Monday, Sep 29, 2014 • 12:37 pm

“Great Firewall” Shuts Down Instagram, Social Media, During Hong Kong Protests

By Kevin Solari

The Occupy Movement has made its way to China with protests that began this past Saturday in Hong Kong.

Thousands occupied Hong Kong’s Central District, the financial center of the city, in response to an August 31 ruling by the Beijing government that, while citizens of Hong Kong will have the right to vote for the SAR chief executive, the candidates will be determined by a selection committee and approved by Beijing. Occupy Central with Love and Peace (OCLP) has claimed the Beijing government is in breach of the 1997 handover agreement which assured Hong Kong residents the right to vote for their Chief Executive. 

Founded in January 2013 by professors Benny Tai and Chan Kin-man and Reverend Chu Yiu-ming, with the goal of bringing democratic reform to the Special Administrative Region (SAR), OCLP “demands genuine universal suffrage in Hong Kong in compliance with international law, in particular one-person-one-vote and the right to run and be elected to office without unreasonable restrictions.” Students began protesting on September 22 with a week-long boycott of their classes in advance of a planned October 1st OCLP demonstration.

The result was a crackdown by the Chinese authorities involving riot police, tear gas, and censorship.

A directive from the central propaganda department in Beijing ordered websites to delete any mention of the unrest. ... Starting Sunday night, officials overseeing Internet censorship blocked Instagram, the popular photo-sharing social network, presumably to ensure that images of the rallies would not spread. Only Internet users who had software to leap over the online control system known as the Great Firewall could get on Instagram, and the blocking of the site ignited outrage among some Chinese Internet users who might have been previously unaware of the Hong Kong protests. ...

The words “Occupy Central,” the name of the broad Hong Kong pro-democracy movement, and other similar terms were banned on Monday from searches on Sina Weibo, China’s biggest microblog platform.

Since Hong Kong transfered from British to Chinese control in 1997, it has been alloted considerably more freedom than other Chinese territories. Hong Kong operates under "one country, two systems," a framework that allows Hong Kong more democratic freedom while still remaining a part China. 

Although the protests have calmed down, and riot police have left the protest areas, people and students are still gathering in anticipation of the October 1st demonstration.

Wednesday, Aug 20, 2014 • 6:04 pm

The Majority of Us Don’t Believe in the American Dream

By Carlos Ballesteros

A recent NBC-Wall Street Journal poll asked its respondents to choose between the following statements:

1) The United States is a country where anyone, regardless of their background, can work hard, succeed and be comfortable financially.

2) The widening gap between the incomes of the wealthy and everyone else is undermining the idea that every American has the opportunity to move up to a better standard of living.

More than half (54 percent) chose the latter, meaning that a majority of Americans think that income inequality is killing the so-called “American Dream.” These results match up with a June poll conducted by CNNMoney in which 59 percent of respondents believe that the American Dream is “unachievable.”

Both polls also asked their respondents about the prospects of their kids’ future. The results were equally daunting; the NBC-WSJ poll found that 76 percent of Americans “do not feel confident that life for [their] children’s generation will be better” than their own, while CNNMoney’s poll showed that 63 percent of its respondents didn’t believe their kids “will be better off” than themselves.

Essentially, two independently conducted mainstream media polls have both showed how the vast majority of Americans are becoming distrustful of longstanding American ideals. While both of these polls might not cause revolutionary fervor among America’s weakening middle class, they do speak volumes about the changing tone of a country that, not too long ago, proclaimed itself as the greatest triumph in the history of mankind.

Wednesday, Aug 20, 2014 • 3:00 pm

Bank of America to Pay Record Settlement Fee for Bad Mortgages

By Alex Kogan

In the largest-ever settlement between the U.S. government and a single company, Bank of America is expected to pay $17 billion in fees to settle accusations surrounding the sale of toxic mortgages before the financial collapse of 2008.

The settlement comes after a judge ruled against the bank in a separate case, ordering the company to shell out nearly $1.7 billion for selling defective loans. That ruling undermined the bank’s legal standing and negotiating leverage, rendering it costly and likely futile to fight take the other charges to court.

Bank of America has expended massive amounts of effort and money in recent years attempting to settle a host of legal woes lingering from the Great Recession. Wall Street Journal reports:

“The settlement is also a fresh reminder for the bank of the costs of its 2008 purchase of Countrywide Financial Corp., a deal that rocketed Bank of America into a major player in mortgages but also hamstrung it with exotic loans. Most of the mortgage securities made in the years immediately before the financial crisis, and now credited to Bank of America, came from Countrywide.”

The settlement amounts to three years' worth of profit for Bank of America.

Friday, Aug 15, 2014 • 5:05 pm

Powerful Hollywood Studio Sells Internship for More Than 26 Grand

By William A. Hudson

The Weinstein Company, the film production corporation behind such major motion pictures as The King's Speech and Silver Linings Playbook, recently sold an unpaid internship through auction for at least $26,000. The internship was intended for United States-based college students to learn “all the ins and outs” of the movie industry, and the winner’s money will go to Boston’s American Repertory Theater.

The auction was run by CharityBuzz, that there were seven bidders who made 13 bids; the final amount was not released. The Guardian reports that there has been controversy behind CharityBuzz in the past: 

CharityBuzz, founded in 2005, has frequently auctioned off internships to raise mone—perhaps rather controversially given the easy accusations of nepotism and abused privilege. A six-week stint at the UN went for tens of thousands of dollars earlier this year, while a recent week at InStyle UK and a London PR firm was valued at $2000 ahead of bidding. 

Also according to The Guardian, the most money ever paid for an internship was $85,000, given in exchange for six weeks with music mogul Russell Simmons and six with billionaire businessman Richard Branson.

Thursday, Aug 14, 2014 • 4:53 pm

In Light of Violence, New App Grades Police Interactions

By John Michael Davis

A new app, Five-O, would allow users to rate their interactions with law enforcement officers and store the "grade" in an online database.

Caleb Christian, a 14-year-old student at Parkview High School in Lilburn, Georgia, had been moved by the recent surge in news coverage of police violence. In response, he wanted a way to know which communities had trustworthy law enforcement officers and which didn’t. In July, Christian founded the app development company Pinetart Inc., along with his two older sisters Ima and Asha. From there, the three teenagers created Five-O.

According to For Harriet:

Five-O allows citizens to enter the details of every interaction with a police officer. It also allows them to rate that officer in terms of courtesy and professionalism and provides the ability to enter a short description of what transpired. These details are captured for every county in the United States. Citizen race and age information data is also captured. Additionally, Five-O allows citizens to store the details of each encounter with law enforcement; this provides convenient access to critical information needed for legal action or commendation.

... “In addition to putting more power into the hands of citizens when interacting with law enforcement, we believe that highly rated police departments should be used as models for those that fail at providing quality law enforcement services,” says Pinetart Co-founder Ima Christian.

Pinetart Inc. already has two more projects in production: Froshly, a an app that allows freshmen to meet each other before the first day of school, and Coily, a crowdsource hub for tips on hair care. Five-O, however, is still in alpha testing, and is slated for its debut on August 18. It will be available for download on Apple and Android products.

Thursday, Aug 14, 2014 • 4:13 pm

New California Legislation Would ‘Free Willy’

By Ethan Corey

SeaWorld Entertainment has made millions attracting families to its marine parks in Florida, Texas and California by putting on marine shows featuring trained orca whales.

But now, many are beginning to realize that capturing and displaying animals frequently referred to as "killer" whales might not be a brilliant idea. In 2010, for example, an orca trainer at SeaWorld’s Orlando park drowned after one of the animals dragged her underwater, prompting the acclaimed 2013 documentary Blackfish.

Captive orcas aren't just more likely to display aggressive behavior; they also have significantly shorter lifespans and increased health problems. In light of this, California state legislator, Richard Bloom (D-Santa Monica), has introduced the Orca Welfare and Safety Act, which would prohibit orca shows and captive breeding of the whales with the end goal of eliminating killer whale captivity in California.

USA Today reports:

"There is no justification for the continued captive display of orcas for entertainment purposes," Bloom said in the release. "These beautiful creatures are much too large and far too intelligent to be confined in small, concrete tanks for their entire lives. It is time to end the practice of keeping orcas captive for human amusement."

As Bloom points out, captive orcas are confined to tanks less than one ten-thousandth the size of their habitats in the wild. They are also forced to perform abnormal behaviors in front of loud, cheering crowds -- devastating practices for the highly intelligent creatures.

"They simply do not belong in captivity,” Bloom told ABC's Sacramento affiliate.

SeaWorld has also reported a 6 to 7 percent drop in revenue this year as a result of decreased park admissions, which the company blames on a combination of bad publicity and the growing popularity of the Harry Potter theme park at Universal Studios.

Stockholders are jumping ship in response to the news, with shares sinking 33 percent on Wednesday, according to CNN Money.

For their part, SeaWorld spokesperson David Koontz attacked Bloom for allegedly associating with “extreme animal rights activists” and claimed SeaWorld’s businesses practices were “responsible, sustainable and reflective of the balanced values all Americans share,” USA Today reports.

Many of those Americans, it seems, are finding their entertainment elsewhere.

Wednesday, Aug 13, 2014 • 1:11 pm

Michelle Rhee To Step Down as StudentsFirst CEO

By Carlos Ballesteros

The Huffington Post is reporting that StudentsFirst, a pro-charter school education reform non-profit organization, will see its founder Michelle Rhee step down from her CEO position later this year.

The move comes after four years of lackluster fundraising for the organization. Initially setting a $1 billion fundraising goal over the course of five years, SutdentsFirst only managed to obtain $62.8 million since its founding in late 2010. 

A source close to StudentsFirst told HuffPo that Rhee, the former Washington, D.C., schools chancellor and fervent advocate for privatized public education, was disappointed with her organization's overall performance:

"She's been really brutally attacked personally, and StudentsFirst has not been as effective as she wanted," said a former prominent StudentsFirst staffer, who declined to be named, wanting to preserve relationships in education reform. "It's been frustrating. It's not totally shocking that eventually even she would decide to step away."

StudentsFirst has received much criticism ever since its inception, most visibly over Rhee's refusal to disclose some of the nonprofit's donors. Furthermore, many prominent high-profile Democrats broke ties with Rhee in 2013 due to her support of right-to-work laws in Michigan and StudentsFirst's often combative "approach toward [teachers] unions."

Tuesday, Aug 12, 2014 • 4:15 pm

Obama Administration Reverses Part of Lobbyist Ban

By Ethan Corey

After four years out in the cold, lobbyists are heading back to the White House.

Politico reports that the Obama administration plans to reverse part of a 2010 policy prohibiting registered lobbyists from serving in government positions. Lobbyists will now be able to serve on policy-making boards and commissions in a “representative” capacity—i.e. as agents of their employers—but not as private citizens or representatives of the government.  

The policy reversal comes in the wake of a lawsuit filed by a group of lobbyists alleging that the ban violated their constitutional rights. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia declined to dismiss the lawsuit earlier this year and remanded the case to a lower court.

Charles Rothfeld, one of the attorneys representing the lobbyists, told Politico that he considered the administration’s about-face a victory for his clients.

Government transparency advocates, however, are less pleased:

“It really shows OMB backpedaling on Obama’s policies dealing with ethics and lobbying activity,” said Craig Holman, a lobbyist for the government watchdog group Public Citizen.
Holman said that while the panels were designed to give corporations and unions a voice in policymaking, lobbyists simply tended to use their role to benefit themselves.
“What registered lobbyists tended to gain out of this was primarily that they could really boast about their special access to government officials and tout that on their résumés—and up their fees,” Holman said.

During his first presidential campaign, Obama pledged to keep lobbyists out of the White House, telling an Iowa crowd in 2007, “their days of setting the agenda in Washington are over.”

Monday, Aug 11, 2014 • 2:30 pm

Riots Follow Police Shooting of Teen in St. Louis Suburb

By William A. Hudson

The predominantly African-American St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, Missouri, is on edge after a policeman shot and killed 18-year-old Michael Brown after an apparent struggle on Saturday, August 9. The officer has not yet been publicly identified, though the department says he has been put on “paid administrative leave.” St. Louis County police chief John Belmar claims Brown ran at the officer while he was in his squad car and tried to take the officer’s weapon.

Brown’s grandmother found his body less than two blocks away from her house immediately after the altercation. Both the police and witnesses say that Brown was unarmed at the time of the shooting. 

In response to Brown’s killing, residents of Ferguson rioted and looted after a peaceful candlelight vigil on Sunday, with widespread property damage and theft reported. Police have said that the FBI will now head the investigation into the shooting.

Al-Jazeera America reported on the riots, describing the public’s frustration with the police:

The shooting sent hundreds of angry residents out of their apartments, igniting protests and a confrontation that lasted several hours.

On Saturday night dozens of police cars remained parked near the shooting scene as mourners left votive candles, rose petals, a large stuffed animal and other remembrances at a makeshift memorial in the middle of the street.

At the height of the post-shooting tensions, police at the scene called for about 60 other police units to respond to the area in Ferguson, a city of about 21,000 residents.

Thursday, Aug 7, 2014 • 2:55 pm

Rupert Murdoch Rescinds Time Warner Offer

By John Michael Davis

Media conglomerate 21st Century Fox, headed by Rupert Murdoch, went public on Tuesday with the news that it has revoked its offer to “acquire” Time Warner, Media Matters reports.

The original July offer, a sum of $80 billion, was rejected by Time Warner, ending a potential merger which would have given Murdoch “control of 40 percent of the cable market,” as well as nearly a third of the movie market, according to Media Matters’ Angelo Carusone.

Media Matters reports that they:

urged Time Warner shareholders and its Board of Directors to oppose the sale, arguing that the combined company, which would have created the world's second-largest media conglomerate, would reduce the viable options and options available for consumers.

As it stands, 21st Century Fox announces they will instead buy back $6 billion in Time Warner shares, but speculation has begun to mount over the possibility that Murdoch's mission to acquire the company hasn't ended.

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