Monday, July 28, 1997

Week of 07/28/1997

Online Privacy
AOL, online services baiting government to act
- by David Matthews 2

This past week (7/24) the Wall Street Journal announced that America Online was prepared to sell out its 8 million subscribers to telemarketers. They would provide these telemarketers with the names, addresses, phone numbers, and online preferences for them to use at their discretion. The reaction was predictable. Online users began canceling their subscription to AOL. AOL stock dropped like a stone. And Steve Case was forced to backpedal on this so-called "member benefit." At least he backed off and said that the telemarketers wouldn’t call the members, but AOL employees would still call on behalf of the telemarketers.

For starters, the move by Chairman Case was contrary to everything AOL has represented. They said that the privacy of AOL members was assured. And now that is for all intents and purposes gone. Deleted much like the semi-nude glamour pics they used to have. Worse yet, he and the "TOS GODS" have the utter gall to refer to the move as a "member benefit." Yeah, that’s as much of a benefit as calling a prostrate probe a "pleasurable experience." (Trust me, if you don’t already know the mechanics involved in that procedure, YOU DON’T WANT TO KNOW!)

By the way Steve, let me put this to you in terms you can understand: telemarketers are PHONE SPAM! You are trying to sell the names and phone numbers of all your customers, including myself, to people who SPAM on the telephone instead of a modem or fax machine! Is that getting through to you?

Look, we know there’s no such thing as online privacy anymore. You don’t believe me? Go to Yahoo’s White Pages and do a search for your name. It’ll have your name, address, and phone number on there. You wonder why the guy you flamed or had a flaming hot cyber-chat with just showed up at your doorstop? That’s how! And that’s not including the number of cookies that appear on your browser. I’ve encountered so many sites that have cookies that I have to turn the sound off when I go browsing because it sets off my cookie-notification window in Netscape! The only places where I surf that I allow cookies to be put in my system are the sites I’m familiar with. By the way, if you have set your browser to alert you for cookies, you might want to see what kind of cookies they are putting into your system. On a few of them I caught my own POP number! Folks, that’s the equivalent of walking into a mall and shouting your name and address to the crowd. You know I didn’t allow that to happen in a site I wasn’t familiar with!

All of this is leading to one inevitable conclusion: forget Big Brother, now we have electronic peeping toms wanting to look into our lives and know what we’re doing online.

And guess what? These Little Brothers are tempting Big Brother - government - into action!

As a rule, government hates not having rules. They feel everything in their line of vision needs to be compartmentalized and structured into laws and regulations and general orders that they can control and modify to suit their needs. So you can imagine their reaction to an entity like the Internet existing without such structured controls and their growing inability to control it. This used to be their creation! And now they’re getting their hands slapped by the Supreme Court when it comes to controlling information.

There are two basic ways government is spurned to action. The first is when their special interest masters (the ones paying their re-election campaigns) tell them it’s an issue. That’s how the Communications Decency Act and the various bills about encryption technology were created. The second is when there is a case of blatant abuse that needs to be corrected. That’s how the spam bills were created, and now how information is being gathered about computer users.

The Federal Trade Commission recently left warnings to companies that gather such information not to do so about children who use the Internet. Congress has currently a couple of bills designed to protect computer users from intrusive information collectors and the businesses that use that information. No doubt one of them will get passed. The issue is too great and the level of intrusion is too heavy not too.

To be honest, I don’t know where I should stand on this issue. As much as I abhor the government getting involved, this is one of those rare instances where the members of Congress ARE doing their jobs, namely protecting individuals from intrusive entities. And as long as the laws are written as such and not laden with other needless amendments (fat chance) this is a law that will be praised by the cyber-community. Grudgingly, but praised nonetheless.

Steve Case and his ilk haven’t gotten the message yet. These measures wouldn’t have existed if corporations decided early on to limit themselves. After all, who do they think they are? The Clinton Administration?

Monday, July 21, 1997

Week of 07/21/1997

Tax Confusion 101
Why The Democrats Win In The Tax Cut Argument
- by David Matthews 2

Here’s a no-brainer for you: If I offered you a choice between $500 cash in hand or $500 on an IOU, which one would you take? The cash, right? Why? Well, you’d say, because the cash would be THERE. You could see it, put it in your pocket, and do what you like with it. You couldn’t do that with an IOU.

But what if I told you I would give you $500 right here and now, and instead of cash, I give you that $500 IOU? You’d think I was nuts, right? You’d want to know what happened to the money.

Well can somebody tell me how the politicians in Washington are able to get away with confusing TAX CREDITS with TAX CUTS and not be pummeled by 1040 forms, sharp pencils, calculators, and every accountant in the New York City Yellow Pages?

The two terms are not interchangeable. TAX CUTS are just that, a cut in your taxes. A tax cut means not having that much taken out of your paycheck in taxes. That means more money coming home every payday. Money in your hands to buy groceries, to pay bills, to spend on your family or yourself.

TAX CREDITS, on the other hand, are nothing more than an IOU. It’s the government telling you "I owe you X amount." It won’t pay up on that IOU until it’s time to do your taxes; when that money is then deducted from the amount of taxes you are expected to have paid. There is no change in the way you’re taxed. The same amount of money will go out of your paycheck to the government.

So why are we bringing it up? Well it all started when the Republicans promised the American people a TAX CUT. What they put in the bill, though, was something called an "earned income credit" for families. Essentially a TAX CREDIT. They ballyhooed it as something that the American family desperately needs. Problem being, folks like Newt Gingrich were still calling it a TAX CUT.

You with me so far? OK. Here’s where it gets confusing.

So now the Democrats and President Clinton look at this "earned income credit" that the GOP is calling a TAX CUT and are saying "Well if you’re giving tax credits to the middle class, why not give some to the working poor? After all, they’re paying taxes too." Never mind the fact that the GOP was talking about INCOME taxes and not money taken out for FICA. The Democrats have seen thought this illusion, even if the real people out there in the real world haven’t yet.

So now the Democrats have thoroughly confused everybody by turning one white lie into a whole mess of lies! And it looks like the Republicans may actually have to cave in.. AGAIN!

Look folks, this whole mess wouldn’t have started if the Republicans in Congress didn’t lie about giving people a tax cut when they’re poised to give people a tax IOU. And a relatively cheap one at that! $500 per child, per family may seem like a lot of money to us real folks, but when you boil it all down, it’s less than $10 per child a week. TEN DOLLARS! And remember, it’s not even money your hand, but money that would only exist ON PAPAER!

Let’s be brutally honest here, the Republicans in Congress are trying to pull another smoke-and-mirrors trick on the American people, and the Democrats have aggravated the situation even worse going back to their old class-warfare language. If the GOP was really serious about helping out the American families, they should stop playing with a failed socialistic tax code and instead bring the flat tax debate back into the forefront. They know the Democrats hate a flat tax, but right now they aren’t in a position to argue, right? After all, this IS still a GOP-controlled House and Senate, right?

That’s assuming, of course, that the Republicans are genuinely concerned about the American people, instead of pretending to do so like the Democrats.

Monday, July 14, 1997

Week of 07/14/1997

TV Media now feels the heat of Congress
- by David Matthews 2

Before we get into this article, let me say that the following rant has been rated "BH" for brutally honest material. It’s also rated "BP" for the occasional bashing of politicians for being what they are.

Now that I’ve said that, let me be the first to welcome the National Broadcast Company to the ranks of the anti-establishment. I’m sure there’s a lot of you who are scratching their heads and wondering why I’ve mentioned this, so let me explain.

There was a lot about this sham politicians have the balls to call the Telecommunications DEREGULATION Act of 1996. There was very little about the "deregulation" part and more about re-regulations. It should have be called the REREGULATION Act because that’s all there was. More freedom? Hardly! And sure we’ve been picking it apart a piece at a time. Cable TV is free to broadcast it’s stuff without content regulations. The Internet is finally free from the Anti-American piece of trash called the Communications Decency Act. But those took lengthy court battles and decisions from the US Supreme Court to do it. There are more to come.

But there was another part of the Telecom Act that affected television - the V-chip.

First, let me say that I support the concept of the V-chip, giving parents the means and the ability to control content for themselves instead of from the government. It’s a great idea whose time has long come. But on the flip-side of this is the realization that once you give the parents that power, government HAS to give up THEIR power to control that content. And you know the federal government doesn’t want to do that!

So the first thing the government does is tell the television networks that they will have to come up with a "voluntary" ratings system. "Voluntary" is a rather nice term for the government. It’s as much voluntary as you or I can "volunteer" to pay our taxes.. at the barrel of a gun.

The network executives got together and came up with a ratings system that they feel they can live with. And they tell Congress in no uncertain terms "This is what we have come up with, and if you don’t like it we’ll nail your ass to the wall in the courts!" No problem, right? The government gets their ratings system, it’s a simple code that anyone can understand, and EVERYONE, even the cable networks and Playboy TV, run them.

But not everyone is happy about the system. Certain parents groups were hoping for a content-based ratings system instead of a vague age-based system. Good idea, except for all the various letters certain groups wanted to put in there. We all would identify with the "V" for violence and "S" for sex and "L" for language. But then they wanted letters for non-explicit sexual language, drug use, non-explicit drug use, cartoon violence, kissing, skimpy clothes, non-explicit but derogatory language, and so on and so forth. You get the picture?

So these parents groups bitched to Congress. And bitched. And bitched. And bitched. And Congress bitched back. Well they did more than just bitch back - they made their usual threats to the TV executives. "Conform!" they screamed. I half-expected them to start saying "Resistance is futile!" or some other Borg-like terminology.

To be honest, I really hoped that the TV execs would stand their ground. After all, they made this big deal about "this is the ratings system we feel comfortable with," and threatening to take Congress to court if they didn’t like it. After all, we in the Internet community just proved that the will of the Congress isn’t all-powerful. Instead, they chickened out.

NBC was the only major network who rebelled against Congress. Of course they haven’t abandoned all the decency standards, and they are still going to use the age-based ratings system currently in place. They simply saw the changes for what they are - nothing more than an effort by Congress to appease the pro-censorship crowd. They cried foul and told Washington to drop dead.

Welcome to the club, boys! So tell me, how does it feel to have Congress breathing their power-hungry breath down YOUR backs for a change? Not fun, is it? Maybe now you won’t be so eager to talk about government-imposed censorship like you did during that CDA fracas.

And how is the government handling this? They are standing smug with that glazed-over Borg look saying "Resistance is futile, you will be assimilated into the collective."

Look, I’m not saying that the concept of a ratings system isn’t a great thing, and I’m not certainly a big supporter for the age-based system they came up with. But the way this system has been set up and imposed by the heavy-handed efforts of career politicians and their special interest masters annoys me to no end. The V-chip is still YEARS away from implementation, so we have no idea how this new system will work with the ratings system Congress wants. Congress needs to be reminded of this fact, and their big-money PAC masters need to be reminded OFTEN of it. They need to have this fact slap them in the mouth every morning like bad breath.

Or better yet, we can remind them of the consequences of what will happen WHEN the V-chip takes effect and the digital signal becomes standard: no more "decency standards" for TV programming! No more mandatory educational programming! No more FCC content controls! TV signals will no longer be "intrusive" and "indiscriminate" as the Supreme Court has held for over fifty years. And ONLY THEN will television be finally given the same First Amendment protection given to the Internet and print media! Wonderful for the real people, but horrific to the politicians and special interest groups!

Trust me, with that kind of realization, it’ll have members of Congress up at night screaming bloody murder!

Monday, July 7, 1997

Week of 07/07/1997

The Bully-Payment
Something is intrinsically wrong with this tobacco deal…
- by David Matthews 2

You know, life wasn’t all hunky-dory when I grew up. Matter of fact, there were a few guys who seemed to make it their mission in life to ruin mine. They were rather annoying people who would kick my school books out of my hands, hurl small objects at my head, trip me up, and otherwise find any and all faults and then make sure everyone knew about them. And no matter what I tried to do, there was no stopping these guys.

Lately I’ve been thinking I should go back up to Connecticut and New Hampshire, track down my former bullies and say "You ruined my life! You owe me money!" And when they didn’t give me huge sums of money, I’d threaten to sue them for every cent they had. And I figure I wasn’t the only one who was tormented by these guys, so it would probably be a good idea to get hold of some other former classmates who were victims and get them signed on to these lawsuits as well. It’s always wonderful to have strengths in numbers, isn’t it? Of course, I won’t have to show who in particular ruined my life, I’ll just sue them all for doing that. And I won’t show HOW they ruined my life. I’ll just bring up statistics that showed the probability of how their actions resulted in ruining my life. After a few of those class-action lawsuits were filed, I’m sure these former tyrants of the school yard would be all too willing to settle out of court for the vast sums of money that I’d demand.

Doesn’t that sound ridiculous?

Well believe it or not, that’s my impression of these so-called "tobacco talks." Essentially we have the Attorneys General of a few-dozen states going to tobacco companies and saying "You ruined these peoples’ lives! You owe us money!"

Oh sure, there are some subtle differences. After all, we’re talking about people who have engaged in smoking cigarettes for decades.. even after thirty years of warnings that smoking causes all sorts of health problems. I’m waiting for the latest study that says if you smoke, you and everyone around you will DIE! Can we get yet ANOTHER study out leading to the exact same conclusion? I’m not doubting the studies that say smoking cigarettes causes all these health problems, but I think it’s interesting that there are all sorts of studies about cigarettes and zip about cigars and pipes. Same drug, is it not? Comes from the same kind of plant, right?

Of course, nobody ever talk about BANNING such a dangerous substance. Sure, 48 states and the federal government ban the use of marijuana (only 2 states allow the medicinal use of it), despite claims of medical benefits of it’s use. Of course, you hear very little about the effects of second-hand pot smoke. Or for that matter any hazardous effects of second hand smoke from ANYTHING other than from cigarettes.

While we’re at it, if the tobacco companies are so evil, why are we continuing to provide subsidies for tobacco farmers? Isn’t that like providing subsidies for marijuana growers?

Let’s be brutally honest here. This is nothing more than a money grab by states who want to make a quick buck at the expense of the tobacco industry. A recent article in Forbes magazine identified that all the lawyers involved in these talks are the same hired guns who sued Dow Corning for breast implants, and who also sued the asbestos companies. In fact, these are the highest paid lawyers in the country, and they make their money by taking big corporations to court in class-action suits and then settling big! And we’re talking about the Donald Trump Lotto To End All Lotto of settlements here, measured in the billions of dollars! And guess how much of that settlement these hired guns will be getting as attorneys fees? Try at least a THIRD!

Of course, the tobacco companies are eager to settle, since they made sure that part of the deal meant NO MORE LAWSUITS! Besides, the focus of these suits have been on cigarettes, not on tobacco in general. And it won’t harm their lucrative foreign sales, which are on the increase.

I have never smoked a cigarette in my life, nor have I ever WANTED to, even though I have been at times surrounded by family and acquaintances who have smoked like chimneys. Yet it burns me up to see so many moralists and neo-puritans decide to pass judgment on smokers. If the information about the number of smokers is accurate, we’re talking about harping on a substance that not only affecting just 25% of the populace now, but on a populace that has been on a steady decline! There are more than twice the number of non-smokers today than smokers!

Of course all that is irrelevant to the issue. According to these states, this whole issue isn’t about the decline of smokers. No, not at all. This is about "PROTECTING CHILDREN!" Once again the moralists have hid behind babies in order to shovel their morals down the throats of smokers with impunity. They want to "protect" children from yet another "evil industry." How? By killing off fictional characters like Joe Camel and the Marlboro Man. Isn’t that nice? Saving our kids from fictional characters! Besides, I thought it was already ILLEGAL for kids to smoke anyways. Whatever happened to those laws?

The hypocrisy of this is staggering. We have a LEGAL substance being treated like it was an ILLEGAL substance. We have a Vice President who in 1988 was pandering to the tobacco farmers, and eight years later was smiting them. By the way Mister Gore, how’s the family tobacco farm?

The worst part about this whole affair is that it’s setting some really dangerous precedents here. First cigarettes are heavily regulated because of the dangers involved and to "protect children." What will be next? Well you know beer commercials will be next, because heaven forbid we can’t have commercials showing young adults having fun and linking that to alcohol. But they’re already heavily regulated, so the Pleasure Police really can’t cause too much public havoc over that issue. You know, all that junk food really isn’t good for children either. Why not ban the advertisement of junk food and sue the "evil junk food industry" for endangering children? After all we’re not talking about banning the substance, just banning the advertisement of it. Don’t laugh, because there are some people who are actually thinking about doing just that!

Look, we need to slap the Pleasure Police down hard with a good, healthy dose of reality here. Substances that are legal to obtain should be equally legal to advertise, even if it’s a substance you may not like, and even if it’s a substance that may not be healthy for you. Adults are going to get wasted, get drunk, strung out, or smoke something that might foul up their lives in the future. It’s been that way since the dawn of time. As long as they ARE adults and they know what to expect when they do it, we need to keep our distance and let them decide for themselves how to live their lives. That is what being an adult is after all.