News Analysis

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.

“Austerity” is code for a banking takeover

Originally posted on October 29, 2012 on occupy.com

What is austerity? A dictionary definition will provide you with the definition of a “strict economy.” It will also provide you with an antonym: leniency. Although the current austerity practices in Europe, the U.S. and elsewhere certainly match those definitions, the implications of enforcing these measures against the will of the majority population — and imposing them as a rational solution to the socioeconomic problems we face — are far graver, dangerous and outright scary.

Let’s examine the conditions of the loans aimed at getting countries (like Greece and Spain) out of debt: they want to raise the retirement age, increase the work day and have people work for lower wages, cut funding to education, maintenance and other important public sector areas, cut Social Security, cut pensions, and even privatize the municipal water and electric systems.

But at least the measures are democratic, right? Wrong. These austerity policies have been entered into and implemented despite resounding political opposition. Almost weekly protests all over Europe have been gathering outside centers of governmental power with signs like “No Nos Representan” (They Don’t Represent Us), or scissors with a slash through it, or the European Union flag peeled away to reveal the flag of Nazi Germany, or “No es la Crisis, es el Sistema” (It’s not a crisis, it’s the System). And many just plain and simply read: NO. And you call this government by the people’s consent?

When austerity measures were first introduced in Greece, George Papandreou, the prime minister at the time, attempted to hold a referendum for the acceptance of the bailout deal but was pressured to resign. He was replaced almost immediately by Lucas Papademos, who was governor of the Bank of Greece from 1994 to 2002 and became vice president of the European Central Bank from 2002 to 2010.

Thus in Greece, the “cradle of democracy” was robbed by bankers. And what does Christine Lagarde, head of the cleverly re-named International Mafia Foundation (IMF), have to say about it? “Pay your taxes. I have more sympathy for children in sub-Saharan Africa.”

A similar situation happened in Italy. Silvio Berlusconi, who was sentenced last week to four years in prison for tax fraud, proposed a referendum to accept the austerity package that was proposed in his country at the time. Under pressure from Congress and from population, he resigned and was replaced by Mario Monti, former European Commissioner from 1995 to 2004, and the minister of economy and finance for two years. The austerity measures were implemented.

One result of these austerity measures is that they give rise to dangerous, desperate and misguided ideologies just as the situations are becoming more unsustainable in those countries. For example, the Golden Dawn, an ultra-right, ultra-nationalist party that rails against immigrants now has approximately 14 percent of Greeks’ support, twice as much as it did in June when Greece elected 18 of its party members to Parliament.

It’s sometimes difficult to understand how economic instability in Europe affects us in the United States; easier to dismiss them as being across the Atlantic, and left to solve their own problems. But their actions do affect us, they can have severe consequences, and vice versa. The LIBOR scandal, for example, should be the number one story of this year. The key banks that receive the LIBOR rate were manipulating that basic interest rate upon which student loans, car and credit card loans are based all over the world; they knew which way the rates would go, then made bets on them.

Essentially, the crisis “over there” has great parallels to our own in the U.S., where a few major banks knowingly sold sub-prime mortgages and mortgage-backed securities, treating them as AAA products when they were far from it, and insured these securities with institutions such as AIG. When the housing bubble burst, the bankers didn’t want to pay for their lost bets and insurances so they created a scheme to dump it on the taxpayers. To a large extent they’ve succeeded because of our compliance and refusal to study the issue.

Let’s be clear: there is no easy way out of the so-called crisis. The euro has lasted but 10 years. Under our current rigid, unforgiving, global dynasties of bankers and corporations that comprise the economic and political elite, the solution will always be to remove money from the public sector and the working person, to print more increasingly worthless electronic money, to sign away people’s sovereignty and basic human rights, and to centralize power.

But if we, the people, choose to actually look at and study the problem, it isn’t that there aren’t enough funds. It’s that our money is being allocated and distributed in bluntly unethical ways, funneling toward fewer and fewer people while populations bail out the very criminal enterprises that took us down.

And what’s most frightening and discouraging is that these policies — the ethics of austerity — are being entered into undemocratically, that is, without the support of the citizens they are ostensibly being designed to serve. So let’s say it like it is. Let’s call a spade a spade: through “austerity,” international bankers and corporations are imposing economic neo-feudalism on us all, by seizing the governmental levers of power and using that power to craft legislation and social policy that benefit those corporations and bankers, while rendering the everyday citizen powerless.

The question is, once we understand and openly recognize this truth, what are we going to do about it?

CISPA 2.0: Say Goodbye to our Constitutional Rights

Originally published on February, 28 2013 on occupy.com

Reprinted on Truthout

The unrelenting attack on our civil liberties and our privacy continues. Last year we managed to survive an onslaught of legislation that would have destroyed entrepreneurship and free enterprise on the Internet, and our ability to define how we share music, art and information in general.

First there was the Stop Online Piracy Act and the Protect IP Act, or SOPA and PIPA, respectively: two pieces of legislation geared at protecting the copyrights of monopolistic media companies and taking drastic measures to enforce them, like shutting down websites that allow the sharing of this copyrighted material for free. The New Zealand police raid of the house of Kim Dotcom, founder of Megaupload, and the site’s subsequent shutdown by the FBI provided a glimpse of what lies ahead if laws like these are passed.

The Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement, or ACTA, took measures a step further by allowing governments to monitor the Internet to enforce copyright law and supposed intellectual property rights. Tens of thousands of Europeans mobilized in response, telling businesses and politicians that companies could not intrude on fundamental human rights, or morph and twist the law to enforce their hand-picked business model.

But despite resounding political opposition in the U.S. and worldwide to Internet censorship and infringements on freedom of speech and privacy, our callous and out-of-touch politicians managed to craft an even scarier piece of legislation: CISPA.

The Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act passed in April of 2012 in the House by a vote of 248 to 168, but stalled in the Senate because of a disagreement over privacy concerns. At the time, the White House threatened to veto the law because Obama’s advisers raised additional privacy concerns, chief among them Howard Schmidt, who resigned suddenly last May after the bill’s introduction. Schmidt also helped author statements against SOPA and PIPA.

But lo and behold, the two principal authors of the CISPA bill, Rep. Michael Rogers (R-Mich.) and Sen. Dutch Ruppersberger (D-Calif.), re-introduced the same exact bill several weeks ago on February 12 – presumably in response to recent so-called cyber-attacks from China and security breaches by the hacktivist group Anonymous, whose non-violent actions are a direct response to government’s malfeasance and abuse of online authority.

The provisions stipulated in the CISPA legislation are intimidating and far-reaching. Although CISPA does not require private companies to share information with the government, it opens the floodgates for an unprecedented and endless funneling of private communication information to federal military intelligence agencies such as the NSA and the FBI. The only justification for a company to share information with the government is broadly and vaguely defined by a single term: “cybersecurity.”

Additionally, CISPA would override current privacy law such as the Wiretap Act and the Stored Communications Act; in fact, it grants companies complete immunity from judicial oversight and prosecution for the violation of privacy. Under CISPA, information provided to the government would be exempt from FOIA requests.

Furthermore, CISPA does not require companies to notify the individuals from whom they’re collecting data or information – which makes its section about the ability to form a lawsuit against the government little more than a formality.

“If [this bill is] passed,” claims Namecheap, a domain service opposing CISPA, “the U.S. government gains the power to ask your ISP about any/all of your online activities and personal information. Advocated under the premise of anti-terrorism legislation, this legislation is so broad that it threatens to endanger the privacy of every individual and ordinary and law abiding citizens.

“This act makes your private online activity now public, giving ISPs the right to share your personal information completely without your knowledge, due process, or authorization.”

The same day that CISPA was reintroduced, President Obama signed an executive order that deals specifically with information sharing by the owners and operators of CI, or critical infrastructure, such as the banking, communication, transportation and utility industries.

It would not require the passing along of our private information to the government. Additionally, the executive order focuses on the government’s sharing of information that it can already legally collect with the CI companies – instead of its rights to gather new information from private ISPs, as stipulated in CISPA.

Part of the reason SOPA and PIPA were booted from Congress was the overwhelming citizen mobilization against it, but also because companies like Google, Firefox, Tumblr, Twitter, Wikipedia and other giant Internet businesses realized the legislation would devastate their enterprises.

Unfortunately, this time around, we won’t have these companies fighting on our side because CISPA grants them immunity from lawsuits and has provided them with enough assurance that it will not affect their business in any significant way.

The drafting and introduction of SOPA, PIPA, ACTA and CISPA are all examples of our elected leaders’ growing disregard for citizens’ fundamental privacy rights, Constitutional rights and free speech rights as manifested in the digital world. Essentially, this legislation provides the formality our government needs to legitimize and legalize what it is either currently doing or what it wants to do. Just look at the NSA, which is already performing extensive and unprecedented data-mining on U.S. citizens in flagrant violation of the Fourth Amendment – but using only vague legislation to justify it.

Passing CISPA will be a significant step in America’s already far-progressed trudge towards a police state — and will, more specifically, encourage already-compliant businesses to provide our personal information to our government as if those two enshrined words did not exist: Constitutional rights.