Turkey’s media regulator warns Spotify over critical content

Spotify CEO Daniel Ek speaks during a media event in New York on May 20, 2015. (REUTERS file photo)
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Updated 09 May 2021

Turkey’s media regulator warns Spotify over critical content

  • The digital platform has gained a wide audience recently as one of the last remaining outlets for free speech in Turkey
  • Spotify was granted an operating license by Turkey for 10 years after applying on Oct. 15 

ANKARA: Turkey’s media watchdog has warned online audio streaming giant Spotify to “regulate its content” in line with Turkish legislation or risk critical items being removed or cut. 

In a surprise move late on Friday, the Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTUK) said that it will consider removing or cutting all content found “inappropriate” — a term that is open to interpretation when applied to high-profile critical podcasts that attract large audiences. 

Spotify was granted an operating license by Turkey for 10 years after applying on Oct. 15. But its digital content is open to monitoring by the country’s media regulator. 

The digital platform has gained a wide audience recently as one of the last remaining outlets for free speech in Turkey, especially with its podcasts providing critical reporting and commentary on Turkish domestic politics. 

Spotify offers a relative free space in a media environment in which almost 90 percent of companies are related to pro-government conglomerates. 

“The RTUK’s move to regulate the content of streaming companies is another example of the Turkish government’s efforts to tighten its grip on online content,” Cathryn Grothe, research associate at Freedom House, told Arab News. 

Grothe said that the move is part of a long decline in internet freedom, characterized by restrictive regulations such as the social media law, blocked websites, and heavy-handed crackdowns on independent media and journalists. 

“Streaming services such as Spotify create a unique space where people can express themselves, relate to loved ones and friends over shared music or podcasts, and engage on a range of important issues, including human rights and politics,” she said. 

Grothe believes the threat from the Turkish government could encourage Spotify to restrict essential information for people in Turkey, effectively shrinking the remaining opportunities for free expression, journalism and artistic freedom.

Utku Cakirozer, a journalist and MP from the main opposition Republican People’s Party, said that restrictions over digital media had been discussed since 2019. 

“Such legislative constraints will only boost the global perception about the extent of censorship in Turkey. If you tend to ban a digital platform just after it is granted a license, it will go away sooner or later. You cannot expect them to accept such restrictions forever,” he told Arab News. 

Experts believe the RTUK’s latest statement signals growing censorship of the podcast sector in Turkey. 

Orhan Sener, a journalist who has been preparing a podcast for a year about technological developments in the country, said that content developers and journalists at Spotify have been self-censoring to avoid drawing government ire. 

“This trend will grow after the media regulator’s move. I don’t expect an absolute and omnipresent censorship on Spotify podcasts in the short run because the company attaches high importance to Turkey’s vast market, but Turkish journalists will have to revise their content to a certain extent to preserve their place in this sector,” he told Arab News. 

Sener said that a potential restriction on podcast content shows that the government is unwilling to tolerate any dissident voice, even if comes from the digital sphere. 


Hong Kong pro-democracy media executives denied bail under security law

Updated 19 June 2021

Hong Kong pro-democracy media executives denied bail under security law

  • The case is the first time political views and opinions published by a Hong Kong media outlet have triggered the security law

HONG KONG: Two executives from Hong Kong’s pro-democracy Apple Daily appeared in court on Saturday on charges of collusion and were denied bail after authorities deployed a sweeping security law to target the newspaper, a scathing critic of Beijing.
Chief editor Ryan Law and CEO Cheung Kim-hung are accused of colluding with foreign forces to undermine China’s national security over a series of articles that police said called for international sanctions.
Chief magistrate Victor So said there were insufficient grounds “for the court to believe that the defendants will not continue to commit acts endangering national security.”
The two will remain in custody until their next court appearance on August 13 as prosecutors said police needed time to examine more than 40 computers and 16 servers seized from the newsroom.
The case is the first time political views and opinions published by a Hong Kong media outlet have triggered the security law, which was imposed last year by Beijing to stamp out dissent in the financial hub.
Apple Daily and its jailed owner Jimmy Lai have long been thorns in Beijing’s side, with unapologetic support for the city’s pro-democracy movement and caustic criticism of China’s authoritarian leaders.
More than 500 police officers raided the paper’s newsroom on Thursday. Five executives were arrested. Law and Cheung were charged on Friday while the three others were released on bail pending further investigations.
“We will continue to publish our paper tomorrow,” deputy chief editor Chan Pui-man said outside court. She was released late Friday on bail.
Dozens of supporters were queuing to get seats in court on Saturday morning, including many former and current employees of Apple Daily.
A staff member, who gave her surname as Chang, said she and many other Apple Daily employees treat “every day like it is our last” working for the paper.
“At first, authorities said the national security law would only target a tiny number of people,” she said.
“But what has happened showed us that is nonsense,” she added.
Another staff reporter, who gave her first name as Theresa, said she felt Apple Daily’s legal troubles were a warning shot.
“I think what has happened to Apple Daily today can eventually happen to every other news outlet in the city,” she said.
Multiple international media companies have regional headquarters in Hong Kong, attracted to the business-friendly regulations and free speech provisions written into the city’s mini-constitution.
But many are now questioning whether they have a future there and are drawing up contingency plans as Beijing presses on with a broad crackdown on dissent in the city.
Local media have an even tougher time, with journalist associations saying reporters are increasingly having to self-censor.
Hong Kong has steadily plunged down an annual press freedom ranking by Reporters Without Borders, from 18th place in 2002 to 80th this year.
Mainland China languishes at 177th out of 180, above only Turkmenistan, North Korea and Eritrea.
Hong Kong and Chinese officials say the arrests were not an attack on the media.
Earlier this week, security secretary John Lee described Apple Daily as a “criminal syndicate.”
Apple Daily is by far the most outspoken of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy media outlets. But it is not clear how long it can survive.
Its wealthy owner Lai, 73, is currently serving multiple jail sentences for his involvement in democracy rallies in 2019.
He has also been charged under the national security law and has had his Hong Kong assets frozen.
Authorities froze a further HK$18 million ($2.3 million) of Apple Daily’s company assets on Thursday.
Police say they also plan to prosecute three companies owned by Apple Daily under the security law, which could see the paper fined or banned.
It is the first time companies, rather than an individual, have faced a national security investigation.
Mark Simon, an aide to Lai who lives overseas, said the paper would have difficulty paying its staff of about 700.
Company lawyers were trying to work out the breadth of the asset freeze order, he added.
“Money is not an issue. Draconian orders from Beijing via the NSL (national security law) are the issue,” he said.

Google searches for new measure of skin tones to curb bias in products

Google says that it's pursuing better measures for classifying skin tones. (File/AFP)
Updated 18 June 2021

Google searches for new measure of skin tones to curb bias in products

  • Google developing new measure for classifying skin tones in attempt to combat biases against people of color.
  • Companies know their products can be faulty for groups that are under-represented in research and testing data.

Alphabet Inc’s Google told Reuters this week it is developing an alternative to the industry standard method for classifying skin tones, which a growing chorus of technology researchers and dermatologists says is inadequate for assessing whether products are biased against people of color.
At issue is a six-color scale known as Fitzpatrick Skin Type (FST), which dermatologists have used since the 1970s. Tech companies now rely on it to categorize people and measure whether products such as facial recognition systems or smartwatch heart-rate sensors perform equally well across skin tones.
Critics say FST, which includes four categories for “white” skin and one apiece for “black” and “brown,” disregards diversity among people of color. Researchers at the US Department of Homeland Security, during a federal technology standards conference last October, recommended abandoning FST for evaluating facial recognition because it poorly represents color range in diverse populations.
In response to Reuters’ questions about FST, Google, for the first time and ahead of peers, said that it has been quietly pursuing better measures.
“We are working on alternative, more inclusive, measures that could be useful in the development of our products, and will collaborate with scientific and medical experts, as well as groups working with communities of color,” the company said, declining to offer details on the effort.
The controversy is part of a larger reckoning over racism and diversity in the tech industry, where the workforce is more white than in sectors like finance. Ensuring technology works well for all skin colors, as well different ages and genders, is assuming greater importance as new products, often powered by artificial intelligence (AI), extend into sensitive and regulated areas such as health care and law enforcement.
Companies know their products can be faulty for groups that are under-represented in research and testing data. The concern over FST is that its limited scale for darker skin could lead to technology that, for instance, works for golden brown skin but fails for espresso red tones.
Numerous types of products offer palettes far richer than FST. Crayola last year launched 24 skin tone crayons, and Mattel Inc’s Barbie Fashionistas dolls this year cover nine tones.
The issue is far from academic for Google. When the company announced in February that cameras on some Android phones could measure pulse rates via a fingertip, it said readings on average would err by 1.8 percent regardless of whether users had light or dark skin.
The company later gave similar warranties that skin type would not noticeably affect results of a feature for filtering backgrounds on Meet video conferences, nor of an upcoming web tool for identifying skin conditions, informally dubbed Derm Assist.
Those conclusions derived from testing with the six-tone FST.
The late Harvard University dermatologist Dr. Thomas Fitzpatrick invented the scale to personalize ultraviolet radiation treatment for psoriasis, an itchy skin condition. He grouped the skin of “white” people as Roman numerals I to IV by asking how much sunburn or tan they developed after certain periods in sun.
A decade later came type V for “brown” skin and VI for “black.” The scale is still part of US regulations for testing sunblock products, and it remains a popular dermatology standard for assessing patients’ cancer risk and more.
Some dermatologists say the scale is a poor and overused measure for care, and often conflated with race and ethnicity.
“Many people would assume I am skin type V, which rarely to never burns, but I burn,” said Dr. Susan Taylor, a University of Pennsylvania dermatologist who founded Skin of Color Society in 2004 to promote research on marginalized communities. “To look at my skin hue and say I am type V does me disservice.”
Technology companies, until recently, were unconcerned. Unicode, an industry association overseeing emojis, referred to FST in 2014 as its basis for adopting five skin tones beyond yellow, saying the scale was “without negative associations.”
A 2018 study titled “Gender Shades,” which found facial analysis systems more often misgendered people with darker skin, popularized using FST for evaluating AI. The research described FST as a “starting point,” but scientists of similar studies that came later told Reuters they used the scale to stay consistent.
“As a first measure for a relatively immature market, it serves its purpose to help us identify red flags,” said Inioluwa Deborah Raji, a Mozilla fellow focused on auditing AI.
In an April study testing AI for detecting deepfakes, Facebook Inc. researchers wrote FST “clearly does not encompass the diversity within brown and black skin tones.” Still, they released videos of 3,000 individuals to be used for evaluating AI systems, with FST tags attached based on the assessments of eight human raters.
The judgment of the raters is central. Facial recognition software startup AnyVision last year gave celebrity examples to raters: former baseball great Derek Jeter as a type IV, model Tyra Banks a V and rapper 50 Cent a VI.
AnyVision told Reuters it agreed with Google’s decision to revisit use of FST, and Facebook said it is open to better measures.
Microsoft Corp. and smartwatch makers Apple Inc. and Garmin Ltd. reference FST when working on health-related sensors.
But use of FST could be fueling “false assurances” about heart rate readings from smartwatches on darker skin, University of California San Diego clinicians, inspired by the Black Lives Matter social equality movement, wrote in the journal Sleep last year.
Microsoft acknowledged FST’s imperfections. Apple said it tests on humans across skin tones using various measures, FST only at times among them. Garmin said due to wide-ranging testing it believes readings are reliable.
Victor Casale, who founded makeup company Mob Beauty and helped Crayola on the new crayons, said he developed 40 shades for foundation, each different from the next by about 3 percent, or enough for most adults to distinguish.
Color accuracy on electronics suggest tech standards should have 12 to 18 tones, he said, adding, “you can’t just have six.”


Twitter’s India woes worsen as police summon chief over viral video

Prasad has said Twitter has not complied with a new set of government rules that required them to appoint new compliance officers. (File/AFP)
Updated 18 June 2021

Twitter’s India woes worsen as police summon chief over viral video

  • Indian police summon Twitter's top official in the country to answer allegation of inciting hate between communities.
  • This comes amidst India's crackdown on Twitter and other social media firms to comply with country's new IT rules.

LUCKNOW: Police in India have summoned Twitter’s top official in the country to answer allegations that the US firm failed to stop the spread of a video that allegedly incited “hate and enmity” between Hindu and Muslim communities.
An official police notice, seen by Reuters, showed a case had been registered in Ghaziabad in northern Uttar Pradesh state over a video of a few men, apparently Hindu, beating an elderly man believed to be a Muslim and cutting his beard.
The police report names Twitter Inc, its local unit and seven others for their alleged roles in disseminating a video that was deemed insulting to religious beliefs and causing public mischief in a state with a long, bloody history of communal violence.
The controversy comes just as India’s federal government is locking horns with Twitter over non-compliance with new IT rules, which have raised doubts whether the platform would continue to enjoy protection against legal liability for user-generated content. The new rules became effective in late May.
In a notice dated Thursday, Ghaziabad police wrote to Twitter India head Manish Maheshwari to appear before officials within seven days of the receipt of the summons.
“Some people used their Twitter handles to spread hatred and enmity in the society and Twitter did not take cognizance,” said the notice, which was reviewed by Reuters.
“Writings and works which promoted enmity and affected harmony between different communities in the country and the state were encouraged and such anti-society messages were allowed to go viral.”
Twitter declined to comment, and Maheshwari did not respond to a request for comment.
IT minister Ravi Shankar Prasad lashed out at Twitter this week for the Ghaziabad incident, saying its failure to act was “perplexing.”

Prasad has said Twitter has not complied with a new set of government rules that required them to appoint new compliance officers by May 26.
The rules state that in case of non-compliance, protection that companies enjoy related to any liability against user generated content “shall not be applicable” and companies “shall be liable for punishment under any law.”
“The moment Twitter was non-complaint, the safe harbor protection was automatically not available,” said Shlok Chandra, a New Delhi-based lawyer who represents the federal government in various cases. “The position is very clear.”
Some free speech activists and lawyers, however, disagree.
“The Central Government neither has the power to bestow, nor the power to “withdraw” the exemption from liability...The determination of the question whether Twitter is entitled to seek exemption from liability is solely within the domain of the Courts,” Delhi-based Ira Law firm said in a LinkedIn post this month.
Three special rapporteurs appointed by a top United Nations human rights body last week urged India to review the new IT rules, saying their broadened scope did not conform with international human rights norms and could threaten digital rights.
To comply with India’s new IT rules, companies such as Twitter needed to appoint a chief compliance officer, a nodal officer and a resident grievance officer. But LinkedIn job postings show all three positions were currently open at Twitter.
The social media giant has however retained an interim chief compliance officer, it said this week, adding that it was making all efforts to adhere to the new IT rules. 

Vietnam introduces nationwide code of conduct for social media

Last year, Vietnamese authorities had threatened to shut down Facebook if the social media giant did not bow to government pressure to censor more local political content. (File/AFP)
Updated 18 June 2021

Vietnam introduces nationwide code of conduct for social media

  • Vietnam introduce code of conduct laws for social media which prohibit posts that affect the interests of the state
  • It is not yet clear to what extent the decision is legally binding, or how it will be enforced

HANOI: Vietnam introduced national guidelines on social media behavior on Friday which encourage people to post positive content about the Southeast Asian country and require state employees to report “conflicting information” to their superiors.
The code prohibits posts which violate the law and “affect the interests of the state” and applies to state organizations, social media companies, and all their users in Vietnam.
“Social media users are encouraged to promote the beauty of Vietnam’s scenery, people and culture, and spread good stories about good people,” reads the code, which was contained in a decision from the information ministry and dated June 17.
It was not clear to what extent the decision was legally binding, or how it would be enforced.
Vietnam’s ruling Communist Party tolerates little criticism, retains tight control over media and has in recent years presided over an intensified crackdown on dissidents and activists, some of whom are serving lengthy jail terms for posts on Facebook and Google’s YouTube.
In November last year, Reuters exclusively reported that Vietnamese authorities had threatened to shut down Facebook if the social media giant did not bow to government pressure to censor more local political content on the platform.
Vietnam is a major market for Facebook, which serves about 60 million users in the country and generates revenue of nearly $1 billion, according to sources familiar with the numbers.
The new code requires social media providers in Vietnam to “deal with users in accordance with Vietnamese law” when requested by authorities to remove content from their platforms.
It encourages social media users to create accounts using their real identities, share information from official sources, and avoid posting content which violates the law, contains bad language, or advertises illegal services.
In January, Vietnamese social media users used fake weather reports and football scores as a creative means to discuss Communist Party leadership wrangling after an official ban on speculation ahead of a Party congress. 

Myanmar extends detention of US journalist Danny Fenster

The parents of detained journalist Danny Fenster, Buddy Fenster and Rose Fenster and brother Bryan Fenster gather in Huntington Woods, Michigan. (AFP)
Updated 18 June 2021

Myanmar extends detention of US journalist Danny Fenster

  • Myanmar court extends detention of US journalist Danny Fenster while US Embassy officials are still being denied access to him.
  • About 90 journalists have been arrested since the military junta seized power in February and more than half of them are still detained.

BANGKOK: A court in Myanmar extended the detention of American journalist Danny Fenster for another two weeks Thursday, while the US State Department urged that it be granted consular access to him.
Online news and business magazine Frontier Myanmar, where Fenster is managing editor, said he faces a charge that carries a potential three-year prison term.
The charge, used frequently against dissidents and journalists, criminalizes “any attempt to cause fear, spread false news, or agitate directly or indirectly a criminal offense against a government employee.” The magazine said it did not know the reason for the charge.
Myanmar’s military government has tried to silence independent news media by withdrawing the licenses they must obtain to publish or broadcast and by arresting journalists.
According to Myanmar’s Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, about 90 journalists have been arrested since the army seized power in February and more than half of them are still detained.
The special court at Insein Prison in Yangon ordered Fenster’s continued detention there for two weeks, scheduling his next hearing for July 1.
Myanmar authorities have not allowed US Embassy officials access to Fenster, State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters in Washington. He urged them to grant access under the Vienna Convention “without delay and to ensure proper treatment of Danny.”
Price said the State Department was “very gratified” by the release of another US journalist, Nathan Maung, who had been arrested on a similar charge in March while working for a local news online news agency in Myanmar.
Maung was deported Tuesday after the charge against him was dropped and his case dismissed, though a colleague at Kamayut Media who was arrested with him, Myanmar citizen Hanthar Nyein, remains imprisoned. Price said Maung has met and spoken with senior State Department officials since his return.
Frontier said Fenster was represented by a lawyer in court Thursday but the magazine’s representatives were not permitted to attend. “We are still seeking information on the reason for Danny’s arrest and continued detention,” Frontier said in its statement.
Fenster, 37, was detained at Yangon International Airport on May 24 as he was trying to board a flight to go to the Detroit area to see his family.
Two Myanmar journalists who were arrested more than a month ago were released Thursday, the wife of one of them said.
Voice of Myanmar Editor-in-Chief Nay Myo Lin and reporter Shine Aung were arrested on April 27 when they obeyed an order to report themselves for questioning about articles judged to be anti-military.
Both returned to their homes after they were released when the cases against them were dropped, said Zarni Mann, who is Nay Myo Lin’s wife. Voice of Myanmar, an online news service suspended operations following their arrests.
“We have said that journalism is not a crime. But not only Nay Myo Lin but also many other journalists have been prosecuted and detained in the prisons. I want all other detained journalists to be released, just like Nay Myo Lin,” said Zarni Mann.