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Who Benefits from 5G?

The Financial Times (FT) ran a somewhat mixed piece on the future of 5G. The thesis is that telecom operators are anxious to realise the financial benefits of 5G deployments but, at the same time, these benefits were always expected to come in the forthcoming years; there was little, if any, expectation that financial benefits would happen immediately as the next-generation infrastructures were deployed.

The article correctly notes that consumers are skeptical of the benefits of 5G while, also, concluding by correctly stating that 5G was really always about the benefits that 5G Standalone will have for businesses. This is, frankly, a not great piece in terms of editing insofar as it combines two relatively distinct things without doing so in a particularly clear way.

5G Extended relies on existing 4G infrastructures. While there are theoretically faster speeds available to consumers, along with a tripartite spectrum band segmentation that can be used,1 most consumers won’t directly realise the benefits. One group that may, however, benefit (and that was not addressed at all in this piece) are rural customers. Opening up the lower-frequency spectrum blocks will allow 5G signals to travel farther with the benefit significantly accruing to those who cannot receive new copper, coax, or fibre lines. This said, I tend to agree with the article that most of the benefits of 5G haven’t, and won’t, be directly realised by individual mobile subscribers in the near future.2

5G Standalone is really where 5G will theoretically come alive. It’s, also, going to require a whole new way of designing and securing networks. At least as of a year or so ago, China was a global leader here but largely because they had comparatively poor 4G penetration and so had sought to leapfrog to 5G SA.3 This said, American bans on semiconductors to Chinese telecoms vendors, such as Huawei and ZTE, have definitely had a negative effect on the China’s ability to more fully deploy 5G SA.

In the Canadian case we can see investments by our major telecoms into 5G SA applications. Telus, Rogers, and Bell are all pouring money into technology clusters and universities. The goal isn’t to learn how much faster consumers’ phones or tablets can download data (though new algorithms to better manage/route/compress data are always under research) but, instead, to learn how how to take advantage of the more advanced business-to-business features of 5G. That’s where the money is, though the question will remain as to how well telecom carriers will be able to rent seek on those features when they already make money providing bandwidth and services to businesses paying for telecom products.


  1. Not all countries, however, are allocating the third, high-frequency, band on the basis that its utility remains in doubt. ↩︎
  2. Incidentally: it generally just takes a long, long time to deploy networks. 4G still isn’t reliably available across all of Canada, such as in populated rural parts of Canada. This delay meaningfully impedes the ability of farmers, as an example, to adopt smart technologies that would reduce the costs associated with farm and crop management and which could, simultaneously, enable more efficient crop yields. ↩︎
  3. Western telecoms, by comparison, want to extend the life of the capital assets they purchased/deployed around their 4G infrastructures and so prefer to go the 5G Extended route to start their 5G upgrade path. ↩︎

Which Three Terms Describe Yourself?

I can see my life by way of several extended moments and, over time, how I’d describe myself has changed and expanded—from perhaps just one term to two—and deepened insofar as the descriptions arguably better articulate who I am.

For the past several months I’ve been reflecting on the terms that likely best briefly describe me. As it stands, I think that the current stage of my life is best captured as: policy wonk, street photographer, and Torontonian. And not necessarily in that order!

Each term speaks to less what I aspire to be—there are lots of terms I could use there!!—and more to who I am, by way of the actions I undertake on a daily or at least highly regular basis.

What three terms best describe you, today?

The Future of How I Share Links

man wearing vr goggles
Photo by Harsch Shivam on Pexels.com

There’s a whole lot happening all over social media and this is giving me a chance to really assess what I use, for what reason, and what I want to publish into the future. I’ve walked away from enough social media services to recognize it might be time for another heavy adjustment in my life.

Twitter has long been key to my work and valuable in developing a professional profile. I don’t know that this kind of engagement will be quite the same moving forward. And, if I’m honest, a lot of my Twitter usage for the past several years has been to surface and circulate interesting (often cyber- or privacy-related) links or public conversations, or to do short-form analysis of important government documents ahead of writing about them on my professional website.

The issue is that the links on Twitter then fade into the digital ether. While I’ve been using Raindrop.io for a while and really love the service, it doesn’t have the same kind of broadcast quality as Twitter.1

So what to do going forward? In theory I’d like to get back into the habit of publishing more link blogs, here, about my personal interests because I really appreciate the ones that bloggers I follow and respect produce. I’m trying to figure out the format, frequency, and topics that makes sense; I suspect I might try to bundle 4-6 thematic links and publish them as a set, but time will tell. This would mean that sometimes there might be slightly busier and slower periods, depending on my ability to ‘see’ a theme.

The challenge is going to be creating a workflow that is fast, easy, and imposes minimal friction. Here, I’m hoping that a shortcut that takes the title and URL of an article, formats it into Markdown using Text Case, and then provides a bit of space to write will do the trick. This is the format I used to rely on to create my Roundup posts, though I don’t really expect I’ll be able to return to such length link blogs.


  1. I have, nonetheless, created an RSS feed with mostly links to privacy, cyber, and national security articles. ↩︎
Aside

2022.11.16

Trying out the new AirPods Pro 2 and the fit with the smallest sized earbuds is far superior to the previous version. I still need to assess if they’re going to work longer term but I can’t manage to shake them loose, they don’t fall out when I’m eating something, and they don’t dislodge after walking outside for 20 minutes or so. My longer weekend photowalk will probably help clarify if I’ll keep them or return them.

Aside

2022.11.11

A whole generation of journalists and semi-public individuals (myself included) are watching one of the ways we communicated with one another, and developed as professionals, is negligently being burned down. And so a lot of electrons are being tortured into describing our collective experiences.

My question, though, is this: what is the next system or platform that younger generations will use? Will it be YouTube or TikTok or is there another, still very small or yet to be created, platform that will do the same? Will we see a recursion back to things like Tumblr or blogs and RSS more generally? Will newsletters or email become a thing?

I’m genuinely curious while, simultaneously, a bit sad that a service that I’ve very successfully used to propel my career is almost certainly in steep decline.

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Generalist Policing Models Remain Problematic

From the New York Time’s opinion section, this piece on“Why the F.B.I. Is so far behind on cybercrime?” reinforces the position that American law enforcement is stymied in investigating cybercrimes because:

…it lacks enough agents with advanced computer skills. It has not recruited as many of these people as it needs, and those it has hired often don’t stay long. Its deeply ingrained cultural standards, some dating to the bureau’s first director, J. Edgar Hoover, have prevented it from getting the right talent.

Emblematic of an organization stuck in the past is the F.B.I.’s longstanding expectation that agents should be able to do “any job, anywhere.” While other global law enforcement agencies have snatched up computer scientists, the F.B.I. tried to turn existing agents with no computer backgrounds into digital specialists, clinging to the “any job” mantra. It may be possible to turn an agent whose background is in accounting into a first-rate gang investigator, but it’s a lot harder to turn that same agent into a top-flight computer scientist.

The “any job” mantra also hinders recruitment. People who have spent years becoming computer experts may have little interest in pivoting to another assignment. Many may lack the aptitude for — or feel uneasy with — traditional law enforcement expectations, such as being in top physical fitness, handling a deadly force scenario or even interacting with the public.

This very same issue plagues the RCMP, which also has a generalist model that discourages or hinders specialization. While we do see better business practices in, say, France, with an increasing LEA capacity to pursue cybercrime, we’re not yet seeing North American federal governments overhaul their own policing services.1

Similarly, the FBI is suffering from an ‘arrest’ culture:

The F.B.I.’s emphasis on arrests, which are especially hard to come by in ransomware cases, similarly reflects its outdated approach to cybercrime. In the bureau, prestige often springs from being a successful trial agent, working on cases that result in indictments and convictions that make the news. But ransomware cases, by their nature, are long and complex, with a low likelihood of arrest. Even when suspects are identified, arresting them is nearly impossible if they’re located in countries that don’t have extradition agreements with the United States.

In the Canadian context, not only is pursuing to arrest a problem due to jurisdiction, the complexity of cases can mean an officer spends huge amounts of time on a computer, and not out in the field ‘doing the work’ of their colleagues who are not cyber-focused. This perception of just ‘playing games’ or ‘surfing social media’ can sometimes lead to challenges between cyber investigators and older-school leaders.2 And, making things even more challenging is that the resources to train to detect and pursue Child Sexual Abuse Material (CSAM) are relatively plentiful, whereas economic and non-CSAM investigations tend to be severely under resourced.

Though there is some hope coming for Canadian investigators, by way of CLOUD agreements between the Canadian and American governments, and the updates to the Cybercrime Convention, both will require updates to criminal law as well as potentially provincial privacy laws to empower LEAs with expanded powers. And, even with access to more American data that enables investigations this will not solve the arrest challenges when criminals are operating out of non-extradition countries.

It remains to be seen whether an expanded capacity to issue warrants to American providers will reduce some of the Canadian need for specialized training to investigate more rudimentary cyber-related crimes or if, instead, it will have a minimum effect overall.


  1. This is also generally true to provincial and municipal services as well. ↩︎
  2. Fortunately this is a less common issue, today, than a decade ago. ↩︎

Glass 365 Days Later

(Wintertime Rush by Christopher Parsons)

I’ve been actively using Glass for about a full year now. Glass is a photo sharing site where users must pay either a monthly or yearly fee; it costs to post but viewing is free.

I publish a photo almost every day and I regularly go through the community to view other folks’ photos and comment on them. In this short review I want to identify what’s great about the service, what’s so-so, and where there’s still room to grow. All the images in this blog post were previously posted to Glass.

Let me cut to the chase: I like the service and have resubscribed for another full year.

The Good

The iOS mobile client was great at launch and it remains terrific. It’s fast and easy to use, and beats all the other social platforms’ apps that I’ve used because it is so simple and functional. You can’t edit your images in the Glass app and I’m entirely fine with that.

(Fix, Found by Christopher Parsons)

The community is delightful from my perspective. The comments I get are all thoughtful and the requirement to pay-to-post means that there aren’t (yet) any trolls that I’ve come across. Does this mean the community is smaller? Definitely. But is it a more committed and friendly community? You bet. Give me quality over quantity any day of the week.

All subscribers have the option to have a public facing profile, which anyone can view, or ones that are restricted to just other subscribers. I find the public profiles to be pretty attractive and good at arranging photos, especially when accessing a profile on a wide-screen device (e.g. a laptop, desktop, tablet, or phone in landscape).

The platform launched as iPhone only, to start, though has been expanding since then. The iPad client is a joy to use and the developers have an Android client on their roadmap. A Windows application is available and you can use the service on the web too.

(Birthday Pose by Christopher Parsons)

Other things that I really appreciate: Glass has a terrifically responsive development team. There are about 50 community requests that have been implemented since launch; while some are just for bugs, most are for updates to the platform. Glass is also the opposite of the traditional roach-motel social media platform. You can download your photos from the site at any time; you’re paying for the service, not for surveillance. That’s great!

The So-So

So is Glass perfect then? No. It has only a small handful of developers as compared to competitors like Instagram or Vero which means that some overdue features are still in development.

(‘Til Pandemic Does Us Part by Christopher Parsons)

A core critique is there is no Android application. That’s fair! However, iOS users are more likely to spend money on apps so it made economic sense to prioritize that user base.1 Fortunately an Android application is on its way and a Windows version was recently released.

A more serious issue for existing users is an inability to ‘tag’ photos. While photos can be assigned to categories in the application (and more categories have been added over time) that means it’s hard to have the customization of bigger sites like Flickr. The result is that discovery is more challenging and it’s harder to build up a set of metadata that could be used in the future for presenting photos. Glass, currently, is meant to provide a linear feed of photos—that’s part of its charm!—but more sophisticated methods of even displaying images on users’ portfolios in the future may require the company to adopt a tagging system. Why does it matter that there is or isn’t one, today? Because for heavier users2 re-viewing and tagging all photos will be a royal pain in the butt, if that ever is something that is integrated into the platform.

(Tall and Proud by Christopher Parsons)

If you’re looking to use Glass as a formal portfolio, well, there are almost certainly better services and platforms you should rely upon. Which is to say: the platform does not let you create albums or pin certain photos to the top of your profile. I entirely get that the developers are aiming for a simple service at launch, but would also appreciate the ability to better categorize some of my photos. In particular, I would like to create things such as:

  • Best of a given year
  • Having albums that break up street versus landscape versus cityscape images
  • Being able to create albums for specific events, such as particular vacations or documentary events
  • Photos that I generally think are amongst my ‘best’ overall

This being said, albums and portfolios are in the planning stages. I look forward to seeing what is ultimately released.

(Public Praise by Christopher Parsons)

As much as I like the community as it stands today, I would really like the developers to add some small or basic things. Like threaded comments. They’re coming, at some point, after discovery features are integrated (e.g., search by location, by camera, etc.). Still, as it stands today, the lack of even 2-levels of threaded comments means that active conversations are annoying to follow.

Finally, Glass is really what you make of it. If you’re a photographer who wants to just add photos and never engage with the community then I’d imagine it’s not as good as a platform such as Instagram or Vero. Both of the latter apps have larger user bases and you’re more likely to get the equivalent of a like; I don’t know how large Glass’ user-base is but it’s not huge despite being much larger than at launch. However, if you’re active in the community then I think that you can get more positive, or helpful, feedback than on other platforms. At least for me, as a very enthusiastic amateur photographer, the engagement I get on Glass is remarkably more meaningful than on any other platform on which I’ve shared my photographs.

The Bad

Honestly, the worst part about Glass is still discoverability.3 You can see a semi-random set of photographers using the service which isn’t bad…except that some of them may not have posted anything to the platform for months or even a year. I have no idea why this is the case.

(Stephanie by Christopher Parsons)

The only other way to discover other photographers is to regularly dig through the different photography categories, and ‘appreciate’4 photos you see and follow the photographers who appeal to your tastes. This isn’t terrible, but it’s the ‘best’ way of discovering photos and really isn’t great. While the company ‘highlightsphotographers on the Glass website and through its Twitter feed, the equivalent curation still doesn’t exist in the application itself. That’s non-ideal.

The developers have promised that additional discovery functions will be rolling out. They intend enable search by camera type or location, but thus far nothing’s been released. They’ve been good at slowly and deliberately releasing features, and new features have always been thoughtful when implemented, so I’m hopeful that when discoverability is updated it’ll be pretty good. Until then, however, it’s frankly pretty bad.

(Lonely Traveller by Christopher Parsons)

If I were to find a second thing that’s missing, to date, it would be that there’s no way of embedding Glass images in other CMSes. The platform does support RSS, which I appreciate, but I want the platform to offer full-on embeds so I can easily cross post images to other web spaces (like this blog!). Embeds could, also, have some language/links that ultimately let viewers sign up for the service as a way of growing the subscriber base.

The third thing that I wish Glass would enable a way of assessing if a photo has already been uploaded. At this point I’ve uploaded over 300 photos and I want to ensure that I don’t accidentally upload a duplicate. This is definitely a problem associated with those who use the service more heavily, but will become a more prominent issue as users ‘live’ on the platform for more and more years.

Conclusion

So, at the end of a year, what do I think of Glass?

First, I think that it truly is a photography community for photographers. It isn’t trying to be a broader social network that lets you share what music you’re listening to, or TV shows and movies you’re watching, or books you’ve finished, or temporary stories or images. There is totally a space for a network like that but it’s not Glass and I’m fine with it being a simpler and more direct kind of platform.

(Night Light by Christopher Parsons)

Second, it is a platform with active developers and a friendly community. Both of those things are pretty great. And the developers have a clear and opinionated sense of taste: they’re creating a beautiful application and associated service. There’s real value in the aesthetic for me.

Third, it’s not quite the place to showcase your work, today, if you are trying to semi-professionally market your photography. There are no albums or other ways of highlighting or collecting your images. Glass is much closer to the original version of Instagram in just presenting a feed of historical images instead of a contemporary service like Flickr or even Instagram. And…that’s actually a pretty great thing! That said, the roadmap includes commitments to enabling better highlighting/collecting of images. This will be increasingly important as more people upload more photographs to the service.

(Supervisory Assistance by Christopher Parsons)

Fourth, it’s still relatively cheap as compared to other paid offerings. It is less than half the cost of a Flickr Pro account, as just one example. And there are no ads for subscribers or for individuals who are browsing public profiles and associated portfolios.

(Distressed by Christopher Parsons)

So, in conclusion, I’d strongly suggest trying out Glass if you’re a committed and enthusiastic amateur. It’s not the same as Instagram or Instagram clones. That’s both part of the point and part of the magic of the platform that the Glass team is creating and incubating.


  1. Yes, you might be willing to pay money, dear reader, but you’re statistically deviant. In a good way! ↩︎
  2. Such as myself… ↩︎
  3. The developers are, also, very well aware of this issue. ↩︎
  4. Glass does not have ‘likes’ per se, but lets users click an ‘appreciation’ button. Appreciations are only ever sent to the photographer and are not accumulated numerically to be presented to either the public or the photographer who uploaded the photograph. ↩︎
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National Security Means What, Again?

There have been any number of concerns about Elon Musk’s behaviour, and especially in the recent weeks and months. This has led some commentators to warn that his purchase of Twitter may raise national security risks. Gill and Lehrich try to make this argument in their article, “Elon Musk Owning Twitter is A National Security Threat.” They give three reasons:

First, Musk is allegedly in communication with foreign actors – including senior officials in the Kremlin and Chinese Communist Party – who could use his acquisition of Twitter to undermine American national security.

Will Musk’s foreign investors have influence over Twitter’s content moderation policies? Will the Chinese exploit their significant leverage over Musk to demand he censor criticism of the CCP, or turn the dials up for posts that sow distrust in democracy?

Finally, it’s not just America’s information ecosystem that’s at stake, it’s also the private data of American citizens.

It’s worth noting that at no point do the authors provide a definition for ‘national security’, which causes the reader to have to guess what they likely mean. More broadly, in journalistic and opinion circle communities there is a curious–and increasingly common–conjoining of national security and information security. The authors themselves make this link in the kicker paragraph of their article, when they write

It is imperative that American leaders fully understand Musk’s motives, financing, and loyalties amidst his bid to acquire Twitter – especially given the high-stakes geopolitical reality we are living in now. The fate of American national security and our information ecosystem hang in the balance.1

Information security, generally, is focused on dangers which are associated with true or false information being disseminated across a population. It is distinguished from cyber security, and which is typically focused on the digital security protocols and practices that are designed to reduce technical computer vulnerabilities. Whereas the former focuses on a public’s mind the latter attends to how their digital and physical systems are hardened from being technically exploited.

Western governments have historically resisted authoritarian governments attempts to link the concepts of information security and cyber security. The reason is that authoritarian governments want to establish international principles and norms, whereby it becomes appropriate for governments to control the information which is made available to their publics under the guise of promoting ‘cyber security’. Democratic countries that emphasise the importance of intellectual freedom, freedom of religion, freedom of assembly, and other core rights have historically been opposed to promoting information security norms.

At the same time, misinformation and disinformation have become increasingly popular areas of study and commentary, especially following Donald Trump’s election as POTUS. And, in countries like the United States, Trump’s adoption of lies and misinformation was often cast as a national security issue: correct information should be communicated, and efforts to intentionally communicate false information should be blocked, prohibited, or prevented from massively circulating.

Obviously Trump’s language, actions, and behaviours were incredibly destabilising and abominable for an American president. And his presence on the world stage arguably emboldened many authoritarians around the world. But there is a real risk in using terms like ‘national security’ without definition, especially when the application of ‘national security’ starts to stray into the domain of what could be considered information security. Specifically, as everything becomes ‘national security’ it is possible for authoritarian governments to adopt the language of Western governments and intellectuals, and assert that they too are focused on ‘national security’ whereas, in fact, these authoritarian governments are using the term to justify their own censorious activities.

Now, does this mean that if we are more careful in the West about our use of language that authoritarian governments will become less censorious? No. But being more careful and thoughtful in our language, public argumentation, and positioning of our policy statements we may at least prevent those authoritarian governments from using our discourse as a justification for their own activities. We should, then, be careful and precise in what we say to avoid giving a fig leaf of cover to authoritarian activities.

And that will start by parties who use terms like ‘national security’ clearly defining what they mean, such that it is clear how national security is different from informational security. Unless, of course, authors and thinkers are in fact leaning into the conceptual apparatus of repressive governments in an effort to save democratic governance. For any author who thinks such a move is wise, however, I must admit that I harbour strong doubts of the efficacy or utility of such attempts.


  1. Emphasis not in original. ↩︎
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Can University Faculty Hold Platforms To Account?

Heidi Tworek has a good piece with the Centre for International Governance Innovation, where she questions whether there will be a sufficient number of faculty in Canada (and elsewhere) to make use of information that digital-first companies might be compelled to make available to researchers. The general argument goes that if companies must make information available to academics then these academics can study the information and, subsequently, hold companies to account and guide evidence-based policymaking.

Tworek’s argument focuses on two key things.

  1. First, there has been a decline in the tenured professoriate in Canada, with the effect that the adjunct faculty who are ‘filling in’ are busy teaching and really don’t have a chance to lead research.
  2. While a vanishingly small number of PhD holders obtain a tenure track role, a reasonable number may be going into the very digital-first companies that researchers needs data from to hold them accountable.

On this latter point, she writes:

If the companies have far more researchers than universities have, transparency regulations may not do as much to address the imbalance of knowledge as many expect.

I don’t think that hiring people with PhDs necessarily means that companies are addressing knowledge imbalances. Whatever is learned by these researchers tends to be sheltered within corporate walls and protected by NDAs. So those researchers going into companies may learn what’s going on but be unable (or unmotivated) to leverage what they know in order to inform policy discussions meant to hold companies to account.

To be clear, I really do agree with a lot in this article. However, I think it does have a few areas for further consideration.

First, more needs to be said about what, specifically, ’transparency’ encompasses and its relationships with data type, availability, etc. Transparency is a deeply contested concept and there are a lot of ways that the revelation of data basically creates a funhouse of mirrors effect, insofar as what researchers ‘see’ can be very distorted from the reality of what truly is.

Second, making data available isn’t just about whether universities have the professors to do the work but, really, whether the government and its regulators have the staff time as well. Professors are doing a lot of things whereas regulators can assign staff to just work the data, day in and day out. Focus matters.

Third, and related, I have to admit that I have pretty severe doubts about the ability of professors to seriously take up and make use of information from platforms, at scale and with policy impact, because it’s never going to be their full time jobs to do so. Professors are also going to be required to publish in books or journals, which means their outputs will be delayed and inaccessible to companies, government bureaucrats and regulators, and NGO staff. I’m sure academics will have lovely and insightful discussions…but they won’t happen fast enough, or in accessible places or in plain language, to generally affect policy debates.

So, what might need to be added to start fleshing out how universities are organised to make use of data released by companies and have policy impacts in research outputs?

First, universities in Canada would need to get truly serious about creating a ’researcher class’ to analyse corporate reporting. This would involve prioritising the hiring of research associates and senior research associates who have few or no teaching responsibilities.1

Second, universities would need to work to create centres such as the Citizen Lab, or related groups.2 These don’t need to be organisations which try and cover the waterfront of all digital issues. They could, instead, be more focused to reduce the number of staff or fellows that are needed to fulfil the organisation’s mandate. Any and all centres of this type would see a small handful of people with PhDs (who largely lack teaching responsibilities) guide multidisciplinary teams of staff. Those same staff members would not typically need a a PhD. They would need to be nimble enough to move quickly while using a peer-review lite process to validate findings, but not see journal or book outputs as their primacy currency for promotion or hiring.

Third, the centres would need a core group of long-term staffers. This core body of long-term researchers is needed to develop policy expertise that graduate students just don’t possess or develop in their short tenure in the university. Moreover, these same long-term researchers can then train graduate student fellows of the centres in question, with the effect of slowly building a cadre of researchers who are equipped to critically assess digital-first companies.

Fourth, the staff at research centres needs to be paid well and properly. They cannot be regarded as ‘graduate student plus’ employees but as specialists who will be of interest to government and corporations. This means that the university will need to pay competitive wages in order to secure the staff needed to fulfil centre mandates.

Basically if universities are to be successful in holding big data companies to account they’ll need to incubate quasi-NGOs and let them loose under the university’s auspice. It is, however, worth asking whether this should be the goal of the university in the first place: should society be outsourcing a large amount of the ‘transparency research’ that is designed to have policy impact or guide evidence-based policy making to academics, or should we instead bolster the capacities of government departments and regulatory agencies to undertake these activities

Put differently, and in context with Tworek’s argument: I think that assuming that PhDs holders working as faculty in universities are the solution to analysing data released by corporations can only hold if you happen to (a) hold or aspire to hold a PhD; (b) possesses or aspire to possess a research-focused tenure track job.

I don’t think that either (a) or (b) should guide the majority of the way forward in developing policy proposals as they pertain to holding corporations to account.

Do faculty have a role in holding companies such as Google, Facebook, Amazon, Apple, or Netflix to account? You bet. But if the university, and university researchers, are going to seriously get involved in using data released by companies to hold them to account and have policy impact, then I think we need dedicated and focused researchers. Faculty who are torn between teaching, writing and publishing in inaccessible locations using baroque theoretical lenses, pursuing funding opportunities and undertaking large amounts of department service and performing graduate student supervision are just not going to be sufficient to address the task at hand.


  1. In the interests of disclosure, I currently hold one of these roles. ↩︎
  2. Again in the interests of disclosure, this is the kind of place I currently work at. ↩︎
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Digital Currency Standards Heat Up

There is an ongoing debate as to which central banks will launch digital currencies, by which date, and how currencies will be interoperable with one another. Simon Sharwood, writing for The Register, is reporting that China’s Digital Yuan is taking big steps to answering many of those questions:

According to an account of the meeting in state-controlled media, Fan said standardization across payment systems will be needed to ensure the success of the Digital Yuan.

The kind of standardization he envisioned is interoperability between existing payment systems – whether they use QR codes, NFC or Bluetooth.

That’s an offer AliPay and WeChat Pay can’t refuse, unless they want Beijing to flex its regulatory muscles and compel them to do it.

With millions of payment terminals outside China already set up for AliPay and WeChat Pay, and the prospect of the Digital Yuan being accepted in the very same devices, Beijing has the beginnings of a global presence for its digital currency.

When I walk around my community I very regularly see options to use AliPay or WeChat Pay, and see many people using these options. The prospect that the Chinese government might be able to take advantage of existing payment structures to also use a government-associated digital fiat currency would be a remarkable manoeuvre that could theoretically occur quite quickly. I suspect that when/if some Western politicians catch wind of this they will respond quickly and bombastically.

Other governments’ central banks should, ideally, be well underway in developing the standards for their own digital fiat currencies. These standards should be put into practice in a meaningful way to assess their strengths and correct their deficiencies. Governments that are not well underway in launching such digital currencies are running the risk of seeing some of their population move away from domestically-controlled currencies, or basket currencies where the state determines what composes the basket, to currencies managed by foreign governments. This would represent a significant loss of policy capacity and, arguably, economic sovereignty for at least some states.

Why might some members of their population shift over to, say, the Digital Yuan? In the West this might occur when individuals are travelling abroad, where WeChat Pay and AliPay infrastructure is often more usable and more secure than credit card infrastructures. After using these for a while the same individuals may continuing to use those payment methods for ease and low cost when they return home. In less developed parts of the world, where AliPay and WeChat Pay are already becoming dominant, it could occur as members of the population continue their shift to digital transactions and away from currencies controlled or influenced by their governments. The effect would be, potentially, to provide a level of influence to the Chinese government while potentially exposing sensitive macro-economic consumer habits that could be helpful in developing Chinese economic, industrial, or foreign policy.

Western government responses might be to bar the use of the Digital Yuan in their countries but this could be challenging should it rely on common standards with AliPay and WeChat Pay. Could a ban surgically target the Digital Yuan or, instead, would it need to target all payment terminals using the same standard and, thus, catch AliPay and WeChat Pay as collateral damage? What if a broader set of states all adopt common standards, which happen to align with the Digital Yuan, and share infrastructure: just how many foreign and corporate currencies could be disabled without causing a major economic or diplomatic incident? To what extent would such a ban create a globally bifurcated (trifurcated? quadfurcated?) digital payment environment?

Though some governments might regard this kind of ‘burn them all’ approach as desirable there would be an underlying question of whether such an effect would be reasonable and proportionate. We don’t ban WeChat in the West, as an example, in part due to such an action being manifestly disproportionate to risks associated with the communications platform. It is hard to imagine how banning the Digital Yuan, along with WeChat Pay or AliPay or other currencies using the same standards, might not be similarly disproportionate where such a decision would detrimentally affect hundreds of thousands, or millions, of people and businesses that already use these payment systems or standards. It will be fascinating to see how Western central banks move forward to address the rise of digital fiat currencies and, also, how their efforts intersect with the demands and efforts of Western politicians that regularly advocate for anti-China policies and laws.