Turn it off, Part III

Whoa. The phone companies have been keeping records of all our calls! They have employees embedded with the Drug Enforcement Administration to comb information! And because it’s a company, not the government, that stores all these records, it’s legal!

May I be forgiven an “I told you so?” May I be forgiven for repeating, again, that we don’t know the half of it?

Think back to the beginning of our nation, when we learned hard lessons that economic power was as corrupting as political power. The East India Company was the target of the Tea Party, as much as the Crown. Railroads were broken up because they strangled the nation. Oil companies were broken up for the same.

A few decades ago, the phone company, Ma Bell, was dismantled. Wire taps had to be court approved. But we don’t use wires anymore! The Baby Bells have morphed into a technocorp, an oligarchy extending tentacles ever deeper into our lives. The lifeblood of our nation flows through portals of the internet, and they tap all communication with only a passing nod to courts protecting the Bill of Rights.

When oligarchs take control of vital services, corruption inevitably follows.

I was stupid when ranting on these “pages” about why there isn’t greater effort to promote competition in the telecomm industry. The government doesn’t want an effective “market!”  The oligopoly serves the government interest. It is easier to collude with four companies than a dozen.

A friend calls the government/corporate beast “Leviathan.”  2,000 years ago, Plato warned against the power of “Oligarchs.” The enemy is within the gates, and we have failed to defend ourselves.

We must not be stampeded into servitude by fears of terrorism or concerns about drug-fueled chaos. Privacy laws must be updated, and made ferociously effective.

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Oligarchs own America

It’s too late. They won.

Revelations about the National Security Agency spying on citizens by collecting phone records and Facebook messages, snooping on us via the Internet, finally brought the issue to light.

But the real story is exposed by connecting the dots. Edward J. Snowden, the man who leaked the NSA spying, didn’t work for the NSA. He worked for a corporation, Booz Allen Hamilton, whose vice-chairman was a former head of the NSA. Like using mercenaries in Iraq, our government has subcontracted security, and gives corporations powers greater than those of any individual citizen.

Corporations doing the work of government can be as pernicious as government trying to manage outcomes in the market place. Perhaps more so, because our government, at least in theory, serves at the will of its citizens.

Corporations have, and should have, as their primary obligation the maximisation of their own influence, power and profit. When corporations do the work of government, whether providing mercenaries or performing data collection, the lines of accountability become tangled.

Booz Allen wasn’t spying via telescopes or listening devices: They had other corporations hand over records of who we were calling, and when. They claim legitimacy, and deny they recorded our phone calls or messages, and that may be partially true. But we have very little privacy in this new digital world where the collection of data by government or corporations is of high interest and great value.

If you search for a car, for months you will see car ads online. Search for a vacuum in February, and you will see ads for those from March until May. This is no coincidence. They read what you are reading, they are looking over your shoulder and collecting this information. And they have the capacity to manipulate that information at will.

The biggest threat to democracy in America does not come directly from government. It comes from AT&T and Verizon. Not only do these behemoths increasingly control how we communicate with each other, they control the very information we depend on to make decisions. Yes, Google and Apple, too.

If one wants to research abuses by cell phone companies, it is increasingly likely the search results will contain pages of sponsored ads, or stories about cell phone contracts instead of real information. AT&T and Verizon, working alone or in collusion with other corporate partners such as Comcast,  have that capacity to manage what we see.

Given that these corporations now own the politicians of America, with congressmen like Oregon’s Rep. Greg Walden doing their bidding, the game is essentially over.

Despite warnings from President Eisenhower about the “military-industrial complex,”  despite the 1960s, despite mountains of evidence of market manipulation and collusion and outright lies by these voracious corporate gluttons, despite the vast transfer of wealth from the middle class to the 1/10 of one percent, despite all that and because of all that, they won.

They won because there now is one primary vehicle of information and communication, the lifeblood of any democracy, and they own it. They listen to what we are saying, they let us see what they allow. With that, they stunt our ideas and muffle our speech.