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Patrick Jones
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TL;DR: Ruth is a puzzled ex-pat, waffles about it and thinks the Axe commercial = yuck 

***

I often slap on the TV while doing my physical therapy exercises. It’s a good distraction and I find it easier to keep the correct pace going than with music on. This morning I had Good Morning America quacking away in the background and a story about Coca-Cola’s America the Beautiful super bowl commercial caught my attention. It was one of those two-minute puff piece meta-stories. You know, the kind of story that’s a story about how much of a story it is. In this case Coke’s counter-response to some racist drivel on Twitter and a few right-wing rant pieces. This was the first I’d heard of it but so far, so expected of the right-wing; so far, so corporate PR story. (You can enjoy it here, should you wish to: http://abcnews.go.com/GMA/video/coca-cola-commercial-coke-responds-critics-stands-super-22406207)

Then something about the way ABC framed the story puzzled me. Now, I know I’m a left-wing, tree-hugging, Guardianista liberal from multi-cultural Britain but the fact that some Americans are bilingual, and can be celebrated for being bilingual, is seen as a matter for debate, let alone a ‘national firestorm’ (ABC’s words, not mine), was a small surprise. Coca-Cola is sold all over the world and the USA is a nation of immigrants. C’mon.

While I was mulling over right-wing politics and American patriotism, and somewhere around my sixth pelvic curl, a petulant little voice in my head cried out ‘Does everyone really have their knickers in a twist over this commercial? Why isn’t anybody talking about that horrible Axe Peace one?!’

My take away from the super bowl commercials was two-fold: A) I must buy a Jaguar now. I’m British, and the US expects. B) I really disliked the Axe Peace commercial.

Why? Just take a look (http://youtu.be/63b4O_2HCYM). The historical and cultural insensitivity is so crude. I was uncomfortable with it last Sunday, and looking at it again this morning I’m more so. Military and political atrocities are being wrapped up neatly in gender inequality and played for humor. And, no, I didn’t feel the humor was used to deflate or mock. It wasn’t a sly nod to the other Axe campaigns; it was identical to all their commercials, but dressed up in a jackboot and stamping on the face of intersectional feminism. 

Look at a couple of moments from the ad and twist your kaleidoscope with some context: remember the truth of Vietnam and remember how the Russian army raped their way through Germany at the end of WWII. It can’t just be me that got the ‘ick’ feeling. Somebody must have commented on it somewhere and with more finesse, right?

This has been a bit of a homesick week and I’ve been doing more UK than US-media reading, which is how the whole Coca-Cola thing bypassed me. So I did a quick trawl around the super commercials. Sure enough, everyone talking about Coke, nobody talking about Axe, except to mention their good humor, slight change of marketing tack. All the comments were pretty much in line with their PR strategy. It even made several of the ‘best’ lists.

I scanned through the main news and comment sites. Nothing. Then the lefty ones. Nada. Not so much as a tiny rant on Jezebel.

Then, finally: http://medialiteracyproject.org/deconstructions/axes-make-love-not-war-superbowl-ad

I don’t know anything about the Media Literacy Project and they don’t express exactly what I thought about the commercial. For my tastes the brush strokes of this piece are too broad, and frankly they didn’t need to drag Afghanistan into the mix. But finding that someone, somewhere had at least attempted a deconstruction felt like a relief.

Let me be really, really clear: I’m not whining about the US military, US foreign policy or US culture. The Axe commercial was made by Bartle Bogle Hegarty, who are a British agency, and no doubt some version of it is going to pop up on European screens soon. I suppose the focus of my discomfort isn’t even Axe (it’s Axe after all, misogyny-lite is what they do. I should kind expect it by now); it’s that nobody in the US media thinks the commercial is worth commenting on, even in one small paragraph of one short op-ed column. This genuinely surprises me because it seems so ripe for picking over, while the Coca-Cola commercial seems so obvious.

The hard thing about moving to a different country – especially one you’ve grown up observing, visiting, consuming the arts and TV of, sometimes being frustrated with, and utterly loving – are those sudden ‘disconnect’ moments with the culture. The ones where you realize you really don’t know or understand bits of it at all.

I felt the same way about all the fuss surrounding Richard Sherman’s interview with Erin Andrews after the Seahawks – 49ers play-off. I literally could not understand what he was supposed to have done wrong or why people were responding to it so strongly.

Toto, you’re living in a foreign discourse now.

Hours of hand-wringing, huffing, puffing and angst later I’ve come to one short conclusion: the mainstream media is a little above my head and I really shouldn’t watch breakfast TV, it will only confuse me.
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I think this is important. If you haven't signed this and passed it on to everyone you know, now is the time to do it.

The reasons why:

1. The porn angle is purely and 100% PR and spin - everyone who knows anything about the web knows that this will not stop the kinds of activities that badly need to be stopped - these all happen elsewhere in "the dark web", and by people who aren't going to be put off by a checkbox at their ISP.

2. This checkbox attitude will make parents assume "everything is ok" - giving them a very dangerous sense of safety when in fact no such safety can exist. Educating our children and ourselves about what constitutes "ok" should sit at the centre of this argument, not a lazy devolving of responsibility to a third party who remains dangerously involved - commercially and politically - with many of the parties involved. Do we see any effort by Cameron to ban Page 3 girls? No.

3. Material will be blocked which shouldn't be: even if it is "risque" or "offensive", it is vital that we and our children retain access to information about sex education, art, information on alcohol abuse, etc - and have the right to maintain our own moderation for our own families rather than relying on a dangerous default nanny state. Don't forget, one of the checkboxes which many suggest may be in the new proposals is a default block of "esoteric" websites. Which could, in fact, mean absolutely anything. 

It only takes a minute. Please do it now before we head into a dangerous, totally undemocratic and unprecedented level of censorship. 
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I lost faith in that article at "Dublin is an awesome city".

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Excerpt from my article:

Recent reports in the Washington Post and the Guardian claimed a classified program called PRISM grants "intelligence services direct access to the companies' servers" and that "from inside a company's data stream the NSA is capable of pulling out anything it likes."
Those reports are incorrect and appear to be based on a misreading of a leaked Powerpoint document, according to a former government official who is intimately familiar with this process of data acquisition and spoke today on condition of anonymity.
"It's not as described in the histrionics in the Washington Post or the Guardian," the person said. "None of it's true. It's a very formalized legal process that companies are obliged to do."
That former official's account -- that the process was created by Congress six years ago and includes judicial oversight -- was independently confirmed by another person with direct knowledge of how this data collection happens at multiple companies.
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I fancy it very much and I think I'd fit in just fine! I look great in silly hats and I can say things are "posh" and after a few years I'd learn to not snicker at "Cocksfoster."

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If you care about internet privacy and government overreach, you've probably been following the recent kerfuffle over the US government's PRISM program recently reported on by +The Guardian (http://goo.gl/F6Qkf), the +Washington Post (http://goo.gl/7nAR0) and others. I was as shocked as anyone to read the allegations presented in those articles, because they appear to fly in the face of everything I know about the way these systems, and the cultures of the companies involved, operate.

The specific allegations made in the Guardian and WaPo articles are that Google and others are voluntarily participating in a system of government inspection of user data directly on the companies' servers. My immediate reaction was that this was absurd. Of the companies supposedly involved, I know Google the best, and it would be damned near impossible to hide this kind of direct access from the companies' engineers.

This sentiment has since been echoed to varying degrees by others (e.g., +Kenton Varda - http://goo.gl/Vc6HZ and +Yonatan Zunger - http://goo.gl/Ck1kV), and there's a lot of interesting discussion that you should read on both of those threads if you care about the details.

But what about other possibilities? Perhaps the original articles were overreaching a bit in their interpretation of the leaked PRISM documents (which, oddly, were significantly redacted by the Guardian)? Conveniently, +Alex Stamos has published a very useful taxonomy of the possibilities here: http://goo.gl/my4SE. It's a dense read, but worthwhile if you're interested in the details.

My own take is that (for reasons discussed in detail on several of the conversations referenced above), the probability of the original allegations being literally true is close to zero. It strains credulity to imagine that the NSA has direct access to Google's servers or network infrastructure, without a large swath of the company's engineers (especially in security) being aware. One could allege (as many have) that we on the outside would never know, because of laws (e.g., FISA and NSLs) that prevent the target of a government information request from disclosing its existence. But this is a very simplistic interpretation, for several reasons. First, US laws with this property (to which I object, to be clear) do not allow for indiscriminate collection of data. Second, and more importantly, I know many at Google who would, at a minimum, quit in protest over such a program (I've seen some quit over much less controversial decisions). Also consider that many Google engineers (including some working in security) are neither US citizens nor based in the US, and thus largely out of reach of gagged information requests.

This leaves us with external attacks. The theory is that, with the complicity of companies like AT&T and Verizon, the NSA could simply hoover up data passing between Google and its customers, archiving it and interpreting it at their leisure. Stamos' article above goes into some detail on these possibilities. But of course a large proportion of that traffic is encrypted now, making that a lot more difficult (I'd put the odds that the NSA has kept some amazing mathematical breakthrough under wraps pretty close to zero). But what if they'd forced Google to compromise their own SSL keys, or done the same to the root CA? This sounds plausible at first, until you start digging into the details. The first kink is that I believe it's highly implausible that Google network and security engineers wouldn't notice such a huge man-in- the-middle attack. Compromised keys might give them access to unencrypted data, but this kind of attack leaves a detectable signature, and someone would notice it and raise a red flag. This attack is made even more tricky by additional layers of security such as ChannelID (http://goo.gl/dMg4K) and others that make man-in-the-middle attacks a lot harder.

Since the original Guardian and WaPo articles were published, we have seen what look like categorical denials from Google (http://goo.gl/LNIm8) and others. Now we've started to see some backpedaling in the press. Business Insider published one article (http://goo.gl/U66eF) describing WaPo backpedaling on a few important details. Then the New York Times describes (http://goo.gl/J2Mux) a different system that sounds more like a streamlined system for handling FISA requests, but which falls far short of the original allegations (I like +Kenton Varda's take on it - http://goo.gl/Z2qIf).

I'm taking the time to write about this because I believe in the importance of both the reality of government intrusion into private data and the perception of it. US citizens need to be vigilant on these issues, and put pressure on our elected representatives to make sure we strike the right balance -- and to be clear, I don't believe secret requests for private information strike a good balance. But in order to do this sensibly, it's important that we understand the real bounds of the problem, so that can have a sensible discussion. Belief in absurd conspiracies can lead to a dangerous cynicism that threatens level-headed debate.

We also need to recognize the effect that our conclusions on the privacy debate have on the US' perception outside our borders. If the world loses confidence in the privacy of their information in the hands of US companies, it could deal a serious blow to our ability to compete in the global marketplace for information services. I don't believe this perspective receives enough attention, and it is incumbent upon those of us who can bend the ears of our representatives, to represent the interests of our friends outside our borders, not solely for economic reasons, but because it's the right thing to do.
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