• Corporate Censorship Brought Us the America I Always Feared

    August 13, 2018 // 4 Comments »

    When I was in Iran earlier this year, the government there blocked Twitter, deciding for a whole nation what they can not see. In America, Twitter purges users, deciding for a whole nation what they can not see. It matters little whose hand is on the switch, the end result is the same. This is the America I always feared I’d see.

    Speech in America is an unalienable right, and goes as deep into the concept of a free society as any idea can. Thomas Jefferson wrote of the right flowing from his notion of a Creator, not from government. Jefferson’s 18th century invocation is understood now as less that free speech is heaven-sent and more that it is something existing above government. And so the argument the First Amendment applies only to government and not to all public speaking (including private platforms like Twitter) is thus both true and irrelevant, and the latter is more important.

    The government remains a terrifying threat to free speech. An Espionage Act prosecution against Wikileaks’ Julian Assange will create precedent for use against any mainstream journalist. The war on whistleblowers which started under Obama continues under Trump. Media are forced to register as propaganda agents. Universities restrict controversial speakers. The Trump administration no doubt will break the record (77%) for redacting or denying access to government files under the Freedom of Information Act.

    But there is another threat to freedom of speech now, corporate censorship. It is often dressed up with NewSpeak terms like deplatforming, restricting hate speech, or simply applying Terms of Service. Corporations always did what they wanted with speech. Our protection against corporate overreach used to rely on an idea Americans once held dear, enshrined as “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend your right to say it.” The concept was core to a democracy: everyone supports the right of others to throw ideas into the marketplace independent. An informed people would sort through it all, and bad ideas would be pushed away by better ones. That system more or less worked for 240 years.

    For lack of a more precise starting point, the election of Donald Trump did away with near-universal agreement on defending the right to speak without defending the content, driven by a belief too much free speech helped Trump get elected. Large numbers of Americans began not just to tolerate, but to demand censorship. They wanted universities to deplatform speakers they did not agree with, giggling over the fact the old-timey 1A didn’t apply and there was nothing “conservatives” could do. They expressed themselves in violence, demanding censorship by “punching Nazis.” Such brownshirt-like violence was endorsed by The Nation, once America’s clearest voice for freedom. The most startling change came within the American Civil Liberties Union, who enshrined the “defend the right, not the speech” concept in the 1970s when it defended the free speech rights of Nazis, and went on to defend the speech rights of white supremacists in Charlottesville.

    Not so much anymore. The ACLU now applies a test to the free speech cases it will defend, weighing their impact on other rights (for example, the right to say the N-word versus the rights of POC.) The ACLU in 2018 is siding with those who believe speech can be secondary to other political goals. Censorship has a place, says the ACLU, when it serves what they believe is a greater good.

    A growing segment of public opinion isn’t just in favor of this, it demands it. So when years-old tweets clash with 2018 definitions of racism and sexism, companies fire employees. Under public pressure, Amazon removed “Nazi paraphernalia and other far-right junk” from its online store. It was actually just some nasty Halloween gear and Confederate flag merch, but the issue is not the value of the products — that’s part of any free speech debate — it’s corporate censorship being used to stifle debate by literally in this case pulling things out of the marketplace.

    Alex Jones’ InfoWars was deplatformed off download sites where it has been available for years, including Apple, YouTube (owned by Google), Spotify, and Amazon, for promoting “hate speech.” Huffington Post wondered why more platforms, such as Instagram, haven’t done away with Jones and his hate speech.

    That term, hate speech, clearly not prohibited by the Supreme Court, is an umbrella word now used by censorship advocates for, well, basically anything they don’t want others to be able to listen to or watch. It is very flexible and thus very dangerous. As during the McCarthy-era in the 1950s when one needed only to label something “Communist” to have it banned, so it is today with the new mark of “hate speech.” The parallels are chilling — it was in the McCarthy-era Hollywood created its infamous blacklists, actors and writers who could not work because of their political beliefs.

    Twitter is perhaps the most infamous platform to censor its content. The site bans advertising from Russian media outlets RT and Sputnik. Twitter suspends the accounts of those who promote (what it defines as) hate and violence, “shadow bans” others to limit their audience, and tweaks its trending topics to push certain political ideas and downplay others. It regularly purges users and bans “hateful symbols.” There are near-daily demands by increasingly organized groups calling on Twitter to censor specific users, with Trump at the top of that list. The point is always the same: to limit what ideas you can be exposed to and narrow debate.

    Part of the 2018 problem is the trust people place in “good companies” like Amazon, Facebook, and Twitter. Anthropomorphizing them as Jeff, and Zuck, and @jack is popular, along with a focus on their “values.” It seems to make sense, especially now when many of the people making decisions on corporate censorship are the same age and hold the same political views as those demanding they do it.

    Of course people age, values shift, what seems good to block today might change. But the main problem is companies exist to make money and will do what they need to do to make money. You can’t count on them past that. Handing over free speech rights to an entity whose core purpose has nothing to do with free speech means they will quash ideas when they conflict with what they are really about. People who gleefully celebrate the fact that @jack who runs Twitter is not held back by the 1A and can censor at will seem to believe he will always yield his power in the way they want him to.

    Google has a slogan reading “do no evil.” Yet in China Google will soon deploy Dragonfly, a version of its search engine that will meet Beijing’s demands for censorship by blocking websites on command. Of course in China they don’t call it hate speech, they call it anti-societal speech, and the propaganda Google will block isn’t from Russian bots but from respected global media. In the U.S. Google blocks users from their own documents saved in Drive if the service feels the documents are “abusive.” Backin China Apple removes apps from its store on command of the government in return for market access. Amazon, who agreed to remove hateful merch from its store in the U.S., the same week confirmed it is “unwaveringly committed to the U.S. government and the governments we work with around the world” using its AI and facial recognition technology to spy on their own people. Faced with the loss of billions of dollars, as was the case for Google and Apple in China, what will corporations do in America?

    Once upon a time an easy solution to corporate censorship was to take one’s business elsewhere. The 2018 problem is with the scale of platforms like Amazon, near global monopolies all. Pretending Amazon, which owns the Washington Post, and with the reach to influence elections, is just another company that sells things is to pretend the role of unfettered debate in a free society is outdated. Yeah, you can for now still go through hoops to download stuff outside the Apple store or Google Play, but those platforms more realistically control access to your device. Censored on Twitter? No problem big guy, go try Myspace, and maybe Bing will notice you. Technology and market dominance changed the nature of censorship so free speech is as much about finding an audience as it is about finding a place to speak. Corporate censorship is at the cutting edge of a reality targeting both speakers (Twitter suspends someone) and listeners (Apple won’t post that person’s videos made off-platform). Ideas need to be discoverable to enter the debate; in 1776 you went to the town square. In 2018 it’s Twitter.

    In the run up to the midterm elections, Senator Chris Murphy, ironically in a tweet, demanded social media censor more aggressively for the “survival of our democracy,” implying those companies can act as proxies for those still held back by the First Amendment. We already know the companies involved can censor. The debate is over what happens when they do.

    A PERSONAL NOTE: Some readers are aware I have been permanently suspended from Twitter as @wemeantwell. This followed exchanges with several mainstream journalists over their support for America’s wars and unwillingness to challenge government lies. Twitter sent an auto-response saying what I wrote “harasses, intimidates, or uses fear to silence someone else’s voice.” I don’t think I did any of that, and I wish you didn’t have to accept my word on it. I wish instead you could read what I wrote and decide for yourself. But Twitter won’t allow it. Twitter says you cannot read and make up your own mind. They have in fact eliminated all the things I have ever written there over seven years, disappeared me down the Memory Hole. That’s why all censorship is wrong; it takes the power to decide what is right and wrong away from you and gives it to someone else.

    I lost my career at the State Department because I spoke out as a whistleblower against the Iraq War. I’ve now been silenced, again, for speaking out, this time by a corporation. I am living in the America I always feared.

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    Copyright © 2018. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!

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    Posted in Democracy, Post-Constitution America, Trump

    Post-Constitutional America: What We’ve Lost Since 9/11

    October 13, 2015 // 10 Comments »

    obama_burns_constitution


    Ed Snowden is right. We have lost too many of our freedoms. What the hell happened?


    The United States has entered its third great era is what happened. The first, starting from the colonists’ arrival, saw the principles of the Enlightenment used to push back the abuses of an imperial government and create the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. The next two hundred some years, imperfect as they were, saw those principles progress, putting into practice what an evolving government of the people might look like.

    We are now wading in the shallow waters of the third era, Post-Constitutional America, a time when our government is abandoning the basic ideas that saw our nation through centuries of challenges. Those ideas– enshrined in the Bill of Rights– are disarmingly concise, the haiku of a People’s government. Deeper, darker waters lay in front of us, and we are drawn down into them. The king, jealous of the People’s power, wants some back.


    Pre-Constitutional America: 1765-1789

    History turns out to be everything that matters. America in its Pre-Constitutional days may seem familiar to even casual readers of current events. We lived under the control of a king, a powerful executive who was beholden only to the rich landowners and nobles who supported him. The king’s purpose was simple: to use his power over Americans to draw the maximum financial gain out of the colony, suppressing dissent in service to the goal and to maintain his own power.

    If you lived in Pre-Constitutional America, you knew that imposed laws could be brutal, and punishments swift and often extra-judicial. Protest was dangerous. Speech could make you the enemy of the government that ruled you. Journalism could be a crime.


    Nothing to Hide, Nothing to Fear?

    There were many offenses against liberty in Pre-Constitutional America. One pivotal event, the Stamp Act of 1765, stands out. To enforce the taxes imposed by the Act, the king’s men used “writs of assistance” that allowed them to burst into any home or business, with or without suspicion. Americans’ property and privacy were torn apart, ransacked, often times more as a warning of the king’s power than any “legitimate” purpose the original approved law might have held. Some American was then the first to mutter in ignorance “But if I have nothing to hide, why should I be afraid?” He learned soon enough everyone was treated as an enemy of the government, everyone, it seemed, had something to hide, even if it turned out they did not.

    The Stamp Act, and the flood of similar offenses, created in the Founders a profound suspicion of government unchecked, a confirmation that power and freedom cannot coexist in a democracy. What was needed, in addition to the body of the Constitution which outlined what the new nation’s government could do, was a remuneration of what that government could not do. The answer was the Bill of Rights.


    Never Again: 1789 – 9/11/2001

    There was no mistaking it: the Bill of Rights was written to make sure that America’s new government would not be the old government of a king. Each important amendment spoke directly to a specific offense committed by the king. The Bill would protect Americans from their government. The rights enumerated in the Bill were not granted by the government, but already present within the People. The Bill said what the government could not take away. Never again, the Founders said.

    For over 200 years the Bill of Rights expanded and contracted. Yet through out, the basic principles that guided America were sustained despite war, depression and endless challenges. It was a bumpy road, but it was a road that traveled forward.

    (The Founders were imperfect men, and very much of their era. As such, the rights of women and Native Americans were not addressed. Shamefully, the Bill of Rights did not destroy the institution of slavery, our nation’s Original Sin. It would take many years, and often much blood, to make up for those mistakes.)


    Post-Constitutional America: 9/12/2001 to the Present

    Then, one sharp, blue September 11 morning, everything changed, and our Post-Constitutional era began.

    You know the story: NSA spying, drone killing, Guantanamo, arbitrary arrests and police violence. And for every short-hand example, there are many other motes of shame you have probably thought of as you read. If not, open today’s newspaper or Google “NSA” and they’ll most likely be there. Remember too that Manning, Snowden and other whistleblowers were able to pass on only relatively small portions of the information the government is trying to hide, and we haven’t even seen all of the Snowden documents yet.

    But isn’t it all legal? Taking the most generous position, all the things the king did, and the government now does, were (albeit often in classified form) approved in (albeit often secret) courts. But in Constitutional America, there was a standard above the law, the Constitution itself. The actions of the executive and the laws passed by Congress were only legal when they did not conflict with the underlying principles of our democracy.

    The accepted history of our descent into a Post-Constitutional state is following 9/11, evil people under the leadership of Dick Cheney, with the tacit support of a dunce like George W. Bush, pushed through legally-lite measures to allow kidnapping, torture, imprisonment and indefinite detention, all direct contraventions of the Bill of Rights. Obama, elected on what are now seen as a series of false promises to roll back the worst of the Bush era-crimes, went full-in for the same or more. That’s the common narrative, and it is mostly true.

    What is missing is a more complete view. Even today, years after 9/11, 45 percent of Americans say that torture is “sometimes necessary and acceptable to gain information that may protect the public.” Snowden’s revelations about the NSA revealed in depth how far the government has gone, though much of the raw outlines of what he filled in have been known for several years without much exposure in the mainstream media.

    Americans, ignorant of their own history, seem unsure whether or not the NSA’s actions are indeed justified, and many feel Snowden and the journalists who published his material are criminals. The most common meme related to whistleblowers is “Patriot or Traitor?” and toward the war on terror, “Security or Freedom?” There is no widespread movement toward any real change in what the government has been doing. It seems many Americans like it, and support it.

    To return to the set of rules, laws and beliefs that we still claim in high school civics classes define us, the Bill of Rights, means first deciding we will no longer agree to have those rights taken away from us. No, no, not taken away– given away, too easily. Too many Americans, compelled by fear and assured by propaganda, want the government to expand its powers further, embracing dumb-headly the idea that freedom is in conflict with security. The Founders, even as they remained under significant threat from the then-World’s Most Powerful Nation, knew all along the real dangers did not lie out over the water, but on land, at home, inside.

    But wait, people say. I write angry emails all the time and nobody has kicked down my door. I went to court for something and it worked just the way the rules said. I was randomly selected at the airport and it took five minutes, no big deal. True all. For people who’s last strongly held belief was over who got cheated on the last round of Dancing with the Stars, life isn’t very different.

    At issue in post-Constitutional America is not that all rights for all people all the time will disappear (though privacy seems on the chopping block.) It is that the government now decides when, where and how the rights which were said to be inalienable still apply. Those decisions will likely be made in secret and will be enforced without recourse. You’ll never know who is next.

    We are the first to see what is post-Constitutional America, and perhaps the last who might stop it.



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    Posted in Democracy, Post-Constitution America, Trump

    NSA Cites 1959 Law, Claims Use of Their Seal and Name is Illegal

    September 21, 2013 // 25 Comments »

    The path downwards in our post-Constitutional America starts with the large failures, and will end in petty indignities. Such is the nature of a fascist state. It must crush any dissent, however pointless, and it must control everything.


    Having swept aside the Bill of Rights with ease, the NSA under the control of the White House, now descends to pettiness.


    Two days after the first revelations of NSA mendacity, an entrepreneur named Dan McCall put up a handful of T-shirts and bumper stickers for sale on the custom goods marketplace Zazzle. Each of those items had a faux NSA logo, emblazoned with the slogan “Peeping While You’re Sleeping,” plus the joke line “The only part of the government that actually listens.”

    Within an hour or two Dan received an email from Zazzle stating:

    Design contains an image or text that may infringe on intellectual property rights. We have been contacted by the intellectual property right holder and we will be removing your product from Zazzle’s Marketplace due to infringement claims. Specifically, your product contained content which infringes upon the intellectual property rights of National Security Agency. We have been contacted by legal representatives from the National Security Agency, and at their request, have removed the product from the Zazzle Marketplace.

    The NSA had stepped in, quickly enough to surmise they had been monitoring the transaction, citing Public Law 86-36, from 1959. Specifically, the NSA referenced Section 15 (a) which states in its entirety (emphasis added):

    No person may, except with the written permission of the Director of the National Security Agency, knowingly use the words ‘National Security Agency’, the initials ‘NSA’, the seal of the National Security Agency, or any colorable imitation of such words, initials, or seal in connection with any merchandise, impersonation, solicitation, or commercial activity in a manner reasonably calculated to convey the impression that such use is approved, endorsed, or authorized by the National Security Agency.

    Leaving aside the reality that many others online (as well as every street vendor in Washington, DC) sells NSA gear, including Zazzle competitor Cafe Press, there is no evidence that Dan’s use of the NSA logo in any way conveys the impression that the use is approved or authorized by the NSA. Quite the opposite; his open mocking of the NSA and amended seal convey that he thinks the NSA is a bunch of bullying wankers.

    Not that any of this is new; my own former employer, the Department of State, went after me for using its seal in a piece of journalism protected by the First Amendment. In 2005 the George W. Bush White House demanded that The Onion stop using George’s seal.

    The NSA stated that “At any time that NSA is made aware that the NSA Seal is being used without our permission, we will take appropriate actions.” Well, NSA, better turn those satellite dishes and unleash the lawyers against this site, where Dan McCall is now selling his NSA faux logo gear.

    And, in fact, you better go after this blog, as well as the New York Times, Buzzfeed and a zillion other places, because we all have and continue to violate Public Law 86-36 by “knowingly us(ing) the words ‘National Security Agency’, the initials ‘NSA’, the seal of the National Security Agency.”

    So here is what in our present State passes for an act of civil disobedience:




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    Posted in Democracy, Post-Constitution America, Trump

    Judge Rules Part of Patriot Act Unconstitutional

    October 15, 2011 // 1 Comment »

    In significant victory for reality (and freedom), two provisions of the so-called “Patriot Act” were ruled unconstitutional because they allow search warrants to be issued without a showing of probable cause.

    U.S. District Judge Ann Aiken ruled that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, as amended by the Patriot Act, “now permits the executive branch of government to conduct surveillance and searches of American citizens without satisfying the probable cause requirements of the Fourth Amendment.”

    By asking her to dismiss the lawsuit, the judge said, the U.S. attorney general’s office was “asking this court to, in essence, amend the Bill of Rights, by giving it an interpretation that would deprive it of any real meaning. This court declines to do so.”

    Here’s the money quote from the judge:

    “For over 200 years, this Nation has adhered to the rule of law — with unparalleled success. A shift to a Nation based on extra-constitutional authority is prohibited, as well as ill-advised.”



    Read more on MSNBC.



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    Copyright © 2018. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!

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    Posted in Democracy, Post-Constitution America, Trump

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