy Greenberg (, Naked Capitalism (, Slashdot (<a (47252="" (part="" 12),="" 543="" <a="" a="" about="" and="" cause,"="" comes="" currently="" deficit="" href="" kelton="" leaves="" lost="" myth,="" novel="" post-gnd="" progress:="" reading:="" reconciliation.="" someone="" stephanie="" the="" to="" total).="" town="" town,="" truth="" words="" yesterday's="">

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When life gives you SARS, you make sarsaparilla -Joey "Accordion Guy" DeVilla