from Net Politics and Digital and Cyberspace Policy Program

Cyber Week in Review: December 15, 2017

A coin representing the bitcoin cryptocurrency is seen on computer circuit boards in this illustration picture, October 26, 2017. Dado Ruvic/Reuters

This week: governments make money from bitcoin, status quo at the WTO, Google sort of returns to China, and absence of Russian meddling in the Brexit vote. 

December 15, 2017

A coin representing the bitcoin cryptocurrency is seen on computer circuit boards in this illustration picture, October 26, 2017. Dado Ruvic/Reuters
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Here is a quick round-up of this week’s technology headlines and related stories you may have missed:

1. Of bitcoins and bubbles. The surging price of bitcoin is giving an unexpected boost to governments that have seized caches of the cryptocurrency in the course of criminal investigations. Back in May, Bulgarian law enforcement busted an anti-corruption ring that resulted in the seizure of over 200,000 bitcoin. At the time, the bitcoin was worth US$500 million. As of last week's surge in the valuation of bitcoin, that same amount is now worth USD$3 billion, or 18 percent of the country's entire national debt. The Bulgarian ministry of the interior, which oversees law enforcement in the country, has declined to say what it plans to do with its bitcoin holdings. In the United States, the federal government obtained authorization from a federal judge in Utah to sell bitcoin seized during the bust of a counterfeit pharmaceutical ring with a current valuation of $9.4 million. The recent surge in bitcoin's price prompted the Securities and Exchange Commission to issue guidelines to investors, which probably made bitcoin's creator Satoshi Nakamoto cry. If you're looking for something bitcoin-related to read over the weekend, check out this primer

2. Status quo at the WTO. The World Trade Organization (WTO) failed to agree to new rules that would govern electronic commerce during a ministerial meeting in Argentina this week. Some member states and industry groups have sought a greater role for the WTO in regulating e-commerce, especially as some countries implement data localization laws and other measures that could hamper the free flow of data and services on the internet. Over the last decade, bilateral and regional trade treaties, including the Trans-Pacific Partnership, have included e-commerce chapters to ban internet-related trade barriers. The WTO, however, has not updated its e-commerce rules since 1998 when it introduced a moratorium on applying customs duties to electronic transmissions. As a result of the failed talks, a group of seventy WTO members, including the European Union, Japan, Canada, Brazil, South Korea, and Russia, have agreed to meet in the first quarter of 2018 to start drafting their own e-commerce trade rules, sidestepping the formal WTO negotiation process. 

3. Nothingburgers. With concern over Russian disinformation and foreign interference in elections at an all-time high, Facebook and Twitter are cooperating with a United Kingdom probe into whether Russia spread misinformation in the lead up to the Brexit vote. So far, the revelations are underwhelming. Although Facebook confirmed last month that Russian agents used the platform to disseminate disinformation, this week the company said that it only found three Russian-backed ads in the lead up to the Brexit. The total cost of these ads? Less than $1. So far, Facebook appears to have limited its inquiry to paid advertisements, which means Russian entities could have used other means of influencing the vote. Still, Facebook has been adamant that Russia’s role in Brexit was minimal and others seem to agree. “The real source of misinformation about the Brexit debate was homegrown,” said Philip Howard, a professor of internet studies at Oxford University and director of the Oxford Internet Institute.

4. 欢迎谷歌!Google returned to China this week by opening a research center devoted to artificial intelligence in Beijing, marking an end to Google absence from the Chinese market. Google left China in 2010 in response to state-sponsored hacking and government censorship. The decision, while principled and admirable, excluded Google from China’s massive internet boom. In recent years, Google executives have begun testing that waters for a return to China and have identified China’s quickly developing AI industry as a promising entry point. However, it's unlikely to be easy. Just this week, the Financial Times reported that Chinese authorities are restricting foreign companies from testing self-driving cars on Chinese streets because of concerns over spying. With China counting on capturing a strategic advantage in AI technology, Google will likely find itself once again at odds with the Chinese government.

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