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Mark As Read

“Borderless Data,” Big Tech Chooses Sides, and Privacy’s Slippery Slope

Tech and privacy perspectives from around the globe

Illustration of square vignettes of a pink globe, layered with pixelated eyes and cursors.
Gabriel Hongsdusit

This week:

  • The New York Times explores how “borderless data” is ending, and how that makes data regulation a global issue
  • Decisions about data in the Ukraine war aren’t as easy as they seem
  • Away from the floodlights, Big Tech and social media may be making some questionable decisions
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Data Sovereignty Wins, but Whose?

The New York Times reports that “the era of borderless data is ending,” pointing to more than 50 countries that are “accelerating efforts to control the digital information produced by their citizens, government agencies and corporations.” It traces the shift back to Snowden but quotes privacy activist Max Schrems as warning that efforts by governments to regulate differently has made data “a global issue.”

Further compounding the issue are regulatory differences even within a country. Take Indonesia, where rising cases of data breaches are not adequately covered by a confusing array of laws and regulations across agencies, according to two Indonesian lawyers from the practice Soemadipradja & Taher. In the U.S. the patchwork is at the state level: “California parents could soon sue for social media addiction,” according to the AP, while a state law in Florida seeking to bar social media companies from “deplatforming” political candidates has been making its way through the courts. According to Recode, Google is facing antitrust and other lawsuits in 49 states as well as in Puerto Rico, D.C., and Guam.

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Whose Side Is Big Tech On, Anyway?

The war in Ukraine has teased out some awkward questions about whose interests Big Tech should champion. It may have seemed to be an easy choice when Google’s YouTube removed more than 9,000 channels relating to the war, but some have complained about the lack of transparency over exactly which channels and why they were chosen. At least one user reported they found their videos documenting atrocities deleted and their channel suspended for three months. At the same time, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and TikTok have been asked by four congressional Democrats to archive war crime evidence. Twitter has decreed that it will hide tweets that share false info during a crisis.

These initiatives, argue Sameer Patil and Vivek Mishra of Indian think tank Observer Research Foundation, are part of the natural alignment between a Big Tech company and its “American, Western, or Chinese roots,” where double standards “challenge national sovereignty.” For every successful attempt to punish companies for their behavior in other jurisdictions, many more efforts are frustrated, as Wired discovered when it looked at the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation four years after it came into force (“How GDPR Is Failing”).

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The Slippery Slope May Not Be Where You Think It Is

This is in contrast to jurisdictions outside the West, where Big Tech often seems happy enough to roll over. A post on the blog of Hoody, a yet-to-be-launched service that promises to offer far more privacy than virtual private networks (more commonly known as VPNs), listed all the confirmed times when Big Tech engaged in censorship at the request of foreign governments. It appears to still be happening: The Citizen Lab found that Microsoft was apparently censoring searches for politically sensitive Chinese personalities, even in the United States. Microsoft blamed it on a technical error it said had been fixed.

Exploring the nuances of this spectrum is an Indian startup called Koo, a multilingual microblogging site that now offers self-verification. The idea is to allow individuals to verify their identities by matching the account with the government’s biometric identity card, theoretically reducing “unwarranted behavior” as a user’s identity is visible and confirmed. But the piece also reports concerns among researchers that it’s a slippery slope toward reducing free speech. Koo is the first company to adhere to new rules in India that require social media networks with more than five million users to introduce “voluntary” verification of users. India has been accused of increasingly using technology to curtail human rights and stifle freedom of expression online, and the verification clause is part of a bigger set of regulations that critics say curtail privacy and free speech

Jeremy Wagstaff, formerly a technology journalist with Reuters, now works as a writer and consultant. Past clients have included Microsoft, Google, Cisco, Samsung and Facebook. He has no current clients among, or financial interest in, any companies in the Fortune 500.

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