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Facebook ‘Operating in the Shadows,’ Says Whistleblower as US Lawmakers Demand Probes

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By Reuters | Updated: 6 October 2021

US lawmakers pounded Facebook on Tuesday, accusing CEO Mark Zuckerberg of pushing for higher profits while being cavalier about user safety, and they demanded regulators investigate whistleblower accusations that the social media company harms children’s mental health and stokes divisions.

Zuckerberg, hours later in a public Facebook post, defended the company, saying the accusations were at odds with Facebook’s goals.

“The argument that we deliberately push content that makes people angry for profit is deeply illogical,” he wrote. “We make money from ads, and advertisers consistently tell us they don’t want their ads next to harmful or angry content. And I don’t know any tech company that sets out to build products that make people angry or depressed.”

During a Senate Commerce subcommittee hearing, whistleblower Frances Haugen called for transparency about how Facebook entices users to keep scrolling, creating ample opportunity for advertisers to reach them.

“As long as Facebook is operating in the shadows, hiding its research from public scrutiny, it is unaccountable,” said Haugen, a former product manager on Facebook’s civic misinformation team. She left the nearly $1 trillion (roughly Rs. 74,57,360 crores) company with tens of thousands of confidential documents.

“The company’s leadership knows how to make Facebook and Instagram safer, but won’t make the necessary changes because they have put their astronomical profits before people. Congressional action is needed,” Haugen said.

In an era when bipartisanship is rare in Washington, lawmakers from both parties excoriated the company, illustrating the rising anger in Congress with Facebook, which also owns Instagram and WhatsApp.

Senator Dan Sullivan, a Republican, said he was concerned how Facebook and subsidiaries like Instagram affected the mental health of children. “We’re going to look back 20 years from now and all of us are going to be like, ‘What the hell were we thinking?'”

Haugen revealed she was the person who provided documents used in a Wall Street Journal investigation and a Senate hearing on Instagram’s harm to teenage girls. She compared the social media services to addictive substances like tobacco and opioids.

Panel chair Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat, said Facebook knew that its products were addictive. “Tech now faces that big tobacco jaw-dropping moment of truth,” he said.

He called for Zuckerberg to testify before the committee, and for the Securities and Exchange Commission and Federal Trade Commission to investigate Facebook.

“Our children are the ones who are victims. Teens today looking in the mirror feel doubt and insecurity. Mark Zuckerberg ought to be looking at himself in the mirror,” Blumenthal said.

Blumenthal said after the hearing that he would want to ask Zuckerberg why he rejected recommendations to make products safer for users.

Zuckerberg, in his post, said Facebook would not stop researching its societal impact. But he wrote that Congress needed to update rules to make clear the legal age for teens to use internet services, how to verify their ages and where to “balance teens’ privacy while giving parents visibility into their activity.”

Shares up

Facebook’s shares rose 2 percent on Tuesday to close at $332.96 (roughly Rs. 24,840), roughly 13 percent below the record closing high on September 7.

Coming a day after Facebook suffered an hours-long outage, Haugen pointed to the outage in her testimony: “For more than five hours Facebook wasn’t used to deepen divides, destabilize democracies and make young girls and women feel bad about their bodies.”

As lawmakers criticized Facebook, the company’s spokespeople fired back on Twitter and in statements, arguing that Haugen did not work directly on some of the topics being raised.

“We don’t agree with her characterization of the many issues she testified about,” Facebook spokeswoman Lena Pietsch said.

Senator Marsha Blackburn, a Republican, accused Facebook of turning a blind eye to children below age 13 on its services. “It is clear that Facebook prioritizes profit over the well-being of children and all users,” she said.

Last week, Antigone Davis, Facebook’s global head of safety, defended the company in front of Congress and said that it was seeking to release additional internal studies in an effort to be more transparent about its findings.

Senator Maria Cantwell, chair of the Commerce Committee, said she would write Facebook to insist that it not delete documents related to Myanmar’s persecuted Muslim minority Rohingya. An aide said she would ask for broader retention of documents.

A US federal judge last month had ordered Facebook to release records of accounts connected to anti-Rohingya violence in Myanmar that the social media company had shut down.

Haugen said she would encourage “oversight and public scrutiny” into Facebook’s content recommendation algorithms and their consequences. She suggested creating a dedicated body within the federal government to oversee social media companies.

Blumenthal said he might want to hold an additional hearing to discuss national security issues related to Facebook.

Haugen said Facebook had also done too little to prevent violence.

Facebook was used by people planning mass killings in Myanmar and the Jan. 6 assault on the US Capitol by supporters of then-President Donald Trump who were determined to toss out the 2020 election results.

Senator Edward Markey, speaking to the absent Zuckerberg, said during the hearing: “Your time of invading our privacy and preying on children is over. Congress will be taking action.”

Throughout the hearing lawmakers referred to Zuckerberg as going sailing instead of facing his responsibilities. The CEO this weekend posted a video taken with the company’s new smart glasses of his wife in a boat.

© Thomson Reuters 2021

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Twitter Must Reveal Measures on Online Hate, French Court Rules

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By Agence France-Presse | Updated: 20 January 2022

A Paris court on Thursday ruled that Twitter must reveal its measures for fighting hate speech, in one of several cases thrashing out whether the French justice system has jurisdiction over the US social media giant.

Ireland-based Twitter International had appealed a July decision ordering it to share documents and details about its French moderation team and data on their activities against hate speech.

That case had been brought by several anti-discrimination groups over what they said was the company’s longstanding failure to properly moderate posts.

The appeals court on Thursday confirmed the first judgement and further ordered Twitter to pay EUR 1,500 (roughly Rs. 1.2 lakh) to the groups, including SOS Racisme, SOS Homophobie and the International League against racism and anti-Semitism (Licra).

In another Paris case, three victims of terrorist attacks who have suffered online harassment are suing Twitter France.

They argue it was the company’s fault that their cases against their harassers failed, as it did not provide identifying information that investigators had asked for.

In that case, Twitter France chief Damien Viel told a court last week that “I’m in charge of Twitter’s business development and nothing more”.

Providing data to the authorities was “up to the good will of Twitter International, which is outside French jurisdiction and can decide whether to cooperate or not,” his lawyer Karim Beylouni added.

In still another case in Versailles, just outside Paris, Twitter France has said it is unable to comply with a police request for information on people who sent insults and threats to a public official.

The local office says it does not store any information, with all data handled by the group’s European mothership based in Ireland.

But prosecutors have asked for fines as high as EUR 75,000 (roughly Rs. 63 lakh) against both Twitter France and manager Viel personally.

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Facebook-Parent Meta’s VR Oculus Business Said to Be Probed by US States Over Potential Violations

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By Reuters | Updated: 15 January 2022

Multiple states have begun investigating potential violations in how Facebook, now known as Meta Platforms, runs its virtual-reality Oculus business, according to three sources familiar with the matter.

Two of the sources said the US Federal Trade Commission was also involved in the antitrust investigation. Meta did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

New York, North Carolina and Tennessee were among the states involved in the inquiry, one source said. A group of almost 50 states also asked an appeals court on Friday to reinstate their antitrust lawsuit, filed in December 2020, against Facebook.

The inquiries into Facebook’s Oculus business are part of the larger probe, one of the sources said.

The offices of the New York, North Carolina and Tennessee attorneys general did not immediately respond to requests for comments.

The inquiry was first reported by Bloomberg News.

© Thomson Reuters 2022

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Facebook Faces GBP 2.3-Billion UK Class Action Over Market Dominance

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By Reuters | Updated: 14 January 2022

Facebook, now known as Meta Platforms, faces a GBP 2.3 billion (roughly Rs. 23,420 crore)-plus class action in Britain over allegations it abused its market dominance by exploiting the personal data of 44 million users.

Liza Lovdahl Gormsen, a senior adviser to Britain’s Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) watchdog and a competition law academic, said she was bringing the case on behalf of people in Britain who had used Facebook between 2015 and 2019.

The lawsuit, which will be heard by London’s Competition Appeal Tribubal, alleges Facebook made billions of pounds by imposing unfair terms and conditions that demanded consumers surrender valuable personal data to access the network.

Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan, the law firm representing Lovdahl Gormsen, has notified Facebook of the claim.

Facebook said people used its services because it delivered value for them and “they have meaningful control of what information they share on Meta’s platforms and who with.”

The case comes days after Facebook lost an attempt to strike out an antitrust lawsuit by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), one of the biggest challenges by the US government against a tech company in decades as Washington attempts to tackle Big Tech’s extensive market power.

“In the 17 years since it was created, Facebook became the sole social network in the UK where you could be sure to connect with friends and family in one place,” Lovdahl Gornsen said.

“Yet, there was a dark side to Facebook; it abused its market dominance to impose unfair terms and conditions on ordinary Britons, giving it the power to exploit their personal data.”

Lovdahl Gormsen alleges Facebook collected data within its platform and through mechanisms like the Facebook Pixel, allowing it to build an “all-seeing picture” of Internet usage and generate valuable, deep data profiles of users.

Opt-out class actions, like Lovdahl Gormsen’s, bind a defined group automatically into a lawsuit unless individuals opt out.

© Thomson Reuters 2022

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Twitter, Meta, YouTube Among Tech Giants Subpoenaed by January 6 US Capitol Riot Panel

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By Associated Press | Updated: 14 January 2022

Months after requesting documents from more than a dozen social platforms, the House committee investigating the US Capitol insurrection has issued subpoenas targeting Twitter, Meta, Reddit and YouTube after lawmakers said the companies’ initial responses were inadequate.

The committee chairman, Rep. Bennie Thompson, demanded records Thursday from the companies relating to their role in allegedly spreading misinformation about the 2020 election and promoting domestic violent extremism on their platforms in the lead-up to the insurrection on January 6, 2021.

“Two key questions for the Select Committee are how the spread of misinformation and violent extremism contributed to the violent attack on our democracy, and what steps — if any — social media companies took to prevent their platforms from being breeding grounds for radicalisng people to violence,” Thompson, D-Miss., said in the letter.

Thompson added that it’s “disappointing that after months of engagement,” the four companies have not voluntarily turned over the necessary information and documents that would help lawmakers answer the questions at the heart of their investigation.

In his letter, Thompson outlined the way the companies were complicit in the deadly insurrection perpetrated by supporters of Donald Trump and far-right groups.

YouTube, owned by Alphabet, was the platform where a significant amount of communication took place “relevant to the planning and execution” of the siege against the Capitol, “including livestreams of the attack as it was taking place,” the letter stated.

In a statement to the Associated Press, a YouTube spokesperson said it is “actively cooperating” with the committee and is committed to stopping content that incites violence or undermines faith in elections.

”We enforced these policies in the run-up to January 6 and continue to do so today,” the spokesperson wrote.

The committee also outlined how how Meta, formerly known as Facebook, was reportedly used to exchange hateful, violent and inciting messages between users as well as spread misinformation that the 2020 presidential election was fraudulent in an attempt to coordinate the “Stop the Steal” movement.

In response, Meta said it too was working with the committee to get lawmakers the information they requested.

On Reddit, the r/The_Donald “subreddit” community grew significantly, the letter said, before members migrated to an official website where investigators believe discussions around the planning of the attack were hosted. A spokesperson for Reddit said Thursday that the company had received the subpoena and “will continue to work with the committee on their requests.”

The letter further detailed how Twitter was warned about the potential violence that was being planned on its platform in advance of the attack and how its users engaged in “communications amplifying allegations of election fraud, including by the former President himself.”

One specific tweet from Trump on December 19, 2020 was highlighted: “Statistically impossible to have lost the 2020 Election” as he urged followers to come to Washington to engage in a “wild” protest on January 6, 2021.

A spokesperson for Twitter declined to comment on the subpoenas.

The committee made its initial request for the documents from 15 social media companies in August, which also included TikTok, Parler, Telegram, 4chan, and 8kun.

The subpoenas come as the nine-member committee continues its wide-reaching investigation into how a mob was able to infiltrate the Capitol and disrupt the certification of Democrat Joe Biden’s presidential victory, in what was the most serious assault on Congress in two centuries.

The committee of seven Democrats and two Republicans has interviewed more than 340 people and issued dozens of subpoenas to those in Trump’s inner circle, including his former chief of staff, as well as requests to their own colleagues in the House.

On Wednesday, the committee requested an interview with House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif.

McCarthy as well as GOP Reps. Jim Jordan of Ohio and Scott Perry of Pennsylvania have denied the committee’s request to sit down for interviews or turn over documents related to their conversations on January 6, 2021, with Trump or those close to him as hundreds of his supporters beat police, stormed the building and interrupted the certification of the 2020 election.

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Twitter Ban Lifted in Nigeria After Seven Months, Company to Open Office in the Country

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By Associated Press | Updated: 13 January 2022

The Nigerian government has lifted its ban on Twitter in the West African country, seven months after the country’s more than 200 million people were shut out of the social media network.

Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari directed that Twitter’s operations will resume in the country on Thursday, according to the director-general of the country’s National Information Technology Development Agency. Kashifu Inuwa Abdullahi said that was only after Twitter agreed to meet some conditions, including opening an office in Nigeria.

Nigeria suspended Twitter’s operation on June 4, citing “the persistent use of the platform for activities that are capable of undermining Nigeria’s corporate existence.” The action triggered criticisms as it came shortly after the social media network deleted a post by Buhari in which he threatened to treat separatists “in the language they will understand.”

“Our action is a deliberate attempt to recalibrate our relationship with Twitter to achieve the maximum mutual benefits for our nation without jeopardising the justified interests of the company. Our engagement has been very respectful, cordial, and successful,” Abdullahi said in a statement.

A spokesperson for Twitter did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

In addition to registering in Nigeria during the first quarter of 2022, Abdullahi said Twitter has also agreed to other conditions including appointing a designated country representative, complying with tax obligations, and acting “with a respectful acknowledgement of Nigerian laws and the national culture and history on which such legislation has been built.”

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Meta Makes Booster Shots Mandatory for Returning Workers, Office Reopening Delayed

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By Reuters | Updated: 11 January 2022

Facebook parent Meta Platforms has delayed its US office reopening date and mandated COVID-19 booster shots for employees returning to office, joining the growing list of companies revamping reopening plans as Omicron surges.

For employees who opt to work from office, the reopening date has been delayed to March 28 from the earlier plan of January 31, the tech giant said on Monday.

All workers returning to office will have to present proof of their booster jabs, while the company closely monitors the Omicron variant situation, it said. Meta currently requires all its US employees coming to office to be vaccinated against the coronavirus.

Employees have until March 14 to decide whether to return to the office, request to work remotely full time or request to work from home temporarily.

Employees who are not vaccinated for medical or religious reasons can request such remote work, a spokesperson said. “Employees who take no action can face disciplinary measures, including termination. Obviously, this would be a last resort,” the spokesperson said by email.

Corporate America has doubled down on vaccination mandates and delayed back-to-office plans as the Omicron variant drives up infections to record levels across the country.

Last week, Citigroup said its US staff who have not been vaccinated against COVID-19 by Jan. 14 will be placed on unpaid leave and fired at the end of the month.

In December, the parent company of Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp had offered an option to defer returning to office.

© Thomson Reuters 2022

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