Category Archives: Phenomena

A trove of investigations and meditations regarding the cultural, political, and historical influences on modern life.

The State of Free Speech in the U.S: Online

                                                                                                  Above: The Internet

As the internet ages from its non-contentious infancy to a raucous and tumultuous adolescence, it finds itself increasingly in a headlock with its parent, the U.S Feds. The interwebs is engaged in a fight for its soul, pitted between its trailblazing, fringe-following roots and a more dignified, prominent, and sanitized position on the public stage. Already the fallout from this teenage train wreck includes an exiled online mogul, an online “hit list,” a string of highly controversial court cases, and a hot regulatory mess.                                                                                  The Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986 was originally written to curtail government wire-tapping of telephones and related electronic media available in the 1980’s. Though the law has been amended to incorporate regulation of government digital communications snooping, it is outdated. One provision in particular, regarding emails is quite worrisome. It considers emails that have been stored on a third party (usually the email service provider) server is considered abandoned after 180 days, which allows law enforcement agencies to retrieve such “abandoned” emails without warrant.                                                                It’s no secret to many American internet users that internet access in the good ol’ U.S.A. is significantly slower and more expensive than it is for European and Oriental counterparts. The Open Technology Institute documented American internet access in its 2014 report The Cost of Connectivity. Going through one chart provided in that report reveals that the median cost of a 30 Mbps broadband connection in Europe costs $42.59 while it costs $54.97 in the U.S. Another interesting finding that emerges in the report is the preponderance of small U.S. cities that claim the highest-speed internet connections whereas the European and Asian markets are dominated by the world cities.                                                                                                                          Shielded by the innocuous “Net Neutrality” label, the Federal Communication Commission quietly re-classified broadband access as a telecommunications service (Feb. 26, 2015), thus, subjecting internet service providers (ISPs) to Title II of the Communications Act of 1934. The change in law was adopted by executive action taken by the FCC. Ostensibly, the new rules are supposed to force ISPs to treat all online exchanges equally with regard to speed of service. In reality, however, the rules discourage and disincentivize ISPs from investing in expanding and improving their capabilities all while setting dangerous legal precedents for government intervention in supposedly “free” media. The basics of the rule include the prohibition on ISPs from blocking content that competes with the provider’s business, the mandate that ISPs cannot reduce the speed of certain applications (known as “throttling”), the ban on accepting fees for increased-speed connections, and it bans the ISP from blocking any lawful content. Sounds like a lot of hypocrisy coming from the Executive Branch of the Federal government.

Megaupload Scandal                                  Above: Kim Dotcom (center)

In January of 2012, the U.S government shutdown the popular file-sharing website, Megaupload. The hosting service was seized and criminal cases against the owners, chief among them Kim Dotcom, opened. Within days, other jurisdictions had frozen Megaupload’s assets. Megaupload.com and associated website  (Megaporn, Megalive, and Megavideo to name a few) were hugely popular file-sharing websites. Basically, users were able to upload and share files of content ranging from movies to software to anything else imaginable.                                  Before the Department of Justice shutdown Megaupload on charges of copyright infringement, the company was registered in Hong Kong and run by a group of U.S non-citizens. At its peak, the site was reported to host 50 million users a day and a full 4% of all internet traffic. Kim and his companions (Finn Batato, Mathias Ortmann, and Bram van der Kolk) were made wealthy from the site’s ad revenue.                                                                                                            Megaupload derived its revenue primarily from online advertising and premium subscriptions, which allowed paying members to download, upload, and store files with practically no restrictions. Non-paying registered members, had the ability to download and upload any files available to them, but if an uploaded file was not downloaded by anyone within 90 days, the file was deleted. Non-registered users (‘non-members) had the ability to upload and download any files that were available on the website but any uploaded file that wasn’t downloaded by anyone within 21 days was to be deleted from the website.                                                The substantiation of the DOJ’s claims are quite flimsy and far-fetched. In the indictment papers filed by the Government of the United States, Kim Dotcom, Megaupload LT., Vestor LT., Finn Batato, Julius Bencko, Sven Echternach, Mathias Ortmann, Andrus Nomm, and Bram van der Kolk were charged on the following counts:

1.) Conspiracy to Commit Racketeering

2.) Conspiracy to Commit Copyright Infringement

3.) Conspiracy to Commit Money Laundering

4.) Criminal Copyright Infringement by Distributing a Copyrighted Work Being Prepared for              Commercial Distribution on a Computer Network & Aiding and Abetting of Criminal                        Copyright Infringement

5.) Criminal Copyright Infringement by Electronic Means & Aiding and Abetting of Criminal                Copyright Infringement

The document opens with demagoguery that would put Big Brother to shame, claiming that the defendants were part of a worldwide online criminal organization, dubbed the “Mega Conspiracy.” According to a court ruling that would proceed from this case, the fact that Mega removed copyrighted files on their “Top 100” list constitutes a careful and deliberate attempt to make their site appear more legitimate, when, in reality the website was fully aware and complacent with the copyright infringement. Besides the fact that its ludicrous to expect a small company like Mega to police and filter a site of the size of Megaupload, under current law there are no provisions for secondary copyright infringement. On top of that, according to provisions of the Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986 extended by the Stored Communications Act private companies are forbidden from actively probing the private information of user accounts.                                                                                                                                                                      What’s more frightening is the fact that most of the assets that were seized by the U.S government were not in the U.S. The ruling justifies this since part of the “conspiracy” was carried out in the states.                                                                                                                                           Megaupload was, ostensibly, a “private data storage provider,” a website that provided uploaders with server space to store files. The basic file-sharing directive of Megaupload was akin to other programs such as Microsoft’s SkyDrive or Google’s Drive. Granted, there are some key difference between Megupload’s model and those of the services mentioned but the basic idea, the uploading and sharing of private content files.                                                                                   The prosecution argued that the website incentivized piracy through its Uploader Rewards Program, which offered premium subscribers cash awards for uploading files to the website. At the heart of this nefarious plot, was Mega’s aim to provide pirated content to increase the number downloads by unregistered users, which would generate more ad revenue for the website. Really? If shameless business profit-motivation is a crime, then there are a lot of businesses in dire need of a federal raid.                                                                                                             It is troubling when the United States DOJ and a host of other governments (including New Zealand and Hong Kong) can shut down a popular website, exiled its founders, and impound their funds because of the abuses of a few, rogue 3rd parties.   

The Backlash                                                                                                                                                                                            Above: Declaration of Internet Freedom                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       The reaction to authoritarian attempts on the integrity of the internet has been neither small nor obscure. Nor has the response been dominated by any one sector of the internet-using society. One of the forces on the front lines in the fight for internet openess is that all-consuming corporate behemoth: Google.                                                                                                          Specifically, it is Google’s Transparency Report that tracks and reports information about requests the company receives to remove content, filtering of google services, and malware warnings the company issues to users of its search engine. The website is very specific, allowing you to look at the government requests it receives to remove content and the reasons cited by those governments. It also reports requests to remove content from non-governmental organizations or individuals and gives the location of that request, the date of the request, and the outcome.                                                                                                                                                            Part of the information that Google reports is the data regarding the requests it receives from law enforcement agencies for information about its users. You can even explore the percentage of emails sent to and from gmail accounts that were encrypted (i.e private and protected from snooping). The data is all arranged in an easy-to-understand, user-friendly fashion such that even a 19th-century ludite could understand it. Not only does Google provide the raw data of these activities, but it explains the reasoning behind its response to requests, the way in which encryption works, and its own efforts to improve internet transparency/ security. The Transparency Report even maintains a list of other groups with a significant online presence that disclose government requests they receive for content takedown which include: AT&T, Apple, Microsoft, Time Warner Cable, AOL, Facebook, LinkedIn, Yahoo!, Snapchat, Comcast, WordPress, Twitter, Wikimedia Foundation, and The University of California at Berkeley.

                                                                                  Above: Herdict

Another online effort in the tight for internet transparency comes from Harvard University’s Berkman Center. That project, known as Herdict, allows registered users to independently test and report webpages’ accessibility. As its name suggests (a portmanteau of “herd” and “verdict”), the website gathers data from a myriad of users to locate websites and pages that may be inaccessible due to government censorship, DOS Attacks, or other types of outages. The tool is helpful in finding choke points across the world wide web and then reporting the data for all to access.

               Above: OpenNet Initiative

A project aimed at  and reporting internet filtering and surveillance, the OpenNet Initiative is a collaboration of the Citizen Lab at the Munk School of Global Affairs, the Berkman Center for Internet & Society, and the SecDev Group. The group maintains a map of general internet filtering by country and even breaks down the filtering into the categories of the content filtered.

                                                          Above: The Internet Party

The brainchild of exiled internet mogul Kim Dotcom, the Internet Party is an upstart New Zealand political party with a decidedly open source-progressive alignment. The party believes in the power of competition and innovation and makes no exceptions for government policy. The website even has its own “policy incubator” whereby party members can discuss and formulate the party platform and policy stances, a refreshingly open approach to politics. The group is only a little more than a year old (May 13, 2014) but it promises to attract large masses with its mission to bring cheap, high-speed internet to all New Zealanders (something desperately needed in the U.S) and dedication to reform of copyright law. The group has a host of other forward-thinking ideas including the decriminalization of marijuana and a review of the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

                                                        Above: The Internet Freedom Coalition

As outlined on their website, the Internet Freedom Coalition is dedicated to protecting the freeing and democratizing effect the internet has on information and opposes three main threats to this freedom: taxes, regulations, and any attempt by the U.N. to regulate the internet. As of late the organization has taken up the fight against the recent Net Neutrality measures instituted by the FCC.                                                                                                                                        In a rare act of good statesmanship, the U.S House of Representatives has voted to approve the Permanent Internet Tax Freedom Act. Though still a bill on capitol hill, if signed into law, this legislation would indefinitely extend the moratorium on internet taxation, first enacted with the Internet Tax Freedom Act of 1998. Such a law would exempt the internet and companies that provide access to it from bandwith, email, and bit taxes as well as extending protections of e-commerce from multiple taxation.                                                                                                                   While the internet faces a myriad of challenges and threats from all sides, the good fight is far from over and the internet may as yet continue on in its innovative, democratizing ways.

New Deal or Raw Deal?

                                                                                                       Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal is, perhaps, the greatest single dupe ever foisted on the American people. According to the revisionist narrative, the era represented a vindication of the progressive messianic complex. If modern revisionists are to be believed, the New Deal rescued an America reeling from an economic disaster caused by a clueless and non-interventionist government and fundamentally re-structured the American economy all while achieving fundamental and long-lasting reforms in social welfare and justice that have benefited ensuing generations of Americans. As you might have guessed from reading this blog, I don’t subscribe to a revisionist line of thinking.                                                                                                                          In my view, the New Deal represents a unilateral roll-out of the progressive agenda on the American people and the hijacking of the Democratic Party as a means of implementing this agenda. Not only did the federal government undergo a massive expansion in size and scope but it was achieved through egregious transgression of the constitutional process. If anything is to be learned from this chapter in American history it is, in the words of Benjamin Franklin:

“Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”

One of the earlier attacks on the personal freedoms of American citizens came in 1933 with FDR’s Executive Order 6102. The directive, made the hoarding of monetary gold by any person or organization criminal. The order required all in possession of gold to return said gold to Federal Reserve Bank in exchange for a set amount of paper currency per ounce. Not only did this law set a dangerous precedent that normalizes and encourages economic collectivization by the federal government but it was done in the name of economic necessity. Proponents argued that in order for the Federal Reserve needed to increase its gold reserves in order to maintain the reserve ratios it had set for itself. Following the order American citizens were subjected to federal raids and seizures of gold exceeding the allowable limit. Not only were American individuals and businesses deprived of their property but foreign companies too. It wasn’t until 1974, nearly 41 years later, that the private ownership and trade of gold was once again fully legalized.

     The economic freedoms of private businesses and citizens were further infringed with the passage of the Agricultural Adjustment Act (1938) and the decision in Wickard v. Filburn (1942). The Agricultural Adjustment Act granted the Agricultural Adjustment Agency the power to regulate the private production of wheat, cotton, corn, hogs, rice, tobacco, and milk. In future amendments to the law, the list was expanded to include rye, flax, barley, grain, sorghum, cattle, peanuts, sugarbeets, sugarcane, and potatoes. The federal government chose to regulate these specific products because they were deemed to be in overproduction. According to the New Deal proponents, regulation (i.e “destruction”) of crop surpluses grown privately was essential for a full and complete economic recovery.                                                                             The controversy surrounding this legislation finally came to a head in the 1942 supreme court case, Wickard v. Filburn. The defendant, Roscoe Filburn, was an Ohio wheat farmer who grew wheat in excess of the limits set forth by the government. The excess wheat was grown purely for subsistence, that is, personal consumption not for sale. In court, Filburn argued that the Agricultural Adjustment Act didn’t apply to his surplus of wheat because it didn’t fall under the domain of commerce which the federal government was given the power to regulate under the Interstate Commerce Clause of the U.S Constitution. Against previous rulings by lower courts, the Supreme Court ruled that the surplus did fall under the category of “commerce” because growing wheat for personal use affected the amount of wheat that would be bought for chicken feed! This ridiculous ruling not only defies basic economic sense (the price of chicken will be higher if Filburn has to buy other people’s wheat) but set a dangerous precedent for the interpretation of the Commerce Clause (Art. 1, Sect. 8, Clause 3) in future supreme court cases.

                                                             The failed Judicial Procedures Reform Bill of 1937 was another constitutional near-disaster. Had the bill passed, the office of the president would have expanded its powers on Caesarean proportions. Had it passed, the bill would have allowed the president to appoint a new supreme court justice whenever a sitting justice reached the age of seventy. The legislation allowed for up to 6 justices sitting on the same court to be appointed in this manner. The impetus behind this conspiracy, which was so see-through that it became known as the “court-packing scheme,” was Roosevelt’s desire to create a court that favored his legislation. Publicly, this motivation was presented as a measure to ensure that no one party ever controlled too many branches of the federal government, never mind the will of the people.                                                                                 With the creation of highly-publicized social assistance programs the New Deal heralded a new era of dependency on government. The New Deal certainly laid the foundations for an American welfare state whose complete construction is being debated to this day. The creation of Social Security in 1935 saddled generations of American taxpayers with deficits and anxiety over the impending insolvency of this huge social “safety net.”                                                                    In 1935, under the Social Security Act, the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) was  established. The program was a precursor to the modern-day Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) better known as welfare. The AFDC was and, in some circles, is considered radical for its direct financial support of single, unemployed, and unwed mothers. Research conducted in previous decades, most notably the Moynihan Report, found that programs such as the AFDC encouraged out-of-wedlock births and the general disintegration of the working-class family unit.  It wasn’t until 1996 that the AFDC was reformed with the passage of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act.

                                                     The National Housing Acts of 1934 and 1937 laid the foundations for the large-scale construction of public housing projects and redlining practices that promoted inner city decay and racial segregation that dominated the middle part of the 20th century. To be fair, the legislation did create the Federal Savings and Loan Insurance Corporation, which insured deposits in savings and loan institutions until it was consolidated with the FDIC in 1989. However, the creation of the United States Housing Authority ushered in a new era of large-scale public housing projects that concentrated and magnified the miseries of the urban poor. To build these housing projects, neighborhoods were razed, stripping residents and businessmen of their land ownership in the process.                                                                                    The Federal Housing Administration only magnified these problems with their racist redlining and blacklisting tactics whereby neighborhoods were evaluated for the relative “stability” of lending to and insuring residents, often based on a locale’s racial demographics. As a result, banks and insurance companies refused to do business in certain neighborhoods, stifling many of the otherwise upwardly-bound poor.                                                                                                          There are too many pieces of the New Deal to examine fully and satisfactorily in one post. One thing is clear; the New Deal has left our nation with a legacy that we are still grappling with and will continue to grapple with for some time.

Trends in American Family Life

As we all know, the U.S is a land subject to great, sweeping sea changes. The nature and composition of the families of its citizens is no exception. There are a number of trends, in terms of both perception and actuality, that are transforming our idea of the American family. It is important to understand these trends as it directly relates to our demographic and cultural future.

Households and Marriage

The U.S Census Bureau defines a “household” as consisting of all the people who live in a unit of housing. A “family” is defined as a householder and one or more other people living in the household related to the householder by birth, marriage, or adoption. A “non-family household” can consist of a householder living alone or with non-relatives. Individuals living with roommates or in college dormitories , for example, are counted under this banner.

                                                                            U.S Households

2010 2000 1990 1980 1970 1960 1950 1940
Avg. Size1 2.58 2.59 2.63 2.76 3.14 3.33 3.37 3.67
Avg. Family Size1 3.14 3.17 3.17 3.29 3.58 3.67 3.54 3.76
Total 100.00% 100.00% 100% 100% 100% 100% 100% 100%
% Family2 66.40% 68.10% 70.20% 73.70% 80.30% 85.10% 89.40% 90.00%
%Husband-Wife 48.40% 51.70% 55.10% 60.20% 69.40% 74.80% 78.10% 76.00%
%one householder 18.10% 16.40% 15.00% 13.10% 10.90% 10.30% 11.30% 14.10%
%Non-Family2 33.60% 31.90% 29.20% 26.30% 19.70% 14.90% 10.60% 9.90%

In the above data, gleaned from U.S Census reports, a few trends jump out: the decreasing proportion of family households, the shrinking size of families, and the decline of husband-wife households as a proportion of all households. As a nation, we have been trending toward smaller families and smaller households. We have also been moving away from the “nuclear family”, a household headed by a married wife and husband. Additionally, a greater portion of us are living in non-family living arrangements. In short, the focus of American domestic life is shifting away from the family and towards a more single lifestyle.                                                             Following the Supreme Court ruling on Loving v. Virginia (1967), marriage between two spouses of different racial backgrounds became fully legal in all fifty states. Interracial marriage provides for an interesting deluge of statistics that require further conversation. For our purposes, however, we will mention the overall rise in interracial marriage as it pertains to the larger trends in American marital life.

                                                          Interracial and Interethnic Marriage 

2010 2000 1990 1980
Same Race Couple 91.60% 93.20% 95.50% 96.80%
Mixed Race Couple 8.40% 6.80% 4.50% 3.20%
Sources
1http://www.census.gov/population/socdemo/race/interractab1.txt
2http://www.census.gov/population/socdemo/ms-la/tabms-3.txt

 

                                                                 New Marriages

2010 1980
Same Race Couple 84.90% 93.30%
Mixed Race Couple 15.10% 6.70%

Children                                                                                                                                                                No one is more subject to the changes in the fabric of American family life as children. The most marked changes have occurred in the living situations of U.S. children. The coming commentary on the data presented in this blog post will focus largely on the state of American children.

                                                            U.S. Children Living Arrangements 

2010 2000 1990 1980 1970 1960
% single-parent 30.20% 26.70% 24.70% 19.70% 11.90% 9.10%
%two-parent 65.70% 68.10% 72.50% 76.60% 85.00% 87.70%
Sources
1http://www.census.gov/population/socdemo/ms-la/tabch-1.txt
2https://www.census.gov/population/www/socdemo/hh-fam/cps2010.html

    Please note that until recently, the census did not distinguish between unmarried, cohabiting parent households and households lead by married parents. The number of children living in cohabiting, unmarried parent households while not negligible, is still minuscule and, as such, does not change the percentage of children living in two-parent households greatly.                          The tale of the breaking up of the American family is one marked by dismissals of the truth, misguided policy interventions, and marginalization. To understand the situation, one must go back to March 1965 when Assistant Secretary of Labor Daniel Patrick Moynihan released his now infamous Moynihan Report. The report, officially titled “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action” was controversial because in the opening, Moynihan had the following to say:

The United States is approaching a new crisis in race relations. In the decade that began with the school desegregation decision of the Supreme Court, and ended with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the demand of Negro Americans for full recognition of their civil rights was finally met. The effort, no matter how savage and brutal, of some State and local governments to thwart the exercise of those rights is doomed. The nation will not put up with it — least of all the Negroes. The present moment will pass. In the meantime, a new period is beginning. In this new period the expectations of the Negro Americans will go beyond civil rights. Being Americans, they will now expect that in the near future equal opportunities for them as a group will produce roughly equal results, as compared with other groups. This is not going to happen. Nor will it happen for generations to come unless a new and special effort is made.                                                                                                        

    What Moynihan was alluding to and what he later expounded on in his report, was the impending dissolution of black families.  Moynihan correctly predicted the epidemic of black single motherhood, juvenile delinquency, and the dissolution of the black family unit. Ironically, as black-Americans (I hate using that term) underwent the process of integration into American society they experienced the disintegration of their family life.                                                                 The Moynihan Report was groundbreaking because it was the first true recognition of the phenomenon of the “emasculation of the Western male”, stated more precisely “the marginalization of the Western male.” Moynihan asserted that one of the main causes for the coming explosion of illegitimacy, divorce, and dysfunctional families was the exclusion of the urban black male from his traditional role as the provider for the family. Unlike his counterparts in rural settings, the urban black man faces a stiff labor market and is, thus, more prone to be unemployed. This leads to a “changing of the guard” in which a case worker, normally a woman, intervenes and deals with the wife of the unemployed house, cutting the man out of the picture. As Moynihan states, the role of the husband is reduced to that of errand boy to and from the relief office.                                                                                                                                                             The term “Moynihan’s Scissors” is given to the rates of black male unemployment and black welfare enrollment which began to diverge starting in 1962. Moynihan also noted that due to obscenely high rates of under- and unemployment for black men more black women had to be wage-earners, further undermining the man’s role as the provider of the household. To further compound the problem, the remaining stable, middle-class black families dwelt largely in the same Northern slums and ghettos in which the breakdown was occurring due to redlining and housing segregation. This put middle -class black youth from stable homes at greater risk of contracting the same social ills as their less fortunate neighbors.                                                             Particularly relevant to contemporary discussions about race and gender is Moynihan’s finding that the disparity in educational attainment between black males and females was greater than the disparity between white males and females. Both black and white males lagged behind females in terms of educational attainment and grade-level completion, but black males lagged even further behind black females than did white males to white females. The relative lack of education among black males weakened their job prospects and created, for many, a complex of inadequacy and insecurity around the comparatively better educated female counterparts. Taken altogether, the low levels of education among black men only hurt their standing as the provider for the family. Essentially, Moynihan claimed that matriarchy would kill the black family.                                                                                                                                 As it turned out, Moynihan’s conclusions proved to be right. In fact, he predicted not only the rise in illegitimacy in black families but also for the population as a whole. As with a number of other trends in American life, black families proved to be a bellwether for the nation as a whole. Indeed, when Moynihan warned of the coming breakdown of the black family, 25% of black children lived in homes not headed by a married couple. Today, 30% of ALL children in the U.S do not live with both of their parents and an even greater number do not live with married parents. Today, 66% of black children live in single-parent households and an even greater portion don’t live with married parents.                                                                                                         Moynihan was also proven to accurately predict the consequences of the breakdown of the family. The years following his report witnessed a huge crime surge, a rapid uptick in drug abuse, and an institutionalization of urban poverty, especially among blacks. Also of note was the ensuing achievement gap in educational achievement(test scores) between blacks and whites which ceased to narrow sometime in the mid-1970s. Over time, such trends have extended to the broader society and even today threaten the security, stability, and well-being of American children from all classes, creeds, and backgrounds.

Maps

If you haven’t figured this out yet from my blog, I am really interested in maps and spatial relationships. I think my love for urban and regional design and planning came from first love: geography. I absolutely love maps and making them. I am a Google Maps fiend and I can go on forever about it. It is such an amazing tool that is continuously being improved, expanded, and honed. I wish more people would take advantage of this amazing application. I’m going to post some of the maps I’ve created in this post.

DISCLAIMER: these maps are all works in progress.