Many of Big Tech’s expected future regulatory challenges are a result of their own making – as in the case of Facebook, Google, and Amazon.
These companies are being charged by some countries with monopolistic tendencies, prompting some of the regulators in states to send warnings to these firms so they can get their act together.
The role of social media on influencing the extraordinary storming of the U.S. Capitol building and tech’s subsequent last-minute efforts to curb disinformation and hate speech has put Big Tech under the spotlight.
Among other unprecedented moves were Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube that banned outgoing U.S. President Donald Trump from their platforms because of the danger his postings represented to public safety.
Clearly a line had been crossed within the sanctity of free speech, putting Trump in essentially the same pitch as terrorists and child pornographers who are banned with zero tolerance from using any social media.
Trump’s tweets were deemed as repeatedly trafficking in disinformation about the U.S. election that evolved into statements that inherently inspired widespread violence.
With the suspension of the former president and various fellow travelers from Twitter and Facebook, the amount of misinformation has dropped markedly. However, it is important to note the calamity of Trump’s exodus has narrowly slipped by U.S. regulations of archiving presidential tweets and postings on various other platforms under the Freedom of Information Act
Also, Facebook and Twitter have eliminated thousands of accounts related to the QAnon conspiracy theory, which wove a dark series of claims about the “DeepState” and child-kidnapping world leadership and expunged the earlier exploding “#StopTheSteal” movement – which claimed massive vote fraud without a shred of evidence.
These moves at cleaning house by Big Tech are first time such action in the political space and illustrate the change of mood and perception from the social media policies in the last few years. This has sparked a worldwide debate over technological jurisdictions on what and whom social media can police on a global stage – especially that countries are leaning towards localizing data extracted from their respective citizens, as Turkey has previously done.
On the U.S. front, Biden will take a much more specific stance on reigning in tech than his predecessor Trump, who only complained about those aspects of that affected him politically, — i.e., Section 230 – which for years has acted as a liability shield for tech separating what is posted on or through these Big Tech services from the services themselves.
Newly sworn-in Biden has promised to get tougher on this particular aspect of Big Tech, such as Facebook for allowing rampant disinformation and has said he will back efforts to repeal of Section 230, which has long served to protect the industry in often controversial cases.
Promulgated more than 20 years ago as part of the Communications Decency Act, Section 230 is a mere 26 words long, but has had a huge impact in protection of Big Tech from liability.
This small codicil was included to allow leeway on freedom of speech, put tech services on similar footing with the U.S. Postal Service, which comparably, is not responsible for the letters people write.
The section opened Pandora’s Box in that tech did not self-police the other side of the issue – the posting of hate speech, disinformation, or inflammatory posting designed to cause violence.
Section 230 reads as follows:
“No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”
Former President Barack Obama continued to endorse this and other “freedom of speech” policies, along with tax rules and financial incentives embraced by the-then younger tech industry in hopes of fostering growth.
From the Obama administration viewpoint this was for purposes of encouraging innovation to a still maturing sector.
Now 12 years later, following Obama’s double term and Trump’s one, forecasts are that Biden will change course on Section 230.
This expected move is not only because the industry has matured, but additionally to all but the most laissez-faire observer, Facebook, Google, Twitter, and comparable services have grown to encompass much modern communications, encompassing a large spectrum of posting and their often-malignant result.
“The era of permission-less innovation is over,” said Darrell West, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who studies tech policy in an interview with U.S. public radio, NPR. “There’s going to be more public engagement, more public oversight and public regulation of the technology sector.”
“Biden will be tougher on the tech sector than Obama was because the party has moved to the left on tech policy,” he said, including the reform of Section 230 known as techs liability shield.
This section of the Communications Decency Act – which at the time, absolved various companies of primary responsibility for what was posted through their services – gave an apt cover from lawsuits, but ultimately is facing stiff and growing opposition from the GOP, Democrats, and European governments, albeit for very different ideological reasons.
As the new administration was sworn in on Jan. 20, the world can set its watches on the speed of change that will take place by regulators and by the tech industry itself, on this and other key regulatory issues.
While Biden is seeking to revoke Section 230 in the near term, he has neither called for immediate cancelation, nor has the upcoming administration proposed comprehensive replacement for the law.
U.S. vs Google
For monopolistic Big Tech, the potential regulatory snowball has started rolling downhill already and will only increases under the Biden administration.
Just days before the Nov. 3 general elections, the U.S. Justice Department filed an anti-trust lawsuit against Google. This legal action against the search giant is to date the federal governments largest such anti-trust gambit but follows closely in similar actions that have been under way in the European Union.
Should such a case prove successful – no doubt after long litigation – Google would find itself spinning off sections of its sprawling business holdings.
A similar case has been also launched charging Facebook with antitrust violations.
As it stands, Democrats in Congress support such anti-trust legal action including Rep. David Cicilline, (D.) Rhode Island, who supervised a 15-month investigation into the monopoly power of Big Tech.
Biden is expected to separate himself from Trump on some particulars of these cases, but not end anti-trust legal actions or legislative action outright.
Venture capitalist and political consultant Bradley Tusk noted in recent media comments that “it’s pretty easy to see that Trump and Attorney General [William] Barr wanted to move it forward quickly before the election,” Tusk said. “I can see a Biden administration saying, ‘Look, we don’t think these decisions were made for the right reasons, we’re going to review this whole thing on our own.’”
However, the overall bipartisan support for toughening regulation stems, in large part, from a dramatic shift in public sentiment on this issue.
The impact of social media on both the 2016 and 2020 elections has led American citizens to increasingly see misinformation, data and information privacy, and excessive market power as serious public policy concerns — concerns that many feels should be addressed by Washington.
In fact, according to a recent a Consumer Reports survey, roughly three in four Americans “worry about the power wielded by today’s biggest tech platforms.”
This issue has also globally spilled over to other countries, as the EU uncovered a set of new regulations for Big Tech, sending a message to leading tech companies to either work with governments or faces the consequences, including large fines and strict regulatory regimes.
Information and Data Privacy
Fears have been growing that tech companies know too much about us.
Tech policy watchers in the US have increasingly focused on a national online privacy law, perhaps similar to the regulations that went into effect in 2017 in Europe. And comparable to California’s tough new data privacy law considered the new aspirational standard for other states in the U.S.
For several years, the international community has been nearly outraged with tech companies gathering personal data in increasingly Orwellian ways.
“I think there’s a very good chance there will be a national privacy law in 2021, mainly because the tech companies want it,” one commentator said. “Their worst-case scenario is having to comply with 50 different sets of state rules, which is a nightmare from their (tech’s) standpoint.”
As COVID-19 has drastically moved work, school, and socializing online, the need for data privacy protections has gained new urgency, experts note.
In a move that counters some of these concerns, the WhatsApp messaging system recently changed its privacy rules with the introduction of a mandatory policy for business users allowing the company to keep a record of persons contacted and groups formed, along with e-commerce orders which are part of WhatsApp Business.
The initially announced policy caused widespread public confusion as it was largely interpreted that the usage policy applied to individual users. The first policy rollout required marked clarification and a delay of the expected launch date by three months into spring of 2021.
The policy entailed Facebook’s ability collect users’ data from the instant messaging app such as their phone number, email address, contacts, location, device ID, user ID, advertising data, purchase history, battery information, product interaction, payment info, crash, performance, and other diagnostic data, customer support, and metadata.
The controversy over the update grew far and wide, with the company publishing statement after statement to clear the confusion and tidal wave of disinformation which claimed that the social media giant would be able to read people’s chats and messages.
Even Instagram’s head Adam Mosseri – which is a subsidiary of Facebook – attempted to clear up the clutter online through various statements.
But all this has fallen on deaf ears.
This sudden flare up and confusion against the social media giant and all its subsidiaries could be attributed to a deeply rooted problem of trust, or lack thereof.
Facebook has a notorious track record when it comes to digital privacy, to the extent of which its CEO Mark Zuckerberg has frequently testified in front of the U.S. Congress and the EU Parliament on that matter.
For many, this outcry against Facebook and WhatsApp could be considered the scapegoat for putting Big Tech under the microscope to address their rising power over the people and their drastic fall from trust by international Net users who number in the billions.
Relations with China’s will be complex and cautious
To some, Trump’s public spat with China-based TikTok showed the former president singling out a Chinese-owned technology company that has been used to lampoon him, citing national security concerns.
To others, the scrutiny of the popular video-sharing app reflects a growing wariness in Washington about China’s overall involvement in the tech industry — a sentiment shared by members of both political parties.
Biden’s approach to China on tech and on trade is expected to be firm and cautious though a general improvement of bilateral relations is expected after the bellicose years of the Trump administration.
Those worries are expected to extend to companies such as Huawei, a major international provider in telecoms equipment that the Trump administration has targeted in a crackdown amid the fight for control over the next generation of wireless technology known as 5G.
“Aggressiveness towards China in terms of trade secrets, China tech companies, potential spying and other issues, I don’t think that’s going to change much,” commenter Bradley Tusk added.
H-1B visas for High-Tech Immigrants
Silicon Valley, and other top tech hubs in the U.S., have for over a decade relied on specialized H-1B visas for tech-skilled immigrant workers.
According to statistics, such expert foreign-born workers comprise a large percentage of industry specialized labor, representing over 60 percent of workers in engineering, mathematics, and computer advanced experts that make up the high-tech industry.
Under the now-former administration, overall immigration crackdown, the number of H-1B workers was diminished. Efforts to try and eliminate the visa category by Trump was blocked by a federal judge.
Biden, during the campaign and in recent statements, has a promised to change this and other immigration rules in the near term, a move hailed by Big Tech.
Yet Biden’s precise plan to overhaul the visa system for high-skilled, foreign-born workers remains unclear and may still nudge companies to hire American workers, according to the policy positions on his presidential campaign website.
Republican chairman of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission, Ajit Patel, handed in his resignation along with GOP commissioner Mike O’Reilly on Jan. 20, which would hand Democratic Party a voting majority of 3-2, expected to impact a number of issues.
Beyond the above discussed Section 230, the question of Net Neutrality will arise amid the huge surge in online usage during the pandemic. Highly expected is that Biden’s FCC will reverse a 2018 order which reclassified broadband providers to Title I services repealing the Obama era’s neutrality rule which restricted charging for higher usage and data caps.
Instead, broadband would be reclassified as Title II services, and additionally, the FCC would prohibit data caps, zero rating and interconnection fees with a new Net Neutrality ruling.
The two Democratic incumbent Commissioners, Jessica Rosenworcel and Geoffrey Stark, are likely nominees to the FCC chief position, though assorted other names have floated.
Also under focus, particularly given the pandemic’s moving of most education online, is the issue of the digital divide, with more than 16 million U.S. students lacking access to the Net.
The particulars of improving internet connectivity for students, rural residents, and low-income Americans remain to be announced – though emphasis would no doubt be put on the E-Rate program which brings broadband access to schools and libraries, and the Lifeline program which helps subsidize low-income citizens, to decrease the digital divide.
America’s blocking of Huawei 5G equipment is expected to remain given the ongoing bipartisan support for this restriction. Thus far, under the 2020 FCC there has been five large spectrum auctions for the 5G space with bidders including telecom giant AT&T and Verizon. The FCC auction netted a record breaking $80 billion, and additional spectrum remains to be auction for satellite 5G players.
Expect 2021’s FCC to be the center of debate as the new administration focuses on a variety of key ICT issues that will shape how Big Tech’s approach to data might be, and how other countries and regulatory bodies will follow suit.
With wires and think tank reports.
Senior Correspondent Yehia El Amine contributed to this analysis.
Global semiconductor market to reach $522 billion in 2021, report finds
While the world came to a screeching halt when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the semiconductor market performed strongly in 2020. Demand by industry was uneven throughout the year due to global lockdowns, remote work, and education, and shifts in consumer buying behavior.
Worldwide semiconductor revenue grew to $464 billion in 2020, an increase of 10.8 percent compared to 2019, according to the Semiconductor Applications Forecaster (SAF) from International Data Corporation (IDC).
The market research company forecasts the semiconductor market will reach $522 billion in 2021, a 12.5 percent year-over-year growth rate. In parallel, the company anticipates continued robust growth in consumer, computing, 5G, and automotive semiconductors.
Supply constraints will continue through 2021; while shortages initially occurred in automotive semiconductors, the impact is being felt across the board in semiconductors manufactured at older technology nodes.
Much like a traffic jam and the ripple effect, a disruption on the semiconductor supply chain operating close to capacity will impact across the supply chain. “The industry will continue to struggle to rebalance across different industry segments, while investment in capacity now will improve the industry’s resiliency in a few years,” the report said.
Looking forward to 2021, there is a continued strong growth in semiconductor sales worldwide as adoption of cloud technologies and demand for data and services remain unchanged. “Global fiscal and monetary policy remain accommodative and will provide a tailwind for continued capital investments in long term infrastructure,” IDC highlighted.
The market for semiconductors in Computing systems, such as PCs and servers, outpaced the overall semiconductor market, growing 17.3 percent year over year to $160 billion in 2020.
“Demand for PC processors remains strong, especially in value-oriented segments,” said Shane Rau, research vice president, Computing Semiconductors. “The PC processors market looks strong through the first half and likely the whole year.” IDC forecasts Computing systems revenues will grow 7.7 percent to $173 billion in 2021.
Growth in Mobile Phone semiconductors was resilient in 2020. “Mobile phone shipments fell by more than ten percent in 2020, but mobile phone semiconductor revenues grew by 9.1 percent due to a shift to higher priced 5G semiconductors, more memory per phone, sensors, and RF support for more spectrum bands,” said Phil Solis, research director for Connectivity and Smartphone Semiconductors.
“2021 will be an especially important year for semiconductor vendors as 5G phones capture 34 percent of all mobile phone shipments while semiconductors for 5G phones will capture nearly two thirds of the revenue in the segment.” IDC forecasts mobile phone semiconductor revenues will grow by 23.3 percent in 2021 to $147 billion.
The Consumer semiconductor market segment rebounded in 2020. Robust sales of game consoles, tablets, wireless headphones and earbuds, smart watches, and OTT streaming media devices fueled segment growth by 7.7 percent year over year to $60 billion.
“Apple, AMD, and Intel showed exceptional growth as consumers upgraded their digital spaces at home,” said Rudy Torrijos, research manager, Consumer Semiconductors. “New gaming consoles from Microsoft and Sony, continued strong sales of wearables from Apple, and the rise in smart home networks managed by Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant will accelerate growth in 2021 to 8.9 percent year over year.”
“Automotive sales recovered in the second half of 2020, but the supply constraints for the automotive semiconductor market for some products will last through 2021 as fires and fab shutdowns further impacted the automotive semiconductor market and it takes time for chips to move through the automotive ecosystem, specifically in the U.S. and Europe,” said Nina Turner, research manager, Automotive Semiconductors. For 2021, IDC forecasts that automotive semiconductor revenue will grow 13.6 percent.
“Overall, the semiconductor industry remains on track to deliver another strong year of growth as the super cycle that began at the end of 2019 strengthens this year,” said Mario Morales, program vice president, Semiconductors at IDC.
“The markets remain narrowly focused on shortages across specific sectors of the supply chain, but what is more important to emphasize is how critical semiconductors are to every major system category and content growth that remains unabated.”
Army of fake fans online boosts China’s global messaging
China’s ruling Communist Party has opened a new front in its long, ambitious war to shape global public opinion: Western social media.
Liu Xiaoming, who recently stepped down as China’s ambassador to the United Kingdom, is one of the party’s most successful foot soldiers on this evolving online battlefield. He joined Twitter in October 2019, as scores of Chinese diplomats surged onto Twitter and Facebook, which are both banned in China.
Since then, Liu has deftly elevated his public profile, gaining a following of more than 119,000 as he transformed himself into an exemplar of China’s new sharp-edged “wolf warrior” diplomacy, a term borrowed from the title of a top-grossing Chinese action movie.
“As I see it, there are so-called ‘wolf warriors’ because there are ‘wolfs’ in the world and you need warriors to fight them,” Liu, who is now China’s Special Representative on Korean Peninsula Affairs, tweeted in February.
His stream of posts — principled and gutsy ripostes to Western anti-Chinese bias to his fans, aggressive bombast to his detractors — were retweeted more than 43,000 times from Jun. through Feb. alone.
But much of the popular support Liu and many of his colleagues seem to enjoy on Twitter has, in fact, been manufactured.
A seven-month investigation by the Associated Press and the Oxford Internet Institute, a department at Oxford University, found that China’s rise on Twitter has been powered by an army of fake accounts that have retweeted Chinese diplomats and state media tens of thousands of times, covertly amplifying propaganda that can reach hundreds of millions of people — often without disclosing the fact that the content is government-sponsored.
More than half the retweets Liu got from June through January came from accounts that Twitter has suspended for violating the platform’s rules, which prohibit manipulation. Overall, more than one in ten of the retweets 189 Chinese diplomats got in that time frame came from accounts that Twitter had suspended by Mar. 1.
But Twitter’s suspensions did not stop the pro-China amplification machine. An additional cluster of fake accounts, many of them impersonating U.K. citizens, continued to push Chinese government content, racking up over 16,000 retweets and replies before Twitter permanently suspended them for platform manipulation late last month and early this month, in response to the AP and Oxford Internet Institute’s investigation.
This fiction of popularity can boost the status of China’s messengers, creating a mirage of broad support. It can also distort platform algorithms, which are designed to boost the distribution of popular posts, potentially exposing more genuine users to Chinese government propaganda. While individual fake accounts may not seem impactful on their own, over time and at scale, such networks can distort the information environment, deepening the reach and authenticity of China’s messaging.
“You have a seismic, slow but large continental shift in narratives,” said Timothy Graham, a senior lecturer at Queensland University of Technology who studies social networks. “Steer it just a little bit over time, it can have massive impact.”
Twitter, and others, have identified inauthentic pro-China networks before. But the AP and Oxford Internet Institute investigation shows for the first time that large-scale inauthentic amplification has broadly driven engagement across official government and state media accounts, adding to evidence that Beijing’s appetite for guiding public opinion — covertly, if necessary — extends beyond its borders and beyond core strategic interests, like Taiwan, Hong Kong and Xinjiang.
Twitter’s takedowns often came only after weeks or months of activity. All told, AP and the Oxford Internet Institute identified 26,879 accounts that managed to retweet Chinese diplomats or state media nearly 200,000 times before getting suspended. They accounted for a significant share — sometimes more than half — of the total retweets many diplomatic accounts got on Twitter.
It was not possible to determine whether the accounts were sponsored by the Chinese government.
Twitter told AP that many of the accounts had been sanctioned for manipulation, but declined to offer details on what other platform violations may have been at play. Twitter said it was investigating whether the activity was a state-affiliated information operation.
“We will continue to investigate and action accounts that violate our platform manipulation policy, including accounts associated with these networks,” a Twitter spokesperson said in a statement. “If we have clear evidence of state-affiliated information operations, our first priority is to enforce our rules and remove accounts engaging in this behavior. When our investigations are complete, we disclose all accounts and content in our public archive.”
China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that it does not employ trickery on social media. “There is no so-called misleading propaganda, nor exporting a model of online public opinion guidance,” the ministry said in a statement to AP. “We hope that the relevant parties will abandon their discriminatory attitude, take off their tinted glasses, and take a peaceful, objective and rational approach in the spirit of openness and inclusiveness.”
BRUSSELS (AP) — By ERIKA KINETZ Associated Press.
Associated Press researcher Chen Si in Shanghai contributed to this report.
Pandemic gives boost as more states move to digital IDs
The card that millions of people use to prove their identity to everyone from police officers to liquor store owners may soon be a thing of the past as a growing number of states develop digital driver’s licenses.
With the advent of digital wallets and boarding passes, people are relying more on their phones to prove their identity. At least five states have implemented a mobile driver’s license program. Three others — Utah, Iowa and Florida — intend to launch programs by next year, with more expected to follow suit.
Mobile licenses will give people more privacy by allowing them to decide what personal information they share, state officials say. The licenses offer privacy control options that allow people to verify their age when purchasing alcohol or renting a car, while hiding other personal information like their address.
Having a mobile driver’s license will allow people to update their license information remotely without having to go to a state’s Department of Motor Vehicles or waiting for a new card in the mail, said Lee Howell, state relations manager at the American Automobile Association.
While most states with these programs recommend that users still carry their physical driver’s license as a backup, some industry experts estimate that the coronavirus pandemic has sped up the widespread adoption of contactless identification methods by at least a decade.
“Most people want some kind of a hard token for their identity, but I don’t know how long that will last,” said Pam Dixon, executive director of the World Privacy Forum. “I would imagine that at some point, maybe in a generation, maybe less, that people will accept a fully digital system.”
In most states, people’s data will be stored on their phone and with the DMV. People will only be able to access a mobile ID app with a passcode or using a smartphone’s fingerprint or facial recognition scan.
Industry leaders say safeguards will prevent anyone’s information from being stolen, but some critics argue that having so much personal data on a phone is too risky.
“When you have a physical thing in your hand, no one can hack that unless you lose it,” said Shelia Dunn Joneleit, a spokesperson for the National Motorists Association.
Joneleit noted that the new systems aren’t accessible to all Americans because not everyone can afford a smartphone. She said that could eventually produce equity issues because some states require residents to show their driver’s license to vote.
She also said she doesn’t believe drivers should be handing their phones over to police, potentially violating people’s Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable searches and seizures.
State officials and industry leaders say that moving away from physical IDs that could potentially be fraudulent to cryptographic verification will make it easier to confirm someone’s identity.
“The majority of the way that people verify your identity in person today is by visual inspection of the identity document,” said Matt Thompson, senior vice president of IDEMIA, a technology company working on several states’ mobile ID apps. “As we move to cryptographic verification, it’s a lot easier to verify the authenticity of a document through digital means.”
IDEMIA has launched mobile ID apps in three states this year and expects to launch an additional seven before 2021 ends, said Angie Hamblen, the company’s senior marketing manager.
Oklahoma’s mobile ID app got underway in 2019 but relaunched with IDEMIA in January with new functions, including the ability to pre-enroll for the federally mandated REAL ID security standards. Both Delaware and Arizona launched their own mobile ID apps in March.
In Utah, over 100 people have a pilot version of the state’s mobile ID, and that number is expected to grow to 10,000 by year’s end. Widespread production is expected to begin at the start of 2022, said Chris Caras, director of Utah’s Driver License Division. The app is being produced by another company, GET Group North America.
Caras said the state is following industry standards for digital IDs that were released late last year because Utah wanted to ensure people could use their mobile credentials anywhere in the U.S.
“Our goal is that anywhere that you’re currently using your hard card, you could use your mobile credential,” Caras said.
Colorado and Louisiana were two of the first states that developed digital identification apps, but they don’t follow the newly released standards and aren’t accepted in other states. Louisiana’s digital ID launched in 2018.
Colorado, along with Idaho, Maryland, Wyoming and Washington, D.C., received a grant to test mobile driver’s licenses in 2016. Colorado Gov. Jared Polis issued an executive order in 2019 authorizing businesses and state agencies to begin accepting the digital ID. Colorado State Patrol started accepting them last November.
SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — By SOPHIA EPPOLITO Associated Press/Report for America.
Eppolito is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.
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