“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.

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We're just days away from COP26, the landmark global climate conference that's been dubbed the last chance to get the climate crisis in check. In the lead-up to the event in Glasgow, dozens of countries have released new ambitions to reduce their future carbon footprints. For years, climate activists and experts have called on governments to introduce carbon pricing schemes – either through taxes or emissions-trading schemes. So who's heeded the warning? We take a look at the top ten carbon emitters' share of global emissions and details about their respective national carbon pricing schemes.

Marietje Schaake, International Policy Director at Stanford's Cyber Policy Center, Eurasia Group senior advisor and former MEP, discusses trends in big tech, privacy protection and cyberspace:

Do cryptocurrencies make it harder to enforce foreign policy sanctions?

Well, that is exactly what the Biden administration worries about. As part of growing concerns of whether unregulated currencies undermine a whole host of policies, sanctions and foreign or trade policy should be a priority area. And just like others who wish to evade tracing of their wealth or transactions, the very states or their sanctioned entities should be assumed to resort to all options to evade restrictions while continuing to do business. So having cryptocurrencies undermining the ability to enforce strategic goals logically raises eyebrows in Washington.

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Back in August, when the Taliban took over, we asked whether anyone in the international community would recognize them. Now it looks like things are heading that way.

This week, the Kremlin hosted a summit with the Taliban that was attended by China, India and Pakistan, as well as all five Central Asian Republics.

The domestically-focused US, however, wasn't there. The US continues to maintain that the Taliban can't be trusted. But does it matter? In 2021 does a Taliban-led government even need American recognition to function and thrive?

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For Kevin Rudd, former Australian PM and now CEO of the Asia Society, the science on climate change is pretty much done, so the only unresolved issues are tech and — more importantly — lack of political leadership. He can't think of a single national political leader who can fill the role, and says the only way to get political action on climate is to mobilize public opinion.

Rudd joined for the first of a two-part Sustainability Leaders Summit livestream conversation sponsored by Suntory. Watch here and register here to watch part two Friday 10/22 at 8 am ET.

Taking place on October 21 and 22, the Sustainability Leaders Summit will go beyond preexisting narratives and debate priorities for governments and industries ahead of COP26. Placing the spotlight on Asia's role in the global sustainability agenda, the event will address whether Asian countries and companies can achieve shared sustainability goals, and what is needed to help get them there. The summit will be co-hosted by Tak Niinami, CEO of Suntory Holdings, and Ian Bremmer, founder and president of Eurasia Group and GZERO Media. We will address three key questions: How can Asian countries, with the help of the private sector, achieve shared Sustainability Goals? Why does this matter? And what are the policy changes needed to bring it about?

Attendance is free and open to the public. Register to attend.

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The minutiae of supply chains makes for boring dinner table talk, but it's increasingly becoming a hot topic of conversation now that packages are taking much longer to arrive in the consumer-oriented US, while prices of goods soar.

With the issue unlikely to be resolved anytime soon, right-wing media have dubbed President Biden the Grinch Who Stole Christmas, conjuring images of sad Christmas trees surrounded by distraught children whose holiday gifts are stuck somewhere in the Pacific Ocean.

It hasn't been a good run for Uncle Joe in recent months. What issues are tripping him up?

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Ian Bremmer shares his insights on global politics this week with a look at the NBA's latest rift with China, Brazil's Senate investigation, and COVID booster shots.

China wipes Boston Celtics from NBA broadcast after the "Free Tibet" speech from Enes Kanter. Is NBA boxing itself into a corner?

Nice mixed sports metaphor there. NBA has some challenges because they are of course the most progressive on political and social issues in the United States among sports leagues, but not when it comes to China, their most important international market. And you've seen that with LeBron James telling everyone about we need to learn better from the Communist Party on issues like Hong Kong and how Daryl Morey got hammered for taking his stance in favor of Hong Kong democracy. Well, Enes Kanter's doing the same thing and he's a second-string center. Didn't even play yesterday and still the Chinese said that they were not going to air any Boston Celtics games. Why? Because he criticized the Chinese government and had some "Free Tibet" sneakers. This is a real problem for a lot of corporations out there, but particularly publicly, the NBA. Watch for a bunch of American politicians to make it harder for the NBA going forward, saying how dare you kowtow to the Chinese when you're all about "Black Lives Matter" inside the United States. No fun.

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