Facebook can be told to cast a wider net to find illegal content, says EU court advisor

How much of an obligation should social media platforms be under to hunt down illegal content?

An influential advisor to Europe’s top court has taken the view that social media platforms like Facebook can be required to seek out and identify posts that are equivalent to content that an EU court has deemed illegal — such as hate speech or defamation — if the comments have been made by the same user.

Platforms can also be ordered to hunt for identical repostings of the illegal content.

But there should not be an obligation for platforms to identify equivalent defamatory comments that have been posted by any user, with the advocate general opining that such a broad requirement would not ensure a fair balance between the fundamental rights concerned — flagging risks to free expression and free access to information.

“An obligation to identify equivalent information originating from any user would not ensure a fair balance between the fundamental rights concerned. On the one hand, seeking and identifying such information would require costly solutions. On the other hand, the implementation of those solutions would lead to censorship, so that freedom of expression and information might well be systematically restricted.”

We covered this referral to the CJEU last year.

It’s an interesting case that blends questions of hate speech moderation and the limits of robust political speech, given that the original 2016 complaint of defamation was made by the former leader of the Austrian Green Party, Eva Glawischnig.

An Austrian court agreed with Glawischnig that hate speech posts made about her on Facebook were defamatory and ordered the company to remove them. Facebook did so, but only in Austria. Glawischnig challenged its partial takedown and in May 2017 a local appeals court ruled that it must remove both the original posts and any verbatim repostings and do so worldwide, not just in Austria. 

Further legal appeals led to the referral to the CJEU which is being asked to determine where the line should be drawn for similarly defamatory postings, and whether takedowns can be applied globally or only locally.

On the global takedowns point, the advocate general believes that existing EU law does not present an absolute blocker to social media platforms being ordered to remove information worldwide.

“Both the question of the extraterritorial effects of an injunction imposing a removal obligation and the question of the territorial scope of such an obligation should be analysed, in particular, by reference to public and private international law,” runs the non-binding opinion.

Another element relates to the requirement under existing EU law that platforms should not be required to carry out general monitoring of information they store — and specifically whether that directive precludes platforms from being ordered to remove “information equivalent to the information characterised as illegal” when they have been made aware of it by the person concerned, third parties or another source. 

On that, the AG takes the view that the EU’s e-Commerce Directive does not prevent platforms from being ordered to take down equivalent illegal content when it’s been flagged to them by others — writing that, in that case, “the removal obligation does not entail general monitoring of information stored”.

Advocate General Maciej Szpunar’s opinion — which can be read in full here — is not the last word on the matter, with the court still to deliberate and issue its final decision (usually within three to six months of an AG opinion). However advisors to the CJEU are influential and tend to predict which way the court will jump.

We reached out to Facebook for comment. A spokesperson for the company told us:

This case raises important questions about freedom of expression online and about the role that internet platforms should play in locating and removing speech, particularly when it comes to political discussions and criticizing elected officials. We remove content that breaks the law and our priority is always to keep people on Facebook safe. However this opinion undermines the long-standing principle that one country should not have the right to limit free expression in other countries. We hope the CJEU will clarify that, even in the age of the internet, the scope of court orders from one country must be limited to its borders.

This report was updated with comment from Facebook

China blocks CNN’s website and Reuters stories about Tiananmen Square

CNN’s website is currently blocked in mainland China, after it published a story about today’s 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre as one of its top headlines. The site is usually accessible in China, according to historical data from GreatFire.org.

Matt Rivers, a Beijing-based reporter, noted the blocking of the site on Twitter, writing that “the government here is near obsessive about limiting conversation on this topic.

Information about the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy demonstration, which ended when the government ordered troops to fire on activists, is suppressed in China, but the country’s censorship apparatus begins intensifying its efforts at eradicating any mention of the events in the weeks leading up to its anniversary each year.

Earlier today, financial information provider Refinitiv also took down Reuters stories related to Tiananmen Square from its Eikon information terminal, following an order from the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC), the government’s Internet regulation and censorship agency. The CAC told Refinitiv it would suspend its service in China if did not comply with the order.

Even though the stories were only supposed to be blocked in China, Reuters reported today that some users outside of China also said they could not see them, though the reason for that is unclear. (Early versions of the Reuters story about the suspension were themselves removed from Eikon, too).

Singapore passes controversial ‘fake news’ law which critics fear will stifle free speech

Singapore has passed a controversial bill that could equip the government with extensive powers to police online media and free speech.

The bill was first drafted last month and, as had been expected, it passed 72-9 in Singapore’s parliament, dominated by the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) party, late on Wednesday.

As we reported last month, the bill caused concern through its potential to stifle free speech since a key feature enables the government, and in factor any minister, to force “corrections” to be added to online content that is deemed to be “false.”

Beyond media, the flex also extends to social media. According to the law, those found to be “malicious actors” face a fine of up to SG$50,000 ($37,000) or five years in prison for their content. If posted using “an inauthentic online account or a bot,” the fine jumps to a maximum of SG$100,000 ($74,000) or a potential 10-year jail term. Platforms like Facebook and Twitter face fines of up to SG$1 million ($740,000) for their role in such situations.

Designed to cover “a false statement of fact… has been or is being communicated in Singapore” or cases where politicians believe that issuing a correction is “in the public interest,” the bill also claims reach overseas — or, rather, intended reach overseas. Politicians can trigger it in situations judged to be “in the interest of friendly relations of Singapore with other countries.”

It remains to be seen how much success the Singapore government will have with its efforts. Domestic media may well be under control — the World Press Freedom Index ranks Singapore 151 out of 183 countries and self-censorship is common — but influencing newsrooms based overseas and social networks will likely prove difficult.

Facebook, for example, last November resisted calls to remove content flagged as defamatory by the government. That clearly frustrated officials.

“This shows why we need legislation to protect us from deliberate online falsehoods,” the Ministry of Law wrote in an announcement at the time.

How a takedown would work — and how the government might access encrypted chats on apps like WhatsApp and Telegram, which are also part of its focus — also remains unclear at this point.

The law has been criticized by free speech groups.

“Singapore’s new ‘fake news’ law is a disaster for online expression by ordinary Singaporeans, and a hammer blow against the independence of many online news portals they rely on to get real news about their country beyond the ruling People’s Action Party political filter,” Human Rights Watch deputy Asia director Phil Robertson wrote on Twitter.

“Singapore’s leaders have crafted a law that will have a chilling effect on internet freedom throughout Southeast Asia, and likely start a new set of information wars as they try to impose their narrow version of “truth” on the wider world,” he added.

Human Rights Watch — which came out with strong criticism of the bill last month — was criticized by the Singapore government last month which hit back at “its long-standing practice of issuing biased and one-sided statements about Singapore.”

Meanwhile, on the more assistive end of the dissenting voices, the Asia Internet Coalition — a group that represents Facebook, Google, Twitter, LinkedIn, Line and others — penned an editorial in Singapore’s Straits Times newspaper suggesting changes to the bill.

The opinion piece — which, irony alert, is restricted by a paywall — recommended specific processes, an imperial body to vet decisions, exemptions for opinion articles, satire and more, as well as a request for “clear and well-defined language and scope.”

Robertson is concerned that other counties in Southeast Asia will take the ball Singapore has punted and run with it, thereby creating other restrictive online content policies. That’s already happened to some extent. In Vietnam, a draconian cybersecurity law went into operation on January 1 while Thailand passed a controversial law granting a wide scope of powers to authorities in February.

Singapore’s proposed ‘fake news’ law could stifle free speech

For many, Singapore is an idyllic and livable city in Asia. But there’s serious concern for the country and its five million population around a proposed law to curb ‘fake news’ on the internet that could have ramifications for free speech.

The ‘Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill’ had its first reading on Monday and one of the key takeaways is that it will allow the government to force “corrections” to be added to online content that is deemed to be “false.” Infringing articles won’t be edited, instead “the facts” will be added so that “the facts can travel together with the falsehood.”

The scope of the proposed bill goes beyond media to cover social media platforms, too. Those found to be “malicious actors” face a fine of up to SG$50,000 ($37,000) or five years in prison for their content. If posted using “an inauthentic online account or a bot,” the fine jumps to a maximum of SG$100,000 ($74,000) or a potential 10-year jail term. Platforms such as Facebook or Twitter face fines of up to SG$1 million ($740,000) in such situations.

What’s particularly alarming about the proposal is that it can be activated by any government minister if they believe that “a false statement of fact… has been or is being communicated in Singapore” or if they feel that issuing a correction is “in the public interest.”

The proposed act is focused on Singapore, but it will cover any piece of content worldwide. While, beyond merely covering content pertinent to the security of Singapore, the harmony of its people, its national politics and services, the process can be triggered “in the interest of friendly relations of Singapore with other countries.”

There’s also a clause that covers “a diminution of public confidence in the performance of any duty or function of government” and its associated organizations.

While it is fairly well established that social media and new media content can be a threat to multicultural societies and the democratic process, critics have pointed out that the proposed law has seriously scope to be misused, potentially against valid criticism. While Singapore’s Ministry of Law said it will not cover “opinions, criticisms, satire or parody,” simply defining what is an opinion or opinionated is not easy.

Indeed, an example last year involving Reuters shows the type of pushback that the government could exert if the bill becomes law as is expected — Singapore’s ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) party dominates parliament having won 83 of the 89 seats it contested in the most recent general election in 2015.

Reuters rewrote a contentious headline around a politician’s potential to become Prime Minister following condemnation from Singapore’s Ministry of Communications and Information (MCI), which rebuked Reuters running with a “fabricated headline.” The publication later changed the headline and parts of its story, as Cherian George — the author of a 2012 book on Singapore’s political system — explained in a recent blog post.

In this case, however, the law covers content produced outside Singapore, which could make its application messy, particularly if media companies covering international topics are caught in the crosshairs and they have employees located in Singapore.

Despite footnotes that try to untangle the policing of accurate content with censoring free speech — “the bill targets falsehoods, not free speech,” a press release issued by the ministry claims — free speech groups are concerned at the potentially immense power that would be wielded.

“Singapore’s ministers should not have the power to singlehandedly decree what is true and what is false,” Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch said in a statement. “Given Singapore’s long history of prohibiting speech critical of the government, its policies or its officials, its professed concerns about ‘online falsehoods’ and alleged election manipulation are farcical.”

Blogger Roy Ngerngwas sued by Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong after the blogger accused him of misusing public funds, a sensitive issue for officials in the city-state known to have the least corrupt governments in Asia (Photo credit: MOHD FYROL/AFP/Getty Images)

That was echoed by the Asia Internet Coalition, a group that represents Facebook, Google, Twitter, LinkedIn, Line and others.

“We are concerned that the proposed legislation gives the Singapore government full discretion over what is considered true or false. As the most far-reaching legislation of its kind to date, this level of overreach poses significant risks to freedom of expression and speech, and could have severe ramifications both in Singapore and around the world,” read a statement from AIC managing director Jeff Paine.

“Prescriptive legislation should not be the first solution in addressing what is a highly nuanced and complex issue,” Paine added.

Media freedom concern is not new to Singapore, where lawsuits and legal cases involving the government and citizens for content posted online are not uncommon.

Human Rights Watch’s 2017 report concluded that Singapore’s press is “not free.” Reporters Without Borders, another organization that tracks media freedom worldwide, ranked Singapore 151th out of 180 countries. The organization cited an “intolerant government” and media “self-censorship” among its top line conclusions. The proposed law could take things a step further.

Singapore’s proposed ‘fake news’ law could stifle free speech

For many, Singapore is an idyllic and livable city in Asia. But there’s serious concern for the country and its five million population around a proposed law to curb ‘fake news’ on the internet that could have ramifications for free speech.

The ‘Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill’ had its first reading on Monday and one of the key takeaways is that it will allow the government to force “corrections” to be added to online content that is deemed to be “false.” Infringing articles won’t be edited, instead “the facts” will be added so that “the facts can travel together with the falsehood.”

The scope of the proposed bill goes beyond media to cover social media platforms, too. Those found to be “malicious actors” face a fine of up to SG$50,000 ($37,000) or five years in prison for their content. If posted using “an inauthentic online account or a bot,” the fine jumps to a maximum of SG$100,000 ($74,000) or a potential 10-year jail term. Platforms such as Facebook or Twitter face fines of up to SG$1 million ($740,000) in such situations.

What’s particularly alarming about the proposal is that it can be activated by any government minister if they believe that “a false statement of fact… has been or is being communicated in Singapore” or if they feel that issuing a correction is “in the public interest.”

The proposed act is focused on Singapore, but it will cover any piece of content worldwide. While, beyond merely covering content pertinent to the security of Singapore, the harmony of its people, its national politics and services, the process can be triggered “in the interest of friendly relations of Singapore with other countries.”

There’s also a clause that covers “a diminution of public confidence in the performance of any duty or function of government” and its associated organizations.

While it is fairly well established that social media and new media content can be a threat to multicultural societies and the democratic process, critics have pointed out that the proposed law has seriously scope to be misused, potentially against valid criticism. While Singapore’s Ministry of Law said it will not cover “opinions, criticisms, satire or parody,” simply defining what is an opinion or opinionated is not easy.

Indeed, an example last year involving Reuters shows the type of pushback that the government could exert if the bill becomes law as is expected — Singapore’s ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) party dominates parliament having won 83 of the 89 seats it contested in the most recent general election in 2015.

Reuters rewrote a contentious headline around a politician’s potential to become Prime Minister following condemnation from Singapore’s Ministry of Communications and Information (MCI), which rebuked Reuters running with a “fabricated headline.” The publication later changed the headline and parts of its story, as Cherian George — the author of a 2012 book on Singapore’s political system — explained in a recent blog post.

In this case, however, the law covers content produced outside Singapore, which could make its application messy, particularly if media companies covering international topics are caught in the crosshairs and they have employees located in Singapore.

Despite footnotes that try to untangle the policing of accurate content with censoring free speech — “the bill targets falsehoods, not free speech,” a press release issued by the ministry claims — free speech groups are concerned at the potentially immense power that would be wielded.

“Singapore’s ministers should not have the power to singlehandedly decree what is true and what is false,” Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch said in a statement. “Given Singapore’s long history of prohibiting speech critical of the government, its policies or its officials, its professed concerns about ‘online falsehoods’ and alleged election manipulation are farcical.”

Blogger Roy Ngerngwas sued by Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong after the blogger accused him of misusing public funds, a sensitive issue for officials in the city-state known to have the least corrupt governments in Asia (Photo credit: MOHD FYROL/AFP/Getty Images)

That was echoed by the Asia Internet Coalition, a group that represents Facebook, Google, Twitter, LinkedIn, Line and others.

“We are concerned that the proposed legislation gives the Singapore government full discretion over what is considered true or false. As the most far-reaching legislation of its kind to date, this level of overreach poses significant risks to freedom of expression and speech, and could have severe ramifications both in Singapore and around the world,” read a statement from AIC managing director Jeff Paine.

“Prescriptive legislation should not be the first solution in addressing what is a highly nuanced and complex issue,” Paine added.

Media freedom concern is not new to Singapore, where lawsuits and legal cases involving the government and citizens for content posted online are not uncommon.

Human Rights Watch’s 2017 report concluded that Singapore’s press is “not free.” Reporters Without Borders, another organization that tracks media freedom worldwide, ranked Singapore 151th out of 180 countries. The organization cited an “intolerant government” and media “self-censorship” among its top line conclusions. The proposed law could take things a step further.

The “splinternet” is already here

There is no question that the arrival of a fragmented and divided internet is now upon us. The “splinternet,” where cyberspace is controlled and regulated by different countries is no longer just a concept, but now a dangerous reality. With the future of the “World Wide Web” at stake, governments and advocates in support of a free and open internet have an obligation to stem the tide of authoritarian regimes isolating the web to control information and their populations.

Both China and Russia have been rapidly increasing their internet oversight, leading to increased digital authoritarianism. Earlier this month Russia announced a plan to disconnect the entire country from the internet to simulate an all-out cyberwar. And, last month China issued two new censorship rules, identifying 100 new categories of banned content and implementing mandatory reviews of all content posted on short video platforms.

While China and Russia may be two of the biggest internet disruptors, they are by no means the only ones. Cuban, Iranian and even Turkish politicians have begun pushing “information sovereignty,” a euphemism for replacing services provided by western internet companies with their own more limited but easier to control products. And a 2017 study found that numerous countries, including Saudi Arabia, Syria and Yemen have engaged in “substantial politically motivated filtering.”

This digital control has also spread beyond authoritarian regimes. Increasingly, there are more attempts to keep foreign nationals off certain web properties.

For example, digital content available to U.K. citizens via the BBC’s iPlayer is becoming increasingly unavailable to Germans. South Korea filters, censors and blocks news agencies belonging to North Korea. Never have so many governments, authoritarian and democratic, actively blocked internet access to their own nationals.

The consequences of the splinternet and digital authoritarianism stretch far beyond the populations of these individual countries.

Back in 2016, U.S. trade officials accused China’s Great Firewall of creating what foreign internet executives defined as a trade barrier. Through controlling the rules of the internet, the Chinese government has nurtured a trio of domestic internet giants, known as BAT (Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent), who are all in lock step with the government’s ultra-strict regime.

The super-apps that these internet giants produce, such as WeChat, are built for censorship. The result? According to former Google CEO Eric Schmidt, “the Chinese Firewall will lead to two distinct internets. The U.S. will dominate the western internet and China will dominate the internet for all of Asia.”

Surprisingly, U.S. companies are helping to facilitate this splinternet.

Google had spent decades attempting to break into the Chinese market but had difficulty coexisting with the Chinese government’s strict censorship and collection of data, so much so that in March 2010, Google chose to pull its search engines and other services out of China. However now, in 2019, Google has completely changed its tune.

Google has made censorship allowances through an entirely different Chinese internet platform called project Dragonfly . Dragonfly is a censored version of Google’s Western search platform, with the key difference being that it blocks results for sensitive public queries.

Sundar Pichai, chief executive officer of Google Inc., sits before the start of a House Judiciary Committee hearing in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Tuesday, Dec. 11, 2018. Pichai backed privacy legislation and denied the company is politically biased, according to a transcript of testimony he plans to deliver. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “people have the right to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

Drafted in 1948, this declaration reflects the sentiment felt following World War II, when people worked to prevent authoritarian propaganda and censorship from ever taking hold the way it once did. And, while these words were written over 70 years ago, well before the age of the internet, this declaration challenges the very concept of the splinternet and the undemocratic digital boundaries we see developing today.

As the web becomes more splintered and information more controlled across the globe, we risk the deterioration of democratic systems, the corruption of free markets and further cyber misinformation campaigns. We must act now to save a free and open internet from censorship and international maneuvering before history is bound to repeat itself.

BRUSSELS, BELGIUM – MAY 22: An Avaaz activist attends an anti-Facebook demonstration with cardboard cutouts of Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg, on which is written “Fix Fakebook”, in front of the Berlaymont, the EU Commission headquarter on May 22, 2018 in Brussels, Belgium. Avaaz.org is an international non-governmental cybermilitating organization, founded in 2007. Presenting itself as a “supranational democratic movement,” it says it empowers citizens around the world to mobilize on various international issues, such as human rights, corruption or poverty. (Photo by Thierry Monasse/Corbis via Getty Images)

The Ultimate Solution

Similar to the UDHR drafted in 1948, in 2016, the United Nations declared “online freedom” to be a fundamental human right that must be protected. While not legally binding, the motion passed with consensus, and therefore the UN was provided limited power to endorse an open internet (OI) system. Through selectively applying pressure on governments who are not compliant, the UN can now enforce digital human rights standards.

The first step would be to implement a transparent monitoring system which ensures that the full resources of the internet, and ability to operate on it, are easily accessible to all citizens. Countries such as North Korea, China, Iran and Syria, who block websites and filter email plus social media communication, would be encouraged to improve through the imposition of incentives and consequences.

All countries would be ranked on their achievement of multiple positive factors including open standards, lack of censorship, and low barriers to internet entry. A three tier open internet ranking system would divide all nations into Free, Partly Free or Not Free. The ultimate goal would be to have all countries gradually migrate towards the Free category, allowing all citizens full information across the WWW, equally free and open without constraints.

The second step would be for the UN to align itself much more closely with the largest western internet companies. Together they could jointly assemble detailed reports on each government’s efforts towards censorship creep and government overreach. The global tech companies are keenly aware of which specific countries are applying pressure for censorship and the restriction of digital speech. Together, the UN and global tech firms would prove strong adversaries, protecting the citizens of the world. Every individual in every country deserves to know what is truly happening in the world.

The Free countries with an open internet, zero undue regulation or censorship would have a clear path to tremendous economic prosperity. Countries who remain in the Not Free tier, attempting to impose their self-serving political and social values would find themselves completely isolated, visibly violating digital human rights law.

This is not a hollow threat. A completely closed off splinternet will inevitably lead a country to isolation, low growth rates, and stagnation.

Google employees can’t just walk away from ethical tradeoffs like Dragonfly

Let me blunt up front: I think Google should launch a censored search engine in China (albeit with careful organizational boundaries). And I think that Google employees who would undermine such a project need to step down and walk out the front door to opportunities more in line with their purported values.

I am reacting to Ryan Gallagher’s piece yesterday in The Intercept, in which his sources within the search giant have been tracking changes in the Project Dragonfly software repository, the code that would power a hypothetical Google search engine in China. As Gallagher wrote:

But Google executives, including CEO Sundar Pichai, refused both publicly and privately to completely rule out launching the censored search engine in the future. This led a group of concerned employees — who were themselves not directly involved with Dragonfly — to closely monitor the company’s internal systems for information about the project and circulate their findings on an internal messaging list.

Gallagher seemingly celebrates the guerrilla actions of these disaffected workers, but what confuses me is why these employees continue to work at Google at all? It’s one thing to vociferously argue against a business decision within the confines of a corporate campus; it is something completely else to regularly track activity and leak that to a journalist. When did Mountain View become Capitol Hill?

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At least some employees appear to be understanding that paradox and taking action. As Gallagher wrote:

The lack of clarity from management has resulted in Google losing skilled engineers and developers. In recent months, several Google employees have resigned in part due to Dragonfly and leadership’s handling of the project. The Intercept knows of six staff at the company, including two in senior positions, who have quit since December, and three others who are planning to follow them out the door.

If you disagree with the ethics of your company, the best course of action — particularly in the strongest employment economy in years — is to find a job more in line with your values.

Dragonfly and the intensifying ethical tradeoffs of tech

That said, these ethical tradeoffs are a pattern we are going to see more and more frequently in tech. The intellectual and ethical purity of the original internet as written by people like John Perry Barlow has been subsumed by the power politics of capitals like Washington, Beijing, and Brussels.

The internet as independence movement is 100% dead.

That makes the ethical terrain for Silicon Valley workers much more challenging to navigate. Everything is a compromise, in one way or another. Even the very act of creating value — arguably the most important feature of Silicon Valley’s startup ecosystem — has driven mass inequality, as we explored on Extra Crunch this weekend in an in-depth interview.

What’s worse is that product designers are losing their agency to even affect those tradeoffs. A decade or two ago, Google might have made something of a difference in the development of the Chinese internet. But today? It’s impossible for me to see how Google could convince the Chinese Communist Party of, well, pretty much anything.

There is an incredible arrogance that a product decision made at Google these days will somehow affect the course of Chinese civilization. As Gallagher concluded his piece:

If Google is still developing the censored search engine, [Anna Bacciarelli, a technology researcher at Amnesty International] said, “it’s not only failing on its human rights responsibilities but ignoring the hundreds of Google employees, more than 70 human rights organizations, and hundreds of thousands of campaign supporters around the world who have all called on the company to respect human rights and drop Dragonfly.”

“Respect human rights” by not offering a censored search product in a country where every other search engine already has the same censorship? What exactly is Google pioneering here? How does its entry negatively affect anything or further deny human rights?

China is now the world’s largest internet userbase, and Google ignores it at its peril. I want Google services in China, if only because I trust Google far more than other companies (American or Chinese) to try to push toward openness even in a closed system. Maybe it will censor slightly less than its competitors — and isn’t that what progress looks like?

Technology in this context isn’t about disruption or liberation but about the margin: it’s the tweaks in aggregate that might one day make a difference.

Yes, there are huge implications for execution. Creating an independent operating unit with its own P&L and separately reported financials would be critical to ensure that Chinese censorship policies don’t seep into Google’s main search product in the West. Thankfully, Alphabet is already setup to do just that.

I am a resolute defender of human rights, but the world is the world. China’s government has incredible control over its internet, and those constraints are unlikely to relax in the short-to-medium term. Google can be “pure” and just ignore the largest internet market in the world, but that seems like a seriously naive tradeoff. Far better to engage and try to find venues to push for openness, even if it will be mostly unsuccessful.

Like that strategy or hate it, but these sorts of compromises are increasingly the future for Silicon Valley. In this way, the tech industry is joining the ranks of pretty much every other industry in the economy. Changing the world sometimes means playing by unfair and dubious rules.

Obsessions

  • Perhaps some more challenges around data usage and algorithmic accountability
  • We have a bit of a theme around emerging markets, macroeconomics, and the next set of users to join the internet.
  • More discussion of megaprojects, infrastructure, and “why can’t we build things”

Thanks

To every member of Extra Crunch: thank you. You allow us to get off the ad-laden media churn conveyor belt and spend quality time on amazing ideas, people, and companies. If I can ever be of assistance, hit reply, or send an email to [email protected].

This newsletter is written with the assistance of Arman Tabatabai from New York

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Russia plans to test a kill switch that disconnects the country from the internet

As a cyber-defensive measure, the Russian government will reportedly perform a trial run of a measure that would effectively cut the country off from the rest of the world’s web.

Last year, Russia introduced its Digital Economy National Program, a plan that would require Russian internet providers to remain functional in the event the country was cut off from worldwide internet. Under this plan, Russian ISPs would redirect web traffic to routing points within the country and rely on its own copy of the Domain Name System (DNS), the directory of domains and addresses that underpins the global internet.

The test run could be useful to the country for a few reasons. Primarily, Russia aims to simulate the drastic measures it would take in the case of some kind of cyber threat to its national security. But for a country notorious for its restrictive environment for individual and press freedom, the test may also be a useful way to see how the country could wield a more closely held internet to control its own people and guard against foreign interests.

The extreme measure, if successful, would allow Russia to effectively operate its own state-controlled internet and cut itself off from the world as it sees fit. While the test date is not yet known, it’s expected to happen before April 1 of this year, the last day for lawmakers to propose amendments to the Digital Economy National Program.

Vietnam threatens to penalize Facebook for breaking its draconian cybersecurity law

Well, that didn’t take long. We’re less than ten days into 2019 and already Vietnam is aiming threats at Facebook after it violating its draconian cybersecurity law which came into force on January 1.

The U.S. social network stands accused of allowing users in Vietnam to post “slanderous content, anti-government sentiment and libel and defamation of individuals, organisations and state agencies,” according to a report from state-controlled media Vietnam News.

The content is said to have been flagged to Facebook which, reports say, has “delayed removing” it.

That violates the law which — passed last June — broadly forbids internet users from organizing with, or training, others for anti-state purposes, spreading false information, and undermining the nation state’s achievements or solidarity, according to reports at the time. It also requires foreign internet companies to operate a local office and store user information on Vietnamese soil. That’s something neither Google nor Facebook has complied with, despite the Vietnamese government’s recent claim that the former is investigating a local office launch.

In addition, the Authority of Broadcasting and Electronic Information (ABEI) claimed Facebook had violated online advertising rules by allowing accounts to promote fraudulent products and scams, while it is considering penalties for failure to pay tax. The Vietnamese report claimed some $235 million was spent on Facebook ads in 2018, with $152.1 million going to Google.

Facebook responded by clarifying its existing channels for reporting illegal content.

“We have a clear process for governments to report illegal content to us, and we review all these requests against our terms of service and local law. We are transparent about the content restrictions we make in accordance with local law in our Transparency Report,” a Facebook representative told TechCrunch in a statement.

TechCrunch understands that the company is in contact with the Vietnamese government and it intends to review content flagged as illegal before making a decision.

Vietnamese media reports claim that Facebook has already told the government that the content in question doesn’t violate its community standards.

It looks likely that the new law will see contact from Vietnamese government censors spike, but Facebook has acted on content before. The company latest transparency report covers the first half of 2018 and it shows that received 12 requests for data in Vietnam, granting just two. Facebook confirmed it has previously taken action on content that has included the alleged illegal sale of regulated products, trade of wildlife, and efforts to impersonate an individual.

Facebook did not respond to the tax liability claim.

The company previously indicated its concern at the cybersecurity law via Asia Internet Coalition (AIC) — a group that represents the social media giant as well as Google, Twitter, LinkedIn, Line and others — which cautioned that the regulations would negatively impact Vietnam.

“The provisions for data localization, controls on content that affect free speech, and local office requirements will undoubtedly hinder the nation’s fourth Industrial Revolution ambitions to achieve GDP and job growth,” AIC wrote in a statement in June.

“Unfortunately, these provisions will result in severe limitations on Vietnam’s digital economy, dampening the foreign investment climate and hurting opportunities for local businesses and SMEs to flourish inside and beyond Vietnam,” it added.

Vietnam is increasingly gaining a reputation as a growing market for startups, but the cybersecurity act threatens to impact that. One key issue is that the broad terms appear to give the government signficant scope to remove content that it deems offensive.

“This decision has potentially devastating consequences for freedom of expression in Vietnam. In the country’s deeply repressive climate, the online space was a relative refuge where people could go to share ideas and opinions with less fear of censure by the authorities,” said Amnesty International.

Vietnam News reports that the authorities are continuing to collect evidence against Facebook.

“If Facebook did not take positive steps, Vietnamese regulators would apply necessary economic and technical measures to ensure a clean and healthy network environment,” the ABEI is reported to have said.

Google CEO Sundar Pichai speaks publicly for the first time about its censored China search engine

Commenting publicly for the first time about Google’s censored search engine for China, CEO Sundar Pichai said onstage at the WIRED 25 summit in San Francisco that the company is taking “a longer-term view” about the country. Codenamed Project Dragonfly, the controversial development has been public knowledge since a report in August by the Intercept, generating significant backlash, with several employees resigning in protest.

Google did not confirm Project Dragonfly’s existence until its chief privacy officer, Keith Enright, spoke at a Senate hearing last month. Even then, Enright did not provide much information about the project, so this means Pichai’s comments at WIRED 25 are the most detailed ones made officially by Google’s leadership so far.

Even before Project Dragonfly was revealed by The Intercept, Google had already been quietly working on a strategy to re-enter China, including launching (or re-launching) apps through third-party Android stores (Google Play is not available in China) and working with partners like Xiaomi and Huawei to introduce its ARCore technology for augmented and virtual reality there. Pichai said Google has not decided if it will actually launch Project Dragonfly in China, but if it does, the search engine’s biggest competition would be Baidu.

Pichai said that Chinese tech innovations means it’s time for Google to get an understanding of the market from the inside out. “It’s a wonderful, innovative market. We wanted to learn what it would look like if we were in China, so that’s what we built internally,” adding that “given how important the market is and how many users there are, we feel obliged to think hard about this problem and take a longer-term view.”

Even though it follows China’s strict censorship laws, Pichai claimed that Project Dragonfly will still be able to answer “well over 99% of the queries” put to it and that “there are many, many areas where we would provide information better than what’s available.”

Google once operated a censored search engine in China at Google.cn, but pulled out of the country in 2010. At the time, Google said its decision was prompted by a “sophisticated cyber attack originating from China” that targeted human rights activists, and the country’s efforts to “further limit free speech on the web in China” by blocking websites like Googe Docs, Blogger, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

For its critics, Project Dragonfly’s existence means Google has reneged on the values it avowed nine years ago. While onstage at WIRED 25, however, Pichai said working on a search engine is in line with the company’s mission to “provide information to everyone,” noting that China contains about 20% of the world’s population.

Google only embarked on Project Dragonfly after much deliberation, he said. “People don’t understand fully, but you’re always balancing a set of values” when entering new countries,” adding “but we also follow the rule of law in every country.”