Two Koch Insiders Are Creating a New Office Inside the FCC

Two Koch Insiders Are Creating a New Office Inside the FCC
By Alex Kotch
May 24 2018

Two recent employees from key groups financially supported by billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch are creating a new office within the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) that will provide economic data and analysis relating to FCC policy initiatives. The office could provide FCC Chairman Ajit Pai with analytical justification for slashing regulations.

The two officials launching the new office both have ties to George Mason University (GMU)—which has been funneling academic conservatives into government roles since becoming a major beneficiary of Koch money. Both have either been employed by or had their academic work funded by the Kochs and by the telecommunications industry. And FCC records obtained by TYT show that one of them met with and corresponded with telecom industry representatives, one of whom was his wife. An email obtained by TYT showed that one of them explicitly hoped to recruit officials for the new office at a telecom industry event.

FCC Chair Ajit Pai last year announced plans to form the Office of Economics and Analytics as a central hub to work with each FCC bureau, describing a market-based approach to communications regulation. “The FCC should have the economic experts it needs to identify market failures and study whether the benefits of Commission action would be warranted given the costs,” said Pai in April 2017. The FCC has not specified when the office will officially open. 

FCC Deputy Press Secretary Will Wiquist denied an interview request and did not respond to specific questions over email before publishing time.

Despite the new emphasis on economics, the FCC was established by the Communications Act of 1934 to serve the “public interest, convenience, and necessity.” However, the definition of “public interest” is “a pretty malleable concept,” according to former FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler. Depending on the roster of commissioners, the FCC has approached the public interest in very different ways.

“First, economic analysis plays an important role in all of our work,” wrote Democratic Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel in a dissenting statement regarding the plan for the Office of Economics and Analytics. “But we need to be mindful that we have legal duties that can be at odds with simple cost-benefit analysis.”

In response to a letter from Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-N.M.) asking how the Office of Economics and Analysis would serve the public interest while prioritizing economic analysis, Pai wrote, “It is critical that . . . the office’s efforts yield better-informed decisions that benefit consumers,” but he offered no specifics. Critics say that Pai has abandoned the public in favor of big business.

To create the office, Pai enlisted Wayne Leighton, the current chief of the FCC’s Office of Strategic Planning & Policy Analysis, which will have its “existing functions” carried out by the new Office of Economics and Analytics. He was previously executive vice president of the Charles Koch Foundation and, before that, head of government affairs for Koch Industries. Leighton earned his economics Ph.D. at GMU—which accepts millions of dollars in funding each year from conservative megadonor Charles Koch for economics and other programs—and has taught at a private college, the Universidad Francisco Marroquín in Guatemala, the president of which was recently head of a Koch-funded organization of free-market academics called the Association of Private Enterprise Education.

Helping Leighton launch the office is Jerry Ellig, whom Pai named chief economistof the FCC in July 2017. Ellig, who has also worked for the Federal Trade Commission, is taking a one-year leave of absence from GMU’s Mercatus Center, an on-campus, free-market think tank heavily funded by Koch. The center, named after the Latin word for “market,” has a reputation for publishing conservative economics analysis, which is sometimes cited in the Congressional Record, occasionally making its way into GOP sponsored legislation.

On January 30, the commission approved the plan to establish the office in a 3-2 vote along party lines.

Earlier that month, a working group led by Leighton released a proposal for the Office of Economics and Analytics. The new office will house most economists currently working in the various FCC bureaus and will contain four divisions for economic analysis, industry analysis, auctions, and data.

The proposal was short on details, leaving Commissioner Rosenworcel with many questions. “I am dismayed that my most basic questions about what this office will entail have not been answered,” she wrote in her dissent. The document outlining the formation of an office of data and analytics does not contain much data and analytics. And to her questions about staffing and how the functions of existing divisions will shift, “No one will answer.”

“I think it’s irresponsible to vote on a conceptual reorganization—which is what we have here— without frank information about how we will populate this effort,” she wrote.

But Pai’s background, his staffing choices to set up the office, and FCC policy decisions so far indicate that the office will offer a corporate-friendly approach. Pai was once an associate general counsel for telecom giant Verizon. At a 2017 FCC event, Pai joked about being “a Verizon puppet” installed as FCC chairman.



The Border Patrol Was Monstrous Under Obama. Imagine How Bad It Is Under Trump.

The Border Patrol Was Monstrous Under Obama. Imagine How Bad It Is Under Trump.
The ACLU and the International Human Rights Clinic have obtained disturbing documents detailing Border Patrol abuses.
By Mitra Ebadolahi, Border Litigation Project Staff Attorney, ACLU of San Diego & Imperial Counties
May 23 2018

On a December morning, Border Patrol agents confronted a 15-year-old high school student named Jahveel Ocampo at a rest stop in California while she and her friends were on their way to the mountains to see the winter’s first snow. Jahveel was a young child when she came to the United States from Mexico with her parents, and she grew up undocumented in southern California. She was a mother to a 2-year-old child, who was a U.S. citizen.

An agent in a blue jacket asked whether Jahveel was an “illegal.” He handcuffed her and drove her to a Border Patrol station in the border town of Campo. There, he slapped her twice on the buttocks and ordered her into a cell. He and another male agent told her to sign an “order of voluntary departure,” a deportation order. She refused.

Then the threats began. One agent said, in Spanish, according to the complaint she filed later, “Right now, we close the door, we rape you and f*** you. If you cooperate with us, we can deport you to Mexico. Otherwise, we will take you to jail and deport your entire family.” They told her that her child would end up in foster care.

Terrified and alone, Jahveel signed.

If you assumed this abuse happened during the Trump administration, think again. Jahveel was threatened in 2009 by President Obama’s Border Patrol, and her treatment was not an isolated incident. Her case is part of a pattern of physical, sexual, and emotional abuse by Customs and Border Protection officials against child immigrants that existed long before President Trump emboldened the agency by unleashing its officers to enforce his draconian immigration policies.

We have received more than 30,000 pages of internal government documents detailing this abuse between 2009 and 2014 throughout the southern border region. These records, obtained through an ACLU Freedom of Information Act request and subsequent litigation, offer a glimpse into an immigration enforcement system that had been plagued by brutality and lawlessness long before Trump was elected.

Customs and Border Protection — the Border Patrol’s parent agency — is now the largest law enforcement organization in the United States, with more than 60,000 employees and a fiscal year 2018 budget of $16.4 billion. And while the number of people crossing the border without documents has dropped significantly, Trump has said he wants to hire thousands more Border Patrol agents while deploying the National Guard to the border to bolster its forces. Now the federal government has created a policy of separating immigrant children from their parents, which could dramatically increase the number of minors encountering immigration officials by themselves and create potential for expanded abuses.

Our FOIA request yielded documents from four agencies in the Department of Homeland Security. On Wednesday, the ACLU and the International Human Rights Clinic at the University of Chicago School of Law released a report that includes documents from one agency, the Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, a DHS oversight agency. We will release additional documents from the other three agencies in the coming months.

The records show that the leadership at Customs and Border Protection were well aware of the allegations of unlawful child abuse — including people still now directing the agency — yet there is no indication that any individual official was ever held accountable for abuse.

In one complaint we obtained, a Border Patrol agent grabbed a girl he claimed was running away, handcuffed her to someone else and dragged them together along the ground, causing “two bruises on her neck, scratches to her shoulders and arms, and thorns in her head.” A 16-year-old recounted that a Border Patrol agent threw him down before he used his boot to smash his head into the ground.

Other children allege that agents assaulted them with their feet, fists, flashlights, and Tasers. In one case, an agent ran over a 17-year-old with a patrol vehicle and then got out and punched the child in the head and body. Often, children noted that other agents witnessed the abuse or saw the injuries but refused them medical attention. In one case, agents accused a pregnant minor of lying about the pain — which turned out to be labor contractions preceding a stillbirth.


The Supreme Court Favors Forced Arbitration at the Expense of Workers’ Rights

The Supreme Court Favors Forced Arbitration at the Expense of Workers’ Rights
The ruling deals a blow to the collective power of workers seeking to challenge discriminatory practices and policies.
By Galen Sherwin, ACLU Women’s Rights Project
May 22 2018

The #MeToo movement has offered an important lesson on the collective power of voices joining together to take on individual experiences of injustice. On Monday, the Supreme Court dealt a huge blow to precisely this kind of collective power, rulingagainst the ability of workers to join together to take on employment discrimination and abuse.

The court ruled that employers are free to force workers who have been victims of unfair labor practices into private arbitration to address their claims — even in cases where workers sought to bring a collective legal action. The decision came in a case about failure to pay overtime, but its implications are far broader and extend to many of the claims of harassment and discrimination that have surfaced thanks to the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements.

Arbitration contracts are agreements to bring any future legal dispute through a private system rather than through the public courts. Employees are often required to sign such agreements along with a raft of paperwork on their first day on the job, and many have no memory of signing them.

The Supreme Court has long held that employers are free to enforce arbitration agreements for individual lawsuits. Monday’s decision extended that principle to cases brought on behalf of a “class” of individuals who claim they were harmed in the same way by discriminatory or unfair policies and seek to bring a single legal action on behalf of the group.

Justice Neil Gorsuch, writing for the court’s conservative majority, held that even though another federal law, the National Labor Relations Act, protects the rights of workers to “engage in concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection,” that guarantee does not prevent employers from forcing classes of workers into arbitration.

The court’s decision — which Justice Ginsburg, in dissent, called “egregiously wrong” — tips the scales even further in favor of employers and large corporations, at the expense of workers. Limiting workers’ rights “to band together in confronting an employer,” she wrote, will likely prevent such claims from ever seeing the light of day. This is because individuals have less bargaining power compared with their employers. Additionally, the high risk and cost of bringing individual lawsuits, and the low dollar amounts typically involved — particularly for low-wage workers — disincentivize individual action. The ACLU joined an amicus brief in the case, authored by the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund and the Impact Fund, raising these arguments.

Companies are increasingly requiring employees to agree to forced arbitration as a condition of employment. A recent study by Cynthia Estlund at the Economic Policy Institute showed that 56 percent of non-unionized private sector employees — that’s 60.1 million American workers — are currently subject to forced arbitration.

Arbitration affects us as consumers, as well. For example, Uber recently came under attack for seeking to compel arbitration against a group of 14 women who claim they were sexually assaulted by Uber drivers, but were prevented from taking their case to court by a forced arbitration clause in Uber’s terms of service. After the women sent a public letter requesting that the company release them from mandatory arbitration, Uber announced that it would abandon the use of forced arbitration, as well as the practice of requiring non-disclosure agreements in private settlements, which can serve to silence survivors.

Lyft quickly followed suit. While these announcements were important, their effect was limited: The policy changes apply to sexual assault and harassment only, and not to other forms of discriminatory treatment. They also leave in place forced arbitration for those who seek to bring their cases as class actions. These companies, and others, should do better.

To be sure, some people may prefer arbitration to the lengthy and costly process of litigation, and they should have the right to pursue that course if that’s their preference. But arbitration has been criticized as biased in favor of companies and employers, and lacking in the procedural protections afforded by the justice system. Rather going before a judge or a jury of one’s peers, cases in arbitration are decided by a panel of lawyers who may have little or no training on the legal or emotional issues surrounding discrimination, harassment, or abuse, and they are not required to follow legal precedent. Perhaps unsurprisingly, few survivors actually achieve justice through these forums. And, perhaps most critically in the #MeToo era, the entire proceedings are subject to strict confidentiality. This shrouds the process and the results in secrecy, preventing public accountability for repeat harassers or the employers who enable them.


Should AI Always Identify Itself? It’s more complicated than you might think.

Should AI Always Identify Itself? It’s more complicated than you might think.
May 22 2018

EFF Opposes California Bill to Require Bot Disclosures    

The Google Duplex demos released two weeks ago—audio recordings of the company’s new AI system scheduling a hair appointment and the other of the system calling a restaurant—are at once unsettling and astounding. The system is designed to enable the Google personal assistant to make telephone calls and conduct natural conversations, and it works; it’s hard to tell who is the robot and who is the human. The demos have drawn both awe and criticism, including calls that the company is “ethically lost” for failing to disclose that the caller was actually a bot and for adding human filler sounds, like “um” and “ah,” that some see as deceptive. 

In response to this criticism, Google issued a statement noting that these recordings were only demos, that it is designing the Duplex feature “with disclosure built-in,” and that it is going “make sure the system is appropriately identified.” We’re glad that Google plans to be build transparency into this technology. There are many cases, and this may be one of them, where it makes sense for AIs or bots to be labeled as such, so that people can appropriately calibrate their responses. But across-the-board legally mandated AI- or bot-labeling proposals, such as a bill currently under consideration in California, raise significant free speech concerns.  

The California bill, B.O.T. Act of 2018 (S.B. 1001), would make it unlawful for any person to use a social bot to communicate or interact with natural persons online without disclosing that the bot is not a natural person. The bill—which EFF opposes due to its over-breadth—is influenced by the Russian bots that plagued social media prior to the 2016 election and spambots used for fraud or commercial gain. But there are many other types of social bots, and this bill targets all of them. By targeting all bots instead of the specific type of bots driving the legislation, this bill would restrict and chill the use of bots for protected speech activities. EFF has urged the bill’s sponsor to withdraw the proposal until this fundamental constitutional deficiency is addressed. 

While across-the-board labeling mandates of this type may sound like an easy solution, it is important to remember that the speech generated by bots is often simply speech of natural persons processed through a computer program. Bots are used for all sorts of ordinary and protected speech activities, including poetry, political speech, and even satire, such as poking fun at people who cannot resist arguing—even with bots. Disclosure mandates would restrict and chill the speech of artists whose projects may necessitate not disclosing that a bot is a bot.

Disclosure requirements could also be hard to effectuate in practice without effectively unmasking protected human speakers and thus reduce the ability of individuals to speak anonymously. Courts recognize that protecting anonymous speech, which has long-been recognized as “a shield from the tyranny of the majority,” is critical to a functioning democracy and subject laws that infringe on the right to anonymity in “core political speech” to close judicial scrutiny.  

When protected speech is at risk, it is not appropriate to cast a wide net and sort it out later. That’s not to say that all bot-labeling mandates would violate the First Amendment. There will likely be situations in which targeted labeling requirements may be needed to protect a significant or compelling “government interest”—such as in the context of social bots intended to persuade people to vote for a particular politician or ballot measure, especially if deployed at a scale that allowed those behind the bot to communicate with and potentially influence far more people than if relying on human-operated accounts. But any laws of this type must be carefully tailored to address proven harms. A helpful question to ask here is:


There are good reasons for ignoring the news

There are good reasons for ignoring the news
Wealthy American Erik Hagerman has entirely cut himself off from current affairs following the election of Trump. Here’s why I support him
By David Mitchell
Mar 25 2018

Did you hear about the rich American who’s cut himself off from all news since Donald Trump was elected? There’s no reason why you should. He wouldn’t have done, if it hadn’t actually been him. His name’s Erik Hagerman and he used to be a Nike executive, but now lives on a pig farm and doesn’t even farm pigs. He just works on his art and goes for coffee and plays guitar and gives interviews to the New York Times. Which presumably he then doesn’t read, so the interviewer could have indulged in a rare consequence-free, easy-to-write hatchet job, but didn’t.

I don’t mean to be snide – things I say neutrally just come out like that. It’s the rhetorical equivalent of people whose faces’ resting expressions look deeply sad or intensely cross, so they have to smile to seem normal (which must cumulatively be depressing or irritating, thus retrospectively giving them temperaments to match their looks). Because, as it happens, I support Erik Hagerman’s life choice.

Then again, I’ve got a few nits to pick. For a start, the whole art thing’s a bit lame – you can see his stuff online. He just does sort of scrunched things and patterns and, well, fine, but if there’s enough rolling news in the world, there’s more than enough crap art. Plus, his non-consumption of news media seems to involve a lot of slightly precious “business”. It smacks of the self-involvement of those who believe their allergies make them interesting.

For example, in order to avoid accidentally hearing any careless talk at the coffee shop he goes to every morning, he wears headphones playing white noise. He says music won’t do because “stray conversation can creep in between songs”. He still watches basketball on TV but on mute so that no contemporary reference sneaks through. And he’s given his lifestyle a name, which is annoying even before you hear the name, at which point it gets more annoying.

He’s called it “the Blockade”. That’s all wrong, and not deliberately, I don’t think. A blockade is a siege. Ingress to, or egress from, an entity is prevented by outsiders. What Hagerman’s doing – the entity in the middle trying to prevent ingress from the outside world – isn’t a blockade, it’s Trump’s immigration policy. What’s more, Hagerman certainly doesn’t oppose informational egress from the central entity in his blockade (which is him) because, as I mentioned, he gave an interview to the New York Times. It seems like he wants other people’s attention while simultaneously withholding his own. “Watch me ignore stuff!” is the pitch.

However, leaving aside my cynicism about how Hagerman advocates his approach, the approach itself is tremendously attractive. The NYT interviewer touched upon criticism it had received in a way that, to me, merely encapsulated its appeal: “To avoid current affairs is in some ways a luxury that many people… cannot afford.” I mean, why not just liken it to a holiday in the Maldives? A lobster dinner? A dishwasher? Yes, not everybody can afford it: for many, ignoring the news is impossible because it affects them directly – just as, for many, buying a dishwasher is impossible. But does that mean, if you can, you shouldn’t?

Probably. In an ideal world. But you’d need to have ignored the news for a very long time to be willing to believe that’s what Earth is. Capitalism is pretty horrible, but the various attempts at improving on it have either led to totalitarianism or gradually eroded back into capitalism. Or, in the case of modern China, both.

Obviously, people are much more likely to get slagged off for ignoring current affairs than for buying dishwashers. And that’s appropriately capitalistic: keeping up with the news, like buying a dishwasher, involves purchasing stuff. Or, when it doesn’t, it involves being sold: allowing the fact that you’ve looked at something to be marketed to advertisers or worse. Either way, it’s economic activity. However, ignoring the news doesn’t add to the GDP and so, unlike other luxuries that do more tangible harm (eg air travel or golf), it can be widely condemned without commercial risk.


You Think It’s All About Guns?

You Think It’s All About Guns?
By James Howard Kunstler
May 21 2018

Is it possible that we Americans only pretend not to notice the conditions that produce an epidemic of school shootings, or is the public just too dumbed-down to connect the dots?

Look at the schools themselves. We called them “facilities” because they hardly qualify as buildings: sprawling, one-story, tilt-up, flat-roofed boxes isolated among the parking lagoons out on the six-lane highway strip, disconnected from anything civic, isolated archipelagoes where inchoate teenage emotion festers and rules while the few adults on the scene are regarded as impotent clowns representing a bewildering clown culture wrapped in a Potemkin economy that has nothing to offer young people except a lifetime of debt and “bullshit jobs” — to borrow a phrase from David Graeber.

The world of teens has been exquisitely engineered to steal every opportunity for colonizing the chemical reward centers of their brains to provoke endorphin hits, especially the cell-phone realm of social media, which is almost entirely about status competition, much of which revolves around the wild hormonal promptings of teen sexual development — at the same time they are bombarded with commercial messages designed to prey on their fantasies, longings, and perceived inadequacies. All of this produces immersive and incessant melodrama along with untold grievance, envy, frustration, confusion, and rage. And, of course, where the cell-phone universe leaves off, the world of video games begins, so that boys (especially) get to act-out in “play” the extermination of their competitors and foes.

I will venture to say — against the tide of current sexual politics — that adolescence is much tougher for boys these days than it is for girls. Every boy in one way or another faces his archetypal hero’s journey, the hard-wired seeking to become powerful in one way or another, to accomplish something, to prevail over adversaries, to win the goodies of life. This country used to be a place where young men had many useful and practical paths to follow in enacting that eternal script.

That has changed utterly in a couple of generations. Young men are being out-competed by young women who enjoy the advantage of being hard-wired to cooperate with others in the hive-like corporate workplaces that require tractable drones who will just follow instructions. The smart ones can easily avoid pregnancy, too, and still enjoy sex and all the exciting social games it entails.

For young men, beyond the repellent corporate world of work are only fantasies about triumphing in pro sports, show business, or the drug trade, with pornography and masturbation in place of the tension-filled process of mate-seeking. There is also plenty of opportunity these days for archetypal acting-out in warfare, but our wars lately are devoid of valorous story-lines, and instead of dying nobly for a cause, our soldiers are more likely to come home with shattered brains and bodies from campaigns of no discernable meaning.

And so high school is the launching pad for all that, though in this era of protracted adolescence, mass murders also take place on college campuses. The part of the forebrain that regulates judgment generally doesn’t complete its development in young men until sometime in their early twenties. And college is swiftly becoming as meaningless as high school, given the economic landscape, and the debt racketeering now deeply associated with higher education.


Illegal online sales of endangered wildlife rife in Europe

Illegal online sales of endangered wildlife rife in Europe
Exclusive: Study finds 12,000 items worth $4m, including ivory, live orangutans and a huge number of reptiles and birds for the pet trade
By Damian Carrington
May 23 2018

The online sale of endangered and threatened wildlife is rife across Europe, a new investigation has revealed, ranging from live cheetahs, orangutans and bears to ivory, polar bear skins and many live reptiles and birds.

Researchers from the International Fund for Animal Welfare (Ifaw) spent six weeks tracking adverts on 100 online marketplaces in four countries, the UK, Germany, France and Russia. They found more than 5,000 adverts offering to sell almost 12,000 items, worth $4m (£3m) in total. All the specimens were species in which trade is restricted or banned by the global Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species. 

Wildlife groups have worked with online marketplaces including eBay, Gumtree and Preloved to cut the trade and the results of the survey are an improvement compared to a previous Ifaw report in 2014. In March, 21 technology giants including Google, eBay, Etsy, Facebook and Instagram became part of the Global Coalition to End Wildlife Trafficking Online, and committed to bring the online illegal trade in threatened species down by 80% by 2020.

“It is great to see we are making really significant inroads into disrupting and dismantling the trade,” said Tania McCrea-Steele at Ifaw. “But the scale of the trade is still enormous.”

Almost 20% of the adverts were for ivory and while the number had dropped significantly in the UK and France, a surge was seen in Germany, where traders developed new code words to mask their sales. “It is a war of attrition and we can never let our guard down,” said McCrea-Steele. The UK is implementing a stricter ban on ivory sales and the EU is under pressure from African nations to follow suit.

Reptiles for the pet trade were the single biggest group, making up 37% of the adverts, with live turtles and tortoises being sold in large numbers. Endangered birds were also common, making up 31% of the adverts. Parrots were the most frequently advertised, but almost 500 owls and 350 birds of prey were also offered.

Most of the adverts of large, live animals were found in Russia, where big cats or bears are regarded by some as status symbols. Leopards, cheetahs and jaguars were all offered for sale in Russia, as were more than 130 live primates, including orangutans, lemurs and gibbons. 

However, seven live primates were also found in UK adverts and one live bear advert was found in Germany. More commonly offered for sale in the UK were big cat skins from lions, tigers and leopards, as well as polar bear skins.

Some endangered species can be legally traded, for example if they are bred in captivity. But it is often difficult to tell which sales are legal, as few adverts provide sufficient information, such as certificate numbers. “The legal trade can serve as cover for the illegal trade,” warned McCrea-Steele.