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Citizen Tech Monthly

December 2021 Global Tech Policy Briefing

December's 'Citizen Tech' covers new labor rights for digital workers in Europe, new 5G cybersecurity guidance from the NSA / CISA, and updates on Big Tech, Build Back Better, Roam Like at Home, and more.

Happy holidays and welcome back to Citizen Tech, InformationWeek’s monthly policy roundup. For this final report of 2021, we’re looking at the Biden administration’s triumphs, failures, and promises, as well as cybersecurity in the US and abroad, digital working conditions in Europe, and more.

'Build Back Better' Hits a Wall

President Biden’s vaunted Build Back Better infrastructure bill failed to clear the Senate last week, when Joe Manchin (D-WV) announced that he wouldn’t vote for it.

The plan had (or has, if you believe that a revised version will eventually meet Senator Manchin’s approval) a number of important tech and digital implications. One, for instance, was the promise of net-zero carbon emissions by the federal government by 2050, an ambitious project that hinges on access to a number of developing technologies, like zero-emission cars and 14MW solar facilities, according to a White House fact sheet.

There’s a bit of a catch, though. The net-zero-by-2050 announcement came in the form of an executive order, but an executive order from December 8, 11 days before Build Back Better failed.

“Together,” the statement reads, “the President’s … Build Back Better Act will provide agencies with the funding necessary to achieve the goals of the executive order.”

Whoops.

Big Tech Can Be a Threat…

The Build Back Better Plan had more subtle implications for the tech sector as well, notably in its intention to bring the US in line with the international minimum corporate tax rate, as reported by POLITICO. Big American tech companies like Amazon and Microsoft snarled at what they saw as a threat to their bottom line: a spokesman from the Information Technology Industry Council, which represents the big names in Big Tech, told POLITICO that the corporate tax proposal would “hamper the overall competitiveness of globally-engaged US employers.”

Congressional Democrats have entered the lists on the side of the president, with hearings this month in both the House and Senate about increased regulation of the internet and major companies like Facebook. On December 9, Congressman Frank Pallone (D-NJ) told the Committee on Energy and Commerce that “companies are clearly not going to change on their own” to ensure transparency, protect whistleblowers, keep harmful content from children, and detail their dealings with China.

“Congress must act […to] target different parts of the social media ecosystem to make platforms safer for users."

...But Also a Partner

On a very different note, Secretary of Homeland Security (DHS) Alejandro Mayorkas, National Cyber Director Chris Inglis, Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) Director Jen Easterly, and others went to San Francisco on December 7 to meet senior representatives from AT&T, Cisco, Google, Microsoft, VMware, and other tech giants. The mission: to discuss private-public cooperation in the face of increased cyber attacks.

“Cybersecurity threats impact individuals, communities, and organizations of all sizes. Increasing nationwide cybersecurity resilience is a top priority for DHS and the Biden-Harris Administration,” said Mayorkas.  “We are taking proactive steps to elevate our operational cooperation with the private sector to new heights, prioritizing our shared goal of defending a secure digital future.”

The meeting suggested or established new avenues for collaboration, as well as metrics for success. Overall it seemed an optimistic departure from the Biden administration’s wrangling with tech companies in other areas.

NSA, CISA Publish New 5G Cybersecurity Guidance

CISA and the National Security Administration (NSA), in the meantime, offered a second revision to their 5G cybersecurity guidance on December 2.

According to CISA’s statement, “Devices and services connected through 5G networks transmit, use, and store an exponentially increasing amount of data. This third installment of the Security Guidance for 5G Cloud Infrastructures four-part series explains how to protect sensitive data from unauthorized access.”

The new guidelines run on zero-trust principles and reflect the White House’s ongoing concern with national cybersecurity.

(Other governments are keeping apace, and with good reason: on the 6th of the month, Canada’s Communications Security’s Establishment noted a 151 percent spike in ransomware attacks globally in 2021 over 2020, with 235 such attacks on Canadian critical infrastructure, Al Jazeera reported.)

Europe to Extend Labor Rights to Digital Work

On December 9, the European Commission proposed a new set of measures to ensure labor rights for people working on digital platforms. The proposal will focus on transparency, enforcement, traceability, and the algorithmic management of what it calls, in splendid Eurocratese, “digital labour platforms.” (This refers to 100 percent online jobs, and specifically excludes ridesharing, care work, and similar sectors.)

The number of EU citizens working for digital platforms has grown 500 percent since 2016, reaching 28 million, and will likely hit 43 million by 2025. Of the current 28 million, 59 percent work with clients or colleagues in another country. The sector is worth about 14 billion euro.

The real question behind the proposal is a familiar one: who counts as an employee, and who as an independent contractor? The proposal proposes a framework, so the standard is not yet clear. But it does demand “rules on transparency, the right to information, probationary periods, parallel employment, minimum predictability of work and measures for on-demand contracts,” as well as hours worked, work-life balance (e.g. maternity leave), occupational safety, and temporary work.

The proposal also includes language on artificial intelligence (AI), specifically the risks, for workers, of unaccountability and discrimination by AI systems.

Executive Vice-President for A Europe Fit for the Digital Age, Margrethe Vestager, said: “Our proposal for a Directive will help false self-employed working for platforms to correctly determine their employment status and enjoy all the social rights that come with that. Genuine self-employed on platforms will be protected through enhanced legal certainty on their status and there will be new safeguards against the pitfalls of algorithmic management. This is an important step towards a more social digital economy.”

Roaming the Continent Another 10 Years

Moving from Brussels to Strasbourg, the European Parliament announced on December 9 that the 2017 “Roam Like at Home” scheme, which ended roaming surcharges on mobile phone calls within the boundaries of the EU, would be extended another 10 years.

Roaming charges and intra-EU charges are not the same, as the EP press release explains. MEPs did not succeed in ending fees on intra-EU phone calls, although they capped that fee at 19 cents per minute and prohibited practices that discourage consumers from roaming (like switching them to 4G to 3G connections).

Wholesale roaming charges, paid between service providers, will be capped at 2 euro per GB, to be reduced to 1 euro by 2027.

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