Wall Street is a highly influential financial district but its history is rarely talked about. In order to understand the largesse of Wall Street and the system of global capitalism, it is crucial to know Wall Street’s history. Wall Street was founded on slavery and, to this day, it remains a key pillar in upholding racial inequality and economic oppression.

New York City was a Dutch settlement known as New Amsterdam in the Dutch colonial province called New Netherland during much of the 17th century. Through the Dutch West India Company, the Dutch utilized labor of enslaved Africans who were first brought to colony around 1627. The African slaves built the wall that gives Wall Street its name, forming the northern boundary of the colony and warded off resisting natives who wanted their land back. In addition, the slaves cleared the forests, built roads and buildings, and turned up the soil for farming. Slavery was not phenomenon limited to the southern American colonies. Northern colonies, such as Boston and New York, participated in the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

In 1664, control of the colony was handed over Britain and New Amsterdam was renamed New York in honor of James II, the Duke of York. The Royal African Company had a royal monopoly on the British slave trade and James II was a major shareholder. With the Dutch gone, the British maintained the system of slavery in New York. They immediately created a series of laws to protect it. In 1665, a law was passed that legalized slavery. In 1682, slave masters were given the power of life-and-death over their slaves. Twenty years later, in 1702, New York adopted its first comprehensive slave code and it equated slave status with being African. The entire system of slavery was justified by an ideology of white supremacy that considers black Africans inferior and white Europeans superior — an ideology that still exists.

Slavery became the backbone of New York’s economic prosperity in the 1700s. To normalize this massive trade in human beings, in 1711, New York officials established a slave market on Wall Street. Slave auctions were held at Wall Street selling African slaves as property to traders wanting to buy them. Between 1700 and 1722, over 5,000 African slaves entered New York, most of whom came directly from Africa, while the rest from British colonies in the Caribbean and southern colonies. Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, as Phyllis Eckhaus points out, New York had “the largest urban slave population in mainland North America”. Therefore, New York was a crucial location in the trans-Atlantic slave trade, which established it as the world’s financial capital. Many well-known companies and financial institutions benefitted from the trans-Atlantic slave trade.They include Lehman Brothers (which went bankrupt in 2008), J.P. Morgan Chase, Wachovia Bank of North Carolina, Aetna Insurance, Bank of America, and the Royal Bank of Scotland. Banks, such as Wachovia’s predecessors Bank of Charleston, South Carolina, and the Bank of North America, and J.P. Morgan Chase’s predecessor banks, made loans to slave owners and accepted slaves as “collateral”. When the slave owners defaulted on their loans, the banks became the new owners. The Lehman family members who established Lehman Brothers started their company to trade and invest in cotton, a cash crop produced by African slaves. Aetna sold insurance to slave owners who wanted to protect their investments in slaves aboard slave ships in case one of them died (this was a very common occurrence as millions of African slaves died on ships carrying them from Africa to the Americas). The insurance company’s policies compensated slave owners for the loss of people who were considered “property”. To this day, there are lawsuits against these corporations to seek reparations for their participation in the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

The trans-Atlantic slave trade built the foundation for modern global capitalism. Millions of Africans (somewhere between 12 to 30 million or more) were ripped away from their homes in Africa to work as slaves in European colonies in North and South America and the Caribbean. Unlike native Americans and other white Europeans, free African labor was plentiful (if one died, they could be replaced with another from Africa), Africans had no connections to American lands, and they knew how to grow essential cash crops like cotton and sugar that grew in both Africa and the Caribbean and southeastern United States. These factors made Africans the perfect slave labor force for European colonial powers. The slaves, along with performing many other services, were used to produce commodities that were sold in international markets for a profit (a characteristic of modern capitalism). In addition, slaves, themselves, were considered property and sold on markets. The benefits of this went to slave owners and investors — not the slaves. As a result, wealth was transferred from black African slaves (and their descendants) to white European slave owners and other whites who benefitted from this system (this laid the foundation for current wealth inequality between whites and blacks). This ensured that blacks would remain socioeconomically subordinate to whites for generations to come. Slavery went on for nearly 300 years from the sixteenth century to the mid-nineteenth century when Britain, America, and other countries that participated in the trans-Atlantic slave trade abolished it. Even after it ended, the foundation of modern capitalism and racial inequality was already built.

The end of slavery brought new political rights for black people in America, such as the right to vote. However, these political rights were very limited, particularly under the Jim Crow system in the American South. This system barred blacks from voting, segregated them in inferior schools, confined them to low-paying jobs, discriminated against them in numerous areas of life, and perpetuated heinous acts of racist violence against black people, such as lynching. While northern states did not have a de jure system of racial discrimination, there was similar de facto racial discrimination in housing and employment. The civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s eliminated legalized racial discrimination with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965, thereby dealing a deathblow to Jim Crow. Despite the end of slavery and advancements of the civil rights movement, African-Americans remain socioeconomically oppressed. Black people disproportionately suffer more poverty, unemployment, and socioeconomic misery compared to whites and other ethnic groups. As of December 2011,unemployment for African-Americans is 15.8%, the same as it was at the beginning of 2011. While unemployment for whites is 7.5%, down from 8.5% at the beginning of the year. According to the Census Bureau’s Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage report for 2010, the poverty rate (defined as a family of four earning less than $22,314 a year) for African-Americans is 27.4%, while for whites it is 13% and 36.6% for Latinos.

The financial sector plays a substantial role in economically oppressing African-Americans. Racial segregation in housing long existed in the United States as a way to keep African-Americans living in separate, poorer neighborhoods away from whites. Redlining, which is the practice of denying or increasing the price of insurance and other financial services to certain neighborhoods based on race, contributed to racial segregation in America for much of the twentieth century. The practice began in the 1930s when the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC), established to send loans to homeowners at risk of foreclosure, created a risk-rating system for communities to be used by mortgage lenders. The idea was to protect the long-term value of the property, which was undermined by the introduction of “undesirables” (usually blacks but also Latinos, Asians, and Jews) into a neighborhood. Using real-estate maps, the HOLC developed a classification system for communities. There were four classifications. Type A areas, coded green, were affluent areas in the suburbs and the most desirable for investment. Type B areas, coded blue, were still desirable, fully developed, but less affluent. Type C, coded yellow, were older, declining areas. Type D areas, coded red, were those with low homeownership rates, poor housing conditions, were in older, inner-city neighborhoods heavily populated by black people. These areas were considered undesirable and too risky for investment — hence the term “redlining”. As a result, HOLC did not provide any loans for black people at risk of foreclosure during the 1930s. This created a system, perpetuated by the Federal Housing Administration (FHA), lending institutions, and insurance companies, that made it difficult for black people to own homes and accumulate wealth in their communities, thereby, entrenching racial segregation and inequality.

While redlining was outlawed by the Fair Housing Act of 1968 and Community Reinvestment Act of 1977, similar racial discriminatory practices continue and achieve the same effect as redlining — further racial segregation and inequality. One common practice is known as steering. Real estate agents will steer people to neighborhoods predominantly populated by people of similar ethnic background. Whites are steered to “better”, white neighborhoods, while blacks and Latinos are steered toward neighborhoods with more black and Latinos, which tend to be poorer. Another racial discriminatory practice, which led to the financial crash and current depression, is predatory lending. Rather than deny financial services, financial institutions targeted the black community, and other nonwhite communities, to sell them risky, high-priced subprime mortgage loans. Because of this, the practice is also known as “reverse redlining”. Subprime loans are typically made to people with poor credit histories and, hence, come with higher interest rates. According to a 2009 NAACP “Discrimination and Mortgage Lending in America” report, “even when income and credit risk are equal, African Americans are up to 34 percent more likely to receive higher-rate and subprime loans” than whites. This predatory lending perpetuated a decade-long housing bubble from the late-1990s to late-2000s.

Wells Fargo is one of many financial institutions that engaged in predatory lending in black communities. As the New York Times reported in June 2009, Wells Fargo “saw the black community as fertile ground for subprime mortgages, as working-class blacks were hungry to be a part of the nation’s home-owning mania.” Revealing the big bank’s true racism, loan officers at Wells Fargo commonly referred to African-Americans as “mud people” and subprime loans as “ghetto loans”. Wells Fargo has been sued by individuals and groups, such as the NAACP, for its racial discriminatory practices. In late-November 2011, a regretful former regional vice president of Chase Home Finance in southern Florida (a subsidiary of JP Morgan Chase, whose roots lie in slavery), James Theckston, admitted the predatory lending practices of big banks to New York Times columnist Nick Kristof. In fact, predatory lending was incentivized since lenders earned higher commissions from subprime loans than normal prime loans. In his column, Kristof notes:

“One memory particularly troubles Theckston. He says that some account executives earned a commission seven times higher from subprime loans, rather than prime mortgages. Sothey looked for less savvy borrowers — those with less education, without previous mortgage experience, or without fluent English — and nudged them toward subprime loans

These less savvy borrowers were disproportionately blacks and Latinos, he said, and they ended paying a higher rate so that they were more likely to lose their homes. Senior executives seemed aware of this racial mismatch, he recalled, and frantically tried to cover it up.”

So not only did big banks intentionally push black people and other people of color to buy subprime loans but they were well aware of the racism behind their actions. Moreover, the banks did not care if people lost their homes because of these risky, high-priced subprime mortgages.

The reason why subprime mortgage loans were aggressively pushed on to millions of people was so they could be bundled up into mortgage-backed securities. In 1999, the Glass-Steagall Act, which separated commercial from investment banking, was repealed under Clinton. This made it easier for subprime mortgage loans to be bundled into securities and sold on Wall Street for massive profits. When the housing bubble burst in 2007, that led to the financial crash in September 2008 and the current economic depression. Wall Street got bailed out but the people got stuck with massive poverty and unemployment. Millions of people lost their homes and many are on the edge of foreclosure. Black and Latino households were hit the hardest. As the Center for Responsible Lending points out, around 25% of all black and Latino borrowers lost their home to foreclosure or are close to foreclosure, compared to under 12% of all white borrowers. Home equity makes up the largest portion of overall wealth in black and Latino communities. Because of the collapse of the housing bubble and resulting foreclosures, black and Latino communities have experienced a dramatic wealth decrease in their communities. According to a recent Pew Research Center report, in 2005, median net worth (or total household wealth) of white households was $134,992, for Latinos it was $18,359, and $12,124 for blacks. In 2009, median net worth for white households dropped 16% to $113,149, Latino households experienced a 66% drop to $6,325, while black households experienced a 53% drop to $5,677. Pew rightly attributes this drop to the bursting of the housing bubble and recession that followed from it.

Wall Street, since its founding as a slave market, continues to play a substantial role in oppressing African-Americans and other working-class people. To fully understand racial inequality, it is important to know Wall Street’s historical roots in the trans-Atlantic slave trade. With this knowledge, we can combat the oppression of African-Americans by challenging the greed and oligarchy of Wall Street. Fortunately, there is already a movement doing just that — Occupy Wall Street.


Historical sources:

  • David McNally, Another World Is Possible: Globalization & Anti-Capitalism, (Winnipeg: Arbeiter Ring Publishing, 2006), Ch. 4, pp. 137 – 204
  • Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States: 1492 – Present, (New York: HarperCollins Publishers Inc., 2003), Ch, 2, pp. 23 – 39
  • Lerone Bennett, Jr., Before the Mayflower: A History of Black America, (New York: Johnson Publishing Company, Inc., 1982)
  • James W. Loewen, Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong, (New York: Simon & Schuster Inc., 1995)
  • See also Douglas Massey & Nancy Denton, American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass (Harvard University Press, 1993) for history of racial segregation in the U.S.

African American history in New York City began in the Dutch colonies. The first Africans arrived in New Amsterdam as enslaved men in 1625 and 1626; the first enslaved women in 1628. They worked as farmers and builders and in the fur trade of the Dutch West India Company. Some helped build the wall intended to keep settlers safe from the native population at the location of today’s Wall Street. In 1644, the Company granted “conditional freedom” to the enslaved on condition that they make an annual fixed payment of farm produce. The children of the “conditionally freed” people, born and unborn, remained the property of the Company. Most of the families received grants to lands they had been farming before becoming “free.” At the time the area was generally undesirable swamp land. Today most of the area is in Greenwich Village. The Dutch continued to expand and to import enslaved Africans to meet growing labor needs. Between 1649 and 1659 they imported hundreds of men, women and children. In New Amsterdam, the first sales tax, an import tax of 10%, was imposed to discourage merchants from selling “human cargo” outside of the colony. Though not comprehensive, Dutch records do note that there were Africans who had never been enslaved who were living on the “free Negro lots” which today are located on land between from Astor Place and Prince Street.

In 1665, the Dutch surrendered New Amsterdam/New Netherlands to the British. For most European settlers, little changed in what became New York. For African New Yorkers, both enslaved and freed, British occupation meant severe change. Under Dutch rule, some Africans had gained half or full freedom. Even if enslaved, they had legal and social rights. One example is that no master could whip an enslaved African without the permission of the Dutch Common Council. This and other rules changed under the British rule. In a move toward commercial efficiency, the British formed the Royal African Company to import slaves directly from Africa to New York. “From the start of the English occupation the creation of a commercially profitable slave system became a joint project of both government and private interests. Unlike the Dutch West India Company which used slavery to implement colonial policy, the Royal African Company used the colony to implement slavery.” (Historian Edgar J. McManus) New York’s first slave market during the British period was established at Wall Street and the East River in 1709. In the early 1700’s there were 800 African men, women, and children in the city; about 15% of the total population. Local and state documents did not distinguish between free and enslaved Africans until 1756. Before then the term “slave” was used to describe all Africans and their decedents. They were all looked upon as valuable sources of labor.

The British enacted numerous laws that restricted where Africans could be employed and how they could be freed. Laws were passed to prevent free Africans from aiding runaway slaves. The New York “Slave Codes” grew so numerous that they are seen as a major cause of the 1712 slave revolt. In the revolt, enslaved Africans and natives gathered in an orchard on Maiden Lane with hatchets, guns, knives, and hoes and set out to burn and destroy property in the area. Nine whites were killed during the revolt. Twenty-one enslaved Africans were executed and six were reported to have committed suicide. After the revolt more laws were passed that prohibited Africans and natives from carrying weapons and entering military service. There were strict curfews and laws against gathering of more than two or three enslaved people. The revolt emphasized the growing fear that European New Yorkers had of the growing African population. At this time, Europeans in New York outnumbered people of African descent five to one, but the city contained the largest absolute number of enslaved Africans of any English colonial settlement except Charleston, South Carolina, and held the largest proportion of enslaved Africans of any northern settlement. By the first decade of the 1700’s, forty percent of New York’s households contained at least one enslaved African; again, the largest proportion of any northern settlement.


In 1711, New York was growing quickly, and the growing needs of the city were often supplied by slave labor. Nearly 1,000 out of about 6,400 New Yorkers were black, and at least 40 percent of the white households included a slave. In these homes, enslaved workers cooked, washed, sewed, hauled water, emptied the chamber pots, swept out the fireplaces and the chimneys, and cared for the children. Along the East River they built, loaded, and unloaded, the ships. They cleared the land uptown, and then planted and harvested the crops. And up and down the narrow streets they pedaled their master’s goods and even supplied the city’s first fast foods—fresh oysters and steaming hot corn on the cob. As the number of slaves imported into the city soared, barrel makers, butchers, carpenters, blacksmiths, and tin workers began to purchase young enslaved men in order to teach them their trades. Typically, when a slave owner ran out of work, they hired their slaves out at half the rate of free labor. Often the slaves themselves were sent out to find work. In a time when fear of a slave uprising was ever-present, the sight of so many enslaved men walking the streets looking to be hired caused alarm. Fearful white citizens began to complain. They demanded a market where slaves could be hired, bought, and sold. Finally, on December 13, 1711, the City Council passed a law “that all Negro and Indian slaves that are let out to hire…be hired at the Market house at the Wall Street Slip…” This market, known as the Meal Market (because grains were sold there), was located at the foot of Wall Street on the East River. It was the city’s first slave market.

The hidden history of slavery in New York calls myths of American morality into question
by Phyllis Eckhaus / January 6, 2006

Americans excel at ego-boosting myths of exceptionalism: It’s our ingenuity, energy and can-do attitude that explain our rise from frontier to world power. But what if slavery were the real secret of our success? We like to condemn slavery as an exotic evil perpetrated by plantation Southerners, but two new books and a museum exhibit provide nightmarish reminders that slavery was the norm in the early years of this country, and that up through the eve of the Civil War, Northern bankers, brokers and entrepreneurs were among slavery’s staunchest defenders. In Complicity, a team of Hartford Courant journalists investigates this history, producing 10 stories that explore how deeply the fortunes of New York and New England were tied to the slave trade. “Slavery in New York,” an exhibit at the New York Historical Society through March 5, reveals New York as a city substantially built by slaves. The companion book of the same name, elegantly designed and illustrated, anchors the exhibit in a series of scholarly essays. Together, these works echo and amplify each other, providing a kind of surround-sound opportunity for an anguished identity crisis: If our supposedly freedom-loving forebears were not “good guys,” what were they? And what are we?

From the get-go, Americans were profiteers, and plundering the New World was backbreaking work. Writing in 1645 to John Winthrop, governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, his brother-in-law Emanuel Downing complained, “I do not see how we can thrive until we get a stock of slaves sufficient to do all our business.” Further south, in New Amsterdam, slaves built Wall Street’s wall and cleared what became Harlem and Route 1. When a new shipload of slaves proved insufficiently hardy, Director General Peter Stuyvesant expressed his displeasure to the Dutch West India Company, insisting that the company supply the best slaves to Christian and company enterprises, while unloading the feeble on “Spaniards and unbelieving Jews.” For much of the 17th and 18th centuries, New York boasted the largest urban slave population in mainland North America. Slaves made up one-fifth the population. And white New Yorkers lived in terror of slave revolt. An alleged 1741 plot led to the jailing and torture of scores of slaves, 30 of whom were executed, 17 by burning at the stake. For slaves, the Revolutionary War was a liberating experience–but only if they fought for the British, who promised them freedom. Though George Washington sought to reclaim the colonists’ slaves, British General Guy Carleton oversaw the evacuation of more than 3,000 black Loyalists, who fled New York for Nova Scotia and other British outposts.

New York slowly and reluctantly abolished slavery; federal census figures showed slaves in the state until 1850. But the death of slavery in New York scarcely impeded the city’s business in the slave trade. In the peak years of 1859 and 1860, two slave ships bound for Africa left New York harbor every month. Although the trade was technically illegal, no one cared: A slave bought for $50 in Africa could be sold for $1,000 in Cuba, a profit margin so high that loss of slave life was easily absorbed. For every hundred slaves purchased in Africa, perhaps 48 survived the trip to the New World. By the end of the voyage, the ships that held the packed, shackled and naked human cargo were so filthy that it was cheaper to burn some vessels than decontaminate them. Law-abiding Northerners made money off slavery through the cotton trade. “King Cotton” was to antebellum America what oil is to the Middle East. Whole New England textile cities sprang up to manufacture cloth from cotton picked and processed by millions of slaves. In 1861, the United States produced more than 2 billion pounds of cotton, exporting much of it to Great Britain via New York. No wonder then that as the South began to talk secession, so too did New York Mayor Fernando Wood, who proposed that Manhattan become an independent island nation, its cotton trade intact.

How do we reconcile these facts with our mythology of the Civil War and our convenient conviction that the evils of slavery were contained within the South? Obviously, we can’t. Slavery was such a huge and gruesome enterprise, supported by so many, that it explodes inflated notions of American character. Instead, we might appropriately draw parallels between antebellum America and Nazi Germany. This is not to assert that ordinary Americans were “evil,” but rather that our insistent sorting of the world into “good guys” and “evildoers” distorts reality. Today, progressives are justly suspicious of the high-flown “freedom” rhetoric our government deploys to advance American empire. But we need always to be skeptical of reductive, righteous narratives. Far from promoting morality, such fictions allow us to hide our worst impulses from ourselves.

At the JS West egg farm, south of Modesto, Calif., one chicken house has the new, spacious cages that egg producers and animal welfare advocates say keep chickens happier.
At the JS West egg farm, south of Modesto, Calif., one chicken house has the new, spacious cages that egg producers and animal welfare advocates say keep chickens happier.

Farmers, Humane Society Partner On Chicken-Cage Revolution
by Dan Charles / January 26, 2012

When I first saw the press release, I figured it had to be an April Fools’ joke. The Humane Society of the United States, a voice of outrage against all heartless exploitation of animals, joining hands with the United Egg Producers, which represents an industry that keeps 200 million chickens in cages? But it’s true. This unprecedented partnership is asking Congress to pass a law (just introduced this week) that’s supposed to improve the lives of egg-laying hens. If passed, it would be the first federal law that takes into account the emotional lives of farm animals. Specifically, it would force egg producers to build new, roomier housing for hundreds of millions of birds. Some background: Ninety percent of America’s eggs are laid by chickens that live in long rows of metal wire cages. Each cage holds about eight hens, and they’re packed in pretty tightly. At the henhouse that I visited recently, owned by a family-run enterprise called JS West and Cos. in Modesto, Calif., each hen has, on average, 67 square inches — less than the area of a standard sheet of paper. John Bedell, who’s in charge of egg production at this site, says the chickens are not being mistreated. “Hear that sound?” he says. “When they’re just sort of clucking away, making that sound, that’s the sound of happy chickens.”

To be sure, the air in this building is pretty clean (especially considering that 150,000 chickens live in it), the temperature is comfortable, and the hens don’t have to worry about foxes eating them. But ever since cages became standard in the egg industry some 50 years ago, many people have been horrified by them. “These birds can’t even spread their wings,” says Paul Shapiro, a senior director at the Humane Society of the United States. “These are living, feeling, sentient animals who are caught up in the food system, and at a bare minimum, they deserve not to be tortured for their entire lives; not to be immobilized to the point where they can’t even extend their limbs.”Despite their outrage, though, advocates of animal welfare weren’t able to do much against the cages. For egg producers, the cages made economic sense. They made egg production possible on an unprecedented scale, delivering cheap eggs to consumers. But over the past few years, the situation has changed dramatically. The shift started in Europe. In 1999, the European Commission approved a directive that orders egg producers to give their chickens almost twice as much room. The directive finally took effect this year, on New Year’s Day. Major food retailers, especially in northern Europe, have gone further, and now sell only eggs from cage-free operations, where hens run around loose in barns.

Here in the U.S., California took the lead. In 2008, voters there overwhelmingly approved a proposition that the Humane Society of the U.S. drafted. “What Prop. 2 says is that laying hens must be able to stand up, lie down, turn around and fully extend their limbs. That’s it,” says Shapiro. The law takes effect in 2015. This may sound simple, but egg producers say it has created paralysis, because they have no idea what it requires. Does it mean that chickens have to be cage-free? Does it just mean bigger cages? How big is big enough? Regulators in California have provided no answers. On top of that, similar voter initiatives passed in other states. Gene Gregory, president of United Egg Producers, which represents companies that produce about 95 percent of the country’s eggs, says it looked like the industry would have to satisfy dozens of different — as well as confusing — state requirements. “It was going to be a nightmare, trying to produce eggs and have a free flow of eggs across state lines. So we reached out to the Humane Society and said, ‘Let’s have a conversation about this,’ ” says Gregory.  To the astonishment of many, the Humane Society was willing to talk. Shapiro says it was a chance to have an impact on the welfare of chickens all across the country, including in states where animal-rights activists weren’t likely to get any new regulations passed. In early July, the two sides announced that they had reached an agreement to jointly lobby Congress for new federal rules that would phase out all traditional chicken cages within 15 years. The law was formally introduced this week.

As a minimum, the chickens would have to be held in so-called enriched cages — a style developed in Europe. These cages are a compromise between efficient, large-scale production and letting chickens do some things that they seem to really like. At the JS West farm, south of Modesto, one chicken house already has these cages. I notice right away that chickens in this building have almost twice as much space as the ones I saw next door. Jill Benson, one of the company’s owners, points out other features. There are metal bars for the birds to perch on, and enclosed spaces, called nest boxes. Those spaces seem really popular among the hens. The new cages at JS West feature enclosed spaces, shown in red, called nest boxes. The spaces seem really popular among the hens. “The birds, in fact, line up to go into the nest box,” says Benson. “They like to go out of the bright light and go into a nest box to lay their eggs.” As we watch, we catch a glimpse of one chicken doing exactly that. A wet, warm egg rolls slowly out of the nest box. Perches and nest boxes are specifically required in the new proposed law.

Benson says she wants this law to pass. Building new chicken houses would cost her company millions of dollars. But she says she can live with that. It probably works out to about an extra penny per egg. But most important: She’d know exactly what to build, and the rules would be the same across the country. So if United Egg Producers, representing 95 percent of all U.S. egg production, wants this law and some of the industry’s fiercest enemies do too, who could be against it? Well, as it happens, some influential farm organizations. Beef producers, hog farmers, dairy farmers and the American Farm Bureau have all lined up against it. Bill Donald, a rancher in Melville, Mont., and president of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, says it would be a terrible precedent to get the government involved in keeping farm animals happy. Who knows what regulations might come next? “It isn’t a very large leap from egg production to chicken production to beef production,” he says. It’s a situation that would have been unthinkable just a year ago: Egg farmers arm in arm with the Humane Society of the United States, in a political battle with ranchers and dairymen.

The new cages at JS West feature enclosed spaces, shown in red, called nest boxes. The spaces seem really popular among the hens.

Egg Industry Bill Would Keep Hens in Cages Forever

“Opposing ballot measures is very expensive. The only way we can avoid them is through federal preemption. That is the reason why we need federal legislation.” — Gene Gregory, President, United Egg Producers

The egg industry’s trade association – the United Egg Producers (UEP) – has hatched an insidious plan: It is now pushing for federal legislation that, if enacted, would forever keep hens locked in cages, despite the wishes of the vast majority of the American public. Under the guise of “enriching” cages, the egg industry’s legislation would: Nullify existing state laws that ban or restrict battery cages. Deprive voters of the right and ability to pass ballot measures banning cages. Deny state legislatures the ability to enact laws to outlaw battery cages or otherwise regulate egg factory conditions.

To accomplish this, UEP’s federal legislation would amend what is known as the “Egg Products Inspection Act.” Specifically, the amendment (H.R. 3798) seeks to federally establish that egg factory cages would be legally accepted as a national standard that could never be challenged or changed by state law or public vote. UEP claims that its legislation would eventually result in “progress” for laying hens. Just the opposite is true. In reality, the egg industry merely agreed to slowly (at the glacial pace of 18 years) continue the meager changes in battery cage conditions that are already occurring due to state laws and public pressure. Please help make clear to our elected leaders that the egg industry’s unprecedented attack on anti-cruelty laws, states’ rights, and animal protection must not stand. Click here to read a veterinary perspective on the Rotten Egg Bill.

Responding to the Rotten Egg Bill’s (H.R. 3798) Specific Points
For political cover, UEP inserted a few diversionary provisions. None of them holds up to scrutiny.

Ammonia Levels: The Rotten Egg Bill contains nothing that alters current standards for “ammonia levels.” The bill merely duplicates UEP’s existing standards (which allow unhealthful levels of ammonia) and seeks to put that into federal law.

Forced Molting and Euthanasia: As for ending the practice of forced molting of hens by “starvation” and water deprivation – egg companies do not advocate that to begin with. Far from changing any currently accepted molting practice, the bill merely adopts UEP’s own existing standards. The same goes for “euthanasia” standards and other empty provisions tossed in to distract from the central issue: keeping hens in cages.

UEP’s Game of Inches: Prior to the Rotten Egg Bill, the egg industry passed state legislation calling for 116 square inches of cage space per hen. With a mere 8 square inch adjustment, UEP’s federal bill calls for a still cruel and depriving 124 square inches per hen – “phased-in” over 18 years. This token modification does not “double” the cage space from what UEP has already advocated as a standard. The bill’s own proponents have stated that a hen needs at least 216 square inches just to spread her wings.

Decriminalizing Animal Abuse: The bill contains no criminal penalties whatsoever. While overriding state laws which do contain appropriate criminal penalties, the Rotten Egg Bill would shift all authority to the industry-controlled USDA.

Fraudulent Labeling: As far as labeling egg cartons, UEP’s Rotten Egg Bill certainly would do that. For the very first time, the fraudulent term “enriched” cages would begin appearing on egg cartons nationwide – in order to deflect public concern – and to increase egg sales from caged hens.

The position of the Humane Farming Association and other responsible activists and organizations remains clear: Cruelty is cruelty. There is no such thing as an “enriched” battery cage. No humane organization should ever endorse these abusive confinement systems. Our state laws and voting rights must not be given away.

“If the legislation does not advance, [industry] would be headed toward cage-free production as the dominant, if not the only, form of egg production.” — Feedstuffs, agribusiness news journal, explaining why the egg industry is seeking to advance its federal legislation 

A lone hen escapes from her battery cage (photo: Farm Sanctuary)

New Legislation Would Improve Living Conditions of Egg-Laying Hens
by Patrick Glennon / Jan 26, 2012

Earlier this week, a group of lawmakers introduced a bill in the House that would seek to ameliorate the living conditions of egg-laying hens. H.R. 3798, the Egg Products Inspection Act Amendments of 2012, is the result of a joint effort of the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and the United Egg Producers (UEP). Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of HSUS, said in a press release that the resolution is “historic and unprecedented,” reflecting a degree of cooperation between animal rights activists and industry representatives hitherto unseen.

Chad Gregory, Senior Vice President of UEP, noted that the changes will require $4 billion in sacrifices, but that the move is necessary and that the industry is a willing partner: “This has been an incredibly grueling process, but we’re here today excited to recognize and celebrate this monumental achievement.” For years, HSUS has lobbied for state-level regulation of industrial egg production. A complex web of varying state regulations—reflecting radically different conceptions of animal treatment and welfare—was very costly for the UEP, which represents 88 percent of U.S. egg production. Looking to standardize regulation and to appease its critics, UEP began working with HSUS in July 2011.

The primary purpose of the legislation is to phase out the use of battery cages—tiny confines that currently house over 280 million hens in the U.S. These cages can be as small as a piece of printer paper, leaving no room for a hen to extend her wings, stand up or stretch. Stacked in tiers, battery cages prohibit hens from engaging in their natural behavior. As a result, hens can become crazed, pecking violently at neighboring birds and themselves. Curing the symptom rather than addressing the cause, many egg producers cut off hens’ beaks to prevent them from mauling others, instead of allowing them greater space to roam.

The legislation would affect a number of changes on the industry, should it pass Congress:
• It would replace battery cages with “enhanced colony housing.” These new environs would give birds double the space of average battery cages.
• After a phase-in period of larger housing facilities, the legislation would mandate environmental enhancements—such as perches and scratch pads—that would provide outlets for hens’ instinctive behavior.
• The resolution would also require clearly detailed labeling on all eggs nationwide that describe the living conditions of the animals. These labels would include: “eggs from caged hens,” “eggs from hens in enhanced cages,” “eggs from cage-free hens” and “eggs from free range hens.”

In addition, the resolution would rectify several other cruel industry practices, including forced molting—the technique of depriving hens water and feed in order to stimulate quicker egg-laying cycles. The legislation would provide great relief to many birds currently held in inhumane conditions across the United States. Many other deplorable practices, however, would remain intact. Egg-laying hens are genetically manipulated to produce eggs at a higher rate. While this accelerates egg production, it also causes hens’ bodies to degenerate faster. Hens usually remain in egg production for only a year, after which they are killed at a young age for use in animal feed or low-quality chicken meat products. Even if their life were to become slightly more comfortable with double the (very small) space they currently have, they would still likely continue to die very prematurely.

Additionally, the industry treats male chicks born to egg-laying hens with shocking disregard. Chickens have been genetically altered in order to enhance their economic output—this means that “broilers” (chickens reared for meat production) have been genetically altered to produce a greater amount of breast meat and that layers have been genetically altered to optimize egg production. As a consequence of the U.S. market’s preference for broiler-meat, the male chicks of layers have no economic benefit for agribusiness. Male chicks are thus “destroyed” shortly after birth. This is done through numerous ways. They are sometimes sucked through air tubes and thrown against an electric pad, electrocuting them. Others are sent on a conveyor belt through what is known as a macerator (think: wood chipper). Reforming the industrial food production system is an important way of improving animals’ lives, but basic reforms shouldn’t obscure other cruelties that are inherent to the system.

chickens on egg farm
A still image from a Humane Society of the United States undercover video shows caged chickens on an egg farm. A Florida effort that would outlaw the gathering of undercover photos and video was dropped, but five other states are still attempting to pass similar laws in 2012. (Humane Society of the United States)

MEANWHILE : VIDEOTAPING in FACTORY FARMS still LEGAL  [without the consent of the hens?],0,5292310.story
Florida Legislature drops anti-videotaping language
by Dean Kuipers  /  January 26, 2012,

The Florida Legislature has dropped a controversial provision that would have made it a crime to photograph or videotape on agricultural facilities without consent. We have reported previously on this blog that several states have attempted to thwart whistle-blowers and animal rights activists by making it a crime to record images on a farm, lab or other animal enterprise. Of course, many other actions such as trespassing, removing animals and other acts are already illegal.

Florida was taking a lead in this push, but in the last few days its legislature has removed the image collection language – derisively called an “ag gag” provision by activists – from state House Bill 1021 and state Senate Bill 1184. “These bills threaten animal welfare,” says Suzanne McMillan, director of Farm Animal Welfare for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, who has monitored these bills. “However, they also threaten constitutional rights, they have a chilling effect on speech. Which is a serious concern. Any time you limit speech, legally, a higher threshold needs to be met and it’s certainly not being met in this case.” The animal welfare organization points out that an undercover video made at a Florida dairy farm was used to pass humane slaughter and euthanasia laws. That video showed calves with gunshot wounds left in a watery pit to drown.

Video and photos gathered by undercover activists and even news reporters has been a mainstay of investigative journalism for decades. There has been some question as to whether the actual gathering of images also violates the broad federal 2006 Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act, which makes it illegal to negatively affect the profits of an animal enterprise. The Center for Constitutional Rights is currently challenging that financial harm provision in court. Four other states are now considering such video and photo bans, including Indiana, Iowa, Minnesota and Nebraska. “These bills are a direct threat to us controlling our food supply and to the American public understanding where it’s food comes from,” McMillan adds . “If large animal agribusiness has nothing to hide, why is it supporting these kinds of bills? Time and again, undercover investigations have revealed these exact problems: food safety concerns, animal welfare violations, environmental violations.”


Entire flocks of wild galahs, sulphur-crested cockatoos and corellas are learning to talk. The wild birds are being taught by pet birds that have escaped or been released by their owners and joined the flocks. “We have had people call us thinking they are going mad or had something put into their drink because they’ve gone out to look at the flock of birds in their backyard and all the birds have been saying something like ‘Who’s a pretty boy then?’,” Martyn Robinson, the Australian Museum’s naturalist, said yesterday.

Mr Robinson said the city was now home to large numbers of galahs, sulphur-crested cockatoos and corellas that had fled the state’s far west during the decade-long drought. “They’ve decided to stay and even begun to breed in the city, and if a pet bird of their species escapes their cage or is released because their owner’s moving or whatever, they naturally join the wild flocks,” he said. “These birds are very smart birds and very social and communication and contact is important between them. “So the pet bird begins to say things it’s been taught by its owner and the rest of the flock learns and starts speaking too, to mimic the pet bird,” Mr Robinson said. “I just hope a pet that’s been taught dirty words doesn’t join a flock.”

Pet parrots, such as cockatoos, that are let loose in the wild are teaching native birds to talk.
by Hannah Price / September 15 2011

If you hear mysterious voices from the trees – it’s likely just a curious cockatoo wanting a chat. Native parrots, especially cockatoos, seem to be learning the art of conversation from their previously domesticated friends. The Australian Museum’s Search and Discover desk, which offers a free service to identify species, has received numerous reports of encounters with talkative birds in the wild from mystified citizens who thought they were hearing voices. Martyn Robinson, a naturalist who works at the desk, explains that occasionally a pet cockatoo escapes or is let loose, and “if it manages to survive long enough to join a wild flock, [other birds] will learn from it.”

Birds mimic each other
As well as learning from humans directly, “the birds will mimic each other,” says Jaynia Sladek, from the Museum’s ornithology department. “There’s no reason why, if one comes into the flock with words, [then] another member of the flock wouldn’t pick it up as well.” ‘Hello cockie’ is the most common phrase, though there have been a few cases of foul-mouthed feathered friends using expletives which we can’t repeat here. The evolution of language could well be passed on through the generations, says Martyn. “If the parents are talkers and they produce chicks, their chicks are likely to pick up some of that,” he says. This phenomenon is not unique; some lyrebirds in southern Australia still reproduce the sounds of axes and old shutter-box cameras their ancestors once learnt.

Birds of a feather chat together
In rural areas talking parrots will probably begin to lose their language abilities, says Martyn, with some words “likely to just disintegrate a bit and become part of that particular flock’s repertoire.” However, in Australia’s big cities like Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane, cockatoos will probably maintain and improve their vocabulary due to regular contact with humans. “That’s certainly the case in the Botanic Gardens [in Sydney],” says Martyn. “If you say ‘hello’ or ‘hello cockie’ to the cockatoos, and if they’re interested in you and not just picking around for food, you may well trigger a response.”

How can birds teach each other to talk?
by Megan Lane / 16 September 2011

Wild parrots in Australia are apparently picking up phrases from escapee pet cockatoos who join their flocks. Why – and how – can some birds talk? Those strolling in Sydney’s parks are being startled by squawks of “Hello darling!” and “What’s happening?” from the trees. Wild birds such as galahs, sulphur-crested cockatoos and corellas are repeating phrases passed on by domesticated counterparts that escaped or were released, says naturalist Martyn Robinson, of Sydney’s Australian Museum. The museum has received numerous reports of talkative wild birds from startled members of the public. Birds are social creatures, and chicks learn to communicate by imitating the sounds made by their parents and those at the top of the flock’s pecking order. Unlike humans, birds do not have vocal cords. Instead, they are thought to use the muscles and membranes in their throats – specifically the syrinx – to direct airflow to make tones and sounds.

Not all birds can learn to make entirely new sounds. To date, only three groups of distantly related birds have been found to have this ability: songbirds; parrots such as cockatoos and parakeets; and hummingbirds. “These birds are very smart birds and very social, and communication and contact is important between them,” Robinson told Australia’s Daily Telegraph. “So the pet bird begins to say things it’s been taught by its owner and the rest of the flock learns and starts speaking too, to mimic the pet bird.” Although parrots can make noises that sound like words, they’re just mimicking sounds they find appealing, says Les Runce of the UK’s Parrot Society. “It may be a nursery rhyme, a football chant, a microwave pinging or a phone ringing.”

Young birds, like human babies, learn to speak or sing through imitation, says behavioural biologist Johan J Bolhuis, of Utrecht University in the Netherlands. In research published in August inNeuroscience Research, he describes “a transitional period of early vocalisation, which is called ‘babbling’ in humans and ‘subsong’ in birds.” And, he tells the BBC News website, parrots and some songbird species can learn throughout their lives, such as the Sydney example. “I have studied budgerigars – small parrots – that can teach each other to speak Japanese words. “In this and other research we found that the brains of these birds are organised in a similar way to human brains with regard to vocal learning. Also, the same genes are involved in song and speech.” He adds that birdsong has a “primitive grammar” that is quite different from the complex grammar of human language. “Bird research can teach us a lot about the development of human speech and the problems that may occur – stuttering, for instance. So, parrots and songbirds may hold important clues as to how we humans can learn to speak and acquire languages.”

Parrot fanciers keen to teach their own pretty polly to talk may have to repeat their chosen phrase over and over. But the bird may pick it up after a single listen. “Parrots have good memories and only need to hear a sound once to reproduce it,” says Runce. “A friend’s daughter had an ingrown toenail, banged it and let out an almighty shriek. Their bird has still got that one, and that was 30 years ago.”


Hackers plan space satellites to combat censorship
by David Meyer / 4 January 2012

The scheme was outlined at the Chaos Communication Congress in Berlin. The project’s organisers said the Hackerspace Global Grid will also involve developing a grid of ground stations to track and communicate with the satellites. Longer term they hope to help put an amateur astronaut on the moon. Hobbyists have already put a few small satellites into orbit – usually only for brief periods of time – but tracking the devices has proved difficult for low-budget projects. The hacker activist Nick Farr first put out calls for people to contribute to the project in August. He said that the increasing threat of internet censorship had motivated the project. “The first goal is an uncensorable internet in space. Let’s take the internet out of the control of terrestrial entities,” Mr Farr said. He cited the proposed Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) in the United States as an example of the kind of threat facing online freedom. If passed, the act would allow for some sites to be blocked on copyright grounds.

Beyond balloons
Although space missions have been the preserve of national agencies and large companies, amateur enthusiasts have launched objects into the heavens. High-altitude balloons have also been used to place cameras and other equipment into what is termed “near space”. The balloons can linger for extended amounts of time – but are not suitable for satellites. The amateur radio satellite Arissat-1 was deployed into low earth orbit last year via a spacewalk by two Russian cosmonauts from the International Space Station as part of an educational project. Students and academics have also launched other objects by piggybacking official rocket launches. However, these devices have often proved tricky to pinpoint precisely from the ground. According to Armin Bauer, a 26-year-old enthusiast from Stuttgart who is working on the Hackerspace Global Grid, this is largely due to lack of funding. “Professionals can track satellites from ground stations, but usually they don’t have to because, if you pay a large sum [to send the satellite up on a rocket], they put it in an exact place,” Mr Bauer said. In the long run, a wider hacker aerospace project aims to put an amateur astronaut onto the moon within the next 23 years. “It is very ambitious so we said let’s try something smaller first,” Mr Bauer added.

Ground network
The Berlin conference was the latest meeting held by the Chaos Computer Club, a decades-old German hacker group that has proven influential not only for those interested in exploiting or improving computer security, but also for people who enjoy tinkering with hardware and software. When Mr Farr called for contributions to Hackerspace, Mr Bauer and others decided to concentrate on the communications infrastructure aspect of the scheme. He and his teammates are working on their part of the project together with Constellation, an existing German aerospace research initiative that mostly consists of interlinked student projects. In the open-source spirit of Hackerspace, Mr Bauer and some friends came up with the idea of a distributed network of low-cost ground stations that can be bought or built by individuals. Used together in a global network, these stations would be able to pinpoint satellites at any given time, while also making it easier and more reliable for fast-moving satellites to send data back to earth. “It’s kind of a reverse GPS,” Mr Bauer said. “GPS uses satellites to calculate where we are, and this tells us where the satellites are. We would use GPS co-ordinates but also improve on them by using fixed sites in precisely-known locations.” Mr Bauer said the team would have three prototype ground stations in place in the first half of 2012, and hoped to give away some working models at the next Chaos Communication Congress in a year’s time. They would also sell the devices on a non-profit basis. “We’re aiming for 100 euros (£84) per ground station. That is the amount people tell us they would be willing to spend,” Mr Bauer added.

Experts say the satellite project is feasible, but could be restricted by technical limitations. “Low earth orbit satellites such as have been launched by amateurs so far, do not stay in a single place but rather orbit, typically every 90 minutes,” said Prof Alan Woodward from the computing department at the University of Surrey. “That’s not to say they can’t be used for communications but obviously only for the relatively brief periods that they are in your view. It’s difficult to see how such satellites could be used as a viable communications grid other than in bursts, even if there were a significant number in your constellation.” This problem could be avoided if the hackers managed to put their satellites into geostationary orbits above the equator. This would allow them to match the earth’s movement and appear to be motionless when viewed from the ground. However, this would pose a different problem. “It means that they are so far from earth that there is an appreciable delay on any signal, which can interfere with certain Internet applications,” Prof Woodward said. “There is also an interesting legal dimension in that outer space is not governed by the countries over which it floats. So, theoretically it could be a place for illegal communication to thrive. However, the corollary is that any country could take the law into their own hands and disable the satellites.”

Need for knowledge
Apart from the ground station scheme, other aspects of the Hackerspace project that are being worked on include the development of new electronics that can survive in space, and the launch vehicles that can get them there in the first place. According to Mr Farr, the “only motive” of the Hackerspace Global Grid is knowledge. He said many participants are frustrated that no person has been sent past low Earth orbit since the Apollo 17 mission in 1972. “This [hacker] community can put humanity back in space in a meaningful way,” Farr said. “The goal is to get back to where we were in the 1970s. Hackers find it offensive that we’ve had the technology since before many of us were born and we haven’t gone back.” Asked whether some might see negative security implications in the idea of establishing a hacker presence in space, Farr said the only downside would be that “people might not be able to censor your internet. Hackers are about open information,” Farr added. “We believe communication is a human right.”


by David Meyer  /  January 3, 2012

Hackers have announced work on a ground station scheme that would make amateur satellites more viable, as part of an aerospace scheme that ultimately aims for the moon. The Hackerspace Global Grid (HGG) project hopes to make it possible for amateurs to more accurately track the home-brewed satellites. As these devices tend to be launched by balloon, they are not placed at a precise point in orbit as professional satellites deployed by rocket usually are. Armin Bauer, one of the three German hobbyists involved in the HGG, said at the Chaos Communication Congress in Berlin that the system involved a reversal of the standard GPS technique. The scheme was announced at the event, which is Europe’s largest hacker conference. “GPS uses satellites to calculate where we are, and this tells us where the satellites are,” Bauer said on Friday, according to the BBC. “We would use GPS co-ordinates but also improve on them by using fixed sites in precisely-known locations.”

According to the HGG website, enthusiasts would site the ground stations using coordinates not only from the US’s GPS system, but also those from the EU’s Galileo, Russia’s GLONASS and ground surveys. A major aim of the wider ‘Hacker Space Program’ is to create a satellite system for internet communication that is uncensorable by any country. The hackers also want to put someone on the moon by 2034 — something that has not been done since the Apollo 17 mission 39 years ago. Bauer described the moon mission as “very ambitious”. As for the anti-censorship aspects of the scheme, the HGG team said on their site that they are “not yet in a technical position to discuss details”. They also noted that the modular ground stations, which are intended to work out at a non-profit sales price of €100 (£84) each, would be able to work without the internet. “Then you will have to deploy four receiver stations and connect them to your laptop(s) or collect all storage media added to them, where all received data is stored on,” the team wrote. “Then you have to manage the data handling and processing by your own.” However, internet connectivity is the plan for most of the HGG’s usage. The team is working on the project alongside Constellation, an German aerospace research platform for academics that would use the distributed network to derive crucial data.

According to Bauer and his colleagues, the internet connectivity would be of “bare minimum” bandwidth that would be enough to keep basic communications going if needed. “The first step is establishing a means of accurate synchronisation for the distributed network,” the team explained. “Next up are building various receiver modules (ADS-B, amateur satellites, etc) and data processing of received signals. A communication/control channel (read: sending data) is a future possibility but there are no fixed plans on how this could be implemented yet.” The HGG team hopes to have working prototypes in the first half of the year, with production units ready for distribution by the end of 2012. These would be sold, but people would be able to build their own as well. If the Hacker Space Program really does take off, the satellites would be out of any country’s legal jurisdiction, but this would also leave any country that is capable of doing so free to disable them in some way. The HGG team admitted on their site that there would nothing they could do to stop this happening. “Since we don’t have actual satellites yet, this falls in the category of problems we’re going to solve once they occur,” they wrote. “We’re doing this because we want to and because it’s fun. We’re trying to concentrate on reasons why this will work, not why it won’t.”

Building a Distributed Satellite Ground Station Network – A Call To Arms
Hackers need satellites. Hackers need internet over satellites. Satellites require ground stations. Let’s build them!

As proposed by Nick Farr et al at CCCamp11, we – the hacker community – are in desperate need for our own communication infrastructure. So here we are, answering the call for the Hacker Space Program with our proposal of a distributed satellite communications ground station network. An affordable way to bring satellite communications to a hackerspace near you. We’re proposing a multi-step approach to work towards this goal by setting up a distributed network of ground stations which will ensure a 24/7 communication window – first tracking, then communicating with satellites. The current state of a proof of concept implementation will be presented. This is a project closely related to the academic femto-satellite movement, ham radio, Constellation@Home.

The area of small satellites (femto-satellite <0.1 kg up to mini-satellite 100-500 kg) is currently pressed forward by Universities and enables scientific research at a small budget. Gathered data, both scientific and operational, requires communication between satellites and ground stations as well as to the final recipients of the data. One either has to establish own transmission stations or rent already existing stations. The project “distributed ground station” is an extension to the project which will offer, at its final expansion state, the ability to receive data from satellites and relay them to the final recepients. It is therefore proposed that a world-wide distributed network of antennas is to be set up which will be connected via the internet allowing the forwarding of received signals to a central server which will in turn forward signals to further recepients. Individual antennas will be set up by volunteers (Citizen Scientists) and partner institutions (Universities, institutes, companies). The core objective of the project is to develop an affordable hardware platform (antenna and receiver) to be connected to home computers as well as the required software. This platform should enable everyone to receive signals from femto-satellites at a budget and in doing so, eradicating black patches where there is currently no ground station to receive signals of satellites passing over-head. Emphasise is put on contributions by volunteers and ham radio operators who can contribute both passively by setting up a receiver station or actively by shaping the project making it a community driven effort powered by open-source hardware and applications.

Purposes The distributed ground stations will enable many different uses. Using distributed ground stations one could receive beacon signals of satellites and triangulate their position and trajectory. It would therefore be possible to determine the kepler elements right after launching of a new satellite without having to rely on official reports made at low frequency. Beacon tracking is also not limited to just satellites but can be used to track other objects like weather balloons and areal drones and record their flight paths. Additionally, beacon signals (sender ID, time, transmission power) could be augmented with house-keeping data to allow troubleshooting in cases where a main data feed is interrupted. Details regarding the protocol and maximum data packet length are to be defined during the feasibility study phase. Furthermore, distributed ground stations can be used as “data dumping” receivers. This can be used to reduce load on the main ground station as well as to more quickly distribute data to final recipients. The FunCube project, an out-reach project to schools, is already using a similar approach. Another expansion stage would be increasing the bandwidth of the individual receivers. As a side-effect, distributed ground station could also be used to analyse meteorite scattering and study effects in the ionosphere by having a ground-based sender with a known beacon signal to be reflected off meteorites and/or the iononosphere and in turn received by the distributed ground stations. Depending on the frequency used further applications in the field of atmospheric research, eg. local and regional properties of the air and storm clouds, can be imagined. Depending on local laws and guidelines, antennas could also be used to transmit signals. The concept suggests the following expansion stages:

  1. Feasibility study for the individual expansion stages
  2. Beacon-Tracking and sender triangulation
  3. Low-bandwidth satellite-data receiver (up to 10 Kbit/s)
  4. High-bandwidth satellite-data receiver (up to 10 Mbit/s)
  5. Support for data transmission Each stage is again split up into sub-projects to deal with hardware and software design and develoment, prototyping, testing and batch/mass production, Network The networking concept demands that all distributed ground stations are to be connected via the internet. This can be achieved using the Constellation platform. Constellation is a distributed computing project used already for various simulations related to aerospace applications. The system is based on computation power donated by volunteers which is combined to effectively build a world-wide distributed super-computer. The software used to do this is BOINC (Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing) which also offers support for additional hardware to eg. establish a sensor network. Another BOINC-project is the Quake Quatcher Network which is using accelleration sensors built into laptops or custom USB-dongles to detected earthquakes. Constellation could be enhanced to allow use of the distributed ground station hardware. Constellation is an academic student group of the DGLR (german aerospace society) at Stuttgart University and is supported by e.V and Selfnet e.V.. Ham radio and volunteers Special consideration is given to the ham radio community. Femto-satellites make use of the ham radio bands in the UHF, VHF, and S-Band range. As a part of the ham radio community ham radio operators should be treated as part of the network. Ham radio operators hold all required knowledge about the technology required to operate radio equipment and are also well distributed world-wide. To also make the system attractive to volunteers, hardware should be designed in a way that allows manufacturing and distribution on a budget. All designs should also be made public to allow own and improved builds of the system by the community. The hardware should be designed to be simple to use correctly and hard to be used wrong.

    [1] Constellation Plattform, [2] shackspace Stuttgart, References [1] IRS Kleinsatelliten, Universität Stuttgart, [2] Constellation Plattform, [3] BOINC, Berkely University, [4] Quake Catcher Network, [5] DGLR Bezirksgruppe Stuttgart, [6] e.V., [7] Selfnet e.V.,

The Darknet Project: netroots activists dream of global mesh network
A low-power, open source, open hardware mesh access point

Netroots activists dream of global mesh network
by Ryan Paul

A group of Internet activists gathered last week in an Internet Relay Chat (IRC) channel to begin planning an ambitious project—they hope to overcome electronic surveillance and censorship by creating a whole new Internet. The group, which coordinates its efforts through the Reddit social networking site, calls its endeavor The Darknet Project (TDP). The goal behind the project is to create a global darknet, a decentralized web of interconnected wireless mesh networks that operate independently of each other and the conventional internet. In a wireless mesh network, individual nodes can relay data for other nodes, ensuring that the routing of data remains robust as nodes on the network are added and removed. The idea behind TDP is that such a network would be resistant to censorship and shutdown because there would be no central point of control over the infrastructure. “Basically, the goal of the darknet plan project is to create an alternative, more free internet through a global mesh network,” explained a TDP organizer who goes by the Internet handle ‘Wolfeater.’ “To accomplish this, we will establish local meshes and connect them via current infrastructure until our infrastructure begins to reach other meshes.”

TDP seems to have been influenced in part by an earlier unofficial effort launched by the Internet group Anonymous called Operation Mesh. The short-lived operation, which was conceived as a response to the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) and its potential impact on Internet infrastructure, called for supporters to create a parallel Internet of wireless mesh networks. The idea is intriguing, but it poses major technical and logistical challenges, and it’s hard to imagine that TDP will ever move beyond the conceptual stage. The group behind the effort is big on ideas but short on technical solutions for rolling out a practical implementation. During the IRC meeting, they struggled to coordinate a simple discussion about how to proceed with their agenda. Still, despite TDP’s dysfunctional organizational structure and lack of concrete strategy, their message seems to resonate with an audience on the Internet. And enthusiasm for mesh networks and decentralized Internet isn’t isolated to the tinfoil hat crowd; serious government programs aim at producing similar technology. Earlier this year, the New York Times reported on a US government-funded program to create wireless mesh networks that could help dissidents circumvent political censorship in authoritarian countries. As repressive governments continue to get better at thwarting circumvention of their censorship tools, dissidents will need more robust tools of their own to continue propagating information. The US State Department seems to view decentralized darknets as an important area of research for empowering free expression abroad.

A growing number of independent open source software projects have also emerged to fill the need for darknet technology. Many of these projects are backed by credible non-profit organizations and segments of the security research community. Such projects could find a useful ally in the TDP if they were to engage with the growing community and help mobilize its members in a constructive direction. Unlike TDP, the original Operation Mesh coordinators had specific technologies in mind: they highlighted the I2P anonymous network layer software and the BATMAN ad-hoc wireless routing protocol as the best prospective candidates. Both projects are actively maintained and have modest communities, though the I2P website is currently down. Promising projects like Freenet develop software for building darknets on top of existing Internet infrastructure. Another group that might benefit from broader community support is Serval, a project to create ad-hoc wireless mesh networks using regular smartphones. The group has recently developed a software prototype that runs on Android handsets. They are actively looking for volunteers to help test the software and participate in anumber of other ways. TDP members who are serious about fostering decentralized Internet infrastructure could meaningfully advance their goals by assisting any of the previously mentioned projects. The growing amount of popular grassroots support for Internet decentralization suggests that the momentum behind darknets is increasing.

Anonymous “dimnet” tries to create hedge against DNS censorship
by Sean Gallagher

With concern mounting over the potential impact of the Stop Online Piracy Act and claims that it could make the Domain Name Service more vulnerable, one group is looking to circumvent the threat of domain name blocking and censorship by essentially creating a new Internet top-level domain outside of ICANN control. Called Dot-BIT, the effort currently uses proxies, cryptography, and a small collection of DNS servers to create a section of the Internet’s domain address space where domains can be provisioned, moved, and traded anonymously. So far, over 4,000 domains have been registered within Dot-BIT’s .bit virtual top level domain (TLD). Those domains are visible only to people who use a proxy service that draws address information from the project’s distributed database, or to those using one of the project’s two public DNS servers. While it’s not exactly a “darknet” like the Tor anonymizing network’s .onion domain, .bit isn’t exactly part of the open Internet, either—call it a “dimnet.” Just how effective a virtual top-level domain will be in preventing censorship by ISPs and governments—or even handling a rapidly growing set of registered domains—is unclear at best.

How it works
Dot-BIT is derived from a peer-to-peer network technology called Namecoin, derived from the Bitcoin digital currency technology. Just as with Bitcoin, the system is driven by cryptographic tokens, called namecoins. Tobuy an address in that space, you either have to “mine” namecoins by providing compute time (running client software that uses the computer’s CPU or graphics processing unit) to handle the processing of transactions within the network, or buy them through an exchange with cash or Bitcoins. All of those approaches essentially provide support to the Namecoin distributed name system’s infrastructure. You can also get an initial payout of free namecoins from a “faucet” site designed to help bootstrap the network. The cost of entry is pretty low: currently, registering a new domain costs about 1.6 namecoins, which can be had for about five cents. Your registration isn’t associated with your name, address, and phone number—instead, it’s linked to your cryptographic identity, preserving anonymity. Once you’ve registered a domain, you can assign it by sending out a JSON-formatted update request, mapping the domain to a DNS or providing IP addresses and host names to be distributed through Dot-BIT’s proxies and public DNS servers. That information is then spread across all of the network’s peer systems.

Simple, right?
Namecoin’s approach heavily favors early adopters, since once you’ve registered a domain, you can transfer it to someone else—or squat on it until someone pays you for it. That seems to be what a lot of early .bit adopters are counting on. For example, using Firefox and the FoxyProxy add-on to surf .bit-land to audi.bit lands you on a “this domain for sale” page. But while Dot-BIT may allow for an anonymous and relatively secure exchange of DNS information, it won’t necessarily prevent censorship by ISPs. If the .bit top-level domain becomes the target of laws like SOPA, it can be shut down pretty quickly by cutting off the head—its own internal DNS—either through port blocking or other filtering. And since it lacks the anonymizing routing abilities of “hidden” networks like Tor’s .onion domain, it won’t protect the identities of publishers and users who visit sites that use a .bit name. At the moment, then, it’s not certain what purpose .bit will actually serve, other than as an experiment in novel ways to create a DNS—or someplace for hackers to spend their illicitly earned Bitcoins.


It’s time to update/widen the term to accommodate a wider range of modern activity.  A darknet:

is a closed, private communications network that is used for purposes not sanctioned by the state (aka illegal).

Darknets can be built in the following ways:

  • Software.  A virtual, encrypted network that runs over public network infrastructure (most of the US government/economy uses this method).
  • Hardware.  A parallel physical infrastructure.  This hardware can be fiber optic cables or wireless.  Parallel wireless infrastructures (whether for cell phones or Internet access are fairly inexpensive to build and conceal).
  • In most cases, we see a mix of the two.

Examples of Darknets:

  • The Zetas have built a huge wireless darknet (a private, parallel communications network) that connects the majority of Mexico’s states.  Most of the other cartels also have wireless darknets and there are also lots of local darknets.
  • Hezbollah (in Lebanon) runs its own fiber optic network.
  • TOR.  A voluntary, decentralized ad hoc network that anonymizes network connections.
  • Botnets (up to 4 m computers strong) that can be used for global private communications.
  • Etc.  The list goes on  and on….

The future?  Darknets that power alternative economies.  A network layer for accelerating the dark globalization of the $10 Trillion System D.

The Shadow Superpower
Forget China: the $10 trillion global black market is the world’s fastest growing economy — and its future.
by Robert Neuwirth / 10.28.2011

With only a mobile phone and a promise of money from his uncle, David Obi did something the Nigerian government has been trying to do for decades: He figured out how to bring electricity to the masses in Africa’s most populous country. It wasn’t a matter of technology. David is not an inventor or an engineer, and his insights into his country’s electrical problems had nothing to do with fancy photovoltaics or turbines to harness the harmattan or any other alternative sources of energy. Instead, 7,000 miles from home, using a language he could hardly speak, he did what traders have always done: made a deal. He contracted with a Chinese firm near Guangzhou to produce small diesel-powered generators under his uncle’s brand name, Aakoo, and shipped them home to Nigeria, where power is often scarce. David’s deal, struck four years ago, was not massive — but it made a solid profit and put him on a strong footing for success as a transnational merchant. Like almost all the transactions between Nigerian traders and Chinese manufacturers, it was also sub rosa: under the radar, outside of the view or control of government, part of the unheralded alternative economic universe of System D.

You probably have never heard of System D. Neither had I until I started visiting street markets and unlicensed bazaars around the globe. System D is a slang phrase pirated from French-speaking Africa and the Caribbean. The French have a word that they often use to describe particularly effective and motivated people. They call them débrouillards. To say a man is a débrouillard is to tell people how resourceful and ingenious he is. The former French colonies have sculpted this word to their own social and economic reality. They say that inventive, self-starting, entrepreneurial merchants who are doing business on their own, without registering or being regulated by the bureaucracy and, for the most part, without paying taxes, are part of “l’economie de la débrouillardise.” Or, sweetened for street use, “Systeme D.” This essentially translates as the ingenuity economy, the economy of improvisation and self-reliance, the do-it-yourself, or DIY, economy. A number of well-known chefs have also appropriated the term to describe the skill and sheer joy necessary to improvise a gourmet meal using only the mismatched ingredients that happen to be at hand in a kitchen. I like the phrase. It has a carefree lilt and some friendly resonances. At the same time, it asserts an important truth: What happens in all the unregistered markets and roadside kiosks of the world is not simply haphazard. It is a product of intelligence, resilience, self-organization, and group solidarity, and it follows a number of well-worn though unwritten rules. It is, in that sense, a system.

It used to be that System D was small — a handful of market women selling a handful of shriveled carrots to earn a handful of pennies. It was the economy of desperation. But as trade has expanded and globalized, System D has scaled up too. Today, System D is the economy of aspiration. It is where the jobs are. In 2009, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), a think tank sponsored by the governments of 30 of the most powerful capitalist countries and dedicated to promoting free-market institutions, concluded that half the workers of the world — close to 1.8 billion people — were working in System D: off the books, in jobs that were neither registered nor regulated, getting paid in cash, and, most often, avoiding income taxes.

Kids selling lemonade from the sidewalk in front of their houses are part of System D. So are many of the vendors at stoop sales, flea markets, and swap meets. So are the workers who look for employment in the parking lots of Home Depot and Lowe’s throughout the United States. And it’s not only cash-in-hand labor. As with David Obi’s deal to bring generators from China to Nigeria, System D is multinational, moving all sorts of products — machinery, mobile phones, computers, and more — around the globe and creating international industries that help billions of people find jobs and services. In many countries — particularly in the developing world — System D is growing faster than any other part of the economy, and it is an increasing force in world trade. But even in developed countries, after the financial crisis of 2008-09, System D was revealed to be an important financial coping mechanism. A 2009 study by Deutsche Bank, the huge German commercial lender, suggested that people in the European countries with the largest portions of their economies that were unlicensed and unregulated — in other words, citizens of the countries with the most robust System D — fared better in the economic meltdown of 2008 than folks living in centrally planned and tightly regulated nations. Studies of countries throughout Latin America have shown that desperate people turned to System D to survive during the most recent financial crisis. This spontaneous system, ruled by the spirit of organized improvisation, will be crucial for the development of cities in the 21st century. The 20th-century norm — the factory worker who nests at the same firm for his or her entire productive life — has become an endangered species. In China, the world’s current industrial behemoth, workers in the massive factories have low salaries and little job security. Even in Japan, where major corporations have long guaranteed lifetime employment to full-time workers, a consensus is emerging that this system is no longer sustainable in an increasingly mobile and entrepreneurial world.

So what kind of jobs will predominate? Part-time work, a variety of self-employment schemes, consulting, moonlighting, income patching. By 2020, the OECD projects, two-thirds of the workers of the world will be employed in System D. There’s no multinational, no Daddy Warbucks or Bill Gates, no government that can rival that level of job creation. Given its size, it makes no sense to talk of development, growth, sustainability, or globalization without reckoning with System D. The growth of System D presents a series of challenges to the norms of economics, business, and governance — for it has traditionally existed outside the framework of trade agreements, labor laws, copyright protections, product safety regulations, antipollution legislation, and a host of other political, social, and environmental policies. Yet there’s plenty that’s positive, too. In Africa, many cities — Lagos, Nigeria, is a good example — have been propelled into the modern era through System D, because legal businesses don’t find enough profit in bringing cutting- edge products to the third world. China has, in part, become the world’s manufacturing and trading center because it has been willing to engage System D trade. Paraguay, small, landlocked, and long dominated by larger and more prosperous neighbors, has engineered a decent balance of trade through judicious smuggling. The digital divide may be a concern, but System D is spreading technology around the world at prices even poor people can afford. Squatter communities may be growing, but the informal economy is bringing commerce and opportunity to these neighborhoods that are off the governmental grid. It distributes products more equitably and cheaply than any big company can. And, even as governments around the world are looking to privatize agencies and get out of the business of providing for people, System D is running public services — trash pickup, recycling, transportation, and even utilities.

Just how big is System D? Friedrich Schneider, chair of the economics department at Johannes Kepler University in Linz, Austria, has spent decades calculating the dollar value of what he calls the shadow economies of the world. He admits his projections are imprecise, in part because, like privately held businesses everywhere, businesspeople who engage in trade off the books don’t want to open their books (most successful System D merchants are obsessive about profit and loss and keep detailed accounts of their revenues and expenses in old-fashioned ledger books) to anyone who will write anything in a book. And there’s a definitional problem as well, because the border between the shadow and the legal economies is blurry. Does buying some of your supplies from an unlicensed dealer put you in the shadows, even if you report your profit and pay your taxes? How about hiding just $1 in income from the government, though the rest of your business is on the up-and-up? And how about selling through System D even if your business is in every other way in compliance with the law? Finding a firm dividing line is not easy, as Keith Hart, who was among the first academics toacknowledge the importance of street markets to the economies of the developing world, warned me in a recent conversation: “It’s very difficult to separate the nice African ladies selling oranges on the street and jiggling their babies on their backs from the Indian gangsters who control the fruit trade and who they have to pay rent to.” Schneider suggests, however, that, in making his estimates, he has this covered. He screens out all money made through “illegal actions that fit the characteristics of classical crimes like burglary, robbery, drug dealing, etc.” This means that the big-time criminals are likely out of his statistics, though those gangsters who control the fruit market are likely in, as long as they’re not involved in anything more nefarious than running a price-fixing cartel. Also, he says, his statistics do not count “the informal household economy.” This means that if you’re putting buckles on belts in your home for a bit of extra cash from a company owned by your cousin, you’re in, but if you’re babysitting your cousin’s kids while she’s off putting buckles on belts at her factory, you’re out.

Schneider presents his numbers as a percentage of the total market value of goods and services made in each country that same year — each nation’s gross domestic product. His data show that System D is on the rise. In the developing world, it’s been increasing every year since the 1990s, and in many countries it’s growing faster than the officially recognized gross domestic product (GDP). If you apply his percentages (Schneider’s most recent report, published in 2006, uses economic data from 2003) to the World Bank’s GDP estimates, it’s possible to make a back-of-the-envelope calculation of the approximate value of the billions of underground transactions around the world. And it comes to this: The total value of System D as a global phenomenon is close to $10 trillion. Which makes for another astonishing revelation. If System D were an independent nation, united in a single political structure — call it the United Street Sellers Republic (USSR) or, perhaps, Bazaaristan — it would be an economic superpower, the second-largest economy in the world (the United States, with a GDP of $14 trillion, is numero uno). The gap is narrowing, though, and if the United States doesn’t snap out of its current funk, the USSR/Bazaaristan could conceivably catch it sometime this century. In other words, System D looks a lot like the future of the global economy. All over the world — from San Francisco to São Paulo, from New York City to Lagos — people engaged in street selling and other forms of unlicensed trade told me that they could never have established their businesses in the legal economy. “I’m totally off the grid,” one unlicensed jewelry designer told me. “It was never an option to do it any other way. It never even crossed my mind. It was financially absolutely impossible.” The growth of System D opens the market to those who have traditionally been shut out.

This alternative economic system also offers the opportunity for large numbers of people to find work. No job-cutting or outsourcing is going on here. Rather, a street market boasts dozens of entrepreneurs selling similar products and scores of laborers doing essentially the same work. An economist would likely deride all this duplicated work as inefficient. But the level of competition on the street keeps huge numbers of people employed. It liberates their entrepreneurial energy. And it offers them the opportunity to move up in the world. In São Paulo, Édison Ramos Dattora, a migrant from the rural midlands, has succeeded in the nation’s commercial capital by working as a camelô — an unlicensed street vendor. He started out selling candies and chocolates on the trains, and is now in a more lucrative branch of the street trade — retailing pirate DVDs of first-run movies to commuters around downtown. His underground trade — he has to watch out for the cops wherever he goes — has given his family a standard of living he never dreamed possible: a bank account, a credit card, an apartment in the center of town, and enough money to take a trip to Europe. Even in the most difficult and degraded situations, System D merchants are seeking to better their lives. For instance, the garbage dump would be the last place you would expect to be a locus of hope and entrepreneurship. But Lagos scavenger Andrew Saboru has pulled himself out of the trash heap and established himself as a dealer in recycled materials. On his own, with no help from the government or any NGOs or any bank (Andrew has a bank account, but his bank will never loan him money — because his enterprise is unlicensed and unregistered and depends on the unpredictable labor of culling recyclable material from the megacity’s massive garbage pile), he has climbed the career ladder. “Lagos is a city for hustling,” he told me. “If you have an idea and you are serious and willing to work, you can make money here. I believe the future is bright.” It took Andrew 16 years to make his move, but he succeeded, and he’s proud of the business he has created. We should be too. As Joanne Saltzberg, who heads Women Entrepreneurs of Baltimore — a business development group — told me, we need to change our attitude and to salute the achievements of those who are engaged in this alternate economy. “We only revere success,” she said. “I don’t think we honor the struggle. People who have no access to business development resources. People who have to work two and three jobs just to survive. When you are struggling in this economy and still you commit yourself to having a better life, that’s really something to honor.”

How Mexico’s Drug Cartels Stay Networked
by Spencer Ackerman / December 27, 2011

Arranging drug sales on a cellphone, cryptic email or even a pager? That’s strictly for the small-time dealer. If you’re a Mexican drug cartel, you have your own radio network. Since 2006, the cartels have maintained an encrypted DIY radio network that stretches across nearly all 31 Mexican states, even down south into Guatemala. The communications infrastructure of the narco-gangs that have turned Mexico into a gangster’s paradise consists of “professional-grade” radio antennas, signal relays and simple handheld radios that cost “millions of dollars” — and which the Mexican authorities haven’t been able to shut down. If it sounds like a military-grade communications apparatus, it should. The notorious Zetas, formerly the enforcers for the Gulf Cartel and now its chief rival, were born out of Mexican Special Forces. But the Zetas aren’t stupid enough to make big deals over a radio frequency, even an encrypted one. According to a picture of what you might call Radio Zeta that’s emerged after three raids by the Mexican authorities, the bosses only communicate through the Internet. The radio network is for lookouts and lower-level players.

Here’s how it works, according to a fascinating Associated Press piece. The cartels divide up territory into “plazas.” The plaza boss has the responsibility for establishing nodes on the network — getting the antennas in place, concealing them as necessary, making sure the signal-boosting repeaters extend the network’s reach, equipping cartel personnel with handheld radios, and replacing what the security forces destroy. The cartels have even gone green, with solar panels powering the radio towers. The network is primarily an early warning reconnaissance system. “Halcons,” or “hawks,” holler on the handhelds when the federal police or soldiers roll through cartel territory. But it’s also an occasional offensive tool to intimidate the security forces. The cartels have been known to hijack military radio networks to broadcast threats. That’s keeping in line with the Zetas’ alarming tactic of slaughtering people for allegedly talking openly about cartel activity over the Internet.

Since September, three large raids conducted by Mexico’s beleaguered security forces have attempted to disrupt the radio network by snatching up its hardware. But much of the infrastructure — the towers, the receivers — is cheap enough to be easily replaced. The network is “low-cost, highly extendable and maintainable,” a security consultant told the AP. But there’s an alternative for taking down the cartel broadcasts. Since the U.S. already provides intelligence and security assistance to Mexico’s drug war, maybe it’s time to think about providing somemilitary-grade jammers as well. Mexico doesn’t seem to have a better idea for taking Radio Zeta off the air.

{Freenet means controversial information does not need to be stored in physical data havens such as this one, Sealand. Photograph: Kim Gilmour/Alamy}

The dark side of the internet
by Andy Beckett / 25 November 2009

Fourteen years ago, a pasty Irish teenager with a flair for inventions arrived at Edinburgh University to study artificial intelligence and computer science. For his thesis project, Ian Clarke created “a Distributed, Decentralised Information Storage and Retrieval System”, or, as a less precise person might put it, a revolutionary new way for people to use theinternet without detection. By downloading Clarke’s software, which he intended to distribute for free, anyone could chat online, or read or set up a website, or share files, with almost complete anonymity. “It seemed so obvious that that was what the net was supposed to be about – freedom to communicate,” Clarke says now. “But [back then] in the late 90s that simply wasn’t the case. The internet could be monitored more quickly, more comprehensively, more cheaply than more old-fashioned communications systems like the mail.” His pioneering software was intended to change that. His tutors were not bowled over. “I would say the response was a bit lukewarm. They gave me a B. They thought the project was a bit wacky … they said, ‘You didn’t cite enough prior work.'” Undaunted, in 2000 Clarke publicly released his software, now more appealingly called Freenet. Nine years on, he has lost count of how many people are using it: “At least 2m copies have been downloaded from the website, primarily in Europe and the US. The website is blocked in [authoritarian] countries like China so there, people tend to get Freenet from friends.” Last year Clarke produced an improved version: it hides not only the identities of Freenet users but also, in any online environment, the fact that someone is using Freenet at all.

Installing the software takes barely a couple of minutes and requires minimal computer skills. You find the Freenet website, read a few terse instructions, and answer a few questions (“How much security do you need?” … “NORMAL: I live in a relatively free country” or “MAXIMUM: I intend to access information that could get me arrested, imprisoned, or worse”). Then you enter a previously hidden online world. In utilitarian type and bald capsule descriptions, an official Freenet index lists the hundreds of “freesites” available: “Iran News”, “Horny Kate”, “The Terrorist’s Handbook: A practical guide to explosives and other things of interests to terrorists”, “How To Spot A Pedophile [sic]”, “Freenet Warez Portal: The source for pirate copies of books, games, movies, music, software, TV series and more”, “Arson Around With Auntie: A how-to guide on arson attacks for animal rights activists”. There is material written in Russian, Spanish, Dutch, Polish and Italian. There is English-language material from America and Thailand, from Argentina and Japan. There are disconcerting blogs (“Welcome to my first Freenet site. I’m not here because of kiddie porn … [but] I might post some images of naked women”) and legally dubious political revelations. There is all the teeming life of the everyday internet, but rendered a little stranger and more intense. One of the Freenet bloggers sums up the difference: “If you’re reading this now, then you’re on the darkweb.” The modern internet is often thought of as a miracle of openness – its global reach, its outflanking of censors, its seemingly all-seeing search engines. “Many many users think that when they search on Google they’re getting all the web pages,” says Anand Rajaraman, co-founder of Kosmix, one of a new generation of post-Google search engine companies. But Rajaraman knows different. “I think it’s a very small fraction of the deep web which search engines are bringing to the surface. I don’t know, to be honest, what fraction. No one has a really good estimate of how big the deep web is. Five hundred times as big as the surface web is the only estimate I know.”

Unfathomable and mysterious
“The darkweb”; “the deep web”; beneath “the surface web” – the metaphors alone make the internet feel suddenly more unfathomable and mysterious. Other terms circulate among those in the know: “darknet”, “invisible web”, “dark address space”, “murky address space”, “dirty address space”. Not all these phrases mean the same thing. While a “darknet” is an online network such as Freenet that is concealed from non-users, with all the potential for transgressive behaviour that implies, much of “the deep web”, spooky as it sounds, consists of unremarkable consumer and research data that is beyond the reach of search engines. “Dark address space” often refers to internet addresses that, for purely technical reasons, have simply stopped working. And yet, in a sense, they are all part of the same picture: beyond the confines of most people’s online lives, there is a vast other internet out there, used by millions but largely ignored by the media and properly understood by only a few computer scientists. How was it created? What exactly happens in it? And does it represent the future of life online or the past? Michael K Bergman, an American academic and entrepreneur, is one of the foremost authorities on this other internet. In the late 90s he undertook research to try to gauge its scale. “I remember saying to my staff, ‘It’s probably two or three times bigger than the regular web,”‘ he remembers. “But the vastness of the deep web . . . completely took my breath away. We kept turning over rocks and discovering things.” In 2001 he published a paper on the deep web that is still regularly cited today. “The deep web is currently 400 to 550 times larger than the commonly defined world wide web,” he wrote. “The deep web is the fastest growing category of new information on the internet … The value of deep web content is immeasurable … internet searches are searching only 0.03% … of the [total web] pages available.” In the eight years since, use of the internet has been utterly transformed in many ways, but improvements in search technology by Google, Kosmix and others have only begun to plumb the deep web. “A hidden web [search] engine that’s going to have everything – that’s not quite practical,” says Professor Juliana Freire of the University of Utah, who is leading a deep web search project called Deep Peep. “It’s not actually feasible to index the whole deep web. There’s just too much data.”

But sheer scale is not the only problem. “When we’ve crawled [searched] several sites, we’ve gotten blocked,” says Freire. “You can actually come up with ways that make it impossible for anyone [searching] to grab all your data.” Sometimes the motivation is commercial – “people have spent a lot of time and money building, say, a database of used cars for sale, and don’t want you to be able to copy their site”; and sometimes privacy is sought for other reasons. “There’s a well-known crime syndicate called the Russian Business Network (RBN),” says Craig Labovitz, chief scientist at Arbor Networks, a leading online security firm, “and they’re always jumping around the internet, grabbing bits of [disused] address space, sending out millions of spam emails from there, and then quickly disconnecting.” The RBN also rents temporary websites to other criminals for online identity theft, child pornography and releasing computer viruses. The internet has been infamous for such activities for decades; what has been less understood until recently was how the increasingly complex geography of the internet has aided them. “In 2000 dark and murky address space was a bit of a novelty,” says Labovitz. “This is now an entrenched part of the daily life of the internet.” Defunct online companies; technical errors and failures; disputes between internet service providers; abandoned addresses once used by the US military in the earliest days of the internet – all these have left the online landscape scattered with derelict or forgotten properties, perfect for illicit exploitation, sometimes for only a few seconds before they are returned to disuse. How easy is it to take over a dark address? “I don’t think my mother could do it,” says Labovitz. “But it just takes a PC and a connection. The internet has been largely built on trust.”

Open or closed?
In fact, the internet has always been driven as much by a desire for secrecy as a desire for transparency. The network was the joint creation of the US defence department and the American counterculture – the WELL, one of the first and most influential online communities, was a spinoff from hippy bible the Whole Earth Catalog – and both groups had reasons to build hidden or semi-hidden online environments as well as open ones. “Strong encryption developed in parallel with the internet,” says Danny O’Brien, an activist with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a long-established pressure group for online privacy. There are still secretive parts of the internet where this unlikely alliance between hairy libertarians and the cloak-and-dagger military endures. The Onion Router, or Tor, is an American volunteer-run project that offers free software to those seeking anonymous online communication, like a more respectable version of Freenet. Tor’s users, according to its website, include US secret service “field agents” and “law enforcement officers . . . Tor allows officials to surf questionable websites and services without leaving tell-tale tracks,” but also “activists and whistleblowers”, for example “environmental groups [who] are increasingly falling under surveillance in the US under laws meant to protect against terrorism”. Tor, in short, is used both by the American state and by some of its fiercest opponents. On the hidden internet, political life can be as labyrinthine as in a novel by Thomas Pynchon.

The hollow legs of Sealand
The often furtive, anarchic quality of life online struck some observers decades ago. In 1975, only half a dozen years after the internet was created, the science-fiction author John Brunner wrote of “so many worms and counter-worms loose in the data-net” in his influential novel The Shockwave Rider. By the 80s “data havens”, at first physical then online locations where sensitive computerised information could be concealed, were established in discreet jurisdictions such as Caribbean tax havens. In 2000 an American internet startup called HavenCo set up a much more provocative data haven, in a former second world war sea fort just outside British territorial waters off the Suffolk coast, which since the 60s had housed an eccentric independent “principality” called Sealand. HavenCo announced that it would store any data unless it concerned terrorism or child pornography, on servers built into the hollow legs of Sealand as they extended beneath the waves. A better metaphor for the hidden depths of the internet was hard to imagine. In 2007 the highly successful Swedish filesharing website The Pirate Bay – the downloading of music and films for free being another booming darknet enterprise – announced its intention to buy Sealand. The plan has come to nothing so far, and last year it was reported that HavenCo had ceased operation, but in truth the need for physical data havens is probably diminishing. Services such as Tor and Freenet perform the same function electronically; and in a sense, even the “open” internet, as online privacy-seekers sometimes slightly contemptuously refer to it, has increasingly become a place for concealment: people posting and blogging under pseudonyms, people walling off their online lives from prying eyes on social networking websites. “The more people do everything online, the more there’s going to be bits of your life that you don’t want to be part of your public online persona,” says O’Brien. A spokesman for the Police Central e-crime Unit [PCeU] at the Metropolitan Police points out that many internet secrets hide in plain sight: “A lot of internet criminal activity is on online forums that are not hidden, you just have to know where to find them. Like paedophile websites: people who use them might go to an innocent-looking website with a picture of flowers, click on the 18th flower, arrive on another innocent-looking website, click something there, and so on.” The paedophile ring convicted this autumn and currently awaiting sentence for offences involving Little Ted’s nursery in Plymouth met on Facebook. Such secret criminal networks are not purely a product of the digital age: codes and slang and pathways known only to initiates were granting access to illicit worlds long before the internet. To libertarians such as O’Brien and Clarke the hidden internet, however you define it, is constantly under threat from restrictive governments and corporations. Its freedoms, they say, must be defended absolutely. “Child pornography does exist on Freenet,” says Clarke. “But it exists all over the web, in the post . . . At Freenet we could establish a virus to destroy any child pornography on Freenet – we could implement that technically. But then whoever has the key [to that filtering software] becomes a target. Suddenly we’d start getting served copyright notices; anything suspect on Freenet, we’d get pressure to shut it down. To modify Freenet would be the end of Freenet.”

Always recorded
According to the police, for criminal users of services such as Freenet, the end is coming anyway. The PCeU spokesman says, “The anonymity things, there are ways to get round them, and we do get round them. When you use the internet, something’s always recorded somewhere. It’s a question of identifying who is holding that information.” Don’t the police find their investigations obstructed by the libertarian culture of so much life online? “No, people tend to be co-operative.” The internet, for all its anarchy, is becoming steadily more commercialised; as internet service providers, for example, become larger and more profit-driven, the spokesman suggests, it is increasingly in their interests to accept a degree of policing. “There has been an increasing centralisation,” Ian Clarke acknowledges regretfully. Meanwhile the search engine companies are restlessly looking for paths into the deep web and the other sections of the internet currently denied to them. “There’s a deep implication for privacy,” says Anand Rajaraman of Kosmix. “Tonnes and tonnes of stuff out there on the deep web has what I call security through obscurity. But security through obscurity is actually a false security. You [the average internet user] can’t find something, but the bad guys can find it if they try hard enough.” As Kosmix and other search engines improve, he says, they will make the internet truly transparent: “You will be on the same level playing field as the bad guys.” The internet as a sort of electronic panopticon, everything on it unforgivingly visible and retrievable – suddenly its current murky depths seem in some ways preferable. Ten years ago Tim Berners-Lee, the British computer scientist credited with inventing the web, wrote: “I have a dream for the web in which computers become capable of analysing all the data on the web – the content, links, and transactions between people … A ‘Semantic Web’, which should make this possible, has yet to emerge, but when it does, the day-to-day mechanisms of trade, bureaucracy and our daily lives will be handled by machines talking to machines.” Yet this “semantic web” remains the stuff of knotty computer science papers rather than a reality. “It’s really been the holy grail for 30 years,” says Bergman. One obstacle, he continues, is that the internet continues to expand in unpredictable and messy surges. “The boundaries of what the web is have become much more blurred. Is Twitter part of the web or part of something else? Now the web, in a sense, is just everything. In 1998, the NEC laboratory at Princeton published a paper on the size of the internet. Who could get something like that published now? You can’t talk about how big the internet is. Because what is the metric?”

Gold Rush
It seems likely that the internet will remain in its Gold Rush phase for some time yet. And in the crevices and corners of its slightly thrown-together structures, darknets and other private online environments will continue to flourish. They can be inspiring places to spend time in, full of dissidents and eccentrics and the internet’s original freewheeling spirit. But a darknet is not always somewhere for the squeamish. On Freenet, there is a currently a “freesite” which makes allegations against supposed paedophiles, complete with names, photographs, extensive details of their lives online, and partial home addresses. In much smaller type underneath runs the disclaimer: “The material contained in this freesite is hearsay . . . It is not admissable in court proceedings and would certainly not reach the burden of proof requirement of a criminal trial.” For the time being, when I’m wandering around online, I may stick to Google.

Scientists say they’re getting closer to Matrix-style instant learning–but-is-it-safe

What price effortless learning? In a paper published in the latest issue of Science, neuroscientists say they’ve developed a novel method of learning, that can cause long-lasting improvement in tasks that demand a high level of visual performance. And while the so-called neurofeedback method could one day be used to teach you kung fu, or to aid spinal-injury patients on the road to rehabilitation, evidence also suggests the technology could be used to target people without their knowledge, opening doors to numerous important ethical questions. According to a press release from the National Science Foundation:

New research published today in the journal Science suggests it may be possible to use brain technology to learn to play a piano, reduce mental stress or hit a curve ball with little or no conscious effort. It’s the kind of thing seen in Hollywood’s “Matrix” franchise.

Experiments conducted at Boston University (BU) and ATR Computational Neuroscience Laboratories in Kyoto, Japan, recently demonstrated that through a person’s visual cortex, researchers could use decoded functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to induce brain activity patterns to match a previously known target state and thereby improve performance on visual tasks.

Think of a person watching a computer screen and having his or her brain patterns modified to match those of a high-performing athlete or modified to recuperate from an accident or disease. Though preliminary, researchers say such possibilities may exist in the future.

But here’s the bit that’s really interesting (and also pretty creepy): the researchers found that this novel learning approach worked even when test subjects weren’t aware of what they were learning:

“The most surprising thing in this study is that mere inductions of neural activation patterns…led to visual performance improvement…without presenting the feature or subjects’ awareness of what was to be learned,” said lead researcher Takeo Watanabe. He continues:

We found that subjects were not aware of what was to be learned while behavioral data obtained before and after the neurofeedback training showed that subjects’ visual performance improved specifically for the target orientation, which was used in the neurofeedback training.

Is this research mind-blowing and exciting? Absolutely. I mean come on — automated learning? Yes. Sign me up. But according to research co-author Mitsuo Kawato, the neurofeedback mechanism could just as soon be used for purposes of hypnosis or covert mind control. And that… I’m not so keen on. “We have to be careful,” he explains, “so that this method is not used in an unethical way.”

New research suggests it may be possible to learn high-performance tasks with little or no conscious effort / December 8, 2011

New research published today in the journal Science suggests it may be possible to use brain technology to learn to play a piano, reduce mental stress or hit a curve ball with little or no conscious effort. It’s the kind of thing seen in Hollywood’s “Matrix” franchise. Experiments conducted at Boston University (BU) and ATR Computational Neuroscience Laboratories in Kyoto, Japan, recently demonstrated that through a person’s visual cortex, researchers could use decoded functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to induce brain activity patterns to match a previously known target state and thereby improve performance on visual tasks.

Think of a person watching a computer screen and having his or her brain patterns modified to match those of a high-performing athlete or modified to recuperate from an accident or disease. Though preliminary, researchers say such possibilities may exist in the future. “Adult early visual areas are sufficiently plastic to cause visual perceptual learning,” said lead author and BU neuroscientist Takeo Watanabe of the part of the brain analyzed in the study. Neuroscientists have found that pictures gradually build up inside a person’s brain, appearing first as lines, edges, shapes, colors and motion in early visual areas. The brain then fills in greater detail to make a red ball appear as a red ball, for example. Researchers studied the early visual areas for their ability to cause improvements in visual performance and learning. “Some previous research confirmed a correlation between improving visual performance and changes in early visual areas, while other researchers found correlations in higher visual and decision areas,” said Watanabe, director of BU’s Visual Science Laboratory. “However, none of these studies directly addressed the question of whether early visual areas are sufficiently plastic to cause visual perceptual learning.” Until now.

Boston University post-doctoral fellow Kazuhisa Shibata designed and implemented a method using decoded fMRI neurofeedback to induce a particular activation pattern in targeted early visual areas that corresponded to a pattern evoked by a specific visual feature in a brain region of interest. The researchers then tested whether repetitions of the activation pattern caused visual performance improvement on that visual feature. The result, say researchers, is a novel learning approach sufficient to cause long-lasting improvement in tasks that require visual performance. What’s more, the approached worked even when test subjects were not aware of what they were learning.

“The most surprising thing in this study is that mere inductions of neural activation patterns corresponding to a specific visual feature led to visual performance improvement on the visual feature, without presenting the feature or subjects’ awareness of what was to be learned,” said Watanabe, who developed the idea for the research project along with Mitsuo Kawato, director of ATR lab and Yuka Sasaki, an assistant in neuroscience at Massachusetts General Hospital. “We found that subjects were not aware of what was to be learned while behavioral data obtained before and after the neurofeedback training showed that subjects’ visual performance improved specifically for the target orientation, which was used in the neurofeedback training,” he said.

The finding brings up an inevitable question. Is hypnosis or a type of automated learning a potential outcome of the research? “In theory, hypnosis or a type of automated learning is a potential outcome,” said Kawato. “However, in this study we confirmed the validity of our method only in visual perceptual learning. So we have to test if the method works in other types of learning in the future. At the same time, we have to be careful so that this method is not used in an unethical way.”

Takeo Watanabe
email: takeo [at} bu [dot] edu


“It is controversial whether the adult primate early visual cortex is sufficiently plastic to cause visual perceptual learning (VPL). The controversy occurs partially because most VPL studies have examined correlations between behavioral and neural activity changes rather than cause-and-effect relationships. With an online-feedback method that uses decoded functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) signals, we induced activity patterns only in early visual cortex corresponding to an orientation without stimulus presentation or participants’ awareness of what was to be learned. The induced activation caused VPL specific to the orientation. These results suggest that early visual areas are so plastic that mere inductions of activity patterns are sufficient to cause VPL. This technique can induce plasticity in a highly selective manner, potentially leading to powerful training and rehabilitative protocols.”

Cliff Wood with the Ohio Cooperative Solar looks over the installation on the roof of the Euclid Public Library.

by Gar Alperovitz / December 14, 2011

The Occupy Wall Street protests have come and mostly gone, and whether they continue to have an impact or not, they have brought an astounding fact to the public’s attention: a mere 1 percent of Americans own just under half of the country’s financial assets and other investments. America, it would seem, is less equitable than ever, thanks to our no-holds-barred capitalist system. But at another level, something different has been quietly brewing in recent decades: more and more Americans are involved in co-ops, worker-owned companies and other alternatives to the traditional capitalist model. We may, in fact, be moving toward a hybrid system, something different from both traditional capitalism and socialism, without anyone even noticing. Some 130 million Americans, for example, now participate in the ownership of co-op businesses and credit unions. More than 13 million Americans have become worker-owners of more than 11,000 employee-owned companies, six million more than belong to private-sector unions. And worker-owned companies make a difference. In Cleveland, for instance, an integrated group of worker-owned companies, supported in part by the purchasing power of large hospitals and universities, has taken the lead in local solar-panel installation, “green” institutional laundry services and a commercial hydroponic greenhouse capable of producing more than three million heads of lettuce a year.

Local and state governments are likewise changing the nature of American capitalism. Almost half the states manage venture capital efforts, taking partial ownership in new businesses. Calpers, California’s public pension authority, helps finance local development projects; in Alaska, state oil revenues provide each resident with dividends from public investment strategies as a matter of right; in Alabama, public pension investing has long focused on state economic development. Moreover, this year some 14 states began to consider legislation to create public banks similar to the longstanding Bank of North Dakota; 15 more began to consider some form of single-payer or public-option health care plan. Some of these developments, like rural co-ops and credit unions, have their origins in the New Deal era; some go back even further, to the Grange movement of the 1880s. The most widespread form of worker ownership stems from 1970s legislation that provided tax benefits to owners of small businesses who sold to their employees when they retired. Reagan-era domestic-spending cuts spurred nonprofits to form social enterprises that used profits to help finance their missions. Recently, growing economic pain has provided a further catalyst. The Cleveland cooperatives are an answer to urban decay that traditional job training, small-business and other development strategies simply do not touch. They also build on a 30-year history of Ohio employee-ownership experiments traceable to the collapse of the steel industry in the 1970s and ’80s.

Further policy changes are likely. In Indiana, the Republican state treasurer, Richard Mourdock, is using state deposits to lower interest costs to employee-owned companies, a precedent others states could easily follow. Senator Sherrod Brown, Democrat of Ohio, is developing legislation to support worker-owned strategies like that of Cleveland in other cities. And several policy analysts have proposed expanding existing government “set aside” procurement programs for small businesses to include co-ops and other democratized enterprises. If such cooperative efforts continue to increase in number, scale and sophistication, they may suggest the outlines, however tentative, of something very different from both traditional, corporate-dominated capitalism and traditional socialism. It’s easy to overestimate the possibilities of a new system. These efforts are minor compared with the power of Wall Street banks and the other giants of the American economy. On the other hand, it is precisely these institutions that have created enormous economic problems and fueled public anger. During the populist and progressive eras, a decades-long buildup of public anger led to major policy shifts, many of which simply took existing ideas from local and state efforts to the national stage. Furthermore, we have already seen how, in moments of crisis, the nationalization of auto giants like General Motors and Chrysler can suddenly become a reality. When the next financial breakdown occurs, huge injections of public money may well lead to de facto takeovers of major banks. And while the American public has long supported the capitalist model, that, too, may be changing. In 2009 a Rasmussen poll reported that Americans under 30 years old were “essentially evenly divided” as to whether they preferred “capitalism” or “socialism.” A long era of economic stagnation could well lead to a profound national debate about an America that is dominated neither by giant corporations nor by socialist bureaucrats. It would be a fitting next direction for a troubled nation that has long styled itself as of, by and for the people.

They’re owning this cooperation
by Lee Romney / November 28, 2011

Where a hot dog stand now is the main lunchtime option for city workers in this distressed Bay Area town, soon they’ll be able to choose from steel-cut oatmeal, goat cheese empanadas and white bean and kale stew, prepared in a mobile cafe. Its owners will share in the decision-making — and any profits. Richmond Solar has trained needy residents to work as green-energy installers and now aims to transform some into bosses by forming a worker-owned cooperative. The city’s first bicycle shop has opened with similar dreams: Young men who have volunteered to learn the repair trade soon may be elevated to co-owners. “I’m just gonna ride it out with everyone to get where we need to go,” Mercedes Burnell, 19, said as he prepared to replace a crankshaft and pedals at Richmond SPOKES.

The flurry of democratic enterprise has been guided by Mayor Gayle McLaughlin, a former schoolteacher who visited Mondragon, Spain, and recognized a possible path out of the poverty and unemployment that plague her city. The Basque hill town is dominated by Mondragon Corp., a web of cooperatives that employ 83,000 workers and together represent Spain’s seventh-largest business. Co-op clusters based on Mondragon’s model have emerged in Cleveland and the Bronx, N.Y., among other cities. Richmond, with a 16% unemployment rate, hopes to follow suit. The city’s industrial roots date back more than a century, when it was home to the Santa Fe Railroad terminus and a Standard Oil refinery. World War II shipyards swelled the population to nearly its current 103,000. But Richmond has struggled since and is regularly listed among the nation’s 25 most dangerous cities. Since August, Bay Area co-op veteran Terry Baird — a burly man with a gray beard and a penchant for South African freedom songs — has been on the city payroll, helping to piece together cooperative ventures in Richmond’s economically barren pockets.

Mondragon Corp. was created in 1956 and fine-tuned over half a century, McLaughlin said, “but you have to start somewhere. One of the prerequisites of starting a co-op is need, and that is something that we have in Richmond.” Demand matters too. Baird aims to start small, with food and service co-ops such as a plumber’s collective that won’t require hefty upfront investment. Then the city hopes to bring government and other big employers on board, setting up ventures to meet their buying needs. McLaughlin, a Green Party member who’s been mayor since 2006, visited Mondragon last year and was dazzled by the scale of the worker-driven enterprises. “My understanding of co-ops from the 1960s and 1970s was that they were small and interesting,” said McLaughlin, who was immediately sold on the idea of replicating the formula in Richmond. The Mondragon story began with a Catholic priest. In 1943, Father Jose Maria Arizmendiarrieta — who had narrowly escaped death by firing squad during the Spanish Civil War — started a technical school for working-class boys. By 1956, graduates had helped form the first cooperative to make kerosene stoves. A cooperative bank followed in 1959. The corporation, which reported a $242-million profit last year, now includes 255 industrial, retail and financial cooperatives, with others focusing on education and research. Manufacturing co-ops churn out metal-cutting tools, washing machines and bicycles. A retail co-op runs Spain’s third-largest grocery chain. A Mondragon construction venture built Bilbao’s Guggenheim Museum. About 85% of the corporation’s employees are co-op members. But the original edict of one-worker/one vote remains, through an elected general assembly with representatives from each cooperative. Recently, the assembly voted to cut everyone’s pay rather than risk layoffs at any one co-op. The compensation of the highest-paid worker is capped at seven times that of the lowest. Some of the corporation’s overall profits go toward offsetting losses at any individual enterprise. Workers also receive a share in the corporation, based on their contributions, every year, with more money flowing into interest-bearing accounts disbursed at retirement.

The U.S. has a history of cooperative movements, beginning with enterprises organized in the late 19th century by the Knights of Labor and highlighted by the burst of food co-ops and consumer buying clubs of the 1960s. Recent years have seen a resurgence. “It’s less counterculture utopian,” said Melissa Hoover, executive director of the San Francisco-based U.S. Federation of Worker Owned Cooperatives, “and more engaged with people in the economy.” Some of the growth is sector-based: Green-cleaning ventures launched by immigrant women, for example, are common. But philanthropists and community developers increasingly have focused their attention on the co-op model as a way to revitalize urban areas. No city experiment has made more of a splash than Cleveland’s. With support from universities and medical centers that border the downtown area targeted for development, the Cleveland Foundation — a donor-based organization dedicated to bettering the city — has channeled millions of dollars into the Mondragon-inspired Evergreen Cooperatives. A solar panel installation-and-weatherization company and a green commercial laundry are up and running with a combined 50 worker-owners, said Lillian Kuri, program director of the Cleveland Foundation. An urban farming co-op is scheduled to open in the spring. In addition to providing financing for co-op ventures, Evergreen Cooperatives makes services such as child care available to the workers and provides no-cost healthcare. Ted Howard, an architect of Cleveland’s experiment and founder of the University of Maryland’s Democracy Collaborative, said worker-ownership is supplanting other forms of inner-city revival. “When you’re hiring people even in a decent job that pays a living wage — if they … have no retirement account, no rainy day savings — a job alone is not enough,” Howard said.

In addition to offering the chance to share in profits, worker-owned companies are rooted in the community and won’t “pack up and move,” he said. The co-op model has found interest among government officials in Washington D.C., Amarillo, Texas, and Atlanta, Howard said, but Richmond stands alone in hiring a coordinator. “I don’t know any city in America that’s done that,” he said. Enter Baird, a Richmond resident who in 1997 helped found the worker-owned Arizmendi Bakery cooperative in Oakland. The Arizmendi Assn. of Cooperatives now includes six Bay Area bakeries. All workers earn the same pay rate. Profits are distributed at year’s end in proportion to hours worked. Though he may be a co-op evangelist, Baird knows the model won’t work without a product or service consumers will pay for, a decent location and a group of people who are able to work together. During a recent tour of Richmond, Baird pointed out candidates for cooperative ventures: A vacant 5,000-square-foot building is under consideration for a handyman’s cooperative. A faded onetime coin laundry near a city park could become a bakery or restaurant. Then there’s the weedy lot that one woman hopes to transform into a cooperative garden and farm stand. In the heart of the old downtown sits Richmond SPOKES. Brian Drayton, once a junior zookeeper in Baltimore, spent years developing youth programs for a range of nonprofits, stressing art and environmental sustainability. When he opened the community space and “bike lounge” as a nonprofit last month, young men from the neighborhood poured in to find out what he was doing. Then they rolled up their sleeves and helped lay gleaming wood flooring. As a local artist covered the walls in vivid murals, they stuck around to learn the bike trade. Baird has been meeting with a group of five or so men to discuss a worker-owned collective.

Richmond Solar Executive Director Michelle McGeoy has secured funds for her co-op from, among others, Chevron (formerly Standard Oil and now the city’s largest employer) and the California Endowment — a private foundation that seeks to promote healthy communities. The company has set an initial target of having 10 worker-owners by next spring. Then there’s the Liberty Ship Cafe, whose seven owners were drawn together while taking a class on developing cooperatives at the Richmond library. The California Endowment has helped fund this project as well. On Dec. 1, the collective will start selling its breakfast and lunch fare at a farmers market near the civic center. The plan is to begin deliveries to government office workers soon after. Julio Chavez, 40, studied communications in his native Guatemala before coming to the U.S. and working as an electrician. In recent months, he has joined the other Liberty Ship Cafe partners in testing recipes for sancocho — a traditional Latin American soup — and other delicacies in a rented church kitchen. “It’s a difficult time, so one has to do different things, to search for options,” Chavez said. Challenges remain. While Mondragon is united by its Basque culture, Baird noted, Richmond is fragmented by race and class and shadowed by chronic violence. On top of the usual cost of business, cooperatives require training — not just in job-specific skills but on how to manage a business and make sure everyone’s voice is heard. “The real thing that can take a [cooperative] business down,” Hoover said, “is a group that’s not prepared to make decisions together.” On a recent rainy day, the Liberty Ship Cafe workers met to discuss just that. Concetta Abraham, a 76-year-old native of Italy, provides much of the group’s cooking magic. While tasting her savory pozole, the collective determined how long each member should be allowed to speak on agenda items and discussed the importance of not interrupting one another. “We’re from different countries, different cultures and are different ages,” said 68-year-old Carlos Ruiller, who was born in Peru. “There’s a period where we’ll have to suffer and adapt. But I’m hopeful. We’re all equals starting out — like soldiers.”


AMY GOODMAN: Alperovitz finds that 130 million Americans are members of some kind of cooperative, and 13 million Americans work in an employee-owned company. He says the U.S. may be heading toward something very different from both corporate-dominated capitalism and from traditional socialism. Gar Alperovitz is a professor of political economy at the University of Maryland. His op-ed is called “Worker-Owners of America, Unite!” It’s out today in the New York Times. A new edition of his book, America Beyond Capitalism: Reclaiming Our Wealth, Our Liberty, and Our Democracy, has also just been published. So, what’s the evidence for this, Gar?

GAR ALPEROVITZ: Well, it’s piling up right beneath the surface, that the press, the normal press, hasn’t been covering. You know, 130 million people, that’s 40 percent of United States, involved in credit unions, co-ops all over the country, that don’t get any publicity. And roughly 13 million people, in one kind or another, have worker-owned companies—again, five or six million more people than are involved in labor unions. And several states are attempting to set up state banks, like the existing Bank of North Dakota. A number of cities are trying to set up city banks. San Francisco and Portland are the latest ones on the list. So, if you look deeper, you find wonderful experiments going on. One really interesting one in Cleveland, where there’s a group of cooperatively owned businesses by—in the community that are building a hydroponic land kind of greenhouse, producing three to five million heads of lettuce a year, a gigantic laundry—all this worker-owned. And again, the press hasn’t been covering it, but there—it gives you a sense of what could happen if the Occupy movement gets serious about simply building on what’s already out there.

JUAN GONZALEZ: But in terms of a critical mass for the economy, are we talking about here cooperatives that have a significant share of the economic activity in the country, or are we talking largely about very small co-ops that, while they may involve a lot of people, don’t really have that much impact on the overall economy of the country?

GAR ALPEROVITZ: Well, that’s the interesting thing. Of course most of this is still much smaller than the giant corporations—I mean, the ones that got us into trouble and the ones that got nationalized, as in GM and Chrysler and the big banks. And at some point, we’re going to have to go to that level. But what’s happening, and I think because of the pain levels, we’re seeing these things grow over time simply because the pain is growing. And the ones I mentioned in Cleveland are not small. We’ve got a laundry—an industrial-scale laundry going on there, owned by the workers in that community, that’s probably the most ecologically advanced in the country. This large greenhouse that’s developing, three to five million heads of lettuce. These are not your little corner stores. So I see a trend of expanding possibility, building step by step on what’s already out there. We’ve learned a lot in the last several decades. And I think it’s going to grow over time because of the pain levels. That’s what the evidence suggests.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk more about the banks and the credit unions, the state banks that are developing.

GAR ALPEROVITZ: Well, we’ve had, since the beginning part of the century in North Dakota, a state-owned bank, highly successful. The press doesn’t cover it. But it’s a bank that exists just like other banks, but it doesn’t speculate. It doesn’t use money to do what the Wall Street banks are doing. And as I say, there are about 14 states that have introduced legislation to reproduce that, help finance small business, on the one hand, but co-ops and worker-owned firms, and most of this with a real green edge to it, ecologically developed. And in these city banks, the same thing, trying to focus—for instance, in San Francisco, there’s about $2 billion in state—in city money, that’s taxpayer money. Instead of putting it in the Bank of America, the proposal is put it in a city bank or a city credit union and then use that to finance development in the city. And I think that direction, using those public monies, and not simply to finance corporations or speculation, but doing it in a way that builds up this already developing knowledge and base of worker-owned companies, community-owned developments, neighborhood developments, co-ops, that form of development, the way to think about it is the—you know, the two to three decades before the Progressive Era and the Populist Era really made a big national impact. There was a developmental process, step by step, at the state level. Take the women’s right to vote, the same thing: step by step, state by state by state, building up over three to four to five decades. But I think the pain level is so high, it’s going to be quicker this time. So I take this local development process very seriously. And I think it can lead to national change, as the New Deal did at one point when the pain levels really struck. You know, at the other—

JUAN GONZALEZ: You also talk—

GAR ALPEROVITZ: At the other—go ahead.

JUAN GONZALEZ: If I can, you also talk about the changing attitudes, especially among young Americans, toward concepts like capitalism and socialism. Could you talk about that, as well?

GAR ALPEROVITZ: Yeah, there was a Rasmussen poll—now, we’re talking about a fairly conservative polling group—in 2009. People under 30, they found, were equally disposed as to whether capitalism or socialism was a better system. And now that’s a big change. We’re past the time in the Cold War when anyone who mentioned anything like a worker-owned company or cooperative or public-owned enterprise was written out of court. Lots of younger people are looking at what will work in the midst of a failing economy, where the large corporations are falling day by day and the speculators on Wall Street are speculating away the money. I think we’re seeing a change in attitude, both increasing doubts about what’s now going on in the economy, deep doubts, very deep doubts—thanks to Occupation, it’s crystallized—but this other trend of saying, “What do you want? Where are we going?” in some ways to democratize the economy in a very American way, something very—you can explain to your neighbors, this is—this makes sense, in these cities that I’ve been talking about. You get a whole larger coalition of people understanding there’s a hell of a lot of pain here, we can develop something here that moves us in a direction of democratizing local economies and beyond.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Gar Alperovitz, the name of your book, America Beyond Capitalism. Do you think that’s possible in this country?

GAR ALPEROVITZ: Well, I’m a—you know, I’m a historian and a political economist. Changes of major kinds, if you look at decade-by-decade development, fundamental systemic change is as common as grass in world history. A lot of pain. But I think an America beyond capitalism is a real possibility. Again, if you stand back, the way the civil rights folks did—my heroes are the civil rights leaders in the 1930s and ’40s, the ones who laid the basis for the big change that came in the ’60s, and I think that’s the way to understand what’s going on at the grassroots level and the sort of things that Occupation has been teaching us. Get in there now and begin to develop that base and that foundation for the transformation.