Scotland united in curiosity as councils trial universal basic income

Four local authorities tasked with turning utopian fantasy into reality with backing of first minister and multi-party support 

Grassmarket and Victoria Street in Edinburgh, where universal basic income will be trialled next year
 Grassmarket and Victoria Street in Edinburgh, where universal basic income will be trialled next year Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

Universal basic income is, according to its many and various supporters, an idea whose time has come. The deceptively simple notion of offering every citizen a regular payment without means testing or requiring them to work for it has backers as disparate as Mark Zuckerberg, Stephen Hawking, Caroline Lucas and Richard Branson. Ed Miliband chose the concept to launch his ideas podcastReasons to be Cheerful in the autumn.

But it is in Scotland that four councils face the task of turning basic income from a utopian fantasy to contemporary reality as they build the first pilot schemes in the UK, with the support of a £250,000 grant announced by the Scottish government last month and the explicit support of Nicola Sturgeon.

The concept of a universal basic income revolves around the idea of offering every individual, regardless of their existing benefit entitlement or earned income, a non-conditional flat-rate payment, with any income earned above that taxed progressively. The intention is to replace the welfare safety net with a platform on which people can build their lives, whether they choose to earn, learn, care or set up a business.

Thomas Paine
 Thomas Paine. Photograph: Alamy

The idea has its roots in 16th-century humanist philosophy. The political theorist Thomas Paine advocated a citizen’s dividend. But there has been a groundswell of interest over the past decade not only among lateral thinkers but also anti-poverty groups, which see it as a means of changing the relationship between people and state, and between workers and the gig economy.

In Scotland, a country wearily familiar with divisions of a constitutional nature, the concept of a basic income is almost unique in enjoying multi-party favour. Across the four areas currently designing basic income pilots – Glasgow, Edinburgh, Fife and North Ayrshire – the projects have variously been championed by Labour, SNP, Green and, in one case, Conservative councillors.

Matt Kerr, who has tirelessly lobbied for the idea through Glasgow city council, said: “Reactions to basic income have not split along the usual left/right party lines. Some people to the left of the Labour party think that it undermines the role of trade unions and others take the opposite view. But there should be room for scepticism; you need that to get the right policy.”

Advocates are aware such unity of purpose is precious and worth preserving. “The danger is that this falls into party blocks,” said Kerr. “If people can unite around having a curiosity about [it] then I’m happy with that. But having the first minister on board has done us no harm at all.”

Inevitably, Sturgeon’s declared interest has invited criticism from her opponents. A civil service briefing paper on basic income, which expressed concerns that the “conflicting and confusing” policy could be a disincentive to work and costed its national roll-out at £12.3bn a year, was obtained by the Scottish Conservatives through a freedom of information request in October. The party accused her of “pandering to the extreme left of the [independence] movement”.

But advocates argue the figures fail to take into account savings the scheme would bring. The independent thinktank Reform Scotland, which published a briefing earlier this month setting out a suggested basic income of £5,200 for every adult, has calculated that much of the cost could be met through a combination of making work-related benefits obsolete and changes to the tax system, including scrapping the personal allowance and merging national insurance and income tax.

Sturgeon has remained committed to the pilots, telling a conference of international economists days after the critical briefing paper: “It might turn out not to be the answer, it might turn out not to be feasible. But as work and employment changes as rapidly as it is doing, I think its really important that we are prepared to be open-minded about the different ways that we can support individuals to participate fully in the new economy.”

Sunset at Tayport, Fife
 Sunset at Tayport, Fife, one of the council areas involved in the pilot schemes, the first in the UK. Photograph: Simon Powis/Alamy

The councils in question, which span a cross-section of urban and rural demographics, are studying feasibility as part of their broader anti-poverty work. Joe Cullinane, the Labour leader of North Ayrshire council, said: “We have high levels of deprivation and high unemployment, so we take the view that the current system is failing us and we need to look at something new to lift people out of poverty.

“Basic income has critics and supporters on the left and right, which tells you there are very different ways of shaping it and we need to state at the outset that this is a progressive change, to remove that fear and allow people to have greater control over their lives, to enter the labour market on their own terms.”

Cullinane also noted that while the Scottish government has asked councils to bid for a £250,000 grant between them, his administration had already set aside £200,000 in its budget for a feasibility study.

Dave Dempsey, the leader of the Conservative group on Fife council, who joined forces with its independent poverty advisory group Fairer Fife Commission to promote a potential pilot, the appeal revolves around the reduction of benefits bureaucracy. “I come from a maths and engineering background and there is an elegance to it,” he said.

(Contributed by Gwyllm Llwydd.)

Democracy Earth – Year 2017 in Review (from Santiago Siri at Democracy.Earth)


Dear Earth Citizen,

Our world is rapidly changing. Here at the end of 2017, it is clearer every day that nation-states are not the only game in town anymore. The recent changes in our geopolitical landscape are markedly defined by the internet: they involve, on one hand, Facebook gathering an unprecedented amount of power and allowing its business practices to be a disruptive force for democracy. And on the other hand: Bitcoin.

Surging from $940 to $19,000 USD in only one year, 2017 marked a point-of-no-return in Bitcoin’s ability to promote the divorce between Money and State. Peer-to-peer models and disintermediation are being widely discussed, reaching mainstream media and culture. And as populations from countries such as Venezuela 🇻🇪,  Zimbabwe 🇿🇼, Argentina 🇦🇷, and Greece 🇬🇷, start to rely on cryptocurrencies as a safeguard against their own banking systems, the configuration of a new status-quo is hard to ignore. 

Those profound changes are emboldened by the evident failures on both levels of political control: the Land (governments that monopolize the law on territorial jurisdictions) where the US 🇺🇸 is joined by France 🇫🇷, Greece 🇬🇷, Japan 🇯🇵 and more than 65 other countries with a downgraded Democracy Index; and the Cloud (global corporations that monopolize access to user data, a.k.a. the new oil), where we have witnessed large-scale cyberattacks exposing billions of internet users, and the irony of a security agency – the NSA – making us more insecure.

Those are not individual events, but pointers signaling the widespread decay of the economic and political frameworks in which our institutions operate. But there is good news too: as hierarchical and centralized systems disintegrate, the road is paved for new models to take place. Non-coincidentally, 2017 has also marked a pivotal point for Democracy Earth Foundation. 

Where have we been


Physically:  🇺🇸 🇫🇷 🇦🇷 🇧🇷 🇩🇪 🇵🇹 🇪🇸 🇲🇽 🇹🇼 🇩🇪 🇦🇪 🇰🇷 🇻🇳 🇬🇧


We ended 2016 with a very clear understanding of the requirements needed to create an organization capable of reaching impact at a global scale. So this year, we worked on those foundational building blocks. The Social Smart Contract, our White Paper published in September, was written on Github with contributors from all over the world 🌎, and it is now a living document gathering the digital hive mind to think about how we can govern ourselves on a planetary scale. Witnessing the creative and intellectual forces unlocked by the open source collaborations around this paper has been both a humbling and fascinating experience.


Sovereign, our token-based liquid democracy software, was soft-launched in its alpha version with a simple request to our community: use it to make suggestions and polls about the software itself. One more time, the response was beyond our imagination. Our focus on delivering a social-media like UX resonated with our users, who jumped in utilizing our features and making the most of the platform since day one!


Throughout the year we have developeddiscussed and demonstrated open source governance on the blockchain, the geopolitical nature of Bitcoin, and the power of liquid democracy tools at the World Economic Forum in Dubai 🇦🇪, the Sorbonne in Paris 🇫🇷, the Civic Tech Fest of Taipei 🇹🇼, as well as @CodeMoBerlin 🇩🇪, @#ColaborAmerica17 inRio 🇧🇷, and the BIEN conference in Lisbon 🇵🇹

We raised the profile of the decentralized democracy movement, starting the year on stage at the World’s Fair Nano in San Francisco, and appearing in stories and profiles by theOECD, the World Economic ForumForbesNew Scientist and Futurism in the months ensuing. Finishing the year, we introduced Democracy Earth 🌿 at the United Nations and launched our Ambassador’s program – a key initiative to empower leaders from all over the world with our message and software. We could not be prouder of our very first Ambassador, Sunny Sangha from the UK 🇬🇧, who gave this extraordinary TEDx talk and is starting a liquid democracy movement in Birmingham. Most exciting of all, we saw the expansion of our digital footprint with the growth of the Democracy Earth community, now numbering more than 92,000 subscribers and followers across TwitterFacebookGitHub,SlackMedium,  and Instagram.  

In keeping with the decentralized nature of the Democracy Earth Foundation, for the first time ever this December, members of the team came together from all points of the globe. We converged in the Sierra Nevada mountains where we worked on finalizing plans to hold an Initial Coin Offering in early 2018 – the last in a sequence of events, aimed at creating a massive global movement for blockchain-based liquid democracy.  


It’s been an extremely productive year, filled with accomplishments and recognitions. Yet we are only at the very beginning.

Thank you for reading, and thank you as always for being part of the Democracy Earth community.  Be well, and we wish you an extraordinary 2018!


Santiago Siri
Founder & President

Democracy Earth Foundation
A 501(c)(3) nonprofit in San Francisco, California.


Support our work with Bitcoin:

Connect through Twitter 
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Our mailing address is:

Democracy Earth Foundation

1246 36th st

San FranciscoCA 94122

Thousands rally in support of Russian opposition leader Navalny

© Dmitry Serebryakov, AFP | Supporters of Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny (C) carry boxes with signatures to nominate him as opposition candidate for the forthcoming presidential election in Moscow on December 24, 2017. Alexei Navalny, seen as the only Russian opposition leader who stands a fighting chance of challenging strongman Vladimir Putin, seeks to get his name on the ballot for a March vote, with supporters gathering across Russia to endorse the move.


Latest update : 2017-12-24 (

More than 15,000 Russians on Sunday endorsed the candidacy of Alexei Navalny, seen as the only Russian opposition leader who stands a fighting chance of challenging strongman Vladimir Putin in a March vote.

Thousands backing the charismatic 41-year-old lawyer met in 20 cities from the Pacific port of Vladivostok to Saint Petersburg in the northwest to nominate him as a candidate in the presence of electoral officials to boost his chances of contesting the March 18 ballot.

Navalny‘s campaign said more than 15,000 people endorsed him nationwide. An independent candidate needs 500 votes to get registered with election authorities, according to law.

In Moscow, over 700 people supported Navalny’s candidacy as they gathered in a huge marquee set up in a picturesque park on the snow-covered banks of the Moscow River.

Navalny supporters who had submitted their personal details and are ready to officially endorse him. The average age is clearly over 30.

“I am hugely happy, I am proud to tell you that I stand here as a candidate of the entire Russia,” the Western-educated Navalny told supporters at the Moscow event which at times felt like a US campaign conference.

“We are ready to win and we will win these elections,” Navalny said before finishing his speech in a cloud of confetti.

Two electoral officials attended the Moscow event and Navalny’s campaign planned later Sunday to submit his nomination to the Central Election Commission, where officials will rule whether he can run.

Authorities have deemed Navalny ineligible to run due to a criminal conviction, saying “only a miracle” would help him get registered. Navalny has described the conviction as politically motivated.

‘Thwart dishonest elections’

Navalny said that if he is not allowed to put his name on the ballot he will contest the ban in courts and repeated his threat to call for a boycott of the polls if he did not get registered.

“Thwart the elections if they are dishonest,” he told supporters.

Putin, 65, announced this month that he will seek a fourth presidential term, which would extend his rule until 2024 and make him the longest-serving Russian leader since dictator Joseph Stalin.

Opposed by token opposition candidates, he is widely expected to sail to victory.

But with the result of the March vote a foregone conclusion, turnout could be low, harming Putin’s hopes for a clear new mandate, observers say.

Navalny, who has tapped into the anger of a younger generation who yearn for change, hopes that popular support for his Kremlin bid would pressure authorities into putting his name on the ballot.


“If Navalny is not allowed to run I am not going to vote,” pensioner Marina Kurbatskaya told AFP in Moscow. “I don’t see anyone else who I want to become president.”

Navalny has built a robust protest movement in the face of persistent harassment and jumped through multiple hoops as he campaigned across the country in an effort to shift attitudes amid widespread political ennui.

He says he is the only Russian politician who has run a genuine Western-style political campaign, stumping for votes in far-flung regions.

Many critics scoff at Navalny’s Kremlin bid but the anti-corruption blogger says he would beat Putin in a free election if he had access to state-controlled television, the main source of news for a majority of Russians.

‘Need new president’

Navalny shot to prominence as an organiser of huge anti-Putin rallies that shook Russia in 2011 and 2012 following claims of vote-rigging in parliamentary polls.

The rallies gradually died down but he has been able to breathe new life into the protest movement this year, bringing out tens of thousands of mostly young protesters onto the streets.

“We need a new president,” Alexander Semyonov, 18, told AFP in the second city of Saint Petersburg where more than 1,800 supporters backed Navalny’s bid.

Separately, Ilya Yashin, a pro-opposition municipal deputy, gathered several hundred people for an authorised protest in central Moscow in support of free elections and Navalny’s bid.

“Putin is a thief,” some chanted as police looked on.

Despite a litany of problems such as corruption, poor healthcare and increasing poverty, opinion polls suggest Putin enjoys approval ratings of 80 percent.

Asked why Navalny had been barred from running, Putin – who has refused to mention him by name in public — said the opposition was hoping for a “coup” but would not succeed.


Date created : 2017-12-24


December 28 2017 (

He was charged with “inciting subversion” and sentenced to six years in jail for making a film about Tibetans living under China’s rule.

Dhondup Wangchen. Source: filmingfortibet/Twitter

Tibetan filmmaker Dhondup Wangchen fled China to the United States after being released from jail. He was earlier arrested by Chinese authorities for making a film about Tibetans living under the rule of China. He was reunited with his family in the US, the New York Times journalist Sui-Lee Wee reports.

“After many years, this is the first time I’m enjoying the feeling of safety and freedom,” the 43-year-ol filmmaker said. “I would like to thank everyone who made it possible for me to hold my wife and children in my arms again. However, I also feel the pain of having left behind my country, Tibet.”

Dhondup Wangchen and his family. Source: filmingfortibet/Twitter

Wangchen was first detained in 2008 after footage from his film Leaving Fear Behind, for which he interviewed Tibetans across five months in 2007, was smuggled out of the country and shown at international film festivals. He was charged with “inciting subversion” and sentenced to six years in prison. During his incarceration, Wangchen was allegedly forced to do manual labor, kept in solitary confinement for six months, and denied medical care, sparking human rights groups to rally for his release. After he was freed, the authorities continued to monitor his whereabouts and communications, ArtForum writes.

Wangchen’s family was granted political asylum in the US in 2012. Dhondup Wangchen was finally reunited with his wife and children on December 25, 2017.


Student debt burden: stories sought

From: Emily Wheeler
Sent: Wed, Dec 27, 2017 4:25 pm
Subject:  student debt burden: stories sought

Hi everyone,

As a volunteer with Friends of the Public Bank of Oakland, I’m researching student debt in the East Bay, and I’m hoping some of you can refer me to people who are struggling on account of their student debt burden.
As you probably know, the city of Oakland recently contracted with a consulting group (called Global Investment Company, or GIC) to carry out a study on the feasibility of chartering a public bank in Oakland or in the East Bay area. As a bank owned by the people and charged with operating for the public good, the PBO could offer refinancing of student loans with a lower interest rate and longer terms. For example, the Bank of North Dakota, the only US public bank currently in existence, is now offering student debt refinancing to ND residents at 4.78 percent interest.

In its feasibility study, GIC plans to include anecdotal evidence about the need for student debt refinancing in Oakland, Berkeley, and Richmond. We need individuals who live in these cities and are willing to share detailed information about their debt and income situation in a phone interview. Their names would not be published in the study.
Please forward this message to anyone you know who may be interested and ask them to get in touch with me directly. GIC has asked for all information by January 5, so we hope to hear from loan-holders as soon as possible.

Thanks very much.

Emily Wheeler
cell: 510-725-5484

The Revolution Continues: Ahmed Salah and the Arab Spring

 27 December 2017 (
Author:  Peter Menchini

“I was anticipating a breakthrough — hoping that the protest would not be instantly dispersed by riot police, like so many previous marches. On that day I thought that if everybody does their part, we will have tens of thousands. What happened was a shock to me. Instead of tens of thousands, there were hundreds of thousands”.
-Ahmed Salah, speaking to Washington Post reporter Jackson Diehl

Oddly, people who speak to me about revolution quote theorists of the 19th Century or their favorite heroes, now dead, from the 20th. Certainly, there are lessons to be learned there. Yet here in San Francisco, California, we have the key designer of the successful revolution in the most important country in the 21st Century Arab world. And far from being mobbed with inquiries from admirers, he instead lives in obscurity and near poverty.

How could Americans let Nikola Tesla, the genius who invented the modern era, die alone and in obscurity? Why do we ignore such people, but only revere them in death? Don’t it always seem to go/That you don’t know what you got ‘til it’s gone?

In 1991, Ahmed Salah was a translator and teacher of Arabic to tourists and journalists. Within 20 years he would become a key player in the Arab Spring and a central designer of the revolution in Egypt itself. His memoir (co-written with Alex Mayyasi), You Are Under Arrest for Masterminding the Egyptian Revolution is a textbook for what makes mass social movements succeed and fail, and what makes revolutions triumph against all odds.

They’d tried everything in Egypt before. They’d held marches and demonstrations. They’d taken Tahrir Square before the revolution, only have the police violently take it back. They tried using social media, but that only gave the police their plans in advance. (Yes, “The Twitter Revolution” is an outright lie.) Nothing they tried gained any ground against the security forces until they took their organization and did actual market research, among the population of Cairo. Not that they used that term, but as “journalists”, they took to the streets and asked people if they heard of the upcoming demonstrations. Promising to use no names, they then asked if they planned to attend. Receiving the almost universal answer of “no”, they asked why, and listened. And they took the time to ask each person what their most important concerns about life were.

“It sounds simple for a group of idealists to express noble sentiments like ‘Bread, freedom, and dignity’—as Arabs articulated their demands during the Arab Spring. Yet as I learned from Youth for Change and April 6th, it is incredibly difficult. Activists and dissidents are humans who argue and make mistakes and let ego lead them astray. “
-You Are Under Arrest for Masterminding the Egyptian Revolution, p291

Salah’s memoir gives key insights into issues, not only in Egypt, but in the Middle East as a whole. He grew up in the most secular, educated and modern country in the entire region.

If you think what’s happening Syria is big, notice how central to the Middle East Egypt is on a map. Now note that, while Syria has a population of about 17 million people, Egypt has a population of 96 million. And in spite of all the oppression financed with U.S. tax dollars, parts of Egypt remain outside of government control to this day. There are parts of Egypt the government simply bombs a few times a month, unable to take control, but only fighting to keep rebellions from spreading. The country will fall apart, and when it does, what’s been happening in the Middle East up until now could look like a picnic by comparison. The instability, coupled with the increasing aggressions of Israeli and Saudi forces could lead to anything. Only an education on the realities, not the propaganda, of the region can save it.

“No one could wait for Mubarak to get out of power. Egyptians filled Tahrir Square, the surrounding blocks, and even the bridges over the Nile so thickly that it took hours to move a few hundred yards. When I managed to call activists over the overburdened cell phone network, I learned that protesters remained at the presidential palace and that worker strikes had ended train service, blocked roadways, “
-IBID p242

The revolutions, of course, were betrayed. Neither George W. Bush, nor Barack Obama had more then rhetoric for the Arab World’s yearning for freedom. Backing a strongman just feels safer to them, since an educated electorate will act in their own best interests, but dictators can be swayed with money and threats. But despite the bluster and out of control aggression of the Trump administration (or perhaps because of it), the empire is faltering. Future rebellions may not be so easy to reverse and threats may be harder to carry out.

Ahmed Salah lives with medical conditions resulting from torture paid for with U.S. tax dollars. He gets by from money earned from speaking engagements and from selling copies of his memoir. You can buy it at or by contacting him personally at

“Requiem for the American Dream: The 10 Principles of Concentration of Wealth & Power”

Requiem for the American Dream: The 10 Principles of Concentration of Wealth & Power
by Noam ChomskyPeter Hutchinson (Editor)Kelly Nyks (Editor)Jared P. Scott (Editor)


In his first major book on the subject of income inequality, Noam Chomsky skewers the fundamental tenets of neoliberalism and casts a clear, cold, patient eye on the economic facts of life. What are the ten principles of concentration of wealth and power at work in America today? They’re simple enough: reduce democracy, shape ideology, redesign the economy, shift the burden onto the poor and middle classes, attack the solidarity of the people, let special interests run the regulators, engineer election results, use fear and the power of the state to keep the rabble in line, manufacture consent, marginalize the population. In Requiem for the American Dream, Chomsky devotes a chapter to each of these ten principles, and adds readings from some of the core texts that have influenced his thinking to bolster his argument.

To create Requiem for the American Dream, Chomsky and his editors, the filmmakers Peter Hutchison, Kelly Nyks, and Jared P. Scott, spent countless hours together over the course of five years, from 2011 to 2016. After the release of the film version, Chomsky and the editors returned to the many hours of tape and transcript and created a document that included three times as much text as was used in the film. The book that has resulted is nonetheless arguably the most succinct and tightly woven of Chomsky’s long career, a beautiful vessel–including old-fashioned ligatures in the typeface–in which to carry Chomsky’s bold and uncompromising vision, his perspective on the economic reality and its impact on our political and moral well-being as a nation.

“During the Great Depression, which I’m old enough to remember, it was bad–much worse subjectively than today. But there was a sense that we’ll get out of this somehow, an expectation that things were going to get better . . .” —from Requiem for the American Dream


Financial Inequality

December 17, 2017 (

Categories: Front PageOpen Mic

Strike Debt Bay Area (SDBA) wrote and participated in the airing of an hour long KPFA radio show on financial inequality – causes, reprecussions and what we can do about it. Darlene Pagano, a member of SDBA and KPFA intern, hosted the show, called “Full Circle” which aired on Friday evening, December 15th, 2017 at 7:00 PM.

You can listen to the show here, on KPFA’s apprentice web page, along with other Full Circle productions including “Trumping Democracy” and “Puerto Rico and Disaster Capitalism”.

Here’s some “best of” excerpts from the show.

  • Just as there are more homeless people every day, there are also more obscenely rich people in this country than there have ever been. Thats inequality.
  • … [our] unequal society, astoundingly, is continuing to get more and more unequal as more and more people’s wealth decreases, more and more people’s debts increase, while the super-rich accumulate more and more.
  • We have a very weird myth in this country, that almost no one else in the world has, which is that you should vote for and support things that are good for rich people, because someday you’re going to be rich….
  • You have more people who used to be middle class working McJobs for McMinimum wages. Then you have some smaller number of people moving up, getting upper middle class salaries. And finally there’s the one in a hundred who are getting even more obscenely rich from their investments and shenanigans. That’s growing inequality in a nutshell!
  • …these and similar effects are so dramatic that the average black family in this country has only about a tenth of the wealth that the average white family does.
  • If we lived in a democracy where the laws reflected the will of the people, the tax scam would have never made it to a vote.
  • Consider the elected-by-a-minority poor excuse for a human being now occupying the White House. He claims to be a master of the art of the deal, but he’s really a master of the art of bankruptcy: he’s amazingly skilled at… having his corporations pay him tons of money and then having it declare bankruptcy, so all the money stays in his pocket.
  • While the Obama administration promised some relief to some student victims, they never managed to deliver it before the apocalypse (er, Jan 20th, 2017) Guess what? DeVos is doing her best to renege on those unkept promises. In fact, just yesterday, California and other states sued DeVos and the Department of Education to force them to make good on forgiveness for 80,000 students!
  • Having your life cut short is a pretty pernicious form of inequality.
  • Underlying the push against universal health care, universal education and the greater American push against subsidies or supports of any kind for poor people, is the embedded white supremacy and racism of much of our country… “if we provide decent health care, ‘they’ will be getting something for nothing.”
  • no one – except Republican elected officials – wants to go back to those ‘good old days’ of [health] insurance company terror.
  • a large portion of the Bay Area’s homeless could be housed in such ways on existing open space at relatively little cost. A lot of human misery would be lifted, a lot of human excrement would be kept off our streets, and inequality would be reduced just a little.
  • There are more payday lenders in the United States than there are McDonald’s and Starbucks combined!
  • It’s in almost everyone’s interest to provide emergency funds to people a lot less expensively than we do now. It would be incredibly popular. Politicians should be all over it. But they aren’t.
  • Think of what money on that scale [from having a public bank] – a hundred million dollars plus a year – could fund and fix in the cities around us.

Check out Strike Debt Bay Area at our website and/or attend our next meeting.

Strike Debt Bay Area arose out of Occupy Wall Street and Occupy Oakland in late 2012.

Host, participants and production team.

Internet for all San Franciscans? Here’s how it could happen

June 7, 2017 ( 

A man checks his phone near Mission Dolores Park, one of the city’s 32 parks that received free Wi-Fi several years ago. Photo: Noah Berger, Special To The Chronicle

Photo: Noah Berger, Special To The Chronicle.  A man checks his phone near Mission Dolores Park, one of the city’s 32 parks that received free Wi-Fi several years ago.


In a city where so much information is tweeted, emailed, Skyped or texted, thousands of people are getting left behind.

There are kids who trudge to the library to find an Internet connection so they can do their homework. Mothers who have to choose each month between buying a Muni pass and paying the Wi-Fi bill. Seniors still using sputtery dial-up service.

Their stories are helping propel Mark Farrell, San Francisco supervisor and rumored 2019 mayoral candidate, as the primary backer and evangelist for a citywide broadband network that would treat the Internet as if it were a public roadway: The city would lay fiber-optic cable underground and contract with private companies to deliver fast, inexpensive service to all residents and businesses.

If Farrell pulls it off, San Francisco would become the largest city in the country to have such a system.

“The sad reality is that San Francisco is the innovation capital of the world, and more than 100,000 San Francisco residents still do not have Internet access at home,” Farrell said, citing statistics from a budget and legislative analyst’s report he ordered last year. 

An additional 50,000 residents have rickety dial-up connections, he said. “And that’s criminal, in my opinion.”

Confronting this disparity, the supervisor and his supporters have started characterizing the Internet as a utility, just like water or electricity service. They see publicly owned broadband as the next battlefront for a city that recently took on Pacific Gas and Electric by creating its own clean energy system.

The idea isn’t new. Chattanooga, Tenn., has a publicly owned fiber network that’s run by the city’s electric utility. Officials in Kansas City, Kan., and Kansas City, Mo., brokered an agreement with Google Fiber to run a network through the cities in 2011. Stockholm began laying cable in 1994 and now has a vast subterranean system that it leases to service providers, the model San Francisco will most likely adopt.

City politicians have long talked about creating a universal Internet system that would put San Francisco’s technical abilities in line with its social credos, but past attempts have belly-flopped.

In 2003, then-Supervisors Tom Ammiano and Chris Daly got the city to fund a $300,000 study on city-controlled Internet, arguing it would be what Ammiano termed “a great (social) equalizer.” But they failed to put together a concrete plan.

Mayor Gavin Newsom picked up the effort the following year, proposing free Wi-Fi throughout the city and negotiating a contract under which EarthLink would build and install the network, with Google providing the service. The deal fell apart after EarthLink backed out in 2007.

Katie and Aaron Smith take a photo while visiting Alamo Square Park on Monday, June 5, 2017. The park offers a free San Francisco WiFi hotspot. Photo: Noah Berger, Special To The Chronicle

Photo: Noah Berger, Special To The Chronicle.  Katie and Aaron Smith take a photo while visiting Alamo Square Park on Monday, June 5, 2017. The park offers a free San Francisco WiFi hotspot.


In the intervening years, San Francisco inched toward its politicians’ goals of Internet equity. In 2010, Newsom began spreading free Wi-Fi to all of the city’s public housing projects. Three years later, Farrell staked his political future on municipal Internet when he helped secure a $600,000 gift from Google that allowed the city to buy and install Wi-Fi equipment in 32 parks. New statistics from the Department of Technology show that more than half a million devices connect to the city’s wireless network each month.

Farrell began laying the foundation for a far more ambitious plan — laying fiber throughout the city, including areas like Visitacion Valley and the Bayview, where the cost of digging up the street far exceeds the immediate profit for any carrier.

The supervisor built momentum for the idea by forming a coalition of neighborhood groups and a panel of academics to publish reports on the importance of a municipal fiber network. Farrell and Mayor Ed Lee also secured $600,000 in city funding for a consultant, CTC Technology and Energy, to calculate cost estimates.

Depending on what infrastructure model they settle on, they may have to pitch a bond measure to voters.

There could be risks — or alternatively, a big payoff — for Farrell, who is devoting his political capital to the project.

“The nice thing about Wi-Fi is that it costs less up front, and you can install it before the next election,” said Christopher Mitchell, a community broadband expert at the Institute for Local Self Reliance, an advocacy group in Minneapolis.

But he noted that Farrell could face intense opposition from big telecom companies like Comcast and AT&T, which provide most of the Internet service and infrastructure in San Francisco.

“There will be a scare campaign involving print mailers, telephone calls and radio messages, saying that community broadband will threaten city finances,” Mitchell said.

Farrell is a political moderate with strong Silicon Valley ties — before entering politics he worked as a lawyer for tech companies and as an investment banker — but he has reached out to progressive former Supervisor Eric Mar, who has helped lead the neighborhood coalition and conduct surveys that illustrate how uneven the Internet service is in a city known as a tech capital.

“I helped pull in a lot of seniors and nonprofits, and I helped persuade them to be more trustful that a big-tent approach could succeed, even though we weren’t successful a decade ago,” Mar said.

Over the past few months, Farrell has also backed legislation to nudge the city closer to a municipally controlled system.

In December, the Board of Supervisors passed his bill requiring landlords to allow their tenants to use any state-licensed carrier. His law mandating that all new developments include fiber conduits passed in February. He is also pushing a bill that would allow Internet carriers to install fiber-optic cables in sidewalks, a low-cost form of infrastructure that would help small companies compete with AT&T and Comcast.

In a recent interview, Farrell downplayed the rumors about a 2019 mayoral bid, saying he’ll decide “when the time is right.”

Whether he can turn citywide broadband into a viable campaign platform is an open question. It’s a move that could position Farrell as an effective challenger to Mark Leno, said Jason McDaniel, a professor of political science at San Francisco State University.

“The idea of bridging a digital divide, of fixing race and class inequality — that’s a message designed to be attractive to a more progressive, left-leaning audience,” he said.

But some analysts view broadband as one of those important but boring issues that doesn’t have the same urgency as homelessness or protecting immigrants from deportation.

Broadband isn’t a topic of “overriding concern” in San Francisco, said political strategist Maggie Muir. She said voters “face other more compelling issues every day when they walk out the door.”

Rachel Swan is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email:

Twitter: @rachelswan

Trump claims he’s boosting U.S. influence, but many foreign leaders see America in retreat

December 26, 2017 (

China has now assumed the mantle of fighting climate change, a global crusade that the United States once led. Russia has taken over Syrian peace talks, also once the purview of the American administration, whose officials Moscow recently deigned to invite to negotiations only as observers.

France and Germany are often now the countries that fellow members of NATO look to, after President Trump wavered on how supportive his administration would be toward the North Atlantic alliance.

And in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the U.S., once the only mediator all sides would accept, has found itself isolated after Trump’s decision to declare that the U.S. recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

In his wide-ranging speech on national security last week, Trump highlighted what he called the broadening of U.S. influence throughout the world.

But one year into his presidency, many international leaders, diplomats and foreign policy experts argue that he has reduced U.S. influence or altered it in ways that are less constructive. On a range of policy issues, Trump has taken positions that disqualified the United States from the debate or rendered it irrelevant, these critics say.

Even in countries that have earned Trump’s praise, such as India, there is concern about Trump’s unpredictability — will he be a reliable partner? — and what many overseas view as his isolationism.

“The president can and does turn things inside out,” said Manoj Joshi, a scholar at a New Delhi think tank, the Observer Research Foundation. “So the chances that the U.S. works along a coherent and credible national security strategy are not very high.”

As the U.S. recedes, other powers including China, Russia and Iran are eagerly stepping into the void.

One significant issue is the visible gap between the president and many of his top national security advisors.

Trump’s national security speech was intended to explain to the public a 70-page strategy document that the administration developed. But on key issues, Trump’s speech and the document diverged. The speech, for example, included generally favorable rhetoric about Russia and China. The strategy document listed the two governments as competitors, accused the Russians of using “subversion” as a tactic and said that countering both rival powers was necessary.

Russia reacted angrily: America continues to evince “its aversion to a multipolar world,” President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitri Peskov, said.

At the same time, Trump’s refusal to overtly criticize Russia, some diplomats say, has emboldened Putin in his military actions in Ukraine, where Russian-backed rebels are battling a pro-West government in Kiev. Kurt Volker, the administration’s special envoy for Ukraine, said that some of the worst fighting since February took place over the past two weeks, with numerous civilian casualties. Volker accused Russia of “massive” cease-fire violations.

Nicholas Burns, who served as a senior American diplomat under Republican and Democratic administrations, said the administration’s strategy was riddled with contradictions that have left the U.S. ineffective.

Trump “needs a strong State Department to implement” its strategy, he said. “Instead, State and the Foreign Service are being weakened and often sidelined.”

Trump’s “policy of the last 12 months is a radical departure from every president since WWII,” Burns said in an interview. “Trump is weak on NATO, Russia, trade, climate, diplomacy. The U.S. is declining as a global leader.”

The most recent example of U.S. isolation came with Trump’s decision to formally recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, delighting many Israelis, but angering Palestinians and reversing decades of international consensus.

On Thursday, an overwhelming majority of the U.N. General Assembly, including many U.S. allies, voted to demand the U.S. rescind the decision.

For the last quarter-century, successive U.S. governments have held themselves up as an “honest broker” in mediating peace between the Israelis and Palestinians. Trump insisted he is not giving up on a peace deal, but most parties involved interpreted his announcement as clearly siding with Israel.

“From now on, it is out of the question for a biased United States to be a mediator between Israel and Palestine,” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said at a summit of more than 50 Muslim countries that he hosted in Istanbul. “That period is over.”

Daniel Kurtzer, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel and Egypt under Presidents Clinton and George W. Bush, said that if a peace deal is to be made now, “it won’t be from American policy.”

“Trump took himself and the administration out of the peace process for the foreseeable future,” he said.

Trump had boasted of his ability to convene Muslim leaders during his trip to Saudi Arabia in May, but that would seem far less possible today. In Jordan, arguably Washington’s closest Arab ally in the Middle East, government-controlled television has started 24-hour broadcasts of invitations to follow a Twitter account whose hashtag roughly translates as “Jerusalem is ours … our Arabness.”

Regional leaders and analysts also say that for all of Trump’s tough rhetoric, they see few concrete steps by the U.S. to counter Iran’s steady expansion of its military, economic and political influence, a perception that Iranian leaders are happy to exploit.

“Trump is ranting and making empty threats,” said Hamid Reza Taraghi, a conservative Iranian politician with close ties to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. “Russia, China and Iran are gaining ground in the Middle East, and America is losing ground and influence.”

That view is also shared by Iranian moderates, with whom the Obama administration thought it could work.

“The reality on the ground in the Middle East is that the American administration has failed to form an efficient coalition against its self-proclaimed enemies,” said Nader Karimi Juni, an independent Iranian analyst who writes for reformist dailies and magazines.

“Now Russia is celebrating its victory in Syria, and America is watching as an onlooker,” Juni said.

In Syria and Iraq, the U.S. under Trump has succeeded in helping its allies drive Islamic State militants out of their strongholds. But Washington has opted to take a back seat in the other conflicts roiling the two countries.

This month, another round of U.N.-mediated and U.S.-backed peace talks on Syria wrapped up in Geneva without any progress. Instead, a Russia-led process is gaining traction.

Even some longtime opponents of Assad quietly acknowledge that Sochi, the Black Sea resort where Russia aims to convene a “Syrian people’s congress” next year, and not Geneva, will be the focus of efforts to bring an end to the war.

Trump has won praise in parts of South Asia, a region his team has re-dubbed the “Indo-Pacific” and where it is favoring India and Afghanistan over Pakistan. The administration has asked Congress for $350 million in aid to Pakistan for 2018, not quite one-tenth the amount Washington provided five years ago.

Afghan officials say they are encouraged by Trump’s renewed pressure on neighboring Pakistan to take “decisive action” to stop militant groups operating from its soil.

“Our partnership, which reflects a renewed U.S. commitment, will set the conditions to end the war and finally bringing peace to Afghanistan,” Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s office said in a statement.

But even there, officials say they worry that Trump’s bellicose rhetoric will strengthen China’s status as a power broker.

China has also benefited from Trump’s refusal to join other nations to work against climate change. Even as Trump removed climate change from the list of threats menacing the United States, China announced it would begin phasing in an ambitious program to curb carbon emissions by establishing the world’s largest market for trading emissions permits.

Trump was not invited to an international climate summit hosted earlier this month by French President Emmanuel Macron because of his decision to pull the United States out of 2015 international climate deal.

“You cannot pretend to be the guarantor of international order and get out of [an accord] as soon as it suits you,” Macron told France 2 TV.

Staff writers Zavis and Bengali reported from Beirut and Mumbai, respectively. Special correspondents Ramin Mostaghim in Tehran, Omar Medhat in Cairo and Samir Zedan from Bethlehem, West Bank, contributed to this report.

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