Archive for the 'Politics' Category

Dave Eggers has seen the future. Well, a possible future anyway…

[link] Monday, September 1st, 2014

Yesterday’s Observer column.

Fifteen months have passed since Edward Snowden began to explain to us how our networked world works. During that time there has been much outrage, shock, horror, etc expressed by the media and the tech industry. So far, so predictable. What is much more puzzling is how relatively relaxed the general public appears to be about all this. In Britain, for example, opinion polling suggests that nearly two thirds of the population think that the kind of surveillance revealed by Snowden is basically OK.

To some extent, the level of public complacency/concern is culturally determined. Citizens of Germany, for example…

Read on

Thinking about the End

[link] Tuesday, August 26th, 2014

Great talk by Martin Rees.

TOR, Taylor Swift and breaking the Kafkaesque spiral

[link] Friday, August 22nd, 2014


Photo cc

Ever since the Snowden revelations began I’ve been arguing that Kafka is as good a guide to our surveillance crisis as is Orwell. The reason: one of the triggers that prompts the spooks to take an interest in someone is if that person is using serious tools to protect their privacy. It’s like painting a target on your back.

So if you use PGP to encrypt your email, or TOR for anonymous browsing, then you are likely to be seen as someone who warrants more detailed surveillance. After all, if you’ve nothing to hide… etc.

And there’s no way you would know that you had been selected for special treatment. This sounds like a situation that Kafka would recognise.

Until the other day, I couldn’t think of a way out of this vicious cycle. And then I came on reports (e.g. here) that a musician of whom I’d never heard — electronic music artist Aphex Twin — had announced the details of his new album on a site only accessible through Tor.

This resulted in the page attracting 133,000 views in little over 24 hours. This is within the limits of what TOR can currently handle, but Tor’s executive director, Andrew Lewman, worries that a more mainstream artist could break the system in its current state.

“If tomorrow, Taylor Swift said ‘to all my hundreds of millions of fans, go to this [Tor] address’, it would not work well. We’re into the millions now, and we have a few companies saying ‘we want to put Tor as a privacy mode in our premier products, can you handle the scale of 75-100m devices of users’, and right now the answer is no, we can’t. Not daily.”

This sounds like — and is — a problem. But it’s also an opportunity. Because what we need is for encrypted email and anonymous browsing to become the norm so that the spooks can’t argue that only evil people would resort to using such tools.

And here’s where Aphix Twin and Taylor Swift come in. They have the power to kickstart the mainstreaming of TOR — to make it normal. Of course for that to be effective it means that TOR has to be boosted and expanded and securely funded. Just as the big Internet companies have finally realised that they have to chip in and support, for example, the OpenSSL project, so they should now chip in to help build the infrastructure that would enable TOR to become the default was we all did web browsing.

Illegal spying below

[link] Saturday, August 9th, 2014

Lovely! Good example of liberal chutzpah.

Vlad and the sanctions

[link] Wednesday, July 30th, 2014

From an interesting OpEd piece by Dmitri Trenin

The sanctions will not make Putin back off. He also knows that if he were to step back, pressure on him will only increase. The Russian elite may have to undergo a major transformation, and a personnel turnover, as a result of growing isolation from the West, but the Russian people at large are more likely to grow more patriotic under outside pressure—especially if Putin leans harder on official corruption and bureaucratic arbitrariness. If the Kremlin, however, turns the country into a besieged fortress and introduces mass repression, it will definitely lose.

It is too early to speculate how the contest might end. The stakes are very high. Any serious concession by Putin will lead to him losing power in Russia, which will probably send the country into a major turmoil, and any serious concession by the United States—in terms of accommodating Russia—will mean a palpable reduction of U.S. global influence, with consequences to follow in Asia, the Middle East and elsewhere. Ironically, the challenge to the world’s currently predominant power does not come from the present runner-up, but from a former contender, long thought to be virtually defunct. China could not have hoped for such a helping hand.

Interesting times ahead, alas.

Morality vs realpolitik

[link] Wednesday, July 30th, 2014

General de Gaulle, when he was President of France, was once asked by a journalist: “what about France’s friends?” “Great nations”, mon General haughtily replied, “do not have friends. They only have interests.” I was reminded of this when contemplating the strange response of the Dutch government to the downing of the Malaysian airliner by Russian-backed separatists in Ukraine. The Dutch public is, understandably, traumatised by the huge loss of (Dutch) life. Yet their government’s response to the atrocity seems strangely muted, confined mostly to insistence on a full and proper investigation of what happened and who was responsible.

At first I interpreted this as an example of Dutch reserve. I once lived and worked in Holland, and came to love the country and to value its quiet civility and modernity. Like the English, the Dutch do not go in for showy sentimentality, and there’s something admirable in that.

But now, a more insidious thought surfaces: is this an example of a government making a calculation that, whatever the level of popular grief, the Netherlands is in too deep with the Russians to risk offending Putin? What triggered the thought was a sobering piece in the Economist. The Dutch government’s cautious responses, it says,

reflect Dutch commercial interests in Russia, such as Shell’s huge investments in Siberian oil fields, as Thomas Erdbrin reports in the New York Times. The Netherlands is also one of the world’s premiere hubs for shell companies created for tax avoidance, which Russians have made liberal use of. As the Dutch investigative website Follow The Money reports, these Dutch-registered Russian holding companies have made the Netherlands, on paper, the world’s second-largest investor in Russia. (Another Dutch website noted that the Russian defence conglomerate Rostec, which most likely built the missile that shot down flight MH17, operates several shell companies headquartered in Amsterdam.) Dutch political attitudes are often described as a seesaw between de dominee en de koopman, or “the preacher and the merchant”: at times the Netherlands adopts a moralistic tone towards the rest of the world, other times its interests are purely businesslike. For at least the past decade the merchant has had the upper hand.

This suggests to me that the Dutch government is increasingly going to find itself trapped between a rock and a very hard place. All the evidence is that, far from pulling back, Putin is effectively doubling his bets in Ukraine. There’s no real sign of remorse from anyone involved over there. I’ll be very surprised if this doesn’t trigger a wave of inchoate anger and disturbance in the Dutch public analogous to the one that swept the country after the assassination of Pim Fortuyn in 2002. And who knows what the consequences of that might be?

What it all goes to show, of course, is that Ukraine is not, to use an infamous cliche, “a faraway country of which we know nothing”.

Net neutrality: or why some comments are more equal than others

[link] Sunday, July 27th, 2014

This morning’s Observer column.

Want to know if someone is internet-savvy? Just ask them why anyone should care about net neutrality. If they understand the technology, stand by for a lecture on why it is vital that all data on the network should be treated equally by ISPs, and why it is essential that those who provide the pipes connecting us to the network should have no influence on the content that flows through those pipes.

On the other hand, if the person knows no more about the net than the average LOLcat enthusiast, you will be greeted by a blank stare: “Net what?”

If, dear reader, you fall into neither category but would like to know more, two options are available: a visit to the excellent Wikipedia entry on the subject or comedian John Oliver’s devastatingly sharp explication of net neutrality on YouTube…

Read on

Our enigmatic adversary

[link] Saturday, July 26th, 2014



As the West becomes more and more infuriated by Vladimir Putin, it’s extraordinary how little is known about him. Up to now all I had picked up was his neurotic obsession with physical fitness and macho imagery. So this long piece in Newsweek by Ben Judah, one of Putin’s biographers, made fascinating reading. It’s written in the style of a medieval chronicler describing life in a monarchical court.

Consider this passage, about Putin’s daily routine:

The President wakes late and eats shortly after noon. He begins with the simplest of breakfasts. There is always cottage cheese. His cooked portion is always substantial; omelette or occasionally porridge. He likes quails’ eggs. He drinks fruit juice. The food is forever fresh: baskets of his favourites dispatched regularly from the farmland estates of the Patriarch Kirill, Russia’s religious leader.

He is then served coffee. His courtiers have been summoned but these first two hours are taken up with swimming. The President enjoys this solitary time in the water. He wears goggles and throws himself into a vigorous front crawl. This is where the political assistants suggest he gets much of Russia’s thinking done.

The courtiers joke and idle and cross their legs in the lacquered wood waiting rooms. He rarely comes to them quickly. They say three, perhaps four hours is the normal wait for a minister. He likes to spend some time in the gym where Russian rolling news is switched on. There he enjoys the weights much more than the exercise bikes.

He sometimes reads after the sweat. This is because he likes to work late into the night. He summons his men at the hours that suit his mental clarity – the cold hours where everything is clearer. The books he finds most interesting, are history books. He reads these attentively. Heavy, respectable tomes: about Ivan the Terrible, Catherine II, Peter the Great.


He spends time completing his cleanse. He immerses himself into both hot and cold baths. Then the President dresses. He chooses to wear only ­tailored, bespoke suits in conservative colours. His choice of ties is usually dour.

And now power begins…

Or this, about his personal style:

There are no stories of extravagance: only of loneliness. The President has no family life. His mother is dead. So is his father. His wife suffered nervous disorders, and after a long separation, there has been a divorce. There are two daughters. But they are a state secret and no longer live in Russia. There are rumours of models, photographers, or gymnasts that come to him at night. But there is a hollow tick to these stories, which no courtier can quite explain.

The President loves animals. He smiles at the sight of creatures that refuse to obey him. The President finds solace in the company of a black Labrador, who is not afraid of him. He enjoys the hunting parties. He enjoys the helicopter rides with camera-crews over the grey-white tundra looking for tigers and bears – the beauty of Russia.

Or this, about his working practices:

The early afternoon is about briefing notes. This mostly takes place at his heavy wooden desk. These are offices without screens. The President uses only the most secure technologies: red folders with paper documents, and fixed-line Soviet War era telephones.

The master begins his work day by reading three thick leather-bound folders. The first – his report on the home front compiled by the FSB, his domestic intelligence service. The second – his report on international affairs compiled by the SVR, his foreign intelligence. The third – his report on the court complied by the FSO, his army of close protection.

He is obsessed with information. The thickest, fattest folders at his request are not intelligence reports: they are press clippings. His hands first open the Russian press digest. The most important papers come at the front: the obsequious national tabloids – such as Komsomolskaya Pravda and Moskovsky Komsomolets. These matter most, with their millions of readers. Their headlines, their gossip columns, their reactions to the latest Siberian train wreck affect the workers’ mood.

Then he moves onto Russia’s quality press: the lightly censored broadsheets, Vedomosti and Kommersant. These matter in the Kremlin court: this is their gossip, their columnists, their analysis. He pays particular attention to the regular columns about Vladimir Putin written by Andrey Kolesnikov in ­Kommersant. His courtiers say he enjoys this one greatly and always reads right to the end.

Putin’s life, by this account, is “monotonous”.

The meaningless meetings. The pedantic clip of presidential protocol. The repetitive routine these schedules have year after year. His motorcade goes in two directions: either to the Kremlin or to the airport. The President says that he works harder than any leader since Stalin.

The reference to the motorcade commute is explained by the writer’s claim that Putin hates working in the Kremlin and much prefers to work at his estate outside Moscow.

It’s a fascinating piece, well worth reading in full. Given that all of the information comes from anonymous sources, it’s impossible to know how accurate it is, but if it’s even 50% accurate then the West is dealing with a very strange guy indeed. It also makes one wonder what he wants power for. There’s no mention in the piece, for example, of the stories about Putin’s allegedly vast personal wealth.

Financial sanctions on Russia: big or nothing?

[link] Tuesday, July 22nd, 2014

What the downing of the Malaysian plane reveals yet again is how shallow Cameron is as a political leader. He only does posturing: witness his cant that the French should not deliver the warships they are contracted to build for the Russians. Imagine if the contract were with a British company, for example BAE Systems.

At least the other EU leaders don’t go in for much bluster and posturing. It’s not the Merkel style. They will almost certainly shrink from doing anything that might cause Putin to think again, though: too dependent on Russian energy supplies, not to mention exports to Vlad’s little empire. But if they need some ideas about what would really hurt, then this blog post by Paul Mason should help.

The USA’s sanctions prevent four major Russian companies – Gazprombank, VEB bank, Rosneft and Novatek – from issuing bonds to borrow money long term (longer than 90 days). The EU does not yet even do that. But if applied to a wide list of Russian companies, combined with a ban on actually trading either the shares or the debts of those companies, a freeze on market access would quickly bring the Russian economy to its knees. Its stock market would collapse, its banking system probably suffer a Lehman style moment.

In addition, any major and comprehensive crackdown on money laundering in London – with balaclava and kevlar-clad cops raiding the homes and offices of key people – would probably achieve the same effect just by being announced. London would seize up as a conduit for the tax-dodging billions of the Russian oligarchs.

And this encapsulates the problem. When a major state transgresses international law again and again, the only deterrents or remedies are major, unilateral actions by states that host global markets. The only thing you can do that is not for show is actually something quite massive.

Good stuff!

Cameron plays German roulette — and loses

[link] Sunday, June 29th, 2014

If anyone needed proof of how shallow and inadequate a political leader David Cameron is, then the debacle over Jean-Claude Juncker’s appointment should be a wake-up call. We are confronted with the spectacle of a Prime Minister who has traded the economic future of his country simply in order to appease a small, fanatical minority in his own party.

You think I jest? Well, if the Tories were to win a majority in next year’s general election (and, God knows, Miliband & Co are doing their best to ensure that they do), then Cameron is committed to holding an in-out referendum on the basis of whatever deal he has managed to negotiate with the EC. The Juncker fiasco has now guaranteed that he won’t get a favourable deal from Germany et al. So he will go to the country with an unimpressive case expecting to get a “yes, we stay in” result. Guess what will happen?

This is how my colleague Andrew Rawnsley puts it in this morning’s Observer:

He has predicated the success of that enterprise almost entirely on his relationship with the German chancellor. He has piled up all his chips on Frau Merkel. He has assumed that she would help him package up a renegotiation with enough “concessions” to Britain to allow him to recommend a yes vote in a referendum.

Crucially, he has also assumed that she can deliver everyone else to a deal as well. Some of us have been warning for some time that he has staked too much on Mrs Merkel. Yes, she is a highly skilled politician. Yes, she is the most powerful woman in Europe. Yes, she would like Britain to remain within the EU. But she is subject to her own domestic pressures – she isn’t where she is without being ruthlessly protective of her interests and she will not make huge sacrifices of her own political capital just to help Britain.

There are many lessons from this debacle for the Tory leader. One is – and this he really should have guessed already – that Mrs Merkel cares more about her own political skin than she does about David Cameron’s hide. If he can’t block a poorly regarded former prime minister of a very small country who has a notorious weakness for fermented fruit in liquid form, how is David Cameron going to succeed in his self-defined and much more challenging ambition of keeping Britain in the European Union after a renegotiation of the terms of membership?

Of course there are reasons for supposing that, even in those circs, the British will shrink from pulling out, once the appalling consequences of being outside the EU sink in. Some people have pointed out that the demographics of the British electorate point in an optimistic direction, in that younger people are significantly more pro-European than older people and the anti-Europe vote is strongest among the over-60s. The only problem with that is that the old tend to be more assiduous voters than the young.

Leaving the EU would be an economic catastrophe for Britain, as well as a cultural one. Every significant British industrialist understands that. The City understands it. Every university vice-chancellor knows it. Most serious politicians know it. Every significant policy adviser in Whitehall knows it. But they are all afraid to speak out because they fear a populist backlash, fuelled by tabloid xenophobia. (Some CBI bigwigs are already nursing the wounds inflicted on them by Scot CyberNats for daring to express negative opinions about the wisdom of Scottish independence.)

The thing about Cameron is that, deep down, he’s shallow. Now we know just how shallow. Still, I guess his good friend Rebekah Brooks will have sent him a LOL message after learning of his triumph at Ypres.