From Biden to Congress, Big Tech is under mounting pressure

Biden elevated a fierce critic of Big Tech to head the powerful Federal Trade Commission, a clear signal of a tough stance toward tech giants. (File/AFP)
Biden elevated a fierce critic of Big Tech to head the powerful Federal Trade Commission, a clear signal of a tough stance toward tech giants. (File/AFP)
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Updated 23 June 2021

From Biden to Congress, Big Tech is under mounting pressure

Biden elevated a fierce critic of Big Tech to head the powerful Federal Trade Commission, a clear signal of a tough stance toward tech giants. (File/AFP)
  • US President Joe Biden believes steps are needed to protect privacy, generate more innovation and deal with other problems created by big technology platforms.
  • The huge legislative package from the House Judiciary Committee targets big tech companies’ structure and could point toward breaking them up.

WASHINGTON: Without speaking a word or scratching a pen across paper, President Joe Biden drove up the pressure on Big Tech companies already smarting under federal and congressional investigations, epic antitrust lawsuits and near-constant condemnation from politicians of both parties.
Biden last week elevated a fierce critic of Big Tech, antitrust legal scholar Lina Khan, to head the powerful Federal Trade Commission. The surprise move was a clear signal of a tough stance toward tech giants Facebook, Google, Amazon and Apple, and came as sweeping bipartisan legislation advanced in the House that could curb their market power and force them to sever their dominant platforms from their other lines of business.
The House Judiciary Committee is digging into the legislation in a public drafting session Wednesday, an initial step in what promises to be a strenuous slog through Congress. Many Republican lawmakers denounce the market dominance of Big Tech but don’t support a wholesale revamp of the antitrust laws. Republicans have relentlessly hurled accusations of anti-conservative bias against the social media platforms and may demand targeted legislative sanctions in return for their support.
The huge legislative package, led by industry critic Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., targets the companies’ structure and could point toward breaking them up, a dramatic step for Congress to take against a powerful industry whose products are woven into everyday life. If such steps were mandated, they could bring the biggest changes to the industry since the federal government’s landmark case against Microsoft some 20 years ago.
“It will be a really heavy lift,” says Rebecca Allensworth, a professor of antitrust at Vanderbilt University Law School. The complex language that could eventually be laid down may invite fights in the courts by rewriting four decades of antitrust case law, she suggested.
Lauded as engines of innovation, the Silicon Valley giants for decades enjoyed minimal regulation and star status in Washington, with a notable coziness during the Obama administration, when Biden was vice president. The industry’s fortunes abruptly reversed about two years ago, when the companies came under intense federal scrutiny, a searing congressional investigation, and growing public criticism over issues of competition, consumer privacy and hate speech.
Biden said as a presidential candidate that dismantling the big tech companies should be considered. He also has said he wants to see changes to the social media companies’ long-held legal protections for speech on their platforms.
The legislative proposals also would prohibit the tech giants from favoring their own products and services over competitors on their platforms. The legislation was informed by a 15-month Judiciary subcommittee antitrust investigation, led by Cicilline, that concluded the four tech giants have abused their market power by charging excessive fees, imposing tough contract terms and extracting valuable data from individuals and businesses that rely on them.
The four companies deny abusing their dominant market position and have asserted that improper intervention in the market through legislation would hurt small businesses and consumers.
The legislation also would make it tougher for the giant tech companies to snap up competitors in mergers, which they have completed by scores in recent years.
And the legislation asks Congress to boost the budgets of regulators who police competition, such as the Federal Trade Commission and the antitrust division of the Justice Department. State attorneys general would get power over companies to choose which courts to prosecute tech antitrust cases in. Some expert observers view those as the less complicated and less controversial parts of the legislation that may stand a better chance of making it to congressional passage.
Democrats control the House, but they would need to garner significant Republican support in the Senate for legislation to pass. The chamber is split 50-50 with the Democrats’ one-vote margin depending on Vice President Kamala Harris being the tiebreaker.
The tech industry has known that major antitrust legislation would likely follow the House investigation. And it was known for months that Biden was naming Lina Khan as one of five members of the FTC. But Silicon Valley — and nearly everyone inside the Beltway — was blindsided by Biden’s lightning move elevating Khan to head the independent agency. She was sworn in just hours after the Senate confirmed her as one of five commissioners on a 69-28 vote.
Khan, who has been a law professor at Columbia University, burst onto the antitrust scene with her weighty scholarly work in 2017 as a Yale law student, “Amazon’s Antitrust Paradox.” She helped lay the foundation for a new way of looking at antitrust law beyond the impact of big-company market dominance on consumer prices. As counsel to the Judiciary antitrust subcommittee, she played a key role in the 2019-20 investigation of the tech giants’ market power.
At 32, Khan is believed to be the youngest chair in the history of the FTC, which polices competition and consumer protection in industry generally as well as digital privacy.
Last October the Trump Justice Department, joined by about a dozen states, filed a ground-breaking antitrust lawsuit against Google, accusing the company of abusing its dominance in online search and advertising to stifle competition. That was followed in December by a big antitrust suit against Facebook, brought by the FTC and nearly every US state. It seeks remedies that could include a forced spinoff of the popular Instagram and WhatsApp messaging services.
European watchdogs, meanwhile, are stepping up their antitrust actions against the tech giants. In the latest move, word came Tuesday that European Union regulators have opened a new investigation into whether Google stifled competition in digital ad technology. The EU regulators have previously charged Apple with stifling competition in music streaming, and accused Amazon of using data from independent merchants to unfairly compete against them with its own products.
EU and British regulators recently opened dual antitrust probes into whether Facebook distorts competition in the classified advertising market by using data to unfairly compete against rival services.


‘Wall of Grief’ project by Indian journalists documents hidden toll of pandemic

 A health worker inoculates a man with a dose of Covishield vaccine against the Covid-19 coronavirus at a vaccination centre in Srinagar on September 17, 2021. (AFP)
A health worker inoculates a man with a dose of Covishield vaccine against the Covid-19 coronavirus at a vaccination centre in Srinagar on September 17, 2021. (AFP)
Updated 18 September 2021

‘Wall of Grief’ project by Indian journalists documents hidden toll of pandemic

 A health worker inoculates a man with a dose of Covishield vaccine against the Covid-19 coronavirus at a vaccination centre in Srinagar on September 17, 2021. (AFP)
  • “The projection of Gujarat itself after extrapolating the data is 218,000 — far higher that what the government claims”

NEW DELHI: A group of Indian journalists are documenting the everyday information of their dead compatriots in the wake of a devastating second wave of COVID-19 in the subcontinent earlier this year.
The online memorial project, “Wall of Grief,” aims to show the reality of the situation, which saw hundreds of thousands of Indians killed, according to official data. However, some suspect that the true number could be much higher.
Wall of Grief was launched in late August by The Reporters’ Collective, which says its aim is to “visualize the scale” of casualties amid the pandemic.
The project is supported by independent news agency 101Reporters and the Delhi-based National Foundation for India, an independent grant organization for public welfare and social transformation.
It functions as a database and a public depository containing the name, age, gender, occupation, and place of, and date of death, of each COVID-19 victim.
“We want to document all the deaths that have gone unacknowledged and unaccounted for,” one of the project’s coordinators, Tapasya, told Arab News on Friday.
The idea emerged when the collective went to work on a story about underreported COVID-19 deaths in the western Indian state of Gujarat. When reporters analyzed excess deaths data from a few dozen municipalities that covered only 6 percent of the state’s population, the number of deaths was about 16,000, compared with the 10,000 that the government had cited as Gujarat’s total coronavirus death toll.
“The data from Gujarat was quite shocking for me,” Tapasya said. “The projection of Gujarat itself after extrapolating the data is 218,000 — far higher that what the government claims.”

FASTFACTS

• Database shows name, age, gender and occupation of ‘untold’ COVID-19 victims.

• Official figures say disease has killed 440k people in India, but many say real number could be up to 11 times higher.

According to official figures, the pandemic has claimed more than 440,000 lives in India, most of them during the deadly second wave between March and June this year.
While their own count is still ongoing, the TRC have so far recorded death statistics in 13 of India’s 28 states.
“If from only one state you have almost half of the national figure of 440,000, then the overall result is going to be very shocking,” Tapasya warned.
Their expectations are supported by a study released earlier this week by the University of Michigan, the Indian Statistical Institute in Kolkata and Delhi School of Economics, which projected the country’s actual death toll to be between four and 11 times higher than official number.
Led by epidemiologist Bhramar Mukherjee, the study warned that India could have lost up to 4.9 million people to the disease.
Despite requests by Arab News, Indian Health Ministry officials and representatives of the government-run Indian Council for Medical Research declined to comment on COVID-19 death figures.
“Everyone knows that no matter what the official figures are, the actual number is much more,” Mayank Aggarwal, who leads Wall of Grief with Tapasya, told Arab News.
But for Aggarwal, the purpose of the project is not only formal documentation.
“This project should trigger conversations and bring people together to question the system and make it more accountable,” he said.
It is also meant to help open spaces for those who are grieving lost family members and friends, he added.
“We wanted to have a common space where people can come together and share their grief — a space that does not allow us to forget what happened to us.”


Who streams the most content in Saudi Arabia?

Who streams the most content in Saudi Arabia?
Updated 17 September 2021

Who streams the most content in Saudi Arabia?

Who streams the most content in Saudi Arabia?
  • YouGov’s latest research sheds light on streamers’ content consumption and habits 

DUBAI: The last two years have seen an unprecedented rise in the popularity of streaming services, and Saudi Arabia is no exception.

The latest research from analytics firm YouGov shows that Generation Z audiences are the most regular users of streaming services in KSA, with 72 percent claiming to use any catch-up or streaming service on a regular basis.

The study found that there is an inverse relationship between age and on-demand streaming, which means that younger audiences stream the most content. After Gen Z, millennials are the most regular consumers of streaming services (69 percent), followed by Generation X (61 percent) and baby boomers (45 percent).

Despite the growth of regional streaming services, Netflix appears to be the most popular streaming service in Saudi Arabia, with 37 percent of residents using it.

The global streaming giant is widely favored by younger audiences. Compared to the overall online population in the country, nearly three in five (59 percent) Gen Z streamers claim to use Netflix, followed by 56 percent of millennials.

Consumption of other streaming platforms is also much higher among these young adults. Compared to the overall online population, millennial streamers are heavier consumers of Amazon Prime (19 percent) and Shahid (24 percent).

When looking closely at the attitudes of streamers, the study found that streaming has massively affected how these audiences consume TV.

Fifty percent of Gen Z streamers and 46 percent of millennials agree with the statement, “Live TV is a thing of the past,” while 48 percent of millennial streamers said that streaming services have changed TV watching for them, versus 43 percent of Gen Z streamers. The latter, however, have been raised in the digital age, with streaming more native to them than TV watching.

Nearly half of Gen Z streamers (49 percent) claim people reach out to them regarding suggestions for new music, movies and TV shows. When it comes to attitudes toward watching films, nearly a quarter of Gen Z streamers say they prefer to watch movies via pay-to-own or pay-to-view streaming services, even though watching films in cinemas or theatres is their top preference.

It is fairly evident that the younger generation is used to having media “on-demand,” suggested the report, presenting a huge opportunity for streaming services in the Kingdom.


Reporter refused entry to Lebanon’s presidential palace to cover cabinet meeting

Al Jadeed correspondent Layal Saad during her live broadcast minutes after she was denied entry to Baabda Presidential Palace to cover the Lebanese cabinet's meeting. (Al Jadeed)
Al Jadeed correspondent Layal Saad during her live broadcast minutes after she was denied entry to Baabda Presidential Palace to cover the Lebanese cabinet's meeting. (Al Jadeed)
Updated 17 September 2021

Reporter refused entry to Lebanon’s presidential palace to cover cabinet meeting

Al Jadeed correspondent Layal Saad during her live broadcast minutes after she was denied entry to Baabda Presidential Palace to cover the Lebanese cabinet's meeting. (Al Jadeed)
  • Layal Saad said she was barred because of a previous incident in which she was verbally abused for referring to the president as ‘Aoun’ and not ‘his excellency President Aoun’
  • Al-Jadeed TV said it will take legal action because Baabda Palace is ‘the people’s palace’ and ‘the law doesn’t prohibit any citizen from entering any public facility’

BEIRUT: A Lebanese journalist was denied entry to Baabda Presidential Palace to cover a cabinet meeting on Thursday because of an incident that happened there last month.

In a live report, Al-Jadeed TV reporter Layal Saad said she was told by a representative of the palace’s press office that she could not enter the building. She added that she “was not allowed to do her journalistic duty” because of the previous confrontation.

Saad, who has covered events at the palace for five years, was reportedly subjected to verbal abuse by a security officer on Aug. 21. At the time she said that while the podium was being prepared for speeches, the officer overheard her asking colleagues, in reference to President Michel Aoun, ‘Is Aoun giving a speech?’ The man came up to her, she added, stood very close and spoke to her angrily and abusively, telling her: “You address him by saying ‘his excellency the president, General Michel Aoun,’ and not just ‘Aoun.’”

Saad said this incident was the reason why she was denied entry to the palace on Thursday. In a live broadcast she said: “Some of the palace’s staff and presidential advisors called me after August’s incident and apologized, saying it was a mistake that shouldn’t have happened.”

She added that was told the officer should not have spoken to her because only press office staff should deal with journalists.

“The employee (who refused to let Saad into the palace on Thursday) told me that the previous incident remains unresolved,” she said. “The president’s media advisor, Rafic Chlala, is the one who asked him to notify me that I could not enter the palace to cover the meeting … they didn’t want anyone from the security staff to speak to me.”

Saad added that she was told to ask her employers to send another correspondent.

Al-Jadeed TV responded to the palace by firmly stating it “will not assign any colleague to replace Layal Saad. It is not a matter of alternatives anymore but rather it has become about the core of freedoms and the transformation of Baabda palace into a tool of suppressing words and existence.”

Saying “Layal Saad or nobody,” it added: “Facing this ban, the channel finds itself compelled to file a lawsuit against the pertinent authorities at Baabda Palace, which is the people’s palace. The law doesn’t prohibit any citizen from entering any public facility.”

Saad told Arab News that palace staff must not be allowed to treat the building as “their own private house because it’s a public facility and any citizen can enter.”

She added that although she is not personally taking legal action against palace authorities, her employers intend to.

“The lawsuit will be lodged against any staff and advisors involved in issuing the ban and I am not sure if that includes the presidency … that’s up to the lawyers to talk about it,” she said.

The president’s press office said the management of Al-Jadeed had been asked to replace Saad with another reporter, and that other journalists had been assigned to cover the palace recently without any problems.

It added that Al-Jadeed was reminded that the same restriction continued to apply as a result of the incident in August, but this time the channel sent Saad anyway to cover the cabinet session and she was asked to leave.


Facebook to target harmful coordination by real accounts using playbook against fake networks

Facebook is under increasing pressure from global regulators, lawmakers and employees to combat wide-ranging abuses on its services. (File/AFP)
Facebook is under increasing pressure from global regulators, lawmakers and employees to combat wide-ranging abuses on its services. (File/AFP)
Updated 17 September 2021

Facebook to target harmful coordination by real accounts using playbook against fake networks

Facebook is under increasing pressure from global regulators, lawmakers and employees to combat wide-ranging abuses on its services. (File/AFP)
  • Facebook is taking a more aggressive approach to shut down coordinated groups of real-user accounts engaging in certain harmful activities
  • The move could have major implications for how the social media giant handles political and other coordinated movements

LONDON: Facebook is taking a more aggressive approach to shut down coordinated groups of real-user accounts engaging in certain harmful activities on its platform, using the same strategy its security teams take against campaigns using fake accounts, the company told Reuters.
The new approach, reported here for the first time, uses the tactics usually taken by Facebook’s security teams for wholesale shutdowns of networks engaged in influence operations that use false accounts to manipulate public debate, such as Russian troll farms.
It could have major implications for how the social media giant handles political and other coordinated movements breaking its rules, at a time when Facebook’s approach to abuses on its platforms is under heavy scrutiny from global lawmakers and civil society groups.
Facebook said it now plans to take this same network-level approach with groups of coordinated real accounts that systemically break its rules, through mass reporting, where many users falsely report a target’s content or account to get it shut down, or brigading, a type of online harassment where users might coordinate to target an individual through mass posts or comments.
The expansion, which a spokeswoman said was in its early stages, means Facebook’s security teams could identify core movements driving such behavior and take more sweeping actions than the company removing posts or individual accounts as it otherwise might.
In April, BuzzFeed News published a leaked Facebook internal report about the company’s role in the Jan. 6 riot on the US Capitol and its challenges in curbing the fast-growing ‘Stop the Steal’ movement, where one of the findings was Facebook had “little policy around coordinated authentic harm.”
Facebook’s security experts, who are separate from the company’s content moderators and handle threats from adversaries trying to evade its rules, started cracking down on influence operations using fake accounts in 2017, following the 2016 US election in which US intelligence officials concluded Russia had used social media platforms as part of a cyber-influence campaign — a claim Moscow has denied.
Facebook dubbed this banned activity by the groups of fake accounts “coordinated inauthentic behavior” (CIB), and its security teams started announcing sweeping takedowns in monthly reports. The security teams also handle some specific threats that may not use fake accounts, such as fraud or cyber-espionage networks or overt influence operations like some state media campaigns.
Sources said teams at the company had long debated how it should intervene at a network level for large movements of real user accounts systemically breaking its rules.
In July, Reuters reported on the Vietnam army’s online information warfare unit, who engaged in actions including mass reporting of accounts to Facebook but also often used their real names.
Facebook is under increasing pressure from global regulators, lawmakers and employees to combat wide-ranging abuses on its services. Others have criticized the company over allegations of censorship, anti-conservative bias or inconsistent enforcement.
An expansion of Facebook’s network disruption models to affect authentic accounts raises further questions about how changes might impact types of public debate, online movements and campaign tactics across the political spectrum.
High-profile instances of coordinated activity around last year’s US election, from teens and K-pop fans claiming they used TikTok to sabotage a rally for former President Donald Trump in Tulsa, Oklahoma, to political campaigns paying online meme-makers, have also sparked debates on how platforms should define and approach coordinated campaigns.


Facebook rolls out new messaging, business tools for brands

Facebook will begin testing the ability for brands to send emails through Facebook Business Suite
Facebook will begin testing the ability for brands to send emails through Facebook Business Suite
Updated 17 September 2021

Facebook rolls out new messaging, business tools for brands

Facebook will begin testing the ability for brands to send emails through Facebook Business Suite
  • Facebook rolls out new feature that allows businesses to find and chat with potential customers on the app
  • The new features will help Facebook offer personalized shopping experiences to its users

LONDON: Facebook Inc. is rolling out new ways for businesses to find and chat with potential customers on its apps, the social media company said Thursday, as it seeks to become an online shopping destination.
The new features will help Facebook, already a leader in digital advertising, offer personalized shopping experiences to its users, said Karandeep Anand, vice president of business products at Facebook.
Businesses will now be able to add a button on their Instagram profiles to let people send a WhatsApp message to the company with one click.
Integrating WhatsApp is particularly important for customers in countries such as India and Brazil, where the Facebook-owned messaging app is widely used, Anand said.
Facebook said it will begin testing the ability for brands to send emails through Facebook Business Suite, a feature that lets businesses manage their presence across the social media site’s apps, in order to simplify how companies reach customers.
It will also test new work accounts to let employees manage business pages without needing to log in with their personal accounts.
The new business tools come a day after WhatsApp began testing a new feature in São Paulo, Brazil, to let users find shops and services through a directory in the app for the first time, part of an effort to bolster ecommerce on the service.