British tabloids have declared war on tech
One of the things I enjoy most about returning to the UK (aside from real mushy peas and houses that aren’t made of cardboard) is reading how the British media writes about Silicon Valley startups.
Take, for example, the piece I read in London’s Evening Standard the day I arrived, in which writer Lucy Tobin profiled Jack Dorsey and his “new venture.”
Yep, that would be Dorsey’s new venture eight-year-old Square.
Then there’s shit like this…
Slipping into California-chat (Square is based in San Francisco), Dorsey says, “there’s a ton of really good energy in London, a lot of entrepreneurship, and good talent, especially around artificial intelligence. It’s a really interesting place for new companies to emerge.”
On previous trips, though, I’ve been most struck at how gushing and uncritical my homeland has been in its coverage of US tech giants like Uber, Facebook, and Google. I’ve written before about how those companies have come to see the UK as an island of friendliness in an increasingly hostile Europe. No small part of that friendliness, for Uber and Google at least, came from its close relationship with (then) British Prime Minister David Cameron. More generally, though, tech benefitted from Cameron’s obsession with turning London into a thriving tech hub.
Still, before leaving for the UK, I predicted that things might be about to change. Not only is Cameron gone thanks to his disastrous handling of the Brexit vote, but also the fate of American companies is often buffeted by the popularity (or otherwise) of the American government. Under Obama, the Brits have been incredibly welcoming to America and American companies -- just as they were under Clinton. Under Bush, we all heard the stories of American tourists sewing Canadian flags on their backpacks to avoid angry comments about Iraq -- and corporations like Starbucks and McDonalds were often first in the firing line when the protesters began hurling rocks.
And now along comes Donald Trump. And it’s Google, Uber and Facebook, I predicted, who will be the new McDonalds and Starbucks.
And yet. While I certainly expected to see less positive coverage of Valley tech companies on this UK trip, I certainly didn’t expect the level of aggression I’ve seen on the British front pages these days.
Here’s the Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday -- aka the voice of “Middle England”...
Google blood money: Web giant cashes in on vile seven-minute video showing ‘knife expert’ penetrating a stab vest like the one worn by murdered Westminster PC
Here’s the Sun’s totally measured profile of Moxie Marlingspike who it claims founded WhatsApp (he did not)...
Millionaire behind secretive software used in WhatsApp messages sent by terrorist Khalid Masood is a dreadlocked anarchist
And here’s the Mail again…
Cameron, Osborne, their glamorous chum and the great Uber stitch-up: The disturbing links between No.10 and the online taxi firm as it's revealed one of its major investors now has the ex-Chancellor on its payroll
All of this, of course, coming on the heels of a Parliamentary committee hearing in which Google executives were likened to prostitutes and tech leaders asked how they can sleep at night given the hate that flourishes on their platforms. Oh, and did I mention the ad boycott?
During my time in London, I’ve spoken to various government insiders (and a few outsiders) to try to figure out what’s going on. It can’t simply be the Trump effect. Also, it’s interesting that so many of the stories are entirely overblown: The Mail’s story about Google “Blood Money” for example dedicates a half dozen pages of outrage to a single YouTube video in which a guy shows how to stab through a stab-proof vest. There’s no mention of glorifying terrorism, no specific incitement to use the tutorial to harm anyone -- the host of that video is just one of those dopey amped up survival types we’ve all seen time and again, showing how cool it is to hack (literally and figuratively) a supposedly impenetrable vest.
Not according to the Mail, though. According to the Mail, the video shows Google profiting from terrorist instructional videos (the number the Mail cites is “approximately £1,200” in ad revenue. A staggering $1500 in “blood money”. Hold the front page!)
So what gives? The best answer my parliamentary friends have been able to offer is that this is partly a correction to the tech-slathering by David Cameron over his Valley pals. Certainly that’s the case in the negative Uber coverage. As I wrote here on Pando years ago, Uber’s Rachel Whetstone is incredibly close to Cameron (she was godmother to his first child) -- something which used to be a huge asset for doing business in the UK. Now, as the new Prime Minister looks to draw a line between her and her predecessor, Cameron’s cronies -- including Rachel Whetstone’s Uber -- are on the outs. Also, in a post-Trump, post-Brexit world, anti-American, anti-tech headlines play into the rah-rah nationalist mood of technophobic middle England voters who May’s conservative party needs to keep onside.
Add to that the fact that Britain just suffered a terrorist attack by a guy who apparently used WhatsApp immediately before going on his rampage, and a baseline lack of understanding of how all this tech stuff really works amongst the general populace and you have yourself a recipe for tabloid lunacy.
That tech ignorance is, actually, the biggest problem of all. The coverage of Khalid Masood’s use of WhatsApp has been particularly bad -- with the popular press repeating the government’s demands for WhatsApp to “hand over” de-encrypted versions of the terrorist’s messages.
Per the Telegraph…
WhatsApp accused of giving terrorists 'a secret place to hide' as it refuses to hand over London attacker's messages
As everyone reading this knows perfectly well, WhatsApp couldn’t do that even if it wanted to. The company has no way to de-encrypt the conversations, nor do they even store copies. The best approach for the police and security services would be to attempt to access Masood’s phone -- or if that’s not possible, to subpoena the meta data to at least find out who he was talking to. But that makes for a lousy (and long) headline.
By deliberately not explaining that to readers, tabloids are able to amp up anti-tech sentiment the net result of which will be a much, much harder job for US tech companies trying to do business in the UK specifically and Europe generally.
This is bad news for the Valley, bad news for the UK and bad, bad news for users who now have two major governments -- the UK and the US -- demanding that encryption be weakened. It does, however, seem like a huge opportunity for UK tech reporters to seize on the moment of national ignorance and carve out a niche separating the genuinely horrible things tech companies frequently do from the bullshit headlines that are designed only to scare readers into protesting away their own privacy and security.