I’ve been spending the last couple months, on and off, doing a deep dive into the federal policy and national politics around cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin, in part for a story I have coming out in the Information today. We’ll talk about that piece later, but for now, I want to share a learning that I’ve come away with after scores of conversations: no one working in any capacity in this slice of crypto world really and truly fully understands crypto. They’ll quietly admit that, while quickly trying to figure it out behind the scenes before anyone asks the really tough questions. We’re all just people, aren’t we?
Nitasha Tiku’s deep dive into the efforts to turn Puerto Rico into a “crypto paradise” is, for me at least, an introduction to a terrific word: vendepatria, which, conveys in English the idea of “traitor” but which directly translates to “one who sells their homeland.”1'
An FBI official says that the agency would love to have more ransomware reversal successes like the $2.3 million in bitcoin they got back after the Colonial Pipeline attack last spring — a pleasing set of words to crypto advocates who are arguing in Washington that it isn’t the national security threat it’s sometimes made out to be.
Another learning from my crypto reporting: the specter of Facebook’s2 Diem (née Libra) stablecoin hangs over D.C. discussions of all things distributed finance, even though, as a cryptocurrency, it doesn’t actually exist yet. The tone in Washington around crypto shifted — or more precisely, soured — with Facebook’s announcement in June of 2019 that it was going to be poking around in the digital money space. It sparked a reflexive dislike among plenty of members of Congress and their staffers who (a) didn’t really know much about this crypto thing but (b) concluded that if Facebook was interested, it can’t be good.
That’s not hugely surprising. This week — a rather bad one for Facebook on the policy front — was a reminder of how much the tech debate in the United States revolves around the company:
—Katie Harbath is a former Facebook official and D.C. vet who had been running global elections for the company until she left last year, and who has been on a journey since to wrestle with the good and bad of it all. Harbath isn’t a full-bore critic — she says she judges that the company is a net benefit to the practice of politics, if only slightly. But she’s featured in a new Wall Street Journal profile with a synopsis of what she does she as its problem: Facebook fixates on “escalations,” or high-profile problems that pop up higgidy piggidy, rather than worrying about long-term planning rooted in emerging political realities. That, the thinking goes, bit the company in the behind in the run-up to January 6th and the events at the U.S. Capitol. The Journal captures a great quote from another D.C. tech and politics vet, Nu Wexler: “People know where to put a whistleblower and they know where to put a loyal company spokesperson…I don’t know they know where to put someone like Katie.” It’s worth, for that reason alone, to track her path from here.
—The House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol — which is a mouthful — has issued subpoenas to Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, and YouTube after chair Bennie Thompson, Democrat from Mississippi, said that companies have dragged their feet on helping lawmakers understand how misinformation and radicalization played out on their platforms in the run-up to that day.
—The FTC had a big win in its antitrust case against Facebook, with a judge deciding that the agency had — after first failing to do so the first time — made a convincing case that Facebook could be a monopoly in the context of its buying up of Instagram and WhatsApp. It’s only a step on a long road for the agency, but a considerable one, because it’s a judge willing to entertain its (re-)definition of “monopoly,” a key part of the mandate of the Biden-era FTC. Here’s Judge James Boasberg’s memorandum on his ruling; you can tell a judge is having fun when he or she starts with a line like, “Second time lucky?” Also worth noting: Boasberg explains his rejection of Facebook’s argument that FTC chair Lina Khan should recuse herself because of her past statement’s seeming to prejudge the company with a quick, "Khan was acting in a prosecutorial capacity, as opposed to in a judicial role" when she voted to approve the Facebook case.
—(Though don’t say that Facebook never sparks healthy competition. Second Life is baaaaack, with its founder returning to take on the metaverse, again.)
—And the Republican National Committee is said to be exploring a rule change that would require GOP presidential aspirants to opt out of debates held by the Commission on Presidential Debates. If it’s a threat – and the CPD only actually runs the debates between nominees – it’s arguably an executable one, as Republicans have proven in recent years that they can circumvent some of the country’s established institutions with social media. In some ways, it’s a return to the days of yore, when candidates campaigned through partisan news outlets — and pre-1830s, that pretty much meant all news outlets, until advertisers got in the game and demanded publications reach broader audiences. But the debates are one area of common ground in a country that seems to have a lot fewer of them lately. Of course, Donald Trump, as he tends to, upsets any simple math here — if he runs again while still persona non grata on Facebook and Twitter, he just might need the debate stage.
Nigeria’s government is lifting the country’s ban on Twitter. Why now? The company has, for one thing, agreed to open a local office.
The White House National Security Council met with software companies to discuss the security of open-source software, a topic on minds since the Log4j debacle. One emphasis of the session: improving the use of “software bills of materials” – that is, actually knowing what’s in applications, and their cascading vulnerabilities should something go wrong.
—Next Tuesday, Georgetown Law's Institute for Technology Law & Policy and the Wikimedia Foundation are hosting a virtual discussion on "Regulating the Internet Ten Years after the SOPA/PIPA Blackout.” Should be an interesting conversation. “The global drive to control big tech,” reads the event notice, “carries a seeming contradiction: it can be an expression of democracy but can also support authoritarianism.”
A random aside: Once years ago, before a trip to Vieques, I called AT&T to see if there was anything special about using my phone there, a question to which the representation responded to with, “You realize Puerto Rico is part of the United States, ma’am?” Fair enough.
Nope, nope, not doing “Meta” yet.