The internet's original sin

My final Medium column.

A galactic-scale Pac-Man is eating a row of 'big blue marble' Earths. The Pac-Man has a copyright circle-c in his center. The starry sky behind the scene is intermingled with a 'code rain' effect from the credits of the Wachowskis' 'Matrix' movies.

Just as important as what a regulation says is who it applies to.

Take financial regulation. A great idea! American could use some. But — as the cryptocurrency world forcibly reminded us — it’s not always easy to figure out when someone is doing something “financial.”

So let’s come up with a test. Here’s one: “If a transaction involves a million dollars or more, financial regulations apply to it.” Not every million-dollar transaction is “financial” but there are few enough of these that filing the “worth a million bucks, but not financial” paperwork for them won’t be a huge deal. Besides, anyone moving a million dollars around can afford professional help in navigating the paperwork.

But that could change. Let’s say that hyperinflation results in a massive devaluation of the dollar, to the point where your kid’s weekly allowance is more than a million bucks, as is the cup of coffee you buy for a friend on your lunch-break.

At that point, we’d need a new test. Getting allowance and buying a coffee are not financial. Nearly everyone involved in these transactions is unfamiliar with financial regulations and burdening them with the need to learn these rules is unfair.

Failing to adjust the test for regulatory salience isn’t just unfair, it’s unworkable. Financial regulation is complex — it has to be, because the industry it regulates is also complex. If we want people outside that industry to understand and conform it its contours dozens of times per day, we’ll have to drastically simplify its rules, until it is no longer fit for regulating finance. A failure to do this will ensure that everyday people, doing everyday things, are forever on the wrong side of the law.

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How the Writers Guild sunk AI’s ship

No one’s gonna buy enterprise AI licenses if they can’t fire their workers.

A wrecked, listing, rusting tanker whose side is emblazoned with the menacing red eye of HAL 9000 from Stanley Kubrick’s ‘2001: A Space Odyssey.’ In the foreground, a woman dressed in a natty 1930s skirt-suit holds a WGA picket sign that reads, ‘I asked ChatGPT to write a sign and it SUCKED.’”
Cryteria/CC BY 3.0 (modified)

After a grinding, 148-day strike, the Writers Guild of America ran the table, conceding virtually nothing and winning virtually everything.

The most consequential outcome will be data on streaming viewership. For the studios, these numbers are state secrets, revealed on a need-to-know, burn-before-reading basis, even within the studios themselves.

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Joe Biden is headed to a UAW picket-line in Detroit

“I want to do it, now make me do it.”

A vintage photo of strikers in front of a factory. The image has been altered to insert a 'Dank Brandon' image of Joe Biden with red laser eyes, a UAW pin on his lapel. He looms over the strikers, who have been altered to carry UAW ON STRIKE signs. A General Motors sign has been inserted onto the factory. A sunrise emerges over the factory building. Image: Fabio Basagni CC BY-SA 4.0

Fabio Basagni/CC BY-SA 4.0 (modified)

Joe Biden will join striking workers on a UAW picket-line in Detroit on Tuesday.

No sitting president in US history has ever walked a picket line with strikers.

This is a big deal.

It’s great.

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How To Think About Scraping

In privacy and labor fights, copyright is a clumsy tool at best.

A paint scraper on a window-sill. The blade of the scraper has been overlaid with a ‘code rain’ effect as seen in the credits of the Wachowskis’ ‘Matrix’ movies.
syvwlch/CC BY 2.0 (modified)

Web-scraping is good, actually.

For nearly all of history, academic linguistics focused on written, formal text, because informal, spoken language was too expensive and difficult to capture. In order to find out how people spoke — which is not how people write! — a researcher had to record speakers, then pay a grad student to transcribe the speech.

The process was so cumbersome that the whole discipline grew lopsided. We developed an extensive body of knowledge about written, formal prose (something very few of us produce), while informal, casual language (something we all produce) was mostly a black box.

The internet changed all that, creating the first-ever corpus of informal language — the immense troves of public casual speech that we all off-gas as we move around on the internet, chattering with our friends.

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The proletarianization of tech workers

If there is hope, it is in the proles.

Margaret Bourke-White’s iconic WPA photo ‘World’s Highest Standard of Living,’ picturing a line of poor Black people standing in a breadline before a billboard proclaiming ‘The World’s Highest Standard of Living: there’s no way like the American Way’ around an image of a white, propserous family enjoying a drive in a large luxury car. The image has been altered so that the lined up workers and the family in the car blink in and out of existence, replaced by the ‘code rain’ effect from the Wachowskis 'Matrix' movies.

The last time I saw the late, great Eric Flint was at the 2018 World Science Fiction Convention in San Jose, California, where we both participated (along with Patrick Nielsen Hayden, Olav Rokne and Eileen Gunn) in an excellent panel about the working class in sf.

Eric was an extraordinary writer and an even more extraordinary character. A Marxist meat-packers’ union organizer whose whole labor career was spent in the brutal trenches of Chicago Machine politics, Eric was also a towering figure in the subgenre of historical military science fiction, a field that is otherwise dominated by right-wingers, including numerous out-and-out kooks who endlessly fantasize about Bronze Age battles being re-fought with jets and mustard gas (for the record: Eric isn’t the only progressive voice in this field; others, like Harry Turtledove, bring a humanizing, leftist view to their work).
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Big Tech Can’t Stop Telling On Itself


An old Mac System 6 folder, titled Mens Rea. It contains a file called PREMEDIATED_MURDER_FINAL.DOC as well as UNTITLED-1.DOC, UNTITLED-1.DOC copy, UNTITLED-1.DOC FINAL and UNTITLED-1.DOC FINAL-1.

In July, the Federal Trade Commission announced a complaint against Amazon over the ways the company has tricked customers into subscribing to its paid Prime service. The Commission argues that Amazon discovered that its customers were accidentally signing up for Prime and were unhappy about it, and that the company nevertheless decided not to fix this confusion because it was making too much money from these accidental signups. To make things worse, Amazon deliberately made it harder to cancel Prime, and celebrated that the new, more complex process resulted in fewer cancellations.

This is historic. Prior to the current administration, the FTC had been in a 40 year decline: underfunded and timid. But the new chair, Lina M. Khan, has brought a muscular, take-no-prisoners approach, working in close coordination with her peers at the DoJ antitrust division and with other agencies to reawaken their long-dormant regulatory powers.

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An Audacious Plan to Halt the Internet’s Enshittification and Throw It Into Reverse

My Defcon 31 speech, delivered August 12 in Las Vegas.

A photograph of me speaking on stage at Defcon 31.
Ken Nichols, used with permission

I have a confession to make: I am old. I turned 52 last month, the full deck of cards. I have two artificial hips. I have cataracts in both eyes. I’m old as dirt.

You may know that the AARP has a squad junk-mail ninjas that track you down on your 50th birthday to try to sell you a membership. Less well known is that the AARP also issues every 50 year old with a license to complain about how much worse things are today than they used to be in my day

I know that complaint is trite, but I think it’s true when it comes to the internet. I think the internet used to be better, back before it turned into what the Kiwi hacker Tom Eastman calls “five giant websites filled with screenshots of text from the other four.”

I miss the old, good internet. But this isn’t a talk about bringing the old good internet back. It’s a talk about what a new good web could be.

And why we don’t have it.

And how we’ll get it.
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Everything Made By an AI Is In the Public Domain

The US Copyright Office offers creative workers a powerful labor protective.

Norman Rockwell’s ‘self portrait.’ All the Rockwell faces have been replaced with HAL 9000 from Kubrick’s ‘2001: A Space Odyssey.’ His signature has been modified with a series of rotations and extra symbols. He has ten fingers on his one visible hand. Image: Cryteria (modified) CC BY 3.0
Cryteria/CC BY 3.0, modified

Last week, a US federal judge handed America’s creative workers a huge labor win: Judge Beryl A Howell of the DC Circuit Court upheld a US Copyright Office ruling that works created by “AIs” are not eligible for copyright protection.

This is huge.

Some background: under US law — and under a mountain of international treaties, from the Berne Convention to the TRIPS —copyright is automatically granted to creative works of human authorship “at the moment of fixation in some tangible medium.”

That is: as soon as a human being makes something creative, and records it in some medium (a hard-drive, magnetic tape, paper, film, canvas, etc), that creative thing is immediately copyrighted (the duration of that copyright varies, both by territory and by whether the creator was working on their own or for a corporation).

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The old, good internet deserves a new, good internet

A trio of public toilet stalls, each fitted with a pay toilet coin-op lock. The middle lock’s mechanism has been replaced with the menacing, staring red eye of HAL 9000 from Stanley Kubrick’s ‘2001: A Space Odyssey.’ The space around and beneath the stalls is filled with a ‘Code Rain’ effect from the credit sequences of the Wachowksis’ ‘The Matrix.’
Cryteria/CC BY 3.0 (modified)

The children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise. Children are now tyrants, not the servants of their households. They no longer rise when elders enter the room. They contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up dainties at the table, cross their legs, and tyrannize their teachers. –Socrates

Nostalgia is a toxic impulse. –Judge John Hodgman

I’m an official Old Person (I turned 52 last month). According to the AARP, that means that I am now officially entitled to complain that back in my day, things used to be better.

I am suspicious of this impulse! When I started dialing BBSes in the early 1980s, the Old Hands there told me that it was all downhill after acoustic couplers and that modems were degrading the noosphere into a fallen paradise.

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Fool Me Twice We Don’t Get Fooled Again

There’s a crucial difference between federatable and federated.

A pair of fake screenshots, one from Threads, the other from Bluesky. The top one is from a verified account called “gwb1946” whose avatar is George W Bush’s flightsuit-clad crotch. The post reads, “There’s an old saying in Tennessee — I know it’s in Texas, probably in Tennessee — that says, fool me once, shame on — shame on you.” The second post is from an account whose handle is “Regimechange,” and whose userid is @missionaccomplished.failson. It reads “Fool me — you can’t get fooled again.”

“Are you on Bluesky?”

Friends, colleagues and strangers have emailed me to ask whether I’ve set up on the new, federatable social media incubated at Twitter and spun out, which many view as a viable Twitter successor.

“Are you on Threads?”

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