Sunday, December 18, 2016

The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists discovers Tillerson ties to offshore company used in Russia deal

The Panama papers reveal Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson's ties to Russia and offshore companies -- the first of many such revelations?


The Panama Papers is a collection of 11.5 million documents (2.6 terabytes) that was leaked by an anonymous source to Süddeutsche Zeitung (SZ), a German newspaper. The documents were from the internal files of Mossack Fonseca, a Panamanian law firm that creates anonymous offshore companies around the world. The database on 320,000 offshore companies may be accessed here.

SZ did not have the staff and resources to analyze that many documents, so they decided to cooperate with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, a global network of more than 190 journalists in more than 65 countries who collaborate on in-depth investigative stories.

(The story of this massive, Internet-based collaboration is amazing in its own right. For more on the ICIJ and the methodology of this investigation, check out this excellent 15 minute podcast, with transcript).

The ICIJ has now turned it's attention to the Trump administration and has discovered that Rex Tillerson, ExxonMobil CEO and Secretary of State nominee was a director of an offshore company in the Bahamas that is at the heart of Exxon’s close business dealings with Russia.

The ICIJ reports that:
The records show Tillerson’s direct involvement in Exxon’s extensive network of companies based in the Bahamas. ExxonMobil created at least 67 companies based in the island tax haven, which were involved in operations spanning from Russia to Venezuela to Azerbaijan, according to ICIJ’s documents from the Bahamas corporate registry.
An ExxonMobil spokesman said that it incorporates in the Bahamas because of the “simplicity and predictability” of the country’s laws for setting up companies and that "Incorporation of a company in the Bahamas does not decrease ExxonMobil’s tax liability in the country where the entity generates its income.”

This may be legal and may not be depriving the US of tax revenue, but it does raise questions of Russian influence and conflict of interest. Tillerson currently holds an estimated $228 million in Exxon stock, whose value stands to be affected by State Department policies on issues from climate change to sanctions against Russia.

Source

The ICIJ promises to continue investigating the Trump administration -- stay tuned.
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Update 12/19/2016

This is not the only result of the ICIJ investigation of the Panama Papers. For example, an earlier investigation revealed that Mossack Fonseca had been used to "create a string of companies in offshore financial havens that allowed it to sidestep the U.S. embargo in its commercial operations." They have identified at least 25 companies registered in the British Virgin Islands, Panama and the Bahamas that are linked to Cuba, enabling the Cuban government to import and export goods and invest funds abroad. Another investigation led to the resignation of the Prime Minister of Iceland.

The ICIJ promises to continue investigating the Trump administration -- stay tuned.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Why we need the Washington Post, New York Times et al

We can easily afford to lose publishers like Gawker Media, but not papers like the Washington Post and the "failing" New York Times.

Donald Trump's choices to head the Energy and Interior departments and the Environmental Protection Agency are climate-change "skeptics" and they support and are supported by the oil industry. This has led some climate scientists to initiate projects to back up climate-sicence research and data.

The Washington Post published a well researched article on the concern of the climate scientists with links to many supporting articles. Donald Trump routinely denigrates the "mainstream media," but this article is a terrific example of what the press can and must do.

The Internet has disrupted the business model of newspapers like the Washington Post and New York Times and the Trump administration poses another threat.

Peter Theil is a member of the Trump transition team and a very rich Silicon Valley investor. Gawker Media alienated him by publishing the fact that he was gayand Theil retaliated by secretly financing a law suit for Hulk Hogan who had also been embarrassed by Gawker. The suit bankrupted Gawker Media.

Donald Trump frequently threatens to sue adversaries. Can we imagine him or a supporter like Theil suing the Washington Post?

Maybe, maybe not, but he will surely continue using his "bully pulpit" for ad hominem attacks against publications that fact-check and criticize him. For example, consider these tweets about the "failing" New York Times:

Trump nicknames -- lying, little ... now failing Source

In 2013, Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon.com, purchasted the Washington Post from the Graham family for $250 million -- a lot of money for you and me, but not much for Donald Trump or Peter Theil.

Trump has has threatened Bezos, saying he has "a huge antitrust problem because he's controlling so much, Amazon is controlling so much of what they are doing." He added that Bezos is "using The Washington Post, which is peanuts, he's using that for political purposes to save Amazon in terms of taxes and in terms of antitrust."

The Internet has cost newspapers dearly and the Graham family might have been vulnerable to an attack by Trump if they had not sold it. At the time Bezos bought the Washington Post, there was a lot of speculation as to his motivation. I don't know why he bought it, but I am glad he did, because he can afford to defend it.

We can easily afford to lose publishers like Gawker Media, but not papers like the Washington Post and the "failing" New York Times.

Backing up climate-science data

It is nearly inconceivable that Trump would order the deletion of climate-science data -- a modern book burning -- but one can imagine large budget cuts for climate-science research, making it impossible to maintain and update this sort of public data.

Climate scientists have kicked off at least two projects to create backup copies of their research and data.

One is Climate Mirror, which is part of an ad-hoc project to mirror public climate datasets before the Trump Administration takes office -- to make sure these datasets remain freely and broadly accessible.

Another is a hackathon that will be hosted on December 17th at the University of Toronto in collaboration with the Internet Archive End of Term project, which seeks to archive the federal online pages and data that are in danger of disappearing during the Trump administration. (Note that they have done the same for earlier administrations).

For example, NASA recently released data showing how temperature and rainfall patterns worldwide may change through the year 2100 because of growing concentrations of greenhouse gases in Earth’s atmosphere.


The post announcing the dataset states:
The dataset, which is available to the public, shows projected changes worldwide on a regional level in response to different scenarios of increasing carbon dioxide simulated by 21 climate models. The high-resolution data, which can be viewed on a daily timescale at the scale of individual cities and towns, will help scientists and planners conduct climate risk assessments to better understand local and global effects of hazards, such as severe drought, floods, heat waves and losses in agriculture productivity.

"NASA is in the business of taking what we’ve learned about our planet from space and creating new products that help us all safeguard our future,” said Ellen Stofan, NASA chief scientist. “With this new global dataset, people around the world have a valuable new tool to use in planning how to cope with a warming planet.
The climate-science community is obviously alarmed by Donald Trump's appointments of Ryan Zinke, who characterizes climate change as “unsettled science," as Secretary of the Interior, Rick Perry, who once could not recall the name of the department, but remembered that he did want to eliminate it, as Secretary of Energy and Scott Pruitt, who consistently opposes regulation, to head the Environmental Protection Agency.

These men are all supporters of and supported by the oil industry.

The Trump transition team also requested a list of the names of Energy Department people (contractors and employees) who have worked on climate science and the professional society memberships of lab workers.

It is nearly inconceivable that Trump would order the deletion of climate-science data -- a modern book burning -- but one can imagine large budget cuts for climate-science research, making it impossible to maintain and update this sort of public data.

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Update 12/29/2016

Check out this excellent, short (5:14) interview of Internet Archive founder Brewster Kahle. The interview begins with climate scientist Eric Holthaus talking about the effort to archive climate research, then Khale goes on to say more about how and why they archive government (.gov and .mil) Web sites when a new administration takes over.

He said 83% of the .pdf files on government sites were deleted between 2008 and 2012. In addition to Web pages, they will be archiving virtual machine versions of interactive government services and databases. (As noted above, those are vulnerable to defunding).

When asked for an example of the value of the archive, Khale mentioned the press release announcing George Bush's ironically famous "Mission Accomplished" speech on the deck of an aircraft carrier. As shown below, the headline reads "President bush announces combat operations in Iraq have ended" and the first sentence qualifies the headline by saying "major" combat operations have ended. Khale said that a couple of weeks later "major" was added to the title and a couple months later, the press release was deleted.


Excerpt from press release on "Mission Accomplished" speech

The Internet is potential providing raw data for historians -- it should be complete and accurate.

If you would like to see a video of the entire speech, the Internet Archive has preserved that as well:




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Update 12/30/2016

The following is a transcript of Bob Garfield, co-host of the podcast On The Media, interviewing Brewster Khale, founder of the Internet archive and a partner in the End-of-term Project with a lead-in question for on climate-science research Eric Holthaus of Slate Magazine.

Bob: Meanwhile a small army of volunteer archivists, scientists and advocates have been working to save the government climate change research that already exists

Eric: at NASA and NOA that takes the temperature of the planet from weather stations from satellites from ocean buoys.

Bob: Meteorologist Eric Holthaus spoke to NPR about his effort to save government climate data.

Eric: Sometimes these data sets are only stored in United States government servers so there hasn't really been an effort to catalog those in other countries because we haven't thought it was necessary before

Bob: The Internet Archive on the other hand has given a lot of thought to what gets lost in presidential transitions. Every week the archive tapes three hundred million Web pages and every four years it enlists a bunch of volunteers to make copies of government Web sites as a hedge against what the next administration may choose to delete. It's called The End-of-term web archive and for some reason this year the organizers are getting a lot more offers of help. Brewster Kahle founder of the Internet Archive says that this year his team also is backing up its data to Canada

Brewster: When the election went the way that it did, it was a bit of a surprise, so we looked through the television archive at what President-elect Trump said about freedom of the press and about the Internet and what we found was shocking. He wanted to close up parts of the Internet that there was mocking of freedom of the press. This was kind of a wake-up call and we said let's make sure we have a copy in some other location.

Bob: What are your priorities? How does it work?

Brewster: So the Internet Archive works with the Library of Congress, University of North Texas -- now a growing list of groups to try to do as best we can to record the information that's available on the Web sites and now the web services that have been made available on .gov and .mil Web sites. We found in 2008, 83 percent of the PDFs that were available back then are no longer available even by 2012. So with an 83 percent loss rate when the Obama administration came on board we're likely to see something like it maybe even more with the Trump administration.

So we're coordinating activities to go and archive web pages and we're reaching out to federal webmasters to go and see if we can keep whole services up and running. Can we take virtual machine versions of the databases that they're running and be able to run them in snapshot form so that we can keep these services going as they were in 2016 in the future?

Bob:Give me some examples of when the federal web archive has come in handy. Was there something that you and disappeared that you were super glad to have archived?

Brewster: Oh the anecdotes go on and on. Example -- there is a press release from the White House during the George W. Bush administration when he stood on an aircraft carrier and declared “mission accomplished.” And the headline of that press release was combat operations in Iraq had ceased but a couple of weeks later they changed the headline and said major combat operations had ceased with no notice that it had changed. The only reason why we know is because we had archived both versions. And then a couple of months later the press release went away completely from the web. You know what is more Orwellian is it changing a press release that's in the past or is it disappearing completely?

Bob: What are you most worried is going to disappear in a Trump administration?

Brewster: Frankly we have no idea. This upcoming administration is very aware of the power of the Internet and how it can be manipulated -- how you can go and push things out in the middle of the night and use the journalist system in ways that are really pretty blatant. So let's at least keep a record of it.

Bob: We have just experienced the interference in a political campaign by outsiders. Is this archive secure -- I mean really secure against hacking, against intrusion?

Brewster: The history of libraries is a history of loss. Libraries are burned. That's what happened in the Library of Alexandria. It'll be what happens to us -- just don't know when. So let's design for it. Let's go and make copies in other places. Let's make sure people want universal access to all knowledge, that they want education based on facts. Let's go and make sure that there is an environment that supports libraries. That's the only way that in the long term we're going to survive. And the copies that are maybe now unique at the Internet Archive will survive based on all sorts of changes whether it's earthquakes or institutional failure or law changes.

Bob: Brewster as always many thanks.

Brewster: Thank you very much.

Bob: Mr. Khale is the founder of the Internet Archive and a partner on the End-of-term Project.

Khale's interview was part of longer podcast episode called Hurry Up. They discussed other steps President Obama could take during the last weeks of his term. The suggestions included disclosing information on contributions by government contractors, surveillance and the drone program, closing Guantanamo and clemency. The episode ends with a discussion of the nature of time by science writer James Gleick.

Finally, I created the interview transcript using a nifty service called PopUpArchive. You simply upload a sound file and wait for the text version to be posted ready for download. It takes a little proofreading and editing, but it is a lot faster than manual transcription and as this Microsoft Research report shows, we can look forward to more accurate speech recognition in the future.




Thursday, December 08, 2016

Trump's China tweets -- data for historians, political scientists, journalists and us

Trump's tweets and other posts provide us with an unprecedented stream of current information and data for political scientists, journalists and future historians.

The New York Times has published a thorough analysis of Donald Trump's recent phone conversation with the president of Taiwan. It takes a multifaceted look at the call, asking whether it was a "diplomatic gaffe or a calculated new start" in our relationship with China.

Only Trump, his advisors and perhaps some of the people he has been interviewing for Secretary of State can answer that question, but we can get clues as to Trump's thinking by looking at his Twitter stream.

A search of his Twitter stream for the word Taiwan, returned only four tweets:


The two October tweets are anti-Obama campaign statements.

The tweet announcing the call says "CALLED ME" in caps. Was that Trump crowing about his stature or was it intentionally saying he had not initiated the call? I cannot know, but I am certain that this was not a casual call -- it was planned and scheduled by both sides in advance.

The latest tweet justifies the call and serves as a message to China and Trump's constituency. (I have to reluctantly admit that I agree -- pretending that Taiwan does not exist is absurd).

Trump's tweets do not provide definitive answers, but they do give us more information about what is going on than we are used to.

"China" tweets

Since Trump is focusing on China, I searched of his Twitter stream for the word China. Twitter returned 276 tweets -- here are the earliest four:


Trump has been posting anti-China tweets for nearly six years. The first had little engagement -- one reply, 73 retweets and 26 likes -- while the latest one has had 22k replies, 39k retweets and 122k likes so far. He was already campaigning at the time of the first tweet, which refers to a site called shouldtrumprun.com. (Today that site contains only a copy of a statement by the Federal Election Commission saying he was eligible to run).

Who is the intended audience for these tweets? No doubt, the early tweets were intended for Trump supporters -- Breitbart readers and Limbaugh listeners -- but future tweets might also be for the general public and the Chinese government.

I have no doubt that both our State Department and the Chinese Foreign Service are well aware of the issues on which our nations co-depend and where we have conflicts, but discussions of such things are traditionally held in private. Whatever you think of Trump, he is providing us with a degree of transparency we are not used to in our politicians and civil servants.

Listening to a fireside chat
New media are mastered by new politicians and Trump's use of social media is reminiscent of the fireside chats President Roosevelt used to communicate with the American people and others when radio became ubiquitous.

If I were a political scientist, I would begin looking at these and Trump's other tweets and posts as research data, ripe for content analysis and fact-checking. They will also be data for historians one day. (The archive of network traffic during the 1991 Soviet coup attempt might be the earliest example of historical data online).

One thing is for sure -- I hope he keeps tweeting after becoming president.







Tuesday, December 06, 2016

I hope Trump keeps tweeting

I hope Trump keeps up his tweeting. They say our eyes are windows to our souls, his late-night tweets are a window to his.

Since I have a blog on the Internet in Cuba, I took a look at Trump's tweets, hoping to learn something about his likely Cuba policy. I searched his Twitter stream for tweets with the words Cuba or Cuban and Twitter returned 27 results, but only three were what I was looking for.

I was surprised to see that 20 of the tweets were about Mark Cuban, an entrepreneur, business man and outspoken Trump critic and four related to President Obama. What do those tweets reveal about Trump?

Two of the tweets illustrate his competitive nature.

In this tweet, he brags (with reason) that his reality TV show, The Apprentice, was a bigger hit than one Cuban was on, The Shark Tank.


(NBC later severed relations with Trump because of his remarks during the campaign).

This tweet refers to the Dallas Mavericks, a professional basketball team owned by Cuban:


The next tweet illustrates Trump's proclivity for personal, ad hominem attacks:


(Trump's physique has also been ridiculed).

Three of trump's Cuba tweets were shots taken at President Obama during the campaign, for example these:


An earlier tweet about President Obama was as goofy as Trump's "birther" campaign:


It turned out that only three of the tweets pertained to my initial question:


They give us a clue as to his posture on Cuba during and after the campaign, but I suspect his hard line will be tempered by practical economic and political factors. Regardless, Trump's tweets reveal more about him than about his Cuba policy.

I plan to repeat my Twitter search "Cuba from:realdonaldtrump" from time to time to see how his views evolve. I hope Trump keeps up his tweeting. They say our eyes are windows to our souls, his late-night tweets are a window to his.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Is the Internet becoming a vast wasteland?

I've written posts about trolls in Cuba, where Operation Truth is said to use a thousand university-student trolls and trolls in China where government workers fabricate an estimated 488 million social media posts annually.

Now we are reading about Russian government trolls. Just before the election, this post documented Russian trolling and warned that "Trump isn’t the end of Russia’s information war against America. They are just getting started."

After the election a new site, PropOrNot.com (propaganda or not) came online. Their mission is outing Russian propaganda using a combination of forensic online sleuthing and crowdsource reporting and they have compiled a list of 200 sites that rapidly spread stories written by Russian trolls. (More about PropOrNot here).

But, is PropOrNot what it claims to be? The people behind the site remain anonymous (for understandable reasons) and their domain name registration is private. How do they determine that a site is home for Russian content? Is there a chance that they are pro-Clinton, sour-grapes trolls? Might trolls and hackers figure out ways to game ProOrNot and get sites they oppose blacklisted?

Hmmm -- I wonder if the US government hires trolls and, if not, should they? How about Canada? Chile? Zambia? How about Exxon Mobile trolls or McDonalds trolls? Is it trolls all the way down?

The fake news and trolling revealed during the last few months of the US political campaign has sowed doubts about everything we see and read online. We're beginning the transition from "critical thinking" to "paranoid thinking."

Newton Minow
In 1961, Newton N. Minow gave a talk to the National Association of Broadcasters in which he worried that television was becoming a "vast wasteland:"
But when television is bad, nothing is worse. I invite each of you to sit down in front of your television set when your station goes on the air and stay there, for a day, without a book, without a magazine, without a newspaper, without a profit and loss sheet or a rating book to distract you. Keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that what you will observe is a vast wasteland.
Will the Internet become a vast wasteland? Newton Minnow was correct, but there were and still are oases in the television wasteland. In spite of the trolls, fake news sites, troll-bots, etc. the Internet is and will remain replete with oases, but we cannot ignore the wasteland.

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Update 11/28/2016

I reached out to PropOrNot, pointing out that they do not identify themselves and their domain registration is private and asking how I could know they were not posting false claims themselves. They replied that "We sometimes provide much more background information about ourselves to professional journalists."

They have now posted a document on their methodology, showing how they select sites for their list. They are not saying the sites are paid trolls, but that they publish information that originates on Russian government sites -- that they disseminate Russian propaganda.

At least one of the sites on their list, The Corbett Report, has refuted the claim that they are pro-Russian, but they do not address the question of their distributing material that originated on Russian sites.












Monday, November 21, 2016

Teaching slides on the political impact of the Internet

I teach a class on the applications, technology and implications of the Internet and we begin each week with a discussion of current events relevant to the class. This semester many of those discussions have included material on the implications of the Internet for politics.

I've gone through my discussion slides for this term and put those that deal with the political impact of the Internet in a single, annotated PowerPoint file.

The slides focus on the current election, but also establish context by covering the use of then-new media in earlier elections, starting with radio, and other disappointing political uses of the Internet.

The slides are in chronological order as we have gone through the semester. If you are teaching a related class -- perhaps in political science -- you might find something useful. (I will continue adding new material -- suggestions welcome).


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Update 12/1/2016

I've added new slides dealing with the outing of fake news purveyors, truth versus freedom of speech, risk-limiting audits, a Stanford study of junior high, high school and college students reading of Internet news and the possibility that the Internet might become a "vast wasteland."

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Update 12/14/2016

I've added new slides dealing with National Security Advisor nominee General Mike Flynn's tweets concerning fake news. He later deleted one of the embarrassing tweets, but it had already been cached by the Internet archive.


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Update 12/17/2016

I've added slides dealing with General Flynn, European fake news, Tiananmen Square, the consequences of fake news, good journalism, Trump's continuing post-election lies and Facebook's effort to identify fake news.


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Update 12/20/2016

I've added slides on "Alt Right" gaming of Google search and Google's effort to thwart them.


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Update 12/21/2016

I've added new slides on "Alt Right" gaming of Google (and Bing) search, Google's effort to thwart them and a Pew Research survey on the public's view of fake news.


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Update 12/23/2016

I've added new slides on fantasy versus reality (examples from Trump and Bill Clinton) and whether they matter and Facebook's moves to combat fake news after first dismissing their role.


Update 12/27/2016

I've added new slides on the possibility of real-world consequences to fake news and Russian political hacking in Germany, Italy and the US.


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Update 1/6/2017

I've added new slides about the Panama Papers and what they reveal about Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson. (Collaborative analysis of the Panama Papers by journalists is a positive application of the Internet in politics).

The new slides are located here.

The cumulative slide deck is located here.


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Update 1/9/2017

I've added new slides tracing the impact of a single fake story on the Breitbart News Web site along with some background on Breitbart's Steve Bannon.

The new slides are located here.

The cumulative slide deck is located here.


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Update 1/16/2017

I've added new slides dealing with Trump's writing style on Twitter and his reaction to his briefing on Russian hacking by intelligence agencies. (His response also provides an illustration of his Twitter writing style.

The new slides are located here.

The cumulative slide deck is located here.


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Update 1/17/2017

I've added new slides dealing with Facebook's efforts to flag fake news in the US and Germany and possible fact-checking collaboration.

The new slides are located here.

The cumulative slide deck is located here.


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Update 1/19/2017

I've added new slides dealing with the Internet Archive and others in archiving Internet content that might be deleted or altered for political purposes.

The new slides are located here.

The cumulative slide deck is located here.


Tuesday, November 15, 2016

A real-names domain-registration policy would discourage political lying.

I've discussed the role of the Internet in creating and propagating lies in a previous post, noting that Donald Trump lied more frequently than Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders during the campaign.

Now let's look at fake news like the claim that Pope Francis had endorsed Trump. The fake post features the following image and includes a "statement" by the Pope in which he explains his decision.


The post evidently origniated on the Web site of a fake news station, WTOE 5. Avarice, not politics, seems to be the motivation for the site since it is covered with ads and links to other “stories” that attack both Clinton and Trump.

WTOE 5 states that it is a satirical site on their about page, but how many readers see that? Other sites do not claim satire. For example, the Christian Times about page says nothing about satire, but does assert that they are not responsible for any action taken by a reader:
Christian Times Newspaper is your premier online source for news, commentary, opinion, and theories. Christian Times Newspaper does not take responsibility for any of our readers' actions that may result from reading our stories. We do our best to provide accurate, updated news and information
The Christian Times "editorial" policy is similar to that of WTOE 5 -- they published pre-election news stories on thousands of dead people voting in Florida, hacking of voter systems by the Clinton campaign, Black Panthers patrolling election sites, etc. As soon as the election was over, they informed us that Hillary Clinton had filed for divorce. Don't believe it? Here is their evidence:

Given the WTOE 5 claim to be satire or the Christian Times eschewing responsibilty for actions taken by readers, I suspect that unliess Pope Francis or Hillary Clinton sues, there is no legal recourse.

The dirty tricks during this election remind me of the Watergate burglary, but, unlike Watergate, it is not clear that a law has been broken. In the Watergate case, a crime was committed and the burglars were convicted and sent to prison in 1973. In 1974 investigators were able to establish a White House connection to the burglary and, under threat of impeachment, President Nixon resigned.


Would it be possible to establish a connection between a Web site like "WTOE 5 News" and the Trump campaign?

A Whois query shows us that the domain name Wto5news.com was registered by DomainsByProxy.com. We can see the address, contact information and names of people at DomainsByProxy.com, but the identity of the person or organization registering the domain name is private.


I also checked the Whois record for the Christian Times. It turns out that DomainsByProxy.com is also the registrar for Christiantimesnewspaper.com and the registration is also private.

I am not a lawyer, but I suspect that a request for a subpoena to get the contact information of a long list of people registering domain names for misleading Web sites would be seen as a "fishing expedition" by the courts.

I understand the wish to protect the privacy of a person or organization registering a domain name, but there is also a public interest in discouraging sites like Wto5news.com. A verifiable, real-names policy for domain registration would discourage this sort of thing. The WELL, an early community bulletin board system, adopted such a policy years ago. Their slogan is "own your own words" and it serves to keep discussion civil, stop bullying and lying, etc.

Trump supporters seem to worry a lot about voter fraud. They advocate easing mechanisms for challenging a voter's registration and encourage strict requirements for proof of identity and residence. There is more evidence of demonstrably fraudulent political information on the Internet than fraudulent voting. If their concern is genuine, they should support a real-names policy for domain registration.

If warrants will not pass legal muster and a real-names policy is unrealistic, someone might be tempted to follow the example of the Trump supporters who hacked the Democratic National Committee and resort to hacking registrars to get contact information of their private clients. Maybe Julian Assange could distribute what they find on WikiLeaks.


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Update 11/17/2016

I received some comments on this post from an attorney.

For a start, he said labeling something as "satire" was irrelevant because the defense would be 1st amendment free speech. He said there might be a slight chance for the "shouting fire in a crowded theater" argument, but he and this Atlantic Monthly article agree that that is a long shot. He also said there might be a remote chance of a false advertising claim succeeding, especially if it were against a person working on the Turmp campaign like Steve Bannon of Breitbart or Sean Hannity with his popular radio and TV shows. Regardless, it would be necessary to show that their behavior had altered the election result (for president or "down ballot" contests).

I agree that it would be nearly impossible to show that a single site or lie had provided the margin for Trump's victory, but I do believe that rigorous survey research by a reputable organization could demonstrate that the marginal impact of fake sites and posts in the aggregate was sufficient to elect Trump and I hope that such research is conducted.

Regardless, a true-names policy would help investigators looking for possible connections between the Trump campaign and intentional, systematic Internet misinformation. The revelation of the White House role in Nixon's "dirty tricks' was what mattered, not the conviction of the burglars.

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Update 11/18/2016

The attorney who commented on this post (above) suggested that it would be relevant if Breitbart published a lying article.

After Khizr Khan spoke at the Democratic convention, Breitbart published a story saying he had deep ties to the government of Saudi Arabia, international Islamist investors, controversial immigration programs that wealthy foreigners can use to essentially buy their way into the United States and the “Clinton Cash” narrative through the Clinton Foundation.


That is a lot of deep ties, but it turns out the post was false.

The Breitbart story has had 167,000 Facebook engagements and the refutation has been shared 32,600 times on Facebook, Twitter, Google Plus, Reddit, by email and shared links combined.

A real-names domain-registration policy would discourage political lying.

I've discussed the role of the Internet in creating and propagating lies in a previous post, noting that Donald Trump lied more frequently than Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders during the campaign.

Now let's look at fake news like the claim that Pope Francis had endorsed Trump. The fake post features the following image and includes a "statement" by the Pope in which he explains his decision.


The post evidently origniated on the Web site of a fake news station, WTOE 5. Avarice, not politics, seems to be the motivation for the site since it is covered with ads and links to other “stories” that attack both Clinton and Trump.

WTOE 5 states that it is a satirical site on their about page, but how many readers see that? Other sites do not claim satire. For example, the Christian Times about page says nothing about satire, but does assert that they are not responsible for any action taken by a reader:
Christian Times Newspaper is your premier online source for news, commentary, opinion, and theories. Christian Times Newspaper does not take responsibility for any of our readers' actions that may result from reading our stories. We do our best to provide accurate, updated news and information
The Christian Times "editorial" policy is similar to that of WTOE 5 -- they published pre-election news stories on thousands of dead people voting in Florida, hacking of voter systems by the Clinton campaign, Black Panthers patrolling election sites, etc. As soon as the election was over, they informed us that Hillary Clinton had filed for divorce. Don't believe it? Here is their evidence:

Given the WTOE 5 claim to be satire or the Christian Times eschewing responsibilty for actions taken by readers, I suspect that unliess Pope Francis or Hillary Clinton sues, there is no legal recourse.

The dirty tricks during this election remind me of the Watergate burglary, but, unlike Watergate, it is not clear that a law has been broken. In the Watergate case, a crime was committed and the burglars were convicted and sent to prison in 1973. In 1974 investigators were able to establish a White House connection to the burglary and, under threat of impeachment, President Nixon resigned.


Would it be possible to establish a connection between a Web site like "WTOE 5 News" and the Trump campaign?

A Whois query shows us that the domain name Wto5news.com was registered by DomainsByProxy.com. We can see the address, contact information and names of people at DomainsByProxy.com, but the identity of the person or organization registering the domain name is private.


I also checked the Whois record for the Christian Times. It turns out that DomainsByProxy.com is also the registrar for Christiantimesnewspaper.com and the registration is also private.

I am not a lawyer, but I suspect that a request for a subpoena to get the contact information of a long list of people registering domain names for misleading Web sites would be seen as a "fishing expedition" by the courts.

I understand the wish to protect the privacy of a person or organization registering a domain name, but there is also a public interest in discouraging sites like Wto5news.com. A verifiable, real-names policy for domain registration would discourage this sort of thing. The WELL, an early community bulletin board system, adopted such a policy years ago. Their slogan is "own your own words" and it serves to keep discussion civil, stop bullying and lying, etc.

Trump supporters seem to worry a lot about voter fraud. They advocate easing mechanisms for challenging a voter's registration and encourage strict requirements for proof of identity and residence. There is more evidence of demonstrably fraudulent political information on the Internet than fraudulent voting. If their concern is genuine, they should support a real-names policy for domain registration.

If warrants will not pass legal muster and a real-names policy is unrealistic, someone might be tempted to follow the example of the Trump supporters who hacked the Democratic National Committee and resort to hacking registrars to get contact information of their private clients. Maybe Julian Assange could distribute what they find on WikiLeaks.


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Update 11/17/2016

I received some comments on this post from an attorney.

For a start, he said labeling something as "satire" was irrelevant because the defense would be 1st amendment free speech. He said there might be a slight chance for the "shouting fire in a crowded theater" argument, but he and this Atlantic Monthly article agree that that is a long shot. He also said there might be a remote chance of a false advertising claim succeeding, especially if it were against a person working on the Turmp campaign like Steve Bannon of Breitbart or Sean Hannity with his popular radio and TV shows. Regardless, it would be necessary to show that their behavior had altered the election result (for president or "down ballot" contests).

I agree that it would be nearly impossible to show that a single site or lie had provided the margin for Trump's victory, but I do believe that rigorous survey research by a reputable organization could demonstrate that the marginal impact of fake sites and posts in the aggregate was sufficient to elect Trump and I hope that such research is conducted.

Regardless, a true-names policy would help investigators looking for possible connections between the Trump campaign and intentional, systematic Internet misinformation. The revelation of the White House role in Nixon's "dirty tricks' was what mattered, not the conviction of the burglars.

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Update 11/18/2016

The attorney who commented on this post (above) suggested that it would be relevant if Breitbart published a lying article.

After Khizr Khan spoke at the Democratic convention, Breitbart published a story saying he had deep ties to the government of Saudi Arabia, international Islamist investors, controversial immigration programs that wealthy foreigners can use to essentially buy their way into the United States and the “Clinton Cash” narrative through the Clinton Foundation.


That is a lot of deep ties, but it turns out the post was false.

The Breitbart story has had 167,000 Facebook engagements and the refutation has been shared 32,600 times on Facebook, Twitter, Google Plus, Reddit, by email and shared links combined.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

The FCC under Trump -- a long shot

Tom Wheeler surprised us as head of the Federal Communication Commission -- might Trump?

Obama and Roberts
In May 2013, President Obama picked Tom Wheeler to head the Federal Communication Commission. The Internet community generally disapproved because Wheeler had been a lobbyist for both the cellular and cable industries and a major contributor to the Obama campaign. Internet service providers AT&T and Comcast lauded the appointment and a few months later, the President was spotted playing golf with Brian Roberts, chief executive of Comcast.

It looked like a Washington insider deal.

But after looking at Wheeler's blog posts and his service on a Presidential commission, I speculated that Wheeler might be a "wolf in sheep's clothing" and, by August 2013, we had mounting evidence that Wheeler was in fact acting in the public interest, not that of the ISP industry.

Now that Donald Trump has been elected President, the Internet community is understandably worried. There is speculation that Trump will reverse Wheeler's stance on network neutrality and he has chosen Jeffrey Eisenach, an (often paid) oponent of regulation as his telecommunication "point man." (You can see his testimony on net neutrality here).

Obama and Wheeler
That seems consistent with Trump's promise to get rid of red tape and regulation and let big business do its thing, but using the words "Trump" and "consistent" in the same sentence is oxymoronic. He also promises to fight the elites in support of ordinary people. That would seem to call for pro-competitive measures to weaken the grip of the Internet service giants.

Tom Wheeler surprised industry insiders by supporting net neutrality, raising the speed used to define "broadband," fighting to curb state legislature power to stop municipal broadband, pushing for a standard TV-interface box combining the functions of today's set-top boxes and Internet interfaces, favoring sharing of Federal spectrum and scrutinizing transit Internet agreements.

Will Donald Trump surprise us and work to make the American Internet Great Again?

(I doubt it, but, if Trump can be elected president, anything is possible).

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Internet service providers -- still the lowest ranked US industry on customer satisfaction

The performance of the ISP industry is as bad as it gets -- what do you expect from companies in monopoly or duopoly markets?

The other day, I got a notice saying my Internet service provider, Time Warner Cable (TWC), was changing its name to "Spectrum." At first I hoped they were changing their name because they were ashamed of the way I had been trashing them in blog posts. (For example, this is the most viewed post in the history of this blog).

But, then I remembered that Charter Communications bought TWC a while back.

The last time I looked at the University of Michigan American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI), TWC was rated next to worst among Internet service providers and the ISP industry was the lowest rated of all.

Can I expect service to improve now that I am a Charter customer?

I guess not. The latest ACSI survey shows that the ISPs are still the worst regarded industry by Americans:

The six lowest rated industries

TWC was the worst of the worst last time I looked -- might Charter pull them up? Here are the latest ISP ratings:

ISP ratings

TWC has improved since I last checked -- they are no longer the lowest rated ISP. That's the good news. The bad news is that Charter is ranked lower than TWC. I guess it could have been worse -- Frontier Communications, the lowest ranking ISP, could have purchased TWC.

An irony -- Verizon FIOS, the highest rated ISP, was abandoned by Verizon years ago and has now been sold.

The performance of the ISP industry is as bad as it gets -- what do you expect from companies in monopoly or duopoly markets?

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

WiGig certification has begun -- in time for virtual/augmented reality

What we call "WiFi" today began at the National Cash Register company (NCR) with the development of a product to wirelessly connect point-of-sale terminals in stores. NCR took their design to the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), a professional society that defines standards. IEEE formed a committee, which issued their 802.11b and 802.11a wireless communication standards in 1999.

Standards enable competition and a number of companies began selling 802.11-compatible equipment. They also formed a trade association -- the Wireless Ethernet Compatibility Alliance -- to test and certify that their products met the IEEE standards and to market the concept of wireless local area networking. They soon changed the association name to the Wifi Alliance and coined the marketing term "WiFi."

As technology improved, new WiFi standards were invented -- 802.11a, b, g, n and ac.

This week, the WiFi Alliance began certifying compliance with the latest (though not the last) WiFi standard (802.11ad) and gave it the trade name "WiGig."

Each of these WiFi variants has different characteristics -- transmitting on different frequencies and using different methods of signalling whether a bit is a 1 or a 0. WiGig uses a much higher frequency than the others, which enables it to send data very fast -- at a gigabit per second or more -- with very low latency.

That is the good news. The bad news is that high frequency radio transmission travels short distances in air and loses power when passing through obstructions. WiGig will typically be used within rooms.

So, what are the WiGig use cases? The WiFi Alliance suggests these examples:

  • Wireless docking between devices like smartphones, laptops, projectors, and tablets
  • Simultaneous streaming of multiple, ultra-high definition videos and movies
  • More immersive gaming, augmented reality and virtual reality experiences
  • Fast download of HD movies
  • Convenient public kiosk services
  • Easier handling of bandwidth intensive applications in the enterprise
Augmented and virtual reality (AR/VR) is the most interesting to me.

First head-mounted AR/VR display
In 1965, Ivan Sutherland wrote a short note outlining a sci-fi vision of the Ultimate Display, which "with appropriate programming ... could literally be the Wonderland into which Alice walked." He proceeded to build an AR/VR prototype using a headset that was tethered to a computer.

That was fifty years ago. Today, we have low-quality AR/VR using our phones, but high resolution, fast AR/VR -- anything approaching Alice in Wonderland -- still requires tethering a head-mounted display to a computer.

Next year computers, smart phones and tablets with WiGig connectivity will be on the market. How about head-mounted AR/VR displays?

WiGig will enable untethered, high-performance AR/VR. A computer or an AR/VR appliance in the room will generate high definition, low latency video that the user sees in a relatively "dumb," light and comfortable headset or glasses and information from the headset and any controllers will be transmitted wirelessly back to the computer.

The untethered user will be free to move about the room and, since most of the computation will be off-loaded to the computer, the headset will not consume much power.

To put the possibility of untethered, high performance AR/VR in perspective, check out this this short video showing Sutherland's research prototype demonstration of very slightly augmented reality:


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Update 11/6/2016

Microsoft has demonstrated a relatively low cost, tethered head set that can track six degrees of freedom -- head up/down, head left/right and forward/backward in the room.

They say more details will be available in December and OEMs like Dell will be shipping product early next year starting at $299. The computing load is said to be low compared to the more expensive tethered virtual reality headsets on the market -- within the capability of a $500 PC.

Once WiGig is available, the tether will disappear and Microsoft will have a strong entry in the virtual reality market. They will also benefit from engineering synergy between this product and their untethered Hololens augmented reality product. (Some of the tracking technology was borrowed from the Hololens).

Thursday, October 13, 2016

The government role in shaping the Internet in China and the US

The US government invested $124.5 million in building and demonstrating the feasibility and value of the ARPANet, TCP/IP internetworking protocol and subsequent deployment to education and research organizations with the establishment of NSFNet and the NSF developing nations program. That was a pretty good investment. (Government procurement was also important -- for example, lessons learned and programmers trained in building the SAGE early warning defense system played a key role in the progress of networking and computer science in the US).

Internet development timeline

The Internet is
dumb by design.
NSFNet was at first the backbone for the international Internet, but the government stepped back once the initial research and development was completed, phasing out the NSFNet subsidies over a four year period. Private telephone and cable companies with local monopolies or oligopolies became Internet service providers and owners of our Internet infrastructure.

In contrast, the market for Internet applications and services was competitive from the start. (Note that the Internet was designed to be "dumb" -- to move packets of data as quickly as possible between "smart" computers that would connect to it and host innovative applications and services).

Private capital has financed and developed our Internet startups and ecosystems of organizations to support them -- incubators, accelerators, co-working spaces, investors, consultants and hackerspaces. The first startup ecosystems were in the Silicon Valley and along Massachusets Route 128, but many, including my home town, Los Angeles, have followed their lead.

1,113 tech startups in Los Angeles

535 startup support organizations

The Chinese have taken a different approach to Internet infrastructure. They established an academic network in 1987, linked it to Stanford University in 1993 and the following year established a full Internet connection. Like all other nations, they began with a slow link to a small academic network, but within a few years, the Chinese had realized the importance of the Internet and had established competing, government-owned national backbone networks.

Unlike the United States, the Chinese government is also playing an active role in support of Internet application and service companies. In his 2016 Report on the Work of the Government, Chinese premier Li Keqiang stated that
Further progress was made in implementing the strategy of innovation-driven development, the penetration of the Internet into all industries picked up pace, and emerging industries grew rapidly.
The Chinese are funding startup ecosystem organizations like those created by the private sector in the US. For example, 710 subsidized startups are clustered in the Dream Town district of Hangzhou.

Chinese workers remodeling Dream Town spaces

How has it worked out?

The US had a significant lead over the entire world when a small Chinese academic network joined the Internet. One cannot directly compare the US and China -- there are many confounding differences, but we can compare China with India, a nation with some similarities. India's academic networks joined the Internet a little before China, but they essentially started at the same time. By 2002, the Chinese Internet was significantly more advance than that of India.

The International Telecommunication Union's Information and Communication Technology development index (IDI) provides a recent indicator of Chinese progress. The IDI is a function of eleven indicators measuring ICT access, use and skills in a nation. In 2015, China ranked 82nd on the IDI while India ranked 131st. In 2010, China ranked 87th and India ranked 125th.

While China has done better than India to date, their economy is slowing and their program of support for startups can lead to misallocation of resources and cronyism -- as happened in the Chinese construction industry:


The US started at the top, so our infrastructure had no where to go but down relative to other nations. The US ranks 21st in fiber deployment among the 34 OECD nations and our average Internet connection speed ranks 15th among the 74 nations served by Akamai.

Percent of broadband connections with fiber,
OECD, December 2015

Connection speeds, Akamai, Q1 2016

While the US has faltered in infrastructure deployment, we have retained the lead in Internet applications and services. As shown here, the US had 39 of the most popular 100 Web sites as ranked by Alexa in September 2016 while China had only 10.

These rankings should be taken with a grain of salt – SimilarWeb, an Israeli company, rates the US substantially higher with 40 sites in the top 100 as opposed to 10 for China. Chinese sites also focus heavily on China whereas the US sites generally seek a global audience.

It seems that the US private sector has done well in Internet applications and services and not as well in deploying infrastructure. Private companies seek to maximize corporate profit rather than social goals regarding education, the economy, etc. This has contributed to other nations surpassing our infrastructure in spite of our pioneering role.

These are complex issues and I cannot reach definite, generalizable conclusions (nor can anyone else), but, if I had to guess, I would think that China would be better off cutting back on subsidies for Internet application and service companies and the US would be better off with a more competitive Internet service provider market -- discouraging consolidation and "gentleman's agreements" among companies and encouraging ownership of infrastructure by local governments and customers.

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Update 10/16/2016

For teachers or others who might like to present this topic, I have prepared (and used) a nine-slide, one-video annotated PowerPoint presentation.