An ugly mood in America today…

At a bed & breakfast table this morning, the conversation among the B&B customers turned to yesterday’s verdict in the C**** A****** trial. People were incredulous, bordering on angry, at the acquittal. They _knew_ this was wrongly decided, and never mind the damn jury.

One woman announced that her friend watched the trial on TV and was certain that the defendant was guilty of murder. Another said, “She went partying after hearing her child was missing.”

I asked, as mildly as I could, if being a bad person is grounds for a murder conviction, and who were we to tell the jurors, who were actually there in the courtroom for the trial and ultimately didn’t believe this case was proved beyond a reasonable doubt, to say their doubts were unreasonable.

I got a couple of hard looks from others at the table. Happily, the conversation turned to other topics.

Then, on Twitter, I saw reports that the ever-odious Nancy Grace had essentially told a national TV audience that the verdict was BS. I know, this is her stock in trade: inciting the public to hate defendants she dislikes. But it’s dangerous stuff.

Maybe C.A. did it. Instead of bemoaning a verdict of not guilty, though, we should be cheering a system where, at least on occasion, the presumption of innocence — and a requirement of proof beyond a reasonable doubt — still means something.

The drumbeat of privacy debacles gets louder every week. But how can we fight back? It’s not easy, but the one bit of leverage we do have is our willingness to do business with the violators.

Sony is responsible for the worst recent database incursion, with its PlayStation network severely compromised. The company now admits, after a bizarre delay, that all kinds of sensitive user data, possibly including credit-card numbers and, most likely, even answers to security questions, is in the hands of criminals.

Meanwhile, Apple took its time even acknowledging what security experts had found to be problematic storage of users’ location data on the phones and the desktop computers to which they must be tethered for updates and backups. Steve Jobs’ current statements don’t fully square with what the company has said before, the Wall Street Journal reports, and Apple’s insistence that software “bugs” were responsible for much of the situation fails the smell test. As Gizmodo noted in its typically way, Apple’s PR-driven Q&A says, essentially, “We’re not tracking your location, we’re just tracking your location!”

I’m no longer a customer of either Sony or any Apple iOS products — largely because I disapprove of those companies’ control-freak tendencies — so I have no power to influence them by taking my dollars elsewhere. I hope their customers will consider making this kind of decision, and explain why if they do.

I did have that power with one of the companies caught up in yet another notable data breach in the last few weeks. Chase Bank issued one of my credit cards, and I have a small checking account there. In an April 6 email, Chase wrote:

Chase is letting our customers know that we have been informed by Epsilon, a vendor we use to send e-mails, that an unauthorized person outside Epsilon accessed files that included e-mail addresses of some Chase customers.  We have a team at Epsilon investigating and we are confident that the information that was retrieved included some Chase customer e-mail addresses, but did not include any customer account or financial information.  Based on everything we know, your accounts and confidential information remain secure.  As always, we are advising our customers of everything we know as we know it, and will keep you informed on what impact, if any, this will have on you.

We apologize if this causes you any inconvenience.  We want to remind you that Chase will never ask for your personal information or login credentials in an e-mail.  As always, be cautious if you receive e-mails 
asking for your personal information and be on the lookout for unwanted spam.  It is not Chase’s practice to request personal information by e-mail.

Such bland assurances are absurd. This is more than an inconvenience; for many customers it will be a big problem. When the bad guys have your email address and know what companies you do business with, they are eager to go phishing — that is, to pretend to be that company and lure you into a trap.

I’m not Epsilon’s customer. Chase is the customer, and that gave me limited leverage. But I had this much:

Using the messaging system on Chase’s customer-accounts website, I asked the bank’s customer support the following question:

My question is this: Does Chase plan to continue using Epsilon for these services? If so, I will be canceling my Chase accounts and moving them to institutions that take their customers privacy more seriously.

Chase initially responded with boilerplate informing me that it takes privacy “very seriously” — standard language that means nothing. I wrote back, saying that the reply was non-responsive and that I did want an answer.

Some days later, a Chase employee called. I asked again, did the bank intend to keep doing business with Epsilon? The employee said that Chase had “suspended” its use of Epsilon services while it investigated the hacking.

Even the suspension is suspect. I also asked how I would know if Chase was using this email provider again. I’d have to call back, she said. In other words, the onus is on me to find out if Chase resumes business with a vendor that has demonstrated its inability to protect Chase’s customers.

I’ve decided this isn’t good enough.

Chase had a chance to re-earn my trust, to make a statement to the public that this kind of casual treatment of customers’ information by its vendors is not acceptable and would not be tolerated. The only way I can imagine for this to be taken seriously is for Chase to announce that it’s terminating its relationship with Epsilon, period.

Since this isn’t happening, I’m looking for a new bank. If you’re a Chase customer, consider doing the same.

Continuing his lonely quest to get liberals to pay attention to President Obama’s horrendous record on civil liberties, Salon’s Glenn Greenwald today challenges ThinkProgress’ Matt Yglesias, who excuses Obama’s actions on the grounds that the president is just following public opinion. Greenwald has the better case.

But the more I watch Obama endorse and expand the Bush administration’s claims of essentially unlimited presidential power, the more I conclude that we have essentially one hope at this point.

Civil libertarians should hope, perversely, that Obama will abuse the powers he’s claimed — and which, given Congress’ craven acceptance, appear to be a bipartisan Washington consensus. Moreover, we have to hope that he’ll abuse them broadly, against people who support him as well as those who don’t. 

In the Clinton years, a significant number of Republicans hammered what they believed (accurately in many cases) was the White House’s tendency to claim executive powers that they were certain would be abused. For a time it was the GOP that defended civil liberties — hypocritical in the extreme in many cases, as it was mostly reflexive anti-Clinton paranoia, but useful nonetheless for those of us who were glad to see someone, anyone, pushing back.

Republicans and Democrats alike seem to have concluded that Obama won’t abuse his power, at least in ways they or their major supporters will find objectionable. In the case of Republicans, it’s unclear whether they figure he’s a wimp or naive about the “real world,” but the taunting by the right-wing pols and people like Limbaugh about “the regime,” and all the other alarm-ringing, is hollow at its core. Sure, it’s demagogic fear mongering, but I don’t believe most of these people really want their gun-laden supporters to actually use their weapons; that would harm their cause. Rather, they want these folks to get organized at protests and political meetings and ultimately in voting booths. Their goal is for Obama to fail, in ways that have historically led to right-wing surges, so they can get back all three branches of government again. Actual violence by their supporters would make that much more difficult.

If the Republicans don’t really fear Obama, the Democrats, have turned cowardice into an art form, seem to figure it’s okay to pander to fear and expand presidential power because a good person is in charge at the moment — and, as many have suggested, because lots of Democrats have deeply authoritarian impulses as well. The latter may actually be the more important motivation. But the Democrats’ hypocrisy — Patrick Leahy’s beyond-craven performance as one of Obama’s chief enablers in Congress is especially shameful, given his rhetoric during the Bush years — should surprise no one at this point. They demonstrated their total spinelessness during the Bush years. Why should we have expected them to change now?

But the political right is surely licking its chops, confident that when it returns to power there will be absolutely no constraints on their pro-authority (except for the 2nd Amendment) agenda. And Obama will have given them cover. He, as much as George Bush and Dick Cheney, will have laid the groundwork for a regime that goes all the way to the edge, if not over it.

Most depressing of all, the majority of the American people would probably welcome such a government. Our preference for the illusion of safety over the recognition and acceptance of risk has only grown. We are a society too afraid of our own shadows to confront reality, I fear. Someday, perhaps as soon as the next successful terrorist attack, we’ll get what we seem to want. 

Which is why I come back to my perverse hope that Obama will abuse his powers enough to pull enough scales from enough eyes, especially in Washington, that people understand what history teaches again and again: Untrammeled executive authority only seems like the easier road — until you’re in the way of the bulldozer.

On May 14 we attended a dinner in San Francisco. There was a valet parking stand, and when we arrived the valets were fairly backed up. We got behind several other cars and waited.

A few minutes later one of the city’s parking police came up behind the line. I asked one of the valets what was up, and he said they were out of parking spaces, though one might come open again if someone left. But, he said, the city was starting to ticket cars waiting in line.

We waited a minute, hoping someone might leave, and then pulled out and found our own parking.

A few weeks later I received a notice from the city, saying we owed money for illegal parking that evening. I filled out the protest form, noting that no one had handed us any ticket or put one on our windshield, and, moreover, that we’d moved the car. To repeat: The parking cop never handed us this phantom ticket, nor did he/she put on the windshield — and we were sitting right there.

Months went by, with two more letters saying the city was looking into the situation. Then, a couple of weeks ago, we got another letter saying the city parking department had decided we did owe for illegal parking. In other words, whatever its own employee — remember, the one who never actually handed us any paper — told them was considered true. Or maybe they just figured they could get away with going ahead with this bogus ticket.

Well, they did. As the city knows from the vehicle registration, I’m living a majority of the time in Arizona and can’t possibly take the time or justify the expense of challenging this ticket. So I’m sending the $100. I’m tempted to send a pissed-off letter to the mayor, but realize what an empty exercise that would be.

Instead, for the next few months, when we’re at our Bay Area place and thinking about going out to dinner or a movie, or going shopping, we’ll head somewhere other than San Francisco. At some point we’ll figure we’ve avoided paying enough city parking and other taxes/fees, etc. (including the local version of the multiplier effect — spending causing more economic activity), to have denied the San Francisco treasury somewhere in the vicinity of the $100 its parking police docked us. I regret that this means some restaurants and stores in the city won’t be getting our business during this stretch, but they’ve chosen to be where they are.

I assume this kind of thing happens all the time. Parking tickets are a fabulous source of revenue for a city like San Francisco. I also wonder if the people who govern the city realize how annoyed they make people with such tactics. I assume they don’t care. In the long run that’s poor policy.

Even though I’m now legally a resident of Arizona, I come back to California frequently and keep in close touch in any case. So watching the state’s finances reach the catastrophic stage has been a fascinating and scary experience.

California’s government is, in a word, dysfunctional. Yes, the hapless Legislature bears much of the responsibility, and Gov. Schwarzenegger’s tenure has been a pathetic joke. They have persistently enacted laws that make the problems worse, and refuse to face up to reality. Posturing has replaced politics, and the state’s on the brink of a true financial meltdown.

But residents might consider looking in the mirror as they decide whom to blame the most. They are the ones who elect these clowns. They are the ones who have voted for fiscally irresponsible policies via the proposition system, beginning with Prop 13, which was and remains the seed that grew into the forest of fiscal destruction.

Now the state is issuing IOUs instead of actual money to its creditors, including taxpayers who were expecting refunds. If the state doesn’t default on its obligations outright I’ll be amazed.

Unbelievable. Yet predictable, and sad.

Several folks I know and admire are seeking to intervene in a settlement between the Author’s Guild and Google, a deal that has many unfortunate aspects including the way it treats orphaned works — that is, works still protected by (ridiculously long) copyright terms where the authors can’t be found, or works that may or may not actually be copyright.

In this Letter to Request Intervention in Author’s Guild v Google, Lewis Hyde, Harry Lewis and the Open Access Trust are trying to get a federal just to let the public — that’s the rest of us — have a say in how these works are treated.

They want to “represent the community of readers, scholars, and teachers who use orphaned works” — to “defend our interest in orphaned works to defend the public domain’s claim to free, fair use.”

They have my support.

I’m a signer of a letter on a new site called “An Open Transition,” where a group of folks led by Larry Lessig:

  • celebrates the incoming administration’s decision to put a Creative Commons license on its Change.Gov transition website, thereby allowing anyone to share, remix and otherwise reuse and copy the material there;
  • and asks that this philosophy be extended widely in the new administration, and around the government in general.

Politico has a short story on this here.