[LONG READ] What happens when municipal planners, environmental do-gooders, plastic crap from China, and startups eager for grants of monopoly license flood United States cities with motorized scooters? It’s an interesting story in many ways still unfolding, but lessons in economics, good governance, and free speech in the digital age are cropping up more and more. Implications for the cryptocurrency community aren’t immediately obvious, but the same combination of factors can be applied to it with little effort.
Hacking City Scooter Companies is a Teachable Moment
In the United States, government planners are often taken with fads and latest-things. One such sweeping across major cities is the advent of supposed environmentally friendly transport, human powered or at least electric.
Municipal minders, eager to be seen doing something, usually anything other than soaking up tax dollars, are giving sweetheart contracts to scooter and biking companies. The advent of monopoly scooter jurisdictions, for example, has created interesting unforeseen problems.
For perspective, consider public transportation of the usual variety … say, busses. They’re empty a large part of the daytime, clogging traffic lanes, making routes over and over again for no apparent reason. Suggest perhaps scores of giant busses weaving throughout the city and suburbia are trafficking only its driver and random vagrants, and, well, you’re considered something of a loon.
What a Waste
All that waste is insulated from market consideration because municipal employee unions lobby to keep themselves employed. Drivers, security guards, maintenance, dispatch operators, it’s all quite an operation, and an expensive one on so many levels. The excuse is always about environmental projection, helping the poorest of the poor, and so forth.
On and on the routes are made, only to become over-crowded at peak times. Exhaust is a menace. If they do any good at all economically it might be through having them wrapped in major motion picture advertisements. Other than the occasional relief from large conventions, sporting events, and the like, most rational folks are unable to justify the economic necessity of city bussing.
Part of the response to observable reality of un-use and worse has been alternative means of shuttling hoi polloi about cityscapes. One proposed answer involves scooters of the electric sort. A city contract for exclusive right to parcels or patches of local thoroughfares can yield exposure and a kind of network effect. X city gets positive publicity for their forward-looking, out-of-the-box innovative thinking, and the virus is instantly picked up by governments all over creation.
That does it. Soon every city in the country has a variation on that theme. And no one can tell if it’s a good idea because natural market mechanisms are not at play. This isn’t organic growth but rather social engineering on a scale politicians believed important for motives not always benevolent.
Good lord, if American municipal heads learn Europe has adopted anything near this idea for their cities, well, geeze, no one wants to be backward! What could possibly go wrong! Those savvy Euros know their stuff! Scooters have become a nightmare of theft, vandalism, noise pollution (alarms), and traffic accidents. Ugh.
One company taking advantage of the phenomenon is Bird, and it ticks all the right boxes for city planning goons. Billed as scooter-share (that word along makes local politicians cream) and dockless, it now has its electric motorized doo-hickies all over the globe, zigging in and out of traffic in something like 100 cities in the US alone. Time Magazine named it a Genius Company. What’s not to love.
Bird Flips Bird at Flipping Bird
Lifestyle tech site Boing Boing examined the idea briefly, and its principal author, Cory Doctorow, alerted readers to the growing notion Bird eyesores could be flipped. He cited hacker accounts of scores of abandoned Birds being rather easily swapped with a cheap converter kit from eBay.
It was a short and rather clever post, bringing attention to the issue without hitting it too much on the nose. Scooter litter can be your gain for 30 clams, a song. A personalized electric monstrosity all your own. Smash cut to Bird doing what all government-favored companies eventually do: harass anyone who so much as challenges their branding and stature. They went after Doctorow and Boing Boing, threatening infringement violations and so on.
Bird’s lawyer, Linda Kwak, insisted Doctorow and Boing Boing were “promoting the sale/use of an illegal product that is solely designed to circumvent the copyright protections of Bird’s proprietary technology, as described in greater detail below, as well as promoting illegal activity in general by encouraging the vandalism and misappropriation of Bird property,” demanding the offending post be taken down.
Doctorow and EFF Fight Back
Doctorow, as Bird was soon to find, is a key member of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), and he quickly did what any journalist does when threatened. He published the encounter in full view, and enlisted constitutional lawyers of his own to set the record straight.
“Our client has no obligation to, and will not, comply with your request to remove the article. Bird may not be pleased that the technology exists to modify the scooters that it deploys, but it should not make baseless legal threats to silence reporting on that technology,” EFF attorney Kit Walsh insisted.
The affair was picked up by news outlets far and wide, and the carefully crafted image of Bird as a cool, hip startup, appealing to tech savvy younger folk began to fade. They’d morphed from perhaps an interesting business model (electric scooter) into a typical, entitled arm of government thuggery — only say good things about us, always.
In truth, Doctorow was relaying public information freely available, and wasn’t even the primary source for the scooter hack. But often that’s all it takes for governments and companies with coffers filled with taxpayer money to flex. Bird probably figured if they could take Boing Boing down, the rest would follow — a chilling effect.
There’s nothing illegal about converting a scooter, and even if there is some crazy law somewhere, pointing to how it’s done isn’t illegal either. When hipsters found out one of their own was being bullied, Bird, ever the government business smarties, began to backstep, attempting to limit public relations damage.
“In the quest for curbing illegal activities related to our vehicles, our legal team overstretched and sent a takedown request related to the issue to a member of the media. This was our mistake and we apologize to Cory Doctorow,” a Bird company press release, not published on their site, came through email to any inquiry about the matter.
Open Source Crypto Developers are Being Hunted
Similar threats are endangering the very heart of cryptocurrency development and innovation, another example of the chilling effect. After the Bitcoin Cash upgrade scheduled for 15 November of last year, turning quickly into a chain split, a lawsuit suddenly appeared by a company no one had ever heard of. A creepy countdown (to what?) website was launched in conjunction, hoping to scare those associated with open source crypto development into submission. Subpoenas issued. One site and its heads promoting the lawsuit at every turn.
Speculation abounds, but rational people understand one side of the chain split spouts “government friendly” and threatens lawsuits and jail time for all who dare debate and question. There are even direct and shady Canadian connections. We all know who is behind it, and it isn’t anyone associated with Bitcoin Cash. But it’s from the playbook of rather loathsome characters in the ecosystem, making, for now, strange bedfellows with a newly forked coin struggling to stay in the top ten.
What’s clear from Bird and other suits is the need to not lay down, to not take it. The ecosystem should worry less about the plight of scooters or a ticker symbol, and more about the foundations of a free society.
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