Archive for the 'Politics' Category

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.

Making algorithms responsible for what they do

[link] Sunday, June 29th, 2014

This morning’s Observer column:

Just over a year ago, after Edward Snowden’s revelations first hit the headlines, I participated in a debate at the Frontline Club with Sir Malcolm Rifkind, the former foreign secretary who is now MP for Kensington and Chelsea and chairman of the intelligence and security committee. Rifkind is a Scottish lawyer straight out of central casting: urbane, witty, courteous and very smart. He’s good on his feet and a master of repartee. He’s the kind of guy you would be happy to have to dinner. His only drawback is that everything he knows about information technology could be written on the back of a postage stamp in 96-point Helvetica bold…

Read on

A borderless world?

[link] Tuesday, June 24th, 2014

One of my mantras is that for the first 20 years of its existence (up to 1993) cyberspace was effectively a parallel universe to what John Perry Barlow called ‘Meatspace’ (aka the real world). The two universes had very little to do with one another, and were radically different in all kinds of ways. But from 1993 (when Andreessen and Bina released Mosaic, the first big web browser) onwards, the two universes began to merge, which led to the world we have now — a blended universe which has the affordances of both cyberspace and Meatspace. This is why it no longer makes sense to distinguish (as politicians still do sometimes) between the Internet and the “real world”. And it’s also why we are having so much trouble dealing with a universe in which the perils of normal life are turbocharged by the affordances of digital technology.

This morning, I came on a really interesting illustration of this. It’s about how Google Maps deal with areas of the world where there are border disputes. Turns out that there are 32 countries in the world for which Google regards the border issue as problematic. And it has adopted a typical Google approach to the problem: the borders drawn on Google’s base map of a contested area will look different depending on where in the world you happen to be viewing them from.

An example: the borders of Arunachal Pradesh, an area administered by India but claimed as a part of Tibet by China. The region is shown as part of India when viewed from an Indian IP address, as part of China when viewed from China, and as distinct from both countries when viewed from the US.

There’s a nice animation in the piece. Worth checking out.

Bletchley Park and the erosion of the freedoms it was set up to defend

[link] Sunday, June 22nd, 2014

This morning’s Observer column.

It’s terrific that Bletchley Park has not only been rescued from the decay into which the site had fallen, but brilliantly restored, thanks to funding from the National Lottery (£5m), Google (which donated £500,000) and the internet security firm McAfee. I’ve been to the Park many times and for years going there was a melancholy experience, as one saw the depredations of time and weather inexorably outpacing the valiant efforts of the squads of volunteers who were trying to keep the place going.

Even at its lowest ebb, Bletchley had a magical aura. One felt something akin to what Abraham Lincoln tried to express when he visited Gettysburg: that something awe-inspiring had transpired here and that it should never be forgotten. The code-breaking that Bletchley Park achieved was an astonishing demonstration of the power of collective intelligence and determination in a quest to defeat the gravest threat that this country had ever faced.

When I was last there, the restoration was almost complete, and I was given a tour on non-disclosure terms, so I had seen what the duchess saw on Wednesday. The most striking bit is the restoration of Hut 6 exactly as it was, complete with all the accoutrements of the tweedy, pipe-smoking genuises who worked in it, right down to the ancient typewriters, bound notebooks and the Yard-O-Led mechanical pencil that one of them possessed.

Hut 6 is significant because that was where Gordon Welchman worked…

Read on

Tribes with flags

[link] Thursday, June 19th, 2014

I have mixed feelings about the NYT‘s Tom Friedman, but sometimes he does hit the target. This morning he has a bleak assessment of the options for Syria and Iraq, and indeed for the Middle East generally. In a nutshell, he argues that

a unified Iraq and a unified Syria can no longer be governed vertically [i.e by dictators] or vertically [i.e. "by having the different sections, parties and tribes agree on social contracts for how to live together as equal citizens who share power"]. The leaders no longer have the power to extend their iron fists to every border, and the people no longer have the trust to extend their hands to one another.

His conclusion is bleak:

It feels both too late and too early to stop the disintegration — too late because whatever trust there was between communities is gone and Maliki is not trying to rebuild it, and too early because it looks as if Iraqis are going to have to live apart, and see how crazy and impoverishing that is, before the different sects can coexist peacefully.

He’s right. I’ve been thinking a lot recently about Ralf Dahrendorf and his views about how complex and fragile a plant democracy is, and how it can only grow and flourish in complex soils which take a long time to evolve. Friedman sees it that way too:

Pluralism came to Europe only after many centuries of one side or another in religious wars thinking it could have it all, and after much ethnic cleansing created more homogenous nations. Europe also went through the Enlightenment and the Reformation. Arab Muslims need to go on the same journey. It will happen when they want to or when they have exhausted all other options. Meanwhile, let’s strengthen the islands of decency — Tunisia, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Lebanon and Kurdistan — and strengthen our own democracy to insulate ourselves as best we can.

Well, yes but… A futile but sobering counterpoint to that would be to reflect on how so much of this Middle Eastern mayhem is a legacy of European colonialism, and of the way the soi-disant ‘peacemakers’ in Versailles created all these fake and untenable countries by drawing arbitrary lines on maps.

Stand by for a deluge of Magna Bollocks

[link] Sunday, June 15th, 2014

We are about to be deluged with establishment cant about Magna Carta, on account of its approaching 800th anniversary. A splendid antidote to this is provided today by Anthony Barnett of

any authentic celebration of Magna Carta would be a sober, serious challenge to the status quo, unlike the celebratory website proclaiming “The Magna Carta has been the most valuable export of Great Britain to the rest of the world”. For all its eulogies it cannot bring itself to reproduce the actual Magna Carta itself, let alone the Charter of the Forests.

This is not to make an anachronistic claim that the Magna Carta was ‘progressive’. It was a feudal deal. It is the myth that matters: an inspiration to challenge arbitrary, despotic power; a seed for a democratic constitution; a right to be ruled by law; and even, thanks to its companion Charter, a claim that land be held in common not enclosed for profit.

To snuff out all such radicalism, the official celebrations of its 800 years will be funded twelve months hence by £1million from chancellor George Osborne and we will be palmed off with an assortment of Magna Bollocks, to express gratitude to Britain’s ruling order gifting liberty to the globe.

That is how Margaret Thatcher saw it after 1989. Unable to prevent the unification of Germany she planned to use a Paris Summit on European security in November 1990 to launch a Magna Carta for Eastern Europe. I attended the press conference, in the ballroom of the British Embassy and asked her, “Prime Minister, why, when you called upon this Summit to entrench rights across Europe, do you not agree with Charter 88 that we should have entrenched rights in the United Kingdom?” She replied, “We are in this Summit to get rights way across the European Divide… to call for the Community to extend democracy to other countries…”.

Within three days, British democracy such as it was, forced Thatcher to resign. Let’s hope that the curse of the Magna Carta brings down our present bunch of manipulative populists. Eight hundred years of rule by Barons is enough. It is the peoples’ turn. We do not just need a Magna Carta for the World Wide Web as Tim Berners-Lee has called for, we need a democratic constitution: to govern Parliament now that it has been corrupted and suborned, to define our relations with Europe and secure our claims to privacy, liberty and, in a digital age, our metadata.

Right on. Earlier in the piece, Barnett recalls the time that Professor Peter (now Lord) Hennessy, who taught modern British political history at Queen Mary College, to meet the then Cabinet Secretary, Sir (now Lord) Robin Butler.

One of the students innocently asked what is the British constitution. Butler answered, “something we make up as we go along”.

“Who is this ‘we’ that makes it up?” asks Barnett.

It is certainly not ‘We, the people’. When Sir Robin was speaking, he was part of the last remnants of the old Establishment. Now the British Constitution is something GCHQ makes up, as it goes along.

Can Google really keep our email private?

[link] Sunday, June 8th, 2014

This morning’s Observer column.

So Google has decided to provide end-to-end encryption for any of its Gmail users who wants it. One could ask “what took you so long?” but that would be churlish. (Some of us were unkind enough to suspect that the reluctance might have been due to, er, commercial considerations: after all, if Gmail messages are properly encrypted, then Google’s computers can’t read the content in order to decide what ads to display alongside them.) But let us be charitable and thankful for small mercies. The code for the service is out for testing and won’t be made freely available until it’s passed the scrutiny of the geek community, but still it’s a significant moment, for which we have Edward Snowden to thank.

The technology that Google will use is public key encryption, and it’s been around for a long time and publicly available ever since 1991, when Phil Zimmermann created PGP (which stands for pretty good privacy)…

Read on

LATER Email from Cory Doctorow:

Wanted to say that I think it’s a misconception that Goog can’t do targeted ads alongside encrypted email. Google knows an awful lot about Gmail users: location, browsing history, clicking history, search history. It can also derive a lot of information about a given email from the metadata: sending, CC list, and subject line. All of that will give them tons of ways to target advertising to Gmail users – — they’re just subtracting one signal from the overall system through which they make their ad-customization calculations.

So the cost of not being evil is even lower than I had supposed!

This from Business Insider:

Inside the code for Google’s End-to-End email encryption extension for Chrome, there’s a message that should sound very familiar to the NSA: “SSL-added-and-removed-here-;-)”

Followers of this blog will recognise this as quote from a slide leaked by Edward Snowden.


This comes from a slide-deck about the ‘Muscular’ program (who thinks up these daft names?), which allowed Britain’s GCHQ intelligence service and the NSA to pull data directly from Google servers outside of the U.S. The cheeky tone of the slide apparently enraged some Google engineers, which I guess explains why a reference to it resides in the Gmail encryption code.