Monday, November 11, 2013

Why the "Boycott the Privacy Violating Internet Corporations" Argument Doesn't Work

In a previous blog post I critiqued the problematic argument that American companies’ collaboration with National Security Agency (NSA) would cause them to lose business to companies in other countries.  In this post I would like to critique a similar argument, that privacy-violating companies will lose business to other non-privacy violating companies.  Or that, stated another way, people can boycott privacy-violating Internet services in order to safeguard their privacy online.  (I would like to mention and thank members of Restore The Fourth SF and @RancidTarzie, with whom I have had conversations that inspired this post.)

The case was made, for one, by Brian Fung of The Washington Post in his post Yes, there actually is a huge difference between government and corporate surveillance:

In a functioning marketplace, boycotting a company that you dislike — for whatever reason — is fairly easy. Diners who object to eating fake meat can stop frequenting Taco Bell. Internet users that don't like Google collecting their search terms can try duckduckgo, an anonymous search engine.

Sounds great, right?  The beauty of the “free market” is that one can simply discard these privacy-violating bad corporate actors with an informed consumer choice.  Unfortunately, things aren’t that simple.

First, finding substitutes to one’s favorite services can be difficult; the ease varies on a case-by-case basis.  For instance, finding a feature-comparable substitute for Google web search, [1] such as duckduckgo, is easy.  Finding a feature-comparable substitute for Gmail is much more difficult.  Sure, there are many other services that offer email (Riseup for example), but Gmail’s other features (indexing mail history for search, built-in contacts, built-in chat, video chat, etc.) to my knowledge are not offered by a purported privacy-respecting email service.

In the case of a service that exploits network effects (that is, the service is only useful to the extent that other people other use the service, such as a telephone network or social network), there is no substitute because of the monopoly the service has on your contacts.  Leaving Facebook to join another privacy-respecting social network is worthless unless all of your friends and family make the migration with you.  This is a serious option for a vanishingly small number of people.  

There is also the issue of data portability, the lack of which can tie one to a service in a similar way.  (I suppose if we want to get pedantic about it, the social network stickiness problem is just a special case of the web service stickiness problem in which the data is your social graph.)  If there is no way of getting years of invested data out of the service and into another one easily, the switch is impossible and therefore will not be made.

Second, based on recent disclosures, we can pretty much safely assume that the NSA is monitoring, more or less, the entire Internet.  Even if one switches to all open-source software, uses ad-blocking and tracking-thwarting browser plugins, refuses unencrypted connections when possible, etc., some traffic is, under current Internet architecture, fundamentally unencrypted.  This includes the metadata of a web request / response, email contents, [2] DNS requests, etc.  In short, technical limitations in Internet technology itself prevent one from dropping off NSA’s map entirely (unless one simply refuses to use the Internet, and maybe not even then).

Third, boycotts require that consumers know that the to-be-boycotted entity is doing some unsavory activity that the consumers want to pressure it to end.  Unfortunately, one of the problems with Internet surveillance is the secrecy -- both intentional and unintentional -- that pervades the entire government/corporate monitoring empire.  One news story can turn today’s corporation boasting about respecting privacy and individual rights -- as they all do -- into tomorrow’s hated surveillance collaborator.

The dynamics of corporate / government relations in the United States are such that a company really has no choice but to collaborate in surveillance when the government comes calling.  Recall the protestations of the lackeys of an exposed corporate-government alliance: “But we need to follow the law!”  But the government has more screws to twist than that: antitrust regulations, taxation and regulation, issuing of government contracts, and -- of course -- punitive legal retaliation. [3]  Which is what makes the threat of a switch from one monopolist to another (“I’ve had enough of your privacy violations, GMail!  I’m switching to Hotmail!”) such an idle one.  Small companies such as Lavabit which have the ability (as only small companies do) and courage (which few of any size posses) to defy the government when approached are rare.

Fourth, and I’ll bold this because it is a point so often glossed over, there is a fundamental trade-off between convenience and privacy.  You can’t recall your web search history if Google doesn’t store it.  You can’t search for times you discussed Teletubbies over email if you don’t let GMail index your email.   You can’t skip the toll lines on the Bay Bridge if you don’t have a FastTrack pass that records every time you cross the bridge.  You can’t get a loan if a rating agency has not monitored your past debt transactions -- that is, your credit history.  So those that pine for absolute privacy should be careful about what they wish for; many likely don’t understand the downsides. [4]

Fifth, simply switching to another service does not mean that the service switched from purges the information you gave to them (or that they have otherwise accumulated on you).  What happens in most cases is that the company just flips a bit in the database specifying your account has been deactivated, but the data nonetheless remains.  This data is valuable to them both in the case in which you rejoin the service and as an asset to sell to third parties.  Speaking of which, your data is traded around in ways that you are not even aware of, between ad networks, data brokers, and other services. [5]

To sum up, we’re at the point where nearly all large Internet corporations are suspected of collaborating with government in violating personal privacy in some way.  Substitutes to these services are partial, difficult or nonexistent -- and there is no guarantee that the substitutes are not also compromised.  We should get rid of this fantasy of consumer choice via boycotting as a means of reclaiming control over our information.  The problems are much more systemic than that, and demand a much more comprehensive fix.

(Just for the sake of clarity: I do advocate using free software -- as in libre, not gratis -- and other privacy-respecting services and technologies where possible.  But the point is “where possible” is a small and ever-shrinking domain for most people.)

[1] Not accounting for Google’s most likely more comprehensive index that they can compile given their vastly superior computing and human resources.

[2] That is, unless one uses PGP to encrypt the contents of email, but under those conditions the metadata could still be monitored.  Besides, this is a pretty impractical solution for anyone that is not highly technologically competent.

[3] See Digital Disconnect, especially chapter 5.

[4] I recommend Blown to Bits for further elaboration on this point.

[5] See No Place to Hide for more information on data brokers.

UPDATE: Boycotting certain companies on the Internet, for instance Google, is nearly impossible because of their multiple properties and pervasiveness. Besides operating Google web search, YouTube, Blogger, Orkut, Google+, Google Maps, Google News, etc., and the software they release: Chrome, Android, etc., they also run an advertising network that tracks you everywhere you go. Incidentally, the NSA piggybacks on this network to ID individuals. Almost every site but the largest and smallest run some kind of Google Analytics on their site. Software -- not even Google software -- routinely pings Google without the most users' knowledge. Really, there is no escaping Google cookies on the Internet. (Unless, of course, one is willing to turn off cookies entirely, but have fun using the Internet without being able to log into any website!)

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Book Review: Battle Cry of Freedom by James McPherson

In fits and starts over the past several months, I have slogged my way through James McPherson’s tome Battle Cry of Freedom, a single-volume history of the Civil War.  McPherson begins with several chapters of background context before launching into the meat of the military conflict.  Since the Civil War was a complex historical event and “by a large margin the most written-about event in American history,” (ix) McPherson has a lot of ground to cover and many historical debates (sometimes populated by truly loopy Confederate apologists) to address.  He does, however, handle the task ably, elucidating the important points in a manner which is quite accessible to a Civil War history newbie.  I will run through the main takeaways I got from the book here.

The outbreak of the Civil War took place in an America -- especially a North -- experiencing the rapid changes of the Industrial Revolution: widening inequality, rapid expansion in territory and population and economic growth, a shift to production for market rather than the home, German and Irish Catholic immigration (and resultant nativist backlash), the Second Great Awakening and its resultant strands (abolitionism, temperance), intense urbanization, the transportation revolution, the invention of the telegraph and consequent increase in newspaper circulation, rising educational standards, the emergence of “childhood,” the increasing role of romance in life and literature, etc.  

McPherson spends an interesting section of the first chapter describing the resistance to industrialization.  A significant portion of laborers felt that “capitalism was incompatible with republicanism” and promoted “wage slavery.” (24)  Other opposition came through populists in the Jacksonian Democratic party, who were wary of being drawn into the financial/commercial apparatus of the emerging industrial society.  The ideology of upward economic mobility, preached by Lincoln and others, however, came to dissipate much of this potential class conflict.

The acquisition of new territory via the Mexican-American War precipitated a debate over slavery that snowballed into the Civil War.  A dispute over which newly incorporated states should be “free” and which “slave” caused a political realignment along geographic North-South lines.  The Compromise of 1850 -- including the controversial Fugitive Slave Act -- addressed this issue but only postponed the war by a decade.  Violence sparked by the issue of slavery in Kansas and at Harpers Ferry polarized the country.  Abraham Lincoln’s election on the Republican Party -- founded on opposition to the expansion of slavery -- ticket in 1860 over the fractured Democratic opposition caused southern states to secede and form the Confederacy the next year.  Hostilities commenced with the southern attack on Fort Sumter.

The Civil War saw dramatic changes in military tactics and technology.  The wide use of rifles (instead of smoothbores) increased the accuracy and range of the infantry’s bullets.  These weapons rendered old fashioned tactics of infantry columns, cavalry charges, and offensive artillery obsolete; they also “multiplied casualties and strengthened the tactical defensive.” (475)  Defensive tactics such as trenches and barricades made military offensives difficult and costly.  Indeed, McPherson remarks, “The tactical predominance of the defense helps explain why the Civil War was so long and bloody.” (477)

On the medical front, “The Civil War marked a milestone in the transformation of nursing from a menial service to a genuine profession,” (484) notably incorporating many women.  The North organized a special ambulance corps to assist treating the wounded.  Regardless, a Civil War soldier was eight times more likely to die of a wound than an American soldier in World War I and twice as many soldiers died of disease than combat. (485)  This owed in large part to the fact that the Civil War was fought “at the end of the medical Middle Ages” (486) just before a number of important medical breakthroughs.

Abraham Lincoln’s views on slavery, racism and leadership were complicated.  His commonly-remembered image as a liberator contrasts to some of his words: “‘the promulgation of abolition doctrines tends rather to increase than to abate [slavery’s] evils;’” (55) “‘I am not, nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races;’” (186) “‘I have no purpose directly or indirectly to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists.’” (186)  (All of these quotes were uttered before his presidency.)  He also attempted to address the issue of freed slaves during the war by shipping them to a black island colony near Haiti!  On the other hand, this is also the man who issued the Emancipation Proclamation and oversaw the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment.  So while Lincoln certainly didn’t have as identifiable and strong anti-racist convictions as, say, William Lloyd Garrison or Frederick Douglass, he ended up as a de facto abolitionist by the end of his life.  Who, exactly, deserves credit for Lincoln’s transformation is a matter for historical debate.  McPherson, for one, holds Lincoln in high esteem, complimenting his tactful leadership and pithy prose and oratory throughout the book.

In the epilogue, McPherson is reluctant to endorse a master narrative of why the North won the war.  The superior numbers and resources of the North can’t be determinative, as the South was fighting a defensive war on its own territory, primarily, and military history is replete with examples of David beating Goliath.  Internal divisions or “lack of morale” explanations are not very convincing either, seeing as how fractious and demoralized both sides were at times.  The explanation of superior leadership fails as well, since both sides had varying degrees of competence in senior positions; even some of the war’s most revered heroes bumbled occasionally.  Instead, McPherson points out that the war’s outcome was far from determined since there were multiple turning points when fortune could have swayed either way.

The outcomes of the war are clearer, and constitute a second American revolution.  The Civil War strengthened the federal government (creation of the Internal Revenue Service, birth of a central banking system, enactment of conscription, elimination of state currencies, expansion of federal judicial powers, spawning of the Freedman’s Bureau -- the first national social welfare agency) and many henceforth conceived of the United States as a nation, not a union of disparate states.  There was a “sharp and permanent change in the direction of American [political and economic] development” (860) from the aristocratic, patriarchal, agricultural, quasi-feudal South (which had two thirds of its assessed wealth destroyed (818)) to the industrial, capitalist, urbanizing North.  And, of course, the Civil War eliminated the institution of slavery, closed the possibility of secession, and set the stage for the Reconstruction Era in the South.

McPherson spends very little time talking about the consequences and effects of the war, in contrast to the many chapters spent on the causes.  Spending a few chapters on the immediate aftermath of the war would have been welcome, as the book ends somewhat abruptly.  Otherwise, it’s a very well-written page turner that truly merits all the praise that has been heaped upon it.  

(There are other interesting historical facts, events and figures that I could highlight from the book, but the number of them is so high that I don’t think I could do all of them justice in a short blog post!  I encourage picking up some literature about this fascinating period in history instead!)

Monday, November 4, 2013

Book Review: What Gandhi Says by Norman Finkelstein

“Although Mahatma Gandhi’s name is frequently invoked, he is seldom read.” (11) Thus begins Norman Finkelstein’s very short book What Gandhi Says About Nonviolence, Resistance and Courage.  The work, which Finkelstein dedicates to the Occupy Movement, explodes the contemporary caricature of Gandhi and pithily extracts the aspects of his philosophy and practice most germane to present politics.

First, Finkelstein points out that Gandhi’s philosophy is complex, occasionally bizarre and often contradictory: “It was not only Gandhi’s actions that contradicted his words.  His statements also, and often flagrantly, contradicted each other.” (17-18)  Nevertheless, Finkelstein believes that the essential “content of his doctrine can be accessed by reason and made accessible to the rational mind.” (25)

Gandhi’s views on violence are probably his most referenced, but most people completely misunderstand his perspective.  Finkelstein observes, “However much he deplored violence, Gandhi did not unreservedly oppose it.” (32)  Indeed, Gandhi made declarations such as “‘self-defense is everybody’s birthright.’” (32)  Furthermore, “Gandhi did not just extenuate violence on circumstantial grounds.  He also positively advocated it if, in the face of an injustice, the only other options were abject surrender or retreat.” (34)  Gandhi went so far as to proclaim violence preferable to certain kinds of nonviolence: “Nonviolence born of fear is cowardice; cowardice is worse than violence; violent retaliation is morally superior to fear-inspired abstention.” (38)

Finkelstein highlights many instances of Gandhi’s unsavory behavior that makes one hesitate to venerate him as a saint.  His statements could be demeaning (to a women’s conference: “‘I know your sex and your needs better than you do yourselves.’” (20)), distastefully unconventional (late in life he “slept naked with young girls to test his capacity for sexual restraint” (48)) and morally relativistic (“the United Nations set out to fight Hitler with his weapons and ended by out-Hitlering Hitler’” (31)).  After examining Gandhi’s record of encouraging self-sacrifice of his followers and showing no remorse for -- even exhilaration upon -- their deaths, Finkelstein concludes “It might fairly be said that Gandhi fostered a death cult.” (40)  All this is to say nothing of his opposition to such modern decadence as wristwatches, underwear, pencils, pens, etc. (24)

At times, Gandhi can sound much more radical than most remember him.  At one point, sounding more like Lenin, he says the Indian independence struggle is “‘only part of the general struggle of colonial peoples against world capitalism and imperialism.’” (62)  On another occasion, conjuring Proudhon, Gandhi utters, “‘A thing not originally stolen must nevertheless be classified as stolen property if we possess it without needing it.’” (63)

It is true, putting all the above ambiguity aside, that Gandhi is renowned most for his nonviolent practice and philosophy.  Finkelstein concludes by saying, “If a criticism is to be leveled against Gandhi’s nonviolence, it is that he sets the bar of courage too high for most mortals to vault.” (81)