Pluralistic: 16 Jun 2021

Today's links

A giant eyeball whose pupil has been replaced by the EU circle-of-stars flag; it floats in a void of 'Matrix waterfall' blackness and green and white letters, numbers and symbols.

Suing all of ad-tech (permalink)

The EU's General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) has been a mixed bag, but at its core is an exemplary and indisputable principle: you can't give informed consent for activities you don't understand.

Since the dawn of online commercial surveillance, ad-tech sector maintained the obvious fiction that we agreed to allow it to nonconsensually suck in our private information, either by clicking "I Agree" on a garbage novella of unreadable legalese, or just by using a service.

GDPR exposes this "consent theater" for a sham. It says, "Look, if you think users are cool with all this surveillance and data-processing, you've got to ask them. Lay out each use of data you want to make, one at a time, and get consent for it."

That means that if you're Google and you're thinking of using the data you ingest in 800 different ways, you've got to show your users 800 yes/no questions, defaulting to "no," to see if they consent to it, and you have to give them a "no to all" box to opt out of everything.

It won't shock you to learn that virtually no one consents to this. It's a lesson we learned again when Apple updated Ios to let users install apps but opt out of their data-collection – and to opt out of being asked whether they want any app to collect their data.

That said, there are some problems with the GDPR; some are structural (the "right to be forgotten" is a poorly thought-through dumpster fire that lets rich sociopaths erase the records of their crimes from the internet) and some are technical.

The principle technical problem with the GDPR is that EU prosecutors just haven't enforced it vigorously enough. In particular, they lack the resources to take on the biggest names in ad-tech, Facebook and Google, who have them substantially outgunned.

However, the GDPR has a saving grace in this regard: it includes a "private right of action," that allows everyday Europeans to seek enforcement of the law, even if prosecutors are too timid to take up the case.

Private rights of action are key, but political conservatives hate them because they don't want businesses to be held accountable by the public. The omission of a private right of action from the US ACCESS Act is its most significant flaw,

GDPR's private right of action has allowed dedicated individuals to use the law to wage asymmetrical warfare against giant, seemingly all-powerful corporations. The pioneer here is Max Schrems, who made history with his private case against Facebook:

After Schrems brought cases against Google and Facebook over GDPR violations, the EU's highest court ordered the companies to stop moving Europeans' data to their US servers:

Facebook has (laughably) threatened to leave Europe over this. It was a hollow and idiotic threat and they never made good on it and I will bet you a testicle* that they never will.

*Not one of mine

Schrems isn't the only individual who hopes to enforce the GDPR against Big Tech. Johnny Ryan and the Irish Council for Civil Liberties have lodged a case in a German court against the IAB, the ad-tech industry association that maintains its "audience taxonomy" codes.

When you land on a webpage, your identity is boiled down to a set of these codes, such as 383 (interested in hair-loss treatments) and 60 (household income of <$10k/year), and these are passed to dozens or hundreds of ad-tech bidders to see if they'll pay to show you an ad.

Ryan and the ICCL say that no one ever consented to this, and thus the entire ad-tech industry is in violation of the GDPR. By targeting the IAB and its taxonomy, they might be able to yank the foundation out from beneath the targeted advertising industry.

Ryan has filed similar complaints in many EU nations, including Ireland, the tax-haven where many tech giants have planted their flags of convenience. The Irish case has languished for three years now.

There are 27 EU nations, and the ad-tech industry violates the GDPR in every single one of them. Ryan is betting that he will eventually find a jurisdiction where the courts will actually enforce the law.

It's a neat illustration of the power and peril of a private right of action: on the one hand, it lets individuals take up cases that prosecutors ignore; on the other hand, these cases are subject to the whims of judges who might delay them indefinitely.

But with 27 courts to choose from, the odds of enforcement tilt towards the public interest.

(Image: Carol M Highsmith/Library of Congress, modified)

Consumer Reports' illustration for my story 'Inside the Clock Tower,' depicting a woman running between searchlight circles, casting a shadow of the Twitter logo.

Interop Sci-Fi (permalink)

The most anti-science-fiction political leader of all time was Margaret Thatcher. Her motto – "There is no alternative" – was a demand masquerading as an observation, and what she really meant was "Stop trying to imagine an alternative."

This idea – that our world is inevitable, not the result of human choices, and it cannot be altered through human action – is well-put in the quote attributed to Frederic Jameson “it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism."

In that light, science fiction can be a radical literature indeed. Depicting a future where our bedrock assumptions of our interpersonal, political and commercial relations are different implicitly denies that our present is inevitable or immutable.

(By the same token, sf can be a ghastly and reactionary literature: the mere act of asserting that the future will be just like today, save for some cosmetic technological "innovations," implicitly says that we have arrived at the end of history itself)

This week in Consumer Reports Digital Labs, I've published "Inside the Clock Tower: An Interoperability Story," a science fiction story about women comics creators who use interop to create their own anti-harassment policies.

The story illustrates how there is an alternative: we don't have to figure out how to make giant services perfect their role as bosses of hundreds of millions (or billions) of peoples' social lives – we can let users control their own moderation policies.

Likewise, there is an alternative for marginalized and harassed groups of people to disappearing from the large social media platforms and giving up on the visibility, community, work opportunities and other benefits that keep us all here.

The story's release was timed to coincide with the publication of the ACCESS Act, the most significant interoperability bill in US history.

I discussed the story and the bill with Kaveh Waddell for an interview on the Digital Labs' site, delving into its technical, legal and social dimensions, and how ACCESS can be a bridge to even more significant reductions in Big Tech's dominance.

The story itself is licensed Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike, meaning you can reprint it, and even sell it (provided you do so on the same terms) – anything that helps remind people that there is always an alternative!

(Image: Jason Schneider/Consumer Reports)

This day in history (permalink)

#10yrsago Networks are necessary, but not sufficient, for social upheaval

#5yrsago Canadian trade policy expert calls TPP a “threat to democracy”

#5yrsago The winners in today’s economy work worse hours than yesterday’s losers

#1yrago The technology of Uyghur oppression

Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources: Sean Bohan (

Currently writing:

  • Spill, a Little Brother short story about pipeline protests. Yesterday's progress: 268 words (6002 words total).

  • A Little Brother short story about remote invigilation. PLANNING

  • A nonfiction book about excessive buyer-power in the arts, co-written with Rebecca Giblin, "The Shakedown." FINAL EDITS

  • A post-GND utopian novel, "The Lost Cause." FINISHED

  • A cyberpunk noir thriller novel, "Red Team Blues." FINISHED

Currently reading: Analogia by George Dyson.

Latest podcast: How To Destroy Surveillance Capitalism (Part 06)
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  • The Shakedown, with Rebecca Giblin, nonfiction/business/politics, Beacon Press 2022

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