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Flexing the influence muscle

Written by Javier Maquieira, senior associate 
Edited by Iain Gibson, associate partner
12 January 2021

Good morning,

The permanent suspension of President Donald Trump’s favourite megaphone, his Twitter account, was bound to cause quite a stir, especially after Facebook had decided to boot the US president from its platforms “indefinitely”.
 
While many of Trump’s critics have applauded the decision, his social media eviction has done nothing but heighten the debate about Silicon Valley’s far-reaching editorial judgement, and how the way these platforms manage user content should be regulated, if at all.
 
Although far from being a Trump supporter, Angela Merkel sits among public figures such as Russian dissident Alexei Navalny and French finance minister Bruno Le Maire, all of whom have come to criticise the move to ban the outgoing president from Twitter and Facebook; an action Merkel sees as a “problematic” breach of the “fundamental right to free speech”.
 
According to the German chancellor’s office, such a restriction should only be imposed “within a framework defined by the legislator” and “not by the decision of the management of social media platforms”.
 
This view on regulation, which favours government intervention to force tech giants to remove illegal content versus leaving them to police their own sites, is predominant among European Union members, but isn’t as widely shared across the pond, although this might be changing.
 
In Britain, where communications regulator Ofcom is set to be given powers to investigate social media companies under the Online Harms Bill to be debated this year, health secretary Matt Hancock has taken a more subtle stance.
 
During an interview with Sophy Ridge on Sunday on Sky News, the UK government official and former culture secretary said that the decision to block Donald Trump’s accounts “does lead to very interesting questions about the role of social media companies in the editorial decisions that they take”.
 
But Silicon Valley firms have flexed their influential position far beyond social media evictions. Over the weekend, Google and Apple made the decision to suspend the “free speech” social network Parler – a Twitter clone popular among the US president’s far-right supporters – from their app stores, for failing to “appropriately police content posted by users”.
 
To top it off, Amazon, on whose cloud computing business Parler relied to operate, has stopped hosting the platform after finding it “unable to effectively identify and remove content that encourages or incites violence against others”. Effectively forced off the internet, Parler is now suing the tech giant in response, accusing it of breaking anti-trust laws.
 
Donald Trump’s reach and influence has been curtailed by the same platforms that helped bring him to the White House in the first place. Now it’s the influence of big tech that hangs on a wire, as calls for regulation gain momentum.

News

Democrats in the US House of Representatives have charged President Trump with “incitement of insurrection” as part of impeachment proceedings, following last week’s events on Capitol Hill. Meanwhile, the FBI has warned that armed protests could take place in all 50 state capital cities and Washington DC in the run-up to inauguration day. 
 
The commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, Dame Cressida Dick, has warned that people flaunting Covid-19 restrictions would find officers “moving much more quickly to enforcement action”. The move comes after Downing Street vowed to increase compliance with coronavirus rules, which could otherwise be toughened. (£) 
 
The UK has removed the United Arab Emirates (UAE) from its list of travel corridors amid a spike in Covid-19 cases in the Gulf country. The decision, which comes after Scotland took out the emirate of Dubai from its safe travel list, means anyone arriving from the UAE will need to self-isolate for 10 days.

Business and economy

Figures from the British Retail Consortium show an overall fall of 0.3% in retail sales in 2020 – the worst annual performance on record. The decline was driven by a slump in demand for fashion and homeware products, with food sales growth rising 5.4% on 2019 but non-food falling about five percent. 
 
The chancellor of the exchequer, Rishi Sunak, told the House of Commons on Monday that the UK’s economic performance would worsen before it gets better. Sunak warned that, although the vaccine provides hope for the future, tougher national restrictions would be needed to curb the spread of the coronavirus before the outlook for jobs and growth starts to improve. 
 
Sainsbury’s and Morrisons are to enforce mask wearing in their shops, following government concerns about behaviour in supermarkets. Sainsbury’s said in a statement that it would “significantly reduce” the number of customers allowed into stores at any one time, putting trained security guards to challenge those not wearing a mask and shopping in groups.

Columns of note

Rachel Sylvester writes in The Times that the appointment of one the authors of the free-market manifesto Britannia Unchained as the new business secretary is about to intensify differences within the cabinet and the Conservative party between libertarians and those in favour of extending the power of government. Sylvester looks at policy examples in which the ideological strain between these two factions has become evident, as they lay bare the prime minister’s inability to have it both ways. (£) 
 
Writing in City AM, Will Hanmer Lloyd explains the UK government’s communications failures have mainly been due to a lack of consistency, simplicity, and enforcement. He concludes that if No 10 hopes to achieve greater compliance with Covid-19 restrictions, it will need to “be consistent with what they want us to do and in the communication of these messages, keep the messages as simple as possible and see they are properly enforced”.

Cartoon source: The Times

Markets

What happened yesterday?

London stocks closed in the red on Monday amid reports of tougher Covid-19 restrictions in England coming down the track. The FTSE 100 ended the session down 1.09% at 6,798.48, while sterling was weaker against the dollar by 0.52% at $1.35 but stronger versus the euro by 0.05% at €1.11. In the US, Wall Street’s S&P 500 index slid 0.7%, while the tech-heavy Nasdaq Composite declined 1.3%.
 
In company news:
 
Smith+Nephew declined 2.37% after the medical technology company said it expects to report a seven percent decline in fourth-quarter underlying revenue and a 12% drop in full-year revenues.
 
EasyJet was up 2.09% after the budget airline strengthened its balance sheet by signing a new five-year $1.87bn (£1.4bn) term loan facility.
 
JD Sports Fashion surged 3.81% after the retailer said it was confident headline pre-tax profit for the year to 30 January 2021 would be “significantly” ahead of current market expectations of around £295m, as demand has remained robust throughout the second half.
 
Signature Aviation rallied 7.27% after Gatwick Airport co-owner Global Infrastructure Partners bought the company for $4.63bn (£3.43bn).

What’s happening today?

Interims
Accrol Gp
Games Workshop
Gateley Hldgs

AGMs
Carrs Group
Myanmar

Source: Financial Times

did you know

The Thames was declared biologically dead in 1950 but in the latest study, the river has been found to be home to seahorses, salmon, sharks, and at least 138 seal pups. (@qikipedia)

Parliamentary highlights

House of Commons

Oral questions
Health and Social Care (including Topical Questions)
 
Ten Minute Rule Motion
Abolition of Business Rates – Kevin Hollinrake
 
General debate
Covid-19
 
Adjournment
Tenth anniversary year of South Downs National Park – Andrew Griffith

House of Lords 

Oral questions
Improving enforcement rates for animal welfare and wildlife crime offences – Baroness Hayman of Ullock
 
Costs of replacing gas boilers and heaters in all homes in the UK – Lord Howell of Guildford
 
Reliance of the economy and society on the use of technology for the provision of essential services – Lord Greaves
 
Legal availability of cannabis oil to patients when prescribed by a physician – Baroness Walmsley
 
Legislation
Medicines and Medical Devices Bill – report stage (day 1) – Lord Bethell

Scottish Parliament 

Economy, Energy and Fair Work Committee
 
Health and Sport Committee
 
Justice Committee
 
Committee on the Scottish Government Handling of Harassment Complaints
 
Delegated Powers and Law Reform Committee

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