Welcome to Friday, where Russia says it doesn't want war, Honduras has its first woman president and Apple is back on top. We also look at how the Italian Mafia has expanded its business into renewables and cybercrime.
The metaverse will make all that's bad with the internet worse
The change of Facebook's name to Meta is a hint to the general public of where social media and digital sovereignty risks taking us in a future "virtual" world, writes Raphaël Suire in French daily Les Echos.
The first bricks of the internet emerged in post-World War II California at the crossroads of a double ideology: military and libertarian, based on the virtues of decentralization. It was all about inventing a network infrastructure that was resilient to targeted attacks. It also allowed for individuals to be emancipated through a new set of capabilities, including in communication, interaction and learning, facilitated through a microcomputer.
The central authority — a state or a server that overly centralized information and computing capacities — are absent from this decentralized architecture. It guarantees individual freedom, freedom of creation and freedom of expression on the internet. The networking of individuals can also produce new collective dynamics. It is still this framework and these principles that underlie the production and consumption of popular services that the vast majority of us use.
However, for the last 15 years or so and with the advent of Web2, the digitization of social dynamics and their commoditization have made large social media platforms far less healthy. In a way, they are undermining the founding mission by drastically re-centralizing access and content.
Obviously, these companies provide many services to users: e-commerce, ad infinitum, ever more efficient services to find what we are looking for — and even what we are not looking for —, and entertainment to the point of saturation. But above all, they are increasingly watertight ecosystems, very widely monetizing personal data and stealing our attention in a way that makes us very dependent on these major players. And then, the announcement of Facebook and its metaverse. In no way should we be happy about this despite the promises of economic growth, investment and massive recruitment.
What has led the big digital service providers to hegemonic positions is largely due to their singular business model. It is often based on free access and its counterpart is an organization of exchanges that prioritizes intermediation and the platform. The network effects that are then produced are powerful attractors that reinforce any acquired position to the detriment of newcomers. Consumers lose freedom of choice between sites but gain a depth of content on these platforms.
However, all users today have preferences that can still be expressed through various sites. So, we don't (yet) connect virtually via the same platform we use to buy books and we don't look for a job where we entertain ourselves. Not yet. With the metaverse, it will be about connecting to an overlay that comes on top of the services and platforms we are used to. In this sense, we are talking about a meta-platform model, a platform of platforms where all interactions — love, trade, food, professional, educational, etc — could be aggregated in one place.
On the side of the private players, the battle rages for the spot of "winner takes all". Facebook is clearly a leader with the Meta rebranding, but Google, Amazon, Microsoft and Apple, to name a few, all have similar projects. As there is little chance that the avatars of metaverses will be interoperable or transportable, then as for the smartphone, users will evolve in one and only one universe: the one with the strongest network effect. Let's remember that this aggregation of behaviors, which remains unprecedented, comes with the promise of a formidable capture of personal data, including our most intimate information.
So is this a problem? In terms of digital sovereignty, the stakes are high. In terms of individual freedom, it is unprecedented if tomorrow a metaverse becomes dominant. In terms of the authority of the public and the state, it is a profound reimagining of this role, since monetary exchanges, education and work relations could be organized outside of official institutions. This hyper-centralization of exchanges is therefore the antithesis of the utopias of the internet pioneers, even if it corresponds in every way to libertarian principles: the disappearance of the state.
What are the alternatives? At this stage, we see two. First, we must urgently evaluate the stakes at play even if, unfortunately, no candidate in the upcoming French election seems to grasp or even understand what they are about. We must plead for the opening of these meta platforms. Now more than ever, the metaverse must be an open and transparent world, in its code and in its algorithm. It is therefore urgent that competition law moves in this direction.
Secondly, we must call for a re-decentralization of the web as advocated by one of the founding fathers, Tim Berners Lee, with his d-web initiative. A web3 is still possible, based on blockchain, cryptomarkets, NFTs and peer-to-peer exchanges. The initiatives are still fragmented and difficult to access for the general public. Nevertheless, this is an area we need to prioritize in order to guarantee sovereignty and individual liberties.
— Raphaël Suire / Les Echos
• Russia’s Lavrov softens message: “We don’t want a war,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in a videoconference with Russian radio broadcasters, signaling openness to engage with U.S. security proposals. In a phone call on Thursday with President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine, U.S. President Joe Biden reaffirmed that the Pentagon was ready to respond to any Russian aggression. Meanwhile, French President Emmanuel Macron will seek clarification over Russia's intentions towards Ukraine in a phone call with President Vladimir Putin on Friday.
• COVID update: UK Health Security Agency said that COVID-19 boosters increase protection against death from the Omicron variant to 95% in people aged 50 and over. A Paris hospital chief sparked a debate by questioning whether people who refuse to be vaccinated against COVID-19 should continue to have their treatment covered by France's universal healthcare system. Meanwhile in the U.S, a new analysis says that during the pandemic, 37 million people have missed vaccinations for both COVID-19 and other routine jabs.
• Xiomara Castro becomes Honduras' first female president: Xiomara Castro was sworn in as Honduras' first female president Thursday, amidst a political crisis that threatens her plans to turn around the deeply troubled country. The 62 year-old leftist leader promised to alleviate poverty, tackle powerful drug trafficking gangs, and liberalize strict abortion laws.
• Dozens dead from Tropical Storm Ana in southern Africa: The death toll from a storm that struck Madagascar, Mozambique and Malawi rose to 77 on Thursday as authorities are scrambling to repair damaged infrastructures and help tens of thousands of victims.
• Burkina Faso coup leader Damiba gives first speech: The new military leader of Burkina Faso, Paul-Henri Damiba, who ousted the Government of President Roch Kaboré earlier this week, addressed the country for the first time on national television since taking power.
• More than $700 million to protect the Great Barrier Reef: The Australian government has pledged to spend a further one billion Australian dollars ($704 million) over nine years to protect the Great Barrier Reef.
• Suspicious package sent to leading Italian politician was pasta and vegetable: Authorities, including a bomb squad, were called to the home of Beppe Grillo, a leading Italian politician near Genoa to investigate a suspicious package, which turned out to be pasta and vegetables.
Honduras daily El Heraldo devotes its front page to Xiomara Castro, who was sworn in as the country’s first female president on Thursday. The 62-year-old leader of the left wing Libre Party faces an unfolding legislative crisis and other challenges, including high unemployment, persistent violence and corruption.
Apple has reported a record revenue of $123.9 billion in the fourth quarter of 2021, up 11% year over last year, and dethroning Samsung to again become the top-selling smartphone brand in China, along with the rest of the world.
How the mafia is moving into renewables and other “clean” sectors
Mobster shootouts may be a thing of the past, but organized crime is still Italy’s biggest business. And the Mafia has changed its business model, expanding into cybercrime, cryptocurrency and even renewable energy.
♻️ In Italy, the term “ecomafia,” generally used to describe crimes against the environment carried out by organized crime, emerged around the turn of the millennium. But there seems to be a contradictory trend: organized crime networks have also entered another industry, this time a green one: wind power. A lack of industry regulation compounded by high product prices, complicated financing and government subsidies made wind energy attractive to criminals. In Italy, it sells for a higher price than anywhere in the world and some 6,000 wind farms are now scattered across the country.
💰 The mob’s influence spans the entire environmental field, from renewable energy to agriculture and food. According to Italy’s largest agricultural organization, Coldiretti, eco and agromafia combine a turnover of 24 billion euros. “They are educated, well-prepared, multilingual people, with important and reliable international relations at the service of the mafia business which, thanks to them, has acquired and consolidated a transnational and global character,” says the report.
💻 In another adaptation to 21st-century crime, the mafia is turning to cybercrime, cryptocurrencies and the dark web, according to the DIA report. Following a year-long investigation, Spanish law enforcement busted criminals with links to Italian Mafia groups for laundering 10 million euros through a flurry of hacking operations and violent coercion last year. According to Spanish daily El Pais, a number of the 106 arrested are linked to various clans throughout Italy, including the Casamonica from Rome.
➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com
“Essentially it's playing whack-a-mole.”
— Keith Neal, professor at the University of Nottingham in the United Kingdom, says about Hong Kong struggling to maintain its zero-COVID policy, warning that coronavirus “will simply keep coming back.” The city is swept by the Omicron variant, reporting about 600 locally-transmitted coronavirus infections so far in January compared with just two in December, and draconian restrictive measures are starting to take a toll on residents and the economy.
Polish armed border guards are seen on the border with Belarus as Poland starts the construction of a 186 km-long wall to prevent migrants and asylum seekers from entering the country — Photo: Attila Husejnow/SOPA Images/ZUMA
✍️ Newsletter by Jane Herbelin and Anne-Sophie Goninet
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