Panic is on the agenda at Davos – but it’s too little too late

Panic is on the agenda at Davos – but it’s too little too late
The results of the rampant inequality engineered by the global elite are finally catching up with them
By Aditya Chakrabortty
Jan 23 2019

Pity the poor billionaire, for today he feels a new and unsettling emotion: fear. The world order he once clung to is crumbling faster than the value of the pound. In its place, he frets, will come chaos. Remember this, as the plutocrats gather this week high above us in the ski resort of Davos: they are terrified.

Whatever dog-eared platitudes they may recycle for the TV cameras, what grips them is the havoc far below. Just look at the new report from the summit organisers that begins by asking plaintively, “Is the world sleepwalking into a crisis?” In the accompanying survey of a thousand bosses, money men (because finance, like wealth, is still mainly a male thing) and other “Davos decision-makers”, nine out of 10 say they fear a trade war or other “economic confrontation between major powers”. Most confess to mounting anxieties about “populist and nativist agendas” and “public anger against elites”. As the cause of this political earthquake, they identify two shifting tectonic plates: climate change and “increasing polarisation of societies”.

In its pretend innocence, its barefaced blame-shifting, its sheer ruddy sauce, this is akin to arsonists wailing about the flames from their own bonfire. Populism of all stripes may be anathema to the billionaire class, but they helped create it. For decades, they inflicted insecurity on the rest of us and told us it was for our own good. They have rigged an economic system so that it paid them bonanzas and stiffed others. They have lobbied and funded politicians to give them the easiest of rides. Topped with red Maga caps and yellow vests, this backlash is uglier and more uncouth than anything you’ll see in the snow-capped Alps, but the high rollers meeting there can claim exec producer credits for the whole rotten lot. Shame it’s such a downer for dividends.

This week’s report from Oxfam is just the latest to put numbers to this hoarding of wealth and power. One single minibus-load of fatcats – just 26 people – now own as much as half the planet’s population, and the collective wealth of the billionaire class swells by $2.5bn every day. This economic polarisation is far more obscene than anything detested by Davos man, and it is the root cause of the social and political divide that now makes his world so unstable.

No natural force created this intense unfairness. The gulf between the super-rich and the rest of us did not gape wide open overnight. Rather, it has been decades in the widening and it was done deliberately. The UK was the frontline of the war to create greater inequality: in her first two terms as prime minister, Margaret Thatcher more than halved the top rate of income tax paid by high earners. She broke the back of the trade unions. Over their 16 years in office, Thatcher and John Major flogged off more public assets than France, Italy, Spain, Germany, Australia and Canada put together.

Oh, shrug the Davos set, that’s ancient history. It is no such thing. Thatcher may be gone but her ideology keeps on taking cash out of your pay packets. If workers today got the same share of national income as in the 70s, we would be far better off. According to calculations from the Foundational Economy collective of researchers, a full-time employee now on the median salary of £29,574 would get a pay rise of £5,471.

Meanwhile, FTSE bosses enjoy skyrocketing pay, precisely because bonus schemes give them part-ownership of the big companies they run. So Jeff Fairburn of the housebuilder Persimmon took £47m in 2018 before getting the boot, which works out at £882 for each £1 earned by an average worker at the firm.

Where Thatcher’s shock troops led, the rest of the west more or less followed. Political leaders across the spectrum gave the rich what they wanted. It didn’t matter whether you voted for Tony Blair or David Cameron, Bill Clinton or George W Bush, either way you got Davos man. They cut taxes for top earners and for businesses, they uprooted the public sector to create opportunities for private firms, and they struck trade deals negotiated in secret that gave big corporations as much as they could ever dream of.

At last, more than a decade after the banking crash, the regime has run out of road. Hence the popular anger, so ferocious that the political and financial elites can neither comprehend nor control it. I can think of no better metaphor for the current disarray of the Davos set than the fact that Emmanuel Macron – surely the elite’s platonic ideal of a politician, with his eyes of leporid brightness, his stint as an investment banker and his start-up party – cannot attend this week’s jamboree because he has to stay at home and deal with the gilets jaunes. It’s a bummer when the working poor spoil your holiday plans.

None of this is to say that the 1% – holed up in their resort and fenced off from the world with roadblocks and men toting sharpshooters – don’t care about the immiseration of others. At Davos a couple of years ago, the New York Times reportedthat among the summit’s attractions was “a simulation of a refugee’s experience, where [conference] attendees crawl on their hands and knees and pretend to flee from advancing armies”. The article continued, “It is one of the most popular events every year.”


Court Rules ‘Ag-Gag’ Law Criminalizing Undercover Reporting Violates the First Amendment

Court Rules ‘Ag-Gag’ Law Criminalizing Undercover Reporting Violates the First Amendment
The unconstitutional law was meant to protect agribusinesses from public scrutiny.
By Esha Bhandari
Jan 22 2019

In a win for freedom of the press, a federal court this month struck down an Iowa law making it a crime to lie about your intentions when accessing an agricultural production facility.

The “ag-gag” law, which was aimed at undercover journalists and activists, essentially prevented undercover investigations of the agricultural industry. The court rightly found that the law violates the First Amendment.

This welcome ruling joins a host of other court decisions finding similar laws in other states to be unconstitutional — and for good reason. Undercover reporting is a critical tool to inform the public about corporate wrongdoing. Overbroad laws criminalizing false speech violate the First Amendment and prevent investigative journalism from holding powerful private actors to account.

Iowa was one of many states that passed ag-gag laws criminalizing various activities essential to undercover investigations aiming to expose animal cruelty and other illegal or unsafe activities. These laws were passed after several high-profile undercover investigations revealed various abuses, such as sick cows being repeatedly shocked with electric prods in California and young calves being kicked and skinned alive at a Vermont slaughterhouse. Such investigations have prompted large-scale meat and egg recalls. That is why the ag-gag laws sparked opposition from press freedom and civil liberties groups as well as animal rights, environmental justice, and food safety advocates.

One major area of constitutional concern is that ag-gag laws often make it a crime to be untruthful when gaining access to an industrial farm or similar place — for example, by not disclosing that you are an investigative journalist or activist when applying for a job.

Why is it a constitutional problem to outlaw lying? Because the First Amendment protects false speech where there is no legally recognizable harm. The Supreme Court has held that while certain limited categories of false speech, such as perjury, are inherently harmful and can be outlawed, the First Amendment does not permit outlawing all lies — even distasteful lies that have no social benefit.

When it comes to undercover investigations, however, lying is done in service of the public good — and not only in the agricultural industry. The enforcement of anti-discrimination laws, for example, has long relied on undercover audit testing of landlords and employers to ensure they do not treat housing or job applicants differently based on protected class status such as race, gender, or disability.

Such testing often requires false speech, for example when submitting identical, false resumes to an employer that vary only by the name of the applicant, or when a housing tester misrepresents her intention to actually rent a home. The federal government and the courts have recognized for decades that these tactics are a critical part of upholding civil rights protections.

In a similar vein, the ACLU is currently representing researchers who are asserting their First Amendment right to submit false information online as part of testing websites to uncover algorithmic discrimination in housing and employment opportunities.

That is why it is encouraging that the court considering the Iowa law concluded that there are constitutional problems with outlawing false speech in service of undercover journalism. Courts have also struck down ag-gag provisions prohibiting recording or collecting information in Idaho, Utah, and Wyoming on First Amendment grounds.


Did Australia Poke a Hole in Your Phone’s Security?

Did Australia Poke a Hole in Your Phone’s Security?
By Nellie Bowles
Jan 22 2019

SYDNEY, Australia — A new law in Australia gives law enforcement authorities the power to compel tech-industry giants like Apple to create tools that would circumvent the encryption built into their products.

The law, the Telecommunications and Other Legislation Amendment (Assistance and Access) Act 2018, applies only to tech products used or sold in Australia. But its impact could be global: If Apple were to build a so-called back door for iPhones sold in Australia, the authorities in other countries, including the United States, could force the company to use that same tool to assist their investigations.

The Australian law went into effect last month. It is one of the most assertive efforts by lawmakers to rein in tech companies, which have argued for decades that unbreakable encryption is an imperative part of protecting the private communications of their customers.

In recent years, law enforcement officials have complained that tough encryption has made it impossible for them to gain access to the online discussions of crime suspects, particularly in time-sensitive terror investigations.

The tension between tech and law enforcement came to a head about four years ago when Apple resisted a federal request to help investigators gain access to a locked iPhone that had belonged to a man who took part in a shooting that killed 14 people in San Bernardino, Calif.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation eventually found a way around the iPhone’s security without Apple’s help. But if Apple had already created a workaround — a back door, in industry terms — to sell phones in Australia, the American authorities could have simply ordered Apple to use the tool.

“This may be an encryption back door for the U.S.,” said Sharon Bradford Franklin, director of surveillance and cybersecurity policy for the New America think tank’s Open Technology Institute. “A back door to an encryption back door.”

The Australian law has limited oversight mechanisms. A notice sent to a company must be “reasonable and proportionate,” and the authorities must have a warrant to gain access to a phone or service. But the agency issuing the notice decides what is reasonable.

There is an appeals process if a company is asked to build a new interception capability. A firm can ask an independent assessment panel consisting of a technical expert and a former judicial officer to review the notice.

The law says the Australian authorities cannot ask a company to build universal decryption capabilities or introduce systemwide weaknesses. But security experts and tech companies like Apple said that did not reflect what they would have to do to comply with an order. It is impossible, for example, to create a workaround for one iPhone’s encryption without potentially introducing something that could work for all of them, they said.

“All of Australian technology is tarnished by it,” said Mike Cannon-Brookes, one of the founders of Atlassian, a business software company that is among Australia’s biggest tech companies.

Australia is a member of the so-called Five Eyes intelligence alliance, and it is not the only country in the alliance with a law like this. Britain passed the Investigatory Powers Act in 2016. For British law enforcement to gain access to data, it must first ask a judicial approver.

“We’re not the first,” said Michelle Price, chief executive of the nonprofit Australian Cyber Security Growth Network. “But Australia’s version has gone much further.”

Apple officials called the law “dangerously ambiguous” and “alarming.”

“Encryption is simply math,” Apple wrote in a statement submitted to the Australian Parliament’s Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security on Oct. 12. “Any process that weakens the mathematical models that protect user data for anyone will by extension weaken the protections for everyone.”

But politicians said the risk of encryption technology’s being used by terrorists was too significant. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull of Australia said in July, “The laws of mathematics are very commendable, but the only law that applies in Australia is the law of Australia.”

Technology companies in the United States have argued that they cannot be compelled to create tools for breaking the encryption in their products because computer code is a kind of free speech protected under the First Amendment. But building tools to satisfy the Australian authorities would essentially make that argument moot. Countries around the world could demand access to the tool.

Apple is hardly the only tech company that could feel the impact of the Australian law. Anyone with a website is considered a communications provider, subject to the law. Any company that “provides an electronic service that has one or more end-users in Australia” is required to comply.

A long list of companies meets that description, such as smartphone makers and Facebook and its WhatsApp messaging service.


China reportedly made an app to show people if they’re standing near someone in debt — a new part of its intrusive ‘social credit’ policy

[Note:  This item comes from friend Steve Schear.  DLH]

China reportedly made an app to show people if they’re standing near someone in debt — a new part of its intrusive ‘social credit’ policy
By Alexandra Ma
Jan 22 2019

• A province in northern China developed an app to tell users whether they are within a 500-meter radius of someone in debt, state media said.
• It’s called a “map of deadbeat debtors,” the China Daily state-run newspaper reported.
• It hopes to get citizens to monitor the so-called debtors and report them to authorities if they seem “capable of paying their debts.”
• It’s part of China’s invasive “social credit” system, designed to judge a person’s trustworthiness. People have already been punished by it.

A province in northern China developed an app to tell people whether they are walking near someone in debt, according to state media. 

The app, named the “map of deadbeat debtors,” rolled out to people in Hebei, the state-run China Daily newspaper reported. They can access it on WeChat, the country’s most popular instant-messaging platform.

The program flashes a warning to show a user that they are within a 500-meter radius of someone in debt. 

It shows the debtor’s exact location, according to a screenshot of the app. 

It’s not clear whether the app displays a debtor’s name, photos, or any other identity markers. 

It’s also not clear how much money one must owe — or to whom — to be defined as a debtor. 

The app wants to get citizens to keep an eye on the so-called debtors. 

China Daily said it would let people “whistle-blow on debtors capable of paying their debts.” 

It did not say what behavior could flag someone as capable of paying their debts. 

Chinese families traditionally emphasize saving money to avoid spending with borrowed money or owing personal debt.

Social-credit system 

The new program comes as part of China’s social-credit system, an extension of a person’s financial credit score that will be mandatory in 2020. 

It essentially judges a person’s trustworthiness using measures like their ability to pay off loans and their behavior on public transport. 

The argument for a social-credit system is that many people in China still have no formal access to traditional banks and therefore need an alternative system to assess whether they can pay off loans, rent houses, or even send their children to school. 


The Great Google Hangouts Shutdown begins October 2019

[Note:  This item comes from reader Randall Head.  DLH]

The Great Google Hangouts Shutdown begins October 2019
By Ron Amadeo
Jan 22 2019

Google previously announced that its most popular messaging app, Google Hangouts, would be shutting down. In a post today on the GSuite Updates blog, Google detailed what the Hangouts shutdown will look like, and the company shared some of its plan to transition Hangouts users to “Hangouts Chat,” a separate enterprise Slack clone.

First, we need to get some vocabulary down to navigate Google’s extremely confusing branding. There are two totally separate products we’re talking about here: “Hangouts” and “Hangouts Chat.” These two products have nothing in common besides their similar names.

Hangouts—which Google has recently retconned to “Hangouts Classic”—is Google’s most-popular messaging app of all time. The full-featured, consumer-grade, instant-messaging app has over a billion installs on Android, and it has enjoyed prominent placement in the desktop version of Gmail. Since it was an in-place upgrade of Google Talk, it has a user base dating back 13 years.
“Hangouts Chat” is the complete opposite. It launched 10 months ago and is a basic (some would say “beta”) enterprise Slack clone. Right now, it’s only available to paying GSuite users, and it has a scant 500,000 installs on Android. Today, the two apps don’t share users, messages, or have any kind of interoperability.

Hangouts Classic (the popular one) is shutting down. Today, Google announced the shutdown begins October 2019, when the company says it will “start retiring” Hangouts Classic for GSuite customers. When, precisely, the shutdown happens for consumers is still up in the air. Google says “We will continue to support consumer use of classic Hangouts and expect to transition consumers to free Chat and Meet following the transition of GSuite customers. A more specific timeline will be communicated at a later date.”

It’s worth noting that an earlier report from 9to5Google, which set off Google’s last round of communication about Hangouts, pegged 2020 for the consumer shutdown.

Pushing IM users into an enterprise Slack-like will be fine, right?

Google isn’t going to just drop a billion-install user base, though, and despite Hangouts Classic and Hangouts Chat being different services with different use cases, Google plans to close the gap between the two and migrate Hangouts Classic users to Hangouts Chat. Google says it will spend April through September launching new features for Hangouts Chat. That will include, the company says, “features from classic Hangouts” and some interoperability.

Google doesn’t hold anything back on this support page, which lists the upcoming features for Hangouts Chat. Key features like “Chatting with users from outside the domain” and “Google Voice integration” will bring the app a bit closer to a consumer product. Hangouts Chat has a long way to go in terms of matching the clients for Classic Hangouts, and this list has both “Deep integration with Gmail” and “Apps for Windows and macOS,” which will help a lot. There will also be a “Enhanced video calling experience.”
Most of the new features don’t seem like they would close the gap with Hangouts. Instead, they’re focused on closing the gap with Slack. They include “Rooms where users can join and leave and can hold multiple threaded conversations,” sharing documents, searching for text, people, and rooms, link previews, and support for bots.

The big feature, though, is interoperability. Starting April 16, Google says that Classic Hangouts and Hangouts Chat users will be able to message each other back and forth. Sadly, this does not apply to group chat, which will remain separate between the two products.


Covington and the Pundit Apocalypse

Covington and the Pundit Apocalypse
Our hasty condemnation of these teenagers reveals the cold truth about hot takes.
By Frank Bruni
Jan 22 2019

There’s no shame and much honor in the job of coming to judgments about news events.

But we don’t have to rush there.

That’s what too many of us pundits did upon first seeing video footage and hearing accounts of the encounter in Washington last Friday between teenagers from a Catholic boys’ high school in Kentucky and a Native American elder and veteran playing a drum. There were glimmers of something cruel and even dangeroushappening to him. Glimmers were enough for us.

Now of course we’ve seen extra footage, heard additional accounts and moved to a place that should more frequently be our starting point: uncertainty. Tweets have been deleted. Outrage has been put on hold.

It won’t stay there for long. It’s too electric, too profitable, and there will be prompts and genuine cause for it. But will we pause next time to make sure that we understand what we’re reacting to and whom we’re condemning? Even if that means fewer retweets? Will we filter our responses through a mature acknowledgment of what, in real time, we can and cannot take for granted?

Only if we’re honest about what we’ve been doing and why we’ve been doing it.

With everything from Twitter followers to television bookings, we’re rewarded for fierce conviction, for utter certainty, for emphatically taking sides and staying unconditionally faithful to what we’ve pushed for and against in the past. We each have our brand, and the narrower and more unyielding it is, the more currency it has and the more loyal our consumers. Instead of bucking the political tribalism in America, we ride it.

We react to news by trying to fit it into the argument that we routinely make, the grievance that we usually raise, the fury or angst or sorrow that we typically peddle. We have our narrative, and we’re on the lookout for comments and developments that back it up. The response to the initial footage of the teenagers — and, in particular, to the one who wore a red MAGA cap as he stood before and stared at the drumming veteran — adhered to this dynamic.

Was that a smirk on the teenager’s face? A sneer? His expression was just indefinite enough to become a symbol of entitlement for the pundits who favor that locution, of the white patriarchy for another group, of the wages of Trumpism, of the fraudulence of Catholicism.

And while many pundits’ outrage was correctly calibrated to what they assumed was going on, it was built on assumption. It was hasty. A crowd was forming and the clock was ticking and nobody wanted to be late to the inquisition. A “hot take” is prized — hence the well-known phrase for this instant analysis. Nobody talks about a “cold take,” though that’s the temperature of truth. 

To glance at Twitter as the video of the Covington teenagers went viral over the weekend was to see each pundit one-upping the disdain of the pundits who vented before him or her. It was also to wonder about the degree of preening and performance involved. They weren’t merely spreading the word of what had supposedly happened in Washington. They were seizing the opportunity for a fresh and full-throated reminder of their own morality and politics. They were burnishing their brands. And that self-interest was — and is — the enemy of caution.

I’m not going to single out any particular pundits and tweets, because there were many and because, under different circumstances, one of those tweets could easily have come from me. As it happens, I missed this pile-on. But I’m sure that if I scrubbed my Twitter history, I’d find that I’ve behaved in the fashion that I’m lamenting here.


Why US rightwing populists and their global allies disagree over big tech

Why US rightwing populists and their global allies disagree over big tech
The American wing of the movement sees big tech as a target of attack while populists in the rest of the world see it as their best chance of escaping intellectual hegemony
By Evgeny Morozov
Jan 22 2019

The emerging global movement of rightwing populists is guilty of many things but ideological incoherence in choosing their enemies is generally not one of them. Whether it is Steve Bannon bashing Pope Francis, Matteo Salvini attacking the “do-gooders” in humanitarian NGOs or Marine Le Pen venting against the dull technocrats in Brussels, the populists go after a predictable, well-calculated set of targets. If anyone chooses their enemies well, it’s them.

But there’s one issue on which there’s no agreement between American rightwing populists and their peers in the rest of the world: what to make of Silicon Valley. On the one hand, its services and platforms have been a boon to the populists everywhere, greatly boosting their audience numbers and allowing them to target potential voters with highly personalized messages; the Cambridge Analytica fiasco has made it quite clear. Today, upstart and new rightwing parties like Spain’s Vox instinctively understand the primacy of digital battles; Vox already leads all other Spanish parties in terms of Instagram followers.

This pragmatic embrace of digital platforms is where the populist consensus ends; the intellectual evaluation of Silicon Valley’s significance is rather cacophonous. The American wing of the movement sees big tech as an attractive target of attack; for them, Silicon Valley is a bizarre mix of greedy capitalists and “cultural Marxists”, keen on indoctrinating their users into leftwing ideas while getting filthy rich off everyone’s data. Populists in the rest of the world, in contrast, see Silicon Valley’s platforms as their best chance of escaping the intellectual hegemony of their own domestic “cultural Marxists”, firmly ensconced in elite institutions, such as the media, the academia, and the Deep State.

In an August 2018 interview with CNN, Steve Bannon called people leading “evil” Silicon Valley “complete narcissists” and “sociopaths”; the data grabbed by their companies, he insisted, should be “put in a public trust”. He also predicted that big tech would be one of the main themes of the 2020 presidential election.

Given that the anger towards Silicon Valley is also growing on the left – Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the latest sensation of American leftist politics, memorably attackedNew York City’s $3bn welcome package to Amazon – it seems like a reasonable prediction. Silicon Valley appears to be a perfect enemy for non-centrist forces in America, as bashing it helps to delegitimize the legacy of Obama and Clinton, seen as its primary enablers.

Others on the right endorse Bannon’s opinions. Brad Parscale, the digital media director of Trump’s 2016 campaign, has complained that “Big tech monsters like Google and Facebook have become nothing less than incubators for far-left liberal ideologies and are doing everything they can to eradicate conservative ideas and their proponents from the internet.” Recent bans on far-right and conservative personalities by social media and online fundraising platforms have only amplified such perceptions of Silicon Valley. Even Donald Trump complained that Google was “suppressing voices of Conservatives and hiding information and news that is good” – a “very serious situation” that, he promised, “will be addressed”.

To see the sharp contrast with how rightwing populists elsewhere perceive Silicon Valley, one could turn to a viral clip from Bolsonaro’s recent inauguration in Brazil, where a crowd of his supporters were filmed chanting “WhatsApp, WhatsApp! Facebook, Facebook!” This is hardly an atypical feeling. In 2017, when he was still a member of the European Parliament, Matteo Salvini delivered a feisty speech against attempts to crack down on fake news, declaring that the old elite ways of setting the public agenda were over. He concluded with “Long Live Facebook!” (he likewise thanked the site after the party did well in the 2018 elections).