May 28, 2006

Hand Over Control of the Internet to Who??

The great thing about the Internet is that it makes it really easy for everybody to freak out about the same thing at the same time...and
Save the Internet: Click here
feel like they are thinking for themselves rather than just being told the official story. The thing about the internet is that everybody tells you what to think. There are a million contradictory versions of the story out there all at once. At the same time it is really easy to get tuned into a particular point of view to get your own personal party line. So if you want somebody to tell you what to think, you can find somebody that you learn to trust because they usually tell you exactly what you want to hear. Then when they come up with a new issue, you can just follow blindly along. Isn’t it great?

Actually, I do think it is great. The free and open nature of the net allows you to find other people who share your views, whether you want to persuade others, be persuaded yourself or just hang out. It doesn’t matter whether you have a political cause or a commercial cause. Both have flourished in recent years. Lots of companies are making money online, either through selling stuff to people or by selling advertising on popular sites. Lots of people are enjoying the diversity of products available, time and gas saved and good prices by buying online.

The thing everybody is freaking out about right now...One of the things everybody is freaking out about right now is Net Neutrality. The big telecom companies that control the backbone of the net want to give preferential treatment to sites that pay extra for the privilege. They think that since they own the wires everybody has to use, they should have the right to decide who gets to use them and on what terms. This runs contrary to a general principle that a common carrier should allow everybody to use their network on a equal basis. They get paid for providing this service but they can’t favor one content provider over another. If they were to be allowed to do so, it would be easy for them to use what amounts to monopoly power to promote their own sites or other big business sites that can pay extra at the expense of the rest of us.

Congress is working on a major revision of the Telecommunications Act of 1996. As part of this revision some Senators and Representatives have written legislation to preserve Net Neutrality. A Coalition of big telecom companies are lobbying hard against it. They have even confused the issue by claiming that Net Neutrality would impose government control over the net and change its essential character. You can check out their website, which includes a cute little cartoon, if you want to see what they are saying. It is worth noting that among their major sponsors are AT&T and BellSouth, who didn’t seem to care so much about the abuses of big government when they ignored privacy laws and released customer call records to the NSA. This is not about the government controlling the internet, it is about whether we want to give that power to a handful of monopolistic telecoms.

Thirty years ago, AT&T was broken up into smaller companies because it exercised monopolistic control over the telephone system. Under the competition that resulted the industry has prospered as never before and the telephone system has developed into what is now the telecom industry, encompassing not only local and long distance phone service but cell phones, the internet and cable as well. Curiously, despite the obvious benefits they have derived from this competition the industry is undergoing a wave of mergers that seems intent on recreating monopoly control by just a few huge telecoms. For most Americans access to phone service, cable TV and the net is controlled by just one or two big telecoms.

In this atmosphere, the threat is not government enforcing neutrality but monopolists enforcing control based on dollars and/or political opinions. Already AOL has blocked e-mail that refers to a site critical of their plan to charge e-mailers for preferential treatment. This plan would bypass spam filters to deliver e-mail from companies that pay a fee direct to members’ inboxes. Those who don’t pay would risk having their mail labeled as spam or relegated to a 2nd tier system. The Save the Internet Coalition has documented a number of similar instances of corporate control. Plus they have their own collection of cute videos.

This is a really interesting coalition that brings together a range of consumer organizations, civic action groups and internet businesses to lobby for Internet Neutrality. Although the telecoms try to make it sound like it is just big companies like Microsoft and Google looking for a free ride, the coalition includes groups from all sides of the political spectrum from the Christian Coalition to Move-On Civic Action, Gun Owners of America, Craig Newmark (of Craig’s List) and Consumer’s Union. Some of these groups never thought they would agree on anything, but the internet is such a powerful communications tool for all of them that they have joined together to preserve their ability to use it. Companies that benefit from the innovation and opportunity of an open net and would rather not pay telecoms extra fees are also on board. The real economic beneficiaries of net neutrality are the small undercapitalized startups who have a great idea. If the telecoms have their way they could be priced out of the marketplace before they even start, which would be fine with the monopolists but not so good for the rest of us.

Here is a petition to help persuade Congress to preserve Net Neutrality.

Tune in next week for more on controlling the net

May 21, 2006

Gas Prices

$3.00 a gallon for gas? Outrageous! Unthinkable! Who do we blame? It’s the Oil Companies! It’s taxes! It’s Hurricane Katrina! It’s global warming! It’s the war! It’s those @#$% arabs! It’s those @#$% Texans! It’s that @#$% Texan in the White House! It’s Peak Oil! It’s our consumerist society! It’s the worst problem we have ever faced! It’s not a problem! $3.00 a gallon? I wish it was $3.00 a gallon!

Seriously now, why are prices high and is that a bad thing? Well, first off, high compared to what? Compared to past prices in the US, prices are high but our friends in Europe are laughing their heads off at our present discomfort. They have “enjoyed” prices this high and higher for years. In fact even now, prices in Europe are almost double what we pay here. That is because of higher taxes there that not only raise money for government services but help shape public policy to reduce oil consumption. Cars are more efficient. Public transportation is better. Cities are designed so that people don’t need to go as far to work or shop as they do here. In fact, while some argue for a reduction in gas taxes to bring US prices down, a better case could be made for higher taxes, especially if the proceeds were used to increase efficiency and develop alternative energy sources that could help us make the transition away from oil.

In general, oil prices do not just reflect production costs. Of course, production costs are rising as cheaper sources are used up and replaced by more expensive sources. It should be obvious that cheaper, easier to get at oil is the first to be used. Eventually that gets used up and oil companies dig a little deeper and spend a little more to find new supplies. At some point it gets so expensive that other energy sources become cheaper and people switch over to them. People talking about Peak Oil are saying that we are reaching that point now. They say that we can look forward to declining production and increasing prices from here on out. Since our society is built around cheap oil we had better find a way to deal with this or we will face major problems.

In the long run, this is true. Right now, however, there are other factors that have a bigger influence on the current price spike. Oil prices are set by a kind of auction system with prices going as high as buyers are willing to pay. Contract prices are generally pegged to prices on commodity markets that work like the stock market. People decide what they will pay depending on whether they think prices will go up or down. People are speculating not only on current prices but on future prices as well. Disruptions, or the threat of disruptions will lead people to believe that prices will go up and therefore they are willing to pay more and so prices do go up. Lower supply and higher demand also drives prices up.

A similar system determines prices of refined gasoline, with a difference. The difference is that the major oil companies control the distribution system from refinery to gas station. Independent distributors are in a weaker position because they have to buy from the oil companies. We have seen Big Oil setting refinery prices high and taking a larger profit there while taking a smaller profit, or even a loss, at their own gas stations, undercutting the independents at the pump.

When refinery capacity is reduced, prices go up. This is what happened after Hurricane Katrina. But there have been reductions in capacity for other reasons as well. If a refinery goes down for maintenance it doesn’t have much effect but if several go down at once it can force prices up. I can’t help but be reminded of the electricity “crisis” of a few years ago during which so many power plants went out of service for routine maintenance that there was a serious shortage and prices went through the roof, leading to accusations of price manipulation and collusion. For many of us, that was the first, but not the last, we heard of Enron.

It is worth noting that some oil producing countries sell gas to their own citizens at very low prices. Venezuela, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia and Iraq under Saddam all have (had) prices well under $1.00/gallon. When Iraq was forced to switch to world market prices, it was a major problem for the economy and made life even more difficult for ordinary people trying to live a normal life.

The big winners from high prices are the big oil companies. Looking back over the past few years we see that every time there is a price spike, there is a corresponding profit spike. While higher prices can be a stimulus to a transition to other sources, quick price spikes are very harmful to consumers and to the economy. What it amounts to is a massive transfer of wealth from the rest of us to the oil companies.

Though not many people are willing to talk about it, this amounts to oil companies enriching themselves at the expense of human misery. Profiteering has always happened but it used to be condemned by society. When the war in Iraq started, oil prices reflected this insecurity in supply by rising sharply. The same thing happened after Hurricane Katrina. So, we saw people dying, others having a hard time making ends meet because of higher prices and a few oil company executives with millions of extra dollars in the bank. Is it surprising that they are nervous about trying to explain this to Congress?

May 14, 2006

Youth Activism

May 14, 2006

I don't know how many times I have been in a meeting with a bunch of people like me - Old People - Well, wait a minute not too old, maybe I should say middle aged. Anyway the point is that somebody is sure to pipe up and say, "Where are all the young people?", meaning, "Why aren't they here at our meeting and why aren't they demonstrating like we demonstrated when we were young?" Well, its a bum rap.

First of all, when I was young I know that sitting though long meetings with a bunch of old people was not my idea of fun, or very productive of anything. I tended to stay on campus and do my protesting with other students. That is who I knew and was comfortable with. I even remember a saying, "Don't trust anybody over 30". So I'm not surprised to see students today doing the same thing.

So, what's with the youth movement today? For starters check out Wiretap, which is full of stories of youth organizing. Just now I took a look and found articles on racial profiling, Log Cabin Republicans, the Army's use of video games in their recruiting, Youth involvement in the Save Dafur campaign, and Youth Activists of Austin (YAA!), who not only get my award for best acronym (the exclamation point makes all the difference) but are doing a great job organizing high school students for counter recruiting and in support of immigrant rights.

Of course, student walk-outs helped to spark the immigrant rights movement with thousands of students walking out to protest punitive laws and discrimination, and millions of people taking to the streets. Part of their inspiration were the Chicano walk-outs in 1968, which were dramatized in the HBO film Walkout.

Students also played an important role in the Save Darfur campaign. Students organized on many campuses and helped turn out people for the big rally in Washington DC on April 30. (see this article at The April 30 rally in Seattle was largely organized by students, who marched to the Federal Building where they staged a die-in to dramatize the dire conditions in Darfur.

The Campus Antiwar Network (CAN) brings together students from college campuses across the country. They held regional conferences last month in New York, Chicago and San Francisco focused on "Turning Antiwar Sentiment into Antiwar Action". CAN's website explains, "Campus Antiwar Network is the largest and leading independent, democratic, grassroots network of students opposing the occupation of Iraq and military recruiters in our schools at campuses all over the country. ...Our goal is to unite all antiwar students on colleges and high schools alike to democratically build a broad antiwar and counter-recruitment movement to help bring the troops home now." They provide a clearinghouse for students to report on what is happening on their campuses and mobilize support when it is needed. The Midwest conference included admission to a concert afterwards.

Counter recruiting has been the biggest issue on campuses recently. The military recruiters have been especially intrusive at High Schools where they roam the halls at will, when the school administration will allow them to, bombarding students with their sales pitch for a military "career". They will also call students at home repeatedly. Students have responded by leafletting, debating the recruiters, and urging their fellow students to "opt out" of having their names released to the military. The No Child Left Behind Act requires schools to give out student names and addresses to the military but it also allows students or parents to opt out of having their names released. Unfortunately schools often overlook this part of the law unless there is concerted pressure on them.

Last summer Oregon and Washington students attended a camp designed to give them organizing skills. Organized by the Ruckus Society and the Teen Peace Project (founded by my wife, Liz Rivera Goldstein), the camp used two biodiesel buses to bring in mostly high school activists for workshops on counter recruiting organizing skills. This was the first of a series of Not Your Soldier Camps organized by Ruckus in cooperation with local and national activist groups. The Ruckus Society has long been organizing training camps for mostly young activists on a variety of issues. They have just come out with a new Flash animation called "Punk Ass Crusade". It's packed with mind-bending images and an hot new song from The Coup. It is featured on the Not Your Soldier website. You can even download the song as a ringtone for your cellphone.

College campuses have recently seen an increase in recruiting as the military struggles to meet their enlistment goals. Colleges are now seeing increased counter recruiting efforts as well. Last year students at Seattle Central Community College chased recruiters off campus in a well publicized action that has been repeated across the country. High School and college students staged a walk-out in several cities last November to protest recruiting abuses. Over 1,000 rallied in downtown Seattle. Seattle voters are now being asked to sign a city wide College Not Combat initiative to restrict recruiters. Although Federal law requires that the military have equal access with colleges and employers, there is a lot that local authorities can do to rein them in and prevent the abuses that are all too common. This initiative is based on a successful San Francisco initiative.

The Tent State protests link cuts in education funding to resources wasted on the war. To quote their statement of purpose: "Tent State University (TSU) is a national movement that believes education is a right, not a privilege. Hence, TSU opposes tuition hikes, cuts in public funding, and wasteful wars abroad. Tent State, locally, creates an educational alternative where students, faculty, staff, and community can come together, work together, learn together, and practice democracy together. TSU challenges the undemocratic elements of our universities and our society."

Tent State started at Rutgers, where they set up an encampment at which students can attend alternative classes,workshops and teach-ins, but about 20 other campuses have followed their lead and held similar encampments. Relationships with university officials have varied. Some faculty have been very supportive but administrators don't always feel comfortable with these encampments springing up without asking permission, especially since some of the criticism is aimed at the university itself.

At UC Santa Cruz last year the Chancellor called the cops to prevent students from camping out at the entrance to the campus during a Tent State protest. The police attacked these non-violent protesters with clubs and taser-guns and purposely applied force to pressure points in their necks until some passed out. Other injuries included dislocated shoulders and many bruises. 20 were arrested.

Student activists do no have an easy time these days. There have been several instances of students who have been arrested and/or subjected to often arbitrary university disciplinary proceedings for protesting.

For instance, there is an article on the CAN website about the SFSU 10, asking for letters of support. When San Francisco State students stood up to protest military recruiters on campus, police physically (and none too gently) took them out of the building and banned them from campus. Since some of the students lived or worked on campus they became instantly homeless or unemployed. All this with no recourse, except at the discretion of the university administration.

Young people are doing great work everyday on their campuses and off. They combine activism, socializing and music to make organizing fun and effective. They are making a difference and the rest of us can help out by paying attention and giving them our support when they need it.

May 07, 2006

As We Go Marching, Marching

Wow! Last weekend was pretty extraordinary. Americans turned out in large numbers, very large actually, to voice their opinions on three different issues. These are not all in agreement, although there is some overlap of interest. What ties them all together is a resurgence of citizen activism.

On Saturday, April 29, hundreds of thousands marched for “Peace, Justice and Democracy” in New York. It was initiated by United for Peace and Justice (UFPJ), Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, National Organization for Women, Friends of the Earth, U.S. Labor Against the War, Climate Crisis Coalition, People's Hurricane Relief Fund, National Youth and Student Peace Coalition and Veterans For Peace. The UFPJ web site for the march says, “All these diverse groups (are) joining together in a unified call to bring the troops home from Iraq now, reverse our government's priorities, and turn our country around.” Opposition to the the war in Iraq, and the threatened attack on Iran, was the primary focus, along with a broad condemnation of Bush Administration policies.

Refreshingly, the march didn’t end with a long, boring rally, but rather with a “Peace and Justice Fair” with 19 tents featuring information, entertainment, food and opportunities to get involved with participating groups in their ongoing work. This is the work that will make the big difference in changing our policies. Most Americans already oppose the war but that alone is not enough to end it. Marches can be incredibly energizing and can demonstrate the strength of a movement but it will take lots of day to day work on a local level to convince Congress that they should change course - or to elect a better Congress.

On the next day, The Save Darfur Coalition staged a large rally in Washington, DC and thousands of people attended supporting rallies around the country. Almost 100,000 people at the Washington Monument listened to speakers ranging from politicians, including Sen. Barack Obama, celebrities (George Clooney and Manute Bol) and Sudanese refugees.

On Friday, 5 Congress members were arrested in a sit-in at the Sudanese Embassy to bring attention to this issue.

Once again, as in Bosnia, Jewish groups led the call for action to stop genocide. Remembering the Holocaust, these groups take the cry, “Never Again” to apply not just to Jews, but to the whole world. Nobel Prize winner Elie Wiesel stressed this point as he joined the call for international peacekeeping action to stop the killing. "Silence helps the killer, never his victims," Wiesel said. "Darfur today is the capital of the world's human suffering. Darfur deserves to live." Christian and Muslim groups, and Human Rights organizations also joined the call. Students on many campuses have been working on Darfur for some time now. In Seattle, for instance, the demonstration downtown was organized by High School and college students.

Then, on Monday, immigrants marched in huge numbers everywhere. This movement has been able to turn out unprecedented number of people repeatedly over the last couple of months. They have immediately changed the debate over immigration. Before the marches started, new punitive measures against immigrants had passed the House and were headed to the Senate. That bill died with a million people in the streets of LA on March 25. The May 1st “Day without Immigrants” was designed to hammer home the point and try to make sure that the final bill is slanted more towards amnesty and less towards punishment.

The marches included people of all ages. from infants to seniors. Homemade signs abounded, as did American flags. The mood was joyful, at least at the march I attended in Seattle. They were determined to be visible and to show that they had political clout. Indeed any organization that can pull off dozens of huge marches across the country on the same day, has to be taken very seriously. Leaders talked about the need to follow up with voter registration and more involvement in the political process. It was very refreshing to see people that had been marginalized in our society realize the power they could have.

These three movements that all chose the same weekend to march are quite different from each other. Some people will agree with all of them, but others will not. Intervention in Darfur may or may not be embraced by those who want to get out of Iraq, probably depending on what form the intervention takes. There is certain to be skepticism about the ability of military power to solve the problem. At the same time, some who insist on action to Save Darfur are also in favor of saving Iraq militarily. In both instances there are many who know what they don’t want but aren’t so sure what will work. The immigration issue cuts across US political divisions in yet another way. The proliferation of US flags and protestations of patriotism evident at the immigration marches suggest that these activists are not interested in challenging the power structure on issues other than immigration. They will have their hands full building a coalition to achieve those goals.

What they all have in common is the belief that it is the right, perhaps the duty, of us all to make our voices heard. Our country professes to have a government “of the people, by the people and for the people”. We don’t always live up to those ideals. In fact, citizen activists are the most frustrated people I know because it is so hard to get the powers that be to acknowledge the concerns of ordinary people, much less do something about them. The unequal ways that money, and the power that goes with it in our country, is distributed make it difficult to have an effect. The antidote to this is persistent broad based citizen activism. We are seeing these movements arise in Nepal, Ukraine, Bolivia and elsewhere in the world. It is refreshing to see more of it here too.