Last apps standing? Telegram, WhatsApp duck Russia bans

WhatsApp’s use for one-on-one or group chats make it less of a target for Russian authorities for now. (AFP)
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Updated 19 March 2022

Last apps standing? Telegram, WhatsApp duck Russia bans

  • Meta-owned WhatsApp is less suited for mass communication
  • An average of 2.5 million new users joined Telegram daily in the last three weeks

WASHINGTON: Chat platforms like WhatsApp and Telegram have avoided being blocked by Russia — unlike some of the world’s biggest social networks — in a tenuous tolerance that experts warn could end suddenly.
Years of tension between Moscow and US-based Facebook and Twitter erupted into confrontation after the invasion of Ukraine, with the platforms targeting state-tied media and then finding themselves restricted in Russia.
YouTube, which has barred channels linked to Russian state media globally, was on Friday also facing a direct threat of being blocked after Russia’s media regulator, Roskomnadzor, accused the site’s owner Google of being “anti-Russian.”
Messaging apps, however, have gotten a pass so far in part because Meta-owned WhatsApp is less suited for mass communication, while Telegram’s ability to blast information to large groups has made it useful both for independent media and the Kremlin.
“I think it’s unlikely Russia will ban Telegram because they are so short on platforms where they can operate,” said Sergey Sanovich, a postdoctoral researcher at Princeton University, who noted that authorities in 2020 aborted efforts to block the service.
Telegram, criticized as having a lax content policing policy, offers a forum for Russian authorities to promote narratives friendly to their internationally condemned war.
Russia still operates accounts on platforms like Facebook, despite blocking the service at home, but this week the Silicon Valley giant took down posts from Moscow’s pages that contained misinformation about its deadly offensive.
Telegram has become an essential exchange for news on the war, with its growth accelerating after the Kremlin’s latest crackdown on independent media and the lock-out of apps like Facebook and Instagram.
An average of 2.5 million new users joined Telegram daily in the last three weeks, the firm said, about a 25 percent jump from the weeks prior.
But experts highlighted a risk to Telegram and its users due to a lack of default, end-to-end encryption that potentially leaves the company susceptible to government pressure to turn over information.
Alp Toker, director of web monitoring group NetBlocks, noted WhatsApp has put in place firestops that offer insulation against that sort of pressure.
“By improving their security and adopting end-to-end encryption technology, they have essentially protected their own platform from legal risk and potential demands for content access requests,” Toker added.
WhatsApp’s use for one-on-one or group chats make it less of a target for Russian authorities for now, but that could change if it became known as a key platform for protests against the war.
“Primarily, Roskomnadzor has been very concerned about channels and news and ways of disseminating information to large numbers of people, which WhatsApp and such are less good for,” said Eva Galperin, director of cybersecurity at Electronic Frontier Foundation.
But Toker noted that the question hasn’t reached a critical point yet for authorities, partly because it was social media platforms, many of them now blocked, that had played a key role in organizing.
“As those (platforms) disappear, the dynamics could change and messaging apps could become the next target,” he added.
WhatsApp was one of the most popular apps in Russia in 2021, with some 67 million users or about 65 percent of Internet users in the country — far ahead of TikTok, Russian social media platform VK, and even Telegram, according to data from eMarketer.
But YouTube, with 76 million viewers in 2021, drew more Russians than any of the above platforms, the data showed.
Its popularity was due in part to the access it offers to entertainment for everyday Russians, who in turn provided an audience for politicians and the government seeking their attention.
Sanovich, the Princeton researcher, said the platform had simply gotten on the wrong side of authorities.
“They have a hard time controlling YouTube in terms of censorship and YouTube’s recent moves made it less valuable as a venue for foreign propaganda,” he noted.
The lack of a sufficiently high-quality homegrown alternative has also been a complicating factor for the government in deciding what to do with YouTube.
Toker, the NetBlocks director, cautioned that the blocking of YouTube would mean confronting Google, with its suite of services like Gmail.
“Declaring war on YouTube effectively means declaring war on the rest of the company,” he noted. “Google is a major force in business and a significant connection to the outside world.”


Twitter to introduce new controls for ad placements

Updated 17 sec ago

Twitter to introduce new controls for ad placements

  • Companies will have the option to prevent their ads appearing under certain tweets
  • Move hopes to reassure advertisers following rise in hate speech
LONDON: Twitter Inc. will roll out new controls as soon as next week to let companies prevent their ads from appearing above or below tweets containing certain keywords, the social media platform told advertisers in an email on Thursday.
The new controls are part of Twitter’s effort to reassure and lure back advertisers that have pulled ads off the platform since it was purchased in October by billionaire Elon Musk, amid reports from civil rights groups that hate speech has risen since the acquisition and after several banned or suspended accounts were reinstated.
Twitter earns nearly 90 percent of its revenue from selling digital ads. Musk recently attributed a “massive drop in revenue” to civil rights organizations that have pressured brands to pause their Twitter ads.
In a call on Thursday with an advertising industry group, a Twitter representative said the platform was considering bringing its content moderators, many of whom are contracted through third-party vendors, in-house, according to a source familiar with the remarks.
The Twitter representative said bringing content moderators in-house would allow the platform to invest more in moderation for non-English languages, according to the source.
The comments come after Twitter’s new head of trust and safety, Ella Irwin, told Reuters that the platform would lean more heavily on automated content moderation. Irwin also said that Twitter’s recent layoffs, which cut 50 percent of staff, did not significantly hurt its moderation team and those working on critical areas like child safety.
The email to advertisers on Thursday, which was reviewed by Reuters, said a revamped version of Twitter’s subscription service called Twitter Blue would begin rolling out on Friday.
The subscription will allow accounts to receive a verified check mark. Accounts for individuals will get a blue check, while gold and gray check marks will denote business and government accounts, according to the email.
The subscription price will be $7 per month on the web and $11 per month on Apple devices, the email said.
Twitter also told advertisers that it removed ads from profiles mentioned in a Washington Post article on Tuesday, which reported that ads had appeared on the Twitter accounts of white nationalists.
Snap Inc, which owns photo messaging app Snapchat, has paused its advertising on Twitter while it investigates the issue, a spokesperson told Reuters.
The accounts were not part of “amnesty reinstatements,” Twitter’s email said, referring to Musk’s tweet last month that Twitter would reinstate suspended accounts that have not broken the law.
“We will not be reinstating bad actors, spam accounts and users that engaged in criminal/illegal activity,” Twitter’s note to advertisers said.
Twitter, which has lost many members of its communications team, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Pakistani journalist’s killing in Kenya a pre-meditated murder – report

Updated 09 December 2022

Pakistani journalist’s killing in Kenya a pre-meditated murder – report

  • TV journalist Arshad Sharif earlier fled Pakistan citing threats to his life
  • Team of Pakistani probers believe it was a case of pre-meditated murder
ISLAMABAD: A team set up by the Pakistani government to probe the killing of a well-known Pakistani journalist in Nairobi said it found several contradictions in the version given by Kenyan authorities, and believes it was a case of pre-meditated murder.
TV journalist Arshad Sharif, who had fled Pakistan citing threats to his life, was shot dead in Nairobi in October. Kenyan officials said it was a case of mistaken identity and police hunting car thieves opened fire on his vehicle as it drove through a roadblock without stopping.
A two-member fact-finding team from Pakistan that traveled to Kenya and conducted a number of interviews, examined and reconstructed the crime scene and examined the deceased’s phones and computers, said in a 600-page report that Sharif’s killing was a pre-planned murder.
“Both the members of the (fact-finding team) have a considered understanding that it is a case of planned targeted assassination with transnational characters rather than a case of mistaken identity,” said the report, copies of which were submitted to Pakistan’s Supreme Court.
“It is more probable that the firing was done, after taking proper aim, at a stationary vehicle,” it said.
Kenyan authorities declined comment on the specifics of the report.
“The investigation into the matter is still ongoing, so there is not much I can tell,” said Resila Onyango, spokesperson for the Kenya National Police Service.
A multi-agency team is conducting the investigation, he said, adding that the team will apprise authorities when they are done with the probe.
The chairperson of the Kenyan police watchdog Independent Police Oversight Authority, Anne Makori, also said investigations were still ongoing.
Pakistan’s Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah had said before the release of the report that Sharif’s body had bruises and torture marks, suggested it was a targeted killing.
The fact-finding team highlighted one wound in particular on Sharif’s back, saying it appeared to have been inflicted from relatively close range.
The report noted there was no corresponding penetration mark of a bullet on the seat on which Sharif was sitting when the shooting purportedly took place, calling it a “ballistic impossibility.”
“The injury had to have been caused either before the journalist got into the vehicle, or the shot was fired from a relatively close range, possibly from inside the vehicle, and almost certainly not a moving vehicle,” the report said.
Sharif had fled from Pakistan citing threats to his life after the government registered several treason cases against him.
One of the treason cases stemmed from reporting Sharif did that led to an accusation he had spread a call from an official in a previous government, led by former cricket star Imran Khan, for members of the armed forces to mutiny.
Both Sharif and the official in the previous government denied inciting mutiny.
Former prime minister Khan said Sharif had been murdered for his journalistic work. He and his successor Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, not related to the journalist, had called for a judicial investigation.
The fact-finding team’s report also pointed out apparent contradictions in the autopsy reports in Kenya and Pakistan.
The post-mortem report in Pakistan identified 12 injuries on Sharif’s body whereas the Kenyan report identified just two injuries pertaining to gunshot wounds.
The fact-finding team report said doctors believed the injures may be the result of torture or a struggle, but it could not be established until verified by the doctor who conducted the post mortem in Kenya.

Australian court dismisses suit against Google over personal data use

Updated 09 December 2022

Australian court dismisses suit against Google over personal data use

  • Proceedings were initiated by the Australian Competition & Consumer Commission in July 2020
  • ‘The court also noted that Google did not reduce account holders’ rights under the privacy policy’

Australia’s competition regulator said on Friday its lawsuit against Alphabet Inc’s Google that alleged consumers were misled about expanded use of personal data for targeted advertising had been dismissed by a court.
The proceedings, initiated by the Australian Competition & Consumer Commission in July 2020, alleged Google did not explicitly take consent from users about a change made in 2016 that combined personal information in Google accounts with activity on non-Google sites that use its technology to display advertisements.
The Federal Court, however, found that the notification which allowed users to accept policy changes was not misleading since Google “only implemented the steps with their (users’) informed consent,” the regulator said.
“The court also noted that Google did not reduce account holders’ rights under the privacy policy.”
Google Australia did not immediately respond to a request for comment.


Disney+ streaming service launches with major advertisers

Updated 08 December 2022

Disney+ streaming service launches with major advertisers

  • The $7.99-a-month with ads version launches amid video streaming industry slowdown

LONDON: The ad-supported version of the Disney+ service launched Thursday, attracting major advertisers from different sectors, bringing in new revenue as Walt Disney Co. strives to push its streaming business into profitability.
Disney Advertising President Rita Ferro said more than 100 brands, from Mattel Inc. to Marriott Hotels & Resorts, are participating in the launch, which Disney has been promoting to marketers and ad buyers since its May.
The company is under pressure to turn a profit on its streaming business, which posted a $1.5 billon loss in the company’s most recent quarter. Investor unhappiness about deepening losses hammered the company’s stock and helped set the stage for the ouster last month of Chief Executive Bob Chapek, and return of longtime Disney leader, Bob Iger.
Advertising introduces a second source of revenue for Disney+, to supplement subscription fees. The company’s other streaming services, Hulu and ESPN+, already have commercials.
A $3-a-month price increase also took effect Dec. 8, bringing the price for the ad-free version of Disney+ to $10.99. Disney+ with ads costs $7.99. Researcher Kantar projects that one out of four Disney+ subscribers could switch to the less-expensive version of the service with advertising.
Chief Financial Officer Christine McCarthy told investors the company does not expect the advertising-supported tier to have a “meaningful impact” until later in its 2023 fiscal year.
As subscriber growth slows in North America, Netflix similarly introduced commercials to bolster revenue and support its estimated $17 billion annual content spend. Other streaming services, such as HBO Max, Paramount+ and Peacock, also offer ad-supported versions of their streaming services, emulating the business model that has long supported the television business.
Ferro told Reuters that Disney+ will carry four minutes of advertising time per hour, in 15 and 30 second spots, and limit the number of times the same ad will appear over the course of a day or week.
“A brand like Starbucks will have no more than one commercial an hour, no more than two a day,” she said. “We’ve asked advertisers for multiple versions of creative. Even if they air two a day, you won’t see the same ad.”
Disney plans to introduce features that will allow advertisers to target consumers by region, gender and age.


Biden admin tells Supreme Court law protecting social media companies has limits

Updated 08 December 2022

Biden admin tells Supreme Court law protecting social media companies has limits

  • Social media companies should be held responsible for user content, President argues

LONDON: The Biden administration argued to the US Supreme Court on Wednesday that social media giants like Google could in some instances have responsibility for user content, adopting a stance that could potentially undermine a federal law shielding companies from liability.
Lawyers for the US Department of Justice made their argument in the high profile lawsuit filed by the family of Nohemi Gonzalez, a 23-year-old American citizen killed in 2015 when Islamist militants opened fire on the Paris bistro where she was eating.
The family argued that Google was in part liable for Gonzalez’ death because YouTube, which is owned by the tech giant, essentially recommended videos by the Daesh group to some users through its algorithms. Google and YouTube are part of Alphabet Inc.
The case reached the Supreme Court after the San Francisco-based 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals sided with Google, saying they were protected from such claims because of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996.
Section 230 holds that social media companies cannot be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by other users.
The law has been sharply criticized across the political spectrum. Democrats claim it gives social media companies a pass for spreading hate speech and misinformation.
Republicans say it allows censorship of voices on the right and other politically unpopular opinions, pointing to decisions by Facebook and Twitter to ban dissemination of a New York Post article about the son of then-Democratic candidate Joe Biden’s adult son, Hunter, in October 2020.
The Biden administration, in its filing to the Supreme Court, did not argue that Google should be held liable in the Gonzalez case and voiced strong support for most of Section 230’s protections of social media companies.
But the DOJ lawyers said that algorithms used by YouTube and other providers should be subject to a different kind of scrutiny. They called for the Supreme Court to return the case to the 9th Circuit for further review.
Attorneys for Google could not be reached for comment on Wednesday night.