Pluralistic: 13 Feb 2022

Today's links

The MPAA's 'You Wouldn't Steal a Car' graphic; 'a Car' has been replaced with 'the Future.'

Podcasting Part II of "The Internet Heist" (permalink)

This week on my podcast, I read the second part of "The Internet Heist," a series of three articles about the weirdest, most far-reaching, most bonkers battle of the copyright wars of the early 2000s.

Last week, I read out Part I of the series, which told the story of the Broadcast Flag, wherein the movie studios and TV broadcasters conspired with a corrupt Congressman to make it illegal to build a general-purpose computer unless it had DRM.

The Broadcast Flag's notional purpose was to prevent high-def digital TV broadcasts from being captured and shared online. The idea had powerful political support, because it was seen as key to shutting off analog TV broadcasting and reclaiming its spectrum for auction to mobile carriers.

In this week's installment, I explain why the most important consumer electronics and tech companies participated in the exercise: Intel tricked them into it. Intel ran this initiative, and it was the senior member of the two largest DRM consortia (5C and 4C).

Intel let it be known that there would be a law requiring all tech to have DRM, and threatened only Intel's DRM would satisfy the rule…Unless the tech and CE companies showed up and fought for their own DRM to be included.

Sitting out the proceedings would doom the CE and IT companies to paying Intel for a DRM license for any products they made in future…forever. Meanwhile, that participation by the CE and IT companies provided the Broadcast Flag with the legitimacy it needed to be credible as a mandate.

But thankfully for all of us, the Broadcast Flag collapsed. First, its Congressional sponsor, Rep Billy Tauzin, got mired in scandal and quit his government job to be a $2m/year lobbyist for Phrma, the pharmaceutical assocation. CE and tech companies began to smell a rat, and the chairs of the group created a bunch of private "subcommittees."

Any time a "public" Broadcast Flag meeting (they were "public" but there was no way to find out when or where they were unless you attended the previous meeting) got derailed by tech companies balking, these "subcommittees" would swing into action. The meeting would screech to a halt and recalcitrant corporate rep would be dragged out of the main meeting room and into a private side room. Minutes or hours later, they'd reappear, looking beaten and miserable, and announce that "the objection had been resolved."

Then, Intel and the entertainment companies sprung their trap on the CE and tech companies. Rather than developing "objective criteria" for mandatory DRM, the Broadcast Flag rule would say, "You must use a DRM that has been approved by a quorum of studios and broadcasters." And the only DRM that had that approval was Intel's DRM.

In other words, Intel had tricked the tech and CE companies into blessing a process that would make it illegal for them to do business without paying Intel royalties until the end of time.

The final Broadcast Flag report is a lasting testament to the fury of the companies after they realized they'd been duped. It contains appendix after appendix objecting to the "consensus document," condemning the whole thing as a sham.

With Tauzin out shilling for Big Pill, Congress was no longer an option for the Broadcast Flag. Instead the MPAA and Intel took their case to the FCC, whose chairman, Michael Powell, would shortly switch sides and go to work running the NCTA, lobbying for the same companies he drew a public salary to regulate.

Michael Powell – son of Colin – ignored all the objections to the Broadcast Flag, and disregarded the submissions that argued that the FCC just didn't have the authority to regulate all computers. He granted the studios and Intel their Broadcast Flag – only to have the Second Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously strike it down as beyond the FCC's jurisdiction.

That was the end of the Broadcast Flag (in the USA, at least; next week's installment details the DVB's ill-starred attempt to make an even stupider version for the rest of the world). But – incredibly – the Broadcast Flag wasn't the most outlandish attempt to control how computers work in the name of fighting video piracy.

No, that was the Analog Hole.

What's an "analog hole?" You are, basically. Your head is full of analog holes: your ears and eyes, to name just a few. In order for you to experience a digital TV broadcast, it must be converted to analog signals – pictures and sounds – because you do not have a digital neural interface (and Elon Musk won't give you one, he'll just mutilate a bunch of monkeys to juice his share price).

The fact that every digital signal has to become an analog signal as part of its journey to a human's experience presented a problem for the content barons. They could lock down the digital outputs on every computer with a Broadcast Flag, but what would stop you from connecting a video-capture card to the analog outputs of your receiver? How to stop someone from creating a perfectly configured redigitization suite with a 4K screen and a locked-off camcorder?

Their answer? An "analog-to-digital converter (ADC) mandate" (AKA "Plugging the Analog Hole"). They proposed a law – sponsored by Reps Sensenbrenner and Conyers – that would make it illegal to build an ADC unless it checked for a watermark. If the watermark was detected, the ADC would switch itself off.

This is a terrible idea for a lot of reasons. First, building an ADC is really easy. Like, high-school science-fair easy. For the Analog Hole law to work, there would have to be no noncompliant ADCs in circulation.

Second, watermarks are a stupid way to solve this problem. The studios believed that they could make a watermark that was both robust (impossible to remove) and imperceptible. The problem is that an imperceptible watermark adds nothing to the signal that your ears or eyes can detect, so its removal takes nothing away that you care about. Imperceptible watermarks are, by definition, not robust.

You can make perceptible watermarks all day long. Stamp a giant PROPERTY OF SONY PICTURES across every frame of a movie and it will be damned hard to remove. Of course, it will also be hard to convince people to pay to watch that movie.

The Analog Hole bill specified a watermarking technology that was claimed to be imperceptible and robust, a tool called VEIL. VEIL had never been deployed for this purpose: its sole user was a toy manufacturer who made a Batmobile toy that would respond to supersonic chirps in an accompanying video and race around your floor.

No one was able to test VEIL to see whether its watermarks could be forged or removed. The company that made it charged $1,000 to see the documentation, and the contract included a strict nondisclosure "agreement."

Thankfully, this idiotic technology did not become mandatory in analog-to-digital converters. But we did inherit a version of it: the upload filters used by Youtube and others, which the Copyright Office wants to make mandatory:

These filters don't stop you from capturing copyrighted works, but they do stop you from uploading them to the monopoly platforms that dominate our public square. That's why dirty cops play Taylor Swift when members of the public attempt to record their interactions with them: they're betting that Youtube's filters will prevent those videos from being seen.

The evolution of digital controls – from mandates governing widely used equipment to mandates on widely used platforms – reveals an important truth about the evolution of our tech policy debates. Back in the early 2000s, the entertainment industry had already undergone concentration, making it easy to form a cartel and demand restrictions on the rest of us.

The tech and CE companies back then were diverse and competitive, and had a hard time conspiring to screw the rest of us over (they also struggled to fight off the attacks of the entertainment cartel). Today, both tech and content are fully cartelized and while they nominally compete, they mostly cooperate. They have interlocking boards and major shareholders, and they often speak with one voice when conspiring to take away our rights and extract our money.

That's grim news. As you'll hear in next week's reading, the power to define our technology spills over into the power to structure our social relationships – right down to what constitutes a valid family. You don't have to wait for the podcast, either – the article is right here:

Here's this week's podcast episode:

And here's a direct link to the MP3 (hosting courtesy of the Internet Archive, they'll host your stuff for free, forever):

And here's the RSS for my podcast:

A mountain of garbage beneath a sky of flames and smoke. Atop the garbage is a 'do not litter' icon of a human figure putting waste in a trashcan. The waste has been replaced by a glittering gold Bitcoin logo.

Comprehensive synthesis of the technological, ecological and political critique of blockchainism (permalink)

I've just read one of the most lucid, wide-ranging, cross-disciplinary critiques of cryptocurrency and blockchain I've yet to encounter. It comes from David "DSHR" Rosenthal, a distinguished technologist whose past achievements including helping to develop X11 and the core technologies for Nvidia.

Rosenthal's critique is a transcript of a lecture he gave to Stanford's EE380 class, adapted from a December 2021 talk for an investor conference. It is a bang-up-to-date synthesis of many of the critical writings on the subject, glued together with Rosenthal's own deep technical expertise. He calls it "Can We Mitigate Cryptocurrencies' Externalities?"

The presence of "externalities" in Rosenthal's title is key. Rosenthal identifies blockchainism's core ideology as emerging from "the libertarian culture of Silicon Valley and the cypherpunks," and states that "libertarianism's attraction is based on ignoring externalities."

This is an important critique of libertarianism. The idea that "liberty" is the freedom to do as you like, provided it doesn't harm others is simple enough on its face, but the reality is very few of our actions are free from the potential to harm others. The freedom to drive, or operate a firearm, or to determine your own vaccination preferences all have impacts on others. We can (and should) argue about what consideration you owe to your neighbors and what tolerance they owe to you, but all too often, that argument is settled by ignoring it.

Think of the people who talk about masking as a "personal choice." Human beings have an undeniably entwined epidemiological destiny. There are few epidemiological choices that are purely personal – they redound to the people around you.

The existence of a shared destiny and the necessity of a society to manage it runs smack into the idea that messy personal conflicts are best resolved by carving out individual zones of autonomy. All too often, the libertarian definition of "liberty" is cover for "I don't want to pay taxes to support a society." This is a pretty unpopular position, so libertarians form alliances with naked authoritarians, such as elements of the Christian right:

That's how you end up with archlibertarians arguing that the world would be "freer" if women weren't allowed to vote:

Or that democracy itself is incompatible with liberty, since it lets workers vote to limit the activities of their bosses:

The maintenance of libertarian ideology may not require that you ignore externalities, but it sure helps. When advocates for "liberty" champion the likes of Augusto Pinochet, who tortured and slaughtered his political enemies by the thousands, they are discounting the lethal externalities of Pinochet's economic "freedoms" to zero.

Rosenthal's critique of contemporary blockchainism starts with this idea of discounted externalities – the foundational contradiction that one's "liberty" exists in a state of pristine isolation, and doesn't harm anyone else.

To get to this, he looks at the history of blockchains. He divides blockchain technology into an older, "permissioned" blockchain technology, invented in 1990, and "permissionless" blockchains, which were invented around 2008 with the first Bitcoin white-paper.

A permissioned blockchain require on a central authority that dictates who can write to the chain. Within that stricture, it produces a highly computationally efficient public ledger that can identify malfunctioning or corrupt nodes in the network and route around them.

Permissionless blockchains, like the Bitcoin blockchain, are born decentralized. No one authority gets to decide who can participate in the ledger's creation – at first. This decentralization comes at a high price, though. Blockchains are vulnerable to "Sybil attacks" where one attacker impersonates a horde of unconnected actors and takes over the system. To defend against this, permissionless blockchains make Sybil attacks expensive, so that the most you can steal in a Sybil attack is less than it would cost to pull it off. The inescapable corollary of this is that using the network has to be expensive – the system has to have a giant electricity bill and hence a massive carbon footprint.

This expense, in turn, compensates miners for the money they pour into defeating Sybil attacks. These miners get paid in cryptocurrency, and for cryptocurrency to have value, it has to have someone who's willing to buy cryptos with "fiat" – dollars or other easily spent money. The only reason for someone to trade fiat for those cryptos (apart from making ransomware payments) is as an "investment" – that is, because you think the cryptocurrency's price will rise. Thus these blockchains require speculation to function.

All of this means that the majority of blockchain activity is just about maintaining the blockchain – not about buying or selling things. There are only about 27,000 "economically meaningful" Bitcoin transactions in a day – and 75% of those are inter-exchange transactions. All told, only 2.5% of Bitcoin transactions represent someone buying something from someone (fewer than five per minute, globally).

This profound wastefulness is a feature, not a bug. It's the expense that keeps Sybil attacks at bay, without centralizing authority over the blockchain, as would be the case with the otherwise vastly more efficient permissioned blockchains that have been around for 30 years.

But here's where Rosenthal unveils the other half of his critique: the drive to maximize the efficiency of mining drives miners to consolidate, in order to attain economies of scale. The more valuable a blockchain is, the more centralized it becomes.

Today, 10% of miners control 90% of the mining. The top 0.1% of miners control 50% of mining. Five mining pools control the majority of Bitcoin mining. Last November, only two mining pools controlled the majority of Ethereum mining. This is the worst of all worlds: a highly volatile blockchain that is incredibly wasteful and centralized, with control in the hands of largely anonymous parties who are accountable to no one, who can cheat with impunity.

So far, the focus of Rosenthal's externality critique has been energy consumption and climate harms. But here he comes to his second externality: e-waste. To maintain their position in the highly concentrated mining sectors, miners have to run their equipment hard and discard it quickly as it burns out. The average service life of an ASIC used in blockchain mining is a mere 16 months – whereupon it turned into ewaste, retiring its embodied materials and energy. Other blockchain verification systems, like proof of space-and-time, do the same thing to mass storage devices.

Now, it's true that the finance and tech sectors produce a lot of ewaste on their own. But that's because their equipment wears out despite their best efforts to preserve it. The foundational premise of cryptocurrency mining is that you are in a race with other miners to discard and replace your equipment as rapidly as possible, to eke out every speed advantage.

The blockchainst response to this is to ignore the ewaste problem and hand-wave the emissions issue by claiming that they're fixing it with offsets. Offsets, meanwhile, are a market for lemons. Most carbon offsets are fairy tales:

And, as Rosenthal points out, even if your cryptos are being mined with renewables, that is only carbon neutral if you assume "that doing so doesn't compete with more socially valuable uses for renewables, or indeed for power in general."

Blockchainists are aware of the problems with proof of work, and many are calling for a transition to proof of stake, a notionally less climate-intensive way of running a permissionless blockchain.

Rosenthal's critique of proof of stake begins by observing that it drives even more centralization than proof of work. A proof of stake network allows the people who have the most to tax the transactions of those with less, cementing their dominance and increasing centralization.

So both permissioned and permissionless blockchains end up centralized, but permissionless blockchains – the type beloved of blockchainists – are centralized into unaccountable and often anonymous hands. So while a permissioned blockchain that is run by a benevolent (or at least accountable) authority can reverse frauds, permissionless blockchains struggle to do this.

This immutability is part of the reason that blockchains and fraud go together like peanut butter and chocolate. Thefts on working permissionless blockchains can't be readily reversed, making them permanent. Meanwhile, the entities who end up at the top of the centralization pile in these networks can commit thefts by rewriting the "immutable" ledgers.

It's not a purely hypothetical problem. The Steem proof of stake network was compromised by Justin Sun in 2021, who took advantage of the highly centralized staking sector to hijack the Steem blockchain.

The immutability problem is worse in programmable cryptos like Ethereum. The "smart contracts" that operate on these chains are effectively bug bounties whose maximum payout is everything in the wallets connected to them. The attack surface of programmable money which is connected to social media, Discord servers, standalone wallets, etc, is virtually unbounded.

This is another important point raised by Rosenthal: not only are permissionless blockchains highly concentrated, they're also ineluctably bound up with Web 2.0 technologies. The fact that Binance conducts two thirds of crypto derivative transactions and half of all spot technologies using browsers and other 2.0 stuff multiplies all the blockchain vulns by all the non-blockchain vulns.

Here Rosenthal cites Adam Levitin's recent, excellent analysis of the legal status of crypto exchange users in bankruptcy proceedings (tldr: if your exchange goes bust, you'll probably get nothing or nearly nothing):

Rosenthal's boils this all down to four points:

I. Permissioned blockchains can stop Sybil attacks without cryptocurrency and have no significant externalities;

II. Permissionless blockchains require a cryptocurrency to stop Sybil attacks, and this produce major externalities;

III. To be successful, permissionless blockchains require proof-of-work or some other deliberately wasteful system, making externalities inevitable;

IV. Likewise inevitable is that any security system based on wasting resources will create the centralization that permissionless blockchains claim to eliminate.

Rosenthal concludes his talk by affirming that he values decentralization and it is that value that causes him to reject blockchainism. He reminds us that the billions pouring into the Web3 bubble are bets on attaining scale and dominance – the only reason to pump billions into a blockchain technology is if you think that you can corner a market and make it back. In other words, Web3 investors see high barriers to entry as a feature, not a bug, and they're committed to centralization.

(Image: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Headquarters, CC BY 2.0)

Eastern Grey Squirrel

Eating invasive species (permalink)

Invasive species present something of a paradox. On the one hand, it seems like human beings are really good at accidentally rendering a species extinct – but for some reason, when it comes to invasive species we want to wipe out (locally, at least), we're seemingly helpless.

One audacious and slightly uncomfortable answer lies in invasivorism: cultivating cuisines whose main ingredients are invasive species. A new article in The Guardian by Patrick Greenfield opens with the rise of grey squirrel fine dining in the UK, where the North American squirrels are considered a harmful and invasive species:

In the US, Texas chef Jesse Griffiths is serving feral hog, a hugely damaging invader that threatens endangered species habitat and human safety:

Greenfield mentions how Caribbean cuisine has begun to incorporate invasive lionfish on the menu. Pre-lockdown, I spent a wonderful week in a scuba-diving cove in the Caribbean eating guilt-free, delicious lionfish tacos for lunch every day.

Invasivorism is part of a wider movement to source alternate, "sustainable" forms of animal protein – last year's brood 17 emergency sparked a movement to eat yummy cicadas:

If you're interested in invasivorism, you can get an overview on Eat the Invaders (motto: "Fighting invasive species, one bite at a time").

If all of this makes you uneasy, you're not alone. Human beings are really good at making their own Monkey's Paw curses. A 2011 review found that invasivore markets can lead to cultivating invaders to ensure a steady supply:

The authors have an 11-point program to address this risk, which starts with a management plan with a defined objective and works up to defining "appropriate points for government intervention."

(Image: Rapaceone, CC BY-SA 3.0)

This day in history (permalink)

#20yrsago The Acme Heart Maker

#20yrsago At last, an MP3 player for your Newton

#20yrsago Hyperlinks were really invented in 1960,1284,50398,00.html

#15yrsago Blu-Ray AND HD-DVD broken – processing keys extracted

#15yrsago RIAA to ISPs: send our blackmail notices to your customers

#15yrsago Tracking UK MPs' taxi reimbursements

#10yrsago Tory MP says opponents of warrantless surveillance "stand with child pornographers"

#10yrsago Revisiting CmdrTaco's Slashdot wedding proposal–couple-discusses-wisdom-of–popping-th.html

#10yrsago FBI says paying cash for coffee is a sign of terrorist intent

#10yrsago Wonder: tearjerking novel is an inspiring meditation on kindness

#10yrsago Canada’s sweeping new, evidence-free electronic spying bill

#10yrsago Cat Valente on writers and haters

#10yrsago The Incal: classic, weird-ass French space-opera comic drawn by Moebius, reprinted in English

#5yrsago The W3C, DRM, and future of the open web

#5yrsago Decelerate Blue: YA graphic novel about the kids who refuse to keep pace with totalitarian, high-speed consumerism

#5yrsago How trolls like Milo Yiannopoulos monetize your hate, and what to do about it

#5yrsago Chris Christie vetoes unanimous bill that would make NJ cops disclose what they seize through asset forfeiture

#5yrsago House Republicans just voted to defund the agency that fights election hacking

#1yrago Big Pharma will claim opioid fines as tax-deductions

#1yrago $50T moved from America's 90% to the 1%

#1yrago Privacy Without Monopoly

#1yrago Broad Band

Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources: Fipi Lele, Naked Capitalism (

Currently writing:

  • Picks and Shovels, a Martin Hench noir thriller about the heroic era of the PC. Friday's progress: 507 words (62319 words total).

  • Vigilant, Little Brother short story about remote invigilation. Friday's progress: 260 words (260 words total)

  • A Little Brother short story about DIY insulin PLANNING

  • Moral Hazard, a short story for MIT Tech Review's 12 Tomorrows. FIRST DRAFT COMPLETE

  • Spill, a Little Brother short story about pipeline protests. FINAL DRAFT COMPLETE

  • 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: The Internet Heist (Part II)
Upcoming appearances:

Recent appearances:

Latest book:

Upcoming books:

  • Chokepoint Capitalism: How to Beat Big Tech, Tame Big Content, and Get Artists Paid, with Rebecca Giblin, nonfiction/business/politics, Beacon Press, September 2022

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