Friday, 21 June 2013

And Now, a Message from our Sponsors

As I routinely share my blog posts on Google+, I recently turned on the feature to replicate Google+ comments back to Blogger. I've now turned it off. The reason I did this is that the standard Blogger interface, which accepts anonymous comments, disappears and is replaced by a Google+ form that means commenters now need a Google+ profile. Google's not-so-covert purpose, to get everyone to sign up for Google+ by integrating it into all of its other products, becomes clear.

There is still a widespread belief that Google+ was an attempt to challenge Facebook, and that it has now failed and will eventually go the way of Buzz and Wave. I am of the school that believes Google remains wedded to being the king of search and that it has no desire to go head-to-head with either Facebook or Twitter as a social medium. The role of Google+ appears to be to provide a global profile, spanning all of its products, and thus a way of aggregating your preferences in order to refine search results. The fact that most people's Google+ "stream" is devoid of chatter is actually the point. Thoughtful and deliberate preferences are much more valuable to an advertiser than a casual like or a soon-to-be-meaningless hashtag.

This mundane house-keeping (and otherwise dull opening paragraph) has a certain piquancy in light of the NSA/Prism/GCHQ revelations, which I think should be read more in terms of the ambitions of the Internet companies than the ambitions of the US and UK governments. The state's involvement in surveillance is now parasitical and dependent in a far more profound way than in the era of wiretaps. They have outsourced primary responsibility to the Internet companies, and there are real doubts that they have the technical competence to fully exploit the results. Despite the carefully placed role model of Ben Wishaw as a youthful and nerdish Q in Skyfall, the truth is that the best techies want to work for Google and stock options, not work for the NSA or GCHQ and a civil service pension.

Most political scandals quickly arrange themselves into a them and us dynamic. Dreyfusards and anti-dreyfusards. Scandals, as political theatre, tend to conform to stock plots: venality, sexual opportunism, abuse of office, covering up incompetence, the deep state, executive hubris etc. What tends to be common is the revelation that they (the state, the powerful) have been taking advantage. What determines the toxicity of the scandal is the degree of contempt in which they hold the rest of us that it reveals. For that reason, I suspect the current flap (which hasn't even earned a "gate" suffix yet) will soon die down.

Evidence for this includes the rapid fragmentation of the debate. This is a well-established crisis-management strategy - metaphorically opening up multiple sluice-gates - but it also arises naturally if the scandal lacks an obvious focal point (contrast the NoW phone-hacking affair, which was for long fuelled by speculation that old Rupe himself might be implicated). This fragmentation occurs more rapidly in an online world, where there is both an appetite for news and an inexhaustible supply of opinion. Thus we now have distinct strands focusing on the legality of state surveillance, the adequacy of executive oversight, the motivations of Edward Snowden (traitor vs hero), the ethics of leaking / whistleblowing, and even Snowden's girlfriend's career (pole-dancer vs performance artist). There has been less discussion of how the technology actually works and what this means in practice.

The dominant impression is a general lack of surprise. With the exception of full-time civil libertarians and conspiracy theorists, we're actually quite blasé about it. In fact, I don't think it would be going too far to say that most people who thought about it probably assumed this degree of surveillance was already routine. We've had 12 years of propaganda on the "trade-off between security and privacy", and plenty of evidence that online business models depend on exploiting the surplus labour of our freely-provided data. It looks like this undertow of ennui, buttressed by some token inquiries and proposals on tighter oversight, will let both the authorities and the Internet companies ride out the storm.

Much of the debate has employed the traditional dichotomy of the individual and the state. For Snowden's admirers, it's a case of we, the freedom-loving people, against the over-mighty "guvmint". For Snowden's detractors, like David Brooks in the New York Times, it's about selfish irresponsibility: "But Big Brother is not the only danger facing the country. Another is the rising tide of distrust, the corrosive spread of cynicism, the fraying of the social fabric and the rise of people who are so individualistic in their outlook that they have no real understanding of how to knit others together and look after the common good". This false dichotomy, between Big Brother and the individual leaker, lets business off the hook. The disruptive factor over the last 20 years has been "the rise of people who are so individualistic in their outlook that they have no a very real understanding of how to knit others together". In other words, the iCapitalists for whom "the common good" is meaningless beyond the imposition of their own solipsistic worldview.

Outrage over the attitude of Google, Facebook and the others has now been channelled into the fulminating of various European data regulators, who are just a species of consumer watchdog, and chuntering about the dubious confidentiality of cloud services that may or may not push the discerning consumer towards more specialised providers (i.e. where you pay a fee for "peace of mind"). Consumer rights are not civil liberties (though some would like the reverse to be true). Curiously, only a few have thought to question the monopoly basis of the current service landscape and the consequent rise of rent in the modern economy. It's almost as if we don't want to think evil of those "crazy individualists" out in the Bay Area.

If history teaches us a salutary lesson, it isn't that governments tend to overstep the mark - that's a given - it is rather than monopolies (and cartels) are the true conspiracies against the public. This applies both to commercial monopolies and to monopolies on the exercise of state power. It is the intersection of state and private monopolies that creates the gravest danger as this is bi-directional. I can't be the only person to have wondered if Google's de facto tax exemption is a quid pro quo for services rendered.

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