British politics, circa 2019

From a splendid column by Marina Hyde on the current ‘election’ campaign:

On the subject of presumably competitively priced after-dinner speakers, what a week to learn that Theresa May has been signed up to the circuit, believed to have fought off a bid from the speaking clock for her services. May bills herself as a specialist in “inspiring lives” and how to “achieve progress”. Why not just add election-winning and contemporary streetdance? In for a penny; in for an unspecified number of pounds an hour. The news did seem to confirm that irony-manufacture is our sole thriving industry.

Or this:

Elsewhere, imbecility remains a key battleground, with debate over which party is fielding the more extravagantly or malevolently stupid candidates. Is it the Tories, whose children and families minister Nadhim Zahawi insisted he wasn’t sure whether Jeremy Corbyn would shoot the rich, adding: ”You’ll have to ask him that question”? Or is it Labour, whose newly selected Pudsey candidate Jane Aitchison provided the BBC’s Emma Barnett with 12.5 seconds of dead air in a discussion in which she apparently excused another candidate saying she’d celebrate the death of Tony Blair. It was one of those clips you listen to going, “Don’t say Hitler. Don’t say Hitler. Don’t say Hitler. Don’t say Hitler.” “For instance,” reasoned Jane, “they celebrated the death of Hitler.”

Only in a field like this could Boris Johnson retain a reputation as an orator. The best way to get through a Johnson speech is tell yourself he’s going to make 10 jokes he’s done numerous times before, then it won’t be so bad when he only does nine. His three-and-a-half minute campaign launch set in Birmingham saw a return for several “old friends”. Yet again, Johnson produced his line about broadband being “informative vermicelli”, as though he were Taylor Swift and he had to do Shake it Off because that’s what the crowd had come for. “This is a prime minister on fire,” judged Gavin Williamson, who seems to be back in the fireplace selling business.

Kranzberg’s Law

As a critic of many of the ways that digital technology is currently being exploited by both corporations and governments, while also being a fervent believer in the positive affordances of the technology, I often find myself stuck in unproductive discussions in which I’m accused of being an incurable “pessimist”. I’m not: better descriptions of me are that I’m a recovering Utopian or a “worried optimist”.

Part of the problem is that the public discourse about this stuff tends to be Manichean: it lurches between evangelical enthusiasm and dystopian gloom. And eventually the discussion winds up with a consensus that “it all depends on how the technology is used” — which often leads to Melvin Kranzberg’s Six Laws of Technology — and particularly his First Law, which says that “Technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral.” By which he meant that,

“technology’s interaction with the social ecology is such that technical developments frequently have environmental, social, and human consequences that go far beyond the immediate purposes of the technical devices and practices themselves, and the same technology can have quite different results when introduced into different contexts or under different circumstances.”

Many of the current discussions revolve around various manifestations of AI, which means machine learning plus Big Data. At the moment image recognition is the topic du jour. The enthusiastic refrain usually involves citing dramatic instances of the technology’s potential for social good. A paradigmatic example is the collaboration between Google’s DeepMind subsidiary and Moorfields Eye Hospital to use machine learning to greatly improve the speed of analysis of anonymized retinal scans and automatically flag ones which warrant specialist investigation. This is a good example of how to use the technology to improve the quality and speed of an important healthcare service. For tech evangelists it is an irrefutable argument for the beneficence of the technology.

On the other hand, critics will often point to facial recognition as a powerful example for the perniciousness of machine-learning technology. One researcher has even likened it to plutonium. Criticisms tend to focus on its well-known weaknesses (false positives, racial or gender bias, for example), its hasty and ill-considered use by police forces and proprietors of shopping malls, the lack of effective legal regulation, and on its use by authoritarian or totalitarian regimes, particularly China.

Yet it is likely that even facial recognition has socially beneficial applications. One dramatic illustration is a project by an Indian child labour activist, Bhuwan Ribhu, who works for the Indian NGO Bachpan Bachao Andolan. He launched a pilot program 15 months prior to match a police database containing photos of all of India’s missing children with another one comprising shots of all the minors living in the country’s child care institutions.

The results were remarkable. “We were able to match 10,561 missing children with those living in institutions,” he told CNN. “They are currently in the process of being reunited with their families.” Most of them were victims of trafficking, forced to work in the fields, in garment factories or in brothels, according to Ribhu.

This was made possible by facial recognition technology provided by New Delhi’s police. “There are over 300,000 missing children in India and over 100,000 living in institutions,” he explained. “We couldn’t possibly have matched them all manually.”

This is clearly a good thing. But does it provide an overwhelming argument for India’s plan to construct one of the world’s largest facial-recognition systems with a unitary database accessible to police forces in 29 states and seven union territories?

I don’t think so. If one takes Kranzberg’s First Law seriously, then each proposed use of a powerful technology like this has to face serious scrutiny. The more important question to ask is the old Latin one: Cui Bono?. Who benefits? And who benefits the most? And who loses? What possible unintended consequences could the deployment have? (Recognising that some will, by definition, be unforseeable.) What’s the business model(s) of the corporations proposing to deploy it? And so on.

At the moment, however, all we mostly have is unasked questions, glib assurances and rash deployments.

Right diagnosis, wrong remedy

Robert Reich is right about one thing:

A major characteristic of the internet goes by the fancy term “disintermediation”. Put simply, it means sellers are linked directly to customers with no need for middlemen.

Amazon eliminates the need for retailers. Online investing eliminates the need for stock brokers. Travel agents and real estate brokers are obsolete. At a keystroke, consumers get all the information they need.

But democracy can’t be disintermediated. We’re not just buyers and sellers. We’re citizens who need to know what’s happening around us in order to exercise our right to self-government, and responsibility for it.

If a president and his enablers are peddling vicious and dangerous lies, we need reliable intermediaries that help us see them.

The problem is we have a president who will say anything to preserve his power, and two giant entities that spread his lies uncritically, like global-sized bullhorns.

We can’t do anything about Trump until election day or until he’s convicted of an impeachable offense. But we can and should take action against the power of these two super-enablers. If they’re unwilling to protect the public against powerful lies, they shouldn’t have as much power to spread them.

And his solution? Use antitrust law to break up Facebook and Twitter.

That’s not going to solve the problem. And even if it did, Trump would be into his fifth term before break-up was accomplished.

The Liberal failure

From Dave Winer:

Just thinking out loud here. I am sure there’s a new journalism out there, that it’s not the journalism that gets so much acclaim, the reinvention of Woodward and Bernstein, the two Washington Post innovators who brought down Nixon. We should be way ahead of that by now. We need to be, because the forces opposing democracy, the equivalent of 1974’s plumbers, are moving much faster. We’re erecting Maginot Lines now, getting ready to fight the Battle of 2016, ignoring that the enemy already controls our capital. They’ve been innovating. We haven’t seen the results of their most recent innovations, yet.


Two Cambridge Analytica stories

My Observer review of Chris Wylie’s and Brittany Kaiser’s memoirs.

Hindsight is the only exact science, as these two books confirm. Chris Wylie and Brittany Kaiser are two youngish, idealistic, clever people who got involved in some very dark stuff orchestrated by unscrupulous operators. Eventually, both realised they had become accomplices to activities that were at best unethical and at worst illegal, realisations that prompted them to break loose and blow the whistle. And both their memoirs, though very different in style and tone, are attempts to atone for the societal damage their respective collaborations with the devil have done.

But there the similarities end…

Read on

Facebook keeps digging itself into the hole

From a report in the Washington Post highlighted by Charles Arthur:

The Arizona ad, paid for by The Committee to Defend the President, is one of roughly two dozen such ads that two pro-Trump super PACs have purchased on Facebook over the past five months, according to an analysis of Facebook’s advertising archive by The Washington Post. Some of the ads falsely suggest that Democrats are purging voter rolls; others direct viewers to some version of a voter-registration form, but only after they submit information, such as their names, email addresses and political affiliations.

Responding to an inquiry from The Post, Facebook said this weekend that it was removing four of the voting-related ads for violating its policies. A spokesperson for the tech giant said it would send other ads purchased by another pro-Trump group, Great America PAC, to third-party fact-checkers to verify their assertions about states purging voter rolls.

Charles’s comment:

So Facebook won’t allow ads that might lead to voter suppression. Apart from the ones it allows. It’s exhausting; Facebook says it won’t allow something, journalists find multiple examples of it allowing something, repeat. The simple solution would be to ban political ads.

Yep. Remember Denis Healey’s First Law of Holes: when you’re in one, stop digging. And the funniest thing of all is that, in terms of Facebook’s revenues, political ads earn peanuts.

LATER The NYT is reporting that some Facebook employees are getting agitated about the decision to give politicians’ ads a free run.

Johnson’s plans for Singapore-on-Thames

Terrific FT scoop today:

The British government is planning to diverge from the EU on regulation and workers’ rights after Brexit, despite its pledge to maintain a “level playing field” in prime minister Boris Johnson’s deal, according to an official paper shared by ministers this week.

The government paper drafted by Dexeu, the Brexit department, with input from Downing Street stated that the UK was open to significant divergence, even though Brussels is insisting on comparable regulatory provisions.

The issue will come to a head when the UK begins the next phase of talks with the EU to forge a new trade deal. However, the UK in effect still faces the prospect of a no-deal Brexit next week unless EU states agree a new extension date for when the UK will leave the bloc. France was on Friday pushing for a shorter extension date than the one Mr Johnson has requested.

In a passage that could alarm Labour MPs who have backed the Brexit bill, the leaked government document also said the drafting of workers’ rights and environmental protection commitments “leaves room for interpretation”.

The paper, titled “Update to EPSG on level playing field negotiations”, appears to contradict comments made by Mr Johnson on Wednesday when he said the UK was committed to “the highest possible standards” for workers’ rights and environmental standards.

Chlorinated chickens and other delights beckon.

Zuckerberg’s ideology

Facebook’s announcement that it will include Breitbart in its select list of ‘curated’ news sources speaks volumes. Charlie Wardle has an intelligent take on it in the New York Times:

Because Mr. Zuckerberg is one of the most powerful people in politics right now — and because the stakes feel so high — there’s a desire to assign him a political label. That’s understandable but largely beside the point. Mark Zuckerberg may very well have political beliefs. And his every action does have political consequences. But he is not a Republican or a Democrat in how he wields his power. Mr. Zuckerberg’s only real political affiliation is that he’s the chief executive of Facebook. His only consistent ideology is that connectivity is a universal good. And his only consistent goal is advancing that ideology, at nearly any cost.

Yep. The only thing he really cares about is growth in the number of users of Facebook, and the engagement they have with the platform. And the collateral damage of that is someone else’s problem. This is sociopathy on steroids.

Facebook contradictions

Proud announcement from Facebook:

Today, we removed four separate networks of accounts, Pages and Groups for engaging in coordinated inauthentic behavior on Facebook and Instagram. Three of them originated in Iran and one in Russia, and they targeted a number of different regions of the world: the US, North Africa and Latin America. All of these operations created networks of accounts to mislead others about who they were and what they were doing. We have shared information about our findings with law enforcement, policymakers and industry partners.

We’re constantly working to detect and stop this type of activity because we don’t want our services to be used to manipulate people.

To which Charles Arthur comments: “I thought manipulating people was basically the point.” Which it is. It’s just that apparently some kinds of manipulation are verboten. And of course, as Charles says, this is just the stuff they’re catching.