A collection of the most read contributions from the Tech Policy Press community over the past year.
This year, the number of individual contributors to Tech Policy Press grew to 272, with a number of writers contributing on multiple occasions. There were a number of key themes that broadly reflect events that might be thought of as the most important of the year with regard to their impact on and intersection with tech policy: Russia’s full scale invasion of Ukraine, Elon Musk’s acquisition of Twitter, and the arrival of Europe’s Digital Services Act.
What follows are the most read contributions of 2022:
1. Artifice and Intelligence
Emily Tucker, Executive Director of the Center on Privacy & Technology at Georgetown Law.
In a reflection on language and intent that resonated with many, in March Emily Tucker wrote about why the Privacy Center decided to stop using the terms “artificial intelligence,” “AI,” and “machine learning” in its work to expose and mitigate the harms of digital technologies in the lives of individuals and communities.
2. The Digital Services Act: How is Europe Planning to Regulate Tech?
Mathias Vermeulen, a director at AWO in Brussels and an affiliated researcher at the Centre for Law, Science, Technology and Society at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel.
Europe’s new rules for how to regulate social media have the potential to create a fundamental paradigm shift to hold technology platforms to account, and have been labeled as a potential gold standard for other regulators around the world, wrote Mathias Vermeulen on the occasion of the ‘provisional agreement’ on the Digital Services Act (DSA) in April.
3. On Elon Musk’s Vision of Twitter as a Hive Mind
Joe Bak-Coleman, an associate research scientist at the Craig Newmark Center for Journalism Ethics and Security at Columbia University.
In November, Elon Musk tweeted that Twitter, the social media platform he now owns, can be thought of as a “collective, cybernetic super-intelligence” because it consists of “billions of bi-directional interactions per day.” The notion that a social media platform may represent a novel form of human intelligence is appealing because in many ways it is familiar, wrote Joe Bak-Coleman, evaluating Musk’s claim.
4. The Future of Twitter is Open, or Bust
Chris Riley, senior fellow for internet governance at the R Street Institute and Richard Reisman a nonresident senior fellow at Lincoln Network.
Twitter’s best — and most likely, only — hope to survive as a service and as a business is to open up the platform, write Chris Riley and Richard Reisman. Let others build their own Twitter apps, and do their own filtering and moderation, while preserving the advantages of a centralized discovery and sharing mechanism through the underlying platform. And when other, independent Twitter apps succeed, so too will Twitter.
5. Ukraine, Russia, and the 21st Century Permanent Information War
Peter Pomerantzev, senior fellow at the SNF Agora Institute at Johns Hopkins University and co-director of Arena, a research project that explores how media can reach polarized and antagonistic audience.
Peter Pomerantzev offered his observations on the role of dynamics in the information ecosystem in the conflict between Russia and Ukraine just a week before Russia’s full scale invasion.
6. Can Mastodon Survive Europe’s Digital Services Act?
Konstantinos Komaitis is an Internet policy expert and author. He also serves at the Advisory Council of Tremau. Louis-Victor de Franssu, is the co-founder and CEO of Tremau, a technology Trust & Safety start-up, located in Paris.
Following Elon Musk’s acquisition of Twitter, a substantial number of people are migrating to the ‘fediverse,’ and specifically to Mastodon, a similar microblogging platform that has been called “Twitter, with the underlying architecture of email”. Mastodon’s decentralization raises substantial questions about how existing regulatory regimes, such as Europe’s Digital Services Act (DSA), will apply, wrote Konstantinos Komaitis.
7. The Invasion of Ukraine is Horrific. Cutting the Russian People Off From the Internet Could Make It Worse.
Rebecca MacKinnon, Vice President for Global Advocacy at the Wikimedia Foundation.
Russia’s full scale invasion of Ukraine precipitated a series of events that threaten to further “splinter” the global internet, thereby endangering the ability of everyone, everywhere to share and access open knowledge across borders, wrote Rebecca MacKinnon in March. Opponents of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine seeking to stem the Russian government’s cyber-attacks and disinformation campaigns must consider the technical and social complexities of the global internet — and avoid unintended consequences while acting decisively.
8. Debating Whether AI is Conscious Is A Distraction from Real Problems
Giada Pistilli is an Ethicist at Hugging Face and a P.h.D. Candidate in Philosophy at Sorbonne University.
In June, a Google engineer announced that he believed he may be talking to another consciousness when he interacted with a large language model he helped develop. Giada Pistilli concluded arguing about the consciousness of AI is a distraction, when current AI systems are increasingly pervasive, and pose countless ethical and social justice questions that deserve our urgent attention. For now, if we want to talk to another consciousness, the only companion we can be certain fits the bill is ourselves.
9. The Last Days of Myspace
Cory Doctorow is a science fiction author, activist and journalist.
Social networks are prone to sudden collapses, in part because of the double-edged sword of network effects – but also because of the intrinsic dynamics of social networking, wrote Cory Doctorow in February, reflecting on Facebook’s diminished performance.
10. Pentagon PSYOP Scandal Demands an Urgent Debate on Propaganda Ethics
Dr. Emma L. Briant, a political communication scholar who researches contemporary propaganda and information warfare, and its governance and ethics in an age of mass-surveillance.
In September, the Pentagon launched a sweeping review of its clandestine psychological operations (PSYOP) after reports of pro-Western influence operations on major social media networks. Twitter and Facebook removed two sets of suspected US military accounts that the companies found were violating their policies on “platform manipulation and spam.” Emma Briant wrote that it’s time for a public debate about clandestine PSYOPs.
11. Elon Musk Owning Twitter is A National Security Threat
Nicole Gill, Co-founder and Executive Director and Jesse Lehrich, Co-founder and Senior Advisor at Accountable Tech.
It is imperative that American leaders fully understand Elon Musk’s motives, financing, and loyalties amidst his bid to acquire Twitter – especially given the high-stakes geopolitical reality we are living in now. The fate of American national security and our information ecosystem hang in the balance, wrote Nicole Gill and Jesse Lehrich in October.
12. How To Open An Outpost In Social Media Exile
David Carroll, associate professor of media design at Parsons School of Design at The New School.
In November, David Carroll addressed ‘frequently asked questions’ about Mastodon and offered initial thoughts based on his first couple of weeks as an Admin of an instance in the ‘fediverse’.
13. Meta Meets the Reality of War
Emerson T. Brooking, a resident senior fellow at the Digital Forensic Research Lab of the Atlantic Council and coauthor of LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media.
Meta’s struggles with content moderation related to the war in Ukraine demonstrate an irreconcilable tension in trying to adapt moderation policy to major conflict. Meta’s mission statement is to “give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together,” and content moderation exists to stem the spread of violent and hateful content. But wars are exercises in violence, fueled by cycles of hate, wrote Emerson Brooking in March.
14. Reconsidering the Fight Against Disinformation
Théophile Lenoir is a PhD student at the University of Leeds.
In April, a subset of scholars attending the International Communications Association conference in Paris participated in a pre-conference prompted by concern about the limits of what they regard as “the disinformation narrative,” which portrays information ecosystems, democracy and disinformation mostly through a liberal world-view. The pre-conference aimed at reframing the field of disinformation studies by identifying “the importance of historical contextual and geopolitical approaches” for understanding the relationships between truth, power and politics. This article by Théophile Lenoir was an effort to share some of the arguments and conceptual frameworks discussed during the pre-conference.
15. Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine Accelerates Its Drive Toward Cyber Sovereignty
Allie Funk, senior research analyst for technology and democracy at Freedom House.
For years now, the Russian government has sought to erect its own digital borders in cyberspace, allowing it to control the online information environment and insulate residents from the global internet. Bans on Western social media platforms including Facebook and Twitter following the full scale invasion of Ukraine illustrates how internet users will continue to pay the price in the Kremlin’s hastened advance toward cyber sovereignty, writes Allie Funk.
16. The War in Ukraine Exposes Social Media as a Tool of the State
Charis Papaevangelou, PhD candidate and Nikos Smyrnaios, Associate Professor at the University of Toulouse, France.
The conflict in Ukraine reveals the degree to which social media platforms have become important stakeholders in geopolitical conflicts and information warfare, and– because of their scale and power over the public sphere– increasingly useful tools of the state, write Charis Papaevangelou and Nikos Smyrnaios.
17. Can Algorithmic Recommendation Systems Be Good For Democracy?
Aviv Ovadya, Technology and Public Purpose Fellow with the Belfer Center at the Harvard Kennedy School.
A combination of messy human psychology (what we pay attention to) and flawed societal incentives (our desire for attention and its rewards) leads to harm—and engagement-based recommendations are just a particular way to increase the reward and thus the harm, writes Aviv Ovadya. What would it look like to create a sort of opposite to an engagement-based ranking system? Something that explicitly counters the “benefits” of sensationalism at capturing attention, and thus levels the initial playing field such that complexity and nuance have a fighting chance?
18. Why Social Media Needs Mandatory Interoperability
Zander Arnao, an internet policy analyst who researches and writes about industry concentration and digital privacy.
In many ways, interoperability is fundamental to the internet, writes Zander Arnao. We sometimes forget that the web is one unbelievably complex network of interoperable computer systems. This fact highlights just how unnatural are the barriers that social media platforms have placed in the way of interoperability. The dominance of Big Tech diminishes the diversity of the internet, and users are helpless in the face of market power.
19. The Cookie Clutter Crumbles: Ad Tech Industry’s Consent Framework Isn’t GDPR-Compliant
David Carroll, associate professor of media design at Parsons School of Design at The New School.
The only interaction many people have with the European Union’s far-reaching data protection regulation– known as the GDPR– is through annoying cookie consent popups that clutter websites with what feels like “consent spam,” wrote David Carroll in February. But a ruling by the Belgian Data Protection Authority on behalf of EU member states– in a case 5 years in the making– demonstrates that many of these cookie consent popups have always been unlawful.
20. Is A Tech Company Ever Neutral? Cloudflare’s Latest Controversy Shows Why The Answer is No.
Jenna Ruddock, Research Fellow with the Technology and Social Change Project and April Glaser, Senior Internet Policy Fellow at the Shorenstein Center at the Harvard Kennedy School.
The prospect of internet infrastructure companies that aren’t directly in the social media business making decisions about what is and isn’t acceptable to keep online is fraught, wrote Jenna Ruddock and April Glaser in September. So how should we think about online infrastructure companies and their responsibilities to address harms perpetrated by websites using their services?
– – –
We are grateful to our contributors for informing the community on these issues, and a great many more. We invite contributions on a range of topics at the intersection of technology and democracy. Learn more about how to contribute here.
Justin Hendrix is CEO and Editor of Tech Policy Press, a new nonprofit media venture concerned with the intersection of technology and democracy. Previously, he was Executive Director of NYC Media Lab. He spent over a decade at The Economist in roles including Vice President, Business Development & Innovation. He is an associate research scientist and adjunct professor at NYU Tandon School of Engineering. Opinions expressed here are his own.