Google has captured your mind

Searches reveal who we are and how we think. True intellectual privacy requires safeguarding these records

Google has captured your mind
(Credit: Kuzma via iStock/Salon)

The Justice Department’s subpoena was straightforward enough. It directed Google to disclose to the U.S. government every search query that had been entered into its search engine for a two-month period, and to disclose every Internet address that could be accessed from the search engine. Google refused to comply. And so on Wednesday January 18, 2006, the Department of Justice filed a court motion in California, seeking an order that would force Google to comply with a similar request—a random sample of a million URLs from its search engine database, along with the text of every “search string entered onto Google’s search engine over a one-week period.” The Justice Department was interested in how many Internet users were looking for pornography, and it thought that analyzing the search queries of ordinary Internet users was the best way to figure this out. Google, which had a 45-percent market share at the time, was not the only search engine to receive the subpoena. The Justice Department also requested search records from AOL, Yahoo!, and Microsoft. Only Google declined the initial request and opposed it, which is the only reason we are aware that the secret request was ever made in the first place.

The government’s request for massive amounts of search history from ordinary users requires some explanation. It has to do with the federal government’s interest in online pornography, which has a long history, at least in Internet time. In 1995 Time Magazine ran its famous “Cyberporn” cover, depicting a shocked young boy staring into a computer monitor, his eyes wide, his mouth agape, and his skin illuminated by the eerie glow of the screen. The cover was part of a national panic about online pornography, to which Congress responded by passing the federal Communications Decency Act (CDA) the following year. This infamous law prevented all websites from publishing “patently offensive” content without first verifying the age and identity of its readers, and the sending of indecent communications to anyone under eighteen. It tried to transform the Internet into a public space that was always fit for children by default.


The CDA prompted massive protests (and litigation) charging the government with censorship. The Supreme Court agreed in the landmark case of Reno v. ACLU (1997), which struck down the CDA’s decency provisions. In his opinion for the Court, Justice John Paul Stevens explained that regulating the content of Internet expression is no different from regulating the content of newspapers.The case is arguably the most significant free speech decision over the past half century since it expanded the full protection of the First Amendment to Internet expression, rather than treating the Internet like television or radio, whose content may be regulated more extensively. In language that might sound dated, Justice Stevens announced a principle that has endured: “Through the use of chat rooms, any person with a phone line can become a town crier with a voice that resonates farther than it could from any soapbox. Through the use of web pages, mail exploders, and newsgroups, the same individual can become a pamphleteer.” The Internet, in other words, was now an essential forum for free speech.

In the aftermath of Reno, Congress gave up on policing Internet indecency, but continued to focus on child protection. In 1998 it passed the Children’s Online Protection Act, also known as COPA. COPA punished those who engaged in web communications made “for commercial purposes” that were accessible and “harmful to minors” with a $50,000 fine and prison terms of up to six months. After extensive litigation, the Supreme Court in Ashcroft v. ACLU (2004) upheld a preliminary injunction preventing the government from enforcing the law. The Court reasoned that the government hadn’t proved that an outright ban of “harmful to minors” material was necessary. It suggested that Congress could have instead required the use of blocking or filtering software, which would have had less of an impact on free speech than a ban, and it remanded the case for further proceedings. Back in the lower court, the government wanted to create a study showing that filtering would be ineffective, which is why it wanted the search queries from Google and the other search engine companies in 2006.

Judge James Ware ruled on the subpoena on March 17, 2006, and denied most of the government’s demands. He granted the release of only 5 percent of the requested randomly selected anonymous search results and none of the actual search queries. Much of the reason for approving only a tiny sample of the de-identified search requests had to do with privacy. Google had not made a direct privacy argument, on the grounds that de-identified search queries were not “personal information,” but it argued that disclosure of the records would expose its trade secrets and harm its goodwill from users who believed that their searches were confidential. Judge Ware accepted this oddly phrased privacy claim, and added one of his own that Google had missed. The judge explained that Google users have a privacy interest in the confidentiality of their searches because a user’s identity could be reconstructed from their queries and because disclosure of such queries could lead to embarrassment (searches for, e.g., pornography or abortions) or criminal liability (searches for, e.g., “bomb placement white house”). He also placed the list of disclosed website addresses under a protective order to safeguard Google’s trade secrets.

Two facets of Judge Ware’s short opinion in the “Search Subpoena Case” are noteworthy. First, the judge was quite correct that even search requests that have had their user’s identities removed are not anonymous, as it is surprisingly easy to re-identify this kind of data. The queries we enter into search engines like Google often unwittingly reveal our identities. Most commonly, we search our own names, out of vanity, curiosity, or to discover if there are false or embarrassing facts or images of us online. But other parts of our searches can reveal our identities as well. A few months after the Search Subpoena Case, AOL made public twenty million search queries from 650,000 users of its search engine users. AOL was hoping this disclosure would help researchers and had replaced its users’ names with numerical IDs to protect their privacy. But two New York Times reporters showed just how easy it could be to re-identify them. They tracked down AOL user number 4417749 and identified her as Thelma Arnold, a sixty-two-year old widow in Lilburn, Georgia. Thelma had made hundreds of searches including “numb fingers,” “60 single men,” and “dog that urinates on everything.” The New York Times reporters used old-fashioned investigative techniques, but modern sophisticated computer science tools make re-identification of such information even easier. One such technique allowed computer scientists to re-identify users in the Netflix movie-watching database, which that company made public to researchers in 2006.

The second interesting facet of the Search Subpoena Case is its theory of privacy. Google won because the disclosure threatened its trade secrets (a commercial privacy, of sorts) and its business goodwill (which relied on its users believing that their searches were private). Judge Ware suggested that a more direct kind of user privacy was at stake, but was not specific beyond some generalized fear of embarrassment (echoing the old theory of tort privacy) or criminal prosecution (evoking the “reasonable expectation of privacy” theme from criminal law). Most people no doubt have an intuitive sense that their Internet searches are “private,” but neither our intuitions nor the Search Subpoena Case tell us why. This is a common problem in discussions of privacy. We often use the word “privacy” without being clear about what we mean or why it matters. We can do better.

Internet searches implicate our intellectual privacy. We use tools like Google Search to make sense of the world, and intellectual privacy is needed when we are making sense of the world. Our curiosity is essential, and it should be unfettered. As I’ll show in this chapter, search queries implicate a special kind of intellectual privacy, which is the freedom of thought.

Freedom of thought and belief is the core of our intellectual privacy. This freedom is the defining characteristic of a free society and our most cherished civil liberty. This right encompasses the range of thoughts and beliefs that a person might hold or develop, dealing with matters that are trivial and important, secular and profane. And it protects the individual’s thoughts from scrutiny or coercion by anyone, whether a government official or a private actor such as an employer, a friend, or a spouse. At the level of law, if there is any constitutional right that is absolute, it is this one, which is the precondition for other political and religious rights guaranteed by the Western tradition. Yet curiously, although freedom of thought is widely regarded as our most important civil liberty, it has not been protected in our law as much as other rights, in part because it has been very difficult for the state or others to monitor thoughts and beliefs even if they wanted to.

Freedom of Thought and Intellectual Privacy

In 1913 the eminent Anglo-Irish historian J. B. Bury published A History of Freedom of Thought, in which he surveyed the importance of freedom of thought in the Western tradition, from the ancient Greeks to the twentieth century. According to Bury, the conclusion that individuals should have an absolute right to their beliefs free of state or other forms of coercion “is the most important ever reached by men.” Bury was not the only scholar to have observed that freedom of thought (or belief, or conscience) is at the core of Western civil liberties. Recognitions of this sort are commonplace and have been made by many of our greatest minds. René Descartes’s maxim, “I think, therefore I am,” identifies the power of individual thought at the core of our existence. John Milton praised in Areopagitica “the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all [other] liberties.”

In the nineteenth century, John Stuart Mill developed a broad notion of freedom of thought as an essential element of his theory of human liberty, which comprised “the inward domain of consciousness; demanding liberty of conscience, in the most comprehensive sense; liberty of thought and feeling; absolute freedom of opinion and sentiment on all subjects, practical or speculative, scientific, moral, or theological.” In Mill’s view, free thought was inextricably linked to and mutually dependent upon free speech, with the two concepts being a part of a broader idea of political liberty. Moreover, Mill recognized that private parties as well as the state could chill free expression and thought.

Law in Britain and America has embraced the central importance of free thought as the civil liberty on which all others depend. But it was not always so. People who cannot think for themselves, after all, are incapable of self-government. In the Middle Ages, the crime of “constructive treason” outlawed “imagining the death of the king” as a crime that was punishable by death. Thomas Jefferson later reflected that this crime “had drawn the Blood of the best and honestest Men in the Kingdom.” The impulse for political uniformity was related to the impulse for religious uniformity, whose story is one of martyrdom and burnings of the stake. As Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas put it in 1963:

While kings were fearful of treason, theologians were bent on stamping out heresy. . . . The Reformation is associated with Martin Luther. But prior to him it broke out many times only to be crushed. When in time the Protestants gained control, they tried to crush the Catholics; and when the Catholics gained the upper hand, they ferreted out the Protestants. Many devices were used. Heretical books were destroyed and heretics were burned at the stake or banished. The rack, the thumbscrew, the wheel on which men were stretched, these were part of the paraphernalia.

Thankfully, the excesses of such a dangerous government power were recognized over the centuries, and thought crimes were abolished. Thus, William Blackstone’s influential Commentaries stressed the importance of the common law protection for the freedom of thought and inquiry, even under a system that allowed subsequent punishment for seditious and other kinds of dangerous speech. Blackstone explained that:

Neither is any restraint hereby laid upon freedom of thought or inquiry: liberty of private sentiment is still left; the disseminating, or making public, of bad sentiments, destructive of the ends of society, is the crime which society corrects. A man (says a fine writer on this subject) may be allowed to keep poisons in his closet, but not publicly to vend them as cordials.

Even during a time when English law allowed civil and criminal punishment for many kinds of speech that would be protected today, including blasphemy, obscenity, seditious libel, and vocal criticism of the government, jurists recognized the importance of free thought and gave it special, separate protection in both the legal and cultural traditions.

The poisons metaphor Blackstone used, for example, was adapted from Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, from a line that the King of Brobdingnag delivers to Gulliver. Blackstone’s treatment of freedom of thought was itself adopted by Joseph Story in his own Commentaries, the leading American treatise on constitutional law in the early Republic. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison also embraced freedom of thought. Jefferson’s famous Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom enshrined religious liberty around the declaration that “Almighty God hath created the mind free,” and James Madison forcefully called for freedom of thought and conscience in his Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments.

Freedom of thought thus came to be protected directly as a prohibition on state coercion of truth or belief. It was one of a handful of rights protected by the original Constitution even before the ratification of the Bill of Rights. Article VI provides that “state and federal legislators, as well as officers of the United States, shall be bound by oath or affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.” This provision, known as the “religious test clause,” ensured that religious orthodoxy could not be imposed as a requirement for governance, a further protection of the freedom of thought (or, in this case, its closely related cousin, the freedom of conscience). The Constitution also gives special protection against the crime of treason, by defining it to exclude thought crimes and providing special evidentiary protections:

Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying war against them, or in adhering to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort. No person shall be convicted of treason unless on the testimony of two witnesses to the same overt act, or on confession in open court.

By eliminating religious tests and by defining the crime of treason as one of guilty actions rather than merely guilty minds, the Constitution was thus steadfastly part of the tradition giving exceptional protection to the freedom of thought.

Nevertheless, even when governments could not directly coerce the uniformity of beliefs, a person’s thoughts remained relevant to both law and social control. A person’s thoughts could reveal political or religious disloyalty, or they could be relevant to a defendant’s mental state in committing a crime or other legal wrong. And while thoughts could not be revealed directly, they could be discovered by indirect means. For example, thoughts could be inferred either from a person’s testimony or confessions, or by access to their papers and diaries. But both the English common law and the American Bill of Rights came to protect against these intrusions into the freedom of the mind as well.

The most direct way to obtain knowledge about a person’s thoughts would be to haul him before a magistrate as a witness and ask him under penalty of law. The English ecclesiastical courts used the “oath ex officio” for precisely this purpose. But as historian Leonard Levy has explained, this practice came under assault in Britain as invading the freedom of thought and belief. As the eminent jurist Lord Coke later declared, “no free man should be compelled to answer for his secret thoughts and opinions.” The practice of the oath was ultimately abolished in England in the cases of John Lilburne and John Entick, men who were political dissidents rather than religious heretics.

In the new United States, the Fifth Amendment guarantee that “No person . . . shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself ” can also be seen as a resounding rejection of this sort of practice in favor of the freedom of thought. Law of course evolves, and current Fifth Amendment doctrine focuses on the consequences of a confession rather than on mental privacy, but the origins of the Fifth Amendment are part of a broad commitment to freedom of thought that runs through our law. The late criminal law scholar William Stuntz has shown that this tradition was not merely a procedural protection for all, but a substantive limitation on the power of the state to force its enemies to reveal their unpopular or heretical thoughts. As he put the point colorfully, “[i]t is no coincidence that the privilege’s origins read like a catalogue of religious and political persecution.”

Another way to obtain a person’s thoughts would be by reading their diaries or other papers. Consider the Fourth Amendment, which protects a person from unreasonable searches and seizures by the police:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

Today we think about the Fourth Amendment as providing protection for the home and the person chiefly against unreasonable searches for contraband like guns or drugs. But the Fourth Amendment’s origins come not from drug cases but as a bulwark against intellectual surveillance by the state. In the eighteenth century, the English Crown had sought to quash political and religious dissent through the use of “general warrants,” legal documents that gave agents of the Crown the authority to search the homes of suspected dissidents for incriminating papers.

Perhaps the most infamous dissident of the time was John Wilkes. Wilkes was a progressive critic of Crown policy and a political rogue whose public tribulations, wit, and famed personal ugliness made him a celebrity throughout the English-speaking world. Wilkes was the editor of a progressive newspaper, the North Briton, a member of Parliament, and an outspoken critic of government policy. He was deeply critical of the 1763 Treaty of Paris ending the Seven Years War with France, a conflict known in North America as the French and Indian War. Wilkes’s damning articles angered King George, who ordered the arrest of Wilkes and his co-publishers of the North Briton, authorizing general warrants to search their papers for evidence of treason and sedition. The government ransacked numerous private homes and printers’ shops, scrutinizing personal papers for any signs of incriminating evidence. In all, forty-nine people were arrested, and Wilkes himself was charged with seditious libel, prompting a long and inconclusive legal battle of suits and countersuits.

By taking a stand against the king and intrusive searches, Wilkes became a cause célèbre among Britons at home and in the colonies. This was particularly true for many American colonists, whose own objections to British tax policy following the Treaty of Paris culminated in the American Revolution. The rebellious colonists drew from the Wilkes case the importance of political dissent as well as the need to protect dissenting citizens from unreasonable (and politically motivated) searches and seizures.

The Fourth Amendment was intended to address this problem by inscribing legal protection for “persons, houses, papers, and effects” into the Bill of Rights. A government that could not search the homes and read the papers of its citizens would be less able to engage in intellectual tyranny and enforce intellectual orthodoxy. In a pre-electronic world, the Fourth Amendment kept out the state, while trespass and other property laws kept private parties out of our homes, paper, and effects.

The Fourth and Fifth Amendments thus protect the freedom of thought at their core. As Stuntz explains, the early English cases estab- lishing these principles were “classic First Amendment cases in a system with no First Amendment.” Even in a legal regime without protection for dissidents who expressed unpopular political or religious opinions, the English system protected those dissidents in their private beliefs, as well as the papers and other documents that might reveal those beliefs.

In American law, an even stronger protection for freedom of thought can be found in the First Amendment. Although the First Amendment text speaks of free speech, press, and assembly, the freedom of thought is unquestionably at the core of these guarantees, and courts and scholars have consistently recognized this fact. In fact, the freedom of thought and belief is the closest thing to an absolute right guaranteed by the Constitution. The Supreme Court first recognized it in the 1878 Mormon polygamy case of Reynolds v. United States, which ruled that although law could regulate religiously inspired actions such as polygamy, it was powerless to control “mere religious belief and opinions.” Freedom of thought in secular matters was identified by Justices Holmes and Brandeis as part of their dissenting tradition in free speech cases in the 1910s and 1920s. Holmes declared crisply in United States v. Schwimmer that “if there is any principle of the Constitution that more imperatively calls for attachment than any other it is the principle of free thought—not free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought that we hate.” And in his dissent in the Fourth Amendment wiretapping case of Olmstead v. United States, Brandeis argued that the framers of the Constitution “sought to protect Americans in their beliefs, their thoughts, their emotions and their sensations.” Brandeis’s dissent in Olmstead adapted his theory of tort privacy into federal constitutional law around the principle of freedom of thought.

Freedom of thought became permanently enshrined in constitutional law during a series of mid-twentieth century cases that charted the contours of the modern First Amendment. In Palko v. Connecticut, Justice Cardozo characterized freedom of thought as “the matrix, the indispensable condition, of nearly every other form of freedom.” And in a series of cases involving Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Court developed a theory of the First Amendment under which the rights of free thought, speech, press, and exercise of religion were placed in a “preferred position.” Freedom of thought was central to this new theory of the First Amendment, exemplified by Justice Jackson’s opinion in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, which invalidated a state regulation requiring that public school children salute the flag each morning. Jackson declared that:

If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein. . . .

[The flag-salute statute] transcends constitutional limitations on [legislative] power and invades the sphere of intellect and spirit which it is the purpose of the First Amendment to our Constitution to reserve from all official control.

Modern cases continue to reflect this legacy. The Court has repeatedly declared that the constitutional guarantee of freedom of thought is at the foundation of what it means to have a free society. In particular, freedom of thought has been invoked as a principal justification for preventing punishment based upon possessing or reading dangerous media. Thus, the government cannot punish a person for merely possessing unpopular or dangerous books or images based upon their content. As Alexander Meiklejohn put it succinctly, the First Amendment protects, first and foremost, “the thinking process of the community.”

Freedom of thought thus remains, as it has for centuries, the foundation of the Anglo-American tradition of civil liberties. It is also the core of intellectual privacy.

“The New Home of Mind”

“Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind.” So began “A Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace,” a 1996 manifesto responding to the Communications Decency Act and other attempts by government to regulate the online world and stamp out indecency. The Declaration’s author was John Perry Barlow, a founder of the influential Electronic Frontier Foundation and a former lyricist for the Grateful Dead. Barlow argued that “[c]yberspace consists of transactions, relationships, and thought itself, arrayed like a standing wave in the web of our communications. Ours is a world that is both everywhere and nowhere, but it is not where bodies live.” This definition of the Internet as a realm of pure thought was quickly followed by an affirmation of the importance of the freedom of thought. Barlow insisted that in Cyberspace “anyone, anywhere may express his or her beliefs, no matter how singular, without fear of being coerced into silence or conformity.” The Declaration concluded on the same theme: “We will spread ourselves across the Planet so that no one can arrest our thoughts. We will create a civilization of the Mind in Cyberspace. May it be more humane and fair than the world your governments have made before.”

In his Declaration, Barlow joined a tradition of many (including many of the most important thinkers and creators of the digital world) who have expressed the idea that networked computing can be a place of “thought itself.” As early as 1960, the great computing visionary J. C. R. Licklider imagined that “in not too many years, human brains and computing machines will be coupled together very tightly, and that the resulting partnership will think as no human brain has ever thought.” Tim Berners-Lee, the architect of the World Wide Web, envisioned his creation as one that would bring “the workings of society closer to the workings of our minds.”

Barlow’s utopian demand that governments leave the electronic realm alone was only partially successful. The Communications Decency Act was, as we have seen, struck down by the Supreme Court, but today many laws regulate the Internet, such as the U.S. Digital Millenium Copyright Act6and the EU Data Retention Directive. The Internet has become more (and less) than Barlow’s utopian vision—a place of business as well as of thinking. But Barlow’s description of the Internet as a world of the mind remains resonant today.

It is undeniable that today millions of people use computers as aids to their thinking. In the digital age, computers are an essential and intertwined supplement to our thoughts and our memories. Discussing Licklider’s prophesy from half a century ago, legal scholar Tim Wu notes that virtually every computer “program we use is a type of thinking aid—whether the task is to remember things (an address book), to organize prose (a word processor), or to keep track of friends (social network software).” These technologies have become not just aids to thought but also part of the thinking process itself. In the past, we invented paper and books, and then sound and video recordings to preserve knowledge and make it easier for us as individuals and societies to remember information. Digital technologies have made remembering even easier, by providing cheap storage, inexpensive retrieval, and global reach. Consider the Kindle, a cheap electronic reader that can hold 1,100 books, or even cheaper external hard drives that can hold hundreds of hours of high-definition video in a box the size of a paperback novel.

Even the words we use to describe our digital products and experiences reflect our understanding that computers and cyberspace are devices and places of the mind. IBM has famously called its laptops “ThinkPads,” and many of us use “smartphones.” Other technologies have been named in ways that affirm their status as tools of the mind—notebooks, ultrabooks, tablets, and browsers. Apple Computer produces iPads and MacBooks and has long sold its products under the slogan, “Think Different.” Google historian John Battelle has famously termed Google’s search records to be a “database of intentions.” Google’s own slogan for its web browser Chrome is “browse the web as fast as you think,” revealing how web browsing itself is not just a form of reading, but a kind of thinking itself. My point here is not just that common usage or marketing slogans connect Internet use to thinking, but a more important one: Our use of these words reflects a reality. We are increasingly using digital technologies not just as aids to our memories but also as an essential part of the ways we think.

Search engines in particular bear a special connection to the processes of thought. How many of us have asked a factual question among friends, only for smartphones to appear as our friends race to see who can look up the answer the fastest? In private, we use search engines to learn about the world. If you have a moment, pull up your own search history on your phone, tablet, or computer, and recall your past queries. It usually makes for interesting reading—a history of your thoughts and wonderings.

But the ease with which we can pull up such a transcript reveals another fundamental feature of digital technologies—they are designed to create records of their use. Think again about the profile a search engine like Google has for you. A transcript of search queries and links followed is a close approximation to a transcript of the operation of your mind. In the logs of search engine companies are vast repositories of intellectual wonderings, questions asked, and mental whims followed. Similar logs exist for Internet service providers and other new technology companies. And the data contained in such logs is eagerly sought by government and private entities interested in monitoring intellectual activity, whether for behavioral advertising, crime and terrorism prevention, and possibly other, more sinister purposes.

Searching Is Thinking

With these two points in mind—the importance of freedom of thought and the idea of the Internet as a place where thought occurs—we can now return to the Google Search Subpoena with which this chapter opened. Judge Ware’s opinion revealed an intuitive understanding that the disclosure of search records was threatening to privacy, but was not clear about what kind of privacy was involved or why it matters.

Intellectual privacy, in particular the freedom of thought, supplies the answer to this problem. We use search engines to learn about and make sense of the world, to answer our questions, and as aids to our thinking. Searching, then, in a very real sense is a kind of thinking. And we have a long tradition of protecting the privacy and confidentiality of our thoughts from the scrutiny of others. It is precisely because of the importance of search records to human thought that the Justice Department wanted to access the records. But if our search records were more public, we wouldn’t merely be exposed to embarrassment like Thelma Arnold of Lilburn, Georgia. We would be less likely to search for unpopular or deviant or dangerous topics. Yet in a free society, we need to be able to think freely about any ideas, no matter how dangerous or unpopular. If we care about freedom of thought—and our political institutions are built on the assumption that we do—we should care about the privacy of electronic records that reveal our thoughts. Search records illustrate the point well, but this idea is not just limited to that one important technology. My argument about freedom of thought in the digital age is this: Any technology that we use in our thinking implicates our intellectual privacy, and if we want to preserve our ability to think fearlessly, free of monitoring, interference, or repercussion, we should embody these technologies with a meaningful measure of intellectual privacy.

Excerpted from “Intellectual Privacy: Rethinking Civil Liberties in the Digital Age” by Neil Richards. Published by Oxford University Press. Copyright 2015 by Neil Richards. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

Neil Richards is a Professor of Law at Washington University, where he teaches and writes about privacy, free speech, and the digital revolution.

Child poverty at devastating levels in US cities and states

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By Patrick Martin 

26 February 2015

Reports issued over the past week suggest that child poverty in America is more widespread than at any time in the last 50 years. For all the claims of economic “recovery” in the United States, the reality for the new generation of the working class is one of ever-deeper social deprivation.

The Annie E. Casey Foundation publishes the annual Kids Count report on child poverty, which was the source of state-by-state reports issued last week. These reports use the new Supplemental Poverty Measure, developed by the Census Bureau, which includes the impact of government benefit programs like food stamps and unemployment compensation, as well as state social programs, and accounts for variations in the cost of living as well.

The result is a picture of the United States with a markedly different regional distribution of child poverty than usually presented. The state with the highest child poverty rate is California, the most populous, at a staggering 27 percent, followed by neighboring Arizona and Nevada, each at 22 percent.

The child poverty rate of California is much higher than figures previously reported, because the cost of living in the state is higher. Moreover, many of the poorest immigrant families are not enrolled in federal social programs because they are undocumented or face language barriers. The same conditions apply in Arizona and Nevada.

The other major centers of child poverty in the United States are the long-impoverished states of the rural Deep South, and the more recently devastated states of the industrial Midwest, where conditions of life for the working class have deteriorated the most rapidly over the past ten years.

It is a remarkable fact, documented in a separate report issued February 23 by the Catholic charity Bread for the World, that African-American child poverty rates are actually worse in the Midwest states of Iowa, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin and Indiana than in the traditionally poorest parts of the Deep South, including Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama.

Several of the Midwest states have replaced Mississippi at the bottom of one or another social index. Iowa has the worst poverty rate for African-American children. Indiana has the highest rate of teens attempting or seriously considering suicide.

The most remarkable transformation is in Michigan, once the center of American industry with the highest working-class standard of living of any state. Michigan is the only major US state whose overall poverty rate is actually worse now than in 1960.

This half-century of decline is a devastating indictment of the failure of the American trade unions, which have collaborated in the systematic impoverishment of the working class in what was once their undisputed stronghold.

The United Auto Workers, in particular, did nothing as dozens of plants were shut down and cities like Detroit, Pontiac, Flint and Saginaw were laid waste by the auto bosses. Meanwhile, the UAW became a billion-dollar business, its executives controlling tens of billions in pension and benefit funds, while the rank-and-file workers lost their jobs, their homes and their livelihoods.

In Detroit, once the industrial capital of the world’s richest country, the child poverty rate was 59 percent in 2012, up from 44.3 percent in 2006.

The social catastrophe facing the population in Detroit also exposes the role of the Democratic Party and the organizations around it that have for decades promoted identity politics—according to which race, and not class, is the fundamental social category in America. The city, like many throughout the region, has been run by a layer of black politicians who have overseen the shocking decay in the social position of African-American workers and youth. (See, “Half a million children in poverty in Michigan”.)

Cleveland, also devastated by steel and auto plant closings, was the only other major US city with a child poverty rate of over 50 percent.

The Detroit figure undoubtedly understates the social catastrophe in the Motor City, since it comes from a study concluded before the state-imposed emergency manager put the city into bankruptcy in the summer of 2013, leading to drastic cuts in wages, benefits and pensions for city workers and retirees.

Wayne County, which includes Detroit, had the highest child poverty rate of any of Michigan’s 82 counties. Southeast Michigan, which includes the entire Detroit metropolitan area, endured an overall rise in child poverty rates from 18.9 percent in 2006 to 27 percent in 2012.

The state-by-state reports issued by Kids Count were accompanied by a press release by the Casey Foundation noting that the child poverty rate in the United States would nearly double, from 18 percent to 33 percent, without social programs like food stamps, school meals, Medicaid and the Earned Income Tax Credit.

This was issued as a warning of the effect of widely expected budget cuts in these critical programs. It coincided with the first hearing before the House Agriculture Committee on plans to attack the federal food stamp program by imposing work requirements and other restrictions to limit eligibility.

The food stamp program has already suffered through two rounds of budget cuts agreed on in bipartisan deals between the Obama White House and congressional Republicans, which cut $1 billion and $5 billion respectively from the program. Now that Republicans control both houses of Congress, they will press for even more sweeping cuts in a program that helps feed 47 million low-income people, many of them children.

 

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2015/02/26/cpov-f26.html

The 21st century belongs to China

Why the new Silk Road threatens to end America’s economic dominance

Beijing is building a trans-Siberian railway system that rivals the Marshall Plan in its ambition and global reach

The 21st century belongs to China: Why the new Silk Road threatens to end America's economic dominance
Performers show the dragon dance during a night parade to celebrate Chinese New Year in Hong Kong, Thursday, Feb. 19, 2015. (Credit: AP/Vincent Yu)
This piece originally appeared on TomDispatch.

BEIJING — Seen from the Chinese capital as the Year of the Sheep starts, the malaise affecting the West seems like a mirage in a galaxy far, far away. On the other hand, the China that surrounds you looks all too solid and nothing like the embattled nation you hear about in the Western media, with its falling industrial figures, its real estate bubble, and its looming environmental disasters. Prophecies of doom notwithstanding, as the dogs of austerity and war bark madly in the distance, the Chinese caravan passes by in what President Xi Jinping calls “new normal” mode.

“Slower” economic activity still means a staggeringly impressive annual growth rate of 7% in what is now the globe’s leading economy. Internally, an immensely complex economic restructuring is underway as consumption overtakes investment as the main driver of economic development. At 46.7% of the gross domestic product (GDP), the service economy has pulled ahead of manufacturing, which stands at 44%.

Geopolitically, Russia, India, and China have just sent a powerful message westward: they are busy fine-tuning a complex trilateral strategy for setting up a network of economic corridors the Chinese call “new silk roads” across Eurasia. Beijing is also organizing a maritime version of the same, modeled on the feats of Admiral Zheng He who, in the Ming dynasty, sailed the “western seas” seven times, commanding fleets of more than 200 vessels.

Meanwhile, Moscow and Beijing are at work planning a new high-speed rail remix of the fabled Trans-Siberian Railroad. And Beijing is committed to translating its growing strategic partnership with Russia into crucial financial and economic help, if a sanctions-besieged Moscow, facing a disastrous oil price war, asks for it.



To China’s south, Afghanistan, despite the 13-year American war still being fought there, is fast moving into its economic orbit, while a planned China-Myanmar oil pipeline is seen as a game-changing reconfiguration of the flow of Eurasian energy across what I’ve long called Pipelineistan.

And this is just part of the frenetic action shaping what the Beijing leadership defines as the New Silk Road Economic Belt and the Maritime Silk Road of the twenty-first century. We’re talking about a vision of creating a potentially mind-boggling infrastructure, much of it from scratch, that will connect China to Central Asia, the Middle East, and Western Europe. Such a development will include projects that range from upgrading the ancient silk road via Central Asia to developing a Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar economic corridor; a China-Pakistan corridor through Kashmir; and a new maritime silk road that will extend from southern China all the way, in reverse Marco Polo fashion, to Venice.

Don’t think of this as the twenty-first-century Chinese equivalent of America’s post-World War II Marshall Plan for Europe, but as something far more ambitious and potentially with a far vaster reach.

China as a Mega-City

If you are following this frenzy of economic planning from Beijing, you end up with a perspective not available in Europe or the U.S. Here, red-and-gold billboards promote President Xi Jinping’s much ballyhooed new tagline for the country and the century, “the Chinese Dream” (which brings to mind “the American Dream” of another era). No subway station is without them. They are a reminder of why 40,000 miles of brand new high-speed rail is considered so essential to the country’s future. After all, no less than 300 million Chinese have, in the last three decades, made a paradigm-breaking migration from the countryside to exploding urban areas in search of that dream.

Another 350 million are expected to be on the way, according to a McKinsey Global Institute study. From 1980 to 2010, China’s urban population grew by 400 million, leaving the country with at least 700 million urban dwellers. This figure is expected to hit one billion by 2030, which means tremendous stress on cities, infrastructure, resources, and the economy as a whole, as well as near-apocalyptic air pollution levels in some major cities.

Already 160 Chinese cities boast populations of more than one million. (Europe has only 35.) No less than 250 Chinese cities have tripled their GDP per capita since 1990, while disposable income per capita is up by 300%.

These days, China should be thought of not in terms of individual cities but urban clusters — groupings of cities with more than 60 million people. The Beijing-Tianjin area, for example, is actually a cluster of 28 cities. Shenzhen, the ultimate migrant megacity in the southern province of Guangdong, is now a key hub in a cluster as well. China, in fact, has more than 20 such clusters, each the size of a European country. Pretty soon, the main clusters will account for 80% of China’s GDP and 60% of its population. So the country’s high-speed rail frenzy and its head-spinning infrastructure projects – part of a $1.1 trillion investment in 300 public works — are all about managing those clusters.

Not surprisingly, this process is intimately linked to what in the West is considered a notorious “housing bubble,” which in 1998 couldn’t have even existed. Until then all housing was still owned by the state. Once liberalized, that housing market sent a surging Chinese middle class into paroxysms of investment. Yet with rare exceptions, middle-class Chinese can still afford their mortgages because both rural and urban incomes have also surged.

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is, in fact, paying careful attention to this process, allowing farmers to lease or mortgage their land, among other things, and so finance their urban migration and new housing. Since we’re talking about hundreds of millions of people, however, there are bound to be distortions in the housing market, even the creation of whole disastrous ghost towns with associated eerie, empty malls.

The Chinese infrastructure frenzy is being financed by a pool of investments from central and local government sources, state-owned enterprises, and the private sector. The construction business, one of the country’s biggest employers, involves more than 100 million people, directly or indirectly. Real estate accounts for as much as 22% of total national investment in fixed assets and all of this is tied to the sale of consumer appliances, furnishings, and an annual turnover of 25% of China’s steel production, 70% of its cement, 70% of its plate glass, and 25% of its plastics.

So no wonder, on my recent stay in Beijing, businessmen kept assuring me that the ever-impending “popping” of the “housing bubble” is, in fact, a myth in a country where, for the average citizen, the ultimate investment is property. In addition, the vast urbanization drive ensures, as Premier Li Keqiang stressed at the recent World Economic Forum in Davos, a “long-term demand for housing.”

Markets, Markets, Markets

China is also modifying its manufacturing base, which increased by a multiple of 18 in the last three decades. The country still produces 80% of the world’s air conditioners, 90% of its personal computers, 75% of its solar panels, 70% of its cell phones, and 63% of its shoes. Manufacturing accounts for 44% of Chinese GDP, directly employing more than 130 million people. In addition, the country already accounts for 12.8% of global research and development, well ahead of England and most of Western Europe.

Yet the emphasis is now switching to a fast-growing domestic market, which will mean yet more major infrastructural investment, the need for an influx of further engineering talent, and a fast-developing supplier base. Globally, as China starts to face new challenges — rising labor costs, an increasingly complicated global supply chain, and market volatility — it is also making an aggressive push to move low-tech assembly to high-tech manufacturing. Already, the majority of Chinese exports are smartphones, engine systems, and cars (with planes on their way). In the process, a geographic shift in manufacturing is underway from the southern seaboard to Central and Western China. The city of Chengdu in the southwestern province of Sichuan, for instance, is now becoming a high-tech urban cluster as it expands around firms like Intel and HP.

So China is boldly attempting to upgrade in manufacturing terms, both internally and globally at the same time. In the past, Chinese companies have excelled in delivering the basics of life at cheap prices and acceptable quality levels. Now, many companies are fast upgrading their technology and moving up into second- and first-tier cities, while foreign firms, trying to lessen costs, are moving down to second- and third-tier cities. Meanwhile, globally, Chinese CEOs want their companies to become true multinationals in the next decade. The country already has 73 companies in the Fortune Global 500, leaving it in the number two spot behind the U.S.

In terms of Chinese advantages, keep in mind that the future of the global economy clearly lies in Asia with its record rise in middle-class incomes. In 2009, the Asia-Pacific region had just 18% of the world’s middle class; by 2030, according to the Development Center of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, that figure will rise to an astounding 66%. North America and Europe had 54% of the global middle class in 2009; in 2030, it will only be 21%.

Follow the money, and the value you get for that money, too. For instance, no less than 200,000 Chinese workers were involved in the production of the first iPhone, overseen by 8,700 Chinese industrial engineers. They were recruited in only two weeks. In the U.S., that process might have taken more than nine months. The Chinese manufacturing ecosystem is indeed fast, flexible, and smart — and it’s backed by an ever more impressive education system. Since 1998, the percentage of GDP dedicated to education has almost tripled; the number of colleges has doubled; and in only a decade, China has built the largest higher education system in the world.

Strengths and Weaknesses

China holds more than $15 trillion in bank deposits, which are growing by a whopping $2 trillion a year. Foreign exchange reserves are nearing $4 trillion. A definitive study of how this torrent of funds circulates within China among projects, companies, financial institutions, and the state still does not exist. No one really knows, for instance, how many loans the Agricultural Bank of China actually makes. High finance, state capitalism, and one-party rule all mix and meld in the realm of Chinese financial services where realpolitik meets real big money.

The big four state-owned banks — the Bank of China, the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China, the China Construction Bank, and the Agricultural Bank of China — have all evolved from government organizations into semi-corporate state-owned entities. They benefit handsomely both from legacy assets and government connections, or guanxi, and operate with a mix of commercial and government objectives in mind. They are the drivers to watch when it comes to the formidable process of reshaping the Chinese economic model.

As for China’s debt-to-GDP ratio, it’s not yet a big deal. In a list of 17 countries, it lies well below those of Japan and the U.S., according to Standard Chartered Bank, and unlike in the West, consumer credit is only a small fraction of total debt. True, the West exhibits a particular fascination with China’s shadow banking industry: wealth management products, underground finance, off-the-balance-sheet lending. But such operations only add up to around 28% of GDP, whereas, according to the International Monetary Fund, it’s a much higher percentage in the U.S.

China’s problems may turn out to come from non-economic areas where the Beijing leadership has proven far more prone to false moves. It is, for instance, on the offensive on three fronts, each of which may prove to have its own form of blowback: tightening ideological control over the country under the rubric of sidelining “Western values”; tightening control overonline information and social media networks, including reinforcing “the Great Firewall of China” to police the Internet; and tightening further its control over restive ethnic minorities, especially over the Uighurs in the key western province of Xinjiang.

On two of these fronts — the “Western values” controversy and Internet control — the leadership in Beijing might reap far more benefits, especially among the vast numbers of younger, well educated, globally connected citizens, by promoting debate, but that’s not how the hyper-centralized Chinese Communist Party machinery works.

When it comes to those minorities in Xinjiang, the essential problem may not be with the new guiding principles of President Xi’s ethnic policy. According to Beijing-based analyst Gabriele Battaglia, Xi wants to manage ethnic conflict there by applying the “three Js”: jiaowang, jiaoliu, jiaorong (“inter-ethnic contact,” “exchange,” and “mixage”). Yet what adds up to a push from Beijing for Han/Uighur assimilation may mean little in practice when day-to-day policy in Xinjiang is conducted by unprepared Han cadres who tend to view most Uighurs as “terrorists.”

If Beijing botches the handling of its Far West, Xinjiang won’t, as expected, become the peaceful, stable, new hub of a crucial part of the silk-road strategy. Yet it is already considered an essential communication link in Xi’s vision of Eurasian integration, as well as a crucial conduit for the massive flow of energy supplies from Central Asia and Russia. The Central Asia-China pipeline, for instance, which brings natural gas from the Turkmen-Uzbek border through Uzbekistan and southern Kazakhstan, is already adding a fourth line to Xinjiang. And one of the two newly agreed upon Russia-China pipelines will also arrive in Xinjiang.

The Book of Xi

The extent and complexity of China’s myriad transformations barely filter into the American media. Stories in the U.S. tend to emphasize the country’s “shrinking” economy and nervousness about its future global role, the way it has “duped” the U.S. about its designs, and its nature as a military “threat” to Washington and the world.

The U.S. media has a China fever, which results in typically feverish reports that don’t take the pulse of the country or its leader. In the process, so much is missed. One prescription might be for them to read The Governance of China, a compilation of President Xi’s major speeches, talks, interviews, and correspondence. It’s already a three-million-copy bestseller in its Mandarin edition and offers a remarkably digestible vision of what Xi’s highly proclaimed “China Dream” will mean in the new Chinese century.

Xi Dada (“Xi Big Bang” as he’s nicknamed here) is no post-Mao deity. He’s more like a pop phenomenon and that’s hardly surprising. In this “to get rich is glorious” remix, you couldn’t launch the superhuman task of reshaping the Chinese model by being a cold-as-a-cucumber bureaucrat. Xi has instead struck a collective nerve by stressing that the country’s governance must be based on competence, not insider trading and Party corruption, and he’s cleverly packaged the transformation he has in mind as an American-style “dream.”

Behind the pop star clearly lies a man of substance that the Western media should come to grips with. You don’t, after all, manage such an economic success story by accident. It may be particularly important to take his measure since he’s taken the measure of Washington and the West and decided that China’s fate and fortune lie elsewhere.

As a result, last November he made official an earthshaking geopolitical shift. From now on, Beijing would stop treating the U.S. or the European Union as its main strategic priority and refocus instead on China’s Asian neighbors and fellow BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, and South Africa, with a special focus on Russia), also known here as the “major developing powers” (kuoda fazhanzhong de guojia). And just for the record, China does not consider itself a “developing country” anymore.

No wonder there’s been such a blitz of Chinese mega-deals and mega-dealings across Pipelineistan recently. Under Xi, Beijing is fast closing the gap on Washington in terms of intellectual and economic firepower and yet its global investment offensive has barely begun, new silk roads included.

Singapore’s former foreign minister George Yeo sees the newly emerging world order as a solar system with two suns, the United States and China. The Obama administration’s new National Security Strategy affirms that “the United States has been and will remain a Pacific power” and states that “while there will be competition, we reject the inevitability of confrontation” with Beijing. The “major developing powers,” intrigued as they are by China’s extraordinary infrastructural push, both internally and across those New Silk Roads, wonder whether a solar system with two suns might not be a non-starter. The question then is: Which “sun” will shine on Planet Earth?  Might this, in fact, be the century of the dragon?

Rebuilding Kobani: call for help from a city in ruins

By Yvo Fitzherbert On February 18, 2015

Post image for Rebuilding Kobani: call for help from a city in ruinsThe liberation of Kobani was a bittersweet victory that left the town devastated. Reconstruction has begun and the need for solidarity and aid is urgent.

Photo by Bulent Kilic.

“When Kobani was liberated, it was a beautiful feeling. A feeling of freedom,” my friend Mustafa explained to me. Mustafa is a local journalist, and after being detained for two weeks by the Turkish authorities when he fled Kobani in early October, he decided to return to his hometown to work and to help facilitate journalists inside the city. For four months, Kobani had been under a brutal siege. ISIS jihadists attacked the city from the east, west and south, surrounding it from all sides. To the north lay Turkey, forever against the autonomy the Kurds of Syria had created for themselves and therefore no friend of the Kurdish resistance in Kobani.

But after four months, on January 27, Kobani was finally liberated. The Kurdish forces, led by the PKK-affiliated YPG and their female unit YPJ, but also supported by the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and the Peshmerga of Iraqi Kurdistan, had fiercely defended the advances of the Islamic State and forced them out of the city. Aerial bombardments by the US-led coalition targeting ISIS positions in and around the city contributed to weakening the jihadist forces, but as the battle of Kobani has shown, these only play a secondary role when it comes to defeating ISIS.

“It was like being reborn again,” Idriss Nassan, the deputy foreign minister of Kobani said. Idriss had moved to the Turkish border town of Suruç when the situation became critical in Kobani in early October and had worked as foreign minister from there. Two days before the victory of Kobani, he decided to move back to his hometown and described the joy at being able to live in his city again after spending four months in Turkey.

The new center and food shortages

While the liberation of Kobani came as a long-awaited relief and was proudly celebrated by the citizens of Kobani, it was a bittersweet victory. More than 80 percent of the city has been destroyed entirely, reduced to little but a heap of rubble. Throughout the battle, YPG based its operations from the west where there was little fighting, except for ISIS’s mortar shells and the real danger of sniper fire.

As a result, the urban center has shifted west — the only part of the city where life still exists. Guerrillas, taking a break from the front-line in the villages surrounding Kobani, stroll through the streets calmly with Kalashnikovs in hand, soaking up freedom. Men and women linger at street corners, chatting about the latest YPG victory in the villages.

A school now functions, with eager children hoping to forget the pains of the conflict. In itself, the school amounts to little more than a concrete foundation of a house on the western outskirts of the city. However, when you descend into the basement — chosen for its obvious protection from ISIS shells — there is a bustling environment of alternative education.

Throughout the four-month siege, there has been a constant shortage of food. With the border controlled by the Turkish military, which decides to let in supplies at its own discretion, people have had to rely on smuggling routes. But the cornerstone of the city’s food production remains the bakery. “The bread has fed the resistance.” one citizen explained to me.

The bakery, run by a family that bravely continued its work throughout the siege, has provided bread for free for all the fighters and the citizens that stayed behind in Kobani. Due to its indispensability, it had been a target of ISIS, and as a result they hid the bakery’s location to any journalists until now. “I decided to remain in the city baking bread because I realized it was essential for the survival of the resistance,” a member of the family of bakers told me.

The larger bakery, which provided the whole city with bread before the siege, was targeted by ISIS mortars in the early days of the fighting and as a result it was already closed down five months ago. Now it has been reopened, and besides its logistical importance, this is above all a symbolic victory. Ibrahim, the bakery manager, described how it had taken them ten days to rebuild because of the damage inflicted by ISIS’s mortar shells.

Now it was finally functioning, and bread was once again being baked for the community. Ibrahim told me in an interview that “in order to feed the community, you must fight for it.” Although of little strategic significance, for Ibrahim and many other citizens of Kobani, the reopening of the bakery was a long-awaited victory for which they had fought long and hard.

Children in Kobani. Photo by author.

Aside from the daily supply of bread, the depot is where all citizens go to collect whatever supplies they need as the shops stopped functioning many months ago. I visited it one day to collect food for the house I was staying at. Behind the counter, they have piles of canned food, a selection of fresh vegetables, oil and household supplies. “It’s just like a normal shop but without money,” Mustafa joked. And it was exactly that: Kobani, the moneyless economy.

Meanwhile, families are slowly returning to Kobani after many months of anxiously awaiting the outcome of the battle in Turkey. For four months they watched the bombs rain down on their beloved city, and now they are finally back. I watched as families returned home, shouting “Long live the resistance ofKobani!” as they walked through the YPG border gate into their destroyed city.

One old woman told me upon arriving into Kobani that “the destruction of the city is incomparable to the lives we have lost.” For her, the destruction lay not in the piles of rubble confronting her arrival, but in the memories of the many members of her family who were martyred in the resistance to free the city.

Another father, who had stayed fighting throughout the battle while his family escaped to Turkey, was emotionally reunited with his family after four painful months apart. He told me that “if we didn’t have the love for our children and for our family, we couldn’t have won this battle.”

Dangers remain in a free Kobani

While people start to enjoy the slow normalization of their lives in the city,Kobani still feels very much like a ghost city, completely destroyed by the war.Unexploded bombs are scattered everywhere, often going unnoticed. Some are buried into the road, while others lie unobtrusively beneath the rubble. Children play alongside these bombs, not giving them a moment’s thought. Every now and then, a loud explosion pierces through the city, and civilians exchange fearful looks, hoping that nobody was harmed. Half a dozen people have died as a result of such accidents in the last week alone.

The government of Kobani has said that “until all bombs and explosives are removed from Kobani, the city and villages will not be safe,” and have issued a call-out for international support in clearing the city. With the town mostly destroyed and unexploded bombs dispersed all over the only inhabitable part of the city, it appears that it will take a long time for normal life to resume.

However, Kobani’s call for international assistance is likely to go unnoticed unless strong pressure is exerted to open a humanitarian corridor. Kobani — and the other Rojavan cantons of Afrin and Cezire — have consistently faced an unjust embargo from the international community over the last two years. Due to this embargo, Turkey only allows basic food supplies to cross the border, giving no permission for construction vehicles or building materials to enter Kobani.

As the HDP parliamentarian Ibrahim Ayhan says, “Until the border is fully free no help will be properly delivered.” Idriss Nassan believes the international community has a duty, stating that “if the international community wantsKobani to be rebuilt and victory to be continued, they have to open this[humanitarian] corridor.”

The reason emphasis has now been placed on the opening of a humanitarian corridor comes from a fear that, without such a corridor, Kobani will forever resemble a destroyed city. Refugees, anxious to return to the homeland they were forced to flee under the savage advances of ISIS, will not be able to return for months. The city will remain in its crumbled, depleted state, forever traumatized and scarred by the siege. Kurdish government officials recognize this, and it is for this reason that they have issued an urgent appeal for a humanitarian corridor to be opened.

From self-dependence to dependency — and back?

But is Kobani really free? While ISIS has been driven out of the town, the jihadist forces still sit uneasily on its borders. Furthermore, the city lies in ruins. The total destruction that one sees across the city is everywhere south-east of the border gate. This was ISIS’s base throughout the conflict, and as a result, a target of the US-led coalition’s bombs. Instead of targeting the supply routes that ISIS used continuously throughout the siege, they choose to target ISIS purely within the city’s confines, condemning Kobani to dust and rubble. So why did the coalition decide to bomb the city rather than the supply routes of ISIS?

Mustafa believes this decision on the part of the US military was “a form of punishment for our system.” Rojava, with its grassroots-democratic model, had painstakingly resisted international capitalist interests through its system ofdemocratic confederalism. This system, which focuses on autonomous self-dependence, has never fit easily with Western interests. As a result, many here believe the policy to bomb Kobani into oblivion has firmly forced its administration from one of self-dependence to dependency.

While the international community supported the Kurdish forces in their battle against ISIS, as of yet there has been no support to help the Kurds rebuild their city. Given the sheer extent of the destruction, it is also clear that the Kurds cannot rebuild the city alone. Since the international community bombed Kobani to the ground, it also has a duty to help it rebuild. When Rojava and its grassroots model of democratic autonomy were created, an actual city existed. The embargo that made life difficult for the Rojava administration could be negotiated around. But now that Kobani lies in total ruins, the people of Kobanineed help.

If no such help is delivered, the city will forever resemble a ghost city, trapped between freedom and imprisonment. Aid is therefore essential, which requires a concerted international effort to force Turkey to open a humanitarian corridor. Enwer Muslim, the Prime Minister of the Kobani canton, has said that “the resistance of Kobani was a victory for humanity and will stand as an example in history. In the face of ISIS’s barbarism, Kobani stood up for humanity. Now is the time for humanity and the international community to stand up for Kobani.”

With this plea for support, careful attention must be paid to ensure the rebuilding of the town will be done in the same spirit of self-dependence that was used to liberate the city.

Yvo Fitzherbert is a freelance journalist based in Istanbul. He writes for a number of different publications, with a particular focus on Kurdish politics. Follow him on Twitter at @yvofitz.

Freedom Square in the eastern part of the city. Photo by author.

 

 

Lawyer Says He Has Fool-Proof Method for Dealing With DUI Checkpoints

CIVIL LIBERTIES
Warren Redlich says keep your windows up and remain silent when stopped.

A Florida criminal defense attorney has gone to war against DUI checkpoints, saying the compulsory traffic stops by police violate state laws and civil rights.

Attorney Warren Redlich, a former Libertarian candidate for New York governor, says drivers are not required to roll down their windows at checkpoints to talk to police. Redlich says drivers open themselves up to problems when the police have direct access to them.

Redlich posted a YouTube video on New Year’s Day, which has received nearly 2.4 million views. It has spawned several copycat videos by supporters who have filmed police officers after they were stopped at checkpoints in various states.

In the video, Redlich identifies a DUI checkpoint run by the Florida Highway Patrol and Levy County Sheriff’s department and drives to it. Attached to the door is a flyer that Redlich says spells out his rights: I WILL REMAIN SILENT/I WANT MY LAWYER/NO SEARCHES, it begins. The flyer also contains his valid registration and insurance information along with a clear pocket for his driver’s license.

Redlich says it is important not to open the window, because then the police can say they smell alcohol or drugs. He also says it’s important to remain silent, because otherwise the police can claim your speech is slurred. Even if you’re innocent, Redlich says, it makes it more difficult for an attorney to mount a defense at a trial.

“I’ve seen innocent people who plead guilty because they couldn’t fight or afford an attorney,” Redlich told a Florida ABC News affiliate.

The YouTube video shows three drivers who approach police checkpoints. When the first driver approaches the checkpoint with the doors locked and the windows rolled up, the police examine his flyer quizzically before letting him go. The second and third drivers are also allowed to proceed.

Redlich cautions that the Fair DUI flyer and the procedures used by the drivers are specific to Florida laws. He has published custom flyers and information for other 10 other states on his site Fair DUI. Redlich also published a book by the same in 2013.

“This is not about helping drunks,” says Redlich. “This is about helping innocent people. If some drunk person along the way gets help because of this, I’m perfectly okay with that. I’m a criminal defense attorney.”

Redlich says following his directions, being patient and remaining silent are important, so the flyers probably wouldn’t help impaired drivers.

See Redlich’s video:

Cliff Weathers is a senior editor at AlterNet, covering environmental and consumer issues. He is a former deputy editor at Consumer Reports. His work has also appeared in Salon, Car and Driver, Playboy, Raw Story and Detroit Monthly among other publications. Follow him on Twitter @cliffweathers and on his Facebook page.

 

http://www.alternet.org/civil-liberties/method-dealing-dui-checkpoints?akid=12795.265072.hilghC&rd=1&src=newsletter1031899&t=15

Noam Chomsky: “The world that we’re creating for our grandchildren is grim”

The intellectual sat down with Jacobin to discuss ISIS, Israel and climate change

Noam Chomsky: "The world that we’re creating for our grandchildren is grim"
Noam Chomsky (Credit: fotostory via Shutterstock)

Renowned linguist and well-respected political commentator, Noam Chomsky, was interviewed by journalist David Barsamian for Jacobin. In the fascinating and thought-provoking conversation the two touch on the origins of ISIS, America’s relationship with Israel, among other foreign policy topics. Below are a few choice selections from the interview, which can (and should) be read in full at Jacobin.

When asked about the origins of ISIS Chomsky explained how sectarian conflict derived from the Iraq war:

“There’s an interesting interview that just appeared a couple of days ago with Graham Fuller, a former CIA officer, one of the leading intelligence and mainstream analysts of the Middle East. The title is “The United States Created ISIS.” This is one of the conspiracy theories, the thousands of them that go around the Middle East.

But this is another source: this is right at the heart of the US establishment. He hastens to point out that he doesn’t mean the US decided to put ISIS into existence and then funded it. His point is — and I think it’s accurate — that the US created the background out of which ISIS grew and developed. Part of it was just the standard sledgehammer approach: smash up what you don’t like.”

Late in the answer Chomsky continues:

“Finally, the US just decided to attack the country in 2003. The attack is compared by many Iraqis to the Mongol invasion of a thousand years earlier. Very destructive. Hundreds of thousands of people killed, millions of refugees, millions of other displaced persons, destruction of the archeological richness and wealth of the country back to Sumeria.

One of the effects of the invasion was immediately to institute sectarian divisions. Part of the brilliance of the invasion force and its civilian director, Paul Bremer, was to separate the sects, Sunni, Shi’a, Kurd, from one another, set them at each other’s throats. Within a couple of years, there was a major, brutal sectarian conflict incited by the invasion.

You can see it if you look at Baghdad. If you take a map of Baghdad in, say, 2002, it’s a mixed city: Sunni and Shi’a are living in the same neighborhoods, they’re intermarried. In fact, sometimes they didn’t even know who was Sunni and who was Shi’a. It’s like knowing whether your friends are in one Protestant group or another Protestant group. There were differences but it was not hostile.

In fact, for a couple of years both sides were saying: there will never be Sunni-Shi’a conflicts. We’re too intermingled in the nature of our lives, where we live, and so on. By 2006 there was a raging war. That conflict spread to the whole region. By now, the whole region is being torn apart by Sunni-Shi’a conflicts.

The natural dynamics of a conflict like that is that the most extreme elements begin to take over. They had roots. Their roots are in the major US ally, Saudi Arabia. That’s been the major US ally in the region as long as the US has been seriously involved there, in fact, since the foundation of the Saudi state. It’s kind of a family dictatorship. The reason is it has a huge amount oil.”



Asked about Congress’ unfailing support for Israel — even beloved progressive Senator Elizabeth Warren — Chomsky responds thusly:

“She probably knows nothing about the Middle East. I think it’s pretty obvious. Take the US prepositioning arms in Israel for US use for military action in the region. That’s one small piece of a very close military and intelligence alliance that goes back very far. It really took off after 1967, although bits and pieces of it existed before.

The US military and intelligence regard Israel as a major base. In fact, one of the more interesting WikiLeaks exposures listed the Pentagon ranking of strategic centers around the world which were of such significance that we have to protect them no matter what, a small number. One of them was a couple of miles outside Haifa, Rafael military industries, a major military installation.

That’s where a lot of the drone technology was developed and much else. That’s a strategic US interest of such significance that it ranks among the highest in the world. Rafael understands that, to the extent that they actually moved their management headquarters to Washington, where the money is. That’s indicative of the kind of relationship there is.

And it goes way beyond that. US investors are in love with Israel. Warren Buffet just bought some Israeli enterprise for, I think, a couple billion dollars and announced that outside the US, Israel is the best place for US investment. And major firms, like Intel and others, are investing heavily in Israel, and continue to. It’s a valuable client: it’s strategically located, compliant, does what the US wants, it’s available for repression and violence. The US has used it over and over as a way of circumventing congressional and popular restrictions on violence.”

And he says this about climate change:

“The world that we’re creating for our grandchildren is grim. The major concern ought to be the one that was brought up in New York at the September 21 march. A couple hundred thousand people marched in New York calling for some serious action on global warming.

This is no joke. This is the first time in the history of the human species that we have to make decisions which will determine whether there will be decent survival for our grandchildren. That’s never happened before. Already we have made decisions which are wiping out species around the world at a phenomenal level.

The level of species destruction in the world today is about at the level of sixty-five million years ago, when a huge asteroid hit the earth and had horrifying ecological effects. It ended the age of the dinosaurs; they were wiped out. It kind of left a little opening for small mammals, who began to develop, and ultimately us. The same thing is happening now, except that we’re the asteroid. What we’re doing to the environment is already creating conditions like those of sixty-five million years ago. Human civilization is tottering at the edge of this. The picture doesn’t look pretty.”

Sarah Gray is an assistant editor at Salon, focusing on innovation. Follow @sarahhhgray or email sgray@salon.com.

The Island of Knowledge: How to Live with Mystery in a Culture Obsessed with Certainty and Definitive Answers

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“We strive toward knowledge, always more knowledge, but must understand that we are, and will remain, surrounded by mystery.”

“Our human definition of ‘everything’ gives us, at best, a tiny penlight to help us with our wanderings,” Benjamen Walker offered in an episode of his excellent Theory of Everythingpodcast as we shared a conversation about illumination and the art of discovery. Thirty years earlier, Carl Sagan had captured this idea in his masterwork Varieties of Scientific Experience, where he asserted: “If we ever reach the point where we think we thoroughly understand who we are and where we came from, we will have failed.” This must be what Rilke, too, had at heart when he exhorted us to live the questions. And yet if there is one common denominator across the entire history of human culture, it is the insatiable hunger to know the unknowable — that is, to know everything, and to know it with certainty, which is itself the enemy of the human spirit.

The perplexities and paradoxes of that quintessential human longing, and how the progress of modern science has compounded it, is what astrophysicist and philosopher Marcelo Gleiser examines in The Island of Knowledge: The Limits of Science and the Search for Meaning (public library).

Partway between Hannah Arendt’s timeless manifesto for the unanswerable questions at the heart of meaning and Stuart Firestein’s case for how not-knowing drives science, Gleiser explores our commitment to knowledge and our parallel flirtation with the mystery of the unknown.

Artwork from ‘Fail Safe,’ Debbie Millman’s illustrated-essay-turned-commencement address on courage and the creative life. Click image to read/listen.

What emerges is at once a celebration of human achievement and a gentle reminder that the appropriate reaction to scientific and technological progress is not arrogance over the knowledge conquered, which seems to be our civilizational modus operandi, but humility in the face of what remains to be known and, perhaps above all, what may always remain unknowable.

Gleiser begins by posing the question of whether there are fundamental limits to how much of the universe and our place in it science can explain, with a concrete focus on physical reality. Echoing cognitive scientist Alexandra Horowitz’s eye-opening exploration of why our minds miss the vast majority of what is going on around us, he writes:

What we see of the world is only a sliver of what’s “out there.” There is much that is invisible to the eye, even when we augment our sensorial perception with telescopes, microscopes, and other tools of exploration. Like our senses, every instrument has a range. Because much of Nature remains hidden from us, our view of the world is based only on the fraction of reality that we can measure and analyze. Science, as our narrative describing what we see and what we conjecture exists in the natural world, is thus necessarily limited, telling only part of the story… We strive toward knowledge, always more knowledge, but must understand that we are, and will remain, surrounded by mystery… It is the flirting with this mystery, the urge to go beyond the boundaries of the known, that feeds our creative impulse, that makes us want to know more.

A 1573 painting by Portuguese artist, historian, and philosopher Francisco de Holanda, a student of Michelangelo’s, from Michael Benson’s book ‘Cosmigraphics’—a visual history of understanding the universe. Click image for more.

In a sentiment that bridges Philip K. Dick’s formulation of reality as “that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away” with Richard Feynman’s iconicmonologue on knowledge and mystery, Gleiser adds:

The map of what we call reality is an ever-shifting mosaic of ideas.

[…]

The incompleteness of knowledge and the limits of our scientific worldview only add to the richness of our search for meaning, as they align science with our human fallibility and aspirations.

Gleiser notes that while modern science has made tremendous strides in illuminating the neuronal infrastructure of the brain, it has in the process reduced the mind to mere chemical operations, not only failing to advance but perhaps even impoverishing our understanding and sense of being. He admonishes against mistaking measurement for meaning:

There is no such thing as an exact measurement. Every measurement must be stated within its precision and quoted together with “error bars” estimating the magnitude of errors. High-precision measurements are simply measurements with small error bars or high confidence levels; there are no perfect, zero-error measurements.

[…]

Technology limits how deeply experiments can probe into physical reality. That is to say, machines determine what we can measure and thus what scientists can learn about the Universe and ourselves. Being human inventions, machines depend on our creativity and available resources. When successful, they measure with ever-higher accuracy and on occasion may also reveal the unexpected.

[…]

But the essence of empirical science is that Nature always has the last word… It then follows that if we only have limited access to Nature through our tools and, more subtly, through our restricted methods of investigation, our knowledge of the natural world is necessarily limited.

And yet even though much of the world remains invisible to us at any given moment, Gleiser argues that this is what the human imagination thrives on. At the same time, however, the very instruments that we create with this restless imagination begin to shape what is perceivable, and thus what is known, marking “reality” a Rube Goldberg machine of detectable measurements. Gleiser writes:

If large portions of the world remain unseen or inaccessible to us, we must consider the meaning of the word “reality” with great care. We must consider whether there is such a thing as an “ultimate reality” out there — the final substrate of all there is — and, if so, whether we can ever hope to grasp it in its totality.

[…]

Our perception of what is real evolves with the instruments we use to probe Nature. Gradually, some of what was unknown becomes known. For this reason, what we call “reality” is always changing… The version of reality we might call “true” at one time will not remain true at another.

[…]

As long as technology advances — and there is no reason to suppose that it will ever stop advancing for as long as we are around — we cannot foresee an end to this quest. The ultimate truth is elusive, a phantom.

Artwork by Marian Bantjes from ‘Beyond Pretty Pictures.’ Click image for more.

To illustrate this notion, Gleiser constructs the metaphor after which his book is titled — he paints knowledge as an island surrounded by the vast ocean of the unknown; as we learn more, the island expands into the ocean, its coastline marking the ever-shifting boundary between the known and the unknown. Paraphrasing the Socratic paradox, Gleiser writes:

Learning more about the world doesn’t lead to a point closer to a final destination — whose existence is nothing but a hopeful assumption anyway — but to more questions and mysteries. The more we know, the more exposed we are to our ignorance, and the more we know to ask.

Echoing Ray Bradbury’s poetic conviction that it’s part of human nature “to start with romance and build to a reality,” Gleiser adds:

This realization should open doors, not close them, since it makes the search for knowledge an open-ended pursuit, an endless romance with the unknown.

Gleiser admonishes against the limiting notion that we only have two options — staunch scientism, with its blind faith in science’s ability to permanently solve the mysteries of the unknown, and religious obscurantism, with its superstitious avoidance of inconvenient facts. Instead, he offers a third approach “based on how an understanding of the way we probe reality can be a source of endless inspiration without the need for setting final goals or promises of eternal truths.” In an assertion that invokes Sagan’s famous case for the vital balance between skepticism and openness, Gleiser writes:

This unsettled existence is the very blood of science. Science needs to fail to move forward. Theories need to break down; their limits need to be exposed. As tools probe deeper into Nature, they expose the cracks of old theories and allow new ones to emerge. However, we should not be fooled into believing that this process has an end.

I recently tussled with another facet of this issue — the umwelt of the unanswerable — in contemplating the future of machines that think for John Brockman’s annual Edge question. But what makes Gleiser’s point particularly gladdening is the underlying implication that despite its pursuit of answers, science thrives on uncertainty and thus necessitates an element of unflinching faith — faith in the process of the pursuit rather than the outcome, but faith nonetheless. And while the difference between science and religion might be, as Krista Tippett elegantly offered, in the questions they ask rather than the answers they offer, Gleiser suggests that both the fault line and the common ground between the two is a matter of how each relates to mystery:

Can we make sense of the world without belief? This is a central question behind the science and faith dichotomy… Religious myths attempt to explain the unknown with the unknowable while science attempts to explain the unknown with the knowable.

[…]

Both the scientist and the faithful believe in unexplained causation, that is, in things happening for unknown reasons, even if the nature of the cause is completely different for each. In the sciences, this belief is most obvious when there is an attempt to extrapolate a theory or model beyond its tested limits, as in “gravity works the same way across the entire Universe,” or “the theory of evolution by natural selection applies to all forms of life, including extraterrestrial ones.” These extrapolations are crucial to advance knowledge into unexplored territory. The scientist feels justified in doing so, given the accumulated power of her theories to explain so much of the world. We can even say, with slight impropriety, that her faith is empirically validated.

A 1617 depiction of the notion of non-space, long before the concept of vacuum existed, found in Michael Benson’s book ‘Cosmigraphics’—a visual history of understanding the universe. Click image for more.

Citing Newton and Einstein as prime examples of scientists who used wholly intuitive faith to advance their empirical and theoretical breakthroughs — one by extrapolating from his gravitational findings to assert that the universe is infinite and the other by inventing the notion of a “universal constant” to discuss the finitude of space — Gleiser adds:

To go beyond the known, both Newton and Einstein had to take intellectual risks, making assumptions based on intuition and personal prejudice. That they did so, knowing that their speculative theories were necessarily faulty and limited, illustrates the power of belief in the creative process of two of the greatest scientists of all time. To a greater or lesser extent, every person engaged in the advancement of knowledge does the same.

The Island of Knowledge is an illuminating read in its totality — Gleiser goes on to explore how conceptual leaps and bounds have shaped our search for meaning, what quantum mechanics reveal about the nature of physical reality, and how the evolution of machines and mathematics might affect our ideas about the limits of knowledge.

For a fine complement, see Hannah Arendt on thinking vs. knowing and the crucial difference between truth and meaning and astrophysicist Janna Levin onwhether the universe is infinite or finite, then treat yourself to Gleiser’s magnificent conversation with novelist Marilynne Robinson — herself a thinker of perceptive and nuanced insight on mystery — on the existentially indispensable On Being:

GLEISER: To think of science as separate from spirituality to me is a big mistake… There is nothing that says that science should be dispassionate about the spirit or the life of the spirit. And to me it’s quite the opposite. It’s exactly because I feel very spiritually connected with nature that I am a scientist. And to write equations on a blackboard and to come up with models about how nature works is, in a sense, a form of worship of that spirituality.

[…]

ROBINSON: One of the things that is fascinating is that we don’t know who we are. Human beings in acting out history describe themselves and every new epic is a new description of what human beings are. Every life is a new description of what human beings are. Every work of science, every object of art is new information. And it is inconceivable at this point that we could say anything final about what the human mind is, because it is demonstrating … in beautiful ways and terrifying ways, that it will surprise us over and over and over again.

 

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