The Crackpot Caucus

Timothy Egan nails it, the Republican caucus is composed of crackpots and cranks.

Take a look around key committees of the House and you’ll find a governing body stocked with crackpots whose views on major issues are as removed from reality as Missouri’s Representative Todd Akin’s take on the sperm-killing powers of a woman who’s been raped.
On matters of basic science and peer-reviewed knowledge, from evolution to climate change to elementary fiscal math, many Republicans in power cling to a level of ignorance that would get their ears boxed even in a medieval classroom. Congress incubates and insulates these knuckle-draggers.

He then goes on to cite multiple examples of what should be career-fatal stupidity that has been routinely ignored and inadequately mocked in the media. My favorite?

Barton cited the Almighty in questioning energy from wind turbines. Careful, he warned, “wind is God’s way of balancing heat.” Clean energy, he said, “would slow the winds down” and thus could make it hotter. You never know.
“You can’t regulate God!” Barton barked at the House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, in the midst of discussion on measures to curb global warming.

I think we need to thank Akin again. He managed to say something so grotesquely stupid, so insanely backwards in terms of its scientific validity and misogyny that we’re actually seeing dialogue about scientific illiteracy in congress again. Perhaps his comments were the straw that broke the camel’s back?

Keep Akin in the race!

Everyone has heard about Akin’s comments about “legitimate rape” and the push now coming from the GOP to get him out of the race. But is this really fair or ideal? The problem with removing Akin from the race over this is that his gaffe was not just one exposing his scientific ignorance, but because it was a Kinsley gaffe. That is, it’s a gaffe because it unintentionally revealed the truth.
I’m not saying that his medieval medical hypothesis has any scientific validity, he is after all just parroting pro-life misinformation spread to attack scientific data about the frequency of pregnancy after rape. The Kinsley gaffe in this case is that he revealed the truth about what he, and other pro-life politicians who support no-exception abortion bans, believe.
Why should we punish this truth-telling with removal of Akin from the race? All that will happen is that the GOP will replace Akin with another pro-life fanatic who is simply better at hiding what he actually believes about women, reproduction, sexual assault, and their autonomy over their own bodies.
I’m thankful for Akin’s honesty, because he has dropped the facade that the radical right cares about women, respects their autonomy, understands sexual assault or has any place in this century. He has pulled back the curtain and shown what they really believe. Other examples of this attitude abound, from the abusive ultrasound bills, to this comment from Idaho Republican Chuck Winder in March wondering if women even know what rape is, to American Vision’s comparison of the blowback against Akin as “like gang-rape”. He has only further exposed the misogyny of the pro-life movement and brought some of their more despicable lies front and center for all to see. We should be thanking him for his honesty.

Is Lynda Resnick's Admiration Good or Bad for Fareed Zakaria?

Earnest reporting or catty criticism? Fareed Zakaria, according to the Times, is on the short list of Lynda Resnick’s dinner parties, along with “Queen Noor of Jordan, George Soros, the financier, and Senator Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California.”
Is the Times’ Christine Haughney critiquing Zakaria or not? Resnick is well known for being a marketing personality, one that makes broad, unsubstantiated health claims about “POM,” her silly juice that you should not waste your money on. Nor should you ever buy anything from her former business, the Franklin Mint, or Fiji, her overpriced water (see a theme here?).
Is a Resnick endorsement a thumbs up or down? and the Free Problem

Have you heard of If not, check it out. The basic premise is to create a social media platform that is aligned with users’ interest. And so, gasp, it costs money! The CEO, Dalton Caldwell, has a neat video explaining the inception of the project and the philosophy of the venture. Critics have said Caldwell’s proposal is misunderstood, and that users are projecting their own ideals onto the platform. They have said that there are too many men on They have said that it’s just another gated community, and segmenting away users is a bad thing.
I joined and still think it is a good idea to join, based upon arguments started in a series of posts concerning Chris Anderson’s book, “Free.”
There are two reasons to avoid free products and start paying for things. First, free is a force for mediocrity, both online and off. It displaces better products, because no one can compete with free things, and because free things are usually just good enough to do the job we need them to do.
Second, as Jan Whittington and I explain in our work on social network services that are advertised as free, “free” services have costs. A sample of food at a mall’s food court is free to the recipient. You get it and walk away. Online services are different, because you do not walk away whole. The service keeps personal information about you and you forever have to monitor how it deals with that data. In our first paper, we describe the depredations of C Everett Koop’s, a free social network for medical issues. went bankrupt, and its member database was sold to a Florida-based “nutritional supplement” company. The best part of the story was the reaction of the buyer. He said, “Three years ago, would not have given us the time of day…Now we own them.” Shifting policies represent a monitoring cost, a real investment of your time and a risk to your privacy.
At the end of the day, services like Facebook and Twitter must adhere to what advertisers want, and so paeans to “making the world more open” and real identity requirements are masks for serving advertisers’ wishes. If we want to escape that trap, we’re going to have to actually start paying for things with money.

The Privacy Competition Myth

In his non-book-review of Garret Keizer’s new book, Privacy, “Reason” Magazine correspondent includes this ill-informed quip on privacy:

With regard to modern commerce, Mr. Keizer grumps: “We would do well to ask if the capitalist economy and its obsessions with smart marketing and technological innovation cannot become as intrusive as any authoritarian state.” Actually, no. If consumers become sufficiently annoyed with mercantile snooping and excessive marketing, they can take their business to competitors who are more respectful of privacy. Not so with the citizens of an intrusive state.

There is almost no market for privacy among merchants. Companies learned long ago that raising privacy as an issue backfires–it causes consumers to worry about it rather than feel safe about an alternative product. Whether online or offline, going to a competitor doesn’t increase your privacy, in real or perceived terms. It’s simply too easy to hide invasive practices from consumers.
Our work at Berkeley shows the folly of simply going to a different site in order to have more privacy. Here’s just one example, in our Web Privacy Census, we did a large-scale survey of popular websites in order to assess mercantile snooping and excessive tracking. Of the most popular 1,000 websites, Google trackers are present on 712 of them. Good luck finding a competitor who is more respectful of your privacy.

Hark! A New Trade Group is Born

BNA reports on the formation of the Internet Association, a new trade group that will represent Google, Facebook, eBay, and Amazon. The group introduces itself as, “the unified voice of the Internet economy, representing the interests of America’s leading Internet companies and their global community of users. The Internet Association is dedicated to advancing public policy solutions to strengthen and protect an open, innovative and free Internet. ”
I do not know what the Internet Association will do nor do I discuss its merits here (as it has no track record yet). I wish to use this as an opportunity to discuss some of the issues in trade group lobbying. Consumer groups have problems too, but unlike companies, consumers have no direct representation in most regulatory matters, and consumer groups are completely outgunned in money, influence, and manpower in DC.
The creation of a new lobbying group for tech interests is a notable thing. These organizations are always created for some strategic reason. It could be that the many existing trade organizations are too closely aligned with other tech companies with dissimilar interests. Here, the Internet Association makes a big deal about being the first group to explicitly represent the interests of the Internet, whatever that means. Or perhaps it was created because other organizations have become too discredited to be believed anymore. When firms’ sock puppets are discredited, they can simply be abandoned, and rise again (sometimes with the exact same employees) in new form. This is a lot like Unbranding.
There are already tons of tech lobby groups. Companies find them useful because they can launder policy through them. The groups can say controversial things, or engage in sock puppetry with reasonable deniability. So when you read a news article about some controversy, and see a trade organization quoted instead of a company directly involved in the tussle, chances are that the company decided to participate in the fray through its proxy and avoid the risk of direct exposure to critical reporting. Reporters do not kick the tires too hard on these groups to see who is actually behind them.
The Lobbying Clone Wars
Generally speaking, we too easily recognize these groups as legitimate. Federal agencies, for instance, recognize them and take them as seriously as ordinary principals in debates. This is problematic, because firms use these groups to amplify their interests. So, for instance, on Congressional hearings or FTC events, sometimes you’ll see company representatives appearing on a panel along with witnesses from trade organizations that the company underwrites. Similarly, in the current debate at the Department of Commerce over privacy, the agency is going to try to develop a “consensus.” Those wanting to influence that consensus will be far more effective if they multiply their presence in the room with additional lobbyists who appear to be independent but really are fully backed by specific companies.
“The Internet must have a voice in Washington.”
Turning back to the Internet Association, a few things to note for future reference. First, their PR firm is HDMK. That’s important to know because closely related groups often share the same PR firm. If you see two groups with the same PR firm, chances are they have coordinated their messages, or they are really just the same interest broadcasting through two different speakers.
Second, the Internet Association is interesting because it explicitly claims to represent users. It will represent, “the interests of America’s leading Internet companies and their global community of users.”
This could be a great source of legitimacy problems for this group, because user interests so often diverge from the interests of Google, Facebook, Amazon, eBay, and the like. These companies tend to think that user interests align with their own because consumers would simply choose other services if they were in misalignment. It’s a form of circular reasoning that many businesses suffer from.
Of course, consumers use what is available to them, and the market often obscures or blocks options that users are likely to take. For instance, in Douglas Edwards’ recent book [FN1] about working at Google, he discussed the company’s first-party cookie policy:

What if we [Google] let users opt out of accepting our cookies altogether? I liked that idea, but Marissa [Mayer] raised an interesting point. We would clearly want to set the default as “accept Google’s cookies.” If we fully explained what that meant to most users, however, they would probably prefer not to accept our cookie. So our default setting would go against users’ wishes. Some people might call that evil, and evil made Marissa uncomfortable. She was disturbed that our current cookie-setting practices made the argument a reasonable one. She agreed that at the very least we should have a page telling users how they could delete their cookies, whether set by Google or by some other website.

Even when companies know that consumers want more privacy, firms can have incentives to code in privacy-invasive options by default. Firms may also have incentives to hide the tussle among these options. Google could have implemented compromise approaches that preserved some privacy, by using session cookies or by choosing cookies that expired after some short amount of time, but it did not.
A similar theme appears in Katherine Losse’s tale of employment at Facebook. According to Losse, when Facebook made major changes to users’ privacy settings, there was no internal debate at the company about how users would feel about the changes. Losse was charged to write blog posts on behalf of Zuckerberg explaining the need of users to become more open.
It will be interesting to see how the Internet Association will represent user interests and the interests of companies such as Google and Facebook, when we know that these companies themselves make strategic decisions to shape, deny, or flat out commandeer users’ choices.
FN1: Douglas Edwards, I’m Feeling Lucky: The Confessions of Google Employee Number 59, at 341 (HMH 2011).

Disinformation about Disinformation: L. Gordon Crovitz's Information Age

When one spouts disinformation about disinformation, does it make it information? No, it’s L. Gordon Crovitz’s “Information Age,” the weekly poorly informed and poorly reasoned blather about information policy in the Wall Street Journal.
Recall that Crovitz recently wrote about the invention of the Internet and online privacy. I wrote about these last two columns, and this week in the Journal Crovitz tries to backpedal, with the standard trope that his “Who Really Invented the Internet?” article was controversial—”It [became] for a time the most read, emailed and commented upon article on the Journal’s website, with more than 1,000 comments.” It was popular in the same way that reality stars enjoy popularity.
Crovitz tries to explain that he was reacting to President Obama’s recent speech about government and business. Crovitz responds that:

• Government alone didn’t create the Internet.
• Government didn’t help build the Internet in order to create commercial opportunities.
• Companies that succeed on the Internet do not succeed because of government.

Of course, this is not what Crovitz said last week. He said:

If the government didn’t invent the Internet, who did? Vinton Cerf developed the TCP/IP protocol, the Internet’s backbone, and Tim Berners-Lee gets credit for hyperlinks.
But full credit goes to the company where Mr. Taylor worked after leaving ARPA: Xerox.

Full credit. Not shared credit.
To Crovitz’s second point, government builds a lot of things that have secondary uses in the commercial market. The many inventions of NASA, for instance, were first developed to execute space travel, and these technologies find their way into the commercial sector.
To Crovitz’s third point, companies do succeed on the Internet because of government. There is plenty of interaction and cooperation between high tech companies and government, and that is why high tech companies are not libertarian. If high tech companies were severed from the government gravy train, innovation would suffer. We’d have fewer drones and other wonderful technologies.
More fundamentally, so many internet entrepreneurs came from America’s college and university system, where big government funding helps develop leaders like Sergey Brin, Larry Page, Steve Wozniak and others.
This tech libertarian “I am an island” meme is fully debunked by Paulina Borsook’s Cyberselfish. In that book, Borsook lampoons arguments of Crovitz’s sort: “The most virulent form of philosophical technolibertarianism is a kind of scary, psychologically brittle, prepolitical autism. It bespeaks a lack of human connection and a discomfort with the core of what many of us consider it means to be human. It’s an inability to reconcile the demands of being individual with the demands of participating in society, which coincides beautifully with a preference for, and glorification of, being the solo commander of one’s computer in lieu of any other economically viable behavior…”
But back to Crovitz:

Supporters of big government don’t want to hear about the private-sector contributions to the Internet…

What is Crovitz’s basis for this crazy talk? This is an unhinged straw man argument. Any sensible person recognizes that private-sector contributions are critical to all sorts of ventures.

…but today the Internet is defined by individuals using it for their own purposes—communicating, accessing social media—and critiquing opinion columns. Many innovations are via free, open-source software. Perhaps we can all at least agree that the Internet boom began in the mid-1990s when the government shut down its remaining role, leaving the Internet to the power of the people.

The government never shut down its role in the internet. Has this guy ever heard of the Department of Commerce and ICANN? Or the NSF?
How did this guy get this column and is there no one at the Journal that recognizes it for what it is, or is this a case of crank magnetism?