TikTok accuses federal agency of ‘political demagoguery’ in legal challenge against potential US ban

According to TikTok, the US Treasury’s undersecretary for investment security told the company that “senior government officials” deemed the draft agreement to be insufficient to address the government’s national security concerns. (AFP/File)
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Updated 21 June 2024
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TikTok accuses federal agency of ‘political demagoguery’ in legal challenge against potential US ban

  • ByteDance-owned company said in court letter that Committee on Foreign Investment ceased negotions after submitting draft security agreement

LONDON: TikTok disclosed a letter Thursday that accused the Biden administration of engaging in “political demagoguery” during high-stakes negotiations between the government and the company as it sought to relieve concerns about its presence in the US
The letter — sent to David Newman, a top official in the Justice Department’s national security division, before President Biden signed the potential TikTok ban into law — was submitted in federal court along with a legal brief supporting the company’s lawsuit against measure. TikTok’s Beijing-based parent company ByteDance is also a plaintiff in the lawsuit, which is expected to be one of the biggest legal battles in tech and Internet history.
The internal documents provide details about negotiations between TikTok and the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, a secretive inter-agency panel that investigates corporate deals over national security concerns, between January 2021 and August 2022.
TikTok has said those talks ultimately resulted in a 90-page draft security agreement that would have required the company to implement more robust safeguards around US user data. It would have also required TikTok to put in a “kill switch” that would have allowed CFIUS to suspend the platform if it was found to be non-compliant with the agreement.
However, attorneys for TikTok said the agency “ceased any substantive negotiations” with the company after it submitted the draft agreement in August 2022.
CFIUS did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The Justice Department said it is looking forward to defending the recently enacted legislation, which it says addresses “critical national security concerns in a manner that is consistent with the First Amendment and other constitutional limitations.”
“Alongside others in our intelligence community and in Congress, the Justice Department has consistently warned about the threat of autocratic nations that can weaponize technology — such as the apps and software that run on our phones – to use against us,” the statement said. “This threat is compounded when those autocratic nations require companies under their control to turn over sensitive data to the government in secret.”
The letter sent to Newman details additional meetings between TikTok and government officials since then, including a March 2023 call the company said was arranged by Paul Rosen, the US Treasury’s undersecretary for investment security.
According to TikTok, Rosen told the company that “senior government officials” deemed the draft agreement to be insufficient to address the government’s national security concerns. Rosen also said a solution would have to involve a divestment by ByteDance and the migration of the social platform’s source code, or its fundamental programming, out of China.
TikTok’s lawsuit has painted divestment as a technological impossibility since the law requires all of TikTok’s millions of lines of code to be wrested from ByteDance so that there would be no “operational relationship” between the Chinese company and the new US app.
After the Wall Street Journal reported in March 2023 that CFIUS had threatened ByteDance to divest TikTok or face a ban, TikTok’s attorneys held another call with senior staff from the Justice and Treasury departments where they said leaks to the media by government officials were “problematic and damaging.”
That call was followed by an in-person meeting in May 2023 between TikTok’s attorneys, technical experts and senior staff at the Treasury Department focused on data safety measures and TikTok’s source code, the company’s attorneys said. The last meeting with CFIUS occurred in September 2023.
In the letter to Newman, TikTok’s attorneys say CFIUS provides a constructive way to address the government’s concern. However, they added, the agency can only serve this purpose when the law — which imposes confidentiality — and regulations “are followed and both sides are engaged in good-faith discussions, as opposed to political subterfuge, where CFIUS negotiations are misappropriated for legislative purposes.”
The legal brief also shared details of, but does not include, a one-page document the Justice Department allegedly provided to members of Congress in March, a month before they passed the federal bill that would require the platform to be sold to an approved buyer or face a ban.
TikTok’s attorneys said the document asserted TikTok collects sensitive data without alleging the Chinese government has ever obtained such data. According to the company, the document also alleged that TikTok’s algorithm creates the potential for China to influence content on the platform without alleging the country has ever done so.


EU court rejects TikTok challenge against new EU digital rules

Updated 17 July 2024
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EU court rejects TikTok challenge against new EU digital rules

  • TikTok owner ByteDance is one of the six “gatekeepers” under Digital Markets Act facing the curbs
  • TikTok claimed to be acting as the “most capable challenger” to digital monopolies

LUXEMBOURG: TikTok lost an appeal Wednesday to escape new digital rules that seek to rein in the power of big tech after an EU court rejected its challenge.
A landmark European Union law known as the Digital Markets Act (DMA) entered into force in March, and regulators believe it will create a fairer market.
The European Commission designated six “gatekeepers” under the DMA facing the curbs: Google parent Alphabet, Amazon, Apple, Meta, Microsoft — and TikTok owner ByteDance, the only non-US company.
The EU said in May that Booking would also have to apply the law and gave the online travel agent six months to prepare for compliance.
The decision by the Luxembourg-based General Court is the first judgment on a DMA challenge by big tech, with cases lodged by Apple and Meta still pending.
“The Court dismisses ByteDance’s action,” it said. TikTok can appeal against the ruling within two months and 10 days of the decision.
TikTok had insisted it was the “most capable challenger” to entrenched players in the digital sphere, but the court dismissed that argument.
“TikTok had succeeded in increasing its number of users very rapidly and exponentially, reaching, in a short time, half the size of Facebook and of Instagram, and a particularly high engagement rate, with young users in particular, who spent more time on TikTok than on other social networks,” the court said in a statement.
The judges acknowledged that in 2018, video sharing app TikTok was indeed a challenger but it had since then “rapidly consolidated its position and even strengthened that position over the following years” despite the launch of similar rival services.


“We are disappointed with this decision. TikTok is a challenger platform that provides important competition to incumbent players,” a spokesperson said in a statement.
“While we will now evaluate next steps, we already took measures to comply with the relevant obligations of the DMA ahead of last March’s deadline.”
But the court determined “ByteDance met the quantitative thresholds laid down in the DMA.”
For Brussels to name a company as a gatekeeper, they must fulfil certain conditions.
The criteria include having more than 45 million monthly active users in the EU and more than 10,000 yearly active business users established in the bloc.
Digital companies with an annual turnover in the EU of at least 7.5 billion euros ($8.2 billion) or a market value of above 75 billion euros also face the new curbs.
If a company violates the law, the EU can impose fines of up to 10 percent of a company’s total global turnover. This can rise to 20 percent for repeat offenders and in the most severe circumstances, the EU can order the break-up of companies.
It is the second defeat in the courts for TikTok over the DMA. It lost a bid in February to suspend the strict new rules pending the judgment handed down Wednesday.
Big tech is not happy about the new law. Apple, contesting the DMA in the courts, has been vocal in its criticism, saying it puts users’ security at risk.


Trump shooting conspiracy theories flourish on X, researchers say

Updated 17 July 2024
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Trump shooting conspiracy theories flourish on X, researchers say

  • The conspiracy theories were viewed over 215 million times on X, the watchdog Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH) said

WASHINGTON: Conspiracy theories about the assassination attempt on Donald Trump received tens of millions of views on X, researchers said Tuesday, highlighting the potential for extreme falsehoods to go viral on the Elon Musk-owned platform.

The social media site, formerly named Twitter, was flooded with unsubstantiated claims soon after the shooting Saturday at a campaign rally in Butler, Pennsylvania, which left one spectator dead and a bloodied Trump injured in the ear.

Those included unfounded assertions that the assassination attempt had been “staged” or an “inside job,” while fingers were pointed at imaginary culprits such as Jews and the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad.

The conspiracy theories were viewed over 215 million times on X, the watchdog Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH) said after analyzing a sample of 100 popular posts.

A majority of the posts did not carry a “Community Note,” a crowd-sourced moderation tool that Musk has promoted as the way for users to add context to the tweets, CCDH added.

In the first 24 hours alone, unsubstantiated narratives around the incident amassed more than 100 million views on X, according to the nonprofit research group Institute for Strategic Dialogue.

X did not respond to a request for comment.

Internet hoaxers also falsely identified several people as the shooter — including Italian sports journalist Marco Violi, anti-Trump protester Maxwell Yearick and comedian Sam Hyde, AFP’s fact-checkers reported.

Federal investigators have identified the shooter, who was killed on the scene, as Thomas Matthew Crooks of Pennsylvania.

In the immediate aftermath of the shooting, several social media users voiced confusion as they scrambled to obtain accurate information in what appeared to be a sea of false or misleading posts, which rapidly gained traction.

The trend illustrates the ability of falsehoods to mutate into viral political discourse on tech platforms including X, which now offer fewer guardrails as they scale back content moderation.

Researchers say some clout-chasing accounts on the platform have a financial motive to post sensational falsehoods, as X’s ad revenue-sharing program incentivizes extreme content designed to boost engagement.

“In the marketplace of disinformation — which is effectively what a lot of social media platforms have now been reduced to, a marketplace for lies — extreme content is your currency,” said Imran Ahmed, chief executive and founder of CCDH.

“The algorithms take the most outlandish content and amplify it exponentially until the entire digital world is flooded with conspiracism, disinformation and hate.”

Researchers have warned about a possible firehose of disinformation in the run up to the November election, which will take place in a deeply polarized political climate in the United States.

“Already, at an early stage in the US electoral cycle, we can see flashing warning signs that social media in the weeks and months ahead will be increasingly chaotic and rife with disinformation,” Ahmed said.


Algeria publisher closes over book controversy

Readers visit a book stall on a street in the Algerian capital Algiers. (AFP file photo)
Updated 17 July 2024
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Algeria publisher closes over book controversy

  • The announcement comes a week after “Houaria” won the prestigious Assia Djebar Grand Prize, an award in honor of the Algerian literary giant who died in 2015

ALGIERS: An Algerian publishing house said on Tuesday it was ceasing operations after an award-winning novel sparked uproar on social media because of its controversial themes.
“We announce that MIM Edition has closed its doors effective immediately in the face of the storm and fire,” the publisher posted on Facebook.
“Houaria,” by Inaam Bayoud, has sparked furor on social media, with many accusing it of being replete with sexual innuendo and using “coarse terms in Darija,” the Algerian dialect of Arabic.
The announcement comes a week after “Houaria” won the prestigious Assia Djebar Grand Prize, an award in honor of the Algerian literary giant who died in 2015.
“While reading the novel, we were no less concerned about values than those who claim to defend them without having read it,” said Amina Belaala, a member of the Assia Djebar Grand Prize jury that selected the book.
“We did not see in those few words any affront to morality, religion or modesty,” she added.
For literary critic Faycal Metaoui, the uproar caused by the novel is evidence of a double-standard for female writers in Algerian society.
“The author and the publisher are women. If it were written by a man, we would not have seen all this,” he told AFP.
 

 


Stabbed Iran International journalist flees to Israel over safety concerns

Updated 16 July 2024
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Stabbed Iran International journalist flees to Israel over safety concerns

  • Pouria Zeraati said move was a “reluctant” but necessary decision

LONDON: Iran International journalist Pouria Zeraati has fled to Israel citing safety concerns after an assassination attempt in London in March.

In an interview with The Guardian, Zeraati revealed that his move from London to an undisclosed location in Israel was a “reluctant” but necessary decision.

“The place I live right now is a little safer,” he said in an interview published Tuesday.

“There have been communications between the UK police and the police here. They know about my situation and have taken extra measures to make sure I’m safe in Israel.”

Zeraati was attacked outside his home in Wimbledon, southwest London, by three unidentified men who reportedly fled the country immediately after the attack.

Police believe the attackers were part of a criminal gang from Eastern Europe acting on behalf of the Iranian government.

Suspicion increased following a series of foiled plots aimed at kidnapping or killing employees of Iran International, a London-based network that Tehran has classified as a terrorist organization.

Zeraati, who was hospitalized with a leg injury, criticized the UK’s approach to the threat posed by Iran on British soil, saying it could not guarantee his safety.

He called for the British government to impose more stringent sanctions against Iran.

The attack on Zeraati comes amid an “unprecedented” harassment campaign against Iranian journalists living abroad.

According to a report by Reporters Without Borders, almost 90 percent of Iranian journalists said they had experienced online threats or harassment in the past five years.

In December, ITV revealed that a double agent exposed a plot orchestrated by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps to assassinate two network anchors during the 2022 anti-government protests.

Similarly, journalists at the BBC’s Persian language news outlet reported being targeted with offensive messages and threats of sexual assault, with reports of family members in Iran being arbitrarily detained.

Zeraati’s move to a country at war, and at risk of further conflict, has also raised fresh questions over how safe the UK is for dissidents targeted by foreign states.


Video of driver lashing migrants in back of lorry sparks indignation in Italy

Updated 16 July 2024
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Video of driver lashing migrants in back of lorry sparks indignation in Italy

  • Video shows driver shouting at and hitting a group of Eritrean migrants with makeshift whip

LONDON: A video showing a driver lashing a group of migrants who hid in the back of his lorry to cross into France has sparked outrage in Italy.

The video, which went viral on social media, shows an unidentified driver, believed to be from Eastern Europe, shouting at and hitting a group of Eritrean migrants, mostly women, with a makeshift whip.

The incident was filmed by a passerby at a traffic center in Ventimiglia, in the Liguria region near the French border.

Police are investigating the incident but have not released further information.

The episode has ignited a nationwide debate, with Save the Children Italy condemning the images as “inhuman and demeaning.”

“Children, adolescents, and thousands of migrants arriving in Europe deserve a system that recognizes their needs, treats them with respect and dignity, and protects them from danger,” the association said in a statement, criticizing the EU’s recently approved Pact on Migration and Asylum.

According to the Italian newspaper Secolo XIX, the group had been welcomed the evening before the incident at a refugee center run by Catholic charity Caritas and spent the night at the “widespread reception point” in Ventimiglia.

Following the incident, the migrants returned to the center, where they recounted what had happened.