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Tomorrow’s tech policy conversations today

European Commissioner for a Europe Fit for the Digital Age Margrethe Vestager and European Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton attend the presentation of the European Commission's data/digital strategy in Brussels, Belgium February 19, 2020.
European Commissioner for a Europe Fit for the Digital Age Margrethe Vestager and European Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton attend the presentation of the European Commission's data/digital strategy in Brussels, Belgium February 19, 2020.  REUTERS/Yves Herman
European Commissioner for a Europe Fit for the Digital Age Margrethe Vestager and European Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton attend the presentation of the European Commission’s data/digital strategy in Brussels, Belgium February 19, 2020. REUTERS/Yves Herman

After a long period of consultation, in mid-December the European Commission finally presented a pair of draft laws that aim to re-write the rules of the internet. While it will be years before the Digital Markets Act (DMA) and the Digital Services Act (DSA) come into force, the two proposals represent a major step forward in updating regulations for online intermediaries, or companies that host third-party content or sell third-party products. Although sticking points and open questions remain, the drafts show how the Commission plans to make digital platforms compete with one another and to ameliorate their potential negative impacts on consumers and society. In many respects, the DMA and DSA offer a well-balanced approach that imposes additional rules where the potential for harm to competition and consumers is highest. Nonetheless, there remains room to strengthen the provisions to make sure they make platform structures more transparent and competitive.

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Chinese and American national flags flutter on a lamppost in Beijing festooned with surveillance cameras.
Chinese and American national flags flutter on a lamppost in front of the Tian'anmen Rostrum during the visit of U.S. President Donald Trump in Beijing, China, 8 November 2017.

Chinese President Xi Jinping and his wife Peng Liyuan invited U.S. President Donald Trump and his wife Melania Trump to the Palace Museum, also known as the Forbidden City, after the U.S. president started his state visit to China Wednesday afternoon.
Xi and Peng welcomed the guests with afternoon tea at the Hall of Embodied Treasures in the southwestern corner of the Forbidden City.No Use China. No Use France.
Chinese and American national flags flutter on a lamppost in front of the Tiananmen Rostrum during the visit of U.S. President Donald Trump in Beijing, China, 8 November 2017. Niu bo/Oriental Image via Reuters

In a 1982 speech, then-U.S. Secretary of Defense Caspar W. Weinberger warned that the United States had for the better part of a decade facilitated unfettered technological transfer and trade with the Soviet Union. This high-tech transfer, the secretary argued, was being done through “legal and illegal channels” and was effectively the technological “rope to hang us,” as it was bolstering Soviet military capability.

Replace the Soviet Union with China, and the themes of Weinberger’s speech would not seem out of place today. At the time, a strategic competitor appeared to be rapidly advancing on U.S. technological superiority through a concerted campaign of technology transfer, aided by U.S. scientific engagement policies, an open academic system, and intellectual property theft. In some cases, this had been abetted by U.S. high-tech trade with the Soviets over the previous decade: The sale of advanced ball bearing machines had helped improve the accuracy of Soviet missiles, the Pentagon chief declared. In other cases, allies were to blame, as when Japan sold civilian dockyards to the USSR that were diverted to service the Soviet’s new aircraft carriers. Replace ball bearings with lasers and dry docks for semiconductor manufacturing equipment, and Weinberger could be speaking of today’s trade tensions between the United States and China.

After decades of globalization, technological integration and open high-tech trade, justified anxieties have returned in Washington and its allied capitals over the depth and nature of their scientific and technological relationships with Beijing. In some ways, examples from the Cold War highlight the ordinariness of these concerns. Many have forgotten the depth of high-tech trade between the United States and the Soviet Union during periods of the Cold War, when Washington continued to largely engage with Moscow on basic science, including topics and technologies that were highly sensitive and dual use in nature. The debate over the wisdom of doing so has resurfaced in the last several years in relation to China. But ultimately the Cold War shows how different this new competition will be. China’s rise as a scientific and potentially technological peer will require fundamentally new thinking from Washington in how it works with its allies. The moral hazard is also more complex, as Beijing has sought U.S. and allied companies, technologies, and research to help bolster its transformation into a techno-authoritarian state.

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Semiconductor products are displaeyd on a white table at a conference in eastern China.
People watch the semiconductor products exhibited at the 2020 World Semiconductor Conference in Nanjing city, east China's Jiangsu province, 26 August 2020.No Use China. No Use France.
Attendees examine semiconductor products exhibited at the 2020 World Semiconductor Conference in Nanjing, China, on August 26, 2020. Song Ning/Oriental Image

With advanced semiconductors key to powering a wide range of potentially transformative technologies, cutting edge computer chips have become a heated area of geopolitical competition for the 21st century. Despite their importance, semiconductors represent a rare area in which the Chinese economy is dependent on the rest of the world—rather than the other way around. Every year, China imports more than $300 billion of semiconductors, and most, though not all, major American semiconductor companies pull in at least 25% of their sales from the Chinese market.

This mutual dependence has benefitted the technology sectors in both countries. Every major Chinese technology company relies on U.S. chips: Tencent or Alibaba would not be the powerhouses they are today if they had relied on Chinese microprocessors during their formative years or had developed and manufactured their own. Many U.S. companies, meanwhile, have benefited from Chinese customers, markets, and innovations. The scale and cost reductions enabled by system and device manufacturing based in China and Asia more broadly has helped make information technology ubiquitous. Despite the harsh rhetoric on both sides of the Pacific, American semiconductor companies and their Chinese counterparts today are working together on hundreds, if not thousands, of product designs and joint technology development efforts.

Yet these collaborations have not prevented semiconductors from becoming a central faultline in tensions between the United States and China. In a post-COVID, post-Trump world, many in Washington would like to see the American economy less dependent on China and are exploring new restrictions on imports of Chinese hardware and exports of both cutting-edge semiconductors and the equipment required to manufacture them. Meanwhile in Beijing, Chinese officials are pursuing a clearly stated, though ambiguously defined, goal of “technology independence,” as articulated in the 14th five-year plan outlined last year.

But how to achieve that independence—and whether pursuing it makes sense in the first place—represents a question of profound uncertainty. As U.S. officials weigh their policy options in that regard, they first need to level-set on the state of the Chinese and global semiconductor industries, and how Beijing has approached its goal of building a domestic chip-making industry. Though it has made major advances, most segments of China’s semiconductor industry remain behind its foreign competitors, and its efforts to catch up face major economic obstacles. How the United States approaches its policy toward that industry will have major ramifications not only for the U.S. relationship with China, but also for the American semiconductor, systems, and internet services industries, which remain deeply intertwined with China.

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The logos of Facebook, Messenger, Twitter, Instagram, WhatsApp, Snapchat and Pinterest social media app icons on a smartphone.
The logos of Facebook, Messenger, Twitter, Instagram, WhatsApp, Snapchat and Pinterest social media app icons on a smartphone.

In 2019, and again in 2020, Facebook removed covert social media influence operations that targeted Libya and were linked to the Russian businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin. The campaigns—the first exposed in October 2019, the second in December 2020—shared several tactics: Both created Facebook pages masquerading as independent media outlets and posted political cartoons. But by December 2020, the operatives linked to Prigozhin had updated their toolkit: This time, one media outlet involved in the operation had an on-the-ground presence, with branded merchandise and a daily podcast.

Between 2018 and 2020, Facebook and Twitter announced that they had taken down 147 influence operations in total, according to our examination of their public announcements of disinformation takedowns during that time period. Facebook describes such operations as “coordinated inauthentic behavior,” and Twitter dubs them “state-backed information operations.” Our investigation of these takedowns revealed that in 2020 disinformation actors stuck with some tried and true strategies, but also evolved in important ways, often in response to social media platform detection strategies. Political actors are increasingly outsourcing their disinformation work to third-party PR and marketing firms and using AI-generated profile pictures. Platforms have changed too, more frequently attributing takedowns to specific actors.

Here are our five takeaways on how online disinformation campaigns and platform responses changed in 2020, and how they didn’t.

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Silhouettes of mobile device users are seen next to a screen projection of YouTube's logo.
FILE PHOTO: Silhouettes of mobile device users are seen next to a screen projection of Youtube logo in this picture illustration taken March 28, 2018.  REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration/File Photo
REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration/File Photo

A decade ago, the writer Eli Pariser popularized the term “filter bubbles,” which refers to the idea that search and social media algorithms wrap individuals in information bubbles that are tailored to their interests and behaviors rather than ones filtered by traditional gatekeepers like journalists. However, academic research has largely failed to support Pariser’s thesis, suggesting that filter bubbles may not be as pervasive as feared.

Yet in the debate over algorithms’ impacts on society, the focus on filter bubbles may be something of a red herring. While personalized filter bubbles might not be the most important problem, we show in our research that even general recommendation algorithms remain highly problematic. Even when they are not personalized, recommendation algorithms can still learn to promote radical and extremist content.

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People in silhouette look at their mobile phones with cables from an internet switching station projected in the background.
People look at their mobiles as background with internet wire cables on switch hub is projected in this picture illustration taken May 30, 2018. Picture taken May 30, 2018. REUTERS/Kacper Pempel/Illustration
REUTERS/Kacper Pempel/Illustration

The internet, as it exists today, is an artifact of a time in which global cooperation seemed reasonable, even inevitable. While the process of building the internet required difficult trade-offs—trading security for simplicity, for example—as a world we produced a system that, more or less, works together. 

But the free flow of information online is now under threat by growing fragmentation across national borders. This internet fragmentation is both as a driver and a reflection of growing fragmentation in the world order. The effort by the U.S. government to ban the Chinese viral video app TikTok is a reflection of this reality: a response by the U.S. government to growing Chinese influence manifested online, resulting in a splintering global internet. Internet policy and international affairs move together.

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SolarWinds' banner hangs at the New York Stock Exchange
FILE PHOTO: SolarWinds Corp banner hangs at the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) on the IPO day of the company in New York, U.S., October 19, 2018. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid/File Photo
SolarWinds’ banner hangs at the New York Stock Exchange on the day of the company’s IPO in New York on October 19, 2018. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

At least five federal agencies are confirmed to have been breached as part of a months-long hacking campaign tied to Russia. While the full extent of the breach remains to be determined, Tarah Wheeler explains how a surreptitiously inserted backdoor in a software update from the firm SolarWinds enabled the hack, and what the incoming Biden administration can do to raise the bar on U.S. cybersecurity.

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A nurse inverts a glass vial holding the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine.
Suzanne Eagan, a pharmacy technician at the University of Iowa Stead Family Children’s Hospital in Iowa City, Iowa inverts a vial of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine on Monday, Dec. 14, 2020. Joseph Cress-USA TODAY NETWORK

With vaccines for COVID-19 beginning to be rolled out, public health officials face the difficult challenge of encouraging widespread adoption amid rampant misinformation about both the disease and its treatments. On the latest edition of Lawfare‘s Arbiters of Truth series on disinformation, Evelyn Douek and Quinta Jurecic speak with Claire Wardle, the co-founder of the non-profit First Draft and a research fellow at Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center. A recent First Draft report concludes that a lack of trust in the institutions developing vaccines are helping fuel misinformation narratives, which are flourishing amid a relative lack of credible information about vaccine development.

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Mask-wearing women hold stretchers near ambulances during the Spanish Flu pandemic in St. Louis, Missouri, in October 1918.
Mask-wearing women hold stretchers near ambulances during the Spanish Flu pandemic in St. Louis, Missouri, U.S. in October 1918.  Library of Congress/Handout via REUTERS THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY.
Mask-wearing women hold stretchers near ambulances during the Spanish Flu pandemic in St. Louis, Missouri, U.S. in October 1918. Library of Congress/Handout via REUTERS

In the aftermath of the 1918-1920 flu pandemic, there was good reason to believe that new technologies and systems of communication might make another such outbreak of disease all but impossible. Despite attempts to exchange information dating back to cholera outbreaks in the mid-nineteenth century, states had failed to create meaningful international cooperation during the flu pandemic. Information collection and collation were so poor that we will never know how many millions actually died. Wireless telegraphy promised to change that: By disseminating information about the spread of disease before actual cases arrived, public health officials hoped to prevent another pandemic.

While that effort to improve the dissemination of epidemiological information improved public-health responses, it was far from enough to halt another pandemic. What had been seen as a transformational technology was something else entirely: a marginal improvement to communications systems that required good governance in order to have a public health impact. Indeed, in the first months of the COVID-19 pandemic, technological solutions like contract tracing apps seemed to offer an exit route from our pandemic purgatory. Yet, it has not worked out that way. The history of wireless epidemiology suggests that such apps may have a part to play, particularly in preventing panic. But they were never going to matter as much as political will and smart governance.

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FILE PHOTO: U.S. and European Union flags are pictured during the visit of Vice President Mike Pence to the European Commission headquarters in Brussels, Belgium February 20, 2017. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir
FILE PHOTO: U.S. and European Union flags are pictured during the visit of Vice President Mike Pence to the European Commission headquarters in Brussels, Belgium February 20, 2017. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir

The Schrems II decision by the European Court of Justice (CJEU), its second ruling in three years concluding that American digital surveillance practices fail to abide by EU privacy law, has made it necessary for the Biden administration to reach a new accord with the EU on how to balance digital surveillance practices with rights to privacy. Until such an accord is reached, the ruling will restrict and potentially disable the mechanisms that American business have relied on to transfer personal data from the EU to the United States. Such restrictions would reduce digital trade and have negative economic repercussions on both sides of the Atlantic.

While restoring a stable basis for U.S.-EU data flows will require further reform of U.S. surveillance practices, the implications of Schrems II go beyond U.S.-EU relations and extends to all countries engaged in digital surveillance practices, who now face an increased risk of not meeting EU rights to privacy and having data flows cut off. Because U.S. and European state-level security agencies engage in extensive data-sharing, the United States must seek agreement with all EU member states on a common approach to balancing digital surveillance with privacy standards. Success here will provide a strong basis for cooperation on other technology issues, including the EU’s proposed joint EU-U.S. tech agenda.

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