How to write an app (that respects privacy and supports security)

Some difficult-to-meet requirements

  1. Be open source. Don't make users have to trust your black box. I don't want to have to trust you. I don't know you.
  2. Don't just release your in-house source code. Develop in public; practice outreach to OSS developers to loop in others; make distributed code reviews a standard practice.
  3. Be fully open source. Don't depend on proprietary vendors or use APIs that, for example, make sensitive user data open to systematic collection.
  4. If you must keep some of your server-side code private (it could happen), then hire a third party to do public, independent audits of security and user privacy issues. I don't want to take your word for it. The more often an audit is performed, the better.
  5. Don't use a business model based on selling or datamining user data. Prefer subscription, non-targeted ad, and other non-intrusive models. Maybe tokenize. Prove to your users that this is your business model, and go on the record loud and clear that it is.
  6. Have a clearly-worded privacy policy that (as much as possible) lacks vague language and is highly specific about exactly how user data is used. Make many clear positive assertions about what you do and don't do with user data, in various categories that users might worry about. Include a non-legalese gloss of both the main document and the latest updates.
  7. If you have a cloud app with any data that some users might reasonably want to be kept private (which is almost all cloud apps), store the data using zero-knowledge encryption or other similarly secure tech whenever possible.
  8. When private user data needs to be processed, do it client-side, not server-side, so that you don't need to see the data.
  9. Use strong, standard, end-to-end encryption for all user-to-user communication features.
  10. Obviously, follow best modern practices when it comes to user authentication. E.g., save hashes of user passwords.
  11. If you must make it easier for users to log in by using social media/OAuth logins, then at least give users the clear and prominent option of using their own password for your site. (I strongly advise users to use their own passwords, tracked with a modern, secure password manager. Social media logins are a backdoor for corporate surveillance.)
  12. Conspicuously distinguish between public and private data. Of course, sometimes users don't care about privacy; they want the widest possible exposure for a public post or profile. Just make it really, really clear what information is exposed to whom, and especially whenever anything is not 100% private (and kept that way through encryption).
  13. Support various kinds of two-factor authentication.
  14. Don't keep unnecessary logs of user/visitor data. Never use feckin' Google Analytics!
  15. Make it hard for governments to get user information out of you. The best way to respond to government information requests when you run a private service is with, "We do not have access to that information. It is never sent to or recorded on our servers, or if it is, it is done so in an encrypted format."
  16. Make your mailing lists and notifications opt-in, for the love of all that is holy.
  17. Don't force users to use your proprietary mobile app. Some of us like to use browser versions because we the user have more control and transparency about what the hell is going on.
  18. Speaking of transparency, be totally transparent to OSS devs and regular users alike about how your app works and allay any concerns they might have.
  19. Clarify where your management and developers live and where your offices are located. If we can't find out who you are, how can we trust anything you say about yourselves?
  20. All of the above goes double if you live in a country that is associated with hacking or a highly intrusive or totalitarian government, or if you have any other red flags that might make users worried about their privacy or security when using your app.

I've reviewed and installed a lot of software lately and have designed (if not coded) a lot over the years. As a consumer, this is the ideal I'm after. I'm not sure I know of many consumer web apps that satisfy all of these "requirements." But this is what we need if we want to respect privacy and help users with their security.

I might add more to this list as I think of more things. If you have additions you think I should make, please list them below.


How I got rid of Google calendar

It was about 2013 that my friend Terrence Yang told me I should be using Google Calendar, because everybody was using Google Calendar. So I did. And he was right: almost everyone else was using it, as far as I could tell. There was a period between approximately 2015 and 2017 when I was getting Gcal invites from all sorts of different people. You could just about assume that everyone was, indeed, using Gcal, and were happy to receive Gcal invites. I sent quite a few myself. For several years I was very impressed by the convenience of Gcal. Weren't we all?

But, as it became increasingly clear that Google simply doesn't care about my privacy, I grew less excited about its convenience. The fact that I could easily send an invite to someone else who probably also uses Gcal no longer seems so impressive.

Now, maybe it's just me, but in the last few years, the number of Gcal invites I received has dropped, and this is not been for lack of meetings. People just stopped sending me so many of them; I've frequently had to add meetings to my own calendar. But I found that it wasn't that hard. I had forgotten that it is pretty easy to do it yourself, even if you don't use Siri.

So, when I decided to lock down my cyber-life, I knew one thing I wanted to do was to stop using Gcal. Who really knows what Google does with this data? There were still people who sent me invites occasionally (I actually received one while writing this), but I didn't care about that; I could add the meeting info myself, or maybe make use of the .ics files that come with automatic meeting invitations.

But I couldn't just quit Gcal. It is a cloud-based service that makes it so easy to sync data across my devices; I need my phone and my laptop and my desktop to have all the same calendar data available all the time. But I decided I didn't want that data in the cloud—or rather, not in the public cloud. A few weeks ago, I set up a NAS, i.e., my own private cloud. The NAS vendor makes awesome software, including calendar software. I knew it was only a matter of time before I switched from Gcal, drawing data from Google servers, to Synology Calendar, drawing data from my own private NAS.

Recently, I made the plunge. Here's what I did.

  1. Exported all my data from Gcal. Not hard. The data is exported in the standard .ics format, which any calendar app should be able to use.
  2. Imported my data into Synology Calendar, stored locally on my own machine. The data doesn't make any round trips to Synology servers, by the way. Why would it? It's my own server!
  3. Set up CalDAV on the NAS. CalDAV (an extension of the WebDAV protocol) is a calendar data protocol. So basically what this means is that I enabled the NAS to act as a server for the calendar data, i.e., so it can be edited by all my devices, and maybe most importantly, by my phone. This was maybe the most technically difficult part, but still not hard.
  4. Set up the Apple Calendar app (which doesn't send data to Apple, the privacy hounds on the privacy subreddit assured me; I checked) to get and send data from and to the NAS via the CalDAV protocol. In practical terms, this basically just meant putting in a server address, a username, and a password in the right places on my phone. Easy peasy.
  5. There was one person who depended on the fact that I was using Gcal, who made lots of appointments for me. I knew I was going to have to get her started using the NAS system. So I gave her detailed instructions (this took the longest out of everything), which must have been good because she had everything hooked up in 10 minutes.
  6. We did some testing to ensure that everything worked correctly on all devices, data was syncing, invites and alerts were being sent, etc.
  7. Finally, I deleted all my calendar data from Google servers. Yes, I stuck the knife in and twisted it in the heart of Gcal. So satisfying.

"But," you say, "surely the new system surely can't work as well as Gcal. You sacrifice convenience for privacy. I wouldn't want to do that."

Au contraire, dear reader, it works just as well as Gcal. I have pretty high standards and skills when it comes to software use. I'm quite happy with what I have. For one thing, I haven't switched apps on my iPhone. (I looked for an open source calendar app for the iPhone that supports CalDAV; I couldn't find one.) The data there looks and acts exactly the same as it did before.

Also, the Synology Calendar app for my browser is every bit as fully-functioned as Google's calendar app. Yes, I can have multiple calendars, e.g., one for work and one for personal stuff. Yes, I can make and send invites, and when someone accepts an invitation, my calendar shows that (we checked this out). Yes, optional alert emails are available. Yes, the UX of the Synology Calendar browser app is absolutely fine—no worse than Google's. In some ways, maybe better. Yes, get this, if I want Siri to make appointments for me, it will do so. (Of course, that means sending a sound file to Apple servers with private info about a meeting, which maybe I'd rather not do.)

So, are you jealous? My set-up does everything Gcal does, and it is 100% Google-free and runs on my own machines as well.

I know I'm privileged by having money, time, and technical sophistication to set up my own NAS to do this sort of thing. But you don't have to be rich, and you don't have to be a programmer or system administrator. For a NAS like I have, you just have to spend about as much money as you would on a new desktop, make configuring it your hobby for a while, and be a "power user," which I'm guessing most of the readers of this blog are. Or you know some geek you could impose on, or maybe you could hire someone.

The point is, probably, you, too, could escape the clutches of Google (or at least Google Calendar).

Here are the Google products I once did but no longer depend on: Search, Chrome, Gmail, Docs (for my personal documents; colleagues still use this so I have no choice in their case), Drive, Maps, News, Analytics (yes, I finally removed all traces of Analytics from this blog), Translate, ReCaptcha—and now, Calendar.

My de-Googlification task list now has only two more entries, I reckon:

  1. Delete all my contacts/address book info. I could probably do that right now, but I want to make sure I do it right. Synology has yet another WebDAV tool that enables me to sync my contacts via my browser. I don't want to delete my Google contacts until after I've set that up.
  2. Actually delete my gmail account. (I can do that without deleting my Google account.) I'm pretty sure there's nothing stopping me from doing this now, apart from transferring my contact info.

The one Google product that I'm not sure I'll be able to give up is YouTube. My channel has got almost 8000 followers and a lot of kids depend on that content. And I'm thinking of starting an interview series. Besides, insofar as my colleagues expect me to keep using Google Docs, I can't simply delete the account for good. I'm still trying to persuade them to install a NAS.


If you want government censorship through the back door, advocate for social media regulation

Last week, Facebook permanently blocked the accounts of a motley assortment of conservatives, libertarians, and anti-Semites. This set the Internet, especially the free speech loving parts of the Internet, in an uproar. (That would include me.)

It's a trap!

Conservatives, who normally cheer for deregulation, demanded the government start regulating social media. This includes two that Facebook booted. Alex Jones predictably and literally screamed for it (no, really; I looked in on the InfoWars website, which still exists, and there he was, screaming for regulation), while Paul Joseph Watson asked, "When are we going see any kind of sensible kind of regulations or laws to stop this?"

We might see them faster than you'd think. Social media critic and free speech liberal Tim Pool is very enthused about a couple of laws in California and in Texas that would indeed make “social media censorship illegal.” They were introduced earlier this year, February in California and last month in Texas.

So, if you're in favor of free speech, that's a good thing, right? Not so fast.

Among those who have
been calling for regulation of Facebook is someone you might not
expect: Mark Zuckerberg.

No, this isn’t a joke. I’m perfectly serious. I wasn't even surprised by the news when it came out last month. If you know enough about giant corporations and the giant bureaucracies that regulate them, you aren't surprised, either. Last month, I went on at great length explaining why it was a bad idea. (I encourage you to read that piece.)

If you call for a law that “guarantees” that Facebook not ban people for political reasons, your public servants will not stop there, and they might not do that at all. They will inevitably create a new three-letter agency, which we, also inevitably, will soon call words with four letters. Its purview will not be “stop Facebook from banning Republicans for political reasons.” Governments rarely pass legislation aimed at individual corporations, and rarely do they limit themselves to such narrow purposes as "stop banning Republicans for political reasons." No, its purview will, soon enough, be “to regulate Internet content for fairness” or something equally broad.

If you're conservative, think about that being implemented by the state of California. If you're liberal, think how Texas will implement it. Or, if you're from either side, think about the risks inherent in a federal Internet content regulator.

We must not let this horse out of the barn. It would be potentially disastrous.

A federal Internet content regulator (the phrase is chilling) will doubtless be staffed by former “moderation” executives from Facebook and Twitter, as well as academics who specialize in Internet policy (almost 100% left-wing) and lawyers who specialize in Internet law (ditto).

Approximately half of the laws passed for this agency, at the federal level, will be passed by the Democratic Party; in California, 100% of them will be. Surely well over half of the language of any federal regulations will be crafted by Democratic bureaucrats.

Think about all those bright, progressive Internet activists, the ones who call for Facebook to shut down "hate speech" under its ever-expanding definition. Where do you think they will want to go to work, to make a difference in the world?

And Democrats: imagine what damage the agency might do if staffed by Trump appointees. You often complain about Trump's attacks on free speech. Imagine if a Trumpist appointee were responsible for a newly-empowered bureaucracy that picks winners and losers whenever someone complains that somebody else should (or should not) be banned.

Still, don’t be surprised if the Democratic-controlled House passes an “Internet fairness” bill with a half-hearted protest at best. The California bill made it through several votes and readings in committee with no protests at all; and remember, California has a supermajority of Democrats. Some of them might eventually put on a show of resistance, but the votes will not be hard to find. Sure, sure, they’ll say to each other: we’ll make the Internet fair. (Seriously, the Republican who proposed this bill must be an idiot.) The Texas bill got push-back from Democrats—doubtless because they knew they wouldn't be operating the regulatory apparatus—but still passed 18-12. Votes were almost perfectly along party lines. That is very telling: both California Democrats and Texas Republicans are fine with trying to be Facebook's referee, presumably because it empowers them to regulate political speech. And what if they make different calls? Surely the federal government will have to step in.

So suppose a federal measure is passed. Once that horse has left the barn, Democrats will very reasonably suggest sensible, pragmatic regulations that prevent disinformation, fascism, bullying, Russian meddling, and other Bad Things. Who could oppose such eminently reasonable regulations?

After all, if the Republicans pass this law to prevent themselves from being banned, Democrats will expect something in return. What, you thought this body of law will forevermore be stamped “Republican” if Trump signs it? Not likely. That’s not how it works. You must expect the other side to tweak whatever you pass; that’s what happened to Obamacare, to take the most obvious example.

Look, this situation perfectly illustrates why we have an enormous government today. There's a problem; both sides agree that the government oughta do something about it; so laws are passed, and refined, and a body of regulations and agencies to write and enforce them are created, and grown, and funded.

Do you really think that, in the end, our speech will be freer? Take the long view. The chances are basically zero.

You know
I’m right. Don’t be a fool. Think this through.

There’s
another reason to oppose Internet regulations: they require
expert lawyers and engineers on staff to
guarantee compliance. This will substantially increase the difficulty
of making a website, which, having once been possible for kids to
create in their basements or dorm rooms, will be out
of their reach. As with businesses of old, it will be possible to
start one only with substantial capital.

Oh, sure—for a while, the rules might be applied only to websites over a certain size. But you know how it goes: regulatory agencies will expand their scope. The usual suspects will spot “loopholes” in the laws that permit “unregulated and abusive” smaller websites.

"Oh, but that won't happen," you say, "because we're proposing a law that will make free speech stronger!" No. Haven't we learned this yet? Your intentions for a new type of law will not determine the shape of that area of law in the long run. Government takes on a life of its own. The only question we need ask ourselves is: "Do we want to 'go there' at all?"

The answer is no, we don't. You are proposing a law that empowers government drones to supervise censorship by corporations and make it "fair," effectively controlling content, and making it official who may and who may not participate in the public square, and under what circumstances. You know what that sounds like to me? A censor.

This is a terrible idea. It will have precisely the opposite effect to the one you want it to have. That's why Zuckerberg is now encouraging more regulation and was perfectly happy to work with Angela Merkle four years ago, which became the NetzDG law. Regulating social media is precisely what the would-be censors, similar to the German ones, have proposed in the U.K.

Those are the horror stories free speech defenders tell their children. And you are rushing madly in the same direction because you think you can control the government. Well, good luck with that.


A Free Speech Credo

I. Free speech is nothing if not offensive.

  1. Free speech just is the right to say offensive things.
  2. You have the right to offend me, and I have the right to offend you.
  3. I find attacks on free speech deeply offensive.
  4. Popular, safe speech needs no protection.
  5. Free speech needs protection precisely because and to the extent that it bothers, annoys, dismays, infuriates, emotionally wounds—and, yes, offends—other people.
  6. To oppose free speech is to favor censorship.

II. What free speech is not.

  1. Free speech extends well beyond the First Amendment.
  2. Free speech is a moral right that should be protected by legal rights in all countries on earth.
  3. You do not gain more free speech if you are given a louder megaphone, a larger podium, a bigger audience; but you lose free speech if such things are seized from you by an authority.
  4. It is incoherent to suggest that you win "more" free speech for yourself by silencing your ideological foes.
  5. Free speech never was equivalent to some fair quantity of speech; it was always about whether or not you were being silenced by some authorities.
  6. The appalling fallacy and misinformation spewed about free speech in the last few decades demonstrates how important it is that we teach philosophy, logic, and especially American civics (or the civics of liberal, open societies) in schools.
  7. Those who do know the issues behind free speech—professors, lawyers, philosophers, historians, journalists—must step up to teach and correct about free speech, or this principle will be lost.
  8. Defending important principles of democracy, like free speech, demands courage.
  9. Citizens of a free republic, perhaps especially intellectual and well-spoken citizens, have a positive obligation to exercise that courage.

III. The politics of free speech.

  1. A generation ago, free speech was not just another liberal cause—it was one of the most essential and defining of liberal causes.
  2. A person who is not a free speech absolutist does not deserve to be called a "liberal."
  3. The Old Censorship that liberals railed against in the 1960s—conservative demands for censorship of both obscenity and far left propaganda—is moribund.
  4. For several decades, until very recently, free speech was a cause that united American liberals and conservatives.
  5. There is a New Censorship on the left as well as, to an extent, the right.
  6. The New Censors are governments eager to rein in hate speech; some Silicon Valley corporate executives and their employees; some university administrators, professors, and student agitators; and those journalists and activists who agitate for more.
  7. The New Censors are dominant in most of the centers of power—they are leaders in today's Establishment.
  8. The New Censorship is, especially in its rapid rise, quite new and genuinely alarming.
  9. The attack on free speech has become so striking and dismaying to some liberals that some have gotten into the business of denying that an attack exists; but this is wishful thinking.
  10. Former defenders of free speech are contemptibly hypocritical or cowardly not to stand against the new censorship.
  11. That goes double for academics.
  12. Academics not willing to give a full-throated defense of free speech on campus betray academic freedom—freedom of inquiry.
  13. Campus speakers who take views offensive to the left now need police protection; some campuses require the speakers to pay protection fees.
  14. Political speeches safely delivered on campus in the past were more shocking and "offensive" than speeches shouted down today—the standards have changed.
  15. Google, YouTube, Facebook, Amazon, Twitter, Apple, Patreon, and a few others have more real-world power and influence than many U.N. members.
  16. Moral panic about trumped-up charges of bigotry is being used to justify not just censorship, but political censorship.
  17. It is now a well-established fact that the Internet giants are intolerant of certain political speech.
  18. Much of the speech controversially censored by Silicon Valley, campus authorities, and governments has an important political aspect.

IV. Hate speech must be protected despite its offensiveness.

  1. Most people who want to protect hate speech also happen to abhor hate speech.
  2. People want to protect hate speech not because they approve of it, but because they have a much greater horror of censorship.
  3. The New Censors often pretend not to understand the difference between defending free speech and approving hate speech. They deserve to be excoriated on this essential point.
  4. There are no widely-agreed standards of "hate speech"; there is little agreement on what constitutes "hate speech."
  5. There is no First Amendment exception for "hate speech."
  6. The essential problem about a "hate speech" exception to free speech is that the phrase is irreparably vague.
  7. A great deal of what now passes for "hate speech" is, in fact, merely political speech that somebody else hates.
  8. It is morally wrongit is outrageous—to censor political speech.
  9. The best short definition of "hate speech" is: speech that enfuriates the Establishment, i.e., our would-be censors.
  10. "Hate speech" used to be restricted to speech clearly motivated by bigotry against race, religion, or sexual orientation.
  11. Sometimes, the "hate" in "hate speech" is most accurately understood as a feeling not of the speaker, but of the person damning the speech.
  12. You must defend, without hesitation, the freedom to utter hate speech—even speech that is outrageously bigoted—or you have abandoned free speech as a civil right.
  13. Until very recently, this was the position of the ACLU and of liberals generally.
  14. We could still return to more enlightened standards of free speech, having realized the enormity of error in this abandonment of principle.
  15. Many well-intentioned, once-"progressive" social movements die out; the New Censorship, like Prohibition and Eugenics, should be one of them.
  16. It is absurd to suggest that anyone who defends free speech is ipso facto bigoted, racist, or—ironically—fascist.
  17. The actual fascists of history did a great deal of censorship.
  18. The irony is that censorship, rejection of free speech, and indeed thought control are essential to the totalitarian mindset—an irony lost on certain uneducated and miseducated youth.

V. To abandon free speech is to confer arbitrary power.

  1. As people have different values and emotional make-ups, people are capable of hating and being offended by many things.
  2. Historically, people have found different religions, philosophy, cultures, races, research, and even language—even art and music—to be deeply offensive and, yes, hateful.
  3. Permitting censorship based on disagreements of fact and aesthetic empowers the authorities to determine facts and aesthetics.
  4. Similarly, permitting censorship of political discourse empowers the authorities to determine who wields political power.
  5. The values of the power elite, of the Establishment, are guaranteed to change; they always have; and how often have they been 100% correct?
  6. If you are worried about right-wing censorship, you should also be worried about left-wing censorship.
  7. Once the authorities gain the power to mold our thoughts, they will not easily give up that power.
  8. Once they gain sufficient power to censor, authorities always grimly impose their values and their vision of reality by force.

VI. Censorship violates our right to autonomy.

  1. Those who are most eager to take away your right to free speech want to impose their own beliefs on you. Censors are would-be thought controllers.
  2. Censors are worthy of the deep contempt of free citizens of an open, truly diverse republic.
  3. If you want to be in control of your own thoughts—your own values, religion, philosophy, aesthetic, etc.—you must support free speech.
  4. No one—absolutely no one—can be trusted to wield the power to determine what millions or billions of people shall believe.
  5. The bloody Inquisition and the fatwa-wielding mullahs, the secret police and propaganda ministries, the holy warriors and the Bible-thumping do-gooders, they all had deep contempt, indeed deep hostility, to those who would dare to think their own thoughts about important truths.
  6. I value the right to think my own thoughts.
  7. The thought controllers are utterly convinced that they know best and that others are wrong.
  8. "Why is there a need to think your own thoughts?" the heretics are told. "The truth is known. If you deny it, you are anathema, a heretic, an enemy of the people, a traitor to the state."
  9. The New Censors insist that their concerns are merely pragmatic, obvious, and eminently reasonable; but that is what most censors have said.
  10. All censorious regimes have in common a furious hatred of the free-thinker, rejection of the individual, hatred of the outsider—the stern demand that we subject our minds to that of a controlling group.
  11. You cannot support censorship without ultimately wanting to impose an entire thought-world.
  12. Indeed, the most passionate new censors today are entirely convinced of their own thoughtworld, indeed they want to impose it on the rest of us, and indeed they have the deepest contempt for those who differ from them, even slightly.
  13. It might be hard for some citizens of an established, old democracy to understand, but thought controllers throughout history have had contempt for the dignity of most people.
  14. Respect for the diversity of individual minds absolutely requires free speech.
  15. This standardizing, collectivizing, controlling impulse is inherently dehumanizing.
  16. We will inevitably lose the habit of thinking and speaking for ourselves, of fearing being ourselves.
  17. Our very dignity rests in our being responsible for our own thoughts.


I hereby license this document under the Creative Commons nc-by-sa 2.0 license. Please feel free to circulate copies, as long as you don't profit from them and you use my name (and note any changes you happen to make, such as additions and deletions).


An opinionated FAQ about Facebook's censorship of the alleged "far right"

A lot of people understand neither free speech nor what the far right is. Here's a beginner's guide.

Yesterday, Facebook and Instagram, which are owned by the same company, announced a purge—a fair description—of accounts by a roster of famous right-wing figures as well as Louis Farrakhan. What are we to make of this?

Who was banned?

The names include

  • Alex Jones: both popular and much-reviled right-wing conspiracy theorist, previously banned from various other platforms
  • Infowars: Alex Jones' news/info company; in addition, reportedly, 22 Infowars groups or pages were removed from Facebook, as of last month
  • Reportedly, any account that shares Infowars links will be summarily banned from Facebook
  • Paul Joseph Watson: British YouTube video star specializing in ironic take-downs of the far left; has been employed by Infowars
  • Milo Yiannopoulos: another Briton, flamboyant gay conservative/libertarian who specializes in provoking the left
  • Laura Loomer: a right-wing commentator and activist maybe best known for disrupting a production of Julius Caesar in which Caesar is portrayed by a Donald Trump lookalike
  • Paul Nehlen: an "America first" right-wing political candidate who has tweeted many anti-Semitic remarks
  • Louis Farrakhan: leader of the Nation of Islam, a black Muslim leader famous for anti-Semitic, anti-white, and homophobic remarks

One thing all of these except Farrakhan have in common is that they've made anti-Muslim (or at least anti-Muslim extremist) comments, but more about that below.

Why were these people/groups banned?

The specific reasons are not clear and have not been made (fully) public. The Verge reported rather cryptically, and uncritically, that Facebook said the banned accounts "violated its policies against dangerous individuals and organizations." I wasn't able to locate the Facebook press release.

The Verge also reported this, without naming a specific source other than "the company":

But the company did point to some of the actions leading up to the accounts’ removal:

* First in December and again in February, Jones appeared in videos with Proud Boys founder Gavin McInnes. Facebook has designated McInnes as a hate figure.
* Yiannopoulos publicly praised McInnes and British far-right activist Tommy Robinson, who Facebook has designated as a hate figure.
* Loomer appeared with McInnes in December, and more recently declared her support for far-right activist Faith Goldy, who was banned after posting racist videos to her account.

This is bizarre; rather than cite specific things the banned figures said or did that are obviously bigoted, or couching their explanation in terms of specific terms of service, Facebook apparently thought it was relevant to point out that the banned people associated with or praised people like Gavin McInnes, designated as "a hate figure," and "far-right activists" Tommy Robinson and Faith Goldy. It looks like guilt by association.

Wait. Before you go on, explain: Why is that bizarre?

Because it specifically eschews any attempt to pin a particular case to a particular objective standard. It's fundamentally vague and thus fundamentally unfair. If you have an association with or even merely express approval of a verboten figure, you yourself can, apparently, be banned. What if I say I've liked some of Paul Joseph Watson's videos? (I do.) Does that mean I should be banned? (Too late, I quit Facebook, but still.) Maybe more to the point, does it mean that I agree with everything that Watson has ever said? Of course not.

Facebook apparently called these people "right-wing." What really does "right-wing" mean, anyway?

Prepare yourself for a brief lecture about political terms.

"Right-wing" has two very different meanings in American political discourse. On the one hand, it means "conservative": being supportive of traditional views on social issues, especially Christian values interpreted fundamentally, of devotion to country and national interests, and of relatively unregulated free markets. In general it means traditional (formerly bipartisan) American political values of small government and individual liberty, but within some religious constraints.

By the way, libertarians are sometimes called "right-wing" presumably because they favor unregulated free markets, but sometimes they're called "left-wing" because they also support social liberalism. Go figure.

On the other hand, "right-wing" also is taken to mean "tending toward fascism of the Nazi sort." Thus, some progressives want you to believe that the National Socialist Party of Germany is supposed to represent the values of American conservatives, just taken to an extreme. There are a few problems with that:

  • The Nazis believed in giant, ever-present government, regulating everything, i.e., totalitarianism, as well as a massive social welfare state. It wasn't the National Socialist party for nothing. Mussolini and Hitler both began their political careers as, and thought of themselves as, socialists. They both became strongly anti-Communist, but the conflict was an internecine left-wing one.
  • Nazis hated the idea of a free market, and many Nazi leaders were hostile to or deeply skeptical of Christianity (some were devout, to be sure).
  • Racism is not a uniquely conservative value; extreme racism of the fascist stripe is not a particularly conservative value. In the U.S., some of the most open of our racists also express conservative values, and progressives have made hay of this fact. But in the past, some of the most racist and eugenicist people in the history of the U.S. were in favor of welfare state and even socialist policies. Remember Sen. Robert C. Byrd, Democrat late of West Virginia and a former KKK member who recruited Klansmen? He wasn't the only one. And today, anti-semitic (and anti-white, and arguably anti-Asian) racism can still be found on the left.
  • In short, fascism was a racist and nationalist perversion of an already perverted doctrine: imperialist internationalist socialism.

By the way, I'm not meaning to apologize for those American conservatives who (openly or not) are racists, who do want to wield the awesome power of the state to repress their enemies, who hate foreigners on principle, etc. Indeed such people really are like Nazis. They’re not nice and I don’t support them at all.

The problem is that most mainstream conservatives are not particularly racist—even if they support systems that happen to favor their own "white privilege," which is another issue—they are not imperialistic nationalists, and they sure as hell could not entertain anything so horrific as a genocide. And, of course, they don't support socialism, but then the left probably doesn't mean to imply that they do.

So much for "right-wing."

What does this term "far-right extremist," that I hear bandied about so much, really mean?

Those bandying it are making a spurious accusation of guilt by association. When leftists calls a conservative "far right," or a "far-right extremist," they blur the distinction and commit the fallacy of ambiguity, i.e., they use word "right" in two different senses in order to tar merely strong conservatives with the brush of fascism. Their dirty little implied argument is this:

  1. Paul Joseph Watson (just for example) isn't just conservative, he's extremely conservative.
  2. That means he's both far right, and extreme. So he's a far-right extremist.
  3. The Nazis and the KKK were far-right extremists.
  4. Therefore, Paul Joseph Watson is like a Nazi or KKK, or ideologically aligned with them. (Probably punchable!)

This sort of thing is not just fallacious, it’s libelous.

When you want to refer to an American or British conservative as being unremittingly so, but not a fascist and still within the broadly classical liberal Anglo-American tradition as it has been handed down to us in the early 21st century, you can call the person an "arch conservative" or in Britain maybe a "staunch Tory."

You would call such a person "far right" only if you wanted to falsely, libellously imply that the person is fascistic. “Far-right extremist” merely compounds the libel.

But today’s American conservatives are fascistic, right?

As my Irish friends say, go feck off. Re-read the previous two answers.

No, they aren't. Some good friends and family members of mine, whom I love, are conservative. They hate the elements of fascism listed above as much as anyone. I personally have a lot in common with them, although being an agnostic and rather more principled on issues of liberty, I think I'm closer to the libertarian outlook. If you say conservatives are fascistic, you're insulting my friends.

But libertarians are crypto-fascists, too. They use talk of liberty and free speech as a cover for their insidious racist views. Right?

You need to feck off even harder, you ignorant twit.

No, you can't get any farther from a fascist than a libertarian. Libertarians favor individual rights rooted in respect for our inherent value and autonomy, love minimal government, and hate racism. Fascists favored huge, powerful governments, didn't give a fig for individual rights, and were totalitarians and racists. Libertarians hate war generally, but they especially hate wars of aggression and even of intervention (such as in Iraq and Syria). Fascists are extremely jingoistic nationalists and imperialists. Libertarians tend to be very tolerant of foreigners and many of them support open borders, and the idea of empire-building strikes them as abhorrent.

In fact, historically straight-up socialists have had a hell of a lot more in common with socialists of the National Socialist variety. Yes, really.

Fine, but aren't the above-listed people actually far-right in the bona fide fascist sense?

I don't know all of them, so I can't tell you. Here are a few comments.

Alex Jones is a conspiracy theorist type. I have met his ilk before; possibly you have as well. He lacks judgment. He does seem to be quite conservative in the American sense. He's said some things that are extremely insensitive on almost anybody's view. All that said, I haven't seen much evidence that he's a fascist per se. He's a nut. There's a difference. All fascists are nuts, but not all nuts are fascists.

I like Paul Joseph Watson's videos about architecture and his pessimistic takes on demise of Western (not to say white) civilization. He's also quite fun to watch when he takes down left-wing inanities. He pulls no punches, and he's probably said some things that I wouldn't approve of; but then, we all have said things I wouldn't approve of. I see zero evidence that he's a fascist or on the "far right" in that sense. He strikes me as being libertarian, but I'm not sure. Maybe conservative.

Milo Yiannopoulos is "provocative" and comes across as an insensitive asshole, especially to the left; he makes shocking personal attacks sometimes, which is probably the main reason he is now persona non grata. The whole incident in which he seemed to apologize for the priest who molested him was quite creepy. But beyond that, Milo is an incisive libertarian type; I don't think it's quite right to call him conservative. I'm quite a bit nicer than he is, but I have agreed with a lot of stuff he's said. So have plenty of conservatives and libertarians who have come to watch him. Neither he nor they are fascists. (He's a flamboyant British gay man with a black boyfriend, for god's sake.)

Laura Loomer: I don't really know who she is. Never watched or read anything by her.

Paul Nehlen: Ditto. I didn't know of him before his ban. I read a few things like this that give what looks like rather good evidence that he's a vicious anti-semite. He might very well be a bona fide fascist, for all I know. I’m not a fan.

Louis Farrakhan: America's crazy black uncle. Keep America weird. Let Louis be Louis.

So maybe there's one "far right" figure, in the sense of fascist, among them, unless you also count Farrakhan, most of whose political views are pretty close to historical fascism as far as I can tell. The rest are very loud activist types with large to enormous followings that the Establishment wants to squelch. That's really why they were banned. Not because they really are fascist types.

Besides, I don't think we should ban fascists from our largest platforms. Maybe from smaller ones, sure. I reserve the right to ban fascists from this blog. But when it comes to larger platforms, to “the public square,” I'm a free speech absolutist.

But wait. At least they’re Islamophobic, i.e., anti-Muslim bigots, right?

I don’t know any of their views on Islam well enough to say. Disliking mass immigration by certain people who avowedly have an “extreme” politico-religious view, i.e., those who (like maybe 44% of European Muslims) declare they want to turn European nations into religious (Sharia) states, isn’t necessarily bigoted. You can be open to friendship and cultural exchange with radically different cultures without wanting your culture to be transformed into those other cultures. Religion matters a lot. Opposing immigration by moderate Muslims (like Westernized Turks) does strike me as bigoted, though.

I think some resentful and stupid conservatives really might be personally bigoted against Muslims generally, so I can’t really say in any one case. I’ve had moderate Muslim friends and family members; I don’t support any ethnic or religious bigotry.

Official U.S. immigration policy (last time I checked) also officially excludes Communists from immigrating. Did you know that? I’m all in favor of excluding them. Communists are an influence we don’t need. But I’ve had Communist friends.

OK, then, with that background about the political labels: Did Facebook and Instagram violate the above-listed people's free speech, or did they not? Were theycensored?

No, not in the sense in which the term is understood in American jurisprudence. As silly-clever progressives will never tire of reminding you, the First Amendment does say that Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech, and therefore, no company can violate your free speech rights as guaranteed by the Constitution.

But yes, in a broader moral sense. Americans seem to have a huge blind spot when it comes to the topic of free speech, forgetting that the right was discussed long before the United States existed, and that it was applied to the church as well as the state. American constitutional jurisprudence does not exhaust all there is to say about free speech. OK? So get off your high horse there.

What's the case that Facebook did violate free speech rights in a broader sense? Well, it's this: Facebook and Instagram have become massively powerful and influential networks, in some ways more powerful than many governments. They serve all of humanity. They are among the main fora whereby civil discourse—including political discourse—takes place. They are the public square of the 21st century.

We all ought to have the right—the moral right, if not the political right—to participate in this public square. If you're excluded from it, how do you exercise your necessary, essential democratic rights of participating in public deliberation?

Of course, this isn't to say that others must be forced to listen to you. I should be able to block you quickly and easily if I personally don’t want to listen to you. I have absolutely no problem about blocking people who treat me disrespectfully. I have an absolute right to block myself from hearing you, but not to block others from hearing you.

And yes, those blocked people were also censored. Not all censorship is done by government. Churches, schools, corporations, publications, libraries, and other organizations with authority over what people can say and hear can practice censorship of various kinds. Of course, the most dangerous and objectionable kind of censorship is done by the government. Never forget that. I am much more worried about censorship by governments in Europe and Canada, and future censorship by the American federal and state government, van I am by Annie for van I am by Annie corporate censorshipb never forget that. I am much more worried about censorship by governments in Europe and Canada, and the possibility of future censorship by the American federal and state government, than I am by any corporate censorship.

Should we be surprised by Facebook's action?

Hell no. Silicon Valley and Facebook in particular have been preparing us for this for a few years now, having banned many conservative accounts and repeatedly justified their stances, albeit in a dishonest, mealy-mouthed and wrong-headed way. I suppose it is surprising to a degree, however, whenever standards are shifted, as they have been. How far are these people capable of going? Pretty far. The ultimate answer might surprise even me.

Does anyone actually support these people being banned?

Oh yeah. Lots and lots. It's rather scary just how popular the ban is among the left and much of the Establishment commentariat. Who knew just how repressive the left would be if given the power? (Answer: many of us.)

Should Facebook and other Big Tech be regulated?

No. The government dictating to them how they should run the public square entails that the government will ultimately run the public square. We should eschew that idea, as attractive as it might be as long as "our people" are in power, for the same reason we should eschew the idea of government-run news media: Anything potentially so powerful is much too easily corrupted and becomes a honeypot for would-be criminal masterminds and dictators.

At least with the free market, we have the opportunity to seek out better ways to organize ourselves if we find ourselves excluded from biased forums. How long do you think the likes of Facebook will enjoy their hegemony if they continue to behave this way? As long as the rest of us have the means and freedom to organize independently, then not too bloody long. People like freedom and fairness, it turns out.

Should the banned people sue Facebook for defamation?

Maybe. I'm not sure. It's an interesting idea.

So what the hell should we do?

Decentralize social media and get behind a coming Declaration of Digital Independence. Don't worry too much. It's OK. It'll happen. I have very good reason to think it will. It won't happen overnight, but it's coming. This is one reason why both Facebook and Twitter have made rumblings in the direction of decentralizing social media. They know they have to get out front of the movement. They know it's coming.

So Larry, does this mean you're going to delete your Facebook account?

Been there, done that.

Go and do the same. Facebook must be put out of business.

I'm serious. Please delete your Facebook account. First, urge your FB friends to do the same. If you support free speech (and privacy!) and want to send a message to our would-be corporate overlords, you must know by now that it's the right thing to do.


Remarks on the drug crisis

As a drug-legalization libertarian, watching this video wasn't easy:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bpAi70WWBlw

It's a highly opinionated piece of propaganda; but it is also extremely persuasive. Thinking about this might make me moderate my position on drug legalization. I bear a few things in mind, which I will list simply:

  1. Cities like San Francisco and Seattle are being garbage dumps full of drug addicts.
  2. This is portrayed as a "homelessness problem," when the vast majority of the "homeless" are in fact drug addicts.
  3. Most can't escape addiction without help.
  4. Meanwhile, it has become fashionable for many big city and state government politicians to essentially permit all the bad behavior that enables the homelessness-due-to-drugs problem: not just vagrancy, of course, but also public drug abuse and selling, stealing, and even robbery and worse. This is all, apparently, in the name of sensitivity and compassion.
  5. If that's true, it doesn't seem very compassionate to me.
  6. Is this problem the consequence of legalizing drugs? Because if so, I'm not sure I'm in favor of that after all. I mean, good lord.
  7. Maybe the problem can be solved by jailing for drugs only when a person commits even a relatively petty crime (such as vagrancy on private property).
  8. Watch the video all the way to the end, when it starts talking about the Rhode Island drug rehabilitation program. I can't say that I'm totally convinced it works as well as they say it does (this is a very biased piece of propaganda, after all), but if it does, this should be implemented nationwide.
  9. New York cleaned up its act after Rudy Giuliani started enforcing the little quality-of-life laws. We should start thinking that way about the homelessness and drug addiction problems.
  10. I have a great deal of pity for the drug addicts. Past a certain point, you can't blame them for how they are. They really do need help. If this is what more or less free-and-legal drug addiction looks like, their lack of control becomes a problem for all of us, if it results in conditions like those San Francisco and Seattle are facing. And then it makes a lot of sense to get those people help as part of how society responds to their crimes.

Which of these claims is wrong? I'm not committed to them; but if they're true, they're a very serious indictment of our current systems.


Reply to Prof. Sears' rant against free speech defenders

Updates below.


Here's a quickly-assembled response to this interesting Twitter thread, by a Matthew A. Sears, professor of Classics and Ancient History at the University of New Brunswick. When classics professors say the sorts of things he did early morning on April 28, I think a response is in order.

(I'm not responding on Twitter, because I don't do politics on Twitter anymore, and that's because it's the wrong medium for long-form thinking. Political discourse is better when it is beyond tweet length.)

Dear Prof. Sears,

In this reply, I'm going to go tweet by tweet and unburden myself of some replies. Let's get right to it.

We should name every white supremacist. Name every writer, blogger, YouTuber, and politician that inspires them. Plaster their faces in public. Fire them from their jobs. Hound them from restaurants. Expose them and those that fuel them for the hateful pathetic wretches they are.
source

When you use the phrase "white supremacist," I seriously have to wonder whether you mean, well, me. I'm a libertarian, and I defend free speech. The problem here is that the phrase "white supremacy," which once was understood to mean the sick world view of bona fide KKK members and Nazis, has come to be applied to the mere fact that white people are unjustly "privileged" by their race. Actually, the phrase was "white supremacism," referring to a set of beliefs (an -ism). As it became increasingly unacceptable to progressives that white people enjoy unjust advantages, this fact came to be called "white supremacy," which is very close to "white supremacism." Then the "clever" progressive idea was that anyone who isn't as outraged by this unjust advantage is a white supremacist (the phrase you used).

When the left started saying, in 2015 or so, that white supremacy was suddenly once again a growing trend, I didn't notice any such trend. I did notice the trend of talking about the trend, though. I thought it was weird, and I wondered what the left was up to. I don't think there are more people today who seriously hold racist views than there were, say, 10 or 20 years ago, let alone 40 or 50 years ago. I think that on the left and the right, there is more actual racial, ethnic, and religious tolerance in the West than there ever has been in the history of the West. Perhaps this progress (and I agree: it really is progress) isn't fast enough for the left. But more likely it is the case that the left saw the increasing consensus that bigotry really is an awful thing, and it struck them as a wonderful opening to accuse their opponents of being intransigent bigots.

Anyway, if it were true that there were massive numbers of white supremacists—say, all or half or even a quarter of the people who voted for Trump (in historical terms, that really would be a massive number of people)—then I might agree with you, Prof. Sears. Then I, too, might say, "My God, look at how prevalent bona fide white supremacy is becoming. We've got to do something about this. Let's try shaming them!" I really hate racism, too, and, you know, shaming can work, at least if the shamer and the shamed have some values in common.

But it's not true; there aren't massive numbers of white supremacists out there. They remain probably less than 5% of the population (maybe less than 1%; what the percentage would be would, of course, depend on how you define and operationalize the term). Anyway, the only way you can conclude that the rise of "white supremacism" (that -ism again) is a problem is if the vast majority of the people you want to call "white supremacists" actually do deserve to be called "white supremacists." Of course they don't deserve that epithet, I think, and the vast majority of people outside of the radical left think so too. You make it sound as if most or all Trump voters are white supremacists; in other words, about 25% of eligible voters in the U.S. That probably sounds plausible to you. But again, it doesn't to me, and it doesn't to the vast majority of people outside of the radical left. The suggestion is just bizarre.

So maybe you can see why it would be alarming to me and to many other people who might find themselves lumped in, by you, with cross-burning, swastika-wearing fascists. This is utterly bizarre for a classics professor to say. If the classics professors, of all people, are now saying we need to shame Trump voters for being white supremacists, hound them from restaurants, and get them fired, then the real problem lies with unhinged leftist agitators, not with any white supremacists who actually deserve to be called that.

And that includes every vile little shitlord in a campus "free speech" club who spends his time platforming white supremacist trolls under the banner of "free speech," and every grifting liar that goes on about campus "censorship" and the "marketplace of ideas."
source

What a thing to say. My first reaction is this. Sir, you are a professor. When I was teaching college, I would never, ever have called any of my students, singly or collectively, no matter what I thought of him, a "vile little shitlord." What an appalling thing for a professor to say about his potential students. How dare you?

Like it or not, this reveals that you simply cannot be trusted to teach those students who would join free speech clubs. When I was a grad student, I was in a libertarian club. If I were a student today, I'm pretty damn sure I'd join a free speech club. I sure as hell wouldn't want to take a class from you, though, after reading these tweets, even if your research interests and papers do look very unwoke and ideologically un-edgy.

Since the appearance of actual white supremacists on campus is a rare occurrence indeed, the person "who spends his time platforming white supremacist trolls" is, one can only conclude, simply any member of a conservative and libertarian club (that invites speakers).

This says far more about you than it does about any person you're inclined to dismiss (and, indeed, dehumanize) as a "vile little shitlord" or "white supremacist troll" or "grifting liar." What it says is that not only do you dislike the right, i.e., anyone who advocates for conservative or libertarian ideas you disapprove of; not only are you personally intolerant of them; not only are you willing to say so publicly; but, beyond all that, you are a classics professor at a state university who passionately urges every "woke" person to shame, fire, hound, insult, and probably drive away from your university pretty much everybody on the right. And that they deserve to be called "white supremacists," which is pretty much the worst thing that you can think of to say about a person.

How on earth can a classics professor think this way?

Did you ever believe in free speech? If so, when did you stop believing that the right should have it? Don't you see any connection at all between free speech and intellectual tolerance? How on earth can you be a teacher of classics and and fail to see the value in being confronted with ideas that are deeply antithetical to your own? After all, left-wing intellectuals study Mein Kampf and conservative intellectuals study Das Kapital; all intellectuals in liberal countries like Canada should be able to recognize the importance of remaining open to serious discussions of ideas opposed to their own. That's precisely why many of us are wringing our hands about free speech and censorship on campus. People who called themselves liberals were not long ago the biggest defenders of free speech, and their ideological inheritors are now, amazingly, some of its biggest opponents.

(It's hard for me to wrap my mind around the thought that some of the censorious progressives might actually have been themselves open-minded, tolerant, free-speech advocating liberals not so long ago. How does that happen?)

And if there's a political party that attracts the pepe the frog and "white genocide" crowd, that party should be called out - including by the mainstream press - as a white supremacist party that helps to create the environment in which Jews and Muslims are murdered.
source

The people who fear a white genocide because they fear the white race being extinguished are, I'll grant you, pretty damned problematic. Some of them really are white supremacists. But not everyone who worries about the decline of Western civilization—say, readers of National Review or students of Hillsdale College or, maybe, a few of your strangely quiet classics students—would feel comfortable couching their worries in terms of "the white race."

Similarly, a lot of the young fools who think it's funny to post memes featuring Pepe the Frog are not white supremacists. Some of them are black, or of other ethnicities. They post the memes to have some fun at your expense and get your goat, which they clearly have done. Young people really enjoy having fun at the expense of their self-important elders.

Now, you "wonder" if there's a political party that goes in for Pepe and the "white genocide" theory; clearly, you think there is one, and it's the Republicans; and "that party should be called out...as a white supremacist party". This is weird, though. It's like you're in the middle of the religious wars in Europe, in a place where there are approximately equal numbers of Catholics and Protestants, and you say it's time to "call out" your religious enemies. What does that even mean? That everyone on your side should say everyone on the other side is the worst thing you can think of, a "white supremacist"? And say it over and over again? Is that what a mass calling-out of one side by the other side would look like? What effect do you suppose it could possibly have?

And you're a classics professor, saying this. You will never live this down, Prof. Sears. Well, either that, or society will move inexorably toward some sort of weird, new kind of civil war, in which your views will become the new norm. That after all seems to be what you're advocating.

Because if there really are such things as "Canadian values" or "civilized values" like these dog-whistlers keep blathering on about, those values should include calling out white supremacy and calling BS on claims of "irony" or "debate" regarding racist memes and ideas.
source

"Dog-whistlers" indeed. The implication is that one can't loudly and earnestly advocate for free speech sincerely, or to worry about the decline of things like, I don't know, the classics, because it's really just code (a "dog whistle" that the left seems particularly good at hearing; go figure) for white supremacism.

Anyway, no. It isn't a civilized or Western value (by now, maybe it's a Canadian value, eh?) to agitate for what amounts to civil war, putting everyone from one ideological camp at the throats of everyone from the other. That's not a Western value. The Enlightenment values that you, Prof. Sears, ought to stand for as a professor of liberal arts, definitely include such things as free speech, intellectual tolerance, and a little thing you might have learned once as an undergraduate but have clearly long since forgotten, namely, the principle of charity.

People are dying. And if opposing the environment in which people are dying means that some MAGA-hat- wearing wanker doesn't feel "comfortable" on campus or out in public, then so be it. Because that wanker makes it his life's work to make the marginalized feel unsafe.
source

Look. I don't know if there have been more attacks on Jews (by Christians) or on Muslims (by Westerners) than there were, say, four years ago, before Trump. I'd like to know, but coming to a fair judgment on such a freighted question would be difficult indeed. Let's suppose the attacks have increased; even then, I still wouldn't know if any part of the cause of such a problem is the election of Donald Trump. I wouldn't rule it out. But, again, coming to a fair, unbiased judgment would be very hard.

Here's something I do know. It is extremely unconstructive to tar people who are merely, as they have for generations, defending Christian and Western values, and who really are capable of loving people of all races and religions, with the brush of "white supremacism," or to blame them for and lump them in with mass murderers. I would of course say the same thing to any right-winger who attempted to smear all of the left with crimes committed by leftists. In both cases, I would say that's a ridiculously bigoted and actually dangerous thing to say. It's very similar to the sort of thing we used to take bigots to task for, when we were growing up in the 1970s or 1980s, when those bigots implied that black men were all bloodthirsty killers. It's profoundly unjust to blame all members of a group for the crimes of some unhinged members of the group. Don't you agree, Prof. Sears?

The problem here is that somebody wearing a MAGA hat, or complaining about campus censorship, inspires two extremely different reactions. To the Trump voter, the hat is a declaration of allegiance to Trump's outlook, candidacy, and policies. For them, it's not unlike a bumper sticker or a yard sign or a political protest—it ought to be fairly innocent. But to the left, owing to breathless screeds such as yours, it has become a symbol almost as bad as a swastika or a burning cross.

When a conservative sports the hat, not only do you conclude the person is a "white supremacist," it really freaks you out that the person actually feels empowered to wear the hat. He shouldn't feel comfortable wearing it, you say, because it means—well, it means exactly what you say it means. It means he's a wanker who is a white supremacist. You don't take his self-interpretation seriously. It's like Pepe—it can't possibly be ironic because it means what you say it means.

Don't be a useful idiot. And don't think for a second that these people are actually interested in "debate."
source

In other words, don't practice political tolerance. Doing so makes you a "useful idiot." The smart people are all intolerant, like Prof. Sears.

Of course, if you actually sit down with plenty people outside of the radical left and talk to them about the issues of the day, from immigration to free speech to socialism, you'll find that they really are interested in debate. Many of us actually thirst for good debate, because honest, fair-minded, charitable political debate is so goddamn rare today.

Prof. Sears, you are clearly projecting when you say these people aren't interested in debate. You just got done with an unhinged rant in which your main point is that these people aren't worthy of the respect needed to have a sensible debate. It's true of you, not them, that you aren't actually interested in a debate with your opponents. You want to shut them down, shame them, get them fired, and probably get them expelled. After all, why on earth would you want to debate anyone so inhuman as a "white supremacist"?

--Larry Sanger


UPDATES (5/3): Matthew Sears has since removed the tweets, which makes me rather glad I quoted them rather than embedded them below. Newsweeknoticed the tweets, and even quotes me in response. By the way, the tweets of mine that Newsweek quoted are gone, mainly because I've vowed not to use Twitter for politics other than to support and defend my blog posts. I removed them myself. Who knows, maybe Matthew Sears felt the same. Or maybe he was shamed into removing them. I doubt we'll ever know.


How I securely sync my passwords (and why you should, too)

With a uber-geeky bonus: How I synced my Enpass passwords over my Synology NAS using WebDAV

You need a password manager that syncs

Let's begin with what I hope will be a useful review.

You should be using a password manager. What's that, and why? A password manager simply holds all your passwords and makes them easily available to you. You need one because (a) you need to have strong passwords, or else your web accounts (which can contain really sensitive info) can be easily cracked; (b) passwords, to be strong, must be different on every site and very complex (and so hard to memorize); (c) you can't possibly memorize that many strong passwords; (d) copying and pasting passwords from some plain-text repository, let alone typing them in, is a pain nobody needs.

Password managers solve all these problems for you. They (a) check that your passwords are strong; (b) make it super-easy to generate strong new ones; (c) make them all available if you simply memorize one strong password; (d) auto-fill your passwords in forms on all your devices.

But in our multi-device lives, there's yet another problem: you need to sync your passwords across your desktop, laptop, and mobile devices. It's a royal pain, isn't it? Of course it is. How do you do it? Well, let's talk about some suboptimal solutions, to help explain why I went to some rather great lengths.

You could shuffle a document back and forth between devices, e.g., by email or a messenging app. But that's a royal pain.

If you're more clever, then you'll have a single document that is accessible using all devices. For example, maybe you keep yours in a Google Doc. That would be a bad idea, because Google employees could easily see your passwords, and if anybody else got a hold of the document, they can just make a copy and you'd be none the wiser. You really need an app, not a document.

This is why password managers apps work on computers as well as handheld devices, on multiple platforms. The one I use, Enpass, is open source software (UPDATE: oops, no it’s not: https://discussion.enpass.io/index.php?/topic/210-open-source/) that works on pretty much every consumer platform. But how do the passwords get synced? Each instance of the app, on your different devices, has its own copy of your password data. Well, the even cleverer solution then is to sync your passwords "in the cloud." The password manager software company will hold your passwords for you, as a service, on their servers. That's "the cloud" in action. Then, if you're on your desktop PC and you update your password manager with a new password, the change is quickly reflected on your phone, where you can use it quite easily. Neat!

Your password manager should use zero-knowledge encryption for syncing, at least

Here's the thing. The cloud is kinda evil. I know that's a cranky sort of thing to say, but I'm getting old and therefore I'm permitted to say cranky things.

I am only slightly joking. The evilness of the cloud is actually rather well demonstrated by the situation with password managers.

Suppose your passwords are sent, via an encrypted connection, to the company's servers. Suppose they're even encrypted there, making it especially difficult for anyone to hack your password collection. But you still have to trust two things: the honesty of the password management software company, and their own security practices, which ensure that external forces cannot hack into their (encrypted) database.

There's a very cool bit of tech you can look for in password managers that solves the latter problem very handily: zero-knowledge encryption. Basically, the company stores a completely encrypted copy of your passwords on their servers. They couldn't read it even if they wanted to, because they don't have the key to unlock it. Only you can unlock the data file, because only you have the key. Neat, huh?

(It's called "zero-knowledge," obviously, because the company doesn't know anything about the information stored on their servers. They know it belongs to your account, but that's it. All cloud services should use zero-knowledge encryption, but very few do. Ask yourself why they don't.)

Now, this is probably adequate security for most people. But it's not good enough for me. I don't want the password manager company to touch my passwords. They're very valuable, right? You still have to trust the company; there's all sorts of things that could go awry, or they could intentionally update the software in a way that would undo the encryption. (Or maybe just for select users that the government asks to spy on. If I lived in China or Saudi Arabia or were a spy or government whistleblower, I'd worry a lot about this.)

Use FOSS and self-host, if you want to be an uber-geek

One of the great things about FOSS (that's geek-speak for "free, open source software") is that nobody has ultimate control over it, because anybody can fork it, i.e., make their own copy and take development in a different direction. That's because the license specifically permits that, and the development happens all out in the open. If the project is big enough, then there are at least several (sometimes, hundreds of) developers looking at new code being checked in. If somebody checks in something that's dangerous or privacy-violating, the FOSS developers (a notoriously privacy-jealous bunch) will put a stop to that noise in short order.

So if you want to use zero-knowledge encryption in your password manager, great, but make sure the software is FOSS, because then it becomes even harder for people to play tricks with the software.

You know what would be even better, though? If you never have to transfer your encrypted password file to somebody else's server in the first place. In other words, host it your own damn self.

But how, you ask? Well, there aren't very many solutions that are available to the non-geeky. In fact, I'm fairly sure all of the self-hosting solutions push the needle fairly high on the geekometer.

If you want to self-host and you want your password database to be accessible to all your devices, regardless of where you are, what does that mean you have? A server. There are a couple ways to set up your own server.

One is to use your desktop computer (or even an old laptop) and plan on leaving it on all the time. You could install NextCloud on the machine, which transforms it into a server. Like, wow, that's cool. If you're a geek. But because geeky things are now cool, that's just cool, period.

Another is to use a NAS, or some other dedicated server, i.e., a computer that is specifically set up to talk to other computers over your LAN (local-area network; your home or office network) and over a WAN (wide-area network; here, the Internet).

Bonus: How I set up my Enpass passwords to sync over my Synology NAS using WebDAV

I ended up choosing a NAS over installing NextCloud on my desktop. I further chose a Synology NAS. This evening I finally decided to sit down and start hosting my passwords on my NAS. How?

I'm not going to give you all the steps in detail.

(1) You need to get an SSL certificate for your server, i.e., the thing that allows you to use https: and not just http:. Why? Because you'll be using WebDAV to update information on your NAS, and WebDAV (being an Internet protocol) needs to be made more secure by encryption. While your data should be encrypted by your password manager, another layer of encryption is important. So get this done. By the way, Synology comes with a self-signed certificate, which will make Enpass complain. You'll have to check a box saying that you want to ignore this complaint. But you shouldn't do that.

By the way, if you don't have a permanent URL for your NAS (for this, you'll have to use DDNS), you'll have to solve that problem first. You can't use an IP address.

2. Set up a WebDAV server on your NAS. In other words, a server process on your server device. WebDAV, as Everipedia puts it, "is an extension of...HTTP that allows clients to perform remote Web content authoring operations." In other words, it allows software to update data files remotely, if the software is given permission and the data files are set up to be updated using the protocol.

On my Synology device, the steps I followed are these (great tutorial here):

  • Install the WebDAV Server package, located in the Package Center.
  • Open the WebDAV Server interface, enable both HTTP and HTTPS, and assign them the ports 5005 and 5006, respectively.
  • Create a 'webdav' user (see the above-linked tutorial for important details; make sure you get the permissions stuff right).
  • Create a 'webdav' group as well (ditto).
  • Create a 'webdav' or 'upload' (or whatever) folder. You'll specifically need to grant read/write permissions to the 'webdav' user for that folder.
  • To confirm that your new webdav user can use the folder, drop a picture, say kitten.jpg, into the webdav folder. Then go to https://your.nas.address:5006/webdav/kitten.jpg. Note: use https, not http, use the '5006' port number, and use the name for the directory you created before. If, when you try to pull that address up in a browser and you're prompted to log in, groovy, you're halfway there. Then put in your webdav user credentials (not your admin credentials), and you should be able to see the picture. If you can, coooooool. Again, the above-linked tutorial has other things you can try to confirm your connection.
  • Next, open Enpass (or another password manager that supports WebDAV). In Enpass, go under the gear menu > Vaults > Primary (or whatever you want to sync via the NAS). Then you'll be able to choose from a number of sync options. Choose "WebDAV". You'll next have to put in your 'webdav' user authentication info, and for the address, you'll want to use the address given above. I further made an Enpass directory inside that, and tacked that onto the end of the URL, so I got something like this: https://your.nas.address:5006/webdav/Enpass/. This is important to get right. Then press "Connect" try it out. With luck, you'll be connected.
  • To test that things are syncing, open a copy of the password manager on a different device and repeat the previous step. Make a small change in one copy, press the sync button/icon in the upper left (which has changed to a "server" icon, which I thought was a nice touch), go to the other copy, press the sync button there too (because you're impatient), and then see if the change is reflected in the second copy. If it is, you're done.

That's how I got it to work. And now...all my password info (and a lot of other data) is out of the public cloud, in a private cloud consisting just of my family's devices. Pretty freaking awesome.


The NAS revolution: Get your data out of the cloud

It turns out the cloud is kind of evil. We blithely put all our data online, right in the hands of giant corporations (and by extension, hackers and governments) who only too happily control, sell, datamine, steal, and spy on it. But you can take control of your data. Now. Here's how.

When most people hear "the cloud," if they have any inkling of what it means, they think of Dropbox, Google Drive, and other file storage and synchronization services of that sort. But if you're hip to the scene, "the cloud" extends to any service that manages your personal data online. The emphasis is on personal data. The cloud, rather than a device of yours, stores data like your calendar (as hosted by, say, Google Calendar) and contacts (as hosted by, say, Apple's iCloud) as well.

If you're a typical plugged-in Internet user, "the cloud" in general manages a stunning amount of your data:

  • Document storage and sync: this includes all the files you might have put in Dropbox, Google Drive, Google Documents, iCloud, Box, Amazon Drive, or Microsoft's OneDrive.
  • Email: Gmail is the 800-pound gorilla, of course.
  • Calendar: Google Calendar and iCloud storage dominate here.
  • Contacts and address books: Google, Microsoft, and iCloud.
  • Online photos: Instagram, Facebook, Google Photos, Flickr, iCloud, and Dropbox all have cloud solutions for sharing your pictures with friends and family.
  • Home video: Facebook and YouTube are probably the main ways we have of storing and sharing our videos with family and friends. There are other options, of course.
  • Movies/TV shows: If you paid for commercially-produced videos that you own the digital rights to, they're in the cloud. This is the direction Apple, Amazon, and YouTube, for example, want you to move in.
  • Notes: Your phone's note-taking app, etc.: iCloud, Evernote, OneNote. The home of your note data is in the cloud, not on your machine.
  • Password apps: Your browser's password saving + sync feature uses the cloud, as do Dashlane, LastPass, 1Password, Enpass, etc.
  • Bookmarks: Your browser (Chrome, Firefox, others) probably syncs your bookmarks for you; the bookmark data is in the cloud.
  • Chat: Yes, chat isn't just a social media type of app. It's also a cloud app for use by private consumers dealing in small groups or one-on-one. If you're like me, you have private chats not just with random strangers, but also with family and friends. Insofar as this data can be presumed to be highly private, it's also "in the cloud" and not just "online."
  • Your blog: If you used to host your own blog, but now write for Medium, Quora, Blogger, Tumblr, WordPress.com, or some other blogging platform, then your blog is now "in the cloud," hosted alongside a zillion other blogs. That goes for web hosting in general, too.
  • Code hosting platforms: If you check your code in on Github or Gitlab, or run it on Digital Ocean or Heroku, your code is in the cloud.

Look at that list, and consider: an amazing amount of our computing is out of our immediate control.

There are two perfectly good reasons for this. First, we own multiple devices and we need to share and sync data among them. We also want to be able to share data with friends and family more easily. But, because this involves networking, it is a much more technically difficult problem for programmers to solve than simply writing desktop software. Since networking and sharing are already done via the Internet, it just makes sense for sharing and syncing services to be coordinated by Internet companies.

Second, simply letting centralized corporate services handle this data coordination is terribly convenient—that's hard to deny.

The necessity of sharing our data, coupled the undeniable convenience of the cloud, sure make it look like the cloud is going nowhere. I mean, what are you going to do, host your own calendar, home videos, and chat apps? How will you sync the data? That's a non-starter for non-technical people. Why not just let the professionals handle it?

But it so happens that, now, you can host your own stuff. How? I'll explain. But first, let's talk a bit about why you might want to host your own stuff.


We are increasingly suspicious of various cloud services, and we should be. It's not just Facebook selling your private chats with Netflix and Spotify, or Medium dictating what you can write in your blog, or Google datamining student data in the cloud—to take a few rather random examples. The events of the last couple years have brought home to many of us some truths we simply didn't want to believe.

What kind of truths?

The vast majority of the cloud services listed above are run by for-profit businesses who naturally place their profits above your interests.

Your data, for them, is an asset. Many cloud companies crucially depend on the ability to exploit data assets. They will sell your data if they can. If they can't, they'll datamine it and sell information about you.

You agreed to that.

You are, like it or not, a participant in many large, standarized systems. Therefore, even though you simply want to use a basic service, if you don't play by their rules, they can control or even block you. Moreover, you probably can't customize the service too much for your own uses. The service providers make the choices for you. You have to go with the flow.

Search and subpoena laws, censorship laws, and government regulations apply to corporations that do not apply to you, the individual. That means information you put in corporate clouds is under the watchful gaze not just of those corporations but also of governments. If you're lucky, you live in a country that respects privacy and free speech even when your data is on a corporate server. But don't count on it.

The reason so many violations of your privacy (something most of us should be a lot more hardcore about) have come to light is that so much of our data is in the cloud now, and a lot of people in business just don't care very much about your privacy. When will Google start using zero-knowledge encryption for all your data that they store? Never. They want access to your data. They need access to your data. It's their business.

Sorry, but them's the facts.

What can we possibly do? Are we at their mercy? Should we, perhaps, trust governments—who also want access to all your data, for your safety—to monitor, regulate, and improve the situation?

But you can take back your data. Now. And if this is news to you, let me admit to you that it was news to me a few months ago when I first heard about it: you can install and manage your very own personal cloud for every single one of the cloud services listed above. And it's not expensive. And it's not that hard to do.

I know it sounds bizarre. It is bizarre, but it's true.


A NAS, or network-attached storage device, was once thought of mainly as a hard drive (or several) attached to your network. But as NAS vendors began selling devices with their own operating systems and Internet connections, the term was repurposed to mean your very own turn-key server. Turn it on, put your stuff on it, and you can access your personal data from anywhere.

NASes are easy to use, but "turn-key" is not quite right. No NAS on the market, that I know of, is as easy to start using as a regular computer is. Getting one up and running takes some time; there is, as they say, a learning curve. But "turn-key" does get the flavor of the most popular NAS brands. The NAS devices for sale by Synology and QNAP especially, and others to a lesser extent, are intended to make it easy to have your own server, or your own "cloud." In fact, Western Digital (WD) sells NASes under the brand name "My Cloud" and markets them as "personal clouds." There's a bit of challenge, but it's not that hard to set these things up (more details below).

The reason to get a NAS, for me—or to get any personal server—is to replace all the software that has moved to the cloud. In case you're skeptical, let me give you a rundown. While I'll be talking about the NAS I just installed for myself and my family, which happens to be from Synology, there's an equally well-reviewed NAS system available from QNAP, and for those who have more technical skill, NextCloud (perhaps on a FreeNAS machine you set up) does many of the same things.

Let's just go down the list I gave above.

  • Document storage and sync. I now have an app that can sync documents on at least eight of my family's devices. I can update the document on my desktop, and if I save it in the Synology's office format, I can edit it directly in the browser, with changes showing up for other users in real time, just like Google Docs. There are documents, spreadsheets, and slides. Chat with other user accounts on your NAS (for me, my family members) is available in every document. This is available everywhere, because it's truly in the cloud. It's just that it's your cloud.
  • Email: You can host your own email on a NAS, if you want to go to heroic lengths that I don't recommend. Like web hosting, this is something you probably should leave to the professionals, for now. I have a feeling this is going to change in coming years, though.
  • Calendar: There's a rather nice app for that.
  • Contacts and address books: It's not "turnkey" yet. But something is available.
  • Online photos: Synology's Moments app automatically syncs your pictures with your camera, identifies people (without sharing data with Synology), uses (stand-alone) sophisticated algorithms to put pictures into categories, etc. Again, the pictures are available for quick and easy download from anywhere, and you don't have to worry about Dropbox or Google or whatever snooping.
  • Home video: Ditto—Moments works fine for this, but so does Video Station. Easily share your home movies with grandma, right from your own machine.
  • Movies/TV shows: Rip all your DVDs and Blu-Rays, then stream them anywhere (to your phone, tablet, computer, or TV) with an interface that looks a lot like Netflix. No need to rely on Apple or Amazon to keep digital copies of your movies for you. Wouldn't you much rather own and serve your own copies? I know I would.
  • Notes: There's an app for that, both for browsers and for your phone.
  • Password apps: Use your NAS's WebDAV server to sync your password data on your own machine; WebDAV is something that Enpass, for example, supports.
  • Bookmarks: Synology and QNAP offer no solution yet, but Nextcloud (which can be run on both) does.
  • Chat: There's a pretty awesome app for that; it closely resembles Slack. There are decent clients for browser, desktop, and mobile, again just like Slack.
  • Your blog: NASes allow you to host blogs and simple websites using your choice of platforms, such as WordPress, Drupal, and Joomla. I'm not saying I recommend this, though; your machine would have to be pretty beefy to handle the traffic you want to get. Server hosting for your blog is another thing that's best left to the professionals. But it's pretty damn cool that you could use a NAS for this.
  • Code hosting platforms: Would you rather not check in your code publicly or on an external server at all? Want to keep it to yourself but continue to be able to share it with people and use Git? There's an app for that. You can also host more advanced websites with many popular programming languages (including Ruby, which I use).

A NAS (which, again, comes in many brands, not just the one I happened to buy) can do all that for you. It's pretty awesome.

But maybe this shouldn't be surprising. After all, a NAS is a fully-functional server, and web hosts now bundle all sorts of turn-key (that word again) software solutions and make it available to their clients. So if you go to GoDaddy or Inmotion Hosting or whatever, they offer all sorts of complex software available to install at the press of a button. Why not slap similar software bundles on a server and sell it to the ordinary consumer? That's what NASes do. (And again, for reasonably skilled IT professionals with time on their hands, they can more easily than ever create their own real servers, which are typically much more powerful and cheaper than NASes. With a proprietary NAS system like Synology, you pay a lot for integrated software, ease of use, and support.) Then just think: insofar as cloud services are, essentially, just putting formerly private data online in the context of a server someone else manages, as soon as consumer web servers became feasible, it makes total sense that you could move your data back to a server you manage.

What do we have to thank for this? The years of fantastic labor by programmers to build and refine all the necessary software layers and scaffolding needed to create something like a "turnkey" solution to running your own server, complete with multiple, ready-made software packages—even if you are nowhere near a professional server administrator.

Put even more simply, a NAS device gives you the power to take control of your own data in your own home. It used to be that we had to rely on the Apples, Googles, and Microsofts of the world in order to connect all the devices we own together, share data with friends, and get the use of common Internet services. With the advent of increasingly easy-to-use NASes, we don't have to. We can declare our independence from Big Tech.


But, you ask, doesn't all this rather awesome software power cost a lot of money? Well, entry-level NAS devices (like this from Synology and this from QNAP) cost less than $200, plus another $80 (say) each for a couple of hard drives. I'm not saying I recommend buying a cheap machine like this, any more than I would recommend buying a cheap laptop. But that might serve your purposes just fine. The point is that these machines are basically computers, so they cost about as much as a computer. The Synology NAS and three drives I got (with space for two more drives whenever I want), together with my fancy new router and modem, cost a little more than my new laptop. (By the way, if you have the time and technical chops to able to set up and maintain a web server with less support, it's easier than ever to do so, and for the same amount of money, you could get a machine that would be much faster and better than my NAS.)

"OK," you say, "maybe it's possible to set up. But how good could it be? I mean, you really think I'll be able to replace my family's Slack group with Synology's chat app? It must be inadequate. Or replace Google Docs with their Office app? That seems unlikely."

Before I saw the capabilities of the systems, that's what I thought, too. Then when I got my own, and started using it (several days ago), the proverbial scales fell from my eyes, and I'm a believer. This is surprisingly solid software. It might have been "bleeding edge" a few years ago, but it's excellent today. The functionality is all accessible via the browser, but there are also a few good desktop apps. It also comes with a lot of excellent iOS apps that you can use to access your NAS's functionality. So far I've installed the photo app (replaces whatever you used to upload your pix to permanent storage and gives you access to all of your pictures, not just the ones currently on your phone), the chat app, the drive app (which is a replacement for both Google Docs and Dropbox), the video app (which allows me to stream videos my boys are ripping from our DVD collection), the notes app (replaces iOS Notes), and the calendar app. So far, I don't see any advantages Slack has over the chat app (just for example). Their collaborative document editing app Synology (Office, installed when you install Drive) is excellent for basic editing, and it seems to be just as good as Google Docs.

"OK," you say, "maybe it's not that expensive, and maybe it's decent quality software. But isn't this a lot of work to install?"

Less than you might think. But it depends on what you mean by "a lot." It takes a few hours, maybe, to turn the thing on, network it with your devices, and get the first services up and running. You'll probably spend more time actually picking the thing out and upgrading your Internet speed as well as modem and router (which is something you'll need to do if you have old equipment). It takes more hours (depending on how much of the functionality of the thing you use) to get the full range of functionality set up—anywhere from ten minutes to several hours, depending on the app. Getting started with Synology's chat app is dead simple, for example, but importing all your pictures might take serious time. A lot of the time I've spent so far has been in migrating data from the Internet and my desktop and backup drives to the NAS.

So, sure, it takes a reasonable time investment. But it is so worth it.

"But," you say, "I'm not a terribly technical person. I can run all the software of the sort you mention if somebody has set it up for me in the cloud, but I can't imagine running my own server."

It's not that bad. Let's just say you need to be a "power user" if you want to do it all yourself. If you have ever set up your own WordPress website, or installed Linux, or registered and pointed a domain name (without help), or done basic programming, then you're up to the task of installing one of these devices without too much help. If you're just a regular computer user, but you have never done anything like that, then installing a NAS might be a bit beyond you. You still might be able to handle it, though.

In any case, I'll bet you know someone who could install one for you if you bought them dinner, or paid them a little. It's not a huge deal. It's not like "setting up your own web server." It's more like "setting up your own home network." It's easy enough for the local geeks to handle.

If you don't have access to a geek, you can hire one.Here's a service, Amazon does it more cheaply, probably Best Buy would do it, some of these guys could do it, etc.


In short, installing and running your own server is today approximately as difficult as computer installation was in 1985, or home networking in 1995, or home theater today. (As it happens, NASes are often purchased as a component in a home theater system.)

The low price and high value of NAS devices, together with their ease of installation, makes me think they're ready to take over the world. I for one am never going back to centralized cloud corporations. I hate them (yes, even Apple), and a growing number of people share my feelings: we absolutely despise the encroachments of those corporations on our privacy and liberty.

Many of us are looking for answers. Many are already doing the sorts of things I listed back in January in "How I'm locking down my cyber-life." In their responses to me there, a few people mentioned they were using their own cloud servers. (Those mentions are what first introduced me to NASes, so please keep up the excellent blog comments!) That struck me at first as being a little too hardcore. Having actually bought and installed a NAS, though, I don't think so. Getting your first NAS is like getting your first computer back in the 80s, or your first smartphone in the 00s. You might have had to wrap your mind around it. It causes a bit of trouble. It requires some getting used to. But probably, you'll forevermore have a computer and a smart phone.

The consumer potential of NAS devices strikes me as being potentially similar. Maybe it will become the sort of device that will seem indispensable in 10 or 20 years. I imagine a conversation with a future child, looking back at the cloud era of 2005-2025:

Child: "How could we ever choose to just give all our data to giant corporations? It was so insecure and allowed mass surveillance by government. Were people crazy?"

Greybeard: "Sort of, but you can't really blame us. During that time, the software for NASes wasn't developed well enough yet for ordinary people to run their own servers. But once a few companies started really nailing it, everybody started buying their own NASes, because it was easy. The people who kept using Gcal, Dropbox, Google Docs, Instagram, etc.—well, if you were as old as I am, you'd know what these are—those people started looking uncool. All the cool kids were serving their data themselves."

Child: "Like everybody does now?"

Greybeard: "Yes, like everybody does now."

That could happen. But is it realistic? Time will tell. Sure, it's possible that owning your own cloud server will forever be the domain of geeks. But an industry analysis from a year ago says we're moving in that direction:

The NAS market is witnessing an accelerated growth and is projected to register robust [20%] growth over the forecast timeline [to 2024] due to the rapidly increasing applications of Big Data analytics & data mining, increasing popularity of NAS solutions in home/consumer applications, and the growing adoption of cloud-based network attached storage solutions.
Global Market Insights, May 2018


In the struggle against privacy incursions, we have tools beyond NASes, of course. In fact, I see two other, concurrent trends that will allow us to fight back. There is the growing demand to own your own data and decentralize social media. (I was writing and speaking a lot about that in the last few months, but don't think I've dropped the issue.) And there is, of course, the massive, revolutionary impact of blockchain, the essential effect of which is to disintermediate economic relationships. Being all about encryption, the blockchain world holds out the promise of a new kind of secure, private, encrypted cloud computing.

Allow me to speculate about how the Internet might work in ten or twenty years.

Many of us (I imagine someone saying, a few decades hence) have installed a NAS or, if we're geekier, have a server rack at home. Pretty much all small businesses run their own NASes as well. From these devices, we serve most of the data that was formerly held by Google, Apple, Microsoft, etc. Many of us even run our own mail servers, both because it's more secure and because the software and industry standards have improved so much that it became feasible. Our blogs are also hosted at home; the shift came with NAS tools that made it dead simple to transfer data and settings from remote servers to our local one.

Of course, some of us hit the big time with our blogs and websites. But they are still run from home. This is not something we could possibly have imagined in 2010. At that time, no one even imagined the implications of distributed computing on the blockchain, of which EOS was an early supporter. Whenever we update our NAS, it communicates with various blockchain services using zero-knowledge encryption. This shares out our data (and, when we choose, the keys to unlock it) among many other users who participate in the same system; thus our NASes are constantly working, supporting the whole tech ecosystem. We have no way of knowing which encrypted Internet services are being worked on in this decentralized cloud, which is much more of a "cloud" than the early Dropbox ever was. In any event, if a blog of ours gets a lot more traffic than our NAS can handle, then if we have turned on blockchain integration, the traffic is assembled and served using many other machines—and we, of course, have to pay more into the system or else our users will experience bad old-fashioned server lag.

In a similar way, our social media data is served, and locked down, using our own NASes. The days of Facebook selling our private, proprietary data are long over; social media companies still have dossiers on you, but they aren't as thick, and they aren't informed by any private information.

Perhaps what really got the ball rolling was Edward Snowden in 2013 and others revealing that the NSA (and other government agencies) were listening in on pretty much everything you do online. Once Facebook repeatedly made it clear that they don't care one little bit about your privacy, and people started moving their social media data to their NASes, the usual suspects in government began to complain loudly that encryption prevented them from their mass surveillance. They didn't put it that way, of course, but that's what they were upset about. They really didn't like it when NAS companies made easy, turnkey drive encryption standard and started pushing and teaching two-factor authentication.

In any event, now that social media content is served from our NASes—with support from blockchain networks—your feed is constructed by pulling your data from literally all over, but incredibly fast, because requests can be fulfilled from many different machines, some of which are bound to be nearby.

There was a time when IoT (the Internet of Things) was regarded as not very viable, because people didn't want to buy objects that could be used to spy on them. NASes and the blockchain, again, changed all that. When open source NAS software came into existence proving that your IoT data was stored on your NAS and unlikely to leak out (or, no more than any other of your data), and that it was always routed using encryption, and when this data became possible to sell on the blockchain without compromising your personal security, the whole ecosystem just took off: that's when "secure, monetizable IoT data" became a thing. Even data from your car is routed through your NAS (not through the NSA) if everything is set up properly, so that the NSA and automobile manufacturers can't spy on you. Of course, in an emergency, your data is sent by the fastest (and less secure) route possible, but you always get a notice in that case.

In a lot of ways, the Internet is the same as it was in the 1990s and 2000s. But most websites store your information encrypted in the blockchain, and they know they have to interact via blockchain services if they want to do work on it securely—because nobody is willing, any longer, to expose their data if they don't have to.


Well, we can dream.


Are we becoming indifferent to freedom and democracy?

Originally posted December 19, 2015. Reposting. More relevant than ever.

I know, I know: That title sounds ridiculously click-baity. But if you'll look at my blog, you'll see that I don't really go in for click-bait titles.

Unfortunately, I mean it quite literally. It's an enormous problem that we aren't talking about enough. And I want to propose that one reason for it is a massive failure of civics education.

Support for democracy is declining. First, let's talk a bit about support for democracy—yes, democracy itself, as in voting for your leaders and representatives and holding them accountable in the arena of public debate. Only one in five Millennials aged 18 through 29 cast a ballot in the 2014 elections—the lowest youth voter turnout in 40 years, says the Atlantic.

As Vox recently asked, "Are Americans losing faith in democracy?" The article makes a series of points illustrating that Americans, especially younger Americans, are ignorant of and aren't engaging in American political life. The article's main source is a forthcoming paper by Roberto Foa and Yascha Mounk titled "The Democratic Disconnect," together with the World Values Survey. The writers summarized their own work in the New York Times last September.

Asked how much interest they have in politics (as Vox reports), Americans born in the 1930s said "very interested" or "somewhat interested" almost 80% of the time; for those born in the 1970s, the figure dropped to about 50%, and for those born in the 1980s, it was continuing to drop just as precipitously.

More sobering is the survey question about how essential it is to live in a democracy, rated from 1 to 10. The percentage of Americans responding "10," essential, has dropped from the 70% range for those born in 1930 down to the 30% range for those born in the 1980s. A 40% drop in support for democracy itself is a momentous generational change.

In case you think that's a mistake, compare that to a question asking whether "having a democratic political system" was a "bad" or "very bad" way to run the U.S.: while the percentage for those born in the 1950s and 60s hovered around 13%, for those born after 1970, in the surveys since 1995, the percentage rose from about 16% to over 20%.

Even openness to army rule—something we associate with banana republics—has climbed from 7% to 16% of all Americans.

Support for free speech in America is declining. This is incredibly important: the Pew Research Center found that 40% of American Millennials are OK with limiting speech offensive to minorities (up from 12% for seniors aged 70-87). A stunning 51% of Democrats want to make "hate speech" a criminal offense, and 37% of Republicans. If you have even a passing familiarity with First Amendment law, you'll know that these things are contrary to the First Amendment.

That is how it is possible—and not implausible—that 50 Yale students could sign a petition within an hour to repeal the First Amendment, as this video of Yalies showed:

What the video shows notwithstanding, Yalies are very smart. They can compare their attitudes toward offensive and hate speech with what they learned in their elite civics and history classes about the First Amendment, and infer that they're opposed to the First Amendment. If they're reasonably intelligent, self-aware, and honest with themselves, as some Yalies are, they'll recognize that their intolerance to certain kinds of speech commits them to an opposition to free speech.

The increasing hostility toward free speech among many of our future leaders at elite colleges like Yale has been frightening to many of us, and has sparked a national conversation—an example is here, summarizing some recent episodes and calling academe to return to free speech.

Here's a possible reason why: Civics education has been weak for years and recently declining even further. I don't pretend to know why support for democracy and free speech have been declining, but if our students for some generations have simply not been well educated about basic American civics, that must be part of the explanation.

In the National Assessment of Educational Progress—the "Nation's Report Card"—for 2014, only 23% of 8th graders scored at or above proficient in civics. While 39 states do require a course in American government or civics, only two states require students to pass a test in American government/civics to graduate from high school. As the Civics Education Initiative reports,

[T]he Civics Education Initiative...requires high school students, as a condition of graduation, take and pass a test based on questions from the United States Customs and Immigrations Services (USCIS) citizenship civics exam – the same test all new immigrants must take to become U.S. citizens.

To date, six states...have passed legislation implementing the Civics Education Initiative, with a goal of passage in all 50 states by September 17, 2017 – the 230th anniversary of the signing of the Constitution.

But, you wonder, if new immigrants have to pass this citizenship civics exam to get in the country, wouldn't American high schoolers be able to pass it? No. In studies, only 4% of high schoolers in Oklahoma and Arizona passed it.

The National Council for the Social Studies published a position statement summarizing the sobering truth: "Sadly, the narrowing of the curriculum that has occurred over the past several years combined with the scarce attention to civic learning in a number of state standards and assessment measures has had a devastating effect on schools' ability to provide high quality civic education to all students."

According to a 2011 study by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, ignorance was not rectified at the college level:

beyond mere voting, a college degree does not encourage graduates to become actively engaged in more consequential aspects of the political process. Said another way, among persons with equal civic knowledge, those having earned a bachelors degree do not demonstrate any systematic and added political engagement beyond voting. ... A college degree appears to have the same negligible participatory impact as frequently listening to music, watching prime-time television, utilizing social networking sites, and emailing.

Knowledge of basic political facts among the general public is shockingly low. For example, only 40% of Americans surveyed in a recent survey by Pew knew which party controlled each house of Congress, and only about a third of Americans could even name the three branches of government.

Civics isn't easy, and political philosophy is even harder. But both are necessary. If this purported decline of commitment to the basic American system is real, and if it's rooted in poor civics education, it doesn't seem surprising to me.

For all the emphasis on reading and the massive, feature-rich language arts textbooks, American public school students don't have to read many books, period. Most of them are not prepared to read and comprehend the Constitution, much less the complex historical works such as The Federalist Papers, Common Sense, and Democracy in America that explain and defend the American system.

Education matters. It is likely that we will face more battles in higher education and, increasingly, in the public sphere over the necessity and advisability of maintaining robust democratic institutions and adherence to free speech. I fear that as we answer more and more attacks, reference to the Constitution and American political principles will not be sufficient. Part of the problem can be laid at Jefferson's doorstep, when he wrote, "We hold these truths to be self-evident." The fact is that they aren't self-evident, that philosophers have argued for and against them quite a bit, and in the years ahead, the better the pro-freedom side acquaints itself with those arguments, the better chance we'll have.