US joins global push against violent extremism online

The US government and four other countries joined the effort, known as the Christchurch Call, for the first time this year. (File/AFP)
The US government and four other countries joined the effort, known as the Christchurch Call, for the first time this year. (File/AFP)
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Updated 16 May 2021

US joins global push against violent extremism online

The US government and four other countries joined the effort, known as the Christchurch Call, for the first time this year. (File/AFP)
  • It was part of a global effort started by Macron and New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern after deadly attacks in their countries were streamed or shared on social networks
  • Since its launch, governments and tech companies have cooperated in some cases in identifying violent extremist content online

WELLINGTON, New Zealand: Two years after a white supremacist in New Zealand livestreamed the slaughter of 51 Muslim worshippers on Facebook, French President Emmanuel Macron says the Internet continues to be be used by terrorists as a weapon to propagate hate.
Macron and other leaders from tech giants and governments around the world — including the US for the first time — gathered virtually on Saturday to find better ways to stop extremist violence from spreading online, while also respecting freedom of expression.
It was part of a global effort started by Macron and New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern after deadly attacks in their countries were streamed or shared on social networks.
The US government and four other countries joined the effort, known as the Christchurch Call, for the first time this year. It involves some 50 nations plus tech companies including Google, Facebook, Twitter and Amazon, and is named for the New Zealand city where the slaughter at the two mosques took place.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said in a prerecorded video that authorities in his country alone had taken down more than 300,000 pieces of terrorist material from the Internet over the past decade, which he described as a tsunami of hate.
“Terrorist content is like a metastasizing tumor within the Internet, or series of tumors,” Johnson said. “If we fail to excise it, it will inevitably spread into homes and high streets the world over.”
Since its launch, governments and tech companies have cooperated in some cases in identifying violent extremist content online. Ardern, however, said more tangible progress is needed to stop it from proliferating.
The meeting was aimed at revitalizing coordination efforts, notably since President Joe Biden entered office, and getting more tech companies involved. Macron and Ardern welcomed the US decision as a potential catalyst for stronger action.
Macron said the Internet had continued to be used as a tool in recent attacks in the US, Vienna, Germany and elsewhere. He said it cannot happen again, and that new European regulations against extremist content would help.
Ardern said that two years after the Christchurch Call was launched, momentum was strong. But she acknowledged the challenge in essentially playing whac-a-mole with different countries, Internet platforms and algorithms that can foster extremist content.
“The existence of algorithms themselves is not necessarily the problem, it’s whether or not they are being ethically used,” Ardern said. “And so that is probably the biggest focus for the Call community over the next year.”
She said part of the solution also came in better equipping a younger generation of Internet users to have the skills to deal with radical content or disinformation when they encounter it online.
Although the US only officially joined the Christchurch Call this year, it had been consistently contributing to the effort, Ardern said.
“Countering the use of the Internet by terrorists and violent extremists to radicalize and recruit is a significant priority for the United States,” White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in a statement. She also stressed the importance of protecting freedom of expression and “reasonable expectations of privacy.”


FB’s ‘Neighborhoods’ faces crowded niche market, profiling concerns

FB’s ‘Neighborhoods’ faces crowded niche market, profiling concerns
A 3D-printed Facebook logo is seen placed on a keyboard in this illustration taken March 25, 2020. (REUTERS)
Updated 19 June 2021

FB’s ‘Neighborhoods’ faces crowded niche market, profiling concerns

FB’s ‘Neighborhoods’ faces crowded niche market, profiling concerns
  • Neighborhoods users are prompted to introduce themselves, log interests and answer ice-breaker questions, like favorite DIY projects

OTTAWA: When Facebook began testing its new “Neighborhoods” feature in Canada last October amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the tech giant described it as a dedicated place for people to connect with their local communities.
Here, in a corner of the world’s largest social network, people met neighbors, shared banana bread ingredients, helped locate missing cats and swapped local business recommendations, the feature’s product manager Reid Patton said in a recent interview.
But Facebook, which is rolling out the feature in four US cities — Baton Rouge, Louisiana; Charlotte, North Carolina; Newark, New Jersey; and San Diego, California — is already playing catch-up in the red-hot market for local social apps. Community site Nextdoor has emerged as a key player along with Amazon Ring’s Neighbors and crime-tracking app Citizen. Nextdoor, which saw usage surge during lockdowns, reported 50 percent annual growth in daily active users last year.
Facebook has in recent years focused on on-site communities that matter to its users as a tactic to drive engagement. The company, which made the vast majority of its almost $84.2 billion ad revenue last year from smaller businesses, many of whom court local users, also said users’ activity and information in Neighborhoods may be used to personalize their experience and ads across Facebook.
Neighborhoods users are prompted to introduce themselves, log interests and answer ice-breaker questions, like favorite DIY projects. People can take roles like “socializer” or “helper” and their profile information populates a directory that even identifies local pets by name, Patton said.
But Facebook, long under fire for its moderation and design decisions, will likely contend with challenges that have bedeviled rival hyperlocal platforms, such as misinformation, racial profiling and privacy concerns, say civil rights groups and social media researchers.

SPEEDREAD

• Facebook, which is rolling out the feature in four US cities is already playing catch-up in the red-hot market for local social apps.

• Community site Nextdoor has emerged as a key player along with Amazon Ring’s Neighbors and crime-tracking app Citizen.

Facebook is already under scrutiny from lawmakers over its Groups feature, which it says is used by more than 1.8 billion people every month, including to connect with their local communities. Researchers identified Facebook Groups as a source of false claims and violent incitement ahead of the US Capitol riot.
“Online rhetoric can lead into offline antagonism and violence really quickly,” said Nina Jankowicz, a global fellow at the Wilson Center who has researched how Facebook Groups have been used to push conspiracies. “Facebook’s moderation of Groups leaves a lot to be desired.”
Facebook’s Patton said the team designing Neighborhoods took into account problems in Groups: “We’ve tried to learn from across Facebook products and beyond, and build an experience that does make people feel safe.”
A Neighborhood largely relies on multiple unpaid community moderators, offered the role by Facebook after it assesses how active they are in other communities and screens rule-breakers. It is also developing moderator training on sensitive issues. All Neighborhoods users must be over 18 and new accounts or repeat rule-violators are not allowed.
As designed, recent traffic on some Neighborhoods showed typical local community messages. In San Diego, residents shared dog photos and alerts for lost house keys. In Toronto, posts ranged from a poll about dating in the pandemic to pictures of a stolen bike.
Facebook has not marketed public safety as a focus of Neighborhoods, but Reuters found the citizen crime warnings endemic in community apps are already showing up. In Vancouver, users commented on a photo of a man said to have been following women in the area, while someone else described an encounter with someone breaking into their house. Stills were shared from security cameras of a “suspicious person” looking at a property and kids who allegedly stole packages. On the last post, a user advised saving a box and putting dog feces in it.


Google searches for new measure of skin tones to curb bias in products

Google says that it's pursuing better measures for classifying skin tones. (File/AFP)
Google says that it's pursuing better measures for classifying skin tones. (File/AFP)
Updated 18 June 2021

Google searches for new measure of skin tones to curb bias in products

Google says that it's pursuing better measures for classifying skin tones. (File/AFP)
  • Google developing new measure for classifying skin tones in attempt to combat biases against people of color.
  • Companies know their products can be faulty for groups that are under-represented in research and testing data.

Alphabet Inc’s Google told Reuters this week it is developing an alternative to the industry standard method for classifying skin tones, which a growing chorus of technology researchers and dermatologists says is inadequate for assessing whether products are biased against people of color.
At issue is a six-color scale known as Fitzpatrick Skin Type (FST), which dermatologists have used since the 1970s. Tech companies now rely on it to categorize people and measure whether products such as facial recognition systems or smartwatch heart-rate sensors perform equally well across skin tones.
Critics say FST, which includes four categories for “white” skin and one apiece for “black” and “brown,” disregards diversity among people of color. Researchers at the US Department of Homeland Security, during a federal technology standards conference last October, recommended abandoning FST for evaluating facial recognition because it poorly represents color range in diverse populations.
In response to Reuters’ questions about FST, Google, for the first time and ahead of peers, said that it has been quietly pursuing better measures.
“We are working on alternative, more inclusive, measures that could be useful in the development of our products, and will collaborate with scientific and medical experts, as well as groups working with communities of color,” the company said, declining to offer details on the effort.
The controversy is part of a larger reckoning over racism and diversity in the tech industry, where the workforce is more white than in sectors like finance. Ensuring technology works well for all skin colors, as well different ages and genders, is assuming greater importance as new products, often powered by artificial intelligence (AI), extend into sensitive and regulated areas such as health care and law enforcement.
Companies know their products can be faulty for groups that are under-represented in research and testing data. The concern over FST is that its limited scale for darker skin could lead to technology that, for instance, works for golden brown skin but fails for espresso red tones.
Numerous types of products offer palettes far richer than FST. Crayola last year launched 24 skin tone crayons, and Mattel Inc’s Barbie Fashionistas dolls this year cover nine tones.
The issue is far from academic for Google. When the company announced in February that cameras on some Android phones could measure pulse rates via a fingertip, it said readings on average would err by 1.8 percent regardless of whether users had light or dark skin.
The company later gave similar warranties that skin type would not noticeably affect results of a feature for filtering backgrounds on Meet video conferences, nor of an upcoming web tool for identifying skin conditions, informally dubbed Derm Assist.
Those conclusions derived from testing with the six-tone FST.
’STARTING POINT’
The late Harvard University dermatologist Dr. Thomas Fitzpatrick invented the scale to personalize ultraviolet radiation treatment for psoriasis, an itchy skin condition. He grouped the skin of “white” people as Roman numerals I to IV by asking how much sunburn or tan they developed after certain periods in sun.
A decade later came type V for “brown” skin and VI for “black.” The scale is still part of US regulations for testing sunblock products, and it remains a popular dermatology standard for assessing patients’ cancer risk and more.
Some dermatologists say the scale is a poor and overused measure for care, and often conflated with race and ethnicity.
“Many people would assume I am skin type V, which rarely to never burns, but I burn,” said Dr. Susan Taylor, a University of Pennsylvania dermatologist who founded Skin of Color Society in 2004 to promote research on marginalized communities. “To look at my skin hue and say I am type V does me disservice.”
Technology companies, until recently, were unconcerned. Unicode, an industry association overseeing emojis, referred to FST in 2014 as its basis for adopting five skin tones beyond yellow, saying the scale was “without negative associations.”
A 2018 study titled “Gender Shades,” which found facial analysis systems more often misgendered people with darker skin, popularized using FST for evaluating AI. The research described FST as a “starting point,” but scientists of similar studies that came later told Reuters they used the scale to stay consistent.
“As a first measure for a relatively immature market, it serves its purpose to help us identify red flags,” said Inioluwa Deborah Raji, a Mozilla fellow focused on auditing AI.
In an April study testing AI for detecting deepfakes, Facebook Inc. researchers wrote FST “clearly does not encompass the diversity within brown and black skin tones.” Still, they released videos of 3,000 individuals to be used for evaluating AI systems, with FST tags attached based on the assessments of eight human raters.
The judgment of the raters is central. Facial recognition software startup AnyVision last year gave celebrity examples to raters: former baseball great Derek Jeter as a type IV, model Tyra Banks a V and rapper 50 Cent a VI.
AnyVision told Reuters it agreed with Google’s decision to revisit use of FST, and Facebook said it is open to better measures.
Microsoft Corp. and smartwatch makers Apple Inc. and Garmin Ltd. reference FST when working on health-related sensors.
But use of FST could be fueling “false assurances” about heart rate readings from smartwatches on darker skin, University of California San Diego clinicians, inspired by the Black Lives Matter social equality movement, wrote in the journal Sleep last year.
Microsoft acknowledged FST’s imperfections. Apple said it tests on humans across skin tones using various measures, FST only at times among them. Garmin said due to wide-ranging testing it believes readings are reliable.
Victor Casale, who founded makeup company Mob Beauty and helped Crayola on the new crayons, said he developed 40 shades for foundation, each different from the next by about 3 percent, or enough for most adults to distinguish.
Color accuracy on electronics suggest tech standards should have 12 to 18 tones, he said, adding, “you can’t just have six.”


Twitter’s India woes worsen as police summon chief over viral video

Prasad has said Twitter has not complied with a new set of government rules that required them to appoint new compliance officers. (File/AFP)
Prasad has said Twitter has not complied with a new set of government rules that required them to appoint new compliance officers. (File/AFP)
Updated 18 June 2021

Twitter’s India woes worsen as police summon chief over viral video

Prasad has said Twitter has not complied with a new set of government rules that required them to appoint new compliance officers. (File/AFP)
  • Indian police summon Twitter's top official in the country to answer allegation of inciting hate between communities.
  • This comes amidst India's crackdown on Twitter and other social media firms to comply with country's new IT rules.

LUCKNOW: Police in India have summoned Twitter’s top official in the country to answer allegations that the US firm failed to stop the spread of a video that allegedly incited “hate and enmity” between Hindu and Muslim communities.
An official police notice, seen by Reuters, showed a case had been registered in Ghaziabad in northern Uttar Pradesh state over a video of a few men, apparently Hindu, beating an elderly man believed to be a Muslim and cutting his beard.
The police report names Twitter Inc, its local unit and seven others for their alleged roles in disseminating a video that was deemed insulting to religious beliefs and causing public mischief in a state with a long, bloody history of communal violence.
The controversy comes just as India’s federal government is locking horns with Twitter over non-compliance with new IT rules, which have raised doubts whether the platform would continue to enjoy protection against legal liability for user-generated content. The new rules became effective in late May.
In a notice dated Thursday, Ghaziabad police wrote to Twitter India head Manish Maheshwari to appear before officials within seven days of the receipt of the summons.
“Some people used their Twitter handles to spread hatred and enmity in the society and Twitter did not take cognizance,” said the notice, which was reviewed by Reuters.
“Writings and works which promoted enmity and affected harmony between different communities in the country and the state were encouraged and such anti-society messages were allowed to go viral.”
Twitter declined to comment, and Maheshwari did not respond to a request for comment.
IT minister Ravi Shankar Prasad lashed out at Twitter this week for the Ghaziabad incident, saying its failure to act was “perplexing.”

NO SAFE HARBOUR
Prasad has said Twitter has not complied with a new set of government rules that required them to appoint new compliance officers by May 26.
The rules state that in case of non-compliance, protection that companies enjoy related to any liability against user generated content “shall not be applicable” and companies “shall be liable for punishment under any law.”
“The moment Twitter was non-complaint, the safe harbor protection was automatically not available,” said Shlok Chandra, a New Delhi-based lawyer who represents the federal government in various cases. “The position is very clear.”
Some free speech activists and lawyers, however, disagree.
“The Central Government neither has the power to bestow, nor the power to “withdraw” the exemption from liability...The determination of the question whether Twitter is entitled to seek exemption from liability is solely within the domain of the Courts,” Delhi-based Ira Law firm said in a LinkedIn post this month.
Three special rapporteurs appointed by a top United Nations human rights body last week urged India to review the new IT rules, saying their broadened scope did not conform with international human rights norms and could threaten digital rights.
To comply with India’s new IT rules, companies such as Twitter needed to appoint a chief compliance officer, a nodal officer and a resident grievance officer. But LinkedIn job postings show all three positions were currently open at Twitter.
The social media giant has however retained an interim chief compliance officer, it said this week, adding that it was making all efforts to adhere to the new IT rules. 


Vietnam introduces nationwide code of conduct for social media

Last year, Vietnamese authorities had threatened to shut down Facebook if the social media giant did not bow to government pressure to censor more local political content. (File/AFP)
Last year, Vietnamese authorities had threatened to shut down Facebook if the social media giant did not bow to government pressure to censor more local political content. (File/AFP)
Updated 18 June 2021

Vietnam introduces nationwide code of conduct for social media

Last year, Vietnamese authorities had threatened to shut down Facebook if the social media giant did not bow to government pressure to censor more local political content. (File/AFP)
  • Vietnam introduce code of conduct laws for social media which prohibit posts that affect the interests of the state
  • It is not yet clear to what extent the decision is legally binding, or how it will be enforced

HANOI: Vietnam introduced national guidelines on social media behavior on Friday which encourage people to post positive content about the Southeast Asian country and require state employees to report “conflicting information” to their superiors.
The code prohibits posts which violate the law and “affect the interests of the state” and applies to state organizations, social media companies, and all their users in Vietnam.
“Social media users are encouraged to promote the beauty of Vietnam’s scenery, people and culture, and spread good stories about good people,” reads the code, which was contained in a decision from the information ministry and dated June 17.
It was not clear to what extent the decision was legally binding, or how it would be enforced.
Vietnam’s ruling Communist Party tolerates little criticism, retains tight control over media and has in recent years presided over an intensified crackdown on dissidents and activists, some of whom are serving lengthy jail terms for posts on Facebook and Google’s YouTube.
In November last year, Reuters exclusively reported that Vietnamese authorities had threatened to shut down Facebook if the social media giant did not bow to government pressure to censor more local political content on the platform.
Vietnam is a major market for Facebook, which serves about 60 million users in the country and generates revenue of nearly $1 billion, according to sources familiar with the numbers.
The new code requires social media providers in Vietnam to “deal with users in accordance with Vietnamese law” when requested by authorities to remove content from their platforms.
It encourages social media users to create accounts using their real identities, share information from official sources, and avoid posting content which violates the law, contains bad language, or advertises illegal services.
In January, Vietnamese social media users used fake weather reports and football scores as a creative means to discuss Communist Party leadership wrangling after an official ban on speculation ahead of a Party congress. 


Myanmar extends detention of US journalist Danny Fenster

The parents of detained journalist Danny Fenster, Buddy Fenster and Rose Fenster and brother Bryan Fenster gather in Huntington Woods, Michigan. (AFP)
The parents of detained journalist Danny Fenster, Buddy Fenster and Rose Fenster and brother Bryan Fenster gather in Huntington Woods, Michigan. (AFP)
Updated 18 June 2021

Myanmar extends detention of US journalist Danny Fenster

The parents of detained journalist Danny Fenster, Buddy Fenster and Rose Fenster and brother Bryan Fenster gather in Huntington Woods, Michigan. (AFP)
  • Myanmar court extends detention of US journalist Danny Fenster while US Embassy officials are still being denied access to him.
  • About 90 journalists have been arrested since the military junta seized power in February and more than half of them are still detained.

BANGKOK: A court in Myanmar extended the detention of American journalist Danny Fenster for another two weeks Thursday, while the US State Department urged that it be granted consular access to him.
Online news and business magazine Frontier Myanmar, where Fenster is managing editor, said he faces a charge that carries a potential three-year prison term.
The charge, used frequently against dissidents and journalists, criminalizes “any attempt to cause fear, spread false news, or agitate directly or indirectly a criminal offense against a government employee.” The magazine said it did not know the reason for the charge.
Myanmar’s military government has tried to silence independent news media by withdrawing the licenses they must obtain to publish or broadcast and by arresting journalists.
According to Myanmar’s Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, about 90 journalists have been arrested since the army seized power in February and more than half of them are still detained.
The special court at Insein Prison in Yangon ordered Fenster’s continued detention there for two weeks, scheduling his next hearing for July 1.
Myanmar authorities have not allowed US Embassy officials access to Fenster, State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters in Washington. He urged them to grant access under the Vienna Convention “without delay and to ensure proper treatment of Danny.”
Price said the State Department was “very gratified” by the release of another US journalist, Nathan Maung, who had been arrested on a similar charge in March while working for a local news online news agency in Myanmar.
Maung was deported Tuesday after the charge against him was dropped and his case dismissed, though a colleague at Kamayut Media who was arrested with him, Myanmar citizen Hanthar Nyein, remains imprisoned. Price said Maung has met and spoken with senior State Department officials since his return.
Frontier said Fenster was represented by a lawyer in court Thursday but the magazine’s representatives were not permitted to attend. “We are still seeking information on the reason for Danny’s arrest and continued detention,” Frontier said in its statement.
Fenster, 37, was detained at Yangon International Airport on May 24 as he was trying to board a flight to go to the Detroit area to see his family.
Two Myanmar journalists who were arrested more than a month ago were released Thursday, the wife of one of them said.
Voice of Myanmar Editor-in-Chief Nay Myo Lin and reporter Shine Aung were arrested on April 27 when they obeyed an order to report themselves for questioning about articles judged to be anti-military.
Both returned to their homes after they were released when the cases against them were dropped, said Zarni Mann, who is Nay Myo Lin’s wife. Voice of Myanmar, an online news service suspended operations following their arrests.
“We have said that journalism is not a crime. But not only Nay Myo Lin but also many other journalists have been prosecuted and detained in the prisons. I want all other detained journalists to be released, just like Nay Myo Lin,” said Zarni Mann.