TECH OF THE TOWN
RUSSIA FACES LONG AI WINTER: Russian President Vladimir Putin’s 2017 proclamation that whichever country leads in artificial intelligence “will be the ruler of the world” may come back to haunt him. New technology sanctions, an exodus of foreign tech companies and an impending brain drain could soon conspire to cause Russia’s AI ecosystem to shrivel.
— Moscow’s ambitions: Russia has long been a major global player in the development and application of machine learning and other AI tools — including for unmanned military systems, facial recognition, natural language processing and smart city technologies. James Lewis, director of the technology and public policy program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said Russia has long been a frontrunner in the race for AI supremacy (though behind the United States and China).
“There were areas of progress and some accomplishments, both in the civilian and military space,” said Rita Konaev, an AI policy researcher and the associate director of analysis at Georgetown’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology.
— House of cards: But others say Russia’s AI efforts were already tottering before its invasion of Ukraine. Daniel Correa, the CEO of the Federation of American Scientists, said in an email that Russia’s AI sector “is quite weak and only really developing in the defense context.” Correa said collaborations between Russian AI researchers and scientists in Europe and the United States have been in decline since 2014, when the country annexed Crimea and attacked eastern Ukraine. Last month’s invasion, Correa said, is “probably a tipping point” that will further isolate Russian AI researchers from their foreign peers.
— Chipping away: Cutting-edge AI research benefits greatly from cutting-edge hardware. And experts believe the sanctions imposed by the United States and its allies on advanced microchips will eventually shrink the capabilities of Russian researchers to develop new machine learning techniques.
Martijn Rasser, the director of the technology and national security program at the Center for a New American Security, said that even without sanctions, Russian AI research is at risk of being cut off from crucial chip supplies. He pointed to the recent decision by Nvidia, one of the major producers of graphics processing units — computer components that are used to power a bevy of AI tools, and which haven’t been affected by sanctions — to suspend all product sales in Russia.
“If that includes third-party sales, even that door is closed,” Rasser said.
— Draining (human) capital: Konaev said the broader exodus of tech firms from Russiawill leave any company pursuing advanced AI research high and dry when it comes to financing. “It’s impossible to overstate how much they’re going to lose in terms of access to the investment you need to advance technological innovation,” she said.
That will likely lead to an outflow of human capital from Russia, too. Crushing sanctions and tightening authoritarianism are likely to lead Russian mathematicians and programmers to emigrate in the coming weeks and months (provided the Kremlin lets them leave).
“The opportunities are going to be outside of Russia,” said Lewis. “And that’s going to limit them on technology across the board —except in cybercrime.”
HILL LEADERS URGED TO STRIP SHOP SAFE FROM USICA CONFERENCE: An expansive coalition of industry lobbyists, advocacy groups and academics are writing this morning to press House and Senate leadership to remove the bipartisan SHOP SAFE Act (H.R. 5374) from sprawling competitiveness legislation ahead of a conference between the two chambers.
The bill would create rules that large online marketplaces would need to follow or risk being held liable for the sale of counterfeit products on their sites. Democrats slipped its language into the House’s America COMPETES Act (H.R. 4521) ahead of that bill’s passage in early February. Lawmakers are already gearing up for a contentious conference fight over R&D, trade and foreign policy provisions in dueling House and Senate competitiveness packages this month, and may be unwilling to load another controversy onto their plate.
— Quite the line-up: In a letter to Sen. Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, Sen. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, the coalition urges congressional leadership not to “shoehorn this kind of dramatic policy change into the final compromise” between the Senate’s U.S. Innovation and Competition Act (S. 1260) and the House’s rival COMPETES Act.
The call comes from an unusual alliance of 38 industry groups and advocates, from tech lobby groups like the Chamber of Progress and the Computer and Communications Industry Association to centrist and progressive advocacy groups such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Public Knowledge. The coalition claims that SHOP SAFE, in its current form, would require platforms to monitor user posts for potential trademark infringement — a requirement they say small and medium-size businesses would struggle to meet. They warn it could cause smaller companies to remove legitimate posts out of an abundance of caution, or even shut down completely.
“They are not the sort of problems that can be resolved in conference,” the groups said.
— One-two punch: A group of 26 U.S. academics with expertise in trademark law are also piling on against SHOP SAFE this morning. In a letter to congressional leadership, the academics claim the bill “likely hurts every stakeholder and benefits none of them.”
— Gaming out the conference: Today’s flood of opposition to SHOP SAFE adds to the steady flow that’s been building for weeks, including from lawmakers like Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.). Another bill aimed at e-commerce counterfeits, the INFORM Consumers Act (H.R. 5502), was included in America COMPETES and has so far attracted less opposition than SHOP SAFE.
JUSTICE THOMAS EYES SECTION 230 … AGAIN: Thomas weighed in once more on Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act in an opinion published Monday, in which he concurred with the court’s denial of an appeal from the Texas Supreme Court in a lawsuit against Facebook.
Thomas’ new effort comes in a case brought by an unidentified woman against Facebook, who sued the company after being repeatedly raped, beaten and trafficked by someone she met on the platform when she was 15 years old. The Texas Supreme Court had upheld the plaintiff’s claim that Facebook had violated Texas’ anti-sex trafficking statutes, but ruled that Section 230 protects Facebook from her claim that the platform committed certain common-law offenses.
In light of that ruling, Thomas said the Court should “step in to clarify” Section 230 if Congress chooses not to. He added that this isn’t the right case for the high court to “address the proper scope of immunity under 230.”
It’s the third time in the past two years that Thomas, one of the court’s most stalwart conservatives, has urged his colleagues to rule on Section 230. Thomas first showed interest in 2020, as then-President Donald Trump and his Justice Department argued the law provided cover for tech platforms to censor conservatives. But he has yet to convince another justice it’s wise to reopen the law, more than 25 years after its enactment.
— Kept waiting: Congress has only amended Section 230 once — when SESTA-FOSTA (H.R. 1865(115)), legislation that holds websites liable for knowingly enabling sex trafficking, passed with broad bipartisan support in 2018. More recent efforts, including the bipartisan EARN IT Act (S. 3528), have since failed to pass.
— The other time: Thomas’ concurrence Monday touched on similar issues the justice raised in Malwarebytes Inc. v. Enigma Software Group USA, a case whose appeal to the Supreme Court was also denied.
“Extending [Section] 230 immunity beyond the natural reading of the text can have serious consequences,” Thomas wrote in a concurring opinion published in October 2020. He said internet companies have been granted “sweeping protection” and that courts are interpreting their legal immunity more broadly than Congress intended.
— The other, other time: Thomas also targeted Section 230 in a concurring opinion published in April 2021 dismissing a lower court ruling that Trump violated the free speech rights of users he blocked on Twitter.Thomas again said 230 had been “misconstrued” by some courts “to give digital platforms immunity for bad-faith removal of third-party content,” and suggested some digital platforms are “sufficiently akin” to public utilities like telephone companies for the government to regulate them.
— Conservatives hopeful: GianCarlo Canaparo, a legal fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation, told Rebecca that Thomas has a history of writing solo opinions that persuade other judges to be interested in specific policy issues. Canaparo expects that Thomas will soon succeed in convincing his colleagues on the court to take up a future Section 230 case. None of the other justices have yet taken public positions on the issue.