UK this way

We’ve been in France, as usual. Coming back yesterday, ours was the first car onto the Eurotunnel Shuttle. So, in a way, this was the road to the UK.

Booming tech and rising inequality: correlation or causation?

This morning’s Observer column:

Here is one of the great paradoxes of our time. The world is dominated by a few corporations that are among the most profitable companies in the history of capitalism. In the US (the home of these giants) and in the UK (an enthusiastic vassal state), parts of the economy are booming and employment is at record levels. And yet, in the middle of this astonishing prosperity, inequality is at levels not seen since the period before the first world war. In the US, the share of total income going to the top 1% of the population is now back to the level it was in the 1920s. And in the UK, more than 4 million people are trapped in deep poverty.

Since this catastrophic rise in inequality seems to be correlated with the rise of the tech industry, it’s tempting to see a causal link between the two. Tempting, but too simplistic. For while digital technology has been a central factor in what’s happened, it’s only a part of the story. More often, it’s been an enabler of other forces rather than a prime mover.

The biggest force reshaping our world has been globalisation…

Read on

Another reason not to like Facebook Likes

From The Register:

Organisations that deploy Facebook’s ubiquitous “Like” button on their websites risk falling foul of the General Data Protection Regulation following a landmark ruling by the European Court of Justice.

The EU’s highest court has decided that website owners can be held liable for data collection when using the so-called “social sharing” widgets.

The ruling (PDF) states that employing such widgets would make the organisation a joint data controller, along with Facebook – and judging by its recent record, you don’t want to be anywhere near Zuckerberg’s antisocial network when privacy regulators come a-calling.

Well, well.

What took governments so long to wake up to the tech giants’ power?

Interesting NYT column by Kara Swisher:

Here’s a little quiz. When was the last time a significant social media network was founded in the United States? And what about a competitive search engine company? An online ad network? And what about a truly wide-ranging e-commerce start-up?

Here are the depressing answers. The social network Snapchat, in 2011. For search, Microsoft’s Bing appeared in 2009, a replacement for its Live Search. I’m drawing a blank on an ad network. With e-commerce, the answer is probably Wayfair, which arrived in 2002, and still has only 1.3 percent of the market (most retail innovation has been in niche areas, like luggage (Away) or special fashion (The RealReal)).

To put this another way: Facebook and its Instagram unit have close to 50 percent of the social media market, dwarfing all the other companies in monthly active users tenfold. Google has about 90 percent of the search market, with Bing and Yahoo dwindling ever further behind by the month. Google and Facebook also suck up 60 percent of the digital ad spend, with only Amazon moving up aggressively in that fast-growing space. And speaking of Amazon, the retail giant has about 50 percent of total e-commerce sales in the United States, with eBay and Walmart at 7 percent and 4 percent, respectively.

Finally, it looks as though the US government is beginning to think that there might be something wrong here. Which prompts three questions:

  1. What took them so long? Was it just that they were still in thrall to Robert Bork’s The Antitrust paradox?
  2. Have they left it too late?
  3. And how do you punish companies that can absorb a $5B fine without missing a beat?

(Interestingly, Amazon.co.uk is currently selling a paperback copy of Bork’s book for £207.02!)

What can British journalists learn from US hacks’ experience of covering Trump?

Nice, useful advice by Emily Bell:

In the end, perhaps the biggest lesson the British media can learn from the US experience of Trump is that their work matters to people beyond their readership or audience, and to that end it needs to become more rigorous and more serious. On both sides of the Atlantic there is a circular firing squad of the commentariat who wonder, on a daily basis, how did this happen? The boring truth is that we need to pay attention to the substance and not the glockenspiel. When the circus has left town, we will need a reliable record to remind us of what happened, and how, and why.

Johnson’s semi-house-trained technocrat

My Observer Comment piece on Dominic Cummings:

Skulking in the background of TV news footage of Boris Johnson’s cabinet of C-list politicos, a strange figure in a T-shirt could be seen. His name: Dominic Cummings, now the prime minister’s senior adviser. He’s all forehead and no smile, clutching a pen and possibly a notebook, and doubtless making notes.

What a pity, one thought, that David Davis wasn’t round the cabinet table. In 2017 Cummings noted that Davis was as “thick as mince”, as “lazy as a toad” and as “vain as Narcissus”. As they passed him in the corridor on Thursday, many of Johnson’s new appointees must have wondered how they will be summarised in that notebook. We’ll have to wait a bit to find out.

Cummings’s appointment to the centre of Johnsonian power was the only real surprise of the week. After all, if you’re a prime minister who needs to get the government machine humming in top gear, ready for no deal, then the last person you need to lead the charge is a guy who has for years blogged his contempt for the civil service and the hapless politicians they serve.

His most recent efforts in this regard – an attack on the late, former cabinet secretary Jeremy Heywood – is a case study of how to spit on a revered grave…

Read on

Facial recognition technology — to ban or regulate it are the only options

This morning’s Observer column:

On 18 July, the House of Commons select committee on science and technology published an assessment of the work of the biometrics commissioner and the forensic science regulator. My guess is that most citizens have never heard of these two public servants, which is a pity because what they do is important for the maintenance of justice and the protection of liberty and human rights.

The current biometrics commissioner is Prof Paul Wiles. His role is to keep under review the retention and use by the police of biometric material. This used to be just about DNA samples and custody images, but digital technology promises to increase his workload significantly. “It is now seven years,” observes the Commons committee, “since the 2012 high court ruled that the indefinite retention of innocent people’s custody images was unlawful and yet the practice is continuing. A system was meant to have been put in place where any custody images were kept for six years and then reviewed. Custody images of unconvicted individuals at that point should be weeded and deleted.”

But they haven’t: photographs of innocent people remain on the police national database…

Read on

No vin rouge in DC

Latest from the White House teetotaller:

We will announce a substantial reciprocal action on Macron’s foolishness shortly,” the president added. “I’ve always said American wine is better than French wine!”

Speaking at the White House later, Mr. Trump expanded on that threat, calling France’s tax “wrong” and saying his administration was working on a possible wine tax.

“I’ve always liked American wines better than French wines. Even though I don’t drink wine. I just like the way they look,” he told reporters.

So what now for the Johnson Fanzine?

For several years now, the devotion of the Daily Telegraph, once a serious newspaper, to Boris Johnson has, like Peace of God, passeth all understanding. It had become, to all intents and purposes, a Johnson fanzine. But now that its mission has been accomplished, and its protegé is installed in power, what now for the paper? Is it just to become a government mouthpiece? You only have to ask the question to know the answer.

LATER Emily Bell (of the Tow Center in Columbia) provided the answer:

“The Daily Telegraph, where Johnson was a well-paid columnist up until entering No 10, is arguably closer and more bound up with Johnson than either Breitbart or Fox News is to Trump.”