12 April 2019

Brexit will never happen

I dislike being wrong, so I rarely make predictions. But I believe it is now unlikely that Brexit will happen. And it now seems clear that, in spite of its apparent dance of ineptitude, the House of Commons may have had a coherent strategy all along:

1. Dither, prevaricate and wrongfoot one another, in a way that ensures no exit route is agreed.
2. Continue in this manner for a sufficient number of years until:
3. A stage is reached when it starts to seem unreasonable not to hold a second referendum, given that the composition and viewpoint of the electorate can no longer be presumed to be the same. (Perhaps 4-5 years after the original one?)
Here is the important bit:
4. Before the second referendum takes place, ensure the outcome of 2016 can never be repeated, by changing the legislation.

We must bear in mind that most of Westminster profoundly disagrees with the result of the referendum. Most MPs seem fairly convinced that leaving the EU would be wrong.
   And judging by this Report from the Media/Culture/etc Committee (see sections 4 to 6) MPs are of the view that the result was obtained by foul means, not fair. This impression is reinforced by the recent movie Brexit: The Uncivil War. If the movie is to be believed, the Vote Leave campaign used dodgy methods involving the internet, including innovative approaches such as "microtargeting". (At least they are presented in the movie as being dodgy.) The Committee’s Report also raises a question mark over the £425K Leave campaign spend by Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party. Then of course there is the conspiracy-theory hypothesis that Russia contributed millions to the LeaveEU campaign (see para 260-267).

The government this week proposed legislation to police the internet, issuing a White Paper on "Online Harms". This would make internet companies legally responsible for "harmful" content. Directors of companies like Google and Facebook could be hit with substantial fines, and even criminal penalties, if they fail to remove content that falls foul of the rules.
   Much of the proposal is ostensibly aimed at relatively uncontroversial areas, such as grooming, bullying, suicide and so forth. But what is being rolled into this is something far more vague: preventing "disinformation", an ill-defined term.


7.25 When the internet is deliberately used to spread false or misleading information, it can harm us in many different ways, encouraging us to make decisions that could damage our health, undermining our respect and tolerance for each other and confusing our understanding of what is happening in the wider world. It can also damage our trust in our democratic institutions, including Parliament. [...]

7.27 Companies will need to take proportionate and proactive measures to [...] minimise the spread of misleading and harmful disinformation [...]

7.31 Importantly, the code of practice that addresses disinformation will ensure the focus is on protecting users from harm, not judging what is true or not. There will be difficult judgement calls associated with this. [...]

Unless we see a lot more in the way of defining and narrowing the "disinformation" concept, there are likely to be many ways of criticising the government, or querying services such as state education and medicine, that could potentially be caught. Consider all the possible statements or opinions that might be interpreted as:
- giving "misleading information" which might
- "encourage" us to make decisions that "could damage our health" (alternative health websites?), or
- "could undermine our respect for each other", or
- "confuse our understanding of what is happening in the wider world", or
- "damage our trust in our democratic institutions" (might these include the NHS, or the state education system?).
What if I want to argue that economic forecasts, e.g. by the Bank of England, may well be incorrect, because they have often been incorrect before? Or that compulsory state education is harmful and should be abolished? Or that a doctor should not necessarily be trusted, because NHS doctors are influenced by a concealed public-interest agenda?
   The beauty of the new regime is that the government would not be responsible for controlling content, so that any immediate blame for restricting free speech would fall on the relevant internet company. Google can already remove blogs it doesn’t like, without warning. All it would take is a quiet word in the ear of a Google executive, and several dozen freelance writers might wake up to find their blogs no longer existed.
   If in any doubt, which option is a Google executive likely to pick, faced with the risk of criminal liability and jail?

The Online Harms White Paper does not go into the issue of political campaigning in any detail. However, the aforementioned Committee Report supports

the recommendation from the [Information Commissioner’s Office] that inferred data should be as protected under the law as personal information. Protections of privacy law should be extended beyond personal information to include models used to make inferences about an individual. We recommend that the Government studies the way in which the protections of privacy law can be expanded to include models that are used to make inferences about individuals, in particular during political campaigning. [Link added.]
I am no internet expert, but I imagine this is getting at microtargeting, and I suspect it means we will soon see proposed legislation about online campaigning.

Few people with status give us (Oxford Forum) any kind of support, even a costless link from their website or blog. It is therefore hard to know what the position of the elite is towards us – even those members of it who are supposedly swimming against the current. Many of them, I imagine, simply pretend we don’t exist. Thus we go on operating on a shoestring budget.

Of course, if the Brexit movie gives a realistic picture, the attitude of Conservatives (even conservative ones) to mavericks is highly ambivalent. For most Conservatives, a cosy relationship with the establishment – even if only a tiny subsection of the establishment – seems to be paramount; they would sooner convert to leftism than start associating with dissidents.