The dysfunctional republic…

…and how the US became one. This from Dana Milbank in the Washington Post:

Political scientists have observed that American politics has deteriorated into an unstable combination of weak parties and strong partisanship — dry brush for the likes of Trump and Blankenship to ignite. The 2002 McCain-Feingold campaign-finance reform restricted party fundraising, and the Citizens United Supreme Court ruling in 2010 essentially destroyed parties by giving everybody else freedom to spend unlimited sums to buy politicians. The moderating influence of parties was replaced by the radicalizing influence of dark money.

Related to this, partisanship in Washington escalated, aggravated by partisan redistricting that puts almost all House members in safe seats where the only threat comes from primaries. Primary voters tend to favor extreme candidates — who, once in Congress, turn politics into warfare.

A simplistic theory of political polarisation

From Bryan Caplan

Leftists are anti-market. On an emotional level, they’re critical of market outcomes. No matter how good market outcomes are, they can’t bear to say, “Markets have done a great job, who could ask for more?”

Rightists are anti-leftist. On an emotional level, they’re critical of leftists. No matter how much they agree with leftists on an issue, they can’t bear to say, “The left is totally right, it would be churlish to criticize them.”

Caplan explicitly calls it a simplistic theory, and it is. But it’s not bad as a first approximation — as George Hawley suggests:

If out-group hostility is more important to party identification than support for particular policies or ideologies, we may not actually place very many ideological demands on our parties. Defeating our enemies may be more important than advancing specific liberal or conservative agendas. According to Groenendyk: “If partisans’ identities are increasingly anchored to hatred of the outparty than affection for their inparty, electoral dynamics are likely much more fluid than many accounts suggest. Thus, insurgent candidates with questionable ideological credentials (e.g., Donald Trump) may be more appealing than one might expect in the age of ideologically sorted parties.”

Theresa May’s ‘hostile’ environment: straight out of Kafka

Terrific essay by William Davies in the London Review of Books. Sample:

It is difficult to imagine anything more Kafkaesque than the experience the ‘Windrush generation’ has undergone at the hands of the British state in the past few years. Cases are accumulating of individuals seeking NHS treatment, passports, jobs or housing only to find themselves having to prove their right to live in the country where they have been legally resident for more than 45 years, or risk being deported. Harrowing stories have emerged of individuals being made homeless, jobless and stateless, after they failed to produce proof they were never given in the first place. One man suffered an aneurysm which he believes was brought on by the stress the situation caused him, only to be presented with a bill for £5000 for his NHS treatment – again because his paperwork didn’t measure up – while also losing his job and his home. He was left on the street. As it turns out, the one source of evidence that might have put a stop to this torture – the landing cards that recorded arrivals from the Caribbean until the 1960s – was destroyed by the Home Office in 2010.

The Windrush generation’s immigration status should never have been in question, and the cause of their predicament is recent: the 2014 Immigration Act, which contained the flagship policies of the then home secretary, Theresa May. Foremost among them was the plan to create a ‘hostile environment’, with the aim of making it harder for illegal immigrants to work and live in the UK. By forcing landlords, employers, banks and NHS services to run immigration status checks, the policy pushed the mentality of border control into everyday social and economic life. The 2016 Immigration Act extended it further, introducing tougher penalties for employers and landlords who fail to play their part in maintaining the ‘hostile environment’, and adding to the list of privileges that can be taken away from those who cannot prove their right to live and work in the UK.

Another key feature of the 2014 Act was that it empowered the Home Office to deport people more quickly and cheaply, avoiding lengthy and repeated appeals. The ‘deport first, appeal later’ provision was eventually ruled unlawful by the Supreme Court. The Act greatly restricted the right to appeal via tribunal, replacing most appeals with an administrative review carried out by the Home Office itself. Before the Act was introduced, 50 per cent of appeals were upheld at tribunal; at administrative review, the figure is 18 per cent.

The more we learn about what has happened to these people, the worse it seems. It demonstrates above all what can happen to a society when a section of it becomes paranoid about immigration.

Michael Hayden on working for Trump

Very interesting and sobering NYT OpEd by the former head of the NSA and the CIA, Michael Hayden. I was particularly struck by this passage:

A few months after Mr. Trump’s inauguration, I got a call from a colleague who thought he might be on a very short list for a very senior position. He asked my opinion. I told him that three months earlier I would have talked to him about his duty to serve. Now I was telling him to say no. “You’re a young man,” I said. “Don’t put yourself at risk for the future. You have a lot to offer. Someday.”

When asked for counsel these days by officers who are already in government, especially more junior ones, I remind them of their duty to help the president succeed. But then I add: “Protect yourself. Take notes and save them. And above all, protect the institution. America still needs it.”

So are the Democrats ready to unfriend Facebook?

Nice Observer piece by Thomas Frank, reminding us of how Obama & Co drank the Facebook Kool-Aid:

Seated with a panel of entrepreneurs from around the world, the president [Obama] lobbed his friend Zuckerberg an easy question about Facebook “creating this platform for entrepreneurship around the world”. In batting it out of the park, the Facebook CEO, clad in his humble costume of jeans, T-shirt and sneakers, took pains to inform everyone that what animated him were high-minded ideals. “When I was getting started,” he burbled, “I cared deeply about giving everyone a voice, and giving people the tools to share everything that they cared about, and bringing a community together …”

No rude senator spoke up to interrupt this propaganda. Instead, Zuckerberg went on to describe his efforts to connect everyone to the internet as a sort of wager on human goodness itself.

“It’s this deep belief that you’re trying to make a change, you’re trying to connect people in the world, and I really do believe that if you do something good and if you help people out, then eventually some portion of that good will come back to you. And you may not know up front what it’s going to be, but that’s just been the guiding principle for me in the work that we’ve done …”

That’s how it works, all right. Gigantic corporate investments are acts of generosity, and when making them, kind-hearted CEOs routinely count on Karma to reward them. That’s the “guiding principle”.

Reader, here is what the president could be heard to say as Zuckerberg ended this self-serving homily: “Excellent.”

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What Facebook’s monopoly means for developing countries

This morning’s Observer column:

The most significant moment in the US Senate’s interrogation of Mark Zuckerberg came when Senator Lindsey Graham asked the Facebook boss: “Who’s your biggest competitor?” It was one of the few moments in his five-hour testimony when Zuckerberg seemed genuinely discombobulated. The video of the exchange is worth watching. First, he smirks. Then he waffles about Google, Apple, Amazon and Microsoft “overlapping” with Facebook in various ways. It’s doesn’t look like he believes what he’s saying.

Eventually, Senator Graham cuts to the chase and asks Zuckerberg if he thinks Facebook is a monopoly. “It certainly doesn’t feel like that to me,” the lad replies.

Laughter ripples through the room, as well it might. Here, at last, was something that every senator at the hearing understood. What’s less clear is whether they grasped the scale of the problem the company poses to society…

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Why Trump is winning the battle with the media

Very thoughtful — and depressing — NYRB piece by Jay Rosen. He describes it as a “short course in how the campaign to discredit the American press operates”. Midway through, he turns to what is at risk because of it. Here’s one:

There is a risk that one third of the electorate will be isolated in an information loop of its own, where Trump becomes the major source of information about Trump, because independent sources are rejected on principle. That has already happened. An authoritarian system is up and running for a portion of the polity. Another way to say this is that before journalists log on in the morning, one third of their potential public is already gone.

Yep.

Sweeping the Net for… [take your pick]

From Ron Deibert:

The LGBTQ news website, “Gay Today,” is blocked in Bahrain; the website for Greenpeace International is blocked in the UAE; a matrimonial dating website is censored in Afghanistan; all of the World Health Organization’s website, including sub-pages about HIV/AIDS information, is blocked in Kuwait; an entire category of websites labeled “Sex Education,” are all censored in Sudan; in Yemen, an armed faction, the Houthis, orders the country’s main ISP to block regional and news websites.

What’s the common denominator linking these examples of Internet censorship? All of them were undertaken using technology provided by the Canadian company, Netsweeper, Inc.

In a new Citizen Lab report published today, entitled Planet Netsweeper, we map the global proliferation of Netsweeper’s Internet filtering technology to 30 countries. We then focus our analysis on 10 countries with significant human rights, insecurity, or public policy issues in which Netsweeper systems are deployed on large consumer ISPs: Afghanistan, Bahrain, India, Kuwait, Pakistan, Qatar, Somalia, Sudan, UAE, and Yemen. The research was done using a combination of network measurement and in-country testing methods. One method involved scanning every one of the billions of IP addresses on the Internet to search for signatures we have developed for Netsweeper installations (think of it like an x-ray of the Internet).

National-level Internet censorship is a growing norm worldwide. It is also a big business opportunity for companies like Netsweeper. Netsweeper’s Internet filtering service works by dynamically categorizing Internet content, and then providing customers with options to choose categories they wish to block (e.g., “Matrimonial” in Afghanistan and “Sex Education” in Sudan). Customers can also create their own custom lists or add websites to categories of their own choosing.

Netsweeper markets its services to a wide range of clients, from institutions like libraries to large ISPs that control national-level Internet connectivity. Our report highlights problems with the latter, and specifically the problems that arise when Internet filtering services are sold to ISPs in authoritarian regimes, or countries facing insecurity, conflict, human rights abuses, or corruption. In these cases, Netsweeper’s services can easily be abused to help facilitate draconian controls on the public sphere by stifling access to information and freedom of expression.

While there are a few categories that some might consider non-controversial—e.g., filtering of pornography and spam—there are others that definitely are not. For example, Netsweeper offers a filtering category called “Alternative Lifestyles,” in which it appears mostly legitimate LGBTQ content is targeted for convenient blocking. In our testing, we found this category was selected in the United Arab Emirates and was preventing Internet users from accessing the websites of the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (http://www.glaad.org) and the International Foundation for Gender Education (http://www.ifge.org), among many others. This kind of censorship, facilitated by Netsweeper technology, is part of a larger pattern of systemic discrimination, violence, and other human rights abuses against LGBTQ individuals in many parts of the world.

According to the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, all companies have responsibilities to evaluate and take measures to mitigate the negative human rights impacts of their services on an ongoing basis. Despite many years of reporting and numerous questions from journalists and academics, Netsweeper still fails to take this obligation seriously.

The Windrush scandal

Can’t think of a better summing-up of this astonishing and infuriating fiasco than this commentary from eiDigest (a daily newsletter I get every morning):

The Daily Mail‘s Sarah Vine thinks that as a saga of government and civil service incompetence, of ineptitude bordering on cruelty, of ingratitude, ignorance and failure, the Home Office’s disastrous misjudgment in relation to the children of Windrush arrivals from the Commonwealth countries takes some beating. That said, it’s not the first time we’ve been here: a decade ago, Gurkha veterans — natives of Nepal who have served alongside British soldiers for almost 200 years, with more than 50,000 dying in service and 13 receiving the Victoria Cross — were forced to take the Labour government of the day to the High Court in order to win the automatic right to settle here. And now, we’ve let it happen again.

In The Guardian Tanja Bueltmann says that when even the Daily Mail – usually the anti-immigration cheerleader – lambasts the government for mistreating immigrants, calling it a “fiasco that shames Britain”, it is clear that the situation really is very bad indeed. The treatment of the Windrush generation is as shameful as shameful gets, and no apology or U-turn can undo the harm already done to people’s lives. The extent of that harm remains somewhat unclear, however. Although we can get an idea from the many devastating personal accounts, the full reach is not yet known. While the immigration minister, Caroline Nokes, noted on Monday that Windrush-era citizens had been wrongly removed from the UK, it now transpires that the government does not actually know what has happened. Only now is the Home Office checking whether anyone has actually been deported.

The i‘s Oliver Duff notes it is only through campaigning reporting (from newspapers across the political spectrum) that ministers have belatedly been stirred to action. The Windrush scandal is a shameful chapter for a government that wants​, ​and needs​,​ to open Britain to the world. Immigration can never be reduced to numbers, despite Mrs May’s obsession: it is about people, and we are a richer nation for many of those who have chosen to make their lives on these islands.

Facebook is just the tip of the iceberg

This morning’s Observer column:

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a good metaphor must be worth a million. In an insightful blog post published on 23 March, Doc Searls, one of the elder statesman of the web, managed to get both for the price of one. His post was headed by one of those illustrations of an iceberg showing that only the tip is the visible part, while the great bulk of the object lies underwater. In this case, the tip was adorned with the Facebook logo while the submerged mass represented “Every other website making money from tracking-based advertising”. The moral: “Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica problems are nothing compared to what’s coming for all of online publishing.”

The proximate cause of Searls’s essay was encountering a New York Times op-ed piece entitled Facebook’s Surveillance Machine by Zeynep Tufekci. It wasn’t the (unexceptional) content of the article that interested Searls, however, but what his ad-blocking software told him about the Times page in which the essay appeared. The software had detected no fewer than 13 hidden trackers on the page. (I’ve just checked and my Ghostery plug-in has detected 19.)

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