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Just days after admitting that some 500 millions of its email accounts were hacked (allegedly Russians, of course), the Yahoo confessional continues as Reuters reports, somewhat stunningly that, Yahoo secretly built software to search all of its customers’ incoming emails for US intel officials. Yahoo’s reaction to this: we are “a law abiding company.”
Yahoo Inc last year secretly built a custom software program to search all of its customers’ incoming emails for specific information provided by U.S. intelligence officials, according to people familiar with the matter.
The company complied with a classified U.S. government directive, scanning hundreds of millions of Yahoo Mail accounts at the behest of the National Security Agency or FBI, said two former employees and a third person apprised of the events.
Following James Traub’s mind-numbingly-elitist rebuttal of the democratic rights of “we, the people” in favor of allowing “they, the elite” to ensure the average joe doesn’t run with scissors, “It’s time for the elites to rise up against the ignorant masses.”
The Brexit has laid bare the political schism of our time. It’s not about the left vs. the right; it’s about the sane vs. the mindlessly angry…
The Guardian’s David Van Reybrouck appears willing to take the fight for elite survival even further…proclaiming “our voting system worked well for decades, but now it is broken. There is a better way to give voice to the people…. you do not ask everyone to vote on an issue few people really understand, but you draft a random sample of the population and make sure they come to the grips with the subject matter in order to take a sensible decision. A cross-section of society that is informed can act more coherently than an entire society that is uninformed.”
Brexit is a turning point in the history of western democracy. Never before has such a drastic decision been taken through so primitive a procedure – a one-round referendum based on a simple majority. Never before has the fate of a country – of an entire continent, in fact – been changed by the single swing of such a blunt axe, wielded by disenchanted and poorly informed citizens.
But this is just the latest in a series of worrying blows to the health of democracy, and Yahoo Finance Editor-in-Chief, Andy Serwer took to his Tumblr, to explain why, in his opinion, Democracy, you could argue, is pretty much like sunshine, cold beer and ice cream. They’re all great —until you have too much.
Too much democracy? That’s not possible, is it?
In fact it may be. Some economists and political scientists are suggesting as much in the wake of the Brexit vote and the subsequent wave of “Leave the EU” sentiment that’s sweeping across Europe. And you can look to a big honking use case right here in the US to make that argument.
It’s way too early to tell how Brexit will affect the economy of the UK at this point — although early days have been rocky enough with the crashing pound, stumbling stock market, and political chaos. But I would argue the biggest negative of Brexit will be the messiness and uncertainty that ensues. The UK will be forced to rewrite tax rules, as well as draft and implement new legislation. It will have to craft a new relationship with Europe. And the UK will more than likely haggle over referendums in Scotland and Northern Ireland. An OECD report says Brexit could cost the UK 3.3% of its GDP by 2020.
Despite those headaches and risks, “Leavers” across Europe — including those in France, the Netherlands, Italy, Hungary, Austria and Finland— have taken up the call. A Citibank note says “… political risks in Europe are high and probably rising, in our view, and ‘referendum risk’ contributes significantly to these risks …” Those risks include outright withdrawal from the EU, scuttling of EU policies, and shying away from EU-centric policies that could bolster local economies. Citi notes that Italy and Hungary will likely both have referendums on matters pertaining to the EU this year.
So what does this have to do with the US, besides the collateral damage of a potentially basket-case Europe — (no small thing that, by the way)? Because while referendums are actually rare in the UK, (the Brexit vote is only the third to cover the whole UK), they are much more common in the US.
Twenty-six states — mostly Western ones — plus Washington, D.C., allow for initiatives and referendums. And over the years, there have been various successes and failures, never mind wackiness. (One of my favorites was the 2006 Arizona Voter Reward Act which would give a single Arizona citizen $1 million in every general election. It was defeated.) But other ballot initiatives of course are more serious, and in some states referendums and such have had real teeth, nowhere more so than in California, where they have been elevated to a powerful form of governance, with high-profile propositions.
For those of you old enough to remember, the watershed moment of the California Proposition movement was 1978 with the passage of Proposition 13, which capped real estate taxes. (Remember Howard Jarvis — the leader of the movement — on the cover of Time Magazine: Tax Revolt!)
The success of that vote ushered in a golden age of referendums for the Golden State, although that may be a mischaracterization. Since then the state has voted on hundreds of referendums on gun control, abortion, marijuana and the death penalty. But mostly the initiatives have tended towards the fiscal: i.e., taxes, budgets and bond issues. To some this has been a shining era of democracy. Others are not so sanguine, saying Prop. 13, for example, helped lead to the gutting of education budgets.
One thing that is undoubtedly true is that this so-called direct democracy model has made governing more difficult. The Economist delved into this in great length in a 2011 special report:
“This citizen legislature has caused chaos. Many initiatives have either limited taxes or mandated spending, making it even harder to balance the budget. Some are so ill-thought-out that they achieve the opposite of their intent: for all its small-government pretensions, Proposition 13 ended up centralizing California’s finances, shifting them from local to state government. Rather than being the curb on elites that they were supposed to be, ballot initiatives have become a tool of special interests, with lobbyists and extremists bankrolling laws that are often bewildering in their complexity and obscure in their ramifications. And they have impoverished the state’s representative government. Who would want to sit in a legislature where 70-90% of the budget has already been allocated?”
The best evidence of the effects of this dysfunction perhaps is that during this period, California experienced a precipitous decline in its credit rating. In 1980, California had an AAA rating. By the early 1990s it had fallen to single A, and it bounced around that level for decades until as recently as 2014, when it was the second-lowest rated state in the nation. (This is a state, of course, with Silicon Valley, Hollywood, oil and gas, timber, minerals and the richest farmland in the nation.) Say what you will about Jerry Brown (twice!), Arnold Schwarzenegger and Pete Wilson, but it ain’t all the governors’ fault. In fact it may be Jerry Brown’s multiterm experience with government by referendum that has allowed him get a handle on the state’s finances and help boost its credit rating back up to AA (from S&P), its highest rating since 2001. But that’s hardly consolation.
Direct democracy does have a shining example of efficacy, and that is Switzerland, though there certainly are reasons particular to that country — homogeneity being one — that explain why it has worked there.
Otherwise, I would argue that direct democracy is best used sparingly, for local initiatives perhaps. A big drawback of direct democracy is that those who want change — no matter its validity — are much more fired up than those who want to maintain the status quo, and therefore many more of the “Changers” go to the polls, as was perhaps the case in the Brexit vote. Think about the consequences of that.
I know it sounds horribly anachronistic, but checks and balances, branches of government, and slow, messy and deliberate governance actually have their place. It is true that both in the case of Britain’s relationship with the EU and with real estate taxes in California in the 1970s, real change was needed. In cases like this, and probably just in general, politicians need to step up more briskly than they are typically comfortable doing. But putting the onus all back on the people may not be the answer. One thing’s for sure, it certainly has its consequences.
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“at the beginning of the year Meyer’s severance was worth $158 million. It has since declined to $60 million. During the same time the enterprise value of Yahoo’s core operations, as valued by the market, has declined from negative $1 billion to negative $13 billion. Sounds like a fair trade.”
The last time we looked at the “value” of Yahoo’s core business was nearly a year ago, when the stock was trading at a comfortable $50/share, which however was entirely due to the result of YHOO’s non-core business. This is how Citi estimate the value of Yahoo’s core operations.
– What Your “Startlingly Intimate, Voyeristic” NSA File Looks Like (ZeroHedge, July 6, 2014):
A few days ago, we asked a simple rhetorical question: “Are you targeted by the NSA?”
The answer, sadly for those reading this, is very likely yes, as it was revealed that as part of the NSA’s XKeyscore program “a computer network exploitation system, as described in an NSA presentation, devoted to gathering nearly everything a user does on the internet” all it takes for a user to be flagged by America’s superspooks is to go to a website the NSA finds less than “patriotic” and that user becomes a fixture for the NSA’s tracking algos.
So assuming one is being tracked by the NSA – or as it is also known for politically correct reasons “intercepted” – as a “person of interest” or worse, just what kind of data does the NSA collect? The latest report by the WaPo titled “In NSA-intercepted data, those not targeted far outnumber the foreigners who are” sheds much needed light on just how extensive the NSA’s data collection effort is.
According to WaPo, the files on intercepted Americans “have a startlingly intimate, even voyeuristic quality. They tell stories of love and heartbreak, illicit sexual liaisons, mental-health crises, political and religious conversions, financial anxieties and disappointed hopes. The daily lives of more than 10,000 account holders who were not targeted are catalogued and recorded nevertheless.”
The Post reviewed roughly 160,000 intercepted e-mail and instant-message conversations, some of them hundreds of pages long, and 7,900 documents taken from more than 11,000 online accounts.
– Yahoo’s de Castro got $58M for 15 months on job (USA Today, April 17, 2014):
Henrique de Castro’s 15 months as Yahoo’s chief operating officer may have ended on a sour note, but it was sweetened by a severance package valued at nearly $58 million.
All but about $1 million of de Castro’s severance was based in the value of his equity award in Yahoo, which began appreciating after former Google colleague Marissa Mayer joined the company in July 2012. He became Mayer’s first big hire just four months later. But in a letter to employees following de Castro’s Jan. 16 ouster, Mayer said she “made the difficult decision” that he should leave.
His exit package outpaced Mayer’s 2013 compensation, valued at $24.9 million. She gained an additional $21.2 million from vested shares, Yahoo said in a preliminary proxy filing Wednesday.
A stunning new Snowden leak reveals that the UK spy agency GCHQ harvested images and text from millions of Yahoo video chats, including chats in which one or both of the participants was British or American. Between 3 and 11 percent of the chats they intercepted were sexual in nature, and revealing images of thousands of people were captured and displayed to spies. The programme, called OPTIC NERVE, focused on people whose usernames were similar to those of suspects, and ran from at least 2008 until at least 2010. The leak reveals that GCHQ intended to expand the programme to Xbox 360 Kinect cameras and “fairly normal webcam traffic.” The programme was part of a facial recognition research effort that GCHQ compared to “Tom Cruise in Minority Report.” While the documents do not detail efforts as widescale as those against Yahoo users, one presentation discusses with interest the potential and capabilities of the Xbox 360’s Kinect camera, saying it generated “fairly normal webcam traffic” and was being evaluated as part of a wider program. Beyond webcams and consoles, GCHQ and the NSA looked at building more detailed and accurate facial recognition tools, such as iris recognition cameras – “think Tom Cruise in Minority Report”, one presentation noted.
Sexually explicit webcam material proved to be a particular problem for GCHQ, as one document delicately put it: “Unfortunately … it would appear that a surprising number of people use webcam conversations to show intimate parts of their body to the other person. Also, the fact that the Yahoo software allows more than one person to view a webcam stream without necessarily sending a reciprocal stream means that it appears sometimes to be used for broadcasting pornography.”
The document estimates that between 3% and 11% of the Yahoo webcam imagery harvested by GCHQ contains “undesirable nudity”. Discussing efforts to make the interface “safer to use”, it noted that current “naïve” pornography detectors assessed the amount of flesh in any given shot, and so attracted lots of false positives by incorrectly tagging shots of people’s faces as pornography.
UK spy agency intercepted webcam images of millions of Yahoo users [Spencer Ackerman and James Ball/The Guardian]