Welcome to the Hill

Twitter. Facebook. Google. These platforms drive the many interactions that, whether garnering research or providing social outlets, we have on a daily basis. They exert massive amounts of influence on our lives. Whether it’s a video on Facebook, a picture on Twitter, or a story from Google, these platforms grab our attention and spark discussion like nothing ever has before. While convenience and entertainment are the commodities we get from these platforms, the tradeoff is privacy, and lawmakers are now starting to talk about it.

What happened on the hill?

Due to the Russian interference in the 2016 election, lawmakers wanted to gain clarity on how much these companies knew about the interference on their platforms as well as how they are going to take steps in the future to prevent it.  On September 5th, top executives from Twitter, Facebook, and Google were invited to speak with the Senate Intelligence Committee.  After that meeting, Twitter specifically had a meeting with the House Energy and Commerce Committee about concerns over privacy, influence on elections by foreign powers, and disinformation.

On the day of the hearings, Jack Dorsey, the CEO of Twitter, and Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook, made their way to the meeting. Executives from Google did not attend, leaving an empty seat at the table and sending an adverse message to lawmakers.

As the conversations and questioning began that day with the Senate Intelligence Committee, it was clear the group was approaching this inquiry in an affable way. The major takeaway from the meeting was how Twitter and Facebook were already consciously aware of their shortcomings on major privacy issues. The two major platforms expressed their willingness to work with lawmakers on the issues of disinformation and the effects of foreign influence.

The House meeting had a particularly contrasting tone. Dorsey was now on his own in front of a committee that needed answers. Lawmakers were quick to question the Twitter CEO about a topic that is all too familiar: disinformation and bias. Many of the claims made revolved around platforms, such as Twitter, having strategic biases that would display information on their sites that leaned toward one side of the isle. Committee Chairman Greg Walden, a Republican of Oregon, asked Dorsey on how certain algorithms could have a bias for censoring conservative views on the platform. This viewpoint was expressed by President Trump when he tweeted about conservative views being “shadow banned” on Twitter. Shadow banning hides the user’s comments from other users without the individual knowing that his or her comment has been concealed. This is used in order to silence those perpetuating hate speech without having to ban them.

Just days after this hearing, Twitter made a seemingly decisive stand on hate speech in line with the other tech platforms had done previously. Alex Jones, the alt-right personality and host of “Info Wars” was permanently banned from Twitter after his violation of the abusive behavior policy. Dorsey was ridiculed about his lack of a move to ban Jones after many of the other tech giants, including Facebook, Apple, and Youtube, removed his content in early August. Dorsey stood by the company policy and said the posts at the time were in line with the statutes in place. With this banning of Jones from Twitter, lawmakers could take it as efforts on behalf of Twitter, as well as other tech giants, to try and silence conservative views from their platforms.

Why does this matter?

Recently public perception of social media and tech companies has drastically shifted. With recent scandals like Facebook’s with Cambridge Analytica and the privacy regulations of the GDPR, the climate and perception of social media and its role in the lives of Americans has quickly shifted. The automatic response to the unrest and eeriness of the American people is the enactment of policy at the federal level, hence, where we stand today.

What is monumental about these discussions is how it affects what has been known as the “golden law of the internet”. Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act was passed in 1996. This act of legislation says that, “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider”. What this boils down to is that Twitter, Facebook, and Google are not responsible for what is posted on their sites, and aren’t obligated to regulate any user’s free speech. This section of the act is the most important tool for protecting free speech and innovation on the internet, but with that comes the adverse effects that we have been seeing.

With new legislation, a ripple effect may take place, pushing consumers, businesses, and shareholders in all new directions. Facebook and Twitter seem to be on board with these changing times, but with the absence of Google, it seems they might have a different sentiment. Could they have been a no show in order to send a message to lawmakers that they are not behind the regulation of their platform? Could this move have harsher restrictions on Google when it comes time for policy to be drafted and passed? Only time will tell on the stance that Google has in this ongoing discussion and how their actions will ultimately affect them.

As for consumers, these talks could completely change the user experience we have become accustomed to. Falling in line with potential legislation guidelines could bring some new etiquette rules to the platform, limiting the many speech liberties that consumers had in the past. This move could potentially hinder the growth of these platforms, and maybe even shrink the massive user bases the platforms have garnered. Will this legislation dissuade consumers from using any sort of app/platform throughout the social media industry? It will be fascinating to see how consumers react, especially those that make a living off of their media presence, as well as consumers that have already unified social media as a part of daily life.

Other stakeholders may be affected by this move as well. These partnerships in legislation between the government and the social platforms could affect the unrestricted growth that the tech giants have benefitted off of for so long, ultimately shrinking or stunting the returns stakeholders have come to expect. This legislation could have massive impacts on future startup tech firms as well, consequently thwarting the potential quantum leap in prices when these startups decide to go public.

While Twitter and Facebook expressed their sentiments about being interested in talking about forming legislation around social media privacy, no one truly knows how invasive this policy will be, or how it will affect the consumer use. What we know going forward is that talks and policy will be changing day by day and who knows if a search, post, or tweet could drastically change the course of social media forever.

Resources:

{1} https://www.nytimes.com/2018/09/05/technology/facebook-twitter-congress.html?rref=collection%2Fsectioncollection%2Ftechnology&action=click&contentCollection=technology&region=stream&module=stream_unit&version=latest&contentPlacement=8&pgtype=sectionfront

{2} https://www.theguardian.com/technology/live/2018/sep/05/facebook-sheryl-sandberg-twitter-congress-russia

{3} http://time.com/5387560/senate-intelligence-hearing-facebook-twitter/

{4} https://www.cnbc.com/2018/07/26/trump-accuses-twitter-of-silencing-republicans-and-calls-it-discrimin.html

{5} https://www.nytimes.com/2018/09/06/technology/twitter-alex-jones-infowars.html?action=click&contentCollection=technology&region=rank&module=package&version=highlights&contentPlacement=1&pgtype=sectionfront

 

China’s Import Ban Greatly Impacts America’s Recycling Market

Recycling has been a growing phenomenon ever since environmentalists persuaded the government to implement more sustainable means when dealing with household waste. Growing up in a suburb of Philadelphia, my elementary school teachers frequently instructed us on the proper ways to recycle, whether that was looking at the bottom of various recyclables like milk or egg cartons to see whether they had the proper number in the “recycle logo” that indicated if we should or not should place them in the blue recycling bins.

Back then, there was more of a stress on the “three-bin system” that separated trash, recyclables, and compost. We learned of the three R’s and sang in unison the catchy phrase, “reduce, reuse, recycle.” Although many people and businesses are becoming more environmentally friendly, it seems senseless to ask where exactly all of our recyclables end up.

Surprisingly, for years, merchants in China have been buying American recyclables to sift through the heaping pounds of trash to collect scrap paper and cardboard for packaging purposes. Thus, all of the trash Americans put in their blue bins on their curbs are being compressed into 1-ton bales and sold to other countries overseas.

Going against this “three-bin system”, America has recently been trying to place as much recyclables into one bin and then shipping the waste to China. The responsibility then falls onto China to sort out the waste. This service cultivated “third world-like sorting operations,” and thousands of poor, rural migrants were employed to filter through the enormous piles of waste to recover the usable materials and throw away the rest.

Meg 2- 07.12.18

Once the packing boxes are repurposed, they are then shipped back to the United States filled with Chinese-manufactured goods. China benefited greatly from business with America over the years because it is much cheaper to make cardboard or plastic using recycled material rather than making it from scratch.

To what extent does China impose on the importation of America’s recyclables? While the U.S. exports 30% of all recycled material, half of that 30% goes to China. According to the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries Inc., China imported 17 million tons for about $5.5 billion, in 2016. Although many regions of the U.S. export varying amounts to China, western states make up a large portion of China’s market in the exportation of recycled waste.

This repetitive cycle and synergistic relationship between China and the U.S. has been going on for years. Thus, it came as a shock to the U.S. in July of 2017 when Beijing notified the WTO of their plan to stop importing of “foreign garbage.” The ban would commence at the beginning of 2018.

The main reason for this regulation was that “large amounts of dirty wastes or even hazardous wastes [were being] mixed in [with] the solid waste that [could] be used as raw materials.” Ultimately, China has been trying to reduce their pollution rates by  implementing programs that will clean up their environment. The importing of America’s waste was causing a negative impact on China’s air with the large amounts of hazardous waste incorporated with the recyclable material.

Before the ban, most of the waste China imported was being thrown away in landfills. Thus, many of the recyclables that America believed were being reused were ultimately thrown away by China. Although many people have been recycling for years now, there is still a misconception as to what trash can be recycled and what cannot. Some materials that are found in recycling bins but should not be placed in them include: plastic grocery bags, grease-stained pizza boxes, and wax-coated frozen-food packages.

Speculations emerged saying China implemented this ban because Beijing “hopes to tap into its own growing consumer base as the foundation of its recycled materials industry.” A way for China to not experience the same environmental hazards when sifting through America’s waste is by implementing a rigorous program of inspecting piles of waste and sifting out the contaminated trash, food waste, or even materials with moisture in reject bales.

America has been highly dependent on China’s business in buying their “unwanted” materials. However, most Americans today have been unaware of these large exchanges with China throughout the years.

Consequentially, China’s import ban on America’s waste has caused the U.S. to frantically find a new market to purchase the recyclables. In the meantime, however, a large portion of the waste are being thrown away into landfills. This operation is the exact opposite of what recycling is supposed to do for the environment. It is astounding to know that in all of these years of recycling that China, not America, was the country reusing material for manufacturing. I assumed, while growing up, that America used their own facilities to operate on repurposing waste in hopes of being a more sustainable society. Sadly, I was wrong.

It is not uncommon for many organizations to have their products manufactured in China and then shipped back to America. One notable company is Hallmark, a manufacturer of greeting cards, based in Kansas City. Due to an increase in competition from the Internet, Hallmark has been “outsourcing its workforce overseas for the past decade.”

For any special occasions, Hallmark offers greeting cards that are made from 100% recycled material. These cards are much cheaper compared to other Hallmark cards. If one were to look at the back of these eco-friendly cards, one would most likely see the phrase: “Made in China.” It would not surprise me that Hallmark has been manufacturing many of their products abroad because of China’s large operations with repurposing cardboard and plastics. It will be interesting to see if China’s ban on the importation of America’s recyclables will have any impact on Hallmark.

America, a modernized country that is highly innovative in technology, has a societal duty to protect the environment. Therefore, the United States will have to put in more energy and attention to this issue of recycling in finding safer and cleaner ways of reusing material other than relying on countries overseas. Because the U.S. government has been in charge of this trade with China, I speculate that the government will try to find the easiest and cheapest way in disposing of our recyclables. I am certain that most Americans are unaware of these operations with China. Thus, I hope more people will learn about what really happens to their waste and support the need for the U.S. to actually recycle instead of throwing away the recyclables in landfills or exporting the remains to other countries.

 

Sources:

https://www.usnews.com/news/national-news/articles/2018-03-27/china-doesnt-want-your-trash

https://www.pitch.com/news/article/20601279/hallmark-cares-enough-to-send-the-very-best-jobs-to-china

https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/recycling-you-may-be-doing-it-wrong-180951192/

 

A Nation of Drone Regulation?

Over the course of American history, there have been a countless number of shifts in the role of regulatory bodies and how they function. The most recent change occurred when there was a power shift on January 20th, 2017 – the date of the 45th Presidential Inauguration. This, of course, marked a shift in power in the scope of partisan politics, but it also marked the beginning of an administration determined to make sweeping overhauls. However, in the case of the federal government creating a plan of action towards the future of drone regulations, there is no clear path. It is evident that there is no clear cut solution towards how to implement drone policy in conjunction with the Federal Aviation Administration.

The sales (and subsequent use) of drones in a recreational sense was something that really took off in the past decade. Before the turn of the century, drones were typically the subject of ongoing developmental projects by military personnel of countries across the globe. However, the use of the drones as a recreational gadget just started to grow amongst consumers over the past few years. In fact, sales were estimated to have surpassed one million units during the 2015 fiscal year. As these machines quickly became such an attractive item for consumers to play around with, it became clear that the FAA was not ready for the regulatory issues that came with personal drone usage.

Although the FAA tried to be proactive towards dealing with these issues by setting broad rules and regulations, the requirements that are currently in place are seen as too broad by many. There have also been a great deal of issues that continue to arise with drones being used amongst unlicensed hobbyists. Incidents over the past few years have sparked major debates amongst regulatory bodies and common citizens alike. From August of 2015 to January of 2016 alone, the FAA reported that there were nearly 600 incidents involving drones flying too close to airplanes and airports. There have been concerns of drone usage creating danger and havoc and all types of areas. Obviously, the thing to consider in the scope of this statistic is just how specific this type of incident is. Though this statistic only measures how many cases there were involving commercial air, there were still nearly six-hundred occurrences over a six month period. The issue with drones potentially interfering with commercial aircrafts as well as restricted airspaces is one that should not be taken lightly. However, this is only one of the many issues that is being actively discussed when talking about the regulation of personal drone usage – and regulators in various roles are taking note.

As the drone industry is anticipated to grow into an industry that millions of United States citizens are involved in, this leads the conversation to two questions: Is the federal government going to protect this industry and allow expansion in order to help the sustained success of this industry? If so, what measures will be taken by the FAA and the federal government in terms of regulating airspace and licensing drone operators? This is an issue that the Trump administration has recently began to tackle head on during his first year in office, as President Trump signed a memo which instructed the Department of Transportation to devise a plan to make it easy to fly a drone for commercial use in US airspace. Clearly, the specification of commercial use is incredibly important to recognize, but this is a critical step forward towards the protection of prevalent drone usage in the United States.

The conversation now moves to the FAA and how they will react. They have built a very strong framework that outlines every regulation dealing with commercial airlines, but the influx of rules and modifications to existing regulations in order to address the new shared airspace could lead to huge blowback from the airline industry. It is clear and simple – the airline industry wants no part in a shared airspace with drone users – especially when the requirements to operate a drone are very relaxed (as it stands.) There would need to be a tremendous overhaul to how the FAA regulates personal and commercial drone usage in order to get a general framework agreed upon.

After all, there are large pockets of people who are opposed to any drone usage at all. Obviously, most see the merits of their use for search and rescue missions, but there are a significant amount of people concerned about safety, personal privacy, and general irritations that could come with a country that has drones delivering packages to front doors. Drone usage and industry protection are certainly favored by the current administration, but there are clear hurdles to overcome in order for this industry to be sustainable in the long run. There are no clear paths as to where exactly this industry is heading, but the drone industry certainly holds vast potential in being a major power for the future.

 

— Matthew Gary