Lessig’s UK Gloat Fest: “A Dedicated Group of Likeminded People” Redux
Cass Sunstein of the Obama administration’s Office of Management and Budget issued a memo to the heads of executive branch departments and regulatory agencies which dealt with the use of social media and web-based interactive technologies. The memo would likely rule out the “Petitions” available on the White House website. Specifically, the memo warned that “[b]ecause, in general, the results of online rankings, ratings, and tagging (e.g., number of votes or top rank) are not statistically generalizable, they should not be used as the basis for policy or planning.”
As one source noted, “[A] million Americans can Digg or retweet [or Reddit] an important blog post, but government officials shouldn’t use that popularity as an indicator of the post’s value. That’s not always a bad thing considering that a dedicated group of like-minded people can game a casual voting system.”
Mr. Sunstein—who some might call something of an Internet evangelist—is clearly trying to establish best practices for the U.S. government to allow the government to benefit from the good of using the Internet to further legitimate policy making goals while avoiding the bad. Avoiding the bad includes a prohibition on basing policy decisions on the use of information that is or could be gamed in the formation of public policy by “a dedicated group of like-minded people.”And the gaming can be done before or after the fact, and the “like-minded people” can be outside—or inside—the government.
It is not a very large leap to imagine a truly Orwellian world where the government finds that the public supports its policies because it uses information that its anonymized supporters intentionally game or are encouraged to game to produce the desired result. As we noted in Fair Copyright Canada and 100,000 Voters Who Don’t Exist , the legitimate desire by governments to use the Internet to engage with the governed is to be admired. But if the process is selectively managed by bureaucrats with an agenda, it is to be greeted with considerable caution if not outright suspicion.
Recall that we were very suspicious of Industry Canada’s use of anonymous public submissions over the Internet in the public “consultation” on copyright reform in Canada held in 2009. (For U.S. readers, the Industry Canada “consultation” process closely approximates a combination of field hearings by the Copyright Office and a request for comments from the public.) For mysterious reasons, Industry Canada bureaucrats charged with administering the consultation failed to implement even the most rudimentary controls to screen or qualify these anonymous public submissions. Not only did the Industry Canada bureaucracy fail to implement even rudimentary controls, but they also completely overlooked obvious flaws in the submissions themselves—flaws easily exploited by “a dedicated group of like-minded people.” Unfortunately, then-Minister of Industry Tony Clement was not given the information he needed to realize that his many public statements about the success of the consultation process will forever have an asterisk by them—“*except for the totally gamed online submissions.” At least when they count the votes of the dead in Chicago, there was an inter vivos voter registration (most of the time).
And then there was an incident in 2007 involving an EFF “petition” against the RIAA. When you click on a “see signatures” link you are taken to a page full of 5 or 6 digit numbers all in columns and rows. What was this? There were literally a couple hundred number sequences, like little serial numbers, all arranged in neat columns and rows under the heading “Those Who’ve Taken a Stand Against the RIAA!” like you’re at the Tomb of the Unknown or something (in more ways than one). It’s like you would have expected to see names, but instead you see numbers. And when you click on the numbers, the links point you back to the same page you were on when you clicked the link.
I tried clicking a few other numbers and the same thing happens. Then I finally happen to hit on one that actually shows a few names, names like “O. Online Poker”, “T. Texas Holdem”, “P. Poker Rooms”, towns like “Google, CA” (must be Stanford?), “Świnoujście, ME”, “f, MA”, “Beverly Hills, LA”, “Beverly Hills, MI”, Dubai, “SCOTLAND!!, AK”, and my personal favorite “J. Travolta, Los Angeles”. And then there’s “r. little boys” of “George, AL“. No comment.
So if you didn’t before, you get the idea about why Mr. Sunstein had reservations about using online petitions to make policy.
It should also be of anecdotal interest that persons in Canada and the United Kingdom were able to register with the White House website and vote in the SOPA petition. I think there is a fair implication on the White House site that the purpose of the “petition” is to allow American citizens (or at least residents) to call their President to action, although it doesn’t actually say that and at least anectodally it clearly doesn’t accomplish that in even the most rudimentary manner.
It is worth noting this topic appears to be on offer at the upcoming Open Rights Group conference (a/k/a Gloat Fest 2012), featuring the Anthony Weiner of the copyleft call sign “Hipster” and Lawrence Lessig, call sign “Full House“. Then there is also this topic: ”SOPA/PIPA: how we won – Wendy Seltzer (Former EFF Staff Attorney, Fellow at Yale Law School, founder of Chilling Effects and on the Board of Directors at the TOR Project)”. Chilling Effects Clearing House is the Google-backed shaming site operated by the EFF et al for artists who send DMCA notices to Google, and The TOR Project is likewise sponsored in part by Google and “over $1 million from ‘An anonymous North American NGO’” with a spare million.
Now why would they be having this gloat fest in the UK? And who is the “we” in “How We Won” given the audience?
Regardless, it is clear that the Gloat Fest 2012 will no doubt use Kim Dotcom et al as an organizing tool to oppose justice. The “free Internet” only works if is free from the criminal laws of the nation state.
See also: Blackout, What Blackout?