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Apple's AirTag trackers made it frighteningly easy to 'stalk' me

By Geoffrey A. Fowler
Apple's AirTag trackers made it frighteningly easy to 'stalk' me
An AirTag pairs with its owner's iPhone, which gets secure updates about its whereabouts through the Find My app. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Jonathan Baran

Apple's new AirTags, $30 wireless devices that help you locate things, work well. Frighteningly well.

Clip a button-size AirTag onto your keys and it'll help you find where you accidentally dropped them in the park. But if someone else slips an AirTag into your bag or car without your knowledge, it could also be used to covertly track everywhere you go. Along with helping you find lost items, AirTags are a new means of inexpensive, effective stalking.

I know because I tested AirTags by letting a Washington Post colleague pretend to stalk me. And Apple's efforts to stop the misuse of its trackers just aren't sufficient.

To discourage what it calls "unwanted tracking," Apple built technology into AirTags to warn potential victims, including audible alarms and messages about suspicious AirTags that pop up on iPhones. To put Apple's personal security protections to the test, my colleague Jonathan Baran paired an AirTag with his iPhone, slipped his tag into my backpack (with my permission), and tracked me for a week from across San Francisco Bay.

I got alerts: from the hidden AirTag and on my iPhone. But it wasn't hard to find ways an abusive partner could circumvent Apple's systems. To name one: The audible alarm only rang after three days - then it turned out to be just 15 seconds of light chirping. And another: While an iPhone alerted me that an unknown AirTag was moving with me, similar warnings aren't available for the roughly half of Americans who use Android phones.

"These are an industry-first, strong set of proactive deterrents," Kaiann Drance, Apple vice president of iPhone marketing, said in an interview. "It's a smart and tunable system, and we can continue improving the logic and timing so that we can improve the set of deterrents."

Apple has done more to combat stalking than small tracking-device competitors such as Tile, which so far has done nothing. But AirTags show how even Apple, a company known for emphasizing security and privacy, can struggle to understand all the risks involved in creating tech that puts everyday things online.

"The intimate partner threat model is unique," Corbin Streett, a technology safety specialist at the National Network to End Domestic Violence, told me. "Generally, companies are thinking about external threats, not the person who knows your favorite color and your password and who sleeps next to you at night."

For most people, AirTags will be a useful convenience that offers precise tracking and a replaceable battery. So why focus on these problems? Because personal tech is no longer just about you. My job as a consumer advocate is to consider the people technology helps - and those it hurts. This applies to AirTags just like it does to Ring security cameras unfairly policing neighbors and social network algorithms spreading misinformation.

Digital stalking is remarkably common, experts say, and it's strongly linked to physical abuse, including murder.

"I don't expect products to be perfect the moment they hit the market, but I don't think they would have made the choices that they did if they had consulted even a single expert in intimate partner abuse," said Eva Galperin, the director of cybersecurity at the Electronic Frontier Foundation and a prominent advocate for fighting stalkerware.

Apple's Drance wouldn't say whether the company consulted domestic abuse experts in designing AirTags. "We don't have any more details to share about the process. But of course, we are open to hearing anything from those organizations," she said.

I'm glad Apple says AirTags were designed for updates, but some of the problems we identified can't be solved with software - or Apple designing privacy fixes that work only for Apple customers.

- - -

With Galperin's advice, we set up a test in which my colleague played the role of a stalker and I experienced what that would look like as a target. While the experiment helped us understand how AirTags work, our short glimpse into the world of stalkerware is nothing like the terror of actually being stalked.

After placing an AirTag in my bag, my colleague was able to find my whereabouts with remarkable precision. Once he associated the AirTag with his iPhone, the tag's location showed up in an iPhone app called Find My, included free with iPhones. (It started as a way to find lost Apple products and has expanded to other things.)

When I was riding a bike about San Francisco, the AirTag updated my location once every few minutes with a range of about half a block. When I was more stationary at home, my colleague's app reported my exact address.

How can such a tiny, watch-battery-powered device do that? Unlike phones and GPS devices, AirTags don't contain cellular Internet connections. Rather, they use Bluetooth wireless signals - the same ones that power headphones - to report their presence to other nearby devices that are connected to the Internet. (AirTags also contain a wireless technology called ultra-wideband that makes them even more precise but requires newer iPhones.) These location reports go back only to the AirTag's owner; nobody else knows where they are.

What makes AirTags particularly effective at tracking is that they can connect with the hundreds of millions of Apple products out there to share their location with their owners. Think of it this way: AirTags work everywhere there's a nearby iPhone.

Apple included one element that could help prosecute people who use them for stalking. Each AirTag has a fixed serial number physically printed on it and readable by Bluetooth. With a court order, Apple could reveal the identity of the iPhone the AirTag is registered to.

But first, the victim would have to discover the covert AirTag - and that's easier said than done.

- - -

Three days after being separated from my colleague, the AirTag he planted on me started chirping its presence. The sound measured at most about 60 decibels from three feet away - not much louder than the birds singing outside my window. And it lasted only about 15 seconds, after which the AirTag went silent for several hours before chirping for another 15 seconds.

This is supposed to keep people safe? "We do think it's a very clear, crisp sound," said Apple's Drance.

Worse, I discovered it's pretty easy to muffle the speaker on an AirTag by applying pressure to the device's white plastic cover, which has the speaker embedded in it. Buried inside tight car seats or tape, a victim might not notice a chirping AirTag for days - if at all.

But there's an even bigger problem: Waiting three days to alert a victim allows for a lot of stalking. Apple's Drance said that when the company chose that window, it was considering how alarms might disturb customers who are just borrowing a family member's backpack or accidentally leave an item behind. "We wanted to balance how these alerts are going off in the environment as well as the unwanted tracking," she said.

Streett's concern was that an abuser could game the alarm timing. An AirTag starts a three-day countdown clock on its alarm as soon as it's out of the range of the iPhone it's paired with. Since many victims live with their abusers, the alert countdown could be reset each night when the owner of the AirTag comes back into its range.

In many abuse situations, the alarm might never go off.

- - -

Apple's other major anti-stalking protection was harder to miss: an alert on my iPhone that read, "AirTag Found Moving With You." It popped up after I returned home from meeting my colleague.

How did my iPhone know? If you're carrying an iPhone 6S or newer with the latest iOS software, the phone's Bluetooth connection is regularly looking for nearby AirTags. The iPhone will notice if you're traveling with an AirTag that isn't also in the vicinity of its owner.

The iPhone makes these notices prominent, if the language is a little obtuse. Tapping on it takes you to the Find My app, where the first screen reads: "Your current location can be seen by the owner of this AirTag." Inside the Find My app - the potential victim's view - there was also a map of the places I traveled with the covert AirTag. The app instructs you how to temporarily silence the alert or disable the AirTag by removing its battery.

From there, though, Apple doesn't provide as much help as it could to people trying to locate an AirTag hidden in their belongings. One button in the Find My app lets you make the offending AirTag play a sound, but this often didn't work for me. (Perhaps I wasn't quite close enough to the AirTag or there was interference?) But none of the other Find My app functions for AirTag owners to find their own stuff - like measures of the distance between the iPhone and the AirTag - are available to unwanted tracking victims. Potential victims need those tools, too.

The Find My app also doesn't necessarily provide all the information stalking victims need. "I wish it would activate as soon as a tag that doesn't belong to you begins to move with you," Streett said. The app also lacks a function that just lets people instantly scan their vicinity for any AirTags to make sure they're safe.

Galperin said she's skeptical that Apple thought through all the real-world scenarios, such as if an abuser swapped his AirTag with one that belongs to his partner. (If the victim came back into the house and if it connected to the abuser's device quickly, then it may not pop up an alert.) And the alerts could be more helpful, she said, if they were also tuned to detect an AirTag in your car - one that moves with you frequently but then stays where you parked.

Also troubling: There's an option in the Find My app to turn off all of these "item safety alerts" - and adjusting it doesn't require entering your PIN or password. People in abusive situations don't always have total control over their phones.

Then there's the biggest hole of all in the alerts system: They aren't available to people using Android devices. "I'm really wary of security problems that have to be fixed by buying an iPhone," Galperin said.

Some of Apple's good pop-up alert ideas could benefit not only users of other phones but also people being tracked by other devices such as Tiles. "Wouldn't it be great if these companies partnered in a way where scanning for Bluetooth tracking devices is built into all phones?" Streett said.

There is precedent in Google and Apple working together to jointly develop Bluetooth coronavirus exposure alerts last year. In our increasingly connected world, addressing new risks is going to require working together.


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Indian diaspora reckons with crisis abroad

By Fenit Nirappil and Ambreen Ali
Indian diaspora reckons with crisis abroad
Neil Makhija is executive director of the Indian American Impact advocacy group, which was contacted by the White House as it formulated its response to India's coronavirus surge. Makhija is pictured working outside his office on April 28, 2021, in Philadelphia. MUST CREDIT: Photo by Rachel Wisniewski for The Washington Post

Avani Singh hops on Zoom around 11 p.m. every night with her mother in New Jersey and uncle in India, strategizing how to keep her coronavirus-stricken grandfather alive.

They already managed to get K.S. Walia, 94, out of a New Delhi emergency room where Singh said a worker demanded an $8 bribe to keep oxygen running. A different hospital where her grandfather is now admitted said the family would need to find oxygen and remdesivir, a drug that reduces recovery time, themselves, Singh said.

Before starting a new search last weekend, Singh, a 28-year-old consultant, walked her dog in her Arlington, Va., neighborhood where people lined up to get inside a rooftop tiki bar and a group pedaled by on a party bike, drinking beer. She returned to her apartment and stayed up until 2 a.m. scouring Instagram for phone numbers of Indians who might have oxygen and getting no replies to a flurry of messages.

Singh is among thousands of Americans struggling to help Indian relatives survive a catastrophic coronavirus surge that has caused the health care system to collapse. The desperation of families in India has spread across time zones and borders as families fend for themselves in search of hospital beds, oxygen canisters and basic medication.

"There was a huge disconnect where I felt very angry that the world isn't paying attention and would it be different if it was White bodies piling up on the streets?" Singh recalled. "How am I supposed to go about my normal day?"

This is the split-screen pandemic in the U.S., where vaccine selfies flood social media feeds and newly vaccinated families are reuniting as many are struggling to help loved ones with coronavirus around the world access medical care. Millions of Indian Americans now grapple with the horrors of one of the worst virus waves since the pandemic started. Several described feeling dissonance as normalcy returns in the U.S. while their WhatsApp accounts blow up with death announcements and pleas for help from loved ones and strangers in their country of origin.

The ongoing crisis in India and the fallout in the United States illustrates how the global pandemic will continue to inflict misery even if infections plunge inside American borders. A nation of immigrants, and one so interconnected to the world through family, trade and culture, America still reels from lives lost as coronavirus ravages a mostly unvaccinated world, including in South America, where a variant-driven surge in Brazil has rapidly spread to other countries.

"It's almost like you're living in two realities: one where things are getting better in the United States, and one abroad, where the situation is terrible," said Sadaf Jaffer, the former mayor of heavily South Asian Montgomery Township, N.J. "It's an extra burden that people who have connections on the other part of the world bear because they know how bad things are there."

About 4 million Americans are of Indian descent, the third largest immigrant group behind Mexican- and Chinese Americans. They are among the most highly educated and paid immigrant groups, enabling them to help middle class and wealthy Indian relatives who are better positioned than poor Indians to buy access to care. They are also using their growing political and cultural power in the U.S. to raise alarms about the crisis.

Indian American doctors and public health experts who gained prominence during the pandemic are using their platforms to demand U.S. intervention. The Indian-born chief executives of Google and Microsoft pledged millions to address oxygen shortages. Indian American political groups and members of Congress have pressured President Joe Biden to ramp up assistance.

Ashish Jha, the Indian-born dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, has been among the loudest voices clamoring for to U.S. to treat the Indian crisis as an American crisis, penning an op-ed for The Washington Post and frequently tweeting on the topic to 200,000 followers.

"Because India is so global, any strain of virus that gains set advantage - more contagious, more deadly or able to spread more efficiently - will not only become dominant there, but quickly become global," Jha said in an interview.

The Biden administration over the last week announced a series of actions to ship raw vaccine material, oxygen and therapeutics to India. Supply shipments began arriving Thursday.

Milan Vaishnav, director of the South Asian program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said an increasingly politically engaged movement of Indian Americans deserves credit for tapping their growing influence among elected officials and prodding the administration into action.

"The diaspora is still relatively new and relatively small, but I do think it punches above its weight," Vaishnav said.

Indian American Impact, an advocacy group founded in 2016 that also donates to South Asian candidates was among the groups contacted by the White House as it formulated an India response. It is circulating a petition calling on the Biden administration to set aside half of all surplus vaccines for India.

"We are getting to the point where those in power are recognizing our power, and that I think gives us a voice and a seat at the table in a way we haven't had before," said Neil Makhija, the group's executive director.

Sanjay Puri, a tech executive who chairs the U.S. India Political Action Committee, noted the growing presence of Indian Americans in high-ranking government positions, including four members of Congress, Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy, who has talked about losing relatives in India to the virus and Vice President Harris, whose mother was from South India. Harris, who has relatives living in India, on Friday called the crisis a "great tragedy."

"It's just been an evolution - you build a farm team and get stars and superstars and now you have a vice president," Puri said. "There's a realization that India is a strategic partner in that region from an economic standpoint, from a political standpoint. . . . It does help to have Indian Americans who can explain these points."

Some Indian Americans have called on Biden to go further, including sharing patents to develop generic coronavirus vaccines, which is opposed by U.S. drug manufacturers, and sending surplus vaccines to India. The Biden administration announced it would give other countries up to 60 million AstraZeneca vaccines that have not been authorized for use in the U.S., but did not say how many would go to India.

The administration said Friday it will restrict travel from India starting May 4.

Others want the U.S. government to take a harder line against Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who faces widespread criticism for his response to the ongoing crisis. Before the surge, Modi lifted virtually all restrictions and held massive political rallies. The Indian government ordered Twitter to hide posts critical of its response.

"We need to be calling out the regime and putting national pressure to stop this because they know they can get away with this," said Chaand Ohri, a 35-year-old Indian-born Maryland doctor.

Ohri, who treated covid patients, described life as a "daze" seeing people out at bars while people are dying on the streets of his home country. He spends his nights on WhatsApp advising doctors treating patients in India, including one who sought advice on caring for a child before she died.

"What I'm hopeless about is the so-called progressive American who is now happy they have been vaccinated, but don't give a [expletive] about what's happening around the world," Ohri said.

In an already exhausting year for health-care workers, the India crisis has prolonged the stress on doctors and nurses emerging from the devastating U.S. winter surge. Many are stretching their packed schedules to offer assistance from afar.

The American Association of Physicians of Indian Origin said it raised more than $500,000 to send 1,000 oxygen concentrators to India and is working with both governments to allow U.S. physicians to practice in India. The group says it represents 80,000 physicians of Indian origin.

Some of those doctors are now urging their patients and neighbors to show compassion to the country key to staffing the front lines of the American pandemic response.

"Personally as a physician of Indian origin, I don't consider myself an activist. I don't consider myself an influencer, but in this situation I feel compelled to speak out, so if that makes me an activist or influencer, so be it," said Aditi Nerurkar, a physician at Harvard Medical School who joined other doctors to compile and promote a list of organizations to donate money to relief efforts.

"With what's happening in India, we are seeing what happens to one of us as global citizens happens to all of us," Nerurkar added.

Outside the medical profession, Indian Americans are trying to find ways to help.

Sudhanshu Kaushik, the 26-year-old leader of the North American Association of Indian Students, has watched two fellow Indian immigrants in New York City spend late nights on WhatsApp trying to help people find beds in hospitals owned by their relatives. With severe bed shortages, opportunities to help are vanishing.

Kaushik's group distributed a template donation request letter for young Indian American professionals to send to their employers, as an opportunity to give back to a country that helped strengthen their workforces.

"Indian Americans are so highly placed in the corporate sector, the private sector, and there's a lot of influence within these companies, but that doesn't necessarily translate to impact in India or Indian issues," Kaushik said.

While parts of the Indian diaspora are mobilizing for large-scale business and government intervention, most Indian Americans responding to the crisis abroad are focused solely on their loved ones. Some are finding their options running out.

Ejaz Warsi, a 72-year-old scientist in Houston, lost a member of his brother's family in New Delhi earlier this week despite their best efforts.

The 60-year-old relative needed oxygen but family members were only able to get a small cylinder that quickly ran out. Late last week, they had driven for hours around the city trying to get him admitted at a hospital, but no beds were available. His sister remains critically ill, but with medicines largely unavailable, Warsi said the family is concerned that she may not get the care she needs either.

"There is no doctor to see them, no hospital where they can go," said Warsi, who came to the U.S. in 1973. "There is very little we can do. Money these days doesn't buy you much. Things are not available."

Lavanya D.J., a managing director at a public relations firm in New York City, said she is having trouble focusing on anything but the news out of India. Her family is based in a small village in the state of Karnataka, four hours from the technology hub of Bangalore. The virus hasn't spread widely there, but a member of her extended family who lives in another area died recently. Several of her friends are also dealing with loss. Her entire Twitter feed is filled with pleas for help.

Earlier this week, D.J., 41, started a document to crowdsource places to donate and help.

"If I didn't have this, I would just lose my mind," she said. She was excited to get her second vaccine shot two weeks ago, but now her sense of optimism has faded. "I just feel so guilty even to have a laugh or anything."

Avani Singh said she felt guilty when she left her Arlington, Va., apartment Wednesday night to grab drinks with a friend while her grandfather is still hospitalized in India. A 38-year-old neighbor of Singh's mother in New Jersey recently died after traveling to Delhi and contracting the virus, exacerbating the family's fears.

A Delhi gurdwara - a Sikh house of worship - came through with an extra oxygen canister for K.S. Walia, and Singh's mother secured him an oxygen concentrator with the help of a high school friend. Doctors say he could survive and even live to his 100th birthday if his condition holds.

But worries persisted. The family was raising money to keep her grandfather in the hospital for five weeks. Singh and her uncle were also searching for plasma donors on Instagram. Some models predict a May peak in India, which Singh fears will exacerbate the chaos at hospitals. On Saturday, Singh learned her grandfather would have undergo dialysis and the doctors urged the family not to lose hope.

Walia survived brushes with death before, his granddaughter said: As a young man fleeing Pakistan during the violent 1947 partition of India, he rode trains where children were set ablaze and as a government worker, he cleared out a jungle area controlled by criminals.

"Obviously we all have to die at some point," Singh said. "But I cannot fathom someone dying this way. Gasping for air. I'll do anything I can to prevent that."

On Sunday, after this article was published, Walia suffered cardiac arrest and died.

Now his relatives are fighting to prevent him from becoming cremated in a parking lot because crematoriums are overwhelmed - and to make sure that his death certificate lists covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, as experts say the official death toll is a vast undercount.

"The government already killed him," Avani Singh said through tears on Sunday. "I will not let them erase him in death."

- - -

The Washington Post's Ruby Mellen contributed to this report.

Black residents of Elizabeth City, N.C., thought police violence happened in other places. Then it came to their town.

By Gregory S. Schneider
Black residents of Elizabeth City, N.C., thought police violence happened in other places. Then it came to their town.
Demonstrators on April 24 protest the fatal shooting of Andrew Brown Jr. in Elizabeth City, N.C. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Joshua Lott.

ELIZABETH CITY, N.C. - Night after night, they march: parents pushing strollers, a grandma with two hip replacements, preachers, lawyers, lifelong residents and recent transplants. Some are Black, some White - all protesting the death of Andrew Brown Jr., a Black man who was killed in a fusillade of gunfire from sheriff's deputies.

The April 21 shooting aggravated racial tensions simmering below the surface in this majority-Black hamlet in the far northeastern corner of the state, according to protesters.

The city's mayor, manager and police chief all are Black. It is home to a historically Black college, and before the Civil War was a stop on the Underground Railroad, helping people escape slavery along the Pasquotank River and into the nearby Dismal Swamp.

But Brown's death, and the failure to release the full body camera footage of the incident, has awakened a deep sense of suspicion and mistrust in a community that had thought it might be insulated. Through a year of reckoning with racial inequity provoked by the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, many in Elizabeth City said they felt safe from the worst trauma.

Not anymore.

"Never would I have thought that it would hit here in Elizabeth City," said Daniel Bowser, 44, who is Black and grew up in town. "Yes, we have a lot of injustices going on around here, but not to this extent."

"This right here is shocking," said Daquan Johnson, a 22-year-old Black man who works at the local Walmart. "But I think it happened for a reason. . . . It sheds light on a lot of things."

Now Elizabeth City finds itself the latest dateline in the national debate over police violence against Black Americans: The media have descended en masse. TV helicopters circle overhead some afternoons. Civil rights lawyers Bakari Sellers and Ben Crump are helping represent Brown's family, and the Rev. William Barber and clergy leaders from all over the state have converged to call for justice.

Members of the New Black Panther Party came down from Washington this week, joining a procession of social media personalities and bystanders streaming Facebook Live commentary outside the local government complex.

The withholding of the full video footage has fueled a sense of a cover-up. Although Brown's family says the footage shows Brown had his hands on the steering wheel the whole time, a prosecutor says Brown twice made contact with officers with his car before they began to shoot.

On Tuesday evening, as a crowd began gathering for the nightly protest march, one couple sat on folding chairs in the shade. He wore a black fedora and bow tie, she wore a church dress, like grandparents waiting for an Easter parade.

When several hundred people began marching up East Colonial Avenue, the man in the fedora sprang to his feet, plunged into the crowd and grabbed a bullhorn.

"Hands up!" he shouted. "Don't shoot!" the crowd responded, over and over until the Rev. Timothy Stallings, 60, was too hoarse to keep going. Like many of his neighbors, Stallings, who is Black, has been transformed by a new sense of urgent purpose.

"This is a small town," he said as the march went on without him. "We love everybody. We meet one another at Food Lion, we meet one another at Walmart, we meet one another at the local red light. So this is a loving and caring community, and we're just asking for some police reform all across the country."

- - -

The downtown water tower proclaims Elizabeth City the "Harbor of Hospitality." It was once the hub of the Dismal Swamp Canal, a project envisioned by George Washington to connect the Albemarle Sound to the Chesapeake Bay. Enslaved workers spent 12 years digging the 22-mile ditch by hand before it opened in 1805.

Today the dark brown waters of the canal are little used. Elizabeth City sits between the region's farmland and popular beaches, but is out of the way for vacationers headed to the Outer Banks.

The neighborhood where Brown was shot lies just south of downtown, in an area of modest, older homes where most residents are Black. Elizabeth City has a population of about 17,750, according to U.S. Census estimates - just over half the residents are Black and about 43% are White.

The surrounding Pasquotank County is majority White. Elizabeth City is under the jurisdiction of both city police and the county sheriff, who is White. The shooting involved only sheriff's deputies.

Many Black residents say the community's racial tensions have tended to lurk in the background. A Confederate monument to "Our Heroes" stands outside the downtown courthouse, for instance, but it's within sight of M.L. King Jr. Drive. Elizabeth City was in federal hands for most of the Civil War.

"I've got White buddies. I've got relatives married to White women," said Michael Gordon Sr., 60, who is Black and a disabled veteran. Local schools integrated when he was 6 years old, he said, although he can still remember using separate bathrooms as a young child.

Like most Black men interviewed in town this week, Gordon said he feels conscious of his race around law enforcement. But now, he said, he realizes bigger pressures were building.

"And my physics teacher taught me that anything under pressure will explode," he said.

For Gordon, that explosion came last week in his front yard.

Brown lived across a well-traveled intersection from Gordon's house. When deputies arrived that Wednesday morning to serve felony arrest and search warrants on drug-related charges, Brown was in his car in his driveway.

Deputies shot at Brown as he attempted to drive away. Family members who local officials allowed to see 20 seconds of body camera footage say Brown posed no threat. The local prosecutor has offered a contradictory account, saying that Brown's car made contact twice with deputies, although no one was injured.

Brown made it across a vacant lot next to his house, crossed the road and crashed into a crepe myrtle in Gordon's front yard. Family members released an autopsy report this week that said Brown was shot five times, with a fatal wound to the back of his head.

Gordon and his wife were out of the house at the time, which he views as a blessing. A bullet pierced the siding next to his front door, passed through a clock on the other side of the wall, traveled across his living room, through another wall and hit a crockpot on the kitchen counter.

Many mornings, he said, his young grandchildren would have been sitting at the kitchen table eating breakfast at that hour. Or he might have been walking through the living room. The thought of what might have happened makes him furious.

"Why were they discharging weapons here? It's just crazy," he said.

Car tracks are still visible across the vacant lot, and mud from spinning tires is splattered across the side of Brown's house. A front window is smashed. One day this week, white rental cars belonging to reporters and photographers lined the curb.

"It's a mess, that's what it is," Alfonzo Smith, 64, said from the shade of his front porch next door. Smith was out of state when the shooting happened. His neighbor William Lewis, 60, sitting next to him, said he hadn't seen such violence in 17 years of living nearby.

Lewis said he felt a sense of vindication last week when the Minneapolis jury convicted former police officer Derek Chauvin for murdering Floyd. Then, the very next day: "Boom, comes this," Lewis said. "Man, I'll tell you. It's a crazy world."

- - -

The night of the shooting, the city council held an emergency meeting. Council member Gabriel Adkins, who is Black, spoke with raw emotion about the events of the day.

"I never thought that I would look at CNN news and see my hometown," he said, as seen in a video of the remarks. "People are afraid. I mean, we're afraid. As a Black man sitting here tonight, I'm afraid."

Driving his car, Adkins said, he worries about seeing police. Is he going the speed limit, seat belt on, doing everything right? "I'm afraid that I may be the next one, you know."

Saying he was trying not to cry, Adkins came back again and again to the pain of the moment. "It hurts to be a Black man in this day and time," he said. "I just want the people of Elizabeth City to know that we hear you."

After that, Adkins temporarily closed his catering business and has joined protest marches almost every night. This week, Adkins said his pain was partly due to shock that the police violence in other cities could happen in his hometown.

"Everybody's emotions are all over the place," he said. "Everybody still wants answers. . . . Right now the community is in limbo."

With a judge's ruling Wednesday that the body camera footage will not be released to the public for at least 30 days, that sense of limbo could continue.

Three deputies have resigned since the shooting and seven are on leave. After keeping a low profile at first, Sheriff Tommy Wooten II has begun making public comments.

"The Community here in Pasquotank County is obviously hurting from the tragic situation that happened here as well as other tragic situations across the country," he told The Washington Post in an email on Thursday. "Despite those challenges, I've been encouraged by many positive conversations I've had recently with African American leaders in this county. I've promised them transparency and accountability and am working every day to ensure that happens as soon as possible."

Wooten said he advocated for releasing the video footage and was disappointed by the judge's ruling.

And he defended the efforts his department has made to reach out to the community since he took office in 2018, citing more than 60 events at schools, libraries and churches, as well as food drives and purchasing Christmas presents for the needy.

"As we work towards justice and accountability after this tragic situation, I know I have much more to do in order to bring our community through this situation and emerge stronger in the end," he said.

- - -

The nightly protest marches have been largely free of violence, graffiti or property damage - part of a goal, repeated by many participants, of showing the rest of the country how it's done. The primary issue has been traffic.

"It took me an hour and a half just to get to Walgreens to pick up a prescription for my daughter," said a 68-year-old White woman at the Veterans of Foreign Wars post on the edge of town. A banner on the front of the building proclaimed: "We Are America."

The woman refused to give her name, saying she feared reprisals for speaking about the volatile subject of the protests. Hearing the conversation, Cheryl, 74, scurried out of the kitchen wearing an apron and smoking a cigarette.

"None of this is necessary," she said, also refusing to be fully identified for fear of reprisals. Wearing a T-shirt proclaiming "Land of the Free," Cheryl said an army of out-of-town agitators was stirring things up for their own benefit.

"I blame the Left. I blame anybody who thinks America is bad. It's not," she said.

But both women expressed sympathy for Black community members trying to get answers about the shooting.

"I do understand their concerns, with what we hear on the news," said Jim Sullivan, 74, a White Navy retiree arriving at the hall for a cool drink.

The city is under a state of emergency this week. On Tuesday, leaders imposed an 8 p.m. curfew, and the result was perhaps the biggest crowd of marchers to date, organizers said.

Beginning a little after 5 p.m., several hundred people headed down a city street lined with churches, schools and once-grand old homes with weedy rose beds and crooked fence gates.

After blocking a major intersection for more than an hour, some protesters wanted to go find the mayor's house. But Adkins counseled against it. Too threatening, he said.

Instead, the multiracial, multigenerational army turned back downtown and shut down access to the main bridge over the Pasquotank River.

As 8 p.m. approached with the crowd milling at the foot of the bridge, city police stationed several blocks away in two directions began playing taped warnings to disperse or "you may be arrested or subject to other police action."

Some protesters left, but dozens stayed, intent on defying the curfew. Finally, a little before 9:30 p.m., about 16 police officers in full riot gear and wielding long sticks formed a line across Water Street, with dozens of uniformed officers behind them.

It was a jarring sight. Residents lined the rooftop and doorways of a renovated warehouse apartment building to get a look.

"We didn't even know y'all had that equipment!" one voice rang out from the protesters. Amid taunts and chants of "Say his name! Andrew Brown!" from the crowd, the officers advanced in formation. At least six protesters were arrested by the time the street cleared about 10:45 p.m.

The next day, crowds returned downtown, ready to march again.

There was a sense, among some, that they were seeing their hometown in an unflattering new light.

Sarah Richardson, 54, who is Black, said her husband is a military veteran who works at the shipyard in Newport News, Va. He leaves every morning just after 4 to meet a commuter van for the hour-and-20-minute trek in predawn darkness.

The other day, she said, he decided to start wearing his shipyard badge on the outside of his shirt. "In case he gets stopped, he wants to show that he's going somewhere on business," Richardson said. "It's frustrating. But we refuse to live in fear. God says we need to love our neighbors."

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Will Democrats break the GOP's deficit doom loop?

By e.j. dionne jr.
Will Democrats break the GOP's deficit doom loop?


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By E.J. Dionne Jr.

WASHINGTON -- Republicans understand it. The rest of the country should, too. The real game-changer in President Joe Biden's raft of policy proposals is the revenue he would raise from the wealthy.

Biden's plans are routinely described as big, bold and progressive. This is true but incomplete. Yes, Biden is making ambitious efforts to grapple with long-standing shortfalls in public investment.

But Biden has not cooked up some radical, untested concoction. He's advancing programs that have been successful in U.S. states and in other well-off democratic nations. Many of his plans were proposed and vetted in Congress over the past decade. Team Biden knows that familiarity breeds comfort and long-term coalition-building.

His child-care plan, for example, draws heavily on proposals from Rep. Robert C. "Bobby" Scott, D-Va., and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash. Two years of free community college were first proposed in 2015 by President Barack Obama, and Scott, now the chair of the House Education and Labor Committee, introduced it.

Child care, Scott noted in an interview, "is not just vetted as an idea legislatively in the United States, these are things that . . . most countries have just been doing routinely; they're not unusual on an international basis." And 17 states already offer tuition-free community college.

Here's an analogy to Franklin D. Roosevelt that often goes unmentioned: FDR's New Deal built on objectives advanced in the 1920s by progressives in Congress and at the state level. Similarly, Ronald Reagan's revolution built on conservative thinking in the previous decade.

Nonetheless, what's really bold is Biden's effort to create a stream of revenue through higher taxes on the wealthy and corporations that would support his efforts on education, child care, infrastructure and more help for low-income families.

Biden's tax program, including an enforcement effort to make it harder for corporations and the well-to-do to evade what they owe, is designed to break a vicious cycle. Since the early 1990s, Democrats coming into office after a GOP era have had to raise taxes just to ease deficits Republican tax cuts created in previous administrations. Then, when Republicans came back into power, they enacted more tax cuts (often accompanied by higher levels of military spending). "One of the problems the Democrats have in fixing the budget," Scott said, "is if we fix it and a Republican administration comes in, they'll wreck it."

This process has contributed to a revenue shortfall over time. Federal revenue as a share of gross domestic product has dropped from 20% in 2000 to 16.3% in 2019. A calculation the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) made at my request found that if federal revenue returned to 20% of GDP -- a long way from socialism, you might notice -- the government would collect some $680 billion more in 2022 than it would under current law.

Biden's tax increases amount to just 1.2% of GDP over the next decade, and they are confined to the very rich for good reason: The income gains at the top of the economy over the past four decades dwarf those of everyone else (and this was likely aggravated during the pandemic).

According to the Congressional Budget Office, incomes in the top 0.01% of households grew 601% between 1979 and 2017. The middle three-fifths of Americans gained just 49% over the same period. And you wonder why Biden doesn't want to raise taxes on the middle class?

Many of the wealthy pay lower rates on their income than taxpayers earning much less because some two-fifthsof the incomes of the top 1% come from capital -- and capital income is currently taxed far more lightly than labor income.

The upshot is that as long as we refuse to ask wealthy Americans to chip in a little more, our nation will continue to underinvest in public goods, accept wide opportunity gaps between rich and poor children, and do little or nothing to ease the family and work struggles of two-income households.

"We've been so caught up in this worship of tax cuts that it not only shrank our revenues but it also shrank our ambitions," said Sharon Parrott, president of the CBPP. "The price of not raising revenues is ignoring festering problems."

Biden made a similar point to reporters Wednesday, asking whether slightly lower tax rates on the wealthy or universal access to community college would do more for the country.

As you watch the coming debate, notice that Republicans will devote more time to fighting Biden's tax increases than to criticizing particular programs he champions. This is partly because Biden's ideas are broadly popular but mostly because they have long counted on the deficit doom loop to block social progress. Democrats should have the courage and clarity to recognize what Republicans already know: It's the revenue, stupid.

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E.J. Dionne is on Twitter: @EJDionne.

What the GOP really means when it calls someone 'woke'

By kathleen parker
What the GOP really means when it calls someone 'woke'


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By Kathleen Parker

The Republican Party has decided to make "woke" its public enemy No. 1, weaponizing the word against its political opponents.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., called out "woke companies" for turning against GOP voting reforms in Georgia and elsewhere.

Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., called out the "woke mob" for pressing a publisher to cancel publication of his book.

Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte of Montana even attacked the "woke" state of Washington for refusing to source its electricity from coal mined in his state.

That's an awful lot of name-calling for as unwoke a clan as ever there was.

To Democrats, "woke" means awareness about inequality and injustice.

To Republicans, it means anything progressive, liberal, or Democratic. "Woking" someone, you might say, is the Republicans' current way to run against the culture and values of Democrats when a Democratic president remains popular.

It is not a new term, but it is now the term for tagging Democrats. It's like calling them ugly. Or stupid. Or uncultured. Of course, once the GOP and its largely White-male membership co-opts a popular term, one may presume its cultural power is about to fade.

At least one commentator has suggested as much. Elijah Watson, news and culture editor for hip-hop site Okayplayer, recently suggested on NPR that it's time to retire "woke" -- a word that was "something that we were taking seriously and then it kind of transformed into something ironic and then it became a meme and then it became a trademark."

Veteran Democratic strategist James Carville went on an anti-woke rant last month during an interview with Vox. "Wokeness is a problem, and we all know it," he said, before launching into a critique of what he called the "faculty lounge" language Democrats often speak and regular folks do not understand.

"They talk about 'communities of color,' " he said. "I don't know anyone who speaks like that. I don't know anyone who lives in a 'community of color.' I know lots of White and Black and brown people and they all live in . . . neighborhoods."

In contrast, Donald Trump's facility with plain talk and memorable slogans was crucial to his success. He broke it all down for his followers: Woke is "destroying" the country. Anyone can understand and, importantly, repeat those five words.

Republicans have latched on to "woke" out of necessity. They know they need something, or someone, to blame -- and fast -- for President Joe Biden's popularity and their own failings. This is especially critical now that Republicans have come under fire from some smart people in their own party for sticking with Trump.

Former president George W. Bush went first, saying that if the Republican Party stands for "exclusivity" and "white Anglo-Saxon Protestantism, then it's not going to win anything." Last month, during an interview with NBC's "Today," Bush said today's GOP is "isolationist, protectionist and to a certain extent nativist." (Bush modified those remarks a few days later to say that not all Republicans fit that description, noting "it excluded a lot of Republicans who believe we can fix the problem.")

Sen. Mitt Romney (Utah) went next. As he was about to address his state's Republican convention on May 1, the former Republican presidential nominee was booed and heckled. Who knew that Mormons, the nicest people on the planet, knew how to boo? In an instant of pure Mitt-ness, Romney batted away words such as "traitor" and "communist" and said, "Aren't you embarrassed?"

Uh, no, as a matter of fact. The party that elected Trump obviously cannot be embarrassed. But normal people should be.

"You can boo all you like," Romney finally said. "I've been a Republican all of my life. My dad was the governor of Michigan, and I was the Republican nominee for president in 2012."

Romney left out that he was also a very successful governor of Massachusetts. But to Trumpublicans, all that matters is that Romney voted to impeach their president.

Now they are after Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., who, in addition to refuting the Big Lie of the "stolen election," did the very polite -- but apparently suicidal -- thing and bumped fists with Biden last week. For her treachery, she is likely going to be replaced as House Republican Conference chair by someone who knows how to stay on script.

This GOP, which is nothing like the storied Republicans who raised these three so-called traitors, just is not being very smart right now. By trying to shut down or marginalize people such as Romney and Cheney, it may soon fulfill Bush's prophecy of extinction.

- - -

Kathleen Parker's email address is

Some hard decisions ahead for Facebook

By eugene robinson
Some hard decisions ahead for Facebook


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By Eugene Robinson

WASHINGTON -- Even after Jan. 6, Facebook didn't want to deal once and for all with President Donald Trump's poisonous lies, so it punted, first by suspending him "indefinitely," and then by asking its blue-ribbon Oversight Board to review the decision. On Wednesday, the Oversight Board punted back. Over to you, Mark Zuckerberg.

We still don't know whether Trump will ever be allowed back on Facebook and Instagram. But the board's report tells us a great deal about Facebook's ability to deal with hard questions honestly. It's not promising.

"The Board sought clarification from Facebook about the extent to which the platform's design decisions, including algorithms, policies, procedures and technical features, amplified Mr. Trump's posts after the election and whether Facebook had conducted any internal analysis of whether such design decisions may have contributed to the events of January 6," the oversight panel said in its 35-page report. "Facebook declined to answer these questions."

This is the fundamental and inconvenient question that Zuckerberg, Facebook's founder and CEO, has never wanted to face: To what extent did Facebook create the monster it now asks others to tame?

Seriously grappling with the answer might threaten the company's wildly successful business model. Facebook has amassed an astounding 2.8 billion regular users worldwide, and its subsidiary Instagram has gathered 1 billion. Setting clear limits on what they can say and consume on those platforms would require the company to ban some of the people whose attention Facebook sells to other corporations. Others might leave.

Trump was indefinitely "suspended" from the two platforms for rhetorically embracing the rioters who invaded the Capitol on Jan. 6. But he had spent years polluting Facebook and Instagram with violent rhetoric and toxic lies, and in the weeks before Jan. 6 he claimed constantly, and falsely, that the election had been "stolen" from him and his supporters. To quantify another facet of the relationship, Ad Age estimates that Trump's 2020 campaign spent $89.1 million on Facebook ads between April and October.

Twitter, Trump's other big megaphone, banned him permanently two days after the insurrection. Facebook tried to have it both ways.

The company wanted the Oversight Board -- an international group of 20 luminaries, convened in an effort to ward off government regulation -- to relieve Zuckerberg and other executives of the burden of making a final call about Trump. Instead, the board found that Facebook was right to suspend Trump's accounts on the two platforms, but was wrong to impose an open-ended suspension, which is not a sanction specified in the company's terms of service. Facebook should either have suspended him for a certain length of time or permanently banned him, the panel said. In other words, Zuckerberg should make up his mind. The board gave Facebook six months to clarify its policies and then begin applying them consistently, including to the former president.

The panel did find that Trump, who has 35 million followers on Facebook and 24 million on Instagram, "severely" violated a rule "prohibiting praise or support of people engaged in violence" when he cheered the insurrectionists who were rampaging through the halls of the Capitol, calling them "very special" and "great patriots."

Conservatives will surely continue to howl about "censorship" of their "free speech" by "woke" technology companies. Progressives will continue to be appalled at the use of social media platforms as weapons against our democracy. And anyone who hoped Wednesday's ruling would offer a template for how social media firms should deal with political leaders and other powerful figures who commit gross abuses will be disappointed.

Nick Clegg, the former British politician who serves as Facebook's chief spokesman, issued a terse statement saying the company will now "determine an action that is clear and proportionate" regarding Trump. Clegg also canceled an interview with me that had been scheduled for Wednesday afternoon to discuss the board's report.

Clegg's statement said Facebook will "carefully review" the panel's recommendations about how the company's policies about dealing with political figures should be revised and enforced. Zuckerberg has said in the past that Facebook recognizes a "newsworthiness" exception for some problematic content, but also that the company treats all its users the same. But even a cursory survey of any given week of Trump's Facebook activity over the past five or six years indicates that some users are allowed to get away with more than others are.

The First Amendment's guarantee of free speech does not apply to Facebook, which is a private company. But Zuckerberg has created what amounts to a vast public space. He can't "bring the world closer together" if he continues to let the likes of Trump tear us apart.

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Eugene Robinson's email address is

A train travel revolution that isn't

By megan mcardle
A train travel revolution that isn't


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By Megan McArdle

WASHINGTON - Before he was president, Joe Biden spent decades as the Senate's patron saint of Amtrak. He fought Republicans who wanted to cut its budget while riding the trains back to Delaware every night. Biden's infrastructure plan contains, not surprisingly, generous funding for rail; and on Friday,during a speech commemorating the 50th anniversary of Amtrak, he invited Americans to dream about the possibilities:

"Imagine a two-hour train ride between Atlanta and Charlotte going at speeds of 220 miles an hour. And [a] two-and-a-half-hour trip between Chicago and Detroit. Or faster and more regular trips between Los Angeles and Las Vegas, a route that I imagine could be pretty popular on Fridays."

It's not hard to imagine; passengers take 17.1 million similar trips every year on Amtrak's Northeast Corridor between Boston and D.C. On the other hand, I can also imagine taking the same journey by plane in roughly an hour - two if you allow time to check luggage and clear security. Why would we invest billions in putting those passengers on high-speed trains instead?

The standard answer is: for the environment. But building high-speed rail systems isn't as obvious an environmental good as some think.

People tend to conceive of rail as "green" because hopping on a regional train from Washington to New York is indisputably better for the environment, in terms of emissions, than driving your own car solo or taking a short-haul flight. But making trains go very fast consumes quite a bit more energy than conventional rail, even if it makes them more competitive with air travel. More important, high-speed rail requires a lot more infrastructure than existing rail or air networks.

For optimal performance, in terms of environment and speed, high-speed rail is best run on reasonably straight tracks, ideally ones that aren't shared with slower trains. This often necessitates an entirely new system or gut-renovating existing ones - preparing rail bed; laying many miles of track; going under, over, through or around obstacles such as mountains; and often, for peak performance, laying an equal length of electric cable so your high-speed train doesn't have to run on dirty diesel fuel.

This costs a lot of money, of course. It also costs a lot of carbon to cast the rails, pour the cement and move the dirt that's in the way. Environmental impact estimates that include construction find that, depending on the source of electricity to power them, high-speed trains might repay that upfront investment slowly, and only if they run relatively full, hopefully by diverting a lot of passengers from air travel.

Rail advocates understand this but hope that "If you build it, they will come"; in other words, solve the political obstacles to rail now, and later we can solve the problem of getting fliers onto trains. But if passenger traffic lags hopes, we could end up committing to a huge environmental expense that might never pay off.

Investments in high-speed rail are a clear solution to several political problems Democrats have: it appeals to the union construction workers who would build it, environmentalists who think of trains as "green," and young, educated progressives who have fallen in love with high speed rail abroad.

But to actually help the environment, Democrats need to address more than the political problem; they need to solve the very real problem of getting people outside the Northeast onto trains.

Amtrak's Northeast Corridor is so heavily trafficked because trains really are an attractive alternative to air travel there. The cities in this region have retained sizable commuter-rail systems and the urban architecture - oriented around a central business district and close-in residential neighborhoods - that rail demands. So Amtrak is often a preferred alternative to air, even though it's slower than the equivalent flight, because it puts people right where they want to go, without the hassle of clearing security. But most states in other regions don't have even one such city, much less a bunch of them strung close together like beads on a string.

Of course, people are more interested in walkable cities than they used to be, and maybe high-speed rail is part of a denser urban future across these United States. But unless we're pretty sure people will abandon planes for new trains, it might make more sense to look for less capital-intensive ways to decarbonize - better videoconferencing, for example, or longer-range electric cars. These advances might not make for big political ribbon-cutting ceremonies or fire up the political imagination the way futuristic trains and miles of gleaming rail do. But on the other hand, they just might work.

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Follow Megan McArdle on Twitter, @asymmetricinfo.

Russia's plot to control the Internet is no longer a secret

By david ignatius
Russia's plot to control the Internet is no longer a secret


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By David Ignatius

WASHINGTON - Russia's campaign to control the Internet isn't just a secret intelligence gambit any longer. It's an explicit goal, proclaimed by Russian President Vladimir Putin as a key element of the Kremlin's foreign policy.

Putin complained during his annual address to the Russian federal assembly on April 21 that the United States and other western countries are "stubbornly rejecting Russia's numerous proposals to establish an international dialogue on information and cybersecurity. We have come up with these proposals many times. They avoid even discussing this matter."

Asking for "international dialogue" takes some nerve, coming from the world's biggest cyberbully -- a country that notoriously meddled in the 2016, 2018 and 2020 U.S. elections, and has engaged in similar Internet mischief throughout the world. Controlling the "information space," as the Russians sometimes call it, has long been an intelligence priority for Moscow.

Russia is waging its cyberdiplomacy offensive on two fronts: First, the United Nations has embraced Russia's proposal to write a new treaty governing cybercrime, to replace the 2001 Budapest convention that Moscow rejected because it was too intrusive. And second, Russia is lobbying for its candidate to head the U.N.'s International Telecommunications Union (ITU) and use it to supplant the current private group, known as ICANN, that coordinates Internet addresses.

These international regulatory battles sound obscure, but they will help determine who writes the rules for Internet communications for the rest of the 21st century. The fundamental question is whether the governance process will benefit authoritarian states that want to control information or the advocates of openness and freedom.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken stressed on Tuesday the importance of this contest. "There are relatively few items that are ultimately going to have a greater impact on the lives of people around the world than the ITU post. It may seem dry and esoteric, but it's anything but. And so we're very, very actively engaged on this front," Blinken said in an email message, elaborating on comments he made to me during an April 7 interview.

Russia outlined its ITU game plan in unusually forthright comments by Ernst Chernukhin, the foreign ministry's special coordinator for political use of information and communications technology. He spoke on April 21, the same day Putin made his speech.

"The optimal option . . . would be transferring Internet management prerogatives specifically to the ITU, as it is a specialized U.N. body, which has the needed expertise on these issues," Chernukhin said "This strategic objective may be achieved by electing or promoting the Russian candidate to the position of the ITU Secretary-General in the 2022 elections . . . and by holding the 2025 anniversary U.N. Internet Governance Forum in Russia."

Russia's candidate for ITU secretary-general is Rashid Ismailov, a former deputy chief of the Russian communications ministry and a former executive at the Chinese telecommunications company Huawei. In announcing Ismailov's candidacy on April 7, Maxim Parshin, the current deputy minister, underlined Moscow's governance takeover plan: "We believe it is important to define an entity, within the U.N. framework, that would develop and implement legal norms and standards in the field of Internet governance. We think that the ITU could become such an entity."

The Biden administration's candidate for the ITU post is Doreen Bogdan-Martin, an American telecommunications expert who's currently director of the ITU's development bureau. The State Department, which has sometimes been lackadaisical in such international regulatory contests, is campaigning aggressively for Bogdan-Martin, and officials hope she'll have sufficient support in Africa, Europe, Latin America and elsewhere to win the post. The election will take place at an ITU gathering late next year in Romania.

Internet technical governance today is managed by ICANN, which stands for Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers. This gathering of engineers and other experts was founded in 1998 to supervise domain names for the Defense Department's ARPANET system, and it operated under a contract with the Commerce Department until 2016, when it went fully private.

The American roots of the Internet seem to both upset Putin and fuel conspiratorial talk. The Russian leader said during a 2014 interview translated by RT that the Internet "first appeared as a special CIA project . . . and the special services are still at the center of things." Dmitry Medvedev, Russia's former president, complained in a February interview: "The Internet emerged at a certain time, and undoubtedly the key rights to control are in the United States."

Russia is ready to rumble over the rules that will shape the future of Internet communications. Fortunately, the Biden administration seems determined to fight back hard to maintain fair and open rules.

Blinken's admirable penchant for the long view

By george f. will
Blinken's admirable penchant for the long view


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By George F. Will

WASHINGTON -- In the summer of 1980, Antony Blinken, then 18 and about to matriculate at Harvard, interned for the U.S. senator who brought to Congress the most mental bandwidth since Rep. James Madison. Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y., an empiricist in an arena -- government -- that often is inhospitable to such, said this: The social sciences do not tell us what to do, they tell us the consequences of what we are doing. It is in that empirical spirit that Secretary of State Blinken surveys a globe that has no time zone without a test for U.S. policy.

The most challenging, China, has by its behavior -- repression ashore, aggression in the South China Sea -- refuted what Blinken calls a "Washington consensus" to which he says he once subscribed but no longer does. It was that China, woven into global commerce in a way the primitive Soviet Union never was, would, like Gulliver among the Lilliputians, be constrained, and perhaps liberalized, by a thousand threads of commitments.

In a 45-minute telephone conversation last week, Blinken noted that U.S.-China relations have adversarial, competitive and cooperative components, and all require the United States to confront China from a position of strength. He said that although current "indicators are not good" concerning China's trajectory, it is well to remember the oft-told story of Chinese Prime Minister Zhou Enlai's answer when Henry Kissinger asked Zhou for his assessment of the 1789 French Revolution. It is, said Zhou, "too soon to say." China's archives show that Zhou was referring to the 1968 Paris riots, but Blinken's citing of this story indicates an admirable penchant for the long view: It is too soon to give up on engagement with China. Besides, a U.S.-China "decoupling" is neither possible nor in either nation's interest.

Blinken emphasizes that U.S. diplomacy cannot ignore China's economic heft because many U.S. allies see economic opportunities in, and have dependencies on, China, even if they resent China's coercive tactics. U.S. patience does not, however, imply passivity when it comes to enforcing the rules to which China purports to subscribe -- commercial or otherwise. Blinken recalls that in 2013 when China declared, without legal basis, an "air defense identification zone" in international airspace, then-Vice President Joe Biden was dispatched to Beijing to say that the United States would ignore the zone -- and would (it did) send aircraft through it.

Meanwhile, there are allies to be cultivated. What has been said of Brazil -- that it is the country of the future and always will be -- might be said of India. It will, however, supplant China in this decade as the world's most populous nation.

Blinken's apprenticeship for his current position included six years (2002-2008) as Democratic staff director of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, when Biden was either chairman or ranking committee Democrat. Even then, Iran had begun a nuclear weapons program.

China was a peasant society when it became a nuclear power in 1964, and Pakistan had a per capita annual income of $470 when it became one in 1998. These facts lead some to believe that any sufficiently determined nation can join the nuclear club. Blinken, however, believes that U.S. policy can cut off Iran's pathway to producing or acquiring nuclear weapons. He says that diplomacy did that through the 2015 deal with Iran.

The U.S. objective is to extend Iran's "breakout" time -- the time Tehran would require to produce enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon, should it choose to do so -- thereby extending the U.S. "decision time." Blinken prudently does not detail the menu of possible decisions. Although he did not suggest this, buying time might allow time for, if not the sort of abrupt regime change that came to the Soviet Union, then a mellowing of the regime in Tehran. There is perhaps a germane tale:

A king tells a convict, "I will sentence you to death, but not until two years pass, and not then if you teach my horse to talk." The convict was cheerful because "in two years I might die naturally, or the king might die -- or the horse might talk."

Buying time, although frequently prudent, is, however, never a sufficient policy for our creedal nation. China is inflicting on millions of Uyghurs what Biden has termed genocide, and Russian President Vladimir Putin is apparently orchestrating the semipublic, slow-motion assassination of the dissident Alexei Navalny. Fortunately, Blinken is emphatically not one of those "who know too much to believe anything in particular and opt instead for accommodations of reasonableness and urbanity that drain our world position of moral purpose." Those are Moynihan's words.

- - -

George Will's email address is

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