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The new social (media) contract

Protocol Policy

Hello, and welcome to Protocol Policy! Today we look at how a more cynical consensus around social media has emboldened nations to demand greater control over platforms. Then we turn to the Senate, where Chips-Plus is expected to go to a final vote before Wednesday. And China’s top chipmaker seems to have made a significant technological leap.

The new social (media) contract

Not so long ago, American social media companies told the world they stood for a “neutral” set of values. This narrative supposed that democratic nations could give social media firms free rein to operate within their borders, and the result would only be stronger democracy, more free speech, less corruption, etc. Conversely, the narrative supposed that autocratic regimes faced a binary choice either to ban social media or eventually be toppled by its liberating force (e.g., the Arab Spring).

Since it feels so long ago — at least for me — it’s worth revisiting the sentiment of this era. In 2009, Andrew Sullivan summarized the exuberant social media mood for The Atlantic in a post, “The Revolution Will Be Twittered”:

  • “That a new information technology could be improvised for this purpose so swiftly is a sign of the times. It reveals in Iran what the Obama campaign revealed in the United States. You cannot stop people any longer. You cannot control them any longer. They can bypass your established media; they can broadcast to one another; they can organize as never before.”

Social media firms still cling to that narrative — but there’s a tacit understanding it isn’t true. The cracks emerged as the U.S. government and media acknowledged social media could be weaponized against its own interests. We see this in the way senators talk of TikTok as a possible tool for China to censor and manipulate Americans, or in the way Russian disinformation on Facebook contributed to the 2016 election. These arguments made clear that social media isn’t de facto good.

Governments around the world are now actively rewriting the social media contract. As the narrative of neutrality washes away, nations are increasingly demanding greater control over content moderation on social media — and threatening to eject companies if they don’t play by the rules.

  • Last week in Indonesia, major U.S. tech companies signed on to content moderation policies to avoid being kicked out of the country. The companies registered for a license that gives the government final say in content moderation decisions.
  • Indonesia also requires them to turn over user data when requested — a particularly thorny issue for privacy-centric companies such as Apple. All together, 207 foreign companies registered for the agreement, including Meta, Apple, Twitter, Amazon, Microsoft and Alphabet, according to the Financial Times.
  • India has been using its revamped laws to block content on social media platforms. Under the new restrictions, social media platforms are required to comply with any government takedown requests before proceeding with any legal challenges. Critics have accused India’s ruling party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, of abusing the takedown power to censor critics.
  • Resistance to the law has been met with swift backlash, as when the Indian government threatened to jail Twitter executives for restoring banned accounts against its orders.
  • And Nigeria blocked Twitter from operating domestically for 222 days, only reinstating the company after it agreed to work more closely with the government. The ban came after Twitter deleted President Muhammadu Buhari’s tweet for violating its “abusive behavior” policy.

The new framework means there’s no bluff for social media companies to call. Under the old narrative, banning social media was considered an extreme measure. In the new era, social media bans are always on the table: The U.S. itself weighed a ban of TikTok, Nigeria banned Twitter and India kicked out TikTok. Internet shutdowns have become commonplace. Tech companies seem to be more accomodating of government demands, perhaps because they understand more than anyone the disruptive potential of their platforms.

— Hirsh Chitkara (email | twitter)

In Washington

The Senate is scheduled to hold a cloture vote on the Chips-Plus bill today. If all goes well, the bill could make it through the Senate by Wednesday and then head to the House. Of course, it’s not that simple — several Republican senators thought the bill included a provision from Sen. Rob Portman for national security restrictions on university research, but that didn’t make the cut, POLITICO reports.

The FBI determined Huawei equipment in cell towers in the Midwest was “capable of capturing and disrupting highly restricted Defense Department communications,” CNN reports. That includes the command responsible for the U.S.’s nuclear arsenal, the report said. The company denied its parts can operate in the relevant spectrum. The report follows a Commerce Department probe over similar issues revealed last week by Reuters.

Tesla disclosed an SEC subpoena for even more information about Elon Musk’s compliance with his settlement with the agency over his infamous “funding secured” tweet. The information demands landed last month, after a prior subpoena in November looking into whether maybe, possibly Musk wasn’t having certain tweets vetted as he promised. He has also been challenging the settlement — so far, unsuccessfully.

Fight for the Future is urging Chuck Schumer to recuse himself from “floor decisions” around tech antitrust bills. The group has been leading criticism of the Senate majority leader in an attempt to get votes for the measures on Big Tech self-preferencing and app stores, noting his fundraising and family ties to the companies. Schumer did a similar recusal in 2014 over issues around the Comcast/Time Warner deal because his brother had worked on it.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau hinted it will regulate earned wage access products. Tucked away in a recent announcement, the agency said it might provide more explicit edicts on the fintech sector, which allows employees to take short-term loans on their incoming paychecks.


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Around the world

Meta, Google, TikTok, Amazon and Twitter signed onto a code of practice in New Zealand around reducing harmful content. The code will be overseen by an industry group and represents a self-regulatory approach that appears to have headed off government regulation.

China’s top chipmaker seems to have developed advanced fabrication capabilities ahead of schedule. Despite U.S. sanctions — including for critical advanced lithography equipment — SMIC may have produced a 7-nanometer chip, leaping ahead two generations of technology from prior capabilities. Some experts contacted by Protocol expressed skepticism over such claims, including over whether the process could be replicated at scale.

In the media, culture and metaverse

Social media companies are well aware they’re not being systematic enough in their approach to working with outside researchers and incorporating feedback from third-party groups into safety policies, according to new research from the Digital Trust and Safety Partnership. The industry-backed group, which formed last year, reported on the results of surveys it sent to services like Facebook, Google, Twitter and Reddit — though it only presented an industry-wide picture.

Verizon is dropping right-wing channel One America News Network at the end of the month. It was the last major pay-TV operator carrying the channel, which has tried to drain away Fox News viewers by being even more stridently pro-Trump and which faces a lawsuit for spreading alleged falsehoods about voting machine firm Dominion and the 2020 election.

In data

$150 million: That’s how much money Meta will contribute this year to its Oversight Board Trust. Since 2020 the board has made 25 case decisions and 118 policy recommendations.

It pays to quit

New data from the Federal Reserve shows that those who switched jobs recently are outearning those who stayed — with the largest deficit between the two groups in 20 years. U.S. employees who switched jobs in the past three months received an average wage increase of 6.4%, compared to around a 4.7% increase for those who remained. But as the list of companies with hiring freezes grows, employees might be more tentative to test the waters.


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Thanks for reading — see you Wednesday!

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