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.

A Simpler Explanation

Several months ago I wrote a piece examining what I described as Carole Cadwalladr’s “strange fever dream” of an article concerning the overweening influence of big data analytics on the outcome of Britain’s EU referendum.

To that end, the details that Vote Leave Campaign Manager, Dominic Cummings, has made available are long on hype and short on results. Based on what we have seen to date, the notion that his campaign were “do[ing] things in the field of data that have never been done before” sounds like little more than bluster from a man whose primary talent is self-publicity.

In recent days, proceedings have taken a more sinister turn with another Guardian journalist raising the spectre of Russian influence and maybe even “dark money” (is that different to regular money?, ed.). These are serious allegations. In the circumstances, we can but wait for the outcome of any investigation that follows.

However, the tide of people leaping on this news as means to delegitimise the referendum result need to be rebuffed.

None of this changes the fact that the Remain campaign lost the vote. A majority of the British electorate voted to leave the EU in the most unlikely of circumstances, with the Prime Minister, the Chancellor, the Leader of the Opposition, the Tory Party, the Labour Party, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the Bank of England, the Church of England, the CBI, the OECD, the IMF, and even President Barack Obama recommending the opposite outcome. Weighted against that amount of institutional prestige, the “leave” result was, I would argue, far more significant, than the figures 52 percent and 48 percent would ordinarily indicate.

The British have never particularly liked the EU. Even the most ardent Remain campaigners argued that Brussels is in need of “reform” (whatever that means). How or what that reform should be was never spelled out. The Remainers’ primary argument was that EU withdrawal is a risk.

In that regard, they have proved more right than anybody could have known. Certainly, I did not bank on the apparently bottomless ineptitude of the political parties and of large parts of what is called the British establishment (media, academia, trade associations, etc.).

Faced with the reality of EU withdrawal, rather than digging into the details, the respectable media is engaged in a fantastical search for a mastermind or super villain—whether it be in the form of a big data billionaire or Vladimir Putin—to blame for their failures. Maybe this mysterious individual is secretly controlling events from an underground volcano lair somewhere on the moon?

Do journalists imagine that these sub-Bond narratives are an effective substitute for investigation and fact-finding (normally involving nothing much more glamorous than a lot of reading)?

The Occam’s Razor explanation for the behaviour of the appointed campaigns—Leave and Remain—and of our present government is much more down to Earth. The British establishment is presently peopled by large numbers of lazy, ineffectual, and, on the whole, not particularly bright people. David Cameron offered a referendum he thought he couldn’t lose and lost it. Theresa May fought a General Election from which she thought she could not fail to gain seats and lost seats.

Now, we’re being told the serial failures of these inept careerists are a result of dark web magic or Russian money. There is, of course, a more straightforward explanation.

No Means No

What do people mean when they talk about the UK walking away from the Article 50 negotiations with “no deal”? And what about the phrase “no deal is better than a bad deal”?

Do they mean that, should the UK and the EU arrive at (what they deem to be) a bad deal then they would rather the UK have no formal agreements with the EU whatsoever? Or do they mean something else?

These are important questions and to date the media has been entirely remiss in not seeking clarification (from ministers in particular) regarding what they mean when they say “no deal”.

Even more frustrating than the politicians, in many respects, are the credulous apologists who seek to explain away their deceits.

Words have meanings and, if you depart from standard definitions, you are practically guaranteeing that people will attempt to exploit your weakness. The word “no”, for instance, denotes a nullity. In certain respects, it is difficult to conceive of a more straightforward concept. The distinction is binary. Yes and no. On and off. One and zero.

If this semantic game sounds drearily familiar, that is because the Remainers played exactly the same semantic game during the referendum, claiming that Norway has “no say” in the making of Single Market rules. A lie, every bit as brazen as Cummings’ £350 million, and one with far more institutional support.

No deal is similarly nonsensical. When pushed, Dr Lee Rotherham, for instance, explained that “no deal” does not mean no formal agreements whatsoever, only that the deal signed under a “no deal” scenario would be limited to necessary bureaucratic and technical agreements.

Sorry, Lee, but an alternative deal is still a deal. Using the words “no deal” to describe that scenario is, to use a technical term, bullshit. People who refuse to use accurate terminology—to the point of persistently misusing such a simple word as “no”—should not be indulged.

Whether it is Stronger In referring to the EU as “Europe” or Michael Gove talking about remaining in a non-existent “European free trade zone”, people would be better served if they were less tolerant of these semantic games. Perhaps we could begin by insisting that “no means no”.

Saying The Unsayable

One of the few things on which I have heard practically every referendum campaigner agree is that the appointed campaigns were appalling. Outside of a tiny claque of legacy media pundits, who apparently know no better, Vote Leave and Stronger In have been slammed.

Given that context, why is it that Vote Leave’s £350 million claim is regarded as absurd (and worse) while Stronger In’s widely broadcast and just as false, “pay but no say” slogan is still regarded as credible?

If you like to rely on the researchers and university professors who work for traditional institutions of higher learning to provide you with reliable and accurate information, you may wish to look away now.

In a piece published by Prospect magazine, which, prior to the referendum, told us that Britain would not even be in the room during the Article 50 talks, Anand Menon and Jonathan Portes, of the UK in a Changing Europe initiative, write as follows:

The problem here is obvious—any “off the shelf” model looks, in economic terms, very like existing EU membership. And in political terms it looks even worse: during the referendum campaign, both Remain and Leave dismissed—crudely but not inaccurately—the “Norway model” as “pay but no say.” And indeed EEA membership implies not only accepting free movement, but also acceptance of EU law, and continued payments to the EU.

For people of this stature to lend legitimacy to the ridiculous “pay but no say” lie is, frankly, offensive.

Let us begin with the “no say” part.

Anybody who has followed this blog for more than five minutes (seconds?) will know that the assertion that Norway has “no say” in the framing of Single Market rules is a particular bugbear of mine. The reason is simple. The assertion is false. Not only is it false, however, it is trivial to disprove.

The high-level description of the “decision-shaping” procedures, which are part of the EEA agreement, accessible on the EFTA website, is sufficient evidence to affirm that Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein—the EFTA members that participate in the Single Market via the EEA agreement—have a say in the formulation of EEA (i.e. Single Market) rules.

Now, at the risk of labouring the point (too late!, ed.), I am going to go over that one more time, even more slowly. Note, I am not addressing whether EFTA members have as much or less than or more say than EU Member States in the formulation of Single Market rules. What concerns me here is the binary distinction between “a say” (some input) and “no say” (no input).

How much say Norway and the other participants in the EFTA pillar of the EEA agreement have or do not have is a debate that can only happen once it is acknowledged that those countries do, without any shadow of a doubt, have a say .

If we are going to understand one another, we must first establish a factual basis for our interactions. The phrase “no say” denotes a nullity, as in none, and, by definition, “no say” cannot accurately describe countries that participate in technical committees and consultation exercises as part of the framing of Single Market rules.

That rather low bar having been met, it is also important to note that the EEA acquis—those parts of the EU acquis that are deemed “EEA relevant”—is roughly one quarter of the size of the EU acquis. That this fact is omitted from the article above allows for further confusion regarding the phrase “acceptance of EU law”. How many people know that the EFTA/EEA arrangement would allow the UK to jettison roughly three quarters of EU law while continuing to have a say in the framing of EEA relevant legislation? Far fewer than ought to be the case, I would suggest, owing in no small part to the misrepresentations of EFTA/EEA perpetuated by leading academics.

That is without even mentioning escape from Article 34 and the “common position” that EU Member States are bound to adopt on a large number of world governing bodies, operating above the level of the supranational EU. Not to mention Menon and Portes’ faux pas regarding the “pay” part of the “no say” slogan (a subject for another blog).

In light of the trivial amount of knowledge needed to debunk the “no say” lie, one is minded to ask, how did this vapid deception come to be not only repeated but reaffirmed by a pair of leading academics and supposed subject-matter experts, writing for a respected political journal? Do they not know that the countries that participate in the EFTA pillar of the EEA agreement have a say in the formulation of Single Market rules? If they don’t know, what else have they got wrong?

More to follow.

Lowered Expectations

I do not remember a time when I did not regard Britain’s EU membership as important. To be very honest, though, it was only in the run up to last year’s EU referendum that I made a concerted effort to marshal my arguments and come to an understanding of the differences between, for instance, the European Free Trade Association (EFTA), the European Economic Area (EEA), the EU customs union, the European Court of Justice (ECJ), the European Commission, the European Parliament, the Council of the EU, and the European Council.

I could now provide a basic definition of each of those terms, along with some historical context and a broad overview of how those bodies relate to one another.

Even reading that last sentence back, I can imagine some eyelids are already beginning to droop.

The administrative structures that govern the EU and EU relations with the broader European political sphere are not a particularly engaging topic, unless one has a reason to learn about and attempt to understand them. For me, the EU referendum was that reason. Politics is not a science, people of good faith can arrive at different conclusions, but a firm grounding in the facts is nevertheless vitally important, especially when it comes to thinking about practical policy options.

The ideals that motivate people are important too, but, presented with the opportunity of a (possibly) once-in-a-lifetime referendum vote, I did not only want to recommend to people that they cast a vote to leave, I wanted, in so far as I was capable, to describe to people how leaving the EU could be done, taking account of as many of the trade-offs as foreseeable.

Playing at leaving the EU would not be good enough, faced with a legacy media and political parties that would attempt to frustrate any serious approach, the people, the electorate themselves, would need to engage with a level of detail that was not ordinarily part of the political picture.

That, however, was the last thing the established players would tolerate. The “leave” campaign was co-opted by a group of right-wing Tories who ran a campaign so bad that even now their idiot slogans are an albatross around the neck of anybody trying to make a more reasoned argument. Allied with the oafish Vote Leave crowd were the snobby Remainers, never missing a chance to condescend. And that, by a rather circuitous route, brings us to the topic of academics, and their contribution to the post-vote debate.

Today’s case study is a video published as part of the Cambridge University “Turbo talks” series, featuring Professor of European Union Law, Dr Lorand Bartels, discussing the trade aspects of the ongoing Article 50 negotiations. Reflecting upon what Bartels tells us is a “somewhat confusing” statement made by the UK Chancellor, Philip Hammond, Bartels affirms:

The whole point of being in a customs union is to have completely frictionless trade. Customs unions are essentially what you do in order to get rid of customs border posts.

Now, there is, indeed, a great deal of confusion regarding the EU customs union. Some politicians, not to mention members of the press, persist in proposing that the UK could remain within the EU customs union after EU withdrawal, apparently unaware of the fact that the EU customs union is only open to EU Member States.

In certain respects, the idea that the UK could remain in the EU customs union after EU withdrawal is the Remainer mirror of the Leaver idea that the administrative structures, which assure UK regulatory equivalence within the union, could forestall the need to agree new mechanisms for assuring regulatory equivalence between an independent UK and the EU once the UK ceases to be an EU Member State. As I implored people to understand, EU withdrawal means EU withdrawal; the biggest shortcut the UK could take with respect to trade would be to seek to remain in the Single Market by rejoining EFTA.

With respect to Bartels’ notion that the essential aspect of a customs union is the elimination of customs border posts, it is important to note that while the EEC customs union (later to become the EU customs union) eliminated internal tariffs between the member states and introduced a common external tariff with the rest of the world, the elimination of customs border posts was not achieved until decades later.

In short, Bartels is mistaken. The elimination of border posts between EU Member States was a product of the Single Market, not the EU customs union.

I am rarely surprised to see people who have not studied this subject fail to distinguish between the Single Market and the EU customs union (such is par for the course), but for an expert, and a representative of one of Britain’s world renowned elite institutions, to add to the confusion is a different matter.

During subsequent Twitter correspondence, Bartels said that the meaning he had intended to convey was that a customs union is necessary but not sufficient for eliminating customs border posts. Unfortunately, that is not what he said, and the present video content is therefore misleading.

Also on Twitter, Bartels expressed exasperation as to why this mistake should provoke such “drama”.

The reason is that no small number of politicians, who one presumes are supposed to provide policy direction, as well as legacy media commentators, who are supposed to inform the debate, are still focusing on the idea that the UK could remain in the EU customs union, in spite of the fact that, even if this were desirable, it could not be done.

Routing around the politically sensitive idea of a customs union, an agreement on customs co-operation could serve the required purpose, without raising nearly so many hackles.

The customs union and customs co-operation are separate in treaty law and in practical terms. Given the difficulties arising from the inability of politicians and press alike to understand and articulate basic concepts, the last thing we need is experts throwing further mud in the water, when they of all people should (surely?) know better.