A Glimmer of Hope for a Decentralized Internet

If you don’t own your online services, you’re at the mercy of whoever does. This rule has always been true, but hasn’t been obvious until recently. Service providers have become increasingly tyrannical and arbitrary with the exercise of their control. More and more people are finding themselves banned from services like Facebook and YouTube. Compounding the issue is that the reasons given for the bans are often absurd and that’s assuming any any reasons is given at all.

This type of abusive relationship isn’t good for anybody, but is especially dangerous to individuals with money on the table. Imagine investing years of your life in building up a profitable business on a service like YouTube only to have Google take it away without providing so much as a reason. Some content creators on YouTube are beginning to acknowledge that risk and are taking actions to gain control over their fate:

Whether he’s showing off astronomically expensive computer gaming hardware or dumpster-diving for the cheapest PC builds possible, Linus Sebastian’s videos always strike a chord, and have made him one of the most popular tech personalities on YouTube.

But Google-owned YouTube gets most episodes of Linus Tech Tips a week late.

Now, they debut on his own site called Floatplane, which attracts a much smaller crowd.

A handful of content creators are mentioned in the article. Most of them are too nice or perhaps timid to state the real reasons they’re seeking alternatives to YouTube: YouTube has become a liability. Google; like Facebook, Amazon, Twitter, and other large online service providers; has been hard at work destroying all of the goodwill it built up over its lifetime. There’s no way to know whether a video you upload to YouTube today will be available tomorrow. There isn’t even a guarantee that your account will be around tomorrow. If you post something that irritates the wrong person, or more accurately the wrong machine learning algorithm, it will be removed and your account may be suspended for a few days if you’re lucky or deleted altogether if you’re unlucky. And when your content and account are removed, you have little recourse. There’s nobody you can call. The most you can do is send an e-mail and hope that either a person or machine learning algorithm sees it and have a bit of pity on you.

I’m ecstatic that this recent uptick in censorship is happening. In my opinion centralization of the Internet is dangerous. Large service providers like Google are proving my point. They are also forcing people to decentralize, which advances my goals. So less anybody think I’m ungrateful I want to close this post by giving a sincere thank you to companies like Google, Facebook, Twitter, and Amazon for being such complete bastards. Their actions are doing wonders for my cause of decentralizing the Internet.

It’s Crises All the Way Down

I assume that the people who watch and believe what passes for news today feel hopeless. Why? Because all news is bad news and crises never end, they merely turn into new crises.

Take the overpopulation crisis as an example. For most of my life I have been hearing about it. Even when I was in elementary school, teachers were warning us kids that too many people were consuming too many resources and we faced a bleak future because of it. The narrative continued throughout my high school and college careers. Today the news is reporting about the worldwide drop in fertility rates. This must mean that the population crisis has been averted and the future is looking brighter than it was, right? Wrong! The overpopulation crisis has turned into the baby bust crisis:

The U.S. is already below the so-called “replacement level” by some measures, meaning fewer young people to support the country’s otherwise aging population.

Myers said of the decline, “That’s a crisis.”

“We need to have enough working-age people to carry the load of these seniors, who deserve their retirement, they deserve all their entitlements, and they’re gonna live out another 30 years,” he said. “Nobody in the history of the globe has had so many older people to deal with.”

What the fuck? How did we snatch defeat from the jaws of victory? We did exactly what the experts told us to do! We had fewer babies! How did we end up facing yet another crisis? To answer that I will turn to George Orwell:

The war is not meant to be won, it is meant to be continuous. Hierarchical society is only possible on the basis of poverty and ignorance. This new version is the past and no different past can ever have existed. In principle the war effort is always planned to keep society on the brink of starvation. The war is waged by the ruling group against its own subjects and its object is not the victory over either Eurasia or East Asia, but to keep the very structure of society intact.

The crises you hear about in the news are not meant to be solved. They’re meant to be continuous. They exist to keep the masses in a constant state of fear because so long as the masses are afraid, they will seek a savior. When they find somebody who promises to be their savior, they will give him anything he demands. If he demands soldiers to fight a war against the enemy, they will gladly surrender their sons to him. If he demands broader surveillance powers, they will gladly surrender their privacy. If he demands wealth so he can fund the fight against the enemy, they will gladly surrender their income and assets. And his demands won’t stop even when the crisis abates. Instead he’ll come to them with new demands to fight a new crisis.

Ignorance of the Law Should Be an Excuse

“Ignorance of the law is no excuse” and “I’m a law abiding citizen” rank towards the top on my list of hated phrases. Law enforcers and prosecutors like to claim that ignorance of the law is no excuse when they’re arresting and taking you to court respectively. Judges are even in on the game. They tell jurors, while wearing a straight face no less, that their verdict must be based on the letter of the law. Then there’s the defendant. Up until he found himself in court he very well may have said that he was a law abiding citizen. He might even compound his ignorance by saying he looked forward to his day in court so he could prove his innocence. The lawyers, prosecutors, and judges are demanding that people be held to an impossible standard. The person who calls himself a law abiding citizen is a fool.

I’m sure there’s at least one person who considers themselves a law abiding citizen scoffing at my previous sentence. If that person is you, there’s an exercise that you can perform to prove me wrong. The only thing you need for this exercise is a pen and paper. Without looking any up write down every law for the municipality, county, and state in which you live. Then write down every federal law. When you’ve finished writing down all of the laws you know, look up all of the laws you missed.

You’ll find that you missed most of them. I know this for certain because if you did start writing down every law under which you live, you would die of old age before you finished. Maybe you think you could do so if you had enough time. If you believe that, begin reading through the laws under which you live and only write down the ones you didn’t know. Since legal professionals like lawmakers, judges, and lawyers don’t know the entirely of the law, I have my doubts that you do.

The bottom line is the everybody is ignorant of the law. Since everybody is ignorant of the law, it’s impossible for anybody to know that they’re a law abiding citizen.

This situation is even more dire when you stop to consider that the body of law is in a constant state of change. City council members, senators, congressmen, and other lawmakers are constantly tweaking existing laws and creating new ones. Even if you did manage to learn every law under which you live, your knowledge would quickly be outdated. Then you have to take into account the rulings made by various judges. Their rulings ultimately decide what the letter of the law actually means. And they frequently invalidate each others’ rulings so their rulings too are in a constant state of flux.

I’m left with a question that should seem obvious at this point. Why isn’t ignorance of the law an excuse? If legal professionals who attend specialized schooling can’t comprehend the entirety of the law, why are laymen expected to do so? Why is a system built on a practically uncountable number of laws that are frequently conflicting and always changing considered just?

I call bullshit on the entire concept. Ignorance of the laws should be an excuse.

Google Suspends Element from Its Play Store

The developers of Element; a decentralized, federated, and secure messaging client; were just informed that their application has been suspended from the Google Play Store, which means Android users cannot currently install Element unless they do it through F-Droid or side loading. Why did Google suspend the app? At first Element’s developers weren’t given a reason but they were eventually informed the suspension was because of abusive content. Both the lack of transparency and citing abusive content have become staples of application store suspensions, which are two of many things that make centralized application stores like the Apple App Store and Google Play Store so frustrating for both users and developers.

The abusive content justification is bullshit because Element is no different than any other messaging application in that all content is user created. If Element is removed due to showing abusive content then by that very same justification Signal, Facebook Messenger, Instagram, and Google’s own Gmail should be removed. Furthermore, Element actually has a pretty complete set of moderation tools so Google can’t even argue that the lack of moderation is the culprit. But this doesn’t matter because there are no consequences for Google if it suspends an application for incorrect reasons. Agreements between developers and Google (and Apple for that matter) are one-sided. The only option for developers when their applications are suspended is to beg for clemency.

The suspension of Element is yet another example on the already extensive list that shows why centralized application stores and closed platforms are bad ideas. Without prior notice or (initially) any reason Google made it so Android users can no longer install Element unless they jump through some hoops (fortunately, unlike with iOS, Android generally gives you some options for installing applications that aren’t in the Play Store). Google might decide to be magnanimous and change its mind. Or it might not. In any case there’s very little that Element’s developers or Android users can do about it.

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).