Pluralistic: 08 Sep 2020

Today's links

My first-ever Kickstarter (permalink)

I have a favor to ask of you. I don't often ask readers for stuff, but this is maybe the most important ask of my career. It's a Kickstarter – I know, 'another crowdfunder?' – but it's:

a) Really cool;

b) Potentially transformative for publishing.

c) Anti-monopolistic

Here's the tldr: Attack Surface – AKA Little Brother 3- is coming out in 5 weeks. I retained audio rights and produced an amazing edition that Audible refuses to carry. You can pre-order the audiobook, ebook (and previous volumes), DRM- and EULA-free.

That's the summary, but the details matter. First: the book itself. ATTACK SURFACE is a standalone Little Brother book about Masha, the young woman from the start and end of the other two books; unlike Marcus, who fights surveillance tech, Masha builds it.

Attack Surface is the story of how Masha has a long-overdue moral reckoning with the way that her work has hurt people, something she finally grapples with when she comes home to San Francisco.

Masha learns her childhood best friend is leading a BLM-style uprising – and she's being targeted by the same cyberweapons that Masha built to hunt Iraqi insurgents and post-Soviet democracy movements.

I wrote Little Brother in 2006, it came out in 2008, and people tell me it's "prescient" because the digital human rights issues it grapples with – high-tech authoritarianism and high-tech resistance – are so present in our current world.

But it's not so much prescient as observant. I wrote Little Brother during the Bush administration's vicious, relentless, tech-driven war on human rights. Little Brother was a bet that these would not get better on their own.

And it was a bet that tales of seizing the means of computation would inspire people to take up digital arms of their own. It worked. Hundreds of cryptographers, security experts, cyberlawyers, etc have told me that Little Brother started them on their paths.

ATTACK SURFACE – a technothriller about racial injustice, police brutality, high-tech turnkey totalitarianism, mass protests and mass surveillance – was written between May 2016 and Nov 2018, before the current uprisings and the tech worker walkouts.;=typed_query&f;=live

But just as with Little Brother, the seeds of the current situation were all around us in 2016, and if Little Brother inspired a cohort of digital activists, I hope Attack Surface will give a much-needed push to a group of techies (currently) on the wrong side of history.

As I learned from Little Brother, there is something powerful about technologically rigorous thrillers about struggles for justice – stories that marry excitement, praxis and ethics. Of all my career achievements, the people I've reached this way matter the most.

Speaking of careers and ethics. As you probably know, I hate DRM with the heat of 10000 suns: it is a security/privacy nightmare, a monopolist's best friend, and a gross insult to human rights. As you may also know, Audible will not carry any audiobooks unless they have DRM.

Audible is Amazon's audiobook division, a monopolist with a total stranglehold on the audiobook market. Audiobooks currently account for almost as much revenue as hardcovers, and if you don't sell on Audible, you sacrifice about 95% of that income.

That's a decision I've made, and it means that publishers are no longer willing to pay for my audiobook rights (who can blame them?). According to my agent, living my principles this way has cost me enough to have paid off my mortgage and maybe funding my retirement.

I've tried a lot of tactics to get around Audible; selling through the indies (,, etc), through Google Play, and through my own shop (

I appreciate the support there but it's a tiny fraction of what I'm giving up – both in terms of dollars and reach – by refusing to lock my books (and my readers) (that's you) to Amazon's platform for all eternity with Audible DRM.

Which brings me to this audiobook.

Look, this is a great audiobook. I hired Amber Benson (a brilliant writer and actor who played Tara on Buffy), Skyboat Media and director Cassandra de Cuir, and Wryneck Studios, and we produced a 15h long, unabridged masterpiece.

It's done. It's wild. I can't stop listening to it. It drops on Oct 13, with the print/ebook edition.

It'll be on sale in all audiobook stores (except Audible) on the 13th,for $24.95.

But! You can get it for a mere $20 via my first Kickstarter.

What's more, you can pre-order the ebook – and also buy the previous ebooks and audiobooks (read by Wil Wheaton and Kirby Heyborne) – all DRM free, all free of license "agreements."

The deal is: "You bought it, you own it, don't violate copyright law and we're good."

And here's the groundbreaking part. For this Kickstarter, I'm the retailer. If you pre-order the ebook from my KS, I get the 30% that would otherwise go to Jeff Bezos – and I get the 25% that is the standard ebook royalty.

This is a first-of-its-kind experiment in letting authors, agents, readers and a major publisher deal directly with one another in a transaction that completely sidesteps the monopolists who have profited so handsomely during this crisis.

Which is where you come in: if you help me pre-sell a ton of ebooks and audiobooks through this crowdfunder, it will show publishing that readers are willing to buy their ebooks and audiobooks without enriching a monopolist, even if it means an extra click or two.

So, to recap:

  • Attack Surface is the third Little Brother book

  • It aims to radicalize a generation of tech workers while entertaining its audience as a cracking, technologically rigorous thriller

  • The audiobook is amazing, read by the fantastic Amber Benson

If you pre-order through the Kickstarter:

  • You get a cheaper price than you'll get anywhere else
  • You get a DRM- and EULA-free purchase

  • You'll fight monopolies and support authorship

If you've ever enjoyed my work and wondered how you could pay me back: this is it. This is the thing. Do this, and you will help me artistically, professionally, politically, and (ofc) financially.

Thank you!

PS: Tell your friends!

IP (permalink)

I have been writing a column for Locus Magazine for 14 years (!) and it's been some of my best work.

Blogging (and tweet-threading) is a good way to keep track of the ideas and events that seem significant – breaking them down for an audience helps me make sense of them.

The value of all that short-form work comes together when it's time to do something longer and more synthetic, pulling on all these threads that I've carefully teased out and organized in my own personal memex.

Today, Locus published my longest, most substantial column ever, a piece that I wrote in something of a white heat about a month ago, called (somewhat ironically): "IP."

It's a long read and I'm not even going to try to summarize it all, but I'll sketch out the main thesis here.

The term "IP" drives activists nuts because it's so vague – trademarks, copyrights and patents aren't really related, and they also aren't really "property."

But if you pay attention to how people actually use "IP" a coherent (albeit colloquial) definition emerges:

"IP is any law that I can invoke that allows me to control the conduct of my competitors, critics, and customers."

IP is any rule that lets you block interoperability, that lets you bind your critics to silence, that lets you force your customers to arrange their affairs to benefit your shareholders instead of themselves.

The historical term that preceded "IP" is "author's monopoly," a term that drives copyright advocates nuts. They say (correctly) that having a copyright on a book or a song doesn't make you a monopolist in the sense of having "market power."

Giving a creator more copyright doesn't let them extract higher fees from publishers or labels or studios. Yes, they have a monopoly in the narrow sense of "only I can sell the rights to my books" but that doesn't translate into the kind of monopoly that Amazon or UMG has.

But here's the thing: we do live in a monopolized age: a time when a small number of companies exert enormous market power, deciding what's for sale, who can sell it, what it costs, and what the buyers are allowed to do with it.

And these monopolists are extremely hungry for IP. It started with traditional entertainment companies, who amassed huge catalogs of "creator's monopolies" that they used to bolster their "market power monopolies."

If you want to release music with samples in it, you have to sign with a label; doing so puts your music in their exclusive catalog, so the next person who wants to sample has an even greater incentive to sign with a label.

And while traditional monopolists have to worry about competitors using the law to punish them for operating monopolies, dominant firms that include "creator's monopolies" get to use the law to punish competitors for trying to undo their monopolies.

The musician who samples the UMG catalog without a license puts their fortune on the line and risks brutal litigation.

And while this was invented by entertainment companies, software has spread "IP" into every class of device.

"IP" is how car companies and ventilator manufacturers fight Right to Repair and it's how smart light-socket companies force you to buy their lightbulbs.

But software IP isn't just a lever to force you to arrange your affairs to benefit a manufacturer's shareholders.

Software is also a tool for automating enforcement of your subservience to those shareholders' interests. Many products have come with restrictions, but if you defeated those restrictions in the privacy of your home, you would likely never be caught.

Software-enabled IP isn't just illegal to subvert – it also knows when you try, and rats you out. It is a tightening noose around our lives – not just our digital lives, but every aspect of them.

This all came to me after I started researching the history of the Free Software movement for a conference talk. On the way, I was privileged to have several long discussions with colleagues who helped me work through the hard parts.

So before I sign off, I want to thank them: Benjamin "Mako" Hill, Zephyr Teachout, Pamela Samuelson and Seth David Schoen. Any of the smart stuff in this longest of Locus columns is down to them – but the stupid stuff is probably my fault.

Also, I'd like to thank the audience at HOPE 2020 who let me beta-test a version of this argument on them as a conference talk.

I hope you enjoy it!

FTC about to hammer Intuit (permalink)

In most of the world's democracies, tax prep is really easy: the government uses its own employer-supplied payroll records to estimate your taxes, fills in a tax return for you and mails it to you.

If it looks good, you sign it and return it. If not, you amend it (or hire an accountant to do so).

But not in the USA: here, the tax-prep industry makes billions charging Americans to gather information the IRS already has and send it to the IRS (again).

Naturally – this is America ca. 2020, after all – the tax-prep industry is highly concentrated, with a few megafirms capturing nearly 100% of the business, and when industries are that concentrated, they get to write their own rules.

They do that in three ways:

I. Concentrated industries are small enough that they can readily agree on a common lobbying position;

II. They extract monopoly rents and can mobilize these excess profits to lobby on their common position; and

III. They so dominate their industry that their own regulators are drawn from their executive ranks and/or hope to cycle out of public service and into the firms' executive structure

Big Tax Prep did all of these things – but at long last, it's catching up with them.

The worst offender of all is Intuit, makers of Turbotax, whose fraud is matched only by the company's weird culture, built on a literal personality cult around the company's longtime CEO Brad Smith:

Smith didn't just orient the whole company around literal worship of his person: he also transformed the company's longtime opposition to free government tax-prep into the centerpiece of its political activity.

It was under Smith's leadership that Intuit convinced the IRS to kill plans for free tax prep and replace them with "Free File" – a program where Big Tax-Prep offered free tax prep services to low-income Americans.

Free File is an incredible grift. Free File companies used deceptive tactics to make it virtually impossible to use, and they were successful. Almost no one has heard of Free File – and of the people who have, almost no one has successfully used it.

Instead Free File became a sales-funnel: low-income filers who tried to use it would get diverted into expensive for-pay alternatives.

That sales-funnel came in handy after the Trump tax plan eliminated the need for high-earners to itemize deductions – that when Intuit targeted elderly people, people with disabilities, and students to make up the difference.

How did they get away with this?



Stealing IRS internal files.

You know: "business."

But here's a Smurfs' Family Christmas miracle for you: thanks to relentless, deep reporting from Propublica, led by Justin Elliott and Paul Kiel, the IRS actually cracked down on Intuit and the rest of Big Tax-Prep.

Last New Year's Eve, the IRS and Intuit announced that Intuit was now banned from hiding its Free File offerings, and the IRS announced that it would drop a policy banning it from creating its own Free File competitor.

And the hits keep on coming! The FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection has been investigating Intuit's Turbotax scam for more than a year. In May, the FTC sent Intuit a wide-ranging subpoena, demanding both documents and sworn testimony from company execs.

Intuit sued to block the subpoena, but they just got their asses handed to them by a bipartisan vote of FTC commissioners:

The commissioners rejected Intuit's claim that handing over documents and giving testimony was "burdensome," in light of both the depth of the inquiry and the pandemic.

The FTC joins at least four states that are investigating Intuit:

A group of taxpayers who were tricked into paying Intuit for "free" services are suing the company, having beaten its bid to force them into binding arbitration (where people are forced to argue in front of a corporate "arbitrator" instead of a judge):

Chances are you've already filed your taxes, but just in case, here's Propublica's guide to successfully using Free File. If you have simple taxes, you should never have to pay for tax-prep:

(Image: Phil Catterall, CC BY-SA, modified)

Antitrust trouble for cloud services (permalink)

There are two reasons that no one ever reads terms of service.

The first is obvious: they're garbage. Performatively dull, deliberately obfuscated, impossible to read and understand (literally – they are comparable to academic journal articles).

The second reason is also important: if you somehow manage to figure out what you're "agreeing" to, you'll quickly realize that you don't agree to any of it. ToS all boil down to "By being stupid enough to be my customer, you agree that I get to abuse you any way I see fit."

In a just world, "adhesion contracts" (agreements you don't get to negotiate) would have limitations on them – anything that no person would ever freely agree to would be judged "unconscionable" and thus unenforceable.

We don't live in that world, alas. But things are changing. There's an anti-monopoly mood in the air, and lawmakers and regulators are getting the sense that the public will have their back if they challenge corporate giants and force them to pay for their bad deeds.

Which explains why the AGCM (Italy's antitrust regulator) is probing Google, Apple and Dropbox over the manifest unfairness of their terms of service.

The probe addresses half a dozen abusive elements of these "contracts":

I. Collecting user data for commercial purposes without valid consent

II. Forcing arbitration and making users surrender their right to sue in a real court

III. Reserving the right to shut down or suspend the service without giving users notice and the ability to extract their files

IV. Limiting liability for loss of user data due to negligence or indifference

V. Reserving the right to unilaterally alter the contract without negotiation or notice

VI. Defaulting to English, making it hard to access the Italian version of the terms

All of this is self-evidently unfair, and it does great violence to the very idea of an "agreement" – the cornerstone of civilization.

There's a classic Lenny Bruce bit about this: civilization begins with an agreement about where to shit, sleep and eat: "We’ll sleep in Area A, is that cool? OK good. We’ll eat in Area B, good? Good. We’ll throw our crap in Area C."

The transformation of freely agreed-upon terms into adhesion contracts undermines the very basis for our civilization, by equating actual contracts with "By standing there shouting 'hell no I don't agree,' you agree that…"

This is just a baby-step, but man is it overdue — and a hopeful sign for the future. Bravo!

This day in history (permalink)

#15yrsago Gold Rush-era sailing ship ruin excavated in San Fran

#15yrsago BBC Creative Archive pilot launches

#15yrsago Guerrilla drive-ins with digital projectors and FM transmitters

#15yrsago Men offer "fresh starts" to single NOLA women on Craigslist

#10yrsago Secret copyright treaty: USA caves on border laptop/phone/MP3 player searches for copyright infringement

#5yrsago NZ bans award-winning YA novel after complaints from conservative Christian group

#5yrsago Your baby monitor is an Internet-connected spycam vulnerable to voyeurs and crooks

#5yrsago Inept copyright bot sends 2600 a legal threat over ink blotches

#5yrsago FBI used Burning Man to field-test new surveillance equipment

#5yrsago Fury Road, hieroglyph edition

#5yrsago Words about slavery that we should all stop using

#5yrsago Little Brother optioned by Paramount

#5yrsago Record street-marches in Moldova against corrupt oligarchs

#5yrsago Antihoarding: When "decluttering" becomes a compulsion

Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources: Slashdot (

Currently writing: My next novel, "The Lost Cause," a post-GND novel about truth and reconciliation. Yesterday's progress: 510 words (58328 total).

Currently reading: Gideon the Ninth, Tamsyn Muir

Latest podcast: Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town (part 14)

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