The One With Nothing On It


A new report on the criminalization of debt

Last week, the ACLU published a report entitled “A Pound of Flesh: The Criminalization of Private Debt.” It details the widespread use of the criminal justice system in the collection of debts—including medical, credit card, auto, education and household—in many cases resulting in de facto debtor’s jails.

“In 44 states, judges—including district court civil judges, small-claims court judges, clerk-magistrates, and justices of the peace—are allowed to issue arrest warrants for failure to appear at post-judgment proceedings or for failure to provide information about finances. These warrants, usually called ‘body attachments’ or ‘capias warrants,’ are issued on the charge of contempt of court.

At the request of a collection company, a court can enter a judgment against a debtor, authorize a sheriff to seize a debtor’s property, and order an employer to garnish the debtor’s wages.… In most of the country, an unpaid car loan or a utility bill that’s in arrears can result in incarceration.”

Link to the full report.

  • The report was given a lengthy write-up at The Intercept. “Federal law outlawed debt prisons in 1833, but lenders, landlords and even gyms and other businesses have found a way to resurrect the Dickensian practice. With the aid of private collection agencies, they file millions of lawsuits in state and local courts each year, winning 95 percent of the time.” Link.
  • A brief overview of the history of debtors’ prisons, leading to the upward trend of collectors’ leveraging criminal consequences against debtors. Link.
  • A 2011 paper titled “Creditor’s Contempt” describes the procedural and doctrinal mechanisms linking collectors and courts, and the “difficult balance between the state’s and creditors’ interest in rigorous judgment enforcement and debtors’ interest in imposing reasonable limitations on the coerciveness of debt collection.” Link. And documentation of a Duke Law conference covers the criminalization of debt alongside discussions of credit scoring and consumer bankruptcy. Link.
  • The criminalization of private debt dovetails with the more widely discussed issue of criminal justice debt resulting from fines and fees, which also leads to de facto debtor incarceration. Often called “legal financial obligations” (LFOs), these revenue-raising fees are levied for everything from warrants and case processing to parole check-ins and electronic monitoring devices. For more, see this 2010 report from the Brennan Center for Justice, this 2015 investigation from NPR, and this 2016 reform guide from Harvard’s Criminal Justice Policy Program. (Also from CJPP, an interactive criminal justice debt policy mapping tool. Link.)
  • In a 2014 post on their now-defunct blog House of Debt, Atif Mian and Amir Sufi (authors of a book by the same name) on the history of debt forgiveness. Link. (For attempts at exploiting the imperfections of debt markets to cancel various kinds of debt, see the Rolling Jubilee project, and its relative the Debt Collective.)


New guidelines for taking illegal content off the internet

The European Commission’s non-binding guidelines include a “one-hour rule”: “Considering that terrorist content is most harmful in the first hours of its appearance online, all companies should remove such content within one hour from its referral as a general rule.” Link to the press release. News coverage from Bloomberg.

Jay comments: “The issue of whether sites like YouTube and Facebook are public fora is central when asking questions about censorship, both in terms of what can or should be censored, and in terms of who can or should be censoring.”

HEATHER WHITNEY examines that question at length, considering various analogies for tech companies: are Facebook and Google like newspapers (the “editorial analogy”)? Are they like shopping malls or “information fiduciaries”?

“As with the editorial analogy, other proposed analogies highlight certain facts while obscuring others. Yet all these analogies have prima facie purchase. When it comes to programs that organize, rank, and transmit third-party communication to users, some of what they do is similar, in some respects, to some of what publishers or editors do; some of what they do is similar, in some respects, to what fiduciaries do; and some of their functions are similar, in some respects, to what shopping malls and law schools do; and some of what they do makes them look analogous to public squares or to state actors. The question that everything hinges on is this: Which similarities and dissimilarities are the ones that matter from the point of view of free speech principles?”

Full post here; the sidebar includes responses such as this from Frank Pasquale.

At the Center for Democracy and Technology, EMMA LLANSÓ and LAURA BLANCO have written two long responses to the European Commission guidelines which illuminate some of the technical questions around content removal and censorship.

“Regardless of how far [automatic filtering] technology advances, important limitations will always exist on the utility of automated content analysis tools, as parsing context in various forms of human communication is a complex challenge. The legality of content often depends on context, including intent or motivation of the speaker, something far outside of the scope of recognition of these tools. Moreover, the accuracy of natural language processing (NLP) tools for analyzing the text of social media posts and other online content requires clear, consistent definitions of the type of speech to be identified. Such precise definitions simply do not exist for extremist content and hate speech.”

That’s from Part 1. Link to the full post. Part 2, “Who needs courts? A deeper look at the European Commission’s plans to speed up content takedowns,” is here.

  • At Connected Rights, David Meyer adds: “… This is a self-regulatory thing for now, but it may not stay that way… This sort of deadline will probably lead to the takedown of material after zero human scrutiny, which is bad news for anyone publishing satirical material about terrorism, independent reportage about terrorism, or anyone who has an enemy with a grudge and the will to raise (pardon the pun) false flags.” Link.


Using political philosophy to consider digital ethics

Several of us from JFI attended the recent Conference on Fairness, Accountability, and Transparency. One non-technical highlight presented at the conference was from REUBEN BINNS:

“This article aims to provide an overview of some of the relevant philosophical literature on discrimination, fairness and egalitarianism in order to clarify and situate the emerging debate within the discrimination-aware and fair machine learning literature. Throughout, I aim to address the conceptual distinctions drawn between terms frequently used in the fair ML literature–including ‘discrimination’ and ‘fairness’–and the use of related terms in the philosophical literature.”

Link to Binns’s full paper.

Binns references a classic paper by ELIZABETH ANDERSON, “What is the Point of Equality?” Anderson’s work is highly relevant to the digital ethics conversation:

“I shall argue that in focusing on correcting a supposed cosmic injustice, recent egalitarian writing has lost sight of the distinctively political aims of egalitarianism. The proper negative aim of egalitarian justice is not to eliminate the impact of brute luck from human affairs, but to end oppression, which by definition is socially imposed. Its proper positive aim is not to ensure that everyone gets what they morally deserve, but to create a community in which people stand in relations of equality to others.”

Full paper, from 1999, available here.

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  • A new paper by co-authored by Iona Marinescu, Marshall Steinbaum, and Jose Azar reconfirms the findings of Marinescu and Marshall’s “Labor Market Concentration” paper, which we linked to upon its release last December: “The average labor market is very highly concentrated.” Link to a blog post announcing the study, link to the paper in full.
  • Relatedly, a recent paper from Suresh Naidu, Eric Posner, and Glen Weyl addresses the asymmetry between “the analytic methods for evaluating labor market power” and “the legal rules used to judge product market power,” suggesting methods for judging the effects of mergers on labor markets. Link.
  • Angus Deaton examines welfare metrics. Link.
  • An excerpt from a forthcoming book on solar power: the race to invent the artificial leaf. Link. ht Margarita
  • Replication woes for the grant-giving process: “We found no agreement among reviewers in evaluating the same application. These findings highlight the subjectivity in reviewers’ evaluations of grant applications and underscore the difficulty in comparing the evaluations of different applications from different reviewers—which is how peer review actually unfolds.” Link.
  • Where’s the wage growth? Overview analysis from the U.S. and the Netherlands. Link. ht Ankit
  • From the Capitol Forum, winners and losers of the GDPR: “Likely winners include trusted brands, publishers, privacy-by-design technologies; losers include Facebook, Google, digital ad intermediaries, surveillance economy technologies.” Link.
  • State of machine learning and artificial intelligence in development interventions. Link. ht Sidhya
  • Ranked choice voting in action in Santa Fe. Link to the news, and a great explanatory Twitter thread from Sally Hudson.
  • On abolishing ICE. Link.
  • In February, the London School of Economics hosted a “Citizen’s Basic Income Day”. Link. ht Lauren, who comments: “It’s encouraging to see that the London School of Economics is facilitating and expanding the dialogue around basic income, especially in an academic context. This, in conjunction with similarly-aimed efforts of our friends at Stanford’s Basic Income Lab and the Economic Security Project, may influence academic institutions here in the US to shift more interdisciplinary attention and work toward answering the numerous economic, psycho-social and cultural questions raised by basic income.”
  • “In a randomized field experiment, an intervention group received a letter with personalized cost information. That information was readily available for free and widely advertised. However, this additional step—providing the information rather than having consumers actively access it—had an impact.” Link.
  • Salt Lake City moves towards creating a publicly managed urban wealth fund. Link.
  • “The Singaporean state owns 90 percent of the country’s land. Remarkably, this level of ownership was not present from the beginning. In 1949, the state owned just 31 percent of the country’s land. It got up to 90 percent land ownership through decades of forced sales, or what people in the US call eminent domain. The Singaporean state does not merely own the land. They directly develop it, especially for residential purposes. Over 80 percent of Singapore’s population lives in housing constructed by the country’s public housing agency HDB.” Link.

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