Ransomware attack could provoke anti-tech reaction from Trump, but this particular attack may be easier to meet than it sounds

The “Ooops” page that many workplace computer users saw, displayed by hackers from the WannaCry worm last Friday, seemed almost cordial, as if making a mock of the Brexit vote last year, or of Donald Trump’s election.  It looked like a customer service page.  Can I get my data back?  Sure, if you pay up in time.

This almost looks like a hostile takeover.  Or is it a rebellion against the behavioral and personal performance norms of the civilized world in the digital age (and post)?  We’re in charge now, the welcome screen says;  you do what we tell you to do, and you’ll be OK.  The bullies win.  Might makes right, because there was no right before.

There are a lot of remarkable facts about this one.  First of all, the problem seems to have come from a leak of one of the NSA’s own tools, through Snowden and Wikileaks-like mechanisms.  The government wants its own back door, and it got left open.

Second, it seems to have affected certain kinds of businesses the most, mainly those overseas that happen to be less tech oriented and have less incentive to keep up.  It’s remarkable that one of the most visible victims was Britain’s National Health Service, and it’s easy to imagine how libertarians can use this fact to argue against single-payer and socialized medicine systems.  The government-run system didn’t give employees a personal incentive to stay tech-current.  (The what about intelligence services and the military?  They’re still government.)

But it is true, individuals and tech-oriented small businesses know how to keep up and do keep operating systems and security patches updated.  So do larger businesses with a core interest in tech infrastructure.  Your typical bank, insurance company, brokerage house or other financial institution usually keeps the actual consumer accounts on legacy mainframes, which are much harder for “enemies”  to attack (although insider vulnerabilities are possible, as I learned in my own 30-year career).  Typically they have mid-tiers or presentation layers on Unix systems, not Windows, and these are harder to attack.  Publishing service providers and hosting companies usually put their customer’s content on Unix servers (although Windows is possible, and my legacy “doaskdotell” site is still on Windows, and seems unaffected).

On the other hand, in Europe, most of all in Russia and former Soviet republics, there is a culture of cutting corners and sometimes using pirated software, which is much easier to attack.

A typical workplace infection might destroy all the data on employees’ own desktops (like Word memos) but not source code on a mainframe or Unix server, and not customer data.

This kind of ransomware cannot directly affect the power grids.  The computers that control distribution of power  run on proprietary systems (not Windows) normally not accessible to hackers.  However, in the book “Lights Out” (2015), Ted Koppel had described some ways a very determined hacker could try to corrupt power distribution and overload critical transformers.

There are other particulars in this incident.  Microsoft patched its latest server against the NSA vulnerability in mid March 2017.  All modern companies and ISPs or hosts would have applied this patch.  But there could have been a risk of this worm getting unleashed before the patch.

Windows 10 does not have the vulnerability, but apparently all previous versions did.  While media reports focuses on Britain’s NHS using Windows XP, it would seem that any PC with an earlier Windows operating system could be vulnerable it not patched after May 13, 2017.  Even the monthly update, applied May 12, might not have the fix.

From the best that I know, Carbonite or other cloud backups are not affected.  But users who do not network their Windows machines at home and who make physical backups (like on Seagate drives or even thumb drives) regularly are not the same danger of losing data.  I haven’t seen much information on how quickly the major security companies like Trend, Webroot or Kaspersky update their detection capabilities.

The fact that the worm spread among Windows computers in a network, without action by any users after the first one as attracted attention. It seems as though the original infection usually comes from email attachments disguised to look as if they came from inside the workplace.  But it is possible for an unprotected computer to be infected merely by visiting a fake website (the way scareware infections can take over a computer, often based on misspellings of real sites with “System Response” and 800 numbers for fake support). There are reports that infection is possible in unnetworked computers by leaving certain ports open (like 445) without adequate firewall.

Another problem is that, since introducing Windows 8 and later versions, Microsoft has become much more aggressive about pressuring users to replace operating systems on older hardware.  Often the loaded versions of operating systems like Windows 10 Creators Update, while loaded with the latest security, don’t run very well on older PC’s.  In the interest of providing gaming and tablet capabilities, Microsoft has made its systems less stable for people with ordinary uses (like blog posts).  Microsoft’s own PC’s, as compared to those with third party hardware (HP, Dell, ASUS, Acer, Lenovo, etc) may have fewer problems with updates inasmuch as they don’t have to deal with third party firmware (often from China) which may not be perfect.  Stability has become a much bigger issue since about 2013 with the introduction of Microsoft’s tablet systems.   I had a Toshiba laptop fail in 2014 when going from Windows 8 to Windows 8.1 because it overheated due to inadequate engineering of the power components.

There was a stir over the weekend when CBS reported that President Trump had ordered emergency meetings at DHS, as if he had intended to take some kind of action on his earlier “no computer is safe” idea.  His use of Twitter seems to contradict his previous dislike of computers as a way to get around dealing with people and salesmanship. I had wondered if he could propose liability rules for companies or individuals who leave computers unprotected and allow them to be used in conducting attacks (as like home PC’s that become botnet nodes in DDOD attacks).

It was a couple of two young male programmers (each around 22), one in Britain and one in Indiana, who helped break the attack.  One programmer found an unregistered domain as a “killswitch” and found he could stop the worm by buying the domain himself for about $11.  I started wondering if Trump would talk about a killswitch for many portions of the Internet, as he threatened in December 02 2015 in early debates. “Shut down those pipes.”

My other legacy coverage of this incident is here.

Wikipedia screenshot of the user greeting.

Malware Tech is one of the resources fighting the work.

(Posted: Tuesday, May 16, 2017 at 2 PM EDT)

The electronics “travel ban” (from a few overseas airports for now) begs big future questions about staying connected “on the road”, especially for small businesses

In late March, the United States and then the UK instituted a ban on most electronics (larger than a smart phone) in the cabins of direct flights from a number of airports in the Middle East and Africa, largely Muslim countries.  The UK list is slightly smaller than the US list.  So far, other western countries have not yet followed suit.

NBC News produced a story by Harriet Baskas March 22 on how travelers were irked here.  Obviously there could be issues about cancellations and trying to change to connecting flights in Europe.  I’ll come back to that.

Firday, March 31,  CNN produced (in a story by Evan Perez, Jodi Enda, and CNN Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr) what it calls an exclusive story on the intelligence behind the travel ban.  The claim is that associates of Al Qaeda, largely in enclaves in Yemen, have developed ways to hide plastic explosives inside laptops, possibly in a DVD bay, in such a way that laptops would still start if travelers are challenged at airports.  There is concern that terrorists might have acquired prototype screening machines to test their devices.  Presumably these devices can be detonated only manually.  But theoretically, devices could be improvised that could be detonated by cell phones even if stored in cargo bays, if close enough to other similar devices.

DHS would obviously be concerned that terrorists could communicate in different parts of the world and spread this “expertise”.  Through the dark web, such information might become available to disaffected “lone wolf” or small cell groups in the U.S.,

Confounding the logic of the ban is the recent concern over the safety of lithium batteries in cargo. A few older laptops from the middle 2000s have caught fire, at least when charging, as happened with some teens in California recently.   But the concern for safely of lithium batteries in laptops is much less than for other devices, including some Samsung smart phones (some makes may not be brought onto planes) and hoverboards, which have caught fire in apartments and private homes while charging.

Also countermanding this picture are recent reports of research (as at Stanford) showing that aluminum based batteries may be safer than lithium and could be engineered to be acceptable replacements for many devices.

AC360, Anderson Cooper’s news analysis program, interviewed some experts on May 31,  Saturday, April 1, 2017. CNN interviewed Mary Schiavo, former Inspector General for the US Department of Transportation.  Later Robert Baer was interviewed.  Most of these guests expressed the obvious view that the Mideast cabin laptop ban begs the question as to whether it will be expanded, and could eventually become routine, even on domestic US flights.

DHS says that it has multiple layers of security, which includes the latest screening machines.  DHS apparently believed that airports in the affected countries did not have the same level of security.

Some observers have even claimed that the laptop bans were instituted out of Trump-style “protectionism”.

Business travelers generally need to carry their electronics with them and work on planes.  Owners of small businesses also would need to, as would “professional” journalists.

The worst case scenario would be sudden bans of all electronics on flights, even though in the West hundreds of millions of people fly with no intention of harming others.  This sounds like the “trojan horse” argument in the immigration debate, which Donald Trump has leveraged.

Tech companies could envisions solutions.  Until now, the TSA has always told air travelers not to check laptops and tablets, possibly because of the lithium issue, but largely because the devices are likely to be damaged.  It is possible to imagine sturdy (and explosion-proof) containers in which they could be packed, with the cases sold on Amazon or by stores like Best Buy.  It is possible to imagine expedited services to ship electronics for longer trips by UPS or FedEx to airport stores to be picked up on arrival, for use  after arriving.  There have been issues with bringing conventional photo film home on planes in the past, and I have mailed it home (just USPS)  before to get around the issue.

Frida Ghitis wrote on CNN about her experience with having to pack her laptop and other devices suddenly. CNBC reports that at least two Mideast airlines loaned passengers corporate laptops for inflight use, which works for passengers who have saved their data on memory sticks or in the Cloud.

Its also possible to envision a ground rental industry comparable to car rentals (maybe rented with cars).  But security for the devices would be a huge issue requiring innovation.  Right now the travel industry is not prepared to offer these services, because it has always assumed (since the late 1990s at least) that most travelers want to carry their own electronics.

Hotels do have business centers, which are generally inadequate with only one or two not very secure computers.  I use these only to print boarding passes before returning.

Back in the period between 1997 and up to 2006, after I had established my online sites (doaskdotell.com and the prior hppub.com) I sometimes traveled without electronics.  At the time, it was common for airports to require laptop startup (not always).  More recently, laptops in TSA-approved bags have not had to be started.  But in the early 2000’s there were more facilities in hotels or nearby Kinkos’ stores for checking email.  At that time, I often checked my sites to make sure they were up but did not try to update them online.  I did use my AOL email online.  I did this one on week-long trip to Phoenix and Las Vegas from Minnesota in 2000, probably checking email four times.  One hotel had Kinkos next door.  In Europe, in both 1999 and 2001, I carried a primitive cell phone, but no computers.  A hotel in Bilbao, Spain had a really large business center with very good response time and plenty of terminals.  I was able to find well run Internet cafes in London.  But I don’t know if I could find this level or service today.

Since taking up blogging at the start of 2006, I feel it is important to be able to update Blogger every day (almost), and WordPress blogs like this one somewhat less frequently.  Were I to receive a “complaint”, I need to be able to fix a problem when “on the road”.  (I don’t get the last at-bat, by analogy to baseball.)

My understanding that only “mobile” blogs on Blogger can be updated by phones (this may have changed, typical link). Mobile blogging on WordPress is possible (link).  I am not sure now whether these techniques could work with my setup now.  A small keyboard would help.  The last time I tried, Blogger could not be updated from an iPad without third party apps.  All of this I would need to check into later.

All of this could preview an environment where eventually web hosting companies could require third party contacts to update content in case of complaints and the owner could not be reached.  I’ve never heard this idea mentioned, but it sounds plausible.  (This would lead to discussion of the digital executor issue, which I’ve covered on my main legacy blog on Blogger).

Conventional social media (Facebook, Twitter, and especially Instagram) are much more easily used in a mobile-only environment without access to computing resources.   But these don’t serve the same self-publishing interests that true web hosting (including embedded Blogging) services.  I can also become relevant whether one is posting on a “free blog” or whether it is hosted (which right now, to my understanding, happens only with WordPress).

The ability to stay connected on the road is potentially very critical to the way I conduct my own business.  I will stay abreast of it and report.

(Posted: Saturday, April 1, 2017 at 7:30 PM EDT)

Update: Wednesday, April 5, 2017, 12 noon EDT

CNN has a report that more airports and countries may be added to the electronics ban, but expansion of the ban is not necessarily eminent.

Updated: Tuesday, May 9, 2017 at 7:30 PM EDT

CBS reports that the TSA and DHS are considering adding all or most European and UK airports to the electronics ban.  The policy would seemingly affect only flights to the U.S.  It is not clear if it makes sense to put a lot of lithium batteries in checked luggage, and the policy would contradict previous TSA guidance that laptops are likely to be damaged in checked luggage.  Can proper containers be designed and sold?  Could users instead just ship laptops back home by FedEx, UPS (or ordinary mail)?  I used to do that with photographic film because it could not survive carry-on security machines.  Do we need to build an adequate computer rental (like car rental) business for travelers. at least for international?

 

Here’s my own combo speech — Inauguration and State of the Union — where I pretend I won the election (hint for Donald Trump)

People say I’m dangerous.  I can make right-wing ideas seem reasonable, sensible, justifiable.  I can keep someone like Donald Trump (that is “(t)Rump”)on point if I write his speeches for him and design his policies.  I’m even called the Elder Milo.

If I were hired to help Donald Trump write his inauguration speech, or State if the Union address, or something composite of the two, here is what I would come up.  Let me be the dangerous faggot #2.

Is America Great now?  I think it is.  Was it Great before?  I’m glad that I didn’t make the personal sacrifices of the Greatest Generation, or serve in a segregated Army against a common enemy, or endure the racism suffocating in the 60s.  I did catch the “homophobia of resentment”.  But if we want America to be Great, here is what we have to keep in mind.

Area 1:  We must protect, preserve and sustain our way of life, and build on it: Infrastructure.

That starts with national security.  I personally believe what I thought when I was writing the notorious Chapter 4 of my DADT-1 book, that North Korea is our most dangerous enemy.  The threats vary, from rogue states of extreme communism – the Cold War is not over – to the asymmetric actors of radical Islam.  And some enemies want to treat ordinary citizens as combatants, as if they could target anyone and make an example of him.  This sounds like what we associate with ISIS, but it is rhetoric I heard from some sectors of the extreme Left in the early 1970s when I was coming of age myself as a young adult.

In fact, I recognize that there is a significant subculture in our own country today, the prepper community, which believes that no civilization is permanent, and that every person has a responsibility to learn to survive on his own without technology in a decentralized, primitive environment.  How these remarks will affect individual people, myself included, I will come back to.  But it is clear that our dependence on technology is unprecedented, and it does make us vulnerable to sudden catastrophe.  That is no longer a fantasy of the extreme right or alt-right.

But I want to counter with the idea that we can “work smart”  We can do a lot more to protect and preserve our technological infrastructure.  First, let me mention what we should be doing overseas:  we should continue finding and securing all caches of nuclear material that may be lost around the world.  We don’t hear much about this.  But Sam Nunn and the Nuclear Threat Initiative are right.  There are unusual materials that terrorists could get their hands on.  We have to do much better at pursuing this. Now let me move to what we should do at home.  Our power grids and other infrastructure systems are vulnerable.  There is a lot more we need to start doing to protect them.

We need to make sure that our infrastructure grids are kept as separated from the public Internet and hackers as we keep the Pentagon and our own NSA.  There simply should no way someone could get to a power station from this computer, period.

But we also have to be smarter about the way we manage power itself.  I know this because much of my own family’s investment wealth, some of which I inherited, came from oil and gas and particularly utilities. I get to see oil and utility company materials.  Shareholders put pressure on utilities to maximize profits from the ability to share loads quickly.  But that capacity also makes us dependent on large transformers, which can be overloaded by deliberate sabotage.  And we don’t make enough our own transformers at home.  We can’t replace them.  We can’t get them from overseas quickly or move them around.  So we need both to move much of our infrastructure component manufacturing back home, and we need to build smaller stations and make individual nodes more self-reliant.  This can be done with modern natural gas plants and even small underground fission plants, as Taylor Wilson has proposed.  But this would take tremendous private and public investment.

The possible threats to the grids are multiple:  extreme solar storms (we barely dodged one in 2012), cyberterror, physical attacks, and some kinds of nuclear and even non-nuclear flux detonations.

Note that fixing this problem adds well-paying, high-skilled jobs at home. It also favors cleaner technology.  It even encourages people to have their own power sources, including solar panels, at home.  This sounds like a win-win.

The dependability of infrastructure and utilities does affect the standard of living and the capability of less fortunate people to lift themselves up.

Area 2:  Sustainability and climate change

Most religious heritages believe the people living today have a moral responsibility for future generations, at least what our kids and grandkids, considered collectively, will face as adults.  The fact that human activity has added carbon dioxide to the Earth’s atmosphere and that ice caps are melting is undeniable.

But what is less clear is how many incidents today are directly the result of climate change.  Tornadoes and hurricanes and extreme storms have happened in the distant past.  The droughts and wildfires seem to be the most likely results of climate changes, as well as the loss of high latitude communities to warming, which is much more noticeable near polar areas than in temperate zones.

What also is not completely clear is how other forces will play out.  While sudden escalations of warming are possible, as with methane release, so is sudden cooling, as with volcanic eruptions, or certain features of the way the Gulf Stream works.

But we must take the science on this problem seriously and not run from it.

Area 3: Sustainability and public health

We do face the possibility of novel pandemics.  HIV-AIDS seemed unprecedented in its diabolical nature when it broke out in the 1980s, but we now know that it may have been here long before igniting. Today, however, the biggest threats come from conventionally contagious diseases, not from sexually transmitted ones.  These include super-influenzas and respiratory diseases, and possibly exotic tropical blood disease like Ebola, and some of these might be insect-born.

The science tells us that vaccines work.  We can be more active in staying ahead of the curve in developing vaccines for “bird flu” for example.  We can protect college students from sudden and shocking amputations associated with meningitis with vaccines.  We may eventually have a vaccine for HIV.

People continue to question whether they are placing their kids at theoretical risk of autism by giving them vaccines.  The science tells us that this risk is extremely miniscule and theoretical if it exists at all.  There are herd effects.  If there is a risk at all, parents who refuse to “take the risk” are riding on the willingness of others to do so to maintain a population immunity to preventing any possibility of a pandemic breaking out.

Area 4: Trade

American consumers should not take advantage of products made with slave-labor overseas.  In the long run, America will benefit if more products are made at home.  In many circumstances, companies can be convinced to keep jobs here.  Innovation is making it profitable to keep jobs at home.

At the same time, the sudden imposition of tariffs would be harmful to the economy.  And particularly in Mexico and Central America, the growth of jobs there would tend to reduce the need for emigration to the US

But many of the terms of some proposed agreements, such as TPP, have terms that are potentially harmful to many American businesses, workers and entrepreneurs.

Area 5: Immigration

It is true that uncontrolled immigration presents some security problems for America.  It is true that in some areas, the “Wall” or the “Fenway Park Green Monster” needs to be strengthened.  But a Wall is not a fix-all for all our problems with jobs.  Many studies show that as a whole, immigrants commit fewer crimes than domestics, and that immigrants add to the economy.  Many immigrants take jobs Americans don’t want or couldn’t even do.

We have to be extremely careful about admitting people from some parts of the world.  That is true.  One question, when it comes to Syrian refugees, is why we don’t pressure the wealthy Muslim countries to do more of their parts in providing areas for them to move to.  Dubai, Qatar, UAE, even Saudi Arabia, should step up to the plate.

Broad-based bans of certain religions or countries are not likely to be effective.  In fact, some domestic attacks have come from people who have been here legally for a long time, or from their second-generation kids.

It is not reasonable to reverse all of the previous president’s policies.  In fact, president Obama was aggressive with deportations of those with criminal records or who entered the country illegally and don’t have credible asylum claims.  I would continue this policy.  I think the adult kids covered under DACA should stay and be given paths to legal residency and citizenship as long as they don’t have criminal records.

Area 6: Health care and services:

An underlying problem with health care and other benefits is “moral hazard”.  People will tend to use services that they can get other people to pay for.  We can propose benefits and policies, such as paid workplace family leave, but we must consider how we will pay for them.

With health care, whatever one can say about escalating premiums and various breakdowns of Obamacare. It’s clear that to replace it we should solve two big problems:  One is handling pre-existing conditions.  There is no question that pre-existing condition create a tremendous anti-selection issue for privately run insurance companies.  I think we have to admit that pre-existing condition need so be handled largely by public funds.  The claims related to pre-existing conditions could be reimbursed through a private-public reinsurance agency.  These reinsurance companies could be set up in each state, possibly managed by Blue plans.  People will not have premiums jacked up for ordinary care to cover those with pre-existing illnesses.  We could have a nasty debate, however, on what counts as pre-existing.  Does something related to behavior – drug use, smoking, obesity, or STD, count as pre-existing? How we handle end stage renal disease (with Medicare today) could serve as a philosophical model.

The other (second) part of this health issue is covering people with low incomes, where tax credits aren’t useful.  We need to continue Medicaid mechanisms to cover these, and probably do this through block grants to states (which is what the GOP always wants).  (Writer’s note:  my own work resume includes a lot of experience with Medicaid, Medicare, life insurance, and similar issues.)

When it comes to paid family leave, well, we must pay for it.  I like the idea of small payroll deductions, which could be waived for lower income jobs.  I like the idea that it is gender neutral:  that new fathers get it as well as mothers, and that it covers adoption.  That is the policy of most high-tech employers today.  But it costs more to expand it beyond maternity leave.  The deduction would make childless people stop and think, that they need to become involved in family and raising children at some point if they are going to use it otherwise they are paying for other people’s lives (moral hazard again).  It’s pretty clear that responsibility for others doesn’t just stop with deciding to have the act that can produce a child.

Area 7:  Identity politics.

I look at people as individuals, not as members of groups who get their rights by consideration of the special issues of their groups from the past.  Of course, we have to be careful about monitoring police behavior, but we run the risk that nobody will want to become a police officer.  We should use the facts, not mob emotion, in evaluating incidents.  Every identity issue has its own special concerns.  Most of these don’t have big impact on policy.  But we need to have a proper understanding of the history behind all these issues.  On LGBTQ rights, I think a lot of people in the past have seen this as (besides religion) a proxy for refusal to participate in procreation and raising another generation, and history has shown this perception to be largely misleading.

Area 8:  Second amendment:

European countries have much stronger gun control than the United States, but this, while reducing local crime, may make them even more vulnerable to asymmetric terror cells who circumvent the laws.  Gun control is a careful balance.  Yes, we need to close the loopholes and tighten the background checks and police procedures with seized weapons. But in some situations, self-defense is a good skill to have.

Area 9: Service:

I did deal with the Vietnam era male-only military draft, serving 1968-1970, and with the socially divisive deferment system I’ve had to deal with the idea of my life as being a fungible bargaining chip for my country’s foreign policy, however well intended. The modern volunteer system sometimes seems like a backdoor draft, with the stop-loss policies during deployments.  I think we have a moral issue in that we don’t share the risks of participating in a complex modern society equitably, and many of the risks are not very transparent. All of this figured into how I argued for the end of the military gay ban an “don’t ask don’t tell” over the years 1993-2011.

Talk of reinstating a draft did pop up after 9/11, but today we should ask, if we don’t want one, why do we need a Selective Service System and registration for young men?

Outside of the military armed forces and the Peace Corps, I have some doubts over how effective nationally run service can be, given the bureaucracy. Even the large private volunteer organizations need more transparency as to what people are getting into.  But service does help communicate the idea that the playing field can become more level and more meaningful.  But then it has to get personal.

Area 10:  First Amendment

This gets to be an area that leads us to consider personal values and personal impact.

But first, let me mention one rather straightforward area in the speech area: tort reform.  We need to reign in on frivolous lawsuits, which includes those filed by so-called “patent trolls”.  For SLAPP suits, we should consider a federal law, and we should give judges the power to order “loser pays” to discourage abusive litigation intended to silence critics.

But a bigger problem, and one that is murky and seems ambiguous, comes from the permissive climate centered on user-generated content on the Internet.  And this issue has grown in tandem with our dependence on technology as I mentioned at the outset.

The growth of user-generated content certain helps supplement the flow of news information and interpretation in a way that places all the nuances of current events on the table and forces politicians and leadership to think again before acting. But some material is intentionally deceptive or untruthful, and many people are unwilling or unable to process information that doesn’t already fit into their world views. Furthermore, many people have used the open Internet for harmful purposes.  These include cyberbullying, terror recruiting, and even sex trafficking.

The modern Internet would not be possible without laws that limit service provider liability for what users post online, in a way that follows the way utility immunity from liability worked with traditional phone companies and mail.   These laws include Section 230 of the 1996 Telecommunications Act and the Safe Harbor provision of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.  Many people point out that service providers and social media companies, and certain online bulletin trading companies, become profitable from illicit and activity of their users, mainly from advertising-driven business models, and that out of general concerns for public safety, companies must take more responsibility for what they seem to be empowering their users to do.  It’s also true that while some users and bloggers can make a living online, many more use the services as a form of ego-boost and sense of importance, and participate in a form of communication that shields them from unwelcome contact with people that would have been necessary in the past.  In short, the Internet has enabled a kind of vanity self-publishing that eliminates the need to be aware of how one meets the needs of others or sells to others.  But this sort of vanity publishing depends on a certain permissiveness that encourages the placing of other people in danger.

The courts have been very supportive of the enhanced free speech on the Internet and web, in litigation involving such laws as the Communications Decency Act, and later the Child Online Protection Act (COPA).  The courts have enforced Section 230 vigorously. But it is not completely clear that the right to self-distribute one’s speech without supervision or market accountability is as fundamental to the First Amendment as the freedom to keep the government out of meddling with the actual content of the speech itself.  Self-distribution was not possible until the 1990s with the Web, and we lived without it before.

Given the seriousness of certain kinds of issues, like terrorism promotion and sex trafficking, the public is certainly going to demand that government look at regulating service providers and even users somewhat.  We need to ask questions:  how dependent on these downstream liability protections are companies like Google and Facebook in operating as they do now?  We need to quantify this.  Of course, we know, for example, that some of these services are not allowed at all in some authoritarian countries like China and user behavior is severely curtailed in more moderate countries like Turkey, so we know that this matters.  On the other hand, these companies seem to do well in western Europe, where downstream liability protections are less pronounced than in the United States – they have to deal with, for example, “the right to be forgotten.” We need to ask whether some automated filtering tools can be effective.  We know, for example, that digital watermarks for some child pornography images can be detected when they are stored or even before they are posted.  We need to see whether a narrowly drawn limitation on liability protection is reasonable.

Candidate Trump had talked about living “locally” in an earlier speech, which I discussed here January 2.  That seems to fit into the concerns over our dependence on globalization, technology, and loss of local community, too.  Trump talks about our working “together“, based on local engagement first.  But one needs to have some specifics laid out, or else it sounds like a call for unpredictable sacrifice and coercion.

(Posted: Saturday, January 14, 2017 at 3:30 PM EST)

Trump has pitched the virtues of living “locally” at his “thank you” rallies

One of the points Donald Trump tried to move his crowd with at a “thank you” rally in Ohio was the idea that people want to live locally and take care of their own business locally, and that people should live relationally and locally.  That goes along with his more recent speculative comment (in relation to Russian hacking of both major political parties) that “no computer is safe.”

That sounds like a potential, anti-intellectual anathema for someone like me, who likes to play the role of global observer, a sort of alien anthropologist which Mark Zuckerberg has become much more successfully than I did – but I had first helped forge “a path ahead” in the 90s.  Indeed, in the LGBT community there is a certain sort of cosmopolitan gay male who seems himself this way – Milo Yiannopoulos, the quintessential bad boy, anticipated by “bad boy” Shane Lyons’s character (played by Timo Descamps) in the now classic sci-fi fantasy “Judas Kiss”, linking modern world values to the ironic moral problems associated with the notorious Biblical character’s betrayal of Jesus (as in the CNN series “Finding Jesus”). In the “straight” world (again, ironically), people have perceived celebrities like Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, and punk-master Ashton Kutcher this way.  (Any one of these three would have been fit to be president now.)

Local values have played out in different ways.  Back in the 70s and 80s, people were moving to the suburbs, and companies followed them from the cities, to provide safer and more segregated lives for their “families”. This was bad for a singleton like me, who needed geographical mobility as a kind of “power” (and in my case, in the early 70s, to “come out”).  Now, the genie is instant self-broadcast in public mode online, influencing “strangers”.

Local values are more or less commensurate with “family values”, being able to find meaning in the emotional connections to others, of varying ability, in one’s immediate “family group”, before moving out into the world.  Finding emotional connections meant local focus, and it also emphasized hands-on practical skills at home.  For example, this used to mean conformity to gender-related expectations.  All of this can be quite challenging to someone who is “different” and is likely to move into a different community as an adult.  Yet, when someone does, he or she is likely to find a comparable expectation of loyalty and openness to emotional connectedness, and resentment of cherry picking, in a new social community.  But local values can impose original family obligations, meaning everyone needs to learn to be hands-on taking care of the elderly and even other people’s children;  “Raising Helen” scenarios are indeed unpredictable.

Local values may grate against “identity politics”.  People are born into families and communities (subsuming socially constructed races and politically constructed nation-states) and often expected or goaded into accepting these as their “groups”, which indeed remain the objects of “zero-sum thinking” political barter.  But people often perceive themselves as members of other self-defined marginalized groups (especially with respect to gender and sexuality).  Religion is somewhere in between.

“Local values” are also commensurate with “doomsday prepper” values.  These precepts include the idea that everyone should have the practical skills to survive in a small social unit without dependence on modernity. These included self-defense (responsible gun ownership), mechanical skills, to do repairs on home and automobiles, and some ideas of chivalry, like that men should be able to change tires for women.  There is an idea that one should be “good” with this before moving on to the bigger world “on the outside” as an adult.

Sometimes these ideas seem anti-intellectual, prone to pressure to accept religious dogma and fellowship as dictated by others as truth (partly because it is so easy to rationalize anything “globally”).

But, again, the point is for the individual to consider just what will be expected of him and her, by a society that may look at him as beholden to others by definition. It certainly invites authoritarianism, even feudalism. Information is handed down along with political and social authority, and limited to what can achieve immediate practical results for the community.  Personal creativity is discourage for all but the very few who “make it”. Everyone else must live and reproduce for the good of the group.

When one does acquire fame and wealth and the things “adults” typically want in a modern western society (“democratic capitalism”) one is challenged by the idea that one is obligated by the sacrifices others in his “family groups” have made.  But he’s also inherited karma from these groups.  If his family lived off of ill-gotten gains, he or she may wind up on the hook for it.  That’s sort of the lesson Scarlet O’Hara learns and lives through in “Gone with the Wind” – but perhaps Scarlet was a prepper after all (“I’ll never be hungry again,” and she wasn’t.)  Remember how the novel begins, with her denial of the talk of war, which could disrupt her comfy life (funded in an ill-gotten way by slavery);  then at the end, she has gotten it all back, but loses another man (Rhett).  It’s easy to imagine many situations where people face the same thinking today:  young people who grow up in settlements on the West Bank, for openers.  Do you really inherit ancestral rights as part of a religious group or nationality?  I’ve never believed that as a moral precept.  Things can be taken away from you so easily.

Preppers may be on to something else.  They often believe that existential shocks to civilization are inevitable and happen cyclically, even if civilization is to survive for millennia and some day move to other worlds – which will provide new moral problems (how to select who gets to go). So they believe everyone needs to be willing to participate in a world where their old lives could end and where they still have to hand over a world to future generations. But I think we have to get smart enough at some point that we take care of our planet and don’t let our way of life get away from us.  Yes, we can.

(Posted: Monday, January 2, 2017 at 3 PM EST)