Google’s YouTube to pay $170 million penalty for collecting data on kids

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

By Diane Bartz

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Google, which is owned by Alphabet Inc and its YouTube video service will pay $170 million to settle allegations that it broke federal law by collecting personal information about children, the Federal Trade Commission said on Wednesday.

YouTube had been accused of tracking viewers of children’s channels using cookies without parental consent and using those cookies to deliver million of dollars in targeted advertisements to those viewers.

The settlement with the FTC and the New York attorney general’s office, which will receive $34 million, is the largest since a law banning collecting information about children under age 13 came into effect in 1998. The law was revised in 2013 to include “cookies,” used to track a person’s internet viewing habits.

It is also small compared with the company’s revenues. Alphabet, which generates about 85% of its revenue from sales of ad space and ad technology, in July reported total second-quarter revenue of $38.9 billion.

YouTube said in a statement on Wednesday that in four months it would begin treating all data collected from people watching children’s content as if it came from a child. “This means that we will limit data collection and use on videos made for kids only to what is needed to support the operation of the service,” YouTube said on its blog.

FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection director Andrew Smith said at a news conference Wednesday the settlement “is changing YouTube’s business model, that YouTube cannot bury its head in the sand, YouTube cannot pretend that it is not aware of the content on its platform and hope to escape liability.”

Once the settlement takes effect, the FTC plans to “conduct a sweep of the YouTube platform to determine whether there remains child-directed content” in which personal information is being collected, Smith said. The FTC could take actions against individual content creators or channel owners as a result.

In late August, YouTube announced it would launch YouTube Kids with separate niches for children depending on their ages and designed to exclude disturbing videos. It has no behavioral advertising.

YouTube allows companies to create channels, which include advertisements that create revenue for both the company and YouTube.

In its complaint, the government said that YouTube touted its popularity with children in marketing itself to companies like Mattel and Hasbro. It told Mattel that “YouTube is today’s leader in reaching children age 6-11 against top TV channels,” according to the complaint.

“YouTube touted its popularity with children to prospective corporate clients,” FTC Chairman Joe Simons said in a statement. “Yet when it came to complying with (federal law banning collecting data on children), the company refused to acknowledge that portions of its platform were clearly directed to kids.”

New York Attorney General Letitia James said the companies “abused their power.”

“Google and YouTube knowingly and illegally monitored, tracked, and served targeted ads to young children just to keep advertising dollars rolling in,” said James.

In addition to the monetary fine, the proposed settlement requires the company to refrain from violating the law in the future and to notify channel owners about their obligations to get consent from parents before collecting information on children.

The two Democrats on the FTC, Rebecca Slaughter and Rohit Chopra, dissented from the settlement. Slaughter, who called the violations “widespread and brazen,” said the settlement fails to require YouTube to police channels that provide children’s content but do not designate it as such, thus allowing more lucrative behavioral advertising, which relies on tracking viewers through cookies.

Senators Ed Markey and Richard Blumenthal, both Democrats active in online privacy matters, criticized the settlement in separate statements.

“A financial settlement is no substitute for strict reforms that will stop Google and other tech companies from invading our privacy,” Blumenthal said. “I continue to be alarmed by Big Tech’s policies and practices that invade children’s lives.”

(Reporting by Diane Bartz Additional reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Nick Zieminski and Marguerita Choy)

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)

Study shows cute kids are YouTube clickbait; child advocates concerned

FILE PHOTO: 2019 Kids Choice Awards – Arrivals – Los Angeles, California, U.S., March 23, 2019 – YouTube star Ryan ToysReview. REUTERS/Danny Moloshok/File Photo

By Arriana McLymore

NEW YORK (Reuters) – YouTube videos featuring young children drew nearly triple the average viewership of other content, according to research released on Thursday that provided ammunition for child advocates who want Alphabet Inc. (Google) to take more aggressive steps to make it’s streaming service safer for kids.

Pew Research Center said its findings show videos aimed at or featuring children are among YouTube’s most popular materials, attracting an outsized audience relative to the number uploaded.

Lawmakers and parent groups have criticized YouTube in recent years, saying it has done less than it should to protect minors’ privacy.

Last year, the Center for Digital Democracy and the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), saying YouTube’s parent company violated the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act.

The groups complained that the company “has not only made a vast amount of money by using children’s personal information” and has “profited from advertising revenues from ads on its YouTube channels that are watched by children.”

YouTube, which announced 2 billion monthly users in May, shares limited data about its service. But music, gaming and kids’ content generally have been known to rank highly in viewership.

Other groups have called on YouTube to take more steps to block access to age-inappropriate content and prevent predators from getting to clips that could allow them to sexualize minors. Complaints also prompted YouTube to introduce punishments for parents uploading videos in which kids are placed in dangerous situations.

The video unit has become a major driver of revenue growth at Alphabet Inc, and it has said that it is weighing additional changes to how it handles content related to kids.

Pew researchers said in a report that they used automated tools and human review to analyze activity during the first week of 2019 on nearly 44,000 YouTube channels with more than 250,000 subscribers.

Just 2% of the 243,000 videos those channels uploaded that week featured at least one individual that looked under 13 years old to human reviewers. But the small subset received an average of 298,000 views, compared with 97,000 for videos without children, according to the report. The median viewership figures were about 57,000 and 14,000.

Channels that uploaded at least one video featuring a child averaged 1.8 million subscribers, compared to 1.2 million for those that did not, Pew said.

YouTube said it could not comment on Pew’s survey methods or results. It maintained that the most popular categories are comedy, music, sports and “how to” videos.

“We have always been clear YouTube has never been for people under 13,” the company added.

Popular videos with children included those with parenting tips or children singing or dressing up.

YouTube’s policies ban children under 13 from using its main service and instead direct them to its curated YouTube Kids app. But many parents use the main YouTube service to entertain or educate children, other research has found.

(Reporting by Arriana McLymore in New York; Additional reporting by Paresh Dave in San Francisco; Editing by David Gregorio)

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)

The digital drug: Internet addiction spawns U.S. treatment programs

Danny Reagan,a former residential patient of the Lindner Center of Hope, which admits only children who suffer from compulsion or obsession with their use of technology, sits in a common room at the center in Mason, Ohio, U.S., January 23, 2019. REUTERS/Maddie McGarvey

By Gabriella Borter

CINCINNATI (Reuters) – When Danny Reagan was 13, he began exhibiting signs of what doctors usually associate with drug addiction. He became agitated, secretive and withdrew from friends. He had quit baseball and Boy Scouts, and he stopped doing homework and showering.

But he was not using drugs. He was hooked on YouTube and video games, to the point where he could do nothing else. As doctors would confirm, he was addicted to his electronics.

“After I got my console, I kind of fell in love with it,” Danny, now 16 and a junior in a Cincinnati high school, said. “I liked being able to kind of shut everything out and just relax.”

Danny was different from typical plugged-in American teenagers. Psychiatrists say internet addiction, characterized by a loss of control over internet use and disregard for the consequences of it, affects up to 8 percent of Americans and is becoming more common around the world.

“We’re all mildly addicted. I think that’s obvious to see in our behavior,” said psychiatrist Kimberly Young, who has led the field of research since founding the Center for Internet Addiction in 1995. “It becomes a public health concern obviously as health is influenced by the behavior.”

Psychiatrists such as Young who have studied compulsive internet behavior for decades are now seeing more cases, prompting a wave of new treatment programs to open across the United States. Mental health centers in Florida, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and other states are adding inpatient internet addiction treatment to their line of services.

Some skeptics view internet addiction as a false condition, contrived by teenagers who refuse to put away their smartphones, and the Reagans say they have had trouble explaining it to extended family.

Anthony Bean, a psychologist and author of a clinician’s guide to video game therapy, said that excessive gaming and internet use might indicate other mental illnesses but should not be labeled independent disorders.

“It’s kind of like pathologizing a behavior without actually understanding what’s going on,” he said.

A room at the Lindner Center of Hope's "Reboot" program in Mason, Ohio, U.S., January 23, 2019. REUTERS/Maddie McGarvey

A room at the Lindner Center of Hope’s “Reboot” program in Mason, Ohio, U.S., January 23, 2019. REUTERS/Maddie McGarvey

‘REBOOT’

At first, Danny’s parents took him to doctors and made him sign contracts pledging to limit his internet use. Nothing worked, until they discovered a pioneering residential therapy center in Mason, Ohio, about 22 miles (35 km) north of Cincinnati.

The “Reboot” program at the Lindner Center for Hope offers inpatient treatment for 11 to 17-year-olds who, like Danny, have addictions including online gaming, gambling, social media, pornography and sexting, often to escape from symptoms of mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety.

Danny was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder at age 5 and Anxiety Disorder at 6, and doctors said he developed an internet addiction to cope with those disorders.

“Reboot” patients spend 28 days at a suburban facility equipped with 16 bedrooms, classrooms, a gym and a dining hall. They undergo diagnostic tests, psychotherapy, and learn to moderate their internet use.

Chris Tuell, clinical director of addiction services, started the program in December after seeing several cases, including Danny’s, where young people were using the internet to “self-medicate” instead of drugs and alcohol.

The internet, while not officially recognized as an addictive substance, similarly hijacks the brain’s reward system by triggering the release of pleasure-inducing chemicals and is accessible from an early age, Tuell said.

“The brain really doesn’t care what it is, whether I pour it down my throat or put it in my nose or see it with my eyes or do it with my hands,” Tuell said. “A lot of the same neurochemicals in the brain are occurring.”

Even so, recovering from internet addiction is different from other addictions because it is not about “getting sober,” Tuell said. The internet has become inevitable and essential in schools, at home and in the workplace.

“It’s always there,” Danny said, pulling out his smartphone. “I feel it in my pocket. But I’m better at ignoring it.”

IS IT A REAL DISORDER?

Medical experts have begun taking internet addiction more seriously.

Neither the World Health Organization (WHO) nor the American Psychiatric Association recognize internet addiction as a disorder. Last year, however, the WHO recognized the more specific Gaming Disorder following years of research in China, South Korea and Taiwan, where doctors have called it a public health crisis.

Some online games and console manufacturers have advised gamers against playing to excess. YouTube has created a time monitoring tool to nudge viewers to take breaks from their screens as part of its parent company Google’s “digital wellbeing” initiative.

WHO spokesman Tarik Jasarevic said internet addiction is the subject of “intensive research” and consideration for future classification. The American Psychiatric Association has labeled gaming disorder a “condition for further study.”

“Whether it’s classified or not, people are presenting with these problems,” Tuell said.

Tuell recalled one person whose addiction was so severe that the patient would defecate on himself rather than leave his electronics to use the bathroom.

Research on internet addiction may soon produce empirical results to meet medical classification standards, Tuell said, as psychologists have found evidence of a brain adaptation in teens who compulsively play games and use the internet.

“It’s not a choice, it’s an actual disorder and a disease,” said Danny. “People who joke about it not being serious enough to be super official, it hurts me personally.”

(Reporting by Gabriella Borter; editing by Grant McCool)

Exclusive: Iran-based political influence operation – bigger, persistent, global

FILE PHOTO: 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

By Jack Stubbs and Christopher Bing

LONDON/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – An apparent Iranian influence operation targeting internet users worldwide is significantly bigger than previously identified, Reuters has found, encompassing a sprawling network of anonymous websites and social media accounts in 11 different languages.

Facebook and other companies said last week that multiple social media accounts and websites were part of an Iranian project to covertly influence public opinion in other countries. A Reuters analysis has identified 10 more sites and dozens of social media accounts across Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube.

U.S.-based cybersecurity firm FireEye Inc and Israeli firm ClearSky reviewed Reuters’ findings and said technical indicators showed the web of newly-identified sites and social media accounts – called the International Union of Virtual Media, or IUVM – was a piece of the same campaign, parts of which were taken down last week by Facebook Inc, Twitter Inc and Alphabet Inc.

IUVM pushes content from Iranian state media and other outlets aligned with the government in Tehran across the internet, often obscuring the original source of the information such as Iran’s PressTV, FARS news agency and al-Manar TV run by the Iran-backed Shi’ite Muslim group Hezbollah.

PressTV, FARS, al-Manar TV and representatives for the Iranian government did not respond to requests for comment. The Iranian mission to the United Nations last week dismissed accusations of an Iranian influence campaign as “ridiculous.”

The extended network of disinformation highlights how multiple state-affiliated groups are exploiting social media to manipulate users and further their geopolitical agendas, and how difficult it is for tech companies to guard against political interference on their platforms.

In July, a U.S. grand jury indicted 12 Russians whom prosecutors said were intelligence officers, on charges of hacking political groups in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. U.S. officials have said Russia, which has denied the allegations, could also attempt to disrupt congressional elections in November.

Ben Nimmo, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab who has previously analyzed disinformation campaigns for Facebook, said the IUVM network displayed the extent and scale of the Iranian operation.

“It’s a large-scale amplifier for Iranian state messaging,” Nimmo said. “This shows how easy it is to run an influence operation online, even when the level of skill is low. The Iranian operation relied on quantity, not quality, but it stayed undetected for years.”

FURTHER INVESTIGATIONS

Facebook spokesman Jay Nancarrow said the company is still investigating accounts and pages linked to Iran and had taken more down on Tuesday.

“This is an ongoing investigation and we will continue to find out more,” he said. “We’re also glad to see that the information we and others shared last week has prompted additional attention on this kind of inauthentic behavior.”

Twitter referred to a statement it tweeted on Monday shortly after receiving a request for comment from Reuters. The statement said the company had removed a further 486 accounts for violating its terms of use since last week, bringing the total number of suspended accounts to 770.

“Fewer than 100 of the 770 suspended accounts claimed to be located in the U.S. and many of these were sharing divisive social commentary,” Twitter said.

Google declined to comment but took down the IUVM TV YouTube account after Reuters contacted the company with questions about it. A message on the page on Tuesday said the account had been “terminated for a violation of YouTube’s Terms of Service.”

IUVM did not respond to multiple emails or social media messages requesting comment.

The organization does not conceal its aims, however. Documents on the main IUVM website  said its headquarters are in Tehran and its objectives include “confronting with remarkable arrogance, western governments, and Zionism front activities.”

APP STORE AND SATIRICAL CARTOONS

IUVM uses its network of websites – including a YouTube channel, breaking news service, mobile phone app store, and a hub for satirical cartoons mocking Israel and Iran’s regional rival Saudi Arabia – to distribute content taken from Iranian state media and other outlets which support Tehran’s position on geopolitical issues.

Reuters recorded the IUVM network operating in English, French, Arabic, Farsi, Urdu, Pashto, Russian, Hindi, Azerbaijani, Turkish and Spanish.

Much of the content is then reproduced by a range of alternative media sites, including some of those identified by FireEye last week as being run by Iran while purporting to be domestic American or British news outlets.

For example, an article run by in January by Liberty Front Press – one of the pseudo-U.S. news sites exposed by FireEye – reported on the battlefield gains made by the army of Iranian ally Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. That article was sourced to IUVM but actually lifted from two FARS news agency stories.

FireEye analyst Lee Foster said iuvmpress.com, one of the biggest IUVM websites, was registered in January 2015 with the same email address used to register two sites already identified as being run by Iran. ClearSky said multiple IUVM sites were hosted on the same server as another website used in the Iranian operation.

(Reporting by Jack Stubbs in LONDON, Christopher Bing in WASHINGTON; Additional reporting by Bozorgmehr Sharafedin in LONDON; Editing by Damon Darlin and Grant McCool)

YouTube attacker was vegan activist who accused tech firm of discrimination

Police officers are seen at Youtube headquarters following an active shooter situation in San Bruno, California, U.S., April 3, 2018. REUTERS/Elijah Nouvelage

By Paresh Dave

SAN BRUNO, Calif. (Reuters) – The woman identified by police as the attacker who wounded three people at YouTube’s headquarters in California was a vegan blogger who accused the video-sharing service of discriminating against her, according to her online profile.

Nasim Najafi Aghdam appears in a handout photo provided by the San Bruno Police Department, April 4, 2018. San Bruno Police Department/Handout via REUTERS

Nasim Najafi Aghdam appears in a handout photo provided by the San Bruno Police Department, April 4, 2018. San Bruno Police Department/Handout via REUTERS

Police said 39-year-old Nasim Najafi Aghdam from San Diego was behind Tuesday’s shooting at YouTube’s offices in Silicon Valley, south of San Francisco, where the company owned by Alphabet Inc’s Google employs nearly 2,000 people.

A man was in critical condition and two women were seriously wounded in the attack, which ended when Aghdam shot and killed herself.

Californian media reported that Aghdam’s family had warned the authorities that she may target YouTube prior to the shooting. Her father Ismail Aghdam told The Mercury News that he had told police that she might be going to YouTube’s headquarters because she “hated” the company.

Police said they were still investigating possible motives but Aghdam’s online activities show that she believed YouTube was deliberately obstructing her videos from being viewed.

“YouTube filtered my channels to keep them from getting views,” she wrote on YouTube according to a screenshot of her account. Her channel was deleted on Tuesday.

Writing in Persian on her Instagram account, Aghdam said she was born in Iranian city of Urmiah but that she was not planning to return to Iran.

“I think I am doing a great job. I have never fallen in love and have never got married. I have no physical and psychological diseases,” she wrote.

“But I live on a planet that is full of injustice and diseases.”

Her family in Southern California recently reported her missing because she had not been answering her phone for two days, police said.

At one point early Tuesday, Mountain View, California, police found her sleeping in her car and called her family to say everything was under control, hours before she walked onto the company grounds with a hand gun and opened fire.

The United States is in the grips of a fierce national debate around tighter curbs on gun ownership after the killing of 17 people in a mass shooting at a Florida high school in February. Authorities there failed to act on two warnings about the attacker prior to the shooting, prompting a public outcry.

Aghdam ran a website called NasimeSabz.com, which translates as “Green Breeze” from Persian, on which she posted about Persian culture, veganism and long, rambling passages railing against corporations and governments.

“BE AWARE! Dictatorships exist in all countries. But with different tactics,” she wrote. “They care only for short term profits and anything to to reach their goals even by fooling simple-minded people.”

Complaints about alleged censorship on YouTube are not unique. The video service has long faced a challenge in balancing its mission of fostering free speech with the need to both promote an appropriate and lawful environment for users.

In some cases involving videos with sensitive content, YouTube has allowed the videos to stay online but cut off the ability for their publishers to share in advertising revenue.

Criticisms from video makers that YouTube is too restrictive about which users can participate in revenue sharing swelled last year as the company imposed new restrictions.

YouTube spokeswoman Jessica Mason could not immediately be reached for comment.

(Reporting by Paresh Dave; additional reporting by Parisa Hafezi in ANKARA; Writing by Rich McKay; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)

FBI was warned about Florida man accused of killing 17 at school

By Bernie Woodall and Zachary Fagenson

PARKLAND, Fla. (Reuters) – The Federal Bureau of Investigation was warned in September about an ominous online comment by the 19-year-old man accused of killing 17 people at his former high school but was unable to locate him, an agent said on Thursday.

Authorities said the ex-student, identified as Nikolas Cruz, walked into the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, near Miami, on Wednesday and opened fire with an AR-15-style assault rifle in the second-deadliest shooting at a public school in U.S. history.

Students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School attend a memorial following a school shooting in Parkland, Florida, U.S., February 15, 2018. REUTERS/Thom Bau

Students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School attend a memorial following a school shooting in Parkland, Florida, U.S., February 15, 2018. REUTERS/Thom Baur

Cruz may have left warning signs on social media in the form of a comment on a YouTube video that read “I’m going to be a professional school shooter.” That comment troubled the person whose video Cruz commented on, Mississippi bail bondsman Ben Bennight, who passed it on to the FBI, according to a video he posted online late Wednesday.

“No other information was included with that comment which would indicate a time, location or the true identity of the person who made the comment,” FBI Special Agent in Charge Robert Lasky told reporters. Investigators were unable to find the commenter, he added.

The FBI is conducting an extensive review of how it handled that tip to see if mistakes were made, a federal law enforcement official told Reuters.

Wednesday’s shooting was the 18th in a U.S. school this year, according to gun control group Everytown for Gun Safety. It stirred the long-simmering U.S. debate on the right to bear arms, which is protected by the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

President Donald Trump addressed the shooting in a White House speech that emphasized school safety and mental health while avoiding any mention of gun policy.

“It is not enough to simply take actions that make us feel like we are making a difference,” Trump said at the White House. “We must actually make that difference.”

Broward County schools superintendent Robert Runcie called for action on gun laws.

“Now is the time for this country to have a real conversation on sensible gun control laws,” Runcie told a news conference.

Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives criticized the Republican leadership for refusing to take up legislation on tightening background checks for prospective gun buyers.

Mourners react during a community prayer vigil for victims of yesterday's shooting at nearby Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, at Parkridge Church in Pompano Beach, Florida, U.S., February 15, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Drake

Mourners react during a community prayer vigil for victims of yesterday’s shooting at nearby Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, at Parkridge Church in Pompano Beach, Florida, U.S., February 15, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Drake

“It’s appalling,” Representative Mike Thompson told reporters. “Thirty people every day are killed by someone using a gun, and the best we can do is say we need more information?”

The Republican-controlled Congress last year revoked Obama-era regulations meant to make it harder for those with severe mental illness to pass FBI background checks for guns, saying the rule deprived the mentally ill of their gun rights.

At least one member of Trump’s cabinet called for action.

“Personally I think the gun violence, it’s a tragedy what we’ve seen yesterday, and I urge Congress to look at these issues,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin told lawmakers.

Fifteen people were injured in Wednesday’s shooting, according to local hospital officials.

‘BROKEN HUMAN BEING’

Cruz’s court-appointed lawyer said he had expressed remorse for his crimes.

“He’s a broken human being,” public defender Melisa McNeill told reporters. “He’s sad, he’s mournful he’s remorseful.”

Nikolas Cruz (C) appears via video monitor with Melisa McNeill (R), his public defender, at a bond court hearing after being charged with 17 counts of premeditated murder, in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, U.S., February 15, 2018. REUTERS/Susan Stocker/Pool

Nikolas Cruz (C) appears via video monitor with Melisa McNeill (R), his public defender, at a bond court hearing after being charged with 17 counts of premeditated murder, in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, U.S., February 15, 2018. REUTERS/Susan Stocker/Pool

Cruz had done paramilitary training with a white nationalist militia called the Republic of Florida, a leader of the group said.

“He had some involvement with the Clearwater Republic of Florida cell at some point,” Jordan Jereb said in a telephone interview. Reuters could not immediately verify the claim.

Cruz loved guns and had been expelled from high school for disciplinary reasons, police and former classmates said.

Authorities said he marched into the school wearing a gas mask and tossed smoke grenades, as well as pulling a fire alarm that sent students and staff pouring from classrooms as he began his rampage, according to Florida’s two U.S. senators, who were briefed by federal authorities.

In a brief court appearance, Cruz spoke only two words, “Yes ma’am,” when a judge asked him to confirm his name. He was ordered held without bond.

Cruz had recently moved in with another family after his mother’s death in November, according to Jim Lewis, a lawyer representing the family and local media, bringing his AR-15 along with his other belongings.

The family believed Cruz was depressed, but attributed that to his mother’s death, not mental illness.

Victims included an assistant football coach who sheltered students, a social science teacher and multiple students.

People who live on same street as Cruz said he alarmed them by shooting squirrels and rabbits in the neighborhood as well as chickens being raised in a nearby backyard. Several times a year, they observed law enforcement officials at his house.

“Killing animals was no problem for this young man,” said Rhoda Roxburgh, 45, who lived on the block for several years and whose parents continue to live there.

(Additional reporting by Jonathan Allen and Peter Szekely in New York, David Alexander, Lindsay Dunsmuir, Mark Hosenball and Susan Heavey in Washington, Jon Herskovitz in Austin and Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee; Writing by Scott Malone; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe and Tom Brown)

Social media companies accelerate removals of online hate speech

A man reads tweets on his phone in front of a displayed Twitter logo in Bordeaux, southwestern France, March 10, 2016. REUTERS/Regis

By Julia Fioretti

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – Social media companies Facebook, Twitter and Google’s YouTube have accelerated removals of online hate speech in the face of a potential European Union crackdown.

The EU has gone as far as to threaten social media companies with new legislation unless they increase efforts to fight the proliferation of extremist content and hate speech on their platforms.

Microsoft, Twitter, Facebook and YouTube signed a code of conduct with the EU in May 2016 to review most complaints within a 24-hour timeframe. Instagram and Google+ will also sign up to the code, the European Commission said.

The companies managed to review complaints within a day in 81 percent of cases during monitoring of a six-week period towards the end of last year, EU figures released on Friday show, compared with 51 percent in May 2017 when the Commission last examined compliance with the code of conduct.

On average, the companies removed 70 percent of the content flagged to them, up from 59.2 percent in May last year.

EU Justice Commissioner Vera Jourova has said that she does not want to see a 100 percent removal rate because that could impinge on free speech.

She has also said she is not in favor of legislating as Germany has done. A law providing for fines of up to 50 million euros ($61.4 million) for social media companies that do not remove hate speech quickly enough went into force in Germany this year.

Jourova said the results unveiled on Friday made it less likely that she would push for legislation on the removal of illegal hate speech.

‘NO FREE PASS’

“The fact that our collaborative approach on illegal hate speech brings good results does not mean I want to give a free pass to the tech giants,” she told a news conference.

Facebook reviewed complaints in less than 24 hours in 89.3 percent of cases, YouTube in 62.7 percent of cases and Twitter in 80.2 percent of cases.

“These latest results and the success of the code of conduct are further evidence that the Commission’s current self-regulatory approach is effective and the correct path forward.” said Stephen Turner, Twitter’s head of public policy.

Of the hate speech flagged to the companies, almost half of it was found on Facebook, the figures show, while 24 percent was on YouTube and 26 percent on Twitter.

The most common ground for hatred identified by the Commission was ethnic origin, followed by anti-Muslim hatred and xenophobia, including expressions of hatred against migrants and refugees.

Pressure from several European governments has prompted social media companies to step up efforts to tackle extremist online content, including through the use of artificial intelligence.

YouTube said it was training machine learning models to flag hateful content at scale.

“Over the last two years we’ve consistently improved our review and action times for this type of content on YouTube, showing that our policies and processes are effective, and getting better over time,” said Nicklas Lundblad, Google’s vice president of public policy in EMEA.

“We’ve learned valuable lessons from the process, but there is still more we can do.”

The Commission is likely to issue a recommendation at the end of February on how companies should take down extremist content related to militant groups, an EU official said.

(Reporting by Julia Fioretti; Additional reporting by Foo Yun Chee; Editing by Grant McCool and David Goodman)

Israel eyes law to remove online content inciting terrorism

Israeli Police search for suspects

By Tova Cohen

TEL AVIV (Reuters) – Israel’s Justice Ministry is drafting legislation that would enable it to order Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and other social media to remove online postings it deems to be inciting terrorism. “We are working on draft legislation, similar to what is being done in other countries; one law that would allow for a judicial injunction to order the removal of certain content, such as websites that incite to terrorism,” Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked said.

“There should be some measure of accountability for Internet companies regarding the illegal activities and content that is published through their services,” Shaked told a cybersecurity conference in Tel Aviv this week.

Israel blames a wave of Palestinian attacks which erupted in October last year on incitement to violence by the Palestinian leadership and on social media. Palestinian leaders say many attackers have acted out of desperation in the absence of movement towards creating an independent Palestinian state.

A spokeswoman for Shaked said it was too early to say what measures or sanctions might be included in the law, which would need parliamentary approval, but that it was likely to be similar to those introduced in France.

France has made far-reaching changes to surveillance laws since the attacks on Charlie Hebdo last year. It has taken steps to blacklist jihadi sites that “apologize for terrorism”, but stopped short of using such laws to censor major Internet services. “The legislation … will focus on removing prohibited content, with an emphasis on terrorist content, or blocking access to prohibited content,” Shaked’s spokeswoman said.

Governments around the world have been grappling with how to block online incitement to criminal activity, while major Internet services have stepped up campaigns to identify and remove Web postings that incite violence. Facebook, Google and Twitter are working more aggressively to combat online propaganda and recruiting by Islamic militants while trying to avoid the perception they are helping the authorities police the Web. Turkey has regularly censored YouTube, Facebook and Twitter in domestic political disputes. In 2015, more than 90 percent of all court orders for Twitter to remove illegal content worldwide came from Turkey, the company has reported.

Russia has used anti-terrorist laws to censor independent web sites, media organizations and global Internet sites, while China’s tightly controlled Internet blocks what it considers terrorist propaganda under general laws against incitement to criminal activity.

Shaked said governments and Internet services need to find ways to cooperate so that companies can quickly take down content deemed criminal that has been published on their platform. “We are promoting cooperation with content providers, sensitizing them as to content that violates Israeli law or the provider’s terms of service,” Shaked said. A spokesman for Facebook in Israel declined to comment. Google’s YouTube subsidiary has clear policies that prohibit content like gratuitous violence, hate speech and incitement to commit violent acts, a company spokesman said. “We remove videos violating these policies when flagged by our users. We also terminate any account registered by a member of a designated ‘foreign terrorist organization’,” he said.

(Additional reporting by Eric Auchard in Frankfurt; Editing by Dominic Evans)