Author: Chris

Amazon’s Underbelly 2.0: Our Government’s Faustian Bargain for Cloud Storage

This is Part II in a three-part series looking at the impacts of Amazon on government, surveillance and the democratic process. Read the first part here.

If you ask Americans who controls the majority of the cloud storage market share, they’ll likely call out Silicon Valley giants such as Facebook, Google and Microsoft. But in fact it is Amazon that reigns supreme in the cloud computing world.

As I discuss in my previous article for this series, Amazon actively sells surveillance technology to our government. Additionally, Amazon is unmatched in providing cloud storage to our government, gubernatorial organizations and local municipalities.

THE PATH TO POWER

Amazon has had a head start in the cloud market since its inception. To his credit, CEO Jeff Bezos realized about a decade ago that storing information on the Internet was cheaper and more efficient than storing information in traditional warehouses.

In 2006, Amazon formed its cloud computing branch of operations: Amazon Web Services, or AWS. After moving his information to cloud storage, Bezos began to expand and offer the space to other customers, namely, our government.

In 2010, the Obama administration started advocating for data storage in the cloud instead of brick-and-mortar data centers as a way to cut costs. Amazon was well-poised to provide the cloud space because of its substantial lead over competitors. Soon after the announcement, the company successfully snagged an opportunity to host Recovery.gov (www.recovery.gov), the agency website tasked with overseeing the use of stimulus money. Amazon’s business with the government, and its revenues, swelled.

“Since the announcement of Recovery.gov last March,” wrote Jeff Barr in a 2010 AWS News Blog, “Amazon has seen an accelerating adoption of the cloud by our Federal customers. These include Treasury.gov, the Federal Register 2.0 at the National Archives, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program at USDA, the openEI.org project at DoE’s National Renewable Energy Lab, and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at NASA.”

In 2013, Amazon began to form cozy deals with the government to use its cloud services. For one, it designated a secret region of the cloud especially for the CIA, earning a particularly lucrative contract from the agency worth $600 million dollars. Amazon now serves all 17 agencies of the intelligence community and provides commercial cloud capability across all classification levels: from unclassified to sensitive, secret and top secret.

A LINE BETWEEN COMPANY AND GOVERNMENT?

The company’s expansion into our government continues to this day. Now Amazon claims that over 2,000 government agencies are using AWS. Federal agencies such as the Department for Veterans Affairs, Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, NASA JPL and the U.S. Department of Defense are all clients. So are state and local institutions like the City of Chicago, the New York Public Library and the City of Los Angeles, all of whom depend on AWS for cloud computing services.

Securing its regional and local dominance, in January 2017 the company won a contract with U.S. Communities – a coalition of 90,000 local governments.

Today, AWS dominates no less than one-third of the worldwide cloud market. The IT research firm Gartner shows figures much higher, revealing that AWS’s quadrant showed it captured 83 percent of the cloud computing infrastructure market. Amazon controls such a dizzying market share because of the almost-guaranteed patronage of the U.S. government.

Continuing this trend, the online behemoth is currently in line to sign a staggering $10 billion contract with the Defense Department, known as Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure (JEDI). All bids were due in October 2018 and a decision is expected to be made this April. Other companies, from IBM to Oracle, have filed protests stating that the solicitation has been uncompetitive. The Government Accountability Office has since ruled against Oracle, allowing the process to move forward.

Amazon is also poised to serve as a portal for government purchases. Last year, a provision in a law passed by Congress required the General Services Administration (GSA) to set up “commercial e-commerce portals” for government purchase orders costing less than $25,000. This law became known as the “Amazon amendment” among critics.

Amazon didn’t earn this deal based on merit or business acumen. Instead, it used its political influence to change the outcome. As The Guardian revealed, in 2017, the head of Amazon Business’s public sector division, Anne Rung, privately advised on the GSA internet portal before the legislation was finalized and the company was chosen. Coincidentally, Rung was a former official in the Obama administration and she even ran the Office of Management and Budget’s Federal Procurement Policy office before joining Amazon.

Technically, there is nothing illegal about all this (there isn’t a law, yet, banning Washington’s revolving door). But the fact is Amazon is receiving advantages that other stakeholders, such as public interest groups, are not receiving.

Not only that, Amazon won another contract to become the chief supplier of goods like stationery and books to thousands of local governments and municipalities – a contract worth up to $5.5 billion.

It’s safe to say the government has become Amazon’s best customer, providing a steady stream of commerce that has been most lucrative for the company.

LACKING TRANSPARENCY, WHERE WE GO FROM HERE

Last year, AWS generated $1.4 billion in operating income for Amazon in Q1 alone. Later that year the figure increased by 46 percent to $6.7 billion.

Amazon’s lack of transparency about the expansion of its cloud storage is disappointing – but not surprising. Despite all the information we have on AWS and its quid pro quo relationship with our government, we still don’t know the sheer magnitude of its size and scope.

This because most of the information remains classified – including its CIA contract – due to Amazon’s refusal to reveal intricate details of its contracts and deals. Amazon often declines to comment about how much of its business is connected to the federal government. It’s only through FOIA requests that we are able to glean the partial information that is available.

Are we comfortable, as citizens, entrusting an untrustworthy, mega of mega-companies with the responsibility of storing information for our local and federal government? We were never given a choice in the matter, much less a say. Even more concerning, Amazon’s invasive surveillance technology, like Rekognition and Alexa, sends information to similar clouds to be processed and matched to a database.

The fact that Amazon has become the de facto government provider for both surveillance technology and cloud storage is a troubling development that signals a disturbing relationship between business and the officials who run our state. It was Benito Mussolini’s ghostwriter, Giovanni Gentile, who stated that “fascism should more appropriately be called corporatism, because it is a merger of state and corporate power.”

One need look no further than the future location of Amazon’s HQ2 – in Arlington County, Virginia, one mile south of the Pentagon to observe this encroaching merger. The symbolism of the symbiosis between state and corporate power couldn’t be clearer.

Our government, and the officials we elect, are addicted to the line of supporting free-market economics at all costs. But in reality, that government consistently prefers to cut deals with corporations that operate surreptitiously and clandestinely. We, as citizens, must remain vigilant or we may soon be faced with a monster too big to take down.

Amazon’s Underbelly 1.0: Bolstering the Surveillance State with Rekognition

When most people hear Amazon, they think of an online store that features easy, one-click retail sales, convenient two-day shipping and millions of downloadable e-books. They picture a cute smiley logo.

However, this is only the small, visible part of Amazon’s iceberg of revenue and influence. In the underbelly beneath the surface lies the company’s true operation: cloud data storage and the development of advanced surveillance tools for governments.

Amazon is actively working to sell a new type of facial recognition technology, known as Rekognition, to various branches of government and municipalities.

Rekognition has plenty of abilities and uses that are admittedly innocuous: the creation of searchable video and image libraries; user verification; detection of explicit content in images and videos; extraction of text from images, videos and banners; and identification of vehicles based on license plate numbers. It also recognizes popular celebrities.

Other uses are more disconcerting. Rekognition claims that it can detect emotions such as happy, sad or surprise. It also asserts that it can determine demographic information of a person, such as gender, from facial images alone. The software can analyze these images and send the emotional and demographic information to a section of Amazon Web Services, or AWS – its Internet hosting service.

Rekognition is also capable of recognizing faces in a crowd, and compares and stores them in a database container called “a face collection.”

“With Amazon Rekognition,” the website continues, “you can search images, stored videos, and streaming videos for faces that match those stored in a container known as a face collection. A face collection is an index of faces that you own and manage.”

The potential abuse of this software for surveillance and data harvesting purposes is so troubling that some of Amazon’s shareholders have pleaded with the company to forgo selling the facial recognition technology to the government.

Their letter of protest, however, was submitted too late. To date, Rekognition has already been sold to two local law enforcement agencies: the Washington County Sheriff’s Office, in Oregon, and the Orlando Police Department in Florida.

The technology is now in its second pilot in Orlando after its first attempt was canceled following resounding citizen oppositionAccording to documents obtained by Buzzfeed through a FOIA request, Amazon provided “tens of thousands of dollars of technology to [Orlando] at no cost,” and shielded the city with a “mutual nondisclosure agreement that kept details out of the public eye.”

Buzzfeed also learned that Amazon provided no hands-on training to the officers. Amazon declined to answer on-record if the system learns from the videos it takes in, if they provided hands-on training to officers, or how the system disregards faces that are not “persons of interest.”

Washington County, which has used Rekognition for about a year and a half, claims the technology is helpful in finding “persons of interest” through existing mugshots, and helping investigate Amber alerts. According to the sheriff’s office, state law doesn’t permit the use of technology for mass or real-time surveillance.

However, the term “persons of interest,” used by both departments, is conveniently vague and nebulous enough that it may apply to just about anyone – even those without a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity. The stakes are incredibly high when officers entrust a nascent piece of technology to inform them to make instant, life-or-death decisions.

Additionally, Amazon is pitching its Rekognition software to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Although it seems this could streamline the government’s maintenance of records, there is also potential for significant errors and discrimination.

ICE already uses biometrics (fingerprints) in its documentation and cataloguing of undocumented immigrants. But the use of fingerprints has come under intense scrutiny for targeting undocumented immigrants for deportation. The misuse and lack of oversight has motivated a group of lawyers to sue ICE and submit FOIA requests to explain its oversight procedure. Facial recognition technology will likely continue this worrisome trend.

But Rekognition may not even help the police and ICE for the simple reason that it is inconsistent and inaccurate.

The ACLU ran a test in which it built a face database and search tool using 25,000 publicly available arrest photos. Then, the organization searched that database against public photos of every current member of the House and Senate. In its test, the ACLU found that Amazon’s Rekognition software incorrectly matched 28 members of Congress with mugshots of others who have been arrested for a crime.

About 40 percent of Rekognition’s false matches in this test were people of color. Of these members, six of the incorrect matches were individuals from the Congressional Black Caucus, including civil rights leader Rep. John Lewis – a celebrity the technology arguably should recognize.

Given the Trump administration’s dismal performance – failure in enforcing border security, managing undocumented immigrants’ families, and restraining ICE’s terrorization of communities of color – paired with the software’s proven potential for racial bias, the adoption of this technology is particularly concerning and should be grounds for rejection of its use outright.

Furthermore, the government is now testing the technology for use within the FBI, which would allow federal agents to sift through videos and images more quickly than ever before. It will also allow the FBI to build a system to automate the identification and tracking of any citizen. If the FBI adopts the nebulous term “persons of interest,” as our municipal police precincts have done, the nation’s most powerful and pervasive law enforcement body would have free rein to target whomever it likes.

But Amazon’s surveillance rampage doesn’t stop there. Rekognition is coming to homes as well.

Amazon has submitted a patent to pair Rekognition and databases with a doorbell company called Ring, which, incidentally, Amazon bought earlier in 2018. With Ring and Rekognition combined, police can match the faces of people walking by the camera with a photo database of people that they deem “suspicious.” Homeowners can add photos of “suspicious” people and if a match occurs, the person’s face can be sent automatically to law enforcement.

Again, without legislative or judicial oversight, and without precedent, terms “suspicious” and “persons of interest” can quickly swell to include a large number of people who are not criminals.

The fact that Amazon is providing the surveillance software to catalog, document and match personal information, along with the cloud storage to store it all, is emblematic of an unsettling initiative where big business and big government work together to enact a pervasive surveillance state.

At the very least, Amazon’s spokespeople, federal government officials and local municipalities must be held accountable to provide fixed and honest answers about the real intentions of these devices. More importantly, they need to tell us how the government would specifically utilize these tools.

At the same time, citizens must ask how tools like Rekognition will benefit them – and demand assurances that they aren’t simply being used to consolidate government and corporate power over our lives. Given the current political climate, and in respect of the Fourth Amendment, this technology shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near our federal government in the first place.

Regime Change in Venezuela, but Human Suffering Continues

Occupy.com 2/15/2019

Regime Change in Venezuela, But Human Suffering Continues

The situation is indeed bleak in Venezuela. The crisis has been particularly harmful to Venezuelan citizens who face chronic food shortages, lack of access to medicine, crumbling and unstable transportation systems, hyperinflation, political unrest, violence and inadequate health care. A massive number of citizens have fled the country in order to escape the instability. But something must be done to rectify the suffering of the Venezuelan people.

U.S. RECIPE FOR REGIME CHANGE

Fortunately, the United States government is on the case. It has a tried-and-true approach to handling these messy matters and it has a proven track record to boot. The general tactic is simple:

• Fund opposition groups and covertly send them armaments.

• Politically denounce the regime in power or opposition group (whichever is in contrast to United States interests).

• Diplomatically isolate the regime.

• Ideologically condemn the country (typically left-wing governments).

• Economically ravage the country and its citizens with sanctions and blockades.

• “Stabilize” the country by installing a leader (typically a right-wing dictator) that will acquiesce to United States interests.
Time and again our government has followed this approach in Central and South America, and the results speak for themselves. Here are a few brief examples:

NICARAGUA

President Ronald Reagan signed legislation to covertly support Contra forces against the reigning Sandinistas. He also supported the production and shipment of arms to the area. Around 10,000 to 43,000 people were killed in that war.

EL SALVADOR

The Reagan and Carter administrations provided military aid to the government. The United States sent military advisers to help the right-wing government combat left-wing guerrillas. Around 75,000 civilians lost their lives in that war.

GUATEMALA

President Eisenhower, under pressure from the United Fruit Company, authorized the CIA (operation PBSUCCESS) to aid in the overthrow of the democratically elected left-wing Jacobo Arbenz. They succeeded and installed a right-wing dictator, Carlos Castillo Armas. Many social reforms were reversed and decades of civil war ensued. About 200,000 civilians died in this civil war, including the genocide of the Maya population.

CHILE

The CIA covertly spent approximately $3 million to oppose the democratically-elected President Salvador Allende. After providing military aid to the Chilean armed forces in order to overthrow him, the U.S. installed a right-wing dictator, Augusto Pinochet, and supported him throughout his tenure. Tens of thousands of Chileans were disappeared, tortured, jailed or executed.

Similar tactics were employed in other countries such as Argentina, Brazil, Cuba and many others. The fact is, the United States has routinely taken covert, drastic action to alter the political course of events in countries around the world – but it put emphasis on those that were in its “backyard,” Latin America. It has made these decisions without regard to their practicality, the financial resources required, the will of the local population, the potential death toll, and most importantly, the human suffering these actions would ultimately cause and continue causing long after the fact.

The U.S. government won’t ask for our – the public’s – opinion because it doesn’t want to hear it. It never did. Washington is going to do what it wants regardless. The case of Venezuela today appears no different.

U.S. SETS SIGHTS ON VENEZUELA

President Trump and his top aides have repeatedly noted that “all options are on the table” regarding Venezuela. Bear in mind that “all options are on the table” is a platitude long used by presidents and national security advisors to indicate that military action is imminent or perhaps already in motion. Here’s what our government has already done to destabilize the regime of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro:

• Given opposition leader Juan Guaido some control over Venezuelan assets.

• Sent humanitarian aid via trucks.

• Officially recognized the President of the Venezuelan National Assembly, Juan Guaido, as Interim President.

• Imposed sanctions on the Venezuelan state-owned oil firm PDVSA.

The U.S. government, in short, is employing its tried-and-true approach in lock step. But this time, Washington’s world planners didn’t even offer us the traditional courtesy of spinning a nice story soaked in military and geopolitical jargon. Instead, it has become increasingly steadfast and grotesquely candid in its pursuit to acquire Venezuela’s oil reserves.

National Security Adviser John Bolton recently stated, “Venezuela is one of the three countries I call the troika of tyranny. It will make a big difference to the United States economically if we could have American oil companies really invest in and produce the oil capabilities in Venezuela. It’d be good for the people of Venezuela. It’d be good for the people of the United States.”

CONGRESSIONAL SUPPORT FOR INTERVENTION

Democrats who now control the House could ultimately step up to try and stop Team Trump’s crazy antics. During Trump’s recent State of the Union address, they stayed seated, unified and many of them clad in white, when Trump reiterated his plans to build the wall. They stayed seated as well when he mentioned introducing legislation to prohibit late-term abortion.

But as soon as Trump barked out his support for an alternative government in Venezuela, they rose in near unison with Republicans, clapping like seals in support. Our country is so divided, on so many issues, yet intervening in foreign countries is a united addiction we just can’t tear ourselves away from.

Granted, there has been some congressional resistance to the use of military force in Venezuela. But the resistance is not sufficient to stop our government on its current war path.

DOUBLE STANDARDS

All of which begs the question: How does our government decide when to get involved and when not to? For example, why didn’t Washington intervene militarily in Brazil? Brazil has been rife with political turmoil, upheaval and unrest over the past decade. President Dilma Rousseff was the target of a highly controversial and politically driven impeachment trial, and the populist Lula de Silva was the victim of an even more controversial arrest and incarceration. The country’s new president, Jair Bolsonaro – a polemic character who has come under scrutiny for his intense far-right stances, comments and policies – was narrowly elected after winning a runoff vote.

Why hasn’t our government stepped in to help the poor people of Brazil? It’s simple: Brazil doesn’t have the easily marketable resources – ie. oil – that Venezuela has and therefore isn’t crucial to U.S. economic interests. Our government only intervenes if there is a strategic economic or military advantage for doing so.

CITIZEN CONSENT AND CONSEQUENCES

No matter your stance on the current sociopolitical and economic crisis in Venezuela, the American public should be duly informed and have a say in the actions of its government. And as United Nations members politely tap their gavels in air conditioned and elaborately decorated rooms; as national advisers sit in their office buildings conveniently shielded from the horrors of everyday strife; as presidents callously issue orders behind bulletproof glass; and as state department memos are meticulously drafted in basements monitored by security officers, human suffering continues. The governments of the world are out of touch with the consequences of their actions.

The needs of a country’s citizenry are never considered when governments and important advisers posture for power and position. Far worse, the victims of their terrible decisions are never asked their opinion, and never will be asked. The everyday person will continue to be used as a pawn in global leaders’ endless chess game: dispensable, replaceable, negligible.

Only when we return the focus to exposing and rectifying the human suffering as a result of our government’s policies will we begin to heal and carry out effective solutions to these dynamic issues.

JCPOA: Iran nuclear deal under threat

Source

Iran has issued some bleak threats in the face of the looming “repeal” of the JCPOA in the United States. Trump has indicated that he will not renew the deal in May 12 unless Iran accepts new restrictions. Iran has made clear that they have no intention of doing this.

No duh – that’s what an agreement is. You don’t add stipulations one way without expecting something in return. For the U.S. to expect Iran to accept new restrictions just because is just asinine.

In fact, the Iranian leader, Mr. Zarif, has claimed that the United States has violated protocol and is in no position to make such demands.

Zarif said:

“The US is sending a very dangerous message to the people of Iran and the people of the world. It says you never come to an agreement with the US.

“The situation is creating an impression globally that agreements don’t matter.”

The JCPOA, Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, was a deal reached with Iran and other permanent United Nation members. It basically removed the economic sanctions on Iran and in return Iran would reduce its nuclear stockpiles significantly (cut its medium-enriched stockpile completely and its low-enriched stockpile by 98%).

I can almost sense John Bolton whispering in Trump’s ear. Don’t renew this deal so that we can increase our chances of having a delicious war. It is a valid fear, as impetuous as Trump is, that this deal will fall apart. Trump and Bolton (and others) may be upset that the Iranian regime is involved in Syria, but this political posturing will only continue to make it worse for the everyday person.

That is what governments do: They take imbecilic and sophomoric action on behalf of their citizens without actually having their approval. In the end, it’s US that suffer the consequences, not the U.S.

The war lines are starting to be drawn. In one corner, Russia, China, Syria, Iran, maybe North Korea.

In the other corner, NATO, Israel, South Korea, and the United States.

Nixing this deal with only exacerbate the conditions for war.

 

Journalists who want online privacy need to read this guide

Originally published on November 2, 2017 on occupy.com

We live in a time of journalistic prosecution, as investigative journalists get increasingly targeted for simply doing their job. The Obama Administration prosecuted more individuals under the Espionage Act than all previous administrations combined; in fact, it used the law to prosecute journalists almost exclusively.

It is imperative that journalists protect themselves as they continue to pursue their important work in the face of growing government control. That is why Michael Dagan, a former deputy editor of the Israeli newspaper Haaertz, and Ariel Hochstadt, a former security expert as well as a marketing expert for Google, have created a guide, Online Privacy for Journalists, to help journalists protect both themselves and their sources.

“Many journalists whom I have spoken with recently expressed concern for whatever lies ahead for the freedom of the press. All encryption systems can be compromised, if someone has the perseverance to track them,” writes Dagan in an introductory paragraph. “The good news is that it is nevertheless possible to make it difficult for anyone to try and intercept your emails, the text messages you’re sending or your phone calls.”

One may be surprised by the extreme measures the guide suggests are necessary as preventive steps to ensure the highest likelihood of a journalist maintaining privacy. Here are some examples:

  • Only download apps that require minimum rights.
  • Beware of big names because they are known to blindly comply with requests from the government for information.
  • Use separate computers for correspondence and purchase new computers from pawn shops.
  • Use disposable e-mails and disposable phones specifically for the use of speaking with your source. Make sure the source does the same thing.
  • Don’t talk to sources over the phone: phone companies store important metadata.
  • Don’t send messages over SMS text.
  • Perform full disk encryption. Don’t rely on cloud storage because that can be more easily accessed.
  • Fully encrypt e-mail and make sure the source does also.
  • Private browsing in Chrome or Firefox does nothing important. TOR Browser is one of the few secure methods to browse the web, despite its pitfalls.
  • Do not use organizational chats: Campfire, Skype, Google Hangouts, or Slack. They are easy to break in.
  • Use passphrases over 20 characters. Use a series of words that make sense only to you.
  • Use two-factor authentication.
  • Don’t keep notes on any information about the source, on your laptop or anywhere – even on paper.
  • Use a VPN at all times when possible.

If the list of measures seems exhaustive and thorough, that’s because it is. But given the current climate of threat to journalists at home and abroad, the guide clearly fills a need. Its message is simple: The delicate, important, noble work of investigative journalists must be protected, and the brave individuals who carry it out must protect themselves as well.

The most recent, tragic example was the murder several weeks ago of investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia in Malta. “Caruana Galizia was a harsh critic of the government and effectively triggered an early election this year by publishing allegations linking [Prime Minister Joseph] Muscat to the Panama Papers scandal,” wrote the BBC. The killing of Caruana Galizia, whose popular blog targeted opposition politicians, is one of many examples of recent journalists – from Russia to Mexico to the Philippines and beyond – who have been silenced for investigating and writing the truth.

In the U.S., where journalist assassinations aren’t so common, questions tend to center more on cyber security for whistleblowers – think Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden, James Risen, Glenn Greenwald and Julian Assange. Nonetheless, the message is clear: Journalists everywhere need to take to heart the precautions and suggestions laid out by Dagan and Hochstadt. Furthermore, everyday citizens should consider using these techniques to protect their privacy as well.

The full text of the guide can be found here.

As new pipelines get built, more people are standing in the way

Originally printed on November 27, 2017 on occupy.com

Reprinted on Nation of Change

Energy companies are notorious for their insistence and tenacity in creating new pipeline projects. Just look at TransCanada’s reviled Keystone XL, which took nine years to win approval earlier this month by Nebraska regulators, although the project’s future still hangs in the air.

The fact is, despite the damage they continue to cause to human health and the environment, investment in oil and gas industry infrastructure remains stable. The United States has the largest network of energy pipelines in the world, with more than 2.5 million miles of pipe on or underground. The American Petroleum Institute, one of the most powerful lobbying arms of the fossil fuel industry, estimates that investment in oil and gas will remain more than $80 billion annually until after 2020, at which point it will decrease to $60 billion by 2025.

Readers may find this continued support for fossil fuels surprising, not least given that global oil prices have fallen sharply over the past couple of years. Pipelines remain extremely dangerous and unreliable. Nonetheless, projects are continuing apace, as demonstrated by the industry’s relentless efforts to battle against and wear out protesters from the Keystone XL to the Dakota Access Pipeline.

For example, Enbridge Energy, from Canada, is proposing a replacement of its old Line 3 pipeline in Minnesota, which was installed in the 1960s and is now considered too costly to remove. Instead, the company is seeking to build a new $7.5 billion pipeline to replace it. To make matters worse, all of the crude oil that doesn’t leak from Line 3 will be burned, releasing a vast stream of carbon into the atmosphere.

Meanwhile, Energy Transfer Partners, the Fortune 500 company that is building the Dakota Access Pipeline across the Standing Rock Sioux’s tribal land, is also busy constructing Mariner East 2, a pipeline in the West Virginia, Ohio and Pennsylvania regions to carry crude oil to refineries in Philadelphia. ETP is also behind contentious projects like Bayou Bridge in Louisiana and Trans-Pecos in Texas.

But make no mistake: the implementation of these pipelines isn’t easy. Across the nation, energy companies are increasingly being accused of malicious, often illegal tactics to subdue resistance and keep protestors at bay. The violent events that took place during the DAPL occupation in North Dakota provide enough evidence of this.

RESISTANCE IS RISING

Yet even amid the companies’ growing use of scare tactics and secret maneuvers, citizens are ramping up direct action. People have braved the elements and matched the energy giants with their own brand of force, as residents nationwide turn to a mix of creative and traditional tactics to halt as many projects as they can.

For example, in late September, people participated in a “Hold the Line” rally in the Minnesota State Capitol to protest the Line 3 project. Among them was 70-year-old Minnesotan David Johnson, who said he would stand firm against large energy companies despoiling their state.

“I didn’t want to [be a speaker], but I love this land,” he said. “It’s a pretty isolated part of the county right on the edge of the vast wetlands. There’s lots of wildlife and very few people. I don’t want it threatened by the pipeline and their access roads and the potential leaks.”

Also in September, angry residents in Superior, WI, took more drastic and visible measures through direct action. Unicorn Riot reported that citizens overturned cars to block the way to the pipeline construction site, and chained themselves to the cars.

Meanwhile, in Pennsylvania, four residents filed a federal lawsuit against Energy Transfer Partners claiming that the company had violated their constitutional rights, harassed landowners and caused emotional distress to pipeline protestors.

“Since May of 2015, every day of my life has been affected by the plans to build this pipeline, and the lengths that Energy Transfer Partners will go to in the pursuit of profit,” said plaintiff Elise Gerhart, who lives on property that the pipeline will cross. “We’ve been needlessly harassed by agencies and violently threatened by individuals who’ve been intentionally incited and mobilized.”

Citizens are increasingly challenging the process by which energy companies seize private property for the use of pipelines, known as eminent domain, generating more controversy over the issue. And people-powered organizations like 350.org are leading campaigns to remove the source of funding for these projects by getting big banks to divest from fossil fuels.

In some cases, environmental agencies are also doing their part to block unsafe aspects of these pipeline projects, like in North Carolina, where the Department of Environment Quality rejected the Atlantic Coast Pipeline’s erosion control plan.

Despite the overwhelming evidence that pipelines remain unreliable, prone to damage, disrepair and devastating leaks, energy companies continue to treat their bottom line as the only factor when making decisions. As a result, more and more citizens are stepping up to hold companies accountable for their actions, and for their lies, using all the legislative, judicial, financial, political, physical and other creative tactics at their disposal.

Google’s casualties: Is there a corporate-state conspiracy to censor progressive websites?

Originally posted on August 14, 2017 on occupy.com

Back around December 2016, Google caught some flak because its search box Autocomplete function brought up disturbing terms like “Holocaust denial,” connected with untrustworthy websites, to the top query results list. In response, late in April 2017, Google announced it was changing its search algorithms to combat the dissemination of fake news and conspiracy theories.

“The most high profile of these [Internet issues] is the phenomenon of ‘fake news,’” Google claimed in a blog post, “where content on the web has contributed to the spread of blatantly misleading, low quality, offensive or downright false information…We’re taking the next step toward continuing to surface more high-quality content from the web. This includes improvements in Search ranking, easier ways for people to provide direct feedback, and greater transparency about how Search works.”

But as it turns out, there may be other casualties in these seemingly noble, well-intentioned goals.

According to some reports, the upgrade to Google’s search algorithm has resulted in a significant reduction in traffic to various socialist, progressive and anti-war web sites. Democracy Now!, Common Dreams, Wikileaks, Truth-Out, Alternet, Counterpunch and The Intercept, among others, have registered a substantial decline in readership and traffic since the new Google search algorithm was established in the spring.

“The World Socialist Web Site has obtained statistical data from SEMrush estimating the decline of traffic generated by Google searches for 13 sites with substantial readerships,” reports wsws.org. The site goes on to claim these specific drops in readership since April:

In a separate post, the website claims that The Real News saw its search traffic drop by 37 percent, while the website of prominent digital rights leader Richard Stallman has seen a 24 percent decline.

But before we explore the censorship casualties from this new-found policy, we should first briefly look at how the algorithm actually works.

First and foremost, according to Google’s own blog, Google hires “raters” and “evaluators” as part of its screening process to determine what site links are valid enough to rise to the top of the results page. The company’s updated Search Quality Rater Guidelines detail how Google raters flag websites according to different criteria. The guidelines are surprisingly succinct: the document coaches raters on how to find main content, supplementary content, advertisements, website designers, contact information and sources. It also offers criteria of what it considers to be “highest quality” pages to “lowest quality” pages, with gradients of “high,” “medium” and “low” in between.

The guidelines encourage raters to search for examples of primarily two things: the established reputation of a site, and examples of what Google calls “EAT,” or Expertise, Authoritativeness and Trustworthiness. Websites are then ranked on the prevalence of these criteria.

At issue is the fact that many of the left-leaning websites may not meet the above criteria, and are therefore flagged as “low quality” or “lowest quality,” dooming them to a demotion on Google’s query results pages. Terms like “misleading” and “not authoritative” are often listed as the reasons for designating certain websites with a low quality score. Many of the aforementioned progressive websites have won few if any awards, rely on advertisement for support, and may or may not quote so-called “experts” in all of their articles – leading to their “low quality” descriptions by Google.

Additionally, the Google search box now allows users to report inaccurate and potentially offensive Autocomplete lines or snippets. While the idea might sound great – everyday people can report terms, ideas and phrases deemed offensive in today’s cultural zeitgeist – there is no limit to how much one individual can report. Consequently, people driven by political or other motives can, and often do, flag certain websites or ideas as “offensive,” further driving down their credibility. For example, I can type in “socialism,” “new world order,” or “care bears,” and flag all those terms as offensive, therefore skewing the algorithmic data.

Surely the vast majority of us agree that Holocaust denial is a repugnant theory whose time has come to be extinguished. But is it a technology company’s responsibility to expunge that idea from our supposed free marketplace of ideas? More importantly, if a behemoth like Google can determine that Holocaust denial should be flushed from the first page of query results, can they also condemn other, less threatening ideas to the same fate?

The recent report by World Socialist Web Site raises a critical question that has yet to be answered: Are these socialist, progressive and anti-war websites being demoted simply because they are operating as low-budget enterprises, or is this trend part of a greater corporate-state conspiracy to attack freedom of expression and ideas? More discussion and investigation is needed on this matter, but the bottom line is this: I’d rather not leave it to Google to filter out my research on the topic based on what its algorithm deems “accredited,” “trustworthy,” or “authoritative.”

We as a society have firmly determined that Holocaust denial is an error of opinion based on its irrational, unsubstantiated and, quite frankly, offensive position. Citizens should bear the responsibility, and the power, to weed out these and other harmful ideas from our search engine lexicon. It shouldn’t be up to one of the planet’s most powerful corporations to determine what is safe for us to read and be exposed to. We do not need “raters” working for Google sifting through websites that could potentially mislead us – just as we did not need Google algorithms or raters to tell us that Holocaust denial is a bunk theory.

As John Milton, Thomas Jefferson and Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes all insinuated in their allusion to the “marketplace of ideas”: error of opinion can be tolerated if reason is left to combat it.

In Fight for Internet Freedom, Community Broadband is Comcast’s Achilles’ Heel

Originally published on January 16, 2018 on occupy.com

Last month, Federal Communications Commission Chair and ex-Verizon lawyer Ajit Pai callously repealed the tenets of net neutrality. Despite the high volume of calls into Congress, widespread protests at Verizon locations and a months-long mobilization by the online coalition known as Team Internet, the FCC went ahead and jeopardized the internet as we know it.

Scores of groups and organizations are already working hard to convince Congress to reverse the FCC’s decision. But an altogether different approach is also underway: Pushing local communities to form their own municipal broadband utility in order to get around the Big Telecom stranglehold.

In communities with a municipal broadband utility, the local government provides, or partially provides, broadband internet access to all citizens. In these towns and cities, internet is treated as a public utility – one that is city-owned and city-operated, much like electricity, water and garbage pick-up.

Cities have been working toward the community broadband goal for some time. According to Community Networks, a project of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, more than 95 U.S. communities already have a publicly-owned Fiber to the Home (FTTH) network reaching most of the community. Some 110 communities in 24 states have a publicly-owned network offering at least 1 Gigabit of services, and 77 communities have a publicly-owned cable network that reaches most of the community.

Still, as the shift to community-owned broadband internet gathers steam, a few disadvantages remain – like its prohibitive cost. The city of Fort Collins, Colo., had to come up with $150 million in bond money to amend the city charter and allocate funds for its broadband construction project. The price of broadband implementation in Seattle, Wa., is somewhere between $480 to $665 million, according to a city-commissioned study.

However, municipalities have gotten creative in their quest to fund these projects. The majority of cities use revenue bonds, but other cities have also turned to bank financing, interdepartmental loans, grants, an increase in taxes, and capital reserve savings.

Big Telecom and other private companies often claim that municipal broadband will lead to government surveillance of website usage through regulatory policy. In response to such concerns, Seattle launched a “digital privacy initiative” that defines exactly what information is shared with government, and how. Furthermore, while private ISPs love to chastise the government for overreach of power, they forget to mention that they openly share customer information with advertisers, governments and law enforcement without warrants or permission from users.

On the other hand, when a community provides broadband internet access, elected officials can be held accountable for misuse, unlike corporate behemoths like Comcast and Verizon.

Now, more and more individuals and communities are starting to ask the question: Is municipal broadband internet better than our current options? Looking again at Seattle as an example, there are currently three ISPs operating in that city. Comcast offers 150 Mbps (Megabits per second) download service, Centurylink started rolling out FTTP gigabit services in two neighborhoods serving 22,000 customers at a cost of $150 a month, and Wave is piloting FTTP service to 600 customers.

Meanwhile, a feasibility study recently concluded that a city-owned public internet service could provide 1 Gbps (Gigabit per second) to every neighborhood in Seattle for a monthly charge of $45 per household. One might consider the economic argument, not to mention the privacy one, settled.

Already there are several problems with the private industry approach. First, individuals are paying a substantially higher amount for vastly degraded service (150 Mbps compared to 1 Gbps). Second, there is not uniform access based on equity; the current ISPs are offering fast service to only a select group of customers. Lastly, if a resident is lucky enough to be offered fast service, s/he must pay the hefty price tag of around $150 a month, triple the broadband cost.

Private ISP companies understand the repercussions of community-owned internet for their businesses. As such, they have gone to great lengths to combat these progressive initiatives. For example, as Fort Collins prepared to vote on its ballot measure to allocate money for community-owned broadband service, the telecom industry spent over $900,000 in a failing effort to defeat the measure.

However, citizens face an additional hurdle for creating widespread city-owned or community-owned internet service: It remains against the law in many states. Currently, 21 states have laws making it difficult or illegal to create community broadband networks. Therefore, repealing this anti-broadband legislation is a giant first step that residents in those states could take.

Citizens will also need to take action in the courts. “Nearly 20 state attorneys generals [sic] have announced they will sue the FCC over their decisions to repeal Title II net neutrality rules and to prevent state’s from taking action to protect net neutrality. Free Press and other nonprofit organizations will also sue,” warned the website Popular Resistance.

Community-owned broadband is a great alternative to the impositions of private companies and their mono- or duopolistic price gouging. In addition to providing a service outside of the hands of profiteering private industry, communities that welcome broadband are taking steps to become more autonomous and self-reliant. It’s little surprise that more residents are now acting to move their cities’ internet service in this direction – creating a web that is more dependable, affordable and equitable.

The Incestuous Relationship Between Bankers, Business, and Congress

Originally published on November 7, 2012 on occupy.com

Reprinted on Truthout

If you look up the individual “Jon Corzine” on Wikipedia, the first sentence you encounter is “Jon Stevens Corzine is an American finance executive and political figure.”

Those two positions strung together in the same sentence may make some people uneasy, but the fact is that you can apply this description to many people in Congress. Looking closer, Jon Corzine may simply be the most poignant symbol of the incestuous relationship between bankers, business and Congress that is systemic in today’s political system.

Recently, Jon Corzine — CEO of MF Global from 2010 to 2011, CEO of Goldman Sachs from 1994 to 1999, Senator of New Jersey from 2001 to 2006 and Governor of New Jersey from 2006 to 2010 — was subpoenaed before a House committee to answer questions regarding the loss of approximately $1.6 billion of citizens’ money.

The “honorable” Jon Corzine, as his nametag so colorfully and inaccurately described him, claimed he did not know where the funds went. The House committee asked him, along with other MF Global executives: “Where is the money?” His response: “I don’t know.”

“OK,” replied the committee.

Could lawmakers’ passivity possibly be attributed to the amount of money those committee members received from financial agencies and trading groups to keep their mouths shut? Given the evidence, it’s a worthwhile question.

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Committee chairman Spencer Bachus has received $262,177 from securities and investment firms, $78,677 of which was individual donations, the other $183,500 from PACs. He has also received $259,400 from commercial banks and $241,960 from insurance companies, a blend of PACs and individual contributions.

Open Secrets, the website of the Center for Responsive Politics, features a stunning chart demonstrating how the House Financial Services Committee as a whole has received an astonishing $11,425,875 from financial, real estate and insurance firms through PACs, and an additional $10,106,258 from individual contributions in the same fields.

But let’s go deeper — to those with even more power.

Earlier this year on June 13, Jamie Dimon — CEO of JP Morgan Chase, Class A director of the board of directors of the New York Federal Reserve, who worked at and helped to create the Citigroup mega-bank before he left it in 1998 — faced a Senate hearing over JP Morgan’s loss of more than $2 billion.

The Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs has 22 members, and 18 of those members are either directly or indirectly invested in JP Morgan. In between the star-struck gazing, admiration and lax questions, only a handful of senators, including New Jersey Democrat Robert Menendez, managed to make Dimon slightly uncomfortable by asking difficult questions about the company’s malfeasance.

Many of the committee members’ aides are now lobbyists for JP Morgan or investment companies connected with them. For example, Naomi Camper, a committee chair aide from 2001-2004, and Kate Childress, former aide to New York Senator Charles Schumer, have been lobbyists for JP Morgan since 2008. JP Morgan has also helped fund the campaigns of a number of these same committee members.

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Tim Johnson has received $81,335 from JP Morgan employees since 1998; Richard Shelby has received $136,771 from employees since 1990; and Mark Warner received $79,150 in 2012 alone. And one wonders why Dimon walked away without even a slap on the wrist.

Goldman Sachs, perhaps the most notorious of the investment banks on Wall Street and an emblem of the corruption of politics by big money that the Occupy Movement addresses, has also contributed to powerful committees and individuals in Congress. So let’s name a few.

House Speaker John Boehner and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, for example, have both received large sums from Goldman Sachs, all the while having tens of thousands of their own personal dollars invested in the company — about $32,500 between the two of them, to be exact.

Boehner has received about $29,500 while Cantor has received about $48,150 from the firm. And these two are just a fraction of the 19 congressional members who have invested in the company for a sum total of about $812,000; in return the company has paid out about $124,000 in contributions to those candidates.

This is no less true for vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan, who has approximately $8,000 invested in Goldman Sachs and has received double that, or about $15,800, in campaign contributions from them. Though this is nothing compared to his running mate, Mitt Romney, who received a couple of thousand shy of $1 million from Goldman for the 2012 election.

Although President Obama didn’t receive much from the major banks for the 2012 campaign (Wells Fargo was the only big donor, at $289,000), in 2008 he received $1,013,091 from Goldman Sachs, $809,000 from JP Morgan Chase, $736,771 from Citigroup and $512,232 from Morgan Stanley, along with staggering contributions from the University of California, Harvard University, Microsoft, Time Warner, Columbia University, IBM, and General Electric. It’s likely the major banks considered their initial campaign contributions to Obama as a “long-term investment,” one that has paid off immensely: not a single executive from any of the major banks has been criminally prosecuted for their illegal and reckless behavior in the economic meltdown.

And this is the point: both Democrats and Republicans have taken enormous sums from the country’s biggest financial institutions, then repaid those institutions with policies that favor them. With congressional oversight committees under the thumb of the financial sector, banks have been allowed to pursue their fraudulent actions without repercussions. Finally, you don’t need to pay money to get what you want; you just need to hire the right people for influential positions in government. Just look at Obama’s cabinet, and the cabinet of previous presidents:

Tim Geithner – Current Secretary of the Treasury, formerly director of Policy Development and Review at the IMF (2001 to 2003) and president of the New York Federal Reserve Bank. In November of 2007 he rejected an offer to become Citibank’s chief executive.

Henry Paulson – Secretary of the Treasury under George W. Bush, former CEO of Goldman Sachs (1974 to 2006) and a member of Council on Foreign Relations.

William Daley – Previous Chief of Staff under President Obama (2011-2012), COO of Amalgamated Bank of Chicago, Midwest Chairman of JP Morgan Chase since 2004 and member of Council on Foreign Relations.

Jacob Lew – Current Chief of Staff under Obama, COO of Citigroup’s Alternative Investments unit since 2006, and member of Council on Foreign Relations.

Eric Holder – Current Attorney General, previously worked for Covington & Burling LLP, an international law firm that has represented multinational corporations such as Phillip Morris, Halliburton and Xe Services (now known as Academi, formerly known as Blackwater – a company that changed its name twice to dodge a dismal public relations record).

It should come as no surprise, then, to learn that the (In)justice Department and the SEC has dropped all criminal charges against Goldman Sachs for its involvement with the housing market crisis, despite having $1.3 billion worth of subprime mortgage securities on their portfolio.

The Senate report also documented e-mails that referred to these securities as “junk” and “crap.” The company was charged $550 million – a sum of money that is made in weeks.

The most naked example of how our political system has been robbed by the bankers and corporations is the fact that Green Party presidential candidate, Jill Stein, was arrested for attempting to enter the building where the second debate between Obama and Romney was being held.

Why should a woman who has consistently polled at 3% nationally and has raised enough money (yes, it is a criterion) to get on the ballot in 36 states not have a chance to have her voice heard with the heavy corporate hitters? Because the Commission on Presidential Debates, which sets the agenda for this nationally televised theater, accepts donations from corporations whose funds are contingent on the candidates only debating each other.

Certain topics are not raised in the debates, of course, among them climate change, banker bail-outs, campaign finance reform, Mexico’s U.S.-funded drug war, drone strikes, the illegitimacy of the National Defense Authorization Act, the FISA act, the Patriot Act, our treatment of government whistleblowers, the ongoing war in Afghanistan, etc. There is no point debating the issues, after all, if your party duopoly is in agreement.

It’s more than a revolving door we’re talking about. It’s an incest fest. And it’s at times like these that I, and many others, ask: What Would Jesus Do? He explained to us in John 2:15-16 exactly what he would do: “in the temple courts He [Jesus] found men selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money. So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple area, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. To those who sold doves he said: ‘get these out of here! how dare you turn my Father’s house into a market!'”

We, too, must drive the “money changers” out of our political temple before we can rationally and peacefully progress into the 21st century. This starts with a constitutional amendment to repeal the Citizens United ruling of 2010; the elimination of PACs and super-PACs; and imposing extreme limits, with complete transparency, on all political donations and contributions.

Either this, or we apply our savage consumerist mentality in the most practical sense to our political system: when something breaks, don’t fix it. Throw it out and get a new one.

Ramble: The Puppet Show – Our American Dream Inverted

Originally published on December 5, 2012 on occupy.com

Shakespeare, Mark Twain or Oscar Wilde could not have asked for a better piece of irony than what has become of the American dream.

A dream that once encompassed the idea of entrepreneurism, individuality and hard work is currently devolving – or, some would argue, has already devolved, into its antithesis: a developing, collectivist, Big Brother society that does not respect privacy, press, speech or religion, that is not transparent or accountable, whose middle class is collapsing and whose State makes decisions without consulting the People, all the while operating under the guise of fealty to old ideals while secretly uprooting them.

Our country is now overrun with executive orders, immunity for telecommunication companies that spy on and wiretap innocent American citizens, data mining by the NSA, excessive and intrusive security at airports, legislation drafted outside of Congress, undeclared wars, billions invested on political theater instead of social programs and curbing poverty, taxpayer bailouts for corrupt financial institutions, severe crackdown on whistleblowing, unconstitutional and illegal drone strikes, torturing facilities, indifference to war crimes, a chain of hundreds of military bases around the world and a restrictive, controlled “free-market” that has given us a Walmart every 10 miles and a McDonald’s every two.

We are now a country wherein 1% of our nation controls about 43 percent of the wealth, more than the entire bottom half of the population; where six corporations control 90 percent of mass media; and where about one in four corporations pay nothing in taxes while getting millions of our dollars in refunds.

In our country today, most politicians are no more than spokesmen employed by wealthy special interests. Meanwhile, people are being foreclosed on by the banks their taxpayer dollars bailed out. They are having to choose between food and rent, as about 47 million Americans now need government help to feed themselves.

The deeper you look, the worse it gets. Our government has contracts with corrupt, private multinational corporations to purchase weapons and surveillance technology while not even receiving a slap on the wrist for blatant war crimes of past administrations. Our taxpayer dollars fund and supply weapons to oppressive oligarchic regimes such as Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Yemen and Kuwait instead of areas at home such as Benton Harbor, Michigan; Gary, Indiana; and Pine Ridge, South Dakota, where the male life expectancy is 48 – the lowest in the Western Hemisphere outside of Haiti. All the while, draconian bills to regulate and monitor Internet activity have seen a push in Congress (SOPA, PIPA, ACTA, and most importantly, CISPA).

What may be most disturbing about our current state is that most Americans still accept emotionally-charged mantras like “We are land of the free, home of the brave” and ridiculously misguided and ignorant claims that we’re “spreading democracy and freeing nations around the world” (all the while expanding our number of military bases). We tell ourselves that soldiers overseas are dying to ensure our own freedoms at home (to be indefinitely detained without trial, conviction or due process). We are entering a near-psychotic state wherein we chronically see our country for what we want it to be – a constitutional republic – and not for what it really is: a corporatist, surveillance empire.

This illusion and psychosis is maintained in large part through control of the media, but also through the guise of humanitarianism: by bombing metropolitan areas such as Tripoli, and now-defunct award mechanisms such as the Nobel Peace Prize for a president who drops bombs, and a European Union that shoves millions into poverty with crippling, anti-democratic austerity measures.

Our psychosis has reached such a point that we ignore reality and continue indulging in our delusions. For many, it is much easier to believe the lie than to accept the truth because it is so distant from what is truly happening. Many simply reject the data and claim that these facts – surveillance, war crimes, political persecution and detainment without due process – are actions reserved for far-away developing nations and can’t happen here in America.

But they can, and they have, and they are. We as Americans must come to terms with what we have allowed to happen. We must accept what our country has become and quit sticking our heads in the sand and hoping that things will magically get better. They will not. If we look at the track record of our rigid economic-political dynasty governing from Wall Street and Washington, we do not have the leadership to extricate ourselves from this devolving socioeconomic crisis.

We must learn to hit the “Bullshit!” button more often and discredit the meaningless, mind-numbing ideology and doublespeak emanating from Washington if we are to understand what is really going on, because if the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the Islamic Republic of Iran and the People’s Republic of China can teach us anything, it’s that terminology and ideals are a great way for governments to operate as legitimate governing bodies performing a puppet show while pulling the important strings behind the stage.