Brexit: straw men and pipe dreams

The ‘Brexit’ game has begun, and with it what look like being months of deception, delusion and demagoguery.  Elections in the UK (and most places, it seems) are generally characterised by bile and bilge but this referendum looks like being one of the very worst if the first few days are anything to go by. Much of the bilge has come from the usual suspects, but what is disappointing to me is how many people on the left seem to be subscribing to a mixture of straw men and pipe dreams. Brexit isn’t an escape from the evil corporate lobbyists and unaccountable courts: it’s all but certain to hand over even more of our lives to the worst of those people.


Some people, particularly on the left, seem to think that Brexit is a way to save us from the ravages of the TTIP (the ‘Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership’. Now the TTIP is deeply worrying – and is something people on the left should indeed be deeply concerned about. It’s a ‘free trade’ agreement – freeing up trade largely so that big corporations are less fettered by government ‘interference’ – that has been negotiated largely in secret, through the lobbying of those large corporations. Effectively, it could give those corporations mechanisms to override and avoid national laws – in ways that could damage workers’ rights, the environment, local businesses and employment and much more. It might help force the sell off of the NHS – at least that’s one of the fears. So yes, it’s a bit of a nightmare for people – in fact more than a bit of a nightmare.

And yet the idea that going for Brexit would help us avoid its impact is close to ludicrous. One of the key arguments made by Brexiters is that we’ll be able to negotiate our own trade deals. But what kind of deals? The only thing that those people behind Brexit – Grayling, IDS etc – might not like about TTIP is that it doesn’t go far enough. These are the people who actually ARE trying to sell off the NHS, to reduce workers’ rights, to stop the ‘green crap’. These are the people who have cosy meetings with exactly those corporations in whose benefit TTIP is drafted. These are the people who do cosy tax deals with Google, who have secret meetings with the lobbyists. They’re the people who go to Brussels to fight to stop the EU from restricting bankers’ bonuses. They’re the people fighting for the copyright lobbyists etc etc etc.

So yes, we might not have TTIP – though even that’s not clear – but we’ll almost certainly have something even worse. Even more favourable to the lobbyists. How much ‘democratic’ say have we had in our trade deals with Saudi Arabia? With China? How transparent have the negotiations with those two been? What are the terms? Do we even know?

History has shown that the only people to effectively fight against these deals within Europe are the European Parliament. It was the European Parliament who scuppered ACTA (the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement) with which TTIP has parallels, in 2012 – and they’re our last best hope against TTIP. Not the UK government, who would bend over backwards in favour of TTIP…. So if you want to fight TTIP, you need to stay in the EU and work hard on the European Parliament. Incidentally, that’s a little bit of democracy….

That European Court…

The idea of an overreaching ‘European Court’ interfering with British Justice has been mentioned more than once – even Boris Johnson talked of it in passing – but without either details or seemingly any understanding. When asked how and when it interferes, a couple of things seem to be at the tip of Brexiters’ tongues: prisoners’ votes and stopping us deporting terrorists. Aside from the fact that none of those judgments actually said what people seem to think they said, those cases are from the European Court of Human Rights (the ‘ECtHR) at Strasbourg, which is nothing to do with the European Union.  The court that is to do with the European Union is the Court of Justice of the European Union (‘CJEU’ – but often referred to as the European Court of Justice or ‘ECJ’) in Luxembourg. Strasbourg, Luxembourg, both Bourgs, so I suppose they seem the same, but they’re really very, very different.

There are reasons to be sceptical about some of the rulings but the CJEU has tended to help, not hinder, the people against precisely those groups that ‘lefties’ in particular would like to oppose. It was the CJEU that struck down the Data Retention Directive that effectively enabled mass surveillance in Europe. It was the CJEU that invalidated the ‘Safe Harbor’ agreement (in the Max Schrems case) fighting for people in the face of both big corporations (in this case Facebook et al) and governmental authorities. That’s what the ‘fundamental rights’ that Boris Johnson derided and Brexit would be likely to shrink really mean, just as the ‘red tape’ that Brexit promises to cut is likely to mean workers’ rights, environmental protection and so forth.

But we can vote them out…

The ‘sovereignty’ argument, for many, seems to rest upon the idea that though the current UK government are hideous, at least we can vote them out. It’s a nice idea – indeed, it’s the basis of our democracy – but in this case it’s part phantom part fantasy. Voting for Brexit won’t turn the UK into a socialist paradise. The voters of the UK won’t suddenly see the light and realise that they really want to vote for left wing parties and left wing policies. Whether you think it’s because Jeremy Corbyn is ‘unelectable’, because the ‘electable’ part of the Labour Party is still as useless and anaemic as it was in the leadership contest, because of the constant stream of sniping and undermining from ‘mainstream’ Labour MPs and endless newspaper and magazine columnists, Labour is not riding high in the polls, and shows no sign of doing so.

Add to the equation border changes, funding changes and new lobbying laws and the chances of a left wing government in the near future are even lower. Unless something very radical happens we’re not going to have a Corbyn triumph in 2020 – and to put your faith in such a thing happening is dangerous to say the least. And yet that’s what the ‘left wing case for Brexit’ essentially does. What’s far more likely with Brexit is that an even more right-wing Tory government will come in, and with even fewer restrictions on their actions will destroy even more of what is left of our welfare state, our NHS, all those things about Britain that those on the left like. It shouldn’t be a surprise that Iain Duncan Smith and Chris Grayling are amongst the most enthusiastic Brexiters. Win the vote and you’re giving them what they want.

So yes, we can vote them out – but the chances of us doing so before 2025 at the earliest are sadly small, and the amount of irreparable damage that can have been done before the is immense.

None of this is to suggest that the EU is a ‘good’ thing in absolute terms. What the Troika did with Greece is unforgivable. The continued embrace of austerity, the influence of the lobbyists and so forth are all hideous – but we shouldn’t let that blind us to the short and medium term effects of Brexit. It should also be remembered that for rich people – including the vast majority of politicians – this is all a bit of a game. Whatever happens they’ll be OK. They’ll make money if we stay and make money if we leave. There are profits to be made whatever happens, and they’ll find ways to make them. That’s why they can play games with highfalutin principles, claims about sovereignty and so forth. For the rest of us, though, this could have a much more real effect. That matters.

Why is Apple fighting the FBI?

The conflict between Apple and the FBI over the San Bernardino shooter’s iPhone has already had a huge amount of coverage, and that’s likely to continue for a while. The legal details and the technical details have already been written about at great length, but what is perhaps more interesting is why Apple is making such a point here. It isn’t, as some seem to be suggesting, because Apple doesn’t take terrorism seriously, and cares more about the privacy rights of a dead terrorist than it does its responsibilities to past and future victims of terrorism. Neither is it because Apple are the great guardians of our civil liberties and privacy, taking a stand for freedom. Apple aren’t champions of privacy any more than Google are champions of freedom of speech or Facebook are liberators of the poor people of India.  Apple, Google and Facebook are businesses. Their bottom line is their bottom line. Individuals within all of those companies may well have particular political, ethical or moral stances in all these areas, but that isn’t the key. The key is business.

So why, in those circumstances, is Apple taking such a contentious stance? Why now? Why in this case? It is Apple, on the surface at least, that is making this into such a big deal – Tim Cook’s open letter didn’t just talk about the specifics of the case or indeed of iPhones, but in much broader terms:

“While we believe the FBI’s intentions are good, it would be wrong for the government to force us to build a backdoor into our products. And ultimately, we fear that this demand would undermine the very freedoms and liberty our government is meant to protect.”

It’s wonderful stuff – and from the perspective of this privacy advocate at least it should be thoroughly applauded. It should, however, also be examined more carefully, with several pinches of salt, a healthy degree of scepticism and a closer look at the motivations. Ultimately, Apple is taking this stance because Apple believes it’s in Apple’s interests to take this stance. There may be a number of reasons for this. In a broad sense, Apple knows that security – and this is very much a security as well as a privacy issue – is critical for the success of the internet and of the technology sector in general. Security and privacy are critical under-pinners of trust, and trust is crucial for business success. People currently do trust Apple (in general terms) and that really matters to Apple’s business. The critical importance, again in a broad sense, of security and trust is why the other tech giants – Google, Facebook, Twitter et al – have also lined up behind Apple, though their own brands and businesses rely far less on privacy than Apple’s does. Indeed, for Google and Facebook privacy is very much a double-edged sword: their business models depend on their being able to invade our privacy for their own purposes. Trust and security, however, are crucial.

In a narrower sense, Apple has positioned itself as ‘privacy-friendly’ in recent years – partly in contrast to Google, but also in relation to the apparent overreach of governmental authorities. Apple has the position to be able to do this – it’s business model is based on shifting widgets, not harvesting data – but Apple has also taken the view that people now really care about privacy, enough to make decisions at least influenced by their sense of privacy. This is where things get interesting. In the last section of my book, Internet Privacy Rights, where I speculate about the possibility of a more privacy-friendly future, this is one of the key messages: business is the key. If businesses take privacy seriously, they’ll create a technological future where privacy is protected – but they won’t take it seriously out of high-minded principle. They’ll only take it seriously because there’s money in it for them, and there will only be money in it for them if we, their customer, take privacy seriously.

That, for me, could be the most positive thing to come from this story so far. Not just Apple but pretty much all the tech companies (in the US at least) have taken stances which suggest that they think people do take privacy seriously. A few years ago that would have been much less likely – and it is a good sign, from my perspective at least. Ultimately, as I’ve argued many times before, a privacy-friendly internet is something that we will all benefit from – even law enforcement. It is often very hard to see it that way, but in the long term the gains in security, in trust and much more will help us all.

That’s why in the UK, the Intelligence and Security Committee’s report criticised the new Investigatory Powers Bill for not making protection of privacy more prominent. As they put it:

“One might have expected an overarching statement at the forefront of the legislation, or to find universal privacy protections applied consistently throughout the draft Bill”

It is also why the FBI is playing a very dangerous game by taking on Apple in this way. Whilst it is risky for Apple to be seen as ‘on the side of the terrorists’ it may be even more risky for the FBI (and by implication the whole government of the US) to be seen as wanting to ride roughshod over everyone’s privacy. This is a battle for hearts and minds as much as a battle over the data in one phone, data that it is entirely possible is pretty much useless. Right now, it is hard to tell exactly who is winning that battle – but right now my money would be on the tech companies. I hope I’m right, because in the end that would be to the benefit of us all.


The Internet is not a Telephone System

One of the most important statements in the report of the Joint Committee on the Draft Investigatory Powers Bill is also one that may seem, on the surface at least, to be little more than a matter of presentation.

“We do not believe that ICRs are the equivalent of an itemised telephone bill. However well-intentioned, this comparison is not a helpful one.”

The committee had to make this statement because a number of the advocates for the Bill – and for the central place that Internet Connection Records play in the Bill – have been using this comparison. Many of the witnesses to both this committee and the two other parliamentary committees that have scrutinised and reported on the Bill (the Science and Technology Committee and the Intelligence and Security Committee) have been deeply critical of the comparison. The criticisms come from a number of different directions. One is the level of intrusion: this is Big Brother Watch, in the IP Bill Committee report:

“A telephone bill reveals who you have been speaking to, when and for how long. Your internet activity on the other had reveals every single thing you do online.”

Some criticised the technological complexity. This is from Professors John Naughton and David Vincent’s evidence to the IP Bill Committee:

“The Secretary of State said that an Internet Connection Record was “simply the modern equivalent of an itemised phone bill”. It is a deeply misleading analogy, because—whatever it turns out to be—an ICR in the current technological context will be significantly more complex and harder to compile than an itemised bill.”

Others, including myself, made the point that the way that people actually use the internet – and the way that the current communications systems function – simply does not fit the whole idea. Andrews & Arnold Limited put it like this:

“If the mobile provider was even able to tell that [a person] had used Twitter at all (which is not as easy as it sounds), it would show that the phone had been connected to Twitter 24 hours a day, and probably Facebook as well. is is because the very nature of messaging and social media applications is that they stay connected so that they can quickly alert you to messages, calls, or amusing cat videos, without any delay.”

This is Richard Clayton:

“The ICR data will be unable to distinguish between a visit to a jihadist website and visiting a blog where, unbeknown to the visitor (and the blog owner) the 329th comment (of 917) on the current article contains an image which is served by that jihadist site. So an ICR will never be evidence of intent—it merely records that some data has owed over the Internet and so it is seldom going to be ‘evidence’ rather than just ‘intelligence”.”

The Home Secretary, however, effectively dismissed these objections – but at the same time highlighted why the mistaken comparison is more important, and more revealing than just a question of presentation.

“As people move from telephony to communications on the internet, the use of apps and so forth, it is necessary to take that forward to be able to access similar information in relation to the use of the internet. I would say it is not inaccurate and it was a genuine attempt to try to draw out for people a comparison as to what was available to the law enforcement agencies now—why there is now a problem—because people communicate in different ways, and how that will be dealt with in the future.”

There were two ways to interpret the initial comparison. One interpretation was that it was a deliberate attempt to oversimplify, to sell the idea to the people, all the time knowing that it was an inappropriate comparison, one that simultaneously downplayed the intrusiveness of the records, underestimated the difficulty there would be in creating them and overestimated their likely effectiveness in assisting the police and the security services. The other was that those advocating the implementation of internet connection records genuinely believed that the comparison was a valid and valuable one. The evidence of the Home Secretary – and indeed of others backing the bill – seems to suggest that the second of these interpretations is closer to the truth. And though the first may seem the more worrying, as it might suggests a level of deception and dissembling that should disturb anyone, it is the second that should worry us more, as it betrays a far more problematic mindset, and one that sadly can be seen elsewhere in the debate over surveillance and indeed over regulating, policing and controlling the internet in other ways.

It suggests that rather than facing up to the reality of the way the internet works, those in charge of the lawmaking (and perhaps even the policing itself) are trying to legislate as though the internet were the kind of communication system they are used to. The kind they already understand. They’re not just comparing the internet to a telephone system, they’re acting as though it is a telephone system, and trying to force everything to fit that belief. With the concept of Internet Connection Records, they’re saying to the providers of modern, complex, interactive, constantly connecting, multifaceted systems that they’ve got to create data as though their modern, complex, interactive constantly connecting and multifaceted systems were actually old-fashioned telephone systems.

The problem is that the internet is not an old-fashioned telephone system. Pretending that it is won’t work. The problems highlighted – in particular the technical difficulties and the inevitable ineffectiveness – won’t go away no matter how much the Home Office wish for them to do so. It is a little disappointing to me that the report of the committee was not strong enough to say this directly – instead they emphasise that the government needs to explain how it will address the issues that have been raised.

Sadly it seems almost certain that the government will continue to push this idea. The future seems all too easy to predict. A few years down the line they will still be trying to get the idea to work, still trying to make it useful, still trying to prove to themselves that the internet is just like a telephone system. Many millions will have been spent, huge amounts of effort and expertise will have been wasted on a fruitless, irrelevant and ultimately self-defeating project – money, effort and expertise that could, instead, have been put into finding genuinely effective ways to police the internet as it is, rather than as they wish it still was.



The Saga Of the Privacy Shield…

Screen Shot 2016-02-09 at 06.23.54

(With apologies to all poets everywhere)


Listen to the tale I tell

Of Princes bold and monsters fell

A tale of dangers well conceal’d

And of a bright and magic shield


There was a land, across the bay

A fair land called the USA

A land of freedom: true and just

A land that all the world might trust


Or so, at least, its people cheered

Though others thought this far from clear

From Europe all the Old Folk scowled

And in the darkness something howled


For a monster grew across the bay

A beast they called the NSA,

It lived for one thing: information

And for this it scoured that nation


It watched where people went and came

It listened and looked with naught of shame

The beast, howe’er, was very sly

And hid itself from prying eyes


It watched while folk from all around

Grew wealthy, strong and seeming’ sound

And Merchant Princes soon emerged

Their wealth it grew surge after surge


They gathered data, all they could

And used it well, for their own good

They gave the people things they sought

While keeping more than p’rhaps they ought


And then they looked across the bay

Saw Old Folk there, across the way

And knew that they could farm those nations

And take from them their information


But those Old Folk were not the same

They did not play the Princes’ game

They cared about their hope and glory

Their laws protected all their stories


‘You cannot have our information

Unless we have negotiations

Unless our data’s safe and sound

We’ll not let you plough our ground’


The Princes thought, and then procured

A harbour safe and quite secure

Or so they thought, and so they said

And those Old Folk gave them their trade


And so that trade just grew and grew

The Old Folks loved these ideas new

They trusted in that harbour’s role

They thought it would achieve its goal


But while the Princes’ realms just grew

The beast was learning all they knew

Its tentacles reached every nook

Its talons gripped each face, each book


It sucked up each and ev’ry drop:

None knew enough to make it stop

Indeed, they knew not what it did

‘Til one brave man, he raised his head


And told us all, around the world

‘There is a beast, you must be told’

He told us of this ‘NSA’

And how it watched us day by day


He told us of each blood-drenched claw

He named each tentacle – and more

And with each word, he made us fear

That this beast’s evil held us near


In Europe one man stood up tall

“Your harbour is not safe at all!

You can’t protect us from that beast

That’s not enough, not in the least!”


He went unto Bourg of Luxem

The judges listened care’fly to him

‘A beast ‘cross the bay sees ev’rywhere

Don’t send our secrets over there!


The judges liked not what they saw

‘That’s no safe habour,’ they all swore

“No more stories over there!

Sort it out! We do all care!”


The Princes knew not what to do

They could not see a good way through

The beast still lurked in shadows dark

The Princes’ choices seemed quite stark


Their friends and fellows ‘cross the bay

Tried to help them find a way

They whispered, plotted, thought and plann’d

And then the Princes raised their hands


“Don’t worry now, the beast is beaten

It’s promised us you won’t be eaten

It’s changed its ways; it’s kindly now

And on this change you have our vow


Behold, here is our mighty shield

And in its face, the mighty yield

It’s magic, and its trusty steel

Is strong enough for all to feel


Be brave, be bold, you know you should

You know we only want what’s good”

But those old folk, they still were wary

That beast, they knew, was mighty scary


“That beast of yours, is it well chained?

Its appetites, are they contained?

Does it still sniff at every door?

Its tentacles, on every floor?


The Princes stood up tall and proud

“We need no chains”, they cried aloud

“Our beast obeys us, and our laws

You need not fear it’s blunted claws.”


“Besides,” they said, “you are contrary

You have your own beasts, just as scary”

The Old Folk looked a mite ashamed

‘Twas true their own beasts were not tamed


“‘Tis true our beasts remain a blight

But two wrongs never make a right

It’s your beast now that we all fear

Tell us now, and make it clear!”


“Look here” the Princes cried aloud

“Of this fair shield we all are proud,

Its face is strong, its colours bright

There’s no more need for any fright.”


The Old Folk took that shield in hand

‘Twas shiny, coloured, bright and grand

But as they held it came a worry

Why were things in such a hurry?


Was this shield just made of paper?

Were their words just naught but vapour?

Would that beast still suck them dry?

And their privacy fade and die?


Did they trust the shield was magic?

The consequences could be tragic

The monster lurked and sucked its claws

It knew its might meant more than laws


Whatever happened, it would win

Despite the tales the Princes spin

It knew that well, and so did they

In that fair land across the bay.





Time to change Twitter, or #RIPTwitter?

One the main topics on Twitter the last day or so has been, well, Twitter itself. When the rumour came out that Twitter was – apparently within the next week or so – going to move to using an ‘algorithmic’ rather than chronological ‘timeline’, the reaction was pretty strong and direct. The hashtag #RIPTwitter trended worldwide.

Not for the first time, it looked as though Twitter had demonstrated that, to put it bluntly, it didn’t understand its own product, or its own customers. This has happened a number of times over the last year or two – particularly since the IPO – most recently with the change from ‘favourites’ to ‘likes’. This time, however, there is a difference. Twitter aren’t just changing labels – the favourites to likes change was essentially symbolic, hearts replacing stars, and though the symbolism was particularly poor, as it suggested a move to be more like Facebook, something anathema to many Twitter users, symbolism was all it was. This time the suggested move was much more than symbolic, it was messing with the very essence of Twitter.

What’s ‘good’ about Twitter for many people is its simplicity and directness – and the degree to which the users themselves control their experience of it. The timeline is part of that. You choose who you follow, and you get their tweets as they tweet them. Things aren’t chosen for you – either by humans or by algorithms – so Tweeters feel they have control. Moreover, there are a wide range of current uses for Twitter that depend directly on that chronological approach – these are just a few:

  1. The ‘live tweeting’ of current events as they happen – whether this be of conferences  or press events, or political or ‘news’ events. What happened in Ferguson could be followed better on Twitter than through any form of mainstream media – and it was the immediacy and timely nature of Twitter that made this so. A curated timeline, however good the algorithm, could not hope to capture that.
  2. Streams of tweets by an individual on the same subject are often in a key order – whether they’re marked as such (using the 1/n, 2/n etc approach) or not. If you read them out of order, the meaning changes often radically, particularly as Twitter is ideal for the use of humour, irony, sarcasm and similar forms of pithy wit. Any regular user of Twitter will have experienced their own tweets being taken out of context, or having to redirect people to previous tweets. That’s hard enough with a chronological timeline – with an algorithmically curated timeline it would be far worse, again, however good the algorithm.
  3. Conversations happen on twitter that also depend very much on the order of the tweets – and again, it’s hard enough to follow the often complex threads of long conversations without the interference of algorithmic curation. Some key parts of the conversation can be out of order, others omitted entirely because the algorithm doesn’t understand their significance in context. A good algorithm could reduce the level of this kind of problem – but it would have to be incredibly good and having no algorithm at all would still be better!
  4. Finding the originator of an idea depends a great deal on time – and algorithmic curation could exacerbate the already thorny problem of attribution. More ‘popular’ people are already credited with ideas of ‘lesser’ people – this would just make this even worse.

The idea of using algorithms is very attractive, but it’s underpinned by an illusion that algorithms are somehow ‘neutral’ or ‘fair’. This is what brings about the idea that Google is a neutral indexer of the internet and a guardian of free speech, but it really is an illusion. Algorithms are human creations and embed ideas and biases that those who create them may well not even be aware of. They can make existing power imbalances worse, as the assumptions that underpin those imbalances are built into the very thought processes that create the algorithms. Yes, people can compensate, but even that act of compensation can bring about further biases. Where the essence of the idea behind an algorithm is to make Twitter more money, then that bias itself will interfere with the process, consciously, subconsciously or otherwise.

I sympathise very much with Twitter here. They’re under huge pressure to make more money – and though I would like that pressure not to exist, it does. Twitter is a corporation, not a public utility. It has to find ways to make profits – and that does mean contemplating change. We, as Twitter users – in my case someone who really loves Twitter – need to be very careful not to resist change from a sense of nostalgia or a determination to hang on to what we are comfortable with – but in this case it really does matter.

Part of this may be resolved if, as has been hinted, the algorithmic timelines are ‘opt-in’ and the default timelines remain, well, time-lines. Twitter could even bite the bullet and realise that their other recent ‘change’, the introduction of ‘Moments’, was a mistake, and simply replace ‘Moments’ with an algorithmically curated timeline that people could choose to use, whilst keeping the default as the chronological timeline. I, however, am not holding my breath on that one. Though Twitter have been saying they’ll consider anything, they don’t seem to include admitting recent ideas have been mistaken among those things they consider.

There are other options they could contemplate – other ways to make money. They could, for example, create a paid for ‘Twitter Classic’ app that, for a small fee, gives you a ‘clean’ Twitter with a pure, chronological timeline, no promoted Tweets, no ‘moments’ and so on. Whilst the ‘paid for’ model for the net itself has largely been rejected, the idea that we can pay for apps on our phones and computers has been accepted. Indeed, paying for ‘ad-free’ versions of various services is both common and seemingly successful. If Twitter wants to go that way, I for one would pay for the app. I may be rare, however.  People can rarely be convinced to pay for something they used to get for nothing.  That’s Twitter’s challenge. I hope they find a way to meet it without destroying their own essence. If they go the way of algorithmic curation as default, it really could be #RIPTwitter.