Finally, there’s the phenomenon of facial recognition technology—the process by which video recordings are frozen and the faces of those shown are digitized and then compared with databases of other digitized photos. It started as a relatively primitive technology, with only near-perfect, straight-on camera shots being able to be matched with each other. And the databases were pretty much limited to mug shots and passport photos. Have things now advanced far enough so that the kinds of street-camera images recorded of the Tsarnaev brothers can produce quick matches? And have other photos, such as drivers’ licenses now been loaded into the databases?
3. Holding the IRS accountable:
Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS, the conservative political action fund, and others like it continue to be allowed to keep the names of their donors secret because they claims status as a 501c(4) tax exempt entity under Internal Revenue Service rules that are supposed to be for the benefit of “social welfare” organizations. This designation allows them to evade Federal Election Commission rules requiring that the names of political donors be made public.
Rove’s questionable application to the IRS has been pending for almost three years, and under IRS rules he is free to collect his secret money and spend it on candidates unless and until the IRS rules that he can’t.
Meantime, a growing number of nonprofit online local news organizations—formed to take up the slack in vital news coverage caused by staff cutbacks at financially-pressed traditional newspapers—can’t get nonprofit, tax exempt status because the IRS is apparently still operating under a guideline it wrote in 1967, under which organizations can’t qualify if they cover the kind of news that commercial newspapers cover.
The ’60s were the days, of course, when commercial newspapers were thriving and actually covering a lot of news; there would seem to be a good argument that the news business—and the need for nonprofit journalism—has changed 46 years later. But whatever the merits, for me the more striking story here is that no one seems to be holding the IRS accountable for its actions in these cases, or for its inaction in cases like those in which political slush funds like Rove’s or Organizing For America, the 501c(4) organized by supporters of President Obama, remain under wraps.
This otherwise comprehensive post on the blog of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, a leading funder of online news nonprofits, illustrates perfectly how the IRS seems to be regarded as an inscrutable, unaccountable building rather than a group of public servants who work for us. The blog post deftly summarizes the argument for the absurdity of the IRS’s position that the new nonprofit news organizations don’t qualify for tax exemptions but never tells us the names of the people making these decisions or what their side of the story is. In fact, it seems from other material I have read about the issue, that, as with the controversy over the secret slush funds, the IRS has never been asked to tell us its side.
Why haven’t Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, his predecessor Timothy Geithner, or their IRS Commissioner, Douglas Shulman, been asked to explain their decisions or their inaction? Ditto, the issue I wrote about last month—the IRS’s failure, now more than three years running, to promulgate regulations to implement Obamacare’s important new restrictions on the ability of hospitals to hound and sue poor patients who can’t pay inflated bills.
Memo to Washington reporters: The IRS is not a court, where decisions made, or decisions delayed, aren’t supposed to be questioned by pesky reporters. It’s a division of the executive branch. It’s your job to pester the people behind the curtain.