Pluralistic: 21 Mar 2022

Today's links

A silhouette of a shrugging man in front of a wildfire.

Podcasting "What Is Peak Indifference?" (permalink)

This week on my podcast, I read my recent Medium column, "What Is Peak Indifference?" in which I try to unpack my 2016 theory of change about the role that "self-radicalization" plays in addressing thorny problems.

Many of our most urgent problems embody a paradox: while these problems are urgent (in the sense that they are matters of life-or-death), they're also part of causal chains that are so long that they're hard to trace and understand.

Think of smoking: the link between a lungful of smoke and a lung-tumor is separated by so much time and space that there is plenty of room for denial to take hold (especially when the denial is amplified and reinforced by Big Tobacco's disinformation campaigns).

The same goes for nuclear disarmament, the climate emergency, corporate monopolization and many other serious – even existential – problems.

But because these are problems, ignoring them allows them to fester and worsen. Eventually, the number of people who recognize their existence and seriousness starts to go up of its own accord, without any need for activist agitation or public education campaigns.

What's the force that radicalizes people to care about these subjects? The festering problem itself. A stage-four lung cancer diagnosis is more compelling than any talk about smoking cessation with your family doctor. Likewise, the wildfire that wipes out your town is more convincing than even the best Greta Thunberg speech.

That moment – when the consequences of a neglected problem visit trauma upon a rapidly expanding cohort of people, turning them from bystanders into partisans – is the moment of peak indifference. It's the moment where the number of partisans increases of its own accord.

But we can't rely on peak indifference to spark action, for two important reasons:

I. Trauma makes it harder to think clearly. Losing your town to a wildfire won't necessarily make you an anti-fossil-fuel crusader – it might just as easily turn you into an ecofascist, advocating for closed borders, violent depopulation and conquest of high-ground to protect you and yours.

II. The point of peak indifference is often beyond the point of no return, and that can lead to nihilism ("Why bother quitting now that I've got cancer?" or "Now that there's only one rhino left, we might as well find out what he tastes like").

An activist understanding of peak indifference demands that we work to hasten the moment of peak indifference, by helping people imagine the trauma before they actually experience it. For me, that involves narrative work: spinning utopias ("We can fix this") and dystopias ("We must fix this…or else").

But all the other activist tactics fit in this frame, too: education, organizing conversations, etc.

And the point of that activism isn't just to create partisans. It's to channel the sense or urgency into positive, anti-nihilistic directions: to counter ecofascism with climate justice, land healing, and remediation.

Here's the podcast episode:

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 feed for my podcast:

(Image: Cameron Strandberg/CC BY 2.0, modified)

EFF's content moderation banner, a tiled pattern of speech balloons, magnifying-glass search icons, scales of justice, and broken image icons.

To make Big Tech better, make it smaller (permalink)

Back in 2018, Frank Pasquale published "Tech Platforms and the Knowledge Problem," in which he proposed a taxonomy of tech reformers: some of us are "Jeffersonians" and others are "Hamiltonians" (in 2018, this was a very zeitgeisty taxonomy!).

Here are their positions:

  • Hamiltonian: "improving the regulation of leading firms rather than breaking them up"

  • Jeffersonian: "The very concentration (of power, patents, and profits) in megafirms” is itself a problem, making them both unaccountable and dangerous.

In a new article for EFF, I make the case for Jeffersonian theories of content moderation, or, as the title has it: "To Make Social Media Work Better, Make It Fail Better."

Let me start by saying that Big Tech platforms suck at moderation and do a lot of things wrong. We helped develop the Santa Clara Principles, which lay out concrete steps that platforms could and should take to improve their moderation:

But even if they do all that, they'll still suck, because they've set themselves an impossible task. Facebook says it can moderate conversations in 1,000 languages and 100+ countries. That's an offensively stupid claim to make.

Communities are partly defined by their speech norms. Some words are considered slurs by some communities and not by others – and some communities may only consider a word a slur if it's used by outsiders, but not members of the group.

That means that moderators – possibly relying on machine translations from a language they don't speak – have to figure out not just whether a word is acceptable or not, but also whether the speaker is a bona fide member of the community in its eyes.

This is how you get the familiar parade of moderation horrors, which Mike Masnick documents thoroughly on Techdirt:

  • Black users' discussions of anti-Black racism is removed for being anti-Black racism:

  • Users who report disinformation are suspended for spreading disinformation:

  • Scientists who debunk vaccine disinformation are punished for spreading disinformation:

  • RPG designers' ads are blocked because they contain the word "supplement":

  • Comments praising a cute cat as a "beautiful puss" are removed for being obscene:

Small wonder that most users are dissatisfied with both what the platforms leave up and what they take down.

So why do so many of us feel like we have to stay on these platforms whose judgment we don't trust? In two words, it's "switching costs." That's the economics term for everything you have to give up when you quit a product or service, like a social media platform.

Tech has historically benefited from low switching costs. The flexibility of digital systems means that it's much easier to, say, plug a new carrier into the phone system or open a Microsoft Word file with Apple's Pages than it is to get a Kitchenaid mixer to accept a Cuisinart attachment.

But while the platforms struggle to create technological barriers to interoperability, they've created many legal barriers: patent, copyright, anti-circumvention, contract, cybersecurity and more.

These are the barriers that prevent co-ops, nonprofits, startups and others from creating products that blast holes in Facebook's walled garden – services that let you leave Facebook without severing contact with the friends, communities and customers who stay behind.

High switching costs have kept the fediverse from taking off: people hate Facebook, but they love their communities, and so long as the latter is greater than the former, they won't jump ship. Interoperability would end that balancing act: you could leave Facebook and stay connected, eating your cake and having it, too.

So while there's room for improvement in how Big Tech moderates, that's just part of the story. The advantage of giving people the technological self-determination to move to communities who set their own norms about what is allowed and what is banned is that it makes the inevitable Big Tech mistakes less important.

(Image: EFF, CC BY 3.0)

EFF's Brazilian content regulation banner: A stylized yellow-and-green Brazilian flag with a laptop in the middle; its yellow bars turn into arms that penetrate the laptop's screen, terminating in grasping claws.

Brazil's "Remuneration Right" will strengthen Big Tech and Big Media (permalink)

Brazil's new "fake news" law raises many concerns, but one of the least-understood and most dangerous is the Remuneration Right, a "link tax" that requires tech platforms to pay for the inclusion of text snippets when their users link to news articles:

The Remuneration Right was shoehorned into the legal proposal with little discussion or thought, and it shows. Structurally, the proposal is just a mess. For example, it makes an exemption for users who post the "IP address" of a news article. It took us quite a while to figure out that they meant "URL."

These gaffes are just the start of the problems, though. The real issue is with the proposal's substance – or lack thereof. The proposed law doesn't define key terms like "journalism" or even "use," and it leaves the question of how the system will be administered to secondary regulation.

We know how this turns out, because this isn't the first time it's been tried. In France and Australia, link tax proposals became an opportunity for the biggest media companies and the biggest tech companies to cut back-room deals that froze out the independent press and domestic tech platforms.

For example, in France, the EU Copyright Directive's Link Tax resulted in a press organization inking a deal with Google that required media companies to opt into Google's news product, and froze smaller press outlets out altogether. Today, that deal is mired in litigation:

In Australia, a media "bargaining code" that started life as an inclusive system for all the country's press to demand more transparency and a bigger share of ad money from tech platforms was transformed into a private deal between Rupert Murdoch, Google and Facebook that left the independent press in the cold:

Brazil has its own giant media company, Globo, positioned to do the same. Advocates for the Remuneration Right have found allies with Brazilian authoritarians who hope to revive the "traceability mandate" that effectively bans encryption on private chats:

The thing is, the press is right to be upset about the role plays in its finances, but they're wrong to worry about text snippets. The idea that quoting brief passages from the news is wrong, or should be subject to permission, is bonkers – the press itself relies heavily on this practice.

No, the real problem isn't that Big Tech steals journalists' content; it's that they steal publishers money. The ad-tech duopoly of Facebook and Google are mired in legal actions all over the world because of widespread ad-fraud, in which the pair, singly and in illegal conspiracy with one another, pocket money that is owed to the publishers.

If regulators and lawmakers want to improve relations between the press and tech platforms, they should clean up the ad markets. That would produce a universal benefit that would lift up independent journalists even more than the big media outlets; and it would weaken the tech platforms' importance to the media, making space for new business models and new ad-tech companies.

Writing for EFF, my colleague Veridiana Alimonti and I propose some measures that Brazil's lawmakers – and others – can do enact will actually fund journalism and journalists, rather than reinforcing the dominance of Big Content companies:

  • Restrict ad-tech firms from providing "demand-side" and "supply-side" services in an ad sale – that is, end the practice of a single company serving as agent for both the buyer and the seller;

  • Mandate transparency about the process by which ads are sold, subject to independent audits, with meaningful penalties and a private right of action so media outlets can sue on their own;

  • Enforce privacy law to end or severely curtail surveillance advertising in favor of content-based ads, which will remove the "data-advantage" enjoyed by companies that illegally spied on us for decades.

These are slower and more complex than a Remuneration Right, but they have a giant advantage over link-taxes: they will work. Doing something quickly without regard for the consequences is how we got into this mess in the first place ("Move fast and break things").

Cleaning up ad-tech embodies the idea of "move slow and fix things," and it's the antidote to the toxic practices of tech monopolists.

(Image: EFF, CC BY 3.0)

Hey look at this (permalink)

This day in history (permalink)

#20yrsago The Anti-Mammal Dinosaur Protection Act

#15yrsago McDonald’s: take “McJob” out of the dictionary

#10yrsago Ron Wyden (D-OR) wants Obama to submit ACTA to Congress

#10yrsago China’s ageing population and the “demographic time-bomb”

#10yrsago US law-school bubble pops

#10yrsago Deep design analysis of Walt Disney World’s lighting fixtures

#5yrsago Forced-pregnancy scam that masqueraded as abortion clinics won’t account for $1M in Pennsylvania tax-dollars

#5yrsago How license “agreements” interfere with the right to repair

#5yrsago DHS bans laptops in the cabins of flights from 10 airports

#5yrsago W3C moves to finalize DRM standardization, reclassifies suing security researchers as a feature, not a bug

#1yrago The political possibility of cities: Find yourself a city to live in

Colophon (permalink)

Currently writing:

  • Picks and Shovels, a Martin Hench noir thriller about the heroic era of the PC. Friday's progress: 548 words (74851 words total).

  • Vigilant, Little Brother short story about remote invigilation. Friday's progress: 251 words (6761 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, ACCEPTED FOR PUBLICATION

  • 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: What is “Peak Indifference?”
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

This work licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 license. That means you can use it any way you like, including commercially, provided that you attribute it to me, Cory Doctorow, and include a link to

Quotations and images are not included in this license; they are included either under a limitation or exception to copyright, or on the basis of a separate license. Please exercise caution.

How to get Pluralistic:

Blog (no ads, tracking, or data-collection):

Newsletter (no ads, tracking, or data-collection):

Mastodon (no ads, tracking, or data-collection):

Medium (no ads, paywalled):

(Latest Medium column: "Marc Laidlaw's "Underneath the Oversea">

Twitter (mass-scale, unrestricted, third-party surveillance and advertising):

Tumblr (mass-scale, unrestricted, third-party surveillance and advertising):

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