‘Big Tech’-ville: Corporate domination in the 21st century

This is the text of my spring 2021 column for Stage, Screen & Radio – the quarterly magazine for members of BECTU, the media and entertainment union and a part of Prospect. The text has been slightly extended and links added.

‘Big Tech’ – the data-based platforms which control vast swathes of our online lives – has swallowed whole the grand gesture that the free gift of the internet was intended to be.

Such companies as Facebook, Apple, Google and Amazon, and increasingly Netflix, are generating vast amounts of data about what we do online, with whom, and why. Capturing, analysing and then selling information based on the data trails we leave behind us as we go about our lives online is one thing; but it is their ability to analyse and aggregate that individual data which is key to the financial success of their model.

Now, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, on whose information management system the world wide web is based – and who tweeted ‘This is for everyone’ from the stage of the London Olympics in 2012 – has got on board with a start-up called Inrupt. Inrupt’s aim is to re-establish individual ownership of our data, thereby putting the web back under individual control and killing the data surveillance model on which the platforms are based.

Pods

The concept that Inrupt is seeking to develop is ‘pods’ – personal online data stores – effectively a vault for our own data to which we alone hold the keys. We could give big tech companies the right to access that data to sell us services but, critically, they would not have the right to extract it or sell it on.

Whether Inrupt will be successful is an open question. But undermining established models based on what we give away will not be easy because it means confronting powerful interests. We ourselves have invested a lot of time and effort in building profiles in the process of which we have been careless about the value of our data. And our own data has little value unless and until it is aggregated.

If these are already big questions, there are even bigger ones about how such companies are coming to dominate our lives. The US state of Nevada is developing legislation for ‘Innovation Zones’, where tech companies would be allowed the right to impose taxes, create schools and courts, and deliver government services in return for their investment. (Freeports – cited as a benefit of Brexit – and the first bids for which closed in early February, might well end up working in a similar way.)

Amazon has set up a pop-up Covid-19 vaccination hub in its Seattle headquarters, with the aim of offering vaccinations to 2,000 local residents on the first day.

And the same company is to spend $2bn on building affordable new homes for its workers in the three US cities where its major employment hubs are located.

State failure

Amazon’s are not the altruistic gestures a first glance provides: few of its own staff are likely to be among vaccine priority groups; while its major employment hubs have been responsible for inflating local land prices as workers have arrived.

We have seen these things before, with philanthropists making money from industry and then using it to build homes and schools for workers. Some turned out better than others: the New Lanark founded by utopian socialist and co-operative movement pioneer Robert Owen, for instance.

That we seem to be returning to such a model is, nevertheless, a damning indictment of state failure and, indeed, of state capture by big tech. That Google’s workers are coming together to unionise is a welcome sign of a fightback at that level. All of us choosing to regain control of our data is a next, vital, step in building the fight against a return to pre-welfare state capitalism.

#EnoughIsEnough – Joining this weekend’s social media boycott

The sleevenotes for The Special A.K.A.’s ‘Free Nelson Mandela’, detailing the injustices of the imprisonment of ‘Accused No. 1’ and the other Rivonia trialists in apartheid South Africa, motivated this student to join the Anti-Apartheid Movement – the first activist organisation I ever joined. I kept my membership and, later, happily, once South Africa had changed its policies, was a founding member of ACTSA, the successor organisation to AAM.

Image from blog.snappingturtle.net (blog no longer updated)

The search for racial justice was evidently not confined to South Africa – The Specials’ ‘Ghost Town’ and the riots in various cities which formed its coincidental backdrop had been three years earlier – and neither was South Africa the only country in which apartheid was practised. South Africa left apartheid behind ten years after ‘Free Nelson Mandela’ (it too played a role) but apartheid, as a set of principles of the division of people based on their heritage, is still practised in several countries.

Likewise, the search for racial justice is an enduring one. In the sporting world, the actions of Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the Mexico Olympics in 1968 (not without a backlash, extending also to Peter Norman, the white Australian who finished second and whose story is also interesting) were given fresh impetus by the American Footballer Colin Kaepernick, whose decision to ‘take the knee’ before games is now routinely the case with football players doing so before matches in Europe (though not everywhere, either in the UK or in Europe) in support of Black Lives Matter. There is a concern that this action has come to represent routine tokenism, with little actual achievement of, or advancement in, rights; that people in general – and perhaps even some of those directly involved – no longer understand the whats and whys, or that this is a protest action, and have become impatient with it; and that its commonplace nature has obscured the principles at stake.

Protest needs to continue as long as the injustices which spark it are still in place and, while token gestures are to be avoided, and more and better action certainly needs to result within football to improve the representation of black players, ‘taking the knee’ can still result in some powerful images.

This weekend sees a boycott of social media supported by Kick It Out in protest at the abuse of players on social media and which frequently has a racist angle. It’s fair to say that the action is not everywhere supported, partly for the reasons of tokenism suggested above. Some – including Paul Canoville, an ex-player for Reading FC whose career was ended by a typically brutish Dave Swindlehurst ‘challenge’ after fewer than twenty, dazzling, games (I saw him play) and who, as Chelsea’s first black player in 1982, after the riots and before The Special A.K.A., directly experienced the hatred of 1980s terraces racism – have urged players instead to use their platforms to speak out against systemic racism.

It is of course possible both to join a short-term social media blackout and to speak out directly. While football has, at least in this country, made significant strides since the 1980s both on and off the terraces it is not doing enough to address the lack of opportunities for black players after their playing careers are over; while the turn to the far-right in the public discourse is likely to be followed on the terraces too (and, perhaps, not only at Millwall whose fans booed their players taking their knee in the home game v Derby, to the club’s ‘sadness’ and ‘dismay’ although the players stopped doing so a few games later). After all people – at matches in the UK; eastern Europe having its own problems in this regard – no longer throwing bananas at black players, or making monkey noises, represents only a limited degree of progress; and, as we have learned, hard-won progress is easily lost when it is taken for granted. Once fans are back in the grounds, there is a role here for fan-led action and, after the demonstrations of fan power which led to the ending of talk of the ‘European Super League’, that clearly encompasses the potential for boycotts, too.

In such times, statements are required and I’ll be joining the social media boycott from 3pm this afternoon, logging out and closing Twitter (I’m not part of Zuck’s money-making machine), in direct solidarity with Liam Moore, captain of Reading FC and the subject of a terrible social media post which led to him closing his Twitter account earlier this month.

It is impossible for social media companies to moderate every post and poll in advance, but it is also clear that ‘the community’ can only police the actions of the idiots so far – and even then only retrospectively, i.e. once the damage is done. It is also clear that social media organisations can do much more to wipe out the abuse. Their algorithms can block posts – as we know – on the basis of certain keywords, when they choose to do so; and they can do more to ascertain the identities of account holders such that subsequent action against those who abuse the platforms isn’t subject to guesswork and sleuthing. This is not an argument for ending public anonymity where people want, or need, it – but the social media organisations need to be able immediately to identify precisely who is responsible for a particular post where criminality is involved. Ascertaining identities as part of the process of setting up an account would stop people whose accounts have been blocked from simply opening another under a different name – multiple accounts are also a problem in themselves – and they would also stop the troll farms (ditto); while ending the current ease with which social media accounts can be set up would also, to some extent, be self-policing as regards how people conduct themselves online.

All of this, of course, might be thought to reduce accounts and traffic, and thus revenues – which might well account in some way for the tardiness of the social media organisations to do what is already within their powers. But a line has to be drawn and the vileness of much of our public discourse needs to be positively addressed. If not, the toxicity of much online behaviour is likely to lead to more people simply closing their accounts and walking away and that, in turn, will leave the social media organisations more in the hands of the serial abusers and, therefore, somewhat less attractive to advertisers and other funders. It is, therefore, ultimately in the interests of such organisations to end the abuse.

My hope is that the anticipated decline in collective social media traffic over this holiday weekend will do its bit to persuade the social media organisations to play their part better. To co-opt a phrase – when the fun stops: stop.

#EnoughIsEnough #AnInjuryToOneIsAnInjurytoAll

[EDIT: before I logged off, I noticed that the Football Supporters Association, which is also joining the boycott, had published a six-point programme for change regarding how social media companies could do more to stop online abuse. It’s pretty much in line with the above, being based on:

  • applying filters and blocking measures
  • better accountability for safety, including effective verification
  • ensure real-life consequences for perpetrators
  • a warning message to be displayed when an account holder writes an abusive message
  • robust, reliable and quick measures where abuse is posted
  • transparent quarterly reports to be published on work done to eradicate abuse.

In general, this is a worthwhile plan for action which social media companies need to take seriously.]

Book Review: The Nanny State Made Me

I received Stuart Maconie‘s The Nanny State Made Me as a birthday present back in September (thanks, Tracy!) and, of course, it therefore jumped to the top of my reading list not least owing to the title.

Part-autobiography, part-paean to Stuart’s own upbringing and development within the arms of the Welfare State, this was written during 2019 and published, following a revision which took account of the results of the general election (the anniversary of which is of course a year ago next week), in early March. This was, quite clearly, an inauspicious time to be publishing a book about public policy; Covid-19, like the internet, having changed everything.

Following introductory chapters setting out the remarkable immediate post-War timing of the introduction of the Welfare State, and the sustained attacks on it during the Thatcherite years in which we have been living since 1979, each chapter then takes young Stuart through a stage of his life through birth (in 1961, in an NHS hospital), early education and teenage years to the worlds of work and the dole queue, housing, public transport, and BBC and the media; before, eventually, winding up with a few thoughts on getting back what we have lost.

Fans of Maconie’s work (and I am one, as my book-giver clearly also knows!) know what to expect: wry observation drawn from contemporary interviews illustrating his theme; a sprinkling of sharp epigrams drawing attention to the absurd (Maconie continues to have a sharp eye for a well-turned phrase); and a clear and engaging writing style mixing a patient, but quizzically frustrated, tone with occasional righteous anger at the absurdities of modern day living. Describing him as a ‘man of the people’ sounds somewhat pejorative, but Maconie is clearly interested in people and the combination of that and the ability to translate such interest into warm, affectionate writing detailing (or referencing) brief encounters and events, some contemporary, some historic, makes him always worth reading (or listening to, as his BBC 6Music shows also prove).

On top of that, there is also a very touching dedication which says a lot more – about theme and about author – than its 19 words allow; while it commences with a lovely anecdote involving a landmark famous on the London skyline, Tony Benn and an anonymous operative of a long-privatised business. And there is the – by now obligatory – puntastic title whose phrasing is capable of a dual meaning while also being inspired, at a deeper level, by the honourable member for the 18th century.

There is, of course, a lot to be angry about when it comes to what has happened to our public services in this now 40-year experiment of privatisation and liberalisation. The NHS is still – just about, perhaps – hanging together but public transport is a disaster and the nonsensities of trying to introduce competition into the supply of essential services like energy has been, at best, a failure and at worst, a scandalous scheme under which the public has been ripped off with a deliberate view to the enrichment of those few who are already well-off. The current controversy over NHS data contracts being sold to Peter Thiel, the shadowy billionaire behind the Cambridge Analytica data mining operation, and over the cronyism with which this government views its public service obligations during the current crisis, add to the frustration – as well they ought. Some of this is quite familiar – albeit that the decades-long failure to do much if anything about it means that to repeat the message is not, by definition, over-stating it. In particular, it is ground well-trodden in James Meek’s London Review of Books essays collected together in Private Island. Maconie’s quotes from this make me realise that this has also languished, in its 2015 (though still current) edition, too long on my to-read shelf.

What underpins the arena of Maconie’s theme is the growth of inequality in the UK. The post-war welfare state was, ultimately, inspired by the need to deliver a more equal society in which the resources of the state would be invested deliberately and practically to address sources of inequality. Any attack on the welfare state can thus be read quite easily – whatever mealy-mouthed arguments made on behalf of doing so by whichever vested interest is mounting them – as an attempt to undermine the perception of that need and, thereby, the goal of reducing inequality itself. It is clear from a look at the Gini coefficient (a flawed, perhaps, but clear yardstick against which a state’s progress in overcoming, or otherwise, inequality can readily be measured) that the UK has become a much more unequal society in these years. The bulk of that growth occurred the 1980s while little has happened in the last thirty post-Thatcher years to address that: the coefficient has, with some volatility as a result of some of the recent circumstances of our times, bumped around the same level ever since. This includes during Labour governments which, despite the good things that they did do, failed to address the growth in inequalities that the welfare state was set up to deal with and which had risen so sharply during the years of Thatcher:

Indexed series; 1997=100. Break in series in 2001. Source: Office for National Statistics

In this context, the arguments made by leading Brexiteers on the far right of the Tory Party of the opportunity which Brexit gives (and which indeed drove Brexit) to ‘complete the Thatcher revolution‘ need careful attention since they clearly herald a further rise in inequality.

The earlier, more autobiographical chapters of Maconie’s book work rather better than the later ones. In particular, chapter 2 on schooling, in which Maconie’s arguments on behalf of comprehensive education shine with undimmed passion (I write as a grammar school boy who did actually benefit from the social mobility arguments – though of course exceptions don’t prove the rule), is a marvellously sustained piece of writing. The later chapters suffer, in a lengthy section on the BBC by appearing a little defensive (and there’s a lot to defend, I know); as well as in arguments for the nationalisation of the internet appearing a little illiberal (and, also, would you really want a crony appointee of this government in charge of erecting garden walls around your internet? Better to regulate the abuses/abusers, I think – and there are many of both – and to break up the over-mighty and the anti-democratic among the giants of those that have exploited the ‘net. That quite clearly encompasses Amazon, Google and Facebook. For that, of course, we need a stronger hand than ‘global Britain’ alone.)

In particular, I feel he pulls his punches in the final chapter which sets out the ‘how to save it’ mission described on the cover but which is, unfortunately, episodic and indeed a little unformed. There are some useful conversations around the Norwegian example; and the references to the extraordinariness of ordinary, heroic people are timely (even if our essentially conservative nature and belief in sweet moderation means we keep on electing Conservative governments whose wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing disguise proves of apparently perennial value). But, aside from a call to ‘bring the Nanny State back’, just precisely how to do that proves a rather elusive target around which Stuart boxes well but on the practicalities of which he never really lays a glove.

Those farther to the left will identify a possible reason for this; while, as I said at the outset, this also reflects a timing problem of publication and deadlines: Covid-19 has laid bare that the priorities of the governments we elect, in what they choose to do in office, are very much a matter of choice – and especially at a time when interest rates are low enough to mean that borrowing money is not only extremely cheap but actually financially attractive. In this way, the rather public noise over the economic illiteracy of ‘maxing out the credit card’ – Thatcher’s Grantham grocer-shop ‘economics’ written for the 21st century – is a very welcome add to the public debate.

In short, the practicalities behind Maconie’s desire to bring back the Nanny State – kicking out the private sector from the NHS; achieving a comprehensive nature to the education system; restoring democratic power to local councils, not least as regards the building of homes; ending the farce and rip-off pricing of bus and rail privatisation; putting control of energy supply back in the hands of the nation as opposed to abiding by a figleaf of market economics (not least with green, sustainability goals in mind – this week’s collapse of BiFab proves that green jobs need to be worked for); and freeing the BBC from the straitjacket of the much-abused concept of ‘impartiality’ to abide by its Reithian objectives of public entertainment and education – are now more, perhaps oddly, a little visible than they were when he was finalising his draft. Maconie hints – strongly, even – at all this, but is missing a few of the ‘action words’ set out above.

If we can have the vision to develop a Welfare State in the midst of a war; what might we do now to develop that vision to restore it in the middle of a pandemic? If the country is to emerge from its mishandling by the over-promoted bunglers we’ve placed in charge, that manifesto needs to be put in place now. In retrospect therefore, this is something of a missed opportunity for Maconie to be this generation’s Beveridge – but, on the other hand, I might, therefore, look forward to a 2021 edition with a re-written final chapter which identifies the ‘how’ a little more explicitly. If the pandemic has been good for anything, it is at least that it has facilitated the ground for such thinking.

280 characters – making a good thing bad?

My Twitter timeline this morning regularly features tweets agonising over Twitter’s decision yesterday to expand its ‘trial’ of 280 characters, applied a couple of weeks ago to some tweeters, to all users (among the best examples here and here. Oh, and here. As well as a delightful example of the scope afforded by the new limits here.). I guess that means the trial has been adjudged a success and Aliza Rozen, a Product Manager at Twitter, has produced some interesting data-based evidence on this. (Rozen also confesses that the reason for the expansion is that Twitter is hoping to expand use of the platform by dealing with the frustrations of tweets being abandoned because of the limit – so, at heart, it is of course all about the numbers.)

I’m a low-level, though growing, user of Twitter, and one the things that always put me off joining much earlier than I did (and that a full seven years ago), as a committed longform writer, was indeed the 140-character limit. However, I quickly came to appreciate that one of the better features of the limit was the imposed requirement for brevity and that a well-crafted tweet was, as a result, a thing of beauty. The original reason why 140 characters was selected was because it fitted within the 160 allowed by SMS plus enough for the user-name. Well, technology advances and SMS no longer require messages to be split so why should tweets? And, alightly unnervingly, we have already been moving in this direction for some time with Twitter relaxing the limit last year as regards quotes, polls, videos and images.

The downside of the character limit was that many simply abandoned (or were creative with…) spelling (and grammar) in order to force thoughts to fit within the limit, rather than better ordering them in the first place. Frequently, this made tweets hard to read but the better tweets, the ones written by those with faster and more ready wit, were all the more appreciated as a result. The limit also led to the practice of getting around the limit by ‘threading’ thoughts together; these can also be difficult to read where people simply write up to the character limit in each tweet in the thread rather than ordering their thoughts to a single one per tweet. A microblog should do exactly what it says on the tin: longform blogging is better done on other platforms (like this one!).

Doubling the length to 280 characters provides a lot of space (and takes up a lot of space on the screen). Such tweets are also harder to read quickly and, when Twitter users follow hundreds and thousands of others, this greater on-screen space will lead to a lot of interesting and valid thoughts being simply lost in cyberspace as a result of overload. But, ’twas ever thus. The difficulty is also that the character limit imposes a pressure of its own in both directions – not only to reduce to fit the limit, but also to expand thoughts up to the limit where the tweets appear to be ‘too’ short. @realdonaldtrump (I don’t follow – he crops up on my timeline enough as it is) is definitely guilty of this and the existing linguistic and of course other horrors of the Donald in 140 characters doesn’t bear thinking about when he catches on to the new limit. One of the more useful aphorisms in life is that less is definitely more.

People are likely to adjust quite quickly to the new expanded limit and behaviour will normalise, as Rozen expects. Some users will make full use of the greater verbosity now allowed (and still look for more); while the faithful will insist on sticking to 140 characters (some client apps already exist in this area, and some are likely to be re-written to provide a countdown to 140). Others are likely to find some ground in the middle.

Twitter’s evidence suggests that the vast majority of tweets are likely to stay within the lower limit. I really hope that turns out to be the case. 280 characters is, comparatively for the Twitter platform, a significant expansion and I really hope that this doesn’t lead to the loss of the well-crafted, pithy tweets that the lower limit encouraged, while giving people a little more room to order their thoughts when these are simply too complex to fit within 140 characters. Some words on this at Twitter’s third-quarter results call (link above) are reassuring. And abuse can always, of course, be dealt with promptly with judicious use of the ‘unfollow’ button.

But please, Twitter: no further character expansions. And please abandon any remaining thoughts of 10,000 character tweets.

Brexit and EU citizens: A practical note

The UK government’s announcement yesterday of its plans for EU citizens in the UK post-Brexit contained one or two nasty surprises, not least among them that EU citizens will be forced to hold some sort of documentation proving the right to stay and work in the UK after 2018 – a prima facie case of discrimination vis-a-vis UK citizens who do not – and should not – have to carry any such documentation.

Aside of the understandable outrage here, and here, that May should consider such discrimination to be ‘fair’, and that many EU citizens have already gone through a lengthy process of securing permanent residence documents only for these now to be useless, as well as that this is not a situation of fact, simply an opening ‘offer’ in the Article 50 negotiations process, one of the interesting issues around this reference is the practical logistics around documenting 3m people in the time available. Those who have gone to the trouble of securing permanent residence rights, via the infamous 85-page form, are promised a ‘streamlined’ and ‘user-friendly’ application process but there are clearly doubts about the ability of the appropriate government departments to be able to deliver on that, not least stemming from the bureaucratic delays that as few as 150,000 people experienced in applying for PR to government departments that were simply overwhelmed. Let alone 3m (+).

There is little detail on the document as to what the government means by ‘streamlined’, although there are vague (and inevitable) references to it being ‘digital’ and the days of the 85-page form seem to be numbered.

However, there are doubts about the ability of the UK to deliver on this score, too. Eurostat, the EU’s statistical office, publishes a continually-updated scorecard on the digital single market – which, of course, we are leaving – called the ‘DESI composite‘ (this is the Digital Economy and Society Index, not this one). Overall, across the five components of the index, the UK is above average – it’s actually in seventh place among the EU-28. However, one of the constituent components is ‘digital public services’, which measures a country’s ability to deliver e-Government services, including the provision of pre-filled forms and online service completion. Here, it might not be a surprise to learn, the UK is doing rather less well – not only is it below the average for the EU-28, it’s actually fallen as far as 18th place.

(As an aside, I can recall a previous government vowing that the UK would have the best superfast broadband in the EU by 2015: we don’t – on the DESI composite’s ‘Connectivity’ sub-index, we are sixth, rising above only Finland among the other nations above us on the overall list – which are Netherlands, Luxembourg, Belgium, Denmark and Sweden. We were sixth in 2015, too.)

So, there are some quite deep-rooted capacity issues which need to be resolved. We can well imagine that these ought to have been resolved before the UK government could even make such an offer – since it is not doing so from a position of strength – and certainly by the time any agreement may be implemented. Perhaps the UK government might look to other EU governments for advice on how to deliver the sort of ‘streamlined’ digital public service that would be required to document 3m EU nationals in the way this proposal envisages – perhaps from other countries which are higher up the DESI list than the UK. Perhaps we might ask Poland, for example.

The spy behind the screen

Interesting news today that Facebook has denied Admiral the right to use its data for its Firstcarquote app.

The news is undoubtedly welcome from a data freedom point of view – it could indeed lead to decisions which have all kinds of implications as regards the perpetuation of social bias based on race, gender, religion or sexuality – although I’m not quite sure that Jim Killock of the Open Rights Group is right to give Facebook as much credit for the – perhaps temporary – withdrawal of permission as his press release does. It is a step in the right direction, admittedly, so I can see where ORG is coming from – but it is an infinitesimally small one.

There is undoubtedly more to this than Facebook suddenly deciding to uphold the data privacy of its users. The app might well, as referred to in the news pieces, contravene Section 3.15 of Facebook’s platform policy, but Admiral has been working with Facebook on this app for months and the principle of data privacy seems a strange one to crop up at this – very last minute – stage. Besides, the whole point of Facebook is to collect data on user preferences, likes and dislikes, and views, the mining of which to monetise at some future point. That’s why so much money has been chucked at it in the past. Note that the rest of Section 3 of the platform policy – which is titled ‘Protect data’ – is not so much to do with the protection of individuals’ data but to ensure that the data that third parties receive is not then compromised (resulting, presumably, in its value being undermined). And note also that it is rather arguable whether Section 3.15 itself is actually contravened in practice by what the app is reported to do.

It’s probably not quite as simple as Facebook deciding that it wasn’t going to make enough money from the app, and therefore deciding to withdraw permission; or that it has other plans with other insurers which might be jeopardised by letting this partnership with Admiral go ahead. Either (or both) might of course be true: time will tell.

But, quite clearly: beware the claims to data privacy mounted by organisations the sole purpose of whom is to collect your data. As Red Riding Hood found out, grandma has big eyes all the better to see you with.