Category Archives: Technology

Why net neutrality is winning

Today The New York Times is reporting that the legislative fight over net neutrality is all but over:

Senior Republicans conceded on Tuesday that the grueling fight with President Obama over the regulation of Internet service appears over, with the president and an army of Internet activists victorious.

The Federal Communications Commission is expected on Thursday to approve regulating Internet service like a public utility, prohibiting companies from paying for faster lanes on the Internet. While the two Democratic commissioners are negotiating over technical details, they are widely expected to side with the Democratic chairman, Tom Wheeler, against the two Republican commissioners.

And Republicans on Capitol Hill, who once criticized the plan as “Obamacare for the Internet,” now say they are unlikely to pass a legislative response that would undo perhaps the biggest policy shift since the Internet became a reality.

Net neutrality has always struck me as an outlier issue in modern American politics. We hear all the time about moneyed special interests and their corrosive effect on the democratic process, but net neutrality seems to be a glaring exception to this general trend — with one huge qualification: while Congress may have surrendered, there’s little chance the telcos are quite as willing to resign themselves to their fate. So the chances of seeing litigation, as opposed to legislation, attempting to overturn the expected Thursday FCC ruling approach 100%.

Nevertheless, I believe there are several reasons for net neutrality’s present-day victory:

1) It is not entirely accurate to paint net neutrality proponents as Davids facing off against the telco Goliaths. Here are just a few of the major brands who’ve come out, at one point or another, in favor of net neutrality:

  • Google: “If Internet access providers can block some services and cut special deals that prioritize some companies’ content over others, that would threaten the innovation that makes the Internet awesome.”
  • Twitter“Through The Internet Association, Twitter has joined other leading Internet companies to urge the FCC to promulgate common sense net neutrality rules. FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler has proposed securing the legal foundation for these rules in Title II of the Communications Act (along with other statutory authority). We strongly support ensuring that such rules include prohibitions against blocking or throttling of sites and services as well as the paid prioritization of some traffic over others. These rules should govern Internet service whether users are at their desk at home or on their smartphone across town.”
  • Netflix“Strong net neutrality rules are needed to stop Internet service providers from demanding extra fees or slowing delivery of content to consumers who already have paid for Internet access.”
  • Tumblr“The FCC has a tool available to them called ‘Title II.’ Rules written under Title II could act as a bill of rights for traffic on the internet, and ensure that cable companies can’t abuse their positions as carriers of that traffic. Through Title II, we can make certain that the future of the internet is in our hands. Not theirs. The internet belongs to everybody. Let’s keep it that way.”
  • Etsy“That’s why I, along with many others in the startup and public-interest communities, started encouraging the FCC to establish new rules protecting real net neutrality under the strongest legal authority available to them — Title II of the Communications Act — allowing them to ban paid prioritization, throttling and blocking. The previous rules were overturned by the courts because the FCC used the wrong legal authority to justify them. This time, we want them to get it right.”
  • Facebook, Microsoft, LinkedIn, Amazon, Reddit, Dropbox, eBay, etc.

In other words, the battle lines are more precisely described as existing between old-guard Internet service providers like Comcast and Verizon on the one hand and new-school content companies like Google and Facebook on the other. Did all indications originally appear to favor the well-connected, rent-seeking old guard? Absolutely. But the upset was hardly a pure-and-simple triumph of the vox populi. There were moneyed interests at stake for the good guys too.

2) Prominent political writers and journalists are both a) unusually focused on this issue and b) unusually united in their views on it. Net neutrality occupies a strange space in the political landscape in that its general contours are widely supported by the public (even if most people don’t truly understand what it means). This is especially so among the digital-native political set, as you might expect: the dissolution of net neutrality would have especially negative connotations for journalists and writers whose livelihood depends in large part on their ability to propagate content easily and cheaply on the Internet. A world in which establishment outlets like, say, The New York Times, The Economist, and CNN fork over large amounts of cash to obtain preferential treatment from broadband networks is not one in which any other journalist or freelancer wants to live.

3) Net neutrality is generational. Like marriage equality, another issue to which younger people are especially attuned, net neutrality is a generationally-weighted concept that tends to attract similar viewpoints from across the political spectrum. In this way it stands in stark contrast to culture-war issues such as gun control and abortion, which hew to regional and ideological fault lines. Kids and young adults intuitively grasp the transformative nature of the Internet in a way that baby boomers and their elders simply cannot: in short, we’ve seen the Internet, we love it, and we don’t anyone changing it. And like gay marriage, politicians sense which way the wind is blowing and would rather not be remembered for their opposition to something that’s so fiercely defended by so many.

A few things I’ve learned from my hacking projects

A little over a year ago, I started to get serious about learning Ruby on Rails. As a kid, my father had schooled me on the fundamentals of QBasic, and I’d more or less taught myself intermediate-level Visual Basic as a teenager. But as other interests took priority in the following years, my coding hobby fell off and I almost completely abandoned it until 2013 or so.

Even once I slowly began to reenter the world of code, I hardly knew where to start and frequently fell off the wagon (by which I mean I’d completely forget about it for weeks or months at a time). It really wasn’t until last April, when I started focusing on a real project, SCOTUS Search, that I began to find enough inspiration to spend many consecutive hours immersing myself deeply in coding heaven/hell.

Here are a few things I’ve taken away from my experiences in the past year or so:

  • Be nice to developers. I never truly understood what a misnomer an “alpha” or “beta” release really is: end consumers tend to think of this as the shaky, rough first (or second) pass of a new product. In reality, it’s likely the culmination of months or years of painstaking work. Yes, it’s rough and buggy as hell in comparison to commercially available software, and this is a perfectly valid way of looking at it as a consumer. But from the point of view of the developer, even an initial release represents an extremely gratifying endpoint to untold hours spent staring at color-coded lines in Sublime Text and researching arcane error messages on Stack Overflow. So, what I’ve learned? Be nice, even when you’re criticizing. That mobile-unresponsive, typo-ridden monstrosity of a web site is still someone’s baby.
  • Nothing feels as good as overcoming a major coding obstacle, or as bad as being stuck trying to figure one out. There was a point recently where all my work on SCOTUS Search ground to a halt because I couldn’t figure out a relatively simple problem: how to implement an AJAX-powered comment box and make it appear on the page when a user clicked a message icon. For some reason the problem got into my head and I began to see it as this massive unconquerable thing. Once I’d finally discovered how to make it work, I felt like dancing around my living room.
  • If you’re a new developer, your code is almost definitely terrible and embarrassing. I shudder to think what any real developer would think if they saw the way I’ve built SCOTUS Search. And I’ve been telling myself for months now that, once I find a good stopping point, I’m going to go back through all my existing code and clean it all up: use more partials, strip out complicated logic from my embedded Ruby files, optimize my ActiveRecord queries, etc. Yeah, I still haven’t found a good stopping point. And my code keeps getting more and more complex, making any eventual housecleaning even more difficult later on.
  • Version control is an incredible thing. Git is possibly one of the best gifts ever given to developers. Personally, I use Bitbucket for SCOTUS Search (unlike GitHub, Bitbucket allows users to create private repositories for free), but the underlying service is still Git, and it’s crazy useful. If you don’t use it on your project, change that as soon as possible.
  • If you’re in a non-technical position at a company and your engineers tell you your request can’t be done, they’re probably bullshitting you. This is somewhat bipolar of me, given my first bullet point, but there’s rarely something that literally “cannot be done” in coding. Much more frequently it’s simply a) extremely difficult, b) extremely complex, c) extremely inefficient, or d) extremely uninteresting to the developer. But that doesn’t necessarily mean it shouldn’t be implemented, and if you don’t understand a damn thing about coding, your engineering team is likely using that ignorance to their advantage by making your request sound as impossible as they can.

I’m sure I’ll have more thoughts later on, but those were some of the initial things I’ve come to realize over the past year or so. Let me know of others in the comments!

A guide to SCOTUS Search

Guide version 1.0 — February 18, 2015

Last Wednesday I posted an intro note to SCOTUS Search: the free, searchable online database of United States Supreme Court oral argument transcripts that Victoria Kwan and I just launched in beta. The post recounted the development of the idea behind SCOTUS Search, as well as some plans for the project going forward.

Now that the site has seen some traffic (which is extremely exciting!), I figured it would be worthwhile to put together a short guide with some tips on how to best use the site, some caution about its exhaustiveness, and various other marginalia. This post is likely to be updated over time as more things come to mind.

Before I say anything else, though: thank you so much for checking it out! This is a project Victoria and I have been working on, on and off, for the better part of a year now, so it’s really gratifying to see people making use of the site and tweeting out their favorite search results and obscure judicial references. I can’t wait to see what legal writers, academics, journalists, and Court-watchers do with this data going forward.

So, in no particular order:

  • The first thing I must emphasize again, as I did in the intro post (and as is displayed prominently on the SCOTUS Search home page), is that SCOTUS Search is still in beta. What does this mean in practice? A lot of things, actually:
    1. The database of oral argument transcripts is neither exhaustive nor 100% error-free. I don’t mean this to be alarming in any way, but just as a fair warning. As Oyez notes, the Supreme Court only “installed an audio recording system in 1955.” (You can see a visual representation of this lack of transcripts prior to 1955 in the graph displayed on the SCOTUS Search home page.) While Oyez has compiled a truly astounding library of transcripts, there are still many blank cases from 1955 onward that we have therefore been unable to include in SCOTUS Search — as our only sources for transcripts so far are Oyez and the Supreme Court itself. Moreover, as the above link makes clear, the official recordings have endured various hiccups over the subsequent decades that had an impact on transcribers’ ability to ensure perfect quality at times.
    2. For example, in many cases, justices and attorneys are not identified by name in the transcripts and are referred to, instead, as “Unidentified Justice” or “Unknown Speaker.” In other cases, the same speaker is identified differently across cases: “Justice Scalia” and “Justice Antonin Scalia,” for example. Elsewhere, we found examples of misidentification, as when John Roberts was referred to in one transcript as “Chief Justice John Roberts” even though the case was argued prior to his appointment in OT 2005 and Roberts was actually appearing as an attorney arguing before the Supreme Court at the time. Finally, there are also straight-up typos, as pointed out here and here, for example. (Speaking of which…please let us know whenever you find any errors!)
    3. We have attempted to correct as many of these ambiguities and errors as possible. But given the scale of the data, we expect to find hundreds or even thousands of similar examples in various other cases. In the near future, I hope to add an “error correction” form so that registered users can submit changes to transcripts, which we can then review and approve to ensure high accuracy.
  • A lot of you who visited via a link in the Twitter mobile app probably already noticed this, but…SCOTUS Search does not currently play nice with mobile. (Not sure about tablets, as neither Victoria nor I own an iPad and haven’t tested on one yet.) I absolutely plan to add mobile functionality, but I don’t have a specific ETA just yet.
  • There are a lot of “search type” options — eight, to be precise. All of them are case-insensitive: your capitalization, or lack thereof, doesn’t matter at all. But they are super sensitive to spelling, typos, spaces, and so on. E.g. A search for “Superman” ≠ “Super man”. This is another weakness I plan on addressing in the future. Anyway, for most people’s purposes, the three most useful search types will be:
    1. Oral argument: Exact phrase. This search type works exactly as advertised: for example, typing “in my underwear” (without quotes!) will bring you to the sole result for a very confusing, and confused, rumination on bullying and the frailty of human memory by Justice Stephen Breyer. As of today (2/18/2015), using quotation marks with this search type will only return results that actually include quotation marks in the transcript text. Assuming that’s not what you’re looking for, don’t use quotation marks when selecting the “Oral argument: Exact phrase” search type.
    2. Oral argument: All search words. This is very similar to the above search type, except the words in the phrase don’t have to be adjacent to each other in the transcript text. If you type, “baseball hockey,” for example, the results will return all statements containing both words, whether or not they were said immediately consecutively.
    3. Oral argument: Any search words. This will return any statement containing any of the words in the search box.
  • Sign up as a user! You don’t have to do it to use SCOTUS Search, but here are some of the benefits:
    1. It’s free.
    2. You get to write notes on individual cases and statements, as well as favoriting them (for bookmarking purposes). You can even decide whether to make your notes private (viewable only to yourself, which is the default) or public (which can be viewed by any other registered users), and you can look at other users’ public notes as well.
    3. You can export the case titles and metadata of search results (to CSV or XLS format), instead of simply viewing them on the site.
    4. You can save all your searches and set your default search type.
    5. You can receive email alerts any time a case transcript is added or updated (and, as an added bonus, the emails let you know when SCOTUS Map — our sister project — has been updated too).
    6. You get to set your own time zone preferences! Which is, I guess, pretty cool.

Thanks again for checking it out!


Up next: SCOTUS Search


A little over six months ago, I wrote a short blog post called “Introducing SCOTUS Map.” In the time since, the project has really grown up, entirely due to Victoria‘s relentless research and updates. SCOTUS Map now displays more than 150 events spanning from last summer to this upcoming one, along with links to registration information, transcripts, audio, and video (where available).

Of late, we’ve added new features as well: there are seven default views to choose from (including “Summer 2014,” “2014 Term,” “Summer 2015,” “Future Events,” and so on), the sidebar can be hidden to enlarge the map, and — as of this week — visitors can now subscribe to daily or weekly email alerts in order to receive updates any time new events are added. (If no new events come through that day or week, don’t worry: we won’t send you an email.)

But believe it or not, SCOTUS Map wasn’t the first Supreme Court project Victoria and I had started. Back in April of last year, three months prior to SCOTUS Map’s launch, we took the first steps towards building the first free, searchable online database of Supreme Court oral argument transcripts.

Currently there are two principal repositories of freely available Supreme Court oral argument transcripts. The first is the recently redesigned Supreme Court web site, which hosts transcripts dating back to the 2000 term. The second, and far more exhaustive, resource is, which holds oral argument transcripts dating back to the 1950s.

The idea for SCOTUS Search had first come up in this context early last year: Victoria was writing pieces on the Supreme Court for my blog and needed to delve into the oral argument proceedings in order to conduct research. While she could usually locate a specific transcript on either or, each one would have to be searched individually. So if, for example, she was looking for all mentions of “gay marriage” before the Court, she’d have to open every single case that had ever been argued over the past decade or two.

This was clearly an impossible task. Making matters worse, the Supreme Court’s hosted transcripts are stored in PDF format, which — while searchable on an individual basis — are not conducive to automated bulk searching across documents. Oyez boasted a much larger library of transcripts in plain-text, which was far superior from a technical standpoint. However, the site had no full-text transcript search engine, meaning that searching for words or phrases would still require manually opening hundreds or thousands of cases. Additionally, some transcripts were missing and others appeared to cut off partway through.

Starting in 2013, Victoria mentioned to me on numerous occasions her frustrations with the arduous research process. And thus an idea was eventually born last year: if we could somehow consolidate Supreme Court oral argument transcripts across sources and standardize them into a database, we could make the full texts searchable online for free, for the very first time.

Over nine months later, the result of this project is Containing over 1.4 million individual statements spoken in nearly 6,700 Supreme Court oral arguments from the 1950s through the present, the site allows users to search the full text of oral argument transcripts using search options that include filters for speaker and Court term. SCOTUS Search is still in beta, so there are doubtless errors and bugs that we’ll discover over time. In fact, we hope that new visitors to the site will help us out in this regard: if something isn’t working or doesn’t make sense, please let us know so we can fix it.

The recommended way to start is to sign up for a free login. This isn’t required in order to search through transcripts, but there are a lot of features which are only available to registered users: adding notes to cases and individual statements (and sharing them with other users, if you prefer), saving your search history, and marking cases and statements as favorites, for example.

An example search result page.

We’re also planning on adding even more substantial tools for registered users only, including the ability to submit transcript revisions and error/typo fixes where applicable. My long-term wish list includes expanding SCOTUS Search beyond the Supreme Court, to incorporate oral arguments from the federal appeals courts (and perhaps international courts). Imagine being able to trace the thought process and rhetoric of Supreme Court justices back to their days on lower appeals courts, or doing the same with attorneys who have argued before multiple courts. In short, the launch of SCOTUS Search is just the beginning of the road, not the end. There’s plenty more to come.

Finally, it cannot be stated clearly enough what a debt this project owes both to the Supreme Court, for hosting over a decade of transcripts, and especially to Oyez, whose tireless transcription and metadata compilation over the years has proved invaluable to many a researcher and journalist, and whose extensive library of transcripts made SCOTUS Search possible.

So take a look when you get the chance, and let us know what you think! Also, don’t forget to follow us on Twitter.

Thank you!

Squaring The Circle

“Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.”

This boilerplate disclaimer, inserted amidst various other notices on the copyright page of Dave Eggers’ latest novel, is superfluous: nothing in The Circle resembles reality in any way whatsoever.

This book administers a cudgel to the English language, among other ignominies, and, as with all such tragedies, the reader is left with only two options: remain a complicit bystander or stand firm against literary massacre.

I choose the latter. Some books are so terrible that only a review warning away potential readers has the power to absolve oneself of the guilt and self-loathing that accompany the book’s completion.

The Circle is a disaster. It is, on its face, a cautionary tale of the consequences of over-sharing and voluntary self-surveillance in the digital era, but its concerns are so explicitly belabored, its storytelling so juvenile, its characters so obviously proxies for authorial obsession, that the fictional universe is inevitably compromised in favor of absurdist dystopia.

Here, numbers — and everything else — have no meaning. Eggers tosses them around like grains of sand, wholly detached from any sort of significance. (Case in point: employees of the Circle — a thinly-disguised hybrid edition of Facebook, Google, and Twitter — actually count the grains of sand in the Sahara. It takes three weeks.) In one excruciatingly long paragraph, Eggers channels an Excel spreadsheet by quoting 40 separate numbers in mind-numbing fashion:

The total number of stats she was tracking was only 41. There was her aggregate customer service score, which was at 97. There was her last score, which was 99. There was the average of her pod, which was at 96. There was the number of queries handled that day thus far, 221, and the number of queries handled by that time yesterday, 219, and the number handled by her on average, 220, and by the pod’s other members: 198.

If there were even an inkling of a rationale for this numerical inundation, The Circle could have been at least minimally readable. But even the most disinterested reader cannot match Dave Eggers’ apathy for his own figures. In an unsurprising oversight, Eggers describes Mae’s “six weeks she’d been transparent” on page 309, then “the three weeks Mae had been transparent” on the subsequent page.

The raison d’être of the Circle — to vacuum up every conceivable data point on its users in order to better serve advertising and personalized content — is clearly borrowed from contemporary social networks. But this is where the similarities end. Eggers’ heroine, Mae Holland, achieves the Herculean task of appearing more inanimate than the Circle’s villainous algorithms, whose alleged ascendance ostensibly prompted Eggers’ hellscape.

Mae is a human being in only the most technical sense: she has eyes, ears, and a mouth, but virtually everything else suggests a quasi-robotic response to all human interaction coupled with a stunning lack of self-awareness. Mae is essentially a drone, only more predictable and less vulnerable to human emotion.

As the Circle demands ever more of her devotion — in one of the book’s rare highlights, she slowly accumulates workstation computer screens, beginning with two and expanding eventually to nine — Mae rarely betrays any semblance of human resistance, choosing instead to drown her peers’ disapproval in a pool of self-loathing.

If that metaphor sounds overwrought, you’ll have a very difficult time completing The Circle. Which brings me to the eponymous company’s “completion,” the Eggers-ian concept of absolute omniscience that, unfortunately for him, is already comically outdated thanks to Edward Snowden. While Eggers struggles valiantly to elucidate the grave danger of the creeping news feed — a phantom menace that, much like creeping sharia law, dissolves upon closer scrutiny — the nation has moved on to PRISM and XKEYSCORE: apparent mundanities belying great danger, a precise inversion of Eggers.

That is not to say The Circle isn’t terrifying, although certainly not for the reasons intended by its author. I finished the book fearing less for a grim future of autonomous digital overlords and more for the disappearance of the subjunctive tense: “For a moment, the couple watched as Mae maneuvered her way to their barge…as if this was their living room and she their night’s entertainment.”

Elsewhere: “Mercer took a deep breath, and Mae knew he was about to give a speech. If there was a podium before him, he’d be stepping up to it, removing his papers from his sportcoat pocket.”

And again: “He smiled sympathetically at Mae, but with a raised eyebrow, as if there was something about Mae that was perplexing him, something he couldn’t put his finger on.”

It’s almost as if Eggers was not familiar with the English language. In this, at least, he has his creations for company. Remember that ubiquitous movie scene where the bad guy explains his diabolical plan to the horrified hostages before carrying it out? The Circle is a 491-page version of this, right down to the expositional format and preachy condescension.

In one scene, a Circler — novelistic parlance for an employee of the Circle — explains an on-campus sculpture (designed by a literary Ai Weiwei knockoff) to Mae:

I mean, how can the Circle find a way to make the connection between us and our users stronger? To me it’s incredible that this artist, so far away and from such a different world, expressed what was on the minds of all of us here at the Circle? How to do better, do more, reach further, you know? How do we throw our hands through the screen to get closer to the world and everyone in it?

This doesn’t sound like anyone I know, and I work in online advertising. (The dead giveaway: social networks with customer service departments.) The walking dead in Eggers’ universe are categorically immune to warnings of a totalitarian eradication of privacy — their idealistic naiveté thus constituting, to borrow John Oliver’s phrase, “a straw man so large you could burn it in the desert and hold an annoying festival around it.” (Not to mention the fact that Ai, his celebrity-infused dilettantism notwithstanding, became famous for protesting surveillance, not celebrating it.)

Indeed, events of the past week undermined Eggers’ preening concern. Facebook released a study revealing that they had conducted a one-week experiment over two years ago in which approximately 700,000 users were exposed to varying levels of positive and negative posts.

Upon the study’s release, the Internet hordes went wild with speculation and fury. “Facebook and the Ethics of User Manipulation” was one of the kinder headlines. A general consensus coalesced around the idea that involuntary subjection to such an experiment was highly unethical — despite the fact that Facebook’s News Feed is, and has for years been, algorithmically curated based upon criteria that are necessarily highly subjective. Everything on one’s Facebook feed is, to an extent, the result of an experiment.

In short, on many issues we are still closer to much ado about nothing than the other way around. Yet Eggers still inhabits a 1984 world, and his star, Mae Holland, meets an end as self-nullifying as Winston Smith’s: acquiescence to her masters via the betrayal of a lover.

But even in the wake of Snowden’s devastating disclosures, Aldous Huxley’s prophesies ring truer than George Orwell’s. As a social network, the Circle may dull our senses, but it is unlikely to kill us. In fact, Eggers is at his best when conjuring a near-future world in which a frenetic, almost-constant exchange of digital messages — zings, he calls them — drives their senders and receivers into paroxysms of emotional insecurity and self-regret.

This is a society I recognize (as a participant), from the quiet desperation of Like-seeking to the more overt emergence of Internet celebrity as a legitimate vocation. And so I find it truly bizarre that the debate on the vanishing art of the negative book review — recently inflamed by Buzzfeed books editor Isaac Fitzgerald’s categorical disavowal of them — was presaged by Dave Eggers all the way back in the year 2000:

Do not be critics, you people, I beg you. I was a critic and I wish I could take it all back because it came from a smelly and ignorant place in me, and spoke with a voice that was all rage and envy. Do not dismiss a book until you have written one, and do not dismiss a movie until you have made one, and do not dismiss a person until you have met them. It is a fuckload of work to be open-minded and generous and understanding and forgiving and accepting, but Christ, that is what matters. What matters is saying yes.

This is precisely the brand of overly-sensitive claptrap Eggers now decries in his novel, many years later: honesty as a casualty of a status-obsessed generation. So do not listen to 2000 Dave Eggers. Go forth, be a critic. Social networks will not destroy you, nor will punishing book reviews.

The same cannot be said of The Circle.

The self-negating FCC

It’s easy to forget that the Republican Party is still capable of the occasional surprise. Its members have grown so accustomed to anti-governmental rhetoric that I’ve lost the raw sense of disbelief that accompanied some of their more absurdist speeches four or five years ago.

And then are moments like today. The Federal Communications Commission voted today to open its proposed net neutrality rules for a four-month period of public comment starting now. The chairman of the Commission, Tom Wheeler (himself a former telecom lobbyist), is pushing for an ersatz version of “net neutrality” in which there are no slow lanes, only fast ones. (If that doesn’t sound logical to you, it’s probably because you’re not an Internet service provider.)

This is bad enough. But there was a nugget in the New York Times article on the day’s events that especially caught my eye:

The two Republican members, who voted against the plan, said that it exceeded the agency’s legal authority, that there had been no evidence of actual harm or deviation from net neutrality principles and that elected members of Congress should decide the issue, not regulatory appointees.

Ajit Pai, the senior Republican on the commission, said all the members shared “some important common ground: namely, a bipartisan consensus in favor of a free and open Internet.”

But, he added, “a dispute this fundamental is not for us, five unelected individuals, to decide. Instead, it should be resolved by the people’s elected representatives, those who choose the direction of government, and those whom the American people can hold accountable for that choice.”

The fifth commissioner, Michael O’Rielly, was the most forceful in his dissent. “The premise for imposing net neutrality rules is fundamentally flawed and rests on a faulty foundation of make-believe statutory authority,” he said.

(Emphases mine.)

Is it just me, or is it patently insane for two of the FCC’s duly-appointed five commissioners — whose self-described mission is to “[regulate] interstate and international communications by radio, television, wire, satellite and cable in all 50 states, the District of Columbia and U.S. territories” — to actively lobby against their own employer’s stated purpose?

It’s one thing for, say, a Treasury Secretary or Federal Reserve chairman to make a judgment call on anti-inflation measures or quantitative easing or liquidity injection. It would be quite another thing entirely for Janet Yellen to abruptly decide that returning to the gold standard is the correct approach, and then proceed to actively sabotage the work of her own central bank. That is what’s happening here with the FCC, and it should be a scandal.

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Short-circuited journalism

Almost alone among the professions, journalism is not rooted in a body of substantive knowledge. The claim is not that journalists lack knowledge or skill, for that is far from true. Nor is the claim an entry into the perennial but ultimately fruitless debate over whether journalism is a craft rather than a profession. The claim instead is a precise one: Journalism is not grounded in a systematic body of substantive knowledge that would protect its practitioners’ autonomy and inform their judgment.

The above passage was penned by Thomas E. Patterson in his recent book, Informing the News: The Need for Knowledge-Based Journalism. I was reminded of it today after reading this on GigaOm:

If you were reading some of the major tech-news sites on Wednesday — including the New York Times and Washington Post tech blogs — you might have gotten the impression that a huge proportion of the Chinese internet somehow got redirected to a small house in Wyoming on Tuesday. Why? Because that’s what a lot of the headlines said. The truth is almost as strange, but a Chinese technical glitch plays the starring role in the story, not a small house in Wyoming.

The house that captured everyone’s attention is a tiny brick home on what looks like a well-manicured street in Cheyenne, Wyoming. It showed up in photos on Gizmodo and The Verge, under headlines like “Most of China’s Web Traffic Wound Up at a Tiny Wyoming House Yesterday” and “Chinese Internet Traffic Redirected to Small Wyoming House” (that one was the New York Times tech blog). The Washington Post said that “thousands if not millions of Chinese Internet users were being dumped at the door of a tiny, brick-front house.”

In fact, the small house is just the company’s registered business address, one that is used by thousands of shell companies and other corporations who want to remain relatively anonymous (and the company that registered it has actually moved to a different address in Wyoming). The traffic actually went to wherever Sophidea’s servers are located, which is hard to say with any precision.

Among many other things, the Edward Snowden story helped expose a woeful shortage of technical savvy among our national press corps. As the next generation heads to the blogosphere, here’s hoping these mistakes become fewer and further between.

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To Blame Everything, Read Here: The Folly of Technological Defeatism

My inner cynic was pleased to discover that the back cover of Evgeny Morozov’s latest book, To Save Everything, Click Here, included a blurb from noted war journalist and scholar David Rieff. The curmudgeonly critic was a professor of mine at Sciences Po in Paris two years ago, and his class was a weekly tour de force of disillusionment with the modern human rights-industrial complex.

In praise of Morozov’s latest effort, Rieff wrote, “Against the reigning consensus — that there is a digital fix for every social and political problem, and that thanks to the technologies that we group together for convenience’s sake as the Internet, the brave new world of the future will be one of endless, limitless improvement in every realm of life — Morozov offers a sophisticated, eloquent, and definitive rebuttal.” This was the Rieff I remembered from my time in grad school, as I heard him wearily repudiate the moralist cri de coeur of peers like Michael Ignatieff and even Bernard Kouchner. It’s the same Rieff I read with great interest in the virtual pages of Foreign Policy, where he took a moment between excoriations of “Kony 2012” and the Singularity movement to dub Morozov “cyber-utopianism’s severest and most eloquent critic.”

That may not be inaccurate. But it is hardly the whole story. A mid-sized hamlet’s worth of straw men make brief cameos in To Save Everything, Click Here, only to be set ablaze by Morozov’s rapid-fire denunciations. Intellectual broadsides are not innately problematic, of course. But like fellow fire-breather Glenn Greenwald — whom Morozov, in his book, dubs “a terrific polemicist…[with] a tendency to overstate his case” — the Belarusian-born author often employs scorched-earth rhetoric against stunning illogic. Continue reading To Blame Everything, Read Here: The Folly of Technological Defeatism

Trouble in cyber-paradise

Yesterday Full Stop published my dual book review of Susan Crawford’s Captive Audience: The Telecom Industry and Monopoly Power in the New Gilded Age and Jaron Lanier’s Who Owns the Future? An excerpt from the essay here:

The consumer as loser is nearly a meme at this point, so thoroughly has the Great Recession imprinted its insignia on the wearied American mindset. Nevertheless, Crawford warns, the consolidation of the American Internet access bottleneck is particularly worthy of hand-wringing. As other advanced economies like South Korea and Japan rocket ahead in embracing fiber-optic connectivity – complete with 1Gbps symmetric data speeds that remain incomprehensible to most Americans – the United States finds itself in the humiliating position of aiming for a minimum national broadband speed of 4Mbps (download-only; 1 Mbps upload) by 2020.

Underlying this technological angst is something deeper, more primal. It is the sense that some right, however virtualized, is being denied by the cartelization of the American telecom space. It is the realization, further still, that our international peers are enjoying the fruits of their justly obtained lightning-speed access while those of us holding American passports are condemned to the endless purgatory that is YouTube’s “loading” spin-wheel.

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