Category Archives: Liberties

Geek Fatalism and Nerd Exceptionalism

In the wake of the various claims and counterclaims surrounding PRISM, I have seen a number of responses – both online and off – which strike me as being both disturbing and self-defeating. Broadly speaking, these responses fall into two categories: the fatalist and the exceptionalist.

The fatalist is the person who starts by saying: “Of course I knew the government was spying on me…” and then goes on to make some claim along the lines that there’s nothing you can do and/or you can’t remain outraged about these sorts of intrusions indefinitely.

The exceptionalist points to the fact that he properly encrypts his emails, federates his social networking and manages his entire online presence from his own server. This person then goes on to either say: “So I’m okay” or “… and everyone else should do the same.”

None of this is new so, before I continue, let me pause and refer you to an article Cory Doctorow wrote, slightly over a year ago, on The problem with nerd politics:

In “nerd determinism,” technologists dismiss dangerous and stupid political, legal and regulatory proposals on the grounds that they are technologically infeasible. Geeks who care about privacy dismiss broad wiretapping laws, easy lawful interception standards, and other networked surveillance on the grounds that they themselves can evade this surveillance. For example, US and EU police agencies demand that network carriers include backdoors for criminal investigations, and geeks snort derisively and say that none of that will work on smart people who use good cryptography in their email and web sessions.

But, while it’s true that geeks can get around this sort of thing – and other bad network policies, such as network-level censorship, or vendor locks on our tablets, phones, consoles, and computers – this isn’t enough to protect us, let alone the world. It doesn’t matter how good your email provider is, or how secure your messages are, if 95% of the people you correspond with use a free webmail service with a lawful interception backdoor, and if none of those people can figure out how to use crypto, then nearly all your email will be within reach of spooks and control-freaks and cops on fishing expeditions.

“Nerd fatalism” is the cynical counterpart of “nerd determinism.” Nerd fatalists hold that the geeky way of doing things – the famed “rough consensus and running code” – and have an ideological purity that can’t be matched by the old-time notions of deliberation, constitutionalism, and politics. These things are inherently corrupt and corrupting. If you move to Whitehall to defend technology, in a few years, you will be indistinguishable from any other Whitehall wonk, just another corrupted suit who sells out his ideals for realpolitik.

It’s true that politics has internal logic, and that habitual participants in politics are apt to adopt the view that politics is “the art of the possible” and no fit place for ideals. But there’s an important truth about politics and law: even if you don’t take an interest in them, it doesn’t follow that they won’t take an interest in you.

So we can design clever, decentralised systems such as BitTorrent all day long, systems that appear to have no convenient entity to sue or arrest or legislate against. But if our inventions rattle enough cages and threaten enough bottom lines, the law will come hunting for them.

To the fatalist, I would say that you should stay outraged about these intrusions. As Bruce Schneier points out:

Democracy requires an informed citizenry in order to function properly, and transparency and accountability are essential parts of that. That means knowing what our government is doing to us, in our name. That means knowing that the government is operating within the constraints of the law. Otherwise, we’re living in a police state.

It’s not enough to roll over and accept whatever our governments decide to do. Governments exist to serve the will of people – not the other way around – and if they fail in this then we can, and should, eject them from office.

I realise that there are people who will read the above line and immediately go into the usual whine about how democracy is broken and all politicians are in the pocket of corporate lobbyists and blah, blah, blah. So let me take a moment to address this point: It is your cynical disengagement that leaves the vacuum which wealthy special interests are so keen to fill.

Politicians will always pay most attention to those that keep them in power. In a democracy, that is the electorate. But if your vote, or your non-opposition, can be taken for granted then you cannot claim to be surprised that the politicians will then start to pay more attention to the people who fund their campaigns, and those people’s interests.

You have a vote. You should use it. And you should make sure that your representatives know how you intend to use it, and why.

And then there is the exceptionalist, the person who thinks that they can apply technical solutions to the problems of overbearing or incompetent government. If you are one of these people then I’m sorry to disappoint you, but you’re fooling yourself.

It is in the nature of communications that, unless you talk to no-one but yourself, you will eventually lose control of every message that you send. It doesn’t matter how carefully you encrypt your emails or how secure you keep your server, sooner or later you will find yourself messaging someone who doesn’t share your security concerns and then all bets are off.

You may think that everyone should encrypt everything but the reality is that everyone won’t. There is a trade-off to be had between security and convenience and some people will always place a greater value on convenience and a lower value on security than you do. Not only is this perfectly reasonable but, by focussing on the technicalities of computer security, you are addressing the wrong issue.

The problem is not that the state, or it’s agencies, are able to pry into your online activities. The problem is that they want to.

The vast majority of any country’s citizens are ordinary, law-abiding individuals in whom the state should have no interest. Obviously, there are people in whom the state are reasonably interested but that interest should be specific, limited, transparent and subject to judicial oversight.

I’m on the verge of repeating myself here, so back to Cory Doctorow:

If people who understand technology don’t claim positions that defend the positive uses of technology, if we don’t operate within the realm of traditional power and politics, if we don’t speak out for the rights of our technically unsophisticated friends and neighbours, then we will also be lost. Technology lets us organise and work together in new ways, and to build new kinds of institutions and groups, but these will always be in the wider world, not above it.

Elections to the European Parliament are less than a year away. Maybe now would be a good time to start documenting the positions being taken by the various political groupings on the question of privacy – both on and offline – and ensuring that they understand that there are votes to be won in taking these questions seriously.

Flattr this!

Quote of the Day: On the need for whistleblowers

Knowing how the government spies on us is important. Not only because so much of it is illegal — or, to be as charitable as possible, based on novel interpretations of the law — but because we have a right to know. Democracy requires an informed citizenry in order to function properly, and transparency and accountability are essential parts of that. That means knowing what our government is doing to us, in our name. That means knowing that the government is operating within the constraints of the law. Otherwise, we’re living in a police state.

Bruce Schneier

Flattr this!

A Call to Arms for Decent Men

What follows was written by Ernest W. Adams and posted on Butterflies and Wheels. In the introduction to the post, Ernest gives permission to share it with attribution and that is what I am doing here.

I am not a gamer, but Ernest is addressing an issue that is worryingly prevalent in online communities. It’s been discussed a lot on various atheist and freethought blogs over the past year or so, and I have seen references to this behaviour elsewhere. There is a problem with aggresively bigoted behavour online, and this problem can – and does have an impact on real people in the real world.

So here goes.

Normally I write for everybody, but this month’s column is a call to arms, addressed to the reasonable, decent, but much too silent majority of male gamers and developers.

Guys, we have a problem. We are letting way too many boys get into adulthood without actually becoming men. We’re seeing more and more adult males around who are not men. They’re as old as men, but they have the mentality of nine-year-old boys. They’re causing a lot of trouble, both in general and for the game industry specifically. We need to deal with this.

Why us? Because it’s our job to see to it that a boy becomes a man, and we are failing.

When we were little boys we all went through a stage when we said we hated girls. Girls had “cooties.” They were silly and frilly and everything that a boy isn’t supposed to be. We got into this stage at about age seven, and we left it again at maybe 10 or 11.

Then puberty hit and, if we were straight, we actively wanted the company of girls. We wanted to “go with” them, date them, and eventually we wanted to fall in love and live with one, maybe for the rest of our lives. That’s the way heterosexual boys are supposed to mature, unless they become monks.

My point is, you’re supposed to leave that phase of hating girls behind. Straight or gay, you’re supposed to grow the hell up.

What might be temporarily tolerable in a boy when he’s nine is pretty damned ugly when he’s fifteen and it’s downright psychopathic when he’s twenty. Instead of maturing into a man’s role and a man’s responsibilities, a lot of boys are stuck at the phase of hating girls and women. The boys continue to treat them like diseased subhumans right through adolescence and into adulthood.

Men are more powerful than women: financially, politically, and physically. What distinguishes a real man from a boy is that a man takes responsibility for his actions and does not abuse this power. If you don’t treat women with courtesy and respect – if you’re still stuck in that “I hate girls” phase – then no matter what age you are, you are a boy and not entitled to the privileges of adulthood.

  • If you want to have some private little club for males only – like keeping women out of your favorite shooter games – you’re not a man, you’re an insecure little boy. A grown-up man has no problem being in the company of women. He knows he’s a man.
  • If you freak out when a girl or a woman beats you in a game, you’re not a man, you’re a nine-year-old boy. A man doesn’t need to beat a woman to know he’s a man. A man is strong enough to take defeat in a fair game from anybody and move on.
  • If your masculinity depends on some imaginary superiority over women, then you don’t actually have any. Manliness comes from within, and not at the expense of others.
  • And if you threaten or abuse women, verbally or physically, you are not a man. You’re a particularly nasty specimen of boy.

When this puerile mentality is combined with the physical strength and sexual aggressiveness of an older boy or an adult male, it goes beyond bad manners. It’s threatening and anti-social, and if those boys are permitted to congregate together and support each other, it becomes actively dangerous. Yes, even online.

Of course, I don’t mean all boys are like this. Most of them get out of the cootie phase quickly and grow up just fine. But far too many don’t. If we don’t do something about these permanent nine-year-olds pretty soon, they’re going to start having boys of their own who will be just as bad if not worse, and life will not be worth living. Life is already not worth living on Xbox Live Chat.

In addition to the harm they do to women – our mothers, our sisters, our daughters – these full-grown juveniles harm us, too. A boy who refuses to grow up has lousy social skills, a short attention span, and a poor attitude to work. Furthermore, all men – that’s you and me, bro – get the blame for their bad behavior. And we deserve it, because we’ve been sitting on our butts for too long. We let them be bullies online and get away with it.

Some of you might think it’s sexist that I’m dumping this problem on us men. It isn’t; it’s just pragmatic.Women can not solve this problem. A boy who hates girls and women simply isn’t going to pay attention to a woman’s opinion. The only people who can ensure that boys are taught, or if necessary forced, to grow up into men are other men.

Let’s be clear about something else. This is not a political issue. This is not a subject for debate, any more than whether your son is allowed to swear at his mother or molest his sister is a subject for debate. There is no “other point of view.” The real-world analogy is not to social issues but to violent crime. Muggers don’t get to have a point of view.

So how do we change things?

First, we need to serve as positive examples. With the very little boys, we need to guide them gently but firmly out of the cootie phase. To the impressionable teenagers, we must demonstrate how a man behaves and how he doesn’t. Be the change you want to see. Use your real name and your real picture online, to show that you are a man who stands behind his words. Of course, you can’t prove your name is real, but it doesn’t matter. If you consistently behave with integrity online, the message will get across.

Secondly, we men need to stand up for courtesy and decency online. We can’t just treat this as a problem for women (or blacks, or gays, or anybody else the juvenile bullies have in their sights). Tell them and their friends that their behavior is not acceptable, that real men don’t agree with them, that they are in the minority. Say these words into your headset: “I’m disappointed in you. I thought you were a man, not a whiny, insecure little boy.” Don’t argue or engage with them. Never answer their questions or remarks, just repeat your disgust and disapproval. Assume the absolute moral superiority to which you are entitled over a bully or a criminal.

Finally, we need to put a stop to this behavior. It’s time for us to force the permanent nine-year-olds to grow up or get out of our games and forums. It’s not enough just to mute them. We need to build the infrastructure that precludes this kind of behavior entirely – Club Penguin has already done it for children – or failing that, we have to make the bullies pay a price for their behavior. Appealing to their better nature won’t work; bullies have none. We do not request, we do not debate, we demand and we punish.

I have some specific suggestions, from the least to the most extreme.

  1. Mockery. In 1993 50 Ku Klux Klansmen marched through Austin, Texas. Five thousand anti-Klan protestors turned up to jeer at them. Best of all, several hundred lined the parade route and mooned the Klan in waves. The media ate it up, and the Klan looked ridiculous. The hurt that they wanted to cause was met not with anger but with derision. The juvenile delinquents are just like the Klan: anonymous in their high-tech bedsheets, and threatening, but in fact, a minority. Let’s use our superior numbers and metaphorically moon the boys who can’t behave. They’re social inadequates, immature losers. Let’s tell them so, loud and clear, in front of their friends.
  2. Shut them up. The right to speak in a public forum should be limited to those who don’t abuse it. James Portnow suggested this one in his Extra Credits video on harassment. Anyone who persistently abuses others gets automatically muted to all players. The only players who can hear them are those who choose to unmute them. Or another of James’ suggestions: New users don’t even get the right to talk. They have to earn it, and they keep it only so long as they behave themselves. This means a player can’t just create a new account to start spewing filth again if they’ve been auto-muted. Build these features into your games.
  3. Take away their means. If you’re the father of a boy who behaves like this online, make it abundantly clear to him that it is unmanly and unacceptable, then deny him the opportunity to do it further. We don’t let nine-year-olds misuse tools to hurt other people. Take away his cell phone, his console and his computer. He can learn to behave like a man, or he can turn in his homework in longhand like a child.
  4. Anonymity is a privilege, not a right. Anonymity is a double-edged sword. A limited number of people need it in certain circumstances: children, crime victims, whistleblowers, people discussing their medical conditions, political dissidents in repressive regimes. But those people normally don’t misuse their anonymity to abuse others; they’re protecting themselvesfrom abuse. I think the default setting in all online forums that are not intended for people at risk should require real names. After a user has demonstrated that they are a grown-up, thenoffer them the privilege of using a pseudonym. And take it away forever if they misuse it. I haven’t used a nickname for years except in one place where all the readers know who I am anyway. Has it made me more careful about what I say? You bet. Is that a good thing? Damn right it is.
  5. Impose punishments that are genuinely painful. This suggestion is extreme, but I feel it’s both viable and effective. To play subscription-based or pay-as-you-go (“free-to-play-but-not-really”) games, most players need to register a credit card with the game’s provider. Include a condition in the terms of service that entitles the provider to levy extra charges for bad behavior. Charge $5 for the first infraction and double it for each subsequent one. This isn’t all that unusual; if you smoke in a non-smoking hotel room, you are typically subject to a whopping extra charge for being a jerk.

Now I’m going to address some objections from the very juvenile delinquents I’ve been talking about – if any of them have read this far.

  • What’s the big deal? It’s harmless banter. If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the game.” To start with, it’s our game, not yours, and we get to decide what’s acceptable behavior. You meet our standards or you get out. Apart from that, nothing that is done with intent to cause hurt is harmless. The online abuse I have seen goes way beyond banter. Threats are not harmless, they are criminal acts.
  • But this is part of gamer culture! It’s always been like this!” No, it is not. I’ve been gaming for over 40 years, and it has not always been like this. Yours is a nasty little subculture that arrived with anonymous online gaming, and we’re going to wipe it out.
  • This is just political correctness.” Invoking “political correctness” is nothing but code for “I wanna be an asshole and get away with it.” I’ll give you a politically-incorrect response, if you like: fuck that. It’s time to man up. You don’t get to be an asshole and get away with it.
  • You’re just being a White Knight and trying to suck up to women.” I don’t need to suck up to women, thanks; unlike you, I don’t have a problem with them, because I’m a grown man.
  • Women are always getting special privileges.” Freedom from bullying is a right, not a privilege, and anyway, that’s bullshit. Males are the dominant sex in almost every single activity on the planet. The only areas that we do not rule are dirty, underpaid jobs like nursing and teaching. Do you want to swap? I didn’t think so.
  • It’s hypocrisy. How come they get women-only clubs and we don’t get men-only clubs?” Because they’re set up for different reasons, that’s why. Male-only spaces are about excluding women from power, and making little boys whose balls evidently haven’t dropped feel special. Female-only spaces are about creating a place where they are safe from vermin.
  • But there’s misandry too!” Oh, and that entitles you to be a running sore on the ass of the game community? Two wrongs don’t make a right.. I’ll worry about misandry when large numbers of male players are being hounded out of games with abuse and threats of violence. If a few women are bigoted against men, you only have to look in the mirror to find out why.
  • Free speech!” The oldest and worst excuse for being a jerk there is. First, you have no right to free speech in privately-owned spaces. Zero. Our house, our rules. Second, with freedom comes the responsibility not to abuse it. People who won’t use their freedoms responsibly get them taken away. And if you don’t clean up your act, that will be you.

OK, back to the real men for a few final words.

This is not about “protecting women.” It’s about cleaning out the sewers that our games have become. This will not be easy and it will not be fun. Standing up to these little jerks will require the same courage from us that women like Anita Sarkeesian have already shown. We will become objects of hatred, ridicule, and contempt. Our manhood will be questioned. But if we remember who we are and stand strong together, we can beat them. In any case we won’t be threatened with sexual violence the way women are. We have it easier than they do.

It’s time to stand up. If you’re a writer, blogger, or forum moderator, please write your own piece spreading the message, or at least link to this one. I also encourage you to visit Gamers Against Bigotry, sign the pledge, are share it.

Use your heavy man’s hand in the online spaces where you go – and especially the ones you control – to demand courtesy and punish abuse. Don’t just mute them. Report them, block them, ban them, use every weapon you have. (They may try to report us in return. That won’t work. If you always behave with integrity, it will be clear who’s in the right.)

Let’s stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the women we love, and work with, and game with, and say, “We’re with you. And we’re going to win.”

I do have a few nit-picks with some of Ernest’s assertions, but his core point is one that needs repeating: Most people, online and in real life are decent human beings. Those of us that are decent human beings should not allow a loud, obnoxious minority to either define us or to force other decent human beings out of our communities.

Flattr this!

If only all politicians were as rational as this

Jonas Gahr Store, Norway’s foreign minister on why his country refused to treat the mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik any differently from other criminals:

I believe that the same basic principle holds true in the global fight against terrorism. Osama bin Laden successfully provoked the West into using exceptional powers in ways that sometimes have been in conflict with its commitment to human rights and democracy. This only strengthened the case of extremists, and it shows that we should try to avoid exceptionalism and instead trust in the open system we are defending.

This is not a soft approach. It requires and allows for tough security measures. But it is firmly anchored in the rule of law and the values of democracy and accountability.

That the open public square can be an impressive antidote to extremism should not be surprising. This is not only a bedrock democratic principle. We also have ample historic evidence that extremist views thrive best when confined to the gutter.

Open debate is our strongest tool in standing up to extremism. The far more dangerous avenue is to force extremist ideas underground, where they can fester without competition.

Learning From Norway’s Tragedy via Boing Boing

Flattr this!

Religions are fairy stories for adults

As a brief follow-on from yesterday’s post, this is the sort of thing I was talking about:

THE PLODS in Boston, Lincolnshire, aren’t looking too clever today following news that they warned a local pensioner that an anti-religious sign he placed in a window of his home could lead to his arrest if someone took offence at it.

The sign simply reads:

Religions are fairy stories for adults.

And the police have taken it into their heads that, if someone decides to take offence pensioner, John Richards would have to take it down or face prosecution under the 1986 Public Order Act.

In other words, if a religious person claims to be offended at a statement – regardless of how innocuous that statement may be – they can ban all discussion of their religion.

Flattr this!

Tolerating Sectarianism

The March issue of Index on Censorship is celebrating 40 years of exposing censorship and giving voiced to the censored. This takes the form of a series of articles attempting to analyse, and provide some context, to the changing censorship landscape.

Inevitably, one of these articles takes a long – and interesting – look at the Muhammed Cartoons Controversy. In it, Kenan Malik summarises some of the views of Fleming Rose – the editor of Jyllands-Posten at the time – thusly:

Tolerance, Rose told me, should be ‘about the ability to be exposed, and to accept things you don’t like’, the ability ‘to live with what you find distasteful. What you don’t like, what you abhor’. But the concept has, in recent years, been ‘turned on its head’. Tolerance, he explains, ‘is no longer about the ability to tolerate things for which we do not care, but more about the ability to keep quiet and refrain from saying things that others may not care to hear. Jyllands-Posten was criticised for being intolerant. That suggests tolerance is something demanded of th one who speaks, or the one who draws the cartoon, or writes the novel, rather than something demanded of the one who listens, or looks at the cartoon or reads the novel. That’s why I say that tolerance has been turned on its head’.

Tolerance, in other words, used to mean the acceptance of diversity and difference. Today it has come to mean the very opposite: the refusal to accept diversity and difference, the insistence that others abide my views of what is acceptable and unacceptable. Once every group insists that other groups have to respect its boundaries then every social conversation has to take place across a barbed wire fence of ‘tolerance’.

This is not something I’d previously considered but, anecdotally, it did strike me as being very true.

Traditionally, the concept of tolerance has embodied a strong element of tit for tat – I accept that you might say something I find offensive and in return you accept that I might say something you find offensive. We don’t have to agree with each other, we don’t even need to pretend to respect each other. We simply have to recognise that it is in both our interests to not start imposing endless restrictions on each other.

There has probably always been a minority that has been unable or unwilling to understand this reciprocity. These are the people who noisily demand special privileges while seeking to deny rights to others. I don’t think that these people are in any way representative of the communities which they claim to represent and, traditionally, most of us have simply ignored them.

What has changed is that the media have become more willing to pander to this aggressively reactionary minority, and politicians have become more willing to respond to them. This works to the detriment of us all and leads towards the situation in which these self-appointed spokesmen engage in an endless cycle of seeking to suppress any opinions that don’t suit their agendas.

A truly tolerant society is one in which we recognise that we don’t all agree and that fundamental disagreements are inevitable. Trying to wish away these disagreements does not lead to greater tolerance – it leads to rampant sectarianism – and that, ultimately, will benefit no-one.

Flattr this!

Quote of the Day: Sexual correctness gone mad

And in a slight deviation from my usual Quote of the Day posts, I’m going to give you two quotes from the same article because it’s that good:

[H]ere’s an experiment you can try at home: go to any porn site that ranks its most popular clips, and have a look at the top 100 clips that people actually pay for – the range of outfits, body types, situations, ages and skin colours far exceeds anything you’ll find in FHM’s list. When it comes to what people find sexy, there’s a truth in porn considerably purer than the sterile, manufactured consent of glossy magazines.

Sexual correctness is a fundamental failure of journalism, and not just in the moralistic right-wing end of the press. I can’t remember the last time I saw an informed discussion of porn in a mainstream news publication. Many of those touted as ‘sexperts’ simply aren’t; a situation not helped by the craven attitude of bodies like the British Psychological Society. Features on alternative sexual choices, lifestyles or fetishes invariably resort to cheap smirks at the expense of its subjects; while journalists interviewing figures in the adult entertainment industry seem compelled to demand that they justify their ‘aberrant’ behaviour.

Both quotes come from Martin Robbins

Flattr this!

Quote of the Day: Defeating terrorists with songs, not surveilance

Norway shows that the effective way to deal with terrorism is not through abandoning privacy, spying on citizens, or turning to naked barbarism. As the UK did in the 80′s and 90′s, it should be dealt with as a crime, without the special venom which only serves to feed more violence and hatred. It takes a strong person to react with intelligence, but only a thuggish fool to react with fear and anger.

Andrew Norton.

I have long felt that the most appropriate way to respond to extremists is to point and laugh. A crowd of 40,000 Norwegians demonstrated this very effectively on April 26th.

Flattr this!

Quote of the day: Unwarranted

Of course the security services should be able to get a warrant to monitor genuine suspects. But blanket collection, without suspicion, or powers to compel companies to hand over data on the say-so of a police officer would be very wrong.

– Jim Killock, Executive Director of the Open Rights Group on the the government’s plans to revive legislation to enable them to eavesdrop on the communications of everyone in the UK, and monitor all phone calls, text messages, website visits and emails in real time. As quoted by Wired.

Flattr this!


I saw this headline on the New Humanist Blog: Tory MP Peter Bone: gay marriage reform could lead to two monarchs on the throne. And I thought: No it couldn’t. If a monarch was married to someone of the same sex, the UK would have a monarch and a monarch’s consort – just as Prince Philip’s official title is Queen’s Consort.

It sounded a lot like someone trying to invent a mountain out of a non-existent molehill. But I clicked through anyway and was confronted by this:

Bone has sent a letter to the Equalities Minister Lynne Featherstone outlining his concerns. The legislation, to use the Sun’s words, “would mean a lesbian Queen having a Queen consort or a gay King having a King consort”

So my assumption turned out to be right. I have to admit, though, that Tory MP Peter Bone does invite a really obvious post title.

Flattr this!