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By MARK SCOTT
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WELCOME BACK. This is your second-to-last Digital Bridge of 2021. I’m Mark Scott, POLITICO’s chief technology correspondent, and for all of you non-native English speakers out there, I give you a crash course in what people actually mean when they sign off to you via email. Best, Mark (just kidding!)
Grab a chair. There’s a lot to cover:
— Washington tried to take the lead on digital policymaking. It didn’t go so well.
— What Australia can teach the rest of us about tackling online harms.
— Terrorist-related content is still all over Facebook, particularly in war-torn countries.
FIRST RULE OF THE ALLIANCE: DON’T TALK ABOUT THE ALLIANCE
IT WAS SUPPOSED to be Washington’s coming-out party on digital policymaking. At the sidelines of this week’s Summit for Democracy, Joe Biden’s administration had planned to announce the “Alliance for the Future of the Internet,” a United States-led push to put democratic principles like freedom of speech and the free flow of data at the heart of global tech rulemaking. There was just one problem: it got postponed until 2022 after officials couldn’t get the proposal over the line in time.
The plan looked interesting. “Countries should come together and lay out a positive vision for the internet and commit to working collectively and with other stakeholders to achieve it,” according to a draft presentation about the Alliance obtained by Digital Bridge. That included principles like the internet should remain open and secure; people’s data should be protected; countries should counter cyber threats; and businesses must compete fairly, no matter their size.
Yet talking to officials (both those involved in the Alliance and those invited to join), it’s hard not to scratch my head and ask: what exactly does Washington want to achieve with this? Initial draft proposals focused on trade-related issues like data and combating China. Subsequent documents toned down that language to focus on more bland concepts like internet freedoms. Everywhere you looked, cybersecurity threats and combatting authoritarianism were central to the plans.
That’s great. But do you need to create another (U.S.-led) talking shop for that? Probably not. Three European officials, who had been briefed on the plans and spoke on the condition of anonymity, questioned how serious Washington was about its new tech alliance if it couldn’t pass its own domestic tech legislation. “It’s hard to take this seriously when it’s unlikely that Congress will pass any laws,” said one. Another wondered if this was part of the U.S.’s efforts to regain a leadership position when it comes to digital rule-making.
For their part, U.S. officials said the goal was to create a coalition of likeminded countries to push back against a rising tide of Chinese-style authoritarianism online. Commitments like promoting internet standards and promising not to use social scoring systems, they argued, was something almost all democratic governments could get behind. The creation of a new Bureau of Cyberspace and Digital Policy at the U.S. State Department, they added, was a sign that Washington was taking this seriously.
And yet, the postponement of the U.S. flagship digital policy push onto the global stage doesn’t make for a good look. Two separate European Union officials told me that while they welcomed the proposed Alliance, they wanted to make it clear that Brussels, too, had skin in this game, and didn’t plan to move aside to make space for Washington. The U.S. still spouting industry talking points in its conversations with the EU on its own digital rules, for one, did not foster renewed trust that both sides so eagerly want.
A more underlying problem is that the U.S. still thinks others care that “America is Back.” Sure, greater international cooperation after the Trump era is helpful. But other parts of the world (and not just Europe) have moved on, especially when it comes to digital rule-making (see India and Brazil, for example). It’s no longer Washington’s world to reign over. We’ve entered a multi-polar system where no single country or region gets to set the agenda. Something to keep in mind before the Alliance gets announced next year.
AUSTRALIA’S ONLINE SAFETY PUSH
I’M GOING TO EXTEND the Digital Bridge metaphor to almost breaking point this week after talking to Julie Inman Grant, the eSafety Commissioner for Australia. Her job (since 2017) has been to keep locals, but mostly kids, safe online. She’s certainly not a newbie to this world. After working in the U.S. Congress, she helped to set up Microsoft’s public policy team in Washington before eventually ending up in Sydney, with Twitter, before bouncing to the regulators’ side of the aisle.
“I’m the classic poacher-turned-gamekeeper,” she told me. Here’s a quick debrief on what she does and why it’s important. Set up in 2015 (following a high-profile suicide caused by online trolling), the agency has powers to stop things like cyberbullying and the authorized sharing of people’s photos online. Fines range from $360,000 for platforms to $80,000 for individuals, though those powers will be extended in early 2022.
It’s not a perfect system. The fines aren’t exactly life-changing. But Inman Grant’s agency can order global takedowns, though she spends a lot of her time working with companies outside Australia (mostly sites that host this content), explaining to them why they should take this abusive content down worldwide. “We weren’t set up to be the content moderators of the internet,” she said. “That’s the job of the platforms.”
Still, for regulators on both sides of the Atlantic eager to delve into this world, her experience could come in handy. Are the platforms doing enough? Absolutely not. Can policymakers truly grasp what is going on within these companies? Absolutely not. “If you’re not going to draw a line on what is harmful content, governments will,” Inman Grant added. FWIW, her agency steers well clear of the gray content that, while not very nice, is not technically illegal.
Her advice for others? Don’t try to do everything on your own. “I have concerns about a regulatory splinternet,” she said. Case in point: she has spent the last couple of weeks traveling around Europe meeting local regulators in the hopes of trying to build ties with Australia’s eSafety Commissioners. Her goal is to convince others that the Australia model is worth following, or, at least, borrowing from. “We don’t want divergent rules because it will be impossible for companies to comply.”
What about everyone’s new favorite plaything: policing the complex algorithms that serve up content within people’s social media feeds? Inman Grant is not a fan, mostly because regulators don’t have the expertise or skills to do it properly, and the outcomes may not be what people had envisaged. “Regulating algorithms will be hard,” she said. “I don’t think it’s possible, per se. Let’s look at the outcomes, and not analyze the black box.”
That won’t win her fans in either Brussels or Washington where officials are increasingly focused on getting under the hood of social media companies to figure out how harmful and illegal content circulates. That’s a major downside to the Aussie model. For all the good work, Inman Grant’s agency doesn’t have the same regulatory powers envisaged by others. Yet, she doesn’t mind. “I’m getting outcomes for my citizens that no other country is getting,” she said. “There’s a deterrent factor there.”
BY THE NUMBERS
ISLAMIC EXTREMIST CONTENT IS STILL ON FACEBOOK
IN LATE OCTOBER, I wrote how Facebook had done little to stop Islamic State and Taliban propaganda from spreading within war-torn countries. It’s been six weeks, so I wanted to see if things had changed since the revelations as part of the Facebook Papers investigation. I have bad news. It hasn’t. There are still public Facebook groups — some with more than 80,000 members — promoting Islamic extremist content, often with names directly tied to both groups (ie: they aren’t hiding.) To make matters worse, I came across beheading photos and other violent content, again all open to whoever finds it on Facebook. Some groups were uploading hundreds of new posts a day. Yikes.
“It’s frustrating from a standpoint of being a researcher, briefing Facebook about this issue, and then being told that it’s been handled, or we’ve adjusted or we’ve done this, and somehow I’m supposed to forget it, and it’s still exists,” Moustafa Ayad, executive director for Africa, the Middle East and Asia at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a think tank that tracks online extremism, told me. Credit to him: he’s the one who found these large extremist Facebook groups. Interestingly, rival Islamic extremist groups (either Sunni or Shiite) are battling each other within these Facebook groups. That includes bombarding competing groups with pornographic memes or religious taunts in the hopes of either closing down rivals’ Facebook activities or goading them to react.
WHERE NEXT FOR TRANSATLANTIC DIGITAL RELATIONSHIP?
THE END OF THE YEAR has got me in a reflective move. It’s undeniable that Europe and the U.S. have moved closer together on digital policymaking in 2021, although serious friction is still pretty easy to find if you dig a little. To see where we go from here, I dialled up Martijn Rasser, director of the technology and national security program at the Center for a New American Security, a Washington-based think tank. Rasser is no stranger to this world. He’s worked at the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, as well as in a number of intelligence positions across the U.S. government, mostly related to tech issues.
On what to do about China: “One helpful thing from the American side is that there’s lots of focus on blocking and tackling everything China does, and shifting the focus more toward what an affirmative agenda would look like. The greatest assistance in shifting Europeans’ mindset has been just Chinese behavior.”
On Europe working with the U.S on digital: “There’s some some significant divergence between European and the United States on things like data governance and data rights, for example. [Europe’s] Digital Markets Act is not sitting well. So that’s going to be an impediment to broader cooperation.”
On finding common ground: “AI is one area where you could have a lot of momentum in terms of increasing dialogue. U.S. and European policymakers have offered some ideas. But a transatlantic cooperative approach makes a lot more sense in order to do this at the scale and scope that you would need to be truly credible.”
On U.S. State Department’s new digital bureau: “There’s there’s a lot of people that would need to be brought on board in order to run this effectively. Technical expertise is not something the State Department is particularly strong in at the moment.”
WONK OF THE WEEK
IN HONOR OF THE NEW GERMAN GOVERNMENT, we’re heading to Berlin this week where Volker Wissing has just been appointed minister of transport and digital infrastructure. Note of warning: the emphasis will likely be on greening the country’s transport sector, though he also will be responsible for beefing up Germany’s 5G mobile network and super-fast fiber infrastructure.
I’m always a fan of a fun fact. And Wissing, in a previous job working in German state politics, was once the minister responsible for winegrowing. Before landing a position in the country’s new coalition government, he was deputy premier of the Rhineland-Palatinate state for the pro-business Free Democrats.
Wissing faces an uphill challenge. While Germany remains Europe’s economic powerhouse, its digital prowess is often overshadowed by legacy companies like Volkswagen and Siemens. To bring the country in line with others (although German still scores highly on venture capital investment), he’ll need to find space for new companies alongside Germany’s heavy-hitters.
THEY SAID WHAT, NOW?
“We have serious concerns that these proposals will disproportionately impact U.S.-based tech firms and their ability to adequately serve EU customers, and uphold security and privacy standards,” Gina Raimondo, the U.S. Commerce Secretary, told an audience Wednesday in reference to Europe’s new digital proposals known as the Digital Services Act and Digital Markets Act. “We understand the proposals are moving quickly through the EU’s legislative process, but now more than ever, we encourage officials to continue listening to concerns by stakeholders before finalizing their decision.”
WHAT I’M READING
— An existing group of conspiracy theorists and populists piggybacked the groundswell of concern around COVID-19 to peddle falsehoods across social media, based on this report from Graphika.
— Confused about where things stand on digital competition? Ian Brown has you covered in the comprehensive overview of the major developments worldwide and what’s at stake.
— Lessons from how the U.S. has handled facial recognition and the processing of biometric data could prove useful in the EU’s separate efforts to regulate the use of these technologies, argue Paul De Hert and Georgios Bouchagiar for the Brussels Privacy Hub.
— How should Western democracies approach the use of emerging technologies? A group of senior policymakers offer suggestions via a conference organized by the Universal Rights Group.
— As part of this week’s Summit for Democracy, the Biden administration outlined a series of challenges (with a number of international partners) to promote the use of democratic values in how technology is developed.
— The United Kingdom and the U.S. agreed to work closely with each other to increase the sharing of data between both countries. Here’s the official announcement.
CORRECTION: This newsletter was updated to reflect the launch of the Alliance for the Future of the Internet was postponed until 2022.
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