Is Facebook like a car or a cigarette?

Is Facebook like a car or a cigarette?

It's been a rough week so far for Facebook. Accidentally cutting off 3.5 billion people from your services on day one, and then on day two watching a former employee describe in detail to Congress the many ways in which your product harms children and corrodes society generally: this is not good for a brand. But will it spur US lawmakers to beef up regulation of the tech giants?

There are two answers: probably no. and maybe yes.


Probably no. The outage, massive and unprecedented as it was, turned out to be a technical glitch. A horrible day for Facebook IT, to be sure, and it produced some epic Tech-on-Tech trolling, but will it really give fresh legs to calls to "break up Big Tech"? That feels less likely today than it did yesterday. For one thing, bad as the outage was, its main victims were small businesses who depend on Instagram and Facebook to reach customers. Yes, they lost a day's worth of orders, but they are a widely-dispersed constituency of relatively small-fry economic players. What's more, Facebook's size and reach is in many ways precisely what they've signed up for. For them the outage is largely an IT screwup, not an antitrust issue.

Second, with the exception of Facebook itself, the outage didn't pose a major problem for the operations of large, powerful corporations with lots of lobbying power. If we'd seen a similar outage at a cloud services provider — say, a Microsoft or an Amazon Web Services — whose servers hum for some of the world's richest and most influential companies, we might be having a very different conversation right now. In the end, the Great Facebook Outage of 2021 could well be remembered as an embarrassing blip rather than a regulatory watershed. So long as it doesn't happen again.

Maybe yes. The Tuesday morning Capitol Hill testimony by former Facebook employee Frances Haugen was an altogether more serious challenge for the company. Over the weekend, Haugen revealed herself as the person who in recent weeks had leaked to the Wall Street Journal a damning trove of internal documents showing that Facebook was keenly aware of the harm that its products inflict on children but had chosen to place "profits over people." Facebook's own executives went to Capitol Hill to deny this charge last week, but they've already suspended development of two kid-focused products on their Messenger and Instagram platforms.

A critical point of Haugen's remarks before the Senate subcommittee on Tuesday concerned the need to tackle harmful content, not by playing endless whack-a-mole with individual posts, but on regulating the algorithms that are tuned to maximize profit by serving up the most toxic and addictive content. If the Department of Transportation has insight into the safety of our cars, she asked — why shouldn't the government have similar power over the safety of our algorithms?

Moves by lawmakers on that front would mark a significant step in tech regulation. Could there be bipartisan movement in that direction? Republican Senator John Thune has already sponsored bills to regulate algorithms, while his Democratic colleague Richard Blumenthal, who chaired the subcommittee hearing, pronounced it a "Big Tobacco moment" for Big Tech, invoking the regulatory kneecapping of the cigarette industry over the past 20 years.

Other near-term measures could include a strengthening of child privacy protections for social media. Facebook itself seems resigned to the likelihood of new rules: while the company cast doubts on Haugen's expertise, it did say it is "time for Congress to act" to create clearer rules of the road for the internet. (Naturally, Big Tech will seek to influence the writing of those rules, of course.)

But how far will any new bipartisan bonhomie on regulating Silicon Valley go? The need to protect kids is something most agree on, but there are still big divides between Republicans and Democrats about broader issues of "Big Tech regulation". Democrats tend to focus on the need to police misinformation, squelch hate speech, and — particularly among progressive lawmakers — curb the market power of Big Tech players. Republicans, meanwhile, have focused chiefly on Silicon Valley's perceived liberal bias and stifling of free speech.

Comments section. Haugen's testimony has concentrated lawmakers' minds, but it's unclear how far any new regulatory push will go. Big Tech has big problems, but lots of users and deep, deep pockets.

In a new episode of That Made All the Difference, Savita Subramanian, head of ESG Research, BofA Global Research, explains why ESG factors are critical to why some companies succeed and some fail.

"I think 10 years from now, we won't even call it 'environmental, social and governance,' or ESG investing. We won't call it sustainable. It'll just be part of investing," she says.

Link to the episode here.

Right now, only one region of the world is reporting an increase in new daily COVID cases. Here's a hint: it's one of the places where vaccines are, for the most part, easiest to get.

It's Europe. According to the World Health Organization, the region last week notched a 7 percent uptick in new daily infections, the third week in a row that infections rose there.

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Jon Lieber, head of Eurasia Group's coverage of political and policy developments in Washington, shares insights on US politics:

How are Democrats going to finance their $2 trillion spending bill?

Well, I don't know. And the Democrats don't know either. The original idea was to undo a lot of the Trump tax cuts from 2017. This is a very unpopular tax bill that every Democrat voted against, but moderate Senator Kyrsten Sinema told the White House earlier this month that she's against any and all tax rate increases. This takes the top individual income tax rate going up off the table. And it takes the top corporate rate going up off the table. And it probably takes capital gains rates going up off the table. So, now the Democrats are scrambling to backfill that revenue that they can no longer raise through rate increases with other ideas. One of those ideas is a tax on the unrealized gains of billionaires.

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The US is the world's largest economy. It's also the only one among the top 10 that has no national paid parental leave scheme. If you or your partner have a baby in the US the message is clear: you're on your own. Compare that to many European countries, which offer cushy paid leave schemes for new parents – more generously for women. Even countries that don't have a robust social safety net offer paid parental leave in some form. We take a look at how the US stacks up on paid parental leave (or lack thereof) compared to the world's largest economies.

How can we go from "fine words" to "fine deeds" at the upcoming COP26 climate summit in Glasgow? For Inger Andersen, head of the UN Environment Program, it's actually quite simple. The world's top 20 economies, she says, are responsible for over three-quarters of global carbon emissions, so if they "make the requisite shifts, frankly we are out of the climate crisis." Watch her interview with Ian Bremmer on the upcoming episode of GZERO World.

On 30-31 October, the world's top leaders will gather in Rome for this year's G-20 Summit. After the pandemic forced them to meet last year by videoconference, the heads of state will once again be attending in person, allowing for the type of parallel, one-on-one meetings that have proven more productive in the past. Still, many critics of the G-20 have come to see the forum as a talk shop, a place where a lot is said but nothing really happens. Will this year be any different, given the long list of challenges the world faces, from COVID to climate change? We talked with Eurasia Group expert Charles Dunst to set the stage and find out where things are going.

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From overall health and wellness to representation in the global workforce, women and girls have faced serious setbacks over the past 18+ months. They also hold the key to more robust and inclusive growth in the months and years ahead: McKinsey & Company estimates that centering recovery efforts on women could contribute $13 trillion to global GDP by 2030.

On October 28th at 12pm ET, as part of our "Measuring What Matters" series, GZERO Media and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation will look beyond traditional indicators of economic recovery to examine COVID-19's impact on girls and women, specifically in the areas of health and employment.

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Will Biden finally be able to pass his spending package? For months, the White House and Democrats in Congress have been locked in a stalemate over the two infrastructure bills that form the bedrock of Biden's policy agenda. But is the wrangling drawing to a close? It certainly doesn't look like it. On Wednesday, the White House unveiled a billionaire tax, which would take effect for the 2022 tax year in order to help pay for the ambitious proposals currently making their way through Congress. If it passes, the bill will affect around 700 US taxpayers with more than $1 billion in assets, as well as those who make $100 million or more in income for three years in a row. To date, two moderate Democratic senators – Arizona's Kyrsten Sinema and Joe Manchin of West Virginia – have opposed conventional tax hike increases, but will they support this more limited scheme that will help rescue Biden's policy agenda? Manchin appears to be skeptical of the proposal, and it's unclear what Sinema's game plan is. Still, chasms remain on parts of the spending package itself, including healthcare coverage, and how to pay for it all.

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