Pluralistic: How Google's trial secrecy lets it control the coverage; The Lost Cause prologue, part III (09 Oct 2023)

Today's links

A statue of blind justice; before it sit sculptures of the three wise monkeys, each bearing a Google 'G' log on their tummy.

How Google's trial secrecy lets it control the coverage (permalink)

"Corporate crime" is practically an oxymoron in America. While it's true that the single most consequential and profligate theft in America is wage theft, its mechanisms are so obscure and, well, dull that it's easy to sell us on the false impression that the real problem is shoplifting:

Corporate crime is often hidden behind Dana Clare's Shield Of Boringness, cloaked in euphemisms like "risk and compliance" or that old favorite, "white collar crime":

And corporate crime has a kind of performative complexity. The crimes come to us wreathed in specialized jargon and technical terminology that make them hard to discern. Which is wild, because corporate crimes occur on a scale that other crimes – even those committed by organized crime – can't hope to match:

But anything that can't go on forever eventually stops. After decades of official tolerance (and even encouragement), corporate criminals are finally in the crosshairs of federal enforcers. Take National Labor Relations Board general counsel Jennifer Abruzzo's ruling in Cemex: when a company takes an illegal action to affect the outcome of a union election, the consequence is now automatic recognition of the union:

That's a huge deal. Before, a boss could fire union organizers and intimidate workers, scuttle the union election, and then, months or years later, pay a fine and some back-wages…and the union would be smashed.

The scale of corporate crime is directly proportional to the scale of corporations themselves. Big companies aren't (necessarily) led by worse people, but even small sins committed by the very largest companies can affect millions of lives.

That's why antitrust is so key to fighting corporate crime. To make corporate crimes less harmful, we must keep companies from attaining harmful scale. Big companies aren't just too big to fail and too big to jail – they're also too big for peaceful coexistence with a society of laws.

The revival of antitrust enforcement is such a breath of fresh air, but it's also fighting headwinds. For one thing, there's 40 years of bad precedent from the nightmare years of pro-monopoly Reaganomics to overturn:

It's not just precedents in the outcomes of trials, either. Trial procedure has also been remade to favor corporations, with judges helping companies stack the deck in their own favor. The biggest factor here is secrecy: blocking recording devices from courts, refusing to livestream the proceedings, allowing accused corporate criminals to clear the courtroom when their executives take the stand, and redacting or suppressing the exhibits:

When a corporation can hide evidence and testimony from the public and the press, it gains broad latitude to dispute critics, including government enforcers, based on evidence that no one is allowed to see, or, in many cases, even describe. Take Project Nessie, the program that the FTC claims Amazon used to compel third-party sellers to hike prices across many categories of goods:

Amazon told the press that the FTC has "grossly mischaracterize[d]" Project Nessie. The DoJ disagrees, but it can't say why, because the Project Nessie files it based its accusations on have been redacted, at Amazon's insistence. Rather than rebutting Amazon's claim, FTC spokesman Douglas Farrar could only say "We once again call on Amazon to move swiftly to remove the redactions and allow the American public to see the full scope of what we allege are their illegal monopolistic practices."

It's quite a devastating gambit: when critics and prosecutors make specific allegations about corporate crimes, the corporation gets to tell journalists, "No, that's wrong, but you're not allowed to see the reason we say it's wrong."

It's a way to work the refs, to get journalists – or their editors – to wreathe bold claims in endless hedging language, or to avoid reporting on the most shocking allegations altogether. This, in turn, keeps corporate trials out of the public eye, which reassures judges that they can defer to further corporate demands for opacity without facing an outcry.

That's a tactic that serves Google well. When the company was dragged into court by the DoJ Antitrust Division, it demanded – and received – a veil of secrecy that is especially ironic given the company's promise "to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful":

While this veil has parted somewhat, it is still intact enough to allow the company to work the refs and kill disfavorable reporting from the trial. Last week, Megan Gray – ex-FTC, ex-DuckDuckGo – published an editorial in Wired reporting on her impression of an explosive moment in the Google trial:

According to Gray, Google had run a program to mess with the "semantic matching" on queries, silently appending terms to users' searches that caused them to return more ads – and worse results. This generated more revenue for Google, at the expense of advertisers who got billed to serve ads that didn't even match user queries.

Google forcefully disputed this claim:

They contacted Gray's editors at Wired, but declined to release all the exhibits and testimony that Gray used to form her conclusions about Google's conduct; instead, they provided a subset of the relevant materials, which cast doubt on Gray's accusations.

Wired removed Gray's piece, with an unsigned notice that "WIRED editorial leadership has determined that the story does not meet our editorial standards. It has been removed":

But Gray stands by her piece. She admits that she might have gotten some of the fine details wrong, but that these were not material to the overall point of her story, that Google manipulated search queries to serve more ads at the expense of the quality of the results:

She says that the piece could and should have been amended to reflect these fine-grained corrections, but that in the absence of a full record of the testimony and exhibits, it was impossible for her to prove to her editors that her piece was substantively correct.

I reviewed the limited evidence that Google permitted to be released and I find her defense compelling. Perhaps you don't. But the only way we can factually resolve this dispute is for Google to release the materials that they claim will exonerate them. And they won't, though this is fully within their power.

I've seen this playbook before. During the early months of the pandemic, a billionaire who owned a notorious cyberwarfare company used UK libel threats to erase this fact from the internet – including my own reporting – on the grounds that the underlying research made small, non-material errors in characterizing a hellishly complex financial Rube Goldberg machine that was, in my opinion, deliberately designed to confuse investigators.

Like the corporate crimes revealed in the Panama Papers and Paradise Papers, the gambit is complicated, but it's not sophisticated:

i. Make everything as complicated as possible;

ii. Make everything as secret as possible;

iii. Dismiss any accusations by claiming errors in the account of the deliberately complex arrangements, which can't be rectified because the relevant materials are a secret.

(Image: Jason Rosenberg, CC BY;, CC BY-SA 2.0, modified)

A mockup of the hardcover for the Tor books edition of The Lost Cause.

The Lost Cause prologue, part III (permalink)

My next novel is The Lost Cause, a solarpunk adventure about "the first generation in a century that doesn't fear the future." It comes out on Nov 14, and its early fans include Naomi Klein:

Amazon won't sell my audiobooks, so I made my own, doing the narration myself this time around. I'm running a Kickstarter campaign to pre-sell the audiobook, ebook and hardcovers, including signed, personalized hardcovers – I hope you'll consider backing it:

This week, I'm serializing the prologue to the book.

Here's part one:

And part two:

I woke at noon, the house hot because Gramps had left the blinds up in the front room, and ever since the big live oak had been cut up and taken away for blight, we’d lost its shade.

I used the bathroom, pulled on shorts and a tee, and went looking for breakfast, or brunch, or whatever.


He didn’t answer. That was weird. Gramps was a late riser and he rarely got up before ten, and then he took a long time to get going, listening to his podcasts and drinking coffee and sending memes around to his buddies with his giant tablet, with the type zoomed way, way up. He didn’t like going out in the heat, either, so in the summer he rarely left the house before four or five, once the sun was low to the hills. He’d left his coffee cup in the sink and his tablet on the table, so I knew he’d gone in a hurry. He hated dirty dishes and hated dead batteries even more.

I put his stuff away and thawed out some waffles and got a big iced coffee from the cold-­brew jug I kept in the fridge and started the process of becoming human.

I gobbled my first waffle before the emotional weight of the previous night settled on me. Those emotions were way too big, so big that they all layered on top of each other, leaving me with nothing but numbness.

I did the reflex thing and pulled out my screen, giving myself a brief sear of shame for my mindless screen-­handling, just as I’d been trained to do in mindfulness class. That was enough to prompt me to run through the checklist: Do I need to look at my screen? Do I need to look at it now? What do I hope to find? When will I be done? I answered the questions (Yes, yes, news about last night, when I’ve looked at two or three stories), and then unlocked it, but didn’t look at it until I’d poured myself another glass of coffee.

Two hours later, there was no coffee left and my eyes hurt from screenburn. I dropped my screen, came out of my trance, and stood up.

I’d gone viral. Or rather, Mike had.

My post had been picked up, first in Burbank, then statewide, then nationally, then internationally. Amateur comedians had edited the footage into highlight reels, moments chosen to demonstrate just how idiotic and hateful he was. Someone made a White Nationalist Bingo Card whose every square had a quote from Mike Kennedy. There were lots of jokes about inbreeding, hillbillies, musket-­fuckers and ammosexuals, master race masturbation, senility, removable boomers—­all the age- ­and class-­based slurs that we weren’t allowed to say in school, but that everyone busted out as soon as we were off the property. It was pretty gross, but on the other hand, I couldn’t exactly argue with them. Bottom line was, Mike Kennedy had been up on that roof for no good reason, and he’d been ready to kill me to let him finish his stupid, senseless project. So yeah, fuck that guy. I guess.

I was pleased to see that I came off as a hero, with strangers around the world praising me for my cool head, saying I’d saved his life.

I put my plate in the dishwasher and wiped up my crumbs and checked the clock on the kitchen wall—­I’d always loved its plain analog face with its thick and thin lines, the yellowing AC cord that came off it. It had belonged to Gramps’s own parents, and it was the only thing in the house I considered anything like an heirloom.

It was coming up on one and if I showered fast and ran, I could make my physics class. I decided to go for it, had the fastest shower in history, pulled on whatever was on the top of my dresser drawers, and sprinted for the street.

I was just jogging up to the entrance to Burroughs when I got a screen chime, which stopped me because, like all the students, I’d installed the school app that turned off audible alarms while I was on property during school hours. It wasn’t mandatory, but the punishment for having an alarm in class was confiscation, so . . .

I pulled out my screen as I panted by the doorway, mopping my face with my shirttail. It was a text from Burbank PD, informing me that Mike Kennedy was headed for a bail hearing in two hours, and I was entitled to present a victim impact statement, either recorded or in person. I’d known that the police could override the school app (there was a kid in my class whose parole office sometimes paged him, and the fact that he audibly dinged was just part of the package, I figured—­a way to remind us all that this kid had fucked up bad), but I hadn’t expected them to ping me, let alone on school property.

I tapped out a quick thanks-­no-­thanks, and headed to physics.

Hey look at this (permalink)

A Wayback Machine banner.

This day in history (permalink)

#20yrsago BBCi director’s stunning speech on file-sharing and TV

#20yrsago SF writers on Schwarzenegger

#20yrsago eMusic turns into a steaming pile

#15yrsago WalMart now says they’ll keep the DRM servers on forever

#15yrsago New Zealand’s copyright minister starts screaming when asked whether it’s fair to cut people off from the Internet on the basis of three unsubstantiated accusations of copyright infringement

#15yrsago Kids need to agree to 120+ pages of EULAs in order to watch BluRay Sleeping Beauty

#15yrsago Top Maryland cops ordered nonviolent peace activists’ names added to anti-terror, drug trafficking databases

#10yrsago Battling Boy: Paul Pope surpasses himself

#10yrsago Congress’s private health club spared from shutdown by Boehner: “essential”

#10yrsago Lauren Beukes and her daughter explain Gaiman’s Fortunately the Milk

#10yrsago EFF’s guide to the NSA’s official malware

#5yrsago Facebook’s new product: every-room cameras for your home

#5yrsago Victory! Google will not bid on $10B Pentagon cloud computing contract

#5yrsago Facebook’s top lobbyist threw Kavanaugh a victory celebration in his home

#5yrsago French spy used darknet to sell access to national mass-surveillance databases

#5yrsago RIP, Google+: long ailing and finished off by a security bug

#5yrsago Virginia towns’ trick-or-treat laws threaten over-12s with jail-time

#5yrsago Russians’ support for Putin drops off a cliff after pension cuts

#5yrsago Tech workers are downing tools and refusing to work on unethical projects

#5yrsago Climate change is AWOL in America’s political debates

#5yrsago We’ve got a front-row seat for Europe’s internet censorship plan

#1yrago $100 billion later, autonomous vehicles are still a car-wreck

Colophon (permalink)

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Currently writing:

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  • The Bezzle, a Martin Hench noir thriller novel about the prison-tech industry. FORTHCOMING TOR BOOKS FEB 2024

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  • The Lost Cause: a post-Green New Deal eco-topian novel about truth and reconciliation with white nationalist militias, Tor Books, November 2023

  • The Bezzle: a sequel to "Red Team Blues," about prison-tech and other grifts, Tor Books, February 2024

  • Picks and Shovels: a sequel to "Red Team Blues," about the heroic era of the PC, Tor Books, February 2025

  • Unauthorized Bread: a graphic novel adapted from my novella about refugees, toasters and DRM, FirstSecond, 2025

This work – excluding any serialized fiction – is 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

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