The responsibility for a sustainable digital future

On March 12, 2019, we celebrate the 30th anniversary of the “World Wide Web”, Tim Berners-Lee’s ground-breaking invention.

In just thirty years, this flagship application of the Internet has forever changed our lives, our habits, our way of thinking and seeing the world. Yet, this anniversary leaves a bittersweet taste in our mouth: the initial decentralized and open version of the Web, which was meant to allow users to connect with each other, has gradually evolved to a very different version, centralized in the hands of giants who capture our data and impose their standards.

We have poured our work, our hearts and a lot of our lives out on the internet. For better or for worse. Beyond business uses for Big Tech, our data has become an incredible resource for malicious actors, who use this windfall to hack, steal and threaten. Citizens, small and large companies, governments: online predators spare no one. This initial mine of information and knowledge has provided fertile ground for dangerous abuse: hate speech, cyber-bullying, manipulation of information or apology for terrorism – all of them amplified, relayed and disseminated across borders.

Laissez-faire or control: between Scylla and Charybdis

Faced with these excesses, some countries have decided to regain control over the Web and the Internet in general: by filtering information and communications, controlling the flow of data, using digital instruments for the sake of sovereignty and security. The outcome of this approach is widespread censorship and surveillance. A major threat to our values ​​and our vision of society, this project of “cyber-sovereignty” is also the antithesis of the initial purpose of the Web, which was built in a spirit of openness and emancipation. Imposing cyber-borders and permanent supervision would be fatal to the Web.

To avoid such an outcome, many democracies have favored laissez-faire and minimal intervention, preserving the virtuous circle of profit and innovation. Negative externalities remain, with self-regulation as the only barrier. But laissez-faire is no longer the best option to foster innovation: ​​data is monopolized by giants that have become systemic, users’ freedom of choice is limited by vertical integration and lack of interoperability. Ineffective competition threatens our economies’ ability to innovate.

In addition, laissez-faire means being vulnerable to those who have chosen a more interventionist or hostile stance. This question is particularly acute today for infrastructures: should we continue to remain agnostic, open and to choose a solution only based on its economic competitiveness? Or should we affirm the need to preserve our technological sovereignty and our security?

Internet of Things connecting in cloud over city scape.

Photo courtesy of Getty Images/chombosan

Paving a third way

To avoid these pitfalls, France, Europe and all democratic countries must take control of their digital future. This age of digital maturity involves both smart digital regulation and enhanced technological sovereignty.

Holding large actors accountable is a legitimate and necessary first step: “with great power comes great responsibility”.

Platforms that relay and amplify the audience of dangerous content must assume a stronger role in information and prevention. The same goes for e-commerce, when consumers’ health and safety is undermined by dangerous or counterfeit products, made available to them with one click. We should apply the same focus on systemic players in the field of competition: vertical integration should not hinder users’ choice of goods, services or content.

But for our action to be effective and leave room for innovation, we must design a “smart regulation”. Of course, our goal is not to impose on all digital actors an indiscriminate and disproportionate normative burden.

Rather, “smart regulation” relies on transparency, auditability and accountability of the largest players, in the framework of a close dialogue with public authorities. With this is mind, France has launched a six-month experiment with Facebook on the subject of hate content, the results of which will contribute to current and upcoming legislative work on this topic.

In the meantime, in order to maintain our influence and promote this vision, we will need to strengthen our technological sovereignty. In Europe, this sovereignty is already undermined by the prevalence of American and Asian actors. As our economies and societies become increasingly connected, the question becomes more urgent.

Investments in the most strategic disruptive technologies, construction of an innovative normative framework for the sharing of data of general interest: we have leverage to encourage the emergence of reliable and effective solutions. But we will not be able to avoid protective measures when the security of our infrastructure is likely to be endangered.

To build this sustainable digital future together, I invite my G7 counterparts to join me in Paris on May 16th. On the agenda, three priorities: the fight against online hate, a human-centric artificial intelligence, and ensuring trust in our digital economy, with the specific topics of 5G and data sharing.

Our goal? To take responsibility. Gone are the days when we could afford to wait and see.

Our leverage? If we join our wills and forces, our values can prevail.

We all have the responsibility to design a World Wide Web of Trust. It is still within our reach but the time has come to act.

Amazon reportedly nixes its price parity requirement for third-party sellers in the U.S.

Amazon will stop forbidding third-party merchants who list on its e-commerce platform in the United States from selling the same products on other sites for lower prices, reports Axios.

The company’s decision to end its price parity provision comes three months after Sen. Richard Blumenthal urged the Department of Justice to open an antitrust investigation into Amazon’s policies and a few days after Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren announced she would make breaking up Amazon, Google and Facebook a big part of her campaign platform.

Also called “most favored nation” (MFN) requirements, Amazon’s price parity provisions gave it a competitive edge, but because of its size, also led to concerns about its impact on competition and fair pricing for consumers. Amazon stopped requiring price parity of its European Union sellers in 2013 after it was the subject of investigations by the United Kingdom’s Office of Fair Trading and Germany’s Federal Cartel Office.

In a statement, Blumenthal said Amazon’s “wise and welcome decision comes only after aggressive advocacy and attention that compelled Amazon to abandon its abusive contract clause.” He added that “I remain deeply troubled that federal regulators responsible for cracking down on anti-competitive practices seem asleep at the wheel, at great cost to American innovation and consumers.”

TechCrunch has contacted Amazon for comment.

Saudi Arabia denies involvement in leak of Jeff Bezos’ private messages

In his extraordinary Medium post last week accusing American Media Inc of “extortion and blackmail,” Bezos hinted (but did not explicitly state) that there may be a connection between Saudi Arabia and the publication of his personal messages with Lauren Sanchez. Now Saudi Arabia’s minister of foreign affairs has denied it was involved, stating during an interview with CBS’ “Face the Nation” that the Saudi government had “nothing to do with it.”

Last month, the National Enquirer published a series of texts between Bezos, who is separated from wife MacKenzie Bezos, and Sanchez. In his post last Thursday, Bezos claimed AMI, the owner of the National Enquirer, threatened to release messages that included intimate photos unless he cancelled an investigation into the source of the leaks and stopped claiming AMI was “politically motivated or influenced by political forces.” Bezos wrote that “the Saudi angle seems to hit a particularly sensitive nerve with” AMI CEO David Pecker, a close associate of President Donald Trump.

(The Daily Beast reported earlier today that Lauren Sanchez’s brother Michael Sanchez was the original source of the messages. Michael Sanchez is a close friend of Trump adviser Roger Stone.)

During his interview with “Face the Nation,” al-Jubeir said “This sounds to me like a soap opera. I’ve been watching it on television and reading about it in the paper. This is something between the two parties. We have nothing to do with it.”

Bezos did not directly accuse Saudi Arabia of being involved in the leaks, but he did note the web of connections between AMI, Pecker, Trump and Saudi Arabia. Bezos owns the Washington Post, which has reported extensively on the connection between crown prince Mohammed bin Salman and Jamal Khashoggi’s murder. Khashoggi was a Saudi Arabian dissident who wrote opinion pieces critical of bin Salman for the Post before he was killed in October. Though the Central Intelligence Agency concluded that bin Salman ordered the killing, Trump has repeatedly downplayed or disputed the crown prince’s involvement.

“Here’s a piece of context: My ownership of the Washington Post is a complexifier for me. It’s unavoidable that certain powerful people who experience Washington Post news coverage will wrongly conclude I am their enemy,” Bezos wrote. “President Trump is one of those people, obvious by his many tweets. Also, The Post’s essential and unrelenting coverage of the murder of its columnist Jamal Khashoggi is undoubtedly unpopular in certain circles.”

He added “Several days ago, an AMI leader advised us that Mr. Pecker is ‘apoplectic’ about our investigation. For reasons still to be better understood, the Saudi angle seems to hit a particularly sensitive nerve.”

AMI reached an immunity deal with the Department of Justice in December over a hush money payment to Karen McDougal, who claimed she had an affair with Trump. If Bezos’ accusations of blackmail and extortion are true, its deal could be jeopardized.

Pecker’s lawyer Elkan Abramowitz told ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday, before the Daily Beast named Michael Sanchez as the National Enquirer’s source, that “it is absolutely not extortion and blackmail. The story was given to the National Enquirer by a reliable source that had been giving information to the National Enquirer for seven years prior to this story. It was a source that was well-known to both Mr. Bezos and Miss Sanchez.”

Politiscope, an app to track Congressional voting records and bills, launches on android devices

Last September, two former National Football League players launched an app called Politiscope to track the voting records of members of Congress and the bills that they were introducing — and provide non-partisan information about what those bills and votes would mean to voters.

The pro-football-playing brothers, Walter Powell Jr. and Brandon Williams, launched the app to provide an accurate accounting of what Congressional leadership was doing — something the two felt was necessary given the political climate and the ways in which the traditional sources of education on political issues were being called into question.

“A claim of ‘Fake News’ from the current national leaders in response to unflattering news threatens this nation’s democracy and the concept that this great nation was built upon,” said Powell in a statement when the app first launched in September.

Now the two brothers are expanding Politiscope’s reach by launching the Android version of the service.

While the scope of Politiscope may be expanding, the brothers make clear that the company’s mission is still the same. To provide unbiased information sourced from places like the Congressional Budget Office, the Library of Congress, and the Pew Research Center.

Politiscope has two main features in the app.

The first is its “Today in Congress” section, which provides information on all of the proposed legislation that’s making its way through the House of Representatives and the Senate. The app summarizes the bills and gives statements from Republicans and Democrats on how they view the bill that’s been proposed.

The second feature is its profiles of elected officials. The profiles include voting records, business records and other information culled from Federal records and publicly available information to give voters a clear picture of their representatives in government based solely on data.

“Unless you’re studying the actual legislation, it’s almost impossible to find a good source of political information that isn’t at least somewhat slanted, either to the right or the left,” says Powell. “Today’s media is becoming more and more widely split along liberal and conservative lines, and political rhetoric is growing increasingly devoid of clear and objective information. Politiscope exists to eliminate bias and help people understand what’s actually going on in the world of U.S. politics.”

Democratic texting platform Hustle lays off a big chunk of its staff

The company behind a texting platform that powered more than 1,300 Democratic campaigns has slashed its staff in the lull following the 2018 midterms. Hustle co-founder and CEO Roddy Lindsay, a former Facebook engineer, disclosed the layoffs in a recent Medium post, apologizing for the choices that led up to the decision to “right-size” Hustle’s team.

“… While we have an exciting set of initial commercial customers using Hustle successfully, it was premature to aggressively expand our team — we need the time to do the research with our customers and build the right product to support industries beyond politics and non-profits,” Lindsay wrote in the layoff announcement. “I made the rookie misstep of not watching our growth closely enough, and we ended up overbuilding our team beyond our means.”

Bloomberg reports that Hustle’s aggressive layoffs reduced its team by 35 percent. TechCrunch has reached out to Hustle to confirm those numbers.

It sounds like Hustle scaled up considerably in the lead-up to midterms, undertaking “an enormous operational challenge” that ultimately could not be sustained after the political cycle died down. The company’s booming success and its post-race contraction serve as a cautionary tale for startups that hitch their wagon to the inherently boom and bust nature of political campaigning. To correct course, Hustle has brought in “strong finance leadership” and plans to chart a fiscally realistic path forward.

Hustle’s platform allows clients to mobilize and optimize texting campaigns that eschew mass texting templates. Within Hustle’s system, designated point people can manage and personalize texting campaigns, tracking progress in the platform as they go. A number of Democratic and progressive campaigns have leveraged Hustle for their causes, most notably the Bernie Sanders campaign in 2016. Notably, Hustle exclusively opens its platform to causes on the political left.

Last May, Hustle raised a $30 million Series B, led by Insight Venture Partners. Less than a year prior, the company picked up $8 million for its Series A. A small team of 17 people in early 2017, Hustle had swelled to more than 100 by May of 2018.

Lindsay asserts that the decision should make Hustle more financially sustainable and poised for “long-term impact.” In the blog post, he notes that Hustle will zero in on its non-profit client core moving forward.

“There aren’t many companies who have been able to pair business success and positive political and civic impact in the world,” Lindsay wrote. “In 2018, we discovered why: it’s really, really difficult.”

President Bolsonaro should boost Brazil’s entrepreneurial ecosystem

In late October following a significant victory for Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil’s presidential elections, the stock market for Latin America’s largest country shot up. Financial markets reacted favorably to the news because Bolsonaro, a free-market proponent, promises to deliver broad economic reforms, fight corruption and work to reshape Brazil through a pro-business agenda. While some have dubbed him as a far-right “Trump of the Tropics” against a backdrop of many Brazilians feeling that government has failed them, the business outlook is extremely positive.

When President-elect Bolsonaro appointed Santander executive Roberto Campos as new head of Brazil’s central bank in mid-November, Brazil’s stock market cheered again with Sao Paulo’s Bovespa stocks surging as much as 2.65 percent on the day news was announced. According to Reuters, “analysts said Bolsonaro, a former army captain and lawmaker who has admitted to having scant knowledge of economics, was assembling an experienced economic team to implement his plans to slash government spending, simplify Brazil’s complex tax system and sell off state-run companies.”

Admittedly, there are some challenges as well. Most notably, pension-system reform tops the list of priorities to get on the right track quickly. A costly pension system is increasing the country’s debt and contributed to Brazil losing its investment-grade credit rating in 2015. According to the new administration, Brazil’s domestic product could grow by 3.5 percent during 2019 if Congress approves pension reform soon. The other issue that’s cropped up to tarnish the glow of Bolsonaro coming into power are suspect payments made to his son that are being examined by COAF, the financial crimes unit.

While the jury is still out on Bolsonaro’s impact on Brazilian society at large after being portrayed as the Brazilian Trump by the opposition party, he’s come across as less authoritarian during his first days in office. Since the election, his tone is calmer and he’s repeatedly said that he plans to govern for all Brazilians, not just those who voted for him. In his first speech as president, he invited his wife to speak first which has never happened before.

Still, according to The New York Times, “some Brazilians remain deeply divided on the new president, a former army captain who has hailed the country’s military dictators and made disparaging remarks about women and minority groups.”

Others have expressed concern about his environment impact with the “an assault on environmental and Amazon protections” through an executive order within hours of taking office earlier this week. However, some major press outlets have been more upbeat: “With his mix of market-friendly economic policies and social conservativism at home, Mr. Bolsonaro plans to align Brazil more closely with developed nations and particularly the U.S.,” according to the Wall Street Journal this week.

Based on his publicly stated plans, here’s why President Bolsonaro will be good for business and how his administration will help build an even stronger entrepreneurial ecosystem in Brazil:

Bolsonaro’s Ministerial Reform

President Temer leaves office with 29 government ministries. President Bolsonaro plans to reduce the number of ministries to 22, which will reduce spending and make the government smaller and run more efficiently. We expect to see more modern technology implemented to eliminate bureaucratic red tape and government inefficiencies.

Importantly, this will open up more partnerships and contracting of tech startups’ solutions. Government contacts for new technology will be used across nearly all the ministries including mobility, transportation, health, finance, management and legal administration – which will have a positive financial impact especially for the rich and booming SaaS market players in Brazil.

Government Company Privatization

Of Brazil’s 418 government-controlled companies, there are 138 of them on the federal level that could be privatized. In comparison to Brazil’s 418, Chile has 25 government-controlled companies, the U.S. has 12, Australia and Japan each have eight, and Switzerland has four. Together, Brazil-owned companies employ more than 800,000 people today, including about 500,000 federal employees. Some of the largest ones include petroleum company Petrobras, electric utilities company EletrobrasBanco do Brasil, Latin America’s largest bank in terms of its assets, and Caixa Economica Federal, the largest 100 percent government-owned financial institution in Latin America.

The process of privatizing companies is known to be cumbersome and inefficient, and the transformation from political appointments to professional management will surge the need for better management tools, especially for enterprise SaaS solutions.

STEAM Education to Boost Brazil’s Tech Talent

Based on Bolsonaro’s original plan to move the oversight of university and post-graduate education from the Education Ministry to the Science and Technology Ministry, it’s clear the new presidential administration is favoring more STEAM courses that are focused on Science, Technology, Engineering, the Arts and Mathematics.

Previous administrations threw further support behind humanities-focused education programs. Similar STEAM-focused higher education systems from countries such as Singapore and South Korea have helped to generate a bigger pipeline of qualified engineers and technical talent badly needed by Brazilian startups and larger companies doing business in the country. The additional tech talent boost in the country will help Brazil better compete on the global stage.

The Chicago Boys’ “Super” Ministry

The merger of the Ministry of Economy with the Treasury, Planning and Industry and Foreign Trade and Services ministries will create a super ministry to be run by Dr. Paulo Guedes and his team of Chicago Boys. Trained at the Department of Economics in the University of Chicago under Milton Friedman and Arnold Harberger, the Chicago Boys are a group of prominent Chilean economists who are credited with transforming Chile into Latin America’s best performing economies and one of the world’s most business-friendly jurisdictions. Joaquim Levi, the recently appointed chief of BNDES (Brazilian Development Bank), is also a Chicago Boy and a strong believer in venture capital and startups.

Previously, Guedes was a general partner in Bozano Investimentos, a pioneering private equity firm, before accepting the invitation to take the helm of the world’s eighth-largest economy in Brazil. To have a team of economists who deeply understand the importance of rapid-growth companies is good news for Brazil’s entrepreneurial ecosystem. This group of 30,000 startup companies are responsible for 50 percent of the job openings in Brazil and they’re growing far faster than the country’s GDP.

Bolsonaro’s Pro-Business Cabinet Appointments

President Bolsonaro has appointed a majority of technical experts to be part of his new cabinet. Eight of them have strong technology backgrounds, and this deeper knowledge of the tech sector will better inform decisions and open the way to more funding for innovation.

One of those appointments, Sergio Moro, is the federal judge for the anti-corruption initiative knows as “Operation Car Wash.” With Moro’s nomination to Chief of the Justice Department and his anticipated fight against corruption could generate economic growth and help reduce unemployment in the country. Bolsonaro’s cabinet is also expected to simplify the crazy and overwhelming tax system. More than 40 different taxes could be whittled down to a dozen, making it easier for entrepreneurs to launch new companies.

In general terms, Brazil and Latin America have long suffered from deep inefficiencies. With Bolsonaro’s administration, there’s new promise that there will be an increase in long-term infrastructure investments, reforms to reduce corruption and bureaucratic red tape, and enthusiasm and support for startup investments in entrepreneurs who will lead the country’s fastest-growing companies and make significant technology advancements to “lift all boats.”

Vietnam threatens to penalize Facebook for breaking its draconian cybersecurity law

Well, that didn’t take long. We’re less than ten days into 2019 and already Vietnam is aiming threats at Facebook after it violating its draconian cybersecurity law which came into force on January 1.

The U.S. social network stands accused of allowing users in Vietnam to post “slanderous content, anti-government sentiment and libel and defamation of individuals, organisations and state agencies,” according to a report from state-controlled media Vietnam News.

The content is said to have been flagged to Facebook which, reports say, has “delayed removing” it.

That violates the law which — passed last June — broadly forbids internet users from organizing with, or training, others for anti-state purposes, spreading false information, and undermining the nation state’s achievements or solidarity, according to reports at the time. It also requires foreign internet companies to operate a local office and store user information on Vietnamese soil. That’s something neither Google nor Facebook has complied with, despite the Vietnamese government’s recent claim that the former is investigating a local office launch.

In addition, the Authority of Broadcasting and Electronic Information (ABEI) claimed Facebook had violated online advertising rules by allowing accounts to promote fraudulent products and scams, while it is considering penalties for failure to pay tax. The Vietnamese report claimed some $235 million was spent on Facebook ads in 2018, with $152.1 million going to Google.

Facebook responded by clarifying its existing channels for reporting illegal content.

“We have a clear process for governments to report illegal content to us, and we review all these requests against our terms of service and local law. We are transparent about the content restrictions we make in accordance with local law in our Transparency Report,” a Facebook representative told TechCrunch in a statement.

TechCrunch understands that the company is in contact with the Vietnamese government and it intends to review content flagged as illegal before making a decision.

Vietnamese media reports claim that Facebook has already told the government that the content in question doesn’t violate its community standards.

It looks likely that the new law will see contact from Vietnamese government censors spike, but Facebook has acted on content before. The company latest transparency report covers the first half of 2018 and it shows that received 12 requests for data in Vietnam, granting just two. Facebook confirmed it has previously taken action on content that has included the alleged illegal sale of regulated products, trade of wildlife, and efforts to impersonate an individual.

Facebook did not respond to the tax liability claim.

The company previously indicated its concern at the cybersecurity law via Asia Internet Coalition (AIC) — a group that represents the social media giant as well as Google, Twitter, LinkedIn, Line and others — which cautioned that the regulations would negatively impact Vietnam.

“The provisions for data localization, controls on content that affect free speech, and local office requirements will undoubtedly hinder the nation’s fourth Industrial Revolution ambitions to achieve GDP and job growth,” AIC wrote in a statement in June.

“Unfortunately, these provisions will result in severe limitations on Vietnam’s digital economy, dampening the foreign investment climate and hurting opportunities for local businesses and SMEs to flourish inside and beyond Vietnam,” it added.

Vietnam is increasingly gaining a reputation as a growing market for startups, but the cybersecurity act threatens to impact that. One key issue is that the broad terms appear to give the government signficant scope to remove content that it deems offensive.

“This decision has potentially devastating consequences for freedom of expression in Vietnam. In the country’s deeply repressive climate, the online space was a relative refuge where people could go to share ideas and opinions with less fear of censure by the authorities,” said Amnesty International.

Vietnam News reports that the authorities are continuing to collect evidence against Facebook.

“If Facebook did not take positive steps, Vietnamese regulators would apply necessary economic and technical measures to ensure a clean and healthy network environment,” the ABEI is reported to have said.

In revamped transparency report, Apple reveals uptick in demands for user data

Apple’s transparency report just got a lot more — well, transparent.

For years, the technology giant released a twice-a-year report on the number of government demands it received. It wasn’t much to look at in the beginning; a seven-page document with only two tables of data. Once in a while, Apple would tack on a new table of data as the government would ask for new kinds of customer data.

But that wasn’t sustainable, nor was it particularly easy to read — especially for the hawkish handful who would obsessively read and digest each report.

As other companies, like Microsoft and Google, received more demands over the years, they began to expand their own reports to help users to better understand who wanted their data, why and how often. Apple knew its document-only reports didn’t cut it, and took a leaf from its Silicon Valley neighbors and pushed ahead with its own plan to publish its biannual numbers in a way that ordinary people — like its customers — can read and understand.

The company’s latest transparency report, out Thursday, still comes in its traditional PDF format for those who don’t like change, but now also has its own dedicated, browsable and interactive corner of Apple’s website. The new site breaks down the figures by country — but also historically to provide trends, patterns and context over years’ worth of reporting cycles, in a way that’s more in line with how other tech giants report their government data demands.

And, the company has CSV files for download, containing raw data for academics to drill deeper down into the numbers.

Apple has also reworked how it discloses national security requests, such as FBI-issued subpoenas like national security letters (NSLs) and orders issued by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISA). Since the introduction of the Freedom Act in 2015, passed in response to the NSA surveillance scandal in 2013, companies were given three options of reporting their secret orders — including the numerical bands it can release under what time period. Most companies disclosed the secret requests in bands of 500 with a six-month reporting delay to avoid any inadvertent interference with active investigations. Apple originally released its figures in bands of 250 requests, but is now expanding that to bands of 500 requests to standardize its reporting with other tech companies. It’s also breaking out its FISA content (such as photos, email, contacts and device backups) and non-content requests (like subscriber records and transactional logs).

As for the figures, the transparency report reveals a rise in worldwide demands for data.

According to the report, Apple received 32,342 demands — up 9 percent on the last reporting period — to access 163,823 devices in the second half of the year.

The report found Germany as the top requester, issuing 13,704 requests for data on 26,160 devices. Apple said that the figures were due to the high volume of device requests due to stolen devices. The U.S. was in second place with 4,570 requests for 14,911 devices.

Apple also received 4,177 requests for account data, such as information stored in iCloud — up by almost 25 percent on the previous reporting period — affecting some 40,641 accounts, a four-fold increase. The company said the spike was attributable to China, which asked for thousands of devices’ worth of data under a single fraud investigation.

And, the company saw a 30 percent increase in requests to preserve data for up to three months to 1,579 cases, affecting 4,033 accounts, while law enforcement obtained the right legal process to access the data.

The company also said it received between 0 and 499 national security orders, including secret rulings from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, affecting 1,000 and 1,499 accounts. As the company is subject to a six-month reporting delay, the updated figures are expected out in the new year.

Apple did not reveal in this latest report any national security letters where the gag orders were lifted.

In State Tectonics, an explosive ending for the future of democracy

An omnipotent data infrastructure and knowledge-sharing tech organization has spread across the planet. Global conspiracies to disseminate propaganda and rig elections are ever present. Algorithms determine what people see as objective truth, and terrorist organizations gird to bring down the monopoly on information.

Malka Older faces a problem few speculative science fiction authors face in their lifetimes: having their work become a blueprint for reality. The author, who began formulating her Centenal Cycle series just a few years ago, now finds that her plots have leapt off the page and have become the daily fodder for cable news programs and Congressional investigations. Her universe is set decades into the future, but history is accelerating, and decades into the future can now mean 2019.

So we arrive at the third and final volume of a trilogy that began as a single work called Infomocracy and has proliferated into Null States and now State Tectonics. Ending a trilogy is rarely easy, but State Tectonics does what Older has always done best with her works, smashing together ideas about the future of politics with a medley of thriller styles to deliver an ample helping of thought-provoking nuance.

Older’s world is built on two simple premises. First, through a project called microdemocracy, the world has been subdivided into 100,000 person governing units known as centenals, and every citizen in the world has the right of migration to choose the government they want. This creates strange artifacts — for instance, in dense areas like New York City, citizens can change governments from a corporate-backed libertarian paradise to a leftist environmental oasis in as quick as a subway stop.

Second, to ensure that citizens can make the best choices for themselves, a global organization called Information (a hybrid Google, United Nations, and BBC) tirelessly works to provide objective information to citizens about politics and the world, verifying claims about everything from election promises to the taste of items on a restaurant menu.

Together, they allow Older to explore a world of information manipulation and electoral strategy while meditating on the meaning of objective truth. Across the trilogy, we follow a crew of Information staffers as they uncover political plots and intrigue around a series of global elections. This structure allows Older to create paced thrillers without losing the intellectual spirit of speculative fiction.

While in her last work Null States, the focus was on inequality and lack of access to information, in State Tectonics, Older interrogates the meaning of Information’s monopoly on … information itself. In this microdemocratic world, it is a crime to provide unverified information to people, and yet, Information hardly has infinite knowledge about the world. A shadowy group starts to purvey local information about cities and people outside the normal Information channels, and that raises profound questions — who ultimately “owns” reality? How do we decide what objective truth even is?

In the background of this central question is a trial for an Information staffer accused of the crime of algorithmic bias, of adjusting reality to suit her own ends. Sound familiar?

As a work of speculative fiction — particularly about a subject as complex as the future of democracy — State Tectonics is superlative. Older is striking in her frenetic ability to weave together idea after idea into vignettes that caused this reader to constantly stop and wander in thought. In just this book, we have discussions on the future of politics, mental health, infrastructure finance, transportation, food, nationalism, and identity politics. The dynamic range here is exhilarating.

Unfortunately, that enormous range forces Older to sacrifice depth, not only in the sophistication of some of these topics, which are often only conceived in slight brushstrokes, but also in the characters themselves. After three reasonably hefty books, I still don’t feel as if I truly know the characters I’ve spent so much time with. They are like friends in a transient city such as New York City, people to hang out with on weekends, but not worth a followup once they move on.

More pejoratively, the book feels constantly weighed down by extraneous details that at times can feel more like Wikipedia than assiduous worldbuilding. In this regard, Older has actually matured as a writer from her earlier works, as the detailed digressions are fewer and far between, but they remain as distracting from her core plot, and take time away from the needed work of fleshing out her characters further.

State Tectonics, like its earlier siblings, is the best and worst of fusion cuisine: the brilliant items on the menu can inspire us to think radically beyond our traditional categories and beliefs, but the vast majority of the dishes end up being mishmashes that are ultimately ephemeral and forgotten. The novel is brilliant in discoursing on the future of democracy, and if that is a topic of keen interest, few books will satisfy that urge like this one will.

Trump administration sues California over its brand-new net neutrality law

The Department of Justice announced on Sunday that it has filed a lawsuit against California to block its new net neutrality law, just hours after it was signed by governor Jerry Brown. The lawsuit was first reported by the Washington Post. Senior Justice Department officials told the newspaper it is filing the lawsuit because only the federal government can regulate net neutrality and that the Federal Communications Commission had been granted that authority by Congress to ensure states don’t write conflicting legislation.

In its announcement, the Justice Department stated that by signing California’s Senate Bill 822 into law, the state is “attempting to subvert the Federal Government’s deregulatory approach by imposing burdensome state regulations on the free Internet, which is unlawful and anti-consumer.”

Attorney General Jeff Sessions said “under the Constitution, states do not regulate interstate commerce—the federal government does. Once again the California legislature has enacted an extreme and illegal state law attempting to frustrate federal policy. The Justice Department should not have to spend valuable time and resources to file this suit today, but we have a duty to defend the prerogatives of the federal government and protect our Constitutional order.”

This is the latest of several legal showdowns between the Trump administration and California, the largest blue state.

Under Attorney General Sessions, the Justice Department has already filed separate lawsuits against California over immigrant sanctuary laws and a law meant to stop the Trump administration from selling or transferring federal land to private corporations. The Trump administration is also clashing with the state over environmental protection regulations.

Senate Bill 822 was introduced by Democratic Senator Scott Wiener to reinstate Obama-era net neutrality protections tossed out by the FCC last year.

Even though Washington and Oregon have also passed their own net neutrality laws, the outcome of the federal government’s battle with California will have ramifications throughout the country because the state’s new net neutrality law is the most stringent one so far, banning most kinds of zero-rating, which allows telecoms to offer services from certain providers for free.

As such, it has been the target of fierce lobbying by telecoms like AT&T and Comcast. While the FCC’s chairman Ajit Pai and telecoms argue that zero-rating allows them to offer better deals (Pai claimed in the Justice Department’s statement today that they have proven popular “especially among lower-income Americans,”) net neutrality advocates say it gives Internet service providers too much power by forcing users to rely on certain services, stifling consumer options and freedom of information.