Meta and Twitter have discovered and dismantled a network of coordinated inauthentic behavior spreading pro-US (and anti-China/Russia/Iran) narratives in Central Asia and the Middle East (Al Jazeera, Axios stories). Undoubtedly, this kind of intervention bolsters the platforms’ image as neutral purveyors of information and entertainment, determined to enforce the rules of the game no matter what the ideological flavor of the transgression may be. In a way, paradoxically, such impartiality may even play well in Washington, where the companies would certainly welcome the support, given the current unfavorable political climate.
The type of universalism on display in this instance harkens back to an earlier era of the internet, the techno-libertarian heyday of the 1990s. Arguably, however, that early globalist vision of the world-wide web has already been eviscerated at the infrastructural level, with the growth of distinctive national versions of online life, in a long-term process that has only been made more visible by the conflict in Ukraine. Hence, the impartiality and universality of Meta and Twitter can be seen ultimately as an internal claim by and for the West, since users in countries like Russia, China, or Iran are unable to access these platforms in the first place. Of course, geopolitical splintering was one of the ills the web3 movement set out to counter. How much decentralization can resist the prevailing ideological headwinds, however, is increasingly unclear. Imperfect universalisms will have to suffice for the foreseeable future.
Commercial spyware has become a mainstream news item: Politico this week profiled a story about NSO Group in the context of President Biden’s official visit to Israel and Saudi Arabia. Both Middle Eastern countries have ties with this private company, the former as the seat of its headquarters, the second as a customer of its services. The general context of the trip is broadly defensive for the US Administration, as it seeks help to stem the runaway growth in oil prices triggered by the Ukraine war, while emerging from under the shadow of its predecessor’s regional policies, from Jerusalem to Iran to the Abraham Accords. Given Biden’s objectively weak hand, raising the issue of NSO Group and the misuse of their spyware with two strategic partners is particularly complicated. At the same time, many domestic forces, from major companies damaged by Pegasus breaches (Apple, Meta…) to liberals in Congress (such as Oregon Senator Ron Wyden), are clamoring for an assertive stance. Naturally, the agencies of the US National Security State are also in the business of developing functionally similar spyware capabilities. Hence, the couching of the international policy problem follows the pattern of nonproliferation, with all the attendant rhetorical risks of special pleading and hypocrisy. The issue, however, is unlikely to fade away as an agenda item in the near future, a clear illustration of the risks to conventional diplomatic strategy of a situation in which military-grade cryptanalysis is made available on the open market.
A timely piece in Rest of World on the tightening of regulations on the use of VPNs by the Modi administration in India. In this instance, the enforcement of visibility is carried out at the business level, with a regulatory requirement of customer data retention placed on VPN providers. This new policy may precipitate the exit from the Indian market of certain foreign companies, such as Proton VPN (which is headquartered in Switzerland).
A blanket requirement of data collection on VPN use at the source, such as in the Indian case, strongly suggests that the underlying goals of the policy are the unfettered operation of mass surveillance and a chilling effect on stigmatized activity online, since more targeted and discriminating solutions exist technically to deal with specific forms of malfeasance and lawbreaking behind VPNs. In this case (as in the resort to prolonged internet shutdowns), Indian digital policies can be seen to inhabit a troubling hybrid zone, in which a democratic government acts in ways more readily associated with authoritarian regimes. In general, the hardening of India’s policymaking on IT, including a muscular assertion of its data sovereignty, cannot easily be disentangled from geopolitical considerations (specifically, concern over Chinese influence), but has also undeniably benefited the government’s domestic agenda and its electoral and interest coalition.
A recent article in Wired (via /.) describes North Korean experiences with jailbreaking smartphones for access to forbidden foreign content. It would appear that the North Korean government’s system for surveilling online activity is much more invasive than its Chinese counterpart, but less technically sophisticated.
An interesting, thoughtful article by Michelle Santiago Cortés in The Cut last week looks at affective relationships with algorithms and their role in shaping our identities.
Three parts of the analysis specifically stood out to me. The first revolves around our typical lack of knowledge of algorithms: Cortés’ story about
some YouTube alpha male […] out there uploading videos promising straight men advice on how to “hack” the Tinder algorithm to date like kingsis clearly only the tip of a gigantic societal iceberg, a cargo-culture-as-way-of-life involving pretty much everyone in the remotest, most diverse walks of life. The ever-evolving nature of these algorithms compounds the obfuscation effect, making end-users’ strategic attempts, whether exploitation- or resistance-focused, generally appear puerile.
Second, the clarity with which Cortés encapsulated the main tradeoff in the relationship was truly apt:
[w]e are, to varying degrees, okay with being surveilled as long as we get to feel seen.
The assertion of visibility and assurance of recognition are two of the key assets algorithmic systems offer their users, and their value can hardly be minimized as mere late-consumerist narcissism.
Finally, the comparison between algorithmic portraits of personality and astrology was extremely telling: closing the behavioral loop from algorithmic interaction to the redefinition of one’s own identity on the basis of the algorithm’s inevitably distorting mirror is still a matter of choice, or rather, a sensibility that can be honed and socialized regarding the most empowering and nurturing use of what is ultimately a hermeneutic tool. Of course, such a benign conclusion rests on the ambit of application of such technologies: music videos, entertainment, dating. As soon as our contemporary astrological devices are put in charge of directing outcomes in the field of political economy and public policy, the moral calculus rapidly shifts.