The Metaverse will be territorialized 

Metaverses are being promoted as a virtual reality universe where users can interact and feel present “no matter how far apart…” Well, some users, anyway. The technology in VR headsets seems to be so advanced that it’s use is restricted by those on various USG control lists, subjecting the metaverse to the political geography of earth. The Oculus Terms of Service restrict devices to 22 “supported countries” outside the United States.

Censorship Is A Barrier to Digital Trade: USITC Report

The U.S. the International Trade Commission (USITC) has unveiled the first report of its investigation into censorship that impedes trade and investment by U.S. businesses in foreign markets. The six countries covered in the report  – China (including Hong Kong), Russia, Turkey, Vietnam, India, and Indonesia – represent key markets where the demand for digital content and services provides a significant commercial opportunity for U.S. firms, but are affected by governments’ censorship policies for digital content. 

The report does a good job of tracking the evolution and tracking trends in censorship policies across different markets. For e.g. across all the six markets, it notes a movement towards a multi-pronged approach to censorship, wherein direct censorship (internet shutdowns, filtering, blocking, restricting access) and censorship-enabling measures (internet intermediary rules, data localization, local presence requirements, restrictions on foreign investment or market access) being included in the same law or package of laws. The report also delves into specific elements of censorship policies and practices such as extraterritoriality, self-censorship and the roles of governmental and nongovernmental actors, particularly state-owned entities and private internet companies, in the implementation and enforcement. Although it is advisory in nature, the report can be used as a basis for a probe and action. 

Not surprisingly, China is a key focus of the investigations. The report sets aside a separate chapter to explore the Chinese Communist Party’s approach to censorship. It notes: “Censorship of content and media services may often be politically motivated, but it can also be used to protect some of China’s largest and most competitive content and media companies that support government policies and are expanding rapidly in global markets.” Apart from China’s Great Firewall, which “enables the government to maintain control over the country’s gateway to the global Internet” the impact of the Cybersecurity Law, Provisions on the Governance of the Online Information Content Ecosystem, the Hong Kong National Security Law, and the Data Security Law are also examined.

In the case of India, the report notes: “India ranks as less restrictive on some indices but has a worsening censorship environment despite being a large market for U.S. firms.” According the USITC the Indian government is exercising censorship by citing relevant laws and regulations to provide notices to “remove content, shut or slow down internet access, file criminal charges, block the release of a documentary or prevent a television station from broadcasting”; and through a “variety of informal mechanisms based on intimidation and harassment”. While the investigation focuses on the new intermediary rules, increased internet shutdowns and limits on foreign investment in digital media, the use of a range of other laws used to target speech that have had a significant impact on US firms operating in India are also noted in the report.

The report sends a strong message to China and Russia that have long been using censorship to restrict market access for U.S firms. It is also a warning for countries like India and Indonesia that have recently introduced restrictions targeting digital content, that the U.S. views censorship as a barrier to digital trade. The inclusion of India and Indonesia in the report is particularly interesting given the Biden administration proposed Alliance for the Future of the Internet. The U.S. would benefit from having these countries join the alliance; however as the USITC investigation highlights, based on their approach to censorship of digital content these countries are unlikely to find a place within this grouping of “like-minded countries”. With China and Russia indicating that they may be considering an alliance of their own, what is clear is that censorship as a trade issue has arrived. 

Culture of Intolerance: The Spotify-Rogan controversy 

Musicians famous and obscure withdrew their works from Spotify in an attempt to get the music and podcast platform to cancel Joe Rogan’s popular podcast. Rogan’s opponents say he is spreading dangerous misinformation about vaccines and covid treatments; others claim he is a “fascist.” But one thing needs to be made clear: This debate is not about who has the legal right to do what. TechDirt editor Mike Masnick explains in depth here why the Spotify-Rogan controversy has nothing to do with Section 230 or Spotify’s status as a “platform” or a “publisher.” Professor Jeff Kosseff, a First Amendment expert, explained that even if the ideas promoted by Rogan’s guest are deemed “dangerous,” the courts have found multiple times that the First Amendment protects publishers from being liable for dangerous information found in their publications. The bottom line is that it would be legal for Spotify to keep Rogan on, legal for them to kick him off in response to public pressure, legal for Neil Young and others to boycott Spotify. 

Debating legal rights completely misses the larger significance of this incident. We need to be focusing on the growing trend toward intellectual and cultural intolerance. Increasingly, people react to messages and information sources they think are wrong by demanding that they be suppressed. They routinely elevate the existence of content that offends them into existential threats to society. Rogan’s December 30 podcast allowed Robert Malone to argue that covid vaccines pose risks. While some of Malone’s concerns had some grounding in science, he seems to have lost sight of the fact that the risks of the vaccine are small compared to not getting vaccinated for the vast majority of people. Another Spotify podcast quickly analyzed and debunked Malone’s ideas. But should it be unacceptable to even air these concerns and doubts in the public sphere? Taboos that circumvent critical thinking and discourse about public issues also create risks that we will suppress legitimate concerns. People who react in this way seem to have lost all faith in the ability of the public to detect and reject false ideas. To quote one random post of this type,”The content Rogan creates is antivaxxers and Neonazis. You can’t avoid that by not listening.” This attitude breeds a culture of intolerance which, if not checked, will eventually curb speakers’ legal rights. 

India Moves on Digital Currency

India’s finance minister, Nirmala Sitharaman, announced the launch of Digital Rupee, India’s version of a Central Bank Digital Currency (CBDC); and taxation of virtual digital assets in the recent budget speech. India’s policy toward cryptocurrencies is still rather unclear and these announcements raise several interesting implications, as Vagisha Srivastava writes in her more detailed analysis of the announcement here