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Controversy in the Tech World 📸[HTC #64]
Where do tech companies cross the line?
Welcome to the 64th edition of Hold the Code!
In this week’s edition, we cover social media’s content moderation of Iran’s recent protests and examine Microsoft’s attempt to acquire gaming corporation Activation Blizzard.
Big Tech and “Saving” Muslim Women
Written By: Ian Lei
Image Source: Markus Schreiber/Associated Press
Note: This article was adapted from an essay I wrote for my Islam and Colonialism class, where I had to find an instance of Muslim women being “saved” and apply the insights of an author we read to that situation.
Iran’s protests: What you need to know
Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Kurdish woman, known as Jina in Kurdish, died in police custody in September 2022, which sparked a rallying cry of a new movement in Iran that has been led by female activists. The Islamic Republic of Iran’s morality police arrested her for violating Iran’s required veiling law by not wearing the hijab in adherence with government standards. In their New York Times opinion piece titled “Big Tech Should Support the Iranian People, Not the Regime,” Mahsa Alimardani, Kendra Albert, and Afsaneh Rigot write that “Mahsa Amini died, but that hashtag #MahsaAmini lives on.”
Despite extensive censorship from the Iranian government in restricting its citizens’ internet access, Twitter and other social media platforms have held a significant responsibility in spreading information within the country and to the world about protests against the oppressive treatment of women and government retaliation in response to those protests. After an image of Amini appeared on Twitter that depicted her lying unconscious, with tubes connected to her mouth, 160 million tweets shared the hashtag #مهسا_امینی (#MahsaAmini in Persian).
Although the protests broke out seven months ago, Iranians are still protesting. Furthermore, Iranian authorities last week executed three men in connection with the Mahsa Amini protests.
The U.S. lifts sanctions
The U.S. previously held sanctions that discouraged technology companies from serving Iranian citizens, which restricted their options to technologies controlled by the state. However, these sanctions were loosened, prompting the authors to call out Big Tech. They argue these companies should provide their moderation and engineering teams with greater contextual awareness to establish direct communication channels with activists.
By emphasizing the importance of transparency and flow of information, Alimardani, Albert, and Rigot reveal that their demands for tech companies are rooted in empowering the activists of this women-led movement to act on their own agency, thereby rejecting the notion that Muslim women must wait for external help to “save” them.
Twitter and Meta’s responsbility
The authors write that an initial step for Twitter is to turn #MahsaAmini into a hashflag, custom emojis specific to Twitter that boost a particular hashtag. Although it is a simple tweak, they believe that the hashflag’s status will “make it less likely that misleadingly similar hashtags for #MahsaAmini will divert attention.”
They worry that similar hashtags–either the result of typos or an intentional effort from pro-government or government-owned accounts–will reduce engagement with the actual hashtag. This change would empower the activists by enabling them to better disseminate information, mobilize other citizens, and draw attention to protest efforts. It also reflects that the activists have an active role to play–rather than a passive one–in fighting for a just world against an oppressive regime.
Arguing that “Meta’s Persian-language content moderation … has harmed users’ rights,” the authors are also concerned with deeper, algorithmic changes at companies like Meta, which owns two of the most used applications in Iran (Instagram and WhatsApp).
The authors write that during the initial protests, Instagram flagged 1500Tasvir, a protest documentation network, and other similar accounts as spam because of the amount of content they were posting to the platform. Alimardani, Albert, and Rigot contend that “removed posts and blocked access become a matter of life and death in these contexts.” They write it is crucial for social media platforms to enhance their ability to quickly respond in situations outside of English-speaking circumstances. The changes that the authors call for seek to provide direct communication lines to protesters, thereby protecting them.
However, this protection is not paternalistic. Improving content moderation policies does not imply protesters are inferior and need help from a Western entity. Rather, Meta’s lackluster content moderation policies, which obstruct the free flow of information, threaten the safety and lives of Iranian citizens. Thus, urging Meta to fix these internal issues is a natural response.
The notion of “saving” Muslim women
When placed in conversation with Lila Abu-Lughod’s Do Muslim Women Need Saving?, Alimardani, Albert, and Rigot’s opinion piece sheds valuable insight on how the Iranian protests fit into the greater discourse of “saving” Muslim women. In her book, Abu-Lughod highlights that Islam is not the reason for the “suffering” of Muslim women. Furthermore, through different interviews with Muslim women, she reveals that a monolithic perspective on Muslim women is inaccurate, as there are so many women in the world following Islam experiencing different conditions. Her interviews also draw attention to the political, economic, and structural factors that contribute to the poor living experiences of certain Muslim women.
“It is problematic to construct the Afghan or Muslim woman as someone in need of saving. When you save someone, you imply that you are saving her from something. You are also saving her to something. What violences are entailed in this transformation? What presumptions are being made about the superiority of that to which you are saving her?”
Applying these questions to Alimardani, Albert, and Rigot’s article reveals that while the authors ask Western technology companies to support Iranian citizens, their article does not suggest that the activists or Muslim women need “saving.” Asking Big Tech to improve information flow and transparency reduces violence inflicted onto citizens. Also, asking technology companies for help does not insinuate that they are superior. Instead, it demonstrates that Big Tech companies are failing their responsibility to provide quality services to their customers, namely Iranian citizens. Additionally, by targeting technology companies, Alimardani, Albert, and Rigot shift the discourse on the Iranian protests away from the trope of veiling. Highlighting Big Tech’s complacency and shortcomings reveal that the violence inflicted upon the Iranian people are a result of an oppressive government, not Islam.
Although the opinion piece does not perpetuate the narrative that Muslim women need saving, addressing Big Tech’s problems is a short-term solution to a long-term issue. The dress code might be the most noticeable form of discrimination against Iranian women, but it is only one component of the larger systemic discrimination they experience. In envisioning a better world for Iranian women, one must look beyond the immediate conflict and toward structural changes that support their political, economic, and social advancement.
Written By: Dwayne and Zoey
Image Source: Dado Ruvic/Reuters
In April, Microsoft’s $69 billion deal to acquire Activision Blizzard, owner of popular games like Call of Duty and Candy Crush, was blocked by the UK’s Competition and Markets Authority. The merger would enable Microsoft to expand their influence in cloud gaming and its blocking signals greater antitrust concerns over tech giants.
Traditional gaming often involves downloading all of the files required to render game settings and requires a powerful gaming device to do the “heavy lifting” of processing software. The “cloud” refers to a remote client that will run and process much of what a normal gaming device would need to do, reducing the user’s need for a powerful device to run a game.
Image Source: Devin Pickell/ LearnG2
Ideally, as long as the user has a decently strong internet connection, the device playing the game would not impact gameplay significantly.
Image source: LinkedIn
For example, instead of the massive ~ 125 GB installation required to install Call of Duty Warzone and the $2,000+ PC build in order to adequately run it with 60 frames per second, cloud gaming would allow for a significant increase in accessibility.
Though it feels premature to assume that cloud gaming will “take over” the gaming industry, we are seeing certain cloud based games flourishing (with Fornite being one of the most popular).. The industry has seen millions more dollars in the past few years and many economists predict it will continue to grow. With Microsoft currently dominating the cloud gaming industry with an estimated 60-70% of the market, regulators are concerned that owning Activision would give it a significant advantage over competitors.
Why did the CMA block the merger?
The CMA found that the merger could “alter the future of the fast-growing cloud gaming market, leading to reduced innovation and less choice for UK gamers over the years to come.”
Activision’s games are currently available on multiple platforms, including PlayStation, which is owned by Sony. As the second largest company by revenue in the gaming industry, Sony was an outspoken critic against Microsoft taking over Activision. Sony argued that Microsoft could intentionally reduce the performance of future Call of Duty games on PlayStation to entice players to switch to Xbox.
While the deal was being assessed by international authorities, Microsoft attempted to quell concerns that owning Activision would restrict the availability of their games by signing 10-year licensing deals with streaming services like Nvidia’s GeForce Now service and pledging to bring Call of Duty to Nintendo’s Switch.
That said, the CMA found that “Microsoft would find it commercially beneficial to make Activision’s games exclusive to its own cloud gaming service.” Microsoft offers games through its Game Pass subscription and as they grow their position in the market, there are concerns about fair collaboration with third-party developers who rely on platforms like Xbox and Game Pass to reach their audience.
What’s next for Big Tech?
When the CMA’s decision was announced, tech companies criticized the argument that the acquisition would stifle the growing cloud gaming market. Microsoft’s president Brad Smith claimed the blockage would “discourage innovation and investment in the United Kingdom.”
Though regulators like the EU and Japan have approved the deal, Microsoft faces challenges in appealing the UK’s decision to block the merger. In addition, the US’ Federal Trade Commission sued to block the Microsoft and Activision deal late last year, with a verdict expected to come in the following months.
The CMA has proven to be unafraid of breaking up tech giants: last year in October, the CMA ordered Meta to undo its $315 million acquisition of Giphy, a popular gif maker, which marked the first instance where the regulator intervened to dismantle a completed acquisition by a major tech firm.
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