The rise of data and the death of politics

Tech pioneers in the US are advocating a new data-based approach to governance – ‘algorithmic regulation’. But if technology provides the answers to society’s problems, what happens to governments?

US president Barack Obama with Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg

Government by social network? US president Barack Obama with Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. Photograph: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

On 24 August 1965 Gloria Placente, a 34-year-old resident of Queens, New York, was driving to Orchard Beach in the Bronx. Clad in shorts and sunglasses, the housewife was looking forward to quiet time at the beach. But the moment she crossed the Willis Avenue bridge in her Chevrolet Corvair, Placente was surrounded by a dozen patrolmen. There were also 125 reporters, eager to witness the launch of New York police department’s Operation Corral – an acronym for Computer Oriented Retrieval of Auto Larcenists.

Fifteen months earlier, Placente had driven through a red light and neglected to answer the summons, an offence that Corral was going to punish with a heavy dose of techno-Kafkaesque. It worked as follows: a police car stationed at one end of the bridge radioed the licence plates of oncoming cars to a teletypist miles away, who fed them to a Univac 490 computer, an expensive $500,000 toy ($3.5m in today’s dollars) on loan from the Sperry Rand Corporation. The computer checked the numbers against a database of 110,000 cars that were either stolen or belonged to known offenders. In case of a match the teletypist would alert a second patrol car at the bridge’s other exit. It took, on average, just seven seconds.

Compared with the impressive police gear of today – automatic number plate recognition, CCTV cameras, GPS trackers – Operation Corral looks quaint. And the possibilities for control will only expand. European officials have considered requiring all cars entering the European market to feature a built-in mechanism that allows the police to stop vehicles remotely. Speaking earlier this year, Jim Farley, a senior Ford executive, acknowledged that “we know everyone who breaks the law, we know when you’re doing it. We have GPS in your car, so we know what you’re doing. By the way, we don’t supply that data to anyone.” That last bit didn’t sound very reassuring and Farley retracted his remarks.

As both cars and roads get “smart,” they promise nearly perfect, real-time law enforcement. Instead of waiting for drivers to break the law, authorities can simply prevent the crime. Thus, a 50-mile stretch of the A14 between Felixstowe and Rugby is to be equipped with numerous sensors that would monitor traffic by sending signals to and from mobile phones in moving vehicles. The telecoms watchdog Ofcom envisions that such smart roads connected to a centrally controlled traffic system could automatically impose variable speed limits to smooth the flow of traffic but also direct the cars “along diverted routes to avoid the congestion and even [manage] their speed”.

Other gadgets – from smartphones to smart glasses – promise even more security and safety. In April, Apple patented technology that deploys sensors inside the smartphone to analyse if the car is moving and if the person using the phone is driving; if both conditions are met, it simply blocks the phone’s texting feature. Intel and Ford are working on Project Mobil – a face recognition system that, should it fail to recognise the face of the driver, would not only prevent the car being started but also send the picture to the car’s owner (bad news for teenagers).

The car is emblematic of transformations in many other domains, from smart environments for “ambient assisted living” where carpets and walls detect that someone has fallen, to various masterplans for the smart city, where municipal services dispatch resources only to those areas that need them. Thanks to sensors and internet connectivity, the most banal everyday objects have acquired tremendous power to regulate behaviour. Even public toilets are ripe for sensor-based optimisation: the Safeguard Germ Alarm, a smart soap dispenser developed by Procter & Gamble and used in some public WCs in the Philippines, has sensors monitoring the doors of each stall. Once you leave the stall, the alarm starts ringing – and can only be stopped by a push of the soap-dispensing button.

In this context, Google’s latest plan to push its Android operating system on to smart watches, smart cars, smart thermostats and, one suspects, smart everything, looks rather ominous. In the near future, Google will be the middleman standing between you and your fridge, you and your car, you and your rubbish bin, allowing the National Security Agency to satisfy its data addiction in bulk and via a single window.

This “smartification” of everyday life follows a familiar pattern: there’s primary data – a list of what’s in your smart fridge and your bin – and metadata – a log of how often you open either of these things or when they communicate with one another. Both produce interesting insights: cue smart mattresses – one recent model promises to track respiration and heart rates and how much you move during the night – and smart utensils that provide nutritional advice.

In addition to making our lives more efficient, this smart world also presents us with an exciting political choice. If so much of our everyday behaviour is already captured, analysed and nudged, why stick with unempirical approaches to regulation? Why rely on laws when one has sensors and feedback mechanisms? If policy interventions are to be – to use the buzzwords of the day – “evidence-based” and “results-oriented,” technology is here to help.

This new type of governance has a name: algorithmic regulation. In as much as Silicon Valley has a political programme, this is it. Tim O’Reilly, an influential technology publisher, venture capitalist and ideas man (he is to blame for popularising the term “web 2.0″) has been its most enthusiastic promoter. In a recent essay that lays out his reasoning, O’Reilly makes an intriguing case for the virtues of algorithmic regulation – a case that deserves close scrutiny both for what it promises policymakers and the simplistic assumptions it makes about politics, democracy and power.

To see algorithmic regulation at work, look no further than the spam filter in your email. Instead of confining itself to a narrow definition of spam, the email filter has its users teach it. Even Google can’t write rules to cover all the ingenious innovations of professional spammers. What it can do, though, is teach the system what makes a good rule and spot when it’s time to find another rule for finding a good rule – and so on. An algorithm can do this, but it’s the constant real-time feedback from its users that allows the system to counter threats never envisioned by its designers. And it’s not just spam: your bank uses similar methods to spot credit-card fraud.

In his essay, O’Reilly draws broader philosophical lessons from such technologies, arguing that they work because they rely on “a deep understanding of the desired outcome” (spam is bad!) and periodically check if the algorithms are actually working as expected (are too many legitimate emails ending up marked as spam?).

O’Reilly presents such technologies as novel and unique – we are living through a digital revolution after all – but the principle behind “algorithmic regulation” would be familiar to the founders of cybernetics – a discipline that, even in its name (it means “the science of governance”) hints at its great regulatory ambitions. This principle, which allows the system to maintain its stability by constantly learning and adapting itself to the changing circumstances, is what the British psychiatrist Ross Ashby, one of the founding fathers of cybernetics, called “ultrastability”.

To illustrate it, Ashby designed the homeostat. This clever device consisted of four interconnected RAF bomb control units – mysterious looking black boxes with lots of knobs and switches – that were sensitive to voltage fluctuations. If one unit stopped working properly – say, because of an unexpected external disturbance – the other three would rewire and regroup themselves, compensating for its malfunction and keeping the system’s overall output stable.

Ashby’s homeostat achieved “ultrastability” by always monitoring its internal state and cleverly redeploying its spare resources.

Like the spam filter, it didn’t have to specify all the possible disturbances – only the conditions for how and when it must be updated and redesigned. This is no trivial departure from how the usual technical systems, with their rigid, if-then rules, operate: suddenly, there’s no need to develop procedures for governing every contingency, for – or so one hopes – algorithms and real-time, immediate feedback can do a better job than inflexible rules out of touch with reality.

Algorithmic regulation could certainly make the administration of existing laws more efficient. If it can fight credit-card fraud, why not tax fraud? Italian bureaucrats have experimented with the redditometro, or income meter, a tool for comparing people’s spending patterns – recorded thanks to an arcane Italian law – with their declared income, so that authorities know when you spend more than you earn. Spain has expressed interest in a similar tool.

Such systems, however, are toothless against the real culprits of tax evasion – the super-rich families who profit from various offshoring schemes or simply write outrageous tax exemptions into the law. Algorithmic regulation is perfect for enforcing the austerity agenda while leaving those responsible for the fiscal crisis off the hook. To understand whether such systems are working as expected, we need to modify O’Reilly’s question: for whom are they working? If it’s just the tax-evading plutocrats, the global financial institutions interested in balanced national budgets and the companies developing income-tracking software, then it’s hardly a democratic success.

With his belief that algorithmic regulation is based on “a deep understanding of the desired outcome”, O’Reilly cunningly disconnects the means of doing politics from its ends. But the how of politics is as important as the what of politics – in fact, the former often shapes the latter. Everybody agrees that education, health, and security are all “desired outcomes”, but how do we achieve them? In the past, when we faced the stark political choice of delivering them through the market or the state, the lines of the ideological debate were clear. Today, when the presumed choice is between the digital and the analog or between the dynamic feedback and the static law, that ideological clarity is gone – as if the very choice of how to achieve those “desired outcomes” was apolitical and didn’t force us to choose between different and often incompatible visions of communal living.

By assuming that the utopian world of infinite feedback loops is so efficient that it transcends politics, the proponents of algorithmic regulation fall into the same trap as the technocrats of the past. Yes, these systems are terrifyingly efficient – in the same way that Singapore is terrifyingly efficient (O’Reilly, unsurprisingly, praises Singapore for its embrace of algorithmic regulation). And while Singapore’s leaders might believe that they, too, have transcended politics, it doesn’t mean that their regime cannot be assessed outside the linguistic swamp of efficiency and innovation – by using political, not economic benchmarks.

As Silicon Valley keeps corrupting our language with its endless glorification of disruption and efficiency – concepts at odds with the vocabulary of democracy – our ability to question the “how” of politics is weakened. Silicon Valley’s default answer to the how of politics is what I call solutionism: problems are to be dealt with via apps, sensors, and feedback loops – all provided by startups. Earlier this year Google’s Eric Schmidt even promised that startups would provide the solution to the problem of economic inequality: the latter, it seems, can also be “disrupted”. And where the innovators and the disruptors lead, the bureaucrats follow.

The intelligence services embraced solutionism before other government agencies. Thus, they reduced the topic of terrorism from a subject that had some connection to history and foreign policy to an informational problem of identifying emerging terrorist threats via constant surveillance. They urged citizens to accept that instability is part of the game, that its root causes are neither traceable nor reparable, that the threat can only be pre-empted by out-innovating and out-surveilling the enemy with better communications.

Speaking in Athens last November, the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben discussed an epochal transformation in the idea of government, “whereby the traditional hierarchical relation between causes and effects is inverted, so that, instead of governing the causes – a difficult and expensive undertaking – governments simply try to govern the effects”.

Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman

Governments’ current favourite pyschologist, Daniel Kahneman. Photograph: Richard Saker for the Observer
For Agamben, this shift is emblematic of modernity. It also explains why the liberalisation of the economy can co-exist with the growing proliferation of control – by means of soap dispensers and remotely managed cars – into everyday life. “If government aims for the effects and not the causes, it will be obliged to extend and multiply control. Causes demand to be known, while effects can only be checked and controlled.” Algorithmic regulation is an enactment of this political programme in technological form.The true politics of algorithmic regulation become visible once its logic is applied to the social nets of the welfare state. There are no calls to dismantle them, but citizens are nonetheless encouraged to take responsibility for their own health. Consider how Fred Wilson, an influential US venture capitalist, frames the subject. “Health… is the opposite side of healthcare,” he said at a conference in Paris last December. “It’s what keeps you out of the healthcare system in the first place.” Thus, we are invited to start using self-tracking apps and data-sharing platforms and monitor our vital indicators, symptoms and discrepancies on our own.This goes nicely with recent policy proposals to save troubled public services by encouraging healthier lifestyles. Consider a 2013 report by Westminster council and the Local Government Information Unit, a thinktank, calling for the linking of housing and council benefits to claimants’ visits to the gym – with the help of smartcards. They might not be needed: many smartphones are already tracking how many steps we take every day (Google Now, the company’s virtual assistant, keeps score of such data automatically and periodically presents it to users, nudging them to walk more).

The numerous possibilities that tracking devices offer to health and insurance industries are not lost on O’Reilly. “You know the way that advertising turned out to be the native business model for the internet?” he wondered at a recent conference. “I think that insurance is going to be the native business model for the internet of things.” Things do seem to be heading that way: in June, Microsoft struck a deal with American Family Insurance, the eighth-largest home insurer in the US, in which both companies will fund startups that want to put sensors into smart homes and smart cars for the purposes of “proactive protection”.

An insurance company would gladly subsidise the costs of installing yet another sensor in your house – as long as it can automatically alert the fire department or make front porch lights flash in case your smoke detector goes off. For now, accepting such tracking systems is framed as an extra benefit that can save us some money. But when do we reach a point where not using them is seen as a deviation – or, worse, an act of concealment – that ought to be punished with higher premiums?

Or consider a May 2014 report from 2020health, another thinktank, proposing to extend tax rebates to Britons who give up smoking, stay slim or drink less. “We propose ‘payment by results’, a financial reward for people who become active partners in their health, whereby if you, for example, keep your blood sugar levels down, quit smoking, keep weight off, [or] take on more self-care, there will be a tax rebate or an end-of-year bonus,” they state. Smart gadgets are the natural allies of such schemes: they document the results and can even help achieve them – by constantly nagging us to do what’s expected.

The unstated assumption of most such reports is that the unhealthy are not only a burden to society but that they deserve to be punished (fiscally for now) for failing to be responsible. For what else could possibly explain their health problems but their personal failings? It’s certainly not the power of food companies or class-based differences or various political and economic injustices. One can wear a dozen powerful sensors, own a smart mattress and even do a close daily reading of one’s poop – as some self-tracking aficionados are wont to do – but those injustices would still be nowhere to be seen, for they are not the kind of stuff that can be measured with a sensor. The devil doesn’t wear data. Social injustices are much harder to track than the everyday lives of the individuals whose lives they affect.

In shifting the focus of regulation from reining in institutional and corporate malfeasance to perpetual electronic guidance of individuals, algorithmic regulation offers us a good-old technocratic utopia of politics without politics. Disagreement and conflict, under this model, are seen as unfortunate byproducts of the analog era – to be solved through data collection – and not as inevitable results of economic or ideological conflicts.

However, a politics without politics does not mean a politics without control or administration. As O’Reilly writes in his essay: “New technologies make it possible to reduce the amount of regulation while actually increasing the amount of oversight and production of desirable outcomes.” Thus, it’s a mistake to think that Silicon Valley wants to rid us of government institutions. Its dream state is not the small government of libertarians – a small state, after all, needs neither fancy gadgets nor massive servers to process the data – but the data-obsessed and data-obese state of behavioural economists.

The nudging state is enamoured of feedback technology, for its key founding principle is that while we behave irrationally, our irrationality can be corrected – if only the environment acts upon us, nudging us towards the right option. Unsurprisingly, one of the three lonely references at the end of O’Reilly’s essay is to a 2012 speech entitled “Regulation: Looking Backward, Looking Forward” by Cass Sunstein, the prominent American legal scholar who is the chief theorist of the nudging state.

And while the nudgers have already captured the state by making behavioural psychology the favourite idiom of government bureaucracy –Daniel Kahneman is in, Machiavelli is out – the algorithmic regulation lobby advances in more clandestine ways. They create innocuous non-profit organisations like Code for America which then co-opt the state – under the guise of encouraging talented hackers to tackle civic problems.

Airbnb's homepage.

Airbnb: part of the reputation-driven economy.
Such initiatives aim to reprogramme the state and make it feedback-friendly, crowding out other means of doing politics. For all those tracking apps, algorithms and sensors to work, databases need interoperability – which is what such pseudo-humanitarian organisations, with their ardent belief in open data, demand. And when the government is too slow to move at Silicon Valley’s speed, they simply move inside the government. Thus, Jennifer Pahlka, the founder of Code for America and a protege of O’Reilly, became the deputy chief technology officer of the US government – while pursuing a one-year “innovation fellowship” from the White House.Cash-strapped governments welcome such colonisation by technologists – especially if it helps to identify and clean up datasets that can be profitably sold to companies who need such data for advertising purposes. Recent clashes over the sale of student and health data in the UK are just a precursor of battles to come: after all state assets have been privatised, data is the next target. For O’Reilly, open data is “a key enabler of the measurement revolution”.This “measurement revolution” seeks to quantify the efficiency of various social programmes, as if the rationale behind the social nets that some of them provide was to achieve perfection of delivery. The actual rationale, of course, was to enable a fulfilling life by suppressing certain anxieties, so that citizens can pursue their life projects relatively undisturbed. This vision did spawn a vast bureaucratic apparatus and the critics of the welfare state from the left – most prominently Michel Foucault – were right to question its disciplining inclinations. Nonetheless, neither perfection nor efficiency were the “desired outcome” of this system. Thus, to compare the welfare state with the algorithmic state on those grounds is misleading.

But we can compare their respective visions for human fulfilment – and the role they assign to markets and the state. Silicon Valley’s offer is clear: thanks to ubiquitous feedback loops, we can all become entrepreneurs and take care of our own affairs! As Brian Chesky, the chief executive of Airbnb, told the Atlantic last year, “What happens when everybody is a brand? When everybody has a reputation? Every person can become an entrepreneur.”

Under this vision, we will all code (for America!) in the morning, drive Uber cars in the afternoon, and rent out our kitchens as restaurants – courtesy of Airbnb – in the evening. As O’Reilly writes of Uber and similar companies, “these services ask every passenger to rate their driver (and drivers to rate their passenger). Drivers who provide poor service are eliminated. Reputation does a better job of ensuring a superb customer experience than any amount of government regulation.”

The state behind the “sharing economy” does not wither away; it might be needed to ensure that the reputation accumulated on Uber, Airbnb and other platforms of the “sharing economy” is fully liquid and transferable, creating a world where our every social interaction is recorded and assessed, erasing whatever differences exist between social domains. Someone, somewhere will eventually rate you as a passenger, a house guest, a student, a patient, a customer. Whether this ranking infrastructure will be decentralised, provided by a giant like Google or rest with the state is not yet clear but the overarching objective is: to make reputation into a feedback-friendly social net that could protect the truly responsible citizens from the vicissitudes of deregulation.

Admiring the reputation models of Uber and Airbnb, O’Reilly wants governments to be “adopting them where there are no demonstrable ill effects”. But what counts as an “ill effect” and how to demonstrate it is a key question that belongs to the how of politics that algorithmic regulation wants to suppress. It’s easy to demonstrate “ill effects” if the goal of regulation is efficiency but what if it is something else? Surely, there are some benefits – fewer visits to the psychoanalyst, perhaps – in not having your every social interaction ranked?

The imperative to evaluate and demonstrate “results” and “effects” already presupposes that the goal of policy is the optimisation of efficiency. However, as long as democracy is irreducible to a formula, its composite values will always lose this battle: they are much harder to quantify.

For Silicon Valley, though, the reputation-obsessed algorithmic state of the sharing economy is the new welfare state. If you are honest and hardworking, your online reputation would reflect this, producing a highly personalised social net. It is “ultrastable” in Ashby’s sense: while the welfare state assumes the existence of specific social evils it tries to fight, the algorithmic state makes no such assumptions. The future threats can remain fully unknowable and fully addressable – on the individual level.

Silicon Valley, of course, is not alone in touting such ultrastable individual solutions. Nassim Taleb, in his best-selling 2012 book Antifragile, makes a similar, if more philosophical, plea for maximising our individual resourcefulness and resilience: don’t get one job but many, don’t take on debt, count on your own expertise. It’s all about resilience, risk-taking and, as Taleb puts it, “having skin in the game”. As Julian Reid and Brad Evans write in their new book, Resilient Life: The Art of Living Dangerously, this growing cult of resilience masks a tacit acknowledgement that no collective project could even aspire to tame the proliferating threats to human existence – we can only hope to equip ourselves to tackle them individually. “When policy-makers engage in the discourse of resilience,” write Reid and Evans, “they do so in terms which aim explicitly at preventing humans from conceiving of danger as a phenomenon from which they might seek freedom and even, in contrast, as that to which they must now expose themselves.”

What, then, is the progressive alternative? “The enemy of my enemy is my friend” doesn’t work here: just because Silicon Valley is attacking the welfare state doesn’t mean that progressives should defend it to the very last bullet (or tweet). First, even leftist governments have limited space for fiscal manoeuvres, as the kind of discretionary spending required to modernise the welfare state would never be approved by the global financial markets. And it’s the ratings agencies and bond markets – not the voters – who are in charge today.

Second, the leftist critique of the welfare state has become only more relevant today when the exact borderlines between welfare and security are so blurry. When Google’s Android powers so much of our everyday life, the government’s temptation to govern us through remotely controlled cars and alarm-operated soap dispensers will be all too great. This will expand government’s hold over areas of life previously free from regulation.

With so much data, the government’s favourite argument in fighting terror – if only the citizens knew as much as we do, they too would impose all these legal exceptions – easily extends to other domains, from health to climate change. Consider a recent academic paper that used Google search data to study obesity patterns in the US, finding significant correlation between search keywords and body mass index levels. “Results suggest great promise of the idea of obesity monitoring through real-time Google Trends data”, note the authors, which would be “particularly attractive for government health institutions and private businesses such as insurance companies.”

If Google senses a flu epidemic somewhere, it’s hard to challenge its hunch – we simply lack the infrastructure to process so much data at this scale. Google can be proven wrong after the fact – as has recently been the case with its flu trends data, which was shown to overestimate the number of infections, possibly because of its failure to account for the intense media coverage of flu – but so is the case with most terrorist alerts. It’s the immediate, real-time nature of computer systems that makes them perfect allies of an infinitely expanding and pre-emption‑obsessed state.

Perhaps, the case of Gloria Placente and her failed trip to the beach was not just a historical oddity but an early omen of how real-time computing, combined with ubiquitous communication technologies, would transform the state. One of the few people to have heeded that omen was a little-known American advertising executive called Robert MacBride, who pushed the logic behind Operation Corral to its ultimate conclusions in his unjustly neglected 1967 book, The Automated State.

At the time, America was debating the merits of establishing a national data centre to aggregate various national statistics and make it available to government agencies. MacBride attacked his contemporaries’ inability to see how the state would exploit the metadata accrued as everything was being computerised. Instead of “a large scale, up-to-date Austro-Hungarian empire”, modern computer systems would produce “a bureaucracy of almost celestial capacity” that can “discern and define relationships in a manner which no human bureaucracy could ever hope to do”.

“Whether one bowls on a Sunday or visits a library instead is [of] no consequence since no one checks those things,” he wrote. Not so when computer systems can aggregate data from different domains and spot correlations. “Our individual behaviour in buying and selling an automobile, a house, or a security, in paying our debts and acquiring new ones, and in earning money and being paid, will be noted meticulously and studied exhaustively,” warned MacBride. Thus, a citizen will soon discover that “his choice of magazine subscriptions… can be found to indicate accurately the probability of his maintaining his property or his interest in the education of his children.” This sounds eerily similar to the recent case of a hapless father who found that his daughter was pregnant from a coupon that Target, a retailer, sent to their house. Target’s hunch was based on its analysis of products – for example, unscented lotion – usually bought by other pregnant women.

For MacBride the conclusion was obvious. “Political rights won’t be violated but will resemble those of a small stockholder in a giant enterprise,” he wrote. “The mark of sophistication and savoir-faire in this future will be the grace and flexibility with which one accepts one’s role and makes the most of what it offers.” In other words, since we are all entrepreneurs first – and citizens second, we might as well make the most of it.

What, then, is to be done? Technophobia is no solution. Progressives need technologies that would stick with the spirit, if not the institutional form, of the welfare state, preserving its commitment to creating ideal conditions for human flourishing. Even some ultrastability is welcome. Stability was a laudable goal of the welfare state before it had encountered a trap: in specifying the exact protections that the state was to offer against the excesses of capitalism, it could not easily deflect new, previously unspecified forms of exploitation.

How do we build welfarism that is both decentralised and ultrastable? A form of guaranteed basic income – whereby some welfare services are replaced by direct cash transfers to citizens – fits the two criteria.

Creating the right conditions for the emergence of political communities around causes and issues they deem relevant would be another good step. Full compliance with the principle of ultrastability dictates that such issues cannot be anticipated or dictated from above – by political parties or trade unions – and must be left unspecified.

What can be specified is the kind of communications infrastructure needed to abet this cause: it should be free to use, hard to track, and open to new, subversive uses. Silicon Valley’s existing infrastructure is great for fulfilling the needs of the state, not of self-organising citizens. It can, of course, be redeployed for activist causes – and it often is – but there’s no reason to accept the status quo as either ideal or inevitable.

Why, after all, appropriate what should belong to the people in the first place? While many of the creators of the internet bemoan how low their creature has fallen, their anger is misdirected. The fault is not with that amorphous entity but, first of all, with the absence of robust technology policy on the left – a policy that can counter the pro-innovation, pro-disruption, pro-privatisation agenda of Silicon Valley. In its absence, all these emerging political communities will operate with their wings clipped. Whether the next Occupy Wall Street would be able to occupy anything in a truly smart city remains to be seen: most likely, they would be out-censored and out-droned.

To his credit, MacBride understood all of this in 1967. “Given the resources of modern technology and planning techniques,” he warned, “it is really no great trick to transform even a country like ours into a smoothly running corporation where every detail of life is a mechanical function to be taken care of.” MacBride’s fear is O’Reilly’s master plan: the government, he writes, ought to be modelled on the “lean startup” approach of Silicon Valley, which is “using data to constantly revise and tune its approach to the market”. It’s this very approach that Facebook has recently deployed to maximise user engagement on the site: if showing users more happy stories does the trick, so be it.

Algorithmic regulation, whatever its immediate benefits, will give us a political regime where technology corporations and government bureaucrats call all the shots. The Polish science fiction writer Stanislaw Lem, in a pointed critique of cybernetics published, as it happens, roughly at the same time as The Automated State, put it best: “Society cannot give up the burden of having to decide about its own fate by sacrificing this freedom for the sake of the cybernetic regulator.”

 

Hamas Offers Reasonable Truce, Greeted by Deafening Silence


The Western media didn’t seem to notice that Hamas and Islamic Jihad proposed a 10-year truce on the basis of 10 very reasonable conditions.

A Palestinian looks at copies of the Koran, Islam’s holy book, as he inspects the rubble of a destroyed mosque following an overnight Israeli military strike, on July 22, 2014 in Gaza City

During its first 14 days, the Israeli military aggression on the Gaza Strip has left a toll of over 500 dead, the vast majority of them civilians, and many more injured. Thousands of houses were targeted and destroyed together with other essential civilian infrastructures. Over one hundred thousand civilians have been displaced. By the time you will read this article the numbers will have grown higher, and no real truce seems in sight. When I say real, I mean practicable, agreeable to both sides and sustainable for some time.

The Israeli government, followed by Western media and governments, was quick to put the blame on Hamas. Hamas, they claim, had an opportunity to accept a truce brokered by Egypt, and refused it. Others have already explained at length why this proposal crafted without any consultations with Hamas, was hard to accept by Hamas.

Much less noticed by the Western media was that Hamas and Islamic Jihad had meanwhile proposed a 10-year truce on the basis of 10 very reasonable conditions. While Israel was too busy preparing for the ground invasion, why didn’t anyone in the diplomatic community spend a word about this proposal? The question is all the more poignant as the proposal was in essence in line with what many international experts as well as the United Nations have asked for years now, and included some aspects Israel had already considered as feasible requests in the past.

The main demands of this proposal revolve around lifting the Israeli siege in Gaza through the opening of its borders with Israel to commerce and people, the establishment of an international seaport and airport under U.N. supervision, the expansion of the permitted fishing zone in the Gaza sea to 10 kilometers, and the revitalization of Gaza industrial zone. None of these demands is new. The United Nations among others have repeatedly demanded the lifting of the siege, which is illegal under international law, as a necessary condition to end the dire humanitarian situation in the Strip. The facilitation of movement of goods and people between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip had already been stipulated in the Agreement on Movement and Access (AMA) signed between the Government of Israel and the Palestinian Authority in 2005. Even the construction of a port and the possibility of an airport in Gaza had already been stipulated in the AMA, though the actual implementation never followed. The requested increase of the permitted fishing zone is less than what envisaged in the 1994 Oslo Agreements and it was already part of the 2012 ceasefire understanding. Unhindered fishermen’s access to the sea, without fear of being shot or arrested and having boats and nets confiscated by Israeli patrols is essential to the 3000 Gaza fishermen struggling to survive today by fishing in a limited area which is overfished and heavily polluted. The revitalization of the Gaza industrial zone, which has progressively been dismantled since the 2005 disengagement and by continuous military operations, was already considered a crucial Palestinian interest at the time of the 2005 Disengagement.

The proposed truce also demands the withdrawal of Israeli tanks from the Gaza border and the Internationalization of the Rafah Crossing and its placement under international supervision. The presence of international forces on the borders and the withdrawal of the Israeli army requested by Hamas is unsurprising, considered the heavy toll of casualties by Israeli fire in the Access Restricted Areas near the Israeli border (i.e. an area of 1.5km along the border comprising 35% of Gaza land and 85% of its whole arable land). The international presence should guarantee that Egyptian and Israeli security concerns are equally met.

The proposal also requests Israel to release the Palestinian prisoners whom had been freed as part of the deal to liberate Gilat Shalit and were arrested after the killing of the three Israeli youths in June 2014 in the West Bank; that Israel refrains from interfering in the reconciliation agreement between Hamas and Fatah; and that the permits for worshippers to pray at the Al Aqsa Mosque be eased.

Not only are these conditions sensible in light of previous agreements but, especially those who pertain to the lift of the siege, are the minimum standards that Hamas and the people of Gaza could accept in the current circumstances. As Raji Sourani reports, the most common sentence from people in Gaza after the announcement of the Egyptian ‘brokered’ ceasefire was “Either this situation really improves or it is better to just die”. The dire circumstances under which Gazans have lived in the last 7 years have indeed evoked in many the image of the enclave as “the world’s largest open air prison”. A prison which is overcrowded and where in 6 years there will no longer be enough drinkable water or capacity to provide other essential services, as a recent UN report denounces. Facing this gloomy context, for many the continuous launch of rockets from Gaza is a response to the siege and the harsh conditions imposed by the occupation.

One could imagine that an agreement on the basis of the Hamas proposal could not only stop the current round of hostilities but also pave the way towards a lasting solution of the conflict. However Israel has shown no interest in considering this proposal and continues to prefer the military option. As a result one wonders whether Israel really wants a long lasting resolution of the conflict. This resolution would necessarily require compromises on the Israeli side, including relinquishing control over the West Bank and Gaza. Netanyahu recently made it perfectly clear that this option is off the table. An eventual agreement between Israel and Hamas would further strengthen the legitimacy of Hamas in the newly achieved Palestinian unity, which is a prerequisite for any lasting peace. Legitimizing the Palestinian unity is something the Israeli government is avoiding like the plague as it would push forward their quest for justice in the international arena.

Perhaps more surprisingly, the international community – with the exception of Turkey and Qatar – has spent no words on the Hamas truce proposal although many of the points of the proposal already enjoy international support. This refusal to deal with the proposal is particularly problematic in the current context. Without any pressure by the international community, Israel, the party who has the upper hand in this conflict, will feel legitimized to keep refusing negotiations for a real truce with Hamas. Truces and negotiations are made with enemies not friends. International organizations and Western leaders, echoing Israel and the United States, maintain that Hamas is a terrorist organization and thus any direct negotiations with it are embargoed.

Hamas resorts to violence, which is often indiscriminate and targets civilians – also due to the lack of precision weapons. But so does Israel – no matter how sophisticated its weaponry is. If the point is to help parties negotiate, both parties have to be treated equally, encouraged to consider measures other than military ones and accept compromises based on international law. Especially when sensible proposals are on the table as in this case. The firm refusal to engage with Hamas at this point epitomizes the failure of the international community to deal with the humanitarian crisis in Gaza. Unless the international community reverts this pattern by taking a honest stand grounded in international law and diplomacy, the plight of Gaza and of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will continue.

http://www.alternet.org/hamas-offers-reasonable-truce-greeted-deafening-silence?akid=12040.265072.tTklMa&rd=1&src=newsletter1012347&t=24&paging=off&current_page=1#bookmark

Blinded by Israel, Visionless in Gaza

The Power and the Ignominy

by TARIQ ALI

The US Senate votes unanimously to defend Israel including Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont. I don’t think he did it for the money. He is a paid-up member of POEEI (‘Progressive on Everything Except Israel’ and pronounced pooee) the liberal segment of US society, which is not progressive on many things, including Israel.

Take, as one example, the case of  ‘Colonel’ Sanders. I thought my late friend Alexander Cockburn was sometimes too harsh on Sanders, but I was wrong. Sanders has been arselickin bad for a long time now as Thomas Naylor informed us while exploding the myths surrounding the Senator in a CounterPunch piece in September 2011:

“Although Sanders may have once been a socialist back in the 80s when he was Mayor of Burlington, today, a socialist he is not.  Rather he behaves more like a technofascist disguised as a liberal, who backs all of President Obama’s nasty little wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen..  Since he always “supports the troops,” Sanders never opposes any defense spending bill.  He stands behind all military contractors who bring much-needed jobs to Vermont.

Senator Sanders rarely misses a photo opportunity with Vermont National Guard troops when they are being deployed to Afghanistan or Iraq.  He’s always at the Burlington International Airport when they return.  If Sanders truly supported the Vermont troops, he would vote to end all of the wars posthaste.”

A unanimous Senate vote is rare, so what explains being more loyal to Israel than quite a few critical Jewish Israelis in that country itself? An important factor is undoubtedly money. In 2006 when the London Review of Books  published an article (commissioned and rejected by the Atlantic Monthly) by Professors Walt and Mearsheimer  on the Israel Lobby, there was the usual brouhaha from the usual suspects. Not the late Tony Judt, who publicly defended publication of the text and was himself subjected to violent threats and hate mail by we know who.

The New York Review of Books, perhaps shamed by its own gutlessness on this issue among others, commissioned a text by Michael Massing which pointed out some mistakes in the  Mearsheimer/Walt essay but went on to provide some interesting figures himself. His article deserves to be read on its own but the following extract helps to explain the unanimous votes for Israeli actions:

“AIPAC’s defenders like to argue that its success is explained by its ability to exploit the organizing opportunities available in democratic America. To some extent, this is true. AIPAC has a formidable network of supporters throughout the US. Its 100,000 members—up 60 percent from five years ago—are guided by AIPAC’s nine regional offices, its ten satellite offices, and its one-hundred-person-plus Washington staff, a highly professional group that includes lobbyists, researchers, analysts, organizers, and publicists, backed by an enormous $47 million annual budget…. Such an account, however, overlooks a key element in AIPAC’s success: money. AIPAC itself is not a political action committee. Rather, by assessing voting records and public statements, it provides information to such committees, which donate money to candidates; AIPAC helps them to decide who Israel’s friends are according to AIPAC’s criteria. The Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan group that analyzes political contributions, lists a total of thirty-six pro-Israel PACs, which together contributed $3.14 million to candidates in the 2004 election cycle. Pro-Israel donors give many millions more. Over the last five years, for instance, Robert Asher, together with his various relatives (a common device used to maximize contributions), has donated $148,000, mostly in sums of $1,000 or $2,000 to individual candidates.

A former AIPAC staff member described for me how the system works. A candidate will contact AIPAC and express strong sympathies with Israel. AIPAC will point out that it doesn’t endorse candidates but will offer to introduce him to people who do. Someone affiliated with AIPAC will be assigned to the candidate to act as a contact person. Checks for $500 or $1,000 from pro-Israel donors will be bundled together and provided to the candidate with a clear indication of the donors’ political views. (All of this is perfectly legal.) In addition, meetings to raise funds will be organized in various cities. Often, the candidates are from states with negligible Jewish populations.

One congressional staff member told me of the case of a Democratic candidate from a mountain state who, eager to tap into pro-Israel money, got in touch with AIPAC, which assigned him to a Manhattan software executive eager to move up in AIPAC’s organization. The executive held a fund-raising reception in his apartment on the Upper West Side, and the candidate left with $15,000. In his state’s small market for press and televised ads, that sum proved an important factor in a race he narrowly won. The congressman thus became one of hundreds of members who could be relied upon to vote AIPAC’s way. (The staffer told me the name of the congressman but asked that I withhold it in order to spare him embarrassment.)”

All this is made possible by official US policies since 1967. Were the US ever to shift on this issue unanimous votes would become impossible. But not even the United States has so far banned public demonstrations opposing Israeli brutality and its consistent deployment of state terror.

On a weekend (18-19 July 2014) where demonstrations took place in many different parts of the world, the French government banned a march in Paris organised by many groups including France’s non-Zionist Jewish organisations and individuals. The ban was defied. Several thousand people were drenched in tear gas by the hated CRS. The French Prime Minister Manual Valls, a desperate opportunist and neo-con, the scourge of the Roma in France, competing with Le Pen for the right wing vote and unsurprisingly an adornment of the French Socialist Party who models himself on a shameless war-criminal and shyster (Tony Blair) explained the ban in terms of  ‘not encouraging anti-semitism’, etc. The grip of the Israel Lobby in France is complete. It dominates French culture and the media and critical voices on Israel (Jewish and non-Jewish) are effectively banned.

The Israeli poet and critic, Yitzhak Laor (whose work depicting the colonial brutality of Israeli soldiers has sometimes been banned in his own country) describes the new rise of Euro-Zionism in sharp terms. The  ‘philosemitic offensive’ is ahistorical:

It would be facile to see this memorializing culture as a belated crisis of international conscience, or a sense of historical justice that took time to materialize . . . The majority of United Nations General Assembly members have emerged from a colonial past: they are the descendants of those who suffered genocides in Africa, Asia or Latin America. There should be no reason for the commemoration of the genocide of the Jews to block out the memory of these millions of Africans or Native Americans killed by the civilized Western invaders of their continents.

Laor’s explanation is that with the old Cold War friend-enemy dichotomy swept aside a new global enemy had to be cultivated in Europe:

In the new moral universe of the ‘end of history’, there was one abomination—the Jewish genocide—that all could unite to condemn; equally important, it was now firmly in the past. Its commemoration would serve both to sacralize the new Europe’s liberal-humanist tolerance of ‘the other (who is like us)’ and to redefine ‘the other (who is different from us)’ in terms of Muslim fundamentalism. 

Laor skillfully deconstructs the Glucksmanns, Henri-Levys and Finkelkrauts  who dominate the print media and the videosphere in France today. Having abandoned their youthful Marxist beliefs in the late Seventies, they made their peace with the system. The emergence of an ultra-Zionist current in France, however , predates the ‘New (sic) Philosophers’.  As Professor Gaby Piterburg, reviewing Laor’s essays in the New Left Review, explained:

As in the US, the 1967 war was a turning point in French Jewish consciousness. A young Communist, Pierre Goldman, described the ‘joyous fury’ of a pro-Israel demonstration on the boulevard Saint-Michel, where he encountered other comrades, ‘Marxist-Leninists and supposed anti-Zionists, rejoicing in the warrior skills of Dayan’s troops’. But the political reaction of the Elysée to the 1967 war was the opposite to that of the White House. Alarmed that Israel was upsetting the balance of power in the Middle East, de Gaulle condemned the aggression, describing the Jews as ‘an elite people, sure of itself and domineering’. French Jewish organizations that had taken a pro-Israel foreign policy for granted began to organize on a political basis for the first time, as Pompidou and Giscard continued de Gaulle’s arms embargo into the 70s. In 1976 the Jewish Action Committee (CJA) organized a ‘day for Israel’ which mobilized 100,000 people. In 1977 the formerly quietist CRIF, representative council of some sixty Jewish bodies, produced a new charter denouncing France’s ‘abandonment of Israel’, published by Le Monde as a document of record. In the 1981 presidential election the CJA founder, Henri Hajdenberg, led a high-profile campaign for a Jewish vote against Giscard; Mitterrand won by a margin of 3 per cent. The boycott was lifted, and Mitterrand became the first French president to visit Israel. Warm relations were sealed between the CRIF and the Socialist Party elite, and a tactful veil of silence drawn over Mitterrand’s war-time role as a Vichy official.

[A small footnote: Whenever Professor Piterburg (a former officer in the IDF) is attacked by Zionists at public lectures for being a ‘self-hating Jew’, he responds thus: “I don’t hate myself, but I hate you.” ]

So much for official France. The country itself is different. Opinion polls reveal that at least 60 percent of French people are opposed to what Israel is doing to Gaza. Are they all anti-semites? They couldn’t be influenced by the media, could they? Because it’s totally pro-Israel. Could it be the case that the French population is ignoring Hollande, Valls and the mercenary ideologues who support them?

What about Britain? Here the  Extreme Centre that rules the country as well as the  official ‘Opposition’ dutifully supported their masters in Washington. The coverage of the recent events in Gaza on state television (BBC) was so appallingly one-sided that there were demonstrations outside the BBC’s offices in London and Salford. My own tiny experience with the BBC reveals the fear and timidity at work inside. As I blogged on the London Review of Books, this is what happened:

On Wednesday 16 July I received four calls from the BBC’s Good Morning Wales.

First morning call: was I available to be interviewed about Gaza tomorrow morning? I said yes.

First afternoon call: could I tell them what I would say? I said (a) Israel was a rogue state, pampered and cosseted by the US and its vassals. (b) Targeting and killing Palestinian children (especially boys) and blaming the victims was an old Israeli custom. (c) The BBC coverage of Palestine was appalling and if they didn’t cut me off I would explain how and why.

Second afternoon call: was I prepared to debate a pro-Israeli? I said yes.

Afternoon message left on my phone: terribly sorry. There’s been a motorway crash in Wales, so we’ve decided to drop your item.

Few British citizens are aware of the role their own country played in creating this mess. It was a long time ago when Britain was an Empire and not a vassal, but the echoes of history never fade away. It was not by accident, but by design that the British decided to create a new state and it wasn’t Balfour alone. The Alternate Information Center in Beit Sahour, a joint Palestinian-Israeli organization promoting justice, equality and peace  for Palestinians and Israelis recently put up a post. It was a quote  from The Bannerman Report written in 1907 by the Prime Minister of Great Britain, Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, and, as it was strategically important it was suppressed and was never released to the public until many years later:

“There are people (the Arabs, Editor’s Note) who control spacious territories  teeming with manifest and hidden resources. They dominate the intersections of  world routes. Their lands were the cradles of human civilizations and religions.  These people have one faith, one language, one history and the same aspirations.  No natural barriers can isolate these people from one another … if, per chance,  this nation were to be unified into one state, it would then take the fate of  the world into its hands and would separate Europe from the rest of the world.  Taking these considerations seriously, a foreign body should be planted in the heart of this nation to prevent the convergence of its wings in such a way that  it could exhaust its powers in never-ending wars. It could also serve as a springboard for the West to gain its coveted objects.”

[Dan Bar-On & Sami Adwan, THE  PRIME SHARED HISTORY PROJECT, in Educating Toward a Culture of Peace, pages  309–323, Information Age Publishing, 2006]

Tariq Ali is the author of  The Obama Syndrome (Verso).

http://www.counterpunch.org/2014/07/22/blinded-by-israel-visionless-in-gaza/

 

 

By brutalizing Palestinians, Israel dehumanizes itself

by Jerome Roos on July 22, 2014

Post image for By brutalizing Palestinians, Israel dehumanizes itself

As bombs rain down on hospitals and Israeli politicians call for the ethnic cleansing of Gaza, it becomes clear that you cannot reason with fanaticism.

 

Photo: Palestinian men mourn the death of their relatives, whom medics said were killed in Israeli shelling, at a hospital morgue in Rafah in the southern Gaza strip (Ibraheem Abu Mustafa).

Two small bodies lie on the metal table inside the morgue at Gaza’s Shifa hospital. Omama is nine years old. Her right forearm is mangled and charred and the top half of her skull has been smashed in. Beside her lies her seven year-old brother. His name is not certain. It might be Hamza or Khalil. Relatives are having trouble identifying him because his head has been shorn off. Their parents will not mourn them — because they are dead too.

Just another day in Gaza, as the list of Israeli atrocities keeps on growing. Young children have been bombed to death while playing on the beach; white phosphorous bombs and flechette shells are being deployed against civilian populations; yet another hospital has been shelled by Israeli tanks. These are all simple statements of fact, but they can never describe the horror felt by ordinary Gazans as the F-16s thunder past, the bombs rain down from the skies, the tanks close in on their homes, and the drones zoom ominously overhead.

On Sunday, 67 Palestinians were killed in a single attack when the IDF virtually obliterated the entire neighborhood of Shujaya. As bystanders tried to evacuate the dead and wounded, Israeli troops targeted an ambulance, killing a paramedic. When a young man, accompanied by a team of international volunteers, went searching for surviving family members amid the wreckage of his home, an Israeli sniper shot him in cold blood, and kept firing even as he lay wounded on the ground — until the man eventually stopped moving.

By Tuesday morning, at least 600 Palestinians had been killed, up to three quarters of them civilians and a third of them children, with over 3.000 injured, many facing lifelong disabilities. Meanwhile, as Israel continues to bomb schools and hospitals and 100.000 terrorized civilians flee their homes by foot, with nowhere left to run or hide, The Guardian reports that “groups of Israelis gather each evening on hilltops close to the Gaza border to cheer, whoop and whistle as bombs rain down on people in a hellish warzone a few miles away.”

In Israel, room for debate on the occupation has always been practically non-existent, but it is now more obvious than ever that it is simply impossible to reason with the growing fanaticism that has grabbed a hold of the country. When a small group of brave Israeli pro-peace activists staged a protest against the assault on Gaza in Tel Aviv this weekend, they were pelted with rocks, beaten with sticks, and chased down the street by a 2.000-strong mob of warmongering, flag-waving nationalists — some of them actually wearing neo-Nazi T-shirts. An exasperated Israeli friend described to me the “hatred in the eyes” of her fellow countrymen and relayed the ominous atmosphere inside Israel: “It’s crazy and scary here. All you see and hear is the far-right. 90% of the people in Israel are pro-war. The reasons vary but they are the majority.”

Its hand strengthened by this rising tide of racist belligerence, the Israeli political establishment now appears to be dropping the veil of democratic pretensions altogether. Three weeks ago, the ultra-nationalist Knesset member Ayelet Shaked openly called for the death of Palestinian mothers who give birth to “little snakes”, and just last week, the Deputy Speaker of the Knesset, Moshe Feiglin, who is a key member of the ruling Likud party, called for the occupation and annexation of Gaza and the expulsion of its Palestinian inhabitants:

After the IDF completes the ‘softening’ of the targets with its firepower, the IDF will conquer the entire Gaza, using all the means necessary to minimize any harm to our soldiers, with no other considerations … Gaza is part of our Land and we will remain there forever. Subsequent to the elimination of terror from Gaza, it will become part of sovereign Israel and will be populated by Jews. This will also serve to ease the housing crisis in Israel.

These statements, in combination with the brute force brought down upon Gaza’s civilian population, leave absolutely no room for doubt or ambiguity: while a pliant President Obama and spineless European leaders still “strongly affirm Israel’s right to defend itself,” leading Israeli politicians have already taken to openly advocating genocide and ethnic cleansing. No longer should we mince our words for fear of alienating our audience — this is what is at stake in Gaza today. You cannot reason with such bloodthirsty fanaticism.

Many well-intentioned but ill-informed liberals in the West still like to take the moral high ground and criticize those who “take sides” in this “conflict,” elevating abstract principles of “peace” over any meaningful political engagement with the reality on the ground. Tragically, the reality is that the Israeli government and the vast majority of Jewish-Israeli citizens are not the least bit interested in peace — they prefer a dramatic escalation of the Gaza offensive. Haaretz columnist Gideon Levy, one of the last-remaining pillars of conscience in the Israeli public debate, puts it in straightforward fashion: “Israel does not want peace” — its “real purpose in Gaza is to kill Arabs.”

Now that Israeli society is starting to pay a price for its unlawful occupation and its military incursion into Gaza — in the form of its invading soldiers returning home in body bags — the mood of fanaticism is likely to intensify even further. “Hamas killed my friend,” a former IDF conscript told The Guardian. “We need to kill them — not just the Hamas militants but all the people in Gaza.” Another young Israeli in Jerusalem put it in similarly blunt terms: “Of course I’m against a ceasefire, we need to continue … Palestinians don’t care about human life, whereas we appreciate life. We want to live, they want to die.” Again, as the complete lack of empathy and the thorough dehumanization of the colonized other clearly indicate, you cannot reason with fanaticism.

As Israel intensifies its offensive, as the crimes against humanity continue to pile up, as leading politicians and ordinary citizens whip up the racist frenzy, as the cheerleaders of war gather with popcorn on the hill to witness the spectacle of civilian slaughter from up high, and as the courageous Israeli voices of reason are drowned out by the hate speech of rock-throwing nationalists, the world is forced to recognize that Israel has absolutely no interest in peace — and never had either. Frothing at the mouth with a fanatical disregard for human life or dignity, the occupier has brutalized its victim to the point of dehumanizing itself. Those who continue to waver in ambiguous aloofness and false neutrality in the face of these historic injustices will end up being remembered for it.

Jerome Roos is a PhD researcher in International Political Economy at the European University Institute, and founding editor of ROAR Magazine.

http://roarmag.org/2014/07/israel-aggression-gaza-fanaticism/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+roarmag+%28ROAR+Magazine%29

Meet the Online Tracking Device That is Virtually Impossible to Block

A new kind of tracking tool, canvas fingerprinting, is being used to follow visitors to thousands of top websites, from WhiteHouse.gov to YouPorn.

(David Sleight/ProPublica)

Update: A YouPorn.com spokesperson said that the website was “completely unaware that AddThis contained a tracking software that had the potential to jeopardize the privacy of our users.” After this article was published, YouPorn removed AddThis technology from its website.

This story was co-published with Mashable.

A new, extremely persistent type of online tracking is shadowing visitors to thousands of top websites, from WhiteHouse.gov to YouPorn.com.

First documented in a forthcoming paper by researchers at Princeton University and KU Leuven University in Belgium, this type of tracking, called canvas fingerprinting, works by instructing the visitor’s Web browser to draw a hidden image. Because each computer draws the image slightly differently, the images can be used to assign each user’s device a number that uniquely identifies it.

 

Canvas Fingerprinting in Action

Watch your browser generate a unique fingerprint image. This is for informational purposes only and no fingerprint information is sent to ProPublica. (Mike Tigas, ProPublica)

See your browser’s fingerprintClick the button above and your computer and web browser will draw a ProPublica-designed canvas fingerprint.

 

Like other tracking tools, canvas fingerprints are used to build profiles of users based on the websites they visit — profiles that shape which ads, news articles, or other types of content are displayed to them.

But fingerprints are unusually hard to block: They can’t be prevented by using standard Web browser privacy settings or using anti-tracking tools such as AdBlock Plus.

The researchers found canvas fingerprinting computer code, primarily written by a company called AddThis, on 5 percent of the top 100,000 websites. Most of the code was on websites that use AddThis’ social media sharing tools. Other fingerprinters include the German digital marketer Ligatus and the Canadian dating site Plentyoffish. (A list of all the websites on which researchers found the code is here).

Rich Harris, chief executive of AddThis, said that the company began testing canvas fingerprinting earlier this year as a possible way to replace “cookies,” the traditional way that users are tracked, via text files installed on their computers.

“We’re looking for a cookie alternative,” Harris said in an interview.

Harris said the company considered the privacy implications of canvas fingerprinting before launching the test, but decided “this is well within the rules and regulations and laws and policies that we have.”

He added that the company has only used the data collected from canvas fingerprints for internal research and development. The company won’t use the data for ad targeting or personalization if users install the AddThis opt-out cookie on their computers, he said.

Arvind Narayanan, the computer science professor who led the Princeton research team, countered that forcing users to take AddThis at its word about how their data will be used, is “not the best privacy assurance.”

Device fingerprints rely on the fact that every computer is slightly different: Each contains different fonts, different software, different clock settings and other distinctive features. Computers automatically broadcast some of their attributes when they connect to another computer over the Internet.

Tracking companies have long sought to use those differences to uniquely identify devices for online advertising purposes, particularly as Web users are increasingly using ad-blocking software and deleting cookies.

In May 2012, researchers at the University of California, San Diego, noticed that a Web programming feature called “canvas” could allow for a new type of fingerprint — by pulling in different attributes than a typical device fingerprint.

How You Can Try to Thwart Canvas Fingerprinting

  • Use the Tor browser (Warning: can be slow)
  • Block JavaScript from loading in your browser (Warning: breaks a lot of web sites)
  • Use NoScript browser extension to block JavaScript from known fingerprinters such as AddThis (Warning: requires a lot of research and decision-making)
  • Try the experimental browser extension Chameleon that is designed to block fingerprinting (Warning: only recommended for tech-savvy users at this point)
  • Install opt-out cookies from known fingerprinters such as AddThis (Warning: fingerprint will likely still be collected, companies simply pledge not to use the data for ad targeting or personalization)

In June, the Tor Project added a feature to its privacy-protecting Web browser to notify users when a website attempts to use the canvas feature and sends a blank canvas image. But other Web browsers did not add notifications for canvas fingerprinting.

A year later, Russian programmer Valentin Vasilyev noticed the study and added a canvas feature to freely available fingerprint code that he had posted on the Internet. The code was immediately popular.

But Vasilyev said that the company he was working for at the time decided against using the fingerprint technology. “We collected several million fingerprints but we decided against using them because accuracy was 90 percent,” he said, “and many of our customers were on mobile and the fingerprinting doesn’t work well on mobile.”

Vasilyev added that he wasn’t worried about the privacy concerns of fingerprinting. “The fingerprint itself is a number which in no way is related to a personality,” he said.

AddThis improved upon Vasilyev’s code by adding new tests and using the canvas to draw a pangram “Cwm fjordbank glyphs vext quiz” — a sentence that uses every letter of the alphabet at least once. This allows the company to capture slight variations in how each letter is displayed.

AddThis said it rolled out the feature to a small portion of the 13 million websites on which its technology appears, but is considering ending its test soon. “It’s not uniquely identifying enough,” Harris said.

AddThis did not notify the websites on which the code was placed because “we conduct R&D projects in live environments to get the best results from testing,” according to a spokeswoman.

She added that the company does not use any of the data it collects — whether from canvas fingerprints or traditional cookie-based tracking — from government websites including WhiteHouse.gov for ad targeting or personalization.

The company offered no such assurances about data it routinely collects from visitors to other sites, such as YouPorn.com. YouPorn.com did not respond to inquiries from ProPublica about whether it was aware of AddThis’ test of canvas fingerprinting on its website.

Read our recent coverage about how online tracking is getting creepier, how Facebook has been tracking you, and what tools to use to protect yourself.

The crash of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 in Ukraine

http://www.scmp.com/sites/default/files/styles/980w/public/2014/07/18/ukraine_malaysia_airlines_plane_crash_kiv16_44414549.jpg?itok=2xYVCdqk

19 July 2014

The remarks Friday by President Barack Obama on the tragic crash of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 in eastern Ukraine raised far more questions than they answered.

Obama continued the mind-numbing propaganda barrage from US officials and media, denouncing Russia and pro-Russian separatist forces in eastern Ukraine for shooting down the plane and demanding the surrender of the separatists to the Western-backed regime in Kiev. However, his remarks themselves underscored that this propaganda campaign has no factual basis whatsoever and is leading Washington into an explosive confrontation with Russia.

Obama said: “Here is what we know so far. Evidence indicates that the plane was shot down by a surface-to-air missile that was launched from an area that is controlled by Russian-backed separatists inside of Ukraine. We also know that this is not the first time a plane has been shot down in eastern Ukraine. Over the last several weeks, Russian-backed separatists have shot down a Ukrainian transport plane and a Ukrainian helicopter, and they claimed responsibility for shooting down a Ukrainian fighter jet. Moreover, we know that these separatists have received a steady flow of support from Russia.”

Reread Obama’s comments carefully. You will see that nothing he said proves that pro-Russian forces fired a missile at MH17. Separatist rebels have shot down low-flying Ukrainian military aircraft with portable anti-aircraft missiles, but this does not mean they had either the intent or the capability to destroy a jumbo jet flying at 33,000 feet—an act they knew would hand Washington a massive propaganda weapon.

As for Obama’s claim that the separatists control the area from which the missile was fired, for which he presented no evidence, this means nothing given the chaotic conditions in eastern Ukraine. In the city of Donetsk, the stronghold of the anti-Kiev separatists, forces loyal to Kiev control the airport, from which they routinely shell the city. In fact, shortly before MH17 was allegedly destroyed by a BUK missile near Donetsk, the Kiev regime reinforced its anti-aircraft batteries in the region.

Remarkably, Obama went on to admit that his administration does not know who shot down MH17 or why. He said, “I think it’s too early for us to be able to guess what intentions those who might have launched the surface-to-air missile might have had… In terms of identifying specifically what individual or group of individuals, you know, personnel ordered the strike, how it came about—those are things that I think are going to be subject to additional information that we’re going to be gathering.”

Again, reread Obama’s statement carefully. Behind all the conditional statements and verbal hedging, he is saying nothing about who launched the strike. Obama’s remarks directly contradict those of his own UN ambassador, Samantha Power, who had just stated that there was “credible evidence” that Russia was responsible for the crash, adding, “Russia can end this war. Russia must end this war.”

Obama proceeded to throw a question mark over the entire coverage of the MH17 crash: “I want to point out there will likely be misinformation as well. I think it’s very important for folks to sift through what is factually based and what is simply speculation.”

The picture of the situation that emerges from Obama’s account is remarkable. By his own admission, the United States and its allies are hurtling toward a military confrontation with Russia, under conditions where the White House does not know who is responsible for the MH17 crash and believes powerful political forces are feeding misinformation to the media.

Having already admitted that the CIA did not bother to inform him before spying on German officials, Obama is apparently trying to figure out what his own government is doing—all the while irresponsibly denouncing Russia.

Properly considered, any of the possible explanations for the firing of a missile at MH17 raise the most serious questions about the risk of a direct clash between the Western powers and Russia.

While there is a deafening silence on this in the US media, forces loyal to Kiev may well have fired a BUK missile that took down MH17. The motive that would lie behind such an act is demonstrated by the US media campaign itself: to denounce Russia, step up the campaign for NATO intervention in Ukraine, and seek to whip into line some of Washington’s European allies who are balking at imposing sweeping sanctions against Russia.

The very real possibility that pro-Kiev forces shot down the plane takes into account the close ties between CIA operatives, mercenaries of the US firm formerly known as Blackwater, European intelligence agencies, and the fascist militias that spearhead Kiev’s armed forces. It raises the possibility of direct complicity of sections of the American state in the murder of MH17’s passengers and crew.

Particularly significant are Russian media reports that MH17 briefly crossed the path of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s flight returning from the World Cup and an international summit in Brazil, and that factions in Moscow believe the missile that destroyed MH17 may have been intended for Putin. It is impossible to verify whether such reports are correct. However, if sections of the Russian state come to believe that American and European intelligence agencies sanctioned an assassination attempt on the Russian head of state, the implications are mind-boggling.

On the other hand, if, as the US propaganda campaign claims, MH17 was destroyed by a missile fired by forces allied to or directly aided by Russia, this raises the question of what message the Russian factions involved were trying to send by demonstrating their willingness to murder nearly 300 people. It would certainly show that Moscow takes the crisis in Ukraine far more seriously than Washington realizes, and the situation is extremely dangerous.

The US media and political establishment, in their haste to denounce Russia, appear completely uninterested in these questions. This attitude combines utter recklessness with light-mindedness. What has already been revealed by the MH17 disaster is the deep crisis of Western imperialism and the risk of global war.

Alex Lantier

THE BULLSHIT MACHINE

Here’s a tiny confession. I’m bored.

Yes; I know. I’m a sinner. Go ahead. Burn me at the stake of your puritanical Calvinism; the righteously, thoroughly, well, boring idea that boredom itself is a moral defect; that a restless mind is the Devil’s sweatshop.

There’s nothing more boring than that; and I’ll return to that very idea at the end of this essay; which I hope is the beginning.

What am I bored of? Everything. Blogs books music art business ideas politics tweets movies science math technology…but more than that: the spirit of the age; the atmosphere of the time; the tendency of the now; the disposition of the here.

Sorry; but it’s true. It’s boring me numb and dumb.

A culture that prizes narcissism above individualism. A politics that places “tolerance” above acceptance. A spirit that encourages cynicism over reverence. A public sphere that places irony over sincerity. A technosophy that elevates “data” over understanding. A society that puts “opportunity” before decency. An economy that…you know. Works us harder to make us poorer at “jobs” we hate where we make stuff that sucks every last bit of passion from our souls to sell to everyone else who’s working harder to get poorer at “jobs” they hate where they make stuff that sucks every last bit of passion from their souls.

To be bored isn’t to be indifferent. It is to be fatigued. Because one is exhausted. And that is precisely where—and only where—the values above lead us. To exhaustion; with the ceaseless, endless, meaningless work of maintaining the fiction. Of pretending that who we truly want to be is what everyone believes everyone else wants to be. Liked, not loved; “attractive”, not beautiful; clever, not wise; snarky, not happy; advantaged, not prosperous.

It exhausts us; literally; this game of parasitically craving everyone’s cravings. It makes us adversaries not of one another; but of ourselves. Until there is nothing left. Not of us as we are; but of the people we might have been. The values above shrink and reduce and diminish our potential; as individuals, as people, societies. And so I have grown fatigued by them.

Ah, you say. But when hasn’t humanity always suffered all the above? Please. Let’s not mince ideas. Unless you think the middle class didn’t actually thrive once; unless you think that the gentleman that’s made forty seven Saw flicks (so far) is this generation’s Alfred Hitchcock; unless you believe that this era has a John Lennon; unless you think that Jeff Koons is Picasso…perhaps you see my point.

I’m bored, in short, of what I’d call a cycle of perpetual bullshit. A bullshit machine. The bullshit machine turns life into waste.

The bullshit machine looks something like this. Narcissism about who you are leads to cynicism about who you could be leads to mediocrity in what you do…leads to narcissism about who you are. Narcissism leads to cynicism leads to mediocrity…leads to narcissism.

Let me simplify that tiny model of the stalemate the human heart can reach with life.

The bullshit machine is the work we do only to live lives we don’t want, need, love, or deserve.

Everything’s work now. Relationships; hobbies; exercise. Even love. Gruelling; tedious; unrelenting; formulaic; passionless; calculated; repetitive; predictable; analysed; mined; timed; performed.

Work is bullshit. You know it, I know it; mankind has always known it. Sure; you have to work at what you want to accomplish. But that’s not the point. It is the flash of genius; the glimmer of intuition; the afterglow of achievement; the savoring of experience; the incandescence of meaning; all these make life worthwhile, pregnant, impossible, aching with purpose. These are the ends. Work is merely the means.

Our lives are confused like that. They are means without ends; model homes; acts which we perform, but do not fully experience.

Remember when I mentioned puritanical Calvinism? The idea that being bored is itself a sign of a lack of virtue—and that is, itself, the most boring idea in the world?

That’s the battery that powers the bullshit machine. We’re not allowed to admit it: that we’re bored. We’ve always got to be doing something. Always always always. Tapping, clicking, meeting, partying, exercising, networking, “friending”. Work hard, play hard, live hard. Improve. Gain. Benefit. Realize.

Hold on. Let me turn on crotchety Grandpa mode. Click.

Remember when cafes used to be full of people…thinking? Now I defy you to find one not full of people Tinder—Twitter—Facebook—App-of-the-nanosecond-ing; furiously. Like true believers hunched over the glow of a spiritualized Eden they can never truly enter; which is precisely why they’re mesmerized by it. The chance at a perfect life; full of pleasure; the perfect partner, relationship, audience, job, secret, home, career; it’s a tap away. It’s something like a slot-machine of the human soul, this culture we’re building. The jackpot’s just another coin away…forever. Who wouldn’t be seduced by that?

Winners of a million followers, fans, friends, lovers, dollars…after all, a billion people tweeting, updating, flicking, swiping, tapping into the void a thousand times a minute can’t be wrong. Can they?

And therein is the paradox of the bullshit machine. We do more than humans have ever done before. But we are not accomplishing much; and we are, it seems to me, becoming even less than that.

The more we do, the more passive we seem to become. Compliant. Complaisant. As if we are merely going through the motions.

Why? We are something like apparitions today; juggling a multiplicity of selves through the noise; the “you” you are on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Tinder…wherever…at your day job, your night job, your hobby, your primary relationship, your friend-with-benefits, your incredibly astonishing range of extracurricular activities. But this hyperfragmentation of self gives rise to a kind of schizophrenia; conflicts, dissocations, tensions, dislocations, anxieties, paranoias, delusions. Our social wombs do not give birth to our true selves; the selves explosive with capability, possibility, wonder.

Tap tap tap. And yet. We are barely there, at all; in our own lives; in the moments which we will one day look back on and ask ourselves…what were we thinking wasting our lives on things that didn’t matter at all?

The answer, of course, is that we weren’t thinking. Or feeling. We don’t have time to think anymore. Thinking is a superluxury. Feeling is an even bigger superluxury. In an era where decent food, water, education, and healthcare are luxuries; thinking and feeling are activities to costly for society to allow. They are a drag on “growth”; a burden on “productivity”; they slow down the furious acceleration of the bullshit machine.

And so. Here we are. Going through the motions. The bullshit machine says the small is the great; the absence is the presence; the vicious is the noble; the lie is the truth. We believe it; and, greedily, it feeds on our belief. The more we feed it, the more insatiable it becomes. Until, at last, we are exhausted. By pretending to want the lives we think we should; instead of daring to live the lives we know we could.

Fuck it. Just admit it. You’re probably just as bored as I am.

Good for you.

Welcome to the world beyond the Bullshit Machine.

The civilian death toll in Gaza is immoral and unacceptable — and it’s time to talk honestly about all of it

 

Collective punishment or human shields? Israel’s military has no “moral superiority,” time for media to cover Gaza fairly

Collective punishment or human shields? Israel's military has no "moral superiority," time for media to cover Gaza fairly
Palestinians flee their homes in the Zeitoun neighbourhood of Gaza City, after Israel had airdropped leaflets warning people to leave the area, Wednesday, July 16, 2014. (Credit: AP/Lefteris Pitarakis)

How commonly is the alleged moral superiority of the Israeli military invoked? So commonly that if you type “the most moral army in the world” into Google, you’ll immediately get a bunch of articles discussing the Israeli “Defense” Forces. Just last week, Slate’s William Saletan argued that while Hamas fires rockets at civilians, Israel takes “pains” in its “exemplary” efforts to avoid harming Palestinian civilians. The New York Times’ Steven Erlanger didn’t “argue” that Israel takes major precautions to avoid harming civilians, he seemed to be taking it as a given when he wrote Gazans were anxious about airstrikes “no matter how carefully Israel tries to target them.”

Despite the fact that the Palestinians are an occupied, besieged and oppressed population that lacks the capability to defend itself against systemic and daily Israeli violence, Hamas’s insistence that Israeli civilians are legitimate targets is morally indefensible, and should be condemned by all people of conscience. But according to what evidence is Israel’s conduct better? And how can it possibly be better when Israel has advanced surveillance capability and laser-guided weaponry, but has still managed to kill more than 150 Palestinian civilians (including 40+ children) in Gaza, compared to just one Israeli death in this latest round of violence? Instead of taking Israel at its word, let’s look at the take of credible observers.

Human Rights Watch, on Israel’s Conduct

After conducting an investigation, Human Rights Watch (HRW) issued a report on Wednesday accusing Israel of carrying out “unlawful” strikes in Gaza, ones that “either did not attack a legitimate military target or attacked despite the likelihood of civilian casualties being disproportionate to the military gain.” It noted that “Such attacks committed deliberately or recklessly constitute war crimes.” HRW Middle East Director Sarah Leah Whitson also added that Israel’s actions raise “serious questions as to whether these attacks are intended to target civilians or wantonly destroy civilian property.”



The report also said that “Human Rights Watch has documented numerous serious violations of the laws of war by Israeli forces in the past decade, particularly indiscriminate attacks on civilians,” and criticized Israel’s preposterously inadequate efforts at “warning” civilians of impending strikes. Now, which part of all that fits with “exemplary” efforts at avoiding killing civilians? Still, some may buy into Israel’s allegation that Hamas’s use of human shields is what’s responsible for the high civilian death toll. Let’s look at the evidence.

Human Shields

While human rights organizations haven’t yet addressed “human shields” allegations in the ongoing round of Israel-Gaza violence, they did after the 2009 round when Israel killed at least 773 Palestinian civilians, compared to three Israeli civilian casualties (a ratio of 257:1), and used the same “human shields” argument to deflect responsibility for those deaths. When the dust settled, Amnesty International investigated the matter and concluded that there was “no evidence that [Palestinian] rockets were launched from residential houses or buildings while civilians were in these buildings.” More attention-worthy was the report’s note that,

in the cases of [Israeli] precision missiles or tank shells which killed [Palestinian] civilians in their homes, no fighters were present in the houses that were struck and Amnesty International delegates found no indication that there had been any armed confrontations or other military activity in the immediate vicinity at the time of the attack.

Israel’s Use of Human Shields

By contrast, the same report found that “in several cases Israeli soldiers also used [Palestinian] civilians, including children, as ‘human shields’.” Going back in time just a little further to put this into context is important: when the Israeli Supreme Court ruled in 2005 that the Israeli military had to stop using Palestinian civilians as human shields, the Israeli “defense” establishment objected to the ruling. The appeal against the ruling failed, and the practice remains technically illegal, but Israel implicitly encourages it to continue by offering an “inadequate … slap on the wrist,” as Human Rights Watch put it, to Israeli soldiers caught using this reprehensible tactic.

This reveals two important things: the first is the moral hypocrisy and chutzpah on display when Israel ignores its own use of human shields as it accuses its enemies of using them. The second is Israel’s self-contradicting logic: If Palestinian militants had such disregard for Palestinian civilian lives, why was the Israeli military so invested in maintaining the ability to use Palestinians as shields? The fact that the Israeli army wants to use Palestinian human shields actually proves that they believe Palestinian militants prefer not to endanger their own civilians.

When Intentions Are Clearer

There may be more discipline among Israeli leaders in how they talk about the war on Gaza this time, but that wasn’t the case in previous conflagrations. In the 2012 assault, Israeli Interior Minister Eli Yishai said the “goal of the operation is to send Gaza back to the Middle Ages.” Gilad Sharon, son of former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon, said “we need to flatten entire neighborhoods in Gaza. Flatten all of Gaza.” And if you think that’s just rhetoric, consider that Amnesty International previously documented Israel had “flattened … busy neighborhoods” into “moonscapes.”

And it wasn’t just human rights organizations that were exposing Israeli war crimes in Gaza, but Israeli soldiers whose conscience could not bear to remain silent about the atrocities they had committed were also coming forward. And in the 2006 assault on Lebanon, one Israeli commander referred to the dropping of more than a million cluster bomblets over Lebanon like this: “What we did was insane and monstrous, we covered entire towns in cluster bombs.” Is this the most moral army?

Imbalance of Power Shapes the Conflict

While the 2009 Amnesty International report found no evidence that Hamas used human shields, it did acknowledge the obvious reality that Hamas does operate in (and fire rockets from) residential areas, adding “although this would be difficult to avoid in the small and overcrowded Gaza Strip.” Beyond the size and overcrowding of Gaza, Hamas also has no real army which could confront Israel on a traditional battlefield. As Yousef Munayyer recently argued on MSNBC, “Palestinians would certainly prefer to have precision-guided missiles and F-16s, and the kind of defense establishment that an independent, sovereign state would have to defend itself.” But in the absence of such capabilities, any fighting militia would be forced to use guerilla tactics that involve operating in inhabited areas.

As Andrew Sullivan put it,

Yes, they conceal armaments and rockets and weapons in civilian areas — and that undoubtedly increases civilian deaths. But what alternative do they have exactly, if they wish to have any military capacity at all? Should they build clearly demarcated camps and barracks and munitions stores, where the IDF could just destroy them at will?

Violence against civilians does not suddenly become more legitimate just because it is carried out by a state actor, and one that doesn’t fit our biases and preconceptions of who commits terrorism. And leading human rights organizations get that, which is why they call for ending military support not just for Hamas and other militant groups, but also for Israel.

Israel’s ground incursion in Gaza is now underway, and while it will almost certainly cause more casualties and destruction, it won’t contribute to resolving the conflict in the long term. Ultimately, this conflict will only be solved when the side holding virtually all the power, the one imposing displacement, occupation, and apartheid on the other side, is pressured in a meaningful way to allow Palestinians to exercise self-determination. Heeding the calls for a suspension of military aid to Israel would be the beginning of such meaningful pressure, and through it we could hopefully see a process that puts us closer to the ending the needless killing of innocent Israelis and Palestinians.

Omar Baddar is a Middle East political analyst based in Washington, DC. You can follow him on Twitter at @OmarBaddar

 

http://www.salon.com/2014/07/18/israels_military_has_no_moral_superiority_and_its_time_the_media_covered_gaza_fairly/?source=newsletter

Israel Is Committing Genocide in the Gaza Ghetto

Why Israeli policy towards the Gaza Strip amounts to an incremental genocide.

Young relatives of four boys, all from the Bakr family, killed during Israeli shelling, cry during their funeral in Gaza City, on July 16, 2014

In a September 2006 article for The Electronic Intifada, I defined the Israeli policy towards the Gaza Strip as an incremental genocide.

Israel’s present assault on Gaza alas indicates that this policy continues unabated. The term is important since it appropriately locates Israel’s barbaric action — then and now — within a wider historical context.

This context should be insisted upon, since the Israeli propaganda machine attempts again and again to narrate its policies as out of context and turns the pretext it found for every new wave of destruction into the main justification for another spree of indiscriminate slaughter in the killing fields of Palestine.

The context

The Zionist strategy of branding its brutal policies as an ad hoc response to this or that Palestinian action is as old as the Zionist presence in Palestine itself. It was used repeatedly as a justification for implementing the Zionist vision of a future Palestine that has in it very few, if any, native Palestinians.

The means for achieving this goal changed with the years, but the formula has remained the same: whatever the Zionist vision of a Jewish State might be, it can only materialize without any significant number of Palestinians in it. And nowadays the vision is of an Israel stretching over almost the whole of historic Palestine where millions of Palestinians still live.

The present genocidal wave has, like all the previous ones, also a more immediate background. It has been born out of an attempt to foil the Palestinian decision to form a unity government that even the United States could not object to.

The collapse of US Secretary of State John Kerry’s desperate “peace” initiative legitimized the Palestinian appeal to international organizations to stop the occupation. At the same time, Palestinians gained wide international blessing for the cautious attempt represented by the unity government to strategize once again a coordinated policy among the various Palestinian groups and agendas.

Ever since June 1967, Israel searched for a way to keep the territories it occupied that year without incorporating their indigenous Palestinian population into its rights-bearing citizenry. All the while it participated in a “peace process” charade to cover up or buy time for its unilateral colonization policies on the ground.

With the decades, Israel differentiated between areas it wished to control directly and those it would manage indirectly, with the aim in the long run of downsizing the Palestinian population to a minimum with, among other means, ethnic cleansing and economic and geographic strangulation.

The geopolitical location of the West Bank creates the impression in Israel, at least, that it is possible to achieve this without anticipating a third uprising or too much international condemnation.

The Gaza Strip, due to its unique geopolitical location, did not lend itself that easily to such a strategy. Ever since 1994, and even more so when Ariel Sharon came to power as prime minister in the early 2000s, the strategy there was to ghettoize Gaza and somehow hope that the people there — 1.8 million as of today — would be dropped into eternal oblivion.

But the Ghetto proved to be rebellious and unwilling to live under conditions of strangulation, isolation, starvation and economic collapse. So resending it to oblivion necessitates the continuation of genocidal policies.

The pretext

On 15 May, Israeli forces killed two Palestinian youths in the West Bank town of Beitunia, their cold-blooded slayings by a sniper’s bullet captured on video. Their names — Nadim Nuwara and Muhammad Abu al-Thahir — were added to a long list of such killings in recent months and years.

The killing of three Israeli teenagers, two of them minors, abducted in the occupied West Bank in June, was perhaps in reprisal for killings of Palestinian children. But for all the depredations of the oppressive occupation, it provided the pretext first and foremost for destroying the delicate unity in the West Bank but also for the implementation of the old dream of wiping out Hamas from Gaza so that the Ghetto could be quiet again.

Since 1994, even before the rise of Hamas to power in the Gaza Strip, the very particular geopolitical location of the Strip made it clear that any collective punitive action, such as the one inflicted now, could only be an operation of massive killings and destruction. In other words, of a continued genocide.

This recognition never inhibited the generals who give the orders to bomb the people from the air, the sea and the ground. Downsizing the number of Palestinians all over historic Palestine is still the Zionist vision. In Gaza, its implementation takes its most inhuman form.

The particular timing of this wave is determined, as in the past, by additional considerations. The domestic social unrest of 2011 is still simmering and for a while there was a public demand to cut military expenditures and move money from the inflated “defense” budget to social services. The army branded this possibility as suicidal.

There is nothing like a military operation to stifle any voices calling on the government to cut its military expenses.

Typical hallmarks of the previous stages in this incremental genocide reappear in this wave as well. One can witness again consensual Israeli Jewish support for the massacre of civilians in the Gaza Strip, without one significant voice of dissent. In Tel Aviv, the few who dared to demonstrate against it were beaten by Jewish hooligans, while the police stood by and watched.

Academia, as always, becomes part of the machinery. The prestigious private university, the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya has established “a civilian headquarters” where students volunteer to serve as mouthpieces in the propaganda campaign abroad.

The media is loyally recruited, showing no pictures of the human catastrophe Israel has wreaked and informing its public that this time, “the world understands us and is behind us.”

That statement is valid to a point as the political elites in the West continue to provide the old immunity to the “Jewish state.” However, the media have not provided Israel with quite the level of legitimacy it was seeking for its criminal policies.

Obvious exceptions included French media, especially France 24 and the BBC, that continue to shamefully parrot Israeli propaganda.

This is not surprising, since pro-Israel lobby groups continue to work tirelessly to press Israel’s case in France and the rest of Europe as they do in the United States.

The way forward

Whether it is burning alive a Palestinian youth from Jerusalem, or the fatal shooting of two others, just for the fun of it in Beitunia, or slaying whole families in Gaza, these are all acts that can only be perpetrated if the victim is dehumanized.

I will concede that all over the Middle East there are now horrific cases where dehumanization has reaped unimaginable horrors as it does in Gaza today. But there is one crucial difference between these cases and the Israeli brutality: the former are condemned as barbarous and inhuman worldwide, while those committed by Israel are still publicly licensed and approved by the president of the United States, the leaders of the EU and Israel’s other friends in the world.

The only chance for a successful struggle against Zionism in Palestine is the one based on a human and civil rights agenda that does not differentiate between one violation and the other and yet identifies clearly the victim and the victimizers.

Those who commit atrocities in the Arab world against oppressed minorities and helpless communities, as well as the Israelis who commit these crimes against the Palestinian people, should all be judged by the same moral and ethical standards. They are all war criminals, though in the case of Palestine they have been at work longer than anyone else.

It does not really matter what the religious identity is of the people who commit the atrocities or in the name of which religion they purport to speak. Whether they call themselves jihadists, Judaists or Zionists, they should be treated in the same way.

A world that would stop employing double standards in its dealings with Israel is a world that could be far more effective in its response to war crimes elsewhere in the world.

Cessation of the incremental genocide in Gaza and the restitution of the basic human and civil rights of Palestinians wherever they are, including the right of return, is the only way to open a new vista for a productive international intervention in the Middle East as a whole.

http://www.alternet.org/israel-committing-genocide-gaza-ghetto?akid=12025.265072.FQoCd4&rd=1&src=newsletter1011618&t=8&paging=off&current_page=1#bookmark