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Democracy Dies Without Chinese Espionage
tuesday report #6 // tiktok is vital to american democracy (apparently), security moves, national vibe shift continues, authority abroad
Welcome back to the Pirate Wires weekly digest. Every Tuesday, in these hallowed pages, I unpack a lead story and share a storm of fire links (mostly technology, with a little politics and culture for a treat). The rest of the week, we’re publishing original reporting, essays, and interviews on the frontline of technology and culture. Subscribe, or die.
On contemplating the technically true statement ‘Chinese spy apps constitute a form of speech.’ Last week, while the House Foreign Affairs Committee considered granting Joe Biden the power to personally nuke TikTok (Axios), and the Senate considered a broader targeting of Chinese software (CNBC), Canada finally banned the application from government phones (WaPo). Joining both the United States and Europe, the Trudeau administration cited an “unacceptable level of risk to privacy and security,” kicking the broader question of TikTok’s status back into the discourse, and catalyzing the first real hints of the company’s defense, which predictably came from America’s self-loathing class of One Party loyalists. Their incredible position? Preventing a hostile foreign government from spying on your citizens constitutes a violation of our — wait for it — freedom of speech, which is once again a sacred value.
Back on the side of the sane, there are two major arguments against TikTok in play, and one that should be. The official argument for banning the app, and Chinese software generally, is the CCP appears to be using their technology exports to spy on private citizens of the free world (worth checking out Forbes reporting from October). The unofficial argument is everyone sort of suspects CCP influence over content moderation on the app, which feels like a concerted effort to brainwash our children, and make us all crazy. But while there is certainly a long history of culture war propaganda efforts of this kind (not only from China, but especially from Russia), there’s not yet evidence TikTok is purposely dividing the country via viral dance trends and deranged bearded women opining on the inherent meaninglessness of language (a real thing I saw the other day while scrolling). It’s probably also worth keeping in mind we’ve done a great job ripping ourselves to pieces on American social media without the help of the CCP. In any case, nobody is making the best argument for banning Chinese software, which is China has essentially banned American software while freely selling products into our own market. No thanks, I’m entering my mercantilist era.
Imagine an idea so simple, so beautiful, so powerful: the American government should only act in the best interest of America, which critically includes American industry. I first traced out my desire for some light mercantilism in the context of semiconductors back in August (check out American Hustle: Microchip Edition for the full take), and ultimately abandoned my free market aversion to spending money on our businesses. U.S. manufacturing will never be competitive in a global market without subsidization, and if Covid taught us anything (other than ‘always check in with the pandemic factory in the middle of a pandemic’) it’s domestic manufacturing capability is critical to our survival. Our trade relationship with China on the software front should be considered in similar terms.
In any case, enough of what we should be discussing, and back to the relentlessly stupid discussion at hand.
The New York Times, in its typical way, succeeded in drafting a basically decent piece of coverage on the growing tension surrounding TikTok before considering how a ban on the app might actually constitute a violation of our First Amendment. This is of course something the Times never considered over the last five years of social media censorship on such topics as the last election, Covid, Hunter Biden’s laptop, and basically anything so much as hinting at diversity, equity, or inclusion. But banning TikTok? This has to be a violation of the First Amendment on account of the New York Times, along with its inbred younger cousin (the Post), uses the app:
“A broader, government-imposed ban that stops Americans from using an app that allows them to share their views and art could face legal challenges on First Amendment grounds, said Caitlin Chin, a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. After all, large numbers of Americans, including elected officials and major news organizations like The New York Times and The Washington Post, now produce videos on TikTok.”
Really, this seems to be the whole logic of defending Chinese software: we like it.
Critically, the Times went on to quote Caitlin Chin, an “expert” on the subject. “In democratic governments,” Caitlin said, “the government can’t just ban free speech or expression without very strong and tailored grounds to do so and it’s just not clear that we have that yet.”
Yes, Caitlin, everyone knows the first rule of maintaining democracy is platforming software run by a hostile foreign government that doesn’t believe in the concept of democracy. It’s great this woman cares about free speech, though. I’m also a huge fan of free speech, so I guess we have some common — oh, wait, never mind.
A cursory glance of Caitlin’s work demonstrates a focus on such important topics as the innate sexism of Amazon’s Alexa, the abandonment of “consumer harm” as our antitrust benchmark in favor of “equity,” and a critical eye on Big Tech’s influence over speech — specifically, it was good when speech was censored throughout the 2020 election, but our social media companies aren’t doing nearly enough censor the “Big Lie.” All of the pro-Tok voices are like this, now: American technology companies are always wrong, censorship (when assisting the Democratic Party) is vital, and the most influential Chinese technology company in the country must be defended at all cost… on behalf of free speech.
The American “Civil Liberties” Union, last seen defending forced vaccination, has also come out in favor of TikTok on First Amendment grounds. This position is especially interesting given the ACLU’s previous consideration of social media and speech. Last year, as Twitter, a company engaged in overt, partisan censorship for over five years, slowly came into Elon Musk’s possession, the ACLU decried Musk — who had just taken the company explicitly to reduce the amount of censorship online — as a threat to speech.
Sure, the majority of pro-Tok voices are, on paper, diehard proponents of “free speech.” It’s just their definition of “free speech,” along with their definition of “civil liberties,” is something like “any tool that benefits my left-wing politics.” Certainly concern for TikTok appears to be motivated by an interest in preserving CCP spyware, and I guess this is technically true. But do I believe these guys are actual agents of Beijing? Of course not. I think they just hate American industry, two nested concepts — nation and industry — they correctly believe antithetical to their globalist, low-key socialist impulses. This story, like every story, is just about power. Their domestic enemies have too much of it, and if a little defense of a devil abroad can reduce that power, regardless of the security risk? So be it.
Still, my favorite defense of TikTok was a little different, and came from the Washington Post. There, Linda Chong ignored the critical privacy issues, the propaganda concerns, and the outrageous one-sided trade partnership by simply… running an ad for the company. Are you too old to know what’s going on over at the CCP’s memetic superweapon? Here’s a helpful guide to get you started with your data export to Beijing.
Very cute, everyone, thank you for your important work.
TikTok’s CEO Shou Zi Chew will be speaking before the House Energy and Commerce Committee on March 23. I will of course be dispatching live from the circus online.
RELATED (kind of) —
There are limits. Caving to growing pressure, Beijing has (I’m assuming) directed its U.S. dummy corporation to engage in some good-natured public relations. Amidst national panic TikTok has turned our children into mindless addicts, the company is announcing a brand new safety feature limiting an underage child’s use of the app to 60 minutes (kind of). (WSJ)
Apple (which is critically reliant on Chinese manufacturing in order to survive) demands 17-and-up age restriction for AI-powered email. Concerned that BlueMail’s new ChatGPT language generating tool might expose users to harmful content, Apple has delayed approval of the update pending a minimum user age limit of 17 years (WSJ). An odd request given 1) Apple’s age limit for TikTok is 12, and 2) are there children who know what BlueMail is?
US persuades Netherlands, Japan to roll back chip exports to China (Axios)
China outpacing US in 37 of 44 key tech research areas (WSJ)
China still disappearing tech leaders (WaPo)
American investors in China can’t get their money out of the country (BI)
BROAD TECHNOLOGY LINKS
New Twitter Files. According to reporting by Taibbi, our government’s Global Engagement Center (GEC) has pursued moronic strategies for combatting “disinformation” on social media, which have predictably produced inaccurate results. To their credit, the old regime at Twitter largely resisted GEC’s demands, but reporters at major press outlets did not. (Twitter) We continue to have no real sense of how the rest of our social media giants interact with this agency.
Whitehouse puts out new national cybersecurity strategy. The plan promises to hold software companies liable for failures to meet NIST best practices, lays the groundwork for increased funding to combat ransomware attacks, and establishes minimum cybersecurity requirements for critical infrastructure like pipelines and railways. (Axios)
Ford on some bullshit. The major auto manufacturer is looking to mainstream tech capable of remotely repossessing cars. It intends to do this by, among other things, switching off your AC remotely. The problem here is our recent technology trend of nothing connected remotely actually belonging to us, regardless of our ownership. (NYP) FLASHBACK: the government controls your home.
Are AI chatbots slaves, actually? Should they be voting maybe? No, but the LA Times has questions. (LAT)
Two Americans arrested for leaking aviation tech to Russia (Axios)
Amazon halts construction of Virginia HQ (WSJ)
Another 200 Twitter employees bite the dust (NYT)
A content police and DEI department estate sale (nap pods up for grabs) (NYT)
Google hires law firm to vet products for racial bias (WaPo)
Airbnb banning people “closely associated” with already banned users (Vice)
Students Can Quote Chat GPT in essays, says International Qualification Body (Times of London)
Lunar hydroponics. The European Space Agency is exploring how to extract vital nutrients from moondust for use in astronaut-tended hydroponic gardens. (Freethink)
Fossil fuel workforce jumping ship to renewables. In the last six years, the oil and gas industry has shed 700,000 workers, a 20% decline. Many of those workers have transitioned to jobs at wind, solar, geothermal, and battery companies, citing job stability as a primary motive. (NYT)
A Tale of Two Business Models
Meta to release smart glasses and smart watch in two years, AR glasses in five. The glasses and smart watch will be able to be paired; the business model for the AR glasses will be display ads. (Verge)
Substack swings for the fences. After hitting 2 million paid subscribers and 20 million total, Substack posted “A new economic engine for culture,” which reiterates the company’s commitment to free speech, and running a content business model that does not rely on clickbait and display ad revenue. The post also teases 2023 features that “saves” content creators from the corrosive demands and incentives of social media. (Substack)
When it comes to draconian anti-speech shit, almost every bad decision we’ve made was copied from another idiot government. Therefore, a couple advances in authoritarian tech trends abroad worth knowing about:
Governments set new record for annual internet shutdowns. Governments blocked their citizens from accessing the internet 187 times in 2022. India was responsible for more than half of those shutdowns; other notable offenders included Russia, Iran, Ethiopia, and Myanmar. Protests are a common trigger. The revolt of the public rages on. (WaPo)
Venezuela using deepfake news anchors to blast state-friendly propaganda. With the help of AI avatars generated by London-based Synesthesia, the Venezuelan government is using YouTube to spin social media narratives in its favor. Synethesia has banned the user behind the avatars and issued an apology, though — FYI — their avatars have also appeared in Chinese propaganda. (WaPo)
In our ongoing coverage of what appears to be a major vibe shift:
Incumbent Lori Lightfoot fails to make runoff in Chicago mayoral race. Lightfood’s first term was marred by the pandemic, civil unrest, a teachers’ strike, and numerous feuds with other officials — including a feud over a Christopher Columbus statue, in which she told a park district lawyer “My dick is bigger than yours and the Italians, I have the biggest dick in Chicago.” Paul Vallas and Brandon Johnson will face off in an April runoff. (Chicago Sun Times)
Artist behind iconic Obama hope poster slams cancel culture. Shepard Fairy called the mentality “narrow minded and exclusionary,” and says people have told him “you're a white person, you shouldn't paint anything other than white people.” One struggle, I guess. (FoxNews)
DeSantis takes over Disney. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill that allows him to appoint a five-member board to oversee the government services that Disney provides at its theme parks. The move is widely perceived as revenge for Disney’s public opposition to the so-called “Don’t Say Gay” bill DeSantis signed last year. (AP)
If you haven’t already, check out my first meaty dive into the vibe shift, Vibes in the Machine. More on this to come (likely week after next).
Collapse Support. Beyond the dominant cultural and political vibes, it’s probably worth keeping in mind the internet is a very good place to both go a little bit insane, and meet other people who have gone a little bit insane.
For years we’ve dryly joked the world is ending, but not everyone who says the seas are rising due to climate change is buying waterfront property on Martha’s Vineyard. In Collapse Support, Sanjana Friedman reports on the large and growing community of people who genuinely believe we’re all about to die, and have built a small nation from this belief on Reddit.
Columbia University permanently drops SAT, ACT admissions requirement. It is the first Ivy League school to do so. (NY Daily News)
The indomitable charm of George Santos. River wrote a banger profile of George Santos, imploring us all to just admit it, already: he’s a terrible person, but a glorious performer. Check out the full piece on Pirate Wires.
Canadian teacher with giant prosthetic breasts placed on paid leave. The hilariously stupid issue came to a head after it was revealed the teacher rarely wears breasts outside of school, raising the possibility that the entire fiasco is some sort of elaborate troll (NY Post). Genuinely shocking dispatch from the front lines of stupidity. Like, who could have seen this coming?
Race-Faker outed at large quaker non-profit. Members of the American Friends Service Committee, a prominent social justice advocacy organization, raised the alarm about Raquel Evita Saraswati, the non-profit’s chief equity, inclusion and culture officer, who they believed might be a right-wing mole and a white woman posing as a person of “Latina, South Asian, and Arab” descent. The intercept contacted her mother who said her name is Rachel, and that she is “white as the driven snow.” Saraswati resigned a week after the Intercept story broke. (The Intercept)
People with “they/them” pronouns in their resumes less likely to be interviewed. “She/her and he/him pronouns were not tested.” (CNBC)
A GENTLE FYI
When your innermost inner core is a giant super hard ball. A globally significant event in Earth’s history, in which there was a massive tectonic shift, likely resulted in the reorienting of atoms at the very core of the world, creating a solid ‘metal’ ball in our planet’s center. (Futurism)
Sentient is alive. According to a recent FOIA request, a highly classified system within the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) called “Sentient” detected another tic-tac in May, 2021, though can’t rule out the possibility of it being a weather balloon. What’s more interesting is that Sentient — a “thinking system” that uses machine learning, developed originally for reconnaissance purposes — can seemingly hunt for UAPs, in addition to the spy shit it’s doing. (The Black Vault)
Yaoi, Snapchat fentanyl dealers, and digital immortality: keep an eye out for more from Pirate Wires this week.
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