Europe’s Digital Dirigisme

Google has recently announced that it is ending its Google News service in Spain before a new intellectual property law – dubbed the ‘Google tax’ – requires Spanish publishers to charge the company for displaying snippets of their articles.

Whist newspapers claim that Google infringes copyright by using their text, Google argues that their News service drives traffic to the featured websites, boosting advertising revenues. Certainly, Germany’s biggest publisher Axel Springer scrapped plans to block Google from their news items when they discovered that doing so caused their traffic to plunge.

This is yet another complication of Google – EU relations. In May, the European Court of Justice ruled in favour of the ‘right to be forgotten’, which has so far resulted in over 250,000 takedown requests. Building on this ‘success’, the EU now wants to force search engines to scrub ‘irrelevant or incorrect’ (read: inconvenient) links at a not just a European but a global level.

And as the European Commission’s four-year antitrust investigation into Google drags on, the European Parliament symbolically voted to break up its operation and ‘unbundle’ its search function from other services. Whilst the parliament has no power to touch the internet giant, it sends a very strong message as to what European politicians want.

European politicians portray such moves as guarding against monopoly, enabling fair competition and safeguarding the privacy of individuals. However, it’s not obvious that the way Google presents search results is to the detriment of its actual users (as opposed to rival firms), whilst the ‘right to be forgotten’ sets a dangerous precedent against internet openness. American firms and politicians have responded harshly to the actions, branding them politically motivated, anti-competitive and detrimental to trade relations.

European policy makers should be very careful not to cause harm to the digital economy through politicized regulation. Policymakers may be concerned by the digital domination of American firms like Amazon, Facebook and Google ­­ – yet it’s worth noting Europe fails to produce many rivals of its own.

As the Eurozone struggles with weak growth and low inflation, the WSJ reports that the number of those engaged in early entrepreneurial activity in countries like Germany, France and Italy (5%, 4.6%, and 3.4% of the population respectively) is a fraction of those in the US (12.7%). Once they are established, these businesses tend to be smaller and slower-growing than their US counterparts. They also seem less likely to hit the big time: among the world’s 500 largest listed companies, only 5 of the European firms were founded after 1975, compared with 31 from the US and 31 from emerging economies.

Digital policy analyst Adam Thierer argues that the relative performance of US and European tech firms is largely driven by the regulatory culture in each country. US policy makers have by deliberate design fostered a culture of permissionless innovation, which allows and encourages entrepreneurs to innovate, push boundaries and take risks. As a result, the American tech sector has boomed, producing inventions and companies beloved and envied across the world. In contrast, European culture has been far more risk-averse and policy far more bureaucratic. The result of unnecessary regulation and data directives has been a dearth of successful European firms. Those European ‘unicorn’ firms which strike big have overwhelmingly come from countries fairly removed from continental Europe, such as the UK, Scandinavia and Russia.

The EU’s move towards net neutrality regulation, market interventions and tighter data laws will only further disadvantage tech firms. State interference is particularly unhelpful in dynamic, evolving digital sectors, where fast-paced progress is typical and innovation key to staying relevant. Moreover, European policymakers may want to check Google’s power through legislation, but it is large incumbent firms who have the resources and lawyers to comply with new regulation. Those hit hardest are smaller competitors, and the fledgling start-ups the EU should focus on encouraging.

In some sense, European policymakers are onto something with their suspicion of ‘big tech’. The vast majority of UK internet users say that they’re uncomfortable with what they share online and with whom, and even the technophilic Wired ran a recent cover story on how the data industry is ‘selling our lives’. Perhaps people really are fed up of Google, which then only maintains its 90% European market share in search because there’s no decent alternative.

But attacking Google’s influence requires innovation, not regulation. Tech history is littered with market leaders such as IBM, Nokia and AOL who have slid, sometimes quite spectacularly, from the top spot. In tech-orientated sectors it is particularly hard for large firms to stay relevant and embrace new trends ­– let alone to develop them.

To facilitate creative destruction and the emergence of challenger firms, Europe needs a digital policy which is favorable to new technology and experimentation, and which encourages individuals to accept risk and forge ahead with business plans without first jumping through hoops and courting regulators (the trials and tribulations of Uber and Skype spring to mind here).

Blockchain-based projects which aim to ‘decentralize the internet’ and give users more control over their data are part of an exciting peer-to-peer movement which could re-sculpt the shape of the net. But these innovators are entering unchartered territory (a wild west, if you like), and an open and permissive regulatory culture is essential in allowing them to flourish (or fail).

Were Europe to grasp this, the benefits could be enormous. But if European policymakers carry on down their current path of tightening control, we’re likely to see less entrepreneurship, less competition, reduced consumer utility, and probably a lot more Google.

 

Don’t worry about Brand’s sexism – worry that he’s the new poster child for the left

I don’t throw around words like racism and sexism. Not because they don’t exist – on the contrary, I recognise both ‘isms’ as serious problems that plague different parts of the world to different degrees on a day-to-day basis. Racial and gender prejudices are the most heinous of crimes, and that’s why the accusation of such things must be used with thought and caution; to levy the words at a Republican voter or someone who points out the real numbers behind the ‘equal pay’ myth takes away from the seriousness of the words.

I wasn’t surprised to wake up this morning, however, and read the many headlines that accused Russell Brand of being sexist. During his appearance on BBC Question Time last night, Brand got a bit carried away with the ‘confrontation game’ and wound up in hot water with his fellow, female panellists:

As communities minister Penny Mordaunt praised firefighters, Mr Brand interrupted, saying: “Pay their pensions then, love. Excuse the sexist language, I’m working on it.”

This isn’t the first time Brand has been accused of ‘lazy sexism’ – he’s gotten in trouble, multiple times, for objectifying professional women he encounters, and many have noted that much of his humour stems from humiliating women in personal, direct ways.

Was last night another addition to the sexist Brandwagon? Probably not. Putting cultural differences aside, [In the States, calling any woman who is not in fact your love, ‘luv’, would be considered deeply unacceptable.] I think it’s fairly obvious that Brand was speaking casually, and arguably being a bully- but without any sexist intent. Perhaps someone should have flagged up to him (or written on that note card he seemed so attached to) that when you’re on a world-renowned platform with lots of elected officials, you try a little harder to sound more professional.

What about the other accusations? Is Brand a sexist at heart? Honestly, I don’t know. Brand’s a comedian. He makes jokes about women. Presumably he does this, not because he wants to preach his sexist manifesto, but because people laugh. Men, and women, laugh at jokes about women. Depending on the joke, I may or may not laugh along with them. Having researched some of Brand’s previous jokes, there’s no doubt that some of them cross the line; at which point, we should be able to get up and walk out, turn off the TV, tune him out and not give credence to his remarks.

But now we’re getting to the real problem – which is not his humour(less?) remarks, but rather that Brand, along with his jokes, have been given a huge political platform to be taken seriously by his fans and the public at large…and it’s obvious that when it comes to women, and everything else, the man has no idea what he’s talking about.

Clearly unable to come up with any stat about Britain’s population growth or housing/land availability when asked to make the case for immigration (there are some great stats out there, by the way, in favour of this argument), Brand decided to go on a loud, but not always so coherent, rant about bankers’ bonuses and why the City is ‘bad’, whatever that means. His only evidence that more redistribution of wealth would help those at the bottom was that his bank account was big enough to handle a cut, and when asked if he would actually try to put into practice what he preached (ie: stand for Parliament), the answer was pretty straight-forward: no.

This, my friends, is not just a comedian with an opinion. He is the new poster-child for the left, in the UK and beyond. He is being given the highest platforms to discuss his views and opinions, and despite his attempt at anti-establishment rhetoric, almost every policy he promotes – if you can be generous enough to call them that – advocates heavy government intervention, centralised redistribution, state-funded everything, and heavy emphasis on paternalism and left-wing policy.

Brand’s political stardom is going to backfire, but it’s hard to know who will suffer. Either, Brand will continue to slip and slide on national television, further associating the left (to their despair) with his radical, inarticulate rants; or he’ll wise up, graduate from one note card to three, cut back on the lady jokes and actually have a shot at convincing a few more people that his bank account is the only number you need to cite when reforming the UK’s buckling welfare structure. The former would be a spectacle; the latter would be nothing to luv.

Someone’s lost their marbles here and it’s not us

 

This little video by Owen Jones over on The Guardian’s website simply has to be seen to be believed. It starts out with a reasonable enough analysis of property prices in London. They’re high, perhaps it might be a good idea if they weren’t so high and so on. At which point it might be useful to start thinking about what might be done. Perhaps more properties could be built for example, that seems a reasonable enough idea. Prices do rise when there’s not that much supply and increasing supply does tend to have the effect of reducing prices.

But of course this is Oor Lad Owen so someone must be to blame for this. And who does he blame? The politicians who don’t seem to be addressing the problem very well? The bureaucrats who don’t issue enough of the planning chitties? Us, the citizenry for having the temerity to desire somewhere to live?

Nope, the enemy is apparently property developers.

Yes, that’s correct. The people who actually build housing  are the declared enemy. He’s not saying that they’re just not building enough, nor that they’re building the wrong type or anything. He is quite flat out stating that those who build housing are the wrong ‘uns in this campaign that desires more housing.

That the solution to his claimed problem would actually be to have more property developers developing more properties just doesn’t seem to occur to Jones.

Entirely bizarre.

But *which* right on and trendy thing should I be doing?

One of those lovely little conundrums is raising its head over in the right on and trendy food movement at present. The problem being, well, which part of being right on and trendy should people sign up to? This has actually got to the point that there’s a New York Times opinion piece imploring people to, umm, well, ditch one principle in favour of another:

And yet, if you look closer, there’s a host of reasons sustainable food has taken root here in central Montana. Many farmers are the third or fourth generation on their land, and they’d like to leave it in good shape for their kids. Having grappled with the industrial agriculture model for decades, they understand its problems better than most of us. Indeed, their communities have been fighting corporate power since their grandparents formed cooperative wheat pools back in the 1920s.

For the food movement to have a serious impact on the issues that matter — climate change, the average American diet, rural development — these heartland communities need to be involved. The good news is, in several pockets of farm country, they already are.

“Sustainable” food here means organic. Oh, and small producer: you know, one who cannot get economies of scale because they’re running too few acres. but, you know, if people want to produce this way, live on the pittance they can earn in this manner, good luck to them and all who sail with them. and if people want to buy their produce similarly good luck. However, there’s something of a problem:

But just as these rural efforts started gaining steam, an unfortunate thing happened to the urban food movement: It went local. Hyperlocal. Ironically, conscientious consumers who ought to be the staunchest allies of these farmers are taking pledges not to buy from them, and to eat only food produced within 100 miles of home.

Montana has perhaps three people in addition to all those cows. And it’s a lot more than 100 miles away from any of the hipsters who are interested in small scale organic farming. And those hipsters are all eating local. Which is, don’t you think, just so lovely a problem?

Those urban aesthestes are simply missing the point of farming altogether. Which is that it’s a land hungry occupation (organic even more so than conventional) so it makes great sense to do that work where there’s no people. Farming right by the big cities of the coasts, where land is hugely expensive (because there’s lots of people in those big cities) is simply not a sensible manner of using the resources available.

Just so much fun to see the fashionable being hoist on their own petard really.

Maybe gamergate is winning

Loyal readers will remember I wrote a think piece arguing that gamergate—the loose grouping of internet gamers seen by its critics as misogynistic and by its advocates as a campaign for ethics in gaming journalism—would lose its battle against the social justice warriors (SJWs) who largely run the media, particularly games journalism. This might still be true, but a piece from Ed West at the Spectator makes me much less sure of my argument.

Ed points out that gamergate—where the gamer masses are using letter-writing campaigns to get advertisers to drop support for websites like Gawker—is only the latest in a string of social justice setbacks include the Lord Freud ‘scandal’ and the bid to get David Cameron to wear a feminist t-shirt.

What has happened to social justice warriors recently? Every campaign seems to fail, the latest being a cack-handed attempt to police Twitter in order to win the Gamergate saga (turn to p194 for details). Gamergate is one of those things that a couple of years ago would have been resolved quickly, going into the narrative as part of the great struggle against the ‘isms’. Instead it goes on and on, and SJWs seem to be losing the battle.

He reckons that the ongoing decline of traditional news sources is giving the SJWs less of a grip on the organs of opinion-formation, democratising opinion across the internet. I’m not so sure, indeed I think the internet is rather a boon to the more virulent strains of modern social justice talk. What’s more, if we really are seeing a turning point in the culture war, the small changes in internet access over the past couple of years aren’t going to be able to explain it.

But I do think he has a good point about the changes of the past 20 years:

Compare the situation today with that of 20 years ago, during the greatest social justice warrior victory of all, the controversy over The Bell Curve – a big event in American and by default British cultural life. While the scientific community said one thing about Charley Murray and Richard Herrnstein’s book on intelligence, the political-media elite said another, and the public followed the latter’s lead. If The Bell Curve was published today it would be much harder for the modern-day Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to attack it.

The Bell Curve ‘war’ was an important issue in itself – as an opportunity to counter America’s growing inequality was lost. But it was also significant because it confirmed the idea that anyone who came to a controversial conclusion (in this case supposedly ‘racist’) could be ostracised, name-called and in the current parlance ‘shown the door’. That sort of ideologically-justified bullying is a key tactic of the social justice warrior movement, but when exposed as such can work against them. The nice left, after all, don’t like to be seen siding with self-appointed policemen of debate.

I recommend reading the whole thing.