Global backlash over Iran’s cyber battle against protesters

Iranian students protest at the University of Tehran on December 30, 2017. (AFP)
Updated 09 January 2018

Global backlash over Iran’s cyber battle against protesters

LONDON: The Iranian government may be rethinking its battle against online dissent after a global backlash against moves to curb the use of social media tools such as Telegram.
It follows fresh comments made by President Hassan Rouhani on Monday stating that he did not want to “permanently” restrict access to social media.
His remarks contradict earlier decisions made in December to block the picture-sharing app Instagram and the encrypted messaging app Telegram due to the belief they were fueling the protests that broke out on the streets of the country last month.
It follows widespread criticism of the move to curb access to social media tools used by the protesters.
Speaking to ministers on Monday, Rouhani said: “People’s access to cyberspace should not be cut permanently; one cannot be indifferent to people’s lives and businesses.
“Every technology can be abused by some; we cannot block the technology and the benefits that people are taking from it,” he added in comments published on the president’s official website.
Iran has had a strong grip over social media for many years, with Facebook and Twitter technically banned since 2009. However, many people have still managed to find a way to access the sites and even Rouhani opened his own Facebook page in 2013.
Holly Dagres, a former US State Department analyst who now runs The Iranist website, said: “The Iranian government tends to slow the Internet in times of big protests like 2009 and this past week’s protests. They also have censored Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube. But that hasn’t stopped Iranians from using circumvention tools like VPNs to override the censorship. Iranians are professionals when it comes to circumvention, and though the government attempted to curb social media coverage of the protests, it hasn’t stopped Iranians from sharing information with the world.”
The messaging service Telegram has become one of the most popular social media tools in Iran in recent years, with an estimated 40 million Iranians using the product. Users can message each other via private and public channels.
The decision to block the app was due to Telegram’s refusal to shut down certain channels being used by protesters, according to a statement by the company’s CEO Pavel Durov on Dec. 31. He said at the time that it wasn’t clear whether the block was a permanent or temporary move.
The Iranian minister tweeted Durov late last month, accusing the channel of “encouraging hateful conduct.”
In his official statement, Durov countered such accusations, stating: “We are proud that Telegram is used by thousands of massive opposition channels all over the world. We consider freedom of speech an undeniable human right, and would rather get blocked in a country by its authorities than limit peaceful expression of alternative opinions.”
The messaging app did, however, suspend a public channel called @amadnews which it said had broken rules set out by Telegram which bans people using the app from making calls for violence.
The account had called for subscribers to use “molotov cocktails and firearms against police.”
According to Durov, the administrators for the channel apologized for breaking the rules and a “new peaceful channel” has been reinstated.
It may be too early to say if Rouhani’s comments signal a significant shift in Iran’s stance on social media, with no official confirmation that Telegram has been unblocked. Instagram has reportedly now been unblocked.
Instagram and Telegram did not reply to requests by Arab News for comment.
However some analysts see his remarks as an attempt to distance himself from more hard-line elements in the regime.
“The comments show that ​President Rouhani wants to create​ a clear distance between ​himself and his conservative critic​s, using the protests as a unique opportunity to pivot himself away from being the demonstrators’ target to becoming their champion for reform,” Ali Valez, the Washington-based director of the Iran Project, told Arab News.
There are also signs that pro-government supporters are starting to harness the power of social media in order to promote their own agenda.
One strategy being employed is the creation of Twitter bots which generate automatic content and followers. A BBC report published on Jan. 7 found that these accounts were being used to undermine tweets made by protesters, such as denying that a demonstration had taken place.
There are also continued reports of Iran’s clampdown on anti-government protests. More than 40 Iranian students have been arrested between Dec. 30 and Jan. 4, 2018, according to the Center for Human Rights in Iran.
According to a BBC report on Monday, a 22-year-old man arrested during the protests has died in a prison in Tehran.


Facebook researchers use maths for better translations

Updated 13 October 2019

Facebook researchers use maths for better translations

  • Facebook researchers say rendering words into figures and exploiting mathematical similarities between languages is a promising avenue
  • Allowing as many people as possible worldwide to communicate is not just an altruistic goal, but also good business

PARIS: Designers of machine translation tools still mostly rely on dictionaries to make a foreign language understandable. But now there is a new way: numbers.

Facebook researchers say rendering words into figures and exploiting mathematical similarities between languages is a promising avenue — even if a universal communicator a la Star Trek remains a distant dream.

Powerful automatic translation is a big priority for Internet giants. Allowing as many people as possible worldwide to communicate is not just an altruistic goal, but also good business.

Facebook, Google and Microsoft as well as Russia’s Yandex, China’s Baidu and others are constantly seeking to improve their translation tools.

Facebook has artificial intelligence experts on the job at one of its research labs in Paris. Up to 200 languages are currently used on Facebook, said Antoine Bordes, European co-director of fundamental AI research for the social network.

Automatic translation is currently based on having large databases of identical texts in both languages to work from. But for many language pairs there just aren’t enough such parallel texts.

That’s why researchers have been looking for another method, like the system developed by Facebook which creates a mathematical representation for words.

Each word becomes a “vector” in a space of several hundred dimensions. Words that have close associations in the spoken language also find themselves close to each other in this vector space.

“For example, if you take the words ‘cat’ and ‘dog’, semantically, they are words that describe a similar thing, so they will be extremely close together physically” in the vector space, said Guillaume Lample, one of the system’s designers.

“If you take words like Madrid, London, Paris, which are European capital cities, it’s the same idea.”

These language maps can then be linked to one another using algorithms — at first roughly, but eventually becoming more refined, until entire phrases can be matched without too many errors.

Lample said results are already promising. For the language pair of English-Romanian, Facebook’s current machine translation system is “equal or maybe a bit worse” than the word vector system, said Lample.

But for the rarer language pair of English-Urdu, where Facebook’s traditional system doesn’t have many bilingual texts to reference, the word vector system is already superior, he said.

But could the method allow translation from, say, Basque into the language of an Amazonian tribe? In theory, yes, said Lample, but in practice a large body of written texts are needed to map the language, something lacking in Amazonian tribal languages.

“If you have just tens of thousands of phrases, it won’t work. You need several hundreds of thousands,” he said.

Experts at France’s CNRS national scientific center said the approach Lample has taken for Facebook could produce useful results, even if it doesn’t result in perfect translations.

Thierry Poibeau of CNRS’s Lattice laboratory, which also does research into machine translation, called the word vector approach “a conceptual revolution.”

He said “translating without parallel data” — dictionaries or versions of the same documents in both languages — “is something of the Holy Grail” of machine translation.

“But the question is what level of performance can be expected” from the word vector method, said Poibeau. The method “can give an idea of the original text” but the capability for a good translation every time remains unproven.

Francois Yvon, a researcher at CNRS’s Computer Science Laboratory for Mechanics and Engineering Sciences, said “the linking of languages is much more difficult” when they are far removed from one another.

“The manner of denoting concepts in Chinese is completely different from French,” he added.
However even imperfect translations can be useful, said Yvon, and could prove sufficient to track hate speech, a major priority for Facebook.