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?

Louis Gordon Crovitz’s Disinformation Age

Imagine a newspaper oped with half a dozen fallacies. Such a thing could appear in any newspaper in the US. But now imagine that the author is a Rhodes Scholar and you’re left with the Wall Street Journal’s L. Gordon Crovitz.
For years I’ve followed the bizarre arguments of L. Gordon Crovitz, who has a weekly column on information policy in the Wall Street Journal. It’s part of my daily routine of reading the Journal, which is great for business news but something else for everything else.
Last week, Crovitz wrote a real howler, arguing that the Internet was really created by Xerox, not the government, because among Xerox’s many great inventions was Ethernet. Of course, the Internet is the world’s biggest copying machine, but Xerox itself doesn’t claim to have invented the Internet. A chorus of more well informed people attempted to correct Crovitz, including the author of the book Crovitz relied upon to support his argument, but the damage is already done. The libertarian claque is parroting Crovitz as part of its mission to undermine any of the good deeds done by the government.
Perhaps Crovitz was attempting to cure the largest source of cognitive dissonance for the libertarians: that the libertarians’ favorite invention, the Internet, was funded by the source of all evil, our federal government. This single unfortunate fact may be enough to cure the Manichean mind of the libertarian, and thus it must be attacked.
One column does not completely undermine one’s claim to be an expert in information issues. But Crovitz has a track record of reactionary, inaccurate, and incoherent essays on issues of importance. For example, just the week before, Crovitz made a series of disconnected arguments and inaccurate observations about privacy. Dear reader, let me guide you through the sad times of the Disinformation Age.

The Way the Digital Cookie Crumbles
If regulators and lawyers limit the use of data, advertising online will become less efficient.

Typically, editors write headlines, so we have to give Gordon a pass on this assertion.

For a measure of how technology is changing human expectations, consider the “cookies” on your computers. These invisible text files are how websites track activity, delivering to marketers detailed information about individual behavior and preferences. In exchange for data, we get highly personalized online services.

I’m not sure what an “invisible” text file is. One that is empty? One that your operating system does not allow you to see? In any case, cookies are not invisible to marketers, who are attempting to track our every move online. This fact has been detailed by Crovitz’s own paper in the What They Know series.
Crovitz also engages in a false analogy here, which is more fully developed later. Yes, cookies enable tracking, but what websites choose to do with that data is different based the business model of the site. Some tracking, such as when one shops on Amazon and receives product recommendations, are an example of a personalized service that individuals can choose to enjoy. Most tracking does not deliver personalized services—it attempts to deliver advertising of all sorts. My work shows that when asked, Internet users overwhelmingly reject the value proposition that Crovitz lionizes.
Crovitz goes on to describe an example of differential pricing on the web, where for instance, certain consumers were presented with more expensive products or services because they were Apple users.

When Orbitz used these data to feature higher-priced hotels more prominently in Apple users’ search results, privacy lobbyists claimed outrage. But even in the analog era, readers of this newspaper saw advertisements for different products and services than readers of less high-end papers.

Of course the analog and digital eras are completely different. Contextual advertising (the idea that one places ads consistent with the publication, such as ads for golf balls in a golf magazine) is not privacy invasive at all. In fact, in the analog era, the Journal could not tell whether you even read the newspaper at all—only that you were a subscriber or not. In the digital era, newspapers are designed specifically to encourage the user to click more, so that precise interests can be mapped and advertising dollars maximized. A change to a more information-rich medium may justify a change in privacy rules.

These uses of personal data can seem a bit creepy, but the evidence also shows how quickly consumers have gotten used to being tracked. When given the choice, few consumers opt out of cookies. People accept the benefits of more relevant ads and more personalized websites in exchange for letting marketers track their interests.

This single paragraph demonstrates a complete lack of familiarity with the research that has been done in privacy and is descriptively inaccurate. Marketers complain bitterly about consumers deleting cookies, and research has shown that even popular websites have resorted to hidden and nearly-impossible to avoid tracking to address this consumer rejection.
Crovitz’s larger point, that people do not opt out, is backwards as well. Consumers can get used to a lot of things if those things are hidden from them, and they are offered no real choice about the matter. In reality, consumers think that they are protected by strong privacy laws. My research has shown that consumers mistakenly believe that privacy policies impose strong, legally-enforceable limits on the use of data.

…Consumers are loyal to Amazon in part because of its recommendation tools—if you liked that book, you may like this one—which mine user data to determine relevancy…

Here again, Crovitz does not present an important wrinkle in the privacy debate: first party tracking may be a “feature” that consumers desire. Consumers may use Amazon.com specifically for its recommendations. Research shows that most cookies on popular websites are delivered by third parties, typically companies that track individuals for advertising purposes.

Left alone, people would continue to make their own evolving judgments about how much data to share. Instead, regulators issue edicts. The Federal Trade Commission has extracted 20-year consent decrees from Google, Facebook, Twitter and Myspace, giving regulators broad review over their privacy and data practices. This would be fine if the purpose were to ensure that companies comply with disclosures about how they use data, but the FTC wants to define privacy standards.

And here, the libertarian paranoia emerges in full–regulators have nothing better to do but issue edicts, which are fully untethered from consumers’ desires. Here again the Manichean nature of the libertarian is exposed—regulation is so evil that it has to be spawned by evil people with evil motives.
In reality, American consumers strongly support some definition of privacy standards. No Congressperson has ever lost office for passing a privacy law. The FTC, under Republican leadership, was in fact the progenitor of the most successful privacy edict of all—the Telemarketing Do-Not-Call Registry. The FTC predicted that only about 60 million numbers would be enrolled. Last I checked, over 200 million numbers were enrolled.
The FTC’s consent decrees all flowed from situations where companies made promises that were false or reneged upon. And in each case, the company agreed to the decree—making it a “consent decree.” If these were real edicts, these companies could have litigated them. They don’t litigate them because in the course of a typical investigation triggered by a misrepresentation, the FTC finds lots of other privacy problems.

One result of FTC meddling is that plaintiff lawyers have open invitations to file nuisance suits on behalf of supposed privacy victims. A federal judge is considering a $20 million settlement offer by Facebook, which has agreed to make its disclosures clearer that when users click “Like” to promote a product on Facebook, their names and photos can be used.

The paranoia continues. Plaintiff lawyers file suits regardless of what the government does or doesn’t do. And these cases often result in cy pres remedies, given to organizations (such as Berkeley Law) that work on privacy and information policy.

If regulators and lawyers push too hard to limit the use of cookie data, advertising online will become less efficient. This in turn will reduce the amount of free, advertising-supported services enjoyed by consumers, such as social media, entertainment and email.

I think this argument hints at a core problem in the cookie debate—a false dilemma between a completely unregulated and fully tracked world, and regulation, any of which would kill the golden goose. Of course, there are middle-way approaches.
Crovitz’s argument assumes that online advertising in its current form is the most efficient, but in fact, more privacy-friendly systems may be more efficient. For instance, the DMA claims that telemarketing is now more efficient, perhaps this is because those who didn’t want to buy can opt out.
Crovitz’s false dilemma also shows that he is committed to a certain business model. There are alternative methods for highly-tailored advertising that could be completely private. But these alternatives require more work, and the industry has settled on a lazy approach that prioritizes tracking everyone (even those who opt out) all the time.

…Each consumer should be able to decide how to make this trade-off between sharing data and getting advertising-supported services.

I wonder if Crovitz really means this, because the FTC is considering “Do-Not-Track,” a method that would allow each individual consumer to decide whether or not to be tracked online. So perhaps the FTC is good after all. The industry currently offers no way to take this decision (even if you opt out, they track you).

The privacy debate shows how naive Silicon Valley firms were to sign 20-year agreements granting Washington regulators broad authority over how they operate. Digital entrepreneurs should be allowed to innovate freely, with consumers also free to choose their individual trade-off between how their data are used and the benefits they get in return. Overregulation is the way the digital cookie crumbles.

In other words, Silicon Valley firms were naïve to agree to consent decrees on the advice of the most sophisticated, well-trained lawyers in the world. If they only had Louis Gordon Crovitz, they would have decided differently, and the market would be free at last.

WSJ and anti-government conspiracies

Leave it to AEI writing for the WSJ editorial page to allege a grand conspiracy of the government against pharmaceutical companies. Their proof? The government wants to compare the efficacy of new drugs to older ones to make sure they’re actually better.

The reauthorization of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (Schip), created in 1997 to cover children from lower-income families who make too much to qualify for Medicaid, is up for renewal this fall. Tucked into page 414, section 904 of the House bill is a provision to spend more than $300 million to establish a new federal “Center for Comparative Effectiveness” to conduct government-run studies of the economic considerations that go into drug choices.

The center will initially be funded through Medicare but will soon get its own “trust fund.” The aim is to arm government actuaries with data that proponents hope will provide “scientific” proof that expensive new drugs are no better than their older alternatives. The trick is to maintain just enough credibility around the conduct of these trials to justify unpopular decisions not to pay for newer medicines.

While there’s nothing inherently wrong with this sort of fiscally minded clinical research, Medicare is no ordinary payer: It dictates decisions made in the private market. So as the government begins tying its own payment decisions to the results of its own studies, there’s a great temptation to selectively interpret data and arbitrarily release results. Clearly, this obvious conflict of interest demands even more outside scrutiny and transparency than has been the usual fare when it comes to government research.

Yes, because private research is so much more transparent than studies performed by the government. Gottlieb’s example of a government hit on expensive drugs, was of all things, the Women’s Health Initiative.

More insane conspiratorial nonsense from AEI and the WSJ below the fold.
Continue reading “WSJ and anti-government conspiracies”

Is the FDA responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths?

No. But the WSJ would like you to believe so.

One libertarian talking point I hear a lot (Cato of course loves this story), and is repeatedly pushed by the WSJ, is that the market and consumers should decide the safety and efficacy of drugs – not dirty gov’mint bureaucrats who want nothing but death and suffering for cancer patients. The latest is this commentary from Ronald Trowbridge and Steven Walker which has some fun with math to suggest the delay in approval of cancer drugs has led not to dozens, or hundreds, or thousands, but hundreds of thousands of premature deaths.

Is there any basis in fact for these accusations? Is the FDA somehow worse than Hitler? Hmmm.
Continue reading “Is the FDA responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths?”

What’s the matter with this curve?

MarkCC takes down this idiotic analysis from AEI that appeared in the WSJ Friday.

I saw this curve yesterday

on their editorial page and thought, what kind of idiot would fit a curve to an obvious linear regression? Not really having math expertise I dismissed it as probable crap, and moved on.

Thankfully, MarkCC whips out the math and shows exactly how stupid this stupid analysis is. I’m glad for this, because I knew it was stupid to fit a curve to it, but not how exceedingly stupid it was.

One should also note their recent editorials which include, “The Surge is Working” and “Sick Propaganda“.

Does anyone need any additional explanation for why I consider the WSJ editorial page to be a denialist organization? It’s a virtual clearinghouse of denialism on par with Uncommon Descent. Their denialist garbage ranges from bad economic arguments using laughable math, to global warming denialism, to typical libertarian crankery (FDA kills people, the EPA = fascism), to what might soon qualify as a new branch of denialism – the “everything is fine/we’re winning the war denialism”.

** PZ mocks it too.

***An update *** It is not my intent that everyone I link as spreading BS to be deserving of the denialist title. It takes a lot more effort to get that designation, namely the use of a significant number of the tactics in an attempt to attack legitimate science or fact. I don’t agree with the Offit editorial and believe that it’s based on a straw man attack on Moore’s movie. By linking it without context Orac and others clearly have felt that I was labeling Offit or Omar Fadhil denialists by default. I do think it’s an example of the WSJ editorial page acting as an aggregator of BS. I’ll spend some more time in the future talking about the WSJ and examples of how they do this and construct a more thorough takedown of their use of the tactics.