Discover more from Slow Build by Nancy Scola
Ten things to talk about now: Team antitrust assemble — Boris Johnson’s pingdemic — “Xerox forward”
Plus “It literally pays to be extreme” and more
For those of you who got up early or stayed up late to watch the U.S. women’s national soccer team attempt to play Sweden, my condolences. At least this tweet made me laugh. (If you didn’t watch, this is the necessary visual.)
Ten things to talk about now
There’s a lot of stuff swirling at the moment when it comes to tech’s biggest questions, so let’s today touch on a cheating baker’s dozen (yes, that’s a thing — a thing we just invented) of the most interesting things afoot.
THING 1) Biden’s deep dislike of Facebook bubbles through: There are a lot of people in the Biden universe who simply don’t enjoy Facebook. It didn’t start in 2020, when, for example, a Biden official described the company as “shredding the fabric of our democracy.” Instead, it’s inherited from Clinton ’16, when Democrats came away thinking Facebook helped cost their candidate the election by ignoring the circulation of actually false news. Many in Biden world find Facebook people arrogant and willing to operate off incomplete information. To be sure, there are people at Facebook who feel that way about this White House.
Biden tried talking out those feelings in recent days, saying that Facebook was costing people’s lives with its enforcement of its policies on vaccination-related posts. Facebook defended itself by calling that “accusations that aren’t supported by the facts” that amounts to pointless finger pointing. Biden backed away; “Facebook isn’t killing people,” he said. But while the president might have had second thoughts of accusing the company of negligent homicide, the ire remains.
THING 2) There oughta be a (new) law!: Those tensions are helping to fuel the Biden administration’s continued hope of doing something, anything to change Section 230, a section of decades-old communications law that limits online platform’s liability for what users post. White House communications director Kate Bedingfield said Tuesday they’re looking at tweaks. “We’re reviewing that, and certainly they should be held accountable… And I think you’ve heard the president speak very aggressively about this. He understands this is an important piece of the ecosystem.”
That sort of thing would need to go through Congress, and it’s the sort of compromise you might have once seen a Senator Joe Biden shepherd through. But it would require the sort of bipartisan coalition building that isn’t really happening yet on the Hill, where even Democrats can’t agree amongst themselves.
THING 3) Team antitrust assemble: After a long delay that still hasn’t been totally explained, Biden is nominating Jonathan Kanter to head the Department of Justice’s antitrust division. Kanter, who runs a small antitrust-focused law firm in D.C. where he’s advocated for robust antitrust enforcement of tech companies, is a favorite of advocates pushing for new thinking on competition policy in Washington. They even made a dream-team mug about it last spring. (Kanter still needs to be confirmed by the Senate, but that doesn’t seem much of a problem.)
Much antitrust energy in Washington dissipates in the crack between DOJ’s antitrust wing and the FTC; the two share jurisdiction, and the division means that enforcement momentum often goes slippity-dippity through the space between them. There’s work afoot in Congress to clean up that situation, but see the previous item on where the Hill is on this. So in the meantime look to see if Kanter and new FTC chairperson Lina Khan can get along.
THING 4) China bans Kardashianing while a minor: The Cyberspace Administration of China has fined Internet platforms like Sina Weibo and ordered them to clean upa wide variety of content involving young people, including what the BBC translates as “[c]hildren on livestreams and becoming social media influencers, promoting ‘money worship’ and extravagance.” It’s part of a trend of China being more aggressive on its home-grown tech companies that has its version of Silicon Valley discovering the merits of charitable giving. Bloomberg has this chef’s-kiss quote from one Hong Kong-based investor: “It could stem from deep patriotic feelings or Buddhist inclinations, but it appears to be strongly correlated to Beijing’s recent regulatory crackdowns.”
THING 5) “It literally pays to be extreme”: National Journal’s Josh Kraushaar notes that among the top Republican fundraisers in the House this quarter is perhaps the most attention-getting trio in the chamber: Georgia’s Marjorie Taylor Greene (currently on an involuntary Twitter hiatus), Florida’s Matt Gaetz, and Colorado’s Lauren Boebert. Part of it, points out Erielle Davidson of the Jewish Institute for National Security of America, is that online fundraising frees ambitious politicians to appeal nationally for money.
This isn’t exactly a new phenomenon, or one limited to politics. News publications that once served a defined audience now compete story-by-story. Media theorist Clay Shirky has spoken in really interesting ways about how the Boston Globe’s decades of coverage of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church only really had an impact after, circa 2002, the Internet helped it break out of the Boston bubble. Politicians are increasingly competing on an outburst-by-outburst basis to break out of their humble districts.
THING 6) Reconnecting Cuba: Florida’s Governor Ron DeSantis and Senator Marco Rubio are calling on Biden to help Cubans get Internet access again, after the government cut it off amid ongoing protests there. “Technology exists to provide Internet access into Cuba remotely, using the innovation of American enterprise and the diverse industries here,” wrote DeSantis, who’s mentioned maybe using balloons. Biden’s said to be considering it.
THING 7) The British “pingdemic”: There are calls in the UK for the government to turn down the sensitivity settings on a National Health Service contact tracing app after it told half a million people to self-isolate in the first week of this month alone. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is said to not be considering it.
THING 8) “Welcome to the mesh, brother”: Speaking of bringing connectivity to places that could use some more of it, the New York Times profiles attempts to bring cheap, high-speed wireless Internet to Brownsville, Brooklyn. People have tried mesh coverage to fill the gaps in New York City for a while now, so what, if anything, is different this time? For one thing, “The pandemic brought a rush of volunteers along with requests from people needing help to get communities connected.”
THING 9) Assessing algorithm assessments: The group Data & Society is out with a report called “Assembling Accountability: Algorithmic Impact Assessment for the Public Interest.” If that doesn’t roll off the ol’ tongue, know that it’s a deep dive into the challenges of coming up with, yes, so-called algorithmic impact assessments. Also known as AIAs, those are tools for trying to ameliorate the downsides of using formulas in everything from credit decisions to AI-powered disease diagnoses. (Canada’s a fan.) If the full 64-page report isn’t your speed, the six-page policy brief version might do ya.
THING 10) Finally, a fun-language alert: To “Xerox forward,” a verb meaning to just recopy old plans and use them again (in this case, those for the national parks). It’s a neat idea, but one that probably needs updating. “Attach an old PDF to a new email” doesn’t have the same ring to it.