Pluralistic: 29 Jul 2020

Originally published at: https://pluralistic.net/2020/07/29/break-em-up/


Today's links



Break 'Em Up (permalink)

"Break 'Em Up" is Zephyr Teachout's outstanding book on competition, corruption, monopolies and the revival of America's glorious tradition of trustbusting. It just came out. It's GREAT.

https://us.macmillan.com/books/9781250200891

Sector by sector, industry by industry, Teachout shows how monopolists do their work. Her writing starts with the first-person, wrenching tales of workers, small businesspeople, and bystanders in monopoly's blast zone.

These are a jumping-off point for engaging, fascinating histories of how industries from taxis to chicken-rearing, tech to finance, have become more and more concentrated, and how these monopolies connect to the real personal harms she's shown us so vividly.

Monopolistic institutions are the most banal of evils, obscured by deceptive economic jargon and legal rubbish. Teachout has a gift for slicing through the bafflegab and revealing that the grifter's patter disguises nothing more than unimaginative, sociopathic scams.

For example, Teachout's chapter on "binding arbitration" swiftly and assuredly flenses away the legalistic BS and reveals this for the con it is: a system where companies replace courtrooms and judges with private law.

When one of these companies defrauds you or maims you or kills a loved one, you don't go before a judge – you go before an "arbitrator" (who works for the company that wronged you) and seek "justice." Put in those terms, it's blindingly obvious that this is an outrage.

Teachout also strips bare the "industry associations" that seem to have dozens or hundreds of members, but, in reality, work for one or two dominant companies, who pay their bills and send them to Washington to win special favors that strengthen their positions.

Best of all is the last third of the book, in which Teachout sets out a program for reversing the flood of corporate power and dethroning oligarchy. She dispatches the notion of "personal responsibility" and "consumer power" as a means of ridding ourselves of monopoly.

She correctly identifies this as a scheme to make us feel helpless and compromised: if you can't fight Amazon while shopping at Amazon, then you probably can't fight Amazon at all. Fuck that. The problem with monopolism isn't where we shop – it's how we regulate.

And for all that this is a popular, accessible book, it delves into some really deep and nuanced territory: in the next-to-last chapter, Teachout digs into the "regulate or nationalize" debate.

This invites the reader to take a thoughtful, rigorous approach to which parts of monopolistic industries are actually better off when concentrated – like fiber optic lines, say.

And to consider hybrid models where these concentrated elements are under democratic, public control – while firms use that neutral, public infrastructure to compete with one another.

Teachout connects this antimonopolistic, infrastructural approach to our most pressing existential problem: the climate emergency. She shows how any #GreenNewDeal will require muscular trustbusting and mass-scale infrastructure.

As you read these words, Congress is holding its most significant anti-monopoly hearings in a generation. The world is moving on and "Break 'Em Up" is a map guiding us to a better place.



Unauthorized Meat (permalink)

I cannot stress this enough: my short story Unauthorized Bread – in which smart appliances are a slippery slope to full oligarchic dystopia – is not intended as a fucking suggestion.

https://arstechnica.com/gaming/2020/01/unauthorized-bread-a-near-future-tale-of-refugees-and-sinister-iot-appliances/

I mean, fuck you, "Mellow Sous Vide" (if that is your real name) and your decision to brick your meat-bathing gadget for customers who decline to pay the annual $48 "subscription fee" that you just unilaterally added to devices you'd already sold:

https://gizmodo.com/a-sick-sous-vide-has-been-bricked-by-mandatory-subscrip-1844533593

I mean, this is the hackiest dystopian writing I've read in years, and believe me, I consume a lot of hacky dystopian writing:

"The Premium Subscription will also allow you to create your own sous-vide recipes for all your favorite ingredients, and you can even schedule them for whatever time you want just as easy as when you are cooking a Mellow Recipe."

Who the fuck do you think you are, BMW?

https://pluralistic.net/2020/07/02/big-river/#beemers



Let's force Big Tech to interoperate (permalink)

Congress hauling the CEOs of four giant Big Tech companies to testify before them this week feels like the start of something new and maybe even something wonderful.

Now we just need to make sure they don't fuck it up.

One thing we don't want is for Big Tech to cement its dominance by being "punished" with the responsibility to police users in ways that mean that the companies get to lock out all competitors from interoperating with them.

Having your monopoly deputized as a de facto arm of the state can be a drag, sure, but the upside is that once you're part of that apparatus, you can wave your "public duty" around every time you're threatened with breakup or face a competitor.

Don't get me wrong. Let's fine 'em. Let's make rules for 'em. Let's make 'em pay their taxes.

But while we're at it, let's force them to interoperate – to let co-ops, tinkerers, and commercial competitors plug into their platforms and give us real choice in how they work.

Writing for EFF's Deeplinks blog, my colleague Bennett Cyphers (with some contributions from me) has published a fantastic breakdown of what interoperability could do, and how it could work:

https://www.eff.org/deeplinks/2020/07/legislative-path-interoperable-internet

"If Facebook and Twitter allowed anyone to fully and meaningfully interoperate with them, their size would not protect them from competition nearly as much as it does. But platforms have shown that they won’t choose to do so on their own."

We need to set a floor under interoperability: mandates to offer interoperable interfaces to competitors. And we need to set a ceiling: competitive compatibility (ComCom), allowing competitors to expand these without permission from platforms.

There's already proposed legislation to do some of this, Mark Warner's ACCESS Act, which proposes three kinds of mandates: Data Portability, Delegatability, and Back End Interoperability.

https://www.warner.senate.gov/public/index.cfm/2019/10/senators-introduce-bipartisan-bill-to-encourage-competition-in-social-media

Data Portability ("users can take their data from one service and do what they want with it elsewhere") is the low-hanging fruit. It's already in laws like the #GDPR. It's your data, you should be able to get your hands on it.

Back-end Interoperability ("enabling users to interact with one another across the boundaries of large platforms"): forcing Facebook to let Diaspora plug in (ditto Twitter-Mastodon). Companies expose the same APIs to competitors that they use between their own services.

Delegability ("users delegate third-parties to interact with a platform on their behalf"): Alternative UIs that block dark patterns, sort by chrono, etc. These parties would be regulated and have legal duties to their users, and couldn't monetize user data.

All of this needs to be done carefully because it could turn into a security and privacy nightmare. Users should have control over their data, and "no data should flow across company boundaries until users give explicit, informed consent" (which can be withdrawn).

Sometimes, dominant actors might shut down an API to fix a security bug: these downtimes have to be regulated to, to last only as is technically necessary, lest they become a pretense to block competition.

These mandates are the floor on interop, things dominant companies MUST do. Competitive Compatibility is the other half of the equation: stripping companies of the legal right to punish competitors for figuring out other ways to interoperate.

That is, we fix copyright, patent, anti-circumvention, cybersecurity and other laws so that they can't be used to block interoperators. Every dominant platform today relied on ComCom to attain dominance, and then they kicked the ladder away:

https://www.eff.org/deeplinks/2019/10/adversarial-interoperability

"Comprehensively addressing threats to competitive compatibility will be a long and arduous process, but the issue is urgent. It’s time we got started. "



No consequences for police violence at BLM actions (permalink)

The Black Lives Matter uprising has been attended by hundreds of viral videos of ghastly, reckless, potentially lethal police violence. This Greg Doucette thread gathers hundreds of them.

https://twitter.com/greg_doucette/status/1266751520055459847

These videos are incontrovertible evidence of misconduct that should result – at the very least – in disciplinary proceedings, and in many cases should lead to termination and criminal charges, along with lengthy custodial sentences for the (ex-)cops pictured.

What happened to those cops? Uh, nothing.

Propublica investigated a representative sample of the officers pictured, contacted their departments, and asked what – if anything – had been done.

https://www.propublica.org/article/what-has-happened-to-police-filmed-hurting-protesters-so-far-very-little

The departments stonewalled: it's "under investigation." Or, "charges against the brutalized were dismissed so it's 'as if it never happened.'" "Police union rules mean we can't discuss this with you."

"The department declined to comment further and said it is 'bound by contractual language that prevents us from disclosing the contents of any personnel matter.'"

Meanwhile, many of these crimes have farcically short statutes of limitations, thanks to police union lobbying, and the clock is already running out.

https://pluralistic.net/2020/07/28/afterland/#selective-solidarity



The Internet Archive defends online libraries (permalink)

The Internet Archive is a library, and, like any library, it is allowed to scan the books in its collection and circulate them to its patrons (under precedent set in the Hathi Trust case).

It does so using Controlled Digital Lending – AKA DRM – the same tool that publishers insist that other libraries use.

The Archive also works with many academic and municipal libraries across the country to help them digitize and circulate their collections.

These ebooks – most of which have no official electronic edition – are widely used by print-impaired patrons, including visually impaired people, people with dyslexia, and people with physical disabilities who struggle to handle books.

The Archive's library is especially urgent in this moment, when libraries across the country are shut and most of the books they have purchased are not available to the people whose taxes or fees paid for them.

Particularly keen is the need of returning students, who will have neither the benefit of their public libraries nor their school libraries as they struggle not to fall behind in their education.

Despite all this, a coalition of major publishers – Hachette, Harpercollins, Wiley and Penguin/Random House – have sued the Internet Archive, seeking to prohibit Controlled Digital Lending and to destroy 1.5m ebooks.

https://blog.archive.org/2020/07/29/internet-archive-responds-to-publishers-lawsuit/

I daresay that the vast majority of these publishers' authors rely on the Internet Archive's various holdings and collections (I know I certainly do).

Moreover, these are not fragile, frail institutions. Harpercollins is owned by Rupert Murdoch and routinely pays millions for mediocre, poor-selling books by far-right figures as a way of legally transfering money to those Murdoch seeks favor with.

Wiley is an ed-tech monopolist whose textbook prices have spiraled out of control over the past decade, gouging students and bribing profs to require new "editions" with trivial updates, while destroying the used textbook market.

Penguin/Random House is a division of Bertelsmann, the largest publisher in the world, grown larger through the monopolist's tried-and-true tactic of mergers between major competitors, a sin they compounded by passing on the chance to rename the company "Random Penguin."

Hachette pioneered the tactic of forcing writers to give up their worldwide English rights as a condition of selling to them, depriving authors of the chance to get paid separately for their rights in multiple territories.

The Internet Archive, by contrast, is a donor-supported nonprofit devoted to preserving all human knowledge and promoting access around the world.

I know whose side I'm on.



Bitcoin is not a socialist's ally (permalink)

In an infinite universe, even very improbable things may be found somewhere.

Also, someone wrote an article explaining why Bitcoin is an ally to the socialist project.

https://bitcoinmagazine.com/articles/an-open-letter-to-yanis-varoufakis-about-bitcoin

The article was an open letter from Ben Arc, addressed to Yanis Varoufakis. Varoufakis responded with a devastating critique.

https://www.yanisvaroufakis.eu/2020/07/27/why-bitcoin-is-the-not-socialists-ally-reply-to-ben-arc/

tldr: You say that Bitcoin will "break the cronyist chain linking central banks and private bankers. However, it does not undermine the cronyism of the network of bosses, politicians and private bankers."

First: Bitcoin "lacks the shock absorbers necessary to prevent capitalist crises from doing untold damage to the working class."

During financial crises (uh, hello), we need massive public spending to replace the mass extinction of private spending.

But the whole point of Bitcoin is that you can't arbitrarily increase the supply when you need more of it. Instead, you'd have to rely on "a spontaneous majority of Bitcoin’s users to agree to a massive increase in the supply of money."

Which won't happen.

Instead, you'll get prolonged, brutal depressions of the sort that give rise to fascist movements. It's hard to maintain massive ASIC mining-pools when civilization is crumbling around you.

Second: "Bitcoin’s dominance will not democratise economic life." Most BTC is owned by rich people. Redenominate the world's assets in BTC instead of dollars and…they'll still be owned by rich people

To top it off, you'll still have inflation, because private banks will "find ways of creating complex derivatives based on Bitcoin – derivatives that will soon (just like Lehman Brothers’ CDOs prior to 2008) function as …private money."

"Massive bubbles denominated in Bitcoin will build up and they will burst just as they did in the 19th century under the Gold Standard. And then?"

For all that he's no fan of Bitcoin, Varoufakis is actually pretty positive about blockchains: "I remain as enthusiastic on blockchain’s capacities and as unimpressed by Bitcoin’s ability to help us either civilise or (as any socialist dreams of) transcend capitalism."

I can see some applications for having unalterable public ledgers – a lot of problems can be solved if you assume a neutral, incorruptible trusted third party – but I'm not sure who would bother computing the blockchain without Bitcoin incentives, so…



Where "software" comes from (permalink)

In 1953, Paul Niquette coined the term "software."

At the time, computers were colloquially called "giant brains" but they were inert until a program inputted semipermanent routines in the computer's memory.

http://www.niquette.com/books/softword/part0.htm

It wasn't really possible to move a program from one computer to another one.

Niquette's coinage – a play on "hardware" – came to him while he was 19 years old, programming UCLA's SWAC, and it made him chuckle at the time.

He found the word "too informal to write and often embarrassing to say" but slowly started to incorporate it into lectures and interviews. He had a reputation as a practical joker and his colleagues largely laughed it off.

The story of the coinage is in the introduction ("Chapter 0") of Niquette's online memoir, which I just skimmed. It's an engaging and witty history of some of the seminal moments in computing!



This day in history (permalink)

#15yrsago EFF's trusted computing guru sums up MSFT's lockware strategy https://web.archive.org/web/20050903071904/https://www.eff.org/deeplinks/archives/003807.php

#15yrsago Potemkin East Village coming to Vegas https://web.archive.org/web/20050722012350/https://www.curbed.com/archives/2005/07/20/las_vegas_east_village_they_nailed_it.php

#5yrsago Check whether Hacking Team demoed cyberweapons for your local cops https://www.muckrock.com/news/archives/2015/jul/23/hacking-team/

#5yrsago Self-aiming sniper rifle can be pwned over the Internet https://www.wired.com/2015/07/hackers-can-disable-sniper-rifleor-change-target/

#5yrsago Phil Gramm: "exploited worker" AT&T; CEO "only" got $75m https://theintercept.com/2015/07/29/former-gop-sen-phil-gramm-outrage-att-ceo-got/

#1yrago Podcast: Adblocking: How About Nah? https://ia801000.us.archive.org/14/items/Cory_Doctorow_Podcast_305/Cory_Doctorow_Podcast_305_-_Adblocking_How_About_Nah.mp3



Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources: Naked Capitalism (https://nakedcapitalism.com/), Four Short Links (https://www.oreilly.com/feed/four-short-links).

Currently writing:

  • My next novel, "The Lost Cause," a post-GND novel about truth and reconciliation. Yesterday's progress: 516 words (42863 total).

Currently reading: The Deficit Myth, Stephanie Kelton

Latest podcast: Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town (part 11) https://craphound.com/podcast/2020/07/27/someone-comes-to-town-someone-leaves-town-part-11/

Upcoming appearances:

Latest book:

Upcoming books:


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Break 'Em Up

Let’s force Big Tech to interoperate

I don’t think there is much chance of doing these in the US because US-based monopolies (are perceived to) enable US tech dominance. Try other countries not in US orbit.

You hear this in the EU a lot, where the dominant firms are called “National Champions” and are posed as a bulwark against Baidu, Huawei, VK, etc.

You’re right that it poses a barrier to intervention, but as we saw in Congress today, there’s growing bipartisan consensus that these “champions” are actually a drag on national prosperity and even a threat to democracy. The thing is that pro-competitive measures - interop, breakups, merger scrutiny, structural separation mandates - are actually BETTER for your national prosperity. A decade after Standard Oil was broken up, the sector had multiplied several times over and at least THREE of the resulting companies had grown larger than Esso had been prior to the breakup. Likewise, the scrutiny that the DoJ applied to Microsoft is widely recognized as having scared the company out of destroying Google as it was getting started - if we think Google is an agent of US soft power, then we want MORE Googles, and the only way to do that is to tame the Google we have.

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