Friday, 20 December 2013

The Big Boy Made Me Do It

Tuesday's meeting between Barack Obama and the technology companies was an object lesson in corporate manipulation. The hot topic was always going to be government surveillance, given a federal judge's ruling on Monday that the NSA's activities were probably illegal, but it suited the companies' purpose to claim that Obama's decision to start the session by announcing the appointment of a senior Microsoft guy to help with the site, i.e. an inspiring example of cooperation, was an attempt to avoid the subject.

The reality was a guest list, prepared by the White House, that included almost no companies that could meaningfully contribute to a debate on a systems integration challenge. Microsoft, who could, sent their chief legal officer, while Oracle and Cisco, who had attended the first "tech summit meeting" in 2011, were absent. It strains belief to think that the White House was dumb enough to imagine the best brains to pick in respect of would be the CEOs of Apple, Twitter, Yahoo, Google, AT&T, Facebook, LinkedIn, Dropbox, Netflix etc. If they really wanted to hijack the meeting, they'd have done better to invite Larry Ellison back. The NSA fallout was always going to be the main topic of debate.

The media spinning was intended to suggest that Obama is being dragged reluctantly to the negotiating table by Silicon Valley, this despite the fact that a Presidential panel would report on Wednesday recommending curbs on the NSA. The New York Times quoted the non-attending CEO of CloudFlare, a website optimisation company, to the effect that both "sides" were suffering from a loss of trust: "If you’re on the White House side, the issue is they’re getting beaten up because they’re seen as technically incompetent. On the other side, the tech industry needs the White House right now to give a stern rebuke to the N.S.A. and put in real procedures to rein in a program that feels like it’s out of control." The suggestion is that the tech industry is making the running on curtailing surveillance abuses, rather than being an accessory to the crime.

The relentless propaganda of the right, endorsed by Silicon Valley ideologues, is that government cannot be trusted to act in the best interests of citizens and that it is inherently incompetent. In contrast, private businesses spend a lot of advertising money extolling their own trustworthiness and insisting that the need to serve customers keeps them honest (their anxiety about reputational damage is largely PR, as customers rarely exercise effective sanction). The Snowden revelations have given the lie to this, both in the evidence of industry connivance and the competency of government. The current campaign seeks to paint a picture of a freedom-loving industry facing-off against an intrusive state. David bullied by Goliath.

Following the meeting, the tech titans issued a statement to a grateful world: "We appreciated the opportunity to share directly with the president our principles on government surveillance that we released last week and we urge him to move aggressively on reform". Those high-minded "principles" naturally do not question the rights of the technology companies to exploit personal data, and even go so far as to insist that states should harmonise "conflicting laws" and reject "Balkanisation" (i.e. support global monopolies). In other words, the usual neoliberal agenda. The peremptory nature of the wording ("The undersigned companies believe that it is time for the world’s governments to address the practices and laws regulating government surveillance of individuals and access to their information") is telling. They'll be demanding a Nobel Peace Prize next. After all, Obama's got one.

While there is a sense that the debate in the US is predicated on the assumption that people are idiots who can't distinguish between the rights of citizens and self-interested corporations, this remains a significant improvement on the level of the debate in the UK, where the attitude of the state is that we are not merely stupid but untrustworthy too. Alan Rusbridger, the well-known country-lover, highlights the irony: "This muted debate about our liberties – and the rather obvious attempts to inhibit, if not actually intimidate, newspapers – have puzzled Americans, Europeans and others who were brought up to regard the UK as being the cradle of free speech and an unfettered press". Of course, Rusbridger is a romantic liberal, so he actually believes in such unicorns as "an unfettered press".

The crudeness of the British state's attitude towards digital surveillance, exemplified in the view of the former Head of GCHQ that the security services should not be accountable to Parliament, is not the result of the lack of a constitution or formal rights, but the consequence of the irrelevance of the domestic IT industry (Silicon Roundabout isn't demanding a summit with David Cameron) and the waning power of the press. Rupert Murdoch's baleful legacy is not simply page 3 and phone-hacking but the corrupt interconnectedness of journalism, police and politics. The press has become an ever more obliging propaganda arm of government, and exposés of expense-fiddling parliamentarians are little more than spiteful attempts to assert their nominal independence.

The purpose of Tuesday's meeting was to get the US government to agree to rein in state surveillance, but not to go so far as to challenge the right of the technology companies to exploit personal data. Neither "side" wishes to jeopardise Silicon Valley's global dominance, though they recognise that some concessions will have to be made to neoliberal power blocs elsewhere, notably the EU. Once a satisfactory protocol is agreed, the "debate about our liberties" will become as muted in the US and Europe as it is in the UK today. Our proud boast in Britain is that we are "open for business", which means that we have no significant domestic Internet industry to champion and an aversion to prosecuting multinational technology companies for tax dodging. We are well ahead of the game in terms of neoliberal compliance.

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