Sign this petition to reform the Patriot Act!

Following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the USA Patriot Act was signed into law — legislation that was intended to protect the American people from future acts of terrorism.

Instead of being an effective means of identifying individuals with nefarious intentions, however, the Patriot Act instead facilitates ongoing instances of gross abuses and violations of Americans’ constitutional rights. In 2018, for example, the government collected 434 million records related to 19 million phone numbers — despite listing just 11 targets.

Sign the petition: We refuse to live in a police state under the PATRIOT Act.

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On March 15, the Patriot Act is up for reauthorization. If no reauthorization is passed, provisions of the Patriot Act would expire, partially reverting the U.S. back to a pre-9/11 surveillance policy.

The Patriot Act is an unethical and unconstitutional surveillance of American citizens. Reforming the Patriot Act is a critical priority! Extending these authorities for any period of time absent major reform reflects an abandonment of Congress’s most basic responsibilities.

Sign the petition: We demand clear and common-sense reforms to the Patriot Act now!

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Thanks for all you do,
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Daily Kos, PO Box 70036, Oakland, CA, 94612.

Sacha Baron Cohen’s criticism of Facebook is his funniest joke

Yes, there is hate speech on social media, but is that all there is to it?

by
Sacha Baron Cohen arrives at the 71st Primetime Emmy Awards in Los Angeles, California on September 22, 2019 [Reuters/Mario Anzuoni]
Sacha Baron Cohen arrives at the 71st Primetime Emmy Awards in Los Angeles, California on September 22, 2019 [Reuters/Mario Anzuoni]

In late November, actor and comedian Sacha Baron Cohen gave a talk at the Anti-Defamation League about hate speech and anti-Semitism on social media. He called Big Tech and social media “the greatest propaganda machine in history,” adding: “Just think what Goebbels could have done with Facebook.”

Shortly after, Facebook rejected the accusation, releasing a statement saying that hate speech is banned on the platform.

Baron Cohen’s speech has received much attention and widespread support, particularly in mainstream media which echoed and disseminated his observations.

The charge of being “the greatest propaganda machine in history” is, of course, loaded and draws our attention to other propaganda machines that existed long before Facebook and which might have a claim to that dubious distinction. Among them are the American war machine and the Israeli hasbara, neither of which Baron Cohen seems to reject. 

State propaganda and monopoly of information

There is some element of truth to what Baron Cohen says. There are people on the racist, xenophobic, anti-Semitic, Islamophobic and white supremacist lunatic fringe that take advantage of social media to propagate hate.

But is that all there is to Facebook?

Has it, perhaps inadvertently, also provided a venue for those at the mercy of state and corporate propaganda to talk back at it, reasserting alternative narratives to those presented by, let’s say, the BBC and the New York Times?

I would daresay that those media organisations are, if not the greatest, then certainly major propaganda machines supporting a settler colony that the UK and US have been chiefly responsible for creating and sustaining. They have had that monopoly for decades – deciding and determining the terms of debate on Israel’s colonisation of Palestine.

Facebook and other social media platforms have, all their troubling dimensions notwithstanding, offered sites of resistance to their hegemony.

For those of us old enough to remember the mode of media coverage prior to the emergence of the internet, Baron Cohen’s observations actually sound quite ludicrous.

I remember vividly when the Iranian Revolution of 1977-1979 broke out. Then a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania, I felt despair at being at the mercy of the New York Times, the Washington Post, or any one of the three major US networks (ABC, CBS or NBC) – or particularly BBC radio – to tell me what was happening in Iran.

I remember driving to a Radio Shack shop in the King of Prussia suburb of Philadelphia to buy a short-wave device in order to listen to Tehran Radio and find out what was happening in my homeland. This is not to say that Tehran Radio told the truth and the New York Times spread lies. It just means we all needed more than one dominant and hegemonic source of news to make up our own minds.

Books have been written on how the New York Times and other major corporate media have helped state propaganda machineries. Consider Edward S Herman and Noam Chomsky’s 1988 classic Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media or Richard Falk and Howard Friel’s 2007 book The Record of the Paper: How the New York Times Misreports US Foreign Policy. They both document how monopoly over information, whether state or corporate, has helped justify to the public enormous atrocities and kept it purposefully ignorant of the truth.

Breaking the monopoly

Perhaps the case of the Palestinian national liberation struggles of the last 70 years is the most potent example of how the internet and social media has enabled Palestinians and supporters of the Palestinian cause to counter the sustained course of Israeli propaganda in order to put the history of their dispossession and the robbery of their homeland on the global stage.

The internet started to break the powerful monopoly on how Palestine was portrayed in the 1990s. At first, it gave dissenting voices access to a wider audience.

I remember how one day, shortly after he had started his column for the Egyptian Al-Ahram Weekly in 1993, my colleague and eminent literary theorist Edward Said came to me on campus at Columbia University and declared, “Al-Ahram has liberated me!”

Forget about the New York Times, the chief organ of liberal Zionism, even the so-called progressive outlets like The Nation would not publish his critical assessments of Israeli thievery pre- and post-Oslo Accords.

What was the print circulation of Al-Ahram Weekly? Rather small. But its website gave people around the globe access to Said’s emancipatory writings.

Baron Cohen would most probably not like that. Said’s voice was not racist or anti-Semitic. It was and remains liberating and empowering for the dispossessed around the world.

Then social media not only opened up spaces for wider discussion on the Palestinian cause, connecting the diaspora and foreign supporters to Palestinians in Palestine, but also enabled grassroots organising and public documentation of Israeli violations and crimes.

Take the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) campaign. Founded in 2005, a year after Facebook started and a year before Twitter was launched, it has managed to grow exponentially thanks to social media, which has helped spread its message and boost the effectiveness of its campaigns. It can rally support for boycott action across the world through a network of organisations and volunteers maintained on social media platforms.

The campaign has managed to make enough noise on social media and otherwise to get major artists to cancel events in Israel, including Snoop Dogg, Shakira, Laurin Hill and many others. In 2017, in response to an online BDS letter, New Zealand artist Lorde tweeted: “Noted! Been speaking w many people about this and considering all options. Thank u for educating me I am learning all the time too” before cancelling her concert in Tel Aviv.

The success of the BDS campaign has much to do with the increasing access to information about Israeli crimes on the internet, and especially on social media. Over the past decade, Palestinians and supporters of their cause have increasingly been able not only to document daily Israeli oppression but to post it online for the world to see.

Whether it is shocking images of children killed by Israeli fire in Gaza, videos of Israeli snipers shooting an unarmed Palestinian and celebrating it, or footage of Israeli soldiers carrying out an extrajudicial killing – Palestinians can broadcast to the world Israeli violence in real-time on social media.

If it were up to the New York Times and BBC, it is unlikely any of these crimes would be properly reported. It is only because Palestinian voices have been empowered and amplified online that we hear in detail about what is happening in Palestinian lands.

Who is to throw the first stone?

I have no love lost for Big Tech. To me, they are big corporations and as such, are as immoral and hazardous as every other big corporation. And there is no doubt of the enormity of the horror of white supremacy and its proponents’ use of these platforms to promote hatred.

But social media and the interconnectedness it has encouraged also mean we are not at the mercy of any state or corporate media to decide what is “fit to print”.

The question is not whether Facebook is or is not vulnerable to abuse by racist and xenophobic groups. Of course it is. But who is the person levelling these charges and where is the podium from which he launches this attack.

Baron Cohen makes money out of perpetuating the worst stereotypes about Arabs and Muslims in his films and shows. And the ADL, where he gave the speech, is itself known for its racist activism

The cause of Zionism that Baron Cohen and the ADL fully embrace has totally discredited the charge of anti-Semitism and weaponised it against those who dare criticise the horrors of the settler colony against Palestinians.

But none of that in and of itself discredits what he says. Even a broken clock is accurate twice a day.

There is rampant racism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, homophobia, etc and social media can be a cesspool for entertaining such nefarious ideas. But we need to be even and identical in our criticism of all of these terrorising forms of racism in one breath. We cannot denounce just one while trading in the others.

The internet is a blessing and it is a curse. But it has made the world a more level playing ground to oppose and end abuse of power.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance. 

Sasha Baron Cohen: Facebook would have let Hitler buy anti-Semitic ads

Sacha Baron Cohen in Los Angeles, California, on September 22, 2019

British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen has said if Facebook had existed in the 1930s it would have allowed Hitler a platform for his anti-Semitic beliefs.

The Ali G star singled out the social media company in a speech in New York.

He also criticised Google, Twitter and YouTube for pushing “absurdities to billions of people”.

Social media giants and internet companies are under growing pressure to curb the spread of misinformation around political campaigns.

Twitter announced in late October that it would ban all political advertising globally from 22 November.

Earlier this week Google said it would not allow political advertisers to target voters using “microtargeting” based on browsing data or other factors.

Analysts say Facebook has come under increasing pressure to follow suit.

Addressing the Anti-Defamation League’s Never is Now summit, Baron Cohen took aim at Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg who in October defended his company’s position not to ban political adverts that contain falsehoods.

“If you pay them, Facebook will run any ‘political’ ad you want, even if it’s a lie. And they’ll even help you micro-target those lies to their users for maximum effect,” he said.

“Under this twisted logic, if Facebook were around in the 1930s, it would have allowed Hitler to post 30-second ads on his ‘solution’ to the ‘Jewish problem’.”

Baron Cohen said it was time “for a fundamental rethink of social media and how it spreads hate, conspiracies and lies”. He also questioned Mr Zuckerberg’s characterisation of Facebook as a bastion of “free expression”.

“I think we could all agree that we should not be giving bigots and paedophiles a free platform to amplify their views and target their victims,” he added.

Facebook has not commented on the remarks.

Earlier this month, an international group of lawmakers called for targeted political adverts on social media to be suspended until they are properly regulated.

The International Committee on Disinformation and Fake News was told that the business model adopted by social networks made “manipulation profitable”.

A BBC investigation into political ads for next month’s UK election suggested they were being targeted towards key constituencies and certain age groups.

HHS Probes Google’s Program to Collect Healthcare Data of Americans

H8 hhs probes google program collect healthcare data americans ascension

In more privacy news, the Health and Human Services Department has opened a federal inquiry into Google’s Project Nightingale program, which seeks to collect health data on millions of Americans. Project Nightingale is a collaboration between Google and Ascension, the second-largest healthcare provider in the United States. In a video posted online, a whistleblower who works with the program says the cache of medical data includes the full names and medical details of millions of Americans.

Google is gathering health data on millions of people: WSJ

The data involved in the project reportedly includes laboratory results, doctor diagnoses and hospitalisation records.

The Wall Street Journal newspaper is calling Alphabet Inc's effort a 'secret project' to collect complete health histories for millions of Americans [File: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg]
The Wall Street Journal newspaper is calling Alphabet Inc’s effort a ‘secret project’ to collect complete health histories for millions of Americans [File: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg]

Alphabet Inc’s Google is teaming up with a healthcare company on a secret project to collect personal health-related information of millions of United States residents across 21 states, the Wall Street Journal newspaper reported on Monday.

Google launched Project Nightingale last year with St Louis-based Ascension, according to the report, which cited people familiar with the matter and internal documents. Google and Ascension did not immediately respond to a Reuters request for comment.

More:

Google and Ascension announced later on Monday that they had signed a healthcare data and cloud computing deal, which would give Google access to the datasets it could use to tune potentially lucrative artificial intelligence tools.

The partnership will also explore artificial intelligence and machine-learning applications to help improve clinical effectiveness as well as patient safety, Ascension said in a statement.

Google Cloud Chief Executive Officer Thomas Kurian has made it a priority in his first year on the job to aggressively chase business from leaders in six industries, including healthcare.

The company previously had touted smaller healthcare clients, such as the Colorado Center for Personalized Medicine.

Google has spent several years developing artificial intelligence to automatically analyse magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans and other patient data to identify diseases and make predictions aimed at improving outcomes and reducing costs.

Ascension, which operates 150 hospitals and more than 50 senior-living facilities across the US said the partnership was in compliance with the US data privacy act HIPPA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act), which safeguards medical information.

The Journal reported that the data involved in the project includes laboratory results, doctor diagnoses and hospitalisation records, among other categories and amounts to a complete health history, complete with patient names and dates of birth.

The news follows an earlier announcement from Google that it would buy Fitbit Inc for $2.1bn, aiming to enter the market for wearables and invest in digital health.

California announces probe of Facebook privacy practices

The social network is under fire in the US state for giving third parties data access and not disclosing its practices.

California attorney general Xavier Becerra, right, speaks as California Governor Gavin Newsom looks on during a news conference in Sacramento [File: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images/AFP]
California attorney general Xavier Becerra, right, speaks as California Governor Gavin Newsom looks on during a news conference in Sacramento [File: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images/AFP]

The attorney general of California – the most populous state in the United States – says he has been investigating Facebook privacy practices since 2018.

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra offered few details about the probe and said he was disclosing it only because his office was making a public court filing to force Facebook to answer subpoenas, to which he said Facebook had thus far failed to respond adequately.

According to the filing, Facebook took a year to fully respond to an initial June 2018 subpoena related to the scandal in which Cambridge Analytica obtained the data of more than 50 million Facebook users – and used that data to influence political outcomes in the US in 2016.

The attorney general then asked for more information, including communications among executives related to developers’ access to user data and privacy-related news stories.

The filing said that Facebook “broadly refuses to answer the interrogatories or comply with the subpoena”, adding that the company has refused to search the emails of top executives Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg in response to the second subpoena.

Facebook didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

The investigation is into Facebook’s practices related to privacy, disclosures and third-party access to user data.

The state is looking into whether Facebook violated California law by deceiving users and misrepresenting privacy practices.

Officials say the probe began in early 2018 as a response to the Cambridge Analytica scandal, but has since expanded.

The court filing says Facebook has not yet given answers for 19 of the attorney general’s questions, or provided any new documents in response to six document requests.

The filing says Facebook is dragging its feet and also simply not complying with subpoenas or responding to questions.

California did not join a separate probe involving attorneys general from New York and other US states. The New York probe is looking into Facebook’s dominance and any resulting anticompetitive conduct.

The US Federal Trade Commission recently fined Facebook $5bn over privacy violations, though the penalty was criticised by consumer advocates and a number of public officials as being too lenient.

 

SOURCE: AP NEWS AGENCY

Ex-Twitter employees accused of spying for Saudi Arabia

Shocker.  Why do we still deal with these fascists? 
Twitter headquarters in San Francisco, California

Two former employees of Twitter have been charged in the US with spying for Saudi Arabia.

The charges, unsealed on Wednesday in San Francisco, allege that Saudi agents sought personal information about Twitter users including known critics of the Saudi government.

Court documents named the two as Ahmad Abouammo, a US citizen, and Ali Alzabarah, from Saudi Arabia.

A third person, Saudi citizen Ahmed Almutairi, is also accused of spying.

The New York Times says it is the first time that Saudi citizens have been charged with spying inside the United States.

What are the charges?

Ahmad Abouammo appeared in a Seattle court on Wednesday and was remanded in custody pending another hearing due on Friday.

He is also charged with falsifying documents and making false statements to the FBI.

The criminal complaint says he provided the FBI with a falsified, back-dated invoice charging an unnamed Saudi official $100,000 for “consulting services”.

Mr Abouammo is said to have left his job as a media partnership manager for Twitter in 2015.

Mr Alzabarah, a former Twitter engineer, is accused of accessing the personal data of more than 6,000 Twitter users in 2015 after being recruited by Saudi agents.

One of the Twitter accounts he allegedly accessed also appeared in a note found in a Saudi official’s email account, revealing the level of detail Mr Alzabarah was able to obtain about the user.

According to the complaint, the note read: “This one is a professional. He’s a Saudi that uses encryption… We tracked him and found that 12 days ago he signed in once without encryption from IP [redacted] at 18:40 UTC on 05/25/2015. This one does not use a cell phone at all, just a browser. He’s online right using Firefox form [sic] a windows machine.”

Mr Alzabarah was confronted by his supervisors and placed on administrative leave before fleeing to Saudi Arabia with his wife and daughter, investigators said.

The charges allege the third person – Mr Almutairi – acted as an intermediary between the two Twitter employees and Saudi officials.

Mr Alzabarah and Mr Almutairi are both believed to be in Saudi Arabia.

The Saudi government allegedly paid the men hundreds of thousands of dollars. One man also received a luxury Hublot watch, worth about $20,000 (£15,500).

A key US ally

In a statement, Twitter said it recognised “the lengths bad actors will go to” to try to undermine its service.

It added: “We understand the incredible risks faced by many who use Twitter to share their perspectives with the world and to hold those in power accountable. We have tools in place to protect their privacy and their ability to do their vital work.”

Saudi Arabia is a key US ally in the Middle East.

President Donald Trump has maintained close ties with the kingdom despite international condemnation following the murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi last year.

Mr Khashoggi was murdered during a visit to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.