Category Archives: Technology

silicon valley & technology news

Zoom Gets More Popular Despite Worries About Links to China

Very few companies can boast of having their name also used as a verb. Zoom is one of them. The popularity of the videoconferencing platform continues to grow around the world despite continued questions about whether Chinese authorities are monitoring the calls.

Since Zoom became a household word last year during the pandemic, internet users including companies and government agencies have asked whether the app’s data centers and staff in China are passing call logs to Chinese authorities.

“Some of the more informed know about that, but the vast majority, they don’t know about that, or even if they do, they really don’t give much thought about it,” said Jack Nguyen, partner at the business advisory firm Mazars in Ho Chi Minh City.

He said in Vietnam, for example, many people resent China over territorial spats, but Vietnamese tend to Zoom as willingly as they sign on to rivals such as Microsoft Teams. They like Zoom’s free 40 minutes per call, said Nguyen.

Whether to use the Silicon Valley-headquartered Zoom, now as before, comes down to a user-by-user calculation of the service’s benefits versus the possibility that call logs are being viewed in China, analysts say. China hopes to identify and stop internet content that flouts Communist Party interests.

The 10-year-old listed company officially named Zoom Video Communications reported over $1 billion in revenue in the April-June quarter this year, up 54% over the same quarter of 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic drove face-to-face meetings online. In the same quarter, the most recent one detailed by the company, Zoom had 504,900 customers of more than 10 employees, up about 36% year on year.

Zoom commanded a 42.8% U.S. market share, leading competitors, as of May 2020, the news website LearnBonds reported. Its U.S. share was up to 55% by March this year, according to ToolTester Network data.

Tech media cite Zoom’s free 40 minutes and capacity for up to 100 call participants as major reasons for its popularity.

Links to China?

Keys that Zoom uses to encrypt and decrypt meetings may be sent to servers in China, Wired Business Media’s website Security Week has reported. Some encryption keys were issued by servers in China, news website WCCF Tech said.

Zoom did not answer VOA’s requests this month for comment.

Zoom has acknowledged keeping at least one data center and a staff employee in China, where the communist government requires resident tech firms to provide user data on request. In September 2019, the Chinese government turned off Zoom in China, and in April last year Zoom said international calls were routed in error through a China-based data center.

“Odds are high” of China getting records of Zoom calls, said Jacob Helberg, a senior adviser at the Stanford University Center on Geopolitics and Technology.

“If you have Zoom engineers in China who have access to the actual servers, from an engineering standpoint those engineers can absolutely have access to content of potential communications in China,” he said.

Zoom said in a statement in early April 2020 that certain meetings held by its non-Chinese users might have been “allowed to connect to systems in China, where they should not have been able to connect,” SmarterAnalyst.com reported.

Excitement and caution

Zoom said in 2019 it had put in place “strict geo-fencing procedures around our mainland China data center.”

“No meeting content will ever be routed through our mainland China data center unless the meeting includes a participant from China,” it said in a blog post.

Among the bigger users of Zoom is the University of California, a 10-campus system that switched to online learning in early 2020. Zoom was selected following a request for proposals “years” before the pandemic, a UC-Berkeley spokesperson told VOA on Thursday.

Elsewhere in the United States, NASA has banned employees from using Zoom, and the Senate has urged its members to avoid it because of security concerns. The German Foreign Ministry and Australian Defense Force restrict use as well, while Taiwan barred Zoom for government business last year. China claims sovereignty over self-ruled Taiwan, which has caused decades of political hostility.

“For Taiwan, there’s still some doubt,” said Brady Wang, a Taipei analyst with the market intelligence firm Counterpoint Research, referring particularly to Zoom’s encryption software. “And in the final analysis, these kinds of choices are numerous, so it’s not like you must rely on Zoom.”

LinkedIn’s withdrawal from China announced this month may spark new scrutiny over Zoom, said Zennon Kapron, founder and director of Kapronasia, a Shanghai financial industry research firm.

“I think when you look at the other technology players that are currently in China or that have relations to China such as Zoom, there will be a renewed push probably by consumers, businesses and even regulators in some jurisdictions to really try to understand and pry apart what the roles of Chinese suppliers or development houses are in developing some of these platforms and the potential security risks that go with them,” Kapron said.

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Facebook Dithered in Curbing Divisive User Content in India

Facebook in India has been selective in curbing hate speech, misinformation and inflammatory posts, particularly anti-Muslim content, according to leaked documents obtained by The Associated Press, even as its own employees cast doubt over the company’s motivations and interests.

From research as recent as March of this year to company memos that date back to 2019, the internal company documents on India highlight Facebook’s constant struggles in quashing abusive content on its platforms in the world’s biggest democracy and the company’s largest growth market. Communal and religious tensions in India have a history of boiling over on social media and stoking violence.

The files show that Facebook has been aware of the problems for years, raising questions over whether it has done enough to address these issues. Many critics and digital experts say it has failed to do so, especially in cases where members of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, the BJP, are involved.

Modi has been credited for leveraging the platform to his party’s advantage during elections, and reporting from The Wall Street Journal last year cast doubt over whether Facebook was selectively enforcing its policies on hate speech to avoid blowback from the BJP. Both Modi and Facebook chairman and CEO Mark Zuckerberg have exuded bonhomie, memorialized by a 2015 image of the two hugging at Facebook headquarters.

According to the documents, Facebook saw India as one of the most “at risk countries” in the world and identified both Hindi and Bengali languages as priorities for “automation on violating hostile speech.” Yet, Facebook didn’t have enough local language moderators or content-flagging in place to stop misinformation that at times led to real-world violence.

In a statement to the AP, Facebook said it has “invested significantly in technology to find hate speech in various languages, including Hindi and Bengali” which has “reduced the amount of hate speech that people see by half” in 2021. 

“Hate speech against marginalized groups, including Muslims, is on the rise globally. So we are improving enforcement and are committed to updating our policies as hate speech evolves online,” a company spokesperson said. 

This AP story, along with others being published, is based on disclosures made to the Securities and Exchange Commission and provided to Congress in redacted form by former Facebook employee-turned-whistleblower Frances Haugen’s legal counsel. The redacted versions were obtained by a consortium of news organizations, including the AP.

In February 2019 and ahead of a general election when concerns about misinformation were running high, a Facebook employee wanted to understand what a new user in the country saw on their news feed if all they did was follow pages and groups solely recommended by the platform.

The employee created a test user account and kept it live for three weeks, during which an extraordinary event shook India — a militant attack in disputed Kashmir killed more than 40 Indian soldiers, bringing the country to near war with rival Pakistan.

In a report, titled “An Indian Test User’s Descent into a Sea of Polarizing, Nationalistic Messages,” the employee, whose name is redacted, said they were shocked by the content flooding the news feed, which “has become a near constant barrage of polarizing nationalist content, misinformation, and violence and gore.”

Seemingly benign and innocuous groups recommended by Facebook quickly morphed into something else altogether, where hate speech, unverified rumors and viral content ran rampant.

The recommended groups were inundated with fake news, anti-Pakistan rhetoric and Islamophobic content. Much of the content was extremely graphic.

“Following this test user’s News Feed, I’ve seen more images of dead people in the past three weeks than I’ve seen in my entire life total,” the researcher wrote.

The Facebook spokesperson said the test study “inspired deeper, more rigorous analysis” of its recommendation systems and “contributed to product changes to improve them.”

“Separately, our work on curbing hate speech continues and we have further strengthened our hate classifiers, to include four Indian languages,” the spokesperson said.

Other research files on misinformation in India highlight just how massive a problem it is for the platform.

In January 2019, a month before the test user experiment, another assessment raised similar alarms about misleading content. 

In a presentation circulated to employees, the findings concluded that Facebook’s misinformation tags weren’t clear enough for users, underscoring that it needed to do more to stem hate speech and fake news. Users told researchers that “clearly labeling information would make their lives easier.”

Alongside misinformation, the leaked documents reveal another problem dogging Facebook in India: anti-Muslim propaganda, especially by Hindu-hardline groups.

India is Facebook’s largest market with over 340 million users — nearly 400 million Indians also use the company’s messaging service WhatsApp. But both have been accused of being vehicles to spread hate speech and fake news against minorities.

In February 2020, these tensions came to life on Facebook when a politician from Modi’s party uploaded a video on the platform in which he called on his supporters to remove mostly Muslim protesters from a road in New Delhi if the police didn’t. Violent riots erupted within hours, killing 53 people. Most of them were Muslims. Only after thousands of views and shares did Facebook remove the video.

In April, misinformation targeting Muslims again went viral on its platform as the hashtag “Coronajihad” flooded news feeds, blaming the community for a surge in COVID-19 cases. The hashtag was popular on Facebook for days but was later removed by the company.

The misinformation triggered a wave of violence, business boycotts and hate speech toward Muslims.

Criticisms of Facebook’s handling of such content were amplified in August of last year when The Wall Street Journal published a series of stories detailing how the company had internally debated whether to classify a Hindu hard-line lawmaker close to Modi’s party as a “dangerous individual” — a classification that would ban him from the platform — after a series of anti-Muslim posts from his account.

The documents also show how the company’s South Asia policy head herself had shared what many felt were Islamophobic posts on her personal Facebook profile. 

Months later the India Facebook official quit the company. Facebook also removed the politician from the platform, but documents show many company employees felt the platform had mishandled the situation, accusing it of selective bias to avoid being in the crosshairs of the Indian government.

As recently as March this year, the company was internally debating whether it could control the “fear mongering, anti-Muslim narratives” pushed by Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a far-right Hindu nationalist group that Modi is also a part of, on its platform.

In one document titled “Lotus Mahal,” the company noted that members with links to the BJP had created multiple Facebook accounts to amplify anti-Muslim content.

The research found that much of this content was “never flagged or actioned” since Facebook lacked “classifiers” and “moderators” in Hindi and Bengali languages. 

Facebook said it added hate speech classifiers in Hindi starting in 2018 and introduced Bengali in 2020.

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Apple Updates App Store Payment Rules in Concession to Developers

Apple has updated its App Store rules to allow developers to contact users directly about payments, a concession in a legal settlement with companies challenging its tightly controlled marketplace.

According to App Store rules updated Friday, developers can now contact consumers directly about alternate payment methods, bypassing Apple’s commission of 15 or 30%.

They will be able to ask users for basic information, such as names and e-mail addresses, “as long as this request remains optional”, said the iPhone maker.

Apple proposed the changes in August in a legal settlement with small app developers.

But the concession is unlikely to satisfy firms like “Fortnite” developer Epic Games, with which the tech giant has been grappling in a drawn-out dispute over its payments policy.  

Epic launched a case aiming to break Apple’s grip on the App Store, accusing the iPhone maker of operating a monopoly in its shop for digital goods or services.

In September, a judge ordered Apple to loosen control of its App Store payment options, but said Epic had failed to prove that antitrust violations had taken place.

For Epic and others, the ability to redirect users to an out-of-app payment method is not enough: it wants players to be able to pay directly without leaving the game.

Both sides have appealed. 

Apple is also facing investigations from US and European authorities that accuse it of abusing its dominant position.

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Another Whistleblower Accuses Facebook of Wrongdoing: Report

A former Facebook worker reportedly told U.S. authorities Friday the platform has put profits before stopping problematic content, weeks after another whistleblower helped stoke the firm’s latest crisis with similar claims.

The unnamed new whistleblower filed a complaint with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, the federal financial regulator, that could add to the company’s woes, said a Washington Post report.

Facebook has faced a storm of criticism over the past month after former employee Frances Haugen leaked internal studies showing the company knew of potential harm fueled by its sites, prompting U.S. lawmakers to renew a push for regulation.

In the SEC complaint, the new whistleblower recounts alleged statements from 2017, when the company was deciding how to handle the controversy related to Russia’s interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.  

“It will be a flash in the pan. Some legislators will get pissy. And then in a few weeks they will move onto something else. Meanwhile we are printing money in the basement, and we are fine,” Tucker Bounds, a member of Facebook’s communications team, was quoted in the complaint as saying, The Washington Post reported.  

The second whistleblower signed the complaint on October 13, a week after Haugen’s testimony before a Senate panel, according to the report.

Haugen told lawmakers that Facebook put profits over safety, which led her to leak reams of internal company studies that underpinned a damning Wall Street Journal series.

The Washington Post reported the new whistleblower’s SEC filing claims the social media giant’s managers routinely undermined efforts to combat misinformation and other problematic content for fear of angering then-U.S. President Donald Trump or for turning off the users who are key to profits.

Erin McPike, a Facebook spokesperson, said the article was “beneath the Washington Post, which during the last five years would only report stories after deep reporting with corroborating sources.”  

Facebook has faced previous firestorms of controversy, but they did not translate into substantial U.S. legislation to regulate social media.

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China’s Reach Into Africa’s Digital Sector Worries Experts

Chinese companies like Huawei and the Transsion group are responsible for much of the digital infrastructure and smartphones used in Africa. Chinese phones built in Africa come with already installed apps for mobile money transfer services that increase the reach of Chinese tech companies. But while many Africans may find the availability of such technology useful, the trend worries some experts on data management.

China has taken the lead in the development of Africa’s artificial intelligence and communication infrastructure. 

In July 2020, Cameroon contracted with Huawei, a Chinese telecommunication infrastructure company, to equip government data centers. In 2019, Kenya was reported to have signed the same company to deliver smart city and surveillance technology worth $174 million. 

A study by the Atlantic Council, a U.S.-based think tank, found that Huawei has developed 30% of the 3G network and 70% of the 4G network in Africa. 

Eric Olander is the managing editor of the Chinese Africa Project, a media organization examining China’s engagement in Africa. He says Chinese investment is helping Africa grow.

“The networking equipment is really what is so vital and what the Chinese have been able to do with Huawei, in particular, is they bring the networking infrastructure together with state-backed loans and that’s the combination that has proven to be very effective. So, a lot of governments that would not be able to afford 4G and 5G network upgrades are able to get these concessional loans from the China Exim Bank that are used and to purchase Huawei equipment,” Olander said.

Data compiled by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, a Canberra-based defense and policy research organization, show China has built 266 technology projects in Africa ranging from 4G and 5G telecommunications networks to data centers, smart city projects that modernize urban centers and education programs.  

But while the new technology has helped modernize the African continent, some say it comes at a cost that is not measured in dollars. 

China loaned the Ethiopian government more than $3 billion to be used to upgrade its digital infrastructure. Critics say the money helped Ethiopia expand its authoritarian rule and monitor telecom network users. 

According to an investigation by The Wall Street Journal, Huawei technology helped the Ugandan and Zambian governments spy on government critics.  In 2019, Uganda procured millions of dollars in closed circuit television surveillance technology from Huawei, ostensibly to help control urban crime.

Police in the East African nation admitted to using the system’s facial recognition ability supplied by Huawei to arrest more than 800 opposition supporters last year.

Bulelani Jili, a cybersecurity fellow at the Belfer Center at Harvard University, says African citizens must be made aware of the risks in relations with Chinese tech companies.

“There is need [for] greater public awareness and attention to this issue in part because it’s a key metric surrounding both development but also the kind of Africa-China relations going forward…. We should also be thinking about data sovereignty is going to be a key factor going forward.” 

Jili said data sharing will create more challenges for relations between Africa and China. 

“There are security questions about data, specifically how it’s managed, who owns it, and how governments depend on private actors to provide them the technical capacity to initiate certain state services.”  

London-based organization Privacy International says at least 24 African countries have laws that protect the personal data of their citizens. But experts say most of those laws are not enforced. 

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Facebook Kept Oversight Board in Dark about Special Treatment of VIP Accounts

Facebook’s quasi-independent oversight board criticized the company Thursday, saying many high-profile accounts such as celebrities and politicians are not held to the same standards as other accounts.

In a blog post, the board said, “Facebook has not been fully forthcoming with the Board on its ‘Cross-Check’ system, which the company uses to review content decisions relating to high-profile users.”

The Wall Street Journal had previously reported about the company’s double standards, and that 5.8 million accounts fell under the Cross-Check system.

“At times, the documents show, [Cross-Check] has protected public figures whose posts contain harassment or incitement to violence, violations that would typically lead to sanctions for regular users,” the Journal reported.

Facebook spokesman Andy Stone told the Journal that Cross-Check “was designed for an important reason: to create an additional step so we can accurately enforce policies on content that could require more understanding.”

The board said Facebook kept it in the dark about the existence of Cross-Check.

“When Facebook referred the case related to former U.S. President Trump to the Board, it did not mention the cross-check system,” the board wrote. “Given that the referral included a specific policy question about account-level enforcement for political leaders, many of whom the Board believes were covered by cross-check, this omission is not acceptable.”

“Facebook only mentioned cross-check to the Board when we asked whether Mr. Trump’s page or account had been subject to ordinary content moderation processes.”

The board urged Facebook to provide greater transparency.

The board was created last October after the company faced criticism it was not quickly and effectively dealing with what some feel is problematic content.

Decisions by the board are binding and cannot be overturned. 

 

Some information in this report comes from Reuters.

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New Name for Facebook? Critics Cry Smoke and Mirrors

Facebook critics pounced Wednesday on a report that the social network plans to rename itself, arguing it may be seeking to distract from recent scandals and controversy.

The report from tech news website The Verge, which Facebook refused to confirm, said the embattled company was aiming to show its ambition to be more than a social media site.

But an activist group calling itself The Real Facebook Oversight Board warned that major industries like oil and tobacco had rebranded to “deflect attention” from their problems.

“Facebook thinks that a rebrand can help them change the subject,” said the group’s statement, adding the real issue was the need for oversight and regulation.

Facebook spokesman Andy Stone told AFP: “We don’t have any comment and aren’t confirming The Verge’s report.”

The Verge cited an unnamed source noting the name would reflect Facebook’s efforts to build the “metaverse,” a virtual reality version of the internet that the tech giant sees as the future.

Facebook on Monday announced plans to hire 10,000 people in the European Union to build the metaverse, with CEO Mark Zuckerberg emerging as a leading promoter of the concept.

Fallout

The announcement comes as Facebook grapples with the fallout of a damaging scandal, major outages of its services and rising calls for regulation to curb its vast influence.

The company has faced a storm of criticism over the past month after former employee Frances Haugen leaked internal studies showing Facebook knew its sites could be harmful to young people’s mental health.

The Washington Post last month suggested that Facebook’s interest in the metaverse is “part of a broader push to rehabilitate the company’s reputation with policymakers and reposition Facebook to shape the regulation of next-wave internet technologies.”

Silicon Valley analyst Benedict Evans argued a rebranding would ignore fundamental problems with the platform.

“If you give a broken product a new name, people will quite quickly work out that this new brand has the same problems,” he tweeted.

“A better ‘rebrand’ approach is generally to fix the problem first and then create a new brand reflecting the new experience,” he added.

Google rebranded itself as Alphabet in a corporate reconfiguration in 2015, but the online search and ad powerhouse remains its defining unit despite other operations such as Waymo self-driving cars and Verily life sciences.

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Facebook to Pay Up to $14 Million Over Discrimination Against US Workers 

Facebook must pay a $4.75 million fine and up to $9.5 million in back pay to eligible victims who say the company discriminated against U.S. workers in favor of foreign ones, the Justice Department announced Tuesday. 

The discrimination took place from at least January 1, 2018, until at least September 18, 2019. 

The Justice Department said Facebook “routinely refused” to recruit or consider U.S. workers, including U.S. citizens and nationals, asylees, refugees and lawful permanent residents, in favor of temporary visa holders. Facebook also helped the visa holders get their green cards, which allowed them to work permanently 

In a separate settlement, the company also agreed to train its employees in anti-discrimination rules and conduct wider searches to fill jobs. 

The fines and back pay are the largest civil awards ever given by the DOJ’s civil rights division in its 35-year history. 

“Facebook is not above the law and must comply with our nation’s civil rights laws,” Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke told reporters in a telephone conference. 

“While we strongly believe we met the federal government’s standards in our permanent labor certification [PERM] practices, we’ve reached agreements to end the ongoing litigation and move forward with our PERM program, which is an important part of our overall immigration program,” a Facebook spokesperson said in a statement. “These resolutions will enable us to continue our focus on hiring the best builders from both the U.S. and around the world and supporting our internal community of highly skilled visa holders who are seeking permanent residence.” 

Some information in this report came from the Associated Press.

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