Quote of the day

“Institutions take credit for producing people they have not managed to suppress.”

Leslie Stephen (father of Virginia Woolf and first Editor of the Dictionary of National Biography)

What can be done about the downsides of the app economy?

Snippet from an interesting interview with Daphne Keller, Director of Intermediary Liability at the Stanford Center for Internet and Society:

So how did Facebook user data get to Cambridge Analytica (CA)?

What happened here was a breach of the developer’s agreement with FB — not some kind of security breach or hacking. GSR did more with the data than the TOS permitted—both in terms of keeping it around and in terms of sharing it with CA. We have no way of knowing whether other developers did the same thing. FB presumably doesn’t know either, but they do (per reporting) have audit rights in their developer agreements, so they, more than anyone, could have identified the problem sooner. And the overall privacy design of FB apps has been an open invitation for developments like this from the beginning. This is a story about an ecosystem full of privacy risk, and the inevitable abuse that resulted. It’s not about a security breach.

Is this a widespread problem among app developers?

Before we rush to easy answers, there is a big picture here that will take a long time to sort through. The whole app economy, including Android and iPhone apps, depends on data sharing. That’s what makes many apps work—from constellation mapping apps that use your location, to chat apps that need your friends’ contact information. Ideally app developers will collect only the data they actually need—they should not get a data firehose. Platforms should have policies to this effect and should give users granular controls over data sharing.

User control is important in part because platform control can have real downsides. Different platforms take more or less aggressive stances in controlling apps. The more controlling a platform is, the more it acts as a chokepoint, preventing users from finding or using particular apps. That has competitive consequences (what if Android’s store didn’t offer non-Google maps apps?). It also has consequences for information access and censorship, as we have seen with Apple removing the NYT app and VPN apps from the app store in China.

For my personal policy preferences, and probably for most people’s, we would have wanted FB to be much more controlling, in terms of denying access to these broad swathes of information. At the same time, the rule can’t be that platforms can’t support apps or share data unless the platform takes full legal responsibility for what the app does. Then we’d have few apps, and incumbent powerful platforms would hold even more power. So, there is a long-complicated policy discussion to be had here. It’s frustrating that we didn’t start it years ago when these apps launched, but hopefully at least we will have it now.

To understand Trump, read Plato’s ‘Republic’

It’s as clear as day that Trump is getting ready to fire Robert Mueller, the Special Prosecutor who is remorselessly closing in on him. Liberals who gleefully believe that this will be the same kind of disastrous mistake that Richard Nixon made when he fired Archibald Cox are in for sharp disappointment. Nixon’s action made impeachment a certainty (which is why he resigned before he was drummed from office by an irate Congress). But the current Republican-controlled Congress will do nothing when Mueller is fired. Which means that Trump has to do it before the mid-term elections in November.

Trump’s critics see the remarkable level of personnel ‘churn’ in the White House as evidence of the president’s dysfunctional impulsiveness and narcissism which make it impossible for him to get anything done. I don’t share that comforting thought. There is, I’m afraid, method in his madness.

Andrew Sullivan, the veteran observer of these things, thinks so too. Since Trump doesn’t read (indeed may have difficulty reading), he obviously hasn’t read Plato’s Republic, but Sullivan has, and he sees it as an operating manual for Trumpism because it describes “how a late-stage democracy, dripping with decadence and corruption, with elites dedicated primarily to enriching themselves, and a people well past any kind of civic virtue, morphs so easily into tyranny.”

When Plato’s tyrant first comes to power — on a wave of populist hatred of the existing elites — there is a period of relative calm when he just gives away stuff: at first he promises much “in private and public, and grant[s] freedom from debts and distribute[s] land to the people and those around himself” (or, say, a trillion-dollar unfunded tax cut). He aims to please. But then, as he accustoms himself to power, and feels more comfortable, “he suspects certain men of having free thoughts and not putting up with his ruling … Some of those who helped in setting him up and are in power — the manliest among them — speak frankly to him and to one another, criticizing what is happening … Then the tyrant must gradually do away with all of them, if he’s going to rule, until he has left neither friend nor enemy of any worth whatsoever.”

This is the second phase of tyranny, after the more benign settling-in: the purge. Any constraints that had been in place to moderate the tyrant’s whims are set aside; no advice that counters his own gut impulses can be tolerated. And so, over the last couple of weeks, we have seen the president fire Rex Tillerson and Andrew McCabe, two individuals who simply couldn’t capitulate to the demand that they obey only Trump, rather than the country as well.

And because of this small gesture of defiance, they deserved especial public humiliation. Tillerson was warned of his impending doom while on the toilet — a nice, sadistic touch. McCabe was fired hours before his retirement, a public execution also fraught with venom. What kind of man is this? We have become numb to it, but we should never forget how our president is a man who revels in his own cruelty. Revenge is not a dish best served cold for him. It’s the reddest and rawest of meats.

On this reading, the firing of Tillerson and his replacement by Pompeo (“by a fawning toady, Mike Pompeo, a man whose hatred of Islam is only matched by his sympathy for waterboarders”) makes perfect sense. So too does the fact that Pompeo has been replaced in turn by Gina Happel (“a war criminal, who authorized brutal torture and illegally destroyed the evidence”).

And then there’s the replacement of H.R. McMaster by John Bolton, a nutter who has never seen a war that he didn’t like. And this too, says Sullivan, follows Plato’s playbook:

And this, of course, is also part of the second phase for Plato’s tyrant: war. “As his first step, he is always setting some war in motion, so that people will be in need of a leader,” Plato explains. In fact, “it’s necessary for a tyrant always to be stirring up war.”

This is simultaneously scary and persuasive because it suggests that we are indeed heading for war — first with North Korea, and secondly with Iran. Those mid-Term elections have never been more important.