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Amazon Web Services Said to Proactively Remove More Content That Violates Rules

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By Reuters | Updated: 3 September 2021

Amazon plans to take a more proactive approach to determine what types of content violate its cloud service policies, such as rules against promoting violence, and enforce its removal, according to two sources, a move likely to renew debate about how much power tech companies should have to restrict free speech.

Over the coming months, Amazon will hire a small group of people in its Amazon Web Services (AWS) division to develop expertise and work with outside researchers to monitor for future threats, one of the sources familiar with the matter said.

It could turn Amazon, the leading cloud service provider worldwide with 40 percent market share according to research firm Gartner, into one of the world’s most powerful arbiters of content allowed on the internet, experts say.

Amazon made headlines in the Washington Post last week for shutting down a website hosted on AWS that featured propaganda from Islamic State that celebrated the suicide bombing that killed an estimated 170 Afghans and 13 US troops in Kabul last Thursday. They did so after the news organization contacted Amazon, according to the Post.

The proactive approach to content comes after Amazon kicked social media app Parler off its cloud service shortly after the January 6 Capitol riot for permitting content promoting violence.

“AWS Trust & Safety works to protect AWS customers, partners, and Internet users from bad actors attempting to use our services for abusive or illegal purposes. When AWS Trust & Safety is made aware of abusive or illegal behavior on AWS services, they act quickly to investigate and engage with customers to take appropriate actions,” AWS said in a statement.

“AWS Trust & Safety does not pre-review content hosted by our customers. As AWS continues to expand, we expect this team to continue to grow,” it added.

Activists and human rights groups are increasingly holding not just websites and apps accountable for harmful content, but also the underlying tech infrastructure that enables those sites to operate, while political conservatives decry the curtailing of free speech.

AWS already prohibits its services from being used in a variety of ways, such as illegal or fraudulent activity, to incite or threaten violence or promote child sexual exploitation and abuse, according to its acceptable use policy.

Amazon first requests customers remove content violating its policies or have a system to moderate content. If Amazon cannot reach an acceptable agreement with the customer, it may take down the website.

Amazon aims to develop an approach toward content issues that it and other cloud providers are more frequently confronting, such as determining when misinformation on a company’s website reaches a scale that requires AWS action, the source said.

The new team within AWS does not plan to sift through the vast amounts of content that companies host on the cloud, but will aim to get ahead of future threats, such as emerging extremist groups whose content could make it onto the AWS cloud, the source added.

Amazon is currently hiring for a global head of policy on the AWS trust and safety team, which is responsible for “protecting AWS against a wide variety of abuse,” according to a job posting on its website.

AWS’s offerings include cloud storage and virtual servers and counts major companies like Netflix, Coca-Cola and Capital One as clients, according to its website.

Proactive moves

Better preparation against certain types of content could help Amazon avoid legal and public relations risk.

“If (Amazon) can get some of this stuff off proactively before it’s discovered and becomes a big news story, there’s value in avoiding that reputational damage,” said Melissa Ryan, founder of CARD Strategies, a consulting firm that helps organizations understand extremism and online toxicity threats.

Cloud services such as AWS and other entities like domain registrars are considered the “backbone of the internet,” but have traditionally been politically neutral services, according to a 2019 report from Joan Donovan, a Harvard researcher who studies online extremism and disinformation campaigns.

But cloud services providers have removed content before, such as in the aftermath of the 2017 alt-right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, helping to slow the organising ability of alt-right groups, Donovan wrote.

“Most of these companies have understandably not wanted to get into content and not wanting to be the arbiter of thought,” Ryan said. “But when you’re talking about hate and extremism, you have to take a stance.”

© Thomson Reuters 2021

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Google May Face Fine of Up to 20 Percent of Annual Turnover in Russia Over Failing to Delete Illegal Content

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By Reuters | Updated: 19 October 2021

Russia said on Tuesday it would this month seek to fine US tech giant Google a percentage of its annual Russian turnover for repeatedly failing to delete content deemed illegal, Moscow’s strongest effort yet to rein in foreign tech firms. Communications regulator Roskomnadzor said Google had failed to pay RUB 32.5 million (roughly Rs. 3.4 crores) in penalties levied so far this year and that it would now seek a fine of 5-20 percent of Google’s Russian turnover, which could reach as much as $240 million (roughly Rs. 1,800 crores), a significant increase.

Google did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Russia has ramped up pressure on foreign tech companies as it seeks to assert greater control over the Internet in the country, slowing down the speed of Twitter since March and routinely fining others for content violations.

Opposition activists have accused Alphabet’s Google and Apple of caving to Kremlin pressure after they removed an anti-government tactical voting app from their stores.

Roskomnadzor earlier in October said it would ask a court to impose a turnover fine on social media firm Facebook, citing legislation signed by President Vladimir Putin in December 2020.

“A similar case will be put together in October against Google,” Roskomnadzor said in emailed comments to Reuters on Tuesday, noting that the company also owned video-hosting site YouTube.

The SPARK business database showed that Google’s turnover in Russia in 2020 was RUB 85.5 billion (roughly Rs. 9,050 crores). A 5-20 percentfine would amount to between RUB 4.3 billion (roughly Rs. 455 crores) and RUB 17.1 billion (roughly Rs. 1,810 crores).

Google is currently fighting a court ruling demanding it unblock the YouTube account of a sanctioned Russian businessman or face a compounding fine on its overall turnover that would double every week and force Google out of business within months if paid.

© Thomson Reuters 2021

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SolarWinds Hackers Said to Have Stolen Sensitive US Data on Russia Sanctions, Intelligence Probes

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By Reuters | Updated: 8 October 2021

The suspected Russian hackers who used SolarWinds and Microsoft software to burrow into US federal agencies emerged with information about counter-intelligence investigations, policy on sanctioning Russian individuals and the country’s response to COVID-19, people involved in the investigation told Reuters.

The hacks were widely publicised after their discovery late last year, and American officials have blamed Russia’s SVR foreign intelligence service, which denies the activity. But little has been disclosed about the spies’ aims and successes.

The reluctance of some publicly traded companies to explain their exposure has prompted a broad Securities and Exchange Commission inquiry.

The campaign alarmed officials with its stealth and careful staging. The hackers burrowed into the code production process at SolarWinds, which makes widely used software for managing networks.

The group also took advantage of weaknesses in Microsoft’s methods for identifying users in Office 365, breaching some targets that used Microsoft software but not SolarWinds.

It has been previously reported that the hackers breached unclassified Justice Department networks and read emails at the departments of treasury, commerce and homeland security. Nine federal agencies were breached. The hackers also stole digital certificates used to convince computers that software is authorised to run on them and source code from Microsoft and other tech companies.

One of the people involved said that the exposure of counter-intelligence matters being pursued against Russia was the worst of the losses.

A spokesperson for the Justice Department did not respond to a request for comment.

A White House official said that President Joe Biden has issued orders improving federal agency security, among other things requiring more multifactor-authentication and more monitoring of workplace devices.

In an annual threat-review paper released on Thursday, Microsoft said the Russian spies were ultimately looking for government material on sanctions and other Russia-related policies, along with US methods for catching Russian hackers.

Cristin Goodwin, general manager of Microsoft’s Digital Security Unit, said the company drew its conclusions from the types of customers and accounts it saw being targeted. In such cases, she told Reuters, “You can infer the operational aims from that.”

Others who worked on the government’s investigation went further, saying they could see the terms that the Russians used in their searches of US digital files, including “sanctions.”

Chris Krebs, the former head of US cyber-defense agency CISA and now an adviser to SolarWinds and other companies, said the combined descriptions of the attackers’ goals were logical.

“If I’m a threat actor in an environment, I’ve got a clear set of objectives. First, I want to get valuable intelligence on government decision-making. Sanctions policy makes a ton of sense,” Krebs said.

The second thing is to learn how the target responds to attacks, or “counter-incident response,” he said: “I want to know what they know about me so I can improve my tradecraft and avoid detection.”

© Thomson Reuters 2021

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Google, YouTube to Stop Serving Advertisements Next to Climate Change Misinformation

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By Agence France-Presse | Updated: 8 October 2021

Google on Thursday said it will no longer post advertisements next to misinformation about climate change on its search engine or on global video-sharing platform YouTube. The new policy for Google advertisers, publishers, and YouTube creators will prohibit the platforms from helping people make money from content that “contradicts well-established scientific consensus around the existence and causes of climate change.”

That includes online content referring to climate change as a hoax or a scam, or denying the world’s temperature is rising and that human activity is contributing to the problem, Google said in a post.

“Advertisers simply don’t want their advertisements to appear next to this content,” Google said.

“And publishers and creators don’t want advertisements promoting these claims to appear on their pages or videos.”

The Internet giant added that the policy change aligns with efforts by the company to promote sustainable practices and confront climate change.

“Google’s important decision to demonetise climate misinformation could turn the tide on the climate denial economy,” said NGO Avaaz campaign director Fadi Quran.

“For years, climate misinformers have confused public opinion and obstructed urgent political action on climate change, and YouTube has been one of their weapons of choice.”

Quran urged other online platforms to follow Google’s lead and stop funneling money to those peddling debunked denials of climate change.

Social networking colossus Facebook, which is Google’s biggest competitor in the digital advertising market, touts efforts to curb climate misinformation at its platform but has no such advertisement ban in place.

Social media platforms are regularly accused of promoting content that provokes strong emotional responses in order to keep users engaged so the platforms can make more money made from advertisements, even if the content can cause harm.

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Google Says It Used AI to Reduce Traffic Delays, Fuel Use in Israel; Plans to Test in Rio De Janeiro

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By Reuters | Updated: 6 October 2021

Alphabet’s Google cut fuel use and traffic delays by 10 percent to 20 percent at four locations in Israel by using artificial intelligence to optimize signal lights and it next plans to test the software in Rio de Janeiro, the company said on Wednesday.

The early-phase research project is among new software initiatives inside [Google] to combat climate change. Some employees as well as advocacy groups have called on the company, the world’s third-most valuable, to more urgently use its influence to combat the crisis.

While Google has not addressed critics’ calls to stop selling technology to oil companies or funding lawmakers who deny global warming, it has prioritized sustainability features.

Google plans in the coming weeks to allow its Nest thermostat users to buy renewable energy credits for $10 (roughly Rs. 750) a month to offset emissions from heating and cooling. Credits will come from projects in Texas including Bethel Wind Farm and Roseland Solar. A majority of the funds will go toward credit purchases and utility-bill payment costs, Google said, without elaborating on the remainder.

For no charge across the United States, Nest users soon can automatically shift heating and cooling to times when energy is cleaner.

New informational panels alongside search results show emissions or other environmental ratings of flights globally and cars and home appliances in the United States. To stem misinformation, English, Spanish and French queries mentioning “climate change” starting this month will feature explanations from the United Nations.

Based on early results in Israel’s Haifa and Beer-Sheva, Rio de Janeiro’s municipal traffic authority expressed high hopes for the AI to better time traffic signal changes. It told Reuters the system should be introduced within months with locations announced soon.

Aleksandar Stevanovic, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at University of Pittsburgh, said simulations show AI could smooth traffic flow. But he questioned whether a tech company without traffic engineering expertise ultimately could bring such software to reality.

“Every year there is someone new claiming we can do wonders,” he said.

© Thomson Reuters 2021

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Apple, Amazon, Facebook, Google, More US Tech Giants Should Be Regulated Where They’re Based: EU Lawmaker

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By Reuters | Updated: 6 October 2021

US tech giants such as Apple, Google, Facebook and Amazon should be regulated by the EU country where they are based under proposed EU rules, a top lawmaker said on Tuesday, knocking back efforts by some countries to broaden the planned act’s scope.

The country of origin principle is set out in EU antitrust chief Margrethe Vestager’s draft rules known as the Digital Services Act which requires US tech giants to do more to police the internet for illegal and harmful content.

The principle means Ireland is responsible for regulating Apple, Alphabet unit Google and Facebook because they have their European headquarters there while Amazon is subject to Luxembourg’s supervision.

France and a few other countries are seeking to broaden the scope, worried that enforcement concentrated in just two countries may weaken the rules and also slow down decision-making.

Lawmaker Christel Schaldemose, who is steering the DSA through the European Parliament and has power to amend or add other provisions to it, supports the act’s core proposal.

“It makes sense to keep the country of origin principle,” she told Reuters in an interview.

Schaldemose however wants to go one step further than Vestager by including a ban on some targeted advertising in the DSA.

“Targeted advertisements that are based on your behaviour on Facebook, for instance, that should not be allowed. Advertisements based on the fact that you have visited websites for buying shoes and things like that, classic commercial advertisements should probably be allowed,” she said.

Schaldemoe said she hopes to finalise her draft with other lawmakers in the next two months so she can thrash out a deal with EU countries next year before the proposed rules can be implemented.

© Thomson Reuters 2021

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WhatsApp, Facebook, Instagram Outage: Mark Zuckerberg Loses $6 Billion in Hours as Services Plunge

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By Reuters | Updated: 5 October 2021

Mark Zuckerberg’s personal wealth has fallen by more than $6 billion (roughly Rs. 44,790 cores) in a few hours, knocking him down a notch on the list of the world’s richest people, after a whistleblower came forward and outages took Facebook’s flagship products offline.

A selloff sent the social-media giant’s stock plummeting 4.9 percent on Monday, adding to a drop of about 15 percent since mid-September.

The stock slide on Monday sent Zuckerberg’s worth down to $121.6 billion (roughly Rs. 9,06,050 crores), dropping him below Bill Gates to No. 5 on the Bloomberg Billionaires Index. He’s down from almost $140 billion (roughly Rs.10,43,150 crores) in a matter of weeks, according to the index.

Topping the charts
On September 13, the Wall Street Journal began publishing a series of stories based on a cache of internal documents, revealing that Facebook knew about a wide range of problems with its products — such as Instagram’s harm to teenage girls’ mental health and misinformation about the January 6 Capitol riots — while downplaying the issues in public. The reports have drawn the attention of government officials, and on Monday, the whistleblower revealed herself.

In response, Facebook has emphasised that the issues facing its products, including political polarisation, are complex and not caused by technology alone.

“I think it gives people comfort to assume that there must be a technological or a technical explanation for the issues of political polarisation in the United States,” Nick Clegg, Facebook’s vice president of global affairs, told CNN.

© Thomson Reuters 2021

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