Search for secret Senator who killed Whistleblower Bill narrows to five

The silence of the whistles is deafening (Photo by Lkmorlan on Wikimedia)

Last month, On the Media launched an effort to track down the killer of the Whistleblower Bill in the Senate.  The Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act (S. 372) was intended to provide critical extensions to protections for government employees and contractors in an effort to expose corruption and waste. It enjoyed wide bipartisan support.

The bill originally passed unanimously by the Senate in the waning days of the 2010 lame duck session.  However, WikiLeaks delayed passage of it in the House. A bipartisan House agreement was brokered in the 11th hour, and legislation that would only extend coverage to non-intelligence employees for unclassified whistleblowing disclosures passed in the House by unanimous consent. The bill returned to the Senate where it died because one Senator issued an anonymous hold on it.

The irony of whistleblowing legislation being scuttled under a cloak of secrecy was not lost on the NPR based program whose staff set themselves the task of outing the closeted Senator responsible.  The offices of all 100 Senators were contacted, and 95 have asserted they did not issue the hold.  Five Republicans remain silent on their involvement.

  • David Vitter
  • Jeff Sessions
  • James Risch
  • Mitch McConnell
  • Jon Kyl

As of January 27, 2011, less than a month after anonymously holding the Whistleblower Bill, the Senate eliminated the practice of secret holds. This was a welcome change toward what both parties professed would be a more open and transparent government.  But the change was not retroactive, so the popular bill languishes in perpetual purgatory. The Senator who banished it, and the secrets he’s presumably trying to protect, remain unknown.

IBM’s Watson may be in Jeopardy with the law

Watson on Jeopardy
Watson's bookworm habits may be illegal

The supercomputer known as Watson made history this week when it soundly defeated Jeopardy champions Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter. The television friendly avatar at the podium concealed the massive number crunching power housed in the space of 10 refrigerators as Watson handily claimed the $1 million Jeopardy challenge prize.

Wired Magazine reported the 80 teraflop system was programmed by 25 IBM scientists over the last four years. During that time, researchers scanned some 200 million pages of content — or the equivalent of about one million books — into the system, including books, movie scripts and entire encyclopedias. All of which opens up a potential can of worms with regard to US Copyright Law.

In 2004, Google announced its intention to scan, digitize and make searchable the collections of five of the largest libraries in the world. Publishers and authors immediately reacted with claims of copyright violations. After all, if the contents of the books were available online, people wouldn’t be as inclined to purchase the books, and Google was not offering to otherwise compensate content creators for using their work.  Not to mention that Google would be profiting from the content.

It’s highly unlikely IBM procured publishing rights to the millions of source works fed into Watson.  Further, the content was used for profit when it won the $1 million prize. Undoubtedly, Jennings and Rutter have read numerous books as well, and also used that information for profit. But what does it mean for a machine to read a book? It’s clear that a human can read a book without violating the copyright, but humans lack total recall. Computers are not so limited.  Watson could reproduce pages or entire works intact.

In the not terribly distant future, Watson, or similar artificially intelligent systems, will be connected to the Internet.  They are the logical successor to services such as Wolfram Alpha that will be able to answer questions rather than merely return search results. They will necessarily have access to a wealth of copyrighted content.

The only thing that’s clear is that our century old copyright laws are ill-prepared to deal with this future. On the plus side, Skynet will never become self-aware and launch the Terminators to wipe out humanity because it will be unable to afford all the content licenses required to get that smart.

Boehner defends rights of Americans to be ill-informed

Speaker John Boehner
Boehner is eager to do the will of the ignorant

On NBC’s Meet the Press this weekend, Speaker John Boehner was pressed by host David Gregory to repudiate the baseless allegations of Obama being a Muslim and having not been born in the USA.  Boehner declined.  In the process, he said, “David, it’s not my job to tell the American people what to think. Our job in Washington is to listen to the American people.”

On the face of it, Boehner is merely restating what has become a tired mantra of many politicians—they are listening to the American people.  Yet the larger implications of his statement on a whole, especially in the context it was stated, are particularly troubling.

The Speaker told Gregory that people have a right to their beliefs and it wasn’t his job to tell them what to think.  However, as Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan said, “Everybody is entitled to their own opinions, but not their own facts.”  Where the President was born and what religion he practices are not matters of belief or opinion.  This is evidential information.  Boehner himself says he accepts Obama’s Hawaiian birth and Christianity as “facts as he understands them”.

Not only is Boehner saying he considers the views of the ignorant and misinformed to be equally as valid as everyone else, but he strongly feels that as a leader he has no obligation to lead.  He will just follow blithely where the unwitting wish.

This would merely be a comical interlude except that studies show that Fox News viewers are already the most misinformed citizens, and a Fox News insider has revealed a news culture where “facts” are routinely just made up to suit the desired narrative.  Boehner is making it all the more clear that misinformed constituents are now part of the Republican strategy.

Divided House GOP ups the odds of government shutdown

Pew Poll on Spending Cuts
Republicans favor spending increases when polled on specific programs

On Wednesday, Republican House leaders introduced $32 billion in budget cuts for the remaining seven months of the 2011 fiscal year, but were then rebuked by more conservative members who deemed the cuts not deep enough.  A big chunk of the incoming freshman class, elected on the promise of slashing $100B from the budget, are taking their campaign promise literally.

This creates problems for Speaker Boehner and his team who have vowed not to repeat the mistakes of the ill-fated 1995 Gingrich Congress who played a game of “chicken” over the budget and lost.  Boehner is faced with internal forces who are demanding extremely painful non-defense discretionary spending cuts.  Meanwhile, a new Pew Poll shows that most Republican constituents are not in favor of cutting much other than global aid and unemployment benefits.  This potentially puts the House leadership in a no-win situation.

The poll shows that while the American people are conceptually in favor of less spending, lower taxes, and smaller government, when you get down to specifics, there’s not too much they are willing to give up in terms of government services and programs.  There is a popular perception that government is so rife with waste and fraud that $100B could be saved without really impacting anyone’s life.  A false perception that was perpetrated by the GOP during the 2010 election when they tossed the $100B number about without any specific plan for how to achieve it.

Unfortunately for the GOP, many of their own members were drinking their Kool-Aid.  The Tea Party Caucus and other ultra-fiscal conservatives are now standing by their $100B pledge.  And they seem convinced that this time around the people would stand with them if they dare the Senate and Obama to reject their cuts—something House leaders are not so sure about.

With a looming budget vote and a debt ceiling vote, fiscal conservatives have two upcoming opportunities to force an economic crisis if they are unsatisfied with the budget proposals.  Neither a government shutdown due to a failure to approve a budget nor the global market shockwave that a refusal to raise the debt ceiling would cause will be tolerated by voters.  Yet there is virtually no chance a draconian budget approved by the House would get through the Democratically controlled Senate, much less the White House.  Even if it did, the poll indicates a significant voter backlash.

Unless the fiscal conservatives blink, the only path to avoid a crisis may be for moderate Republicans to break ranks with the Tea Party and cooperate with Democrats to pass reasonable budget bills.  This is something neither Boehner nor the Republican party wish to happen as it would fracture the unified alliance responsible for resurrecting the party after 2006 and would alienate the conservative base.

The GOP is between the proverbial rock and a hard place.  Yet it’s hard to sympathize as this is a situation of their own making.  It’s not clear if Republicans will win or lose, but it’s increasingly likely the people will lose.

Net neutrality proponent Tim Wu named senior advisor to the FTC

Tim Wu
Columbia Law Professor Tim Wu heads to the FTC

Columbia Law School professor Wu is credited with having coined the term “Net Neutrality.”  He is an outspoken advocate for an Internet free from corporate or government censorship or content restrictions. He starts his position on February 14th where FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz says that he will be “working on issues at the nexus of consumer protection, competition, law, and technology.”

Clearly, Wu will not be focused on net neutrality per se, but as knowledgeable tech savvy advocates for consumers go, this guy is the real deal.  All of which makes his appointment as a senior advisor to the Federal Trade Commission a little surprising given the Obama administration’s tendency to opt instead for industry insiders who advocate for the agenda of big business.

The FCC continues to waffle on issues like Net Neutrality. Meanwhile. Victoria A. Espinel, as Obama’s Intellectual Property Enforcement Coordinator (a position informally known as the copyright czar) is working with Homeland Security to seize domain names of websites without due process.  The government appears repeatedly to treat the Internet more as a threat to corporate America rather than as an asset to its citizens.

However, the FTC is flying a decidedly different flag.  In addition to Wu, the agency also appointed Ed Felton as it’s chief technologist a few months ago.  He’s probably best known for his efforts to expose problems with electronic voting machines, and for his vocal advocacy against DRM (Digital Rights Management) as a way to lock music, movies, and TV shows.

It’s not clear what’s in the water over at the FTC, but let’s hope it finds its way into drinking fountains across Washington D.C.