US State Department Creates Bureau to Tackle Digital Threats

The State Department is creating a new Bureau of Cyberspace and Digital Policy to focus on tackling cybersecurity challenges at a time of growing threats from opponents. There will also be a new special envoy for critical and emerging technology, who will lead the technology diplomacy agenda with U.S. allies.

On Wednesday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the organizational changes underscore the need for a robust approach for dealing with cyber threats. 

“We want to make sure technology works for democracy, fighting back against disinformation, standing up for internet freedom, and reducing the misuse of surveillance technology,” Blinken said in a speech on modernizing American diplomacy. 

Blinken said the new bureau will be led by an ambassador-at-large. The chief U.S. diplomat is also seeking a 50% increase in State Department’s information technology budget. 

The announcement comes as hackers backed by foreign governments, such as Russia and China, continue to attack U.S. infrastructures and global technology systems to steal sensitive information.

Earlier this year, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence said that more countries are relying on cyber operations to steal information, influence populations and damage industry, but the U.S. is most concerned about Russia, China, Iran and North Korea.

The U.S. technology giant Microsoft said on Monday that the same Russia-backed hackers responsible for the 2020 SolarWinds breach of corporate computer systems are continuing to attack global technology systems, this time targeting cloud service resellers.

A senior State Department official told reporters on Wednesday that Washington has been clear with Moscow that cyber criminals targeting the U.S. is “not acceptable.” The United States has asked the Russian government to “take action against that type of criminal behavior.” 

Confronting cyberattacks continues to be “a high priority” in U.S. relations with Russia, the senior official said.

China is also considered to be one of the United States’ main cyber adversaries, having coordinated teams both inside and outside of the government conducting cyberespionage campaigns that were large-scale and indiscriminate, according to analysts.

Over the past year, experts have attributed notable hacks in the U.S., Europe and Asia to China’s Ministry of State Security, the nation’s civilian intelligence agency, which has taken the lead in Beijing’s cyberespionage, consolidating efforts by the People’s Liberation Army. 

In addition to expanding the State Department’s capacity on cybersecurity, Blinken also unveiled other steps to modernize American diplomacy, including the launch of a new “policy ideas channel” that allows American diplomats to share their policy ideas directly with senior leadership, building and retaining a diverse workforce, as well as a plan to “reinvigorate the in-person diplomacy and public engagement.” 

The organization changes to beef up resources and staffers to tackle international cybersecurity challenges came after the State Department completed an extensive review of cyberspace and emerging technology.

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Five Things Facebook Has to Worry About After Whistleblower Disclosures

The past several weeks have been difficult for the social media behemoth Facebook, with a series of whistleblower revelations demonstrating that the company knew its signature platform was exacerbating all manner of social ills around the globe, from human trafficking to sectarian violence.   

The tide shows no sign of receding. New revelations this week have demonstrated that the company’s supposed commitment to freedom of expression takes a back seat to its bottom line when repressive governments, like Vietnam’s, demand that dissent be silenced. They showed that Facebook knew its algorithms were steering users toward extreme content, such as QAnon conspiracy theories and phony anti-vaccine claims, but took few steps to remedy the problem.

 

In statements to various media outlets, the company has defended itself, saying it dedicates enormous resources to assuring safety on its platform and asserting that much of the information provided to journalists and government officials has been taken out of context.   

In a conference call to discuss the company’s quarterly earnings on Monday, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg claimed that recent media coverage is painting a misleading picture of his company.   

“Good faith criticism helps us get better,” Zuckerberg said. “But my view is that what we are seeing is a coordinated effort to selectively use leaked documents to paint a false picture of our company. The reality is that we have an open culture, where we encourage discussion and research about our work so we can make progress on many complex issues that are not specific to just us.”   

The revelations, as well as unrelated business challenges, mean that Facebook, which also owns Instagram and the messaging service WhatsApp, has a lot of things to worry about in the coming weeks and months. Here are five of the biggest. 

A potential SEC investigation 

Whistleblower Frances Haugen, a former product manager with the company, delivered thousands of pages of documents to lawmakers and journalists last month, prompting the wave of stories about the company’s practices. But the documents also went to the Securities and Exchange Commission, raising the possibility of a federal investigation of the company. 

Haugen claims the documents provide evidence that the company withheld information that might have affected investors’ decisions about purchasing Facebook’s stock. Among other things, she says that the documents show that Facebook knew that its number of actual users — a key measurement of its ability to deliver the advertising it depends on for its profits — was lower than it was reporting.   

 

The SEC has not indicated whether or not it will pursue an investigation into the company, and a securities fraud charge would be difficult to prove, requiring evidence that executives actively and knowingly misled investors. But even an investigation could be harmful to the company’s already bruised corporate image. 

In a statement provided to various media, a company spokesperson said, “We make extensive disclosures in our S.E.C. filings about the challenges we face, including user engagement, estimating duplicate and false accounts, and keeping our platform safe from people who want to use it to harm others . . . All of these issues are known and debated extensively in the industry, among academics and in the media. We are confident that our disclosures give investors the information they need to make informed decisions.”   

Antitrust suit 

Facebook is already being sued by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which claims that between the company’s main site, Instagram, and WhatsApp, Facebook exercises monopoly power in the social media market. The agency is demanding that the three platforms be split up.   

Facebook has publicly claimed it does not have monopoly power, but internal documents made available by Haugen demonstrate that the company knows it is overwhelmingly dominant in some areas, potentially handing the FTC additional ammunition as it attempts to persuade a federal judge to break up the company.  

Legislative action 

Congress doesn’t agree on much these days, but Haugen’s testimony in a hearing last month sparked bipartisan anger at Facebook and Instagram, especially over revelations that the latter has long been aware that its platform is harmful to the mental health of many teenage users, particularly young girls. 

Several pieces of legislation have since been introduced, including a proposal to create an “app ratings board” that would set age and content ratings for applications on internet-enabled devices.  

  

Others seek to make social media companies like Facebook liable for harm done by false information circulating on the platform, or to force the company to offer stronger privacy protections and to give users the right to control the spread of content about themselves. 

Ramya Krishnan, a staff attorney at the Knight First Amendment Institute and a lecturer in law at Columbia Law School, is one of many academics who have been pushing for lawmakers to require Facebook and other social media platforms to allow researchers and journalists better access to data about their audiences and their engagement.   

“We’ve seen increased interest among lawmakers and regulators in expanding the space for research and journalism focused on the platform, reflecting the understanding that in order to effectively regulate the platforms we need to better understand the effect that they are having on society and democracy,” she told VOA.

 

Internal dissent 

One of the most striking things about the documents released this week is the amount of anger inside Facebook over the company’s public image. The disclosures include reams of internal messages and other communications in which Facebook employees complain about the company’s unwillingness to police content on the site.   

“I’m struggling to match my values to my employment here,” one employee wrote in response to the assault on the U.S. Capitol on January 6, which was partly organized on Facebook. “I came here hoping to effect change and improve society, but all I’ve seen is atrophy and abdication of responsibility.”  

The documents show that the company is losing employees — particularly those charged with combating hate speech and misinformation — because they don’t believe their efforts have the support of management. 

Advertiser boycott 

Last year the Anti-Defamation League organized a campaign to pressure companies to “pause” their advertising on Facebook in protest over its failure to eliminate hateful rhetoric on the platform. In a statement given to VOA, Jonathan A. Greenblatt, the group’s CEO, said it is preparing to do so again. 

“Mark Zuckerberg would have you believe that Facebook is doing all it can to address the amplification of hate and disinformation,” Greenblatt said. “Now we know the truth: He was aware it was happening and chose to ignore internal researchers’ recommendations and did nothing about it. So we will do something about it, because literally, lives have been lost and people are being silenced and killed as a direct result of Facebook’s negligence.”   

He continued, “We are in talks to decide what the best course of action is to bring about real change at Facebook, whether it’s with policymakers, responsible shareholders, or advertisers,” he said. “But make no mistake: We’ve successfully taken on Facebook’s hate and misinformation machine before, and we aren’t afraid to do it again. It’s time to rein in this rogue company and its harmful products.” 

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International Police Operation Cracks Down on Illegal Internet Drug Vendors

U.S. federal law enforcement agencies and Europol announced dozens of arrests to break up a global operation that sold illegal drugs using a shadowy realm of the internet. 

At a Department of Justice news conference Tuesday in Washington, officials said they arrested 150 people for allegedly selling illicit drugs, including fake prescription opioids and cocaine, over the so-called darknet. Those charged are alleged to have carried out tens of thousands of illegal sales using a part of the internet that is accessible only by using specialized anonymity tools. 

The 10-month dragnet called “Operation HunTor” — named after encrypted internet tools — resulted in the seizure of 234 kilograms of drugs, including amphetamines, cocaine and opioids worth more than $31 million. Officials said many of the confiscated drugs were fake prescription pills laced with the powerful synthetic opioid fentanyl. The counterfeit tablets are linked to a wave of drug overdoses.

“This international law enforcement operation spanned across three continents and sends one clear message to those hiding on the darknet peddling illegal drugs: there is no dark internet,” said U.S. Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco. 

Investigators rounded up and arrested 65 people in the United States. Other arrests occurred in Australia, Bulgaria, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom. In addition to counterfeit medicine, authorities also confiscated more than 200,000 ecstasy, fentanyl, oxycodone, hydrocodone, and methamphetamine pills. 

“We face new and increasingly dangerous threats as drug traffickers expand into the digital world and use the darknet to sell dangerous drugs like fentanyl and methamphetamine,” said Anne Milgram, administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). “We cannot stress enough the danger of these substances.” 

The international police agency Europol worked alongside the U.S. Justice Department’s Joint Criminal Opioid and Darknet Enforcement team.

 

“No one is beyond the reach of the law, even on the dark web,” said Jean-Philippe Lecouffe, Europol’s deputy executive director.

 

The dark web is preferred by criminal networks who want to keep their internet activities private and anonymous. In this case, it served as a platform for illegal cyber sales of counterfeit medication and other drugs that were delivered by private shipping companies. 

Investigators said the fake drugs are primarily made in laboratories in Mexico using chemicals imported from China. Prosecutors also targeted drug dealers who operated home labs to manufacture fake prescription pain pills. 

“Those purchasing drugs through the darknet often don’t know what they’re getting,” Associate Deputy FBI Director Paul Abbate said. The joint investigation followed enforcement efforts in January in which authorities shut down “DarkMarket,” the world’s largest illegal international marketplace on the dark web. 

Last month, the DEA warned Americans that international and domestic drug dealers were flooding the country with fake pills, driving the U.S. overdose crisis. The agency confiscated more the 9.5 million potentially lethal pills in the last year.

More than 93,000 Americans died from drug overdoses in 2020, the highest number on record, according the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. U.S. health officials attribute the rise to the use of fentanyl, which can be 100 times more potent than morphine. 

U.S. officials said investigations are continuing and more arrests are expected.

 

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Artificial Intelligence-Powered App Helps Musicians Learn to Play

A popular new music app uses artificial intelligence to “democratize” how musicians of all skill levels learn and play music. VOA’s Julie Taboh has more.

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Rental Car Company Hertz Announces Purchase of 100,000 Teslas 

Car rental company Hertz says it will buy 100,000 electric cars from Tesla. 

Hertz interim CEO Mark Fields said the Model 3 cars could be ready for renters as early as November, The Associated Press reported. 

Fields said the reason for the move was that electric cars are becoming mainstream, and consumer interest in them is growing.

“More are willing to try and buy,” he told AP. “It’s pretty stunning.” 

All of the cars should be available by the end of 2022, the company said. When all are delivered, they will make up 20% of the company’s fleet.

Hertz, which emerged from bankruptcy in June, did not disclose the cost of the order, but it could be valued at as much as $4 billion, according to some news reports. 

The company said it plans to build its own charging station network, with 3,000 in 65 locations by the end of 2022 and 4,000 by the end of 2023. Renters will also have access to Tesla’s charging network for a fee. 

Tesla stock jumped as much as 12% on the news 

Some information in this report came from The Associated Press. 

 

 

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Facebook Whistleblower Presses Case with British Lawmakers 

Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen told British lawmakers Monday that the social media giant “unquestionably” amplifies online hate. 

In testimony to a parliamentary committee in London, the former Facebook employee echoed what she told U.S. senators earlier this month.

Haugen said the media giant fuels online hate and extremism and does not have any incentive to change its algorithm to promote less divisive content.

She argued that as a result, Facebook may end up sparking more violent unrest around the world.

Haugen said the algorithm Facebook has designed to promote more engagement among users “prioritizes and amplifies divisive and polarizing extreme content” as well as concentrates it. 

Facebook did not respond to Haugen’s testimony Monday. Earlier this month, Haugen addressed a Senate committee and said the company is harmful. Facebook rejected her accusations. 

“The argument that we deliberately push content that makes people angry for profit is deeply illogical,” said Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. 

Haugen’s testimony comes as a coalition of new organizations Monday began publishing stories on Facebook’s practices based on internal company documents that Haugen secretly copied and made public. 

Haugen is a former Facebook product manager who has turned whistleblower. 

Earlier this month when Haugen addressed U.S. lawmakers, she argued that a federal regulator was needed to oversee large internet companies like Facebook. 

British lawmakers are considering creating such a national regulator as part of a proposed online safety bill. The legislation also proposes fining companies like Facebook up to 10% of their global revenue for any violations of government policies. 

Representatives from Facebook and other social media companies are set to address British lawmakers on Thursday. 

Haugen is scheduled to meet with European Union policymakers in Brussels next month.

Some information in this report came from the Associated Press and Reuters. 

 

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In Face of Hack Attacks, US State Department to Set Up Cyber Bureau

The U.S. State Department plans to establish a bureau of cyberspace and digital policy in the face of a growing hacking problem, specifically a surge of ransomware attacks on U.S. infrastructure. 

State Department spokesperson Ned Price said a Senate-confirmed ambassador at large will lead the bureau. 

Hackers have struck numerous U.S. companies this year. 

One such attack on pipeline operator Colonial Pipeline led to temporary fuel supply shortages on the U.S. East Coast. Hackers also targeted an Iowa-based agricultural company, sparking fears of disruptions to Midwest grain harvesting. 

Two weeks ago, the Treasury Department said suspected ransomware payments totaling $590 million were made in the first six months of this year. It put the cryptocurrency industry on alert about its role fighting ransomware attacks. 

 

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Facebook’s Language Gaps Weaken Screening of Hate, Terrorism

In Gaza and Syria, journalists and activists feel Facebook censors their speech, flagging inoffensive Arabic posts as terrorist content. In India and Myanmar, political groups use Facebook to incite violence. All of it frequently slips through the company’s efforts to police its social media platforms because of a shortage of moderators who speak local languages and understand cultural contexts.

Internal company documents from the former Facebook product manager-turned-whistleblower Frances Haugen show the problems plaguing the company’s content moderation are systemic, and that Facebook has understood the depth of these failings for years while doing little about it.

Its platforms have failed to develop artificial-intelligence solutions that can catch harmful content in different languages. As a result, terrorist content and hate speech proliferate in some of the world’s most volatile regions. Elsewhere, the company’s language gaps lead to overzealous policing of everyday expression.

This story, along with others published Monday, is based on former Facebook product manager-turned-whistleblower Frances Haugen’s disclosures to the Securities and Exchange Commission, which were also provided to Congress in redacted form by her legal team. The redacted versions received by Congress were obtained by a consortium of news organizations, including The Associated Press.

In a statement to the AP, a Facebook spokesperson said that over the last two years the company has invested in recruiting more staff with local dialect and topic expertise to bolster its review capacity globally.

When it comes to Arabic content moderation, in particular, the company said, “We still have more work to do.”

But the documents show the problems are not limited to Arabic. In Myanmar, where Facebook-based misinformation has been linked repeatedly to ethnic violence, the company’s internal reports show it failed to stop the spread of hate speech targeting the minority Rohingya Muslim population.

In India, the documents show moderators never flagged anti-Muslim hate speech broadcast by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s far-right Hindu nationalist group because Facebook lacked moderators and automated filters with knowledge of Hindi and Bengali.

Arabic, Facebook’s third-most common language, does pose particular challenges to the company’s automated systems and human moderators, each of which struggles to understand spoken dialects unique to each country and region, their vocabularies salted with different historical influences and cultural contexts. The platform won a vast following across the region amid the 2011 Arab Spring, but its reputation as a forum for free expression in a region full of autocratic governments has since changed.

Scores of Palestinian journalists have had their accounts deleted. Archives of the Syrian civil war have disappeared. During the 11-day Gaza war last May, Facebook’s Instagram app briefly banned the hashtag #AlAqsa, a reference to the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem’s Old City, a flashpoint of the conflict. The company later apologized, saying it confused Islam’s third-holiest site for a terrorist group.

Criticism, satire and even simple mentions of groups on the company’s Dangerous Individuals and Organizations list — a docket modeled on the U.S. government equivalent — are grounds for a takedown.

“We were incorrectly enforcing counterterrorism content in Arabic,” one document reads, noting the system “limits users from participating in political speech, impeding their right to freedom of expression.”

The Facebook blacklist includes Gaza’s ruling Hamas party, as well as Hezbollah, the militant group that holds seats in Lebanon’s Parliament, along with many other groups representing wide swaths of people and territory across the Middle East.

The company’s language gaps and biases have led to the widespread perception that its reviewers skew in favor of governments and against minority groups. 

Israeli security agencies and watchdogs also monitor Facebook and bombard it with thousands of orders to take down Palestinian accounts and posts as they try to crack down on incitement.

“They flood our system, completely overpowering it,” said Ashraf Zeitoon, Facebook’s former head of policy for the Middle East and North Africa region, who left in 2017.

Syrian journalists and activists reporting on the country’s opposition also have complained of censorship, with electronic armies supporting embattled President Bashar Assad aggressively flagging dissident posts for removal. 

Meanwhile in Afghanistan, Facebook does not translate the site’s hate speech and misinformation pages into Dari and Pashto, the country’s two main languages. The site also doesn’t have a bank of hate speech terms and slurs in Afghanistan, so it can’t build automated filters that catch the worst violations.

In the Philippines, homeland of many domestic workers in the Middle East, Facebook documents show that engineers struggled to detect reports of abuse by employers because the company couldn’t flag words in Tagalog, the major Philippine language.

In the Middle East, the company over-relies on artificial-intelligence filters that make mistakes, leading to “a lot of false positives and a media backlash,” one document reads. Largely unskilled moderators, in over their heads and at times relying on Google Translate, tend to passively field takedown requests instead of screening proactively. Most are Moroccans and get lost in the translation of Arabic’s 30-odd dialects.

The moderators flag inoffensive Arabic posts as terrorist content 77% of the time, one report said.

Although the documents from Haugen predate this year’s Gaza war, episodes from that bloody conflict show how little has been done to address the problems flagged in Facebook’s own internal reports.

Activists in Gaza and the West Bank lost their ability to livestream. Whole archives of the conflict vanished from newsfeeds, a primary portal of information. Influencers accustomed to tens of thousands of likes on their posts saw their outreach plummet when they posted about Palestinians.

“This has restrained me and prevented me from feeling free to publish what I want,” said Soliman Hijjy, a Gaza-based journalist.

Palestinian advocates submitted hundreds of complaints to Facebook during the war, often leading the company to concede error. In the internal documents, Facebook reported it had erred in nearly half of all Arabic language takedown requests submitted for appeal.

Facebook’s internal documents also stressed the need to enlist more Arab moderators from less-represented countries and restrict them to where they have appropriate dialect expertise.

“It is surely of the highest importance to put more resources to the task to improving Arabic systems,” said the report.

Meanwhile, many across the Middle East worry the stakes of Facebook’s failings are exceptionally high, with potential to widen long-standing inequality, chill civic activism and stoke violence in the region.

“We told Facebook: Do you want people to convey their experiences on social platforms, or do you want to shut them down?” said Husam Zomlot, the Palestinian envoy to the United Kingdom. “If you take away people’s voices, the alternatives will be uglier.” 

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Microsoft Discloses New Russian Hacking Effort

The U.S. technology giant Microsoft says that the same Russia-backed hackers responsible for the 2020 SolarWinds breach of corporate computer systems is continuing to attack global technology systems, this time targeting cloud service resellers.

Microsoft said the group, which it calls Nobelium, is employing a new strategy to take advantage of the direct access resellers have to their customers’ IT systems, hoping to “more easily impersonate an organization’s trusted technology partner to gain access to their downstream customers.”

Resellers are intermediaries between software and hardware producers and the eventual technology product users.

In a statement Sunday, Microsoft said it has been monitoring Nobelium’s attacks since May and has notified more than 140 companies targeted by the group, with as many as 14 of the companies’ systems believed to have been compromised.

“This recent activity is another indicator that Russia is trying to gain long-term, systematic access to a variety of points in the technology supply chain and establish a mechanism for surveilling — now or in the future — targets of interest to the Russian government,” Microsoft wrote in a blog post.

“Fortunately, we have discovered this campaign during its early stages, and we are sharing these developments to help cloud service resellers, technology providers, and their customers take timely steps to help ensure Nobelium is not more successful,” the company said.

Microsoft said Nobelium had made 22,868 attacks since July but had only been successful a handful of times. Most of the attacks have targeted U.S. government agencies and think tanks in the United States, followed by attacks in Ukraine, the United Kingdom and in other NATO countries.

A U.S. government official downplayed the attacks in a statement to The Associated Press, saying, “The activities described were unsophisticated password spray and phishing, run-of-the mill operations for the purpose of surveillance that we already know are attempted every day by Russia and other foreign governments.”

Washington blamed Russia’s SVR foreign intelligence agency for the 2020 SolarWinds hack, which compromised several federal agencies and went undetected for much of last year. Russia has denied any wrongdoing.

Some information for this report comes from AP and Reuters.

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Whistleblower Haugen to Testify as UK Scrutinizes Facebook

Former Facebook data scientist turned whistleblower Frances Haugen plans to answer questions Monday from lawmakers in the United Kingdom who are working on legislation to rein in the power of social media companies. 

Haugen is set to appear before a parliamentary committee scrutinizing the British government’s draft legislation to crack down on harmful online content, and her comments could help lawmakers beef up the new rules. She’s testifying the same day that Facebook is set to release its latest earnings and that The Associated Press and other news organizations started publishing stories based on thousands of pages of internal company documents she obtained. 

It will be her second appearance before lawmakers after she testified in the U.S. Senate earlier this month about the danger she says the company poses, from harming children to inciting political violence and fueling misinformation. Haugen cited internal research documents she secretly copied before leaving her job in Facebook’s civic integrity unit. 

The documents, which Haugen provided to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, allege Facebook prioritized profits over safety and hid its own research from investors and the public. Some stories based on the files have already been published, exposing internal turmoil after Facebook was blindsided by the Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol riot and how it dithered over curbing divisive content in India, and more is to come. 

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has disputed Haugen’s portrayal of the company as one that puts profit over the well-being of its users or that pushes divisive content, saying a false picture is being painted. But he does agree on the need for updated internet regulations, saying lawmakers are best able to assess the tradeoffs.

Haugen told U.S. lawmakers that she thinks a federal regulator is needed to oversee digital giants like Facebook, something that officials in Britain and the European Union are already working on. 

The U.K. government’s online safety bill calls for setting up a regulator that would hold companies to account when it comes to removing harmful or illegal content from their platforms, such as terrorist material or child sex abuse images. 

“This is quite a big moment,” Damian Collins, the lawmaker who chairs the committee, said ahead of the hearing. “This is a moment, sort of like Cambridge Analytica, but possibly bigger in that I think it provides a real window into the soul of these companies.” 

Collins was referring to the 2018 debacle involving data-mining firm Cambridge Analytica, which gathered details on as many as 87 million Facebook users without their permission.

Representatives from Facebook and other social media companies plan to speak to the committee Thursday. 

Ahead of the hearing, Haugen met the father of Molly Russell, a 14-year-old girl who killed herself in 2017 after viewing disturbing content on Facebook-owned Instagram. In a chat filmed by the BBC, Ian Russell told Haugen that after Molly’s death, her family found notes she wrote about being addicted to Instagram.

Haugen also is scheduled to meet next month with European Union officials in Brussels, where the bloc’s executive commission is updating its digital rulebook to better protect internet users by holding online companies more responsible for illegal or dangerous content. 

Under the U.K. rules, expected to take effect next year, Silicon Valley giants face an ultimate penalty of up to 10% of their global revenue for any violations. The EU is proposing a similar penalty. 

The U.K. committee will be hoping to hear more from Haugen about the data that tech companies have gathered. Collins said the internal files that Haugen has turned over to U.S. authorities are important because it shows the kind of information that Facebook holds — and what regulators should be asking when they investigate these companies.  

The committee has already heard from another Facebook whistleblower, Sophie Zhang, who raised the alarm after finding evidence of online political manipulation in countries such as Honduras and Azerbaijan before she was fired.

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Italian Lab Creates Extreme Weather; Could Predict Climate Change Effects

Researchers at a specialized lab in Italy say understanding climate change effects requires recreating them in a controlled environment. So, they built one. VOA’s Arash Arabasadi has more.

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Zoom Gets More Popular Despite Worries About Links to China

Very few companies can boast of having their name also used as a verb. Zoom is one of them. The popularity of the videoconferencing platform continues to grow around the world despite continued questions about whether Chinese authorities are monitoring the calls.

Since Zoom became a household word last year during the pandemic, internet users including companies and government agencies have asked whether the app’s data centers and staff in China are passing call logs to Chinese authorities.

“Some of the more informed know about that, but the vast majority, they don’t know about that, or even if they do, they really don’t give much thought about it,” said Jack Nguyen, partner at the business advisory firm Mazars in Ho Chi Minh City.

He said in Vietnam, for example, many people resent China over territorial spats, but Vietnamese tend to Zoom as willingly as they sign on to rivals such as Microsoft Teams. They like Zoom’s free 40 minutes per call, said Nguyen.

Whether to use the Silicon Valley-headquartered Zoom, now as before, comes down to a user-by-user calculation of the service’s benefits versus the possibility that call logs are being viewed in China, analysts say. China hopes to identify and stop internet content that flouts Communist Party interests.

The 10-year-old listed company officially named Zoom Video Communications reported over $1 billion in revenue in the April-June quarter this year, up 54% over the same quarter of 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic drove face-to-face meetings online. In the same quarter, the most recent one detailed by the company, Zoom had 504,900 customers of more than 10 employees, up about 36% year on year.

Zoom commanded a 42.8% U.S. market share, leading competitors, as of May 2020, the news website LearnBonds reported. Its U.S. share was up to 55% by March this year, according to ToolTester Network data.

Tech media cite Zoom’s free 40 minutes and capacity for up to 100 call participants as major reasons for its popularity.

Links to China?

Keys that Zoom uses to encrypt and decrypt meetings may be sent to servers in China, Wired Business Media’s website Security Week has reported. Some encryption keys were issued by servers in China, news website WCCF Tech said.

Zoom did not answer VOA’s requests this month for comment.

Zoom has acknowledged keeping at least one data center and a staff employee in China, where the communist government requires resident tech firms to provide user data on request. In September 2019, the Chinese government turned off Zoom in China, and in April last year Zoom said international calls were routed in error through a China-based data center.

“Odds are high” of China getting records of Zoom calls, said Jacob Helberg, a senior adviser at the Stanford University Center on Geopolitics and Technology.

“If you have Zoom engineers in China who have access to the actual servers, from an engineering standpoint those engineers can absolutely have access to content of potential communications in China,” he said.

Zoom said in a statement in early April 2020 that certain meetings held by its non-Chinese users might have been “allowed to connect to systems in China, where they should not have been able to connect,” SmarterAnalyst.com reported.

Excitement and caution

Zoom said in 2019 it had put in place “strict geo-fencing procedures around our mainland China data center.”

“No meeting content will ever be routed through our mainland China data center unless the meeting includes a participant from China,” it said in a blog post.

Among the bigger users of Zoom is the University of California, a 10-campus system that switched to online learning in early 2020. Zoom was selected following a request for proposals “years” before the pandemic, a UC-Berkeley spokesperson told VOA on Thursday.

Elsewhere in the United States, NASA has banned employees from using Zoom, and the Senate has urged its members to avoid it because of security concerns. The German Foreign Ministry and Australian Defense Force restrict use as well, while Taiwan barred Zoom for government business last year. China claims sovereignty over self-ruled Taiwan, which has caused decades of political hostility.

“For Taiwan, there’s still some doubt,” said Brady Wang, a Taipei analyst with the market intelligence firm Counterpoint Research, referring particularly to Zoom’s encryption software. “And in the final analysis, these kinds of choices are numerous, so it’s not like you must rely on Zoom.”

LinkedIn’s withdrawal from China announced this month may spark new scrutiny over Zoom, said Zennon Kapron, founder and director of Kapronasia, a Shanghai financial industry research firm.

“I think when you look at the other technology players that are currently in China or that have relations to China such as Zoom, there will be a renewed push probably by consumers, businesses and even regulators in some jurisdictions to really try to understand and pry apart what the roles of Chinese suppliers or development houses are in developing some of these platforms and the potential security risks that go with them,” Kapron said.

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Facebook Dithered in Curbing Divisive User Content in India

Facebook in India has been selective in curbing hate speech, misinformation and inflammatory posts, particularly anti-Muslim content, according to leaked documents obtained by The Associated Press, even as its own employees cast doubt over the company’s motivations and interests.

From research as recent as March of this year to company memos that date back to 2019, the internal company documents on India highlight Facebook’s constant struggles in quashing abusive content on its platforms in the world’s biggest democracy and the company’s largest growth market. Communal and religious tensions in India have a history of boiling over on social media and stoking violence.

The files show that Facebook has been aware of the problems for years, raising questions over whether it has done enough to address these issues. Many critics and digital experts say it has failed to do so, especially in cases where members of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, the BJP, are involved.

Modi has been credited for leveraging the platform to his party’s advantage during elections, and reporting from The Wall Street Journal last year cast doubt over whether Facebook was selectively enforcing its policies on hate speech to avoid blowback from the BJP. Both Modi and Facebook chairman and CEO Mark Zuckerberg have exuded bonhomie, memorialized by a 2015 image of the two hugging at Facebook headquarters.

According to the documents, Facebook saw India as one of the most “at risk countries” in the world and identified both Hindi and Bengali languages as priorities for “automation on violating hostile speech.” Yet, Facebook didn’t have enough local language moderators or content-flagging in place to stop misinformation that at times led to real-world violence.

In a statement to the AP, Facebook said it has “invested significantly in technology to find hate speech in various languages, including Hindi and Bengali” which has “reduced the amount of hate speech that people see by half” in 2021. 

“Hate speech against marginalized groups, including Muslims, is on the rise globally. So we are improving enforcement and are committed to updating our policies as hate speech evolves online,” a company spokesperson said. 

This AP story, along with others being published, is based on disclosures made to the Securities and Exchange Commission and provided to Congress in redacted form by former Facebook employee-turned-whistleblower Frances Haugen’s legal counsel. The redacted versions were obtained by a consortium of news organizations, including the AP.

In February 2019 and ahead of a general election when concerns about misinformation were running high, a Facebook employee wanted to understand what a new user in the country saw on their news feed if all they did was follow pages and groups solely recommended by the platform.

The employee created a test user account and kept it live for three weeks, during which an extraordinary event shook India — a militant attack in disputed Kashmir killed more than 40 Indian soldiers, bringing the country to near war with rival Pakistan.

In a report, titled “An Indian Test User’s Descent into a Sea of Polarizing, Nationalistic Messages,” the employee, whose name is redacted, said they were shocked by the content flooding the news feed, which “has become a near constant barrage of polarizing nationalist content, misinformation, and violence and gore.”

Seemingly benign and innocuous groups recommended by Facebook quickly morphed into something else altogether, where hate speech, unverified rumors and viral content ran rampant.

The recommended groups were inundated with fake news, anti-Pakistan rhetoric and Islamophobic content. Much of the content was extremely graphic.

“Following this test user’s News Feed, I’ve seen more images of dead people in the past three weeks than I’ve seen in my entire life total,” the researcher wrote.

The Facebook spokesperson said the test study “inspired deeper, more rigorous analysis” of its recommendation systems and “contributed to product changes to improve them.”

“Separately, our work on curbing hate speech continues and we have further strengthened our hate classifiers, to include four Indian languages,” the spokesperson said.

Other research files on misinformation in India highlight just how massive a problem it is for the platform.

In January 2019, a month before the test user experiment, another assessment raised similar alarms about misleading content. 

In a presentation circulated to employees, the findings concluded that Facebook’s misinformation tags weren’t clear enough for users, underscoring that it needed to do more to stem hate speech and fake news. Users told researchers that “clearly labeling information would make their lives easier.”

Alongside misinformation, the leaked documents reveal another problem dogging Facebook in India: anti-Muslim propaganda, especially by Hindu-hardline groups.

India is Facebook’s largest market with over 340 million users — nearly 400 million Indians also use the company’s messaging service WhatsApp. But both have been accused of being vehicles to spread hate speech and fake news against minorities.

In February 2020, these tensions came to life on Facebook when a politician from Modi’s party uploaded a video on the platform in which he called on his supporters to remove mostly Muslim protesters from a road in New Delhi if the police didn’t. Violent riots erupted within hours, killing 53 people. Most of them were Muslims. Only after thousands of views and shares did Facebook remove the video.

In April, misinformation targeting Muslims again went viral on its platform as the hashtag “Coronajihad” flooded news feeds, blaming the community for a surge in COVID-19 cases. The hashtag was popular on Facebook for days but was later removed by the company.

The misinformation triggered a wave of violence, business boycotts and hate speech toward Muslims.

Criticisms of Facebook’s handling of such content were amplified in August of last year when The Wall Street Journal published a series of stories detailing how the company had internally debated whether to classify a Hindu hard-line lawmaker close to Modi’s party as a “dangerous individual” — a classification that would ban him from the platform — after a series of anti-Muslim posts from his account.

The documents also show how the company’s South Asia policy head herself had shared what many felt were Islamophobic posts on her personal Facebook profile. 

Months later the India Facebook official quit the company. Facebook also removed the politician from the platform, but documents show many company employees felt the platform had mishandled the situation, accusing it of selective bias to avoid being in the crosshairs of the Indian government.

As recently as March this year, the company was internally debating whether it could control the “fear mongering, anti-Muslim narratives” pushed by Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a far-right Hindu nationalist group that Modi is also a part of, on its platform.

In one document titled “Lotus Mahal,” the company noted that members with links to the BJP had created multiple Facebook accounts to amplify anti-Muslim content.

The research found that much of this content was “never flagged or actioned” since Facebook lacked “classifiers” and “moderators” in Hindi and Bengali languages. 

Facebook said it added hate speech classifiers in Hindi starting in 2018 and introduced Bengali in 2020.

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Apple Updates App Store Payment Rules in Concession to Developers

Apple has updated its App Store rules to allow developers to contact users directly about payments, a concession in a legal settlement with companies challenging its tightly controlled marketplace.

According to App Store rules updated Friday, developers can now contact consumers directly about alternate payment methods, bypassing Apple’s commission of 15 or 30%.

They will be able to ask users for basic information, such as names and e-mail addresses, “as long as this request remains optional”, said the iPhone maker.

Apple proposed the changes in August in a legal settlement with small app developers.

But the concession is unlikely to satisfy firms like “Fortnite” developer Epic Games, with which the tech giant has been grappling in a drawn-out dispute over its payments policy.  

Epic launched a case aiming to break Apple’s grip on the App Store, accusing the iPhone maker of operating a monopoly in its shop for digital goods or services.

In September, a judge ordered Apple to loosen control of its App Store payment options, but said Epic had failed to prove that antitrust violations had taken place.

For Epic and others, the ability to redirect users to an out-of-app payment method is not enough: it wants players to be able to pay directly without leaving the game.

Both sides have appealed. 

Apple is also facing investigations from US and European authorities that accuse it of abusing its dominant position.

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Another Whistleblower Accuses Facebook of Wrongdoing: Report

A former Facebook worker reportedly told U.S. authorities Friday the platform has put profits before stopping problematic content, weeks after another whistleblower helped stoke the firm’s latest crisis with similar claims.

The unnamed new whistleblower filed a complaint with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, the federal financial regulator, that could add to the company’s woes, said a Washington Post report.

Facebook has faced a storm of criticism over the past month after former employee Frances Haugen leaked internal studies showing the company knew of potential harm fueled by its sites, prompting U.S. lawmakers to renew a push for regulation.

In the SEC complaint, the new whistleblower recounts alleged statements from 2017, when the company was deciding how to handle the controversy related to Russia’s interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.  

“It will be a flash in the pan. Some legislators will get pissy. And then in a few weeks they will move onto something else. Meanwhile we are printing money in the basement, and we are fine,” Tucker Bounds, a member of Facebook’s communications team, was quoted in the complaint as saying, The Washington Post reported.  

The second whistleblower signed the complaint on October 13, a week after Haugen’s testimony before a Senate panel, according to the report.

Haugen told lawmakers that Facebook put profits over safety, which led her to leak reams of internal company studies that underpinned a damning Wall Street Journal series.

The Washington Post reported the new whistleblower’s SEC filing claims the social media giant’s managers routinely undermined efforts to combat misinformation and other problematic content for fear of angering then-U.S. President Donald Trump or for turning off the users who are key to profits.

Erin McPike, a Facebook spokesperson, said the article was “beneath the Washington Post, which during the last five years would only report stories after deep reporting with corroborating sources.”  

Facebook has faced previous firestorms of controversy, but they did not translate into substantial U.S. legislation to regulate social media.

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