Later On

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Archive for September 1st, 2016

More corporate takeover of government: The court that rules the world

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Chris Hamby reports at BuzzFeed:

Imagine a private, global super court that empowers corporations to bend countries to their will.

Say a nation tries to prosecute a corrupt CEO or ban dangerous pollution. Imagine that a company could turn to this super court and sue the whole country for daring to interfere with its profits, demanding hundreds of millions or even billions of dollars as retribution.

Imagine that this court is so powerful that nations often must heed its rulings as if they came from their own supreme courts, with no meaningful way to appeal. That it operates unconstrained by precedent or any significant public oversight, often keeping its proceedings and sometimes even its decisions secret. That the people who decide its cases are largely elite Western corporate attorneys who have a vested interest in expanding the court’s authority because they profit from it directly, arguing cases one day and then sitting in judgment another. That some of them half-jokingly refer to themselves as “The Club” or “The Mafia.”

And imagine that the penalties this court has imposed have been so crushing — and its decisions so unpredictable — that some nations dare not risk a trial, responding to the mere threat of a lawsuit by offering vast concessions, such as rolling back their own laws or even wiping away the punishments of convicted criminals.

This system is already in place, operating behind closed doors in office buildings and conference rooms in cities around the world. Known as investor-state dispute settlement, or ISDS, it is written into a vast network of treaties that govern international trade and investment, including NAFTA and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which Congress must soon decide whether to ratify.

These trade pacts have become a flashpoint in the US presidential campaign. But an 18-month BuzzFeed News investigation, spanning three continents and involving more than 200 interviews and tens of thousands of documents, many of them previously confidential, has exposed an obscure but immensely consequential feature of these trade treaties, the secret operations of these tribunals, and the ways that business has co-opted them to bring sovereign nations to heel.

The BuzzFeed News investigation explores four different aspects of ISDS. In coming days, it will show how the mere threat of an ISDS case can intimidate a nation into gutting its own laws, how some financial firms have transformed what was intended to be a system of justice into an engine of profit, and how America is surprisingly vulnerable to suits from foreign companies.

The series starts today with perhaps the least known and most jarring revelation: Companies and executives accused or even convicted of crimes have escaped punishment by turning to this special forum. Based on exclusive reporting from the Middle East, Central America, and Asia, BuzzFeed News has found the following:

  • A Dubai real estate mogul and former business partner of Donald Trump was sentenced to prison for collaborating on a deal that would swindle the Egyptian people out of millions of dollars — but then he turned to ISDS and got his prison sentence wiped away.
  • In El Salvador, a court found that a factory had poisoned a village — including dozens of children — with lead, failing for years to take government-ordered steps to prevent the toxic metal from seeping out. But the factory owners’ lawyers used ISDS to help the company dodge a criminal conviction and the responsibility for cleaning up the area and providing needed medical care.
  • Two financiers convicted of embezzling more than $300 million from an Indonesian bank used an ISDS finding to fend off Interpol, shield their assets, and effectively nullify their punishment.

When the US Congress votes on whether to give final approval to the sprawling Trans-Pacific Partnership, which President Barack Obama staunchly supports, it will be deciding on a massive expansion of ISDS. Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton oppose the overall treaty, but they have focused mainly on what they say would be the loss of American jobs. Clinton’s running mate, Tim Kaine, has voiced concern about ISDS in particular, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren has lambasted it. Last year, members of both houses of Congress tried to keep it out of the Pacific trade deal. They failed.

ISDS is basically binding arbitration on a global scale, designed to settle disputes between countries and foreign companies that do business within their borders. Different treaties can mandate slightly different rules, but the system is broadly the same. When companies sue, their cases are usually heard in front of a tribunal of three arbitrators, often private attorneys. The business appoints one arbitrator and the country another, then both sides usually decide on the third together.

Conceived of in the 1950s, the system was intended to benefit both developing nations and the foreign companies that sought to invest in them. The companies would gain a fair, neutral referee if a rogue regime seized their property or discriminated against them in favor of domestic companies. And the countries would gain the roads or hospitals or industries that those foreign corporations would, as a result, feel confident building.

“It works,” said Charles Brower, a longtime ISDS arbitrator. “Like any system of law, there will be disappointments; you’re dealing with human systems. But this system fundamentally produces as good justice as the federal courts of the United States.”

He defended the lawyers who often serve as arbitrators, saying they “are very aware of their responsibilities. Unlike politicians, we are up for election every minute of every day — somewhere in the world, somebody is trying to figure out whom to appoint in a case. We’re only as good as our reputations.”

As proof that ISDS delivers justice, Brower pointed to a wave of nationalizations by the Venezuelan government, many while Hugo Chávez was in charge, that led to “huge awards against them for uncompensated expropriation.”

ISDS has not only put rapacious leaders on notice, its defenders say, but it has also encouraged investment, especially in poor countries, helping to raise overall economic development. Some even say that it helps avoid gunboat diplomacy and tense international showdowns because countries have agreed on a forum where they can resolve disputes involving major investments.

But over the last two decades, ISDS has morphed from a rarely used last resort, designed for egregious cases of state theft or blatant discrimination, into a powerful tool that corporations brandish ever more frequently, often against broad public policies that they claim crimp profits.

Because the system is so secretive, it is not possible to know the total number of ISDS cases, but lawyers in the field say it is skyrocketing. Indeed, of the almost 700 publicly known cases across the last half century, more than a tenth were filed just last year.

Driving this expansion are the lawyers themselves. They have devised new and creative ways to deploy ISDS, and in the process bill millions to both the businesses and the governments they represent. At posh locales around the globe, members of The Club meet to swap strategies and drum up potential clients, some of which are household names, such as ExxonMobil or Eli Lilly, but many more of which are much lower profile. In specialty publications, the lawyers suggest novel ways to use ISDS as leverage against governments. It’s a sort of sophisticated, international version of the plaintiff’s attorney TV ad or billboard: Has your business been harmed by an increase in mining royalties in Mali? Our experienced team of lawyers may be able to help.

A few of their ideas: . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

1 September 2016 at 5:26 pm

Local Governments Are Letting Silicon Valley Skirt Public Disclosure Laws

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In Motherboard Jason Koebler provides another example of how private businesses are increasingly controlling government functions.

The town of Altamonte, a small suburb of Orlando, is going to pay Uber at least $1 million in taxpayer money over the next year to subsidize residents’ ridesharing trips. But should a journalist or concerned citizen want to learn more about the public transportation-replacing program, their public records request will ultimately end up in the hands of an Uber employee, who will decide whether or not the information is fit for public release.

It’s unsettling that a city government will allow a private corporation to decide what can or can’t be released under state public information laws, but such agreements are growing increasingly popular among both Silicon Valley companies and local governments, according to several Freedom of Information Act experts I’ve spoken with.

According to the Verge’s Spencer Woodman, “Uber granted itself a privilege to field public records requests that the city receives regarding its partnership.”

“In the event City receives a Public Record Law request for documents that Uber considers trade secret or otherwise confidential,’ the agreement states, the city “agrees to promptly notify Uber of said request and shall not make an immediate disclosure.”

Uber has a similar agreement in Boston (that we know of) and apparently both Uber and Lyft have one in San Francisco as well. (We have asked the city to provide us more information about those agreements.) Uber is likely seeking such arrangements in other cities around the country as Uber begins to transition from being a wholly private service to being one that, with taxpayer subsidization, could replace mass transit. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

1 September 2016 at 3:17 pm

Posted in Business, Government

Apple and Others Help Customers Donate to the Red Cross, And Only the Red Cross

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The American Red Cross organization is notoriously incompetent and channels money to publicity whenever possible—so why are they given such a boost? Possibly because they channel money to publicity whenever possible, so that the companies get publicity by association. Derek Kravitz reports for ProPublica:

This month’s epic flooding in Louisiana, which destroyed roughly 60,000 homes, is the worst natural disaster in the United States since Superstorm Sandy in 2012. And just likeafter Sandy and other disasters, local officials have been troubled by the Red Cross’ response.

Louisiana’s governor has been so concerned by the charity’s relief work that a spokesman said even amidst improvements, the state plans to “reevaluate its partnership” with the organization.

But that hasn’t dissuaded Apple, Amazon and T-Mobile from soliciting flood relief donations on behalf of the charity, and, indeed, making the charity the exclusive conduit for giving.

Apple has links on its website, iTunes and App Store allowing users to directly donate to the Red Cross. U.S. Bank has a similar set-up for direct donation using its nearly 5,000 ATMs in two dozen states. T-Mobile allows its customers to donate by texting the word “LAFLOODS” to a five-digit number called a shortcode. Brooks Brothers promises to match customers’ donations to the Red Cross, using the clothier’s Golden Fleece Foundation.

In each case, the Red Cross is the only charity offered as a way to help. [I wonder if Red Cross paid for the exclusivity. – LG]

The exclusive solicitations are problematic, said Doug White, the former director of the nonprofit management program at Columbia University. “They promote the idea that the Red Cross is America’s charity and the go-to place for disasters despite its history of fumbles.”

None of the companies gets any money from the arrangements. But they do benefit by being seen as companies that care. The Red Cross is one of the country’s most recognized and venerable charities. “It speaks to what type of message these corporations want to convey,” said White. “It’s about branding and image.”

Apple and others have long-standing relationships with the Red Cross. Apple, for instance, deployed one-click donation buttons after several disasters, such as last year’s earthquake in Nepal.

Apple’s exclusive arrangement with the Red Cross is particularly notable since the world’s largest tech company has strict guidelines barring nonprofits from collecting donations inside iOS apps. All donations must be handled in a web browser outside the app or via text messages. This is part of Apple’s “required user experience,” it tells developers. (The latest version of ProPublica’s iOS app was initially rejected by Apple’s App Store review team earlier this year because it had a native button allowing people to donate to us.)

Apple declined to comment on the special status it gives the Red Cross. . .

Continue reading.

Later in the article:

. . . The Red Cross has suffered steep declines in charitable giving over the past year. A joint investigation by ProPublica and NPR starting in 2014 showed the charity has bungled relief efforts after major disasters, failing to deliver on promises made after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti and again after Sandy. In some cases, the Red Cross lacked basic supplies, even while championing its own work, and ended up giving donated money to other relief groups.

Similar problems have surfaced in its more recent disaster relief efforts. In the first 10 days after flooding began, it received roughly $7.8 million in donations and pledges, according to the Red Cross, far short of its $35 million to $40 million estimate for its ongoing relief efforts. . . .

Written by LeisureGuy

1 September 2016 at 3:09 pm

Discrimination by Design: The many ways design decisions treat people unequally

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Lena Groeger reports in ProPublica:

A few weeks ago, Snapchat released a new photo filter. It appeared alongside many of the other such face-altering filters that have become a signature of the service. But instead of surrounding your face with flower petals or giving you the nose and ears of a Dalmatian, the filter added slanted eyes, puffed cheeks and large front teeth. A number of Snapchat users decried the filter as racist, saying it mimicked a “yellowface” caricature of Asians. The company countered that they meant to represent anime characters and deleted the filter within a few hours.

“Snapchat is the prime example of what happens when you don’t have enough people of color building a product,” wrote Bay Area software engineer Katie Zhu in an essay she wrote about deleting the app and leaving the service. In a tech world that hires mostly white men, the absence of diverse voices means that companies can be blind to design decisions that are hurtful to their customers or discriminatory.

A Snapchat spokesperson told ProPublica that the company has recently hired someone to lead their diversity recruiting efforts.

But this isn’t just Snapchat’s problem. Discriminatory design and decision-making affects all aspects of our lives: from the quality of our health care and education to where we live to what scientific questions we choose to ask. It would be impossible to cover them all, so we’ll focus on the more tangible and visual design that humans interact with every day.

You can’t talk about discriminatory design without mentioning city planner Robert Moses, whose public works projects shaped huge swaths of New York City from the 1930s through the 1960s. The physical design of the environment is a powerful tool when it’s used to exclude and isolate specific groups of people. And Moses’ design choices have had lasting discriminatory effects that are still felt in modern New York.

A notorious example: . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

1 September 2016 at 2:21 pm

Posted in Business, Technology

Framed: Irvine couple goes off the rails for an imagined slight, lands in a heap of trouble

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Still to come: episodes on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, But the first episodes will get you into the story. Start here. And the story provides multiple instances of good cops—thoughtful, considerate, and insightful—who seem still to be the majority of cops.

Written by LeisureGuy

1 September 2016 at 11:21 am

How Russia Often Benefits When Julian Assange Reveals the West’s Sec

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Interesting article by Jo Becker, Steve Erlanger, and Eric Schmitt in the NY Times:

Julian Assange was in classic didactic form, holding forth on the topic that consumes him — the perfidy of big government and especially of the United States.

Mr. Assange, the editor of WikiLeaks, rose to global fame in 2010 for releasing huge caches of highly classified American government communications that exposed the underbelly of its wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and its sometimes cynical diplomatic maneuvering around the world. But in a televised interview last September, it was clear that he still had plenty to say about “The World According to US Empire,” the subtitle of his latest book, “The WikiLeaks Files.”

From the cramped confines of the Ecuadorean Embassy in London, where he was granted asylum four years ago amid a legal imbroglio, Mr. Assange proffered a vision of America as superbully: a nation that has achieved imperial power by proclaiming allegiance to principles of human rights while deploying its military-intelligence apparatus in “pincer” formation to “push” countries into doing its bidding, and punishing people like him who dare to speak the truth.

Notably absent from Mr. Assange’s analysis, however, was criticism of another world power, Russia, or its president, Vladimir V. Putin, who has hardly lived up to WikiLeaks’ ideal of transparency. Mr. Putin’s government has cracked down hard on dissent — spying on, jailing, and, critics charge, sometimes assassinating opponents while consolidating control over the news media and internet. If Mr. Assange appreciated the irony of the moment — denouncing censorship in an interview on Russia Today, the Kremlin-controlled English-language propaganda channel — it was not readily apparent.

Now, Mr. Assange and WikiLeaks are back in the spotlight, roiling the geopolitical landscape with new disclosures and a promise of more to come.

In July, the organization released nearly 20,000 Democratic National Committee emails suggesting that the party had conspired with Hillary Clinton’s campaign to undermine her primary opponent, Senator Bernie Sanders. Mr. Assange — who has been openly critical of Mrs. Clinton — has promised further disclosures that could upend her campaign against the Republican nominee, Donald J. Trump. Separately, WikiLeaks announced that it would soon release some of the crown jewels of American intelligence: a “pristine” set of cyberspying codes.

United States officials say they believe with a high degree of confidence that the Democratic Party material was hacked by the Russian government, and suspect that the codes may have been stolen by the Russians as well. That raises a question: Has WikiLeaks become a laundering machine for compromising material gathered by Russian spies? And more broadly, what precisely is the relationship between Mr. Assange and Mr. Putin’s Kremlin?

Those questions are made all the more pointed by Russia’s prominent place in the American presidential election campaign. Mr. Putin, who clashed repeatedly with Mrs. Clinton when she was secretary of state, has publicly praised Mr. Trump, who has returned the compliment, calling for closer ties to Russia and speaking favorably of Mr. Putin’s annexation of Crimea.

From the outset of WikiLeaks, Mr. Assange said he was motivated by a desire to use “cryptography to protect human rights,” and would focus on authoritarian governments like Russia’s.

But a New York Times examination of WikiLeaks’ activities during Mr. Assange’s years in exile found a different pattern: Whether by conviction, convenience or coincidence, WikiLeaks’ document releases, along with many of Mr. Assange’s statements, have often benefited Russia, at the expense of the West.

Among United States officials, the emerging consensus is that Mr. Assange and WikiLeaks probably have no direct ties to Russian intelligence services. But they say that, at least in the case of the Democrats’ emails, Moscow knew it had a sympathetic outlet in WikiLeaks, where intermediaries could drop pilfered documents in the group’s anonymized digital inbox. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

1 September 2016 at 11:06 am

Simpson Emperor 2, Bufflehead Fletcher, and the Rockwell

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SOTD 2016-09-01

The Simpson Emperor 2 worked up a good lather from the seized batch of Fletcher soap by Bufflehead. I think I still need to try a regular batch for comparison.

The Rockwell today had the R4 baseplate: more blade feel than the R3 but still quite comfortable, and it had no problems producing a BBS result in three passes. A splash of Chiseled Face’s Easy Street, and we near the long weekend.

Written by LeisureGuy

1 September 2016 at 8:49 am

Posted in Shaving

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