John Naughton: Boris Johnson’s ‘new deal’ is Roosevelt lite

The PM’S building bonanza involves a sleight of hand while Dominic Cummings’s plan to ape the Americans’ advanced tech agency is flawed

It’s back to the future time again. Boris Johnson is trying to wrap himself in the cape of Franklin Roosevelt and his famous New Deal, while his consigliere, Cummings, wants to go back to the 1950s and reboot Britain by building an imitation of the Pentagon’s Advanced Research Projects Agency (Arpa – later Darpa, with the D standing for defence).

Both projects have touching aspects of romanticism, ignorance and absurdity. In relation to Johnson’s FDR tribute band, his proposed £5bn splash on infrastructure comes to about 0.2% of GDP, whereas Roosevelt’s New Deal was estimated to be worth 40% of US national income in 1929. Roosevelt built dams, housing, roads and bridges across America. He restored the banking system, set up the Securities and Exchange Commission, encouraged trade unions. From 1933, his public works administration built the Lincoln Tunnel in New York, the Grand Coulee Dam and completed the Hoover Dam. Roosevelt instituted a minimum wage and maximum hours in certain businesses and asserted the right of workers to organise. For his part, Johnson will be refurbishing schools and repairing bridges – both good in their way, but on a minuscule scale. And he doesn’t seem to have any plans for reining in the City or for encouraging workers’ rights. So his Roosevelt rhetoric is basically back-of-the-envelope hogwash.

Darpa has spurred innovations such as weather satellites, the internet, GPS and voice interfaces

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John Naughton: Is it payback time for Apple as the EU goes after its licences to print money? | John Naughton

The US giant faces a probe into its lucrative App Store and, more interestingly, the tech behind its phone payment system

On 16 June, the European commission opened two antitrust investigations into Apple’s App Store and Apple Pay practices. The first investigation will examine whether Apple has broken EU competition rules with its App Store policies. The second investigation is into whether restrictions imposed by Apple on the near field communication (NFC) capability of its iPhone and Apple Watch mean that banks and other financial institutions are prevented from offering NFC payment systems using Apple kit.

Let’s take the App Store first. When Apple unveiled the iPhone in 2007, it created an amazing new opportunity for software developers and, of course, for Apple itself. Because the new phone was basically a powerful handheld computer, that meant it could run smallish programs, which came to be called apps. And because it had an internet connection those programs could be efficiently distributed across the net. From this came the idea that Apple should set up an App Store to which developers could upload their programs. Apple, being a control-freak corporation, would vet those apps before they appeared on the store and would levy a 30% commission on sales. It seems like a great idea.

Given that Microsoft was the original digital monopolist, this is a case of the slag heap calling the kettle black

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John Naughton: Nick Clegg is on the wrong side of history at Facebook | John Naughton

The former deputy PM continued to defend the indefensible as the tech giant went on an election PR blitz

On Wednesday, Facebook, possibly struggling to get out from under the realisation that it is probably now the only thing standing between Joe Biden and the US presidency, launched a PR blitz about new measures it was taking to clean up its act on political advertising and related matters. To a sceptical observer, it looked rather like a diversionary tactic to distract media attention from a more embarrassing Facebook-related story of the week, namely the conviction of Maria Ressa, the Philippines’s most prominent independent journalist, on trumped-up libel charges brought by the Facebook-exploiting Duterte regime, in whose side she has been a courageous thorn.

This cynical conjecture was boosted by the feeble content of the Facebook announcements. First of all, it is going to block ads from foreign state media during the US election in the run-up to the presidential election. Second, Facebook is going to mount a massive campaign to persuade people to go out and vote. And third, it’s going to give Facebook and Instagram users the option to turn off political adverts when they appear or to block them using app settings.

To hear a liberal talk like this about a company whose ignorance enabled ethnic cleansing in Myanmar takes the biscuit

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John Naughton: More power to IBM for turning its back on toxic facial recognition | John Naughton

IBM and Amazon have withdrawn their products, citing the software’s use in racial profiling. But under what terms could it return?

So IBM has seen the light on facial recognition technology. On Monday, in a dramatic and surprisingly passionate statement (at least for the CEO of a major tech company), Arvind Krishna called on the US Congress to enact reforms to advance racial justice and combat systemic racism, while announcing that his company was getting out of the facial recognition business.

In his letter, Mr Krishna said that “IBM no longer offers general-purpose IBM facial recognition or analysis software” and “firmly opposes and will not condone uses of any technology, including facial recognition technology offered by other vendors, for mass surveillance, racial profiling, violations of basic human rights and freedoms, or any purpose which is not consistent with our values and principles of trust and transparency. We believe now is the time to begin a national dialogue on whether and how facial recognition technology should be employed by domestic law enforcement agencies.”

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John Naughton: One man stands between Joe Biden and the US presidency – Mark Zuckerberg

Donald Trump knows that Facebook can help him win in November, and Zuckerberg has too much to lose by censoring him

Watching the violent chaos night after night in the US, I keep thinking of what Benjamin Franklin said to the woman who asked him, as he emerged from the constitutional convention in 1787: “Well, Doctor, what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?” To which he famously replied: “A republic, if you can keep it.” What’s happening on the streets there at the moment suggests that they could be coming close to losing it.

When Trump was elected, I was assured by my American friends that the republic’s democratic institutions, conventions and constitution were strong enough to rein in the narcissistic despot. Sure, it might be a rollercoaster ride, they conceded, but the republic would pull through. Well, if my transatlantic email is anything to go by, some of that cheery confidence seems to have evaporated.

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John Naughton: Twitter taking on Trump’s lies? About time too | John Naughton

The platform’s moves to counter the president’s disinformation may be too little, too late, but it’s something

In addition to washing your hands while singing the first two verses of The Internationale, it might be a good time also to clean out your Twitter feed. According to a recent report of a research study by Carnegie Mellon University’s Center for Computational Analysis of Social and Organizational Systems, about 45% of the false narratives about Covid-19 on Twitter are sent by bots.

The study examined more than 100 false Covid narratives (including the 5G conspiracy theories) pushed in over 200m tweets since January. If you’re a reader of this newspaper, the likelihood is that you never saw any of these. But that’s because you are – like me – cheerfully encased in your own filter bubble. I write with feeling on this matter, because on the morning after the Brexit referendum I went through the list of about 800 people whom I follow on Twitter, and I could not locate a single one who seemed to have been in favour of Brexit in the run-up to the vote. The shock felt by them after the vote was palpable. But it was also a salutary reminder that anyone who uses social media lives in a digital echo chamber.

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John Naughton: How the ‘Plandemic’ conspiracy theory took hold

To have one viral sensation, Oscar Wilde might have said, is unfortunate. But to have two smacks of carelessness. And that’s what we have. The first is Covid-19, about which much printer’s ink has already been spilled. The second is Plandemic, a 26-minute “documentary” video featuring Dr Judy Mikovits, a former research scientist and inveterate conspiracy theorist who blames the coronavirus outbreak on big pharma, Bill Gates and the World Health Organization. She also claims that the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (which is headed by Dr Anthony Fauci) buried her research showing vaccines weaken people’s immune systems and made them more vulnerable to Covid-19. Just to round off the accusations, Mikovits claims that wearing masks is dangerous because it “literally activates your own virus”. And, if proof were needed that the pharma-Gates-scientific-elite cabal were out to get her, the leading journal Science in 2011 retracted a paper by her on a supposed link between a retrovirus and chronic fatigue syndrome that it had accepted in 2009.

The video went online on 4 May when its maker, Mikki Willis, a hitherto little-known film producer, posted it to Facebook, YouTube, Vimeo and a separate website set up to share the video. For three days it built up a head of steam on Facebook pages dedicated to conspiracy theories, many of which linked to the video on YouTube. By 11 May it had been viewed more than 8m times on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, and had generated countless other posts on websites and social media. Later that day YouTube, Vimeo and Facebook took down the video, and in theory it disappeared from the internet – only of course it hadn’t, in the time-honoured way of subversive material in the networked world. The cognitive pathogen had escaped into the wild and was spreading virally.

Conspiracy theory sites are the most powerful engines of disinformation around

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John Naughton: Facebook’s ‘oversight board’ is proof that it wants to be regulated – by itself | John Naughton

The latest attempt by the social media giant to act as a sovereign power is breathtaking in its sheer effrontery

Here we go again. Facebook, a tech company that suffers from the delusion that it’s a nation state, has had another go at pretending that it is one. Originally, you will recall, it was going to create a global currency called Libra and in effect become shadow banker to the world. Strangely, a world that normally seems hypnotised by Facebook turned out to be distinctly unimpressed by that idea; after all, who would trust Facebook with money? So the project is effectively evaporating into something that looks a bit like PayPal, which is not quite what Facebook’s supreme leader, Mark Zuckerberg, had in mind.

Nothing daunted, though, Zuck has had another hubristic idea. On the grounds that Facebook is the world’s largest information-exchange autocracy (population 2.6 billion) he thinks that it should have its own supreme court. (Yes, that’s the expression he originally used: later, wiser councils – possibly a guy called Nick Clegg – persuaded him that that might be just a tad presumptuous.) So it’s now just an “oversight board for content decisions”, complete with its own charter and a 40-strong board of big shots who will, it seems, have the power “to reverse Facebook’s decisions about whether to allow or remove certain posts on the platform”. Sounds impressive, doesn’t it? But it looks rather less so when you realise what it will actually be doing. It’s actually a board for locking the stable door after the horses have bolted. Let us call the Facebook oversight board by its initials: FOB.

Facebook is not a public body: it’s a powerful and rich global corporation with no democratic legitimacy

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John Naughton: If we want better conditions for Amazon staff we need to be patient…

The tech giant has often been accused of mistreating workers, but our desire for instant gratification is part of the problem

Tim Bray resigned as an Amazon vice-president last week. “Who he?” I hear you say. And why is this news significant? Answers: first, Bray is an ubergeek who’s an alumnus of many of the outfits in tech’s hall of fame (including DEC, Sun Microsystems, the OED project at the University of Waterloo, Google’s Android team and, eventually, Amazon Web Services); and second, he resigned on an issue of principle – something as rare as hen’s teeth in the tech industry.

In his blog, he wrote: “I quit in dismay at Amazon firing whistleblowers who were making noise about warehouse employees frightened of Covid-19.” It was an expensive decision. Bray said the decision to resign would probably cost him more than a million dollars in salary and shares, and that he regretted leaving a job he enjoyed, working with good colleagues. “So I’m pretty blue.”

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John Naughton: Data protection laws are great. Shame they are not being enforced | John Naughton

A shortage of technical experts in EU regulatory authorities means companies can carry on invading our privacy

On 25 May 2018, the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) became law throughout the European Union. Because it’s a regulation rather than a directive, implementation is not left to the discretion of states; it became part of the legal code of every member of the EU, including the UK at the time. In essence, the GDPR is a set of rules designed to give EU citizens more control over their personal data. The drive behind the regulation was the need to bring the historical patchwork of laws and obligations around personal data, privacy and consent across Europe up to speed and make them fit for purpose in a world dominated by surveillance capitalism. On the face of it, the GDPR looks like a formidable legal instrument.

At any rate, in the run-up to its implementation, the prospect of it seemed to scare the wits out of companies and organisations large and small. It was a gold mine for legal and data-protection consultants. Even amateurs such as me were often approached by small community groups terrified that their email list would get them into trouble because they hadn’t explicitly asked every individual on it for their approval.

We have a powerful legal instrument that is not being brought to bear on the abusers

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