Google and Facebook slow hiring, start layoffs as economic pressure mounts

A worker walks along a path at Google’s Bay View campus in Mountain View, California on June 27, 2022. (AFP)
A worker walks along a path at Google’s Bay View campus in Mountain View, California on June 27, 2022. (AFP)
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Updated 13 July 2022

Google and Facebook slow hiring, start layoffs as economic pressure mounts

Google and Facebook slow hiring, start layoffs as economic pressure mounts
  • Google is not the only tech giant planning to slow down
  • Facebook, which is down 40 percent this year, told its employees in May that it would freeze hiring

LONDON: Google CEO Sundar Pichai said in an email to staff this week that the company plans to slow hiring for the rest of the year, according to Bloomberg.  

He added that it will focus on hiring engineering, technical and “other critical roles” in 2022 and 2023.

Pichai also encouraged employees “to be more entrepreneurial, working with greater urgency, sharper focus and more hunger than we’ve shown on sunnier days.”

In some cases, that means “consolidating where investments overlap and streamlining processes,” he said.

Google is not the only tech giant planning to slow down. After witnessing accelerated growth during the pandemic, many tech companies are seeing a slowdown in both growth and revenue.

Earlier this year, Twitter announced it would freeze hiring and last week laid off 30 percent of its recruitment team, according to media reports.

Facebook, which is down 40 percent this year, told its employees in May that it would freeze hiring, according to The Washington Post.

Now, it is looking to weed out poor performers. Facebook’s head of engineering, Maher Saba, sent a memo on Friday to managers asking them to identify those on their team who “need support” and report them to the HR department by Monday, according to The Information.

In a memo, Saba said: “If a direct report is coasting or a low performer, they are not who we need; they are failing this company,” he said.

“As a manager, you cannot allow someone to be net neutral or negative for Meta.”

The announcement follows the tone set by Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg last month. “I think some of you might decide that this place isn’t for you, and that self-selection is OK with me,” he said.

“Realistically, there are probably a bunch of people at the company who shouldn’t be here,” he added.


Duolingo in talks to offer ‘cheap and secure’ English-language tests for UK visa applicants

Duolingo in talks to offer ‘cheap and secure’ English-language tests for UK visa applicants
Updated 04 October 2022

Duolingo in talks to offer ‘cheap and secure’ English-language tests for UK visa applicants

Duolingo in talks to offer ‘cheap and secure’ English-language tests for UK visa applicants
  • The online tests would help applicants from 67 countries that do not have any accredited testing centers save time and money, CEO says

LONDON: Duolingo has confirmed it is discussing with the UK government plans that would allow visa applicants around the world to take an online English-language test through the company’s popular language-learning app for less than $50.

Duolingo’s CEO and founder, Luis von Ahn, said during an interview on Sunday that the business is ready to offer “cheap and secure English-language tests” to people who are required to pass one to work or study in the UK.

“Harvard, Stanford, MIT … and I believe there are 75 universities in the UK that accept the test,” he said. “But we’re not yet accepted by the UK government. I think they’re coming around to agreeing that online tests are good.

“We’ve been talking to them. I don’t know how fast the UK government moves. My experience is that all governments move very slowly. So I don’t know how long it will take but I think that will be really good for the world if it happens.”

Duolingo has been offering English-language tests to students seeking admission to universities since 2016. Von Ahn said that initially, some universities were reluctant about the company’s proposal over concerns that the tests would not be fair or secure. But the increased use of online technology during the COVID-19 pandemic helped overcome much of the skepticism and accelerate the adoption of online tests as an alternative to expensive in-person examinations.

“I applied to come to the US to study,” said Von Ahn, who is originally from Guatemala. “In my country, they ran out of these tests so I had to fly to a neighboring country, El Salvador, which in the late 1990s was a war zone. It cost me $1,000 just to fly there and take the test. It was ridiculous.”

Currently, people who apply for visas to work or study in the UK are required to demonstrate their English proficiency by taking a “secure English language test” at an accredited center in one of 134 countries and territories worldwide.

This means that people in 67 countries — including Mali, Niger, Uruguay, Paraguay and Guatemala, as well as many Caribbean and Pacific islands — have to travel abroad to take the test.

Von Ah said that in addition to its mission to “make language education accessible to everybody,” Duolingo wants, through its online English-language test, to address this inequality among countries by making it easier and cheaper for all visa applicants to take the test.

According to market and consumer data company Statista, 239,987 work visas and 432,279 student visas were issued in 2021 to people applying to enter the UK. Of the latter, 27,520 went to students from the MENA region.

Von Ahn founded Duolingo with business partner Severin Hacker in 2012, quickly establishing himself as one of Silicon Valley’s leading entrepreneurs.

The California-based education-technology firm is now valued at $4 billion and offers tuition in more than 40 languages. In the past few years the company has expanded the services it offers beyond traditional language-learning courses. As well as the Duolingo English Test it now offers Duolingo ABC, which helps children learn to read, and is preparing to launch a math app next year.


Snapchat launches Family Center parental-control feature in Saudi Arabia

Snapchat launches Family Center parental-control feature in Saudi Arabia
Updated 04 October 2022

Snapchat launches Family Center parental-control feature in Saudi Arabia

Snapchat launches Family Center parental-control feature in Saudi Arabia
  • It allows parents to monitor the online safety of their children by providing details about people with whom youngsters are communicating through the app

DUBAI: Instant messaging service Snapchat, in cooperation with Saudi Arabia’s General Commission for Audiovisual Media, has launched in the Kingdom its Family Center parental-control feature.

The new feature was introduced to the app in August in the US, UK, Australia, New Zealand and Canada. It was launched last month in the UAE at an event attended by Deputy Prime Minister Sheikh Saif bin Zayed Al-Nahyan and other government officials.

Family Center is designed to give parents and guardians more control over children’s Snapchat habits. It allows them to view details of the people with whom a child is communicating without seeing the content of the conversations, to protect the privacy of the young person. Any suspicious accounts can be easily reported to Snapchat.

Family Center is designed to be used both by parents and children. Parents and guardians are required to install Snapchat on their own devices and then link their accounts to those of their children to access the feature. They can also invite other family members, age 25 or over, to use the feature.

According to a study by data analytics and brand consulting company Kantar, 71 percent of parents in the Kingdom use Snapchat.


Journalists lament proposed closure of BBC foreign-language services

Journalists lament proposed closure of BBC foreign-language services
Updated 03 October 2022

Journalists lament proposed closure of BBC foreign-language services

Journalists lament proposed closure of BBC foreign-language services
  • BBC Arabic radio, others face ax as broadcaster moves to digital-first
  • 382 jobs also set to go in $31m cost-cutting exercise

DUBAI: The BBC’s announcement that it is set to end several of its foreign-language services, including BBC Arabic radio station, has been met with disappointment around the world.

Channel 4 News’ international editor Lindsey Hilsum said on Twitter that “people rely on these radio language services for fair and balanced news they can’t get elsewhere.”

This was especially critical in countries where governments restricted internet services, she added.

Yaser Atrash, a journalist at Syria TV, said on Twitter that “the memory of generations is extinguished.”

The reactions follow an announcement from the corporation last week that it is planning to close its BBC Arabic station after 84 years as part of a cost-cutting exercise and move to digital-first broadcasting that will also see the demise of several other foreign-language services.

A total of 382 workers at the BBC World Service are set to lose their jobs amid rising costs, a freeze in license fees and the move to digital platforms, the company said.

The corporation’s international services needed to make savings of £28.5 million ($31 million) as part of wider reductions of £500 million, it added.

Ali Al-Ahmed, a Saudi political affairs expert and founder and director of the Institute for Gulf Affairs, said on Twitter: “In May 2000 I visited #BBCArabicRadio for the 1st time & told its manager then Gamon McLellan to plan to shutter radio service & focus on TV.”

Liliane Landor, director of BBC World Service, said the cuts and closures would not mean a reduction in the quality of service.

“We will continue to bring the best journalism to audiences in English and more than 40 languages, as well as increasing the impact and influence of our journalism by making our stories go further,” she said.

The World Service currently operates in over 40 languages around the world and has a weekly audience of about 364 million people. But the corporation said audience habits were changing and more people were accessing news online.

The company said it was proposing to stop its radio services in Arabic, Persian, Kyrgyz, Uzbek, Hindi, Bengali, Chinese, Indonesian, Tamil and Urdu.

The language services it is proposing to move to digital-only are: Chinese, Gujarati, Igbo, Indonesian, Pidgin, Urdu and Yoruba.

Eleven language services — Azerbaijani, Brazil, Marathi, Mundo, Punjabi, Russian, Serbian, Sinhala, Thai, Turkish and Vietnamese — are already digital-only.


Russian TV protester listed as wanted fugitive

Russian TV protester listed as wanted fugitive
Updated 03 October 2022

Russian TV protester listed as wanted fugitive

Russian TV protester listed as wanted fugitive
  • Journalist Marina Ovsyannikova is accused of spreading fake news about Russia’s armed forces

LONDON: Russian TV journalist Marina Ovsyannikova, famous for staging an on-air protest against Russia’s war in Ukraine, has been put on Moscow’s wanted list after her ex-husband reported she had escaped from pre-trial house arrest.
Ovsyannikova, 44, was given two months’ house arrest in August, and faces up to 10 years in prison if found guilty of spreading fake news about Russia’s armed forces.
The case relates to a protest in July when she stood on a river embankment opposite the Kremlin and held up a poster calling President Vladimir Putin a murderer and his soldiers fascists.
The term of her house arrest was due to last until Oct. 9.
However, the state-run news outlet Russia Today reported on Saturday that she had fled along with her daughter, and that her whereabouts were unknown.
“Last night, my ex-wife left the place that the court assigned her for house arrest and, together with my 11-year-old daughter, fled in an unknown direction,” it quoted her ex-husband as saying.
On Monday, her name could be seen on the interior ministry’s online list of fugitives from justice, accompanied by a photo.
The circumstances of where she went or how she left are not clear.
Russia passed new laws against discrediting or distributing “deliberately false information” about the armed forces on March 4, eight days after invading Ukraine.
Ovsyannikova, who was born in Ukraine, came to international prominence in March by walking out in front of studio cameras during an evening news broadcast on the flagship Channel One with a placard that read “Stop the war” and “They’re lying to you.”
She has already been fined for two previous protests against the war.


Supreme Court to scrutinize US protections for social media

Supreme Court to scrutinize US protections for social media
Updated 03 October 2022

Supreme Court to scrutinize US protections for social media

Supreme Court to scrutinize US protections for social media
  • The hearing could challenge federal protections for Internet and social media companies freeing them of responsibility for content posted by users

WASHINGTON: The US Supreme Court on Monday agreed to hear a challenge to federal protections for Internet and social media companies freeing them of responsibility for content posted by users in a case involving an American student fatally shot in a 2015 rampage by Islamist militants in Paris.
The justices took up an appeal by the parents and other relatives of Nohemi Gonzalez, a 23-year-old woman from California who was studying in Paris, of a lower court’s ruling that cleared Google LLC-owned YouTube of wrongdoing in a lawsuit seeking monetary damages that the family brought under a US anti-terrorism law. Google and YouTube are part of Alphabet Inc. .
The Supreme Court also agreed to hear a separate appeal by Twitter Inc. of the lower court’s decision to revive a similar lawsuit against that company, though not on the basis of Section 230.
The lawsuit against Google accused it of materially supporting terrorism in violation of the Anti-Terrorism Act, a federal law that allows Americans to recover damages related to “an act of international terrorism.” The lawsuit alleged that YouTube, through computer algorithms, recommended videos by the Islamic State militant group, which claimed responsibility for the Paris attacks, to certain users.
The San Francisco-based 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals in 2021 dismissed the lawsuit in a ruling relying largely on another law, known as Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996.
Section 230, enacted before the rise of today’s major social media companies, protects “interactive computer services” by ensuring they cannot be treated as the “publisher or speaker” of any information provided by other users.
The lawsuit argued that such immunity should not apply when the company’s platform recommends certain content via algorithms that identify and display content most likely to interest users, based on how people use the service.
Section 230 has drawn criticism from across the political spectrum. Democrats have faulted it for giving social media companies a pass for spreading hate speech and misinformation. Republicans painted it as a tool for censorship of voices on the right, especially after Twitter and other platforms banned then-President Donald Trump from after a mob of his supporters attacked the US Capitol in a deadly riot on Jan. 6, 2021. Trump as president unsuccessfully sought its repeal.
Gonzalez was among 130 people killed in Paris during the 2015 attacks that included suicide bombings and mass shootings. She was at a bistro called La Belle Equipe when militants fired on the crowd of diners.
The plaintiffs said that YouTube’s algorithm helped Islamic State spread its militant message by recommending to users the group’s videos including those aimed at recruiting jihadist fighters, and that the company’s “assistance” was a cause of the 2015 attacks.
Gonzalez’s family appealed the 9th Circuit ruling to the Supreme Court, noting that while algorithms may suggest benign dance videos to some, “other recommendations suggest that users look at materials inciting dangerous, criminal or self-destructive behavior.”
The family added that removing Section 230 protections would prompt websites to stop recommending harmful materials, while saying that allowing the immunity “denies redress to victims who could have shown that those recommendations had caused their injuries, or the deaths of their loved ones.”
In the case against Twitter, American family members of Nawras Alassaf, a Jordanian citizen who died in a nightclub mass shooting in 2017 in Istanbul also claimed by Islamic State, accused that social media company of violating the anti-terrorism law by failing to police the platform for Islamic State accounts or posts.
The 9th Circuit in the same ruling reversed a federal judge’s decision to throw out the case against Twitter, but did not assess Twitter’s claim of immunity under Section 230.