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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Europe and the US: two continents divided by a common technology

This morning’s Observer column:

Three years ago, Eric Schmidt, the executive chairman (aka adult supervisor) of Google, spent some time in Cambridge as a visiting professor. He gave a number of lectures on his vision of what a comprehensively networked world would be like and then at the end took part in a symposium in which a number of academics commented on his ideas. As the discussion converged on the question of the new kinds of power wielded by the great internet companies, an increasingly puzzled look came over Schmidt’s countenance. Eventually the dam broke and he intervened in the debate to say that he had suddenly realised that the difference between Europe and America was that “in Europe, people tend to trust governments and are suspicious of companies, whereas in America it’s the other way around”.

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One funeral at a time

This morning’s Observer column:

Science advances, said the great German physicist Max Planck, “one funeral at a time”. Actually, this is a paraphrase of what he really said, which was: “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.” But you get the drift.

I always think of Planck’s aphorism whenever moral panic breaks out over the supposedly dizzying pace of technological change…

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Talking to machines

This morning’s Observer column:

Like many people nowadays, I do not talk on my iPhone as much as talk to it. That’s because it runs a program called Siri (Speech Interpretation and Recognition Interface) that works as an intelligent personal assistant and knowledge navigator. It’s useful, in a way. If I ask it for “weather in London today”, it’ll present an hour-by-hour weather forecast. Tell it to “phone home” and it’ll make a decent effort to find the relevant number. Ask it to “text James” and it will come back with: “What do you want to say to James?” Not exactly Socratic dialogue, but it has its uses.

Ask Siri: “What’s the meaning of life?”, however, and it loses its nerve…

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Going Dark? Dream on.

This morning’s Observer column:

The Apple v FBI standoff continues to generate more heat than light, with both sides putting their case to “the court of public opinion” — which, in this case, is at best premature and at worst daft. Apple has just responded to the court injunction obliging it to help the government unlock the iPhone used by one of the San Bernadino killers with a barrage of legal arguments involving the first and fifth amendments to the US constitution. Because the law in the case is unclear (there seems to be only one recent plausible precedent and that dates from 1977), I can see the argument going all the way to the supreme court. Which is where it properly belongs, because what is at issue is a really big question: how much encryption should private companies (and individuals) be allowed to deploy in a networked world?

In the meantime, we are left with posturing by the two camps, both of which are being selective with the actualité, as Alan Clark might have said…

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Whither Twitter?

My comment piece in today’s Observer.

If there’s one thing Wall Street and the tech industry fears, it is the idea that something potentially profitable might peak or reach some kind of equilibrium point. Endless exponential growth is what investors seek. Whereas you or I might think that a company with more than 300 million regular users that pulls in $710m in revenues is doing OK, Wall Street sees it as a potential zombie.

At the root of the dissonance is the fact that Twitter is a public company. At its flotation in November 2013 it was valued at $32bn, a figure largely based on hopes (or fantasies) that it would keep modifying its service to attract mainstream users, that its advertising business would continue to grow at a phenomenal rate and that it would eventually be bigger than Facebook.

It didn’t do all these things, for various reasons, the most important of which is that it wasn’t (and isn’t) a “social networking” service in the Facebook sense. At the heart of the distinction is the fact that, whereas it is easy to give an answer to the question “What is Facebook?”, the answers for Twitter depend on who you ask…

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