Weekly Roundup 1/13/21

By Elizabeth Sutterlin | January 13, 2021

Small Photo
Photo of a woman walking in front of a wall with blue numbers and digital motifs.
Image credit: Aly Song, Reuters

Technology and democracy have been front and center in recent headlines, following last week's insurrection at the United States Capitol building. Those events have thrown into stark relief the consequences of disinformation and hate speech that run rampant on mainstream and fringe social networks, from Facebook to Parler. Reports of stolen laptops from congressional offices and photos of the insurrectionists in front of unlocked staffers' desktop computers raised significant concerns about the cybersecurity implications of the Capitol attack.  The attack has also sparked a larger conversation about the role of tech platforms in regulating online speech as Facebook, Twitter, and other sites purged thousands of QAnon accounts and disabled President Trump's account for inciting violence.


While many eyes were focused on Washington this week, events unfolding ahead of presidential elections in Uganda served as a reminder that the decisions of tech platforms to enforce their policies around elections and political speech have global implications. Facebook removed a network of inauthentic accounts in Uganda that were driving misleading engagement with political content on its platform. The accounts were linked to the Ministry of Information, and members of the ruling party have had their accounts removed for manipulating public debate. Government officials denied responsibility and accused Facebook of electoral interference in turn. On January 12, Uganda's Communications Commission ordered internet service providers to block all social media platforms until further notice, in response to a young opposition candidate who has used social media and livestreaming to lead a new political movement.


Top weekly tech headlines curated for you:


Global Tech Policy

  • China's consumer watchdog claimed that internet companies have been misusing customers' personal data and "bullying" them into purchases. Since releasing draft rules on monopolistic behavior by tech companies and opening investigations into Alibaba and Tencent, China's government and state media have become increasingly critical of internet platforms that infringe on consumer rights. Given China's extensive online surveillance practices, the decision to draw the line at targeted advertising has come as a surprise to many.


Open Internet:

  • Singapore's legal minister defended a new law prohibiting false online speech from critics who claimed it violates rights to free expression, claiming that the profit motives of private tech platforms prevent them from effectively policing hate speech and misinformation. Singapore's law allows the government to order news outlets, social media users, and platforms to include links to a government fact-checking website.
  • WhatsApp recently unveiled its new data sharing policy, which will require users to share much more data with parent company Facebook. If users do not accept the company's new privacy policy and agree to data sharing, their accounts will be made inactive and then deleted. While Whatsapp messages are still end-to-end encrypted, the updated policy allows the company to collect a wealth of metadata on users, including mobile numbers, IP addresses, and other unique device identifiers. Facebook and its subsidiaries will now have access to data about who you talk to through WhatsApp, how often, and at what times.
  • WeChat content from Chinese dissidents living in North America, long invisible to those still living in China, is now blocked from other WeChat users in the United States and Canada. Some of the affected users have supported the Trump administration efforts to ban WeChat due to data privacy and censorship concerns, while others have urged the United States to instead sue its parent company, Tencent.
  • In an article for iWatch Africa, Open Internet Leader Gideon Sarpong delves into the intense online violence that Ghanaian female journalists face on tech platforms. Female journalists in Ghana are threatened more than twice as often as men online, and attacks against them range from intentional disinformation efforts to dissuade them from critical reporting to misogynistic cyber mobs that threaten physical and sexual violence against them. Sarpong calls on Twitter, Facebook, and other tech giants to do more to protect women in journalism in West Africa.


Civic Tech:

  • An article for Politico explores the arguments for digital public infrastructure to replace the profit-driven infrastructure for public engagement online that exists on platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and other private social media companies. What is needed, the author argues, is not just one publicly-owned clone of Facebook, but a multitude of community-specific, public institutions that function like libraries and parks in the digital space.
  • A recent report from the OECD examines trends and makes recommendations for governments that seek to find innovative ways to harvest data and utilize biometric information for improved governance, while protecting the rights of citizens from surveillance.
  • Researchers from the Association of Computing Machinery have introduced CommunityClick, a tool that captures citizen feedback at town hall events in an inclusive manner by providing multiple avenues for citizens to share their opinions, and enables organizers to write comprehensive reports
  • A recent academic article examines how synchronous online participation technologies have replaced face-to-face interaction and participation in democratic processes during the COVID-19 pandemic. Authors call for closer study of citizen participation in videoconference public meetings and other virtual fora in the future.



  • A new tool developed by the Oxford Internet Institute has been adapted into Amazon's anti-bias software. The discrimination tests developed by Oxford AI experts help users identify unintuitive and unintended biases in their AI systems, as well as discrimination of minority groups and those facing intersectional discrimination.
  • In a new paper on trustworthy AI and e-government, researchers from the University of Albany put forward a list of recommendations for processes and governance structures that provide for public trust in artificial intelligence.


Other Tech News:

  • In an article for GenderIT, Juliette Bretan describes how Polish feminists have used online networks to protest the country's draconian abortion laws and to share information about the situation on the ground with other supporters of women's rights issues in Poland and around the world.
  • A Chinese tech firm that implemented "smart cushions" for employees, purportedly to improve workforce posture and reduce fatigue, has recently come under fire after its human resources department began questioning workers who took long breaks or left their chairs early at the end of the day. While government surveillance is pervasive, many in China are concerned about intrusive monitoring and privacy invasions from their employers.