Post #99: After Paris, What?

In the wake of the Paris terrorist attacks, the community of security experts in the US and abroad seems already to have formed a consensus about what happened, why it happened, and what to do about it.  Those of us concerned about another post-9/11 disproportional response had better pay attention to this consensus.  It includes the following:

  • ISIS is now a global menace, capable of carrying out terrorist acts anywhere. It is conducting military operations in about a dozen countries now. Nobody is safe.
  • ISIS is entirely different from al-Qaeda and other terror groups; it is (and should be treated as) an aggressive state with which we are at war.
  • The Paris attacks are (in President Obama’s words) “an attack on the civilized world.”
  • The international community must come together and redouble efforts to attack and defeat ISIS. The US, EU, Russia, and Middle East countries should decide on a distribution of military effort, including more boots on the ground, to take the fight to ISIS.
  • Stricter regulations must be developed to secure borders and identify terrorists among Muslims living in or coming to Europe, the US, and Russia.

It is easy to be swept along by the wave of revulsion the Paris attacks have created.  ISIS has given the warrior class in the US, France, and elsewhere a great gift, allowing politicians on the far right (and some so-called liberals) to put terrorism back at the top of national priorities.  Just as in 2001, they want to make a terrorist attack on “our freedom” a game-changer, meaning a shift to restrictions on civil liberties, more money for the military, and severe limits on immigration.  We may then be asked to support another Congressional resolution that reaffirms the Bush strategy of endless war and allows for unconstitutional and unlawful acts at home and abroad.

Let’s try to maintain some perspective here.  ISIS is a brutal, deadly foe, more so than al-Qaeda, Boko Haram, and the Taliban—all of which, by the way, have carried out attacks that have resulted in many more casualties than those in Paris.  But ISIS is not the USSR, Nazi Germany, or Imperial Japan.  It has committed terrible crimes, but it is not about to land troops on Europe’s beaches, fly drones over Riyadh, or launch nuclear-tipped missiles.  ISIS is an apocalyptic movement with an end-of-days mission—a terrorist group posing as a state, “an organized attempt to sow panic” (in Paul Krugman’s words: rather than to attack Western civilization.  Whether the motives behind ISIS’ Paris terrorism were a response to France’s involvement in Syria, a show of strength in the face of recent setbacks there and in Iraq, or a demonstration that its agents can outdo any other terror group—all these being current interpretations in the media—the fact is that ISIS remains a relatively small organization whose ideology has extremely limited appeal to Muslims.

Thus, in words and in deeds, we need to avoid repeating the overreach of the Bush post-9/11 years, when the President was empowered by Congress, the media, and the public to take whatever measures he and his frightful team deemed necessary in the name of national security.  They lied their way into Iraq, and in the process of dismembering that country laid the basis for the emergence of ISIS.

We can be fairly certain that a repeat of the Bush performance will play directly into ISIS’ hands.  (See Graham Wood,  ISIS leaders want a declaration of war against it, want a politics of fear to seize France and the West, and want more active international intervention (especially by the US) in Syria.  All such actions tend to legitimize ISIS, generate more recruits, and, in the minds of ISIS leaders, bring it closer to the ultimate battle and a glorious victory for its version of Islam.

What, then, should and can be done—and not done?  Here’s my answer:

  • Intelligence sharing—“systematic sharing of information in real time,” as one European counterterrorism specialist puts it—must be stepped up by all parties to the anti-ISIS conflict.
  • Redoubled efforts must be made to establish a cease-fire and formation of a transitional government in Syria. (Though the US and European Union may have to tolerate the presence of Bashar al-Assad in the Syrian government for some time, the Paris attacks may actually weaken his position by forcing Putin to refocus Russian air assaults on ISIS rather than on Assad’s opposition.)
  • Militarily, every effort must be made to create a genuine coalition to fight ISIS, one that relies mainly on ground forces from Middle East countries in combination with US, Russian, French, and other air and naval support. No US troops should be committed beyond the small number of Special Forces already deployed to Syria.
  • Saudi Arabia must be pressured by Washington to end its criminal bombing campaign in Yemen, find ways to cooperate with Shiite Iran, and make a significant contribution to the anti-ISIS fight.
  • All countries, starting with the US and EU, must agree to increase the number of refugees they accept from Syria, Afghanistan, and other countries in conflict in the Middle East; and they must greatly increase aid to Lebanon, Turkey, and other receiving countries that face huge costs to host refugees and displaced persons. (Writing in The New Yorker of November 9, George Packer reminds us that the US admitted over 1 million Southeast Asian refugees following the Vietnam and Cambodia conflicts, and that Obama’s proposed quota of 10,000 Syrian refugees “represents just half the monthly total of Indochinese refugees brought here in 1980.”)
  • The US and EU, France in particular, must reject all attempts to legislate anti-immigrant laws and regulations. These “shameful” actions, in Obama’s words, are immoral and politically bound to benefit terrorist movements.
  • Similarly, efforts by the intelligence community to use the Paris attacks as justification for restoring limits on surveillance of private citizens’ communications must be rejected.
  • Serious efforts must be made in France and elsewhere to integrate Muslim populations, especially young people, into the larger society, so that they are given employment and educational opportunities. Unless and until that happens, young Muslims will be attracted to ISIS and find ways to get to the Middle East for indoctrination and training in terrorist tactics.

President Obama so far has taken the right step in insisting that the US does not need to make a strategic reevaluation with regard to ISIS.  The US is deeply enough involved in Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan.  Whether his judgment of US limits abroad applies as well to US society—whether, in short, he intends or feels compelled to follow in the footsteps of François Hollande and restrict personal liberties in the name of national security—remains to be seen.

Post #98: Reality Check on China

Will the real China please stand up?  In the US media, most stories about China raise questions that amount to threat-mongering.  How can China’s “aggressiveness” in the South China Sea be stopped?  Is China forming a new alliance with Putin’s Russia?  Has China hacked its way into the most sensitive US industrial and military secrets?  Is China on the verge of displacing the West from Africa and even Latin America?  Are the Chinese about to become a military rival of the US in terms of naval and air power?  At the same time, we now see pictures of an historic meeting of the Chinese and Taiwanese presidents in Singapore, and of a trilateral get-together among Chinese, Japanese, and South Korean finance ministers in Peru to consider a free-trade agreement.  The images of China that emerge from these diverse stories are clearly quite opposite.

China without question has a powerful new-found presence in world affairs.  It is now one of the world’s great trading nations, and it has become the top trade partner with countries such as South Korea and Japan whose trade once was dominated by the US.  China provides loans and grants to numerous developing countries, where its currency is slowly becoming a rival to the US dollar.  In fact, according to one recent report, “The China Development Bank and the Export-Import Bank of China now provide more loans to the [Asia-Pacific] region than the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank combined.” But the Chinese leadership’s most important accomplishments may be in China. It has become the world’s foremost example of poverty reduction.  It is a leader in solar and hydro energy technology.  President Xi Jinping has taken aim at official corruption in the party and army, though not in his own family and inner circle.

Abroad, besides the diplomatic initiatives with Taiwan and Japan mentioned above, China has become the most active major power in Africa, dispensing loans and making investments that have contributed to public health, local employment in manufacturing, and transportation.  The Chinese military is becoming an important part of UN peacekeeping operations, for the first time including those that involve combat.  China’s voice at international conferences on climate change is influential, and its agreement with the Obama administration on reducing carbon emissions will be noteworthy if both sides follow through.  And its influence in North Korea may be critical to any prospect of reaching a new agreement with Kim Jong-un on nuclear weapons.

Nevertheless, as I’ve written in Will This Be China’s Century? China’s growing international impact is not (yet) equivalent to leadership.  On some of the major international issues, such as the Middle East conflicts, the refugee crisis, military spending, human rights (religious, ethnic, political), development assistance that promotes human security and civil society, and Iran’s nuclear program, China follows the lead of others and has little to say, much less proposing pathbreaking ideas and practices.  The so-called China Model may be attractive to some developing-country leaders because aid is not conditioned on the austerity or structural adjustment demands of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.  But the essence of the model is support of the strong state, that is, centralized authority, and the quid pro quo of China’s aid and investment often is free rein for Chinese companies to extract valuable resources, notably minerals, food, and tropical forests.  Little wonder that nongovernmental organizations, such as unions, environmental groups, and small business, are among the strongest critics of Chinese development assistance in (for example) Brazil, Peru, Sri Lanka, Niger, and Kazakhstan.  We hear the charge of Chinese “neocolonialism” with increasing frequency.

In some cases, China is a free-rider, dependent on others yet not paying for the service—for example, its mining operations in Afghanistan that rely on the US military for protection, and its oil imports from the Middle East that are secured by the US Navy.  China is clearly bent on having a modern military establishment, a blue-water navy in particular, that can protect vital nearby interests.  But it still lags well behind the US in all military capabilities and seems mainly intent on having a reliable deterrent to the US in East Asia.  Unlike the US, which has a worldwide network of security alliances and basing arrangements, China has no formal allies— its seemingly tight relationship with Putin’s Russia hardly qualifies as a reliable security partnership.  But Beijing does have deeply troubled relations with several neighbors, including India, Japan, Philippines, Vietnam, and Myanmar.

The real China lies within—the one that, like any other large and dynamic country, has a wealth of problems as well as problems of wealth.  An insecure leadership worries about challenges to its authority, hence is busy arresting lawyers, journalists, and activists while concentrating power around Xi Jinping.  Environmental protection is weak: water quality is declining, forests are being destroyed, deserts are expanding, fires and floods are increasing, and threats to public health are multiplying, casting doubt on the much-touted GNP figures.  Economic growth claims are further questionable because of weaknesses in the banking sector, state enterprises, and stock markets.  The rich-poor gap and protests by workers and ethnic minorities reveal the limits of growth to quell popular dissatisfactions. Employment is a major challenge because of limited opportunities for university graduates and mounting numbers of rural migrants.  China has just abandoned its one-child policy in urban areas, but that may be too little, too late to affect its ability to cope with a rapidly aging society and demands for skilled labor in coastal industries.

If we try to put all this together, what kind of China emerges?  For one, it is a country whose leaders must, by force of both history and current circumstance, pay foremost attention to domestic problems. If those problems are reasonably well addressed, leaders will have the resources and time to devote to international matters. But if they are not solved, or handled with a strong emphasis on police power, as now seems most likely, China’s leaders will continue to be preoccupied with social unrest and challenges to the party-state’s legitimacy.

Second, China’s rise has not occasioned a new grand strategy or even a clear direction. What may appear to be aggressive Chinese moves abroad may have a less ominous context, including defensive reactions to others. For example, in the South China Sea, China’s land reclamation and port and airport construction in islands under its control, and its refusal to submit the territorial dispute to international arbitration, deserve criticism.  But the US has helped raise the level of tension in those waters by announcing a “pivot” of US military power to Asia in 2011, conducting military surveillance flights and cruises close to Chinese territory, gaining military access points in the Philippines and Vietnam, sending ships on “show the flag” missions on the pretext of upholding freedom of the seas, and failing after all these years to sign and ratify the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. So there is plenty of blame to go around, on that issue as on others.

The world today is extraordinarily insecure, and appears to me to be on the precipice of enormous upheaval.  US-Russia relations have all the look of another Cold War. The refugee crisis in Europe has created the basis for a deadly right-wing reaction (Germany 1933, a European said the other day) as well as an uncontrollable humanitarian situation. The US has military forces in three Middle East countries on missions impossible. And we may already be beyond the tipping point in global warming.  The last thing Americans, Chinese, and everyone else needs is blindness to the necessity (and opportunities) for cooperative engagement, and instead the tendency to see every move by the other as threatening.

When China’s President Xi Jinping asks for a “new type of great-power relationship” with the US, he wants recognition from Washington of China’s equal status, in keeping with his emphasis on strengthening the nation, overcoming past humiliations, and thus fulfilling the “China dream.”  His historic meeting in Singapore with Taiwan’s president on November 6 may be interpreted not simply as a clever way to influence Taiwan’s upcoming elections or as a component of smile diplomacy, but as a message to the US and others that China can take care of its “core interests” peacefully and without foreign interference.  The South China Sea dispute would fit that frame of reference.  The current and future US president should evaluate Chinese actions with Xi Jinping’s notion in mind, even as it reserves the right to criticize.  US-China differences will persist for some time, but they need not become the basis for dangerous miscalculations.

Post #97: Arming Dictators: An American Tradition

Last week the Obama administration announced another military aid package for Pakistan: eight F-16 fighter jets.  Once again considerations of human rights and democratic values have been sacrificed to strategic calculations (  Recall, in my previous post #86 (“With Friends Like These”), the robust figures for US military assistance to Pakistan: over $20 billion in weapons, training, and other activities between FY2002 and FY2015, making Pakistan the sixteenth ranking recipient of US arms.  And that amount does not include drone strikes.

The contrast between Obama the engager and Obama the warrior is striking.  US arms exports to authoritarian regimes such as Pakistan’s, just one element of military aid, continue to rise even as we celebrate the President’s initiatives with Iran and Cuba.  From 2009 to 2014, I count $12.5 billion in arms exports to eight other authoritarian regimes: Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Egypt, Equatorial Guinea, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey.  That figure is nearly a quarter of all US military exports in those years, which total $50.7 billion. (Figures are from the authoritative Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, at­_values.php.)

There is no evidence that those weapons, or military assistance as a whole, have moved authoritarian governments toward greater respect for human rights, social justice, accountable government, or environmental protection. Even their support of US policy on terrorism has been tentative, and in Pakistan’s case, two-faced, since its government accepts US drone strikes while its intelligence apparatus coddles al-Qaeda and the Taliban. On the other hand, there is plenty of evidence that military aid has abetted repression, official corruption, and strong-arm rule.  Pakistan has thumbed its nose at US aid even more, expanding its nuclear-weapon arsenal to well over 100—an arsenal that heightens tension with India and, because it now consists of tactical nukes, is especially vulnerable to theft by terrorist groups. On top of that, we now have word that Pakistan has its own drones, probably built with Chinese help (, adding to South Asia’s instability.

Needless to say, the US is not the only democracy on the arms export list; it merely tops it.  Nine of the twelve arms-exporting countries are democracies, starting with Germany and ending with Sweden (

So the next time we think about a liberal in the White House, or some other house, we might want to remember that it’s always a mixed blessing, and that while a liberal administration may pursue progressive policies domestically, it may act in the opposite direction internationally.

Footnote on Syria (see Post #91, “Rethinking Syria,” and Post #96, “Truth and Consequences”): I have been promoting the idea that a political settlement in Syria must have at least two elements if it is to have any chance of gaining Russia’s support: a place for Bashar al-Assad in a transition to a new, broad-based government, and the participation of Iran in crafting an agreement.  Jimmy Carter has weighed in with an excellent op-ed that says exactly the same thing I’ve been saying:

I have also presented the idea that positive fallout from the nuclear deal with Iran might be further US-Iran contact on Middle East issues, such as Syria.  Until late yesterday (October 28), the Obama administration had not accepted either of these elements, but now it has agreed to invite Iran to talks on Syria. And the ayatollah has accepted, despite his repeated insistence that no further talks with the US would take place beyond the nuclear agreement.  Iran’s participation is an important endorsement of the engagement strategy.


Post #96: Truth and Consequences

A recently discovered piece of Vietnam War history has new meaning today. At the same time that Richard Nixon was telling the public that the US air war in Vietnam was “very, very effective,” privately he was saying the opposite.  He wrote Henry Kissinger on January 3, 1972: “K. We have had 10 years of total control of the air in Laos and V.Nam. The result = Zilch. There is something wrong with the strategy or the Air Force.”  Nixon demanded a report within two weeks explaining this “failure” (

We are now witness in Afghanistan to the same scenario: public lies, private doubts.  While the US military is reassuring the public that Afghan forces are up to the task of defeating the Taliban, the situation on the ground is anything but reassuring.  Afghan government forces are in retreat, the ISIS organization in Afghanistan (many are former Taliban) is expanding operations, al Qaeda and Taliban forces remain strong, and US drone strikes continue to hit civilian targets.  Obama has now officially abandoned hope of withdrawing all US troops from Afghanistan before his terms ends, and instead will maintain several thousand there. The “endless war” he sought to avoid is a reality—something he should have foreseen, and for all we know did foresee, years ago.

These setbacks come at a time when the Middle East is in total chaos.  The Russians are bombing in Syria, striking not only ISIS but also US-supported anti-Assad insurgents.  A third intifada is looming in Israel.  Hundreds of thousands of people are seeking refuge in Europe or in neighboring countries, such as Lebanon, that are already overwhelmed with refugees.  Egypt’s “spring” has been replaced by military repression, while in Turkey repression and discontent are on a sharp rise. Yemen, Iraq, and Libya are sunk in civil war.  In some respects the Middle East resembles proxy battles of the Cold War era, with Russian-aligned forces (Iran and Syria) clashing indirectly with US-backed forces (Iraq, Afghanistan, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia).  But ISIS, which continues to advance despite bombing, is the horrific wild card that makes analogies with the Cold War inaccurate.

When is the US government going to come clean with the public about its limited options and limited capacity to move events in the Middle East?  If 17,000 NATO troops, including over 9,000 US soldiers, cannot help defeat insurgents in Afghanistan, can fewer troops and more drone strikes do the job?  When will the administration acknowledge, if only in the privacy of the Oval Office, that aligning with dictators and autocrats (as in Egypt, Turkey, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Afghanistan) cannot advance the cause of democracy and human rights, and in fact can only abet repression? How many civilian massacres and refugees will it take before the President finally decides that the US cannot resolve anything by force (“zilch,” in Nixon’s vocabulary), and that the human interest and common sense dictate a political settlement?

Particularly disturbing at this critical moment of US decision making is the number of former US officials who have lined up behind continuation of the current policy.  As reported by the New York Times on October 14 (, a policy paper produced by the Atlantic Council urges Obama to stay the course.  The paper’s signatories include Madeleine Albright, Chuck Hagel, Stephen Hadley, Leon Panetta, and John McCain—a stellar “bipartisan” list.  Quite a few former US ambassadors to Afghanistan and other senior US officials have also made known their opposition to abandoning Afghanistan.  Thus, Afghanistan is blessed with a substantial number of lobbyists who seem incapable of thinking beyond war.

As I have argued in previous posts, the time is long past to come clean on Middle East policy—to bring pressure on Israel to negotiate in good faith with the Palestinian Authority on a just peace; to work with Russia and Iran on a multiparty political settlement in Syria, even if that means temporarily accepting Bashar al-Assad’s continuation in office; to accept many thousands more Syrian and other Middle East refugees than is currently planned; and to give highest priority to assisting Kurdish forces in and outside Syria who are the most effective fighters against ISIS.  A US approach to Middle East problems that is comprehensive rather than compartmentalized, stops the pretense that bombing and more weapons aid is a solution, and is willing to work with all parties that can help bring violence to a halt is the only approach worthy of our support.

Post #95: Corporate Irresponsibility and Climate Change


Research by the Union of Concerned Scientists ( finds that 90 global organizations account for about two-thirds of industrial carbon pollution, and that historically, over 12 percent of such pollution has been produced by just 5 companies.  You can easily guess which five: ConocoPhillips, Exxon-Mobil, Shell, Chevron, and BP.

As you might also expect, the Big Five oil giants are the biggest drivers of climate-change denial.  They have been funding predetermined studies for years to support their opposition.  And they have done so knowing all along that fossil fuels were the major contributor to climate change. As a “Frontline” program ( recently brought out, based on an investigation by Inside Climate News (, one of Exxon’s senior scientists told company executives in 1977 that “there is general scientific agreement that the most likely manner in which mankind is influencing the global climate is through carbon dioxide release from the burning of fossil fuels.” The probable impact on agriculture, population movement, and especially fossil fuel production prompted Exxon to explore climate change further.  Its research program then was serious and well funded, those same scientists tell us now.

But by the end of the 1980s Exxon management concluded not that the company should move onto a soft-energy path, but that it should engage in a coverup of its research.  As Inside Climate News reports, Exxon’s job became to “manufacture doubt about the reality of global warming its own scientists had once confirmed. It lobbied to block federal and international action to control greenhouse gas emissions. It helped to erect a vast edifice of misinformation that stands to this day.”

The flip side of climate-change denial is the claim that clean-energy sources are too expensive.  In fact, the price of solar in the US keeps dropping as solar panels improve. Electricity rates from solar are edging closer to rates from ordinary electric power stations. See, for example, this National Geographic article:  Five European countries lead the way globally in reliance on solar and wind power for their energy. Even in Japan, where the Abe Shinzo administration is attempting to reinvigorate the nuclear industry despite strong pubic opposition, he is also pushing major budget and other changes on behalf of renewable energy and conservation so as to meet a target of 26 percent reduction in carbon emissions by 2030 (  In the US, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists, solar energy in 2014 “accounted for nearly 30 percent of newly installed electricity capacity . . . ” ( But solar still only provides about 1 percent of electricity generation. A comprehensive study by an MIT group, The Future of Solar Energy (, advocates a “massive scale-up of solar generation over the next few decades,” with federal funding focused on new technologies, materials, and system designs.  Producers of carbon dioxide would be penalized.

Once we’ve brought climate change under control, we can turn to…chemtrails, which threaten to undo all the good outcomes of alternative energy:

It’s a never-ending struggle, folks.  Quite a burden to pass on to our children. And in the meantime, you’ll excuse me for saying that what leaders of the oil majors have been doing over the last 40 years or so amounts to criminal negligence, and they are literally destroying the planet.

Post #94: Manipulating Reality: Facebook Is Listening to You

One thing our generation has become all too used to is how reality can be manipulated to create the appearance of something else entirely. Invading another country is defensive, rigged elections are passed off as democracy in action, more guns (or more nuclear weapons) ensure the peace, trade and foreign investment increase jobs at home.  Orwellian logic has become commonplace.

What I am reporting on here is another kind of manipulation: How Facebook and other social media use the information we for the most part unknowingly provide it—including even words we speak in the privacy of our own homes—to advertise products that we didn’t request and almost certainly don’t want, and pass data on to the government.

I am hardly the first to discover this extraordinary capability.  A number of other people have expressed their astonishment and anger when they became aware that key words they used in Facebook and Twitter communication, such as messaging, location, and status, as well as in private conversations anywhere in their homes, were being picked up and almost instantly converted into ads.  You mention a particular sport and a ticketing agency’s ad appears.  You say you would love to drive a Lexus and up pops a Lexus ad.  You talk about a vacation, and a Facebook ad refers you to a Hawaiian beach or a small Paris hotel that—lo and behold—you had actually mentioned just yesterday!

Is this paranoia?  Is Facebook (or Instagram, Google, or Yahoo) really capable of listening in on our conversations?  Facebook readily admits that its business model relies on the data we enter or transmit online, that once we join the data essentially becomes Facebook’s property, and that (as Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, has argued) most people don’t care all that much about their privacy anyway. Of course Facebook et al. defend their model by telling you they are merely responding to your wants, and that if you wish they can reduce (but not eliminate) advertising if you’ll simply check a list provided in their program settings.  But as to actually listening in, Facebook contends that only you control the microphone, and (according to the head of Facebook security) you must give permission to Facebook to activate it.  Does anyone recall being asked for permission  (

You apparently can disable the microphone function in Windows or the Facebook mobile app on your smart phone or tablet (  But does “off” actually mean completely off?  Apparently not, for here are my wife Jodi’s and my own experiences after we turned off the microphone on her computer.  Note that the ads appeared within seconds of our speaking.

  • Jodi made a remark about Robin Wright Penn, the actress. Ads for Sean Penn movies instantly appeared.
  • We discussed T-shirts for grandchildren. Ads for just such T-shirts appeared.
  • Jodi mentioned our unfinished Scrabble game. Immediately, an ad for the game Yahtzee came up.
  • Jodi was discussing hotels in Portland with her sister on the telephone, and encouraging her to stay in a private home. An ad for a site that facilitates home swaps for vacationers instantly appeared.
  • Jodi was describing her appearance relevant to her age, such as laugh lines and grey hair, and an ad for Maybelline “Age Rewind” popped up.

(For other people’s similar experiences, see

So now you say, OK, but isn’t this snooping illegal, an invasion of privacy?  There have been fairly large-scale protests of Facebook’s smartphone snooping (–listening–feature-is-a-problem-of-trust.html), but no policy change by Facebook so far as I’m aware.  At a legal level, a careful Belgian study points out—and by the way, the Europeans are far more upset with and focused on Facebook’s shenanigans than are Americans—“opting out” of advertising is not the same as informed and direct consent (  Moreover, Facebook does not ask for our consent to its acquiring data from other sources, for collecting location data provided in smart phones, for using photos or other data (such as “like”) entered by the user.

I think a fair reading of the Belgian report and Facebook’s most recent (2015) clarifications of policy is that Facebook may collect any and all information stemming from your use of Facebook and from the device you use to access Facebook.  “Any information” means absolutely any data you enter, whether about yourself or third parties, and whether provided in writing, by voice, or in pictures. Even if you elect to terminate your Facebook account, it retains all the information you’ve provided.

There is an additional and even more pernicious issue: the gathering and use of social media data by US government agencies, notably the National Security Agency (NSA).  This practice, which Edward Snowden brought to light, includes the participation of Facebook, Apple, and several other technology companies in the NSA’s PRISM program to collect data directly from the companies ( rather than simply via the Internet.  The same practice is now being contested by the European Union.  In 2000, the EU accepted the US proposal to establish a “Safe Harbor” program for transferring personal data collected in Europe by Facebook, Google, and Amazon to the US.  That agreement was reevaluated by the European Court of Justice Advocate-General, who maintained that it violates Europeans’ basic rights.  The A-G finds that the data can be “accessed by the NSA [National Security Agency] and by other United States security agencies in the course of a mass and indiscriminate surveillance” (

The ECJ has just upheld that opinion (, declaring Safe Harbor invalid. The court’s ruling is that Safe Harbor “must be regarded as compromising the essence of the fundamental right to respect for private life.” It’s a big blow, though not necessarily a fatal one, to Facebook and others engaged in data transferring in Europe.  The Europeans have been pressing these companies, especially Google and Amazon, on other issues as well, such as with anti-trust legislation ( Ideally, the ECJ ruling and other European actions will embolden Americans to stage their own fight for greater privacy and more transparency in the way the technology giants conduct their business.

Does social media’s invasion of privacy bother you, or do you consider it the price of socializing?  How have you handled your privacy with your computer, phone, or tablet?  Have you had the kinds of listening-in experiences I mentioned?  I’m sure readers of this blog would like to know.


Post #93: A Tale of Two Visitors

What a strange week it was: Pope Francis arriving in the east and President Xi Jinping arriving in the west.  One had just come from preaching in Cuba in the wake of US-Cuba normalization of relations, which the Vatican was instrumental in arranging; the other had come from preaching order in China—in the markets, in the streets, and in the communist party—in the wake of mounting US criticism of Chinese cyberattacks and human-rights violations.  The pope offered a moral message linked to preservation of freedom, support for immigrants, and hopes to save the earth’s environment, while China’s president reassured the titans of US technology and other businesses of his country’s economic strength.  Profit or morality, obligations to growth versus obligations to people and the future—a quick description of the crossroads at which the world stands.

Francis is often praised for being humble, modest, and—as President Obama put it—for having “generosity of spirit.”  While the Vatican can be as opaque as Zhongnanhai (Chinese Communist Party headquarters in Beijing), Francis clearly enjoys being with ordinary people and speaking on their behalf.  Since being anointed pope, he has constantly spoken of the need to fight poverty, the links between poverty and environmental destruction, and the excesses of capitalism.  Xi, a mysterious and secretive figure who struggles to present himself as a man of the people, is busy cracking down on lawyers, protesters, journalists, and other actual or potential troublemakers.  To me this repression suggests an insecure leader determined above all to protect the party-state’s power.  (The contrast may also reflect their different backgrounds—Francis, whose father emigrated from Italy to escape Mussolini; Xi, from a family within the communist party elite that was victimized by the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution.)

Both men head a huge bureaucracy and seem determined to clean houses marked by major scandals.  But Xi’s anti-corruption campaign has been accompanied by protection and promotion of the financial interests of his circle of family and friends.  He punishes rivals and wields extraordinary control over all major policy levers.

It may seem silly to compare these two visitors, who come with such different leadership responsibilities and represent vastly different constituencies.  Still, it is noteworthy that the pope received lavish attention everywhere he went, with enormous crowds and extraordinary media coverage.  Xi Jinping, no match for Francis, was practically invisible while Francis was around; and when he did appear in public, protesters had to be kept at a distance from him. As Howard French observes, Chinese leaders have yet to master so-called soft power.  Unlike the pope, who always comes across as a real person, with Xi “everything is scripted. There’s little give-and-take.  Speeches are full of stock phrases” (  Instead of getting hugs, Xi got considerable criticism for acts that at the least raise questions about China’s respect for basic human rights at home and uncompromising actions abroad (I’m thinking especially of repression in Tibet and unilateral moves—the Wall Street Journal called them instances of “Chinese aggression”—to assert China’s claims in the disputed South China Sea islands).

What did these two visitors accomplish?  The pope, as expected, pushed a mostly progressive agenda that no doubt left Republican leaders gnashing their teeth.  After all, as one close observer has written, Pope Francis “has embraced liberation theology, and its deep critique of structural economic injustice and oppression, with open arms” (Wen Stephenson,  China’s leader probably paved the way for new high-tech deals and may for the time being have placated Obama by calling for a cooperative approach to cyber security (  More significantly, Xi indicated that China, starting in 2017, would implement a cap-and-trade system to deal with carbon emissions from industry—the same idea Obama tried and failed to get Congressional agreement on in 2010.  And at the UN, Xi pledged $2 billion to aid the poorest countries, though it is unclear if the money will be in loans, grants, or debt relief.

Did either visitor leave an indelible mark on this country?  Doubtful; but at least we may say of Francis that he impacted the lives of many individuals who were fortunate enough to see or hear him. His call for action on climate change, global poverty, and immigration was insistent and eloquent; it advanced the cause of environmental rights (which he identified as such in his speech at the UN) and social justice.  President Xi did not bring a hopeful message; he came mainly to do business and vigorously defend Chinese policies.  If the cap-and-trade plan on carbon emissions is faithfully implemented nationwide, it would be a worthy accomplishment.  But that’s a big “if.”  He and certain people along the Beltway would do well to heed the pope’s message in his speech to the US Congress: “If politics must truly be at the service of the human person, it follows that it cannot be a slave to the economy and finance.”

Critical appraisals of foreign affairs from a global-citizen perspective.


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