One-Sided Contracts

Yesterday I once again reiterated the fact that if you don’t own your infrastructure, you’re at the mercy of whoever does. Today I want to discuss why third-party providers can so easily pull the rug out from underneath you.

Businesses all over the world rely on third-party providers for any number of goods and services. They do so without too much concern that those third-parties are going to suddenly kneecap them. How do they accomplish such a feat? The answer is contracts. Large business deals aren’t made by one business clicking the accept button on a provider’s terms of service of end user license agreement. They’re made by lawyers on both sides negotiating terms. If one party only offers a deal where they can do whatever they want and the other party simply has to accept it, the other party will likely walk away. But such one-sided deals are common with online service providers.

If you sign up for an account on Amazon Web Services, Digital Ocean, GoDaddy, or any other hosting provider, you are presented with terms of service that you have to accept in order to use the service. There is no opportunity for you to negotiate. If you bother to read the terms of services, you’ll realize that they tend to put a lot of obligations on you as the paying customer but almost none of them as the provider. The terms of service usually allow the provider to cut you off for any reason without notice. But do you get any guarantees in return? Do they guarantee you uptime, reliability, or anything along those lines? If they do, do they agree to pay a financial penalty if they fail to provide what they guarantee? Do they offer a concise list of specific terms that are the only terms under which they are allowed to terminate the agreement without paying a financial penalty to you? They don’t.

I’ve been fortunate enough to observe contract negotiations between businesses. It’s both an interesting and painstaking process. They can take weeks, months, and even years. During that time both parties will strive to ensure every detail that could impact them is hammered out. Neither party wants to be in a position where the other can screw them.

Every end user license agreement and terms of service you’ve accepted over the years was likely entirely one-sided. The company you’re paying probably reserved all of the power for themselves. It’s likely that they dictated who will arbitrate any disagreement between them and you (if any disagreement is even allowed to you under the terms). This is one reason, perhaps the biggest reason, you can’t rely on a third-party service provider. If you decide to host your site on Amazon Web Services, Digital Ocean, GoDaddy, etc., they can remove your site for any reason without any advanced warning. In return you get to take it and ask for more.

No competent business would knowingly enter a one-sided contract. Take a page from their book. If you’re looking to purchase a good or service and the only offer is a one-sided agreement where the provider gets all of the power, walk away.

Silence!

The 2020 presidential election turned out exactly as I and anybody else who has witnessed two children fighting over a toy expected. The only thing missing was Biden giving Trump a wedgie and calling him a poophead after his victory was certified.

What has been far more interesting to me is the response by our technology overlords. It seems that online service providers are participating in a competition to see who can best signal their hatred of Trump and the Republican Party. MSN is acting as the high score record keeper and listing every online service that has banned Trump or anything related to the Republican Party. Some of the entries were predictable. For example, Facebook and Twitter both banned Trump and Reddit announce that it banned /r/DonaldTrump.

Some of the entries are a bit more interesting (although still not surprising). Apple and Google both banned Parler (basically a shittier Facebook marketed at Republicans) from their respective app stores. Then Amazon, not wanting to be shown up, announced it had banned Parler from using its AWS services (which Parler stupidly chose as its hosting provider). For over a decade I’ve been telling anybody who will listen about the dangers of relying on tightly controlled platforms and other people’s infrastructure (often referred to as “the cloud”). These announcements by Apple, Google, and Amazon are why.

If you use an iOS device, you are stuck playing by Apple’s rules. If Apple says you’re no longer allowed to install an app to access an online service, then you’re no longer allowed to install an app that accesses that online service. The same is true, although to a lesser extent (for now), with Android. Although Android is open source Google exercises control over the platform through access to its proprietary apps. If a device manufacturer wants to include Gmail, Google Maps, and other proprietary Google apps on their Android devices, they need to agree to Google’s terms of service. The saving grace with Android is that its open source nature allows unrestricted images such as LineageOS to be released, but they generally only work on a small list of available Android devices and installing them is sometimes challenging. I’ve specifically mentioned iOS and Android, but the same is true for any proprietary platform including Windows and macOS. If Microsoft and Apple want to prohibit an app from running on Windows and macOS, they have a number of options available to them including adding the app to their operating systems’ build-in anti-malware tools. The bottom line is if you’re running a proprietary platform, you don’t own your system.

Anybody who has been reading this blog for any length of time knows that I self-host my online services. This blog for instance is running on a computer in my basement. Self-hosting comes with a lot of downsides, but one significant upside is that the only person who can erase my online presence is me. If you’re relying on a third-party service provider such as Amazon, Digital Ocean, GoDaddy, etc., your online service is entirely at their mercy. Parler wasn’t the first service to learn this lesson the hard way and certainly won’t be the last.

I’ve had to think about these things for most of my life because my philosophical views have almost always been outside the list of acceptable ideas. I developed absolutist views on gun rights, free speech, and the concept of an accused individual being innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt in school and continue to maintain those views today. Opposing all forms of gun and speech restrictions doesn’t make you popular in K-12 and especially doesn’t make you popular in college. Being the person who wants a thorough investigation to determine guilt during a witch hunt generally only results in you being called a witch too. However, that list of acceptable ideas has continuously shortened throughout my life. Absolutist or near absolutist views on free speech were common when I was young. They became less common when I was in college, but the general principle of free speech was still espoused by the majority. Today it seems more common to find people who actually believe words can be dangerous and demand rigid controls on speech. It also seems that any political views slightly right of Leninism have been removed from the list.

If you hold views that are outside of the list of acceptable ideas or are in danger of being removed from the list, you need to think about censorship avoidance. If you haven’t already started a plan to migrate away from proprietary platforms, now is a good time to start. Likewise, if you administer any online services and haven’t already developed a plan to migrate to self-hosted infrastructure, now is actually at least a year too late, but still a better time to start than tomorrow. Our technology overlords have made it abundantly clear that they will not allow wrongthink to be produced or hosted on their platforms.

Altering the Deal Again

Most people don’t realize the power that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) wields. The agency can make an arbitrary decision and it effectively becomes law. What makes this matter worse is that the agency isn’t bound by previous decisions. It can (and frequently had) change its mind whenever it wants.

Case in point, the ATF previously decided that using an arm brace to shoulder a pistol was a felony. It later changed its mind. Now…

It sounds like the ATF is secretly (another problem with its ability to arbitrarily change its mind is that the process can happen behind closed doors) changing its mind about arm braces again:

Congressman Matt Gaetz announced today on his podcast the ATF is crafting secret rules restricting the possession of certain pistol braces by American citizens, and that he has sent them a letter demanding they stop.

“We understand that ATF is currently considering restricting one arm brace model owned by over 700,000 Americans,” Congressman Gaetz writes along with six other members of Congress. “We strongly urge ATF to cease taking any actions and reconsider or rescind any secret determinations which call into question the legality of firearms owned by millions of law-abiding Americans.”

If the ATF decides that possessing some or all arm braces is a felony, then possessing them becomes a felony. No bills have to be written, no laws have to be passed or signed. One day you own a perfectly legal firearm and the next you’re a felon because you possess of a short barreled rifle. The only difference between the day that you became a felon and the day prior is that somebody in a government agency changed their mind.

Fascism Is More Dangerous than COVID-19

St. George Carlin once said, “Rights aren’t rights if someone can take them away. They’re privileges. That’s all we’ve ever had in this country, is a bill of temporary privileges. And if you read the news even badly, you know that every year the list gets shorter and shorter.” While our temporary privileges are in a constant state of erosion, they seem to erode the fastest during emergency situations. During this COVID-19 outbreak we’ve seen our rights erode even faster than they did immediately after the 9/11 attacks. Now you can’t even leave your home without permission:

Citations for violating Gov. Tiim Walz’ orders to stay at home and halt business operations have started trickling in across the state, including a few in the metro area.

As of Monday, eight people were charged with violating the emergency orders. The orders require bars and restaurants to halt dine-in services as well as having residents largely stay at home. Violating the order is a misdemeanor with a fine of up to $1,000 or 90 days in jail.

I’m not going to discuss the danger of COVID-19 because it’s irrelevant. Instead I’m going to argue that no matter how dangerous COVID-19 is, fascism is more dangerous.

What we’ve seen in the last few weeks is most major governments in the world descend further into fascist ideology. This descent has been happening with alarming speed here in the United States. Not only is a majority of the population under a stay at home order imprisoned in their homes, but the national borders are closed, some state borders are being closed, passports aren’t being issued or renewed, the federal government is telling private companies what to produce, and the Federal Reserve is considering buying stakes in private companies. And this is just the United States. Other countries are following suit. For example, France is nationalizing businesses and Spain is nationalizing private hospitals. Disregard the claims of the nationalizations being temporary. In the government thesaurus temporary is a synonym for permanent.

So we now need permission to leave our homes, the borders are closed, nobody can get papers to travel outside of the country, and private businesses are being controlled by the state. This is a recipe for bad times to come, because these are all planks in the ideology of fascism. Anybody who had read even a base level of history of the consequences of fascism should be aware that the death toll was higher than even the most bleak COVID-19 projections. Moreover, people living under fascist regimes were in a constant state of anxiety because they could disappear at any moment for the transgression of angering a random government goon… or a neighbor.

The world is moving in a dangerous direction and COVID-19 is the emergency being exploited to justify it. If people continue to accept their governments grabbing for more and more power, they will soon wake up to a world far more dangerous and frightening than one where nobody took any precautions against COVID-19. Unfortunately, I know most of the world will ignore this warning because the majority of people are more scared of the threat they see than the threat they don’t see.

Cutting Off Power and Water

I’m going to start this post by quoting myself from yesterday:

It is also easy to see how the state was able to become more authoritarian as more and more people migrated into tightly packed cities (there’s a reason the most authoritarian regimes tightly control travel) and as the state claimed monopoly powers over critical infrastructure such as electricity, power, and sanitation. If you live in a city, the very things you depend on to survive are likely entirely controlled by the state and that gives it literal power of life and death.

I think the universe may be conspiring to prove my point:

The mayor went on to announce the “business ambassadors program” — an effort to get nonessential businesses to close.

“This behavior is irresponsible and selfish,” he said of those that remain open.

He said the Department of Water and Power will shut off services for the businesses that don’t comply with the “safer at home” ordinance.

If you ask a random Joe on the street why the state usually claims a monopoly on providing utilities like power and water, the odds are extremely good that they will claim that those things are natural monopolies. It’s a bullshit claim because natural monopolies don’t exist. The real reason the state claims a monopoly on those things is because those things provide it tremendous power. A lack of power and water will cripple most businesses (and residences) this day and age.

Go Be Homeless Somewhere Else

Remember Minneapolis’s Hooverville? As usual the overlords of the city wanted to sweep their homeless problem under the rug but were hampered by the fact that the media was giving heavy coverage to the camp. So instead of the usual tactic of sending the police in under the auspice of “public health” to breakup the camp, Minneapolis’s overlords had to go through the work of setting up a homeless shelter. Now that the media coverage has subsided, the homeless individuals who were brought to the shelter are being kicked to the curb:

On Monday, officials in Minneapolis capped a yearlong effort to clear the state’s biggest homeless encampment by closing the temporary emergency shelter on Cedar Avenue, where they had forced residents of the camp to move roughly five months ago.

Won’t this result in another Hooverville popping up? Of course it will and the city official know that:

Officials are aware of plans for another tent settlement this year and are working on a plan for responding to it.

I’m betting the plan involves nipping the Hooverville in the bud before it gets national coverage. Nobody involved in the Minneapolis government wants a repeat of last year’s embarrassment (which wasn’t the existence of the Hooverville but the media coverage that prevented the government from sending in law enforcers to confiscate the tents and crack some homeless skulls in the hopes of convincing them to go be homeless somewhere else).

Tyranny in New Zealand Isn’t Beginning

In the wake of New Zealand’s announced gun ban I’ve seen a lot of pro-gun people stating that this is the beginning of tyranny in New Zealand. However, tyranny in New Zealand isn’t beginning, it’s already well established. Yesterday I posted not just about the new gun ban but about New Zealand’s law that grants the government permission to lock somebody up for up to 14 years for publishing objectionable material. It shouldn’t surprise anybody that the government not only gets to jail people for posting objectionable material but it also gets to define what is objectionable.

None of this is new either. There is a long tradition of censorship in New Zealand, including filtering Internet traffic. As an amusing aside, New Zealand’s Internet filtering came almost immediately after its government promised not to implement Internet filtering:

In March 2009, the Minister for Communications and IT, Steven Joyce, stated that the government had been following the controversy surrounding Internet censorship in Australia, and had no plans to introduce something similar in New Zealand. He acknowledged that filtering can cause delays for all Internet users, and that those who are determined to get around any filter will find a way to do so.[5] Later in July of the same year, it was reported that the Department of Internal Affairs had plans to introduce Internet filtering in New Zealand.[6][7] The project, using Swedish software, cost $150,000.[8] February 2010 saw the first meeting of the Independent Reference Group, who are tasked with overseeing the responsible implementation of the DCEFS.[9] In March 2010, a year after Joyce stated that there were no plans to do so, the Department of Internal Affairs stated that the filter was operational and in use.[10] Tech Liberty NZ objected to the launch of the filter, but DIA defended the system and noted that trials over two years showed that the filter did not affect the speed or stability of the internet.[11]

Free speech, which is usually considered a cornerstone of a free society, hasn’t existed in New Zealand for a very long time. Banning firearms is just another step in the direction New Zealand has been traveling for a long time now.

Keeping the Slaves in Their Place

Not only is New Zealand punishing gun owners, it is also punishing slaves who expressed themselves improperly:

The United States is unusual in offering near-absolute protection for free speech under the First Amendment. Most other countries—even liberal democracies—have more extensive systems of online and offline censorship. That difference has been on display this week as New Zealand authorities have begun prosecuting people for sharing copies of last week’s white supremacist mass shooting in Christchurch and for posting hate speech in the wake of the attack.

[…]

Distributing objectionable materials online comes with stiff legal penalties. One man—the 44-year-old owner of an insulation company with alleged neo-Nazi sympathies—has been arrested and charged with two counts of distributing objectionable materials in violation of New Zealand’s Films, Videos, and Publications Classification Act. He is being held without bail and could be sentenced to as much as 14 years in prison for each offense.

If you want to judge some of humanity and find them wanting, go to the comments section of that story and read all of the comments by the fascists who support this nonsense (or, just as bad in my opinion, believe the punishment is too severe but otherwise support the law).

I personally object to the ideas expressed by white supremacists and pretty much every other type of collectivist. I’ll even remove their garbage from my site. However, I object even more strongly against the idea that a government should be allowed to punish somebody for what they say, even if it’s the vilest thing imaginable. But I learned long ago that I’m a rather rare breed because I believe individual freedom trumps the demands of the unwashed masses (often referred to as democracy).

Putting the Slaves in Their Proper Place

Once again proving that the concept of due process isn’t acknowledged even in so-called liberal democracies, the overlords in New Zealand have announced that in the aftermath of the Christchurch attacks they’re not just punishing the shooter, but they’re also punishing every gun owner in the nation:

New Zealand will ban all types of semi-automatic weapons and assault rifles following the Christchurch attacks, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has said.

The announcement comes less than a week after 50 people were killed at two mosques, allegedly by a lone gunman.

Ms Ardern said she expected new legislation to be in place by 11 April, saying: “Our history changed forever. Now, our laws will too.”

Just because you had no hand in the commission of a crime doesn’t mean you can’t be punished. Now the slaves in New Zealand will join their counterparts in most of the other Commonwealth nations in being all but entirely disarmed.

This Is What Democracy Looks Like

Ars Technica ran this story with the title China’s “democracy” includes mandatory apps, mass chat surveillance. The important part to note is the scare quotes around the word democracy. From the article:

As the National People’s Congress gathers in Beijing for the beginning of China’s “Two Sessions” political season, state media is making an international propaganda push on social media—including on platforms blocked by China’s “Great Firewall”—to promote China’s “system of democracy.”

[…]

That system of democracy apparently involves mass surveillance to tap into the will of the people. While China’s growth as a surveillance state has been well-documented, the degree to which the Chinese leadership uses digital tools to shape the national political landscape and to control Chinese citizens has grown even further recently. That’s because authorities have been tapping directly into Chinese Communist Party (CCP) members’ and other Chinese citizens’ online activities and social media profiles.

I’m using the Ars Technica article for illustrative purposes but the general attitude amongst Americans seem to be that China isn’t actually a democracy. However, democracy is a system where voters have the opportunity to gang up against each other. This inevitably results is a paranoid police state where everybody has voted to surveil and punish everybody else.

The primary difference between China and apparently freer democracies is where they started. Take the United States for example. It started with an almost powerless federal government and a strong mythology about individual freedom. It took a great deal of time for voters to first vote a larger government into existence and then vote to wield it against each other. The People’s Republic of China, other the other hand, started with a much more powerful government so there was no delay from voters having to first vote it more power before they could wield it against each other.

The things for which us enlightened people of the glorious Western democracies mock China are in our future. Just look at the massive surveillance apparatuses in the United States and United Kingdom. There is scarcely a thing you can do or a place you can go that isn’t surveilled by some government entity. The Ars Technica article discusses the effort China is putting into propagandizing its party members but the author likely failed to recognize the similarities between those efforts and the efforts in Western public education systems to propagandize young children. While most Western democracies aren’t as overt about controlling their news outlets as China is, all of the major supposedly independent media outlets are little more than government propaganda machines (how else are reporters going to get access to the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room or get themselves invited to the White House Correspondents’ Dinner).

Make not mistake, what we’re witnesses in China today is the endgame of any democratic system. To insinuate that China isn’t a democracy is to misunderstand what a democracy truly is.