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Facebook, WhatsApp Blocked by Myanmar Junta as Opposition to Coup Grows

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By Reuters | Updated: 4 February 2021

Myanmar’s junta blocked Facebook in the name of ensuring stability on Thursday and activists said at least three people were arrested at a street protest against the coup that ousted elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

Nobel Peace laureate Suu Kyi faces charges for illegally importing communications equipment after the army takeover on Monday that has drawn Western condemnation and calls on the junta to respect her party’s landslide victory in November elections.

Opposition to the junta has emerged very strongly on Facebook, which is the country’s main Internet platform and underpins communications for business and government. Facebook’s WhatsApp messaging was also blocked.

Facebook was still available sporadically and demonstrators in the second city of Mandalay used it to livestream the first such street protest since the coup in a country with a bloody history of crackdowns on demonstrations.

“People’s protest against military coup,” read one of the banners.

The group of around 20 people chanted: “Our arrested leaders, release now, release now.”

Three people were arrested after the protest, three separate student groups said. Reuters was unable to contact police for comment.

The social network has also been used to share images of a campaign of disobedience by staff at government hospitals across the country, with doctors stopping work or wearing ribbons in the red colour of Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy.

Pictures shared on Wednesday showed workers at the agriculture ministry joining the campaign too.

“Unfair coup”

Other signs of anger have emerged. For two nights, people in Yangon and other cities have banged on pots and pans and honked car horns, with images circulating widely on Facebook.

“Lights are shining in the dark,” said Min Ko Naing, a veteran of past campaigns against military rule, in a call to action. “We need to show how many people are against this unfair coup.”

The Ministry of Communications and Information said Facebook, used by half of Myanmar’s more than 53 million people, would be blocked until February 7 because users were “spreading fake news and misinformation and causing misunderstanding”.

Suu Kyi has not been seen since her arrest along with other party leaders.

The NLD won about 80 percent of the vote in the November 8 polls, according to the election commission, a result the military has refused to accept, citing unsubstantiated allegations of fraud.

The United Nations said it would ratchet up international pressure to ensure the will of the people is respected.

“We will do everything we can to mobilise all the key actors and international community to put enough pressure on Myanmar to make sure that this coup fails,” United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said during an interview broadcast by The Washington Post on Wednesday.

Priority for Washington

Addressing the coup in Myanmar was a priority for the United States and Washington was reviewing possible sanctions in response, the White House said on Wednesday.

President Joe Biden discussed the situation in calls with the leaders of South Korea and Australia, the White House said.

The chair of the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) Parliamentarians for Human Rights, Charles Santiago, said the charges against Suu Kyi were ludicrous.

“This is an absurd move by the junta to try to legitimise their illegal power grab,” he said in a statement.

Police said six walkie-talkie radios had been found in a search of Suu Kyi’s home in Naypyidaw that were imported illegally and used without permission.

The NLD itself has yet to comment on the charges.

Suu Kyi spent about 15 years under house arrest between 1989 and 2010 as she led the country’s democracy movement, and she remains hugely popular at home despite damage to her international reputation over the plight of Muslim Rohingya refugees.

The military had ruled Myanmar from 1962 until Suu Kyi’s party came to power in 2015 under a constitution that guarantees the generals a major role in government.

The junta headed by Army chief General Min Aung Hlaing has declared a one-year state of emergency and has promised to hold fair elections, but has not said when.

Norway’s Telenor Asa, Myanmar’s leading mobile network operator, said it had no choice but to comply with the directive to block Facebook.

“Telenor does not believe that the request is based on necessity and proportionality, in accordance with international human rights law,” it said in a statement.

Facebook spokesman Andy Stone urged authorities to restore connectivity “so that people in Myanmar can communicate with their families and friends and access important information”.

Some people used VPNs to evade the blockage. Twitter, which was not blocked, saw an increase in new users. #CivilDisobedienceMovement was the top trending hashtag in the country, with #JusticeForMyanmar close behind.

© Thomson Reuters 2021

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After Facebook, Twitter Ban, Donald Trump Fans and Extremists Turn Elsewhere

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By Agence France-Presse | Updated: 23 February 2021

Gab instead of Twitter, MeWe over Facebook, Telegram for messaging and Discord for insiders – banned from mainstream platforms, US conspiracy and supremacist movements, many of which support Donald Trump, have shifted to networks that are more confidential, and harder to regulate.

“The most extreme Trump supporters were already on alternative platforms,” said Nick Backovic, a researcher at Logically.AI, a company specialising in digital disinformation.

“The fact that Facebook and Twitter took so long to (ban them) allowed influencers to rebuild conversation and groups almost seamlessly.”

After the deadly January 6 attack in Washington, when hundreds of Trump supporters stormed the US Capitol, the major social networks took action against the organisations involved, such as the Oath Keepers, Three Percenters, and Proud Boys.

Facebook stepped up its purges of accounts linked to armed movements – nearly 900 accounts in total were shut down. Twitter has permanently banned Trump and shuttered 70,000 accounts affiliated with QAnon, a conspiracy theory that claims the former president is engaged in a battle against a global cult of elite Satan-worshipping pedophiles.

“Deplatforming works,” said Jim Steyer, president of the organisation Common Sense Media. “Now that you look at Trump not being on Twitter, he lost his big speaker, his amplification microphone to the world.”

Anti-vax
But millions of fervent extremists and conspiracy theorists refuse to back down, according to experts who fear that censorship will unite individuals who are otherwise very different.

“Look at the makeup of your QAnon, you have folks that would traditionally join militias. And you also have some traditional Republicans, you have your health and wellness yoga instructors and soccer moms,” said Alex Goldenberg, an analyst at the research center Network Contagion Research Institute (NCRI).

“There was quite a bit of difference between these conspiracy communities and traditional Nazi communities or white supremacist communities. But it seems like in the face of censorship, they’re starting to meld together in the same communities, because that’s really the only place left for them to go,” he said.

Disappointed followers are banding together under other banners, particularly the anti-vaccine movement. On the encrypted messaging platform Telegram, groups of tens of thousands of Trump supporters share false rumors about “depopulation vaccines,” in between insults against President Joe Biden or migrants.

These vehement exchanges in uncharted corners of the Internet could be similar, in the eyes of authorities, to the conversations and rants that occur in bars or around the family table.

But while exclusion from major platforms has limited extremist movements’ large-scale recruitment capacity, embers smolder under the ashes.

At the end of January, for instance, a group of protesters interrupted COVID-19 vaccinations in a Los Angeles stadium, one of the country’s largest dedicated sites.

But the need to regulate alternative platforms comes up hard against moral and practical constraints. The limits of freedom of expression are the subject of heated debate in the United States.

Digital ‘pollution’
Parler, a Twitter alternative favoured by conservatives, found itself booted offline for several weeks, shut out of the internet by Google, Apple, and Amazon because it violated their rules on moderating content that incited violence.

But the platform came back online in mid-February.

Gab and MeWe, which resemble Facebook, saw their popularity explode in the wake of the January 6 attack. According to Goldenberg, the platforms are mostly used by people who need to express their frustration.

“There wasn’t a pandemic in 2020. The flu was weaponised to destroy the economy and steal the election (from Trump),” insisted Gab user ILoveJesusChrist123, commenting on a statement by the former president posted to the platform.

Telegram is more conducive to action, via private groups protected by encryption. Firearm aficionados, on the other hand, interact on the forum MyMilitia.com.

But where Gab’s founders don’t hide their links to QAnon, MeWe, and Telegram say they could go without any association with conspiracy theorists.

Both networks have made efforts to moderate postings, but they lack the necessary resources.

“We have to think of the current movement like pollution. These groups grew in power and influence because they were able to operate freely on Facebook and Twitter,” said Emerson Brooking, a specialist in extremists and disinformation at the Atlantic Council think tank.

He recommends competing social networks find a way to share moderating teams and digital resources.

The government should also intervene, says the NCRI’s John Farmer: “The government has the responsibility… to treat those platforms the way, for example, essential things like water and electricity and broadcast media used to be treated as a public trust, and therefore subject to reasonable regulation.”

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Facebook to Restore Australia News Pages as Deal Reached on Media Payment Law

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By Agence France-Presse | Updated: 23 February 2021

Facebook said Tuesday it will lift a contentious ban on Australian news pages, after the government agreed to amend a world-first media law fiercely opposed by the tech giant.

Treasurer Josh Frydenberg and Facebook indicated a compromise had been reached on key aspects of a law that would force global tech companies to pay news companies for content that appears on their platforms.

“As a result of these changes, we can now work to further our investment in public interest journalism, and restore news on Facebook for Australians in the coming days,” said Will Easton, managing director of Facebook Australia.

The social media firm sparked global outrage last week by blacking out news for its Australian users and inadvertently blocking a series of non-news Facebook pages linked to everything from cancer charities to emergency response services.

The compromise means that Facebook and Google – the main targets of the law – are unlikely to be penalised so long as they reach some deals with local media firms to pay for news.

The two companies had objected to legislation that made negotiations with media companies mandatory and gave an independent Australian arbiter the right to impose a settlement.

“We’re pleased that we’ve been able to reach an agreement with the Australian government and appreciate the constructive discussions we’ve had” said Easton.

Despite earlier threats to pull its services from Australia over the legislation, Google had already softened its stance and brokered deals worth millions of dollars with a variety of media companies, including the two largest: Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. and Nine Entertainment.

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Facebook News Blackout: Australia Won’t Advertise COVID-19 Vaccine on Social Media Platform

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By Reuters | Updated: 22 February 2021

Australia’s government pledged a publicity campaign for its rollout of COVID-19 vaccine on Sunday – but not in Facebook advertisements, as a feud continues over the social media giant blocking news content from its platform in the country.

Facebook’s abrupt decision on Thursday to stop Australians from sharing news on its platform and strip the pages of domestic and foreign media outlets also blacked out several state government and emergency department accounts, drawing furious responses from lawmakers around the world.

Hours before Australia began inoculations with the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, Health Minister Greg Hunt said the government would embark on a wide-ranging communication campaign, including online, to ensure vulnerable people turned up for a shot.

But a ban on health department spending to advertise on Facebook would remain in place until the dispute between the Big Tech company and Australia – over a new law to make Facebook pay for news content – was resolved.

“On my watch, until this issue is resolved, there will not be Facebook advertising,” Hunt told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. “There has been none commissioned or instituted since this dispute arose. Basically you have corporate titans acting as sovereign bullies and they won’t get away with it.”

Since the news blackout, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg has said he would talk with Facebook about its move over the weekend. On Saturday, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said Facebook had “tentatively friended us again” without giving further details.

Morrison got an injection on Sunday to publicise the programme, saying the country would use “all the communication mechanisms available to us to reach people” without commenting specifically about Facebook advertising.

Hunt said the authorities would use every channel to encourage Australians to get vaccinated, including messages on foreign language broadcaster SBS, but “there is the capacity to do paid advertising (on Facebook) and that element is not on the cards … for now”.

Frydenberg’s office did not immediately respond to Reuters requests for comment on Sunday.

A Facebook representative said in an email that the company was “engaging with the Australian Government to outline our ongoing concerns with the proposed law (and would) continue to work with the government on amendments to the law, with the aim of achieving a stable, fair path for both Facebook and publishers”.

© Thomson Reuters 2021

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Facebook Takes Down Main Page of Myanmar Military Over Incitement of Violence

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By Reuters | Updated: 22 February 2021

Facebook on Sunday deleted the main page of the Myanmar military under it standards prohibiting the incitement of violence, the company said, a day after two protesters were killed when police opened fire at a demonstration against the February 1 coup.

“In line with our global policies, we’ve removed the Tatmadaw True News Information Team Page from Facebook for repeated violations of our Community Standards prohibiting incitement of violence and coordinating harm,” a Facebook representative said in a statement.

The Myanmar military is known as the Tatmadaw. Its True News page was not available on Sunday.

The military spokesman did not respond to a Reuters phone call seeking comment.

Two people were killed in Myanmar’s second city Mandalay on Saturday when police and soldiers fired at protesters demonstrating against the overthrow of the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi, emergency workers said, the bloodiest day in more than two weeks of demonstrations.

Facebook in recent years has engaged with civil rights activists and democratic political parties in Myanmar and pushed back against the military after coming under heavy international criticism for failing to contain online hate campaigns.

In 2018, it banned army chief Min Aung Hlaing – now the military ruler – and 19 other senior officers and organisations, and took down hundreds of pages and accounts run by military members for coordinated inauthentic behaviour.

Ahead of November elections, Facebook announced it had taken down a network of 70 fake accounts and pages operated by members of the military that had posted either positive content about the army or criticism of Suu Kyi and her party.

© Thomson Reuters 2021

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Facebook News Blackout: Australia Won’t Change Planned Content Law Despite Block

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By Reuters | Updated: 22 February 2021

Australia will not change proposed laws that would make Alphabet’s Google and Facebook pay news outlets for content, a senior lawmaker said on Monday, despite vocal opposition from the Big Tech firms.

Facebook has strongly protested the laws and last week abruptly blocked all news content and several state government and emergency department accounts. The social media giant and Australian leaders continued discussing the changes over the weekend.

But with the bill scheduled for a debate in the Senate on Monday, Australia’s most senior lawmaker in the upper house said there would be no further amendments.

“The bill as it stands … meets the right balance,” Simon Birmingham, Australia’s Minister for Finance, told Australian Broadcasting Corp Radio.

The bill in its present form ensures “Australian-generated news content by Australian-generated news organisations can and should be paid for and done so in a fair and legitimate way”.

The laws would give the government the right to appoint an arbitrator to set content licencing fees if private negotiations fail.

While both Google and Facebook have campaigned against the laws, Google last week inked deals with top Australian outlets, including a global deal with Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp.

“There’s no reason Facebook can’t do and achieve what Google already has,” Birmingham added.

A Facebook representative declined to comment on Monday on the legislation which passed the lower house last week and has majority support in the Senate.

Lobby group DIGI, which represents Facebook, Google and other online platforms like Twitter, meanwhile said on Monday that its members had agreed to adopt an industry-wide code of practice to reduce the spread of misinformation online.

Under the voluntary code, the companies commit to identifying and stopping unidentified accounts, or “bots”, disseminating content, informing users of the origins of content, and publishing an annual transparency report, among other measures.

© Thomson Reuters 2021

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Facebook Starts Blocking Sensitive Medical Data Shared by Apps Over Privacy Concerns

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By Agence France-Presse | Updated: 20 February 2021

Facebook has started blocking sensitive health information that third-party apps had been sharing with the social network in violation of its own rules, said New York officials who investigated the situation.

Data fed into a Facebook analytics tool by app makers included medical diagnoses and whether users were pregnant, according to a report shared by New York financial services department on Thursday.

“Facebook instructed app developers and websites not to share medical, financial, and other sensitive personal consumer data but took no steps to police this rule,” state financial services superintendent Linda Lacewell said in a release.

“By continuing to do business with app developers that broke the rule, Facebook put itself in a position to profit from sensitive data that it was never supposed to receive in the first place.”

User information from apps is regularly shared with Facebook through a tool that offers developers free analysis of data to help guide improvements to apps, according to the investigation launched last year.

“Our policies prohibit sharing sensitive health information and it’s not something we want,” a Facebook spokeswoman said in response to an AFP inquiry.

“We have improved our efforts to detect and block potentially sensitive data and are doing more to educate advertisers on how to set-up and use our business tools.”

Investigators cited the example of a Flo Health app for menstruation and fertility tracking used by more than 100 million people informed Facebook each time a user logged starting her period or noted intention to get pregnant.

“Large internet companies have a duty to protect the privacy of their consumers — period,” New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said in the release.

Such sharing violated Facebook policy, but went unchecked by the California-based internet giant, investigators concluded.

Facebook created a list of terms blocked by its systems and has been refining artificial intelligence to more adaptively filter sensitive data not welcomed in the analytics tool, according to the report.

The block list contains more than 70,000 terms, including diseases, bodily functions, medical conditions, and real-world locations such as mental health centers, the report said.

The report endorsed a data privacy law proposed in the state by the governor that would expressly protect health, biometric, and location data as well as create a Consumer Data Privacy Bill of Rights.

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