The FCC Hijacks the Free and Open Internet

Why the change in thinking now, Obama?

Why the change in thinking now, Obama?

It’s hard to put into words my emotions right now. I feel like I’ve been punched in the gut (and having trained in martial arts, I know exactly how that feels). To me the Internet is the the greatest tool for freedom mankind has ever known and one of the greatest entrepreneurial engines in history. Now the censorship arm of the federal government, the FCC, has hijacked control of the Internet – ironically under the guise of “Net Neutrality.” I find it hard to fathom how giving control of the Internet to an agency tasked with restricting the free flow of information is a good idea. I doubt many others do either. However as I wrote before, I believe the FCC, seemingly at the behest of President Obama, has deftly pulled off a political maneuver to give themselves control of the Internet. It is not exaggeration to say that this may be the biggest government slight of hand in history. Make no mistake, government has pulled the rug out from underneath our freedom, and many who believe they are protecting the Internet are cheering this development.

I honestly have so many thoughts going through my head that I struggle to put them all down. So let me just write down some various observations and questions:

  • When the FCC proposed different rules last year, they allowed an extended period of public comment. This year we did not get a chance to comment. In fact the new proposal was created and voted on in less than a month. Why the rush with this set of rules?
  • FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler claims that the comments from last year are sufficient for this new set of rules. However, this set of rules is so different from last year’s proposal that it is hard to accept that argument.
  • Not that the public really got a chance to understand this year’s proposal. The proposal was kept hidden from the public until after the vote was taken. Tom Wheeler steadfastly refused to reveal the proposal, even after congressional requests. Why the secrecy?
  • This year’s “Net Neutrality” rules are almost a complete reversal from what the FCC proposed last year.
  • The FCC’s actions are unprecedented in scope. For something so important, I would think that a poll consisting of only 3 yes votes is not sufficient.
  • How is it that a commissioner appointed by Obama could originally suggest rules that were almost in complete opposition to what Obama later called for? Then so easily flip-flop?
  • Just because one calls a set of rules “Net Neutrality” doesn’t make them so. Especially when the same label was given to a previous set of rules that is almost completely the opposite of what is being proposed now.
  • There was no threat to Net Neutrality last year. The only threat was from the FCCs’ proposed rules.
  • I doubt that most people who support Net Neutrality fully support an FCC takeover. Especially if they were given time to understand all the ramifications. Which I guess is why these new rules were rushed to vote.
  • Nearly everything about this situation stinks. I mean really, really stinks.
  • If the danger of a big government bureaucracy isn’t evident now, it should be. IT TOOK ONLY 3 PEOPLE VOTING YES TO USURP THE MOST IMPORTANT TECHNOLOGY ADVANCEMENT IN HISTORY!
  • Ok, forget 3 people, this appears to be basically an executive order from Obama.
  • Give the importance of the Internet to our future freedom, this feels like a Coup d’état.

How to get the public to accept government control of the Internet in three easy steps:

  1. Use the FCC to propose a set of rules that puts the public into a hysteria about “Net Neutrality.”
  2. Suggest that the only way to protect “Net Neutrality” is for the FCC to take full regulatory control of the Internet.
  3. Have the FCC propose a new set of rules that ostensibly protects “Net Neutrality” while giving full regulatory control of the Internet and rush the rules to vote, not allowing the public to scrutinize the rules or comment on them.

At this point I am resolved to fight this tooth-and-nail. This was just the first battle. The war for control of the Internet and our freedom has just begun.

Net Neutrality Astroturfed? Have We Been Snowed?

I’m from the FCC and I’m here to censor … I mean “protect” your Internet.

Something about the sudden mainstreaming of the Net Neutrality issue last year struck me as odd. Where the topic had been around for many years, it was mostly an issue that was discussed in techie circles. Why did it suddenly become so hot last year? In observing the way the FCC is handling the situation now, I am starting to wonder if the way the debate evolved was no accident. I have suspicions we have all been set up by a well thought out political manipulation.

It is very important to keep in mind that unlike many other countries, in the United States our government can not currently censor the Internet. For all the teeth-gnashing done last year, the fact is we HAVE Net Neutrality right now. No Internet provider did anything last year to threaten this state of Net Neutrality. So why the sudden thrusting of the Net Neutrality debate into the mainstream? The event that triggered the groundswell of Net Neutrality hoopla were some proposed new rules by the FCC. Yes, it was the FCC themselves that initiated a firestorm of media coverage of the topic, highlighted by viral videos produced by popular pseudo-news programs such as The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. To reiterate, it was not the Internet provider industry that threatened Net Neutrality last year, it was people’s fears that the FCC was was to give away Net Neutrality that started us down this road last April. Keep that in mind as you keep reading this article.

In a seemingly sudden reversal, now the FCC is proposing different rules that will classify Internet services under Title II of the 1934 Communication Act, an unprecedented action and seismic shift in the free and open nature of the Internet. Make no mistake about it, the FCC is about to engage in a historical naked power grab, simply making up authority where none is given in law. It is ludicrous to believe that a law written in 1934 could possibly be applied to something that didn’t truly exist until over 60 years later. It is not a fanciful notion to think that had the FCC proposed such an action at this time last year or in years prior, it would have been met with incredible resistance from anyone who cares about the potential censorship of the Internet. But this year, after approximately nine months of nearly constant Net Neutrality fear-mongering and a public proclamation from President Obama that he wants this action, it would appear that Title II classification has public support. The questions we must start to ask ourselves are that without the rules proposed by the FCC last year, would we have proposed Title II action this year? If it seems reasonable to think that one action resulted in the next, were these actions simply happenstance? And does Title II classification truly have public support?

While I have no inside information and I have no way to know for sure, it certainly feels like last year’s Net Neutrality “movement” was contrived. Based on my knowledge and observation of politics along with my extensive experience inside Internet culture from the beginning of its mainstreaming, I would certainly not be surprised if this entire sequence of events was orchestrated. The supposed “grassroots” feel of the Net Neutrality movement could have been wholly “astroturfed”. It would certainly explain how such a geeky topic suddenly went viral. The politics of technology isn’t exactly mainstream watercolor talk.

The really insidious aspect to the current Net Neutrality debate is that the proponents have done an artful job conflating the issue. There is no doubt that people want a free and open Internet. We do not want our Internet access to be restricted by our Internet providers. All the discussion of Net Neutrality in the last year has brought that concept into the mainstream. What is not so clear is whether people want the FCC, the agency responsible for the censorship of radio and TV, in charge of the Internet. As I mentioned in a previous article, the current Net Neutrality debate is really about whether we want government intervention in the Internet market, or what I call Government Regulation of Internet Providers, i.e. GRIP. With the media presenting no other options besides GRIP, it is no surprise that many people think that the only way to ensure the continuance of Net Neutrality is by government action. However, I strongly believe that even people who claim they support GRIP don’t want the government to go as far as Title II classification. It is a clumsy, heavy-handed, throwing the baby out with the bathwater approach to Net Neutrality.

Most people who support GRIP simply want government regulation that will prevent “slow lanes” on the Internet. They don’t necessarily understand the wholesale ramifications that Title II classification of Internet service would bring. I truly believe that the people who created a culture of freedom and openness on the Internet have no desire for FCC control. But someone has done a masterful job of changing the discourse from simply “Net Neutrality” to complete FCC control of the Internet. I don’t think those who were vocal in support of Net Neutrality last year are necessarily excited about Title II. But it may be too late. The powers that be have used the quick popularity of the debate last year to create a proposal that encompasses much, much more than simply stopping the creation of “slow lanes”. However, this proposal isn’t being given time to be debated in the public space. It is being rushed to a vote. In fact, the public hasn’t seen the actual proposal the FCC will be voting on. So far we have only been given lip service about it. The public has no clue what is about to transpire, other than a supposed vote on “Net Neutrality”.

We must ask ourselves what is the rush to pass this latest FCC proposal? When the FCC proposed rules last year, they asked for public input, which was one of the reasons for the media circus around Net Neutrality. They are not asking for any such commentary on this proposal, which is way above and beyond the context of stopping slow lanes. I’m now seeing news reports that the Obama administration is directly involved in the latest FCC proposal, which is not surprising considering President Obama himself said he believes Internet service should be classified under Title II. At the same time, I’m also reading articles that the Federal Election Commission is considering ways to regulate bloggers and other political content on the Internet. This is not a new development, considering that many prominent elected officials have claimed that bloggers are not “real journalists,” and therefore are not protected under the 1st Amendment. Are you starting to see my overall concern?

The Internet has been a bastion of freedom and free press since it went mainstream in the mid 1990’s. It has resulted in a transformation of the media landscape unlike any other in history. Old World mainstream media is losing the control it had on the flow of information. Politicians do not like the fact they can not control the New World media like they could the old. Remember, it wasn’t mainstream media that broke the Monica Lewinsky story – it was the Drudge Report. In fact, the lead of the Drudge Report article was “Newsweek Kills Story on White House Intern”. Traditional media was happy to kill a story that has now become a significant episode in our history. We may never have known about the Monica Lewinsky affair if it were not for Internet media. Are we all that surprised that politicians want to control this source of information? Even if you are concerned that Net Neutrality is in danger, you can not believe the Internet would be safer under the control of the FCC.

The bottom line is it looks like we’ve all been snowed. The federal government has pulled off a shrewd sleight of hand, seemingly convincing us that in order to protect us from the big, bad, cable and telephone companies, they must take over control of the Internet. Remember, the FCC itself was the entity that scared the media into the Net Neutrality debate last year and now conveniently has had an about-face. However, if we truly care about the freedom of the Internet – if we truly care about our own freedom – we must recognize that this is the worst thing that could happen to the Internet. We must question if we have been pawns in a larger game over the future of the free and open Internet and not give in so easily to those who wish to control us.

Net Neutrality – Only For “Legal” Content

Internet at the speed of bureaucracyMake sure to read my previous article: Net Neutrality – The Untold Story

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler’s recent proposal for reclassifying Internet service as a public utility includes some language I think most coverage is glossing over. According to CNET.com, the yet-to-be publicly disclosed proposal has the following phrase in reference to Internet Service Providers restricting access: “may not block access to legal content, applications, services, or nonharmful devices.”

At first glance, this seems reasonable. No one has a problem with legal content or nonharmful devices, right? But one must wonder why the words “legal” and “nonharmful” were included? Reread the phrase and leave out those words. Does it really change the meaning? Would Net Neutrality proponents care if those words were left out? Do Net Neutrality proponents actually prefer that those words were left out? Perhaps you are now starting to see my concern.

What about “illegal” content or “harmful” devices? At first you may think, “who cares”? If it is illegal or harmful then why does it matter? Well it might matter if your content is suddenly deemed “illegal” or your device is classified as “harmful”. Is it inconceivable to think that powerful lobbies could influence the government to deem content or devices they don’t like as “illegal” or “harmful”? (as an aside, what the heck is a “harmful” device?) They can’t do that now, because the federal government and FCC do not have the authority to regulate the Internet. But soon they might claim this authority. Then what?

Astute readers will probably point out that the FCC proposal doesn’t obligate Internet Service Providers to block illegal content or harmful devices. True enough. But if the FCC claims they have the power to control what Internet providers can do, how far of a stretch is it to surmise that the FCC will one day claim they have the power to censor the Internet? Of course, it will be ostensibly for “the public good”, as they claim their rules for Net Neutrality are as well. Understand that the FCC already censors radio and TV. The great thing about the Internet is that it IS free and open (well, at least until the FCC gets hold of it). The stark contrast between the uncensored Internet and FCC-censored radio and TV is one of the reasons the Internet has transformed society.

Keep this in mind: the freedom of the Internet – our freedom – is about to be decided by 5 unelected bureaucrats. People who have incentive to give themselves more control. Because control means power and what government entity doesn’t love power? Net Neutrality proponents fear being controlled yet they are about to hand over the Internet on a silver platter to the most powerful and controlling entity on Earth. Can someone explain to me how that makes any sense?

Net Neutrality – The Untold Story

Net Neutrality I Do Not Think it Means What You Think it MeansWhile the topic of Net Neutrality has been one of the hottest debates of the last year, I have remained mostly silent. I had wanted to compile my thoughts as completely as possible before commenting since the issue is very complex. When it comes to the subject of Net Neutrality, I could write a book. In fact, I probably will one day soon. But for now, events unfolding have made expressing my thoughts on the topic much more urgent and I can not wait any longer. While I have tried to condense my thoughts, the following post is a little long. However, if you want a thorough understanding of the Net Neutrality debate, please read, share, and comment below.

My relationship with the Internet is a unique one. I lived the whole of my childhood never having heard of the Internet. Yet I’ve spent my entire adult life growing up along with it. I’m just old enough to know what it is like to have grown up without the Internet but just young enough (and techie enough) to have embraced it as an integral part of my life. I am an Internet “colonist” if you will. For me personally, the Internet has transformed me as much as it has transformed society. My adult life and my career have been inextricably entwined with the evolution of the Internet into mainstream society. As a student of technology, history, and liberty, I regard the Internet entering the mainstream as a watershed development in the history of mankind. This time in history will be regarded as a pivotal era in the evolution of human civilization. Sure, I enjoy cute kitten videos as much as the next guy, but to me the Internet is much more than entertainment. I see the Internet as the greatest tool for freedom mankind has ever known and one of the greatest entrepreneurial engines in history. If technology is one of the highest forms of human expression, then the Internet is the greatest medium for that expression ever created. So believe me when I say I value the openness and freedom of the Internet as much as anybody and will do everything I can to protect it.

What Exactly is “Net Neutrality”?

The term “Net Neutrality” was coined way back in 2003 by Columbia University media law professor Tim Wu, so it should be obvious that the issue is not new. I personally have been following the subject for many years and actually had experience with some of the precursor issues back in the late 1990’s. Net Neutrality has received a lot of mainstream attention in the last year so it suddenly has moved to the forefront of techno-political conversation. A big problem for those wishing to understand the discussion is that the concept of “Net Neutrality” is simultaneously both complicated and simple. The term can mean different things to different people and most people really don’t have any clue of the underlying technology or politics. Shallow soundbites and buzzwords tend to oversimplify the subject. So allow me to quickly break it down – and don’t skip ahead because understanding the underlying issues is critical in understanding the debate at large.

I think that for most people, Net Neutrality is the idea that Internet Service Providers stay “neutral” when it comes to delivering the content you are accessing. For example, an Internet provider should not be able to block or throttle data coming to you from a company like Netflix. But to many it also means that they should not be able to block data that is politically sensitive or information that may be controversial.

I can’t imagine anyone wanting their choices restricted. I would assume that if given a preference, most people would say they want the freedom to read or watch anything on the Internet and not have the quality of their service arbitrarily degraded. Incidentally, I think most people would also say the same thing about TV and radio service, if they had the choice.

So who could possibly be against Net Neutrality? Obviously the big communication companies that provide Internet service are always looking for ways to increase their revenues. One way that has seen some interest is the idea of “paid prioritization” where Internet providers can prioritize traffic coming from certain sites. For example, Netflix could pay various ISPs to ensure that their streaming video data had prioritization on the network so that users could have the best viewing experience possible. In a legally regulated Net Neutral scenario, ISPs couldn’t do this and therefore would lose out on potential revenue. It should be obvious that ISPs would rather not be restricted by rules that limit revenue.

Therein lies the debate as far as most people are concerned. They believe it is simply an issue of keeping the Internet free and open for everyone vs the profit of large communication companies. Now these people aren’t exactly wrong. But they are not getting the whole truth.

The Devil is in the Details

Most proponents of Net Neutrality want the government to be able to intervene and enforce rules that would prohibit ISPs from implementing paid prioritization. How exactly this should be done depends on who is proposing the rules, but regardless they all revolve around government controlling the ISPs.

Most opponents of Net Neutrality say they don’t want the government to get involved and that Internet service providers aren’t truly interested in creating Internet slow lanes to extract payments out of Internet content companies. They say the Internet is already neutral and government regulation will only stifle the openness of the Internet as well as investment and growth of Internet technologies.

As I’ve discovered in many things political, both sides actually want the same thing – in this case a free and open Internet. Of course, both sides differ in the way they want that achieved. And unfortunately when arguing the issue, each side paints the other with a broad brush.

Net Neutrality proponents claim that all Internet providers want to set up paid prioritization schemes so that they can control what you are able to access in a way similar to how cable TV subscription packages work today. Internet providers are only interested in profit and they could care less about Internet freedom.

Net Neutrality opponents claim that Internet providers have no interest in restricting access to particular content and would self-regulate so that they would never use their position as last-mile provider to extort money from businesses that provide content. Net Neutrality proponents are only interested in stifling profits as a way to punish rich companies.

Obviously, neither exaggeration is correct. But what both sides miss are some fundamental understanding of the way Internet service works and the politics around it.

What’s a Guy or Gal To Do?

Those who know me or read this blog would probably assume that I would fall on the side of less government involvement. However, it isn’t that simple.

Let me be clear on one thing: I do NOT want Internet service providers making decisions for me on what type of content I can view or restricting the free flow of any type of information that I want. This is something I would fight tooth-and-nail against. But I am also fearful of government doing the exact same thing! Does it really matter if it is a corporation or a government restricting my free and open Internet? Neither is something I want and I assume most people would agree with me. However, very few people are talking about the danger of giving the federal government control over Internet Service Providers which essentially gives them control over the Internet itself.

The Net Neutrality Conundrum

As someone who believes in the free market, Net Neutrality is a tricky subject. Instinctively I know that government regulation can’t truly help the situation. But in the same breath, I also don’t trust the big Internet service providers. I really have no doubt that big ISPs would follow the paid prioritization model if they felt it would be profitable. Would they use their position as the last-mile provider to exploit Internet content companies? That isn’t as clear, but for argument’s sake I can make the assumption. With this bleak scenario in my head, what besides government intervention can stop big ISPs from wrecking the free and open Internet? The answer is clear: competition. But when it comes to the current state of Internet providers, that isn’t the whole answer.

Competition is ultimately what gives consumers the power in any free market. A company that does unpopular things to consumers will lose business to other companies that don’t do unpopular things. The threat of collusion is greatly diminished the more competition there is. The profit motive tends to incentivize companies to outflank their competition rather than colluding to keep the status quo. But something is missing when it comes to competition in today’s Internet provider market. There seems to be a distinct lack of it.

And therein lies the rub. People complain about Internet service providers like they do about cable TV or phone companies. Which isn’t surprising because most ISPs are in fact cable or phone companies. For all the complaining done about these companies, the problem is that people feel trapped. Many people feel like they don’t have a choice. What is it about cable and phone companies that make people feel that these businesses have so much power over them?

That really is the question to ponder. Nobody likes to feel like they are being controlled. Regardless if it is big business or big government, people do not want outside entries dictating what they can or can’t do or what information they have access to. No one wants feel trapped because they can’t leave the influence of an entity that wants to control them. I’ve thought about this question for quite awhile. This is the key to the Net Neutrality debate and it seems like no one is discussing it.

The reason cable and telephone companies have such control over the people they serve is because their infrastructure is under the protection of a government-sanctioned monopoly. Cable and telephone companies do not need to worry about competition from other cable or telephone companies because local governments make it illegal for competitors to exist in their jurisdiction! Instead of adding more government regulation to fix problems created by government regulation in the first place, we should attempt to repeal that regulation which is causing the problem!

The Real Issue is GRIP

Since there is so little competition in the Internet provider market it is feasible that companies could leverage their power to increase revenue at the expense of a free and open Internet. Nobody seems to want that to happen but the problem exists because of past government action, not the lack of it. However, most Net Neutrality proponents are only calling for more government intervention so the idea of Net Neutrality seems married to increased regulation.

The arguments from Net Neutrality proponents are very emphatic that big Internet providers will eventually conspire to lock us into the type of subscription options that exist today for cable TV. Again, I actually somewhat agree with this assertion. I don’t trust the big Internet providers to always do the right thing. However, I definitely don’t trust big government to always act in the best interest of the people. Net Neutrality proponents rarely discuss the danger of big government to the very Internet they claim to hold dear.

The main thrust for most “Net Neutrality” proponents isn’t so much an actually neutral Internet, but rather that we entrust the Internet service provider market to government. And the main counterpoint by Net Neutrality opponents isn’t that a neutral Internet is a bad thing, but rather that government regulation is. Therefore it is this “Government Regulation of Internet Providers”, or as I now simply deem, GRIP, that is the actual sticking point. Everyone seems to want a free and open Internet, we all just disagree on how to best ensure that.

Tightening the GRIP

Proponents of GRIP use terms like “fast and slow lanes” to describe what they think Internet providers will eventually offer to subscribers. As I said before, in no way do I want this type of Internet service. I want exactly what I have now, which is a high-speed connection that is not traffic-shaped or prioritized to the detriment of any site or service I wish to access. I believe this is also what most people want as well, which is why any threat to free access of any site or service on the Internet is met with such resistance. People want freedom and the Internet is the greatest tool of freedom the world has ever seen. So it is not surprising that when people are told that large Internet providers have plans to restrict their freedom that they would look to government to stop this from happening.

The Internet service provider industry by-and-large reject the idea of GRIP because they claim that it will stifle investment and growth of the Internet. Honestly, I could care less about such arguments, except when it comes to continued improvement of bandwidth and access. I’m not sure why the ISP industry chooses to hang their hat on this argument because the optics play out like they are greedy bastards, more concerned with profit than anything else. Instead, they should be focusing on the real specter of GRIP: the fact that once the government can regulate the Internet service provider industry, they can regulate the Internet itself.

The very thing that people are up in arms about regarding “Net Neutrality” is exactly why they should fear GRIP. If they believe competing companies will collude to restrict the freedom of the Internet, I’m not sure why they think that a government with enormous power wouldn’t be corrupted to do the same thing. The only difference, and the key factor to understand, is that competing companies in a free market answer to their customers whereas a government bureaucracy effectively answers to no one. It is much easier to fire your ISP than it is to root out layer upon layer of bureaucracy – especially when most of those bureaucrats are unelected – we can’t simply vote them out!

A Solution Looking for a Problem

Another issue that proponents of GRIP rarely mention is that we actually currently enjoy Net Neutrality! Yes, without the FCC interfering, after about 20 years of mostly unregulated service, our Internet service is not throttled by any major Internet providers. Yes, there have been examples of companies attempting to mess around with the data transmitted over their infrastructure, but the customer backlash was quick and fierce and those companies promptly backed down. While proponents of GRIP try to use these incidents as proof of the big, bad wolf trying to blow down your free and open Internet, I look at these situations as examples of why we don’t need the government to get involved. We the people exert plenty of pressure on the ISPs to provide the type of service we want. We simply do not need a so-called government solution to a problem that does not exist! What we need is more competition and the solution is to remove the government-created barriers that restrict all existing and future communication companies from competing with each other in local markets.

We are actually very lucky that cable companies have their roots in TV and phone companies in telecommunications because governments allowed both entities to exist since they served different markets. The reality is that now cable and phone companies actually offer virtually identical services: Internet, TV, and phone. There is virtually no difference in the services they provide, other than the infrastructure in which they arrive at your house or business. This should make one thing very clear: there is truly no need for governments to sanction monopolies to communication companies anymore. If two providers can exist in an area, why not three or more? When it comes to Net Neutrality, competition is the prevention and cure to any company restricting the freedom of the Internet. It is time to create more competition, not continue to cripple it.

The Bleak Future of GRIP

At best GRIP is a solution looking for a problem. At worst, GRIP is a calculated attempt by big government proponents, including big business, to begin government regulation of the Internet so they can exploit it later. Be certain about this point – big business is a big fan of GRIP. Those who support GRIP under the guise of Net Neutrality are basically handing control of the Internet to the very interests they claim to fear. Just a quick study of the recent repeated attempts at Internet regulation (SOPA, PIPA, CISPA) should indicate that powerful entities abound that wish to regulate the Internet. Of course, they couch this regulation under the guise of protecting copyrights or national security, neglecting to acknowledge the privacy infringements these laws would cause. GRIP, under the guise of “Net Neutrality”, is potentially even more insidious. Once government has control of the Internet Service Provider market, it is not a stretch to believe their control will overflow. Today’s proposed rules are ostensibly for the protection of the consumer. Tomorrow’s regulations could be to “protect” copyright holders or to give the NSA access to your private data. Make no mistake about it, whatever bad things a corporation could do to your Internet pales in comparison to what big government can do. How sad would it be for proponents of Net Neutrality to wake up to a future where their worst nightmares have come true – but not because of greedy corporations – but because they turned over control of the Internet to the only entity actually capable of restricting it?

A Final Thought

Let me leave you with this final thought: the history and legacy of the FCC is control and censorship. If you believe the FCC will ultimately do anything different with the Internet, I know a Nigerian prince with millions of dollars ready to transfer to your bank account.

Technology and Economic Change

A friend on Facebook posted the following:

tech-032212-003-617x416I’d like to share some thoughts on ideas from an article I read recently (and unfortunately can’t locate at the moment).

The gist of the article is the Technology (or Internet) Revolution of the last few decades has widened the gap between the rich and non-rich much as the Industrial Revolution of the 19th Century did. Not as the result of governmental policies due to fundamental changes in how our economic system functions. For example:

* Technology has resulted in the concentration of wealth, power and technology.

* Technology has eliminated many low-skill and/or repetitive jobs that traditionally served as a way out of poverty and into the middle class.

* Technology has opened up competition for many higher-skill jobs (design, coding, journalism, automation, etc., etc.) to the global market resulting in wage stagnation for middle-class workers.

What I took away from the article is that – just as the abuses of the Industrial Revolution lead to many labor, industrial and economic reforms – the current revolution will require systemic changes to our economic framework. And, more importantly, traditional Liberal and Conservative ideologies, which are based upon the experience of the 20th Century, really aren’t equipped to provide those solutions

Any thoughts?

Any thoughts? Of course I have thoughts on this topic! But a Facebook comment simply won’t do my thoughts justice, so I told him I’d write a blog post.

The points presented obviously slant towards technology being a negatively disrupting force in the economy. Then my friend’s takeaway was that because of these negative disruptions, systemic changes will be required to our economy. I must assume he meant governmental regulations, because he then talks about liberal and conservative ideologies.

I must say that when presented in this context, the technology and Internet revolution sure does sound like a scourge on humanity! Who wouldn’t be for controlling this abomination? But of course, this is only one side of the story. Before we can discuss this topic, we should take a more balanced look.

Has technology concentrated wealth and power? Undoubtedly people have become extraordinarily wealthy from their Internet businesses. But it has also created incredible opportunities for everyday entrepreneurism that could never have been imagined before. When companies that didn’t exist before 1995 like Amazon.com can become the world’s largest book seller and topple old giants like Borders, technology has also created a more even playing field. When the Internet has basically destroyed the stranglehold the recording industry had on music, it must be talked about in the same breath as any claims of power concentration. Certainly the Internet has caused a de-concentration of power as well as any perceived concentrations.

Besides these big examples, the Internet has created entirely new career categories such as web developers, social media marketers, mobile app developers, and YouTube celebrities. Which if it is true that the Internet has eliminated low-skill and/or repetitive jobs, then we must also acknowledge the creation of new jobs. We must also accept the fact that the Internet has made it easier for entrepreneurs to find customers and therefore made it easier for non-technical businesspeople – from housekeepers to accountants – to compete against big companies.

It’s no secret competition is good for consumers. When the Internet makes it easier for small business to compete, consumers win. Not only does competition help keep costs down, but it also increases innovation and gives consumers more choices. Potentially with competition keeping costs down, wages may be affected. But while some wages may stagnate, others may increase for those who take the bull by the horns and adapt to the changes the Internet was brought forth.

So with the perspective of a more balanced viewpoint, do we really need government to “reform” our economy? Technology has transformed not only the economy, but almost all aspects of our society. The fact that this conversation started on social media and that I can publish my response on a blog that anyone in the world can read are proof alone of that. What we must realize is that regulation has side-effects. If we want to stifle the supposed negative ramifications of technological change, we need to accept that we will also dampen the positive effects that technology can bring to the economy and society.

I do agree on one of my friend’s points: that traditional political ideologies aren’t suited to provide solutions to a rapidly changing economy, especially when most politicians don’t even understand that which they would attempt to regulate. I would go so far as to say that any political ideology that says they need to control the economy is not suited to The New World of Technology.

Instead of the violent, forceful change that government brings, I trust in the natural, holistic evolution that free people bring about on their own as they adapt to change. Systemic changes have already happened and will continue to happen as the market transforms. Not through any action of government, but rather through the behavior of free people in a market that has been relatively free of regulation. The technology industry is one of the closest examples of a functioning free market that we have seen in recent history. Luckily by its nature of rapid advance, there has been little opportunity for governments to suppress it, at least in this country. Which has been a good thing because it was the technology industry that burgeoned our economy in the 1990’s and has almost single-handedly kept it afloat through the rough times of the 2000’s. That and it fundamentally changed the way we live and communicate. Certainly we must be appreciative of the positive advances that this market free of government interference has brought forth.

We must understand that we are only at the beginning of the technological advances coming. If we attempt to apply control and regulations now, based on our rudimentary understanding of technology as it exists today, we potentially strangle the benefits of technology that hasn’t even been invented yet. We threaten to stifle the advancement of modern technology much in the same way that was done in the early part of the 20th century with the heavy-handed government regulation of radio and telephone communication. This resulted in the government-sanctioned monopoly of AT&T and the concentration of power in politically-favored media companies. Ironically, this concentration of power has only started to erode because of the Internet. What a shame it would be to strangle the freedom the Internet has brought us because we are frightened of change. What a shame it would be if our fear returned us to the pre-Internet world where our information was tightly controlled by a select few from government and big corporate interests.

Bottom line, free people adapt to change. The relatively free market that technology has developed in has brought us amazing advances in our society and economic growth. Why would we want to endanger it? Attempting to control the economy amounts to playing god and not doing a very good job of it. No politician is smarter than all of us. Offering them control of the new economy is a foolhardy endeavor, certainly destined to be a so-called “cure” worse than any perceived “disease”.

Calls for Peace in Ferguson – Where’s Obama?

obama-ponderingIf you happen to live in the St. Louis area as I do, you no doubt are apprehensively awaiting the upcoming grand jury decision on whether Officer Darren Wilson will be charged with murdering Michael Brown. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know that all the local media outlets are running stories constantly reminding us that the decision is due any day now and that if a decision is made not to indict Officer Wilson, it will likely spark large scale protests and potentially more violence as was seen 3 months ago. In preparation for this  event, many elected officials are calling for peace regardless of what the decision is. Even Michael Brown’s parents are asking that no violence be used to protest in their son’s name. However, conspicuously absent from these calls for peace are words from the President of the United States.

As usual, please read my Obligatory Obama Disclaimer if you haven’t already.

I am willing to give Obama the benefit of the doubt and assume that he is waiting to make public statements once he is given a heads up that the decision is forthcoming. However, with other politicians and public personas making statements now, I can’t help but wonder if his silence is deafening. It certainly can’t hurt to call for peace more than once. And let’s face it, coming from the first black president, I think his words would hold a lot more weight in this situation.

Anyone who knows me or has read my writing should realize that I’m definitely not one for government action (or overreaction) especially coming from the office of the president. However, I do believe that the office does hold a very special distinction that should be used as liberally as possible. Having the unofficial title of “leader of the free world”, the President of the United States should use every opportunity possible to show leadership in situations where freedom is in jeopardy. I believe this is precisely one such situation. Instead of being silent on the subject, Obama should be using his role as Chief Advocate for freedom to say in no uncertain terms that instigating violence and infringing people’s rights are not acceptable behaviors for free people. This goes for protestors or law enforcement. He should be repeating this message early and often on every media outlet and social media platform he can. And perhaps he should be in Ferguson making appearances and talking to those who lead the protest movements. Honestly, this is probably the most important domestic issue on his plate right now and yet he seems to be more interested with what is happening in China or hugging Koala Bears in Australia.

His silence in this situation is especially perplexing given his political ideology. For someone who constantly advocates that people should trust in big government and to let big government take care of them, it is unusual for him to not be telling people to trust in what the Missouri grand jury will decide. Or to trust the results of his own Department of Justice investigation for that matter. If he is to be consistent in his application of his ideology, shouldn’t he be attempting to instill faith in the government-run process of justice no matter what the outcome may be? Or perhaps, like many other politicians, he simply changes his convictions any time it is politically convenient for him.

Maybe I shouldn’t be too surprised as Obama has hardly been one to step up to the plate when it really matters. But regardless of how much I disagree with his political ideologies, I would certainly think much more of him as a human being if he would use his position of influence in this situation. He literally has the chance to save lives by his words. Or he can continue to do nothing and put people’s freedoms on the line. Whatever course of action he chooses in this situation will say a lot more about him than anything else he has done in his presidency. So yet again, I ask Mr. President, are you going to man up or step aside?

Ferguson and Big Government Hypocrisy

goodcop_badcop

You probably asked for it to become this way, even if you don’t yet realize it.

I live near St. Louis, MO, which as you probably know by now, is the metropolitan area where the city of Ferguson is located. My house is less than 25 miles away from Ferguson, which suddenly became the focus of the nation last month. The killing of Michael Brown by a police officer has set off both a figurative and literal firestorm in the city and the nation.

The entirety of the Ferguson situation become much larger than the initial incident. There are 3 main plots to this story. First, obviously, is the question whether the killing of Michael Brown by a police officer was murder or self-defense. That evolved into protests encompassing the larger issue of police brutality. When the protestors (or other people who were only interested in starting trouble) became violent and destructive, the perceived overreaction of the local police brought up questions about the militarization of local police forces and violations of free speech. The three issues are obviously interrelated, but they are also distinct. Each point deserves a thorough discussion.

I’m not going to say much about the killing of Michael Brown because there are so many unanswered questions. None of us know for sure what happened that day so it is impossible to make a conclusion. However, I know there is a lot of suspicion regarding the integrity of police departments so I completely understand the concerns people may have regarding the investigation itself.

I’m certainly no fan of police brutality. Those who choose to “serve and protect” must always remember the second part of that statement. I don’t believe that police should have any special protection if they violate people’s rights.

I will say that violence is wrong and I think all sides are united against violence, whether it is from police or rioters. Preventing violence is truly the core of all the issues surrounding the Ferguson situation, yet I think many people are missing a big common thread.

One thing became pretty evident over the first few nights of the protests and riots. The way the police handled the situation with military-style equipment pushed a lot of people’s buttons. Many claimed to be shocked and appalled at the sight of highly militarized police forces on suburban American streets. From the TV reports, especially the live ones, it certainly seemed like heavily armed police using tear gas and rubber bullets were going overboard attempting to clear people, including journalists, from the streets. Scenes like that set off a frenzy on social media with people decrying the brutality of police trampling people’s right to protest. Certainly I’m no fan of anybody’s rights being infringed upon. But what I found hypocritical was that many of the people who were criticizing this overreach of government are people who consistently advocate for government overreach in other ways.

You can’t have your cake and eat it too when it comes to big government! If you want more government control in one area, you must be willing to accept big government across the board, including more powerful police and more intrusion into your personal life. If you don’t like overly-powerful government agencies, you must be willing to shrink government entitlement programs and allow other people to live their lives as they see fit. Big government is two sides of the same coin. You can not honestly expect to have a government that is powerful and manipulative on one hand, yet unintrusive and peaceful on the other. Government only knows one way to get things done. When you only have a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

Government, at its core, is the authorized use of violence. Note that I didn’t say “justified”. I said “authorized”. There is a big difference. Justified means that an action is morally sound. Authorized simply means an action was permitted or commissioned. I think a lot of people misunderstand the functioning of government. Governments, and the laws created by them, are not the shining ideal of virtue. Nor can we expect them to be. Simply because government takes an action doesn’t make that action justified, even if a law authorizes their conduct. Laws are made by imperfect people, especially considering those who make laws are very imperfect and possibly corrupt politicians. There are many examples in history of very bad laws if you need proof of this. These imperfect laws are then enforced by other imperfect people, some of who may be unethical themselves, and you can begin to see the recipe for disaster that too many laws brings us. The more laws we have increases the odds that there will be the authorized but unjustified use of violence.

Because government is violence incarnate, it should be an option of last resort. Ideally government should only be there to protect people’s rights when certain people will not cooperatively respect the rights of others. When we begin to ask government to do more than protect our natural rights, we open a Pandora’s box of unintended consequences. The more we ask of government, the more powerful it becomes. Ultimately, that power is concentrated into people with guns and armor.

I often tell people that all government actions are at gunpoint. A lot of people push back against this statement. They claim that they don’t have men with guns forcing them to comply with the laws or pay their taxes. However, this is not a metaphor. It is reality. All government laws, taxes, regulations, etc. are enforced by the threat of violence. Usually just the threat is enough. But if anyone choses to disobey a law or decides not to pay a tax, the threat would become real. It doesn’t matter if the law or tax is truly justified, breaking laws or not paying taxes will eventually result in men with guns taking you to jail or forcibly taking your property. Continue to resist and force will be used against the “perpetrator”, up to and including lethal force if deemed “justified” by those enforcing the laws. Perhaps those that didn’t believe me before saw what happened in Ferguson and have begun to understand.

This isn’t a partisan issue, either. Government has grown steadily since the beginning of the last century, but under the current and previous presidential administration, government at all levels have seen unprecedented increases in scope and corresponding overreach. It is probably easy to correlate the militarization of local police with the Bush administration’s war on terror. But government growth is government growth. Whether you supported the so-called “Patriot” Act and its liberty destroying actions, or whether you called for the government to force free people to purchase health insurance with Obama’s ironically named “Affordable” Care Act, the end result is the ultimately the same. If the militarization of police is now becoming visible due to the war on terror, how long will it take for the militarization of the IRS to be felt from Obamacare? Laws must be enforced, and the more power government has, the more powerful those enforcers will become. Whether it’s BLM agents with helicopters and armored vehicles killing cattle at the Bundy Ranch, state governments dictating who and who may not marry, or local police SWAT teams with body armor and tear gas terrorizing residents and journalists in Ferguson, these incidents have more in common than some people would care to admit. The common thread of big government weaves throughout.

Perhaps hypocrisy is too strong of a word for some people in this situation. They honestly don’t yet understand the correlation between the expansion of big government and violent government overreach. The scenes in Ferguson in the aftermath of the Michael Brown shooting should serve as a wake-up call for these people. Every time you want government to make a new law, think about what you saw in Ferguson. Every time you want government to raise taxes, recall those images from Ferguson. Every time you want more government, remember Ferguson – because ultimately that is exactly what you are asking for.

Sharia Law? Hobby Lobby Ain’t a Government, It’s a Private Business

george takei

I want equal rights for everyone as long as I agree with those rights.

I appreciate people like George Takei who have used successfully used social media to leverage their celebrity status into large followings. Especially when they not only use their platform for entertaining, but also to comment on social issues. Sticking out one’s neck in support of a cause they believe in is a risky thing to do, but I believe it is a worthwhile endeavor to speak out, especially against establishment. However, at times it seems that people like Takei need to educate themselves a little before speaking, for they highlight their ignorance of the issues.

The recent Hobby Lobby decision by the Supreme Court has set social media on fire, with people on one side claiming this is a defeat for women’s rights. George Takei wrote an article, Hobby Lobby Ain’t A Church, It’s A For Profit Business, in which he asks what the decision would have been if Hobby Lobby were run by Muslims and they attempted to enforce Sharia Law on their employees. While at first the comparison may appear relevant (Christian beliefs vs Muslim beliefs), the difference between the two are so big that it borders on intentional distortion of the facts, assuming Takei truly understands what rights are.

Sharia law, as any system of laws, require government enforcement to be of any influence. Or at least a group of people claiming authority using violent force, or the threat of violent force, to coerce people into compliance. To my knowledge, Hobby Lobby does not force anyone to work for them. Nor do they force anyone to purchase from them. Nor do they stop any of their employees from purchasing anything, let alone birth control. They simply are choosing not to offer certain types of birth control on the insurance benefits they offer their employees based on their moral conviction.

Takei, as do many others on his side of the debate, go into various arguments attempting to show hypocrisy with Hobby Lobby’s beliefs regarding what they choose to offer or invest in. Others I’ve read similarly go into supposed scientific arguments why Hobby Lobby isn’t being consistent with their beliefs. The bottom line is it doesn’t matter. Hobby Lobby is a business owned by free individuals in a free market. Unless one has an ownership interest in a particular company, one should have no say into how a company runs their business, no matter how silly or illogical one believes they are acting. Just as one should not have a say into how another chooses to live their life, something Takei strongly crusades for.

Takei is a fervent advocate of gay rights and has been especially vocal regarding the issue of gay marriage. He even states in this article, “Our personal beliefs stop at the end of our noses, and we should therefore keep it out of other people’s business — and bedrooms.” The hypocrisy in this statement is practically self-evident! He literally states that our personal beliefs should be kept out of other people’s business. Yet here he is advocating that the Supreme Court should have upheld a law that literally sticks the nose of government squarely into other people’s businesses. A law that is based upon the arbitrary belief that a business is somehow obligated to offer a particular set of insurance benefits as defined by others.

The real problem here is that we have a system where certain people believe that health insurance is a “right.” There is also a correlated belief out there that employers are the anointed dispensers of health insurance for the country. Since certain people believe that health insurance is a “right,” and these same people generally believe that employers have an obligation to provide health insurance for their employees, it seems to make sense that employers should offer health insurance that covers virtually every potential need a person could have. This was the motivation behind the so-called Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, which attempted to force employers to offer exactly this type of health insurance. Now that the Supreme Court has ruled against this aspect of the law, it should be no surprise that those supported this law are up in arms. It flies in the face of their personal morality.

Therein lies the problem. People like George Takei don’t understand what rights are. I will write on this more extensively in a future article, but for now it is suffice to say that true and natural rights do not involve infringing the rights of others. In this case, the example is clear. People have the right to purchase birth control. A purchase transaction is a voluntary exchange between the buyer and the seller. People also have the right to purchase health insurance. Once again, the transaction is voluntary. The idea that employers are obligated to offer a particular type of health insurance is advocating a coerced transaction. Whether or not the employer actually wants to offer a particular type of insurance, the advocates of health insurance as a “right” believe it is justified and moral to use the threat of government violence to make sure an employer delivers an arbitrarily defined set of insurance – even if this defined set is against the morality of the employer. They believe their definition of morality is superior to any other morality. Exercising one’s true and natural rights does not involve the infringing of the rights of others. Otherwise, it is not a right. Especially when the attempt to exercise this so-called right requires violence or the threat of violence.

To be clear, the most hypocritical aspect to this whole situation is that just as Sharia law is an arbitrary system of morals, the idea that health insurance is a right, as well as a raft of related ideas, are also an arbitrary set of morals. Accusing Hobby Lobby of the equivalent of Sharia law ignores the fact that the accusers are attempting to use real government violence to enforce their own arbitrary set of moralities. So who are the bad guys here? Free individuals running their own privately-owned business according to their beliefs, or the people attempting to use government to coerce others to comply with a particular set of moralities? George Takei and others need to take a look in the mirror. If they want others to keep their beliefs out of their bedrooms, they need to make sure to keep their beliefs out of others’ businesses. You may be a big celebrity, but that doesn’t give you the authority to extend your personal beliefs beyond the end of your own nose.

IRS: Bad Sectors or Bad Intentions?

obama_open_governmentIn my previous article, I mentioned that all the attention paid to the details of Lois Lerner’s hard drive crash was just a red herring. I believe that the IRS attempting to use the hard drive crash excuse is simply the least important link in the chain of a comprehensive “innocence by incompetence” campaign. However, as weak of an excuse as it is for the IRS, the technical details of Lois Lerner’s hard drive could actually could end up being a smoking gun if we investigate far enough.

As I mentioned in my last article, I’ve seen more than my fair share of hard drive failures in the course of my 20 year professional career. I am very familiar with the functioning of hard drives, both in their mechanical and digital operations. So allow me to offer a quick primer on hard drive failure.

Any hard drive failure is commonly referred to as a hard drive “crash”. Technically the term “crash” has a very specific meaning in reference to hard drives – a head crash, if you care to know – but non-technical people may use the term “crash” to refer to any number of hard drive problems. Usually most people will say a hard drive crashed if the failure prevents data being read from the drive by normal methods and/or the computer will no longer boot from that drive. However, there are many less serious problems that could seem like a hard drive “crash” to non-technical users and restoring the drive to normal operation in those cases would not be difficult for a technology professional. More serious failures involve problems with the physical drive mechanism and may require the drive be sent to a data recovery specialist or forensic lab with highly sophisticated equipment to retrieve data.

In my experience, hard drive failures are unfortunately far too common. I have no problem believing that a hard drive crash could have befallen the computer used by Lois Lerner. Sure the timing seems questionable, but from a purely technical standpoint, this isn’t the smoking gun by itself. We must begin by questioning the specifics of the actual drive failure. Was it an actual head crash or a less serious glitch? Unfortunately the IRS has reported that the hard drive in question has already been recycled so no further attempts at recovery can be made, nor can the true cause of the hard drive failure be verified. All we know is that an e-mail from an IT manager to Lois Lerner in August 2011 said, “The sectors on the hard drive were bad which made your data unrecoverable.”

At this point I don’t believe the technical diagnosis of the hard drive failure nor the details of the recovery efforts made by the IRS IT department have been made public. These details need to be uncovered because if we know the diagnosis of the failure of the hard drive, we can begin to understand if the drive and data on it was intentionally destroyed. Alternately, we can also begin to deduce if the IRS IT department was using proper procedures during the recovery attempt and if there was any intentional wrongdoing within the IT department – or simply further incompetence.

According to the e-mail trail provided after Lerner’s hard drive failed, the data on the drive was deemed so important that the IRS IT department even went to the unusual lengths of sending the hard drive to their criminal investigation division’s forensic lab so they could attempt data recovery. A forensic lab often is able to piece together some data from a failed drive even if all the data on a drive is not recoverable. For a forensic lab to not be able to recover any data at all is highly unusual. This indicates that either the drive was wiped clean using advanced data deletion technology or it suffered extreme damage. Extreme damage is a rare occurrence for normal hard drive failures. Because the drive was sent to a criminal forensic lab, in theory the forensic specialists should have been able to tell if the hard drive was intentionally damaged or if there was anything unusual about the condition of the drive.

Lerner’s hard drive was reported as crashed on June 13, 2011. It wasn’t sent to the forensic lab until August 5, 2011. That’s a long time. Talk to any technology professional who is competent in data recovery and they will tell you the longer a failed drive is running in an attempt to recover data, the more damage that can be done. What was the IRS IT department doing that it took two months before they determined the drive was so bad it needed a data recovery lab? Especially if it was later determined that the “sectors on the hard drive were bad”. That type of failure should have been fairly obvious early on. Regardless, “bad sectors” do not take out all the data on a hard drive unless virtually the entire drive was damaged. In theory it could be possible that the efforts over two months by the IRS IT department could have damaged the drive beyond the point of data recovery even by a forensic lab. That would be a fairly inexcusable case of incompetence – or an intentional effort to scrub data from the drive. Either way it’s not a show of good faith on the IRS’s part.

Bottom line, there appears to be a chain of IT employees at the IRS that had access to the hard drive at any point in time, as well as “HP experts” and forensic specialists at the IRS’s criminal investigation division. If there is in fact a cover-up, the weak link in the chain may very well be any one of these IT people. Assuming they are not as politically motivated as IRS officials, it may be possible to get expert testimony from any one or more of the IT people that worked with and examined Lois Lerner’s hard drive that would conclude the drive had been tampered with or intentionally damaged. At the very least, we could find out why no data could be retrieved at all.

My hope is that if Lois Lerner’s hard drive is a smoking gun, one of the IT people involved will be brave enough to testify to this. The world could use another Edward Snowden right about now.

IRS: Innocence by Incompetency

obama-foia-2009Ever since the news broke a little over a week ago that the IRS lost e-mails connected to Lois Lerner because of a computer hard drive crash, I’ve been wanting to write an article addressing the technical aspects of this situation. However, the story kept growing as each day went by so I waited. As I sit down to begin this article late in the evening of June 23rd, I’ve just spent almost 4 hours watching the latest hearing live on CSPAN-2. Yes, you can’t get much geekier than spending an evening watching a government hearing discussing hard drives, backup tapes, and IT department policy. But I am who I am and the intersection of technology and politics is my wheelhouse. In all of history, there probably hasn’t been a more famous political story revolving around technology issues. Because of the size and scope of the various technical issues involved, this article will be the first of a likely series of articles tackling each major point in this long chain of events.

I almost feel that I don’t need to write these articles because it seems even technology laypeople instinctively know there is something highly suspicious about this situation. In this day and age of advanced technology, a simple hard drive crash simply doesn’t seem like a justified excuse to lose an important trail of digital communication. This is especially true for a government bureaucracy that purportedly symbolizes accurate record keeping. However, I still think a thorough review of the technology and management issues are worth examining.

As a technology professional, I’ve seen more than my fair share of hard drive failures. In my experience, hard drive failures are far too common, so I have no problem believing that a hard drive crash could have befallen the computer used by Lois Lerner. However, looking at the big picture, the hard drive failure really shouldn’t be relevant. All the hubbub about a hard drive crash is truly a red herring. Nonetheless, I will address the hard drive issue in my next article.

Any organization with halfway competent IT management that is required to preserve e-mails will have an e-mail archiving system in place. They will not defer responsibility of preserving required communications to individual employees – unless, of course, the negligence is intentional. One very important idea behind archiving is that e-mail communication may be used for criminal investigations among other things and it should be obvious that employees may decide not to preserve e-mails that are incriminating. The reality is that it is much easier to archive messages as they pass through a central server than it is to attempt to store and retrieve them from individual computers. And of course, automated centralized archiving eliminates the possibility of employees “losing” e-mails to cover their asses. To not archive messages at the server level is literally “so 1990’s”.

There are many archiving products and services available that work with common e-mail servers. It is well-known that the IRS uses the Microsoft Exchange platform, easily the most popular e-mail system for large enterprises. Therefore the IRS would have had its pick of any number of e-mail archiving systems to choose from. In fact, the IRS did have a contract with a company called Sonasoft that specializes in e-mail archiving (their tagline is “Email Archiving Done Right”). This contract was terminated at the end of fiscal year 2011 (August 31st), which seems highly unusual given the timing of the Lois Lerner hard drive failure and the supposedly lost e-mails in June of 2011. It was testified that the IRS only contracted with Sonasoft to archive the e-mails of the Chief Counsel within the IRS, which covered just 3,000 employees, not all 90,000. This also seems highly unusual to select such a small subset of employees. If archiving the e-mails of 3,000 IRS employees is deemed important, why not all 90,000 employees? At the very least, shouldn’t the heads of major divisions within the IRS, such as Lois Lerner, have had automated e-mail archiving as well? If nothing else, just from a productivity standpoint, the loss of e-mails for key personnel would be highly detrimental and an e-mail archiving system would be well worth the cost for the protection it provides, not to mention compliance with federal regulations in case of wrongdoing.

From a technical standpoint, the costs to archive the e-mails of all employees would not have been significantly greater. As with many technology systems, the greatest costs are in the initial implementation and baseline infrastructure, not in scaling of said systems. While archiving the volume of e-mail generated from 90,000 people would require a large amount of storage, it is not an impossible task. There are many companies in the United States that have hundreds of thousands of employees and are required to archive e-mails in order to comply with federal regulations. Or that being said, we know the NSA has enourmous data centers that are more than capable of monitoring and archiving communications on hyper-massive scale. Certainly it wouldn’t be beyond the capability of another gigantic federal agency such as the IRS to properly manage their own required records. The agency that has been charged with enforcing the president’s signature legislation shouldn’t have a problem archiving emails of a piddly 90,000 accounts, should they? They are in charge of maintaining records of hundreds of millions of American citizens, after all.

But that’s exactly what the current IRS chief wants you to believe. That the IRS’s technology infrastructure plus the policies and procedures that manages it are so woefully antiquated and out-of-date, they just couldn’t prioritize the archiving of e-mail messages. This is true even though e-mail messages are considered official records by the IRS’s own handbook and they are required to preserve them. The excuse has been given that properly archiving all the e-mails of the agency would cost between $10-$30 million and they just didn’t have the proper funding. I would love to know where this figure was arrived at because this seems like an extraordinarily high number, given that they were already contracting with a company that was doing e-mail archiving and scaling it shouldn’t have approached anywhere near these costs. Even several hundred terabytes of storage didn’t cost anywhere near $10 million in 2011.

What the IRS wants the American public to accept is that they can’t be proven guilty because they were incompetent. The truth of the matter, speaking as a technology expert with 20 years of professional experience, is given the laughable policies and procedures the IRS had in place, the chain of events as they describe them are entirely plausible. The burning question is whether or not these policies were in place due truly to incompetence or for convenient plausible deniability. At this point, we can only assume they are “innocent by incompetence.” But this can not be acceptable. If anything, the hypocrisy implicated here is far too much for anyone but the most ardent authoritarian to embrace. The IRS, nor would most law enforcement agencies, accept the excuse that a technical problem resulted in the destruction of evidence. In fact, the term “spoliation of evidence” is a legal concept that allows for courts to assume that evidence destroyed for any reason (whether claimed “accidental” or otherwise) would have been detrimental to the defense and assume the worst. Given the stringent federal regulations that require publicly held corporations to archive years worth of e-mails, it would be a significant case of “do as I say, not as I do” statist double-standards to allow the IRS to get away with this highly convenient set of circumstances.

While many apologists claim that the scandal is unfairly targeting Barack Obama, the reality is that he is the Chief Executive and that the IRS is a agency of the Executive Branch. That alone should prompt any leader of integrity to take charge and demand answers. But what is especially disturbing is that Obama was elected under the auspices of “Hope and Change” and one of those key tenets was “transparent and open government.” In fact, one of his first acts as president was to release presidential memorandums addressing the free flow of information from government agencies, regardless of the protection of personal interests. So for Obama to turn a blind eye on this situation is an egregious violation of his own proclamations. Do we really want a president that doesn’t stand by his own promises?

While “innocence by incompetency” may keep certain IRS figures out of jail or the president from being impeached, it won’t help the IRS in the long run. As I mentioned before, even technology laypeople realize there is something extraordinary about this situation. People from all political persuasions are incredulous at the arrogance and audacity shown by the IRS management over having their credibility questioned. We the people can not stand and let this pass. If the IRS is wanting to prove just how incompetent they really are, they need to have this incompetence severely punished. Instead of rewarding them by increasing their budget, we need to drastically reduce the power this agency has over the American people. The first step is to eliminate or rescind any further increases in power the IRS receives, such as that dubiously authorized by Obamacare. The ultimate step would be to abolish the IRS completely. While such a thought seemed like fantasy only a short time ago, the unprecedented nature of this situation has people seriously questioning the justified existence of such an agency and their legitimate role in a free society.

What steps do you think should be taken against the IRS for their seeming incompetency?