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Departing US FCC Chairman Ajit Pai Warns of Espionage Threats to Telecoms From China

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By Reuters | Updated: 21 January 2021

Outgoing US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) chairman Ajit Pai said potential Chinese espionage and threats to US telecommunications networks and Internet freedom are the biggest national security issue that regulators will face in the next four years.

Ajit Pai told Reuters in an interview there is a “wide array” of activity from China that was of concern, including of surveillance, economic espionage and potential “injection of malware into networks here in the United States or around the world. There are a number of bad things that can happen when insecure equipment is used to handle sensitive information.”

Pai was named chairman in January 2017 by former President Donald Trump and stepped down on Wednesday. During his tenure, the FCC cracked down on Chinese network manufacturers like Huawei and ZTE.

Last month, the FCC began the process of revoking China Telecom’s authorisation to operate in the United States. China Telecom is the largest Chinese telecommunications company.

“The Chinese Communist Party has a very determined world view. They want to dominate this space and exert their will – even beyond their own borders,” Pai said Tuesday. “That is a serious threat not just to Internet freedom but to national security for us and for many of our allies.”

The Chinese foreign ministry said in December US claims about risks to national security were false.

The FCC first warned in April that it might terminate US operations of three state-controlled Chinese telecommunications companies including China Telecom.

In 2019, the FCC voted to deny state-owned China Mobile the right to provide US telecommunications services, citing risks the Chinese government could use the approval to conduct espionage.

Under Pai, the FCC formally designated China’s Huawei and ZTE as national security threats, barring US firms from tapping an $8.3 billion (roughly Rs. 60,550 crores) government fund to purchase equipment from the companies. Congress approved $1.9 billion (roughly Rs. 13,900 crores) in December to pay for replacement of Chinese-made equipment in US networks.

In April, the FCC approved Alphabet unit Google’s request to use part of an US-Asia undersea telecommunications cable, but not to Hong Kong, after US agencies raised national security concerns.

© Thomson Reuters 2021

Social Networking

Australia Plans to Force Parental Consent for Minors on Social Media

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By Reuters | Updated: 25 October 2021

Australia plans to make social media companies obtain parental consent for users under the age of 16 and threaten fines of up to AUD 10 million (roughly Rs. 55 crores) for Internet platforms which fail to comply, under draft legislation published on Monday.

Social media companies, which include anonymous forums like Reddit and smartphone dating apps like Bumble, would also be required to take all reasonable steps to determine users’ ages and prioritise children’s interests when collecting data, the Online Privacy Bill said.

The new proposed rules would put Australia among the most stringent countries in terms of age controls for social media, and build on efforts to rein in the power of Big Tech following mandatory licencing payments for media outlets and plans to toughen laws against online misinformation and defamation.

Facebook this month faced anger from US lawmakers after a former company employee and whistleblower handed thousands of documents to congressional investigators amid concerns the company harmed children’s mental health and has stoked societal divisions — a development cited by Australian lawmakers on Monday.

“We are ensuring (Australians’) data and privacy will be protected and handled with care,” said Attorney-General Michaelia Cash in a statement.

“Our draft legislations means that these companies will be punished heavily if they don’t meet that standard,” she added.

Assistant Minister for Mental Health and Suicide Prevention David Coleman said the “leak of Facebook’s own internal research demonstrates the impact social media platforms can have on body image and the mental health of young people”.

Facebook’s director of public policy in Australia and New Zealand, Mia Garlick, said in a statement that the company was reviewing the proposed law and understood “the importance of ensuring Australia’s privacy laws evolve at a comparable pace to the rate of innovation and new technology we’re experiencing today”.

Under the draft law, privacy watchdog the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner would receive full investigation and enforcement powers, with the ability to fine a corporation up to AUD 10 million (roughly Rs. 55 crores), 10 percent its annual turnover or three times the financial benefit of any breach.

© Thomson Reuters 2021

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Australia Plans to Force Parental Consent for Minors on Social Media

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By Reuters | Updated: 25 October 2021

Australia plans to make social media companies obtain parental consent for users under the age of 16 and threaten fines of up to AUD 10 million (roughly Rs. 55 crores) for Internet platforms which fail to comply, under draft legislation published on Monday.

Social media companies, which include anonymous forums like Reddit and smartphone dating apps like Bumble, would also be required to take all reasonable steps to determine users’ ages and prioritise children’s interests when collecting data, the Online Privacy Bill said.

The new proposed rules would put Australia among the most stringent countries in terms of age controls for social media, and build on efforts to rein in the power of Big Tech following mandatory licencing payments for media outlets and plans to toughen laws against online misinformation and defamation.

Facebook this month faced anger from US lawmakers after a former company employee and whistleblower handed thousands of documents to congressional investigators amid concerns the company harmed children’s mental health and has stoked societal divisions — a development cited by Australian lawmakers on Monday.

“We are ensuring (Australians’) data and privacy will be protected and handled with care,” said Attorney-General Michaelia Cash in a statement.

“Our draft legislations means that these companies will be punished heavily if they don’t meet that standard,” she added.

Assistant Minister for Mental Health and Suicide Prevention David Coleman said the “leak of Facebook’s own internal research demonstrates the impact social media platforms can have on body image and the mental health of young people”.

Facebook’s director of public policy in Australia and New Zealand, Mia Garlick, said in a statement that the company was reviewing the proposed law and understood “the importance of ensuring Australia’s privacy laws evolve at a comparable pace to the rate of innovation and new technology we’re experiencing today”.

Under the draft law, privacy watchdog the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner would receive full investigation and enforcement powers, with the ability to fine a corporation up to AUD 10 million (roughly Rs. 55 crores), 10 percent its annual turnover or three times the financial benefit of any breach.

© Thomson Reuters 2021

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Facebook Was Well Aware of Hate Speech in India, Failed to Contain on Platform: Reports

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By Agence France-Presse | Updated: 25 October 2021

Facebook was well aware that hate speech was spreading on its site in India which could exacerbate ethnic violence, and did not deploy resources to curb the phenomenon, US media reported, citing internal documents.

The so-called Facebook Papers, leaked by whistleblower Frances Haugen, have already revealed the impact of Facebook — as well as of WhatsApp and Instagram, both of which it owns — on the deep polarisation of politics in the United States and on the mental health of some teenagers.

But there have long been concerns over the social network’s impact in spreading hate speech fuelling violence in the developing world, such as the massacre targeting the Rohingya minority in Myanmar.

This weekend the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, and the Washington Post, among others, focused on Facebook’s presence in India, the biggest market for the US-based company and its messaging service WhatsApp in terms of users.

A report by the company’s own researchers from July 2020 showed that the share of inflammatory content skyrocketed starting in December 2019.

“Rumours and calls to violence spread particularly on Facebook’s WhatsApp messaging service in late February 2020,” when clashes between the Hindu majority and Muslim minority left dozens dead, the Wall Street Journal reported.

Facebook had also as early as February 2019 created a fictitious account, that of a 21-year-old woman in northern India, to better understand the user experience, the Washington Post reported, citing an internal memo.

The account followed posts, videos, and accounts recommended by Facebook, but a company researcher found it promoted a torrent of fake and inflammatory content.

“I’ve seen more images of dead people in the past three weeks than I’ve seen in my entire life,” media quoted the staffer as saying in a 46-page report among the documents released by Haugen.

“Soon, without any direction from the user, the Facebook account was flooded with pro-Modi propaganda and anti-Muslim hate speech,” the Washington Post reported. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a Hindu nationalist, was campaigning for re-election at the time.

The test also coincided with India launching an air strike on Pakistan over a militant suicide bombing in the disputed Kashmir region.

The unnamed researcher called that experience an “integrity nightmare.”

The content made jingoistic claims about India’s air strikes and included graphic pictures.

These included one image of a man holding a severed head and using language slamming Pakistanis and Muslims as “dogs” and “pigs,” reports said.

Bad actors, authoritarian regimes

“Facebook has meticulously studied its approach abroad — and was well aware that weaker moderation in non-English-speaking countries leaves the platform vulnerable to abuse by bad actors and authoritarian regimes,” the Post continued, citing the internal documents.

The documents showed that the vast majority of the company’s budget dedicated to the fight against misinformation is intended for the United States — even though users there represent less than 10 percent of Facebook’s users worldwide.

“We’ve invested significantly in technology to find hate speech in various languages, including Hindi and Bengali,” a Facebook spokesperson said in a statement.

“As a result, we’ve reduced the amount of hate speech that people see by half this year. Today, it’s down to 0.05 percent.” The figure is a percentage of content in all countries.

The company said it was “expanding” its operations into new languages. It has “hate speech classifiers” working in Hindi, Bengali, Tamil, and Urdu.

More than 40 civil rights groups warned last year that Facebook had failed to address dangerous content in India.

One Facebook India executive resigned in 2020 after being accused of refusing to apply hate speech policies to the Hindu nationalist ruling party and also sharing an anti-Muslim post.

“Hate speech against marginalised groups, including Muslims, is on the rise globally. So we are improving enforcement,” the spokesperson said.

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Google’s Massive Data Centres in US Spark Worry Over Scarce Western Water

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By Associated Press | Updated: 23 October 2021

Now a critical part of modern computing, data centres help people stream movies on Netflix, conduct transactions on PayPal, post updates on Facebook, store trillions of photos and more. But a single facility can also churn through millions of gallons of water per day to keep hot-running equipment cool.

Google wants to build at least two more data centres in The Dalles, worrying some residents who fear there eventually won’t be enough water for everyone — including for area farms and fruit orchards, which are by far the biggest users.

Across the United States, there has been some mild pushback as tech companies build and expand data centres — conflicts likely to grow as water becomes a more precious resource amid the threat of climate change and as the demand for cloud computing grows. Some tech giants have been using cutting-edge research and development to find less impactful cooling methods, but there are those who say the companies can still do more to be environmentally sustainable.

The concerns are understandable in The Dalles, the seat of Wasco County, which is suffering extreme and exceptional drought, according to the US Drought Monitor. The region last summer endured its hottest days on record, reaching 118 degrees Fahrenheit (48 Celsius) in The Dalles.

The Dalles is adjacent to the the mighty Columbia River, but the new data centres wouldn’t be able to use that water and instead would have to take water from rivers and groundwater that has gone through the city’s water treatment plant.

However, the snowpack in the nearby Cascade Range that feeds the aquifers varies wildly year-to-year and glaciers are melting. Most aquifers in north-central Oregon are declining, according to the US Geological Survey Groundwater Resources Program.

Adding to the unease: The 15,000 town residents don’t know how much water the proposed data centres will use, because Google calls it a trade secret. Even the town councillors, who are scheduled to vote on the proposal on November 8, had to wait until this week to find out.

Dave Anderson, public works director for The Dalles, said Google obtained the rights to 3.9 million gallons of water per day when it purchased land formerly home to an aluminium smelter. Google is requesting less water for the new data centres than that amount and would transfer those rights to the city, Anderson said.

“The city comes out ahead,” he said.

For its part, Google said it’s “committed to the long-term health of the county’s economy and natural resources.”

“We’re excited that we’re continuing conversations with local officials on an agreement that allows us to keep growing while also supporting the community,” Google said, adding that the expansion proposal includes a potential aquifer program to store water and increase supply during drier periods.

The US hosts 30 percent of the world’s data centres, more than any other country. Some data centres are trying to become more efficient in water consumption, for example by recycling the same water several times through a centre before discharging it. Google even uses treated sewage water, instead of using drinking water as many data centres do, to cool its facility in Douglas County, Georgia.

Facebook’s first data centre took advantage of the cold high-desert air in Prineville, Oregon, to chill its servers, and went a step further when it built a centre in Lulea, Sweden, near the Arctic Circle.

Microsoft even placed a small data centre, enclosed in what looks like a giant cigar, on the seafloor off Scotland. After retrieving the barnacle-encrusted container last year after two years, company employees saw improvement in overall reliability because the servers weren’t subjected to temperature fluctuations and corrosion from oxygen and humidity. Team leader Ben Cutler said the experiment shows data centres can be kept cool without tapping freshwater resources.

A study published in May by researchers at Virginia Tech and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory showed one-fifth of data centres rely on water from moderately to highly stressed watersheds.

Tech companies typically consider tax breaks and availability of cheap electricity and land when placing data centres, said study co-author Landon Marston, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at Virginia Tech.

They need to consider water impacts more seriously, and put the facilities in regions where they can be better sustained, both for the good of the environment and their own bottom line, Marston said.

“It’s also a risk and resilience issue that data centres and their operators need to face, because the drought that we’re seeing in the West is expected to get worse,” Marston said.

About an hour’s drive east of The Dalles, Amazon is giving back some of the water its massive data centres use. Amazon’s sprawling campuses, spread between Boardman and Umatilla, Oregon, butt up against farmland, a cheese factory and neighbourhoods. Like many data centres, they use water primarily in summer, with the servers being air-cooled the rest of the year.

About two-thirds of the water Amazon uses evaporates. The rest is treated and sent to irrigation canals that feed crops and pastures.

Umatilla City Manager Dave Stockdale appreciates that farms and ranches are getting that water, since the main issue the city had as Amazon’s facilities grew was that the city water treatment plant couldn’t have handled the data centres’ discharge.

John DeVoe, executive director of WaterWatch of Oregon, which seeks reform of water laws to protect and restore rivers, criticised it as a “corporate feel good tactic.”

“Does it actually mitigate for any harm of the server farm’s actual use of water on other interests who may also be using the same source water, like the environment, fish and wildlife?” DeVoe said.

Adam Selipsky, CEO of Amazon Web Services, insists that Amazon feels a sense of responsibility for its impacts.

“We have intentionally been very conscious about water usage in any of these projects,” he said, adding that the centres brought economic activity and jobs to the region.

Dawn Rasmussen, who lives on the outskirts of The Dalles, worries that her town is making a mistake in negotiating with Google, likening it to David versus Goliath.

She’s seen the level of her well-water drop year after year and worries sooner or later there won’t be enough for everyone.

“At the end of the day, if there’s not enough water, who’s going to win?” she asked.

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Jio Profit Increases 24 Percent as Reliance Recovers from Pandemic Slowdown

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By Reuters | Updated: 23 October 2021

India’s Reliance Industries posted a 43 percent surge in second-quarter profit that exceeded market expectations on Friday, as rising demand and higher average selling price for oil products boosted its mainstay oil-to-chemicals business. The Mumbai-based conglomerate’s pandemic-hit energy and retail businesses are seeing a massive rebound with travel back in full swing and shoppers returning to stores as vaccination picks up pace in India.

Revenue from the oil-to-chemicals unit, home to both its refining and petrochemicals operations, rose 58.1 percent, also benefiting from higher transportation fuel margin.

With the lifting of lockdowns, business at its retail division, which consists of more than 12,000 stores and supermarkets, returned to pre-pandemic levels with revenue of 399.26 billion rupees.

“All our businesses reflect growth over pre-COVID levels,” said Chairman and Asia’s richest man Mukesh Ambani in a statement.

Reliance, India’s most valuable company, has in recent years invaded the retail and telecom sectors to tap into India’s consumer boom as it looks to reduce its dependence on its mainstay energy arm.

Reliance’s telecom unit Jio reported a 24 percent rise in profit, with a net addition of 23.8 million subscribers from a year ago.

The company said it would “soon” launch the low-cost smartphone it was developing with Google, after a delay due to an industry-wide chip shortage.

The company said consolidated profit rose to 136.80 billion rupees in the quarter ended September 30, from 95.67 billion rupees a year earlier.

Analysts, on average, had expected a profit of 134.65 billion rupees, according to Refinitiv data.

Overall revenue from operations rose 50 percent to 1.74 trillion rupees from a year earlier.

© Thomson Reuters 2021

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Lyft Records Over 4,000 Sexual Assault Cases in Long-Overdue Safety Report

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By Reuters | Updated: 23 October 2021

Lyft received reports of more than 4,000 instances of sexual assault on its ride-hailing platform between 2017 and 2019, it said, detailing the data in a safety report it had promised to publish about two years ago.

The company report, issued late on Thursday, showed sexual assault reports on its platform had increased from around 1,100 in 2017 to some 1,800 in 2019. But it said bookings increased at a higher rate during that time, resulting in a 19 percent drop in the overall incident rate.

Lyft said more than 99 percent of its journeys had occurred without any safety incident.

“While safety incidents on our platform are incredibly rare, we realise that even one is too many. Behind every report is a real person and real experience, and our goal is to make each Lyft ride as safe as we possibly can,” Jennifer Brandenburger, head of policy development and research, said in a company blog post.

The company said it has invested in safety features, employed rigorous driver background checks and consulted sexual assault experts.

Lyft had committed to releasing its report at the end of 2019, when its larger rival Uber Technologies provided the ride-hailing industry’s first detailed safety report.

Uber at the time disclosed it had received some 6,000 reports of sexual assault related to 2.3 billion trips in the United States in 2017 and 2018.

Lyft, which services significantly fewer trips than Uber, did not disclose the total number of rides it completed in its Thursday safety report, but at 0.0002 percent the incident rate was the same as Uber’s.

Unlike Uber, Lyft did not disclose what share of incidents resulted in drivers being harmed. Uber’s report showed riders accounted for roughly half of the accused in sexual assault reports.

© Thomson Reuters 2021

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