– Sir John Harington, 1618
I almost reactivated my Facebook account this week, after Mark Zuckerberg finally admitted that his company was actually in the business of eavesdropping. After the beautiful London Observer piece highlighting Cambridge Analytica CEO Alexander Nix caught on video selling his company’s wares (blackmail, ratfucking, extortion, racketeering and money laundering), the same employer of ‘Sloppy’ Steve Bannon (then running the American branch) I really wanted to write that I’d actually reactivated my account after Zuck went on CNN and finally admitted that his company took blood money. This week’s announcement that Facebook was cutting ties with data mining companies is a sign that I might just come back. Zuckerberg said that he wants to be proud of his company going forward because he has two daughters now, as opposed to before when he was an asshole Harvard hacker who cared about nothing except making lots of money.
When I first became aware of Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook, one fact stood out for me above all others: Zuckerberg was a hacker. Hacker culture is what the internet was all about back in the early days, and tech titans Steve Jobs and Bill Gates were no exception. In screenwriter Aaron Sorkin’s The Social Network (2010), Zuckerberg, Saverin and the Winklevoss brothers were portrayed as savvy hackers without much going on in the way of morals. I suspect the dark score and lighting in the film lends a hint that it was much worse than that. Born as ‘Facesmash’ as a prank by the merry Zuck against his fellow students at Harvard – stealing their identities (or head shots) from the easily hackable Harvard Yearbook Publications computer, a student-run server hosting the earliest editions of the ubiquitous Freshman Register, known by everyone in the first year as ‘The Facebook.’ I’ve always cast a jaundiced eye at those who would just as soon steal your data as look at you. These hacker dweebs, many with tape firmly affixed on glasses, proudly displaying gleaming breast pocket organizers and bad skin are now worth millions. Many of those weenies from the old high school computer club could buy and sell their high schools many times over and some even contribute millions to alumni organizations and philanthropic endeavors, yet most are still just like Martin Shkreli, only nerdier.
Have you ever sat and wondered how Facebook pays for all those great services it offers to you, free of charge, hour-after-hour? I can’t read but a few articles in the New York Times or the Washington Post without being locked out and asked for money every month. My cloud storage costs money; this here blog on WordPress costs money; registering with WHOIS costs money and even my useless business email (info@newesfromamerica!) with Google costs me five bucks a month. So how does Facebook pull it off? Yes, they raised $100 billion at their IPO and the stock has been boffo since, but have you ever wondered why Facebook was so highly valued in the first place? How does a company with no tangible assets save for zeroes and ones value themselves more than the Ford Motor Company? Well, they did – and investors have agreed with their wallets. Google’s ‘Don’t Be Evil‘ policy, famously agreed upon by principals Larry Page and Sergey Brin when Google was born, proves that I have more trust in this particular Russian than my own president. I love you too, Larry.
Imagine that when Samuel B. Morse invented Morse Code or when Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone that Western Union or Bell Telephone listened in on your messages and then sold the call logs and transcripts of all the conversations that you had with your friends and business associates to advertisers. That’s exactly what Facebook (and Google, but with less evil) does today. Back in 2012, however, I didn’t quite understand that and I just couldn’t make any sense of why the top of the Facebook news feed looked more the bottom of the news feed on websites like the New York Post – or practically any news feed on the web today – populated by ‘news’ that’s actually advertisements from ‘third party’ sponsors. Tempted by clickbait such as “You won’t believe what happened to THIS beloved child star!” or “This one weird trick will make you rich,” or “Donald Trump is running for president” and we click, click, click away. The experience felt so phony and packaged that I got off Facebook with nary a care. Then, it happened – everybody resented me for disappearing from the social network. Sure, they argued, Facebook promotes ‘sponsored’ news, but we’re all just here to trade pictures and to catch up! What’s so scary about that? My Aunt Joanne, after I emailed her that I wouldn’t be on Facebook anymore and that we should email each other more from then on, met me with an icy silence. She thought I’d ‘unfriended’ her, (like in that hilarious, Esurance ad where offline over-sharer Beatrice ‘unfriends’ her acquaintance who says, “That’s not how this works, that’s not how ANY of this works!) and my Aunt took my digital decision personally and we’ve not been as close since. Therein lies the rub: Facebook’s amazing social platform is there for you to use – free of charge – as long as you’re willing to allow them to listen in on your private conversations and sell that info to advertisers, whomever they might be. Facebook’s recent announcement that they are ending third-party agreements with companies like Acxiom and Experian show that they are finally getting the message about their shady business model.
The revelations about sleazy third-party data-mining operation Cambridge Analytica and the involvement of the Russian Federation in the subversion of the U.S. Presidential Election of 2016 brings home the point that your personal information is extremely valuable to those who want to manipulate you. Whether it’s to get you to fall for clickbait such as to buy a selfie stick or to vote for a corrupt fool, it’s not based on the highest quality, most accurate information about what’s best for you and your family. It’s always been about what’s best for Facebook owner Mark Zuckerberg and the (weirdly large) group of Russian billionaires that invested heavily in this company (and Twitter) – which sells your private information to anybody willing to pay for it. Do you think that if Facebook charged actual, hard-earned cash that it would be the Wall Street darling it’s been for the past ten years? If Facebook announced today that it was truly changing it’s model and doing away with mining all private information to sell – and will instead keep all communication on the platform ‘unconnected’ to advertisers and completely private, I’ll tell you this, even if Facebook charged a minimal fee, say the same $99 annual fee that I pay Dropbox (BTW Dropbox just went public recently with a valuation of $21 billion), I’d predict that Facebook’s vaunted user-subscription base of billions would shrivel to a few million. One thing the early pioneers of web commerce found out is that folks don’t like to pay for stuff. Go figure? If Facebook was charging what they need to charge to pay for all those tech dweebs setting up all those video and chat rooms all day, they’d have to bill you at least $100 a year. Instead, all active Facebook users offer their time (time is money!) to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars worth of volunteer effort to participate in surveys that test out political attack phrases and product jingles for effectiveness, while targeting ads to you (about anything at all) based on your psychological profile.
The fact is that Twitter, Google, Facebook, Instagram (also owned by Facebook) and so many of the digital platforms that we use everyday are subject to the very same privacy laws that have been around for the past fifty years. From the landmark protections gained under the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Katz v. United States (1967), where the court ruled that a ‘reasonable expectation of privacy’ is enjoyed by all Americans and that phone wiretapping counts as a ‘search’ under the constitution, to Smith v. Maryland (1979) where the court held that citizens voluntarily conveyed information to the telephone company (replace Facebook here instead of telephone company for modern reference) and that any use of that information is not considered a ‘search’ under constitutional protection. In the Majority opinion of Smith, Justice Harry Blackmun rejected the idea that the installation and use of a ‘pen register’ (or digital recording device) constitutes a violation of the ‘legitimate expectation of privacy’ since the numbers would be available to the phone company and recorded as a matter of standard billing practices. Those practices have expanded since then, obviously.
Ask the average American citizen what the First Amendment is and most know that this right preserves our freedom of speech, tested in the 1980’s by pornographer Larry Flynt before the Supreme Court in Hustler Magazine v. Falwell (1988), made into the 1996 movie The People vs. Larry Flynt by director Oliver Stone. Most Americans also are aware of their Second Amendment right to bear arms – and that right, strangely, has never been tested since 1779, save retired Associate Justice John Paul Stevens’ recent harangue. I don’t blame any American for not knowing their Third Amendment right against quartering soldiers in their houses during a time of war, but I’m damn glad that I can pull out my mini U.S. Constitution and show any militia that they’ll be welcome at the local Holiday Inn and not Chez Underhill during the next war. Our Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, tested in the Supreme Court’s landmark Miranda v. Arizona decision, preserves our right to remain silent, and is well known to most Americans, but the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution, our right against unlawful search and seizure, is barely understood by most.
Any understanding of our Fourth Amendment begins with the idea that this right prevents any search by the police without a judicial warrant (without probable cause). Since Weeks v. United States (1914), this has been enforced as the ‘exclusionary rule,’ which excludes evidence gathered through Fourth Amendment violations from criminal trials, challenged and strengthened in Wolf v. Colorado (1949). Important in the ongoing debate about privacy on the internet, the court’s 2012’s decision in United States v. Graham held that cell tower location data is not protected by the Fourth Amendment, according to standing ‘third party doctrine.’ Based on these precedents, it’s clear that our shared Fourth Amendment right to privacy has been abused by the Trump campaign and the Russian government and it’s high time that the people of the United States stand up and demand accountability.
Narrow down the concept of ‘law’ in America, it would be the legal concept of ‘stare decisis.’ Think ‘Starry Decisiveness’ to pronounce, from an old Latin proverb which means ‘to stand by decisions and not disturb the undisturbed.’ The everyday term for stare decisis is precedent, or more precisely, legal precedent. It’s the single most important notion in the foundation of our system of government. After the Constitution was ratified and our country finally won it’s freedom, the first Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court (appointed by George Washington) John Jay; co-author of The Federalist Papers with Alexander Hamilton and James Madison under the pen name Publius (writing 5 of the 85 essays), the title ‘Chief Justice’ was created for him, which Washington said “must be regarded as the keystone of our political fabric.” Washington nominated Jay on September 24, 1789, the same day he signed the Judiciary Act of 1789, leaving Congress the task of creating the lower federal courts. After John Adams and the Federalists lost to Jefferson and the Democratic-Republicans in the Election of 1800, the lame-duck Adams Administration enacted the Midnight Judges Act, stacking the courts with Federalists before the Jeffersonians could take over. The result of the Act, otherwise known as the Judiciary Act of 1801, resulted in the landmark Marbury v. Madison decision and ultimately led to the impeachment of Associate Justice Samuel Chase of Maryland. Justice Chase was impeached because he was considered too partisan (as a Federalist) in his decisions and the resulting lopsided dismissal on all counts in the United States Senate in 1804 set the limits of the impeachment power and permanently fixed the concept that the Judiciary was prohibited from engaging in partisan politics. The only reason that this process has continued for almost 250 years is because of the concept of stare decisis. In America, we stand by decisions and we do not disturb the undisturbed.
This is all particularly relevant today because the President of the United States is about to be impeached. Donald John Trump will be our third president to suffer impeachment, with Richard Milhous Nixon avoiding all the unpleasantness at showtime. Only Andrew Johnson and William Jefferson Clinton have suffered the ignominy associated with a Senate trial. With Bill, it was all about Whitewater; Paula Jones; that Trooper in Arkansas and finally, the blue dress. With Andy, well, that was probably more about the him being an awful president than anything else. With Donald Trump, it’s the first time a president will be impeached for the very essence, the mother lode of reasons for impeachment – criminal conduct. An examination of Trump’s dealings: almost every business transaction; his bizarre political rhetoric; his twisted ‘family values,’ reveals him worthy of impeachment. Donald Trump’s behavior as president is unprecedented, which means that Trump is anti-American and anti-democratic by very definition. “Yeah, and that’s who we voted in – and that’s who you gotta listen to for four long years” cry the Red Hats. Oh yeah?
March 31, 2018