The World Today for November 03, 2022

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The Fifth Estate

SOUTH KOREA

More than 90 percent of smartphone users in South Korea use the Kakao suite of apps to do everything from instant messaging and banking to watching videos and locating nearby beauty salons. When a data center fire recently caused the apps to crash for a few days, the county lurched toward a near-shutdown.

“Millions of people had trouble getting in touch with one another,” wrote the New York Times. “Many could not pay for everyday items at convenience stores or order food and groceries. Travelers were left stranded because they were not able to book taxis, depriving drivers of income.”

The outage was calamitous for the Jeju City-based company. Millions of South Koreans downloaded Uber, Telegram and other apps during the outage to find the services they needed. More importantly, the event was also a wake-up call for officials and citizens about the power of tech, the inordinate dependence of modern, wealthy economies on tech products and the ensuing vulnerabilities when machines invariably break down.

In the wake of the outage, Kakao Corp’s co-CEO Namkoong Whon stepped down, reported CNBC, issuing a contrite message that conveyed the depth of shame imparted by the worst infractions in South Korean culture. The company lost $50 billion in market value, noted Bloomberg, adding that calls to lessen its monopolistic influence and reach – for example, South Korea’s central bank uses the KakaoTalk app to announce interest rate moves – would likely make investors question its value further.

The company is considering giving damage compensation payments to customers. South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol called for a probe that might recommend changes to the app and its uses, saying it was a vital part of the country’s communications infrastructure and therefore national security, the Korea Times wrote. Other countries have considered similar action and targeted regulation based on the idea that Big Tech makes up critical infrastructure just as the energy and banking sectors do.

The shutdown illustrated how private companies don’t think broadly about systemic risk, the Washington Post explained. The company put all its servers in one place. It didn’t have backup generators to make up for damaged ones. Both of those measures are standard for Big Tech in the US, for example.

Meanwhile, for years governments around the world have been taking action to avoid crises like the one that occurred in South Korea.

The European Union is making it easier for individuals to sue tech companies when their artificial intelligence causes harm, according to the MIT Technology Review. Indian regulators fined Google $113 million for compelling users to use Google Play Billing System to purchase apps on Google Play, for example, reported Gizmodo. China’s government is exercising strict control over Big Tech, even demanding that social media influencers must have expertise in the topics they discuss online, Wired magazine wrote.

Everyone is wrestling with the problems that everyone agrees will not go away.

THE WORLD, BRIEFLY

Setting Morals

CHINA

China approved new rules this week that would ban celebrities from endorsing a range of products and prohibit those with “lapsed morals” from promoting anything, as authorities seek to align society with “core socialist values,” the Guardian reported Wednesday.

The restrictions prohibit Chinese celebrities from publicly promoting or advertising health, education or financial commodities or even everyday products such as baby formula.

They also ban companies from employing celebrities found to have engaged in illegal behavior such as public drunkenness, drug abuse or tax evasion. Firms are also forbidden from using images of Communist party leaders, revolutionary leaders and other “heroes” in their advertising.

The new rules are part of the government’s efforts to ensure Chinese society is “guided by (President) Xi Jinping thought on socialism with Chinese characteristics for a new era” – referring to the broad ideology that underpins the Xi-led Chinese Communist Party’s power.

The president of China’s advertising association, Zhang Guohua, said the regulations would contribute to a “more standardized and healthy improvement” of the industry.

In recent years, China’s government has tightened its control over the country’s entertainment industry and celebrity fandom in an attempt to remake the country’s pop culture landscape.

Last year, authorities banned some reality TV talent shows and instructed broadcasters not to promote so-called “sissy” men.

Meanwhile, the country’s large entertainment industry has also come under government scrutiny over a series of celebrity scandals that have crossed the line of extreme political sensitivity inside China.

In 2021, the actor Zheng Shuang was fined approximately $46 million for tax evasion and barred from appearing on entertainment programs.

Getting Mushy

VENEZUELA

Leftist Colombian President Gustavo Petro met with his Venezuelan counterpart Nicolás Maduro in the Venezuelan capital of Caracas this week, the first bilateral talks between the two leaders as they seek to normalize relations after a three-year break between the two countries, the Associated Press reported.

Both leaders pledged to improve trade and security ties, saying that they are looking for ways to share intelligence on drug trafficking and other crimes along their common border. The Colombian president also said that he will lobby for Venezuela’s re-entry into the Andean Community of Nations, a regional trade and investment group.

Venezuela withdrew from the group in 2006.

Tuesday’s meeting marks a significant shift in Colombia’s foreign policy toward Venezuela following the election of Petro in June, the country’s first leftist leader.

In 2019, Colombia’s then-conservative government joined the US and dozens of other countries in refusing to recognize Maduro as Venezuela’s legitimate leader following a presidential election that was widely seen as undemocratic.

But since his victory, Petro has made efforts to engage with Venezuela’s socialist government. In September, both nations reopened their shared border to vehicles transporting goods – considered the first step toward resuming commercial relations that were worth about $7.2 billion in 2008, but only $400 million last year, according to Agence France-Presse.

Even so, Venezuelan opposition leaders criticized Petro’s visit, saying he was helping to “normalize” the violation of human rights in Venezuela by “visiting dictator Maduro and calling him a president.”

Meanwhile, advocacy groups have also urged Petro to seek concrete human rights commitments from Maduro’s regime, noting that there are more than 240 political prisoners in Venezuela.

Festering Sore

TURKS AND CAICOS

Authorities in Turks and Caicos are investigating a triple murder this week, the latest act in a tide of violence that has plagued the Caribbean archipelago amid an ongoing gang war and rising insecurity, the Miami Herald reported.

Police officials said they found three bodies, including that of a three-year-old boy, on the island of Providenciales on Tuesday, adding that are “working assiduously to catch the perpetrators of this heinous act.”

The murders come as Turks and Caicos has been grappling with a string of violent crimes that have rocked the British Overseas Territory. The unprecedented crime wave, which the government attributes to an ongoing gang war, is instilling fear in the populace while also jeopardizing the country’s lucrative tourism industry.

The situation has caused the government to request the assistance of police officers from the neighboring Bahamas – and even the United Kingdom.

Last week, the country’s parliament also passed a series of laws targeting gangs and firearms-related offenses, which would make it illegal for individuals to be gang members or provide assistance to criminal groups.

If convicted of gang membership, an individual risks up to 20 years in prison. Gang leaders who are convicted face up to 25 years in jail.

But the legislation has not curbed the crime wave.

Although the violence has mainly involved locals, a US citizen was killed last month.

DISCOVERIES

Lasting Legacy

Colonialism didn’t just have an impact on communities and regions but also affected the flora and fauna of colonized territories, according to a new study.

Scientists recently found that the expansion of the European empires from the 15th century onwards resulted in the spread of many plant species around the world, New Scientist reported.

Lead author Bernd Lenzner and his team analyzed a global database of alien plant species to measure the lasting legacy colonialism left on global plant diversity. They studied the similarity of non-native species in more than 1,100 regions of the former British, Dutch, Portuguese and Spanish empires.

The best predictors of countries sharing the same sorts of non-native plants were closeness, common temperature and aridity, as climates govern where alien species may survive.

However, researchers noticed that the period spent as a colony in territories colonized by the same empire was as strong a predictor that they would share the same non-native species as modern social and economic factors were.

This was noticeable in regions of particular importance to the empire: The team discovered that these areas – such as major trading posts – were more likely to share plant species with other regions in the same empire.

What drove this spread was mainly the export of agricultural products and the trade of exotic plants.

Lenzner said the findings underscore the long-term impact the introduction of a foreign plant or animal species – intentionally or accidentally – can have.

“We really need to think today about which species we are transporting across the world because we will see the consequences of that very far into the future, in the decades and centuries to come,” he said.

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