It’s not okay if the NSA spies on us, but it’s okay when Google does…

Also published at

One of the defining stories of 2013 was, without doubt, Edward Snowden’s revelations of the mass spying conducted by the NSA, GCHQ and various other government intelligence agencies from around the world. Aside from justifiable outrage, the revelations very rightly sparked intense debate over the appropriate role of government in the lives of everyday citizens, certainly at least in the United States, if not to the same extent in Britain. A large part of the issue surrounded the interception of personal data held by internet companies such as Google, Yahoo and Facebook by the American NSA and British GCHQ agencies both overtly through PRISM and covertly from fibre-optic cables, and the logic behind the indiscriminate collection of personal data under the alibi of “national security” and “counter-terrorism” is flimsy at best. Yet the key question that we have failed to ask ourselves, and indeed that government spying itself has distracted us from, is how we handed over our own data to the internet companies whose services we use in the first place.

The search engine DuckDuckGo (which I use and strongly recommend) describes the process more succinctly than I could, but I’ll put it into words anyway: Google records your searches and sends your search term, browser and computer information to any site whose link you click on, allowing them to identify you and track you. This data is then used to build a profile of you for the purpose of targeted ads, which can also be used to charge you higher prices. That, in a nutshell, is what the NSA and GCHQ have been obtaining from Google. Facebook operates in a similar way and, incidentally, is facing a class action lawsuit as a result: it tracks the links you click on, the posts you “like” and even the contents of your private messages to profile you, before selling this data to data aggregators and advertisers.

ImageAs I’m writing this piece on WordPress, Abine’s DoNotTrackMe Firefox add-on (which I also use and recommend) indicates that there are seven trackers on the “new post” page I have open, all of which it’s blocked: Optimizely, Quantcast, WordPress stats, Gravity, Qualaroo, Kiss Metrics and Google Analytics. A shocking twelve trackers are blocked on the home page of The Guardian, and Google Analytics is even operating on the home page of my college, Hamilton College. Clearly, Google and Facebook, while certainly the best-known and the most visible, aren’t the only companies “mining” our data, and the obscurity of these tracking companies (how many of them have we honestly heard of?!) makes their covert activities all the more concerning.

Mind you, DuckDuckGo was launched in 2008, five years before we learned all about government spying. The tracking and profiling carried out by internet companies such as Google and Facebook have been known since these websites were first launched, yet it was only when we learned from Edward Snowden that our governments were using this information to spy on us that we became upset. Why the double standard that we hold corporations and governments to? What gives corporations the divine right to collect and sell our data in the interests of profit while governments have no such right? Such is the absurdity of our concept of liberty: only government can pose any conceivable threat to our freedoms, we think, and so we quietly accept the terms and conditions that allow Google and Facebook to spam us with targeted ads and subject us to price discrimination, but we squeal whenever the government gets its hands on our data, whatever it does with it. Or is it because the NSA never gave us a list of “terms and conditions”?

It’s important that we remember in the age of mass government online surveillance that it is not simply the NSA and GCHQ, but also Google, Facebook and the various other companies that track and profile us and mine and sell our data that have brought about “the end of online privacy”. The sad reality we have today is that the business model of the websites many of us use today is such that, while providing their services without charging us a fee (I refrain here from using the word “free”), they mine and sell our information to maximize revenue and hence profits. Corporations like Google are, in the words of Yasha Levine, specialists in “for-profit intelligence“. As a recent Observer editorial summed it up:

Lured by “free” services on the internet, we click through to a digital emporium where we sacrifice our privacy. Every click, message and electronic trail is mined for profit. Every digital stroke makes money for them. The more time that you spend, the more money they make. There is little they don’t know, almost nowhere they can’t follow and nothing they can’t tell about your digital life.

Let’s not allow the spectre of government surveillance to distract us from that fact.

On a closing note, DuckDuckGo offers a toolkit for blocking trackers. Whether it’s Google, the tracking companies or the NSA we’re concerned about, it might be just what we need.

Reader-owned media? Lessons from football

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ takeover of the Washington Post in October set off alarm bells in the minds of media critics and readers of independent media alike, myself included. This was the fate of one of the world’s most reputed political newspapers thrown into corporate hands – the same hands that controlled the world’s largest internet company by revenue. All this in an age of what appears to be terminal decline as far as newspapers are concerned: circulation has fallen by 13% in North America and around twice that in Europe in the last five years. Bezos’ takeover is symptomatic of an increasing reliance of the mainstream media on handouts from either corporations or governments – those who can afford to subsidize their losses. As Le Monde diplomatique‘s Serge Halimi succinctly puts it: “Publications aligned with the dominant worldview or the decrees of advertisers rake in the money, everything else struggles.” Amazon’s recent $600 million deal with the CIA ought to set a few more alarm bells off.

All of this is perfectly familiar to football fans, who have seen wealthy benefactors with seemingly bottomless pockets propel once humble clubs such as Manchester City, Chelsea and Paris Saint-Germain to the top of their respective leagues through funnelling an endless stream of subsidies into their coffers. What is really worrying is that the benefactor model has become the norm: of the 20 clubs that competed in the 2011-12 English Premier League season, only Norwich City, Swansea City and Wolverhampton Wanderers finished the season without incurring debt. Clubs run on the principles of strict financial responsibility can no longer compete with the billions flowing into the accounts of their subsidized rivals, and this fact largely accounts for the contagiousness of the benefactor model.

The benefactor model has an Achilles heel, however. What happens when the benefactor decides he or she has poured enough money down the drain and pulls out? Or if the benefactor goes bankrupt? No fewer than 38 English clubs have entered administration (essentially bankruptcy) since the turn of the millennium, four of which went out of business altogether. An alternative business model for football on the rise today is that of fan ownership – a model that not only prevents this type of financial instability but also ensures that decisions are made according to those whom it ultimately serves: the fans.

My club, AFC Wimbledon, is one example. Founded in 2002 by former fans of Wimbledon FC when its owners decided to relocate the club to Milton Keynes, where it remains today under the “MK Dons” moniker, the club is fully owned by The Dons Trust, a supporters’ group that pledges to retain at least 75% ownership of the club to ensure nothing of the sort of the fate that befell its predecessor ever occurs again. Members join the trust for an annual fee of £25, an amount that supplements gate receipts and season tickets, which make up most of the club’s turnover. Last season, fans established the We Are Wimbledon Fund, a crowdfunding initiative to boost the playing budget that ultimately provided the finances for the estimated £25,000 transfer fee of Harry Pell from Hereford United (not a trivial sum for a fourth-division team). Fan ownership isn’t limited to clubs starting from scratch, either. Former Premier League club Portsmouth FC, now playing in the fourth tier, became the largest fan-owned club in England when its fans bought it out of administration in April.

What lessons can the likes of the Washington Post pick up from the likes of Wimbledon and Portsmouth? If fan ownership of a football club is not only conceivable but also doable in a league system dominated by subsidized clubs, who’s to say the same couldn’t be done in the media? After all, both football and the news are, in today’s world, inherently unprofitable sectors that rely, if not on corporate or taxpayer dollars (or pounds), on trust membership fees and crowdfunding for revenue to keep them afloat. I propose that the next time the owners of a major newspaper or news magazine offer it up for sale, its readers should pool together a sum of money to make a bid for it. Then, once in ownership of it, they can decide on coverage on a democratic basis and keep it running financially on an annual subscription fee. After all, plenty of media sources are charging subscription fees without giving readers a share or even a voice. $20 or $30 a year to have a say in what stories your newspaper covers and to ensure that it stays well away from corporate and government interference. Not a bad deal, is it?

Finally… it’s already been done before.

Artificial fragility

Back in June, the power jack on my four-year-old Sony Vaio laptop fell apart, leaving the outdated but nonetheless functional machine a mere 30 minutes (the lifespan of its degraded battery) from a perpetual shutdown. Sony computers once shipped with a three-year warranty, meaning the manufacturer would cover the cost of all repairs within three years of purchase, but now offer just one year. I decided that I would turn my computer over to Sony anyway and let them bring me the news. They charged me HK$500 ($65) to have it inspected, taking a week to do so, before demanding a further HK$2850 (US$368) to have the necessary repairs carried out.

That’s right. $368 to have a simple power jack replaced. I searched up a few listings for Sony Vaio power jacks on eBay:


A $368 repair bill for a component that costs no more than a dollar. Plus a bit of labour. Okay, maybe a good deal of labour. But paying half the cost of the computer when it was new just to replace a 99-cent power jack? Something didn’t add up. So I brought the brought the laptop to a small repair shop in Sham Shui Po, Hong Kong. The process took three days and cost me a mere HK$350 (US$45) – less than what Sony charged me to have its repair crew take its time mulling over it without actually carrying out any repairs.

It’s clear that the amount Sony was about to charge me was less a reflection of the true cost of repairing the computer than a penalty for sending it in for repairs on an expired warranty – essentially a slap on the wrist followed by a stern “The warranty expired last year, you idiot.” This was a clear case of planned obsolescence: tech companies like Sony not only sabotage its own products to increase their proneness to failure (I’d turned the same computer in for repairs on at least four previous occasions) but also charge extortionate prices for repairs beyond an unacceptably short and even declining warranty period. The aim? To create the artificial need, or “demand”, as economists like to call it, for us to replace our products that have failed, and, in the process, boost their profits through our consumption.

Planned obsolescence is an inevitable consequence of the profit motive. Tech companies aiming to maximize profits seek to maximize revenues by creating artificial demand through compromising the durability of their products and imposing “repair penalties”, as well as to minimize costs by evading their responsibility to provide support for them. And it’s important to note that the costs that firms try to “minimize” don’t simply go away – it’s merely the cost to the firm that’s “minimized”, which leaves the rest of us to bear them. Those of us who don’t have access to independent repair shops, as I had the privilege of resorting to, have no real option but to throw our misfiring devices out and buy new ones. That costs our wallets, the planet and the health of other people: our precious dollars are spent on new devices that will likely later suffer the same fate, and the toxic heavy metals in our electronic waste ends up either in landfills where they are assimilated into the earth or in developing countries such as Bangladesh, India and China, where everyday citizens are forced to live among them.

Economists write off the costs evaded by businesses as mere “externalities”. Dismissing them as such amounts to denying a simple truth: that the profit motive is the driving force behind the capitalist system, and, as profit maximization leads ultimately to the evasion of costs by companies, capitalism is the underlying cause of planned obsolescence and its devastating social and environmental consequences. As long as companies are allowed and encouraged to maximize profits with zero concern for the repercussions of doing so, they will enjoy an “incentive”, as economists refer to it, to sabotage their own products as a means of coercing us into consuming beyond our needs. After all, more new computers and smartphones for us means more dollars for them.

Government regulations that force firms to pay the full costs of their activities, or as much of it as possible, are welcome. We could certainly do with far more extensive extended product responsibility schemes to force tech companies to meet predetermined durability criteria and to offer substantial warranty periods. Massive citizen mobilization will be needed to counter the power of lobbyists and corporate dollars and make these demands clear to governments across the industrialized world. But the heavy hand of the state isn’t enough on its own, nor can it be relied upon in capitalist societies where governments are often complicit in the abuses of their corporations. The nature of business itself needs to change, moving away from the capitalist ethos of maximizing profits to an ethos under which profits are generated such that the business can be sustained, but without externalizing social and environmental costs.

On this note, I’d like to reserve a bit of praise for the technicians at the repair shop that spared my laptop from the greed of its mercenary manufacturer. They certainly had both the skills and the negotiating power (particularly given the exorbitant prices Sony were prepared to charge) to charge me far more than they did, but chose not to, and filled a void in providing an oft-needed service at a reasonable and affordable price. Any movement against a capitalist ethos in business will need instruments with which to resist the abuses of cost-evading corporations, and this leaves an important role for independent repair shops and repair cafes, not only of electronic devices but of all of the various “consumer goods” that we consume far too much of. Repair skills are few and far between in the post-industrial society we live in, and those who possess them could do the world a great service both by offering these skills reasonably and affordably and by passing them on to others. It’s only by offering and carrying out repair as an alternative to the cycle of consumption and disposal that we can not only overcome planned obsolescence but also move away from the profit-maximizing capitalist ethos that has dominated modern society for far too long.

When shopping less costs people their jobs…

There is a certain irony in the fact that the most recent dispute over working hours in France has seen many French employees side with their employers rather than with the unions representing them. In the interests of maintaining the work-life balance that the French are very well known for, unions have successfully pushed for retailer Monoprix and cosmetics chain Sephora to close their stores by 9 PM and for DIY chains in the Paris region to remain closed on Sundays. Employees, though, aren’t happy: many of them argue that the elimination of late-night and weekend shifts will cost them their jobs. Here’s the dilemma: employees can’t make a living wage without working at times they really should be taking off, but working late and on weekends is good for neither family life nor health. And keeping shops open for longer hours inevitably encourages a consumer culture that, as I’ve mentioned before, isn’t good for us as consumers and simply can’t be sustained with the resources we have. The problem, clearly, is systemic.

So what do we do? Work sharing is an easy way to tackle the twin problems of overwork and unemployment: instead of having some workers work long hours while others can’t find a job, workers could simply work shorter hours for the same amount of pay or more – whatever amount can be deemed a living wage. The results on their part would be a far less stressful lifestyle and more time to actually live their lives without having to constantly worry about their finances. And what’s in it for the employers? Unlike what mainstream economists would like us to believe, employees working shorter hours tend to be more productive than those working longer hours and require less sick leave. And firms won’t simply end up passing their costs on to the consumer. McDonald’s employees in the United States, on average, make just over the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour. The company’s Australian employees, on the other hand, make around the country’s minimum wage of $14.50 per hour (the US dollar and Australian dollar are roughly equal in value at the time of writing). You’d think McDonald’s would be a hell of a lot more expensive in Australia than in the US. Indeed, a Big Mac costs a whopping six cents more! Not sure how I’ll ever afford to eat at McDonald’s in Australia…

iShop, therefore iAm…

iPhone 5s mockupIt’s that time of year again: the world’s favourite tech company has released yet another updated version of its ever-trendy smartphone. No, in fact, two versions, the iPhone 5c and 5s. Once again, Apple has asserted its dominance over the headlines, the web, TV air time and advertising billboards, bombarding us with the thousands of reasons why we should dish out another few hundred dollars to replace our now obsolete iPhone 5’s at the ripe old age of eight or nine months. After all, don’t we all need that latest version of iOS, the latest processor, the fingerprint sensor, as well as every other new feature that the previous iPhone didn’t come with?

No, we don’t. We are taught from birth by the people around us, by the mass media, by economists and by politicians to believe we genuinely need all of the cell phones, clothes, tablets, furniture – you name it – that we buy on a regular basis. That we are judged on the basis of the amount of “stuff” we own. That, in fact, the very purpose of life is to consume more than the people we know to show our superiority. But our desires for the latest gadgets, the latest technology and the latest fads are entirely artificial and manufactured – exactly like the products themselves. They are the result of a culture of consumerism that has taken the concepts of wants and needs and combined them into one.

But our addiction to shopping, contrary to what manufacturers and retail chains would like to have us believe, is neither good for us as consumers, nor good for those who make our products or those who live among the waste. And, perhaps most crucially, we simply don’t have the resources for each and every one of us on this planet to consume the way many of us in industrialized countries do.

For those of us consuming, there’s no denying the immediate satisfaction we feel when we get our hands on something new. Especially if that something is new in the sense of having just been released. But humans adapt and adjust quickly to their surroundings. The satisfaction dies away, and sooner or later we set our sights on something else we want. The result is that we spend our money on things that make us no happier in the long run while adding more items to our seemingly endless list of wants. It’s known as the hedonic treadmill – we have keep running to maintain the same level of happiness. Quite similar to tolerance in drug addiction.

Some of you may be familiar with the ongoing scandal over the multiple suicides of Chinese workers in extremely poor working conditions at the factories of Foxconn, the manufacturer of many of the electronic gadgets that populate our homes today. Or you may recall the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory building in Dhaka, Bangladesh, in April, with the loss of some 1100 lives. Both cases illustrate the fact that our addiction to consumption is dependent upon what has to be described as the exploitation of workers in developing countries. Another issue we hear less about is the dumping of toxic electronic waste in developing countries in Asia and Africa, where ordinary people are forced to live among them. Much of it is shipped from North America and Europe, where many landfills have filled up.

Lastly, we get to the planet. All of the products we buy need to come from somewhere. Metals and raw earth are extracted in mines, and plastics are manufactured from oil. The extraction of raw materials from the earth, the manufacturing of consumer products from these materials and the transportation of these goods from factories in southern China to Walmart in North America all require fossil fuels. The eight-month-old iPhone 5’s that we throw away require space in landfills. With raw materials becoming increasingly difficult and expensive to extract, and climate change running away, can anyone seriously argue that every human on the planet can live the same high-consumption lifestyle as those of us in the industrialized world?

My point here is not that we need to stop consuming entirely. Nor is it that we should all blame ourselves as consumers for propping a system that ultimately benefits none of us and that simply cannot be sustained on this planet. Corporations must also take much of the blame for profiting off our addiction while exploiting workers and depleting resources. The point, however, is that those of us who already have fully functional smartphones – even “dumb phones” for those of us who only need to call and text – don’t need another one. We need to cure ourselves of our addiction to consumption and, in the process, do ourselves, our fellow human beings and the planet some good. We are entirely capable of recognizing our desires as wants, not needs, and of giving them up. And yes, there is life beyond shopping.

The Other September 11: The Legacy of Chilean Socialism and Salvador Allende

Commemorating the 40th anniversary of the other 9/11 – the one we don’t hear about.

Latin America's Turbulent Transitions

The Other September 11: The Legacy of Chilean Socialism and Salvador Allende

September 11, 2013

The coup d’etat by General Augusto Pinochet in Chile on September 11, 1973 transformed the history of socialism. Almost a thousand days before, Salvador Allende and the Popular Unity coalition had taken office promising a “Chilean Road to Socialism” based on democratic principles. The government launched an agrarian reform program, recognized the right of workers to take over factories and run them collectively, took control of most of the country’s banks, and expropriated multinational corporations like Kennecott and ITT, all within the framework of the Chilean constitution.

From the start most of the Chilean business clans backed by the U.S. government and the multinational corporations moved to undermine and destroy this experiment in democratic socialism. As Richard Nixon’s national security adviser Henry Kissinger declared: “I don’t see why we need to stand idly…

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Happy Earth Overshoot Day!

Happy Earth Overshoot Day!

Today is Earth Overshoot Day – the day each year when we reach the point where we’ve consumed more resources than the Earth can naturally replenish in an entire year. For the rest of the year, we’ll be swiping our ecological credit card, with no plans to pay back that debt further down the road.

This year, it’s on August 20. In 2003, Earth Overshoot Day fell on September 22. In 1993, it fell on October 21. The trend is obvious: we are consuming far too much, and the amount we consume increases each year.

As the world’s economy continues to grow, we continue to see the problem without really asking ourselves why. We just keep shopping away without a care in the world, continuing to use up more than we have.

Overconsumption isn’t an ethical issue, nor is it an issue that should only concern environmentalists. We only have one planet to live on, and there isn’t enough for us to keep living the way we are. But we don’t want to admit it. The people in power don’t want to admit it. And so we continue, business as usual, as Earth Overshoot Day falls earlier and earlier, year after year.

Debunking the myths about Ecuador’s press freedom

Photo: Presidencia de la Nación Argentina.

Those of us who followed the melodrama of Edward Snowden’s botched attempt to make his way from Hong Kong to Latin America this summer will recall the media fallout that followed revelations that Ecuador had granted the American whistleblower asylum. The murky details surrounding the asylum grant are now irrelevant now that Snowden has instead accepted asylum in Russia. The media has, as a result, turned its attention away from Ecuador, at least for as long as Snowden remains in Russia. But for the weeks through which the South American nation looked set to be his final destination, the mainstream Western media took aim at its press freedom record, pointing out the “irony” in a supposed defender of transparency taking shelter in an apparent enemy of the free press – the same “irony” they had pointed out when Julian Assange took refuge in its London embassy.

This supposed “irony” not only ignores the far worse human rights record of the United States and many of its allies but is also based on a hugely distorted picture of Ecuador, along with its allies Venezuela and Bolivia, that the mainstream Western media has been painting for years. As an open letter signed by 28 Latin American experts observed, the media consistently fails to see any irony of the numerous individuals who have taken refuge in the United States despite its well-known use of torture in its prison at Guantanamo and its widespread use of drone strikes in Afghanistan, Pakistan and other countries. It furthermore fails to recognize that the purpose of a whistleblower such as Snowden seeking asylum in a foreign country, rather than to endorse its press freedom, is to seek protection from persecution in his or her own country.

A recent piece of Ecuadorian legislation that has generated the bulk of the criticism from the Western media has allocated a third of media frequencies to private broadcasters, a third to government broadcasters and a third to community broadcasters. It also prohibits “media lynching”, a “concerted effort (…) repeatedly broadcast (…) for the the purpose of discrediting persons or organizations or reducing their public credibility”.

These provisions reek of authoritarianism to our libertarian-trained ears. We in what they call the Western world have repeatedly been told throughout our lives of the importance of a free and independent media and of the dangers of censorship. We are accustomed to believe that only governments can infringe upon our freedoms, and that freedom from government is freedom per se. Yet it is in an environment such as Ecuador’s media scene where this line of thinking falls short. An assessment by Unesco’s International Program for the Development of Communication (IPDC) found that 83% of channels were privately owned, 17% publicly owned and none were community owned. Ecuador’s private media is also notoriously relentless in its anti-government stance, drawing comparisons to Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation. It is in such an environment where we must consider the meaning of a “free press”.

First of all, who holds the power to control the media? For most of us, the first answer that comes to mind is governments. We have all read stories of journalists and reporters in various far-out countries being arrested, detained and tortured for their coverage of stories that clearly disturb their governments. We do not, however, see the self-censorship that takes place behind the scenes with journalists and editors well aware of the political and ideological views of their employers. As a result, we simply do not perceive the corporate censorship of private media – or any other form of censorship by media owners – as a threat to press freedom.

Secondly, what is the ultimate purpose of the media? As our primary sources of information, we expect the media to be truthful and objective, and as such, many of us acknowledge the importance of not only accuracy and impartiality but also plurality. It is in our interests to be informed by a wide range of sources representing varying perspectives and often covering separate issues, from which we can then extract the truth. Even despite its criticisms of the new media law, Reporters Without Borders – which, bear in mind, has taken indirect funding from the United States government – describes the broadcast frequency redistribution as “a powerful lever for media pluralism”. It adds that “the provisions governing nationally-produced broadcasting content are broadly similar to those in force in most other countries”.

This is not to say the new media law, particularly the rather arbitrary provision on “media lynching”, will not be open to government abuse. It is, however, clear that its criticism by the mainstream Western media has been completely over the top and is not only based on a fundamentalist idea of press freedom that rejects all forms of government intervention but also largely politically motivated. The United States media’s united condemnation of the law – and its quickness to shift its focus to Russia as soon as it surfaced that Snowden would not be heading to Ecuador – in fact demonstrates the need of greater media plurality in the United States. It has effectively become the mouthpiece of the American government, both politically in groundlessly smearing Ecuador for granting Snowden asylum and ideologically in attempting to justify its smear campaign by espousing an entirely fundamentalist view of press freedom.