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.”

Myanmar jails Reuters reporters who uncovered military atrocity

Reporting the news isn’t illegal, unless you’re in Myanmar. The Southeast Asian country this week sentenced two reporters from Reuters to seven years in jail in response to an investigative report that uncovered atrocities committed against Rohingya Muslims by the army.

Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, the two Reuters staffers, have been in custody since December. They were arrested for possession of official government documents which had been given to them by a member of the police force as part of the investigation. That puts them in violation of the colonial-time Official Secrets Act which bars civilians from accessing government information.

The landmark decision has been derided worldwide. Critics argue that the Reuters reporters are being made an example of because they surfaced the untold story of an atrocity that involved the military, which controlled Myanmar for nearly 50 years until general elections were introduced in 2015.

The ethnic tension for the Rohingya in Myanmar has gained global awareness in recent years, but less is known about the role that the military has played in both escalated tensions and also through outright atrocities. The Reuters report which the duo contributed to detailed how members of the army, alongside Buddhist villagers, killed 10 Rohingya men in a coastal village.

“Today’s appalling verdict has condemned two innocent men to years behind bars. Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo face lengthy jail terms simply because they dared to ask uncomfortable questions about military atrocities in Rakhine State. These convictions must be quashed, and both men immediately and unconditionally released,” Tirana Hassan, Amnesty International’s Director of Crisis Response, said in a statement.

“The outrageous convictions of the Reuters journalists show Myanmar courts’ willingness to muzzle those reporting on military atrocities. These sentences mark a new low for press freedom and further backsliding on rights under Aung San Suu Kyi’s government,” said Bill Adams, Human Rights Watch’s Asia director.

Some Infowars tweets vanished today, but Twitter didn’t remove them

A handful of tweets and videos that appear to have been cited in the choice to remove Alex Jones from Facebook and YouTube vanished from Twitter on Thursday after being called out in a CNN piece focused on the company’s hypocrisy.

Twitter confirmed to TechCrunch that it did not remove the tweets in question and that someone affiliated with Alex Jones and Infowars or with access to those accounts is behind the removal. The tweets in question spanned the Infowars brand, including accusations that Sandy Hook was staged by crisis actors, slurs against transgender people and a video asserting that Parkland shooting survivor David Hogg is a Nazi.

All of the tweets CNN linked are no longer available, suggesting that Jones might be trying to walk a narrow line on the platform, keeping most of the Infowars content up even as users and reporters surface some of its most objectionable moments. We reached out to Infowars for the reasoning behind taking down the posts and will update this story when we hear more.

On Wednesday in an internal memo that was later tweeted, Twitter’s VP of trust & safety made the claim that if Jones had posted the same content on Twitter that had resulted in action on other platforms, Twitter would have acted, too.

“… At least some of the content Alex Jones published on other platforms (e.g. Facebook and YouTube) that led them to taking enforcement actions against him would also have violated our policies had he posted it on Twitter,” Twitter’s Del Harvey said. “Had he done so, we would have taken action against him as well.”

On Thursday, CNN called Twitter’s bluff. The news site found that the same content that got Jones and Infowars booted from other platforms “were still live on Twitter as of the time this article was published,” according to CNN.

In spite of the missing tweets, at the time of writing, the accounts of both Infowars and Alex Jones remained online and tweeting. In fact, just 30 minutes ago, Infowars accused former president Obama of a “deep state” scheme to purge Infowars from tech platforms.

Wikipedia goes dark in Spanish, Italian ahead of key EU vote on copyright

Wikipedia’s Italian and Spanish language versions have temporarily shut off access to their respective versions of the free online encyclopedia in Europe to protest against controversial components of a copyright reform package ahead of a key vote in the EU parliament tomorrow.

The protest follows a vote by the EU parliament’s legal affairs committee last month which backed the reforms — including the two most controversial elements: Article 13, which makes platforms directly liable for copyright infringements by their users — pushing them towards pre-filtering all content uploads, with all the associated potential chilling effects for free expression; and Article 11, which targets news aggregator business models by creating a neighboring right for snippets of journalistic content — aka ‘the link tax’, as critics dub it.

Visitors to Wikipedia in many parts of the EU (and further afield) are met with a banner which urges them to defend the open Internet against the controversial proposal by calling their MEP to voice their opposition to a measure critics describe as ‘censorship machines’, warning it will “weaken the values, culture and ecosystem on which Wikipedia is based”.

Clicking on a button to ‘call your MEP’ links through to anti-Article 13 campaign website, saveyourinternet.eu, where users can search for the phone number of their MEP and/or send an email to protest against the measure. The initiative is backed by a large coalition of digital and civil rights groups  — including the EFF, the Open Rights Group, and the Center for Democracy & Technology.

In a longer letter to visitors explaining its action, the Spanish Wikipedia community writes that: “If the proposal were approved in its current version, actions such as sharing a news item on social networks or accessing it through a search engine would become more complicated on the Internet; Wikipedia itself would be at risk.”

The Spanish language version of Wikipedia will remain dark throughout the EU parliament vote — which is due to take place at 10 o’clock (UTC) on July 5.

“We want to continue offering an open, free, collaborative and free work with verifiable content. We call on all members of the European Parliament to vote against the current text, to open it up for discussion and to consider the numerous proposals of the Wikimedia movement to protect access to knowledge; among them, the elimination of articles 11 and 13, the extension of the freedom of panorama to the whole EU and the preservation of the public domain,” it adds.

The Italian language version of Wikipedia went dark yesterday.

While the protest banners about the reform are appearing widely across Wikipedia, the decisions to block out encyclopedia content are less widespread — and are being taken by each local community of editors.

As you’d expect, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales has been a very vocal critic of Article 13 — including lashing out at whoever was in control of the European Commission’s Twitter feed yesterday when they tried to suggest that online encyclopedias will not be affected by the proposal — by suggesting they would not be “considered” to be giving access to “large amounts of unauthorised protected content” by claiming most of their content would fall outside the scope of the law because it’s covered by Creative Commons licenses. (An interpretation of the proposed rules that anti-Article 13 campaigners dispute.)

And the commissioners drafting this portion of the directive do appear to have been mostly intending to regulate YouTube — which has been a target for record industry ire in recent years, over the relatively small royalties paid to artists vs streaming music services.

But critics argue this is a wrongheaded, sledgehammer-to-crack a nut approach to lawmaking — which will have the unintended consequence of damaging free expression and access to information online.

Wales shot back at the EC’s tweet — saying it’s “deeply inappropriate for the European Commission to be lobbying publicly and misleading the public in this way”.

A little later in the same Twitter thread, as more users had joined the argument, he added: “The Wikipedia community is not so narrow minded as to let the rest of the Internet suffer just because we are big enough that they try to throw us a bone. Justice matters.”

The EU parliament will vote as a whole tomorrow — when we’ll find out whether or not MEPs have been swayed by this latest #SaveYourInternet campaign.

Facebook’s policy on white supremacy plays right into a racist agenda

In an ongoing series over at Motherboard, we’re learning quite a bit about how Facebook polices hate speech and hate organizations on its platform. Historically, the company has been far less than transparent about its often inconsistent censorship practices, even as white supremacist content — and plenty of other forms of hate targeted at marginalized groups — runs rampant on the platform.

Now we know more about why. For one, according to a series of internal slides on white supremacy, Facebook walks a fine line that arguably doesn’t exist at all. According to these post-Charlottesville training documents, the company opted to officially differentiate between white nationalism and white supremacy, allowing the former and forbidding the latter.

White nationalism gets the green light

Facebook appears to take the distinction between white nationalism and white supremacy seriously, but many white nationalists don’t, opting only for the slightly more benign term to soften their image. This is a well-documented phenomenon, as anyone who has spent time in these online circles can attest. It’s also the first sentence in the Anti Defamation League (ADL) entry on white nationalism:

“White nationalism is a term that originated among white supremacists as a euphemism for white supremacy.

“Eventually, some white supremacists tried to distinguish it further by using it to refer to a form of white supremacy that emphasizes defining a country or region by white racial identity and which seeks to promote the interests of whites exclusively, typically at the expense of people of other backgrounds.”

As Motherboard reports, Facebook notes “overlaps with white nationalism/separatism” as a challenge in its relevant training notes section for white supremacy, adding that “Media reports also use the terms interchangeably (for example referring to David Duke as white supremacist even though he doesn’t explicitly identify himself as one).”

Facebook’s own articulation of white supremacy offers considerable concessions:

“Although there doesn’t seem to be total agreement among academics on whether white supremacy always implies racial hatred, the fact that it is based on a racist premise is widely acknowledged.” [original emphasis]

Most of Facebook’s slides on hate speech and hate groups read like an embarrassingly simplistic Cliff’s Notes, lacking nuance and revealing the company’s apparently slapdash approach to the issue of racial hate. Tellingly, some portions of Facebook’s training text copy Wikipedia’s own language verbatim.

Here are the first few sentences of the Wikipedia entry on white supremacy:

“White supremacy or white supremacism is a racist ideology based upon the belief that white people are superior in many ways to people of other races and that therefore white people should be dominant over other races.

White supremacy has roots in scientific racism and it often relies on pseudoscientific arguments. Like most similar movements such as neo-Nazism, white supremacists typically oppose members of other races as well as Jews.”

Facebook’s training note on white supremacy, with differences bolded:

White supremacy or white supremacism is a racist ideology based upon the belief that white people are superior in many ways to people of other races and that therefore white people should be dominant over other races. White supremacy has roots in scientific racism and it often relies on pseudoscientific arguments. Like most similar movements such as neo-Nazism, white supremacists typically oppose people of color, Jews and non-Protestants.

Facebook slides recreated by Motherboard

Bafflingly, Facebook also notes that “White nationalism and calling for an exclusively white state is not a violation for our policy unless it explicitly excludes other PCs [protected characteristics]” which by definition, a white state does.

According to slides recreated by Motherboard, Facebook asserts that “we don’t allow praise, support and representation of white supremacy as an ideology” but stipulates that it does “allow praise, support and representation” for both white nationalism and white separatism. [Again, emphasis theirs]

Facebook further clarifies:

“By the same token, we allow to call for the creation of white ethno-states (e.g. “The US should be a white-only nation”).

White supremacy vs. white nationalism

By failing to recognize the political motivations behind white nationalism as an identity, Facebook legitimates white nationalism as something meaningfully distinct from white supremacy. While not all white nationalists call for the dream of a white ethnostate to be achieved through racial domination — and arguably the two could be studied distinctly from a purely academic perspective — they have far more in common than they have differences. Even with such thin sourcing, Facebook has devoted a surprising amount of language to differentiating the two.

In grappling with this question after Charlottesville, the Associated Press offered this clarification for its own coverage:

“For many people the terms can be used almost interchangeably. Both terms describe groups that favor whites and support discrimination by race.”

The AP also mentions the “subtle difference” that white supremacists believe whites to be superior.

For white nationalists, that attitude at times appears more implicit than explicit but that doesn’t mean it’s not there. From my own reading and considerable hours spent immersed online in white nationalist groups and forums, there is massive observable ideological overlap between the two groups. The instances in which white supremacists and white nationalists truly espouse wholly distinct ideologies are rare.

Further, it’s impossible to ignore that violence against non-whites is a central thread running throughout white nationalism, whether stated or implied. Imagining a white ethnostate that does not directly come about at the cost of the safety, wellbeing and financial security of racial minorities is pure fantasy — a fantasy Facebook is apparently content to entertain in pretending that the “white state” would not “explicitly exclude” anyone based on the protected characteristic of race.

The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) defines white nationalism in similarly broad strokes, tying it directly to white supremacy and stating that “white nationalist groups espouse white supremacist or white separatist ideologies, often focusing on the alleged inferiority of nonwhites.”

The SPLC, an organization devoted to studying hate, explains the expedient fallacy of the white ethnostate as a nonviolent goal:

“These racist aspirations are most commonly articulated as the desire to form a white ethnostate — a calculated idiom favored by white nationalists in order to obscure the inherent violence of such a radical project. Appeals for the white ethnostate are often disingenuously couched in proclamations of love for members of their own race, rather than hatred for others.”

Apparently, Facebook ignored most dissenting definitions linking white nationalist goals directly to white supremacy. Naively or not, the company bought into white supremacy’s slightly more palatable public-facing image in shaping its policy platforms. In sourcing its policies, Facebook was apparently content to pick and choose which points supported its decision to allow white nationalism on its platform while supposedly casting out white supremacy.

“White nationalist groups espouse white separatism and white supremacy,” the Wikipedia page that Facebook drew from states. “Critics argue that the term ‘white nationalism’ and ideas such as white pride exist solely to provide a sanitized public face for white supremacy, and that most white nationalist groups promote racial violence.”

Sadly, for anyone who has watched many virulent strains of racism flourish and even organize on Facebook, the company’s shoddily crafted internal guidance on white supremacy comes as little surprise. Nor does the fact that the company failed to dedicate even a sliver of its considerable resources to understanding the nuance of white supremacist movements, aims and language.

We reached out to Facebook to see if these alarmingly reductive policies on racial hate have evolved in recent months (these materials are less than a year old), but the company only pointed us to the broad public-facing  “Community Standards.” Any further detail on the actual implementation of policies around hate remains opaque.

Though it may have learned some harsh lessons in 2018, for Facebook, opacity is always the best policy.

Telegram blocked in Iran as the government orders telecoms to cut off access

As Moscow erupts in protests over its own ban, Iran’s judiciary has just ordered the nation’s telecommunications providers to block Telegram . According to the Wall Street Journal, Iran’s Islamic Republic News Agency stated that the decision was issued via a court ruling in Tehran. An estimated 40 million Iranians — half of the country’s population — use Telegram to communicate.

“Considering various complaints against Telegram social networking app by Iranian citizens, and based on the demand of security organisations for confronting the illegal activities of Telegram, the judiciary has banned its usage in Iran,” Iranian state TV reported, according to Reuters.

As of Monday, Telegram appears to still be functioning in the country following the court order. When the ban is executed, the popular messaging app will join the ranks of Facebook and Twitter, two other social media platforms banned in Iran. Government employees were ordered to quit the app earlier this month and the Iranian government launched its own Telegram competitor, a messaging app called Soroush, last week.

In January, Iran temporarily restricted Telegram access, ostensibly to quell anti-government demonstrations. When bans have occurred in the past, tech-savvy Iranians have turned to proxy services and other tools to keep connected.

In the past, Iran has suggested that it would allow Telegram and other messaging apps to operate domestically if they transferred their data servers into the country rather than storing data abroad. Given that such a move would meaningfully compromise a messaging app’s privacy in such a restrictive country — something Telegram’s founder Pavel Durov isn’t keen on — Iran will pursue control of the  messaging service with an outright ban instead.

Pro-Trump social media duo accuses Facebook of anti-conservative censorship

Following up on a recurring thread from Mark Zuckerberg’s congressional appearance earlier this month, the House held a hearing today on perceived bias against conservatives on Facebook and other social platforms. The hearing, ostensibly about “how social media companies filter content on their platforms,” focused on the anecdotal accounts of social media stars Diamond and Silk (Lynnette Hardaway and Rochelle Richardson), a pro-Trump viral web duo that rose to prominence during Trump’s presidential campaign.

“Facebook used one mechanism at a time to diminish reach by restricting our page so that our 1.2 million followers would not see our content, thus silencing our conservative voices,” Diamond and Silk said in their testimony.

“It’s not fair for these Giant Techs [sic] like Facebook and YouTube get to pull the rug from underneath our platform and our feet and put their foot on our neck to silence our voices; it’s not fair for them to put a strong hold on our finances.”

During the course of their testimony, Diamond and Silk repeated their unfounded assertions that Facebook targeted their content as a deliberate act of political censorship.

What followed was mostly a partisan back-and-forth. Republicans who supported the hearing’s mission asked the duo to elaborate on their claims and Democrats pointed out their lack of substantiating evidence and their willingness to denounce documented facts as “fake news.”

Controversially, they also denied that they had accepted payment from the Trump campaign, in spite of public evidence to the contrary. On November 22, 2016, the pair received $1,274.94 for “field consulting,” as documented by the FEC.

Earlier in April, Zuckerberg faced a question about the pair’s Facebook page from Republican Rep. Joe Barton:

Why is Facebook censoring conservative bloggers such as Diamond and Silk? Facebook called them “unsafe” to the community. That is ludicrous. They hold conservative views. That isn’t unsafe.

At the time, Zuckerberg replied that the perceived censorship was an “enforcement error” and had been in contact with Diamond and Silk to reverse its mistake. Senator Ted Cruz also asked Zuckerberg about what he deemed a “pervasive pattern of bias and political censorship” against conservative voices on the platform.

Today’s hearing, which California Rep. Ted Lieu dismissed as “stupid and ridiculous,” was little more than an exercise in idle hyper-partisanship, but it’s notable for a few reasons. For one, Diamond and Silk are two high-profile creators who managed to take their monetization grievances with tech companies, however misguided, all the way to Capitol Hill. Beyond that, and the day’s strange role-reversal of regulatory stances, the hearing was the natural escalation of censorship claims made by some Republicans during the Zuckerberg hearings. Remarkably, those accusations only comprised a sliver of the two days’ worth of testimony; in a rare display of bipartisanship, Democrats and Republicans mostly cooperated in grilling the Facebook CEO on his company’s myriad failures.

Congressional hearing or not, the truth of Facebook’s platform screw-ups is far more universal than political claims on the right or left might suggest. As Zuckerberg’s testimony made clear, Facebook’s moderation tools don’t exactly work as intended and the company doesn’t even really know the half of it. Facebook users have been manipulating the platform’s content reporting tools for years, and unfortunately that phenomenon coupled with Facebook’s algorithmic and moderation blind spots punishes voices on both sides of the U.S. political spectrum — and everyone in between.