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Tech States Sensemaker

Microsoft, censorship and China

Wednesday 23 June 2021

Walking the tightrope between the West and China is becoming increasingly difficult for big tech – just ask Microsoft

Here’s what you need to know this week: 

  • Microsoft upped censorship of LinkedIn posts in China

State by state:

  • Facebook built technology to detect deepfakes
  • Apple faced a regulatory challenge to a key privacy feature
  • Google ex-employees asked questions about the benefits of its data centers
  • Tencent developed a cute robot called Ollie
  • Amazon was caught destroying thousands of products

State affairs

“If you go deep enough you have to make a choice,” Ash Fontana, an AI investor and author, told our Responsible AI Forum at Waddesdon earlier this month. “About which sovereign states you align yourself with.” 

Fontana was talking about AI companies ultimately having to choose between the US marketplace and China’s ecosystem. For Microsoft – and the other big tech states walking that tightrope – the balancing act is becoming increasingly difficult. 

LinkedIn, the Microsoft owned social network, was punished by Chinese regulators in March for failing to sufficiently censor posts made by Chinese users. In atonement, the site had to suspend new sign-ups of users inside China for 30 days.

Since then, Microsoft has arguably swung too far the other way. Jojje Olsson, a Swedish writer and China specialist, found his LinkedIn profile blocked throughout the country because, under “Education”, he mentioned that his degree essay in modern Chinese history was written about the Tiananmen Square massacre. Other academics have also seen their accounts censored. 

LinkedIn’s presence in China fascinates Silicon Valley because it is the only service to have charted a path into the country’s walled off internet. To get there it has had to sell a stake to a Chinese venture capital firm, pledge to follow all local laws, and use software algorithms and human moderators to flag posts that might offend Beijing.

Professor Rana Mitter, an expert on modern China, argues that Chinese digital values are becoming increasingly hard for global multinationals to ignore. “ten years ago you could talk about China having its own closed internet space that wasn’t relevant to the cyber world,” he told us. “Today that isn’t the case.”

Microsoft is by far from the only tech state facing difficult choices in China. Apple – so vocal about its commitment to privacy – is less keen to talk about its decision to store the personal data of Chinese customers on computer servers run by a state-owned Chinese firm. 

Facebook – in contrast – has criticised China for subverting liberal values and Mark Zuckerberg has promised that he would not establish a data centre in a country that “violates privacy and free speech”. However, this hawkishness is relatively recent: Until 2016, Facebook aggressively courted China and only stopped when it knew it wouldn’t be allowed in.

After LinkedIn had its wrists slapped by the Chinese authorities, Microsoft told the New York Times that it had an “obligation to respect the laws that apply to us, including adhering to Chinese government regulations”. It’s interesting to compare this to Facebook’s newish human rights policy which states that “when faced with conflicts between [domestic] laws and our human rights commitments, we seek to honor the principles of internationally recognised human rights to the greatest extent possible”.  

Two tech states: each with fundamentally different approaches to foreign policy. 

Facebook: Misinformation

Just weeks after fake accounts on Facebook were found to have fuelled conflict between Israel and Palestine, the company has unveiled a new technique for identifying the origins of a deep fake image. Using reverse engineering, Facebook AI’s tool (called Model Parsing) can uncover the origins of a deep fake image even if it has never “seen” that type of fake before. Facebook collaborated with researchers from Michigan State University and they’ve kept the data-set, code and trained models open source for other researchers to use. Their work can be found here.

Amazon: Sustainability

Amazon has tough questions to answer about waste. On the same day as it launched Prime Day with discounts on millions of products, ITV News broke a story that Amazon’s UK warehouses were also destroying millions of items of unsold stock every year. Undercover filming showed how smart TVs, laptops, drones and headphones were among items sorted into boxes marked “destroy”. Why? Because third-party companies using Amazon warehouses face large bills if the stock remains unsold. Eventually it’s cheaper to dispose of the goods. But why isn’t Amazon arranging for these items to be distributed to charity? You can read more about this story here.

Google: Consumption

Data centres are a story that tech corporations don’t want to be told, according to William Fitzgerald, a 10-year-veteran of Google. When Fitzgerald was at the company he commissioned reports highlighting the economic benefits of data centres to local areas. But – as Fitzgerald points out – there’s growing evidence that data centres guzzle too much electricity and water while creating relatively few jobs. One planned in Arizona will require up to 1.25 million gallons of water (enough to drain two olympic swimming pools) every day. Hundreds more are planned to cope with the relentless expansion of tech. This NBC report is a great deep-dive into the issue. 

Apple: Regulation

Another day, another antitrust investigation into a big tech company. Led by the increasingly prominent German regulator Andreas Mundt, the German cartel office has opened an investigation into Apple to see if the iPhone maker is exploiting its market dominance. The investigation centres around Apple’s App Store – and includes a specific complaint from the “advertising and media industry” about the company’s new App Tracking Transparency feature. This blocks advertisers from tracking Apple’s users around the web and is at the forefront of the company’s pro-privacy stance. The German investigation is the first challenge to the flagship feature (which most consumers seem to love). 

Tencent: Innovation

Tencent is forging ahead in robotics development; challenging the position of Alphabet-backed Boston Dynamics. Their latest creation, Ollie the wheel-legged robot, may be small (and strangely cute) but the Tencent-developed machine demonstrates significant advances in motion planning, balance and stability over current models that could be applied to everything from space exploration to autonomous warfare. Developed by the tech state’s Robotics X Lab, Ollie made an inaugural appearance at the 2021 IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation, along with a research paper detailing the breakthroughs.

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Alexi Mostrous

Luke Gbedemah