FILE PHOTO: Facebook, Google and Twitter logos are seen in this combination photo from Reuters files. REUTERS//File Photo
April 10, 2019
By David Shepardson
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Republican senators on Wednesday said Alphabet Inc’s Google, Facebook Inc and Twitter Inc discriminate against conservative viewpoints and suppress free speech, suggesting anti-trust action could be a solution.
Senator Ted Cruz, who chairs the Senate Judiciary subcommittee, said many Americans believe big tech firms are biased against conservatives and pointed to some anecdotal examples. While no one wants “government speech police,” he said there are other remedies.
“If we have tech companies using the powers of monopoly to censor political speech, I think that raises real antitrust issues,” Cruz said at a U.S. Senate Judiciary subcommittee hearing.
Facebook, Twitter and Google denied their platforms are politically biased, and Democratic lawmakers said there was no evidence to back Republican bias claims although Democrats have criticized the firms on other grounds.
The Senate hearing was a sign that Republicans do not intend to relent in their year-old campaign against the tech companies. Last month, U.S. President Donald Trump again accused social media firms of favoring Democratic opponents without offering evidence.
“We do have a political bias issue here,” Republican Senator Mike Lee said.
Senators also raised the prospect that Congress could remove protections under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act that give online platforms broad immunity for what users post.
Senator Mazie Hirono, the top Democrat on the panel, said Republicans claims are based on “nothing more than a mix of anecdotal evidence… and a failure to understand the companies algorithms and content moderation practices.”
Democratic presidential candidate Senator Elizabeth Warren said Facebook last month removed ads her campaign placed calling for Facebook’s breakup. “I want a social media marketplace that isn’t dominated by a single censor,” she said.
Carlos Monje, Twitter’s public policy director, said the site “does not use political viewpoints, perspectives or party affiliation to make any decisions, whether related to automatically ranking content on our service or how we develop or enforce our rules.”
Facebook public policy director Neil Potts said the company “does not favor one political viewpoint over another, nor does Facebook suppress conservative speech.”
Senator Josh Hawley told the firms they are not being transparent in how they make decisions. “This is a huge, huge problem,” he said.
Hirono said, “We cannot allow the Republican party to harass tech companies into weakening content moderation policies that already fail to remove hateful, dangerous and misleading content.”
Google was disinvited over a dispute about whether it offered an executive senior enough to testify. The panel left an empty chair for Google. Cruz said he plans a future hearing to address what he called “Google’s censorship of free speech.”
Google said in a written statement submitted to the committee that it works to ensure “our products serve users of all viewpoints and remain politically neutral” but it acknowledged that “sometimes our content moderation systems do make mistakes.”
(Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)
FILE PHOTO – Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats testifies to the Senate Intelligence Committee hearing about “worldwide threats” on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., January 29, 2019. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts
April 2, 2019
By Jonathan Landay
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Two civil liberties groups on Tuesday sued three U.S. intelligence chiefs and the acting defense secretary seeking to have declared unconstitutional their agencies’ pre-publication reviews of former officials’ writings and speeches.
The American Civil Liberties Union and Columbia University’s Knight First Amendment Institute brought the lawsuit on behalf of five former intelligence and military officials. They argued the reviews as currently practiced breach the Constitution’s First Amendment prohibition on government abridgement of freedom of speech.
The plaintiffs contended that reviews also violate the Constitution’s Fifth Amendment, because the procedures can involve arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement and fail to define what can or cannot be said.
The action was brought in the U.S. district court in Greenbelt, Maryland, against Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, CIA Director Gina Haspel, National Security Agency Director Paul Nakasone and Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan.
“This is a challenge to a far-reaching system of prior restraints that suppresses a broad swath of constitutionally protected speech, including core political speech, by former government employees,” said the lawsuit.
“Under this system, government officials review and censor tens of thousands of submissions every year,” it said.
Current and former U.S. intelligence and military officials are required to submit writings or speeches to prepublication reviews to insure that they are not disclosing classified information.
The plaintiffs said that review standards differ between agencies and former officials are subjected to the procedures “without regard to their level of access to sensitive information.”
Reviews frequently take weeks or months and result in the censorship decisions that “are often arbitrary, unexplained and influenced by authors’ viewpoints,” said the lawsuit, adding that “favored officials” can receive “special treatment” that “fast-tracks” their speeches or manuscripts.
As a result of this “dysfunction,” many would-be authors self-censor, denying the public access to information that would inform debate on national security issues, it said.
The former officials on whose behalf the lawsuit was filed included Richard Immerman, a historian who worked for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, Timothy Edgar, a cyber security expect who also worked at ODNI, and Mark Fallon, a former Naval Criminal Investigative Service official who served as the chief investigator at the Guantanamo Bay detention center.
They also included former senior CIA analyst Melvin Goodman and Anuradha Bhagwati, a Marine Corps veteran.
(Reporting by Jonathan Landay; Editing by Steve Orlofsky)
A man holding a smartphone walks past the headquarters of Chinese state newspaper People’s Daily in Beijing, China October 6, 2018. Picture taken October 6, 2018. REUTERS/Stringer
March 28, 2019
By Lusha Zhang and Ryan Woo
BEIJING (Reuters) – People.cn, the online unit of China’s influential People’s Daily, is boosting its numbers of human internet censors backed by artificial intelligence to help firms vet content on apps and adverts, capitalizing on its unmatched Communist Party lineage.
Demand for online censoring services provided by Shanghai-listed People.cn has soared since last year after China tightened its already strict online censorship rules.
As a unit of the People’s Daily – the ruling Communist Party’s mouthpiece – it is seen by clients as the go-to online censor. Investors concur, lifting shares in People.cn by around 240 percent since the start of 2019.
“The biggest advantage of People.cn is its precise grasp of policy trends,” said An Fushuang, an independent analyst based in Shenzhen.
In recent years, China has shut tens of thousands of websites and social media accounts that contained what it said was illegal content as well as “vulgar” and pornographic material.
Tibet, Taiwan, the 1989 crackdown on Tiananmen Square, and even local government scandals, are also sensitive topics prone to censorship.
People.cn has clinched deals with tech firms including leading news aggregator Jinri Toutiao to identify and delete material that does not meet government guidelines.
Its other partners include Liangziyun, a Shenzhen-based tech company that operates nearly 1,000 social media accounts and has hundreds of millions of followers.
Full-year net income is expected to have risen as much as 140 percent, People.cn said in late January, the biggest annual increase since 2011. That would mean net profit of as high as 214.8 million yuan ($31.93 million).
Revenue from its censoring business is forecast to have jumped 166 percent last year, the company said in a filing to the Shanghai Stock Exchange.
Encouraged by surging revenue, People.cn is raising a bigger army of censors. This month, it signed a strategic deal with the government of Jinan in eastern Shandong province to help the city become China’s censorship capital.
People.cn, whose content-vetting business already has hundreds of employees, will set up an affiliate company in Jinan, the official Jinan Daily reported, drawn by the city’s proximity to Beijing and ample supply of college graduates that could join the firm as content analysts.
People.cn declined to comment when asked by Reuters about its expansion plans and expected earnings, due out in mid-April.
Types of content vetted by People.cn include images, texts, music, video, apps, games, advertisements and animations, according to the company.
People.cn’s online content review platform can detect and remove most sensitive online material via artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning algorithms, Ye Zhenzhen, president of People.cn, wrote in an article in February.
The bottom-line is to filter out and block harmful information and spot and correct false ideas in time, Ye said.
Content that AI has trouble recognizing and information in “grey areas” such as metaphors and subtle references is left to human analysts.
“The platform adjusts key words for monitoring from time to time according to directives from the Communist Party propaganda department,” said a Beijing-based manager at a major U.S.-listed Chinese tech company that had collaborated with People.cn to develop AI technology for its platform.
The platform continues to learn new words and rules on its own, for example by memorizing state media reports, the person, who was not authorized to speak to media, told Reuters.
“With some big-name social media accounts being shuttered recently, companies are paying more and more attention to content compliance,” said independent researcher An.
“And with the development of 5G, the space and scale for the online content censorship market will only grow bigger and bigger.”
($1 = 6.7282 Chinese yuan renminbi)
(Reporting by Lusha Zhang ang Ryan Woo.; Editing by Lincoln Feast)
FILE PHOTO: Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir delivers a speech at the Presidential Palace in Khartoum, Sudan, February 22, 2019. REUTERS/Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah/File Photo
March 25, 2019
By Khalid Abdelaziz
KHARTOUM (Reuters) – Dozens of journalists marched in Khartoum on Monday to demand an end to a crackdown on press freedom, eyewitnesses said, amidst the most sustained challenge to Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir since he took power in a 1989 coup.
Protesters have been taking to the streets frequently across Sudan since Dec. 19. The protests were initially triggered by price rises and cash shortages but evolved into demonstrations against Bashir and his National Congress Party.
Monday’s protesters carried a large banner that read “Free press or no press” as they walked down a main street in the Sudanese capital. They chanted “journalism is the voice of the people” and “the revolution is the choice of the people”.
Since the wave of demonstrations began, 90 journalists have been detained, according to the Sudanese Journalists’ Network, an anti-government group of journalists that organized Monday’s protest. Most have since been released, the group said.
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) says the number of arrests is unprecedented, but that it is impossible to give an exact figure because journalists have been arrested then freed, with this happening to some more than once.
The CPJ has also said that Sudanese authorities have tried to censor news coverage of the protests and that they have blocked access to popular social media platforms.
Othman Mirghani, editor-in-chief of the independent newspaper al-Tayar, and one of Sudan’s most prominent journalists, was arrested at his Khartoum office on Feb. 22, the same day Bashir declared a state of emergency, his family said.
He was detained shortly after a televised interview in which he criticized Bashir’s declaration of a state of emergency, according to relatives. They said Mirghani remains in custody, but has still not been charged.
Sudanese authorities were not immediately available for comment.
Bashir last month also dissolved the central government, replaced state governors with security officials, expanded police powers and banned unlicensed public gatherings. That has not deterred protesters from staging regular rallies.
(Additional reporting and writing by Lena Masri in Cairo; Editing by Mark Heinrich)
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