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Dr. Binoy Kampmark is a senior lecturer in the School of Global, Urban and Social Studies, RMIT University. He was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, University of Cambridge. He is a contributing editor to CounterPunch and can be followed at @bkampmark.

Big Tech Antics: The Data Robber Barons Appear Before Congress

Silicon Valley continues to sprawl in influence, and its modern robber barons bestride the globe with a confidence verging on contempt. The technology giants that mark that region of California are praised as “virtuosos of ingenuity,” to use Steve Forbes’ words, “creating and supplying products and services that were once unimaginable and that have been enabling us to survive the COVID lockdowns and working from home”.

For the most part, they have been encouraged to do so by those in Congress, who have been their handmaidens and coddlers. Now, big and bold, the likes of Google, Apple, Amazon and Facebook look at the globe as theirs, and theirs lone, to be divided in the manner that Spain and Portugal divvied the New World between them at the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494.

The Big Tech oligarchs, potentates of the online economy, appeared via video before the House Judiciary antitrust subcommittee on July 29 keen to explain why they had no reason being there. They existed for the good, had done good and would continue doing good. For Facebook and Google, that was in advertising; for e-commerce, Amazon. Apple took the side of applications.

The members of the subcommittee had busied themselves for 13 months investigating the anti-competitive practices of the Big Four, though the hearing did nothing to affect their financial results or reveal much we did not already know. On July 30, the four companies reported a combined profit of $28.6 billion for the second quarter. The political inquisitors had been shown up to be bullishly theatrical but strikingly ineffectual.

The questioning by the subcommittee also did nothing to sully the names of the tech behemoths. According to a survey conducted by Harris Poll for Fast Company, almost half of 18- to 34-year-olds claimed that their perception of the companies improved with the hearing. Within that age group, 63% claimed to have increased their usage of the services and products supplied by those companies. Sod anti-competitive practices, they seemed to say.

Tim Cook threw a blanket over the policy of Apple’s App Store to rivals, insisting that it did not exclude parental control apps made by other companies for the express purpose of nabbing greater market share for its own Screen Time app. “We were concerned, Congresswoman,” explained Apple’s CEO to Democratic Rep. Lucy McBath of Georgia, “about the privacy and security of kids.” One such example of a rival app that was given its marching orders by the company was OurPact. It was supposedly prone to third-party takeovers.

Those kicked off the app store, ostensibly for being inadequately vested with privacy protections, were admitted six months later with no noticeable changes made on their part. What mattered was the time lag, which McBath noted was “an eternity for small businesses.” She duly produced an email from a concerned mother to an Apple employee keen to make her download Screen Time. “I am deeply disappointed,” went the well informed maternal note, “that you have decided to remove this app and others like it, thereby reducing consumer access to much-needed services to keep children safe and protect their mental health and well-being.”

Cook was unmoved. Any app might be removed from the palace that is App Store for any number of reasons. None of them, it seemed, were because of predatory practices on the part of his company. All were treated equally, though this did not square with the very select treatment afforded Amazon, which secured a deal with Apple to get its Prime Video app on Apple TV. Instead of paying Apple the standard 30% cut of sales in using the platform, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos managed to negotiate a 15% cut with Eddy Cue, Apple’s VP in charge of Apple TV.

Bezos was made to listen to the accounts of various small-business owners who claimed they were steamrolled by the Amazon juggernaut. Democratic subcommittee chair David Cicilline of Rhode Island quoted the words of one disgruntled seller who had benefited in using Amazon’s platform till the company allegedly copied a version of his product to market at lower cost. “We called it Amazon heroin. You had to get your next fix, but this person was ultimately going to be your downfall.” For his part, Bezos was dismissive. His company did not stoop to “bullying” the small. “That is not how we operate the business.”

Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook faced questioning on the acquisition of Instagram, with his tactical state of mind outlined in disclosed emails and documents. In an email to the company’s chief financial officer David Ebersman in February 2012, Zuckerberg considered the idea of buying smaller competitors such as Path and Instagram, “nascent” businesses with “the networks established”, meaningful brands that, were “they to grow to a large scale … could be very disruptive to us.” New York Democratic Rep. Jerry Nadley felt he had his man. “Facebook, by its own admission … saw Instagram as a threat that could potentially siphon business away from Facebook.” Instead of competing with it, Facebook purchased it. “This is exactly the type of anti-competitive acquisition the antitrust laws were designed to prevent.”

Faced with such a paper trail, the Facebook CEO succumbed to a moment of candour. “I’ve made it clear that Instagram was a competitor in the space of mobile photo sharing.” Zuckerberg spoke of the “subset of the overall space of connecting that we exist in,” teeming with disruptive rivals. By “having them” join Facebook, they got bigger on the company’s largesse.

Google faced a now familiar accusation that its search engine laid waste to all before them. Cicilline was more specific in his volley, charging the company with building its business on “stolen content” that disadvantaged rivals. Not so, countered Google and Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai. “Today we support 1.4 million small businesses supporting over $385 billion in the core economic activity.” There was even a humanitarian element to it. “We see many businesses thrive, particularly even during the pandemic.”

Like the hefty digital companies they are meant to target, antitrust measures must be unconventional. Patrick Leblond of the Centre for International Governance Innovation at the University of Ottowa suggests throwing out the traditional copy book if a “feasible solution for taming Big Tech’s market power in the data-driven economy” is to be found. Breaking up such companies simply will not do. Divided, they will not fall, regrouping and re-emerging on the very source of their power. It is therefore fundamental to target the source of the power itself: data. Make it more easily accessible to those with “legitimate” purposes under a “strict regulatory regime modelled on securities regulation that protects the integrity and anonymity of publicly available data.”

These are ideas that have yet to mark the often incurious, rusted minds of those in Congress. But Cicilline was happy with issuing a grand threat. “Our founders would not bow before a king. Nor should be bow before the emperors of the online economy.” For the moment, the bucking beasts that make the Big Four may not expect any bowing, but nor will they expect too much in the way of a substantive threat.

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Mealy-Mouthed Universities: Academic Freedom and the Pavlou Problem Down Under

A sorry state of affairs has descended upon Australian academic institutions like a suffocating cloak. Vice-Chancellors and their overly remunerated toadies are getting human relations departments to scribble their apologias for sins against thought. Overt political opinions, notably when expressed in a manner that might threaten brands and compromised lines of funding, are being hunted down by cadres of paranoid officials. This process is being undertaken against both staff and students. Terrible that it should happen to the staff, but when university officialdom turns against the students, it is perhaps time to go into ignominious retirement or advertising.

The move of suspending fourth-year humanities student Drew Pavlou from the University of Queensland had more than a rippling effect. The May decision made a splash in the New York Times, which started with the sort of description no university would surely wish to be associated with. “A student activist has been suspended from one of Australia’s leading universities after calling for democracy in Hong Kong and repeatedly criticizing Chinese influence on campus.”

Pavlou was in little doubt why he had received the two year suspension. “It’s a calculated move to silence me. It’s because the University of Queensland wants to do everything possible to avoid offending its Chinese allies.” In Foreign Policy, he explained that he was facing suspension “on the grounds that I ‘prejudiced’ the university’s reputation by using my position as an elected student representative to express support for Hong Kong’s democratic protesters.”

Pavlou was duly served with a dossier of 11 allegations stretching 186 pages. It would have been interesting, particularly for students, to see what bill was drawn up for that effort, especially given the tight budgets institutions face with diminishing student numbers and the losses caused by the coronavirus. Typical of the law and order approach that captivates university pen pushers, Pavlou was supposedly not targeted for reasons of free speech but those of safety and reputation. It was alleged, for instance, that Pavlou had harassed, bullied and threatened a student in a Facebook exchange.

As it transpired, the student in question poured cold water on the whole thing. Pavlou’s lawyer, Tony Morris QC, received a tart email to the effect that “two of the people involved in the exchange did not make formal complaints to UQ – and I certainly have not.” Pavlou might well have been “characteristically crass”, but the complaint seemed “largely manufactured.” This led Morris to the obvious suspicion: what else had been confected in this whole charade of accusations?

Among the hollow allegations was the apparent prejudice caused to the reputation of UQ from a February 14 posting on Facebook advertising a “fictional UQ event” on campus: “US Confucius Institute Panel – Why Uyghur’s [sic] Must be Exterminated.” The measure of such a university’s vengefulness in terms of guarding its corporate brand knows few bounds.

Pavlou’s suspension at the time was flimsy, poorly executed, a mockery of natural justice. The disciplinary panel, constituting two academic staff and a student, was always questionable. Staff members tend to be tenaciously compliant to the sirens of orthodoxy, unless they are not seeking promotion. And anyone willing to be associated with such show trial efforts is bound to have a “sold” sign on their easily purchased conscience.

On appeal, the sentence was not quashed but merely reduced. Pavlou was notified in July by the university’s Senate Discipline Appeals Committee that he would be suspended for the rest of the year and required to complete 25 hours of “campus service”, which had the stench of Iron Curtain re-education about it. Of the 11 charges, only two “serious misconduct” allegations were said to hold water, one involving the fatuous ground of online abuse towards a fellow student, the other involving Pavlou sporting a Hazmat suit outside the office of the UQ vice-chancellor. The skin of authoritarianism is truly thin.

The Appeals Committee was “of the view that the University’s reputation should not be regarded as a fragile or easily bruised thing” but nonetheless took a dim view of Pavlou’s behaviour which showed no signs of “remorse or insight.”

With jaw dropping disingenuousness, UQ chancellor Peter Varghese thought the episode closed. A reduced sentence, modifying the initial finding he himself had considered stiff, “should finally put to rest the false allegations that this process has been an attack on freedom of expression.” In another statement explaining Pavlou’s automatic disqualification as a member of the UQ Senate, the chancellor reiterated that the relevant findings of serious misconduct had nothing to do with Pavlou’s “personal or political views about China or Hong Kong.” Lipstick on a pig comes to mind.

In a July 17, 2020 email to UQ alumni, Vice-Chancellor Peter Høj showed a mealy-mouthed disposition to be jeered as any politburo missive. There was no mention of Pavlou; no mention of critics; no mention of a crisis in how universities deal with criticism from the student body. But the reader was left in no doubt. “At UQ, we live and breathe an ongoing commitment to the protection and promotion of free speech every day.” Such freedom had “been fiercely protected by staff and students for decades – exemplified by demonstrations against the Vietnam War in the 1960s and the 1971 anti-apartheid protests.”

Høj, in an effort to court some understanding, recalled his time as a student when he was “actively involved in demonstrations on and off the campus including arguing for a switch to renewable energy solutions following the 1973 oil crisis.” Having to constantly remind people about a legacy worn and decidedly irrelevant in a corporatised university is a sure sign that a disease has taken hold and is killing the patient.

Significant in the note is how far Pavlou’s activism, the roaring elephant in the room, rattled the functionaries, much of it to do with the China connection. Høj promised that the university had changed its approach to the Confucius Institute, making sure its staff were “subject to Australian laws and UQ policies.” Serving foreign government officials would “no longer be offered honorary or adjunct positions.” Sources of international income would also be diversified “to ensure a sustainable financial position.”

Pavlou was crestfallen but keen to take the matter to the Queensland Human Rights Commission. “UQ still achieves its main goal of removing me as an elected student representative, their supposed lenience is just a face-saving PR move.” As Kenneth Roth of Human Rights Watch wondered, “Free speech? Academic freedom? What’s that?” What, indeed.

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State of Pandemic Disaster: Melbourne Moves to Stage Four

Melbourne.

Being in control of a sinking ship is not enviable. Regulations previously passed have a museum feel to them, distinctly obsolete. Directions, once dictated with confidence, lack timbre. Coronavirus is serving as that most wily and cheeky of agents, with the most appropriate of accomplices: Homo sapiens. Human beings are fed up, munching on conspiracy tales, wondering when a vaccine will arrive, and generally fatigued.

Globally, people are exhausted, disgusted, deluded and dying. Somewhere in that cocktail of ill-taste are those who think they are doing their best and abide by regulations with understanding obedience. They are told about a science that is altering. They are told that they must stay home and avoid going to work. If they are infected, they must undertake measures of self-quarantine, irrespective of whether they have support or income. Stiff fines and penalties follow in cases of transgression, including the shaming howls of social media junkies.

The language of political authorities in a state of desperation is ominous, paternal, judgmental. For Daniel Andrews, premier of the Australian state of Victoria, this is starting to seem natural. “Where you slept last night is where you’ll need to stay for the next six weeks,” he revealed in his statement on Sunday. Modest dispensation is permitted for those “partners who live apart and for work.” A curfew operating from 8 in the evening to 5 in the morning is now in place for six weeks. “The only reasons to leave home during these hours will be work, medical care and caregiving.” Exercise is confined to an hour a day within five kilometres. People, at most, can move about as couples.

Like locusts, purchasers have been swarming the aisles, trolleys heavy, and emptying them of meat, vegetables and fruit. The obsession with lavatory paper does not seem as pronounced this time (purchase limits have been maintained), but people are stocking up on certain food items knowing that their access is stifled by both time and geography.

What is in place is similar to the elimination regime used in New Zealand, though it is not articulated as such. It might best be described as suppression with an eliminating spirit, a somewhat more brutal approach. The Melbourne model is even more onerous: no curfew was imposed in New Zealand, or the compulsory wearing of face masks between March 26 and April 27, or a time limit on exercise. But the view from across the Tasman is that merely applying such a regime to Melbourne is not sufficient. Valuable time, suggests University of Auckland academic Siouxsie Wiles, has been lost. The less restrictive Stage 3 level that came into force on July 8, applying only to Melbourne and the Mitchell Shire “provided too many opportunities for the virus to spread.” From this less oppressive environment bloomed 7,000 active cases of coronavirus, 2,000 of whom are still a mystery to contact tracers. Wiles’ suggestion? Imposing Stage 4 restrictions across the entire state, thereby giving “Victoria the best chance of success, rather than setting it up to play an endless game of COVID-19 whack-a-mole.”

Pandemic politics is also proving to be a nasty business. On the state opposition benches, Victorian Liberal MP Tim Smith continues to hyperventilate and fantasise about the ultimate demise of the Labor premier. “These ministers and Daniel Andrews have blood on their hands,” he spluttered on Sydney radio station 2GB. “They have so monumentally failed the people of Victoria.” Smith sees the crisis as an opportunity for political harvesting. “We are so sick of this man… we’re so utterly sick of him. In the name of God, would he just go!” On Radio 3AW, he was truculent. “We can’t suspend democracy, accountability and the basics of a free society just because we’re dealing with a global pandemic.”

Smith’s demagogy is proving rather rich fare, even for those on his side of politics. The federal treasurer Josh Frydenberg preferred giving his party colleague a wide berth. “They’re not words that I would use,” he admitted to radio host Neil Mitchell. “Daniel Andrews is obviously operating in a very difficult environment.” For the moment, grievance and disagreement had to be put aside. “My message would be, to Tim and to everybody else, let’s work together towards that one single objective, namely to reduce the number of cases and to get the virus under control.”

Frydenberg might well think so, but other party members do not. Craig Kelly, a federal Liberal MP who can always be counted upon to dynamite the waters of moderate contentment, has mounted his own quixotic crusade against the Victorian premier. His particular pet project of late is praising the merits of the antimalarial drug hydroxychloroquine, and sniping at those who disapprove and ban its use in treating coronavirus cases. Should that disposition, he asked over the weekend, mean that Andrews face 25 years in jail? This drew criticism from shadow health minister Chris Bowen as being positively Trumpian, but a clumsy sidestep from Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who refused to “get into what people talk about on Facebook on a day like this.” This, from a leader keen to take Facebook to task for content extreme and extremist in nature.

 

The clock has been reset; the gains of the last three weeks regarding the coronavirus annulled. Many businesses were already on the road to ruin during the previous phase of lockdowns. Many more will now assuredly perish. Mental health will atrophy. The death toll will continue to rise. Other states are monitoring and adjusting their responses. The measure of grief and concern just went up.

 

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Crossing the Creepy Line: Google, Deception and the ACCC

Belief in Google’s promises is much like believing in virgin births. For a company so proud of its pursuit of a transparent information environment, it has remained committedly opaque about informing customers on the way it gathers user data. Statements from the company over the years have not been reassuring, and should foster prolonged scepticism and dread. “Google policy,” former Google executive Eric Schmidt explained with flesh-crawling discomfort in 2010, “is to get right up to the creepy line and not cross it.” Don’t bother typing at all, he claimed. “We now where you are. We know where you’ve been. We can more or less know what you’re thinking about.” Always a charmer.

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission is yet another regulatory body that has thrown itself into the fray, taking its second case against Google in the Australian Federal Court. Central to this action is the claim that will come as little surprise to watchers of the Silicon Valley scene: the instance of “deception by design.”

In the words of ACCC chairman Rod Sims, Google need merely have said “if you agree to this, we’re going to combine the personally identifiable information we have on your Google account with your browsing activity on non-Google sites, if you agree. If you agree, here’s the benefits and here are the issues, but make it really clear.”

According to the ACCC media release, Google “misled consumers when it failed to properly inform consumers, and did not gain their explicit informed consent, about its move in 2016 to start combining personal information in consumers’ Google accounts with information about those individuals’ activities on non-Google sites that used Google technology, formerly DoubleClick technology, to display ads.”

Prior to June 28, 2016, Google’s privacy policy noted that it would “not combine DoubleClick cookie information with personally identifiable information unless we have your opt-in consent.” On June 28, 2016, that statement was erased and confined to the digital dustbin, replaced with something far more equivocal: “[d]epending on your account settings, your activity on other sites and apps may be associated with your personal information in order to improve Google’s services and the ads delivered by Google.” The “I agree” notification the company posted that day was said to be misleading as consumers “could not have properly understood the changes Google was making nor how their data would be used.” That discrepancy in impaired any prospect of giving informed consent.

Instead of clarifying matters, as Sims puts it, Google indulged in using adtech in a rather sneaky way, thereby connecting the activity of the user with third party sites. “Google significantly increased the scope of information it collected about consumers on a personally identifiable basis. This included potentially very sensitive and private information about their activities on third party websites.” Once done, the information enabled the forensic targeting of advertisements without the expressed informed consent of consumers. “The use of this new combined information allowed Google to increase significantly the value of its advertising products, from which it generated much higher profits.”

Google’s response has been tyrannically snooty. The change in the company’s policies on June 28, 2016 was made clear to users by means of “prominent and easy-to-understand notifications.” (Condescension is second nature in such pronouncements.) Users who did not consent to the update were left with “their experience of our products and services,” according to a Google spokesman, “unchanged.” Typically, Google generates the idea of the mythical, all-knowing user, aware of preferences, informed of choices, and fully appraised of the environment they inhabit.  It is a fiction that has lost much ballast over the years. The consumer is as an oblivious as a date consuming a spiked drink.

The ACCC should be congratulated for its persistence, though it remains short on returns. In October 2019, it commenced its first, and to date unresolved action, against the company, chastising it for misleading consumers in making on-screen representations about how they collected and used local data during 2017 and 2018. The central problem in Google’s alleged conduct was how the site continued to collect and use personal data, irrespective of consumers’ wishes. As Sims explained at the time, “We are taking court action against Google because we allege that as a result of these on-screen representations Google has collected, kept and used highly sensitive and valuable personal information about consumers’ location without them making an informed choice.” Cockily, he also called the venture “a world-first case.”

The concise statement filed last year alleges that Google “represented to users of the Android Operating System that it would not obtain data about their location, or that where such data was obtained it would only be used for the user’s own purposes. However, Google did obtain and retain such data and used that data for Google’s purposes.” Misleading or deceptive conduct and false or misleading representations were thereby made on the Location History function.

The confidence of the ACCC seems misplaced, bringing meek conventional weapons to a thermonuclear party. Google has the deepest pockets to draw upon, and is happy to duck and weave through the legal processes of most countries to adapt. Even if fined, its transgressions will continue.

The first federal court case is still dawdling away. Justice Thomas Thawley, wishing to speed things up, vacated two case management hearings scheduled later in the year. By August 3, he has ordered the ACCC and Google to file a statement of agreed facts, and a final document on issues with which the parties are in dispute by August 7. The proceeding will also be referred to mediation commencing on November 2, 2020. The indiscriminate information gathering colossus that is Google will hardly be shaking.

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Staying on Message: Australia, the US and the AUSMIN Talks

The Satrap Chronicles of the US imperium will have, near the top of their various ingratiating themes, such Australian politicians as Senators Linda Reynolds and Marise Payne. They resemble Siamese consuls, hard to tell apart (robust build, similar of voice and manner). For another, their views form the putty of derivative policy that has characterised a power more interested in being an annex to heft rather than modestly credible as an individual broker.

The visit to Washington for the Australia-US Ministerial Consultations (AUSMIN) saw Reynolds, the defence minister, and foreign minister Payne play the appropriate second fiddle to their US hosts. But do not tell them that. Reynolds was adamant that this was all about friendship, which Australians irritatingly call “mateship”. The term is sociologically questionable, a meretricious one that provides the covering of hollow fellowship. “Mateship means standing side-by-side with your friends with a shared commitment to peace and prosperity,” she tweeted.

An odd thing to say in the context of power interests, but such language is always to be found at these gatherings. “It was wonderful to meet again the congressional representatives (albeit socially distanced), including members of the Friends of Australia caucus while in Washington DC.” Payne also took care to mention the talks with the Friends of Australia caucus. “Thank you for your continued support & taking time out from a busy legislative agenda in these challenging times.”

The caucus in question was established in 2017 as a polite acknowledgment of Australia’s unquestioning, not to mention uncritical role, in the projection of US interests. “The Caucus,” explained a release from the Australian embassy in Washington, “is a natural extension of the relationship between our two countries and will further strengthen our enduring bond for years to come.”

The AUSMIN gathering was not lacking in irony. That clumsy and awkward term – the “rules-based order” – was used on several occasions during discussions. Given that US President Donald Trump finds such rules chafing, preferring to reorder them as much as possible in his image, comments such as the following by Payne were mildly entertaining. Australia and the United States, she asserted in a tweet, “were united in our efforts to address the international challenges associated with COVID-19. #AUSMIN2020 reaffirms our strong alliance & need to maintain a secure, prosperous, inclusive & rules-based #IndoPacific region now and into the future.”

 

The fallacies of such a pronouncement are viciously glaring, not least in the field of fighting a pandemic which has done little to spur international unity. It has taken a virus to colour in the global fault lines, the divisions of bad faith and acrimony. Canberra, in boisterously calling for an “independent investigation” into the outbreak of the coronavirus while casting dirt upon the World Health Organization, showed its true and not so independent colours from the Trump administration.

Payne also seemed to confuse her position. No longer was she merely the foreign minister of a state in mateship (read client); she had somehow become a voice for a regional collective, ventriloquised through the US State Department. “I am looking forward to a productive discussion in the interests of our Indo-Pacific region.”

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s account lacked the dissembling quality of the Australian effort. It was unadorned, blunt. “We started this morning by talking at length about the Chinese Communist Party’s malign activity in the Indo-Pacific region and indeed all around the world.” He praised Australia “for standing up for democratic values and the rule of law, despite intense, continued and coercive pressure from the Chinese Community Party to bow to Beijing’s wishes.”

Pompeo mentioned China nine times; Payne, once. This seemed to impress the ABC, which spent its time keeping a tally on the China beating drum. It also impressed the Fairfax Press. Matthew Knott called Payne “a natural diplomat: calm, conflict-averse and doggedly on message”, confusing a reluctance to commit with profundity. Payne was praised for not appearing “a hapless pawn in America’s increasingly tense stand-off with China.”

Think-tankers such as Natasha Kassam from the Lowy Institute were also taken in by the show of faux independence. China was picking up the qualified signals from Australia, though her evidence was unconvincing and anecdotal. “The condemnation from both China’s ministry of foreign affairs and the Chinese embassy in Canberra was formulaic: boilerplate language that is more of a reflex in the Chinese system rather than anything noteworthy.”

Payne did her superficial best, stiffening at Pompeo’s inflexible belligerence. “The secretary’s positions are his own. Australia’s position is our own.” The “relationship with China is important and we have no intention of injuring it.” Australia and the US had an enduring military alliance, “But most importantly from our perspective, we make our own decisions, our own judgments in the Australian national interests.” This would have come as news to the US State Department.

On the issue of whether Australia would conduct more demonstrative freedom-of-navigation exercises in the South China Sea, the ministers were unforthcoming on detail, though committed to the principle. “Our approach,” suggested Senator Reynolds, “remains consistent, we will continue to transit through the region in accordance with international law.” Would this involve defiant chest beating? Reynolds would not say, though Australia’s objections are there for all to see in the submission to the United Nations from last month, which is one of pointed rejection of Chinese claims inconsistent with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS); of the assertion of “historic rights” or “maritime rights and interests” drawn from the “long course of historical practice” in the South China Sea; of China’s drawing of straight base lines linking “the outermost points of maritime features or ‘island groups’ in the South China Sea.”

While signs of difference between Washington and Canberra were being strained by analysts, the ministers and secretaries were comfortable in expressing “serious concerns over recent coercive and destabilising actions across the Indo-Pacific,” agreeing that Beijing’s claims to the South China Sea had no validity “under international law.” A closer look at the joint-statement shows little variance between the two countries. “The Secretaries and Ministers discussed practical ways to strengthen our ability to address a range of challenges in a more contested Indo-Pacific, from countering malign grey-zone tactics to deterring aggression in the region.” There is also concern expressed about Hong Kong’s autonomy, the repression of the Uighurs and a nod for Taiwan’s integrity. The satrap did not disappoint.

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Pulling out of Germany: Trump Adjusts the Military Furniture

One noisy theme in the Donald Trump Disruption Show in an otherwise chaotic assemblage of messages has remained fairly constant: winding back US troop commitments. The US has fought its complement of wars, bloodied and bloodying. Time to up stakes and head home. It was a message that sold in 2016 across the aisles of politics, and it is one that continues to resonate. But the practice of it has proven murkier. Nothing this president does can be otherwise. The US military complex remains sprawling, overweight and defiant. As a result, the military footprint has been not so much dissipated as readjusted.

President Trump’s recent decision to move troops out of Germany is a case in point. Those wishing for a trimmer, less militarist imperium will be disappointed. The shifting of 11,900 US personnel out of the country is seemingly a matter of rearrangement and fitting. The imperium is merely adjusting the furniture.

US Secretary of Defence Mark Esper gave the decision a tactical dress. The redeployment would, contrary to critics, strengthen NATO, deter Russia and ready the US military for “a new era of great power competition.” This realignment of “our forces in Europe” would “support our partners and stand up to military adversary behaviour.”

Of the designated number, 6,400 will return to the US. These are intended for future redeployment in Eastern Europe and elsewhere while 5,600 are destined for Belgium, Italy and other NATO countries. Instead of coating the decision in the carefully chosen doublespeak of strategy, Trump was reliably cranky in justification. As he explained, the troops “are there to protect Germany, right? Germany’s not paying for it. We don’t want to be suckers any more. The United States has been taken advantage of for 25 years, both on trade and on the military. So we’re reducing the force because they are not paying their bills.”

This was something of a stretch – and a very elastic one at that. The gripe Trump and his circle have had since coming to office is that powers such as Germany simply do not spend enough on defence, while happy-go-lucky chauvinist states like Poland, do. In June last year, Trump suggested the possibility of moving US troops to Poland from Germany, while the Polish President Andrzej Duda felt “deeply justified to ensure that the US troops are left in Europe.” US ambassador to Poland Georgette Mosbacher, forgetting her diplomatic posting, added a dash of one-upmanship. “Poland meets its 2% of GDP spending obligation towards NATO. Germany does not. We would welcome American troops to in Germany to come to Poland.”

 

In August 2019, then US ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell, very much the fly in the ointment of US-German relations, warned that some form of withdrawal, either total or partial, would take place unless an increase in defence spending took place. As he is reported to have told the DPA news agency, “It is actually offensive to assume that the US taxpayer must continue to pay to have 50,000 plus Americans in Germany, but the Germans get to spend their surplus on domestic programs.”

The current percentage of German military spending as a share of GDP is 1.5%. Washington continues to press for the threshold of 2%. Ironically enough, US troop redeployments will take place largely to countries with levels of expenditure even lower than Germany. Italy comes in at 1.2%; Belgium, a pinch under 1%. The military spenders in Poland will be disappointed.

Whatever the substance of the decision, such reorientations struck the security establishment on both sides of the Atlantic as something nearing treachery. When the president floated the idea of reducing the troop numbers last month, there were protesting squeals and calls of warning. The Big Bully parent was abandoning its adoptees and advertising that fact. “President Donald J. Trump’s order to withdraw nearly ten thousand troops from Germany betrays a close ally, undermines confidence in Washington, and makes Europe and the United States less safe,” suggested Philip Gordon of the Council of Foreign Relations. “By questioning the sanctity of the US defence guarantee in Europe, treating NATO as a protection racket, and unilaterally diminishing America’s ability to uphold that guarantee,” Gordon continues to fuss that, “Trump is effectively signalling that an attack on a NATO ally would not necessarily be met with a US response.” An imaginative reading, if ever there was one.

Various German politicians, weaned on the narrative that a Germany with a US garrison is far better than a Germany without, were also shaken. Norbert Röttgen of the Bundestag and chair of the German parliament’s foreign policy committee expressed his views through the Funke Media Group. He could see no “factual reason for the withdrawal” and doing so was “very regrettable”. Johann Wadephul, deputy chairman of the parliamentary caucus of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s centre-right Union bloc, was similarly unimpressed. The decision to remove such numbers of US troops from Germany without consulting NATO allies “shows once again that the Trump administration is neglecting basic leadership tasks.” Merkel’s transatlantic coordinator Peter Beyer was similarly aggrieved. “This is completely unacceptable, especially since nobody in Washington thought about informing its NATO ally Germany in advance.”

Their shock suggested the sinking of an idea: that the hegemon, the superpower, is obligated to consult those whose territory it chooses to use, whose grounds it decided to occupy or leave for vague reasons of security. Daddy should listen.

Emily Haber, Germany’s ambassador to Washington, is keen that should happen, sending out messages of sweet reassurance that US troops had “become neighbours, friends, partners and friends while protecting transatlantic security and projecting American power and interests globally.”

Notwithstanding the inconsistencies in the move, the logic of garrisoning such a large number of troops in Germany has not struck some pundits as particularly sound. Being of the Cato Institute, which does, from time to time, evoke a sensible sentiment with regards imperial overstretch, Ted Galen Carpenter assured opponents of Trump’s decision that they “look at the calendar. It reads 2020, not 1950 or even 1989. There is no totalitarian threat, and the Red Army is not poised to pour through the Fulda Gap in Germany and try to sweep the Atlantic.”

Exaggerating the Russian threat, however, is a long-standing tradition that has made funding military budgets and keeping US troops in place over the globe a fundamental, if fictional necessity. Not even Trump has succeeded in dousing that paranoid passion.

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Coronavirus Criminality: Bolsonaro and the International Criminal Court

This could be the stuff of fiction. But then again, many legal principles began, at some point or rather, in the sludge of speculation before hardening into legal briefs and prosecutorial documents. Holding heads of state to account for crimes against their people remains a perennial project with a patchy record. This is particularly the case when it comes to international tribunals vested with jurisdiction to try such figures. It all reads well in the statute, but when it comes to testing it, the will is often lacking.

Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro, along with a set of other leaders, offers an excellent case in point. With many fingers pointing at Chinese culpability for the coronavirus and seeking some legal forum to test Beijing’s “wrongs”, there is a double play at stake. For figures such as US President Donald Trump, the coronavirus is only serious if the light is shone on Chinese wickedness and economic wrongs. Arguments have been made by his administration that Beijing fork out “very substantial damages” by way of compensation. An energetic number of lawmakers in the US Congress have been trying to strip China of its sovereign immunity in US courts. The China Compensation Cart has become a heavy one, indeed.

The other side of the play is one of lessening the effects of the virus, which would seem to undermine the argument of Chinese malice. (Can you be malicious in spreading something ineffectual?) The US commander-in-chief insists on ignoring the seriousness of it all; the disease it causes is merely a sniffle which will go away.

Bolsonaro’s method has been similar, with its inevitable local twist. Be it managing or spreading the coronavirus, everyone else shoulders blame, be it irritating governors, querulous medical advisers and ministers, or a lurking firth column of hysterics. When asked about Brazil’s soaring death toll as it passed China’s, he was nonplussed. “I don’t work miracles. What do you want me to do?” He has been the physical exemplar of repudiation: defying social distancing in meeting supporters in public, attending gatherings without protection; contracting the virus and promoting the snake oil properties of the antimalarial drug, hydroxychloroquine.

 

 

When he has gotten on board sanctioning laws ostensibly made to slow viral spread, he has limited their effect. In early July, for instance, he accepted the bill passed by the Chamber of Deputies that masks be made obligatory when in public but vetoed their use in shops, churches and schools.

In the country, the Brazilian Union Network UNISaúde, an umbrella group of social organisations and unions representing health workers decided to take the matter of command responsibility that one step further. On Monday, the group filed a complaint with the ICC claiming that the government had been “criminally negligent in its management of the COVID-19 pandemic – risking the lives of healthcare professionals and of members of Brazilian society.”

According to the filed document, certain “government leaders have underestimated the seriousness of the pandemic, and one of them is the president of Brazil.” Bolsonaro’s “attitude of contempt, neglect, and denial, has brought disastrous consequences, with the resulting intensification of the spread of the illness, completely straining the health services, which were unable to meet the minimum conditions to assist the population, causing deaths without further controls.”

The president’s accusers go further, suggesting, somewhat fancifully, that he might also be guilty of that gravest of crimes. “The failure of the Brazilian government amounts to a crime against humanity – genocide.” The problem with that accusation is that genocide can never be the outcome of negligence or pig headed stupidity, being the cold blooded intention of killing members of a group for reasons of race, ethnicity or religion. Millions have perished because of the colossal ignorance and incompetence of their leaders without making the grade of an Eichmann.

Marcio Monzane of UNI Americas, a key organisation leading the charge to The Hague, acknowledged that it was “a drastic measure, but Brazilians face an extremely dire and dangerous situation created by Bolsonaro’s deliberate decisions.”

This effort to draw attention to the fallible, dangerous leadership of Bolsonaro is not new. Such a figure has an innate capacity to add fuel to the engine of resentment. The number of complaints filed against Brazil’s head of state is starting to bulk in the office of the ICC’s chief prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda. In November 2019, the Brazilian Bar Association for Human Rights and the Arms Commission for Human Rights Defence accused Bolsonaro of crimes against humanity and incitement to genocide of the Amazon indigenous populace. Their preferred choice for investigating such claims?  The ICC.

On April 3 this year, the Brazilian Association of Jurists for Democracy filed a complaint with the ICC similarly claiming that the president had committed crimes against humanity. The accusations then focused on shrugging off the “seriousness of COVID-19 and encouraging activities that can only result in the rapid and uncontrolled spread of this deadly illness.” The complainants claimed that a million Brazilians would perish were the WHO recommendations not be met.

The document notes that Bolsonaro’s actions have received the opprobrium of numerous health institutes. In defiance of medical guidance provided by global authorities, the president, in his capacity as head of state, did “everything in his power to minimize the severity of the pandemic and to encourage the spread of COVID-19 by instructing the nation of Brazil to act in a manner inconsistent with the sound recommendations of the health professionals.”

The wheels of justice tend to be slow; that of international justice, slower. What Bensouda makes of these various promptings to launch an investigation into the conduct of the Brazilian government during the coronavirus epidemic may well make legal history. But even the activists concede that the longest of bows is being drawn.

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Julian Assange’s Political Indictment: Old Wine in Older Bottles

The book of hours on Julian Assange is now being written. But the scribes are far from original. Repeated rituals of administrative hearings that have no common purpose other than to string things out before the axe are being enacted. Of late, the man most commonly associated with WikiLeaks’ publication project cannot participate in any meaningful way, largely because of his frail health and the dangers posed to him by the coronavirus. Having already made an effort to attend court proceedings in person, Assange has come across as judicial exotica, freak show fodder for Judge Vanessa Baraitser’s harsh version of Judge Judy. He was refused an application to escape his glass commode when he could still attend in person, as permitting him to descend and consult his defence team in a court room would constitute a bail application of some risk. This reading by the judicial head was so innovative it even puzzled the prosecutors.

What we know to date is that restrictions and shackles on Assange’s case are the order of the day. Restricted processes that do nothing to enable him to see counsel and enable a good brief to be exercised are typical. Most of all, the ceremonial circus that we have come to expect of British justice in the menacing shadow of US intimidation has become gloomily extensive. On July 27, that circus was given yet another act, another limping performance. As before, the venue was the Westminster Magistrates’ Court in London.

During the proceeding, Assange did appear via video link from Belmarsh Prison, albeit it an hour late, and only at the insistence of his legal team. The Guardian report on his presence reads like an account of a sporting engagement. “Wearing a beige sweater and a pink shirt, Assange eventually appeared from Belmarsh prison after an earlier attempt was aborted.”

Others were alarmed. During his call-over hearing, noted Martin Silk of the Australian Associated Press, “neither the Australian, nor his guards, were wearing face masks. I don’t understand the reason for that given we have to wear them inside shops.” This point was also made by Assange’s partner, Stella Moris: “Belmarsh hasn’t provided Julian with a face mask throughout this #covid crisis. The prison guards he interacts with don’t wear them either.” WikiLeaks supporter Juan Passarelli also felt that Assange “was having trouble following the proceedings due to the Judge and lawyers not speaking loud enough and into the microphones.”

Arrangements for the hearing for observers proved characteristically sloppy. Freelance journalist Stefania Maurizi was unimpressed by being on the phone for two hours during which she “couldn’t understand more than 20 percent of what has been discussed.” She was adamant that “UK authorities don’t care at all about international reporters covering” the Assange proceedings. “Dial in system is, as usual,” agreed Passarelli, “a shambles!”

The topic of discussion during this administrative hearing was what was announced by the US Department of Justice on June 24, namely the second superseding indictment. That document proved to be a naked exercise of political overreach, adding no further charges to the already heavy complement of eighteen, seventeen of which centre on the US Espionage Act. The scope of interest, however, was widened, notably on the issue of “hacking” and conferencing. Assange is painted as devilish recruiter and saboteur of the international secret order, a man of the conference circuit keen to open up clandestine governments and make various reasons for doing so. “According to the charging document, Assange and others at WikiLeaks recruited and agreed with hackers to commit computer intrusions to benefit WikiLeaks.”

Edward Fitzgerald QC, in representing Assange, fulfilled his norm, submitting that the recently revised document did little to inspire confidence in the nature of clarified justice. “We are concerned about a fresh request being made at this stage with the potential consequences of derailing proceedings and that the US attorney-general is doing this for political reasons.” Fitzgerald reminded the court that US President Donald Trump had “described the defence case as a plot by the Democrats.”

This should have been obvious, but Baraitser’s court would have none of it. To admit at this point that Assange is wanted for political reasons would make it that much harder to extradite him to the United States, given that bar noted in the US-UK Extradition Treaty. Whilst it was good of Fitzgerald to make this point, he should know by now that his audience is resolutely constipated and indifferent to such prodding. Assange is to be given the sharpest, rather than the most balanced, of hearings. Accordingly, Baraitser insisted that Fitzgerald “reserve his comments” – she, in the true tradition of such processes, had not been supplied, as yet, with the US indictment. This made the entire presence of all the parties at the Westminster Magistrates’ not merely meaningless but decidedly absurd.

Assange’s defence team could draw some cold comfort from Baraitser’s comments that July 27 was the deadline for any further evidence to be adduced by the prosecution before the September extradition hearing. One exception was permitted: psychiatric reports.

The current chief publisher of WikiLeaks Kristinn Hrafnsson had a few choice words for the prosecutors of Wikileaks. “All the alleged events have been known to the prosecution for years. It contains no new charges. What’s really happening here is that despite its decade start the prosecution are still unable to build a coherent case.” The scrapping of the previous indictments suggested that they were “flagrantly disregarding proper process.”

Assange is facing one of the most disturbing confections put together by any state that claims itself to be free. Should this stratagem work, the publisher will find himself facing the legal proceedings of a country that boasts of having a free press amendment but is keen on excluding him from it. What is even more troubling is the desire to expand the tent of culpability, one that will include press outlets and those who disseminate classified information.

To the next circus instalment we go: a final call-over hearing in Westminster Magistrates’ Court on August 14, then the September 7 extradition hearing, to be held at the Central Criminal Court most of us know as the Old Bailey. Will justice prove blind, or merely blinded?

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Mephistopheles of Wall Street: Goldman Sachs, 1MDB and the Malaysian Settlement

Malaysia’s politicians were crowing. “We are confident that we are securing more money from Goldman Sachs compared to previous attempts, which were far below expectations,” stated Finance Minister Tengku Zafrul Aziz. “We are also glad to be able to resolve this outside the court system, which would have cost a lot of time, money and resources.”

The second part of this statement is worth pondering. Not willing to go the distance with Goldman? Costs in terms of litigation and time? Such language is surely not the sort a sovereign power uses regarding a corporation, which speaks much to the problem. Malaysians would have reason to be suspicious, wondering if their government had thrown in the towel a bit too early against a company famed for its financial vigilantism. The very fact that the Malaysian government made a deal with Wall Street’s Mephistopheles should have also done its bit to cause alarm.

Whichever way the financial mind looks at this, Goldman is certainly getting more out of the bargain than their despoiled clients. In the current settlement, no one from their piratical outfit will spend time behind bars for the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) scandal, which saw the hearty plundering of Malaysia’s sovereign wealth fund under their watch. The company will have to fork out a manageable $3.9 billion, a heavily discounted sum considering the original total being sought: $7.5 billion. Having been one of its clients, the Malaysian government pursued the bank, which had underwritten and arranged bond sales for the fund to the vast sum of $6.5 billion. Enabling the raising of capital in 2012 and 2013 was something the bank was also handsomely remunerated for: $600 million, no less.

Goldman’s tactics of negotiation lived up to expectations and down to base ethical considerations. First came a compensation offer of $243.73 billion last year, rejected by the then prime minister Mahathir Mohamad for its slap-in-the-face value. It was “peanuts”, he scoffed at the time.

The offer was duly increased. In November 2019, Mahathir rejected the sum of $1.75 billion. “We are not satisfied with that amount so we are still talking to them … If they respond reasonably we might not insist on getting that $7.5 billion.” A key feature of Goldman’s negotiating strategy had worked: their accusers and prosecutors were not going to get full satisfaction. Attrition seemed to be working.

Both parties are indelibly stained in this enterprise. Malaysian politics is fairly adept at funnelling funds and looting assets in the name of the public good and there was no more fitting company than Goldman to oversee the pinching. Despite Chief Executive David Solomon’s apology to the Malaysian people, the bank has also made it clear that it was not working for the easiest of clients. As it asserted in a statement in December 2018, “Certain members of the former Malaysian government and 1MDB lied to Goldman Sachs, outside counsel and others about the use of proceeds from these transactions.”

Those proceeds – some $4.5 billion – were certainly put to use, implicating former Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak and his wife Rosmah Mansor in numerous indulgent purchases.  (When robbing the public purse, do it with appropriate extravagance.) Most fittingly, some of the proceeds went to fund a Hollywood film whose very premise is animal greed as virtuous, self-destructive pursuit. Razak’s stepson, Riza Aziz, was the producing arm behind The Wolf of Wall Street, using amounts drawn from 1MDB amounting to $248 million.

For some time, it was alleged that the entire effort had one name behind it: Low Taek Jho, known as Jho Low. In an effort to shift the keenly focused spot light on his sizeable contribution, the Malaysian financier insisted in January that he was merely a humble operator, greasing the palms, oiling the wheels. “People and companies act as introducers or intermediaries all the time.” He had been asked “to assist because of my good relationships with influential foreign businessmen and decision makers.” Jho Low is right – to a point – and certainly in his interlocutor’s claim that he is “an easy target for all those above given the fact that I’m not a politician.” More thought had to be given to “global and financial and other institutions and advisers that actually organised and facilitated the fundraisings at issue.”

When lawsuits were filed in July 2016, the US attorney general Loretta Lynch described the 1MDB affair as “the largest kleptocracy case” in US history. “A number of corrupt IMDB officials treated this public trust as a personal bank account.” Lynch spoke of the laundering of money “through a complex web of opaque transactions and fraudulent shell companies, with bank accounts in countries around the world, including Switzerland, Singapore and the United States.” The enigmatic hand prints of Goldman go far.

The Wall Street giant is also facing the prospect of another settlement with the DOJ which threatens to raid its profits. The staff are no doubt ready, and additional money is already being put aside for regulatory reasons. With supreme insincerity, the bank promises to reflect about this latest chapter in international financial kleptocracy. “There are important lessons to be learned from this situation, and we must be self-critical to ensure that we only improve from the experience.” The sinner, chastened, readies for the next transgression.

Mahatma Gandhi, in one of his more quoted remarks, observed that “the world has enough for everyone’s need, but not everyone’s greed.” The Goldman approach has a different take to his sagacious observation: the greed will always come before the need and there is ample amount to be had. It is a philosophy that has enabled it to escape the calamities of the subprime market collapse in 2009 and survive such catastrophes as the Wall Street crash. While it has received something of a battering, the company has seen worse. Expect much and more of the same: greed sells, and while stumbles are bound to take place, budget for them.

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Revisions on China: Abandoning the Nixon Legacy

There is little doubt about it. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is the puffed-up hawk of the Trump administration, talons at the ready, beak protruding. While the president coos at the prospect of seeing, or admiring, the next strongman of international relations, Pompeo hovers over selected authoritarian targets. This Jekyll-Hyde appraisal of foreign policy is a ready recipe for chaos and one that has done much to confuse Washington’s friends and foes.

The largest authoritarian target for the Trump administration remains China. China is convenient; China is destiny. The US imperium has always needed, on some level, handy demons to justify vast military budgets and its sprawling network of military bases. Lacking enemies would naturally lessen the case and show up the jingoes as men and women of straw. When the Soviet Union vanished, ending the most expensive, phoniest confrontation in modern history, the rogues’ gallery suddenly seemed empty, largely because many of those rogues were sponsored or backed by the US imperium. This was a time ludicrously called the “end of history” by that most fatuous of political observers, Francis Fukuyama. But candidates of wickedness were eventually found: President George W. Bush’s “axis of evil”, born in the embers of New York’s World Trade Centre; the shop-for-terror al-Qaeda network; a miscellany of terrorists.

Pompeo’s speech, delivered at the Nixon Library in California on July 23, was a dusted off version of innumerable statements made during the Cold War, notably in its initial freeze. The capitalist and communist blocs had taken shape, and the language of freedom was much in use. On March 12, 1947, President Harry Truman appeared before a joint session of Congress to explain why the United States should care whether Greece or Turkey should fall to communism or not. Turkey was “freedom-loving”; the Greeks were “threatened by the terrorist activities of several thousand armed men, led by communists.” Both countries needed aid – in the order of $400 million.

In justifying his position, Truman laid out what would become the doctrine that bore his name. “I believe that it must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.” He was adamant that “[t]he free peoples of the world look to us for support in maintaining their freedoms.”

Now, the communist Asiatic demonology has shifted, finding form in the Chinese state tinged yellow and red. According to Pompeo, battle cries are needed, a good stiffening of the sinews. “It’s time for free nations to act. Not every nation will approach the China challenge the same way, nor should they. Every nation will have to come to its own understanding of how to protect its national security, its economic prosperity, and its ideals from the tentacles of the CCP.”

There was no small measure of irony in the fact that Pompeo’s speech was made at a library named after the US president that insisted China be engaged as part of a policy that came to be known as détente. During that period, the Soviet Union was, within limits, tolerated. The PRC was brought in from the cold. President Richard Nixon, the greatest ideological shape changer of the Cold War, was happy to hunt communists actual and fictional in domestic politics just as readily as he was to accommodate them in foreign policy when it suited.

Pompeo called Nixon “a brilliant student of China, a fierce cold warrior, and a tremendous admirer of the Chinese people, just as I think we all are.” But, he urged, “We must admit a hard truth that should guide us in the years and decades to come, that if we want to have a free 21st century, and not the Chinese century of which Xi Jinping dreams, the old paradigm of blind engagement with China simply won’t get it done. We must not continue it and we must not return to it.”

The Trump administration’s tweet and sound bite understanding of history is incapable of understanding accommodation of the Nixon sort. This is the Bogeyman reading of discomfited imperialists, all adolescent and power point. “We imagined engagement with China would produce a future bright with the promise of comity, and cooperation,” Pompeo spoke with resignation. “But today we sit wearing masks and watching the pandemic’s body count rise because the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) fail in its promises to the world … reading news headlines of repression in Hong Kong and Xinjiang … seeing staggering statistics of Chinese trade abuses that cost American jobs and strike blows to our companies … watching the Chinese military grow stronger and more menacing.”

Pompeo’s rhetorical questions to his audience merely served to illustrate an encyclopaedic ignorance, matched only by its colossal naiveté. “What do the American people have to show now 50 years on from engagement with China? Did the theories of our leaders that proposed a Chinese evolution towards freedom and democracy prove to be true? Is this China’s definition of a win-win situation?” Arrogant, even dotty questions, but typical of a superpower finding its crown of hegemony a bit loose, an increasingly poor fit. To engage China was to only do so on US terms. China should have, to use that irritating sporting metaphor, “played ball.” More money somehow makes one freer, a claim nonsensical in its envisaging, and disproved by historical examples such as the Chile of Augusto Pinochet.

The questions posed by Pompeo merely serve to justify the US case for encircling China, a measure that will only serve to divide, not unite, nation states, and titillate eager war mongers. It will also put Washington’s allies in a damn awful mess. But this will not bother the think tankers in countries such as Australia, where deputy sheriffing is not only natural but deemed necessary. Into the breach they go, folly-ridden.

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Climate Change Litigation: The Australian Government Gets Sued

“It’s time the government told the public about the impact climate change will have on our future and the economy.” (Katta O’Donnell, The Guardian, Jul 24, 2020).

While coronavirus ravages life, dominates policy and clouds debate, that other pressing issue of addressing climate change has moved into a more modest gear. That has not prevented some bubbling activity from taking place on the matter of litigation. While climate change law suits remain in their swaddling clothes, some shape is discernible. In countries where fossil fuels remain sovereign, legal actions have focused on restricting or preventing the approval of projects and holding companies accountable on environmental risks associated with their activities.

Short of the bare fisted force of legal action, people’s tribunals, community bodies and petitions have tended to urge change in the field, drawing attention to the predations of climate change policies. In December 2005, for instance, Sheila Watt-Cloutier filed a petition on behalf of the Inuit with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights claiming that US climate change policy had breached their human rights. As she stated at the time, “A declaration from the commission may not be enforceable, but it has great moral value… Protecting human rights is ground occupied by both reasonable governments and civil society.”

In April 2019, the Australian legal firm Corrs, with unintended punning, predicted a “third wave” of climate change litigation. “In that wave, investors will seek to recover their losses from directors, auditors and advisers who have not confronted climate change risks.” Communities affected by the vicissitudes of climate change would also “litigate to try to force action by government and the largest emitters, and to seek damages from those they think might be held responsible for contribution, inaction, and obfuscation.”

In December 2019, a galvanic jolt passed through the field of ecological justice with a ruling by the Netherlands’ highest court in Urgenda Foundation v. Netherlands. The Dutch Supreme Court upheld the decision of the appellate court affirming the original decision that the government cut its greenhouse gas emissions by at least 25% by the end of 2020 (compared to 1990 levels). While the Dutch State did not disagree with the threat posed by climate change, their argument rested on the primacy of political decision making: it was up to political representatives to decide on the levels of reduction.

In their judgment approving judicial scrutiny of such governmental actions, the justices noted that inadequate action in addressing climate change posed a “risk of irreversible changes to the worldwide ecosystems and liveability our planet” with a “serious risk that the current generation of citizens will be confronted with loss of life and/or a disruption to family life… that the State has a duty to protect against.” The European Convention of Human Rights reaffirmed the State’s obligation “to protect the life and the right to private and family life of its residents”.

The ruling gave Michelle Bachelet, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, enough to suggest that “a clear path forward for concerned individuals in Europe – and around the world – to undertake climate litigation in order to protect human rights” had been made. “The potentially devastating effects of unchecked sea rise, heat waves, uncontrollable forest fires, hurricanes and other growing emergencies must spur us all to demand courage and decisiveness by Governments everywhere in responding to these threats.”

As of January 2020, the number of climate change cases filed was recorded at 1,444. A climate change litigation update furnished by Norton Rose Fulbright noted in February this year that suits had “been filed in 33 countries, in addition to cases brought in regional or international courts and commissions. The vast majority of these cases continue to be commenced in the United States (US), followed by Australia, United Kingdom, European Union, New Zealand, Canada and Spain.”

On July 22, university student Katta O’Donnell filed a civil action in the Australian Federal Court that may find itself in the same league as Urgenda, albeit with a somewhat more corporate flavour. She wished, in her words, to put the government “on trial for misconduct.” The action makes the dangers of climate change, and a state’s obligation to inform investors of those dangers, a central theme. “At all material times,” the action observes, “there has existed a significant likelihood that the climate is changing, and will continue to change, as the result of anthropogenic influences.” To that end, “Australia is materially exposed and susceptible” to the risks posed by climate change.

Such risks loom large for the investor – in this case, the investor who seeks to trade in government bonds, a market in Australia worth A$700 billion. Such considerations “can have a serious material impact on a decision by an investor to invest in Sovereign bonds and on the value of Sovereign bonds.” In lending money to the government, investors were entitled to be appraised of these risks, being “material to [their] decision to trade in exchange-Australian government bonds (e-AGBs).” In “failing to disclose climate change risks to investors,” claim O’Donnell’s lawyers, “the Commonwealth of Australia is accused of breaching its duty of disclosure and misleading and deceiving investors.” The requisite standard of care and diligence was therefore not met. “The standard is equivalent to the legal standard imposed on company directors in Australia.”

The current Australian government, overly friendly to the fossil fuel sector, filled with barely closeted climate change denialists, will find O’Donnell’s action troubling. The voter turned demanding investor is a truly threatening prospect.

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Russia, Bountiful Hoaxes and The New York Times

There is a delicious irony in the Russia Bounty scandal. The Russians, funding the very entity that was financed, at least in a previous incarnation, by the Central Intelligence Agency, to supposedly kill the warriors of a country that had funded them. The karmic wheel of boggled minds finds its turn, and US forces, it is said, became the target of a Russian bounty program funded via the Taliban. Cue some bewildered head scratching.

The problem with such assertions is that they are caked and cluttered in qualification, vagueness and slipperiness. The argument that the GRU was part of a scheme to pay the Taliban bounties for US soldiers found its way into the mainstream, and duly polluted it. Not that the Washington and intelligence community had anything to complain about. The funnelling of US hardware and material via Pakistan to the mujahedeen during the 1980s had one express purpose: killing and maiming Soviet soldiers and precipitating an eventual withdrawal. Taking the long view, this would have merely been settling scores.

The New York Times got the bounty story rolling on June 26, 2020. “The Trump administration has been deliberating for months about what to do with a stunning intelligence assessment.” Charlie Savage, lead author on the story, was delighted to note reaffirmations of the Times account from the Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post. The main papers were worshipping at the same altar of veracity, with John Hudson of the Post claiming confirmation of “the New York Times scoop: A Russian military spy unit offered bounties to Taliban-linked militants to attack coalition forces in Afghanistan.”

The Times report was hopelessly laden with qualifications and unnamed officials (“American officials say”, “Officials have also suggested”, “Some officials have theorized”). This very practice flies in the face of the paper’s own policy. “There is nothing more toxic to responsible journalism than an anonymous source,” reasoned public editor Daniel Okrent in 2004. This was prudent, given the paper’s own inglorious reporting on the existence, or not as it were, of Saddam Hussein’s Weapons of Mass Destruction in 2003.

What has nagged certain members of the intelligence community is the extent of President Donald Trump’s knowledge. Was he briefed about the program, if, in fact, it existed? For the president, the entire affair was a hoax, and when Trump declares something a hoax, the mainstream media stable christen it as gospel. As he tweeted, “The Russia Bounty story is just another made up by Fake News tale that is told only to damage me and the Republican Party. The secret source probably does not even exist, just like the story itself.”

 

The CIA and National Counterterrorism Center did not show staunch certitude about the whole thing. They claimed with “medium confidence” that the GRU had paid bounties to Taliban fighters with the specific intent purpose of killing US soldiers, an operation that resulted in fatalities. Other agencies were less certain, giving such assessments a “low confidence” rating. “I think there are contradictory pieces of intelligence on this,” suggested Senator Roy Blunt of Missouri, a view not to be cast off coming from a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Politico, on the other hand, wanted to find something. Surely, such an allegation had to have some residual relevance? “The stalemate underscores the difficulties lawmakers face in confronting an increasingly emboldened Russia – especially in an election year, when Republicans are unlikely to publicly break with the president, who has sought to maintain a good relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin even as he continues to alarm some in the GOP with his deferential posture toward the Russian leader.” Faith becomes the substitute for evidence.

J. Dana Stuster, deputy foreign policy editor at Lawfare, is adamant that this has cost the Russian bear dearly, even if he is not entirely sure what that the value of that costing is. Stuster is a believer untroubled by the tested factual record. What is relevant is Russian behaviour. “The bounty program fits a pattern of Russian policy in Afghanistan rooted in Russia’s perceptions of its own national interest in maintaining influence in its near abroad. It may be a reprisal, but it is definitely strategic.” This hashed slurry that counts as analysis is the sort of stuff that stains foreign policy think tanking, but it cannot be any other way.

The next level of analysis shifts from the Russia did it school of persuasion to Russia did not manage to do much damage, a neat cop out that still does much to undermine the assertions. But the most profound deflating moment came in the form of comments by General Kenneth McKenzie, commander of the US Central Command. “I found it worrisome,” he reflected. “I just didn’t find that there was a causative link there.” He further suggested that the “case wasn’t proved to me – it wasn’t proved enough that I’d take it to a court of law – and you know that’s often true in battlefield intelligence.”

There is no getting away from McKenzie’s qualifications that demolish the edifice that was the New York Times effort in late June. They are so profound as to constitute a repudiation. For instance, in the words of the general, “reports of this nature have been out there for a while, but it was very very low levels of authenticity about them.” On July 8, the Times, deep in the slop bucket, editorialised in weasel fashion. “Allegations of bounties paid for the deaths of US soldiers are serious. But the White House ought to stay the course toward a peace deal.” The paper admitted that there was “still a lot missing from the reports that Russia paid for attacks on American and other coalition forces in Afghanistan. That’s why it’s critical that emotions and politics be kept at bay until the facts are in.” Pity they did not wait.

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Zombie Seizures: The Hacking of Twitter

July 15, 2020. It was a day that will be remembered in the history of social media giant, Twitter. In what is becoming an increasingly quotidian occurrence with such companies, Twitter faced a hack described as “catastrophic.” The company’s own language was milder: that day, “we detected a security incident at Twitter and took immediate action.” As of July 18, the company believed that the “attackers targeted certain Twitter employees through a social engineering scheme.” For the untainted, an explanation is offered. “In this context, social engineering is the intentional manipulation of people into performing certain actions and divulging confidential information.” Sounds awfully like Twitter itself.

This internal “social engineering” endeavour enabled the attackers in question to manipulate “a small number of employees and used their credentials to access Twitter’s internal systems, including getting through our two-factor protections.” As of that time, 130 Twitter accounts had been accessed and, of them, 45 had their passwords reset. Of these quarried accounts, eight involved the “additional step of downloading the account’s information through our ‘Twitter Data’ tool.” (On July 17, the social media giant noted “a lot of speculation about the identity of these 8 accounts” explaining that it would only “disclose this to the impacted accounts.” None were verified.)

In responding to the incident, Twitter admitted to being less than forthcoming, “deliberately limiting the detail we share on our remediation steps at this time to protect their effectiveness.” Some of these included disabling the means for verified accounts to send new tweets and locking down both affected and unaffected accounts. “Most accounts should be able to Tweet again. As we continue working on a fix, this functionality may come and go,” Twitter Support announced.

The seized accounts were duly used to spread some fun in what transpired to be cryptocurrency scam centred on a Bitcoin account, though the amount amassed by the scam, being at most $120,000, was modest. The account of Bill Gates, for example, tweeted that, “Everyone is asking me to give back, and now is the time. I am doubling all payments sent to my BTC address for the next 30 minutes.” The accounts of former President Barack Obama, Democratic presidential candidate Joe Bien, Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk also figured in the twitter spray.

Image from securityboulevard.com

Those behind the attack do not add up to the customarily sinister portrait of a non-state actor, even if they have sent a chill of tingling discomfort down the spine of the political establishment. The picture, rather, is that of a rabble bound by a petty and rather human objective. A hacker, with the handle “Kirk”, secured access to an administrative panel granting him privileged access to the accounts. Along with other individuals with such uninspired handles as “ever so anxious” and “lol”, compromised Twitter accounts were sold.

This soil, it has to be said, is heavily tilled. Such endeavours were already finding form in the efforts of scammers to impersonate Musk, not merely of Tesla and SpaceX fame but a noted follower of cryptocurrency. Faux accounts of Musk would make offers via Twitter, resulting in the transfer of cryptocurrency. The plausibility of the measure was assisted by bot networks and the occasional reply to a verified account. One such handle was @elomtusk, which, at a pinch, looks rather than @elonmusk. As Marina Coren noted in The Atlantic, “This fake account is just one of many in a growing ecosystem of scammers lurking in Musk’s mentions.”

Within Twitter itself, too many fingers, it seemed, were in the security pie. Those fingers, in turn, were unpoliced. This was the opinion of cybersecurity specialist at Saviynt, Melody Kaufmann, who suggested that an unwarranted number within the company had access to verified accounts. Protocols limiting the discretion of any single individual to alter trusted accounts also seemed lacking. “By integrating some measure of cross-checking, it ups the challenge in executing such an attack as it now requires multiple accounts or individuals with privileged access to be compromised at the same time.”

The implications are now being squeezed out of the attack. The fear that verified user accounts risk being hijacked, becoming zombie fronts for the spread of misinformation is gaining some undeserved momentum. The threat is being shaped for the occasion. Time wondered whether there was anything to be said about the fact that most of the figures targeted were of the “left”, a rather carefree use of the label. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo preferred to avoid the specifics of the Twitter hack, going straight to the external, interfering bogeyman in announcing a probe. “Foreign interference remains a grave threat to our democracy and New York will continue to lead the fight to protect our democracy and the integrity of our elections in any way we can.” With its 300 million users or so, “Twitter is a primary source of news for many, making it a target for bad actors.”

Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri took it upon himself to send a chastening letter to Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey. “I am concerned that this event may represent not merely a coordinated set of separate hacking incidents but rather a successful attack on the security of Twitter itself.” He insisted that Dorsey “reach out immediately to the Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Investigation and take any necessary measures to secure the site before this breach expands.”

The FBI duly opened up an investigation into the incident. “At this time, the accounts appear to have been compromised in order to perpetuate cryptocurrency fraud.” Not wishing to miss the investigative boat into the social media behemoth, New York Attorney General Letitia James has also begun an investigation in the name of transparency. “Countless Americans rely on Twitter to read and watch the news, to engage in public debate, and to hear directly from political leaders, activists, business executives and other thought leaders.”

The misinformation Cassandras are only accurate to a point. If you believe everything you see on Twitter, you have embraced the silliest of superstitions. What is factual, let alone truthful, is rarely possible within the intellectually abridged space of a tweet, let alone a vituperative thread. This is a victory for the fearfully shallow.

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All About Me: The Kanye West Campaign Rally

In many ways, rapper and footwear mogul Kanye West fits the mould. That mould – the star or celebrity running for high office – had already been made by the actor-cum-amnesiac Ronald Reagan, who, with his dabbling in astrology and conveniently re-imagined reminiscences, did much to prepare the White House for what one might call the “reality show.” The fruit from that garden has been ample and bitter.

After announcing his improbable and almost certainly doomed campaign for the US presidency, West, after flirting with dropping out, decided to at least have a campaign rally. Like other countries who have witnessed celebrities gather the electoral silver and make their way into office, West is playing politics emptied of politics, the patient extracted of the nerve. The anti-political politician is an oxymoron, but it is an oxymoron that has speared and skewered statecraft. The political classes are petrified in alienation, representatives shielded behind armies of pollsters, public relations gurus and party machinery. The voter might as well vote for a candidate on the autopilot gravy train. The lunatic you get is the lunatic you see.

West is his own gravy train, admittedly also stocked up with provisions from his fellow celebrity companion, Kim Kardashian. His articulations are pricks of irritation, rarely credible and almost always reversible. He does his utmost to convince that he is some discount idiot savant, trying to sound profound even as he fumbles. His rally at Charleston, South Carolina left something for everybody, though no one present should have been confused by the “all about me” theme.

It all started with predictable theatre. There was no microphone. West donned a bulletproof vest. (You ought to be worth shooting to be credible.) “2020” was shaved into performer’s head. The audience gathered could not exactly be called vast, though the rapper promised that future events would be glorious, held in “rooms where the acoustics will be incredible because I will be involved with the design.”

The presentation was peppered by such howlers as that on the abolitionist Harriet Tubman, who “never actually freed the slaves.” What Tubman did, reflected West, was just having “the slaves go work for other white people.” The fogged up looking glass was brought out, with suggestions by Dani Di Placido in Forbes that this might have been some obscure reference to “wage slavery and white supremacy.” That said, a lament follows. Why did West have to go after a “beloved civil rights hero” given his previous Trump love phase, his own “hyper-capitalist ambitions” and the fact of becoming a billionaire which can hardly happen “through opposing wage slavery”?

Knocking off the gloss of the Tubman legacy was part of a show that moved into the realm of the teary and transcendental, with the performer promoting his inspirational link to the divine. West the mystic spoke of God’s intervention, suggesting that fabulous sky creature divines are terribly incurious, and bored, by nature. “I was having the rapper’s lifestyle. I was sitting up in Paris, and I had my leather pants on … and I had my laptop up and I got all of my creative ideas. I got my shoes, I got my sound cover, I got communities, I got clothes, I got all this and the screen [went] black and white and God said, ‘if you fuck with my vision I’m going to fuck with yours’.”

It all had to do with his child, who served as a good publicity prop for the occasion. This good Lord of the mind blowing “fuck vision” had convinced West that he and his wife should have their baby. “And I called my wife and she said, we’re going to have this baby. I said we’re gonna have this child … So even if my wife were to divorce me after this speech, she brought North into the world when I didn’t want to. She stood up and she protected that child.” To ease any moral or ethical quandaries, West had a solution for troubled couples: give them money. “Everybody that has a baby gets a million dollars.”

There was much talk about his entrepreneurial prowess (boosting the Adidas bank balance and share portfolio), his “132 IQ genius”, a person who “literally went to the hospital because his brain was too big for his skull.”

There were audience interventions that rarely taxed the big-brained wonder. A certain Summer complained about education being “whitewashed,” police brutality and the “brainwashing” offered by such technology platforms as TikTok, though West spent more time fussing over not being able to hear anything above the din and distraction: “no camera flicks, no flashes, no moving, no opening up Dorito bags.” He also got preoccupied about the exits. “You see where the two exits are?  Is it okay to close the doors, but keep them unlocked while we are talking?”

Campaigns for the US presidency can start as engorged, dramatic stunts, with the ego maniac festooned with ambitions that are light on policy but heavy on boastful character. The person promoting it ends up riding a historical train he cannot get off. Donald Trump, to some extent, did just that. Many in the Trump camp, leaving aside such ideological blunder busts as Steve Bannon, were as disbelieving as many others that victory was in the offing that November in 2016. Then the gag got real. West has some way to go before coming close.

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Total Masking: Victoria’s Coronavirus Response

Melbourne.

The Victorian Premier turned up for his weekend delivery of coronavirus infections, gruffly delivering the news. It has become grim if compelling viewing: the announcement about the next spike in coronavirus infections, the next gruesome statistical spread on transmission. On Sunday, Daniel Andrews had a pose that has become legend, a cross between plasticine figure and instructive despair. Stern, humourless, with little to be humour filled about, his role of late is telling people what to do. With stern command he had a message: All those in the state of Victoria, had to wear face masks. “Most of us wouldn’t leave home without our keys, we wouldn’t leave your home without our mobile phone – you won’t be able to leave home without your mask.”

The evidentiary account did not quite square with the urgency of the message. The largest transmissions were taking place in workplaces, not outdoor places of recreation. But it did not matter. This was the sledgehammer of public health, being taken to the public for a quarantine system that failed with abysmal effect. Anyone leaving their home in the Metropolitan Melbourne and Mitchell Shire from Thursday without a mask risk fines of $200. Not complying with such measures will also encourage the government to take further intrusive measures: limitations on shopping; confinement of exercising to a person’s local postcode.

The measure is indiscriminate, but all absolutism comes with its carved exceptions. According to the Victorian health minister Jenny Mikakos, surgical masks, reusable cloth masks purchased or made, can be used. “Or if you don’t have one, you can use a scarf or bandana to cover your nose and mouth. Wash your hands before putting it on and after taking it off.” Those with disabilities who struggle with putting on such face wear and those with breathing difficulties will also be spared the fining wrath of the state.

The catch all measure casts aside criticism and critics about masking protocol. Putting on such wear comes with its canonical tips and tried methods. Avoiding them, and you risk doing greater harm to yourself than otherwise. Brett Mitchell, professor of nursing at the University of Newcastle, is distinctly apocalyptic in describing the consequences for the sloppy mask wearer, and others. “The front of the mask will ‘catch’ pathogens. Every time you adjust or touch your masks, your hands could become contaminated. Everything you then touch could become contaminated.”

The focus on the face mask remains problematic. It arises from a discipline that was never quite sure about its effective use in coping with pandemic transmissions. Positions have been upended, adjusted, revised. On June 9, the Australian deputy chief medical officer Nick Coatsworth explained that vulnerable people who had to use public transport might well use masks, but did not “think that general, healthy members of the community need to be considering wearing masks in that context.” On June 22, Coatsworth reiterated the point in a press conference, despite “an increase in the absolute number of cases in Victoria.” In instances of “very low levels of community transmission the value of face masks in the community is limited, and that recommendation has not changed.”

Victoria’s Chief Health Officer Professor Brett Sutton has now come around to the idea of total masking, suggesting that recent evidence showed that wearing a mask “makes a practical difference.” Those “who wear masks and the settings in which masks are worn has shown that there’s a really significant – two thirds or more – reduction in transmission.”

Sutton would be placing much stock in such studies as those made in the journal Infectious Disease Modelling. The authors, using model simulations based on data from the US states of New York and Washington, found that “broad adoption of even relatively ineffective face masks may meaningfully reduce community transmission of COVID-19 and decrease peak hospitalizations and deaths.” Masks were also “found to be useful with respect to both preventing illness in healthy persons and preventing asymptomatic transmission.”

The shifting sands in the advice on face masks can also be found in the assessments of such epidemiologists as UC San Francisco’s George Rutherford and infectious disease specialist Peter Chin-Hong. For Chin-Hong, the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Prevention reversed its initial advice in insisting people mask up because of accumulating evidence. Initially, the CDC was “preaching that the juice isn’t really worth the squeeze to have the whole population wear masks in the beginning – but that was really a reflection of not having enough testing anyway.” This led to a “false sense of security.” Rutherford takes a harder line.  “We should have told people to wear cloth masks right off the bat.”

In June, the World Health Organization also reversed its position on face coverings, premised on the basis that encouraging such wear would deprive health workers of essential safety equipment while encouraging a false sense of security. As the body’s director-general Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus observed, “in light of evolving evidence, the WHO advises that governments should encourage the general public to wear masks where there is widespread transmission and physical distancing is difficult, such as on public transport, in shops or in other confined or crowded environments.”

The trend towards recommending and even mandating masks despite an initial opposition to that policy was already taking place in April. France’s Académie Nationale de Médecine (Academy of Medicine) took the position that donning such facial wear should be compulsory for outings during and after the lockdown. Physician turned television personality Marina Carrère d’Encausse did her little bit to sabotage trust in public health expertise by suggesting that the official line against masks was a “lie” initially told “for a good cause”: ensuring that health care workers had adequate supply.

In all of this, it is hard to avoid the feeling that millions of people have become part of an enormous, live experiment in public health, a trial-by-error approach that has already proven to be very costly. Science is marked by the operation of the falsifiable hypothesis; but each falsification, notably in the field of epidemiology and disease, can come staggering loss. The “we are all in this together” message is starting to look a bit tatty.

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