Book Review: The Internet Con - How to Seize the Means of Computation by Cory Doctorow

Book cover for the Internet Con. It looks like a shattered phone screen.This is beloved firebrand Cory doing what he does best. Rallying the rebellion with righteous indignation and a no-nonsense approach to fixing technology's ills.

If you've read any of his fiction, or listened to him talk, you'll know what to expect. An overview of how big tech has screwed us over and the consequences of those machinations. Unlike other writers, Doctorow provides eminently practical solutions.

Now, some of the solutions you'll be unable to implement unless you're an elected official. So now's a great time to write to your representative and ask them to take action.

He is relentless at pointing out the hypocrisy of big tech - fighting to carve out exceptions for themselves which they then deny to others. We get a full-on historical lesson about the VCR and how the fight for the right to party infringe copyright was won and lost several times.

I spent many years working inside the UK Government pushing the agenda of open standards and interoperability. So it was particularly gratifying to read:

Governments can—and should—have rules about interoperability in their procurement policies. They should require companies hoping to receive public money to supply the schematics, error codes, keys and other technical matter needed to maintain and improve the things they sell and provide to our public institutions.

That's what I did! It is getting better - but it is work that will never be finished.

Similarly, he accurately describes the problems with Standards Development Organisations:

standardization meetings and forensic examinations of firewall errors—is supremely dull. It combines the thrill of bookkeeping with the excitement of Robert’s Rules of Order.

I've been a member of many and - yes - that's exactly what it is like. But, I take slight issue at some of his suggestions on this topic. The ideal SDO has to be a compromise. No one gets to walk away entirely happy. This is the eternal "Devil's Bargain" - we all exchange a little bit of what we want in order to get closer to what we need. I'm not sure there's any way around that without centrally mandating specific technical choices.

Indeed, he goes on to say:

We won’t fix anything by demanding the impossible and shouting “nerd harder!” when tech companies fail to produce it. Nor will we fix anything by taking the tech industry at its word when it tells us that effective policies are flat-out impossible.

I'm a boring practicalist. At some point we need to do what works, even if it is ideologically unpleasant.

One of the things that Cory does well is "steelman" his opponents' arguments. He's excellent at taking on some big topics (CSAM and Blockchain, for example) and giving their proponents the benefit of the doubt1. And then he forensically takes them apart.

Cory's writing style is like his spoken style. The poetic rhythm is almost palpable - as is his love for sarcastic asides. It makes this - admittedly short - book supremely quick to read. I feel greedy asking for more - but the book does end rather abruptly.

If you work in tech, or go anywhere near tech-policy, this is a must read. It gives you the history of how we got here, explains the problems happening now, and warns about an uncertain future.

  1. OK, he does say "It’s an established fact that 99.83 percent of all conversations about blockchain are nonconsensual." Which is a bit uncharitable. It's, like, 99.73% max! 
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