Author Archives: Sarah Baker

The Mirror in Ferguson

protecting shop

Ferguson residents guard local businesses from looters.

I had mixed feelings about sharing these two videos by Johnathan Gentry and Fredrick Wilson respectively. On the one hand, I disagree with some of the collectivist assumptions reflected. I do not think, for example, that law-abiding people have some peculiar responsibility for crimes committed by others, merely because their skin tones are similar. I reject the very concept of race—biological essentialism being obsolete at least as applied to racial categorizations—and would prefer a world in which people’s group identities were defined by their values and interests rather than the shades of their skin.

Nevertheless, there is a message of strength and empowerment in these videos so rare in this day and age that the words deserve to be heard—not just by their intended audience of people who look a certain way on the outside, but by everyone who sometimes fails to look hard enough inside themselves. I could not get the videos to appear as previews, so please click on the links above and watch both, because these men’s words are more powerful and thought-provoking than anything I could write.

Increasingly, we blame rich people, corporations, white people, the patriarchy, the government, politicians, our parents, our bosses, our teachers—everyone but ourselves—for the circumstances of our lives. Sometimes it is painful to look in the mirror and acknowledge that we are where we are, not because the world is unfair, but because of our own choices and actions—even harder to consider that we could get somewhere else, starting now, if we would but expend the effort.

Ferguson is the ultimate mirror, forcing that hard look.

Natalie Dubose's bakery was destroyed in the Ferguson rioting. A GoFundMe campaign has been set up to help her rebuild.

Natalie Dubose’s bakery was destroyed in the Ferguson rioting. A GoFundMe campaign has been set up to help her rebuild.

When we remember to see ourselves and each other as individuals in categories of one, instead of archetypes of the groups to which we belong—white cop, black man, Asian student, working poor, the 1%, Christian, Muslim, woman, mother, Jew—it becomes possible to consider that Officer Wilson may have been justified in using deadly force—and still acknowledge the increasing militarization of the police and that some police departments have race relation problems. To accept that Wilson likely would have been acquitted after trial—and still ask questions about the strange way the grand jury proceeding was conducted. To contemplate that the grand jury made the right decision and simultaneously acknowledge that people see more phantom guns when they are looking at someone of another race. To ask questions about how police interact with members of some communities and not lose sight of the fact that unarmed white men are killed by cops too.

Because pumpkins.

Because pumpkins.

It becomes possible to recognize that people with darker shades of skin are no more responsible for rioting in the wake of a grand jury proceeding than people with lighter skin are responsible for rioting at pumpkin festivals or in the wake of a sporting event. The vast majority of people of all the arbitrary groupings we call “races” are law-abiding. Finding differences at the extremes and then generalizing them to everyone in the group is falling for the fallacy of the tails.

Yet there is something inherently inconsistent about objecting to being stereotyped based on your race or gender or religion or nationality or class—while simultaneously embracing that group identity.

If your identity is tied to a shared history of oppression, a struggle against obstacles and unfairness so overwhelming that other members of your group have snapped in anger or folded under the pressure, you cannot simultaneously ask others to ignore this aspect of your identity when they interact with you.

Shirt Storm

Matt Taylor, space scientist, shirt wearer.

It is the same fundamental mistake made by the women of #ShirtGate. You cannot proclaim yourself so disempowered that pictures of scantily clad fictional women on a shirt impact your comfort in the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) and simultaneously demand to be treated as equal in these fields. As Glenn Reynolds so aptly stated:

It seems to me that if you care about women in STEM, maybe you shouldn’t want to communicate the notion that they’re so delicate that they can’t handle pictures of comic-book women. Will we stock our Mars spacecraft with fainting couches?

You cannot have it both ways.

You have to choose.

Are you an individual who overcomes what the world throws your way? Or have you embraced a group identity defined by oppression that mutes your abilities and exempts you from personal responsibility for your actions and your outcomes?

The choice is yours.

Accept that you will be judged and treated accordingly.

Sarah Baker is a libertarian, attorney and writer. She lives in Montana with her daughter and a house full of pets.

Watching the Watchers: Resistance to Transparency a Problem at Every Level of Government

We do not have leaders in the United States of America. We have representatives. They are chosen by us to do a job for us. They are our employees. We do not owe them any respect or subservience beyond the same basic respect we choose to show fellow human beings, and in particular those who are our employees.

And we have a right to watch them.

Yet at all levels of government, we face rebellion against our right to watch.

STATE LEGISLATURE IN THE NEWS FOR VIOLATING OPEN MEETING LAWS

Open MeetingsOne of the Republican candidates for my state’s legislature actually came to my door twice this election cycle in an effort to earn my vote. Even had I been otherwise inclined to vote for him, his refusal to answer voter guide questionnaires would have been a deal-breaker.

He explained at my door that politicians who answer voter guide questions are sometimes “discriminated against for their religion.” Only by questioning him on my porch was I able to elicit his position on issues from gay marriage to the War on Drugs—which he supports because “we need to be moral.”

He won handily without my vote and is now a state senator. His counterparts in the state House have just made news by, once again, being accused of violating Montana’s open meeting laws. Earlier this month, the House Republican Caucus met in the basement of a hotel without providing the requisite notice. During the 2013 session, the Caucus similarly met in the basement of the state Capitol without posting notice.

The state media have been quick to point out that both parties and both houses of the state legislature routinely violate the state’s open meeting laws. The interviews with the politicians engaged in such violations are candid and telling. One Democrat senator, for example, detailed how rather than simply post the notice and allow reporters to cover the event, his party would instead make just enough people leave to be under the limit of the notice requirements:

“We were always mindful of the numbers,” added Sen. Mike Phillips, D-Bozeman. “And when we realized we were over the limit, someone would leave.”

One of his Republican counterparts lamented that the open meeting requirements make it “impossible” for elected politicians to talk to each other:

Where do you draw the line?” he asked. “How does a group function if they can’t get together and talk to each other? This is supposed to be a country of freedom of association and freedom of speech. If you’re going to take that away at a caucus, how is the caucus going to function?”

He does not seem to understand that the caucuses can still talk, even if the people they work for are listening. If they do not want the voters to know about it, perhaps they ought not be doing it.

POLICE DEPARTMENTS RESIST BEING RECORDED

olson_scottOn Saturday night, Ferguson police arrested a member of the press, apparently for standing on a sidewalk. This comes in the wake of federal court orders directing that Ferguson police not engage in any practice of interfering with citizens’ right to record police. These orders were obtained based on events following the death of Michael Brown, in which police detained journalists, wrongfully interfered with people recording the protests and police response, and instituted a no-fly zone to prevent the media from flying over.

Both cops and citizens behave better when they know they are being recorded. Recordings exonerate innocent people who have been wrongfully accused and help ensure that the right people are punished. Those who have been wrongly accused may find that someone similar to these denver criminal defense attorneys may be able to help them with their case, helping them to prove their innocence and get their life back on track, As Reason’s Ronald Bailey has reported:

Earlier this year, a 12-month study by Cambridge University researchers revealed that when the city of Rialto, California, required its cops to wear cameras, the number of complaints filed against officers fell by 88 percent and the use of force by officers dropped by almost 60 percent. Watched cops are polite cops.

Yet all over the country, police continue to harass citizens who lawfully record the police, a fairly well recognized right in these United States.

Police officers are not our overlords. They are public employees hired by the people to enforce the laws passed by the people. Like any other employer, We, The People, get to watch the work done by our employee police officers.

MOST TRANSPARENT ADMINISTRATION IN HISTORY

Obama secretOpen enrollment for Affordable Care Act health plans began in mid November. States have been releasing their enrollment numbers. But trying to get enrollment numbers from the federal government continues to be like pulling teeth.

In the wake of an embarrassing revelation about an “unacceptable” mistake inflating the total enrollment numbers, Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell has ordered her agency to come up with ways to increase transparency. I hope she follows through.

But the “most transparent administration in history” has a mixed record on living up to its own hype. Lingering questions remain about the transparency of the drone program. Just this week, the administration continued its established practice of dumping thousands of new regulations on the eve of a major holiday.

Let us not forget that last month, USA Today Washington Bureau Chief Susan Page called this administration “the most restrictive” and “most dangerous” to the press than any other in history. She echoes sentiments expressed earlier this year by New York Times editor Jill Abramson, who said the Obama administration is setting new standards for secrecy:

“The Obama years are a benchmark for a new level of secrecy and control,” says Abramson. “It’s created quite a challenging atmosphere for The New York Times, and for some of the best reporters in my newsroom who cover national security issues in Washington.”

* * *

Those that are covering national security, according to Abramson, say that is has never been more difficult to get information.

* * *

Abramson says that the Obama Administration uses legal loopholes to make things difficult for journalists and media organizations. She says, for example, that the Obama Justice Department pursues cases against reporters under an obscure provision of the 1917 Espionage Act.

“I think, in a back door way using an obscure provision of an old law, they are tip-toeing close to things that, here in the United States, we’ve never had,” says Abramson.

* * *

While Abramson says that the White House hasn’t completely shut out the U.S. press corps, even routine media coverage has become difficult to obtain.

“The amount of friction and confrontation involved in just going about what I see as perfectly normal coverage, that in the past wouldn’t have even provoked a discussion, becomes a protracted and somewhat exhausting process,” she says.

As technology and government overreach continue to threaten the walls of privacy that traditionally protected Americans, we must be vigilant in making sure the watchers are themselves watched. They are not leaders, but employees. We should demand that they conduct themselves as such. That entails consistently subjecting their official conduct to scrutiny.

_____________________________________________________

Open Meetings image via In El Dorado County News. Ferguson image via The Center for Media and Democracy’s PR Watch. Obama image via Poor Richard’s News.

Sarah Baker is a libertarian, attorney and writer. She lives in Montana with her daughter and a house full of pets.

Obama Using “Net Neutrality” to Obscure Federal Take-Over of Internet

fiber-optic-cable“The government will fuck the Internet up.”

So says Mark Cuban. Truer words were never spoken. Allowing the federal government to treat the Internet as a public utility, as President Obama is calling for, under the guise of “net neutrality,” is an abysmally bad idea.

To be clear, “net neutrality” and public utility regulation are two different but equally bad ideas. It appears Obama is using the former in a cynical bid to trick the electorate into accepting the latter. Neither is needed and both are undesirable.

“NET NEUTRALITY”

Net neutrality is the idea that, having paid for Internet service, consumers should have unfettered access to all content. It would prevent a whole host of business model experiments that Internet Service Providers (ISPs) might otherwise try:

  • Selling tiered data plans like cell phone companies do.
  • Developing their own content and then delivering that content at higher speeds than they deliver a competitor’s content.
  • Creating different “lanes” of Internet traffic and charging higher prices to content providers or users for access to the “fast lanes.”
  • Preferring certain content providers to others, likely depending on who pays.
  • Blocking users from using certain online content that takes up too much bandwidth and slows down the network for other customers.

I see none of this as frightening. We pay different rates based on the size and weight of the mail we send. We pay different rates for concert seats, cell phone plans, Netflix memberships, cable subscriptions and a whole host of other services.

The sun still rises.

What consumers who demand heavy content at low cost really want is to have other users overpay for light content while suffering the slow buffering speeds caused by the heavey users. As Casey Given, writing for Rare, observes:

Even if the FCC’s worst fears come to fruition and ISPs start charging cell phone-style “plans” for different levels of Internet access, online access would only become cheaper for low data users. As it is today, a grandmother who logs online once a day pays just as much as the tech-savvy teenager next door who regularly downloads gigabytes of data. As such, she is subsidizing his usage and could instead be paying a cheaper rate if her ISP offered varying plans.

In any case, ISPs own their technology and infrastructure. They invested in that property with the aim of making a profit. The idea that the public has some sort of claim against the property of ISPs reflects a sense of entitlement I cannot endorse. Rights are things we get to do—not things we get to have at others’ expense.

It is where we stand on this principle in the hard cases that defines us.

In addition to heavy content users, the other main beneficiaries of net neutrality are Internet giants like Facebook, Google and Netflix. These companies do not want to be charged by ISPs for the heavy traffic their users generate while slowing down buffering speeds for everyone else.

But is there any reason we should prefer the profit of big content providers over the profit of ISPs? Is there some principle that says Netflix should be allowed to earn whatever profit the market permits—but not the ISPs who deliver its content to consumers?

As Doug Mataconis wrote for TLP back in 2010:

It’s Comcast’s network, [it] should have the right to decide how it’s used and to take action to protect its property and its other customers.

PUBLIC UTILITY REGULATION

Obama’s plan to regulate the Internet is not the same as net neutrality. His plan is to treat it as a public utility, the “most draconian” level of regulation that could apply. It would require ISPs to provide universal service, i.e., “wire up every house.”

It would also allow them to charge the rates necessary to recoup that expenditure at a profit. In fact, public utility regulations allow the type of tiered pricing net neutrality advocates want to prevent:

What some critics of the Commission’s recent proposal may not realize is that even if the FCC agrees to impose the price, non-discrimination, and other forms of common carrier regulation on ISPs, Title II reclassification, would not necessarily ban paid prioritization. As former enforcement director at the Federal Trade Commission, David Balto, has pointed out, the title only prohibits “unjust and unreasonable” differences in services. Carriers regulated under Title II still “may offer different pricing (including volume and term discounts) … so long as they are ‘generally available to similarly situated customers.’”

In plain English, all this means that if some websites, like Netflix, want “faster lanes” on broadband networks, the providers of those networks can charge extra for that service even under Title II, so long as they stand ready to offer the same service to all similarly situated comers.

So Obama’s proposal presents a solution that does not fit the purported problem—which may not even exist.

In June 2006, there were two or more broadband providers in 92 percent of the nation’s zip codes, and four or more providers in 87 percent. A June 2014 study found at least two providers (wireline and wireless) for virtually all of the U.S., and at least two providers (cable and telephone) in nearly three quarters. Nick Gillespie reports at Time Magazine that 80% of households have at least two providers capable of delivering the Internet at 10Mbps or faster.

This access has been achieved even as prices have gone down:

President Obama’s call this week to regulate the Internet as a public utility is like pushing to replace the engine of a car that runs perfectly well. The U.S. data sector — including wired and wireless broadband — is the envy of the world, administering a powerful boost to consumer welfare, generating high-paying jobs and encouraging tens of billions of dollars in corporate investment. Indeed, the prices of data-related goods and services have dropped by almost 20 percent since 2007.

So what is really going on? Does Obama really think the future of the Internet requires the government to sort out squabbles between Netflix and Comast?

I doubt it.

Maybe it is intended to deliver to big donors. Maybe it is about the 16.1% tax on interstate revenues that would be paid by broadband consumers. Or maybe it is something more sinister. As Christopher Bowen wrote last week:

The problem with the government regulating the internet is that … when they get to determine the rules, the consequences turn sinister.

*     *     *

What about communications of interest to the government, such as anything with heavy encryption? Or Tor?

The government has a direct interest in controlling that kind of traffic—hello, Wikileaks/Edward Snowden/any other whistleblower—and if anyone thinks the federal government will look the other way on these things, they are naive.

This isn’t just a possibility, it’s the reality of current legislation on the books, as Chris Byrne pointed out in 2006. Every single packet, every communication, every image, would be captured and stored—by law—if common carrier became the letter of the law in regards to internet traffic, without a warrant, and it would take just a rubber stamp to get a warrant that would be used to punish anyone the government pleases…

REGULATION HURTS INVESTMENT IN INFRASTRUCTURE

For years, federal agencies themselves have resisted calls for regulation, on the states basis that forcing ISPs to treat content neutrally was not necessary, would impede the development of infrastructure, and would have an adverse effect on consumer welfare.

That is because developing the technology to respond to demands for bandwidth requires heavy investment. In fact, in 2013, telecom and cable companies topped the list of industries investing in the U.S., to the tune of $46 billion in investment.

Regulation cuts into the profits that encourage that level of investment.

This Cato Institute podcast, for example, covers the fact that Google Fiber does not provide Title II (public utility) services precisely to avoid the onerous regulations that come along with such endeavor. Another stark reminder of this basic fact came in the wake of the President’s message. On November 12, 2014, AT&T announced it would delay installing high-speed fiber-optic Internet infrastructure in 100 U.S. cities until the rules were clarified.

Perhaps this is why the American people oppose regulation. A November 2014 survey by Rasumussen Reports found that 61% oppose federal regulation of the Internet. Only 19% want more regulation than we already have. What is more, seventy-six percent like the quality of their Internet access.

Only 5% have complaints.

At best this is a solution in search of a problem. At worst, this is a Jonathan Gruber style misinformation campaign, designed to lull the public into complacency as the federal government assumes control of the Internet.

This time, let’s not fall for it.

Image via BandwithPlace.com

Sarah Baker is a libertarian, attorney and writer. She lives in Montana with her daughter and a house full of pets.

Privacy Is Dead, Long Live Privacy

Nothing beyond our reach“Americans Say They Want Privacy, but Act as if They Don’t.” Thus proclaims the headline from Claire Cain Miller, writing at the New York Times. Miller is talking about the results of a new survey from the Pew Research Center, finding that Americans do not feel secure entrusting their personal information to digital communication channels. Their distrust is directed at both private businesses and the government.

But, as Miller notes, they keep sharing anyway.

Perhaps the paradox is tied to our evolution, from the time when early man lived in caves, with few walls separating members of a clan; when to the extent anyone had privacy, it existed only because others voluntarily averted their eyes. Perhaps a buried part of us longs for the days when family members slept in the same room, children shared beds and people lived entire lives in the town where they were born.

When we were anchored in communities that bore witness to the minutiae of our lives.

Miller’s headline reminded me of a piece from earlier this year called Why You Should Embrace Surveillance, Not Fight It, by Kevin Kelly at Wired. Kelly reminds us that:

[T]ransparency is truly ancient. For eons humans have lived in tribes and clans where every act was open and visible and there were no secrets. We evolved with constant co-monitoring. Contrary to our modern suspicions, there wouldn’t be a backlash against a circular world where we constantly spy on each other because we lived like this for a million years, and — if truly equitable and symmetrical — it can feel comfortable.

Families and communities knew each other’s business. Privacy was nothing more than an extension of courtesy, the voluntary willingness of others to avert their eyes.

The Industrial Revolution changed that. We moved away from our families and towns of origin. Our houses got bigger, the walls and doors more plentiful, until even the baby had her own room.

Now technology—the same force that once drove us away from our circles of watchers– has delivered new circles and new watchers.

What the Industrial Revolution took away, the Internet gives back. We are no longer six degrees from Kevin Bacon, but three degrees from everyone.

Privacy as we have briefly known it is on its way back out. As Kelly writes:

Most likely, 50 years from now ubiquitous monitoring and surveillance will be the norm. The internet is a tracking machine. It is engineered to track. We will ceaselessly self-track and be tracked by the greater network, corporations, and governments. Everything that can be measured is already tracked, and all that was previously unmeasureable is becoming quantified, digitized, and trackable.

Why is Kelly so sure? Because governments are abusive and out of control? No. He is sure about us, about the choices we will make:

[I]f today’s social media has taught us anything about ourselves as a species it is that the human impulse to share trumps the human impulse for privacy. So far, at every juncture that offers a technological choice between privacy or sharing, we’ve tilted, on average, towards more sharing, more disclosure.

*     *     *

The self forged by previous centuries will no longer suffice. We are now remaking the self with technology. We’ve broadened our circle of empathy, from clan to race, race to species, and soon beyond that. We’ve extended our bodies and minds with tools and hardware. We are now expanding our self by inhabiting virtual spaces, linking up to billions of other minds, and trillions of other mechanical intelligences. We are wider than we were, and as we offload our memories to infinite machines, deeper in some ways.

In other words, we want all of the things by which we will destroy our own privacy. We want the ease and convenience of cashless transactions and online purchasing. We want the masturbatory self-stroking of publishing our every whim and thought onto the perpetual web. We want limitless hotspots where we can be permanently plugged into the extended selves our devices allow us to be. We want the security of seeing through clothing and walls and across distances and time.

We don’t just want it. We demand it.

The Pew Research results suggest the future of privacy may be the same as its past. The voluntary willingness of others to turn theirs heads.

To pretend they do not see.

Parts of this post previously appeared on my website LibertyGroundZero.com. The image is via TechDirt.com.

Sarah Baker is a writer, libertarian and attorney, living in Bozeman, Montana, with her daughter and a houseful of pets. She can be found on Facebook or Twitter.

Sarah Baker is a libertarian, attorney and writer. She lives in Montana with her daughter and a house full of pets.

Senator Rand Paul Will Oppose USA Freedom Act

Rand PaulThe Senate is poised to vote, as early as this week, on its version of the USA Freedom Act. On Friday, however, one of Senator Rand Paul’s aides told The Hill that there are significant problems with the Senate’s bill, and Paul does not intend to support it.

An earlier analysis by the ACLU suggests the bill’s treatment of “specific selection term” will prevent broad collection of all records or the records of entire cities or service providers. The ACLU further approves of language designed to ensure that government abuses will be made public and provisions for a special privacy advocate in Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) proceedings.

To be sure, the ACLU is not fully satisfied with the bill:

Improvements need to be made to further narrow the definition of SST, provide strict time frames for destroying all data on innocent people, eliminate loopholes that could be exploited to avoid disclosing relevant information in FISC opinions, and grant the special advocate greater authority to proactively participate in intelligence court proceedings.

The bill also focuses entirely on Section 215; it doesn’t even touch the abuses occurring under Section 702, Executive Order 12333, or other authorities. In other words, we’re running a marathon and this bill only gets us to mile five.

Nevertheless the ACLU supports the bill as “the first time since passage of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act in 1978 that the chamber has taken action to constrain the intelligence community, and the first time Congress has a real shot at restoring the crucial privacy protections lost in the Patriot Act.”

The bill has also received the support of Senator Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), who may run against Rand Paul in a bid for the 2016 presidential nomination. So what is Senator Paul’s beef?

4th-amendmentIt is that the bill extends the Patriot Act through December 2017—after the next election.

Rand is right to object on this basis. Politicians’ job, their raison d’être, is to represent us—not to insulate themselves from difficult political questions until the next election.

Then again, Dave Nalle, writing American Broadside, suggests the choice may not be so simplistic:

The question for those of us who are paying attention, is whether a watered down USA Freedom Act is worth the price of renewing the PATRIOT Act, or should we push our Senators to vote it down and wait for the new Congress to take another look at it and maybe pass something closer to the original House version of the legislation which was much more substantial in its reforms.

The problem is that if the USA Freedom Act is voted down there is no guarantee that the PATRIOT Act will not be renewed next year. There may not be enough new Senators or enough who are tired of it and want to rein in the NSA so we’d be rolling the dice and the result of waiting could be worse than passing the USA Freedom Act. It might be better to take the sure but inadequate thing than wait for a better solution that never comes.

Fodder for thought…

The image of Ron Paul is via the Taking Note blog at the New York Times and attributed to William Deshazer/The Commercial Appeal, via Associated Press.

Sarah Baker is a writer, libertarian and attorney, living in Bozeman, Montana, with her daughter and a houseful of pets. She can be found on Facebook or Twitter.

Sarah Baker is a libertarian, attorney and writer. She lives in Montana with her daughter and a house full of pets.
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