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Apple, Google raise new concerns by yanking Russian app

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BERKELEY, Calif. (AP) — Big Tech companies that operate around the globe have long promised to obey local laws and to protect civil rights while doing business. But when Apple and Google capitulated to Russian demands and removed a political-opposition app from their local app stores, it raised worries that two of the world’s most successful companies are more comfortable bowing to undemocratic edicts — and maintaining a steady flow of profits — than upholding the rights of their users.

The app in question, called Smart Voting, was a tool for organizing opposition to Russia President Vladimir Putin ahead of elections held over the weekend. The ban levied last week by a pair of the world’s richest and most powerful companies galled supporters of free elections and free expression.

“This is bad news for democracy and dissent all over the world,” said Natalia Krapiva, tech legal counsel for Access Now, an internet freedom group. “We expect to see other dictators copying Russia’s tactics.”

Technology companies offering consumer services from search to social media to apps have long walked a tightrope in many of the less democratic nations of the world. As Apple, Google, and other major companies such as Amazon, Microsoft and Facebook have grown more powerful over the past decade, so have government ambitions to harness that power for their own ends.

“Now this is the poster child for political oppression,” said Sascha Meinrath, a Penn State University professor who studies online censorship issues. Google and Apple “have bolstered the probability of this happening again.”

Neither Apple nor Google responded to requests for comment from The Associated Press when the news of the app’s removal broke last week; both remained silent this week as well.

Google also denied access to two documents on its online service Google Docs that listed candidates endorsed by Smart Voting, and YouTube blocked similar videos.

According to a person with direct knowledge of the matter, Google faced legal demands by Russian regulators and threats of criminal prosecution of individual employees if it failed to comply. The same person said Russian police visited Google’s Moscow offices last week to enforce a court order to block the app. The person spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

Google’s own employees have reportedly blasted the company’s cave-in to Putin’s power play by posting internal messages and images deriding the app’s removal.

That sort of backlash within Google has become more commonplace in recent years as the company’s ambitions appeared to conflict with its one-time corporate motto, “Don’t Be Evil,” adopted by cofounders Larry Page and Sergey Brin 23 years ago. Neither Page nor Brin — whose family fled the former Soviet Union for the U.S. when he was a boy — are currently involved in Google’s day-to-day management, and that motto has long since been set aside.

Apple, meanwhile, lays out a lofty “Commitment to Human Rights” on its website, although a close read of that statement suggests that when legal government orders and human rights are at odds, the company will obey the government. “Where national law and international human rights standards differ, we follow the higher standard,” it reads. “Where they are in conflict, we respect national law while seeking to respect the principles of internationally recognized human rights.”

A recent report from the Washington nonprofit Freedom House found that global internet freedom declined for the 11th consecutive year and is under “unprecedented strain” as more nations arrested internet users for “nonviolent political, social, or religious speech” than ever before. Officials suspended internet access in at least 20 countries, and 21 states blocked access to social media platforms, according to the report.

For the seventh year in a row, China held the top spot as the worst environment for internet freedom. But such threats take several forms. Turkey’s new social media regulations, for instance, require platforms with over a million daily users to remove content deemed “offensive” within 48 hours of being notified, or risk escalating penalties including fines, advertising bans and limits on bandwidth.

Russia, meanwhile, added to the existing “labyrinth of regulations that international tech companies must navigate in the country,” according to Freedom House. Overall online freedom in the U.S. also declined for the fifth consecutive year; the group said, citing conspiracy theories and misinformation about the 2020 elections as well as surveillance, harassment, and arrests in response to racial-injustice protests.

Big Tech companies have generally agreed to abide by country-specific rules for content takedowns and other issues in order to operate in these countries. That can range from blocking posts about Holocaust denial in Germany and elsewhere in Europe where they’re illegal to outright censorship of opposition parties, as in Russia.

The app’s expulsion was widely denounced by opposition politicians. Leonid Volkov, a top strategist to jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny, wrote on Facebook that the companies “bent to the Kremlin’s blackmail.”

Navalny’s ally Ivan Zhdanov said on Twitter that the politician’s team is considering suing the two companies. He also mocked the move: “Expectations: the government turns off the internet. Reality: the internet, in fear, turns itself off.”

It’s possible that the blowback could prompt either or both companies to reconsider their commitment to operating in Russia. Google made a similar decision in 2010 when it pulled its search engine out of mainland China after the Communist government there began censoring search results and videos on YouTube.

Russia isn’t a major market for either Apple, whose annual revenue this year is expected to approach $370 billion, or Google’s corporate parent, Alphabet, whose revenue is projected to hit $250 billion this year. But profits are profits.

“If you want to take a principled stand on human rights and freedom of expression, then there are some hard choices you have to make on when you should leave the market,” said Kurt Opsahl, general counsel for the digital rights group Electronic Frontier Foundation.

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Ortutay reported from Oakland, California. Associated Press writers Daria Litvinova in Moscow and Kelvin Chan in London contributed to this story.

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Facebook dithered in curbing divisive user content in India

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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 the internet giant’s own employees cast doubt over its motivations and interests.

Based on research produced as recently as March of this year to company memos that date back to 2019, 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 the 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 are involved.

Across the world, Facebook has become increasingly important in politics, and India is no different.

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. Modi and Facebook chairman and CEO Mark Zuckerberg have exuded bonhomie, memorialized by a 2015 image of the two hugging at the Facebook headquarters.

The leaked documents include a trove of internal company reports on hate speech and misinformation in India that in some cases appeared to have been intensified by its own “recommended” feature and algorithms. They also include the company staffers’ concerns over the mishandling of these issues and their discontent over the viral “malcontent” on the platform.

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 “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.

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

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

In the note, 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. The person described the content as having “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.

One included a man holding the bloodied head of another man covered in a Pakistani flag, with an Indian flag partially covering it. Its “Popular Across Facebook” feature showed a slew of unverified content related to the retaliatory Indian strikes into Pakistan after the bombings, including an image of a napalm bomb from a video game clip debunked by one of Facebook’s fact-check partners.

“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 report sparked deep concerns over what such divisive content could lead to in the real world, where local news outlets at the time were reporting on Kashmiris being attacked in the fallout.

“Should we as a company have an extra responsibility for preventing integrity harms that result from recommended content?” the researcher asked in their conclusion.

The memo, circulated with other employees, did not answer that question. But it did expose how the platform’s own algorithms or default settings played a part in producing such objectionable content. The employee noted that there were clear “blind spots,” particularly in “local language content.” They said they hoped these findings would start conversations on how to avoid such “integrity harms,” especially for those who “differ significantly” from the typical U.S. user.

Even though the research was conducted during three weeks that weren’t an average representation, they acknowledged that it did show how such “unmoderated” and problematic content “could totally take over” during “a major crisis event.”

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.


NEW DELHI, India (AP)

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Microsoft and Etisalat coact to develop 5G enterprise

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Etisalat and Microsoft join forces to unleash its latest 5G enterprise by emerging Azure Multi-access Edge Compute, a power move to highlight the giant’s partnership with Emirate’s telco.

In a press release, Etisalat revealed that its recent collaboration with the Big Tech titan’s digital crime unit (DCU) will empower digital security in the Middle East to heighten security in the region against any cyber threats.

The union will harness both company’s capacities by partnering Etisalat Core Orchestration and Microsoft’s Azure ARM to develop a 5G driven edge computing plug-and-play framework for companies to leverage threat intelligence solutions.

“Azure MEC offers service providers and customers the same set of tools to build and manage their cloud infrastructure. Our customers can maximize their efforts by employing a ‘build once and deploy many’ strategy to optimize their investments,” regional director, Enterprise and Partner Group (EPG), Microsoft UAE, Naim Yazbeck, said in a statement.

Edge computing is a genre of computing created either on-site or in the vicinity of a specific data source, decreasing the necessity for data to be processed in a remote data center. The technology intends to optimize various industries, minimize latency, and support the complete hosting of applications to produce fast and safe 5G, Internet of Things (IoT), and artificial intelligence (AI) applications.

“Etisalat Edge Computing solutions will help customers transform the way they operate, especially transportation, smart manufacturing, logistics, and Oil and Gas,” vice president Fixed and Mobile Core at Etisalat, Khaled Al Suwaidi, said in a statement.

“This drastically increases the value for traditional networks to transition into 5G to develop intelligent and autonomous next-generation technology that unlocks potential opportunities to our customers,” he added.

In reference to the press release, the partnership between the tech companies is an extension of last year’s promising collaboration.

Last year, Etisalat joined forces with the Big Tech mogul to create a public cloud-first plan via a digital transformation program that allowed the Emirati telco to develop a platform intertwined with automation and AI.   

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Facebook’s oversight board seeks details on VIPs’ treatment

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Facebook’s semi-independent oversight board says the company has fallen short of full disclosure on its internal system that exempts high-profile users from some or all of its content rules.

Facebook “has not been fully forthcoming” with the overseers about its “XCheck,” or cross-check, system the board said in a report Thursday. It also said it will review the system and recommend how the social network giant could change it.

The board started looking into the XCheck system last month after The Wall Street Journal reported that many VIP users abuse it, posting material that would cause ordinary users to be sanctioned — including for harassment and incitement of violence. For certain elite users, Facebook’s rules reportedly don’t seem to apply. There were at least 5.8 million exempted users as of last year, according to the Journal article.

Facebook is generally not bound under the oversight board’s rules to follow its recommendations.

“We believe the board’s work has been impactful, which is why we asked the board for input into our cross-check system, and we will strive to be clearer in our explanations to them going forward,” Facebook said in a statement Thursday.

The report said Facebook wrongly failed to mention the XCheck system when it asked the board earlier this year to rule on its ban on former President Donald Trump’s accounts following the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol.

“Facebook only mentioned cross-check to the board when we asked whether Mr. Trump’s page or account had been subject to ordinary content-moderation processes,” the report said.

In May, the board upheld Facebook’s suspension of Trump’s accounts, which came out of concern that he incited violence leading to the Jan. 6 riot. But the overseers told Facebook to specify how long the suspension would last. Facebook later announced that Trump’s accounts would be suspended for two years, freezing his presence on the social network until early 2023, to be followed by a reassessment.

Trump announced Wednesday the launch of a new media company with its own social media platform. He said his goal is to create a rival to the Big Tech companies that have shut him out and denied him the megaphone that was paramount in his national rise.

Twitter, which was Trump’s platform of choice, banned him permanently after the Jan. 6 assault.

The oversight board said Thursday that for its review, Facebook agreed to provide the internal company documents on the XCheck system that were referenced in the Journal article. Facebook documents were leaked to the newspaper by Frances Haugen, a former product manager in the company’s civic integrity unit who also provided them to Congress and went public this month with a far-reaching condemnation of the company.

In a separate blog post, the board said Haugen has accepted its invitation for a meeting in coming weeks, to discuss her experiences “and gather information that can help push for greater transparency and accountability from Facebook through our case decisions and recommendations.”

Haugen’s accusations of possible serious harm to some young people from Facebook’s Instagram photo-sharing platform raised outrage among lawmakers and the public.

The board said in its report that in some cases, “Facebook failed to provide relevant information to the board, while in other instances, the information it did provide was incomplete.”

In a briefing to the board, “Facebook admitted it should not have said that (XCheck) only applied to a ‘small number of decisions,'” the report said. “Facebook noted that for teams operating at the scale of millions of content decisions a day, the numbers involved … seem relatively small, but recognized its phrasing could come across as misleading.”

Facebook created the oversight panel to rule on thorny content issues following widespread criticism of its problems responding swiftly and effectively to misinformation, hate speech and harmful influence campaigns. The board’s decisions have tended to favor free expression over the restriction of content. Its members include a former prime minister of Denmark and a former editor-in-chief of British newspaper the Guardian, along with legal scholars, human rights experts and journalists.

The board’s independence has been questioned by critics who say it’s a Facebook PR campaign intended to draw attention away from deeper problems of hate and misinformation that flourish on its platforms.


WASHINGTON (AP)

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