How to control the Internet – part 2

This morning’s Observer column:

If you ever wanted an illustration of why academic research is not just important but vital, then the work of Gary King, professor of sociology at Harvard, could serve as exhibit A. Why? Well, one of the more pressing strategic issues that faces western governments is how to adjust to the emergence of China as a new global superpower. The first requirement for intelligent reorientation is a rounded understanding of this new reality. And while it may be that in the foreign offices and chancelleries of the west officials and policy makers are busily boning up on Chinese industrial and geopolitical strategy (what the hell are they up to in the South China Sea, for example?), I see little evidence that anyone in government has been paying attention to how the Beijing regime seems to have solved a problem that no other government has cracked: namely, how to control, manage and harness the internet for its own purposes.

Strangely, our rulers still seem blissfully unaware of this, which is odd because – as I pointed out ages ago – there’s no longer any excuse for ignorance: Professor King has done most of the heavy lifting required…

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Trump’s only supporter in Silicon Valley

This morning’s Observer column:

“Peter who?” I hear you say. Mr Thiel is not exactly a household name in these parts, but in Silicon Valley he’s a big cheese, as a co-founder of PayPal and the first investor in Facebook. He is therefore rich beyond the dreams of avarice. But he is also: a philosophy graduate; a lawyer; a former bond trader; a hedge-fund manager; a venture capitalist; a philanthropist; a far-out libertarian; and an entertaining author. So what is a guy like that doing supporting Trump?

One answer might be that he’s as much of an irritant to the Silicon Valley crowd as Trump is to the Republican establishment. Although the Valley’s tech titans like to portray themselves as non-statist disruptors, in fact most of them are – politically speaking – Democratic party supporters, albeit of an unusual kind. They may detest trade unions, for example, but they’re very keen on immigration – so long as the immigrants have PhDs from elite Indian or Chinese universities. And they’re not opposed to big government, so long as it’s “smart”, whatever that means.

Peter Thiel doesn’t fit this template at all. In 2009, he published an intriguing essay entitled The Education of a Libertarian. “I remain committed to the faith of my teenage years”, it began: “to authentic human freedom as a precondition for the highest good. I stand against confiscatory taxes, totalitarian collectives, and the ideology of the inevitability of the death of every individual. For all these reasons, I still call myself ‘libertarian’.” But, he confessed, “over the last two decades, I have changed radically on the question of how to achieve these goals. Most importantly, I no longer believe that freedom and democracy are compatible.”

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Facebook can’t be just a ‘platform’ if it’s distributing news

This morning’s Observer column:

Many years ago, the political theorist Steven Lukes published a seminal book – Power: A Radical View. In it, he argued that power essentially comes in three varieties: the ability to compel people to do what they don’t want to do; the capability to stop them doing what they want to do; and the power to shape the way they think. This last is the kind of power exercised by our mass media. They can shape the public (and therefore the political) agenda by choosing the news that people read, hear or watch; and they can shape the ways in which that news is presented. Lukes’s “third dimension” of power is what’s wielded in this country by outlets like Radio 4’s Today programme, the Sun and the Daily Mail. And this power is real: it’s why all British governments in recent years have been so frightened of the Mail.

But as our media ecosystem has changed under the impact of the internet, new power brokers have appeared….

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Apple vs. FBI ought to have gone to the Supreme Court

Today’s Observer column:

So the FBI sought a court order to compel Apple to write a special version of the operating system without this ingenious destructive mechanism – which could then be downloaded to the phone. Apple refused, on various grounds both technological and legalistic, and the stage was set – so some of us thought – for a legal battle that would go all the way to the supreme court.

In the end, it didn’t happen. The FBI bought a hack from an Israeli security company which had already found a way round the problem, called off the legal suit, and nobody got their day in front of the supremes. Which was a pity, because it means that a really important question posed by digital technology remains unresolved. Put simply, it’s this: what limits, if any, should be placed on the power of encryption technology to render citizens’ communications invisible to law enforcement and security authorities?

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Big data: the new gasoline

This morning’s Observer column:

“Data is the new oil,” declared Clive Humby, a mathematician who was the genius behind the Tesco Clubcard. This insight was later elaborated by Michael Palmer of the Association of National Advertisers. “Data is just like crude [oil],” said Palmer. “It’s valuable, but if unrefined it cannot really be used. It has to be changed into gas, plastic, chemicals, etc to create a valuable entity that drives profitable activity; so must data be broken down, analysed for it to have value.”

There was just one thing wrong with the metaphor. Oil is a natural resource; it has to be found, drilled for and pumped from the bowels of the Earth. Data, in contrast, is a highly unnatural resource. It has to be created before it can be extracted and refined. Which raises the question of who, exactly, creates this magical resource? Answer: you and me…

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If the EU doesn’t take on Google, who will?

Last Sunday’s Observer column:

Last week, the European commission, that bete noire of Messrs Gove, Johnson & co, resumed its attack on Google. On Wednesday, Eurocrats filed formal charges against the company, accusing it of abusing its dominance of the Android operating system, which is currently the world’s most-used mobile operating system software. This new charge comes on top of an earlier case in which the commission accused Google of abusing its overwhelming dominance of the web-search market in Europe in order to favour its own enterprises over those of competitors.

This could be a big deal. If the commission decides that Google has indeed broken European competition law, then it can levy fines of up to 10% of the company’s annual global revenue for each of the charges. Given that Google’s global sales last year came to nearly $75bn, we’re talking about a possible fine of $15bn (£10.5bn). Even by Google standards, that’s serious money. And it’s not exactly an idle threat: in the past, the Eurocrats have taken more than a billion dollars off both Microsoft and Intel for such violations.

To those of us who follow these things, there’s a whiff of Back to the Future here.

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Zuckerbergus Imperator

This morning’s Observer column:

Power and money are the two great aphrodisiacs, and few people or institutions are immune to their attractions. Not even the Economist, a posh magazine which resolutely sees itself as floating above the vulgar ruckus of journalistic hackery. Last week, like an elderly dowager seduced by Justin Bieber, the venerable publication checked its collective brains at the door and swooned over Mark Zuckerberg, the infant prodigy who now presides over Facebook, and so possesses both power and money.

For the cover illustration, the magazine photoshopped a picture of a celebrated statue of Emperor Constantine the Great (272-337). Young Zuckerberg’s head, adorned with a wreath of gold laurel leaves, replaced Constantine’s. The sword in his left hand was replaced by a Facebook logo, and the emperor’s languidly drooping right hand was rotated 180 degrees so that it now gave the thumbs-up that is Facebook’s “like” symbol. (The gesture had a rather different interpretation in Roman times.) On the plinth of the statue were the words: “MARCVS ZVCKERBERGVS” and CONIVNGE ET IMPERA”, which is the nearest the photoshopper could get to “connect and rule”.

On inside pages one finds an editorial and a long article explaining why Marcvs Z is the greatest thing since Constantine.

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The significance of WhatsApp encryption

This morning’s Observer column:

In some ways, the biggest news of the week was not the Panama papers but the announcement that WhatsApp was rolling out end-to-end encryption for all its 1bn users. “From now on,” it said, “when you and your contacts use the latest version of the app, every call you make, and every message, photo, video, file and voice message you send, is end-to-end encrypted by default, including group chats.”

This is a big deal because it lifts encryption out of the for-geeks-only category and into the mainstream. Most people who use WhatsApp wouldn’t know a hash function if it bit them on the leg. Although strong encryption has been available to the public ever since Phil Zimmermann wrote and released PGP (Pretty Good Privacy) in 1991, it never realised its potential because the technicalities of setting it up for personal use defeated most lay users.

So the most significant thing about WhatsApp’s innovation is the way it renders invisible all the geekery necessary to set up and maintain end-to-end encryption…

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What Trump’s ascendancy tells us about our media ecosystem

This morning’s Observer column:

One thing that baffles mainstream journalists like Kristof is the way in which Trump seems to be immune to the fact-checking beloved by American journalism. Some light on this has been thrown by Zeynep Tufekci, who is one of the most perceptive observers of social media around. She has been spending some time inside the Trump “Twittersphere” and her report suggests that it is largely an ecosystem of digital echo chambers.

Professor Tufekci has watched “Trump supporters affirm one another in their belief that white America is being sold out by secretly Muslim lawmakers, and that every unpleasant claim about Donald Trump is a fabrication by a cabal that includes the Republican leadership and the mass media.” Many of the Trump supporters she’s been following, “say that they no longer trust any big institutions, whether political parties or media outlets. Instead, they share personal stories that support their common narrative, which mixes falsehoods and facts – often ignored by these powerful institutions they now loathe – with the politics of racial resentment.”

For decades we’ve been wondering what the long-term impact of the internet would be on democratic politics. Looks like we’re beginning to find out.

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Why the Apple vs. the FBI case is important

This morning’s Observer column:

No problem, thought the Feds: we’ll just get a court order forcing Apple to write a special version of the operating system that will bypass this security provision and then download it to Farook’s phone. They got the order, but Apple refused point-blank to comply – on several grounds: since computer code is speech, the order violated the first amendment because it would be “compelled speech”; because being obliged to write the code amounted to “forced labour”, it would also violate the fifth amendment; and it was too dangerous because it would create a backdoor that could be exploited by hackers and nation states and potentially put a billion users of Apple devices at risk.

The resulting public furore offers a vivid illustration of how attempting a reasoned public debate about encryption is like trying to discuss philosophy using smoke signals. Leaving aside the purely clueless contributions from clowns like Piers Morgan and Donald Trump, and the sanctimonious platitudes from Obama downwards about “no company being above the law”, there is an alarmingly widespread failure to appreciate what is at stake here. We are building a world that is becoming totally dependent on network technology. Since there is no possibility of total security in such a world, then we have to use any tool that offers at least some measure of protection, for both individual citizens and institutions. In that context, strong encryption along the lines of the stuff that Apple and some other companies are building into their products and services is the only game in town.

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