Friday roundup: A week in tech | News

The Innovation and Technology Network Strip

The Innovation and Technology Network

News

Friday roundup: A week in tech

Look out, social media mega-corporations: the UK government is coming for you – probably, perhaps, maybe, we’ll see.

Announced in the Queen’s speech, the long-in-the-drafting Online Safety Bill threatens fines in the £billions for firms that don’t act to remove such things as hate speech, disinformation, revenge porn, child abuse images and so on from their miserable networks.

And the Bill goes even further (the government seems confident of utterly reforming the internet): pornography, terrorism and online scams are also covered, though efforts have been made to reassure the unassured that trifles like free speech and democracy will be protected.

(The Conservative Party’s campaign headquarters’ Twitter account was infamously renamed ‘factcheckUK’ during a leaders’ TV debate in the build up to the 2019 general election, so I guess if the Bill had been around then Twitter would’ve been compelled to remove it.)

But some people aren’t pleased with these developments. One of these some is former Labour MP Ruth Smeeth, now CEO of the Index on Censorship, who thinks the Bill is a “censor’s charter…outsourced to Silicon Valley”, and that “targeting the platforms rather than the perpetrators seems a strange proposed solution”.

Basically, as far as I can understand it, the concern is that the government is leaning on the likes of Facebook to police what is said, or spat, on the internet, which has ominous implications for the freeness of free speech.

This is clearly a very complex issue so I’m going to attempt to unravel it all now…sorry, I’m NOT going to try and unravel it now. How about staying off the internet?

Anyway, as a result of all this it looks like Ofcom is going to get some serious power upgrades. The regulator will be able to wield fines of up to £18m (or 10% of a firm’s worth), block uncooperative sites, and order airstrikes against suspect server installations (I made the last one up).

Finally, some people think the Bill doesn’t go far enough. Labour thinks the plans are “watered down and incomplete”, while Belinda Parmar, a tech entrepreneur, reckons it’s “all very vague”.

There are no simple answers to the ocean of global disharmony the internet has gifted us, but there is a simple question: if you’ve a conscience, and believe injustice and hate are worth tackling, equality and love worth promoting, does it make sense to carry on using certain social media networks, whose very existence have unquestionably facilitated and exacerbated the vileness that fills our world? It could be argued that by using Twitter, you’re endorsing Twitter, and all that flows through it.

But who cares what I think? I’m still watching Ceefax on VHS.

***

Everywhere man Elon Musk has suddenly decided that Bitcoin ain’t no good.

The maker-of-lots-of-things was hot for the cryptocurrency earlier in the year but now thinks it poses a threat to the environment, and has thusly forbidden people from buying his cars with it.

Musk’s firm Tesla bought $1bn-worth of Bitcoin back in February, but a tweet from the CEO announcing his change of heart saw the virtual money’s value tumble 10%.

Mr Musk mused: "We are concerned about rapidly increasing use of fossil fuels for Bitcoin mining and transactions, especially coal, which has the worst emissions of any fuel. Cryptocurrency is a good idea on many levels and we believe is has a promising future, but this cannot come at great cost to the environment."

Tesla plans to keep hold of its Bitcoin hoard for now, only using it transactionally when sustainable energy methods can be employed in its application. Or something like that.

Speaking to the BBC, Julia Lee, of Burman Invest, said: "Environmental, Social and Corporate Governance (ESG) issues are now a major motivation for many investors. Tesla, being a clean energy-focussed company, might want to work better in the environmental area of ESG.”

However, she hinted that the high-profile tech leader might be up to something: “…a cynic might suggest that this is just another move by Elon Musk to influence the cryptocurrency market, as he has done on so many other occasions.”

So, what’s going on? Will he endorse it again next week? Will he suddenly sell his stash? Will the Chinese Bitcoin-mining industry embrace clean energy? Why didn’t I buy a load of Bitcoins for 12p years ago meaning I’d be a multi-millionaire now and able to do as I please?

Lots to think about.

***

A poem has brought a big tech firm to its knees – great news for those who cling to a belief in the power of verse; bad news for hapless Chinese food delivery giant Meituan which saw its shares plummet after it posted 1,000-year-old ode The Book Burning Pit on Twitter.

Somebody in the marketing team’s going to be spending summer at the job centre!

Or so you’d think! For it was none other than Meituan’s boss, Wang Xing, who published the troublesome elegy. He swiftly deleted it, but the rapid erasure wasn’t enough to stop the firm’s shares falling 14%.

I’m telling this story all backwards, aren’t I? We really need to know why this has happened.

It turns out that the poem was written by one Zhang Jie as a kind of joke at the expense of Emperor Qui Shi Huang, who was known to get shirty with his critics, using the old silencing tool of execution to shut them up.

Fortunately, the tempestuous emperor died hundreds of years before the poem was written, so Zhang Jie probably felt reasonably confident it wouldn’t put him out.

Now, what bearing could any of this possibly have today, in our more enlightened, social media-illuminated world?

Well, it seems Wang Xing’s decision to splash the thing over Twitter has been construed as a dig at China’s current no-nonsense leadership, famously touchy about even the most light-hearted and cryptic of invective.

Apparently, investors get nervous about this kind of thing as business types who cross the regime (even by putting ancient poems on Twitter for five minutes) tend to suffer consequences.

Here’s the errant verse:

The Qin Dynasty is ruined with the burning of bamboos and fabrics.

The Hangu Pass and the Yellow River guarded the residence of the ancestor of the Chinese dragon in vain.

Before the ashes in the burning pit turned cold, a riot had already started in Shandong Province.

It turned out that Liu Bang and Xiang Yu were both uneducated people.

Pretty powerful stuff, eh?

Oh, I should mention that Meituan is currently being investigated by China’s market regulator for allegedly abusing its market dominance. So, there’s that as well.

This is the most laboured thing I’ve ever written. It must have a been a nightmare to read. Well done for getting this far, and sorry.