Executives from Google and Facebook have faced enormous political pressure from forces as diverse as Pres. Obama himself to the Israel Lobby, to rid their sites of Islamist content. Over the years, videos portraying ISIS beheadings have outraged the public (though not on YouTube or Facebook, which immediately removes them). Now it appears that the Israel Lobby and their right-wing allies are demanding further action restricting access for videos they deem offensive.
The companies are discussing various methods to automate the removal of the videos, which would supposedly wipe the sites clean of Islamist extremism in a more thorough, speedy fashion. Currently, they use an algorithm which help police videos which violate copyright. If someone uploads a video whose content has already been flagged, an algorithm prevents it being uploaded again by another user. They plan to use a similar process to flag offensive videos by detecting whether they’ve been previously censored.
However, there is a fly in the ointment regarding this process. The companies have invited into this discussion a neocon NGO which is a product of the Israel Lobby. The group, Counter-Extremism Network (CEN), hired a computer scientist from Dartmouth College who claims to have developed software with which it can successfully police these sites for offending content. Microsoft has, somewhat alarmingly, agreed to fund and provide research support to develop the professor’s system for its websites.
The companies have rightly displayed some skepticism about the group’s “generous” offer. CEN is a neocon organization founded by a pro-Israel apparachik from the Bush administration, Mark Wallace. Wallace is a veteran GOP consultant, turned capitalist entrepreneur and anti-Iran warrior. He also founded a sister-organization, United Against a Nuclear Iran (UANI-Rightweb profile and my own profile of it), which targeted (often falsely) American companies it claimed were doing business with Iran and violating the sanctions regime.
The nadir of UANI’s vitriolic anti-Iran campaign was its targeting of international shipping magnate, Victor Restis. In these cases, Wallace and his cronies would approach a corporate target and demand a large donation in return for ceasing the embarrassing publicity UANI directed at the victims. Most preferred to pay up. Unlike the other corporate targets, Restis fought back and sued UANI for libel. The suit proceeded in federal court until the Justice Department intervened, claiming that moving forward would jeopardize U.S. national security. The judge then dismissed the case, refusing to permit Restis to clear his name.
Journalists speculated that UANI was using information supplied to it by foreign intelligence sources, specifically the Mossad or other Israeli outlets. The Justice Department intervention was reported to be a favor offered by the Obama administration to the Israeli government, so as not to reveal its covert intervention in American politics. The favor wasn’t repaid when Netanyahu became the foremost opponent of the Iran nuclear deal opposed also by UANI.
Now that the agreement is a done deal, Wallace appears to have moved on. Instead of Iran being the bogeyman, now it is ISIS. With the recent outcry over Islamist attacks in Paris, San Bernardino and Ft. Hood, Islamism has become the target of choice for the Israel Lobby and allies like Wallace.
The group’s name is a misnomer. It doesn’t fight against “extremism.” It fights against Islam. There are countless violent extremists in the world who aren’t Muslim. But CEN has no interest in them. I’m attaching a screenshot of its list of targets. Only four non-Muslim groups: the Ku Klux Klan, Golden Dawn, Jobbik, and a German neo-Nazi party. As opposed to 25 Muslim terror organizations.
To give you a sense of how ridiculous these designations are: the Muslim Brotherhood is a group which participated in a democratic election and won the Egyptian presidency. Only to have the democratic government violently overthrown in a military coup. If anyone is a terrorist, it is the putchist al-Sisi, who overthrew Mohammed Morsi. The “Nusra Front” is also on the list. This bona fide Islamist extremist group is Israel’s current ally in the war against the Assad regime.
Among prominent groups missing from this list are violent Israeli settler groups like Hilltop Youth and Jewish Underground, which have murdered many Palestinian civilians.
I’m also surprised the BDS movement isn’t on the list. No doubt that’s an oversight that will be corrected.
Joining Wallace in founding CEN was ex-Sen. Joe Lieberman. On its board are other Israel Lobby veterans, Dennis Ross and Irwin Cotler. CEN’s name is a misnomer. It is not anti-extremist, it is anti-Muslim.
It’s important to note a parallel campaign by the Israeli government to pressure these social media platforms to censor content it deems hate speech, by which it means critical of Israel and the Occupation. There can be no doubt that although CEN hasn’t formally joined with this initiative, the two are bound up with each other tighter than Siamese twins.
Which raises the critical point: who decides what is “extremist?” Clearly, a beheading is extremist. An imam’s sermon calling for the extermination of non-Muslims qualifies. Overtly advocating violence qualifies. But what about a Hamas video that advocates resistance against Israel’s illegal Occupation which has killed tens of thousands over the past 50 years? Or a Hamas video which depicts the devastation of Gaza in the aftermath of the 2014 war? Does a Hezbollah video depicting the destruction of wide swaths of southern Lebanon after the 2006 Israeli invasion quality as “extremist?” In other words, is all content published by these groups censored by virtue of their designation as terrorists? Is that really what we wish the internet to become? A restricted space policed by ideologically-suspect algorithms?
I would strongly urge these technology companies to develop their own solutions to this problem and not rely on far-right Islamophobic ideologues for methods to censor the internet.
The web’s biggest content providers have started using automation to remove “extremist propaganda” videos from their sites.
YouTube (owned by Google) and Facebook are among the sites deploying systems to block or rapidly take down Islamic State videos and other similar material, sources said, though no company would confirm the action.
The technology employed was originally developed to remove copyright-protected content on video sites. It looks for “hashes,” unique digital fingerprints that Internet companies automatically assign to specific videos, allowing all content with matching fingerprints to be removed rapidly. Someone finds an offensive video, tags it, and then searches find other copies across the Internet.
Newly posted videos would be checked against a database of banned content to identify unauthorized information.
The system was kicked off in late April, amid pressure from an Obama White House concerned about online radicalization. Internet companies held a conference call to discuss options, including use of a content-blocking system put forward by the private Counter Extremism Project, a nonprofit controlled in part by George W. Bush Homeland Security Advisor Frances Townsend.
Get it yet?
Government and private industry will decide what content you (as well as journalists and academics) may see on the Internet. What is and is not allowable will be decided by a closed process, and will be automated. A database will be drawn upon for decision making.
Databases and tagging can be hacked/manipulated, perhaps by governmental intelligence organizations, maybe some bad guys, hell, even by advertisers to control what is available to you online.
Since content removed equals content prohibited, you’ll never know what you can’t see. The obvious slippery slope is in decisions about what is “extremist” and what is legitimate free, political speech that, while offensive, has a right to be heard and a place in the market of ideas.
So how about blocking all videos of police violence during say a Ferguson/Baltimore scenario, so as not to “inflame” a situation?
And even if Government A plays nicely, Government B may not, and dictatorships and oligarchies will have a new tool for repression. In the same way Western companies are forced now by China, for example, to adjust content, they will likely be forced to add things to the no-fly database of ideas. Corporations will be in a position to censor things on behalf of governments.
Via the Edward Snowden documents, we already know that many tech companies cooperate directly with the NSA and others, either voluntarily, or under pressure from secret national security practices and laws. It is not a matter of “it can happen here,” but one of “it is already happening here.”
But, some will say, Google, et al, are private companies. They can do what they want with their businesses, and you don’t have to use them.
Certain private businesses, such as power companies and transportation providers, have become clearly so much a part of society that they indeed can’t just do what they want. They become public utilities, and there is no doubt that organizations like Google are squarely in the category.
Lastly, for those who prefer dictionary things, do check up on the definition of true fascism: a collusion between government and industry.
Media is doling out in bite-sized bits what we already knew: we are being tracked and traced, recorded and stored.
The Guardian recently told us that – shock – Google is storing lots of information about us; meanwhile, the wildly different Independent gently awakens us to the fact that Facebook is doing something almost identical. Both articles contain instructions on how to appear to thwart these intrusions.
Oh well, click, click, yawn. Safe again.
An Orwellian present
Most people who read my column will have read Orwell’s 1984. And most who haven’t will have seen the film (the one with John Hurt, I hope). If you haven’t done either, go and do one of them right now.
Orwell’s famous dystopian vision describes a world in which the State knows everything about you. He had entitled his book The Last Man – meaning by that: The last true man left on earth. It was changed – perhaps fortuitously – by the publisher.
The book fed a slew of references into the culture, seemingly understood even by those who had never read it: Big Brother, Doublespeak, Sex Crime, Winston Smith.
The world Winston inhabits is physically viler and more obviously brutal that ours – at least if you live outside the perimeters of the wars the US is waging directly or indirectly. Its architecture and ambiance are, likewise, orders of magnitude darker and more depressing than ours – parts of inner cities excepted.
Orwell’s Doublespeak is more directly relevant to our experience today. With things now routinely called by something other than their proper names – men ‘identifying’ as women, women ‘identifying’ as men, men ‘identifying’ as dogs, and forty-six-year-old fathers ‘identifying’ as six-year-old girls – our world is littered with an increasing number of obvious truths which must be resolutely ignored on the grounds of political necessity.
Doublespeak has hamstrung academia – rendering whole swathes of it inoperative, and much of the rest of it either irrelevant, farcical or pernicious.
In our day-to-day exchanges it has resulted in smile-fronted loneliness and lurking suspicion as necessary features of a life wherein those of us who comment openly upon the Spandex-coated bars of our prison are treated as pariahs and lepers.
As in Orwell’s world, our language is undergoing a thinning process and morphing into a ghettoized Newspeak and Twitteresque literary shorthand. Our grandparents knew what it was to speak and write well because they acknowledged an objective standard. Those who attained it were regarded as exemplars, and those who had not could see what remained to be done. Now, as in so much else, mediocrity and approximation are defended as acceptable standards; simply noticing one’s own shortcomings is elitist – and, therefore, contemptible – while commenting on another’s is an outright sin.
The result is a common language attenuated to the point where being correctly understood is increasingly difficult, and the scope for being wrongfully construed almost unlimited.
But here the overlap in terms of content between our world and Orwell’s thins out in favor of a stark – and for some disarming – stylistic dissonance.
Orwell’s world is bleak. It is dark. The walls are covered – at best – by poorly applied institutional paint and creeping mold. The lights hang by a rat-eaten wire and flicker erratically, serving only – to plunder Milton – to discover sights of woe, regions of sorrow, doleful shades. Orwell’s “boot stamping on a human face – forever” is congruent in Hollywood terms with the scenery.
But our world is not like that. At least, not yet. Much of it is shiny and manicured – and not only for the technocrats and Inner Party members, but also for the drones of the Outer Party like Winston Smith.
Today, Smith does not wear dungarees and inhabit cold, dark corners creeping with vermin. He wears clothes which look something like what he sees on TV. He makes his car repayments. True, what he buys has the obsolescence of Orwell’s world, but that is due to a design philosophy geared to keep the drones shopping, rather than a simple inability to produce at all.
These seeming contradictions are difficult to process. A system which tortures you and stamps on your face might still be identified by the proles in their current state of conditioning as an enemy. But boot-stamping is not our experience – again, at least not yet.
The Big Brother of our experience has a public relations department and a team of designers with bed-head haircuts working on more palatable and fabulous ways to sell you servitude. Our prison does not simply consist of bars. It consists of hi-tech, ergonomically designed, ambient-adjustable bars. And it is policed by people who want you to call them by their first name; who are trained to seem to agree with you; who sit patiently when you talk, and then tell you to have a nice day.
If this seems unconnected with your current worldview, consider that some of the highest-profile puppets we vote for recently attended the opening of the Gotthard Tunnel, Switzerland – without batting an eyelid.
Our online experience broadly resembles our offline experience.
Sure, if you are deep in the bowels of Badnet – downloading a program you just discovered you really need but don’t want to pay for from a site featuring languages you don’t understand and from which windows with images of scantily dressed females jump out erratically at you – then you expect nasties. It feels dodgy and dangerous – and it is.
But Facebook and Google don’t feel like that. They are shiny, convenient heavens generated by serried ranks of earnest, enthusiastic angels in love with what they do. They love you, too. They don’t love you individually, but they love you mathematically; they love you when enough of you say the same thing to them for it to be incrementally advantageous to do something about your prayers. The world they produce feels professional and safe, something like a cross between a business park, a shopping mall where everything is free, and a children’s nursery.
This does not feel like a place where boots stamp on faces forever.
A common misconception about this ergonomic, customer-service Big Brother decked out in primary colors is that he couldn’t possibly watch everyone at the time.
But it doesn’t work like that. Mostly, he doesn’t care what you are doing on a day-to-day basis.
When databases were created in the 1970s, storing stuff was very expensive. That’s why they used the relational data model: it could cram more stuff into less space.
Now storing stuff costs nothing. I bought a 16 GB USB memory stick for the price of two cups of coffee last week. So they are not watching you. They are storing what you do.
Firstly, in case they need it. As morals, mores and norms are re-engineered and hemorrhage and coalesce in new configurations and are downloaded as normative updates by a population unable to concentrate or remember, everyone eventually will be a criminal – at least retrospectively. There is no future-proofing compliance with this new system of control. No matter how quickly you take the upgrades in Newthink, proof of your Oldthink will be accessible and visible to those who care to use it against you.
Secondly, they are building profiles. They want to know who the troublemakers are.
Those at the helm couldn’t care less what you think currently. If you are intelligent and happen to have spent your time online researching rather than looking at compilations of top goal-scoring moments, pornography, or highly pixelated editions of the Simpsons’ back catalog, that is likely to have rendered you a social outcast sheltering under the bridge of your own Cassandra complex yelling at random passing cars. So they don’t care about you – at least, not yet.
What they are on the lookout for in the current phase is a rogue idea. They are afraid that some bright individual will find the solar plexus of the psychological control grid and start jumping up and down on it. And they are also making sure existing powerful entities don’t go off the reservation of what is agreed by the guiding think tanks and conclaves of the mighty.
What to do?
We incline toward fight or flight. Many feel their security lies in keeping their heads down, by conforming. While I understand the feeling, my opinion is that no amount of conformity will be enough to placate what is coming. This system does not simply want conformity – although it does require it – it will not rest until it has your homage. For myself, my mind is made up: I will not bow to the new idol.
Armchair heroism is easy, it is true. But I know one thing: Room 101 will hold much less terror for me if I ever have to enter it, if I know then that I stood up now and spoke out while I could, leveraging what intelligence God saw fit to give me.
And that is something no boot can stamp out of existence.
Sam Gerrans is an English writer, translator, support counselor and activist. He also has professional backgrounds in media, strategic communications and technology. He is driven by commitment to ultimate meaning, and focused on authentic approaches to revelation and realpolitik.
A new agreement between the European Commission and four major U.S. companies—Facebook, Google, Twitter, and Microsoft—went into effect yesterday. The agreement will require companies to “review the majority of valid notifications for removal of hate speech in less than 24 hours and remove or disable access to such content,” as well as “educate and raise awareness” with their users about the companies’ guidelines.
The deal was made under the Commission’s “EU Internet Forum,” launched last year as a means to counter what EDRi calls “vaguely-defined ‘terrorist activity and hate speech online.’” While some members of civil society were able to participate in discussions, they were excluded from the negotiations that led to the agreement, says EDRi.
The agreement has been met with opposition by a number of groups, including EDRi (of which we’re a member), Access Now, and Index on Censorship, all of which have expressed concerns that the deal with stifle freedom of expression. The decision has also sparked debate on social media, with a wide variety of individuals and groups opposing the decision under the hashtag #IStandWithHateSpeech.
But you don’t have to stand with hate speech to stand against this decision. There are several reasons to oppose this Orwellian agreement. First, while Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights allows states to limit freedom of expression under select circumstances, such limitations are intended to be the exception, and are permitted only to protect the following:
The rights or reputations of others,
public health, or
These limits must also meet a three-part test as defined by the ICCPR: be defined by law; have legitimate aim; and be truly necessary. While some of the speech that concerns the Commission may very well qualify as illegal under some countries’ laws, the method by which they’ve sought to limit it will surely have a chilling effect on free speech.
In addition, as EDRi points out, despite a lengthy negotiation between companies and the Commission, “hate speech” remains vaguely-defined. Companies have been tasked with taking the lead on determining what constitutes hate speech, with potentially disastrous results.
In fact, social media companies have an abysmal track record when it comes to regulating any kind of speech. As Onlinecensorship.org’s research shows, speech that is permitted by companies’ terms of service is often removed, with users given few paths to recourse. Users report experiencing bans from Facebook for 24 hours to up to 30 days if the company determines they’ve violated the Community Standards—which, in many cases, the user has not. Requiring companies to review complaints within 24 hours will almost surely result in the removal of speech that would be legal in Europe.
By taking decision-making outside of the democratic system and into backrooms, and granting corporations even greater control, the European Commission is ensuring a chill on online speech.
During the 2011 Arab Spring, it was clear to those who bothered to look, that the US State Department and the various arms of soft power attached to it were directly responsible for what was otherwise initially passed off as a spontaneous, region-wide uprising.
Eventually, what was dismissed as “conspiracy theory” regarding the US-backed nature of the uprising, was finally admitted to by the New York Times in an April 2011 article titled, “U.S. Groups Helped Nurture Arab Uprisings,” which admitted that:
A number of the groups and individuals directly involved in the revolts and reforms sweeping the region, including the April 6 Youth Movement in Egypt, the Bahrain Center for Human Rights and grass-roots activists like Entsar Qadhi, a youth leader in Yemen, received training and financing from groups like the International Republican Institute, the National Democratic Institute and Freedom House, a nonprofit human rights organization based in Washington, according to interviews in recent weeks and American diplomatic cables obtained by WikiLeaks.
The New York Times would go on to admit direct ties between the above-mentioned organizations and both the US Congress and the US State Department.
The article would also admit:
Some Egyptian youth leaders attended a 2008 technology meeting in New York, where they were taught to use social networking and mobile technologies to promote democracy. Among those sponsoring the meeting were Facebook, Google, MTV, Columbia Law School and the State Department.
The 2008 meeting wasn’t the only one. And, as it would turn out, Facebook and Google’s role in preparing the ground for the Arab Spring, quite literally years before the “spontaneous” protests erupted, was much more complicated than merely being sponsors of a single event in New York.
Hillary Clinton was serving as US Secretary of State both during and in the lead up to the Arab Spring. She even attended via teleconference one of these “technology meetings” briefly mentioned by the New York Times.
Also attending the meetings were actually staff from the US State Department and various staff from both Google and Facebook. Also in attendance were members of the US media. In other words, the event was not only sponsored by the US government and these two tech-giants, it was organized and conducted by them as well. Their event program (PDF) makes this abundantly clear.
The purpose was clearly to create a unified network combining the US State Department’s direction, the tech-giant’s technical capabilities, and influence of the US media together to overwhelm the information space when finally the time came for the Arab Spring to unfold. And overwhelm it did. The governments of Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, and Libya fell, with violence and even war breaking out in the latter three, while Syria to this day remains engulfed in violence that began in the wake of the 2011 operation.
More recently, e-mails leaked from then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, reveal further details on just how close the tech-giants work with the government. Some could even say they are an extension of the government.
A CBS article titled, “Clinton Emails Show State Department’s Close Relationship With Google,” reveled that:
The latest release of emails sent to and from Hillary Clinton’s private email server reveals a close relationship between Google and the State Department.
A 2012 email recently uploaded onto Wikileaks’ searchable archive came from Google Ideas director Jared Cohen, who formerly worked as an advisor to Secretary Clinton, indicates that Google wanted to help bolster support for those who defected from Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s military.
It also showed that before launching a “defection tracker” Cohen wanted the State Department to weigh in on the idea and potentially provide feedback.
Not only does the leak expose what appears to be a revolving door between the tech-giant and the US State Department, but it exposes the fact that regardless of who is working where, Google was working in tandem with the State Department. Cohen was actually listed in the above cited event program as Policy Planning Staff of the Office of the Secretary of State meaning that before moving to Google he was working with Google to undermine various foreign governments, and continued to do so after he moved from government to the private sector.
Just Warming Up
Google and Facebook are still very much engaged in information warfare for the US government and the special interests that it serves. Likewise, the US State Department is still very much in the business of subverting foreign nations by recruiting, training, equipping and directing collaborators from targeted nations.
Facebook, for example, has expressed plans to get everyone on the planet on the Internet. The seemingly humanitarian mission is in all actuality an attempt to get the world on Facebook, which through its algorithms and ability to censor, ban and delete accounts at will, would virtually control what the world saw and didn’t see.
More forward-thinking states like Russia and China have noted this reality of the 21st century battlefield and have responded by creating their own domestic versions of Google and Facebook. An arms race of sorts has begun between these competing services both in terms of reach and capabilities for everything from artificial intelligence deep learning algorithms to the ability to control and influence the flow of information over and within borders.
Tech-centric US-funded nongovernmental organizations have begun to spring up alongside their traditional US-funded collaborators in nations around the world, specializing in doing many of the sort of workshops initially conducted by the US State Department, Google and Facebook before the Arab Spring. For nations either not aware of this or incapable of responding to this threat, it could be comparable to a new weapon of war taking to the battlefield one has no defense to or anything which which to strike back with.
This threat will only increase, with the “information war” becoming more and more literal as advances are made in information technology. The US is openly using information technology to augment its hegmonic ambitions around the world, with e-mail leaks confirming what many have already suspected all along. What is more worrisome is the collaborations and technologies being used now that are not being disclosed or “leaked.”
For nations around the world, raising literacy in terms of information technology and the threat it poses can help inoculate their populations from the overwhelming nature of foreign-backed operations like the Arab Spring. By creating and cultivating a domestic information technology sector and recruiting talent before the US does, creating competitive services like Russia’s VK and China’s Baidu not only serves as a means of improving and diversifying one’s economy, but can also serve as an important pillar of national security in the 21st century.
The media-as-public-relations-machine was in full swing last week, abuzz over Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan’s public letter to their daughter that contained a $45 billion pledge to establish the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative.
The mainstream media produced an avalanche of praise. “Mark Zuckerberg Philanthropy Pledge Sets New Giving Standard,” announced Bloomberg Business, who declared that Zuckerberg and Chan were “setting a new philanthropic benchmark by committing their massive fortune to charitable causes while still in their early thirties.” From the Wall Street Journal came more praise: “Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan to Give 99% of Facebook Shares to Charity.”
But when BuzzFeed revealed the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative was not a nonprofit, but a for-profit Limited Liability Corporation (LLC), which has no obligation to actually engage in charitable activity, the tenor of some of the commentary became more negative. Was the donation to a Delaware-based LLC nothing more than a way to duck California taxes?
The truth is that both nonprofit and for-profit charities can and do serve as tax shelters for the obscenely wealthy. Non-profits themselves have few restrictions around them, and only require that 5 percent of a foundation’s assets each year be spent towards its stated charitable goals, including expenses and lobbying.
Still, in the last few years we’ve seen the growth of ventures like Google.org, the charitable but largely for-profit division of Google created in 2006 with $900 million worth of Google stock. Freed from the even the limited guidelines to which nonprofits are held, some of the projects Google.org has poured money into have happened to also generate mountainous profits for Google.
For example, the One Laptop Per Child initiative’s stated mission to get $100 computers into the hands of “each and every one” of the world’s poorest children also captures lucrative data from millions of new computer users in almost entirely untapped markets.
Similar to Google.org, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative chose a form that would allow them to invest in profit-making initiatives, including ones that could bring new profits to Facebook. Chan and Zuckerberg’s pledge to give everyone on earth access to the Internet, like the One Laptop Per Child initiative, will both provide real services for a great many people while simultaneously creating millions of new potential Facebook users (although they do perhaps overstate with the claim, “If our generation connects them, we can lift hundreds of millions of people out of poverty”).
At the same time, Chan Zuckerberg can take advantage of their status as a tax-qualified charity to save huge sums of money. As Forbes observed:
This generosity is also incredibly tax efficient . . . Donating appreciated stock is a much better tax move than selling it and donating the sales proceeds. After all, by donating the stock, the gain he would have experienced on selling it is never taxed . . . since [Chan Zuckerberg] is a tax-qualified charity, if it sells the stock it pays no tax regardless of how big the gain. And since Mr Zuckerberg will get credit on his tax return for the market value of what he donates, he can use that to shelter billions of other income.
Of course, sizable donations to charity frequently receive glowing press coverage which is also quite valuable. The transformation of Bill Gates’s reputation — Zuckerberg’s childhood hero — after creating the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is instructive.
Throughout the 1990s Microsoft’s hyperaggressive business practices resulted in a 2000 Justice Department verdict that Microsoft was a monopoly. Several billion dollars in fines from myriad US and European regulatory bodies followed and Bill Gates was widely painted as a bully in the popular press.
The PR turnaround afforded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation might be the most effective — and expensive — in history. Today Bill Gates is treated by the media as an important thinker in the fight against disease and the debates around education reform. He is regarded as a humanitarian with something to say about making the world a better place, a regard that stands in contrast to his actual commitments.
Since the early days of Microsoft, Gates has ardently supported patent law and its enforcement, which puts medicines out of reach for most, particularly in the Global South. He has also thrown millions at a host of education initiatives that are so anti-teacher that the American Federation of Teachers recently announced they would no longer take money from the Gates Foundation.
Zuckerberg has already attempted to use a big donation to improve his reputation and that of Facebook, which has repeatedly been caught capturing private information with the intention to monetize it. His $100 million donation to charter schools in Newark was timed just weeks after the release of the Zuckerberg biopic The Social Network, and right before the release of charter school booster documentary Waiting for Superman. Time will tell what this latest attempt at reputation management does for Zuckerberg’s public standing.
Everyone has ideas about how the world should be different and those with vast fortunes have an inordinate amount of power to realize those visions. Sometimes the vision is for a cause like fighting malaria or providing homeless shelters. Other times it’s more self-interested, like when Bill and Melinda Gates put Windows computers in high schools, keeping Macs out and training a generation to use Windows machines.
More importantly, the concentration of so much power and reach in the hands of billionaire philanthropists presents real problems for democracy. Every dollar a billionaire realizes in “tax savings” is a dollar starved from the public coffers. The tens of billions Zuckerberg would pay in taxes could go a very long way to, say, enhancing the $69 billion budget allocated for public education this year.
While the US government is certainly not a bastion of democracy, there are at least formal mechanisms that put tax-based, public funding in the realm of democratic decision-making. There are public budget proposals, hearings, and votes, and elections through which we can attempt to hold politicians accountable for their actions. We’ll most likely only have a vague idea what is happening with the money controlled by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative; their LLC status will allow them to avoid making many tax documents public.
These sorts of charitable enterprises give even more control to capitalists — who already have outsized influence in our society — putting them in positions to make decisions that increasingly shape public life for all of us. People like Zuckerberg and Gates are unelected and unaccountable to anyone and face few, if any, repercussions for the negative consequences of their social experiments.
Zuckerberg’s education initiative exemplifies this outsized and damaging role. Despite his limited personal experience with public school — he attended the elite Phillips Exeter Academy and then Harvard — Zuckerberg has begun to commit serious sums of money to reforming public education. His signature donation was $100 million to replace Newark’s public schools with charters. Working with former Newark mayor Corey Booker and Republican Governor Chris Christie, the goal was to completely transform Newark’s schools in five years, and turn them into a model for restructuring other districts across the country.
In order to achieve reforms quickly, they had to bypass the process of public engagement. Free from the constraints of government deliberation, the plans of the nonprofit foundation were not made public until after key decisions had been made. Newark residents first learned about the program the afternoon Booker, Christie, and Zuckerberg announced it on Oprah.
Once the foundation was established, seats on its board were awarded to those who contributed more than $5 million. “A local philanthropist offered $1 million,” reported Diane Ravitch, “but he was turned away because the amount was too small.”
The Newark experiment was a resounding failure and did little more than line the pockets of consultants. Test scores didn’t rise considerably, teachers resisted merit pay, and the woman hired to run the district refuses to attend School Board Advisory meetings because they are still too hostile. The debacle still follows Zuckerberg. Last week, many of the most glowing reports of his $45 billion donation had to mention his previous philanthropic endeavor.
Zuckerberg has continued to make investments in education since Newark, claiming he’s learned from the experience and wants to improve. Still, he’s just one relatively new player in the education reform movement.
The Gates Foundation has spent hundreds of millions of dollars trying to restructure the US public school system, with $200 million going to Common Core — a curriculum initiative opposed by educators and parents across the country. Eli Broad Foundation has also spent lavishly — including a nearly $500 million plan to put half of Los Angeles students into 260 new charter schools. The Walton Foundation has spent over $1 billion supporting charters and vouchers.
The war on public education by the ultra wealthy — using tax-sheltered dollars which otherwise might have gone to improve public education — reveals a deep hostility to democracy.
We should demand better: Instead of waiting to see how his charity will impact our lives, Zuckerberg’s wealth should be put under democratic control, so we can collectively decide how it can be used to improve society.
The Western media has quietly ignored an unexpected collaboration between Washington, Google, and “independent” Al Jazeera aimed at helping to overthrow Syria’s Bashar Assad. Would they be as oblivious to a similar cozy “partnership” involving Russia?
Last Monday, WikiLeaks lifted the lid on a correspondence between Jared Cohen, the President of ‘Google Ideas,’ and then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s staff in the summer of 2012. In his July 25, 2012 email to top State Department’s officials, Cohen pitched his about-to-be-launched “tool” to Clinton’s inner circle, asking it to “keep close hold” of it.
The leak revealing the project, which would seem to be an outrageous scandal to some, has actually been quite difficult to spot in the news. Since WikiLeaks released the latest batch of Clinton’s emails on March 21, a Google news search spits back about 30 web sources related to the story.
Of those, only two – The Independent and Daily Mail – could arguably be considered major mainstream media outlets. That means there were slim chances that the eye of an average newsreader would catch wind of the State Department’s teamwork with the US’ biggest tech giant, Google, and Arab media outlet Al Jazeera.
According to what Cohen wrote, it appears that Google’s innovative visualizer worked to “publicly track and map the defections in Syria and which parts of the government they are coming from.”
“Our logic behind this is that while many people are tracking the atrocities, nobody is visually representing and mapping the defections, which we believe are important in encouraging more to defect and giving confidence to the opposition,” he said.
Google also collaborated with Al Jazeera, which took primary ownership over the tool, because of “how hard” it was to get information out of Syria.
At the State Department, the idea was lauded and passed on to Clinton via her private email by deputy chief of staff Jake Sullivan as “a pretty cool idea.”
RT asked media expert Lionel why the revelations failed to receive much attention in the Western media.
“I don’t expect a reaction from Western media because Western media hasn’t even read this, has no idea about this,” Lionel told RT. “But can you imagine if the same set of facts were involved with the different countries, different corporations around the world depending upon your frame of reference. This would either be an outrage or ‘well, maybe this is a delightful and benign cooperation, an independent tech giant… and all for the common good of liberty’ and whatever. It depends upon your perspective.”
Another curious aspect is the fact that the WikiLeaks release directly involved Clinton’s email, which has been a hot topic tainting her presidential campaign for a year now. Clinton’s opponents as well as the US media have been taking nearly every opportunity to poke her for her “careless” misdeed – with the notable exception of this story.
The three parties in this collaboration did not end up together by chance, either.
Funded by the Qatari government, Al Jazeera portrays itself as “the first independent news channel in the Arab world” and “one of the world’s most influential news networks,” whose main goal is it to give “a global audience an alternative voice.”
Qatar has been largely supporting the rebels in the Syrian conflict, along with Washington and other anti-Assad powers that even mulled launching a direct military intervention on Syrian soil last October.
It turned out that Google’s Syrian Defector Tracking was a good fit for Al Jazeera. It even ended up winning the channel a prestigious Online Media Award for “Best technical innovation.”
“This is going to show you very fascinating aspects of the new warfare – how media, and corporations and various platforms are merging together. We are not sure who the military is, who is the government,” Lionel said.
He suggested that the State Department’s reluctance to release Clinton’s emails could be explained by the intention to hide “the conflation of allegedly private industry with the government.”
“We have this new world here. We have the government and we have the Pentagon, DAPRA and defense advanced research program agency, we have private industry, we have these various platforms. We have this new introduction of mercenary groups and private contacting teams. [But] our country [the US] has had a very strict barrier, Posse Comitatus, that separates private law enforcement from military,” Lionel said. “There have always been distinctions and barriers and jurisdiction alliance. In this new world, these barriers are being eliminated, dissolved.”
As Lionel says, the collaboration between Google and the US government only seems to be “innocent” if there is a bias towards “who you like… and the information that’s being propagated.”
When contacted by RT, Google declined to comment on the situation, yet did not hesitate to proudly stress Al Jazeera’s achievement.
“No comment, but pointing out that this data visualization project was very public, Al Jazeera won a journalism award for it,” the tech giant said in an email.
Given these circumstances, it would not hurt to wonder what the Western media’s reaction might have been if the same collaboration had occurred across the ocean and involved, let’s say, the Russian government, a well-known media outlet, and a Russian internet giant.
Since its inception in 2005, RT has often been labeled as anything ranging from a “Russian propaganda machine” to a “propaganda bullhorn” by high-profile Western officials and politicians.
“If RT wanted PR in American media, this is exactly the move it should make. You would never hear the end of that on American media,” Ted Rall, a political cartoonist and author, told RT. “You really don’t have a right to call anyone a propaganda if you yourself is doing the same thing.”
As for Al Jazeera’s prize winning tool, it appears to be currently defunct for unspecified reasons.
The US government and a handful of corporations working under US jurisdiction have a disproportionately strong influence on the internet. So other countries are mulling ways to protect their web sectors, the Russian communications minister told RT.
“Today, if you have a look at the whole IT global system, you will see that the whole world… is actually totally dominated by a single country and literally by several companies, which have practically monopolized the entire IT system,” Nikolay Nikiforov said.
The issue is not only about market shares of tech giants such as Google and Facebook, but also about the US government’s control of critical elements of the internet’s infrastructure, he said.
One small example is the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), which assigns internet domain names. In 2014, the US pledged to hand over control over it from the US Department of Communications to a multi-stakeholder collective, which would include governments, companies, international organizations and individual users. The transition was scheduled to happen in September last year, but was postponed for at least a year.
“This didn’t happen for some reason, and many reasons were voiced. I believe them to be pretty far-fetched,” Nikiforov said.
“With this prolonged monopolization, many countries in the world are working on technical solutions that would protect national segments of the internet from a possible external destructive action. They are creating backup infrastructures, which respond to a disruption – intentional or accidental – and prevent national segments from being blocked,” he added.
The minister said Russia is among the countries heavily investing in the internet and naturally wants to protect this investment.
The issue is not theoretical for Russia. As part of the US-imposed sanctions, several American companies suspended their services in Crimea, which seceded from Ukraine in response to an armed coup in Kiev and rejoined with Russia. Washington called the move illegal and targeted individuals and some sectors of the Russian economy with sanctions.
Google, Apple, PayPal and others cut Crimea from their services. This affected tens of thousands of people, who could no longer properly update the software for their phones, buy apps, use electronic payments for online products and do other basic things.
The minister was speaking in Egypt, which he is visiting to foster business ties. He said Russia and Egypt have agreed to have mobile operators to cut down roaming tariffs, which would benefit Russian tourists visiting the North-African country.
“It’s no secret that overpriced roaming is the reason why many travelers simply don’t use their phones abroad. We are trying to make this problem go away for Egypt and Russia,” he said.
The agreement indicates that Russia may soon lift restrictions on flights to Egypt, which were imposed after a terrorist bomb last October destroyed a plane carrying Russian tourists home from Egyptian resorts.
No Chinese Spring
BEIJING – Foreign companies will be banned from publishing online in China from March 10, the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology and the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television said in a joint statement Friday.
“Sino-foreign joint ventures and foreign businesses shall not engage in online publishing services,” the regulations state.
The rules apply to “informative, ideological content text, pictures, maps, games, animation, audio and video digitizing books and other original works of literature, art, science and other fields.”
Joint projects are required to apply for special permission to carry out such activities from the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television, according to the new rules.
Domestic online media are required to inform the relevant authorities about their sources of funding, expenditure, personnel, domain name registration as well as being required to keep all servers and equipment in China.
Online outlets are prohibited from publishing information that may cause “harm to national unity, sovereignty and territorial integrity,” “spread rumors, disturb social order or undermine social stability,” and harm “social morality or endanger national cultural tradition,” among others.
Foreign websites, including Google, Facebook, Twitter, and a number of Western publications remain inaccessible in China. Beijing has adopted a series of normative and ideological directives in recent years requiring national internet providers and media to closely monitor the quality of information disseminated online.
Glenn Greenwald has written an op-ed piece for the Los Angeles Times. In this editorial he asserts that American spies are motivated primarily by the desire to thwart terrorist plots. Such that their inability to do so (i.e., the attacks in Paris) coupled with the associated embarrassment motivates a public relations campaign against Ed Snowden. Greenwald further concludes that recent events are being opportunistically leveraged by spy masters to pressure tech companies into installing back doors in their products. Over the course of this article what emerges is a worldview which demonstrates a remarkable tendency to accept events at face value, a stance that’s largely at odds with Snowden’s own documents and statements.
For example, Greenwald states that American spies have a single overriding goal, to “find and stop people who are plotting terrorist attacks.” To a degree this concurs with the official posture of the intelligence community. Specifically, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence specifies four topical missions in its National Intelligence Strategy: Cyber Intelligence, Counterterrorism, Counterproliferation, and Counterintelligence.
Yet Snowden himself dispels this notion. In an open letter to Brazil he explained that “these [mass surveillance] programs were never about terrorism: they’re about economic spying, social control, and diplomatic manipulation. They’re about power.”
And the public record tends to support Snowden’s observation. If the NSA is truly focused on combatting terrorism it has an odd habit of spying on oil companies in Brazil and Venezuela. In addition anyone who does their homework understands that the CIA has a long history of overthrowing governments. This has absolutely nothing to do with stopping terrorism and much more to do with catering to powerful business interests in places like Iran (British Petroleum), Guatemala (United Fruit), and Chile (ITT Corporation). The late Michael Ruppert characterized the historical links between spies and the moneyed elite as follows: “The CIA is Wall Street, and Wall Street is the CIA.”
The fact that Greenwald appears to accept the whole “stopping terrorism” rationale is extraordinary all by itself. But things get even more interesting…
Near the end of his article Greenwald notes that the underlying motivation behind the recent uproar of spy masters “is to depict Silicon Valley as terrorist-helpers for the crime of offering privacy protections to Internet users, in order to force those companies to give the U.S. government ‘backdoor’ access into everyone’s communications.”
But if history shows anything, it’s that the perception of an adversarial relationship between government spies and corporate executives has often concealed secret cooperation. Has Greenwald never heard of Crypto AG, or RSA, or even Google? These are companies who at the time of their complicity marketed themselves as protecting user privacy. In light of these clandestine arrangements Cryptome’s John Young comments that it’s “hard to believe anything crypto advocates have to say due to the far greater number of crypto sleazeball hominids reaping rewards of aiding governments than crypto hominid honorables aiding one another.”
It’s as if Greenwald presumes that the denizens of Silicon Valley, many of whose origins are deeply entrenched in government programs, have magically turned over a new leaf. As though the litany of past betrayals can conveniently be overlooked because things are different. Now tech vendors are here to defend our privacy. Or at least that’s what they’d like us to believe. In the aftermath of the PRISM scandal, which was disclosed by none other than Greenwald and Snowden, the big tech of Silicon Valley is desperate to portray itself as a victim of big government.
You see, the envoys of the Bay Area’s new economy have formulated a convincing argument. That’s what they get paid to do. The representatives of Silicon Valley explain in measured tones that tech companies have stopped working with spies because it’s bad for their bottom line. Thus aligning the interests of private capital with user privacy. But the record shows that spies often serve private capital. To help open up markets and provide access to resources in foreign countries. And make no mistake there’s big money to be made helping spies. Both groups do each other a lot of favors.
And so a question for Glenn Greenwald: what pray tell is there to prevent certain CEOs in Silicon Valley from betraying us yet again, secretly via covert backdoors, while engaged in a reassuring Kabuki Theater with government officials about overt backdoors? Giving voice to public outrage while making deals behind closed doors. It’s not like that hasn’t happened before during an earlier debate about allegedly strong cryptography. Subtle zero-day flaws are, after all, plausibly deniable.
How can the self-professed advocate of adversarial journalism be so credulous? How could a company like Apple, despite its bold public rhetoric, resist overtures from spy masters any more than Mohammad Mosaddegh, Jacobo Árbenz, or Salvador Allende? Doesn’t adversarial journalism mean scrutinizing corporate power as well as government power?
Methinks Mr. Greenwald has some explaining to do. Whether he actually responds with anything other than casual dismissal has yet to be seen.
Tzipi Hotovely waves Israeli flag to proclaim Israeli intent to rebuild the ‘Holy Temple.’ Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90
Israel’s Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely has met with representatives of YouTube and Google to discuss ways to cooperate in what she calls the fight against “inciting violence and terrorism.”
Israel’s Maariv newspaper reported yesterday that Hotovely agreed to work with Google and YouTube in order to establish a joint working mechanism to monitor and prevent the publication of “inflammatory material” originating in the Palestinian territories.
Since the latest escalation of violence between Palestinians and Israeli security services that erupted at the beginning of October, many people have been sharing videos depicting Israeli aggression towards Palestinians to highlight the Palestinian perspective of the conflict. London-based Arab newspaper Al-Araby Al-Jadeed has expressed concerns that the meetings suggest moves towards censoring Palestinian material on the part of the Israeli state.
New Project Will Gather Users’ Stories of Censorship from Around the World
San Francisco – The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and Visualizing Impact launched Onlinecensorship.org today, a new platform to document the who, what, and why of content takedowns on social media sites. The project, made possible by a 2014 Knight News Challenge award, will address how social media sites moderate user-generated content and how free expression is affected across the globe.
Controversies over content takedowns seem to bubble up every few weeks, with users complaining about censorship of political speech, nudity, LGBT content, and many other subjects. The passionate debate about these takedowns reveals a larger issue: social media sites have an enormous impact on the public sphere, but are ultimately privately owned companies. Each corporation has their own rules and systems of governance that control users’ content, while providing little transparency about how these decisions are made.
At Onlinecensorship.org, users themselves can report on content takedowns from Facebook, Google+, Twitter, Instagram, Flickr, and YouTube. By cataloging and analyzing aggregated cases of social media censorship, Onlinecensorship.org seeks to unveil trends in content removals, provide insight into the types of content being taken down, and learn how these takedowns impact different communities of users.
“We want to know how social media companies enforce their terms of service. The data we collect will allow us to raise public awareness about the ways these companies are regulating speech,” said EFF Director for International Freedom of Expression and co-founder of Onlinecensorship.org Jillian C. York. “We hope that companies will respond to the data by improving their regulations and reporting mechanisms and processes—we need to hold Internet companies accountable for the ways in which they exercise power over people’s digital lives.”
York and Onlinecensorship.org co-founder Ramzi Jaber were inspired to action after a Facebook post in support of OneWorld’s “Freedom for Palestine” project disappeared from the band Coldplay’s page even though it had received nearly 7,000 largely supportive comments. It later became clear that Facebook took down the post after it was reported as “abusive” by several users.
“By collecting these reports, we’re not just looking for trends. We’re also looking for context, and to build an understanding of how the removal of content affects users’ lives. It’s important companies understand that, more often than not, the individuals and communities most impacted by online censorship are also the most vulnerable,” said Jaber. “Both a company’s terms of service and their enforcement mechanisms should take into account power imbalances that place already-marginalized communities at greater risk online.”
Onlinecensorship.org has other tools for social media users, including a guide to the often-complex appeals process to fight a content takedown. It will also host a collection of news reports on content moderation practices.
Jillian C. York
Director for International Freedom of Expression
Co-founder and co-director of Visualizing Impact