Hello, happy new year and welcome back to Citizen Tech, InformationWeek’s monthly global policy update. In this first issue of 2023, we’ll be looking at December’s biggest stories: the tech investment component of Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act; the cybersecurity risks of TikTok; FTC’s antitrust case against Meta; the wild arrest of one of the European Parliament’s greatest tech cheerleaders; Elon Musk’s troubles in Europe; new American investments in African tech services; and more.
Money for Tech, Green Energy
On December 15, the White House released its first comprehensive guidance on the tax incentives and funding framework that make up the tech and energy component of this year’s Inflation Reduction Act. That Act promised $370 billion in investments across sectors.
It’s a massive document, and on its face unrelated to the normal fare here at Citizen Tech — semiconductor manufacturing, tech antitrust legislation, speech in digital spaces. However, this handbook will likely prove relevant for companies across the tech sector. It’s also surprisingly interesting. Tax credits for nuclear power, for instance, will be awarded at three cents per kilowatt produced, as a base rate. An unspecified amount of money, implied by the text to be connected to the $250 billion in cross-departmental energy loan authority, will support tax credits for domestic manufacturing in a number of industries that keep the tech world running, not least battery cells and critical mineral processing. And you may be happy to read that electric car purchases, including used cars, will earn a tax deduction for people earning less than $150,000 per year.
Zuckerberg in the Dock: Meta v. FTC
Meta’s Mark Zuckerberg has found himself in the sights of Linda Khan’s FTC again, this time for his planned acquisition of Within, a virtual reality gaming company. Within, which makes the popular fitness app Supernatural, would have (and may yet) cost Meta some $440 million, as POLITICO reports. But sirens went off at the FTC, where this maneuver seemed like a cut-and-dry market cornering by Meta. Their complaint, lodged in the San Jose courthouse nearest Meta’s Menlo Park headquarters, claims that “Mr. Zuckerberg has made clear that his aspiration for the VR space is control of the entire ecosystem” (emphasis theirs). FTC’s argument draws a distinction between “dedicated fitness apps” and “incidental fitness apps,” claiming Supernatural as one of the former, a highly concentrated market. It would have been different, they claim, had Meta created a VR fitness app; instead, they attempted to buy one out. POLITICO notes that many of the theories that undergird these arguments are “untested,” part of Khan’s ambitious antitrust vision for the FTC. But Zuckerberg has long had his eye on fitness apps like Peloton, as testimony affirmed. He defended himself rather bizarrely, claiming that Meta’s ambitions were ultimately in favor of a “level playing field,” countering Apple and Google — that, in other words, FTC was bringing an antitrust suit against a natural antitrust enforcer.
It’s one of many curious details in this case. Note, for example, that the boilerplate of the FTC transcript, which had to list Zuckerberg — prophet of virtual life in the Metaverse — as “a natural person.”
The TikTok Spies
On December 22, just in the nick of time, the Senate passed the $1.7 trillion spending bill, keeping the government funded through next year. Nothing in the bill came as a surprise, apart from one small item — the bill bans the TikTok app on Federally owned devices in departments where the app has not already been banned. This has been a rather hot topic this month at the state level, as CNN reports, with a number of states — mostly Republican, but including blue Maryland — banning the video app from their own government-owned devices. TikTok is the property of ByteDance, a Chinese company whose representatives have already told US lawmakers that they can access users’ personal data down to the keystroke, per the New York Times. The data privacy implications are enormous, as are the security implications: as China and the US stare each other down over Taiwan and supply chain dominance, TikTok could potentially feed critical information about a huge tranche of Americans to Beijing; targeted misinformation would be the tip of the iceberg.
Incredibly, just hours after the spending bill cleared the Senate, ByteDance announced that it had, indeed, spied on Western journalists via TikTok, contradicting their previous claims that they never mishandled customer data. The spied-on reporters included the Financial Times’ Cristina Criddle and three former Buzzfeed reporters now working for Forbes. ByteDance’s general counsel scrambled to blame the company’s internal review team, calling this an overzealous search for internal leaks and nothing more.
FT released this statement: “Spying on reporters, interfering with their work, or intimidating their sources is completely unacceptable. We’ll be investigating this story more fully before deciding our formal response.”
War Bulletin No. 11
War technology is not the army’s exclusive affair; advances in digital forensics have made media companies active participants in war. The New York Times provided a grim example this month with its forensic analysis of the Bucha Massacre, the killing of dozens of civilians along one of the main streets of the Ukrainian town of Bucha in March 2022. The Times’ team analyzed storefront security footage, intercepted phone and radio recordings, and cross-referenced data from other organizations to paint as accurate picture of the massacre as possible. They concluded that Russia’s 234th Air Assault Regiment had carried out the murders, shooting not only young men but families with children. The paratroopers’ habit of calling home with their victims’ phones, presumably to save minutes on their own plans, proved a critical piece of data. The Times also proved, through a leaked radio call signal, that the unit’s commanding officer was physically present in Bucha during the massacre.
Cameras have been the most important weapon against war criminals since the Americans tortured Philippine prisoners or Mussolini gassed Ethiopian children; but we are in a new epoch of visual reporting and testimony in war. Matthew Gillett, a war crimes expert from the University of Essex, told the Times that “this kind of digital evidence is a sea change, especially compared to past investigations such as in the former Yugoslavia.”
In Strasbourg: Eva in the Brussels Jail
They’re calling it Qatargate. On December 9, Belgian police arrested five people for accepting hundreds of thousands of euros in bribes from the government of Qatar, controversial host of the then-ongoing World Cup. The most prominent of the group was Eva Kaili, Greek vice president of the European Parliament, as well as her partner Francesco Giorgi, an Italian NGO advisor to Parliament. Between them, Kaili and Giorgi had taken a huge amount of cash from Qatar in exchange for enthusiastic cheerleading in Parliament. The Socialist Kaili called Qatar a “frontrunner in labor rights,” despite their well-known reliance on what amounts to slave labor; she downplayed the degraded status of Qatari women; she dismissed gay rights concerns in the conservative Gulf state; the list goes on.
This doesn’t sound like a tech story, but it is. Before Kaili’s disgrace — and it was a disgrace: at the moment of writing, she is a former MEP looking forward to Christmas in jail — she was one of the most important tech advocates in Strasbourg, per POLITICO. She has sung the praises of blockchain, was instrumental in launching the Centre for Artificial Intelligence, and has integrated her sister Mantalena Kaili’s tech nonprofit, called ELONTech, into the deliberations of the Parliament’s tech panel. (No relation of you-know-who, ELONTech. Apparently.) It’s easy to assume that technology is impersonal, like an atmospheric event, to which politicians react. Not at all. Tech advocacy is tied up in the same shady webs and revolving doors as any other lobby; it is a human undertaking, and not all of its advocates can make a success of it with clean hands.
In Brussels: Elon in the Commission’s sights
Let’s talk about you-know-who, shall we? As Forbes notes, he could be the test bunny for the EU’s Media Freedom Act, a corollary to the Digital Services Act, its inaugural lawsuit. The issue: press freedom, in the uniquely infantile house style of Twitter. Elon Musk accused a number of journalists of doxxing him this month, revealing his whereabouts and thus exposing him to danger; they had retweeted or commented on posts from a user who tracks the movements of Musk’s private jet, which may or may not justify Musk’s anger. Musk had also, apparently, been fuming about the creation of alternative platforms to Twitter, like Mastodon, which promised to (but probably won’t) draw away important users. Late on the 15th, Twitter suspended the accounts of Mastodon (which had its own Twitter account) and a number of journalists, without warning. These included reporters from the New York Times, Washington Post, CNN, the Intercept, MSNBC, and others.
This may be justified by Twitter’s terms of service, but it could also violate EU law. Vera Jourová, vice president for transparency and tech policy boss at the European Commission, tweeted that “News about arbitrary suspension of journalists on Twitter is worrying. EU’s Digital Services Act requires respect of media freedom and fundamental rights. This is reinforced under our #MediaFreedomAct. @elonmusk should be aware of that. There are red lines. And sanctions, soon.”
There are some problems with that kind of big talk from the Commission, though. For one thing, as AP points out, much of the legislation available for prosecuting Musk won’t be in effect until 2024. (The glacial pace of EU law…) The number of Twitter’s users may also frustrate regulators: the maximum sanctions can only be levied if Twitter has 45 million European users, which it likely doesn’t. Besides, there’s plenty of time for things to settle down. French president Emmanuel Macron even met with Musk in person this month to see if they couldn’t avoid such a collision.
But maybe a big clash with Twitter is what the EU needs. A successful lawsuit against Twitter in the next few years will have the same effect as the GDPR victory over Amazon. Europe, once again, will lead the world in shaping our digital lives.
Biden Talks Tech in Africa
One of the least-covered and quickest-expanding tech markets in the world is in sub-Saharan Africa, a hotspot for digital services like mobile banking, the source of minerals that keep computers and batteries alive everywhere, and a younger, potentially more tech-savvy population than aging Europe or Asia. On the 14th, representatives from the African Union met with President Biden at the White House to discuss America’s role in the African digital ecosystem. Biden took the opportunity to launch the Digital Transformation with Africa initiative. The initiative would invest some $350 million in African infrastructure, like mobile networks and smart city projects, along with a further $450 million in financing. The US has long funded projects in African countries, supporting everything from rural health clinics to R&D programs; this initiative will not replace those.
Recommended Reading: “Who Will Rule Twitter Next?”
It’s a provocative essay, not least because it does not a draw a moral conclusion, but if you’re interested in the wider implications of the endless Twitter-and-Elon drama, don’t miss Aris Roussinos’ take in UnHerd. “The conflict between free speech and the good of the community,” he writes, “is fundamentally unresolvable [emphasis ours]. Decisions will always finally have to be made by someone, and those decisions are always by their nature political, arbitrary, and thus always a source of dispute.” He goes on to quote the sinister philosopher of law, Carl Schmitt, to stress that the tech optimism that animated Twitter’s early years was doomed from the start. Schmitt may be the right starting place: Roussinos’ unstated point is to draw a connection between the petty snarls we get into over Twitter and the return of absolutism, empire, and open brutality abroad, from Ukraine to Xinjiang. Roussinos, a former war correspondent who drew fire from ISIS and Libyan mercenaries, knows more about these invisible connections than others. So, indeed, did Schmitt, who would become house philosopher to the vilest regime in human history.
You don’t have to agree with Roussinos’ Conradian pessimism, but his perspective is one you won’t find in most outlets and is always worth listening to.