Netflix. Amazon. Google. Twitter. Facebook. Apple.
It seems like increasingly at least some aspect of our lives is now influenced by these behemoth technology companies that have, in just the last two decades, completely transformed our economy and very way of life.
The U.S. population is estimated this year at roughly over 326 million people. Of that, at least 55 million are Netflix subscribers, over 200 million are estimated to be on Facebook, and 230 million or so own smartphones, with about half of them iPhones.
While the stereotype of big tech companies starting out in dorm rooms or garages is nowadays increasingly unlikely, many of these original tech giants really did begin as bootstrapped experiments by folks who were bright, brave, and lucky.
As these tech giants grew, so did the rest of the population share in the benefits of their rise. Over a billion hours of video are now watched on YouTube every day. Every second, at least over 2.5 million emails are sent, 50,000 Google searches performed, 5,000 Facebook statuses posted, and 7,000 Tweets sent.
However now it looks like we are beginning to see a turning point. This past year has seen many tech companies face major public and government scrutiny for a whole slew of issues that have been discussed for years but that never rose to the general attention until now.
Back last fall the tech giants were dragged before Congress to testify as to Russian interference efforts through bots, political ads, and online organizing through these social media giants.
Then the Cambridge Analytica scandal happened in March of this year, and a whole Pandora’s box was opened that went far beyond the data debacle itself.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg himself was called before Congress himself and testified on a wide array of subjects, ranging from Facebook’s data privacy protections to more complex topics, such as how Facebook collects and uses user data and how comprehensively are users aware of the data use.
Facebook also faced a line of questioning that seemingly had little to do with the Cambridge Analytica scandal, namely Facebook’s role itself in potential public opinion influence and election manipulation.
Indeed, public polling has shown that there are widespread worries about Facebook’s, and other tech companies’, own power to control the flow of information. A recent HarrisX poll showed over 70% of Republicans, 54% of Independents, and 46% of Democrats believe there is evidence of censorship and bias by Facebook itself on its platform.
The poll also showed over 49% of Americans want heavy regulation of Facebook, with 39% supporting light regulation and 12% no regulation. 67% want explicit opt-in for data collection to 6% against, 84% believe tech companies are responsible for content published on their platform, and 83% want harsher penalties for data privacy breaches.
The House Judiciary Committee recently had a follow-up hearing on the specific topic of content censorship and manipulation by social media companies, particularly focusing on the internal controls for how content is moderated and the transparency of guidelines. Though Google, Facebook, and Twitter were invited to the hearing, in poetic irony they decided to not attend.
Tech companies have been under not just U.S. pressure, but also international pressure from a variety of governments recently over the need more transparent and accountable to both their users and the public at large.
Facebook itself has seemingly been edging towards that direction, such as by releasing their content guidelines and bettering the process for appeals. Twitter has also done the same, with their CEO even recently personally publicly apologizing to a conservative media personality in a gesture of openness that these long-secretive tech companies should consider more of.
While technology companies are private organizations, they have grown simply so large and powerful nowadays that it is almost undeniable how influential on the public discourse they can be. A small algorithm change can disrupt entire industries, such as Facebook’s revamp earlier this year.
By giving certain content greater visibility and other content less, such as Facebook’s recent highly-publicized mishap with conservative personalities Diamond and Silk, it is clear how these companies can themselves have an outsized impact on influencing public opinion on not just political topics but almost every business and social issue imaginable.
How our country, let alone the rest of the world, sets the boundaries for a now seemingly mature tech industry remains highly uncertain. These tech giants have transformed society for the better, connecting and enriching the lives of many.
Yet their increasing power is also worrying to all, as visions of a futuristic Orwellian dystopia also begin to seem at least possible and feasible, if still remote. This clearly will be a tough and uncharted path as our country figures out the proper solutions.
Last week the unthinkable has been taking place. Not nuclear devastation, but rather the precise opposite.
North Korea has announced that they are considering denuclearization without conditions, such as withdrawal of U.S. forces from South Korea, that were previously a persistent barrier to any potential talks.
South Korea and North Korea have even re-established the hotline between the two capitals, dormant since 2016 when North Korea’s current series of nuclear tests began.
With CIA Director Mike Pompeo having apparently already met North Korean leader Kim Jung-un and President Trump potentially set to in the future, we could be seeing what is a remarkable change in relations on the Korean peninsula.
On the other hand, we could also be seeing more of the same.
A country giving up its nuclear weapons is rare, but not unheard of. South Africa dismantled its nuclear arsenal in the early 1990’s. Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Belarus each disarmed as well in the wake of the Soviet Union’s dissolution.
These instances were the result of the economic, diplomatic, and military benefits far outweighing the seeming security reduction in abandoning a direct nuclear deterrent. For example, Ukraine only did so in exchange for international treaties protecting its borders and security.
With North Korea, similar has been tried for decades with little progress. In fact, denuclearization talks since the 1990’s have often featured a predictable dance of North Korean openness to halting its nuclear program, demanding concessions, often in the form of economic aid and particularly food.
After the concessions are received, North Korea then abandons the talks and goes back to developing its programs until the next time it seeks international assistance once again and initiates such talks.
The difficulty with North Korea remains the fact that they see their nuclear deterrent as essential in preserving a regime facing increasing international hostility, even from long-time allies such as China.
It could be argued that North Korea retains a significant deterrent in its long-time ability to devastate the South Korean capital of Seoul with its artillery, which could result in millions of casualties.
Nonetheless, artillery remains far more localized than ballistic missiles, and can be neutralized by air, missiles, other artillery, or more. Furthermore, South Korea has been increasingly developing mechanisms to detect North Korean artillery being moved into range, increasing the possibility of evacuation or sheltering in time.
Artillery is also increasingly able to be potentially intercepted by anti-projectile defenses. As Israel’s successful Iron Dome defense system has shown, projectile-based artillery is increasingly becoming less of a threat, as Israel has reduced successful surface-launched missile attacks almost entirely against its territory.
All this essentially means that the realpolitik of North Korea giving up its nuclear program remains tenuous at best. It is worthwhile to attempt to put a diplomatic resolution to the problem, as the continuation of current trends means only a much worse and less resolvable crisis in the future – and one that could potentially cost millions of lives.
Even if talks are successful and North Korea gives up its nuclear weapons, deactivates its programs, and ends its tests, the Korean peninsula’s issues will not be fully resolved.
North Korea remains a horrific Orwellian totalitarian dictatorship, starving, torturing, and brutalizing its people mentally and physically on a daily basis. From a series of brutal labor camps to constant surveillance, from a meager GDP per capita of $1,800 while its top few rulers live in luxury, North Korea’s diplomatic normalization would be complex, both from a policy and moral standpoint.
That’s not to say countries have moved in such a direction before. The People’s Republic of China, while still a Communist-run nation, since the 1980’s has moved far away from the horrors of Maoist China, from which terrors such as the Cultural Revolution and the Great Leap Forward are remembered in perpetuity for their almost unfathomable evil.
How the North Korean situation eventually resolves itself, whether by the regime’s own evolution, international action, or internal revolution, remains uncertain and distant. It would benefit world security were North Korea to denuclearize, but it won’t be even close to the end of the problems that have plagued the Korean peninsula for now almost 75 years.
It almost seems like déjà vu. Like just around this time last year, Syria’s Assad government has apparently used chemical weapons on his own citizenry and civilians, leading to horrific casualties.
Just like then, the footage and pictures from the region are tragic and devastating. With roughly 70 people estimated killed and hundreds more affected, roughly equivalent to last year’s chemical attack toll, such an awful war crime has merited again widespread international condemnation amid the brutal Syrian conflict that has already taken the lives of an estimated almost 500,000 people the last few years.
Similarly, the United States has responded with missile strikes against Syrian military targets, with the hope to deter Assad while not entangling ourselves too deeply in the conflict.
However the situation is also different in several key aspects compared to the strikes last year. First is that while the missile strikes against Assad’s government in April 2017 were afterwards supported by a wide international group ranging from NATO and the EU to Turkey.
This time it appears however that France and the United Kingdom were directly involved in the actual military operation itself, although the precise details are not clear. This indicates perhaps an increasing willingness among Western allies to take forceful military action in Syria, seeing that the initial round of missile strikes may have not sufficiently deterred, but only rather delayed, Assad.
Second is that the situation in Syria itself has changed. While there are still innumerable groups in the anarchic war-torn landscape, ISIS has almost been completely defeated since the latter part of last year and the fall of their main base of operations, Raqqa.
There appears to remain some ISIS remnants that the U.S. has announced it will continue to pursue, but the situation in Syria now appears to have become between Assad’s government, the Kurds, somewhat-democratic factions, and other more disorganized branches of extremists.
Though the strikes as a retaliatory measure appear to be relatively straightforward, they raise very complex policy, legal, and moral questions that have already erupted near-immediately afterwards.
First is that, as several members of Congress have noted in the media almost immediately after the strikes, is that we continue to see it as questionable whether the executive branch has the authority to engage in seemingly offensive actions as with the Syria missile strike.
Multiple Democratic Senators, ranging from Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) to Senator Tim Kaine (D-VA) and Senator Cory Booker (D-MA), as well as a handful of Republicans such as Senator Mike Lee (R-UT), questioned not the rationale itself for punishing Assad’s government for their war crimes but rather emphasized the need for Congressional authorization for such military acts.
Ironically, the outrage from Democrats and relative agreement by Republicans mirrors the calls for President Barack Obama to seek military authorization from Congress when attempting to engage in airstrikes and other military action against ISIS and Assad’s government in 2014.
Obama’s military authorization never even came to a vote, due to the complex controversies and intricacies surrounding the legislative decision-making process. Nonetheless, the bulk of military actions in the Middle East and worldwide in recent years have been justified by the executive branch as stemming from Congress’s military authorization passed after 9/11 in 2011.
From a policy and moral perspective as well, it is clear that the Syria situation has been extraordinarily destabilizing in recent years to other countries in the region, such as Iraq, and been used as a proxy conflict for actors such as Russia and Iran. It also has had wider international impact, such as creating the flow of millions of refugees to Europe which has, in turn, contributed in part to fomenting the rise of extreme right-wing groups into mainstream politics there.
On moral grounds however, it also increasingly appears that the free nations of the world have difficulty standing by while countless innocent civilians are slaughtered in horrifying and cruel ways. As the world learned in the wake of tragedies like Rwanda, inaction can lead to horrific consequences.
It remains to be seen how the Syria situation develops and what America’s role in it will be. If solutions were easy and clear, they would have been implemented already.
President Trump this week has begun a tit-for-tat trade battle with China that has sent the stock market into a spiral and left economists and policymakers on both sides of the aisle scratching their heads.
It all began several days ago when China implemented approximately $3 billion in tariffs in response to the steel and aluminum tariffs implemented by the administration last month, which affected China significantly in particular. The Trump Administration then began the process of implementing a 25% tariff on over 1,300 imports totaling approximately $50 billion a year in trade, citing China’s continued alleged lack of protection for American companies’ intellectual property rights despite repeated promises to do so.
China responded in kind, implementing similar tariffs on $50 billion of U.S. imports to China. Trump then escalated the battle by announcing he was considering tariffs on another $100 billion in Chinese imports, with China responding again to match and saying it would fight “to the end” in this trade battle.
To compare, in 2016 the U.S. imported over $462.6 billion in goods from China while exporting $115.6 billion in goods to China.
The President’s surrogates, including his new National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow, have suggested that the tariffs are not meant to be a permanent state of affairs. Rather, they say, the tariff battle is meant to be a heavy-handed negotiating tactic to convince China to better play by the rules and norms of international trade.
Even though President Trump embraced openly protectionist sentiments on the campaign trail and throughout much of his life, his policies since taking office have more often lean towards enforcing fair trade, with the occasional exception such as his proposed border adjustment tax that didn’t pass Congress. These past few months however we’ve seen increasing actions that, while they could still be interpreted as being meant to encourage a level playing field, are starting to turn towards protectionism.
Long-standing U.S. demands that have been met with varying degrees of success in recent years include allowing China’s currency to have a free-floating exchange rate, increase human rights and labor standards, and give U.S. companies both greater intellectual property protections and more market freedom to operate within China.
In recent years and months China has apparently begun to move in a more economically friendly direction to American companies, such as with reforming their financial services sector to allow greater foreign ownership of domestic institutions. This would essentially allow foreign banks to operate with far greater independence in China and increase the flow of Chinese capital to and from the wider world.
China also promised to finally increase intellectual property protections, which the U.S. Trade Representative recently estimated to cost the U.S. a staggering $225 billion to $600 billion annually. It is the seeming slowness or ineffectiveness of those promised increased protections from back in November that appears to be the spark for the current trade conflict.
It is nearly impossible to determine who will prevail, if anyone, in the end from this high-stakes international economic and political battle. Any diplomatic incident where both sides risk seeming weak if they concede is difficult to resolve with any alternative but a return to the status quo, and this saga seems to likely be little different.
Furthermore, this trade war looks to potentially be far more damaging to U.S. businesses and consumers. While the previous tariffs were on items such as washing machines and solar panels, and then more important materials such as steel and aluminum, these tariffs cover what appear to be over a thousand products and counting, ranging from food to toys to raw materials.
For a long time the United States has faced the difficult situation of benefiting greatly from our trade relations with China but also systematically at times seemingly being exploited as well. On one hand, the United States has over the years gained much in terms of lower business costs and consumer prices, and thus increased efficiency. On the other hand, the benefits to the United States would have been and could still be far greater were China to play on a level playing field in terms of regulatory frameworks and market forces.
For all of our sakes, hopefully the trade battle between the United States and China soon resolves, ideally with the President’s hardball negotiating tactics resulting in a more level and fairer trade relationship. If the trade war doesn’t subside soon however, we may be facing rapidly increasing costs and prices across a multitude of sectors.
Re-prints of some of my columns. NOTE: I ran a national weekly column from 2017 to 2018 printed/distributed by newspapers in dozens of states across the country. The 2017-2018 blogs in this section are re-prints of the national column.