Pluralistic: 11 Aug 2021

Today's links

The Canadian flag; in the centre of the maple leaf is the glowing red eye of HAL9000; the white field has been replaced by a Matrix 'code waterfall' effect.

Canada's got the world's worst internet ideas (permalink)

Canada's government is poised to pass a "harmful content" regulation. It's a worst-in-class mutation of a dangerous idea that's swept the globe, in which governments demand that hamfisted tech giants remove broad categories of speech – too swiftly for meaningful analysis.

Many countries have proposed or passed rules on these lines: Australia, France, UK, Germany, India. They are all bad, but Canada's is literally the worst – as if Trudeau's Liberals sought out the most dangerous elements of each rule and combined them.

What's in Canada's rule? EFF's Corynne McSherry and Katitza Rodriguez break it down.

  • A requirement to remove "lawful-but-awful" speech that is allowed under Canadian law, but effectively also now banned under Canadian law;

  • 24-hour deadlines for removal, guaranteeing that platforms will not have time to conduct a thorough analysis of speech before it is censored;

  • A de-facto requirement for platforms to install algorithmic filters to (mis)identify and remove prohibited expression;

  • Huge penalties for failing to remove banned speech – and no penalties for erroneously taking down permitted speech – which guarantees that platforms will shoot first and probably not bother to ask questions later;

  • Mandatory reporting of potentially harmful content (and the users who post it) to law enforcement and national security agencies;

  • A Chinese-style national firewall that will block websites that refuse to comply;

  • Far-reaching data-retention policies that only the largest companies will be able to afford, which will create immortal, leaky repositories of kompromat on every Canadian internet user.

Even worse: the specific contours of all these rules will be determined anew with each new Parliament, who will get to appoint a new Canadian "internet czar" with the power to expand and extend the regulation's most dangerous elements.

The proposal allows Canadian cops to confiscate online services' computers if they are suspected of noncompliance – but offers them an insurance policy to avoid having their doors kicked in and their equipment seized: to adopt "advice" from the internet czar.

So not only will the internet czar – who might someday be appointed by PM Maxime Bernier or Doug Ford – get to rewrite the rules in public, they'll also be empowered to go beyond those rules in private "advice" to online services, backstopped by the threat of raids.

The Trudeau government are spinning this hard, just as they did with Bill C-10 (which included deceptive language that, on superficial examination, seemed to limit the scope of the law, but which was superceded by later clauses).

In this case, the proposal limits regulation to "public" forums. But because the this is copied from other countries, we know there's room to declare a private chat-group public as soon as it hits a certain (unilaterally determined) size threshold:

The combination of:

  • prohibiting broad, poorly defined speech categories;

  • harsh penalties for underblocking; and

  • requiring swift compliance without time for adequate assessment or counternotifications;

all guarantee that tech giants will block all kinds of speech.

But not all speech is equally at risk. People who are already marginalised are disproportionately likely to be censored under rules like this. That's what happened with the US's SESTA-FOSTA rule, nominally intended to prevent sexual trafficking.

In reality, the primary targets of this law became lawful, consensual sex workers, who are exposed to far more risk now that they can no longer operate forums where they trade "bad date" lists and other safety information.

This discrimination is sticky, because SESTA caused the shuttering of forums where sex workers advocated for their rights. The more marginalised the speaker, the worst it is – which is why the most heavily impacted group is trans women of colour.

As ever, Michael Geist is the absolute best authority to refer to on this. Geist has documented the "beware of the leopard"-style secrecy of the Liberals, who have taken great pains to shield this policy-making from public scrutiny.

But despite all the tactical obscurity, there IS a way that Canadians can weigh in on this, through this online consultation form. All Canadians should submit comments on this.

Online harms rules are a human rights disaster. They've been roundly criticised by UN Rapporteurs and civil society groups all over the world.

France's version – which was not as extreme as Canada's – was struck down as unconstitutional.

None of this is to say the tech giants are good for speech. They're terrible at moderation – of course they are. The problem with Facebook isn't merely that Zuck is a shitty online emperor for three billion people – it's that no one should have the job of "online emperor."

But the Canadian proposal will ensure that these tech giants are the last generation of online platforms, by imposing a duty to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on speech filters – something that only the largest American companies can afford.

This forecloses on the goal of whittling tech giants to size through interoperability, ending the possibility that co-operatives, nonprofits and startups could independently manage their own spaces that were still connected to the platforms.

Canada is not alone in planning to convert the tech giants into constitutional monarchs, offering them perpetual dominance in exchange for suffering themselves to be regulated in how they rule our digital lives.

But that's a terrible vision for our online future. We don't want wise emperors running our digital world – we want to abolish emperors and give people the right to technological self-determination.

A chart from Propublica showing the share of 'pass-through' tax breaks that went to the top 1% of Americans by income.

IRS leaks reveal billions reaped through ultra-wealthy lobbying on the tax bill (permalink)

The latest in Propublica's Secret IRS Files reporting is a crossover episode, combining leaked tax-returns of America's ultrawealthy with campaign contribution data to reveal the incredible return on investment the rich reaped from Trump's Tax Scam.

You may remember how Trump's "Tax Cuts and Jobs Act" (AKA the "big, beautiful tax-cut") was a shambles of amendments and annotations, whose final draft was literally covered in hand-scribbled changes that handed millions to donors.

The new Propublica report quantifies the effect of those last-minute changes, and also reveals their causes – the handful of one-percenters who bankrolled senators like Senator Ron Johnson with $20m in campaign funds and reaped $215m back in just the first year of the tax cuts.

Johnson stunned fellow Republican senators by announcing that he would not support the tax bill, then pressed them to add the provision that allowed three people – owners of Uline and roofing magnate Diane Hendricks – to pocket $215m in one year, with more every year since.

Uline's Dick and Liz Uihlein and Hendricks stand to make more than $500m from Johnson's amendment, which created deductions for "pass-through entities." Johnson claims he did this to "simplify and rationalize the tax code" and help a wide range of business owners.

But Johnson's pass-through rule overwhelming benefits a tiny number of people, most of them major donors to his campaign. These are donors who met with Johnson extensively in the runup to the introduction of his bill.

All told, the major beneficiaries of Trump's tax bill were just 82 households, who pocketed $1 billion in benefits. Many of the beneficiaries are the children or grandchildren of successful businesspeople, who owe their wealth to an accident of birth.

The US system doesn't just allocate billions to people on the basis of which orifice they emerge from – it provides a vast range of bespoke services to allow orifice-tycoons to maintain their fortunes, including accounting magic and lobbying might.

Take the mysterious, anonymous addition of eight words to the final draft of the tax bill: "applied without regard to the words 'engineering, architecture.'"

No one knows who inserted this text, but it produced $111m in additional wealth for orifice tycoons Brendan, Darren and Katherine Bechtel, the great-grandchildren of the founder of Bechtel. Their father, cousins and other relations also benefited.

While no one knows for sure who added these 8 words, a Bechtel lobbyist called Marc Gerson claimed credit for it. The Bechtel lobbying effort cost $1m. The return on that investment, again, was more than $111m. Why make things when you can make laws?

Bechtel is a curious enterprise: for generations, it firehosed cash on anti-tax extremist politicians and thinktanks – yet the entire Bechtel fortune comes from government contracts.

Today, CEO Brendan Bechtel leads the corporate charge against Biden's infrastructure plan.

The Propublica investigation matched other major donors to specific tax-breaks. Donald Bren, who owns the massive Southern California Irvine Corporation, pocketed $22m after hiring Ernst & Young lobbyist Wes Coulam to go to bat for him.

Real Estate Investment Trust (REIT) tycoon Steven Roth spent $5m lobbying for a 20% deduction on REIT dividends. The change lets him deduct $5m/year on the dividends from his company, Vornado Realty Trust.

The heirs of Enterprise Product Partners, a Houston-based pipeline company, pocketed $150m from a pipeline-specific amendment introduced at the last moment by Senator John Cornyn.

They're the 11th richest family in America – and their family pumped a fortune into Cornyn's campaigns through industry association cutouts.

Everyone who voted for the tax bill knew that it was a conspiracy to benefit a tiny number of people at the expense of the vast majority. Treasury economists say that 60% of the tax bill's benefit went to the 1%, and the majority of that went to the 0.1%.

I am not a believer in the Great Man Theory of History. Our world changes because of broad-based political will and grassroots organizing.

But stories like this are enough to make me believe in the Shitty Man Theory of History.

That's the theory that while improving the world is a cooperative, mass effort, destroying it is easy for a handful of immoral sociopaths – ultrawealthy looters, orifice tycoons, and enablers in the House and Senate.

In America's state religion, "business acumen" and "political effectiveness" are code for the dead-eyed, pathological absence of empathy and conscience, and the cynicism to turn those deficits into billions.

This day in history (permalink)

#20yrsago What your computer does when it boots

#15yrsago Schwarzenegger sends National Guard to California’s airports

#15yrsago Fake anti-Net Neutrality groups

#10yrsago Marvel to comics retailers: we’ll give you limited edition singles if you destroy our competitors’ products

#10yrsago My SIGGRAPH keynote–izo

#5yrsago Trump is an object lesson in the problems of machine learning

#5yrsago DEA bribes rail/airline employees for tipoffs that lead to warrantless cash seizures

#5yrsago 100 million VWs can be unlocked with a $40 cracker (and other cars aren’t much better)

#5yrsago 48 hours later, Adblock Plus beats Facebook’s adblocker-blocker

#5yrsago As social media centralized, blogging’s core infrastructure has withered

#1yrago When you hear "intangibles," think "monopolies"

#1yrago How they're killing the post office

Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources:

Currently writing:

  • Spill, a Little Brother short story about pipeline protests. Yesterday's progress: 262 words (14223 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: Managing Aggregate Demand
Upcoming appearances:

Recent appearances:

Latest book:

Upcoming books:

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

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