China Effectively Blocks WhatsApp (Sep 25, 2017)
It appears that the Chinese government has effectively blocked WhatsApp entirely in the country through some fairly sophisticated and subtle means, making it more or less unusable for the population, an escalation over earlier partial censorship of certain content types. This is obviously a big blow to Facebook – we don’t know how many monthly active users WhatsApp has in China, and it’s clearly not as dominant there as in certain other markets given the popularity of the local messaging services, but it’s still an important market for WhatsApp given its popularity in Asia in general, and WhatsApp has also been about the only property Facebook has that’s operated in China even as the rest of the company has been shut out. The context here is the broader crackdown by the government against western tech companies and especially those that foster open communication at a time when the government is clamping down on dissent.
via New York Times
Though the headline on the Recode piece linked below says Apple is facing questions from the US Senate on its new Face ID feature, the reality is that the questions are coming from one Senator: former comedian Al Franken, who’s always taken an interest in tech issues and tends to use them to raise his public profile. A number of the questions he’s posing have already been addressed by Apple (including in its public announcement of the feature) while others suggest Franken thinks Apple is Google or some other company which regularly uses data on its customers to target advertising. All of which suggests he either hasn’t taken time to understand the feature properly, or is simply grandstanding, which frankly feels more likely. Apple’s stance on privacy and security is abundantly clear at this point, as demonstrated by its approach to the Touch ID feature (which Franken previously investigated in a similar way). None of that will stop people freaking out about the feature, and coincidentally or not the Economist magazine’s cover story this week is about the dangers of companies collecting facial data. But Apple is storing this data on the device in ways inaccessible to anyone but the user or for purposes other than those intended by Apple and approved by the user.
Facebook Quietly Tests Chinese App Waters with Moments Clone (Aug 11, 2017)
Facebook has begun inserting posts from local elected officials into users’ News Feeds in the app as part of a test it’s running, the latest in a set of moves over the past year to increase the visibility of political and election-related content on Facebook. This is one of those things that simultaneously feels like a great idea and fraught with problems. On the one hand, allowing local officials to communicate more effectively with their constituents at a time when news consumption is becoming more polarized, thanks in part to Facebook itself, seems like a great idea. On the other hand, local officials are also candidates in what sometimes seem like permanent election seasons in the US, at least for certain offices, and if Facebook only promotes posts from elected officials without promoting those of their opponents and rivals in elections, that’s an enormous issue. Of the two screenshots in the Recode piece linked below, one feels relatively apolitical while the other is clearly more political in nature, and a user who was shown only that one and not also something from a representative of a different political party would be getting only one perspective in a way that would be almost impossible for others to address without resorting to paid advertising on Facebook. The approach would massively favor incumbents over their challengers, something the US political system already does to a great extent. So although the effort seems like it has worthwhile elements, it feels like the potential for harm is significant, and I would guess that there will be a big backlash from politicians who feel they’ve been discriminated against if this test moves to a widespread rollout.
A little while ago, I covered the news that Jessica Rosenworcel had been nominated to fill the vacant Democratic slot at the FCC, and posited that a Republican nomination must be coming soon so as to preserve the Republican advantage on the Commission. It now seems as though Brendan Carr, currently acting as general counsel at the FCC and a key ally to Chairman Ajit Pai, will take that last slot. Given the controversy around net neutrality, that majority is critical to making the changes Pai has proposed, and on the basis that both these nominees are likely to be pushed through together, things should work out fine for the Trump administration. As I said while commenting on the Rosenworcel nomination, telecoms policy is one of the few areas where the Trump administration has been able to move quickly without either Congressional or legal barriers, so it will be keen to keep the agenda moving forward quickly. Update: the nomination was confirmed later in the day.
The US House Energy and Commerce panel held hearings today on proposed legislation to regulate the licensing of autonomous vehicles for testing on roads. There is, of course, quite a bit of that testing going on already in various states throughout the US, but the Congressional effort aims to unify regulation on the topic and create a single set of policies nationally as a result. The carmakers are, in theory, in favor of that, but only if it reflects the lighter-touch approaches currently being taken by states like California, while safety advocates are pushing for tighter regulation, more testing, and generally slowing things down. There are sensible arguments being made on both sides here – no-one, least of all the carmakers, wants high-profile accidents featuring self-driving cars putting the whole field back by years. But given the potential of autonomous driving to increase safety over time, there are also strong safety-centric arguments for allowing reasonable testing to go on without burdensome oversight. Given the current state of US politics, I’m not 100% confident that we’ll get a sensible bit of legislation out of all this, but I do think that it’s inevitable and welcome that we’ll eventually have a national framework for not just testing but ultimately selling autonomous vehicles. Testing is an area that needs to be addressed today, but commercial vehicle sales are several years away and as such there’s time to get this stuff right and no need to rush into anything today. But there are some really thorny issues here that do need to be thought through in great detail, not least questions of liability and responsibility.