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Sonya Mann's active website is Sonya, Supposedly.

What Sonya Wrote, Summer 2018

Hello everyone! I just switched from MailChimp to an indie newsletter service called Buttondown. It is my dearest hope that everything goes smoothly and this email doesn’t get lost in your spam folder 😓

Life has been busy busy busy since I last updated you in June. Highlights:

If you want to learn way more about the Zcash Foundation’s doings, click here and here.

Outside of work:

Internet idealists talk about how freedom of information opens up opportunity for everyone. You can learn whatever you want, build whatever you want, and communicate whatever you want. For example, instead of needing thousands of dollars to self-publish a physical book and buy ads for it in a magazine, you can make an ebook for free, distribute it however you like, and promote it on social media. Compared to the previous status quo, this is a genuine improvement! The internet idealists are right: Opportunity truly is more broadly available than it used to be.

But what if Amazon bans your ebook? What if Barnes & Noble and Kobo also deem it inappropriate? The unspoken catch of the internet as democratizing force is that if you are weird enough, or aberrant enough, and you either use the wrong keyword or attract the baleful eye of the administrators, you’ll be banished. In that case, it doesn’t matter that there are fewer gatekeepers — the handful of big, flourishing gatekeepers are key, and they have shut you out.

It may be that there is another path. Disenfranchised hackers and crypto-anarchists are building parallel institutions that no one group can own or control, instead of trying to force giant tech platforms to accommodate them. They recognize that any entity that prizes advertising revenue above all else can’t be relied upon for civic neutrality.

  • Expanding on that theme, I explained how cypherpunk politics means choosing exit over voice.
  • And then expanding on that theme even more, I argued in a CoinDesk op-ed that cryptocurrencies can circumvent financial discrimination.
  • My fiancé and I went on a trip to New York City. We visited lots of friends and it was exhausting but wonderful.

I think that’s it! As usual, please reply and let me know what youuu were up to this summer!

However, I have learned from experience that if you send me a long email, I will take forever to respond. It happens because I start feeling bad that I haven’t come up with an equally involved response. Nothing personal! Sorry in advance!

💕 Sonya

American Neo-Nazis Don’t Have the Numbers

The following is part of an article I wrote for Inc. about interviewing the semi-infamous hacker Weev (legal name Andrew Auernheimer). He currently runs dev-ops for neo-Nazi site The Daily Stormer — or at least that’s what he was doing when I talked to him during August and September, 2017.

I’m only publishing the second half of the article because frankly, Weev’s enthusiasm for genocide is banal among neo-Nazis and doesn’t need more coverage. I may change my mind and publish the full essay eventually, who knows. You can read the interview transcript on Pastebin or peruse my commentary on Twitter.

A context note: The news peg for the article was Cloudflare and a bunch of domain registrars booting The Daily Stormer, so that kerfuffle is alluded to a couple of times. My current view is that cypherpunk resistance to censorship is the way to go, but I don’t want to get into that here.

And now, why I think neo-Nazis aren’t as much of a problem as they pretend they are! Some of the following data is surely outdated, but I still believe that the preponderance of evidence points to neo-Nazis and other white nationalists being primarily LARPers (at least in America).

Andrew Auernheimer’s position on de-platforming was straightforward: “People can either talk about things or they can kill people. Only paths to social change.” And: “If we are disallowed from airing our grievances in the marketplace of ideas the only option will be violence.”

Although put in brutal terms, this is logical. If you are sufficiently fed up, and sufficiently silenced, what else can you do but resort to fists, knives, or guns? Auernheimer added, “Not a threat, just an obvious conclusion.”

On the bright side, follow-through seems unlikely now that The Daily Stormer is once again accessible on the open web, although Auernheimer was recently banned from rightwing Twitter equivalent Gab for expressing a similar idea. [Note from the present: I’m not sure whether TDS is still available beyond Tor, but I don’t care enough to check.]

Auernheimer’s common sense ended there. He delighted in quasi-apocalyptic fantasies: “When the final round comes, you guys are gonna see how significant our numbers are. Because we don’t throw tantrums in the street like liberals. If we move, we will move once to solve problems, and that will be that. There will be no demonstrations. There will be a movement in the night. The next day will be rosy for us.”

He added later, “Either we are going to get what we want or our enemies are going to have their houses burned down with their whole families inside.”

While Auernheimer’s vision is terrifying, on a practical level neo-Nazis and their ilk simply do not have the numbers. The Daily Stormer is the best-known white supremacist website, and its monthly traffic before the recent ordeal broke down like this, according to Auernheimer: 6 million monthly unique visitors, roughly 19,000 of whom are forum members, who generated 545 million page views altogether. (A mainstream politics website like Politico garners more than four times the unique visitors.) Auernheimer estimated that 45 percent of the traffic came from the US, while most of the rest was from Europe.

Six million sounds like a lot of people until you put it in perspective. 45 percent comes to 2.7 million, which is eight tenths of a percent of the United States’ 323.1 million residents. That is 3.2 percent fewer than the number of Americans who will tell pollsters that they believe lizardmen run the earth, and also the number of Americans who will tell pollsters that they’ve personally been decapitated. Of course, The Daily Stormer’s audience can’t be assumed to contain all of the United States’ militant racists, but it’s a helpful benchmark.

Richard Spencer, one of the most prominent American white nationalists, put on a conference in 2016 that was only able to pull 300 people, which was — generously — 4.2 percent of the attendance of BronyCon, an event for adult fans of the My Little Pony franchise, as The Daily Caller noted. Ahead of the Charlottesville protest, declared, “A conservative estimate would put us at about 500, although if […] affiliated groups come through, we can top 1000,” which would be a whopping 14.3 percent of BronyCon.

Auernheimer did offer a counterargument. “We are a pro-genocide publication,” he explained. “For everyone that consumes pro-genocide media, there are far more than will embrace casual degrees of media. And having people saying really extreme things redefines the edge of political theater to make people closer to us be more towards the center. Now 10 percent of people think it is acceptable to hold neo-Nazi views.” Nine percent, actually, according to a Washington Post poll. “That’ll be 25 percent shortly,” he continued. “And we’ll keep pushing.”

It would sound ominous, but the notion is again undermined by data. In 1996, United States law enforcement recorded 1,109 hate crimes against Jews. In 2015, they recorded 695. That’s a 37 percent reduction over barely two decades.

Furthermore, 39 percent of Republicans and 78 percent of Democrats said that “prejudice against Jewish people is in the United States today” is either a “very serious problem” or a “somewhat serious problem,” according to a Quinnipiac University poll conducted in August. Forty-four percent of Republicans and 80 percent of Democrats said that yes, “white supremacist groups pose a threat to the United States.”

Meanwhile, white attitudes toward blacks have been steadily improving since the mid-1900s. Americans are increasingly concerned about race relations since the early 2000s, but it does not follow that a spate of racially motivated massacres loom on our national horizon.

Interviewing Auernheimer was a frustrating experience. I still feel torn between the view that de-platforming is a dangerous trend, and that free speech as a cultural value is in peril — versus the opposing view that private companies can use their infrastructure however they wish to, and The Daily Stormer is welcome to use Tor or to print out physical “spamizdat” (classic Weev trick) if no one is willing to enable them to do anything else.

I talked it over with fellow civil libertarian Giancarlo Sandoval, a PhD researcher in digital cultures at Birkbeck, University of London. He said, “I don’t believe there’s a shadowy cabal pulling the strings,” but rather that The Daily Stormer is suffering the natural consequences of advocating extremely unpopular ideas. Sandoval added, “Registrars can do whatever they want, they are commercial entities.”

Ultimately, my conclusion is that businesses refusing to serve someone isn’t a problem that demands legislation. So what if building your own internet infrastructure is expensive — buying a printing press was too! Censorship by the government is another matter, since nation-states force compliance with their rules at gunpoint.

It is true that ICANN, the organization that stewards domain names, was started in part by the United States government. But with the advent of Tor and other decentralized networks, ICANN can’t choke off dissenters, just force them to resort to less convenient options.

Freedom of speech is guaranteed by the United States Constitution, but cheapness of speech and ease of speech are not. Nor do I think they should be. Until I’m convinced that the government itself is suppressing The Daily Stormer, my unease about de-platforming will stay passive.

An early 2018 data analysis by Chris Stucchio comports with my opinion, as I discussed on Reddit.

A Perfect Storm of Free Speech

Photo by Viktor Nagornyy.
Photo by Viktor Nagornyy.
Photo by Viktor Nagornyy.
Photo by Viktor Nagornyy.

Here I am, reproducing a Hacker News thread:

“Pedophilia and necrophilia in writing is protected as freedom of speech. […] I thought we’d finally (already) won this fight in the US with Howl/Naked Lunch, but maybe not?” — forgotpwtomain [italics and Amazon links added]

“Freedom of speech protects you from Government prosecution for expressing your opinions. Google is a private company.” — eng_monkey

“This line is getting way over-used. Please notice the last sentence in grandparent’s comment: ‘This is not a Google issue; this is a law enforcement issue'” — jordanlev

“Today, Google controls more public discourse than the US government, if they are censoring freedom of speech – it IS a big deal.” — forgotpwtomain

“I wholeheartedly agree with this. First Amendment was written at the time when government was almost the only organization powerful enough to silence dissenters. Nowadays corporations like Google, Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, etc have more effective control of the venue of speech, and they should be subject to the same scrutiny then, not be given leeway as ‘private entities’.” — netheril96

“The government still is the only entity that can silence dissenters. All the entities you listed are limited to merely kicking you off their platform. Facebook can’t 404 your posts on Reddit, and none of them and none of them can stop you from standing on the sidewalk with a sandwich board. [¶] Saying that social media platforms should be subject to ‘scrutiny’ (which is pretty vague and non-actionable), or are somehow beholden to public opinion, is nonsense. They’re beholden to users, at most.” — throwaway160303

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