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Big Tech Companies and Governments’ Tussle of Power Represents Complex Interplay of Authority

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Big Tech companies and the Chinese and US governments are embroiled in a complex relationship of harmony and conflict. We are all at the mercy of the outcome.

“Simply put, they have too much power,” US Congressman David Cicilline said of American Big Tech in a 2020 congressional hearing. That same year the Chinese government announced new regulations forcing Chinese company Alibaba to cancel its affiliate Ant Group’s listing on the stock market. China later ordered Ant Group’s financial activities to be terminated, leaving only its e-payments business intact.

These tussles between states and corporations represent a complex interplay between the world’s most powerful actors. Tech giants help define their home countries’ mix of nationalism and globalism.

They are bishops in their states’ strategic and long-term chess game for world power. However, tech giants also challenge their states’ power and contribute to polarisation in their home countries.

The battle rages not only between corporations and their home states. The US denied some Chinese enterprises access to the US market – a well-known example is its ban of Huawei, to block its development of 5G technology.

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Meanwhile, the US put pressure on other countries to follow suit and exclude Chinese businesses from their markets.

Google, proving its support of the US and mindful of the threat Chinese technology posed to its own business, restricted Huawei’s access to essential smartphone apps, forcing Huawei to use or develop new ones. Beyond that, the US attempted to prevent international scientific collaboration with scholars based in China.

The US presents these measures as responses to China competing unfairly. Accusations of Chinese disrespect for intellectual property, state subsidies and protectionism reinforce a generalised criticism of China’s political system.

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China’s Great Firewall, which limits foreigners’ digital operations, is seen as especially provoking given the importance of data harvesting in the AI race. Certainly, the Firewall has been instrumental in Alibaba and Tencent catching up in that race.

China has also developed advanced telecommunications infrastructure, encouraged its tech companies to drive AI adoption and innovation, and fostered collaboration between industry and public universities.

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As China catches up in AI, Chinese tech giants are emerging. This has rung alarm bells for both US tech giants and the US government.

An ad hoc group dubbed the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence (NSCAI) is chaired by Eric Schmidt, Google’s former chairman, and includes senior managers from Google, Microsoft and Amazon.

In 2021, the group released a report commissioned by the US government that made a strong case for techno-nationalism.

The NSCAI wrote: “for the first time since World War II, America’s technological predominance – the backbone of its economic and military power – is under threat. China possesses the might, talent, and ambition to surpass the United States as the world’s leader in AI in the next decade if current trends do not change”.

The report said that most AI research and development, while financed by the state, should be done by firms and universities. It also called for more stringent intellectual property rights for AI, data and biotechnology, arguing that insufficient protection has led inventors to prefer trade secrecy.

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This approach would benefit the tech giants: while the US government makes colossal R&D investments, Big Tech would keep and strengthen the gains.

“The American Jobs Plan”, launched by US president Joe Biden in 2021, is fully in line with this diagnosis of US weakness. To defeat what is perceived as the Chinese threat, it includes $180 billion (roughly Rs.1,390 crore) for R&D in AI and biotechnology.

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Likewise, the NSCAI report suggests: “the United States should commit to a strategy to stay at least two generations ahead of China in state-of-the-art microelectronics and commit the funding and incentives to maintain multiple sources of cutting-edge microelectronics fabrication in the United States”.

Biden’s plan has a $300 billion (roughly Rs. 23,18,298 crore) subsidy devoted to manufacturing, including help for chipmakers producing in the US.

The interdependency between the US and Chinese states and digital corporations is apparent in the case of surveillance. Relaxed US data governance has enabled tech giants to harvest data without restriction.

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In return, Google, Apple and Facebook feed US institutions such as the US National Security Agency with data. Chinese giants do the same with their government. Tech giants also absorb financial wealth and technological capabilities from the rest of the world that is partly channelled to their home countries.

However, tech giants’ techno-globalism sometimes collides with the techno-nationalist aims of their home states. Research shows that these companies establish collaborations with academic institutions and enterprises around the world.

For instance, Chinese universities are among Microsoft’s and Amazon’s most frequent collaborators in AI science, and Tencent and Alibaba conduct much of their AI research in US hotspots such as Silicon Valley and Seattle.

More generally, the tech giants’ size and mode of operation threaten the sovereignty of the state even in superpowers such as the US and China. The fact that Facebook could block US president Donald Trump from its platform, which has almost monopoly status, exemplifies this problem. Alibaba and Tencent taking over part of state-owned commercial banks in China is another example.

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While the US and Chinese states increasingly move towards new and more extreme forms of techno-nationalism, tech giants continue to operate globally and collaborate with organisations from the competing country. But this plays into the nations’ respective global ambitions. Tech giants remain either Chinese or US citizens.

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Big Tech’s global outreach reinforces US world dominance and supports China’s ambition to challenge it. When it comes to policy recommendations, tech giants become ‘techno-nationalist’. They depend on the state’s backing and their autonomy is under constant negotiation.

Global development and use of AI need to be understood in the light of that interplay – one of both harmony and conflict between tech giants, and the US and Chinese states. These leading digital players constitute and shape each other and affect the rest of the world.

Tech giants privatise, monopolise, and turn important elements of technology into private assets while their respective states build new barriers to the international flow of knowledge.

This undermines the global knowledge commons and open science. It curtails innovation possibilities for other organisations and for the rest of the world. A consequence is growing income inequality and a growing global divide between AI producers and users.

In light of urgent global challenges, there is a need for new forms of global governance and knowledge-sharing beyond market regulations.

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Twitter Stops Enforcing COVID-19 Misinformation Policy, Experts Express Concerns Over False Claims

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Twitter will no longer enforce its policy against COVID-19 misinformation, raising concerns among public health experts and social media researchers that the change could have serious consequences if it discourages vaccination and other efforts to combat the still-spreading virus.

Eagle-eyed users spotted the change Monday night, noting that a one-sentence update had been made to Twitter’s online rules: “Effective November 23, 2022, Twitter is no longer enforcing the COVID-19 misleading information policy.”

By Tuesday, some Twitter accounts were testing the new boundaries and celebrating the platform’s hands-off approach, which comes after Twitter was purchased by Elon Musk.

“This policy was used to silence people across the world who questioned the media narrative surrounding the virus and treatment options,” tweeted Dr. Simone Gold, a physician and leading purveyor of COVID-19 misinformation. “A win for free speech and medical freedom!”

Twitter’s decision to no longer remove false claims about the safety of COVID-19 vaccines disappointed public health officials, however, who said it could lead to more false claims about the virus, or the safety and effectiveness of vaccines.

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“Bad news,” tweeted epidemiologist Eric Feigl-Ding, who urged people not to flee Twitter but to keep up the fight against bad information about the virus. “Stay folks — do NOT cede the town square to them!”

While Twitter’s efforts to stop false claims about COVID weren’t perfect, the company’s decision to reverse course is an abdication of its duty to its users, said Paul Russo, a social media researcher and dean of the Katz School of Science and Health at Yeshiva University in New York.

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Russo added that it’s the latest of several recent moves by Twitter that could ultimately scare away some users and even advertisers. Some big names in business have already paused their ads on Twitter over questions about its direction under Musk.

“It is 100% the responsibility of the platform to protect its users from harmful content,” Russo said. “This is absolutely unacceptable.”

The virus, meanwhile, continues to spread. Nationally, new COVID cases averaged nearly 38,800 a day as of Monday, according to data from Johns Hopkins University — far lower than last winter but a vast undercount because of reduced testing and reporting. About 28,100 people with COVID were hospitalized daily and about 313 died, according to the most recent federal daily averages.

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Cases and deaths were up from two weeks earlier. Yet a fifth of the U.S. population hasn’t been vaccinated, most Americans haven’t gotten the latest boosters, and many have stopped wearing masks.

Musk, who has himself spread COVID misinformation on Twitter, has signalled an interest in rolling back many of the platform’s previous rules meant to combat misinformation.

Last week, Musk said he would grant “amnesty” to account holders who had been kicked off Twitter. He’s also reinstated the accounts for several people who spread COVID misinformation, including that of Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, whose personal account was suspended this year for repeatedly violating Twitter’s COVID rules.

Greene’s most recent tweets include ones questioning the effectiveness of masks and making baseless claims about the safety of COVID vaccines.

Since the pandemic began, platforms like Twitter and Facebook have struggled to respond to a torrent of misinformation about the virus, its origins and the response to it.

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Under the policy enacted in January 2020, Twitter prohibited false claims about COVID-19 that the platform determined could lead to real-world harms. More than 11,000 accounts were suspended for violating the rules, and nearly 100,000 pieces of content were removed from the platform, according to Twitter’s latest numbers.

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Despite its rules prohibiting COVID misinformation, Twitter has struggled with enforcement. Posts making bogus claims about home remedies or vaccines could still be found, and it was difficult on Tuesday to identify exactly how the platform’s rules may have changed.

Messages left with San Francisco-based Twitter seeking more information about its policy on COVID-19 misinformation were not immediately returned Tuesday.

A search for common terms associated with COVID misinformation on Tuesday yielded lots of misleading content, but also automatic links to helpful resources about the virus as well as authoritative sources like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Dr. Ashish Jha, the White House COVID-19 coordinator, said Tuesday that the problem of COVID-19 misinformation is far larger than one platform, and that policies prohibiting COVID misinformation weren’t the best solution anyway.

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Speaking at a Knight Foundation forum Tuesday, Jha said misinformation about the virus spread for a number of reasons, including legitimate uncertainty about a deadly illness. Simply prohibiting certain kinds of content isn’t going to help people find good information, or make them feel more confident about what they’re hearing from their medical providers, he said.

“I think we all have a collective responsibility,” Jha said of combating misinformation about COVID. “The consequences of not getting this right — of spreading that misinformation — is literally tens of thousands of people dying unnecessarily.”


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Elon Musk Hints at Plans to Increase Character Limit for Tweets in Response to Twitter User

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Twitter could expand its character limit from 280, according to a tweet by new owner Elon Musk. The world’s richest man and Twitter’s new CEO responded to a user on the microblogging platform requesting the higher character limit, stating that it was part of the company’s plan. Twitter is also working on adding encrypted direct messages (DMs), and payment services, according a set of slides recently shared by Musk on Twitter. However, it is currently unclear whether the increased character limit will be the same as the longform tweet feature teased by the company’s CEO.

On Monday, Musk responded to a Twitter user asking him to expand the 280-character limit for on tweets on Twitter to 1,000 characters. Musk responded, stating :It’s on the todo list.”

Twitter, which is referred to as a “microblogging service”, originally had a 140-character limit for tweets, which was expanded to 280 characters in 2017. At the time, the company’s blog stated that “many people Tweeted the full 280 limit because it was new and novel, but soon after behaviour normalised…We saw when people needed to use more than 140 characters, they Tweeted more easily and more often.”

The platform is one of the few services that limits users’ posts to a few hundred characters. Rival Facebook allow users to upload posts with thousands of characters.

Musk has shown interest in the idea of increasing the character limit on a number of occasions since his takeover of the platform, as per a report by Mashable.

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On November 27, a Twitter user suggested to Musk to increase the platform’s word limit from 280 to 420. “Good idea” Musk wrote in response.

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Prior to that, another user had suggested “get rid of character limits,” to which Musk responded: “Absolutely”.

Musk recently announced another major change for the platform with its multi-coloured verification system. A new three-coloured verification check mark system would replace the previous ‘Twitter Blue’ service which had to be pulled off within days of its release due to rising number of accounts impersonating well-known brands and personalities while carrying the ‘verified’ check. The new Twitter Blue verification service will tentatively be relaunched on December 2, according to Musk.


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WhatsApp ‘Message Yourself’ Feature Rolling Out on Android and iOS: Report

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WhatsApp is rolling out its Message Yourself feature to users globally. The app will now let you send a text to yourself, to store messages and files. Many users around the globe rely on WhatsApp chats to jot down quick notes or reminders, or crucial information. Until now, users would use a workaround to message themselves, or use a second WhatsApp account registered to another phone number, or rely on a chat window of a defunct WhatsApp account to store messages. WhatsApp will now let you do it easily via one of its new in-built features called Message Yourself.

According to a report by TechCrunch, the Meta owned messaging app has begun to roll out the ability to message yourself. The ‘Message Yourself’ feature will be similar to sending a text to another user, except that the message will remain in a separate chat on your phone.

Once the feature is rolled out, users will see a separate chat with their name followed by “(You)”. You will be able to jot down notes, shopping lists, keep reminders, store bookmarks. You will also be able to forward messages from other users, just like you can for other chats.

You can tap on the new chat button from the WhatsApp home screen and select your name. Once you tap on it, you will be able to send texts to yourself. If you are in another app, you can also use the sharing menu to send files, images, and other media to yourself.

WhatsApp says that the Message Yourself feature is now rolling out and should reach most Android and iOS users in the coming weeks, as per the report. Users can download the latest version of the app on Android and iOS to use the Message Yourself feature.

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Recently, the messaging app also introduced a new feature that will let iOS and Android users create polls in personal and group chats to get opinions or answers from their friends and contacts. Users’ responses to a poll’s question are protected via end-to-end encryption, according to the company.

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