Preventing Harry Tuttle

My last post, Democracy’s Soft Underbelly warned how algorithms for content distribution and advertising have been weaponized to alter public opinion.

The most disturbing aspect of the affair is there is no public evidence of the ad campaigns so there is literally nothing to talk about. When there is no public record of what ad creatives were used, there can be no debate over the of the veracity of the claims made or appropriateness of the imagery used. This recently changed as Facebook has now turned over evidence (most likely because of a warrant) to Special Counsel Robert Mueller who is looking into Russian hacking of the election.

Mueller’s investigation has received copies of the Russian-bought ads and details about the specific account information and targeting criteria the buyers used to distribute their ads, according to the (Wall Street) Journal, citing people familiar with the matter. TechCrunch

“Democracy dies in darkness” is the new Washington Post tagline. The only way to have an open civic debate about the new threat to public discourse posed by advertising on social media platforms is to review the evidence. There needs to be transparency about how advertisers are paying their way into the hearts and minds of their target audiences. With transparency comes accountability.

If you’re going to target me, I deserve to know.  All ads and ad copy must be stored, shared, and freely available to anybody in a searchable database. So if I want to see ads targeted at African-Americans in a swing state, I can just type “African-Americans aged 35-60 with a college degrees” and show me all the ads that were done. – Jason Calcanis, This Week in Startups

This database of ads, freely available to the public, would expose any questionable or unethical activity by advertisers and hopefully prevent heavy-handed regulation of this industry which has been such an important driver of economic growth.

A democratic society evolves through transparency and public debate. Advertisers that operate in the open will be forced to self-regulate themselves in full view of public opinion. Without public exposure, advertising standards and interpretation of these standards will remain behind closed doors.  In such a world, reform will come through an opaque and inevitably bureaucratic regulations that will stifle innovation.

Terry Gilliam’s 1985 film  Brazil cast a satirical eye on a world  where bureaucracy and regulation have run amok. Nothing can be done without the appropriate paperwork. Harry Tuttle (played by Robert De Niro) is the terrorist heating engineer is our hero of common sense.

Have you got a 27B/6?

* It’s been pointed out that the title of this post is misleading. We do not want to “prevent” Harry Tuttle, he’s the hero and one of my favorite characters. We want to avoid being “Brazilled” – Thanks Stephen Davidson!

Is Comcast the new AT&T?

comcast lobby email

We all know this stuff goes on. Lobbyist ghost writes letters for elected officials or even drafting legal amendments to try and turn their way towards their clients. But it’s not pretty when you see it in broad daylight like this. The latest exhibit is from Comcast who is using their influence to fabricate support for their proposed merger with Time Warner Cable, creating the essentially the largest ISP monopoly in the nation.

This is what happens when you get a monopoly. Last year Comcast was the new AOL, this year, it’s the new AT&T.

For those of you who forgot what it was like the last time a single communications provider was the only game in town, I present you with Lily Tomlin who, on Saturday Night Live in the late 70s, skewered the then dominant AT&T on a regular basis.

We’re the phone company, we don’t care because we don’t have to.

Privileged information? That’s so cute.

A tale of two incentives

Meanwhile, the bullet train has sucked the country’s workforce into Tokyo, rendering an increasingly huge part of the country little more than a bedroom community for the capital. One reason for this is a quirk of Japan’s famously paternalistic corporations: namely, employers pay their workers’ commuting costs. Tax authorities don’t consider it income if it’s less than ¥100,000 a month – so Shinkansen commutes of up to two hours don’t sound so bad. New housing subdivisions filled with Tokyo salarymen subsequently sprang up along the Nagano Shinkansen route and established Shinkansen lines, bringing more people from further away into the capital.

How the Shinkansen bullet train made Tokyo into the monster it is today, The Guardian

It is standard practice for a Japanese company to pay for an employee’s commute expenses. The government will not tax the company nor will the employee be taxed for the cost of their monthly commute pass. In a sense, the government bears the cost of transporting a company’s workforce, which allows them to spend their resources on locating themselves as close as they can to their customers and vendors who are, mostly, in Tokyo.

As the Guardian article points out, this has allowed for a network of “bed towns” to spring up along the spurs of each of the high speed rail lines to branch out from Tokyo supporting further centralization of the city. Think of Tokyo as a the capital of government, entertainment, media, finance, and business all rolled into one megalopolis. The equivalent of Washington DC, Los Angeles, New York City, and Chicago all rolled into one. It is very difficult for a business to be located outside of this center and succeed and, with the commute subsidy, very little reason to do so.

The Japanese commute expense subsidy gives incentives for people to use the public transportation industry so, as a result, Japan has one of the best public transportation systems in the world.

Contrast this with how the tax incentives in the United States work. Mortgage interest is by far the biggest deduction you can apply to your income which supports the housing industry and, more directly, the banks. While this has allowed for distributed population centers to pop up around the country where ever people decide to invest in their home but has also contributed to successive housing bubbles.

Which would you rather have? A kick-ass public transit system that efficiently gets you where you want to go or an over-valued ranch house in the suburbs and an hour commute by car each way into work?

SOPA in Plain English

This post is for me to point folks to who are asking about why all those black “Stop SOPA” banners are popping up all over the internet. In a way, editing the DNS infrastructure of the internet in order to disappear sites suspected of pirating is the same as people who wash out their kid’s mouths after they swear. It ain’t gonna clean up their foul language.

Even better, Cory Doctorow posted a great rant on how this is just one part of a larger arc that he’s been following. In the post is a great paragraph that helped me explain SOPA to my 12 year old son.

If I turned up, pointed out that bank robbers always make their escape on wheeled vehicles, and asked, “Can’t we do something about this?”, the answer would be “No”. This is because we don’t know how to make a wheel that is still generally useful for legitimate wheel applications, but useless to bad guys. We can all see that the general benefits of wheels are so profound that we’d be foolish to risk changing them in a foolish errand to stop bank robberies. Even if there were an epidemic of bank robberies—even if society were on the verge of collapse thanks to bank robberies—no-one would think that wheels were the right place to start solving our problems.

It’s worth reading Cory’s whole post over on BoingBoing, Lockdown, the coming war on general purpose computing.

The time is getting short to let Congress and Senate know where you stand on this important issue. To contact your representatives, go to http://www.contactingthecongress.org

UPDATED:

Looks like the tide has turned and the discussion around SOPA and it’s sister bill PIPA has been postponed. For another excellent, plain English intro to these bills, check out Clay Shirky’s talk which brings some historical perspective to this conversation and how this is just the beginning. More to follow.