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by danps

Greenwald, Rosen, Scahill and the price of one’s journalistic soul

2:29 am in Uncategorized by danps

Cross posted from Pruning Shears

Pierre Omidyar

Is Omidyar a trustworthy founder of new journalistic efforts?

Tech billionaire Pierre Omidyar’s soon-to-be-launched journalistic venture has been greeted with an overwhelmingly positive response. In an era of shrinking budgets for news operations, the prospect of a benefactor flush with cash jumping in and starting an investigative outlet seems almost impossibly good news.

The reaction among those who write about the press for a living has ranged from palpable relief to gushing and unqualified praise. The prospect of joining some of this era’s most respected investigators like Glenn Greenwald and Jeremy Scahill along with paragons of journalistic rectitude like Jay Rosen is certainly enough to hope for good things.

Still, it probably isn’t a good idea to leap off the deep end over it. For one, the new outlet might not be a startling and original development as much as the latest nouveau riche status symbol. Keeping up with the Bezos’, as it were. In addition, it should give one pause to see exactly the kind of uncritical adulation heaped on it that Greenwald has feasted on when practiced by establishment media towards the powerful. And make no mistake about it, Omidyar is an extremely powerful individual.

Last Friday Mark Ames and Yasha Levine published a story at NSFWCORP about Omidyar’s nonprofit group, the Omidyar Network. (The article has been intermittently unlocked for nonsubscribers. If you do not subscribe you may hit a paywall.) This venture has focused in part on privatized microfinance initiatives, and its results there have been grotesque and obscene. One group it supported, SKS Microfinance, engaged in practices that would have had to improve by orders of magnitude to qualify as Dickensian:

In 2012, it emerged that while the SKS IPO was making millions for its wealthy investors,1 hundreds of heavily indebted residents of India’s Andhra Pradesh state were driven to despair and suicide by the company’s cruel and aggressive debt-collection practices. The rash of suicides soared right at the peak of a large micro-lending bubble in Andhra Pradesh, in which many of the poor were taking out multiple micro-loans to cover previous loans that they could no longer pay. It was subprime lending fraud taken to the poorest regions of the world, stripping them of what little they had to live on. It got to the point where the Chief Minister of Andrah Pradesh publicly appealed to the state’s youth and young women not to commit suicide, telling them, “Your lives are valuable.”2

Ames and Levine also cover the foundation’s funding of DonorsChoose in America and Bridge International abroad, both of which focus on privatizing (for profit, of course) public education. Then there’s the debt peddling to the impoverished in Peru. Simply put, Omidyar is a hard core radical libertarian, a triple distilled true believer in laissez-faire capitalism. And as an obvious corollary, someone hostile to government.

That is who the new journalistic hires are lending out their good names to. It surely is no coincidence that they are known for their antagonistic stances towards government: Greenwald for his intelligence reporting,3 Scahill for his unsparing critiques of US foreign policy, and so on. I won’t hold my breath looking for an Occupy Wall Street bureau, though.

I’ve long admired Greenwald, Rosen, Scahill and the other journalists being brought on, and by all indications they will be free to pursue issues they feel passionate about. That is a good thing, but a limited thing as well.

For as promising as the new outlet is, it may in the end serve a much less noble purpose. Someone with a relentlessly antagonistic stance towards government who starts a project that is relentlessly antagonistic towards government will not be broken hearted to see popular trust in government wane. Or as Ames and Levine put it: “In other words: look out Government, you’re about to be pummeled by a crusading, righteous billionaire! And corporate America? Ah, don’t worry.”

The principals may pledge to be on guard against any signs of hedging or self-censorship, but let’s not be naive about this: It will only be acceptable to challenge certain kinds of power over there. The employees will know who is signing their paychecks, and they will be no more immune to the imperceptible erosion of their standards over time than have been the servile members of the courtier press they have so often criticized.

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by danps

US tech companies hamstrung by US surveillance

4:57 am in Uncategorized by danps

Cross posted from Pruning Shears.

About two and a half years ago I posted on the danger of the US turning into a tech pariah over its data collection policies. At the time I thought the main sticking points would be foreign governments’ concerns about their own confidential data being sent abroad, and objections to privacy violations that American companies’ indiscriminate collection practices (e.g. Google Street View) would subject their citizens to.

AT&T, spying, surveillance

I was wrong about that issue being a simmering pot getting ready to boil. It just sort of stayed on the back burner, which I still find somewhat surprising. There has been pretty compelling evidence since as least 2006 that US tech companies have been allowing the government to indiscriminately suck up Internet traffic. Though the Wired article characterizes it as being in the service of a domestic surveillance program, it seems clear that the program would not exclude foreign traffic.

Maybe it was an out of sight, out of mind situation; maybe foreign governments weren’t willing to confront the US as long as their own citizens were in the dark; who knows. For whatever reason, the merger of American IT companies’ data and the US government’s surveillance apparatus didn’t seem to trouble anyone too terribly much – until Edward Snowden came along.

The details from his leaks have stirred up serious worries outside the States. The main source of concern (and I feel like an idiot for not anticipating this) is the implication for the business community. Individuals having their data collected and shared without their consent are still pretty much on their own. But companies that are purchasing remote storage – also known as The Cloud and Big Data – in the US do not have to simply resign themselves to having the National Security Agency blind carbon copied on anything they put there.

There is already evidence that purchasing decisions are changing based on this; for just one eye-popping example (emph. in orig.):

In a survey conducted after the Snowden leaks, 10% of the foreign companies using cloud computing services said they’d already cancelled a project with a US cloud provider and 56% said they’d be less likely to use US-based providers.

Those providers are over a barrel now. They can’t just give earnest assurances that they really value their customers’ privacy and work super hard to keep it protected. Everyone knows the US government is pretty much destined to end up with any data that gets stored on American soil. The spying capability has been getting baked into domestic infrastructure for years now, probably to the point that there are more back doors than anyone can even keep track of.

There isn’t really any easy way out, either. An injury that long in the making will take a long time to rehabilitate. One action that might help would be increased Congressional oversight of the NSA, which could help explain why the recent bill reining in the NSA lost by such a surprisingly thin margin. (It would also be a cynically appropriate parallel with Europe: Violation of citizens’ rights are yawned at, but threats to corporate profitability get immediate action.)

The one thing these companies have going for them is a lack of ready competition. I’ll double down on my 2011 prediction that other countries will start to prioritize server farms located on their own soil. It may now start to be seen as a matter of each country’s national security to have its most important data confined within its borders. Until that infrastructure is built, though, American companies have some time to repair their reputations.

While storage providers have gotten the most attention on this issue, there may be an impact on device makers as well. A pecking order could develop based on how tightly integrated they are with US tech. At the bottom would be those like Apple based in America and running American operating systems. Next would be foreign device makers like Samsung, HTC and Nokia that run American operating systems like Windows 8 and Android. Then at the top, funny enough given their dismal market share, would be non-American companies running non-American operating systems. In other words, a company like BlackBerry that has a good (but not bulletproof) reputation for security might be well positioned to thrive in an environment that suddenly undergoes a seismic shift.

Predictions are dicey, obviously. But regardless of what happens going forward, American tech companies are suddenly in a real jam. There’s no easy way out of it either, because outside the US there is openness to alternatives that would have been hard to imagine not too long ago.

by danps

Hollywood, SOPA and the AMC Pacer model

2:57 am in Uncategorized by danps

(photo: Charles01/wikimedia)

No Associated Press content was harmed in the writing of this post

In the middle of 2010 I wrote a post titled “ACTA and the Overblown Threat of Piracy” that discussed the proposed Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement. ACTA is basically an attempt by legacy media companies to leverage their hyperbolic rhetoric and wildly inaccurate math into an extralegal framework that would allow them to dictate which web sites are permitted to exist.

It appears to be off the table – at least for the moment – so the existing US framework is largely based on the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). The DMCA definitely has its problems, sometimes hilariously so, but contains one important protection: Safe Harbor provisions. Safe harbor means, if you host infringing content unknowingly, and respond in a timely manner to DMCA takedown notices, you cannot be held liable. This makes it possible for a site like YouTube to be a “dumb pipe” and allow users to upload whatever they want. If YouTube had to vet every single clip, the site would be unusable in its current form; few would bother uploading a video and then waiting until it eventually got cleared by the censor (or not).

That, along with the occasional random and specious seizure by the Feds, is the current practice. But when the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) started making its way through Congress I thought I was going to have to write a “SOPA and the Overblown Threat of Piracy” post. In fact, I might just need a “[Insert wrongheaded bill or trade agreement acronym here] and the Overblown Threat of Piracy” template ready to pull out every year and a half or so until the copyright extremists break the Internet or are defeated once and for all.

Happily, though, this time around there were a number of really thoughtful posts covering the deeply problematic technical, legal and commercial problems with SOPA. So instead of just echoing points made better and with more detail elsewhere, I’d like to address something raised somewhat tangentially in several places: The viability of existing legal music and video services, in particular Hulu.

Chris Hayes raised this on his January 15th show. Perhaps channeling just a bit of his inner grumpy old man, he compares today’s file sharers to those of a more innocent time (i.e. when he was in college): Read the rest of this entry →

by danps

Silicon Valley’s halo gets a little tarnished

2:19 pm in Uncategorized by danps

"Halo" (Photo: hdevalence, flickr)

"Halo" (Photo: hdevalence, flickr)

The tech industry has long enjoyed an enviable reputation in the business world. Most sectors, particularly those dominated by large multinational corporations, usually struggle with some kind of bad reputation. They might be perceived as corrupt (Wall Street) archaic (cars, especially gas powered ones), etc. But tech is new and exciting, consumer electronics get lots of buzz, and they are generally assumed to not have a big environmental footprint – even when they do.

They are helped by a largely friendly tech press. In an environment where the greatest value is placed on getting exclusive previews of hot new items and scoops from well placed insiders, there is not much ROI in hard hitting journalism. Add to that the ease with which players like Michael Arrington move between media and industry, and you get a clubby atmosphere where your interview subject could easily be your next employer.

So executives are generally lionized and the industry celebrated as the last true meritocracy: the place where an offbeat genius with a powerful idea can make a new world out of some wildly creative tinkering in a garage. It’s an intoxicating fable, but it’s just that – a fable. Tech is just like any other industry, subject to the same human foibles and biases, driven by the same motives and subject to the same constraints.

Arrington himself showed just how true that was last week when details of an upcoming CNN interview became public. Asked about diversity, he said some things that were at best poorly considered. Tech writer – not singer! – Hank Williams pointed out the ways Arrington was contributing to the very problem he was speaking against. Read the rest of this entry →