If you wanted evidence of the dramatic shift of power from governments to tech giants, then this is it
In my Observer column of 19 April I wrote about the decision of
the two huge tech companies that control mobile phone technology – Apple with its iOS operating system and Google with Android – to create application programming interfaces (APIs) that will enable governments to build and deploy proximity-tracking apps on every smartphone in the world. This is remarkable in two ways. One, it involves cooperation between the two members of a global duopoly that would normally trigger antitrust suits – yet there hasn’t been even a whimper from competition authorities. And two, the companies insist that if governments do not comply with the conditions that they – Apple and Google – are laying down, then they will withdraw the APIs. The specific condition is that apps using the APIs are not mandatory for citizens. They have to be opt-in. So here we have two powerful global corporations laying down the law to territorial sovereigns. Unthinkable a month ago. But now…
After the Apple/Google announcement there was widespread speculation that European and other governments which were contemplating centralised proximity-sensing apps would be moving towards decentralised systems and pressuring the companies to back off their ‘opt-in’ stipulation.
Reuters is reporting that Germany, which until last Friday was backing a centralised standard called Pan-European Privacy-Preserving Proximity Tracing (PEPP-PT), which would have needed Apple in particular to change the settings on its iPhones. But,
When Apple refused to budge there was no alternative but to change course, said a senior government source.
In their joint statement, Braun and Spahn said Germany would now adopt a “strongly decentralised” approach.
“This app should be voluntary, meet data protection standards and guarantee a high level of IT security,” they said. “The main epidemiological goal is to recognise and break chains of infection as soon as possible.”
This is just the latest example of a major trend which has serious implications for democracy. It’s what Frank Pasquale identified long ago as the ceding of territorial sovereignty to functional sovereigns, i.e. tech giants.
Cummings and SAGE meetings
Further to my suspicions about the influence of Dominic Cummings following the revelations that he was attending meetings of the ‘independent’ SAGE scientific advisory group…
In the interesting interview that Professor Neil Ferguson (a member of SAGE) gave to Unherd he says that “Dominic Cummings observed, but did not get involved in decision-making at SAGE”. That doesn’t quite settle the matter. I don;t know what the dynamics of decision making are in No 10, but my understanding is that Cummings has ready access to Johnson and it’s conceivable that his summary of SAGE views might have made an impression on the Prime Minister; After all he’s made a good living all his life by telling stories that were simple, memorable and wrong. And Cummings likes vivid, dramatic propositions. Pukka scientists, on the other hand, tend to favour reservations, probabilities and doubt, none of which make for vivid stories.
It will be a long time before we learn what actually went on, but in the meantime Professor Chris Tyler of UCL, whose research area is how politicians use scientific advice has some interesting reflections on the current controversy about Cummings’s role in all this. “A key question for me”, he writes,
is what role Cummings was playing on SAGE. There is a potential spectrum of engagement with the group which at one end is perfectly acceptable and at the other is completely unacceptable.
It could well be that Cummings wanted to listen to SAGE discussions so that he could gain an understanding of how the debate within SAGE led to its summaries and recommendations. This to my mind would be fine. After all, in conditions of extreme uncertainty, like with COVID-19, the debate is at least as important as the conclusions of deliberation.
One might argue that his very presence could impede on the independence of the advice. But I would contend that the members of SAGE are all grown-ups and can act independently even when being observed.
But what if the Guardian report that “Downing Street advisers were not merely observing the advisory meetings, but actively participating in discussions about the formation of advice” is accurate?
Interestingly, the notion of SAGE being independent appears nowhere in its 64 pages of guidelines. Even though everyone “knows” that SAGE should be independent, the government’s official guidelines do not recognise this “fact”. As a first step, the 2012 SAGE guidelines should now be updated to outline the role of SAGE – which should include “independence” – and instructions as to when and if it is appropriate for political advisers to be present and, if so, what role they should play.
In order for us to ascertain the role played by Cummings or any other future political adviser, the minutes of SAGE meetings must be made public. The government clearly believes that the advice provided to it by SAGE should be private, but that runs counter to its own guidance on how science advisory committees should work, which calls for “openness and transparency”.
The problem with not being open and transparent is that it is impossible for parliament, the media and researchers to scrutinise what is going on. What is the advice the government is being given? Is government really following that advice? Who is giving it?
Which brings up back to Cummings. As Charles Arthur observed this morning,
When Cummings was ill with Covid-19, for about two weeks, the government’s response to the media had a much calmer tone. Now he’s back it’s angrier, more Trump-ish in its out-of-hand dismissals of well-sourced stories when then turn out to be correct, and important.
YouGov: Only 9% of Britons want life to return to “normal” after the coronavirus outbreak is over
Hmmm… I wonder if this is the case. Or is it just fond hopes that will not survive the new reality?
According to this summary…
- People have noticed significant changes during the lockdown, including cleaner air, more wildlife and stronger communities.
- More than half (54%) of 4,343 people who took part in the poll hope they will make some changes in their own lives and for the country as a whole to learn from the crisis.
- >42% of participants said they value food and other essentials more since the pandemic, with 38% cooking from scratch more.
- 61% of people are spending less money and 51% noticed cleaner air outdoors, while 27% think there is more wildlife.
- Two-fifths said there is a stronger sense of community in their area since the outbreak began and 39% say they are catching up with friends and family more.
Quarantine diary — Day 37
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