Pluralistic: 13 Feb 2021

Today's links

Privacy Without Monopoly (permalink)

Today, EFF published "Privacy Without Monopoly: Data Protection and Interoperability," a major new paper by Bennett Cyphers and me.

It's a paper that tries to resolve the tension between demanding that tech platforms gather, retain and mine less of our data, and the demand that platforms allow alternatives (nonprofits, co-ops, tinkerers, startups) to connect with their services.

It starts from the premise that tech companies abuse our data because they can: because they know we're locked into their silos, because they know we have few alternatives even if we decide to abandon our social ties and move elsewhere.

Demanding better data protection from tech companies works well, but fails badly. It's great when companies respond to public pressure or legal changes by protecting our data, but if they don't, and there isn't any alternative, well…

The upshot is that alternatives represent an important piece of the privacy puzzle: both as a force to discipline big companies tempted to abuse our data, and as an escape valve when they yield to temptation.

Interoperability is complicated. There's some legislative energy for mandating interop – last year's US ACCESS Act, the pending EU Digital Services and Markets Acts.

There's also a lot of antitrust litigation around the US and the world, and companies might settle these with a requirement to open up APIs. And there are other levers: government procurement rules, or requirements for participation in standards bodies.

Mandatory interoperability represents a good floor, but it's a lousy ceiling. Monopolists who are required to allow interoperability to allow alternatives might sabotage the mandate by shifting around their operations so the interop doesn't do much.

The ceiling on interop needs to be competitive compatibility (comcom, AKA "adversarial interoperability"), when a new service plugs into an existing one against its wishes, say, by scraping data on behalf of a user.

Comcom was once the norm in tech, but the same companies that owe their existence to comcom have used their monopoly rents to obliterate the legal framework that permitted comcom, ensuring no one does unto them as they did unto the companies they disrupted.

Restoring comcom can come through a mix of new laws, better interpretations of existing laws, and through the same levers we might use for mandates: antitrust settlements, procurement rules, conditions of participation in standards-setting.

So that's the ceiling; what about the floor? We enumerate three flavors of interop from existing law and legislative proposals:

I. Data portability – this is already a feature of state privacy laws in the US and the EU's GDPR – the right to get your data from a company

II. Back-end interoperability: forcing companies to expose the same interfaces they use to allow their internal business units to communicate (eg the interface between Facebook, Whatsapp and Instagram).

III. Delegatability (AKA front-end interoperability): allowing a third party to automate clicks and mouse movements to connect to your account on a service on your behalf.

Both mandates and comcom expose users to privacy risks – as does business-as-usual. If we take away companies' legal weapons so they can't use the law to block interoperators, they will lose a tool they use to protect users' privacy.

But users will gain ways to interact with social media that are more privacy-preserving than the big companies are willing to stretch to.

The answer to this isn't to count on big companies to have our best interests in heart – and to defend those interests by abusing copyright and cybersecurity law. We need a federal privacy law – one that binds both Big Tech and new rivals.

A federal privacy law would also safeguard users' privacy where there's an interop mandate in play, and because a mandate is managed and orderly, big companies can shut down APIs or limit access when someone breaks the rules.

Big Tech doesn't have a monopoly on good ideas or the ability to provide a platform for discussion, socializing, and political and civil engagement – but they do have a monopoly on platforms where these things take place.

We can – and should – demand better of the platforms, but we should also encourage (lots of) alternatives, federated with one another, so you can choose a platform without giving up your friends, customers or audience.

Broad Band (permalink)

One of the most Monkey's Paw things about my life is my relationship to books. When I was a teenager, I read all the way through the school and public libraries, spent everything I had on books, and still couldn't get enough and dreamt of more.

Today, as a reviewer, I have more books than I can possibly read, huge, teetering mountains of books that I'm desperate to read, far beyond my ability to ever get through them. Periodically, I declare "book bankruptcy," sweep away the backlog and start over.

Even then, my eyes are bigger than my stomach: I keep back a few books that I can't bear to part with and promise myself I'll read them someday. Usually I don't, but I just did, and boy did I ever make the right call with Claire L Evans's BROAD BAND.

I have read a lot of histories of computing, and I had a front row seat for a lot of the events depicted in this book – people I worked with, people I worked against – and yet I was surprised over and over again with details and perspectives I'd never encountered.

For example, for some reason, my ninth grade computer science course included lengthy readings on ENIAC, Univac, the Mark I and the Mark II, but none of those mentioned that they were all programmed exclusively or primarily by women.

And Evans doesn't just explain this fact, but – because she is a brilliant and lyrical writer – she brings these women to life, turns them into fully formed characters, makes you see and feel their life stories, frustrations and triumphs.

Even the most celebrated women of tech history – Ada Lovelace, Grace Hopper – leap off the page as people, not merely historical personages or pioneers. Again, these are stories I thought I knew, and realized I didn't.

Some of this can be chalked up to the haze of history – I don't know much about the lives of Lovelace's contemporaries regardless of gender or class – but the main culprit here is erasure, obviously.

These women were written out of the record from the beginning, and the process only accelerated over time. The professionalization of programming – the coining of "software engineer" – coded a female trade as a male profession and precipitated a mass exodus of women.

But despite this, women continued as tech pioneers, excelling in the marginalized, disfavored parts of the field: UX, community, "girl games," hypertext, multimedia and so on.

The specialities that men turned up their noses at, until women proved out their significance (and/or profitability) whereupon men rushed in to dominate them, shouldering women aside.

Reading this outstanding, important book, I found my views on erasure and exclusion evolving, first being brought into focus by Evans's skilful weaving of biographies, interviews and historical source documents, which made the abstract idea of erasure concrete.

From there, Evans demonstrated how marginalized people move into marginalized subfields, defying odds and overcoming hurdles that their mainstream – white, male, affluent – contemporaries don't face, and then elevate these subfields to centrality.

This dynamic is present in many fields of endeavor – think of how Black music (blues, jazz, rock, hiphop) went from the margins to the center when it was co-opted by white musicians who often did a worse job for more money and fame.

It's another example of what John Scalzi calls "living life on the lowest difficulty setting," and it's the basis for affirmative action.

Consider two candidates: one who attains the top of their field after being trained and supported by the best of the best, and the other who trails them by a step or two – but never had their advantages. Which one has the most potential?

Broad Band isn't just a tale of the women whose stories were erased – it's also the implied story of all the people (not just women) whose stories never got to happen.

Telling the erased stories of people who excelled against all odds through luck and brilliance exposes a void: the people who didn't have that luck, that brilliant, who never got to make a contribution.

After all, the women pioneers in computing trend whiter and wealthier than the median person in America. The notable exceptions – like the Black women who made the space program possible – demonstrate this disparity arises from exclusion, not a lack of aptitude or desire.

Broad Band isn't merely a celebration of the hidden heroes of the computing revolution – it's also an epitaph for all the people whose talent, aptitude, dreams and contributions were squandered by a system based on mass exclusion.

What's more, it's a tale that shows that the differences between fields are socially – not biologically -determined. The women who break through to male-dominated roles as CEOs and VCs are just as prone to selling out workers and users as their male counterparts.

I'm so glad that I saved my copy of Broad Band from my repeated book bankruptcies since 2018, but I confess that I didn't read that print copy – rather, I listened to the audiobook, which Evans herself reads.

Evans isn't just a superb writer, interviewer and researcher – she's also a brilliant voice actor, whose reading is gripping, exuberant, sorrowful and enraging by turns. I love hearing a book read by its author…when the author is a good reader. Evans is the whole package.

$50T moved from America's 90% to the 1% (permalink)

Inequality requires narrative stabilizers. When you have too little and someone else has more than they can possibly use, simple logic dictates that you should take what they have.

The forbearance exercised by the many when it comes to the wealth of the few isn't down to guards or laws – rather, the laws and the guards are effective because of the story, the story of why this is fair, even inevitable.

Think of the story of monarchy and its relationship to the Church: the Church affirms that the monarch (and the aristocracy) was chosen by God ("dieu et mon droit") and the monarchy reciprocates by giving the Church moral and economic power within the kingdom.

Capitalism replaced the story of divine will with a story of a self-correcting complex system: humans are born and raised with a variety of aptitudes and tastes, and at any moment, historical exigencies dictate that some individuals are better suited than others to do well.

When it's railroad time, there are people who were born to oversee the laying of track and the coordination of rail networks: markets find those people, allocate capital to them, and allow them to mobilize that capital to produce shared prosperity for all of us.

They get a larger slice of the pie than the people who lay the tracks, but they also made the pie bigger – their wealth represents three goods:

I. The incentive to make us all better off,

II. a reward for doing so, and

III. proof they earned it.

Implicit in this theory is the idea that markets are elevating people based on their suitability to a time and circumstance, for the benefit of us all.

You didn't strike it rich because you just weren't the right person to lead in your time and place.

But because the right person did strike it rich, your life – and the lives of the people you love – were all improved. Your kids got a better start, and they might turn out to be the right person in the right place when they grow up.

That's the true significance of rags-to-riches: not that anyone can strike it rich, but that the people who did strike it rich deserved it, and anything you do to stop them will make YOU worse off, because they know how to maximize all our wellbeing in this moment.

But that's not actually how it works. As Thomas Piketty showed in CAPITAL IN THE 21ST CENTURY, the biggest predictor of whether you'll get rich is whether you're rich already:

Markets reward capital at a higher rate than they reward growth. Bill Gates founded the most successful company in world history, but made less money from it than L'Oreal heiress (and useless parasite) Liliane Bettencourt made over the same period.

But then Gates retired and became an investor – someone who allocated capital to people who did things, rather than doing things himself. And almost immediately, his fortune grew larger than either Bettencourt's or Gates-as-founder's had.

All other things being equal, markets allocate capital to people who have capital, not people who have ideas that will make us all better off, and so the story begins to break down. The tale of meritocracy is hard to credit when the richest people started off rich.

If that's a meritocracy, then it's a hereditary meritocracy, an idea straight out of eugenics. In a hereditary meritocracy, markets don't serve to locate people with the best ideas for this moment and place – rather, they locate people with the best blood.

Think of how many times we heard Trump boast about his "good blood." Capitalism went full circle, becoming a new form of monarchism, where the hereditarily wealthy assert their right to rule by dint of the divine scripture of neoliberal economists who assure us all is well.

But being born rich doesn't make you a good capital allocator, it makes you a useless parasite. Some might escape the prison of birth to parasitehood, but they don't have to – you can be Donald Trump, or Don Jr, and still amass millions.

When our capital allocations are dominated by plutes, we end up in a society where evidence-based policy can only be made if it doesn't gore a plute's ox, and the plutes own all the oxen. So we end up with lethal healthcare, agriculture, climate and other policies.

We see the evidence of this daily, in headlines like "Inadequate healthcare has killed more Americans than Covid":

"The US trailed the rest of the advanced world in life expectancy since the 1980s… it's 3.4 years shorter than other G7 countries."

Death and privation chip away at the narrative of beneficial inequality, a system that elevates those who do the best for us all. I think we're at an inflection point now, as the storylines that started with Occupy are proven out by the pandemic and leap to the mainstream.

How else to explain Time headlines like "The Top 1% of Americans Have Taken $50 Trillion From the Bottom 90%—And That's Made the U.S. Less Secure"?

The article reports on a Rand Corporation paper that estimates the wealth of the bottom 90% if American wealth distribution had held steady at the postwar levels, the most equal America had been since manumission.

It traces the real consequences of this inequality – the health and lifespan difference, the political instability, the mounting budget for guard labor to restabilize a system made untenable by the near-universal breakdown in a belief in its fairness.

"Are you a typical Black man earning $35,000 a year? You are being paid at least $26,000 a year less than you would have had income distributions held constant."

"Are you a college-educated, prime-aged, full-time worker earning $72,000? Depending on the inflation index used (PCE or CPI, respectively), rising inequality is costing you between $48,000 and $63,000 a year."

Systems are stabilized by law and the force of the state, but these are rounding errors compared to the stability imparted by narrative, the consensus that things are fair. Once you lose that, no amount of guard labor can keep it all from toppling over.

This day in history (permalink)

#15yrsago Google Video DRM: Why is Hollywood more important than users?

#10yrsago Nokia’s radical CEO has a mercenary, checkered past

#5yrsago I was a Jeopardy! clue

Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources: Kottke (, Naked Capitalism (

Currently writing:

  • My next novel, "The Lost Cause," a post-GND novel about truth and reconciliation. Friday's progress: 514 words (110389 total).

  • A short story, "Jeffty is Five," for The Last Dangerous Visions. Friday's progress: 251 words (5077 total).

Currently reading: Analogia by George Dyson.

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