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March 15, 2019

Schrödinger's Brexit

Parliament_Clock_Westminster-wikimedia.jpg

"What's it like over there now?" American friends keep asking as the clock ticks down to midnight on March 29. Even American TV seems unusually interested: last week's Full Frontal with Samantha Bee had Amy Hoggart explain in detail; John Oliver made it a centerpiece two weeks ago, and US news outlets are giving it as much attention as if it were a US story. They're even - so cute! - trying to pronounce "Taoiseach". Everyone seems fascinated by the spectacle of the supposedly stoic, intellectual British holding meaningless "meaningful" votes and avoiding making any decisions that could cause anyone to lose face. So this is what it's like to live through a future line in the history books: other countries fret on your behalf while you're trying to get lunch.

In 14 days, Britain will either still be a member of the European or it won't. It will have a deal describing the future relationship or it won't. Ireland will be rediscovering civil war or it won't. In two months, we will be voting in the European Parliamentary elections as if nothing has happened, or we won't. All possible outcomes lead to protests in Parliament Square.

No one expects to be like Venezuela. But no one knows what will happen, either. We were more confident approaching Y2K. At least then you knew that thousands of people had put years of hard work into remediating the most important software that could fail. Here...in January, returning from CPDP and flowing seamlessly via Eurostar from Brussels to London, my exit into St Pancras station held the question: is this the last time this journey will be so simple? Next trip, will there be Customs channels and visa checks? Where will they put them? There's no space.

A lot of the rhetoric both at the time of the 2016 vote and since has been around taking back control and sovereignty. That's not the Britain I remember from the 1970s, when the sense of a country recovering from the loss of its empire was palpable, middle class people had pay-as-you-go electric and gas meters, and the owner of a Glasgow fruit and vegetable shop stared at me when I asked for fresh garlic. In 1974, a British friend visiting an ordinary US town remarked, "You can tell there's a lot more money around in this country." And another, newly expatriate and struggling: "But at least we're eating real meat here." This is the pre-EU Britain I remember.

"I've worked for them, and I know how corrupt they are," a 70-something computer scientist said to me of the EU recently. She would, she said, "man the barriers" if withdrawal did not go through. We got interrupted before I could ask if she thought we were safer in the hands of the Parliament whose incompetence she had also just furiously condemned.

The country remains profoundly in disagreement. There may be as many definitions of "Brexit" as there are Leave voters. But the last three years have brought everyone together on one thing: no matter how they voted, where they're from, which party they support, or where they get their news, everyone thinks the political class has disgraced itself. Casually-met strangers laugh in disbelief at MPs' inability to put country before party or self-interest or say things like "It's sickening". Even Wednesday's hair's width vote taking No Deal off the table is absurd: the clock inexorably ticks toward exiting the EU with nothing unless someone takes positive action, either by revoking Article 50, or by asking for an extension, or by signing a deal. But action can get you killed politically. I've never cared for Theresa May, but she's prime minister because no one else was willing to take this on.

NB for the confused: in the UK "tabling a motion" means to put it up for discussion; in the US it means to drop it.

Quietly, people are making just-in-case preparations. One friend scheduled a doctor's appointment to ensure that he'd have in hand six months' worth of the medications he depends on. Others stockpile EU-sourced food items that may be scarce or massively more expensive. Anyone who can is applying for a passport from an EU country; many friends are scrambling to research their Irish grandparents and assemble documentation. So the people in the best position are the recent descendants of immigrants that would would not now be welcome. It is unfair and ironic, and everyone knows it. A critical underlying issue, Danny Dorling and Sally Tomlinson write in their excellent and eye-opening Rule Britannia: Brexit and the End of Empire is education that stresses the UK's "glorious" imperial past. Within the EU, they write, UK MEPs are most of the extreme right, and the EU may be better off - more moderate, less prone to populism - without the UK, while British people may achieve a better understanding of their undistinguished place in the world. Ouch.

The EU has never seemed irrelevant to digital rights activists. Computers, freedom, and privacy (that is, "net.wars") shows the importance of the EU in our time, when the US refuses to regulate and the Internet is challenging national jurisdiction. International collaboration matters.

Just as I wrote that, Parliament finally voted to take the smallest possible action and ask the EU for a two-month extension. Schrödinger needs a bigger box.

Illustrations: "Big Ben" (Aldaron, via Wikimedia).

Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. Stories about the border wars between cyberspace and real life are posted occasionally during the week at the net.wars Pinboard - or follow on Twitter.

March 8, 2019

Pivot

parliament-whereszuck.jpgWould you buy a used social media platform from this man?

"As I think about the future of the internet, I believe a privacy-focused communications platform will become even more important than today's open platform," Mark Zuckerberg wrote this week at the Facebook blog, also summarized at the Guardian.

Zuckerberg goes on to compare Facebook and Instagram to "the digital equivalent of a town square".

So many errors, so little time. Neither Facebook nor Instagram is open. "Open information, Rufus Pollock explained last year in The Open Revolution, "...can be universally and freely used, built upon, and shared." While, "In a Closed world information is exclusively 'owned' and controlled, its attendant wealth and power more and more concentrated".

The alphabet is open. I do not need a license from the Oxford English Dictionary to form words. The web is open (because Tim Berners-Lee made it so). One of the first social media, Usenet, is open. Particularly in the early 1990s, Usenet really was the Internet's town square.

*Facebook* is *closed*.

Sure, anyone can post - but only in the ways that Facebook permits. Running apps requires Facebook's authorization, and if Facebook makes changes, SOL. Had Zuckerberg said - as some have paraphrased him - "town hall", he'd still be wrong, but less so: even smaller town halls have metal detectors and guards to control what happens inside. However, they're publicly owned. Under the structure Zuckerberg devised when it went public, even the shareholders have little control over Facebook's business decisions.

So, now: this week Zuckerberg announced a seeming change of direction for the service. Slate, the Guardian, and the Washington Post all find skepticism among privacy advocates that Facebook can change in any fundamental way, and they wonder about the impact on Facebook's business model of the shift to focusing on secure private messaging instead of the more public newsfeed. Facebook's former chief security officer Alex Stamos calls the announcement a "judo move" that removes both the privacy complaints (Facebook now can't read what you say to your friends) and allows the site to say that complaints about circulating fake news and terrorist content are outside its control (Facebook now can't read what you say to your friends *and* doesn't keep the data).

But here's the thing. Facebook is still proposing to unify the WhatsApp, Instagram, and Facebook user databases. Zuckerberg's stated intention is to build a single unified secure messaging system. In fact, as Alex Hern writes at the Guardian that's the one concrete action Zuckerberg has committed to, and that was announced back in January, to immediate privacy queries from the EU.

The point that can' t be stressed enough is that although Facebook is trading away the ability to look at the content of what people post it will retain oversight of all the traffic data. We have known for decades that metadata is even more revealing than content; I remember the late Caspar Bowden explaining the issues in detail in 1999. Even if Facebook's promise to vape the messages doesn't include keeping no copies for itself (a stretch, given that we found out in 2013 that the company keeps every character you type), it will be able to keep its insights into the connections between people and the conclusions it draws from them. Or, as Hern also writes, Zuckerberg "is offering privacy on Facebook, but not necessarily privacy from Facebook".

Siva Vaidhyanathan, author of Antisocial Media, seems to be the first to get this, and to point out that Facebook's supposed "pivot" is really just a decision to become more dominant, like China's WeChat.WeChat thoroughly dominates Chinese life: it provides messaging, payments, and a de facto identity system. This is where Vaidhyanathan believes Facebook wants to go, and if encrypting messages means it can't compete in China...well, WeChat already owns that market anyway. Let Google get the bad press.

Facebook is making a tradeoff. The merged database will give it the ability to inspect redundancy - are these two people connected on all three services or just one? - and therefore far greater certainty about which contacts really matter and to whom. The social graph that emerges from this exercise will be smaller because duplicates will have been merged, but far more accurate. The "pivot" does, however, look like it might enable Facebook to wriggle out from under some of its numerous problems - uh, "challenges". The calls for regulation and content moderation focus on the newsfeed. "We have no way to see the content people write privately to each other" ends both discussions, quite possibly along with any liability Facebook might have if the EU's copyright reform package passes with Article 11 (the "link tax") intact.

Even calls that the company should be broken up - appropriate enough, since the EU only approved Facebook's acquisition of WhatsApp when the company swore that merging the two databases was technically impossible - may founder against a unified database. Plus, as we know from this week's revelations, the politicians calling for regulation depend on it for re-election, and in private they accommodate it, as Carole Cadwalladr and Duncan Campbell write at the Guardian and Bill Goodwin writes at Computer Weekly.

Overall, then, no real change.


Illustrations: The international Parliamentary committee, with Mark Zuckerberg's empty seat.

Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. Stories about the border wars between cyberspace and real life are posted occasionally during the week at the net.wars Pinboard - or follow on Twitter.

February 28, 2019

Systemic infection

Thumbnail image for 2001-hal.png"Can you keep a record of every key someone enters?"

This question brought author and essayist Ellen Ullman up short when she was still working as a software engineer and it was posed to her circa 1996. "Yes, there are ways to do that," she replied after a stunned pause.

In her 1997 book Close to the Machine, Ullman describes the incident as "the first time I saw a system infect its owner". After a little gentle probing, her questioner, the owner of a small insurance agency, explained that now that he had installed a new computer system he could find out what his assistant, who had worked for him for 26 years and had picked up his children from school when they were small, did all day. "The way I look at it," he explained, "I've just spent all this money on a system, and now I get to use it the way I'd like to."

Ullman appeared to have dissuaded this particular business owner on this particular occasion, but she went on to observe that over the years she saw the same pattern repeated many times. Sooner or later, someone always realizes that they systems they have commissioned for benign purposes can be turned to making checks and finding out things they couldn't know before. "There is something...in the formal logic of programs and data, that recreates the world in its own image," she concludes.

I was reminded of this recently when I saw a report at The Register that the US state of New Jersey, along with two dozen others, may soon require any contractor working on a contract worth more than $100,000 to install keylogging software to ensure that they're actually working all the hours - one imagines that eventually, it will be minutes - they bill for. Veteran reporter Thomas Claburn goes on to note that the text of the bill was provided by TransparentBusiness, a maker of remote work management software, itself a trend.

Speaking as a taxpayer, I can see the point of ensuring that governments are getting full value for our money. But speaking as a freelance writer who occasionally has had to work on projects where I'm paid by the hour or day (a situation I've always tried to avoid by agreeing a rate for the whole job), the distrust inherent in such a system seems poisonous. Why are we hiring people we can't trust? Most of us who have taken on the risks of self-employment do so because one of the benefits is autonomy and a certain freedom from bosses. And now we're talking about the kind of intensive monitoring that in the past has been reserved for full-time employees - and that none of them have liked much either.

One of the first sectors that is already fighting its way through this kind of transition is trucking. In 2014, Cornell sociologist Karen Levy published the results of three years of research into the arrival of electronic monitoring into truckers' cabs as a response to safety concerns. For truckers, whose cabs are literally their part-time homes, electronic monitoring is highly intrusive; effectively, the trucking company is installing a camera and other sensors not just in their office but also in their living room and bedroom. Instead of using electronics to try to change unsafe practices, she argues, alter the economic incentives. In particular, she finds that the necessity of making a living at low per-mile rates pushes truckers to squeeze the unavoidable hours of unpaid work - waiting for loading and unloading, for example - into their statutory hours of "rest".

The result sounds like it would be familiar to Uber drivers or modern warehouse workers, even if Amazon never deploys the wristbands it patented in 2016. In an interview published this week, Data & Society Institute researcher Alex Rosenblat outlines the results of a four-year study of ride-hail drivers across the US and Canada. Forget the rhetoric that these drivers are entrepreneurs, she writes; they have a boss, and it's the company's algorithm, which dictates their on-the-job behavior and withholds the data they need to make informed decisions.

If we do nothing, this may be the future of all work. In a discussion last week, University of Leicester associate professor Phoebe Moore located "quantified work" at the intersection of two trends: first, the health-oriented self-quantified movement, and second the succeeding waves of workplace management from industrialization through time and motion study, scientific management, and today's organizational culture, where, as Moore put it, we're supposed to "love our jobs and identify with our employer". The first of these has led to "wellness" programs that, particularly in the US, helped grant employers access to vastly more detailed personal data about their employees than has ever been available to them before.

Quantification, the combination of the two trends, Moore warns at Medium, will alter the workplace's social values by tending to pit workers against each other, race track style. Vendors now claim predictive power for AI: which prospective employees fit which jobs, or when staff may be about to quit or take sick leave. One can, as Moore does, easily imagine that, despite the improvements AI can bring, the AI-quantified workplace, will be intensively worker-hostile. The infection continues to spread.


Illustrations: HAL, from 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).

Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. Stories about the border wars between cyberspace and real life are posted occasionally during the week at the net.wars Pinboard - or follow on Twitter.