Over the past month, trade officials of the ASEAN group of countries and its six biggest trading partners have been frantically working to finalize the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). Expected to be ratified later this year, the RCEP is the largest mega-regional trade treaty currently being negotiated, and the first to include norms and rules on e-commerce.
Despite countries such as Japan, Korea, Australia, and New Zealand pushing for a detailed chapter on e-commerce based on the model of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the latest information we have from the negotiating room is that the e-commerce chapter of RCEP will be far less ambitious, dealing mostly with familiar and uncontentious issues such as standards for electronic payments and signatures.
This will displease big tech companies that had hoped that RCEP would include rules on cutting-edge (but more contentious) topics like forced data localization. Data localization rules (such as rules requiring data about local users to be stored on servers within the country) would increase costs for tech companies and raise entry barriers for small competitors.
But some countries favor these rules because it allows them to subject overseas platforms to local privacy regulations, or for more sinister reasons such as making the servers more easily accessible to local surveillance programs. EFF’s position is that although data localization is rarely justified, if rules prohibiting it are to be included in trade agreements, it is essential that each country has adequate privacy and data protection laws to protect their citizens’ data.Transparency Demands
So far, text specific to e-commerce have not been made publicly available and the leaked Terms of Reference for the Working Group on ecommerce (WGEC) is the only reference to what issues could make an appearance in the RCEP. EFF has been advocating for transparency in trade through the active dissemination of provisions related to digital economy being discussed or included in the RCEP.
We have also been pushing negotiating countries to open up the trade processes in order to bring them into closer alignment with the Internet community’s norms of open, multi-stakeholder governance. Unfortunately, at this late stage of negotiations and amidst intensifying pressure to conclude the agreement the opportunities for broad and meaningful public participation in the RCEP process remain limited.
To address the lack of public inputs and facilitate engagement between RCEP negotiators and affected stakeholders EFF has been organising a series of interventions. We organised a panel on Intellectual Property at the 18th Round in Manila, Philippines and another at the recently concluded 19th round in Hyderabad, India focusing on e-commerce issues. The most recent of these interventions was a panel on 'Trade Rules for the Digital Economy: Asia's Agreement at the WTO and RCEP' at Asia Pacific regional Internet Governance Forum (APrIGF) which took place in Bangkok from 26-29 July, 2017.APrIGF Workshop Report
The discussions kicked off with an overview developments in global trade including shelving of large agreements such as TPP and TISA, the rise of regional treaties such as the NAFTA and RCEP and recent developments at the World Trade Organisation (WTO). While there is little public information on e-commerce provisions in the RCEP, issues included in the TPP as well as industry demands serve as reference for Internet governance areas that could be included.
Professor Peng Hwa, Nanyang Technological University drew upon the important linkages between trade and Internet governance. Different national contexts and agendas are guiding the negotiating parties and their strategies with regards to e-commerce. Given how nascent most issues related to digital economy are, there is need for continued dialogue and a measured approach to developing consensus based global rules.
Rajnesh Singh, Director Asia Pacific Regional Bureau Internet Society highlighted the challenges that trade committees and negotiators face - from uneven representation of nations, and resources to varying interpretation of the same issue. The push to regulate cross-border e-commerce underlines the need for concerted effort from civil society, academia and the technical community to ensure user rights are being inserted in these agreements.
Ms Duangthip Chomprang, Director for Regional Cooperation and Assistance at the International Institute for Trade and Development pointed out key factors behind regional efforts to push ICT issues through trade. First, almost 70% of all global preferential trade agreements are in the Asia Pacific region, and there has also been a steady decoupling between developed and developing countries of the region. This has created the political will to push for provisions on the digital economy. Second an important, if often overlooked linkage is between the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) which includes provisions to ensure trade and commerce agreements contribute to the achievement of these goals.
While there is a long way to go in improving transparency of the RCEP negotiations it was encouraging to have Mr Akhuputra, Chair the Working Group on e-Commerce (WGEC) to provide insights both into the process and the challenges of including as yet unresolved technological issues. Though the RCEP negotiations are in the 19th round the WGEC has had nine meetings so far. Mr Akhuputra suggested that the next round in South Korea may be the final meeting of the e-commerce negotiators.
Although the text remains secret, the e-commerce chapter is believed to be shorter and less detailed than the chapters on goods and services. Rules and text included will be broad enough to factor for the development gaps between participating countries. A provision likely to make an appearance, since it is included in more than 40% of the 90 trade agreements that are active in the region, covers paperless trade. Provisions for the use of international standards for paperless trade would apply to electronic authentication, e-signatures and e-documents. He highlighted the tensions between push for technologies such as blockchain and smart contracts and inclusion of text in trade agreements that seek "mutual recognition" and compliance with "international standards".
Complicating the work of WGEC are traditional segregations of areas such as goods and services which are not as easy to import in the digital context. For example, rules on electronic transmissions and goods are negotiated separately in trade agreements. However there is no consensus on how to treat electronic transmissions that transform into goods. Provisions on electronic transmission and services could impact the regulation of 3D printing technologies which are expected to shape the future of medical ecosystem in developing and less developed nations.
We are far from seeing which concerns have been addressed or what the final text will look like, but the contours of RCEP on e-commerce are beginning to materialise. Even though these details are just emerging, it may already be too late for civil society to influence the drafting of specific provisions as the WGEC is attempting to freeze the text. However, there remains a small chance that the Trade Negotiating Committee may decide to extend negotiations or open up specific issues.
For now it seems that the e-commerce chapter is going to be less ambitious and contentious than that of the TPP. Nonetheless EFF will continue to maintain a close eye on e-commerce developments in the RCEP, and continue to advocate for better transparency and public access to the negotiations.
You can watch the full video of the discussions in our workshop here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dpFsJjWaeB4&t=744s
On the 20th anniversary of the UPS strike, Lee Sustar looks back on the Teamsters' tremendous victory and its continuing significance for unions today.
UPS workers on the picket line during their 1997 strike
IT WAS a risky strike that was bound to lose. That, at least, was the opinion of the bosses--and more than a few top union officials.
But when some 185,000 Teamsters union members took to the picket lines at United Parcel Service (UPS) on August 4, 1997, Corporate America was stunned, anti-union politicians were caught flat-footed, and working class people across the U.S. embraced the struggle as their own.
"This isn't just about money," Mike, a part-time worker in Chicago, told Socialist Worker in an interview at a picket-line rally two days into the strike. "This is about taking care of your family, yourself, and making a better life for yourself and your family, and sending a message to these corporations that you cannot treat workers in America--and around the world--like this."
A panicky management scabbing operation fizzled as determined strikers organized flying pickets to shut down deliveries in Chicago and other cities. Hundreds of strikers and supporters faced down strikebreaking police in Warwick, Rhode Island, and Somerville, Massachusetts, when off-duty cops on the UPS payroll arrested nine strikers and a supporter, shackling them when taking them to court hours later.
Picket lines at UPS hubs often turned into impromptu rallies, with workers and supporters supplementing union placards with handmade signs of their own. In midtown Manhattan, hundreds of New York City telephone workers marched to join a Teamster rally in the opening days of the strike.
When a UPS striker tried to thank them, a telephone worker replied, "No, thank you. You're fighting for all of us."
Members of the Independent Pilots Association (IPA) honored picket lines, grounding UPS's air fleet. The pilots stood in solidarity with other UPS workers they'd never met, making common cause with truck drivers and young part-time warehouse workers, many of them people of color.
"It is more a rebellion than a strike," wrote New York Times columnist Bob Herbert, calling it "a revolt against the ruthless treatment of workers by even the most powerful corporations."
Solidarity committees in several cities swung into action, beefing up picket lines, raising support funds and holding electrifying solidarity meetings packed with labor activists and supporters.
Two weeks later, organized labor had scored its biggest victory since the 1970s after UPS caved on its demands to grab workers' pensions and conceded what it had vowed never to do--the creation of a path to full-time jobs for the tens of thousands of poorly paid part-timers who loaded trucks.
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CLOSE TO two decades before anger at social inequality and an anti-working class political system crystallized in different forms such as the Occupy Wall Street movement and the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign, the UPS strike popularized the slogan "Part-Time America Doesn't Work"--and workers showed they had the muscle to do something about it.
In the aftermath of the strike, Teamsters President Ron Carey linked the UPS strike to a wider political challenge facing working people.
"Some politicians ought to wear the logos of their corporate sponsors on their suits, just like athletes wear them on their uniforms," he said in a nationally broadcast speech. "If Abraham Lincoln were giving the Gettysburg Address here today, he would have to say that we have a government 'of the corporations, by big business, and for the special interests.'"
Some two decades later, in the Trump era, Carey's words ring truer than ever. But just a few months after the strike,
Carey would be ousted as Teamsters president by government overseers on corruption charges, even though he was ultimately cleared in court. James Hoffa Jr., the candidate of the Teamster old guard, won a subsequent union election for president and still holds office today, presiding over a union that has steadily retreated at UPS and other employers since then.
Nevertheless, the UPS strike remains as fresh as today's struggles.
The determination of young part-time UPSers in 1997 resonates in the Fight for 15 campaigns of low-wage workers now. The militancy and creativity of UPS roving pickets had an echo in the Verizon strike of 2016, when workers picketed scabs who tried to hide in company-funded hotel rooms. The discovery of the power of workers' collective action that captured the popular imagination two decades ago was seen again in the excitement of first-time strikers at AT&T Mobility stores earlier this year.
That's why it's so important to take stock of the UPS strike--and learn its lessons for the tough labor battles ahead.
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THE UPS strike was also a victory for those who had long fought a difficult and often dangerous struggle to reform and democratize the Teamsters, which had been dominated by a corrupt, mob-tied old guard for decades.
A union that had helped usher in two-tier wage systems by agreeing to pay cuts for UPS part-timers in the 1980s was, by 1997, led by Carey, a former New York City local union leader and onetime UPS package delivery driver himself.
Carey was first elected in 1991 in elections overseen by a federal judge as the result of a racketeering case against former union leaders. The reform group Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU), founded in the mid-1970s, was key component in the Carey coalition.
While Carey at times sought to reach an understanding with more moderate elements of the old guard, he nevertheless oversaw sweeping changes to the union, including the removal of dozens of corrupt union officials and the creation of a national field staff focused on increasing union activism.
The revived Teamsters showed they were ready to fight at UPS in 1994, when Carey called a national safety strike after UPS management unilaterally raised the limit on the weight that package car drivers were expected to lift without assistance.
In its first contract negotiated with the Carey leadership, UPS was forced to back off demands for deep concessions, but didn't budge on the union's demands for raises and the creation of full-time jobs for part-timers.
It soon became clear that a confrontation between the Teamsters and UPS was coming. A booming economy and dropping unemployment rate had given organized labor its best leverage in decades--an opportunity to reverse the trend of shattering defeats in mid-1990s strikes and lockouts at Caterpillar, food processor A.E. Staley and Bridgestone/Firestone.
And the highly profitable UPS--which moved freight equivalent to 6 percent of the U.S. gross domestic product--could easily afford to meet the Teamsters' demands.
The leadership change in the Teamsters helped set the stage for a shift in the AFL-CIO leadership in 1995. Factions behind the liberal John Sweeney pushed aside a conservative establishment. Sweeney's "New Voices" group didn't break from the traditional labor-management partnership model of U.S. labor leaders, but he did promise to challenge "unfair" corporations.
A year later, Carey was re-elected president of the Teamsters just seven months before the expiration of the UPS Teamsters contract. Standing up to Big Brown, as the company was known, had been a key part of Carey's re-election effort.
But UPS CEO Jim Kelly was just as determined to prevail over the union. As Joe Allen points out in his book The Package King: A Rank and File History of United Parcel Service, UPS was transforming itself from a privately owned, low-profile freight operation into a public corporation and global logistics giant. The upstart Teamsters leadership had to be taught a lesson.
A confrontation was inevitable.
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LABOR ACTIVISTS and the left understood that the looming battle at UPS carried huge implications for the entire labor movement. It would be a test of whether the more militant rhetoric of the U.S. labor leadership could be turned into action. Whatever the actual intentions of the new union leadership, their change in tone reflected a shift in consciousness in the union rank and file.
The union leaders' tilt to the left made it easier for the Teamsters to mount a contract campaign at UPS. The effort was initiated by the union's field staff of experienced militants, who often worked with non-Teamster labor activists and socialists who organized alongside shop-floor activists to prepare for a strike, even when local union leaders failed to do so.
The International Socialist Organization (ISO)--which was considerably smaller than it is today--threw itself into that effort.
For the ISO, organizing at UPS was, in fact, a revival of work begun two decades earlier with the formation of UPSurge, a network of hundreds of rank-and-file militants at UPS that was the driving force behind two regional strikes over contracts, as well as several wildcat actions.
That work didn't survive the difficult years of labor's retreat in the 1980s. But as the 1997 contract approached, ISO members sold Socialist Worker outside UPS hubs in cities across the U.S. The paper featured analysis of the company and its greed, interviews with UPS workers, and exposure of the crimes--literally--of the Teamsters' old guard officials.
A special supplement on the UPS contract fight included interviews with veteran militants like Vince Meredith, a retired Louisville, Kentucky, driver who had been a central figure in UPSurge. Pete Camarata, a longtime leader of TDU and former ISO member, shared his analysis of Teamster politics in that issue.
Debates about contract demands were reflected in the pages of SW--particularly the issues facing part-timers, who represented 60 percent of Teamsters UPS members, but who were often neglected, even in reform locals.
The August 1, 1997 issue of Socialist Worker reported on the huge votes to authorize a strike--95 percent overall, including 1,000 to 10 in a Minnesota local.
An SW contributor in Seattle sent in a quote from a Teamsters Local 174 business agent, Tom Bernard, that captured the mood: "This company is totally out of control. It's capitalism gone berserk. We're tired of being marginalized, minimized and just insulted. They will bargain with us or face the consequences of our collective power."
The August 15 issue of SW--when the outcome was far from certain--carried an editorial arguing for mass pickets and other militant tactics to turn widespread support for the strike into action:
For the first time in a generation, a national strike has won support and sympathy from people all over the U.S. Suddenly, newspaper stories about the 'miracle economy' have given way to front-page articles about the plight of low-wage, part-time workers...
Beating UPS will require mobilization of mass pickets. Moreover, it will require picket lines that are not symbolic but which aim to prevent scab trucks from moving.
Workers gain decisive leverage over a company when they can shut down its operations completely. Beating UPS will require the willingness of workers to defy injunctions and face arrest, if necessary, to win the strike.
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THE MASS pickets never came to pass, other than the brief but bitter battles in Warwick and Somerville. It's reasonable to assume that UPS management concluded that angry, organized workers in a popular national strike made a big strikebreaking effort untenable.
The company also blundered by trying to both grab control of pensions--a treasure chest for the Teamsters old guard--while angering young militant part-timers by refusing to create new jobs. Rather than dividing and conquering the Teamsters, UPS's ham-fisted tactics compelled the old guard to stand with Carey and the reform wing.
So after two weeks, a titan of Corporate America threw in the towel, soundly beaten by underpaid part-timers, veteran drivers defending their dignity and an astonishing show of solidarity across organized labor and far beyond.
Joe, a 15-year driver in Providence, R.I. described his first day back on the job after the strike. "I must have had 200 people pat me on the back and shake my hand today," he told Socialist Worker. "When I delivered to City Hall, the workers were yelling, "Go UPS!"
The headline of the SW editorial in the August 29 issue summed it up: "One for our side." "The employers have had it their own way for so long that they couldn't believe workers could win one," the editorial said.
The editorial also pointed out that, according to the Wall Street Journal, UPS expected President Bill Clinton to invoke the anti-union Taft-Hartley Act to order the Teamsters back to work. Clinton, for his own political reasons, chose not to do so--but did use his power to ban a rail strike a few weeks later.
"Had the Teamsters been faced with a [Clinton] back-to-work order, it would have dramatically upped the stakes in the strike," the editorial stated, adding, "it would be a grave mistake for any union to think that UPS or other companies won't try to run scabs in future labor confrontations."
Indeed, since the UPS strike, the employers' willingness to run mobilize scabbing has intimidated unions into all but abandoning the strike as a weapon--with the result that labor's decline has continued.
On top of the relentless attacks on labor by private-sector employers have come attacks on public-sector bargaining rights, including passage of right-to-work legislation in states that were once union strongholds. Union membership today is as low as it has been in a century.
The outcome of the strike was a major step forward on the Teamsters' most important demands, especially a pledge from the company to create 10,000 new full-time jobs. Wages went up significantly during the five-year life of the contract, but for part-timers, they remained relatively low considering the rigors of the job. And there have been major concessions from these gains by the union ever since.
But the 1997 strike hasn't been forgotten. The experience was formative for the reform forces that have continued to challenge the old guard, including a strong showing in this year's elections that very nearly unseated Hoffa as general president and won some executive board seats for reformers. The energy from that battle will now flow into the upcoming contract campaign at UPS.
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AS THE Trump administration prepares a new assault on unions, academic commentators and mainstream journalists will use the occasion of the UPS strike anniversary to proclaim the end of labor's relevance.
Don't believe it.
In the past two decades, the working class spirit and solidarity that animated the UPS strike has surfaced again and again--in the Wisconsin labor uprising of February 2011, the mass labor marches to support Occupy Wall Street a few months later, and the victorious Chicago Teachers Union strike the following year that linked teachers' pay and working conditions with the needs of Chicago students.
The low level of strikes doesn't mean that no class struggle is taking place. Labor activists who galvanize their unions to take a stand for Black Lives Matter protesters, support the Women's March and defend immigrants from deportation are taking a stand for dignity and justice.
Sooner or later, that fight will find expression in a direct battle with the bosses, just as it did in the UPS strike of 1997--to the astonishment of Corporate America, which thought it could never happen.
Back then, many militant strikers saw their fight as part of much wider struggle. "We all won, not just Teamsters," said Eddie, a driver in Warwick, the scene one of the strike's biggest confrontations. "The whole working class won."
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Our friend and colleague Bassel Khartabil was Creative Commons’ Syrian project lead, an open source developer, a teacher, a Wikipedia contributor, and a renowned free culture advocate. He was also a devoted son and husband, and a great friend to many in the global open knowledge community.
We were heartbroken and outraged to learn earlier this week the awful news of Bassel’s execution by the Syrian regime.
At the request of Bassel’s family, Creative Commons is announcing today that it has established the Bassel Khartabil Memorial Fund to support projects in the spirit of Bassel’s work. Creative Commons is accepting donations, and has seeded the fund with $10,000. Bassel was our friend and colleague, and CC invites the public to celebrate Bassel’s legacy and support the continuation of his powerful work and open values in a global community.
Contributions to the fund will go towards projects, programs, and grants to support individuals advancing collaboration, community building, and leadership development in the open communities of the Arab world. The fund will also support the digital preservation, sharing, and remix of creative works and historical artifacts. All of these projects are deeply intertwined with CC’s core mission and values, and those of other communities to which Bassel contributed.
Bill Keach considers the different models for building a working class party--and explains why revolutionaries have looked to the tradition of Lenin and the Bolsheviks.
THE QUESTION posed in the title of this article presupposes a prior question: Does the working class really need a party of its own to fight for and advance its interests?
Some on the left, particularly anarchists, are opposed to the project of party-building, arguing instead that spontaneous, diversified resistance to capitalism must be the basis for challenging exploitation and oppression.
Other left-wing initiatives in recent years have downplayed or rejected the importance of party-building as crucial to working-class emancipation. The European movement known as "autonomism," which developed in Italy in the late 1960s and is closely associated with the writing of Antonio Negri, moved away from the traditional Marxist emphasis on parties and has instead stressed spontaneous, decentralized and diverse forms of class struggle.
There was a similar deprioritizing of the role of a working-class party in the global justice movement--for example, in the World Social Forum, with its call for creating "a sustainable and inclusive world, where every person and every people has its place and can make its voice heard."
Socialists respond to such arguments by emphasizing that capitalist rule is enforced by a highly organized state, dependent on top-down political parties, which in turn are supported by a network of highly organized, ideologically driven, well-funded interest groups and the corporate media.
Only a political party organized by and dedicated to the interests of working people can hope to take on these capitalist power structures.
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MODERN POLITICAL parties originated historically in the period when capitalism was consolidating its economic and political dominance. They first came into existence in Britain in the late 17th century as expressions of the rivalry between the old landowning aristocratic ruling class, represented by the Tories, and the rising capitalist bourgeoisie, represented by the Whigs.
Then and now, parties provide the main political mediation between social relations and class struggle on the one hand, and state power and government on the other.
With the consolidation of capitalism and the emergence of the modern working class during the industrial revolution of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the prospect of workers creating a party that would represent and advocate for their needs inevitably developed. "Socialism" came into existence at the same time.
But what kind of party centered in the working class should socialists try to build?
Adherents of labor parties and of reformist socialism in the tradition of social democracy aim to build the largest, most-inclusive party possible in order to win elections and run the government.
Longstanding examples are the Labour Party in England, the Social Democratic Party in Germany and the Socialist Party in France. Such parties usually describe their politics as "center-left," and these days, they have been known to govern in coalition with centrist and even "center-right" parties.
The stated goal of social democratic parties is to protect workers from the worst kinds of capitalist exploitation and to mitigate the worst forms of discrimination and oppression generated by that exploitation.
Such reforms within capitalist society are clearly important and deserve the support of all socialists. But since they must be consistent with the continuation of capitalism--and since they can always be rolled back in periods when right-wing parties control the government--there are limits to how much even strong and successful social democratic parties can accomplish to meet working-class needs.
In periods when right-wing parties come to power on promises of aggressively serving the interests of the capitalist ruling class, social democratic parties usually adapt and compromise, instead of organizing and leading effective working-class resistance. In the current era of neoliberal domination since the 1970s, we have seen this adaptation and compromise again and again.
The British Labour Party, under left-wing leader Jeremy Corbyn and with the support of thousands of rank-and-file members, is currently trying to emerge from decades of capitulation to the priorities of the banks and multinational corporations.
The initiative driven by Corbyn is inspiring and opens up the potential for struggle and political initiatives, in society at large, and within the Labour Party itself. But sustained success remains uncertain, mainly because many of Labour's parliamentary leaders remain mired in the neoliberal "New Labor" illusions popularized by former Prime Minister Tony Blair.
More radical working-class parties with mass popular support face impossible obstacles when they attempt to govern under the terms ultimately set by the capitalist ruling class. The recent demise of Greece's SYRIZA as a radical left alternative is a sobering example.
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THE MOST serious left alternative to reform socialism's project of creating a party that reflects the views of all workers and asserts power through the existing state is the revolutionary party of the Marxist tradition. This tradition is especially associated, and rightly so, with Lenin and the Bolshevik Party's leadership in the Russian Revolution of 1917.
In the Communist Manifesto, published in 1848, Karl Marx and Frederick Engels had defined the "proletarian movement" as "the self-conscious, independent movement of the immense majority, in the interest of the immense majority."
More than two decades later, in response to the socialist uprising and brief seizure of power in France known as the Paris Commune of 1871, Marx drafted a resolution for the International Workingmen's Association in London declaring that "against [the] collective power of the propertied classes the working class cannot act, as a class, except by constituting itself into a political party, distinct from, and opposed to, all old parties formed by the propertied classes."
The practical task of implementing Marx's idea of building a party "distinct from, and opposed to" all bourgeois parties became paramount for socialists at the beginning of the 20th century.
In developed countries where the working class formed a clear majority--Britain, Germany, France, the U.S.--debates among socialists about how to implement Marx's concept were unavoidable.
In Russia, a huge, economically backward country where the working class was still a minority, and yet concentrated and growing rapidly in major industrialized cities, differences about what a working-class party needed to be were especially intense.
The Bolsheviks, mainly through Lenin's leadership, emerged from these debates with a distinctive conception of what a revolutionary Marxist party needed to be if the Russian working class was to become organized enough and strong enough to overthrow not only Tsarism, but capitalism. The Bolsheviks successfully implemented Marx's foundational idea that a socialist revolution had to be the act of the working class itself.
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LENIN'S CONCEPTION starts from the understanding that the political consciousness of the working class, especially in backward Russia, was mixed and underdeveloped.
The most politically developed and militant members of the working class, organized into a disciplined leadership or "vanguard" party, could provide the entire class with the leadership and an understanding of their own potential power, which could achieve and then defend a successful socialist revolution.
"The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas" in all classes, Marx argued. Lenin's idea was that workers who had broken with these ideas and developed their own critical understanding of the possibilities of human self-realization could, if organized, enable a majority of workers to do the same thing.
The Bolsheviks didn't believe that the vanguard party had all the answers and was exempt from mistakes. The party did its work, theoretically and practically, according to the principles of democratic centralism: freedom of debate and discussion, and unity in action.
Debate to decide on a course of action is essential, but must sometimes be brought to a conclusion or put on hold because the urgency of political intervention requires the active participation and commitment of every member. This makes honest, sustained and democratic critical assessment following such intervention absolutely necessary.
The Bolsheviks also realized that the vanguard party could not simply be built once the revolutionary moment had arrived--it had to be developed in advance.
Between the 1903 split of Russian socialists in which the Bolsheviks were constituted as a separate current and the October 1917 revolution--through periods of threatened extinction and internal dissension, alternating with greater struggle--membership in the party grew from a few hundred to some 240,000 on the eve of the October Revolution.
Many Bolsheviks in Petrograd and Moscow were active members of their workplace councils, or soviets--a form of mass, democratic workers' organization that emerged first in the 1905 revolution, and then again at the beginning of 1917.
The October Revolution, which overthrew the Provisional Government and seized power in the name of the soviets, was led by the Bolsheviks, who represented a clear majority of the Russian working class, including thousands serving in the Russian military.
The Bolshevik Party became the most important revolutionary socialist party in history in part because of its internal debate. Anyone who believes that party policy was simply dictated by Lenin or Trotsky needs to read accounts of party meetings before, during and after the revolution.
Balance between freedom of debate and unity in action was never easy to achieve, especially after the 1917 revolution, given the violent resistance from enemies of the revolution within Russia and beyond its borders. But it remained the Bolsheviks' framework of political leadership, at least until Lenin's death in 1924.
Eventually, the toll taken by the civil war that followed 1917--in which forces loyal to the workers' state repelled those who would over throw it, but at great cost--along with the failure of socialist revolutions in Germany, Italy and other more developed capitalist countries, led to the defeat of all that the Bolsheviks and their millions of supporters had fought for.
Stalin rose to power, consolidated support among the bureaucracy and carried out a brutal counterrevolution that cloaked itself superficially in the ideological legacy of Bolshevism. The consequences were catastrophic for people living in Russia and in all countries dominated by Stalin's dictatorship.
These consequences have also been decisive for the development of socialist politics internationally. Disagreement about the history of the Russian Revolution generally and the character and role of the Bolshevik Party more specifically have been a major source of division between reform socialist in the tradition of social democracy and revolutionary socialists who look to the Bolshevik tradition.
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NOW THAT the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign in 2016 and Jeremy Corbyn's success in the recent British national election have put "socialism" back into the arena of public discussion, the historical debates about socialist organization will have to be revived and made relevant to challenging the present neoliberal disorder.
The Sanders campaign made "socialism" a positive part of U.S. political discourse to a degree that hasn't been seen since before the era of McCarthyism in the early 1950s. But despite being shoved aside by the pro-Clinton leadership after the primaries, Sanders' "People's Revolution" remains committed to the project of making the Democratic Party into an organization that puts fighting for workers first.
This is an impossible project, as many of Sanders' admirers themselves recognize. But will these activists launch an independent third party that will seriously challenge the pro-capitalist two-party system?
There is much that reformist socialists and revolutionary socialist can fight for together. But there are also critical differences, both with respect to long-term goals and to immediate practical objectives and strategies, which have to be contested, not ignored--for the good of immediate struggles as well as longer-term ones.
In his 1966 essay "The Two Souls of Socialism," Hal Draper describes a contest between "socialism from above" and "socialism from below." Now, more than half a century later, the stakes of this contest within the broader resurgence of socialist politics couldn't be higher.
British socialist Dave Renton surveys the individuals and organizations of the international right--from Trump in the U.S., to Britain's right-wing nationalists after the Brexit vote, to the different currents of Europe's far right in Europe, such as Marine Le Pen's National Front--and argues that we have to understand them on their own terms, not by assuming they fit categories of the past, in an article for revolutionary socialism in the 21st century.
Former UKIP leader Nigel Farage addresses the Conservative Political Action Conference in Maryland (Michael Vadon | Wikimedia Commons)
ONE THEME of the last 12 months has been the convergence of people and groups emanating from a conservative or a fascist starting point which, despite their different origins, have been working together since Brexit.
Not all European parties of a fascist origin have converged at this point. There is no sign of Jobbik or Golden Dawn giving up their private armies. Equally, most conservative parties have not become far-right parties. Britain's Conservative Party Prime Minister Theresa May is no more comfortable in the presence of Donald Trump than she is with a class of Liverpool schoolchildren. That said, even where conservatives haven't followed Trump closely, you can see his pull on them.
Here are some examples of this convergence. In the aftermath of Brexit, Marine Le Pen tweeted that it would be "great news for the English." Donald Trump hailed it as a "great victory" against the "global elite."
On Trump's victory, Trump met with UK Independence Party leader Nigel Farage – embarrassing Theresa May, whom Trump hadn't yet even phoned. Farage was photographed in Trump's golden elevator and told journalists that Brexit and Trump had both been "counter-revolution" elections.
In the build-up to the French Presidential election, Breitbart News--the website until recently owned by a company where Donald Trump's chief strategist Steve Bannon was executive chair--ran daily articles calling for a Le Pen victory. Trump himself declared her the strongest candidate, to all intents and purposes endorsing her.
In France, Le Pen was endorsed by Nicholas Dupont-Aignan, a Gaullist (that is, conservative) candidate who secured 5 percent in the first round. She reciprocated by saying that if she won, he would serve as her prime minister. Parts of the right were plainly willing to serve under her.
Moreover, beneath these arrangements of mutual congratulation and boostering, there has been a process of ideological convergence, marked on the one hand by Trump's appointment of Bannon, and on the other by the complaints about Le Pen from within the National Front.
For example, her father, Jean-Marie, who was always her most important financial backer, criticized Marine Le Pen. In particular, he said, she had overemphasized Frexit. She should have modeled her campaign much more on the old-style campaigns which the Front had run in the past, campaigns like his.
The conservatives who have chosen this path are looking more authoritarian, the fascists are looking more like ordinary conservatives.
How can we think analytically about this convergence?
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Are They Populists?
The most common way in which the press deals with the likes of Trump, Le Pen or Farage is by characterizing them as populists.
When you first hear the term the initial response is to find it shallow. These are politicians standing for election. They want people to vote for them and they make promises to people. This is not a surprising dynamic. It does not deserve its own "ism."
There is a second meaning of populist, though, which is useful to a limited extent. In this formulation, the populism of Trump and the others is paradoxical. A populist is someone who says that the whole people supports them. But no politician in history has ever been universally popular. A populist is, therefore, someone who deals badly with the issue of dissent.
Because they are by their own definition popular therefore any protesters are somehow outside the category of "the people" and since they are not fully human they are entitled to be repressed. Populists in other words are suspicious, vulnerable to conspiracy theory and authoritarian.
In an American context, in particular, there has been a history of racialized populism going back to the nineteenth century. The Trump of the Muslim bans and the Mexican wall can be located within that tradition.
But populism is always an awkward term for the left because like the word "totalitarian" in a different era, it makes no distinction between rulers of left and right, military and non-military rulers, people who are rapidly becoming more authoritarian and others who move in that direction but more slowly.
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Are They Fascists?
The next common approach on the left is to call Trump and Le Pen fascists. I dislike this approach essentially for three reasons.
First, it seems to reflect a kind of Marxism in which the first impulse on encountering something new is to assume that it has the same logic as the movements of the past. The present conjuncture, in which we have a non-conservative president of the U.S., is shocking and different enough to be plainly "new" and if you begin by forcing it to follow the patterns of the past you will probably misunderstand it.
Second, whether the term is accurate or not, the fascism of the 1920s emerged from a different crisis. There was an economic crisis then and there is one now--in both epochs the far right put forward a program of economic nationalism (military spending and a willingness to return to tariffs after a previous epoch of free trade). To that extent, there is a similarity.
But fascism was also the product of a revolution, the Russian revolution of 1917, and it emerged in a world in which the revolutionary left was a main player. That couldn't be said today--the weakness of the left places limits on the quote I used earlier from Farage about the far right being counter-revolutionaries. What revolution are they against?
Further, fascism emerged after war. At the end of the First World War there were hundreds of thousands of soldiers who were young, angry and still armed. Fascism rejected the state's monopoly of violence and was able to mobilize tens of thousands of armed people in militia loyal to a fascist party. We face a different threat.
Third, the terms strikes me as inaccurate in that it conceals what is really going on: elements of the conservative right and people with fascist origins are meeting. The balance of forces varies from country to country, but they are converging at an actual point which is between the two traditions.
A knowledge of the history of fascism can help to understand the far right today, so long as people understand that the far-right of today is not fascist. At most, what is being used is an analogy to explain something new.
One thing that the history of fascism reminds us is that when new political traditions emerge they do not do so fully born. Both Italian and German fascism made early declarations of what their principles were--in both cases those declarations were later disowned. Fascism began with an identification of a political opportunity--the justifications came later. The new authoritarianism of the right shares this aspect.
Another lesson that the history of fascism reminds us of is that politics doesn't always direct itself to the center. On the left, we are more than familiar with the way in which the pre-1914 socialist parties began by promising revolution, but made peace with capitalism. Something similar happened with western Communists in the 1960s and 1970s.
Even in the U.S., there has been an echo of this process in the contrast between the high hopes that people had in Barack Obama's presidency and its failure to offer anything economically to most voters.
Fascism is that rare phenomenon, a right-wing party which became more radical in power. It was able to do so in part because of the depth of the economic and social crisis.
Fascism also became more extreme in part because of a process of international competition between fascist parties. So Mussolini had his March on Rome, after which Hitler had to copy him. Mussolini's Italy became a sub-imperial power with hegemony over Austria and then Spain. At every stage, Hitler copied and went further than him.
It's not exaggerating to say that something like the same process has been operating, at a much lower level, over the past year with Brexit leading to Trump, albeit thankfully not Le Pen.
Further, at the heart of the fascist dynamic was a certain kind of relationship between goals and process. Fascism saw its purpose as being to achieve a class peace based on the victory of capital over labor and the removal of all the organizations and the people that would get in the way of its success: the socialists, the unions, and the Communists (who, it claimed were an interchangeable category indistinguishable from "the Jews").
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The far right today
The present day far right is united by a sense of opportunity rather than by a shared goal. If it has an enemy it is more in the form of the shared social liberalism of most activists in the U.S. and Europe, rather than socialism or communism. It picks up ideas from the past: so around Trump and his supporters there has been a certain turn back towards anti-Semitism, an ideology which enables the far right to kick up as well as down.
Fascism had a dual relationship to the working class. It arose in societies with large working class majorities. To defeat the huge socialist parties of the day it had to mobilize workers. Because it couldn't offer them social transformation, it set off on a journey which led to war and genocide.
Sometimes with the far right today--because it is a shadow of the right of past generations--you see a hint of a similar dynamic of mobilizing the people against the left. And to that extent the far right is vulnerable in the same way that the fascists once were: to a left which succeeds at our main task of organizing workers.
There are forces behind the far right which are profound enough so that they will not be satisfied by conventional politics. Moreover, for the time being this synthesis of conservatism and fascism is stable: it seems that we will be facing an enemy of this sort for years to come.
First published at rs21.org.uk.
The book Struggle or Starve documents how the ruling class tries to divide the working class--and how the working class can resist, writes Moira Geary.
Workers pour into the streets of Belfast during the Outdoor Relief strike of 1932
IN STRUGGLE or Starve: Working-Class Unity in Belfast's 1932 Outdoor Relief Riots, Seán Mitchell, a founding member of People Before Profit, the left-wing coalition that has run in elections in both the North and South of Ireland since 2007, resurrects a historical treasure with valuable lessons about the struggle against colonialism, oppression and capitalism in Ireland--and is strikingly relevant to the situation in the U.S.
In 1932, in Belfast--the biggest city in the north of Northern Ireland, one marked by ongoing sectarian tension between Catholics and Protestants that frequently turned violent--workers from both sides of the divide united to fight the ruling class of employers, politicians and police loyal to the British crown and British capitalism.
The solidarity expressed between Catholic and Protestant workers led the communists at the organizational center of the movement to believe that sectarianism had been permanently smashed in Belfast.
But just three years after the strikers emerged victorious, the city was in such a state that reactionary Protestant forces felt emboldened to carry out pogroms against Catholics (and Protestants who associated with them), killing many and evicting thousands from their homes.
Mitchell not only paints a picture of the struggle that shows what solidarity can achieve, but offers rich details about what kinds of organization and action would have been necessary to carry the Outdoor Relief (ODR) strike and riots forward into a movement to permanently replace sectarianism with working-class unity, which could have posed a historical challenge to the Northern Irish state under British control.
Seán Mitchell, Struggle or Starve: Working-Class Unity in Belfast's 1932 Outdoor Relief Riots. Haymarket Books, 2017, 182 pages, $16.95.
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"OUTDOOR RELIEF" was a program to provide aid to unemployed workers that stemmed from the century-old "Indoor Relief," more commonly known as the "poor house" and governed by the British Poor Laws. Mitchell cites Frederick Engels' description of this horrendous system:
To make sure that Relief be applied for only in the most extreme cases and after every other effort had failed, the workhouse has been made the most repulsive residence which the refined ingenuity of a Malthusian can invent. The food is worse than that of the most ill-paid working-man while employed, and the work harder.
After the partition of Ireland in 1920, the Southern state banished workhouses, and Britain abandoned the system a few years later. But it remained in Northern Ireland, with the addition of Outdoor Relief, which didn't require admission into the workhouse.
However, the patronizing ruling-class Board of Guardians that administered the relief schemes "viewed themselves not as representatives of the poor but of the middle and upper classes--the ratepayers who has elected them," writes Mitchell.
The Great Depression, precipitated by the Wall Street Crash of 1929, had a disproportionately devastating impact on Northern Ireland, and Belfast in particular.
While the 1920s were a period of economic boom and expansion of industry for global capitalism as a whole, Belfast as the center of the shipbuilding and linen industries in Northern Ireland saw instead a continual influx of workers that kept unemployment high and wages low even as demand for goods remained stable.
Throughout the 1920s, more and more workers applied for Outdoor Relief. The Board of Guardians' responded by finding ways to restrict aid, and in 1928, they added the requirement of "task work" for relief recipients--a scheme to prove that the unemployed weren't "work-shy" by forcing them to perform grueling, superfluous unpaid labor on the city streets.
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MITCHELL PROVIDES a vivid description of the 1932 strike of those unemployed workers on Outdoor Relief, who were joined by other unemployed and employed workers, and led by small groups of communists called the Revolutionary Workers Groups (RWGs).
Thanks to archival research and firsthand accounts, the book is full of quotes and anecdotes from all sides of the struggle: strikers, the RWGs, the Comintern based in Moscow, the police, the Loyalist state and newspapers of various political leanings.
Several details of the struggle raised important questions about how to organize. Since ODR task work was superfluous to the functioning of the city and created for no other reason than to compel recipients of relief to work--like prisoners splitting boulders--the usual power of workers to cause a shutdown in production and a blow to profit didn't apply to the ODR strikers, since they weren't producing a good that capitalists need to sell.
Additionally, one of the demands of the strike was the abolition of task work itself, so how do you win a strike when your demand is the elimination of the very labor you are ceasing to perform in protest?
The key was solidarity. In order to have a chance of winning--or in fact to have any effect at all--the ODR strike would have to rely on mass mobilization, disruption and solidarity strike action by employed workers.
The strike lasted weeks and involved several rallies and marches of thousands of working-class people. Hundreds of unemployed single men entered the workhouse, causing major disruptions. Strikers voted twice to reject the Board of Guardians' lackluster offers and in favor of continuing to strike and hold out for their demands.
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AFTER THOSE first two offers "failed to stall the movement with concessions, the state decided to crush it through violence and repression," Mitchell writes.
When strikers planned a mass strike rally for October 10, the government announced that the event was banned under the Special Powers Act--a law enacted in 1922 allowing the state to suspend various freedoms and rights. The police started their provocation the night before the rally, patrolled the streets of Belfast, confiscating any materials that could be used to build bonfires.
These police were the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), a Loyalist force that incorporated "special" ranks made up of right-wing paramilitary groups that the government had invited to protect the state--and which, as Mitchell points out, Northern Ireland's own prime minister proudly claimed was "a fascist force in being."
The strikers and those in solidarity with them went ahead with the march, and the RUC responded by baton-charging the marchers, chasing them back into the streets where they lived and setting off a full-blown riot across the city.
In an attempt to reintroduce the sectarianism used to divide and rule the workers, the police practiced restraint in Protestant neighborhoods, but actively pursued, beat and murdered people in the Catholic streets. Mitchell quotes from an internal Communist Party document describing the events:
[T]here was a complete solidarity and interchange of speakers from the Protestant and Catholic areas. When actual fighting began it was undoubtedly heaviest in the Nationalist quarters...But the Government were not successful in isolating the fighting to the Nationalist areas--Shankill Road Unionist area was made a center of much of the fighting with the police.
The rioting continued for the better part of the week, with workers digging up streets and erecting barricades to prevent the police from staying in their armored cars, and smashing street lights so that they could roam freely at night when a curfew was imposed.
On Friday, "with the state of the city still in flux and the threat of a general strike on the horizon, the Unionist government finally 'found' the money to offer the unemployed a deal."
While it didn't meet all of their demands, the strikers voted to accept the deal and end the riots, lest the destruction continue and the pure firepower of the police eventually catch up to their superior solidarity and organization.
Mitchell points out that by the time the striking had turned to rioting, the official leadership of the movement in the RWGs had little involvement, although they defended the workers' right to the actions they took.
"The riots were not the result of a conspiracy on the part of a small group of communists," writes Mitchell, "they were the organic expression of deep anger building up inside of thousands of people, the conscious resistance of a class that would take no more."
However, this is not to understate the influence of organized communists' intervention to turn the struggle in the direction of solidarity. As Mitchell concludes:
In just three months, a small group of revolutionaries had built a mass movement that brought Belfast to a standstill, shaking the Unionist establishment to its core. It was an incredible achievement which, if nothing else, discredited the assumption that Catholics and Protestants would never unite.
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THE IMPORTANCE of the strike and riots is highlighted by what came before and after. In 1920, in the aftermath of a massive defeat of the labor movement and the partition of Ireland into two states, state-encouraged sectarianism led to pogroms where Loyalists drove thousands of workers out of their homes and from their jobs, killed 28, and wounded 1,766.
Again, just three years after the victorious ODR strike, thousands and Catholics and Protestant "sympathizers" were evicted from their homes and terrorized by Loyalist forces in 1935.
Mitchell proposes that instead of a total and drastic change in material conditions, the various strikes and alternating reactionary violence had the same underlying economic causes:
The truth is that the fundamental conditions underlying the deep anger fueling the riots were the same in 1935 as they had been in 1932--poverty, unemployment and a belief that the government was not providing for people...Ultimately, the crucial element that determined the manifest form of this anger--either as vicious sectarianism or as unity against the Unionist elite--was the intervention of organized political forces.
In the chapters that follow the vivid depiction of the ODR strike and riots, Mitchell outlines the various obstacles faced by the organized leadership and the shortcomings of the communists at the front of the movement, which led them to underestimate the importance of building solidarity among rank-and-file trade union members and of continuing to fight sectarianism after the riots ended.
Had their political conclusions been different, Mitchell argues, it might have been possible to prevent the wave of reaction that followed and continue building the working-class movement to greater victories.
The lesson of the ODR strike is that solidarity can overcome divisions like xenophobia, racism and sectarianism, but the ruling class will attempt to crush solidarity if it becomes a threat, and the reaction that comes afterward can amplify hardship even beyond the initial catalyst that prompted people to fight back.
Reading this case study and the essential political analysis presented alongside it provides us on the left with a lesson in the urgency and importance of political intervention here and now, and hope for the victory of the working class against seemingly insurmountable odds.
Cindy Beringer reports on an Austin rally that both celebrated the survival of the Affordable Care Act--and demanded a much better system.
Protesters rally outside the Capitol building in Austin, Texas, to demand universal health care (Indivisible Austin | Facebook)
THE DAY after the U.S. Senate's latest effort to repeal "Obamacare" was defeated, an estimated 250 people in Austin who had planned to protest against the repeal instead braved record Texas heat to celebrate the Republicans' failure and demand health care for all.
The rally at City Hall was anything but a defense of the misnamed "Affordable" Care Act. Preprinted "Medicare for All" signs were everywhere, and many speakers made clear that anything less than health care for all was unacceptable.
Disability rights groups have led the fight against repeal of basic health care rights, and several speakers told compelling stories illustrating what planned cuts or repeal of Medicaid would do to these individuals.
"With Medicaid I can live at home," said one man in a wheelchair.
A speaker for Planned Parenthood Summer of Defiance-Austin vowed to overcome the tradition of sexism in Texas and protest the series of Stone Age attacks on women's reproductive rights that are currently being debated in a special session of the Texas legislature.
After a disability rights activist led the crowd in his song "My Medicaid Matters"--sung to the tune of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic"--we marched, chanted and wheeled our way a few blocks to Congress Avenue.
Lining both sides of one long block facing the Texas Capitol building, we stood behind a "lifeline" on which people clipped their personal health care stories and concerns to be delivered to the state's Republican Sens. John Cornyn and Ted Cruz.
The coalition sponsoring the event included the Children's Defense Fund-Texas, Our Revolution Central TX, Indivisible Austin, Austin DSA, Planned Parenthood, National Women with Disabilities Empowerment Forum, Left Up to US, Personal Attendant Coalition of Texas, Young Invincibles and several others.
If Mitch McConnell had been watching any of the day's proceedings from somewhere in his dungeon, he might have wished he'd kept his nasty cat securely in its bag.
SW contributor Kim Rabuck sent the following article to a local newspaper in Madison, Wisconsin, to make the case against a curfew at a local shopping mall.
THE WEST Towne Mall in Madison, Wisconsin, is instituting a curfew--the "Youth Escort Policy" (YEP)--that requires visitors under 18 years of age to be accompanied by a parent or guardian 21 years or older at all times on Fridays and Saturdays after 4 p.m., or at any other time the policy is in effect. In a brochure, CLB & Associates, the corporation that owns the mall, includes 14 regulations surrounding the curfew's implementation.
My family, friends, co-workers and neighbors are disturbed and angered by the plans of the West Towne Mall owners to restrict access to their shopping centers. We are keenly aware of the thinly veiled racism, classism and discrimination based on age or perceived age that will be perpetrated against our children, who are patrons of this establishment.
Before 1970, whites-only hotels, restaurants, schools, restrooms, etc., constituted the overwhelming majority of institutions in the South. The pain and suffering caused by such racist establishments was rampant and eventually deemed unconstitutional. There were mass struggles carried out by African Americans and anti-racist whites to end the abomination that was Jim Crow.
This new discriminatory policy is already in effect. My 19-year-old coworker and her 20-year-old boyfriend, both people of color of Indian descent, were shopping with a younger white friend and were accosted by mall security, asked for identification and told they would soon be disallowed from the mall after 4 p.m. They were then handed pamphlets regarding the new "curfew." Their white friend was ignored as if she wasn't standing next to them, was not asked for ID, and was not given a pamphlet.
SocialistWorker.org welcomes our readers' contributions to discussion and debate about articles we've published and questions facing the left. Opinions expressed in these contributions don't necessarily reflect those of SW.
This corporate decision will affect my African American 14-year-old child, and has intellectually and emotionally already done so. Racism has reared its ugly head in our neighborhood and was vividly described in a recent TV news program.
A young woman of color was interviewed, explaining why she and her peers shop, eat and hang out at West Towne Mall regularly, and enjoy doing so. Then, an older white male explained that he feels good about the discriminatory curfew as it "will keep the riff-raff out of the malls." The story went on to say that all of the adults the reporter had asked supported the ban. Hopefully, that sampling was small.
This parent and many more will not tolerate open racism in our neighborhood and will make sure it hurts the mall's image and the profits of the stores within. To any readers who might object to this response, take a moment to consider where your objection is coming from.
The multibillion-dollar corporation CLB, owner of more than 100 properties across the country, has instituted YEP in 20 locations, including both of its Milwaukee malls. This decision is happening in our immediate neighborhood, and it will affect our children, as well as older people of color who are going to be asked for identification. People without ID will, according to the mall's owners, be escorted by mall security to a "holding room" where, with the cooperation of the Madison Police Department, they are to be held until picked up by a parent.
Now, our children will be required to carry ID on their persons to shop. Point number 10 of the YEP policy even goes so far as to explain that youth who work at the mall "will be allowed access without a parent or guardian. Proof of work status will be required, and youth employees must go directly to the place of employment and must leave the property at the conclusion of their work shift if after 4:00...or at any other time the policy is in effect."
So stores can exploit young people as low-wage workers, but they cannot be present in the mall outside of that time when they're being exploited. It would appear that these employees cannot even go to the food court to eat during their breaks.
Where next--Walgreens, McDonald's, Pizza Hut, Target, the Holiday Inn? None of these corporations have suggested such a ban, but the slippery slope, especially in Madison, should be pretty obvious to all of us.
The intense struggles at Woolworth's lunch counters that were required to desegregate them--with young Black students being spat upon, screamed at and assaulted--keep flashing in my mind's eye. I'm guessing we all recall those protests--and if not, we should pick up A People's History of the United States or another quality history book and become aquatinted with them.
This "curfew" is an openly discriminatory policy and needs to be objected to and stopped before it spreads.
There’s a new bill in Congress that would threaten your right to free expression online. If that weren’t enough, it could also put small Internet businesses in danger of catastrophic litigation.
Don’t let its name fool you: the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA, S. 1693) wouldn’t help punish sex traffickers. What the bill would do (PDF) is expose any person, organization, platform, or business that hosts third-party content on the Internet to the risk of overwhelming criminal and civil liability if sex traffickers use their services. For small Internet businesses, that could be fatal: with the possibility of devastating litigation costs hanging over their heads, we think that many entrepreneurs and investors will be deterred from building new businesses online.
Make no mistake: sex trafficking is a real, horrible problem. This bill is not the way to address it. Lawmakers should think twice before passing a disastrous law and endangering free expression and innovation.
SESTA would weaken 47 U.S.C. § 230, as enacted by the Communications Decency Act (commonly known as "CDA 230" or simply “Section 230”), one of the most important laws protecting free expression online.
You might remember the fight over the Communications Decency Act of 1996 (CDA), a law designed to put harsh restrictions on free speech over the Internet. The bill passed despite overwhelming opposition from Internet users, but with EFF’s help, the bill’s censorship provisions were gutted by the Supreme Court in 1997.
One key piece of the bill that remained was Section 230. Section 230 deals with intermediaries—individuals, companies, and organizations that provide a platform for others to share speech and content over the Internet. Section 230 says that for purposes of enforcing certain laws affecting speech online, an intermediary cannot be held legally responsible for any content created by others. The law thus protects intermediaries against a range of laws that might otherwise be used to hold them liable for what others say and do on their platforms.
Section 230 laid the groundwork for the explosion in U.S. Internet business that’s taken place over the past two decades. Think of how many websites or services you use host third-party content in some way—social media sites, photo and video-sharing apps, newspaper comment sections, and even community mailing lists. All of those providers rely on Section 230. Without Section 230, these businesses might have to review every bit of content a user wanted to publish to make sure that the content would not be illegal or create a risk of civil liability. It’s easy to see how such measures would stifle completely lawful speech.
If SESTA becomes law, it will place that very burden on intermediaries. Although large intermediaries may have the resources to take on this monumental task, small startups don’t. Internet startups—a major growth engine in today’s economy—would become much more dangerous investments. Web platforms run by nonprofit and community groups, which serve as invaluable outlets for free expression and knowledge sharing, would be equally at risk.Giving States a Censorship Pass
While SESTA’s purpose may be only to fight sex trafficking, it brings a deeper threat to many types of free expression online. The bill would create an exception to Section 230 for enforcement of any state criminal law targeting sex trafficking activities. It would also add an exemption for federal civil law relating to sex trafficking (as it stands now, Section 230 already doesn’t apply to federal criminal law, including laws against trafficking and receiving money from child sex trafficking).
There’s a long history of states passing extremely broad censorship laws in the name of combatting trafficking.
Let’s unpack that. Under SESTA, states would be able to enact laws that censor the Internet in broad ways. As long as those laws claim to target sex traffickers, states could argue that they’re exempt from Section 230 protections. As Eric Goldman points out in his excellent analysis of SESTA, Congress should demand an inventory of existing state laws that would fall into this new loophole before even thinking about opening it.
There’s a long history of states passing extremely broad censorship laws in the name of combatting trafficking. Just this year, legislators in numerous states introduced the Human Trafficking Prevention Act, a bill that has nothing to do with human trafficking and everything to do with censoring sexual expression. Imagine all of the ways in which state lawmakers would attempt to take advantage of SESTA to curb online speech in their states. If they can convince a judge that the state law targets sex trafficking, then SESTA applies. That would create a ton of uncertainty for Internet intermediaries.Two Bad Choices for Online Platforms
It gets worse.
Section 230 contains a “Good Samaritan” provision that protects intermediaries when they take measures to filter or block certain types of content. This section ensures that intermediaries are not punished for mistakes they might make in removing or failing to remove user-generated content. In other words, a service blocking some content does not make it liable for what it didn’t block.
SESTA would compromise the Good Samaritan provision by imposing federal criminal liability on anyone who merely knows that sex trafficking advertisements are on their platform. Platforms would thus be discouraged from reviewing the content posted by their users, cancelling out the incentive to review, filter and remove provided by the Good Samaritan provision.
That puts companies that run online content platforms in a difficult bind. Any attempt to enforce community conduct guidelines could be used as evidence that the company knew of trafficking taking place on its service. (As we mentioned above, federal criminal law already applies to intermediaries.) The two choices facing platforms would seem to be to put extremely restrictive measures in place compromising their users’ free speech and privacy, or to do nothing at all.Weakening Safe Harbors Chills Innovation
When considering a policy regulating Internet businesses, it’s always good to ask yourself whether it would bar new players from competing with established ones. Placing overly burdensome requirements on startups has the effect of reinforcing the dominance of incumbent companies.
Indeed, one of the benefits of safe harbors is that they allow intermediaries to enter the market with very limited resources. Without Section 230 (and its corollary in the world of copyright, Section 512 of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act), the explosion in social media sites and apps would not have happened—or at least the space would look very different than it does today. Facebook, Snapchat, Airbnb, and countless other popular online services began as tiny two- or three-person companies. Without the protections in Section 230, a single lawsuit over the actions of one of its users could have destroyed one of those companies in its early stages. Compromising Section 230 would be catastrophic for high-growth startups.
If Congress doesn’t hear from us in the next day or two, they’ll make the mistake of thinking of this dangerous bill as an easy, uncontroversial win.
One company in particular has been central to the discussion around SESTA, the controversial classified ads site Backpage. But as Mike Masnick points out in Techdirt, the Department of Justice already has the authority to prosecute Backpage if it breaks federal criminal law. And besides, Backpage has shut down its “adult services” section and those users have moved on to other platforms. What’s more, a federal grand jury is now considering indicting Backpage under current criminal law. It would be a mistake for Congress to enact a law that would burden every intermediary, not only bad actors.Tell Congress: Save Section 230
It’s time to act. The Senate bill has 24 sponsors already, nearly a quarter of the Senate. We’re afraid that its supporters are seeking to rush it through quickly so that they can claim it as a rare bipartisan victory during this year of Congressional gridlock.
There’s been a similar bill in the House of Representatives (H.R. 1865) since April. The House bill is even more frightening than SESTA: it defines the state law exemption to Section 230 even more broadly than SESTA does, and it creates a new federal crime specifically designed to prosecute intermediaries.
Everyone wants to combat human trafficking. If Congress doesn’t hear from us in the next day or two, they’ll make the mistake of thinking of this dangerous bill as an easy, uncontroversial win.
Twenty years ago, the Internet came together against a fundamental threat to free speech online. We won, and in the process, we got one of the most important protections for speech and innovation on the Internet. It’s time to come together again. Let’s tell Congress not to make a short-sighted political decision that would spell disaster for the Internet.
This weekend Apple took a dispiriting step in the policing of its Chinese mainland App store: the company removed several Virtual Private Network (VPN) applications that allowed users to circumvent the China’s extensive internet censorship apparatus. In effect, the company has once again aided the Chinese government in its censorship campaign against its own citizens.
A commercial VPN is a private service that offers to securely relay your internet communications via their own network. The advantage of using a VPN is that all of the data you send and receive is hidden from local networks. VPNs may be hosted in a foreign country, which is useful both for protecting communications from a local government, and bypassing national censorship. It is primarily the VPNs’ censorship circumvention properties that make them threatening to the Chinese government.
Apple’s iOS has VPN capabilities built-in, but in recent years China has blocked such standard VPN protocols across their network. This has led to an explosion of applications that use their own unique methods for wrapping and encrypting iOS data. There’s only one way to provide such tools on Apple’s mobile devices, which is via the company’s centralized App Store: once removed by Apple, iPhones and iPads have no way to reach blocked foreign sites (including Google services, Facebook, and independent sources from the New York Times to Human Rights Watch).
Apple’s CEO, Tim Cook, said that he was hopeful that the restrictions would be lessened over time. But how reasonable is that hope? Is China’s recent crackdown on VPNs a foreshadowing of an even more restricted domestic internet for Chinese users and businesses, or a temporary blip that companies like Apple and independent VPN providers might expect to be able to ride out?
Enforcement of China’s internet censorship policies has historically waxed and waned, depending on the authorities’ concerns over domestic political unrest. Crackdowns can be triggered by concerns over a one-time event, such as the Beijing Olympics in 2008, or regularly-occurring events such as the Communist Party Congress or the June 4 anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests. Crackdowns have usually been followed by an easing of restrictions after the politically-sensitive event has passed. However, since the beginning of Xi Jinping’s presidency, there have been indications that the Great Firewall as a technology, and its surrounding regulatory prohibitions, have changed in emphasis from a filter that was relatively easy for businesses, academics, and dedicated netizens to evade, into a far more draconian censorship and surveillance system.
The regulation most often cited as the grounds for the current crackdown on App Store VPNs is a temporary one, promulgated by the The Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) in February of this year as part of a “cleansing” of the Internet. Its order, which forbids the use of unauthorized VPNs for “cross-border activities,” expires in March 2018. That period would cover the 20th anniversary of the handing over of Hong Kong to China in July, as well as the meeting of China’s 19th Communist Party Congress in November. Chinese citizens have blamed both events as the reason for the tightening of China’s internet rules.
VPNs have always been the bellwether for shifts in these firewall policies. The implementation and unlicensed use of VPNs to bypass local censorship has been prohibited in China since at least 2002. Nonetheless, for many years, individual users, private companies, and even tourist-friendly hotel chains were permitted to use them with little consequence. From 2011 onwards, however, the Great Firewall was upgraded to block VPNs by detecting their protocol, rather than on a per server basis.
This escalation crossed a line that Chinese censorship had previously avoided: rather than being a road bump to prevent popular access to forbidden foreign content, the pervasive blocking of VPNs affects small businesses, university researchers, and high-up Party members.
China’s pressure on Apple to remove consumer VPNs will ratchet up that disruption. Just as their filtering of VPN protocols shepherded users to non-standard VPN implementations in the app store, iOS users will have to seek alternative solutions, including, perhaps, switching to Android and taking advantage of VPNs sold in the over four hundred unofficial Android marketplaces, many of which sprang up after Google’s Play store was blocked in October of 2011.
By locking down their devices, Apple can be forced to strip a feature—access to the full, global internet—from its own products. When the manufacturer controls what kind of software you can have on your devices, it creates a single chokepoint for free expression and privacy. It is Apple’s pursuit of a “Crystal Prison” model for its hardware that has led to the unpleasant compromise it’s making.
Ultimately, both Apple and the Chinese censors face a barrage of pressures, from each other, and from Chinese technology users. If Apple makes too great a stand against the China’s laws, it could be thrown out of the country. But if China pushes its censorship system too hard, it will have to face the growing frustrations of its own elite. No matter how large China’s internal net is, the country is not yet an information autarky. There’s still some hope that this crackdown will recede when the political climate improves.
How will we know which way the wind is blowing? The best indication will probably come from the Apple App Store at the end of the year, once the 19th Communist Party Congress is over. If commercial VPNs are quietly added back to the store, this move may be part of the regular ebb and flow of censorship in China. If the VPNs remain absent, it may signal an even darker turn for Chinese internet censorship, one in which Apple may find itself permanently complicit.
Did one Stupid Patent of the Month winner enforce its patent in an exceptional manner, so much so that it has to pay defendants’ attorneys’ fees? That is a question a court in the Eastern District of Texas is being asked to decide, with a public hearing on the matter scheduled for August 15, 2017.
We’d like to tell you why the defendants think they should win, but unfortunately we can’t. We’d also like to tell you why the patent owner, My Health Inc., thinks the defendants should lose, but again we can’t. The facts, law, and the parties’ arguments were filed completely under seal.
Because we believe that the parties have no legitimate reason to keep the vast majority of this information from the public, EFF has moved to intervene [PDF] in the case in order to defend the public’s First Amendment and common law rights of access to court records.
Court records are vital to understanding the current state of patent litigation. EFF regularly relies on court filings to report on issues of public concern, and to gather data and facts to help us better advocate on behalf of the public interest. More importantly, as one court said, “[p]ublic confidence [in our judicial system] cannot long be maintained where important judicial decisions are made behind closed doors and then announced in conclusive terms to the public, with the record supporting the court’s decision sealed from public view.”
Sometimes, there are good reasons why certain information filed with a court should not be made public. For example, sometimes the name of an anonymous speaker should not be revealed even if someone sues them. But it is rarely appropriate to keep entire briefs, arguments, and judicial opinions hidden from public view.
This is yet another instance—unfortunately, common in courts across the country—of papers submitted to the court being kept from the public, despite no showing having been made to the court that such secrecy is deserved. EFF has twice moved to unseal records in patent cases in the Eastern District of Texas, and twice courts have unsealed materials that never should have been completely sealed in the first place. We hope we once again succeed at shining even just a little more light on one patent owner’s attempt to enforce what we believe to be a stupid patent.
Require Police to Purge Their Databases of Innocent Citizens’ Personal Information, EFF Tells Virginia Supreme Court
License plates are more than numbers and letters you display on your car. When police photograph your license plate, scan it, record the precise times and locations of the scans, and store all that information indefinitely in a database, they can search this information to piece together your movements and travel patterns. It’s highly personal information that reveals where we go, who we visit, and other details of our private lives.
Yesterday we filed an amicus brief asking the Virginia Supreme Court to hold that the state’s law enforcement agencies must purge plate information they collect using Automated License Plate Readers (ALPRs) because it’s personal information. A state law called the Government Data Collection & Dissemination Practices Act, enacted in response to concerns over the increasing use of technologies by governments and companies to compile detailed information about citizens’ private lives, requires agencies to delete personal information. We want the court to protect our privacy and establish that the bar is high for the police to retain personal information.
Mounted on squad cars and at fixed, roadside locations such as street lights, ALPRs are sophisticated camera systems that read license plates and record the time, date, and location a particular car was encountered. ALPRs typically have a continuous connection to a computer server and, in many cases, are never turned off. They can scan up to 1,600 plates per minute, capturing the plate numbers of millions of innocent, law-abiding drivers who aren’t under any kind of investigation and just living their daily lives.
The data can be mingled with other law enforcement database and enable police to learn where we are and when, whether it’s at our house of worship, our doctor’s office, a political meeting, or a gun show. Harrison Neal, a resident of Fairfax County in Virginia, is concerned by these ongoing privacy violations. The Fairfax County Police Department uses ALPRs that read every license plate that goes by, and stores the records for up to a year. Mr. Neal’s plate was collected at least twice. He sued with the help of the ACLU of Virginia, arguing that the Data Act requires the police to purge their ALPR data. (In California, a 2015 law supported by EFF also added data collected by ALPR as “personal information.”)
A judge in Fairfax County threw the case out, ruling that ALPR data isn’t “personal information” under the state’s Data Act, in one of the first such rulings of its kind in the nation. A license plate number can lead police to a vehicle, not a person, the judge reasoned. The decision flouts a finding by the Virginia Attorney General’s office, which determined ALPR data that wasn’t immediately linked to a criminal investigation was “personal information” protected by the law.
The judge’s interpretation belies the reality of modern life and widespread government surveillance, in which our private, personal information is constantly being collected, stored and aggregated—and is a magnet for law enforcement. Police claim ALPR data can help them locate suspects and solve crimes. But the overwhelming majority of the billions of plates and vehicle locations collected by ALPRs belong to innocent people who have committed no crime. A 2009 joint project between the Fairfax Police Department and the Virginia State Police found a high error rate in license plate readers—a scan of 69,000 vehicles produced 12 bogus hits and recovered four stolen vehicles, a success rate of far less than one percent. Yet police query ALPR data for months or even years after it was collected.
Citizens need strong policies and statutes that push back against law enforcement’s attitude that ALPR data isn’t private because licenses are in plain sight, and that collected data should be kept for months or years on the off chance that it might someday be used to investigate a crime. We hope the Virginia Supreme Court leads the way, and recognizes that ALPR data reveals highly detailed pictures of our daily lives and associations and that data collected on non-criminals is personal information and should be promptly purged.
EFF thanks the Brennan Center for Justice for joining our amicus brief, and Matthew Erausquin of Consumer Litigation Associates, P.C., for serving as our local counsel.Related Cases: Neal v. Fairfax County Police Department