Google vs governments - let the new battle for free speech begin

It is too easy, sometimes, to forget that new media is media at all

29 November 2014

9:00 AM

29 November 2014

9:00 AM

Imagine there was one newspaper that landed all the scoops. Literally all of them. Big news, silly news, the lot. When those girlfriendless, finger-wagging freaks in Syria and Iraq opted to behead another aid worker, it would be reported here first. Likewise when nude photographs of a Hollywood actress were stolen by a different bunch of girlfriendless freaks. Hell of a newspaper, this one. Imagine it.

After a while, imagine that western governments began to realise that this newspaper had sources that their own security services just couldn’t rival. So imagine that the editors of this mighty, astonishing newspaper were summoned to Downing Street and told to hand it all over. Names, contact details, locations, known associates — the works. It wouldn’t be temperate, this meeting. In the aftermath, various sources would describe it as ‘a bollocking’. And they might protest, these various editors, that their job was only to report on the world, not to police it, and that if they began to hand over sources then their sources would merely go elsewhere, to rivals who would not. But the government wouldn’t care about that. ‘Do as we say,’ the politicians, mandarins and security chiefs would say. ‘Do as we say, or we’ll make your lives a bloody misery.’ And imagine how you’d feel about that.

Now call this newspaper ‘Google’, and watch your conceptual world swivel slightly. Of course, Google isn’t really a newspaper. In fact, it may be the greatest enemy that newspapers have; bastardising copy, mocking copy-right and gradually forcing a whole industry to swap editorial judgment for search engine optimisation. Yet in terms of pure news, Ofcom reports that Google’s news arm is read by more people than the Sky News website. Google also owns YouTube, which hosts so much online video that it virtually is online video. For almost all other internet news, meanwhile, it is the first port of call, via search. It is easy, sometimes, to forget that new media is media at all.

Last month the new head of GCHQ, Robert Hannigan, described US technology companies as ‘the command and control networks of choice’ for terrorists. This week, we found out more — one of the killers of Fusilier Lee Rigby had boasted on Facebook about his intent to murder a soldier, and his account was closed without anyone alerting the authorities. Just like everybody else, terrorists like to email, message, tweet and Facebook each other. They like to watch and upload videos and download documents, albeit of fairly niche bloodthirsty and bomb-making-ish sorts.

The revelations of the National Security Agency defector Edward Snowden had limited traction in this country, possibly because they were mainly in the Guardian and most people drifted off. In both liberty-loving America and surveillance-hating Germany, however, they hit like a bomb. Since then, pretty much all major internet outfits — Google, Apple, Microsoft and others — have begun to enable encryption of their services by default. This makes life hard for hackers, but also means that it’s no longer enough for security services just to intercept your communications if they reckon you’re a wrong ’un. Now they need to decode them, too. If they can. ‘What concerns me,’ said James Comey, the director of the FBI, ‘is companies marketing something expressly to allow people to place themselves above the law.’

In this country, when law enforcement wants information from technology companies, the process — at least officially — is cumbersome. Perhaps there’s an inbox they want a look at, or perhaps a video nasty has been uploaded and they want to know where from, or to have it taken down. Warrants and lawyers are required. For the most part, the companies are disinclined to be more proactive, not least because it’s a lot of work. By some calculations, 300 hours of video is uploaded to YouTube every minute. And, while YouTube certainly has algorithms that allow it immediately to identify, say, a samizdat copy of the new Taylor Swift song, identifying an amateurish video of a man in a desert on his knees is a bit more complicated. And at any rate, why should they, when the same stuff is being broadcast around the world?

David Cameron declared this week that companies ‘have a moral responsibility to act’ if they discover anything related to terrorism from any of their users. Probably they do, but generating only a few false positives — the celebrated case of Paul Chambers joking about blowing up Robin Hood airport is one example — would cause any company enormous reputational damage. Ultimately, there’s no means of monitoring terrorists that doesn’t leave every-body else thinking you’re monitoring them, too.

Think of Britain’s experience over the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (Ripa), which was introduced to allow the surveillance of serious criminals, and expanded, chaotically, to enable councils to spy on people suspected of fiddling school places. Make it much, much easier for Special Branch to read Geoffrey Al-Wannabi-Jihadi’s email, in other words, and how long until the local council can read yours, and use the fact you booked a rafting holiday as an excuse to cancel your disabled badge?

Think of the Leveson recommendations about press regulation, rendered nonsensical because they couldn’t cope with the online world. To take a psychological view, perhaps many technology companies simply represent an existential affront to governments, because they embody that which cannot be controlled. It may be for this reason that, in every direction, here and abroad, you will find governments chivvying away at them.

Vast amounts of noise were made last year about David Cameron and Theresa May’s successful plan to make internet firms block searches for child abuse images. In truth, the proposals were almost meaningless; few paedophiles use Google, and if they did, they wouldn’t have to use British Google. Yet it functioned as a flex of muscle; a stamp of wishful authority by a government keen to pretend it has powers it does not. You could understand something similar by the EU’s absurd ‘right to be forgotten’, by which individuals can demand that embarrassing results are removed from search results. Again, the practical effects are negligible. It was a show of force.

Notably, when companies like Google and Facebook get beaten up over privacy in Germany, it happens for exactly the opposite reasons to over here — not for co-operating with governments too little, but for doing so too much. Angela Merkel has made noises about forcing such companies to store the data of European customers in Europe, precisely so that Snowden’s former employers can’t get hold of it.

Europe, however, has its own existential problems with Google. According to some in the European Parliament, the American company is a monopoly abusing its dominance of the marketplace, and should be broken up, thereby allowing all those Croatian email, German social media and Polish search industries to flourish, as all good Europeans should wish. A vote to this effect was being taken as The Spectator went to press. In truth, of course, the parliament has no power over this sort of thing whatsoever, and merely wants to give a nudge to a similar anti-trust investigation being undertaken by the European Commission. Again, this is an institution seeing something it cannot control, and minding.

If these vast new media empires were railroads, or sewage systems, or fibre-optic networks, then the clamour from governments would be to counter their own impotence by nationalising them. Yet this shows precisely why companies such as Google and Facebook are not utilities of any traditional sort. Whatever the EC’s investigation concludes, the broader truth will clearly be that these companies have thrived not primarily by hobbling the competition, but by diving into perhaps the fiercest and purest marketplace that there has ever been, and simply excelling at it. It’s a hassle to change your gas, or even your phone service. Changing your search engine takes seconds. But hardly anybody ever does.

Comprehending this tenuousness also helps you to comprehend quite how pointless it is for security services and technology companies to fight. If Google and the like cracked on encryption and rolled over for every state demand, would that make us safer? Perhaps, but only for a week or two. For as long as there are other services more secure, or even just more obscure, those who do not wish to be seen will use them. The security services must know this, and increasingly I struggle to comprehend why they pretend not to. Almost by reflex, government discusses digital surveillance from a starting point of whispered obscurity. If they want these companies to hand over stuff, then they should pass laws compelling them to. That’s what the rule of law means.

You can see why vast technology companies vex governments. They are mammon incarnate, pretending to be holistic yogurt stands; monoliths run by Silicon Valley billionaires who feign humility by occasionally wearing sandals. At least from a statist perspective, they are the triumph of corporatism; supra-national entities powerful enough to smirk at government fury, and brush it away as one might a flea.

Most of all, their services empower people, terrorists or not, to act in ways that the state finds hard to curb. One day, global politics will learn to deal with this, and accept it as a new given. Before then, though, expect a big old fight.

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Show comments
  • edithgrove

    What we’ve been watching the last few years is the inability of Westminster politicians to understand social media, frequently leading to a their own downfall and perhaps ultimately to the downfall of their parties. A selection of current casualties: Ms. Thornberry, allegedly Andrew Mitchell, David Mellor. The rise of UKIP couldn’t have happened without the internet. Attempts to stop investigation into pedophiles at Westminster (several in this journal) have failed because we now get our knowledge elsewhere and our conversation is no longer controlled by an elite.

    • Earthenware

      “…our conversation is no longer controlled by an elite”

      And that is the biggest change since the invention of the printing press and it’s what governments not only hate but cannot cope with.

  • terence patrick hewett

    As a professional automation engineer with 2 honours degrees, a masters and being a member of my professional institution: yes, I do answer to the appellation “nerd” I and my collegues are also the people who one day will happily hand you Hugo, your P45.

    • MC73

      i am really not a fan of Hugo (this article OK tho) but I can’t see how the autistic stylings of Mr Terence Patrick Hewett are going to replace him…

      • terence patrick hewett

        Deary me! My alleged prosaic deficiencies, do not alter the fact that continuous advances in computer-generated journalism are now well into the lofty task of rendering professional chatterers an endangered species.

        Advances in artificial intelligence in this area and the spread of tools that support it are increasingly common as is the automation of white-collar employment that was exclusive to humans. Journalism is one of the first categories that is being lost, encouraged by advances in natural language generation and fast data processing of structured data.

        You need only go over to the Daily Telegraph to see the carnage being wrought there (for good or otherwise) by technological advance.

        The inconvenient truth is the world is driven by creative science, engineering and technology. The development of the transistor by Bardeen/Brattain, at AT&T Bell Labs in 1947 and the mass production of microprocessors, wrought changes in society that dwarfed any of those achieved by political philosophy. The invention the World Wide Web by Tim Berners-Lee in 1989 has ensured a barely controlled dialogue between millions and has changed the world forever.

        How many journalists now use computer-generated journalism software to take the heavy lifting out of writing multiple scenarios in advance to be tiddled up later as required? My bet is most of them.

    • Mode4

      2 honours degrees, a masters and being a member of my professional institution and a massive ego

      • terence patrick hewett

        Many in the sciences do have massive confidence and obsessions: that is how we get things done. Those in the sciences are not noted for their limp wristed introspection; it probably has a lot to do with the ruthlessness with which we get rid of anything which doesn’t work. Our creativity enables us to take 430 tonnes of assorted scrap metal, fill it with 500 people and propel it thorough the air at 500 mph, millions of times a year without significant loss. Would you wish the un-confident and un-qualified to design them? Would you wish to be treated by an un-qualified medical doctor? England seems to be the only country in the world which has elevated ignorance to the level of a virtue.


      • terence patrick hewett

        I will go further with a comment on British manufacturing. There is nothing wrong with the British worker: but less than 10% of the middle-managers I’ve worked with are genuinely up to the job. The rest are ignorant, half-witted, psychotic or lazy. I suspect the whole thing is about class – these people don’t want to be managers, they just want the title that elevates them from the rest.

        When the Japanese set up their first big car factory in the North East the English car people said it’ll never work English workers are rubbish. No, it worked fine. English workers were fine. They had merely been badly managed. It was those “English car people,” the people who ran the failed English car industry who were rubbish.

        The British attitude to management of technical things is completely different from the German attitude. The middle managers at BMW and Mercedes are all Herr Doktor; technical men who have risen to positions of technical leadership and who are always co-equal if not superior in the hierarchy to their finance and marketing peers. By contrast in the UK, the ranks of management seem to be heavily populated with those who couldn’t hack it in the technical ranks or who fled as quickly as possible to the supposedly greener pastures of management. There’s a culture/status element as well; German technical people command great respect, even in the ranks of
        management. In the UK, coming from a technical background is still seen as being rather infra-dig.

        The patronising attitude which British management shows towards those that know one end of a posidrive from another is stunning; indeed the number of Brits who hold a complete inability to do basic maths as a badge of pride is staggering.

        • goggyturk

          ^^ THIS ^^

  • DaveAtherton20

    Indeed Hugo, we are watching Big Brother as they are watching us. I am surprised you did not mention The Onion Router (TOR) and of course is free. It really is the dark world of the internet that makes your IP address untraceable based on peer to peer networking.

    The American National Security Agency (NSA) look upon it as “the King of high secure, low latency Internet anonymity” with “no contenders for the throne in waiting.” Certainly there are vile creatures using it paedophiles, drug dealers, illegal international arms dealer etc. However it is also used by journalists who do not want their sources exposed and Edward Snowden used it to send information on the NSA’s Prism.

    My guess is that the geeks will always stay one step ahead of the spooks.


  • Rupert Williams

    Smacks of more security theatre, rather like the ridiculous queues in airports, which every time, make me think “Fantastic target for a suicide bomber!”

    By the way, I’m dying for a boiled egg – could murder a soldier as well.

  • Quentin Vole

    According to the report (you have read it?) 7 of Adebowale’s 11 accounts had been automatically blocked for using words or phrases related to terrorism. So no extra surveillance is needed from Facebook et al, they would just need to inform some relevant authority of their findings.

    • Weaver

      …who would promptly do nothing with it.

      The whole idea is ridiculous – the security services would be swamped with false positives. It would also be trivially easy for actual terrorists to spam them with accounts set up for exactly that purpose.

      • Quentin Vole

        The report (I really do recommend reading it) isn’t suggesting that every single blocked account should be reported. How many people do you think have 7 (seven) accounts blocked for terrorist-related postings?

        • redsquirrel

          not sure. In other news, whats the population of Birmingham?

        • Weaver

          Mmm. Not sure…?

          OK, OK. Show me a good ROC curve that suggests we can set a threshold on this without being swamped by false positives and I’ll admit it’s practical.

          I’m still tempermentally disinclined to turn private companies into snoopers for the state though. I don’t like the precident.

          • Quentin Vole

            I think the point is that these companies are already reading every item we submit, because (a) that’s their business model; and (b) they want to block ‘nasty’ stuff. So all that would be required is to report the most extreme cases to some external authority.

            Whether that’s an excessive violation of rights is a matter for debate. Personally, if I want to keep something private, I don’t post it on Twitter, but perhaps that’s just me.

          • Weaver

            Indeed; leaving the ethics to one side, my problem is rather “How accurate will Facebook measures of ‘extremism’ (however defined) be as an indicator of future terrorism?” 1 in 2? 1 in 20? 1 in 20,000? Remember; Facebook will be incentivised to put the threshold LOW – so they’re blameless if something does happen; “Nothing to do with us, Gov, we passed this case on with 19,999 others. Not our fault you spooks didn’t follow it up.”

            I’d like to think someone has already done the maths here. They’re not idiots (well, actually, speaking from personal experience, some of them are. But most of them aren’t idiots).

            Below a certain accuracy level, you’ll add nothing, and actually waste resources. It’s analogous to the mass breast screening problem in biostatistics. Hence I’d like estimates of the ROC we might generate by this route. Given the very large numbers of potential terrorsists Cheltenham already have their hands full with. I am not confident.

            I leave the obvious opportunities for spoofing Facebook etc and wasting/misdirecting MI5 time to the mind of the imaginative reader and Jihadist….

  • “This week, we found out more — one of the killers of Fusilier Lee Rigby had boasted on Facebook about his intent to murder a soldier, and his account was closed without anyone alerting the authorities.”

    Yeah, then the MI5 operatives went to work…

    Here’s the Woolwich, London sidewalk that Lee Rigby was said to have had his head partially severed. Note there’s no pools of blood…


    …and here’s the sidewalk with the pools of blood, after the arrival of the armed police…


    Oops, MI5 forgot to add the pools of blood before the cell phone cameras started taking pictures! By the way, why is that lady in the background calmly walking by, unconcerned? Because the incident was a drill that went live, which is called a false flag operation.

    Now you know why the spectators were just standing around taking pictures at the scene, or calmly going about their business, walking by the “murderers”…


    and another unconcerned pedestrian that no one is preventing from walking right by one of the “murderers”…


    Then we have the pedestrian with the video phone who stands calmly as one of the “murderers” approaches him and records the “murderer’s” rambling speech on his video phone!

    The so-called “War on Terror” is a USSR & Allies-tasked operation being carried out by the co-opted governments of the West, the purpose being to (1) destroy the prominence of the West in the eyes of the world, where the West is seen (i) invading nations without cause; (ii) causing chaos around the globe; and (iii) killing over one-million civilians and boasting of torture; (2) close off non-Russian supplies of oil for export, thereby increasing the price of oil, the higher price allowing oil exporting Russia to maintain economic stability while she modernizes and increases her military forces; (3) destroy the United States Armed Forces via the never-ending “War on Terror”; the ultimate purpose of the aforementioned to (4) bring about the demise of the United States in the world, opening up a political void to be filled by a new pan-national entity composed of Europe and Russia (replacing the European Union), a union “From the Atlantic to Vladivostok”; which will (5) see the end of NATO.

    The failed socialist inspired and controlled pan-European revolutions that swept the continent in 1848 thought Marxists and socialists a powerful lesson, that lesson being they couldn’t win overtly, so they adopted the tactic of infiltration of the West’s political parties/institutions.

    The fraudulent “collapse” of the USSR (and East Bloc) couldn’t have been pulled off until both political parties in the United States (and political parties elsewhere in the West) were co-opted by Moscow & Allies, which explains why verification of the “collapse” was never undertaken by the West, such verification being (1) a natural administrative procedure (since the USSR wasn’t occupied by Western military forces); and (2) necessary for the survival of the West. Recall President Reagan’s favorite phrase, “Trust, but verify”.

    Notice that not one political party in the West demanded verification of the collapse of the USSR, and the media failed to alert your attention to this fact, including the “alternative” media. When determining whether the “former” USSR is complying with arms control treaties, what does the United States do to confirm compliance? Right, the United States sends into the “former” USSR investigative teams to VERIFY compliance, yet when it’s the fate of the West that’s at stake should the collapse of the USSR be a ruse, what does the United States do to confirm the collapse? Nothing!

    It gets worse–the “freed” Soviets and West also never (1) de-Communized the Soviet Armed Forces of its Communist Party officer corps, which was 90% officered by Communist Party members; and (2) arrested/de-mobilized the 6-million vigilantes that assisted the Soviet Union’s Ministry of the Interior and police control the populations of the larger cities during the period of “Perestroika” (1986-1991)!

    There can be no collapse of the USSR (or East Bloc nations) without…

    Verification, De-Communization and De-mobilization.

    The West never verified the collapse of the USSR because no collapse occurred, since if a real collapse had occurred the West would have verified it, since the survival of the West depends on verification. Conversely, this proves that the political parties of the West were co-opted by Marxists long before the fraudulent collapse of the USSR, since the survival of the West depends on verification.

    • Al Bowlly


      • “Lol.”

        Is that the best response MI5 can come up with these days? Or was it you that forgot to plant the pools of blood on the sidewalk before the armed police finally showed up–five minutes late, by the way.

        • Al Bowlly

          Look, I enjoy talking to deranged conspiracy theorists on the internet as much as the next man but I am busy. I had to take one of my cats to the vet this morning to be spayed and now have to go and pick her up again so I have only got the time for this reply (which I consider more than adequate): Rofl.

      • Tilly

        Brevity may be the soul of intellectualism but clearly
        not in this case.

        • Al Bowlly

          You see! If you really put your mind to it, you can spell!

          • Tilly

            Yes indeed, catering boy.5 years at Cambridge,
            what a waste. Watch out for that cat sick, you might slip and yuk!

          • Al Bowlly

            I would say “lol” but I afraid of your mordant put-downs.

          • Tilly

            Hope you’ve been spayed too.After all your
            little tadpoles belong at the shallow end of the
            gene pool.Al Baloney, that name suits you far
            more in my humble little opinion.

          • Al Bowlly

            Oh dear. Spaying is an operation that can only be carried out on catty females, such as yourself. Tom-cats are neutered in an entirely different manner, or so I understand.

          • Tilly

            ‘Catty Female’ well I can’t imagine anyone purring for you. I must leave your scintillating
            presence and find my violin and practice.
            PS neutering is a gender neutral term that can
            apply to both male and females.

    • redsquirrel

      are you familiar with tl;dr ?

      • “are you familiar with tl;dr ?”

        I was brought up in an age where such an observation would be seen as indicative of the observer’s low IQ. In fact, even those with low IQs back in dark ages of the 1970s wouldn’t be caught dead making such a charge, since they knew what it conveyed about the accuser.

        • redsquirrel

          Thats a good attitude when writing an article, perhaps not a comment. Seems a bit grandstanish. Maybe start having executive summaries up top.

    • Dorian Beige

      The eagle flies at midnight.

  • jameshogg

    There are legitimate criticisms of Google to be had. Its tax dodging for a start, and the fact that it is likely to be the most powerful monopoly the planet has ever seen. If there is another technological revolution to be had, you can rest assured Google has it in its power to invade and enforce a monopolistic stranglehold over it before anyone else can. That thought should scare us. Plus a number of other issues. Cyber-utopianism must be opposed along with all other forms of utopianism.

    But there is another tone of voice in which criticism of Google can take which the author has correctly identified. There is a growing fringe that is beginning to believe Google is the source of all woes of the world. This is to be predicted, if you understand the nature of conspiracy theories in general: the guys at the top have a hidden power and pull all the strings of our misfortunes where we cannot see, but I a crazy internet person have caught onto them! So of course Google will be the next “Illuminati” wave.

    The “right to be forgotten” ruling was self-evidently stupid, and falsified itself within days when links that were found to be banned made front page news. And the guy who set the ruling in motion will now never be forgotten as a result of its legal history. There is a name for this insisting of telling the world what you do not want it to be told and having a complete irony deficiency over your action: the Streisand Effect.

    So yes, there are hysterical reactions towards the rise of Google. We, for example, would find it absolutely insane if the US government were to abolish its currency for JPEG dollars and use that as its money, insisting it can be policed. In that situation, everybody would cheat the system to the determent of those honest folk willing to follow it and you would get black markets of the forgeries akin to drug cartels and Al Capone. And we would pull our hair out upon the government insisting that the system itself was not to blame, but the lack of enforcement of the system.

    Yet, we are willing to tolerate a cognitive dissonance of a similar system of JPEG property – its official name being “artificial scarcity” – in the form of copyright philosophy. Try to find one reason why it is not the same as the above example. You won’t be able to do it. Neither the war on drugs nor the war on prostitution is as futile as stopping copyright piracy.

    But yet, we’d rather blame Google for said piracy instead of realising the piracy is a direct result of an “ownership of expression” prohibition, instead of turning to workable alternative economic systems like assurance contracts. And we’d rather blame Google with the genuine belief that a real Google clampdown on piracy will magically make the average Torrenter’s inclination to steal vanish into oblivion, where no black market vacuum will ever be filled again.

    OWNERSHIP of expression – the very idea! How does an infringement to
    freedom of expression fly over our heads so inconspicuously?

  • polistra24

    Nothing new. Post offices have always monitored mail in various ways. The best encryption has always been paper-based or book-based and still is. The best secrecy has always been physical privacy (or “hiding in plain sight”) and still is.

    If you trust your secrets to a public place, whether it’s a postal system or an internet carrier, you have no expectation of secrecy. If you use a cipher that was designed by NSA (which most of the digital ciphers were) you shouldn’t be surprised that NSA can read you.

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    I notice Ed Snowden has put out a few new revelations today. Not that you’d realise it by reading the Spectator. Something about Brit security services tapping the transatlantic cable.

  • Barbouze

    99% of MSM journos are total tossers and bear an equal share of blame for the state of the country/Europe(along with politicians, academics etc)

  • Bonkim

    Google in not for free speech – just their profits and controlling users/directing users to websites that generate them revenue..

  • andylowings

    Governments want to control the net and this is only the latest, and very far-fetched reason, they now offer..