All posts by mjt7

D1g1tal Stateh00d: Silicon Valley’s Obligations to Users

By Misha Tseitlin

One of the key turning points in ancient history was the Phoenician invention of currency: a trading empire made up of colonies dotting the Mediterranean Coast, they were the first that managed to commercialise the trade of goods and services. Civilisations long after continue to use this model, valuing everything from silver to copper to aluminium as a currency to facilitation international flows. Today, we are faced with a phenomenon as novel as the invention of initial currency—the commercialisation of data and its transformation into a new form of “currency.”

Social media networks have transformed the way we interact with the world around us. However, their unique decentralised and international model poses challenges to regulation, a growing necessity given the dangers of uncontrolled monopoly, something Americans have discovered over the past year. While the domestic conversation is still trying to move past what Facebook is, I contend that to allow this technology to continue developing, we need to treat data as a human right, imposing an international court system to regulate only the data portion of these internet companies.

Now at this point, I’m sure everyone from small government conservatives to staunch internationalists has concerns. However, it is imperative that such a system be international for a variety of reasons. Why should a Briton have a “right to be forgotten” while Americans struggle to even secure access to net neutrality? The degree of freedoms individuals should have should not depend on their location, especially given the international nature of these platforms: a Facebook user in Bulgaria interacts with the platform as similarly as one in Australia, and so inequities ought to be addressed on an international scale.

The clear question is one of sovereignty—why can’t countries decide what’s best for their citizens? After all, up to now platforms like Facebook have been able to comply with regulations while internally choosing when to refuse compliance with particularly onerous demands from countries like Russia and Turkey. Such thinking, however, is dismissive of the change such developments bring to our economy. Technology and the spread of data is uniquely dispersed. The engineer designing the platform, customer support personnel processing complaints, server for data storage, and end user might be distributed over multiple countries. Which regulations should the platform comply with? An international solution allows for diffuse access to information without introducing mountains of legal hurdles.

More importantly, an international solution would protect both the business model of such companies by avoiding a precedent for unilateral enforcement. Google cannot be expected to comply with different legal standards in various nations and still maintaining profits that enable it to continue functioning. That’s why industry leaders like Mark Zuckerberg have already called for a solution. Ultimately, business struggles in a world of uncertainty—the status quo with vaguely defined statues on state-technology interaction, cyberwarfare, and informational acquisition makes operating difficult for these corporations.

The main alternative to solve these same problems is a national court system. Though a unilateral court in the US might do wonders for Americans, there are two main problems. First, countries can justify a unilateral imposition of demands on these platforms and use them to monitor their citizens, much like Russia already does with VK and Odnoklasniki. Second, individual country actions might determine the shape of a global platform. After all, why would Facebook have 190 different versions of its platform, when it could change its practices across the board after a particularly salient court case.

Both of these have already manifested—the former with the shutdown of Google Dragonfly after a 5-month ordeal surrounding the company’s acquiescence to Chinese Communist Party demands for access to data and control over the platform. However, had it not been for unusual government pressure in the US, the project would have gone through; certainly, this doesn’t exclude the opportunity for similar future projects by Google and others. On the other hand, European regulators have emerged as the primary protectors of privacy, establishing the General Data Protection Regulation, going after first Google and later Amazon for antitrust violations while heavily scrutinising deals like Apple’s Shazam acquisition, and even sorting through tax evasion like Apple’s dealings in Ireland. Nonetheless, such a system that requires deference to some national (or supranational depending on your views on the EU) political system that has its own imperfect incentives is obviously flawed. We’re happy when Europe keeps tech companies accountable, but when its copyright protections, specifically the publicised Articles 11 and 13 that are accused of “banning memes”, seem overzealous, there are few options because of previous international ambivalence and especially the US FTC’s recent laissez-faire attitude. And should Europe ever go the route of the US and loosen the reigns, all current protections would disappear along with the checks they provide.

In comparison to other options then, such an international legal solution is particularly salient. It presents a significant improvement over the current system where an uneducated legislature toothlessly investigates a monopolistic platform that controls the entirety of their user’s experience, from security to content. Additionally, it avoids domestic political pressures: an independent judiciary would first move slowly, as international organisations tend to do, but would have the independence to make decisions irrespective of shifting political tides, as properly-constructed judiciaries do.

Ultimately, something needs to change. Tech companies right now function as monopolies exempt from regulation—their effects are simply too diffuse. The industry has become self-regulating, meaning large profit-driven companies with shareholder obligations are responsible for safeguarding our data. Some like Denmark have taken action, launching “tech ambassadorships,” recognising that individual companies are more important than some small countries. However, these actions are too few and too insufficient to make the necessary impact. Silicon Valley got to where it is by thinking big. It’s time for D.C. and the Hague to catch up.

End Capital Punishment: The Short-sightedness of Magnitsky Act Sanctions on Kadyrov

By Misha Tseitlin

After the death of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi under dubious circumstances that mirror human rights abuses and the eventual death of Sergei Magnitsky in Russia, the lack of an international response has prompted calls for sanctions—often grounded in the justification of the Global Magnitsky Act. However, while many are ready to jump on this new crisis and leverage existing tools, they are quick to ignore the impacts of past policy uses, especially within Europe. With the help of American firms like McKinsey, authoritarian governments like Russia have managed to dodge sanctions while protecting the assets of the state and allies of key government figures. This itself should be enough to inspire doubts onto this sanctions policy—however, even in cases of effective imposition, domestic political trends tend to render effects counterproductive.

See Ramzan Kadyrov, who last December joined the ranks of Kim Jong Un, Nicolas Maduro, and others, who are all subjected to US sanctions. The Treasury Department sanctioned him under the Magnitsky Act, originally passed by Obama in 2012 to condone the death in custody of Russian whistle-blower Sergei Magnitsky. In doing so, they have confirmed what ordinary Russians have long known: Kadyrov, the Head of Chechnya, was linked to Putin’s overreach in the cases of his enemies. Unfortunately, Russians also know the entrenchment of the status quo precludes any meaningful change, having witnessed the result of past US sanctions on Russian officials.

Indeed, the decision was not met with apologies or negotiations, as is the expectation, but rather anti-American posts on Kadyrov’s social media accounts which have given a voice to anti-interventionist messages in other issues like the Iranian protests. In all, he has closely followed the Castro playbook, upping rally-around-the-flag propaganda in response to sanctions. More importantly, though some of the Chechen leader’s luxury assets are tied up in Western institutions, much is already invested into Kadyrov’s some dozen racing-breed horses, luxury cars, or extravagant residences. If at all cash-strapped, all he must do is wait for the next batch of subsidies from Russia, the region’s sole source of economic sustenance since the start of the century. This tool is weak in a practical sense, driving away an individual with diverse interests in Putin’s Russia with mildly punitive measures.

The argument that remains is a moral one. Kadyrov’s Chechnya has been accused of everything from torturing and imprisoning its gay citizens to exacting retribution on the families of suspected terrorists. This, of course, leaves out the countless cases of suspected murder for countless Putin and Kadyrov critics like Anna Politkovskaya, Boris Nemtsov, and Umar Israilov. For many the US continues to and ought to both represent and enforce a standard of acceptable behaviour from other nations as the global hegemon, and for this it leveraged its sanctions against the immoral behaviour of Kadyrov and officials like him in Russia.

However, it is important to remember the US’s selective enforcement of such measures. Allies like Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia are all generally accepted to be perpetrators of human rights abuses, but the US opts to look the other way in exchange for help on anti-terror efforts across the world. Even in neighbouring Mexico plagued by corruption, American sanctions have yet to be levied because the benefits of cooperation outweigh the impact of weak-handed punishment. In Chechnya, this ought to be the case too, not because human rights concerns are unimportant or fabricated, but because the benefits of cooperation could have either one two effects: an emboldening of the Russian opposition and a weakness in United Russia’s grasp or a greater effectiveness of sanctions if implemented after some time of détente, making it likely that they would touch more assets.

Now the common response to this would advocate for the US to support a more palatable and authentically pro-West opposition to Putin without the need to stomach anything suboptimal. However, the infeasibility of this option speaks to the sorry state of the Russian opposition. With the death of Boris Nemtsov, the most likely anti-Putin figure is one Alexei Navalny—social media populist who is staunchly nationalist, and though more palatable now, rose up through right-wing groups and has expressed sentiments that make Russian liberals wary. Even former staunchly leftist figures in Russia like Alexei Venediktov, have come out in support of aggressively nationalist positions, leaving little organic momentum for a movement.

Given that no acceptable opposition currently exists, the US would have to engineer opponents it sees as acceptable. However, this trend towards nationalism against the opposition is linked to nationalist leanings of the Russian populace, who would immediately disqualify and candidate seemingly propped-up or brought up by Western power. Thus, the US has a dilemma: there’s no one to work with and likely will not be for some time.

This is where Chechnya comes in. Kadyrov’s alignment with the Russian regime comes from his father’s defection to align with Russians during the Second Chechen War. First his father controlled the republic until his death in 2004, and when he came of legal age in 2007, Kadyrov took the mantle. Due to Russia’s economic monopoly over the region’s livelihood, ties between Russia proper and Chechnya have deepened politically and economically over years. However, socially the two still remain distinct, with practically no Russians in Chechnya and Chechens seen as other in other parts of the Federation. Indeed, though Chechnya is one of 22 republics in Russia, it enjoys de-facto legal status unshared by any other.

Kadyrov has created a region with extraterritoriality, meaning Russian laws are unenforced and Russian troops are even banned from the republic under threat of death. Such a violent fissure is unlike someone many Western pundits claim is Putin’s strongest ally. Instead, Kadyrov is an ambitious leader who got to his position by playing the political game, and one that he will gladly continue to play. Treating him like an ideologue by slapping largely ineffective sanctions both eliminates the ability to engage in dialogue and solidifies Putin’s support over some of his most discontent citizens.

The US and Russia have always had a tense relationship, but Chechnya has always been distinct. In 1991, Dzhokhar Dudayev reached out to the US to aid his quest for Chechen independence—styled after an American secular democracy. Though the situation today has complicated, dealings with Russia have been at a standstill for over a decade. The US should not be in the business of making enemies, instead trying to find partners on the ground anywhere it seeks engagement. As Putin’s time as Russia’s official head comes to an end in 2024—any outcome, whether it be the installation of a loyalist in the Presidency and a power transfer or a the less likely reclaiming of the presidency in 2028 for the then-75-year-old Putin will be met with opposition for Kadyrov, who has run Chechnya for more than a decade with relative impunity and a deference to Putin’s cult of personality. Thus, a currently-stable situation presents future opportunities for US leadership, who should be less hasty with imposition of sanctions and punitive policy on potential future allies.

Leveraging the Magnitsky Act makes a statement, but its impact stops there. Now is a good a time as any to open up the toolkit a little wider and discover more meaningful options, not only looking towards Russia but other nations as well. A blind imposition of generic tools without looking at domestic political trends is not just useless but could instead be counterproductive, empowering Russia’s Putin, Saudi Arabia’s Muhammed Bin Salman, their awkward middleman—Chechnya’s Ramzan Kadyrov.