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Gaza-based journalists in Hamas chat blocked from WhatsApp

Associated Press

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Gaza-based journalists in Hamas chat blocked from WhatsApp

A few hours after the latest cease-fire took effect in the Gaza Strip, a number of Palestinian journalists in the coastal enclave found they were blocked from accessing WhatsApp messenger — a crucial tool used to communicate with sources, editors and the world beyond the blockaded strip.

The Associated Press reached out to 17 journalists in Gaza who confirmed their Whatsapp accounts had been blocked since Friday. By midday Monday, only four journalists — working for Al Jazeera — confirmed their accounts had been restored.

The incident marks the latest puzzling move concerning WhatsApp’s owner Facebook Inc. that’s left Palestinian users or their allies bewildered as to why they’ve been targeted by the company, or if indeed they’d been singled out for censorship at all.

Twelve of the 17 journalists contacted by the AP said they had been part of a WhatsApp group that disseminates information related to Hamas military operations. Hamas, which rules over the Gaza Strip, is viewed as a terrorist organization by Israel and the United States, where WhatsApp owner Facebook is headquartered.

It’s unclear if the journalists were targeted because they’d been following that group’s announcements on WhatsApp.

Hamas runs Gaza’s Health Ministry, which has a WhatsApp group followed by more than 80 people, many of them journalists. That group, for example, has not been blocked.

Hassan Slaieh, a freelance journalist in Gaza whose WhatsApp account is blocked, said he thinks his account might have been targeted because he was on a group called Hamas Media.

“This has affected my work and my income because I lost conversations with sources and people,” Slaieh said.

Al Jazeera’s chief correspondent in Gaza, Wael al-Dahdouh, said his access to WhatsApp was blocked around dawn on Friday before it was reinstated Monday. He said journalists subscribe to Hamas groups only to get information needed to do journalistic work.

A WhatsApp spokesperson said the company bans accounts to comply with its policies “to prevent harm as well as applicable law.” The company said it has been in touch with media outlets over the last week about its practices. “We will reinstate journalists if any were impacted,” the company said.

Al Jazeera said that when it sought information regarding its four journalists in Gaza impacted by the blockage, they were told by Facebook that the company had blocked the numbers of groups based out of Gaza and consequently the cell phone numbers of Al Jazeera journalists were part of the groups they had blocked.

Among those affected by the WhatsApp blockage are two Agence France-Presse journalists. The Paris-based international news service told the AP it is working with WhatsApp to understand what the problem is and to restore their accounts.

The 11-day war caused widespread destruction across Gaza with 248 Palestinians, including 66 children and 39 women, killed in the fighting. Israel says 12 people in Israel, including two children, also died.

It’s not the first time journalists have been suddenly barred from WhatsApp. In 2019, a number of journalists in Gaza had their accounts blocked without explanation. The accounts of those working with international media organizations were restored after contacting the company.

Facebook and its photo and video-sharing platform Instagram were criticized this month for removing posts and deleting accounts by users posting about protests against efforts to evict Palestinians from their homes in east Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood. It prompted an open letter signed by 30 organizations demanding to know why the posts had been removed.

The New York Times also reported that some 100 WhatsApp groups were used by Jewish extremists in Israel for the purpose of committing violence against Palestinian citizens of Israel.

WhatsApp said it does not have access to the contents of people’s personal chats, but that they ban accounts when information is reported they believe indicates a user may be involved in causing imminent harm. The company said it also responds to “valid legal requests from law enforcement for the limited information available to us.”

The Arab Center for the Advancement of Social Media, or 7amleh, said in a report published this month that Facebook accepted 81% of requests made by Israel’s Cyber Unit to remove Palestinian content last year. It found that in 2020, Twitter suspended dozens of accounts of Palestinian users based on information from the Israeli Ministry of Strategic Affairs.

Al-Dahdouh, the Al Jazeera correspondent, said although his account was restored, his past history of chats and messages was erased.

“The groups and conversations were back, but content is erased, as if you are joining a new group or starting a new conversation,” he said. “I have lost information, images, numbers, messages and communications.”

Al Jazeera said its journalists in Gaza had their WhatsApp accounts blocked by the host without prior notification.

“Al Jazeera would like to strongly emphasize that its journalists will continue to use their WhatsApp accounts and other applications for newsgathering purposes and personal communication,” the news network told the AP. “At no time, have Al Jazeera journalists used their accounts for any means other than for personal or professional use.”

The Qatar-based news network’s office in Gaza was destroyed during the war by Israeli airstrikes that took down the high-rise residential and office tower, which also housed The Associated Press offices. Press freedom groups accused the military, which claimed the building housed Hamas military intelligence, of trying to censor coverage of Israel’s offensive. The Israeli military telephoned a warning, giving occupants of the building one hour to evacuate.

Sada Social, a West Bank-based center tracking alleged violations against Palestinian content on social media, said it was collecting information on the number of Gaza-based journalists impacted by the latest WhatsApp decision.


GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) — By FARES AKRAM and AYA BATRAWY Associated Press

Batrawy reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirate

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Didi pushes back on IPO rumors

Daryn Kara Ali

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Famous Beijing-based giant Didi denied any allegations of plans to go private in a bid to satisfy the Chinese government amidst latest regulations concerning users’ data security.  

After the Wall Street Journal released a report discussing the possibility of Didi going private, the ride-hailing app’s shares increased by approximately 50 percent in Thursday’s pre-market trade. 

The company has been targeted by Beijing regulators ever since it made its U.S. market debut about a month ago, followed by several U.S. senators asking its financial markets regulator to launch an investigation concerning the company’s Chinese share listings. 

In a statement that came as a reaction to the report, Didi debunked any allegations of going private as it currently switching it focus to cybersecurity. 

“The rumors about the privatization of Didi are untrue, and the company is currently actively cooperating with cybersecurity reviews,” Didi said on Chinese social media platform Weibo.  

Two days after the Beijing-based firm began trading shares on New York Stock Exchange (NYSE), the Beijing cyberspace supervisory authority ordered Chinese online stores to remove Didi from their app stores under the pretense that it is illegally collecting users’ personal data. 

The Chinese authorities’ move influenced the firm’s market value, leading to a sharp drop by around a third ever since Didi raised its initial public offering (IPO) to $4.4 billion a month ago. 

Since Didi’s released its IPO on NYSE at the end of June, the Chinese driver service broker’s shares fell drastically in value.  

On Thursday, Didi shares finished its U.S. trading day with a rise of 11.3 percent.  

Didi, alongside many Chinese Big Tech companies such as Alibaba and ByteDance have been under the Chinese government’s scrutiny regarding their behavior of monopolizing the market to their benefit.  

This led to some of the firms’ largest share prices slump in the U.S., Hong Kong, and mainland China’s trading market as China puts the industry under tough scrutiny. 

In parallel, Didi follows a comparable business model to its American competitor Ube. The Chinese app had already conquered Uber in a vicious price war in its home market. 

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Google is battling against a $1 billion legal claim

Rim Zrein

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$1 billion

Google is charging people for their digital purchases in its Play Store through an “unfair and excessive” manner, according to a new legal lawsuit filed against the tech giant. 

On behalf of 19.5 million Android phone users in the UK, the legal action is seeking up to $1 billion from Google. 

The lawsuit has been filed with the Competition Appeal Tribunal in London by former Citizens Advice digital policy manager Liz Coll, who’s claiming that the 30 percent cut Google takes from digital purchases on its app store is unjust. 

“Google created the Android app marketplace and controls it with a vice-like grip,” Coll said, explaining that Google has went against UK and European competition law. 

In response, Google defended its case by issuing a statement saying that “Android gives people more choice than any other mobile platform in deciding which apps and app stores they use, in fact most Android phones come preloaded with more than one app store.” 

“We compete vigorously and fairly for developers and consumers,” Google noted, mentioning that 97 percent of developers on Google Play don’t pay any service fee at all, which means their apps are free to consumers.  

“Less than 0.1 percent of developers are subject to a 30 percent service fee and only when they’re earning over one million dollars, that fee is comparable with our competitors and allows us to constantly reinvest in building a secure, thriving platform that benefits everyone who uses it,” Google highlighted. 

The trillion-dollar tech giant recently decreased its service charge to 15 percent for all app creators making less than $1 million, with only a small group of the most valuable app developers paying 30 percent. 

According to Google, the charge allows the company to “constantly reinvest in building a secure, thriving platform that benefits everyone who uses it.” 

The $1 billion lawsuit is the latest incident in an ongoing battle with both Apple and Google, as they’re currently under intense scrutiny following Epic Games’ legal action. 

Epic argued that the Play Store and Apple’s app store policies and management were against producing fruitful competition, as the American video game and software developer described the two tech giants as “monopolistic.” 

For the past years, major tech firms have been in hot water over anti-trust and monopoly charges. 

In 2020, ten U.S. states led by Texas, brought legal action against Google over its ad revenue practices, accusing Google with illegally collaborating with the popular social network Facebook. 

“As internal Google documents reveal, Google sought to kill competition and has done so through an array of exclusionary tactics, including an unlawful agreement with Facebook, its largest potential competitive threat,” the lawsuit stated. 

“This Goliath of a company is using its power to manipulate the market, destroy competition, and harm you, the consumer,” Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said regarding Google through a video released on Twitter. 

The key question many analysts have been asking is to what extent Google should be given the freedom to charge its services as it sees fit, no matter what the cost is to other developers. 

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Rick rolls past a billion views on YouTube

Rim Zrein

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Rick Rolls

When it comes to famous memes from the 2000s, millennials are just never going to give them up. 

Anyone who was active on the internet since 2009 surely stumbled upon Rick Astley’s music hit “Never Gonna Give You Up.” Almost 12 years later, and the music video has exceeded one billion views on YouTube on Wednesday. 

For the Generation Z who weren’t surfing the web at that time, the video itself started off as an internet meme under the name “Rick Roll,” which is the most famous prank in the internet’s history. 

The prank consisted of luring people to click on a hyperlink that claims to be one thing but turns out to be the red-haired iconic singer’s video “Never Gonna Give You Up.” 

The British singer cannot deny the impact the meme had on his music video. According to YouTube, on April Fool’s Day this year, the “Rick roll” generated 2.3 million views. 

Following Guns N’ Roses’ “Sweet Child o’ Mine,” A-ha’s “Take on Me,” and Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean,” Rick Astley’s song is the fourth in line to join the 80’s hits on YouTube. 

The 55-year-old singer celebrated the achievement on Twitter, saying in a video “So I’ve just been told that ‘Never Gonna Give You Up’ has been streamed a billion times on YouTube. That is mind-blowing. The world is a wonderful and beautiful place, and I am very lucky.” 

To celebrate the huge milestone, 2,500 copies of the 7-inch blue vinyl of Astley’s popular song were released. Exclusively signed by the singer himself, the $17 vinyl completely sold out, according to Astley’s official website. 

In the past, the singer voiced his perspective on the “Rick roll” meme, saying that he’s completely fine with it. 

In a 2008 interview with the L.A. Times, the famous meme figure in every millennial’s childhood said “I think it’s just one of those odd things where something gets picked up and people run with it. That’s what’s brilliant about the internet.” 

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