Weekly Roundup 12/23/20

By Elizabeth Sutterlin | December 23, 2020

Small Photo
Image of a security camera monitoring a laptop screen from Getty Images
Image credit: Thomas Jackson, Getty Images

This week, Michael Pack, CEO of the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM), has moved to stop federal funding for the Open Technology Fund (OTF) for three years, an action difficult for the incoming Biden administration to reverse in January. Appointed by Trump and confirmed in summer 2020, Pack's approach to the Fund has been continually adversarial: he temporarily withheld millions in funding to the nonprofit in June and attempted to fire and replace its entire board of directors in July, which was rejected by a DC court in October. The Fund's status as a federally-funded but independent grantee of USAGM has protected it from interference thus far, but Pack's actions could force the nonprofit to shutter its doors by June 2021.


OTF enables millions of people to connect securely to the global internet. The Fund's internet freedom and cybersecurity tools enable minority communities, civil society organizations, journalists, and human rights activists to safely access and share information, create networks of support, and circumvent censorship and surveillance in Iran, China, and many other countries.


Top weekly tech headlines, curated for you:


Global Tech Policy:

  • South Africa has introduced new cybercrime regulations for electronic communications companies, which will require companies like WhatsApp to assist the government in investigating cyber crimes. It also introduces punishments for sending "malicious communications," such as messages that threaten or incite violence against others, or those who disclose intimate images online.
  • Executives at Facebook, Alphabet, Amazon, and Microsoft are pushing to place candidates with industry ties in senior government roles in the Biden administration. Researchers tracking the transition team suggest that Big Tech may hope to steer the incoming administration away from the Democratic party's progressive wing, which has spearheaded an anti-monopoly movement calling for scrutiny of Silicon Valley. 
  • A draft law in the Russian Duma that would limit foreign shareholding in Russian film and TV streaming services to 20% has drawn concern from Russian tech giant Yandex over concerns it could hurt the country's investment climate and companies' abilities to compete on global markets.
  • As democracies are faced with increasingly sophisticated threats on digital advertising platforms from bad actors who sow discord and spread disinformation, the Alliance for Securing Democracy and Harvard's Kennedy School have produced a set of six policy recommendations for governments to make the digital advertising ecosystem more accountable and transparent.


Open Internet:

  • A coalition of NGOs in the MENA region have published an open letter calling on the Iraqi parliament to withdraw or amend a draft law on combating cybercrime. The signatories to the letter argued that the law places restrictions on freedom of expression without ensuring effective cybersecurity in Iraq.
  • Google, Mozilla, Apple, and Firefox are joining forces to block efforts of the government of Kazakhstan to monitor citizens' browsing history and online activity. Each company's browsers now block government certificates that would track activity on foreign social media sites.
  • In a piece for Project Syndicate, members from the Global Network Initiative describe ways to regulate content moderation to uphold digital rights to free expression while protecting groups from digital harms such as hate speech, disinformation, and extremist content. They stress the importance of a human rights-based approach that emphasizes legality, legitimacy, and necessity as guiding principles for content moderation.
  • In a year as fraught with challenges as 2020, it can be easy to get overwhelmed by bad news. Access Now has compiled a list of victories for digital rights this year. From Facebook banning Holocaust denial content to Sandvine ending its contract with Belarus, there were a lot of happy endings for digital rights defenders in 2020. 



  • After consultations with more than 60 civil society organizations (including NDI) and the World Bank's ID4D Initiative, Namati has released a report summarizing the calls to integrate human rights into the development and implementation of digital ID systems around the world. The report highlights the importance of government collaboration with civil society and transparency in the systems that collect and manage people's most sensitive biometric data.
  • In a blog for the APC, David Souter explores opportunities for digital technologies to help the world to "build back better" in 2021 as we see the light at the end of the COVID-19 tunnel. He cautions against confusing optimizing technology with maximizing technology as we ensure that no one is left behind. Rather than speaking in terms of "digital solutions" to the woes of the pandemic, he encourages the international development community to think of "digital contributions to recovery."



  • The New York Times has released a feature on China's censorship of the spread of information on COVID-19 in the early months of the pandemic. Under directives released by China's cyber administration, management sought control over digital media related to the virus within China and internationally. Negative news was downplayed, and specialized software to monitor “harmful information” helped shape what the public could see online.



  • Microsoft, Google, and other large tech companies have filed an amicus brief to join a lawsuit against NSO Group, the notorious Israeli spyware firm. Facebook filed the suit alleging that hackers had exploited WhatsApp to spy on journalists and human rights activists. Digital rights NGOs are expected to file another amicus brief in support of WhatsApp in the near future.
  • In a recent report, the Association for Progressive Communications argued that there is no need to pit human rights and cybersecurity against one another; they can and must coexist for a sustainable and human-centered approach to security. The Association urges a rights-based approach that focuses the security of users and their data for a greater overall cybersecurity environment.
  • Thirty-six journalists at Al Jazeera were infected with Pegasus spyware in an iPhone hack attributed to operatives from Saudi Arabia and the UAE, according to the University of Toronto's Citizen Lab. 
  • A coalition of civil rights groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, have filed an objection to the Customs and Border Protections’ proposed expansion of facial recognition at land and sea ports that would authorize the collection of facial images from any non-citizen entering the country.



  • A feminist research framework for privacy, AI, and data protection can allow us to look critically at technology as part of the problem and the solution, argues Chenai Chair, an ICT researcher in South Africa. Her blog post examines how a methodology that takes into account principles of data feminism, intersectionality, and data justice can lead to better tech policy outcomes.


Other Tech News:

  • Foreign Policy examines how drug cartels throughout Latin America curate a social media presence to intimidate rivals and attract recruits. Gang members in Brazil, Mexico, and the U.S. share competing violent messages across Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp to show their force in local communities. Videos on "Cartel TikTok" regularly rack up millions of views, glamorizing gang life to recruit young people across Mexico and Colombia.