‘Cease and censor’ in Turkey’s war on social media

By Binnaz Saktanber On February 20, 2015

Post image for ‘Cease and censor’ in Turkey’s war on social mediaTurkey has a track record of ruthlessly cracking down on social media users, and both Twitter and Facebook appear happy to play ball with the censors.

Photo by Murad Sezer

On February 9, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey sent his first tweet ever: “Today is World No Tobacco Day” he wrote in Turkish — bluntly ignoring the fact that it wasn’t even World No Tobacco Day — “Use your willpower against this poison and #DontGiveInToCigarettes.” Erdoğan even signed the tweet with his initials RTE in the style of Barack Obama, who signs his personal tweets -bo.

The content of the tweet was no surprise, given that the war against tobacco is one of the personal crusades of the Islamist ruler, and that everybody and their mum is tweeting today, including politicians and world leaders who often want to engage with their public personally. What was surprising was that Erdoğan, who once famously declared social media to be “the worst menace to society” and who blocked Twitter altogether on March 2014, was tweeting at all.

So what has changed? Did Erdoğan suddenly decide to embrace Twitter and stop censoring social media? Not quite. The Turkish government is no longer blocking the likes of Twitter thus keeping a façade of freedom, but it blazes the trail in a new type of censorship regime. I call it “cease and censor.”

The worst part is that Twitter seems to be helping it by implementing its “country-withheld content” policy. First employed in 2012 to block neo-Nazi accounts in Germany, the policy complies with the concerned country’s local laws and blocks a tweet or an account only in that country when faced with a legal order. This is understandable in cases of hate speech or criminal offenses, but the policy becomes awfully problematic when it interferes with freedom of expression and is applied according to local laws that are designed to censor freedom of expression at all costs, such as Turkey’s internet law.

Facebook also complies with the Turkish government’s requests to block and censor political content. @Madigudisi in Twitter and Ötekilerin Postası (The Other’s Post) on Facebook are two victims of this new censorship regime. I talked to them to learn their stories and to better understand how this new regime of censorship works.

Tech-savvy netizens versus archaic politics

But first, let’s refresh our memories. Last March, the Turkish government blocked Twitter amid alleged leaked recordings implicating Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, his family members and other government officials on a corruption scandal. Another recording had senior army officials discussing intervention in Syria. The recordings were posted mainly on YouTube and disseminated via Twitter.

“We’ll eradicate Twitter. I don’t care what the international community says. Everyone will witness the power of the Turkish Republic,” said a furious Erdoğan before blocking Twitter. A YouTube ban followed. The blatant censorship created an outcry at home and abroad. Hashtags #twitterbannedinturkey and #youtubebannedinturkey became worldwide trending topics within minutes, garnering millions of furious tweets criticizing Turkish government’s censorious antics. Every news outlet in the world reported the issue, while rights groups and the international community condemned the bans.

Turkey’s Constitutional Court lifted the Twitter ban on April 2 and the YouTube ban on June 4, stating they violated laws on freedom of expression. The court’s decision was widely applauded. Yet it did not affect that much in terms of Turkish netizen’s social media activity, as tech-savvy citizens never actually stopped tweeting, and mocked the blocks by circumventing it almost immediately thanks to VPN services and changing their DNS numbers.

At the time, I argued that ancient censorship mechanisms and archaic politics do not work in the face of technological dissent and the voice of the streets anymore. The Turkish government must have felt the same, since it soon began to employ a different tactic to keep social media giants like Twitter and Facebook on a short leash without actually having to block them: threatening them with banning their service altogether and imposing heavy fines, bombarding them with court orders, and making them block specific content and accounts.

Accomplice to censorship

When the transportat minister Lütfi Elvan tweeted “If your phones do not work after an earthquake, call the ministry” on May 28, 2014, he received a witty reply from Twitter user @Madigudisi. “This is not Zaytung [a local mock news portal similar to The Onion]. Goodbye to the brain…”

On July 13, Madigudisi received an email from Twitter’s legal team asking him if he would voluntarily delete the tweet. The message referenced a court ruling about the tweet, claiming it to violate Turkish law. In short, it was a polite recommendation of self-censorship from a social media giant that once famously praised itself as the “free speech wing of the free speech party,” and which promised to “stand with our users in Turkey who rely on Twitter as a vital communications platform” in the midst of the blocking of its service.

Twitter waited for three days for a voluntary deletion, and then censored the tweet. Instead of the original tweet, visitors now see a notice informing them this tweet has been withheld in their country. Madigudisi did not reply to Twitter or contest the ruling. Doing so would reveal his identity and bring more lawsuits.

His fear was not paranoid. Twenty-nine people were put on trial for tweets posted during the Gezi protests in a court case in which the then-Prime Minister Erdoğan is himself listed as a victim. All of the tweeters were accused of “inciting the public to break the law.” Three of them were also accused of “insulting the Prime Minister.”

The tweets they were trialled for were nothing but information on the location of police forces during the protests, passwords for wireless networks in the protest locations where 3G service was not usually available, and messages of support for the nationwide protests. In short, not that different than what millions of other people were tweeting during the summer of 2013.

In the last hearing on September 22, 2014, 27 of the accused were acquitted of all crimes. Yet one defendant was fined 8.000Turkish liras (roughly US$3.200) for “insulting the Prime Minister” and another’s file has been set apart for a future date. Amnesty International, which has been following the trial, declared that “no evidence presented in court points to criminal conduct that is not protected under international human rights standards on the right to freedom of expression,” and pointed out that the prosecution suggested authorities aim to discourage others from using social media in a country where Twitter was blocked before.

Withholding content, blocking accounts

Madigudisi is not the only casualty of Turkey’s “country-withheld content” policy. According to Twitter’s latest transparency report, Turkey had the highest number of removal requests (477) for 2.642 different accounts between July and December, filing five times the amount of requests of the next country on the list. Compared to the first half of the year, Turkey’s requests increased 156 percent and the number of accounts specified grew over 765 percent. As a result, 62 accounts and 1820 tweets were withheld.

Twitter received 328 court orders and 149 requests from Turkish government agencies to remove content ranging from violations of personal rights to defamation of private citizens and/or government officials, just like Madigudisi’s tweet.

In the report, Twitter has defended the policy, releasing the following statement:

We filed legal objections with Turkish courts in response to more than 70% of Turkish orders received. Objections were filed where we believed the order interfered with freedom of expression laws or had other deficiencies. Our objections to Turkish courts prevailed only ~5% of the time. We un-withheld three accounts and 196 tweets following the acceptance of several objections that Twitter filed in the Turkish courts in response to various removal demands.

In the last year, in addition to Madigudisi, three anonymous accounts used to reveal alleged phone conversations implicating Erdoğan in the corruption scandal were also blocked, as well as the account of the activist hacking group TheRedHack. RedHack’s last act was to hack the records of the biggest internet service provider of the country and dedicate it to Ali İsmail Korkmaz, who was killed during the Gezi protests.

Another casualty is Fuatavni, the whistleblower account claiming to write from inside the government with close to a million followers. Fuatavni’s account was blocked shortly after he tweeted details about a wave of arrests of police officers related to the December 17 corruption scandal. Having warned his followers that his account might be blocked, he now writes under the pseudonym FuatAvniFuat, but it is not clear how long this account will last.

Intimidation and despair

Madigudisi is neither a journalist, nor does he trust mainstream media. He says he opened a Twitter account the same day the Gezi protests started, with the sole purpose of tweeting about the protests and obtaining uncensored news about the events. He tweeted 24/7 (“in tears” he says) and tried to provide logistical support to protesters. For him Twitter is pivotal: “Without this platform it is impossible for us to know what is really going on in the country because the press is not free. That’s why I was so disappointed with this censorship.”

On January 15, the Turkish government warned it will shut down Twitter and Facebook if they do not block accounts mentioning documents revealing a weapon delivery to Syria. On January 2, 2014 two trucks belonging to Turkey’s National Intelligence Agency (MIT) were stopped for a search by a state prosecutor, finding weaponry inside. The trucks were going to Syria and the incident sparked controversy that the contents were meant for jihadists in the neighboring country.

At the time, a court issued a ban on the publication of news related to the incident. Following tweets that publish documents related to the incident, Turkey’s Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTÜK) issued a warning that the March 2014 government decree banning coverage  is still valid. The New York Times reported that “networks like Twitter, Facebook and Google Plus complied with the court order on Wednesday, removing content from accounts to avert a shutdown.”

No need for big threats for Facebook, as the company already frequently allows the Turkish government to censor content. According to the company’s latest and second ever transparency report, Turkey is the second most frequent censor of the social network, after India. Turkey restricted 1.813 pieces of content between January and June 2014, primarily because it defamed or criticized Ataturk or the Turkish state. Many Kurdish pages including the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) — the largest pro-Kurdish party in the country — are closed down, sparking an online petition from academics around the world and the suspicion that the blocks are political in nature.

“The sole purpose of this censorship is to intimidate us.” Madigudisi reflects. “I am not afraid. I will continue to voice my opinion no matter what. But I cannot help but feel despair. I am also very angry, why should I restrict my freedom of speech? There was nothing defamatory or insulting in my tweet, I just made a humorous observation.”

Politically motivated page removals

Ötekilerin Postası (The Other’s Post), a small citizen journalism outlet mainly reporting on the Kurdish issue, has had their Facebook page blocked repeatedly after they became one of the most popular alternative news sources due to its coverage of the Gezi protests. The page has been blocked ten times since July 2013, each time having been forced to open a new one.

As Fırat Yumuşak, an editor for the outlet, says: “This censorship is a direct result of the government’s efforts to suppress the internet during and after the Gezi protests. Facebook is cooperating with the Turkish government. Even government officials admitted this. This is the reason why Facebook was not blocked when other social media sites were.”

Yumusak said they have tried to contact Facebook to reverse the decisions, to no avail. After their page had been censored “because their logo of a pomegranate is found erotic” or a news item about a child sexual abuse case has been found pornographic, they have written to Facebook Europe Director Richard Alan.

When Alan gave an interview to the Turkish newspaper Radikal, he said: “Someone filed a complaint about the page and checked the box of pornographic content as a reason. We have examined the page and found no such content. Yet, we have concluded that the page had violated our terms of conditions by posting content that praises the terrorist organization PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party). They were posting content that had the flag and symbols of PKK. Posting this flag is a concrete violation of our rules even when it is done without being aware of it. For example, if someone posts a photo and there is someone in that photo carrying a PKK flag in the background, this is against our rules.”

Soon after the interview, The Other’s Post received an email from Facebook’s User Operations. The email was only signed with the first name Deniz, without a surname, and apologized for providing them with an incorrect explanation about why their page had been removed. “Yet,” the email read, “you have violated our standards many times so your page will not be republished.”

According to Yumusak, the problem lies in the fact that Facebook’s said rules and community standards are not up to date and inclusive enough for specific countries: “Because the standards are designed for a global audience, they do not reflect the realities of Turkey. While mainstream media outlets can publish a picture of Öcalan (the jailed leader of PKK), when we publish it we are accused of promoting terrorist activities and get censored,” he says.

Yumusak also argues that Facebook is not transparent enough: “For example, we received messages like ‘your page has been removed because we have received a sufficient amount of complaints.’ What is that amount? We asked several times and got no answer. This lack of transparency allows Facebook to easily cooperate with the authorities. Their page removals are more political than a simple technical act. At this point my thought is that Facebook will censor a page if they want to censor a page. They will create whatever reason necessary to do so. And they cooperate with the government doing so, because they don’t want to give up their market share or ads revenues.”

A façade of freedom

Like Madigudisi, Yumuşak believes in the power of social media in voicing and organizing dissident and that’s why the cut hurts deep. “Gezi showed us that social media provides an alternative platform for popular movements to speak for themselves and to break up the information barrier owned by the dominant classes. The psychological barrier also broke. People went from thinking ‘I am the only one who thinks this’ to ‘I am not alone’. It also helps organizing and mobilizing collective action: you get to learn where the police are, who needs help and where,” he said.

Intimidating the likes of Madigudisi and The Other’s Post is easy for Turkish officials to do thanks to the new internet censorship law providing them ample power in the name of protecting “the common good” and “privacy” while infringing on freedom of expression and online dissent against the government altogether.

The new internet bill, which is cited in the court ruling Madigudisi received, gives enormous power to Turkey’s telecommunications authority. Any URL can be blocked within four hours without a court decision, hence without your knowledge. Internet providers are now obliged to store all data on user activities for two years and to provide the data upon request. The intimidation policy also works outside the courthouse, when families become scared for their loved ones who voice dissent in social media. Madigudisi said he has closed his Facebook account because his family was concerned “something would happen to him or he would get jailed.”

But more importantly, this type of “cease and censor” regime helps the government keep a façade of freedom and avoids Turkey being boiled in the same pot as internet enemies like Iran and China while censoring political content all the same. Actually, it looks like the government prefers people to tweet their dissent so that they can spot the “suspects” more easily. Less international criticism, less local protest, easy targets, and all the censorship one’s heart desires. It looks like Turkey hit the jackpot of despotism.

“Facebook and Twitter are ending lives”

We might argue that this is not that big of a deal compared to last March, when Twitter and YouTube were blocked entirely. People are so tech-savvy they can bypass the censorship easily. Encryption software, VPNs, changing the DNS settings, changing your country settings in Twitter: all easy enough remedies that people are well versed in.

We might say that Twitter’s “country-withheld policy” has good intentions. At least one can see a censored tweet in another country, or by changing the country settings. Yet, the danger in that mentality is that Twitter is actually making it less evident that censorship has occurred, thus becoming an accomplice in censoring governments whether they want it or not.

Until Twitter and Facebook become censorship-free, users are forced to cope with the situation. Madigudisi uses VPN and changes passwords every week. Yumusak says they sneak around the censorship by writing the “forbidden” words in reverse or even just posting the news with the headline “Facebook censored this content.”

Yet the responsibility to protect the freedom of expression should not rest on the shoulders of ordinary people and should not be reduced to technical gimmicks. There is no guarantee that the Turkish government will not find a way to block these technologies or pass further bills restricting internet freedom.

Erdoğan made his first speech as president-elect to the provincial heads of his party. He said: “I don’t speak via social media. I don’t like to tweet, schmeet, because you know what they cause in society. Facebook and Twitter are ending lives.” Now even he is tweeting! Maybe it’s time Twitter and Facebook start being more courageous in terms of human rights and basic principles of free speech, instead of succumbing to the censorious antics of authoritarian governments. This is what we expect of them — if they want to keep their seats at the free speech party, that is. Otherwise they should stand up and leave.

Binnaz Saktanber is a Fulbright scholar and a PhD candidate at the City University of New York. Her research revolves around the interaction between social media, politics and social movements. Saktanber is also a blogger and writer who is published in numerous Turkish and international publications. She is based in İstanbul and New York.

 

http://roarmag.org/2015/02/turkey-social-media-twitter-facebook/

Robert Reich: America is headed full speed back to the 19th century

Former labor secretary Robert Reich on the dangers of on-demand jobs and our growing intolerance for labor unions

Robert Reich: America is headed full speed back to the 19th century
Robert Reich

My recent column about the growth of on-demand jobs like Uber making life less predictable and secure for workers unleashed a small barrage of criticism that workers get what they’re worth in the market.

Forbes Magazine contributor, for example, writes that jobs exist only  “when both employer and employee are happy with the deal being made.” So if the new jobs are low-paying and irregular, too bad.

Much the same argument was voiced in the late nineteenth century over alleged “freedom of contract.” Any deal between employees and workers was assumed to be fine if both sides voluntarily agreed to it.

It was an era when many workers were “happy” to toil twelve-hour days in sweat shops for lack of any better alternative.

It was also a time of great wealth for a few and squalor for many. And of corruption, as the lackeys of robber barons deposited sacks of cash on the desks of pliant legislators.

Finally, after decades of labor strife and political tumult, the twentieth century brought an understanding that capitalism requires minimum standards of decency and fairness – workplace safety, a minimum wage, maximum hours (and time-and-a-half for overtime), and a ban on child labor.

We also learned that capitalism needs a fair balance of power between big corporations and workers.

We achieved that through antitrust laws that reduced the capacity of giant corporations to impose their will, and labor laws that allowed workers to organize and bargain collectively.

By the 1950s, when 35 percent of private-sector workers belonged to a labor union, they were able to negotiate higher wages and better working conditions than employers would otherwise have been “happy” to provide.

But now we seem to be heading back to nineteenth century.



Corporations are shifting full-time work onto temps, free-lancers, and contract workers who fall outside the labor protections established decades ago.

The nation’s biggest corporations and Wall Street banks are larger and more potent than ever.

And labor union membership has shrunk to less than 6 percent of the private-sector workforce.

So it’s not surprising we’re once again hearing that workers are worth no more than what they can get in the market.

But as we should have learned a century ago, markets don’t exist in nature. They’re created by human beings. The real question is how they’re organized and for whose benefit.

In the late nineteenth century they were organized for the benefit of a few at the top.

But by the middle of the twentieth century they were organized for the vast majority.

During the thirty years after the end of World War II, as the economy doubled in size, so did the wages of most Americans — along with improved hours and working conditions.

Yet since around 1980, even though the economy has doubled once again (the Great Recession notwithstanding), the wages most Americans have stagnated. And their benefits and working conditions have deteriorated.

This isn’t because most Americans are worth less. In fact, worker productivity is higher than ever.

It’s because big corporations, Wall Street, and some enormously rich individuals have gained political power to organize the market in ways that have enhanced their wealth while leaving most Americans behind.

That includes trade agreements protecting the intellectual property of large corporations and Wall Street’s financial assets, but not American jobs and wages.

Bailouts of big Wall Street banks and their executives and shareholders when they can’t pay what they owe, but not of homeowners who can’t meet their mortgage payments.

Bankruptcy protection for big corporations, allowing them  to shed their debts, including labor contracts. But no bankruptcy protection for college graduates over-burdened with student debts.

Antitrust leniency toward a vast swathe of American industry – including Big Cable (Comcast, AT&T, Time-Warner), Big Tech (Amazon, Google), Big Pharma, the largest Wall Street banks, and giant retailers (Walmart).

But less tolerance toward labor unions — as workers trying to form unions are fired with impunity, and more states adopt so-called “right-to-work” laws that undermine unions.

We seem to be heading full speed back to the late nineteenth century.

So what will be the galvanizing force for change this time?

Robert Reich, one of the nation’s leading experts on work and the economy, is Chancellor’s Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley. He has served in three national administrations, most recently as secretary of labor under President Bill Clinton. Time Magazine has named him one of the ten most effective cabinet secretaries of the last century. He has written 13 books, including his latest best-seller, “Aftershock: The Next Economy and America’s Future;” “The Work of Nations,” which has been translated into 22 languages; and his newest, an e-book, “Beyond Outrage.” His syndicated columns, television appearances, and public radio commentaries reach millions of people each week. He is also a founding editor of the American Prospect magazine, and Chairman of the citizen’s group Common Cause. His new movie “Inequality for All” is in Theaters. His widely-read blog can be found at www.robertreich.org.

 

http://www.salon.com/2015/02/10/robert_reich_america_is_heading_full_speed_back_to_the_19th_century_partner/?source=newsletter

The Killing of America’s Creative Class

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A review of Scott Timberg’s fascinating new book, ‘Culture Crash.’

Some of my friends became artists, writers, and musicians to rebel against their practical parents. I went into a creative field with encouragement from my folks. It’s not too rare for Millennials to have their bohemian dreams blessed by their parents, because, as progeny of the Boomers, we were mentored by aging rebels who idolized rogue poets, iconoclast cartoonists, and scrappy musicians.

The problem, warns Scott Timberg in his new book Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class, is that if parents are basing their advice on how the economy used to support creativity – record deals for musicians, book contracts for writers, staff positions for journalists – then they might be surprised when their YouTube-famous daughter still needs help paying off her student loans. A mix of economic, cultural, and technological changes emanating from a neoliberal agenda, writes Timberg, “have undermined the way that culture has been produced for the past two centuries, crippling the economic prospects of not only artists but also the many people who supported and spread their work, and nothing yet has taken its place.”

 

Tech vs. the Creative Class

Timberg isn’t the first to notice. The supposed economic recovery that followed the recession of 2008 did nothing to repair the damage that had been done to the middle class. Only a wealthy few bounced back, and bounced higher than ever before, many of them the elites of Silicon Valley who found a way to harvest much of the wealth generated by new technologies. InCulture Crash, however, Timberg has framed the struggle of the working artist to make a living on his talents.

Besides the overall stagnation of the economy, Timberg shows how information technology has destabilized the creative class and deprofessionalized their labor, leading to an oligopoly of the mega corporations Apple, Google, and Facebook, where success is measured (and often paid) in webpage hits.

What Timberg glances over is that if this new system is an oligopoly of tech companies, then what it replaced – or is still in the process of replacing – was a feudal system of newspapers, publishing houses, record labels, operas, and art galleries. The book is full of enough discouraging data and painful portraits of artists, though, to make this point moot. Things are definitely getting worse.

Why should these worldly worries make the Muse stutter when she is expected to sing from outside of history and without health insurance? Timberg proposes that if we are to save the “creative class” – the often young, often from middle-class backgrounds sector of society that generates cultural content – we need to shake this old myth. The Muse can inspire but not sustain. Members of the creative class, argues Timberg, depend not just on that original inspiration, but on an infrastructure that moves creations into the larger culture and somehow provides material support for those who make, distribute, and assess them. Today, that indispensable infrastructure is at risk…

Artists may never entirely disappear, but they are certainly vulnerable to the economic and cultural zeitgeist. Remember the Dark Ages? Timberg does, and drapes this shroud over every chapter. It comes off as alarmist at times. Culture is obviously no longer smothered by an authoritarian Catholic church.

 

Art as the Province of the Young and Independently Wealthy

But Timberg suggests that contemporary artists have signed away their rights in a new contract with the market. Cultural producers, no matter how important their output is to the rest of us, are expected to exhaust themselves without compensation because their work is, by definition, worthless until it’s profitable. Art is an act of passion – why not produce it for free, never mind that Apple, Google, and Facebook have the right to generate revenue from your production? “According to this way of thinking,” wrote Miya Tokumitsu describing the do-what-you-love mantra that rode out of Silicon Valley on the back of TED Talks, “labor is not something one does for compensation, but an act of self-love. If profit doesn’t happen to follow, it is because the worker’s passion and determination were insufficient.”

The fact is, when creativity becomes financially unsustainable, less is created, and that which does emerge is the product of trust-fund kids in their spare time. “If working in culture becomes something only for the wealthy, or those supported by corporate patronage, we lose the independent perspective that artistry is necessarily built on,” writes Timberg.

It would seem to be a position with many proponents except that artists have few loyal advocates on either side of the political spectrum. “A working artist is seen neither as the salt of the earth by the left, nor as a ‘job creator’ by the right – but as a kind of self-indulgent parasite by both sides,” writes Timberg.

That’s with respect to unsuccessful artists – in other words, the creative class’s 99 percent. But, as Timberg disparages, “everyone loves a winner.” In their own way, both conservatives and liberals have stumbled into Voltaire’sCandide, accepting that all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds. If artists cannot make money, it’s because they are either untalented or esoteric elitists. It is the giants of pop music who are taking all the spoils, both financially and morally, in this new climate.

Timberg blames this winner-take-all attitude on the postmodernists who, beginning in the 1960s with film critic Pauline Kael, dismantled the idea that creative genius must be rescued from underneath the boots of mass appeal and replaced it with the concept of genius-as-mass-appeal. “Instead of coverage of, say, the lost recordings of pioneering bebop guitarist Charlie Christian,” writes Timberg, “we read pieces ‘in defense’ of blockbuster acts like the Eagles (the bestselling rock band in history), Billy Joel, Rush – groups whose songs…it was once impossible to get away from.”

Timberg doesn’t give enough weight to the fact that the same rebellion at the university liberated an enormous swath of art, literature, and music from the shadow of an exclusive (which is not to say unworthy) canon made up mostly of white men. In fact, many postmodernists have taken it upon themselves to look neither to the pop charts nor the Western canon for genius but, with the help of the Internet, to the broad creative class that Timberg wants to defend.

 

Creating in the Age of Poptimism

This doesn’t mean that today’s discovered geniuses can pay their bills, though, and Timberg is right to be shocked that, for the first time in history, pop culture is untouchable, off limits to critics or laypeople either on the grounds of taste or principle. If you can’t stand pop music because of the hackneyed rhythms and indiscernible voices, you’ve failed to appreciate the wonders of crowdsourced culture – the same mystery that propels the market.

Sadly, Timberg puts himself in checkmate early on by repeatedly pitting black mega-stars like Kanye West against white indie-rockers like the Decembrists, whose ascent to the pop-charts he characterizes as a rare triumph of mass taste.

But beyond his anti-hip-hop bias is an important argument: With ideological immunity, the pop charts are mimicking the stratification of our society. Under the guise of a popular carnival where a home-made YouTube video can bring a talented nobody the absurd fame of a celebrity, creative industries have nevertheless become more monotonous and inaccessible to new and disparate voices. In 1986, thirty-one chart-toppers came from twenty-nine different artists. Between 2008 and mid-2012, half of the number-one songs were property of only six stars. “Of course, it’s never been easy to land a hit record,” writes Timberg. “But recession-era rock has brought rewards to a smaller fraction of the artists than it did previously. Call it the music industry’s one percent.”

The same thing is happening with the written word. In the first decade of the new millennium, points out Timberg, citing Wired magazine, the market share of page views for the Internet’s top ten websites rose from 31 percent to 75 percent.

Timberg doesn’t mention that none of the six artists dominating the pop charts for those four years was a white man, but maybe that’s beside the point. In Borges’s “Babylon Lottery,” every citizen has the chance to be a sovereign. That doesn’t mean they were living in a democracy. Superstars are coming up from poverty, without the help of white male privilege, like never before, at the same time that poverty – for artists and for everyone else – is getting worse.

Essayists are often guilted into proposing solutions to the problems they perceive, but in many cases they should have left it alone. Timberg wisely avoids laying out a ten-point plan to clean up the mess, but even his initial thrust toward justice – identifying the roots of the crisis – is a pastiche of sometimes contradictory liberal biases that looks to the past for temporary fixes.

Timberg puts the kibosh on corporate patronage of the arts, but pines for the days of newspapers run by wealthy families. When information technology is his target because it forces artists to distribute their work for free, removes the record store and bookstore clerks from the scene, and feeds consumer dollars to only a few Silicon Valley tsars, Timberg’s answer is to retrace our steps twenty years to the days of big record companies and Borders book stores – since that model was slightly more compensatory to the creative class.

When his target is postmodern intellectuals who slander “middle-brow” culture as elitist, only to expend their breath in defense of super-rich pop stars, Timberg retreats fifty years to when intellectuals like Marshall McLuhan and Norman Mailer debated on network television and the word “philharmonic” excited the uncultured with awe rather than tickled them with anti-elitist mockery. Maybe television back then was more tolerable, but Timberg hardly even tries to sound uplifting. “At some point, someone will come up with a conception better than middlebrow,” he writes. “But until then, it beats the alternatives.”

 

The Fallacy of the Good Old Days

Timberg’s biggest mistake is that he tries to find a point in history when things were better for artists and then reroute us back there for fear of continued decline. What this translates to is a program of bipartisan moderation – a little bit more public funding here, a little more philanthropy there. Something everyone can agree on, but no one would ever get excited about.

Why not boldly state that a society is dysfunctional if there is enough food, shelter, and clothing to go around and yet an individual is forced to sacrifice these things in order to produce, out of humanistic virtue, the very thing which society has never demanded more of – culture? And if skeptics ask for a solution, why not suggest something big, a reorganization of society, from top to bottom, not just a vintage flotation device for the middle class? Rather than blame technological innovation for the poverty of artists, why not point the finger at those who own the technology and call for a system whereby efficiency doesn’t put people out of work, but allows them to work fewer hours for the same salary; whereby information is free not because an unpaid intern wrote content in a race for employment, but because we collectively pick up the tab?

This might not satisfy the TED Talk connoisseur’s taste for a clever and apolitical fix, but it definitely trumps championing a middle-ground littered with the casualties of cronyism, colonialism, racism, patriarchy, and all their siblings. And change must come soon because, if Timberg is right, “the price we ultimately pay” for allowing our creative class to remain on its crash course “is in the decline of art itself, diminishing understanding of ourselves, one another, and the eternal human spirit.”

 

http://www.alternet.org/news-amp-politics/killing-americas-creative-class?akid=12719.265072.45wrwl&rd=1&src=newsletter1030855&t=9

Jim Rockford Warned Us About Google And Facebook Back In 1978

Why didn’t we listen? The fourth season of The Rockford Files, arguably the greatest television show of all time, features a “futuristic” storyline about a terrible threat. What if a private corporation used computers to gather personal information on hundreds of millions of Americans? Could we trust them with that data?

I know, it’s hard to imagine such a thing ever happening — a private company, collecting private and personal data on ordinary Americans and other people around the world. It sounds far-fetched, right? But Jim Rockford, the toughest and most incorruptible P.I. ever to live in a trailer with his dad, teams up with a younger detective to investigate the suspicious death of an old friend, a private detective named Tooley, in the episode “The House on Willis Avenue.” (This episode is written by the show’s co-creator, Stephen J. Cannell, who also gave us The Greatest American Hero.)

And what Rockford finds in his investigation is baffling — a mysterious set of real estate developments, with lots of suspiciously huge air-conditioning units attached. What’s going on? Turns out that a corporate scumbag, amusingly played by Jackie Cooper, is creating a secret computer system to spy on ordinary Americans and sell the info — or ruin your reputation — for profit. It should be illegal for corporations to spy on ordinary Americans, Rockford protests. You can see the highlights above.

It all leads up to this solemn cue card at the very end of the episode:

Jim Rockford Warned Us About Google And Facebook Back In 1978

The Rockford Files really wants you to know that corporations should not use computers to collect your personal information. Those final words, “Our liberty may well be the price we pay,” seem especially prophetic nowadays.

The other amazing part of the episode is all the parts where Rockford and his temporary sidekick pretend to be computer experts, and spout ridiculously made-up computer jargon, to try and fool people in the facilities they’re sneaking into. Here are the two best examples of that:

http://www.viddler.com/embed/21c50871/?f=1&autoplay=false&player=mini&disablebranding=0;offset=0&autoplay=0

http://io9.com/jim-rockford-warned-us-about-google-and-facebook-back-i-1681231028

Lies, Damn Lies, and Tech Diversity Statistics

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Some of the world’s leading Data Scientists are on the payrolls of Microsoft, Google, Facebook, Yahoo, and Apple. So, it’d be interesting to get their take on the infographics the tech giants have passed off as diversity data disclosures. Microsoft, for example, reported its workforce is 29% female, which isn’t great, but if one takes the trouble to run the numbers on a linked EEO-1 filing snippet (PDF), some things look even worse. For example, only 23.35% of its reported white U.S. employee workforce is female (Microsoft, like Google, footnotes that “Gender data are global, ethnicity data are US only”). And while Google and Facebook blame their companies’ lack of diversity on the demographics of U.S. computer science grads, CS grad and nationality breakouts were not provided as part of their diversity disclosures. Also, the EEOC notes that EEO-1 numbers reflect “any individual on the payroll of an employer who is an employee for purposes of the employers withholding of Social Security taxes,” further muddying the disclosures of companies relying on imported talent, like H-1B visa dependent Facebook. So, were the diversity disclosure mea culpas less about providing meaningful data for analysis, and more about deflecting criticism and convincing lawmakers there’s a need for education and immigration legislation (aka Microsoft’s National Talent Strategy) that’s in tech’s interest?

 

Slashdot

Top Secret report details FBI mass surveillance

prism-sticker

By Thomas Gaist
14 January 2015

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has been overseeing and co-directing mass surveillance programs run by the National Security Agency (NSA) since at least 2008, a newly declassified document from the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) of the Department of Justice (DOJ) shows.

The classified Top Secret report, “A Review of the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Activities Under Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act Amendments Act of 2008,” acquired by the New York Timesthis week through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit submitted in 2012, found that the FBI has amassed large quantities of electronic communications data through its involvement in NSA surveillance operations run under Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act (FAA) of 2008.

The report is based on OIG interviews with some 45 FBI members and officials, as well as officials from the National Security Agency (NSA) and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) and lawyers from the DOJ’s National Security Division. OIG also examined “thousands of documents related to the FBI’s 702 activities.”

Beginning in 2008, the bureau received daily emailed reports listing new targets being added to the NSA’s mass spying programs. By 2009, the FBI was receiving a continuous feed of unprocessed data from the NSA “to analyze for its own purposes,” partly through accessing the NSA’s PRISM program, the report states. The FBI did not report its involvement in 702 data collection to Congress until 2012, the report found.

The NSA sends surveillance target lists to the FBI’s spy units using “a system called PRISM,” the document states. After the word PRISM, the rest of the paragraph, a total of 8 lines of text, is completely blacked out.

No further references to PRISM are visible. By opening up PRISM to the FBI, the NSA has placed virtually all electronic communications sent by ordinary Internet users around the world at the fingertips of the FBI. Yet, aside from this one instance, “the Justice Department had redacted all the other references to PRISM in the report,” the Times confirmed.

PRISM collects bulk data directly from leading technology and communications corporations, including Yahoo!, Google, Facebook, YouTube, Skype, AOL and Apple, constantly vacuuming communications of data from hundreds of millions of users around the world, if not more, according to documents leaked by Edward Snowden in 2013.

NSA slides describe PRISM as the agency’s “number one source of raw intelligence,” and note that PRISM captures some 90 percent of electronic data acquired by the NSA spy programs. During a single two-month period in 2012, NSA PRISM operations collected some 70 million communications from the French population.

This immensely powerful surveillance machinery, supposedly needed to target foreign terrorist conspirators and enemy states, has increasingly been placed at the full disposal of the top domestic police agency. Through PRISM, federal police agents can view communications data in real time and search through stored data, such as email archives, at will.

The OIG report states reassuringly that the FBI is “doing a good job in making sure that the email accounts targeted for warrantless collection belonged to non-citizens abroad.”

The endless redactions throughout the OIG document underscore the contempt of the US elite for even minimal forms of democratic accountability.

Redactions are present on nearly every page, and countless paragraphs are entirely blacked out. An entire page of the Table of Contents is redacted.

Section headers and central facts are redacted to an extent that is almost humorous, such as:

** “REDACTED provides operational support to the FBI’s investigative units at the Headquarters and in the field.”

** “The FBI [REDACTED] from participating providers and transmits them in the form of raw unminimized data to the NSA and, at the NSA’s direction, to the FBI and the CIA.”

** “The FBI retains 702 data in its [REDACTED] for analysis and dissemination.”

** “The second basic activity that the FBI conducts in the 702 Program is to [REDACTED]”

** “Findings and Recommendations Relating to the FBI’s [REDACTED]”

** “Findings Relating to Access to and Purging of 702-Data Retained in [REDACTED]”

A full page is dedicated to “The [REDACTED] Factor,” referenced by NSA analysts to justify some 10 percent of additions to the agency’s surveillance lists. Every word that might even suggest the nature of the “factor” has been blacked out.

Descriptions of CIA involvement in the warrantless mass surveillance are all redacted. A typical example reads, “The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) participates in Section 702 [REDACTED].”

Nonetheless, significant conclusions can still be drawn from partially redacted portions of the document.

The FBI also gathers surveillance data from its own sources, unnamed “participating parties,” and disseminates this information to other government agencies, the document shows.

“The FBI acquires [several words REDACTED] from the participating parties and routes the raw unminimized data to the NSA and, at the NSA’s direction, to the CIA and to the FBI’s [second half of sentence REDACTED]. The FBI retains a portion of the raw data for analysis and dissemination as finished intelligence products,” the report reads.

Secret FBI spy units, referred to collectively by the OIG as the “702 Team,” manage the bureau’s data acquisition and dissemination efforts. The actual names of the units are redacted from the report.

The FBI’s 702 Team is made up of “personnel in the Counterterrorism Division’s [second half of sentence REDACTED]. These personnel are drawn primarily from the [two full lines REDACTED] two of five units within [word REDACTED],” the OIG report reads.

For years, the OIG report shows, FBI officials have been reviewing and signing off on long lists of potential new NSA surveillance targets. The entire review process is conducted “in consultation with” the NSA, and the FBI “shows considerable deference to the NSA’s targeting judgments,” the OIG reported.

The OIG report testifies to the speed with which the US ruling class has overturned core principles of the US Bill of Rights during the past decade and a half.

When the Bush administration began collecting bulk US telephone and Internet data under the President’s Surveillance Program (PSP), in October 2001, the program’s existence was not even publicly acknowledged, so flagrant were its violations of the Fourth Amendment. Within less than a decade, warrantless searches and seizures of user data gained full Congressional approval.

The PSP coordinated secret mass surveillance of US telephone and computer-based communications, establishing secret rooms in major corporate facilities where government agents tapped directly into the companies’ hardware.

After the New York Times first reported on the PSP in 2005, the administration made initial moves to legalize the operation, “persuading” a FISA court judge to order the telecoms to issue a ruling that, the Bush administration claimed, would legalize the operations.

Mild objections by a single FISA judge to expanded spy powers led the intelligence establishment to demand that Congress immediately pass legislation to place the warrantless spying on a firmer legal foundation, according to the OIG report.

“Judge Vinson’s resistance led Congress to enact, in August 2007, the Protect America Act, a temporary law permitting warrantless surveillance of foreigners from domestic network locations,” the OIG report states.

The NSA and FBI were able “to accelerate the government’s efforts” to pass the PAA legislation by insisting that existing laws prevented the agency from spying on enough targets, the document states. The 2007 Protect America Act (PAA) served to temporarily legalize warrantless surveillance until permanent amendments could be added to the decades-old FISA legislation in the form of the 2008 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Amendments Act (FAA). The FAA gave Congressional approval to the NSA’s warrantless bulk spying and data capture operations by employing “a novel and expansive interpretation of the FISA statute,” the OIG notes.

 

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2015/01/14/fbis-j14.html

How Facebook Killed the Internet

Death by Ten Billion Status Updates

White thumb up next to the like from social networks on blue bac

by DAVID ROVICS

Facebook killed the internet, and I’m pretty sure that the vast majority of people didn’t even notice.

I can see the look on many of your faces, and hear the thoughts. Someone’s complaining about Facebook again.  Yes, I know it’s a massive corporation, but it’s the platform we’re all using.  It’s like complaining about Starbucks.  After all the independent cafes have been driven out of town and you’re an espresso addict, what to do?  What do you mean “killed”?  What was killed?

I’ll try to explain.  I’ll start by saying that I don’t know what the solution is.  But I think any solution has to start with solidly identifying the nature of the problem.

First of all, Facebook killed the internet, but if it wasn’t Facebook, it would have been something else.  The evolution of social media was probably as inevitable as the development of cell phones that could surf the internet.  It was the natural direction for the internet to go in.

Which is why it’s so especially disturbing.  Because the solution is not Znet or Ello.  The solution is not better social media, better algorithms, or social media run by a nonprofit rather than a multibillion-dollar corporation.  Just as the solution to the social alienation caused by everybody having their own private car is not more electric vehicles.  Just as the solution to the social alienation caused by everyone having their own cell phone to stare at is not a collectively-owned phone company.

Many people from the grassroots to the elites are thrilled about the social media phenomenon.  Surely some of the few people who will read this are among them.  We throw around phrases like “Facebook revolution” and we hail these new internet platforms that are bringing people together all over the world.  And I’m not suggesting they don’t have their various bright sides.  Nor am I suggesting you should stop using social media platforms, including Facebook.  That would be like telling someone in Texas they should bike to work, when the whole infrastructure of every city in the state is built for sports utility vehicles.

But we should understand the nature of what is happening to us.

From the time that newspapers became commonplace up until the early 1990’s, for the overwhelming majority of the planet’s population, the closest we came to writing in a public forum were the very few of us who ever bothered to write a letter to the editor.  A tiny, tiny fraction of the population were authors or journalists who had a public forum that way on an occasional or a regular basis, depending.  Some people wrote up the pre-internet equivalent of an annual Christmas-time blog post which they photocopied and sent around to a few dozen friends and relatives.

In the 1960s there was a massive flowering of independent, “underground” press in towns and cities across the US and other countries.  There was a vastly increased diversity of views and information that could be easily accessed by anyone who lived near a university and could walk to a news stand and had an extra few cents to spend.

In the 1990s, with the development of the internet – websites, email lists – there was an explosion of communication that made the underground press of the 60’s pale in comparison.  Most people in places like the US virtually stopped using phones (to actually talk on), from my experience.  Many people who never wrote letters or much of anything else started using computers and writing emails to each other, and even to multiple people at once.

Those very few of us who were in the habit in the pre-internet era of sending around regular newsletters featuring our writing, our thoughts, our list of upcoming gigs, products or services we were trying to sell, etc., were thrilled with the advent of email, and the ability to send our newsletters out so easily, without spending a fortune on postage stamps, without spending so much time stuffing envelopes.  For a brief period of time, we had access to the same audience, the same readers we had before, but now we could communicate with them virtually for free.

This, for many of us, was the internet’s golden age – 1995-2005 or so.  There was the increasing problem of spam of various sorts.  Like junk mail, only more of it.  Spam filters started getting better, and largely eliminated that problem for most of us.

The listservs that most of us bothered to read were moderated announcements lists.  The websites we used the most were interactive, but moderated, such as Indymedia.  In cities throughout the world, big and small, there were local Indymedia collectives.  Anyone could post stuff, but there were actual people deciding whether it should get published, and if so, where.  As with any collective decision-making process, this was challenging, but many of us felt it was a challenge that was worth the effort.  As a result of these moderated listservs and moderated Indymedia sites, we all had an unprecedented ability to find out about and discuss ideas and events that were taking place in our cities, our countries, our world.

Then came blogging, and social media.  Every individual with a blog, Facebook page, Twitter account, etc., became their own individual broadcaster.  It’s intoxicating, isn’t it?  Knowing that you have a global audience of dozens or hundreds, maybe thousands of people (if you’re famous to begin with, or something goes viral) every time you post something.  Being able to have conversations in the comments sections with people from around the world who will never physically meet each other.  Amazing, really.

But then most people stopped listening.  Most people stopped visiting Indymedia.  Indymedia died, globally, for the most part.  Newspapers – right, left and center – closed, and are closing, whether offline or online ones.  Listservs stopped existing.  Algorithms replaced moderators.  People generally began to think of librarians as an antiquated phenomenon.

Now, in Portland, Oregon, one of the most politically plugged-in cities in the US, there is no listserv or website you can go to that will tell you what is happening in the city in any kind of readable, understandable format.  There are different groups with different websites, Facebook pages, listservs, etc., but nothing for the progressive community as a whole.  Nothing functional, anyway.  Nothing that approaches the functionality of the announcements lists that existed in cities and states throughout the country 15 years ago.

Because of the technical limitations of the internet for a brief period of time, there was for a few years a happy medium found between a small elite providing most of the written content that most people in the world read, and the situation we now find ourselves in, drowning in Too Much Information, most of it meaningless drivel, white noise, fog that prevents you from seeing anywhere further than the low beams can illuminate at a given time.

It was a golden age, but for the most part an accidental one, and a very brief one.  As it became easy for people to start up a website, a blog, a Myspace or Facebook page, to post updates, etc., the new age of noise began, inevitably, the natural evolution of the technology.

And most people didn’t notice that it happened.

Why do I say that?  First of all, I didn’t just come up with this shit.  I’ve been talking to a lot of people for many years, and a lot of people think social media is the best thing since sliced bread.  And why shouldn’t they?

The bottom line is, there’s no reason most people would have had occasion to notice that the internet died, because they weren’t content providers (as we call authors, artists, musicians, journalists, organizers, public speakers, teachers, etc. these days) in the pre-internet age or during the first decade or so of the internet as a popular phenomenon.  And if you weren’t a content provider back then, why would you know that anything changed?

I and others like me know – because the people who used to read and respond to stuff I sent out on my email list aren’t there anymore.  They don’t open the emails anymore, and if they do, they don’t read them.  And it doesn’t matter what medium I use – blog, Facebook, Twitter, etc.  Of course some people do, but most people are now doing other things.

What are they doing?  I spent most of last week in Tokyo, going all over town, spending hours each day on the trains.  Most people sitting in the trains back during my first visit to Japan in 2007 were sleeping, as they are now.  But those who weren’t sleeping, seven years ago, were almost all reading books.  Now, there’s hardly a book to be seen.  Most people are looking at their phones.  And they’re not reading books on their phones.  (Yes, I peeked.  A lot.)  They’re playing games or, more often, looking at their Facebook “news feeds.”  And it’s the same in the US and everywhere else that I have occasion to travel to.

Is it worth it to replace moderators with algorithms?  Editors with white noise?  Investigative journalists with pictures of your cat?  Independent record labels and community radio stations with a multitude of badly-recorded podcasts?  Independent Media Center collectives with a million Facebook updates and Twitter feeds?

I think not.  But that’s where we’re at.  How do we get out of this situation, and clear the fog, and use our brains again?  I wish I knew.

David Rovics is a singer/songwriter based in Portland, Oregon.

 

http://www.counterpunch.org/2014/12/24/how-facebook-killed-the-internet/

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