Big Tech abroad

I write this note on a train from London to Bristol; I’ve been in the UK this week on a whistle-stop promotional tour for my new book Don’t Be Evil, in which I lay out my argument for why we need to rein in Big Tech. Having done two weeks of promotion in the US before landing in the UK for more, I can say that the debate about digital rights, privacy and monopoly power is much more advanced in Britain than America. Events on the topic are packed here, and I’m also selling a lot of books. I can’t decide whether that’s a measure of the power of the Financial Times platform in the UK relative to the US, or the fact that the ideas culture and the reading public here in London seem more visible and vibrant than in New York.

There have been two interesting Big Tech news angles here in just the past few days. First, the opposition Labour party has proposed to nationalise the Openreach network of BT, the British telecoms provider, and make broadband free for all. The FT editorial board came out against this plan, arguing that it turns back Margaret Thatcher’s revolution.

But as I’ve written before, I think that’s happening anyway, and with some good reason. The shift towards private sector power since the 1980s has gone too far, and that’s one reason that broadband penetration lags behind in the UK — this is exactly the sort of area of infrastructure spending where you need some public investment support, because private companies don’t see enough profit here to go full steam ahead.

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I don’t agree with all the details of the Labour plan, but I am very sympathetic to the idea of the platform technology companies paying some tax to support broadband (in China, Alibaba invests quite a lot to support roll out, at the behest of the government which considers it the quid pro quo for making as much money as they do). The tech giants don’t have to pay to lay the fibre that is our 21st-century railroad, but they make by far the most profit from the network, an advantage that they have cleverly woven into the net neutrality debate in the US.

A network engineer from Openreach, a unit of BT Group Plc, works on copper jumper wires inside an exchange building in this arranged photograph in Upminster, U.K., on Thursday, Nov. 10, 2016. Regulator Ofcom called on BT, the U.K.'s former telecommunications monopoly, to set up a legally separate entity for the Openreach network unit within BT, with its own board, but stopped short of seeking a breakup. Photographer: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg
© Bloomberg

Second, the governing Conservative party has come under fire for renaming one of its Twitter accounts factcheckUK in the midst of Boris Johnson’s debate with Jeremy Corbyn, which made the content look like independent commentary rather than Tory tweets. The whole thing backfired; Conservatives looked not only deceptive but also rather desperate and silly.

Twitter, which has promised to ban political advertising on its site, was quick to issue a censure, but didn’t suspend the Tory account or remove its “verified” status. Facebook, of course, has refused to police political advertising at all. On the one hand, it was reassuring that the whole issue came to the fore and was corrected so quickly. On the other hand, it supports declining trust in media of all kinds which has reached new lows.

There has been one digital triumph on my trip to the UK though, and that’s the broadband access on overland trains relative to Amtrak’s Acela service. As I sit typing on the Great Western Railway, I have not only excellent broadband, but access to charts showing me the quality of service available at any given time, and the number of people in the train that are using it. Brilliant!

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Recommended reading

  • The New York Times’ sweeping front-page piece on China’s purge of Muslim minorities in Xinjiang is a must read. This feels to me very much like China’s own Chechnya, or even Vietnam, in the making. Every time I hear a source lay out the bullish case for China leading a new global economic order, I think about President Xi Jinping sending millions of Uighurs to the gulag, and feel sceptical about whether the Middle Kingdom can pull it off.
  • Arguments for an industrial policy in America are gaining steam on both sides of the aisle; witness this recent front page Wall Street Journal argument about why the US needs to make things at home in order to move ahead in the digital age.
  • In the FT, it’s worth checking out the in-depth coverage of Labour’s new tax plan, which has business running scared. Then, to pull your spirits back up, check out the latest wonderful satire from Robert Shrimsley.

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