Blog: Fusing California
Posted by Tracy Rosenberg on July 9th, 2014
When it comes to our personal information, many of us depend on things falling through the cracks. Most of our friends, colleagues, acquaintances and family members know some things about us – and other things they don't. Maybe one or two loved ones have something pretty close to the whole picture. But definitely not a random army of people we've never met.
America's network of fusion centers is setting out to change that. Based on the idea that 21st century information sharing between a host of agencies - (Department of Homeland Security, Federal Bureau of Investigation, tCIA, local police, fire, hospital and emergency services, Department of Defense, Department of Justice, National Security Administration, Drug Enforcement Administration and many more) - will provide a modern defense shield against random acts of terror, the 77-strong national fusion center network ensures that a lot of data follows us around wherever we go and whatever we do.
Who's Fusing Who
“Fusion centers” exist to merge categories of personal information together: crimes like drug possession and prostitution with medical records, meta data telephone surveillance with acts of nonviolent dissent, foreigners threatening violent retaliation against US citizens abroad with domestic voices of protest. In other words, making as fluid as possible the definition of each agency's targeted area of jurisdiction. There's probably not an American alive over thirty who hasn't had contact with one of the agencies listed above. Welcome to the terrorism database.
This isn't rhetoric. Davis Rittgers at the Cato Institute identified several cases of what most of us might see as over reach. A North Texas fusion center had a threat category called “muslim lobbyists”, a combination of the legally protected activity of talking to elected officials and that of practicing a religion in a country where freedom of religion is enshrined in the constitution. A fusion center in Missouri defined “third party voters” as a terrorism threat, which is taking democratic rage at Nader voters a little too far. Maryland State Police placed anti-death penalty activists into a federal terrorism database, and on the other side of the partisan divide, PA Homeland Security officers placed members of a local tea party group and right-to-bear-arms advocates onto a target list.
I'm making it sound like innocent people may have been targeted because of their political beliefs. Sure, it's possible that in addition to their political beliefs, these peoples drug consumption habits, medical records and traffic tickets exposed a pattern that caused legitimate concern. Perhaps the fusion center was able to put together the missing pieces that allowed a future criminal to pass as a tea-partier, death penalty activist or capital hill lobbyist of the muslim persuasion.
But what passes for federal oversight of the national network of fusion centers doesn't support this optimistic theory. A bipartisan report to the Senate in 2009-2010 reported fusion centers processed 22,000 suspicious activity reports. They launched 1,0000 investigations. 200 pieces of data provided actionable intelligence. That's 9/10 of a percent.
By 2012, with more fusion centers up and running, and a more extensive report back to the Senate, similar non-terroristic incidents were reported, without compensatory benefits. Among the highlights identified by the ACLU: one drug-smuggling activity report featuring two fisherman in a bass boat who avoided eye contact and whose boat was low in the water. The Senate report stated that “the fact that some guys were hanging out in a boat where people do not normally fish might be an indicator of something abnormal but does not reach the threshold of something we should be reporting and should never have been nominated for production nor passed through three reviews”.
Another suspicious activity report featured a foreigner with an expired visa caught shoplifting. The assessment: “I am stunned this report got as far as it did because the entire knowledge about the subject was that he tried to steal a pair of shoes from Nieman Marcus. I have no idea what value this would be adding to the intelligence community”.
California's Mongol's Motorcycle Club earned a suspicious activity from a California fusion center for a leaflet issued to members describing how to behave when stopped by police. The leaflet recommended motorcyclists be courteous, control their emotions and have a designated driver when necessary. A fusion center supervisor commented on the report as follows: “there is nothing illegal or even remotely objectionable described in this report and the advice given to members is protected by the 4th amendment”.
These incidents aren't just humerous. They are illustrations of the problems the Department of Homeland Security self-identified in the status report to the Senate:
* ambiguous lines of authority
* excessive data mining
* inaccurate or incomplete information
* unclear relationships with the military and the private sector
* mission creep
99 and 1/10 percent of the suspicious activity reports in 2009-2010 were in fact targeting subjects on the basis of commonplace activities and provided no actionable intelligence regarding a threat of criminal activity. 21,800 dossiers of suspicion filled with muslim lobbyists, death penalty activists, motorcyclists, tea-partiers and fishermen.
In all, at least a third of all the material generated by the National Network of Fusion Centers were discarded by national intelligence on the grounds of lacking useful information.
How much we're paying to collect these tens of thousands of fused-together dossiers of suspicion isn't entirely clear. Estimates run from $289 million to $1.4 billion dollars a year and tend to be interwoven through larger agency budgets without the clearest of demarcations.
This is also true regarding line item budget lines for those fusion centers whose expenses can be tracked. The San Diego fusion center's budget line described as open source intelligence turned out to be on further investigation to be the purchase of 55 flat screen televisions.
As of the last data collection in 2012, all 77 fusion centers in the national network had no problem accessing “secret” or classified information. But 30% of the centers did not yet have an approved strategic plan, less than a half have a process in place to verify that national intelligence is receiving their reports and fusion center directors are turning over at the rate of 30% every year.
Where Are They?
The physical location of fusion centers is very hard to find, but this list seems to be about right. So here, California, is the fusion center nearest to you.
* Orange County Intelligence Assessment Center 2644 Santiago Canyon Road Silverado CA 92676
* Los Angeles Joint Regional Intelligence Center LAJRIC 12440 East Imperial Highway Norwalk CA 90650
* Central California Intelligence Center Sacramento Regional Terrorism Threat Assessment Center 3720 Dudley Boulevard McClellan CA 95652
* State Terror Threat Assessment Center 3741 Bleckly Street Mather CA 95655
* San Diego Law Enforcement Coordination Center SD-LECC 4181 Ruffin Road San Diego 92123
* Northern California Regional Intelligence Center NCRIC 450 Golden Gate Avenue 14th Floor SF 94102
Here in the Bay Area:
The NCRIC (Northern California Regional Intelligence Center) is ensconced on the 14th floor of the federal building at 450 Golden Gate Avenue. The center defines its mission as the receipt, analysis gathering and sharing of threat-related information between the federal government, state, local tribal, territorial and private sector partners.
NCRIC has a detailed website, filled with information, much of it directed towards the private sector, with which NCRIC is eager to partner. Among other things, the website features an extensive calender of courses, making the fusion center a veritable new school of surveillance-related workshops. Courses you can take in the period June to August of 2014 include:
* Emergency Response to Domestic Biological Incidents
* Information Cultivation and Management in Dublin via the CA Assn of Narcotics Officers
* Electronic Surveillance (wiretap)
* DEC Investigations- via the in Eureka via the Drug Endangered Children Training Center
* TLO Advanced – Sovereign Citizen Extremism, an Emerging Threat
* Medical Maijuana from the Streets to the Dispensaries
* Search Warrants A-Z
* Homemade Explosives and IED's
The private sector program, which NCRIC notes is one of the most progressive in the nation, is open to owners or employee with management, supervisoru or analytical responsibilities related to personal or physical safety, technology security, emergency management, business continuity or resiliency in any of these industries:
* Commercial Facilities
* Critical Manufacturing
* Defense Industrial Base
* Emergency Services
* Financial Services
* Food and Agriculture
* Government Facilities
* Healthcare and Public Healthcare
* Information Technology
* Nuclear Reactors, Materials and Waste
* Transportation Systems
* Waste and Wastewater Systems
The benefits include:
* Direct communication with a law enforcement intelligence center and the National Fusion Center enterprise
* Situational awareness updates
* Participation in classified DHS briefings
* Participation in national suspicious activity reporting initiatives
* Access to suspicious activity reported in the NCRIC area of activity
* Membership In the National Homeland Security Information Netowrk (HSIN)
*And the proverbial …... networking
Fusion centers defeat the very idea of government oversight. By bringing so many agency's materials together in one soupy stew, the centers ensure that no single set of existing regulatory code applies to them, essentially throwing overboard years of brakes on law enforcement to prevent abuses. After all, what rule exactly applies to both the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the San Jose Fire Department? The fusion centers, working with data from both, can pick the set of rules via policy-shopping that best lets them do what they want to do.
It's always been an important part of the American mythic world that this is a country where one can “start fresh:, shake aside the shackles of the past, be they the ghosts of a previous country, a miserable childhood, or a terrible past mistake,and reinvent ourselves as the person we always wanted to be. The metaphor never included a permanent ankle bracelet detailing every foible to a bureaucrat in a badly lit room thousands of miles away. Yet that seems to be what we're building in the creation of this national network that fuses past and present, domestic and foreign, and public and private.
Blog: Media Coverage of the Iraqi Crisis
Posted by Riyadh Mohammed on July 5th, 2014
Riyadh Mohammed is a free-lance reporter who has covered Iraq for several news outlets.
The western media rediscovered Iraq last month, after years of negligence. On June 10, the Islamic State in Iraq and Sham - the Levant - (ISIS) captured the northern city of Mosul. A day later, the extremist group captured another provincial capital, Tikrit, 86 miles to the north Baghdad and Saddam Hussein's hometown.
America's national TV networks and newspapers redeployed their Iraq war veteran correspondents — busy covering Syria, Afghanistan, and the Arab Spring — back to Iraq.
But thrown anew into a complex, multidimensional conflict, reporters have gotten some of the ISIS resurgence wrong.
After the fall of Tikrit, Iraqis in Baghdad were concerned that ISIS was going to capture the capital city soon. Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the most senior Shiite cleric in Iraq, asked Iraqis to join the security forces to defeat the attackers and protect the holy sites. Tens of thousands of volunteers lined up to join the fight.
But a few days, later ISIS seemed to gain momentum again. At least, that’s the story the West is telling. One of ISIS's main victories was supposedly the city of Tal Afar, an ancient city of roughly 200,000 people midway between Mosul and Syria. Most residents there are Turkmen. And just like the rest of Iraq, they are divided into Shiites and Sunnis, with a history of Sunni insurgency.
In March 2007, a local market in a Shiite neighborhood was targeted with truck bombs, resulting in more than 150 civilians killed. The incidents led to reprisal shooting by Shiite policemen, killing more than 50 men. Sunni insurgents then started leaving Tal Afar to resettle in Mosul. Their families found jobs in the city administration in Mosul and helped the insurgents capture Mosul on June 10.
The insurgents of Tal Afar never had a better chance to take revenge on the city that chased them out. On June 16, they attacked the city. Most of the western mainstream media outlets reported that the city had fallen to ISIS. Here are some examples of the headlines:
NBC: "Militants Seize Iraq's Strategic Town of Tal Afar"
Los Angeles Times: "ISIS militants in Iraq gain more ground with capture of Tal Afar"
The Guardian: "Iraqi city of Tal Afar falls to ISIS insurgents"
Euronews: "Iraq: ISIL capture key northeastern city of Tal Afar"
Fox News: "Mayor: Sunni militants capture northern Iraq town of Tal Afar"
Wall Street Journal: "ISIS Militants Capture Northern Iraq Town of Tal Afar"
The Telegraph: "Iraq crisis: Saddam's men return to city once held by US"
The Independent: "Iraq conflict: US to hold talks with Iran over intervention options as Tal Afar city falls to Isis fighters in the north"
BBC News: Iraq conflict: Militants 'seize' city of Tal Afar
The striking truth is that the battle to control the city of Tal Afar didn't end that day. The insurgents attacked the city and managed to wrest control of many of its 18 neighborhoods. A week later after the above mentioned stories, the following headlines appeared on the western media:
The Telegraph: “Iraqi crisis: Last government troops flee strategic town of Tal Afar”
Fox News Latino: “Sunni militants take 3 more towns in Iraq”
The Nation: “Iraqi militants seize strategic town, airport”
The confusion is partly the fault of ISIS, which tweeted that the group captured the city’s commander of government forces and planned to execute him publicly in Mosul. The rumor was untrue, and Iraqi forces fought ISIS for at least another week from a nearby airfield.
Much of the inaccurate reporting can be traced to the fact that most of the bylines that appeared on these stories were not in Tal Afar—or even nearby. Most of the Western media have offices in Baghdad. A lot of the actual field reporting is being done by Iraqi journalists whose names are rarely mentioned. Some of these outlets have Iraqi stringers in Mosul, but almost nobody has a stringer in Tal Afar. Mosul is dangerous to report from.
When a city like Tal Afar is attacked by insurgents, the media outlets’ Baghdad offices call their Mosul stringers to follow up with the story. That stringer likely proceeded to call the Mayor, the police commander, and some residents. In other words, they wouldn’t do the deepest reporting job, the kind of work that would cut through partisan rhetoric.
However, not all the media agencies misreported the story. McClatchy’s Washington Bureau ran with "ISIS claims control of government's last outpost in Northern Iraq." And the "Financial Times printed: "Iraqi troops and Sunni rebels battle for control of key cities."
They got it right because they decided that it is safer and more ethical to be honest with your audience. When the reporter is not in the field and can’t go there because he/she fears for his/her life, and when both conflicting sides are lying, and all what you have is phone reporting, it is better to state that there are conflicting claims about how the battle result rather than declare one side’s victory.
Another example of misreporting was the battle to control Baiji oil refinery, 130 miles to the north of Baghdad. The city itself and its surrounding cities were overrun by ISIS on June 11,2014. But since that refinery is Iraq’s largest one, the Government allocated hundreds of soldiers to protect it.
After the fall of the city of Tikrit and for a week, the western media told us more than once that Iraq’s largest oil refinery has fallen into the hand of ISIS. Here are the headlines:
AlJAZEERA: “ISIL rebels control Baiji refinery in Iraq” June 24
Channel 4 News: “Isis rebels capture Iraq Baiji oil refinery” June 24
BBC News: “Iraq crisis: Key oil refinery ‘seized by rebels’ June 23
Daily Mail: “ISIS ‘seizes Iraq’s largest oil refinery and kidnap 100 foreigners but country’s PM insists ‘we have regained the initiative and are striking back’ June 18
The Independent: “Iraq crisis: Kerry in Erbil to meet to meet with Kurdish leader as Baiji oil refinery ‘fall’ to militants” June 24
The Daily Star: “Key oil refinery ‘seized by rebels’ in Iraq” June 23
Sky News Arabic: “Baiji…”burned card” in the hand of insurgents” June 24
Euronews Arabic: “Iraq: Insurgents control Baiji refinery, ISIS continues moving forward” June 18
Some of those who said the refinery was captured ran a day or days later with headlines suggesting that Iraqi Government forces have control of the refinery back or that the battle is still going on:
AlJAZEERA: “Iraq’s army ‘recaptures’ Baiji oil refinery” June 25
BBC News: “Iraq’s Maliki defiant as Baiji refinery battle continues
Again, that was not the case. The reporters were not anywhere near the scene. They depended on claims by ISIS and phone reporting via Iraqi stringers. The refinery didn’t fall to the rebels and was retaken by the Government forces afterwards. The rebels never managed to control it in the first place. They attacked it several times and they were repelled by the Government forces with the help of airfares from helicopters. Here are some of the fair reporting headlines:
CBS: “Did ISIS captured Iraq’s biggest refinery?” June 24
France 24: “Video: Fighting at Iraq’s Baiji refinery fuels acute shortages” June 23
While it may not matter to everyone whether a small Iraqi city or an oil refinery has been captured, it is important to know who is actually in control of this and other cities, and to ensure that misinformation is not presented as fact. As a group, ISIS is media-savvy. Deciphering fact from fiction or, at a minimum, avoiding playing into the calculated rumor mill, is critical for the press and the 33 million Iraqis anxious to know who is winning. The speed with which these incidents were picked up in major media outlets is worrying, when some of them got it right.
Riyadh Mohammed is an Iraqi multimedia journalist who worked for the NYT and LAT and Way Press International. He covered corruption extensively in Iraq. He resides now in New York City
The Internet's Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz
Posted by on June 30th, 2014
Brian Knappenberger, Director/Producer
Aaron Swartz's story is about the collison of the Internet with the gatekeepers.
Please buy/pay for the documentary film if you can. Documentaries don't get made without a paying audience.
But if you can't, the Internet Archive has made it available.
Without Net Neutrality, How Are Oakland's Communities Affected?
Posted by Jean Lee on June 27th, 2014
An article on hyperlocal news site Oakland Local:
Viewing an episode of your favorite show may become a matter of speed, fast or slow. Trying to watch that season finale of Game of Thrones or that premiere of Orange is the New Black could become an experience based on how much you’re willing to pay.
The way we watch our shows online, or anything online, for that matter, could face some significant changes under the Federal Communications Commission’s new proposal. In May, the FCC voted 3-2 to proceed with Chairman Tom Wheeler’s proposed “Open Internet,” which would essentially allow for Internet Service Providers to prioritize certain sites like Netflix and YouTube, and charge users premium fees for accessing them at a faster pace.
The move could mean powerful telecom companies such as AT&T, Verizon and Comcast creating a two-tiered Internet, with potential fast and slow lanes to separate users. Although Wheeler has stated on the FCC website that the concept of fast lanes to describe his proposal “misses the point,” some critics say a slower speed for some users would be inevitable if a premium option were to take effect.
Some believe the proposal violates the principle of “net neutrality,” a term that essentially describes an open Internet where information is free from interference, censorship, and discrimination.
Stephanie Chen, energy and telecommunications policy director at Greenlining Institute in Berkeley, said the new rules raise a “pernicious concern,” noting that small companies could have difficulty competing with larger corporations in the game. It’s unlikely that big ISPs would prioritize small companies, thus giving users less incentive to visit smaller sites with slower speeds.
“What you have is a lot of companies, startups, saying ‘Hey, Netflix would’ve never become Netflix if it wasn’t for an open Internet,’” Chen said.
The FCC’s proposed changes have raised implications of a digital divide for some net neutrality advocates. According to Tracy Rosenberg, Executive Director of Media Alliance in Oakland, the new rules could disproportionately impact lower-income and less-English-speaking communities that might not be able to pay for faster, premium service.
“Paid-for content is content that someone is paying to speed up so that we essentially have a commercialization of the Internet,” Rosenberg said. “If you prioritize content by money you’re shutting off, to the side, the non-commercial.”
Non-commercial information found online plays an important role for the professional and personal lives of some groups. For the Center of Media Justice based in Oakland, a big audience of theirs are media makers and cultural organizers that depend on the Web to share their work. According to CMJ national organizer Steven Renderos, many independent artists use the Internet as a distribution network that allows them to share their art online, without it costing anything.
He believes the new proposal is “designed to block out certain voices” — the voices of marginalized communities, i.e. people of color, the queer and transgendered community, and artists.
“The Internet has really been a space where the voice of opposition can really exist, can really thrive,” Renderos said, an environment that “is vital to a 21st century democracy.”
To engage community members in the issue, CMJ is holding an #InternetHaiku campaign, where they are inviting participants to structure comments to the FCC in Haiku form and post them on Twitter — a way to “inject a little bit of culture in the political process,” according to Renderos. On July 8th, CMJ will compile all of the Internet Haikus that people have posted and file them with the FCC on July 15, when the proposal’s public comment period ends.
Rosenberg similarly advised the public to place “grassroots pressure” on the FCC, through methods such as phone calls, emails, and comments on their site.
“It’s about creating a big fuss,” said Rosenberg. “We’re going to have to start thinking like Internet guerillas to make the Internet work for us no matter what the government is failing to regulate.”
Blog: Playing Catch-Up In A Technological Society
Posted by Richard Gilliam on June 17th, 2014
Playing Catch-up in a Technological Society
It is becoming increasingly obvious that I need help to do what almost everybody else takes for granted. I'm at the infancy of my reintegration into society; having paroled two weeks ago after 13 years of incarceration, and my lack of computer skills is causing me no end of vexation. In the short amount of time I've been out I've learned it is almost impossible to carry out everyday tasks such as 1) utilize an e-mail account 2) create an e-mail account; 3) upload documents and send them where I would like them to go; 4) and how to navigate the World Wide Web without some basic knowledge how to do so.
I'm discovering that everything from job application submissions to sending an e-mail, to reading web-based news accounts requires skills I don't have. Neither do tens of thousands of former felons, placing an entire class of individuals at a disadvantage that is difficult, if not impossible, to overcome.
You see, the CDCR has a policy which severely restricts and in many cases prohibits inmates from accessing computers and learning these necessary skills. They do this under the pretext that some inmates might abuse this privilege in some way. The real reasons that prison officials refuse to offer basic computer literacy courses are rooted in fear. Fear that an inmate might possess more knowledge than CDCR personnel, (I know of a few instances where this was in fact the case) and fear that they could be held liable if an inmate were somehow able to circumvent security measures and cause some real harm. Of course, it is also a fact that it is not in the department's interests to teach inmates useable computer skills, since their unstated goal has always been to keep prisons full in order to maintain job security.
But this is at odds with the taxpaying public's best interests, which are to reduce the costs of imprisonment by reducing prison populations and maintaining public safety by ensuring prisoners are given the necessary tools to succeed after release. This is not being done today, and will not as long as the current ideology driving corrections is one of punishment without rehabilitation. Yeah, that R on the tail-end of the CDCR stands for rehabilitation, but that hasn't been the reality. I was imprisoned in 2008, when Gov. Schwarzenegger added it to the end of the Department of Corrections. Since that time dozens of educational and vocational prison instructors lost their jobs and dozens of classes and “non-essential” programs have been cut. They were deemed non-essential because they didn't fall within the sphere of “security operations”. These cuts were short-sighted and done to save prison guard jobs, who have the support of one of the strongest unions in the state.
So, when our elected officials tell you they are doing everything they can in the name of Public Safety, look to their actions, and the result of those actions, then judge the true nature of their intent.
Pentagon Preparing for Mass Civil Breakdown
Posted by Nafeez Ahmed on June 12th, 2014
Pentagon preparing for mass civil breakdown
Social science is being militarised to develop 'operational tools' to target peaceful activists and protest movements
A US Department of Defense (DoD) research programme is funding universities to model the dynamics, risks and tipping points for large-scale civil unrest across the world, under the supervision of various US military agencies. The multi-million dollar programme is designed to develop immediate and long-term "warfighter-relevant insights" for senior officials and decision makers in "the defense policy community," and to inform policy implemented by "combatant commands."
Launched in 2008 – the year of the global banking crisis – the DoD 'Minerva Research Initiative' partners with universities "to improve DoD's basic understanding of the social, cultural, behavioral, and political forces that shape regions of the world of strategic importance to the US."
Among the projects awarded for the period 2014-2017 is a Cornell University-led study managed by the US Air Force Office of Scientific Research which aims to develop an empirical model "of the dynamics of social movement mobilisation and contagions." The project will determine "the critical mass (tipping point)" of social contagians by studying their "digital traces" in the cases of "the 2011 Egyptian revolution, the 2011 Russian Duma elections, the 2012 Nigerian fuel subsidy crisis and the 2013 Gazi park protests in Turkey."
Twitter posts and conversations will be examined "to identify individuals mobilised in a social contagion and when they become mobilised."
Another project awarded this year to the University of Washington "seeks to uncover the conditions under which political movements aimed at large-scale political and economic change originate," along with their "characteristics and consequences." The project, managed by the US Army Research Office, focuses on "large-scale movements involving more than 1,000 participants in enduring activity," and will cover 58 countries in total.
Last year, the DoD's Minerva Initiative funded a project to determine 'Who Does Not Become a Terrorist, and Why?' which, however, conflates peaceful activists with "supporters of political violence" who are different from terrorists only in that they do not embark on "armed militancy" themselves. The project explicitly sets out to study non-violent activists:
"In every context we find many individuals who share the demographic, family, cultural, and/or socioeconomic background of those who decided to engage in terrorism, and yet refrained themselves from taking up armed militancy, even though they were sympathetic to the end goals of armed groups. The field of terrorism studies has not, until recently, attempted to look at this control group. This project is not about terrorists, but about supporters of political violence."
The project's 14 case studies each "involve extensive interviews with ten or more activists and militants in parties and NGOs who, though sympathetic to radical causes, have chosen a path of non-violence."
I contacted the project's principal investigator, Prof Maria Rasmussen of the US Naval Postgraduate School, asking why non-violent activists working for NGOs should be equated to supporters of political violence – and which "parties and NGOs" were being investigated – but received no response.
Similarly, Minerva programme staff refused to answer a series of similar questions I put to them, including asking how "radical causes" promoted by peaceful NGOs constituted a potential national security threat of interest to the DoD.
Among my questions, I asked:
"Does the US Department of Defense see protest movements and social activism in different parts of the world as a threat to US national security? If so, why? Does the US Department of Defense consider political movements aiming for large scale political and economic change as a national security matter? If so, why? Activism, protest, 'political movements' and of course NGOs are a vital element of a healthy civil society and democracy - why is it that the DoD is funding research to investigate such issues?"
Minerva's programme director Dr Erin Fitzgerald said "I appreciate your concerns and am glad that you reached out to give us the opportunity to clarify" before promising a more detailed response. Instead, I received the following bland statement from the DoD's press office:
"The Department of Defense takes seriously its role in the security of the United States, its citizens, and US allies and partners. While every security challenge does not cause conflict, and every conflict does not involve the US military, Minerva helps fund basic social science research that helps increase the Department of Defense's understanding of what causes instability and insecurity around the world. By better understanding these conflicts and their causes beforehand, the Department of Defense can better prepare for the dynamic future security environment."
In 2013, Minerva funded a University of Maryland project in collaboration with the US Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory to gauge the risk of civil unrest due to climate change. The three-year $1.9 million project is developing models to anticipate what could happen to societies under a range of potential climate change scenarios.
From the outset, the Minerva programme was slated to provide over $75 million over five years for social and behavioural science research. This year alone it has been allocated a total budget of $17.8 million by US Congress.
An internal Minerva staff email communication referenced in a 2012 Masters dissertation reveals that the programme is geared toward producing quick results that are directly applicable to field operations. The dissertation was part of a Minerva-funded project on "counter-radical Muslim discourse" at Arizona State University.
The internal email from Prof Steve Corman, a principal investigator for the project, describes a meeting hosted by the DoD's Human Social Cultural and Behavioural Modeling (HSCB) programme in which senior Pentagon officials said their priority was "to develop capabilities that are deliverable quickly" in the form of "models and tools that can be integrated with operations."
Although Office of Naval Research supervisor Dr Harold Hawkins had assured the university researchers at the outset that the project was merely "a basic research effort, so we shouldn't be concerned about doing applied stuff", the meeting in fact showed that DoD is looking to "feed results" into "applications," Corman said in the email. He advised his researchers to "think about shaping results, reports, etc., so they [DoD] can clearly see their application for tools that can be taken to the field."
Many independent scholars are critical of what they see as the US government's efforts to militarise social science in the service of war. In May 2008, the American Anthropological Association (AAA) wrote to the US government noting that the Pentagon lacks "the kind of infrastructure for evaluating anthropological [and other social science] research" in a way that involves "rigorous, balanced and objective peer review", calling for such research to be managed instead by civilian agencies like the National Science Foundation (NSF).
The following month, the DoD signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with the NSF to cooperate on the management of Minerva. In response, the AAA cautioned that although research proposals would now be evaluated by NSF's merit-review panels. "Pentagon officials will have decision-making power in deciding who sits on the panels":
"… there remain concerns within the discipline that research will only be funded when it supports the Pentagon's agenda. Other critics of the programme, including the Network of Concerned Anthropologists, have raised concerns that the programme would discourage research in other important areas and undermine the role of the university as a place for independent discussion and critique of the military."
According to Prof David Price, a cultural anthropologist at St Martin's University in Washington DC and author of Weaponizing Anthropology: Social Science in Service of the Militarized State, "when you looked at the individual bits of many of these projects they sort of looked like normal social science, textual analysis, historical research, and so on, but when you added these bits up they all shared themes of legibility with all the distortions of over-simplification. Minerva is farming out the piece-work of empire in ways that can allow individuals to disassociate their individual contributions from the larger project."
Prof Price has previously exposed how the Pentagon's Human Terrain Systems (HTS) programme - designed to embed social scientists in military field operations - routinely conducted training scenarios set in regions "within the United States."
Citing a summary critique of the programme sent to HTS directors by a former employee, Price reported that the HTS training scenarios "adapted COIN [counterinsurgency] for Afghanistan/Iraq" to domestic situations "in the USA where the local population was seen from the military perspective as threatening the established balance of power and influence, and challenging law and order."
One war-game, said Price, involved environmental activists protesting pollution from a coal-fired plant near Missouri, some of whom were members of the well-known environmental NGO Sierra Club. Participants were tasked to "identify those who were 'problem-solvers' and those who were 'problem-causers,' and the rest of the population whom would be the target of the information operations to move their Center of Gravity toward that set of viewpoints and values which was the 'desired end-state' of the military's strategy."
Such war-games are consistent with a raft of Pentagon planning documents which suggest that National Security Agency (NSA) mass surveillance is partially motivated to prepare for the destabilising impact of coming environmental, energy and economic shocks.
James Petras, Bartle Professor of Sociology at Binghamton University in New York, concurs with Price's concerns. Minerva-funded social scientists tied to Pentagon counterinsurgency operations are involved in the "study of emotions in stoking or quelling ideologically driven movements," he said, including how "to counteract grassroots movements."
Minerva is a prime example of the deeply narrow-minded and self-defeating nature of military ideology. Worse still, the unwillingness of DoD officials to answer the most basic questions is symptomatic of a simple fact – in their unswerving mission to defend an increasingly unpopular global system serving the interests of a tiny minority, security agencies have no qualms about painting the rest of us as potential terrorists.
Blog: The Compact with Capitalism: Wheeler's Net Neutrality Dodge
Posted by Tracy Rosenberg on May 24th, 2014
Rhetoric and reality sometimes diverge. Right now, the future of the Internet is hooked like a fish between two different paths.
On December 16, 2013, I met FCC chairman Tom Wheeler at an Oakland town hall meeting, and I used my two minutes to talk about reclassification, a term that means making whole the regulatory split that is going to create a two-tiered Internet. The chairman nodded, took notes, and at the end of the presentation mentioned the importance of a "network compact".
I had just finished reading "Net Effects; The Past, Present and Future Impact Of Our Networks" by FCC chairman Tom Wheeler. Perhaps surprisingly for someone so upset by Wheeler's proposals that if I lived closer to DC I'd have been camping in front of the FCC, I agreed with much of what Wheeler wrote.
Wheeler correctly identifies the disruption that occurs when new communication technologies change the landscape. The printing press, the railroad, the telegraph and the land-line telephone were all once portrayed by the luddites among us as the death of all civilization. They pushed aside established incumbent businesses in favor of insurgents poised to take advantage of new technologies. We've been living through a great disruption for the past 20 years as the Internet has become so central.
I feel some empathy for the wonderful (and grouchy) Henry David Thoreau ranting "we do not ride on the railroad, it rides on us".
Continuing to dig for the "network compact" language Wheeler used to answered my question months ago, I hit pay dirt. A pillar of communication policy;"The network compact is between those who provide the pathways and those who use them. This civil bond between networks and users has always had three components: access, interconnection, and the encouragement and the enablement of the public purpose benefits of our networks".
The crux seemed to be whether this civil bond was a promise, an opportunity for the providers of pathways to exhibit their seal of good corporate citizenship. Or was the civil bond a law, enforced by the government on behalf of users, who otherwise probably have little recourse for corporate broken promises but to resort to the likes of comcastsucks.org.
Were chairman Wheeler and the FCC going to give us a hand?
The article so promises; suggesting "Broadband for the sake of broadband is an empty goal. As we have seen, the importance of networks is not the technology itself, but what the technology enables" (including diversity, localism and free speech).
While I've been an FCC-watcher for too long to get too easily bowled over by constant references to diversity, localism and free speech, the next paragraph won my heart. "The Communications Act is quite specific that the role of the FCC is to protect the public interest, convenience and necessity. For more than 90 years, this instruction has remained the alpha and the omega of the government's responsibility and authority. As technologies have changed and markets have evolved, it has remained inviolate".
Inviolate responsibility and authority. The alpha and the omega. Sounds pretty good. The government is on my side. Broken promises will be punished with all the force my puny taxpayer dollars can muster. But wait just a second. Didn't the government just chop off their own left hand?
The Federal Communications Commission, after springing to the defense of network neutrality in the wake of Robb Toplosky's revelations about unannounced throttling in 2008, had its head handed to it in the DC Court. The court made it clear that without invoking the authority of common carriage regulation over the Internet and reclassifying broadband, the FCC couldn't do much.
In a legal decision verging on a how-to guide, the court said relying on 706 authority (without reclassification), the FCC's hands were tied, even to address such a simple matter as throttling or blocking, much less preventing the carving up of the Internet by paid content prioritization into fast and slow lanes. But if the FCC reclassified, then it had the authority to do what it wished i.e. to ensure equal access to every bit and byte without discrimination.
If the network compact is really between users and providers, then my recourse as a user if promises are broken, is Wheeler's FCC. But how can it help me with one hand (if not both) tied behind its back?
It's time to untie the self-imposed knot and make a real network compact between Internet providers and Internet users. A civil bond that can be enforced by the regulatory agency I pay for.
Otherwise, the compact is only between the providers of the pathways and an inept and paralyzed federal agency that can't do much, but lose in court again.
There is no network compact without reclassification. There is no Internet without digital equality. Real net neutrality now.
Stopping the FCC's Plan to Break The Internet
Posted by on May 8th, 2014
Net Neutrality explodes every year. It's time to settle this once for and all. The same Internet for everyone. Reclassification now.
Tweet Congress here: http://www.savetheinternet.com/may-15th-day-save-internet
Send an email to the FCC here: http://org.salsalabs.com/o/1734/p/dia/action3/common/public/?action_KEY=15636
Get your East Coast friends and family to DC. May 15th 9am at the FCC
Join #occupythefcc from now till 5/15. 24/7 camp-out protest with Popular Resistance.
Op Ed: DAC As Planned Was Serious Case Of Mission Creep
Posted by Tracy Rosenberg on March 23rd, 2014
The arguments for and against the Oakland Domain Awareness Center project are well-established. After hours of community testimony at the Oakland City Council meetings Feb. 18 and March 4, the council voted to rein in the planned surveillance center.
What isn't so well-established is what the center was for in the first place, and what policies would prevent the Orwellian nightmare presented by DAC opponents.
The bad news is there isn't any policy.
I came by this information accidentally, after receiving an invitation to the Advisory Committee to work on the privacy framework for the new spying machine.
I was more than a little surprised because my organization has a not very subtle anti-surveillance position.
However, I dutifully read over the first draft and submitted five pages of comments, which can be found on the Media Alliance website.
Here's what I found:
The surveillance system has a mission. "The mission of the Domain Awareness Center (DAC) is to: (1) improve readiness to prevent, respond to, and recover from major emergencies at the Port and in the greater Oakland region and (2) ensure better multi-agency coordination in response to emergencies across the larger San Francisco Bay Area."
I'm familiar with mission statements and "mission creep," which means the distance between what you say the purpose is, and what you really do. So mission creep was evident when the DAC became a colossus of crime-fighting and the missing ingredient to control Oakland's street crime problems.
An emergency can be many things. What is an emergency in Oakland's privacy framework?
"Air pollution, fire, flood, storm, epidemic, riot, drought, sudden and severe energy shortage, plant or animal infestation or disease, the state governor's warning of an earthquake or volcanic prediction, or an earthquake, or other conditions, which are likely to be beyond the control of the services, personnel, equipment, and facilities of the city of Oakland and require the combined forces of other political subdivisions to combat."
As it turns out, during fires, floods and earthquakes, protests, smoggy days and invasions of avaricious raccoons, as outside forces are being imported for mutual combat, DAC geo-location data can be released to, well, just about anybody.
"During a major emergency, city of Oakland agency directors and/or their designees in the Emergency Operations Center (EOC) and outside governmental agencies and non-governmental agencies' staff assisting with the major emergency or disaster (such as the Red Cross) that would report to EOC may have access to the DAC computers and display."
Even the IRS is not excluded.
"Third party auditors, federal, state, or local grantor auditors or the city auditor may have access to any stored data."
The Oakland Privacy Framework is a framework for the elimination of personal privacy. Mayor Jean Quan commented to this paper that the vote "will give us time to talk about privacy."
The whole country has been talking about privacy since June. The consensus is that an emergency doesn't mean it is open season on human rights and civil liberties.
Oakland has a rich legacy of civil rights advocacy. This is a vicious case of mission creep.
Tracy Rosenberg is the executive director of Media Alliance, an Oakland-based democratic communications advocate. For more information, go to www.media-alliance.org.
Announcing Wavelength Media Arts - Let's Talk Arts Advocacy on May 5th!
Posted by Tracy Rosenberg on March 9th, 2014
Wavelength Media Arts
Faced with epic changes in the cultural, media and philanthropic sectors, and inspired by the power of horizontal/grassroots culture and technologies, IAM and Media Alliance are launching Wavelength Media/Arts as a collaborative partnership to focus and amplify our complementary strengths in advocacy, fiscal sponsorship, artist and producer services, and community engagement programming.
We hope to address the needs of media and arts practitioners in an open, affordable and collaborative setting that will provide structural support and advocacy for public policy favorable to independent producers and community vitality.
Wavelength Media/Arts is made possible in part by the San Francisco Foundation Nonprofit Transitions Fund, which helps nonprofits “rethink and regroup in response to the downturn in the economy” and “reduce costs and time spent on administrative work, as well as increase productivity.”
Announcing Three Workshops for the Future of Bay Area Arts & Democracy
* Presented by Independent Arts & Media and Media Alliance
* Save the Dates! April 7, May 5, June 2, 2014.
Please join us!
Your participation will shape these conversations and define our programming for 2014 and beyond.
The three-part Wavelength Media/Arts discussion series will explore and define:
(1) What type of “Professional Development” services should be offered to advance a thriving independent, noncommercial arts and media sector;
(2) “Advocacy” and government policy issues affecting arts- and media-makers, such as housing, health care and Net Neutrality;
(3) Communications” and connections which exist between artists, media-makers and the communities they serve.
April 7: “Professional Development” – at CounterPULSE (San Francisco)
May 5: “Advocacy” – 1st Congregational Church 2501 Harrison (Oakland)
June 2: “Communications” – at CounterPULSE (San Francisco)
The events on April 7 and June 2 will be hosted by CounterPULSE in their new space at 80 Turk Street, just a block from the public transport hub at Market and Powell Streets in San Francisco.
As an MA constituent, you are in the best position to guide this process and set the stage for a new suite of services designed for your benefit.
To ensure your participation, please RSVP by emailing Tracy Rosenberg at firstname.lastname@example.org or Jason Wyman at email@example.com
First Peruvian-based Community Media Crowdfunding Campaign: Wayka for the Lima Metro
Posted by on February 23rd, 2014
A really exciting project based in Lima, Peru for a free street newspaper to take advantage of the brand-new Lima metro. Please spread the word to help attract the support these folks need to get started up. Here's a bit of their pitch.
There is currently a tremendous opportunity to start such a project in Lima. This is because the city has a new and rapidly expanding public transportation system, with no newspapers currently offered at the stations – let alone newspapers that are free.
In order to fill this gap, Wayka will be a non-profit community newspaper distributed for free at metro stations across Lima. It will be a space for the voices of civil society and community groups that are rarely heard – or, when they are heard, they are overwhelmingly censored and misrepresented – in mainstream media.
Wayka will also incorporate a website and use social networks in our outreach so that people can interact directly and contribute their points of view. We will thus give the public a direct say in what will be published in the print versions of our paper. Furthermore, Wayka will serve to promote the many talented Peruvian musicians, filmmakers, writers and other artists that are currently ignored by commercially oriented media
We believe Wayka will be a major means for people to empower themselves, work towards greater social justice, and reclaim our democracy from special interests. It will break the oligopoly over the means of communication, which is currently led by one extremely wealthy company that is also heavily entangled with government.
The Radio, The Internet and The Jetsons
Posted by Pete Tridish on February 23rd, 2014
Pete Tridish on why terrestrial radio still matters
Activists fought over fifteen years for this moment. In October, community groups across the country got the opportunity to apply for a Low Power FM (LPFM) radio license from the Federal Communications Commission.
Doubts abound. Now that 12-year-olds have cell phones and Google knows us better than we know ourselves, those of us who invested years of our lives for this opportunity have to wonder: Was it worth it?There were over 2800 applications and it should lead to the largest expansion of community radio in U.S. history. This will be the first time that a significant number of new community radio stations are started in the top 50 urban markets since the ’70s, and most cities have between three and seven new channels available. Some cities have dozens of competitors for these channels. The grassroots struggle for legal, local (low power) community radio in the United States started in the 1990s and, finally, FM radio is opening for participatory, community use.
Did we succeed in winning a sliver of a solution to the 1996 problem of media concentration– in 2013? Will FM go the way of 8 track tape, just when we have managed to win more democracy on the FM dial? Once the Internet is widely accessible on the car dashboard, will the bottom fall out of FM? Has time defeated us?
Looking So Far Ahead That You Trip On The Ground Beneath Your Feet:
In recent US history, technology has created more change in the way we live our lives than any changes arising from our stalemated political system. We see technological change all around us that appears to move us forward, while the politicians seem to only run around in circles. But we often focus more on the dramatic technological changes and forget how many things have stayed surprisingly the same, and that can cloud our analysis about how technology will affect our lives in the future. Back in 1975, it was pretty obvious to everyone that, given the rate we were going, we would have outposts on the Moon and Mars by 2013…
The former president of NPR, Vivian Schiller, caused a big stink among her network of stations when she said in an interview: “Radio towers are going away within 10 years, and Internet radio will take their place.” This was met with guffaws from engineers and radio folks everywhere; one compared her statement to The Jetsons, the old cartoon show which glibly predicted fantastic technological innovation with flying saucer cars and robotic appliances. The Jetsons is much more demonstrative of the blithe values of the early 60s than predictive of the future.
Because we are fascinated with how technology is going to change our lives and also because companies like to get insight into how to get products to market, there is a great deal of study on the diffusion and adoption of new technologies. Yet, there is not nearly so much study of what keeps us using older ones. 93% of Americans over the age of twelve listen to at least two hours of radio a week, but if people can listen to whatever, whenever they want online, why would anyone still use radio?
For that matter: Why use a hammer when nail guns are available, and why continue using pencils in light of computer word processing? Often when a new technology moves into use, people get excited about the pluses and tend to overlook some of the places where the old technology still does a better job. A hammer cannot only put in a nail, but it can also take one out— you can’t do that with a nail gun. Pencils can write upside down on almost any surface in any language in places you would not want to carry your computer and portable printer. Older technologies tend to lose their dominance, yet retain niches that their replacements were not designed to address. Radio will never again have the power that it did in the 1940s. But that does not mean that FM will not remain in the media mix or that the coming wave of community radio across America will not have an impact.
We start with a list of internet audio’s clear advantages over radio and describe the ways that internet audio will likely displace radio. Next, we offer seven reasons why there will still be FM radio towers in ten years. And we close with five predictions on where radio will maintain a strong presence.
Internet audio is just so much better because:
1. Time Shifting: With FM, you have to plan your life around hearing your favorite show. With podcasts and playlists, you can hear it any time that is good for you. It allows the listener to access her favorite programs anytime from anywhere with an internet connection.
2. Choice abounds: The infinite variety of content that is available online dwarfs local FM band offerings that have no more than 40 channels on the air in a typical city. The Internet also allows you to aggregate listeners from around the world, so even if there are only a handful people in your city who would like to listen to the newest Reggae Opera fusion band, one can find thousands of people around the world who listen to them online.
3. Low Startup Cost: From a producer’s perspective, the Internet can also be an inviting place to host content, considering there are not the brick-and-mortar costs of studio space and there’s no need for an FCC license. This allows you to try something, even if you are not sure it will be a winner.
4. As Quirky As You Want To Be: And of course, internet services like Spotify and all the others allow you to customize the programming you hear too, so if you want to listen to Japanese surf music—you don’t have to find a station that happens to be playing it. And search functions allow you to ask for anything you want and it appears.
5. Your Cellular Swiss Army Knife: Internet listening is integrated into a device that you use for lots of other things—like making a call, banking, using video, email, dictionaries, maps, a digital carpenter’s level, playing games, or texting your friends about being late.
There Will Still be Radio Towers in Ten Years Because:
Radio might be outpaced by the Internet in many ways, but it’s certainly not obsolete.IMG_1846
1. Haves and Have Nots: The Internet is not as available as we’d like to think. One third of U.S. adults lack a reliable broadband connection. America ranks 28th in the world in broadband penetration and 8th in the world when it comes to Internet speed. The digital divide is a problem still in want of fixing, as internet service providers refuse to build out in areas where a profit cannot be predicted –despite receiving public subsides– and high school students sit in the parking lot of McDonald’s to go online to complete their homework. Although there is finally now a comprehensive national broadband plan, the U.S. is years behind our global counterparts.
2. Listening to a radio station is not rocket science: A radio receiver has two dials: one for channel and the other for volume. Radio doesn’t necessitate technological literacy or expensive equipment. It’s as easy for the young as it is for the old and only requires a power source. The average American household has five FM radios in it. They all most likely work as well as the day that they were bought–unlike computers, which become outdated in three years, or phones that break in 18 months, if you are lucky. Someone who turns on a radio to listen to it can rest assured that they will not push the wrong button and get hacked or get their radio infected with a virus and end up with their bank account drained.
3. Internet radio is only cheap if your station has few listeners:
Each person that tunes in to your webstream requires their own channel of data coming to them, and their own connection to your stations servers. Hardware and bandwidth costs add up for every additional listener. If radio stations made a complete transition to the web, in order to continue to reach their listener base, they would be paying a fortune in Internet bills to host those connections, the streaming equipment, and the higher price of royalties for online streaming. A public radio executive, William Kling, brought up this example at a hearing at the FCC.
… we can reach 14 million people in Los Angeles with a transmitter that runs on 600 watts of power. If we tried to reach million people with broadband as somebody said earlier we’d be bankrupt. We spend now $500,000 a year in our company alone on broadband spectrum in order to serve the audience… I don’t think everybody realizes that every time someone does that it’s a collect call to us, and if you can keep that in mind and think about the devil’s in the details, but how could you as part of a regulatory environment where certain gifts of broadband regulation are made to people, what could you take back for public interest?
FM has a high start-up cost, but it costs nothing to the station every time a listener tunes in. As audiences grow, FM is far more economical and efficient than internet.
4. The Royalty: While radio has thus far been exempted form certain forms of intellectual property payments, the regime for payment of royalties for streaming copyrighted materials on the Internet has been a perpetual mess. 80% of Pandora’s revenue is dished out to music licensing companies. The prices are so high that the streaming music website just purchased a small station in Rapid City, South Dakota in order to try to classify as a radio station to save on their royalty payments. It is important and fair to pay artists for what they create. But the constant haggling over rates, the extremely high demands of content owners, and the record keeping and legal ambiguity around the issue have crippled streaming internet audio and hampered creativity in the new medium. In the early days of streaming, many colleges shut down their streams because they were afraid to stream when they did not know how much content owners would demand from them.
5. The NSA Knows When You Listen To Public Enemy: Radio listeners don’t get spied on. That’s a big plus considering today’s headlines about government surveillance and corporate data mining. Neither the broadcast company nor the government can trace your listening habits in the way that an internet company or the federal government collects records of online behavior in the hopes of either pinning you as a suspect or flashing you creepy, contextual ads based on the content of your emails.
6. In A Crisis, Keep It Simple: You can turn on a radio in the dark and run it off of a battery. Radio is connected to the Emergency Alert Service, and let’s be real: How often does your Internet cut out? When the cell phone towers go down and the televisions don’t have electricity, radio remains the number one communication technology in times of emergency. With radio, everyone listens to the same thing at the same time- a crucial aspect of emergency information that is, most importantly, current and not inconsistent. All radios stations in the US are connected to the Emergency Alert System, a national warning system run by the federal government.
7. The Internet Is Like The Wild West, But The West Was Eventually Tamed: While we are accustomed to relatively free expression on the internet, there are several major efforts underway that are attempting to transform the internet into a much more closed experience. Internet service providers are trying to further monetize the internet by favoring web products that they own or that pay a fee to reach users faster than other websites. Companies like Google record your every move online and try to direct you to sites of advertisers. And all the while, people around the world live in countries where the internet is filtered, disproving the 1990s myth that the Internet is immune to censorship. There are far more threats to Internet freedom today than there were in the 1990s and those threats are only escalating.
The Internet will undoubtedly upset part of radio’s applecart. Eventually, much of what is now on the radio will move to some form of the web. But the problems with the Internet we have described are not trivial and will not go away with hand-waving and wishful thinking. Chances are good that, for one reason or another, many people will still use an analog FM radio ten years from now for some of their listening.
And Finally, 7 Niches Where FM Will Survive:
FM will take a big hit in the coming years, but since 93 % of Americans listen every week, it has a long way to fall before it is dead. Here are some of the ways it will keep making an impact as some listeners move to internet:
1) Hello? It’s Free.
People who don’t want to pay by the byte are going to keep listening to radio. While many will go online to satisfy a niche taste, many others will not see this as worth the expense when they can listen to one of the local channels (which, after all, carry the 40-50 most popular types of programming) for free.
Internet companies already charge for the amount of data that we use by offering consumers tiered price plans based on how much data they consume each month. Audio streaming uses a lot of data and, if this pricing trend continues, those who stream audio for hours a day will see that reflected in their monthly bill.
2) Stop Fiddling With Your Facebook And Drive! There will be a major disruption to radio when internet really establishes itself in cars. Broadcasting is a one-way technology, while the internet is more designed for interactivity. But we don’t want people to interact with the Internet while they drive!! Until most cars drive themselves, internet for cars is going to have to be designed very, very carefully to avoid what has already happened with texting while driving. The laws around texting and driving have fallen into place, and auto manufacturers will have to seriously consider how they will keep safety up when introducing more interactive communications into cars.
3) Immigrants: Radio has long served as a resource for minority language communities to share news and information in languages other than English. And for those who don’t read in English, affordable broadcast media, like radio, is an essential service for news, entertainment and information. The internet demands a high level of literacy, both in terms of technological and reading ability. What’s more, the internet is a dangerous place full of scams and charges that catch people who have not developed strong digital literacy skills.
4) Youth: We must be kidding, right? Young people don’t know what a radio is anymore, right? Although the homogenized, rather predictable content of commercial radio has lead to a general decline of interest and youth listenership in recent years, youth participation in community radio is trending up. Stations that position themselves as community media centers and train young people in audio production are bigger than ever. Stations that include youth in participatory programming will attract a young community that do not just think of themselves as listeners, but as radio producers. And that’s cool with us!
5) Strengthening Local Programming: People using an internet audio device will not need their local radio station to hear NPR or Rush Limbaugh. Instead, they’ll be able to go straight to the national source. Content providers, like NPR, are working to cut out the radio middlemen, but stations that produce local programming still have something distinct to offer. The sheer expense of delivering a show like “All Things Considered” to its whole audience via the internet would be enormous. Established FM architecture is way cheaper for mass distribution for a show with millions of listeners, which will keep NPR affiliates reliant on the local stations for a number of years to come. FM stations can survive by building local programs that people love and simply cannot get anywhere else.
6) A Media That is Not Just Social, But Participatory and Collaborative. Commercial radio is dying. This is because most of the industry’s innovation for the last twenty years has been to come up with cleverer and cleverer ways to cut people out of radio. They’ve largely axed call-in shows, live DJs, and airtime for local musicians. Listeners will not remain loyal to a robot jukebox. Community radio stations are places where volunteers come together to make programming.
On the news front, look at a station like WORT in Madison. Their all-volunteer news program, In Our Backyards, has won countless journalism awards. With close to a hundred news producers who help report the news in their city, In Our Backyards is not just a lone opinionated blogger sending off dispatches from his bathrobe and fuzzy slippers, and it is also not hundreds of Twitter users sending off duplicative tweets. The newscast is a collaborative production with standards and fact-checking and hundreds of personal connections in the city through their volunteer production team.
7) They Will Come, But When Will You Build it? As described before—FM is ridiculously efficient at bringing audio content from one point to thousands or millions of listeners in a way that the internet cannot be, at least for many years. The expense of the internet buildout of the capacity for everyone to receive what they already receive for free over FM will cost billions. Eventually, broadband infrastructure will reach communities that are not currently online, but that will not happen overnight, and people will not turn off their FM receiver while they are waiting for affordable, reliable internet connections.
So– radio is not dead. It won’t last forever, but a lot of people still listen to FM and will continue for the foreseeable future. Clear Channel won’t power down their stations for quite some time, because they still reach a huge number of people and are making billions of dollars. We encourage groups to take advantage of this opportunity to get on the air and use this time well. After all, radio didn’t kill newspapers, TV didn’t kill radio, the Internet didn’t kill TV, and George Jetson cannot yet push a button to fold his spaceship up into a suitcase. Neither internet nor video killed the radio star. This is a time to build community media centers and provide a platform for the local expression and circulation of information necessary to maintain healthy communities, a sense of identity, and local voice. And these new radio stations are going to be so exciting because so many are going to be built in urban areas, where just a hundred watt station can easily reach hundreds of thousands of listeners.
Those of us who fought for this got lucky. The political process is so much slower than the process of innovation that often a reform like LPFM comes too late, after the technology has moved on. If we had been fighting for an expansion of low power TV stations, for example, we would have totally missed the boat by the time our bill passed. Fortunately, the decline of FM will be a slow, drawn out affair- not a sudden shock like some communications technologies have seen.
Your FM station should not stick its head in the sand—you cannot just be an FM station anymore. You need to build in such a way to also put your programs on the web. However, internet-only services simply cannot yet do what FM technology has been able to do for the past sixty years, and it will be quite some time before all the pieces come together for it to replace FM. Start an LPFM station and use the long twilight of this technology to its fullest for community broadcasting!
Blog: Mergers Lock In The Status Quo
Posted by Tracy Rosenberg on February 19th, 2014
A blog on the Bay Area and media consolidation
The San Francisco Bay Area is often seen across the country as a blue outpost and a place where liberal ideas predominate. This image is especially widespread in media reports which emphasize cultural and political innovations. But the local media system which indulges in the self-congratulatory blather is itself a retrograde example of corporate consolidation and dominance. More like Texas than Vermont, if you like.
If the purpose of media systems is to connect and to exchange information, then Bay Area communication is about as controlled by big media corporations as the US is dependent on imported oil. The statistics are terrifying:
Two companies get nearly half of the TV market's advertising revenues; five companies own more than one commercial TV station. Four companies own half the Bay Area's radio stations and get 80% of the advertising revenues. Two of them own seven radio stations each. The two alternative culture newspaper weeklies are owned by the same company. Being owned by the same company can result in the same content, no matter where you look. The newspaper conglomerate Media News Group will often print the same articles in the San Jose daily paper the Mercury News as they do in Oakland's daily paper the Tribune, 40 miles away.
This news echo chamber is sped along by both formal mergers and insidious semi-mergers, often called joint sharing agreements, where two TV stations or newspapers don't formally merge, but combine most aspects of their operations.
Mergers, formal or informal, lock in the status quo. And diversity, not only in content but also in ownership, is not the status quo. There is only one TV station in the Bay Area with any person of color owning a majority stake, KQSL. And similarly only one owned by women, KTSF. Radio is not much better with 12% minority ownership and only 3 radio stations owned by women.
The price we pay for turning a blind eye to media consolidation isn't just boredom. It's placing the power to determine what is important and what is newsworthy in the hands of just a few. Those few don't look like most of us and by ceding so much public property to 16 corporations and their subsidiaries, the majority of the population becomes marginalized in their own national discussion.
People have had some success turning media consolidation on its head by using social media to spoof the news echo-chamber and vacuous celebrity culture. It's affirmation that most of us don't want what these 16 corporations are trying to sell us. But the tools we use are part and parcel of those corporations, and social media sells our data and spies on us in return for the space to discuss what we want.
It doesn't have to be as bad as it is. Media is licensed and regulated, at least in theory, and consolidation, whether by outright mergers or sharing agreements, can be slowed down. Cross-ownership rules can be tightened. Media diversity studies can become real guides for measuring whether the population is represented by the media that serves them. Sneaky sharing agreements don't have to be approved. And independent and alternative media can be strengthened to provide an antidote to corporate-delivered news and entertainment.
When we look at media through a justice lens, the allocation of broadcasting spaces and internet pipes and newspaper columns is just like the allocation of any other public resource. The vital question is whether it is for the benefit of all or a private playground for the few. The Media Action Grassroots Network (Mag-net) believes media change must happen to end poverty, eliminate racism and ensure human rights.
Because if we wait politely for 16 corporations to let us talk about it, it will be too late.
February 11. The Day We Fought Back
Posted by on
On Feb 11th, the one year anniversary of Aaron Swartz's death, the Internet will become a placard for the right to communicate freely.
Any website you administer, your Facebook page, your Twitter feed, your Pinterest page, your Tumblr blog, can all carry the message.
We don't need to be rats in a cage. The right to communicate belongs to all.
Sign up to fight back on February 11th.
Video from the San Francisco Convergence at AT&T's NSA Facility
Blog: The Center for American Progress and the Nullify NSA Movement
Posted by Tracy Rosenberg on February 9th, 2014
The prominent Democratic website Think Progress recently took aim at the anti-NSA surveillance movement with a warning to “Beware of Libertarians Bearing Gifts”. The blog suggests bipartisan alliances between civil liberties advocates and libertarians will sink the New Deal, which some might say is already taking on a bit of water.
The direct target of authors Zack Beauchamp and Ian Millhiser is the Offnow.org coalition, a partnership anchored by the right-wing Tenth Amendment Center and the left-wing Bill of Rights Defense Committee.
(Disclaimer: Media Alliance, my organization, recently joined the coalition).
The premise of Offnow is local legislation in states, counties, and universities to make it policy to dis-invest in mass surveillance. Twelve state legislatures have introduced versions of the 4th Amendment Act (Alaska, Arizona, California, Indiana, Kansas, Mississippi, Missouri, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Vermont and Washington). The big target is Utah, home of the huge Utah Data Center in Bluffdale, where the provision of 1.7 million gallons of water by the state every day cools the huge supercomputers.
Think Progress’s objection to turning off the utilities on the NSA emanates from a liberal nightmare of a state like Texas darkening health clinics for poor people or cutting off water supplies to voting rights attorneys.
Let me be clear. I buy the idea that nutty contingents of the Tea Party might advocate for such things. Texas’s recent foray into fetal survival within the carcass of a deceased woman is evidence to never say never. But there is one basic difference.
Mass blanket surveillance of telephone metadata, email and Internet searches without individualized warrants and probable cause, I s unconstitutional. The Bill of Rights doesn’t allow it. Congress didn’t approve it. The American public didn’t know about it until a certain contractor took a trip to Hong Kong. The idea Think Progress is embracing – the rogue activities of the NSA are established government policy – isn’t true.
Even the unaccountable secret FISC court has agreed: “The Obama administration, under pressure from continued NSA leaks, declassified documents Wednesday showing the agency scooped up tens of thousands of emails and other online communications from Americans beginning in 2008 that it wasn’t allowed to target, and was told to stop by the secret court that oversees the program”.
The Dems at The Center for American Progress also seem stricken by an attack of amnesia about the long tradition of local disinvestment movements to impact American policy – by progressives.
The anti-apartheid movement advocated for disinvestment in South Africa under apartheid from both private and public sources including state universities. By 1984, 53 U.S institutions divested, by 1987, 128 including the University of California. By the end of 1989, 26 states, 22 counties and over 90 cities had taken some form of binding economic action against companies doing business in South Africa. Most of this pre-dated the 1986 Comprehensive Apartheid Act by Congress.
Over 110 American cities have declared themselves sanctuary cities that will provide limited or no local cooperation with the Secure Communities deportation program run by the Department of Homeland Security.
Vermont, the state most often described as a progressive Disneyland has developed a virtual cottage industry in defying the federal government. In just the last few years, the state has authorized hemp growing without a permit, passed a law prohibiting patent trolling not addressed by the US Patent Act, opted out of the Affordable Care Act, and has considered a GMO labeling bill, currently stalled by litigation threats from Monsanto.
If the New Deal is sinking, the most progressive state in the nation appears to be steadily poking holes in the hull of the boat.
In the latest version of “you’re with us or you’re against us”, the Center for American Progress has embraced an a-historical definition of progressivism that prioritizes not sleeping with the enemy over principled dissent against unconstitutional activities.
The last line of the Think Progress article is “Ideology matters”.
Does it really matter more than justice?
Tracy Rosenberg is the executive director of Media Alliance (www.media-alliance.org), an Oakland CA-based democratic communications advocacy organization. Research assistance with this article was provided by Alexander Houk.
Blog: A Thousand New Radio Stations: Whose Will They Be?
Posted by Tracy Rosenberg on February 9th, 2014
The future of democratic media may come down to a bunch of lawyers.
Twenty-five years after pirate radio aficionados and media activists pushed for and eventually won the Low Power Community Radio Act, the fate of hundreds of radio licenses is up in the air.
Almost 3,000 applications were filed for low-power radio stations in neighborhoods across the United States. Some were filed by long-established community groups, others by new groups that came together around the opportunity to operate a station and still others by church-based chain broadcasters.
One thousand six hundred seventy-two groups are fighting for 400 frequencies that represent the last new broadcast infrastructure the country may ever see.
Are they battling with their hands tied behind their backs? And what does their struggle mean for a media landscape where localism is becoming a quainter and quainter relic in the era of nonstop media consolidation?
The process for awarding licenses when there are multiple applicants for the same spot on the dial is anything but simple. While a points system implemented by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) provides some rankings, for hundreds of "MX'ed" groups (in FCC lingo), the only way forward is to navigate complex time-sharing agreements or file petitions to knock their unqualified (mostly because they are not truly local) opponents out of eligibility.
These are not tasks for rookies.
Community organizations are mission-focused and often minimally staffed. While they may see the value a radio license could bring to their ongoing work, they didn't necessarily sign on for a crash course in telecommunications law. And one of the advantages of being a chain broadcaster is access to the resources of larger organizations.
You can see where this is going. Without some help from law schools and clinics, legal firm pro-bono departments and the few "movement" lawyers everyone depends on when they get into trouble, the good guys may not win.
Nobody fought for 25 years for 1,000 new radio stations that all sound the same.
As advocates Prometheus Radio Project put it:
"What we are seeing is not a move away from radio, but a move away from homogenous news sources. People seek information that they can participate in and is relevant to them within their social networks - community radio provides just that. The future of community radio will integrate broadcast and digital technologies to allow stations to be more accessible and participatory. With a cell phone and laptop, the whole community becomes a mobile studio. We are building a participatory media infrastructure for social change and community expression"
Nothing could be more needed, but without a mobilization - not of people in the streets, but of lawyers at their desks - it may not happen.
The FCC wants low-power radio to succeed as much as anyone. For an organization often maligned as being in the pockets of industry, the opening of the low-power radio window was a unique moment. But bureaucratic rules are bureaucratic roles, and everyone has to play by the rules of the game.
It would be sad if groups like the Tohono O'Odham Nation in San Xavier, Arizona, Causa Justa in Oakland, The Bakersfield Burrito Project, The Washington Peace Center in the capital, The United Workers Association in Baltimore, Art FM in Lousiville and The Islamic Center in Gulfport, Mississippi, get sliced out of a piece of the media pie. Voices like theirs are the exception rather than the rule.
But without a well-written petition to deny aimed at a shell opponent or a professionally crafted time-sharing agreement, that's exactly what will happen.
Media activism groups like the Committee on Democratic Communications of the National Lawyers Guild, Prometheus Radio Project and Media Alliance can direct donated or low-cost services to applicants in need. Template samples for petitions to deny and time-sharing agreements can be made available to law school students, clinics, firms and even recovering lawyers who want to help in the next few months to make broadcasting space open up.
The low-power radio movement argued that the wasted space between large radio licenses belongs to the people, not the corporations.
Hundreds of groups took the government at its word - that in this case, it agrees.
Now they need support to take their rightful place on the airwaves.
Copyright, Truthout. May not be reprinted without permission.
Want To Predict the Future of Surveillance? Ask Poor Communities
Posted by Virgina Eubanks on February 9th, 2014
The American Prospect
Virginia Eubanks writes in American Prospect about the shock troops on the frontlines of surveillance: the poor and how the dystopian future many warn out is already playing out in marginalized communities across the country.
ince Edward Snowden started disclosing millions of classified NSA documents in June, terms like metadata, software backdoors, and cybervulnerability have appeared regularly in headlines and sound bites. Many Americans were astonished when these stories broke. In blogs, comment sections, and op-ed pages, they expressed disbelief and outrage.
But I wasn’t surprised. A decade ago, I sat talking to a young mother on welfare about her experiences with technology. When our conversation turned to Electronic Benefit Transfer cards (EBT), Dorothy* said, “They’re great. Except [Social Services] uses them as a tracking device.” I must have looked shocked, because she explained that her caseworker routinely looked at her EBT purchase records. Poor women are the test subjects for surveillance technology, Dorothy told me ruefully, and you should pay attention to what happens to us. You’re next.
Poor and working-class Americans already live in the surveillance future. The revelations that are so scandalous to the middle-class data profiling, PRISM, tapped cellphones–are old news to millions of low-income Americans, immigrants, and communities of color. To be smart about surveillance in the New Year, we must learn from the experiences of marginalized people in the U.S. and in developing countries the world over. Here are four lessons we might learn if we do.
Lesson #1: Surveillance is a civil rights issue.
Counterintuitive as it may seem, we are targeted for digital surveillance as groups and communities, not as individuals. Big Brother is watching us, not you. The NSA looks for what they call a “pattern of life,” homing in on networks of people associated with a target. But networks of association are not random, and who we know online is affected by offline forms of residential, educational, and occupational segregation. This year, for example, UC San Diego sociologist Kevin Lewis found that online dating leads to fewer interracial connections, compared to offline ways of meeting. Pepper Miller has reported that sometimes, African Americans will temporarily block white Facebook friends so that they can have “open, honest discussions” about race with black friends. Because of the persistence of segregation in our offline and online lives, algorithms and search strings that filter big data looking for patterns, that begin as neutral code, nevertheless end up producing race, class, and gender-specific results.
Groups of “like” subjects are then targeted for different, and often unequal, forms of supervision, discipline and surveillance, with marginalized communities singled out for more aggressive scrutiny. Welfare recipients like Dorothy are more vulnerable to surveillance because they are members of a group that is seen as an appropriate target for intrusive programs. Persistent stereotypes of poor women, especially women of color, as inherently suspicious, fraudulent, and wasteful provide ideological support for invasive welfare programs that track their financial and social behavior. Immigrant communities are more likely to be the site of biometric data collection than native-born communities because they have less political power to resist it. As panicked as mainstream America is about the government collecting cellphone meta-data, imagine the hue and cry if police officers scanned the fingerprints of white, middle-class Americans on the street, as has happened to day laborers in Los Angeles, according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
Marginalized people are in the dubious position of being both on the cutting edge of surveillance, and stuck in its backwaters. Some forms of surveillance, like filmed police interrogations, are undoubtedly positive for poor and working-class communities and racial minorities. But marginalized people are subject to some of the most technologically sophisticated and comprehensive forms of scrutiny and observation in law enforcement, the welfare system, and the low-wage workplace. They also endure higher levels of direct forms of surveillance, such as stop-and-frisk in New York City.
The practice of surveillance is both separate and unequal. Acknowledging this reality allows us to challenge mass surveillance based on the 14th Amendment, which provides for equal protection under the law, not just on the 4th Amendment, which protects citizens against unwarranted search and seizure. Surveillance should be seen as a collective issue, a civil rights issue, not just an invasion of privacy.
Lesson #2: To a hammer, everything looks like a nail.
We can intuit the shape of surveillance-to-come by keeping an eye on developing countries, as well as exploring its impacts on marginalized communities here in the United States. The most sweeping digital surveillance technologies are designed and tested in what could be called “low rights environments”—poor communities, repressive social programs, dictatorial regimes, and military and intelligence operations—where there are low expectations of political accountability and transparency. Drones that deliver Hellfire missiles, Long Range Acoustic Devices (LRADs) that send pain-inducing tones over long distances, and stun cuffs that deliver 80,000 volts to detainees via remote control allow users to avoid direct responsibility for the human suffering they cause.
Many of these technologies are first developed for the U.S. military to deploy in the global south, and later tested for civilian purposes on marginal communities in the United States. LRADs, for example, were developed by San Diego-based military contractor American Technology Corporation in response to the bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen in 2000, and then famously used to disburse G20 protestors in Pittsburgh in 2009. Technologies designed for the military carry expectations about the dangerousness of the public, and can be used over-aggressively in community policing and crowd control. To a technology designed for counter-terrorism, everyone looks like a bad guy.
Then there is the digital side of things. “Law enforcement agencies, intelligence agencies, and militaries invest in Trojans, bad software, malicious network attacks and other things that we normally associate with heavy criminality,” says Amelia Andersdotter, member of the European Parliament and the Swedish Pirate Party, which is dedicated to reforming copyright and patent laws. “No one is obliged to inform users of security flaws or to fix vulnerabilities.” In fact, as the Guardian and The New York Times reported in September, the NSA spends $250 million a year to work with technology companies to make commercial software—including encryption software—more “exploitable.” Insecure by design, this software is passed on to business and the public sector.
A standard of design liability—already common for architects—might work to hold software producers accountable. Presently, we mandate penalties for vendors that fail to security test their software in the airline and shipping industries, but not in other crucial areas: healthcare, nuclear plants, electricity grids. Andersdotter suggests that design liability regulations could hold software companies liable for not disclosing security flaws, responsible for damages they cause, and obliged to help users fix problems. But this solution may pose more questions than it settles: Who will administer the standards if software vendors and national governments are already subverting data-security requirements? How much transparency is possible when data holdings are centralized by commercial entities like Google, or by state entities, as in Brazil’s proposed national data centers?
Lesson #3: Everyone resists surveillance, not just the bad guys.
Resistance to surveillance is as common as surveillance itself. “There is always a cross-section of the population working to trick the system,” explains John Gilliom, co-author of SuperVision: An Introduction to the Surveillance. “Whether it's a college kid getting a fake ID, or the middle class family hiding a little bit of cash income to lower its tax bill, or the food-stamp recipient hiding an extra roommate. We often call this fraud or cheating, but something this widespread is more than misbehavior. It is resistance.”
“Data is the new oil. Beyond collecting information, it also means gathering power,” argues Joana Varon Ferraz, researcher from the Center of Technology and Society at Fundação Getúlio Vargas in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, “Every government has become dataholic.” Dataholic political and commercial systems foster defiance. We don’t necessarily resist because we’ve done something wrong. We resist because surveillance is not just about privacy; it is about power, control, self-determination and autonomy.
If people remain concerned about the impact of surveillance on their lives they may voluntarily withdraw from the digital world. Gilliom suggests we might even see “a hipster social trend where disengagement becomes a form of cache.” But digital disconnection can simply be an excuse for maintaining ignorance; many people don’t have the option to disengage. For example, public assistance applicants must sign a personal information disclosure statement to permit social services to share their social security number, criminal history, personal, financial, medical and family information with other public agencies and private companies. Technically, you can refuse to sign and withhold your social security number. But if you do not sign, you cannot access food stamps, transportation vouchers, cash assistance, childcare, emergency housing assistance, and other basic necessities for survival, or even talk to a caseworker about available community resources.
There are alternatives to disengagement. Brazil and Germany introduced a joint resolution to the UN condemning the member countries of what is unofficially known as the Five Eyes Alliance—the U.S., U.K., New Zealand, Canada, and Australia—for massive electronic surveillance and infringement of human rights. The EU is developing a General Data Protection Regulation that would unify data protection under a single European law. The BRICS cable, a 21,000 mile, 12.8 Terabyte per second fiber system connecting Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa, and Miami—is creating an alternative data pipeline to lower the cost of communication among major economies of the global south and provide non-U.S. routes for world communications.
Answers to the dilemmas we face in the surveillance society are not likely to come from Silicon Valley or Washington. This year, the Obama administration was put in the position of defending the National Security Administration’s snooping while stumping for a Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights that boosts security for online shoppers. It is still unclear how President Obama will respond to his Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies’ report calling to terminate the storage of bulk data collected under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.
Lesson #4: Privacy is not the problem.
In his Christmas Day address on the U.K.’s Channel 4, Edward Snowden trotted out the hoary old clichés about George Orwell, Big Brother, and the end of privacy. But for most people, privacy is a pipedream. Living in dense urban neighborhoods, public housing, favellas, prisons, or subject to home visits by caseworkers, poor and working people might wish for more personal space, but they don’t make Snowden’s mistake of assuming that privacy is “what allows us to determine who we are and who we want to be.”
We need to move away our fixation on privacy and towards a future based on digital human rights. We can take some cues from Brazil, which is currently creating a collaborative, multi-stakeholder “Internet Constitution,” the Marco Civil da Internet. The Marco connects digital communication to deeply held democratic values: internationalism, active citizenship, access to information, freedom of expression, democratic governance, civic participation, multilateralism, inclusivity and non-discrimination, plurality, cultural diversity, freedom of speech. The Marco also addresses network neutrality, personal data protection, and, yes, even privacy. But it is not the central issue. Seeing privacy as the cornerstone for democracy is a kind of naiveté we can no longer excuse nor afford.
We should care when national governments engage in surveillance of any kind, not just when they spy on us. Shock and outrage are callow luxuries, and the Snowden leaks eliminated our last justification for ignorance. Software designed for authoritarian political aims spawns repressive political environments wherever it is used. Systems tested in low rights environments will, as Dorothy informed me a decade ago, eventually be used on everyone.
January 23rd Panel on Our Almost Orwellian State
Posted by Our Almost Orwellian State on January 29th, 2014
Bill of Rights Defense Committee
The Bill of Rights Defense Committee, EFF, famed whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg and author Norman Solomon discuss the legal, ethical and political impact of the Snowden disclosures.
Blog: A Tale of Two Prisoners
Posted by Tracy Rosenberg on January 10th, 2014
A Tale of Two Prisoners
Meet Prisoner A: Incarcerated at Soledad Prison in California for a botched armed robbery committed in the thrall of an expensive drug addiction, Prisoner A is 3 years into a 10-year sentence. Committed to rehab and clean and sober for two years, A tries to keep in regular touch by telephone with two people: the aunt who raised him from a toddler in Oakland, CA and his 8-year old son, who has relocated with his ex-wife and her new husband to Oregon.
Calling his aunt, thanks to 2008 CA legislation, is free of commissions (often called kickbacks). A monthly 15-minute call to keep in touch is affordable, even for a financially-challenged senior, at a price of about $7 per call.
Calling his kid in Oregon? Until this year, when the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) moved to cap prison interstate calling rates and get rid of commissions, the cost for that same 15-minute phone call was $18, causing the boy's mother to pull the plug on calls more than once a month between father and son.
Why did a phone call out of the same prison cost twice as much?
Just wait for Prisoner B.
Prisoner B is a 15-year-old incarcerated in Solano County's Juvenile Detention Center in Fairfield, CA. His family lives nearby in Vallejo, CA, but has been financially struggling since his father was laid off from a full-time job and has since only.been able to find part-time work. His mother earns low wages in a retail job and there are 3 younger siblings.
Because the county juvenile facility B is locked up in isn't included in California's legislation, the telephone provider charges a a 72% commission on all phone calls giving $600,000 a year back to Solano County that is extracted from prisoner families. But in B's case, his family pulled the plug due to financial exigency, stopped taking his calls, and he's had no contact with them since their last visit 4 months ago.
You don't have to be a professional sociologist to make a guess about whose post-prison life looks more promising: prisoner A who is retaining ties to loved ones or prisoner B who feels abandoned and cut off from a family riven with financial stress.
Every study confirms that guess. Prisoners who retain steady contact with family and friends while in prison have a dramatically lower recidvism rate. A better outcome for individuals and a better outcome for taxpayers.
That's why the California State Legislature took action to reduce predatory kickbacks at state-run prison facilities by 2011. That's why the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) took action to reduce interstate calling rates. There's a nationwide consensus that putting the welfare of prisoners and prisoner families ahead of profit is the right thing to do.
The crazy quilt of differing county and state legislation, which is what accounts for B's predicament, needs to become a thing of the past.
There's no difference between prisoners in federal prisons, those in state prisons and the occupants of local juvenile facilities, county jails, and immigration detention centers. In fact, the people most victimized by these insane commission rates are, in most cases, charged with less grave crimes and incarcerated for briefer periods of time.
In my state, California, this double standard is the rule, and it's not the only one. If local sheriffs departments are balancing their budgets on the back of the families of juvenile offenders, they need to come up with another funding model.
Prisoner families are often a stressed out and disorganized constituency. That is no surprise. So it's up to all of us to peek under the curtain at the county we live in and see how many hundreds of thousands of dollars are being taken in as kickbacks. If you're living in a county with 30%, 40%, 50%, 60% commissions, talk to the local newspaper and the local TV station and ask why we are colluding in the loss of contact between troubled kids and their families.
As a first step, go to the National Campaign for Prison Phone Justice website and see if there's a local group in your state working to halt predatory prison phone rates.
Sometimes the ability to connect can save a life.