Senate panel plans to issue subpoenas to CEOs of Google, Facebook, Twitter

By Nandita Bose

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Senate Commerce Committee chaired by Republican Senator Roger Wicker will issue subpoenas to the chief executives of Twitter Inc., Alphabet Inc’s Google and Facebook Inc. if they do not agree to testify at a hearing on Oct. 1.

The hearing will discuss a legal immunity known as Section 230 that technology companies have when it comes to liability over content posted by users.

Republican President Donald Trump has made holding tech companies accountable for allegedly stifling conservative voices a theme of his administration. As a result calls for a reform of tech’s prized legal immunity have been intensifying ahead of the elections but has little chance to be approved by Congress this year

The committee will issue subpoenas if the technology companies do not agree to appear in front of the committee by Thursday night, a spokeswoman for Wicker confirmed to Reuters.

On Wednesday, Trump met with nine Republican state attorneys general to discuss the fate of Section 230 after the Justice Department unveiled a legislative proposal aimed at reforming the law.

“In recent years, a small group of powerful technology platforms have tightened their grip over commerce and communications in America,” Trump told reporters after the meeting.

“Every year countless Americans are banned, blacklisted and silenced through arbitrary or malicious enforcement of ever-shifting rules,” he added.

Any substantial changes to reform the law will have to wait until after the elections.

The chief executives of Google and Facebook along with Apple Inc. and Amazon.com Inc. recently testified before the House Judiciary Committee’s antitrust panel.

(Reporting by Nandita Bose in Washington; editing by Jonathan Oatis)

U.S. Justice Department to propose changes to internet platforms immunity: source

By David Shepardson and Ayanti Bera

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Justice Department will unveil later on Wednesday a proposal that seeks to limit legal protections for internet platforms on managing content, a person briefed on the matter confirmed.

The proposal, which takes aim at Facebook Inc, Twitter Inc and Alphabet Inc’s Google, would need congressional approval and is not likely to see action until next year at the earliest.

President Donald Trump in May signed an executive order that seeks new regulatory oversight of tech firms’ content moderation decisions and backed legislation to scrap or weaken the relevant provision in the 1996 Communications Decency Act, Section 230.

Trump will meet on Wednesday with a group of state attorneys general amid his criticism of social media companies. Twitter has repeatedly placed warning labels on Trump tweets, saying they have included potentially misleading information about mail-in voting.

Trump will meet with state attorneys general from Texas, Arizona, Utah, Louisiana, Arkansas, Mississippi, South Carolina and Missouri – like Trump, all Republicans – according to a person briefed on the matter.

“Online censorship goes far beyond the issue of free speech, it’s also one of protecting consumers and ensuring they are informed of their rights and resources to fight back under the law,” White House spokesman Judd Deere said on Monday.

Trump directed the Commerce Department to file a petition asking the Federal Communication Commission to limit protections under Section 230 after Twitter warned readers in May to fact-check his posts about unsubstantiated claims of fraud in mail-in voting. The petition is still pending.

A group representing major internet companies including Facebook, Amazon.com Inc and Google urged the FCC to reject the petition, saying it was “misguided, lacks grounding in law, and poses serious public policy concerns.”

The Wall Street Journal reported the planned Justice Department proposal earlier.

Big U.S. companies form group to boost hiring of minorities in New York

By Kanishka Singh

(Reuters) – Leaders from major U.S. companies, including banks and tech giants, have formed a group aimed at increasing the hiring of individuals from minority communities in New York.

The New York Jobs CEO Council, which counts chief executives from 27 firms among its members, aims to hire 100,000 people from low-income Black, Latino and Asian communities by 2030.

Jamie Dimon, chief executive of JPMorgan Chase & Co, IBM CEO, Arvind Krishna, and Accenture CEO, Julie Sweet, will co-chair the group.

Other companies in the group include Amazon.com Inc., Google, Microsoft Corp. and Goldman Sachs, according to a press statement.

U.S. companies have been under increasing pressure to do more to provide minority groups with access to opportunities in the wake of anti-racism protests sparked by the death of a 46-year-old African-American man, George Floyd. Floyd died in May after a white police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes.

The protests also came as minorities were disproportionately represented in coronavirus deaths, and lower-income communities in the United States were hit hard economically.

“Today’s economic crisis is exacerbating economic and racial divides and exposing systemic barriers to opportunity,” Dimon said in an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal on Monday, adding that often high-achieving people across New York were not given opportunities at the city’s top employers.

“Young people in low-income and minority communities feel this failure the most. Unless we actively work to close the gap, COVID-19 will make matters worse,” said the opinion piece which was co-authored with Félix V. Matos Rodríguez, the chancellor of the City University of New York.

(Reporting by Kanishka Singh in Bengaluru; Editing by Edwina Gibbs)

Google turns Android phones into earthquake sensors; California to get alerts

By Paresh Dave

OAKLAND, Calif. (Reuters) – Alphabet Inc’s Google’s Android phones on Tuesday started detecting earthquakes around the world to provide data that could eventually give billions of users precious seconds of warning of a tremor nearby, with an alerting feature first rolling out in California.

Japan, Mexico and California already use land-based sensors to generate warnings, aiming to cut injuries and property damage by giving people further away from the epicenter of an earthquake seconds to protect themselves before the shaking starts.

If Google’s approaches for detecting and alerting prove effective, warnings would reach more people, including for the first time Indonesia and other developing countries with few traditional sensors.

Seismology experts consulted by Google said turning smartphones into mini-seismographs marked a major advancement, despite the inevitably of erroneous alerts from a work in progress, and the reliance on a private company’s algorithms for public safety. More than 2.5 billion devices, including some tablets, run Google’s Android operating system.

“We are on a path to delivering earthquake alerts wherever there are smartphones,” said Richard Allen, director of University of California Berkeley’s seismological lab and visiting faculty at Google over the last year.

Google’s program emerged from a week-long session 4-1/2 years ago to test whether the accelerometers in phones could detect car crashes, earthquakes and tornadoes, said principal software engineer Marc Stogaitis.

Accelerometers – sensors that measure direction and force of motion – are mainly used to determine whether a user is holding a phone in landscape or portrait mode.

The company studied historical accelerometer readings during earthquakes and found they could give some users up to a minute of notice.

Android phones can currently separate earthquakes from vibrations caused by thunder or the device dropping only when the device is charging, stationary and has user permission to share data with Google.

If phones detect an earthquake, they send their city-level location to Google, which can triangulate the epicenter and estimate the magnitude with as few as several hundred reports, Stogaitis said.

The system will not work in regions including China where Google’s Play Services software is blocked.

Google expects to issue its first alerts based on accelerometer readings next year. It also plans to feed alerts for free to businesses that want to automatically shut off elevators, gas lines and other systems before the shaking starts.

To test its alerting abilities, Google is drawing in California from traditional government seismograph readings to alert Android users about earthquakes, similar to notifications about kidnappings or flooding.

People expected to experience strong shaking would hear a loud dinging and see a full-screen advisement to drop, cover and hold on, Stogaitis said. Those further away would get a smaller notification designed not to stir them from their sleep, while people too close to be warned will get information about post-quake safety, such as checking gas valves.

Alerts will trigger for earthquakes magnitude 4.5 or greater, and no app download is necessary.

MyShake, an app launched by Allen’s Berkeley lab last year to provide Californians warnings and let them report damage, has drawn 1 million downloads.

Stogaitis also said Google has not discussed its plans with Apple Inc, whose competitor to Android comprises half the market in countries including the United States.

Apple was not immediately available for comment.

(Reporting by Paresh Dave; Additional reporting by Nathan Frandino; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)

Google’s $2.1 billion Fitbit deal hits roadblock as EU opens probe

By Foo Yun Chee

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – Alphabet unit Google’s bid to take on Apple and Samsung in the wearable technology market by buying Fitbit hit a hurdle on Tuesday as EU antitrust regulators launched an investigation into the $2.1 billion deal.

The move by the European Commission on Tuesday came despite Google’s pledge last month not to use the fitness tracker’s data for advertising purposes in a bid to address competition concerns.

The EU antitrust enforcer said the data pledge was insufficient to allay its worries.

“The proposed transaction would further entrench Google’s market position in the online advertising markets by increasing the already vast amount of data that Google could use for personalization of the ads it serves and displays,” the Commission said.

It singled out online search and display advertising services and ad tech services, where analytics and digital tools are used in digital advertising, as two areas that would be affected by the deal.

It said data collected via wrist-worn wearable devices appeared to be an important advantage in online advertising, and the deal would give Google an edge in personalizing search engine ads and making it difficult for rivals to compete.

Ultimately this would result in higher prices for advertisers and publishers.

The investigation will also focus on digital healthcare and whether Google would make it difficult for rival wearables to function with its Android smartphone operating system.

The Commission will decide by Dec. 9 whether to clear or block the deal.

Google said the combination of its and Fitbit’s hardware would increase competition in the sector where players include Apple, Samsung, Xiaomi, Huawei and others.

“This deal is about devices, not data. We’ve been clear from the beginning that we will not use Fitbit health and wellness data for Google ads,” Rick Osterloh, senior vice president for devices and services, said in a statement.

“As we do with all our products, we will give Fitbit users the choice to review, move or delete their data.”

The deal has drawn criticism from healthcare providers, wearables rivals and privacy advocates.

Fitbit has a 3% share of the global wearables market as of the first quarter of 2020, far behind Apple’s 29.3% share, and also trailing Xiaomi, Samsung and Huawei, data from market research firm International Data Corp showed.

(Reporting by Foo Yun Chee; Editing by Jan Harvey)

U.S. tech giants face hard choices under Hong Kong’s new security law

By Brenda Goh and Pei Li

SHANGHAI/HONG KONG (Reuters) – U.S. tech giants face a reckoning over how Hong Kong’s security law will reshape their businesses, with their suspension of processing government requests for user data a stop-gap measure as they weigh options, people close to the industry say.

While Hong Kong is not a significant market for firms such as Facebook, Google and Twitter, they have used it as a perch to reach deep-pocketed advertisers in mainland China, where many of their services are blocked. But the companies are now in the cross hairs of a national security law that gives China authority to demand that they turn over user data or censor content seen to violate the law – even when posted from abroad.

“These companies have to totally reassess the liability of having a presence in Hong Kong,” Charles Mok, a legislator who represents the technology industry in Hong Kong, told Reuters.

If they refuse to cooperate with government requests, he said, authorities “could go after them and take them to court and fine them, or imprison their principals in Hong Kong”.

Facebook, Google and Twitter have suspended processing government requests for user data in Hong Kong, they said on Monday, following China’s imposition of the new national security law on the semi-autonomous city.

Facebook, which started operating in Hong Kong in 2010, last year opened a big new office in the city.

It sells more than $5 billion a year worth of ad space to Chinese businesses and government agencies looking to promote messages abroad, Reuters reported in January. That makes China Facebook’s biggest country for revenue after the United States.

The U.S. internet firms are no strangers to governments demands regarding content and user information, and generally say they are bound by local laws.

The companies have often used a technique known as “geo-blocking” to restrict content in a particular country without removing it altogether.

But the sweeping language of Hong Kong’s new law could mean such measures won’t be enough. Authorities will no longer need to get court orders before requesting assistance or information, analysts said.

Requests for data about overseas users would put the companies in an especially tough spot.

“It’s a global law … if they comply with national security law in Hong Kong then there is the problem that they may violate laws in other countries,” said Francis Fong Po-kiu, honorary president of Hong Kong’s Information Technology Federation.

CONTENT QUESTION

While the U.S. social media services are blocked in mainland China, they have operated freely in Hong Kong.

Other U.S. internet platforms are also rich with content that is banned in mainland China and may now be judged illegal in Hong Kong.

U.S. video streaming site Netflix, for example, carries “Joshua: Teenager vs. Superpower”, a 2017 documentary on activist Joshua Wong whose books were removed from Hong Kong public libraries last week.

“Ten Years”, a 2015 film that has been criticized by Chinese state media for portraying a dystopian future Hong Kong under Chinese Communist Party control, is also available on its platform.

Netflix declined to comment.

Google’s YouTube is a popular platform for critics of Beijing. New York-based fugitive tycoon Guo Wengui has regularly voiced support for Hong Kong protesters in his videos. Google did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

None of these companies has yet said how they will handle requests from Hong Kong to block or remove content, and the risk of being caught in political crossfire looms large.

“The foreign content players have to rethink what they display in Hong Kong,” said Duncan Clark, chairman at consultancy BDA China.

“The downside is very big if they get U.S. senators on their backs for accommodating. Any move they make will be heavily scrutinized.”

(Reporting by Brenda Goh and Pei Li; Additional reporting by Cate Cadell in Beijing and Anne Marie Roantree in Hong Kong; Editing by Jonathan Weber and Robert Birsel)

Countries threaten jail for April Fools’ Day jokes about coronavirus

By Emma Batha

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – From Thailand to India, countries have told people not to make April Fools’ Day pranks related to coronavirus, with some threatening jail time as they seek to prevent the spread of rumours which could put lives at risk.

Tech giant Google, which is famous for its annual spoofs, has cancelled the tradition because of the pandemic which has killed about 40,000 people worldwide.

Thailand said on Tuesday that April Fool’s Day jokes about the virus could be punished under a law carrying a sentence of up to five years in prison.

“It’s against the law to fake having COVID-19 this April Fools’ Day,” the government said on Twitter.

Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen took to Facebook to tell people not to prank about the virus, adding that anyone spreading rumours or false information could face up to three years in jail and/or a fine of up to NT$3 million ($99,200).

In India, Maharashtra state’s cyber security unit said it would take legal action against anyone spreading fake news on April Fools’ Day.

“The state govt won’t allow anyone to spread rumours/panic on #Corona,” Maharashtra Home Minister Anil Deshmukh tweeted, adding that he had instructed the authorities to “act swiftly & strongly (against) such miscreants”.

Under the heading “Corona is no joke”, Germany’s health ministry also urged the public not to make up stories related to the virus.

With people relying on the internet and media for vital information about coronavirus, there are fears that jokes could fan the spread of misinformation.

From drinking cow urine to sleeping by chopped onions, myths about how people can catch and cure COVID-19 are already widely circulating.

The World Health Organization has described it as an “infodemic”, which could increase the spread of the virus among vulnerable people.

Google said it had suspended its annual April Fools’ tradition “out of respect for all those fighting the COVID-19 pandemic”.

“Our highest goal right now is to be helpful to people, so let’s save the jokes for next April, which will undoubtedly be a whole lot brighter than this one,” it said in an internal email to staff.

In previous years Google has advertised fictitious jobs at a new research center on the moon, turned Google Maps into a game of Where’s Waldo – also known as Where’s Wally – and claimed its search technology uses trained pigeons to rank pages.

Taylor Herring, a British PR agency whose clients include TV channels and international brands, advised all companies to ditch the jokes this year.

“Tip for any brands planning an April Fool’s Day stunt. Just. Don’t,” it said on social media.

Others commented on twitter that April Fools’ Day had been cancelled because no one could make up anything more unbelievable than what is currently happening in the world.

(Reporting by Emma Batha @emmabatha; Editing by Belinda Goldsmith; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, which covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

Google launches coronavirus website in the United States

Google launches coronavirus website in the United States
(Reuters) – Alphabet Inc’s Google said on Saturday it launched a United States-focused website with information about coronavirus guidance and testing, as the country works on slowing the spread of the highly contagious virus.

The site (google.com/covid19), which consists of resources and links focused on the potentially deadly respiratory illness COVID-19, will be available in more languages and countries in coming days, Google said in a blog post. https://bit.ly/2wq4f27

Google Chief Executive Sundar Pichai said in a blog post last Sunday that the search giant was partnering with the U.S. government to create a website by March 16.

However, the launch was delayed as local and national guidance changed significantly from Sunday to Monday and the company had said it would roll out the website later in the week.

(Reporting by Subrat Patnaik in Bengaluru; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)

Britain to United States: We want a trade deal and a digital tax

Britain to United States: We want a trade deal and a digital tax
LONDON (Reuters) – Britain wants a trade deal with the United States but will impose a digital service tax on the revenue of companies such as Google, Facebook and Amazon, business minister Andrea Leadsom said on Thursday.

“The United States and the United Kingdom are committed to entering into a trade deal with each other and we have a very strong relationship that goes back centuries so some of the disagreements that we might have over particular issues don’t in any way damage the excellent and strong and deep relationship between the U.S. and the UK,” Leadsom told Talk Radio.

“There are always tough negotiations and tough talk but I think where the tech tax is concerned it’s absolutely vital that these huge multinationals who are making incredible amounts of income and profit should be taxed and what we want to do is to work internationally with the rest of the world to cover with a proper regime that ensures that they’re paying their fair share.”

Under the British plan, tech companies that generate at least 500 million pounds ($657 million) a year in global revenue will pay a levy of 2% of the money they make from UK users from April 2020.

(Reporting by Elizabeth Howcroft; writing by Guy Faulconbridge; editing by Kate Holton)

Study finds Google system could improve breast cancer detection

By Julie Steenhuysen

CHICAGO (Reuters) – A Google artificial intelligence system proved as good as expert radiologists at predicting which women would develop breast cancer based on screening mammograms and showed promise at reducing errors, researchers in the United States and Britain reported.

The study, published in the journal Nature on Wednesday, is the latest to show that artificial intelligence (AI) has the potential to improve the accuracy of screening for breast cancer, which affects one in eight women globally.

Radiologists miss about 20% of breast cancers in mammograms, the American Cancer Society says, and half of all women who get the screenings over a 10-year period have a false positive result.

The findings of the study, developed with Alphabet’s DeepMind AI unit which merged with Google Health in September, represent a major advance in the potential for the early detection of breast cancer, Mozziyar Etemadi, one of its co-authors from Northwestern Medicine in Chicago, said.

The team, which included researchers at Imperial College London and Britain’s National Health Service, trained the system to identify breast cancers on tens of thousands of mammograms.

They then compared its predictions to the actual results from a set of 25,856 mammograms in the United Kingdom and 3,097 from the United States.

The study showed the AI system could identify cancers with a similar degree of accuracy to expert radiologists, while reducing the number of false positive results by 5.7% in the U.S.-based group and by 1.2% in the British-based group.

It also cut the number of false negatives, where tests are wrongly classified as normal, by 9.4% in the U.S. group, and by 2.7% in the British group.

These differences reflect the ways in which mammograms are read. In the United States, only one radiologist reads the results and the tests are done every one to two years. In Britain, the tests are done every three years, and each is read by two radiologists. When they disagree, a third is consulted.

‘SUBTLE CUES’

In a separate test, the group pitted the AI system against six radiologists and found it outperformed them at accurately predicting breast cancers.

Connie Lehman, chief of the breast imaging department at Harvard’s Massachusetts General Hospital, said the results are in line with findings from several groups using AI to improve cancer detection in mammograms, including her own work.

The notion of using computers to improve cancer diagnostics is decades old, and computer-aided detection (CAD) systems are commonplace in mammography clinics, yet CAD programs have not improved performance in clinical practice.

The issue, Lehman said, is that current CAD programs were trained to identify things human radiologists can see, whereas with AI, computers learn to spot cancers based on the actual results of thousands of mammograms.

This has the potential to “exceed human capacity to identify subtle cues that the human eye and brain aren’t able to perceive,” Lehman added.

Although computers have not been “super helpful” so far, “what we’ve shown at least in tens of thousands of mammograms is the tool can actually make a very well-informed decision,” Etemadi said.

The study has some limitations. Most of the tests were done using the same type of imaging equipment, and the U.S. group contained a lot of patients with confirmed breast cancers.

More studies will be needed to show that when used by radiologists, the tool improves patient care, and it will require regulatory approval, which could take several years.

(Reporting by Julie Steenhuysen; Editing by Alexander Smith)