“It is difficult to make predictions, especially about the future,” says a proverb often attributed to Yogi Berra. Imagine the world of freedom, or lack of it. Who could foresee the technologies that make our lives so rewarding and convenient? The same technologies have us all under the government’s giant microscope. Thankfully, the brave have turned the microscope around.
In the months since Edward Snowden revealed the nature and extent of the spying that the National Security Agency (NSA) has been perpetrating upon Americans and foreigners, some of the NSA's most troublesome behavior has not been a part of the public debate.
The problem for NSA apologist is that when guys like Snowden disclose that the government conducts comprehensive surveillance in ways that would have made 1984’s O’Brien drool, it puts the entire progressive agenda in jeopardy.
The east coast and parts of the southern U.S. were to varying degrees paralyzed by blizzards a few weeks ago. The snow as expected rendered the roads treacherous, and in anticipation of slick streets, shoppers flocked to the grocery stores in advance.The rush into grocery stores, and its aftermath, offers worthwhile lessons in economics.First up, […]
The financial world is plodding along like a drunken sailor avoiding debt collectors by keeping no cash in his wallet. It’s not the kind of calm that’s going to last or end well. But the storm will have to wait until after the Olympics.What a game! We’ve never watched ice hockey closely before. But watching […]
In times of war and national emergency, it’s sometimes necessary to sacrifice civil liberties to secure vital gains in public safety. In those cases, we may have to accept a loss of privacy or freedom rather than invite mass slaughter of Americans.The National Security Agency’s domestic phone records collection is not one of those.Never have […]
Last year was quite the year for Bitcoin. We’ve seen exponential growth in Bitcoin’s exchange rate and extensive coverage in the media. Another phenomenon we have witnessed is the proliferation of alternative cryptocurrencies, five of which we’ve provided below.What all of these cryptocurrencies have in common is that they rely on a decentralized network to […]
Image: ShutterstockBitInstant CEO Charlie Shrem, along with alleged co-conspirator Robert Faiella, was arrested by federal authorities last week for allegedly laundering more than $1 million worth of Bitcoins. This is a tiny amount compared to the largest drug-and-terrorism money laundering case ever. Yet when British bank HSBC was found guilty in 2012 of laundering billions, […]
The exercise had an awesome name, inspired by the movies: “Quantum Dawn 2.”On July 18, scads of U.S. banks, stock exchanges and government agencies took part in a digital fire drill — a practice run in the event all of Wall Street came under massive cyberattack.This isn’t the first time banks have come under an […]
The faces of the Detroit bankruptcy are the thousands of pensioners whose promised benefits are suddenly part of the restructure negotiation. When Motown filed for Chapter 9 last July, the city had $11.5 billion in unsecured liabilities. The vast majority of this was pension and health care benefits owed to retired city employees.The images of […]
The New York Times published an interminable article on health care recently. Plenty of facts — how scrupulous are these journalists! — but the article displayed absolutely no comprehension of the basics of cause and effect. I was left wondering about the whole point.The article details how the health care system rewards specialists to an […]
We’ve pointed out in the past that President Obama’s views on the surveillance state shifted completely from when he was Senator to when he was President. As Senator, he supported a bunch of reforms that are very much like the ones his panel have suggested — and which he’s about to ignore. The NY Times […]
Bitcoins are largely considered digital currency (or “crypto currency”) so you’d expect it to be treated like currency on a retail web site. But the Internal Revenue Service might not think so.
The great inventors/businessmen of the First Industrial Revolution, such as James Watt and Matthew Boulton of steam-engine fame, were not just smart but privileged. Most were either born into the ruling class or lucky enough to be apprenticed to one of the elite. For most of history since then, entrepreneurship has meant either setting up […]
Both research and production look poised for a revolution as 3-D printing applies its high-tech charms to the business of creating chemical compounds and turns the production of medicine into a DIY project.
“Tea. Earl Grey. Hot.”When Capt. Jean-Luc Picard wants a steaming beverage in his ready room aboard the starship Enterprise, he just utters those words. The ship’s “replicator” then assembles the necessary atoms — including those for the cup — and produces it, ready for the drinking. Picard thinks nothing of it — it’s hardly more […]
The market has selected different things as money throughout history. Some of these items have served as money in isolated places for specific periods of time — for instance, cigarettes in prisoner-of-war camps. Cigarettes continue to be a currency in prisons if allowed, but if not, according to Wikipedia, “postage stamps have become a more […]
[Ed. Note: This article originally published on Jan. 24, 2013]Stocks up. Gold down. Bitcoin… waaay up.The S&P 500 busted through the 1,500 mark this morning. Stocks haven’t been this expensive since 2007… right before they got a whole lot cheaper… for a whole lot longer. Gold, meanwhile, dipped a tad. This, despite central bankers of […]
Before the housing market collapsed and the government pumped billions into the economy to save it, there was a programmer named Satoshi Nakamoto. And without much fanfare, he created an idea that’s in the process of changing the world. His idea was Bitcoin.Some background information is in order before I go any further.Think back to […]
Americans are still trying to get a handle on the full extent of the government’s domestic spying activities, including the recent revelation that the National Security Agency (NSA) has been collecting and storing the email address books of ordinary Americans using online messaging services. Many users of such services are looking to tech executives for […]
The online Internet exchanges created by the Affordable Care Act are up and running.OK, they’re up. Uhh, OK, some of them are sort of up.It has been almost a week since last Tuesday’s initial launch, and there have been more than a few problems.Website crashes, excessive response times and other problems have plagued the exchanges. […]
A growing consensus of IT experts, outside and inside the government, have figured out a principal reason why the website for Obamacare’s federally sponsored insurance exchange is crashing. Healthcare.gov forces you to create an account and enter detailed personal information before you can start shopping.This, in turn, creates a massive traffic bottleneck, as the government […]
As much as I love technology, part of me hates being so dependent on a live wall plug wherever I go. You find yourself trapped in some setting without accessible wall plugs and your phone is dying. You charge from you laptop, but that is dying too. You take recourse to your tablet, but that […]
U.S. and British intelligence agencies have successfully cracked much of the online encryption relied upon by hundreds of millions of people to protect the privacy of their personal data, online transactions and emails, according to top-secret documents revealed by former contractor Edward Snowden.The files show that the National Security Agency and its UK counterpart GCHQ […]
Today, like most days, I fired up my computer.I read freely available information on the latest developments in technology that would, in the not too distant past, have required a drive to a library to flip through journals too numerous for me to afford. I read the latest national and global news without having to […]
On a Sunday afternoon swim, a 6-year-old boy was bugging me in a sweet sort of way. He rode up and down the handrail on the stairs in the shallow end of the pool where I was trying to sit in peace. He was laughing and talking, but I couldn’t understand a word through the […]
I’ve just completed a heavy schedule of talks at the Agora Financial Investment Symposium in Vancouver. All my talks centered on information economics, Web startups, and the productivity of the Internet and its meaning. As usual, I learned as much from the attendees as (I hope) they learned from my talks. The research I did […]
The government seems determined to turn out the lights on the digital age. And this is with or without SOPA or the other bills that were only this week shouted down by the global digital community on Blackout Wednesday. The very next day, after support for that legislation collapsed after an impressive mass protest, the FBI and the Justice Department demonstrated that they don’t have to pay any attention to all this silly clamor. Congress, legislation, polling, debates, politicians, the will of the people — it’s all a sideshow to these people.
The FBI and Justice Department, on their own initiative, shut down megaupload.com, the biggest of thousands of file-sharing sites online, and arrested four of its top officials. The FBI is hunting down three others who seem to be on the lam. They all face extradition and 20 years in prison. As part of the sweep, the feds issued 20 search warrants and arrived at individual houses in helicopters. They cut their way into houses, threatened with guns, confiscated $50 million in assets and outright stole 18 domain names and many servers.
And what is the grave crime? The site is accused of abetting copyright infringement, that is permitting the creating of copies of ideas expressed in media. No violence, no fraud, no force, no victims (but plenty of corporate moguls who claim, without proof, that their profits are lower as a result of file sharing).
Megaupload had millions of happy users. It was the 71st-most-popular website in the world. Only 2% of its traffic came from search engines, which means that its customer base was loyal and collected through the hard work and entrepreneurship of site owners. For its users, it was a wholly legitimate service. For the owners, their profits were hard earned through advertising.
But the government saw it differently. And contrary to what many people believe, the already-existing law permits the government to do pretty much whatever it wants, as this case shows. The government relied on a 2008 law to make criminal, instead of civil, charges. A newly created IP task force is the one that worked with the foreign governments to seal the deal.
In the end, it was a presentation of exactly the nightmare scenario that anti-SOPA protesters said would happen if SOPA had passed. It turns out, as the deeper realms of the state already knew, that all of this was possible with no congressional action at all. Congress doesn’t need to do anything. We can watch the debates, go to the polls, elect people to represent us and perform all the rest of the rituals of the civic religion, but none of it matters. Power is here, active, oppressive, in charge and permanent, regardless of what you might believe.
Might it be that some of the users’ shared content on Megaupload was copyright protected? Absolutely. It is nearly impossible not to violate the law, as shown by SOPA sponsor Lamar Smith’s own campaign website, which used an unattributed background image in technical violation of the law. The leading opponent of piracy might himself be a pirate!
But the trendline with Megaupload was clearly toward using the space to launch new artists with new content — not piracy, but creativity. As Wired.co.uk wrote, this crackdown:
“came shortly after Megaupload announced music producer Swizz Beatz — married to Alicia Keys — as their CEO. They had rallied a whole host of musicians, including Will.i.am, P. Diddy, Kanye West and Jamie Foxx to endorse the cloud locker service. Megaupload was building a legitimate system for artists to make money and fans to get content.”
What‘s this all about? It is some powerful corporate lobbyists trying to prevent the emergence of an alternative system of art and music delivery, one powered by people, rather than merely the well connected.
The Internet’s great glory is its seemingly magical capacity for distributing information of all sorts universally unto infinity. The idea of the state’s regulations on information — instituted by legislators in the 19th century — is that this trait is deeply dangerous and must be stopped. So it is inevitable that the powers that be will try to shut it down; copyright enforcement is only the most-convenient Taser of choice.
This is the battle for whether the digital age is permitted to exist in an atmosphere of free speech, free association, free enterprise and real property rights or whether it will be controlled by government in conjunction with aging media moguls from monopolistic corporate oligarchies. The lines are clearly drawn, and the battle is taking place in real-time.
Example: Within minutes after the officials of Megaupload were arrested, a global hacker group called Anonymous shut down the Justice Department’s website and the sites of the Motion Picture Association of America, the Recording Industry Association of America, Universal music and BMI — the major lobbying forces in Washington for restriction and reaction against the Internet.
In another stage of the great battle over information freedom, the Supreme Court, on the very day of the SOPA protests, handed down a decision that could have a devastating effect in the months and years ahead. It permitted the re-copyrighting of works that are already in the public domain so that the domestic law accords with the international law. If that sounds like no big deal, consider that many local orchestras have already changed their season lineups to remove some major works from their repertoire because they can no longer handle the licensing fees.
It’s hard to know what to call this but cultural masochism.
Regardless of how the legal struggles turn out, a culture of rational and irrational fear has gripped the Web. I’ve noticed this growing over the last months, but just this week, it has become worse, to the point of paranoia, and even mania. The successful protests against SOPA ended up only causing the censors to redouble their efforts, and the message is getting out: Almost everything you want to do online could be illegal.
A small sample of what I mean… Just this morning, I received the following email: “BBC Four recently broadcast a stunningly beautiful documentary called God’s Composer (Tomás Luis de Victoria), hosted by Simon Russell Beale. A friend in Rome sent me a link to it, but I’m not sure I’m free to share it. Have you seen this documentary? It is stunning both visually and musically.”
Not free to share a link? What? To be sure, I don’t know whether he intended to send me to the BBC or some other site that is hosting an additional copy of it. Regardless, this is what it has come down to: a belief that every email is traced, every site is monitored, every act of individual volition on the Web could be a crime, every website is vulnerable to an overnight takedown, every domain owner could be subject to arrest and jail.
The battle between power and freedom dates to the beginning of recorded history, and we are seeing it play out right before our eyes in the digital age. It’s as if at the beginning of the Bronze Age, the leading tribal chieftain made smelting ore illegal; or if at the transition from iron to steel, the ruling elite put a cap on the temperature of refining ovens; or if at the beginning of flight, some despot declared the whole enterprise to be too risky and economically damaging to the industry that depended on land travel.
In the current version, the issue of “intellectual property” is at the forefront of this battle. The first most people heard of this was on Blackout Wednesday, when Wikipedia went black. This is a foretaste of the future in a world in which power achieves victory after victory, while the rest of the world cowers with fear in darkening times.