March 24, 2021
Mark Zuckerberg launches a new algorithm to weed out politically divisive content, but there's one message he didn't expect.
Mark Zuckerberg launches a new algorithm to weed out politically divisive content, but there's one message he didn't expect.
Hello, it's Marietje Schaake here, and this is Cyber In :60. A little bit about me. I work at Stanford University. Before that, I spent 10 years as a member of European Parliament and continue to be involved with a number of not-for-profit boards, including as president of the Cyber Peace Institute.
Now, in this series, we're going to look under the hood of the internet, zoom in on technology to show you why the topic of cyber is both personal and geopolitical, touching on your freedoms, your rights, our economy, our security, and so much more.
Now, with that, I have your first question of the week ready to go, which is, "Are Europe and the US at odds when it comes to the ongoing Big Tech regulatory battles?"
I would say yes, but they may also complement each other. Of course, there is a different starting point. The US traditionally strong on national security, the EU on the other hand very much focused on rights protections. But along those different lines, combined you can see the contours of a democratic governance model to deal with technology, and that is what I do think we need in light of the shared challenges that the EU and the US face coming from China, but also from the growing power of tech companies, the privatization of governance, and both erode democracy.
Second question, "What is happening between Facebook and Australia?"
Well, poof, we've seen a lot of flip-flopping. Facebook overnight removed links to news sites in Australia as a hardcore last ditch lobbying effort, but then new talks with the Australian Government happened and now there seems to be a lull in the fight.
Third question, "As the investigation into the SolarWinds cyber hack continues, what have we learned?"
Well, we've learned how connectivity brings along new vulnerability and that a blind reliance on tech companies and the software that they sell is very risky.
I think I have to leave it at that. Thank you so much. My name is Marietje Schaake. That was your Cyber In :60. Well, I think it was more like 120 seconds, but see you again soon.
Facebook "refriends" Australia: Last week, Facebook abruptly blocked news from appearing on Australian users' feeds after Canberra proposed a law requiring Big Tech companies pay news outlets for sharing their content. Facebook came under fire globally for banning news sharing in Australia, including crucial public health announcements on COVID. Now, five days later, Facebook has reversed course to suddenly lift the news ban. "Facebook has re-friended Australia," Australian Treasurer Josh Frydenberg said after speaking with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. So, what changed? The two sides say they have reached a compromise, though some details remain murky. The Australian government will make several amendments to the Big Tech bill — including one that will allow Facebook to circumvent the new code and avoid hefty fines — if the social media platform shows a "significant contribution" to Australia's local journalism scene. In theory, this would require Facebook to prove it has cut enough deals with Aussie media companies to pay them for content — but what constitutes "enough" remains unclear. Frydenberg said Australia has been a "proxy battle" for the rest of the globe on Big Tech regulation. Indeed, Europe and the US have been fastidiously taking notes.
Afghan peace talks resume: After a month-long break — during which America inaugurated a new president — US-brokered peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban are finally scheduled to resume on Tuesday in Doha, Qatar. This comes as the Biden administration is reviewing the tenuous peace deal brokered by the Trump administration and the Taliban last year, which stipulates a May 1 deadline for the withdrawal of all US combat forces in Afghanistan if the Taliban stop launching deadly attacks (spoiler: they have not). Washington has yet to commit to pulling out some 2,500 US troops that remain there, but US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin suggested this week that more progress is needed before a decision can be reached. The Taliban, for their part, are adamant that the US withdraw without further delays. This puts Biden in a tough spot: he supports the previous Trump administration's move to end American involvement in Afghanistan after two decades of war, but worries that a hasty withdrawal will clear the way for the Taliban to push aside the US-backed government and again take over the country. As the May deadline fast approaches, Joe Biden can't stay on the fence for much longer.Filipino nurses for European vaccines: In the latest twist to the Philippines' messy vaccine rollout, the government has now offered to send additional nurses to Germany and the UK... in exchange for an unspecified amount of jabs for Filipino overseas workers. Berlin and London have yet to respond to the bizarre proposal, which comes as Manila seeks to ship more of its labor force to shore up their remittances for the ailing domestic economy. Interestingly, the offer was made public a day after Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte shocked the country by blocking planned purchases of the Pfizer and Moderna jabs to make way for his preferred choice of China's Sinopharm vaccine, which (surprise!) is being pushed by Duterte's own special envoy to China, a former TV host who has applied to be a local distributor for Sinopharm. And it gets better: the same envoy also admitted being inoculated months ago with smuggled doses of the Chinese jab, along with members of Duterte's own security detail. We're watching to see which professional group — seafarers, perhaps? — the Philippines will pitch next as part of its new labor-for-vaccine program.
UN demands equitable vaccine rollout: After revealing that 10 wealthy countries have bought up a whopping three-quarters of available COVID vaccines while 130 nations have yet to receive a single dose, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres called on Thursday for a global vaccination plan so everyone can roll out vaccines as soon as possible. Guterres' appeal comes as COVAX — the global facility that aims to provide vaccines to the developing world — has already fallen behind on its goal to inoculate at least 20 percent of the world's population by the end of 2021. Fed up with the delay, in recent weeks many developing countries have bypassed COVAX to purchase their own jabs directly from China, India, and Russia. But even scaling up private deals won't be enough to offset what the World Health Organization has dubbed the "moral failure" of leaving poor nations behind on vaccinations. There are also economic considerations at play: vaccine hoarding by wealthy nations could cost the global economy as much as $9.2 trillion this year, according to an ICC study. We're watching to see if the UN's task force will do anything to move the needle on equitable vaccine distribution, because the world is not going back to normal until most countries get jabs into arms.
Hotel Rwanda hero's trial begins: Former hotel manager Paul Rusesabagina — famous for the Hotel Rwanda biopic — is credited with saving over 1,200 Tutsis and Hutus during the 1994 Rwandan genocide. His heroism earned him international accolades, including a US Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005. As Rusesabagina's star rose, he used his platform to criticize Rwanda's President Paul Kagame for human rights abuses and stifling dissent. Now, Rusesabagina, — a citizen of Belgium and US permanent resident — is standing trial in Rwanda, charged with murder and being a member of a terrorist organization. Authorities say the charges are linked to Rusesabagina's support for the Rwandan Movement for Democratic Change, accused of coordinating a string of attacks by rebel groups in southern Rwanda in 2018. But supporters of Rusesabagina say that the trial is a sham, and retaliation for his public criticism of Kagame, who has ruled the country with a strong hand since ending the civil war in the mid-1990s. The European Parliament, meanwhile, criticized Kigali for breaching the human rights of Rusesabagina, who was kidnapped last fall in Dubai, and has been held in solitary confinement ever since.Facebook blocks news in Australia: In response to a proposed Australian law that would make Big Tech firms pay for news content shared on their sites, Facebook has banned Australian Facebook users from reading or accessing news on the platform. Content produced by Australian media outlets is now also unavailable on Facebook feeds outside of the country. Prime Minister Scott Morrison reacted on Facebook, posting that the company's actions — including temporarily blocking information from health and emergency services improperly classified as news — "were as arrogant as they were disappointing." Morrison drew a sharp contrast between Facebook's aggressive swipe at Canberra with the more compromising approach shown by fellow Big Tech firm Google, which previously threatened to cut off Australians from its search engine over the same proposed law but this week agreed to pay for news content from Rupert Murdoch's News Corp media empire. Facebook's news ban in Australia is just part of a growing worldwide debate over whether Big Tech companies should be on the hook for news content created by independent media outlets that is shared on their platforms without remuneration. We'll be watching to see how the dispute plays out in Australia, and how it might impact similar debates playing out in Europe and the US.
Ian Bremmer's Quick Take:
Hi everybody, Ian Bremmer here. And happy Tuesday to you. I've got a Quick Take starting a little bit later because heck, we had a day off yesterday. It was President's Day. I hope you all enjoyed it. And even in Texas, I know it's tough down there right now, and not much fun. Here in New York, it's actually starting to thaw, which I appreciate, Moose does too.
Want to talk a little bit about hypocrisy, about truth, about authenticity, and what it means in today's environment. There is so much of the news that is driven by people not being trustworthy, by fake news.
And what I see the last few days, of course, with the failed impeachment, not a surprise, but so many people at the beginning thought that Senate minority leader, now, McConnell was actually going to vote against Trump, and he did not. And instead, he said that this is not the domain for the Senate. It should go to the justices, or should go to a criminal case, or a civil case, which is, of course, false. It's all about just maintaining power for the Republican party.
I see the CDC in the United States now going back on guidance around opening schools that they had offered with the best of their healthcare expertise that they have because teachers' unions in the United States have so much influence over the Democratic party. And so, as a consequence, it's going to be very difficult to go ahead with those school openings with a lot of damage to the students continuing as a consequence. I can go on and on and on.
But what I think is important to understand is that your business model is your values. It is what you actually spend all of your time trying to accomplish and to maximize. Your business model is your values. And so frequently we look at what people say, and we look at their communication strategy, and we forget what their business model is. And so, understanding the fundamental drivers of an organization, or people that are leading that organization so much more important. When you join an organization, understanding that is absolutely critical.
And when I think about culture, you can change culture. If you change the... because culture is about the people. Who are the people in an organization? Do you like them? What are they like? How ambitious are they? How oriented are they towards other people? Are they introspective? Are they experts? Are they super intellectuals? Are they deeply aggressive? You can change culture. And, indeed, you can change priorities because leadership and management is all about which priorities you put lots of resource in, you put the most effort in. If you change out that leadership, you'll change the priorities, you'll change the orientation. But you can't change the values without changing the business model. And business models tend to be very sticky.
When I think about climate change, and the science on climate change is not perfect, but it has been overwhelmingly in one direction for decades now. And virtually all of the effort to push back against that science was about business models, which were fundamentally going to be undermined by moving towards the science. And that's not just true in terms of coal and fossil fuel companies, and infrastructure that relies on them, and also bureaucracies that are paid by those people, and other organizations and studies that are aligned to them. But we have seen this go on now for decades. And the arguments will change as is required by the business model.
So, for decades, we have people saying that climate is not changing, that the science is unproven. And that worked for a long time, and then it didn't. And so, then the fallback position was it's changing, but people aren't doing it. It's actually just natural cycles. And so, we shouldn't respond to it. And that worked for about a decade more or less in slowing things down. And then it's, well okay, no it is changing, and it is manmade. And the science has indeed proven we can't stop that anymore. But it certainly is way too expensive to respond to it, to resolve it.
And then, we see that in a surprisingly short amount of time, the cost of solar and of wind and other renewables can be brought down significantly, exponentially. And then, it's well no, but you can't rely on those energy sources. And that too, I mean, just this week with what we're seeing in Texas, and I'm getting all of this inbound today of people telling me about all of the wind that has been taken offline because of the freezing, which is true, but much more gas has been taken offline with the freezing both absolute amounts as well as percentage of total. But that, of course, is not a problem to vested interest. The business model matters.
Now, if you change the business model, if you start investing in a broader portfolio of different types of energy precisely because you understand that these things are changing over time and you take a longer-term perspective that will change your values. But many organizations didn't. And for those that didn't, their values are increasingly directly in opposition to science.
And it's not just that, I think about social media today. I think about Facebook today. I think about how much of what Facebook's comm strategy has been about how good it will be for all of us as individuals to be able to connect and put the best part of ourselves out publicly. And yet, of course, it causes massive amounts of emotional damage. And we know that the executives of these companies do not allow their own kids to have access to the platforms because they understand the addictiveness programmed into the algorithms. But the business model determines the values.
We know that Twitter would be so much less destructive as a place, if it did not have fake bots, people that aren't people that are doing nothing but promoting extreme views that are not differentiated by a lot of folks on Twitter as being real or fake. But those things are aligned with the business model because you make a lot more advertising revenue when you have a lot more people that are spending a lot more time, even if they're not real people, on the platform. Suddenly remove 50% of your users because they're not real, and suddenly your business model is much more problematic. So, it is about the business model.
Whatever your company sells, those are its core values. And if you want to unpack their actions and what they actually do, where they spend their money, what they lobby for, those are your values. If you're working for that organization, those become your values because that's what you are spending your time doing. And it particularly matters if you want to understand the United States, because in the US, the core, the dominant actors in determining the political agenda and strategy are the private sector actors, who capture the regulatory process. They're dominant in China. It's not, in China, it's the state. And so, you'd want to understand what's the business model fundamentally for the state, which is political stability, and not economic maximization. And when those two things come into contact, come into conflict the Chinese government overwhelmingly chooses political stability in ways that a lot of Americans, in the foreign policy establishment, frequently get wrong, because they assume that the Chinese also want to grow, grow, grow. Well, yes, except not if it's a threat to the communist party or the state.
And then, in Europe, you have the bureaucracy, the technocrats in Brussels who have most of the power. And individual states have less sovereignty, and private sector actors have less sovereignty. So, you want to understand the business model of a whole bunch of people that spend their entire careers in Brussels, reasonably well-paid, and aligned to the perpetuation of those institutions.
So, if you want to change your values, you need to change what you actually do. If you want to change a company's values, you need to change their business model. And that's much stickier and it's much harder to do. And in an environment where we are saying that increasingly capitalism does not work as presently constructed for a lot of average citizens, you can see why the United States is actually in a more difficult position to respond, because it's not the state that's going to have the influence. It's not the bureaucracy that's going to have the influence. It's the private sector actors themselves.
And so, one has to look into those private sector actors and see which of them have business models that are themselves most aligned with making the changes. Climate is now happening to a greater degree in the United States because with coronavirus you had this sudden mass acceleration of power towards a whole bunch of companies whose business models aren't aligned with undermining science on climate. And those that are, are vastly weaker than they used to be. But, on most other issues, that is a big challenge in the United States. Something we are going to spend a lot more time on going forward.
So, I hope that was worthwhile and interesting. Look forward to keeping in touch over the course of the week and going forward. Be good, stay safe, and avoid people.
What does renowned tech journalist Kara Swisher make of the swift and near-universal social media ban imposed on former President Trump shortly after the January 6 Capitol riots? She supported the move, but she doesn't think these companies should be left off the hook either. "Why are these systems built this way so someone like President Trump can abuse them in such a fashion. Or in fact, not abuse them but use them exactly as they were built." Her conversation with Ian Bremmer is part of the latest episode of GZERO World.
The technology of the 1990s looked nothing like today's connected world—and the internet hosted just a fraction of the billions of people who now use it every day. Yet, Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, passed in 1996, is the law that governs rights and responsibilities of social media companies…that weren't even around when it was written. Ian Bremmer explains on GZERO World.
Pros and cons of vaccine passports: As a growing number of countries roll out COVID vaccines, the World Health Organization has started working on a global "vaccine passport" certification that it hopes will be recognized across the globe. In theory, such a document would exempt global travelers from having to provide negative tests and undergo quarantines upon arrival. But here is where it gets tricky: While countries whose economies are heavily reliant on tourism like Greece are lobbying in favor of the effort so they can get tourists back in their hotels and restaurants, it's still unclear whether vaccinated people, who are protected from getting sick themselves, can transmit the virus to others. If some countries or regions jump the gun and lift restrictions for those with proof of vaccination, it could lead to a potential deluge of infections which would in turn result in fresh lockdowns and more economic turmoil. On the other hand, if vaccines do provide to be a safeguard against disease transmission, a global standard to verify who's gotten the jab could avoid the chaos associated with different nations' medical standards. The WHO has done it before with its famous "yellow card" that documents vaccinations against a range of diseases like rubella and cholera. Will it be able to come up with a paperless version that will be broadly accepted?
Australia takes on Big Tech: In the latest row in the Big Tech world, Google has threatened to cut off search engine access for all Australian users (19 million each month) after a proposed bill would require Google and Facebook to pay a licensing fee to media companies for sharing their content. Facebook followed up by warning it'll block Australian users from posting news stories to its feeds if the bill turns into law. Google says it's willing to negotiate, but that the Australian bill goes too far. Specifically, the tech giant rejects establishing an automatic arbitration model which would allow Australian courts to decide how much Google should pay if it can't reach an agreement directly with a publisher (this would open Google up to infinite financial risks, the company says). The row with Australia is surely a sign of what's to come around the globe. While the EU agreed to a bloc-wide copyright rule in 2019, some individual nations still need to pursue their own additional copyright laws — France recently did so and subsequently struck a deal with Google over licensing fees for content producers. But those who haven't done so yet will be watching the outcome of the messy dispute with Australia very, very closely.Nigerian military reshuffle: In response to growing pressure to improve Nigeria's rapidly deteriorating security situation, President Muhammadu Buhari, who came to power promising to oversee an era of safety and stability in Nigeria, has taken the bold step of replacing military commanders and the entire defense department. Although he didn't give a reason for the reshuffle, Buhari — a former general who led a military junta that ruled Nigeria in the early 1980s but was elected as a civilian in 2015 — has struggled to make progress on the multiple security crises facing the country. Nigeria is currently suffering a spike in jihadist violence from Boko Haram and Islamic State-affiliated groups, fresh attacks by pirates in the Gulf of Guinea, bloody clashes between Christian farmers and mostly Muslim nomadic herders, and a resurgent separatist movement in Biafra. What's more, Nigeria is still reeling from the popular backlash against police brutality that sparked the #EndSARS protests last October. Interestingly, the new top brass is considerably younger than the previous military leadership, but it remains to be seen whether they can get the job done.