Ransomware fuels talk of Bitcoin ban, Russia and the US clash over YouTube, WhatsApp backtracks on enforcing its new privacy policy, and IGP presents at the PLSC for the first time.

Bitcoin and Ransomware

Successful, highly disruptive ransomware attacks are prompting calls to ban Bitcoin or find ways to crack open anonymous use of the cryptocurrency. Ransomware has been a problem for many years, but the recent crippling of the Colonial Pipeline for 6 days and its payment of $4.4 million in Bitcoin to the criminal perpetrators has elevated attention given to the role of cryptocurrency in society. Senior Biden administration officials are now describing ransomware as a national-security threat akin to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and are looking at ways to better trace ransomware payments. Critics attack its anonymity, its facilitation of ransomware and its excessive energy use as reasons to ban it. Supporters claim that banning an open-source blockchain protocol is impossible without banning Internet access, and also call attention to the important role the alternative currency plays in checking governmental abuse of national money. Faced with the technical and collective action problems of a ban, bitcoin enemies revert to a “regulate it to death” approach, focusing on controlling exchanges that convert cryptocurrencies to US dollars or Euros. The future of cryptocurrency, a transnational, stateless and decentralized asset that can be used as money, in a world of national states with central banks and highly regulated monetary systems will continue to be one of the core issues of Internet governance.

YouTube in the middle of US-Russia conflict 

A Russian court has ordered Google to reinstate the YouTube account associated with Tsargrad TV, an Orthodox-leaning culture and news channel that the company blocked last year citing “violation of legislation on sanctions and trade rules”. The incident shows that both the U.S. and Russia are striving for global jurisdiction over a global platform and imposing conflicting rules as a result. Tsargrad TV’s owner and founder, Konstantin Malofeyev, was placed under U.S. and EU sanctions in 2014 over accusations that he funded pro-Moscow separatists in Ukraine. The timing of YouTube’s ban raised eyebrows both in Russia and abroad. Although Malofeyev was placed on the sanctions list in 2014, Google allowed Tsargrad to accumulate an audience on YouTube and received almost $10,000 a month in advertising revenue from it until 2020. It is unclear whether U.S. sanctions law requires social media companies to prohibit publishing by sanctioned individuals or organisations. In April, the Moscow Arbitration Court found that the ban had unfairly discriminated against Konstantin Malofeev and ordered Google to reinstate Tsargrad’s YouTube channel globally or face a daily 100,000 ruble ($1,358.29) fine, which would double each week until Google complies. Google filed an appeal against the ruling on May 19. 

WhatsApp backs down on controversial privacy update 

After months of threatening to cut off users refusing to accept the new terms of service, WhatsApp appears to have backed down. In a reversal of its stance of limiting functionality for those who did not accept the updates to its privacy policy, WhatsApp has clarified that it has “no plans to limit the functionality of the app.”  The company has issued a statement, saying that “given recent discussions with authorities and privacy experts, we want to make clear that we currently have no plans to limit the functionality of how WhatsApp works for those who have not yet accepted the update… We will continue to remind users from time to time about the update as well as when people choose to use relevant optional features.” We will never know what has brought about the change of policy, but it is likely the decision of German regulators to temporarily ban the update and the growing conflict with the Indian government over the policy update have contributed to the company’s decision. 

IGP Research on data enclosure

IGP researcher Brenden Kuerbis presented the paper, “Making Data Private – and Excludable” at the Privacy Law Scholars Conference this week. The paper identifies a phenomenon called “data enclosure,” which is part of the competitive struggle over the economic value of data. The paper draws on examples of early pay over the air television, satellite-based cable and conditional access, DNS over HTTPS, and mobile Internet and advertising identifiers used in the adtech ecosystem. The most interesting questions about the future of privacy arise from the degree to which data enclosures affect competition and succeed in providing better privacy protection. Ultimately, our goal is to understand the impact of market-driven encryption and privacy initiatives on the political economy of data.