How things change

The €2.4B fine on Google handed down by the European Commission stemmed originally from complaints by shopping-comparison sites that changes in Google Shopping that the company introduced in 2008 had amounted to an abuse of its dominance in search. But 2008 was a long time ago in this racket, and shopping-comparison sites have become relatively small beer because Internet users researching possible purchases don’t start with a search engine any more. (Many of them start with Amazon, for example.)

This is deployed (by the Internet giants) as an argument for the futility of trying to regulate behaviour by dominant firms: the legal process of investigation takes so long that the eventual ruling is so out of date as to be meaningless.

This is a convenient argument, but the conclusion isn’t that we shouldn’t regulate these monsters. Nevertheless it is interesting to see how the product search scene has changed over time, as this chart shows.

Source

The obvious solution to the time-lag problem is — as the Financial Times reported on January 3 — for regulators to have “powers to impose so-called “interim measures” that would order companies to stop suspected anti-competitive behaviour before a formal finding of wrongdoing had been reached.” At the moment the European Commission does have powers to impose such measures, but only if it can prove that a company is causing “irrevocable harm” — a pretty high threshold. The solution: lower the threshold.

Corporate candour and public sector cant

The UK Information Commissioner has completed her investigation into the deal between Google DeepMind and the Royal Free Hospital Trust which gave the company access to the health records of 1.6m NHS patients. The Commissioner concluded that:

Royal Free NHS Foundation Trust failed to comply with the Data Protection Act when it provided patient details to Google DeepMind.

The Trust provided personal data of around 1.6 million patients as part of a trial to test an alert, diagnosis and detection system for acute kidney injury.

But an ICO investigation found several shortcomings in how the data was handled, including that patients were not adequately informed that their data would be used as part of the test.

The Trust has been asked to commit to changes ensuring it is acting in line with the law by signing an undertaking.

My Cambridge colleague Julia Powles (now at Cornell) and Hal Hodgson of the Economist did a long and thorough investigation of this secret deal (using conventional investigative tools like Freedom of Information requests). This led to the publication of an excellent, peer-reviewed article on “Google DeepMind and healthcare in an age of algorithms”, published in the Springer journal Health and Technology in March. In the period up to and following publication, the authors were subjected to pretty fierce pushback from DeepMind. It was asserted, for example, that their article contained significant factual errors. But requests for information about these supposed ‘errors’ were not granted. As an observer of this corporate behaviour I was struck — and puzzled — by the divergence between DeepMind’s high-minded, holier-than-thou, corporate self-image and its aggressiveness in public controversy. And I wondered if this was a sign that Google iron had entered DeepMind’s soul. (The company was acquired by the search giant in 2014.)

But now all is sweetness and light, apparently. At any rate, DeepMind’s co-founder, Mustafa Suleyman and Dominic King, the Clinical Lead in DeepMind Health, have this morning published a contrite post on the company Blog. “We welcome the ICO’s thoughtful resolution of this case”, they write, “which we hope will guarantee the ongoing safe and legal handling of patient data for Streams [the codename for the collaboration between the company and the NHS Trust]”.

Although today’s findings are about the Royal Free, we need to reflect on our own actions too. In our determination to achieve quick impact when this work started in 2015, we underestimated the complexity of the NHS and of the rules around patient data, as well as the potential fears about a well-known tech company working in health. We were almost exclusively focused on building tools that nurses and doctors wanted, and thought of our work as technology for clinicians rather than something that needed to be accountable to and shaped by patients, the public and the NHS as a whole. We got that wrong, and we need to do better.

This is an intelligent and welcome response. Admitting to mistakes is the surest way to learn. But it’s amazing how few corporations and other organisations do it.

When I first read the draft of Julia’s and Hal’s paper my first thought was that the record of errors they had uncovered was not the product of malign intent, but rather a symptom of what happens when two groups of enthusiasts (consultants in the Royal Free; AI geeks in DeepMind) who were excited by the potential of machine learning in detecting and treating particular diseases. Each group was unduly overawed by the other, and in their determination to get this exciting partnership rolling they ignored (or perhaps were unaware of) the tedious hurdles that one (rightly) has to surmount if one seeks to use patient data for research. And once they had been caught out, defensive corporate instincts took over, preventing an intelligent response to the researchers’ challenge.

Interestingly, there are intimations of this in today’s DeepMind blog post. For example:

“Our initial legal agreement with the Royal Free in 2015 could have been much more detailed about the specific project underway, as well as the rules we had agreed to follow in handling patient information. We and the Royal Free replaced it in 2016 with a far more comprehensive contract … and we’ve signed similarly strong agreements with other NHS Trusts using Streams.”

“We made a mistake in not publicising our work when it first began in 2015, so we’ve proactively announced and published the contracts for our subsequent NHS partnerships.”

“In our initial rush to collaborate with nurses and doctors to create products that addressed clinical need, we didn’t do enough to make patients and the public aware of our work or invite them to challenge and shape our priorities.”

All good stuff. Now let’s see if they deliver on it.

Their NHS partners, however, are much less contrite — even though they are the focus of the Information Commissioner’s report. The Trust’s mealymouthed response says, in part:

“We have co-operated fully with the ICO’s investigation which began in May 2016 and it is helpful to receive some guidance on the issue about how patient information can be processed to test new technology. We also welcome the decision of the Department of Health to publish updated guidance for the wider NHS in the near future.”

This is pure cant. The Trust broke the law. So to say that “we have co-operated fully” and “it is helpful to receive some guidance on the issue about how patient information can be processed” is like a burglar claiming credit for co-operating with the cops and expressing gratitude for their advice on how to break-and-enter legally next time.

Zuckerberg’s virtual world

This morning’s Observer column:

On Thursday 16 February, Mark Zuckerberg, the founder and supreme leader of Facebook, the world’s most populous virtual country (population 2bn) published an epistle to his 89m disciple-followers. “Building Global Community” was the headline. “On our journey to connect the world,” the supreme leader began, “we often discuss products we’re building and updates on our business. Today I want to focus on the most important question of all: are we building the world we all want?”

Good question. But wait a minute, who’s the “we” here? It crops up 156 times in the 5,700-word epistle…

Read on

Google’s new power-grab

Google’s Chrome browser is popular world wide. And it turns out that many of its users don’t like ads — which is very naughty of them in an ad-based universe. But now there are rumours that Google plans to incorporate some kind of blocking of “unacceptable” ads in its browser. Which of course might be welcome to many users. But it would also make Google the arbiter of what is “unacceptable”.

Source

The privacy vs secrecy question properly framed

This neat formulation from a 2014 essay by Shoshanna Zuboff:

We often hear that our privacy rights have been eroded and secrecy has grown. But that way of framing things obscures what’s really at stake. Privacy hasn’t been eroded. It’s been expropriated. The difference in framing provides new ways to define the problem and consider solutions.

In the conventional telling, privacy and secrecy are treated as opposites. In fact, one is a cause and the other is an effect. Exercising our right to privacy leads to choice. We can choose to keep something secret or to share it, but we only have that choice when we first have privacy. Privacy rights confer decision rights. Privacy lets us decide where we want to be on the spectrum between secrecy and transparency in each situation. Secrecy is the effect; privacy is the cause.

I suggest that privacy rights have not been eroded, if anything they’ve multiplied. The difference now is how these rights are distributed. Instead of many people having some privacy rights, nearly all the rights have been concentrated in the hands of a few. On the one hand, we have lost the ability to choose what we keep secret, and what we share. On the other, Google, the NSA, and others in the new zone have accumulated privacy rights. How? Most of their rights have come from taking ours without asking. But they also manufactured new rights for themselves, the way a forger might print currency. They assert a right to privacy with respect to their surveillance tactics and then exercise their choice to keep those tactics secret.

We need more writing like this. On the phony ‘privacy vs security’ question, for example.

As George Lakoff pointed out many years ago (but only right-wingers listened), creative framing is the way to win both arguments and votes.

The real secret of China’s mastery of the Net: distraction

Last Sunday’s Observer column:

If you ever want to annoy western policymakers or politicians, then here is a surefire way to do it. Tell them that the only government in the world that really understands the internet is the Chinese communist regime. And if you want to add a killer punch, add the assertion that almost everything we think we know about Chinese management of the net is either banal (all that stuff about the great firewall, paranoia about keywords such as “Falun Gong”, “democracy”, etc) or just plain wrong. Having thus lit the fuse, retreat to a safe distance and enjoy the ensuing outburst of righteous indignation.

For the avoidance of doubt, this is not an apologia for the Chinese regime, which is as nasty and illiberal as they come. But it’s best to have a realistic view of one’s adversaries. China’s leaders have invented a new way of running society. It’s been christened “networked authoritarianism” by Rebecca MacKinnon, a noted scholar of these things. President Xi Jinping and his colleagues are followers of Boris Johnson in at least one respect: they believe that it is possible to have one’s cake and eat it too…

Read on

Peter Thiel’s latest bet

Peter Thiel is the only prominent Silicon Valley figure to publicly support Trump during the election campaign. He famously spoke at the Republican Convention. This is what he said:

Good evening. I’m Peter Thiel. I build companies and I’m supporting people who are building new things, from social networks to rocket ships. I’m not a politician. But neither is Donald Trump. He is a builder, and it’s time to rebuild America.

Where I work in Silicon Valley, it’s hard to see where America has gone wrong. My industry has made a lot of progress in computers and in software, and, of course, it’s made a lot of money. But Silicon Valley is a small place. Drive out to Sacramento, or even just across the bridge to Oakland, and you won’t see the same prosperity. That’s just how small it is.

Across the country, wages are flat. Americans get paid less today than ten years ago. But healthcare and college tuition cost more every year. Meanwhile Wall Street bankers inflate bubbles in everything from government bonds to Hillary Clinton’s speaking fees. Our economy is broken. If you’re watching me right now, you understand this better than any politician in Washington D.C.

And you know this isn’t the dream we looked forward to. Back when my parents came to America looking for that dream, they found it right here in Cleveland. They brought me here as a one-year-old and this is where I became an American. Opportunity was everywhere. My dad studied engineering at Case Western Reserve University, just down the road from where we are now. Because in 1968, the world’s high tech capital wasn’t just one city: all of America was high tech.

It’s hard to remember this, but our government was once high tech, too. When I moved to Cleveland, defense research was laying the foundations for the internet. The Apollo program was just about to put a man on the moon–and it was Neil Armstrong, from right here in Ohio. The future felt limitless.

But today our government is broken. Our nuclear bases still use floppy disks. Our newest fighter jets can’t even fly in the rain. And it would be kind to say the government’s software works poorly, because much of the time it doesn’t even work at all. That is a staggering decline for the country that completed the Manhattan project. We don’t accept such incompetence in Silicon Valley, and we must not accept it from our government.

Instead of going to Mars, we have invaded the Middle East. We don’t need to see Hillary Clinton’s deleted emails: her incompetence is in plain sight. She pushed for a war in Libya, and today it’s a training ground for ISIS. On this most important issue Donald Trump is right. It’s time to end the era of stupid wars and rebuild our country. When I was a kid, the great debate was about how to defeat the Soviet Union. And we won. Now we are told that the great debate is about who gets to use which bathroom. This is a distraction from our real problems. Who cares?

Of course, every American has a unique identity. I am proud to be gay. I am proud to be a Republican. But most of all I am proud to be an American. I don’t pretend to agree with every plank in our party’s platform; but fake culture wars only distract us from our economic decline, and nobody in this race is being honest about it except Donald Trump.

While it is fitting to talk about who we are, today it’s even more important to remember where we came from. For me that is Cleveland, and the bright future it promised. When Donald Trump asks us to Make America Great Again, he’s not suggesting a return to the past. He’s running to lead us back to that bright future.

Tonight I urge all of my fellow Americans to stand up and vote for Donald Trump.

What’s intriguing about that speech is that — except for its endorsement of Trump — it could have been written by thousands of other critics of the neoliberal elites who have misgoverned the US (and other countries) since the 1980s. I agree with most of it — as did Larry Lessig.

“What’s striking about this speech”, Lessig writes, “is, except for its references to Trump”, 

how obviously true it is. Something has gone wrong in America. Growth is not spread broadly. Technical innovation is not spread broadly. We were a nation that tackled real and important problems. We have become a nation where — at least among politicians — too much time is spent arguing over the petty. “Who cares?” about which bathroom someone uses — which coming from a gay libertarian must mean, “it’s none of your business.” The wars of the last generation were stupid. We need to focus on building a “bright future” that all of America can share in.

What’s puzzling about this speech is how this brilliant innovator could predicate these words of a Donald Trump presidency. Maybe the excuse is that they were written before the true insanity of that man became unavoidably obvious. Who knows?

Thiel is a really interesting and complicated guy. He’s a born contrarian, but with a genius for making good bets. (The first was PayPal, of which he was a co-founder; another was Facebook, in which he was the first major investor). His book, Zero to One is simultaneously a fascinating and irritating read. He infuriates — and terrifies — journalists because of the way he used his wealth to pursue, and eventually destroy, Gawker. In achieving that he demonstrated that anyone who is sufficiently rich and sufficiently vengeful can render toothless the First Amendment.

As I said, Thiel has a talent for making big, contrarian bets. With the 20/20 vision of hindsight, it looks as though his gamble on Trump has paid off. At any rate, the New York Times now reports that he has become a key player in Trump’s transition team. So he is probably the person behind Trump’s decision to ‘summon’ the leaders of the big tech companies to a meeting at Trump Tower. “The agenda”, says the Times,

is undisclosed and perhaps still under consideration, but it is unlikely to produce the sort of love fest that existed between President Obama and Silicon Valley. Tech culture celebrates disruption as the tool that produces a better future for all. Many of Donald J. Trump’s supporters, on the other hand, see it as pushing them down.

How to reconcile these views is the task of Peter Thiel, the billionaire investor and Facebook board member whose role is to formulate a tech policy for the new administration. Mr. Thiel secured this position by making a contrarian bet on Mr. Trump’s candidacy, which paid off. The round-table invitations are from Mr. Thiel; Jared Kushner, Mr. Trump’s son-in-law; and Reince Priebus, the incoming chief of staff.

It’s not clear at the time of writing how many of the Valley’s billionaire geeks will roll up. My hunch — knowing the aphrodisiac effect of power — is that most of them will, though some will sneak in via the service entrance.

UPDATES * Kara Swisher is claiming that Tim Cook (Apple), Larry Page (Google), Sheryl Sandberg (Facebook) and perhaps Jeff Bezos (Amazon) are planning to obey the call. * Scott Rosenberg has some stirring advice on what they should tell the Troll-in-Chief.

Reactionary rhetoric

” I must have an inbred urge toward symmetry. In canvassing for the principal ways of criticizing, assaulting, and ridiculing the three successive “progressive” thrusts of Marshall’s story, I have come up with another triad: that is, with three principal reactive-reactionary theses, which I call the perversity thesis or thesis of the perverse effect, the futility thesis, and the jeopardy thesis. According to the perversity thesis, any purposive action to improve some feature of the political, social, or economic order only serves to exacerbate the condition one wishes to remedy. The futility thesis holds that attempts at social transformation will be unavailing, that they will simply fail to ‘make a dent.’ Finally, the jeopardy thesis argues that the code of the proposed change or reform is too high as it endangers some previous, precious accomplishment.”

From Albert Hirschman’s The Rhetoric of Reaction: Perversity, Futility, Jeopardy, 1991.

How do you throw the book at an algorithm?

This morning’s Observer column:

When, in the mid-1990s, the world wide web transformed the internet from a geek playground into a global marketplace, I once had an image of seeing two elderly gentlemen dancing delightedly in that part of heaven reserved for political philosophers. Their names: Adam Smith and Friedrich Hayek.

Why were they celebrating? Because they saw in the internet a technology that would validate their most treasured beliefs. Smith saw vigorous competition as the benevolent “invisible hand” that ensured individuals’ efforts to pursue their own interests could benefit society more than if they were actually trying to achieve that end. Hayek foresaw the potential of the internet to turn almost any set of transactions into a marketplace as a way of corroborating his belief that price signals communicated via open markets were the optimum way for individuals to co-ordinate their activities.

In the 1990s, those rosy views of the online world made sense…

Read on