“Blood and glass" and the power of Big Tech

“Blood and glass" and the power of Big Tech

A little more than ten years after the start of the Arab Spring — a popular pro-democracy revolution helped along by Facebook and Twitter — the world's largest social media platforms this week banned the US president for inciting deadly violence in the United States.

If ever there were an illustration of the simultaneous promise, peril, and more importantly the power of social media to shape our lives and politics, this is it.

Not surprisingly, the Trump ban — and the decision by Apple, Amazon, and Google to expel other right-wing platforms where Trump supporters had plotted violence — has raised a host of thorny questions about how to define free speech, how to regulate tech companies, and what comes next at a delicate and dangerous moment in the "world's oldest democracy." Let's decode some of it.

This isn't, legally speaking, a "free speech" debate. The Bill of Rights in the US Constitution offers no inalienable right to post on Twitter or Facebook, much less to be published, say, by Simon and Shuster. What's more, free speech laws generally stop short of permitting incitement to violence, the primary reason for the tech companies' recent actions.

But it is about the staggering and seemingly arbitrary power of technology companies to shape what is, in practice, the main public square of the 21st century.

Agree or not with the tech companies' decisions here, we don't know much about how those decisions were reached, or by whom. Well beyond Trump's supporters, critics as wide-ranging as German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Russian dissident Alexey Navalny, and the left-wing American Civil Liberties Union pointed out the dangers of arbitrary tech censorship, or the potential powerlessness of people with far less power and recourse to fight back than the US president.

Part of the reason that this is even an issue is that the tech companies have gotten so big in the first place. If Facebook had 200,000 users rather than 2 billion, it wouldn't matter much. So implicit in all of this is the question, again, of if/how to regulate tech companies, and whether to reduce their power to control speech and markets in ways that may inflict harm on society.

Three regulation models. Globally, there are basically three main approaches to tech regulation at the moment. In China, tech companies — some of the world's largest — are privately-run but expected to act as the loyal arms of an authoritarian state, advancing its interests at home and abroad (sometimes even with help from Silicon Valley). In the EU, where by contrast there are very few tech firms of global scale, governments set strict rules on privacy, speech, competition, and transparency which companies must adhere to in order to gain access to a lucrative market of 500 million relatively high-income people.

Lastly, the US — cradle of what are still the world's most influential tech giants — has taken a hands-off approach: tech companies have until now been left largely to regulate themselves, and enjoy certain protections against liability for material posted on their sites. That light touch is what helped them become giants in the first place.

Where does the US go now? In recent years both mainstream US political parties have warmed to the idea of stronger regulation of tech companies, though for different reasons. Republicans allege liberal bias in Silicon valley, while Democrats are primarily worried about policing hate speech and protecting privacy.

Last week's events have supercharged both sides' concerns: Republicans are crying foul over the "deplatforming" of their supporters, while top Democrats see those actions as too little, too late. "It took blood and glass in the halls of Congress" for tech firms to act, said Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal, a leading voice on tech regulatory issues.

Of course, as a result of last week's Georgia Senate runoff, it is now Democrats who will assume (razor-thin) control over Congress along with the White House, putting them in a position to start advancing their vision of what better tech regulation should look like.

As digital technology reshapes the workplace, a move toward skills-based training and employment will unlock opportunities for companies and job seekers alike. While automation and AI are already taking on many routine tasks, demand for people with technology skills is rising fast around the globe. Getting the right people into the right jobs within the right organizations is one of the biggest challenges facing the world of work. So how can it be overcome? To read some recent skills-related stories, visit Microsoft On the Issues.

In recent days, Northern Ireland has seen some of its worst street violence in over a decade. The anger has subsided a bit this week, but post-Brexit fears leave many uncertain about their future in a deeply divided land with a long history of political violence between Irish republicans and UK unionists.

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Iran has vowed to avenge Sunday's attack on its Natanz nuclear facility. Tehran blames Israel, which — as in the past — has neither confirmed nor denied it was responsible. And all this happens just days after indirect talks on US plans to rejoin the 2015 Iran nuclear deal resumed in Vienna. What the Iranians do now will determine the immediate future of those negotiations, a Biden administration priority.

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The end of "forever" in Afghanistan: The Biden administration says it'll withdraw all remaining US troops in Afghanistan by September 11, the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks that prompted Washington to invade the country in the first place. It's unclear how the withdrawal will affect American plans to steer intra-Afghan peace talks in the right direction under the terms of a peace agreement reached by the Trump administration and the Taliban in May 2020. Trump promised to pull out next month as long as the former al-Qaida hosts kept their end of the bargain by not launching deadly attacks (spoiler alert: they have not). Biden's move honors his campaign pledge to end a "forever war" that has claimed more than 2,300 American lives and cost the US Treasury almost $1 trillion since 2001. However, critics fear that a hasty departure could leave the Afghans helpless to prevent the Taliban from returning to power, rendering the entire mission not only expensive, but ultimately pointless.

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Ian Bremmer shares his perspective on global politics this week on World In 60: J&J vaccine woes, Blinken warns China, Fukushima water and a large rabbit.

How will the pause of Johnson & Johnson vaccine affect the overall pandemic fight in the United States?

Yeah. Right at it, right? Well, we heard that the FDA has suspended vaccines from J&J because of blood clots. They found six in seven million cases. It's kind of like the suspension of AstraZeneca in Europe. It's likely only going to last for a few days. It's a very small percentage of the total number of vaccines that are being jabbed right now into the arms of Americans. It's not going to really slow America's ability to get everyone vaccinated, but it is going to create more vaccine hesitancy. People at the margins will say, "Is this safe? They said it was fine. Now they're saying it's not okay." I understand why there's enormous caution on the part of the FDA, but I wish, wish, wish the communications had been a little softer around all of this. Also will be a problem in terms of export, as J&J is going to be a piece of that. And again, others around the world will say, "Well, if I don't get Moderna, if I don't get Pfizer, I'm not sure I want to take it at all." So all of this is negative news, though I would still say the United States this year is looking really, really good among major economies in dealing with pandemic.

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750 million: While struggling with one of the worst coronavirus outbreaks in the world right now, India has approved Russia's Sputnik V COVID vaccine. Moscow has a deal in place to produce 750 million doses of the shot in India.

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In recent weeks, both Pfizer and Moderna have announced early phases of vaccine trials in children, and Johnson & Johnson also plans to start soon. If you know a kid who wants to learn about vaccines, how they work, why we need them, this story is just what the doctor ordered.

Watch the episode: Vaccine nationalism could prolong the pandemic

Ian Bremmer's Quick Take:

Hi everybody. Ian Bremmer here. Welcome to your week and I've got your Quick Take and thought I would talk a little bit about where we are with Iran. One of the Biden administration's promises upon election was to get the Americans back into the JCPOA, the Iranian nuclear deal. As of last week, negotiations are formally restarted, and pretty quickly, in Vienna, they're not direct. The Americans and Iranians are both there, but they're being intermediated by the Europeans because they're not yet ready to show that they can talk directly to each other. That's Iran being cautious in the run-up to their presidential election coming this summer. But the movement is there. So far the talk has largely been about sequencing the Iranian government, saying that all of the sanctions need to be removed before they're willing to go back into the deal, because the Americans after all, unilaterally withdrew from a deal that the Iranians were indeed adhering to, and the inspections did confirm that.

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