Political Action

Illinois Advances “Right to Know” Digital Privacy Bills

Deep Links - Mon, 05/22/2017 - 20:06

EFF supports Illinois legislation (SB 1502 and HB 2774) that would empower people who visit commercial websites and online services to learn what personal information the site and service operators collected from them, and which third parties the operators shared it with. EFF has long supported such “right to know” legislation, which requires company transparency and thereby advances digital privacy.

As we explain in our support letter:

Many operators of commercial websites and online services collect from their visitors a tremendous amount of highly personal information. This can include facts about our health, finances, location, politics, religion, sexual orientation, and shopping. Many operators share this information with third parties, including advertisers and data brokers. This information has great financial value, so pressure to collect and share it will continue to grow.

This is a profound threat to our privacy. We live more and more of our lives online. The aggregation of our myriad clicks can turn our lives into open books. Our sensitive personal information, pooled into ever-larger reservoirs, can be sold to the highest bidder, stolen by criminals, and seized by government investigators.

Many people would like to protect their own privacy, by making informed choices about which websites and online services to visit. Some sites and services are more respectful of visitors’ privacy, and others are less so.

But all too often, such attempts at privacy self-help are stymied by the lack of available information about what personal information a website is collecting and sharing.

SB 1502 and HB 2774 would even the playing field. They would ensure that people can obtain the information they need to make fact-based decisions about where they want to spend their time online.

These bills would not restrict how any website or online service gathers or shares information. Operators can keep doing exactly what they are doing – they just have to be more transparent about it.

 In April, the Illinois Senate passed SB 1502, and the Illinois House Committee on Cybersecurity passed HB 2774. We thank the lead legislative sponsors, Sen. Michael Hastings and Rep. Arthur Turner. We also thank the bills’ proponents, including the ACLU of Illinois, the Digital Privacy Alliance, the Illinois Attorney General, Illinois PIRG, the Office of the Cook County Sheriff, and the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse.

Read EFF’s full letter to the Illinois legislature.

Categories: Political Action

New Twitter Policy Abandons a Longstanding Privacy Pledge

Deep Links - Mon, 05/22/2017 - 19:50

Twitter plans to roll out a new privacy policy on June 18, and, with it, is promising to roll back its longstanding commitment to obey the Do Not Track (DNT) browser privacy setting. Instead, the company is switching to the Digital Advertising Alliance's toothless and broken self-regulatory program. At the same time, the company is taking the opportunity to introduce a new tracking option and two new targeting options, all of which are set to “track and target” by default. These are not the actions of a company that respects people’s privacy choices.

Twitter implements various methods of tracking, but one of the biggest is the use of Tweet buttons, Follow buttons, and embedded Tweets to record much of your browsing history. When you visit a page that contains one of these, your browser make a request to Twitter’s servers. That request contains a header that tells Twitter which web site you visited. By setting a unique cookie, Twitter can build a profile of your browsing history, even if you aren’t a Twitter user. When Twitter rolled out this tracking, it was the first major social network to do so; at the time, Facebook and Google+ were careful not to use their social widgets for tracking, due to privacy concerns. Twitter sweetened their new tracking initiative for privacy-aware Internet users by offering Do Not Track support. However, when the other social networks quietly followed in Twitter's footsteps, they decided to ignore Do Not Track.

Now, Twitter proposes to abandon the Do Not Track standard and use the “WebChoices” tool, part of self-regulatory program of the Digital Advertising Alliance (DAA). This program is toothless because the only choice it allows users is to opt out of “customizing ads,” when most people actually want to opt out of tracking. Many DAA participants, including Twitter, continue to collect your information even if you opt-out, but will hide that fact by only showing you untargeted ads. This is similar to asking someone to stop openly eavesdropping on your conversation, only to watch them hide behind a curtain and keep listening.

Also, WebChoices is broken; it’s incompatible with other privacy tools, and it requires constant vigilance in order to use. It relies on setting a third-party opt-out cookie on 131 different advertising sites. But doing this is incompatible with one of the most basic browser privacy settings: disabling third party cookies. Even if you allow third party cookies, your opt-out only lasts until the next time you clear cookies, another common user strategy for protecting online privacy. And new advertising sites are created all the time. When the 132nd site is added to WebChoices, you need to go back and repeat your opt-out, which, unless you follow the advertising press, you won’t know to do.

These problems with DAA's program are why Do Not Track exists. It’s simple, compatible with other privacy measures, and works across browsers.

Twitter knows the difference between a real opt-out and a fake one: for years, it has implemented DNT as a true "stop tracking" option, and you can still choose that option under the "Data" section of Twitter's settings, whether you are a Twitter user or not. However, if you use the new DAA opt-out that Twitter plans to offer instead of DNT, the company will treat that as a fake opt-out: Twitter keeps tracking, but won't show you ads based on it.

What can you do as an individual to protect yourself against Twitter's tracking? First, follow our guide to disable the settings. Second, install Privacy Badger, EFF's browser extension that, in addition to setting DNT, attempts to automatically detect and block third-party tracking behavior. Privacy Badger also specifically replaces some social network widgets with non-tracking static versions.

Twitter is taking a big step backwards for user privacy by abandoning Do Not Track. The company should draft a new privacy policy before June 18 that keeps DNT support, and treats both DNT and the DAA opt-out as a true "stop tracking" option.

Categories: Political Action

Supreme Court Ends Texas’ Grip On Patent Cases

Deep Links - Mon, 05/22/2017 - 17:48

Today the Supreme Court issued a decision that will have a massive impact on patent troll litigation. In TC Heartland v. Kraft Foods, the court ruled that patent owners can sue corporate defendants only in districts where the defendant is incorporated or has committed acts of infringement and has a regular and established place of business. This means that patent trolls can no longer drag companies to distant and inconvenient forums that favor patent owners but have little connection to the dispute. Most significantly, it will be much harder for trolls to sue in the Eastern District of Texas.

For more than ten years, patent troll litigation has clustered in the Eastern District of Texas (EDTX). Patent trolls began to flock there when a judge created local patent rules that were perceived as friendly to patent owners. The court required discovery to start almost right away and did very little to limit costs (which were borne much more heavily by operating companies because they have more documents). Cases also tended not to be decided by summary judgment and went to trial more quickly.

These changes led to a stunning rise in patent trolling in EDTX. In 1999, only 14 patent cases were filed in the district. By 2003, the number of filings had grown to 55. By 2015, it had exploded to over 2500 patent suits, mostly filed by trolls. Patent litigation grew so much in EDTX that it became part of the local economy. In addition to providing work for the local lawyers, it generated business for the hotels, restaurants, and printers in towns like Marshall and Tyler.

Although the TC Heartland case will have a big impact on EDTX, the case involved a suit filed in the District of Delaware and the legal question was one of statutory interpretation. Prior to 1990, the Supreme Court had held that in patent cases, the statute found at 28 U.S.C. § 1400 controlled where a patent case could be filed. However, in 1990 in a case called VE Holding, the Federal Circuit held that a small technical amendment to another venue statute—28 U.S.C. § 1391—effectively overruled that line of cases. VE Holding meant that companies that sold products nationwide can be sued in any federal court in the country on charges of patent infringement, regardless of how tenuous the connection to that court. Today’s decision overrules VE Holding and restores venue law to how it was: corporate patent defendants can only be sued where they are incorporated or where they allegedly infringe the patent and have a regular and established place of business.

Together with Public Knowledge, we filed an amicus brief urging the Supreme Court to hear this case, and once it did, another brief urging it to overrule VE Holding. We explained that venue law is concerned with fairness and that forum shopping in patent cases has had very unfair results, especially in EDTX. While the Supreme Court reached the result we hoped for, the court did not discuss these policy issues (it also showed little interest in the policy debate during the oral argument in the case). The court approached the case as a pure question of statutory interpretation and ruled 8-0 that the more specific statute, 28 U.S.C. § 1400, controls where a patent case can be filed.

While today’s decision is a big blow for patent trolls, it is not a panacea. Patent trolls with weak cases can, of course, still file elsewhere. The ruling will likely lead to a big growth in patent litigation in the District of Delaware where many companies are incorporated. And it does not address the root cause of patent trolling: the thousands of overbroad and vague software patents that the Patent Office issues every year. We will still need to fight for broader patent reform and defend good decisions like the Supreme Court’s 2014 ruling in Alice v CLS Bank.

Related Cases: TC Heartland v. Kraft Foods
Categories: Political Action

Online Censorship and User Notification: Lessons from Thailand

Deep Links - Mon, 05/22/2017 - 01:36

For governments interested in suppressing information online, the old methods of direct censorship are getting less and less effective.

Over the past month, the Thai government has made escalating attempts to suppress critical information online. In the last week, faced with an embarrassing video of the Thai King, the government ordered Facebook to geoblock over 300 pages on the platform and even threatened to shut Facebook down in the country. This is on top of last month's announcement that the government had banned any online interaction with three individuals: two academics and one journalist, all three of whom are political exiles and prominent critics of the state. And just today, law enforcement representatives described their efforts to target those who simply view—not even create or share—content critical of the monarchy and the government.

The Thai government has several methods at its own disposal to directly block large volumes of content. It could, as it has in the past, pressure ISPs to block websites. It could also hijack domain name queries, making sites harder to access. So why is it negotiating with Facebook instead of just blocking the offending pages itself? And what are Facebook’s responsibilities to users when this happens?

HTTPS and Mixed-Use Social Media Sites

The answer is, in part, HTTPS. When HTTPS encrypts your browsing, it doesn’t just protect the contents of the communication between your browser and the websites you visit. It also protects the specific pages on those sites, preventing censors from seeing and blocking anything “after the slash” in a URL. This means that if a sensitive video of the King shows up on a website, government censors can’t identify and block only the pages on which it appears. In an HTTPS world that makes such granularized censorship impossible, the government’s only direct censorship option is to block the site entirely.

That might still leave the government with tenable censorship options if critical speech and dissenting activity only happened on certain sites, like devoted blogs or message boards. A government could try to get away with blocking such sites wholesale without disrupting users outside a certain targeted political sphere.

But all sorts of user-generated content—from calls to revolution to cat pictures—are converging on social media websites like Facebook, which members of every political party use and rely on. This brings us to the second part of the answer as to why the government can’t censor like it used to: mixed-use social media sites. When content is both HTTPS-encrypted and on a mixed-use social media site like Facebook, it can be too politically expensive to block the whole site. Instead, the only option left is pressuring Facebook to do targeted blocking at the government’s request.

Government Requests for Social Media Censorship

Government requests for targeted blocking happen when something is compliant with Facebook’s community guidelines, but not with a country’s domestic law. This comes to a head when social media platforms have large user bases in repressive, censorious states—a dynamic that certainly applies in Thailand, where a military dictatorship shares its capital city with a dense population of Facebook power-users and one of the most Instagrammed locations on earth.

In Thailand, the video of the King in question violated the country’s overbroad lese majeste defamation laws against in any way insulting or criticizing the monarchy. So the Thai government requested that Facebook remove it—along with hundreds of other pieces of content—on legal grounds, and made an ultimately empty threat to shut down the platform in Thailand if Facebook did not comply.

Facebook did comply and geoblock over 100 URLs for which it received warrants from the Thai government. This may not be surprising; although the government is likely not going to block Facebook entirely, they still have other ways to go after the company, including threatening any in-country staff. Indeed, Facebook put itself in a vulnerable position when it inexplicably opened a Bangkok office during high political tensions after the 2014 military coup.

Platforms’ Responsibility to Users

If companies like Facebook do comply with government demands to remove content, these decisions must be transparent to their users and the general public. Otherwise, Facebook's compliance transforms its role from a victim of censorship, to a company pressured to act as a government censor. The stakes are high, especially in unstable political environments like Thailand. There, the targets of takedown requests can often be  journalists, activists, and dissidents, and requests to take down their content or block their pages often serve as an ominous prelude to further action or targeting.

With that in mind, Facebook and other companies responding to government requests must provide the fullest legally permissible notice to users whenever possible. This means timely, informative notifications, on the record, that give users information like what branch of government requested to take down their content, on what legal grounds, and when the request was made.

Facebook seems to be getting better at this, at least in Thailand. When journalist Andrew MacGregor Marshall had content of his geoblocked in January, he did not receive consistent notice. Worse, the page that his readers in Thailand saw when they tried to access his post implied that the block was an error, not a deliberate act of government-mandated removal.

More recently, however, we have been happy to see evidence of Facebook providing more detailed notices to users, like this notice that exiled dissident Dr. Somsak Jeamteerasakul received and then shared online:

In an ideal world, timely and informative user notice can help power the Streisand effect: that is, the dynamic in which attempts to suppress information actually backfire and draw more attention to it than ever before. (And that’s certainly what’s happening with the video of the King, which has garnered countless international media headlines.) With details, users are in a better position to appeal to Facebook directly as well as draw public attention to government targeting and censorship, ultimately making this kind of censorship a self-defeating exercise for the government.

In an HTTP environment where governments can passively spy on and filter Internet content, individual pages could disappear behind obscure and misleading error messages. Moving to an increasingly HTTPS-secured world means that if social media companies are transparent about the pressure they face, we may gain some visibility into government censorship. However, if they comply without informing creators or readers of blocked content, we could find ourselves in a much worse situation. Without transparency, tech giants could misuse their power not only to silence vulnerable speakers, but also to obscure how that censorship takes place—and who demanded it.

Have you had your content or account removed from a social media platform? At EFF, we’ve been shining a light on the expanse and breadth of content removal on social media platforms with OnlineCensorship.org, where we and our partners at Visualising Impact collect your stories about content and account deletions. Share your story here.

Categories: Political Action

Trump anoints the duke of vote suppression

Socialist Worker - Mon, 05/22/2017 - 01:00

When Donald Trump chose the head of a new Commission on Election Integrity, he picked a man who knows a lot about how votes are stolen, writes Ryan de Laureal.

Donald Trump and Kansas Secretary of State Chris Kobach

THE REPUBLICANS know a thing or two about "election integrity."

Whether it's redrawing the map of districts in states they control to ensure their opponents always lose or Jeb Bush helping his brother win the presidency in 2000 by purging thousands of minority voters from the rolls--wherever "election integrity" is an issue, you'll find the GOP.

But of all the party's racist villains, one stands out from all the rest in terms of his dedication to the task of "safeguarding" the country's electoral process: Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach.

So when Trump decided on May 11, via executive order, to create a so-called Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity, in an attempt to legitimize his baseless claim that he only lost the popular vote in November because 3 to 5 million people voted illegally, it was only natural that Kobach would be picked to lead it.

As to the details of the committee, there isn't much else to know about it. Even the most mainstream political voices have seen straight through it as a shallow attempt by Trump, as the New York Times put it, "to commandeer the machinery of the federal government to justify his own falsehoods."

It will be staffed by Kobach, Vice President Mike Pence and a handful of other "experts," who will "study the registration and voting processes used in federal elections" and make recommendations to "enhance the American people's confidence" in the electoral process.

This includes, of course, the Republicans' favorite cover for their party's racist assault on voting rights: identifying "those laws, rules, policies, activities, strategies and practices that undermine" election integrity, as well as "vulnerabilities in voting systems and practices used for federal elections that could lead to improper voter registrations and improper voting, including fraudulent voter registrations and fraudulent voting."

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IN CASE there was any doubt about the real intent of such a commission, we should take a closer look at the guy who will be in charge.

Kris Kobach has been called the most racist politician in the country, and he is indeed preeminent in a number of ways.

He spent years as a lawyer for anti-immigrant racists, has spoken at white supremacist conferences and helped author a number of state laws of similar ideological character--the most notorious being Arizona's Senate Bill (SB) 1070, the "show me your papers" law, which passed in 2010 and is now largely blocked after lawsuits from civil rights groups.

As written, SB 1070 would allow police free rein to racially profile and detain anybody they suspect of being undocumented, without evidence or a warrant. It also places steep penalties on anybody who knowingly employs an undocumented worker and mandates that all employers in the state participate in the federal E-Verify program in order to render undocumented workers ineligible for work.

Kobach is the only secretary of state in the country with the power to prosecute people who are accused of violating the state's election laws, a power that Kansas Republicans granted him in 2015.

But Kobach's consummate achievement has been the proliferation of a program that has achieved a much wider impact, the crown jewel of mass voter purging schemes: Interstate Crosscheck.

Like Jeb Bush's purge of "felons" from the Florida voting rolls during the 2000 election, which mismatched names and wrongfully purged as many as 12,000 people--a disproportionate number of them African American--from voter registration lists, the Crosscheck program is racist by design and has so far nullified the registration of hundreds of thousands of voters in multiple states.

Crosscheck works by comparing voter registration lists from different states in order to find supposed "double voters" who are registered in more than one location. However, state officials regularly ignore key identifiers such as middle names, Social Security numbers and dates of birth, wrongfully purging people based on first and last name matches only.

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SO JUST how extensive is the GOP's conspiracy of fraudulent voters? Kobach and others lie to say that they just want to deal with "facts" and impartially investigate the extent of voter fraud.

But every investigation that has been made into the matter so far has shown that the fraudulent voting they complain about is virtually nonexistent.

Kobach himself has a pretty anemic track record when it comes to catching fraudulent voters. Since he was granted prosecutorial power as Kansas' secretary of state, he has convicted a total of nine people for illegally voting in the state. Of these, only one was a noncitizen, who was caught after they attempted to apply for U.S. citizenship and were found to already be on the voter rolls.

There were 1,817,920 people registered to vote in Kansas for the 2016 election, according to official state statistics--so Kobach's fraudsters, citizen or noncitizen, so far represent around 0.0004 percent of the state's potential voters.

At that rate, Kobach will catch all 3 to 5 million of Trump's so-called "illegal voters" in about 1 million years.

In North Carolina, an extensive audit of the 2016 election found that 508 ineligible votes were cast in the state, out of a total of 4,769,640. As the Charlotte Observer noted, "About 87 percent of those (441) were felons who voted. State law prohibits felons from voting until their sentence is fully served, including probation and parole. It is believed that many of the felons who voted did not realize they could not vote while on probation."

Additionally, "the probe found 41 non-citizens, from 28 countries, voted. All were here legally, but were not eligible to vote. The audit also found 24 cases of double-voting and two cases of voter impersonation (one by mail and one in person)."

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DESPITE THE infrequency of actual voter fraud, Republicans like Trump and Kobach will use any example they can dig up as an excuse to push through more racist laws, even when these laws have proven to be more effective at suppressing minority voters than at stopping any instances of actual fraud.

We need look no further than North Carolina's voter ID law for an example. After the Supreme Court gutted the 1965 Voting Rights Act in 2013, allowing Southern states to pass racist voting restrictions without federal oversight, the North Carolina Republican Party concocted a voter ID law that they claimed would protect the integrity of the state's elections.

The law was recently struck down after lawsuits from the state NAACP, when a panel of judges on the Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found that the law was intentionally designed to discriminate against African Americans.

The court's ruling noted that "the state has failed to identify even a single individual who has ever been charged with committing in-person voter fraud in North Carolina," while ignoring "evidence of alleged cases of mail-in absentee voter fraud" perpetrated, not by African Americans, but "disproportionately" by whites.

And according to North Carolina's own audit, of all those 508 ineligible votes that were cast, only "one (1) would probably have been avoided with a voter ID law. One out of nearly 4.8 million," according to the court.

This is the racist face of the Republicans' "concern" over voter fraud.

Categories: Political Action

Resistance in the face of a regime crackdown

Socialist Worker - Mon, 05/22/2017 - 01:00

Sherry Wolf, author of Sexuality and Socialism: History, Politics and Theory of LGBT Liberation, was invited to speak in Turkey at an LGBTQ conference. Here, she describes the intensifying repression that she witnessed on her visit--along with the brave protests against an increasingly authoritarian regime.

Hunger strikers Nuriye Gülmen (left) and Semih Özakça (Sherry Wolf | SW)

SINCE LAST summer's failed coup attempt in Turkey, the state under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been intent on revoking further basic democratic norms in order to shut down all political opposition.

The ongoing state of emergency includes a purge that has left nearly 140,000 civil servants fired, more than 4,000 judges and prosecutors dismissed, 50,000 people jailed, more than 8,000 academics sacked, hundreds of journalists arrested and dozens of media outlets shut down.

When I visited Ankara, Turkey's capital, in mid-May at the invitation of the LGBTQ journal Kaos GL, I encountered a society in transition to authoritarianism. One fired professor of Women and Gender Studies at Ankara University explained:

The rules change every day--every hour, really. You don't know what to expect, whether you'll be left alone or bashed over the head and hauled into jail. I'm 50, and my career is over. Most of us who were terminated had our passports taken, so we can't even leave the country to work elsewhere. It's Kafkaesque.

That sentiment was echoed among many of the students, professors, journalists and civil society activists I spoke with during my brief visit. Some wondered whether Kaos GL's 12th annual queer gathering, featuring socialist author Peter Drucker and myself, would even be allowed to take place.

Turkey's relative openness to LGBTQ expression, especially in cosmopolitan centers, stands out in the region, but it is in question right now, along with other expressions of dissent.

In 2014, more than 100,000 marched in Istanbul Pride--the following year, police fired tear gas at marchers and revoked permission for the demonstration, claiming it coincided with Ramadan. Since 2016, Pride has been banned because of "security concerns."

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THE SHIFTING political climate was palpable the evening I spoke at the conference.

Other attendees and I joined hundreds of people at a nightclub that could be mistaken for any bar and dance club in New York or London. Alcohol flowed freely, and we danced to a techno version of the Eurythmics--until 2 a.m., when police arrived and demanded that the bar owners cut the music. The music stopped for 20 minutes, the police left--and lesbian and gay couples resumed dancing and drinking.

When I asked what was going on, my companion shrugged and replied: "Queer state of emergency."

The next day, I went to the central square in Ankara to meet two fired academics on the 67th day of a hunger strike to demand their jobs back. As of this writing, research assistant Nuriye Gülmen and elementary school teacher Semih Özakça, who have not eaten since March 9, are both extremely weakened, but defiant. Gülman told me:

We will not end the hunger strike until the authorities fulfill our expectations. There is nationwide support for the protest that just the two of us sparked. I have experienced health problems, but I will not yield to the darkness and oppression. I have faith that I will regain my rights and job. I am incredibly happy for such support rallying around us.

In fact, each afternoon, the two arrive at the square for a demonstration in front of a human rights monument. They are accompanied by hundreds of solidarity activists who must pass through cordons of well-armed police, carrying shields, wearing helmets and staring menacingly at chanting protesters.

Emre, a political science student, explained that police periodically charge into the crowd of solidarity activists, but each day, the protest resumes, recorded by iPhones and witnessed by hundreds of passing tourists and shoppers.

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NEWS ABOUT Turkey in the U.S. most recently focused on the Turkish president's visit to Washington, D.C., when Donald Trump rebuffed Erdoğan's request to end all aid and collaboration with a group of Kurdish fighters in Syria.

After their meeting at the White House, Erdoğan's security forces in Washington brutally beat peaceful protesters as he looked on passively. Claiming diplomatic immunity, none of the guards who assaulted the Kurdish protesters will be charged with a crime.

The Kurdish minority in Turkey is violently repressed. Over the last two years, thousands more have been killed and imprisoned, and more than 500,000 have been displaced in the eastern part of the country.

Many of the dismissed Turkish academics are signatories to an Academics for Peace solidarity petition with the Kurds.

Turkey, which shares a border with war-torn Syria, is also home to more than 3 million Syrian refugees, whom the European Union powers are desperate to keep out. That calculation is never far from mind as Western governments relate to Erdoğan's increasingly authoritarian state.

In April, Turkish referendum, essentially giving Turks a vote on whether to extend dictatorial powers to

Erdoğan claimed , a narrow victory on a referendum to give the presidency sweeping new powers. Reports of brazen vote fraud sparked nightly protests after the April 16--it was lost on no one that the regime still nearly lost despite stuffing the ballot boxes.

A statement by Turkish socialists described the government's campaign:

Religious discourse, nationalist rhetoric, anti-Western populism based on conspiracy theories which were brilliant in their imbecility...everything was done to stigmatize the defenders of a "no" vote. Despite this, even according to the results declared by the regime, the vote was won by a margin of only 1.3 million out of 80 million people.

Turkish leftists and civil society generally seem caught between the growing authoritarianism of the state and the terrorism of ISIS, which has targeted cosmopolitan centers with recent bombings, killing friends and family members of several of the activists I met.

They need and want solidarity from the West.

And we in the U.S., facing intensified repression of our own, have to learn from the Turkish experience of how the state manipulates nationalism, religion and terror to divide, frighten and blunt resistance--and yet the struggle still continues.

Categories: Political Action

The Tories aren't invulnerable

Socialist Worker - Mon, 05/22/2017 - 01:00

In April, British Prime Minister Theresa May dissolved parliament and called for snap elections on June 8, gambling that the move would result in a larger Conservative Party majority and give her increased leverage in the upcoming negotiations over the “Brexit” from the European Union. But in an article published at revolutionary socialism in the 21st century, Charlie Hore argues that the decision to call for the election reflects both strengths and weaknesses--and that understanding both will be crucial for how activists should organize after the vote.

British Prime Minister Theresa May (left) inspects officer cadets at the Royal Military Academy (Jay Allen | flickr)

THE TORIES have several major weaknesses. With a small majority, the government was vulnerable to backbench revolts, as the sudden U-turn over National Insurance rates showed. More importantly, they faced the exceptionally difficult task of negotiating a Brexit deal with the European Union (EU), with next to no bargaining power, with the EU not minded to do the UK any favors, within a very tight timetable, with no agreed agenda...Donald Rumsfeld's famous "unknown unknowns--what we don't know we don't know" comes forcibly to mind.

Economically, many of their supporters have enjoyed a relatively benign climate in recent years, with low inflation, low fuel prices and low mortgage rates. But this now seems to be ending--the world economy as a whole is slowing down, but Brexit will make the impact considerably worse.

Most immediately, over 20 Tories were facing possible prosecution for expenses offences in 2015. This last probably explains the otherwise odd timing--a general election a month after council elections doesn't really make sense, unless there is a pressing need. And it worked--to no one's great surprise, the Crown Prosecution Service have now decided that while there was evidence of inaccurate spending returns, it did not "meet the test" for further action.

The strengths are obvious, unfortunately. The Tories are massively ahead in the opinion polls, a standing first confirmed by the Copeland and Stoke by-elections (Labour held Stoke because the Tory vote held up and didn't go to the UK Independence Party, or UKIP), and then by the May council and mayoral elections.

There were exceptions to the trend, but overall the Tories won more seats than expected. In England and Wales they seem to have hoovered up much of the UKIP base, with Labour unexpectedly losing key contests. (See here for more analysis of the local elections).

Those losses have further highlighted one of the Tories' greatest assets--the huge divisions in Labour over Jeremy Corbyn's leadership. It's clear that numbers of former MPs would prefer to lose this election, to allow them to finally ditch him. One has already said he would not vote for Corbyn as prime minister, while others are leaving him out of campaign literature.

That attitude also explains the particularly harsh attacks in the media. It's not so much that the Tory press has got much worse, more that the rest of the media have amplified the attacks on Corbyn and his team emanating from the Labour right.

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AS THE cliché goes, there is a mountain to climb. In 2015, the Tories got a narrow majority with 38 percent of the vote to Labour's 31 percent. The latest polls consistently show the Tories higher than that and Labour lower. To win an outright majority, Labour would have to win over 100 seats, a 50 percent increase. It means overturning Tory (and the occasional Scottish National Party [SNP]) majorities of 6,500. That's the size of the mountain.

But mountains can be climbed. I grew up in an area that was seen as eternally, irredeemably Tory. Labour won the seat in the 1997 landslide, and held it until 2010--and earlier this month some 700 people turned out for an open-air meeting with Corbyn at a day's notice! So it's not impossible. The question is rather whether the Labour Party can climb that mountain, or whether there can be a movement of members from below that can force them to climb it.

Theresa May has gone for a populist and very personalized approach--nationalist, anti-immigration, pro-Brexit and pro-defense--presenting herself as the "strong and stable" leader defending "us" against foreigners, while playing to every backward-looking prejudice going.

Nigel Farage had a point when he complained:

I led [the UK Independence Party] four years ago in those county council elections in England, on a manifesto of bringing back grammar schools, getting Britain outside the European Union, controlling immigration and helping small businesses...four years on, the British prime minister was running on exactly the same ticket and swept the board.

It is weird to see a sitting government trying to tap into populist discontent with the system.

It's weirder still to see it working. There's no question that May's populism plays well with the core Tory electorate, and with former UKIP voters. Her personal popularity seems to stem from the fact that Tory voters see her as "one of them," unlike Cameron, who clearly wasn't. As one recent profile put it: "May gives a strong impression of liking her wider electorate, or at least having no desire to judge them by any standards other than their own."

But the core Tory electorate is a minority--disproportionately old, white, rural, small town and suburban. Unfortunately, they are also the ones most likely to vote--in part because 40 years of neoliberalism have corroded belief in collective solutions, but also because it is the young that have been most deprived of a voice by the shift to the right in social democracy.

Changing the outcome on June 8 depends above all on getting people who have previously not voted to first register and then vote--but that in turn depends on there being something worth voting for. The old anarchist slogan "Whoever you vote for, the government gets in" has never seemed truer than in recent years.

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CORBYN'S POLICY pledges offer a real difference to the austerity of the last seven years, and if Labour can mount an activist campaign in the same spirit as his leadership campaigns, then it could be possible to turn the Tory tide. We have to be alive for local initiatives that will allow activists to tap into that spirit, whether it's direct campaigning for Corbyn or voter registration.

But we cannot simply be uncritical supporters, and we need to avoid falling into Labour tribalism or pretending that everything is rosy. If despair is our enemy, so too is mindless optimism.

Scotland is the clearest example of why this approach is necessary. The independence campaign did more than anything since Stop the War to build mass grassroots political organization which could appeal to those most alienated from official politics. With a few honorable exceptions, Labour in Scotland turned its back on this and has stressed its support for the union--and Corbyn and his supporters have consistently echoed that. When you get the only Labour MP in Scotland calling for tactical voting against the SNP, it becomes very difficult to make a case for voting Labour in Scotland.

More widely, we have to be honest about the ways in which Corbyn and those around him have conceded to the right both on policy and organization. If Labour loses the election, it will be because the right failed to deliver a campaign that could enthuse, and Labour councils have time and again turned on the people who elected them. But it will also be because the left did not take the best opportunity in decades to stand up to them.

We also have to look to the more fundamental revolutionary arguments about how change really happens, and how even the most determined reformist governments cannot sustain a decisive challenge to capital, because real power is not found in parliament.

But we have to make all of those arguments as part of campaigns against the Tories that draw in Corbyn supporters and other activists, whether over housing, education, health or the immediate fight to get rid of the Tories. Corbyn expresses a fundamental truth about class society when he says that, "If I were Southern Rail or Philip Green, I'd be worried about a Labour government. If I were Mike Ashley or the CEO of a tax-avoiding multinational corporation, I'd want to see a Tory victory."

Whether we will get to test his assertion that "a Labour government elected on June 8 won't play by their rules" is another matter, but it's a useful reminder that the rules are there to keep us down--and that we only win when we break them.

First published at rs21.org.uk.

Categories: Political Action

Are Zuma's days numbered?

Socialist Worker - Mon, 05/22/2017 - 01:00

Patrick Bond, co-editor of BRICS: An Anti-Capitalist Critique, analyzes what's behind growing popular anger at the South African government headed by Jacob Zuma and the African National Congress (ANC), in an article published in the Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal in late April.

Protests erupt in South Africa against President Jacob Zuma

ON SOUTH Africa's political left, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) party dominated recent news by leading a mass march on President Jacob Zuma's office in Pretoria, following a government power shift seen as amplifying corruption. The move also catalyzed a "junk" rating by two neoliberal credit ratings agencies. And an impeachment process on the immediate horizon represents the first real parliamentary threat to Zuma's eight-year reign.

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"Whitelash" or working-class blacklash?

The downgrade of state debt to junk status by two German officials at Fitch and Standard & Poor's was as explicitly a political act as bankers dare commit. It was a reaction to Zuma's dramatic midnight cabinet reshuffle on March 30, when 20 ministers and deputy ministers were fired or shifted, including Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan and his deputy Mcebisi Jonas (both former leftists turned neoliberal). Having held the line against welfare spending and also resisted the most extreme manifestations of corruption that characterize South Africa's state-capital nexus, their departure was deemed catastrophic by the mainstream media. The value of the local currency, the rand, fell from R12.3/$ to R14/$ in the immediate aftermath, and interest rates the state must pay for 10-year bonds rose to third highest among the 60 main economies.

This stung the middle class, and on April 7, protests by an estimated 60,000 outraged--and disproportionately white--critics of Zuma in a half-dozen cities gave the president an opening. Having watched mass protests against Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff in 2013 shift from anti-austerity (against public transport price hikes) into generalized dissent soon hijacked by right-wing elites leading to her (illegitimate) 2016 congressional impeachment, Zuma has periodically condemned the "West" for trying to overthrow the BRICS bloc (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa).

In an April 10 speech memorializing Chris Hani--the South African Communist Party (SACP) leader assassinated in 1993 by a white Polish immigrant--Zuma played the race card:

There is a resurgence of racism in our country. It is also clear that racists have become more emboldened. The marches that took place last week demonstrated that racism is real and exists in our country. Many placards and posters displayed beliefs that we thought had been buried in 1994, with some posters depicting Black people as baboons. It is clear that some of our white compatriots regard Black people as being lesser human beings or subhuman. The racist onslaught has become more direct and is no longer hidden as was the case in the early years of our constitutional democratic order. Racists no longer fear being caught or exposed. In the fight to combat racism, we should look beyond only overt racist utterances and public displays that we saw during the marches last week. We should also look at the ideological and institutional machinations that continue to give racism more traction. Racism is a gross violation of human rights and plunged this country into decades of conflict in the past. We cannot allow and assist racists to take our country backwards.

Indeed, there is no doubt that at least one profound problem with the recent "whitelash" against Zuma is its class character. Even though the poor--who number more than 60 percent of the population and are nearly all Black--have been most adversely affected by his policies, while the top 1 percent have maintained the worst inequality in the world, it is in Zuma's looting of parastatal agency coffers that established white businesses feel threatened. The electricity supplier Eskom is most often cited, potentially for a $100 billion Russian nuclear deal which Gordhan had opposed. There are also unending mining-related Eskom boondoggles that favor a new breed of coal capitalists, especially the controversial Gupta brothers. The three Indian immigrants are regularly accused of brazen "state capture," for example, in a long critique by EFF deputy leader Floyd Shivambu.

In the first wave of resistance, on April 7, the main public face of the "Save South Africa" movement coordinating the protests was Sipho Pityana. But the firm he chairs--AngloGold Ashanti--is among apartheid's most notorious. Its origins date back a century, to Harry Oppenheimer's control of Johannesburg gold in the same tradition as De Beers' founder Cecil John Rhodes. AngloGold is still headquartered in Johannesburg--unlike De Beers and others in the Anglo stable, which has progressively moved to Europe, beginning in 1990 when democracy dawned--but has operations across the world. In Colombia last month, 98 percent of the residents in a mountain village voted against the firm's proposed $35 billion open-cast gold mine (the world's largest), and yet Anglo aims to bulldoze ahead. In Ghana, AngloGold controversies include using the army to retake control over a major mine guilty of massive pollution and cutting power supplies to communities, while in South Africa, Anglo is appealing against a lawsuit it lost providing compensation payments to more than 4,300 silicosis and TB victims.

Leaving anti-Zuma politics under the leadership of Pityana was dangerous, and so it was heartening that on April 12, the march to Zuma's Pretoria office by more than 50,000 (mainly Black) protesters linked up the parliamentary opposition--from the EFF to Pan-Africanists on the left to the center-right Democratic Alliance and a few smaller parties--in a well-disciplined, joyous and formidable show of EFF organizing force, reflected in the vast bulk of marchers wearing its red T-shirts.

Early next month, these parties will reconvene in Cape Town for a parliamentary no-confidence debate on Zuma's presidency. He has survived eight prior votes but if the Constitutional Court agrees with the opposition, this one may be held by secret ballot. If so, 50 of the ruling party's 250 members of parliament may be persuaded to vote against Zuma, leading to his replacement by either the deputy president or speaker of the parliament.

As political conflict grows more heated than at any point since 1994, an already stagnant economy is now teetering. Even if the credit rating agencies' biases and competence should be questioned, investors are likely to soon begin a "run on the bank" similar to 1985 when apartheid leader P.W. Botha's crazed "Rubicon Speech" catalyzed a new round of financial sanctions by Western banks. Botha was compelled to default on a $13 billion debt and impose exchange controls, as the foreign debt to GDP ratio hit 40 percent. Today it is nearly 50 percent.

The Zuma defense is to proclaim a long-overdue era of redistribution, racial justice and what is officially termed "radical economic transformation," but which essentially means greater Black capitalist participation in state procurement contracts. This is the renewed rhetoric of many African National Congress (ANC) ideologues, and was also the promise of Gordhan's replacement as Finance Minister, Malusi Gigaba, the day after he assumed office: April Fool's Day.

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"Zupta" White Elephant Breeding

Similar false promises of transformative infrastructure left society disappointed during Gigaba's 2010-14 role as Minister of State Enterprises (in between he was a controversial Home Affairs minister). The mega-project mania he endorsed included:

--Eskom's corrupt (and now unnecessary) Medupi and Kusile coal-fired power plants, as well as its desired 1 trillion rand in nuclear plants apparently pre-contracted (vendor-liability-free) from Moscow's Rosatom;

--Transnet's climate-frying plans to facilitate a $57 billion rail line to export 18 billion tons of coal from Limpopo, Mpumalanga and KwaZulu-Natal, and an $18 billion Durban port-petrochemical expansion;

--PetroSA's proposed $5.7 billion Mthombo heavy oil refinery; and

--2010 World Cup stadia now recognized (even by local organizer Danny Jordaan) as white elephants after initial assurance they would not be--though thankfully Gordhan's last act as Finance Minister was to halt the ridiculous $450 million Durban 2022 Commonwealth Games.

Sports mega-events aside, these are mainly foibles of state-owned enterprises, yet Gordhan gave them $49 billion in state loan guarantees. The associated liabilities as well as the failed Sanral e-tolling and failing SAA "turnaround" (and around) were the second reason--after political hijinks--for S&P's junk label.

Moreover, Gigaba's alleged close ties to the Gupta brothers are drawing attacks from leftist leaders of the EFF and SACP who lambasted the "Zupta" state capture of the presidency. Additional worry is expressed by business publisher Peter Bruce that "with the Treasury in their pockets, watch the Guptas and the Zumas and their coterie of hangers-on go for the Reserve Bank...it was Gigaba who formally switched on the state capture project for them when, on June 8, 2011, he revealed to a cabinet meeting his plans to replace the chairmen and boards of Transnet, Eskom and Denel, among others, immediately. Many of the new board members were Gupta proxies and they quickly took control of the procurement operations of the boards they sat on."

Since Zuma will not reverse either the cabinet reshuffle or his patronage tendencies, tighter exchange controls are the only way to prevent debilitating raiding of the currency once the next junk rating is registered in June by Moody's. Sygnia's Magda Wierzycka cites Citibank's World Government Bond Index as critical: "If our rand-denominated debt is rated as junk by S&P and Moody's, South Africa will be dropped from the index. Immediately on that happening, approximately $10 billion will flow out of the country."

The SA Reserve Bank will then be tempted to rapidly raise interest rates to restore financial inflows. The record was in mid-1998 when the Bank hiked rates 7 percent within two weeks during a currency crash from R7/$ to R10/$. The rand's recent peak of R6.3/$ occurred in 2011 during Gordhan's first term as finance minister, coinciding with the commodity super-cycle. At its trough 14 months ago, a raid by Goldman Sachs pushed the currency to R17.9/$, before strengthening to R12.3/$ more recently.

Such volatility needs curing. To deter financial predators and gain the space to lower interest rates, stronger exchange controls could be applied. By all accounts, the requirement that institutional investors retain 75 percent of assets in domestic markets saved South Africa during the 2008 financial meltdown. Foreign financiers are a fickle group. To illustrate, on April 3, French bank Société Générale actually increased its rand assets in search of high interest rates. Currently only two countries are paying more on 10-year government bonds than South Africa (8.9 percent): Venezuela and Brazil. With rates that high, financial markets are buoyed by speculative "hot money." Since 2014, both the private and state sectors have lowered fixed investment dramatically. So in response to S&P's downgrade, Treasury was only partially correct to stress the need for "reducing reliance on foreign savings to fund investment."

True, with very high foreign debt ($145 billion), it is critical to reduce vulnerability to foreign finance, as the 1920-40s economist John Maynard Keynes warned. Moreover, when private capitalists delay new investment due to high interest rates and overcapacity, Keynes suggested lowering rates and increasing state spending.

However, judging by his record of corrupt patronage, if Zuma's new team abandons fiscal austerity, the additional money would likely not be spent wisely. In any case, Gigaba has committed to continuing the austerity drive, to lower the 2019 budget deficit to 2.6 percent of GDP: "I will work within the fiscal framework as agreed by government and parliament. There will not be any reckless decisions." That means Treasury will tighten a budget already suffering real (after-inflation) cuts in social spending, including lower social grants going to the poorest. But there remains a chance that Zuma will go for broke with expanded state borrowing, leaving the main task ahead a renewal of ideological debate over how, sensibly and without corruption, to protect the currency and kick-start the economy.

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South African Federation of Trade Unions

On April 21-23, another left force entered the debate: the South African Federation of Trade Unions (SAFTU), which will have support from 680,000 workers in 21 unions, especially the country's largest and most anti-Zuma, the metalworkers union NUMSA. Led by Zwelinzima Vavi, the highest-profile working-class leader, the launch of the new federation could soon challenge the existing Congress of South African Trade Unions, COSATU (with 1.5 million members) for labor movement dominance. If SAFTU becomes the main force for the left within civil society and links with an EFF capable of maintaining its momentum in parliament (where it holds 25 seats) and the arena of public protest, the choice society faces will no longer boil down to a slanging match of elites--Zuptas or neoliberals--but can expand to encompass the majority's interests, at long last.

First published in the Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal.

Categories: Political Action

Reckless Incompetence

Democratic Convention Watch - Sun, 05/21/2017 - 17:51

For the past two weeks, almost every day has produced a stunning revelation about the current Administration.  By this point, it is crystal clear that the Liar-in-Chief is completely clueless about the many responsibilities of his job and simply does not care.  He is going to proceed full speed ahead — hoping that determination and arrogance will make up for any deficiencies in his knowledge about policy issues or protocol.

Most democracies have some institutional procedures that keep individuals from rising to the top of the government without sufficient experience in politics and government to assure a basic knowledge of how things work.   In a parliamentary system, the leaders of the major parties tend to have served several terms before becoming leader of their party.  Additionally, the leaders tend to have served on the leadership teams of their parties (having responsibility for several different policy areas including at least one major area) before running for and winning their party’s top spots.  In addition, there are procedures in place that allow a party to remove (albeit with some difficulty) a leader who is not doing a good job as prime minister.

Unfortunately for the U.S., our Constitution predates the modern era of parliamentary democracy.  Our framers did have the same type of concerns that have animated modern parliamentary government, but the development of national politics have undermined the procedures created by the framers.  The electoral college was supposed to assure a minimum level of competence in the presidency.  The thought behind the original language in Article II (two votes per elector, no more than one of which could be from the elector’s state) was that each elector would cast one vote for one of the leading politicians in that state and one vote for a politician with a  national reputation.  Barring a clearly obvious national candidate, no candidate would get a national majority and the House would pick between the top candidates.  This scheme depended upon the framers’ belief that politics would stay state-based and that the different state parties would not get together with similar groups from other states to from a national party that would be able to get electors in multiple states to support a national ticket.  That has left the burden on the parties to devise systems of choosing leaders that ensures competence in their presidential candidates, and — as the current incumbent shows — the Republican Party rules have failed in that regards.

Similarly, the framers’ desire for separation of powers narrowed the ability of Congress to remove a president.  While there are some political aspects to the removal process, the framers required the House to draw up articles of impeachment specifying the reasons for seeking the removal of the president with those reasons limited to “high crimes and misdemeanors.”  Then that removal has to be supported by two-thirds of the Senate after a formal trial-like hearing.  Requiring members of the House and members of the Senate to officially find that a president of their own party has committed the types of acts supporting removal is asking a lot.  Perhaps for that reason, no president has ever been impeached except when the House is controlled by the other party.  In the two cases in which the opposing party has impeached the president, there has not been enough votes in the Senate for removal.  By contrast, three of the last five prime ministers in the United Kingdom gained that position after their parties dumped the leader who won the election during the middle of the term.  Given this difficult removal process, it is unlikely that President Trump will be impeached despite his gross incompetence as emphasized by the events of the past two weeks.

And the past two weeks has revealed Trump’s gross incompetence.  At the top of his sins is his disclosure of intelligence to Russia.  It’s not that the president does not have the authority to make that disclosure.  It’s that the disclosure was criminally stupid.  It is one thing to disclose information that you have gained yourself.  It is another thing to disclose information that another country has shared with you on the understanding that further disclosure is restricted.  In this case, apparently, the source of the intelligence was an Israeli asset in Syria.  Needless to say, Israel does not have good relations with Syria.  It is important to Israel that the Assad government does not know who is spying for Israel in Syria.  Given the fact that Putin supports Assad, telling Russia that you have information from an asset in a particular city makes it likely that Syria will be looking for that asset.  Given that Mossad has done a much better job of placing spies in Arab countries than we have, burning a Mossad asset is not good for future cooperation.  (There will be some because Israel needs us more than we need them, but things work better when Israel believes that they can trust us to respect their needs.)

Another area of concern is, of course, the removal of Director Comey.  Again, a president does have the authority to remove the FBI director.  If President Trump were actually concerned about the competence of Director Comey or simply wanted a different general direction for the FBI, such a decision was within his authority.  President Trump’s own statements and the implication of some of the leaks reveal that President Trump’s problem with Comey was not the general priorities of the FBI.  Instead, it is that the FBI is investigating — as it should — whether the Trump campaign (or individuals associated with the Trump campaign) engaged in inappropriate contacts with the Russian government.   Trump may not like it, but the evidence is pretty clear that individuals connected to the Russian government violated U.S.  law by hacking into computers belonging to the DNC and various campaigns (including the Clinton and Rubio campaigns) and stealing information.  If individuals associated with his campaign aided or encouraged these efforts or the disclosure of stolen information, then they also committed crimes.  In addition, it is pretty clear that both one of his campaign managers (Paul Manafort) and his original National Security Advisor (Michael Flynn) violated federal law related to lobbying for foreign governments.   While President Trump may not like the political fallout that he may suffer from his failure to realize the significance of these problems or adequately investigate their  backgrounds when he decided to hire these people, that is not a valid reason for removing Director Comey.

A word of caution is appropriate here, now that there is a special counsel to supervise this investigation.  While President Trump’s actions approach the level of obstruction of justice, it is not clear that they actually cross that threshold.  Similarly, while there is circumstantial evidence that the Trump campaign was aware that Russia had stolen information from the DNC and the Clinton campaign, it is not clear that anybody colluded in that theft or the ultimate disclosure of that information.  And it is unclear that Manafort or Flynn did anything improper on behalf of Russia or Turkey other than failing to adequately disclose that they had been hired to lobby on behalf of those two countries.  In other words, there is certainly enough here to warrant an investigation, but the conclusion of that investigation may merely show incompetence rather than criminal malice.  Mere incompetence has not been a basis for impeachment in the past.  While some activists may wish for impeachment (but do we really want a competent ultra-conservative as President), the public at large would not react well to impeachment if not supported by strong evidence of clear criminal conduct connected to the performance of the duties of the office.

The bigger concern, at least in the short run, is what this reckless incompetence means for the country.  The Trump Administration is already having problems filling many appointed positions that a president must fill.   Four months in, Trump has only nominated people for approximately 80 of the 500 or so executive branch positions (not counting ambassadors or local U.S. Attorneys or U.S.  Marshals) that need to be filled.  A continued appearance of chaos and incompetence at the top will not encourage people to step up for these positions.   While service in the lower tiers of appointed positions in one administration is typically a stepping stone for service in higher tiers when your party is next in power, Trump does not appear to be drawing that much on the Bush 43 administration.  Furthermore, if things continue as they have, it does not appear that service in this administration will be a positive item on the resume for the next Republican administration twelve or sixteen years from now.  And if competent people are not chosen (or decline the offer), then more chaos will follow.

A competent Republican administration is not a good thing; it will miss opportunities to make life better for all because it’s priorities are wrong.  But an incompetent Republican administration is worse; it will screw up even the simple things and put us more at risk because it does not know how to do the simple things.  This Administration may be even worse than that because the President seems to believe that he is competent when it is clear to everyone else that he is not.  The recklessness that comes from his exaggerated opinion of his own abilities is a threat to everyone.  In the short-term, all that we can do to stop it is begin preparing for the mid-terms.  The important reality check in the U.S. is that most of what a president wants to do needs congressional approval.  And President Trump is giving us a golden opportunity to regain the House (or at the very least making the House so close that the Republicans will not be able to afford any defections from either the dwindling handful of reasonable Republicans or the much larger number on the wacky fringe that wants to go even further than President Trump is willing to go).

Categories: Political Action

No Hunting Undocumented Immigrants with Stingrays

Deep Links - Fri, 05/19/2017 - 19:51

In the latest sign of mission creep in domestic deployment of battlefield-strength surveillance technology, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) earlier this year used a cell site simulator (CSS) to locate and arrest an undocumented immigrant, according to a report yesterday by The Detroit News.

CSSs, often called IMSI catchers or Stingrays, masquerade as cell phone towers and trick our phones into connecting to them so police can track down a target. EFF has long opposed CSSs. They are a form of mass surveillance, forcing the phones of countless innocent people to disclose information to the police, in violation of the Fourth Amendment. They disrupt cellular communications, including 911 calls. They are deployed disproportionately within communities of color and poorer neighborhoods. They exploit vulnerabilities in the cellular communication system that government should fix instead of exploit.

Police said they needed CSSs to fight terrorism. Instead, police use CSSs to locate low-level offenders, such as a suspect who stole $60 of food from a restaurant delivery employee.

Now we fear that ICE may be routinely using CSSs to hunt down people whose only offense is to unlawfully enter or remain in the United States. ICE has spent over $10 million to purchase 59 CSSs, according to a recent Congressional report. In the first quarter of 2017, ICE arrested nearly 11,000 undocumented immigrants with no criminal record, more than double the number from the first quarter of 2016. And yesterday, The Detroit News reported that ICE used a CSS to locate and arrest an undocumented immigrant.

It is good news that ICE obtained a warrant before using its CSS to find this immigrant, in accordance with a change in DHS and DOJ policies in 2015. It is also a welcome sign that a bipartisan Congressional report in December 2016 called for federal legislation requiring a warrant for CSS use by law enforcement. But a warrant alone is not enough.

If permitted at all, government use of CSSs should be strictly limited to addressing serious violent crime. Few law enforcement spying technologies are a greater threat to digital liberty: by their very nature, CSSs seize information from all of the people who happen to be nearby. So government should be barred, for example, from using CSSs to hunt down traffic scofflaws, petty thieves, and undocumented immigrants.

Notably, the federal eavesdropping statute limits police use of that surveillance technology to certain enumerated crimes. Because CSSs conduct general searches, any such enumeration for CSSs must be even narrower, and limited to serious violent crimes.

Finally, if government is allowed to use CSSs, there must be other safeguards, too. Government should be limited to using CSSs to acquire location information, and forbidden from using CSSs for other purposes, such as acquiring communications content. An Illinois statute enacted in 2016 contains this limit. Also, government should be required to minimize the capture of information from people who are not the target of investigation, and to immediately destroy all data that does not identify the target. A U.S. Magistrate Judge’s order in 2015 contains this limit.

Too often, government deploys powerful spying technologies against vulnerable groups of people, including immigrant communities, as well as racial, ethnic, and religious minorities. EFF has long opposed this. We thus oppose using CSSs to hunt down undocumented immigrants, or anyone else who is not a serious violent threat to public safety.

Categories: Political Action

How to Opt Out of Twitter's New Privacy Settings

Deep Links - Fri, 05/19/2017 - 19:50

Since Wednesday night, Twitter users have been greeted by a pop-up notice about Twitter’s new privacy policy, which will come into effect June 18:

Contrary to the inviting “Sounds good” button to accept the new policy and get to tweeting, the changes Twitter has made around user tracking and data personalization do not sound good for user privacy. For example, the company will now record and store non-EU users’ off-Twitter web browsing history for up to 30 days, up from 10 days in the previous policy.

Worst of all, the “control over your data” promised by the pop-up is on an opt-out basis, giving users choices only after Twitter has set their privacy settings to invasive defaults.

Instead, concerned users have to click “Review settings” to opt out of Twitter’s new mechanisms for user tracking. That will bring you to the “Personalization and Data” section of your settings. Here, you can pick and choose the personalization, data collection, and data sharing you will allow—or, click “Disable all” in the top-right corner to opt out entirely.

If you already clicked through the privacy policy pop-up, you can still go into your settings to make these changes. After navigating to your settings, choose “Privacy and safety” on the left, and then click “Edit” next to “Personalization and data.”

While you’re at it, this is also a good opportunity to review, edit, and/or remove the data Twitter has collected on you in the past by going to the “Your Twitter data” section of your settings.

Twitter has stated that these granular settings are intended to replace Twitter’s reliance on Do Not Track. However, replacing a standard cross-platform choice with new, complex options buried in the settings is not a fair trade. Although “more granular” privacy settings sound like an improvement, they lose their meaning when they are set to privacy-invasive selections by default. Adding new tracking options that users are opted into by default suggests that Twitter cares more about collecting data than respecting users’ choice.

Categories: Political Action

Can Humpty Trumpty be put together again?

Socialist Worker - Fri, 05/19/2017 - 01:00

The Trump White House is swirling further downward with every passing day--but what will it take to get to the final flush, ask Danny Katch and Alan Maass?

DONALD TRUMP'S firing of FBI Director James Comey last week unleashed a legal and political crisis that has intensified with one bombshell revelation after another about his abuses of power and megalomania.

With the Justice Department appointing a special prosecutor to investigate Trump--over the objections of the Tweeter-in-Chief, who had the gall to claim he's the victim of "the single greatest witch hunt in American history"--the once-farfetched idea that Trump might not last a full term in office now seems at least a closer possibility.

Don't expect Trump's downfall by the end of the month, even if the White House doesn't reverse the momentum running against it. In fact, don't discount a Trump rebound if his handlers can somehow rein him in. Trump's main adversary in the internal Washington power struggle is the law enforcement and intelligence services bureaucracy, which more than anything else wants a return to the status quo.

But the Trump administration has unraveled to a spectacular degree in the period of just one week, and it won't be so easy to put Humpty Trumpty back in working order.

The implications of that go far beyond Washington.

For starters, millions of people are taking pleasure in watching someone they despise singlehandedly wreck his presidency. But the man being exposed as a corrupt ignoramus and pathological liar, who thinks laws are for everyone else but him, is the leader of the "world's greatest democracy."

Masses of people are disgusted by Trump, but their eyes are being opened wider about the system that spawned him.

Or at least they can be. There's a danger that those masses of people will stay spectators--looking on as the battle plays out within the narrow limits of mainstream politics.

The opposition to Trump--which began with sometimes historically large protests demanding women's equality, justice for refugees, an end to anti-immigrant terror, action for climate justice and more--can't be allowed to narrow to the most conservative possible challenge: Anonymous leaks from intelligence officials questioning Trump's patriotism and ability to keep state secrets.

But there is an opportunity for those dedicated to building a resistance--to project a political alternative to the wider system and a right-wing agenda that's far bigger than Trump alone, and to connect layers of people outraged by Trump's crimes and misdemeanors to the many concrete struggles against scapegoating, repression and austerity.

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THE LAST week has produced one stranger-than-fiction moment after another.

One day after he fired the head of the FBI in blatant retaliation for investigating his presidential campaign's ties to Russia, Trump held a meeting in the Oval Office with...the Russian foreign minister and ambassador. Not only that, but Trump barred the U.S. media from the meeting--and allowed a photographer from the TASS news agency owned by the Russian government.

And that's not all: Unnamed "current and former U.S. officials" told the Washington Post that Trump had "revealed highly classified information" in the closed meeting--which turned out to be a report from Israeli intelligence alleging an ISIS plot to blow up airplanes with bombs that can be hidden inside electronic devices.

Trump's National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster flatly denied the Post claim--and then Trump tweeted that he could reveal any intelligence he wanted to whoever he wanted. By the end of this week, White House advisers were desperate to avoid making any comments in defense of the administration--for fear their boss's itchy Twitter fingers would contradict them.

Meanwhile, the whole Russians-in-the-Oval-Office circus raised the question of whether we're supposed to trust the word of the most dishonest administration ever or anonymous allegations from intelligence agencies whose mission includes lying to shape public opinion.

But probably the biggest bombshell of all was the news that Comey had written a memo to fellow FBI officials after the White House meeting where Trump apparently asked him to end the FBI's investigation of McMaster's predecessor, Michael Flynn, into whether he lied about his contacts with Russian officials during the campaign.

Now, Republicans in Congress who were trying to ignore the scandal were forced to ask Comey to testify in Senate hearings. And inside Trump's Department of Justice, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein announced that former FBI Director Robert Mueller would be brought in to oversee the investigation into the White House.

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WHAT HAPPENS next is just as unpredictable as the events of the past week.

But whether the machinery of impeachment is dusted off or the right kind of pressure starts building on Trump to resign or his administration stumbles along in an extended state of paralysis, one rule of American politics to bear in mind is that the course of Washington scandals is driven not by legalities, but politics.

The Watergate scandal that brought down Richard Nixon began with a 1972 break-in at Democratic Party national headquarters in the Watergate hotel in Washington, which was ultimately traced to operatives of the Nixon re-election campaign. Criminal behavior, yes--but Nixon paid a price because of the pressures building up in society, most importantly, the anti-Vietnam War movement.

Plenty of presidents have been responsible for more serious crimes than a break-in, but didn't have to resign. On the contrary, they were celebrated.

Until this last week, the Republican Party establishment--representing the interests of much of the U.S. ruling class--was prepared to work with Trump because he could front for their reactionary agenda, including a tax plan to transfer massive sums of money into their bank accounts.

They might hate Trump for taking over their party, but enough other people liked him, despite his historic unpopularity, to elect him president, which is more than any other Republican could say.

That's why Republicans at first pathetically tried to downplay Trump's firing of Comey, an outrageous obstruction of justice by any measure. Now, there's talk of a special prosecutor, congressional hearings and even impeachment. But the real question for the GOP isn't whether Trump broke the law, but whether he's still an asset or has become a liability in looting the country.

So has he become a liability? No one should forget the crimes that the Trump administration continues to commit, despite the fevered pitch of scandal.

On Wednesday alone, the Department of Homeland hired the notoriously anti-immigrant Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke, and the Washington Post reported that Betsy DeVos' Education Department budget will call for cutting college work-study programs in half and eliminating public-service loan forgiveness in order to transfer billions into school privatization schemes.

Plus, certain parts of the establishment have a stake in seeing the administration carry on with minimal disruption--for example, a collection of military brass, hawkish foreign policy "experts" and military contractors representing a program for a more aggressive U.S. military.

But on the big-ticket items that Wall Street and Corporate America are drooling over, like the massive tax cut theft, Trump looks more and more like a distraction, which could fuel attempts--subtle and not-so-subtle--to get him out of the picture.

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BUT THE main opposition to the Trump White House right now isn't coming from Republicans, but the apparatchiks of the national security state.

The constant leaks to the media from the FBI or intelligence agencies are feeding the mounting revelations of White House wrongdoing--but often on a very narrow basis.

Consider that one of the week's high-profile revelations was that Trump revealed top-secret intelligence from the Israeli spy apparatus to the Russian foreign minister and ambassador at their Oval Office meeting.

That information alleging an ISIS terrorism plot was apparently the basis for a ban on laptops in carry-on luggage on flights from the Middle East, which might soon be expanded to flights from Europe. But this has only added to the mountain of discriminatory policies directed at all Muslims and Arabs--including Trump's failed ban on travel by the citizens of a half-dozen Muslim-majority countries.

Because this "intelligence" now figures in an allegation apparently exposing Trump's irresponsibility, a lot of people who should know better accept it at face value--even though the dangers of exaggerating the threat of terrorism are well-documented, whether in the form of routine Islamophobia practiced at airports or the series of high-profile "terrorism" busts based on entrapment.

If opposition to Trump is reduced to rooting for him to be brought down by any scandal at all, then the tendency will be to side with the national security state when its anonymous mouthpieces charge him with the same violations of government secrecy that were used to send Chelsea Manning to a military prison she is finally free of this week.

The enemy of our enemy is not necessarily a friend. On Thursday, the Nation magazine ran an article on the "Four reasons Robert Mueller is an ideal special counsel."

Really? Robert Mueller is bathing in bipartisan praise today as a "legendary G-man" man who will doggedly pursue justice, but we remember him as a top-ranking "warrior on terror" during the George W. Bush administration.

Mueller stood alongside Attorney General John Ashcroft as they spread fear--on the flimsiest of pretexts, if any at all--of imminent terrorist attacks that never materialized, and he is centrally responsible for the persecution of tens of thousands of Arabs and Muslims rounded up for questioning or detained on trumped-up charges.

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PREDICTABLY, MUELLER was welcomed with open arms by the so-called opposition party in Washington.

From the start--and in contrast to the mass protests against Trump that began the day after he took the oath of office--the Democrats have mainly emphasized Trump's alleged connections to Russia. As Lance Selfa wrote for SocialistWorker.org:

Liberals are worried about the undue influence of Putin-connected Russian oligarchs on Trump. But it might have made more sense to point out how his cabinet is filled with made-in-the-USA oligarchs...

Given the choice between trying to mount a real opposition to the Trump agenda and fuming about Trump being Moscow's man in Washington, it appears that Democrats have opted for the latter--and so have the liberals who tail them.

Now that there is blood in the water, the Democrats are coordinating all their efforts with the goal of winning back control of Congress in the 2018 midterm elections. But beyond the fact that people losing loved ones to deportation and facing massive health care cuts can't afford to wait almost two years, the Democrats' strategy isn't actually working.

A Gallup Poll released this week showed that the Democrats--despite a catastrophic crisis for Trump--dropped five percentage points in their favorability rating, to 40 percent, almost identical to Trump's Republicans.

The problem isn't that more people are rallying around Trump--whose popularity continues to be incredibly low for a new president--but that support for the Democrats among their own voters has fallen off--probably because those voters are sick and tired of a party that doesn't stand for anything other than being more responsible guardians of the status quo than Trump.

Amazingly, then, the same dynamic from 2016 presidential election continues: Trump is increasingly unpopular, but so are his Democratic opponents--and the base voters for the Democratic Party are increasingly disillusioned.

Trump may yet be overthrown by his own corruption and incompetence, but before you bet on that outcome, remember this: That's what we all thought during the presidential campaign last year after the release of Trump's infamous "grab them by the pussy" tape.

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JUST BECAUSE the Democrats will remain the "official" face of the opposition during the administration's continuing crisis doesn't mean the anger of millions of people toward Trump can be contained by their narrow political limits.

Every day seems to bring more evidence that Trump is unfit--not so much to be president, but to be considered fully human. But all his outrages reveal fundamental problems with the system that made him "the most powerful man in the world."

For example, while the Democrats are obsessed by suspicions about Russian plots to subvert last year's election, it's more likely that Trump is afraid an investigation will uncover shady business dealings going back many years before 2016.

But if anyone in Washington is willing to be honest, this is the norm for political leaders of both major parties. Given the dubious history of the Clinton Foundation, would Hillary Clinton want to set the precedent that you can be removed from office for blurring the line between business and political relationships with foreign officials?

Those on the left who conclude that the power struggle in Washington today is a distraction--or, worse, who speculate about whether President Trump is a lesser evil to President Pence--are missing the point.

Millions of people who already oppose Trump are finding urgent new reasons every day to want to change the world. The problem is if they stop there and wait to see if Robert Mueller does the job or the Democrats finally step up. Even if they go after Trump, their mission will be to preserve the status quo around him.

The anger at Trump has to be channeled into active opposition. Socialists and the left can make the case that the whole system should be impeached. We can draw larger numbers into the important initiatives to challenge the Trump menace in the day to day--like confronting the immigration police when they try to victimize the undocumented.

And we can bring further focus and organizational clarity to our socialist alternative to an entire system based on greed, lies and hate.

Categories: Political Action

AT&T workers prepare for a three-day strike

Socialist Worker - Fri, 05/19/2017 - 01:00

Joe Richard explains the issues at stake as 40,000 CWA members prepare for a strike.

AT&T workers on the picket line for a fair contract (Unity at AT&T Mobility | Facebook)

SOME 40,000 AT&T workers are gearing up for a possible strike across 36 states as early as Friday, May 19.

On Tuesday, May 16, the Communications Workers of America (CWA) informed members that if an agreement hadn't been reached by Friday afternoon, they should set up picket lines and remain on strike through the weekend.

Some 21,000 CWA members who work for AT&T Mobility, the company's wireless division, voted by a 93 percent margin to authorize a strike. In addition, 19,000 wireline workers and DirecTV technicians in California, Nevada and Connecticut are preparing for a strike as well.

If the walkout happens, it will be the first national strike since the start of the Trump administration.

At stake is a battle over the quality of union jobs at AT&T. The company has refused to move on any of a long list of union demands around pay, health care costs, performance incentives and outsourcing of jobs.

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THE 700,000-member-strong CWA is looking to build off its victory last year over corporate behemoth Verizon after a long strike and to stop the loss of union-represented work at AT&T, as the company subcontracts its call center workforce to vendors across the global South.

The majority of the 21,000 union members in AT&T's wireless operations work at small AT&T Mobility retail shops, employing about a dozen workers on average. Others are employed in call centers spread out across the country.

Managers across the country have been spreading misinformation and threatening workers with discipline if they participate in the strike, so strong community and labor support on the picket lines will be essential if a walkout occurs.

Union bargaining across AT&T Mobility is split up across different regions of the country, with different contracts covering different states. The current negotiations are over the "Orange Book" contract covering 36 states, with Black, Purple and Green being mostly settled and bargained at other times.

All told, the CWA represents more than 100,000 workers across the country at AT&T. That includes the 19,000 line and cable workers in California, Nevada and Connecticut and the DirecTV technicians who will also be walking picket lines over the weekend if they don't get a new contract.

AT&T Mobility is one of the single largest retail workforces with union representation anywhere in the U.S. Many of the 100,000 members are recently organized after CWA scored victories under "bargaining to organize" agreements with the company, which allowed for speedy representation elections.

The union is demanding wage increases greater than the paltry 2 percent per year hike offered by the company--this wouldn't even make up for increases in health care costs. CWA members also want a reversal of the company's recently changed bonus and incentive pay policy for commissions, which resulted in many employees losing thousands of dollars in take-home pay each year.

The company maintains a highly punitive sick leave and time-off policy, which can lead quickly to termination for employees unless their sickness is covered under the Family and Medical Leave Act.

And just like at Verizon, the CWA is pushing hard for the creation of more union-represented jobs, in an effort to reverse AT&T's trend toward subcontracting the stream of customer service and technical help calls to call-center vendors based largely in the Philippines, the Dominican Republic, Mexico and El Salvador.

The union is also fighting the spread of "authorized retailers," which are run on a non-union franchise basis and maintain notoriously poor working conditions.

AT&T is the single largest telecom corporation in the U.S., listing $164 billon in sales and 135 million wireless customers. CEO Randall Stephenson got a raise of several million dollars last year, bringing his personal take-home pay up to $28.4 million in 2016. The company reported $13 billion in profits in the same year.

But AT&T is under pressure from Wall Street to cut costs after its recent acquisition of Time Warner Cable for a whopping $85 billion--it also took on huge amounts of that company's debt.

To keep raking in the profits, AT&T has ruthlessly pursued subcontracting of call center work. Highlighted in a new report produced by the CWA called "Offshoring Customer Service: How AT&T Lowers Standards for Workers and Consumers through its Global Race to the Bottom," the union claims the company has shed more than 12,000 in-house call center jobs since 2011.

The closings have devastated cities and towns across the U.S. where unionized call center jobs represent some of the best employment available in working-class communities--like in Ridgeland, Mississippi, where AT&T shut down a call center employing 110 people.

In an era when immigrant scapegoating has become even more widespread with the election of Donald Trump to the White House, the union's report is refreshing in highlighting the struggles of workers across AT&T's global footprint who are engaged in their own battles for union representation and a living wage.

Across other regions, the CWA has already succeeded in making the creation of unionized call-center jobs a key part of its bargaining strategy after the seven-week Verizon strike in 2016 achieved 1,700 guaranteed union jobs. The settlement earlier this spring with AT&T South will bring back 3,000 unionized call-center jobs.

As potentially the first national strike of Trump administration, it remains to be seen how the White House would respond if a walkout occurs.

Given the current controversy surrounding the administration, it's possible that Trump will keep his distance. But under the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, sitting U.S. presidents can unilaterally intervene in strikes or even potential strikes that they claim could create a "national emergency" and order workers to end their walkouts and return to work. Former President George W. Bush invoked Taft-Hartley against the West Coast longshore union in 2002.

Stay tuned for updates about the walkout at AT&T--and make plans to join a picket line if you hear that the CWA is hitting the streets on Friday afternoon.

Categories: Political Action

As USTR Takes Office, EFF Sets Out Our Demands on Trade Transparency

Deep Links - Thu, 05/18/2017 - 14:50

The new U.S. Trade Representative, Robert Lighthizer, took office this week. EFF has written him a letter to let him know that we'll be holding him to the commitments that he made during his confirmation hearing about improving the transparency and inclusiveness of the USTR's notoriously closed and opaque trade negotiation practices. Our letter, which you can download in full below, reads in part:

The American people’s dissatisfaction with trade deals of the past, such as NAFTA, does not merely lie in their effects on the American manufacturing sector and its workers.  Another of the key mistakes of previous U.S. trade policy, we respectfully submit, has been the closed and opaque character of trade negotiations. ... 

Absent meaningful reforms that allow the public to see what is being negotiated on their behalf, and to participate in developing trade policy proposals, the public will reject new agreements just as they rejected failed agreements of the past, such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement.

Conversely, given a real voice in trade policy development, there is the potential for trade agreements of the future to become more inclusive, better informed, and more popular—all of which are essential if America is to retain and strengthen its global economic leadership in the digital age.

Tech industry groups the Internet Association, [PDF]  the Computer and Communications Industry Association (CCIA) and the Internet Infrastructure Coalition (i2Coalition) [PDF], have also sent letters to the new USTR. In addition to addressing how America's future trade agreements should address tech policy issues, the CCIA and i2Coalition letter addresses the need for greater transparency in trade negotiations, stating "we encourage you to maintain as much transparency in trade negotiations as is reasonably possible. More open negotiation processes will contribute to increased support for the trade agenda."

House and Senate Democrats have reportedly delivered the same message [paywalled] to Ambassador Lighthizer during his first week in office, urging that the renegotiation of NAFTA—which officially launched today—be made more transparent than the negotiations of its failed predecessor, the TPP.

To further reinforce this message, EFF has gone even further—taking out a paid advertisement in POLITICO magazine's Morning Trade newsletter which runs all this week. It directs to a new page of EFF's website that is specifically targetted at D.C.'s trade community. You can see a copy of the banner graphic that we've used for that campaign to the side.

Will any of this make a difference? We certainly hope so, but we're not counting on it. That's why in case Ambassador Lighthizer fails to heed our message, we'll also be supporting new legislation to be introduced in Congress to force the USTR to implement the necessary reforms. One way or another, the long overdue reform of trade negotiation processes has to happen, and we're committed to seeing it through.

Categories: Political Action

Dear FCC: We See Through Your Plan to Roll Back Real Net Neutrality

Deep Links - Thu, 05/18/2017 - 12:05

Pretty much everyone says they are in favor of net neutrality–the idea that service providers shouldn’t engage in data discrimination, but should instead remain neutral in how they treat the content that flows over their networks. But actions speak louder than words, and today’s action by the FCC speaks volumes. After weeks of hand-waving and an aggressive misinformation campaign by major telecom companies, the FCC has taken the first concrete step toward dismantling the net neutrality protections it adopted two years ago.

Specifically, the FCC is proposing a rule that would reclassify broadband as an “information service” rather than a “telecommunications service.” FCC Chairman Ajit Pai claims that this move would protect users, but all it would really do is protect Comcast and other big ISPs by destroying the legal foundation for net neutrality rules. Once that happened, it would only be a matter of time before your ISP had more power than ever to shape the Internet.

Here’s why: Under the Telecommunications Act of 1996, a service can be either a “telecommunications service” that lets the subscriber choose the content they receive and send without interference from the service provider; or it can be an “information service,” like cable television, that curates and selects what subscribers will get. “Telecommunications services” are subject to nondiscrimination requirements–like net neutrality rules. “Information services” are not.

For years, the FCC incorrectly classified broadband access as an “information service,” and when it tried to apply net neutrality rules to broadband providers, the courts struck them down. Essentially, the D.C. Circuit court explained that the FCC can’t exempt broadband from nondiscrimination requirements by classifying it as an information service, but then impose those requirements anyway.

The legal mandate was clear: if we wanted meaningful open Internet rules to pass judicial scrutiny, the FCC had to reclassify broadband as a telecom service. Reclassification also just made sense: broadband networks are supposed to deliver information of the subscriber’s choosing, not information curated or altered by the provider.

It took an Internet uprising to persuade the FCC to reclassify. But in the end we succeeded: in 2015 the FCC reclassified broadband as a telecom service. Resting at last on a proper legal foundation, its net neutrality rules finally passed judicial scrutiny [PDF].

Given this history, there’s no disguising what the new FCC majority is up to. If it puts broadband back in the “info service” category and then tries to appease critics by adopting meaningful net neutrality rules, we’ll be in the same position we were three years ago: Comcast will take the FCC to court–and Comcast will win. It’s simple: you can’t reclassify and keep meaningful net neutrality rules. Reclassification means giving ISPs a free pass for data discrimination.

Chairman Pai’s claim that this move is good for users because it will spur investment in broadband infrastructure is a cynical one at best. Infrastructure investment has gone up since the 2015 Order, ISP profits are growing exponentially, and innovation and expression are flourishing.

At the same time, too many Americans have only one choice for high speed broadband. There are good reasons to worry about FCC overreach regulation in many contexts, but the fact is the U.S. broadband market is now excessively concentrated and lacks real choice, and there are few real options to prevent ISPs from abusing their power. In this environment, repealing the simple, light-touch rules of the road we just won would give ISPs free reign to use their position as Internet gatekeepers to funnel customers to their own content, thereby distorting the open playing field the Internet typically provides, or charge fees for better access to subscribers. Powerful incumbent tech companies will be able to buy their way into the fast lane, but new ones won’t.  Nor will activists, churches, libraries, hospitals, schools or local governments.

We can’t let that happen. So, Team Internet, we need you to step up once again and tell the FCC that it works for the American people, not Comcast, Verizon, or AT&T.  Go to dearfcc.org and tell the FCC not to undermine real net neutrality protections.

Contact the FCC Now

Categories: Political Action

Community Celebration of 15 Years of work

American Friends Service Committee - Thu, 05/18/2017 - 11:40
Saturday, June 10, 2017 - 6:00pm CSA march

CSA March 2012

Photo: MYager/M Yager
Categories: Political Action

The FCC Needs to Cut Through The Noise and Listen to The Public’s Support for Net Neutrality

Deep Links - Thu, 05/18/2017 - 01:29

The Federal Communications Commission’s vote tomorrow will be a step towards undermining the rules that protect Internet users from data discrimination by their ISPs. These net neutrality rules, though not perfect, have broad support from the public. But FCC Chairman Ajit Pai seems to be preparing to dismiss and ignore the wishes of ordinary Internet users by forcing us to use a broken and discredited online comment filing system.

It’s been a sad few weeks for the FCC’s IT department. Following Last Week Tonight host John Oliver’s segment on net neutrality, in which the comedian called on viewers to defend net neutrality protections by filing comments, the FCC’s comment system was disabled. The agency’s Chief Information Officer claimed that the system had been targeted in a distributed denial-of-service attack, bombarding it with traffic and making it difficult to file comments. But despite requests from the public and members of Congress, the FCC hasn’t given any details about the supposed attack or why it concluded that the system was attacked at all, rather than simply being overwhelmed by the number of comments it received.

Following that initial problem, the FCC’s site reportedly received more than 58,000 nearly identical comments containing names and addresses that appeared to be taken from a marketing database. These comments, which seemed to be fraudulent, supported Chairman Pai’s gutting of net neutrality. To date, the FCC hasn’t said what it’s doing to safeguard its comment system and make it ready to handle the thousands, even millions, of public comments it’s likely to receive after tomorrow’s formal vote.

What’s so important about maintaining ECFS and actually hearing the opinions expressed by ordinary Internet users there? Taking comments from the public is not merely a tradition - it’s a key safeguard for democracy. Independent agencies like the FCC have vast rule-making powers. In many areas, they have more practical power over our lives than Congress does, because Congress doesn’t have the capacity or expertise to create the detailed rules that govern telecommunications and other industries.

Unlike Congress, independent agencies aren’t elected by the people—they’re run by boards that are filled by presidents and congressional leaders. They can’t be voted out of office (except indirectly as their members are replaced by future presidents). Because they’re not held accountable through the political process, agencies are required by law to accept and consider public comments before making major changes to the rules. If the FCC responds to attacks on its public comment system not by defending the system, but by discounting and ignoring public opinion expressed through that system, then the agency is answerable to no one. (In theory, Congress could step in and pass new laws concerning net neutrality, but meaningful action by Congress is unlikely this year).

Digital democracy is not easy. The FCC can’t just count comments for and against net neutrality as though they were ballots in a ballot box. But neither can Chairman Pai ignore the opinions of Internet users in the U.S., the majority of whom want to keep being protected against data discrimination by ISPs like Comcast, AT&T, and Verizon. Letting those users be blocked, drowned out by bots, or ignored when they express their opinions on net neutrality is no way to begin.

You can submit comments to the FCC through EFF’s commenting tool at dearfcc.org. We will work to get your comments through and make your voice heard in Washington.

Related Cases: Net Neutrality Lobbying
Categories: Political Action

Parents get rid of the school bully

Socialist Worker - Thu, 05/18/2017 - 01:00

After a long fight, parents and teachers who organized for justice at an East Harlem public school have won an inspiring victory, explains Peter Lamphere.

Parents and teachers rally to save CPE1 in East Harlem

IN A historic victory for parent and teacher activists, the abusive principal of Central Park East 1 (CPE1) in New York City has been forced out.

Monika Garg, the controversial principal, has left the school after a yearlong battle, and both of the teachers who had been unjustly removed from the classroom--the school's union delegate and chapter leader--have been cleared of all charges.

Parents have led an impressive struggle over the past 18 months, organizing a range of protests that included street demonstrations, letter-writing campaigns and petitions signed by a large majority of families at the school and thousands of supporters.

The campaign culminated in an overnight occupation of the school after an April 6 school leadership meeting, followed by a "family strike" a month later when the parents of 80 children pulled their kids from classes for one day.

In retaliation for the parents organizing the sit-in and other protests, Garg banned two lead organizers, Kaliris Salas-Ramirez and Jen Roesch, from dropping off and picking up their special-needs children from the classroom and attending meetings on school grounds.

During her reign of just two years, Garg tore at the fabric of this progressive East Harlem school. She opened investigations of every single one of the teachers she didn't hire and created a hostile work environment, causing a mass exodus of veteran staffers. Yet not a single one of the charges she pursued was substantiated.

In the course of these investigations, she interviewed young children without parental notification or consent, angering many parents. She also pursued a divide-and-conquer strategy to pit veteran teachers and against newer hires, and sow racial divisions among parents at the school, one of the most integrated in a highly segregated system.

She also initiated investigations of two teachers, Marilyn Martinez and Catlin Preston, who have been fully exonerated by independent arbitrators. As a further measure of how far Garg had overstepped, such exonerations only occur in 4 percent of cases across the New York City school system.

In an unprecedented turn of events, Martinez was returned to the classroom just two days after the arbitrator's ruling, while Preston is still awaiting final clearance to return to the school--something parents are continuing to clamor for.

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MASS MOBILIZATION was crucial to securing this outcome. In an extraordinary show of support, more than 100 parents and United Federation of Teachers (UFT) members attended the hearings for Martinez over the course of a few days earlier this year.

Teachers also mobilized to pressure the UFT leadership to take the struggle at CPE1 seriously, repeatedly attending sessions of the UFT executive board to make their case.

"The larger story," says executive board representative Arthur Goldstein, "is the incredible activism of the CPE 1 community. They stood strong against an abusive and power-hungry principal. They never wavered, despite ridiculous pressure placed on their teachers and even their parents."

Goldstein is a member of the Movement of Rank and File Educators, a caucus in the union that has argued for the UFT to build strength among members by taking on abusive administrators.

The repeated efforts to engage the executive board eventually got the personal attention of the top UFT leadership and alerted them to the importance of the case--although leadership-aligned executive board members still applauded a handful of Garg supporters who came to criticize those who protested the principal.

Martinez, who returned to class on May 15, said:

Being exonerated brought all sorts of emotions for me, and happiness wasn't one of them. This process is dehumanizing...We have much work to do to create a more balanced and equitable system. There is no reason for the threshold for teachers to be much higher than that of principals and superintendents.

Last week, after the family strike, the office of New York City Public Advocate Letitia James expressed concern about Garg's restriction on parent access and pledged to take up the issue.

Mayor Bill de Blasio, however, still seemed unconvinced about the situation. According to a report in the New York Times, as late as May 11, he seemed to remain neutral, telling reporters at a press conference that the heated debate had split both parents and teachers, and that the most vocal group didn't have "a monopoly on the truth."

But parents kept up the pressure, appearing on a near-daily basis throughout the city at eight of the mayor's events, with banners and chants calling for justice.

On Friday, May 12, the Department of Education announced that Martinez would be returned to her classroom, and Garg was assigned a new supervisor, Dolores Esposito, who would serve as the Acting Superintendent of CPE1, taking away control from Alexandra Estrella, the District 4 superintendent who had backed Garg and other abusive administrators.

On May 15, Martinez re-entered the school for the first time in three months to cheers from parents and students, and later that day, Esposito informed parents and staff that Garg had taken a new position with the Department of Education.

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CPE1 WAS founded more than 40 years ago to give underprivileged kids a chance at education using unorthodox and progressive pedagogical methods. The school's founder, Deborah Meier, became a prominent educator, winning a coveted MacArthur Foundation Genius Grant in 1987.

Meier, who is in retirement now, voiced support for the parents and their struggle to remove Garg. "I'm unequivocally on the side of those who wisely have concluded that the current principal must move on," she said last year. "She cannot do the job required."

Garg, however, circulated articles arguing that progressive education wasn't appropriate for children of color, trying to undermine and divide parents.

Parents and teachers are now strategizing about the next phase in their struggle to defend child-centered progressive education in the face of the corporate "reform" offensive that emphasizes high-stakes standardized testing.

Kaliris Salas-Ramirez, the PTA president, was excited about the recent victories, especially now that one of the school's popular teachers is returning to the classroom. "Having Marilyn back gives us a sense of hope that the system is not so broken, empowerment going forward for the work we need to do to rebuild, and relief that our children have their beloved teacher back to provide them with what they need," she said.

Yet she still expressed concern about the future:

We are filled with cautious positivity as we can now focus on rebuilding and healing the school. But the Department of Education has a long way to go to restore trust as we are still missing one of our teachers, and the letters limiting parent access have not been rescinded.

Categories: Political Action

Will Kentucky become abortion-free?

Socialist Worker - Thu, 05/18/2017 - 01:00

Nicole Colson reports on a protest of anti-choice activists that aimed to shut down the last abortion clinic in Kentucky, and what it signals about the fight for abortion rights.

Anti-abortion bigots blockade the entrance to the last remaining clinic in Kentucky

ALTHOUGH IT received little attention in the media, anti-choice bigots attempted to shut down the last remaining abortion clinic in the state of Kentucky on May 13--nearly depriving women in the state access to what is supposed to be a federally protected right to control their reproductive choice.

In what the website Rewire termed a "siege," some 100 anti-choice protesters with the group Operation Save America (OSA)--a splinter from the former Operation Rescue anti-choice group--descended on the EMW Women's Clinic in Louisville. In all, 10 members of the group were arrested after locking arms and refusing to move from the clinic's entrance.

Calling its May 13 action "No Greater Love," OSA's action really was about hate--hate for the rights of women to exercise control over their reproductive lives.

In a post on the blog Everysaturdaymorning, which details the experiences of members of Louisville Clinic Escorts, a group that protects patients entering the EMW Women's Clinic, the author detailed:

[The OSA demonstration] was the wildest spectacle I've seen in my 18 years as a Louisville Clinic Escort. I was approaching the entrance with a client, just a few minutes after the doors were unlocked. We were having the usual light conversation when I observed that the scene at the door was different than the usual massive clusterfuck of bullies. Instead of [anti-choicers] swarming at us and lining the sidewalk with signs, they were all tightly packed near the entrance.

Video posted to the Louisville Clinic Escorts Facebook page shows the anti-choice bigots blocking access to the clinic. Despite being in clear violation of a federal law, the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances, the escort noted that the protesters were treated gently by police.

Although escorts were able to shepherd patients into the clinic through a back way, the author predicted: "We know we have not seen the last of this sort of behavior, and we expect the worst from these extremist terrorists."

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THIS WRITER is right to see the Louisville blockade as a sign of things to come from anti-choice extremists.

Operation Save America's roots run deep as one of the most vicious anti-choice groups in the U.S. Its forerunner, Operation Rescue, vaulted to prominence in the 1980s for its efforts to physically block access to abortion clinics and for the violent and even terrorist acts of some of its members.

Today, OSA refers to abortion as a "holocaust" and, in addition to being anti-choice, is also virulently anti-gay and anti-Muslim.

Outrageously, the group has adopted the language of progressive movements against oppression in seeking to deny women their right to abortion. Labeling their recent action in Kentucky with the positive-sounding term "interposition," Rusty Thomas, OSR's current national director, said, "[I]nterposition takes place when one stands in the gap between the oppressor and the intended victim. And by standing in the gap, rescues the victim from the oppressor's hand."

No thought, of course, is given to the woman who is carrying the pregnancy, what her beliefs or desires are, or the fact that forcing women to carry pregnancies they aren't mentally, physically or financially prepared for is an act of oppression--one that OSR would be happy to see become the norm across the country.

And they are close to seeing it happen in Kentucky.

Anti-choice Republican Gov. Matt Bevin has made it his mission to rid the state of every abortion clinic. He has already forced multiple clinics to close after filing lawsuits claiming they are not in compliance with laws that place arcane and unnecessary restrictions on abortion providers.

In late March, Bevin ordered the EMW Women's Surgical Center to stop performing abortions, saying it was not in compliance with a state regulation--a charge the clinic denies. A judge blocked that order temporarily, but the clinic's future remains in jeopardy.

Kentucky already has some of the most restrictive laws in the country when it comes to abortion--including a ban on abortion after 20 weeks' gestation with no exceptions for rape or incest, and a mandatory ultrasound, anti-abortion "counseling" and a waiting period before a woman can get an abortion.

Now, Thomas says that the group is planning to return for another round of protests in July. "That is a tremendous opportunity before you all to become the first surgically abortion-free state in the United States of America and so, we're praying Kentucky will lead the way out of this blood guiltiness that's upon the land," he told the Courier-Journal.

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THERE IS a chilling historical precedent for OSA's latest escalation.

Last year, OSA members gathered in Wichita, Kansas, to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Operation Rescue's infamous "Summer of Mercy" in 1991, when, over the course of six weeks, thousands of anti-choice activists sat in, blockading clinics and streets--and succeeded in their mission of shutting clinics down for weeks.

As part of the group's events in Wichita, Thomas said OSA's mission is now undergoing a "paradigm shift." Confident from recent successes in restricting abortion rights at the state level and with a new anti-choice administration in the White House that appointed its first reactionary justice to the Supreme Court, Thomas said that the group is encouraging local and state officials to simply refuse to enforce Roe and to take steps to shut down abortion access--regardless of federal law or the courts.

"We're talking about defying [Roe]," Thomas told the Wichita Eagle. "Just flat-out defying it."

While the scale of the most recent anti-choice protests is smaller than in the early 1990s, the right has been largely successful in the intervening years in legislating away women's right to abortion, one restriction at a time. Now, they are getting a boost from an administration that is hostile to abortion rights--and an "opposition" party that has often capitulated to such attacks.

As Rewire pointed out, Louisville is likely the beginning of a new anti-choice onslaught:

Now, the dangers to abortion patients and providers have taken a terrifying lurch forward. The Trump administration has signaled to abortion opponents and other Christian extremists that they do not need to recognize fundamental civil rights like reproductive autonomy, so long as they stage their attacks on those rights as an exercise of religious freedom.

As a result, extremists are energized and ready to renew their attacks on clinics and patients, as Saturday's siege in Louisville demonstrates. And there is little reason to think anti-choice radicals won't increase pressure on clinics and lawmakers, particularly in those states with only one abortion clinic remaining and those with religious imposition laws.

Activists may have met last summer to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Summer of Mercy. But if Saturday's actions are any indication of their future plans, this summer will be the official reboot of those early, increasingly violent, attacks on patients and providers.

After their original "Summer of Mercy," Operation Rescue embraced the tactic of attempting to physically block access clinics--showing up in cities along the East Coast, including Buffalo and Rochester, New York, in 1992 for a "Spring of Life."

But they did not go unopposed. As SocialistWorker.org's Elizabeth Schulte wrote, "After Wichita, the anti-abortion fanatics thought they could go to any city and shut down abortion rights. But for some pro-choice activists, the new slogan became "No more Wichitas!"

It took a mass pro-choice mobilization to physically defend the clinics, but Operation Rescue's attacks were largely thwarted in upstate New York--and that pro-choice victory helped push OR back on its heels, at least temporarily.

As Brian Erway recounted in a recent article for SocialistWorker.org:

By the end of the first week, it was clear to all that Operation Rescue was being routed, outnumbered every day at the clinics and unable to shut down any operations at all. A local newspaper declared, "OR strategy backfires," pointing out that OR's ballyhooed descent on Buffalo had set in motion an even more potent response. Now the superior tactics and mobilization of [the pro-choice coalition] were winning the day.

Now that the anti-choice forces have the wind in their sails, we have to relearn the lessons about how we pushed them back the first time--and take them on now, wherever they try to deny women the right to control their own bodies.

Categories: Political Action

Grand theft workers' wages

Socialist Worker - Thu, 05/18/2017 - 01:00

Wage theft costs workers millions, but it's the tip of the iceberg, writes Steve Leigh.

A NEW report by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) lays out in clear and horrifying detail the scale and spread of wage theft in the U.S.

The report focuses on workers who are cheated out of the already abysmally low minimum wage. Over the last 40 years, real wages have stagnated for most workers, and the situation of low-wage workers is even worse. The current federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour is, after adjusting for inflation, 25 percent lower than it was 50 years ago. It doesn't adequately support a single person, even those who get full-time hours, much less families.

Some states and counties now have minimum wages higher than the federal minimum, but even these are inadequate for a decent standard of living. For example, in Seattle, where the minimum for many workers will soon be $15 an hour, an average apartment costs $1,600 a month.

At this rate, even with full-time hours, housing alone would take up almost two-thirds of a worker's gross income. Raising a family or even supporting one other person on this wage is a nearly impossible task.

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BUT THAT'S not the end of the story. Employers are trying to cheat workers out of even these paltry minimum wages, according to the study.

The EPI estimates that being paid less than the state and federal minimum wages costs workers at least $15 billion a year. This is more money than is lost to thefts of other types--yet it's barely noticed as a crime. Meanwhile, workers suffering from wage theft have three times the poverty rate of other low-wage workers.

One of the key findings of the report is how wage theft is based on and reinforces racism and sexism. The EPI notes:

Young workers, women, people of color and immigrant workers are more likely than other workers to report being paid less than the minimum wage, but this is primarily because they are also more likely than other workers to be in low-wage jobs. In general, low-wage workers experience minimum-wage violations at high rates across demographic categories. In fact, the majority of workers with reported wages below the minimum wage are over 25 and are Native-born U.S. citizens, nearly half are white, more than a quarter have children, and just over half work full time.

Why is wage theft such a problem now? The EPI makes it clear that part of the problem is cutbacks at the U.S. Department of Labor's Wage and Hour Division, the agency responsible for investigating minimum wage violations. According to the EPI:

In 1948, there was one investigator for every 22,600 covered workers; today it is one per every 135,000 workers. As the number of investigators per worker has shrunk, so has the agency's ability to effectively police violations of labor law: from 1980 to 2015, the number of cases investigated by the agency decreased by 63 percent.

Lack of enforcement goes hand-in-hand with the deregulation of the economy and austerity that have dominated since the ruling class adopted neo-liberalism in the 1970s.

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ALTHOUGH WAGE theft and low wages generally are severe problems that affect the lives of millions, they're only the tip of the iceberg. The fundamental problem in the capitalist economy is exploitation--meaning that owners live off the labor of workers by not paying them the full value of what they produce.

Exploitation exists in all spheres of the economy. Fast-food workers may produce $50 or more worth of value per hour while being paid $10 an hour or less. The rest goes to the franchise owner or the main corporation. Some of that goes to pay for expenses, but the rest goes into their pockets as profit. The CEOs and corporate owners live high off the hog while workers barely scrape by.

This process takes place even among higher-paid workers. Machinists who make $40 an hour produce airplanes worth billions. High-tech workers may be paid $100,000 a year, but they produce products and services that their companies sell for millions.

Exploitation is built into the DNA of capitalism. Corporations have to maximize profit to survive the competition with other companies. That means they have to cut wages as much as they can.

This report provides information that can be used in the fight against wage theft, low wages and exploitation generally. It concludes that more severe penalties against employers who steal wages would help reduce wage theft. It also implies that more enforcement of wage laws is needed.

The EPI reports points out some good starting places, such as severe penalties against employers who steal wages and greater enforcement of wage laws. But for labor activists and people concerned with workers' rights, there is much more that we can organize around.

The movement across the U.S. for higher minimum wages has had a tremendous impact on the lives of low-wage workers. Wages far above the paltry $7.25-an-hour federal minimum wage have been passed in many areas of the country. This has happened in large part because of the strikes, rallies and protests led by low-wage workers.

Even while supporting more enforcement of wage and hours laws, we can't rely on state or federal enforcement. There's no substitute for the self-organization of low-wage workers, alongside solidarity from other workers and supporters. Unionization of low-wage workers would go a long way toward fighting against wage theft.

Especially in the anti-immigrant climate orchestrated by the Trump administration, immigrant workers are afraid to report wage theft. This in turn lowers average wages and puts a downward pressure on the wages of all workers.

Wage theft is only a part of the overall exploitation of all workers. All workers are cheated out of the full value of what they produce. The fight against wage theft will only finally be successful when we abolish an economic system based on exploitation.

Categories: Political Action