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When Elon Musk announced his offer to buy Twitter for more than $40 billion, he told the public his vision for the social media site was to make sure it’s “an inclusive arena for free speech.”
Musk’s actions since closing the deal last year have illuminated how he sees the balance internet platforms must strike in protecting free expression versus user safety. While he’s lifted restrictions on many previously-suspended accounts including former President Donald Trump’s, he’s also placed new limitations on journalists’ and others’ accounts for posting publicly available flight information he’s equated to doxxing.
The saga of Musk’s Twitter takeover has underscored the complexity of determining what speech is truly protected. That question is particularly difficult when it comes to online platforms, which create policies that impact wide swaths of users from different cultures and legal systems across the world.
This year, the U.S. justice system, including the Supreme Court, will take on cases that will help determine the bounds of free expression on the internet in ways that could force the hand of Musk and other platform owners who determine what messages get distributed widely.
The boundaries they will consider include the extent of platforms’ responsibility to remove terrorist content and prevent their algorithms from promoting it, whether social media sites can take down messaging on the basis of viewpoint and whether the government can impose online safety standards that some civil society groups fear could lead to important resources and messages being stifled to avoid legal liability.
“The question of free speech is always more complicated than it looks,” said David Brody, managing attorney of the Digital Justice Initiative at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under the Law. “There’s a freedom to speak freely. But there’s also the freedom to be free from harassment to be free from discrimination.”
Brody said whenever the parameters of content moderation get tweaked, people need to consider “whose speech gets silenced when that dial gets turned? Whose speech gets silenced because they are too fearful to speak out in the new environment that is created?”
Tech’s liability shield under threat
Facebook’s new rebrand logo Meta is seen on smartpone in front of displayed logo of Facebook, Messenger, Intagram, Whatsapp and Oculus in this illustration picture taken October 28, 2021.
Dado Ruvic | Reuters
Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act has been a bedrock of the tech industry for more than two decades. The law grants a liability shield to internet platforms that protects them from being held responsible for their users’ posts, while also allowing them to decide what stays up or comes down.
But while industry leaders say it’s what has allowed online platforms to flourish and innovate, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have increasingly pushed to diminish its protections for the multi-billion dollar companies, with many Democrats wanting platforms to remove more hateful content and Republicans wanting to leave up more posts that align with their views.
Section 230 protection makes it easier for platforms to allow users to post their views without the companies themselves fearing they could be held responsible for those messages. It also gives the platforms peace of mind that they won’t be penalized if they want to remove or demote information they deem to be harmful or objectionable in some way.
These are the cases that threaten to undermine Section 230’s force:
- Gonzalez v. Google: This is the Supreme Court case with the potential to alter the most popular business models of the internet that currently allow for a largely free-flowing stream of posts. The case, brought by the family of an American who was killed in a 2015 terrorist attack in Paris, seeks to determine whether Section 230 can shield Google from liability under the Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA) for allegedly aiding and abetting ISIS by promoting videos created by the terrorist organization through its recommendation algorithm. If the court significantly increases the liability risk for platforms using algorithms, the services may choose to abandon them or greatly diminish their use, therefore changing the way content can be found or go viral on the internet. It will be heard by the Supreme Court in February.
- Twitter v. Taamneh: This Supreme Court case doesn’t directly involve Section 230, but its outcome could still impact how platforms choose to moderate information on their services. The case, which will be heard by the Supreme Court in February, also brought under the ATA, deals with the question of whether Twitter should have taken more aggressive moderating action against terrorist content because it moderates posts on its site. Jess Miers, legal advocacy counsel at the tech-backed group for Chamber of Progress, said a ruling against Twitter in the case could create an “existential question” for tech companies by forcing them to rethink whether monitoring for terrorist content at all creates legal knowledge that it exists, which could later be used against them in court.
- Challenges to Florida and Texas social media laws: Another set of cases deals with the question of whether services should be required to host more content of certain kinds. Two tech industry groups, NetChoice and the Computer & Communications Industry Association, filed suit against the states of Florida and Texas over their laws seeking to prevent online platforms from discriminating on their services based on viewpoint. The groups argue that the laws effectively violate the businesses’ First Amendment rights by forcing them to host objectionable messages even if they violate the company’s own terms of service, policies or beliefs. The Supreme Court has yet to decide if or when to hear the cases, though many expect it will take them up at some point.
- Tech challenge to California’s kids online safety law: Separately, NetChoice also filed suit against California for a new law there that aims to make the internet safer for kids, but that the industry group says would unconstitutionally restrict speech. The Age-Appropriate Design Code requires internet platforms that are likely to be accessed by kids to mitigate risks to those users. But in doing so, NetChoice has argued the state imposed an overly vague rule subject to the whims of what the attorney general deems to be appropriate. The group said the law will create “overwhelming pressure to over-moderate content to avoid the law’s penalties for content the State deems harmful,” which will “stifle important resources, particularly for vulnerable youth who rely on the Internet for life-saving information.” This case is still at the district court level.
The tension between the cases
The variety in these cases involving speech on the internet underscores the complexity of regulating the space.
“On the one hand, in the NetChoice cases, there’s an effort to get platforms to leave stuff up,” said Jennifer Granick, surveillance and cybersecurity counsel at the ACLU Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project. “And then the Taamneh and the Gonzalez case, there’s an effort to get platforms to take more stuff down and to police more thoroughly. You kind of can’t do both.”
If the Supreme Court ultimately decides to hear arguments in the Texas or Florida social media law cases, it could face tricky questions about how to square its decision with the outcome in the Gonzalez case.
For example, if the court decides in the Gonzalez case that platforms can be held liable for hosting some types of user posts or promoting them through their algorithms, “that’s in some tension with the notion that providers are potentially liable for third-party content,” as the Florida and Texas laws suggest, said Samir Jain, vice present of policy at the Center for Democracy and Technology, a nonprofit that has received funding from tech companies including Google and Amazon.
“Because if on the one hand, you say, ‘Well, if you carry terrorist-related content or you carry certain other content, you’re potentially liable for it.’ And they then say, ‘But states can force you to carry that content.’ There’s some tension there between those two kinds of positions,” Jain said. “And so I think the court has to think of the cases holistically in terms of what kind of regime overall it’s going to be creating for online service providers.”
The NetChoice cases against red states Florida and Texas, and the blue state of California, also show how disagreements over how speech should be regulated on the internet are not constrained by ideological lines. The laws threaten to divide the country into states that require more messages to be left up and others that require more posts to be taken down or restricted in reach.
Under such a system, tech companies “would be forced to go to any common denominator that exists,” according to Chris Marchese, counsel a NetChoice.
“I have a feeling though that what really would end up happening is that you could probably boil down half the states into a, ‘we need to remove more content regime,’ and then the other half would more or less go into, ‘we need to leave more content up’ regime,” Marchese said. “Those two regimes really cannot be harmonized. And so I think that to the extent that it’s possible, we could see an internet that does not function the same from state to state.”
Critics of the California law have also warned that in a period when access to resources for LGBTQ youth is already limited (through measures like Florida’s Parental Rights in Education law, also referred to by critics as the Don’t Say Gay law limiting how schools can teach about gender identity or sexual orientation in young grades), the legislation threatens to further cut off vulnerable kids and teens from important information based on the whims of the state’s enforcement.
NetChoice alleged in its lawsuit against the California law that blogs and discussion forums for mental health, sexuality, religion and more could be considered under the scope of the law if likely to be accessed by kids. It also claimed the law would violate platforms’ own First Amendment right to editorial discretion and “impermissibly restricts how publishers may address or promote content that a government censor thinks unsuitable for minors.”
Jim Steyer, CEO of Common Sense Media, which has advocated for the California law and other measures to protect kids online, criticized arguments from tech-backed groups against the legislation. Though he acknowledged critiques from outside groups as well, he warned that it’s important not to let “perfect be the enemy of the good.”
“We’re in the business of trying to get stuff done concretely for kids and families,” Steyer said. “And it’s easy to make intellectual arguments. It’s a lot tougher sometimes to get stuff done.”
How degrading 230 protections could change the internet
A YouTube logo seen at the YouTube Space LA in Playa Del Rey, Los Angeles, California, United States October 21, 2015.
Lucy Nicholson | Reuters
Although the courts could rule in a variety of ways in these cases, any chipping away at Section 230 protections will likely have tangible effects on how internet companies operate.
Google, in its brief filed with the Supreme Court on Jan. 12, warned that denying Section 230 protections to YouTube in the Gonzalez case “could have devastating spillover effects.”
“Websites like Google and Etsy depend on algorithms to sift through mountains of user-created content and display content likely relevant to each user,” Google wrote. It added that if tech platforms were able to be sued without Section 230 protection for how they organize information, “the internet would devolve into a disorganized mess and a litigation minefield.”
Google said such a change would also make the internet less safe and less hospitable to free expression.
“Without Section 230, some websites would be forced to overblock, filtering content that could create any potential legal risk, and might shut down some services altogether,” General Counsel Halimah DeLaine Prado wrote in a blog post summarizing Google’s position. “That would leave consumers with less choice to engage on the internet and less opportunity to work, play, learn, shop, create, and participate in the exchange of ideas online.”
Miers of Chamber of Progress said that even if Google technically wins at the Supreme Court, it’s possible justices try to “split the baby” in establishing a new test of when Section 230 protections should apply, like in the case of algorithms. A result like that would effectively undermine one of the main functions of the law, according to Miers, which is the ability to swiftly end lawsuits against platforms that involve hosting third-party content.
If the court tries to draw such a distinction, Miers said, “now we’re going to get in a situation where every case plaintiffs bringing their cases against internet services are going to always try to frame it as being on the other side of the line that the Supreme Court sets up. And then there’s going to be a lengthy discussion of the courts asking, well does Section 230 even apply in this case? But once we get to that lengthy discussion, the entire procedural benefits of 230 have been mooted at that point.”
Miers added that platforms could also opt to display mostly posts from professional content creators, rather than amateurs, to maintain a level of control over the information they could be at risk for promoting.
The impact on online communities could be especially profound for marginalized groups. Civil society groups who spoke with CNBC doubted that for-profit companies would spend on increasingly complex models to navigate a risky legal field in a more nuanced way.
“It’s much cheaper from a compliance point of view to just censor everything,” said Brody of the Lawyers’ Committee. “I mean, these are for-profit companies, they’re going to look at, what is the most cost-effective way for us to reduce our legal liability? And the answer to that is not going to be investing billions and billions of dollars into trying to improve content moderation systems that are frankly already broken. The answer is going to be, let’s just crank up the dial on the AI that automatically censors stuff so that we have a Disneyland rule. Everything’s happy and nothing bad ever happens. But to do that, you’re going to censor a lot of underrepresented voices in a way that is really going to have outsized censorship impacts on them.”
The Supreme Court of the United States building are seen in Washington D.C., United States on December 28, 2022.
Celal Gunes | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images
The idea that some business models will become simply too risky to operate under a more limited liability shield is not theoretical.
After Congress passed SESTA-FOSTA, which carved out an exception for liability protection in cases of sex trafficking, options to advertise sex work online became more limited due to the liability risk. While some might view that as a positive change, many sex workers have argued it removed a safer option for making money compared to soliciting work in person.
Lawmakers who’ve sought to alter Section 230 seem to think there is a “magical lever” they can pull that will “censor all the bad stuff from the internet and leave up all the good stuff,” according to Evan Greer, director of Fight for the Future, a digital rights advocacy group.
“The reality is that when we subject platforms to liability for user-generated content, no matter how well-intentioned the effort is or no matter how it’s framed, what ends up happening is not that platforms moderate more responsibly or more thoughtfully,” Greer said. “They moderate in whatever way their risk-averse lawyers tell them to, to avoid getting sued.”
Jain of CDT pointed to Craigslist’s decision to take down its personal ads section altogether in the wake of SESTA-FOSTA’s passage “because it was just too difficult to sort of make those fine-grained distinctions” between legal services and illegal sex trafficking.
“So if the court were to say that you could be potentially liable for quote, unquote, recommending third-party content or for your algorithms displaying third-party content, because it’s so difficult to moderate in a totally perfect way, one response might be to take down a lot of speech or to block a lot of speech,” Jain said.
Miers fears that if different states enact their own laws seeking to place limits on Section 230 as Florida and Texas have, companies will end up adhering to the strictest state’s law for the rest of the country. That could result in restrictions on the kind of content most likely to be considered controversial in that state, such as resources for LGBTQ youth when such information isn’t considered age-appropriate, or reproductive care in a state that has abortion restrictions.
Should the Supreme Court end up degrading 230 protections and allowing a fragmented legal system to persist for content moderation, Miers said it could be a spark for Congress to address the new challenges, noting that Section 230 itself came out of two bipartisan lawmakers’ recognition of new legal complexities presented by the existence of the internet.
“Maybe we have to sort of relive that history and realize that oh, well, we’ve made the regulatory environment so convoluted that it’s risky again to host user-generated content,” Miers said. “Yeah, maybe Congress needs to act. ”
WATCH: The big, messy business of content moderation on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube
How Fanatics and MLB are planning to keep the trading card boom going
Julio Rodríguez of the Seattle Mariners was the American League Rookie of the Year in 2022. MLB trading card partner Fanatics has plans for new rookie card features this season as part of a bigger plan to increase the value of Topps baseball cards for collectors.
Diamond Images | Diamond Images | Getty Images
Fanatics made waves in the sports and collectibles industries when it pried the rights to make trading cards for Major League Baseball from incumbent Topps in August 2021, ending a partnership that dated back to 1952. The sports platform company made another huge splash last January when it acquired Topps outright for roughly $500 million.
Now, after releasing its first major Topps set alongside the start of the 2023 MLB season, Fanatics is starting to show how it plans to elevate the trading cards and collectibles space.
“Fanatics is focused on the best experience for the fan, and collectibles is focused on the best collector experience,” said Fanatics Collectibles CEO Mike Mahan. “That means having the most innovative, thoughtful, authentic products possible.”
Mahan, who joined Fanatics in June to lead the company’s trading cards and digital collectibles business after serving as CEO of Dick Clark Productions, said the “the collector experience in 2023 will be the best collector experience ever, and 2024 will be even better.”
That belief is driven from Fanatics Collectibles’ main focus areas so far, Mahan said: educating new collectors and better onboarding them into the hobby, building out the marketing around collectibles, enhancing the existing collector ecosystem and experience, and innovation.
Rookies play a big role in increasing baseball card value
Innovation drove one of the new initiatives Fanatics is adding this year around typically one of the biggest points of excitement, and value, for card collectors: the debut cards of highly touted rookies.
“One of the central questions that we’ve been trying to answer is how do we get cards to really capture the big moments,” Mahan said. “Baseball cards have been about the rookies for so long, so if rookie cards are the biggest things in sports, how do we make the best possible card? How do we bring people closer to that moment?”
That led to the creation of MLB Debut Patches, which Fanatics is touting as the first-ever memorabilia made in partnership with a pro sports league specifically for the inclusion on trading cards. Working with MLB and the MLB Players Association, every player who makes their debut this season will have a patch on their jersey. After the game, the patch will be authenticated and placed directly onto their rookie card in a future Topps set.
MLB chief revenue officer Noah Garden said that is the sort of the thing that will continue the momentum among collectibles and trading cards.
“It’s that emotional connection that drives the hobby, and brings fans closer to the game,” said Garden, who described himself as an avid baseball card collector. “They want to feel like a part of the game, and what is a better way to do that than to have something that was actually a part of it?”
While the sports trading card industry had seen growth in recent years, the pandemic put the hobby into overdrive. Cards across sports have been selling for record prices, including a $12.6 million sale for a 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle rookie card, the highest price ever paid for a trading card.
U.S. Google searches for “best sports cards to buy right now” increased by 680% between January 2020 and February 2023, according to data provided to CNBC by online visibility management SaaS platform Semrush. During the same period, average U.S. monthly visits to Topps.com grew by 218.5% to nearly 1.2 million, Semrush data showed.
But even as other collectibles that boomed during the pandemic have fallen out of favor like NFTs and Funko Pops, trading cards have looked to maintain their momentum.
Jeff Owens, editor of Sports Collectors Digest, the largest trade publication covering sports trading cards, said that the resurgence of the hobby was “primarily due to a resurgence in buying and selling during the pandemic and a large group of wealthy investors looking for alternative assets.”
The softening of the economy led a decline in the market of modern cards last year, but values and demand are still “well above” what they were before the pandemic, Owens said, adding that the market for vintage cards like the Mantle rookie card is “very, very strong.”
Owens also pointed to the growth and support of card shows across the U.S. – nearly 1,000 planned for 2023, which is a significant increase compared to previous years.
Mahan said that from Fanatics’ perspective, “it’s a very strong time for the hobby right now.”
The global sports trading card market is valued at $44 billion and is expected to approach $100 billion in 2027, according to data from Verified Market Research.
“We think very firmly that the best days are in front of it; we can’t control the broader economy and like any consumer good there’s some correlation with broader spending but go to any card show or shop right now, this is a very vibrant and healthy marketplace,” Mahan said.
When Topps was considering going public in a SPAC deal that would have valued it at $1.3 billion in April 2021, the company reported that it had record sales of $567 million in 2020, a 23% year-over-year increase. That SPAC deal was later canceled after Fanatics acquired the MLB rights, which ultimately led to Fanatics’ acquisition of the company.
Mahan declined to comment on Topps sales today, but he said that “the business and the industry continues to be in a great, great place.”
What MLB gets from the Topps deal
For MLB, the return of trading cards has also served as a boon, which Garden said has parallels to video games or other ways that the league looks to bring in new fans and turn casual fans into diehards.
Garden noted fans like his son, who is an avid baseball fan but may not know every player on a West Coast team besides their stars. “When these players start to break through nationally, you already know who to look for” based on the rookie cards and other cards in the set, he said.
“The importance of cards in the evolution of fandom I’ve always thought was important,” said Garden, noting that’s how he got into baseball. “But the business hadn’t seen innovation in forever and in many ways, it had gotten harder to collect. … What Fanatics has done so far to innovate the product and support the ecosystem has been nothing short of fantastic.”
While MLB cards remain the crown jewel for Topps, Mahan said that Fanatics is excited for what the future holds not only for baseball cards, but also for the other rights the company holds, which includes the ability to produce NBA and NFL cards in the coming years.
“The good news is trading cards and sports cards have been vibrant for a long time, they’ve mattered for a long time, they’ve been meaningful for a long time,” Mahan said. “It’s a business that has traditionally been cyclical and had its ups and downs. … We’re focused on education, innovation, marketing, and community, and bringing all of those together – given where we sit today with all of these good things yet to come, we feel our best is firmly in front of us.”
Earlier this year, Fanatics hired former Snap global head of content and partnerships Nick Bell to head its new Fanatics Live business, which will focus on building a digital customer shopping experience where you can buy trading cards and other collectibles via curated and personality-driven content and entertainment.
Bell told CNBC that one of the first focuses of this new business division will be around “breaking,” a form of social trading card buying. Similar to a blind raffle, a set number of individuals purchase an entry from a seller — called a “spot” — and the seller then opens an entire case of trading cards live online and allocates each of them. Fanatics would receive a cut of each card sale.
Fanatics raised $700 million in December to bring its valuation to $31 billion, capital that it planned to use on potential merger and acquisition opportunities across its collectibles, betting and gaming businesses, according to CNBC.
The company estimates its revenue for Fanatics, including its Lids segment, will be approximately $8 billion in 2023.
Fanatics is a three-time CNBC Disruptor 50 company, and ranked No. 21 in 2022.
Tesla has only installed 3,000 Solar Roof systems in the U.S., far below forecast, study finds
Tesla vehicles parked outside a home with a Tesla Solar Roof on Weems Street in Boca Chica Village, Texas, U.S., on Monday, June 21, 2021.
Veronica G. Cardenas | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Tesla has only installed 3,000 of its Solar Roof systems in the U.S. since touting the technology seven years ago, according to new research from Wood Mackenzie.
That installation rate falls well shy of Tesla’s guidance and ambitions for what it previously called its “solar glass” roof tiles. Wood Mackenzie notes that in late 2019 the company said it was aiming to manufacture 1,000 Solar Roofs weekly, and to install 1,000 per week in the first half of 2020.
The report offers the latest glimpse into Tesla CEO Elon Musk’s struggle to integrate a solar energy business into his electric car company following the 2016 acquisition of SolarCity, a solar installer founded and run by his cousins Peter and Lyndon Rive with his help.
Average weekly Tesla Solar Roof installations reached just 21 in 2022, Wood Mackenzie said. Tesla hit a high of 32 average weekly installations in the U.S. in the first quarter of last year, according to the study.
Musk first promoted a shingle-style solar panel in October 2016, as he was trying to garner shareholder enthusiasm for Tesla’s $2.6 billion purchase of SolarCity. The shingle he showed at a marketing event was not even a working prototype, it was later revealed. Musk had invested significant capital in SolarCity, and served as board chairman while also helming Tesla and SpaceX.
A group of Tesla shareholders eventually sued Tesla and Musk over the deal. Last year, the Delaware Court of Chancery ruled in favor of Musk in a bench trial. But the shareholders’ lawyers on Wednesday made their opening arguments in pursuit of an appeal in Delaware Supreme Court.
Shareholders alleged that Tesla’s SolarCity purchase amounted to a bailout and was pushed by Musk because his personal wealth and reputation were at stake. Musk has denied that he pressured the Tesla board to go through with the SolarCity deal. Had he lost, Musk could have been forced to pay upwards of $2 billion, CNBC previously reported.
While Tesla’s Solar Roof effort has struggled, the company’s traditional solar panels have seen some improved traction in the market.
The traditional solar-panel installations shrank considerably from 2016 to 2020, but volumes have been on the rise along with broader growth in the residential solar industry, Mackenzie Wood researchers told CNBC in an e-mail. Tesla installed traditional solar panel systems with a power generating capacity of 156 megawatts in 2021, and 248 megawatts in 2022, the researchers said.
The 3,000 Solar Roof systems that are installed in the U.S. have an estimated capacity of around 30 megawatts.
While Tesla intended to manufacture all of its solar roof tiles initially, it has instead procured photovoltaic glass from Chinese supplier, Almaden. Residential roofing company GAF Energy began manufacturing and selling a competing solar shingle to residential roofers in 2022.
The Tesla Solar Roof commanded less than .03% of the approximately 5 million new rooftops built in the U.S. in 2022, according to Wood Mackenzie.
Tesla didn’t respond to a request for comment.
After a more than $1 trillion rout, Beijing appears to be warming to Chinese tech giants
Beijing’s regulatory crackdown on the Chinese tech sector began in late 2020, wiping off more than a combined $1 trillion from the country’s biggest companies.
There are now signs that the central government is softening its stance towards internet titans like Alibaba, in a move that could prove positive for Chinese tech stocks.
“The regulatory headwinds that we had in the past two years … that’s now becoming from a headwind to a tailwind,” George Efstathopoulos, portfolio manager at Fidelity International, told CNBC’s “Street Signs Asia” on Wednesday.
On Tuesday, Alibaba announced a major reorganization, looking to split its company into six business units, in an initiative “designed to unlock shareholder value and foster market competitiveness.”
Over the past two years, China’s government has often railed against the “disorderly expansion of capital” of tech firms that have grown into large conglomerates. Part of Alibaba’s announcement noted that these splintered businesses could raise outside capital and even go public, seemingly heading in a contrary direction to Beijing’s concerns.
Efstathopoulos said that the move could indicate a green light from the upper echelons of the Chinese government.
“You have senior leadership blessing for unlocking value, and, to me, that is a fantastic indication where we are now essentially moving from regulation not being the issue that it was,” Efstathopoulos said.
Jack Ma’s return
Alibaba’s restructure isn’t the only sign that Beijing could be easing up its scrutiny of the tech sector. Jack Ma, the founder of Alibaba, returned to public view in China for the first time in months.
Some credit Ma with sparking the start of the tech crackdown in October 2020, when the billionaire made comments that appeared critical of China’s financial regulator. A few days later, Ant Group, the financial technology affiliate of Alibaba that was controlled by Ma, was forced to scrap its massive Hong Kong and Shanghai dual listing, after regulators said it did not meet the requirements to go public.
Following this, the Chinese government doled out huge antitrust fines to Alibaba and food delivery giant Meituan, introducing a slew of regulation in areas from data protection to the way in which companies can use algorithms.
Ma’s reappearance in Hangzhou, where Alibaba is headquartered, has been read as another sign of Beijing’s more positive view toward the tech sector and entrepreneurs.
“Jack just didn’t show up in Hangzhou because he was tired of traveling around. I think it was well orchestrated and fits with the government’s campaign to demonstrate that, you know, they are relaxing pressures on their private sectors and are welcoming the rest of the world,” Stephen Roach, a senior fellow at Yale University, told CNBC’s “Squawk Box Asia” on Tuesday.
Economic growth in focus
There have been further signs of regulatory easing over the past few weeks.
The gaming sector was hard hit in 2021, as authorities grew concerned about addiction among young people in China. Chinese regulators froze the approval of new game releases for several months. Last April, authorities began to green light new games, mainly from domestic firms. This month, the video game licensing regulator gave its stamp of approval to a batch of foreign titles for release in China.
Meanwhile, Chinese ride-hailing giant Didi — one of the companies caught up in the regulatory overhaul — announced plans to expand its business. Didi went public in the U.S. in June 2021, but found itself subjected to a cybersecurity review by Chinese regulators within days of listing. It eventually delisted from the New York Stock Exchange and plans to float in Hong Kong.
Over the last few days, foreign technology executives including Apple CEO Tim Cook and Qualcomm CEO Cristiano Amon visited China and met with government officials.
Jack Ma, founder of Alibaba, reappeared in the public view in China for the first time in months. Alibaba then announced a huge reorganization of its business. Experts see the move as a signal that the Chinese government is softening its stance toward tech giants after a crackdown that began in late 2020.
Jean Chung | Bloomberg | Getty Images
In addition to warming to the domestic tech sector, China is also courting foreign business. Its economy has been battered over the past two years, thanks in part to the country’s strict Covid policies and regulatory tightening. The government now aims for around 5% economic growth this year.
To achieve that, it will need the help of private businesses — including the tech sector.
“China is facing both weak economic growth and rising tech competition from the U.S. It’s a pretty tough position to be in. So they need the economy to fire on all cylinders. Tough regulations on big tech platforms just doesn’t make sense at this juncture,” Linghao Bao, tech analyst at Trivium China, told CNBC via email.
Is China tech out of the woods yet?
While there are promising signs for investors, there is also reason to be cautious, warned Xin Sun, senior lecturer in Chinese and east Asian business at King’s College London.
Sun describes the Alibaba reorganization as a move to “break up Alibaba’s business empire and to reduce its huge influence that could potentially pose a threat” to the Chinese Communist Party’s rule.
“After restructuring, the organizational structure of Alibaba will become more decentralized, and the control over its assets, data and resources will be less concentrated. The Party could then impose stronger political control over each of the new entity more easily,” Sun added.
He cautions against too much optimism around the Chinese technology sector. While the latest moves bring some regulatory certainty, many questions remain about how other tech giants might fare.
“In the short run, Alibaba’s restructuring might be perceived as the routinization of the government regulatory actions and provide some regulatory certainty for the sector,” Sun said.
“In the long run, however, it raises more questions about the fate of other tech giants. Will Tencent, Meituan, and ByteDance be broken up too? If so, do they make their own decisions or do they just wait for the order from the government? Such uncertainty will keep weighing on entrepreneurs and investors, undermining their confidence.”
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