My request of my state legislators: a strong anti-SLAPP statute

This week’s wins by Democrats in Virginia’s House of Delegates and Senate will relegate Republicans to minority status in Richmond and open up progressive possibilities that have been stalled for decades.

But while I look forward to seeing my state pass overdue gun-control legislation, allow localities to scrap Confederate memorials, ratify the Equal Rights Amendment, and promote renewable energy instead of coddling the coal industry, I won’t be writing my state delegate and senator about those issues.

Instead, I will ask them to enact a strong anti-SLAPP statute.

SLAPP stands for “strategic lawsuit against public participation,” which is a concise way of saying “jerks filing defamation lawsuits to make their critics shut up or go bankrupt.” My friend Mike Masnick got hit with one in 2017 for writing at length and with gusto on his Techdirt blog that Cambridge, Mass.-based computer scientist Shiva Ayyadurai did not invent e-mail as he’d claimed.

Ayyadurai–whom independent reports have confirmed did not invent e-mail–responded to Masnick’s exercise of his First Amendment rights by having Gawker-killing lawyer Charles Harder file a $15 million defamation lawsuit in the U.S. District Court in Boston.

Judge Dennis Saylor dismissed Ayyadurai’s defamation claims, but the suit didn’t get settled for another 18 expensive months–and while Masnick didn’t have to pay a cent to Ayyadurai, he did have to pay his lawyers. He’s described the experience as “harrowing,” and the risk of the same thing happening to me constitutes a low-level source of existential dread.

Strong anti-SLAPP statutes such as those in California and Washington, D.C., let defendants short-circuit this attack by filing a motion to dismiss that stops the potentially expensive process of discovery and requires action within weeks. Virginia’s anti-SLAPP law starts with the right principles but does not include those protections.

Amending it to allow journalists, activists and other citizens voicing opinions to quash attempts to litigate them into bankruptcy would defend free speech in one of the places where it started. And it shouldn’t have to be a partisan issue: The last attempt to pass a federal anti-SLAPP statute, the SPEAK FREE Act, came from a Texas Republican, then-Rep. Blake Farenthold, in 2015.

That bill drew support from liberals and conservative groups before dying in a subcommittee, much like too many good ideas have in Richmond over the past 25 years. We ought to be able to do better now.

Tax-time thoughts, 2019 edition

It looks like we didn’t get crushed by taxes this year, even if we did owe money to the IRS. That’s nice, since we skipped the one step we were supposed to take to avoid an April 15 financial hit.

2018 Form 1040I knew going into filing season that last year’s tax changes (I prefer not to call them “reform,” as that suggests progress unsupported by the evidence) would slash our deductions. In the bargain, I’d get a 20 percent break on my self-employment income, what the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 calls the Qualified Business Income Deduction; our rates would drop somewhat; and we’d lose personal exemptions but gain a child tax credit.

Which ones would outweigh the others? It appears that the rate cuts and the self-employment break made the bigger difference, leaving us paying just over 20 percent on our taxable income compared to the 24 percent we paid on a lower taxable income last year. And that’s even though my spouse did not adjust her tax withholding as recommended.

But without the self-employment deduction–be advised that tax accounting is not exactly one of my core competencies–it looks like we would have paid a higher rate.

(No, I won’t provide raw totals. I also use verbs like “appears” because once again, I filed for an extension: I caught some dumb oversights in last year’s return that should slightly lower our bill, but I won’t finish filing until that amended return clears.)

After spending seven years dealing with a tax code that treats self-employment as something to be fined, it’s nice to get a break for it instead. But I also know that the tax code continues to favor investment income over money made from actual work, I continue to resent how it’s gamed by people with the really good accountants and tax lawyers, and I can’t ignore that the tax savings delivered by this rushed bill are paid for by running up the national debt and having the lower rates expire after 2025.

Sorry, politicians: You’re not going to be able to bribe me this way. You know what sort of new tax regime would get my interest? One that didn’t keep me wondering how much we’d owe until I’d pounded through hours of punching numbers into a tax-prep program.

Crystal City wasn’t so enticing in 1993

With the news Tuesday morning that Amazon will put one of its “HQ2” locations in Arlington, Crystal City–or “National Landing,” the name picked to encompass an Amazon realm that will reach some adjacent blocks in Pentagon City and Alexandria–has suddenly become one of the D.C. area’s most interesting neighborhoods.

That was very much not the case when I moved there with three friends in 1993. For a single guy in his early 20s, there was one word for the neighborhood then: Loserville.

Then as now, Crystal City was bisected by a partly-elevated highway, with superblocks filled by bland, boxy buildings on either side. But in 1993, most of these office and apartment structures couldn’t be bothered to engage the street: Aside from a few scattered exceptions, retail and dining establishments huddled in the Crystal City Underground.

My walk to Metro from our apartment on South 23rd Street–a hulking structure with concrete-comb balcony railings that evoked Communist Bloc architecture–either took me through those climate-controlled corridors or along sidewalks with immaculate landscaping but few human life forms, as you can see in pictures I took that summer.

(My Washington Post colleague Frank Ahrens later wrote a feature about Crystal City that ran under the headline “Habitrail For Humanity” and featured this wonderful line from Sen. John McCain, a resident then: “You can start to feel more like a mole than a human.”)

Shopping was not an issue, with a Safeway a short stroll into the Underground and other everyday retail spots not much further along. I had an easy Metro commute to the Post and other places in D.C., and we were close enough to National Airport that I once hiked home from it. But the only affordable nightlife-ish spot I remember on our side of U.S. 1 was a Hamburger Hamlet.

Crossing the other side of the road shamefully called “Jefferson Davis Highway” (and which marred our building’s mailing address) would get you to a short little strip of restaurants in older storefronts on South 23rd Street. But first you had to choose between a long wait for a crosswalk signal or holding your nose as you briskly strolled through a pedestrian tunnel that reeked of piss.

Meanwhile, all the cool kids lived in apartments or group homes in Adams-Morgan, Cleveland Park, Dupont, Georgetown or Woodley Park. Going to parties at their places–nobody ever headed in the other direction–meant dreading the question “where do you live?”

After 15 months, I was delighted to move to an apartment in Arlington’s Court House neighborhood and be able to walk to cheap, delicious Vietnamese food and some moderately-hipster bars.

Crystal City has grown less ugly in the 21st century. A series of redevelopments turned the west side of Crystal Drive into a great stretch of restaurants and bars, a few new and less-bland buildings have sprouted around the neighborhood, and the brownfield to the north that mainly served as an impound lot for towed cars has become the terrific Long Bridge Park. Even most Jefferson Davis Highway addresses are gone, now that Arlington decided in 2004 to reassign buildings street addresses that mapped to their front doors.

The people quoted in a Post piece Tuesday voicing complaints along the lines of Crystal City having “no nightlife” must not realize how bad things used to be.

Amazon’s arrival should make them better still, replacing more of those ’60s and ’70s-vintage hulks with taller, shinier structures. And unlike Amazon’s other HQ2 spot, NYC’s Long Island City neighborhood, Crystal City will also see serious infrastructure improvements: Current and future Metro stops will get new entrances, its Virginia Railway Express station will be expanded, the walk to National will take place on a pedestrian bridge, and the long-term vision involves turning U.S. 1 into a surface-level, human-scaled boulevard.

But Arlington’s plans don’t include another upgrade that’s out of the county’s hands until the General Assembly notices the current century: rechristening that highway so it’s no longer an exercise in Confederacy whitewashing. Click “Okay” already, Richmond.

This changing Commonwealth of Virginia

This January, Virginia’s congressional delegation will look different: Four of its 11 members will be women, up from one now. And seven will be Democrats, versus four today.

Along with last year’s Democratic landslide in Virginia’s state elections, these results provide part of the answer I wanted to see after 2016’s meltdown: Virginia voters aren’t buying the sales pitch of a Republican Party decomposing into a Trump personality cult.

But it’s also worth remembering what politics in my adopted state looked like only eight years ago. The GOP had swept races for governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general and maintained majorities in the House of Delegates and the Senate.

Some of those Republicans… fell short of the examples of such former Virginia GOP office-holders as Rep. Tom Davis and Sen. John Warner, to phrase things kindly.

Gov. Bob McDonnell showed a fondness for gifts from donors and floated laughably bad ideas about transportation funding before accepting a deal to raise the gas tax. Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli was exponentially worse, wasting taxpayer dollars on doomed, grandstanding lawsuits against the Affordable Care Act and climate-change research at the University of Virginia.

In the House, Republican delegates like Prince William County’s Bob Marshall pushed measures like an invasive abortion-restriction bill that made “transvaginal ultrasound” a TV punch line.

And even well into Northern Virginia, the ignorant, corrupt, homophobic Eugene Delgaudio kept winning elections to the Loudoun County Board.

Since the entire state had voted in 2006 for a cruel amendment to the state constitution banning even “approximate” legal status for same-sex marriages, this balance of political power looked like something we’d see for a long time.

Now McDonnell, Cuccinelli, Marshall and Delgaudio and others like them are gone from elected politics. Last year’s rout led by Gov. Ralph Northam convinced the Virginia GOP to end its massive resistance against expanding Medicaid–a position that had set it against even hospital and business lobbies. Campaigning on keeping Confederate memorials up will not get you elected, as last year’s failed gubernatorial candidate Ed Gillespie and this year’s even-more-failed senate candidate Corey Stewart found. And campaigning against the NRA and its gun worship no longer sets you back here, as incoming representatives Elaine Luria, Abigail Spanberger, and Jennifer Wexton can attest.

There’s still work to do. GOP gerrymandering remains an issue–and the fix can’t involve lurching to the other extreme like Maryland Democrats. The state senate’s Republican delegation still includes Loudoun’s Dick Black, who literally pals around with serial-killing Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. Too many things in the Commonwealth are still named after Confederate leaders who deserve no such honor. And while 2006’s hate amendment has been ruled unconstitutional, it continues to stain the constitution.

But that’s what the 2019 state elections can help fix. Unless voters here go back to sleep the way they did after 2008.

Of course I didn’t see how social media could be an accelerant for bigotry

It took a few years after I first reviewed Windows XP for me to realize the enormous omission from my initial assessment of that operating system: It didn’t even include the word “security.” It feels like I’ve devoted much of my work since to making up for that shortfall.

I’ve had the same unpleasant realization over the past few years about social media. Just as my first look at XP showed no imagination about how an OS designed to run on trusted networks would fare on the open Internet, my early writing about social networks evidenced inadequate foresight about how they might help bigots to bond.

Consider, for instance, the Twitter explainer I wrote for the Post in 2008. I loved writing that almost exclusively as a series of 140-character-compliant paragraphs, and I think as prose it holds up well. But although Twitter was still figuring out the basic mechanics of @ mentions then, the piece reveals no consideration of how Twitter’s architecture might let bigoted trolls recruit like-minded people to scale up a Twitter mention’s compelled attention into a denial-of-service attack.

The evidence was there: A year before, writer Kathy Sierra had endured a hail of death threats for the crime of having two X chromosomes while expressing value judgments about technology. But my attention was elsewhere.

I can file away my naïveté about Windows security on not doing enough background research, but I can’t untangle my lack of imagination about social networks from having used them exclusively as a straight white man with an Italian (read: Catholic) last name. On every social network I’ve used–from Usenet newsgroups to Slashdot to the Post’s comments to Twitter and Facebook–I’ve had the unrequested benefit of not being routinely attacked for my gender, sexuality, race or religion.

But I never quite realized that until writing about Gamergate. I spent the day before that Yahoo Tech post ran locking down every important account and steeling myself for a toxic response online. Then nothing bad happened and nobody tried to destroy my critique by impeaching my identity. I can now confirm that white privilege is a hell of a drug.

Since then, we’ve had another unforeseen development: a president who has bragged about sexual assault, regularly evokes such anti-Semitic memes as “globalists”–a laundered code word for international Jewish financiers–and said neo-Nazis in Charlottesville last August included “very fine people.” Trump’s dog-whistling seems to have encouraged some bigots to crawl out from under their rocks and look for company.

Some have also been inspired to look for ways to kill people they see as “the other.” This bigotry boom has a growing body count–in C-ville last year, where I paid my respects at the memorial to Heather Heyer earlier this month, and today at a synagogue in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood. Last week’s pipe-bombing attempts could have added to that toll.

I’m sorry that I was asleep to so much of this before. I think I’m awake now, but I want you to tell me if you see otherwise.

It’s been a trying week to keep a politically open mind

For years, one of the non-obvious pleasures of writing about tech policy has been knowing that the good and bad ideas don’t fall along the usual right/left lines.

I might not want to hear Republicans like Rep. Darrell Issa (R.-Calif.) and former Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R.-Utah) say a single word about Benghazi, but they were right on a lot of intellectual-property issues. At the same time, I have not enjoyed seeing Democrats I otherwise find clueful like Sen. Pat Leahy (D.-Vt.) repeat entertainment-industry talking points.

But as the past couple of years and these past few days in particular have reminded me, the GOP looks different these days. When a Supreme Court nominee can snarl about left-wing conspiracies in a way that invites the description “Justice Brett Kavanaugh (R)” as the White House rushes through an investigation of sexual-assault allegations against him, and then all but one Senate Republican approves… well, that didn’t happen under President George W. Bush, as awful as things got then.

As a voter, I find nothing to like about what’s now the party of Trump. I’m struggling to think when I might once again cast a contrarian vote for a Republican for Congress in my deep-blue district–especially since my current representative lacks his predecessor’s history of questionable financial transactions.

But at the same time, it’s not good for my health to turn into a ball of rage, and I don’t want to respond to a bout of tribalism on the Republican side by returning the favor. So I’ve been trying to keep a few thoughts in mind.

One is that coherent political philosophies can deserve respect, but blind loyalty, an unprincipled will to power or rank bigotry do not. I may not agree with your notions on government power or individual responsibility, but if I see you speaking and acting in accordance with them, I can at least try to understand where you’re coming from. If, however, you’ve abandoned past positions because they conflict with fact-starved Trump talking points, why should I take you seriously?

If the logic of your current policy positions boils down to “this will help my team,” the same response applies. And if you spout racist or misogynistic nonsense, crawl back under your rock.
A second is that today’s Republican Party and conservatism aren’t the same thing, as one of this year’s dumber tech-policy debates illustrates. It’s become fashionable to describe (groundless) GOP complaints over social-network bias in terms of unfairness to “conservatives,” but the people doing the whining are solidly in Trump’s corner and back such Trump moves as imposing a hidden tax through massive tariffs and propping up dying resource-extraction industries–neither the stuff of small-c conservatism.

A third is that Democrats left alone can still screw things up. Living in D.C. in the mid 1990s, I had the privilege of helping to pay Marion Barry’s salary with my taxes; I know the risks of unchecked one-party rule. We still need a party that can point out that market forces can solve some problems on their own and that abuse of power isn’t just a sport for big business.

I assume it will take at least one electoral wipeout to break Trump’s spell on the Republican Party and let it try to recover that role–as that bomb-throwing liberal George Will wrote in June. In the interest of not trying to pretend I have no opinion on things I see everyday, I will admit that seeing such a beatdown would not make me sad.

Twitter Moments: where context goes to die even more

Two articles recounting politicians not telling the truth caught my eye Tuesday morning. That would have made it another day ending in “y,” except that the story each candidate sold didn’t make them look that much better or worse than the reality documented in contemporary records–why stick to the unsupportable story?

So I tweeted that thought and linked to these pieces about Democratic senatorial candidates: a report by the New York Times’ Jonathan Martin on how Rep. Kyrsten Sinema’s (D.-Ariz.) tales of childhood homelessness didn’t square with her family’s utility bills from those years of grinding poverty, and a fact-check by the Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler ruling out a debate claim by Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D.-Tex.) that he did not try to flee a 1998 DWI arrest that he has otherwise owned up to as inexcusable.

Four hours later, Twitter’s app notified me that this tweet had been added to a Moment–a curated collection of tweets on a topic that can show up in the timelines of people who don’t follow you. You can’t opt out of this publicity without blocking the account that created the Moment, which seems impossible if Twitter’s editors were behind it.

Then my notifications started getting a little weird.

I got a bunch of retweets and likes from people who had stuck #MAGA hashtags in their bios (as in, the acronym for President Trump’s favorite slogan) or added a red X to their name (a protest against Twitter “shadow-banning” right-wing voices, an allegation that has yet to survive independent scrutiny). Maybe they thought they’d found a kindred spirit; if so, they could not possibly have looked at my other recent political tweets.

But I also received shout-outs from a few people with Resistance hashtags or blue-wave emojis conveying their outrage at Trump’s GOP. They might have approved of my overall output on Twitter, but they could not possibly have read the reports I shared in that tweet–maybe they thought I was talking about Trump or his Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh?

This kind of context asphyxiation can happen any time on Twitter, but a Moment’s ability to catapult a tweet far out of your normal audience and its usual context magnifies the odds enormously. I got a sense of that from watching Helen Rosner’s XOXO talk three weeks ago, but now I understand this from firsthand experience. Thanks, I guess?