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Saturday, August 16, 2008

McCain Critics Continue To Attack His Wealth

The drawback of John McCain's attack on Barack Obama's "elitism": it makes his own wealth fair game.

For the second time in as many days, critics of the Arizona Republican are using his riches against him. Brave New Films, headed by documentarian Robert Greenwald, released a short on Friday morning called "McCain's Mansions: The Real Elitist."

The film, while a bit long in length for traditional political fare, is absolutely brutal. Interspersed with testimony from a woman who suffered through foreclosure, the film highlights both the $36.5 million to (potentially) $100 million in assets McCain shares with his wife and the several plush, multi-million-dollar houses his family owns.

The video comes a day after the AFL-CIO similarly used McCain's wealth as fodder for a political attack. The union distributed fliers on Thursday pointing out, among other things, the 10 houses and $520 Italian loafers the Senator owns.

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Angry customer sues Time Warner over forced cable box rental

Cable companies shouldn't force subscribers into renting cable boxes when they could just purchase one outright and save money, a new lawsuit alleges. Kansas native Matthew Meeds has filed what he hopes will become a class-action lawsuit against Time Warner Cable and parent company Time Warner over what he considers to be an illegal tying arrangement that violates antitrust laws and hurts customers.

In a lawsuit filed earlier this week, Meeds notes that Time Warner customers in Kansas are forced to pay a rental fee to Time Warner for a cable box in order to view premium channels. Customers don't have the option of using their own box, and renting a cable box from Time Warner is apparently a condition of subscribing to the premium channels. "By doing this, Time Warner forces the class to pay a much larger amount of money than would be the case if they were allowed to purchase a cable box of their choice from the manufacturer of their choosing," reads the lawsuit.

This practice runs afoul of Federal Communications Commission's regulations requiring the cable industry to separate the descrambling capabilities of the cable box and place them in a separate device (a CableCARD), says Meeds. Although Time Warner does offer CableCARD to customers, it's not easy to find on the company's website and Time Warner promotes its own boxes as superior. Finally, even if customers decide to go with the CableCARD, Time Warner still requires customers to lease the device instead of buying it. In fact, it's quite difficult to purchase any sort of set-top cable box. Despite the FCC's optimism that the introduction of the CableCARD would open the flood gates to tons of third-party boxes, that has simply not happened thanks to manufacturers' disinterest in selling them customers and cable companies' desire to push the rental of their own devices.

Time Warner's actions constitute "unlawful tying" under to the Sherman Antitrust Act because the class can't unbundle tied products from their cable service, says Meeds, who also accuses Time Warner of acting as a monopoly and violating the Kansas Consumer Protection Act. Meeds would like to see the case turned into a class-action and have Time Warner pay damages, attorney's fees, civil penalties, and other costs involved in the suit.

When speaking to the Kansas City Star (via Techdirt) Meeds' attorney John Edgar likened Time Warner's behavior to the days when AT&T used to require customers to rent phones from the company instead of using their own equipment. "I think it's very similar to the cases brought back in those days, where slowly but surely, the courts whittled away at that kind of protectionist activity by AT&T," Edgar told the paper. "I think the same thing is present here. You have a lot of companies out there manufacturing these boxes, and there's nothing necessarily proprietary about them."

Indeed, it has now been 40 years since the FCC ruled that AT&T could not force customers to rent specific handsets directly from the company as long as other devices don't harm the phone system, and the landmark case has been used frequently to shape modern FCC rulings.

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Conservatives Claim Obama Is ‘So Bad For The Economy,’ While Wall Street Donates More To Obama

Conservatives have been trying to frighten investors about the prospects of a Barack Obama presidency. Larry Kudlow wrote, “Wall Street, beware,” while The Street’s Richard Moore suggested “that the market seems to do better when Barack Obama is having problems.” Michael Pento of Delta Global Advisers claimed another Depression is “where we’re headed” if Obama’s economic plans are adopted. Watch a compilation:

Wall Street however, disagrees, and is donating more to Obama’s campaign than to the campaign of Sen. John McCain (R-AZ).

Bloomberg reports that Obama “has captured $9.6 million in donations from employees working for securities, mortgage and drug companies, compared with McCain’s $6.6 million.” From “brokers, bankers and traders in the securities industry” Obama has gathered $8.9 million to McCain’s $6.3 million, and “their support comes even as Obama seeks higher taxes for wealthy Americans.” Workers in the mortgage industry, meanwhile, “gave $278,937 to Obama and $133,475 to McCain.”

In 2004, all of these industries donated more to President Bush than they did to Sen. John Kerry (D-MA). Yet by rejecting McCain, Wall Street is showing its dissatisfaction with the past eight years of Bush’s presidency, which saw skyrocketing deficits and financial crises. Perhaps they also want to make sure that benefits are dispersed throughout the economy, rather than given to just the wealthiest Americans.

However, there are some industries with which McCain is more popular. Bloomberg notes that the oil and gas industries gave their “million dollar maverick” McCain “four times the amount” that they’ve given Obama.

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McCain: ‘I Have Not Missed Any Crucial Vote’ On Energy Legislation

Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) currently holds the title of most absent U.S. senator, missing over 60 percent of votes this session. In an interview with Walter Isaacson at the Aspen Institute yesterday, McCain claimed he has not “missed any crucial vote” on energy legislation:

McCAIN: I have a long record of that support of alternate energy. … I’ve always been for all of those and I have not missed any crucial vote. But my citizens in Arizona know that when I’m running for the President of the United States I have to be out campaigning.

Watch it (via Progressive Accountability):

McCain’s has actually missed several “crucial” energy votes. In July alone, he missed every single energy vote brought to the floor. This session, McCain has skipped votes supporting renewable energy tax credits four times, all of which were filibustered. In June, for example, McCain missed a vote on the landmark Lieberman-Warner climate change legislation.

McCain has also been the “crucial” absent vote on key legislation. In December, legislation stripping tax break giveaways to Big Oil and investing in cleaner sources failed by one vote, 59-40 (Vote #425); McCain missed that vote to campaign. In February, McCain skipped a vote on extending tax credits to renewables, which also failed by one vote (Vote #8). Both times, McCain was the only senator absent.

“It’s interesting to hear Sen. McCain talk about bringing Congress back” for a vote on offshore drilling, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) said this week. “He wasn’t even in Congress when we had two very important bills on energy.”

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US jail guards in Iraq abuse case

Six US sailors working as prison camp guards in Iraq face courts martial for abusing detainees, the US Navy said.

Eight detainees were allegedly sealed in a pepper spray-filled cell at Camp Bucca in southern Iraq.

And it is claimed that two detainees were beaten, although suffered no broken bones, the US Navy said.

The assaults occurred on 14 May after some guards had been spat at and had human waste thrown at them by detainees, a naval spokeswoman said.

"Two detainees suffered minor abrasions as a result of the alleged assaults, eight others were confined overnight in a detainee housing unit which was sprayed with riot control agent and then the ventilation secured," the US Navy said in a statement.

The six sailors are charged with assault and will face courts martial at Camp Bucca within the next 30 days, Navy 5th Fleet spokeswoman Cmdr Jane Campbell said.

Seven other sailors received non-judicial punishments for failing to report the abuse at the sprawling desert camp, she said.

Two had their charges dismissed and others were given reductions in rank, with some also docked pay or confined to base for 45 days.

The latest abuse claims come after the US military said it had carried out reforms to its prison system.

In 2004 there was an international outcry after the release of pictures showing US soldiers humiliating detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison, west of Baghdad.

Abu Ghraib jail has since been closed and 11 US soldiers were convicted of breaking military laws.

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Congress to Push Web Privacy

Support for a law aimed at protecting consumers' online privacy is gathering steam in Washington. Representative Edward Markey (D-Mass.), head of the House Energy & Commerce Committee, says he and others plan to introduce comprehensive online privacy legislation in the coming congressional session.

Dubbed the Online Privacy Bill of Rights, the law may require companies to get approval from consumers before collecting information about their Web-surfing habits, a process known as behavioral targeting that helps Web sites more strategically place ads. The legislation may also demand that companies disclose more information on how they collect and use people's Web-use data. "There is a reasonable chance that we will see something in the next Congress," says Michael Hintze, an associate general counsel at Microsoft (MSFT).

Watching what you watch

Legislative interest in ad targeting spiked amid recent hearings over a company called NebuAd, which makes devices that attach to the networks of Internet Service Providers and log surfers' movements (BusinessWeek.com, 8/14/08). Lawmakers are particularly interested in the implications of NebuAd's technology, known as deep packet inspection (DPI), one of the most comprehensive ways of keeping tabs on what people do online.

An examination of NebuAd prompted congressional staffers to look at ad targeting more broadly. On Aug. 1, Markey's committee sent letters to 33 companies, including Google (GOOG), Yahoo! (YHOO), and Microsoft, asking each to outline its tracking practices.

Behavioral targeting has come into its own in recent years as companies crafted ever more powerful methods for combing through data. Internet companies have bolstered their ability to target ads through the acquisition of large ad networks able to amass their own information on consumers' site-viewing habits. During the past year, Microsoft acquired aQuantive, Time Warner's (TWX) AOL snapped up Tacoda, Google purchased DoubleClick, and Yahoo bought BlueLithium. The use of ad networks surged from 5% of total ad impressions sold in 2006 to 30% in 2007, according to a study released Aug. 12 by the Interactive Advertising Bureau.

Google's Move Toward Transparency

Markey's office says the legislation is still in the planning stages. For instance, it's unclear what kinds of targeting would fall under requirements that companies let consumers opt-in to letting their data be collected and used. Opt-in clauses could apply to DPI only, or they could include less comprehensive targeting, such as the methods employed by companies such as Google and Yahoo.

The industry is already reacting to new scrutiny from Congress and the Federal Trade Commission in an attempt to avoid federal intervention. During the past year, Yahoo, Microsoft, and AOL began allowing people to opt out of tracking on their sites. They also adopted policies for deleting or making search data anonymous after a certain time period. Updated policies were "long overdue," says Jules Polonetsky, AOL's chief privacy officer. "After behaving rather glacially, there has been a huge jump forward just in the past year."

More changes may be on the way, Polonetsky says. "The heightening focus on the Hill is going to prod companies to do more to give users transparency and control," he says. He expects companies to roll out data-retention limits on other kinds of information they collect. He also says more companies will let people see the data being collected by ad tracking services.

Google is already headed down that path, rolling out a new feature in late July that lets people see how search results are customized, using data such as past searches and IP addresses.

Lessons From the Do-Not-Call List

Privacy advocates argue that for now, the industry's response doesn't go far enough. The Center for Democracy and Technology urges companies to put opt-out links right on ads and says that the industry should establish a Do Not Target list, akin to the telecommunications industry's Do-Not-Call list.

Others want Congress, now that it's paying attention, to require opt-in for behavioral targeting. "It shouldn't have taken them by surprise, they haven't been looking at the new medium," says Jeffrey Chester, executive director of The Center for Digital Democracy. "No one was looking where this was going."

Most industry execs are eager to do whatever they can to avoid regulation. They prefer a combination of self regulation, education campaigns, and technological responses, such as tools that block so-called cookies, which follow a user's movements across the Web. Legislation is hard to tailor to the ever-changing tech industry, they say. "The challenge with legislation is that we're in a fast-moving industry," says Anne Toth, Yahoo's head of privacy and its vice-president of policy. "With things moving so quickly, from our standpoint a self-regulatory approach would be able to respond more rapidly."

Courting consumer trust

Yahoo and others also say they believe most people prefer to see more targeted ads. "We're not talking about more online advertising," says Trevor Hughes, executive director of the Network Advertising Initiative, an industry group. "We're talking about relevant advertising that consumers appreciate."

Privacy advocates contest that notion, pointing to surveys like the one released this spring by TRUSTe, a privacy policy accrediting group. In the survey, 57% of 1,015 respondents said they weren't comfortable with advertisers using their browsing history to serve relevant ads.

Some in the industry think that legislation might be the way to set a common standard and avoid inconsistent, piecemeal legislation on the state level. Microsoft came out in 2005 in favor of federal privacy legislation and thinks others are beginning to agree. "Companies are coming around to the notion that it's not only compatible with their business practices but [that it] can help them by enhancing consumer trust and making compliance more streamlined," Microsoft's Hintze says. Microsoft advocates privacy baselines that cover not just the online collection of data, but offline collection as well.

David Hallerman, analyst at researcher eMarketer, says legislation would go a long way toward assuaging fears of advertisers who fret consumers don't want their privacy compromised. He says that if an online privacy law were passed, "the benefit would be there for advertisers, publishers, and the public."

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