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Russian Lawmakers Approve Harsher Rules for Foreign Tech Firms Without Offices, Personal Data Transfer

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By Reuters | Updated: 6 July 2022

Russian lawmakers on Tuesday approved a bill providing for stricter penalties for foreign internet companies that fail to open an office in Russia, including fines. Moscow has long sought to exert greater control over technology firms, and disputes over content and data have intensified since it sent armed forces into Ukraine on February 24.

Foreign social media giants with more than 500,000 daily users have been obliged since July 1, 2021, to open offices in Russia or risk penalties ranging up to outright bans.

Now, the turnover fines that Russia has imposed on the likes of Alphabet’s Google and Meta Platforms for hosting banned content could be applied to companies that fail to open offices, after the lower house passed the bill in the second of three readings.

Fines could be as high as 10 percent of a company’s turnover in Russia from the previous year, rising to up to 20 percent for repeat violations.

The state communications regulator Roskomnadzor last November listed 13 mostly US companies required to set up on Russian soil by the end of the year.

Only Apple, Spotify, Rakuten Group’s messaging app Viber and the photo-sharing app Likeme have fully complied — though Spotify closed its office in March in response to Russia’s actions in Ukraine and subsequently suspended its streaming service.

Meta, which Russia found guilty of “extremist activity” in March, is no longer listed, and its Facebook and Instagram platforms are banned, although its messaging app WhatsApp is not.

Four other companies have fulfilled at least one other Roskomnadzor requirement but have not established a Russian legal entity or office. Those were Google, Twitter, ByteDance’s TikTok and Zoom Video Communications, according to the government website.

The chat tool Discord, Amazon’s live streaming unit Twitch, the messaging app Telegram, the bookmarking service Pinterest and Wikipedia owner Wikimedia Foundation have taken no steps to comply, according to the website.

The new bill would also place restrictions on Russians’ personal data being transferred abroad and require entities planning on doing so to notify the communications regulator in advance.

The law, passed in its second reading by the lower house of parliament, or State Duma, is one of several the government has been working on as Russia deals with the fallout from hefty Western sanctions imposed in response to Moscow’s military campaign in Ukraine.

“Current legislation practically does not regulate the cross-border transfer of personal data, which poses a significant threat in the current foreign policy situation,” read an explanatory note accompanying the bill.

The bill’s authors say more than 2,500 entities registered in Russia handle personal data and transfer them to other countries, including “unfriendly” nations that have imposed sanctions.

Companies wanting to transfer data abroad will have to notify the regulator, Roskomnadzor, for each country a measure that was softened after a raft of internet companies objected, according to the business outlet Forbes.

Roskomnadzor considers countries that are party to Council of Europe data protection regulation as offering adequate safeguards, along with 29 other mostly African and Asian countries, but not the United States.

Among the “unfriendly” countries approved by Roskomnadzor are numerous European members of the NATO defence alliance as well as Australia, Canada, Japan and New Zealand.

The draft still needs to pass a third reading in the Duma and a review by the upper house before President Vladimir Putin can sign it into law.

© Thomson Reuters 2022

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Hedge Fund Elliott Sold Twitter Stock Before Elon Musk’s Takeover Negotiations

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By Reuters | Updated: 16 August 2022

Elliott Management, the hedge fund that pushed for big changes at Twitter two years ago, exited the stock during the second quarter, soon after Elon Musk announced plans to buy the social media company, a regulatory filing shows.

The filing on Monday, showed that Elliott no longer owned any common stock in Twitter on June 30. It had owned 10 million shares at the end of the first quarter.

Twitter’s shares, which closed at $44.50 (roughly Rs. 3,500) on Monday had climbed as high as $51.70 (roughly Rs. 4,100) in April, when Musk was offering to spend $44 billion (roughly Rs. 3,49,240 crore) to acquire the company. Shares dropped when he tried to pull out of the deal in early July.

Elliott invested in Twitter in early 2020 and called for the ouster of Jack Dorsey, one of the company’s co-founders and its CEO at the time.

The company and the hedge fund soon reached an agreement in which the hedge fund got a seat on Twitter’s board and Dorsey was replaced in late 2021. Elliott exited the board last year.

Some other prominent investors also cut their Twitter holdings.

Hedge fund D.E. Shaw & Company owned 932,716 shares at the end of the second quarter, after having selling 3.7 million shares.

Balyasny Asset Management sold 1.3 million shares to own 172,821 shares while SRS Investment Management sold 7 million shares to own 125,226 shares on June 30.

The so-called 13-F filings are closely watched for investment trends, even though the data is released with a delay and can be dated.

Some firms established new positions, with filings showing that Pentwater Capital and Segantii Capital Management made new bets to own 18 million and 7.3 million shares respectively. Citadel Advisors LLC added 3.3 million shares, and now owns 4 million shares.

© Thomson Reuters 2022

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US Gunman Posted ‘Call to Arms’ on Truth Social After FBI Searched Donald Trump’s Home: Reports

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By Agence France-Presse | Updated: 13 August 2022

An armed man who fled after attempting to breach an FBI office in Ohio appears to have posted a “call to arms” on Donald Trump’s Truth Social platform after federal agents searched the ex-president’s home, US media reported Friday.

An account bearing the name of 42-year-old suspect Ricky Shiffer, identified by Ohio authorities on Friday, featured multiple posts of violent anger including his failed plan to attack the FBI, according to screen shots of the profile, multiple US outlets reported.

“This is your call to arms,” an account bearing Shiffer’s name posted on Truth Social.

“I am proposing war,” the account posted, urging “patriots” to kill federal agents the day after Trump’s Florida residence was searched by the Federal Bureau of Investigation — a move that sparked outrage in right-wing circles.

Shortly before it was removed from the social media platform, the same account appeared on Thursday to confess to attempting to storm FBI offices in the midwestern state of Ohio.

The FBI said Thursday that a person armed with a weapon had tried to breach the entry to the bureau’s office in the city of Cincinnati.

According to local media, the man fired a nail gun and brandished an AR-15-style rifle before fleeing by car.

“Well, I thought I had a way through bullet proof glass, and I didn’t. If you don’t hear from me, it is true I tried attacking the FBI, and it’ll mean either I was taken off the internet, the FBI got me, or they sent the regular cops while,” read a post, which appears to end mid-sentence and was shared Thursday morning, according to reports.

The incident drew nationwide attention as it occurred only a few days after the FBI search of Trump’s Mar-a-Lago mansion, although there was no immediate confirmation the events were linked.

The suspect in Ohio was killed in a standoff with police after a vehicle pursuit and exchange of gunfire, authorities said.

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Facebook Parent Meta Raises $10 Billion in Its First-Ever Bond Offering

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By Reuters | Updated: 10 August 2022

Facebook-parent Meta Platforms Inc said on Tuesday it had raised $10 billion (roughly Rs. 79,530 crore) in its first-ever bond offering, as it looks to fund share buybacks and investments to revamp its business.

The offering would help Meta, the only one among big technology companies without debt on its books, to build a more traditional balance sheet and fund some expensive initiatives, such as its metaverse virtual reality.

Other tech giants such as Apple Inc and Intel Corp also issued bonds recently, raising $5.5 billion (roughly Rs. 43,740 crore) and $6 billion (roughly Rs. 47,720 crore), respectively.

In late July, Meta posted a gloomy forecast and recorded its first-ever quarterly drop in revenue, with recession fears and competitive pressures weighing on its digital ads sales.

The company announced its first-ever bond offering last Thursday. The announcement came at a time when the social media company is making massive investments to fund its virtual reality projects. Back then, Meta did not disclose the size of the offering but said it would use the proceeds for capital expenditures, share repurchases, acquisitions or investments.

The company received an ‘A1’ rating from Moody’s and an ‘AA- rating’ and a ‘stable’ outlook from S&P. Meta is selling four tranches of bonds with maturities ranging from five years to 40 years.

It might also be a rare opportunity to do so relatively cheaply in the current market environment. Corporate bonds have rebounded in the past month after a rout earlier this year, as investors hoped the US Federal Reserve’s fight against inflation through rapid rate increases was starting to have some impact.

© Thomson Reuters 2022

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Elon Musk Challenges Twitter CEO Parag Agrawal to Public Debate Over Bot Users, Says Deal Cold Move Ahead

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By Associated Press | Updated: 8 August 2022

Elon Musk said Saturday that his planned $44 billion (roughly Rs. 3.5 lakh crore) takeover of Twitter should move forward if the company can confirm some details about how it measures whether user accounts are ‘spam bots’ or real people.

The billionaire and Tesla CEO has been trying to back out of his April agreement to buy the social media company, leading Twitter to sue him last month to complete the acquisition. Musk countersued, accusing Twitter of misleading his team about the true size of its user base and other problems he said amounted to fraud and breach of contract.

Both sides are headed toward an October trial in a Delaware court.

“If Twitter simply provides their method of sampling 100 accounts and how they’re confirmed to be real, the deal should proceed on original terms,” Musk tweeted early Saturday. “However, if it turns out that their SEC filings are materially false, then it should not.”

Musk, who has more than 100 million Twitter followers, went on to challenge Twitter CEO Parag Agrawal to a “public debate about the Twitter bot percentage.”

The company has repeatedly disclosed to the Securities and Exchange Commission an estimate that fewer than 5 percent of user accounts are fake or spam, with a disclaimer that it could be higher. Musk waived his right to further due diligence when he signed the April merger agreement.

Twitter has argued in court that Musk is deliberately trying to tank the deal and using the bot question as an excuse because market conditions have deteriorated and the acquisition no longer serves his interests. In a court filing Thursday, it describes his counterclaims as an imagined story “contradicted by the evidence and common sense.”

“Musk invents representations Twitter never made and then tries to wield, selectively, the extensive confidential data Twitter provided him to conjure a breach of those purported representations,” company attorneys wrote.

While Musk has tried to keep the focus on bot disclosures, Twitter’s legal team has been digging for information about a host of tech investors and entrepreneurs connected to Musk in a wide-ranging subpoena that could net some of their private communications with the Tesla CEO.

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Government Issued 105 Blocking Orders to Social Media Firms Under New IT Rules

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By Press Trust of India | Updated: 5 August 2022

The government has issued 105 directions to social media platforms under the new IT rules that came into effect in February last year, Parliament was informed on Friday. According to information shared by minister of state for electronics and IT Rajeev Chandrasekhar in a written reply to Rajya Sabha, the directions were issued by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting under the new rules.

The data shared by the minister shows that 94 directions to block content was issued to YouTube between December 2021 and April 2022, five to Twitter, and three each to Facebook and Instagram.

Chandrasekhar said that the government’s policies are aimed at ensuring open, safe and trusted and accountable Internet for its users.

He said that the government has notified the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Codes) Rules, 2021 (“IT Rules, 2021”) on February 25, 2021 to make intermediaries including social media platforms accountable to their users and enhance user safety online.

“Neither the Information Technology (IT) Act, 2000 nor the above said rules contravene users’ right to privacy,” Chandrasekhar said.

The Ministry of Electronics and IT (Meity) is also said to conduct compliance audits of social media companies every quarter.

At present, social media platforms are required to disclose their compliance with IT rules 2021 every month where they disclose action taken by them in response to various grievances.

“MeitY has now put in place a mechanism to audit compliance of social media intermediaries under IT rules every quarter. As part of the audit, the ministry will verify if social media companies are reporting about grievances raised to them correctly and if their action taken is in sync with the laid out rules,” the source told PTI.

To tighten the noose on social media platforms, the government has proposed to set up an appellate panel which will have power to overrule decisions taken by social media companies with respect to any grievance. The public consultation process with respect to the proposed rule has been wrapped up by the IT ministry.

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Meta Said to Curtail Election Misinformation Efforts as US Midterm Vote Approaches: Details

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By Associated Press | Updated: 5 August 2022

Facebook owner Meta is quietly curtailing some of the safeguards designed to thwart voting misinformation or foreign interference in US elections as the November midterm vote approaches.

It’s a sharp departure from the social media giant’s multibillion-dollar efforts to enhance the accuracy of posts about US elections and regain trust from lawmakers and the public after their outrage over learning the company had exploited people’s data and allowed falsehoods to overrun its site during the 2016 campaign.

The pivot is raising alarm about Meta’s priorities and about how some might exploit the world’s most popular social media platforms to spread misleading claims, launch fake accounts and rile up partisan extremists.

“They’re not talking about it,” said former Facebook policy director Katie Harbath, now the CEO of the tech and policy firm Anchor Change. “Best case scenario: They’re still doing a lot behind the scenes. Worst case scenario: They pull back, and we don’t know how that’s going to manifest itself for the midterms on the platforms.”

Since last year, Meta has shut down an examination into how falsehoods are amplified in political ads on Facebook by indefinitely banishing the researchers from the site.

CrowdTangle, the online tool that the company offered to hundreds of newsrooms and researchers so they could identify trending posts and misinformation across Facebook or Instagram, is now inoperable on some days.

Public communication about the company’s response to election misinformation has gone decidedly quiet. Between 2018 and 2020, the company released more than 30 statements that laid out specifics about how it would stifle US election misinformation, prevent foreign adversaries from running ads or posts around the vote and subdue divisive hate speech.

Top executives hosted question and answer sessions with reporters about new policies. CEO Mark Zuckerberg wrote Facebook posts promising to take down false voting information and authored opinion articles calling for more regulations to tackle foreign interference in US elections via social media.

But this year Meta has only released a one-page document outlining plans for the fall elections, even as potential threats to the vote remain clear. Several Republican candidates are pushing false claims about the US election across social media. In addition, Russia and China continue to wage aggressive social media propaganda campaigns aimed at further political divides among American audiences.

Meta says that elections remain a priority and that policies developed in recent years around election misinformation or foreign interference are now hard-wired into company operations.

“With every election, we incorporate what we’ve learned into new processes and have established channels to share information with the government and our industry partners,” Meta spokesman Tom Reynolds said.

He declined to say how many employees would be on the project to protect US elections full time this year.

During the 2018 election cycle, the company offered tours and photos and produced head counts for its election response war room. But The New York Times reported the number of Meta employees working on this year’s election had been cut from 300 to 60, a figure Meta disputes.

Reynolds said Meta will pull hundreds of employees who work across 40 of the company’s other teams to monitor the upcoming vote alongside the election team, with its unspecified number of workers.

The company is continuing many initiatives it developed to limit election misinformation, such as a fact-checking program started in 2016 that enlists the help of news outlets to investigate the veracity of popular falsehoods spreading on Facebook or Instagram. The Associated Press is part of Meta’s fact-checking program.

This month, Meta also rolled out a new feature for political ads that allows the public to search for details about how advertisers target people based on their interests across Facebook and Instagram.

Yet, Meta has stifled other efforts to identify election misinformation on its sites.

It has stopped making improvements to CrowdTangle, a website it offered to newsrooms around the world that provides insights about trending social media posts. Journalists, fact-checkers and researchers used the website to analyse Facebook content, including tracing popular misinformation and who is responsible for it.

That tool is now “dying,” former CrowdTangle CEO Brandon Silverman, who left Meta last year, told the Senate Judiciary Committee this spring.

Silverman told the AP that CrowdTangle had been working on upgrades that would make it easier to search the text of internet memes, which can often be used to spread half-truths and escape the oversight of fact-checkers, for example.

“There’s no real shortage of ways you can organise this data to make it useful for a lot of different parts of the fact-checking community, newsrooms and broader civil society,” Silverman said.

Not everyone at Meta agreed with that transparent approach, Silverman said. The company has not rolled out any new updates or features to CrowdTangle in more than a year, and it has experienced hourslong outages in recent months.

Meta also shut down efforts to investigate how misinformation travels through political ads.

The company indefinitely revoked access to Facebook for a pair of New York University researchers who they said collected unauthorised data from the platform. The move came hours after NYU professor Laura Edelson said she shared plans with the company to investigate the spread of disinformation on the platform around the January 6, 2021, attack on the US Capitol, which is now the subject of a House investigation.

“What we found, when we looked closely, is that their systems were probably dangerous for a lot of their users,” Edelson said.

Privately, former and current Meta employees say exposing those dangers around the American elections have created public and political backlash for the company.

Republicans routinely accuse Facebook of unfairly censoring conservatives, some of whom have been kicked off for breaking the company’s rules. Democrats, meanwhile, regularly complain the tech company hasn’t gone far enough to curb disinformation.

“It’s something that’s so politically fraught, they’re more trying to shy away from it than jump in head first.” said Harbath, the former Facebook policy director. “They just see it as a big old pile of headaches.”

Meanwhile, the possibility of regulation in the US no longer looms over the company, with lawmakers failing to reach any consensus over what oversight the multibillion-dollar company should be subjected to.

Free from that threat, Meta’s leaders have devoted the company’s time, money and resources to a new project in recent months.

Zuckerberg dived into this massive rebranding and reorganisation of Facebook last October, when he changed the company’s name to Meta Platforms. He plans to spend years and billions of dollars evolving his social media platforms into a nascent virtual reality construct called the “metaverse” — sort of like the internet brought to life, rendered in 3D.

His public Facebook page posts now focus on product announcements, hailing artificial intelligence, and photos of him enjoying life. News about election preparedness is announced in company blog posts not written by him.

In one of Zuckerberg’s posts last October, after an ex-Facebook employee leaked internal documents showing how the platform magnifies hate and misinformation, he defended the company. He also reminded his followers that he had pushed Congress to modernise regulations around elections for the digital age.

“I know it’s frustrating to see the good work we do get mischaracterised, especially for those of you who are making important contributions across safety, integrity, research and product,” he wrote on October 5. “But I believe that over the long term if we keep trying to do what’s right and delivering experiences that improve people’s lives, it will be better for our community and our business.”

It was the last time he discussed the Menlo Park, California-based company’s election work in a public Facebook post.

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