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Net neutrality and the war over internet regulations, a tin coup and ambassadorial ambitions

Policy preview: net neutrality and the internet regulation fight
Perhaps the greatest US regulatory battle of the last decade – even more significant than the political fights around emissions targets or banking regulations – has been the fight over so-called ‘net neutrality.’ The term refers to the principle that internet service providers (ISPs such as AT&T and Comcast) treat all data fairly and do not throttle or accelerate speed for certain upstream or downstream actions. President Joe Biden pledged to restore the policy, but the path will not be as clear as he hopes. Net neutrality falls under the provisions of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) – which also oversees the implementation of other increasingly controversial regulations such as the Section 230 rules on whether social media companies bear responsibility for the content they share. The fight over the FCC and net neutrality has only begun.

The Obama administration’s FCC put net neutrality at the core of its tech agenda. Proponents have credited it with enabling the growth of the tech giants Facebook, Amazon, Netflix and Google, collectively known, alongside Apple, as FAANG. Republicans opposed the policy as limiting market options and raising costs for consumers, and Trump’s appointee to head the FCC, Ajit Pai, moved to unwind net neutrality from the outset of the Trump administration. Pai surprisingly announced last November that he would resign at the end of Trump’s term. He duly did so and Biden appointed Pai’s fiercest critic, Jessica Rosenworcel, as acting chair.

The FCC is overseen by five commissioners. Following Pai’s resignation, the body is evenly divided, with two Republicans and two Democrats, including Rosenworcel, with a drawn-out appointment fight all-but-certain over the fifth. Biden’s supporters, and allies in the tech sector, have already called for the resumption of net neutrality. ISPs have largely opposed it. But issues around Section 230 and internet regulation more broadly have come to the fore of the political debate in light of ex-president Donald Trump’s criticism of social media companies, the 6 January attempt by to storm Congress, and the role of tech platforms in the election and in spreading misinformation.

The Republican party can use the debate around FCC nominations to wrest control over the narrative of these issues, at least on their side of the aisle, from Trump himself. The narrow Democratic control of the Senate enables them even to hope for political victory on the appointments and to stymie Democratic attempts to shrine net neutrality into law. The battle over internet regulation has only just begun.

Dollars and sense: a tin coup
On 1 February, global tin prices surged to a new high, reaching levels not seen since early 2014. Tin has surged on the back of the global commodities boom witnessed over the last half-year, with the COVID-19 pandemic proving little challenge to metals’ best performance in years. Prices in numerous metals have already topped market expectations for the year, though there are concerns that headwinds will emerge if Beijing dials down spending later this year – a rather widely-held assumption.

In particular, there is the potential for major further volatility in tin markets. China is the world’s largest refiner as well as the largest miner of tin ore. If China does rebalance expenditures, the commodity may be particularly affected by declining demand. China’s 2019 shift to emphasize production of higher-value goods and the trade war helped see Indonesia’s PT Timah replace China’s Yunnan Tin as the world’s largest refined tin producer.

But while Beijing is the driving force of global tin production, it is only one of the Asian countries with sizable stores of tin ore, with Indonesia, Malaysia and Myanmar also major mining hubs. Data on tin production in Myanmar is particularly difficult to pin down, given the fact that many of the country’s largest mines are in territory along the Chinese border under the effective control of local militaries who frequently clash with the Myanmar military. Nevertheless, the US Geological Survey estimates it to be the third largest producer of tin ore, responsible for just over 14% of global production.

The 1 February coup in Myanmar threatens to recast the domestic environment in the country. The Western response is likely to include sanctions and a push away from businesses linked to the military, with Myanmar moving closer to China – which holds no qualms over the anti-democratic nature of the coup. Beijing could pressure the forces along its border back into talks with the Burmese military, should it so desire, including by using tin sales as leverage. In the early days it appears as if the Burmese military has already consolidated power but this is by no means guaranteed. Aung Sang Suu Kyi and the country’s democratic forces have already held some degree power for five years, and they will be loathe to give it up entirely – a statement attributed to Suu Kyi leaked in the aftermath of the coup called on the people to defend their nascent democracy.

While 2021 is already being seen by many as a boon year for commodities across the world, events in Myanmar risk superseding global market dynamics when it comes to tin prices.

Power play: ambassadorial ambitions
The announcement of Sir George Hollingbery as the incoming ambassador to Cuba has raised eyebrows, least of all because while the move was announced on 22 January, he will only take up the post in 2022. The move is even more of radical departure from standard practice at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) in that Hollingbery is not a career diplomat, but rather a former Conservative MP, having represented the Meon Valley from 2010 until he stood down ahead of the 2019 general election. His appointment has set aflutter rumours about plans to change the nature of the UK’s diplomatic core.

The move was criticised by the civil servants’ union, the FCA, and in response the FCDO pointed out that Hollingbery is my no means the first such appointment. Indeed, many politicians swapped roles as ambassadors in the 19th century, even if such appointments have been relatively uncommon in the United Kingdom over the last seventy years.

While the diplomatic core and civil service are resistant to such moves, there is evidence that political appointments can be effective. This has particularly been the case with Her Majesty’s Ambassador in Washington, D.C., where political appointees have been relatively common, from ex-Labour MP John Freeman, later an editor of the New Statesman before being named ambassador, to Peter Jay, the son-in-law of then-prime minister James Callaghan. Both were perceived to have managed.

Another recent political appointment has been received with aplomb, that of Edward Llewellyn, named as Her Majesty’s Ambassador to France in 2016. He too came from outside the diplomatic core, having held a number of political roles including Chief of Staff to David Cameron. Hollingbery was in government under both Cameron and his successor, Theresa May, for whom he served as Parliamentary Private Secretary. While there has been significant criticism domestically and abroad of the US practice of appointing political (donor) ambassadors, these appointments are very much not in the same light.

It is unlikely that the appointment of political ambassadors will become de rigueur. But there is an argument to be made that delicate relationships can at times best be handled by those who have the ear of decision makers in their own capital, to whom their competence is known. We may just see a handful more appointments that put this thesis to the test.

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