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January 15, 2021

One thousand

net.wars-the-book.gifIn many ways, this 1,000th net.wars column is much like the first (the count is somewhat artificial, since net.wars began as a 1998 book, then presaged by four years of news analysis pieces for the Daily Telegraph, and another book in 2001...and a lot of my other writing also fits under "computers, freedom, and privacy"; *however*). That November 2001 column was sparked by former Home Office minister Jack Straw's smug assertion that after 9/11 those of us who had defended access to strong cryptography must be feeling "naive". Here, just over a week after the Capitol invasion, three long-running issues are pertinent: censorship; security and the intelligence failures that enabled the attack; and human rights when demands for increased surveillance capabilities surface, as they surely will.

Censorship first. The US First Amendment only applies to US governments (a point that apparently requires repeating). Under US law, private companies can impose their own terms of service. Most people expected Twitter would suspend Donald Trump's account approximately one second after he ceased being a world leader. Trump's incitement of the invasion moved that up, and led Facebook, including its subsidiaries Instagram and WhatsApp, Snapchat, and, a week after the others, YouTube to follow suit. Less noticeably, a Salesforce-owned email marketing company ceased distributing emails from the Republican National Committee.

None of these social media sites is a "public square", especially outside the US, where they've often ignored local concerns. They are effectively shopping malls, and ejecting Trump is the same as throwing out any other troll. Trump's special status kept him active when many others were unjustly banned, but ultimately the most we can demand from these services is clearly stated rules, fairly and impartially enforced. This is a tough proposition, especially when you are dependent on social media-driven engagement.

Last week's insurrection was planned on numerous openly accessible sites, many of which are still live. After Twitter suspended 70,000 accounts linked to QAnon, numerous Republicans complaining they had lost followers seemed to be heading to Parler, a relatively new and rising alt-right Twitterish site backed by Rebekah Mercer, among others. Moving elsewhere is an obvious outcome of these bans, but in this crisis short-term disruption may be helpful. The cost will be longer-term adoption of channels that are harder to monitor.

By January 9 Apple was removing Parler from the App Store, to be followed quickly by Android (albeit less comprehensively, since Android allows side-loading). Amazon then kicked Parler off its host, Amazon Web Services. It is unknown when, if ever, the site will return.

Parler promptly sued Amazon claiming an antitrust violation. AWS retaliated with a crisp brief that detailed examples of the kinds of comments the site felt it was under no obligation to host and noted previous warnings.

Whether or not you think Parler should be squashed - stipulating that the imminent inauguration requires an emergency response - three large Silicon Valley platforms have combined to destroy a social media company. This is, as Jillian C. York, Corynne McSherry, and Danny O'Brien write at EFF, a more serious issue. The "free speech stack", they write, requires the cooperation of numerous layers of service providers and other companies. Twitter's decision to ban one - or 70,000 - accounts has limited impact; companies lower down the stack can ban whole populations. If you were disturbed in 2010, when, shortly after the diplomatic cables release, Paypal effectively defunded Wikleaks after Amazon booted it off its servers, then you should be disturbed now. These decisions are made at obscure layers of the Internet where we have little influence. As the Internet continues to centralize, we do not want just these few oligarchs making these globally significant decisions.

Security. Previous attacks - 9/11 in particular - led to profound damage to the sense of ownership with which people regard their cities. In the UK, the early 1990s saw the ease of walking into an office building vanish, replaced by demands for identification and appointments. The same happened in New York and some other US cities after 9/11. Meanwhile, CCTV monitoring proliferated. Within a year of 9/11, the US passed the PATRIOT Act, and the UK had put in place a series of expansions to surveillance powers.

Currently, residents report that Washington, DC is filled with troops and fences. Clearly, it can't stay that way permanently. But DC is highly unlikely to return to the openness of just ten days ago. There will be profound and permanent changes, starting with decreased access to government buildings. This will be Trump's most visible legacy.

Which leads to human rights. Among the videos of insurrectionists shocked to discover that the laws do apply to them were several in which prospective airline passengers discovered they'd been placed preemptively on the controversial no-fly list. Many others who congregated at the Capitol were on a (separate) terrorism watch list. If the post-9/11 period is any guide, the fact that the security agencies failed to connect any of the dots available to them into actionable intelligence will be elided in favor of insisting that they need more surveillance powers. Just remember: eventually, those powers will be used to surveil all the wrong people.


Illustrations: net.wars, the book at the beginning.

Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. Stories about the border wars between cyberspace and real life are posted occasionally during the week at the net.wars Pinboard - or follow on Twitter.

January 7, 2021

The most dangerous game

Screenshot from 2021-01-07 13-17-20.pngThe chaos is the point.

Among all the things to note about Wednesday's four-hour occupation of the US Capitol Building - the astoundingly ineffective blue line of police, the attacks on journalists, the haphazard mix of US, Trump, Confederate, and Nazi costumes and flags, the chilling in a hotel lobby - is this: no one seemed very clear about the plan. In accounts and images, once inside, some of the mob snap pictures, go oh, look! emails!, and grab mementos like dangerous and destructive tourists. Let's not glorify them and their fantasies of heroism; they are vandals, they are criminals, they are incipient felons, they are thugs. They are certainly not patriots.

One reason, of course, is that their leader, having urged them to storm the Capitol, went home to his protective Secret Service and the warmth of watching the wreckage on TV inside one of the most secure buildings on the planet. Trump is notoriously petty and vengeful against anyone who has crossed him. Why wouldn't he push the grievance-filled conspiracy theorists whose anger he harnessed for personal gain to destroy the country that dared to reject him? The festering anger that Trump's street-bully smarts (and those of his detonator, Roger Stone) correctly spotted as a political opportunity was perfectly poised for Trump's favorite chaos creation game: "Let's you and him fight".

"We love you," and "You are very special," Trump told the rioters to close out the video clip he issued to tell them to go home, as if this were a Hollywood movie and with a bit of sprinkled praise his special effects crew could cage the Kraken until he next wanted it.

The someday child studying this period in history class will marvel at our willful blindness to white violence openly fomented while applying maximum deterrence to Black Lives Matter.

Our greatest ire should be reserved for the cynically exploitative, opportunistic Trump and supporting senators Josh Hawley (R-MO) and Ted Cruz (R-TX), whom George F. Will says will permanently wear a scarlet "S" for "seditionist" and Trump's many other politicians and enablers who consciously lied, a list to which Marcy Wheeler adds senator Tommy Tuberville (R-AL). It's fashionable to despise former Trump fixer-lawyer Michael Cohen, but we should listen to him; his book, Disloyal, is an addict's fourth and fifth steps (moral inventory and admitting wrongs) that unflinchingly lays bare his collaboration in Trump's bullying exploitation.

The invasion perversely hastened Biden/Harris's final anointing; Republicans dropped most challenges in the interests of Constitutional honor (read: survival). Mitch McConnell (R-KY), who as Senate Majority Leader has personally made governance impossible, sounded like a man abruptly defibrillated into sanity, and Senator Lindsey Graham's (R-SC) careening wait-for-his-laugh "That's it! I'm done!" speech led some on Twitter to surmise he was drunk. Only Hawley (R-MO), earlier seen fist-pumping the rioters-in-waiting, seemed undeterred.

High-level Trump administration members - those who can afford health insurance are fleeing. Apparently we have finally found the line they won't cross, though it may not be the violence but the prospect of having to vote on invoking the 25th Amendment.

An under-discussed aspect of the gap between politics - Beltway or Westminster - and life as ordinary people know it is that for many politicians and media, making proposterous claims they don't really believe is a game. Playing exhibitionist contrarian for provocation is a staple of British journalism. Boris Johnson famously wrote pre-referendum columns arguing both Leave and Remain before choosing pro-Leave's personal opportunities. They appear to care little for the consequences, measured in covid deaths, food bank use, deportations, and shattered lives.

All these posturers score against each other from comfortable berths and comfortably assume they are beyond repercussions. It's the same dynamic as the one at work among the advocates of letting the virus rip through the population at large, as if infection is for the little people and our desperately overstressed, traumatized health care workers are replaceable parts rather than a precious resource.

Perhaps the most extraordinary aspect is that this entire thing was planned out in the open. There was no need to backdoor encryption. They had merch; Trump repeatedly tweeted his intentions; planning was on public forums. In September, the Department of Homeland Security warned that white supremacy is the "most lethal threat" to the US. On Tuesday, Bellingcat warned that a dangerous meld of numerous right-wing constituencies was setting out for DC. Talia Lavin's 2020 book, Culture Warlords, thoroughly documented the online hate growing into real-world violence.

Wednesday also saw myriad mostly peaceful statehouse protests: Texas, Utah, Michigan, California, Oregon, Arizona, Arkansas, Kansas, Wisconsin, Nevada (with a second protest in Las Vegas), Florida, and Georgia. Pause to remember Wednesday's opener: Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock won Georgia's Senate seats.

Trump has 12 more days. Twitter and Facebook, which CNN reporter Donie Sullivan calls complicit, have locked Trump's accounts; Shopify has closed his shops. The far-right forums are considering the results while the FBI makes arrests and Biden builds his administration.

The someday child will know the next part faster than we will.


Illustrations: Screenshot of Wednesday's riot in progress.

Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. Stories about the border wars between cyberspace and real life are posted occasionally during the week at the net.wars Pinboard - or follow on Twitter.