Google and the other big tech companies are some of the most lavish funders of climate denial "think tanks" and lobbying groups, something they've been at continuously for more than six years, without interruption.
Google doesn't fund these lobbyists because they're climate deniers, nor because they're indifferent to climate change and its human costs.
Google funds these lobbyists and astroturf operations because they also lobby for lax tax enforcement, lax labor laws, lax privacy laws, and so on. The fact that these groups also lobby for the right of corporations to render our planet uninhabitable (as well as against the rights of LGBTQ people, against reproductive freedom for women, etc) is merely an acceptable cost of greasing the skids to allow Big Tech to seek profits at the expense of their workers, suppliers, customers and society.
The latest round of revelations about Google's contribution to climate deniers comes from Google's list of "politically-engaged trade associations, independent third-party organizations and other tax-exempt groups that receive the most substantial contributions from Google’sU.S. Government Affairs and Public Policy team."
It includes the Competitive Enterprise Institute, who claimed responsibility for getting Trump to pull out of the Paris Accord (CEI is also pro-monopoly, anti-Net Neutrality, pro-binding arbitration, anti-Obamacare, anti-Consumer Financial Protection Board, and fronts for the monopolists who dominate oil, tobacco, and alcohol).
Other recipients of "substantial contributions" from Google include the State Policy Network, who front for The Heartland Institute, a radical climate-science denial thinktank with major Koch funding. SPN's actively solicits signatures for a "climate pledge" that holds that "our natural environment is getting better...there is no climate crisis."
Google "substantially contributes" to the American Conservative Union (led by a Koch operative who takes credit for the climate gridlock in DC), the American Enterprise Institute (another prominent, lavish climate denial spender) and the Americans for Tax Reform whose radical anti-taxation agenda also includes condemnation of climate action as "corporate welfare."
Google funds the Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute, the Mercatus Center, and Heritage Action, all of whom have led on climate denial.
Google defends itself by saying that it only supports the CEI and SPN work that enriches Google's shareholders, and not the policies that doom us all to a horrible death when the only known planet capable of sustaining human life is rendered uninhabitable.
A Google spokesman also pointed out that other Big Tech companies send millions to these organizations, so when your house burns down in a wildfire or you die in a pandemic, the blame will not be Google's alone. Amazon will also be at fault, as will Microsoft and the other tech monopolists.
Bill McKibben, a prominent environmentalist who has been on the frontline of the climate crisis for decades, said Google and other companies were engaged in a “functional greenwashing” given the contradiction in their public pronouncements and private donations. He said Google and other technology companies had also not used their own lobbyists to advocate for change on climate.
“Sometimes I’ll talk to companies and they will be going on and on about their renewable server farm or natural gas delivery, and I say thank you, but what we really need is for your lobbying shop in Washington to put serious muscle behind it. And they never do,” McKibben said. “They want some tax break or some regulations switch and they never devote the slightest muscle behind the most important issue of our time or any time.”
A spokesperson for Google said: “We’ve been extremely clear that Google’s sponsorship doesn’t mean that we endorse that organisation’s entire agenda – we may disagree strongly on some issues.
“Our position on climate change is similarly clear. Since 2007, we have operated as a carbon neutral company and for the second year in a row, we reached 100% renewable energy for our global operations.”
Coraline Ada Ehmke's Hippocratic License is a software license that permits the broad swathe of activities enabled by traditional free/open licenses, with one exception it bars use by: "individuals, corporations, governments, or other groups for systems or activities that actively and knowingly endanger, harm, or otherwise threaten the physical, mental, economic, or general well-being of individuals or groups in violation of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights."
The Open Source Initiative maintains the canonical list of free/open licenses based on compliance with its Open Source Definition, which excludes licenses that ""discriminate against any person or group of persons" and that "restrict anyone from making use of the program in a specific field of endeavor." On this basis, OSI cofounder Bruce Perens says the Hippcratic License is not compatible with the OSD.
Ehmke calls the OSD "horribly dated" because it doesn't enable software developers to ensure that "our technology isn't used by fascists."
The OSD was developed in response to a proliferation of "open" licenses, many of which were open in name only, attempting to co-opt the word "open" without providing true openness (for example, Microsoft fielded a "shared source" license that permitted limited scrutiny of its sourcecode, but restricted the creation of new works based on that code).
Since the OSD's inception, the "field of endeavor" clause has given rise to controversy over attempts to expand the idea of "software freedom" into other human rights domains, including the right to be free from violence, harassment, exploitation, etc. The OSI has maintained that adjudicating whether a use qualifies for a field of endeavor prohibition was too legally intensive to make these licenses broadly useful, but Ehmke counters that the UN's Declaration has 70 years' worth of interpretive cases and scholarship that clears up this ambiguity.
But the core of the Free Software movement (which is distinct from, but related to, the Open Source movement) has always been a consideration of the ethics of technical production modes (by contrast, "open source" tends to emphasize the instrumental benefits of openness, in the form of lower costs and better code). The free software movement was always split on the question of "open source": even though the "open" framing drove adoption of free and open code, the focus on technical benefits rather than ethics has allowed big companies to gradually erode software freedom for anyone but themselves.
The fracture line between "free" and "open" (or "ethical" and "instrumental") keeps widening. Whether or not the Hippocratic License takes off, this will not be the last attempt to allow ethically motivated free software authors to keep their handiwork out of the hands of unethical actors.
Permission is hereby granted, free of charge, to any person obtaining a copy of this software and associated documentation files (the “Software”), to deal in the Software without restriction, including without limitation the rights to use, copy, modify, merge, publish, distribute, sublicense, and/or sell copies of the Software, and to permit persons to whom the Software is furnished to do so, subject to the following conditions:
The above copyright notice and this permission notice shall be included in all copies or substantial portions of the Software.
The software may not be used by individuals, corporations, governments, or other groups for systems or activities that actively and knowingly endanger, harm, or otherwise threaten the physical, mental, economic, or general well-being of individuals or groups in violation of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (https://www.un.org/en/universal-declaration-human-rights/).
Resource Generation is an organization of young people who inherited enough to be in the top decile of America's wealth distribution, who are determined to give away those inheritances in ways that redistribute wealth and make the country more fair and equal. Their mission: "As part of a coordinated strategy to systematically redistribute wealth and repair the harm created by wealth extraction, RG asks our members to take bold action with the resources currently under our and our families’ control, moving toward greater alignment with humanity and the planet.”"
The organization has 15 chapters of 18-35 year olds, and the chapters coordinate the dispersal of all or almost all inherited wealth and/or excess wealth to social justice movements."
To avoid the trap of philanthropic laundering of their families' reputations (as described in Anand Giridharadas 2018 book "Winners Take All") the group focuses on donations to organizations that empower marginalized communities to decide how the money will be spent, rather than those that allow donors to direct the use of the funds.
The group attracts a lot of skepticism, but Norman Vanamee's profiles of some of its New York members makes them sound like people who had the weird luck to be born into wealth, and the honest self-assessment to recognize that they just got lucky, and that their luck came at others' expense, and that something must be done about it.
T&C: Do you worry about passing on what you’ve inherited to, if you have kids, that generation? When I look at my two daughters, I’m like, “I want to be able to do all this stuff for them.”
SJ: That’s a really good question. If I’m doing this work in the right way, it will be clear to my kids and my partner, my family, that by moving this money into communities, it actually makes us more safe and more secure. I think of it as a trust fall into the movement.
40 years of Reaganomic sociopathy has managed to convince hundreds of millions of otherwise sensible people that big, social problems are caused by their personal choices, and not (say) by rapacious corporations that corrupt the regulatory process in order to get away with literal and figurative murder. The Intercept's Sharon Lerner made a short doc on the subject, showing how the inevitable pollution from single-use plastics was rebranded as a matter of individual carelessness, starting with the "Crying Indian" ads, and how that continues to this day, with the plastics industry successfully lobbying states to ban cities from limiting plastic bags, even as those cities have to pay to landfill and clear them away.
Plastic production really began in earnest in the 1950s. It’s hard to remember, but we once got along without it. Of course, plastic offered great convenience, and its production skyrocketed. In 1967, when Dustin Hoffman was advised to go into plastics in “The Graduate,” there were 25 million tons of plastic produced. These days, we’re making 300 million tons. At this point, the plastics industry is worth $4 trillion and almost half of what we’re producing is single-use plastics — things that will be used once and almost instantly become trash.
Public outrage at this problem erupted in 1970, with the first Earth Day, and the industry has been successfully dodging the issue ever since. Through advertising, public outreach campaigns, lobbying, and partnerships with nonprofits designed to seem “green,” plastics industry organizations have been blaming “litterbugs” for the growing menace and promoting the idea of recycling as the solution, while at the same time fighting every serious attempt to limit plastic production.
In an interview with Bloomberg, Bill Gates dismissed the idea of breakups as a remedy for Big Tech's monopolistic market concentration; Gates said that breaking up an abusive company will just produce more abusive companies. Instead, Gates believes that specific monopolistic activities should be banned.
The other problem is that giants who extract monopoly profits from their suppliers and customers have plenty of money left over to lobby governments to let them get away with progressively worse behavior (which improves their profitability, leaving more money to lobby with, lather, rinse, repeat). This is why the first trustbusters focused on breaking up the giant companies (which were run by executives who were no less wicked than Big Tech's supposedly benevolent dictators): they didn't just want to have fairer, more competitive markets, they wanted to hamstring the industries' ability to corrupt democratic governance.
Gates is practicing a form of tech exceptionalism here: implicit in his view is that tech is intrinsically corrupting, and that the companies behave badly because it is in their nature to do so, not because we let them get away with it.
But he should know better. Tech's rise coincided precisely with the decline of antitrust enforcement (literally: Ronald Reagan hit the campaign trail the same year the Apple ][+ went on sale, and one of his first acts after the election the next year was to gut antitrust enforcement).
Companies that had been around for a while either had first-hand experience of the truly unpleasant experience of being targeted for antitrust enforcement, or had watched it happen to others close up. Senior counsel for these companies trained juniors to warn execs that monopolistic behavior would produce brutal, extended legal trouble.
But not tech: the fresh Stanford Law grads who went to work for the startups their EE and Comp Sci colleagues had dropped out to found had not direct experience of antitrust, and when the execs they worked for proposed monopolistic conduct that would have been severely punished under pre-Reagan antitrust, these lawyers did not pump the breaks -- they hit the gas-pedal. And every time they did this, they were rewarded: the companies they worked for enhanced their profits by buying or crushing nascent competitors, by merging with major rivals, by cornering entire vertical markets. Corporate counsel went from being the adult supervision in board-rooms full of unexceptionally greedy and atavistic executives to being enthusiastic enablers of these execs' worst impulses.
Cue the Microsoft antitrust investigation. Bill Gates put in a legendarily terrible performance for his deposition, one of the first-ever corporate depositions to be video-recorded and released to the public, going viral as best as it could given the technology of the day. The sight of Gates, stimming and rocking and displaying belligerent arrogance with every word, was deeply traumatic to both Gates and Microsoft's executives.
Microsoft insider accounts claim that this traumatic experience, as well as the years and millions Microsoft spent fighting the DoJ (successfully, for the most part) changed the microeconomics of Microsoft's decision-making. Like every other large institution, Microsoft is (and was) composed of people with a variety of views on the wisdom and fairness of different courses of action, but the people who'd argued for monopolistic conduct had won every argument, because whenever the company followed their advice, it grew more profitable and faced no consequences.
But, after having faced lengthy antitrust action that was both personally and financially traumatizing, the naysayers in the board room gained a powerful new argument: "If we do this, they'll put Bill back on the stand."
Those same Microsoft insiders say that this caution is what allowed Google to emerge, without being crushed using the underhanded, unethical, monopolistic tactics Microsoft used on every other upstart that threatened its dominance.
This effect wasn't confined to Microsoft, either: for a brief moment in the early 2000s, the whole industry discovered a new forebearance, during which the ecosystem became more diverse, weirder, more interesting and more competitive than it had ever been, before or since.
(This same dynamic may be the reason that the IBM staffers who argued that the first PCs should be built from commodity components, and that Phoenix should be left in peace to clone its ROM chips won their arguments, despite IBM's usual practice of building systems out of proprietary components and subcomponents, and the bullying, monopolistic tactics that mired them in DoJ litigation for more than a decade, at the end of whic the company produced its first PC)
Gates wants us to believe that Tech is Different, and that anyone who runs a tech company will be so intrinsically rapacious and villainous that they will behave as he did when he was growing Microsoft; but the reality is that Gates and his fellow monopolists past and present are totally unexceptional in their willingness to cheat and bully their way to dominance. They're no less and no more rotten than Carnegie or Rockefeller or the Sacklers. The thing that let these garden-variety sociopaths get away with their bad behavior was not their exceptional brilliance: it was the state's deliberate decision to let them get away with it.
Gates's prescription is for governments and tech companies to create state monopolies, a new kind of industrial constitutional monarchy, in which companies like Microsoft (and Apple, Google, Facebook, Amazon, Oracle, etc) are guaranteed eternal rule over their sectors, in exchange for suffering themselves to be draped in golden chains by a regulatory aristocracy drawn from their own executive ranks, who will ask them to exercise noblesse oblige and throw some crumbs to us peasants laboring in their digital fields.
But even if breakups take a long time and even fail in the end, they're still worth pursuing. DoJ antitrust litigation changes the way companies operate, puts them on their best behavior and puts a giant thumb on the scales for the internal angels of the companies' better natures when they joust with their amoral board-room rivals.
In an electric car, the (enormous) battery is a major part of the price. If electric car prices are decreasing, battery costs must be decreasing, because it's not like the cost of fabricating rubber, aluminum, glass, and steel into car shapes can decline that much, right?
What killed the electric scooter back then is the same thing that killed the electric car of year 2000: terrible lead-acid battery technology. It's too heavy, it lacks power, it doesn't have enough range, it takes too long to charge. These are all different ways of saying the same thing: the battery sucks. It wasn't until Lithium Ion batteries matured that both the electric car and the electric scooter — and pretty much electric everything, if you think about it — became viable.
Thus, one way to see if Lithium Ion battery prices are indeed generally dropping independent of all other manufacturing concerns is to examine the cost of electric scooters over the last few years. Let's consider one of the most popular models, the Xiaomi Mi M365:
This graph only shows roughly two years, from January 2018 to now; it looks like the original price for the Xiaomi M365 when it hit the US market in early 2017 was around $800. So the price of a popular, common electric scooter has halved in three years. Very good news indeed for electric vehicles of all types!
This dramatic drop in electric scooter price from 2016 to 2019 may not be surprising versus the parallel rise of the quasi-legal electric scooter smartphone app rental industry over roughly the same time period, in the form of Bird, Lime, Skip, Spin, Scoot, etc.
Early versions of Bird scooters were actual Xiaomi M365s, slightly modified for rental. Only by late 2018 had they migrated to custom built, ruggedized scooters optimized for the rental market. The rental industries have their own challenges, and ironically have started to pivot to monthly rentals rather than the classic 15 cents per minute.
Bird has experimented with its business model in recent months. In early March, the company altered its repair program in Los Angeles, which had relied on gig workers to fix broken scooters. It moved repairs in-house (though scooters are still charged each night by an army of gig workers). Later that month, the company introduced scooters with locks in some markets, in a bid to prevent theft and vandalism.
In April, it announced the launch of a more traditional rental program in San Francisco and Barcelona, in which users could pay $25 per month to rent a Xiaomi m365 from the company rather than paying per ride.
But this isn't meant to be a blog entry about the viability of scooter rental company business models.
I want to tackle a more fundamental question: are electric scooters the future of transportation?
Even Uber, as screwed up of a company as they still are, knows cars are overkill for a lot of basic transportation needs:
Uber believes their current micro fleet of ebikes and scooters can displace trips under 3 miles.
We have plenty of scooters here at my house, and the family and I enjoy them greatly, but I have never actually ridden or owned an electric scooter. So I bought one. It is of course the popular, inexpensive, and well reviewed Xiaomi Mi M365.
Here's a picture of my electric scooter inside my electric car. (I apologize that I didn't have an electric bicycle to park next to it for maximum smugness, but you can bet your sweet electrons I'll work on that next!)
Here's the short version of my review: this electric scooter is incredibly fun, works great, and if you can get it for a price around $300, practically a no-brainer. I love it, my kids love it, and as long as you're conceptually OK with the look, unlike Elon Musk 🛴💨 then you'll probably love it too.
Here's a neat video covering the "one year later" experience of owning the scooter, and what you might eventually run into or want to tweak.
(The main thing to take away from this video is that flats super suck on tires this small, so be warned. I put Slime in my Mi's tires out of an abundance of caution, but you could also go with solid tubeless tires – at the cost of some ride comfort – if you're really worried.)
Is this regulated like a bicycle? If not, why not?
Are they allowed on the sidewalk?
Do you have to ride them in the road, with cars … uh, depending on the speed limit?
Do you need a driver's license?
Do you need a helmet?
Are you even allowed to legally ride them in public at all outside of private property?
The answers also vary wildly depending on where you live, and with no consistency or apparent logic. Here are the current electric scooter laws in California, for what it's worth, which require the rider to have a valid driver's license (unlike electric bicycles) and also disallow them from sidewalks, both of which I feel are onerous and unnecessary restrictions.
One aspect of those laws I definitely agree with, however, is the 15 mile per hour speed restriction. That's a plenty brisk top speed for a standing adult with no special safety equipment. Anything faster starts to get decidedly … uncomfortable. Consider this monster of a 1165KWh electric scooter, with dual motors and dual suspension that goes up to forty freakin' miles per hour.
That … is … terrifying. Even the reviewer, in full motorcycle safety gear, wasn't willing to push it all the way to 40 MPH. And I don't blame him! But now that I've shown you the undisputed Honda Civic everyman budget model of electric scooter in the M365, hopefully this gives you a taste of the wider emerging diversity in these kinds of minimalistic electric vehicles. If you want a luxury electric scooter, an ultralight electric scooter, a rugged offroad electric scooter … all things are possible, for a price.
Another reason the M365 is available for so cheap is that is successor, the Xiaomi M365 Pro, was recently released, although it is not quite possible to obtain in the US at the moment.
Having ridden my M365 a fair bit, I can confirm all the Pro improvements are welcome, if incremental: bigger battery and disc brake, more power, better display, improved latch mechanism, etc.
None of those Pro improvements, however, are worth a 2× increase in price so I'd recommend sticking with the M365 for now because its value proposition is off the charts. Did I mention there's a bluetooth connection, and an app, and it is possible to hack the M365 firmware? Pretty cool how electric vehicles are inherently digital, isn't it?
Here are a few other observations after riding my M365 around a fair bit:
Please be respectful around pedestrians. Most of the sidewalks around here are not busy at all, but the pedestrians I encountered on the electric scooter were definitely more freaked out than I’ve seen before when using regular kick scooters (or skateboards) on the sidewalk, which did surprise me. An electric scooter has more heft to it, both physically at 26 pounds, and in the 15 mile per hour speed it can reach – but also mentally in terms of how it looks and how people approach it. I recommend slowing down to just above walking speed when encountering pedestrians, and if there is a bike lane available, I'd definitely recommend using that.
Hills work great. The kryptonite of traditional kick scooters is hills, and I'm pleased to report that even with a cough sizable adult such as myself riding, I was able to sustain a respectable above-walking speed on most reasonable hills. Where I looked at a hill and thought "this probably should work", it did. That's impressive, considering this isn't the upgraded Pro model with bigger battery and more powerful motor. On flats and downhills the performance is superb, as you'd expect. That said, if you are a really big or tall adult, or live in a particularly hilly area, wait for the Pro model or an equivalent.
Portability is good, but borderline. At ~26 pounds, the electric scooter is reasonably portable, but it's not something you a) could really get away with taking inside a restaurant / store with you to prevent theft or b) want to be carrying around on your person for any significant length of time. It's not nearly as nimble or portable as a kick scooter, but that's a high bar. You'll need to carry a bike lock and think about how to lock your scooter on bike racks, which turned out to be … more geometrically challenging than I anticipated due to the small tires, disc brakes, and the engine in the front wheel. They need more obvious locking points on the chassis.
To be honest with you I'm still bitter about the whole Segway debacle. There was so much hype back in the day. That ridiculous thing was supposed to change the world. Instead, we got … Paul Blart Mall Cop.
A Segway was $5,000 at launch in 2001, which is a whopping $7,248 in inflation adjusted dollars. Here in 2019, cheap $200 to $300 electric scooters are basically the transformational technology the Segway was supposed to be, aren't they? Are electric scooters the future of (most) transportation? I'm not sure, but I do like where we're headed, even if it took us twenty years to get there.