Pluralistic: 08 Jul 2021

Today's links

Screenshots of unauthorized apps used by Gojek delivery drivers, which allow them to spoof GPS location and filter orders.

Indonesia's gig work tech resistance (permalink)

Gojek is a $10B Indonesian "super app" that combines "Postmates, Apple Pay, Venmo, and Uber" serviced by an army of ojol – drivers – who are subjected to all the high-handed algorithmic horrors that gig workers everywhere suffer through.

But Indonesian ojol aren't helpless before their apps; a legion of toolsmiths produce, share, sell and support "tuyul apps" named for "a child-like spirit in Indonesian folklore that helps his human master earn money by stealing," which modify the Gojek app.

As part of her MIT PhD, Rida Qadri studied Gojek, ojol and tuyul apps, and her account of the grey-market Gojek ecosystem for Motherboard is riveting.

Tuyul apps are wildly innovative and diverse, from tools to magnify text so older ojol drivers who can read the tiny default app's text, to filters that allow drivers and riders to preview jobs, avoiding the algorithmic penalty for turning down a job after accepting it.

Indeed, many tuyul apps are tools that permit workers to resist their algorithmic employer's "optimizations," which inevitably "optimize" the work so as much value as possible is transferred from the workers to their bosses.

Take GPS-spoofing. Gojek's corporate overlords have decreed that drivers have to be close to a pickup to be eligible to get the job. On its face, this sounds reasonable, but in practice, it creates massive jams around train stations where unsheltered riders wait in the rain.

Gojek created a situation that has clogged the roads around stations, creating traffic hazards and introducing delays into deliveries. Riders are on site and better equipped to decide how to do their job than a distant, unaccountable product manager.

Riders use GPS spoofers to trick the app into thinking they're onsite when really they're waiting at a sensible distance.

Tuyul app creators are drivers with tech knowhow, who fell into the work as part of mutual aid networks.

Over time, this has matured into IT Jalanan -"IT of the Road" – a full-service, somewhat ad-hoc tech support network of IT specialists who build, service and use apps that make gig workers' lives better.

They have extensive documentation for users on how to root their phones and side-load the third party apps. Apps are sold and supported through Whatsapp and other platforms, along with service and support packages.

Crucially, the support for tuyul apps is much better than the support Gojek offers to gig workers when they struggle with the bugs in its app – making downloading a third-party mod a faster and better experience than trying to get Gojek to fix its shit.

Not all tuyul apps are benign. Some are scams that rip off drivers, other are scams that help drivers rip off Gojek. Gojek On Twitter, a driver community organized against being made "a slave of the algorithm," has a mixed position on tuyul apps.

One of GOT's founders has proposed that the GPS spoofing be integrated into Gojek's official app, allowing users to place their pin within 1km of their actual location.

All of this is a powerful lesson in the importance of Adversarial Interoperability (AKA Competitive Compatibility/comcom), the practice of modifying an existing technology against the wishes (or without permission) of its maker.

Comcom allows the users of technology to override its designers' choices based on their local, up-to-the-minute knowledge of their circumstances, like overriding your car's mandatory software update when you're trying to escape a wildfire.

The point of interop isn't "competition" or even "efficiency" – it's technological self-determination, the right to decide how you live your life. This does lead to competitiveness and autonomous workers are more efficient than drones, but that's not the point.

Companies like Gojek lump all mods into the same basket – mods that let drivers do their job better and mods that enable fraud. From Gojek's perspective, anything that frustrates their shareholders is bad news – it's "felony contempt of business model."

That's why laws, not corporate decree, should determine what kind of interoperability we permit and which ones we don't. Our current laws (in the US, Sec 1201 of DMCA, CFAA, etc) simply say, "If the manufacturer says no, it's not allowed."

We can – and should – draft laws that prevent fraud and require practices that don't endanger others, while legalizing modifying our technology in ways that are socially beneficial and help workers and other users exercise technological self-determination.

Letting users modify their own technology makes life better for everyone. John Deere – archnemesis of users' right to mod – "invented" modern tractors through engineers observing farmers' mods to their Deeres and putting the ideas into production.

Meanwhile, Gbwhatsapp and its constellation of primarily African Whatsapp mods are more popular on the continent than Facebook Messenger. There are many Whatsapp mods, used for different kinds of users Africa's varied regions, nations and cities.

Facebook rails against Gbwhatsapp the same way that Gojek rails against tuyul apps, pointing to the scams and harms from the mods that are created by crooks. But just like Gojek, FB lumps the mods that empower users in with the mods that harm them.

There are ways that interoperability can go wrong, but dominant corporations can't be trusted with the decision about which mods are okay and which ones aren't – they are terminally compromised by their own self-interest.

The rules for modding – privacy protections, anti-fraud protection and more – should come from democratically accountable legislatures, not the secret machinations of corporate boardrooms.

A US $100 bill, with Steve Ballmer's grinning head superimposed over the LA Clippers logo in place of Benjamin Franklin.

Owning a sports-team is a plute's get-out-of-tax-free card (permalink)

When Microsoft CEO (and Linux archnemesis) Steve Ballmer retired and bought the LA Clippers, it was easy to assume that the billionaire was engaged in a jolly, buying a major league sports team as a folly.

But far from it: Ballmer made his bones (and his billions) by cheating – lying about free software; secretly funding absurd, crippling, pretextual lawsuits over GNU/Linux; and leading a vast, corrupt monopoly – and his foray into sports ownership was no different.

As Robert Faturechi, Justin Elliott and Ellis Simani document in yet another blockbuster Propublica Secret IRS Files story, buying the LA Clippers allowed Ballmer to evade $140m in taxes from the sale of Microsoft stock.

Sports teams, it turns out, are not merely billionaires' playthings – they're also a way to launder the earnings of the ultra-rich to reduce their tax liabilities far below the liabilities owed by the minimum wage workers serving pretzels or the millionaire players.

Ballmer's tax dodge involved ginning up $700m in paper losses for the team by amortizing its assets, including assets that don't depreciate. It's part of an old dodge in sports-team ownership, perfected by Cleveland Indians/Chicago White Sox owner Bill Veeck in the 1940s.

Veeck didn't think that wealthy sports team owners should pay any tax ("Look, we play the Star Spangled Banner before every game. You want us to pay income taxes too?") and conceived of a "gimmick" (his word) to make this a reality.

In addition to taking a deduction for his players' salaries, he insisted that he could depreciate the value of his players' salaries, by acquiring the team and its contracts in two separate transactions. It worked.

As former MLB president Paul Beeston wrote, "Under generally accepted accounting principles, I could turn a $4 million profit into a $2 million loss and I could get every national accounting firm to agree with me."

Congress and the IRS eventually caught up with this shuck, but in 2004, one-time sports-team owner GW Bush signed a law reinstating the rule, allowing team-owners to amortize everything from TV and radio contracts to "goodwill."

Sports team billionaire tax-avoidance league-table, by Lucas Waldron for Propublica.

This is how Ballmer was able to pay 12% tax on $656m in income, while athletes pay 30-40% on far more modest sums. Ballmer's not the only one who got in on this scam – there's a whole all-star team of ultra-rich owners who cash in on it.

This may explain why national sports franchises have increased in value by 500% over the past 20 years – they're not just a way to earn income, they're also a way for the ultra-rich to evade taxes.

Propublica's reporting didn't stop at Ballmer. They also talk about owners like Leonard Wilf (Minnesota Vikings) and Shahid Khan (Jacksonville Jaguars).

Khan issued a statement in his defense: "In the case of tax laws, the IRS applies and enforces the regulations, which are absolute. We simply and fully comply with those very IRS regulations."

This is the same excuse that has been offered since the first Secret IRS Files publication in June: Rich tax evaders don't make the rules, they just follow them. If you don't like the rules, ask Congress for better ones.

This excuse's flimsiness is obvious: if there are weak tax rules for the super-rich, that's not merely because the IRS forgot to close a loophole or Congress didn't pass a law – the super-rich suborn regulators and lawmakers to create rules that operate to their advantage.

But there's a subtler, technical reason this is bullshit. Writing for The American Prospect's Revolving Door project, Sion Bell explains the "Economic Substance Doctrine."

This is a part of the tax code that excludes transactions "that lacks a concrete purpose beyond reduction of tax liability." The language in the tax code is very broad, and does not define key terms like "transaction," "trade or business," or "economic position."

On the one hand, this gives the IRS broad latitude to go after pretextual transactions that create risible fictions like the ones deployed by the team owners. On the other hand, the fuzziness of the standard allows deep-pocketed cheats to tie up the IRS in court for years.

The IRS's budget was gutted in 2010 (in response to the lie that right-wing groups were being charitable status), and has been lagging ever since, with especially deep cuts to its enforcement budget.

The point of the Economic Substance Doctrine is the backstop the rest of the tax-code. Anything as complex as the code will have loopholes, even without rich people doing everything they can to make sure they're there.

It functions as a "giggle test" that checks tax avoidance strategies that claim (as Peter Thiel did) that stashing $5b tax-free in an IRA is consistent with a retirement vehicle that allows middle-class people to save small sums for their dotage.

Even absent enforcement, the Economic Substance Doctrine is a rebuttal to the argument that ultra-rich tax cheats are just "obeying the law." The law – the US tax code – bans the clever fictions they use to pay lower tax rates than the rest of us.

Sports team owners' double-dipping amortization scams are not consistent with the tax code – it's just that the part of the law they're breaking is expensive to enforce, and there's no budget to do so.

(Image: Eric Garcetti, CC BY, modified)

This day in history (permalink)

#15yrsago Ben Rosenbaum’s “Ant King” story under CC license

#15yrsago Song inspired by Ted Stevens’ “Internet is a series of tubes”

#10yrsago Half of US social program recipients believe they “have not used a government social program”

#10yrsago Creative License: how the hell did sampling get so screwed up and what the hell do we do about it?

#5yrsago Tiffin: a boardgame based on Mumbai’s miraculous lunch-delivery network

#5yrsago William Gibson’s Archangel: intricate military sf, mercilessly optimized for comics

#5yrsago One line in a federal law from 1866 makes it basically impossible to prosecute killer cops

#5yrsago Why did some of the richest, most powerful people in the UK support Brexit?

#5yrsago Tenant farmers: how “smart” agricultural equipment siphons off farmers’ crop and soil data

#5yrsago As browsers decline in relevance, they’re becoming DRM timebombs

#5yrsago NYC’s sloppy records gave $59.2M in tax breaks to dead people

#1yrago The awful stupidity of measuring engineers' productivity

#1yrago The rotten culture of the rich

#1yrago EY helped 'Ndrangheta sell mafia bonds

#1yrago Hank Green's "A Beautifully Foolish Endeavor"

Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources: Matt Katz (

Currently writing:

  • Spill, a Little Brother short story about pipeline protests. Yesterday's progress: 252 words (9198 words total).

  • A Little Brother short story about remote invigilation. PLANNING

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

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

Currently reading: Analogia by George Dyson.

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  • The Shakedown, with Rebecca Giblin, nonfiction/business/politics, Beacon Press 2022

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