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Inside ALEC: the Secretive Council that Funds Prisons and Climate Change

ALEC puts people in for-profit jails, prevents gun laws, and stops action against climate change—all from inside locked hotel conference rooms.

In the "corporate bill mill" where corporate leaders and politicians meet, schmooze, and decide the future of the planet, evil is at work.

Georgia Senator Nan Orrick, a former ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council) member, describes back rooms in Vegas resorts and behind-closed-doors legislative sessions where corporations not only vote on bills—they write them.

ALEC brands itself as an educational charity, she says, but hefty donations (memberships can cost $25,000 a year) fund "education efforts" for legislators, according to a local 11 Alive broadcast—educational efforts led by multi-billion dollar corporations with specific agendas.

The Investigators: ALEC - The Backroom Where Laws Are Born www.youtube.com

In the end, Orrick left ALEC because it was just a bunch of "angry white men," she said.

But these "angry white men" have arguably guided America towards the state it's currently in, making some sort of revolution inevitable.

From the Prison Industrial Complex to Stand Your Ground: ALEC's History of Oppression and Harm

ALEC was partly responsible for the massive spike in prison populations over the last few decades—a 500% increase over the last 40 years, to be exact. In 1995, ALEC's "Truth Sentencing Act" was signed in 25 states. ALEC also pushed for mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders. And ALEC helped privatize the bail bond industry and has worked to pass laws to create for-profit prisons, catalyzing what we now know as the Prison Industrial Complex.

Unsurprisingly, two of ALEC's major sponsors include the Corrections Corporation of America and the Geo Group (formerly Wackenhut Corrections).

"An In These Times investigation last summer revealed that ALEC arranged secret meetings between Arizona's state legislators and CCA to draft what became SB 1070, Arizona's notorious immigration law, to keep CCA prisons flush with immigrant detainees," write Mike Elk and Bob Sloan in The Nation. "ALEC has proven expertly capable of devising endless ways to help private corporations benefit from the country's massive prison population."

In Ava DuVernay's documentary 13th, which tells the story of Black oppression in America from the ratification of the 13th Amendment in 1865 until today, she dives into ALEC and how—building on momentum from the War on Drugs—it resulted in the mass criminalization of Black people, leading to a system of punishment that Michelle Alexander calls "The New Jim Crow."

13TH | FULL FEATURE | Netflix www.youtube.com

ALEC has a long track record of creating racist policies that disenfranchise vulnerable populations. For example, they were an origin point of voter ID laws that successfully prevented many voters from participating in elections. In 2011, the civil rights organization Color of Change launched an investigation into ALEC's political actions in 2011, and reported that for years, "the right wing has been trying to stop Black people, other people of color, young people, and the elderly from voting for partisan gain—and now some of America's biggest companies are helping them do it."

ALEC was also responsible for creating the "Stand Your Ground Laws," which helped George Zimmerman go home free after he shot Trayvon Martin.

Once people began connecting the dots and investigating this law across states, they realized that the bill looked almost identical from state to state—and were able to trace its origins back to ALEC.

A Foundation Built on Disregard For Human Life

Destruction is in ALEC's lifeblood. Two of ALEC's early founders were the Koch brothers, both of whom played a significant role in destroying early government action against climate change. Over recent years, ALEC has doubled down on its efforts to defend fracking and to fight against protestors and whistleblowers, passing bills that threaten to fine and imprison anyone who attempts to vandalize pipelines, and beyond.

Business Insider Koch Brothers

Other current corporate sponsors include the tobacco industry, the giant pharmaceutical company Pfizer, the National Rifle Association, Wal-Mart, ExxonMobil, and hundreds of other corporations. That means that these major corporations have a say in what bills are passed where.

ALEC has faced some resistance. After whistleblowers published a database called ALEC Exposed in Wikipedia, corporate sponsors began to face pressure to leave the shadowy lawmaking organization. Coca-Cola, Kraft, Intuit, the Gates Foundation, Google, and other companies pulled out. Hundreds of legislators have cut ties—but ALEC continues to meet year after year.

ALEC Is Still Alive and Well—and Was Fighting to Reopen in Mid-May

ALEC is still alive and well today, if quiet (or very good at diverting attention from it). According to the ALEC Exposed Wikipedia page, ALEC has been "Leading Right-Wing Campaign to Reopen the Economy Despite COVID-19" this May.

The suffering that some of ALEC's bills have caused is literally unimaginable–and genuinely apocalyptic in scale. The number of lives ruined from big pharma, gun violence, climate change, and mass incarceration is absolutely uncountable. Bills like the "No Sanctuary Cities for Illegal Immigrants Act," the "Consistency of Firearm Regulation" Act (which prevents local areas from restricting firearm possession), and many others have each had brutal lived consequences on people's lives—and each was created in an unjust, secretive way.

Yet ALEC still insists that it's a legal organization and that its nay-sayers are simply delusional leftists.

But if ALEC really were a legal organization, wouldn't they open their doors to the media instead of forcibly removing the reporters who try to enter at its annual policy summit?

Of course the fact that corporations are running the show nowadays isn't exactly a surprise, and ALEC is just one of the many corporate lobbyist groups that are "ghostwriting the government," as one Harvard Political Review report put it. The best of these groups are probably so secretive that no one knows exactly what they're called or where they are. Certainly, ALEC is growing alongside the times, figuring out how to further its agenda as more politicians refuse corporate donations, and who knows: It may disappear completely, reforming itself as another slick corporate group in some other identical hotel ballroom, ruining lives with the flick of a few keystrokes.

But at least the people are beginning to wise up to the fact that many of our lawmakers have pledged allegiance not to the people but to corporations.

United States of ALEC: A Follow-Up www.youtube.com

The Fourth Amendment: Your Privacy in the Digital Age

Here are three crucial ways the digital age complicates your protections under the Fourth Amendment.

When the Fourth Amendment codified citizens' protections against government spying in 1791, Americans couldn't say, "Alexa: turn off the lights." With technology pervasively conducting our daily errands, the amendment against illegal search and seizure is not equipped to protect digital users. In fact, David Cole, a law professor of constitutional law and national security at Georgetown University, critiques, "In the modern digital age, it means very, very little."

To be clear, the totality of the Fourth Amendment reads: "The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized."

Here are three crucial ways the digital age complicates your protections under the Fourth Amendment:

1. Law enforcement doesn't always require a search warrant to enter your home

When police want to mine your private information on suspicion that you've committed a crime, they have to meet the familiar requirement of "probable cause." Traditionally, they must convince a judge that there is a sound reason to search and/or bug your property for surveillance. True to the wording of the law, your protected personal belongings include your physical body, "houses, papers, and effects."

However, "probable cause" includes the "plain view" clause, wherein authorities have the right to enter your home if they see evidence, contraband, or suspicious materials in your home. In the age of social media, a picture, check-in, or status you post could very well justify law enforcement entering your home without a warrant. The ruling in Katz v. United States stands as the most notable example that qualifies the Fourth Amendment as only applying to situations in which "an individual has a reasonable expectation of privacy." When you're sharing the details of your life on social media sites, you waive much of that expectation.

2. Your personal information is no longer "private" from the government once shared on social media

A series of rulings in the 1960s and 1970s began to add exceptions to the "probable cause" requirement. Namely, the government does not need a search warrant to obtain any personal information that you've already shared with somebody else. Hence, the government can obtain any private information given to credit card companies, banks, or phone companies, because you've technically de-privatized the information by using those services.

Of course the same applies to any and all social media accounts. All the government needs is a subpoena, which experts say is "trivially easy to issue."

3. Your location can be tracked by the government

While it may seem obvious to be wary of broadcasting your location at any given time, some personal devices and social media sites automatically tag and record your location. Your whereabouts cease to be a topic of government surveillance when you share the information willingly (which you do by using digital services). As Justice Alito noted when presiding over the United States v. Jones, social media tools "will . . . shape the average person's expectations about the privacy of his or her daily movements." Traditional protections simply don't apply to what you publicize yourself.

Fortnite and Intellectual Property: Who Owns Cultural Trends?

With three high profile figures filing lawsuits against the company for marketing their likeness, the video game phenomenon is challenging who owns choreography.

Epic Games' Fortnite is at the center of controversy surrounding copyright and the limits of intellectual property laws. With three high profile figures filing lawsuits against the company for marketing their likeness, the video game phenomenon prompts a conversation about who owns culture.

The Battle Royale style game features customizable avatars, for which users can purchase "emotes," specific gestures or dance moves that avatars can perform in the game. The problem is that "emotes" are designed to appeal to millions of international users, with many replicating wildly popular dance trends and cultural icons. Select "emotes" are based on Snoop Dogg's "Drop It Like It's Hot" dance, Psy's "Gangnam Style," and Donald Faison's "Poison" dance from the US sitcom Scrubs.

Tenor

However, Fortnite's creators did not secure licenses to recreate these artists' likenesses in their game. But it's unclear under U.S. law whether or not a segment of choreography even qualifies for copyright protection. As highlighted by the Wall Street Journal, the U.S. Copyright Office's stance on choreography dictates that it "cannot register short dance routines consisting of only a few movements or steps with minor linear or spatial variations, even if a routine is novel or distinctive." They elaborate that "social dance steps and simple routines" are not protected by copyright "even if they contain a substantial amount of creative expression."

In fact, few dance moves have been successfully copyrighted. Michael Jackson was able to patent his impressive leaning move featured in the "Smooth Criminal" music video–but only because he invented the special shoe that makes it possible. Since each one of Fortnite's "emotes" is a short movement and not a creative song or dance of its own, copyright lawyers can't agree about whether or not infringement laws apply.

The first "emote" to challenge what constitutes copyright infringement is called "Swipe It," which replicates the dance move recognizable as the "Milly Rock." Its creator, rapper 2 Milly, born Terrence Ferguson, was the first to sue the game with allegations that Fortnite violates copyright law by selling his "signature" choreography. He told Rolling Stone, "My dance is my signature. Everybody would tell you, from here to Alaska, 'Hey, that's the Milly Rock.' I don't mind people doing it in their videos. What I do mind is when somebody takes what I created and sells it."

While the "Milly Rock" became a viral dance move in 2015, it isn't a full choreography set. Christine Lepera, attorney for music industry giants like Drake and Timbaland, argues that a single dance move is precluded from copyright infringement: "You cannot copyright certain dance moves that are generic. From what I've seen online, I've done these [Milly Rock] moves in hip-hop [dance] class for years — it's a pivot, heel-out, heel-out, and swing your arms."

Amino Apps

The second creator to file charges against Epic Games is Alfonso Ribeiro, best known for playing Carlton Banks on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. He alleged that the "emotes" called "Fresh" plagiarizes the "Carlton Dance," made famous by the beloved sitcom character Ribeiro played in the 90s. However, copyright lawyer Scott Alan Burroughs argues that an actor doesn't own his character's stylized, or "signature," movements, since the character is owned by the production company. Burroughs says, "[Ribeiro] created and performed that dance while acting on a television show he was a performer on, so it was likely 'work for hire' that belongs to the show's producers."

The third creator to file charges against the game is actually the mother of Russell Horning, a 17-year-old content creator on YouTube who popularized "the floss" dance. Again, Fortnite sells a "Floss" emote that the Hornings claim infringes upon their legal right to share in the profit made through dance move.

2048

But how much money does Fortnite make from selling "emotes?" For that matter, how does a game that's technically free to play earn Epic Games over $2 billion in 2018? When the Fortnite App launched on Apple's IOS in April, the game reportedly made $2 million a day, making history as the first to net over $1 billion by following a free-to-play model.

The secret–and the root of the controversy–is the game's profit from microtransactions. While all users can play the entirety of the game for free, they have the option of purchasing in-game currency, called "V-bucks," which allows players to customize their gaming experience. With an exchange rate of approximately 1 USD to 100 V-bucks, users are offered deals to spend anywhere from $2 to $20 on cosmetic skins, game modes for their characters, and, of course, dances. Michael Pachter, an analyst at Wedbush Securities, noted, "On the revenue side, [Fortnite has] done something that's really unique, which is come up with a perception of exclusivity." He added, "If you see another player in a leopard skin and go to the store and see it's no longer available, you think, Shoot, I've got to move on it next time."

All three complainants are represented by the law firm Pierce Bainbridge Beck Price & Hecht LLP. In addition to copyright infringement, the lawsuits allege violations of the rights to publicity, which are creators' rights to control and profit off any use of their likeness, name, or other distinct traits. David L. Hecht, the representative for 2 Milly, Ribeiro, and Horning, insists that his clients have exclusive rights to the cultural trends they've instigated, stating, "I will say you can absolutely copyright choreography, and you can leave it there." Whether U.S. law is in agreement with him is for a judge to decide in 2019.

Meg Hanson is a Brooklyn-based writer, teacher, and jaywalker. Find Meg at her website and on Twitter @megsoyung.





Cyntoia Brown Granted Clemency After 14 Years in Prison

Brown was sex trafficked as a teen and given a life sentence for murdering the man who paid for her.

Cyntoia Denise Brown was granted clemency after serving 15 years in prison for murdering the sex trafficker who solicited her for sex. Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam granted Brown's early release on Monday after years of lobbying by prison rights' activists, state lawmakers, and high-profile celebrities, including Amy Schumer, Rihanna, Kim Kardashian, and Ashley Judd. In December, Judd posted a message to Governor Haslam on Twitter, "Cyntoia Brown was a victim of child sex trafficking, raped, and forced into paid sexual exploitation to stay alive. She deserves our empathy and your mercy."


In 2004, Brown was a 16-year-old forced into prostitution by her 24-year-old pimp, "Kut Throat." She was solicited for sex in a parking lot by 43-year-old Johnny Allen. Alarmed by the man's behavior, Brown shot Allen with the gun he kept under the bed, later recounting to the police that he was reaching for the gun first.

While Brown was tried as an adult and found guilty for murder and robbery, her case helped to inspire reform in Tennessee's juvenile sentencing. Stacy Case, CNN affiliate and WZTZ anchor, points out, "If Cyntoia Brown were tried today, legal experts say she would not have been tried in the same way. Our courts today would view her as a child sex slave... She would be viewed as a victim."

Brown served over 14 years of her life sentence before Governor Haslam granted her clemency. His office issued the following statement: "This decision comes after careful consideration of what is a tragic and complex case. Cyntoia Brown committed, by her own admission, a horrific crime at the age of 16. Yet, imposing a life sentence on a juvenile that would require her to serve at least 51 years before even being eligible for parole consideration is too harsh, especially in light of the extraordinary steps Ms. Brown has taken to rebuild her life. Transformation should be accompanied by hope."

Brown, now 30 years old, told Haslam, "Thank you for your act of mercy in giving me a second chance. I will do everything I can to justify your faith in me." She continued, "With God's help, I am committed to live the rest of my life helping others, especially young people. My hope is to help other young girls avoid ending up where I have been."

Brown will be released on parole on August 7. Conditions of her release will include regular counseling sessions, 50 hours of community service, and gainful employment. While in prison, Brown has earned her Associate's degree, continues to work towards her Bachelor's, and mentors at-risk youth with plans to begin a nonprofit organization for troubled teens in the future.

Meg Hanson is a Brooklyn-based writer, teacher, and jaywalker. Find Meg at her website and on Twitter @megsoyung.

Five Upcoming Supreme Court Decisions to Watch

In the 2017-2018 term, the Justices of the U.S. Supreme Court will hear several major cases with national implications

Topics in this term's major cases include technological privacy, religious freedom, anti-discrimination laws, immigration and the President, sports gambling and political gerrymandering, among many others. The Court's deliberation on these cases will begin in the coming months but the discussions surrounding them have been going on for years, and will continue long after the decisions are made. Before the end of this term, the Court will have heard something close to 70 cases, chosen from an average of 7,000 petitions. Here are five of the most important cases to follow.

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Speak Your Mind: the five freedoms protected by the First Amendment

Getting to know your Constitution and the rights it guarantees you.

Can you recite the five central freedoms protected by the First Amendment? If not, you aren't alone. The New York Times, citing a recent study by the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University, revealed that just over half the people surveyed knew that our First Amendment protects freedom of speech, under 25% knew that it protects freedom of religion, under 20% knew that it protects freedom of the press, 14% knew that it protects freedom of association and only 6% knew that it protects the right to petition the government for grievances. Yet another survey conducted by the Annenberg Public Policy Center found that 37% of Americans could not even name one right protected under the First Amendment. Back in 2006, one in four Americans could name one right, but more than half could name at least two members of the cartoon family, The Simpsons.

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