Senior Trump administration officials cited “evaluated intelligence” that terrorists favored “smuggling explosive devices in various consumer items” in a hastily convened press briefing on Monday night, hours after news broke of the planned prohibition on in-cabin devices.
The ban, which allows the devices to be stowed in checked in baggage, affects flights from ten airports in Jordan, Egypt, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Qatar, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, according to the US department of homeland security (DHS).
While DHS officials claimed the rules would help prevent terrorist attacks on commercial airlines, tech experts questioned the safety implications of the ban. If there are concerns about laptops on board being used as explosives, those same risks could exist in checked baggage, they said. Additionally, many smartphones, which are not banned, have the same capabilities as larger devices.
“It’s weird, because it doesn’t match a conventional threat model,” said Nicholas Weaver, researcher at the International Computer Science Institute at the University of California, Berkeley. “If you assume the attacker is interested in turning a laptop into a bomb, it would work just as well in the cargo hold.”
He added: “If you’re worried about hacking, a cell phone is a computer.”
Some experts, and even the Federal Aviation Administration, have also increasingly raised concerns that the shipment of lithium batteries in airplane cargo, poses a serious fire risk.
During the press call, numerous questions about the meaning of “larger than a cell phone” did not provide clarity.
“To be honest, guys, there’s a pretty universal understanding of where we’re at,” said one exasperated official after repeated questions on how large a phone could be before it qualified as a tablet and was banned. Requirements appear to be at the discretion of the airlines.
Passengers must submit to the ban “regardless of status and pre-clearance”, according to DHS officials.
A state department official referred reporters to “several terrorist events on airplanes in the last year”, all outside the US. When pressed, a Homeland Security official said only one incident involved a bomb smuggled into the cabin – an explosion resulting in a single fatality on a Somali carrier called Daallo that does not fly to the US.
Bruce Schneier, a security technologist, called the new rules an “onerous travel restriction”.
“From a technological perspective, nothing has changed between the last dozen years and today. That is, there are no new technological breakthroughs that make this threat any more serious today,” he said in an email. “And there is certainly nothing technological that would limit this newfound threat to a handful of Middle Eastern airlines.”
Paul Schwartz, professor at the University of California, Berkeley law school, also noted that the 9/11 hijackers had a cell in Hamburg, Germany: “One potential problem with this approach where you single out countries is that you ignore the extent to which the terrorist threat is kind of state-less. The terrorists have cells throughout the entire world.”
Efforts to more broadly restrict laptops on planes would likely face widespread resistance, said Chris Hoofnagle, professor of law at the University of California. “It’s a massive inconvenience to have to check a laptop, and you can imagine that such a demand is met with resistance by air carriers, who are powerful lobbies.”
Airlines have also lobbied the Trump administration to intervene on behalf of American carriers in the Persian Gulf, where they have contended for years that the investments in three rapidly expanding airlines in the area – Etihad Airways, Qatar, and Emirates – constitute unfair government subsidies with which Delta, American and United cannot compete.
All three Middle Eastern airlines are among the carriers affected by the electronics ban.
Asked if the new order was an excuse to rifle through passengers’ hard drives, a DHS official said: “This has absolutely nothing to do with the data in passengers’ baggage.”
The US intelligence agencies are facing fresh embarrassment after WikiLeakspublished what it described as the biggest-ever leak of confidential documents from the CIA detailing the tools it uses to break into phones, communication apps and other electronic devices.
The documents focus mainly on techniques for hacking, including how the CIAcooperated with British intelligence to engineer a way to compromise smart televisions and turn them into improvised surveillance devices.
The leak, dubbed “Vault 7” by WikiLeaks, will once again raise questions about the inability of US spy agencies to protect secret documents in the digital age. It follows disclosures about Afghanistan and Iraq by Chelsea Manning in 2010 and about the National Security Agency and Britain’s GCHQ by Edward Snowden in 2013.
According to the documents:
CIA hackers targeted smartphones and computers.
The US consulate in Frankfurt, the biggest in the world, is home to a “sensitive compartmentalised information facility” that used digital specialists from the CIA and other US intelligence agencies.
A programme called Weeping Angel describes how to attack a Samsung F800 TV set so that it appears to be off but can still be used for monitoring.
Jonathan Liu, a spokesman for the CIA, declined to confirm whether the leaked documents were accurate, even though WikiLeaks has a long track record of publishing authentic material. “We do not comment on the authenticity or content of purported intelligence documents,” Liu said.
But it is understood the documents are genuine and a hunt is under way for the leaker. The leaks come at an especially sensitive juncture, with the US intelligence agencies involved in confrontation with the president, Donald Trump, over alleged Russian hacking to influence the US election.
The latest revelations will renew suspicion that Russia is again responsible and increase fears that it might choose to interfere in upcoming French and German elections.
Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks editor-in-chief, said the disclosures were “exceptional from a political, legal and forensic perspective”.
WikiLeaks shared the information in advance with Der Spiegel in Germany and La Repubblica in Italy.
Even in a year that will go down in history for the number of huge mergers, the $130bn combination of Dow Chemical and DuPont announced on Friday is a behemoth.
The merger would combine two companies that sell pesticides, plant foods and genetically modified crops to millions of farmers around the world, and make a variety of chemicals for consumer and industrial products ranging from electronics, automobiles as well as household goods to building materials and safety equipment.
The all-stock merger calls for the two companies to combine as Dow DuPont, then separate into three independent publicly traded companies focused on agriculture, material science and specialty products.
The merger brings to a close a record year for deal-making, surpassing a levels unseen since 2007. So Far this year more than $4trn of deals have been struck including the $103bn merger of AB Inbev’s with brewing rival SAB Miller and the $160bn merger of pharmaceutical companies Allergan and Pfizer.
The Dow-Dupont deal is a rare combination of equals, rather than a straight purchase – the stock ratio is calculated so that all shareholders of each component company will come away owning half of the new entity.
“Over the last decade our entire industry has experienced tectonic shifts as an evolving world presented complex challenges and opportunities,” said Dow’s chairman and CEO, Andrew Liveris.
Liveris will be named executive chairman of the combined company while DuPont’s chairman and CEO, Edward Breen, will be CEO. The company will have dual headquarters in Michigan and Delaware, where the two companies are currently based.
Frank Mitsch of Wells Fargo Securities called the transaction “the deal of three centuries” on the companies’ call with investors on Friday morning, saying that he knew the merger had been a long time in the making. “Andrew has coveted this transaction for at least eight years by my clock.”
“I have also coveted the transaction,” said Breen. “I was looking at this very seriously as a board member since I joined the board last February.” Breen came to DuPont relatively recently, having been named CEO only last month.
In conjunction with the proposed merger, which is subject to regulatory approval, both companies are taking separate restructuring steps.
DuPont announced a companywide restructuring plan, including employee and contractor layoffs affecting about 10% of the company’s workforce, to reduce $700m in costs. It expects to record a pretax charge of about $780m, with approximately $650m of employee separation costs and about $130m of asset-related charges and contract terminations.
Dow, meanwhile, said it is taking full ownership of Dow Corning, currently a 50-50 joint venture between Dow and Corning. Dow said the move, expected to close in the first half of 2016, is expected to generate more than $1bn in additional adjusted annual earnings and will increase its product offerings in the building and construction, consumer care and automotive markets.
The companies said the proposed merger of equals, approved unanimously by their respective directors, will result in cost synergies of about $3bn that are projected to create approximately $30bn of market value.
Under the terms of the deal, Dow shareholders will receive a fixed exchange ratio of one share of DowDuPont for each Dow share, and DuPont shareholders will receive a fixed exchange ratio of 1.282 shares in DowDuPont for each DuPont share. Dow and DuPont shareholders will own about 50%, respectively, of the combined company.
The proposed agriculture business would unite DuPont’s and Dow’s seed and crop protection businesses. The material science company would combine DuPont’s performance materials segment with Dow’s performance plastics, performance materials and chemicals, infrastructure solutions, and consumer solutions units, excluding its electronic materials business. Combined pro forma 2014 revenue for material science was about $51bn.
The specialty products company would combine DuPont’s nutrition and health, industrial biosciences, safety and protection, and electronics and communications segments with Dow’s electronic materials business. Combined pro forma 2014 revenue for specialty products was approximately $13bn.
The new company’s board is expected to have 16 directors, consisting of eight current DuPont directors and eight current Dow directors.
Firearms giant Smith & Wesson saw gun sales rise 15.2% to $124.9m in the past three months as a spate of mass shootings in the US put tougher gun controls back in the national spotlight.
The gun company announced sales were up 32.1% year-over-year (comfortably beating analysts estimates of a 27% rise) for the three months ending on 31 October . Net income was $14.2m, close to three times the $5.2m the company made for the same period last year.
The company’s stock has soared over 125% in the past 12 months and in the wake of a series of mass shootings and jumped again after Barack Obama’s call for greater regulations iafter 14 people were killed in a shooting in San Bernardino, California, last week.
James Debney, S&W’s chief executive officer, was asked about the rising share price on a call with analysts. “Obviously there have been some tragic recent events but we’re in the holiday season with people shopping for firearms,” he said. Debney told investors that this most recent Black Friday was “the highest single day in NICS [National Instant Criminal Background Check System] history,” he said.
Debney attributed S&W’s climb to higher revenue in the firearms division, especially polymer pistols, as opposed to the company’s signature Dirty Harry-style revolvers. The company announced it had sold its millionth 9mm Shield pistol, designed for concealed carry, the day of the San Bernardino massacre.
The company’s revenue growth was robust: sales for the quarter brought in $143m, up from $108m in 2014, and for the company’s fiscal year (scheduled to end in April), the low end of its predicted range in net sales alone is fully $625m.
“The combined strength of our firearms and accessories divisions delivered results that exceeded our financial guidance for sales and net income, reflecting the successful implementation of our growth strategy,” said Debney in a statement.
“There’s a huge amount of demand in the United states when you get 50 to 75 miles away from coastal big cities,” said Brian Ruttenbur, analyst with BB&T. “There’s a lot of fear.” Consumers feel that “it’s an unsafe world, and I need to be armed,” Ruttenbur said, adding that the industry overall might well be down.
But Smith & Wesson’s aggressive marketing of cheap handguns appears to be enough to make up for the shortfall in rifle sales that has cut into gun industry profit margins.
And the suspicion, especially with respect to Obama, that gun confiscation laws are just moments away, has kept sales robust.
The surge is enough to keep investors calm about the ongoing SEC investigation at the company (the nature of which neither the regulator nor the firearms maker has disclosed). It’s also become reliable enough for savvy investors to ride the stock every time there are new calls for gun control, or as Seeking Alpha analyst Adam Alvarez put it earlier this year, “Chance Of Surge In Gun Sales Greater Than Chance Of Surge In Gun Regulations.”
But memory among second amendment aficionados is long, said Ruttenbur. “The Brady Bill [a 1993 bill that mandated background checks and a five day waiting period] was very restrictive and there’s concerns that that will come back,” he said.
Federal investigators are examining claims that high school students hacked CIA director John Brennan’s personal email account and published identifying information for more than 20 alleged CIA personnel.
On Monday the hackers released a spreadsheet allegedly from Brennan’s account that included the alleged CIA employees’ clearance levels, email addresses, phone numbers and social security numbers.
Former National Security Agency technical director Jasper Graham said the highly embarrassing breach of Brennan’s email was likely a “social engineering” attack, in which personal information supposedly only the account holder would know is used to break in.
“Social media has enabled this to the nth degree, because a quick profile search and a friend request and then LinkedIn can get you enough information to start resetting things. All the providers, whether it’s credit cards or banks, have to have something else in place.”
A Twitter account being used by the hackers threatened to release more information from Brennan’s account, which they reportedly breached after the hackers convinced Verizon to give them the details. The account was suspended Monday afternoon.
The hack of Brennan’s AOL account was first reported by the New York Post. According to the Post, the unnamed hacker described himself as an “American high school student who is not Muslim and was motivated by opposition to US foreign policy and support for Palestine”.
“We are aware of the reports that have surfaced on social media and have referred the matter to the appropriate authorities,” a CIA spokesperson told the Guardian. The FBI said that it too is investigating the hack.
Several of the cell numbers, posted by the hacker on Twitter, went directly to voicemail, though one went to a woman who said that she had been receiving calls for the person on the spreadsheet “for like two years”.
“I always tell people this is the wrong number,” she said. “If you do get in touch with him, could you ask him to update his information?”
The hackers – two of them, they say – have said on their Twitter accounts that they support Palestinian statehood; they also told Gawker with respect to the sudden spotlight on the breach that they were “pretty hype about it”.
The pair of Twitter accounts associated with the hack kept up a steady stream of teasing tweets followed by screenshots of potentially damaging information, including screenshots of financial info.
The breach comes as Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton faces intense scrutiny of her use of a private email account while she was secretary of state. Clinton is expected to testify before Congress about her private email server on Thursday.
The hack is one of dozens in the past several months, among them data broker Experian, the US government’s Office of Personnel Management, and a hotel chain owned by Donald Trump.
Sven Schrecker, chief architect of IoT security solutions for Intel, saidthe problem was not technological. “People haven’t had to worry about this for 15 years,” he said. “Every single email app out there has the capability to take [security measures such as] keys and certificates. Nobody uses them. Nobody. That’s your technology solution. That’s the problem.”
The advent of the “internet of things”, said Schrecker, is likely to raise awareness, if only because it will create further security challenges. “I don’t understand how, without a security infrastructure in place, any of that will ever be secure,” he said. (Intel and other companies are designing such architectures.) “There’s a certain time window, that we’re in right now, when we need to address these problems.”
Graham said that he had some sympathy for government organizations trying – and failing – to change their practices.
“The government is in a real bind in that they’re not like a lot of industries,” said Graham, who now works for security company Darktrace as senior vice-president of cyber technologies. “They have a lot of demands that say ‘you must interact with this department’ and it doesn’t matter if that’s a small department in the middle of nowhere that has no security.”
Graham likened the breach to evolving standards at banks. “Back in the very early days of bank-robbing, there wasn’t a standard for how to build a bank vault,” he said. “Now we don’t have vaults built out of straw any more.”
Graham said that if AOL or Verizon had raised a red flag by tracking the location of the login against Brennan’s usual points of access, the attack might never have happened: “I’m sure if [Brennan] had gotten a text message saying ‘do you want to reset your password?’ he would have said no.”
A government-controlled industry group targeted popular food bloggers, major publications and a celebrity chef as part of its sweeping effort to combat a perceived threat from an egg-replacement startup backed by some of Silicon Valley’s biggest names, the Guardian can reveal.
A detailed review of emails, sent from inside the AEB and obtained by the Guardian, shows that the lobbyist’s anti-Hampton Creek campaign sought to:
Pay food bloggers as much as $2,500 a post to write online recipes and stories about the virtue of eggs that repeated the egg lobby group’s “key messages”
Confront Andrew Zimmern, who had featured Hampton Creek on his popular Travel Channel show Bizarre Foods and praised the company in a blog post characterized by top egg board executives as a “love letter”
Target publications including Forbes and Buzzfeed that had written broadly positive articles about a Silicon Valley darling
Unsuccessfully tried to recruit both the animal rights and autism activist Temple Grandin and the bestselling author and blogger Ree Drummond to publicly support the egg industry
Buy Google advertisements to show AEB-sponsored content when people searched for Hampton Creek or its founder Josh Tetrick
The scale of the campaign – dubbed “Beyond Eggs” after Hampton Creek’s original company name – shows the lengths to which a federally-appointed, industry-funded marketing group will go to squash a relatively small Silicon Valley startup, from enlisting a high-powered public relations firm to buying off unwitting bloggers.
One leading public health attorney, asked to review the internal communications, said the egg marketing group was in breach of a US department of agriculture (USDA) regulation that specifically prohibited “any advertising (including press releases) deemed disparaging to another commodity”.
Tetrick called for the USDA to clamp down on the food lobby, as thousands of petitioners called on the White House to to investigate the USDA itself for “deceptive endorsements”.
“This is a product that has been around for a very long time,” the Hampton Creek founder said. “They are not used to competition and they don’t know how to deal with it.”
In statements, AEB’s Ivy and a USDA official denied any wrongdoing. An agriculture department official said that it “does not condone any efforts to limit competing products in commerce”.
The AEB contracted Edelman, the world’s largest public relations company, to coordinate the attack. One passage within the email tranche suggests that AEB amended its contract with Edelman to include a section called “Beyond EggsConsumer Research”.
“Conduct qualitative/quantitative consumer research to pinpoint and prioritize areas of focus. For example, research will, ideally, provide actionable intelligence on what attacks are gaining traction with consumers and which are not so as to help industry calibrate level of communications response (if any) to ensure a consistent response strategy moving forward,” the passage reads.
“Ads considered disparaging are those that depict other commodities in a negative or unpleasant light via either video, photography or statements,” said attorney Michele Simon, of the law firm Foscolo and Handel, after reviewing the AEB emails. “The entire contract [amendment] with Edelman violates this rule.”
Some of the web’s biggest food blogs were unwittingly paid from the “Beyond Eggs” budget to write supportively about eggs as AEB executives privately expressed mounting frustration about Hampton Creek, whose high-profile backers include the Facebook backer Peter Thiel, billionaire investor Vinod Khosla and other Silicon Valley luminaries.
When one Edelman executive, Jamie Singer, advised that the board wait on “an eventual and organic balancing of the media narrative”, Kevin Burkum, AEB’s senior vice-president of marketing, shot back: “Help us understand why the recommended course of action seems to always be sit back and do nothing?”
The emails reveal how AEB executives had grown increasingly frustrated about coverage of Hampton Creek, hailing the company as providing a high-tech and sustainable alternative to factory-farmed eggs.
In an email an AEB executive noted a blogpost by Zimmern – an influential TV celebrity – that complimented Hampton Creek and described caged-chicken egg production as “the poster child for everything farming and food systems shouldn’t be”.
The AEB executive complained Zimmern’s post was “a new love letter” to Hampton Creek and suggested sending the TV chef a study underwritten by the AEB to contradict his take. A long exchange discussed whether or not to respond to Zimmern’s offer to host a bake-off between Beyond Eggs and hen eggs.
On behalf of the egg group, Edelman contacted high-profile food blogger and Food Network star Drummond, author of several top-selling cookbooks. Drummond did not agree to work on the campaign, the emails indicate. The group also sought out Grandin, another famous figure whose endorsement would have been valuable. Grandin, too, appears to have declined.
In 2013, Google bought ads against Hampton Creek’s name and other search terms including Tetrick’s name and his chief product, Just Mayo, so that links to egg board-sponsored talking points about industrial farming would pop up alongside links to Hampton Creek. The AEB emailed about how to deal with Buzzfeed’s Rachel Sanders, who reported on the ads, and others who followed up on the campaign, in the emails.
The AEB retained at least five bloggers and contacted many more during the period covered by the emails. The bloggers disclosed the egg group’s advertising on their sites. The two bloggers who responded to the Guardian for this article said they were completely unaware that the sponsorships were part of a concerted effort against Hampton Foods.
Hemi Weingarten, author of the popular food blog Fooducate and an occasional columnist for the Huffington Post, published a post marked as sponsored by the AEB entitled “10 Reasons to Love Eggs” that including this sentence: “At just $0.15 each, eggs are the least expensive source of high-quality protein per serving.” This language is consistent with one of the American Egg Board’s most regularly used talking points.
Weingarten said he knew nothing of the campaign against Hampton Creek and pointed out that his blog had published positive coverage of the company. “As part of our ad sales activities we reach out to healthy brands and commodity boards to spend their ad dollars to reach our audience,” Weingarten told the Guardian.
Lori Lange, of the popular blog Recipe Girl, is listed by Edelman as receiving a fee of $2,500 for a bagel quiche recipe. Lange disclosed the post was sponsored. The Guardian emailed Lange for comment; she did not respond but did remove an AEB infographic that read in part: “Today’s hens are producing more eggs and living longer due to better health, nutrition and living space.”
Blogger Gaby Dalkin was paid $2,000 to include the AEB’s “Incredible Eggs” talking points in a recipe for breakfast burritos, and Susan Whetzel of Doughmesstic included the language in her in her Italian Egg Frittata recipe, according to the emails. Both disclosed the posts were sponsored.
Whetzel said she, too, was unaware that the blogpost was considered part of a campaign against Hampton Creek by the AEB, and that she had adhered to the Federal Trade Commission’s advertising guidelines by including a disclosure notice. “It’s obvious it’s a sponsored post,” she wrote in an email to the Guardian.
Dalkin did not respond but an email bounceback said she was out of the country.
The cache of 600 pages of AEB emails, first reported last week, was obtained by Ryan Shapiro, a Freedom of Information Act (Foia) expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Washington DC-based Foia specialist attorney Jeffrey Light.
The messages show Ivy, who is set to leave the AEB at year’s end after being named the industry’s 2015 Egg Person of the Year, received many messages from egg producers and processors who make up the board’s constituent members, are required by law to supply its budget and were evidently unnerved over the rise of Hampton Creek.
Ivy expressed a desire to push back at the positive media coverage the company would start to receive, from the pages of Forbes magazine to Buzzfeed and beyond.
“We know that shell egg producers are [...] feeling threatened by the introduction of this product,” she wrote in a September 2013 email.
In a statement to the Guardian, Ivy said the AEB’s efforts to “balance existing media efforts” were “common” practice and “part of a larger business strategy”.
“While egg replacers have been around for many years, we recognize that the interest in this category has increased recently,” she said. “[I]n response, we bolstered our efforts to increase the demand for eggs and egg products through research, education and promotional activities.
“These activities, which are common within the consumer products industry, include continuing to work with industry thought-leaders, conducting a paid social media strategy to balance existing media efforts and liaising with partner organizations.”
However it is the process of targeting a perceived rival that could prove most controversial for the AEB, a statutory body paid for by industry but partly appointed by the US agriculture secretary. Paid-for or “sponsored” blogposts are not uncommon, but the notion that a quasi-governmental body funded a campaign to undercut a Silicon Valley food startup could raise eyebrows.
WikiLeaks on Wednesday released 17 different documentsrelated to the Trade in Services Agreement (Tisa), a controversial pact currently being hashed out between the US and 23 other countries – most of them in Europe and South America.
The document dump comes at a tense moment in the negotiations over a series of trade deals. President Barack Obama has clashed with his own party over the deals as critics have worried about the impact on jobs and civil liberties.
On Tuesday, WikiLeaks put a $100,000 bounty on documents relating to the alphabet soup of trade treaties currently being negotiated between the US and the rest of the world, particularly the controversial Trans-Pacific trade agreement (TPP). The offer, announced yesterday, has already raised more than $33,000.
Wednesday’s leak is the third time that WikLeaks has published sections from secret trade agreements. In January it leaked a chapter from the TPP related to the environment. In November 2013 it made public a draft of the agreement’s intellectual property chapter, containing proposals that Wikileaks founder Julian Assange said would “trample over individual rights and free expression”.
Among the text leaked on Wednesday are Tisa’s annex on telecommunications services, an amendment that would standardize regulation of telecoms across member countries, according to WikiLeaks. Other documents in the batch of files relate to e-commerce, transportation of living people and regulation of financial services corporations.
Andrew Bates, press secretary for the president’s office of the US trade representative, said: “While the US does not comment on alleged leaked negotiating information, it is important to underscore that American services exports are at all-time high of $710.6bn, and those exports support 4.6m well-paying jobs all over the country.
“That is why president Obama has made opening markets for US services exporters a chief priority of his middle-class economics agenda.”
Unions, which fear heavy job losses once long-standing trade protections are dismantled, reacted with dismay following publication of the previously hidden documents. Public sector unions have sought protections for state funded services that could be threatened by increased competition. One proposal from Turkey that came to light following a previous leak of documents would endorse health tourism across all the countries covered by the deal.
Under the Turkish plan, people with health problems in the US and Europe would be encouraged to visit neighbouring countries for cheaper treatment, with the cost being reimbursed by their own health service or insurance provider. The plan implied that Turkey hopes to become a major provider of health services to Europe’s ageing population, paid for by European taxpayers.
Rosa Pavanelli, general secretary of the Public Services International union, said public services could be hollowed out by competition, though she said there was still huge uncertainty about the actual consequences of the negotiations “as understanding the full implications requires the whole text”.
She said: “It is outrageous that our democratically elected governments will not tell us the laws they are making. What has our democracy come to when the community must rely on Wikileaks to find out what our governments are doing on our behalf”
“The irony of the text containing repeated references to transparency, and an entire annex on transparency requiring governments to provide information useful to business, being negotiated in secret from the population exposes in whose interests these agreements are being made,” she said.
Nick Dearden, director of the charity Global Justice Now, formerly the World Development Movement, said: “These leaks reinforce the concerns of campaigners about the threat that TISA poses to vital public services. There is no mandate for such a far-reaching programme of liberalisation in services. It’s a dark day for democracy when we are dependent on leaks like this for the general public to be informed of the radical restructuring of regulatory frameworks that our governments are proposing.”
Evan Greer, campaign director for Fight for the Future, said: “Internet users have become increasingly aware that seemingly obscure and complex policies that impact technology can have profound impacts on our most basic rights to communicate and express ourselves freely. Based on the latest leaks, it’s clear that Tisa is not only unacceptably secretive, it contains provisions that could threaten internet freedom, privacy, and even global net neutrality.”
The TPP has been particularly controversial because of the level of secrecy around it – trade agreements by their nature are negotiated behind closed doors, but restrictions on the TPP are such that elected representatives aren’t allowed to express any specific reservations about its content to their constituents. Moreover, advisers specifically included in the conversation to represent the public say they aren’t being allowed to read the entire document. “Today’s consultations are, in many ways, much more restrictive than those under past administrations,” veteran trade advisor Michael Wessel wrote in Politico last month.
Activists were out in force today, though it appeared that serendipity, rather than coordination, was responsible for the string of pranks across Capitol Hill that coincided with the WikiLeaks release. Couriers purporting to have a message from President Obama showed up at the offices of several House Republicans with a note reading: “Please rubberstamp [sic] my secret trade agenda. I have included a stamp for your convenience.”
Inside was a list of bullet points about the trade deal, a note “from the president” and a rubber stamp with the face of Barack Obama and the words “I support President Obama’s Secret Trade Deal”.
More than 250 tech companies have signed a letter demanding greater transparency from Congress and decrying the broad regulatory language in leaked parts of the controversial Trans-Pacific Partnership trade bill.
The TPP would create an environment hostile to journalists and whistleblowers, said policy directors for the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Fight for the Future, co-authors of the letter. “TPP’s trade secrets provisions could make it a crime for people to reveal corporate wrongdoing ‘through a computer system’,” says the letter. “The language is dangerously vague, and enables signatory countries to enact rules that would ban reporting on timely, critical issues affecting the public.”
Among the signatories is activist, sci-fi author and Guardian tech columnist Cory Doctorow. “Democracies make their laws in public, not in smoke-filled rooms,” Doctorow wrote. “If TPP’s backers truly believed that they were doing the people’s work, they’d have invited the people into the room. The fact that they went to extreme, unprecedented measures to stop anyone from finding out what was going on – even going so far as to threaten Congress with jail if they spoke about it – tells you that this is something being done to Americans, not for Americans.”
Also on the list are prominent members of the open source community, including David Heinemeier Hansson, creator of the popular Ruby on Rails web development framework, image hosting company Imgur and domain name manager Namecheap.
There was a notable absence from the letter of big international tech companies like Apple, Google and Facebook. Apple and AT&T are part of the president’s International Trade Advisory Committee (which advises the Oval Office on matters relating to industry) and their representatives have presumably been able to read sections of the bill that would apply to their industry.
The letter’s signatories also criticized the fast-track bill, known as the Trade Promotion Authority, which is being discussed in Congress this week. If passed, the TPA would give Obama a yes or no vote on the trade pact without the ability for legislators to amend it. The fast-track bill needs to be passed to even give the TPP a shot at approval.
Several other companies and industry trade groups sent statements to Congress in support of the legislation, among them Cisco and the Consumer Electronics Association. The Seminconductor Industry Association said: “SIA strongly supports trade promotion authority (TPA) and applauds the introduction of this bipartisan legislation. TPA paves the way for free trade by empowering US negotiators to reach final trade agreements consistent with negotiating objectives laid out by Congress. Free trade is especially critical to the US semiconductor industry, which designs and manufactures the chips that enable virtually all electronics.”
TPP has sparked a growing row within the Democrat party. Senator Elizabeth Warren renewed her attack on the pact this week, issuing a scathing report on past trade deals.
Of particular concern to the tech community is an “Investment Chapter” of the TPP drafted in 2010 and leaked by Wikileaks. The letter’s signatories argue the provisions would allow corporations to use an international legal system to override national sovereignty: “The TPP Investment Chapter contains text that would enable corporations to sue nations over democratic rules that allegedly harm expected future profits. Companies can use this process to undermine US rules like fair use, net neutrality, and others designed to protect the free, open internet and users’ rights to free expression online.”
The section has likely been revised in the last five years, but whether the provisions have changed has not, and cannot, be disclosed.
“The future of the internet is simply too important to be decided behind closed doors,” said Evan Greer, campaign director of Fight for the Future. “The Fast Track/Trade Promotion Authority process actively silences the voices of internet users, startups, and small tech companies while giving the biggest players even more power to set policy that benefits a few select companies while undermining the health of the entire web.”
The controversial merger between Comcast and Time Warner Cable appears to be dead after the top regulator in the United States recommended handing the deal over to a lengthy hearing by an administrative law judge.
The blockbuster combination of the two top cable companies in the US was already threatened by a widely reported decision from the Department of Justice to block the merger on antitrust grounds. On Thursday, in the face of a threat from the staff of the Federal Communications Commission, Bloomberg reportedthat the deal is doomed.
Citing “people with knowledge of the matter,” the business news service said Comcast could decide whether to walk away from its proposed Time Warner Cable takeover as soon as Thursday, with an announcement on Friday.
A spokeswoman for Comcast said the company had no comment on the report of the merger’s dissolution.
The two telecommunications giants proposed to create a single operator that would have controlled up to two-thirds of US Internet connections and provided cable television to more that a quarter of the American market.
“The reason this is essentially a ‘death sentence’ is that it’s a multi-year process,” explained Rich Greenfield, an analyst at the research firm BTIG.
An FCC hearing under its rigorous judicial process, he said, “would involve senior Comcast executives taking the stand, and it’s very hard to imagine Comcast fighting a multi-year battle with the government. Even if they won that, it sounds like the Department of Justice is waiting to sue, so then you’d have to go to war with the DoJ.”
Rather than face a lengthy legal battle on two different fronts, the easiest way forward for Comcast appears to be to scuttle the merger entirely.
A reverse termination fee, or breakup fee, is usually a consolation prize for the smaller partner in a merger, paid by the larger partner if such a mega-deal fails—in Comcast’s case, probably about $1.35 billion. Time Warner agreedto waive that fee last year.
From the moment the Comcast-Time Warner deal was proposed, critics questioned the possible consumer benefit from a merger that created a company with such a large share across multiple markets. Others pointed to Comcast’s moves during its most recent huge merger with NBCUniversal, in particular its record on providing broadband to low-income households in markets like its hometown of Philadelphia, as it had promised to do. Comcast was responding to those charges as recently as Wednesday.
“[I]nternet users can breathe a sigh of relief,” Matt Wood, policy director of the internet rights lobbying group Free Press, wrote in a statement.
“Designating the deal for a hearing would make Comcast and Time Warner Cable go through a lengthy evidentiary procedure. That’s a very high hurdle to clear in its own right, and a huge barrier to overcome for a disastrous deal like this one, which has no real public interest benefits to show.”
Groups that support the merger objected to the FCC staff’s referral, saying that Comcast and Time Warner don’t compete because they don’t serve the same households.
“Blocking the Comcast-TWC merger won’t actually do anything to increase competition, encourage deployment or promote adoption among the underserved,” said Berin Szoka, president of anti-regulation group TechFreedom. “Making competition easier requires a lot of small reforms, none of which will make headlines, but together will help telcos compete with cable providers, help new players like Google Fiber enter the market, and make wireless a stronger alternative.”
Greenfield said he believes there are other attractive partners for a potential Comcast merger, but they are mostly in complementary industries rather than direct competitors. Wireless broadband, he said, was a good bet for the next step in the evolution of the cable market. “The world is all about broadband,” Greenfield said.