Hacktivists versus Tech Pioneers?

New Orleans  There was a fascinating and disturbing opinion piece in the New York Times by Peter Ludlow, a Northwestern University professor philosophy that burned some of the fog from my eyes about the disparate treatment between computer hacktivists (hacking activists) and hack-preneurs or hacker entrepreneurs.   It was not just the fact that Ludlow recited the old story about the now fabled Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, Apple Computer founders, who started out their seminal partnership by making and selling boxes that allowed users to beat the phone company on long distance charges, but the excessive legal penalties being assessed to hackers or other internet activists who are sharing information about security or telling us about domestic spying involving our own government.

He cites the case of Andrew Aurenheimer who stumbled on the fact that AT&T had exposed private information on some of its customers out there on the web, basically for all who knew how, to be able to see it; he and a buddy wrote some simple code to collect it.  Unlike Jobs and Wozniak, he didn’t try to score money on this deal, but instead exposed the security breach to the Gawker blog website.  For his trouble he was sentenced to almost 4-years in prison and fined $70000.

In another example Ludlow offered, he put forward the case of Barrett Brown, a journalist who became obsessed with documents indicating that two private security companies, HB Gary Federal and Stratfor, were hired by the U.S. Government to come up with various schemes to undermine protestors and journalists.   Brown is now held in a federal pokey in Texas.  His alleged crime?  He reposted a web address that was publically available on the internet so he could get help “crowdsourcing” the reading of all the documents.  He did no hacking, just reposted what was put out by these two companies, but because some of what was available in the documents included credit card info, he was charged with 11 counts of credit card fraud.  Glenn Greenwald, who writes for Salon and was one of the journalists the companies were trying to bring down, was quoted saying that it was “virtually impossible to conclude that the obscenely excessive prosecution he now faces is unrelated to that journalism or his related activism.”    Amen!

Ludlow, the philosopher, makes the point better than I could hope to do, writing,

In a world in which nearly everyone is technically a felon, we rely on the good judgment of prosecutors to decide who should be targets and how hard the law should come down on them. We have thus entered a legal reality not so different from that faced by Socrates when the Thirty Tyrants ruled Athens, and it is a dangerous one. When everyone is guilty of something, those most harshly prosecuted tend to be the ones that are challenging the established order, poking fun at the authorities, speaking truth to power — in other words, the gadflies of our society.

It’s stories like these that make you ask yourself, what country am I living in?  South Africa, Russia, somewhere in Eastern Europe?  It is painful to grasp that this is an American story, and it doesn’t take a philosopher to understand the troubling moral issues involved in all of this.

Audio of Hackers Blog


Times-Warner, Comcast, and Others Narrowing Broadband, Widening the Digital Divide

Toronto   Yet more disconcerting news flying in the face of all of us who care about the class and opportunity divides that are permanently widening the inequity between have-a-littles and have-a-lots with emerging reports of metered broadband access to the internet thanks to the relentless efforts of Times-Warner, Comcast and other cable companies, and the totally ineffective and captive regulator of these public resources at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).  The Times published a story on Times-Warner’s squeeze in this direction in San Antonio and South Texas and quoted David Cohen, executive VP of Comcast, leading the cheering squad in the same direction for his outfit.

Times-Warner in Dallas has continued to studiously avoid replying to our digital access coalition in the metroplex about the timing and intent of its special plan for low income family access that was trumpeted and then seemingly forgotten by the FCC nine months ago.  Cohen and Comcast continue to try to brush off their pathetic performance in providing access that was required as part of their agreement with FCC in the acquisition of NBC/Universal by Comcast last year.  Seemingly they want an “A” for effort, when they repeatedly don’t show up for anything but the school play and refuse to do the real work of not public relations, politicking, and marketing (including admitting to up-selling when families seek their lower cost alternative “internet essentials” package), but outreach and facilitation to achieve access to the internet for low income families.  [Cohen expresses umbrage that our coalition will not give him a “pass” on their weak results and limp efforts with this program, but the facts are the facts, and we have long been students of his career – in fact a book on Philly government where he was a main player for years I used as a training exercise for a while at ACORN in the past! – so we actually know he and his company would do much, much better if they would take their commitment and the FCC order seriously, but at this point they are simply posing with the poor and the FCC and others are looking the other way.]   Recently we moved forward with an on-line petition to the FCC, so please join us in demanding action for access to the poor to internet at Comcast.

Studies already indicate that the USA is drifting farther and farther down the list in terms of broadband speed and penetration with Korea now multiples ahead of us and many other countries.   A fellow nailed the problem they are seeing at Times-Warner easily:

They wonder whether strategies like usage-based billing will worsen what is already an economic barrier for some Americans. “It’s like locking the doors to the library,” said Nicholas Longo, the director of Geekdom, a new collaborative work space for small companies in San Antonio.

No surprise that Walter Issacson found in his interviews of Steve Jobs and Bill Gates for his tribute book on Jobs that in a rare moment of agreement both expressed disappointment that computers had meant so little for educational access and achievement.  Rather than opening the world wide to the poor, scaling the wall through costs barriers has been impossible, and the FCC’s continued subordination to the big cable companies has allowed them to monetize the gateways through the public spectrum in ways that are anathema not only to lower income families but to democracy itself.

Ironically, our willingness to accept what we used to call “lifeline rates” in the 1970’s when struggling with constant rate increases with utility companies to insure that there was a right of access to seniors and the very poor is somewhat similar to our desperation to promote access even to the weak offerings of Comcast’s Internet Essentials to at least put millions of our people through the front door of internet access.  These new metering programs would mean even when they fight their way inside they are only going to be able to look at some covered windows and other locked doors that they still will see barred due to their more limited incomes.

We are moving past the realm of farce and into the province of shame now as cable conglomerates are rolling the regulators and the public is punished.


Apple, Times, and Others Advocating for Sweatshops

New Orleans   As improbable as it may sound; sweatshops seem to have a lot of high placed advocates who simply swear by them.  Yes, sweatshops!

In the recent deification of Apple and its co-founder Steven Jobs, there has been unstinting praise for Apple and its high priced, sleek products as a great American success story.  The credible allegations and proofs of how much of Apple’s manufacturing operation rested on the backs of sweatshop labor, particularly at huge manufacturers like FoxConn, were sometimes mentioned in passing, but largely swept under the rug.  Not surprisingly a front page article on the death and demise of American manufacturing featuring both Jobs and Apple prominently also tried to bury the sweatshop reality on which so much of this manufacturing “miracle” exists in a few paragraphs of the very long story.

The reporter and others marveled at how on a whim 8000 workers could be pulled out of bed in company owned and run dormitories and put to work on a last minute changeover.  Wow, the article and others seemed to say, that couldn’t happen here in America.

Well, that’s wrong.  It could happened here in America, but Apple would have to pay for it, and that’s still the real difference.

One fool asked where you could find some thousands of workers in the United States, who would be ready to roll to work.  Hey, just about anywhere, jerkwater!  Has word of the recession gotten to none of these folks?

Even in the pages of the New York Times, if they were interested they can read about the skilled workers by the thousands that have trucked themselves into North Dakota (of all places!) to live in, yes, bunks, trailers, and all manner of man-caves in order to work in the oil industry on the plains.  But, whoops, once again, I should add that they are doing so, because they get paid, and paid pretty damned well to do so!  We saw thousands of workers flood into New Orleans to help on the recovery, but once again they did so on their own dime, because they thought they could make a dollar.  In all of these cases these are workers with crazy, mad skills, too.

The article seemed to say Apple employed 700,000 workers in manufacturing around the world, oh, and 40,000 or so in the USA.  Their spokesperson wanted to make sure all of us knew that the American economy is not “their problem.”  Their problem is only “making a good product.”  Life and business is not that simple, and the responsibilities go much deeper.

This seems to be a problem throughout much of the Times.  Nicholas Kristof did a column that I had to read because it was about Olly Neal from Arkansas, who I had worked with in the 1970’s when he was running the Lee County Clinic.  Posting the article, more than one of my buddies reminded me how they too had to hold their noses to read anything Kristof wrote because he is such a relentless apologist for sweatshops.

Good news that we are really talking about manufacturing.  Bad news that the ideology underpinning the conversation is that there can only be manufacturing at the expense of workers’ rights and wages in sweatshop conditions.

Shame on Apple, the Times, and the rest of the tribe that makes these rationalizations!


Driving Down Ed-cost with E-Education

Detroit                        It is very depressing to read about the inability to make advances in the equity and achievement of all levels of education despite the technological advantages and increasing availability of internet access.  Costs continue to soar at both public and private educational institutions.  E-education options now seem beleaguered by low standards, scams, and reputational issues, even as they should have been developing as real options and opportunities for millions both domestically and globally.  There has to be a way to break through this mess.

I’ve read that Bill Gates and Steve Jobs in a final semi-deathbed conversation agreed that they had been surprised that the advent and growth of computers had in fact NOT contributed more to educational progress and attainment.  I was struck by that failure.  I remember when computers were heralded as the new day for education and the question of whether or not classrooms had computer access was sent as a benchmark of progress.  WTF?!?

I read a long, frightening profile on Peter Thiel, one of the rich-as-Croesus Pay Pal co-founders and tech investors, in the New Yorker on the plane the other day.  He had looked into beginning a high-tech, electronic higher educational institution but abandoned the notion even with his big bucks when he reckoned with the huge status pull of elite institutions like Stanford, Harvard, etc, and realized he couldn’t compete.

I find that discouraging, because it is hard to imagine replacing brick-and-mortar with more equitable and affordable electronic access to education with other configurations of the social and public space in communities substituting for “campus life.” if the argument to teachers, students, and, most importantly, future employers about high, demonstrable, and replicable standards are not present and provable.   Teaching to the test doesn’t work, and I’m intrigued by the notions of “education as apprenticeships” to employment opportunities that I’ve seen recently in Cairo and in practice on a lot of union jobsites, but we need a mass model that works and can stand up in the debate.

I was intrigued by a piece several weeks ago in the Times that made the case for e-lectures becoming more popular, but some a lecture has a lot of growing to do in order to shape a curriculum, and the commitment of professors to both the process and the students would have to also be significant to offer an alternatives.

I’m coming up short.  I hope some mega-domes are working hard to solve this problem, and the word just hasn’t trickled down yet to folks like me.