Censorship 2.0

This morning’s Observer column:

One of the axioms of the early internet was an observation made by John Gilmore, a libertarian geek who was one of the founders of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “The internet,” said Gilmore, “interprets censorship as damage and routes around it.” To lay people this was probably unintelligible, but it spoke eloquently to geeks, to whom it meant that the architecture of the network would make it impossible to censor it. A forbidden message would always find a route through to its destination.

Gilmore’s adage became a key part of the techno-utopian creed in the 1980s and early 1990s. It suggested that neither the state nor the corporate world would be able to censor cyberspace. The unmistakable inference was that the internet posed an existential threat to authoritarian regimes, for whom control of information is an essential requirement for holding on to power.

In the analogue world, censorship was relatively straightforward…

Read on

US diplomacy, 2018-style

From the Washington Post:

Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), who spoke with Trump as he flew home from Singapore on Air Force One, said the president was simply being his natural “salesman” self.

“He is selling condos, that’s what he is doing,” Graham said. “He’s approaching North Korea as a distressed property with a cash-flow problem. Here’s how we can fix it.”

In a news conference Tuesday before departing Singapore, Trump hinted at his dreams of real estate diplomacy, noting that he had played Kim a video — derided by some as more akin to North Korean propaganda than the work of the president’s National Security Council — to show him the possibilities of a deal with the West.

“As an example, they have great beaches,” Trump said. “You see that whenever they’re exploding their cannons into the ocean, right? I said, ‘Boy, look at the view. Wouldn’t that make a great condo behind?’ ”

The AT&T judgment shows how how far US antitrust law has drifted

In today’s FT, the paper’s US Editor trumpets the Circuit Court’s approval of the AT&T-Time-Warner merger as evidence of the resilience of the judicial system in the face of Trump’s aggression. (He has regularly spouted his opposition to the deal.) But Tim Wu sees it more of a confirmation of how far antitrust law and judicial interpretation has drifted from the original determination of Congress to prevent corporate agglomeration.

When Congress enacted the Anti-Merger Act of 1950, the law by which American courts still adjudge corporate mergers, it did so with the repeatedly stated goal of fighting excessive economic concentration. The “dominant” concern, as the Supreme Court wrote in a 1962 merger case that analyzed the law, was about “a rising tide of economic concentration in the American economy.” At the time, the court explained, a wave of corporate consolidation posed the threat of an “accelerated concentration of economic power” and also a “threat to other values,” like the independence of smaller businesses and local control of industry. In particular Congress had said it intended the new law to stop a wave of mergers in its “incipiency.”

That’s why, for the 1950 Congress, the law would surely have allowed the Justice Department to block the recent AT&T-Time Warner merger. The merger, which a federal judge approved on Tuesday, combines AT&T, the nation’s largest wireless provider and a major seller of pay TV, with Time Warner, one of the most powerful media companies, in an $85 billion deal. No one can deny that the new AT&T will have more economic power and also more political power than before, even as it now carries more debt ($181 billion) than many industrialized nations. The ruling, by Judge Richard J. Leon of United States District Court in Washington, implicitly encourages the rest of the industry to integrate as well, and AT&T’s comrades have taken the hint: Comcast has already announced its intent to acquire much of 20th Century Fox, while other deals are said to be imminent.

Judge Leon’s decision shows just how far the law has wandered from congressional intent. The law has become a license for near-uncontrolled consolidation and concentration in almost every sector of economy. Whether involving airlines, hospitals, the pharmaceutical industry, cable television or the major tech platforms, mergers leading to oligopolies or monopolies have become commonplace…


So what will Trump’s Presidential Library be like?

Sometimes, one comes on stuff that you really could not make up. Like this piece in Politico. Excerpt:

Armed with rolls of clear Scotch tape, Lartey and his colleagues would sift through large piles of shredded paper and put them back together, he said, “like a jigsaw puzzle.” Sometimes the papers would just be split down the middle, but other times they would be torn into pieces so small they looked like confetti.

It was a painstaking process that was the result of a clash between legal requirements to preserve White House records and President Donald Trump’s odd and enduring habit of ripping up papers when he’s done with them — what some people described as his unofficial “filing system.”

Under the Presidential Records Act, the White House must preserve all memos, letters, emails and papers that the president touches, sending them to the National Archives for safekeeping as historical records.

Kremlinology 2.0

This morning’s Observer column:

In the bad old days of the cold war, western political and journalistic institutions practised an arcane pseudoscience called Kremlinology. Its goal was to try to infer what was going on in the collective mind of the Soviet Politburo. Its method was obsessively to note everything that could be publicly observed of the activities of this secretive cabal – who was sitting next to whom at the podium; which foreign visitors were granted an audience with which high official; who was in the receiving line for a visiting head of state; what editorials in Pravda (the official Communist party newspaper) might mean; and so on.

The Soviet empire is no more, much to Putin’s chagrin, but the world now has some new superpowers. We call them tech companies. Each periodically stages a major public event at which its leaders emerge from their executive suites to convey messages to their faithful followers and to the wider world. In the past few weeks, two such events have been held by two of the biggest powers – Google and Apple. So let’s do some Kremlinology on them…

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Katharine Whitehorn

Alzheimer’s is a kind of living death, which I guess is why the tributes to Katharine in today’s Observer read a bit like obituaries. The peg for them is the news last week that she has advanced Alzheimer’s.

I’ve known her for many years, and once briefly provided informal IT support for her when she was first grappling with the Internet. I first got to know her when I was TV Critic of the Observer in the years 1987-1995; she had been a columnist on the paper since 1960 and was wonderfully supportive from the beginning. She was spectacularly beautiful but what was most striking was her ability to look and sound like a duchess while possessing the sense of mischief of a born troublemaker. And she was a very influential journalist. As a prominent columnist, for example, she took on the banks for not being willing to give mortgages to single women without a male guarantor — and won. And for young women, having this very posh lady writing frankly about how it was ok to be “slovenly” (because she was too) was liberating in the stultifying atmosphere of early 1960s Britain. “Have you ever taken anything out of the dirty-clothes basket”, she wrote in 1963,

“because it had become, relatively, the cleaner thing? Changed stockings in a taxi? Could you try on clothes in any shop, any time, without worrying about your underclothes? How many things are in the wrong room — cups in the study, boots in the kitchen?”

She had a blissfully happy marriage to Gavin Lyall, the thriller writer, with whom she lived in grand style in Hampstead, and was devastated when he died in 2003. But she was never one for self-pity. When my Observer colleague Yvonne Roberts wrote to her expressing condolences after Gavin’s death, Katherine’s reply included this line from Siegfried Sassoon: “I am rich in all that I have lost”.

Same goes for us now. Alzheimer’s may have taken her from us. But those of us who worked with her have been immensely enriched by her presence in our lives.

Tech-driven wealth is the new aphrodisiac

This morning’s Observer column:

It’s a quintessential Silicon Valley story. A smart, attractive 19-year-old American woman who has taught herself Mandarin while in high school is studying chemical engineering at Stanford, where she is a president’s scholar. Her name is Elizabeth Holmes. In her first year as an undergraduate she persuades her professor to allow her to attend the seminars he runs with his PhD students. Then one day she drops into his office to tell him that she’s dropping out of college because she has a “big idea” and wants to found a company that will revolutionise a huge part of the healthcare system – the market for blood testing services. Her company will be called Theranos.

Holmes’s big idea was for a way to perform multiple tests at once on a tiny drop of blood, and to deliver the results wirelessly to doctors. So she set about pitching to investors…

Read on

L’affaire Thorpe

I’ve been watching — and enjoying — A Very English Scandal, an astonishingly good BBC mini-series about the Thorpe affair, distinguished by a truly masterful performance by Hugh Grant (above) as Jeremy Thorpe, the creepy politician at the heart of the story. This was a quintessentially English political and sex scandal in the 1970s that ended Thorpe’s career as leader of the Liberal Party after he was accused of conspiracy to murder one of his former homosexual lovers, Norman Scott. It culminated in a farcical trial, presided over by Sir Joseph Cantley, (not perhaps the sharpest knife in the judicial canteen) in which Thorpe and his alleged accomplices, were acquitted. (The exception was Andrew Newman, one of the most incompetent hit-men of all time — who succeeded only in shooting Scott’s dog and had earlier been convicted of possessing a firearm with intent to endanger life.)

Shortly after the trial, the great comedian Peter Cook did a wonderful parody of Cantley’s summing-up:

UPDATE It seems that the case may be re-opened because of new evidence that Newton may still be alive. (A previous police investigation was terminated because it was believed that he had died.)