Show Notes: Mike Masnick - Streisand, Monkey, and Government Power

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Show Summary:

As the founder and Editor-in-Chief of TechDirt, Mike Masnick has published over 50,000 articles, with a deep focus on privacy in the digital age. In that line of work, he’s been sued for pointing out that someone who said they invented email did not, in fact, invent email; and he also achieved internet immortality by coining the term ‘the Streisand Effect’. Recently he’s been observing the role of transparency and privacy in a public health crisis, and that – along with maybe just a little Barbara Streisand – is what we’re talking to him about today.

Show Notes:

  • [0:54] How many articles did Mike think he would write for TechDirt?
  • [1:15] The injustice of the Guinness Book of World Records
  • [3:14] Of his 50,000 posts, which post(s) stand out to Mike as particularly weird?
  • [4:01] Mike’s copyright saga with Lily Allen
  • [6:21] The origins of “the Streisand effect”
  • [9:14] The true story behind TechDirt’s post entitled “SoftBank Owned Patent Troll, Using Monkey Selfie Law Firm, Sues To Block Covid-19 Testing, Using Theranos Patents”
  • [12:47] Mike explains why PETA represented a selfie-taking monkey in court
  • [17:22] What do transparency and privacy have to do with COVID-19?
  • [22:20] In responding to COVID-19, how can you tell the difference between government restrictions that are overstepping versus those that benefit public health?
  • [29:17] What are some examples of government overreach that you are seeing or that we should be on the lookout for?

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Transcript:

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Jimmy
As the founder and editor in chief of TechDirt, Mike Masnick has published over 50,000 articles with a deep focus on privacy in the digital age. In that line of work has been sued for pointing out that someone who said they invented email did not, in fact, invent email. And he also achieved internet immortality by coining the term the Streisand effect. Recently, he’s been observing the role of transparency and privacy in a public health crisis. And that, along with maybe just a little bit of Barbra Streisand as what we’re talking to him about today. So Mike, 50,000 articles, the first one was in 1997. When you wrote that first one, did you think you’d make it to this point?

Mike
No, I mean, I wasn’t sure I was gonna make it to the second one. So, 50,000 is kind of beyond belief. But I guess I’ve yet to find something else that is better to do with my time.

Jimmy
Yeah. And it’s a hell of a milestone to get to 50,000. But I understand there’s some sort of injustice going on with Guinness World Records. Is that true?

Mike
Well, it depends on how you look at it. But the Guinness Book of World Records claims that the most number of professional blog posts is 17,000, I think was 17,212 - not that I’m keeping track. And so they claim that in 2010, and give it to this guy, Darren Murph, who wrote for In Gadget, and even at the time, I knew that was wrong. And I tried to reach out to them and say, Hey, I think I have about 30,000 or so and I heard nothing back. And a few years later, I reached out to them again. And they said, oh, okay, well, if you want to apply for a world record, here is this massive process that you need to go through that will take forever. And by the way, you can pay us to expedite it if you’d like. And I just decided I’d rather work on you know, my next 10,000 posts, then fight the world records people.

Jimmy
Big Record.

Mike
Big Record. Yeah.

Jimmy
That sounds like a bit of a racket to be honest.

Mike
Yeah, well, there’s actually a I mean, this is a deep tangent. But if you look at the Guinness World Record business model, it is really fascinating. There have been some stories about it online about how they, you know, they used to sell books, and then people stopped buying books and the internet came about and the need to have a book to look up all these different bits of useless information went away. And so they completely changed their business model to basically getting people to pay them to monitor their record attempts.

Jimmy
Wow. that’s essentially - I mean, it’s a pretty impressive pivot actually.

Mike
It is, it is! You know, good for them.

Jimmy
Yeah and a great brand to bounce off once you know it. Everyone knows about Guinness World Records even if they’ve never bought a book. (Exactly.) And so of those 50,000 articles, is there any one that sticks out? As particularly weird?

Mike
You’re asking me to dive back into the memory banks of 50,000 posts.

Jimmy
Oh, yeah. Yeah, just pluck one out of the ether.

Mike
So to pull back the curtain a little bit you did warn me that you were going to ask me this question. And, and I have been thinking about it for about the last 24 hours since you first asked me and I have narrowed it down to three. I don’t know if you have time for three,

Jimmy
Do three. Do three.

Mike
But I will do three. And I will say that one of them unfortunately will require a slight explanation and I’ll save that one for last. The first one was, there’s a singer named Lily Allen. I don’t know if you’re familiar with Lily Allen.

Jimmy
Very familiar with Lily Allen. Yep.

Mike
Yes. And she got very outspoken suddenly about copyright about 10 years ago or so. And was very annoyed and I can understand that but she was very annoyed at people pirating her music. And she started a blog called it is not alright, and started writing about how awful it was for piracy to be happening to her music. And then somebody pointed out to me first, that on her own personal website, she had all these mixtapes of music that did not belong to her, which I thought was interesting. And then somebody pointed out to me that on this new blog that she had put up, she had copied word for word one of my blog posts. (What!) Which was talking about - I forget exactly what it was, I think it was 50 Cent had spoken out saying piracy wasn’t a problem. And she had copied my post word for word without a link, without credit, and then said this is not alright. And I was like but you just copied my…

Jimmy
So it was copied and paste it was there was no yes, derivative work or anything.

Mike
Well, she did have that one little comment, I think at the top it said like “this is not all right”. And then so I wrote about that. And it caused a bit of a stir, and she got upset and she deleted her entire blog, said that she was leaving the music business, and her publicist put out a note saying that trolls were attacking her and I don’t think that’s what happened exactly. I think it was that she didn’t fully grasp what was going on and had copied something as a way of saying that copying is not okay.

Jimmy
So the thing I’m taking away from this is that you are the troll that caused Lily Allen to depart the music industry. Is that correct?

Mike
I believe she came back at some point.

Jimmy
That’s the headline for the episode. And what’s the second one?

Mike
Well, the second one is, I guess the, the one that created the Streisand effect. As you mentioned in the intro, that is one of my historical moments was was coming up with the term of the Streisand effect, which you know, came about because and this is not the post I named the posts separate from from the event that that came up with the name, the concept and the different posts and the posts that I did name it about, actually had to do with a site called the urinal.net.

Jimmy
Urinal as an urinal?

Mike
As in urinal is in the thing that are in men’s bathrooms and they had a site that was pictures of urinals around the world. Nothing but urinals, nothing bad depending on your definition of bad and how disgusted you might be by pictures of urinals around the world, but they were just sort of monitoring all these different things. And they got a cease and desist letter from the Toronto airport or the Toronto airport authority because they had pictures of the urinals in the Toronto airport. And so they got this legal cease and desist letter, which of course only got a lot more attention to be paid to the pictures of the urinals in a Toronto airport. And I had just before that written about Barbra Streisand suing someone who had taken photographs of her house as part of a project to photograph the entire West Coast of the United States, which just incidentally, included her mansion on the beach in Malibu. And, and so she had sued over that for I think was $50 million. Which, this image, that before the lawsuit had received seven visits, I think two of which were Barbra Streisand lawyers, after she filed the lawsuit, you know, suddenly got like half a million visits that very day. And so I had just written about that and then saw this story about the, the Toronto airport freaking out and, and said, you know, there should be a term for when you, you know, try and take something down and only causes to get more attention. Why don’t we call it the Streisand effect and linked back to that story. And somehow that took off.

Jimmy
I think what a lot of people don’t realise and I certainly didn’t realise and I’m familiar with the Streisand effect, but I didn’t realise it all came from urinals.

Mike
Yes, yes, no one realises that.

Jimmy
And specifically the Toronto airport urinals. And so every time I fly through Toronto, when we’re allowed to fly in. (Exactly). I will think of Barbra Streisand. So it’s a really twisted web, isn’t it?

Mike
It is quite a Twisted web. Yes.

Jimmy
Okay. And the third one, the third weirdest story.

Mike
All right. The third one, I will, I will read you the headline from this story. And this is a recent story, it is literally from last month. And it may require a little bit of explanation because it touches on a whole bunch of different things. But the headline is “SoftBank owned patent troll using Monkey Selfie law firm, sues to block COVID-19 testing using Theranos patents”.

Jimmy
Oh my god. Okay, yeah, you got to unpack that.

Mike
Yeah, so I can go bit by bit. So, SoftBank is this Japanese company and they set up a giant Venture Fund, which was investing ridiculous amounts of money in all sorts of companies in the belief that the way to win the internet wars of now is to basically be the most heavily funded and so they’ve had some troubles lately. They invested in WeWork, some billions of dollars that kind of all disappeared. I think they put a lot of money into Uber. And some other companies too, that haven’t haven’t done so well. One of the companies that they sort of picked up and flooded with a tonne of money is a company called Fortress investments, which is really a patent troll right? And a patent troll being an organisation that’s just buying up patents to threaten other people and to demand money from them. And Fortress is very large, very well funded, very aggressive and picking up patents. And I will jump to the end of this headline to explain. So when Theranos another sort of famous disaster of a company, this was the, you know, if for some reason you missed the story, you know, was the company that claimed to have this miracle solution that could do blood tests, if you just prick your finger, get a little bit of blood and test for a bunch of different things and turned out to all be a giant scam. The founders are still facing federal fraud charges. And the entire company, which was valued at something like $10 billion, completely collapsed. So as they were collapsing, Fortress Investment Group offered them a loan. But the collateral on the loan was all of its patents for this device that didn’t ever actually work. And of course, the company collapsed with everything going on and so Fortress got these patents for devices that never worked. So that’s half we’re about halfway through that. Then there’s the Monkey Selfie law firm. So that’s a whole other story and could have been the weirdest story which I covered for a long time, which was I forget how long ago but probably about seven or eight, maybe 10 years ago, there was a story that got a lot of attention, which was monkey in Indonesia somewhere had picked up someone’s camera photographers camera and taken some selfie pictures and the photographer took those photographs and had licenced them to a British tablet I forget which one exactly, I think the Daily Mail, and they had published the story showing all these photos. And I had pointed out that under US law under UK law and under Indonesian law, all three of which require you to be a human being to get the copyright, and that it is the photographer who gets the copyright, not the owner of the camera who gets the copyright, that those monkey selfie images were not covered by copyright. And, and the photographer who own the camera got very, very mad at me and blame me for all sorts of things for years, and occasionally threatened to sue but never actually did. But then things get even weirder because PETA, the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, hired a big time law firm named Ariella Minela, which is one of the biggest names in intellectual property law and claimed that it PETA the organisation was representing the monkey. And the monkey had the copyright to the photographs, not the photographer who claimed to and they sued the photographer… on behalf of the monkey. And so then this was a big lawsuit that we followed. And it turned out that the court, in the end after going back and forth a bunch of times and through a whole bunch of shenanigans decided that, what I had said originally, which is that there is no copyright in those photographs is the correct copyright analysis, at least under US law. And therefore there was none. But I like to remind the folks that this big giant IP law claim that it represented a monkey in a lawsuit that was clearly frivolous, at least to me, and so that law firm, we’re going to finish this headline, by the end of this discussion, I promise. That law firm representing Fortress, this patent troll that is funded by SoftBank, sued a company. Well, first they set up a shell company called Labrador Diagnostics. And then they sued a company called BioFire, which had just announced that it was making testing equipment for COVID-19. very timely, very important. And the patents that Fortress group had represented by Ariella Minela sued this company that was making it claiming that the Theranos patents were infringed by this new COVID-19 test. And so that’s a very weird story that packs a whole bunch of stories into one headline.

Jimmy
Yeah, I mean, there’s a lot of side roads in that one, but actually, there’s something kind of serious in there, right. So there is a law firm representing someone who owns patents on a machine that does not work and never did work preventing a company from developing responses, medical responses to COVID-19 that potentially do work, or at least they’re being made in good faith. Is that correct?

Mike
Yeah. And so I should say there was a follow up to the story, which was that when, like my story, and a couple others started to go viral. The law firm put out a press release, somewhat passive aggressively, claiming that they were unaware that the company they were suing BioFire was working on COVID-19 even though it was there was an article about in the Wall Street Journal and a bunch of other places and therefore they were agreeing to offer a free licence for any COVID-19 tests, to their patents on the useless technology. (How generous of them?) Yeah, but if you look at the details, it actually wasn’t even as generous as it sounded to do that afterwards. They refused to say what the terms of the licencing deal were because they said they sent them a private letter with licencing terms, which might include some other nefarious things beyond the fact that it’s free. And part of the problem is that the way that the technology works is that there’s two pieces to it, there’s a machine and then there’s, there’s like a separate, special array that is testing for different diseases. So for every disease that you test with this machine, you need a special array. And basically what they were saying was that they were going to offer a few free licence for the COVID-19 specific test. But in order to run that test, you still need to use the machine to put the little device into and that machine they’re still suing over. So it’s it’s still they’re still suing them for COVID-19 test, just not the not half the test, just the machine that does the test.

Jimmy
Well, I wish them so much luck. That is, yeah, that is almost so depressing I’m gonna move on. But those are some sufficiently weird articles. I’m glad I, Well, first of all, I’m glad I gave you the warning. Yes. But another one of your recent articles you were writing about the need, and I think you’ve written about this more than once, is the need for transparency during a pandemic. Yeah. And I think a few people would say, what do transparency and what do privacy have to do with COVID-19. How would you respond to that?

Mike
Yeah, so there’s a few different things. And it’s a really tricky and important question. I don’t think there are any easy answers. And I think almost anyone who says that there are easy answers is misleading in some way. So I’m not I’m not claiming that there are good answers here. You know, on the transparency front, you know, this is there are so many unknowns involved in this disease and and if you’re reading the news, as you know, people like me or I can’t put down the news and I have to sort of continually scroll through every little bit of information that comes out, you find out like, every few days, we’re sort of learning something new. And some of that new stuff contradicts what we had supposedly learned, you know, a few days earlier or a few weeks earlier. So there’s a lot of new information coming out at once. And the only way that we’re going to get to a real solution to dealing with being in the midst of a pandemic of a brand new disease is to have, you know, as accurate and as truthful information as possible. And the process of getting there is one of, you know, theory and hypothesis and testing it out and finding out what happens and learning from everyone else doing the same and the more information that we have out there, and the more that we can pull from to get a really good Picture of, you know, how does this disease work? How do you fight it? You know, what is successful? who survives? And why? How does it you know, how does it attack people, all of these different questions are huge unknowns. And the more that we know, the faster we’re actually going to get to a solution. So, you know, the transparency aspect, I think it’s pretty clear, you know, the more transparent that anyone who has data on this, or who is studying this stuff, is about what they’re collecting and what they’re finding, the faster it is that we’re going to get to some sort of solution or cure or treatment, you know, whatever it might be to get us past all this mess. So that I think is really important. And my concern is that you have a lot of governments all over the world, who are more focused on how they look in responding to this rather than how they’re actually doing. And so that’s a big concern to me that we’re getting a lot of a lot of efforts to really, you know, suppress anything that looks bad, even if it would be useful and understanding the disease. So that’s, that’s on the transparency. Front on the privacy front, you know, there are a whole bunch of questions. Now. I mean, one of the big things that a lot of people are talking about is the use of what’s called contact tracing. So if somebody has, you know, has been infected with COVID-19, figuring out who they had they were in touch with or who they interacted with over, you know, the previous 10 to 14 days or so. And so they’re big efforts and lots of different places to go back and track people. And what some people have noticed is, of course, you know, if you know where someone has been every moment of the day for the last 14 days, that becomes a lot easier. And so one of the ways that people know where everyone is, is through your phone, which for the most part for most people, does have location tracking on and this is well aware of where everyone is. And so there are these ideas about how you could, you know, use phone data to track where people are, but there are also reasons why that raises some some pretty big privacy questions about who should have that information and What should be done with it and then under what conditions and so there’s some really big trade offs and really big questions to be thought through before like rushing headlong into this idea of like, well, let’s just trace where everybody is and who everybody’s in contact with. You know, and you can understand why that would be helpful in sort of reducing the spread of disease or catching it early or being able to, to, you know, separate or quarantine or isolate people who might be at risk of infecting others. But also, we have to take into account what that means for, you know, for general individual privacy, and, you know, all sorts of things that go along with it. And I could go on for forever, you know about concerns that are raised about individual privacy, and also medical privacy and a bunch of other things related to that. And so we’re in this difficult time and I think that with good reason and with good intentions, and a lot of people or a lot of governments or organisations are sort of rushing ahead with some of these ideas. I think it’s important to think through the implications and what happens later. And how much of this stuff sticks around even after it’s no longer a pandemic.

Jimmy
Yeah, that timelines an important point because there is a tension here. Right, but because I think the most aggressive government restrictions of personal freedoms, you’ve talked about lockdowns talking about tracking apps, at this stage, those aggressive restrictions also look like the most effective ways of preventing the spread of the virus. So where do you see maybe with some specific examples, where do you see a public health response? And where do you see government’s, let’s say, leveraging the virus or using the virus as a cover or as a convenient excuse to push through stuff that would otherwise be outrageous or not accepted by people?

Mike
Yeah, I mean, there’s a little bit of both of those involved. And it’s, you know, to some extent, there’s, there’s this phrase and I forget who originally came up with it, but this idea, the bootlegger, and the Baptist. Do you know, I don’t know if you’ve ever heard this phrase. So the idea is like talking about alcohol prohibition, you know, from 100 years ago or whatever. And you had sort of two groups of people who were very supportive of prohibition. One being the Baptist is the phrase here, you know, someone who’s doing it for moral reasons who thinks that drinking alcohol is evil and bad and should be stopped because it should be prohibited because it’s, it’s a moral issue. And then you have the bootlegger who realises that if alcohol is banned, you know, he’s allowed to unable to sell his bootleg liquor for much, much greater amounts of money and able to get much richer. And the arguments that both of them make, about why alcohol should be banned are going to sound very, very similar. And so you have this weird tension of, you know, people arguing things for you know, purpose. Quickly sound, public interest reasons that that sound good. And then there are people who are arguing those same reasons but but for nefarious intent. And so I think you get to a sort of similar situation with, you know, especially on the government side of being able to sort of ratchet up surveillance technologies in this kind of scenario. Again, like, there are obvious health benefits to being able to trace those who have, or who have may have been exposed and to figure out who they’ve been, you know, in contact with and making sure that the people are separate and isolated, that the, the spread of the diseases as limited as possible. And I completely understand that. At the same time, you have governments who have spent, you know, the last couple decades trying to exploit any technology possible to engage in all sorts of surveillance efforts for very questionable reasons, and reasons that I think harm individual privacy and liberty at the same time. And so uou certainly see some efforts in certain countries to sort of use this, as you know, this is a crisis that will not go to waste. And if they can, you know, expand the technology access that they have expand the way the technology is used, change the permissions, you know, they’re going to take advantage of that. And then rolling that back after all of this becomes a lot trickier. It’s, you know, it’s one thing to move in one direction, but to move back in the other direction is, is very dangerous. And so I think are very difficult. And so, I think, you know, I worry about where it all goes, while at the same time recognising the importance of doing this right and and doing what is necessary to stop the spread of the disease.

Jimmy
While you want to evaluate everything on its merits, I think the situation you’re describing, almost requires us to look at the track record, right. If the government has a track record of revenue stuff through and trying to restrict It’s going to be looked at or it needs to be looked at through a lens of this is a government that has tried to restrict in the past. And so what is this really a clean thing that they’re doing? Whereas if you have a government that’s traditionally been strong in those areas, you probably give them at least to begin with the benefit of the doubt. Sure. Yeah. And is this some sort of, you talked about? Obviously, governments have decisions to make around information because they are inhaling a lot of information and then they have to decide what to push out right. In terms of transparency. The ones that are trying to release stuff that only makes them look good. Is this some sort of government Streisand effect here, where the more that, that governments want to keep something that’s, let’s say, inconvenient out of the public eye, the more likely they are to actually attract people to it or does it not generally work like that Do they manage to slip things beneath, yeah, just beneath people’s perception?

Mike
I mean, I think there’s a little bit of both. And, you know, the example and I’ve written about this a little bit is, is between Taiwan and China. And there’s obviously a lot of, you know, long standing disagreement between Taiwan and China and even over whether Taiwan exists.

Jimmy
A trifling matter trifling. Yes.

Mike
Yes. But, you know, depends on where you sit, I guess. And, you know, one of the things that’s been really notable about the response to COVID-19 is how well the Taiwanese government has handled it and how little Taiwan has been impacted by it. And that seems very, very notable. And yet, in part because China, China’s response has not been great and the impact on China has been very, very large and has not made the Chinese government look very good. You know, they’ve put in some amount of effort to sort of trying to hide the success of Taiwan in dealing with it. And to some extent, I think that has enabled that has put a spotlight more on Taiwan and what Taiwan has done, and driven a lot more attention to it. You know, there’s a question of how much how much of that is because of the Chinese government sort of trying to suppress it, and in some cases, leaning on the World Health Organisation to, you know, never mentioned, Taiwan as if it doesn’t exist, which is very, very strange for an organisation that’s focused on World Health at a moment when, you know, when Taiwan seems to actually have gotten a handle on things. And so, you know, I think that has drawn a lot more attention to not just how Taiwan has dealt with data. With the disease, but also this weird tension between Taiwan and China as well. I think it’s called some attention to, to why that is dangerous in ways beyond just like, oh, that’s just a dispute, you know, that that these two nations if you want to call it that, have to, you know, have to work out on their own, but it actually has sort of world health implications beyond that.

Jimmy
And what are some specific examples of, as we talked before about a public health response versus ulterior motives, I guess, what are some examples of overreach that either you’re seeing or you think people should be on the lookout for? What are some ways that people can keep an eye out for stuff that is genuine versus stuff that is really just trying to tighten the grip.

Mike
Yeah, I mean, it. It depends is, you know, I wish there was like clear signals. I mean, things that are important certainly are, you know, how much you know, what are the rules around privacy that are going to be associated with anything. So one thing that is important, for example, that I think is an interesting development that is worth watching. And I’m, I’m, I would say somewhat neutral on this is, you know, very early on Google and Apple teamed up, which is very strange in its own way to agree to work together on a contact tracing situation that they believe is privacy protecting, and they’ve put a whole bunch of very interesting technological safeguards in place where it sort of it tracks where you are, and it’s entirely voluntary, which is sort of the one of the most important parts so you can opt in and have, you know, different applications that will make use of this technology on your phone. And via Bluetooth that will sort of let you know if you ended up being near somebody who was later they’re diagnosed to have have had COVID-19. But they put in place some other things where you have like, every 15 minutes, you have a number identification that changes. So it’s it makes it very difficult to ever track back to exactly who is who, but will alert people that you may have come into contact with someone. And I think that’s a really interesting solution. There are significant questions about, you know, how that actually plays out. And there was talk about how you know, that system could be gamed in different ways. And I think that’s concerning, but at least, they’re taking a serious effort to thinking through the privacy implications and trying to minimise it. And yet at the same time, you have things like the government of France, which I’ve, you know, amusingly last year find Google for privacy violations. Now complaining about these privacy limitations on the contact contact tracing system. And so you’re just like, okay, Well, which, you know, I, like I understand, you know, when they’re these are different scenarios and different privacy questions. But you know, if you’re going to tell, you know, big technology companies that they have to protect privacy at all costs, and then at the same time you come and threaten them with legal sanctions, because they’re protecting privacy when the government wants access to the information, it becomes harder and harder to take you seriously. And, you know, and so things like that, I think call into question the, the motives behind these moves. Right. And so, you know, I think that if a government is willing to to clearly and directly engage on the privacy questions and talk about the privacy questions, I think that would be that’s a that’s a really good sign that they’re thinking through these issues, and they’re, you know, trying to understand how best to protect their citizens privacy, when they’re, you know, going after the tech companies and blaming them for protecting privacy. Too much that feels like maybe not.

Jimmy
There’s so many questions within that, that privacy consideration, but one of them is the timeline. Right? So you would, you’d think that one of the really positive things would be for a government to say, Well, this is a limited time where we’re turning on the system until this point, and then it will be turned off, or you know, this will trigger it to be turned off, because we have no cases remaining. But of course, then, as the government you even if you do that, you want to retain the ability to then turn it back on and future if there is another public health crisis, you don’t want to redo the work. So so it’s actually quite hard to find a balance in there. And, you know, I don’t have huge amount of sympathy for governments, but, but that is actually, you know, the first solution, which seems very clean and obvious, actually has some potentially quite serious ramifications. down the road.

Mike
Yeah, yeah. And it is tricky. And governments do not have very good history of giving up any kind of power or access once they have it. And you know, it specifically in the US context, which is the one that I’m most familiar with, you know, in the wake of 911. You know, 20 years ago, we passed all these laws that that ramped up our ability to surveil on everyone around the globe. And there were concerns raised at the time, and there were, there were sunset clauses put into all of these different surveillance bills that said, Well, these will expire after a certain amount of time. And we actually just went through this process where, you know, 20 years after the fact, one of the surveillance authorities that was approved, post 911 was up for renewal, even though there was all sorts of evidence has come out starting with Ed Snowden and then lots of other folks over time. revealing how this programme had been abused to surveil all sorts of people that it shouldn’t have been able to be used for. And all sorts of evidence that it was never actually useful. It was used to spy on lots of people. But the actual amount of useful, you know, surveillance data that was gleaned from it was minimal. And that it was a huge, expensive cost. You know, just last month, you had the FBI and the NSA still fighting to have the programme renewed. And so, you know, these things don’t go away easily, even if you put a sunset clause on it and say, you know, this is going to end after a certain time. That’s the point at which people who have access to that data and don’t want to give it up, go running to the government and say, you know, hey, the whole world is going to die if we don’t renew this programme, because that’s, you know, that’s exactly what happened with all the different programmes that that came about after 911. So we’ve seen this, you know, we’ve seen this movie before, and we know that it’s very difficult to walk back those You know, the those kinds of authorities once once the government hasn’t they don’t like to give them up.

Jimmy
And it’s really hard to build an argument against - well, hey, do you want people to die? It’s a powerful one. It’s a really powerful argument.

Mike
Yeah. And it’s, you know, and, and, and depending on how it’s used, right. I mean, so in the, in the surveillance and sort of anti terrorism context, you know, they every time you ask for proof, like, how did this help help us prevent people from dying? You know, you just get well, that’s, that’s classified, you know, which, which is, which is frustrating, you know, and if it’s a public health issue, maybe it’s a little bit different, because you can see, like, but you know, but the easy response there, it’s like, well, we never know when the next pandemic is going to come come out, the next big outbreak is going to come out. So we’re always going to need this technology. And it’s always got to be, you know, available to us, because it’ll allow us to, you know, that the excuse will be it’ll allow us to discover these things earlier. And, you know, there is this element that’s like, That might be true, it might not be but it might be true in it. If it is like, then, then do we want that? And if so, you know, you know, could you set that up in a way that that the programme is not then abused in all sorts of other ways. And, you know, there’s always going to be some trade offs there and understanding those and having having an open discussion about it is actually what’s important and rarely actually happens, the discussions, you know, the thoughtful, careful, nuanced discussions about the implications of all this and the trade offs of all of these things don’t tend to happen, especially not in the midst of a national or global crisis, honestly.

Jimmy
Yeah. Yeah. Well, hopefully we find space in a way to have those conversations. Mike, thanks for coming on. And congratulations again, for the 50,000 articles that you’ve published.

Mike
I think we’re up to 50,003.

Jimmy
Well bring on 100,000 then.

Mike
Yes, yes. That’s the goal.

Jimmy
Okay. Well, that was Mike Masnick, editor-in-chief at Tech Dirt, talking with us about the importance of privacy and transparency in a time of crisis. As always, we’ll post the audio and show notes from this conversation at minaalradio.com/mike.