Pluralistic: 15 Aug 2020

Today's links

AI, 1A and Citizens United (permalink)

You've heard of Clearview AI: they're the grifty facial recognition system with ties to violent white nationalist terrorists that scraped social media for training data and then covertly sold unsupervised access to cops, schools and businesses.

As the Clearview story dribbled out in the press, the company insisted that it was a responsible custodian of our faces and could be relied upon to wield power with prudence and caution.

Then its entire customer database leaked.

The company's in legal trouble but it has deep pockets, thanks to the public monies it has trousered and the wealthy investors who showered it with capital – men like John Catsimatidis, owner of New York's Gristedes groceries.

That capital has allowed to company to acquire a terrifying legal weapon: the services of Floyd Abrams, the "First Amendment" lawyer who successfully argued Citizens United, clearing the way for unlimited corporate bribery in the US political process.

Abrams's argument is that there is a speech interest in Clearview's ability to flog our faces to governments and corporations, that this is "talking about us" and thus "speech" protected by the First Amendment.

Now, I know a lot of really top-notch #1A lawyers, and some true Free Speech believers, and collectively, they sometimes support things I do not – defending the speech rights of people who want to exterminate others' speech rights, say.

Likewise, they sometimes fail to champion causes I believe in, like the need to enforce competition law to protect pluralism in venues for speech so that firms do not end up with undue control over our public discourse.

But despite these differences, I respect these people, because they have a consistent set of well-articulated principles that come from a place of deep moral conviction that is ultimately grounded in protecting the views of disfavored minorities from bullies and autocrats.

Floyd Abrams's positions do not hew to that honest morality. Instead, he defends contradictory speech positions seemingly based on who is signing his paycheck.

For example, he argued that SOPA – which would remove internet users' speech without due process in the name of defending copyright – did not violate the First Amendment.

As EFF Exec Director Cindy Cohn likes to say, "We know you love the First Amendment, sir, we just wish you'd share."

As is so often the case with Abrams's speech positions, this Clearview business will has profound implications for our democratic fundamentals. In this case, the idea that the First Amendment protects the conveyance of private information is irreconcilable with privacy law.

That is: if laws restricting the disclosure of private information violate the First Amendment, then your privacy violates my right to free speech: I can spy on you and everything you do, and sell or give away the information I glean, and you can't do shit about it.

A precedent upholding Clearview's right to sell our faces would be a potentially fatal blow to the longrunning, hard-fought battle to get a US federal privacy statute with a private right of action, something this country desperately needs.

Which is ironic, because the Constitutional bases for so many US privacy decisions turn on the First Amendment: your ability to speak freely depends on your ability to speak privately, so that powerful entities like Abrams's clients can't retaliate against you.

Meanwhile, I'm guessing Abrams would – if paid – argue that nondisclosure agreements crammed down the throats of employees and other people with weak negotiating positions DON'T violate the 1A, because people like Abrams love the First Amendment, but never want to share.

(Image: Cryteria, CC BY, modified)

James Ball's "The System" (permalink)

"The System" is a new book by James Ball, a Pulitzer-winning veteran of both Wikileaks and The Guardian's Snowden team; I reviewed it for this month's issue of The Spectator.

It's great.

The conceit of The System is fiendishly clever and effective: Ball explains how each layer of the internet works, starting with the wires and working his way up the stack through protocol designers, governance, businesses, regulators, reformers and revolutionaries.

Each chapter is a mix of admirably clear explanations of often abstruse and technical systems, and keen-eyed profiles of representative individuals involved in them – storytelling and exposition, playing off against one another.

As I write in my review, I am very familiar with Ball's subjects. I've picketed some of them, eulogized others at their funerals, and at one point, he visits my workplace. I feel justified in my confidence when I say he really captures what's going on.

And knowing what's going on is really important. There's no longer any argument that digital rights are human rights, not during a pandemic that transformed the internet from a system that is involved in all our activities to one that is required for all our activities.

And the internet is broken: uncompetitive, stagnant, coopted by oppressive autocrats and corporate sociopaths. We must understand it so we can fix it. Reading Ball's work will help with the first part.

The second part is up to us.

Canadian SFF Hall of Fame induction (permalink)

A reminder: I'm being inducted into the Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame today at 4PM Pacific/7PM Eastern, during the Prix Aurora Awards, which will livestream here:

As I wrote earlier this week, this is a very special moment for me, not merely because of the incredible honour, but because of the company it puts me in: the women like Judith Merril, Tanya Huff and Lorna Toolis who mentored me when I was becoming a writer.

It's one thing to be recognised for your work, another altogether to be placed in the company of people who did so much good for the community and the arts.

I hope to see you there. I will try very hard not to weep openly.

This day in history (permalink)

#15yrsago Babies on the no-fly list;=printable

#15yrsago Windows on a PSP

#15yrsago Lloyds of London to offer insurance for corporate open source users

#5yrsago Pre-crime: DHS admits that it puts people on the no-fly list based on "predictive assessment"

#5yrsago Furiosa's tampon ad

#5yrsago Exotic polyhedra: RPG dice made from carbon fiber, marble, bourbon barrels

#5yrsago Miami police union smears woman who posted video of cop beating handcuffed suspect in police cruiser

#5yrsago AT&T; was the NSA's enthusiastic top surveillance partner

#5yrsago Stephen Harper will use 12-18 year old junior rangers to fight the Russians

#1yrago Defeating Apple's Faceid's proof-of-life by putting tape over glasses' lenses

#1yrago Amazon pays happy warehouse workers to tweet about how happy they are whenever someone complains about warehouse conditions

#1yrago Wework loses $5200/customer, lost $1.3B in H1/2019

#1yrago Googlers circulate petition demanding a moratorium on contracts with US border agencies

Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources: Naked Capitalism (

Currently writing:

  • My next novel, "The Lost Cause," a post-GND novel about truth and reconciliation. Friday's progress: 570 words (50048 total).

Currently reading: Null Set, SL Huang; How to Argue with a Racist, Adam Rutherford.

Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town (part 12),

Upcoming appearances:

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