The Webs We Weave

With Carole Cadwalladr and Cambridge Analytica back in the news, I feel compelled to write something more about data analytics and targeted advertising.

Amidst the outlandish claims about shadowy technological puppet-masters influencing the credulous (EU loving?) proles to march to the voting booths on June 23rd 2016 to vote “leave”, one can glimpse the outlines of a much bigger story.

The media has turned its beams on Facebook, resulting in a concomitant fall in the company’s share price, but the Guardian/Observer could just as well have started their investigation by looking in a mirror.

Targeted advertising is hardly the sole preserve of Zuckerberg and the denizens of 1 Hacker Way. There is scarcely a legacy news outlet that does not host trackers and targeted advertising in return for a revenue share.

Surveillance marketing is the lifeblood of the online publishing industry. Every website with a Facebook “Like” button or a Google “+1” button sends a unique identifier to your browser. That token enables Facebook and Google, respectively, to track your activity across all of the sites that include their widget.

You know the annoying pop-ups that you see—courtesy of a European Union Directive, enshrined in UK law as part of the Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations—asking whether you consent to the use of cookies? Cookies are but one method ad tech uses to build consumer profiles.

To that end, I have yet to see any legacy news outlet acknowledge that their platforms host ad brokers which make extensive use of the same techniques that Cambridge Analytica apparently employed to propel candidate Donald Trump to the presidency.

Now, you know as well as I do just how frequently targeted advertisements are off base or how little attention you generally pay them.

There are serious questions to address with regard to privacy, the online economy and the asymmetric, some may even say parasitic relationship that exists between advertising brokers, publishers and their audiences. This short post can only really scratch the surface.

The Cadwalladr narrative, however, mainly consists of blowing smoke in people’s eyes. The idea that the self-aggrandising salesmen who promote these platforms were truly “do[ing] things in the field of that have never been done before” is, frankly, risible.

News From Nowhere

What form Britain’s future relations with the EU should take has dominated political debate for at least the last 18 months. I can think of no other topic that bears comparison.

In spite of that, it appears that senior politicians and legacy media journalists have learned almost nothing about the topic at hand.

The most striking recent case in point was Jeremy Corbyn’s appearance on Peston on Sunday.

Watching the segment back, what is immediately apparent is that neither man has even a basic understanding of the terminology they are using. For his part, Peston refers repeatedly to the idea of “remaining in the customs union”, which, any fule must know, is not possible. Leaving aside whether such a course of action is desirable (it isn’t), the EU customs union is defined in the EU treaties and is therefore only applicable to signatories of the EU treaties, i.e. EU Member States.

To that end, Corbyn begins his peroration with an apparently mild corrective to Peston’s daft question, affirming that, in his view, “There will have to be a customs union with the European Union”. This is not a point of view I share, but I admit to being somewhat heartened by Corbyn (apparently) correctly distinguishing between the EU customs union and a bilateral agreement to establish a customs union between the EU and the UK, once the UK has established itself as a distinct customs entity. That mild optimism did not last long.

Corbyn continued: “Because if you’re in a trading relationship then clearly you can’t at the same time be putting tariffs on goods inside the European Union”. That is incoherent babble. I could attempt to parse it, but there isn’t any point. Corbyn can’t be arsed to know what he’s talking about, so there is no reason I should attempt to interpret on his behalf.

The kind of fine-grained textual analysis that accompanies practically every utterance of political leaders is only worthwhile if you’re dealing with people who understand subtlety and nuance. To that end, the feline Michel Barnier often slants his commentary on the negotiations in a way that is disfavourable to the UK (as one might expect), yet I still read about how he is ‘playing with a straight bat’.

One might expect Peston to press Corbyn to clarify his statement. “Seeing as the UK is not going to be in the EU, the UK is not going to be putting tariffs on goods inside the European Union, so what on Earth are you talking about you doddery old bat?” Something along those lines.

Instead, Peston switches tack entirely and introduces the “idea of not having border checks”, which has little to do with the EU customs union or even a customs union. The largest contributor to the elimination of customs border checks between EU Member States and EFTA/EEA participants was the introduction of ‘behind the border’ checks as part of the creation of the Single Market.

Why the Single Market and customs union should be so frequently confused, conflated and mistaken for one another is frankly beyond me. Those who are entrusted to take decisions on behalf of the rest of us—as part of our ‘representative democracy’—appear to be among the most ignorant people in the country when it comes to matters one might presume would occupy them night and day. There are only so many ways in which I can express exasperation but unmercifully Corbyn and Peston were not yet finished.

“I think there also needs to be a look at some aspects of the current customs union and the way in which it is tariff heavy against quite a lot of very poor countries and is in some cases protectionist against developing countries”, affirmed Corbyn, drifting ever deeper into la-la land. The EU customs union is—shock—a matter for the EU.

Not content to let Corbyn’s idiocy go unchallenged, Peston then said something about how remaining in the customs union (still not possible) would preclude the UK negotiating bilateral trade deals with the rest of world, which, with tiresome inevitability, is wrong.

So, there we have it, the leader of the opposition and the lead journalist on one of Britain’s leading Sunday news programmes talking total toilet about the most important political issue facing the country. This is not a failure to understand arcane technicalities, these are the basics, and Britain’s political class, even after 18 months, has apparently failed to grasp any of them.

I’m not sure how it is possible to be this out of touch.