Britain First: Smoke, Mirrors, and A Lot of Hate

Reading Time: 3 minutesWhilst it’s Europe and America that we tend to think about when it comes to far-right extremists, Britain First has long been the UK’s fastest growing political party, on Facebook. This was not originally a cause for alarm: a large part of that early success was down to an almost genius campaign of using highly emotive, apolitical images (often to do with animal cruelty) to get users to sign up, artificially inflating their numbers […]

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Explainer: Emmanuel Macron, Six Months On
Reading Time: 3 minutes

The standard for elected leaders in the free world has plummeted incredibly over the past year or so. In Britain, Theresa May has been hobbling since the General Election,  surrounded by hyenas. Her speech at the Conservative Party conference almost received sympathy from all quarters, even as factions within the Tories move against her. Over the Pond, Donald Trump’s fan base has continued to shrink as he picks fights with Puerto Rico (in the wake of Acts of God), North Korea (as their nuclear arsenal expands) and Iran (as they stick to their agreement), whilst calling some white nationalists ‘good people’. No matter how you massage the facts, it’s clear that it’s not been the easy ride which he appeared to envision when it comes to ‘draining the swamp’.

But Emmanuel Macron – young, charismatic, pro-EU – looked like he might buck the trend. A former Minister of Economy and Finance with a maverick streak, his meteoric rise to take the Elysée (snatching it away from Marine Le Pen’s far-right Front National) was the stuff of liberal dreams. Then, his party En Marche! – a mixture of veteran politicians and political neophytes drawn from across society – beat critics in legislative elections, crushing both the established parties and the Front National.

For Europhiles, this was welcome news, with suggestions that it meant that the populist groundswell which had overtaken the Anglo-American world was over. Whilst the Dutch elections in March had created a fractured political system (albeit one in which the far right candidate Geert Wilders was locked out of power sharing agreements), Macron’s victory was virtually complete. A fresh-faced figure – in spite of his past as a minister under an unpopular government – the prospects looked bright in May.

With the end of the year drawing near, it’s difficult not to imagine that those who were most enthusiastic about Macron might be feeling somewhat disappointed. His performance at a recent TV appearance seems to epitomise the mixture of bravado and arrogance for which he’s become well-known, with attacks on those who disagree with him bearing a somewhat disturbing resemblance to another president. Whilst Trump may have gone after the press more viciously (decrying them as liars in the pay of his enemies), Macron has taken a more contemptuous if equally dismissive route – his thoughts were ‘too complex’ for journalists, a spokesmen declared back in June. At a time when technocrats have come under routine attack, it seemed a remarkably bold approach.

That he made the television appearance at all was a sign that his complex thoughts had not translated into successful actions. His aims for a stronger Eurozone have been stymied by the German elections, which saw the once redoubtable Angela Merkel significantly reduced in stature, as the economic heart of the EU made a decisive shift towards the Eurosceptic right. At the same time, Macron has shown he’s just as keen to keep France’s interests at heart as any of his predecessors, angering other EU nations – he swooped in with the might of the French government to nationalise the STX shipyard, keeping it from Italian hands, much to Rome’s annoyance.

And worst of all, his attempts at labour reforms have largely stalled. His declaration that those opposing him were ‘slackers’ galvanised a popular movement against the former banker’s attempts to loosen regulations – although, as the Guardian notes, the numbers were bigger under Macron’s universally unpopular predecessor Francois Hollande. At a time when the French economy has been stagnant for years, it’s difficult to draw consolation from this latest turn of events.

In the bigger picture this is deeply distressing: Macron’s brand of centrism offered one of the few plausible antidotes to populism in Europe. Marine Le Pen may have lost out on the election this time, but the president’s mixture of aloofness combined with failures to enact policy suggest that the next time around, France might not be so lucky.

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Explainer: Autonomous Cargo Vehicles
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The history of humanity has in large part depended upon transportation. Civilisations have always been reliant upon supplies of food, water, and other amenities for expansion (both military and civil), and later for trade. The ox-cart gave way to the ‘iron horse’ and later to the trucks which still perform a major part of goods transportation in both the Global North and South. Whilst container ships – with the immense Post Panamax (that is, too big even for the Panama Canal) capable of hauling in the region of 120,000 tonnes – remain key internationally and for moving goods between distant regions, and whilst trains offer easier delivery of freight over long distances on land, the truck remains the most important vehicle for last mile deliveries.

And with trucks, come drivers, introducing an all too common element of friction. There’s the question of the number of hours which they should able to work: whilst drivers and their unions often push for lengthier periods, claiming that strict limits ignore down time on long journeys, their employers have largely resisted this. In America, moves to install tracking devices in trucks to ensure that drivers are adhering to the set times have claims of a ‘Big Brother’ mentality.

And then there’s the issue of the environment. Progressively more eco-friendly regulations, combined with a relative slowness on the part of automakers to take up this issue has created a conundrum for drivers. On the one hand, they can stick to older vehicles, which are much more analogue, cheaper to fix, and have limited resale value but emit massive levels of pollution. On the other, they can make the switch to new trucks which abide by the rules at high costs – and potentially face catastrophe, as in New York and New Jersey, where new, green, trucks certified by the Port Authority suffered from self-combustion. Independent drivers who had traded in their old vehicle to be scrapped found themselves reduced to working in fleets, where their autonomy was greatly reduced.

But this might just be tip of the iceberg for truckers, as autonomous vehicle technology could completely wipe out the profession. Whilst it remains highly experimental at this stage, August saw trials of wi-fi technology to allow platoons of autonomous trucks to drive together. For firms, aside from prohibitive costs and regulatory scepticism of driverless vehicles, they seem to offer a boon – there’d be no need to limit hours for robot drivers, or worry about them driving tired, or having issues to do with pay.

And yet who would the fault for crashes lie with – the company which produced the vehicles, or the companies which operate them? And will we see this technology spreading elsewhere in the goods industry, with talk of autonomous cargo vessels already appearing. How far governments offer supportive legislation – or at least lift the many barriers to the driverless future – will ultimately be crucial to how far these changes move.

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Explainer: The British Far-Right
Reading Time: 2 minutes

The murder of Jo Cox in the run-up to Brexit was shocking not merely for the fact that it was the first killing of a British MP in over 20 years. The words her killer, Thomas Mair, shouted – “Death to traitors, freedom for Britain” – marked a return of British white supremacy which had last had its heyday in the 1990s.

Whilst more electorally focussed versions of white nationalism have persisted and gained support over the past decade – most notably in the brief surge of support the British National Party (BNP) received under Nick Griffin – the last decade of the 20th century had marked a high-point in the indigenous white nationalist movement (as opposed to US or European imported groups). Neo-Nazi groups centred in the UK included Combat 18 (the number standing for the letters ‘AH’, Hitler’s initials) and Blood & Honour, which hosted the formerly flourishing white nationalist music scene. For groups like these, which had evolved from post-WWII fascists and disillusioned imperialists with ill-disguised antipathy for immigrants from former colonies, the high point of their publicity came in April 1999 – courtesy of a 22 year old called David Copeland.

A former BNP member, Copeland had read ‘The Turner Diaries’, William Luther Pierce’s dystopian novel and handy manifesto for the budding fascist. In 1995 it had made the headlines in America when Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City Bomber, was discovered with pages from the novel (which describes an attack on an FBI building) – a screed which called for radical warfare against the state. Copeland turned to explosives himself, but he targeted another typical fascist target – non-white Britons, immigrants, and members of the LGBTQ community. His attacks killed three and wounded another 140.

It’s probably unfair to call Copeland’s attack the catalyst for the failure of the British far-right scene – the deaths of key members of groups like Combat 18 through factional infighting also played a role. At any rate, the early 21st century saw the apparent transition of the old street fighting outfits to electoral politics.

Mair’s actions shattered this illusion, especially as his words were rapidly coopted by a previously little known group, National Action. With its roots in Yorkshire (which has traditionally played host to the BNP and other far-right outfits), the group had only been founded in 2013 – but it nevertheless is the only far-right group proscribed in Britain. The status has conferred upon it a great deal of respect in white supremacist forums, seeming validation of the state control which Pierce’s Turner Diaries ‘predicted’ – not bad going, considering attempts in 2015 to organise a rally in Liverpool ended with National Action members hiding behind the shutters of a shop at Liverpool Lime Street Station.

In styling, National Action offers a blend of the peculiarly British and the distinctly transnational – a technique borrowed from the broader alt-right. Where older iterations of the website from 2013 show a particular approach which mimicked the National Front, focusing on immigrants, the group has increasingly opted for a broader symbolism. One of the most recent examples of its home page featured Anglo-Saxon imagery alongside the broader, pseudo-academic ideology which has been popularised by Richard Spencer and others in America – and which is increasingly developing in continental Europe and Britain.

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Reading Time: 2 minutes

60 years ago (and 25 years after its founding), the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia enacted what would become the most famous example of gender inequality – a ban on female drivers. In spite of a series of protests in the 1990s which lead to the arrests of several women for driving, the kingdom’s stance on the matter seemed inflexible (bar sporadic comments from King Salman that changes would come when they were ‘ready’.)

So the announcement a week ago that the longstanding law would at last be lifted was greeted as a victory for women’s rights in the kingdom. Certainly, it suggests that public pressure can have an impact on even the most recalcitrant of nation-states, trumping ideological purity. Was this, suggested some more optimistic thinkers, a sign of greater things to come? Women had their first chance to vote at local elections just two years law, but not removed, certainly. As publications including The Week, a large number of rights remain outside of the domain of Saudi Arabian women including wearing make-up, trying on clothes, or make a number of major decisions including getting married or divorced.

In the context of these wider, continuing restrictions, it’s not difficult to see this as a piece of clever publicity, seeking to remove the most unpleasant and visible aspects of gender inequality. Nevertheless, more conservative elements reacted with considerable anger in spite of the state’s considerable attempts to clamp down on dissent. Whilst it’s unlikely to catalyse anything larger, it suggests a potential divide between the most hard-line elements of the religious establishment and the monarchy.

On the other hand, it’s possible to view this as simply a step in a wider move towards a modernisation of the traditional recalcitrant nation-state under crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, whose rise to power has upset the traditional order. At 31 years of age, he represents a challenge to the traditional and highly ossified hierarchy of the country – and potentially represents what’s needed for a country struggling with monopolies, fallen oil prices, and increasing (if still relatively impotent) discontent amongst a young populace with access to the internet.

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Explainer: Regulating Hate Speech and Extremism Online
Reading Time: 3 minutes

There’s very little that can’t be blamed on the internet, in the grand tradition of new technologies. The same arguments which paint cyberspace as a corrupting, seductive force have long been laid at the feet of television, gaming, and practically any innovation. And yet it’s hard not to feel that there’s something palpable in those claims. The internet is a very different space to classical mass media because it allows for grassroots engagement, easier dissemination, and far fewer boundaries on what behaviour acceptable. Perhaps the most noteworthy example of this is in the extremism – Islamist, fascist, secessionist, and otherwise – that it has fostered, and the hate speech it has normalised. Online anonymity, a blessing in illiberal regimes, has also proven a vital tool for the intolerant to organise actions and to spread their messages.

The leaders of both America and Britain have been outspoken on their condemnation of the internet. In the wake of the Parsons Green attack, Donald Trump tweeted that the internet was “the main recruitment tool” for (Jihadi) terrorists, adding, “we must cut [it] off & use [it] better!” Theresa May had called for similar regulations following the London Bridge attack, blaming social media for creating “safe spaces” for terrorists seeking to maximise the damage they inflict. End-to-end encryption, which became a flashpoint following the San Bernadino attack, has only become more contested since then.

Another group of extremists, white nationalists, have been equally adept at using the internet: leaks from popular gaming chat app Discord reveal how it has been adapted as a convenient tool for neo-Nazis, Klansmen, and neo-Confederates (amongst other hate groups) to stage their mass rally at Charlottesville. More aggressive use – such as using blogging platforms to host online campaigns of abuse against political opponents – has also become a worryingly normalised phenomenon. And in a revelation that shamed a tech scene already uncomfortably hands-off when it comes to policing extremist content, it was revealed that Facebook and Google had both set up their systems in such a way that it supported racist advertisers.

Of course, not all hate speech promises imminent violence – and the idea of hate speech is itself culturally relative, a construct far more prevalent in Europe than in America, which instead prizes the First Amendment freedom of speech. But even focusing specifically on ideas of violent extremism, and we hit roadblocks. How much leeway should a government receive when it comes to choosing who is an extremist? The Trump administration, for example, has been sheepish at best when dealing with those on the far-right, which rather undermines any assumption that the correct groups will always be targeted. Not to mention historical state support for extremist groups abroad.

That’s not to say that the tech sector is any better. For years, it peddled the claim that it was simply a provider of services, and that the content on them was none of its responsibility – an abdication of any moral authority. But in the wake of Charlottesville and in fear of growing public outrage, we saw a number of services whir into action to cut off hate speech. Perhaps most memorable was Cloudflare, a service used by white nationalists to protect their websites and which had previously been outspoken about their commitment to allow them to remain as customers. The murder of a protester at Charlottesville was seemingly the only thing which made them react, booting off prominent neo-Nazi Andrew Anglin. It’s a worryingly ad hoc state of play in which internet service providers are the arbiters of public good.

And even assuming that we find a body, public or private, who we trust to push extremism out of the digital space, do they have the power to do it? This is a tricky one: on the one hand, there is some evidence from Reddit that shutting down specific areas for hate speech can push commentators into other zones where they’re less likely to behave so egregiously. On the other hand, the dark web (accessible through the Tor browser) offers a highly anonymous and extremely difficult to police zone for committed extremists. It’s hard to see whether the regulations which politicians demand could effectively break that down.

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Explainer: Data Protection in the Age of Big Leaks
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Hacking is the news story which keeps on giving. Gone are the images of ostentatious cyberpunk  seeking to bring down the Man; in its place is a class of savvy, slick criminals, taking advantage of the negligence of corporations with access to massive amounts of our data. Whether through the installation of ransomware, spearfishing, or Trojan Horses, the insurers Hiscox estimated cybercrime cost businesses $450 billion this year. 

And it’s not simply that more businesses have been hit, but that the size of hacks have kept on growing. Indeed, the biggest targets have often been felled by the softest strokes: the massive Wannacry ransom ware attack which brought down NHS Trusts was so successful because it used an exploit which was patched two months earlier, coupled with the NHS’s partial use of an unsupported version of Windows XP.

The political line between private and public enterprises has also become increasingly blurred: when Petya succeeded bringing down major Western companies, the original assumption was that it was ransomware like Wannacry. Investigations quickly suggested this was not the case – the data ‘encrypted’ was essentially destroyed, it used a very poor method for payouts (particularly for such a big attack), it hit a lot of critical infrastructure in Ukraine, and its only major Russian hit (oil giant Rosneft) was miraculously able to fight off the virus in record time. Businesses can expect this sort of financial proxy war to only intensify in the future.

The latest big fish to fall prey to hacking was Equifax, the US credit reporting agency. In an almost perfect example of big business playing fast and loose, Equifax discovered it had been compromised all the way back in July, but neglected to mention this to consumers until the start of September. Bad data management practices mean that while UK servers weren’t hit, perhaps 400,000 Britons have had their personal data exposed – whether that means being sold professionally or dumped on some PasteBin.

Equifax’s fate, in the court of public opinion, probably doesn’t vary too much on either side of the Pond (i.e. everyone agrees that they were not only exceedingly lax in the way they secured their data, but also exceedingly unprofessional in trying to fudge over that fact). In the court of law, however, who gets hurt by these big leaks is going to become increasingly important for companies hoping to avoid hefty fines. That’s because of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), the mammoth piece of European legislature which even Brexit won’t stop.

The GDPR covers a series of topics related to personal data usage, and runs along the premise that the more power to the consumer, the less likely they are to get fobbed off. Amongst the regulation’s promises are the right to be forgotten, the right to access of data (in an accessible format) – and breech notification, within 72 hours of knowledge of a breech. Any European company which tries to pull an Equifax this time next year could see up to 4% of its annual income or €20 million (whichever is higher).

The European Union has been showing an increasing tendency to clamp down on the bad boys of the internet. In perhaps the most obvious case, there was the €2.42 billion fine that Google got slapped with for spinning its own search results to its favour. Even today, if Equifax had been based in Austria rather than Atlanta, it would have likely seen at least £500,000 in fines. To its great fortune, however, the American approach to internet policing is very laissez-faire – perhaps in part because of the US government’s lack of conviction that anyone’s data should be off limits to them.

This culture clash is only becoming more and more obvious as Europe pursues a draconian interpretation of data protection in the face of an American happy-go-lucky passivity masking advanced surveillance mechanisms. The EU-US Privacy Shield (designed to allow for easy movement of data across the Atlantic) came up for review on Monday – the lack of an American ombudsman seems indicative of a very different value system when it comes to privacy.

That’s not to say that the GDPR is perfect. Whilst major players like Equifax, Google, or Facebook might be the companies most visibly hurt by the need to both protect people’s data from hackers and avoid using it for unethical financial gain, the regulation is an ungainly beast. For smaller businesses, there’s considerably less capital to withstand the hefty fine for a mistake in data storage practices. Its limited publicity (with just under 250 days to go) makes that all the more alarming.

The GDPR is, at least for now, a ‘living document’, and it might be safe to assume that it won’t be the last piece of data regulation enacted in Europe. For American companies, the restrictions will rankle; for European businesses, who have to live through them more directly, there will be frustration and pain. And yet, the US alternative is to sit and wait for the next hack to happen, in the name of ease of access. Neither extreme is fundamentally stable in the long run; unfortunately, picking the middle ground doesn’t seem entirely popular these days.

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Explainer: VPN Shutdown
Reading Time: 3 minutes

Dimitry B. Flickr manoeuvre (CC BY 2.0) – The view of Pudong, Shanghai

To call the Chinese government approach to the internet ‘hands-on’ might just be an understatement. The ‘Great Firewall of China’ is widely reckoned as one of the most wide-reaching examples of internet regulation, with control so great censors censors can now block messages server-side (a feature The Register reported had been used in the wake of Liu Xiaobo). Now, the state is turning its immense digital firepower on to virtual private networks (VPNs), the secure connections which offer users anonymity and obscure their IP address.

The country has long held that accessing banned sites (a mixture of major Western and domestic sites which are classed as ‘seditious’) even by VPN was a crime. The latest decision (set to kick in early next year) is to ban all personal VPNs. At the same time, it will limit corporate access to VPNs, giving state oversight of the connections. The government’s decision is a significant one, both for politics and business.

Amongst the suggestions for the timing and motivation behind the manoeuvre came from reporting on the earlier decision to ban encrypted messaging system WhatsApp – a desire for censors to impress Communist party elites ahead of a major reshuffle. Similar motivations might explain why the Chinese government put pressure on Apple to remove VPN apps from their store earlier in the month. On the other hand, this fits a broad pattern which the internet censors have taken to slowly tighten up restrictions. Whilst often more subtle (essentially denying users access in such a way that it is not clear what they are missing), the loophole which VPNs offer is clearly a significant one.

There are economic implications to the decision as well. VPNs, as a method of secure communications, are a fixture of corporate life. The Chinese government’s coming crackdown may not be targeted at businesses, but it remains unclear what status companies (both domestic and foreign) will have. It appears that the level of security and anonymity offered by the VPN will be essentially traded in for connections heavily policed by the state.

That being said, there is one apparent beneficiary of the artificially limits on accessing foreign websites: China’s own tech industry. Already, giants like Alibaba and have succeeded in carving out massive e-commerce industries (China providing the largest percentage of online sales this year, overtaking America). Whilst in the long – or even medium – run, we’re likely to see these turn out to be giants with feet of clay, heavier policing on VPNs at least secures their position in the Chinese market against potential outside competition.

That’s not to say that Facebook and other Western websites won’t continue trying to access the Chinese market, as the case of ‘Colorful Balloons’ shows. It’s a ‘stealth app’, essentially a clone of Facebook’s Moments app with the logo sanded off and accessible through WeChat, the primary Chinese messenger service. 

Colorful Balloons has not been a rousing success, as Quartz reported – probably both because the team behind it went out of their way to keep it nondescript, and also because Weibo, the primary Chinese social media site, is an entrenched alternative. Still, whether the coming VPN crackdown might encourage other Western tech companies to invest in stealth apps in order to keep a more legal foothold in China remains unclear.

China isn’t the only country to realise the advantages of banning of VPNs of late. Russia’s law against Virtual Private Networks and attempts to hide users’ identities, will come into effect in November. Whilst the Kremlin was quick to deny this would affect law-abiding citizens, the situation presents the same problems for foreign businesses and local residents alike. Whether other heavily policed states, such as Iran, close the loophole of VPNs, is conjecture for now – but it’s hard not to imagine that they are watching.

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