The meme-ification of Ayn Rand

How the grumpy author became an Internet superstar

“Feminist” T-shirts are her latest viral sensation. Why the objectivist’s writings lend themselves to the Web

, The Daily Dot

The meme-ification of Ayn Rand: How the grumpy author became an Internet superstar
Ayn Rand (Credit: WIkimedia)
This article originally appeared on The Daily Dot.

The Daily Dot Ayn Rand is not a feminist icon, but it speaks volumes about the Internet that some are implicitly characterizing her that way, so much so that she’s even become a ubiquitous force on the meme circuit.

Last week, Maureen O’Connor of The Cut wrote a piece about a popular shirt called the Unstoppable Muscle Tee, which features the quote: “The question isn’t who is going to let me, it’s who is going to stop me.”

As The Quote Investigator determined, this was actually a distortion of a well-known passage from one of Rand’s better-known novels, The Fountainhead:

“Do you mean to tell me that you’re thinking seriously of building that way, when and if you are an architect?”

“Yes.”

“My dear fellow, who will let you?”

“That’s not the point. The point is, who will stop me?”

Ironically, Rand not only isn’t responsible for this trendy girl power mantra, but was actually an avowed enemy of feminism. As The Atlas Society explains in their article about feminism in the philosophy of Objectivism (Rand’s main ideological legacy), Randians may have supported certain political and social freedoms for women—the right to have an abortion, the ability to rise to the head of business based on individual merit—but they subscribed fiercely to cultural gender biases. Referring to herself as a “male chauvinist,” Rand argued that sexually healthy women should feel a sense of “hero worship” for the men in their life, expressed disgust at the idea that any woman would want to be president, and deplored progressive identity-based activist movements as inherently collectivist in nature.



How did Rand get so big on the Internet, which has become a popular place for progressive memory? A Pew Research study from 2005 discovered that: “the percentage of both men and women who go online increases with the amount of household income,” and while both genders are equally likely to engage in heavy Internet use, white men statistically outnumber white women. This is important because Rand, despite iconoclastic eschewing ideological labels herself, is especially popular among libertarians, who are attracted to her pro-business, anti-government, and avowedly individualistic ideology. Self-identified libertarians and libertarian-minded conservatives, in turn, were found by a Pew Research study from 2011 to be disproportionately white, male, and affluent. Indeed, the sub-sect of the conservative movement that Pew determined was most likely to identify with the libertarian label were so-called “Business Conservatives,” who are “the only group in which a majority (67 percent) believes the economic system is fair to most Americans rather than unfairly tilted in favor of the powerful.” They are also very favorably inclined toward the potential presidential candidacy of Rep. Paul Ryan (79 percent), who is well-known within the Beltway as an admirer of Rand’s work (once telling The Weekly Standard that “I give out Atlas Shrugged [by Ayn Rand] as Christmas presents, and I make all my interns read it.”).

Rand’s fans, in other words, are one of the most visible forces on the Internet, and ideally situated to distribute her ideology. Rand’s online popularity is the result of this fortuitous intersection of power and interests among frequent Internet users. If one date can be established as the turning point for the flourishing of Internet libertarianism, it would most likely be May 16, 2007, when footage of former Rep. Ron Paul’s sharp non-interventionist rebuttal to Rudy Giuliani in that night’s Republican presidential debate became a viral hit. Ron Paul’s place in the ideological/cultural milieu that encompasses Randism is undeniable, as evidenced by exposes on their joint influence on college campuses and Paul’s upcoming cameo in the movie Atlas Shrugged: Part 3. During his 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns, Paul attracted considerable attention for his remarkable ability to raise money through the Internet, and to this day he continues to root his cause in cyberspace through a titular online political opinion channel—while his son, Sen. Rand Paul, has made no secret of his hope to tap into his father’s base for his own likely presidential campaign in 2016. Even though the Pauls don’t share Rand’s views on many issues, the self-identified libertarians that infused energy and cash into their national campaigns are part of the same Internet phenomenon as the growth of Randism.

As the Unstoppable Muscle Tee hiccup makes clear, however, Rand’s Internet fashionability isn’t always tied to libertarianism or Objectivism (the name she gave her own ideology). It also has a great deal to do with the psychology of meme culture. In the words of Annalee Newitz, a writer who frequently comments on the cultural effects of science and technology:

To share a story is in part to take ownership of it, especially because you are often able to comment on a story that you are sharing on social media. If you can share a piece of information that’s an absolute truth—whether that’s how to uninstall apps on your phone, or what the NSA is really doing—you too become a truth teller. And that feels good. Just as good as it does to be the person who has the cutest cat picture on the Internet.

If there is one quality in Rand’s writing that was evident even to her early critics, it was the tone of absolute certainty that dripped from her prose, which manifests itself in the quotes appearing in memes such as “I swear by my life and my love of it that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine,” or  “A creative man is motivated by the desire to achieve, not by the desire to beat others” and “The ladder of success is best climbed by stepping on the rungs of opportunity.” Another Rand meme revolves around the popular quote: “Individual rights are not subject to a public vote; a majority has no right to vote away the rights of a minority; the political function of rights is precisely to protect minorities from oppression by majorities (and the smallest minority on Earth is the individual).”

What’s particularly noteworthy about these observations, aside from their definitiveness, is the fact that virtually no one adhering to a mainstream Western political ideology would disagree with them. Could you conceive of anyone on the left, right, or middle arguing that they’d accept being forced to live for another’s sake or want another to live solely for their own? Or that their ambitions are not driven by a desire to beat others? Or that they don’t think success comes from seizing on opportunities? Or that they think majorities should be able to vote away the rights of minorities?

These statements are platitudes, compellingly worded rhetorical catch-alls with inspiring messages that are unlikely to be contested when taken solely at face value. Like the erroneously attributed “The question isn’t who is going to let me, it’s who is going to stop me,” they can mean whatever the user wishes for them to mean. Conservatives can and will be found who claim that only they adhere to those values while liberals do not, many liberals will say the same thing about conservatives, and, of course, Rand wrote each of these statements with her own distinctly Objectivist contexts in mind. Because each one contains a generally accepted “absolute truth” (at least insofar as the strict text itself is concerned), they are perfect fodder for those who spread memes through pictures, GIFs, and online merchandise—people who wish to be “truth tellers.”

Future historians may marvel at the perfect storm of cultural conditions that allowed this Rand boom to take place. After all, there is nothing about the rise of Internet libertarianism that automatically guarantees the rise of meming as a trend, or vice versa. In retrospect, however, the fact that both libertarianism and meming are distinct products of the Internet age—one for demographic reasons, the other for psychological ones—made the explosion of Randisms virtually inevitable. Even if they’re destined to be used by movements with which she’d want no part, Ayn Rand isn’t going to fade away from cyberspace anytime soon.

http://www.salon.com/2014/11/18/how_ayn_rand_became_an_internet_superstar_partner/?source=newsletter

Buyer Beware: Online Shopping Prices Vary From User to User

  Corporate Accountability and WorkPlace  

Companies may be charging you more because of your geographic location or computer model.

People have a mental model of shopping that is based on experiences from brick-and-mortar stores. We intuitively understand how this process works: all available products are displayed around the store and the prices are clearly marked. Many stores offer deals via coupons, membership cards, or to special classes of people such as students or AARP members. Typically, everyone is aware of these discounts and has an equal opportunity to use them.

Many people assume this same mental model of shopping applies just as well to e-commerce websites. However, as we are discovering, this is not the case.

In 2010, shoppers realized that Amazon was charging different users different prices for the same DVD, a practice known as price discrimination or price differentiation. In 2012, the Wall Street Journal revealed that Staples was charging users different prices based on their geographic location. The paper also reported that travel retailer Orbitz was showing more expensive hotels to users browsing from Mac computers, a practice known as price steering.

These reports of price discrimination and steering provoked a great deal of negative publicity for the companies involved. The lack of transparency also raises many disturbing questions. How widespread are the e-commerce practices of manipulating search results and customizing prices? What customer information do companies use to do it? When e-commerce sites personalize prices or search results, by how much do prices change?

Price Discrimination and Steering in the Wild

My colleagues and I at Northeastern University have taken an initial stab at answering these questions in a new study. We examined ten major e-retailers – including Walmart and Home Depot – along with six hotel/rental car sites – including Orbitz and Expedia – to determine if they implement price discrimination or steering, and if so, what user attributes trigger the personalization.

We recruited 300 people from the crowdsourcing site Mechanical Turk to run product searches on the 16 sites. We paired each of these real users, who each had their own real, idiosyncratic browser history, with an automated browser that ran the same searches at the same time as the real users, but did not store any cookies.

By comparing the search results shown to these automated controls and to the real users, we identified several cases of personalization. We saw price steering from Sears, with the order of search results varying from user to user. We saw price discrimination from Home Depot, Sears, Cheaptickets, Orbitz, Priceline, Expedia, and Travelocity, with product prices varying from user to user.

So what user attributes trigger personalization? The problem is that real users have a long history of browsed sites, searches, clicks, and online purchases that we as researchers don’t know. Thus, when we observe personalized results in our experiments, we can’t tease out the underlying cause.

What Makes You Seem Like You Want to Pay More?

To figure out what user attributes drive e-commerce personalization, we conducted another round of testing using fake accounts that we created. All the accounts were identical except for one specific attribute that we changed. In particular, we tested for personalization based on browser (e.g. Chrome, Firefox, IE), platform (e.g. Windows, OSX, iOS, Android), logging-in to a user account, and purchase history (we had one account book cheap hotels and rental cars for a week, while another account booked expensive hotel rooms and rental cars).

Our fake accounts uncovered many different personalization strategies employed by e-commerce sites. For example, Travelocity reduced the prices on 5% of hotel rooms shown in search results by around US$15 per night for smartphone users. Interestingly, Cheaptickets and Orbitz gave unadvertised “Members Only” discounts of about US$12 per night on 5% of hotels rooms to users who were logged-in to their accounts on the site.

Price discrimination on Cheaptickets: users who log into the site receive ‘Members Only’ discounts of about $12/night on 5% of hotels. Aniko Hannak et al.

Expedia and Hotels.com conduct what marketers and engineers call A/B tests to steer a subset of their users toward more expensive hotels. By dividing visitors into different groups, companies are able to use A/B tests to see how users respond to new website features and algorithms. In this case, visitors to Expedia and Hotels.com were randomly assigned to groups A, B or C based on the cookies stored on their computers. Users in groups A and B were shown hotels with an average price of US$187/night, while users in group C were shown hotels with an average price of US$170/night.

Home Depot served almost completely different products to users on desktops versus mobile devices. A desktop user searching Home Depot typically received 24 search results, with an average price per item of US$120. In contrast, mobile users receive 48 search results, with an average price per item of US$230. Bizarrely, products are also US$0.41 more expensive on average for Android users.

Why Do Sites Do This?

Initially, we assumed that the sites would not personalize content, given the extremely negative PR that Amazon, Staples, and Orbitz received when earlier cases were revealed. To our surprise, this was not the case.

Unfortunately, the business logic underlying much of this personalization remains a mystery. None of the discounts we located in our experiments were advertised on sites’ homepages, so the deals do not appear to be part of marketing campaigns. When we spoke to representatives from Orbitz and Expedia, they confirmed our findings, but did not elaborate on the rationale for the design of their websites. Representatives from Travelocity confirmed that they do offer deals for mobile users, with the goal being to motivate them to use the site more and install the Travelocity app.

What’s a Bargain-Hunting Shopper to Do?

What is clear from our study is that price discrimination and steering on e-commerce sites are becoming more prevalent and more sophisticated. As a user, it’s almost impossible to know if the prices you are being shown have been altered, or if cheaper products have been hidden from search results.

If you are looking for the best deal and are willing to work for it, we recommend searching for products in your normal desktop browser, an incognito or private browser window, and your mobile device. Of course, e-commerce companies are constantly experimenting with new personalization techniques, so in the future, an entirely different attribute may trigger personalization.

Ultimately, we hope our study will encourage companies to be more transparent about how they personalize prices and search results. Rather than using opaque and creepy algorithms to secretly alter content, companies could stick to the kinds of real-world incentives that shoppers already know and love, like coupons and sales.

“The Internet’s Own Boy”: How the government destroyed Aaron Swartz

A film tells the story of the coder-activist who fought corporate power and corruption — and paid a cruel price

"The Internet's Own Boy": How the government destroyed Aaron Swartz
Aaron Swartz (Credit: TakePart/Noah Berger)

Brian Knappenberger’s Kickstarter-funded documentary “The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz,” which premiered at Sundance barely a year after the legendary hacker, programmer and information activist took his own life in January 2013, feels like the beginning of a conversation about Swartz and his legacy rather than the final word. This week it will be released in theaters, arriving in the middle of an evolving debate about what the Internet is, whose interests it serves and how best to manage it, now that the techno-utopian dreams that sounded so great in Wired magazine circa 1996 have begun to ring distinctly hollow.

What surprised me when I wrote about “The Internet’s Own Boy” from Sundance was the snarky, dismissive and downright hostile tone struck by at least a few commenters. There was a certain dark symmetry to it, I thought at the time: A tragic story about the downfall, destruction and death of an Internet idealist calls up all of the medium’s most distasteful qualities, including its unique ability to transform all discourse into binary and ill-considered nastiness, and its empowerment of the chorus of belittlers and begrudgers collectively known as trolls. In retrospect, I think the symbolism ran even deeper. Aaron Swartz’s life and career exemplified a central conflict within Internet culture, and one whose ramifications make many denizens of the Web highly uncomfortable.

For many of its pioneers, loyalists and self-professed deep thinkers, the Internet was conceived as a digital demi-paradise, a zone of total freedom and democracy. But when it comes to specifics things get a bit dicey. Paradise for whom, exactly, and what do we mean by democracy? In one enduringly popular version of this fantasy, the Internet is the ultimate libertarian free market, a zone of perfect entrepreneurial capitalism untrammeled by any government, any regulation or any taxation. As a teenage programming prodigy with an unusually deep understanding of the Internet’s underlying architecture, Swartz certainly participated in the private-sector, junior-millionaire version of the Internet. He founded his first software company following his freshman year at Stanford, and became a partner in the development of Reddit in 2006, which was sold to Condé Nast later that year.



That libertarian vision of the Internet – and of society too, for that matter – rests on an unacknowledged contradiction, in that some form of state power or authority is presumably required to enforce private property rights, including copyrights, patents and other forms of intellectual property. Indeed, this is one of the principal contradictions embedded within our current form of capitalism, as the Marxist scholar David Harvey notes: Those who claim to venerate private property above all else actually depend on an increasingly militarized and autocratic state. And from the beginning of Swartz’s career he also partook of the alternate vision of the Internet, the one with a more anarchistic or anarcho-socialist character. When he was 15 years old he participated in the launch of Creative Commons, the immensely important content-sharing nonprofit, and at age 17 he helped design Markdown, an open-source, newbie-friendly markup format that remains in widespread use.

One can certainly construct an argument that these ideas about the character of the Internet are not fundamentally incompatible, and may coexist peaceably enough. In the physical world we have public parks and privately owned supermarkets, and we all understand that different rules (backed of course by militarized state power) govern our conduct in each space. But there is still an ideological contest between the two, and the logic of the private sector has increasingly invaded the public sphere and undermined the ancient notion of the public commons. (Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani once proposed that city parks should charge admission fees.) As an adult Aaron Swartz took sides in this contest, moving away from the libertarian Silicon Valley model of the Internet and toward a more radical and social conception of the meaning of freedom and equality in the digital age. It seems possible and even likely that the “Guerilla Open Access Manifesto” Swartz wrote in 2008, at age 21, led directly to his exaggerated federal prosecution for what was by any standard a minor hacking offense.

Swartz’s manifesto didn’t just call for the widespread illegal downloading and sharing of copyrighted scientific and academic material, which was already a dangerous idea. It explained why. Much of the academic research held under lock and key by large institutional publishers like Reed Elsevier had been largely funded at public expense, but was now being treated as private property – and as Swartz understood, that was just one example of a massive ideological victory for corporate interests that had penetrated almost every aspect of society. The actual data theft for which Swartz was prosecuted, the download of a large volume of journal articles from the academic database called JSTOR, was largely symbolic and arguably almost pointless. (As a Harvard graduate student at the time, Swartz was entitled to read anything on JSTOR.)

But the symbolism was important: Swartz posed a direct challenge to the private-sector creep that has eaten away at any notion of the public commons or the public good, whether in the digital or physical worlds, and he also sought to expose the fact that in our age state power is primarily the proxy or servant of corporate power. He had already embarrassed the government twice previously. In 2006, he downloaded and released the entire bibliographic dataset of the Library of Congress, a public document for which the library had charged an access fee. In 2008, he downloaded and released about 2.7 million federal court documents stored in the government database called PACER, which charged 8 cents a page for public records that by definition had no copyright. In both cases, law enforcement ultimately concluded Swartz had committed no crime: Dispensing public information to the public turns out to be legal, even if the government would rather you didn’t. The JSTOR case was different, and the government saw its chance (one could argue) to punish him at last.

Knappenberger could only have made this film with the cooperation of Swartz’s family, which was dealing with a devastating recent loss. In that context, it’s more than understandable that he does not inquire into the circumstances of Swartz’s suicide in “Inside Edition”-level detail. It’s impossible to know anything about Swartz’s mental condition from the outside – for example, whether he suffered from undiagnosed depressive illness – but it seems clear that he grew increasingly disheartened over the government’s insistence that he serve prison time as part of any potential plea bargain. Such an outcome would have left him a convicted felon and, he believed, would have doomed his political aspirations; one can speculate that was the point. Carmen Ortiz, the U.S. attorney for Boston, along with her deputy Stephen Heymann, did more than throw the book at Swartz. They pretty much had to write it first, concocting an imaginative list of 13 felony indictments that carried a potential total of 50 years in federal prison.

As Knappenberger explained in a Q&A session at Sundance, that’s the correct context in which to understand Robert Swartz’s public remark that the government had killed his son. He didn’t mean that Aaron had actually been assassinated by the CIA, but rather that he was a fragile young man who had been targeted as an enemy of the state, held up as a public whipping boy, and hounded into severe psychological distress. Of course that cannot entirely explain what happened; Ortiz and Heymann, along with whoever above them in the Justice Department signed off on their display of prosecutorial energy, had no reason to expect that Swartz would kill himself. There’s more than enough pain and blame to go around, and purely on a human level it’s difficult to imagine what agony Swartz’s family and friends have put themselves through.

One of the most painful moments in “The Internet’s Own Boy” arrives when Quinn Norton, Swartz’s ex-girlfriend, struggles to explain how and why she wound up accepting immunity from prosecution in exchange for information about her former lover. Norton’s role in the sequence of events that led to Swartz hanging himself in his Brooklyn apartment 18 months ago has been much discussed by those who have followed this tragic story. I think the first thing to say is that Norton has been very forthright in talking about what happened, and clearly feels torn up about it.

Norton was a single mom living on a freelance writer’s income, who had been threatened with an indictment that could have cost her both her child and her livelihood. When prosecutors offered her an immunity deal, her lawyer insisted she should take it. For his part, Swartz’s attorney says he doesn’t think Norton told the feds anything that made Swartz’s legal predicament worse, but she herself does not agree. It was apparently Norton who told the government that Swartz had written the 2008 manifesto, which had spread far and wide in hacktivist circles. Not only did the manifesto explain why Swartz had wanted to download hundreds of thousands of copyrighted journal articles on JSTOR, it suggested what he wanted to do with them and framed it as an act of resistance to the private-property knowledge industry.

Amid her grief and guilt, Norton also expresses an even more appropriate emotion: the rage of wondering how in hell we got here. How did we wind up with a country where an activist is prosecuted like a major criminal for downloading articles from a database for noncommercial purposes, while no one goes to prison for the immense financial fraud of 2008 that bankrupted millions? As a person who has made a living as an Internet “content provider” for almost 20 years, I’m well aware that we can’t simply do away with the concept of copyright or intellectual property. I never download pirated movies, not because I care so much about the bottom line at Sony or Warner Bros., but because it just doesn’t feel right, and because you can never be sure who’s getting hurt. We’re not going to settle the debate about intellectual property rights in the digital age in a movie review, but we can say this: Aaron Swartz had chosen his targets carefully, and so did the government when it fixed its sights on him. (In fact, JSTOR suffered no financial loss, and urged the feds to drop the charges. They refused.)

A clean and straightforward work of advocacy cinema, blending archival footage and contemporary talking-head interviews, Knappenberger’s film makes clear that Swartz was always interested in the social and political consequences of technology. By the time he reached adulthood he began to see political power, in effect, as another system of control that could be hacked, subverted and turned to unintended purposes. In the late 2000s, Swartz moved rapidly through a variety of politically minded ventures, including a good-government site and several different progressive advocacy groups. He didn’t live long enough to learn about Edward Snowden or the NSA spy campaigns he exposed, but Swartz frequently spoke out against the hidden and dangerous nature of the security state, and played a key role in the 2011-12 campaign to defeat the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), a far-reaching government-oversight bill that began with wide bipartisan support and appeared certain to sail through Congress. That campaign, and the Internet-wide protest of American Censorship Day in November 2011, looks in retrospect like the digital world’s political coming of age.

Earlier that year, Swartz had been arrested by MIT campus police, after they noticed that someone had plugged a laptop into a network switch in a server closet. He was clearly violating some campus rules and likely trespassing, but as the New York Times observed at the time, the arrest and subsequent indictment seemed to defy logic: Could downloading articles that he was legally entitled to read really be considered hacking? Wasn’t this the digital equivalent of ordering 250 pancakes at an all-you-can-eat breakfast? The whole incident seemed like a momentary blip in Swartz’s blossoming career – a terms-of-service violation that might result in academic censure, or at worst a misdemeanor conviction.

Instead, for reasons that have never been clear, Ortiz and Heymann insisted on a plea deal that would have sent Swartz to prison for six months, an unusually onerous sentence for an offense with no definable victim and no financial motive. Was he specifically singled out as a political scapegoat by Eric Holder or someone else in the Justice Department? Or was he simply bulldozed by a prosecutorial bureaucracy eager to justify its own existence? We will almost certainly never know for sure, but as numerous people in “The Internet’s Own Boy” observe, the former scenario cannot be dismissed easily. Young computer geniuses who embrace the logic of private property and corporate power, who launch start-ups and seek to join the 1 percent before they’re 25, are the heroes of our culture. Those who use technology to empower the public commons and to challenge the intertwined forces of corporate greed and state corruption, however, are the enemies of progress and must be crushed.

”The Internet’s Own Boy” opens this week in Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Denver, Los Angeles, Miami, New York, Toronto, Washington and Columbus, Ohio. It opens June 30 in Vancouver, Canada; July 4 in Phoenix, San Francisco and San Jose, Calif.; and July 11 in Seattle, with other cities to follow. It’s also available on-demand from Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Vimeo, Vudu and other providers.

http://www.salon.com/2014/06/24/the_internets_own_boy_how_the_government_destroyed_aaron_swartz/?source=newsletter

How the FCC Plans to Save the Internet By Destroying It: An Explainer

http://www.savetheinternet.com/sites/default/files/styles/781wide_nocrop/public/topics/topic_net-neutrality.png?itok=VH-CVpli

 

The FCC wants to make good on President Obama’s pledge to make net neutrality into law. It’s just having a very hard time actually doing it.

Net Neutrality is the simple concept that the company that provides you internet access on your phone and at your house should be a utility — like a phone company. It should deliver you the information you ask for at the speed you are promised without playing favorites or blocking or degrading services.

That sounds like a simple enough goal, and it’s an incredibly important goal.

It’s the principle that has allowed innovation on the net — the creation of YouTube and Google and Instagram and Facebook and Pinterest and Wikipedia and countless personal websites — without those companies and organization having to negotiate contracts with and pay tolls to the ISPs that stand between those services and ordinary internet users.

That era is about to come to an end—if the FCC’s latest attempt to save net neutrality is put into place. This proposal will explicitly allow ISPs to create fast and slow lanes on the internet.

In fact, if the FCC isn’t stopped from its proposal, discrimination on the net will become the default, not the exception.

The FCC will kill the internet in order to save it.

Note: This is a long post so here’s the TL;DR.

1) The FCC has a very simple way to create simple, fair and enforceable rules to protect innovation, free speech and commerce. It lacks the courage and (perhaps) political capital to re-grant itself this power.
2) Lacking this power, the FCC is relying on a small loophole given to it by the courts.
3) That loophole requires the FCC to allow Verizon, Comcast and AT&T to create slow and fast lanes.
4) The loophole also allows ISPs have to strike individual deals with sites and apps. The rates for non-slow service can vary hugely. Those services that don’t pay will get relegated to the slow lane.
5) The FCC wants to call this “net neutrality.” It’s nothing of the sort and the proposal needs to be killed. It’s a bargain that will kill innovation on the net.
6) Even if you are a progressive who loves Obama, the best thing you can do is help kill this proposal and show there is political will for real internet protection.

The legal battles and arguments are very complicated. But the conundrum all boils down to a simple problem.

The Bush Administration decided that internet access was a special beast that should be deregulated.

Previous telecommunications systems — most notably the phone system — are regulated as “common carriers”. This means you can call whoever you like; you can use whatever phone you want; and anyone in a service area can sign up at a fair rate.

This designation recognizes that communication systems are too important to be left to the vagaries of profit-be-damned executives and that the operators are in very powerful positions to do harm and extract tolls.

But the Bush administration’s FCC ruled that internet service providers—the companies you pay to get your computers and phones online—weren’t common carriers.

Instead they were “information services,” (think something like Lexis-Nexis or the Bloomberg terminal) which the government has little power to regulate. It’s a non-sensical designation, but the Supreme Court ruled that even if it was dumb and not the best choice, the FCC has the right to re-classify at will.


You can see the oddness most clearly in a case involving mobile phone roaming.

A smaller mobile phone company wanted Verizon to offer roaming access when its subscribers wandered into Verizon territory. Because phone call carriers are regulated as common carriers, the FCC clearly had the power to order Verizon to offer roaming phone calls at very defined, very fair rates that would be offered at the same fair rate to all companies.

But since the FCC had decided that internet access wasn’t special, Verizon sued over mobile data roaming. It said the FCC had no power to require it to offer data roaming, and even if the FCC did have that power, it couldn’t dictate the terms.

In the court’s plain words: “If a carrier is forced to offer service indiscriminately and on general terms, then that carrier is being relegated to common carrier status.”

Put in other terms, the FCC can’t impose net neutrality rules that protect the internet unless ISPs are common carriers.


But the FCC has spent the last 10 years trying to have net neutrality and deregulation. And it’s still trying to do that.

Even as it deregulated ISPs, the Bush FCC issued some faux “rules” in 2005 that required ISPs to let you use the applications, services and devices that you like. These were known as the “Four Freedoms.”

But when the FCC actually tried to enforce these “rules” against Comcast for secretly blocking users who were using peer-to-peer services, the court said the rules had no grounding in law.

So after a couple years of dithering, the Obama FCC tried again in 2011 to regulate what they’d deregulated, relying on some odd authorities found hither and nither in the federal code.

Verizon fought them and this January, a court said the FCC had no power to prohibit ISPs from discriminating or blocking online services and threw out the rules.


But the court gave the FCC a little wiggle room in that data roaming case I mentioned.

It said the FCC could require a provider to offer data roaming agreements, but it could NOT closely control the terms of those offers and they could vary hugely. Because if the FCC did try to control the terms, that would be a common carrier obligation.

So this is what the FCC is going to do for the entire internet.

It’s going to allow ISPs to charge Netflix and YouTube and whomever for fast access. ISPs won’t be able to block services, but it doesn’t have to provide services on a fair basis.

The FCC is going to try to draw up rules that try to make those agreements sort-of-fair, but the strongest those rules can be is holding ISPs to standard called “commercially reasonable”. If it tries to make the rules actually fair, then the FCC has overstepped its authority.

Here’s how a federal court imagined this scenario (.pdf) might be legal and give the FCC a little authority:

Verizon might […] charge an edge provider like Netflix for high-speed, priority access while limiting all other edge providers to a more standard service. In theory, moreover, not only could Verizon negotiate separate agreements with each individual edge provider regarding the level of service provided, but it could also charge similarly-situated edge providers completely different prices for the same service.

And that’s what the FCC is calling Net Neutrality now.

(Disclosure: I run a startup called Contextly that provides content recommendations to publishers at the end of stories. We serve millions upon millions of images a day and pay substantial money for our bandwidth. I can’t imagine having to sign contracts with ISPs around the country just to make sure these images load quickly. This would kill our business.)

This proposal is a mess.

First of all, it allows each ISP to negotiate individualized and secret contracts with any internet service. That’s awful enough, but even worse, there don’t even have to be any standard terms.

So if you are a startup that streams daily news clips to users, if you want fast service you’ll have to negotiate individually with AT&T, Verizon Wireless, Comcast, TimeWarner, Sprint, etc. And they’ll each try to figure how much they can squeeze out of you.

That’s not hand-wringing. Verizon told the court they’d be doing this if they could. AT&T has floated proposals to create fast and slow lanes for apps. And Comcast is notorious for messing with internet traffic in secret and devious ways.

So what happens if a giant ISP demands unfair terms that there’s no way your startup could pay?

Well, you then get to hire a lawyer and some expensive experts and file a complaint with the FCC. Meanwhile your videos hardly load on mobile and your users start abandoning you.

When you do finally win a year or two later, Verizon will then challenge the win, arguing that in this case the FCC was overstepping its bounds and that it was treating Verizon as a common carrier. Regardless if Verizon wins or not, your company is in the deadpool.

As for companies like Netflix, their cost of operations will go up since they will be paying for bandwidth twice. And the cost you pay for Netflix is going to go up, too.

The FCC is calling this “net neutrality”. It’s going to say it will protect innovation from extortion on a case-by-case basis.

Meanwhile, since there’s hardly any competition in broadband, Verizon and Comcast and AT&T will divide up their networks into slow and fast lanes — keeping the slow lanes slow.

Like a mafia protection racket, they are going to extract a nice percentage from internet services like YouTube and Facebook and get a de facto veto over innovative companies like What’s App. “That’s a cool show you made there HBO with Game of Thrones. It’d be a pity if people could only watch it at 320p.”

That’s not net neutrality. It’s the opposite of net neutrality.

Even worse, it creates perverse incentives for ISPs to keep most of their network slow and congested so that every service that wants to thrive will have to pay to get decent service.

We’ve already seen this happen.

Comcast effectively throttled Netflix in the last few months, refusing to open a decent size port into its network — even though its customers were screaming to watch shows online. It wasn’t that Netflix was filling Comcast’s network with unwanted traffic.

Comcast users were requesting videos and Comcast intentionally screwed their own customers by throttling the pipe between them and Netflix in order to make Netflix pony up double for bandwidth.

If there had been any competition for broadband service— where it was really possible for its customers to switch ISPs, Comcast would have been scrambling to help its customers watch videos quickly.

Instead, it gave its customers crappy service for months and let Netflix see what would happen if it didn’t pay the toll. Which Netflix eventually did. And the FCC refused to even say Boo.

That’s what a monopolist looks like. That’s why common carrier rules were invented. And the FCC’s new fake net neutrality rules will only make this worse.

The simplest fix is to simply re-impose common carrier rules. All that takes is 3 out of 5 FCC commissioners to vote to do so and the FCC has those votes today.

Everyone knows their internet service should work like a utility. You pay Comcast or AT&T a certain amount of money per month and you get a level of service and you get to watch Netflix or upload videos and play World of Warcraft or whatever it is you like to do on the internet. At least in theory.

Unfortunately, Comcast and AT&T are powerful and profitable, and they do not want to be utilities. Being a utility is boring. A utility’s profit margins, while solid, don’t compare to that of a Google or a Facebook or a Netflix. And because AT&T and Verizon and Comcast are the necessary pipes between you and those services, they’d like to get paid double.

They can charge Netflix and Google big tariffs to get to “their” customers. Or even better, they can launch their own video services, which will flow to your house through special tubes that are as fast as a slip-and-slide and uncrowded with other traffic. And Netflix? It will crawl and time out and stutter unless Netflix pays alot for faster access. At least, that’s the telecom’s executives’ dream.

And to make that dream possible, these companies donate heavily to politicians — and they’ve managed to convince lots of Republicans that the idea of prohibiting ISPs from slowing down Netflix amounts to “regulating” the internet.

That’s a ridiculous argument, akin to say that the FCC’s requirement that the phone company allow you to call whichever plumber you want is regulating the plumbing industry.

Simply put, the FCC is too scared of the big telecoms to do the simple thing and reclassify your ISP as a common carrier. (The midterms are coming up.)

So instead, the FCC is taking some small slivers of regulatory hope from recent court rulings, trying to create some semblance of control over ISPs and claiming victory.


It’s time for this FCC charade to stop.

There’s only one way to get real rules to protect the most innovative communications platform ever built and it’s simple as hell. It just requires courage on the part of the FCC and outrage on the part of those of us who live on and love the net.

There’s something ironic about opposing the FCC on these rules by raising a ruckus — by flooding them with comments; by expressing your outrage online and to your representatives.

You’ll be their best friend. There’s still hope in policy circles that the FCC wants to do the right thing, but it’s just scared to.

Our job is to make it clear, like the net did with SOPA, that doing the right thing—creating real net neutrality rules—is the only option for the FCC.

We have to make it clear that destroying the internet in order to save it is not an option, and we can’t and won’t let that happen.

View story at Medium.com

How the Internet Is Taking Away America’s Religion

Back in 1990, about 8 percent of the U.S. population had no religious preference. By 2010, this percentage had more than doubled to 18 percent. That’s a difference of about 25 million people, all of whom have somehow lost their religion.

That raises an obvious question: how come? Why are Americans losing their faith?

Today, we get a possible answer thanks to the work of Allen Downey, a computer scientist at the Olin College of Engineering in Massachusetts, who has analyzed the data in detail. He says that the demise is the result of several factors but the most controversial of these is the rise of the Internet. He concludes that the increase in Internet use in the last two decades has caused a significant drop in religious affiliation.

Downey’s data comes from the General Social Survey, a widely respected sociological survey carried out by the University of Chicago, that has regularly measure people’s attitudes and demographics since 1972.

In that time, the General Social Survey has asked people questions such as: “what is your religious preference?” and “in what religion were you raised?” It also collects data on each respondent’s age, level of education, socioeconomic group, and so on. And in the Internet era, it has asked how long each person spends online. The total data set that Downey used consists of responses from almost 9,000 people.

Downey’s approach is to determine how the drop in religious affiliation correlates with other elements of the survey such as religious upbringing, socioeconomic status, education, and so on.

He finds that the biggest influence on religious affiliation is religious upbringing—people who are brought up in a religion are more likely to be affiliated to that religion later.

However, the number of people with a religious upbringing has dropped since 1990. It’s easy to imagine how this inevitably leads to a fall in the number who are religious later in life. In fact, Downey’s analysis shows that this is an important factor. However, it cannot account for all of the fall or anywhere near it. In fact, that data indicates that it only explains about 25 percent of the drop.

He goes on to show that college-level education also correlates with the drop. Once it again, it’s easy to imagine how contact with a wider group of people at college might contribute to a loss of religion.

Since the 1980s, the fraction of people receiving college level education has increased from 17.4 percent to 27.2 percent in the 2000s. So it’s not surprising that this is reflected in the drop in numbers claiming religious affiliation today. But although the correlation is statistically significant, it can only account for about 5 percent of the drop, so some other factor must also be involved.

That’s where the Internet comes in. In the 1980s, Internet use was essentially zero, but in 2010, 53 percent of the population spent two hours per week online and 25 percent surfed for more than 7 hours.

This increase closely matches the decrease in religious affiliation. In fact, Downey calculates that it can account for about 25 percent of the drop.

That’s a fascinating result. It implies that since 1990, the increase in Internet use has had as powerful an influence on religious affiliation as the drop in religious upbringing.

At this point, it’s worth spending a little time talking about the nature of these conclusions. What Downey has found is correlations and any statistician will tell you that correlations do not imply causation. If A is correlated with B, there can be several possible explanations. A might cause B, B might cause A, or some other factor might cause both A and B.

But that does not mean that it is impossible to draw conclusions from correlations, only that they must be properly guarded. “Correlation does provide evidence in favor of causation, especially when we can eliminate alternative explanations or have reason to believe that they are less likely,” says Downey.

For example, it’s easy to imagine that a religious upbringing causes religious affiliation later in life. However, it’s impossible for the correlation to work the other way round. Religious affiliation later in life cannot cause a religious upbringing (although it may color a person’s view of their upbringing).

It’s also straightforward to imagine how spending time on the Internet can lead to religious disaffiliation. “For people living in homogeneous communities, the Internet provides opportunities to find information about people of other religions (and none), and to interact with them personally,” says Downey. “Conversely, it is harder (but not impossible) to imagine plausible reasons why disaffiliation might cause increased Internet use.”

There is another possibility, of course: that a third unidentified factor causes both increased Internet use and religious disaffiliation. But Downey discounts this possibility. “We have controlled for most of the obvious candidates, including income, education, socioeconomic status, and rural/urban environments,” he says.

If this third factor exists, it must have specific characteristics. It would have to be something new that was increasing in prevalence during the 1990s and 2000s, just like the Internet. “It is hard to imagine what that factor might be,” says Downey.

That leaves him in little doubt that his conclusion is reasonable. “Internet use decreases the chance of religious affiliation,” he says.

But there is something else going on here too. Downey has found three factors—the drop in religious upbringing, the increase in college-level education and the increase in Internet use—that together explain about 50 percent of the drop in religious affiliation.

But what of the other 50 percent? In the data, the only factor that correlates with this is date of birth—people born later are less likely to have a religious affiliation. But as Downey points out, year of birth cannot be a causal factor. “So about half of the observed change remains unexplained,” he says.

So that leaves us with a mystery. The drop in religious upbringing and the increase in Internet use seem to be causing people to lose their faith. But something else about modern life that is not captured in this data is having an even bigger impact.

What can that be? Answers please in the comments section.

Ref: http://arxiv.org/abs/1403.5534: Religious Affiliation, Education and Internet Use

 

http://www.technologyreview.com/view/526111/how-the-internet-is-taking-away-americas-religion/

The Afterlife of Pia Farrenkopf

March 27, 2014

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Sometime in early 2009, Pia Farrenkopf died in the back seat of her Jeep, which was parked in the garage of her home. Around her, life in the suburban community of Pontiac, Michigan, went on. No one knew that she’d died. By all accounts, her neighbors hadn’t known her very well, though some of them would mow her grass when it got too high, according to a report in USA Today. They kept on doing so for five years, until, last month, her body was finally discovered.

Neighbors told reporters that Farrenkopf travelled abroad for business, which is why, they assumed, they never saw her, and had taken it upon themselves to manicure her lawn. Farrenkopf had left her job as a contractor with Chrysler Financial a few months before her death, according to USA Today, so no one was expecting her at work. Her family lived far away and had lost touch with her, according to Reuters.

Farrenkopf also had a bank account with a very large sum in it, and—this is the postmodern crux of the story—she had set up her mortgage and utility bills to be paid automatically from it. As her body decomposed in her garage, the funds went out regularly. Last year, Farrenkopf’s money finally ran out. Her mortgage payments stopped, and the bank foreclosed on the house. Earlier this month, a contractor employed by the bank was examining the home when he discovered Farrenkopf’s body—which has been called “mummified”—in her car in the garage. Since then, police have been attempting to piece together the details of her life and death, to find some answers to the mystery of who she was and why she is gone.

Between those two moments—when she died and when her body was discovered—she was a kind of Schrödinger’s cat, biologically dead but also, in a way, among the living, paying for her power and phone, the roof over her head. Until her body surfaced, Farrenkopf’s institutional ties were the only things keeping her “alive.”

Farrenkopf had a kind of institutional doppelgänger, as do we all: a presence that forms as we post on social media, shop online, send e-mails, and use the Internet for paying bills, banking, and dozens of other financial and technological transactions. Some of us have more than one. The institutional doppelgänger is hard to see because it shadows our everyday lives so closely. Every so often, though, the curtain twitches, reminding us of its existence. The term “identity theft” is a curious one, describing a scenario in which the doppelgänger—not the most obvious you, with your weird cuticles and inner monologue and assorted love problems, but that other you, who has a Social Security number and neatly profiled buying habits and a checking account at Bank of America—can be hijacked by an utter stranger, compromised, put on the market, sold, and used to buy three MacBook Airs, all while you’re sitting on your couch Netflix-bingeing on “Star Trek: The Next Generation.”

In Farrenkopf’s case, these odd circumstances seem less like a moral issue—no one would argue that there was maliciousness on the part of the utility companies or the bank, which can hardly be expected to consult their paying customers on a regular basis to make sure that they haven’t shuffled off this mortal coil—and more like a mundane aspect of the digital age.

Karl Marx believed that the product of human labor was separate from and hostile toward its maker. The same might be said of the product of our commercial activities on the Internet. You might not believe that your institutional doppelgänger works against you, but it does not seem like a stretch to argue that the sum of your activity as a consumer—your social-media posts, credit history, the freakishly accurate profile advertisers have of you—is its own creature, and can move about independently of you. You can also assign any number of automated tasks to your doppelgänger, which it will perform tirelessly.

In “Haunted Media: Electronic Presence from Telegraphy to Television,” Jeffrey Sconce writes that the digital world has raised many questions about the dissociation of our minds, bodies, space, and time. Our culture has been obsessed with the idea that consciousness can be transmitted—that it can be separated from a person’s body—since the advent of the telegraph. It’s just gotten more intense in the past few decades. He points out that much of our science-fictional language about the actual transfer of human consciousness via electricity is just that—fictional—but, at the very least, something can be learned about our cultural dependence on ideas of identity existing beyond the body. Our institutional doppelgängers might not be sentient or spiritual—Farrenkopf’s spirit didn’t somehow live on in her online transactions—but they are a part of modern existence, and tell us something about the way we mete out pieces of our lives. Technology gives us the ability to rely on automatic processes, and we are only too happy to do so. It is no surprise that such dependence came together in such a dystopian fashion; perhaps the surprise should be that it didn’t happen sooner.

On a Facebook page dedicated to Farrenkopf’s story, among the posts with information about the investigation, a woman who identifies herself as Farrenkopf’s niece gives us bits of her aunt’s life—letters from old co-workers, details about her extended family, a black-and-white high-school photograph. Our institutional doppelgängers are real—but, as Farrenkopf’s story unfolds, it is a reminder that they are not us.

Photograph by Daniel Mears/Detroit News/AP.

http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/currency/2014/03/the-afterlife-of-pia-farrenkopf.html?utm_source=tny&utm_campaign=generalsocial&utm_medium=google+&mbid=social_google+

How iPad and Google Glass makers are secretly scamming America

More evil than genius? 

 

We already knew Google and Facebook were resourceful. But their new scheme to rip off the U.S. Treasury is chilling

 

 

More evil than genius? How iPad and Google Glass makers are secretly scamming America
Sergey Brin, Mark Zuckerberg (Credit: AP/Seth Wenig/Reuters/Stephen Lam/Salon)

 

To really understand the extent of Google and Apple’s innovative zeal, you may want to look past their groundbreaking products – and more at their tax avoidance strategies. In a new scheme that defies belief, some of the nation’s top tech giants are managing to evade taxation on money by parking it overseas – and then somehow taking government payments on it.

Though the rest of the business sector had a head start, tech firms have begun to lobby Washington with more persistence over the past few years; the top 10 spent more than $61 million in 2013. The more hopeful among us might believe this shift could possibly produce more beneficial results for the public. (After all, Google’s motto is “don’t be evil,” right?)

But while it’s true that, in certain discrete areas, tech lobbying has yielded positive results — like when companies aided grass-roots efforts to stop Internet censorship legislation sought by Hollywood — in the vast majority of cases, Silicon Valley wants what the rest of our multinational conglomerates want: low taxes and cheap labor. And they’ve been at the forefront of efforts to ensure that.

Take a look at the recent Bloomberg report on companies stockpiling cash in offshore tax havens to avoid higher U.S. rates, for example. (Though the new FiveThirtyEight.com downplayed the significance of this buildup, in actuality it has increased at a fairly steady 10-15 percent rate since the start of the Great Recession.) The tech sector has led the way on this, moving their patents and other intellectual property to low-tax countries to give the appearance that their profits have been earned offshore.



According to Securities and Exchange Commission filings, Apple, Microsoft and IBM accelerated their overseas profit hoarding in 2013 more than their counterparts, adding $37.5 billion to the pile. Over the past three years, Microsoft’s cash stash has more than doubled, and Apple’s has quadrupled. In all, seven tech companies – the three mentioned above, along with Cisco Systems, Oracle, Google and Hewlett-Packard – have $341.3 billion sitting in offshore accounts. At current tax rates, the companies would have to pay $119.45 billion of that to the IRS if they repatriated it. Much of this money is held in segregated U.S. bank accounts, solely for the purpose of avoiding taxes by nominally keeping it offshore.

Sure enough, tech firms are among the companies lobbying for a repatriation tax holiday, which would allow them to return that money home at ultra-low rates. The LIFT Coalition (short for Let’s Invest for Tomorrow), run by former Obama administration communications director Anita Dunn, advocates for the repatriation holiday, and includes Intel, Cisco, Hewlett-Packard, the Semiconductor Industry Association, and “TechNet,” a separate lobbying coalition that counts as its members Google and Facebook.

These lobbying coalitions claim that repatriating the money will allow companies to invest and spur economic recovery, although the last repatriation tax holiday, in 2004, did nothing of the sort. The top 15 companies that made use of that holiday to move money home actually cut 20,000 jobs in the aftermath, while increasing their executive compensation and stock buybacks, according to a report from the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations (Hewlett-Packard and IBM were among the 15 companies benefiting the most). Sadly, both the recent Republican tax reform proposal and the Obama administration’s budget call for a repatriation tax holiday along the lines of the lobbying coalition’s wishes, so their efforts could bear fruit.

But it’s actually worse than all this. A report from the Bureau on Investigative Journalism shows that these tech firms are actually taking government payments on the money they have parked overseas to avoid taxation. That’s because that money isn’t sitting under a mattress somewhere in Bermuda or the Cayman Islands; it’s invested, and the No. 1 investment these firms use is the ultra-safe, ultra-liquid instrument of U.S. government debt.

SEC filings show that Apple, Microsoft, Google and Cisco have $163 billion invested in various forms of interest-bearing U.S. debt. If they were a country (Silicon Valleyistan), that would be the 14th-largest holding of our debt in the world, more than the sovereign wealth funds of Singapore and Norway. Despite the investments in things like Treasury notes and agency debt, the money is still considered offshore, avoiding taxation even as it collects interest from the U.S. government. The annual interest payout to just these four firms is $326 million.

Silicon Valley has mobilized to ensure this gravy train continues into perpetuity. Though the G-20 group of countries has discussed a unified effort to close international tax loopholes, a lobbying coalition made up of tech firms called the Digital Economy Group has fought them almost single-handedly. In a letter to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, the DEG argued that any tax avoidance is “purely coincidental,” adding that “enterprises that employ digital communications models do not organize their business operations differently as a legal or tax matter.” This is completely absurd, given the facts, and represents a hidden effort to subvert tax reform while publicly endorsing the concept.

The fight for low taxes almost looks good compared to Silicon Valley’s securing of cheap labor, the nasty details of which have spilled out in a federal lawsuit. Google, Apple, Intel, Adobe and several other tech firms were charged with colluding to artificially keep down labor costs among engineers and other workers. Basically, companies made illicit agreements not to poach each other’s employees, which eliminates labor competition and suppresses wages. This violates federal anti-trust laws, the workers alleged. Emails between the likes of Google’s Eric Schmidt and the late Apple CEO Steve Jobs provided the evidence for the allegations. The companies even shared salary data for their employees to ensure that nobody overpaid. Recruiters who called into other Silicon Valley firms searching for talent were summarily fired.

Some tech giants, like Intuit, settled with workers for an undisclosed sum, but Google and Apple tried to get the class action suit thrown out of court. A district court judge and the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed that attempt, however, letting 60,000 workers continue to pursue the case. The trial is slated for this May.

None of this is particularly surprising. Tech firms are in the business of making money, regardless of the shiny products and Web apps and social media diversions that supply their revenue stream. They cut all the corners that the rest of corporate America cuts to maximize their profits, skirting the edges of the law and sometimes going over it. You may not want to believe that the companies that give you the iPad and help you in your search for cat videos operate like a two-bit hustler, stealing the wages of employees and setting up dummy tax shelters. But that’s the sad reality.

 

David Dayen is a contributing writer for Salon. Follow him on Twitter at @ddayen.

http://www.salon.com/2014/03/19/more_evil_than_genius_how_ipad_and_google_glass_makers_are_secretly_scamming_america/?source=newsletter

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