Memia 2021.01: Did I miss anything?😲// the sixth estate🏛️// the metaversal self👓// an avocado🥑chair💺// do you love💕me 🦿robot🦾?

Tech regulating government

Kia ora and best wishes for a successful new year!

Welcome back to the first Memia newsletter of 2021, once again drinking from the firehose of emerging tech, global change and trying to sensemake the future as it unfolds - all with a view from Aotearoa.

The most clicked link in the last issue (~12% of openers) was the deepfake video of famous historical faces nodding along to the music.

…And ICYMI, I finished up 2020 with a roundup of the year: Memia 2020 wrapup: Top 10 themes from a year of tumultuous change🌊💥🤯. Take a read if you haven’t already.

Did I miss anything?😲

Just back from a relaxing kiwi summer holiday camping by the beach in Abel Tasman / Tōtaranui National Park. Did I miss anything?

Ahem. News cycles and online media have been dominated in the last week by the attempted 6 Jan coup (is there another word?) in Washington DC and ongoing fallout.

The previously unimaginable happenings at the Capitol are being unpicked in doomscrolling detail online. Events continue to move quickly: *who knows* what could still happen in the next 12 days until Trump’s term ends or afterwards (at the time of writing, impeachment proceedings are in the works while the FBI is warning of further pro-Trump armed violence in the leadup to Biden’s inauguration on 20th Jan).

Predictably, there was some pointy schadenfreude from other parts of the world:

“What we saw in the US last night and today really showed … how brittle and weak western democracy is, and how weak its foundations are”

- Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani

“America no longer charts the course and so has lost all right to set it. And, even more so, to impose it on others.”

- Konstantin Kosachev, Russian Parliament Foreign Affairs Committee Chair

“We hope that the American people can enjoy peace, stability and security as soon as possible,”

- Hua Chunying, China Foreign Ministry spokeswoman (Miaow!)

(This coming as Chinese police carried out mass arrests of Hong Kong activists and lawyers, shutting down any remaining political opposition in the previously democratic city-state).

For me, the events in the US primarily raise bigger picture strategic questions for Aotearoa, including:

  • Is Western democracy as a whole *actually* “brittle and weak”? (What are the alternatives? How could democratic systems substantially increase resilience to QAnon-type radicalisation of significant numbers of their population?)

  • If the Capitol coup had succeeded and (…it may yet happen...) US civil instability ensued, how will China, Russia, Iran and others respond to fill an international security vacuum left behind? (Could Hong Kong be a test run for opportunistic expansionary initiatives into Taiwan… South East Asia…? even the wider Pacific region…?)

  • While Aotearoa media foreign coverage is dominated by US domestic politics even more than usual (…is this just laziness / low budgets - or intentional editorial agenda setting to sell ads?) Likely we will continue to miss equally impactful international developments while all this is going on.

The sixth estate🏛️

Obviously the biggest “tech” story of the week has been the near-simultaneous decisions by Twitter, Facebook… and then a slew of other US tech companies to “deplatform” Trump, QAnon and shut down tens of thousands of other accounts.

Further down the stack, Amazon and Twilio shut down cloud services to Parler, the conservative-friendly social media network which had set itself up as as a “free speech” alternative to Twitter. Apple and Google also removed Parler from their app stores. (Not before hackers downloaded everything from the site first, allegedly including all users’ personal private ID info. Seems Parler’s technical team were not the sharpest knives in the cutlery drawer…)

Some informed commentary on the issues raised:

(Couple of more lighthearted moments too:)

The deplatforming has brought into *even sharper* focus the evolving power dynamics in the countries in which these companies operate. One of core issues arising is a perceived threat to the sovereignty of national governments around the world:

(…What if Twitter shut down the President of a country with evidence of state-sanctioned human rights violations against minorities? Or, closer to home, Jacinda Ardern’s Facebook Live account for arbitrary “Community Standards violations”?)

Aotearoa Privacy Commissioner John Edwards calls stridently for regulation of social media platforms:

But be careful what you wish for…

Regulators need to understand in detail the technical issues involved. For an accessible backgrounder, two discussions from MIT’s Emtech conference at the end of last year go into the technology and policy definition challenges of content moderation on the largest international platforms:

[Taken from MIT’s In Machines We Trust podcast series, highly recommended]

As the podcasts with the platform CTOs make very clear, content moderation is a fiendishly complex technical problem to solve and any solution would need to be automated with ML, software and near-real-time, granular policy iteration. Just check out Facebook’s Community Standards and the Twitter Rules - and imagine the technology+human brainpower required to accurately moderate >700 million tweets per day (yesterday), against a background arms race of constantly iterating AI-generated fake content. You may *want* to regulate it in future using static national legislation… but how would you actually write laws which could be technically implemented?

Perhaps local regulation might force some financial logic: Facebook’s revenues outside the US and EU are small in proportion. There is little commercial incentive to put large amounts of technical effort into moderating small countries’ content, with more idiosyncratic languages and cultures. Perhaps the US giants would decide to retrench, leaving room for smaller local players in each region…or just a hole where 2010s “social media” apps used to be. (…or WeChat!)

(And don’t wait around for decentralised social networks to scale any time soon either…)

Despite the seeming cataclysmic threat to traditional concepts of national sovereignty, personally I’m more positive than most other commentators about these developments. Yes, it’s now explicit that a small number of US corporate tech companies can be pushed to act as political “moderators of last resort” inside and potentially outside the US. But in the absence of any meaningful international regulatory framework for social media, it feels like they are doing this reluctantly to fill a gaping hole in antique governance systems not equipped to deal with the weaponisation of misinformation at scale.

Traditional political theory invokes the role of the “Fourth Estate”:

“the press and news media both in explicit capacity of advocacy and implicit ability to frame political issues. Though it is not formally recognized as a part of a political system, it wields significant indirect social influence.” (-Wikipedia)

More recently this has been complemented by the “Fifth Estate”:

“The Fifth Estate is a socio-cultural reference to groupings of outlier viewpoints in contemporary society, and is most associated with bloggers, journalists publishing in non-mainstream media outlets, and the social media” (-Wikipedia again)

Perhaps these international platforms, or what evolves out of them, could be considered as the “Sixth Estate”* in an evolving political order? In the absence of international governance on misinformation, the tech platforms are responding to events in real time as the world rapidly becomes more interconnected. This week, it was tech regulating government rather than government regulating tech.

*Consider further* that the tech platforms are arguably able to interpret and represent the views of their aggregate user base across borders more democratically and responsively than outdated 3-4 yearly national electoral cycles. (Perhaps in the not too distant future, might not globally minded younger citizens feel greater allegiance to the sovereignty of Google, Twitter (or even Facebook?!) than to archaic, low usability, distant, authoritarian, costly nation-state governments in their current instantiation? When can we all get our Twitter passports?)

In summary: this week the US tech companies were pushed reluctantly to reveal the explicit political power they now hold across all countries in which they operate. I suspect regulation of this power will need international scope and mandate and take years. Meanwhile, hopefully things settle down a bit over the Pacific, eh.🤞

Weak signals

Phew. And it’s still the first newsletter… OMG so much has happened in tech over the last few weeks too:

Mind expanding

Rollcall

Just before Xmas Josh Daniell, CEO of Akahu, a Kiwi fintech startup with investors including Westpac NZ, posted a crisp summary of the current state of Open Banking on these shores:

In short: progress towards regulation of a CDR (“Consumer Data Right”) underpinning open banking is painfully slow… nonetheless:

“In 2021, we expect to see the first bank-led product which is specifically designed and built on top of consumer data portability infrastructure. Which is a convoluted way of saying that the product won’t care who you bank with.”

Given that the recently launched Stripe Treasury API pretty much enables a lightweight “API with banking licence” business model, combined with Open Banking regulation this could be quite disruptive for a sector that before Covid was making NZ$5.7Bn profit per year. (With CBDCs imminent, what exactly are banks *for* in the future, anyway?)

Watching this space.

Hidden gems

A couple of nuggets this week:

🙏🙏🙏 Thanks to everyone who took time to get in touch with links and feedback over the summer break.

And thanks for reading! More next week…

Cheers / Ngā Mihi

Ben