Category Archives: Technology

silicon valley & technology news

‘Digital Gangsters’: UK Wants Tougher Rules for Facebook

British lawmakers issued a scathing report Monday that calls for tougher rules on Facebook to keep it from acting like “digital gangsters” and intentionally violating data privacy and competition laws.

The report on fake news and disinformation on social media sites followed an 18-month investigation by Parliament’s influential media committee. The committee recommended that social media sites should have to follow a mandatory code of ethics overseen by an independent regulator to better control harmful or illegal content.

 

The report called out Facebook in particular, saying that the site’s structure seems to be designed to “conceal knowledge of and responsibility for specific decisions.”

 

“It is evident that Facebook intentionally and knowingly violated both data privacy and anti-competition laws,” the report states. It also accuses CEO Mark Zuckerberg of showing contempt for the U.K. Parliament by declining numerous invitations to appear before the committee.

“Companies like Facebook should not be allowed to behave like ‘digital gangsters’ in the online world, considering themselves to be ahead of and beyond the law,” the report added.

 

U.K. parliamentary committee reports are intended to influence government policy, but are not binding. The committee said it hopes its conclusions will be considered when the government reviews its competition powers in April.

 

And while the U.K. is part of the 28-country European Union, it is due to leave the bloc in late March, so it is unclear whether any regulatory decisions it takes could influence those of the EU.

 

Facebook said it shared “the committee’s concerns about false news and election integrity” and was open to “meaningful regulation.”

 

“While we still have more to do, we are not the same company we were a year ago,” said Facebook’s U.K. public policy manager, Karim Palant.

 

“We have tripled the size of the team working to detect and protect users from bad content to 30,000 people and invested heavily in machine learning, artificial intelligence and computer vision technology to help prevent this type of abuse.”

 

Facebook and other internet companies have been facing increased scrutiny over how they handle user data and have come under fire for not doing enough to stop misuse of their platforms by groups trying to sway elections.

 

The report echoes and expands upon an interim report with similar findings issued by the committee in July . And in December , a trove of documents released by the committee offered evidence that the social network had used its enormous trove of user data as a competitive weapon, often in ways designed to keep its users in the dark.

Facebook faced its biggest privacy scandal last year when Cambridge Analytica, a now-defunct British political data-mining firm that worked for the 2016 Donald Trump campaign, accessed the private information of up to 87 million users.

 

 

 

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Amazon’s Exit Could Scare Off Tech Companies From New York

Amazon jilted New York City on Valentine’s Day, scrapping plans to build a massive headquarters campus in Queens amid fierce opposition from politicians angry about nearly $3 billion in tax breaks and the company’s anti-union stance.

With millions of jobs and a bustling economy, New York can withstand the blow, but experts say the decision by the e-commerce giant to walk away and take with it 25,000 promised jobs could scare off other companies considering moving to or expanding in the city, which wants to be seen as the Silicon Valley of the East Coast.

“One of the real risks here is the message we send to companies that want to come to New York and expand to New York,” said Julie Samuels, the executive director of industry group Tech: NYC. “We’re really playing with fire right now.”

In November, Amazon selected New York City and Crystal City, Virginia, as the winners of a secretive, yearlong process in which more than 230 North American cities bid to become the home of the Seattle-based company’s second headquarters.

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio and Gov. Andrew Cuomo heralded the city’s selection at the time as the biggest boon yet to its burgeoning tech economy and underscored that the deal would generate billions of dollars for improving transit, schools and housing.

Opposition came swiftly though, as details started to emerge.

Critics complained about public subsidies that were offered to Amazon and chafed at some of the conditions of the deal, such as the company’s demand for access to a helipad. Some pleaded for the deal to be renegotiated or scrapped altogether.

“We knew this was going south from the moment it was announced,” said Thomas Stringer, a site selection adviser for big companies. “If this was done right, all the elected officials would have been out there touting how great it was. When you didn’t see that happen, you knew something was wrong.”

Stringer, a managing director of the consulting firm BDO USA LLP, said city and state officials need to rethink the secrecy with which they approached the negotiations. Community leaders and potential critics were kept in the dark, only to be blindsided when details became public.

“It’s time to hit the reset button and say, “What did we do wrong?”‘ Stringer said. “This is fumbling at the 1-yard line.”

Amazon said in a statement Thursday its commitment to New York City required “positive, collaborative relationships” with state and local officials and that a number of them had “made it clear that they oppose our presence and will not work with us to build the type of relationships that are required to go forward.”

Not that Amazon is blameless, experts say.

Joe Parilla, a fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program, said the company’s high-profile bidding process may have stoked the backlash. Companies usually search for new locations quietly, in part to avoid the kind of opposition Amazon received.

“They had this huge competition, and the media covered it really aggressively, and a bunch of cities responded,” Parilla said. “What did you expect? It gave the opposition a much bigger platform.”

Richard Florida, an urban studies professor and critic of Amazon’s initial search process, said the company should have expected to feel the heat when it selected New York, a city known for its neighborhood activism.

“At the end of the day, this is going to hurt Amazon,” said Florida, head of the University of Toronto’s Martin Prosperity Institute. “This is going to embolden people who don’t like corporate welfare across the country.”

Other tech companies have been keeping New York City’s tech economy churning without making much of a fuss.

Google is spending $2.4 billion to build up its Manhattan campus. Cloud-computing company Salesforce has plastered its name on Verizon’s former headquarters in midtown, and music streaming service Spotify is gobbling up space at the World Trade Center complex.

Despite higher costs, New York City remains attractive to tech companies because of its vast, diverse talent pool, world-class educational and cultural institutions and access to other industries, such as Wall Street capital and Madison Avenue ad dollars.

No other metropolitan area in the U.S. has as many computer-related jobs as New York City, which has 225,600, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But San Francisco, San Jose, Seattle, Washington, Boston, Atlanta and Dallas each have a greater concentration of their workers in tech.

In the New York area, the average computer-related job pays roughly $104,000 a year, about $15,000 above the national average. Still, that’s about $20,000 less than in San Francisco.

Even after cancelling its headquarters project, Amazon still has 5,000 employees in New York City, not counting Whole Foods.

“New York has actually done a really great job of growing and supporting its tech ecosystem, and I’m confident that will continue,” Samuels said. “Today we took a step back, but I would not put the nail in the coffin of tech in New York City.”

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Report: Facebook, FTC Discuss Multibillion Dollar Fine

A report says Facebook and the Federal Trade Commission are negotiating a “multibillion dollar” fine for the social network’s privacy lapses.

The Washington Post said Thursday that the fine would be the largest ever imposed on a tech company. Citing unnamed sources, it also said the two sides have not yet agreed on an exact amount. 

Facebook has had several high-profile privacy lapses in the past couple of years. The FTC has been looking into the Cambridge Analytica scandal since last March. The data mining firm accessed the data of some 87 million Facebook users without their consent. 

At issue is whether Facebook is in violation of a 2011 agreement with the FTC promising to protect user privacy. Facebook and the FTC declined to comment.

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Google to Invest $13 Billion in New US Offices, Data Centers

Google plans to invest more than $13 billion this year on new and expanded data centers and offices across the U.S.

CEO Sundar Pichai announced the news in a blog post Wednesday , emphasizing the company’s growth outside its Mountain View, California, home and across the Midwest and South.

“2019 marks the second year in a row we’ll be growing faster outside of the (San Francisco) Bay Area than in it,” he wrote.

Google will build new data centers in Nevada, Texas, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Ohio, South Carolina and Virginia. Pichai estimated the construction of the new centers will employ 10,000 workers.

It makes good political sense for Google to highlight its expansions outside coastal cities, said CFRA Research analyst Scott Kessler. 

U.S. legislators have paid increasing attention to Google and other big tech companies in the past year, and are considering passing privacy laws to regulate the companies’ reach. Investing more widely across the U.S. could help it curry favor with federal politicians and officials, he said.

Google is focused on expanding its cloud-computing business, a market where it faces stiff competition from larger rivals Amazon and Microsoft.

The company will have a physical presence in 24 states by the end of the year. It currently has locations in 21 states, and is expanding into Nevada, Ohio and Nebraska.

Its expansion is likely also a way to attract new employees, Kessler said. Google will add an office in Georgia, and expand its offices in several cities including in Seattle and Chicago.

Google said it spent more than $9 billion on similar expansions across the country last year. 

Google did not give an exact number of employees it expects to hire as a result of the 2019 expansions, but said it would be “tens of thousands” of full-time workers.

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China’s Huawei Soft Power Push Raises Hard Questions

As a nasty diplomatic feud deepens between the two countries over the tech company, involving arrests and execution orders, it hasn’t gone unnoticed that Huawei’s bright red fan-shaped logo is plastered prominently on the set of “Hockey Night in Canada.” TV hosts regularly remind the 1.8 million weekly viewers that program segments are “presented by Huawei smartphones.”

The cheery corporate message contrasts with the standoff over the arrest of Huawei Chief Financial Officer Meng Wanzhou on a U.S. warrant. In what looks like retaliation, China detained two Canadians and plans to execute a third — heavy-handed tactics that, because they leave some Canadians with the impression the privately owned company is an arm of the Chinese government, give its sponsorship a surreal quality.

The TV deal is one of many examples of how Huawei, the world’s biggest telecom gear producer and one of the top smartphone makers, has embarked on a global push to win consumers and burnish its brand. It sponsors Australian rugby, funds research at universities around the world, and brings foreign students to China for technical training. It has promoted classical music concerts in Europe and donated pianos to New Zealand schools .

Its efforts are now threatened by the dispute with Canada and U.S. accusations that it could help China’s authoritarian government spy on people around the world.

“Huawei’s marketing plan up until Dec. 1 (when Meng was arrested) was working very well,” said Guy Saint-Jacques, a former Canadian ambassador to China. Now, “public opinion is changing toward China and Huawei.”

At stake for Huawei are lucrative contracts to provide new superfast mobile networks called 5G. The U.S. says Meng helped break sanctions and accuses Huawei of stealing trade secrets. It also says the company could let the Chinese government tap its networks, which in the case of 5G would cover massive amounts of consumer data worldwide. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo pressed that point to European allies on a tour this week.

Huawei, which did not respond to requests for comment for this story, has previously rejected the allegations. The Chinese government says Huawei’s critics were fabricating threats.

Still, the headlines have been relentlessly negative.

“At some point there could be a majority of Canadians that will say `We don’t think the government should do business with Huawei,”’ said Saint-Jacques.

There’s no evidence of sinister intentions behind Huawei’s marketing, which isn’t unlike that of Western multinationals, although its efforts have been unusually strong for a company from China, where brands have struggled to capture global attention.

Rogers Communications, which broadcasts “Hockey in Night in Canada” and also sells Huawei smartphones, said it has no plans to change its sponsorship deal, which started in 2017 and runs to the end of 2020.

In Australia, the Canberra Raiders rugby team indicated it would renew a Huawei sponsorship deal this year despite a government ban on using its equipment in 5G networks.

Huawei has also ventured into high culture by using its smartphone artificial intelligence to complete the remaining movements in German composer Franz Schubert’s “Symphony No. 8,” known as the “Unfinished Symphony.” It held a symphony orchestra concert in London this month to perform the completed score.

And Huawei has a vast network of relationships with universities around the world through research partnerships and scholarships. It has helped fund a 25 million pound ($32 million) joint research project at Britain’s Cambridge University.

Some universities have begun to rethink their collaborations, although there’s no allegation of wrongdoing by Huawei. Universities point out that companies that fund research don’t automatically own any resulting patents.

Britain’s Oxford University stopped accepting Huawei’s money last month. Stanford University followed suit after U.S. prosecutors unsealed nearly two dozen charges against the company, as did the University of California at Berkeley, which also removed an off-campus videoconferencing set-up donated by Huawei based on guidance from the Department of Defense.

Faced with these setbacks, Huawei has responded by stepping up its public relations efforts.

Its normally reclusive chairman, Ren Zhengfei, last month held three media briefings, fielding questions from Western, Japanese and Chinese journalists.

The company will be out in force this month at the Mobile World Congress, a major telecom industry gathering in Barcelona, Spain. It’s expected to unveil its latest smartphone, a 5G device with a folding screen. Company executives are scheduled to brief analysts and give presentations on 5G technology.

Huawei is a corporate sponsor of the show and Ren is expected to attend to help win business deals, though U.S. officials are reportedly expected to turn out in force to lobby against Huawei.

The company last week hosted a Lunar New Year reception in Brussels for the European Union diplomatic community, in a ballroom commissioned by Belgium’s King Leopold II. There was a piano concert, a jazz performance, a bubble tea bar, and a speech by Huawei’s chief EU representative, Abraham Liu.

“We are shocked or sometimes feel amused by those ungrounded and senseless allegations,” Liu told the reception guests, adding that the company is “willing to accept the supervision” from governments in Europe, Huawei’s biggest market after China. Huawei plans to open a cybersecurity center in Brussels next month, he said.

To attract top talent, Huawei runs a program called “Seeds for the Future,” under which it sends students from more than 100 countries to China to study Mandarin and get technical training at its headquarters.

Shanthi Kalathil, director of the National Endowment for Democracy’s International Forum for Democratic Studies, sees Huawei’s charm offensive dovetailing with broader efforts by China to influence the global debate on the government’s surveillance and censorship it uses.

“It’s not like an afterthought. That is the foundation of the entire system,” she said.

Whether or not Huawei is linked to the Chinese government or merely defended as a corporate champion, the fight over the company shows how world powers see technology as the front line in the fight for economic supremacy.

“Today’s innovation economy is based on IP (intellectual property) and data,” said Jim Balsillie, the former chairman and co-CEO of BlackBerry-maker Research in Motion. “So soft power is the best tool for advancing national interests because the battle is not about armies and tanks.”

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Google, Apple Face Calls to Pull Saudi App Allowing Men to Monitor Wives

A Saudi Arabian government app that allows men in the country to monitor and control their female relatives’ travel at the click of a button should be removed from Google and Apple’s online stores, a U.S. politician and activists said on Wednesday.

Human rights campaigners argued the tech giants are enabling abuses against women and girls in the ultra-conservative kingdom by hosting the app.

The free Absher app, created by the Saudi interior ministry, allows men to update or withdraw permissions for their wives and female relatives to travel internationally and get SMS updates if their passports are used, said human rights researchers.

The app is available in the Saudi version of the Google and Apple online stores.

“Part of the app’s design is to discriminate against women,” said Rothna Begum, an expert in women’s rights in the Middle East at Human Rights Watch.

“The complete control that a male guardian has is now facilitated with the use of modern technology and makes the lives of men ultimately easier and restricts women’s lives that much more.”

Begum said a few women had turned the app to their advantage by gaining access to their guardian’s phone and changing the settings to grant themselves freedom, but such cases were rare.

Neither Apple nor Google were immediately available for comment.

Apple CEO Tim Cook told U.S. public radio NPR yesterday that he had not heard of Absher but pledged to “take a look at it”.

Saudi women must have permission from a male relative to work, marry, and travel under the country’s strict guardianship system, which human rights groups have criticized as abusive.

U.S. Senator Ron Wyden has publicly called on both Apple and Google to remove it from their stores, arguing it promotes “abusive practices against women” in a Twitter post.

However, Suad Abu-Dayyeh, a spokesman on the Middle East for women’s rights group Equality Now, raised doubts over whether the companies would take action.

“Power and money talks, unfortunately, without giving any attention to the violations of human rights,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“I really hope they take a concrete stand towards removing these apps but I am not really hopeful.”

Saudi Arabia, one of the world’s most gender-segregated nations, is ranked 138 of 144 states in the 2017 Global Gender Gap, a World Economic Forum study on how women fare in economic and political participation, health and education.

Its guardianship system came under fresh scrutiny after Saudi teenager Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun fled from her family and was granted asylum in Canada in January.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman indicated last year he favored ending the guardianship system but stopped short of backing its annulment.

But any moves toward gender equality have been accompanied by a crackdown on dissent, including the arrest and alleged torture of women’s rights activists as well as Muslim clerics.

 

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Pentagon Outlines its First Artificial Intelligence Strategy

The U.S. military wants to expand its use of artificial intelligence in warfare, but says it will take care to deploy the technology in accordance with the nation’s values.

 

The Pentagon outlined its first AI strategy in a report released Tuesday.

 

The plan calls for accelerating the use of AI systems throughout the military, from intelligence-gathering operations to predicting maintenance problems in planes or ships. It urges the U.S. to advance such technology swiftly before other countries chip away at its technological advantage.

 

“Other nations, particularly China and Russia, are making significant investments in AI for military purposes, including in applications that raise questions regarding international norms and human rights,” the report says.

 

The report makes little mention of autonomous weapons but cites an existing 2012 military directive that requires humans to be in control.

 

The U.S. and Russia are among a handful of nations that have blocked efforts at the United Nations for an international ban on “killer robots” — fully autonomous weapons systems that could one day conduct war without human intervention. The U.S. has argued that it’s premature to try to regulate them.

 

The strategy unveiled by the Department of Defense this week is focused on more immediate applications, but even some of those have sparked ethical debates.

The Pentagon hit a roadblock in its AI efforts last year after internal protests at Google led the tech company to drop out of Project Maven, which uses algorithms to interpret aerial video images from conflict zones. Other companies have sought to fill the vacuum, and the Pentagon is working with AI experts from industry and academia to establish ethical guidelines for its AI applications.

“Everything we’ve seen is with a human decision-maker in the loop,” said Todd Probert, a vice president at Raytheon’s intelligence division, which is working with the Pentagon on Maven and other projects. “It’s using technology to help speed up the process but not supplant the command structure that’s in place.”

 

The Pentagon’s report follows President Donald Trump’s Monday executive order prioritizing AI research across the government.

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Russian Lawmakers Back Bill on ‘Sovereign’ Internet

Russian lawmakers backed tighter internet controls on Tuesday to defend against foreign meddling in draft legislation that critics warn could disrupt Russia’s internet and be used to stifle dissent.

The legislation, which some Russian media have likened to an online “iron curtain,” passed its first of three readings in the 450-seat lower chamber of parliament.

The bill seeks to route Russian web traffic and data through points controlled by state authorities and proposes building a national Domain Name System to allow the internet to continue functioning even if the country is cut off from foreign infrastructure.

The legislation was drafted in response to what its authors describe as an aggressive new U.S. national cybersecurity strategy passed last year.

The Agora human rights group said earlier this month that the legislation was one of several new bills drafted in December that “seriously threaten Internet freedom.”

The Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs has said the bill poses more of a risk to the functioning of the Russian internet segment than the alleged threats from foreign countries that the bill seeks to counter.

The bill also proposes installing network equipment that would be able to identify the source of web traffic and also block banned content.

The legislation, which can still be amended, but which is expected to pass, is part of a drive by officials to increase Russian “sovereignty” over its internet segment.

Russia has introduced tougher internet laws in the last five years, requiring search engines to delete some search results, messaging services to share encryption keys with security services, and social networks to store Russian users’ personal data on servers within the country.

The bill faces two more votes in the lower chamber, before it is voted on in the upper house of parliament and then signed into law by President Vladimir Putin.

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