Weekly Roundup 28 April through 6 May

By Cat Ramsey | May 09, 2022

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Elon Musk stands with both his thumbs up in front of a yellow background with purple arrows pointing up
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Image credit: Illustration by Kristen Radtke / The Verge; Getty Images
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28 April

Since the news broke that Twitter is accepting Elon Musk’s bid to purchase the platform, there have been sudden changes in follower counts on prominent accounts. Well known conservative accounts, such as that of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, have seen noticeable increases in followers, while well known liberal accounts, such as that of US Vice President Kamala Harris, have seen smaller, but still significant decreases in followers. It is unclear what is driving the change, but while the public speculates that the change is due to bots or a change in shadowbanning policies, Twitter has stated that the change is organic, not due to any policy changes, simply users responding to the news that Elon Musk has bought Twitter by activating and deactivating accounts. The company is investigating the phenomenon, but it seems to speak to an ideological shift in Twitter’s users and expectations for changing policies under Musk’s leadership.

6 May

NDI’s Democracy and Technology Team is excited to announce the publication of our  latest white paper: FOSStering Democracy: Threats and Successes in Counter-Authoritarian Software. The paper examines the rise of digital authoritarianism and its malignant effects on democratic actors and allies, especially as it pertains to online safety. A few of the key recommendations made include public investment in internet infrastructure, including marginalized groups in software design, and highlighting the Free Open Source Software (FOSS) method. 

Gender and Inclusion

  • Social media companies violate the rights of both the people who see targeted ads and the people who are excluded from those targeted ads. The practice of excluding certain demographics from the audience of a Facebook ad is a form of digital redlining, or the use of technology to perpetuate discrimination. 

Global Tech Policy

  • CrowdTangle's co-founder,  Brandon Silverman, spoke to the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee on the need for social media platforms to share data with researchers. This data-sharing issue may be addressed in the Platform Transparency and Accountability Act currently being considered by Congress. 
  • The EU’s Digital Services Act will include transparency provisions forcing large platforms to reveal the algorithms they use. However, it is still unclear how such requirements will be implemented. 
  • In the wake of Elon Musk’s purchase of Twitter, the EU has warned the eccentric tech billionaire that he must comply with the bloc’s recently passed Digital Services Act. The act, which requires greater transparency from social media companies, grants the EU authority to sanction and even ban any platform from operating within its borders.
  • Google has announced that it will be establishing its first African product development center in Nairobi, Kenya. The center is the tech giant’s latest push to capitalize on the continent’s growing online population, which is expected to surpass 800 million by 2030.
  • Georgian MPs recently tabled a controversial surveillance bill in response to widespread outcry from civil rights groups. The Georgian Law on Counterintelligence Activities would allow the state to surveill citizens without a security-related court order. 
  • On Thursday, the United States and 55 other countries committed to the Declaration for the Future of the Internet, which stipulates a shared effort to defend a free and open internet. The agreement aims to prevent a potential “splinternet” in which authoritarian regimes insulate themselves from the global internet through  surveillance and tighter internet controls. 
  • The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has established a Disinformation Governance Board to address the growing threat of disinformation, especially to elections. The board is a nonpartisan entity, not involved in the DHS’s operations, but the Board's launch has been marred by confusion over its role and concern from Republicans, who have called it the "truth police." Nina Jankowicz, an NDI alumna and disinformation expert, is leading the new body.

Open Internet

  • North Koreans are jailbreaking their phones, a practice that refers to breaking through the restrictions built into the operating system, which, in the North Korean context, means users can puncture the information bubble of the country with the most restricted information environment in the world. 
  • On the 28th of April, Indian authorities announced new regulations requiring VPN companies to collect user data and hold it for five years. Companies are considering withdrawing from the country rather than comply with the law, which is seen as a violation of digital rights. 

Cybersecurity

  • The Israeli government is launching a new initiative to counter cyberattacks, aiming to create a cyber iron dome as impenetrable as the country’s missile defense system. The initiative is a response to increasing cyber threats and will require private companies to meet new security standards. 
  • On Wednesday, the website security company Cloudflare disclosed that it had contained a 15.3 million request-per-second DDoS attack, making it one of the largest ever recorded. Cloudflare noted that the attack originated mainly from data centers, highlighting a broad shift from residential ISPs to cloud compute ISP by malign actors.
  • A new report released by Microsoft confirmed that Russia has launched numerous cyberattacks against Ukraine since the start of the invasion, many of which are timed in conjunction with missile strikes. The report states that the attacks have been far subtler than originally expected, revealing that Russia expected a quick victory at the onset of the war.

Disinformation

  • Moira Whelan, the Director of Democracy and Technology at the National Democratic Institute, spoke to CNN about the role the Department of Homeland Security’s new Disinformation Board will play in protecting democracy and the announcement of the Declaration for the Future of the Internet, which demonstrates progress in the field of democracy.
  • Civil society groups are encouraging large companies to use their power as advertisers to force Twitter to continue content moderation. The groups are emphasizing the reputational risk of being associated with hate speech and disinformation.

Data Protection and Privacy

  • With the expectation that Roe v. Wade will be overturned and abortions will be criminalized in parts of the United States, experts have raised concerns that period tracking apps will sell users’ data to actors who aim to use the data to find and punish people seeking abortions.  If the ruling is overturned, as a leaked document has demonstrated is likely, related rulings based on privacy are likely to be rethought as well, including the entire field of data privacy within the United States.

Blockchain

  • Bitcoin is now the official currency of the Central African Republic (CAR), following El Salvador as the second country to adopt the cryptocurrency as legal tender. While easy for currency conversion, critics fear that the adoption of Bitcoin is premature given the dearth of internet access in CAR.
  • The cryptocurrency platform Kraken Exchange is set to establish its Middle East and North Africa headquarters in Abu Dhabi, UAE. Kraken Exchange is the latest American firm to make the move, as the gulf kingdom seeks to become a regional hub for cryptocurrency.

Other Tech News

  • Former employees at gatekeeper platforms are taking what they learned and founding startups which, unlike big tech’s profit model, develop user experience-focused products. These platforms charge users a small fee and mitigate abuse through measures like only allowing users to add friends in their address books, not allowing direct audio messages, or hiring conflict coordinators to speak to rule violators.
  • Soldiers for the military junta in Myanmar are using social media, including Facebook and Telegram, to contact an underground network of activists who use their digital connections to help soldiers desert the army.
  • In an effort to better understand sea life migration patterns, the Wood Hole Oceanographic Institution is attempting to make an “ocean GPS’ via sonic beacons. Traditional devices have little success in tracking animals over the long-term, an issue that Wood Hole’s system is designed to solve.

 

Projects

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