I've been traveling and busy and haven't been able to catch up on my blogging to-do list -- but catching sight of a tweet from Alec Ross, the State Department's Innovation Director just now, I just remembered that I have to set the record straight on a blog of some months ago about him.
I had gone to hear him speak on a panel at Carnegie about "21st Century Diplomacy" in Washington, and he had talked about the post-Westphalian world and such. I remarked that he had basically manipulated social media to artificially boost the issue of SOPA/PIPA by taking it up at a very high level in a town hall, responding to a question of a "concerned citizen" (actually a seasoned copyleftist cadre) on Google Hangout -- and it never came to a vote, and it was a circumvention of Congress -- as an activist himself gloated about.
But it turns out that was wrong. Alec was never on Google Hangout. Here's the story.
As I blogged in June, I went to the Dublin conference on Internet Freedom organized by the Irish chair-in-office as a kind of "unconference" (it didn't get official OSCE status because Russia didn't clear on the agenda -- and it's just as well). And there, Google held an evening -- a kind of giant side event under a big tent (!) that was devoted to freedom of expression on the Internet. I was worried about this precedent of having corporations do side events at OSCE human rights meetings (what's next, the Chevron environmental hour at HDIM?), but it was the chair-in-office's prerogative to do whatever the hell they wanted. Google throws Ireland boatloads of business-- Google pipes its revenue through Ireland, that has less taxes, instead of paying them in our country.
(Although you would never know it, given how absolutely awful the public Internet service was in Dublin -- I've never seen anything as bad in my life in any country--you have to literally keep dropping coins into Internet terminals like a parking meter, or wrestle the really counterintutive goofy interface to put in a charge card, and it knocks you offline anyway every 15 or 30 minutes, whereupon you have to start up the whole ridiculous process again -- and is slow as molasses in January).
ANYWAY, this Google evening was weird, but mercifully, not as bad as I thought, as they opted to go high culture rather than have a debate about pornography and piracy as they did at past big-tents. They had a British writer of Irish descent read a charming tale (I did wonder why they didn't have an Irish Irish writer, but that's just me) and they had various important officials talk earnestly about Internet freedom -- including one of my favourite people, the president of Estonia, famous for putting Paul Krugman in his place.
And Alec Ross was one of the speakers, and Alec said something that I thought was very wrong and very misleading (and so would anyone else following Second Life and the wider online intellectual property issues). He said that technologists had told him that copyright protection could be engineered, and would be engineered, and it was just a matter of time, and that therefore there should be no law.
This is so barkingly bad on a number of levels that I had to go up to him and object in person. I went up and re-introduced myself as one of his critics. It's hard to do this, but he's a public figure and I feel it is my civic duty. He was friendly and apologetic when I confronted him at the Washington, lecture; now, after reading my blog he was unfriendly.
He kept loudly repeatedly, "We're not going to agree on this, we're not going to agree on this" -- as if I was going to have the classic "you can't prevent things from being copied on the Internet" argument. But I was going to put out to him what a crock this "engineering" idea was -- any number of engineers will tell you that it is NOT possible -- and bend your ear for hours on end about it. If you can see it, you can copy it -- the analog hole. Anything can be spoofed. Obfuscation is always beaten. Encryption is always beaten. DRM doesn't work, etc. etc. You have to be "innovative" -- blah blah. Haven't we heard this a million times?!
So at first when Alec Ross dismissed me by merely repeating a kind of Washington pol mantra, I withdrew. But then I thought, dammit, he really is wrong and this really has to get across to him -- and he can't be allowed to get away with this WHOPPER. And he was annoyed at me, too, so we had another dust-up as I saw him a little later in the hall.
"I was never on Google Hangout!" he said to me, sternly, before I could even say anything about copying. I was truly puzzled. Huh? Wasn't he? What could he possibly mean?
"But I remember you went on Facebook and other social media as part of the 21st Century Statecraft month, and you were asked a question about SOPA and said you'd get back on it, and then later you did and announced the president's veto," I countered.
"I was never on Google Hangout," he repeated stubbornly.
"But you were on Facebook."
"But I wasn't on Google Hangout," he reiterated firmly.
I tried to think what this meant because I distinctly recalled this issue being discussed as a town hall on Google Hangout with commentary on Google+.
"So perhaps this was accessed on Google Hangout?" I said, hazarding a hypothesis of how it could have worked, and why I retained an association with Google Hangout -- he was on Facebook or Twitter, but then people discussed him on GHO.
Ross gave me a look of pure hatred, narrowing his eyes. It was as if he thought he was catching me out "lying" and was going to "own" me. But far from somehow "making something up" as he was projecting, I was trying to reason through why I thought he was on Google Hangout -- why that association persisted.
I dug in my heels. "There was a Google Hangout," I persisted.
"I wasn't on Google Hangout," he persisted. So it was a stalemate. He didn't say anything further on it.
"I wasn't born in a cornfield," he began then angrily, talking about the tech aspects of copyright.
"I realize that," I said patiently. "I realize you have all kinds of conversations with Silicon Valley technologists. But so do I," I said, just as stubbornly. "And they are misleading you if they are telling you that they can secure copyright mechanically."
He began talking about how they had implied that if there were sufficient investments this could be done, or in time this could be done, or with new technology this could be done. Huh? Investment? You have got to be kidding. The investments are in how to erode copyright (Pinterest), not keep it; the innovations are workarounds like Facebook blocking Pinterest click-throughs -- but that's something anyone can easily dodge just using Print Screen and Paint. The analog hole, you know...
He walked away mad at me -- seemingly trying to prove I was a shoddy blogger who published lies -- and I was just...stunned.
So I went back over my notes and Googled around.
Memeburn reported on a virtual town hall by the U.S. State Department, during which Alec Ross, Hillary Clinton’s Senior Advisor for Innovation, responded to numerous questions about how social media and the web have influenced U.S. foreign policy. As part of a "social media month," State is also taking questions on Twitter as part of its Friday press briefings — including, last week, on the controversial issue of continued unrest in Sudan.
So that was Twitter, not Google Hangout. Next!
I then found a post by Alex Howard (@digiphile) who has me blocked on Twitter (but not G+)
Overall, I can honestly say that we saw something new in the intersection of government, technology and society. From where I sat, plugged in within the +Sunlight Foundation , it felt like a good thing, not just for the White House or the president's campaign or Google (although all certainly benefited) but for the promise of the Internet to more directly connect public officials to those that they serve, with all of their real problems, concerns, doubts and fears.
That was exactly what I remembered. There was a White House Google Hangout. So what was up?!
Alex Howard also wrote a piece about the questions from "the real citizens" (like...they're on G+ *snort*).
Anthony De Rosa of Reuters, that "progressive" who is always reporting his own very lefty views and not the news and "community-organizing" under that tent, reported on this, too.
I was getting more and more puzzled. I checked, and indeed there was a "21st Century Statescraft Month". I looked at De Rosa's headline again: "President Hangs out on Google".
Finally I figured out the issue. The president of the United States -- Barack Obama -- was on a Google Hangout, not Alec Ross.
Maybe they didn't take up one of those scarce Hollywood Squares on GHO to put in Ross, but it was the PRESIDENT who was on Google Hangout, NOT HIM.
I was just...stunned. Why didn't he say so?! Instead of stubbornly repeating this "fact-check" "liar-liar-pants-on-fire" claim to me implying shoddy blogging, he could have said:
"Oh, you said I was on Google Hangout. Actually, I was on Facebook and Twitter in townhalls, that must be what you remember, and it was OBAMA who was on Google Hangout." When the POTUS is on a social media happening thing like that, would Ross be literally at his elbow advising him?! And even if he wasn't, couldn't he have said "That was Obama, not me."
He seemed defensive about this because in my past blog, he may have picked up the fact that I don't think much of anything called "town hall" or "civil society" related when it has space for only 16 people on it. That's an elite meeting of insiders, not "the public" and let's not pretend otherwise.
I thought about this intense, devious, self-righteous sophistry, and that flash of a look of pure hatred at me in the belief that *I was doing the same thing*. That's what continues to astound me.
In June, right after that conference, Ross was spouting nonsense on CNN, indicative of how he views these social media meetings as somehow diverse and distributed:
Internet-enabled movements tend to lack the traditional single charismatic leader, inspiring and organizing the masses from on high. Rather, movements that rely heavily on the internet tend to have leadership structures that look like the internet itself -- a distributed web of nodes and connections, rather than a pyramidal, top-down structure. This enables a decentralized form of organization bringing together unlikely combinations of people into rapidly formed movements. While this has the virtue of making movements more citizen-centered and less bound to the cults of personality one often finds in and around protest movements, it also makes these movements more ephemeral and less sustainable. A lack of real structure and widely-accepted leaders has limited the sustainability of many movements, both political and issue-oriented.
But this is total poppycock. Twitter is a good example of how influence is in fact garnered by those with lots of followers -- like Alec Ross. And it's a vicious circle -- unless you are famous enough to get a lot of followers, you will never crack the 2,000 ceiling put on ordinary mortals, as you will crawl very, very slowly up the ladder trying to add followers one at a time and hope others follow you -- enabling you to follow yet another every few days. This system to discourage spam in fact only encourages it, by forcing people to accept the follows of SEO gurus, spammers, prostitutes, etc. so that they can then break the ceiling. I don't accept them and block them routinely, and slowly creep to 1500 or whatever.
The reality is that the leaders are in a highly pyramidal structure. They command mindshare, and everybody else just retweets them. There isn't much dialogue or debate -- those who challenge these "thought leaders" often find they are unfollowed or worse, blocked. It's a terrible system that isn't anything like liberal democracy with institutions like the letter to the editor that in fact has more accessibility.
The protest movements with their cults of personality are in fact only amplified by social media. Many have heard of Wael Ghonim, the Google engineer involved in the Egyptian protests. Can they name anybody else? People become faddish stars and get zillions of followers, and then fall into obscurity again (can you name anybody tweeting about Iran as you could in 2009?)
While in theory there might be nonce groups of people brought together, in fact, with the rigid discipline of muting and blocking, bolstered by heckling and harassing, there isn't much space for collaboration and protection of minority opinion in groups formed. They are all about horrid conformity -- tribes gaining followers for leaders, not collaboration of equals.
Ross doesn't diagnose this problem of social media "thought leaders" correctly, so he then concludes the social media movements lack leaders and are ephemeral. In fact, they have leaders. There are leaders who command lots of Klout and run grouplets on Twitter where everybody retweets them and agrees with them. But he's right that leaders who tend to be anonymous on social media never get accountability and therefore don't get trust and further responsibility.
I keep thinking of how in Russia, the bloggers and activists are all naming their names -- Kashin or Navalny or Udaltsov, Sobchak or Chirikova -- that has always been the hallmark of Russian protest movements and by contrast, the Bolsheviks had revolutionary nicknames like Lenin and Stalin and committed a lot of acts anonymously and secretly. In the Middle East and Asia, there is more of a tendency to have pseudonyms, because evidently the oppression is far greater, but it sets up a cycle of lack of accountability.
Well, Alec Ross and I are not going to agree about these things. But hopefully he will become more honest about admitting the role of elites like himself. At their most benign, they have outsized influence. At their worst, they are hijacking social media and amplifying their political agenda with it, and using the ban/mute/delete functions to silence dissent.
has been tweeting 2 years, 328 days, 23 hours, 47 minutes, 43 seconds since Oct 14, 2009
has been tweeting 4 years, 250 days, 23 hours, 14 minutes, 35 seconds since Dec 31, 2007