Archive for the ‘Internet Free Speech’ Category

Each day this week we’ll be highlighting some of the anti-regulatory bills that Public Citizen and our allies have been pushing back against this fall.

Regulatory Integrity Act (H.R. 5226) – passed on Sept. 14, 2016

Photo courtesy Julia Rubinic/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

The so-called Regulatory Integrity Act (H.R. 5226) should have been named the “Don’t Tell the Public Act.” After the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) used social media to inform the public about its impending protective rule for clean water and invited the public to submit comments on the rule, conservatives wanted to stop federal agencies from harnessing the power of social media.

H.R. 5226 aims to significantly undermine federal agencies’ ability to engage and inform the public in a meaningful and transparent way regarding its work on important science-based rulemakings that will greatly benefit the public. The bill would strictly prohibit agencies from issuing “public communications” that “emphasize the importance” of a particular agency action unless the communication has the “clear purpose of informing the public of the substance or status” of the particular action. It applies to a wide swath of regulatory actions including rulemakings, guidance documents, policy statements, directives and adjudications.

H.R. 5226 would severely impede, rather than enable, agency use of new communication technologies, most notably social media platforms, to reach and inform the public on lifesaving protections.

497px-edward_snowden-2Oliver Stone’s 2016 film Snowden debuted at the height of a controversy over whether or not President Obama should pardon Edward Snowden. His defenders argue that his disclosures prompted important legal and policy changes, while his opponents argue that he’s a criminal who should come back to the United States to stand trial.

The film itself paints a portrait of Snowden as a young conservative from a military background. He begins his career with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) with a loyalty to the United States and a desire to serve his country. As he transitions through different positions with private contractors in the intelligence community, he becomes increasingly disturbed by the breadth of government mass surveillance systems. What he witnesses at work haunts him – he develops an aversion to being photographed – and plagues his relationship with his girlfriend. Eventually, it leads him to flee to a hotel room in Hong Kong where he works in secret with The Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill and documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras. They race against the clock to make his story public before the government can arrest him.

The rest, as they say, is history.

It’s easy to get lost in the controversy of Snowden’s disclosures, but it’s important to remember the context of his decision to go public. Snowden was familiar with the whistleblowers in the intelligence community who came before him. Despite making their own disclosures through designated channels within the government, these workers had no safeguards against the severe retaliation they faced.

Take the case of Ed Loomis, a former National Security Agency employee and contractor within the intelligence community. After he reported an ineffective and wasteful surveillance program through a designated government hotline, the government responded by revoking his Top Secret security clearance, rendering him unable to work in the intelligence community. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) also raided his home for five hours. He and his wife watched as agents in Kevlar vests confiscated their possessions.

Contractors in the intelligence community deserve better than what happened to Ed Loomis. Public Citizen and many other organizations committed to open and transparent government support extending protections to contractors who blow the whistle on waste, fraud, and abuse in the intelligence community.  Without safeguards against employer retaliation, whistleblowers may either stay silent about government wrongdoing or make disclosures through the media.

Lawmakers recognize the urgent need for reform, but change has been slow. In 2015, Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) introduced a bill to extend whistleblower protections to contractors in the intelligence community. In theory, this bill should not be contentious. Certain intelligence community contractors had access to such protections for a limited time without any evidence of negative consequences to national security. But, lawmakers controversially revoked these rights in 2012. So far, Congress has failed to take action on Sen. McCaskill’s critical measure.

Snowden ends with familiar audio clips from the 2016 presidential primary debates where the candidates voiced their opinions about his actions. Their reactions are mixed, but frustratingly, there is no discussion of the much-needed whistleblower protection reforms like those in Sen. McCaskill’s bill.

The controversy over Snowden and his 2013 disclosures is unlikely to end anytime soon. However, if policymakers want to prevent future national security leaks, they should make whistleblowing safe for all intelligence community workers – including contractors. Congress should enact Sen. McCaskill’s bill to protect these individuals who bravely risk so much in serving the public good.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is hosting a workshop today on “native advertising” – the practice of blending ads with news and other content in such a way to make it difficult to distinguish paid and unpaid content. The agency will tackle issues concerning the popular marketing tool’s blurred lines between advertising and editorial content. Public Citizen’s President Robert Weissman, alongside industry representatives from Buzzfeed, The Wall Street Journal and others, will speak on the panel addressing best practices in transparency and disclosure.

The use of native advertising and sponsored content – content created by or on behalf of the advertiser that “runs within the editorial stream [and] integrates into the design of the publisher’s site” – has become increasingly pervasive, as companies seek online marketing tools that are not obvious attempts to sell goods and services. A marketing research firm predicted that spending on sponsored content would rise by 22 percent between 2012 and 2013, up to $1.88 billion.

Because marketers pay for, and often create, sponsored content, and the end goal is commercial, it should be clearly labeled as advertising, pursuant to FTC disclosure rules. (Marketing industry leaders claim that sponsored content is not always advertising, so it should not be labeled as such.)

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The politics of the global knowledge economy are shifting: from mercantilism to co-operation, from closed commercial regimes toward open source. Last week, the European Parliament Committee on International Trade (INTA) passed a report recommending the rejection of the controversial Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA). Since the European Union (EU) and its 22 member states signed ACTA in January 2012, ACTA has caused nothing but consternation in Europe. Citizens of Poland, Bulgaria and the Germany took to the streets to show their opposition. These protests initiated a pan-European movement awakening the spirit of 1968. Young Europeans asked policy makers and politicians in Brussels to respect their rights, privacy and freedom on the Internet.

The ‘old continent’ woke up to what people in the global South have known and fought for over many years. Intellectual property (IP) is not merely a commercial or trade-related issue or something we can allow to be monopolized by corporations. It’s about us. It touches human life. IP rules can dictate how we access, disseminate and share knowledge, technology and information. They are not only about corporations and their interests. They are also about our internet freedom, privacy, scientific research, textbooks and journals, traditional and cultural knowledge, stewardship of biodiversity, arts and literature. The current orthodox IP standards, largely imposed by corporations, create exclusive controls over knowledge and information and have proved to be inadequate and frequently inappropriate in today’s knowledge-based economy.

What ACTA did – albeit inadvertently – was provide an impetus for a new vision of prioritizing people’s rights over IP fundamentalism in the 21st century. In recent decades, there has been a rush to over-regulate this relatively new and rather conceptually confusing form of property. The IP maximalist perspectives create modern juridical bureaucracies; monstrous, absurd legal procedures and protocols. From the perspective of people, the over-aggressive rules pushed through agreements like ACTA and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) are understood as a declaration of war threatening personal rights and freedoms on the Internet and in our daily lives. This is why the people of Europe raised their voice to warn policy makers in Brussels about the inadequacy of the current IP maximalist model, which places IP monopolies at its heart instead of sharing or disseminating knowledge, technology or information.

The ‘war against piracy’ turned into a revolution against the corporate internet. Brussels could not stay indifferent to the outcry. First, the Committee on Legal Affairs (Juri), Committee on Civil Liberties (LIBE) and the Committee on Industry, Research and Energy (ITRE) voted to express “opinions against ACTA”. If three strikes weren’t enough, a vote in the Development Committee gave a fourth. Finally, on June 21 the trade committee (INTA) dealt a serious blow to ACTA. The INTA vote shows that European politicians increasingly understand we, the people, will not let healthcare and internet policy be dictated by a very few outdated corporate interests. Rather, we need forward-looking, flexible policies for technology, knowledge and creative works that unleash our human genius. ACTA is a retrograde policing approach to the knowledge economy: it promotes IP fundamentalism, it treats competition like criminality and the internet as a threat.

We cannot count ACTA out yet. The final voting in the European Parliament will be held on the 4th of July. The Fourth of July is an important day for Americans, which honors the birthday of the United States of America and the adoption of the Declaration of Independence. But it seems that it would also be a memorable day for the Europeans, honoring the sense of European citizenship in today’s knowledge economy based on the values of individual freedom, equality, tolerance, privacy and democracy .

Thanks to Peter Maybarduk for his contributions to this post.

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Dear Neighbor:

Photo Credit: Voices from Russia

Congratulations on your inclusion in the elite group of states that are currently negotiating the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) Agreement! Your acceptance into this proposed “historic, 21st century trade agreement” means that much of the “burden” of making laws and regulations for your nation will be taken off of you. No worries; lobbyists for Hollywood and American pharmaceutical companies and more than 600 official “corporate trade advisers” to the Office of United States Trade Representative (USTR) will help take care of the details.

Sorry to mention it, but we’re afraid many of your laws pertaining to intellectual property (IP), affecting issues from Internet privacy to access to affordable medications, might need a little “tweaking” to ensure they comply with the specifications of U.S. corporate “advisers.” The USTR’s demands at the TPP negotiations read like a wish list from the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) and the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), and YOU have the opportunity to grant all their wishes.

You see, the condition the U.S. imposed for Mexico to get a seat at this corporate banquet was that Mexico agree to accept everything that the other countries already have negotiated over the past three years. Sure, NAFTA required some nasty changes to your IP laws. Remember the millions your government wasted trying to lift the U.S. patent on common yellow beans that a bio-prospector filed after NAFTA? Well, wait until you get a look at the 21st century NAFTA on steroids!

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