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Advertising is a cancer on society

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A detailed explanation of why I keep saying that advertising is a cancer on modern society.
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7 days ago
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Why the Democratic and Republican Establishments Can’t Stop Insurgents

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For decades, political parties have been hollowed out by the forces of neoliberalism and social atomization. Now, in the era of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, they’re in crisis — and they have only themselves to blame.

Nancy Pelosi and Mitch McConnell stand for the presentation of colors during a Congressional Gold Medal ceremony at the US Capitol on January 15, 2020 in Washington, DC. (Drew Angerer / Getty Images)

No matter the final count in Iowa, it’s clear Sanders is emerging as the front-runner in the Democratic primary. If he does win the nomination, the presidential race will express a uniquely American version of the wider crisis of authority facing representative democracies.

Consider the fact that both Trump and Sanders will be leaders of parties that they did not belong to in any significant way prior to running. They will both lead parties whose major figures and leading apparatchiks did what they could to stop Sanders/Trump. These will be parties to which neither candidate paid the dues of time and effort: parties that they did not rise up in, rendering the normal relationships of mutual obligation and favor-owing more or less inoperative. All of this makes each of these nominees leaders that are far harder for the party to discipline and control. And, further, it is the source of their appeal to major segments of their party.

These will be candidates elected because the gap between the party establishment and its membership has grown so large that one of their greatest appeals is that they did not follow the rules. If Sanders really is nominated, we will have seen the internal revolt of party members and fellow travelers against the party officialdom in both parties, achieved by selecting someone about as far outside the party as possible: a real estate mogul–cum–reality TV host with no political past and purely nominal party affiliations, and a self-proclaimed socialist who had never before run on the Democratic ticket (prior to 2016) and who remained an Independent even after his first run. It’s interesting to ask why this is happening. Why are the parties being taken over by leaders who are not real members of that party?

As various political scientists, most famously Peter Mair, have long pointed out, the capacity of many major political parties to represent their traditional constituencies in a democratic way has been in decline for a few decades. Peter Mair called it “ruling the void” — political elites and their parties retreat from their constituencies, seeking alternative ways of ruling, while their members withdraw their consent in various ways. In some countries, this has taken the form of the collapse of traditional parties (e.g. the French and Italian Socialists), the growth of new ones (AfD in Germany, Podemos in Spain, Front National in France, Lib Dems and UKIP/BP in UK), and the rise of more ad hoc parties as personal vehicles for national leaders (La République En Marche for Macron, various Italian formations like Berlusconi’s Forza Italia/Grillo’s Five Star, Mélenchon’s France Insoumise).

There are important national variations in these developments. But what Mair noticed about all of them was that there was an important decline in party loyalty, increasing distance between leadership and membership, ideological disorganization of existing parties, all symptomatic of the deeper hollowing out of the parties themselves. Where political parties were created to represent segments of society to the state, they had over time become ways of representing the state to society. The more they functioned to limit and control their members and their aspirations, the less they could serve their properly representative functions and the harder it was for members to control their parties.

We are currently watching the American variation of this process take place. If Sanders wins the nomination, he completes the process of outsiders taking over the parties through the internal revolt of the membership. That has necessarily been the American version of “ruling the void.” There have been failed bids by figures like Ross Perot or Ralph Nader, either outside any party or from very marginal third parties, to break through the two-party monopoly in the United States. But these are mostly notable for how resistant American political institutions are to third-party challenges relative to other democracies. In fact, the legal repression of third parties in the United States is enormous, unmatched in any industrial democracy — one of the many intensely undemocratic features of our “democracy.” I would go so far as to say legal repression of third parties has become a fundamental, though relatively silent, feature of our political constitution. (The historical development of that legal repression was documented by Jacobin’s Seth Ackerman in his 2016 article “A Blueprint for a New Party.” It served as the legal complement to the violent repression of radical elements of the labor and more militant left movements in the twentieth century.)

This legal repression has reinforced the pragmatic, catch-all, anti-ideological character of the major parties, especially the Democrats. Their regional diversity has allowed them to represent very different groups and combine major segments of capital — like finance and tech — with labor organizations. Never seriously threatened by competitor parties on either side, while retaining a regional flexibility, they have become even more sclerotic and distant party organizations. They have been able to take their “base” — e.g. unions and minorities in the Democratic Party — for granted because they can more or less hold them hostage: you can’t outflank us to the left, and the other guys are worse.

On the one hand, this has meant that the two parties suffer an even more extreme version of the internal decay characteristic of the “void” — they do not face the same costs of failure, not quite the same pressures of internal renewal and of creating real lines of accountability and control. After all, they might lose an election, but not lose the political space they occupy; they have no rivals. On the other hand, it has left only one feasible option to those who wish to challenge the two-party status quo: internal colonization or, a variant, destroy the party from within to create political space for a new party.

This has all taken place during the primaries because of a further oddity of the American party system: we don’t have separate processes for choosing party leaders and for electing presidents, one reason why the electoral season is so fucking long. The internal party debates about what their program should be and procedures for selecting leaders are fused to an electoral process. When you add together the internal decay of the major parties, the legal repression of third parties, the amorphousness of party organizations, and the confusions of party leadership contests and national elections, you get a totally overheated and overextended primary in which, now, both parties face internal colonization. This also explains the brittleness of the party response, the mixture of bias, corruption, and incompetence, and the grasping around for a savior, as they face these challenges.

This same development has taken place at the level of the media. While it is often said that technology is destroying the influence and control of the mainstream media, by proliferating sources of news and opinion, I think that is only half the story. The point is also the declining authority of major media outlets to control narratives and shape debate. Think of the failure of nerve by the New York Times in its dual endorsement of Amy Klobuchar and Elizabeth Warren, or CNN’s failed attempt to hype the Warren-Sanders dustup, or wider evidence of declining trust in leading sources of opinion. The freak-out about online aggression by Bernie Sanders supporters is, in part, a reaction to losing control over prevailing mores and the terms of political discourse. So, too, is the anxiety about Joe Rogan saying he’ll vote for Bernie — Rogan, whose eleven million followers is larger than the viewership of all five Democratic debates combined. Given the fairly loose formal structure of the mainstream parties, the media has served a role in shaping and policing the boundaries of acceptable political discourse. They can’t stand the fact that they are powerless both against Trump’s know-nothing vulgarity and Sanders’s Teflon socialism.

The only difference between the Trump effect and the Bernie effect is that, in the end, Trump has ended up ruling as a more or less conventional Republican on the core issues of value to the party — taxes, judges, business regulation — with some departure on matters of trade and a slightly less militaristic posture. The jury is out on what Bernie’s ultimate effect will be, but he represents a far greater challenge to the Democratic Party. He leads a more organized movement far more ready to take over and transform party structures — or possibly break it apart if resistance from the New Democrat/Clinton/Obama wing is too great. Should that happen, the Democrats will have brought it upon themselves and they will deserve it. Having held their own constituencies in relative disdain, held its base hostage, and done everything they could to freeze out and repress the Left, the Democrats left no other choice but what has become the Bernie strategy. Take the party over.

It’s true, the Democrats are caught in a wider process of political decay and transformation reshaping all the industrial democracies. But it is the parties, and at this moment the Democratic establishment in particular, that are responsible for turning this into an internal revolt. I see few signs that they are in any sense aware of the forces they are caught up in and the role they have played in this process. Part of why I support Bernie is that he brings this process to a head, forces out into the open differences that otherwise have been smoothed over. Given the constraints on American party politics listed above, it is unclear to me that there would have been any other way to really test the limits of existing institutions and show the real character of the ruling parties.

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14 days ago
The void of US politics
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How Boeing’s responsibility in a deadly crash ‘got buried’

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A review by The New York Times of evidence from the 2009 accident, some of it previously confidential, reveals striking parallels with the recent crashes — and resistance by the team of Americans to a full airing of findings that later proved relevant to the MAX.
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32 days ago
Blaming the pilots, Boeing got away only to repeat its mistake a decade later
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Who’s Afraid of the IRS? Not Facebook.

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ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up to receive our biggest stories as soon as they’re published.

In March 2008, as Facebook was speeding toward 100 million users and emerging as the next big tech company, it announced an important hire. Sheryl Sandberg was leaving Google to become Facebook’s chief operating officer. CEO Mark Zuckerberg, then 23 years old, told The New York Times that Sandberg would take the young company “to the next level.”

Based on her time at Google, Sandberg soon decided that one area where Facebook was behind its peers was in its tax dodging. “My experience is that by not having a European center and running everything through the US, it is very costly in terms of taxes,” she wrote other executives in an April 2008 email, which hasn’t been previously reported. Facebook’s head of tax agreed, replying that the company needed to find “a low taxed jurisdiction to park profits.”

Later that year, Facebook named Dublin as its international headquarters, just as Google had done when Sandberg was there. And just like Google, Facebook concocted an intra-company deal to “park profits” in Ireland, where it would pay a tax rate near zero.

Like its Big Tech peers, Facebook wasn’t much afraid of the IRS. But, as it happened, the same year that Facebook started moving profits to Ireland, the IRS launched a team to crack down on deals like that. The effort started aggressively. As we recently reported, the IRS threw everything it had at Microsoft in the largest audit in the agency’s history.

But shortly after the IRS showed this new ambition, Republicans in Congress, after taking the House in 2010, began forcing cuts to the IRS’ budget. Over the years, as Facebook grew into one of the world’s largest companies, with 2 billion users, the IRS was shrinking. By the time the IRS finally took on Facebook over its Irish deal a few years later, the agency was in over its head.

ProPublica pieced together the story of the Facebook audit from court documents filed by the two sides in their yearslong battle. (Both the IRS and the company declined to comment.) The picture revealed by the documents provides a crucial window into the IRS’ struggles to check large corporations’ tax schemes.

At one point in the audit, the exam stalled for months because there was no money to hire an expert. Agents tried for five years to pick apart the deal’s complexities and were still scrambling when the statute of limitations expired in July 2016. Like a student forced, when the bell rings, to turn in a test with unanswered questions, the IRS sent Facebook the results of its incomplete audit. Based on the work it had done, the IRS thought Facebook had massively mispriced its Irish deal and should have paid billions more in taxes.

Today the fight continues before the U.S. Tax Court, and the conflict is about to reach a climax: A trial is scheduled for February, and the IRS is trying to convince a judge that it has a firm basis for its conclusions. For its part, Facebook has defended its actions in court filings, calling the IRS’ conclusions “arbitrary, capricious, or unreasonable.”

If the IRS prevails in court, it could cost Facebook up to $9 billion more in taxes, based on estimates in the company’s securities filings. It would be a notable defeat for a company that, when it comes to risky tax avoidance, has been more aggressive “than almost any other U.S. corporation,” said Matt Gardner, a senior fellow at the nonprofit Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy. According to Facebook’s public filings, from 2010 through 2017 (when the U.S. corporate tax rate was 35%), the company paid a total of $3.9 billion in taxes on $50 billion of pre-tax income, a rate of about 8%.

Still, the IRS hasn’t won a clear victory in a major profit-shifting case in court for decades, said Reuven Avi-Yonah, a professor at the University of Michigan Law School and an expert on international tax. The agency, he said, has simply been “overmatched.” Given how things have gone so far in its conflict with the IRS, Facebook has good reason to be confident about the coming trial.

From the beginning in 2008, Facebook laid the foundations of its big profit shift with care, according to internal company emails disclosed by the IRS in court filings. The first step was to establish a company office in a low-tax country. Given Sandberg’s experience helping Google choose Dublin and set up its office there, Ireland was the first option. Then the question was what and who to put there. The key was having just enough of a presence in Dublin “to justify the tax benefits,” Sandberg wrote in an email at the time.

A Facebook finance executive explained that, to get “the tax advantages,” Facebook needed to transfer its intellectual property to the Dublin office. There needed to be servers there with “the key source code and user data” on them in order to “build the case” for the transfer. When a Facebook executive grumbled, “Ireland is not a first or second choice for a significant data center presence,” because it was easier to hire people in London, the tax exec responded that the Dublin center wouldn’t need to be particularly large.

In other words, it didn’t really matter how many people worked in the Dublin office. Yet, in October 2008 when Facebook publicly announced its choice of what it grandly called its “international headquarters,” Sandberg was quoted in a press release singing the praises of the Irish workforce. “After exploring various locations throughout the region, we decided Ireland was the best place,” she said. “The talent pool in Dublin is world-class and recruiting local talent will help us better understand the needs of local users.”

In a private email to an old Google colleague the previous day, however, she’d been frank. “Same decision process Google went through a long time ago,” she wrote: “tax breaks to put international revenue through. Our operations there will be very small — maybe 10 people by end of this year and 30-50 by end of next year.”

The main pieces now in place, Facebook started constructing its deal to move profits to Ireland. It set up an Irish company that declared itself to have management in the Cayman Islands. This was a trick to avoid paying even Ireland’s low 12.5% tax rate on the profits: The company would instead pay close to nothing. Now it just needed some profits. Essentially, Facebook would license its software platform to its Irish subsidiary, and this would in turn entitle the Irish subsidiary to a portion of Facebook’s profits.

IRS rules allow such intra-company deals, but the companies are supposed to arrive at a fair, “arm’s-length” price. How much the Irish company would pay for the license and what portion of Facebook’s profits the Dublin office would get — these are not numbers that companies can just make up. It doesn’t matter that the transaction was highly artificial, without any clear real-world models. The price is supposed to have some objective basis.

To conjure the prices Facebook should pay in this deal with itself, Facebook hired the giant accounting firm Ernst & Young. The firm’s experts and economists worked for years on the project. In 2011, a year after the deal had officially closed, E&Y’s team was still crunching figures and generating reports.

In September 2011, an E&Y economist emailed 600 pages of analysis to Ted Price, Facebook’s head of tax, and offered to send him three printed copies: two for his team, and one for the IRS, should the agency ever come calling. Price said that he’d take three, but they’d all be for his team. “I doubt the IRS ever even audits us on this,” he wrote. The E&Y economist replied, “knock on wood.” (In a court filing, Facebook said Price’s comment was “sarcastic.”)

The IRS began its audit, as it happened, soon afterward. But it wasn’t until 2015 that a team of agents presented preliminary findings to Facebook. The IRS thought E&Y’s estimates were off by billions of dollars. (E&Y declined to comment.)

A month later, Facebook responded with a presentation of its own that blasted the IRS’ analysis. The agency “had made significant and arbitrary errors,” Facebook later claimed in legal filings.

The IRS decided to regroup. The agency needed help, the team working the case decided, and for that, it would hire outside experts.

But there was a problem. In late 2014, Republicans in Congress had forced through a sudden $346 million cut to the IRS’ budget, and money was tight. Although billions of dollars were at stake in the Facebook audit, the IRS had no funds to hire an expert. The audit team had to wait for three months, until the new fiscal year began in October 2015, to even begin looking. Then, because of a lengthy contracting process, it took six more months for the $800,000 contract to go through. The expert, an economist who specializes in analyzing these intra-company deals, finally went to work in March 2016.

Meanwhile, the IRS was struggling to get all the documents it needed from Facebook. In January 2016, the exam team had sent off a broad request for documents about the Irish deal.

Two months later, Facebook turned over three emails in response. The company told the IRS it had “narrowly construed” the request, one of the agents on the case, Nina Wu Stone, later declared in court, and “the IRS would have to start over with issuance of a new set of [requests] if the IRS wanted a more comprehensive response.”

At the same time, the IRS feared being buried in paper. In response to another request, Facebook told the IRS the company’s systems couldn’t efficiently sort for responsive documents, and as a result, Facebook was going to turn over so much that it would “perhaps overwhelm the IRS,” as the agency put it in a court filing.

Through all of this, the clock was ticking. The IRS has three years to assess additional tax on a return, but corporate taxpayers often voluntarily extend the statute of limitations. In this case, Facebook had done so five times. Companies do this because they are hoping to avoid having to go to court.

But as the IRS began asking for more time to hire experts, Facebook decided it didn’t like where the audit was headed. The company played hardball. It offered to extend the statute again, but on one condition. The IRS had to commit that Facebook would be able to take its case to the IRS Office of Appeals.

The Office of Appeals offers taxpayers the prospect of a quiet settlement of a tax dispute, and as ProPublica reported in the story about the audit of Microsoft, large corporations often are able to obtain steep reductions in what they owe. But the IRS does have the power to block appeals. The agency rarely employs that power, but it had recently done so against other big taxpayers like Coca-Cola and Amazon. Facebook wanted to make sure that didn’t happen.

The IRS refused, and the clock continued to tick. By May 2016, with just two months left, the IRS managed to get its second expert working on the case. Nancy Bronson, an IRS supervisor, asked Facebook to reconsider an extension. That’s when Price, the Facebook executive, offered another exchange.

The IRS has a powerful tool to compel documents from large corporations that the agency thinks are dragging their feet. It’s called a “designated summons,” and it stops the clock until the taxpayer turns over all the requested documents. This can buy the IRS valuable time, but it angers corporations who must now endure added time to the audit.

Price told Bronson that Facebook would give the IRS six more months if it agreed not to use a designated summons. Again, Bronson declined. “I explained my reservations with giving up that right given the difficulties in obtaining information in a timely manner and the short period of the proposed statute extension,” she declared in a court filing.

Despite the apparent utility of designated summonses, the IRS has used them only three times since the mid-’90s. The most recent instance, against Microsoft in 2014, provoked a powerful response, and Microsoft and its corporate allies launched a lobbying campaign on Capitol Hill. Soon, lawmakers were introducing bills seeking to curtail the IRS’ use of designated summonses and other tools.

Against this added pressure, the IRS decided to take the middle path. The agency didn’t relinquish the ability to use the designated summons, but it didn’t take the aggressive step of actually using it, either. Instead, the IRS issued a conventional summons and then sued in federal district court to enforce it. This forced Facebook to turn over documents, but the clock continued to run and it would take months for Facebook to comply.

The IRS’ decision meant that it had to finish the audit without the benefit of documents that it characterized in court filings as essential to understanding Facebook’s Ireland deal. So, that’s what it did. Shortly before the statute expired, the IRS sent Facebook an official notice closing the audit. “The examination team had not completed its fact-gathering efforts when the notice was issued,” Bronson said.

The IRS concluded, based on its incomplete analysis, that Facebook’s Irish subsidiary had underpaid for Facebook’s software platform by $7 billion: The subsidiary had paid $7 billion when it should’ve paid $14 billion. If the IRS’ view prevailed, less profit would flow to Ireland and thus more income would be taxable in the U.S. As expected, Facebook soon filed a challenge in U.S. Tax Court.

The IRS said its findings weren’t absolutely final, because it could modify them in court as it acquired more evidence. But agency veterans say such changes are unusual and make the agency’s already difficult task — fighting a complex litigation battle against a better-resourced foe — even harder.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen a case where the IRS increased an assessment after it came out of exam,” said Ken Wood, a former attorney with the IRS who worked on large corporate audits. Making any sort of change is “dangerous,” he said, because it can undermine the IRS’ argument that its findings are firmly supported.

Last October, in a legal filing, the IRS disclosed that, having had time to review the millions of pages of documents that Facebook had turned over since 2016, it now thought Facebook’s Irish company should have paid $20 billion in the original transaction. However, the agency was apparently wary of shaking up its case by officially modifying its earlier findings. Confusingly, the IRS said it would argue at trial that its earlier estimate was too low, while simultaneously preserving that low estimate as the basis of the trial. The IRS wasn’t definitely saying Facebook should pay more; It was suggesting to the judge that it should.

A couple months later, just before Christmas, the IRS reversed course. It filed a motion officially changing its earlier findings and made the $20 billion valuation its one and only position at trial.

It’s unclear just how much tax Facebook’s Irish deal has saved the company, because the company has also made other moves to reduce taxes. Since Facebook refuses to divulge details, back of the envelope calculations based on other company disclosures provide the best guess. On that basis, ProPublica estimates that Facebook shifted at least $19 billion in profits offshore.

If the company’s big tax dodge were upended, Facebook could be forced to pay up to $9 billion more in taxes, the company recently said, an increase from its earlier estimates of up to $5 billion before the IRS changed its demand. But despite the increased exposure, Facebook’s chances in Tax Court are good. A win would be just another windfall for a company that’s clearly reached “the next level.”

Kirsten Berg contributed to this story.

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32 days ago
Tax dodge galore
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DOWNTOWN ALERT: Buses rerouted because of shooting investigations; Water Taxi adds runs

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3:44 PM: A texter points out that if you will be riding Metro back here from downtown this pm, this might affect you – road closures/bus reroutes because of a shooting involving SPD and KCSO at 3rd and Blanchard.

5:28 PM: As noted by commenters, a second shooting incident has since happened downtown. This one is reported by SFD to involve “multiple patients,” near 3rd and Pine.

5:39 PM: Six patients, according to emergency-radio discussion. Meantime, from SDOT:

6:07 PM: A reader texted that photo of NB buses queued at 3rd/Seneca. No recent update from Metro.

6:10 PM: Metro has now sent an update: “Buses in downtown Seattle continue to be rerouted off 3 Av btwn Wall St/University St & off Blanchard St west of 5 Av.”

6:18 PM: Short media briefing from police chief and fire chief: As noted above, 6 victims. 1 dead. 5 in critical condition. No one in custody. … Back to the issue of getting out of downtown, one person on Twitter tells us the Water Taxi has been busier than usual. It has one more run from downtown to West Seattle tonight, at 6:45 pm.

7:05 PM: As mentioned in comments, the Water Taxi has added runs: “To help alleviate congestion in the downtown Seattle area, the West Seattle Water Taxi will be adding additional sailings from Pier 50 to Seacrest park in West Seattle tonight.” No further details but if you’re still stuck downtown, consider heading for the pier.

7:20 PM: Update from the Water Taxi, last run from downtown will be 7:30 pm.

9:35 PM: Buses are still detoured, Metro says. Meantime, SPD has just published a short summary of the first shooting this afternoon, the one involving officers and deputies.

10:13 PM: And now SPD has published this summary of the 3rd/Pine shooting, with 1 dead and six others injured.

THURSDAY MORNING NOTE: Metro says bus routing did return to normal early this am.

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33 days ago
Seriously, downtown Seattle ...
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Facebook removes pro-Soleimani Instagram content, calling it support for terrorism. Laurence Tribe says FB has it wrong

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Soon after a US drone strike killed Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani in Iraq earlier this month, President Donald Trump’s re-election campaign began touting the “swift actions of our Commander-in-Chief” in paid Facebook ads that cast the killing in a positive light. When it comes to posts that appear to support the dead general, however, it’s a different story: Facebook is employing some questionable legal reasoning about US sanctions law to justify deleting such content from its subsidiary, Instagram.

Top legal experts are calling out Facebook for going further to restrict speech than even a 2010 Supreme Court ruling on sanctions against terrorist groups would seem to justify. The ruling, Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project, centered on human rights advocates who sought to provide training in international law and nonviolent conflict resolution to groups designated by the US State Department as foreign terrorist organizations. The majority ruled that the government wasn’t violating the First Amendment free speech rights of the Humanitarian Law Project and its co-plaintiffs by prohibiting the training they hoped to provide, on grounds that it was a form of “material support” for terrorists.

In the same case, however, the court said that speech by someone independent of a terrorist organization, even if it were supportive of the group, would not violate the law. “The statute is carefully drawn to cover only a narrow category of speech” that is “under the direction of, or in coordination with foreign groups that the speaker knows to be terrorist organizations,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the majority opinion. In this instance, Roberts wrote, a terrorist group could use training in peaceful negotiation to buy time and prepare for new attacks.

But a Facebook spokesperson said that US sanctions law, and specifically the restrictions related to the State Department’s terrorism list, require it to remove not just content from sanctioned people or groups but also content that supports a sanctioned group or person.

A Trump campaign ad on Facebook.
President Donald Trump’s campaign placed ads like this one on Facebook touting the decision to kill Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soliemani. Credit: Bulletin.

Even the lawyers who argued the Holder case for the government agreed that speech done independently from a terrorist group does not violate the law. Facebook, however, appears to be taking a different stance. It is reportedly extending the Instagram takedowns far beyond the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, which Soleimani helped lead and is itself a designated foreign terrorist organization. Facebook apparently is pulling down content from people who are unlikely to be affiliated with the military unit, or, for that matter, even very supportive of it.

For instance, the website Coda reported that Iranian human rights advocate Emadeddin Baghi had his Soleimani-related posts taken down, even though he’s regarded as a critic of the Revolutionary Guards. Amnesty International once decried his treatment in the notorious Evin Prison in Tehran. Baghi, according to Coda, called the drone strike on Soleimani “an act which is contrary to the principles of international law.” After the story ran, Instagram reportedly restored Baghi’s posts.

Coda reported that the Instagram account actions have been widespread, affecting Iranian media organizations, journalists, activists, and influencers. Instagram is one of the few Western-based social media applications not blocked in Iran by the government.

And while censoring Baghi is being cast by Facebook as a mistake, a background statement from the company makes clear that its policy is to remove posts that support or represent sanctioned people or groups. As in Baghi’s case, the policy could easily ensnare content that is simply critical of the administration’s decision to target Soleimani.

“Facebook appears to be equating political or legal opposition to the Trump administration’s killing of Soleimani with indirect support for Soleimani himself and thus analogizing it to properly forbidden material assistance to non-state terrorist groups,” Harvard Law School professor Laurence Tribe wrote in an email.

“Any such equation wades deep into clearly forbidden speech-suppressing territory, well beyond what even the majority in Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project authorized as consistent with the First Amendment.”

Other experts agree. The American Civil Liberties Union’s David Cole, who represented the Humanitarian Law Project at the Supreme Court a decade ago, suggested on Twitter that Facebook was getting the ruling wrong. “In fact, in upholding the prohibition of ‘material support’ to designated foreign terrorist orgs, the Sup Ct. and US stressed that independent advocacy in support of such groups is NOT barred,” Cole wrote.

The Soleimani killing and its aftermath are certainly of great public interest. After the drone strike, Iran announced that it was rejecting certain international limits on its nuclear program, launched a missile attack against US military forces, and shot down a civilian airliner.

In addition to the State Department’s terrorist organization designations, Facebook’s background statement referenced the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control. The Treasury Department recently announced new sanctions against people and groups in Iran, but they largely involve economic activity. The agency did not respond to a request for comment on how the sanctions could relate to restrictions on speech on Instagram.

In a leaked internal memo, Facebook executive Andrew Bosworth told employees last week that the company shouldn’t put its thumbs on the scale to impede Trump’s re-election bid, suggesting Facebook has a commitment not to take sides in politics. But in the case of Iran and Soleimani, the company’s views seem to be different—and coincidentally (or not) in line with the US administration’s position.

That’s a scale Facebook appears to be willing to tip.

The post Facebook removes pro-Soleimani Instagram content, calling it support for terrorism. Laurence Tribe says FB has it wrong appeared first on Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

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37 days ago
Moral of the story: don't rely on a monolith to reach your audience.
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