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Apple Once Threatened Facebook, Instagram Ban Over Mideast Maid Abuse

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By Associated Press | Updated: 26 October 2021

Two years ago, Apple threatened to pull Facebook and Instagram from its app store over concerns about the platform being used as a tool to trade and sell maids in the Mideast.

After publicly promising to crack down, Facebook acknowledged in internal documents obtained by The Associated Press that it was “under-enforcing on confirmed abusive activity” that saw Filipina maids complaining on the social media site of being abused. Apple relented and Facebook and Instagram remained in the app store.

But Facebook’s crackdown seems to have had a limited effect. Even today, a quick search for “khadima,” or “maids” in Arabic, will bring up accounts featuring posed photographs of Africans and South Asians with ages and prices listed next to their images. That’s even as the Philippines government has a team of workers that do nothing but scour Facebook posts each day to try and protect desperate job seekers from criminal gangs and unscrupulous recruiters using the site.

While the Mideast remains a crucial source of work for women in Asia and Africa hoping to provide for their families back home, Facebook acknowledged some countries across the region have “especially egregious” human rights issues when it comes to labourers’ protection.

“In our investigation, domestic workers frequently complained to their recruitment agencies of being locked in their homes, starved, forced to extend their contracts indefinitely, unpaid, and repeatedly sold to other employers without their consent,” one Facebook document read. “In response, agencies commonly told them to be more agreeable.”

The report added: “We also found recruitment agencies dismissing more serious crimes, such as physical or sexual assault, rather than helping domestic workers.”

In a statement to the AP, Facebook said it took the problem seriously, despite the continued spread of ads exploiting foreign workers in the Mideast.

“We prohibit human exploitation in no uncertain terms,” Facebook said. “We’ve been combating human trafficking on our platform for many years and our goal remains to prevent anyone who seeks to exploit others from having a home on our platform.”

This story, along with others published Monday, is based on disclosures made to the Securities and Exchange Commission and provided to Congress in redacted form by former Facebook employee-turned-whistleblower Frances Haugen’s legal counsel. The redacted versions were obtained by a consortium of news organisations, including the AP. The Wall Street Journal previously wrote about Apple’s threat to remove Facebook and Instagram.

Taken as a whole, the trove of documents show that Facebook’s daunting size and user base around the world — a key factor in its rapid ascent and near trillion-dollar valuation — also proves to be its greatest weakness in trying to police illicit activity, such as the sale of drugs, and suspected human rights and labour abuses on its site.

Activists say Facebook, based in Menlo Park, California, has both an obligation and likely the means to fully crack down on the abuses their services facilitate as it earns tens of billions of dollars each year in revenue.

“While Facebook is a private company, when you have billions of users, you are effectively like a state and therefore you have social responsibilities de facto, whether you like it or not,” said Mustafa Qadri, the executive director of Equidem Research, which studies migrant labour.

“These workers are being recruited and going to places to work like the Gulf, the Middle East, where there is practically no proper regulation of how they’re recruited and how they’re treated when they end up in the places where they work. So when you put those two things together, really, it’s a recipe for disaster.”

Mary Ann Abunda, who works with a nongovernmental Filipino workers’ welfare group called Sandigan in Kuwait, similarly warned of the danger the site can pose.

“Facebook really has two faces,” Abunda said. “Yes, as it advertises, it’s connecting people, but it has also become a haven of sinister people and syndicates who wait for your weak moment to pounce on you.”

Facebook, like human rights activists and others worried about labour across the Mideast, pointed to the so-called “kafala” system prevalent across much of the region’s countries. Under this system, which allowed nations to import cheap foreign labour from Africa and South Asia as oil money swelled their economies beginning in the 1950s, workers find their residency bound directly to their employer, their sponsor or “kafeel.”

While workers can find employment in these arrangements that allow them to send money back home, unscrupulous sponsors can exploit their labourers who often have no other legal recourse. Stories of workers having their passports seized, working nonstop without breaks, and not being properly paid long have shadowed major construction projects, whether Dubai’s Expo 2020 or Qatar’s upcoming FIFA 2022 World Cup.

While Gulf Arab states like the UAE and Qatar insist they’ve improved working conditions, others like Saudi Arabia still require employers to approve their workers leaving the country. Meanwhile, maids and domestic workers can find themselves even more at risk by living alone with families in private homes.

In the documents seen by the AP, Facebook acknowledges being aware of both the exploitive conditions of foreign workers and the use of Instagram to buy and trade maids online even before a 2019 report by the BBC’s Arabic service on the practice in the Mideast. That BBC report sparked the threat by Cupertino, California-based Apple to remove the apps, citing examples of pictures of maids and their biographic details showing up online, according to the documents.

Facebook engineers found nearly three-fourths of all problematic posts, including showing maids in videos and screenshots of their conversations, occurred on Instagram. Links to maid-selling sites predominantly affected Facebook.

Over 60 percent of the material came from Saudi Arabia, with about a quarter coming from Egypt, according to the 2019 Facebook analysis.

In a statement to the AP, Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Human Resources and Social Development said the kingdom “stands firmly against all types of illegal practices in the labour market” and that all labour contracts must be approved by authorities. While keeping in contact with the Philippines and other nations on labour issues, the ministry said Facebook had never been in touch with it about the problem.

“Obviously illegal ads posted on social media platforms make it harder to track and investigate,” the ministry said.

Saudi Arabia plans “a major public awareness campaign” soon as well on illegal recruitment practices, the ministry added.

Egypt did not respond to requests for comment.

While Facebook disabled over 1,000 accounts on its websites, its analysis papers acknowledged that as early as 2018 the company knew it had a problem with what it referred to as “domestic servitude.” It defined the problem as a “form of trafficking of people for the purpose of working inside private homes through the use of force, fraud, coercion or deception.”

The issue appeared a wide-enough problem that Facebook even used an acronym to describe it — HEx, or “human exploitation.” Users at the time reported only 2 percent of problematic content, likely due to the desire to travel abroad for work. Facebook acknowledged it only scratched the surface of the problem and that “domestic servitude content remained on the platform.”

After a week, Facebook shared what it had done and Apple apparently dropped the threat. Apple did not respond to requests for comment, but Facebook acknowledged how seriously it took the threat at the time.

“Removing our applications from Apple platforms would have had potentially severe consequences to the business, including depriving millions of users of access,” the analysis said.

The problem, however, continues across both Facebook and Instagram. Facebook appears to acknowledge that in more recent documents seen by the AP. It described engineers accessing problematic messages in maid-recruiting agencies’ inboxes, including one in which a Filipina specifically is mentioned as being “sold” by her Kuwaiti employers.

“Sometimes my head and ears hurt from being hit,” another batch of messages from a Filipina in Kuwait read. “When I escape from here, how will I get my passport? And how can we get out of here? The door is always locked.”

Another Filipina housemaid in Kuwait, who described being “sold” to another family through an Instagram post in December 2012, told the AP that she knew of other cases of Filipinas being “traded online like merchandise.”

“I was like an animal that was being traded by one owner to another,” said the woman, who spoke from Kuwait on condition of anonymity out of fear of reprisals. “If Facebook and Instagram won’t take stronger steps against this anomaly, there will be more victims like me. I was lucky because I did not end up dead or a sexual slave.”

Authorities in Kuwait, where the Philippines temporarily banned domestic workers from going after an abused Filipina was found dead in a refrigerator in 2018 over a year after disappearing, did not respond to requests for comment.

In the Philippines, the billions of dollars annually sent home from overseas workers represent nearly 10 percent of the country’s gross domestic product. Those wanting to go abroad trust Facebook more than the private recruiting agencies monitored by the government in part over past scandals, said Bernard Olalia, who heads the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration, which has the team monitoring Facebook postings.

Job seekers mistakenly believe the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration endorses some of the Facebook and Instagram accounts, in part as they misused the office’s logos, he said.

With the coronavirus pandemic locking down the Philippines for months, those wanting to work abroad are even more desperate than before for any opportunity. Some see “application fees” stolen by criminal gangs, he said. Others have been trafficked or sexually exploited.

“Words are not enough to describe their predicament but the situation is devastating for them,” Olalia said. “They expected to recover again, they invested just to ensure they’ll have a destination only to end up as victims of illegal recruitment. That’s devastating on their part.”

Facebook suggested a pilot programme to begin in 2021 that targeted Filipinas with pop-up messages and banner advertisements warning them about the dangers working overseas can pose.

It remains unclear whether it ever began, though Facebook said in its statement to the AP that it delivers “targeted prevention and support ad campaigns in countries such as the Philippines where data suggests people may be at high risk of exploitation.” Facebook did not answer specific questions posed by the AP about its practices.

Olalia said his office for the last two years had a direct line to Facebook to be able to flag suspicious accounts. But even that isn’t enough as more and more pop up to replace them.

“It will affect their income so they don’t want to address this,” he said.

That leaves some of the most-desperate job seekers in the world vulnerable to promises and possible trafficking on Facebook.

“We’ve seen since the pandemic that these low-wage workers who literally raise our children, they build our buildings, they cook our food, they deliver our meals. They’re not just low-wage workers, they’re essential workers,” said Qadri, the migrant rights expert. “So we really have a duty to address these problems because our entire civilisation is dependent on these people.”

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Microsoft Office’s New UI Now Rolling Out for Everyone

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By ANI | Updated: 3 December 2021

American tech conglomerate Microsoft has started to roll out a new Office UI for its users this week. The visual update was originally announced earlier this year and went into testing over the summer.

Now it’s starting to roll out to all Office 365 and Office 2021 users, according to The Verge. This new Office UI is designed to match the visual changes in Windows 11, and it includes a more rounded look to the Office ribbon bar, with some subtle tweaks to the buttons throughout Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and Outlook.

It’s a relatively simple refresh, and Office will now match the dark or light theme that you set inside Windows. The new-look can be toggled on or off using the Coming Soon megaphone icon in the top right-hand corner of Word, Excel, PowerPoint, or OneNote.

It should be available for all Windows 11 users right now, and Microsoft says 50 percent of current channel subscribers will have the visual update enabled automatically.

Most of the design changes are subtle, but Microsoft has teased more dramatic changes to its Office UI, which included moving toward more of a command bar instead of the traditional ribbon interface.

As per The Verge, it’s still expected to see these changes appear in the Web and mobile versions of Office first, and Microsoft did say last year that its bigger Office UI changes could take a year or two to roll out.

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WhatsApp Said to Win Approval to Double Payments Offering to 40 Million Users in India

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By Reuters | Updated: 27 November 2021.

WhatsApp has won regulatory approval to double the number of users on its payments service in India to 40 million, a source with direct knowledge told Reuters on Friday. The company had requested that there should be no cap on users of its payment service in India.

Instead, the National Payments Corporation of India (NPCI) this week told the company it could double the user base to which it can offer its payment service – currently restricted to 20 million – the source said.

WhatsApp is owned by Facebook, which recently changed its name to Meta.

The source said the new cap would still hinder the company’s growth prospects given that WhatsApp’s messenger service has more than 500 million users in India, the company’s biggest market.

It was not clear when the new cap would come into effect.

WhatsApp did not immediately respond to a request for comment, while the NPCI declined to comment.

WhatsApp competes with Alphabet’s Google Pay, SoftBank- and Ant Group-backed Paytm, and Walmart’s PhonePe in India’s crowded digital market.

The NPCI gave WhatsApp approval to start its payments service last year after the company spent years trying to comply with Indian regulations, including data storage norms that require all payments-related data to be stored locally.

WhatsApp has almost reached its user base of 20 million for payment services, said the source, who declined to be identified as the details are private.

Online transactions, lending and e-wallet services have been growing rapidly in India, led by a government push to make the country’s cash-loving merchants and consumers adopt digital payments.

© Thomson Reuters 2021

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China Demands Tencent Submit New Apps, Updates to Inspection Before Being Uploaded: Report

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By Reuters | Updated: 25 November 2021

China has required Tencent Holdings submit any new apps or updates for inspections before they can be uploaded after a number of its apps were found to have committed violations, Chinese financial media outlet Yicai reported on Wednesday.

Yicai, citing unnamed sources, said the Chinese social media and gaming giant had been required to do so by China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) after some of its apps were found to have infringed users’ rights and interests.

It also said that MIIT had recently issued a notice to say that between November 24 to December 31, all mobile apps and their updates will need to undergo a roughly seven-day-long review before they can be uploaded to app stores.

Tencent said its apps remained functional and available for download in response to Yicai’s and other local media reports.

“We are continuously working to enhance user protection features within our apps, and also have regular cooperation with relevant government agencies to ensure regulatory compliance. Our apps remain functional and available for download,” the company said.

Chinese regulators have in over the past year mounted a wide-ranging crackdown on its tech giants, seeking to dismantle some of the industry’s long-held practices after accusing them of monopolistic behaviour and infringing user rights.

This has included a step up in checks on mobile apps by regulators. On November 3, MIIT ordered 38 apps from companies, including those of Tencent, to rectify the excessive collection of personal information.

© Thomson Reuters 2021

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Reddit to Shut Down TikTok-Like Dubsmash App, Integrate Video Tools With Platform

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By Reuters | Updated: 24 November 2021

Reddit is pulling the plug on its TikTok-like platform, Dubsmash, the social network said on Tuesday, just a year after buying it for an undisclosed sum to bolster its video creation tools.

The standalone Dubsmash app will not be available for download after February 22, Reddit said, as it rolled out new camera and editing features as part of its video tools.

TikTok’s massive success with short-form videos has driven other social networks to incorporate the format on their platforms, with Snap rolling out Spotlight; Facebook, now Meta Platforms, launching Instagram Reels; and Alphabet’s YouTube launching Shorts.

“The Dubsmash team has been accelerating Reddit’s video, so parts of Reddit will feel familiar to Dubsmashers,” the company said in a blog post.

Since Dubsmash’s acquisition, Reddit said it had seen 70 percent growth in overall hours watched, while the number of daily active video viewers rose by over a third.

Viewership for short videos, which the company defines as two seconds or less, has also risen by 50 percent quarter-over-quarter.

© Thomson Reuters 2021

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Spotify Launches ‘Netflix Hub’ on Its App to Lure Fans With Podcasts, Soundtracks From Popular Shows

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By Reuters | Updated: 24 November 2021

Music streaming platform Spotify Technology said on Tuesday it has introduced a new hub where fans can listen to all the official soundtracks, playlists and podcasts related to Netflix’s shows.

The Netflix Hub, as the companies are calling the new feature, will contain playlists from hit shows such as Money Heist and Bridgerton, as well as the official soundtrack from shows such as Squid Game. It can be accessed by both free and premium listeners.

The hub would also contain Netflix-tied podcasts including Okay, Netflix Is A Daily Joke, and The Crown: The Official Podcast, the Swedish company said in a blog post.

Spotify, which saw a rise in premium subscribers in the third quarter, has benefited from the pandemic as people turned to its music platform to stay entertained. But with growing competition from Apple Music and Amazon Music, Spotify is looking at introducing new features to attract more subscribers.

Earlier in 2019, it had also collaborated with Disney to create the Disney Hub.

Spotify said subscribers across the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, Ireland, and India will have access to the hub.

© Thomson Reuters 2021

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DuckDuckGo Introduces App Tracking Protection to Stop Apps From Tracking Android Users

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By ANI | Updated: 22 November 2021

Privacy-focused browser maker DuckDuckGo’s new tool aims to prevent apps from tracking Android users.

According to The Verge, DuckDuckGo’s tool hasn’t been rolled out as part of an update to all Android phones, nor is it available as a separate download.

It’s built into DuckDuckGo”s privacy-focused browser app, but works across your device. In a post on its blog, the company said that the tool will block “trackers it identifies in other apps from third-party companies.”

Once App Tracking Protection is enabled, it will run in the background as you use your phone. The tool recognises when an app is about to send data to a third-party tracker, and will then prevent the app from taking your information.

DuckDuckGo said that it’s “continually working to identify and protect against new trackers,” which means that your data should be kept away from any new trackers that crop up.

From the DuckDuckGo app, you should also be able to see a real-time view of trackers that the tool has blocked, along with where your data would’ve been going.

The company says that although its App Tracking Protection tool isn’t a virtual private network (VPN), your device will behave as if it is one.

“This is because App Tracking Protection uses a local ”VPN connection” which means that it works its magic right on your smartphone. However, App Tracking Protection is different from VPNs because it never routes app data through an external server,” DuckDuckGo explained in its post.

While conducting its own test, DuckDuckGo found that more than 96 percent of some of the most popular free Android apps have third-party trackers that most users are unaware of.

As per The Verge, the company also discovered that 87 percent of these apps send user data to Google, while 68 per cent send data to Facebook.

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