Tuesday 16 May, 2023


Cambridge Market in 2012.

Quote of the Day

“We are so made that we can derive intense enjoyment from a contrast and very little from a state of things.”

  • Sigmund Freud (in Civilisation and its Discontents)

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Schubert | Impromptu n°3 | Horowitz


Long Read of the Day

The Fifth Horseperson of the Tory Apocalypse

David Aaronovitch used to be one of the few columnists on the London Times that I ever bothered to read. That’s because he is trenchant, smart and very good at calling spades spades. But then, for reasons that are not too difficult to guess, he seems to have fallen out with the management and now has his own Substack newsletter, to which I have subscribed. This essay, posted on May 13, gives a flavour of what he’s good at. It also vividly illustrates the nature of the jerks now in high office in the UK, of which the current ‘Secretary of State for Business’ is a prime example.

The nub of the story is that the Tory government has had to climb down on its original plan to have a bonfire of all the 4,000 EU regulations which Brexiteers claimed to be crippling ‘Global Britain’. But she couldn’t bear to admit the extent of the humiliating retreat implied by the climbdown. For her and the rest of the Brexiteers, reality is an optional extra.

What she was really saying, writes Aaronovitch, is this:

“I and this government have just wasted another eight months of civil service and parliamentary time in pursuing a doctrinaire approach to a deeply consequential matter, mostly to appease forces on the right of our own party. We have used every rhetorical trick in the book to justify this approach, but have reluctantly come to the view that it just isn’t practical. Now we will blame everyone but ourselves for its failure and do it with a simple arrogance which, if you think about it for five seconds, is simply breathtaking. So don’t think about it for five seconds. And here are some pictures of prison barges for refugees to take your minds off it.”

But read the whole thing if you want a useful insight into the state the UK is in.

Ireland is failing to police big tech. Now I wonder why that might be?

The Irish Council for Civil Liberties has just released a damning indictment of the country’s data protection authority.

Five years after the GDPR, Europe remains unable to police how Big Tech uses our data. Ireland continues to be the bottleneck of enforcement: it delivers few draft decisions on major cross-border cases. When it does eventually do so, other European enforcers then routinely vote by majority to force it to take tougher enforcement action.

Lack of funding does not appear to be the primary cause of this problem. Data protection authorities across the EU now have a combined budget of 1/3 billion Euro. The Irish budget now ranks among the top five EU countries.

The Irish Government resists calls for an independent review of the DPC that could determine how to strengthen and reform it. The European Commission is acquiescent.

The GDPR provides strong investigation and enforcement powers to protect people from the misuse of data that enables much of the digital world’s problems. It should be our shield against the digital era’s problems: discrimination, manipulation, media distortion, and invasive AI.

But that shield has yet to be taken up.

The key point is that because the big US tech corporations have their European HQs in Dublin, the Irish Data Protection Commissioner is lumbered with the job of policing them. The zoological analogy is putting a mouse in charge of a group of angry panthers.

Cory Doctorow (Whom God Preserve) has a scarifying commentary on this.

The report’s headline figure really tells the story: the European Data Protection Board – which oversees Ireland’s DPC – overturns the Irish regulator’s judgments 75% of the time. It’s actually worse than it appears: that figure only includes appeals of the DPC’s enforcement actions, where the DPC bestirred itself to put on trousers and show up for work to investigate a privacy claim, only to find that the corporation was utterly blameless.

But the DPC almost never takes enforcement actions. Instead, the regulator remains in its pajamas, watching cartoons and eating breakfast cereal, and offers an “amicable resolution” (that is, a settlement) to the accused company. 83% of the cases brought before the DPC are settled with an “amicable resolution.”

The backstory to this goes back to 1958, when the incoming Taoiseach (Prime Minister) and the country’s most powerful civil servant, Ken Whitaker, sat in an office in Dublin confronting the thought that the Republic was on the verge of becoming a failed state. Its economy was in ruins and its main exports were live cattle and young people.

Whitaker came up with a strategy for survival. Since Ireland had very few natural advantages besides sovereignty, it should recast itself as a country that was uniquely welcoming to foreign capital, especially US-based corporations. And this it proceeded to do with verve and imagination. The strategy worked, and economic development was then massively boosted by entry into the EEC in 1973.

Many of the incoming multinational companies turned out to be relatively good corporate citizens. But then came the Internet and the growth of tech giants for whom a relaxed taxation policy and a location in the EU were just what the doctor ordered. The result is that this tiny country is now dominated by the needs of these monsters, several of which have become positively toxic. But the tax revenues they bring in give the illusion of a booming economy in a country where inequality is rife, many are homeless and there’s a housing crisis worse even than that of the UK.

All of which may help to explain why the government in Dublin might be, er, reluctant to examine why the country’s Data Protection Commission apparently takes such a relaxed view of tech giants’ behaviour in Europe.

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