How a well-meaning Angela Merkel choosing the wrong tactic for protecting Europe from Big (U.S.) Tech’s incursions could make Orwell’s dystopia our reality

 

What is the one essential step required for George Orwell’s nightmare of totalitarian centralisation — Nineteen Eighty-Four — to become even more plausible than it is already, in freedom-loving western countries? 

That is, the step that would determine exactly how we get to One power to rule them all: a single, giant database or store of personal information about us, created by merging all the facts the government has with all the data that the social media and other technology giants have been gathering — to give a Big Brother-for-real absolute control? 

A scoop by The Financial Times last week — Google lists no other source, and FT.com was offering free access to the piece when pG last checked — suggested, for an answer, a superficially innocent and at first glance, desirable proposal by a European leader. Proceeding with that proposal would create a  route to deadly centralisation far easier and more straightforward than the possibility sketched in the last pG entry: 

Who in the traditional Establishment could we count on to oppose a deadly merging of government and commerce — by, say, a government trying to invoke emergency powers to requisition Big Tech’s vast and ever-expanding stores of data about us? Invoke those powers illegitimately?

In its report titled ‘Angela Merkel urges EU to seize control of data from US tech titans,’ The Financial Times said:

Angela Merkel has urged Europe to seize control of its data from Silicon Valley tech giants, in an intervention that highlights the EU’s growing willingness to challenge the US dominance of the digital economy.

The German chancellor said the EU should claim “digital sovereignty” by developing its own platform to manage data and reduce its reliance on the US-based cloud services run by Amazon, Microsoft and Google.

[…]

Ms Merkel was speaking just two weeks after Berlin unveiled plans for a European cloud computing initiative, dubbed Gaia-X, which it has described as a “competitive, safe and trustworthy data infrastructure for Europe”.

Peter Altmaier, economy minister, said the data of companies such as Volkswagen, and that of the German interior ministry and social security system, were increasingly stored on the servers of Microsoft and Amazon. “And in this we are losing part of our sovereignty,” he added.

He said 40 companies had signed up for Gaia-X, including Deutsche Telekom, SAP and Bosch, and the new platform would be ready by the end of the year. “We want to be able to offer companies . . . ministries and governments the chance to store their data in Europe, according to transparent, clearly recognisable standards.” 

[ continues here … ]

Yes, her remarks were about corporations, not private citizens, but the identical argument — digital sovereignty — could be used by the EU or some other government to justify commandeering the intimate personal facts that the likes of Amazon, Facebook, Google and Twitter are hoovering up about us all day long. With or without our permission, and whether or not we are paying for their services.

Why didn’t it occur to Frau Merkel (or her policy advisors) to throw all her weight behind decentralising the net as the solution — proposed by none other than the inventor of the World Wide Web, (Sir) Tim Berners-Lee — ? 

For an outline of his ideas on that subject, scroll down this post:

‘Mystery solved? Famous newspapers that ignored the Social Media Strike of 2019 have agreed to accept regular payments of millions of dollars from Facebook’

Mystery solved? Famous newspapers that ignored the Social Media Strike of 2019 have agreed to accept regular payments of millions of dollars from Facebook

 

peony, darkening of the light -- postgutenberg@gmail.com

The picture is darkening for those like the world wide web’s inventor, Tim Berners-Lee, who ‘remain committed to making sure the web is a free, open, creative space — for everyone.’

[ Significant sections of this post-Gutenberg.com entry were edited for clarity on 2 November 2019 ]

The question of why so many famous newspapers railing against Big Tech failed to alert their readers to the Social Media Strike of 2019 — or report on it — has been answered partially, since the last post on this site.  That answer could hardly be more depressing for anyone to whom free speech and objective, independent, media matter.  Worse, it brings us closer to a real life equivalent of a dictator or other centralised authoritarian power running amok — that is, to the fictional world of Nineteen Eighty-Four.

On Friday 25 October, Facebook announced that it will be paying millions of dollars to selected U.S. newspapers — the likes of The New York Times and Washington Post among them — for posting their stories (content) on its site.

According to an early August report in The Guardian that came up in search results for the query, ‘Facebook paying newspapers’ — following the accidental discovery of this news on the Wired site  — the company started hawking its offer of million-dollar-plus subsidies experimentally, in April. Could publishing organisations trying to decide whether they should accept one have failed to cover the Social Media Strike set for  4-5 July for that reason?

It certainly looks like a strong possibility, even if different considerations were at work for each publication. The Guardian, for instance, might not have been approached by Facebook, even though it has a U.S. website. The explanation for its dissing of the strike could have been that the call to action was led by Larry Sanger, one of the Wikipedia’s two long-estranged co-founders. The other, Jimmy Wales, has been a member of the newspaper’s parent company, Guardian Media Group, since at least 2018.

Wired has already demonstrated that taking Facebook’s cash does not necessarily — or immediately — deprive a publication of the ability to balance its reporting about that platform. Its article on the subject quoted an activist working on behalf of traditional newspapers who described the Facebook move as ‘a “conveniently timed announcement that’s clearly meant to distract from Zuckerberg getting eviscerated on the Hill this week”’ — a reference to the founder-CEO’s grilling by members of the U.S. House of Representatives financial services committee in Washington DC.

Yet, because the magazine did not spurn Facebook, Wired’s overall characterisation of the corporation’s new sugar daddy role in the lives of newspapers must be interpreted as favourable — in keeping with one quotation in its report, about the cash infusions ‘having the potential to shift parts of the news industry from “pessimism to optimism”’. [ pG’s emphasis ]

Facebook is only giving some newspapers money, in a scheme it is still unfurling, effectively playing king-maker. Is it naïve to expect that in the future, the newspapers that have until now been exposing the social media colossus’s worst business practices — and demanding that it be made accountable to the public for those actions — will start competing to win favour from it? 

How can these papers possibly cover it objectively when they are vying for larger cash handouts from it? It is hard not to imagine past leaders of newspapers proud of a tradition of reporting ‘without fear or favour’ turning in their graves.

In the U.K. and U.S., newspaper campaigns against Facebook’s data-stealing and privacy violations, among other offences, have been vital prods for MPs and legislators now investigating the need for closer government oversight, if not regulation, of Big Tech. 

If traditional media’s interests become less and less distinguishable from the social media giant’s and they can no longer act as a check on its actions and powers, what happens next? Who in the traditional Establishment could we count on to oppose a deadly merging of government and commerce — by, say, a government trying to invoke emergency powers to requisition Big Tech’s vast and ever-expanding stores of data about us? Invoke those powers illegitimately? And how could that fail to turn some of George Orwell’s nightmare visions into everyday reality? 

The progressive centralisation of media financing and power, and of data collection about ordinary citizens, raises the risk of an authoritarian central force seizing control. It could make that a cakewalk. (The newly created Big Brother would not necessarily be domestic: it could easily be a hostile foreign government.)

Newspapers that have consented to taking Facebook’s coin should reverse their decision immediately — but are unlikely to do anything of the kind. By far the most thoughtful and intelligent reaction to the novel scheme came from a writer or writers on the Techdirt website in Redwood City, in the northern half of Silicon Valley. Crisply written, and with a critical historical perspective missing from every other commentary on that subject, Techdirt‘s take on the topic is essential reading. Its conclusion is in perfect harmony with pG’s (see ‘Wanted: a brave newspaper, for an experiment in which readers become stakeholders ( updated )’:

If we want to “fix” journalism, it will require a new path forward (i.e., innovative business models).

Accepting Facebook’s Trojan horse handouts would not be the right sort of innovation or improvement on the defective business model most widely used today. Here is (Sir) Tim Berners-Lee, the father of the world wide web, lamenting the effects of that model on his brainchild’s evolution, after its open and liberating early years:

The web that many connected to years ago is not what new users will find today. What was once a rich selection of blogs and websites has been compressed under the powerful weight of a few dominant platforms. This concentration of power creates a new set of gatekeepers, allowing a handful of platforms to control which ideas and opinions are seen and shared.

These dominant platforms are able to lock in their position by creating barriers for competitors.

[…]

Two myths currently limit our collective imagination: the myth that advertising is the only possible business model for online companies, and the myth that it’s too late to change the way platforms operate. On both points, we need to be a little more creative.

A year ago, Facebook acquired a key to opening doors to high government offices everywhere when it hired Nick (Sir Nicholas) Clegg — Britain’s deputy prime minister from 2010-15 —  to serve as its head of global policy and communications. As the company’s capacious pockets are used to favour some venerable, still dominant old media powers not just with gifts of cash but — presumably — special treatment on its platform, old and new media seem well on their way to creating an even more unassailable Establishment.  This could make a U-turn towards decentralising power ever more difficult and probably, impossible. 

peony , darkening of the light, square -- postgutenberg@gmail.com

 

Neuroscience says that the power of faces is unique and crucial: should Facebook be allowed to effectively own it, with or without regulation?

Audrey Hepburn, Jiddu Krishnamurti, younger and older postgutenberg@gmail.com.jpg

Two striking 20th-century faces: Audrey Hepburn at 24, top L, and at 60, bottom R; Jiddu Krishnamurti at 15, top R, and at 86, bottom L

Law-making ¯politicians in Facebook’s home country are wrangling with Silicon Valley over whether regulations from Washington slated for drafting this year, putting Big Tech under some degree of pan-U.S. leash control — for the first time ever — should exert a tighter or looser grip on these companies.

That is beside the point. Especially in the case of Facebook, it is impossible that regulation could — remotely — address the actual need, which is to curtail severely the shaping by mere business executives of the relationship between people and the computer technology with which human lives are ever more subtly enmeshed.

What needs protection from the naked, exclusive pursuit of profit is the co-evolutionary future of men and machines. That this has so far been left to commerce defies belief.

Facebook began as an American college student’s invention of a new form of amusement — organising on a digital platform a sort of beauty or sex-appeal contest, not as a staged event but a long-playing rating game. Through Mark Zuckerberg’s entrepreneurial shrewdness — and a lot of lucky stumbling-upon — a businessman created a corporation made unprecedentedly powerful by exploiting an absolutely basic biological element in human attachment to other human beings. 

This, according to science, is the power of faces.

‘We have modules for learning to interpret facial expressions — parts of our brain learn that and nothing else.’ So we were told in 1993 in The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature, a book in which the science writer Matt Ridley theorised about the links between our reproductive instincts and the evolution of our species. ‘It is possible that facial features are a clue to genetic or nurtured quality, or to character and personality,’ he wrote. One of the scientists he quoted described the face as ‘the most information-dense part of the body,’ — and through research in the intervening quarter-century, the evidence justifying that remark has only multiplied.

Should any traditional capitalist enterprise own that power? Even one whose ethics could be above reproach — unlike Facebook’s? From the perspective of our species, it is elemental power equivalent to effective ownership of the dominion of air, or water, fire or earth.

Surely this — above all else — is what needs to be impressed on legislators and policy advisers in every government weighing Big Tech’s role in society? Not as just an elegant philosophical perspective, but at the crux of the matter? 

The Age of Insight (2012), by the Austrian-American neuroscientist and Nobelist Eric Kandel, should be required reading for everyone involved in deciding what do about Facebook’s annexation of face-power. Extracts:

The brain mechanisms underlying face recognition emerge early in infancy. From birth onward, infants are much more likely to look at faces than at other objects. In addition, infants have a predilection for imitating facial expressions, a finding that is consistent with the central role that face perception plays in social interaction.

[…]

Instead of trying to process a face from a pattern of lines, as it does other visual images, the brain uses a template matching approach. It reconstructs the face from a more abstract, higher-order figural primitive: an oval containing two dots (for eyes, a vertical line between those dots (for the nose), and a horizontal line below them (for the mouth). Thus, perception of a face requires less deconstruction and reconstruction of an image than perception of other objects does.

[…]

Moreover, the brain is specialized to deal with faces. Unlike other complex forms, faces are easily recognizable only when they are right side up.

[…]

Faces are by far the most important category of object recognition … We approach people as friends or avoid them as foes by recognizing them, and we infer their emotional state from their facial expression.

The real question that legislators have to tackle has been raised repeatedly on this site: isn’t it time for Facebook to be owned by its users? (See: ‘The media establishment has begun to see sense in a user-owned Facebook …‘.)

The alternative of public control by turning technology giants into public utilities would be an invitation to governments to replace unregulated Big Tech in the Big Brother role into which Silicon Valley has been growing — alarming many of us, rightly, if the quality and sources of answers to the search engine query, ‘Is Big Tech Big Brother?’ are any guide.