Saturday, 12 May 2012

FUD, Glorious FUD: Challenging Secrecy And Lies

During a chat with programmer Lauren Weinstein on Google Plus today I was reminded by the man himself that FUD has always been with us. It's a fact of life and however wise we think we are, if our fears are appropriately stimulated, we will permit ourselves to be herded like sheep. The trick is to be able to identify your fears and prejudices so they're harder to manipulate.

I support the Pirate Party for one reason: I was frightened into it by PIPA/SOPA and the internet blackout of 18th January 2012. It's the basis of everything I believe about digital rights and everything I've blogged about since. It colours everything.

Until you take into the account the pervasiveness of Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt, its place in post 9/11 policymaking and the ever-tightening grip of the Right in the United States, nothing I say here on this blog makes the slightest bit of sense. They wanted to scare me? Job done. I'm terrified witless of them. But as my fellow Plusser pointed out, FUD has always been with us. You know how there are different varieties of flowers? There are different kinds of FUD. We just need to recognise it and call it when we see it.

"We're gonna need a bigger boat tighter grip on the internet"

It's no coincidence that when Wikipedia went dark in January, people took to the streets in protest and practically melted the servers and switchboards of their representatives in Congress and the Senate. Most of us use it at one point or another, even though it has been derided as being inaccurate.

When they made it hard to use by putting a blackout page up when we went to visit it, they demonstrated all-too-effectively what a world in which websites could be taken down on the basis of an unproven accusation would look like. DMCA gets URLs removed from the search results and Youtube and other websites voluntarily remove the pages when they receive them, usually without checking them first. It's constantly being abused. Many websites have been shut down as a result of law enforcement action. But why do such laws get enacted in the first place? FUD. If you have been persuaded by your relection fund donors that running your economy on IP rights enforcement is the way to go AND it seems reasonable to you because everyone seems to agree, of course you'll vote to pass it. But why have they suddenly run headlong en masse into the IP rights enforcement camp?

I has a content. No! They be stealin' mah content!FUD for them

Who and what influences you the most? The people and things you spend most of your time with. Okay, if most of those people are a) friendly and b) contributing to the economy by employing people, who are you to deny them when they tell you that their business, and by extension, the economy, is under threat? Until I watched Pirate Party founder Rick Falkvinge's TED talk today, it didn't occur to me to think of politicians as being basically decent and wanting to serve their countries.

Here it is:

The fact is, FUD scares the politicians every bit as much as it scares us. They think the sky is falling and they're told they have the power to save the world by the people who are... every bit as frightened as the rest of us. Many of us have spent so much time being indignant with them and the legacy content industries that we've forgotten that they're actually human. They are not the droids we're looking for. They're used to a certain way of doing things and fear change. We laugh at them as Luddites (guilty as charged!) and invite them to take some Phlogiston to balance their humours (me again) when we really should be looking for ways to engage with them. Since they see us as the enemy, getting into a converation that doesn't begin with "Y'ornery varmint!" is going to be hard. Add the revenue from enforcement damages and their legally-maintained monopoly and there's not much of an incentive to change. Add the fact that they don't tend to mix with "the nerds" and it's a recipe for circular reasoning — and disaster. When you won't accept challenges to the status quo and there are more incentives to become more entrenched than to change, what else can you do?

FUD for us

When Chris Heald warned us at Mashable that the US government was planning to go Godzilla on the internet to catch file-sharers, his sharply-written article scared the daylights out of me. This was after finding Wikipedia blacked out. Every site I usually visit had a protest notice of some kind on it and I'm not one to get on any kind of bandwagon. The ubiquity of the notices convinced me to do a bit of research and that's what I did. I read every tech blog that referred to SOPA and PIPA. I read the text of the laws themselves. I paid attention to arguments for and against. The results went into a blog post called SOPA/PIPA: The Battle For Online Freedom Has Been Won — For Now and I've been blogging about it ever since. The Electronic Frontier Foundation and Techdirt can be quite egregious in the alarmist way they present their arguments, but when you read the takedown notices on the websites seized by the government and realise that sometimes they did that on suspicion of misdeeds, something is very, very wrong. Then the horror stories come up, and demagogue or not, Techdirt's Michael Masnick usually links or embeds court documents or legislation bills in his posts about legal matters so you can make your own mind up about them based on the evidence.

The difference

Both sides use hyperbole but the tech blogs usually back up their assertions with fact. The legacy content industries back up their assertions with threats of doom and punishment. Techs work to solve problems by interpreting them as damage and routing around them and/or getting rid of anything that doesn't work instead of clinging to discredited theories like grim death. Big Content tries to control what they don't understand from an authoritarian viewpoint with no thought for collateral damage. We nerds are having none of it because we're the ones who suffer the collateral damage. It doesn't matter how quickly an erroneously censored website is put back up; if it's for business rather than pleasure and you lose customer confidence to the USA's Godzilla IPR enforcement efforts, you're stuffed because there's no guarantee they won't do that again.

IP rights enforcement is the future

I published selected parts of my email correspondence with MEP Arlene McCarthy on G+ (I left out the waffle and posted the most relevant parts) to show the public what we're up against in the corridors of power. The dismissive "there, there" approach she took towards an admitted nerd involved in the digital rights movement so offended me I felt obliged to point out that I was so intent on keeping up with the news on ACTA, I had taken pains to keep up with the latest news about it. If ACTA is dead, as some people assert, why tell us not to worry our pretty little heads about it instead of saying,

The EPLP is committed to increased copyright protection for European manufacturers in order to

  • stimulate the European economy

  • ensure European producers receive a fair return on their innovation

  • protect jobs in the EU.

  • ensure high safety standards in the EU and prevent the circulation of counterfeit medicines and car parts.

It remains to be seen whether ACTA will be the right tool to tackle these issues.

Thank you again for writing to me on this issue. The Committee votes in May and the Parliament votes in June on this matter.

Please bear in mind that this is her response to my letter, which demonstrated my understanding of the treaty and the problems I had with it. My main points of contention:

  • ACTA only applies to nations that have signed it, and 99% of counterfeits in Europe come from outside ACTA countries... and EU businesses will be subject to it but for little or no benefit.

  • Please bear in mind that the US does not regard ACTA as a binding treaty, whereas the EU will. That means all the benefits flow to the US

  • Please also consider that the current legislation is strangling innovation due to unfair and inequitable copyright and patent laws, some of which threaten to disrupt legitimate trade in generic drugs for European patients. 

  • Finally, Article 36 of ACTA creates a so-called "ACTA Committee". This is an unelected, non-democratic body that has the power to revise ACTA as it wishes, without constraint... Is it reasonable to make our governments answerable to the US government, who can change the terms and conditions of this treaty at will without question?

She completely refused to engage with me or the idea that IP rights enforcement might not be the way forward for the economy. When your representative treats you like a pet monkey yet demonstrates no critical thinking ability she's asking for a slap.

...since you're taking the line of the enforcement brigade, you only seem to know what they have told you, and most of that apparently consists of scare stories about failed safety equipment, poisonous fake drugs, and dangerous fake car parts. All of these are genuine problems that can be better addressed using existing trading standards laws than branding, patents, and copyright laws.

She wrote to me three days ago and I've heard nothing since. I'd like to imagine that, suitably chastened, she has been avidly studying the links I sent her and is preparing to debate me on this, or at least engage me on a personal level. Not gonna happen, is it?

Over-the-top secrecy and shenanigans

You've got to love it when the pro-ACTA people refer to any opposition as "misinformation." If they're deliberately vague and won't engage with us, what are we supposed to think, except that they've probably got something to hide. U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk claims they have made “extraordinary efforts” to include public stakeholders in negotiations, but what he calls "the public" means "the companies involved," not the likes of you or me. Those people who have read it properly are begining to question it and Chile, the first nation in the world to declare net neutrality, is considering dropping out. Meanwhile, Switzerland has joined the ACTA doubters and may end up not signing. Meanwhile, across the pond,

US Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit reinforced a lower court’s earlier ruling that the NSA does not have to submit to Freedom of Information Act requests for materials involving any relationship that the federal agency has with the Google search engine and its related entities, such as Gmail. - RT

Whatever are they afraid of? CISPA hasn't been enacted yet, but already the cybersecurity FUD is taking over and the merest possibility of a threat to national security has the government calling foul on any attempt to see which of the big internet companies it's getting all cozy with. It's actually very hard to take them seriously when they act so disproportionately to imaginary threats. This can get quite nasty, though. A recent Danger Room report from Wired revealed a FUD-filled attempt to bring about a total war on Muslims by demonizing them and presenting them as a clear and present danger before someone blew the whistle and got it stopped. This was in the military and the FBI. It's not too bad when we're laughing at incompetence. Stupid + machine guns = terrifying.


People rioted at the premier of Stravinski's Rite of Spring, and now it's music for a dentist's office. New things divide audiences. - Jeffrey Zeldman

New things do indeed divide us but that's only when we're so intent on keeping things as they are that we're unwilling to change. This includes new ways of looking at and experiencing things. If it is broken, for the love of all decency either fix the dratted thing or throw it out — before it's too late.

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