Hong Kong censorship debate grows as Internet firm says can block ‘illegal acts’

A Hong Kong internet service provider on Thursday, said it had blocked access to a pro-democracy website to comply with the city's national security law. (AP)
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Updated 18 January 2021

Hong Kong censorship debate grows as Internet firm says can block ‘illegal acts’

  • The moves came just days after the arrest of over 50 pro-democracy activists
  • Anti-government protests in 2019 relied heavily on social media channels like Telegram which allowed protesters to organize anonymously

HONG KONG: The company which approves Internet domains in Hong Kong said it will now reject any sites that could incite “illegal acts,” raising new concerns about freedoms after Beijing’s imposition of a national security law on the Chinese-ruled city last year.
Holders of .hk domains were advised of the policy change late on Thursday, sources told Reuters, hours after Internet service provider Hong Kong Broadband Network (HKBN) said it had blocked access to HKChronicles, a website offering information about anti-government protests.
The moves came just days after the arrest of over 50 pro-democracy activists, and sources have told Reuters that China is planning a further crackdown.
HKBN said it had blocked the website, which also publishes personal information on Hong Kong police officers, in compliance with the national security law, the first such censorship in the city of its kind.
Anti-government protests in 2019 relied heavily on social media channels like Telegram which allowed protesters to organize anonymously. Many sites also sprung up in support of the protest movement, though a number shut after the passage of the security law.
In the emails, the Hong Kong Domain Name Registration Company (HKDNR) alerted holders of .hk domains to the new “acceptable use” policy by its parent, Hong Kong Internet Registration Corporation Limited (HKIRC), which goes into effect on Jan. 28, according to copies shared by recipients with Reuters.
It said it could reject applications for new .hk sites that it believes could incite criminal acts, abuse privacy or provide false or misleading information.
It was not immediately clear whether the policy will apply to existing .hk websites. The HKIRC, the HKDNR and the Hong Kong government did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
“The rollout of the acceptable use policy is quite worrying,” said one website operator who declined to be identified, citing fear of repercussions.
“Things like providing false or misleading information, who are they to decide? Are these preventive measures for future false news regulations?“
The moves are fueling worries that a censorship mechanism similar to China’s “Great Firewall” is being put in place in Hong Kong.
While the Internet in mainland China is heavily censored and access to many foreign platforms like news sites is blocked, residents in Hong Kong have so far enjoyed greater freedoms under the “one country, two systems” framework that it was promised when Britain handed it back to China in 1997.
China Mobile and PCCW, the other major Internet providers in Hong Kong, did not respond to Reuters requests for comment.
Wong Ho Wah, who is running for Hong Kong’s legislature to representing the information technology sector, said he was deeply worried that Hong Kongers’ freedom to access information on the Internet was starting to be affected.
“The government has the responsibility to explain the justification and the rationale of the action,” he said, referring to the blocking of HKChronicles’ website.


Neo-Nazis are still on Facebook. And they’re making money

Updated 31 sec ago

Neo-Nazis are still on Facebook. And they’re making money

BRUSSELS: It’s the premier martial arts group in Europe for right-wing extremists. German authorities have twice banned their signature tournament. But Kampf der Nibelungen, or Battle of the Nibelungs, still thrives on Facebook, where organizers maintain multiple pages, as well as on Instagram and YouTube, which they use to spread their ideology, draw in recruits and make money through ticket sales and branded merchandise.
The Battle of the Nibelungs — a reference to a classic heroic epic much loved by the Nazis — is one of dozens of far-right groups that continue to leverage mainstream social media for profit, despite Facebook’s and other platforms’ repeated pledges to purge themselves of extremism.
All told, there are at least 54 Facebook profiles belonging to 39 entities that the German government and civil society groups have flagged as extremist, according to research shared with The Associated Press by the Counter Extremism Project, a non-profit policy and advocacy group formed to combat extremism. The groups have nearly 268,000 subscribers and friends on Facebook alone.
CEP also found 39 related Instagram profiles, 16 Twitter profiles and 34 YouTube channels, which have gotten over 9.5 million views. Nearly 60 percent of the profiles were explicitly aimed at making money, displaying prominent links to online shops or photos promoting merchandise.
Click on the big blue “view shop” button on the Erik & Sons Facebook page and you can buy a T-shirt that says, “My favorite color is white,” for 20 euros ($23). Deutsches Warenhaus offers “Refugees not welcome” stickers for just 2.50 euros ($3) and Aryan Brotherhood tube scarves with skull faces for 5.88 euros ($7). The Facebook feed of OPOS Records promotes new music and merchandise, including “True Aggression,” “Pride & Dignity,” and “One Family” T-shirts. The brand, which stands for “One People One Struggle,” also links to its online shop from Twitter and Instagram.
The people and organizations in CEP’s dataset are a who’s who of Germany’s far-right music and combat sports scenes. “They are the ones who build the infrastructure where people meet, make money, enjoy music and recruit,” said Alexander Ritzmann, the lead researcher on the project. “It’s most likely not the guys I’ve highlighted who will commit violent crimes. They’re too smart. They build the narratives and foster the activities of this milieu where violence then appears.”
CEP said it focused on groups that want to overthrow liberal democratic institutions and norms such as freedom of the press, protection of minorities and universal human dignity, and believe that the white race is under siege and needs to be preserved, with violence if necessary. None has been banned, but almost all have been described in German intelligence reports as extremist, CEP said.
On Facebook the groups seem harmless. They avoid blatant violations of platform rules, such as using hate speech or posting swastikas, which is generally illegal in Germany.
By carefully toeing the line of propriety, these key architects of Germany’s far-right use the power of mainstream social media to promote festivals, fashion brands, music labels and mixed martial arts tournaments that can generate millions in sales and connect like-minded thinkers from around the world.
But simply cutting off such groups could have unintended, damaging consequences.
“We don’t want to head down a path where we are telling sites they should remove people based on who they are but not what they do on the site,” said David Greene, civil liberties director at the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco.
Giving platforms wide latitude to sanction organizations deemed undesirable could give repressive governments leverage to eliminate their critics. “That can have really serious human rights concerns,” he said. “The history of content moderation has shown us that it’s almost always to the disadvantage of marginalized and powerless people.”
German authorities banned the Battle of the Nibelungs event in 2019, on the grounds that it was not actually about sports, but instead was grooming fighters with combat skills for political struggle.
In 2020, as the coronavirus raged, organizers planned to stream the event online — using Instagram, among other places, to promote the webcast. A few weeks before the planned event, however, over a hundred black-clad police in balaclavas broke up a gathering at a motorcycle club in Magdeburg, where fights were being filmed for the broadcast, and hauled off the boxing ring, according to local media reports.
The Battle of the Nibelungs is a “central point of contact” for right-wing extremists, according to German government intelligence reports. The organization has been explicit about its political goals — namely to fight against the “rotting” liberal democratic order — and has drawn adherents from across Europe as well as the United States.
Members of a California white supremacist street fighting club called the Rise Above Movement, and its founder, Robert Rundo, have attended the Nibelungs tournament. In 2018 at least four Rise Above members were arrested on rioting charges for taking their combat training to the streets at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. A number of Battle of Nibelungs alums have landed in prison, including for manslaughter, assault and attacks on migrants.
National Socialism Today, which describes itself as a “magazine by nationalists for nationalists” has praised Battle of the Nibelungs and other groups for fostering a will to fight and motivating “activists to improve their readiness for combat.”
But there are no references to professionalized, anti-government violence on the group’s social media feeds. Instead, it’s positioned as a health-conscious lifestyle brand, which sells branded tea mugs and shoulder bags.
“Exploring nature. Enjoying home!” gushes one Facebook post above a photo of a musclebound guy on a mountaintop wearing Resistend-branded sportswear, one of the Nibelung tournament’s sponsors. All the men in the photos are pumped and white, and they are portrayed enjoying wholesome activities such as long runs and alpine treks.
Elsewhere on Facebook, Thorsten Heise – who has been convicted of incitement to hatred and called “one of the most prominent German neo-Nazis” by the Office for the Protection of the Constitution in the German state of Thuringia — also maintains multiple pages.
Frank Kraemer, who the German government has described as a “right-wing extremist musician,” uses his Facebook page to direct people to his blog and his Sonnenkreuz online store, which sells white nationalist and coronavirus conspiracy books as well as sports nutrition products and “vaccine rebel” T-shirts for girls.
Battle of the Nibelungs declined to comment. Resistend, Heise and Kraemer didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Facebook told AP it employs 350 people whose primary job is to counter terrorism and organized hate, and that it is investigating the pages and accounts flagged in this reporting.
“We ban organizations and individuals that proclaim a violent mission, or are engaged in violence,” said a company spokesperson, who added that Facebook had banned more than 250 white supremacist organizations, including groups and individuals in Germany. The spokesperson said the company had removed over 6 million pieces of content tied to organized hate globally between April and June and is working to move even faster.
Google said it has no interest in giving visibility to hateful content on YouTube and was looking into the accounts identified in this reporting. The company said it worked with dozens of experts to update its policies on supremacist content in 2019, resulting in a five-fold spike in the number of channels and videos removed.
Twitter says it’s committed to ensuring that public conversation is “safe and healthy” on its platform and that it doesn’t tolerate violent extremist groups. “Threatening or promoting violent extremism is against our rules,” a spokesperson told AP, but did not comment on the specific accounts flagged in this reporting.
Robert Claus, who wrote a book on the extreme right martial arts scene, said that the sports brands in CEP’s data set are “all rooted in the militant far-right neo-Nazi scene in Germany and Europe.” One of the founders of the Battle of the Nibelungs, for example, is part of the violent Hammerskin network and another early supporter, the Russian neo-Nazi Denis Kapustin, also known as Denis Nikitin, has been barred from entering the European Union for ten years, he said.
Banning such groups from Facebook and other major platforms would potentially limit their access to new audiences, but it could also drive them deeper underground, making it more difficult to monitor their activities, he said.
“It’s dangerous because they can recruit people,” he said. “Prohibiting those accounts would interrupt their contact with their audience, but the key figures and their ideology won’t be gone.”
Thorsten Hindrichs, an expert in Germany’s far-right music scene who teaches at the Johannes Gutenberg University of Mainz, said there’s a danger that the apparently harmless appearance of Germany’s right-wing music heavyweights on Facebook and Twitter, which they mostly use to promote their brands, could help normalize the image of extremists.
Extreme right concerts in Germany were drawing around 2 million euros ($2.3 million) a year in revenue before the coronavirus pandemic, he estimated, not counting sales of CDs and branded merchandise. He said kicking extremist music groups off Facebook is unlikely to hit sales too hard, as there are other platforms they can turn to, like Telegram and Gab, to reach their followers. “Right-wing extremists aren’t stupid. They will always find ways to promote their stuff,” he said.
None of these groups’ activity on mainstream platforms is obviously illegal, though it may violate Facebook guidelines that bar “dangerous individuals and organizations” that advocate or engage in violence online or offline. Facebook says it doesn’t allow praise or support of Nazism, white supremacy, white nationalism or white separatism and bars people and groups that adhere to such “hate ideologies.”
Last week, Facebook  removed almost 150 accounts and pages linked to the German anti-lockdown Querdenken movement, under a new “social harm” policy, which targets groups that spread misinformation or incite violence but didn’t fit into the platform’s existing categories of bad actors.
But how these evolving rules will be applied remains murky and contested.
“If you do something wrong on the platform, it’s easier for a platform to justify an account suspension than to just throw someone out because of their ideology. That would be more difficult with respect to human rights,” said Daniel Holznagel, a Berlin judge who used to work for the German federal government on hate speech issues and also  contributed to CEP’s report. “It’s a foundation of our Western society and human rights that our legal regimes do not sanction an idea, an ideology, a thought.”
In the meantime, there’s news from the folks at the Battle of the Nibelungs. “Starting today you can also dress your smallest ones with us,” reads a June post on their Facebook feed. The new line of kids wear includes a shell-pink T-shirt for girls, priced at 13.90 euros ($16). A child pictured wearing the boy version, in black, already has boxing gloves on.

Burundian journalist briefly detained while investigating blast

Bujumbura was investigating a series of explosions this week that killed at least five people. (REUTERS)
Updated 24 September 2021

Burundian journalist briefly detained while investigating blast

  • Police on Friday briefly detained a journalist investigating a grenade attack in the commercial capital Bujumbura in Burundi

NAIROBI: Police on Friday briefly detained a journalist investigating a grenade attack in the commercial capital Bujumbura, his radio station said, after a series of explosions this week that killed at least five people.
Radio Bonesha FM had earlier said their reporter, Aimé-Richard Niyonkuru, had been mishandled and arrested by police in Bujumbura’s Kamenge neighborhood while he investigated a grenade incident that was said to have killed two people on Thursday.
“Radio Bonesha FM journalist arrested on Friday morning by the police has just been released. Aimé Richard Niyonkuru is still waiting for his recorder. He spent many hours at the Special Research Office under the hot sun,” the station said on Twitter.
Police spokespeople were not immediately available to comment on the arrest.
Burundi, a nation of about 11.5 million people, has suffered decades of war and ethnic and political violence. The United Nations says the youth wing of the ruling party and the security services are involved in the torture, gang-rape and murder of political opponents, charges the government denies.
On Monday, two grenade explosions hit a bus park in Bujumbura, while on Sunday a grenade attack in the administrative capital Gitega killed two, according to local media.
The Interior Ministry said “unidentified terrorists” were responsible for attacks in Bujumbura. There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attacks.
An airport worker said on Monday there had also been an attack on the Bujumbura airport on Saturday, for which Congo-based rebel group Red Tabara claimed responsibility, saying it fired mortars as the president prepared to travel to the United Nations General Assembly in New York.
On Tuesday, Attorney General Sylvestre Nyandwi accused leaders of a suspended opposition party, MSD, of being behind the recent attacks, adding that authorities had issued international arrest warrants for them.


Economist magazine calls for Georgieva to quit IMF over World Bank data scandal

Updated 23 September 2021

Economist magazine calls for Georgieva to quit IMF over World Bank data scandal

  • "The head of the IMF must hold the ring while two of its biggest shareholders, America and China, confront each other in a new era of geopolitical rivalry," the Economist said
  • Critics of multilateralism are already citing the findings as evidence that international bodies cannot stand up to China

WASHINGTON: The Economist magazine on Thursday called for International Monetary Fund (IMF) Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva to resign over her role in a China-related data-rigging scandal while at the World Bank, saying it has undermined the IMF’s credibility.
The influential London-based publication said in a scathing editorial that an external investigation’s findings that Georgieva pressured staff for changes to the World Bank’s “Doing Business” rankings in 2017 to favor China compromises the IMF’s ability to act as the custodian of data for the world’s macroeconomic statistics.
“The head of the IMF must hold the ring while two of its biggest shareholders, America and China, confront each other in a new era of geopolitical rivalry,” the Economist said, adding that critics of multilateralism are already citing the findings as evidence that international bodies cannot stand up to China.
“The next time the IMF tries to referee a currency dispute, or helps reschedule the debt of a country that has borrowed from China, the fund’s critics are sure to cite this investigation to undermine the institution’s credibility. That is why Ms Georgieva, an esteemed servant of several international institutions, should resign,” the editorial said.
It cited the allegation in the WilmerHale law firm’s report that Georgieva, who at the time was the World Bank’s CEO, thanked a senior bank researcher for “doing his bit for multilateralism” in altering the China data.
“Now she too should do her bit for multilateralism by falling on her sword,” the Economist said.
The World Bank’s “Doing Business” reports, now canceled, ranked countries based on their regulatory and legal environments, ease of business startups, financing, infrastructure and other business climate measures.
Georgieva, a Bulgarian who is a longtime former World Bank economist and European Commission official, has denied the accusations in the WilmerHale report, saying last week they are “not true” and she has never pressured staff to manipulate data.
The IMF’s executive board is conducting its own review of the allegations and has emphasized “the importance it attached to conducting a thorough, objective and timely review.”
An IMF spokesman declined comment on the Economist’s editorial. A US Treasury spokeswoman also declined comment beyond the Treasury’s earlier statement that is analyzing “serious findings” in the WilmerHale report.


Facebook wraps up deals with Australian media firms, TV broadcaster SBS excluded

The agreement between tech companies and news outlets entails that tech giants must pay for news content. (File/AFP)
Updated 23 September 2021

Facebook wraps up deals with Australian media firms, TV broadcaster SBS excluded

  • Facebook announces deals with most of the Australia's s largest news outlets, excluding TV broadcaster SBS and smaller publishers

SYDNEY: Facebook Inc. has told Australian publishers it has stopped negotiating licensing deals, an email to the industry seen by Reuters showed, a move which came just six months after the passing of a law designed to make tech giants pay for news content.
While Facebook has announced deals with most of the country’s largest news outlets, some companies including TV broadcaster SBS and smaller publishers have been left out in the cold, raising questions about the scope and effectiveness of the ground-breaking law.
Australia is the only country with a law where the government may set the fees if negotiations between tech giants and news providers fail, but the rejected companies are left with little recourse for the time being and are waiting for the government to review the law in 2022 as planned.
Facebook’s regional head of news partnerships, Andrew Hunter, said in an August email to publishers it had “now concluded” deals where it would pay Australian companies for content on its just-launched “Facebook News” channel.
Nick Shelton, founder of Broadsheet Media, a website which publishes entertainment news, reviews and listings and was rebuffed by Facebook, said the decision to close off on new deals was “clearly an attempt from Facebook to cap their exposure to independent publishers.”
The Special Broadcasting Service, or SBS, one of Australia’s five national free-to-air broadcasters and the country’s main source of foreign language news, said Facebook declined to enter negotiations despite months of attempts and that it was surprised and disappointed. It noted it had successfully concluded a deal with Google.
“This outcome is at odds with the Government’s intention of supporting public interest journalism, and in particular including the public service broadcasters in the Code framework with respect to remuneration,” an SBS spokesperson said in a statement on Wednesday.
Hunter said in the email to publishers, which has not been made public, that rejected publishers would continue to benefit from clicks directed from Facebook and recommended they tap a new series of industry grants.
In a separate statement to Reuters, Hunter said content deals were “just one of the ways that Facebook provides support to publishers, and we’ve been having ongoing discussions with publishers about the types of news content that can best deliver value for publishers and for Facebook.”
Facebook did not respond directly to questions about the statements from Broadsheet Media and SBS.
The US social media giant has inked deals with a range of large Australian big media companies including News Corp. and the Australian Broadcasting Corp. and has a collective bargaining arrangement with rural publishers. But only a handful of independent and smaller publishers have reached deals.
Other rejected publishers include the Conversation, which publishes public affairs commentary by academics, Reuters has previously reported. That prompted a rebuke from the regulator which drafted the law. The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission declined to comment on Wednesday.
Under the law, which drove Facebook to block third-party content on newsfeeds briefly in the country in February, Facebook and Google must negotiate with news outlets for content that drives traffic to their websites or face possible government intervention.
But before there can be any government intervention, the federal treasurer must determine that either Facebook or Google failed to negotiate in good faith, a step known as “designation.” A representative for Treasurer Josh Frydenberg was not immediately available for comment.
Facebook’s rejection of SBS and the Conversation flies in the face of law’s core proposition that it “should be required to compensate public interest journalism,” said Peter Lewis, director of the Center for Responsible Technology, a think tank.
“The treasurer has no alternative but to revisit designating Facebook to ensure that it meets its commitments to public interest journalism in Australia.”


Big Tech targeted by US and EU in draft memo ahead of tech and trade meeting

The move will be among announcements on tech, climate, trade and supply chains likely to be made at a US-EU Trade & Technology Council. (File/AFP)
Updated 23 September 2021

Big Tech targeted by US and EU in draft memo ahead of tech and trade meeting

  • The US and the EU plan to take a more unified approach to limit the growing market power of Big Tech companies

WASHINGTON: The United States and European Union plan to take a more unified approach to limit the growing market power of Big Tech companies, according to a draft memo seen by Reuters.
The move will be among announcements on tech, climate, trade and supply chains likely to be made at a US-EU Trade & Technology Council meeting on Sept. 29 in Pittsburgh.
With the US and Europe trying to restrain the growing power of American tech giants such as Alphabet’s Google , Facebook, Apple and Amazonom Inc. , such cooperation has become critically important for regulators on both sides of the Atlantic — and would make it harder for the US tech industry to fight new rules.
This month, the White House announced that the council would meet for the first time on Sept. 29 in Pittsburgh. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, US Trade Representative Katherine Tai and the European Union’s trade chief Valdis Dombrovskis are scheduled to attend along with European Commissioner for Competition Margrethe Vestager.
The White House, which is coordinating with different agencies on the meeting, declined to comment on the memo. Apple, Facebook, Amazon and Google did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
The council has 10 working groups for areas such as strengthening trade, economic relations and shared democratic values, according to the draft memo.
The group focused on tech company regulation will “exchange information on our respective approaches to technology platform governance, seeking convergence where feasible,” the memo says.
There are many examples where the two continents could cooperate more. Google, which faces several antitrust lawsuits in the US related to its advertising business, also faces a wide-ranging investigation related to ad technology in the EU.
“We have identified common issues of concern around gatekeeper power by major platforms and the responsibility of online intermediaries,” the memo says, adding that more can be done to combat misinformation.
“This includes in particular the responsibility of online intermediaries to safeguard democratic processes from the impact of their business activities. Areas of common ground... include content moderation and fair competition,” the memo said.
The group will tackle areas such as hate speech, algorithmic amplification and data access for researchers, the memo says.
The council’s climate and clean tech group will work to identify trade and investment opportunities in low- and zero-carbon technologies and products, according to the memo. The supply chain working group will focus on securing supplies of pharmaceuticals, critical minerals and clean energy.
The council will also work to address the shortage of semiconductor chips in a way that is “balanced and of equal interest for both parties” and will avoid a “subsidy race.”
On Wednesday, Reuters reported that European Union ambassadors have postponed discussions to prepare for the meeting in protest of Washington’s submarine agreement with Australia at France’s expense.
A spokesperson for the White House’s National Security Council said preparations for the meeting were continuing.
Several tech trade groups in Washington said the industry does not want the European approach to digital regulation to be adopted in the United States.
“The risk is that the European side will press the United States to harmonize its regulations with the EU by taking a precautionary approach... which would skewer America’s leading tech companies,” said Robert Atkinson, president of the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation, a tech think tank based in Washington.
“We shouldn’t do that, nor do we need to. Our interests are broadly aligned and compatible, particularly when it comes to China,” Atkinson said.