This Week's Conversation: Tech Monopolies, Le Pen, Regulating Online Expression, NHL Playoff Predictions, The War On Drugs

A weekly conversation between friends.

A Monopoly is A Monopoly is A Monopoly 

Jonathan Taplin writes in The New York Times: “In just 10 years, the world’s five largest companies by market capitalization have all changed, save for one: Microsoft. Exxon Mobil, General Electric, Citigroup and Shell Oil are out and Apple, Alphabet (the parent company of Google), Amazon and Facebook have taken their place.

They’re all tech companies, and each dominates its corner of the industry: Google has an 88 percent market share in search advertising, Facebook (and its subsidiaries Instagram, WhatsApp and Messenger) owns 77 percent of mobile social traffic and Amazon has a 74 percent share in the e-book market. In classic economic terms, all three are monopolies.”

Taplin goes on to argue that Google, Facebook and others routinely stifle or subsume innovation, at the expense to consumers. Moreover, they're allowed to accumulate similar companies, further consolidating their power, without any real regulatory oversight (and there's little political will to impose oversight in the future).

It's amazing how successful Google’s ‘good for humanity’ and Facebook’s ‘we just want to help people communicate’ messaging are. What’s more, their presence as online companies still largely free of traditional regulation (see the latest article on Uber for better discussion of the freewheeling sharing economy) has allowed people to forgo thinking about them as monopolies. Admittedly it also helps that they don't charge in a traditional manner for their services, so consumers are less likely to be as engaged as they are over cable or phone service pricing.

But make no mistake, consumers are paying a price for these services: we pay in advertising and information. We pay by giving up our privacy and allowing our identities to be used as marketing tools.

I think it's worth reading the Uber article where it discusses how Uber paid to receive bundled, anonymous information stripped from people's emails regarding its competitor Lyft, and more concerning, how it continued to collect information from people's iPhones after they deleted the Uber app.

I'm not suggesting that Facebook and Google are flouting the law in a similar manner, but they, and their subsidiaries, are engaged in other data mining exercises to rout the competition and make money. And both of them have the advantage of having billions of users’ data at their disposal, in a variety of formats, from messaging and image sharing to search terms to outward links clicked. It's difficult to imagine how anyone could compete with them at this stage.

It's time we start conceiving of internet companies as any other company. If there are monopolies, they should be regulated or broken up, they certainly should not be allowed to grow. If there are companies flagrantly breaking privacy laws they should be prosecuted (and not dealt with in a private meeting with Apple’s CEO). We continue to sink money into encouraging tech industry, and most of us interact with at least one of the major monopolies on a daily basis, but we cannot continue to maintain some charade that these are companies engaged in social good. They are companies, full stop. They seek profit and market domination. They must be regulated accordingly.


The Dangerous Normalization of Marine Le Pen


On Sunday, France voted to send the pro-EU, centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron and far-right leader Marine Le Pen to the runoff election, slated for May 7. The results of the first round vote are significant: for the first time in modern French history, neither candidate is from a major political party, signalling a strong rebuke of the French political establishment.

Media outlets in Europe and North America, apparently unfazed by lessons of Brexit and the election of Trump, are already predicting a victory for Macron and for the EU: “The European Union is enjoying something of a comeback as populist challengers run out of steam and years of economic stagnation finally begin to lift,” writes Paul Waldie, in the Globe.

This is obviously good news, and perhaps confirms a shift away from right-wing populism in Europe, a shift that started in Austria with the defeat of Norbert Hofer, and continued with the defeat of Geert Wilders in the Netherlands. And yet I’ve been off-put in recent days by what seems like a gradual normalization of the radical politics of Marine Le Pen and the National Front.

Writing in The Atlantic, Krishnadev Calamur describes Le Pen as a ‘populist’ who is “against immigration and the EU, and a strong advocate for nationalism and borders.” In Maclean’s Paul Wells suggests that Le Pen’s anti-immigrant, anti-Islamist, anti-European Union stances “are not always easy to distinguish from, say, those of Nicolas Sarkozy.”

To describe Le Pen in such milquetoast terms is a reckless oversight. If victorious, Le Pen will shut down “Islamist” mosques, force French Jews to renounce their Israeli citizenship, and place a hard limit on immigration. As Doug Saunders points out, despite her best efforts to distance herself from the radical origins of the National Front, “Ms. Le Pen’s continuing links to her party’s fascist origins have become all too visible and the anti-Jewish views of her inner circle, and of Marine Le Pen herself, have come to light.”

“[R]eporters examining her party in recent months have found, as Emma-Kate Symons writes in Foreign Policy magazine, ‘an organization that, at its highest levels, is awash with Hitler admirers and Holocaust-denying far-right nationalists, including within Marine Le Pen’s inner circle.’

Recent accounts of the National Front’s inner circle say that Ms. Le Pen’s key advisors and top party officials include a trio of men who emerged from the anti-Israel far right of the 1990s and who have expressed open admiration for the Third Reich and the Vichy regime.

Her senior advisor Frédéric Chatillon, who is banned from politics after being charged with campaign-finance fraud, is reportedly constantly at Ms. Le Pen’s side and has brokered Ms. Le Pen’s relationships with Syria’s Bashar al-Assad and Russia’s Vladimir Putin. He is, according to several recent books and investigative stories on the party, an outspoken Hitler enthusiast.”

And yet, across social media, I’ve seen a large number of progressives bemoaning the elevation of Macron, suggesting that his ‘neoliberalism’ is potentially as dangerous as Le Pen’s ‘populism’. Even Mélenchon has refused to endorse Macron. In other words, even on the left, a blinding backlash against establishment politics and excesses of neoliberalism has opened the doors to a candidate who threatens the very foundations of liberal democracy.*

Those same progressives will point out that they do not support Le Pen, but rather reject the type politicians that make the rise of Le Pen possible in the first place. But this argument, which echoes the backlash against Hillary Clinton, depends on a willingness to overlook or ignore the realities of those who are most threatened by the election of a demagogue like Le Pen — refugees, migrants, and religious minorities.

On Monday, Le Pen announced that she was stepping down as the leader of the National Front, in an obvious attempt to improve her chances at the presidency. And yet, in the words of Natalie Nougayrède: “The choice France now faces could not be more clear-cut: an open, liberal message versus a closed, illiberal one. A platform of inclusiveness versus one of bigotry and nationalist hatred. A promise to strengthen the European project through reform versus a pledge to close borders, introduce protectionism and pull out of Euro-Atlantic structures.”

*In the wake of Trump’s inauguration, Timothy Garton Ash wondered whether we are using the right words to describe the geopolitical upheavals occurring throughout Europe and North America.

“I think we do need a term to describe what happens when a government that emerges from a free and fair election is demolishing the foundations of a liberal democracy but has not yet erected an outright dictatorship—and may not even necessarily intend to. Words like “neoliberalism,” “globalization,” and “populism” are themselves imperfect shorthand for phenomena with significant national, regional, and cultural variations. “Hybrid regime” feels too unspecific, so unless and until someone comes up with a better term, I shall continue to use “illiberal democracy.”


My Team

I struggled in the third grade. Not academically per se, at least according to Ms. Sittler, my saintly third grade teacher who retired the same year after nearly 40 years of teaching. Aside from my poor cursive writing skills, which are atrocious to this day, and some minor behavioural issues (mainly fighting kids in the other third grade class who had the audacity to make disparaging remarks about my class or Ms. Sittler), I performed well academically.

No, my problem was having immigrant parents who considered an 8-year-old that wasn’t spending their waking moments either studying or doing chores to be wasting their potential. This prompted my father to sit down with Ms. Sittler and have her assign me additional homework on top of the year-long curriculum I was mandated to learn Mondays to Fridays, 8:34 AM to 3:30 PM, by the Edmonton Public School Board.

I was less than impressed, and Ms. Sittler was well aware. However, Ms. Sittler devised a plan to make the situation bearable. Ms. Sittler and I shared a passion for the Edmonton Oilers, and decided to centre the additional homework I would receive each week on the team. Mainly, it consisted of listening to every Oilers game (games were infrequently shown on television, and besides, we didn’t have cable), and writing up what happened for Ms. Sittler the next day. The pieces were written in a narrative form, packed with statistics, timings of goals and power plays, and any other information that I wanted to share. These were, by far, the best homework assignments I received that year.


Hockey fans come in all shapes and manners, but I have noticed a few distinct types. There are the academic types, who can rattle off the PIM the fourth line centre of their favourite team  racked up each season during his days in the OHL. Or better yet, create and update the Wikipedia article of the their team’s 5-round draft pick out of Finland that everyone knows doesn’t have chance of breaking into the lineup.

Then, there are the bandwagon types, who come around when things are good, and are quick to leave at the first sign of trouble. They are unforgiving, and particularly vicious when mistakes are made, as if an errant pass was a personal attack, perhaps overcompensating for their lack of dedication.

I fall into another camp. I could care less about individual statistics and understand bandwagon fan only as a pejorative. But, my team is as an intrinsic part of who I am as any other aspect of my identity; an immutable fact, independent of anything else and unshakable. They can be absolutely terrible — and in fact have been for most of the past decade — but that’s of no consequence. They are a part of me regardless, and I will sit through a 7-0 playoff drubbing because I am here for the team, and not only for the wins.


How to Regulate Expression Online in Canada: Treat the Internet Like the Press

The Internet pervades nearly everything we do in our lives, from reading this article to ensuring the mortgage or rent is paid on time. Its rapid ascendance has disrupted social, economic, and legal orders, creating new hierarchies and approaches that have transformed how we understand politics, commerce, and expression. And while we have quickly adapted to the digital revolution in many respects, courts and governments alike in Canada have had difficulty reconciling the protection of fundamental freedoms with the Internet. Fixation over the Internet’s seemingly limitless boundaries and rapidly evolving nature has prevented us from regulating the Internet for what it is: a medium of communication. This recognition can ensure that free expression can be better protected, as Canadian law has a long history of rigorously defending this right when exercised through other media of communication, such as the press and picketing.

The Internet is the system of interconnected global computer networks that facilitates the exchange of information through servers, fiber optic or copper wires, and other pieces of physical and digital infrastructure. Through email, the World Wide Web, and other sources, users can access and communicate information from around the world. The ease and instantaneous nature of communication makes the Internet a revolutionary medium of communication.

Like expression, media of communication are constitutionally protected in Canada under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The clearest example is the press. Canadian courts have long recognized that the press is integral to the functioning of our society, and in order to facilitate the exchange of information through the press, and its constituent parts such as journalists, newspapers, and other participants, it must be provided particularized constitutional protections to ensure its robust functioning. This understanding led to the constitutional protection of the open court principle, which permits journalists to freely enter and report on legal proceedings in Canada, unless grounds for a publication ban are proven.

Labour picketing is another well-established example where Canadian courts have found that in order to protect meaningful expression through the medium, constitutional recognition must also be given to pamphletting, secondary picketing, and videotaping picket lines.

The Internet, like the press and picketing, is an essential medium of communication in Canada, and not only should expression through it be protected, but the mechanisms that allow expression to flourish through it should also receive constitutional protection. This includes principles such as net neutrality, which requires Internet service providers and governments to treat all information on the Internet equally, regardless of who published it, where it is published, and on what topic.

This is not a concern in the abstract. In 2011, the Supreme Court of Canada considered an argument that would have hyperlinking to defamatory content be treated the same as publishing the defamatory content. Fortunately, the Court refused to agree, finding that identifying both acts as being the same “would have the effect of seriously restricting the flow of information and, as a result, freedom of expression” over the Internet. Last December, the Supreme Court of Canada heard another appeal regarding the circumstances under which search engines can be forced to delist websites from their indices that have not been proven to contain unlawful content. The lower courts in British Columbia that heard the case initially did not consider the impact of such orders on free expression online.

This past week, the CRTC ruled that Internet service providers cannot engage in differential pricing practices, creating a net neutrality policy that many consider to be the most robust in the world. However, the story doesn’t likely end here. Ajit Pai, the Trump appointed Chair of the FCC, and a well-known opponent to net neutrality, plans to outline his administration’s net neutrality policy today.  

There will likely be more cases where the courts will have to weigh in on the exercise of fundamental freedoms in the digital sphere, including around net neutrality and access to information online. Rather than getting lost in the unique features of the Internet, courts and policymakers would be better suited to regulate the Internet as they have other important media of communication in Canada: by imposing robust protections to ensure information can flow freely through the medium.


New Music from The War On Drugs

I don’t miss having a car. Since moving to Toronto, I’ve realized how liberating it is to rely only on your bike, your feet, and public transit. I do, however, miss blasting music at full volume from my car speakers. I’m not sure there is a place where music sounds better. 

The War On Drugs are the epitome of road trip music. They’ve just released their first-ish new music since 2014*, a 12 minute track titled “Thinking Of A Place”. Its dense and layered atmosphere, its steady pacing, the sprawling guitar solos, and those cathartic chord changes — next chance I get, I’m going to find some open road and queue up this track. 


Round 2 Stanley Cup Playoffs: Our experts weigh in

This year’s NHL Stanley Cup playoffs have been particularly exciting. This has something to do with the fact that no less than five Canadians teams made it to the postseason this year, compared to the zero teams that made it last year. It also has something to do with the fact that there seems to be early signs of a sort of generational shift occurring in the NHL.

Connor McDavid and the Oilers just knocked off San Jose, one of the most experienced and winningest teams of the decade. A newly rebuilt Maple Leafs team managed to give the #1-ranked Capitals an excellent run for their money. Somehow, the Senators made it through to the second round. The Blackhawks was swept in the first round, and the Kings didn’t even make the postseason. It seems like anything is possible at this point.

In other words, the NHL is fun again. For the first time in what seems like years, there’s a bit of a buzz around hockey. Plus, the NBA playoffs are too predictable to be interesting until the later rounds.

So for those who have not yet chosen a bandwagon upon which to ride, here are our completely inexpert predictions for round 2, which starts tonight.

Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Washington Capitals

  • Capitals in 7.  Even with Malkin playing like he got snubbed from the NHL’s top 100 (he did), I sense the Capitals lackluster first round against the Leafs was more of a blip than a sustained decline, putting the Penguins in tough. Both teams need to overcome ghosts of playoffs past- Washington’s inability to get past Pittsburgh, and the potential devastation of “playoff” Fleury. Uphill climb for both teams, one is going home too early. - Nick
  • Capitals in 6. Ovechkin vs Crosby. DRAMA. In all seriousness, this is going to be an exciting series. There’s no doubt that the Penguins are on a different level than the Leafs. Still, I think the Capitals learned from some of the mistakes they made last round. At the end of the day, they have a more consistent, well-rounded team. - Jen
  • Penguins in 7. This will be the 3rd time Crosby and Ovechkin meet in the playoffs with Pittsburgh winning the previous 2. Is this the year the Capitals finally get past the Penguins? Maybe, but it’s hard to bet against the defending champs with Crosby, Malkin & Kessel putting up a combined  26 points in 5 games during the first round. - Davis
  • Penguins in 6. Crosby vs. Ovechkin — the ultimate face-off! Except Crosby is clutch and Ovi is not. This will be a good series, but not as close as it ought to be. - Richie

Edmonton Oilers vs. Anaheim Ducks

  • Oilers in 7. In their last 20 games, the Ducks have gone (16-1-3) while the Oilers have gone (16-4-0) making them 2 of the hottest teams in the NHL. With both sides evenly matched I will take the team with the best player. Connor McDavid will lead the Oilers to the conference finals. - Davis

  • Oilers in 7. While Edmonton took the season series vs. Anaheim, the Ducks continued their late season play into the playoffs with their sweep of the Flames (not impressive). This anticipated matchup should be fast, heavy and tight, if the teams can get healthy. It really comes down to is the fact that the Ducks employ washed-up players like Kesler and Bieksa (puke), while the Oilers retain respectable studs like Klefbomb and McDavid. Have you seen McDavid? You’ll pay for the whole seat but only use the edge. - Nick

  • Oilers in 7. Ryan Getzlaf? Corey Perry? What is this, 2008? The Ducks are probably the hottest team in the NHL, but the Oilers (and their fans) are too hungry. McDavid, who has been quietly brilliant, is due for an inevitable offensive explosion. - Richie

  • Oilers in 7. As an Edmontonian, I’m slightly biased with this pick. I won’t deny that this will be a tough one. Still, after rebounding back from that 7-0 loss, the Oilers should be able to hold their own against this experienced, veteran team. It’s going to be a rough fight right until the end, though. - Jen

St. Louis Blues vs. Nashville Predators

  • Predators in 7. This is a tough one. Two good goalies. Two strong teams. Nashville stands a fair chance of taking this one, though. Fresh from mopping the floor with Chicago, I’m sure they’re mentally prepared to take on the Blues. - Jen

  • Predators in 6. The Preds crushed the formidable Blackhawksin round 1, and now face a not-so-special Blues team. P.K. Subban will continue his subtle revenge on the already-eliminated Montreal team that betrayed him. - Richie

  • Predators in 5. Nashville came into the playoffs as an underrated dark horse, though I guarantee no one had them sweeping the perennial contenders in round one. With one of the most competent defensive cores, and a forward group whose scoring touch turned on late, the Predators are a nightmare for the Blues. On the brightside, Jake Allen was a mutant against Minnesota, demonstrating that a team with unsustainable goaltending can progress. At this point both Allen and Rinne are batting above average - I have a feeling who will blink first. - Nick

  • Predators in 6. The Predators sweep of a strong Chicago Blackhawks team does not bode well for the Blues. Pekka Rinne is a big reason for the first round upset leading all goalies with a 0.70 GAA, 0.976 S% and 2 shutouts. But the Predators are more than a hot goalie with 2 solid scoring lines and arguably the best top 4 defense in the league. - Davis

Ottawa Senators vs. New York Rangers

  • Senators in 6. After teams are eliminated from the playoffs, we often find out that player X played through broken femur, etc. For some reason, the Senators announced at the end of round one that the best player in this series, Erik Karlsson, played, and will continue to play with two hairline fractures in his heel. Brutal. Nevertheless, this underwhelming matchup will be a battle between the two Swedes — King Henry and the soon to be Norris Trophy winner. - Nick

  • Rangers in 6. Finishing in a wild card spot has allowed the Rangers to fly under the radar, but make no mistake they’re a team to fear. With Henrik Lundqvist at the top of his game and Erik Karlsson nursing a fractured foot, the Rangers should get past the Senators. - Davis

  • Senators in 7. This is purely a hunch. The Rangers should win this series handily, but something tells me they will crumble, like they often do. Are the Sens the true underdogs of round 2? - Richie

  • Rangers in 6. Yeah, the Senators have the home ice advantage, but the Rangers still have the trump card: Lundqvist. - Jen.


Café Work 

A man in his late 30s approached me this week in a coffee shop. He wore a pair of blue chinos, a red-green plaid shirt, and a baseball cap, with his backpack double-strapped onto his shoulders. He was dressed well for where we were. It was about 2:30 on Monday afternoon. He fit in.

“Hey, how’s the internet here?” he asked.
“It’s not bad. Better than most of the ones I’ve been to lately”
“Yeah, it’s not bad?” He wanted to make sure. There was some serious work to be done ahead.
“Yeah - and they have plug ins!” I responded, probably too enthusiastically. I know what this man was thinking and wanted to assure him that this was a good one. Maybe he needed to Skype someone.

I’m a fan of the hipster coffee shop. I do a lot of my work there.

Some basics: Good WiFi, un-wobbly tables to spread out over, and plug-ins. 
Some luxuries: As a tea drinker, if they serve a London Fog, it’s a bonus for me and joint tables that let you spread over and make friends to watch over your stuff.
A deal-breaker: overly loud music.

There are essays dedicated to coffee shop experiences and coffice etiquette. There is also research the elements of a coffee shop such as the ambient noise that make you productive.

I am often drawn to the conversations next to me and want to be part of them. Sometimes I venture in, but usually ruminate about a way into the conversation without feeling creepy. This is one of the many reasons I choose not to work from home.

Over the next few hours, I ate an oatmeal cookie, had a refill on my tea, and wrote this.


This Week's Links

The Heart of Whiteness: Ijeoma Oluo interviews Rachel Dolezal, the white woman who identifies as black. “I couldn't escape Rachel Dolezal because I can't escape white supremacy. And it is white supremacy that told an unhappy and outcast white woman that black identity was hers for the taking. It is white supremacy that told her that any black people who questioned her were obviously uneducated and unmotivated to rise to her level of wokeness. It is white supremacy that then elevated this display of privilege into the dominating conversation on black female identity in America. It is white supremacy that decided that it was worth a book deal, national news coverage, and yes—even this interview.”

A rare look at daily life in Pyongyang, in pictures. “Pyongyang is by far the most sophisticated place in North Korea. People from rural areas need permission to move here. For many years, the buildings were drab and grey, but many are now painted in blue, green and pink — reportedly the idea of Kim Jong-un.”

Adam Gopnik explores an alternate explanation for mass incarceration in America: “So what makes for the madness of American incarceration? If it isn’t crazy drug laws or outrageous sentences or profit-seeking prison keepers, what is it? Pfaff has a simple explanation: it’s prosecutors. They are political creatures, who get political rewards for locking people up and almost unlimited power to do it.”

Looking for a place to happen: An interactive tour of Gord Downie’s Canada.

Alberta is phasing out its Debtor’s Prison system, which incarcerated people who failed to pay minor infractions, such as jaywalking, panhandling, and other harmless regulatory offences that disproportionately impacted the street-involved and those with mental illnesses. This change is long overdue, and can address the serious injustices this policy created. In one case, a man opted for a three day prison sentence because he was unable to pay a $287 transit infraction, and ended it up being murdered while in prison by a mentally ill inmate he was placed with.

CBC’s in-depth feature on how Portugal dealt with a heroin epidemic in scale similar to the opioid crisis in British Columbia and Alberta raises the spectre of legalization and holistic support for addicts as being the solution to hard drug epidemics rather than criminalization.

Men: stop recommending David Foster Wallace to women. “These men seem to think I’m saying the thing they love is bad, when really I’m just saying I don’t care about the thing they love.”

Sean Fennessey, Editor-in-Chief of The Ringer, explains why he is ‘anti-Russell Westbrook’: “He is my least favorite athlete.”

How often do you hear somebody humble-brag about how busy they are? It might be time for a Schultz hour.

Why would The New York Times hire an extreme climate science denier?

For Indians, Trump’s America Is a Land of Lost Opportunity: “Recent attacks on people of Indian descent in the United States are explosive news in India. A country once viewed as the promised land now seems for many to be dangerously inhospitable.”

2017 nominees for the Digital Publishing Awards, which represents the best in Canadian digital journalism and publishing.

Richie Assaly