Trump puts social media on notice after summit

US President Trump has made it clear that he considers social media censorship to be a major concern that may require fresh legislation and regulation.

As we previously reported, this unprecedented convention of social media influencers at the White House that took place yesterday was already causing controversy before it had even taken place. Many commentators were concerned by the apparent fact that most of the people invited were conspicuous Trump supporters.

Judging by the tweet Trump has pinned to the top of his Twitter account, the premise for the social media summit was Trump’s concern about independent voices being censored by the major social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. “Each of you is fulfilling a vital role in our nation,” said Trump. “You’re challenging the media gatekeepers and the corporate censors to bring the facts straight to the American people.

“Together you reach more people than any television broadcast network by far. Free Speech is a bedrock of American life. Our constitutional rights must be fiercely protected and today I’m directing my administration to explore regulatory and legislative solutions to protect free speech and the free speech rights of all Americans. We hope to see transparency, more accountability and more freedom.”

The specifics of what was discussed are thin on the ground right now, but this is a clear shot across the bows of social media companies. Trump clearly believes there is a degree of political censorship on social media and not to his benefit. At the same time he seems to value social media as a counterbalance to the mainstream media, most of which he has been at war with for years. We have seen no public response from any of the social media giants and they would be wise to do so with care. It seems inevitable that there will be increased regulatory oversight of their censorship policies and even new laws on the matter. Bizarrely a Twitter global outage coincided precisely with the the White House gathering and Trump also took the trouble to fire a warning shot to Facebook about its Libra cryptocurrency plans, which you can see below.

Much of the mainstream media seems to have reacted with hostility to the event, putting ‘social media summit’ in scare quotes and characterising the attendees as ‘right wing’. To be fair any media that Trump has dismissed as ‘fake news’ (most of it) did have fairly good reason to feel provoked if you look at the Trump Twitter thread below, send immediately in advance of the summit. Underneath we’ll leave you with the full video of Trump’s speech at the event to make your own mind up about the relevance and utility of the event.

 

Battle lines drawn ahead of White House social media summit

US President Trump has invited a number of social media commentators to a discussion about the current digital environment.

This is being largely interpreted as an anecdotal investigation into the nature of social media censorship, with Trump having repeatedly raised his concerns on the matter. The major social media platforms don’t seem to have been invited, however, instead a selection of independent journalists, commentators and activists will be asked about their online experiences.

The White House hasn’t published a list of attendees, so here’s our own, in no particular order, derived from information already in the public domain. We’ve also included the number of Twitter followers each attendee has to provide some measure of their online influence. The summit takes place tomorrow.

  • Tim Pool – YouTube Journalist – 352k
  • James O’Keefe – Independent Journalist – 548k
  • Ben Garrison – Political Cartoonist – 176k
  • Charlie Kirk – Activist – 1.16m
  • Ali Alexander – Activist – 95k
  • Scott Presler – Activist – 226k
  • Bill Mitchell – Broadcaster – 445k
  • Carpe Donctum – Activist – 122k
  • PragerU – YouTube Commentator – 271k
  • Heritage Foundation – Think Tank – 649k
  • Media Research Center – Media Watchdog – 157k
  • Christian Ziegler – Activist – 3k

It has not gone unnoticed that nearly all of those invited are at the conservative end of the US political spectrum and Trump is known to be concerned that online censorship tends to affect conservatives disproportionately. It’s presumably not a coincidence that most of these conservatives also seem to be committed Trump supporters.

The presence of the two journalists at the top of the list indicates this will be more than just a Trump supporter love-in, however. “This event will bring together digital leaders for a robust conversation on the opportunities and challenges of today’s online environment,” a White House spokesperson is widely reported to have advised.

Pool has probably been chosen due to his high-profile grilling of Twitter on the Joe Rogan podcast, in which he argued some of its rules on speech it permits  are demonstrably biased against conservatives. Similarly O’Keefe’s organisation Project Veritas has recently claimed to have exposed similar political bias at Google.

So it seems clear that at least one of the primary purposes of this summit is to enable the US government to gather evidence of bias in social media censorship. Earlier this year the White House opened a web form inviting people to submit such evidence, so it’s possible this will have influenced who was invited too.

While much commentary has focused on the perceived political agenda of this summit, the absence of not only the big tech companies but big media too indicates another angle. There is a growing body of anecdotal evidence that social media censorship is increasingly biased against independent commentators and thus in favour of corporate, institutional, establishment voices.

Leftist independent commentator David Pakman has alleged in the video below that the YouTube recommendation algorithm has been changed in order to favour corporate over independent media. Most of the independents he cites are also leftist, indicating this isn’t a predominantly political move.

 

It is well documented that YouTube has been anxious about the effect of some of its more contentious contributors on revenues for some time and has implemented broad censorship in an apparent attempt to appease big advertisers. If there is bias in the recommendation algorithm in favour of corporate media it’s probably because advertisers also favour them, but every piece of arbitrary censorship seems to create as many problems as it solves.

Meanwhile, Twitter is where Trump spends much of his time and so is probably the platform he scrutinises most closely. A US appeals court recently ruled that it’s unconstitutional for Trump to block people on Twitter, but this precedent had led to other US politicians who have blocked people on Twitter being sued. Elsewhere Twitter’s recent decision to ban any comment that ‘dehumanizes others on the basis of religion’ seems destined to raise questions about selective enforcement.

Not to be out-done Facebook recently updated its policy regarding ‘violence and incitement’ with the guidance shown in the screenshot below.

Facebook policy screen

This seems to say that it’s OK to advocate high-severity violence (un-defined) against anyone Facebook considers to be a ‘dangerous individual’ or anyone said to be a violent criminal or sexual predator. Since Facebook explicitly identified several individuals as dangerous recently, some of those people have understandably interpreted this move as hostile to them.

That there is a growing body of evidence of a deeply flawed approach by social media companies to policing their platforms is undeniable. To what extent this involves political bias remains unclear, but Trump seems to think it does and, with the next US general election imminent, he seems increasingly disposed to bring the full force of the state against any tech companies deemed to be acting against the public, and his, interest. Those companies will doubtless be following this summit with interest.

We’ll leave you with Pool’s take on the whole thing.

 

Instagram experiments with benign censorship in bid to tackle bullying

Social media platform Instagram has implemented a couple of new tools that aim to take a softer approach to protecting users from harassment.

The first is designed to ‘encourage positive interactions’ but, for once, this is less Orwellian than it sounds. Instagram is using artificial intelligence to identify comments that may be considered ‘offensive’ as they are written and then presents a notification to that effect, inviting the person to think twice before publishing the comment.

The second offers to ‘protect your account from unwanted interactions’ and is even given a name: Restrict. Once you ‘restrict’ another users it makes any comments they make on your Instagram posts invisible to everyone except themselves, as well as preventing them from knowing when you’ve read their direct messages or when you’re active on the platform.

Instagram seems to be trying to minimize harm without falling into the trap of the kind of draconian blanket bans that have reflected badly on its parent company. It’s also sensitive to the fact that, in the case of bullying, victims are often reluctant to report their abusers for fear of exacerbating the problem. So offering a tool that restricts contact with another person without them knowing makes sense, especially since it doesn’t offer the power of outright censorship.

The same could also be said for the offensiveness warning. A user is apparently free to ignore it but maybe just being forced to pause before posting will prevent a lot of the spite and vitriol that social media seems to facilitate from making its way into the public domain.

Striking the right balance between freedom and safety is a core dilemma facing all social media platforms. To date they’ve largely done a bad job and have tended to over-react to specific events rather than take the lead through their own policies and technology. This Instagram initiative seems to be an attempt to change that and so should be applauded.

The potential downsides, as ever, concern vague definitions and mission creep. The perception of a comment as being offensive in intrinsically subjective, so it’s at the very least unsettling to see such a call being made by machines. Also while such messages can be ignored now, who’s to say the enforcement of this offense filter won’t become more heavy-handed in future, once everyone has accepted it?

Finally there are also distinct surveillance and data privacy implications. Does Instagram keep track of how often a user posts something its AI has deemed offensive and how often it ignores its advice to be less so? Will there eventually be more severe consequences for such behaviour? The problem with imposing any restrictions, however initially benign, is that they create the thin end of the wedge. If Instagram starts punishing its users because its HAL-like AI disapproves of them this move could start to backfire significantly.

 

US Senator moves to strip social media giants of platform status

The issue of social media censorship has caught the attention of the US Senate, where one member has proposed stripping tech giants of their legal protection as platforms.

Section 230 of the absurdly-named Communications Decency Act states “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider”. It’s considered a vital piece of legislation for the internet as without it platforms such as forums, social media and YouTube wouldn’t be able to allow their users to instantly upload their own comment and content.

The key feature concerns legal protection. If you’re considered a publisher as, for example, Telecoms.com is, then you’re legally liable for everything that appears on your site as you are considered to have published it yourself. If US law views you as a platform, however, you are spared such liability because you’re deemed to have no influence over what gets whacked up on your site by its users.

When you start censoring them, however, that line becomes blurred. If, say, Facebook decides certain types of content are not allowed on its platform and actively censors them, then the implication is that it approves of everything it doesn’t censor. That, in turn could be perceived as it acting more like a publisher than a platform and should therefore lose its legal protections.

This seems to be the view of US Senator Josh Hawley, who has introduced new legislation he’s calling the Ending Support for Internet Censorship Act. “With Section 230, tech companies get a sweetheart deal that no other industry enjoys: complete exemption from traditional publisher liability in exchange for providing a forum free of political censorship,” said Hawley. “Unfortunately, and unsurprisingly, big tech has failed to hold up its end of the bargain.

“There’s a growing list of evidence that shows big tech companies making editorial decisions to censor viewpoints they disagree with. Even worse, the entire process is shrouded in secrecy because these companies refuse to make their protocols public. This legislation simply states that if the tech giants want to keep their government-granted immunity, they must bring transparency and accountability to their editorial processes and prove that they don’t discriminate.”

The long and short of it is that Section 230 protection will no longer be an automatic right for any tech company that has either: more than 30 million active monthly users in the U.S., more than 300 million active monthly users worldwide, or who have more than $500 million in global annual revenue. Instead they would have to earn that status by regularly convincing the FTC that their algorithms and content-removal practices are politically neutral.

This move has probably been urged by US President Trump, who has made it clear that he thinks social media censorship is biased against conservatives and probably thinks it’s also biased against him personally. It’s no secret that Silicon Valley is a largely Democrat, as opposed to Republican, environment and there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence of political bias in social media censorship and if this bill went through they would be under immense pressure to stop it.

The companies themselves don’t seem to have publicly commented on the proposed bill, but the internet seems split. Plenty of commentators such as the EFF and Techdirt think the move is unconstitutional and would give too much power of censorship to the government. The Verge, however, has adopted a neutral stance for now and independent YouTube Journalist Tim Pool seems to think it’s a positive development.


We think it’s right that social media companies should be stripped of their Section 230 protection if they start acting as censors, and thus publishers, but don’t think the answer is for the state to have power of censorship over them. If, instead, they just passed a law banning the censorship of all legal material that would solve the problem without making these private companies beholden to the whims of the state.

 

YouTube CEO’s struggle session was futile

In her first public statements since last week’s censorship controversy YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki attempted to strike a balance between freedom of speech and censorship.

As a quick reminder: one YouTube user claimed to be the subject of homophobic harassment by another user and wanted them censored accordingly. YouTube initially said none of its policies had been violated but on further reflection decided to demonetize (stop serving ads, which are the primary source of revenue for YouTubers) the channel of the accused.

At a live event hosted by Recode – a tech site owned by Vox, which also employs the above complainant, Carlos Maza – Wojcicki insisted on making a public apology to ‘the LGBTQ community’ before answering any questions. This was presumably in response to critics from within that group of the decisions made, of which Maza himself remains one of the most persistent.

Wojcicki moved on to recap what had taken place, which consisted of two distinct but parallel events. The first was the announcement of measures YouTube is taking against ‘hate speech’, which had apparently been in the pipeline for a while. The second was Maza’s allegations and demands, which YouTube addressed separately.

For two such separate issues, however, there seemed to be a fair bit of overlap. Firstly it was revealed that YouTube had pre-briefed the media about the hate speech announcement, raising the possibility that Maza was aware of it when he made his allegations on Twitter. Secondly the decision to demonetize the offending channel coincided precisely with outcry at the original decision that none of its policies had been transgressed, despite that decision having apparently taken 5 days to make.

In the context of hate speech Wojcicki also mentioned that laws addressing it vary widely from country to country. This highlighted one of the central dilemmas faced by internet platforms, that they’re increasingly expected to police speech beyond the boundaries of legality. Their attempts to do so lie at the core of the impossible position that they’re now in.

The interviewer expressed sympathy about the impossibilities of censoring an open platform at such scale and Wojcicki could only say that YouTube is constantly striving to improve and pointed to recent pieces of censorship as proof that it’s doing so. She pushed back at the suggestion that YouTube moderate every upload before publication, saying a lot of voices would be lost. She pointed instead to the tiered model that allows for things like demonetization of contentious content.

This model was also used in defence of another couple of specific cases flagged up by the interviewer. The first concerned a recent cover story on the New York Times, the headline of which spoke of one YouTube user who found himself brainwashed by the ‘far-right’ as a result of recommendations from YouTube, but the substance of which indicated the opposite. Wojcicki said another tool they use is reducing the recommendations towards contentious content in order to make it harder to find.

The other case was of a US 14-year-old YouTuber called Soph, who recently got one of her videos taken down due to some of its content, but whose channel remains. The utter futility of trying to assess and potentially censor every piece of content uploaded to the platform was raised once more and, not for the first time, Wojcicki attempted to steer the conversation to the 99% of content on YouTube that is entirely benign.

Carlos Maza responded to the interview with the following tweet, inspired by a question from the audience querying the sincerity of Wojcicki’s apology to the LGBTQ community, to which she responded that she is really sincere. Maza’s tweet indicates he won’t be happy until anything perceived as harassment of ‘queer’ people is censored from YouTube.

You can see the full interview below. As well as the prioritised apology, this did seem like a good-faith attempt by Wojcicki to openly address the many complexities and contradictions faced by any censor. It seems very unlikely that her critics will have been swayed by her talk of nuance and context, however, and there is little evidence that this interview solved anything. Still, at least she gave it a go and if nothing else it will have been good practice for the many other such struggle sessions Wojcicki will doubtless have to endure in future.

 

YouTube squirms under the contradictions of its censorship

Having initially taken a position in favour of freedom of speech, YouTube has now lurched towards censorship following public pressure.

Yesterday we told you about the matter of Vox journalist Carlos Maza versus YouTuber Steven Crowder. Crowder had frequently made mocking reference to Maza’s sexual orientation in videos he made to rebut Maza’s own videos. Maza felt this was homophobic harassment and called on YouTube to censor Crowder’s channel on the platform.

YouTube initially responded by saying that, while it didn’t endorse Crowder’s actions, they didn’t violate any of its policies and so he wouldn’t be punished. Maza was unhappy about this and made his feelings clear on Twitter. The decision quickly turned into a PR nightmare for YouTube, with most mainstream media reporting the decision as YouTube ‘tolerating’ homophobic content.

This precipitated a major rethink by YouTube, which published a couple of blog posts apparently designed to appease the many critics of its initial decision. The first was headlined ‘Our ongoing work to tackle hate’, which addressed the difficulties of policing so-called ‘hate speech’ on the platform.

“Today, we’re taking another step in our hate speech policy by specifically prohibiting videos alleging that a group is superior in order to justify discrimination, segregation or exclusion based on qualities like age, gender, race, caste, religion, sexual orientation or veteran status,” announced the post. It also said YouTube is stepping up its efforts to limit the availability of stuff that doesn’t violate its policies, but is still deemed dodgy by its own arbitrary judgment.

While that post didn’t specifically address the Maza/Crowder situation, YouTube’s second one, Taking a harder look at harassment, did and tried to tackle the free speech dilemma at hand. “If we were to take all potentially offensive content down, we’d be losing valuable speech — speech that allows people everywhere to raise their voices, tell their stories, question those in power, and participate in the critical cultural and political conversations of our day,” said the post.

Inevitably, however, YouTube found itself in the position of effectively saying ‘we’re totally in favour of free speech but…’ as all exponents of selective censorship eventually do. “Even if a creator’s content doesn’t violate our community guidelines, we will take a look at the broader context and impact, and if their behavior is egregious and harms the broader community, we may take action,” the post continued.

“In the case of Crowder’s channel, a thorough review over the weekend found that individually, the flagged videos did not violate our Community Guidelines. However, in the subsequent days, we saw the widespread harm to the YouTube community resulting from the ongoing pattern of egregious behavior, took a deeper look, and made the decision to suspend monetization. In order to be considered for reinstatement, all relevant issues with the channel need to be addressed, including any videos that violate our policies, as well as things like offensive merchandise.”

That last paragraph appears to be a clear attempt to appease its critics, but for those hoping to see Crowder kicked off YouTube, as has happened to many other ‘egregious’ content producers, merely demonetizing the channel was not enough. Maza once more took to Twitter to make his dissatisfaction clear in no uncertain terms. Crowder, meanwhile, invited Vox to subscribe to his channel.

From those two blog posts it does seem like YouTube is genuinely trying to find the optimal point of censorship that will satisfy both Maza and Crowder but this is, of course, impossible. Censorship, by definition, involves the imposition of a set of rules and values on other people who may not agree with them. When you also find yourself in the middle of a culture war it’s probably impossible to please anyone, let alone everyone.

One of the challenges of using nebulous neologisms like ‘hate speech’ is that they’re very difficult to define. YouTube attempted to do so in its first post by talking about discrimination against people on the basis of a number of characteristics. Unstated, but always implicit, in such policies is that enforcement is usually one directional – i.e. not all characteristics are subject to protection from ‘hate speech’ – which often leads to claims of bias against those not protected.

More broadly, as soon as a censor acts against a type of speech it then comes under pressure to apply that sanction to each and every other instance of that type under its jurisdiction even-handedly. If it doesn’t then it’s reasonable to conclude there is some bias built into the process, which will displease those who consider themselves adversely affected by it.

Another major issue social media censorship raises is the status of services like YouTube, Facebook and Twitter. They are currently legally positioned at ‘platforms’ which means they’re not responsible for the content they host. As they increasingly act in an editorial capacity, however, there is a good argument that they should be reclassified as publishers, which would fundamentally undermine their whole model.

As we wrote yesterday, those calling for censorship should be careful what they wish for since it could one day be applied to them. Maza wants Crowder to be censored for harassing him, but himself recently called for the harassment of people whose politics he disapproves of. Under these new rules should he not be punished too?

We will leave you, appropriately enough, with a couple of YouTube clips. The first features Crowder discussing the matter with independent journalist Tim Pool, who is sympathetic to him but is more interested in exploring some of the broader issues this case highlights. The second is an excerpt from a recent podcast published by Joe Rogan, in which he and leftist commentator David Pakman wrestle with the complexities of the matter. Both illustrate the impossible position YouTube has put itself in by acting as a censor.

 

Four Chinese operators are awarded 5G licences

All the four incumbent telecom operators in China received commercial 5G licences, raising the curtain on the commercial rollout of the next generation mobile networks in the world’s biggest telecom market.

The Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, both the government policy making body and the telecom regulator in China, announced earlier this week that 5G licences would be awarded soon. It turned out the market did not need to wait for too long. On Thursday, 6 June 2019, all the four state-owned telecom operators were awarded 5G commercial licences. These include China Mobile, the world’s biggest mobile operator by subscriber numbers, China Telecom, the world’s largest integrated telecom operator by subscriber numbers, China Broadcasting Network Corporation Ltd, the state broadcaster which was awarded a basic telecom service licence in 2016, and China Unicom.

Three of them (except for Broadcasting Network) received 5G trial licences at the end of 2018. Trials by China Telecom and China Unicom were conducted on the 3.5GHz band, while China Mobile conducted its trials on the 2.6GHz and 4.9GHz bands. The consensus at that time was China would not roll out commercial 5G services until 2020 when all the major standalone (SA) mode standards are frozen. The latest move looks to be pushing the schedule forward.

Earlier this year, China Telecom announced that it had live trialled out 5G in 17 cities. China Unicom announced that it would extensively cover seven cities with 5G and cover the hotspots in 33 more cities. China Mobile also pledged to cover 40 cities with 5G. China Unicom has also certified six 5G smartphones and five industrial terminals.

The Minister for Industry and Information Technology spoke at the ceremony that China “will continue to welcome overseas enterprises to participate in the rollout of China’s 5G networks”. But the largest beneficiaries are expected to be China’s leading equipment vendors Huawei and ZTE, both of which quickly pledged their full support to the Chinese operators with their “end-to-end 5G capabilities”.

Nokia and Ericsson, both with sizeable footprints in China’s 3G and 4G networks, may carry the investors’ expectations to maximise their shares in the Chinese market, but may feel the heat of the ongoing trade war between the US and China and the exclusion of Huawei from 5G in a number of western markets. On the other hand, if the sanction is not lifted fast enough, despite the claim that it has built a stockpile of components, Huawei may soon find it difficult to supply the equipment needed by the Chinese operators.

YouTube is stuck in the middle of a war between mainstream media and independent creators

Internet platforms have become proxies in a culture war between corporate-backed commentators and independent ones.

The latest round in this battle has been fought on YouTube, specifically between a journalist who works for Vox called Carlos Maza and a YouTuber called Stephen Crowder. In a series of recent tweets Maza accused Crowder of homophobic harassment and called on YouTube to punish his channel for violating its own rules on such things.

 

YouTube eventually responded via Twitter by saying that, while it can see why Maza would feel hurt by some of Crowder’s comments, they didn’t violate its policies and thus would not be punished. It stressed that, as an open platform, it can’t punish everything that may be considered offensive and that refusing to take down a video was in no way a corporate endorsement of its content.  

The reason this is a big deal is that it touches on a lot of the cultural divisions currently being played out over, and probably exacerbated by, social media. Not only do the two protagonists seem to be on opposite sides of the political divide, they seem to be culturally and personally opposed to each other too. On top of that Vox Media has raised hundreds of millions of dollars in finding and has US giant Comcast as a significant minority shareholder, while Crowder claims to be entirely funded by subscriptions and merchandise sales.

So in many ways these two people are viewed as proxies in the broader culture war and whichever way YouTube went on this would be viewed as a victory for one team or the other. This dispute, and others like it, also serve as test cases for internet censorship in general – specifically what sort of content should be censored.

Maza argues that, by frequently referring to his sexual orientation, Crowder is being homophobic and that a failure to act against such speech is, in itself, essentially homophobic. Crowder, in the video below, says that’s ‘friendly ribbing’ and says he figured referring to his sexual orientation wouldn’t be an issue since Maza’s own Twitter handle is ‘@gaywonk’.

Crowder goes on to use comedy as a defence, which really cuts to the heart of the censorship debate. A core component of much comedy is pushing boundaries and saying the unsayable. Social platforms and national laws have a wide range of attitudes towards comedy and definitions of speech that shouldn’t be allowed and there’s no clear consensus.

YouTube seems to be more concerned about upsetting its big advertisers than policing speech, which is why it usually opts to demonetize contentious content rather than ban it outright. For this reason many independent YouTubers, such as Tim Pool below, are upset at Maza because they think he’s trying to provoke YouTube into demonetizing the kind of content they produce, as opposed to his own, of course.

Maza himself doesn’t seem to have made a video addressing this issue, although he has made his displeasure at YouTube’s decision abundantly clear on Twitter. But he has had plenty to say on the culture war being fought over social media in the past, of which the following video is a good example.

Maza makes a good point about how the algorithms that determine the recommendations we receive on social media sites inevitably lead to polarisation. He concludes, however, with an apparent call for censorship of what he describes as ‘bad apples’. Here we have the essential problem with censorship – deciding who should be censored. You can probably identify who Maza thinks should be censored from the video and his editorial angle, but how confident can he be that he won’t, one day, be identified as a bad apple too, despite his publication’s considerable corporate backing?

As with so many others, the internet censorship debate comes down to where on the freedom-safety continuum you lie. As journalists we are instinctively in favour of as much freedom of speech as possible, while acknowledging there have to be some legal limits to it. It’s therefore surprising to see other media actively calling for increased censorship and we urge them to be careful what they wish for.

Estonia is best digital home away from home, report says

Expats voted Estonia to the top of their digital life quality list in a new survey.

InterNations, a social network for expats, recently conducted a global survey to gauge the perception of digital lives enjoyed by those living in a foreign country. 68 countries were featured. Although most of the findings confirmed the conventional wisdom, the report also threw up a couple of surprises.

Overall, the Nordic countries ranked high, with Finland, Norway, and Denmark all in the top 5 best countries for digital life table. But topping the list is Estonia, which ranked exceptionally high on the e-government index, with 94% of all expats surveyed feeling satisfied with the availability of the country’s administrative services. Estonia also topped the table of unrestricted access to online services. The country, similar to other Baltic and Nordic countries, adopts a light-touch approach towards Internet. Following Estonia on the e-government satisfaction list is Singapore, with Norway coming second on the unrestricted access to online service table.

Unsurprisingly, South Korea, which leads the world in broadband access, also tops the league of high-speed internet at home, followed by Taiwan and Finland. Expats were also asked to rate their experience of cashless payment. The four Nordic countries took the top 4 positions, with Estonia rounding off the top 5. Finland was ranked in the first place, with 96% expats saying they are happy with the experience.

A question that is particularly relevant to expats is how easy it is to get a local mobile number. Here we see a bit surprise. Myanmar, which ranked at the bottom of the overall Digital Life table, came on top in this list, followed by New Zealand and Israel.

On the other end of the tables, China was only beaten by Myanmar to the bottom of the overall Digital Life table and sat comfortably at the bottom of “Unrestricted Access to Internet”, thanks to the all powerful Great Firewall. This is particularly pertinent for expats who would have a stronger need for the global social networks more than the local residents, to communicate with their home countries. 83% of all expats were unsatisfied with their access to social networks from China, followed in the second from bottom by Saudi Arabia, where 46% said they were unsatisfied.

The ranking may not be a big surprise, but the margin between the bottom two countries may be. The only table that China was not in the bottom 10 was the one on cashless payment. But, maybe surprisingly, with all the fanfare about the contactless payment experience enabled by companies like Alibaba and Tencent, expats living in China did not manage to take the country to the top 10 table either.

Best and worst countries for Digital Life