The Null Device

2018/12/4

To the surprise of exactly nobody, Australia’s Labor party agree to pass the mandatory encryption back-door bill, after the usual pantomime of token opposition.

The bill will allow the government to demand technical measures to allow access to encrypted content. The ALP stress that it will include safeguards, ensuring it is only used for matters of national security. It also has provisions preventing it from being used to mandate the introduction of “systematic weaknesses”, the definition of a “systematic weakness” being whatever the Attorney-General and Communications Minister agree it is or isn’t.

Labor’s spokespeople, resplendent in their progressive pragmatism, assure us that there’s no need to worry, that they have exacted strict safeguards as conditions of their support, requiring not one but two cabinet-level ministers to decide what isn’t a systematic weakness, and requiring that technical surveillance capabilities are mandated only for the most serious of cases (i.e., “OMG Paedoterrorists!”-level threats), with the non-terrorist/non-paedophile majority’s privacy assured as always. And perhaps the Australian political process, renowned worldwide as it is for its high calibre, has managed to, in secret committee, produce a perfectly square circle, a magical golden key that can only be wielded against evildoers and is impervious to abuse, misuse or negligence. (Or at least to the standards of the Australian law of “no worries, she’ll be right mate”; i.e., “I’m not a Muslim, a commo, femmo, pinko, greenie, bikie, trade unionist or any other kind of ratbag, or involved a cop’s ex-missus or anything, and neither are most people, therefore there are no possible problems worth thinking about”)

Of course, the much vaunted safeguards apply only to ordering companies to implement back doors; once the back door has been implemented, it’s there for any subsequent use: everybody’s WhatsApp messages, by law, have an escrowed key that ASIO’s computers can use to automatically decrypt and store them. If Australia’s metadata retention regime is anything to go by, the number of agencies with access to this will only grow. Within 12 months, copyright holders will use this to detect and prosecute someone sending an illegally downloaded TV show episode to a friend, or using a VPN to circumvent pirate site blocks; six months later, local councils will be trawling the plaintext of everyone’s iMessage conversations to find litterers and dog-poo violators. The government will, of course, have a much easier time of bringing the hammer down on troublesome journalists seeking to embarrass them, and anybody even considering talking to them. Meanwhile, somewhere in Queensland, a cop will have an easier time getting a hold of his estranged wife and the new man in her life. And a few years later, when mass surveillance of anything held on network-connected electronics is the new normal, some politician or public servant, impressed by the efficacy of China’s social-credit system or a PowerPoint presentation from Palantir, will suggest a system to aggregate everybody’s plaintext and analyse it to find as yet unidentified potential threats, by assigning everybody a “true-blue Aussie score” based on their chats, photos and file backups and making a list of those with suspiciously low ones. (Bonus card: the Russian mafiya quietly crack the ASIO key-escrow system and spend a few months feeding the plaintext of every Australian’s data into their databases, before embarking on a continent-scale automated extortion campaign.)

Meanwhile, the other four members of Five Eyes will be lining up to send their decryption requests through Canberra; sometimes, having a member of your club which is still, for all administrative purposes, a penal colony and military strongpoint of Empire, where there is by definition no right to privacy from Authority, can be useful.

australia authoritarianism labor surveillance 0

2018/10/30

I am writing this sitting in the empty shell of the loft flat in the liminal zone between Highbury and Stoke Newington that has been my home for the past 7½ years, ending today. In just under an hour, a taxi will come to take me to Heathrow, to my one-way flight to Stockholm Arlanda Airport. And so, one chapter will end, and another begin.

After 14⅙ years in London, five of them as a British citizen, I have decided to move on; this has been a decision some time in the making. Part of this is a desire to live somewhere else in Europe, not unlike the desire to live somewhere else that brought me to London, though hastened by uncertainty over how long that door shall remain open. Part, I say only half in jest, is a wish to escape the looming Brexit apocalypse. Though it’s mostly for a change: I have some friends in Stockholm, from previous visits, and an opportunity came up to move there.

Most of my worldly possessions are now on a lorry, somewhere on the continent; it's due to arrive in Stockholm tomorrow. I have been living out of a standard-issue Australian backpacker bag in my 25 square metre flat, now curiously empty.

I remember moving into this flat in February 2011; needing to find a place after a share house in Bethnal Green fell apart, and finding this flat, which was only £50 per month dearer than my room in the house, only realising after moving in that the kebab-shop vent points right at the bedroom windows. The first day, the tiny room ceiling-high with boxes, taking a break from unpacking to have a drink at the Edinburgh Cellars (now just the Cellars), and walking in to hear Visage's “Fade To Grey”; a portentous sign.

I won’t miss the tiny size of the flat, or the place being too hot, too cold or both at once, or the random odours of burnt oil/grilling meat/I dare not think what sporadically coming from the kebab shop downstairs through the brickwork, the occasional eye-stinging clouds of air freshener rising through the chimney-like stairwell and welling under the low ceiling of my flat like a neon-pink mustard gas when someone in the shop decides to do something about the nidor, or not being able to open the windows on one side because of the shop vent outside and the viscerally gritty stench of decades of fermented grease in the very air outside; I can tell you that the windows in that room remained sealed shut.

I will, though, miss the very nice Galician tapas place next to the kebab shop, and sitting outside it on the little piazza in the summer with a book, a beer and a basket of bread. I'll miss the views from my living room window, over the Victorian rooftops of Canonbury, of parts of the London skyline, the skeletons of unfinished luxury apartment towers on the horizon, their red lights like something out of a Simon Stålenhag painting. I will also miss the two cafés within a short bike ride, Mouse & De Lotz and Tina We Salute You, and the people who work there, almost all of them artists or musicians of some sort. And I'll miss being within walking distance of gigs at the Shacklewell or the Dalston Victoria, two former West Indian old-men's pubs colonised by Dalston hipsters and putting on consistently good selections of gigs.

I’ve gotten to know this city, or at least broad slices of it. The myriad numbered bus routes that link it, the cyclists’ ley lines. Favourite pubs and restaurants; the scenes of memorable events: gigs of various sorts, social engagements, the starts of friendships and relationships. A decade and a half of memories, highs and lows that are an inseparable part of my history, inscribed on the canvas that is London; the ancient, many-faceted city that has belonged to countless millions of people throughout its history, amongst them now myself. And the psychogeography of London—the actual, ineffable London of experience, not the fabled, phantasmagorical London of stories and legends—has, in turn, inscribed itself upon my psyche.

I first arrived in London for a visit, in 2002; at the time, the idea of Britain was intertwined with the country’s impressive musical heritage (for me, mostly post-punk through to indiepop; the first record I ever bought was a New Order 7", and I passed through Cure and Smiths phases, having settled at the time on MP3s of Sarah Records 7"s victimlessly pirated through SoulSeek). I moved to London two years later (as now, an opportunity came up, then in the form of a relaxation of working-holiday visa rules). Gradually, through living there, I became disabused of most of my romantic, anglophilic notions, settling into it being an actual place and condition of being, and the real place named London slowly displaced the idea of London, molecule by molecule.

Still, there was, for a long time, a sense of unreality: I am not of London, I thought; I am, like many others here, from somewhere else, and would not be in London forever; in a sense, I was just passing through. I met Londoners (some local, some from elsewhere in the UK), who all had their roots, their social circles, their references and in-jokes; I hovered on the periphery of these charmed circles, making acquaintances, and, more gradually, friends; at first, most were also newcomers, uprooted from elsewhere, but gradually, more Britons joined the mix; in retrospect, I was gradually becoming one of them.

Melbourne, though, was still my hometown, and if asked where I was from, I would answer without hesitation. I kept my 3RRR subscription to this day (for a while, I had a script on the computer in my room grab the streams of programmes, save them to a hard drive, and then play them back, time-delayed, in the morning, in lieu of an alarm clock; at one point, though, the scripts stopped working, and I didn't fix them, though I still tune in from time to time). There was a heavy Melbourne presence in my music collection (though with a leaning to bands I had known before 2004; the more recent “dolewave” indie-rock subgenre passed me by). And it was a joy to meet those from the same milieu and compare notes about the world behind.*

For a while, London, this city impossibly rich with history and myth, was just my present circumstance, one whose surreality I gradually got used to and stopped noticing. Only now, having spent the past week or so saying goodbye to this city, walking the streets of Stoke Newington, acutely aware that soon it would be just another place somewhere else, did the reality sink of London as a former home I might miss, a place of which nostalgic memories might spontaneously bubble up. That as well as a displaced Melburnian, I would also be, to some degree, a displaced Londoner.

* At this point, you may be wondering what sort of accent I speak with. While my accent was never broadly “Australian” in the manner of, say, Crocodile Dundee, and a mild Australian accent is not that different from a mild Estuary English accent, I am told that I do sound more British; on my last visit to Melbourne, an elderly family friend remarked that “you sound like a pom”. However, people in Britain sometimes notice a telltale hint of an Australian accent in my speech.

london personal travel 1

2018/9/1

The Australian government has denied a visa to US whistleblower Chelsea Manning, who was due to speak at the Sydney Opera House, on grounds of character. Civil libertarian groups are, of course, lobbying strenuously for this decision to be reversed, though, inevitably, their pleas will fall on deaf ears. Indeed, there never was a prospect of Manning being allowed into Australia, and anybody who thinks that she might have been does not understand Australia.

Fundamentally, Australia is neither a US-style republic nor a European liberal democracy. Instead, it is the outgrowth of a set of penal colonies and military outposts of a maritime empire, founded on administrative doctrines of such. Its system is not a classically liberal social contract, nor a pretence towards a modern take on the Athenian agora, but books of rules drafted in an office off Pall Mall in London for the maintenance of discipline and smooth running of such a far-flung and potentially fractious enterprise. The colonies were eventually amalgamated into a federal nation, with responsibilities devolved, in due time, from London, and decorated with the trappings of 20th-century liberal democracy, but tradition is a hardy thing, and in many cases, the modern, liberal Australia only goes so deep. Australia, for example, has no equivalent of the US Bill of Rights or the EU Convention on Human Rights; the only formal right that Australians have is that of not having a specific denomination of Christianity imposed as an established state church.

Of course, Australia is not North Korea or even China; informally, there is a generous, if conditional, system, known as the law of Mateship. If you fall under the aegis of Mateship, while you have no formal, official rights enshrined in statutes, you can have faith that the all-powerful authorities will generaly let you be, unless you're seen as some kind of ratbag. How much of a ratbag you have to be to incur the unfriendly attention of the authorities depends on a lot of things, including your skin colour, sex, ethnicity, and whether you fall into any categories of potential troublemakers (which, these days, include Muslims, those easily mistaken for Muslims, brown people in general and transgressors against gender norms). Hence a straight white bloke can, in many cases, get away with all sorts of mischief up to and including advocating (though, of course, not actually carrying out) Communist revolution, whereas if you're, for example, a brown-skinned Muslim, merely having and expressing opinions crosses the line. (A straight white sheila, meanwhile, has most of the privileges of a straight white bloke, unless she complains about sexist banter or becomes Prime Minister or something.) The flipside of the doctrine of Mateship is a ritualised, performative anti-authoritarianism: Australia celebrates outlaw folk heroes from Ned Kelly to Chopper Read (though only if they embody a sort of rough-hewn, stoic masculinity), and, when the time came to replace God Save The Queen as national anthem, came close to choosing a ballad about a sheep thief.

The Law of Mateship is a sort of Australian parallel of Scandinavia's Law of Jante: informal, not actually codified anywhere, and yet of powerful importance, its spirit moving through the society's formal structures, animating its discretionary decisions. Essentially, Mateship is a border; it divides “People Like Us”, who are party to its social contract and entitled to its boons, and the rest of the world, and once you're inside the border, you're in. A recent example is the case of Boofhead, a filthy, rancidly smelly dog whose owner was denied the right to bring it with him into a RSL club; a judge ruled that the club had unlawfully discriminated, and awarded $16,000 in damages. It's tempting to wonder whether a dog by any other name would have been considered in equally good odour by the law, or whether Boofhead's stereotypically Aussie name swung it, but the judge's decision, though not phrased in these words, states clearly that Boofhead is a Mate, and entitled to the protection of the customary rules of Mateship. One of the implications of this is that he has vastly more rights than, say, the asylum seekers on Nauru, imprisoned in the darkness outside of Mateship's border. (Which suggests that perhaps one activist tactic to help these refugees may be to give them quintessentially Aussie nicknames, such as Davo, Shazza and Chook.)

In any case, Chelsea Manning falls outside the boundaries of Mateship sufficiently to be banned from the country under its strict security regime, for two reasons, one official and one unofficial. Officially, Manning is still a convicted criminal against her country, albeit one whose sentence was commuted by Presidential discretion. (She has announced an intention to appeal her conviction, though it has not, to date, been overturned.) Australia has a long-running conservative government, and one which has recently jettisoned an ineffectual centrist leader and lurched further rightward, giving it a simpatico with the Trump administration, not in spite of its sublime awfulness but because of it. Though while this counts as a factor in the decision, it is probably not the deciding factor; I'm not sure that, for example, a Gillard Labor government would have decided otherwise; or, indeed, that any government other than the Whitlam administration would have let Manning in. Informally, Manning being transgender probably does not help her case in a country where the old, rough-and-ready norms of Australian masculinity are digging in for a long siege and attaching themselves to the Murdochian right-wing culture war whose paroxysms often pass for civic discourse, thus being the Wrong Kind Of Ratbag to be privy to Australia's performative anti-authoritarianism.

australia chelsea manning culture mateship 1

2018/8/10

It recently emerged that one of the obligations Australia's parliamentarians have is to provide their constitutents with portraits of the Queen, for free, on request. The portraits (which also include those of her consort, Prince Phillip, though not of any of the more fashionable young royals), along with flags and recordings of the National Anthem, are classified as “nationhood material”, vital for instilling a sense of national consciousness, and are thus included in the budget and obligations of the people's federal representatives for this very purpose. Which, one could imagine, may have made sense historically: in a far-flung outpost of the Empire, awash with rum and the threat of convict rebellion still in living memory, communal loyalty to the distant Crown would have needed all the reinforcement it could get, damn the expense. Either that or this was a piece of Howard/Abbott-era culture-war red meat, to stick it to the inner-city trendy-lefties who'd rather fritter money away on saving wildlife or helping the poor or something. But no: the rule in question dates back to 1990, the height of the Hawke/Keating era, possibly the least likely period in Australian history to produce such a rule.

The rule in question is unique to Australia, at least in the former British Empire. Constituents in the UK may request portraits of Her Royal Highness, but they have to pay for them. In Canada, meanwhile, the government makes the portraits available for download, allowing monarchistically-inclined Canadians to have them printed by the provider of their choice. Elsewhere in the Commonwealth, you're on your own.

The revelation of this peculiar rule, in an article in VICE, leading to a flurry of requests to MPs for the monarchic merch. Of course, not everybody is happy with this: some point out that the time and money the MPs and their staffers spend servicing these requests is taken away from more serious duties they would otherwise be performing. Other MPs have been putting a pamphlet from the Australian Republican Movement with each portrait sent.

This rule does raise many questions; among them:

  1. Is there a limit to the number of portraits of the Queen a constituent may request?
  2. Once they are sent, do they become the constituent's property, or do they remain property of the Crown, the Commonwealth of Australia, or some other agency?
  3. Does Australia have any laws restricting what one can do with portraits of the monarch that one owns? Would it be legal, for example, to paint a L.H.O.O.Q.-style moustache on one, or to use it in a mixed-media art piece, mutilating it in the process, or to use it as cavity insulation or a budgie cage liner, or to hang it insalubriously in the backyard dunny, rather than giving it a honoured spot above one's hearth?

(My best guess for the last one, given the chaotic strange attractor that is Australia's larrikin/authoritarian dynamic—in lieu of any kind of bill of rights there is essentially an unspoken gentleman's agreement, while national icons include Ned Kelly and Chopper Read, and a ballad about a livestock thief almost became the national anthem—would be “it's probably technically illegal, but you won't be prosecuted unless the authorities conclude that the average bloke would consider you to be a “ratbag”.”)

australia larrikinism law monarchy queen elizabeth ii 0

2018/7/8

So yesterday, England beat Sweden in the world cup, securing their first place in a final in decades, and setting off riotous celebrations. Some football fans, filled with the euphoria of the moment, trashed an IKEA in London, terrorising staff and customers. Others just blocked off streets and jumped on trapped cars.

It’s tempting to see this match, and its aftermath, as the latest flare-up of the Second English Civil War, this time not between the Cavaliers and Roundheads but the Gammons and Snowflakes, and on a broader scale, a Right-vs.-Left grudge match of two fundamentally different world-views of our time. On one hand, England: the bad-boy buccaneers of Brexitland. On the other hand, Sweden, the very symbolic epitome of European liberalism as most unacceptable to the Gammon majority who see themselves as custodians of England’s values, not to mention their fellow travellers in red-state, red-cap America. England may hate the Germans the most, and have hated the French for the longest, but the Swedes are the most egregiously antithetical to the harsh, robust values of the contemporary middle-England whose voice is the Daily Mail. Everything that paper rails against—gender-neutral parenting, multiculturalism, human rights, high taxes spent on the unworthy—is supposedly rampant in Sweden, and if you listen to right-wing older relatives, you will learn that the country is a bankrupt wasteland (due to the inevitable consequences of socialism) and/or an ISIS rape camp.

Sweden is lagom, everything in moderation, with a residual Jante Law stigma against putting oneself above others giving rise to an innate egalitarian tendency. In English, however, it is said that equality is the opposite of quality. We revel in excess. We’re a meritocracy of luxury flats, kept empty as investment units, towering over streets full of hungry, undeserving tramps; a land of teachers and nurses share-housing well into their 40s, and buy-to-let landlords building their well-earned empires, unmolested by redistributive taxation. We’re a nation of hard-working taxpayers who’ve had a gutful of uppity minorities asking to be treated with unearned respect. We're Terry Gilliam jealous of the privileges of imaginary black lesbians, and Morrissey spouting off about Those People. In England, a hedge-fund manager is literally worth thousands of paramedics. And where Sweden believes in universal human rights, inalienable dignity every person is, by definition, entitled to, England, however, divides humans into two camps: “deserving” and “scum”, with the latter to be treated punitively lest they get ideas above their station.

All over the streets outside pubs, mobs of men with St. George flags celebrate jubilantly, blocking traffic and chicken-dancing on the roofs of trapped cars; it's a big boffo day out, like everyone's best mate's stag do. The police come some twenty minutes later and move them on, in their own good time; they’re good lads, just a little overexcited. Hours later, and packs of blokes walk the streets, bellowing out ugly chants about German bombers. We are England, they seem to chant: the English, the English-speaking world, riding the ascending surge of the age. Donald Trump, the commander-in-chief of the English-speaking peoples, is ultimately our leader. Boris Johnson is our shit Churchill for this shit age. Human rights, social justice, Political Correctness, Cultural Marxism, the Frogs and Krauts and all their vino-drinking, garlic-eating chums, all lie vanquished under our boots. And we’re just getting started.

The word on the street here is that the Cup is coming home: home being, of course, England. This is, of course, wishful thinking, but at this stage, it is more plausible than at any recent time. Meanwhile, outside of football, Britain struggles with the consequences of a decision to leave the EU, that has been doubled down upon repeatedly even as it began to look increasingly dubious: Parliament was whipped to irreversibly tear the brakes out of the moving car and throw them out the window. Now, as funding irregularities and connections with Russian government officials emerge, some are talking about the inevitability of a second referendum. If Britain does look like winning the World Cup, perhaps we can expect to see Westminster do a rapid volte-face, approving a second referendum and rushing it through to happen within 24 hours of the victory celebration, in the hope that a groundswell of triumphalism will translate to an increased Leave majority. And in his room deep underneath the Kremlin, the chaos-magus Aleksandr Dugin watches with a smile, knowing that everything is falling into place exactly to plan.

Brexit, Trump and one world cup, all under the watchful eyes of the Kremlin.

brexit culture england football football hooliganism nationalism rightwingers sweden 1

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