Tag: Twitter

Transparency Is Breaking Out All Over!

On Monday, Cato is hosting a briefing on Capitol Hill about congressional Wikipedia editing. Over a recent 90-day period, there were over 400,000 hits on Wikipedia articles about bills pending in Congress. If congressional staff were to contribute more to those articles, the amount of information available to interested members of the public would soar. Data that we produce at Cato go into the “infoboxes” on dozens and dozens of Wikipedia articles about bills in Congress.

A popular Twitter ‘bot called @congressedits recently created a spike in interest about congressional Wikipedia editing. It puts a slight negative spin on the practice because it tracks anonymous edits coming from Hill IP addresses, which are more likely to be inappropriate. But Congress can do a lot of good in this area, so Cato intern Zach Williams built a Twitter ‘bot that shows all edits to articles about pending federal legislation. This should draw attention to the beneficial practice of informing the public before bills become law. Meet @Wikibills!

Also, as of this week, Cato data are helping to inform some 26 million visitors per year to Cornell Law’s Legal Information Institute about what Congress is doing. Thanks to Tom Bruce and Sara Frug for adding some great content to the LII site.

Let’s say you’re interested in 18 U.S. Code § 2516, the part of the U.S. code that authorizes interception of wire, oral, or electronic communications. Searching for it online, you’ll probably reach the Cornell page for that section of the code. In the right column, a box displays “Related bills now in Congress,” linking to relevant bills in Congress.

Those hyperlinks are democratic links, letting people know what Congress is doing, so people can look into it and have their say. Does liberty automatically break out thanks to those developments? No. But public demands of all types—including for liberty and limited government—are frustrated now by the utter obscurity in which Congress acts. We’re lifting the curtain, providing the data that translates into a better informed public, a public better equipped to get what it wants.

The path to liberty goes through transparency, and transparency is breaking out all over!

#Escape2010

In response to my “Twitter fight!” blog post from Wednesday, Harvard Law Professor Lawrence Lessig charges me (in a post entitled “#Escapethe1990s”) with living in the campaign finance debates of the 1990s. There’s a better knock on me: I live in the 1790s, when the Bill of Rights was adopted, like some kinda freak!

Lessig really wants me to rely on modern Supreme Court precedents to argue that public funding of electioneering is unconstitutional: “And I challenge Harper to offer one bit of actual authority to counter that statement beyond his ‘this is the way I wish the Constitution were interpreted’ mode of argument,” he says, in “I-really-mean-it” bold.

I’ve had similar challenges to my starry-eyed and—I’ll confess—ideologically driven view of the Constitution. (I’m biased in favor of liberty.) For about a year, supporters of NSA spying bandied Smith v. Maryland “Supreme Court law,” saying that a person has no Fourth Amendment interest in phone calling data—until Judge Leon undercut them. Needless to say, the Court got its rationale wrong in Smith. Applying Smith to NSA spying is wrong. To the extent precedents might allow public funding of electioneering, they are wrong, too.

Professor Lessig devotes a good deal of time to the compromise he and others have made with conservative opponents since the ’90s. Perhaps because I’m not a conservative, but a libertarian, I don’t feel as though I owe it to them to come their way. To Lessig’s credit, he is not doubling-down on a bad idea, as others are, by seeking a constitutional amendment to allow government regulation of political speech. (The bill at the link was introduced Tuesday.)

What is most interesting is his utter certainty that an intricate scheme to mask government subsidy for political speech is good enough to slide over the First Amendment’s bar on “abridging the freedom of speech.” I thought I did a pretty good job on the subsidy question the first time, but I’ll do it again: Under Lessig’s plan, if you give money to a politician, you pay less in taxes. If you don’t give money to a politician, you pay more in taxes. Government tax policy would funnel money to politicians for their campaigns. That’s subsidy.

#LibertyIn140 Twitter Contest

Happy Independence Day from Libertarianism.org and the Cato Institute! What better time than the Fourth of July to think about individual liberty, limited government, free markets, and the foundational role they have played in our nation’s history? In honor of America’s birthday, Libertarianism.org is sponsoring a Twitter contest; tweet the best short description of libertarianism with #LibertyIn140 and you could win up to $500!

You can find all the details on Libertarianism.org’s Tumblr page.

Muslim Humor

It is with delight this week that I see social media pouring derision on mainstream media’s depiction of the world. Specifically, the withering mockery given to Newsweek’s “Muslim Rage” cover.

Gawker helped catalyze things by publishing some early Twitter send-ups of the Muslim rage concept—“Wrestling is fake? #MuslimRage”—and its own spoof: “13 Powerful Images of Muslim Rage.”

My personal favorite came from hijab-wearing ‏@LibyaLiberty, who Tweeted:

I’m having such a good hair day. No one even knows. #MuslimRage

It is not automatic to recognize the personality of souls in other cultures and countries. In a Tweet posted September 12th (now apparently taken down) outgoing Village Voice editor-in-chief Tony Ortega said, “Islam needs to get a [expletive] sense of humor.” I don’t know what one means by anthropomorphizing a religion, but many individual Muslims demonstrably already have one.

AP Photo

On the Wall Street Journal Professional site, Bret Stephens writes about the derision U.S. culture can pour on minority religions other than Islam without eliciting much stir at all, official or otherwise. The unfairness is notable, and it’s worth talking about whether government-issued statements about the bizarre “Innocence of Muslims” video were called for and whether they struck the right notes.

But Stephens says something that has a quality similar to Ortega’s Tweet and Newsweek’s cover, dismissing the individuality of the one billion-plus Muslims around the world who are not rioting, attacking embassies, or doing anything of the sort.

“[T]o watch the images coming out of Benghazi, Cairo, Tunis and Sana’a,” Stephens writes, “is to witness some significant portion of a civilization being transformed into Travis Bickle.” (Travis Bickle was the misfit anti-hero in Martin Scorcese’s movie Taxi Driver, who delivered a young prostitute from New York City back to her mid-western family. Political people remember him as the inspiration for would-be Reagan assassin John Hinckley.)

“Significant portion”? How many Muslims constitute a “significant portion” of the overall number? What infinitesimal percentage of a group so large is “significant”? Stephens might have said “tiny minority” and been more accurate. His implication—hopefully unintended—is that an entire culture is massing at the border of ours, preparing—oh, who knows what—our undoing.

I believe it’s received wisdom in libertarian circles to reject the collectivist mindset that views humans strictly as members of groups rather than individuals. Any believer in individual rights, liberties, and responsibilities should suffer sharp pangs of cognitive dissonance to think of group conflict along the lines I’m reading into Stephens.

So I’m enjoying seeing Muslims express themselves as individuals, putting the lie to their caricature in the mainstream media as a raging undifferentiated mass with spittle on their beards. Especially the women.

British Student Jailed over a Tweet

I had to read this story twice and I still cannot quite bring myself to believe it. Apparently, a British judge sentenced a 21 year old biology student to 56 days in jail for making fun of a tragic near-death experience of a soccer player. As Fabrice Muamba, a Bolton Wanderers midfielder, collapsed in mid-play due to a heart-attack, Liam Stacey tweeted “LOL (laugh out loud). **** Muamba. He’s dead!!!’”

Disgusting and childish? Yes! But did the tweet warrant a prison sentence and branding of Stacey, who was drunk at the time of his tweeting, as an inciter of “racial hatred” (Muamba is black, while Stacey is white)? What’s next, flogging for making fun of fat people? Thank goodness that the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects free speech—even thoroughly tasteless and deeply offensive speech. Otherwise there is no telling where our political elite would lead us.

There is, of course, a larger point here. Britain, like some other European countries, suffers from deep fissures along racial, religious, national, and class lines. The elite has attempted to fix those problems by increasingly regulating speech and criminalizing behavior at an astonishing rate of one new offense a day between 1997 and 2010. (The new Conservative/Liberal Democratic coalition government has promised to do things differently, but no major repeal of law and regulation has yet taken place.) How can a society address problems that it cannot talk about? How can it remain free if so much is forbidden?

“Weinergate”: It’s Entertaining—and Edifying!

I guess I should blush to admit that my Washington Examiner column this week focuses on “Weinergate.”  But who among us can resist snickering at a scandal this hilarious—who so sober and serious that they could ignore the crotch pic that launched a thousand puns?

As I argue in the column, among all the horselaughs to be had, there are also lessons to be learned:

There’s nothing wrong with enjoying a good old-fashioned political sex scandal. They’re entertaining, and they may even be edifying – reminding us that self-styled “public servants” are often less responsible, more venal, and just plain dumber than those they seek to rule.

Some writers with whom I’m normally simpatico disagree. Doug Mataconis of Outside the Beltway deplores “the odd American obsession with political sex scandals.” The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf also condemns the attention given the Weiner kerfuffle:

there is a significant cost to obsessing over these things. The opportunity cost, for the media, is covering lots of other matters that are actually of greater import to the public, whatever one thinks of sex scandals.

I just don’t see it. Sure, in a better world, the news cycle might consist of a dignified 24/7 seminar on debt limits, insurance exchanges, the War Powers Resolution, and the like. But here on earth, Weinergate’s mainly crowding out more coverage of Sarah Palin’s bus tour.

“And for the politician in question,” Friedersdorf continues, “scandal consumes all the time he’d otherwise be dedicating to his official duties.”

I confess, I have a hard time not seeing this as win-win.

Both Mataconis and Friedersdorf argue that “private” sexual behavior tells us little about how politicians do their jobs. And I see their point, to a point. I sometimes joke, lamely, that one of my favorite presidents was a draft-dodging, womanizing Democrat elected in ‘92 (wait for it)… Grover Cleveland.

But whether or not we should care about congressional “sexting”—in the context of the modern media Panopticon, isn’t someone, like Weiner, who engages in it (especially after GOP Rep. Christopher Lee’s downfall) at least a reckless idiot? And isn’t that relevant to his job?

In a recent hand-wringing editorial, the New York Times fretted about disgraced former Senator and VP candidate John Edwards.

What the Times found unfortunate wasn’t the runaway prosecution–a legitimate complaint–but the fact that it would draw attention to yet another giant political phony. It’s “the last thing the nation needs: another cautionary tale of hubris,” says the Grey Lady, 
”the woeful courtroom coda to [Edwards’] once flourishing political career can only invite a further slide toward wariness and cynicism for American voters.”

Oh no! Not more “wariness and cynicism”! Surely, that’s the “last thing the nation needs” in an era of promiscuous warmaking and reckless spending!

There’s a story (perhaps apocryphal) where F. Scott Fitzgerald says to Ernest Hemingway, “the rich are different from you and me,” and Hemingway supposedly replies, “yes, they have more money.” I don’t know about the rich, but the political class is, by and large, different from the rest of us–and not just because they have more power.

By reminding us of how untrustworthy and reckless these people can be–how little control they often exhibit in their own lives–political sex scandals may even serve an important social purpose: they remind us that we should think twice before granting them more control over ours.

Government Control of Language and Other Protocols

It might be tempting to laugh at France’s ban on words like “Facebook” and Twitter” in the media. France’s Conseil Supérieur de l’Audiovisuel recently ruled that specific references to these sites (in stories not about them) would violate a 1992 law banning “secret” advertising. The council was created in 1989 to ensure fairness in French audiovisual communications, such as in allocation of television time to political candidates, and to protect children from some types of programming.

Sure, laugh at the French. But not for too long. The United States has similarly busy-bodied regulators, who, for example, have primly regulated such advertising themselves. American regulators carefully oversee non-secret advertising, too. Our government nannies equal the French in usurping parents’ decisions about children’s access to media. And the Federal Communications Commission endlessly plays footsie with speech regulation.

In the United States, banning words seems too blatant an affront to our First Amendment, but the United States has a fairly lively “English only” movement. Somehow, regulating an entire communications protocol doesn’t have the same censorious stink.

So it is that our Federal Communications Commission asserts a right to regulate the delivery of Internet service. The protocols on which the Internet runs are communications protocols, remember. Withdraw private control of them and you’ve got a more thoroughgoing and insidious form of speech control: it may look like speech rights remain with the people, but government controls the medium over which the speech travels.

The government has sought to control protocols in the past and will continue to do so in the future. The “crypto wars,” in which government tried to control secure communications protocols, merely presage struggles of the future. Perhaps the next battle will be over BitCoin, an online currency that is resistant to surveillance and confiscation. In BitCoin, communications and value transfer are melded together. To protect us from the scourge of illegal drugs and the recently manufactured crime of “money laundering,” governments will almost certainly seek to bar us from trading with one another and transferring our wealth securely and privately.

So laugh at France. But don’t laugh too hard. Leave the smugness to them.

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