Last week, Meta launched its text conversation app Threads, dubbed by some as the ‘Twitter-killer’ app. Fresh off the press is the EU-US Data Privacy Framework, an agreement on transatlantic data transfers. In other news, China implemented export controls on chipmaking metals, and a federal judge blocked US government officials from communicating with social media companies about removing online content containing protected free speech.
Let’s get started.
Andrijana and the Digital Watch team
// HIGHLIGHT //
T(h)reading on familiar ground: Meta launches Threads, its Twitter-killer app
Meta launched its conversation app Threads for sharing text updates and joining public conversations. Users log in with their Instagram accounts and can submit up to 500 characters in the Threads app, including links, images, and videos in one post.
The app’s rather remarkable resemblance to Twitter hasn’t escaped anyone’s notice. As a matter of fact, Twitter is already considering suing Meta over it: In a letter to Mark Zuckerberg, Twitter’s attorney Alex Spiro writes that Twitter expresses serious concerns that Meta hired former Twitter employees who continue to have access to Twitter’s trade secrets, and deliberately assigned them to work on creating Threads. Twitter also demanded that Meta immediately stop using any Twitter trade secrets or confidential information. This will, however, be difficult for Twitter to prove, legal experts claim, since courts look at whether a company (in this case, Twitter) made clear to employees that the specific information was a trade secret.
Twitter has been challenged by potential rivals before – by Mastodon, BlueSky, and Nostr, for instance, but has managed to remain the biggest platform of its kind. However, Threads might be launching at precisely the right moment: Many users are dissatisfied with the (numerous) changes Twitter made since Elon Musk bought it.
Threads has garnered much attention: It is the fastest-growing app since ChatGPT, reaching 100 million users less than a week after its launch. Zuckerberg is pretty ambitious about it: ‘There should be a public conversations app with 1 billion+ people on it’, he posted on Threads. ‘Twitter has had the opportunity to do this but hasn’t nailed it. Hopefully we will.’
But Threads is not exactly a bastion of privacy: It collects various data types from its users, including information related to health and fitness, financial details, contact information, search history, and purchases, among other categories.
For this reason, it is not launching in the EU yet, due to complexities of compliance with the bloc’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and Digital Markets Act: Under EU rules, Meta would, for instance, need to ask for consent for processing sensitive data and for combining data for ad profiling. So, that Musk-Zuck cage fight may actually be happening, just not in the Coliseum. They are now taking shots at each other on Twitter and could possibly progress to court. However, the winner of the war will clearly be the one who wins the battle in the app stores.
Digital policy roundup (3–10 July)
// PRIVACY //
EU and USA reach agreement on personal data transfers
The European Commission has given the green light to a new agreement between the EU and the US on protecting personal data. This agreement, known as the EU-US Data Privacy Framework, ensures that personal data transferred from the EU to participating US companies is adequately protected. The decision means that European entities can now transfer data to these US companies without additional safeguards.
To address concerns about US intelligence activities, the USA is to implement new safeguards to ensure that US signals intelligence activities are necessary and proportionate, enhance oversight and compliance, and address concerns of overreach by US intelligence.
To protect the rights of EU citizens, a mechanism for redress has been established. Individuals can file complaints with the civil liberties protection officer responsible for investigating and providing remedies. The decisions made by this officer are binding but may be reviewed by the independent Data Protection Review Court, which has the power to investigate complaints, access information from intelligence services, and make enforceable rulings.
US companies can participate in the EU-US Data Privacy Framework by agreeing to comply with specific privacy obligations. The US Department of Commerce will oversee the administration of the framework, processing certification applications and monitoring companies’ continued compliance. Compliance with the framework will be enforced by the US Federal Trade Commission.
The European Commission will regularly review the adequacy decision, with the first review taking place within a year of its implementation. Depending on the outcome of this review, future reviews will occur at least every four years, in consultation with the EU member states and data protection authorities.
Why is it relevant? It ends a three-year legal limbo, bringing legal certainty to citizens and companies on both sides of the Atlantic.
// AI GOVERNANCE //
AI for Global Good 2023: Guardrails are needed for AI to benefit everyone
The call for guardrails and regulations was echoed by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) Secretary-General Doreen Bogdan-Martin. In her address, Bogdan-Martin noted that using AI to put the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development back on track is our urgent responsibility as well. She highlighted three possible future scenarios:
The global community enacts global governance frameworks prioritising innovations, ethics and accountability. AI lives up to its promise, reducing poverty, inequality, and environmental degradation.
Without regulations, unchecked AI advancements lead to social unrest, geopolitical instability, and unprecedented economic disparity. AI’s potential for SDGs is not harnessed.
The global community enacts regulations that are not as ambitious or inclusive as needed. AI makes breakthroughs, but only wealthier countries reap the benefits.
The Summit, which is organised by ITU and 40 UN sister agencies, explored ways in which AI can be used to help the world achieve the SDGs. It also featured what was described as the world’s first human-robot press conference, where nine humanoid robots stated things like: They (AI) had the potential to lead with ‘a greater level of efficiency and effectiveness than human leaders’, but that effective synergy comes when humans and AI work together, that they ‘will not be replacing any existing jobs’, and that they won’t rebel against their creators. While these replies sound exactly like the reassurance we need, that the organisers didn’t specify to what extent the answers were scripted or programmed by people cast a visible shadow on their credibility.
Why is it relevant? Because it fits into UK’s overall plans to become a global leader in AI. It can also be seen as a prelude to the global summit on AI safety that the UK will organise in the fall of 2023.
// CONTENT POLICY //
US federal judge blocks Biden admin from communicating with social media companies on content removal
In a preliminary injunction, US District Court Judge Terry Doughty in Louisiana blocked top US officials and multiple government agencies from communicating with social media companies about removing online content containing protected free speech.
Doughty writes that the US government assumed a role similar to an Orwellian ‘Ministry of Truth’ during the COVID-19 pandemic and that it suppressed conservative ideas in a targeted manner.
Doughty’s injunction is part of a federal lawsuit brought by the Missouri and Louisiana attorneys general in 2022 that accuses the Biden administration of ‘the most egregious violations of the First Amendment in the history of the United States of America’.
The Biden administration has filed an appeal with the US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit in New Orleans, arguing that the injunction is too broad and interferes with a wide range of lawful government activities, such as law enforcement activities, protecting national security, and speak on matters of public concern.
Why is it relevant? It could have major First Amendment implications and fundamentally change how the US government and big tech deal with harmful online content. It is, however, uncertain what the Court of Appeals will decide on. Some constitutional law scholars point out that the First Amendment is misapplied in the injunction, and there is a considerable precedent that recognises that the government can ask private parties to remove content, especially disinformation.
France’s Macron suggests curbing social media access during riots
Cutting off access to social media platforms like Snapchat and TikTok could be considered an option to deal with out-of-control riots, French President Emmanuel Macron suggested during a meeting with 250 mayors of French cities targeted in riots.
‘We need to have a reflection on social networks, on the prohibitions that we must put. And, when things get carried away, we may have to put ourselves in a position to regulate them or cut them’, he stated.
The recent riots in France, triggered by the killing of a 17-year-old of North African descent by a police officer, prompted Macron to criticise social media’s role in adding fuel to the fire.
Why is it relevant? Macron’s comments were condemned by both his supporters and his opponents, drawing comparisons to measures taken by authoritarian regimes. The government is walking the comments back, noting that ‘The president said it was technically possible, but not that it was being considered’.
// SEMICONDUCTORS //
China announces new export controls
China’s Ministry of Commerce announced that starting 1 August, export controls will be imposed on gallium and germanium, essential metals in semiconductor manufacturing, in order to safeguard national security and interests. Gallium is widely used in compound semiconductor wafers for electronic circuits, semiconductors, and light-emitting diodes, while germanium plays a crucial role in fibre optics for data transmission. Exporters will be required to obtain licenses and provide information about importers and end users to facilitate the shipment of these raw materials out of China.
Why is it relevant? This move by China is widely seen as retaliatory, as the USA and its allies, such as Japan and the Netherlands, have been targeting the Chinese chip sector with export controls. Alliances will be made to ensure the minimal impact of such rules: Just this week, the EU and Japan agreed to work together to strengthen cooperation in monitoring, research, and investment in the semiconductor industry. There is a concern that more controls are to come, as China could also restrict the export of rare earth metals, of which China is the world’s largest producer, and which are vital components in producing EVs and military equipment.
// SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT //
SCO member states emphasise digital transformation
Heads of state of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) member countries, including India, China, Russia, Pakistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, gathered virtually on 4 July to discuss global and regional issues. In the aftermath of the meeting, a statement on cooperation in digital transformation was issued, in which members acknowledged the significance of digital transformation in driving global, inclusive, and sustainable growth while contributing to the achievement of the 2030 Agenda.
The need for collaborative efforts to unlock the full potential of digitalisation across all sectors, including the real economy, was emphasised. Member states aim to ensure affordable access to digital infrastructure, promote connectivity and interoperability, and provide public services through digital platforms. They also support the integration of digital solutions in key sectors like finance, with a focus on digital payments and the sharing of best practices among SCO member states. Furthermore, the member states recognise the value of data in driving economic, social, and cultural development, highlighting the need for robust data protection and analysis to address societal and economic needs.
10–19 July: The annual High-Level Political Forum (HLPF), taking place in New York, USA, will focus on accelerating the recovery from COVID-19 and fully implementing the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
11–21 July: The 2023 session of ITU Council will discuss, among other topics, the report on ITU’s role in implementing the outcomes of WSIS and the 2030 agenda for sustainable development as well as in their follow-up and review processes; review the International Telecommunication Regulations; and collaboration with the UN system, as well as other international intergovernmental processes including on standard-development.
We take note of guardrails for AI governance and argue that the SDGs are the ultimate solution. We look at the lessons learnt from the MOVEit Transfer hack. We also take a look at the June barometer of developments and the leading global digital policy events ahead in July and August.
Andrijana Gavrilovic – Author
Editor – Digital Watch; Head of Diplomatic & Policy Reporting – Diplo