Quotulatiousness

September 19, 2014

Doctorow – “The time has come to create privacy tools for normal people”

Filed under: Liberty, Technology — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 00:03

In the Guardian, Cory Doctorow says that we need privacy-enhancing technical tools that can be easily used by everyone, not just the highly technical (or highly paranoid) among us:

You don’t need to be a technical expert to understand privacy risks anymore. From the Snowden revelations to the daily parade of internet security horrors around the world – like Syrian and Egyptian checkpoints where your Facebook logins are required in order to weigh your political allegiances (sometimes with fatal consequences) or celebrities having their most intimate photos splashed all over the web.

The time has come to create privacy tools for normal people – people with a normal level of technical competence. That is, all of us, no matter what our level of technical expertise, need privacy. Some privacy measures do require extraordinary technical competence; if you’re Edward Snowden, with the entire NSA bearing down on your communications, you will need to be a real expert to keep your information secure. But the kind of privacy that makes you immune to mass surveillance and attacks-of-opportunity from voyeurs, identity thieves and other bad guys is attainable by anyone.

I’m a volunteer on the advisory board for a nonprofit that’s aiming to do just that: Simply Secure (which launches Thursday at simplysecure.org) collects together some very bright usability and cryptography experts with the aim of revamping the user interface of the internet’s favorite privacy tools, starting with OTR, the extremely secure chat system whose best-known feature is “perfect forward secrecy” which gives each conversation its own unique keys, so a breach of one conversation’s keys can’t be used to snoop on others.

More importantly, Simply Secure’s process for attaining, testing and refining usability is the main product of its work. This process will be documented and published as a set of best practices for other organisations, whether they are for-profits or non-profits, creating a framework that anyone can use to make secure products easier for everyone.

September 12, 2014

When the government steals, they call it “civil forfeiture”

Filed under: Law, Liberty, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 08:53

In Forbes, Jacob Sullum explains the amazingly lenient rules in most states for the government to steal your property:

Three key features of civil forfeiture law give cops this license to steal:

The government does not have to charge you with a crime, let alone convict you, to take your property. Under federal law and the laws of many states, a forfeiture is justified if the government can show, by a preponderance of the evidence, that it is connected to a crime, typically a drug offense. That standard, which amounts to any probability greater than 50 percent, is much easier to satisfy than proof beyond a reasonable doubt, the standard for a criminal trial. Some states allow forfeiture based on probable cause, a standard even weaker than preponderance of the evidence.

The burden of proof is on you. Innocent owners like Mandrel Stuart have to prove their innocence, a reversal of the rule in criminal cases. Meanwhile, the government hangs onto the money, which puts financial stress on the owner and makes it harder for him to challenge the forfeiture.

Cops keep the loot. Local cops and prosecutors who pursue forfeiture under federal law, which is what happened in Stuart’s case, receive up to 80 percent of the proceeds. Some states are even more generous, but others give law enforcement agencies a smaller cut, making federal forfeiture under the Justice Department’s Equitable Sharing Program a tempting alternative. The fact that police have a direct financial interest in forfeitures creates an incentive for pretextual traffic stops aimed at finding money or other property to seize. The Post found that “298 departments and 210 task forces have seized the equivalent of 20 percent or more of their annual budgets since 2008.”

There’s at least some awareness in the Senate that the civil forfeiture rules are being abused:

The Fifth Amendment Integrity Restoration (FAIR) Act, a bill introduced by Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) in July, addresses each of these issues. The FAIR Act changes the standard of proof in federal forfeiture cases from “preponderance of the evidence” to “clear and convincing evidence.” That change does not go as far as the Institute for Justice, a public interest law firm that has been fighting forfeiture abuse for years, would like. I.J. argues that civil forfeiture should be abolished, meaning that a criminal conviction, based on proof beyond a reasonable doubt, would be required for the government to take property allegedly connected to a crime. But Paul’s reform would make it harder for the government to prevail if a forfeiture case goes to trial, which might deter seizures of large sums in situations where the evidence is weak.

September 4, 2014

Orwellian newspaper editing as a game

Filed under: Gaming, Liberty — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 16:22

John Ryan linked to this article about The Westport Independent, which puts you in the position of a newspaper editor in an Orwellian world:

The Westport Independent, a self-described “censorship simulator,” places that editorial power in the hands of players during a time of political unrest in the city of Westport. It’s 1948, and rising rebellions against the government lead to a new bill banning any news outlets that do not comply with the Loyalist Government Guidelines. You play as the editor in chief of an independent newspaper entering its final weeks before the ban.

As editor, you control the censorship of articles, pick headlines, and arrange the layout to tell the truth of your choosing. As with Orwell’s 1984, “in a time of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act.” Will you abide by rules and force-feed your readers the government’s narrative? Or will you defy their guidelines, and print the rebellion’s perspective instead? The city, divided into class-based districts, dynamically responds to everything you print. By shaping public opinion with the stories you choose, you shape the current events that unfold. And by shaping the events, you affect the stories you can cover.

The new absolutism

Filed under: Environment, Liberty, Media, Science — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:12

Brendan O’Neill on the rise of the absolutist mindset in science:

Who do you think said the following: “I always regret it when knowledge becomes controversial. It’s clearly a bad thing, for knowledge to be controversial.” A severe man of the cloth, perhaps, keen to erect a forcefield around his way of thinking? A censorious academic rankled when anyone criticises his work? Actually, it was Brian Cox, Britain’s best-known scientist and the BBC’s go-to guy for wide-eyed documentaries about space. Yes, terrifyingly, this nation’s most recognisable scientist thinks it is a bad thing when knowledge becomes the subject of controversy, which is the opposite of what every man of reason in modern times has said about knowledge.

Mr Cox made his comments in an interview with the Guardian. Discussing climate change, he accused “nonsensical sceptics” of playing politics with scientific fact. He helpfully pointed out what us non-scientific plebs are permitted to say about climate change. “You’re allowed to say, well I think we should do nothing. But what you’re not allowed to do is to claim there’s a better estimate of the way that the climate will change, other than the one that comes out of the computer models.” Well, we are allowed to say that, even if we’re completely wrong, because of a little thing called freedom of speech. Mr Cox admits that his decree about what people are allowed to say on climate change springs from an absolutist position. “The scientific view at the time is the best, there’s nothing you can do that’s better than that. So there’s an absolutism. It’s absolutely the best advice.”

It’s genuinely concerning to hear a scientist — who is meant to keep himself always open to the process of falsifiabilty — describe his position as absolutist, a word more commonly associated with intolerant religious leaders. But then comes Mr Cox’s real blow against full-on debate. “It’s clearly a bad thing, for knowledge to be controversial”, he says. This is shocking, and the opposite of the truth. For pretty much the entire Enlightenment, the reasoned believed that actually it was good — essential, in fact — for knowledge to be treated as controversial and open to the most stinging questioning.

QotD: Freedom of speech

Filed under: Liberty, Quotations — Tags: , — Nicholas Russon @ 00:01

I’ve always been in favor of freedom of expression, but lately I’ve become a free-speech absolutist. It takes all sorts to make a world and I’ve met a lot of them over the years, and I can stand pretty much anything anyone says about anything — until someone says to me, “You can’t say that.” At which point my inclination is to punch his lights out. I do this not just because I’m a violent psychopath with a hair-trigger temper, but to make the important point that in societies where you’re not free to speak your mind — to argue and debate — the only way to express disagreement is through violence.

Mark Steyn, “Yes, We Can (Say That)”, SteynOnline, 2014-02-08

September 2, 2014

QotD: Shouting “fire” in a crowded theatre

Filed under: Law, Liberty, Quotations, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 07:10

First, there’s the shoutout to Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.:

    There is no freedom to shout “fire” in a crowded theater.

Back in 2012 I wrote at length about the context for that Holmes quote. First of all, Professor Rosenbaum — like most Holmes fans — truncates the quote to render it vague. What Holmes actually said was “[t]he most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic.”

But more importantly, Professor Rosenbaum — like most who misquote Holmes — ignores the context. To summarize rather than make you read my lengthy post: (1) Holmes made the analogy in deciding a shockingly brutal and censorious series of cases that are no longer good law, in which the Supreme Court gave the government free reign to jail people who criticized or agitated against American participation in World War I; (2) Holmes later repented of that position, undermined that line of cases through decisions he wrote or joined, and articulated a far more speech-protective line of authority that remains the law today, and (3) if you are fond of Holmes’ rhetorical flourishes, you ought to know he was the sort of statist asshole who said things like “three generations of imbeciles are enough” whilst upholding the right of the government forcibly to sterilize people deemed undesirable.

In other words, when you throw around the “shout fire in a crowded theater” quote, you’re echoing the rhetoric of a tyranny-cheerleader whose logic was later abandoned by everyone, including himself.

Ken White, “Professor Thane Rosenbaum Deceptively Carries On The Tradition of Censorship-Cheerleading”, Popehat, 2014-02-03

September 1, 2014

Philadelphia’s growing addiction to civil forfeiture

Filed under: Law, Liberty, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:25

In Forbes, Nick Sibilla explains how the city of Philadelphia uses the civil forfeiture laws to enrich city coffers and oppress the residents:

Chris Sourovelis has never had any trouble with the law or been accused of any crime. But that hasn’t stopped the City of Philadelphia from trying to take his home.

The Sourouvelis family, along with thousands of others in Philadelphia, is living a Kafkaesque nightmare: Their property is considered guilty; they must prove their innocence and the very prosecutors they’re fighting can profit from their misery. Now the Institute for Justice has filed a major class-action lawsuit to end these abuses of power.

Back in March, Chris’s son was caught selling $40 worth of drugs outside of the home. With no previous arrests or a prior record, a court ordered him to attend rehab. But the very day Sourovelis was driving his son to begin treatment, he got a frantic call from his wife. Without any prior notice, police evicted the Sourovelises and seized the house, using a little-known law known as “civil forfeiture.”

Law enforcement barred the family from living in their own home for over a week. The family could only return home if they banned their son from visiting and relinquished some of their constitutional rights. Adding to the cruel irony, their son has already completed rehab, ending his punishment by the city. “If this can happen to me and my family, it can happen to anybody,” Sourovelis said.

Under civil forfeiture, property owners do not have to be convicted of a crime, or even charged with one, to permanently lose their property. Instead, the government can forfeit a property if it’s found to “facilitate” a crime, no matter how tenuous the connection. So rather than sue the owner, in civil forfeiture proceedings, the government sues the property itself, leading to surreal case names like Commonwealth of Pennsylvania v. The Real Property and Improvements Known as 2544 N. Colorado St.

In other words, thanks to civil forfeiture, the government punishes innocent people for the crimes other people might have committed.

Update: As Eve Harris reminded me, civil forfeiture is not a US-only issue, and the police in British Columbia have been feeding cases to the province’s Civil Forfeiture Office (CFO) for further action even when no criminal charges are filed (and sometimes even when the police have violated Charter rights in the process). BC’s CFO was established in 2006 and since then has generated about $41 million in proceeds from civil forfeiture actions. Six other provinces also have civil forfeiture laws, but BC is leading the pack in the scale and scope of their activities. Eve also sent a link to a National Post article (which I can’t quote from without paying a licensing fee, which is why I rarely if ever link to that newspaper).

August 29, 2014

QotD: Answering the question “how should we live?”

Filed under: Liberty, Politics, Quotations, USA — Tags: , — Nicholas Russon @ 00:01

One of the biggest problems facing the Right these days is an inability to answer the question, “How should we live?” One reason for this is that we don’t want the government imposing an answer. Another reason is that we rightly don’t want to tell other people how to live. A third is that the conservatives who do try to tell everyone how to live are simply buzzkills and pariahs in the mainstream culture. A fourth reason is that we simply assume that the institutions of civil society that we draw meaning from are adequate for others to draw meaning from as well. And maybe they are — but something is stopping a lot of people from drawing sustenance from the Burkean little platoons of civil society. And, as a result, many are also having trouble making the most of what capitalism has to offer.

This was my point about how the Constitution is powerless against Satan. A healthy society should not have to resort to constitutional arguments to explain why building a shrine to devil-worshippers on public land next to the Ten Commandments is incredibly stupid. Indeed, if all you have left are constitutional arguments, you’ve lost.

“Today, the New Left is rushing in to fill the spiritual vacuum at the center of our free and capitalist society,” Irving Kristol wrote over three decades ago in Two Cheers for Capitalism. Indeed, because they are liberated from the need to pay tribute to the idols of the old order, the Left has always had an easier time telling people how they should live. Conservatives — who wish to conserve what is good or even eternal about the old order — are always at a disadvantage in this regard. (Our advantage is that our ideas may be boring but they have been proven to work. “What is conservatism?” Abraham Lincoln asked. “Is it not adherence to the old and tried, against the new and untried?”)

Thanks to the mostly healthy influence of libertarianism, conservatives have lost interest in making arguments about right and wrong, good and evil, honorable and dishonorable, preferring instead to fall back on the principles of the Constitution, federalism, and individual liberty. We’ve largely gotten out of the business of telling people how to live. And that’s probably a good thing, at least in most circumstances.

The problem is that the Left hasn’t gotten out of that business — at all. It is selling people an answer to “How should we live?” It’s fine for us to point out the deficiencies of their offer. But it would be nice if conservatives had a counter-offer that people wanted to hear.

Jonah Goldberg, “It’s Still Only Two Cheers for Capitalism”, The Goldberg File, 2014-01-31

August 28, 2014

Conservatives like small government, except in fighting the drug war

Filed under: Law, Liberty, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:51

Jonathan Adler on the odd blind spot among many conservatives who support states making local decisions (the 50 laboratories of democracy model), except when it comes to things like marijuana:

In 2014, voters in Colorado and Washington state voted to legalize marijuana possession within their states. This November, voters in Oregon, Alaska and the District of Columbia will get the chance to follow suit. Voters in Florida will also decide whether to join the approximately 20 states which allow marijuana possession and use for medicinal purposes. Whatever these states decide, however, marijuana will remain illegal under federal law.

Conservative Republicans often talk about the need to constrain the power of the federal government. On everything from environmental regulation to education policy, Republican officeholders argue that individual states should be able to adopt their own policy priorities, free from federal interference. Yet many of these same people are silent when the question turns to marijuana.

Earlier this year, the House of Representatives voted to cut off Drug Enforcement Administration funding for raids on medical marijuana dispensaries in states where medical marijuana is legal. The measure passed with the support of 49 Republicans. This is a significant increase over the last time such a limitation on the DEA had been proposed, when only 28 Republicans supported respecting state choices on medical marijuana, but it still represents less than one-quarter of the GOP caucus. So many Republicans who believe it’s federal overreach when federal law regulates health insurance or power plant emissions think its just fine when the federal government prohibits the possession of a plant, even where authorized under state law.

August 27, 2014

Reason.tv – P.J. O’Rourke on Millennials and Baby Boomers

Filed under: History, Liberty, Media, USA — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 08:12

Published on 26 Aug 2014

“Just this whole process of going through the baby boom’s history, I began to realize what a nicer society — kinder, more decent society — that we live in today than the society when I was a kid,” says P.J. O’Rourke, best-selling author of Holidays in Hell, Parliament of Whores, and many other titles.

O’Rourke sat down with Reason‘s Nick Gillespie at Freedom Fest 2014 in Las Vegas to discuss his new book, The Baby Boom: How it Got That Way and It Wasn’t My Fault and I’ll Never Do it Again. As the father of three kids born between 1997 and 2004, he also lays down some thoughts about millennials, noting that they live in a much nicer, more tolerant world than the one in which he grew up. “I don’t think my 10-year old boy has ever been in a fist fight,” says O’Rourke, who was born in 1947. “I mean there might be a little scuffling but I don’t think he’s has ever had that kind of violent confrontation that was simply part of the package when I was a kid.”

He also feels that the internet “fragments information” in a way that destroys the sweep of history, at least at first. “You end up with mosaic information,” he says. “Now, I think over time the kids put these mosaics together but I don’t think the internet itself lends itself to the sweep of history.”

The interview also includes a tour of O’Rourke’s long and varied career in journalism, from his humble beginnings writing for an underground alt-weekly to his time as editor of National Lampoon and his incredible work as a foreign correspondent for Rolling Stone to his current position as columnist at the Daily Beast.

A prominent libertarian, O’Rourke also discusses the difficulties in selling a political philosophy devoted to taking power away from politicians.

“If libertarianism were easy to explain and if it weren’t so easy to exaggerate the effects of libertarianism — people walking around with ‘Legalize Heroin!’ buttons and so on — I think it would’ve been done already,” says O’Rourke. “But the problem is, of course, is that libertarianism isn’t political. It’s anti-political, really. It wants to take things out of the political arena.”

QotD: More offensensitivity

Filed under: Liberty, Quotations — Tags: , — Nicholas Russon @ 00:01

‘It’s now very common to hear people say, “I’m rather offended by that”, as if that gives them certain rights. It’s no more than a whine. It has no meaning, it has no purpose, it has no reason to be respected as a phrase. “I’m offended by that.” Well, so fucking what?’

Stephen Fry, quoted by David Smith in “I saw hate in a graveyard – Stephen Fry”, Guardian, 2005-06-05.

August 25, 2014

QotD: Words have meanings

Filed under: Liberty, Politics, Quotations — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 00:01

There is a price to be paid for divorcing actions and concepts from the words that describe them. Government, and the law that undergirds it, is made up of words. Devalue the words, strip them of meaning, and you do the same thing to the concepts those words describe. Action follows Thought, and for Thought to exist there must be the Word.

This was George Orwell’s central insight when he invented Newspeak for his novel 1984. Language doesn’t just describe what we think about, and allow us to communicate with each other; in a major way, it actually determines what we think about, and how we think. We conceptualize the way we do, even in the abstract, using constructs of language — even mathematics and computer code is a kind of language. Orwell understood that the Word could actually be turned into a weapon, an invisible knife to cut away a man’s ability to think (and thus, to act). All you have to do is convince a man that the Word he’s hearing means something other than what he thought it meant … or can mean anything, really. Or nothing at all. Science, history, literature, even music — they evaporate like a puddle in the hot sun because the Words used to build them stop conveying meaning.

Words have meaning. They must have meaning, for if we are to communicate at all we must transmit meaning from one person to another. This is perhaps the most unforgivable part of the postmodernist assault on the language itself: it has weakened our ability to even describe the loss of meaning.

Monty, “In the beginning was the Word”, Ace of Spades HQ, 2014-01-27.

August 20, 2014

Vice.com – prepare yourself for President Rand Paul

Filed under: Liberty, Politics, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 00:01

Vice is not a venue that normally has nice things to say about any Republican, but they go out of their way to do so for Rand Paul in this profile by Grace Wyler:

For the past two years, from the moment Ron Paul called off the Revolution and headed back to Texas, the political establishment has been eagerly waiting for his son, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, to run for president. They’ve watched with amusement as Paul popped up around the country — in Iowa and New Hampshire, at Evangelical powwows, Howard University, the ACLU — and at the top of early 2016 polls. Unlike his father, it’s hard to deny that he Paul is a “serious” candidate. But the idea that he could actually be elected President of the United States? That’s never been taken very seriously.

But with half of the GOP’s 2016 bench trying to avoid prison time and Democrats spinning their wheels in Obama’s second-term rut, the idea of a President Rand Paul is starting to sound less and less crazy. On issues like criminal justice reform, mass surveillance, and drug policy, Paul is casting himself as Another Option, carving out new space as the candidate who can make room for both small-government libertarians and other voters — young people and minorities, mostly — who don’t see either party as particularly effective or relevant. And some of what he’s saying makes a lot of sense.

Take Paul’s comments about the events in Ferguson, Missouri. In an op-ed published by Time on Thursday, the Kentucky Senator laid out a remarkably blunt, even angry, assessment of the racial tensions at the center of this week’s riots, linking policing issues to his broader critique of the federal government.

[...]

On other issues, too, Paul has been able to find unexpected common ground with voters outside of the aging, white GOP base. His views on issues like medical marijuana, federal sentencing laws, government spying, drones, and military intervention are much more closely aligned with public opinion — particularly among young voters — than those of any of his potential 2016 Republican rivals, and also of Hillary Clinton, the presumptive Democratic nominee. This is probably not, as last week’s New York Times Magazine suggested, the harbinger of some national libertarian moment. But it does give Paul the space to expand his appeal with the younger generation of voters — something the Republican Party admits it needs to do if it ever wants to win another presidential election.

August 19, 2014

Barack Obama’s clemency deficit

Filed under: Law, Liberty, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 08:31

I’ve posted items like this before, showing that President Obama is the least merciful president of modern times (and the only presidents less clement were Washington, Harrison, and Garfield). Now the New York Times editorial board joins the chorus:

On Jan. 20, 2009, in his last moments as president, George W. Bush gave Barack Obama a hard-earned bit of wisdom: whatever you do, he said, pick a pardon policy and stick with it.

It was sage advice, yet, more than five years later, President Obama has not heeded it. As a result, as one former pardon attorney has said, the clemency power is “the least respected and most misunderstood” power a president has. Yet it is granted explicitly by the Constitution as a crucial backstop to undo an unjust conviction or to temper unreasonably harsh punishments approved by lawmakers. It also can restore basic rights, like the right to vote, that many people lose upon being convicted.

In the past, presidents made good use of it, but as tough-on-crime policies became more popular, the number of grants fell dramatically. Judging by the numbers, Mr. Obama, who has, so far, granted just 62 clemency petitions, is the least merciful president in modern history.

[...]

Mr. Obama’s failure to wield the pardon power more forcefully is all the more frustrating when considered against the backdrop of endless accusations that he is exercising too much executive authority, sometimes — his critics say — arbitrarily if not illegally. In this case, he should take advantage of a crucial power that the Constitution unreservedly grants him.

As Jacob Sullum said, “Obama deserves credit for this amazing accomplishment: He has made Richard Nixon look like a softie.”

QotD: Power corrupts, police and conservative edition

Filed under: Law, Liberty, Quotations, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 00:01

When this principle of “power corrupts” is the driving force behind a conservative’s approach to the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of government, why are so many conservatives unwilling to apply it to those who enforce many of the government’s laws? In the days since Michael Brown’s death, we’ve seen video footage of police firing teargas onto people’s private property (language warning). We’ve heard reports of police arresting journalists who were not engaging in any illegal activity. If power seems to be corrupting those charged with keeping the peace during the recent unrest in Ferguson, why do some conservatives refuse to consider the mere possibility that a police officer may have been corrupted by power in the event that sparked the unrest?

The answer is, I think, quite simple. For many conservatives, especially those of us living in nice, comfy suburbs, it’s hard to apply the “power corrupts” doctrine to law enforcement because we’ve never seen corrupted enforcers of the law. We’ve never been wrongly arrested. We’ve never witnessed our children put in jail based on the false reports of police officers. We’ve never seen our neighbors beaten or tazed without cause. And in the extremely unlikely scenario that a police officer drove into our neighborhood and murdered our unarmed friend in cold blood, we cannot possibly fathom a scenario where the justice system wouldn’t be on our side and where that police officer wouldn’t spend the rest of his life in jail. Therefore Brown must have been a violent, gang-sign flashing thug, foolish enough to think he could swipe a cop’s weapon because, in our minds, there’s no conceivable way that a police officer would gun down an innocent man.

But just because we don’t see the corruption of law enforcement in our own lives doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist. Police brutality is not the Bogeyman. It’s not an urban legend witnessed by none but told by many. It’s not a myth created by a primitive tribe that is too simple to understand the true source of the brokenness in its communities. Black people believe in police brutality for the same reason they believe in rain — because they’ve felt it.

Hans Fiene, “Michael Brown And The Conservative Inconsistency”, The Federalist, 2014-08-15.

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