If tech companies think they’re states, then they should accept the same responsibilities as states

It’s amazing to watch the deluded fantasies of tech bosses about their importance. In part, this is because their pretensions are taken seriously by political leaders who should know better. The daftest move thus far in this context was the Danish government’s decision in 2017 to appoint an ‘ambassador’ to the tech companies in Silicon Valley, but it’s clear that some other administrations share the same delusions.

Marietje Schaake, the former MEP who is now International policy director at Stanford’s Cyber Policy Center, has noted this too.

Last month, Microsoft announced it would open a “representation to the UN”, while at the same time recruiting a diplomat to run its European public affairs office. Alibaba has proposed a cross-border, online free trade platform. When Facebook’s suggestion of a “supreme court” to revisit controversial content moderation decisions was criticised, it relabelled the initiative an “oversight board”. It seems tech executives are literally trying to take seats at the table that has thus far been shared by heads of state.

At the annual security conference in Munich, presidents, prime ministers and politicians usually share the sought-after stage to engage in conversations about conflict in the Middle East, the future of the EU, or transatlantic relations. This year, executives of Alphabet, Facebook and Microsoft were added to the speakers list.

Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg went on from Munich to Brussels to meet with EU commissioners about a package of regulatory initiatives on artificial intelligence, data and digital services. Commissioner Thierry Breton provided the apt reminder that companies must follow EU regulations — not the other way around.

In a brisk OpEd piece in yesterday’s Financial Times, Schaake reminds tech bosses that if they really want change, there is no need to wait for government regulation to guide them in the right direction. (Which is their current mantra.) They own and totally control their own platforms. They can start in their own “republics” today. Nothing stops them proactively aligning their terms of use with human rights, democratic principles and the rule of law. When they deploy authoritarian models of governing, they should be called out. “Instead of playing government”, she writes,

they should take responsibility for their own territories. This means anchoring terms of use and standards in the rule of law and democratic principles and allowing independent scrutiny from researchers, regulators and democratic representatives alike. Credible accountability is always independent. It is time to ensure such oversight is proportionate to the power of tech giants.

Companies seeking to democratise would also have to give their employees and customers more of a say, as prime “constituents”. If leaders are serious about their state-like powers, they must walk the walk and treat consumers as citizens. Until then, calls for regulations will be seen as opportunistic, and corporations unfit to lead.

Bravo! Couldn’t have put it better myself.

So, basically, we’re screwed

Really sobering article in the FT by Martin Wolf. Here’s the gist:

We live in a fossil-fuel civilisation. There have been two energy revolutions in human history: the agricultural revolution, which exploited far more incident sunlight; and the industrial revolution, which exploited fossilised sunlight. Now we must return to incident sunlight — solar energy and wind — along with nuclear power.

Discussions last week at the Oslo Energy Forum clarified things for me. My principal conclusion was that a transformation from our current energy system to a different one is the only option. Some suggest we should halt growth as well. But this would not only be impossible, it would also not be nearly enough.

Over the past three decades CO2 emissions per unit of global output have been falling at a little below 2 per cent a year. If this were to continue and world output were to stagnate, global emissions would fall by 40 per cent by 2050 — far too little. Relying on actual reductions in output, in order to cut emissions by, say, 95 per cent, by 2050, would require a fall in world output of roughly 90 per cent, bringing global output per head back to 1870 levels.

Since we’re not going deliberately to go back to 1870 (all those stovepipe hats), we have to stop burning fossil fuels, period — and make a transition to a non-carbon economy. Wolf thinks that, in principle, this might be possible. But,

A zero-carbon economy would require about four to five times as much electricity as our present one, all from non-carbon-emitting sources. In running such an economy, hydrogen (much of it produced by electrolysis) would play an essential role. Hydrogen consumption might jump 11-fold by 2050.

In many sectors, the costs of decarbonisation are (or soon will be) competitive. Yet in some, they will not be. There will need to be incentives and regulations to force the shift. In order to avoid merely moving production, in its most emissions-intensive forms, elsewhere, it will be essential to impose offsetting taxes on imports from jurisdictions that refuse to support the needed changes.

Note the last sentence and ask yourself what are the chances of this happening in the world as we know it?

Summing up: we could do it, but we won’t. I’ve argued for a long time that we need a theory of incompetent systems — i.e. systems that can’t fix themselves.

Monday 17 February, 2020

Quote of the Day

In this election there are two sides. One side believes in the rule of law, the other doesn’t. Everything else, to be settled later, once the rule-of-law is re-established.

  • Dave Winer

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My review of Andrew Marantz’s new book — Antisocial

On today’s Guardian. It’s a sobering read.

There has always been a dark undercurrent of white supremacism in some sectors of American culture. It was kept from public view for decades by the editorial gatekeepers of the old media ecosystem. But once the internet arrived, a sophisticated online culture of conspiracy theorists, racists and other malign discontents thrived in cyberspace. But it stayed below the radar until a fully paid-up conspiracy theorist won the Republican nomination. Trump’s candidacy and campaign had the effect of “mainstreaming” that which had previously been largely hidden from view. At which point, the innocent public began to see and experience what Marantz has closely observed, namely the remarkable capabilities of extremist “edgelords” to weaponise YouTube, Twitter and Facebook for destructive purposes.

One of the most depressing things about 2016 was the apparent inability of American journalism to deal with this pollution of the public sphere. In part, this was because they were crippled by their professional standards. It’s not always possible to be even-handed and honest. “The plain fact,” writes Marantz at one point, “was that the alt-right was a racist movement full of creeps and liars. If a newspaper’s house style didn’t allow its reporters to say so, then the house style was preventing its reporters from telling the truth.” Trump’s mastery of Twitter led the news agenda every day, faithfully followed by mainstream media, like beagles following a live trail. And his use of the “fake news” metaphor was masterly: a reminder of why, as Marantz points out, Lügenpresse – “lying press” – was also a favourite epithet of Joseph Goebbels.


Frank Ramsey

Frank Ramsey was a legend in Cambridge as one of the brightest young men of his time. He died tragically young (he was 26) in 1930, from an infection acquired from swimming in the river Cam. Now there’s a new biography of him by Cheryl Misak. Here’s part of her blurb about him:

The economist John Maynard Keynes identified Ramsey as a major talent when he was a mathematics student at Cambridge in the early 1920s. During his undergraduate days, Ramsey demolished Keynes’ theory of probability and C.H. Douglas’s social credit theory; made a valiant attempt at repairing Bertrand Russell’s Principia Mathematica; and translated Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, and wrote a critique of the latter alongside a critical notice of it that still stands as one of the most challenging commentaries of that difficult and influential book.

Keynes, in an impressive show of administrative skill and sleight of hand, made the 21-year-old Ramsey a fellow of King’s College at a time when only someone who had studied there could be a fellow. (Ramsey had done his degree at Trinity).

Ramsey validated Keynes’ judgment. In 1926 he was the first to figure out how to define probability subjectively and invented the expected utility that underpins much of contemporary economics.

I’d never heard of Ramsey until I came on Keynes’s essay on him in his wonderful collection, Essays in Biography, published in 1933. (One of my favourite books, btw.) Given that Keynes himself was ferociously bright, the fact that he had such a high opinion of Ramsey was what made me sit up. Here’s an extract that conveys that:

Seeing all of Frank Ramsey’s logical essays published together, we can perceive quite clearly the direction which is mind was taking. It is a remarkable example of how the young can take up the story at the point to which the previous generation had brought it a little out of breath, and then proceed forward without taking more than about a week thoroughly to digest everything which had been done up to date, and to understand with apparent ease stuff which to anyone even 10 years older seemed hopelessly difficult. One almost has to believe that Ramsay in his nursery year near Magdalene1 was unconsciously absorbing from 1903 to 1914 everything which anyone may have been saying or writing from Trinity.

(Among the people in Trinity College at the time were Bertrand Russell, A.N. Whitehead and Ludwig Wittgenstein.)


The hacking of Jeff Bezos’s phone

Interesting (but — according to other forensic experts — incomplete) technical report into his the Amazon boss’s smartphone was hacked, presumably by someone working for the Saudi Crown Prince.

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Where people have faith in their elections

The U.S. public’s confidence in elections is one of the worst of any wealthy democracy, according to a recently published Gallup poll. It found that a mere 40 percent of Americans have confidence in the honesty of their elections. As low as that figure is, distrust of elections is nothing new for the U.S. public.

The research found that a majority of Americans have had no confidence in the honesty of elections every year since 2012 with the share trusting the process at the ballot box sinking as low as 30 percent during the 2016 presidential campaign. Gallup stated that its 2019 data came at a time when eight U.S. intelligence agencies confirmed allegations of foreign interference in the 2016 presidential election and identified attempts to engage in similar activities during the midterms in 2018.

This chart shows how the U.S. compares to other developed OECD nations with the highest confidence scores recorded across Northern Europe and Finland, Norway and Sweden best-ranked.

Source

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David Spiegelhalter: Should We Trust Algorithms?

As the philosopher Onora O’Neill has said (O’Neill, 2013), organizations should not try to be trusted; rather they should aim to demonstrate trustworthiness, which requires honesty, competence, and reliability. This simple but powerful idea has been very influential: the revised Code of Practice for official statistics in the United Kingdom puts Trustworthiness as its first “pillar” (UK Statistics Authority, 2018).

It seems reasonable that, when confronted by an algorithm, we should expect trustworthy claims both:

  • about the system — what the developers say it can do, and how it has been evaluated, and

  • by the system — what it says about a specific case.

Terrific article


  1. Ramsey’s father was Master of Magdalene. 

Sunday 16 February, 2020

Reports of social media’s influence on (UK) voters may be exaggerated

This morning’s Observer column:

While it would obviously be ridiculous to deny that social media played some role in these political upheavals [Brexit and Trump’s election], it would be foolish to assign it the critical role. Apart from anything else, putting social media centre stage ignores what had been happening to democratic electorates during decades of globalisation, neoliberal economic policy, rising inequality and austerity. But because the rise of Facebook et al was one of the biggest changes over the last two decades, the temptation to see them as the place to look for explanations seems to have been well-nigh irresistible.

Fortunately, it was resisted by researchers at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism in Oxford when they set out to understand where UK voters got their news during the 2019 general election. They tracked the online news consumption of 1,711 people aged 18-65 across mobile and desktop devices throughout the campaign and also surveyed a subset of 752 panellists before and after the vote. What the researchers were seeking to understand was the relative importance for voters of offline and online news and their attitudes to the media and politics more widely.

Their findings make intriguing reading, not least because they challenge some of the anecdotal conventional wisdom about the predominance of social media…

Read on


In the boxing business, only the promoter wins every fight

Same applies on social media.

Both of these sites are owned by the same jokester. Heads he wins, tails he wins. ‘Engagement’ is all.

“Are you glad to see Conway gone?” asked Liberal Society at the end of its post.

“Will you miss seeing Conway on TV?” asked Conservative 101.

The stories read like they were stamped out of the same content machine because they were. Using domain registration records and Google Analytics and AdSense IDs, BuzzFeed News determined that both sites are owned by American News LLC of Miami.

That company also operates another liberal site, Democratic Review, as well as American News, a conservative site that drew attention after the election when it posted a false article claiming that Denzel Washington endorsed Trump. It also operates GodToday.com, a site that publishes religious clickbait.

Source


What the composition of the Johnson Cabinet actually portends

Insightful analysis by James Butler in the LRB:

It’s the move to control and centralisation that is most significant, and gives us the clearest sign of what to expect from the government over the next five years: personalised authority, a tussle over economic intervention intended to reshape the nation, hostility to legal and journalistic accountability, and a host of convenient public enemies as villainous Brussels recedes from view. The new appointees, and the new priorities, inaugurate a new mode of British Conservatism – and any opposition that fails to grasp that, and its internal weaknesses, may find it takes longer than five years to defeat it.


Saturday 15 February, 2020

Quote of the Day

“If there are three kinds of people—those who make things happen, those who watch things happen, and those who never knew what hit them — neoliberals belong to the first category and most progressives to the latter two. The left remained complacent until, suddenly, it was too late.”

  • Susan George, “How to Win the War of Ideas: Lessons of the Gramscian Right”. #

Correlation vs causation and the sudden departure of the World Bank’s Chief Economist

Well, well. This from the Economist:

When autocratic, oil-rich nations enjoy a windfall from higher crude prices, where does the money go? One place to look is Swiss bank accounts. Sure enough, an increase in oil prices is followed by a spike in deposits held by these countries in financial havens, according to a 2017 paper by Jorgen Juel Andersen of bi Norwegian Business School, Niels Johannesen of the University of Copenhagen and their co-authors.

When Mr Johannesen presented this result at the World Bank in 2015, the audience included Bob Rijkers, a member of the bank’s research group. The two of them joined forces with Mr Andersen to investigate if something similar happened after another kind of windfall: infusions of aid from foreign donors. Their conclusion was dispiriting. World Bank payouts to 22 aid-dependent countries during 1990-2010 were followed by a jump in their deposits in foreign financial havens. The leaks averaged about 5% of the bank’s aid to these countries.

Rijkers reports to the Bank’s Chief Economist, Penny Goldberg. Normally these kinds of working papers are published. But this particular one hasn’t been — yet. And there are rumours that it has been held back because it is, well, embarrassing to find that 5% of the Bank’s aid might be going to the Swiss bank accounts of corrupt politicians. After all, correlation doesn’t mean causation. But now Ms Goldberg is leaving and going back to Yale. Correlation or causation?


Could the Coronavirus Help Make China More Free?

Intriguing paradoxes about China raised by Tyler Cowen in his Bloomberg column. On the one hand, being an authoritarian state means it can take decisive action — like quarantining 11m people. But what if public opinion as expressed on social media gets so torrential that it overpowers the capacity of the censors?


Northern Ireland’s future in a single chart

Source


Friday 14 February, 2020

Bloomberg is going after Trump on his home turf: Facebook

He spent more than $1 million a day on average during the past two weeks on Facebook, according to data compiled by NBC News. The thing is: with a net worth of $61B, he can easily afford to outspend Trump. At one level, this might be reassuring. At another, it’s deeply depressing: it means that only billionaires can play at democracy in the US now. We’re really in Larry Lessig’s Lesterland.


Are unsecured cafe wi-fi networks deliberately hostile to VPNs?

I’m in Bill’s cafe in Cambridge, which offers ‘free’ Wi-Fi — which of course I don’t trust. So I switch on my VPN to find that, mysteriously, it can’t connect to its server. And I’m wondering if this is just some kind of glitch, or a policy by the firm that provides the Wi-Fi. After all, they don’t want clients sending communications that are encrypted and therefore inscrutable for advertising and tracking purposes. In this stuff, only the paranoid survive.


Inside the mind of Dominic Cummings

Cummings is now the UK’s de facto project manager, but what does he actually believe? In a bid to find out, Stefan Collini read (almost) everything Cummings has written in the last decade. His report is fascinating, insightful and thought-provoking. I can say that because I too have been reading Cummings for years. When I say that to people in Cambridge, though, they start to back away — as if I had revealed that I was interested in UFOs. They view Cummings through a blinding haze of visceral dislike. So it’s nice to see a real heavyweight (Collini has written great stuff on CP Snow, the neoliberal ‘reform’ of UK universities and public intellectuals) taking Cummings seriously. Well worth reading in full.


I stumbled across a huge Airbnb scam that’s taking over London

Wonderful piece of investigative reporting by James Temperton in Wired. I don’t use Airbnb but I know lots of people — especially younger folk — who do. Wonder how many of them have bad experiences?


A taxonomy of privacy

Landmark 2006 article by Daniel Solove in the University of Pennsylvania Law Review. I love the way it begins:

Privacy is a concept in disarray. Nobody can articulate what it means. As one commentator has observed, privacy suffers from “an embarrassment of meanings.”

Yep. And that’s still true — fourteen years later.

Sunday 9 February, 2020

George Steiner: an appreciation

I knew and liked George Steiner, who died on Monday last at the age of 90. The *Observer asked me to wrote an appreciation of him. Here’s a sample:

I first met George in the 1980s, when I was a TV critic. At the time, Channel 4 was running a high-IQ chatshow called Voices, in which the host, the poet and critic Al Alvarez, batted around ideas with a panel of prominent public intellectuals. One evening, I watched, mesmerised, as George fluently extemporised for 10 whole minutes – without notes, hesitation or much repetition – on the question of whether an authoritarian political system can produce more artistic creativity than the “free” west.

My review included a riff on a literary phenomenon – the Steiner sentence – a formidable expressive work that came, perfectly formed, with an ancillary apparatus of footnotes, subordinate clauses and scholarly asides, and went on long after the programme had come to an end, the lights had been switched off and the entire production crew had gone home to bed. And having dispatched the review, I too switched off and went to bed.

A few days later, a postcard arrived from George inviting me to lunch at the Green Man in Grantchester, where we had an enjoyable, convivial conversation…

Do read the whole thing


Democrats should have seen their Iowa tech meltdown coming

Today’s Observer column:

Who needs the Russians when the Democratic party of Iowa is perfectly capable of screwing up the democratic process all by itself? The political world waited on Monday night with bated breath to see which of the Democratic candidates would emerge from the arcane “caucus” process in the state. But when the polls closed, no results were available.

There were, the party, stated, “inconsistencies” in the reported figures coming through from the precincts. No results would be issued until the results had been properly and accurately collated. The information was to have come from a recently developed smartphone app, with a back-up option that would enable precinct captains to phone in their results. Neither channel worked. CNN reported that one official who was trying to report his results was on hold for an hour and had apparently just got through to party headquarters when the party hung up on him – on live television. It was, to use a technical term, a shambles…

Read on


Events, dear Mr Xi, events

Harold Macmillan’s timeless reply to the journalist who asked him what kept him awake at night (“Events, dear boy, events.”), keeps coming to mind. I’m wondering now if the Corona virus, and in particular popular anger at the harassment and death of Li Wenliang — the young doctor who first raised the possibility that a new virus was loose might — in the end, lead to the downfall of the current Great Leader, Winnie the Pooh, as he is satirically known.

In that context, there’s an interesting piece in today’s Observer:

“The fallout from the spread of the potentially deadly coronavirus is already grim”, writes Richard McGregor,

most immediately in the form of a reeling Chinese economy that is having to temporarily sever supply lines to factories and retail outlets around the world. China has been responsible for about one-third of global growth in recent years, a greater share than the US, and any slowdown in its economy will be felt across the world.

But the greatest focus is on what Li alluded to when he complained about the country being ruled by “one voice”, which Chinese people would immediately recognise as a barb directed at Xi Jinping. Xi has swept all enemies, real and imagined, aside since taking over as Communist party chief in late 2012 and made many more along the way.

Powerful families and moneyed interests toppled by his relentless anti-corruption campaign will never forgive him and are lying in wait for revenge. Equally, many of the technocratic elite have been alienated by his illiberal economic policies and his assertiveness overseas, which they blame for triggering a concerted pushback in Washington.

Much of their anger was captured in a single moment that embodied their fears that Xi is taking the country backwards – his decision in early 2018 to do away with term limits and make himself leader in perpetuity.

I was talking to a China expert last night who believes that the thing that terrifies local Chinese Communist party bosses is that the people will one day become really pissed off with them.

Eventually Xi will discover that nothing lasts forever. In the end the real Winnie the Pooh’s grip on the popular imagination will outlast him.


Tuesday 4 February, 2020

Newton’s notebook

The young Isaac Newton was a painstaking recorder of his expenditure, probably because he was relatively poor. This is one of his early notebooks, where he records his expenditure on frivolous ‘sweetmeats’ — as sugary treats were then called.

This particular notebook is included in the Fitzwilliam Museum’s current (and fascinating) Feast and Fast: the Art of Food in Europe 1500-1800 exhibition.


Surprise, surprise! There are lots of scammers on Airbnb

Good Vice investigation reveals what a lot of people already know:

The stories quickly started to fall into easily discernible categories. Scammers all over the world, it seems, have figured how best to game the Airbnb platform: by engaging in bait and switches; charging guests for fake damages; persuading people to pay outside the Airbnb app; and, when all else fails, engaging in clumsy or threatening demands for five-star reviews to hide the evidence of what they’ve done. (Or, in some cases, a combination of several of these scams.)

The article has an interesting list of the ways people (hosts as well as guests) can be scammed. And, to be fair, Airbnb seems to be willing to accept some responsibility for the bad stuff that goes on on their platform. In that sense, it provides a welcome contrast to Facebook.


Talk, don’t fly

One predictable consequence of Corona. “Zoom Video Stock Soars as Coronavirus Travel Bans Boost Focus on Videoconferencing.”

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Towards another Facebook Presidential election

Four reasons that make Frederic Filloux believe that we are heading towards another American Presidential Election swayed by Facebook.

  1. Mark Zuckerberg’s stubbornness in exonerating political advertising from any fact-checking process. In short: any false statement showing up in a newsfeed can be debunked by either Facebook team or any TPFC (third-party fact-checking) it relies on and taken down. But if the same statement appears in a paid-political ad, it is allowed to stay (unless it points to previously debunked fake news).
  2. There is no change of Facebook’s core principle, which is to reward emotion, and incendiary statements — a principle that clearly favors right-wing rhetoric (starting with Donald Trump). Facebook never considers altering its algorithm to spotlight high qualityand more even-keeled content. The reason is that it brings less engagement, which is at the core of Facebook’s economics.
  3. Unlike 2016, this time, Facebook has a vested interest in seeing Democrats lose. Whoever the nominee be, he or she will go after Facebook, at least with severe regulation and at worse with an attempt to break the companies’ holdings up.
  4. Trump digital campaign is running on full throttle compared to Democrats’. In the exact same scenario as 2016, the Trump campaign is spending heavily on social media and runs 3x more ads than Pete Buttigieg and 7x more than Elizabeth Warren, who is following Hillary Clinton’s path: in 2016, while Trump was flooding voters with 6 million different ads, HRC ran only 66,000 different versions of its message. Toyda, the numbers are staggering: according to a detailed investigation published last week by the Guardian, the Trump campaign spent $19.4m on 218,100 different Facebook ads in 2019, which were seen between 633m and 1.3bn times.

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Climate models are running hot — and nobody knows why.

Fascinating Bloomberg report. It’s not just one model, but lots of the major ones. They’re starting to predict much higher temperatures. And at the moment, there’s no consensus in the climate-research community about why this is happening. Is it just a quirk of these very complex models? Or the result of interactions that nobody’s understood? It’s a bit like the problem of inexplicable machine-learning systems. Only more worrying.


Sunday 2 February, 2020

The iPad: ten years on and still a work in progress

This morning’s Observer column

while the iPad I use today is significantly better and more functional than its 2010 predecessor, it’s still not a replacement for a laptop. Anything that involves multitasking – combining content from a variety of applications, for example – is clumsy and nonintuitive on the iPad, whereas it’s a breeze on a Mac. Given that user-interface design has traditionally been one of Apple’s great strengths, this clumsiness is strange and disappointing. Somewhere along the line, as veteran Apple-watcher John Gruber puts it, the designers made “profound conceptual mistakes in the iPad user interface, mistakes that need to be scrapped and replaced, not polished and refined”. Steve Jobs’s tablet may have come a long way, but it’s still a work in progress.

Do read the entire piece


A Republic if they could keep it. Looks like they couldn’t

As the farcical Senate Impeachment ‘trial’ just concluded what kept running through my mind was the story of what Benjamin Franklin said as he was leaving the Constitutional Convention of 1787 on the final day of deliberation. A woman asked him “Well Doctor what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?” To which Franklin famously replied, “A republic . . . if you can keep it.”

By acquitting Trump, the Senate seems to have confirmed the failure of that attempt. Trump is now effectively a monarch, floating above the law. So, one wonders, what happens next? As a habitual offender, he will undoubtedly commit more crimes. As a sitting President, it seems that he cannot be indicted by the normal processes of law enforcement. For him, Congress is the only constitutional authority that can punish him. But this Congress spectacularly refused to do so. So unless the Republicans lose control of the Senate in November, Trump will be entirely free of legal restraints. And supposing he loses (unlikely prospect at present), would he actually stand down? And in that eventuality, who would physically remove him from the White House?

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Presidential power and the Net

Further to the above thoughts about the untrammelled misuse of Presidential power, Jessica Rosenworcel, who is an FCC Commissioner, gave a sobering keynote address to the FCC’s ‘State of the Net’ conference in Washington on January 28.

She began by describing what’s currently going on in Kashmir, where the Indian government has cut off Internet connection for the 7 million people who live in that disputed territory. In one vivid passage, she described how Kashmiris are coping with this blackout:

Every morning like clockwork hundreds of passengers cram into a train out of the valley for a 70-mile journey to the nearest town with a connection. They are packed so tightly that they can barely move. If all goes well, they will be back before nightfall. Kashmiris have dubbed the train the “Internet Express.” It carries people hoping to renew driver’s licenses, apply for passports, fill out admission forms, check e-mail, and register for school exams. This is how they keep up with modern life, thanks to the shutdown.

Then Commissioner Rosenworcel turns to her audience:

Now if you are thinking this does not concern you because all of this is happening a world away, I understand. After all, the shutdown in the Kashmir Valley followed from the state invoking the Indian Telegraph Act of 1885, a law that dates to the British colonial era. Moreover, a few weeks ago Indian courts ruled that an indefinite internet shutdown is an abuse of power—although that decision alone does not restore all service. So you might think this is at some distance from what could happen in the United States. But you might want to think again.

Specifically, they might need to take a look at Section 706 of the Communications Act. The Section allows the President to shut down or take control of “any facility or station for wire communication” if he proclaims “that there exists a state or threat of war involving the United States.” With respect to wireless communications, suspending service is permitted not only in a “war or threat of war” but merely if there is a presidential proclamation of a “state of public peril” or simply a “disaster or other national emergency.” There is no requirement in the law for the President to provide any advance notice to Congress.

“This language”, says Rosenworcel,

is undeniably broad. The power it describes is virtually unchecked. So maybe some context will help. The changes to this section of the law about wire communications were made within a month after the attack on Pearl Harbor. It was passed at a time when Congress was laser focused on developing new ways to protect our safety and security.

Now of course Section 706 has not (yet) been applied to the Internet, and when the Act was amended after Pearl Harbor “wire communication” meant telephone calls or telegrams. But remember the bulk of US communications law dates back to 1934 and remains the framework for US communications infrastructure. And she points out that, in a 2010 report, the Senate concluded that Section 706 “gives the President the authority to take over wire communications in the United States and, if the President so chooses, shut a network down.”

So it remains true that if a sitting President wants to shut down the internet or selectively cut off a service, all it takes is an opinion from his Attorney General that Section 706 gives him the authority to do so.

That’s alarming. Because if you believe there are unspoken norms that would prevent us from using Section 706 this way, let me submit to you that past practice may no longer be the best guide for future behavior. Norms are being broken all the time in Washington and relying on them to cabin legal interpretation is not the best way to go.

Which rather puts the Impeachment case in a different light. Shutting down the US Internet would be unthinkable, wouldn’t it? Before nodding your head in vigorous agreement, ask yourself how many ‘unthinkable’ things have happened since Trump took office?