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Big Tech News

In mid-February the European Commission asked all their staff to remove the TikTok app from the phones they use for work. The reason given was security concerns and the data TikTok is alleged to collect on its users. The following week the US Federal Government ordered all its staff with government issued phones to remove the app. Now the Senate is preparing legislation that might ban TikTok completely  in the USA – although the freedom of information (the First Amendment) is fiercely protected, and therefore such legislation is likely not to succeed. Meanwhile in the UK a complaint has been lodged at the national data protection authority (the Information Commission) against YouTube for collecting data on children that use the app.

This is an interesting issue since a child in Europe is considered to be under 13 years of age (in SA the age of a child is up to 18). YouTube’s rules are that a child may not open an account with it unless an adult has given consent, however, it is really impossible to prevent a child from lying about their age in the UK, which does not have a national ID system, or using their parents’ or elder siblings’ PC to access the app. Cunningly, the complaint before the Commission covers this last point, by saying that if a child uses someone else’s PC, then that person’s data is being collected without their knowledge. This is one of those complaints that however YouTube dissects it, it is difficult to win.

Law enforcement agencies are concerned about Apple’s new end-to-end encryption protections for iCloud, arguing more warrant-proof encryption compromises their ability to protect the global public. When talking to The Washington Post, an FBI spokesperson even called for “lawful access by design” effectively to create a backdoor into otherwise secure products and services. The FBI is not alone in wanting encryption weakened, as proposals like the EU’s draft CSAM (Child Sexual Abuse Material) directive and the UK’s Online Safety Bill also threaten end-to-end encrypted services. Encryption advocates argue these proposals are ripe for abuse and would harm online privacy and security.

On the other hand, should regulators still be chaffing after “Big Tech”?  Policymakers in Europe and (to a lesser extent) North America have spent years designing laws and regulations to go after Big Tech, but they were not prepared for the rise of decentralized alternatives—from cryptocurrencies and NFTs on the blockchain to microblogging services like Mastodon and video streaming services like PeerTube. These services focus on decentralizing common online services to provide users with peer-to-peer alternatives to “Big Tech.” Advocates of decentralized services believe they will give users more choice over what rules they follow, what content they see, and what personal data they share—potentially improving free speech, user safety, and data privacy. But policymakers have mostly designed Internet regulations for centralized services. Recent laws, including the EU’s Digital Services Act or the UK’s Online Safety Bill, provide more questions than answers on how they would potentially affect decentralized platforms.

Finally, an advert for Google’s new chatbot ‘Bard’ which showed it answering a query incorrectly, went viral and seems to have wiped $100bn off Alphabet’s market value. In these sort of cases, one always wonders if the responsible ad agency was fired and sued. Probably not.

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Alastair Tempest

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