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1. Trump’s executive order threatens to make tech platforms liable for user content
  • According to the order, the “policy of the United States” is that large online platforms that apply editorial judgment to restrict speech should be liable for user-generated content. The order threatens to remove technology platforms’ Section 230 protections from the Communications Decency Act passed by Congress in 1996.
  • Section 230 is the most important law addressing liability for speech on the internet, especially this critical line: “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider." Section 230’s liability protections (with exceptions for child pornography and IP violations) laid the groundwork for a modern internet with social media (e.g. Twitter, Facebook), user-generated video (e.g. YouTube), wikis (e.g. Wikipedia), search (e.g. Google), self-publishing (e.g. Medium, Tumblr), review sites (e.g. Yelp, Amazon), forums (e.g. Reddit), and comment sections.
  • It is unclear to what extent President Trump’s order can achieve its stated aims without a new law passed by Congress. The original intent behind Section 230 was to allow platforms to apply their own moderation rules “in good faith” – including restriction of “objectionable” content (such as child pornography) “whether or not such material is constitutionally protected” – without being held liable for user-generated content. The executive order relies heavily on tech firms’ own stated commitments to neutrality and whether their moderation is in “good faith.”
  • In the near term, there won’t be much impact. The order asks the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) to clarify the scope of Section 230’s protections and definition of “good faith”; directs executive departments to review their advertising spend; asks the FTC (Federal Trade Commission) to act against unfair or deceptive practices; and directs the Attorney General to establish a working group on State-level legislation.
  • The order’s true impact will hinge on the FCC’s response in particular and how it clarifies Section 230. The FCC has taken a hands-off approach with social media in the past, so any move to narrow the scope of Section 230 would be a significant reversal. However – FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, who led the repeal of net neutrality, shared his view last year that the “greatest threat to a free and open internet” has been unregulated tech giants. Any lawsuits based on a new definition would still face the sizable body of established case law.
  • The order intensifies the debate on social media’s role in moderating “the public square.” Tech firms are increasingly serving as content arbiters and intervening to address COVID-19 misinformation. Platforms are seeing intensive scrutiny for both too much content moderation and too little. Neither party is happy with the social giants – Democrats have long been seeking more moderation, while Republicans are demanding less – and both have threatened to use Section 230 protections removal as a bludgeon.
  • Facebook and Twitter leadership don’t agree either – Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerburg (whose platform has avoided restrictions on political speech) criticized Twitter saying platforms should not be “the arbiter of truth,” prompting Jack Dorsey to defend Twitter’s actions. While much depends on how Section 230 holds up, in any scenario tech firms will need to provide greater transparency and clarity regarding their content policies.
  • Related Briefs:
    • Nov 9 2019: Facebook News & the current wave of news aggregators
    • Oct 31 2019: TikTok’s rapid rise to 1.5B installs – and the global reaction
2. China’s national tech champions invest billions in next-gen infrastructure
  • This month has seen a spate of activity from China’s national tech champions:
Earlier this week, Tencent announced plans to invest $70B over the next 5 years in cloud (where it’s the #2 player in China with 18% of the market), AI, cybersecurity, blockchain, IoT, 5G, and quantum computing. It also raised this week $6B in a US-dollar bond sale.
About a week ago, Alibaba announced it was investing $1.4B in an AI and IoT system for its smart speaker (one of the top two players in China). The news came one month after its $28B commitment over 3 years in Alibaba Cloud (which leads China with a 46% share).
This week also saw reports that 5G champion Huawei has spent $23B since late 2018 building up a two-year reserve of US-made chips and components, in anticipation of the supply restrictions that recently emerged.
  • Chips are a recognized vulnerability for China – it set up a $29B national semiconductor fund in Oct 2019 to reduce reliance on foreign chips. Earlier this month, Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corp (SMIC) received a $2.3B investment from state-backed funds to boost advanced chip-making capacity at a Shanghai plant by 6x.
  • Related Briefs:
    • Apr 4 2020: Global supply chains diversify away from China
    • Nov 22 2019: Shifting tides around the leaderboard in the global cloud race
3. Remote-first becomes permanent for many tech firms and professionals
  • Over the past few weeks, a parade of firms have announced a shift to a more permanent remote workforce after stay-at-home orders have been lifted:
Twitter was among the first to allow some employees to work from home permanently. Twitter had been steering towards a more distributed workforce even before COVID-19.
Square, which shares its CEO with Twitter, followed in allowing its 3,800 employees to work from home permanently.
Facebook could see half its 48K employees work from home in 5-10 years, with Zuckerberg saying: “We’re going to be the most forward-leaning company on remote work at our scale.”
Shopify said its 5,000 staff can work from home indefinitely. It will keep offices closed through the end of 2020 to redesign and limit them to 20-25% capacity.
Coinbase will be “remote-first,” giving most of its 1,100+ employees the option to work remotely or from home. It expects 20-60% will work remotely after restrictions are lifted.
  • A Gartner study reported 74% of finance leaders expected to shift 5%+ of their workforce to permanent remote positions after the crisis. 23% expected 20%+ of staff to be remote. In the longer term, 22% of hiring managers in an Upwork survey said they expect a fully remote workforce within 5 years – a significant uptick from the pre-COVID era. Some of this will be demand-driven – polls found more than half of people want remote work as their primary mode and 28% planned to look for a job that let them work remotely.
  • The shift underway has far-reaching implications for business infrastructure, technology, processes, and culture. Firms will operate with less real estate JPMorgan Chase and Goldman Sachs plan to keep offices well below full capacity for the foreseeable future, while Alphabet has pulled out of deals for office space. Compensation costs may go down for companies headquartered in expensive urban locations, as they tap into a broader talent pool – Facebook, for instance, plans to adjust salaries based on location.
  • Related Briefs:
    • Apr 7 2020: A follow-up on the race in digital collaboration
    • Mar 18 2020: Looking beyond – 11 ways in which COVID-19 might be an inflection point
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