Digitally influencing policy and diplomatic relations

If we looked at the world ten years ago, would we have even fathomed that there would be a need for governments to make a firm commitment to digital policies?

While there is a strong argument that the Fourth Industrial Revolution would not have such wide reaching effects if this was the case, it was not. What we are faced with now are governments who are waking up to the value that digital polices can offer.

President Donald Trump is not only one of the most controversial Presidents that the US has ever had, but he is most definitely the most active on social media. If you can make sense of his tweets, he is the epitome of how social media can influence government policy and diplomatic relations. You covfefe?

Welcoming arms

President Trump has been the most criticised US President in the history of the nation. His policies are at times laughable and have been labelled as much by many people in society. One of the most vehement critics has been the technology sector who has taken Trump to task over a number of issues.

Yet, according to an article on Bloomberg’s website, the President welcomed a number of top tech executives to the White House with open arms during the week.

The meeting on 3 July brought leaders of an industry whose key figures have at times openly clashed with Trump. The article pointed out that none of the executives criticised the president in public sessions, and Trump projected a jovial mood, touting the gains in technology stocks since he took office and expressing confidence his administration would overcome such long-running challenges as modernising the air traffic system.

He also offered a bit of solace for tech executives on concerns his immigration policies would deny the industry talent, saying he was working very diligently with Congress on immigration so tech companies can get the people they want.

Apple Chief Executive Officer Tim Cook responded with praise for Trump’s senior adviser and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who is leading the administration’s technology sector outreach.

Changing policies

The article added that Trump’s 1 May executive order, creating the American Technology Council, called for the group of federal officials to overhaul the use of technology across the government.

Americans deserve better digital services from their government, Trump wrote in the order.

The federal government spends more than $80 billion annually on information technology, employing about 113 000 IT professionals, according to the White House.

However, many of the information systems used by federal agencies are outdated and inefficient, according to two senior administration officials who briefed reporters about the meeting on condition of anonymity.

Much of the agenda for the 3 July meeting involved seeking ways for the Trump administration to adopt best practices from the private sector, including finding opportunities to recruit talented individuals to join the government.

The fight against Google

The European Union recently levelled a $2.7 billion fine against Google for allegedly illegally disadvantaging several European e-commerce sites by algorithmically favouring Google Shopping results over their own.

An article on vox.com points out that the reasons for the fine are fairly tedious, even by the usual standards of EU bureaucratic action. The specific Google product at issue isn’t well-known or widely used and the specific companies involved aren’t well-known either. And while the cash stakes are nothing to sneer at, the amount of money involved is fairly trivial relative to Google’s overall scale.

The offending technology

According to the article, Accelerated Mobile Page is the offending technology the EU was referring to. AMP is a Google initiative to make mobile web pages load at lightning speed through a combination of stripping them down and hosting the content directly on Google’s servers.

One reason publishers have adopted AMP is that the technical performance really is impressive. But as critics have long pointed out, it also has significant downsides.

Given the tradeoffs, the real answer to his question, “Can someone explain to me why a website would publish AMP versions of their articles?” is extremely simple. Publishers do it because Google wants them to do it. They perceive that AMP pages will be favoured over non-AMP ones in Google’s search, and so if you want to maximise your search referral traffic you ought to do what Google wants and get on the AMP train.

Publishers, in short, perceive Google as possessing considerable power in the marketplace. Europe is now on record as seeing that as a potential problem. The United States thinks it basically isn’t.

US support

The article adds that from the standpoint of American antitrust authorities, Google is largely immune to scrutiny on two grounds.

One is the theory that despite its large market share, Google is no monopoly because the competition is just a click away. A traditional monopoly would rely on control over some kind of physical asset to make competition literally impossible. By contrast, it’s genuinely quite easy to navigate over to Bing or Duck Duck Go if you decide you don’t want to use Google for web search.

The other is that US antitrust doctrine since the late-1970s has focused exclusively on consumer welfare, typically with a fairly narrow focus on consumer prices. Legally suspect monopoly behaviour would raise prices. Google is free, so nothing it does raises prices, so nothing it does can be anti-consumer.

We see this all of the time with tech companies, and we don’t ask any questions about it. While Apple products do have the capability to work with any other tech device, it is a well-published fact that the products are designed to work with other Apple products better. Other companies such as Samsung and now Huawei are building their empires on a similar footing.

Why are we not questioning this? Is a rose by any other name not a rose? The loophole that comer focused tech companies are using is that their products are compatible with any other product in the market. An iPhone will work with a Toshiba laptop or a Galaxy tablet. Apple, Samsung or Huawei is not forcing you to purchase the company equivalent of another product should you own a version of that brand’s cell phone or tablet.

**Does it matter? **

The stance of the EU may be more about their own feelings about the US than about Google itself. The US is famously one of the most anti-monopolised markets in the world, and yet they don’t see a problem with Googles actions.

The EU probably feel that Google is acting like a bit of a bully. This may or may not be due to the fact that there is no European company who can compete with Google on an even footing. Googles response is that of a prize fighter: I am the best in the business if you feel you can challenge me… go right ahead. And if you are better than me, then so be it.

At the end of it all, we can see how technology is influencing another aspect of our lives. Politics and diplomatic relations will increasingly be influenced by technology as we move forwards, particularly if the threat of cyber terrorism grows.