Stopping the Global Spread of Disinformation
Best of: Internet Summit 2018
Stopping the Global Spread of Disinformation
- John Scott - Railton Senior Researcher, The Citizen Lab
- Julie Owono - Executive Director, Internet Without Borders
- Moderator: Alissa Starzak - Head of Public Policy, Cloudflare
China & the Internet: Looking In & Looking Out
- Samm Sacks, Senior Fellow, Technology Policy Program, CSIS
- Moderator: Chris Merritt, Chief Revenue Officer, Cloudflare
... Okay, we're going to get started.
So I have here with me today John Scott Railton from the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto and Julio Wono from Internet Without Borders or Internet Sans Frontieres.
And we're going to talk about disinformation today.
So I want to talk a little bit about setting out the problem because we hear a lot about disinformation in the United States.
We think about the 2016 election, but I think there are a lot of stories that are happening internationally that I think we also need to talk about as we think about disinformation.
So I'm going to turn it over to you to give us some examples of what you're seeing around the world apart from the United States.
Yeah, well, I'll go ahead.
Thanks John. Thank you Elisa and thanks Cloudflare for the invitation to discuss very important issue.
So Internet Without Borders has been monitoring a bit the cyber development in the world and specifically in what we call emerging markets and more specifically Africa.
And I must say that when we talk about disinformation, we have to remember that there are different forms of disinformation campaigns.
We usually think indeed of the 2016-like disinformation campaign, which have been state-sponsored by a foreign state, but we tend to forget in the conversation the campaigns that are sponsored locally, nationally by a government, which hires a foreign company, for instance, to push certain messages, to push certain, yeah, information which are not necessarily grounded on facts about the country.
I'll give a very specific example, which is quite old, but which will make sense with the rest of the conversation that we'll have.
I remember in 2011, we worked a lot on a country located in Central Africa and called Gabon, where there was an uprising at the time.
And at the time, nobody was talking about boats, but already that government was hiring, I think it was a European or Israeli company, I can't remember quite well, but it was a private sector company which was selling certain products to influence the opinion and influence the image that we may have of certain countries or of certain information on social media.
And the social media platform that was used at the time was Twitter.
There were tons of messages spread on a hashtag which was supposed to catalyze messages from civil society on the ground on what was happening, and they were all flooded with messages from boats coming from people tweeting from India, for instance, or from the Philippines, who had nothing to do with Gabon, but who were tweeting a lot and flooding the hashtag with false messages.
So this is one of the campaigns that comes to my mind.
But we also forget in the conversation the campaigns which are not necessarily opposing governments, but which happen in very tense political contexts, for instance, a civil war which opposes two polarized communities, and in which the disinformation campaign will come on top of other very dangerous kind of speech, like hate speech, for instance, and will trigger afterwards very horrible consequences in the real world.
So these are some of the ideas that came up to my mind when we first discussed the issue.
I don't know if you...
Oh, I think Julie's right. So I'm John. The Citizen Lab mostly works on targeted attacks against civil society groups.
But here's the thing. In almost every case where we've scratched, we've also come across a disinformation element.
And sometimes these are like hybrid phishing campaigns or malware campaigns that end up in disinformation.
But to give some kind of like evidentiary perspective here, the folks at the Oxford Internet Institute have been tracking misinformation and disinformation online.
And in 2017, they reported that 48 countries showed some evidence of systematic organized disinformation.
30 of those cases were around elections.
And just to put a big highlighter on Julie's point, most of that is domestic facing.
I think when we seek to think about disinformation, I'm an American, although I work at a Canadian place.
I think about 2016.
We all do. And the narrative there is something foreign came in and messed with our stuff.
I think, though, that often leads to wanting to seek authority, like the government, to help us regulate it.
The problem is what happens when the government is the entity doing the disinformation?
And by volume, I think the work from the Oxford Internet Institute will tell you, and anecdotally I can confirm this, by volume it's governments doing it themselves, often around elections.
So is it that when we saw the 2016 campaign, the reason it got so much press, even though it had been happening around the world for so long, was that it was happening in the United States and people weren't expecting it to happen here?
Is that... I mean, it seems like it's much more... We talk about disinformation, we talk about fake news.
We're now talking about it in the United States, but it sounds like this has been a systematic problem in other places, and maybe we're not actually in that new of a place in some ways, where just the United States is just catching up to everyone else in a bad way, I should add.
Yeah. No, this is very important.
What we think at Internet Without Borders is that we're operating on a global platform which is accessible virtually everywhere by everyone.
So it's important, even when you're in the Silicon Valley developing a product, it's important to pay attention to signals that come from 10,000 kilometers from where you are, because that's usually 90% of the time where certain practices are being tested first because the connected population is so small and it's possible to test products and to test the reaction to those products before, well, getting them back home.
And the fake news debate in the US election is exactly that.
We've learned afterwards that there had been tests by Cambridge Analytica, for instance, in countries elsewhere which had nothing to do with the American or the British context, but two, three years later, they were taken back home basically by certain companies and used by certain governments.
So it's important to, yes, it's shocking when it happens in the United States because, well, everybody would imagine that institutions are strong and everything is set to avoid this type of things from happening, but no, nobody is, I mean, is protected against this.
It's a global threat and it should be perceived that way.
And in that sense, it's important to pay attention to signals, even if they are located 10,000 kilometers from home.
So global threat, we're now trying to figure out how we address it.
I mean, what's at stake as we figure out what those solutions are, as we think about it, as we think about what we're trying to do?
So here's the thing that makes me nervous.
I'm nervous about disinformation and I'm, you know, it's one of those things where it's like everyone else is more likely to be subjected to disinformation than you, right?
Like I know I'm canny. But what scares me is actually the first response to this.
So you've got a disruptive set of technologies.
Some of it's new, right? Like the scale of bots, probably new, micro-targeting, probably new on a historical timeframe, right?
There are other things like that that feel new, different kinds of anonymity, new.
But in my book, disinformation is about selling ideas.
So I cut it like this. There's a kind of disinformation that's about gumming up the conversation, a lot of automated stuff that makes it hard for voices to come out.
So there's that. And that, to me, feels like a much more understandable problem.
It's like a spammy problem.
But then there's another half of it, which I like to look at like this. So disinformation is marketing.
The product is feelings and the profit is behavior. Ultimately, we're working in an environment where much of our behavior is happening on big, essentially marketing platforms, platforms designed to deliver behavior to advertisers to buy product.
And my big concern is that as long as we're sort of inhabiting those platforms, the imagination of people who are going to want to manipulate us through those platforms is always going to be moving faster than the companies that are providing those platforms.
So that raises all sorts of difficult questions about how we deal with this, right?
It seems like the questions of what constitutes disinformation, for example, get very murky when you get into marketing, when you start talking about what are you trying to do, what are you trying to accomplish?
So as you think about solutions, as you think about things that we can do, what are they?
I mean, how do you get ahead of something that's essentially a marketing campaign designed to play on your feelings?
Well, it is new, probably in the extent of, well, the dissemination, the possibilities of dissemination.
But, I mean, propaganda is not something new.
We're human beings and we've been here, we've been the same for pretty quite a long time.
So what we think is that it's very important to be, as I was saying, to pay attention to certain signals, to remember that history repeats itself, unfortunately, that there are certain, well, when there is innovation, there are obviously risks and that we need to be aware of this and not think only about how disruptive we are and reacting whenever there is a problem.
No, reacting costs more.
It makes us waste a lot of time. Instead, it's important to be proactive, to understand that, well, the threats, there are threats and that human beings, when faced with innovation, they tend to react quite, I mean, historically, almost the same way.
So being proactive is quite an interesting, I mean, I think when I say being proactive, I'm talking here to product makers who are located here and, for instance, in the Silicon Valley.
This morning, somebody was saying that in the Silicon Valley, people live in a bubble.
It's probably time to break the bubble and understand that the globality of the tools and the effects they can have and, yes, anticipating a bit more.
Why not conduct human rights impact assessments? For instance, we're talking about that in the environment sector.
It would be important to talk about that in the tech sector as well.
Whenever you're about to launch a product or whenever you, well, think about the impact that this can have from a human rights perspective, from a human perspective, a social perspective.
These are some of the ideas that are flowing in our conversations.
I don't know if... Yeah, the challenge there, it seems to me, is that when you start talking about human rights assessments or impact assessments on products, particularly information products, the benefits of the information products are also tangible.
You end up in a world where how do you assess the negative impacts while also weighing it against the potential positive impacts of dissemination of information, which can be an incredibly powerful tool.
The Internet, as a tool, is an important piece of what we're seeing.
It is, and it's now a reality. Talking about solutions for a second, I think there's been a big push in the US to have a conversation about fake news.
To me, this is a dangerous oversimplification of the problem set. The idea that the real problem is that people are saying false things.
There are a lot of wrong things being said, and what we need is to somehow telegraph to people that there are credibility problems with the sources of that, and that maybe the things are fake.
To me, this is the easiest possible solutionism, and it's not going to work.
Disinformation is about marketing. If you want to understand the future of disinformation, you understand the future of advertising.
What that means is that disinformation, as it existed in the US in 2016, is not what it looks like today, and it's not what it looked like last year.
What talking about trying to block the proliferation of false stories does, in my mind, is it brings back a scary cudgel for the regulation of speech, and that's the idea of defamation.
Here's a country that had an issue with disinformation.
Cambodia has a disinformation law.
It's new. In 2007, they got rid of their defamation law, under pressure from the opposition.
The reason they got rid of it is because it was a cudgel being used by the state to try to limit people who were investigating corruption.
It's back now, and of course, the first use was against a person investigating corruption.
My concern is that states are moving very quickly to talk about trying to block the state of fake news.
Over 30 governments have some kind of a regulatory thing in play, or a law that they're working to pass or have already passed about fake news.
To me, this is ultimately extremely dangerous. When we talk about that with respect to technology, too, we have risks.
More and more of what is called disinformation now is happening in darker places, like on secure chat platforms.
My concern, if the stated concern is about blocking the proliferation of fake stories, we're going to erode encryption, and we're going to erode a lot of flexibility that users have right now, and probably do it in a way that's fighting a war that's already old.
And on this very important remark, there is another step that more and more governments are taking, which is to censor the access to Internet itself on the basis of justifying it by the fact that disinformation is causing havoc in the country and is harming national security.
So yes, the stakes are higher.
It's really about connectivity being at stake here, and specifically connectivity in zones where we are saying that people are yet to be connected, and it's quite frightening.
And on what you just said on regulating speech itself, it's not only in more or less repressive countries.
Even in democracies, there is a debate on that.
I'm thinking specifically, I live in France, and some of you may have followed this summer, there was a big scandal because one of the bodyguards of the president was accused of molesting protesters.
And there was a study that was published which alleged that it was initially a campaign that was put out in the French public debate by foreign states, or actors sponsored by foreign government, and specifically the Russian government.
But the thing is here, it was a way to introduce the idea that it may have, although the story was true, but the way it was put out may have been used to destabilize the government and the institution.
Whereas no, it was actually a very important public debate which triggered an investigation, international investigation, which makes the democracy and the French democracy healthier.
So yes, on that idea that regulating speech can have even democracies doing what repressive countries were more familiar with, and that's censorship.
So how do we break it down then?
So you have foreign interference that comes in pretty robust ways, and disinformation, which you kind of want people to know about, right?
You have the potential for the government itself to try to get involved, to manipulate public opinion, which you also probably want your people to know about.
And then you just have sort of the things on the margins, they're generating unrest.
You're riling up different groups for whatever purposes you might have.
Are they the same?
Do you deal with them the same way? I mean, how do we think about solutions?
No hard questions.
Yeah, I don't know. I think one place where we're at right now is we're very, very early, right?
We've connected much faster than we could secure, and we've connected a lot faster than our norms and social institutions, even though sort of how to regulate behavior.
And because a lot of these are actually old problems in new digital clothing, we've made a big mistake, which is we've forgotten how to talk about sociology and stuff like that, and how this actually influences the relationships that people have to technology.
Every time I think about this, the first thought that comes to my mind is like, oh, wow, media literacy.
Man, if we could just teach people how to do media literacy. But then I stop myself, and it's like, well, there are a couple problems with this.
First of all, media literacy- We've been trying for 100 years.
Yeah, but also media literacy is what you teach to other people who you think don't get it, because you think that you actually know what's really going on, right?
It's like, how do we get those people to that?
But I'll highlight something interesting that was inspired by reading something by Dana Boyd, who's a lucid critic of society, which is, you know who was marketing the slogan of questioning the media?
Russia Today. For a long time, Russia Today's tagline was like, question everything, right?
And I mean, I think that the challenge is, you know, if we start talking too much about let's educate individuals, individuals and their sort of thinking should be like the last, you know, the line of last resort, in a way.
And we know from security that when we talk about trying to teach people better security behaviors, right?
Like, it doesn't really work, right?
Like, these are public health scale problems, and they have to be addressed that way.
I don't know. I don't know if Julie also has a thought.
I've got lots more, but- I kind of disagree a bit with you. For the first time.
That's the first time we disagree. We're good with that. Hopefully not the last.
Yeah. No, no. Hopefully not the last, of course. But again, we have to think that there are countries, parts of the world where up until very recently, the only source of information was a national state media, which spread propaganda back to, we're back in it.
And that suddenly they're faced with, you know, they're flooded with information.
Some of them are flooded with information located only on one platform.
That's another debate. But nevertheless, the sources come from almost everywhere in the world.
Also you have to think that the same, well, citizens also suddenly, I mean, we were most here were born with the Internet, basically, and evolved with it.
But imagine you're, I don't know, a farmer in remote, I don't know where, somewhere in a developing country, and you're suddenly faced with a tool that allows you to speak to anyone in, I mean, we have to put ourselves in the place of these individuals.
So I'm not saying that we know better.
I don't think it's the issue is necessarily that has to be seen that way.
But it's rather that it's also a challenge to receive information in the 21st century.
So how do we deal with that? Probably education is not the right word, but because obviously, we can all educate each other on receiving information, you rightly said, but at least, I don't know, having more conversation on the media themselves, like there are conversations in democracies about the fourth power every, I mean, very often, it should be probably the same in other parts of the world.
And I think that's the strength, sorry, of, and probably the utopia of the Internet initially is was to enable individuals to have access to information and be able to, well, make the most of the information that they receive.
So yeah, that's probably not the perfect answer, but I'm just saying that, yeah, it's, well, it's a global problem.
So there shouldn't be like, you know, only one solution, obviously.
I think Julie's right, actually. To me, like, you know, this thing that I said earlier, right, disinformation is the marketing, the product is the feeling, the profit is behavior, sounded fun in the shower the other day.
But like, if you think about it, not all disinformation campaigns work. A lot of them don't.
In my work, I come across crummy disinformation ops all the time, a lot of them from nation states, and most of them fall flat.
And part of the reason is that, you know, if you're thinking about this in the context of a product language, like often the market research is really bad and stilted.
And an authoritarian's like, you know, comic book conception of how people might think, especially in a foreign country, is not going to work.
That said, the other part of this is that if you're selling a product, you're selling it to a market that's interested.
And a lot of the stuff that was sold in 2016 was selling product where there was a market appeal, racism, class differences, this sort of stuff.
Pre -existed, you know, not only recent Russia, but also the Soviet Union in the US, right?
These were bigger problems. And so to me, I feel like the solutions are at societal scale.
A lot of them look like they're going to have to come through education and how people are taught.
Where they're not going to come from, though, is the next couple of years.
I think it's sort of a fact of the matter that there will be elements of addressing disinformation, some of them that look technical, some of them that look societal.
But there's no reason to expect that this is a solvable problem.
In part, remember we were talking about elections at the beginning of this, right?
There are going to be elections every couple of years, right?
And if you look in a lot of the countries where people are rolling disinformation campaigns, who's running it?
Who's paying for it? Well, typically, it's political parties.
Who are they paying? They're paying political consultants and they're paying marketing firms, right?
These are not like mysterious disinformation operators.
What we're actually talking about is the manipulation and shaping of human opinion.
Right now, I think a lot of people in the US and North America are exercised about it because it feels foreign and scary.
But in fact, the story about the manipulation of public opinion to achieve ends, it's always been happening.
It was happening when we were teenagers and we were kids. A thought on that, how many people have been to a casino?
Show of hands. Oh, come on. Everybody's been to a casino, right?
So what's the job of the casino operator? To keep you in the casino, right?
I like cheap food. Do whatever you want, just don't walk out the door, right?
Where is the door? Social media is exactly the same way, right?
The objective of a large company is to get you into the casino and keep you there.
And there's a fun fact about addictive and compulsive behavior, which is it loses its hedonics pretty quickly.
People are actually not happy for the most part when they're dealing with a behavioral addiction, but they stick around.
And I would say, diagnostically, everything we know about the behavior of people on social networks is they're not happy when they spend a lot of time there, but they stick around, right?
And if you think about who's really got a good bit of market research and a good take on human psyche, it's the platform level.
It's not at the individual marketing firm selling stuff level.
And those platforms have much more subtle ways of shaping behavior that are much less available to researchers like me or Julie or others to identify.
And yet we know that those feelings and sentiments can shape things like electoral behavior.
So my fear is not disinformation, just as we've seen it in the past couple of years, but the subtle manipulation of affect around election times, right?
You could easily price out some marginal voters by making people slightly less happy on election day, right?
This to me is much scarier because the scale is better than any specific sale of a bad fact.
So I was gonna try to end my comments on a positive note. I don't think that was it for the record, but I'm still gonna take questions.
So I wanna turn to the audience.
Here, why don't we... How would you rate the effectiveness right now of platforms like Google and Facebook and trying to countering fake news?
I think a lot of what they do, they set up like a little widget. Here's like 15 New York Times articles to read when there's something that's a little bit controversial.
And it seems that, as you were saying, that a lot of this disinformation spreading to sort of the secure messaging platforms, that's gonna pose an even bigger technical challenge for a lot of these companies to sort of counter that.
At that point, you're just like passing notes. Yeah, so real quick, I think that it's probably not gonna change much for users to see nags and behavioral nags in the same way that cigarette advertising has a really awesome technicolor ad and then a little black and white warning at the bottom in text, right?
I'll just sort of share this thought, which is a lot of our conversation right now is shaped around the issue of platforms, right?
Oh, man, would platforms help?
Well, we're sitting here at Cloudflare, thanks for having us, which is supporting a lot of independent websites, right, that are not living on platforms.
And it still represents some speech that doesn't fit that mold of like what the platform approves and how it curates it for you.
So that's awesome. And thank you folks here for doing that work.
Thank you for... And that end. See, that's the positive end right there.
Thank you very much. Thank you for coming. Good morning.
So today with me, we have our session on China and the Internet, looking in and looking out.
And to my right is Sam Sachs, who's a senior fellow on the technology policy program at the Center for Strategic International Studies.
Sam, can you say a little bit about that program and that function? Sure.
And thank you very much to Cloudflare for having me. I'm really excited to be here.
So CSIS is a think tank based in Washington. We look at global technology policy, right, on all sorts of things.
I focus on China. Just that small part of the world, China.
Right. So can you just... Let's set the stage a little bit.
So we're talking about China being sort of an insider's view and those that are looking in.
Just set the stage. How would you describe the current state of China vis-a-vis the Internet?
I think there are a lot of misconceptions about the Internet in the West when we look at China.
Everyone focuses on the Great Firewall and censorship.
And this is a big deal in China. You know, when I'm over there, I can't just go visit the New York Times and CNN.
But it's not the whole picture.
And we also... We sort of have to keep two things in mind. This is a country that's very concerned about you have more users going out, getting information that would be censored in China, but you also have the Internet transforming people's lives.
The digital economy is really changing. And I think it's futuristic. When I'm over there in China, I'm able to do things with my mobile phone that I don't do when I'm at home.
We were... I was there a couple weeks ago, and I think you'd been there recently.
You talked about losing... Did you lose a credit card?
What happened? So the last time I was in China, I showed up and lost my ATM card.
But it didn't matter. I did everything on my phone. They're a cashless society, essentially, right now.
So within one app, I was able to do e-payments. They also have money markets.
You can pay your utilities. You can get train tickets sort of bundled in one app are the things that maybe you would do on 20 different apps on your phone here in the U.S.
Yeah, I felt a little bit out of place pulling Chinese yuan out of my pocket.
They looked at me like you clearly have no idea. Like, who's this old guy?
Yes, pulling... Yeah. It wasn't just the beard. Yeah, so talk about how that's changed over time.
So the current state is quite connected, and there's a lot of fintech that's been applied.
Has that been the case for the last five years?
Is that a last two years? How has it changed? The speed and the scale of change with China's Internet is just incredible.
It's mind-boggling. Five years ago, I don't think it would have looked like this, right?
But the last time I was over there, I was out at Alibaba headquarters in Hangzhou and just hearing about how digital technology is changing things.
So if you think about their equivalent, their top shopping day in China, Alibaba processes something like 250,000 transactions per second.
Visa on Cyber Monday is 24,000 transactions a second.
Yeah. Order of magnitude. Order of magnitude. Yeah. So let's just do something fun here.
So order of magnitude, size and scale of China. In Beijing, there's an outer road.
It's sort of mind -blowing to put it in perspective. Does anybody know how many miles around the outer road it is?
Do you know this? I don't.
Anybody know? It's 1,000 kilometers in their outer road around Beijing. So at 70 or 100 kilometers an hour, it would take you a day.
But what's the speed on the outer roads?
20, 30? Yeah. It's not very long. So it's like a five or six day trip around.
Yeah. What are the other things in China that are sort of mind -boggling from a scale perspective, especially as it relates to the Internet and how it's changing over time?
Well, I think we also have to keep in mind that Internet penetration rates in China now are only something like 50%.
So as much as we're blown away by how digital technology is transforming people's lives, there's still a long way to go and there's a huge growth potential there.
I don't know off the top of my head what it is in the US, but I think it's probably closer to 80% or something, right?
So you've got a significant number of people in the countryside, for instance, that aren't yet connected.
And I think there's a lot of growth.
It's big and getting bigger. Talk a little bit. So we talked about the context for it's large, it's quite developed.
Let's go deep into why does the firewall exist?
What's the purpose? Yeah. So when I think about China, I'm often holding two contradictory ideas in my mind at one time that would seem paradoxical, but they both are there and we have to recognize them.
So you have the most advanced censorship apparatus in the world.
Millions of people, whether you're talking about state money, the number of bodies that are hired by the government to go on and track what people are doing online, but then you also have this thriving digital economy and entrepreneurship around that, right?
And I think we have to sort of think about both of these things as true at once.
What's behind it is the government recognized that their ability to control and monitor these new technologies was falling behind.
And so they've also put in place, I think it's one of the most comprehensive regulatory legal systems in the world on cyberspace, the cybersecurity law, further ahead than any other place in the world in terms of how do you regulate digital content, what they call critical information infrastructure, and a lot of rules around that, controls on what kind of data can flow in and out of the country.
So these are two tracks that we have to keep in mind.
So as we think about the firewall and as an outsider looking in, you often have this Mao jacket oppressed society reel that plays over as propaganda, at least it did historically.
What's it like inside of China? Are people unhappy?
Are they okay with the regulated content? What's the insider's view? Yeah. And again, let's go back to this sort of two track.
We have to keep contradictory things in our mind at once when we think about this in China.
What the media here in the West has covered is you hear stories about surveillance state in Xinjiang, and that's very real and very concerning.
You also have, I think when I go over there and I'm with my friends, I'll go and I'll say, hey, what's your favorite app on your phone?
And they'll say, oh, well, there's this great new one, which is like a combination of Uber, Overstock, Yelp, and Groupon, and like all these things all in one.
So my friend's like, oh, yeah, there's this new app. I wanted to make an order across town for a special new kind of ice cream.
I found a guy on my phone to go and stand in line for me so I could get the ice cream.
The ice cream was sold out, so we went and got it on the equivalent of Overstock.
He went and picked it up and brought it back to me.
And this all happened within about 45 minutes through one app on his phone.
And going back to the scale and traffic in China, you can't get anywhere in under an hour and a half.
So the fact that he was able to do this whole transaction and have the guy go and get it and come back, I mean, that's how...
Doesn't sound oppressed. No. I think it's really... There's a sense that this is really changing for the better people's lives.
And is there a trade that...
So is a firewall the right way to express one's view around what should and shouldn't be consumed?
Are any other areas in the world adopting the same point of view?
So I'm gonna put in a little plug here. I have an article coming out in The Atlantic in the next couple days talking about how China's cyber policy model is spreading around the world.
And I think for the first time, we've taken for granted this market-based, democratic, open Internet model.
We've sort of taken for granted that that's the norm.
I think for the first time, we have a real alternative competitive model for the Internet.
So China, in countries that they're investing, these countries are also beginning to take lessons from Beijing's playbook about how do you govern the Internet.
Countries like Tanzania, for example, the cyber officials in China have been working very closely with the Tanzanian government about, well, here's how we dealt with a lot of challenges online, from censorship tools to data localization to indigenous standards.
Vietnam just codified their first cyber security law, which looks a lot like China's.
So there's an innate appeal to many countries to the China's cyber policy model.
The Internet can be used as a weapon against people's country's own citizens.
Think about hate speech, the use of social media to sort of galvanize genocide in places like Myanmar.
So for countries like this, I think there is an appeal to the way that Beijing is going about it, and we're beginning to see a proliferation of that model.
I have four children. Two of them are in college now, and the ones that are in high school and younger.
I often wonder if I've done something totally wrong as a parent, because the content that they've been exposed to growing up in the Bay Area, it's quite varied, versus somebody that maybe grew up in an area that had a little bit more content restriction.
So I don't think I do a great job with my own firewall in my home, and I think that the Chinese version maybe is a better version than what I've done as a parent.
So it is being exported to other parts of the world, especially in areas that China has influence.
Yeah. And do you think that that... Is there another version of that? So is that the way to sort of extend policies and policing on the Internet?
Might we see it in other developing parts of the world, in addition to where China has an outsized influence?
Yeah, I think so. And I think in some cases, there's...
I don't want to overstate this. I don't think that there's a master plan by the Chinese government to go and sort of confront the Western-led Internet model, right?
I think sometimes countries are doing it on their own and sort of saying, these tools have an innate appeal.
Sometimes like in the Tanzania case, there is more of a sort of direct engagement and influence to try to spread that model.
It makes sense. So let's switch gears for a moment. Let's talk about the rise of the bigs in China.
There was a slide that Mary Meeker put out recently, and she talked about by market cap technologies, the largest companies, one through five, it's the familiar.
It's the Google, Amazon, Facebook, Microsoft, and Amazon, one through five, but not in that order necessarily.
And then six and seven were Alibaba and Tencent.
And so as you project into the future, especially given the demographics and the country and coming online, is it just illogical that they will rise to the top?
Should we expect to see Alibaba, Tencent, or the next one sitting on the top of that leaderboard soon?
What I'm looking for are companies like Alibaba and Tencent going to be successful outside of China.
I've had conversations with folks at both those companies, and anecdotally, what I've heard is you're inside a relatively closed ecosystem in China.
Think about that sort of cyber policy model that we talked about before.
How does that translate to global markets?
And we know that companies like Alibaba are looking at Europe, they're looking at Asia.
It's going to be hard not to crack. At the same time, you have the Chinese government has come out.
Xi Jinping gave a speech in April talking about his vision for cyberspace.
And again, he reiterated this point about the need to have big and strong Chinese Internet companies.
And actually, a previous speech, he mentioned specifically Alibaba, Tencent, Huawei.
This is part of the sort of global aspiration.
I think that there's a dance that goes on with these companies and the Chinese government.
Sometimes there's a perception that they're one and the same.
Jack Ma has this great quote where he said, describing his relationship with Beijing, he said, just because you love somebody doesn't mean you should marry them.
So these are companies that their success is only possible if they have the support of the Chinese government.
But these are private companies.
They were funded by private investor money. And I think their ability to be successful globally is only possible if they can keep the government just out of their way.
So when we think about things like the cybersecurity law, very strict regulatory tools on companies, Alibaba is going to be the one on the front lines, for example, when you're controlling the ability to send data across borders.
Alibaba is trying to expand aggressively in Europe and in Asia. How are they going to do that if they can't send data outside of China, right?
So there's a dance we have to keep in mind.
That said, if anyone ever tells you, a China expert, a consultant, well, let me tell you about the relationship between Jack Ma and Xi Jinping.
Just ignore them. They have no idea. I don't know anything. We don't know anything.
This is all speculation. We don't really know. So that's the first tip of the day is if somebody says they know the relationships, you should ignore them.
Yeah. That's very practical. Right. One more point about practicality.
So when I was at Alibaba last time, outside, if you go to their headquarters, they have several very large statues of people walking with their heads down outside on their campus.
So I asked, what's the story with these statues? And they said, well, we like the idea that people have their heads down is meant to symbolize and remind us not to have our heads in the clouds.
We're here to use technology to solve practical problems.
This is about what are real problems and challenges in society that technology can be used to address.
And so again, going back to this point of what are the sort of misperceptions and ways from the outside when we look at China, I think there's this sense that the Chinese government is only using technology to feed into a vast surveillance state, which again, does exist.
Keep two paradoxical things in your mind at once. But technology is also being used to address real problems and make people's lives better.
And so I see those statues at Alibaba as a very sort of concrete illustration of that.
So let's take this a little bit further.
There's one view that China is new to the scene. But in reality, if you rewind the tape, they would suggest that this is a reemergence.
It's a renaissance. We've been here before. We've been very influential.
This vision of Mao suits and hoes coming out of the villages is a little bit overplayed.
So talk to me about how their view of themselves sort of retaking their rightful place and seat at the table.
How does that manifest? And is that accurate?
Might you characterize it differently? Well, I always look at Xi Jinping's speeches to sort of get a sense of what are the aspirations of the government in this area.
And in October, they had a convening called the 19th Party Congress, which is a twice in a decade meeting of China's top leaders.
And Xi Jinping gave an opening speech, and he explicitly called for China to be what he referred to as a cyber superpower.
You can sort of quibble with people about how to translate that term, and I've done this with other linguists.
But I think that being a cyber superpower is an accurate depiction of what they're looking to achieve.
This is an economy that's shifted from a sort of low-end, heavy manufacturing, export-led growth model, and now sees the Internet and digital technology as a way to sort of rejuvenate the economy and kind of restore China's rightful place as a leader.
In addition to being a cyber superpower, they've also talked about having this sort of right to speak in international forums and shape the way, not just to be leaders in terms of the technology, but sort of the governance and policy structures around those new technologies.
Yeah, there's David Gossett was describing this as we have historically had some version of it's an America superpower, European superpowers, when in reality, there's a multitude of powers, and we have to learn to live in a world that can handle that amount of influence.
And they don't always align. They don't, and I think one of the greatest challenges for multinational companies now is you have different models for things like cross-border data flows, and how do you operate internationally in this environment where, whether you're talking about cross-border data flows, whether you're talking about data privacy, it's becoming increasingly difficult to have international interoperability as these different sort of approaches to governing technology move forward.
So let's talk a little bit about GDPR and how China views data.
There was a statistic that Mary Meeker came out with that said that China, the concern around, so China populace giving up access to their data, there was more concern by their population than there was in, as an example, in Europe or in North America, which was surprising to me as I was going through and sort of sifting through facts.
How do you think about, how does China view the rest of the world, especially in light of GDPR and data?
Well, first of all, there's a misconception that data privacy sort of awareness doesn't exist in China.
And it does.
I mean, we've seen, even in the past year, a number of outcries on Chinese social media where people are really concerned that their data, their personal data is being misappropriated by Chinese private companies, sold on the black market.
There've been a number of scandals. And so at the end of last year, China quietly issued their first data protection standard, which spells out very granular rules around what does consent mean, the conditions upon which companies can collect, process, store, share, transfer your personal data.
And I've been in conversations with the lead drafter of this standard to try to understand what were the intentions behind it.
Believe it or not, he actually, when he was writing it, modeled it after GDPR.
And there was an effort made to sort of strengthen Chinese users' control over their information.
Now, I do think, again, going back to this sort of two-track idea, that, you know, some people will be like, wait a second, GDPR is the strictest privacy legislation in the world.
How on earth is China modeling its own regulations after that?
Is that even possible? Right? And I think the answer is, we have to think of data privacy as having two tracks in China.
One is about what companies are able to do, and the other is about what the government can do.
So you have very strict rules now coming online to regulate, restrict companies' handling of data.
I think the government kind of has their own separate system where there are actual tools now for the government to collect more real name identity information about Internet users.
So how should we think about the penalties of doing it wrong inside of China?
So if you're a company that wants to do business inside of the great walls of China, we try to do it right.
But when it goes wrong, what does that look like as a foreign company?
Yeah. I think that these new data protection rules, unfortunately, can be used for more of a political purpose in an ad hoc way.
And I think that goes for multinationals and Chinese companies.
There's actually a tension right now where Chinese Internet companies have gotten a lot of power inside China because they have massive amounts of data.
And I think these new regulatory tools in some ways are a way for the Chinese government to kind of put a check on them and say, hey, here's another way that we can control you.
The notion of getting it wrong in China, I think, sends fear through a lot of companies because the stakes are quite high.
If you look at companies that have done it wrong and run afoul of current regulations or regulations that change over time, it can mean the end of a very long investment you've made coming to bear.
And I think that the fear is that you get it really wrong.
And Chinese companies are also really freaked out about GDPR.
Like a day before GDPR took effect, I was hearing that Chinese companies were scrambling to think, well, how can we comply?
I heard one company was saying, wait, do we need to now go get consent from all of our users on our privacy policies?
Because these are companies that are also expanding into Europe and are going to have to, you know, how are they going to be compliant?
I don't know if that's even possible.
It's nice to know that they're as concerned about it as others are.
They are, yeah. And perhaps getting the 500 emails in their inbox that are going for consents.
Yes. So let's just do a little bit of sort of open topic around what are the things that as an outsider looking in, you probably assume this to be true, but in reality it's false.
Let's start there. What do people get wrong?
And they think it's true, but it's actually not true. One basic thing is that I've mentioned before blocked sites in China, like New York Times, you can't get on in China.
You can. You have to have a VPN. Although now the Chinese government has really been cracking down on VPN use.
And so that's getting more difficult than it used to be.
And this is sort of a gray area where I think before the government sort of turned away and was like, okay, we want people to be able to access this stuff, but we just want to have more control over how they do it.
So there was a great study done at Harvard a couple of years ago where they actually went on and they looked at what was censored and what wasn't, and they found that the government actually allows a lot of criticism of the government online.
But where they did censor is where there was a potential for mass movement. So like an Arab Spring type of situation would be censored.
And is that considered for the internal, for the population of China, the citizens, is that considered acceptable?
Is there any grousing or discomfort around I don't get access, free access to the New York Times?
I mean, again, I think we have to remember that China's not monolithic and there's some pretty scary stuff happening in certain parts of China around cracking down on, I know, we can talk about the Xinjiang situation, I don't want to get too much into that.
But there's some pretty scary stuff happening around that.
There are also parts of China where I think people are really, don't need to read, why do they need to read the New York Times?
I disagree with a ton of stuff the New York Times says, and so I don't think that that's really top of mind for a lot of people.
Can you unpack a little bit, we talk about, you reference it being monolithic.
China is not just one large entity.
How might you describe it for folks that have not spent as much time thinking about it as you have?
What are some lenses that you would apply that would give more stratification or break it onto a spectrum?
Well, first, let's go back to this point about China's Internet penetration rate is really only 50%.
I think that there are parts of China that have been untouched so far by the digital economy.
There are also internal fault lines, you know, intentions within the system itself.
I think that there is a debate about this relationship between economic growth and security and how do you both have Chinese global Internet companies that are competing in international markets, but you also have this very robust sort of security apparatus around that.
I think there's also a debate about privacy and AI in a similar way that is happening here.
So when China's data privacy standard came out, one of the big complaints from Chinese companies was, you know, this is going to restrict our ability to be leaders in AI, which is a mandate that the Chinese government has given us.
And so these are fault lines and internal debates we have to keep in mind.
And pull on the AI thing for a second.
Do you think that China is going to outpace the rest of the world with their investment in machine learning?
Yeah. So, again, we have to distinguish between aspirations and reality.
And for vision, China has an AI development plan that I think talks about sort of being a global leader surpassing the US by 2030 or something like this.
But let's bring it down to the ground. Like, what does this actually look like?
I was talking with one of, you know, the top VC firms in China and their lead for AI.
And she said, you'd be surprised, but like one of my favorite companies right now doing AI, they're using AI for mushroom picking.
Mushroom picking is something that can use computer vision, machine learning, millennial workers in China.
They don't want to work on this assembly line picking out different mushrooms anymore.
Mushroom picking is a very high margin industry in China.
And they need people to do this job. And now they're using AI and machine learning in the mushroom picking factories.
And I think that's really exciting.
So, again, it goes back to this question of what are the real world practical challenges that these technologies can be used to solve?
So you heard it here first, mushroom picking and AI.
So remember, it's mushroom picking. And then you also have scary robots, you know, taking over the United States.
Maybe it's somewhere in between.
I think we're at the point where we wanted to open it up to some questions.
So if there are some microphones, they're going to float around.
If you have any questions, just put your hand up so we can see who you are.
And I don't know if in the back, there's one right here. Can we bring a microphone up here?
Actually, we'll come to you in a moment. We'll start over here because there's a mic in somebody's hand already.
I just wanted to ask, what's the difference between Hong Kong and the rest of China?
As I used to work in Hong Kong, so I'm just interested in your view.
I think, yeah, well, Hong Kong is part of China.
And I think from a government perspective, there's a very close relationship, but there's also a tension there.
And I think that the recent election, you saw some of that tension play out.
The Chinese government is very interested in keeping a tight grip on China, and so the digital economy extends that.
Now, one question I've heard is, will regulations around the digital economy on mainland extend to China?
So for example, sorry, to Hong Kong. So data flow restrictions, certain types of regulatory scrutiny on critical infrastructure providers in China.
Does that also extend to Hong Kong? I think that's a regulatory gray zone.
That's a good question. Dave, microphone over here. We've obviously seen a lot in the news about Russian manipulation of US elections and Brexit and so forth, whether that's true or not.
Is China known to be engaged in similar schemes to manipulate international economies and elections and so forth?
It's a very light question. Yeah. We've talked a lot today about more of the digital economy aspect of the Internet in China, but there's also a national security dimension.
Xi Jinping has said, without cyber security, there is no national security.
There's been a lot of political resources put into a new body within the Chinese government that is in charge of cyberspace, which also includes the offensive cyber capability part of the Chinese government.
So I think this is an area where the government is also investing a lot of focus.
It is a part of that cyber superpower vision.
I think you dodged that well. Hello. Thank you. Question in the back.
Hi. Hello. I'm Mr. Wong. I come from Hong Kong, actually. I want to follow up the previous question about Hong Kong, because I know the national security law, as known as the Basic Law Article 23, will be introduced about the next year, because the Chinese government wanted to tighten the Hong Kong freedoms after the Umbrella Revolution.
What do you mean about the Basic Law Article 23, the inference of Article 23 for the Hong Kong Internet freedoms about this?
What do you think? Article 23? Yes, Basic Law Article 23. What is the Article 23 in Hong Kong Basic Law?
That means the Hong Kong government should enact the law about national security or something like that in Hong Kong, introduced to Hong Kong.
So extending the reach of mainland China's policy into Hong Kong, is that the...
Yeah. I mean, I think this is... And I'm not an expert in Hong Kong and Hong Kong politics, so I will probably defer more to you on what that means there.
I, again, would just look at it in this context of, this is a government in Beijing that is increasing political power around its leader and using cyberspace as a tool in that arsenal.
I think we have time for one more question and then we're going to wrap up.
And I can't see... Oh, we're over here on the left. Sorry, far left.
Hi there. I just wanted to go back to the GDPR model that you say China has, one for companies and one for the people.
Do you know what the government is allowed to do with the data that it has on the people?
Well, I'll tell you, the way that it's portrayed in the media is a bit simplistic.
I think there's a perception that there's one government entity that all data is feeding into that then is used for things like algorithmic governance to sort of allot different rights in society based on what happens with that data.
I'll tell you, it's very fragmented. So within the government, you have different bodies that are housing that data and aren't sharing it with each other.
And whoever in the government I think has more of that data pool will have enormous political power.
So we're sort of seeing a sort of turf war play out right over that right now.
But we have already seen the use of data around like court orders, law enforcement actions, things people do on trains.
That is beginning to feed into different sort of government allocation of rights.
I don't think we're there yet. I think there's a sort of dystopian fear that this is going to take over everything in China.
And we're not quite there yet. As I said, there are a lot of implementation challenges around it.
Sam, thank you very much for taking time today.
And I appreciate the folks in the audience spending time with us as well.
Thank you. Thank you.
I appreciate it.