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SESTA criticism, subsidy-free solar, new Amazon Echo and more: best of the week's news

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E&T staff pick their favourite news stories from the past week and reflect on what these latest developments in engineering and technology mean to them.

Josh Loeb, associate editor

SESTA attracts criticism for potential impact on internet start-ups

Freedom or security? That’s the choice facing societies under attack from terrorists, organised crime gangs and other very bad people. Sometimes the maintenance of a free society counterintuitively necessitates a slight diminishing of freedoms that are exploited by bad people to do bad things. Whenever that happens, campaigners warn of censorship, surveillance and the threat to liberty. But here’s the thing: you can’t have freedom without security.

In liberal democracies, the alternative to law and order is societal breakdown, civil war and a whirlwind of anarchy that leaves everyone worse off. Hence why the notion must be challenged that the internet should be some sort of libertarian, anarchic zone where the normal rules don’t apply and where we can all do whatever the hell we like, our Ids unchained from our superegos.

I don’t see why it’s deemed controversial to insist that the internet be policed. I cringe when app-fanatics scoff at the thought that technology firms should take responsibility for the ways in which their platforms are abused by sex traffickers, terrorists and paedophiles to damage or murder real people in the real world. Leaving aside the question of whether or not such a system of tighter regulation of the web is practically feasible, couldn’t we at least try?

The proposed new legislation in the United States going by the unnecessarily emotive name of the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA) is a step in the right direction. The bill was introduced off the back of a police probe into a classified advertising website, Backpage, which was accused of knowingly facilitating the trafficking of children into sex slavery. Basically, SESTA will force web firms to up their game when it comes to stopping their platforms from being used to facilitate this kind of harm. Again, I can’t see why this is controversial. Systems for removing child pornography (nowadays known by the more politically correct term child sex abuse imagery) from the surface internet have already proved extremely successful. Couldn’t the same be done with other harmful types of material too?

SESTA may well lead to a slight decrease in internet freedom in the US. It may also have an impact on internet start-ups, though I’m less bothered about that. Ultimately, the trade-off of a tiny bit of freedom for a significant amount more security for some of the most vulnerable people in society seems like a fair price to pay. The concern of people like Edward Snowden that free speech is being gradually snuffed out seems over the top given that the US Constitution protects freedom of speech to a degree unheard of in the UK, Europe or pretty much anywhere else in the world. Sometimes it seems almost like the campaigners for freedom can’t tell the difference between the US and a totalitarian dictatorship. I mean, I hate Trump too, but if you think America is indistinguishable from North Korea or even Russia, you’re mad.

Final thought: I could be wrong about all this. What if letting criminals assume that they have freedom to do bad things online actually helps police catch them? That is the argument against immediately shutting down child abuse forums on the dark net. The longer you leave them up, the more effectively you can hunt down the perpetrators. Lure them into a false sense of security and then gather intelligence on them. It’s a morally ambiguous argument, for sure, but these are morally ambiguous times.

Lorna Sharpe, sub-editor

UK’s first subsidy-free solar farm opens in Bedfordshire

The solar industry has moved on a long way since I first started taking an interest in it, around 2001. Back then, I soon realised that the people desperately touting PV panels at trade shows were really selling Government subsidies - the technology made no economic sense in Britain, except in a few niche applications where a grid connection would be prohibitively expensive, because the panels weren’t efficient enough to give a decent output from the levels of sunshine in our island. But one reason for subsidy is to help a sector to develop until it can stand on its own feet. It’s good to see that we’re starting to get there. The technology has advanced, and costs have fallen. Solar is only ever going to be one part of our energy mix, but as we move away from dependence on coal and oil it all helps.

British Airways introduces remote-control electric tugs to move planes around Heathrow

Just a reminder that electric cars are only part of the story. There are all kinds of other vehicles, on and off the roads, where battery power can be a good solution - especially as we see more of our electricity coming from clean sources.

Tim Fryer, technology editor

Amazon’s latest Echo devices assert its smart-home dominance

This is a topic that we are looking at in the next issue of E&T, where the overall focus is on censorship. Instead of taking the traditional approach of censorship – which is that some other more morally consistent body will decide what is appropriate content for us lesser beings – in the particular case of digital assistants we are starting to think about censoring what we say ourselves. This isn’t just a case of thinking before speaking, which is allegedly good advice but would probably drain spontaneity out of life if taken to extremes. This is more a case of not saying anything at all if it potentially gave away any information that could be used for nefarious purposes. A totally harmless “let’s take the kids down the park,” could be translated as “this house will be empty for at least half an hour”. The providers of these services (they must be regarded as services rather than devices) claim that only certain things are recorded and once dealt with this information is deleted anyway, and I have no reason to disbelieve them. I also do not believe the Nineteen Eighty-Four scenarios where Big Brother is always listening. However, if these devices are to be voice activated then they are by definition always on, and therefore listening is possible. There are many shades of grey between humble audible web browsing and a Big Brother portal, and there is no suggestion from me that the big companies involved in them are abusing their technology. Not yet at least. In the future, when complacency takes over, and all of us doubters give in to the inevitable, every room in every household will probably be verbally linked by such technology. Inevitably this will give rise to abuse as technically and criminally brilliant minds try and exploit the technology, but more sinister is the increasing world domination of these huge corporations who are today’s true superpowers. Their thirst for data and knowledge is unquenchable as they have devised ways of monetising it. Big Brother is watching, and this is his technology!

Jack Loughran, news reporter

Dyson investing £2bn to build electric vehicles for 2020 launch

Dyson, generally known for its overpriced bagless vacuum cleaners, has decided to enter the electric car market with a £2bn investment. This seems like the kind of move that could end in disaster; how is a company with no automotive experience going to compete with the major players, some of whom have been making cars for the best part of a century? But maybe a fresh approach from a new contender is precisely what electric cars need: a company willing to spend billions on R&D in the hope that something good will come out of it, versus the staid conservatism of many of the largest automakers. After all, it seemed to work pretty well for Tesla, whose Model S has the best range in the industry, an issue that has plagued electric vehicles from day one. Dyson wants to use solid-state batteries instead of lithium-ion like everyone else, which in theory charge faster and last longer while being non-flammable. If they can make it work it could have some very positive repercussions for the whole industry. But then again this whole plan was concocted by James Dyson, a man who thought Brexit was a good idea, so who knows how it will pan out.

Dominic Lenton, managing editor

Drinkers pour their own pints and pay at automated beer-serving machines

News that the University of Reading is among the venues trialling a new self-service beer dispensing system hit all the nostalgia buttons for me. It was late September going on 30 years ago that I found myself scrabbling in a half-dozen deep scrum trying to get served at what was then the Nelson Mandela bar. A lot of water’s gone under the bridge since then – not least in South Africa - and even more alcohol consumed by students. Is the ability to help yourself from a ‘16-tap self serve beer wall’ a great idea when you’ve got thousands of thirsty young people away from home together for the first time? Not to mention that they’ll be able to pay directly from their mobile phone or contactless card without any grubby banknotes changing hands. I’ll reserve judgement until I see any evidence of what the queues are like. What I am confident of is that whichever one you choose, the person in front of you is inevitably going to be getting a round of pints in for a whole rugby team, just before realising that they’ve left their payment card back in their hall of residence.

Dickon Ross, editor in chief

Corbyn says ‘National Education Service’ needed to ‘face the challenge of automation’

Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn has become the latest politician to raise the challenge of automation”. After pre-speech briefings at the Labour Party conference in Brighton, Corbyn had been widely tipped to announce Labour would introduce a ‘robot tax’, an increasingly popular measure that's been debated in countries across the world already. On the day, however, he stopped short of such a measure that would be so hard to cost and could risk looking half-baked. He did promise a “National Education Service to retrain the workforce as many jobs are lost to artificial intelligence and/or automation and robotics. There are many ways of dealing with the economic and social fallout from the rise of automation. These suggestions are just two of them. It’s a subject that will rightly preoccupy governments all over the world for the next decade or two. And so it should. Our last issue looked at the future of work and whether the robots are really coming to take all our jobs. 

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