U.S. social media firms to testify on violent, extremist online content

By David Shepardson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Alphabet Inc’s Google, Facebook Inc and Twitter Inc will testify next week before a U.S. Senate panel on efforts by social media firms to remove violent content from online platforms, the panel said in a statement on Wednesday.

The Sept. 18 hearing of the Senate Commerce Committee follows growing concern in Congress about the use of social media by people committing mass shootings and other violent acts. Last week, the owner of 8chan, an online message board linked to several recent mass shootings, gave a deposition on Capitol Hill.

The hearing “will examine the proliferation of extremism online and explore the effectiveness of industry efforts to remove violent content from online platforms. Witnesses will discuss how technology companies are working with law enforcement when violent or threatening content is identified and the processes for removal of such content,” the committee said.

Facebook’s head of global policy management Monika Bickert, Twitter public policy director Nick Pickles and Google’s global director of information policy Derek Slater are due to testify.

Facebook and Google both confirmed they will participate but declined to comment further. Twitter did not immediately comment.

In May, Facebook said it would temporarily block users who break its rules from broadcasting live video. That followed an international outcry after a gunman killed 51 people in New Zealand and streamed the attack live on his page.

Facebook said it was introducing a “one-strike” policy for use of Facebook Live, a service which lets users broadcast live video. Those who broke the company’s most serious rules anywhere on its site would have their access to make live broadcasts temporarily restricted.

Facebook has come under intense scrutiny in recent years over hate speech, privacy lapses and its dominant market position in social media. The company is trying to address those concerns while averting more strenuous action from regulators.

(Reporting by David Shepardson, Editing by Rosalba O’Brien and Tom Brown)

Facebook tightens rules for U.S. political advertisers ahead of 2020 election

FILE PHOTO: A 3D-printed Facebook Like symbol is displayed in front of a U.S. flag in this illustration taken, March 18, 2018. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration/File Photo

By Elizabeth Culliford

(Reuters) – Facebook Inc is tightening its political ad rules in the United States, it said on Wednesday, requiring new disclosures for its site and photo-sharing platform Instagram ahead of the U.S. presidential election in November 2020.

The social media giant is introducing a “confirmed organization” label for U.S. political advertisers who show government-issued credentials to demonstrate their legitimacy.

All advertisers running ads on politics or social issues will also have to post their contact information, even if they are not seeking the official label.

Advertisers must comply by mid-October or risk having their ads cut off.

Under scrutiny from regulators since Russia used social media platforms to meddle in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, Facebook has been rolling out ad transparency tools country by country since last year.

Since May 2018, Facebook has required political advertisers in the United States to put a “paid for by” disclaimer on their ads. But the company said some had used misleading disclaimers or tried to register as organizations that did not exist.

“In 2018 we did see evidence of misuse in these disclaimers and so this is our effort to strengthen the process,” said Sarah Schiff, product manager at Facebook.

Last year, Vice News journalists managed to place ads on behalf of figures and groups including U.S. Vice President Mike Pence and “Islamic State.” Just last week, Facebook banned conservative news outlet the Epoch Times from advertising on the platform after it used different pages to push ads in support of President Donald Trump.

Paid Facebook ads have become a major tool for political campaigns and other organizations to target voters.

The re-election campaign for Trump, a Republican, has spent about $9.6 million this year on ads on the site, making him the top spender among 2020 candidates, according to Bully Pulpit Interactive, a Democratic firm that tracks digital ad spending.

After the announcement, the Trump campaign told Reuters it thought there was a “glaring omission” in Facebook’s political ads policy because news media were not held to the same standards as campaigns for buying ads.

Facebook does not apply its ad authorization policies to certain news sources that it determines to have a good track record for avoiding misinformation, have a minimum number of visitors and have ads with the primary purpose of reporting on news and current events.

Last year, Facebook began requiring political advertisers to submit a U.S. mailing address and identity document. Under the new rules, they will also have to supply a phone number, business email and website.

To get a “confirmed organization” label, advertisers must submit a Federal Election Commission ID number, tax-registered organization ID number, or government website domain matching an official email.

Facebook has continuously revamped its policies around political advertising, which differ by country.

In 2018, it launched an online library of political ads, although the database has been criticized by researchers for being poorly maintained and failing to provide useful ad targeting information.

(Reporting by Elizabeth Culliford in San Francisco; Additional reporting from Ginger Gibson in Washington; Editing by Lisa Shumaker and Matthew Lewis)

Twitter, Facebook accuse China of using fake accounts to undermine Hong Kong protests

FILE PHOTO: A 3-D printed Facebook logo is seen in front of displayed binary code in this illustration picture, June 18, 2019. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration/File Photo

By Katie Paul and Elizabeth Culliford

(Reuters) – Twitter Inc and Facebook Inc said on Monday they had dismantled a state-backed information operation originating in mainland China that sought to undermine protests in Hong Kong.

Twitter said it suspended 936 accounts and the operations appeared to be a coordinated state-backed effort originating in China. It said these accounts were just the most active portions of this campaign and that a “larger, spammy network” of approximately 200,000 accounts had been proactively suspended before they were substantially active.

Facebook said it had removed accounts and pages from a small network after a tip from Twitter. It said that its investigation found links to individuals associated with the Chinese government.

Social media companies are under pressure to stem illicit political influence campaigns online ahead of the U.S. election in November 2020. A 22-month U.S. investigation concluded Russia interfered in a “sweeping and systematic fashion” in the 2016 U.S. election to help Donald Trump win the presidency.

The Chinese embassy in Washington and the U.S. State Department were not immediately available to comment.

The Hong Kong protests, which have presented one of the biggest challenges for Chinese President Xi Jinping since he came to power in 2012, began in June as opposition to a now-suspended bill that would allow suspects to be extradited to mainland China for trial in Communist Party-controlled courts. They have since swelled into wider calls for democracy.

Twitter in a blog post said the accounts undermined the legitimacy and political positions of the protest movement in Hong Kong.

Examples of posts provided by Twitter included a tweet from a user with photos of protesters storming Hong Kong’s Legislative Council building, which asked: “Are these people who smashed the Legco crazy or taking benefits from the bad guys? It’s a complete violent behavior, we don’t want you radical people in Hong Kong. Just get out of here!”

In examples provided by Facebook, one post called the protesters “Hong Kong cockroaches” and claimed that they “refused to show their faces.”

In a separate statement, Twitter said it was updating its advertising policy and would not accept advertising from state-controlled news media entities going forward.

Alphabet Inc’s YouTube video service told Reuters in June that state-owned media companies maintained the same privileges as any other user, including the ability to run ads in accordance with its rules. YouTube did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Monday on whether it had detected inauthentic content related to protests in Hong Kong.

(Reporting by Katie Paul in Aspen, Colorado, and Elizabeth Culliford in San Francisco; Additional reporting by Sayanti Chakraborty in Bengaluru; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)

Hong Kong protesters offer apologies, China doubles down after airport clash

Police fire tear gas at anti-extradition bill protesters during clashes in Sham Shui Po in Hong Kong, China, August 14, 2019. REUTERS/Thomas Peter

By Marius Zaharia and Joyce Zhou

HONG KONG (Reuters) – China said on Wednesday Hong Kong’s protest movement had reached “near terrorism”, as more street clashes followed ugly scenes a day earlier at the airport where demonstrators set upon two men they suspected of being government sympathizers.

By nightfall, police and protesters were again clashing on the streets, with riot officers shooting tear gas almost immediately as their response to demonstrators toughens.

Flights resumed at Hong Kong airport, which is one of the world’s busiest, after two days of disruptions. Thousands of protesters have occupied the airport for days, forcing the cancellation of hundreds of departures on Monday and Tuesday.

Ten weeks of increasingly violent confrontation between police and protesters have plunged the city into its worst crisis since it reverted from British to Chinese rule in 1997.

China’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office in Beijing called the behavior at the airport no different to terrorism and said it must be severely punished.

“We’re deeply sorry about what happened yesterday,” read a banner held up by a group of a few dozen demonstrators in the airport arrivals hall in the morning.

“We were desperate and we made imperfect decisions. Please accept our apologies,” the banner said.

In chaotic scenes that would once have been unthinkable for Hong Kong, a peaceful sit-in at the airport turned violent late on Tuesday as protesters confronted and held a man they believed was an undercover Chinese agent.

Busloads of riot police arrived in response, clashing with furious demonstrators before withdrawing once the man was removed, and leaving the terminal briefly in control of activists who then detained a Chinese reporter for a short time.

It was not clear whether the scenes of violence might have eroded the broad support the movement has so far attracted in Hong Kong, a major financial hub. The protests have also hit the city’s faltering economy.

“We promise to reflect and to improve,” protesters said in one message distributed on social media app Telegram.

“Sorry, we were too reckless … we are only afraid of losing your support to the whole movement due to our mistake, and that you give up on fighting.”

They also showed little sign of relenting in their protests, which began in opposition to a now-suspended bill that would have allowed the extradition of suspects for trial in mainland China but have swelled into wider calls for democracy.

Hundreds attended a demonstration in the residential area of Sham Shui Po, where police arrived and quickly used tear gas after protesters pointed lasers at the police station.

‘SWORD OF THE LAW’

China used its strongest language yet after Tuesday’s incidents, when the protesters seized a reporter from China’s Global Times newspaper, a nationalistic tabloid run by the ruling Communist Party’s official People’s Daily, and harassed the man they believed to be a mainland agent.

In addition to Beijing’s condemnation, the People’s Daily called for “using the sword of the law” to restore order, and mainland social media users lauded the detained reporter as a hero.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said during a visit to Toronto on Wednesday that all sides involved must ensure the situation does not escalate.

On Tuesday, U.S. President Donald Trump described the volatile situation as “tricky”, and said China’s government had moved troops near the border with Hong Kong.

“I think it will work out and I hope it works out, for liberty. I hope it works out for everybody, including China,” he told reporters during a visit to Morristown, New Jersey.

Chinese police have assembled in the neighboring city of Shenzhen for what appeared to be exercises, the Global Times reported this week.

China also denied a request for two U.S. Navy warships to visit Hong Kong in the coming weeks, U.S. officials said, as a prominent U.S. senator, Ben Cardin, warned the territory could lose its special trade status if Beijing intervenes.

Under the “one country-two systems” arrangement, Hong Kong was guaranteed a high degree of autonomy and human rights after its handover to China.

AIRPORT REOPENED

Blood, debris and signs of the scuffle were scrubbed away during the night, and cleaners and protesters themselves removed anti-government posters from the walls of the airport, which was designed by renowned British architect Norman Foster.

Hong Kong carrier Cathay Pacific Airways said a total of 272 departures and arrivals had been canceled because of the disturbances, affecting more than 55,000 passengers.

China’s aviation regulator demanded last week that Cathay suspend personnel supporting protests in Hong Kong from staffing flights entering its airspace. On Wednesday, the carrier said it had fired two pilots.

Forward Keys, a flight data firm, said the crisis had driven a 4.7 percent fall in long-haul bookings to Hong Kong between June 16 and Aug. 9 compared with the same period last year.

“I think the local events clearly are having a profound impact, probably in ways that we haven’t necessarily clearly articulated yet,” Charles Li, chief executive of the Hong Kong Stock Exchange told reporters on Wednesday.

“This is not helpful,” he said “In a financial center, trust and confidence are important. In this regard we clearly need to sort this out, we need to work this out.”

Protesters vowed to press on.

“All the people here are very scared,” Ann, a 21-year-old teacher, told Reuters at the airport as she carefully took down anti-government posters, folding them for re-use.

“But we are more scared that we do not have our freedoms anymore, and so that is why we continue our protests,” she said.

“We feel that our ideas are bulletproof.”

(Reporting by Felix Tam, Tom Westbrook, Donny Kwok, Clare Jim, Twinnie Siu, Noah Sin, Brenda Goh, Tom Peter, Joyce Zhou, Tyrone Siu and Lukas Job in HONG KONG, Andrew Galbraith in SHANGHAI and Michelle Martin in BERLIN; Writing by Farah Master and Tom Westbrook; Editing by Tony Munroe, Darren Schuettler and Frances Kerry)

Stopping America’s next hate-crime killers on social media is no easy task

By Sarah N. Lynch and Mark Hosenball

WASHINGTON/LONDON (Reuters) – The pattern is clear: Hate-filled manifestos posted on websites populated by white supremacists, followed by gun attacks against blacks, Jews, Muslims, or Latin American immigrants.

In some cases, the killers use their internet posts to praise previous attacks by other white nationalists. And after new assaults, the manifestos get passed around, feeding the cycle of propaganda and violence.

Following the racially-motivated attack that killed 22 people at a Walmart store in El Paso, Texas, President Donald Trump said he wants police to do more to stop extremists who are active online before they can turn to murder.

But identifying and stopping the extremists who plan to launch an attack is much easier said than done.

Law enforcement experts say that the constitutional right of free speech means police cannot arrest someone simply on the basis of extremist rants online, unless they make a specific threat.

“You couldn’t just open a case on the words,” said Dave Gomez, a retired FBI agent who has worked on cases of both international and domestic terrorism.

“Posting something like that on the internet doesn’t harm anybody,” he said, adding that police can only successfully investigate a white supremacist when you can “connect his words to an overt act.”

The White House will discuss violent extremism online with representatives from a number of internet and technology companies on Friday, according to a White House spokesman.

Social media companies are reluctant to spy on or censor their users, though increasingly they are responding to demands that they take down obvious incitements to violence. And civil rights groups warn that tighter monitoring can lead to unconstitutional abuses of power

Another former FBI agent, who asked not to be identified, said closer monitoring of extremists’ websites would anyway be unlikely to prevent new mass shootings.

“There is not enough manpower. There is not enough technology to properly monitor the internet,” he said. “This is the number one thing we always say in law enforcement: ‘You can’t stop crazy. You can’t even predict crazy.’”

Trump said after the mass shootings last weekend in El Paso and Dayton, Ohio, that he would ask the Justice Department to work with local, state and federal agencies as well as social media companies “to develop tools that can detect mass shooters before they strike.”

Even before those attacks, The FBI in early July requested bids for a contractor to help it detect national security threats by trawling through social media sites.

“The use of social media platforms by terrorist groups, domestic threats, foreign intelligence services, and criminal organizations to further their illegal activity creates a demonstrated need for tools to properly identify the activity and react appropriately,” the FBI said in its request.

PRESSURE

Top law enforcement and domestic security officials from the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand met with leading social media and internet companies in London last week, and pushed them to help authorities track suspicious users.

The government officials noted in an agenda paper for the meeting that some companies “deliberately design their systems in a way that precludes any form of access to content, even in cases of the most serious crimes.”

“Tech companies should include mechanisms in the design of their encrypted products and services whereby governments, acting with appropriate legal authority, can obtain access to data in a readable and usable format,” the agenda paper said.

A final statement from the meeting said little about encryption, however, and neither company nor government officials talked about what was discussed.

Facebook and Microsoft confirmed they attended but Google, which was invited, did not respond to a request for comment. Other attendees included Roblox, Snap and Twitter, the statement said.

FBI agents say that broad surveillance powers enacted by Congress in the wake of the Sept., 11, 2001 attacks helped them track international terrorist groups and stop people with links to foreign groups like al Qaeda and Islamic State before they could carry out crimes.

But they key law criminalizing “material support” for terrorism does not apply to investigations or prosecutions of domestic terrorists, such as violent white supremacists, that commit hate crimes.

This week, the FBI Agents Association called on Congress to make domestic terrorism a federal crime in order to give agents more tools.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, which promotes internet civil liberties, said the sheer amount of users posting aggressive content online makes it almost impossible to identify and track the people who pose an actual threat.

“Even though it seems like there is another mass shooting every week, if you are looking at the number of mass shooters versus the total population, it’s still a tiny, tiny number which means this is still a very rare event,” said Jeremy Gillula, the group’s tech products director. “It’s like trying to predict where lightning is going to strike.”

(Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch and Mark Hosenball; Editing by Alistair Bell)

Let’s take the fake out of our news!

The Fake News Highway - Image by John Iglar

By Kami Klein

There was a time when the news wasn’t so confusing.  Before the internet, most families had their morning newspaper delivered conveniently to their door. In order to keep your business or be competitive, newspapers battled over the facts and dug deeper to reach the truth per investigative journalism.  The stories would be presented without opinions but based on legitimate proof. Of course, just as internet news does today, a powerful headline didn’t hurt.  

Once the workday was winding down, the evening news of the day was given through well-respected television journalists such as Walter Cronkite and Tom Brokaw, who presented the unbiased facts, trusting in the abilities of their listeners to ponder and come to their own conclusions.  The news itself was taken quite seriously. The worst thing to happen to a reporter was to be proven or accused of dishonorable reporting. To be respected in the journalism field was the goal and not how many facebook followers or tweet responses happened in a day or whether they have stayed true to their personal beliefs. Becoming a journalist was a calling… not the way to fame.

Suddenly we have the internet highway where everyone can have an opinion, Competition requires all journalism to be the fastest news source which yields little time for investigation or vetting and by presenting a portion of the facts which in many cases is served to the public with a generous amount of opinion gravy poured on top. Conservative or Liberal, it is rare to find an unbiased news source. Add to this confusing issue the hot topic of “Fake News” and it is a wonder any of us really knows what is going on. 

Every day, in social media across the world, fake news is often more prevalent in our feed than those stories that are actually the truth or at least close to it.  These (articles) are spread by the misconception that if it is on the internet, it must be true, or because the story sits right in line with the personal beliefs of the reader, it must be correct.  The share button gets a hit, and the lie continues on its journey. Where we used to be able to hold the reporter or journalist accountable for their information, the responsibility is now ours. In an age where anyone can post a news story, how do we take the fake out of our news? 

There are several kinds of fake news on the internet.  The following information comes from a story written by MastersinCommunication.org.. Called “The Truth about Fake News”. It is important for us to be able to identify and beware of the following:    

 

  • Propaganda – News stories designed to disparage a candidate, promote a political cause, and mislead voters
  • Sloppy Journalism – Stories containing inaccurate information produced by writers and editors who have not properly vetted a story. Retractions do little to fix the problem, even if there is one since the story has spread and the damage done.
  • Sensationalized Headlines – Often a story may be accurate but comes with a misleading or outrageous headline. Readers may not read past it, but take everything they need to know from this skewed title.
  • Clickbait – These stories are deliberately created to create traffic on a website. Advertising dollars are at stake, and gullible readers fall for it by the millions.
  • Satire – Parody websites like The Onion and The Daily Mash produce satirical stories that are believed by uninformed readers. The stories are written as satire and not meant to be taken literally, but unless you check their website, not everyone will know. 
  • Average Joe Reporting – Sometimes a person will post an eyewitness report that goes viral, but it may or may not be true. The classic example of this was a tweet by Eric Tucker in Austin, Texas in 2015. Posting a picture of a row of charter busses, Tucker surmised and tweeted that Trump protesters were being bussed in to rally against the President-elect. The tweet was picked up by multiple media outlets, and Mr. Trump himself, going viral in a matter of hours. The only problem is, it wasn’t true.

 The 2020 elections are upon us and fake news will be used as a weapon.  False news can destroy lives and ultimately do great harm to our country. 

How do we beat these fakes and stop them?  Here are some tools available to anyone who does not want to be duped by those that are attempting to manipulate for power, creating greater discourse or for money. If we can all take responsibility for what we share, we are one step closer to legitimate news.   

HERE ARE QUICK TIPS FOR CHECKING LEGITIMACY OF A NEWS STORY

 

  1.  Pay attention to the domain and URL – many times these sites will make something very close to a trusted news source.  Sites with such endings like .com.co should make you raise your eyebrows and tip you off that you need to dig around more to see if they can be trusted. This is true even when the site looks professional and has semi-recognizable logos. For example, abcnews.com is a legitimate news source, but abcnews.com.co is not, despite its similar appearance.
  2. Read the “About Us” section- Most sites will have a lot of information about the news outlet, the company that runs it, members of leadership, and the mission and ethics statement behind an organization. The language used here is straightforward. If it’s melodramatic and seems overblown, you should be skeptical.  This is where satire sites will let you know that what you are reading is only meant for entertainment. The laugh is then on us when we take what they say as the truth. they are counting on you NOT to check. 
  3. HEADLINES CAN BE MISLEADING!! -Headlines are meant to get the reader’s attention, but they’re also supposed to accurately reflect what the story is about. In fake stories, headlines often will be written in an exaggerated language with the intention of being misleading.  These will then be attached to stories that give half-truth or the story proves that the headline would never or has not actually happened.  
  4. Fact-Checking can be your friend –  Not only is fact-checking smart, looking to see if your particular news story leans to conservative or liberal points of view is just as important. Mediabiasfactcheck.com is one of my go-to places.  They also provide a great list of fact-checking sites that are highly recommended. You will also find a wonderful list of news web sites that have been deemed as non-biased. 

  While Facebook and Twitter are being held accountable for much of what is on our social media today, they will only succeed with our help. Together, we can take the fake out of the news and make responsible choices for our future!  

 

Facebook to pay record $5 billion U.S. fine over privacy violations; critics call it a bargain

Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Chairman Joe Simons announces that Facebook Inc has agreed to a settlement of allegations it mishandled user privacy during a news conference at FTC Headquarters in Washington, U.S., July 24, 2019. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

By David Shepardson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Facebook Inc will pay a record-breaking $5 billion fine to resolve a government probe into its privacy practices and the social media giant will restructure its approach to privacy, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission said on Wednesday.

The probe uncovered a wide range of privacy issues. It was triggered last year by allegations that Facebook violated a 2012 consent decree by inappropriately sharing information belonging to 87 million users with the now-defunct British political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica. The consultancy’s clients included President Donald Trump’s 2016 election campaign.

The FTC voted 3-2 along party lines to adopt the settlement, which requires court approval. The Republican commissioners called the settlement “a complete home run” that exceeded any award the commission could have gotten in court. Democratic commissioners said it did not go far enough or require a large enough fine.

Republican FTC Chairman Joe Simons stressed the FTC’s limited authority and desire to avoid a long uncertain court fight.

“Would it have been nice to get more, to get $10 billion, instead of $5 billion for example, to get greater restrictions on how Facebook collects uses and shares data?” he asked at a press conference. “We did not have those options. We cannot impose such things by our own fiat.”

Facebook confirmed it would pay the $5 billion fine and said the FTC deal would provide “a comprehensive new framework for protecting people’s privacy.” Its share price fell about 1% on Wednesday morning to trade at $200.39.

Democratic FTC Commissioner Rohit Chopra complained that the penalty provided “blanket immunity” for Facebook executives “and no real restraints on Facebook’s business model” and does “not fix the core problems that led to these violations.”

Facebook agreed to pay an additional $100 million to settle allegations that it misled investors about the seriousness of its misuse of users’ data, the Securities and Exchange Commission said.

Under the FTC settlement, Facebook’s board will create an independent privacy committee that removes “unfettered control by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg over decisions affecting user privacy.”

Facebook also agreed to exercise greater oversight over third-party apps, and said it was ending access to friend data for Microsoft Corp and Sony Corp.

The Republican majority on the FTC said the settlement “significantly diminishes Mr. Zuckerberg’s power — something no government agency, anywhere in the world, has thus far accomplished.”

Under the deal, Zuckerberg and other Facebook executives must sign quarterly certifications attesting to privacy practices. The FTC said Zuckerberg or others filing a false certification could face civil and criminal penalties.

Facebook also is barred from asking for email passwords to other services when consumers sign up. It is barred from using telephone numbers for advertising if they are obtained in a security feature like two-factor authentication. The company must also get user consent to use facial recognition data.

Facebook said it may find additional problems as it initiates a review of its systems and warned it will take longer to roll out updates as it plans to use “hundreds of engineers and more than a thousand people across our company to do this important work.”

“As part of this settlement, we’re bringing our privacy controls more in line with our financial controls,” Zuckerberg said in a Facebook post. “Going forward, when we ship a new feature that uses data, or modify an existing feature to use data in new ways, we’ll have to document any risks and the steps we’re taking to mitigate them.”

The FTC also said that Cambridge Analytica’s former CEO Alexander Nix and former app developer Aleksandr Kogan had agreed to a settlement restricting how they conduct business.

Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut was one of several Democratic lawmakers who criticized the settlement, calling it “a fig leaf” that offers “no accountability for top executives.”

“By relying on a monetary fine to deter Facebook, the FTC has failed to heed history’s lessons. Facebook has already written this penalty down as a one-time-cost in return for the extraordinary profits reaped from a decade of data misuse,” said Blumenthal.

Facebook’s legal issues may not be over. On Tuesday, the U.S. Justice Department said it was opening a broad investigation of major digital technology firms into whether they engage in anti-competitive practices.

The department did not identify specific companies but said the review would consider concerns raised about “search, social media, and some retail services online.” Leaders in those areas include Google parent Alphabet Inc, Amazon.com Inc, Facebook and possibly Apple Inc.

FTC DECIDED TO SETTLE PROBE

The Republican commissioners led by Simons said if the FTC had gone to court “it is highly unlikely that any judge would have imposed a civil penalty even remotely close to this one.”

The Democrats on the FTC complained that the $5 billion penalty may be less than Facebook’s gains from violating users’ privacy. “Until we address Facebook’s core financial incentives for risking our personal privacy and national security, we will not be able to prevent these problems from happening again,” Chopra said.

His fellow Democratic commissioner, Rebecca Slaughter, said the FTC should have taken Facebook and Zuckerberg to court. She also criticized the FTC’s decision to grant Facebook and its executives a release from liability for any claims that prior to June 12, 2019 it violated the earlier FTC settlement.

Slaughter said the FTC failed “to impose any substantive restrictions on Facebook’s collection and use of data from or about users.”

Chopra said the settlement means “the commission — and the public — may never find out what Facebook knows… It is difficult to conclude that the commission got the better end of the bargain.”

(Reporting by David Shepardson; additional reporting by Diane Bartz; Editing by Lisa Shumaker and David Gregorio)

‘They want to kill you’: Anger at Syrians erupts in Istanbul

Syrian shopkeeper Ahmed is pictured at his shop in Istanbul's Kucukcekmece district, Turkey, July 5, 2019. REUTERS/Kemal Aslan

By Sarah Dadouch

ISTANBUL (Reuters) – At 2 am, one Saturday night, Syrian brothers Mustafa and Ahmed were at home hunched over a screen watching live black and white security camera footage of men destroying their clothes shop in Istanbul.

They watched as a small group of Turkish men broke their glass storefront, ripped up Arabic leaflets and signs and set them alight. A few men stood back and stared up at the camera before a hand flashed in front of it and destroyed it, and the screen went black.

Mustafa, 22, and Ahmed, 21, frantically called a Turkish grocer who runs the store next door, to tell him they were on their way to the shop to stop it being burned down. “He told us: Don’t come, they want to kill you,” said Ahmed.

Syrian shopkeeper Mustafa is pictured at his clothes shop in Istanbul's Kucukcekmece district, Turkey, July 5, 2019. REUTERS/Kemal Aslan

Syrian shopkeeper Mustafa is pictured at his clothes shop in Istanbul’s Kucukcekmece district, Turkey, July 5, 2019. REUTERS/Kemal Aslan

Their store and other Syrian properties were targeted in the Kucukcekmece district of western Istanbul on the night of Saturday, June 29, one of the occasional bouts of violence which Syrians say erupt against them in Turkey’s largest city.

Such large-scale clashes are rare, with only one other big attack happening this year, also in western Istanbul, in February. Small incidents are more frequently shared by Syrians on social media, and some fear tensions are on the rise.

Police used tear gas and water cannon to disperse the Kucukcekmece attackers, but not before they destroyed many of the district’s Syrian stores and tore down Arabic signs.

The area has one of the higher concentrations of Syrians in the city, and Arabic signs are commonplace for shops’ local Syrian customers.

Mustafa and Ahmed waited until the crowd thinned out, and then went back. “We couldn’t go until 5 or 6 in the morning. We emptied out half the merchandise, and waited a couple of days until things calmed down.”

“SYRIANS, GET OUT”

Turkey hosts more than 3.6 million Syrians, the largest population of Syrians displaced by the 8-year civil war, and Istanbul province alone has over half a million, according to Turkey’s interior ministry.

Turkey’s own stumbling economy and rising unemployment has fueled anger against their presence, and many are resented by Turks as cheap labor taking over jobs and using services.

That has led President Tayyip Erdogan’s government, which opened its borders to Syrians when the conflict first erupted in 2011, to increasingly highlight the number of Syrians it says have returned to northern Syrian areas now controlled by Turkish troops and their Syrian rebel allies.

Last week, state-owned Anadolu Agency said nearly 80,000 Syrians returned in the first half of 2019. That number is still only a small fraction of the refugee population in Turkey, many of whom aim to build a new life in Turkey.

Erdogan’s political opponents have criticized him for allowing in so many refugees, and even the new opposition mayor of Istanbul – who campaigned on a ticket of inclusiveness – has said Turks are suffering because of the Syrian influx.

“We will make an effort to create a basis for Syrian migrants to return to their homeland, their free homeland,” Ekrem Imamoglu told Reuters last month.

“Otherwise, we will have some security concerns that would really trouble us all, and there would be street clashes.”

On the night that Imamoglu won the mayoralty, a hashtag spread across social media – “Suriyeliler Defoluyor”, roughly meaning “Syrians, Get Out”.

BROKEN SIGNS, DOORS AND CAMERAS

On June 30, a few blocks away from the brothers’ shop, two Syrians who work next door to each other at a gold store and an electronics shop heard that a mob was attacking Syrian shops.

“We packed up quickly and left,” one of the electronics shop employees, who asked for his name not be used, told Reuters a few days after the incident.

Speaking Arabic with an Aleppo accent, he waved his hand at the empty glass case in front of him. “I usually have phones displayed here, but until now we’re a bit afraid. We’re not showcasing our merchandise because the situation isn’t stable.”

The mob destroyed the gold store’s glass storefront, despite the metal shutters that were drawn down. The electronics shop’s security camera, signs and lights were smashed.

Days later, the signs remained broken. The shopkeepers plan to put up new signs in Turkish, both to protect themselves and because Istanbul’s governor announced last week that shops must ensure at least 75% of signage is in Turkish, not Arabic.

Following the Kucukcekmece attack, Istanbul’s police headquarters said they captured five suspects linked to social media accounts that put out the hashtags “Syrians Get Out” and “I Don’t Want Syrians in My Country”.

Police also said an investigation found a messaging group with 58 members was responsible for inciting the clashes in Kucukcekmece, and 11 members have been detained as investigations continue. Syrians expressed relief that police were acting.

“We are staying, we can’t give up or anything,” said Mustafa. “We can’t close up, how would we live?”

Most shopkeepers said they hoped that things will not get worse and that changing their signs to Turkish will ease tension. Some said the clashes were occasional waves of anger which did not represent how most Turks feel toward Syrians.

“Here it’s like a volcano: every five or six months we have an explosion,” said one customer.

(Reporting by Sarah Dadouch; Additional reporting by Ezgi Erkoyun; Editing by Dominic Evans and Alexandra Hudson)

U.S. border patrol faces probe; White House bashes asylum ruling

U.S. Border Patrol agents stand at attention during a 'Border Safety Initiative' media event at the U.S.-Mexico border in Mission, Texas, U.S., July 1, 2019. REUTERS/Loren Elliott

By Makini Brice and Jonathan Allen

WASHINGTON/NEW YORK (Reuters) – The acting head of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has ordered an investigation into reports that border patrol agents have been posting offensive anti-immigrant comments and threats against lawmakers on a private Facebook group.

The move was announced amid mounting criticism of the Trump administration’s handling of a humanitarian crisis along the U.S.-Mexico border, with lawmakers and government investigators warning of dangerous conditions in migrant detention centers.

“Reporting this week highlighted disturbing and inexcusable social media activity that allegedly includes active Border Patrol personnel,” acting DHS head Kevin McAleenan said on Twitter on Wednesday, calling the reported comments “completely unacceptable.”

He said any employee found to have “compromised the public’s trust in our law enforcement mission will be held accountable.”

The Facebook posts, first reported by the non-profit news site ProPublica included jokes about the deaths of migrants and sexually explicit content referring to U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a Democrat who was highly critical of the detention facilities after a tour this week.

The White House also criticized a ruling by a federal judge in Seattle who on Tuesday blocked an administration move to keep thousands of asylum seekers in custody while they pursued their cases.

“The district court’s injunction is at war with the rule of law,” White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham said in a statement. “The decision only incentivizes smugglers and traffickers, which will lead to the further overwhelming of our immigration system by illegal aliens.”

Acting U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan attends a news conference in Guatemala City, Guatemala June 26, 2019. REUTERS/Luis Echeverria

Acting U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan attends a news conference in Guatemala City, Guatemala June 26, 2019. REUTERS/Luis Echeverria

The American Civil Liberties Union and other immigrant rights groups sued the government in April after Attorney General William Barr concluded that asylum seekers who entered the country illegally were not eligible for bond.

U.S. District Judge Marsha Pechman on Tuesday ruled that people detained after entering the country to seek asylum were entitled to bond hearings.

MIGRATION FLOWS

The record surge of mostly Central American families at the U.S. southwestern border has begun to ease after tougher enforcement efforts in Mexico, although the situation remains dire, according to Mexican and U.S. officials.

The U.S. government’s internal watchdog on Tuesday said migrant-holding centers in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley were dangerously overcrowded, publishing graphic pictures of cells holding twice as many people as they were built for.

Mexico’s government, citing unpublished U.S. data, said migrant arrests at the border fell 30% in June from the previous month after it started a migration crackdown as part of a deal with the United States to avoid possible trade tariffs.

The Mexican government said it was now busing home dozens of Central American migrants from Ciudad Juarez, across the border from El Paso, Texas, who were forced to wait in Mexico for their asylum claims to be processed under a U.S. policy known as “Remain in Mexico.”

“Mexico’s effort to control the flow of migrants appears to have broken a growing trend,” the country’s foreign ministry said in a statement.

After migrant arrests reached a 13-year monthly high in May, immigration has arguably become the biggest issue for President Donald Trump and the Democratic contenders vying for the chance to face him in the 2020 presidential election.

U.S. Senator Cory Booker would “virtually eliminate immigration detention” if he wins the White House, his campaign said on Tuesday.

Presidential hopeful Julian Castro last week proposed decriminalizing border crossings as a step toward freeing up federal resources and eliminating thousands of cases clogging criminal courts – an initiative favored by Senator Elizabeth Warren, who is also running for the Democratic nomination.

Trump, meanwhile, looked to stir up support for his policies, promising immigration raids after the July 4 U.S. holiday to arrest migrants with deportation orders.

(Reporting by Daina Beth Solomon, Diego Ore and David Alire Garcia in Mexico City, Jonathan Allen in New York and David Alexander and Makini Brice in Washington; Writing by Andrew Hay and Paul Simao; Editing by Michael Perry and Bill Trott)

China’s robot censors crank up as Tiananmen anniversary nears

People take pictures of paramilitary officers marching in formation in Tiananmen Square in Beijing, China May 16, 2019. REUTERS/Thomas Pe

By Cate Cadell

BEIJING (Reuters) – It’s the most sensitive day of the year for China’s internet, the anniversary of the bloody June 4 crackdown on pro-democracy protests at Tiananmen Square, and with under two weeks to go, China’s robot censors are working overtime.

Censors at Chinese internet companies say tools to detect and block content related to the 1989 crackdown have reached unprecedented levels of accuracy, aided by machine learning and voice and image recognition.

“We sometimes say that the artificial intelligence is a scalpel, and a human is a machete,” said one content screening employee at Beijing Bytedance Co Ltd, who asked not to be identified because they are not authorized to speak to media.

Two employees at the firm said censorship of the Tiananmen crackdown, along with other highly sensitive issues including Taiwan and Tibet, is now largely automated.

Posts that allude to dates, images and names associated with the protests are automatically rejected.

“When I first began this kind of work four years ago there was opportunity to remove the images of Tiananmen, but now the artificial intelligence is very accurate,” one of the people said.

Four censors, working across Bytedance, Weibo Corp and Baidu Inc apps said they censor between 5,000-10,000 pieces of information a day, or five to seven pieces a minute, most of which they said were pornographic or violent content.

Despite advances in AI censorship, current-day tourist snaps in the square are sometimes unintentionally blocked, one of the censors said.

Bytedance and Baidu declined to comment, while Weibo did not respond to request for comment.

A woman takes pictures in Tiananmen Square in Beijing, China May 16, 2019. REUTERS/Thomas Peter

A woman takes pictures in Tiananmen Square in Beijing, China May 16, 2019. REUTERS/Thomas Peter

SENSITIVE PERIOD

The Tiananmen crackdown is a taboo subject in China 30 years after the government sent tanks to quell student-led protests calling for democratic reforms. Beijing has never released a death toll but estimates from human rights groups and witnesses range from several hundred to several thousand.

June 4th itself is marked by a cat-and-mouse game as people use more and more obscure references on social media sites, with obvious allusions blocked immediately. In some years, even the word “today” has been scrubbed.

In 2012, China’s most-watched stock index fell 64.89 points on the anniversary day, echoing the date of the original event in what analysts said was likely a strange coincidence rather than a deliberate reference.

Still, censors blocked access to the term “Shanghai stock market” and to the index numbers themselves on microblogs, along with other obscure references to sensitive issues.

While companies censorship tools are becoming more refined, analysts, academics and users say heavy-handed policies mean sensitive periods before anniversaries and political events have become catch-alls for a wide range of sensitive content.

In the lead-up to this year’s Tiananmen Square anniversary, censorship on social media has targeted LGBT groups, labor and environment activists and NGOs, they say.

Upgrades to censorship tech have been urged on by new policies introduced by the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC). The group was set up – and officially led – by President Xi Jinping, whose tenure has been defined by increasingly strict ideological control of the internet.

The CAC did not respond to a request for comment.

Last November, the CAC introduced new rules aimed at quashing dissent online in China, where “falsifying the history of the Communist Party” on the internet is a punishable offence for both platforms and individuals.

The new rules require assessment reports and site visits for any internet platform that could be used to “socially mobilize” or lead to “major changes in public opinion”, including access to real names, network addresses, times of use, chat logs and call logs.

One official who works for CAC told Reuters the recent boost in online censorship is “very likely” linked to the upcoming anniversary.

“There is constant communication with the companies during this time,” said the official, who declined to directly talk about the Tiananmen, instead referring to the “the sensitive period in June”.

Companies, which are largely responsible for their own censorship, receive little in the way of directives from the CAC, but are responsible for creating guidelines in their own “internal ethical and party units”, the official said.

SECRET FACTS

With Xi’s tightening grip on the internet, the flow of information has been centralized under the Communist Party’s Propaganda Department and state media network. Censors and company staff say this reduces the pressure of censoring some events, including major political news, natural disasters and diplomatic visits.

“When it comes to news, the rule is simple… If it is not from state media first, it is not authorized, especially regarding the leaders and political items,” said one Baidu staffer.

“We have a basic list of keywords which include the 1989 details, but (AI) can more easily select those.”

Punishment for failing to properly censor content can be severe.

In the past six weeks, popular services including a Netease Inc news app, Tencent Holdings Ltd’s news app TianTian, and Sina Corp have all been hit with suspensions ranging from days to weeks, according to the CAC, meaning services are made temporarily unavailable on apps stores and online.

For internet users and activists, penalties can range from fines to jail time for spreading information about sensitive events online.

In China, social media accounts are linked to real names and national ID numbers by law, and companies are legally compelled to offer user information to authorities when requested.

“It has become normal to know things and also understand that they can’t be shared,” said one user, Andrew Hu. “They’re secret facts.”

In 2015, Hu spent three days in detention in his home region of Inner Mongolia after posting a comment about air pollution onto an unrelated image that alluded to the Tiananmen crackdown on Twitter-like social media site Weibo.

Hu, who declined to use his full Chinese name to avoid further run-ins with the law, said when police officers came to his parents house while he was on leave from his job in Beijing he was surprised, but not frightened.

“The responsible authorities and the internet users are equally confused,” said Hu. “Even if the enforcement is irregular, they know the simple option is to increase pressure.”

(Reporting by Cate Cadell. Editing by Lincoln Feast.)