On the second floor of a nondescript concrete building in north-east Beijing, the Youyou internet cafe is less than half full. Quiet and dark, the cafe’s customers are all adults, sitting in brown sofas in front of screens set up for hours of comfortable online gaming.
Minors aren’t allowed in, and a poster on the glass entrance reads: “The whole society together cares about the healthy growth of underage teens.” Under new regulations from the Chinese government, minors are limited to just a few hours of gaming a week, with tech platforms ordered to enforce it. The intervention is just one of a recent rush of directives from Beijing aimed at reshaping society.
The slew of regulatory overhauls has been swift and dizzying. In recent months, Chinese authorities have come for e-commerce, social media, the $100bn private education industry, artists, celebrities and reality television, affecting individuals from Alibaba boss Jack Ma to actor Vicki Zhao.
At every step, regulators justified their move as one for the greater social good. In recent weeks the focus has been on celebrity and fan culture, but other sectors haven’t been forgotten: China’s internet regulator says it has shut down and banned 1,793 so-called self-media accounts since 27 August.
On Wednesday, regulators tightened their grip on ride-sharing companies, and separately invited Tencent and Netease – two internet giants in China – in “for a talk”. The terms of the conversation – relayed by Xinhua news agency, the official state media outlet – name-checked traits being targeted in other areas of the pop culture crackdown, including what has been pejoratively described as “sissyness”, and homosexuality.
The push comes at a time when many among Chinese intelligentsia are expressing their fear of the sort of tight control reminiscent of the pre-reform days. Labelled outside China as “profound”, a “great leap backwards”, or a “second Cultural Revolution”, the vast range of new regulations on society are seen by some as an attempt by Chinese president Xi Jinping to put his stamp on young minds and cement control.
The crackdown is having a global impact, too. China is now one of the world’s biggest markets. As offending industries and individuals have been targeted, stock markets have turned skittish, major brands have scrapped deals with celebrities, tech and gaming companies have scrambled to navigate new content and distribution laws, and foreign film producers and actors have struggled to navigate the increasingly sensitive market.
In response to concerns about specific moves against the social media accounts of K-pop artists, a hugely successful music genre with an extraordinarily powerful fanbase, China’s embassy in South Korea said the crackdown was not targeted at any particular country.
“China’s actions are aimed at all words and deeds that may impact public order – customs as well as laws and regulations – and will not affect normal exchanges between China and any country,” it said on Thursday.
Some say these moves were unsurprising and inevitable. Prof Peixin Cao of the Communication University of China, an institution that has trained much of China’s TV talent, said: “Recently there have been frequent occurrences of illegal, wrong or unethical behaviours by celebrities and entertainers in the economic, political and personal fields, which made me feel that the government … [should] put forward new requirements and norms.”
Cao said there had long been calls from parental groups and social science researchers for an intervention into the “negative impact” of the industry on children, but the industry had used its economic power and media influence to ignore them.“ I believe that the general audience also has dissatisfaction with the bad ethos of the entertainment industry, and the parents of adolescents may have felt it more deeply.”
Last week, the National Radio and Television Administration asked Chinese media to “resolutely resist showing off wealth and enjoyment, hyping up gossip and privacy, negative hot topics, vulgar ‘internet celebrities’ and the bottomless appreciation of ugliness, and other pan-entertainment tendencies”.
But the regulator was also clear that the new measures were designed to create an atmosphere of love for the party and the country, as well as respect for morality and art. They asked producers to include political and moral conduct as criteria in the selection of guests and performers.
In some ways, this reflects the party’s long and complicated relationship with popular culture. “On the one hand, the party represents the people and wants culture to be popular,” said Michel Hockx, director of the Liu Institute for Asia and Asian Studies at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. “On the other hand, they really don’t approve of what the people seem to like. They consider much of popular culture to be ‘vulgar’.”
The party’s stance on culture and who writers and artists ultimately serve was laid out in a big speech by Xi in October 2014. Artists should not “lose themselves in the tide of market economy nor go astray while answering the question of ‘whom to serve’”, Xi told the forum of artists and writers. “The arts must serve the people and serve socialism.”
Hockx said: “Xi’s 2014 speech was explicit about promoting a kind of culture that could set strong moral examples, as well as promote patriotism. Since then, the various government departments have been trying in various ways to implement these ideas.”
Hockx added that the underlying moral stance under recent crackdowns on popular culture “is very conservative – a bit like 1950s American TV culture: clearly defined gender roles [with] strong patriotism”.
China v the west
Dr Hongwei Bao of the University of Nottingham observed that the changes in the ways Beijing handles these issues are related to internal as well as external changes in the past couple of years. Domestically, China was undergoing a demographic crisis, and Beijing was concerned about the fallout of it.
Meanwhile, he said, the increasing antagonism between China and the west has led to a new wave of surging nationalism within China. “Increasingly, we are seeing – both inside and outside China – the forming of the narrative ‘China v the west’. The longer the standoff persists, the more likely Beijing is to emphasise its uniqueness in comparison to the west, or to other Asian countries.”
But the changes the authorities wish to pursue may not be easy in today’s China, where decades-long economic opening and societal change have upended traditional norms and rewritten parts of the unspoken social contract between the rulers and the ruled.
“In this process, rules are challenged, negotiated and sometimes consolidated, but they are very much a two-way street,” Bao said. “The authorities cannot determine everything in today’s China. Time has changed. Things don’t always stay the same and people never give up on their hopes.”
The world’s biggest tech companies are coming out with bold commitments to tackle their climate impact but when it comes to using their corporate muscle to advocate for stronger climate policies, their engagement is almost nonexistent, according to a new report.
Apple, Amazon, Alphabet (Google’s parent company), Facebook and Microsoft poured about $65m into lobbying in 2020, but an average of only 6% of their lobbying activity between July 2020 and June 2021 was related to climate policy, according to an analysis from the thinktank InfluenceMap, which tracked companies’ self-reported lobbying on federal legislation.
The report also sought to capture tech companies’ overall engagement with climate policy by analyzing activities including their top-level communications as well as lobbying on specific legislation. It found that climate-related engagement levels of three of the five companies – Amazon, Alphabet and Microsoft – had declined compared to the previous year.
Tech companies, which have some of the deepest pockets in corporate America, have been racing to come out with increasingly ambitious climate pledges. Amazon has a target to be net zero by 2040 and to power its operations with 100% renewable energy by 2025, and Facebook has a target of net zero emissions for its entire supply chain by 2030.
In 2020, Microsoft pledged to become carbon negative by 2030 and by 2050 to have removed all the carbon the company has ever emitted. Apple has committed to become carbon neutral across its whole supply chain by 2030.
And Google has pledged to power its operations with 100% carbon-free energy by 2030, without using renewable certificates to offset any fossil-generated power. “The science is clear, we have until 2030 to chart a sustainable course for our planet or face the worst consequences of climate change,” the Google and Alphabet CEO, Sundar Pichai, said in a video announcing the policy.
Yet this strong pro-climate rhetoric is not being matched by action at a policy level, according to the report. “These gigantic companies that completely dominate the stock market are not really deploying that political capital at all,” said the InfluenceMap executive director, Dylan Tanner.
Tech companies have not been entirely silent. Apple, for example, has expressed support for the Biden administration’s proposed clean energy standard, which aims for all US-generated electricity to be renewable by 2035.
But these efforts are significantly outweighed by those of big oil and gas companies, which have ramped up their climate lobbying over the same timeframe, according to the report. “Most of their political advocacy is devoted to climate change and it’s negative,” said Tanner.
A lack of engagement is especially disappointing given the new momentum around climate action under the Biden administration, said Bill Weihl, a former Facebook and Google sustainability executive and now executive director of Climate Voice, which mobilizes tech workers to lobby their companies on climate action. “The dominant business voice on these issues is advocating against the kind of policies that we need,” he said.
Joe Biden’s $3.5tn budget reconciliation bill, which includes large investments for climate action, is facing fierce opposition from some industry groups. The US Chamber of Commerce, the country’s most powerful business lobbying group, has said it will “do everything we can to prevent this tax raising, job killing reconciliation bill from becoming law”. All of the tech companies, with the exception of Apple, are members of the Chamber.
“Our best chance to lead the planet to safety in the race against climate change is through this reconciliation bill, yet InfluenceMap has shown that big tech is still MIA on climate in Congress,” said Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, a Rhode Island Democrat and longtime advocate for climate legislation.
Microsoft and Apple declined to comment on the report and Alphabet did not respond to requests for comment. A spokesperson for Amazon said the company engages at local, state and international levels to “actively advocate for policies that promote clean energy, increase access to renewable electricity, and decarbonize the transportation system”.
A Facebook spokesperson said “we’re committed to fighting climate change and are taking substantive steps without waiting for any legislative action”, adding that the company supports the Paris climate agreement goals and helped found the Renewable Energy Buyers Alliance.
But these actions are not enough given the scale of the crisis, said Tanner. The UN warned in a report published on Friday that even if current climate emissions targets are met, the world is still on a “catastrophic pathway” for 2.7C of heating by the end of the century. “We’re running out of time,” Tanner said, “physically on climate but also on a public policy level.”
TechUK – the UK’s digital trade association representing computer giants and start-ups alike – has called on firms to check their green credentials and make sure they stand up to scrutiny.
The warning comes as UK businesses were told to brush up on their eco-claims or risk public humiliation and enforcement action by the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA).
Businesses have until the New Year to make sure their environmental claims – such as those regarding energy consumption, packaging, recycling, and product lifecycle assessments – comply with the law and are not simply an exercise in greenwashing.
As part of its efforts to steer companies, the CMA has published a six-point Green Claims Code in a bid to make it clear that anyone spouting eco-friendly claims “must not omit or hide important information” and “must consider the full life cycle of the product.”
The CMA is targeting sectors that some onlookers may regard as low hanging fruit including textiles and fashion, energy-hungry travel and transport, and fast-moving consumer goods.
However, any sector and the companies that operate within it – including tech – could fall within the CMA’s crosshairs.
In a statement, Andrea Coscelli, chief exec of the CMA, said: “We’re concerned that too many businesses are falsely taking credit for being green, while genuinely eco-friendly firms don’t get the recognition they deserve. Any business that fails to comply with the law risks damaging its reputation with customers and could face action from the CMA.”
However, there are worries the new rules may lead to confusion. In its evidence to the CMA, techUK said the six principles set out in the guidance were “not specific enough” and also called for more information to help tech firms. It also warned that different variables made in lifecycle assessments could lead to misleading results [PDF].
In a statement, Susanne Baker, associate director for Climate, Environment and Sustainability, techUK, told us: “The CMA’s guidance is important for any company making a green claim about their services, products and company. With more green claims being made by the tech sector than ever before, it’s absolutely vital that these aren’t deemed to be greenwashing.
“Firms have until the new year to address this and will need to think carefully about any green claim they make, be sure they can substantiate them, that they aren’t misleading, and are truthful and accurate,” she said.
The CMA announced that it was investigating the impact of green marketing on consumers last year when it found that 40 per cent of green claims made online could be misleading – suggesting that thousands of businesses could be breaking the law.
Amazon recently found itself fending off a whistle-blower’s claims alleging it dumped unsold goods to landfill, and later bragged that it had achieved lower carbon “intensity” in its business practices. The latter claim was shot down by an unimpressed scientist close to The Reg who remarked that the fact Amazon’s business was growing was not “helpful to Earth”, and the fact it polluted less per unit of activity didn’t change the bottom line “which is that they are polluting more this year than they did last year.”
Meanwhile, Tesla CEO Elon Musk recently announced the electric car maker will stop accepting Bitcoin payments for its vehicles, due to the “increasing use” of fossil fuels, particularly coal, to support Bitcoin’s electricity-hungry mining and transaction processing.
An Intel sponsored report by non-profit Resilience First, highlighted in June the role of tech in reaching net-zero carbon emission goals. However, making chips has been a dirty business, with a 2002 study concluding that a single 2g semiconductor chip required a whopping 1.6kg of secondary fossil fuels and 72g of chemical inputs to be put into production. ®
The data integration business growing its EMEA HQ in Dublin is set for further expansion following a $5.6bn valuation and key acquisition.
Silicon Valley-headquartered Fivetran has announced $565m in Series D funding alongside a deal to acquire HVR.
This latest funding round sees the automated data integration provider’s value reach $5.6bn just over a year after it first reached unicorn status.
The funding round from new and existing investors included General Catalyst, CEAS Investments and Matrix Partners. Andreessen Horowitz led the round, which also brought in new investors Iconiq Capital, D1 Capital Partners and YC Continuity.
In total, Fivetran has raised $730m to date. And in tandem with its Series D funding round, the company also announced a $700m cash and stock deal to acquire data replication business HVR.
‘Without an always-on, accurate and reliable way to centralise data, global organisations aren’t maximising the use of data or data infrastructure’ – MARTIN CASADO, A16Z
For Fivetran’s mission to help businesses make use of the data they have, in a way that is quicker and requires fewer resources, HVR brings database replication performance along with enterprise-grade security.
“HVR is a recognised leader for enterprise database replication and shares our same vision – to make access to data as simple and reliable as electricity,” said Fivetran CEO George Fraser. “Their product is the perfect complement to our automated data integration technology and will be instrumental for us to help enterprise organisations that want to improve their analytics with a modern data stack.”
Fraser added that the latest injection of funding from investors will enable the company to expand its capabilities and accelerate its global growth.
Fivetran established its EMEA HQ in Dublin in 2018. The following year, fresh investment saw the company plan to double its Irish workforce. Last summer, a $100m funding round saw these expansion plans furthered.
In terms of market opportunity, Andreessen Horowitz general partner Martin Casado says Fivetran is a “critical component” of the modern data stack, which represents “a paradigm shift for global enterprises, with billions of dollars of revenue at stake”.
“Without an always-on, accurate and reliable way to centralise data, global organisations aren’t maximising the use of data or data infrastructure,” said Casado.
The acquisition deal has been approved by the boards of both companies and is expected to close in early October, subject to regular approvals.
Customers from both companies are expected to benefit from each of the business offerings. On the side of Fivetran, this client list includes Autodesk, DocuSign, Forever 21, Lionsgate and Square, while HVR services dozens of Fortune 500 brands.
“Combining HVR and Fivetran will enable a next-generation solution that will better inform business decisions by providing the freshest data available,” said HVR CEO Anthony Brooks-Williams.
“We’re thrilled to be joining forces with Fivetran and look forward to what this incredible opportunity will provide for our growing team, partners and customers.”
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