Pluralistic: 16 Nov 2021

Today's links

The title card for the 'What Police Get When They Get Your Phone' episode of EFF's 'How to Fix the Internet' podcast. It features EFF's 30th anniversary logo, a lighthouse with EFF's wordmark coming down its face.

What Police Get When They Get Your Phone (permalink)

It's not surprising that the debate over digital rights is dominated by technologists – after all, spotting risks (and promises) of technology requires a technical understanding.

Likewise, it's not surprising that technologists are accused of solutionism – they've got a hammer, and they're gonna look for nails. The problem with this critique is that not every tech intervention is solutionism.

I mean, sure, social problems are caused by social relations, but tech can change social relations. Anyone who doubts it needs to study the Industrial Revolution, the printing press, the telephone… Solutionism is the idea that tech solves everything, but the inverse – that tech solves nothing – is just nihilism.

Solutionism isn't the only incomplete theory of social change. How many times have you heard someone say that if you don't like how a tech company acts, you should just boycott it, "voting with your wallet?"

That's consumerism, and it, too, can't solve a lot of problems. You can't shop your way out of monopoly capitalism. You can't opt out of Googbook when every app and page you visit has an ad-tech tracker on it.

But boycotts do work…sometimes. History is replete with moments when applying commercial leverage changed corporate behavior – or weakened corporate power to the point where it could be tamed regulation.

So what about regulation? I've got lot of first-hand experience being patronized by Hill Rats about how all the levers of power are in the legislature and the courtroom. There's a name for this sin: it's called proceduralism – the belief that the most important games are won by the last person to get bored and walk away.

But only a fool would say that laws and their enforcement don't matter. The problem with the laws against wage-theft, pollution and discrimination is that they're not enforced, not that they exist in the first place. Our society wouldn't be improved by getting rid of those laws.

What about direct action, though? You can go on strike, chain yourself to a pipeline, call out your boss on social media. Sure, there's lots of time that's failed – but the whole history of the labor movement, from coal-strikes to #MeToo, tells us that "social justice warriors" get shit done…sometimes.

You've probably figured it out by now. The problem isn't proceduralism, or consumerism, or solutionism, or social movements. The problem is in the insistence that only one of those tactics should be used – when really, they are all intensely complementary. Social media gives us a tool for reaching wide audiences, even for unpopular messages. Calling out your boss on social media for being a rapey asshole is a path to insisting on better anti-harassment laws and more enforcement of the laws we have. Boycotts and threats of boycotts can keep companies from seeking to block that legal enforcement.

The problem isn't using hammers to drive nails. The problem is in insisting that only hammers should ever be used, irrespective of whether there's a nail involved.

This is great news, actually. Because some of us are better at community organizing, and some of us have law degrees, and some of us are hackers, and some of us really care about where our dollars go. That just means that we have room for everyone in the fight.

A corollary: though organizations are often born to fight on just one of these fronts, over time, it's likely that it will expand to work on multiple fronts. For example, EFF really began as a campaigning law firm (an "impact litigator") with cases like Bernstein, which killed the NSA's ban on civilian access to cryptography.

But over time, as EFF ran up against limits on who it could sue or defend, its other arms – activism, community organizing, and tech projects – grew.

We shipped code, like Privacy Badger, the leading tracker-blocker:

We organized worldwide activism campaigns, like the one that saved the .ORG registry from being sold to private equity robber-barons:

And we created the Electronic Frontier Alliance, a network of independent, grassroots community groups:

This is a kind of "full-stack activism," with a diversity of tactics. It gets stuff done.

EFF has just launched the new season of its podcast, How to Fix the Internet. As the show name suggests, the point isn't just to moan about looming dystopia, it's about making things better.

Take the debut episode, in which Harlan Yu of Upturn talks with EFF exec director Cindy Cohn and EFF special advisor Danny O'Brien about how they've successfully fought cop-tech:

Cop-tech is a fungus, experiencing wild growth in the dark. Any small-town cop, it seems, can get access to milspec spying devices that follow you around and suck your phone dry during pretextual stops. These tools are generally acquired without disclosure or debate, and while their use is nominally regulated by cases like Riley v California, cops have figured out how to dodge those restrictions. It's a free-for-all.

But it doesn't have to be. As Yu describes, there are leverage-points in the regulation of cop-tech, places where small changes to the law and its application can bring oversight and accountability to high-tech policing.

This is the kind of podcast I love – I learned a lot about cop-tech that I didn't know, much of it scary and disheartening. But I also learned what we can do about it – what the path of least resistance is to preventing this kind of dystopian hellscape.

That's the best kind of technopolitics: one that draws on an understanding of social forces, markets, the law and technology to both analyze problems – and do something about them.

Here's a direct link to the MP3:

And here's the RSS for the rest of this coming season of How to Fix the Internet:

This day in history (permalink)

#15yrsago Best Buy: our prices are copyrighted

#15yrsago Billy Bragg and manager: The Internet is for sharing files

#10yrsago HOWTO be more anonymous in your anonymous blog

#10yrsago Joe Biden: SOPA is Un-American – but not when America does it

#10yrsago The Freedom Maze: a different sort of slavery-time alternate history

#10yrsago AV Club vs Frank Miller vs Occupy

#5yrsago My Sister Rosa: disquieting YA novel about loving an adorable psychopath

#1yrago Youtube-dl is back

Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources:

Currently writing:

  • Spill, a Little Brother short story about pipeline protests. Yesterday's progress: 284 words (30669 words total)

  • Picks and Shovels, a Martin Hench noir thriller about the heroic era of the PC. Yesterday's progress: 564 words (38862 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.

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Upcoming books:

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

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