Pluralistic: 20 Nov 2020

Today's links

Little Revolutions (permalink)

Today on the Attack Surface Lectures (a series of 8 panels exploring themes from the third Little Brother book, hosted by Tor Books and 8 indie bookstores): Little Revolutions with Tochi Onyebuchi and Bethany C Morrow, hosted by Skylight Books on Oct 21.

You can watch it without tracking courtesy of the Internet Archive:

Or get the audio as an MP3:

Earlier instalments in the series:

I. Politics and Protest (Eva Galperin and Ron Deibert, hosted by The Strand):

II. Cross-Media Sci-Fi (Amber Benson and John Rogers, hosted by the Brookline Booksmith):

III. Race, surveillance and tech (Meredith Whittaker and Malkia Devich-Cyril, hosted by The Booksmith):

IV. Cyberpunk & Post-Cyberpunk (Christopher Brown and Bruce Sterling, hosted by Anderson's Bookshop)

Here's a master post with all the media as it is goes live:

And you can also get this as it's posted on my podcast feed – search for "Cory Doctorow podcast" in your podcatcher or use the RSS:

Russian Cyberpunk Farm (permalink)

Birchpunk's brilliant debut video is "RUSSIAN CYBERPUNK FARM // РУССКАЯ КИБЕРДЕРЕВНЯ," a 4:30 comedo-dystopian design fiction in the form of a recruiting ad for a futuristic Russian roboticized farm.

It packs about a million gags into a very short space: not just janky, rural, Russian junkbots, but also a little robosexual romance, mutant kombucha, aerostatic domestic disputes, and terrible civil engineering.

To say nothing of the fractal cucumber (or as a Russian friend once called it, "Banana Siberski!"), the glitched out augmented reality, and the black hole underneath the outhouse seat.

This is the good stuff: dark Russian humor, gritty cyberpunk sight gags, and a themesong to die for. Is it wrong that I want to be a farmhand on this farm?

We're already (badly) forgiving student debt (permalink)

Forgiving US student debt is a no-brainer: as a nation, America has saddled its best-educated young people with a lifetime of debt whose interest serves the parasitic rentier economy while suppressing their ability to use those education to our collective benefit.

The pathetic argument that opponents have mustered is that forgiving student debt is unfair to the people who paid off their debts through sacrifice and hard work – in the same way that a covid treatment is unfair to people who recovered through sheer immunoresponse.

In his analysis, "The Student Debt Crisis is a Crisis of Non-Repayment," Marshall Steinbaum demonstrates the hollowness of this objection. First, he observes that we are already forgiving student debt, at unprecedented levels, in the worst way possible.

As more and more people are unable to repay their student loans after years – decades – of struggle and misery, lenders are erasing those debts at levels never seen before. But the "lucky duckies" on the receiving end of this forgiveness pay a dire price.

Student debts are effectively impossible to discharge through bankruptcy. Congress consistently failed to fix this – whenever they've acted, they've made it worse. If you hold someone's student debt, you hold all the cards – you can even go after their social security.

So when you learn that a student debtor has managed to default on their loans, what you're learning is that they have arrived at a place of such manifest, helpless hardship that not even the student loan arm-breakers think they can get another nickel out of them.

But that's not all: when you get your student loans forgiven, it's a taxable benefit! So if you really, really can't pay back your loans, your prize is getting stuck with a giant tax bill you really, really can't pay.

In other words, America has an active, giant, terribly run, ad-hoc, cruel student debt forgiveness program that kicks in only after you've had your life destroyed, then punches you in the face on your way out the door.

Steibaum uses the latest figures from the Millennial Student Debt project to zero in on how the shadow debt-forgiveness program works, and who is in line to win the booby prize of being so badly tormented by debt that they qualify:

It will not surprise you to learn that the people suffering most from college debt are brown and Black, and that they are older than at any time in history, because it is taking longer than ever to pay back your student loans.

Steinbaum has an explanation for how this happened: the rise of income-driven repayment (IDR) programs that indexed your monthly student loan payments to your income.

These addressed student debt as a liquidity problem. That is, treating recent grads as though all they needed was a little breathing room until they got good jobs.

But those good jobs didn't appear.

Workforces (including professionals with four-year degrees) have been increasingly squeezed by "monopsony" (like monopoly, but referring to a lack of competition in buyers). As industries have grown consolidated, they can rope workers into lower wages.

That means that even after a grad gets a "good industry job," their income is so low that their IDR-based repayment is so low that they will never pay off their student debts, as interest mounts ahead of repayment.

Student debtors aren't illiquid. They're insolvent. Their total liabilities exceed their lifetime ability to pay. As Michael Hudson says, "Debts that can't be paid, won't be paid."

But that's not the whole story. IDRs are also a moral hazard.

As IDRs expanded, so did tuition. Universities conned students into taking on unsustainable debt, promising them that IDRs meant no matter how much debt they had, their payments wouldn't gobble their whole paycheck. It was true! Also true: they will never pay off that debt.

Student debt should be forgiven. Now. And state college tuition should be free. The main beneficiaries of these measures would be Black and brown people, who are also the disproportionate targets of university predatory lending.

As Steinbaum writes, the alternative – capping loans – leads to discrimination (excluding poor kids from top schools). The students with best prospects will evade loan caps by taking out even higher-priced private loans, while others will be excluded from postsecondary ed.

Facebook bullies watchdog (permalink)

Today, Wired ran my op-ed about Facebook's war on Ad Observatory, an NYU project that enlists users to gather the ads FB serves so researchers and accountability journalists can measure how FB is living up to its promises on paid disinfo.

Facebook is really bad at keeping its promises. At a moment in which paid disinformation on social media threatens the integrity of US elections and the credibility of US democracy, FB threatened to destroy a watchdog that documents FB's failures to live up to its promises.

FB is waging a two-front war on the scrappy academics who run this project: first, there are the legal threats (which depend on very shaky legal ground), and then there's a disinformation campaign that smears these academics and their work.

Here's what that disinfo looks like: FB says that Ad Observer (the browser plugin) threatens user privacy, and that it isn't needed because of FB provides researchers with its own repository of ads.

Both of these are demonstrably false claims. When you scrape an ad FB showed you and send it to Ad Observatory, you don't violate your privacy (because you have chosen to make this disclosure), nor anyone else's privacy.

FB claimed Ad Observer users could expose information about which of their FB friends have seen the same ad. It would be terrible – even by FB standards – if this was possible. It implies that when FB shows you an ad, it also embeds info about who else has been shown that ad.

It's a mark of just how terrible FB's privacy practices are that multiple journalists found this claim credible enough to repeat (Ad Observer could get your friends "interactions" to ads, but it provably does not).

But what about FB's claim that Ad Observatory is redundant because FB already offers researchers access to a database of the ads running on its service? Also demonstrably false. FB's database misses multiple instances of paid disinformation.

How do we know that? Simply: Ad Observer caught them.

Get that: FB claims that it's being transparent. A watchdog proved they're not. To fix this, FB proposes that we annihilate the watchdog.

As I wrote in Wired: "This may be par for the course with Facebook, but it's not something we as a society can afford to tolerate any longer."

Google's monopoly rigged the ad market (permalink)

The quest to bring antitrust law to bear against tech companies is finally paying off, but it's been a long, hard slog. At the vanguard have been two legal scholars: Columbia law's Lina M Khan linamkhan and Yale's Dina Srinivasan.

The first watershed moment was Khan's Jan 2017 Yale Law Review paper "Amazon’s Antitrust Paradox," which laid the groundwork for understanding the inadequacies of Ronald-Reagan-style antitrust for tackling platform capitalism.

In Sep 2018, Srinivasan went one better with her Berkeley Business Law Review paper "The Antitrust Case Against Facebook," which made a compelling case that even under the narrow antitrust Reagan created, Facebook was still an illegal monopolist.

I've just read Srinivasan's followup, a preprint of a forthcoming Stanford Law Review paper called "Why Google Dominates Advertising Markets."

It was first made available last Jun, before the DoJ announced its antitrust case against Google, and if the DoJ didn't rely on it to frame its case, there's a hell of a coincidence at play (even Google's countermoves since could be ripped from its pages).

Srinivasan's paper is a very deep, technological dive into the way that Google has structured the ad-auction market that it dominates. This automated marketplace was based on the computerized stock exchanges that supplanted trading floors, but its volume outstrips all of these.

And yet for all that scale, Google's marketplace has none of the safeguards that financial markets employ to prevent the market owner from cheating buyers and sellers.

Indeed, even when compared to other online marketplaces, Google is especially bad, continuing practices that other serial offenders like Amazon abandoned as too nakedly anticompetitive.

Marketplaces like the realtime ad-placement system are complex, involving publishers, advertisers, sell-side brokers, buy-side brokers, and the markets where they come together. Google manages to insert itself into nearly every element of the system.

When you see an ad on a website, it is often the case that Google brokered both the advertiser's bid and the publisher's acceptance, in a marketplace that Google controls, and (through AMP), Google may even host the page with the ad on it.

Srinivasan documents how Google has muscled out competing brokerages, exchanges and hosting systems by citing benefits to internet users: privacy measures had the (surely not incidental) side-effect of making it impossible for rivals to target as well as Google does.

Measures aimed at improving load times (AMP again) forced publishers to choose between giving up 50% of their ad revenue or giving up on being visible in Google search results.

And all of this has the (again, not coincidental) side-effect of giving Google access to proprietary business information that lets it compete with, squeeze, and sideline publishers.

All of this points to the foolishness of "link taxes" – proposals in the EU, Australia and Canada to make Google pay for the right to link to news sites (and to find a way to force Google to go on linking to those sites rather than not paying the tax).

Srinivasan makes a really compelling case that Google's multiple conflicts-of-interest – sell-broker, buy-broker, exchange operator, host and search tool – has shifted huge amounts of money from publishers to the company.

But she also demonstrates that when there is competition (for example, when publishers were briefly able to solicit ad bids on multiple simultaneous exchanges), publishers can double their revenues (and advertisers can lower their ad costs).

All this suggests that the answer to Google isn't to force it to provide charitable payments to the press that is supposed to be reporting on it and holding it to account – but rather to force Google to halt their anticompetitive conduct.

If we did that, Google couldn't afford to float the news media – but that would be because the news media had shifted a giant share of ad revenue from Google to itself. Publishers wouldn't need Google's charity – they'd have its revenues, instead.

Recall that the reason Google (and other tech giants) have been able to dominate our digital world is that Reagan neutered antitrust law, allowing companies to form brutal, all-encompassing monopolies without fear of state action.

The DoJ's antitrust action against Google suggests that we may be able to restore the more muscular, trustbusting version of competition law, but Srinivasan's not waiting for that to happen.

Instead, she closes her paper by reminding us that Google's ad-market was explicitly based on stock markets, and that these markets have a well-developed set of regulations to prevent the self-dealing that accounts for most of Google's profits.

While we're waiting for antitrust to reinvent itself, Srinivasan suggests that we subject the ad market to financial laws. Doing so wouldn't just address Google's abuses: whole swathes of our economy are disappearing into these algorithmic marketplaces (like Ticketmaster's).

Srinivasan suggests that all of these markets should be regulated to prevent the exchange operator from cheating the buyers and sellers.

It's a very interesting idea – and the paper is beautifully written and argued.

I have two reservations, though:

I. The financialization of other sectors of the economy is Not Good. Rather than reforming Ticketmaster's abusive marketplace (or Google's), why not prohibit it? I don't want "fair" financialization, I want no financialization.

II. Google's moves – third-party cookie blocking, bans on merging user identifiers, downranking sites with lengthy "surveillance lags" generated by complex ad bids – really are good for users. I'd love to find proposals to fix this stuff without creating monopolies.

This day in history (permalink)

#5yrsago The secret history of the Haunted Mansion’s hall of changing paintings

#5yrsago England: You have four days to reply to the secret consultation on the NHS’s future

#5yrsago Syria secretly sentenced free software developer Bassel Khartabil to death

#1yrago Twitter censures UK Tory Party for changing its blue-check account name to “FactCheckUK” during the prime ministerial debates

#1yrago DoJ to scrap the Paramount antitrust rule that prohibits movie studios from buying or strong-arming movie theaters

#1yrago In an age of disappearing prison libraries, jail profiteers provide “free” crapgadget tablets that charge prisoners by the minute to read Project Gutenberg ebooks

Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources: Matt Stoller (, Brian Milnes, Naked Capitalism (

Currently writing: My next novel, "The Lost Cause," a post-GND novel about truth and reconciliation. Yesterday's progress: 554 words (86321 total).

Currently reading: The Ministry for the Future, Kim Stanley Robinson

Latest podcast: Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town (part 23)

Upcoming appearances:

Recent appearances:

Latest book:

This work licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 license. That means you can use it any way you like, including commercially, provided that you attribute it to me, Cory Doctorow, and include a link to

Quotations and images are not included in this license; they are included either under a limitation or exception to copyright, or on the basis of a separate license. Please exercise caution.

How to get Pluralistic:

Blog (no ads, tracking, or data-collection):

Newsletter (no ads, tracking, or data-collection):

Mastodon (no ads, tracking, or data-collection):

Twitter (mass-scale, unrestricted, third-party surveillance and advertising):

Tumblr (mass-scale, unrestricted, third-party surveillance and advertising):

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