Toxic tech?

This morning’s Observer column:

The headline above an essay in a magazine published by the Association of Computing Machinery (ACM) caught my eye. “Facial recognition is the plutonium of AI”, it said. Since plutonium – a by-product of uranium-based nuclear power generation – is one of the most toxic materials known to humankind, this seemed like an alarmist metaphor, so I settled down to read.

The article, by a Microsoft researcher, Luke Stark, argues that facial-recognition technology – one of the current obsessions of the tech industry – is potentially so toxic for the health of human society that it should be treated like plutonium and restricted accordingly. You could spend a lot of time in Silicon Valley before you heard sentiments like these about a technology that enables computers to recognise faces in a photograph or from a camera…

Read on

Finally, a government takes on the tech companies

This morning’s Observer column:

On Monday last week, the government published its long-awaited white paper on online harms. It was launched at the British Library by the two cabinet ministers responsible for it – Jeremy Wright of the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) and the home secretary, Sajid Javid. Wright was calm, modest and workmanlike in his introduction. Javid was, well, more macho. The social media companies had had their chances to put their houses in order. “They failed,” he declared. “I won’t let them fail again.” One couldn’t help feeling that he had one eye on the forthcoming hustings for the Tory leadership.

Nevertheless, this white paper is a significant document…

Read on

Focussing on the difficulty of ‘moderating’ vile content obscures the real problem

Good OpEd piece by Charlie Warzel:

Focusing only on moderation means that Facebook, YouTube and other platforms, such as Reddit, don’t have to answer for the ways in which their platforms are meticulously engineered to encourage the creation of incendiary content, rewarding it with eyeballs, likes and, in some cases, ad dollars. Or how that reward system creates a feedback loop that slowly pushes unsuspecting users further down a rabbit hole toward extremist ideas and communities.

On Facebook or Reddit this might mean the ways in which people are encouraged to share propaganda, divisive misinformation or violent images in order to amass likes and shares. It might mean the creation of private communities in which toxic ideologies are allowed to foment, unchecked. On YouTube, the same incentives have created cottage industries of shock jocks and livestreaming communities dedicated to bigotry cloaked in amateur philosophy.

The YouTube personalities and the communities that spring up around the videos become important recruiting tools for the far-right fringes. In some cases, new features like “Super Chat,” which allows viewers to donate to YouTube personalities during livestreams, have become major fund-raising tools for the platform’s worst users — essentially acting as online telethons for white nationalists.

So Facebook does exercise editorial control after all

Senator Elizabeth Warren is running for President — or at any rate for the Democratic nomination. One of her policy proposals is to break up the tech giants. Like all other presidential hopefuls, her campaign advertises on Facebook. The ads included a video which pointed users to a petition on Warren’s campaign website urging them “to support our plan to break up these big tech companies.” “Three companies have vast power over our economy and our democracy”, said one ad that Warren’s campaign had placed on Friday. “Facebook, Amazon, and Google. We all use them. But in their rise to power, they’ve bulldozed competition, used our private information for profit, and tilted the playing field in their favor.”

Guess what happened next? Facebook removed the ads on the grounds that they violated the company’s terms and conditions for advertisers. Politico reported the takedown, after which Facebook hurriedly restored the ads. “We removed the ads because they violated our policies against use of our corporate logo,” explained a spokesperson. “In the interest of allowing robust debate, we are restoring the ads.”

Warren then tweeted

“Curious why I think FB has too much power? Let’s start with their ability to shut down a debate over whether FB has too much power,” she tweeted. “Thanks for restoring my posts. But I want a social media marketplace that isn’t dominated by a single censor.”

Warren is on the warpath and she’s right

One of the planks of Senator Elizabeth Warren’s emerging campaign is a radical proposal to break up the tech giants. She did a robust defence the other day of her proposal.

I’m with her all the way on that, as is Dave Winer. But, Dave writes,

we need to do more, and do it very soon. They [the tech giants] are destroying natural resources the way oil giants did before the government stepped in. However our political leaders, like most users, don’t understand.

The natural resource they are destroying is the World Wide Web, an open, unowned resource that has fostered the innovative environment that gave birth to Google and Facebook.

Google is acting as if it were the government, without any checks and balances, no oversight, no redress of grievances. They say they’re doing it for the good of the net, but we know they’re a huge corporation, and that’s not how it works.

Facebook is sucking the life out of the web, along with Medium (where Warren published her manifesto!). Some simple rules, if followed, would restore balance to the web ecosystem. But there are no rules here, so they run wild, and take whatever isn’t nailed down.

They’ve had a fantastic run, but it’s long past time for some rules, and consequences for not respecting that we all have ownership of the resource they are foreclosing on.

Yep.

Facebook’s vassal state

Since the late 1950s, my native land’s grand strategy — initially for survival and later for prosperity — was to be welcoming to foreign multinational companies. For half a century, that strategy worked well. But now it’s become problematic. Why? Because some of the giant multinationals which have made Ireland their European bases have become toxic.

Chief among these is Facebook, the leading data-vampire. Until the other day, we had our suspicions about the subservience of the Irish government to the wishes and requirements of the Zuckerberg empire. Now — thanks to two remarkable pieces of reporting — we have some evidence of the cosy relationship that developed between Facebook’s second-in-command, Sheryl Sandberg (the ‘Typhoid Mary’ of surveillance capitalism, as Shoshana Zuboff describes her) and the previous Irish Taoiseach (Prime Minister), Enda Kenny.

The first breakthrough came from my Observer colleagues Carole Cadwalladr and Duncan Campbell and was based on a leaked internal Facebook document which described, among other things, Facebook’s

“great relationship” with Enda Kenny, the Irish prime minister at the time, one of a number of people it describes as “friends of Facebook”. Ireland plays a key role in regulating technology companies in Europe because its data protection commissioner acts for all 28 member states. The memo has inflamed data protection advocates, who have long complained about the company’s “cosy” relationship with the Irish government.

The document also noted

Kenny’s “appreciation” for Facebook’s decision to locate its headquarters in Dublin and points out that the new proposed data protection legislation was a “threat to jobs, innovation and economic growth in Europe”. It then goes on to say that Ireland is poised to take on the presidency of the EU and therefore has the “opportunity to influence the European Data Directive decisions”. It makes the extraordinary claim that Kenny offered to use the “significant influence” of the EU presidency as a means of influencing other EU member states “even though technically Ireland is supposed to remain neutral in this role”.

The second revelation comes from a terrific investigation by the Irish Independent newspaper. This tells how, two days after the meeting the Taoiseach in Davos (where else?), Sandberg wrote to Kenny, warning him how changes to taxation or privacy laws might lead Facebook to consider ‘different options for future investment and growth in Europe’.

Her email reads:

“I also want to commend you once again for your leadership during your Presidency of the EU. You made enormous progress. When it came to the European Data Protection Regulation, you and your staff really internalised our concerns and were able to present them in a reasonable way, which has had a positive impact …We hope we can rely on you for your continued leadership on this regulation since we still have more work to do here. Along the same lines, I was pleased to hear that you are so involved in the OECD working group process on tax reform. These discussions will be very complicated and important, and we hope to be helpful to you identifying the implications with different options for future investment and growth in Europe. We are keen to collaborate with your office on this, just as we have on the DPR.”

Following the meeting in Davos, Facebook’s Senior Policy team, comprising 15 executives from Washington, California, Dublin, and across Europe, requested a personal meeting with the Taoiseach in Government Buildings, Dublin on February 6 2014.

Kenny did not meet the delegation but instead sent his special adviser, Paul O’Brien, the Secretary General to the Government, Martin Fraser, and two of the Taoiseach’s experienced assistant secretaries with responsibility for international economic matters, Lorcan Fullam and John Callinan.

But then Kenny was given the treatment that generally suborns impressionable technically-illiterate politicians: an invitation to Facebook’s headquarters in Menlo Park, California, in June 2014, where he was granted a 43-minute audience with Sandberg.

According to the Independent report, the mogul and her awestruck visitor discussed the need for one tax regulator in the EU, and also the issue of who would replace Billy Hawkes as the Irish Data Protection Commissioner (who was due to retire on August 31 that year). And a follow-up letter to the Taoiseach in June 2014 specifically mentions Billy Hawkes and the need for his replacement to be “a strong candidate”.

“While Mr Hawkes’s independence and integrity are undisputed”, says the Independent — with an attentive eye to legal niceties — “there is no doubt that Facebook would have been relieved in 2013, when Mr Hawkes refused to investigate claims that Facebook Ireland had transferred data to the States for examination by the NSA”.

Background: Hawkes had refused the investigation on the legal grounds that Facebook was entitled to send data from the EU to the US under EU Commission Safe Harbour provisions. Interestingly, though, when Sandberg was being granted personal access to the Taoiseach, a judicial review of Hawkes’s decision had been initiated in the Irish High Court. And of course, in the end, the European Court ruled that the ‘Safe Harbour’ agreement was invalid.

These are extraordinary revelations, though I suspect they will surprise nobody familiar with the servile cringe that Irish politicians habitually adopt when dealing with their corporate ‘guests’. Note particularly, the tone and content of the leaked emails. For example:

  • Referring to the tricky challenge (for Facebook) of European Data Protection Regulation, you and your staff internalised our concerns and were able to present them in a reasonable way, which has had a positive impact. …We hope we can rely on you for your continued leadership on this regulation since we still have more work to do here.

  • And, on tax reform, I was pleased to hear that you are so involved in the OECD working group process on tax reform.

Emphasis added. Pass the sickbag, Alice.

Quote of the Day

“Too much is at stake, especially for those who don’t live in the wealthier parts of white America, to let our technological world to become merely a shopping mall where we buy things and exchange half-truths.”

Cindy Cohn, Executive Director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Foreword to The End of Trust.

The complications of nostalgia

I watched George H.W. Bush’s funeral as it was streamed from the National Cathedral and interpreted it as his family’s determination to highlight the contrast between the 41st President and the current one. (It was pretty successful in those terms, but then the designers of the service were pushing at an open door, as the target of the comparison sat scowling and clearly bored by the proceedings.)

But other observers read more into it. Writing in The Atlantic, for example, Franklin Foer saw the obituaries as carrying

the longing for a time when American politics was ruled by men of “high character” and a sense of “public duty,” the very antithesis of the present partisan era’s coarseness.

What goes unstated, however, is the subtext of that yearning. All the florid remembrances are packed with fondness for a bygone institution known as the Establishment, hardened in the cold of New England boarding schools, acculturated by the late-night rituals of Skull and Bones, sent off to the world with a sense of noblesse oblige. For more than a century, this Establishment resided at the top of the American caste system. Now it is gone, and apparently people wish it weren’t.

When George H. W. Bush passed, so did the last true WASP. In appearance, he embodied what The New York Times’ Alessandra Stanley once called “The Presidency by Ralph Lauren.” The evocation of the legendary fashion designer was a sly bit of sociology—the old American aristocracy was already in decline, since its aesthetic had been commodified (by none other than Ralph Lifshitz) and made accessible to all in the democracy of the shopping mall.

Writing in the New York Times, Ross Douhat interpreted “Bush nostalgia” as

a longing for something America used to have and doesn’t really any more — a ruling class that was widely (not universally, but more widely than today) deemed legitimate, and that inspired various kinds of trust (intergenerational, institutional) conspicuously absent in our society today.

Put simply, Americans miss Bush because we miss the WASPs — because we feel, at some level, that their more meritocratic and diverse and secular successors rule us neither as wisely nor as well.

The WASP establishment was determined largely by bloodlines and connections. Writing in the Washington Post Fareed Zakaria, claims that you had to be a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant “to ascend to almost any position of power in the United States until the early 1960s” and asks “Surely, there is nothing good to say about a system that was so discriminatory toward everyone else?”

Actually, there is. For all its faults — and it was often horribly bigoted, in some places segregationist and almost always exclusionary — at its best, the old WASP aristocracy did have a sense of modesty, humility and public-spiritedness that seems largely absent in today’s elite. Many of Bush’s greatest moments — his handling of the fall of communism, his decision not to occupy Iraq after the first Gulf War, his acceptance of tax increases to close the deficit — were marked by restraint, an ability to do the right thing despite enormous pressure to pander to public opinion.

But, and here is the problem, it is likely these virtues flowed from the nature of that old elite. The aristocracy was secure in its power and position, so it could afford to think about the country’s fate in broad terms, looking out for the longer term, rising above self-interest — because its own interest was assured. It also knew that its position was somewhat accidental and arbitrary, so its members adhered to certain codes of conduct — modesty, restraint, chivalry, social responsibility.

Lots of problems with all of this, but an obvious one is that it’d be hard to describe the Kennedys as WASPS — not to mention the Roosevelts and the Vanderbilts (of Dutch origin), or the Rockefellers (who hail from stout German stock). And if we’re counting Germans, then surely the Trumps qualify? So the term WASP — White Anglo-Saxon Protestants — as “a social group of wealthy and well-connected white Americans, of Protestant and predominantly British ancestry, who trace their ancestry to the American colonial period” is probably more useful as a polemical term of abuse rather than as a precise description of a caste.

Tim Wu’s top ten antitrust targets

He writes:

If antitrust is due for a revival, just what should the antitrust law be doing? What are its most obvious targets? Compiled here (in alphabetical order) , and based on discussions with other antitrust experts, is a collection of the law’s most wanted — the firms or industries that are ripe for investigation.

Amazon
Investigation questions: Does Amazon have buying power in the employee markets in some areas of the country? Does it have market power? Is it improperly favoring its own products over marketplace competitors?

AT&T/WarnerMedia
Investigation question: In light of this, was the trial court’s approval of the AT&T and Time Warner merger clearly in error?

Big Agriculture
Over the last five years, the agricultural seed, fertilizer, and chemical industry has consolidated into four global giants: BASF, Bayer, DowDuPont, and ChemChina. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, seed prices have tripled since the 1990s, and since the mergers, fertilizer prices are up as well.
Investigation question: Were these mergers wrongly approved in the United States and Europe?

Big Pharma
The pharmaceutical industry has a long track record of anticompetitive and extortionary practices, including the abuse of patent rights for anticompetitive purposes and various forms of price gouging.
Investigation and legislative questions: Are there abuses of the patent system that are still ripe for investigation? Can something be done about pharmaceutical price gouging on drugs that are out of patent or, perhaps more broadly, the extortionate increases in the prices of prescription drugs?

Facebook
Having acquired competitors Instagram and WhatsApp in the 2010s in mergers that were arguably illegal, it has repeatedly increased its advertising load, incurred repeat violations of privacy laws, and failed to secure its networks against foreign manipulation while also dealing suspicious blows to competitor Snapchat. No obvious inefficiencies attend its dissolution.
Investigation questions: Should the Instagram and WhatsApp mergers be retroactively dissolved (effectively breaking up the company)? Did Facebook use its market power and control of Instagram and Instagram Stories to illegally diminish Snapchat from 2016–2018?

Google
Investigation question: Has Google anticompetitively excluded its rivals?

Ticketmaster/Live Nation
Investigation questions: Has Live Nation used its power as a promoter to protect Ticketmaster’s monopoly on sales? Was Songkick the victim of an illegal exclusion campaign? Should the Ticketmaster/Live Nation union be dissolved?

T-Mobile/Sprint
Investigation question: Would the merger between T-Mobile and Sprint likely yield higher prices and easier coordination among the three remaining firms?

U.S. Airline Industry
The U.S. airline industry is the exemplar of failed merger review.
Investigation and regulatory questions: Should one or more of the major mergers be reconsidered in light of new evidence? Alternatively, given the return to previous levels of concentration, should firmer regulation be imposed, including baggage and change-fee caps, minimum seat sizes, and other measures?

U.S. Hospitals
Legislative question: Should Congress or the states impose higher levels of scrutiny for health care and hospital mergers?
Investigation question: In light of this, was the trial court’s approval of the AT&T and Time Warner merger clearly in error?

Ireland’s need for a new narrative

Last Friday’s Irish Times carried a piece by Charlie Taylor based on an an interview I gave in which I argued that a country that had built its identity (and prosperity) largely on a policy of being nice to big multi-national companies might need a new narrative now that some of its more welcome guests turn out to be toxic.