TBR News September 27, 2015

Sep 27 2015

The Voice of the White House

Washington, D.C. September 19, 2015:A very informative, and very well-connected, neighbor has been speaking with us about very imporant, often astonishing, national and international matters. His family connections are beyond question and we have spent the last few weeks making copious notes of our meetings.

The haj deaths in Mecca recently were by no means an accident. The gates blocking two enormous routes to a main highway were suddenly closed by Sauidi security people and in the face of a tremendous press of pilgrims bent on religious duties.

Those blocked by the closed gates struggled to return but the enormous press of the huge mass behind them turned the areas into killing grounds. It has been known that something was going to happen in Mecca and first a huge craine fell onto a packed pilgrim mass of people and then the suddenly blocked gates fiinished the job.

There is a movement to overthrow the Saud dynasty and it in their ranks we must look for answers.”

The Facebook of the Future Has Privacy Implications Today

September 17, 2015

by Farai Chideya

The Intercept


It’s well established that joining a social network means trading privacy for information. Your Facebook friends, for example, get to see that picture of you looking like you might be stoned, and you get to “like” their posts celebrating the legalization of marijuana in Washington and Colorado. Or, perhaps you simply post about your 50th birthday party or celebrating Ramadan. Potential employers get to see all that stuff too, depending on your privacy settings, and there is evidence that some of them discriminate on the basis of age and against Muslims. Facebook, meanwhile, gets to target ads at you.

What’s not as well appreciated, but becoming increasingly clear, is that users of social networks in general, and of social networking kingpin Facebook in particular, are ill-equipped to evaluate the price they’re paying in this trade — to determine just how much privacy they’ll lose over time in exchange for status updates from their friends, and what that loss will eventually mean for themselves and their loved ones.

Part of the reason it’s hard to think clearly about privacy tradeoffs is that data collection now occurs at a staggering scale. Facebook earlier this year announced that it had figured out how to store a billion gigabytes, known as an “exabyte,” in each “data hall” room in its data centers. As people upload two billion pictures a day to the social network, older photos are moved to these “cold storage” exabyte systems.

Facebook’s data hoard is being mined in ever more inventive ways. To take just a few examples: information uploaded to Facebook was sought by the Manhattan DA in a recent social security fraud case; Facebook earlier this year announced research on new techniques for performing facial recognition on partial digital images; and the company last month defended a patent acquired while purchasing a company that could be used to evaluate a person’s loan application based on the credit of his or her friends. Meanwhile, Facebook’s own rules about how its data is handled have grown more opaque, according to a recent study; in 2012, even the sister of Facebook’s co-founder accidentally made a private picture public.

Facebook’s story is that we trade privacy for access to its service,” says Cory Doctorow, a best-selling author, co-editor of the pioneering futurist blog Boing Boing, and consultant for the civil liberties group Electronic Frontier Foundation. “But it’s clear that none of us really know what we’re trading. People are really bad at pricing out the future value of today’s privacy disclosure. … It’s nothing like any other marketplace. … In a market, buyers and sellers bargain. In Facebook’s ‘market,’ it gets to treat your private data as an all-you-can-eat buffet and help itself to whatever it wants.”

No one goes into Facebook planning to share tons of data. When you signed up, all you wanted to do was upload a few flattering vacation photos because your relationship status was, well, It’s Complicated. But people tend to get sucked into Facebook. In 2010, Austrian law student Max Schrems asked for, and eventually received, all the data Facebook had compiled on him. The information arrived in the form of a 1200-page PDF file. It contained both active and deleted personal data, including information on who had “poked” Schrems; a record of who he had friended and de-friended; a list of Facebook users he shared computers with; his RSVPs to various events; email addresses he had never provided Facebook, presumably culled from address books shared with Facebook by his friends; and all his messages and chats, some marked “deleted.” He later formed an activist group called Europe v. Facebook and, among other legal maneuvers against the company, filed a complaint with the Data Protection Commissioner in Ireland, where Facebook has its European headquarters, arguing the company’s practices violated an amendment to the European Union charter.

If a user like Schrems asked for a data dump today, it would probably look quite different. As Facebook evolves and offers more features, it generates new types of information, information that often remains hidden away. “Social networks foster an environment of mutual participation … on the premise of a social good,” says Dr. Richard Tynan of the U.K. organization Privacy International. “However, behind this apparently benign act exists an ecosystem of algorithms and decisions, known only to Facebook.”

Facebook’s tendency to appropriate more and more information led, in 2011, to a complaint by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission that the company had “deceived consumers by telling them they could keep their information on Facebook private, and then repeatedly allowing it to be shared and made public.” Without admitting wrongdoing, the company settled the case that same year, agreeing to 20 years of audits. Among other things, Facebook said it would announce all privacy policy changes widely and give people 60 days to change settings on their posts or delete their account. One commissioner disagreed with the ruling on the basis that it was, in his view, too lenient, allowing Facebook to settle without admitting wrongdoing.

A Facebook spokesperson offered, “We want people to understand how Facebook works so they can make informed decisions and control their experience. In an effort to help people really understand our data policy, we’ve made it 70 percent shorter and easier to navigate.”

Some studies dispute this. A 2015 study conducted by undergraduates at Harvard University for a publication run by data and privacy expert Professor Latanya Sweeney found that Facebook’s privacy policy became markedly more opaque and less explanatory over the years. It also argues the policy’s length has grown, which is disputed by Facebook along with the study’s general thesis. Other researchers, like the Center for Plain Language, offer praise for Facebook’s policies compared to companies like Apple.

Doctorow holds a different view. “Facebook’s playbook is easy to understand and sleazy as hell: a privacy dashboard that’s so complicated that even the Zuckerberg family can’t figure out how to share things with just family members; periodically changing everyone’s privacy settings by fiat to grab more than they’ve said they’re willing to give, then backing off to a point that’s less private than it was before, while issuing a non-pology for the ‘misunderstanding,’” he says.

Even when Facebook wants to keep your data private, it may not be able to. Earlier this year, Facebook was joined by the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) in challenging a sweeping warrant by the Manhattan District Attorney’s office. The DA wanted to see all Facebook data for 381 people under investigation for social security fraud. At the time it won the appeal, the Manhattan DA released a statement saying this became “the third court to deny Facebook’s efforts to block lawful evidence gathering,” and cited 108 guilty pleas and $24.7 million in forfeiture and restitution. “In many cases, evidence on their Facebook accounts directly contradicted the lies the defendants told to the Social Security Administration,” the statement said.

NYCLU attorney Mariko Hirose says Facebook was under a gag order, prevented from initially telling those under investigation about the warrants. “We’re not saying that social media information can’t be used in a criminal investigation,” Hirose says. “The question is complying with the Fourth Amendment, probable cause and particularity. They didn’t particularize the warrant. They asked for everything — photos, videos, IM chats with friends and family.” A Facebook spokesperson said the company is still considering whether to file a motion to appeal.

As hard as it is to fathom all the ways Facebook data is used today, the possibilities only multiply when you project into the future. Earlier this year, several researchers from Facebook and the University of California, Berkeley, published the paper “Beyond Frontal Faces: Improving Person Recognition Using Multiple Cues,” advocating for a new and, in their research, highly improved way of deriving people’s identities using partial, side, and even back-of-head pictures. In August, Facebook took moves to defend a patent acquired by Facebook in the purchase of another company, envisioning in one use case that “when an individual applies for a loan, the lender examines the credit ratings of members of the individual’s social network who are connected to the individual through authorized nodes.” The core of the patent was a technique to see how users are networked; other envisioned uses included spam prevention and personalized search.

A Facebook spokesperson stated, “Facebook didn’t invent the contents of this patent, so it’s misguided to think we are working in this area based solely on a single, unclaimed footnote in the document. Furthermore, we don’t allow people to use Facebook to confuse, deceive or defraud anyone, and we aggressively enforce this policy.”

The lending idea actually appears prominently in the patent application, taking up a fifth of the “summary of the invention section,” warranting its own diagram, and getting several other mentions, all outside of footnotes. And the strong wording of Facebook’s statement does not actually preclude the use of the platform for financial analytics. There’s also research that indicates that the startling idea of using social media for financial predictive analytics might actually work, and thus potentially catch on.

University of Maryland business professor Siva Viswanathan has looked into how “soft information” — like social contacts — can augment hard information like credit history to help lenders make better decisions. In his studies, this “soft information” has proven valuable. He studied social lending platforms like Prosper and Kabbage, not Facebook, but those platforms share with Facebook the challenge of showing that online networks can be as robust and stable as real-world connections. “We were surprised,” Viswanathan says. “Online was not perfect, but having the information did allow better [lending] decisions. The question remains how much better.” He also believes it’s quite possible that if social networks are adapted for predictive analytics in lending, people will alter their behavior online. “You have what we call adverse selection. You might end up getting the wrong crowd that manipulates connections, or people who care about privacy who are creditworthy borrowers who might stay out of the system.” Nonetheless, Viswanathan believes the model is viable.

It’s not at all clear how to help people navigate a world where the seemingly trivial act of accepting a friend request can have life-altering financial implications. Privacy International’s Tynan advocates increased disclosure of future risk; but does that mean that privacy policies would become more like dystopian sci-fi stories? “It is no longer acceptable for companies to simply detail what data they collect on their users,” he says. “They must be honest and explain what the implications are.” More radical is the idea of moving social networks to a different business model. Many people, including UNC professor Zynep Tufekci, have advocated that there be an option to pay for Facebook directly rather than by being data-mined. Some users, like me, stay on the platform as-is but greatly restrict the types of information we post. I genuinely enjoy the updates from my friends and U.S. family, and a glimpse into the lives of my relatives in Zimbabwe. But I block anyone else from posting on my wall and limit what I upload largely to pretty photographs and self-promotional links about my work. It’s hardly a deep glimpse into my life but my presence is still mineable, particularly the data on what items I click on and like by other users.

Of course, people can always leave Facebook. But you don’t even have to be on Facebook to be on Facebook. When I entered Doctorow’s name into Facebook’s search engine, I got a page that included a neatly formatted teaser link to his Wikipedia entry, plus a section titled, “Photos of my friends and Cory Doctorow.” He turns up in two pictures, uploaded and tagged by people who I’m friends with on the platform. At the bottom it reads, “This Page is automatically generated based on what Facebook users are interested in, and not affiliated with or endorsed by anyone associated with the topic.”


Facebook snoops on people just like NSA – Belgian watchdog to court

September 21, 2015


Facebook is spying on people in “the very same way” that the US’s National Security Agency (NSA) does, said the Belgian data protection watchdog at a court hearing where the social network stands accused of violating the privacy of internet users.

“When it became known that the NSA was spying on people all around the world, everybody was upset. This actor [Facebook] is doing the very same thing, albeit in a different way,” said Frederic Debussere, a lawyer representing the Belgian privacy commission (BPC) at the Monday court hearing.

The Belgian watchdog has filed a lawsuit against the social network, accusing it of breaching EU law and violating the privacy rights of internet users. The BPC issued a report in March, arguing that Facebook tracked everyone, even users who had logged-out and people who don’t even have a Facebook account at all, via the use of cookies and the ‘like’ or ‘share’ buttons which can be found on more than 13 million websites worldwide.

This is possible, the report claimed, because the cookies are automatically installed on the computers of internet users each time they visit a page containing a Facebook plug-in, such as the ‘like’ button.

According to EU law, websites must ask for a user’s permission before installing any cookies. This is why Facebook’s policy is considered to in “violation of the European law” by the BPC.

The BPC is now threating Facebook with a daily fine of €250,000 ($280,213).

Don’t be intimidated by Facebook. They will argue our demands cannot be implemented in Belgium alone. Our demands can be perfectly implemented just in this country,” said Frederic Debussere, addressing the court.

Facebook has consistently denied all accusations and claimed that its practices are in compliance with EU law, accusing the BPC of presenting false reports

We will show the court how this technology protects people from spam, malware, and other attacks, that our practices are consistent with EU law and with those of the most popular Belgian websites,” a Facebook spokesperson said, as quoted by the Guardian.

Addressing questions about the company’s cookie policy, another Facebook representative, Paul Lefebvre, said that “they allow Facebook Ireland to identify bad faith attempts to gain access via the browser being used,” adding that if Belgium imposed a ban on this Facebook activity, the country “would become a cradle for cyber terrorism.”

Additionally, Facebook rejects the very idea it could be held accountable in Belgium as the company’s European headquarters are located in Dublin, Ireland, and its activities watched over by that country’s data protection authority.

The company does not rule out returning to talks with the BPC.

The case is now being closely watched by the rest of the EU’s 28 privacy watchdogs, including that of Holland, which has also started to question Facebook’s activities and privacy policy.


No “Facebook Bureau of Investigations” as Terror-Reporting Provision Dies in Senate

September 21, 2015

by Jenna McLaughlin

The Interept

A provision that would have forced tech companies like Twitter and Facebook to report every inkling of “terrorist activity” on their services to law enforcement was removed from the 2016 Intelligence Authorization Bill on Monday.

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., put a hold on the bill in July because of the proposal supported by Sen Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. The proposal generated intense and negative responses from technologists and privacy supporters who said it would turn tech companies into “law enforcement watchdogs.”

Wyden celebrated his victory in a press release on Monday. “Going after terrorist recruitment and activity online is a serious mission that demands a serious response from our law enforcement and intelligence agencies,” he wrote. “Social media companies aren’t qualified to judge which posts amount to ‘terrorist activity,’ and they shouldn’t be forced against their will to create a Facebook Bureau of Investigations to police their users’ speech.”

The provision was removed during negotiations prior to the the bill’s expected approval by unanimous consent — the tradition for passing the Intelligence Authorization.

One problem with the provision was that no one actually knew what it meant by “terrorist activity.”

When Feinstein mentioned the provision during an open hearing of the Senate Intelligence Committee in July, FBI Director James Comey didn’t endorse it, instead replying that Twitter is already “pretty good” at reporting suspicious content to the FBI.


An immigrant’s guide to becoming an American citizen – overeat and overreact

September 18, 2015

by Thomas Batten

The Guardian

The White House has announced a new campaign to encourage immigrants living in the United States legally to attain citizenship ahead of next year’s presidential election. Here are some ideas to help them speed up the complicated naturalization process.

Attain Median Obesity

The United States has one of the highest obesity rates in the world, so anyone interested in joining up better start packing on the pounds if they want to fit in. The message on the Statue of Liberty mentions “huddled masses yearning to breathe free”, but if that breath isn’t a sort of wheeze you’re going to stand out like a sore thumb. Sure, fattening up will put you at risk for a variety of health problems, but there’s nothing more typically American than dying due to an inability to navigate our complicated and expensive health system.

Provide proof of overwhelming debt

Being an American means investing in the American economy well past the point of responsibility. This is an easy one to pull off, actually – whenever you’re about to make a purchase, check if they have a bigger version of what you’re interested in buying. If they don’t make it in a larger size, order two. The sweat that pours off your brow upon receiving your next credit card statement is watering the tree of liberty.

Have extreme opinions about football

It doesn’t matter if you love football more than your family or spend the off season drafting withering tweets about how overpaid the players are, what matters is that you refuse to embrace the humanity of anyone who doesn’t share your opinion. (If in your home country you already love soccer, football is pretty much the same. The corruption is a little more subtle, that’s probably the biggest difference.)

Trust your instincts

If global warming is real, why does it still snow sometimes? They say vaccinations are harmless, but my stepbrother’s cousin knew a guy in college whose sister had her kid vaccinated, and the kid went cross-eyed. Sure I could do some research or trust in what the experts have to say, but I’d rather follow my instincts, which tell me to trust the word of politicians whose billion dollar corporate backers almost definitely carefully fact check and forbid them from expressing any kind of bias.

Learn to live with contradictions

Over the summer I was sitting on the beach and overheard a man complaining about how entitled liberals are, how they wanted to ban the public display of confederate flags because they felt entitled to always get their way. He said that for him the flag represented his heritage, and made him happy, and why should he have to stop being happy just because it offended someone else? He didn’t see the a flaw in that argument, and if you’re going to be an American citizen you better not, either.

Become blind to America’s faults and respond to criticism with extreme outrage

Americans are all about freedom of speech as long as that speech it is their own, especially in this golden era of knee-jerk reactions where it’s possible to post comments and tweets faster than you experience moments of introspection. If you want to be an American citizen, learn how to react now and ask questions never, since asking questions is for people from countries founded upon much less invigorating rhetoric.


Why the US Hides 700 million barrels of oil underground

The world’s superpowers store an enormous stockpile of oil in secure caverns and tanks around the world. So why can’t we use it?

September 22, 2015

by Chris Baraniuk


Something important, and valuable, has been quietly hidden along America’s Gulf Coast. Across four secure sites in unassuming locations lies nearly 700 million barrels of oil – buried underground. A total of 60 subterranean caverns, carved into rock salt beneath the surface, constitute the United States’ massive “Strategic Petroleum Reserve” (SPR).

The facility was set up 40 years ago and there are now many other huge oil stockpiles dotted around the world. In fact, a whole host of countries have poured billions of dollars into developing such facilities and more are on the way. But what are these reserves – and why would anyone want to bury oil back into the ground in the first place?

The answer lies in the energy crisis of 1973. Arab oil exporters had cut off the West from their supplies in response to US support for Israel during the Yom Kippur War. The world was so dependent on oil from the Middle East that prices skyrocketed and petrol was soon being rationed at US filling stations. In some cases, it dried up completely. People feared that any petrol they had might be stolen and a few even took to protecting their cars with firearms

A couple of years later, the US began building its SPR, filling caverns full of crude oil. Were oil supplies to be severely disrupted in the future, now the US would have its own stores to tide them through a price spike and alleviate pressure on global markets. As a government website boasts, “The SPR’s formidable size… makes it a significant deterrent to oil import cutoffs and a key tool of foreign policy.” It’s a neat, but expensive, idea. The current year’s budget for maintaining the SPR is $200m.

Bob Corbin at the US Department of Energy is the person in charge of making sure that money is spent wisely. “All of our sites are located in what we call salt domes,” he explains. “The salt is impervious to the crude oil, there’s no mixing, no breaking down, so it’s a great storage facility.” Corbin, who served for 22 years with the military in the US Coast Guard, is proud of the four sites, which stretch from Baton Rouge, Louisiana to the largest of the four, near the tiny city of Freeport, Texas. He refers to the vast salt storage chambers as “my caverns”. “The sites themselves,” he says, “are very impressive.”

But there’s not much to see above ground – merely some wellbore heads and pipelines. The wellbores themselves plunge thousands of feet into the caverns below and can push water in at high pressure in order to retrieve the oil through a process of displacement. Corbin adds that managing such infrastructure comes with unique challenges. The salt caverns are not completely stable, for example. Sometimes bits of the walls or ceilings may crumble away, causing damage to machinery which has to be carefully replaced. It’s not possible for workers to enter the caverns physically so, like drilling oil out of a natural well, it has to be done remotely.

However, special tools can be used to give a little visibility. “Periodically when caverns are empty you can actually shoot sonar images of the caverns,” says Corbin. “And that gives you a three-dimensional way of looking at them.” Some have interesting shapes, he adds. The outline of one chamber, for example, would resemble a large flying saucer.

America has, in the past, relied on the SPR to help get it out of sticky situations. Take the first Gulf War for example, in which oil distribution in the Middle East was disrupted. Or Hurricane Katrina in 2005, when requests for emergency oil were approved within 24 hours of the storm’s landfall.

Global stockpiles

The US is far from the only country which has invested heavily in strategic oil reserves. Japan has a series of sites where well over 500 million barrels of oil are stored in large above-ground tanks. The facility at Shibushi, for example is just off-shore. Following the catastrophic earthquake and tsunami which struck Japan in 2011, calls were made to expand the country’s oil stocks in case of crises in the future which might hamper oil distribution again.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) oversees the release of oil from a wide range of reserves internationally. Martin Young is head of the body’s Emergency Policy Division: “When a country signs up to the IEA there are various obligations,” he says. “One of the key obligations is to hold oil stocks equivalent to 90 days’ imports.”

But not all countries have salt domes to store oil underground. Nor do all countries even have large, specialised storage facilities for SPR purposes. The UK, for instance, has neither. “What the UK has is an obligation on industry to hold oil at their existing sites above what they would normally do,” explains Young. That oil is quietly kept aside by firms so that the government can access it immediately, if and when it’s needed.

Two nations which are not members of the IEA, India and China, have in recent years ploughed funds into their own SPRs. The Chinese in particular have ambitious plans. A diverse array of storage locations, dotted across the land will, it is hoped, eventually store almost as much as the Americans in a combination of state-owned facilities and commercial stockpiles. The Chinese don’t have the luxury of salt caverns and have to opt instead for much more expensive storage above ground in tanks. They’re easy to spot on Google Earth and in satellite photos – just look for the rows of large white dots. The SPR site in Zhenhai is just one of these and it currently holds its full capacity of 33 million barrels. “It was big,” says Young, who visited the location a few years ago. “What you see is a whole load of oil tanks co-located with a couple of oil refineries.”

Narongpand Lisapahanya, an oil and gas analyst at investment group CLSA, says that spending money on developing an SPR is all part of China’s plan to be treated seriously as a global superpower. “If you’re going to be a superpower, you’re going to have to have the reserve,” he says with a laugh. “It helps you become part of treaties globally. If another superpower, during energy events, asks for a release of reserves then China can now take part.”

No modern superpower, then, is complete without an SPR to call its own. While the growth of reserves around the world is generally welcomed, there are some who worry that countries outside the IEA could use their reserves to manipulate global oil prices by selling off stocks at opportune moments. Of course, mitigating nasty price spikes is exactly why SPRs were invented in the first place, as Carmine Difiglio at the US Department of Energy explains: “Protecting the US economy from sharp increases in domestic petroleum product prices was the purpose of the SPR in 1975 and it remains the purpose of the SPR today,” he says.

But there’s an important line to draw between that and using an SPR for ad hoc manipulation of the world’s markets. On this point, Martin Young is emphatic: “The oil stocks are not there for price management as such,” he explains, “they’re there to correct a shortage in the market because of a supply disruption.”

There’s a continual debate about how SPR stocks should be used, though. Some people think releases could be more aggressive while others question whether the US has always taken full advantage of its SPR oil, which is valued at roughly $43.5bn. “For some folks, 700 million barrels in the ground just looks like a gigantic pot of money,” comments Sarah Ladislaw, at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington DC.

Few, though, would support initiatives to fundamentally change how SPRs are used – in the US or elsewhere. The emphasis is definitely on planning for emergencies and mitigating supply problems. Governments and the IEA prepare for such situations by working out how they would draw oil from SPRs in the event of a crisis. There are even specialist firms which help with this sort of planning, such as EnSys, which has developed a sophisticated computer model to simulate future pricing fluctuations in the oil industry.

This expertise helps EnSys to advise groups which control SPRs as to when and why they might consider distributing oil to local refineries. As CEO Martin Tallett explains, it’s a numbers game. By how many barrels will your imports be short during a given crisis? How much would have to be released from an SPR to ease that?“What we would do is sit down with somebody and say, OK, there’s disruption in the Middle East, maybe North Africa as well,” he says. “And we really start from the numbers rather than spending a lot of time understanding in-depth the geopolitical machinations that could have caused the disruption.”

As governments and energy bodies continue planning for the worst, oil stockpiles only look set to get bigger and bigger. It’s obvious that the US and many other countries believe their SPRs are a good investment.

Despite all the preparations, it’s still possible that, during a future crisis, oil might not be distributed quickly enough from the strategic reserves. Would we get a repeat of 1973? Bob Corbin, for one, won’t say: “I wouldn’t want to speculate on what could or could not occur,” he comments. “We’re prepared to deliver whenever we need to.”


2015 Proves to Be Record-Breaking Year for the Military’s Secret Military

You can find them in dusty, sunbaked U.S. Special Ops Forces Deployed in 135 Nations

by Nick Turse

Tolm Dispatch

By badlands, moist tropical forests, and the salty spray of third-world littorals. Standing in judgement, buffeted by the rotor wash of a helicopter or sweltering beneath the relentless desert sun, they instruct, yell, and cajole as skinnier men playact under their watchful eyes. In many places, more than their particular brand of camouflage, better boots, and designer gear sets them apart. Their days are scented by stale sweat and gunpowder; their nights are spent in rustic locales or third-world bars.

These men — and they are mostly men — belong to an exclusive military fraternity that traces its heritage back to the birth of the nation. Typically, they’ve spent the better part of a decade as more conventional soldiers, sailors, marines, or airmen before making the cut. They’ve probably been deployed overseas four to 10 times. The officers are generally approaching their mid-thirties; the enlisted men, their late twenties. They’ve had more schooling than most in the military. They’re likely to be married with a couple of kids. And day after day, they carry out shadowy missions over much of the planet: sometimes covert raids, more often hush-hush training exercises from Chad to Uganda, Bahrain to Saudi Arabia, Albania to Romania, Bangladesh to Sri Lanka, Belize to Uruguay. They belong to the Special Operations forces (SOF), America’s most elite troops — Army Green Berets and Navy SEALs, among others — and odds are, if you throw a dart at a world map or stop a spinning globe with your index finger and don’t hit water, they’ve been there sometime in 2015.

The Wide World of Special Ops

This year, U.S. Special Operations forces have already deployed to 135 nations, according to Ken McGraw, a spokesman for Special Operations Command (SOCOM). That’s roughly 70% of the countries on the planet. Every day, in fact, America’s most elite troops are carrying out missions in 80 to 90 nations, practicing night raids or sometimes conducting them for real, engaging in sniper training or sometimes actually gunning down enemies from afar. As part of a global engagement strategy of endless hush-hush operations conducted on every continent but Antarctica, they have now eclipsed the number and range of special ops missions undertaken at the height of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In the waning days of the Bush administration, Special Operations forces (SOF) were reportedly deployed in only about 60 nations around the world. By 2010, according to the Washington Post, that number had swelled to 75. Three years later, it had jumped to 134 nations, “slipping” to 133 last year, before reaching a new record of 135 this summer. This 80% increase over the last five years is indicative of SOCOM’s exponential expansion which first shifted into high gear following the 9/11 attacks.

Special Operations Command’s funding, for example, has more than tripled from about $3 billion in 2001 to nearly $10 billion in 2014 “constant dollars,” according to the Government Accountability Office (GAO). And this doesn’t include funding from the various service branches, which SOCOM estimates at around another $8 billion annually, or other undisclosed sums that the GAO was unable to track. The average number of Special Operations forces deployed overseas has nearly tripled during these same years, while SOCOM more than doubled its personnel from about 33,000 in 2001 to nearly 70,000 now.

Each day, according to SOCOM commander General Joseph Votel, approximately 11,000 special operators are deployed or stationed outside the United States with many more on standby, ready to respond in the event of an overseas crisis. “I think a lot of our resources are focused in Iraq and in the Middle East, in Syria for right now. That’s really where our head has been,” Votel told the Aspen Security Forum in July. Still, he insisted his troops were not “doing anything on the ground in Syria” — even if they had carried out a night raid there a couple of months before and it was later revealed that they are involved in a covert campaign of drone strikes in that country.

I think we are increasing our focus on Eastern Europe at this time,” he added. “At the same time we continue to provide some level of support on South America for Colombia and the other interests that we have down there. And then of course we’re engaged out in the Pacific with a lot of our partners, reassuring them and working those relationships and maintaining our presence out there.”

In reality, the average percentage of Special Operations forces deployed to the Greater Middle East has decreased in recent years. Back in 2006, 85% of special operators were deployed in support of Central Command or CENTCOM, the geographic combatant command (GCC) that oversees operations in the region. By last year, that number had dropped to 69%, according to GAO figures. Over that same span, Northern Command — devoted to homeland defense — held steady at 1%, European Command (EUCOM) doubled its percentage, from 3% to 6%, Pacific Command (PACOM) increased from 7% to 10%, and Southern Command, which overseas Central and South America as well as the Caribbean, inched up from 3% to 4%. The largest increase, however, was in a region conspicuously absent from Votel’s rundown of special ops deployments. In 2006, just 1% of the special operators deployed abroad were sent to Africa Command’s area of operations. Last year, it was 10%.

Globetrotting is SOCOM’s stock in trade and, not coincidentally, it’s divided into a collection of planet-girding “sub-unified commands”: the self-explanatory SOCAFRICA; SOCEUR, the European contingent; SOCCENT, the sub-unified command of CENTCOM; SOCKOR, which is devoted strictly to Korea; SOCPAC, which covers the rest of the Asia-Pacific region; SOCSOUTH, which conducts missions in Central America, South America, and the Caribbean; SOCNORTH, which is devoted to “homeland defense”; and the ever-itinerant Joint Special Operations Command or JSOC, a clandestine sub-command (formerly headed by Votel) made up of personnel from each service branch, including SEALs, Air Force special tactics airmen, and the Army’s Delta Force that specializes in tracking and killing suspected terrorists.

The elite of the elite in the special ops community, JSOC takes on covert, clandestine, and low-visibility operations in the hottest of hot spots. Some covert ops that have come to light in recent years include a host of Delta Force missions: among them, an operation in May in which members of the elite force killed an Islamic State commander known as Abu Sayyaf during a night raid in Syria; the 2014 release of long-time Taliban prisoner Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl; the capture of Ahmed Abu Khattala, a suspect in 2012 terror attacks in Benghazi, Libya; and the 2013 abduction of Anas al-Libi, an al-Qaeda militant, off a street in that same country. Similarly, Navy SEALs have, among other operations, carried out successful hostage rescue missions in Afghanistan and Somalia in 2012; a disastrous one in Yemen in 2014; a 2013 kidnap raid in Somalia that went awry; and — that same year — a failed evacuation mission in South Sudan in which three SEALs were wounded when their aircraft was hit by small arms fire.

SOCOM’s SOF Alphabet Soup

Most deployments have, however, been training missions designed to tutor proxies and forge stronger ties with allies. “Special Operations forces provide individual-level training, unit-level training, and formal classroom training,” explains SOCOM’s Ken McGraw. “Individual training can be in subjects like basic rifle marksmanship, land navigation, airborne operations, and first aid. They provide unit-level training in subjects like small unit tactics, counterterrorism operations and maritime operations. SOF can also provide formal classroom training in subjects like the military decision-making process or staff planning.”

From 2012 to 2014, for instance, Special Operations forces carried out 500 Joint Combined Exchange Training (JCET) missions in as many as 67 countries each year. JCETs are officially devoted to training U.S. forces, but they nonetheless serve as a key facet of SOCOM’s global engagement strategy. The missions “foster key military partnerships with foreign militaries, enhance partner-nations’ capability to provide for their own defense, and build interoperability between U.S. SOF and partner-nation forces,” according to SOCOM’s McGraw.

And JCETs are just a fraction of the story. SOCOM carries out many other multinational overseas training operations. According to data from the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense (Comptroller), for example, Special Operations forces conducted 75 training exercises in 30 countries in 2014. The numbers were projected to jump to 98 exercises in 34 countries by the end of this year.

SOCOM places a premium on international partnerships and building their capacity. Today, SOCOM has persistent partnerships with about 60 countries through our Special Operations Forces Liaison Elements and Joint Planning and Advisory Teams,” said SOCOM’s Votel at a conference earlier this year, drawing attention to two of the many types of shadowy Special Ops entities that operate overseas. These SOFLEs and JPATs belong to a mind-bending alphabet soup of special ops entities operating around the globe, a jumble of opaque acronyms and stilted abbreviations masking a secret world of clandestine efforts often conducted in the shadows in impoverished lands ruled by problematic regimes. The proliferation of this bewildering SOCOM shorthand — SOJTFs and CJSOTFs, SOCCEs and SOLEs — mirrors the relentless expansion of the command, with its signature brand of military speak or milspeak proving as indecipherable to most Americans as its missions are secret from them.

Around the world, you can find Special Operations Joint Task Forces (SOJTFs), Combined Joint Special Operations Task Forces (CJSOTFs), and Joint Special Operations Task Forces (JSOTFs), Theater Special Operations Commands (TSOCs), as well as Special Operations Command and Control Elements (SOCCEs) and Special Operations Liaison Elements (SOLEs). And that list doesn’t even include Special Operations Command Forward (SOC FWD) elements — small teams which, according to the military, “shape and coordinate special operations forces security cooperation and engagement in support of theater special operations command, geographic combatant command, and country team goals and objectives.”

Special Operations Command will not divulge the locations or even a simple count of its SOC FWDs for “security reasons.” When asked how releasing only the number could imperil security, SOCOM’s Ken McGraw was typically opaque. “The information is classified,” he responded. “I am not the classification authority for that information so I do not know the specifics of why the information is classified.” Open source data suggests, however, that they are clustered in favored black ops stomping grounds, including SOC FWD Pakistan, SOC FWD Yemen, and SOC FWD Lebanon, as well as SOC FWD East Africa, SOC FWD Central Africa, and SOC FWD West Africa.

What’s clear is that SOCOM prefers to operate in the shadows while its personnel and missions expand globally to little notice or attention. “The key thing that SOCOM brings to the table is that we are — we think of ourselves — as a global force. We support the geographic combatant commanders, but we are not bound by the artificial boundaries that normally define the regional areas in which they operate. So what we try to do is we try to operate across those boundaries,” SOCOM’s Votel told the Aspen Security Forum.

In one particular blurring of boundaries, Special Operations liaison officers (SOLOs) are embedded in at least 14 key U.S. embassies to assist in advising the special forces of various allied nations. Already operating in Australia, Brazil, Canada, Colombia, El Salvador, France, Israel, Italy, Jordan, Kenya, Poland, Peru, Turkey, and the United Kingdom, the SOLO program is poised, according to Votel, to expand to 40 countries by 2019. The command, and especially JSOC, has also forged close ties with the Central Intelligence Agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the National Security Agency, among other outfits, through the use of liaison officers and Special Operations Support Teams (SOSTs).

In today’s environment, our effectiveness is directly tied to our ability to operate with domestic and international partners. We, as a joint force, must continue to institutionalize interoperability, integration, and interdependence between conventional forces and special operations forces through doctrine, training, and operational deployments,” Votel told the Senate Armed Services Committee this spring. “From working with indigenous forces and local governments to improve local security, to high-risk counterterrorism operations — SOF are in vital roles performing essential tasks.”

SOCOM will not name the 135 countries in which America’s most elite forces were deployed this year, let alone disclose the nature of those operations. Most were, undoubtedly, training efforts. Documents obtained from the Pentagon via the Freedom of Information Act outlining Joint Combined Exchange Training in 2013 offer an indication of what Special Operations forces do on a daily basis and also what skills are deemed necessary for their real-world missions: combat marksmanship, patrolling, weapons training, small unit tactics, special operations in urban terrain, close quarters combat, advanced marksmanship, sniper employment, long-range shooting, deliberate attack, and heavy weapons employment, in addition to combat casualty care, human rights awareness, land navigation, and mission planning, among others.

From Joint Special Operations Task Force-Juniper Shield, which operates in Africa’s Trans-Sahara region, and Special Operations Command and Control Element-Horn of Africa, to Army Special Operations Forces Liaison Element-Korea and Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force-Arabian Peninsula, the global growth of SOF missions has been breathtaking. SEALs or Green Berets, Delta Force operators or Air Commandos, they are constantly taking on what Votel likes to call the “nation’s most complex, demanding, and high-risk challenges.”

These forces carry out operations almost entirely unknown to the American taxpayers who fund them, operations conducted far from the scrutiny of the media or meaningful outside oversight of any kind. Everyday, in around 80 or more countries that Special Operations Command will not name, they undertake missions the command refuses to talk about. They exist in a secret world of obtuse acronyms and shadowy efforts, of mystery missions kept secret from the American public, not to mention most of the citizens of the 135 nations where they’ve been deployed this year.

This summer, when Votel commented that more special ops troops are deployed to more locations and are conducting more operations than at the height of the Afghan and Iraq wars, he drew attention to two conflicts in which those forces played major roles that have not turned out well for the United States. Consider that symbolic of what the bulking up of his command has meant in these years.

Ultimately, the best indicator of our success will be the success of the [geographic combatant commands],” says the special ops chief, but with U.S. setbacks in Africa Command’s area of operations from Mali and Nigeria to Burkina Faso and Cameroon; in Central Command’s bailiwick from Iraq and Afghanistan to Yemen and Syria; in the PACOM region vis-à-vis China; and perhaps even in the EUCOM area of operations due to Russia, it’s far from clear what successes can be attributed to the ever-expanding secret operations of America’s secret military. The special ops commander seems resigned to the very real limitations of what his secretive but much-ballyhooed, highly-trained, well-funded, heavily-armed operators can do.

We can buy space, we can buy time,” says Votel, stressing that SOCOM can “play a very, very key role” in countering “violent extremism,” but only up to a point — and that point seems to fall strikingly short of anything resembling victory or even significant foreign policy success. “Ultimately, you know, problems like we see in Iraq and Syria,” he says, “aren’t going to be resolved by us.”

Nick Turse is the managing editor of TomDispatch.com and a fellow at the Nation Institute.


Postal Service Failed to Protect Personal Data in Mail Surveillance, Report Says

September 24, 2015

by Ron Nixon

New York Times

WASHINGTON — Employees of the United States Postal Service failed to properly safeguard documents that included the names, addresses and financial information used by its law enforcement arm to monitor the mail of people suspected of criminal activities or for national security purposes, an internal investigation found.

The information, which is collected as part of the Postal Service’s mail cover surveillance program, could potentially reveal personally identifiable information and compromise the privacy of the mail, according to the report, which was conducted by the Postal Service’s Office of Inspector General and released Thursday

A mail cover is a surveillance tool used by the service to monitor the mail of a person suspected of criminal activity by recording the information on the outside of all letters and packages delivered to a home or business. Law enforcement officials say it is an important investigative tool, but privacy advocates say the practice is ripe for abuse because it does not have judicial oversight and is shrouded in secrecy.

The report released Thursday follows a similar audit last year that examined the use of mail covers by outside law enforcement agencies.

The most recent report examines the internal use of the program by the Postal Inspection Service, the law enforcement arm of the Postal Service, and found similar problems.

According to the report, the Postal Inspection Service approved 118,577 mail covers requested by its postal inspectors and 39,966 requested by external law enforcement authorities in fiscal years 2010 through 2014.

Auditors said they found numerous problems with the way the agency handled mail covers. According to the report, Postal Service personnel at six of nine postal facilities visited by auditors did not adequately safeguard the collected documents.

For example, at a postal facility in the New York District, a carrier placed a mail cover package, with names, address and other information, on top of his workstation, where it was accessible to other employees. The information was supposed to be secured.

During a visit to a facility in the Chicago District, auditors found that a form used to record the name and address of the subject of an investigation was posted on a mail carrier’s workstation and could be seen by other employees.

Postal Service auditors said managers at the postal facilities failed to “provide adequate oversight to ensure employees followed the procedures.”

The problems identified by the inspector general also were not limited to internal mail covers.

In one instance, Postal Inspection Service personnel did not notify a requesting law enforcement agency in one of the 11 episodes where the mail cover was compromised. In the other 10 episodes, postal managers informed local law enforcement about the breaches and took disciplinary action against employees for publicly disclosing the mail cover.

Although the postal auditor noted that the Post Office has taken steps to address some of the issues it identified in the May 2014 audit, problems persist. The audit found that the agency still had trouble collecting information from the law enforcement agencies that requested mail covers.

The mail cover program has received the attention of privacy advocates and some members of Congress.

Last week, Senator Thomas R. Carper, Democrat of Delaware, introduced a postal reform bill that would make a number of changes to the program, including providing statistics regarding the mail covers program, which includes the number of external and internal requests, as well as approvals.


Blessed Prozac Moments!


Drought blamers: California conspiracists see government’s hand in arid climate

A lack of rain is way too simple an explanation for these conspiracy theorists – it’s why it hasn’t rained much in four years that matters: the US government is geoengineering the California climate

September 26, 2015

by Andrew Gumbel in Los Angeles

The Guardian/UK

To most Californians, the state’s four-year drought is not all that mysterious: it just hasn’t rained in a very long time.

Then there are those for whom that’s way too simple an explanation.

Last week, a crowd of several hundred turned out in Redding, in northern California, to hear grave warnings from a solar power contractor named Dane Wigington that the weather has been taken over by government geoengineers spraying our skies with toxic chemicals in a doomed attempt to slow down global warming.

In April, an essay published under the name “State of the Nation” argued that the drought was not only artificially created, it was in fact a stepping-stone in the US military-industrial complex’s master plan to take over the planet and achieve “total control of all of Earth’s resources”.

The country’s leading conspirator, radio host Alex Jones, has jumped on the bandwagon, as has Natural News, a website known for its campaigns against public vaccination programs.

Quite why the US government would want to fry California to a crisp is a matter of some confusion and debate. But the longer the drought goes on – it is already the longest of the modern era – the more currency the fringe theories appear to be gaining.

There is NO NATURAL WEATHER at this point,” Wigington’s website asserts. “The climate engineers decide when it will rain or snow, where, how much, and how toxic the rain or snow will be, where there will be drought or heat.”

The conspiracists are in no doubt: the government is spraying chemicals and artificially holding back weather patterns off the California coast to keep the rain away. They are doing this with planes – Wigington likes to show audience footage of thick contrails spewing into the sky, evidence he calls “undeniable” – but they may also have operated in the past from a military installation in Alaska, now closed, called the High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program, or HAARP.

HAARP has been a focus of conspiracy theorists for years and was previously blamed for Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy – even though its mandate, while it was operating, was to find clearer communications routes through the ionosphere and had nothing to do with climate.

Mainstream scientists and environmental activists listen to these theories and despair. “You want to pull your eyes out because these people are so fucking stupid,” David Allgood, political director of the California League of Conservation Voters, told the Guardian.

The only agenda here is the agenda of the oil and coal companies. Exxon knew back in the 1970s that their products were destroying the planet and instead of doing something about it, they decided to go bribe the government. If people want to see conspiracies, it’s not the government causing them, it’s the fossil fuel industry.”

Wigington and his cohorts are not operating from pure fantasy. There is certainly a theory that by spraying certain chemicals into the air the effects of global warming might be slowed or reversed. There have certainly been experiments in “cloud-seeding” to provoke rainfall in different parts of the world going back to the 1950s – including unsuccessful attempts in California in the past couple years to help combat the drought.

But there is no evidence of weather manipulation techniques being used to combat global warming. Earlier this year, the Stanford climate scientist Ken Caldeira suggested that a small fleet of aircraft could do what large volcanoes do – “create a layer of small particles high in the atmosphere that scatters incoming sunlight back to space” – and thus cool the earth down.

The conspiracy theorists leapt on that line as vindication that they were right all along, without quoting what Caldeira said next: “It is possible, of course, that sustaining [this] kind of aerosol layer … would just make things worse. We just don’t know. We need to do the research.”

he conspiracies may die down if, as expected, an El Niño weather pattern brings heavy rainstorms to California this winter. Advocates like Wigington might also want to remember the example of Iran’s former president Mahmood Ahmadinejad, who in 2011 accused the west of conspiring to suck the water out of clouds above Iran as an act of aggression. As soon as Ahmadinejad finished speaking, the heavens opened.


EU ‘ring of friends’ turns into ring of fire

September 27, 2015

by Paul Taylor


BRUSSELS- The European Union’s dream of building “a ring of friends” from the Caucasus to the Sahara has turned into a nightmare as conflicts beyond its borders send refugees teeming into Europe.

In contrast to the success of its eastward enlargement drive that transformed former communist countries into thriving market democracies, the European Neighbourhood Policy launched in 2003 has been a spectacular flop.

It offered money, technical assistance and market access, but not membership, to 16 countries to the east and south in return for adopting EU democratic, administrative and economic norms.

“As we look at the situation now, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that we are surrounded not by a ‘ring of friends’ – but by a ‘ring of fire’,” former Swedish prime minister Carl Bildt said earlier this year.

The failure to stabilize or democratize the EU’s surroundings was partly due to forces beyond Brussels’ control: Russian resentment over the collapse of the Soviet Union, as well as political and sectarian strife in the Middle East.

Five of the six Eastern Partnership countries – Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan – are weakened by unresolved “frozen conflicts” in which Moscow has a hand. The sixth, Belarus, is so authoritarian that it is subject to EU sanctions and has eschewed the offer of a free trade deal.

EU officials now acknowledge that the framework designed to engage and transform the bloc’s neighbors was flawed from the outset due to a mixture of arrogance and naivety.

“The idea was to have a ring of friends who would integrate with us but not become EU members. That was rather patronizing, with the European Union telling everyone what to do because we believed they wanted to be like us,” said Christian Danielsson, head of the European Commission department for neighborhood policy and enlargement.


The EU approach offered too little reward tied to too many conditions, with intrusive monitoring that authoritarian rulers and local oligarchs from Minsk and Baku to Cairo and Algiers instinctively resisted as a threat to their interests.

It set out a one-size-fits-all relationship for states with widely diverse levels of economic development and governance, most of which are ill-equipped to apply swathes of EU market, environmental or health and safety legislation.

And it assumed that groups of countries in North Africa or the south Caucasus would cooperate and trade with each other, when in reality they had little or no desire to work together.

Now the EU neighborhood policy is undergoing a fundamental rethink, with a more modest, flexible and differentiated approach due to be unveiled on Nov. 17.

Whether it will prove more effective remains to be seen.

Ian Bond, a former British ambassador now at the Centre for European Reform, called the current policy a “mess of inconsistency and wishful thinking”.

The last review in 2010-11 had urged a focus on promoting “deep and sustainable democracy”, he noted. Yet since then two countries – Libya and Syria – had fallen into near anarchy, one – Egypt – had had a military coup, and repression of civil society and the media had worsened in several, including Azerbaijan, Bond said.

Among the few relative success stories, Tunisia, Ukraine and Georgia remain vulnerable to internal and external threats, while privileged economic ties have not made Israel receptive to EU efforts to promote a two-state solution with the Palestinians.


EU officials talk of the need for a new realism, putting the pursuit of common interests with partners ahead of lecturing them on human rights and democracy.

But the European Parliament and member states such as Germany and the Nordic countries will be loath to soft-pedal promoting such values.

Bildt, for example, argued that “our concern for the stability of the day must not block our urge to respect the human rights that in the long run are an essential precondition for the stability that we are seeking”.

Some experts say the EU’s offer of so-called “Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreements” was unrealistic and is destabilizing for neighbors’ economies, because it requires them to open up their markets to EU competition before they have much to sell to Europe.

Yet EU officials say Ukraine and Georgia, which sealed such deals with Brussels in defiance of Russian opposition, should press ahead with them to anchor economic development.

Michael Leigh, a senior adviser at the German Marshall Fund think-tank and former head of the EU’s enlargement department, said Brussels had responded to the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings by offering a “top-heavy, long, cumbersome, demanding” DCFTA process rather than swift but limited market access.

It would be better to offer countries like Morocco and Tunisia an immediate end to restrictions on agricultural produce such as oranges and tomatoes, he said, but farm interests in EU countries such as France, Spain and Italy got in the way.

The reality is that the EU’s urgent need to contain and manage the influx of hundreds of thousands of refugees from the Middle East, Asia and Africa is likely to take precedence over all other priorities in dealing with the neighborhood.

That means Brussels will divert money earmarked for economic development and administrative reform to fund facilities to keep refugees in place and discourage them from pouring into Europe.

The ring of friends will have to wait for better times. For now, what the EU wants are flood defenses.

(Additional reporting by Robin Emmott; Editing by Mark Trevelyan)


The rise of ad-blocking could herald the end of the free internet

More and more people are using software to turn off irritating website advertisements – but without them, smaller sites might go under

September 27, 2015

by John Naughton

The Guardian

There is, alas, no such thing as a free lunch. What’s even more depressing is that there is no such thing as a free internet service. Most people nowadays probably understand that in relation to, say, social networking services, if the service is “free” then the users (or, more precisely, their personal data) are the product. But this also applies to stuff that you haven’t signed up for – websites that you browse, for example. The site may be free to view, but there’s often a hidden cost.

One part of that cost comes from surreptitious tracking of your browsing habits by outfits that sell that information to advertisers. (If this is news to you just install the Ghostery browser extension to see who’s monitoring your browsing.) The other cost comes from ads that are placed on a webpage either directly by the site owner or as the outcome of a real-time auction that goes on in the depths of the internet.

And as the web has evolved, and more of our lives conducted online, internet advertising has steadily increased. It’s now at the stage where it’s really annoying. Webpages that used to load relatively quickly suddenly take ages to appear. Videos pop up unannounced and – worse still – start to play without your consent. And there’s a lot of hidden downloading going on before the page finally appears. Scrolling down becomes unaccountably jerky. And so on. This is bad enough on fixed-line connections; on mobile connections it is truly infuriating – and it eats into your data plan as well.

So it’s not surprising that internet users have been going for ad-blocking software like ostriches go for brass doorknobs (as PG Wodehouse would put it). One report claims that ad-blocking has grown globally by 41% and in the US by 48%. Since these estimates come from sources that have vested interests in this area, they should perhaps be taken with a pinch of salt, but there’s no doubt that ad-blocking is now a big deal.

And, as with all of these things, it’s led to an arms race between those who create ad-blockers and the people whose products they seek to exclude. But now Apple has stepped on to the battleground. The new release of its iOS mobile operating system contains some hooks that enable programmers to create apps that block content (aka ads) within the Safari mobile browser. Last time I looked there were nearly 20 of them available on the App store.

Because Apple is such a dominant company, this new ad-blocking technology has stirred people up. My hunch is that the impact of the iOS change itself will be relatively small: the iPhone is very profitable, but it has only about 15% of the global smartphone market, and the content-blocking facility only works on the newest model – the iPhone 6.

The real significance of the Apple development is that it puts the weight of a giant company behind the idea of content-blocking, which means that the use of ad-blocking software is likely to accelerate. And this, as Jean-Louis Gassée (a former Apple executive, incidentally) points out, might be a mixed blessing.

The good news: we’ll soon have ways to streamline our browsing experience and avoid being pimped to advertisers. The bad news: marginally profitable websites, which is most of them, will lose advertising revenue and plunge into the red. The big guys that have paywalls in place, sites such as the New York Times, Financial Times, or Le Monde, will be much less vulnerable.”Pervasive ad-blocking will dramatically undermine the predominant business model of the “free” web, which is that the price of freedom is exposure to ads. Without those ads, online publishers will have to find a new business model or go under. And currently, there are not that many alternative models out there.

One is the subscription/paywall route – the option that the publishing giants mentioned by Mr Gassée are already employing with considerable success. But that option is not available to most of the smaller publications that are the glory of the web and enrich the public sphere. For them, donations are probably the only way of paying the hosting and other bills. And, as all charities know, donations can go down as well as up.

The rise of ad-blocking will force us to confront the fact that the free lunch provided by advertising is not long for this world. The good news is that the ensuing crisis will compel us finally to look for what we should have invented decades ago, namely sustainable business models for the web. For example, it’s possible that cryptocurrencies might enable the “micro-payments” that would make users to pay a tiny amount for any article they read. We need more ideas like that, and I’m sure we’ll get them. Necessity is the mother of invention.

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