Thursday, June 25, 2009

Pornography and Freedom of Speech

This is a followup to my earlier posting about Internet Filtering. Promoters (i.e. sellers) of pornographic material have long argued that banning or restricting pornography is in violation of their freedom of speech/freedom of press. However, it has been my experience that the pornography industry has gone out of their way to push pornographic content into the faces of people who would very much rather not see it. If cigarette companies put nicotine in our drinking water, we'd be furious. People have a right to choose whether they want to smoke cigarettes, and we wouldn't put up with such underhanded tactics to addict the masses.

The fact is, pornography is an addictive substance, which addicts people by sight, rather than having to be taken into their bodies. By making it appear on non-pornographic websites, the pornography industry is seeking to addict people who did not want to get involved with pornography in the first place. Rather than promoting our choice to seek their wares, they are trying to take away our choice not to. They are not respecting our rights, and cannot rightly pretend that they care about us. I see no reason to respect their "freedom of expression" if they cannot respect others' freedom from repression.

Now that I've said that, I feel it is important to point out how China is seeking to use the battle against pornography as a front for really restricting freedom of the press. Seemingly out of nowhere, they've suddenly ramped up a supposed anti-pornography campaign recently.

The same public security agencies charged with fighting pornography are responsible for suppressing illegal political activity, said Nicholas Bequelin, a researcher in Hong Kong for Human Rights Watch. The government’s statistics for seizures of illegal publications tend to include both pornographic and political documents, he noted.

Stealing code from U.S. companies, they threw together a slipshod piece of internet filtering software, announcing that the software would have to be added to all computers sold in China starting July 1.

Then they started a smear campaign to make it look like Google is spreading smut across their glorious nation. Someone in Beijing arranged to enter the search term "abnormal relationship between son and mother" a whole lot starting just a few days ago, in order to make it a popular term. That way, when they typed "son" into the search engine during a television broadcast, guess what appeared in the suggested search terms? (In China, the government owns all of the television stations).

By painting Google as a public menace, China is preparing to block Google, in order to limit their citizens' access to information about whatever they're planning to do next. What are they planning to do next? I don't know. But good money says that it won't be the "popular" or the "right" thing by our standards. Again according to the New York Times:
Liu Xiaobo, one of China’s best-known dissidents, was formally arrested Tuesday on suspicion of subversion, six months after he was detained for joining other intellectuals in signing a document calling for democracy. Earlier this month, the authorities refused to renew the licenses of more than a dozen lawyers after they agreed to represent clients in human rights cases.
I don't know what we as American citizens can do about this, but the first step is to recognize that there is a problem. Spread the word. Make sure people aren't fooled by this sudden anti-pornography mask that China's government has donned. I still maintain that this campaign will hurt China in the long run, and hurting China will hurt the United States as well. The last thing the world needs is a nation the size of China with the leadership style of North Korea.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Public Healthcare

According to the Associated Press, President Obama is arguing the merits of a government-run health plan by pointing out that if it hurts the private insurance industry, "It's their own fault."

His argument goes like this: You set up a government-run plan to take care of the people that would like to sign up for it. The worst thing that could happen is that nobody signs up, and then we're in the same place we were before. On the other hand, if people sign up with the government healthcare plan, that shows that the private industry isn't capable of competing with the clumsy government bureaucracies that they love to hate, and they deserve to fail.

The important point that President Obama failed to address is the fact that the government-run health plan will be funded by taxpayers who don't sign up for it, whereas the private plans are funded entirely by the people who are signed up for them. If the government plan were to rely entirely on proceeds from its premiums, then his point would be well taken. That would be the ultimate contest between government bureaucracy and private business. But since this isn't what he's proposing, his argument is paper-thin.

Think about it. Let's say you have two insurance providers to choose from. For an average customer, Provider A will collect $100/month in premiums, pay out an average of $60/month to cover their patients' healthcare costs, spend $20/month for administrative costs, and pocket $20/month as revenue. Provider B is less efficient, but isn't looking to turn a profit, so they pay out $60/month and spend $40/month for administrative costs. Everybody has to pay Provider B $20/month regardless of whether they use their service, so the premiums they charge will depend on how many people sign up with them:
  • If one person in five signs up, they break even (five people pay them $20 for every one that signs up), so they don't charge any premiums. If fewer people sign up, they can start paying out more and still don't have to charge premiums. How can Provider A expect to get any business?
  • If four people in five sign up, Provider B has to charge $75 in premiums. Provider A could forego their profits completely and still end up losing $5/month.
This scenario assumes that Provider A is more efficient, but is just out to turn a profit instead of providing better care. Obama's theory seems to be that Provider A is less efficient, and is also greedy. If he's right, then why can't Provider B compete without taxpayer money?

Some people might argue that Provider A currently makes so much money that simply having Provider B as an option would force them to reduce their prices so that they make just a little bit of money while still providing good service. If that were the case, why wouldn't Provider C have already tried it? If they can get more customers than Provider A, they wouldn't need to make as much money per customer in order to make a good profit. Simple supply and demand principles dictate that in a free market, companies can't really be making that much money per customer, or else some other company would come along that was willing to make slightly less and undercut them. The same principles say that in a free market, companies can't really be that inefficient, or some other company would have come along that could charge less and still turn a bigger profit. The only time these principles fail is when companies collaborate in price-fixing schemes or other similar practices.

I'll be the first to admit that something ought to be done about the healthcare situation in the United States. We're spending more than just about anybody in the world, and we're no healthier for it. I'll also admit that insurance companies are a part of the problem. But I can't imagine how replacing them with a government organization could help solve the problem. Our government is so heavily influenced by industry lobbyists, is it hard to imagine the government healthcare plan only covering drugs or services that are heavily supported by lobbying, while ignoring more effective, less expensive alternatives?

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Internet filtering

I'm all for Internet filtering software. I personally use Blue Coat's K9 software, which is free and quite powerful. Apart from helping me to avoid seeing as many racy images on the Internet, it has probably saved me from a few attacks on my computer. I search the Internet a lot in my work, and every now and then my search results brought up a shady website--the kind that tries to install malware on your computer--which K9 was able to warn me about.

But I think China has gone too far with their Green Dam-Youth Escort program. They are requiring that every computer in China be shipped with this software installed. The reason is probably two-fold. First, it helps to protect their youth (and probably a lot of adults) from a degrading and addictive substance that would undoubtedly cost their GDP millions (at least!) through lost productivity. Secondly, it gives the Chinese government an easy way to control the information that is available to their users. In the past, they've resorted to blocking Google itself, just to prevent their citizens from finding information about opposition parties during an election. If they control filtering software that's been installed on the majority of the computers in their country, that gives them much more power over what information their citizens are accessing.

But even if China didn't have a history of blocking information from their citizens, and even if we had no reason to believe that's how this software would be used, this is still a bad move, and it will come back to bite them if they go through with it. Why? Whenever you have a piece of software that you install on a significant number of machines, you are opening yourself up to hacking attacks. Microsoft has had to invest fortunes in order to try to patch the security holes in Windows, because their operating system is so ubiquitous that it's an obvious target for hackers. Think about it: if you want to infect the largest number of computers possible, are you going to spend time finding a security hole in some program that only one computer in a hundred has installed, or a program that 88% of the world's computers use? Even if the other program is much easier to hack, it won't give you nearly as much bang for your buck. So if you're going to require that all computers in China ship with certain software installed, you'd better be putting a lot of money toward making sure it's secure.

And China obviously hasn't made any serious effort to do so.

In fact, rather than having their own security experts design this software from the ground up, they apparently stole big chunks of a California-based company's filtering program to make it. With such obvious corner-cutting, you can expect that the software would be extremely fragile. And indeed it is. A University of Michigan professor and his students were able to successfully infiltrate a computer with this software installed within just a few hours. So what China is effectively doing is filling their country with computers that any decent hacker could bend to his will.

That's not the kind of move you'd expect from a nation that has gone to the effort of hacking key systems in the United States, just in case they ever need to hurt us. Obviously somebody in the Chinese government understands the threat that hackers can pose to a nation. Anti-Chinese elements could deal enormous damage to China's economy simply by hacking their computers and making them crash continuously. Professional spammers could attack the vulnerable computers in a way that forces them to load up the very sites the Chinese government is trying to protect their youth from seeing. The entire nation's computers could become a vast digital robot army that can be used to attack other computers around the world.

Of course, it probably won't get that far. Once all the new computers start crashing, either the Chinese government will realize the error of their ways and backtrack, or the Chinese people will get smart and uninstall the program first thing. The question is, how much damage will the government allow before they are willing to admit their mistakes?

As Confucius said, "An oppressive government is more to be feared than a tiger."