Category Archives: Internet

For posts that deal primarily with online matters, internet culture, web2.0 and the like.

Return of the Bumbling Op

Following the icky Twitter argument posted about previously, a friend alerted me to a lot of subtweeting about me by some of the participants and their friends. I went and had a look, and—perhaps unwisely—stuck my finger back in the socket…

Seriously, I was actually thinking that it might be possible to engage in a discussion about my intentions, what went wrong, their criticisms—the whole thing. Not just the starting point—men talking about feminism—but also the tenor of their response and our discussion, how to address conflict and disagreement among potential allies. Given the tone of their subtweeted exchange, it didn’t seem likely, but I thought there was some potential for something positive. It didn’t happen.

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Twitter, Feminists, (M)Anarchists… and the problem of open discussion [updated]

I’ve seen a lot of posts on Twitter in recent months with a very particular view of identity politics, and on who can speak on particular topics, how and to whom. I haven’t felt comfortable with a lot of what I’ve seen—it seems to me narrow and limiting. Still, it’s a complicated topic, with a difficult history, and I think I understand at least some of the impulses that drive that particular take on identity politics.

But understanding the way an issue is discussed in women’s studies seminars is different from understanding how people see the issue more generally. And so when a particular tweet appeared in my feed, I tried to engage with the topic.

I start by saying that raising the issue may be like putting my finger in a light socket. That was a mistake. (A mistake to put it that way; if anything I underestimated what a shock the experience would be.) I should have been less defensive and more tentative. But in fact the person I tweeted to responded openly, and we were having what seemed to me a cordial and—at least for me—interesting and valuable exchange.

Then other people jumped in, and things turned very sour very quickly…
[I’m NewWorldInOurHearts in this discussion]

Queen Mikayla ‏@mikaylaesthetic 2h
Men: you cannot debate feminism with women, we’re fighting for humanity not discussing if we like crunchy or smooth peanut butter more

NewWorldInOurHearts ‏@annares 2h
@mikaylaesthetic@allshiny I’m going to foolishly stick my finger in this socket. So… No woman cld be wrong about feminism, and no man rt?

NewWorldInOurHearts ‏@annares 2h
@mikaylaesthetic@allshiny We could line up scores of instances of well-known women rejecting feminism. Could a man challenge them?

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New Forms of Hacktivism: Pinterest, Twitter and IFTTT

With the various successes – and antics – of hackers identifying as “Anonymous,” hacktivism is very much on people’s minds these days. I’ve written before about Hacktivism (here, here, and here). Hacking is widely associated with breaking into computer systems (illegal), and more recently also with various forms of modifying or altering physical objects, particularly electronics, to get them to do non-standard things.  But as Wikipedia makes clear, “hacktivism” is a more general concept than just activist-oriented hacking of these kinds:

Hacktivism (a portmanteau of hack and activism) is the use of computers and computer networks as a means of protest to promote political ends. The term was first coined in 1996 by a member of the Cult of the Dead Cow hacker collective named Omega. If hacking as “illegally breaking into computers” is assumed, then hacktivism could be defined as “the use of legal and/or illegal digital tools in pursuit of political ends”. These tools include web site defacements, redirects, denial-of-service attacks, information theft, web site parodies, virtual sit-ins, typosquatting and virtual sabotage. If hacking as “clever computer usage/programming” is assumed, then hacktivism could be understood as the writing of code to promote political ideology: promoting expressive politics, free speech, human rights, and information ethics through software development. Acts of hacktivism are carried out in the belief that proper use of code will be able to produce similar results to those produced by regular activism or civil disobedience. (via Hacktivism – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.)

I’ve been thinking about – and acting on – that wider definition of hacktivism as “the use of computers and computer networks as a means of protest to promote political ends” and I wanted to share with you some of my ideas and actions.

Pinterest seems to me to be, mostly, little more than a huge catalog with ads. Lots of images of things to buy; it’s no mistake that one of the default categories is “Products I Love”.  The whole category list is built primarily around selling and advertising. Where is the category for news? for politics or current events?

And of course a huge percentage of the pins are just pictures of products with links to where they can be bought.  When they aren’t essentially catalog entries (this beautiful dress, that pair of shoes), they are ads (“lose weight now”) or perhaps links to recipes; I haven’t followed that many pins as it gets depressing.  It’s like one big supermarket checkout magazine – though thankfully with fewer pictures of Jennifer Aniston and Kim Kardashian.

Admittedly, there is a growing trend of pining images of nature, art, inspirational quotes, humor and photography on Pinterest that is most welcome (unlike the persistent internet meme of “cute cats” which also has a growing pin presence), but I think we can do more with the site.  I think we can hack Pinterest – or at least engage in some hacktivism there.

Post pictures of Occupy protests. Make and post text images with facts on injustice and inequality, on the threat of climate change, on corruption, or with your favorite quotes from Malcolm X or Emma Goldman or Marx or Noami Wolf or Noam Chomsky.  Take pictures of your squat or community garden and start a Pinterest board called “Squats” or “Collectivism” or “A Better Way of Life” or “Another World is Possible.”

Make and “pin” composite photos showing slums on one side and Rodeo Drive on the other, or garbage dumps and Walmart, or a homeless person and a banker.  You get the idea.

Apart from its conspicuous consumption, Pinterest is also overwhelming white, middle-class, able bodied and heterosexual. Diversify!  The first time I posted an image of two women kissing, I got a complaining comment from a woman who said her granddaughter used the site and she didn’t want her exposed to things like that. Expose! Be there, be queer, help them get used to it.  Even Mitt Romney’s political advisers are backing down on the gay issue.

Twitter is also fertile ground for hacktivism of this sort. Recently, a progressive group posted a petition on one of those Change/Move/etc. petition sites concerning some minor reform at Domino’s Pizza. But even leaving aside how awful their pizza is, Domino’s is a nightmare.  The founder is notoriously anti-choice and anti-gay, and the company is now almost wholely owned by your friendly neighborhood vulture capitalists, Mitt Romney’s Bain Capital, which bought 93% of the company in 1998. And it is rabidly Republican:

The Domino’s Pizza political action committee gave $26,500 to federal candidates in the 05/06 election period – 0% to Democrats and 100% to Republicans. David A. Brandon, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Domino’s personally gave $37,265 to Republicans ($0 to Democrats) in this same period. (via Domino’s Pizza – SourceWatch.)

So rather than sign some no doubt well-intentioned petition to reform some aspect of this company, I went onto TweetDeck and created a quick list for any tweet mentioning Domino’s, and then replied to those tweets with my own, saying things like “Dominos is anti-choice, anti-gay and 100% Republican” and linking to the SourceWatch article.

In fact, one could automate this kind of hacktivist tweet – and other online / social media hactivist actions – through the new IFTTT service (“If This Then That”). Using something like this “recipe”, you could set up an automated response to tweets mentioning Domino’s, or whatever.  Set up a new target every day, or week.

If you can get a whole group on board, you might add some sort of hashtag hacktivism as well, and try to get something positive and/or provocative trending. Be creative. Would #JustinBeiberHatesDominos trend?  You’ll never know until you try.

The Revenge of SOPA/PIPA

Even as the SOPA and PIPA anti-piracy bills in the US Congress withered under a sustained barrage of criticism from internet companies, tech executives, free speech advocates and others, the Federal Government’s battle against online piracy and file sharing continued on other fronts.

In New Zealand, local authorities, acting on a US indictment, shut down the website of popular file sharing service MegaUpload on Thursday and arrested its senior staff, “accusing them of racketeering, money laundering and copyright infringement” (via Megaupload shutdown: guns, cars and cash seized in police swoop | guardian.co.uk).

Now another one of the major file sharing services, FileSonic seems to have gone offline:

So if you’ve been holding off on downloading the new Lady Gaga album for some reason, you might want to get it while the getting is still good.

Presumably these services or ones just like them will be up and running again soon, but in the meantime getting certain kinds of materials on the internet may be a bit more difficult than it has been.  Other than that, there will be some high profile prosecutions, some reputations will be made, some people will go to jail, some people will get rich (lawyers), some people will get poor (defendants), and… the music and movie industries will still be fucked and clueless.

For more…

Internet Ad Fail: Meg Whitman wants to “captcha” your vote

Over the weekend, I ran across a disturbing new trend in internet advertising – and a sign of just how big an advertising push Meg Whitman is making in her bid to get elected governor of California.

Anyone who has spent any real time on the internet in the past few years will know what a “captcha” is – one of those distorted images of words, which you are required to type in correctly to verify that you are, in fact, a human rather than some spambot trying to download something or register on some site or whatever.

Yesterday, for the first time ever, I saw a “captcha” that was also an advertisement, with the text one was required to type in being some of the text from the ad.  In this case, the ad was from Meg Whitman’s political campaign:

whitman-captcha.jpg

It’s easy to see how this will catch on. I assume that many if not most or all of the websites that currently use “captcha” technology to screen users pay some sort of fee for the widget.  The company behind this ad captcha widget probably provides it free of charge, and makes its money selling that space for advertising. So websites will be greatly tempted to use these ad captchas in place of the old ad-free ones.

This is not the only insidious newer form of internet advertising in which Meg Whitman popped up recently.  I use an RSS/net news reader (NetNewsWire for the Mac) to monitor syndication feeds from a large number of websites – from major commercial sites like The New York Times to smaller special interest blogs such as La Vida Locavore.  Many of these sites I read almost exclusively in this way, via their feeds – only visiting the actual website when a post grabs my attention and clearly has content that has not been included in the feed, or when I want to post a comment.

One such site that I follow is the progressive environmental site, Grist (“A beacon in the smog”). Perversely, last week Grist’s RSS feed regularly and apparently exclusively featured ads for Meg Whitman – whom I doubt many people at Grist support. It’s like opening your copy of The Nation and finding an ad for the NRA – something that would never happen in the “real world,” but is surprisingly common with online advertising, even with contextual advertising.

But if the pairing of Grist and Meg Whitman seems improbable and unfortunate, it is nothing compared to what I saw in their RSS feed today – ads touting the benefits of clean coal:

The mind reels…

Of course, Grist almost certainly has no control over which ads appear in their feed. The ads are served up by a company (Pheedo) with no input from them.  But what the perversity of the recent ads appearing in Grist’s feed demonstrates is how problematic such input-free advertising can be.  I doubt I’m the only one who was seriously put off by these ads – more than I would have been seeing them elsewhere.

Anonymity in Name Only – Tracking Technology on the Web – WSJ.com

From a single click on a web site, [x+1] correctly identified Carrie Isaac as a young Colorado Springs parent who lives on about $50,000 a year, shops at Wal-Mart and rents kids’ videos. The company deduced that Paul Boulifard, a Nashville architect, is childless, likes to travel and buys used cars. And [x+1] determined that Thomas Burney, a Colorado building contractor, is a skier with a college degree and looks like he has good credit.

via Anonymity in Name Only – Tracking Technology on the Web – WSJ.com.

I’m still reading through the collection of articles and ancillary material. I’m sure I’ll have something to say about all this soon.

Armchair Revolutionary

Armchair Revolutionary is a new social game with activities that support worldchanging science and technology projects.”

I signed up for the beta… I have absolutely no idea what this will involve – but I suspect it will not involve subverting authority, writing manifestos in garrets, publishing samizdat and revolutionary leaflets, organizing cells, etc., which is sort of what I was hoping for when I heard about a game called ‘Armchair Revolutionary.’

More from Penny Red

An ‘I’m Blogging This’ moment.: “Three riot vans screech up and police in yellow jackets pour out of the hatches like predatory lymphocytes to sterilise the dissent. They stream into formation and edge us back from the gates, politely for now, but extremely firmly. One young policeperson’s face is really close to mine as he shuffles us unseeingly back, and suddenly hey, I bloody know you, officer.

Last time I saw Officer X, he was wearing my underwear and a red velvet corset.”

After a teaser like that, how can you not read the rest?

On a somewhat related topic, Penny weighs in on what is apparently a fun new fad in the UK – slash fiction featuring the leaders of the two new governing parties, the Tories and LibDems…

Hey, geeks: NO.: “there are some times, some very rare, very sad times when constructing juicy stories about real or imagined homosexual angst between two powerful and/or fictional men IS NOT THE ANSWER. Now is one of those times. Because actually, it’s the people, not each other, that these men are quite possibly about to screw.”

For those of you of the non-geek persuasion, “slash” fiction is fan-written fiction that depicts sexual relations between pairs of characters – usually taken from pop culture (especially science fiction and fantasy on television) rather than the uncharted realms of British coalition governments. The origins of slash lie in fanzine fiction featuring intimate interactions between Kirk and Spock from Star Trek – shorthanded as Kirk/Spock and then K/S, hence the term slash, to refer to the separator between the names.

And finally, a sample of the pungent and pithy writing that makes Penny Red such a treat:

A Tory wet dream of women in politics: for Morning Star: “there’s nothing new about a Cabinet stuffed with rich, right-wing public schoolboys.”

We handed control of our social world to Facebook and they’re doing evil stuff!

xkcd: Infrastructures.

Openbook – Privacy, Stupidity and Hate Speech on Facebook


“Facebook helps you connect and share with the people in your life.
Whether you want to or not.”

Openbook is an online service that lets you quickly and easily search through public posts on Facebook. Even a few minutes playing with it will have you despairing for the future of America.

But Openbook has some positive uses – beyond revealing how appallingly lax and stupid so many people are about what they say in such a public forum. You can search on various derogatory terms and bits of hate speech, click over to the offending user’s profile, and then report them, using the Report/Block link along the left side.

It’s a very minimal form of cyberactivism, but something to do while stealing back your life from your bosses.

WikiLeaks and The Pentagon


(via Scratch! Media Cartoon Archive – International current affairs – 2010.)

Here’s another great piece by David Pope – editorial cartoonist at The Canberra Times, of whom I’ve written before. I missed this when it first came out – otherwise I would have posted it then – but it’s too good not to share. You can find this and other examples of his terrific style and incisive commentary at Scratch! Media.

Facebook – About Face

Everybody gets so much information all day long
that they lose their common sense.
~ Gertrude Stein

I know I said I was going to lay off FaceBook, but there’s just been so much going on…

FaceBook introduced a revamped interface a couple of days ago which seems cleaner and faster, but I for one miss some of the aspects of the old – in particular the avatars of my friends in the left side column. Maybe there’s a way to get them back, but I haven’t found it yet in my relatively minimal exploration.

What I did find in that exploration was distinctly unpleasant. When this most recent kerfuffle about privacy issues first began, I went into my profile and deleted a bunch of information – including all of my employment and most of my educational background – leaving in only what I thought was crucial for people to identify me as me.

So imagine my surprise when all of that deleted data turned up again as search criteria for looking for friends. All of it. So that data I deleted is still there for FaceBook’s use, and presumably for sharing through their new connections systems – it just isn’t visible in my profile.

Another big change recently was to the “likes” in the profile – the lists of books, films, and music we created as part of our profiles. Suddenly, those went from being text to links – linked to other FaceBook pages – and events started popping up on my home stream relating to those likes – info on upcoming concerts by musicians I’d mentioned, things like that.

I hadn’t put that information in to get spammed with ads in my stream. If I want info on upcoming Jonatha Brooke concerts – which I do – I can opt in to her email list, or befriend her on FaceBook (both of which I’d done). So I went into my profile and deleted all of my books, music and films.

I was a bit sad to see those lists go – they did a good job of fleshing out my profile, which is why I’d entered that info. I always knew it would be used for market research – and I was resigned to that as part of the price for a free FaceBook. But I never expected to get spammed with ads amidst the notes from my friends detailing the trials, tribulations and triumphs of their daily lives.

I’m not going to delete my FaceBook account. FaceBook is “too big to fail” – in the sense that it has become the de facto site for people like me to have a digital presence. (And my younger siblings and nephews are clearly going to stick with it – and I need to keep an eye on them.) And I will occasionally post info to it. But I am going to use it a lot less, and access it in different ways – through aggregator sites with more rigourous privacy policies – and I am not going to be updating my profile.

And I’m not going to be providing FaceBook with any more free content and unpaid market research that they will sell to whoever they want, keep as long as they want and use any way they want.

FaceBook Alternatives

In my previous post on FaceBook, I outlined a possible FaceBook alternative, based on open source ideas, a non-profit Wikipedia-like approach, and Creative Commons licensing ideas. Not surprisingly, others have been thinking along similar, and even more radical lines.

Two alternatives to FaceBook are in development – Diaspora, the one that’s been getting all the press recently, and OneSocialWeb, which has been around longer and is further ahead in development, but didn’t get written up by The New York Times and BBC.

What makes these projects more radical than what I outlined is also what makes them problematic: they are both conceived of as distributed software applications. People will have to run the applications on their own servers. The best analogy I can think of on the fly is with file-sharing. FaceBook is like going to a website (RapidShare, iTunes) to download music. It’s all there on the servers. These alternatives are like BitTorrent systems – the material is distributed among the individual users.

It’s obviously a better solution for all sorts of privacy and control reasons, and more robust in a technical sense (assuming it’s properly implemented). However, while such an approach is going to find favor with geeks, average users are not going to want to mess with setting it up, even if they have access to, or are willing to pay for, their own servers.

My 13-old nephew is not going to do this, nor is my dad. In fact, most of the people I interact with on FaceBook are not going to be willing to deal with this approach, no matter how put off they may be by FaceBook’s recent activities.

I like these proposals for the reasons I’ve already outlined, but I see a real danger here. If all the geeks who are concerned about privacy defect to one or another (both? a merger?) of these systems, FaceBook won’t even blink, and will continue as before, and our friends and family will have to suck it up.

But if there were an alternative that was as easy to use as FaceBook, we’d have a much better chance of encouraging sufficient defections to give the new system/network/site some legs, some momentum…

Ledes and links below…

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Facebook – The Good, The Bad and The Update

Everybody gets so much information all day long
that they lose their common sense.
~ Gertrude Stein

One last round up of recent headlines, ledes, blog posts and soundbites from around the internet on FaceBook… So many people – and influential websites – have jumped on the FaceBook is evil / where’s my privacy bandwagon now that I feel continuing to post collections of links and blurbs on the topic is unnecessary.

The blurbs and links are below the fold, but first I’d like to throw out some thoughts I’ve been having about a possible alternative to FaceBook, in very sketchy form…

OpenFace

Or perhaps “OpenBook” – an “open source” FaceBook-like social media application, developed under an open source / GPL license and released for general use. Anyone who wants to set up their own special interest – or even general – social media site can download the application, run it on their own server and invite people to join. I can see it replacing a lot of the forum and bulletin board sites around now. For example, a high school or university might set up an OpenFace site for the staff, students, faculty and community/parents, or a group of Doctor Who fans might create a site focusing on bringing fans together. Much in the way that Wikipedia has spawned a legion of small, specialized wikis (for schools, on Doctor Who, etc.)

And much like Wikipedia there would also be a major, general purpose site, “OpenFace” itself, designed to be a social network for everyone. To be, in short, what FaceBook is, an alternative to FaceBook.

But with some key differences. More emphasis on communication tools for individuals and groups. Less emphasis on structures for businesses and organizations. Specific functionality built-in to facilitate use by activist groups, non-profits, and the like. As with FaceBook, the core would be: profiles, microblogging, the construction of groups and networks, and person-to-person messaging. Other functionality – photo albums, chat, etc. – could be added in later.

Key would be the structures of ownership and accountability. The main “OpenFace” site would need to be run by a non-profit board with accountability to users.

All material produced by users as part of their accounts – their profiles, posts, comments, likes and dislikes – would be owned by them and “published” under some sort of Creative Commons license, which would allow its use in the various streams on OpenFace, and some third-party connections and applications, but prohibit reuse for commercial purposes. (Prohibit something like what happened with IMBd and Gracenote, where free user contributions formed the basis for private businesses with no profits to those original users/creators.) Users would also have the ability to expunge all their data at any time.

Bandwidth and storage are cheap. Not free, but cheap and getting cheaper all the time. The open source community represents a very large collection of terrific talent and generosity that is easily capable of developing an application like “OpenFace.” Developing and implementing something like OpenFace would not seem to be an impossible challenge.

The operating costs could be cobbled together perhaps in the ways that WikiPedia’s are. I can also see some sort of advertising being an acceptable compromise – probably not targeted or contextual advertising, which has some privacy issues. But general ads, and with some sort of payment scheme for ad free accounts, and with a long term goal of funding that would remove the need for ads.

Another aspect of “OpenFace” would probably need to be migration tools, that would allow users to transfer data from other systems – such as FaceBook, LinkedIn and Google – to OpenFace, but again that seems fairly trivial. And perhaps also tools that would allow linkages with FaceBook during a transition period, republishing items from OpenFace to FaceBook accounts – allowing users switching to OpenFace to maintain contact with their FaceBooks friends. Though I would imagine FaceBook might object to that.

Along the same lines, a current key trend in social media is aggregation sites – sites that pull together streams from, eg, Twitter, FaceBook, LinkedIn, etc., with your email accounts and other more private sources. OpenFace could build aggregation tools in from the beginning, making it both more powerful and more appealing. Particularly given its robust privacy tools and commitments.

Initially, OpenFace would attract a small but interesting group of users. People put off by FaceBook’s hegemonic aims or its disrespect for privacy. People who are committed to notions of open source and “information wants to be free.” It would be a self-selected crowd with a particular social streak – a target “audience” that would appeal to groups that are now active on FaceBook – non-profits like Medicin Sans Frontier and Planned Parenthood, companies like Demotix, and media outlets like AlterNet.

As more and more users and businesses joined OpenFace, it would develop momentum, in the same way that FaceBook has, and start attracting a general crowd.

At which point the issue of commercial enterprises would have to be considered. Consider Peet’s Coffee. I like Peet’s Coffee. I have been a loyal and enthusiastic Peet’s customer since the original Peet’s opened in Berkeley. But on FaceBook, being a friend of Peet’s simply means getting ads from them inserted into my stream. Do I need or want that?

Obviously, users on OpenFace would have the ability to opt in to such things, or opt out, as they do on FaceBook (or did; today all sorts of ads started popping up on my FaceBook home, reflecting all the books, movies and music I had listed in my profile: I didn’t sign up for that, and spent some time culling most of the obviously “monetizable” entries from my bio). But even so, would we really want to allow blatant advertising equal time in our streams?

Maybe there could be rules restricting the kind of content companies and groups could post in people’s streams. For instance, GreenPeace could post about an issue having to do with whaling, but couldn’t post an ad for its new calendar. I can see how that would be hard to work out, but not impossible.

It might mean that initially most purely commercial enterprises – like Peet’s – wouldn’t be interested in having a presence on OpenFace. But once the user base was large enough, they might feel compelled to join. And that might provide part of the funding picture. In the same way that Craigslist only charges fees for a limited number of uses – posting job and sex ads – OpenFace might require fees from, say, all commercial, for-profit entities, with a fee scale of some sort so that a local bookstore, corner coffee house or neighborhood restaurant would pay little or nothing, whereas Starbucks, Borders and Chevron would have to pay a very great deal indeed.

I want to stress again that these are very preliminary thoughts – but maybe they will help to get a conversation going about what sort of society we want to see evolving on the internet. And whether it will be a genuine “public sphere” in bits and bytes, an online agora, or something more like chatting in the food court at the mall, under the surveillance cams.

Now, on to the links and blurbs…
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Facebook’s “Evil Interfaces” – Just a Phase(Book)?

Everybody gets so much information all day long
that they lose their common sense.
~ Gertrude Stein

A few more squibs on FaceBook…

Facebook’s “Evil Interfaces”: “An anonymous reader writes ‘Tim Jones over at the EFF’s Deep Links Blog just posted an interesting article on the widespread use of deceptive interface techniques on the Web. He began by polling his Twitter and Facebook audience for an appropriate term for this condition and received responses like ‘Bait-and-Click’ and ‘Zuckerpunched.’ Ultimately, he chose ‘Evil Interfaces’ from Greg Conti’s HOPE talk on malicious interface design and follow-up interview with media-savvy puppet Weena. Tim then goes on to dissect Facebook (with pictures). So, what evil interfaces have you encountered on (or off) the Web?'”

(via Slashdot.)

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And while we’re on the topic of Computers and Privacy…

The Surveillance Self-Defense Project: “The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has created this Surveillance Self-Defense site to educate the American public about the law and technology of government surveillance in the United States, providing the information and tools necessary to evaluate the threat of surveillance and take appropriate steps to defend against it.”