Sunday 25 October, 2020

Textual intercourse

St Pancras Station, London.

Quote of the Day

In controversies about technology and society, there is no idea more provocative than the notion that technical things have political qualities.

  • Langdon Winner, 1980.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Beethoven | Moonlight Sonata | Tiffany Poon


You don’t need a search engine to see why Google won’t lose this lawsuit

This morning’s Observer column

This sudden outbreak of regulatory zeal in the DoJ raises two questions. The first is: what took it so long? The second is: why now? Of these, the second is easiest to answer. There’s an election coming and Bill Barr wants to be seen as fulfilling his boss’s threat to “do something” about the tech companies that, Trump believes, have recently turned against him by suddenly refusing their traditional role as relay stations and amplifiers for his lies.

The first question – about why it took so long for US authorities to complain about corporate behaviour that had been obvious for years and, indeed, had provoked responses from the European commission – is interesting…

Read on

The DoJ’s lawsuit against Google

Was my column (above) too cynical? Close reading of a lot of other commentary suggests that it was. Here, for example, is Sarah Miller in the Guardian:

This is the most significant antitrust case filed since the government suit against Microsoft in 1998, and it also ranks with the most important antitrust suits of all time, including Standard Oil and AT&T. The move by a conservative Republican administration to take on one of the largest companies in the world is a repudiation of the libertarian ideology that has dominated American politics since the 1980s.

Or here’s Matt Stoller on his (excellent) blog:

the Google suit is a stunning change in the consensus underpinning American politics. The complaint itself a tight, well-reasoned, and nicely framed case, and the scope will likely broaden over the next few months. What the DOJ is arguing is basically a carbon copy of the Microsoft case of the late 1990s, where the government accused Microsoft of illegally tying Internet Explorer to Microsoft Windows. Today, the DOJ is accusing Google of illegally tying Search to its mobile phone operating system Android and its browser Chrome. And the government is seeking to break up Google.

The Financial Times claims that “there’s rare bipartisan support“ (eh?) for the suit and that it “reflects a careful legal strategy designed to maximise the odds of success, while also acting as the first part of a broader legal campaign against Google and the Rest of Big Tech.” The DoJ has “opted for a more limited anti-trust action that many lawyers believe has a better change of winning.” By limiting the case to contracts then the DOJ stands a chance of a quick win.

Hmmm… First of all, that idea of a ‘quick win’ seems implausible. My guess that that the case won’t get to court until late 2021 or early 2022, with possible appeals after that.

The most insightful commentary I’ve read came from Ben Thompson in his (subscription) daily newsletter which I get every day. He’s famous for his ‘Aggregator Theory’ which he thinks provides the best explanation for the monopolistic success of the big tech companies. And he doesn’t think that the US can do much about them so long as they continue to provide high-quality ‘free’ services that users clearly value. For regulators to try to undo an Aggregator by changing consumer preferences is, he says, “like pushing on a string”.

What regulators can do though, Thompson thinks, is prevent Aggregators from artificially enhancing their natural advantages. And that’s what he sees the DoJ suit as trying to do. That’s why he says he’s “pleased to see how narrowly focused the Justice Department’s lawsuit it: instead of trying to argue that Google should not make search results better, the Justice Department is arguing that Google, given its inherent advantages as a monopoly, should have to win on the merits of its product, not the inevitably larger size of its revenue share agreements. In other words, Google can enjoy the natural fruits of being an Aggregator, it just can’t use artificial means — in this case contracts — to extend that inherent advantage.”

Two thoughts from all this.

  1. The best comparison is with the DoJ case against Microsoft in 1998. And if that is indeed true, the the chances of a radical outcome are small. When the Microsoft case launched people thought the odds that the company would be broken up were high. But in the end and election intervened and it ended with a whimper (relatively minor behavioural changes imposed on Microsoft). (Though it’s also plausible that the stress of the case distracted Bill Gates & Co from strategic issues like mobile and search). And while the charge against Google may be limited and focussed in the way that delights the anti-monopoly optimists, I’ll be surprised if the DoJ can make it stick. The Google line is that paying Apple huge sums to make Google the default search engine on iOS is like a cereal firm paying a supermarket chain for preferential treatment for its brands.

  2. Most of the commentary ignores the political context and the timing of the case — a couple of weeks before the most contentious presidential election in modern history. And no commentator seems to address the role of the Attorney General as Trump’s enforcer-in-chief. Yet Barr is — as Fintan O’Toole puts it,

the single most important figure on Trump’s transition team, but the transition in question is not the democratic transfer of power. It is the transition from republican democracy to authoritarianism. Because of his suave, courteous, even jovial demeanor and intellectual acumen, and his long record as a member of the pre-Trump Republican establishment, it seems superficially plausible to look to Barr as the one who might ultimately seek to restrain Trump and protect the basic institutional and constitutional order. All evidence—including ProPublica’s report on October 7 that the Department of Justice has now weakened its long-standing prohibition against interfering in elections by allowing federal investigators “to take public investigative steps before the polls close, even if those actions risk affecting the outcome of the election”—points in the opposite direction.

I’m with Fintan on this. `

No going back to the status quo ante

Just in case anyone thinks that a Biden victory will end the nightmare…

From an editorial in Noema magazine…

Let’s not forget that Trump and his populist comrades are a symptom, not a cause, of the decay of democratic institutions that, captured by the organized special interests of an insider establishment, failed to address the dislocations of globalization and the disruptions of rapid technological change. Those challenges remain unresolved. Indeed, they have only intensified since populist sentiment has transmuted the revolt against a moribund political class into a revolt against governance itself.

Above all, what has not disappeared is the quest for a sense of belonging that accords dignity to otherwise liquidized identities in a world in which individuals and communities alike feel that they are drowning in the swell of seemingly anonymous forces beyond their control.

Those who rightly believe that Trumpism and its fellow travelers are destroying the possibility of a civil society should not be consoled by a victory at the polls. Simply returning “our” partisans to the halls of power will only reproduce the problem. Neither a turn toward autocracy nor lame attachment to forms of democratic government and wealth distribution that have become dysfunctional will answer the question of how to govern open societies in the 21st century. That requires a clean slate for building a different future, not a relapse to what was already broken before populism made it worse.

Other, perhaps interesting, links

  • Dreams of a Red Emperor. Profile of Xi Jinping by Alice Su in the Los Angeles Times. He’s a powerful now as Mao once way, but he’s no revolutionary. Contains no mention of Winnie the Pooh, so may not be blocked in China. Link

  • Lovely 3-D Animation of How Medieval Bridges Were Built Link. HT Jason Kottke.

  • Does Palantir See Too Much? Terrific long read by Michael Steinberger on one of the world’s most enigmatic companies. Link

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