A Philosopher's Blog

Should ISPs be Allowed to Sell Your Data?

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on March 31, 2017

Showing the extent of their concern for the privacy of Americans, congress has overturned rules aimed at giving consumers more control over how ISPs use their data. Most importantly, these rules would have required consent from customers before the ISPs could sell sensitive data (such as financial information, health information and browsing history). Assuming the sworn defender of the forgotten, President Donald Trump, signs the bill into law, ISPs will be able to monetize the private data of their customers.

While the ISPs obviously want to make more money, giving that as the justification for stripping away the privacy of customers would not make for effective rhetoric. Instead, proponents make the usual vague and meaningless references to free markets. Since there is no actual substance to these noises, they do not merit a response.

They also advance more substantial reasons, such as the claim that companies such as Facebook monetize private data, the assertion that customers will benefit and the claim that this will fuel innovation. I will consider each in turn.

On the one hand, the claim that other companies already monetize private data could be dismissed as a mere fallacy of appeal to common practice. After all, the fact that others are doing something does not entail that it is a good thing. On the other hand, this line of reasoning can be seen as a legitimate appeal to fairness: it would be unfair that companies like Google and Facebook get to monetize private data while ISPs do not get to do so. The easy and obvious counter to this is that consumers can easily opt out of Google and Facebook by not using their services. While this means forgoing some useful services, it is a viable option. In contrast, going without internet access is extremely problematic and customers have very few (if any alternatives). Even if a customer can choose between two or more ISPs, it is likely that they will all want to monetize the customers’ private data—it is simply too valuable a commodity to leave on the table. While it is not impossible for an ISP to try to win customers by choosing to forgo selling their data, this seems unlikely—thus customers will generally be stuck with the choice of giving up the internet or giving up their privacy. Given the coercive advantage of the ISPs, it is up to the state to protect the interests of the citizens (just as the state protects ISPs).

The claim that the customers will benefit is hard to evaluate in the abstract. After all, it is not yet known what, if anything, the ISPs will provide in return for the data. Facebook and Google offer valuable services in return for handing over data; but customers already pay ISPs for their services. It might turn out that the ISPs will offer customers deals that make giving up privacy appealing—such as lowered costs. However, anyone familiar with companies such as Comcast will have no faith in this. As such, the overturning of the privacy rules will benefit ISPs but will most likely not benefit consumers.

While the innovation argument is deployed in almost any discussion of technology, allowing ISPs to sell private data does not seem to be an innovation, unless one just means “change” by “innovation.” It also seems unlikely to lead to any innovations for the customers; although the ISPs will presumably work hard to innovate in ways to process and sell data. This innovation would be good for the ISPs, but would not seem to offer anything to the customers—anymore than innovations in processing and selling chickens benefits the chickens.

Defenders of the ISPs could make the case that the data belongs to the ISP rather than the customer, so they have the right to sell it. Laying aside the usual arguments about privacy rights and sticking to ownership rights, this claim is easily defeated by the following analogy.

Suppose that I rent an office and use it to conduct my business, such as writing my books. The owner has every right to expect me to pay my rent. However, they have no right to set up cameras to observe my work and interactions with people and then sell the information they gather as their own. That would be theft. In the case of the ISP, I am leasing access to the internet, but what I do in this virtual property belongs to me—they have no right of ownership to what I do. After all, I am doing all the labor. Naturally, I can agree to sell my labor; but this needs to be my choice. As such, when ISPs insist they have the right to sell customers private data, they are like landlords claiming they have a right to sell anything valuable they can learn by spying on their tenants. This is clearly wrong. Unfortunately, congress belongs to the ISPs and not to the people.



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Obama, Libya & The Constitution

Posted in Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on March 24, 2011
Official presidential portrait of Barack Obama...

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Obama’s decision to impose a no-fly zone in Libya has been greeted with criticism from both the left an the right. One point of criticism is that he has acted unconstitutionally. The basis for this claim is, of course,  Article I, Section 8 which makes it clear that Congress shall have the power to declare War.

Considering this alone, it would seem that Obama has overstepped the legitimate limits of his power by sending the military into action against a foreign sovereign state. This is, interestingly enough, consistent with what Senator Obama said in 2007: “The president does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation. As commander in chief, the president does have a duty to protect and defend the United States. In instances of self-defense, the president would be within his constitutional authority to act before advising Congress or seeking its consent.”

While it is tempting to fall victim to an ad hominem tu quoque  here, the fact that a person makes inconsistent claims does not make any particular claim he makes false (although of any pair of inconsistent claims only one can be true – but both can be false). As such, while Obama has made at least one false claim it is not automatically the case that he is wrong now. After all, he could have been wrong in 2007.

Obama can, of course, refer to  Article II, Section2  which states that “the President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States, when called into the actual Service of the United States…” This could be used to justify his actions. After all, he did not declare war on Libya (nor did they declare war on the United States). He merely sent American forces to impose a no-fly zone. While people have called this an act of war, this is different from making a declaration of war. As such, it could be concluded that Obama has acted within the limits of his legitimate powers.

Interestingly, he also seems to be acting in a way that is perfectly legal, at least in accord with the War Powers Act of 1973. This act was passed, obviously enough, in response to the undeclared war in Vietnam. The gist of the act is that the President can send forces abroad only under two conditions: 1) by the authorization of congress or 2) if the country is under attack or subject to a serious threat. There are, of course, some loopholes that can be exploited. The first is that the president has 48 hours in which to notify congress of such actions and the forces can remain up to 6o days (with 30 more days for withdrawal) before a declaration of war or authorization must be provided by congress.  Given that this act is law, Obama seems to have acted in a way that is perfectly legal.

Not surprisingly, this act has been subject to challenges from presidents and there are doubts about is constitutionality. After all, it seems to restrict the president’s role as commander in chief while simultaneously allowing the president to, in effect, wage war for three months without approval from congress or a declaration of war. Both of these concerns do certainly seem to have merit.

A somewhat more philosophical approach to the matter would involve considering the matter of what it means to declare war. One way to look at it is to take it as the formal declaration of war. On this view, Obama would seem to be acting in a legitimate way. As noted above, he has not issued a declaration of war. Rather, he has simply launched attacks within the territory of another sovereign nation-which has become something of a tradition among American presidents.

A second way to look at it is that the act of attacking another sovereign state could be seen as a declaration of war via action. In Locke’s discussion of what creates a state of war, such a state can be created by a statement of intent but also by actions (such as attacking). On this view, Obama’s attack would seem to be an act of war and thus could be taken as a declaration of war. If so, he would be acting unconstitutionally.

A third way to look at the matter is to take the view that congress’s power to declare war is not merely a matter of formally declaring a war, but the power to create a state of war that legitimately allows the military actions of war to be taken. While the President is commander in chief, he does not have the right to create the state of war via his actions. This, of course, does not entail that American forces have to simply take being shot at until congress gets around to declaring war. Nor does it entail that the president cannot order military actions that are short of war.  This, of course, raises the rather difficult question of sorting out what counts as a war. That, however, must be the subject of another discussion.

My considered opinion is that Obama has acted legally in that he has acted within the letter of the existing laws. However, on a more philosophical level, I believe (as apparently he did in 2007) that the congress must declare war before the president can legitimately wage a war. As such, Obama has acted in what appears to be a violation of the constitution. However, I am willing to admit that my position is not strongly supported and can no doubt be easily countered by an actual constitutional scholar.

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Goldman Sachs

Posted in Business, Law, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on April 28, 2010
Goldman Sachs Group, Inc.
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Since it is finals week, I have been using the schedule feature to post pre-written blogs. This has, of course, meant that the posts have not been at the cutting edge of events. As such, I thought I’d take a moment to do an up to date post.

As most folks know, the fine people from Goldman Sachs have been called up before Congress. As most folks should know, Goldman Sachs has been a major campaign contributor. For example, the company provided Obama with a nice wad of cash for his 2008 campaign for President. Goldman Sachs has also donated significant sums to other politicians, mostly Republicans. In short, it seems reasonable to suggest that the company has considerable influence over many politicians.

But, someone might say, surely congress is not in the pocket of Goldman Sachs. After all, they called the Goldman Sachs folks to appear before them and asked some tough questions.

The obvious reply is that while politicians take money from companies like Goldman Sachs, they ultimately need to get votes in order to keep their position at the trough. Goldman Sachs is something of a villain today and hence the politicians need to appear that they are taking this villain to task. Of course, they cannot really put the whip to the villain; they need his gold for the upcoming elections. As such, it seems reasonable to expect the usual political theater to play out here.

Given the fact that Goldman Sachs has been a major campaign contributor, it certainly seems reasonable to point out that there seems to be a conflict of interest in having congress grill these folks. In fact, it is tempting to use scenarios like this to argue for campaign finance reform: how can congress be expected to hold hearings regarding the very companies that hand them vast sacks of campaign cash?  If a judge were in that position, she would hardly be allowed to remain the judge in such a case.

It can, of course, be pointed out that congress is not a judge. After all, it is the legislative branch and not the judicial. However, congress does craft the laws and hence there are still grounds for concern.

Ironically, this situation might help Goldman Sachs. Interestingly enough, their stock actually improved after the executives were grilled by congress. Also, the company admits to having a credibility gap and this situation can perhaps give them an opportunity at the appearance of redemption.

As a final point, Goldman Sachs might have a very good defense-they seem to have talked congress into changing the rules a while back and then seem to have largely played by these rules. As such, if Goldman Sachs and other companies did wrong, it seems that many folks in congress and government were their willing accomplices.  I doubt congress will hold hearings on itself, so it is up to the voters to judge what they have done (or not done).

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Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on February 1, 2010
Democratic Party logo

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While the Democrats have a solid majority in Congress and hold the Presidency, they seem to be largely incapable of getting things done.

Part of this is an image and perception problem. For example, some folks in the media have somehow managed to present the Democrats as somehow not being a majority.

Of course, the majority of the problem is based in reality: the Democrats are divided and seem to be unwilling to get things done. Part of the division is due to the fact that some Democrats seem to be Democrats in name only (the Blue Dogs, for example). Part of the division is that the Democrats are also divided on the left. Given this lack of unity (especially when contrasted with the Republicans) it is rather challenging for the Democrats to get it together. Hence, while the Democrats have a majority it is a divided majority.

Another part of the challenge for the Democrats is that the Republicans are rather unified and seem dedicated to fighting a holding action. To be specific, the Republican strategy seems to be to block the Democrats until Americans get sick of the deadlock and vote the Republicans back into power (which will be rather ironic). Once the Republicans get back into power, they will no doubt chastise the Democrats if they don’t work with them. After all, when the Republicans are in power they (and their Fox friends) love to talk about how people need to support the President and do things for the good of the country.

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Behind Closed Doors

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on January 13, 2010
This is a 2x8 mosaic of the dome of the US Cap...

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Obama promised that the health care discussion would be held out in the open, but the folks in Congress are pushing to keep the dealing behind closed doors.

Some might suspect that the folks in Congress want to have secret discussions because they intend to make morally questionable deals that they would rather not have the voters know about. Of course, other reasons can be given.

One commentator asserted that such talks could be held in the open if Americans were more politically mature. It is interesting to speculate about what this might mean.

One possibility is that most Americans are on par with children. Just as adults sometimes need to discuss matters that are for adults away from the ears of children, so too must Congress discuss matters in private. In the case of adults, this is rather reasonable. After all, children typically lack the maturity and knowledge to make reasonable judgments about some adult matters and it can be for the best if such discussions take place without children being present.

A less extreme interpretation is that while most adult Americans are not on par with children, Americans lack the political sophistication to understand and accept the  realities of politics.

Of course, there is the obvious question of whether or not the American public  lacks the maturity and knowledge to a degree that justifies such paternalism. If it does, then Congress could be justified in such secrecy. After all, the ignorance and immaturity of the public could lead them to fail to see the necessity of the sort of deal making that is required to create viable solutions in the realm of law.

There are some good reasons to believe that this is the case. For example, consider the birthers, the tea party folks, Code Pink and others. The shouting and poor reasoning of such people tend to show a distinct lack of political maturity. These folks do not, of course, represent all Americans and hence to justify secrecy based on them would seem to be unfair to the majority.

Another way to look at this alleged immaturity is to see it not as immaturity but as a moral concern. Interestingly, holding to moral expectations is often cast as a form of immaturity or of being unrealistic. While it is certainly tempting to believe that ethical standards should be swept aside by political realities, it should be carefully considered. After all, is what is presented as mature and realistic really mature and realistic or is this simply a way of hiding misdeeds under a mask?

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Health Care Bill

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on November 9, 2009

As most folks know, the House narrowly passed the heath care reform bill. Of course, it still has to face the merging process with the Senate. Here are a few points worth considering.

First, the vote was rather close. This indicates that the Democrats are not as unified as once alleged. This might be a division primarily on this issue. To be specific, many Democrats from conservative areas are no doubt thinking that there voters are against the reform bill and hence are doing what they think is needed to get re-elected. Of course, this division could also show a true split in the party between liberals and conservatives that will have ongoing implications.

Second, the bill is extremely long. It is so long that  it is difficult to imagine that anyone has actually read the whole thing. Naturally, it seems reasonable to suspect that all sorts of sneaky deals are hidden in the vast forest of pages. While a vast bill does not automatically entail a bad bill, it has such a vast size that it is reasonable to be concerned about how so many new rules will impact things.

Third, the estimate is that the plan will cost $1.1 trillion over the next ten years. As it stands, it is claimed that it will be paid for by taxing wealthy Americans and by savings from Medicare. Naturally, it is sensible to be suspicious of how the actual funding will work. Years ago, when I did high school and college debate, people would always include a funding plank for their cases. The most common plank was that funding would be acquired by saving money in some other area. Even back then most folks regarded that as completely unrealistic BS and I think that still holds today. So, one wonders where the money really will come from. The answer, as always, is more taxes.

Fourth, the bill requires that everyone buys insurance. This is no doubt thrilling to the insurance companies-if the bill goes through, then everyone is legally required to buy their products. Of course, they are not so thrilled about not being able to refuse insurance based on pre-existing conditions and other related aspects of the bill.  However, the profits of the insurance companies are in no danger. It also seems likely that the cost of medical care will also increase. After all, with insurance people can pay more to hospitals and it would be odd if they did not decide to make even more money by taking advantage of this.


How Pork Survives

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on May 6, 2009

No, this is not a post about pigs fighting on against the flu. It is about the other pork, mostly acquired in the United States by the other white meat (that is, most American politicians).

Political pork is spending that is intended to benefit those who support a politician. For example, a senator might lard up a bill on veteran’s benefits with funds for building an unnecessary airport in his district. When Obama got elected, he promised to deal with this sort of pork, but so far his attempts have not been entirely sucessful.

One reason why pork survives is that the folks who are the best at getting pork tend to have considerable political clout. This, of course, is a two way swine trail: the more clout you have, the more snout you can get. The more snout you pull in, the more political resources and clout you get. So, the pork masters are the folks who are the most difficult to deal with if one is trying to trim out the pork.

A second reason pork survives is that it is considered by many a legitimate part of politics-these many being folks who have a place at the table where the pork is served. As such, while people will squeal out against pork, the will to do something about it tends to be lacking.

A third reason is that pork is hanging in there is that pork is often a matter of perception. When a person is elected to Congress, their job is to represent their constituents and look out for them. From the standpoint of a politician’s consituents their senators might just be bringing home the bacon. From the standpoint of others, they are packing in the pork.

This factor also partially explain why congress as a whole can have such a dismal approval rating while the same folks tend to be elected over and over. In total, all that pork is generally bad for the country and people are outraged about bridges to nowhere and airports for nobody. Outraged, that is, when the bridge and airport do not benefit them. When they are at the table feasting on pork, it is a wonderful thing and they tend to send their man (or woman) back to DC to bring home more of that tasty money.

While people do love their own pork, it can be seen as a bad thing. To use an analogy, imagine if your body worked on this pork system: rather than nutrients going where they were needed most, they went to whichever body part had the most influence. So, if your ass had the clout, then you would have massive junk in the trunk while the rest of your body was atrophied from lack of resources. That would obviously be rather unhealthy-likewise for the pork system in politics.

So, what can be done? The easy and obvious answer is that spending should be assessed in terms of how much it impacts the general good of the country rather than how much it fattens up a particular part of the country.

Naturally, people can have honest and conscientious disputes over what is for the general good and what is not. However, there is clearly a lot of fat that could be trimmed away.

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Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on December 3, 2008

A recent report assembled at the behest of Congress concludes that a biological terror attack is quite likely by 2013. This conclusion seems quite reasonable.

Biological weapons have been used for centuries. Early forms were fairly crude: dumping dead animals in wells, flinging diseased corpses over city walls during sieges, and similar such activities. Later on, the art of biological warfare was refined a bit. One excellent example is the use of blankets infected with small pox as weapons against the indigenous people of America. During the World Wars and Cold War, biological warfare was further enhanced as natural diseases were intentionally enhanced and new strains were created. This research continues to this day; mostly under the guise of developing defenses against biological weapons.

It is easy enough to imagine how terrorists could gain access to biological weapons. Lax security, bribery, and so forth can allow them access to military grade weapons. Naturally, terrorist groups that are supported by states could simply be given such weapons.

Terrorists could also create their own. While they will typically lack the facilities of a nation, cultivating deadly disease agents is relatively easy to do. They are readily available (after all, people are naturally infected) and usually the challenge is to keep them from spreading rather than spreading them. While the terrorists will most likely lack the ability to create weapons on par with those made by nations, the naturally occurring diseases are often quite dangerous enough.

The main challenge that the terrorists face are infecting a population in an effective manner and getting the disease to spread enough to do serious damage. Of course, even if they were only able to affect a limited population, this would certainly help to create significant terror. After all, “conventional” terrorists attacks tend to kill relatively few people and create relatively little destruction compared with something like an actual battle. As such, the terrorists do not need to duplicate the military grade  biological weapons of mass destruction or even the battlefield versions. They just need a biological weapon that can infect a relatively small number of people. Of course, if they use a natural disease and only infect a small number of people, there will be doubts as to whether or not such an attack is really an attack or not. After all, if a terrorist group claimed credit for the winter flu season, then they would obviously not be taken seriously.

So far terrorist groups have not employed such weapons. One reason might be that they lack access to an effective biological weapon that would serve their purposes (that is, one that would be clearly recognized as a weapon and not a natural breakout). Another reason might be that the biological weapon threshold is one that even the terrorists are reluctant to cross. A third reason is that there are practical concerns about such weapons that are holding terrorists back. For example, there might be greater backlash against the deployment of such a weapon. After all, biological weapons tend to be regarded as being far worse than conventional weapons. As another example, such weapons tend to be too indiscriminate and could spread too far-even for the purposes of terrorism. There are probably other reasons as well.

If the terrorist are able to get past or around these obstacles, then biological weapons will probably be used.  For example, the history of terrorism is a history of crossing ever more evil thresholds. So, it is probably just a matter of time before terrorists cross the biological threshold in a large scale attack.

One Party Rule?

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on November 4, 2008

While the election results are not yet in, the numbers seem to favor an Obama win. The Democrats are also in a position to take control of the Senate (they already have a majority in the House). Naturally, the pundits are discussing the implications of one party rule.

On the right, the fear is that the Democrats will use their power to impose their liberal agenda on America: sex education, same sex marriage, tax increases, and other such left wing programs. In short, the right is afraid that the Democrats will do things they do not like. That is, in general, how most people look at politics (what they like and dislike).

On the left, the hope is that the Democrats will use their power to give the American people what they need: sex education, same sex marriage, tax increases, and other such left wing programs. In short, the left is hoping that the Democrats will do things that they like.

In the middle ground, some people are worried that the Democrats will do some things they do not like and are hoping that they will do some things they do like. If the Democrats do win big, this will indicate (to some degree) that most people have more hope that the Democrats will do things they want than fear they will do things they do not want.

My thoughts on the matter are that a Democratic domination of government can go many ways.

Since I remember Jimmy Carter’s Presidency, I remember how the Democratic President and the Democratic congress could not get along. Their disagreements rivaled those that involved Democrats and Republicans. As such, one party dominance does not entail a monolithic and cooperative government. This is hardly shocking: since there are only two major parties, it stands to reason that each contains people with very different views. While the Democrats slide left and Republicans slide right, there is a great deal of variation within those vague borders. Also, politicians are (obviously enough) politicians and love their power and perks. Hence, they tend to be in competition with each other-even within the same party. As such, even a Democratic sweep can still lead to a divided government, gridlock and conflict. While this can impede the passage of good laws, it can also protect America from bad laws. Having read Thoreau and other anarchists, I can see the good side of a government that is busy fighting with itself. Such conflict can, ironically, help protect the general good. Politicians, like other villains, are generally up to no good-so the less they do, the better. Of course, such conflict can prevent good and useful laws from being passed, which can be a problem.

Of course, perhaps Obama and Congress will get along and there will, in fact, be a true Democratic hegemony in Washington. As noted above, those who like this idea will be pleased and those who fear it will not. As some folks on the right have pointed out, this sort of Washington might try to push a liberal agenda on America and that could be bad for the country. After all, we have seen what has happened when the President and the majority of Congress are in the same party. When it was the Republicans, things got bad. It seems reasonable to consider that the Democrats will be bad as well-just in different ways. Of course, the right’s biggest complaint is that it won’t be the right running the show. But, their concerns are worth considering. After all, the checks and balances system was not set up on the assumption that people will do nice things when they are in power.

Bailout Blues

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on September 30, 2008

In a somewhat surprising move, the House voted against the bailout bill. This has had severe consequences. First, it caused an additional fall on the stock market. Second, it harmed John McCain’s campaign. McCain had tried to use the economic situation as a boost, but this attempt backfired on him when his fellow Republicans lead the way to defeat the bill.

Now that the bill has stalled, the politicians and pundits are working to place the blame. Naturally, the Democrats and Republicans are accusing each other of playing politics and chastising each other for not being truly bipartisan. Of course, for one party to accuse the other of playing politics is like the pitcher accusing the batter of playing baseball. The accusation is true, but hardly an effective criticism.

Both parties are right to chastise each other for playing politics and not working together to solve the problem. Of course, that is the nature of politics. In fact, the righteous criticisms about the failure to be bipartisan are themselves calculated political moves designed to score political points. After all, they are delivered to the press and played to the public. That is simply politics as usual.

I suspect the bailout will eventually come through, but both parties are not done trying to milk it for political advantages.