U.S. lawmakers challenge Facebook over Libra cryptocurrency plan

FILE PHOTO: Representations of virtual currency are displayed in front of the Libra logo in this illustration picture, June 21, 2019. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration/File Photo

By Pete Schroeder and Anna Irrera

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. lawmakers quizzed Facebook on Wednesday over its planned cryptocurrency, after a bruising first bout a day earlier when senators from both parties condemned the project, saying the company had not shown it could be trusted.

The social media company is fighting to get Washington on its side after it shocked regulators and lawmakers with its announcement on June 18 that it was hoping to launch a new digital coin called Libra in 2020.

It has faced criticism from policymakers and financial watchdogs at home and abroad who fear widespread adoption of the digital currency by Facebook’s 2.38 billion users could upend the financial system.

“I have serious concerns with Facebook’s plans to create a digital currency and digital wallet,” Maxine Waters, chairwoman of the Democrat-controlled House Financial Services Committee, said in her opening remarks.

“If Facebook’s plan comes into fruition, the company and its partners will yield immense economic power that could destabilize currencies.”

Lawmakers are questioning David Marcus, the Facebook executive overseeing the project, who was grilled by the Senate Banking Committee on Tuesday over the possible risks posed by Libra to data privacy, consumer protection and money laundering controls.

The hearing in Congress was proving to be even more tense on Wednesday.

The panel has already circulated draft legislation that could kill the project by banning Facebook and other tech firms from entering the financial services space.

Democratic Representative Carolyn Maloney pushed Marcus to commit to a Libra pilot program with one million users overseen by U.S. financial regulators, including the Federal Reserve.

“I don’t think you should launch Libra at all,” Maloney said. “At the very least you should agree to do this small pilot program.”

Marcus, who was president of PayPal from 2012 to 2014, did not commit to a pilot but tried to assuage lawmakers by pledging not to begin issuing Libra until regulatory concerns had been addressed.

“We will take the time to get this right,” Marcus said.

He said the company had unveiled the project at an early stage in order to get feedback from all stakeholders.

Representatives on both sides of the aisle asked how the company will ensure sufficient consumer protection and prevent the cryptocurrency from being used for illegal activities such as money laundering or terrorist financing.

“I’m concerned a 2020 launch date represents deep insensitivities about how Libra could impact U.S. financial security, the global financial system, the privacy of people across the globe, criminal activity and international human rights,” said Republican Representative Ann Wagner.

Facebook has been on the defense amid a backlash over mishandling user data and not doing enough to prevent Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

(Reporting by Pete Schroeder and Anna Irrera; editing by Cynthia Osterman, Bernadette Baum and Susan Thomas)

Exclusive: Echo chambers – Fake news fact-checks hobbled by low reach, study shows

FILE PHOTO: A general view of Facebook's elections operation centre in Dublin, Ireland May 2, 2019. REUTERS/Lorraine O'Sullivan/File Photo

By Alissa de Carbonnel

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – The European Union has called on Facebook and other platforms to invest more in fact-checking, but a new study shows those efforts may rarely reach the communities worst affected by fake news.

The analysis by big-data firm Alto Data Analytics over a three-month period ahead of this year’s EU elections casts doubt on the effectiveness of fact-checking even though demand for it is growing.

Facebook has been under fire since Russia used it to influence the election that brought Donald Trump to power. The company quadrupled the number of fact-checking groups it works with worldwide over the last year and its subsidiary WhatsApp launched its first fact-checking service.

The EU, which has expanded its own fact-checking team, urged online platforms to take greater action or risk regulation.

Fact-checkers are often journalists who set up non-profits or work at mainstream media outlets to scour the web for viral falsehoods. Their rebuttals in the form of articles, blog posts and Tweets seek to explain how statements fail to hold up to scrutiny, images are doctored or videos are taken out of context.

But there is little independent research on their success in debunking fake news or prevent people from sharing it.

“The biggest problem is that we have very little data … on the efficacy of various fact-checking initiatives,” said Nahema Marchal, a researcher at the Oxford Internet Institute.

“We know from a research perspective that fact-checking isn’t always as efficient as we might think,” she said.

Alto looked at more than two dozen fact-checking groups in five EU nations and found they had a minimal online presence – making up between 0.1% and 0.3% of the total number of retweets, replies, and mentions analyzed on Twitter from December to March.

The Alto study points to a problem fact-checkers have long suspected: they are often preaching to the choir.

It found that online communities most likely to be exposed to junk news in Germany, France, Spain, Italy and Poland had little overlap with those sharing fact-checks.

PATCHWORK

The European Parliament election yielded a patchwork of results. The far-right made gains but so did liberal and green parties, leaving pro-European groups in control of the assembly.

The EU found no large-scale, cross-border attempts to sway voters but warned of hard-to-detect home-grown operations.

Alto analyzed abnormal, hyperactive users making dozens of posts per day to deduce which political communities were most tainted by suspect posts in each country.

Less than 1% of users – mostly sympathetic to populist and far-right parties – generated around 10% of the total posts related to politics.

They flooded networks with anti-immigration, anti-Islam and anti-establishment messages, Alto found in results that echoed separate studies by campaign group Avaaz and the Oxford Internet Institute on the run-up to the European election.

Fact-checkers, seeking to counter these messages, had little penetration in those same communities.

In Poland – where junk news made up 21% of traffic compared to an average of 4% circulating on Twitter in seven major European languages over one month before the vote, according to the Oxford study – content issued by fact-checkers was mainly shared among those opposed to the ruling Law and Justice party.

The most successful posts by six Polish fact-checkers scrutinized campaign finance, the murder of a prominent opposition politician and child abuse by the Catholic church.

Italy, where an anti-establishment government has been in power for a year, and Spain, where far-right newcomer Vox is challenging center parties, also saw content from fact-checkers unevenly spread across political communities.

More than half of the retweets, mentions or replies to posts shared by seven Italian fact-checking groups – mostly related to immigration – came from users sympathetic to the center-left Democratic Party (PD).

Only two of the seven groups had any relatively sizeable footprint among supporters of Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini’s far-right League party, which surged to become the third-biggest in the new EU legislature.

Italian fact-checker Open.Online, for example, had 4,594 retweets, mentions or replies among PD sympathizers compared to 387 among League ones.

French fact-checking groups, who are mostly embedded in mainstream media, fared better. Their content, which largely sought to debunk falsehoods about President Emmanuel Macron, was the most evenly distributed across different online communities.

In Germany, only 2.2% of Twitter users mapped in the study retweeted, replied or mentioned the content distributed by six fact-checking groups.

Alto’s research faces constraints. The focus on publicly available Twitter data may not accurately reflect the whole online conversation across various platforms, the period of study stops short of the May elections, and there are areas of dispute over what constitutes disinformation.

It also lacks data from Facebook, which is not alone among internet platforms but whose dominance puts it in the spotlight.

FREE SPEECH

Facebook says once a post is flagged by fact-checkers, it is downgraded in users’ news feeds to limit its reach and if users try to share it, they will receive a warning. Repeat offenders will see a distribution of their entire page restricted resulting in a loss of advertising revenue.

“It should be seen less, shared less,” Richard Allen, Facebook’s vice president for global policy, told reporters visiting a “war room” in Dublin set up to safeguard the EU vote.

Facebook cites free speech concerns over deleting content. It will remove posts seeking to suppress voter turnout by advertising the wrong date for an election, for example, but says in many other cases it is difficult to differentiate between blatantly false information and partisan comment. 

“We don’t feel we should be removing contested claims even when we believe they may be false,” Allen said. “There are a lot of concepts being tested because we don’t know what is going to work.”

As the rapid spread of fake news on social media has raised the profile of fact-checking groups, it is forcing them to rethink how they work.

If they once focused on holding politicians to account, fact-checkers are now seeking to influence a wider audience.

Clara Jiménez, co-founder Maldita.es, a Spanish fact-checking group partnered with Facebook, mimics the methods used by those spreading false news. That means going viral with memes and videos.

Maldita.es focuses largely on WhatsApp and asks people to send fact-checks back to those in their networks who first spread the fake news.

“You need to try to reach real people,” said Jimenez, who also aims to promote better media literacy. “One of the things we have been asked several times is whether people can get pregnant from a mosquito bite. If people believe that, we have a bigger issue.”

(Additional reporting by Thomas Escritt in Berlin and Conor Humphries in Dublin; Writing by Alissa de Carbonnel; Editing by Giles Elgood)

Special Report: The non-profits, startups and PACs seizing on Trump’s dream wall

FILE PHOTO: Heavy machinery moves a bollard-type wall, to be placed along the border of private property using funds raised from a GoFundMe account, at Sunland Park, N.M., as seen from Ciudad Juarez, Mexico May 27, 2019. REUTERS/Jose Luis Gonzalez/File Photo

By Julia Harte and Joseph Tanfani

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump’s signature campaign vow to erect a wall on the southern U.S. border with Mexico has been mired in cross-border bickering and opposition from Democratic lawmakers with power over the government’s purse strings.

But amid the political stalemate, a wave of only-in-America entrepreneurs, fundraisers and profiteers have taken the issue into their own hands.

Tapping into Trump’s outrage over immigrants pouring into the United States, several dozen citizens have created non-profit and for-profit organizations, started GoFundMe pages, and launched political action committees to raise money to fund the wall or support like-minded candidates. In all, more than $25 million has poured in, the vast majority to a venture led by an Air Force veteran who has become the most public face of the fundraising mission.

Who’s paying the bill? Americans such as Arlene Mackay, 80, a Montana cattle rancher who gave $1,000 in January to what she thought was a multi-million dollar fundraiser, dubbed We Build the Wall, to construct a border wall. In fact, her money went to a different venture with a similar name: Build the Wall.

“I thought I might be buying a piece of the wall, like an inch,” said Mackay, when informed her donation had not reached its intended target. The money, she said, could have gone instead to buy half a cow. I’m just going to say I better be very cautious from now on.”

In all, Reuters found, more than 330,000 Americans have dipped into their wallets to bankroll emerging border wall campaigns. With their investments have come big promises, but few concrete results. The most noticeable impact so far: A half-mile of new bollard-style fencing in eastern New Mexico, built by the largest border wall fundraiser.

Even that project has been beset by regulatory concerns. Meanwhile, wall-themed novelty toy sellers and failed political action committees have left behind some disappointed customers and donors.

Yet even if these efforts don’t deliver a full border wall, some backers express no regrets.

“I don’t expect a private organization to actually finish it, but what I’m hoping is that it will resonate with other politicians and government, and show that we’ve got a movement,” said Richard Mills, 68, an Ohio information technology worker who gave $400 to two border wall fundraisers.

WALL CROWDFUNDING

U.S. government analysts have been skeptical about the need to seal off the Mexican border with 1,300 more miles of wall. Each new mile of fencing and barriers would yield diminishing returns while costing more in installation and maintenance, concluded a 2016 Congressional Research Service report.

And then there’s the cost to build: $21.6 billion, according to an internal Department of Homeland Security report.

The idea of sealing off the U.S. border with Mexico has been a Trump fixation, ever since his June 2015 campaign promise to build a “great, great wall on our southern border” galvanized voters angry over illegal immigration. Since his election, the wall plans have stalled. When Congress refused to meet Trump’s requests for billions in wall funding, he forced a 35-day government shutdown at the end of 2018, then declared an emergency in February, a maneuver hung up in federal court challenges.

Meanwhile, a handful of fundraising campaigns have sprung up to solicit cash from fervent believers who want more miles built. The groups are run by veterans, ex-government officials, even a seven-year-old Texas boy who raised wall money with a hot chocolate stand.

FILE PHOTO: Trump supporters hug after U.S. President Donald Trump's motorcade drove past them following his viewing of border wall prototypes in San Diego, California, U.S., March 13, 2018. REUTERS/Mike Blake/File Photo

FILE PHOTO: Trump supporters hug after U.S. President Donald Trump’s motorcade drove past them following his viewing of border wall prototypes in San Diego, California, U.S., March 13, 2018. REUTERS/Mike Blake/File Photo

Ray Nurnberger, general manager at a Long Island lumber yard, has donated more than $300 to three different border wall fundraisers over the past year, even while saving up for a wedding and preparing to support his first child.

“I’ll keep giving because I don’t want my kid to not be able to find a job, or have to compete with people who didn’t come here legally,” said Nurnberger, 46.

His donations shed light on the circuitous path contributions can follow once they leave donors’ hands.

His first went to the Border Wall Foundation, a non-profit created in 2018 by Ken Downey, a veteran and former Border Patrol communications supervisor, who said he did it as a civics lesson for his teenage daughter. They created a website, set up social media pages – but raised just $2,450, which he holds in an account while continuing to fundraise.

“If someday we get too frustrated and decide to quit and throw our hands in the air and say ‘we’re not getting there, we’d donate it to another effort to build the wall,” said Downey, of Washington State.

Next, Nurnberger gave $100 to a border wall fundraiser launched by the National Sheriffs Association in March 2018, with a promise that “100% of your tax-deductible donation will go to secure America’s southern border.” But the logistics of collecting donations began to overwhelm the association, and some sheriffs argued against supporting Trump’s border wall.

In September 2018, the sheriffs decided to donate their funds, which totaled around $25,000 at the time, to another non-profit campaign, Fund the Wall. That effort was founded by a Maryland IT professional, Quentin Kramer, who had registered the web domain name before Trump ran for president. On the day the sheriffs’ donations started flowing into Kramer’s group, Bristol County, Massachusetts, Sheriff Thomas Hodgson appeared on Fox television to promote the sheriffs’ fundraising website. Donations poured in: $100,000 that week, Kramer said.

But the effort had already hit its own wall. Kramer’s plan was to send donations to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to be used for wall construction. DHS said it couldn’t take the money, telling Kramer it “did not have the resources to process external donations at this time.”

Hodgson told Kramer the sheriffs had already been talking to DHS and could cut through the red tape. In November, Hodgson submitted a form on behalf of Fund the Wall, offering to donate $100,000 to DHS, stipulating that the agency “may only use this gift to construct border barriers (e.g. a wall) on the southern border of USA,” according to the form, reviewed by Reuters.

DHS said its office that processes gifts had not seen the form and that it had “no information to offer on the status of a donation.” Hodgson said he would go back to DHS to figure out what happened.

Today, Nurnberger’s $100 sits in the bank account of Fund the Wall, along with $222,267 in other donations. Nurnberger said he had no idea where his money had landed until contacted by Reuters.

“I guess that approach wasn’t the right way to go about it, because they don’t seem to have the ability to get that money to DHS,” he said.

‘WE BUILD THE WALL’

Meanwhile, Nurnberger had already donated an additional $100 to another border wall fundraiser, this one launched on the online fundraising platform GoFundMe in December 2018.

That effort initially named “We The People Will Fund The Wall,” was spearheaded by Brian Kolfage. A triple amputee U.S. Air Force veteran, Kolfage formerly ran a company that made millions running right-wing media pages. His border wall fundraiser pulled in $20 million in donations within a month, promoted by prominent immigration skeptics such as Trump’s former campaign manager Steve Bannon and former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach.

At first, Kolfage pledged to send donations to the U.S. government. But in January, he updated the GoFundMe site to say his team had decided to use the money instead to hire private contractors and build the wall themselves, rebranding the fundraiser as “We Build the Wall.”

Under GoFundMe rules, that meant the donors got their money back. But most of them, accounting for $14 million, kept their money with Kolfage. With more than $11 million in new donations, he’s now raised over $25 million.

Kolfage drew support from fundraisers such as Benton Stevens, the seven-year-old Texas boy who set up a hot chocolate stand to raise money for a border wall after watching Trump’s State of the Union speech. We Build the Wall contacted Stevens’ family after his stand made the news in February, and his parents eventually donated the funds to Kolfage’s effort, said his father Shane, who estimated his son raised $28,000. Benton still draws donations from Benton’s Stand, a website selling hot chocolate mix, powdered lemonade and Trump-themed products.

At the end of May, Kolfage unveiled the first fruits of his project: the steel bollard fence on private property near the U.S.-Mexico border in Sunland Park, New Mexico. Benton Stevens and Kolfage jointly wielded the scissors during the ribbon-cutting ceremony.

The wall, which Kolfage said cost around $7.5 million, immediately hit resistance. Sunland Park city officials issued a cease and desist order, saying the project was not properly permitted. In turn, Kolfage told his thousands of supporters the city was in league with drug cartels, urging them to pressure local officials to allow construction to proceed.

Over the next two days, the city pushed through approvals, on condition Kolfage met all code requirements. Sunland Park city officials declined comment.

We Build the Wall ran into similar permitting problems with an agency called the International Boundary and Water Commission, which controls an access road into Mexico near the site. Kolfage’s team built a gate across the road. Kolfage and the commission worked out an arrangement under which the gate remains closed at night but open during the day.

Days before his team broke ground, Kolfage said, a White House official he would not name told the boundary commission “not to mess with” his operation.

The commission “looked into that claim and could not find anyone who had received that call,” said spokeswoman Sally Spener. The White House did not return calls for comment.

The half-mile of wall did not succeed in completely sealing the border near Sunland Park; video showed migrants running across the border a few miles away.

“You gotta start somewhere, that’s how we look at it,” said Kolfage, comparing the border to a leaky hose that must be patched in multiple spots.

A budget of estimated project expenses he submitted to the state of Florida, where his organization is registered, sets aside $690,000 for salaries and $350,000 for “professional and consulting” expenses in 2019. He said the salaries are for his eight or nine full-time employees, including his spokesperson and Kobach, his general counsel. Kolfage says he is taking no compensation.

After complaints to the Florida Attorney General, the state’s Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services opened a review. The complaints noted that Kolfage was promoting a donor-only raffle to win a trip to visit the wall, but Florida law says charities must allow anyone, not just donors, to enter contests. Kolfage dismissed the inquiry as ‘smoke and mirrors.’ The department said the probe is ongoing and declined further comment.

Such controversy has concerned some fellow fundraisers. “You get too many black eyes like this and people are gonna lose faith,” said Jon Brimus, spokesman for Fund the Wall.

Kolfage said his success had bruised the egos of critics, but acknowledged his effort alone could never raise enough money to fund the entire wall. “Our end game is really just to keep the pressure on our government to fix this crisis from both sides.”

Linda Kilgore, a Washington State retiree, donated $100 to both Kolfage’s GoFundMe and Downey’s Border Wall Foundation. Kilgore, 65, said her career as a school teacher showed her illegal immigrants were overwhelming public schools, so she began donating to the border wall after a lifetime supporting causes such as wildlife conservation. She was happy to hear of Florida’s scrutiny of Kolfage.

“If somebody is taking my money, and I don’t care if it’s for polar bears or penguins, I’m hoping you’re above board, and if somebody’s looking over your shoulder, that’s great, “she said.

Georgia Hostetler, 89, of South Carolina, has sent Kolfage’s group $30 a month since December. “When I see that man that lost two legs and an arm, I just love what he’s doing,” she said of the veteran.

PAC POLITICS

Trump’s border wall has become a magnet for political PACs, independent committees that operate with far fewer rules than campaigns on contributions and spending. At least four committees geared toward supporting the wall and like-minded political candidates were launched after his election.

All four failed to generate much if any, money. They did confuse some donors.

“I thought it was going to go right to the wall,” said Chris Kilsdonk, 63, who runs a small business boarding and grooming dogs in rural Montana. She gave $400 to Raise the Wall, a committee started by a Republican political consultant in suburban Washington, D.C.

Kilsdonk gave after reading “a lot of articles on Facebook.” She said she was not aware she was giving to a political committee.

Raise the Wall Treasurer Chris Marston said he created the PAC in 2017 for a client, Mike Khristo, a web designer and Internet marketer from California. Donors were supposed to receive engraved bricks, but Marston said that proved to be too expensive.

“Fundraising costs ate up the whole amount that they raised,” Marston said. Raise the Wall received $13,246, but gave no money to support candidates before it was terminated six months later. Khristo declined to comment.

Another PAC, Build the Wall, began in January 2018, before Kolfage’s similarly named fund drive, by two California political consultants, Tommy Knepper and Briana Baleskie. Knepper said the plan was to raise funds for Republican Senate candidates in 2018, but his committee didn’t gain traction, raising $14,764 but giving nothing to support campaigns.

Knepper said he didn’t make any money from Build the Wall, and Baleskie, the treasurer, said she refunded a couple of misdirected contributions. They said they intend to shut it down. “We’re not out to frustrate people,” Baleskie said.

Political professionals weren’t the only ones getting involved. Daniel Schramek of St. Petersburg, Florida, is a Trump campaign volunteer once sanctioned by the Florida Supreme Court for practicing law without a license. Schramek started the Great Wall of America super PAC in 2017. The committee raised $700, which Schramek said he intends to refund to donors.

“It’s a lot of work getting people to donate money,” he said.

Another committee, the American Border Protection PAC, started in January. “There are greedy individuals who are raising enormous amounts of money to build the wall for personal gain and fame,” the committee’s website warns, saying all money would go to DHS for wall construction.

American Border Protection was the brainchild of Chrysalis Johnson, 43, a now-unemployed Arizona software designer who launched an earlier venture in cryptocurrency and an anti-Facebook campaign. He said his effort might help Americans living in border towns.

But, Johnson said, “No one wanted to buy into it.” He reported no contributions received.

(Editing by Ronnie Greene and Jason Szep)

WhatsApp to refer security breach to U.S. authorities

FILE PHOTO: A logo of WhatsApp is pictured on a T-shirt worn by a WhatsApp-Reliance Jio representative during a drive by the two companies to educate users, on the outskirts of Kolkata, India, October 9, 2018. REUTERS/Rupak De Chowdhuri -

By Steven Scheer

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Facebook’s WhatsApp said on Tuesday a security breach on its messaging app had signs of coming from a private company working on surveillance and it had referred the incident to the U.S. Department of Justice.

WhatsApp, one of the most popular messaging tools, is used by 1.5 billion people monthly and it has touted its high level of security and privacy, with messages on its platform being encrypted end to end so that WhatsApp and third parties cannot read or listen to them.

A WhatsApp spokesman said the attack was sophisticated and had all the hallmarks of a “private company working with governments on surveillance.”

“WhatsApp encourages people to upgrade to the latest version of our app, as well as keep their mobile operating system up to date, to protect against potential targeted exploits designed to compromise information stored on mobile devices,” a spokesman said.

“We are constantly working alongside industry partners to provide the latest security enhancements to help protect our users,” he said. WhatsApp did not elaborate further.

WhatsApp informed its lead regulator in the European Union, Ireland’s Data Protection Commission (DPC), of a “serious security vulnerability” on its platform.

“The DPC understands that the vulnerability may have enabled a malicious actor to install unauthorized software and gain access to personal data on devices which have WhatsApp installed,” the regulator said in a statement.

“WhatsApp are still investigating as to whether any WhatsApp EU user data has been affected as a result of this incident,” the DPC said, adding that WhatsApp informed it of the incident late on Monday.

Cybersecurity experts said the vast majority of users were unlikely to have been affected.

Scott Storey, a senior lecturer in cybersecurity at Sheffield Hallam University, believes most WhatsApp users were not affected since this appears to be governments targeting specific people, mainly human rights campaigners.

“For the average end user, it’s not something to really worry about,” he said, adding that WhatsApp found the vulnerability and quickly fixed it. “This isn’t someone trying to steal private messages or personal details.”

Storey said that disclosing vulnerabilities is a good thing and likely would lead to other services looking at their security.

INCOMING CALL

Earlier, the Financial Times reported that a vulnerability in WhatsApp allowed attackers to inject spyware on phones by ringing up targets using the app’s phone call function.

It said the spyware was developed by Israeli cyber surveillance company NSO Group — best known for its mobile surveillance tools — and affects both Android and iPhones. The FT said WhatsApp could not yet give an estimate of how many phones were targeted.

The FT reported that teams of engineers had worked around the clock in San Francisco and London to close the vulnerability and it began rolling out a fix to its servers on Friday last week and issued a patch for customers on Monday.

Asked about the report, NSO said its technology is licensed to authorized government agencies “for the sole purpose of fighting crime and terror,” and that it does not operate the system itself while having a rigorous licensing and vetting process.

“We investigate any credible allegations of misuse and if necessary, we take action, including shutting down the system. Under no circumstances would NSO be involved in the operating or identifying of targets of its technology, which is solely operated by intelligence and law enforcement agencies,” the company said.

Social media giant Facebook bought WhatsApp in 2014 for $19 billion.

Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes last week wrote in The New York Times that fellow co-founder Mark Zuckerberg had far too much influence by controlling Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp, three core communications platforms, and called for the company to be broken up.

Facebook’s shares were up 0.8 percent at $183.02 in pre-market trading.

(Additional reporting by Ari Rabinovitch, Tamara Mathias and Padraic Halpin; Editing by Louise Heavens/Keith Weir/Jane Merriman)

French Muslim group sues Facebook, YouTube over Christchurch footage

FILE PHOTO: A woman reacts at a make shift memorial outside the Al-Noor mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand March 23, 2019. REUTERS/Edgar Su

PARIS (Reuters) – One of the main groups representing Muslims in France said on Monday it was suing Facebook and YouTube, accusing them of inciting violence by allowing the streaming of footage of the Christchurch massacre on their platforms.

The French Council of the Muslim Faith (CFCM) said the companies had disseminated material that encouraged terrorism, and harmed the dignity of human beings. There was no immediate comment from either company.

The shooting at two mosques in New Zealand on March 15, which killed 50 people, was livestreamed on Facebook for 17 minutes and then copied and shared on social media sites across the internet.

Relatives and neighbours carry the coffin of Syed Areeb Ahmed, who was killed in Christchurch mosque attack in New Zealand, during a funeral in Karachi, Pakistan, March 25, 2019. REUTERS/Akhtar Soomro

Relatives and neighbours carry the coffin of Syed Areeb Ahmed, who was killed in Christchurch mosque attack in New Zealand, during a funeral in Karachi, Pakistan, March 25, 2019. REUTERS/Akhtar Soomro

Facebook said it raced to remove hundreds of thousands of copies.

But a few hours after the attack, footage could still be found on Facebook, Twitter and Alphabet Inc’s YouTube, as well as Facebook-owned Instagram and Whatsapp.

Abdallah Zekri, president of the CFCM’s Islamophobia monitoring unit, said the organization had launched a formal legal complaint against Facebook and YouTube in France.

Both companies have faced widespread criticism over the footage.

The chair of the U.S. House Committee on Homeland Security wrote a letter last week to top executives of four major technology companies urging them to do a better job of removing violent political content.

(Reporting by Julie Carriat; writing by Richard Lough; editing by John Irish)

Dozens killed as gunman livestreams New Zealand mosque shootings

An injured person is loaded into an ambulance following a shooting at the Al Noor mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand, March 15, 2019. REUTERS/SNPA/Martin Hunter

By Praveen Menon and Charlotte Greenfield

WELLINGTON/CHRISTCHURCH (Reuters) – A gunman shot dead 49 people and wounded more than 40 at two New Zealand mosques, some as they were kneeling at prayer, livestreaming online some of the killings that Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern condemned as terrorism.

The gunman broadcast footage of the attack on one mosque in the city of Christchurch on Facebook, mirroring the carnage played out in video games, after publishing a “manifesto” in which he denounced immigrants, calling them “invaders”.

The video footage widely circulated on social media, apparently taken by a gunman and posted online live as the attack unfolded, showed him driving to one mosque, entering it and shooting randomly at people inside.

Worshippers, possibly dead or wounded, lay huddled on the floor, the video showed. Reuters was unable to confirm the authenticity of the footage.

It was the worst ever mass killing in New Zealand which raised its security threat level to the highest, Ardern said, adding that “this can now only be described as a terrorist attack”.

Police said three people were in custody including one man in his late 20s who had been charged with murder. He will appear in court on Saturday.

Police have not identified any of the suspects.

“We were not chosen for this act of violence because we condone racism, because we are enclave for extremism,” Ardern said in a national address. “We were chosen for the fact that we are none of these things. It was because we represent diversity, kindness, compassion, a home for those who share our values.

“You have chosen us but we utterly reject and condemn you.”

Police Commissioner Mike Bush said 49 people had been killed in total. Health authorities said 48 people were being treated for gunshot wounds, including young children.

U.S. President Donald Trump condemned the “horrible massacre” in what the White House called a “vicious act of hate”.

“The U.S. stands by New Zealand for anything we can do,” Trump wrote in a post on Twitter.

The gunman’s manifesto praised Trump as “a symbol of renewed white identity and common purpose”. The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

One man who said he was at the Al Noor mosque told media the gunman was white, blond and wearing a helmet and a bulletproof vest. The man burst into the mosque as worshippers were kneeling for prayers.

“He had a big gun … he came and started shooting everyone in the mosque, everywhere,” said the man, Ahmad Al-Mahmoud. He said he and others escaped by breaking through a glass door.

Forty-one people were killed at the Al Noor mosque, seven at a mosque in the Linwood neighborhood and one died in hospital, police said. Hospitals said children were among the victims.

The visiting Bangladesh cricket team was arriving for prayers at one of the mosques when the shooting started but all members were safe, a team coach told Reuters.

Three Bangladeshis were among the dead and one was missing, the consulate said.

Shortly before the attack began, an anonymous post on the discussion site 8chan, known for a wide range of content including hate speech, said the writer was going to “carry out an attack against the invaders” and included links to a Facebook live stream, in which the shooting appeared, and a manifesto.

The manifesto cited “white genocide”, a term typically used by racist groups to refer to immigration and the growth of minority populations, as his motivation.

The Facebook link directed users to the page of a user called brenton.tarrant.9.

A Twitter account with the handle @brentontarrant posted on Wednesday images of a rifle and other military gear decorated with names and messages connected to white nationalism. What looked like the same weapons appeared in the livestream of the mosque attack on Friday.

Facebook and Twitter said they would take down content involving the shootings.

KILLINGS CONDEMNED

It was not immediately clear if the attacks at the two mosques were carried out by the same man.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said one of the men in custody was Australian.

All mosques in New Zealand had been asked to shut their doors and post armed guards, police said, adding they were not actively looking for any other “identified suspects”.

Political and Islamic leaders across Asia and the Middle East condemned the killings.

“I blame these increasing terror attacks on the current Islamophobia post-9/11,” Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan posted on social media. “1.3 billion Muslims have collectively been blamed for any act of terror.”

Al-Azhar University, Egypt’s 1000-year-old seat of Sunni Islamic learning, said the attacks had “violated the sanctity of the houses of God”.

“We warn the attack is a dangerous indicator of the dire consequences of escalating hate speech, xenophobia, and the spread of Islamophobia.”

Six Indonesians had been inside one of the mosques, with three managing to escape and three unaccounted for, its foreign minister said.

Afghanistan’s ambassador said on Twitter three Afghans had been wounded. Two Malaysians were wounded, their foreign ministry said.

Muslims account for just over 1 percent of New Zealand’s population, a 2013 census showed.

‘FIRING WENT ON AND ON’

The online footage, which appeared to have been captured on a camera strapped to a gunman’s head, showed him driving as music played in his vehicle. After parking, he took two guns and walked a short distance to the mosque where he opened fire.

Over the course of five minutes, he repeatedly shot worshippers, leaving more than a dozen bodies in one room alone. He returned to the car during that period to change guns, and went back to the mosque to shoot anyone showing signs of life.

One man, with blood still on his shirt, said in a television interview that he hid from a gunman under a bench and prayed that he would run out of bullets.

“I was just praying to God and hoping our God, please, let this guy stop” Mahmood Nazeer told TVNZ.

“The firing went on and on. One person with us had a bullet in her arm. When the firing stopped, I looked over the fence, there was one guy, changing his gun.”

The video shows the gunman then driving off at high speed and firing from his car. Another video, taken by someone else, showed police apprehending a gunman on a pavement by a road.

Police said improvised explosive devices were found. The gunman’s video had shown red petrol canisters in the back of his car, along with weapons.

The Bangladesh cricket team is in Christchurch to play New Zealand in a third cricket test starting on Saturday.

“They were on the bus, which was just pulling up to the mosque when the shooting begun,” Mario Villavarayen, a team coach, told Reuters in a message. “They are shaken but good.”

The third cricket test was canceled, New Zealand Cricket said later.

Violent crime is rare in New Zealand and police do not usually carry guns. Britain’s Queen Elizabeth, the head of state of New Zealand, said she was deeply saddened by the shootings.

Before Friday, New Zealand’s worst mass shooting was in 1990 when a gun-mad loner killed 13 men, women and children in a 24-hour rampage in the tiny seaside village of Aramoana. He was killed by police.

(Additional reporting by Tom Westbrook, John Mair and Swati Pandey in Sydney, Ruma Paul in Dhaka and Michael Holden in London; Writing by Micheal Perry; Editing by Robert Birsel and Nick Macfie)

NewsGuard’s ‘real news’ seal of approval helps spark change in fake news era

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is surrounded by members of the media as he arrives to testify before a Senate Judiciary and Commerce Committees joint hearing regarding the company’s use and protection of user data, on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., April 10, 2018. REUTERS/Leah Millis TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

By Kenneth Li

NEW YORK (Reuters) – More than 500 news websites have made changes to their standards or disclosures after getting feedback from NewsGuard, a startup that created a credibility ratings system for news on the internet, the company told Reuters this week.

The latest major news organization to work with the company is Britain’s Daily Mail, according to NewsGuard, which upgraded what it calls its “nutrition label” rating on the paper’s site to “green” on Thursday, indicating it “generally maintains basic standards of accuracy and accountability.”

A representative of the Daily Mail did not respond to several requests for comment.

NewsGuard markets itself as an independent arbiter of credible news. It was launched last year by co-chief executives Steven Brill, a veteran U.S. journalist who founded Brill’s Content and the American Lawyer, and Gordon Crovitz, a former publisher of News Corp’s Wall Street Journal.

NewsGuard joins a handful of other groups such as the Trust Project and the Journalism Trust Initiative which aim to help readers discern which sites are credible when many readers have trouble distinguishing fact from fiction.

After facing anger over the rapid spread of false news in the past year or so, Facebook Inc and other tech companies also say they have recruited more human fact checkers to identify and sift out some types of inaccurate articles.

These efforts were prompted at least in part by the 2016 U.S. presidential election when Facebook and other social media sites were used to disseminate many false news stories.

The company has been criticized by Breitbart News, a politically conservative site, which described NewsGuard as “the establishment media’s latest effort to blacklist alternative media sites.”

The way NewsGuard works is this: red or green shield-shaped labels are visible in a web browser window when looking at a news website if a user downloads NewsGuard’s software from the web. The software is free and works with the four leading browsers: Google’s Chrome, Microsoft Corp’s Edge, Mozilla’s Firefox and Apple Inc’s Safari.

‘CALL EVERYONE FOR COMMENT’

NewsGuard’s investors include the French advertising company Publicis Groupe SA and the non-profit Knight Foundation. Thomas Glocer, the former chief executive of Thomson Reuters, owns a smaller stake, according to NewsGuard’s website. News sites do not pay the company for its service.

The startup said it employs 35 journalists who have reviewed and published labels on about 2,200 sites based on nine journalistic criteria such as whether the site presents information responsibly, has a habit of correcting errors or discloses its ownership and who is in charge of the content.

News sites field questions if they choose to from NewsGuard journalists about its performance on the nine criteria.

“We call everyone for comment which algorithms don’t do,” Brill said in an interview, highlighting the difference between NewsGuard’s verification process with the computer code used by Alphabet Inc’s Google and Facebook in bringing new stories to the attention of users.

Some news organizations have clarified their ownership, financial backers and identity of their editorial staff after interacting with the company, NewsGuard said.

GateHouse Media, which publishes more than 140 local newspapers such as the Austin American-Statesman and Akron Beacon Journal, made changes to how it identifies sponsored content that may appear to be objective reporting but is actually advertising, after being contacted by NewsGuard.  

“We made our standards and practices more prominent and consistent across our digital 460 news brands across the country,” said Jeff Moriarty, GateHouse’s senior vice president of digital.

Reuters News, which earned a green rating on all nine of NewsGuard’s criteria, added the names and titles of its editorial leaders to the Reuters.com website after being contacted by NewsGuard, a Reuters spokesperson said.

NewsGuard upgraded the Daily Mail’s website rating on Thursday to green after giving it a red label in August, when it stated that the site “repeatedly publishes false information and has been forced to pay damages in numerous high-profile cases.”

The Daily Mail objected to that description, and started discussions with NewsGuard in January after the red label became visible for mobile users of Microsoft’s Edge browser, NewsGuard said.

NewsGuard has made public many details of its exchange with the Daily Mail on its website.

“We’re not in the business of trying to give people red marks,” Brill said. “The most common side effect of what we do is for news organizations to improve their journalistic practices.”

(Reporting by Kenneth Li; editing by Bill Rigby)

Zuckerberg plans to integrate WhatsApp, Instagram and Facebook Messenger

Silhouettes of mobile users are seen next to a screen projection of Instagram logo in this picture illustration taken March 28, 2018. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration

(Reuters) – Facebook Inc Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg is planning to unify the underlying messaging infrastructure of its WhatsApp, Instagram and Facebook Messenger services and incorporate end-to-end encryption to these apps, the New York Times reported on Friday.

The three services will, however, continue as stand alone apps, the report said, citing four people involved in the effort.

The company is still in the early stages of the work and plans to complete it by the end of this year or in early 2020, the report said.

Facebook did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

After the changes, a Facebook user, for instance, will be able to send an encrypted message to someone who has only a WhatsApp account, according to the report.

End-to-end encryption protects messages from being viewed by anyone except the participants in the conversation.

(Reporting by Munsif Vengattil in Bengaluru; Editing by Shinjini Ganguli)

U.S. bill seeks to give Americans more control over online data

Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) speaks to reporters before a series of votes on legislation ending U.S. military support for the war in Yemen on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., December 13, 2018. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts/File Photo

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Senator Marco Rubio introduced a bill on Wednesday aimed at giving Americans more control over information that online companies like Facebook Inc and Alphabet Inc’s Google collect on their location, financial data, job history or biometric data like fingerprints.

Lawmakers from both parties have criticized the tech giants and others over data breaches, a lack of online privacy options and concern about political bias.

Congress has been expected to pass some sort of online privacy bill to pre-empt a stringent law passed by California.

Rubio’s bill, which would pre-empt the California law if passed by Congress, would require consumer protection regulator the Federal Trade Commission to draw up rules for companies to follow that are based on the Privacy Act of 1974, with a goal of having them in place within 18 months of the Republican senator’s bill becoming law.

The bill won early praise from Marc Rotenberg, president of the independent Electronic Privacy Information Center. “Senator Rubio has put forward a very good proposal to address growing concerns about privacy protection. The federal Privacy Act is also the right starting point,” he said.

The 1974 measure requires government agencies to give public notice of what records they keep, prohibits most disclosures of records unless the person gives written consent and gives people a way to fix inaccurate records.

Three lawmakers on the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee – Republicans John Thune and Jerry Moran and Democrat Richard Blumenthal – talked about potential privacy legislation last year.

The Washington-based Center for Democracy and Technology proposed a bill in December that strictly limits the collection of biometric and location information and calls for punishment by fines.

In November, Intel Corp began seeking public comment on a bill it drafted that would shield companies from fines if they attest to the FTC that they have strong data protection measures.

(Reporting by Diane Bartz, Editing by Rosalba O’Brien)

Facebook discovers bug that may have affected up to 6.8 million users

FILE PHOTO: The entrance sign to Facebook headquarters is seen in Menlo Park, California, on Wednesday, October 10, 2018. REUTERS/Elijah Nouvelage/File Photo

(Reuters) – Facebook Inc said on Friday it has discovered a bug that may have affected up to 6.8 million people who used Facebook login to grant permission to third-party apps to access photos.

The company said in a blog that the problem has been fixed but that it may have affected up to 1,500 apps built by 876 developers.

Facebook said some third-party apps may have gained access to a broader set of photos than usual for 12 days between Sept. 13 to Sept. 25.

The bug is the latest in a string of privacy problems the tech giant disclosed this year, including the massive Cambridge Analytica data scandal in April and a data breach of nearly 30 million accounts in October.

Facebook shares were down 1.3 percent at $143.07 in early trading on Friday. The Nasdaq composite index <.IXIC> fell 0.9 percent.

(Reporting by Angela Moon in New York Arjun Panchadar in Bengaluru; Editing by Arun Koyyur and Bill Trott)