June 30, 2013  ·  Lessig  · Reblogged from  Tumblr

On Bill Moyers, and in the Daily Beast, I spoke about the need for code to protect liberty and privacy in cyberspace. (Or a little more precisely, I repeated an argument for code to protect privacy that I have been making since 1999 — in Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace.)

In the course of both, I referred to one example I had recently learned of created by Palantir. The specific technology essentially builds an audit trail to the core, so any use of data by, say, a gov’t official, is perfectly tractable. So in the Moyers interview I said:

When there are plenty [sic - actually there are not “plenty"] of entities out there, companies like, there’s a company called Palantir who’s built a technology to make it absolutely, make you absolutely confident that a particular bit of data has been used precisely as the government says it’s supposed to be used. 

And in the Daily Beast piece I wrote:

And there are companies, such as Palantir, developing technologies that could give us, and more importantly, reviewing courts, a very high level of confidence that data collected or surveilled was not collected or used in an improper way.

This reference has now been criticized. (Here’s one careful and balanced example.) The essence of the criticism is that Palantir is a bad company, or that it has done bad things, or that it has been funded by bad people. 

I am completely in favor of questions being raised of anyone like me (meaning people trying to push a particular public policy) about whether mentioning a company or their product is done in exchange for money. That question needs to be raised more often, especially of academics. And one of the things we’re working on at the EJ Safra Center Lab is a more transparent and certifiable way that people can certify their “independence,” as in “non-dependence” upon the interests to which they are making reference.

So in this case, here is my answer: Consistent with my long-standing policy, (see Disclosure) I have not, or (now that I’ve publicly admired a product of theirs) would not ever, accept money from Palantir either as a consultant or to fund my research. This is the core case of the Non-Corruption Principle that I describe in my disclosure statement. And if this was necessary, then let this be a reaffirmation of that principle.

I’m less convinced that the principle of “corruption of blood” should be a part of policy discussions. In both cases above, I was pointing to a type of technology. The truth or falsity of what I was saying doesn’t depend upon whether Palantir is a good or bad company. About that question, I am not, and don’t purport to be an expert. I’ve known two people in the company with any seniority — one for a dozen years, and one more recently. About the former I’m certain, but of both I’d say I have a high regard for their integrity. But again, that wasn’t my claim in either context.

And more generally, it’s my view that a culture of free debate depends upon the ability to point to ideas or technology without that being read as an endorsement of the creator. Endorsements are of the form: “Wikipedia is a great company/community” (which it is and is both). References are of the form: “Terrestrial Trunked Radio is a great example of end-to-end encryption” (which Wikipedia says it is and who am I to disagree with Wikipedia?).

Thanks for the decent engagement. That, ultimately, is the most important here.

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June 15, 2013  ·  Lessig  · Reblogged from  Tumblr

I was invited to the Bilderberg conference this year — embarrassed I hadn’t known anything about it before, and more embarrassed I hadn’t known anything about the controversy around it. 

But having been there, and done that, I confess I don’t get the outrage. 

It’s a conference. There’s no agreements, or planning, or anything beyond people speaking in panels, and people asking questions (or “asking questions”) of the speakers. Or at least that I saw. (Sure, it might have been that between 10pm and 8am (the only time we had off) there were secret meetings held by the rulers of the world. Suffice it, they didn’t invite me to them if they indeed were happening.)

The venue was nice, but not opulent.  The topics were wide ranging. There was a great panel on Syria and on medical research, but every other panel was interesting as well. The audience wasn’t representative of the world, but it was mixed. There were strong critics; there were views expressed that most there didn’t agree; and there were more of that than came just from me. 

True, the meeting is conducted with Chatham House Rules, meaning while the ideas expressed can be shared, the identity of speaker can’t be shared. Again, I don’t get the outrage about this. I’ve been to many conferences with the same rules, and many times I’ve recognized why they make sense. Especially if you’re someone in authority — CEO of a company or minister of a government — while you should be held accountable for your words, it’s fair your words not be taken out of context. Or at least, I get why people would only choose to participate if they were confident of this modest protection.

There’s a business model to protest. I get that. There’s value in rallying the people. But here was yet another time I thought: if only we could get this sort of passion directed against something real, or something that mattered. Outrage about people meeting to hear at least some ideas they don’t agree with doesn’t seem to me to be the highest and best use of outrage. 

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June 3, 2013  ·  Lessig  · Reblogged from  Tumblr

I’ve been collecting research about the Framers view about the potential for American aristocracy. My RA, Dennis Courtney, found this fabulous quote from Patrick Henry at the Virginia Ratifying Convention (emphasis added): 

It has been said, by several gentlemen, that the freeness of elections would be promoted by throwing the country into large districts. I contend, sir, that it will have a contrary effect. It will destroy that connection that ought to subsist between the electors and the elected. If your elections be by districts, instead of counties, the people will not be acquainted with the candidates. They must, therefore, be directed in the elections by those who know them. So that, instead of a confidential connection between the electors and the elected, they will be absolutely unacquainted with each other. A common man must ask a man of influence how he is to proceed, and for whom he must vote. The elected, therefore, will be careless of the interest of the electors. It will be a common job to extort the suffrages of the common people for the most influential characters. The same men may be repeatedly elected by these means. This, sir, instead of promoting the freedom of election, leads us to an aristocracy. Consider the mode of elections in England. Behold the progress of an election in an English shire. A man of an enormous fortune will spend thirty or forty thousand pounds to get himself elected. This is frequently the case. Will the honorable gentleman say that a poor man, as enlightened as any man in the island, has an equal chance with a rich man, to be elected? He will stand no chance, though he may have the finest understanding of any man in the shire. It will be so here. Where is the chance that a poor man can come forward with the rich? The honorable gentleman will find that, instead of supporting democratical principles, it goes absolutely to destroy them.

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