Playing With (Digital) Fire

As any fan of martial arts knows, one of the best moves is to take an attacker's weapon and turn it back on them. In 2016, that's just what Beijing did – in cyberspace: after American operatives used a particular bit of code to attack Chinese computer systems, Chinese hackers took it, repurposed it, and used it to attack a bunch of US allies, according to The New York Times.

The technical details of the story are fascinating, but it also raises some big political questions:


If countries can't control their cyber arsenals, can they at least establish some ground rules for how they are used? Avoiding a destructive free-for-all in cyberspace may depend on it. But hacking tools aren't like conventional or nuclear arms, where countries have agreed to enforceable limits on capabilities and behavior. They're invisible, with no real way to count them or verify they've been destroyed, and prone to being stolen.

And despite an ongoing attempt by the US and its allies to deter bad behavior by indicting hackers, imposing sanctions, and even threatening military force in response to malicious cyber-attacks, there's nothing in cyberspace comparable to the doctrine of mutually assured destruction that has helped deter and prevent conflicts between nuclear-armed powers.

Why is that so difficult? For one thing, it's relatively easy to hide your identityor get hired guns to do your bidding in cyberspace – making it hard for the victims of cyber-attacks to be 100 percent confident in targeting their response.

There's also a lot of mischief that state-backed hackers can get up to that is short of outright war, but can still hurt an adversary (think: swiping personal data that can help identify spies or stealing trade secrets). Governments don't want to give those capabilities up. This helps explain why attempts to establish widely agreed, enforceable "cyber norms" have made limited progress, despite 15 years of wrestling with the issue at the UN.

The upshot: We already knew the US was struggling to secure its cyber arsenal. Now we know that just using a cyber weapon means there's a risk it'll be stolen and used by someone else. As more countries gain access to these tools, reaching a basic agreement on rules of behavior will become even more important.

Is anti-trust action a good way to deal with tech companies?

It is certainly a way to get the attention of tech companies. They fear it massively. But breaking up these companies into different components - way harder than most people think.

Is Apple changing the iPad?

Why yes they're totally changing the operating system of the iPad. They've given it a new name. They are making it more like a computer and less like a big phone or a tweener more like a laptop

Are Facebook ads discriminatory?

Some are discriminatory. But it's hard to see whether the problems are with the data the advertisers have the data Facebook has, the interactions between the two. And in fact to make ads not discriminatory. Facebook would have to figure out the race, gender, of all of its users which could involve privacy violations So very complicated, hard to get right, but something to work on.

Last, The Rant: there are way too many robocalls. They're coming in nonstop. If my phone wasn't on airplane mode one would probably come in right now. The FCC has started some action, but they should do way more.

I'm in Athens for a bit of a different Media in 60 this week. I'm at a media conference where everyone has been reading the same piece of research. The digital news report out of the Reuters Institute in Oxford. Really the biggest piece of media research to come out every year. I recommend you read all 150 pages. However, for now, I'll give you the Cliff Notes in 60 seconds.

First pivot to pay more and more newsrooms are moving to subscription or membership model but the number of people willing to pay for news is actually plateauing and when they do pay it's only for one subscription. So it is a winner takes all model and in a battle between the New York Times subscription and your Netflix, Netflix almost always wins.

Second is pivot to private. So we're seeing declining use of Facebook though people are not giving it up altogether. Increased use of WhatsApp and Instagram which is good for them because it's the exact same company. Those were a couple of really smart acquisitions. We're also seeing more and more sharing and commenting of news in private or semi-private groups rather than in public feeds because probably people just feel safer there.

Third is pivot to audio. Podcast is in. 1 in 3 people have listened to one in the past month 1 in 2 for the under 35 audience and finally trust always a big issue. Trust is down two points to 42% of people saying they generally trust the media less than half of people even trust outlets that they themselves go to for their news. People feel that journalists are better at breaking news than explaining it so hopefully I'm explaining here. And also we're seeing massive news avoidance one in three people just avoiding the news. It's up 11 points in the UK because people are so so fed up with Brexit understandably.

Fair courts. Independent prosecutors. Clean police. Leaders who are held to account… These things are essential for a society to function under what we call rule of law. In a busy news week, three of the biggest stories in the world shared a common thread: the rule of law is in trouble.

After violent clashes in Hong Kong between police and activists, local legislators have postponed debate over a controversial new law that would permit the extradition of Hong Kong residents to mainland China. More protests are expected this weekend, but Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam, who enjoys the strong backing of China's leadership in Beijing, still intends to see the law through.

Spoiler: it's only a matter of time before she does. That will leave Hong Kongers subject to a mainland judicial system that is far more politicized and opaque than their local courts. What's more, Ms. Lam wants to dust off long-shelved proposals that would give Chinese authorities more leeway to crack down on dissent in the former British territory.

Meanwhile, earlier this week, the Kremlin responded to an unusually strong outcry over the bogus jailing of Moscow-based investigative journalist Ivan Golunov, by intervening to scrap the charges and fire two senior officers responsible for the arrest. That sounds like good news – and for Mr Golunov it most certainly is. But selective intervention by a Tsar-like president isn't at all the same thing as true rule of law. Both the arrest and subsequent intervention by President Vladimir Putin reinforce the pattern of arbitrary power that is one of Russia's biggest and most stubborn problems.

And sometimes the rule of law can suffer if prosecutors abuse that power. Over to Brazil, where the judge who heard trials in the massive "Lavo Jato" corruption investigation that's jailed hundreds of once-untouchable business leaders and politicians -- including the popular leftist former president Luiz Inacio "Lula" da Silva -- appears to have been improperly coordinating with prosecutors. That's according to leaked conversations published by The Intercept earlier this week. The revelations raise questions not only about Lula's conviction, but about the fairness and transparency of the whole probe. And it doesn't help that judge in question -- Sergio Moro -- is now Justice Minister under President Jair Bolsonaro, who cruised to victory in last year's presidential election after Lula was disqualified due to his conviction. Talk about an own-goal for the rule of law.

More trouble brewing in the Strait of Hormuz Two oil tankers were attacked in the Gulf of Oman yesterday, and their crews had to be rescued by Iranian and US naval vessels. This follows attacks on four tankers off the coast of the United Arab Emirates last month. Washington blames Iran, but Tehran — which earlier this week issued vague threats against the US — says the timing is "suspicious." After all, one of the tankers attacked Thursday was Japanese-owned — would Iran hit the vessel right as Japan's prime minister was in Iran on a mission to ease US-Iran tensions? We're watching to see if the temperature rises further between Washington (and its Gulf Arab allies) and Tehran, but we're also watching the gas pump: 20% of the world's traded oil passes through the Strait of Hormuz every day.

Boris Johnson — Former UK foreign secretary Boris Johnson on Thursday topped the first official ballot of Tory MPs in the race to succeed outgoing Prime Minister Theresa May. Boris received 114 votes and more than twice as many as the next-closest contender in a crowded field. The results make him a virtual shoe-in to become the next PM in a final vote by 124,000 rank-and-file Conservative party members later this month. Less certain is whether the former London mayor and media personality, whose late-breaking support for Brexit may have played a role in the UK's vote to leave the EU in 2016, can do any better than May in securing a Brexit deal that's acceptable to Parliament.

Protests in Haiti — The Caribbean Island nation has been paralyzed for days by fresh protests demanding the resignation of President Jovenel Moise, whom a government audit has implicated in the misappropriation of millions dollars earmarked for poverty alleviation. But wait… the plot thickens: the money was part of a Venezuelan regional development program in which Caracas allowed Caribbean nations to defer payments on Venezuelan oil imports so they could free up more cash for economic development. Haiti is one of the Western hemisphere's poorest countries. Moise says he has done nothing wrong and that he will be vindicated by a further investigation: we are watching to see if the streets believe him.

What We Are Ignoring

AMLO, Used Plane Salesman — Mexico's President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador announced this week he will sell the luxurious presidential plane he inherited from his predecessor, and direct the cash towards plans to reduce the flow of US-bound migrants that pass through his country. We certainly can't deny that it's a cool plane: a sumptuously appointed Boeing 787 Dreamliner that AMLO says he can get $150 million for. But it'll take a lot more than that to address the problem of desperate Central Americans trying to reach the US border. What's more, AMLO had already promised to sell this plane to help poor people in Mexico. As "man of the people" gestures go, this one sends some oddly mixed messages.