Tech titans ramp up tools to win over children

Employees have lunch at the canteen at Facebook’s new headquarters in central London on December 4, 2017. (AFP)
Updated 10 December 2017
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Tech titans ramp up tools to win over children

SAN FRANCISCO: From smartphone messaging tailored for tikes to computers for classrooms, technology titans are weaving their way into childhoods to form lifelong bonds, raising hackles of advocacy groups.
The debut this month in the US of a version of Messenger mobile application for children younger than 12 marked the first time leading online social network Facebook has stepped into the sensitive market.
California-based Facebook said Messenger Kids complies with regulations protecting children online, and offers more safeguards for youngsters.
Facebook said the new app, with no ads or in-app purchases, is aimed at 6- to 12-year-olds and does not allow children to connect with anyone their parent does not approve.
Messenger Kids is being rolled out for Apple iOS mobile devices in the United States on a test basis as a standalone video chat and messaging app.
Product manager Loren Cheng said the social network leader is offering Messenger Kids because “there’s a need for a messaging app that lets kids connect with people they love but also has the level of control parents want.”
Groups which monitor social media gave mixed reviews to the Facebook effort.
“Ideally, young children should not really be subjected to this kind of environment,” said executive director Jeff Chester of the Center for Digital Democracy, a consumer protection group.
“(Messenger Kids) is the best we can do at the moment. The pressure on parents to let their children be on these services is so strong.”
Facebook, meanwhile, is motivated to increase the ranks of people using its offerings and get a new generation in the habit of using the social network.
John Simpson of the activist group Consumer Watchdog argued a need for academic studies into how the use of technology affects children.
“Tech companies are not doing this out of generosity and kindness of the heart, they’re doing it so they will build potentially loyal customers in the future,” Simpson said.
Two US senators wrote Thursday to Facebook with concerns about how children’s personal data might be collected or used in Messenger Kids.
With Messenger Kids, Facebook gets children to spend time on the Internet and social networks, said David Monahan of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood.
He saw similar approaches from other tech giants, such as Google, which has spent years getting US schools to use its Chromebook devices for connecting to cloud-based content and services.
A Google for Education website aimed Chromebooks directly at classrooms, touting the devices as low-priced and easy to use.
Chromebooks have become the most prevalent computing hardware in US schools, despite Apple starting years earlier in aiming its Macintosh machines at education.
Selling computers to schools at attractive prices, aimed at high-volume deals and becoming part of people’ lives at early ages, is not new.
Apple, Microsoft, and HP have a history of it. But, Google has triumphed on this ground to the extent that the New York Times referred to the accomplishment in coverage as the “Googlification of Classrooms.”
Since Chromebooks act as portals to computing power and applications hosted online, Google gets the benefit of having students use its software for classwork, messaging and other services powered by the Internet cloud.
Google charges a one-time $30 licensing fee per Chromebook, and claims that more than 20 million students use its devices in schools around the world.
This has the potential of getting children, from a very young age, of “thinking about Google as a partner of the school” and, since it has the stamp of approval from educators believing it “must be a good product,” Monahan said.
Advocacy groups are also keen for assurance that companies behind technology, even if only Internet-linked toys, will vigilantly guard children and their information.
Mattel recently backed off marketing a connected speaker for children due to worries about invading privacy and exposing youngsters to hackers and advertisers.
Earlier this year, a coalition of activist and consumer groups warned that smartwatches designed to help parents keep tabs on children could create privacy and security risks.


Arabic cinema wins over movie-goers

Updated 17 September 2018
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Arabic cinema wins over movie-goers

  • Oscar-nominated Saudi Arabian director Haifaa Al-Mansour premiered her short film set in Riyadh, ‘The Wedding Singer’s Daughter,’ at the Venice Film Festival
  • Earlier in the year Ziad Doueiri was the first Lebanese film director to be nominated for an Oscar with his film ‘The Insult’

LONDON: Arabic cinema has increasingly captured the imagination of movie-lovers around the world this year, with Arab film-makers winning award nominations and securing high-profile screenings at major film festivals.
This month the Oscar-nominated Saudi Arabian director Haifaa Al-Mansour premiered her short film set in Riyadh, “The Wedding Singer’s Daughter,” at the Venice Film Festival. Al-Mansour previously wrote and directed the film “Wadjda,” which was the first foreign-language Oscar entry from Saudi Arabia in 2014.
Earlier in the year Ziad Doueiri was the first Lebanese film director to be nominated for an Oscar with his film “The Insult.”
“Arab cinema’s profile has been on the rise. There are several different Arab movies being shown at Venice (film festival) this year,” said Joseph Fahim, an Egyptian film critic and the curator of this year’s London-based Safar Film Festival, which runs on Sept. 13-18.
Daniel Gorman, the director of London’s biannual Shubbak festival, which showcases mainly contemporary Arabic culture, art and film, said he that has seen the appeal of Arabic film grow in the UK.
“There is a huge interest and appetite for creative work coming from across the Arab world and there is strong interest in the UK to hear the voices of people from across the region, in an area that is generally represented in headlines in newspapers. Film is an excellent way of doing that,” he said.
Festivals have played a vital role in boosting awareness of Arab film, he said.
“(They) are able to bring new audiences to new work as they bring this concentrated moment of activity. A festival tends to have a bit more reach in terms of media coverage and audience awareness.
“(It) brings people along to something which they might not go to as a one-off screening,” Gorman said, explaining how the Shubbak festival also works with local schools and community groups to increase access to Arabic film and art.
This year’s Safar film festival — which is in its fourth year and organized by the Arab British Center — has focused on the theme of literature and film in the Arab world.
Fahim has created a program that includes movies dating back to the 1960s that have been buried deep in their respective country’s archives, as well as new films that have not been screened in London yet.
One of the films included is the Tunisian “In the Land of Tararanni,” originally released in 1973 and based on a collection of short stories by Ali Dougai.
It was one of the more tricky recordings to track down, said Nadia El-Sebai, executive director at the Arab British Center.
“There are films in this program that audiences will have no idea how many people it took to get that film,” she said, explaining the lengthy negotiations with ministries of culture, national archives and old friends and contacts to track down the much sought-after recordings.
There were other movies they had to give up on ever finding, including those lost in Syria or Iraq, or old versions of films that have not yet been digitised by national archives, she said.
More recent festival entries include this year’s Egyptian film “Poisonous Roses,” adapted from a 1990s cult novel, as well as the European premiere of the work of an Iraqi filmmaker — “Stories of Passers Through” — which traces the stories of Iraqis exiled from their country during the Saddam Hussein regime.
The literary theme of this year’s festival was chosen as a reaction to the growing popularity of contemporary Arab cinema, with the event’s organizers wanting to delve into the history of Arabic film.
“We are delighted by the increasing access to Arabic cinema. There are more films plugged into the London film festival this year. We have other other festivals — the Shubbak festival (in London), and the Liverpool Arab Arts Festival,” said El-Sebai.
“For this year’s edition we thought we would like to take the opportunity to go a little deeper into the history and heritage of Arabic cinema, and the industry,” she said.
“Safar is taking place just before London Film Festival (LFF), which was another motivation for us to look at something a bit different as we are definitely going to see really amazing contemporary films at the London Film Festival,” she said.
The LFF — which begins on Oct. 10 — is set to feature work by Syrian filmmaker Soudade Kaadan as well as the Saudi Arabian director Mahmoud Sabbagh’s latest dark comedy “Amra and the Second Marriage,” among other Arab productions.
Fahim was also keen to use the Safar event as a way of bringing audiences’ attention to a broader range of Arabic movies, highlighting the heritage of the film industry.
“It is reminding people that Arab cinema did not spring out today — there is a long history,” he said, adding that he wanted to question audience expectations.
“There have been a flood of amazing images from Arab cinema being displayed at festivals and most critics had no idea what they were. The more I spoke to people, the more I realized that there is a certain expectation of what Arab movies should be,” he said.
“We wanted to challenge what people expect from Arab cinema … I am tired of seeing Lawrence of Arabia a gazillion times on the big screen,” he said.
He said the selected films in the festival will hopefully challenge preconceptions. He referred to the inclusion of the 1964 Egyptian film — “The Search” — based on the writer Naguib Mahfouz’s novel. “It is a crime noir. It is essentially an existential noir and I don’t think many people will expect to see that,” he said.
Arabic cinema, however, needs to be better promoted, he said, noting a dearth of adequate film critics.
“At the big festivals it sometimes feels like Arab cinema is the bottom priority for critics,” he said.
“We need more perceptive writing. I could name you on one hand the film critics who know their stuff. That needs to change. Maybe we need to have more different voices. Film criticism is still being dominated by white male writers — although it has been developing — but that is still the norm,” he said.