A weekly summary of what I've found interesting at the intersection of economics, finance and technology.
I spoke to Malaysia’s BFM radio on the country’s upcoming 2021 budget and the opportunity for public investment in the green economy. You can listen to the segment here: Listen
Never-ending story: social media and politics—Emblematic of how profoundly interlinked politics and social media now are, tensions are running high, especially in the US ahead of the presidential elections. As a result, it should be beyond argument that the social media platforms’ behaviour merits careful, third-party monitoring. Yet, Facebook threatened a project aiming to do just that, a political ad observatory run by New York University. The way the project collected data does have issues (it scraped private data, which is—rightly—against Facebook’s Terms of Service), as highlighted by Benedict Evans. But, instead of using blunt, cookie-cutter tools like cease and desist orders, Facebook missed another opportunity to acknowledge the issues with its platform and to cooperate on a better solution. Twitter, on the other hand, was embroiled in a fiasco whereby an independent security researcher claimed to have accessed Donald Trump’s account by guessing the password (“maga2020!”). Twitter and the White House refute this, and there seem to be some gaps in the story, but either way it is not likely to increase confidence in what we see and hear on the web.
Bitcoin is alive—Internet payments household name PayPal will allow its users to top up their online wallets with a number of cryptocurrencies. By extension, merchants can also be paid with them, although these payments will be in old-fashioned fiat currency. It’s still not clear what economic purpose this serves, especially given that PayPal will charge a hefty fee, and you lose all the theoretical advantages of crypto by using it this way (decentralisation, anonymity etc.) What it has done however is revive the debate between crypto believers and non-believers…
GDPR pushed websites to use more privacy-friendly technologies, but also cemented larger players’ dominance— So this is good in the sense that privacy standards went up, and were exported to countries outside the EU. On the other hand it’s bad because it has led to market concentration, by cementing the monopoly position of players like Google. Perhaps this is an inevitable outcome though, and ad-tech could end up being a natural monopoly because of the cost of complying with regulation. Of course, traditional natural monopolies also are regulated for the public good, worth taking note of that here. Read (VoxEU)
More and more US police departments have access to smartphone hacking devices, and they like using it—This is not surprising, but again illustrates well how overreach is inevitable, and how existing laws and regulations are ill-suited to these situations. Read (Wired)
A facial-recognition surveillance startup used its own products to harass female employees—The regularity with which these stories pop up says a lot about a) the culture in the tech industry, b) the potential for abuse when these technologies become more widely implemented. See also laws and regulations above… Read (Vice)
Foxconn’s promised ‘yuuuge’ factory in Wisconsin will probably never materialise—The commitment was touted by Trump as a great success for bringing manufacturing back to America, it now seems it all was a mirage. Read (The Verge)
493 Covid-related iOS apps across 98 countries analysed and categorised—Brilliant resource compiled by Jonathan Albright. An important contribution, as he puts it “to show that Covid-19 marks a global shift in the way local, regional, and national authorities distribute and collect data about their citizens during large-scale crises. And we have no idea when the policies will be changed—and they will—to facilitate other uses.” Big implications for the future, goes without saying. Read (Medium)
Great profile of Signal creator Moxie Marlinspike—All around great read, but in particular the historical overview of the fight around encryption, including the infamous Clipper chips, and cypherpunks printing encryption keys on their t-shirts to challenge an export ban. I lived through all of these but somehow forgot about them. It puts the current attempts to mandate backdoors etc. into perspective. Read (The New Yorker)
That's it for this week's edition. As always, thanks for reading and please forward this to anyone who you think might be interested, it would be much appreciated.