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Trump bans dealings with Chinese owners of TikTok, WeChat

Inside Telecom Staff

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Trump bans dealings with Chinese owners of TikTok, WeChat

NEW YORK (AP) — President Donald Trump has ordered a sweeping but unspecified ban on dealings with the Chinese owners of consumer apps TikTok and WeChat, although it remains unclear if he has the legal authority to actually ban the apps from the U.S.

The twin executive orders issued Thursday — one for each app — take effect in 45 days. They say they are necessary because the China-owned apps “threaten the national security, foreign policy, and economy of the United States,” and call on the Commerce Secretary to define the banned dealings by that time. While the wording of the orders is vague and appears to have been rushed out, some experts said it appears intended to bar the popular apps from the Apple and Google app stores, which could effectively remove them from distribution in the U.S.

“This is an unprecedented use of presidential authority,” Eurasia Group analyst Paul Triolo said in an email. At a minimum, he said, the orders appear to “constitute a ban on the ability of U.S. app stores run by Apple and Google to include either mobile app after 45 days.”

Triolo said the orders may face legal challenges and warned that Beijing is likely to “react harshly, at least rhetorically.” Trump’s orders cited legal authority from the International Emergency Economic Powers Act and the National Emergencies Act.

The action is the Trump administration’s latest attempt to hobble China, a rising economic superpower. Over the past several years, it has waged a trade war with China, blocked mergers involving Chinese companies and stifled the business of Chinese firms like Huawei, a maker of phones and telecom equipment. China-backed hackers, meanwhile, have been blamed for data breaches of U.S. federal databases and the credit agency Equifax, and the Chinese government strictly limits what U.S. tech companies can do in China.

Election-year politics in the U.S. are fanning the flames, as Trump appears to be using friction with China to drum up voter support.

Both Republican and Democratic lawmakers share concerns about TikTok running from its vulnerability to censorship and misinformation campaigns to the safety of user data and children’s privacy. But the administration has provided no specific evidence that TikTok has made U.S. users’ data available to the Chinese government. Instead, officials point to the hypothetical threat that lies in the Chinese government’s ability to demand cooperation from Chinese companies. 

Earlier in the week, Trump threatened a deadline of Sept. 15 to “close down” TikTok unless Microsoft or another company acquires it, a threat the new executive order appears to formalize. On Wednesday, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced an expansion of the U.S. crackdown on Chinese technology to include barring Chinese apps from U.S. app stores, citing alleged security threats and calling out TikTok and WeChat by name.

TikTok did not reply to queries. Tencent and Microsoft declined to comment.

“The U.S. thinking is that anything that is Chinese is suspect,” said Andy Mok, a senior research fellow at the Center for China and Globalization in Beijing. “They’re being targeted not because of what they’ve done, but who they are.” 

Leading mobile security experts say TikTok is no more intrusive in its harvesting of user data and monitoring of user activity than U.S. apps owned by Facebook and Google.

“I am the first to yell from the rooftops when there is a glaring privacy issue somewhere. But we just have not found anything we could call a smoking gun in TikTok,” mobile security expert Will Strafach told The Associated Press last month after examining the app. Strafach is CEO of Guardian, which provides a firewall for Apple devices.

The order doesn’t seem to ban Americans from using TikTok, said Kirsten Martin, a professor of technology ethics at the University of Notre Dame. She added that such an order would be nearly impossible to enforce in the first place.

“If goal is to get teenagers to stop using TikTok, I’m not sure an executive order will stop them,” she said. “Every teenager knows how to use a VPN (a virtual private network). They will just pretend they are in Canada.”

And it would be difficult to prohibit people from using the apps if they already have them, even if an app-store ban went into effect, said Vanderbilt University law professor Timothy Meyer. 

TikTok, known for its short, catchy videos, is widely popular among young people in the U.S. and elsewhere. It is owned by the Chinese company ByteDance, which operates a separate version for the Chinese market. TikTok insists it does not store U.S. user information in China, instead caching it in the U.S. and Singapore, and says it would not share it with the Chinese government.

TikTok says it has 100 million U.S. users and hundreds of millions globally. According to research firm App Annie, TikTok saw 50 million weekly active users in the U.S. during the week of July 19, the latest available figure. That’s up 75% from the first week of the year.

WeChat and its sister app Weixin in China are hugely popular apps that incorporate messaging, financial transfers and an array of other services, and claim more than one billion users. Around the world, many people of Chinese descent use WeChat to stay in touch with friends and family and to conduct business in mainland China. 

Within China, WeChat is censored and expected to adhere to content restrictions set by authorities. The Chinese government Citizen Lab internet watchdog group has said WeChat monitors files and images shared abroad to aid its censorship in China.

The order against Tencent could have ramifications for users beyond WeChat, which is crucial for personal communications and organizations that do business with China. Tencent also owns parts or all of major game companies like Epic Games, publisher of Fortnite, a major video game hit, and Riot Games, which is behind League of Legends.

“This is a pretty broad and pretty quick expansion of the technology Cold War between the U.S. and China,” said Steven Weber, faculty director for the Berkeley Center for Long Term Cybersecurity. Weber added that “there is a plausible national security rationale” for the orders.

As president, Trump has frequently taken the unusual step of provoking confrontations, often of a personal nature, with specific companies, both American and foreign.

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By TALI ARBEL AP Technology Writer

AP reporters Barbara Ortutay in Oakland, Calif., Mae Anderson in New York, Frank Bajak in Boston and Zen Soo in Hong Kong contributed to this article.

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Apple to launch first online store in India next week

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Apple to launch first online store in India next week

NEW DELHI (AP) — Apple announced Friday that it will launch its first online store in India next week, as it seeks to increase sales in one of the world’s fastest-growing smartphone markets.

The company at present uses third-party online and offline retailers to sell its products in the country.

Apple CEO Tim Cook said in a tweet that the company “can’t wait to connect with our customers and expand support in India.”

The Sept. 23 launch comes ahead of India’s major Hindu festival season beginning next month.

With a nearly 1.4 billion people, including millions of new Internet users every month, India has become a key focus of tech giants over the last few years.

In August, three contract manufacturers for Apple iPhones and South Korea’s Samsung applied for large-scale electronics manufacturing rights in India under a $6.5 billion incentive scheme announced by the government.

Apple assembles some smartphones at Foxconn and Wistron’s plants in two southern Indian states.

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Phone flip: New Quibi series ‘Wireless’ empowers the viewer

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Phone flip New Quibi series 'Wireless' empowers the viewer

NEW YORK (AP) — Most directors insist on having final edit approval of their films. Not the creators of “Wireless.”

The series on the mobile-platform Quibi employs an ingenious way to tell a story on a smartphone: You see different things on the screen depending on whether you hold your phone vertically or horizontally.

Horizontally, a traditional cinematic film follows a college student navigating the snowy Colorado mountains. But flip your phone vertically and you see his smartphone as he scrolls through photos, checks the map or calls his mom.

That means that the viewer becomes the editor. And each viewer sees a slightly different film, depending on at what points they rotate the phone.

“You’re never going to have the same experience as somebody else watching the show,” said Zach Wechter, the director, co-creator and co-writer. “It really is in our viewers’ hands when they’re going to turn the phones at any given moment.”

The 10-episode series that launched this week has the backing of director Steven Soderbergh, an eager adopter of nascent technology whose influential films include “Sex, Lies and Videotape” and “Traffic.”

He signed on to be an executive producer after seeing “Pocket,” a short film by Wechter and his creating partner Jack Seidman that experimented with the two-screen technology.

“It was the first thing I’d ever seen that I felt was designed to be watched and experienced on the phone and absolutely worked,” Soderbergh said.

The show signals a technological jump for Quibi, which launched during the pandemic offering mobile-friendly installments of movies and TV in 10 minutes or less.

The platform initially got fewer subscribers than hoped, despite landing celebs like Chance the Rapper, Chrissy Teigen and Jennifer Lopez. Even so, it heads into the weekend Emmy Awards with an impressive 10 nominations.

The technological leap with “Wireless” means it waves goodbye to passive entertainment. By letting viewers rotate their phones and choose their perspective, Wechter is empowering the audience, letting them feel like they’re controlling the story.

“I’d like to think that our project is something that will inspire filmmakers and artists to consider the possibilities of this new frontier — a new landscape for storytelling,” Wechter said.

“Wireless” stars Tye Sheridan as a college student with an unhappy past and a secret habit who is driving to a New Years Eve’s party to try to rekindle a relationship with his ex-girlfriend.

As he drives over the mountains, we watch what he does on his phone: Scrolling through Instagram, checking maps, firing up Tinder, texting friends, asking Siri questions and cuing up the band Brockhampton on the stereo. The human in horizontal mode and the technological on vertical are fused.

The filmmakers have so seamlessly integrated the phone-in-the-phone that our hero listens to his old voicemail messages and looks at photos from happier times to give context for his emotions. They’ve even created a fake, chirpy online commercial for a fictional vehicle, the Chevy Colorado.

Wechter said he was inspired to create the show based on how much time everyone spends on their phone these days, and says we have almost an emotional relationship with our devices. Soderbergh agrees, calling them “an additional appendage.”

“I think the ubiquity of smartphones is one of the most impactful parts of our lives nowadays,” Wechter said. “It really just was birthed out of realizing how essential these devices have become in our day-to-day lives.”

Soderbergh laughs that filmmakers these days are lamenting how putting their work on a phone is a depreciation of their work. “This is a complete inversion of what you typically hear a filmmaker say: To experience it NOT on your phone would be a diminishment.”

He hopes viewers will watch the thriller and then re-watch it, flipping their phone for more looks at the in-screen phone during the second time or focusing more on the actor’s perspective. “I hope other people will seize on the ability to do their own edits.”

In an interesting twist, Andie MacDowell, who starred in the indie “Sex, Lives and Videotape” 31 years ago, voices the college student’s mom in this Quibi show. Soderbergh laughs at the old technology of that film, which used video confessionals. “Think about how quaint that seems,” he said. “It’s like a Jane Austen novel compared to what we are experiencing now.”

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By MARK KENNEDY AP Entertainment Writer.

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Celebs join Instagram ‘freeze’ to protest Facebook inaction

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Celebs join Instagram 'freeze' to protest Facebook inaction

LONDON (AP) — Kim Kardashian West, Katy Perry, Leonardo DiCaprio and other celebrities are taking part in a 24-hour Instagram “freeze” on Wednesday to protest against what they say is parent company Facebook’s failure to tackle violent and hateful content and election misinformation.

Hollywood stars and influencers are lending their backing to the “#StopHateforProfit” movement’s latest campaign. The movement asks people to put up a message highlighting what they called the damage Facebook does but otherwise refrain from posting on Instagram for a day.

“I can’t sit by and stay silent while these platforms continue to allow the spreading of hate, propaganda and misinformation – created by groups to sow division and split America apart – only to take steps after people are killed,” Kardashian West posted on her Instagram account on Tuesday.

Facebook declined to comment but pointed to recent announcements about what it’s doing to limit the reach on its platform of groups that support violence and its efforts to protect the U.S. election in November.

With 188 million followers, Kardashian West is one of the most influential people on Instagram and support from her and other big names for the boycott saw Facebook shares slide in aftermarket trading late Tuesday. They were down 1.7% ahead of the market open on Wednesday.

The organizers behind “#StopHateforProfit,” including civil rights groups such as the Anti-Defamation League, the NAACP and Color Of Change, had previously led a campaign that got hundreds of brands and nonprofits to join a Facebook advertising boycott in July.

Ashton Kutcher, Mark Ruffalo, Kerry Washington, Rosario Dawson, Jamie Foxx and Sacha Baron Cohen were among about two dozen Hollywood stars and celebrity influencers supporting the campaign, the organizers said.

DiCaprio said he was standing with the civil rights groups to call “on all users of Instagram and Facebook to protest the amplification of hate, racism, and the undermining of democracy on those platforms.”

Facebook, which earned nearly $70 billion in advertising revenue last year, is facing a reckoning over what critics call indefensible excuses for amplifying divisions, hate and misinformation on their platforms.

“We are quickly approaching one of the most consequential elections in American history,” organizers said. “Facebook’s unchecked and vague ‘changes’ are falling dangerously short of what is necessary to protect our democracy.”

The movement also singled out for criticism Facebook’s handling of online material ahead of the shootings in Kenosha, Wisconsin last month. CEO Mark Zuckerberg has said the company made a mistake in not removing sooner a page belonging to a militia group that called for armed civilians to enter the town. It only took the page down after an armed teenager killed two people after violent protests sparked by the police shooting of Jacob Blake, who is Black.

BY KELVIN CHAN AP Business Writer.

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