Sphinxmumps Linkdump

My weekly declaration of link bankruptcy.

Cory Doctorow
12 min readJun 15, 2024
A ‘garbage plate’ — a western NY delicacy in which a large number of foods are mounded high on a paper plate in a delicious/disgusting slurry. Image: Jim’s Photo World (modified) https://www.flickr.com/photos/jimsphotoworld/5360343644/ CC BY-SA 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

On June 20, I’ll be live onstage in Los Angeles for a recording of the Go Fact Yourself podcast. On June 21, I’m doing an online reading for the Locus Awards at 16hPT. On June 22, I’m keynoting the Locus Awards in Oakland, CA. On July 14, I’m giving the closing keynote for the fifteenth Hackers On Planet Earth, in Queens, NY.

Welcome to my 20th Linkdump, in which I declare link bankruptcy and discharge my link-debts by telling you about all the open tabs I didn’t get a chance to cover in this week’s newsletters. Here’s the previous 19 installments:


Starting off this week with a gorgeous book that is also one of my favorite books: Beehive’s special slipcased edition of Dante’s Inferno, as translated by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, with new illustrations by UK linocut artist Sophy Hollington:


I’ve loved Inferno since middle-school, when I read the John Ciardi translation, principally because I’d just read Niven and Pournelle’s weird (and politically odious) (but cracking) sf novel of the same name:


But also because Ciardi wrote “About Crows,” one of my all-time favorite bits of doggerel, a poem that pierced my soul when I was 12 and continues to do so now that I’m 52, for completely opposite reasons (now there’s a poem with staying power!):


Beehive has a well-deserved rep for making absolutely beautiful new editions of great public domain books, each with new illustrations and intros, all in matching livery to make a bookshelf look classy af. I have several of them and I’ve just ordered my copy of Inferno. How could I not? So looking forward to this, along with its intro by Ukrainian poet Ilya Kaminsky and essay by Dante scholar Kristina Olson.

The Beehive editions show us how a rich public domain can be the soil from which new and inspiring creative works sprout. Any honest assessment of a creator’s work must include the fact that creativity is a collective act, both inspired by and inspiring to other creators, past, present and future.

One of the distressing aspects of the debate over the exploitative grift of AI is that it’s provoked a wave of copyright maximalism among otherwise thoughtful artists, despite the fact that a new copyright that lets you control model training will do nothing to prevent your boss from forcing you to sign over that right in your contracts, training an AI on your work, and then using the model as a pretext to erode your wages or fire your ass:


Same goes for some privacy advocates, whose imaginations were cramped by the fact that the only regulation we enforce on the internet is copyright, causing them to forget that privacy rights can exist separate from the nonsensical prospect of “owning” facts about your life:


We should address AI’s labor questions with labor rights, and we should address AI’s privacy questions with privacy rights. You can tell that these are the approaches that would actually work for the public because our bosses hate these approaches and instead insist that the answer is just giving us more virtual property that we can sell to them, because they know they’ll have a buyer’s market that will let them scoop up all these rights at bargain prices and use the resulting hoards to torment, immiserate and pauperize us.

Take Clearview AI, a facial recognition tool created by eugenicists and white nationalists in order to help giant corporations and militarized, unaccountable cops hunt us by our faces:


Clearview scraped billions of images of our faces and shoveled them into their model. This led to a class action suit in Illinois, which boasts America’s best biometric privacy law, under which Clearview owes tens of billions of dollars in statutory damages. Now, Clearview has offered a settlement that illustrates neatly the problem with making privacy into property that you can sell instead of a right that can’t be violated: they’re going to offer Illinoisians a small share of the company’s stock:


To call this perverse is to go a grave injustice to good, hardworking perverts. The sums involved will be infinitesimal, and the only way to make those sums really count is for everyone in Illinois to root for Clearview to commit more grotesque privacy invasions of the rest of us to make its creepy, terrible product more valuable.

Worse still: by crafting a bespoke, one-off, forgiveness-oriented regulation specifically for Clearview, we ensure that it will continue, but that it will also never be disciplined by competitors. That is, rather than banning this kind of facial recognition tech, we grant them a monopoly over it, allowing them to charge all the traffic will bear.

We’re in an extraordinary moment for both labor and privacy rights. Two of Biden’s most powerful agency heads, Lina Khan and Rohit Chopra have made unprecedented use of their powers to create new national privacy regulations:


In so doing, they’re bypassing Congressional deadlock. Congress has not passed a new consumer privacy law since 1988, when they banned video-store clerks from leaking your VHS rental history to newspaper reporters:


Congress hasn’t given us a single law protecting American consumers from the digital era’s all-out assault on our privacy. But between the agencies, state legislatures, and a growing coalition of groups demanding action on privacy, a new federal privacy law seems all but assured:


When that happens, we’re going to have to decide what to do about products created through mass-scale privacy violations, like Clearview AI — but also all of OpenAI’s products, Google’s AI, Facebook’s AI, Microsoft’s AI, and so on. Do we offer them a deal like the one Clearview’s angling for in Illinois, fining them an affordable sum and grandfathering in the products they built by violating our rights?

Doing so would give these companies a permanent advantage, and the ongoing use of their products would continue to violate billions of peoples’ privacy, billions of times per day. It would ensure that there was no market for privacy-preserving competitors thus enshrining privacy invasion as a permanent aspect of our technology and lives.

There’s an alternative: “model disgorgement.” “Disgorgement” is the legal term for forcing someone to cough up something they’ve stolen (for example, forcing an embezzler to give back the money). “Model disgorgement” can be a legal requirement to destroy models created illegally:


It’s grounded in the idea that there’s no known way to unscramble the AI eggs: once you train a model on data that shouldn’t be in it, you can’t untrain the model to get the private data out of it again. Model disgorgement doesn’t insist that offending models be destroyed, but it shifts the burden of figuring out how to unscramble the AI omelet to the AI companies. If they can’t figure out how to get the ill-gotten data out of the model, then they have to start over.

This framework aligns everyone’s incentives. Unlike the Clearview approach — move fast, break things, attain an unassailable, permanent monopoly thanks to a grandfather exception — model disgorgement makes AI companies act with extreme care, because getting it wrong means going back to square one.

This is the kind of hard-nosed, public-interest-oriented rulemaking we’re seeing from Biden’s best anti-corporate enforcers. After decades kid-glove treatment that allowed companies like Microsoft, Equifax, Wells Fargo and Exxon commit ghastly crimes and then crime again another day, Biden’s corporate cops are no longer treating the survival of massive, structurally important corporate criminals as a necessity.

It’s been so long since anyone in the US government treated the corporate death penalty as a serious proposition that it can be hard to believe it’s even happening, but boy is it happening. The DOJ Antitrust Division is seeking to break up Google, the largest tech company in the history of the world, and they are tipped to win:


And that’s one of the major suits against Google that Big G is losing. Another suit, jointly brought by the feds and dozens of state AGs, is just about to start, despite Google’s failed attempt to get the suit dismissed:


I’m a huge fan of the Biden antitrust enforcers, but that doesn’t make me a huge fan of Biden. Even before Biden’s disgraceful collaboration in genocide, I had plenty of reasons — old and new — to distrust him and deplore his politics. I’m not the only leftist who’s struggling with the dilemma posed by the worst part of Biden’s record in light of the coming election.

You’ve doubtless read the arguments (or rather, “arguments,” since they all generate a lot more heat than light and I doubt whether any of them will convince anyone). But this week, Anand Giridharadas republished his 2020 interview with Noam Chomsky about Biden and electoral politics, and I haven’t been able to get it out of my mind:


Chomsky contrasts the left position on politics with the liberal position. For leftists, Chomsky says, “real politics” are a matter of “constant activism.” It’s not a “laser-like focus on the quadrennial extravaganza” of national elections, after which you “go home and let your superiors take over.”

For leftists, politics means working all the time, “and every once in a while there’s an event called an election.” This should command “10 or 15 minutes” of your attention before you get back to the real work.

This makes the voting decision more obvious and less fraught for Chomsky. There’s “never been a greater difference” between the candidates, so leftists should go take 15 minutes, “push the lever, and go back to work.”

Chomsky attributed the good parts of Biden’s 2020 platform to being “hammered on by activists coming out of the Sanders movement and other.” That’s the real work, that hammering. That’s “real politics.”

For Chomsky, voting for Biden isn’t support for Biden. It’s “support for the activists who have been at work constantly, creating the background within the party in which the shifts took place, and who have followed Sanders in actually entering the campaign and influencing it. Support for them. Support for real politics.”

Chomsky tells us that the self-described “masters of the universe” understand that something has changed: “the peasants are coming with their pitchforks.” They have all kinds of euphemisms for this (“reputational risks”) but the core here is a winner-take-all battle for the future of the planet and the species. That’s why the even the “sensible” ultra-rich threw in for Trump in 2016 and 2020, and why they’re backing him even harder in 2024:


Chomsky tells us not to bother trying to figure out Biden’s personality. Instead, we should focus on “how things get done.” Biden won’t do what’s necessary to end genocide and preserve our habitable planet out of conviction, but he may do so out of necessity. Indeed, it doesn’t matter how he feels about anything — what matters is what we can make him do.

Chomksy himself is in his 90s and his health is reportedly in terminal decline, so this is probably the only word we’ll get from him on this issue:


The link between concentrated wealth, concentrated power, and the existential risks to our species and civilization is obvious — to me, at least. Any time a tiny minority holds unaccountable power, they will end up using it to harm everyone except themselves. I’m not the first one to take note of this — it used to be a commonplace in American politics.

Back in 1936, FDR gave a speech at the DNC, accepting their nomination for president. Unlike FDR’s election night speech (“I welcome their hatred”), this speech has been largely forgotten, but it’s a banger:


In that speech, Roosevelt brought a new term into our political parlance: “economic royalists.” He described the American plutocracy as the spiritual descendants of the hereditary nobility that Americans had overthrown in 1776. The English aristocracy “governed without the consent of the governed” and “put the average man’s property and the average man’s life in pawn to the mercenaries of dynastic power”:

Roosevelt said that these new royalists conquered the nation’s economy and then set out to seize its politics, backing candidates that would create “a new despotism wrapped in the robes of legal sanction…an industrial dictatorship.”

As David Dayen writes in The American Prospect, this has strong parallels to today’s world, where “Silicon Valley, Big Oil, and Wall Street come together to back a transactional presidential candidate who promises them specific favors, after reducing their corporate taxes by 40 percent the last time he was president”:


Roosevelt, of course, went on to win by a landslide, wiping out the Republicans despite the endless financial support of the ruling class.

The thing is, FDR’s policies didn’t originate with him. He came from the uppermost of the American upper crust, after all, and famously refused to define the “New Deal” even as he campaigned on it. The “New Deal” became whatever activists in the Democratic Party’s left could force him to do, and while it was bold and transformative, it wasn’t nearly enough.

The compromise FDR brokered within the Democratic Party froze out Black Americans to a terrible degree. Writing for the Institute for Local Self Reliance, Ron Knox and Susan Holmberg reveal the long shadow cast by that unforgivable compromise:


They describe how redlining — the formalization of anti-Black racism in New Deal housing policy — led to the ruin of Toledo’s once-thriving Dorr Street neighborhood, a “Black Wall Street” where a Black middle class lived and thrived. New Deal policies starved the neighborhood of funds, then ripped it in two with a freeway, sacrificing it and the people who lived in it.

But the story of Dorr Street isn’t over. As Knox and Holmberg write, the people of Dorr Street never gave up on their community, and today, there’s an awful lot of Chomsky’s “constant activism” that is painstakingly bringing the community back, inch by aching inch. The community is locked in a guerrilla war against the same forces that the Biden antitrust enforcers are fighting on the open field of battle. The work that activists do to drag Democratic Party policies to the left is critical to making reparations for the sins of the New Deal — and for realizing its promise for everybody.

In my lifetime, there’s never been a Democratic Party that represented my values. The first Democratic President of my life, Carter, kicked off Reaganomics by beginning the dismantling of America’s antitrust enforcement, in the mistaken belief that acting like a Republican would get Democrats to vote for him again. He failed and delivered Reagan, whose Reaganomics were the official policy of every Democrat since, from Clinton (“end welfare as we know it”) to Obama (“foam the runways for the banks”).

In other words, I don’t give a damn about Biden, but I am entirely consumed with what we can force his administration to do, and there are lots of areas where I like our chances.

For example: getting Biden’s IRS to go after the super-rich, ending the impunity for elite tax evasion that Spencer Woodman pitilessly dissects in this week’s superb investigation for the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists:


Ending elite tax cheating will make them poorer, and that will make them weaker, because their power comes from money alone (they don’t wield power because their want to make us all better off!).

Or getting Biden’s enforcers to continue their fight against the monopolists who’ve spiked the prices of our groceries even as they transformed shopping into a panopticon, so that their business is increasingly about selling our data to other giant corporations, with selling food to us as an afterthought:


For forty years, since the Carter administration, we’ve been told that our only power comes from our role as “consumers.” That’s a word that always conjures up one of my favorite William Gibson quotes, from 2003’s Idoru:

Something the size of a baby hippo, the color of a week-old boiled potato, that lives by itself, in the dark, in a double-wide on the outskirts of Topeka. It’s covered with eyes and it sweats constantly. The sweat runs into those eyes and makes them sting. It has no mouth, no genitals, and can only express its mute extremes of murderous rage and infantile desire by changing the channels on a universal remote. Or by voting in presidential elections.

The normie, corporate wing of the Democratic Party sees us that way. They decry any action against concentrated corporate power as “anti-consumer” and insist that using the law to fight against corporate power is a waste of our time:


But after giving it some careful thought, I’m with Chomsky on this, not Yglesias. The election is something we have to pay some attention to as activists, but only “10 or 15 minutes.” Yeah, “push the lever,” but then “go back to work.” I don’t care what Biden wants to do. I care what we can make him do.

If you’d like an essay-formatted version of this post to read or share, here’s a link to it on pluralistic.net, my surveillance-free, ad-free, tracker-free blog: