Category Archives: Government
You think you understand how the Patriot Act allows the government to spy on its citizens. Sen. Ron Wyden says it’s worse than you know.
Congress is set to reauthorize three controversial provisions of the surveillance law as early as Thursday. Wyden (D-Oregon) says that powers they grant the government on their face, the government applies a far broader legal interpretation — an interpretation that the government has conveniently classified, so it cannot be publicly assessed or challenged. But one prominent Patriot-watcher asserts that the secret interpretation empowers the government to deploy ”dragnets” for massive amounts of information on private citizens; the government portrays its data-collection efforts much differently.
“We’re getting to a gap between what the public thinks the law says and what the American government secretly thinks the law says,” Wyden told Danger Room in an interview in his Senate office. “When you’ve got that kind of a gap, you’re going to have a problem on your hands.”
What exactly does Wyden mean by that? As a member of the intelligence committee, he laments that he can’t precisely explain without disclosing classified information. But one component of the Patriot Act in particular gives him immense pause: the so-called “business-records provision,” which empowers the FBI to get businesses, medical offices, banks and other organizations to turn over any “tangible things” it deems relevant to a security investigation.
“It is fair to say that the business-records provision is a part of the Patriot Act that I am extremely interested in reforming,” Wyden says. “I know a fair amount about how it’s interpreted, and I am going to keep pushing, as I have, to get more information about how the Patriot Act is being interpreted declassified. I think the public has a right to public debate about it.”
That’s why Wyden and his colleague Sen. Mark Udall offered an amendment on Tuesday to the Patriot Act reauthorization.
The amendment, first reported by Marcy Wheeler, blasts the administration for “secretly reinterpret[ing] public laws and statutes.” It would compel the Attorney General to “publicly disclose the United States Government’s official interpretation of the USA Patriot Act.” And, intriguingly, it refers to “intelligence-collection authorities” embedded in the Patriot Act that the administration briefed the Senate about in February.
Wyden says he “can’t answer” any specific questions about how the government thinks it can use the Patriot Act. That would risk revealing classified information — something Wyden considers an abuse of government secrecy. He believes the techniques themselves should stay secret, but the rationale for using their legal use under Patriot ought to be disclosed.
“I draw a sharp line between the secret interpretation of the law, which I believe is a growing problem, and protecting operations and methods in the intelligence area, which have to be protected,” he says.
Surveillance under the business-records provisions has recently spiked. The Justice Department’s official disclosure on its use of the Patriot Act, delivered to Congress in April, reported that the government asked the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court for approval to collect business records 96 times in 2010 — up from just 21 requests the year before. The court didn’t reject a single request. But it “modified” those requests 43 times, indicating to some Patriot-watchers that a broadening of the provision is underway.
Story Continues -> There’s a Secret Patriot Act, Senator Says
Here’s an interesting conundrum, posed by Representative Dennis Ross (R-Florida), at a House Judiciary subcommittee hearing held on Monday:
“Imagine you are sitting in Dulles airport in Virginia, waiting for a flight back to Florida,” Ross began in his opening remarks. “You download a music file from Apple, which is headquartered in California. The music is sent to you via a server in Oklahoma.”
Which of these states should be allowed to tax the sale?
Without a “clear national rule,” he warned at the hearing, “all four states may attempt to tax the transaction.”
And so Congress is considering one such national standard: HR 1860, the Digital Goods and Services Tax Fairness Act of 2011. Representative Lamar Smith (R-Texas) submitted the bill to the Judiciary committee two weeks ago. A similar law sponsored by Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) awaits consideration in the Senate.
The crux of the legislation centers around this sentence: “No State or local jurisdiction shall impose multiple or discriminatory taxes on or with respect to the sale or use of digital goods or digital services.”
The bill defines a “discriminatory tax” as a tax imposed by a State or local jurisdiction at a higher rate than “is generally imposed on or with respect to the sale or use of tangible personal property or of similar services that are not provided electronically.”
A “multiple tax” is defined as one in which that State or locality “gives no credit with respect to a tax that was previously paid on or with respect to the sale or use of such digital good or digital service to another State or local jurisdiction.”
Then come more specific limits on taxation. Any tax on the sale of digital goods and services can only be imposed on the state and its localities “whose territorial limits encompass the customer’s tax address.” This is understood as the address that the customer offered and which the seller received in good faith.
This legislation is strongly supported by the Download Fairness Coalition, which, not coincidentally, describes itself as “a partnership of businesses, associations, and consumers who have joined together to prevent multiple and discriminatory taxation of digital goods.”
The Coalition includes Apple, Time Warner Cable, Comcast, Verizon and, most notably, Amazon. The last mentioned company has been famously at odds with various states over taxes for years.
Story Continues -> How Will States Tax Internet Downloads? Congress May Decide
I think we can all agree that nobody wants to be reminded of high school when trying to determine the fuel efficiency of a new car. Thankfully the EPA has yanked the letter grades and replaced it with dollar signs.
The new mpg system will be applied to all 2013 model year cars. Before I go further, I will say that the EPA has quite the task ahead of them, trying to figure out a ratings system that fits a variety of new cars and technologies, from pure electrics extended-range plug-in hybrids to mild hybrids. Not an easy task to be sure, and such information can only be presented a certain way as to remain objective. The letter grading system was not objective, no matter which way you cut it. It was just an awful idea from beginning to end, and if you really want to sell green, you’ve got to put the cost savings up front and center.
The new rating system provides several critical information points up front and center, including how far a full charge is estimated to take you, how long the battery takes to charge and, most importantly, how much money this car will save you compared to the “average” car. I took a look at the fine print, which says that the formula will be based on fuel price projections put out by the U.S. Energy Information Administration every year and a 15,000 miles of driving annually. It also will include an app and smartphone scanner so you can compare one car to another.
Story Continues -> EPA Ditches letter grade for MPG ratings, put $$$ up front
As expected, a Democratic bill that would have put an end to the multi-billion-dollar annual tax subsidies for oil companies Chevron, Shell, BP, ConocoPhillips and Exxon Mobil failed to overcome a Republican filibuster on Tuesday evening. The heavily partisan 52-in-favor, 48-against vote fell eight shy of the 60 required to bring the bill to the floor.
If passed, the bill would have eliminated $12 billion in subsidies for production of oil within the U.S. and cut $6 billion in credits for taxes that oil companies pay to foreign governments. Finally, the bill would have put an end to oil companies writing off some drilling and development costs.
According to the Huffington Post, Republicans say that the bill unfairly singles out oil companies and would hinder their ability to hire American workers, thus leading to reduced oil production and increased dependence on foreign oil. Democrats argue that subsidies are unnecessary given that oil companies typically report profits in the multi-billion dollar range.
Three Democrats – Mary Landrieu (D-LA, pictured), Mark Begich (D-AK), and Ben Nelson (D-NE) – voted with Republicans to maintain the subsidies, while Olympia Snowe (R-ME) and Susan Collins (R-ME) sided with the Democrats.
As this chart – based on data from the Center for Responsive Politics– shows, the 48 senators who voted with the oil industry received over $21 million in oil-related contributions, while the 52 senators who voted to eliminate subsidies received a mere $5.4 million. Looks like money talks.
The state-backed People”s Daily newspaper reported Thursday that 1,611 small mines across China with outdated facilities were closed this year, citing the National Energy Bureau.
More than 2,600 people died in mining accidents in China last year, though deaths have decreased in recent years as the government increased safety inspections and shut down illegal mines.
In October, the State Administration of Work Safety said mine managers and bosses who do not accompany workers down into mine shafts would be severely punished.
CHIBA, Japan — There were gadgets and robots galore at Japan”s premier electronics show this week. But one of the biggest attractions wasn”t anything you could touch – an energy efficient city of the future.
For the first time, the Combined Exhibition of Advanced Technologies, better known as Ceatec, devoted one area of the show floor to selling a vision of urban life in 2020 and beyond.
The Japanese version of the so-called “smart city” exists in a post-fossil fuel world. Alternative sources like the sun, wind and nuclear power are harnessed in mass quantities. That power is then distributed to buildings, homes and electric cars connected to each other through “smart grids,” which monitor usage throughout the network to maximize efficiency.
The goal is to drastically cut carbon emissions, which many scientists believe cause global warming – ideally to zero. The bigger dream is for the smart city to become Japan”s next big export, fueling new growth and ambition at a time when the country finds itself in an economic rut and eclipsed by China as the world”s second-biggest economy behind the U.S.
The city of Yokohama, just southwest of Tokyo, is the site of a social and infrastructure experiment to create a smart city for the rest of the world to emulate. Launched this year, the “Yokohama Smart City Project” is a five-year pilot program with a consortium of seven Japanese companies – Nissan Motor Co., Panasonic Corp., Toshiba Corp., Tokyo Electric Power Co., Tokyo Gas Co., Accenture”s Japan unit and Meidensha Corp.
“We want to build a social model to take overseas,” said Masato Nobutoki, the executive director of Yokohama”s Climate Change Policy Headquarters, during a keynote event at Ceatec this week. “Yokohama is a place where foreign cultures entered Japan 150 years ago and then spread to the rest of the country.”
Now, he said, it”s where the best of Japan is converging, preparing for launch to the wider world.
Japan certainly isn”t the only country working on smart grids.
Australia has committed $100 million and is developing its first commercial-scale smart grid in Newcastle, a city a New South Wales state. South Korea is embarking on a $200 billion smart grid project on Jeju Island as part of efforts to cut national energy consumption by 3 percent by the year 2030. China is expected to invest a world leading $7.3 billion toward smart grids and related technologies in 2010, ahead of Washington”s $7.1 billion in Department of Energy grants, according to market research firm Zpryme.
Zpryme estimates that the global smart grid market will be worth $171.4 billion in four years, up sharply from $69.3 billion in 2009.
On Tuesday, Toyota Motor Corp. separately announced the launch of its own home smart grid system in Japan to coincide with its plug-in hybrid cars going on sale in early 2012.
Called the Toyota Smart Center, it calculates the most efficient way of using energy, eliminating waste by shutting off gadgets when they aren”t being used and maximizing the recharging benefits of hybrids, which recharge as they run. Utilities can also be used when rates are cheapest such as overnight to heat stored water.
With competition heating up and so much business at stake, Japan is hoping to aggressively court customers overseas, especially in emerging economies, with not only its vision but also its long-standing reputation for reliability and quality.
If it”s all a little hard to imagine, Nissan was offering a peek into the future at Ceatec. The centerpiece of the automaker”s pavilion was a 3-D theater with a 275-inch screen giving viewers a virtual reality drive through a “near future” Yokohama. The virtual city tour will be replicated for leaders from around Asia when they gather in Yokohama next month for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meetings.
“We need to turn talk into reality,” said Minoru Shinohara, senior vice president for technology development at Nissan, which will begin selling its Leaf electric car in December.
“If all we do is talk, I have a great fear that we will be surpassed,” said Shinohara.
NEW YORK — It”s an inconvenient truth: Many of the environmental claims in advertisements and packaging are more about raking in the green than being green.
Aiming to clear up confusion for consumers about what various terms mean, the Federal Trade Commission has revised its guidelines for businesses that make claims about so-called “eco-friendly” products.
The proposed new version of the agency”s Green Guides was released Wednesday, with recommendations for when to use words like “degradable” and “carbon offset,” in advertisements and packaging, and warnings about using certifications and seals of approval that send misleading messages.
“In recent years, businesses have increasingly used ”green” marketing to capture consumers” attention,” said FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz in a statement. “But what companies think green claims mean and what consumers really understand are sometimes two different things.”
The last update to the Green Guides was in 1998, so the existing guidelines don”t address environmental claims that are common today such as “renewable materials” and “renewable energy.” The proposed update says companies should provide specifics about the materials and energy used in manufacturing, to make sure customers aren”t confused.
The agency noted that consumers can also be misled by broad generic terms like “environmentally friendly,” which are often interpreted to mean the product has specific environmental benefits. So the new guide cautions against making claims with such terms.
Likewise for certifications and seals of approval, which make up a whole section of the proposed revision, versus one page in the older version. Companies should only use these if there”s a specific list of criteria used for the certification, the new guidelines say.
The new Green Guides generally advise companies that they will need “competent and reliable scientific evidence” to back up their claims. While the Green Guides are not enforceable as law, the FTC can take action if it deems a particular company”s marketing unfair or deceptive.
The lack of specific rules for how companies should make environmental claims shows how complicated some of these issues can be, said Lew Rose, an advertising and marketing attorney with Kelley Drye & Warren in Washington. “There”s very, very little area in which there”s a lot of concrete guidance,” he said, adding that can be viewed as a positive from an industry standpoint. “In a perfect world, they would prefer a clear set of rules, but in this area, what I think these guides reflect is a recognition by the FTC that it”s impossible to do that, without creating more problems than you”re resolving.”
But while the new Green Guides will discourage companies from making thoroughly misleading claims, one concern is that by directing companies to stick with specifics that can be backed up, consumers could become even more confused, said Tom Lyon, director of the Erb Institute for Sustainable Enterprise at the University of Michigan.
“They”re trying to be very clear about what”s ”greenwash” and what”s not,” he said. But it will be hard for individuals to make sense out of multiple environmental claims on a product.
“It”s going to be too complicated for the average consumer to work through,” if there are a dozen different environmental claims on a single package, he said. “What we need is to build trust at the consumer level with well-documented labels.” He pointed to the Energy Star label used for appliances as an example that”s easier for consumers to understand.
Some relief might come from retailers, who can build reputations for offering green products that their customers can count on, Lyon suggested. “Consumers are just not going to take the time to do the research.”
Recent cases in which the FTC took action included three companies charged with making false claims that their products were biodegradable and clothing companies charged with deceptively labeling and advertising products as made of bamboo fiber using an environmentally friendly process.
The three biodegradable cases had to do with companies making claims about paper plates. While a single plate left outside might degrade, the FTC requires such claims reflect normal use, a spokeswoman said. Since most paper plates would end up in trash that is sent to a landfill – where nothing degrades quickly – the agency said companies shouldn”t make the claim. Likewise, for the textiles made from bamboo – bamboo can be used to make rayon, the fabric in question – but the manufacturing process is far from environmentally friendly, the spokeswoman said.
In general, the FTC issues a cease and desist order when it takes action against a company, and can step up to levying fines if violations continue. The enforcement action taken varies by case, the spokeswoman said.
The proposed guides were put together after a lengthy process that included public input from workshops and surveys, but consumers and others have another chance to submit comments through Dec. 10. Comments can be submitted electronically at: . http://public.commentworks.com/ftc/ProposedRevisedGreenGuides
The Aysén region of Chilean Patagonia is threatened by a plan to build five dams on the Baker and the Pascua rivers – two of the wildest most pristine rivers on the planet. The Rapid Assessment Visual Expedition (Rave), an initiative of the International League of Conservation Photographers (ILCP), set up to address the challenges of modern conservation, visited the area in February this year to assess what impact the dams would have on the surrounding area and its way of life.
The expedition team included the Pulitzer prize winner and National Geographic photographer Jack Dykinga and twice World Press winner and Prince”s Rainforest Project award winner Daniel Beltra.
The three dams on the Pascua River (below) would create artificial lakes flooding more than 1,600 hectares (about 4,000 acres). Flooded lands would include some of the world’s rarest forest types, including the critically endangered plants. Other rare species that would be harmed by the Pascua dams include the torrent duck and the white-bellied seedsnipe.
The water supplying 80 per cent of the world”s population is exposed to “high levels of threat,” according to a study that surveys the status of rivers throughout the world, and looks at their effects on both humans and the ecosystem at large.
Writing in this week”s Nature (vol 467, p 555), Charles Vorosmarty of the City College of New York and colleagues presented data on factors affecting water security, from dams that reduce river flow in Patagonia, for example, to the pollution and destruction of wetlands.
They produced two maps showing the levels of threat to humans and to ecosystems that rely on rivers. The maps are virtually identical, with the continental US, Europe and south-east Asia facing the greatest threats, to both humans and the wider ecosystem.
Via The Guardian
By JOAN LOWY
WASHINGTON — Restoring financial regulation of the airline industry will be put before Congress if the Justice Department approves a proposed merger of United and Continental airlines, two key House members said Wednesday.
At a hearing on the merger, Reps. James Oberstar, D-Minn., chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, and Jerry Costello, D-Ill., chairman of the panel’s aviation subcommittee, expressed concern about the impact the proposed deal could have on consumers and airline workers.
Deregulation has been credited with making airline travel affordable for the average American. But Oberstar pointed to the $2.7 billion the airlines earned in baggage fees in 2009 as evidence that consumers are no longer benefiting from the system. He said he believes there’s support in the House for re-regulation.
“Hardly a day passes where I don’t walk out on the (House) floor that someone asks me, ‘When are we going to re-regulate the airlines?’” Oberstar told reporters after the hearing.
The legislation would impose federal regulation of airline pricing and re-establish a government gatekeeper role similar to that played by the old Civil Aeronautics Board prior to deregulation in 1978, Oberstar said. The board set standards for companies trying to enter the airline market and decided on a case-by-case basis which companies should be granted permission to fly passengers.
Deregulation worked for a while, bringing new, lower-cost carriers into the market and driving down fares, said Oberstar, who – as a junior congressman – voted in favor of deregulation. Most of those air carriers – as well as several “legacy” carriers dating back prior to deregulation – are gone.
The CEOs of United and Continental, who testified at the hearing, complained that competing against a steady influx of low-cost carriers who drive prices artificially low and then go bankrupt has weakened the airline industry.
Airlines have also suffered repeated shocks in recent years, including the Sept. 11 terror attacks, the SARS virus, volatile oil prices and the economic downturn. They have shed more than 158,000 full-time jobs since employment peaked in 2001 and lost an estimated $30 billion to $60 billion in recent years. At least 13 airlines have filed for bankruptcy in the past several years.
“The status quo for this industry is unacceptable,” said United’s Glenn Tilton.