• Law, Policy -- and IT?

    Tracy Mitrano explores the intersection where higher education, the Internet and the world meet (and sometimes collide).


Sacred Cows and Golden Calves

Free Trade, technology and citizenship.


March 20, 2016

Most cultures have sacred cows. Some also create golden calves when particularly troubled and anxious. This post explores both.

As the Republican Party, once the bulwark against government intervention (except people’s bodies) and the great supporter of the free market, implodes under the weight of ignorance (Iraq) and dirty tricks (stealing the election of 2000; scapegoating gays in the election of 2004, and promoting a decade of extra-legal electronic surveillance), I am particularly struck by the internal contradiction of a wealthy real estate developer heralding a policy of economic protectionism for the economically marginalized.

Do many of them not register the inherent contradictions in a party that historically made a sacred cow out of free trade? What may not have been obvious was the adverse impact that the philosophy promising upward mobility would eventually have on jobs of most in a global economy? The silver lining lies now in the opportunity to kill the sacred cow. Good-bye to all that exaggerated reverence to Milton Friedman and, for that matter, Karl Marx.  It is time for fresh economic thought that eschews 18th century ideal of free trade and its the 19th century utopian hope in the name of balanced and contemporary 21st century economics.

Security software engineers at Apple may be creating a golden calf. News reports state that they are considering a departure from Apple rather than be available should the court approve the writ in the San Bernardino iPhone case. I doubt very much they will be out of jobs for long; they are some of the most prized security software engineers in the world. And who knows if some secret deals are being planned with Apple since corporate leadership has initiated the resistance. Because the case involves a corporation and not individuals, the concept of civil disobedience unfortunately does not apply. It would be more interesting to see if these engineers would be willing to sit in jail on contempt if it did. 

A statement clarifying the principles of their defense would be illuminating. Is it in the name of privacy? Security? Technology? Unlike Apple, which has toned down the rhetoric and turned up the legal defense, they are free to express themselves in whatever mode they want. We await their statement. I am particularly curious as to whether there will be an attempt to rationalize the absolute protectionism of computer science in the form of software gods as we now do guns on the basis of Scalia’s interpretation of the Second Amendment. The high priests of software, like the high priests of the gun lobby, make the golden calf that prompts the breaking of the tablets. 

But there is another perspective they could take. This one would not be steeped in technology but in the broader political issues at stake. Their resistance speaks to long-standing frustrations regarding government electronic surveillance.  We should not substitute one for the other – that is the core of my many posts now about this issue -- but we should take serious note of this frustration and do something substantive about it. Concerted action stopped SOPA and PIPA in Congress. Can’t we organize a campaign to get Congress to reform ECPA and CALEA in ways that reset the electronic surveillance balance? Overturn FISA? Fix the gaps inherent in the USA-Patriot Act that Snowden revealed were not just the anxieties of a librarians and privacy advocates but a real challenge to Constitutional values of our body politic? That would be a statement I would sign onto in a heartbeat.  

Sacred cows and golden calves are symptomatic of ossification and frustration. We need more education, not the rote kind, the critical thinking type, set in a digital environment and keeping in mind that the series of tubes that is the Internet in inextricably bound up with virtually every aspect of our lives. Perhaps then it is a good time to remind ourselves of what citizenship means in a democratic republic and bring that meaning to bear on the issues before us. In a word, active, dynamic, thoughtful, expressive engagement! 


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