Obscenity law liberalised

2014 Protest outside parliament for sexual expression. Photo by BeeMarsh BeePhoto
December 2014 Protest outside parliament against sex censorship. Photo by BeeMarsh BeePhoto

This is a cross-post from my contribution to the Adam Smith Institute blog.

Last week the Crown Prosecution Service published updated guidance for prosecutions under the Obscene Publications Act (1959). Legal campaigning has brought about a big change: the liberal tests of harm, consent and legality of real acts are now key parts of their working definition of obscenity. The CPS explain:

… conduct will not likely fall to be prosecuted under the Act provided that:

  • It is consensual (focusing on full and freely exercised consent, and also where the provision of consent is made clear where such consent may not be easily determined from the material itself); and
  • No serious harm is caused
  • It is not otherwise inextricably linked with other criminality (so as to encourage emulation or fuelling interest or normalisation of criminality); and
  • The likely audience is not under 18 (having particular regard to where measures have been taken to ensure that the audience is not under 18) or otherwise vulnerable (as a result of their physical or mental health, the circumstances in which they may come to view the material, the circumstances which may cause the subject matter to have a particular impact or resonance or any other relevant circumstance).

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What’s the biggest takeaway from my Blockchain classes?

We are nearing the end of my first semester as a Blockchain lecturer at a local university. We have discussed many topics, such as cryptography, consensus protocols, tokenization, smart contracts, how to build your own crypto-token…

During the final examination, I have asked what their biggest takeaways are from my classes. Do you know what the biggest takeaway is among most students?

It’s that they will never look at government and money the same way again. None of them had heard of the word Libertarian before, but now they leave the classes a little more sceptical of government and hopefully a little more libertarian.

Timothy C. May, crypto-anarchist hero (1951 – December 15, 2018)

Tim May
Timothy C. May

News has arrived that Timothy May, the founder of the crypto-anarchist movement has died on December 15th, 2018. He has been a hero and inspiration for many in the crypto-anarchist/anarcho-capitalist community for his ideas to spread freedom and privacy through the use of cryptography.

Once an Intel senior engineer, he has written extensively about privacy, cryptography, and internet freedom. Without a doubt, he has been a great influence on the likes of John Perry Barlow (declaration of independence for cyberspace), Nick Szabo (smart contracts and Bitgold), Wei Dai (B-money), and Satoshi Nakamoto – the inventor of Bitcoin and blockchain. He has also contributed extensively to the Cypherpunks electronic mailing list, the same list that Satoshi initially used to spread his Bitcoin whitepaper and to invite cryptographers to join further developments of Bitcoin.

In his Crypto Anarchy and Virtual Communities (1994) paper, May describes Crypto anarchy as

the cyberspatial realization of anarcho-capitalism, transcending national boundaries and freeing individuals to make the economic arrangements they wish to make consensually.

He furthermore writes that

Digital cash, untraceable and anonymous (like real cash), is also coming, though various technical and practical hurdles remain. “Swiss banks in cyberspace” will make economic transactions much more liquid and much less subject to local rules and regulations.

Acknowledging the possible negative sides of crypto anarchism, May sees the development of crypto anarchism as mostly good. He believes that criminal activity within a crypto anarchist community are mostly exceptions and not the rule. He writes,

Is this a Good Thing? Mostly yes. Crypto anarchy has some messy aspects, of this there can be little doubt. From relatively unimportant things like price-fixing and insider trading to more serious things like economic espionage, the undermining of corporate knowledge ownership, to extremely dark things like anonymous markets for killings.

But let’s not forget that nation-states have, under the guise of protecting us from others, killed more than 100 million people in this century alone. Mao, Stalin, Hitler, and Pol Pot, just to name the most extreme examples. It is hard to imagine any level of digital contract killings ever coming close to nationstate barbarism.

Few mainstream news outlets today will write about Timothy May’s death and impact on our world, but for us who aspire to uphold Bitcoin’s initial principle to make (financial) freedom and privacy absolute, he will always be remembered for his inspiring contributions to secure our rights to life, liberty, and property.

Small thought on the fundamental revolution of Blockchain

Mankind made a huge leap forward regarding human organization when it implemented the Constitution. Man was no longer to be ruled by kings and despots, but by a document that stipulated the rule of law. Still, we had the issue of who was going to interpret these laws and who was allowed to add new rules.

Now, we have made another revolutionary leap forward in human organization. We don’t need a third party – kings, governments, courts – to interpret the laws anymore if we have self-executing smart contracts that eliminate the need to trust these third parties. Trust is established through mass collaboration and clever code. On top of that, everyone is free to opt-in, to submit new rules, and to participate in a set of rules. No one is forced to participate. You can always secede. We have had many secessions in the blockchain space. Bitcoin Cash seceded from Bitcoin Core, Ethereum seceded from Ethereum Classic etc. It is therefore a peaceful means to organize human beings.

This is, in my opinion, the fundamental revolution of blockchain: a peaceful trust machine for social agreements and human organization.

Blockchain trust

Opportunities for blockchain-based social media in developing countries

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On September 22nd, I presented my Serey project – a blockchain based social media platform in Cambodia – at BitFest 2018 in Amsterdam. It was organized by the BitShares Foundation and mainly attended by enthusiasts of BitShares and Graphene technology. Being part of the Bitshares/Graphene family, I was invited to speak at the conference.

We shared the stage with other graphene projects as BitSpark, DasCoin, PayGer, BitCrab, RuDEX and many others. I look forward to work together with anyone that seeks to decentralize our future, that has a vision in which every human being is free, and where blockchain technology provides the tools to secure our rights to life, liberty, and property.

Stan Larimer was there as well, and he had something interesting to say about how BitShares will import EOS technology through a middle-layer. This will greatly benefit the whole BitShares/Graphene community, including Serey.

Regarding my own presentation, I have made the case that Blockchain is not only a technological revolution, but essentially a social, political and economic revolution. I believe it’s a tool that will move us into a more decentralized world that was envisioned by the earliest internet adopters. As more internet applications were built, it became clear that it would not become as decentralized as these adopters hoped. These applications suffered from a centralized system in which data was stored and controlled on a single or a small number of servers. Those who controlled these servers, the men-in-the-middle, dictated the rules of the platform. They could look into your data, modify your data, prevent you from accessing your data etc.

Blockchain eliminates these so-called “men-in-the-middle”. Its censorship-resistant property provides many great opportunities for developing countries where the rule of law are often weak or underdeveloped. One opportunity that I have been trying to seize in Cambodia is the creation of a social media platform that could not be controlled or censored by a single party. As Cambodians are becoming more tech savvy, and more connected to the outside world through internet access, it’s a great time to roll out a Blockchain-based social media platform where people can express themselves freely. The advantage of a social media is that it’s easier to build the network effect that can reach critical mass in a relatively short period of time. Once we gain enough momentum, I would like to tokenize the national currency, the Riel, develop a Serey Wallet, and provide anyone who has access to the internet the opportunity to open a wallet (bank account) for free and use our tokenized Riel for e-commerce, remittances, savings, loans etc. Although Cambodia has experienced tremendous economic growth in the past two decades and the World Bank has moved Cambodia’s status from a lower-income bracket to a lower-middle-income bracket, 83% of Cambodians still remain unbanked.

Doing so, I hope we will promote freedom of expression and an intellectual society in Cambodia, as well as help banking the unbanked.

Below, you can find my slides for the presentation.

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We have seen the algorithm and it is us.

The core assumption of economics is that people tend to do the thing that makes sense from their own perspective. Whatever utility function people are maximizing, it’s reasonable to assume (absent compelling arguments to the contrary) that a) they’re trying to get what they want, and b) they’re trying their best given what they know.

Which is to say: what people do is a function of their preferences and priors.

Politicians (and other marketers) know this; the political battle for hearts and minds is older than history. Where it gets timely is the role algorithms play in the Facebookification of politics.

The engineering decisions made by Facebook, Google, et al. shape the digital bubbles we form for ourselves. We’ve got access to infinite content online and it has to be sorted somehow. What we’ve been learning is that these decisions aren’t neutral because they implicitly decide how our priors will be updated.

This is a problem, but it’s not the root problem. Even worse, there’s no solution.

Consider one option: put you and me in charge of regulating social media algorithms. What will be the result? First we’ll have to find a way to avoid being corrupted by this power. Then we’ll have to figure out just what it is we’re doing. Then we’ll have to stay on top of all the people trying to game the system.

If we could perfectly regulate these algorithms we might do some genuine good. But we still won’t have eliminated the fundamental issue: free will.

Let’s think of this through an evolutionary lens. The algorithms that survive are those that are most consistent with users’ preferences (out of acceptable alternatives). Clickbait will (by definition) always have an edge. Confirmation bias isn’t going away any time soon. Thinking is hard and people don’t like it.

People will continue to chose news options they find compelling and trustworthy. Their preferences and priors are not the same as ours and they never will be. Highly educated people have been trying to make everyone else highly educated for generations and they haven’t succeeded yet.

A better approach is to quit this “Rock the Vote” nonsense and encourage more people to opt for benign neglect. Our problem isn’t that the algorithms make people into political hooligans, it’s that we keep trying to get them involved under the faulty assumption that people are unnaturally Vulcan-like. Yes, regular people ought to be sensible and civically engaged, but ought does not imply can.

Evidence-based policy needs theory

This imaginary scenario is based on an example from my paper with Baljinder Virk, Stella Mascarenhas-Keyes and Nancy Cartwright: ‘Randomized Controlled Trials: How Can We Know “What Works”?’ 

A research group of practically-minded military engineers are trying to work out how to effectively destroy enemy fortifications with a cannon. They are going to be operating in the field in varied circumstances so they want an approach that has as much general validity as possible. They understand the basic premise of pointing and firing the cannon in the direction of the fortifications. But they find that the cannon ball often fails to hit their targets. They have some idea that varying the vertical angle of the cannon seems to make a difference. So they decide to test fire the cannon in many different cases.

As rigorous empiricists, the research group runs many trial shots with the cannon raised, and also many control shots with the cannon in its ‘treatment as usual’ lower position. They find that raising the cannon often matters. In several of these trials, they find that raising the cannon produces a statistically significant increase in the number of balls that destroy the fortifications. Occasionally, they find the opposite: the control balls perform better than the treatment balls. Sometimes they find that both groups work, or don’t work, about the same. The results are inconsistent, but on average they find that raised cannons hit fortifications a little more often.

A physicist approaches the research group and explains that rather than just trying to vary the height the cannon is pointed in various contexts, she can estimate much more precisely where the cannon should be aimed using the principle of compound motion with some adjustment for wind and air resistance. All the research group need to do is specify the distance to the target and she can produce a trajectory that will hit it. The problem with the physicist’s explanation is that it includes reference to abstract concepts like parabolas, and trigonometric functions like sine and cosine. The research group want to know what works. Her theory does not say whether you should raise or lower the angle of the cannon as a matter of policy. The actual decision depends on the context. They want an answer about what to do, and they would prefer not to get caught up testing physics theories about ultimately unobservable entities while discovering the answer.

Eventually the research group write up their findings, concluding that firing the cannon pointed with a higher angle can be an effective ‘intervention’ but that whether it does or not depends a great deal on particular contexts. So they suggest that artillery officers will have to bear that in mind when trying to knock down fortifications in the field; but that they should definitely consider raising the cannon if they aren’t hitting the target. In the appendix, they mention the controversial theory of compound motion as a possible explanation for the wide variation in the effectiveness of the treatment effect that should, perhaps, be explored in future studies.

This is an uncharitable caricature of contemporary evidence-based policy (for a more aggressive one see ‘Parachute use to prevent death and major trauma related to gravitational challenge: systematic review of randomised controlled trials’). Metallurgy has well-understood, repeatedly confirmed theories that command consensus among scientists and engineers. The military have no problem learning and applying this theory. Social policy, by contrast, has no theories that come close to that level of consistency. Given the lack of theoretical consensus, it might seem more reasonable to test out practical interventions instead and try to generalize from empirical discoveries. The point of this example is that without theory empirical researchers struggle to make any serious progress even with comparatively simple problems. The fact that theorizing is difficult or controversial in a particular domain does not make it any less essential a part of the research enterprise.

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Also relevant: Dylan Wiliam’s quip from this video (around 9:25): ‘a statistician knows that someone with one foot in a bucket of freezing water and the other foot in a bucket of boiling water is not, on average, comfortable.’

Pete Boettke’s discussion of economic theory as an essential lens through which one looks to make the world clearer.