Archive for the ‘Technology’ Category

UK could drop plans to tax tech firms in rush to secure US trade deal

Trade experts raise doubts about digital sales tax aimed at companies such as Google

Boris Johnson’s plans for a multibillion-pound tax on tech companies such as Google and Facebook may be dropped in the post-Brexit rush to secure a trade deal with the US, trade experts have suggested.

The prime minister said internet companies needed to make a “fairer contribution”, as he indicated on Tuesday he would push ahead with a digital sales tax, despite opposition within his cabinet and a US backlash against similar plans from the French government.

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How Jeremy Corbyn’s activist army is taking lessons from the US

LONDON — Two white-haired lefties on opposite sides of the Atlantic hope an enthusiastic youth movement can propel them to power — and their activists have teamed up in pursuit of victory.

Momentum, the campaign group that propelled Jeremy Corbyn to the leadership of the U.K. Labour Party in 2015, has sought advice from supporters of U.S. presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders on how best organize grassroots volunteers as they push for victory in Britain’s upcoming election.

Deploying a strategy known as “distributed organizing,” which fueled Sanders’ expectation-defying challenge for the Democratic nomination in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, Momentum’s leadership hopes to use volunteers to extend their reach and to get around the spending limits mandated by U.K law.

This involves developing a loose network of volunteers across the country and giving them digital tools to coordinate their activities. Volunteers are trained to do work that would otherwise have been managed by a centralized campaign, such as organizing events, creating campaign videos and knocking on doors.

In the spring, two 2016 Sanders organizers — Becky Bond and Zack Malitz — flew to London to help Momentum prepare for a snap election. Bond came to the U.K. again in the late summer alongside Jo Beardsmore, founder of anti-austerity protest group UK Uncut. Beardsmore now lives in California but is working with Momentum for the duration of the campaign.

Momentum’s leadership hopes to use volunteers to extend their reach and to get around the spending limits mandated by U.K law.

Bond, who has co-written a book on distributed organizing, is based in the U.S. but visits the U.K. regularly and advises Momentum. She joined conference calls with Labour activists last month, telling them there is a “huge capacity in the grassroots that’s just waiting to be called into service.”

“Some of you are going to need to travel across the country to places where full-time canvassers are urgently needed to talk to voters key to winning crucial seats,” she told volunteers. “Some of you will stay for a week in those places; some for two weeks. You may have relatives that you can stay with; you may find local supporters that you don’t know, but who will put you up.

“The time for strategizing is over. We know what we have to do, and we have to do it in massive numbers enough to win.”

And while help from across the Atlantic is welcome in Britain, Sanders’ team also hopes success for Labour will boost their campaign back home.

Jeremy Corbyn poses for photos during a UK general election advertising launch on December 4, 2019 | Darren Staples/Getty Images

“The left in the U.S. is watching the U.K. general election very closely,” Bond said. “An upset win by Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party would be a huge shot in the arm for activists in the U.S. pushing for the similar policies.”

Another Sanders organizer who has worked with Momentum said the two campaigns share “similar kinds of politics” and “a lot of shared goals.”

“We’ve got lots of volunteers here who are very much into Corbyn and want to see him succeed,” the organizer said.

Momentum’s Corbyn problem

Momentum has a mountain to climb if Corbyn stands any chance of making it to Downing Street.

With just a week to go until polling day, Labour is still trailing well behind the Tories, according to POLITICO’s poll of polls. There is a “close to zero” chance of Corbyn winning a majority, according to leading pollster John Curtice, so he would need to team up with smaller parties to become prime minister.

While many on the left admire Momentum’s tactics, there is widespread concern that Corbyn himself is a problem for Labour.

“The gap between Jeremy Corbyn and Boris Johnson is enormous,” said Joe Twyman, director of Deltapoll, pointing to his company’s latest results. Corbyn’s net personal rating is minus 39, with just 27 percent of those surveyed saying he is performing well. Boris Johnson had a net personal rating of 2.

John McTernan, who worked as a political strategist for former Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair, said the problem is “the product not the presentation.”

“We don’t know how many Let’s Go groups there are now. The whole point of it [is that it] would just grow like topsy” — Laura Parker, national Momentum coordinator 

“I’m a strong supporter of what Momentum do in terms of training, campaigning and canvassing. The mobilization of people on the ground and on social media is a very effective part of the Labour ground war,” he said. “If you ever talk to Conservatives they feel outgunned on the ground and outgunned on social media.”

But he added: “Labour are losing because the product and the leadership are not popular enough across the country.”

Momentum, which is headquartered in Finsbury Park, north London, has seen its staff grow from around 15 people before the election was called, to more than 50 now.

Laura Parker, Momentum’s national coordinator, said their approach is to give “activists the encouragement, the tools, a bit of training, access to information and then just letting them run with it.”

The group has launched two online campaigns with the explicit aim of recruiting as big an army of volunteers as possible.

Labour party activists campaign in north London on December 2, 2019 | Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP via Getty Images

The first is a drive encouraging volunteers to set up “Let’s Go” groups on WhatsApp, Facebook and by email, asking friends and family members to campaign for Labour. The underlying philosophy is that people are most easily persuaded by people they know. Seasoned activists can also set up training events to teach newcomers how to convince wavering voters.

“We don’t know how many Let’s Go groups there are now,” Parker said. “The whole point of it [is that it] would just grow like topsy.”

The same tactic was deployed by the Sanders campaign, which directed people who had posted supportive social media content via its smartphone app to text others and encourage them to get involved. Sanders’ team estimated that it had reached the same number of votes through this method as it would have from knocking on 63,000 doors.

Momentum’s second campaign, Labour Legends, was also imported from the U.S. It encourages people to take at least a week off work to help the election effort full-time.

A separate tool, My Plan to Win, lets volunteers organize their actions for the final stretch of the campaign.

“Last time we understood — and this is partly from working with the people from the Bernie Sanders campaign who we’re still collaborating with — is that if you make a bigger ask, you get a bigger response,” said Parker.

Labour activists listen to an address from Jeremy Corbyn at a campaign rally on December 1, 2019 | Ian Forsyth/Getty Images

More than 1,500 people have signed up to become “Labour Legends,” with people committing to set aside 2.6 weeks to campaign on average. Parker said Momentum liaises with constituency Labour parties to send volunteers wherever they’re most needed.

Those who can’t go out door-knocking are encouraged to set up “phone bank parties” at home with their friends, using a Labour Party smartphone app to call voters.

Within 48 hours of the election being called, Momentum launched a web tool to distribute these volunteers, called My Campaign Map. Activists can punch in their postcode to see a list of events in areas where they can have the most impact. The selection is based on how tight the race for each seat is and how much campaigning activity it has seen, with data fed in by activists. Volunteers can also upload their canvassing groups so that others can join, and organize voluntary “road trips” to travel to several key constituencies.

It’s a step up from Momentum’s 2017 website, which directed campaigners to their nearest tight battleground. That proved to be a blunt instrument: Labour’s majority ballooned in places flooded with activists while the party narrowly missed out on other constituencies that the website hadn’t categorized as winnable.

“We’re not going to have any wasted time,” Momentum organizer Callum Cant told a planning call of 1,500 volunteers on October 30. “This time, our campaign will be much more data-driven, and we’ll be encouraging to go to marginals that need you the most.”

‘Digital army’

This decentralized approach means Momentum can scale up beyond the restrictions set by electoral spending limits. Electoral Commission regulations say that non-party campaigners can spend a maximum of £584,817 across the U.K., with no more than £9,750 spent in any individual constituency.

But if volunteers are funding their own travel to battleground seats; if they are finding people who will host them for free; and if they are sharing content in social media organically, reducing the need for digital advertising, then Momentum’s reach becomes significantly larger.

For its own spending, Momentum — like Sanders’ campaign — relies on volunteer donations. It raised over £200,000 in the first 48 hours after the election was called, and has now amassed nearly £500,000. This figure is dwarfed by the amount collected by both Labour and the Conservatives, who have raised millions during the campaign.

Digital volunteers can also amplify the work done by professional campaigners. Momentum’s videos are among the most-viewed political ads on social media, with several racking up more than a million views.

“We’re encouraging our activists to get their phone out and tell us why they’re voting Labour …We know that people trust people” — Laura Parker

Momentum employs just a handful of people to produce its sleek “blockbuster production” videos — such as this one where the Joker takes Batman to task for not paying his taxes — according to Parker, many of which deploy a riskier tone that those produced by the Labour Party itself. “Jeremy can’t have a film out with the word clusterf*** in the title,” Parker said.

The group has a dedicated team that watches political TV shows, clipping and sharing Labour politicians’ rhetorical victories and Tory slip-ups.

Volunteers are urged to make their own content via an initiative called #VideosByTheMany.

Report linking Labour leak to Russia reveals weakness of UK electoral system

LONDON — Did Russia try to meddle in the upcoming election in the United Kingdom?

That’s the suggestion after Graphika, a social media analytics firm, published a report Monday that linked a recent leak of trade talks between London and Washington to tactics used by an established Russian disinformation operation.

The leak — that showed notes from discussions between U.S. and British officials about a potential free-trade agreement after the U.K. leaves the European Union — bears a close resemblance to “Secondary Infektion,” a Kremlin-backed online operation, according to security expert Ben Nimmo, who wrote the analysis.

“The similarities are too close for it to be a coincidence,” Nimmo said. “The big question is how did internal U.K. government documents end up on social media accounts as part of a possible disinformation campaign?”

The leak fueled division across the U.K. about whether the current ruling Conservatives would seek to privatize the country’s much-loved NHS — a key attack line of the opposition Labour party, which Boris Johnson’s government has vehemently denied. Whoever was behind the recent leak used the same combination of websites and burner accounts with matching names previously used by Russia.


For more polling data from across Europe visit POLITICO Poll of Polls.

That included posting the documents on the social network Reddit and then peppering both U.K. politicians and journalists with emails and tweets to drum up interest in the leaks.

Nimmo, a former analyst at the Atlantic Council think tank who worked closely with Facebook on a series on investigations to highlight foreign disinformation campaigns, said it would almost be impossible to attribute the recent leak directly to Russia. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, speaking on ITV’s This Morning program, did not reveal where his party had obtained the documents but claimed no U.K. government minister had questioned the accuracy of the contents.

Whatever their origin, the documents again highlight an issue that has concerned many security officials for years, namely that the U.K. election remains susceptible to disinformation attempts — either by foreign actors or domestic groups — and it is very difficult to stop them.

The goal of such disinformation campaigns, according to experts, is not to back one side or the other. Instead, foreign actors are seeking to sow division based on hot-button issues like Brexit or immigration, hoping to build on existing U.K. concerns to weaken the country for their own gain.

“Frankly, if I was, you know, working in the Kremlin or the Lubyanka, it’s exactly the kind of thing I would want to see pushed if we had managed to hack it,” said Mark Galeotti, a professor at UCL’s School of Slavonic and East European Studies. “It strikes at a very emotive issue for the British public, it creates tensions between the U.K. and the U.S. It fits in with an overall strategy of causing mischief.”

As time ticks down to the nationwide vote next Thursday, much attention has focused on Facebook, the world’s largest social network where all political groups have flooded users with partisan messages to woo would-be supporters.

In response, the company has created a London-based unit to respond to potential threats, though in a call with reporters last month, Nathaniel Gleicher, Facebook’s head of security policy, said that so far, his team had yet to detect foreign interference activities across the company’s services in the U.K.

Such reassurances, though, have not calmed British officials, many of whom called for a significant upgrade to the country’s campaign rules to stop potential foreign actors from interfering in U.K. elections.

Louise Edwards, director of regulation at the Electoral Commission, said basic updates — like forcing anyone buying political ads on social media to declare who was funding such messages — would reduce much of the threat, from foreign actors or from domestic groups seeking to sow dissent.

She added that other areas, notably the ability for anyone to give less than £500 to a political party without having to declare the donation, were also ripe for potential abuse, particularly if foreign groups wanted to back one side in the upcoming election.

“A lot of this comes down to political parties being aware where the money comes from,” she said. “The latest technology makes it difficult to know where such payments come from.”

With a little over a week to go until the election, the U.K.’s security agencies, social media giants and research groups will be scouring the online world to determine if Russia or other foreign groups are meddling with messages to sway British voters.

Online tactics — such as buying Facebook political ads without disclosing who bought them, hijacking popular Twitter hashtags to promote partisan messages, and using pseudo-news sites, often solely created to support one political party, to convince voters to back one side — make it difficult to determine how much disinformation comes from foreign actors.

“The key challenge is attribution,” said Teija Tiilikainen, head of the European Centre of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats, an EU-NATO unit created to tackle foreign influence for member countries. “Many times, it’s not easy to tell who’s behind campaigns. It makes it hard to call out bad actors.”

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Labour’s Ben Bradshaw claims he was target of Russian cyber-attack

Frequent critic of Kremlin interference in the UK was sent suspicious email from Moscow

The Labour candidate Ben Bradshaw has said he has been the victim of a suspected Russian cyber-attack after he received an email from Moscow with attachments containing sophisticated malware.

Bradshaw – who has repeatedly raised the subject of Kremlin interference in British politics, including in the EU referendum – received the email at his election gmail address. The sender – “Andrei” – claimed he was a whistleblower from inside Vladimir Putin’s presidential administration.

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Boris Johnson pledges to strengthen border security checks on EU nationals

LONDON — Boris Johnson is pushing for a post-Brexit reform of border rules designed to strengthen security checks over Europeans entering the U.K.

In the aftermath of Friday’s London Bridge terrorist attack, in which two people died and three others were injured, the Conservative Party put forward a package of five changes to border rules, including a requirement for Europeans to submit to electronic clearance procedures before entering the U.K. The party has pledged to implement the changes once it has ended freedom of movement after Brexit.

The alleged perpetrator of the London Bridge attack, 28-year old convicted criminal Usman Khan, who was shot by police at the scene, was born in Stoke-on-Trent in the U.K. in 1991 to Pakistani parents. He would not have been subject to the proposed new measures.

Under the Tory plans, if the party wins the December 12 election, EU nationals would have to obtain clearance to visit the country through a new Electronic Travel Authorisation, an online form designed “to screen arrivals and block threats from entering the U.K.,” similar to the U.S.’s Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) scheme.

As technology becomes available, Europeans applying through the proposed ETA program would also have to undertake biometric tests. The Tories said they “intend to discuss this further with the EU in the next phase of negotiations.”

“Tory claims to be strengthening the border through their sellout Brexit deal are groundless” — Diane Abbott, shadow home secretary

“Once we have left the EU we will be free of EU customs union and free movement rules. These rules have made it easier for illicit goods such as drugs, guns and explosive precursors, as well as illegal immigrants and terrorists to enter the UK, as well as costing the Treasury an estimated £5 billion each year due to excise, customs and tariff evasion,” the Tories said.

The proposal is not new: It was outlined in the government’s immigration white paper, published last December. The Conservatives reasoned that the EU plans to introduce a similar system in 2021 for third-country nationals who do not need a visa to travel to the EU, including Britons — the so-called European Travel Information and Authorisation System.

Commenting on the proposals, Home Secretary Priti Patel said that “drugs and guns” reach the U.K. streets from Europe and that “terrorists have been able to enter the country by exploiting free movement.”

Under the proposed reforms, EU nationals would also not be allowed to enter the U.K. with European ID cards anymore, and would need a passport instead. The Conservatives argue that ID cards, especially those from Italy and Greece, are “regularly used fraudulently given their insecurity vs. passports.”


For more polling data from across Europe visit POLITICO Poll of Polls.

Requiring passports at the border would allow the British government to automatically count people going in and out, the Conservatives said. They also pledged to stop EU criminals at the border, and introduce the collection of pre-arrival goods data to stop smuggling, by mandating declarations for consignments from the EU.

However, the announcement seems to overlook the importance of maintaining U.K.-EU security links after Brexit. Under Johnson’s Brexit deal, the U.K. will exit the EU’s law enforcement agency, Europol, after December 2020, and will need to negotiate access to its databases as part of a new U.K.-EU security partnership.

The U.K. is also expected to leave the European Arrest Warrant, which facilitates the extradition of individuals between EU member states to face prosecution for a crime or to serve a prison sentence for an existing conviction. High-profile terrorists such as the fugitive bomber Hussain Osman, who attempted to blow up a tube station in London in July 2005, were brought to the U.K. thanks to the EAW.

The Labour Party’s Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott slammed the Conservatives’ proposals.

“Tory claims to be strengthening the border through their sellout Brexit deal are groundless. By quitting the entire system of EU security and justice, we will no longer have real-time access to a host of critical databases or access to the European Arrest Warrant.

“This will undermine the ability of our police and border agencies to apprehend terrorists and organized criminals, and could even make us a safe haven for fugitives fleeing the justice systems in the EU,” Abbott said.

Maike Bohn, co-founder of The3Million group of EU nationals living in the U.K. said it is “callous” to link freedom of movement with the risk of terrorism.

“Since 2005 there have been 12 terror attacks in the U.K. Of the 19 known attackers 14 were British and none came to the U.K. under freedom of movement,” he said.

“On crime the government’s own expert migration report concluded that immigration had no impact on crime. This is populist playbook dog-whistling politics played out on the backs of millions of law-abiding EU citizens, fanning yet again the fear of the other, us immigrants in the U.K.”

This article has been updated.

Brexit voters more likely to live in areas at risk from rise of robots

Areas with higher probability of automation match those with greater percentage of Brexiters

Brexit supporters are more likely to live in areas most threatened by the economic impact of automation, according to a study of the impact of robots and artificial intelligence in the workplace.

A map of the parts of the UK likely to be hit by automation fits more closely with the map of leave voters than any other factor, said the Institute for the Future of Work (IFW).

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Six charts that explain the UK’s digital election campaign

LONDON — With less than two weeks to go before the United Kingdom heads to the polls, there is still plenty of confusion about how the country’s political parties are targeting voters online.

Social media messaging. Viral partisan content. Digital attack ads. You name it — all of the U.K.’s parties are using them.

To cut through the noise, POLITICO teamed up with researchers from New York University.

The researchers pulled all the paid-for partisan ads bought by British groups on Facebook — which represent roughly 80 percent of all political messaging — from November 7 onwards, analyzing who was buying what in order to target which type of voter. (You can access their independent results here, based on the social network’s transparency tools.)

Facebook does not provide a specific breakdown of money spent on these ads, only a range. So the academics calculated total spend by relying on the midpoint of the figures provided by the social networking giant. They also combined all the Facebook ad spending for the country’s four main national parties (the Conservatives, Labour, Liberal Democrats and Brexit Party) from both these groups’ main social media pages and those from regional and local affiliates to give countrywide totals.

POLITICO also crunched its own figures, based on Facebook’s transparency reports and CrowdTangle, a social networking analysis tool, to figure out how much each British political party had paid for each of its ads, as well as how successful both some anti- and pro-Brexit Facebook pages had been since early September at reaching would-be voters online.

The result is the most comprehensive overview yet of what is happening on Facebook ahead of the country’s December 12 vote.

As Facebook has increased its transparency efforts around political ads, it shows that partisan groups are aggressively turning to so-called organic content through pages like those mentioned below to reach would-be voters with messaging that often flies below the radar of existing digital transparency tools.

Here’s what you need to know:

1) Most attention has focused on the activity of political parties. But third-party groups, including everyone from anti-Brexit campaigners like Best for Britain to non-partisan non-governmental organizations like Friends of the Earth, have significantly outspent traditional parties since the beginning of the election period on November 7. That’s particularly true of Momentum, the Labour-affiliated group, which continues to be one of the biggest third-party spenders.

This highlights a growing trend in the U.K. and beyond, in which groups loosely affiliated with mainstream parties are used to pump out partisan messaging ahead of elections.

The grey area between what is traditional political messaging and what comes from independent groups raises questions about how such funding should be monitored and regulated by countries’ campaign-financing rules.

2) Anti-Brexit groups — or those with ties to groups campaigning against the U.K.’s departure from the European Union — dominate third-party groups’ spending, highlighting how the upcoming election, like or not, is considered by many as a quasi-Brexit referendum.

Facebook also requires non-political groups to publish when they are buying ads around specific hot-button issues like immigration and climate change. That’s why WWF UK, the activist group, is one of the biggest spenders because of its campaigning work around climate change. It also shows how despite Facebook’s vocal efforts to improve transparency around who buys political ads on its global networks, the current tools leave a lot to be desired in terms of accuracy.

3) Unlike offline campaigning, which has focused on older voters, British political ad buys on Facebook have skewed young — not surprising when you consider that the number of Millennials with an Instagram account (the photo-sharing service is owned by Facebook) far outweighs those owned by people older than 35 years old.

Regardless of the age bracket targeted, groups have focused their money more on female voters than male ones, although that gender imbalance narrows as the demographics get older.

4) The Liberal Democrats and the Brexit Party are on contrasting sides of almost all policy issues. Online, that also plays out with how both groups are targeting voters. The Lib Dems, by far, have gone after young voters, earmarking more than two-thirds of their online campaign funds for voters under 35 years old.

The Brexit Party also wants the youth voter. But it has focused its significantly smaller financial resources on people older than 35 years old. The group similarly has put about three-quarters of the funds in paid-for messaging to target male voters. That’s significantly higher than the other parties, and highlights the Brexit Party’s online strategy to win seats in the next U.K. parliament.

Who’s making waves on Facebook?

5) It’s difficult to know what messages are getting shared widely across the social network. But using these three pro-Brexit pages (Get Out Britain, and Political UK News) as a proxy, the amount of content promoting the U.K.’s departure from the EU — as well the times people have liked that material — has remained mostly steady in the build-up to the December 12 vote.

On the opposite side of the debate, anti-Brexit Facebook pages (Stop Brexit Ltd, The Daily Politik and Campaign to Remain) are having a mixed election, with the number of interactions on both Stop Brexit and Campaign to Remain falling slightly ahead of next month’s nationwide vote.

That can’t be said for The Daily Politik, a Facebook page that routinely promotes Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the U.K.’s Labour Party, whose posts and likes have skyrocketed over the last two months as its backers have pumped out increasingly partisan material.

6) Alongside the data provided by NYU, POLITICO also took a look at the four main parties’ political ad spending between October 28 and November 26, the latest monthlong period available from Facebook’s transparency tools.

The Liberal Democrats stand apart from the other groups in their tactics. The party is spending most of its money on buying significantly more ads than its rivals to target very small groups of individuals in specific U.K. constituencies. Its average spend per ad is around £64, compared with £121 for the Brexit Party; £158 for the Conservatives and £170 for Labour.

Where Facebook did not provide specific figures for individual ad buys (on messages bought for less than £100), POLITICO took the editorial judgment of assigning those ads a value of £50, as that is the midpoint of what groups could have paid for the messages.

Sign up for free to POLITICO’s UK 2019 Election Sprint newsletter and catch up with our daily snapshot of key moments in the run up to the U.K.’s December 12 general election and immediately afterwards.

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