Archive for the 'Government' Category

ISP Swears They Won’t Sell Your Browser History

Congress voted to take away your privacy rights when it comes to how internet service providers (ISPs) may use your data, and President Trump signed it into law. Just recently they officially repealed Obama era privacy regulations out of the FCC which required ISTs to get permission before selling a customer’s data–their browsing history, how long you spend on a given site, how often you visit a given site, app usage, email addresses, etc.

As you can imagine, removing these protections has resulted in a bit of a panic over how ISPs will proceed under these new rules. In an attempt to alleviate some of those fears, several of the largest ISPs have made statements promising not to sell the browsing history of individual clients. However, it’s hard to avoid that they have worded their promises very specifically in every case-so specifically that their promises almost amount to nothing. Let’s a take a look at the words of the biggest ISPs and what exactly they have (and haven’t) promised as well as what that means after the repeal of these privacy protections.

From The Horse’s Mouth

As mentioned, the rule changes had big ISPs quick to release statements to reassure their customers. Comcast released a statement saying “We do not sell our broadband customers’ individual web browsing history. We did not do it before the FCC’s rules were adopted, and we have no plans to do so.” Verizon’s Chief Privacy Officer told their users  “Verizon does not sell the personal web browsing history of our customers. We don’t do it and that’s the bottom line.”  An AT&T Vice President said “AT&T’s privacy protections are the same today as they were five months ago when the FCC rules were adopted. [We] will not sell your personal information to anyone, for any purpose. Period.”

These certainly sound promising, but they are very carefully worded. They promise not to sell “individual browsing history” or “personal information.”  However these promises, especially individual browsing history–perhaps intentionally–hit only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to how ISPs could and almost certainly will collect your data and metadata. The ISPs notably did not promise not to sell aggregate data (the most commonly way of selling metadata) or promise not to review and use the history for their own marketing-both potentially invasions of your privacy. Aggregate data is where they collect your browsing information, strip identifying information, then sell it along with the data of many other users–this is used for targeted advertising among other things. What’s more, once data is sold, those who buy it have no compunctions about how they must make use of that data.

This is far from a new concept, and at least one ISP has commented in the past that your browsing habits are already being collected and sold “by virtually every site you visit on the internet.”  This is true, the biggest websites-the Facebooks, Googles, and Amazons of the world-gather and sell staggering amounts of data from their users.

However, as true as it is, the situation with ISPs is fundamentally different. ISPs have the ability to monitor you literally the entire time you use the internet–something no website can boast. The difference in the level of intrusion between an ISP and any website is a matter of degrees. No website could hope to have the sheer level of access to your internet activity that an ISP has–which is literally all of it. What’s more, you can choose to go to a website–even sites as ubiquitous as Google have alternatives which do not track your internet use such as DuckDuckGo. Over half of people in the U.S. have only one choice of internet provider–a large part of the argument behind treating the internet as a utility like electricity or water. This means that your options would be to either have every action you take on the internet potentially monitored and monetized or have no internet whatsoever.

ISP’s Seem to Be Forgetting Their Own History

The promises of the ISPs are also a bit hollow in light of their own past behavior regarding your data. Not so long ago, AT&T was in hot water for misleading customers by describing an opt-in agreement providing consent to track and sell its users browsing history as a “discount.” Comcast was in the news less than a year ago saying that it should be able to sell its users’ browsing information.

Back in 2014, Verizon got in trouble for including an HTTP header for its mobile customers which allowed third-party advertising companies to gather information on your browsing habits-even if you used a private browsing mode or cleared your cookies. Even after her own recent statements reassuring customers, Verizon’s Chief Privacy Officer acknowledged that Verizon intends to use your browsing habits in ways other than outright sharing your personal browsing history–specifically targeted advertising and selling data in aggregate as mentioned above.

The States May Come to Your Rescue

In this day and age, the internet is basically a necessity. While Verizon’s transparency is at least to be applauded, the very idea that your every internet action could be tracked and sold–with the alternative of never using the internet–is unlikely an attractive prospect to many. However, there has already been a move towards bridging the gap created by the recently repealed privacy protections through state law. Just a few days back Minnesota passed a law requiring ISPs to receive express written consent from a user before harvesting any of your data.

Whether this trend will spread remains to be seen, the changes to your privacy protections all still fresh. Keep an eye on state legislature, it seems likely that protecting your browser history will quickly become a hot button issue.

It’s Official: Texas Voter ID Law Violates the Voting Rights Act

On Monday April 17th,  a Federal Judge ruled that the voter ID laws enacted in Texas were enacted with not only the intent to discriminate against minorities but with the purpose of discriminating against those minorities.  This is a huge ruling with implications for both the law, S.B. 14, and the state of Texas as a whole.  This ruling has the potential to leave any law related to voting coming out of Texas subject to federal approval in the future.

However, this ruling is far from out of the blue.  The story of S.B 14 has been a back and forth saga through the courts since 2011.  Let’s take a look at the history of this bill, this most recent ruling, and what that ruling means.

Texas Voter IDThe History of S.B. 14

S.B. 14 is a law which substantially limits the acceptable types of voter IDs in Texas, often in particularly odd ways.  For instance, a hunting license is acceptable ID to vote but a student ID would not.  This is just the tip of the iceberg to what represented an enormous amount of limitations on what was acceptable identification to allow somebody to vote.  While there were suggestions to make funds available to educate the public on the details of the new restrictions and assist poorer voters to obtain sufficient identification, these suggestions were shot down at every turn and nothing of the sort made it into the final law.

When this law was initially passed in Texas in 2011, the Voting Rights Act (VRA) gave the Attorney General (AG) the power to review and shut down voting laws coming out states which had historically had discriminatory voting practices–think Jim Crow and the South.  With the effect the limitations would have and the lack of education on these effects in mind, the Attorney General at the time-Eric Holder-exercised this power and shut down the law.  While challenged this in the courts, AG Holder’s decision was upheld.

However, in 2013, a Supreme court ruling known as Shelby substantially limited the powers of the VRA.  Section 5 of the VRA allowed the federal government to pre-clear any voting laws coming out of states that previously had issues, as discussed above.  In Shelby, the Supreme Court analyzed the constitutionality of the VRA and Section 5 in particular.  They ultimately determined that, while Section 5 itself was constitutional, Section 4 was not.  Section 4 was the part of the VRA that allowed enforcement of Section 5.  Without this section, the pre-clearance requirements of the VRA were rendered essentially toothless.  The reasoning behind the Supreme Court’s decision was that justifications for the VRA’s restrictions-the history of discriminatory voting practices-was not the same concern it was when the VRA was enacted in the 60s.  Whether this is true or not, the Supreme Court decided that the provisions of the VRA needed to be reviewed by Congress if they were to remain in effect.

In the wake of this decision, many states-Texas, Mississippi, North and South Carolina-passed voting laws which had previously been shut down as potentially discriminatory by the federal government.  Among these was S.B. 14.  However, the law was immediately challenged in court.  In 2014, the law was determined to have discriminatory intent and purpose and struck down.  It was then appealed to the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, which upheld the ruling in part, but asked the lower court to revisit the matter of discriminatory intent.

This brings us to ruling of last week.  However, as opposed to the initial ruling, there was one huge difference–AG Jeff Sessions.  Jeff Sessions has made it clear that the potential for discriminatory voting laws is not a priority under his watch, and told his attorneys at the Department of Justice to drop this case altogether.  Despite this, and a request from the DoJ plaintiffs to drop the case, Judge Ramos-the judge handling this case-looked to the facts already submitted in coming to a resounding yes on the discriminatory intent and purpose behind S.B. 14.

Discriminatory Intent and Discriminatory Purpose

Discriminatory intent is shown where racial discrimination is a-although not necessarily the only-motivation behind a governing body’s decision.  Discriminatory purpose goes a little further than intent, implying that the law was enacted because of the adverse effects on an identifiable group.  A law demonstrating discriminatory purpose or effect is unconstitutional. A discriminatory impact is not enough on its own for a law to be unconstitutional on its face, there needs to be at least a partial discriminatory motive.

Judge Ramos found such an intent and purpose behind S.B. 14.  In determining to this, she looked to a number of things.  She noted not only the disproportionate impact that the carefully chosen ID limitations had on minorities, she also pointed to racist remarks made by legislators during deliberations on the law, the bypassing of usual procedures in passing the law, and the outright refusal to include anything which would help the public understand the laws.  Additionally, any amendment proposed to make the provisions less harsh–easing registration procedures, reducing costs to purchase the IDs necessary to vote, expanding the acceptable types of identification-were all rejected with essentially no consideration.  In fact, the Texas Congress was specifically advised of the disproportionate impact that the law would have and advised on a number of ways to lessen this disproportionate impact on minorities-they rejected all of them.

The stated goal of the bill was to avoid voter fraud.  However, despite the Texas Legislature being shown evidence that in person voting happened in about two out of every twenty million cases in the last decade and provided evidence that mail-in voting was much more commonly vulnerable to fraud, the Legislature didn’t feel the need to include any provisions on mail-in voting and focused exclusively on in-person voting.

With all this in mind, Judge Ramos ruled that she could find no non-discriminatory purpose for how Texas had approached S.B. 14.

What Will This Ultimately Mean

Unfortunately, despite years of rulings saying this law was intended to prevent minority voters from being represented at the polls, there’s a good chance this law will win out in the end.  Jeff Sessions has, as Attorney General, told the attorneys of the DoJ to cease litigating the case completely.  While Judge Ramos followed through with the case, Texas will certainly appeal her decision.  This appeal will probably have no lawyers opposing Texas, unless an outside group steps in to handle the litigation.  If this is the case, the chances of beating this law drop precipitously.  However, should somebody step in to help fight the law this is a case that has a good chance to make its way to the Supreme Court.  As it stands, even with the addition of Justice Gorsuch, the makeup of the court makes it likely that this law would be struck down and Texas would continue to require preclearance from the federal government for any new law effecting voters.

This hasn’t been a particularly good year for Texas when it comes to their voting process being ruled racially discriminatory.  Two separate courts have already ruled, this year alone, that Texas’ district maps are gerrymandered to “pack and dilute” minority votes.  The determination of Shelby limited the VRA on the premise that discriminatory voting practices were a thing of past generations.  However, this ruling and many other rulings this year have shown the opposite.  It is unlikely that congress, in its current state, will pass any legislation giving teeth back to the VRA.  However, as cases like this are appealed to the Supreme Court, they have the potential to create precedent for a future court ruling reevaluating Shelby.  However, it seems unlikely in the near the future.  Only time will tell how momentous this ruling may be, for now Judge Ramos’ ruling will serve to protect voting rights for minorities in Texas.

Can Trump Be Sued for Inciting Violence at a Rally?

TrumpTrump is in hot water yet again, but this time, for something he said during one of his campaign rallies before elected into office.

On March 1, 2016, Trump held a campaign rally in Louisville, Kentucky at the Kentucky International Convention Center. Three protestors were singled out during the campaign when Trump pointed to the protestors and instructed his supporters to “Get ‘em out of here,” which he repeated several times.  The three were then physically attacked. Trump then added, “Don’t hurt ‘em. If I say ‘go get ‘em,’ I get in trouble with the press.’” The protestors sustained personal injuries by being shoved and punched by Trump supporters. They sued Trump for incitement.

Trump’s lawyers filed a motion to have the case thrown out, arguing that what he said was protected free speech under the U.S. Constitution and that he wasn’t actually speaking to the crowd that night when he instructed them to “get ‘em out of here.” The Kentucky U.S. District Judge David J. Hale was unpersuaded and allowed the case to proceed.

What is Incitement?

In laymen terms, inciting violence means a person encourages, provokes or urges violence upon another. It requires somebody to actively urge violence against particular individuals.

The main question for incitement is whether the speech in question purposely and clearly directs others to commit an act of violence against another individual. The government can only punish speech if there is a “substantial likelihood of imminent illegal activity and if the speech is directed to causing imminent illegality.”

Incitement Analysis

To analyze what is incitement, we must first look to what it isn’t. Let’s take this scenario where three protestors interrupt one of Trump’s campaign rallies. Instead of directing the crowd to “get ‘em out of here,” he asks them, “Where’s the exit?” Would that be incitement?

In that scenario, no. While his intent may have been to encourage his supporters to find the exit and kick the protestors out, he would’ve simply asked a harmless question about the location of the exit. Since he wouldn’t have directed or urged them to act violently, incitement wouldn’t be found.

Let’s take the same scenario. What if Trump not only told his supporters to “get [the protestors] out of here,” but he said to a specific group of people in the crowd, “Kick [the protestors] in the stomach” and “Punch them in the face on the way out!” That would be a clear example of inciting violence. In this hypothetical, he would have told specific people in the crowd to act violently against the protestors.

Why the Judge Didn’t Dismiss the Case

Trump’s attorneys cited two main arguments for why the case should’ve been dismissed: Trump’s speech was protected free speech, and that he never directed the crowd to become violent. He argued that his insistence to “get ‘em out of here” was directed to his security guards. Judge Hale didn’t buy it.

Judge Hale looked at numerous Trump campaign speeches that were submitted into evidence by plaintiffs to demonstrate a pattern of Trump asking his audience to act violently.  Among the examples were pleas by Trump in a 2015 Alabama campaign rally that a protestor “maybe…should have been roughed up”  and a 2016 rally in Iowa when Trump instructed the crowd to “knock the crap out of” anyone getting ready to throw a tomato. In one rally in Michigan, he asked a protestor to be removed and urged the crowd not to hurt him, but then added, “If you do, I’ll defend you in court. Don’t worry about it.” This is our President, people.

Will Incitement be Found?

Procedurally, Judge Hale’s decision can be reversed on appeal. Trump’s attorneys would have to convince the appellate judge that Trump was not directing the speech at his campaign crowd. While that certainly may be true, Trump has teetered on the edge of encouraging violence at his rallies throughout his campaign. A judge could easily adopt Judge Hale’s thinking and reject Trump’s defense.

Whether incitement will ultimately be found would require a detailed analysis of the facts of this particular case. Either way, chances are this is not the last time we will see Trump in court for something he did or said during his presidency.

Trump Repeals Internet Privacy

For someone who ran for President on a platform promising to “Make America Great Again,” he sure has done a lot of things to make Americans feel like we’ve moved backward, not forward. Since January 20th, President Trump has turned away refugees, encouraged the defunding of Planned Parenthood, and acted personally and professionally sexist toward women. His new bill that he quietly signed into law repeals internet privacy rules passed last year by the Federal Communications Commission (“FCC”) under the Obama administration. It seems like another huge step backward.

TrumpWhat Did the Internet Privacy Law Do?

Adopted on October 27, 2016 and issued on November 2, 2016, the FCC established a rule that protected the privacy of customers of broadband and other telecommunication services. It also gave broadband customers more choices, transparency, and security over their personal data. The rule empowered users to decide how data was used and shared by broadband providers. In other words, it forced internet service providers (Comcast, Xfinity, AT&T, and Verizon, to name a few) to ask consumers before it collected certain personal information.

Why Is the Privacy Rule Important?

The rule has not gone into effect yet, and it won’t go into effect now that Trump has repealed it. However, the law was intended to require more transparency by internet service providers. Companies use data to target advertising. This is known as data mining, sometimes known as data or knowledge discovery. It is the process of analyzing data and summarizing it into useful information. The information is then sold from the internet service providers to specific companies that target their advertising to the consumer based on their data.

That was complicated, so let me give you an example. I’m a new mom and my internet service provider can ascertain this information through my search habits. Let’s say they sell that information to Babies R’ Us, Carter’s, and other baby stores, who then sends me coupons for various deals on car seats, baby toys, and diapers. My internet service provider just profited off of invading my privacy.

Why We Haven’t Heard about the Law

Trump has been acting like a bull in a china shop, signing controversial executive orders with big hoopla and making unfounded allegations about his predecessor President Obama. Why, then, have we heard very little about his decision to repeal the internet privacy law, especially when it has such a huge effect on the American people?

It seems that the Trump administration tries to sneak anything controversial or unpopular quietly into law. That way, there’s less backlash.

Should We Be Worried about Net Neutrality?

In 2014, the FCC released a plan that would have allowed internet service providers such as AT&T, Comcast and Verizon to charge more depending on what the consumer uses. For instance, instead of providing things like Facebook and Youtube for free so long as you have internet access, big companies want to sell package deals that allow one access to Facebook and Youtube only if they use their company and buy a particular package. The proposal was met with so much resistance that it was shelved.

Net neutrality is the principle that treats all websites and services the same. Specifically, it prevents certain internet service providers from charging more for specific content. It prevents companies like Comcast from charging users for a package subscription to Netflix and Hulu.

People are concerned that Trump’s repeal is just one step away from the end of net neutrality, and they should be concerned. Trump is a well-known businessman. His failed Trumpcare attempted to create huge tax breaks for the super wealthy. He’s appointed cabinet members who primarily favor big business. It should come as no surprise that this President may attack net neutrality when he has consistently shown preferential treatment toward big business at the expense of “the little people.”

H.R. 861 and H.R. 899: the End of the EPA and the Dept of Education

On February 3, 2017, the House of Representatives presented H.R. 861. The bill proposes to terminate the Environmental Protection Agency by December 31, 2018. On February 8, the House of Representatives also presented bill H.R. 899, a bill that proposes to terminate the Department of Education by December 31, 2018.

H.R. 861 and H.R. 899Environmental Protection Agency

The Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) was proposed under President Nixon in 1970 and approved by the House of Representatives and the Senate. The goal of the EPA was to make “the 1970s a historic period when, by conscious choice, [we] transform our land into what we want it to become.” The EPA’s mission is simple: to protect human health and the environment.  It is run by an agency of the Federal Government which writes and enforces environmental regulations based on laws passed by Congress. The EPA also gives grants to state environmental programs, non-profits, and educational institutions with the underlying purpose of protecting human health and the environment.

EPA Most Notable Accomplishments

You’ve probably heard of the Clean Air Act, a federal law designed to control air pollution. The Act is one of the most comprehensive air quality laws in the world and is administered and enforced by the EPA.

The Energy Star Program was launched by the EPA in 1992. It’s a voluntary program that encourages energy efficiency among various products such as major appliances, office equipment, lighting, home electronics and more.

Most recently, the EPA has been involved in researching the effects of climate change. The topic is controversial because many members of the GOP refuse to believe climate change exists, including our own President.

Department of Education

The Department of Education was signed into law by President Jimmy Carter in 1979 and began operating in 1980. It is administered by the U.S. Secretary of Education. The current Secretary of Education is Betsy DeVos. The Department has approximately 4,400 employees and its annual budget was $68 billion in 2016.

It’s a common misnomer that the Department of Education establishes schools and colleges. It does not. Instead, the primary function is to “establish policy for, administer and coordinate most federal assistance to education, collect data on U.S. schools, and to enforce federal educational laws regarding privacy and civil rights.” Its mission is to promote student achievement and preparation for global competitiveness by fostering education excellence and ensuring equal access.

Department of Education Notable Accomplishments

The Department of Education is responsible for gathering data to assess how well certain programs and grants are working. It also awards Pell grants federal financial aid through loans. With the rising cost of public education, more students than ever rely on financial aid to fund their education. An overwhelming majority of full-time undergraduate students at four-year colleges receive financial aid.

The Department also oversees and protects disadvantaged children from receiving sub-par education.

How to Pass the Bills

A bill becomes a law when it passes first through the House and then the Senate. A simple majority of the House (at least 218 votes) and the Senate (at least 51 votes) need to approve the bill for it to become law. Finally, the President must sign the bill into law, but the President can veto the bills and neither would become laws.

What Happens if the EPA and Department of Education Are Terminated?

All the advantages that the EPA and Department of Education provides would cease to exist. That means we would no longer fight climate change. It also means that financial aid would not be provided to students on a federal level. Students would have to rely on their individual states to help fund their education, which receives far less money. In turn, it will become harder for students to fund their education. And the disadvantaged youth of our nation will be left behind, with the wealthy receiving superior education and the struggling receiving sub-par education.