SERAP Sues Buhari, Wants Court To Declare ‘Plan To Monitor WhatsApp Messages Illegal’

A photo combination of SERAP and President Muhammadu Buhari

 

Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP) has filed a lawsuit against President Muhammadu Buhari.

The group is asking the court to “declare illegal and unconstitutional the plan by the administration to track, intercept and monitor WhatsApp messages, phone calls, and text messages of Nigerians and other people, as it severely threatens and violates the right to the preservation of privacy.”

The suit followed the proposal in the Supplementary Appropriation Act signed in July 2021 to spend N4.87bn to monitor private calls and messages. The amount is part of the N895.8bn supplementary budget approved by the National Assembly.

In the suit number FHC/ABJ/CS/1240/2021 filed last Friday at the Federal High Court in Abuja, SERAP is seeking: “an order of perpetual injunction restraining President Buhari and any other authority, persons or group of persons from unlawfully monitoring the WhatsApp messages, phone calls and text messages of Nigerians and other people.”

SERAP is also seeking “a declaration that any monitoring of WhatsApp messages, phone calls and text messages is oppressive and draconian, as it threatens and violates sections 37 and 39 of Nigerian Constitution 1999 [as amended]; Article 9 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights; and Articles 17 and 19 of International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Nigeria is a state party.”

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According to the group, the plan to monitor WhatsApp messages, phone calls and text messages is an arbitrary interference by the administration into respect for family and private life, the home, and correspondence.

“The Buhari administration has legal obligations to protect Nigerians and other people against arbitrary interference and violations of their human rights. Monitoring of WhatsApp messages, phone calls and text messages would grant free rein to government agencies to conduct mass surveillance of communications of people,” it said.

“The mere threat of mass surveillance, even when secret, coupled with the lack of remedy, can constitute an interference with human rights, including the rights to privacy, freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association.

“Privacy and expression are intertwined in the digital age, with online privacy serving as a gateway to secure exercise of the freedom of opinion and expression. Therefore, targets of surveillance would suffer interference with their rights to privacy and freedom of opinion and expression whether the effort to monitor is successful or not.”

Joined in the suit as respondents are the Minister of Justice and Attorney General of the Federation, Abubakar Malami (SAN) and the Minister of Finance, Budget and National Planning, Zainab Ahmed.

The suit filed on behalf of SERAP by its lawyers Kolawole Oluwadare and Kehinde Oyewumi, read in part: “The powers to conduct arbitrary, abusive or unlawful surveillance of communications may also be used to target political figures and activists, journalists and others in the discharge of their lawful activities.”

“Any spending of public funds should stay within the limits of constitutional responsibilities, and oath of office by public officers, as well as comply with Chapter 2 of the Nigerian Constitution relating to fundamental objectives and directive principles of state policy.

“The lack of any safeguards against discriminatory decision-making, and access to an effective remedy shows the grave threats the purported plan poses to constitutionally and internationally recognized human rights.

“Section 37 of the Nigerian Constitution and Article 17 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights provide for the right to freedom from arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy and correspondence, communications and private data.

“Section 39 of the Nigerian Constitution and Article 19 of the Covenant also guarantee the right of everyone to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers and through any media.

“The UN General Assembly has condemned unlawful or arbitrary surveillance and interception of communications as ‘highly intrusive acts’ that interfere with fundamental human rights (see General Assembly resolutions 68/167 and 71/199).

“Interference with privacy through targeted surveillance is designed to repress the exercise of the right to freedom of expression. Surveillance of journalists, activists, opposition figures, critics and others simply exercising their right to freedom of expression – would lead to violations of other human rights.

“Targeted surveillance creates incentives for self-censorship and directly undermines the ability of journalists and human rights defenders to conduct investigations and build and maintain relationships with sources of information.”

SERAP is also seeking the following reliefs:

A declaration that monitoring of WhatsApp messages, phone calls and text messages of Nigerians and other people is inconsistent with the principles of legality, necessity, and proportionality and amounts to threat and infringement on the rights to private and family life, access to correspondence, and freedom of expression and the press guaranteed under sections 37 and 39 of Nigeria Constitution, 1999; Article 9 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, and Articles 17 and 19 of International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

A declaration that the act of the Defendants budgeting N4.87bn of public money to monitor WhatsApp messages, phone calls and text messages of Nigerians and other people is unlawful and a violation of the rights to private and family life, access to correspondence, and freedom of expression and the press.

An order setting aside the budget line of N4.87bn to monitor WhatsApp messages, phone calls and text messages of Nigerians and other people for being inconsistent and incompatible with constitutional provisions, and international human rights treaties.

An order mandating the 1st Respondent to redirect public funds in the sum of N4.87bn budgeted to monitor WhatsApp messages, phone calls and text messages of Nigerians and other people to improve the working conditions of healthcare practitioners and improve public healthcare facilities across Nigeria.

And for such further order or orders that the court may deem fit to make in the circumstances.

No date has been fixed for the hearing of the suit.

Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp Hit By Massive Outage

This file photo taken on October 5, 2020, shows logos of US social networks Facebook, Instagram and mobile messaging service WhatsApp on the screens of a smartphone and a tablet in Toulouse, southwestern France. Lionel BONAVENTURE / AFP
This file photo taken on October 5, 2020, shows logos of US social networks Facebook, Instagram and mobile messaging service WhatsApp on the screens of a smartphone and a tablet in Toulouse, southwestern France. Lionel BONAVENTURE / AFP

 

Major social media services including Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp were hit by a massive outage on Monday, tracking sites showed, impacting potentially tens of millions of users.

Outage tracker Downdetector was showing outages in heavily populated areas like Washington and Paris, with problems being reported from around 1545 GMT.

Users trying to access Facebook in affected areas were greeted with the message: “Something went wrong. We’re working on it and we’ll get it fixed as soon as we can.”

“We’re aware that some people are having trouble accessing our apps and products,” Facebook spokesman Andy Stone said on Twitter.

The outage comes a day after a whistleblower went on US television to reveal her identity after she leaked a trove of documents to authorities alleging the social media giant knew its products were fueling hate and harming children’s mental health.

READ ALSO: Russia Fines Facebook, Twitter Over Banned Content

Frances Haugen, a 37-year-old data scientist from Iowa, has worked for companies including Google and Pinterest — but said in an interview with CBS news show “60 Minutes” that Facebook was “substantially worse” than anything she had seen before.

The world’s largest social media platform has been embroiled in a firestorm brought about by Haugen, with US lawmakers and The Wall Street Journal detailing how Facebook knew its products, including Instagram, were harming young girls, especially around body image.

Facebook did not immediately reply to a request for comment on the outage.

AFP

WhatsApp To Let Users Send Messages Without Their Phones

WhatsApp
In this file photo a picture taken on December 28, 2016, in Paris shows the logo of WhatsApp mobile messaging service.  Lionel BONAVENTURE / AFP

 

Facebook-owned messaging service WhatsApp has announced the launch of a trial aimed at freeing its users from smartphones.

In a blog post on Wednesday, Facebook engineers said the new feature would allow for the hugely popular service be used on multiple “non-phone” devices without needing to connect to the smartphone app.

“With this new capability, you can now use WhatsApp on your phone and up to four other non-phone devices simultaneously – even if your phone battery is dead,” the blog post said.

Since its launch in 2009 as a smartphone messaging app, WhatsApp has amassed more than two billion users around the world and been acquired by Facebook.

WhatsApp can already be used on “companion devices,” such as computers, but exchanges are routed in such a way that if a person’s smartphone is offline or has zero battery, it won’t work.

Other issues can arise as well, such as frequent disconnection.

“The new WhatsApp multi-device architecture removes these hurdles” by no longer requiring a smartphone to perform every operation, the company said.

READ ALSO: WhatsApp Sues Indian Government Over Social Media Clampdown

The new capability will be expanded more broadly as it is refined, Facebook added.

It also made assurances that WhatsApp’s security measures will still work under the new system.

“Each companion device will connect to your WhatsApp independently while maintaining the same level of privacy and security through end-to-end encryption that people who use WhatsApp have come to expect.”

AFP

WhatsApp Has Updated Its Privacy Policy. Here’s What You Need To Know.

In this photo ilustration taken on May 26, 2021 the icon of the mobile messaging service application WhatsAppn WhatsApp is seen on the screen of a smart phone, in New Delhi. Sajjad HUSSAIN / AFP
In this photo ilustration taken on May 26, 2021 the icon of the mobile messaging service application WhatsAppn WhatsApp is seen on the screen of a smart phone, in New Delhi. Sajjad HUSSAIN / AFP

 

Solomon Elusoji

 

In January, WhatsApp, the messaging app marketed on a reputation for privacy and used by millions of Nigerians, started to ask its users to agree to share their personal data with Facebook or have their accounts deleted by February 8. (WhatsApp has been sharing data with Facebook since 2016)

The announcement generated backlash and many users threatened to stop using the app and find alternatives, such as Signal and Telegram.

WhatsApp, which is owned by Facebook, buckled for a second and postponed its February deadline to May 15.

In a blog post explaining the rationale for the postponement, WhatsApp said its update had been misunderstood.

“WhatsApp was built on a simple idea: what you share with your friends and family stays between you,” the post read. “This means we will always protect your personal conversations with end-to-end encryption, so that neither WhatsApp nor Facebook can see these private messages.

“It’s why we don’t keep logs of who everyone’s messaging or calling. We also can’t see your shared location and we don’t share your contacts with Facebook.”

The company said the new update only affected “optional business features on WhatsApp” and “does not expand our ability to share data with Facebook.” 

Later, WhatsApp said people who do not agree to the new update will not “have their accounts deleted or lose functionality of WhatsApp on May 15.”

Instead, the app will continue to remind them and, “after a period of several weeks, the reminder people receive will eventually become persistent.”

Once a user starts receiving persistent messages, they will also experience limited functionality – being unable to access your chat list, for example – until they accept the terms.

After a few weeks of limited functionality, users who still do not accept will be unable “to receive incoming calls or notifications and WhatsApp will stop sending messages and calls to your phone.”

On May 17, the National Information Technology Development Agency (NITDA) said it was engaging Facebook on the new policy and “exploring all options to ensure Nigerians do not become victims of digital colonialism. 

“Our national security, dignity and individual privacy are cherished considerations we must not lose.”

One of NITDA’s concerns is that the new update is only applicable outside Europe, which is protected by the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).

On May 21, the Ministry of Communications and Digital Economy, headed by Dr Isa Pantami, said it was aware of the WhatsApp update and was backing NITDA’s engagement with Facebook.

However, Samuel Ngwu, a data privacy commentator, believes NITDA’s response to the WhatsApp update was belated and inadequate. The policy took effect on May 15 and NITDA’s statement only surfaced two days later.

“The entire reactive approach is inconsistent with NITDA’s own recognition of data privacy and protection being serious national issues,” Ngwu said. “Clearly regulatory nimbleness and proactivity cannot be over-emphasised in the data privacy space.”

According to NITDA, Facebook collects the following information on its users: account information, messages, including undelivered messages and forwarded; (important to note that WhatsApp says it does not store messages on its servers, except for undelivered messages, which are kept for a month before they are deleted. Also, WhatsApp has stressed that it is unable to read users’ messages as they are encrypted end-to-end); status information; transactions and payments data, usage and log information, location information; cookies; etc.

 

Other information collected by WhatsApp include: battery level; signal strength; app version; browser information; mobile network; connection information (including phone number, mobile operator or ISP), language and time zone; Internet Protocol address; device operations information; social media identifiers.

According to NITDA, WhatsApp shares the following information with Facebook: Account registration information; details on how users interact with others; mobile device information; Internet Protocol address; location data.

While it continues to engage with Facebook, NITDA said Nigerians should be aware that there are alternatives to WhatsApp in the country and advised citizens to “limit the sharing of sensitive personal information on private messaging and social media platforms as the initial promise of privacy and security is now being overridden on the basis of business exigency.”

NITDA, which is the regulator of Nigeria’s Information Technology sector, has also hinted that it is looking to create its own WhatsApp.

“We shall work with the Federal Ministry of Communications and Digital Economy,” it said in its May 17 statement, signed by its spokesperson, Hadiza Umar, “to organise a hackathon for Nigerians to pitch solutions that can provide services that will provide functional alternatives to existing global social platforms.”

When Channels Television reached out to WhatsApp for comment, a spokesperson reiterated that “the privacy and security of personal chats with family and friends are not changing. Personal messages continue to be protected by end-to-end encryption.”

But messages sent to business accounts may be subject to further analysis for commercial considerations.

“Neither WhatsApp or Facebook can make use of this content for their own purpose,” the WhatsApp spokesperson said when asked whether the company can analyse the content of these ‘business messages’.

“They can only process it at the instruction of the business. Similar services are already offered by a number of other providers today such as Twilio, Zendesk or MessengerPeople.”

Still, Ngwu, the data privacy expert, told Channels Television that Nigerians who use WhatsApp should be wary as Facebook has a track-record of breaching its users’ personal data, as in the Cambridge Analytica scandal. “WhatsApp has said the update only affects optional business features,” Ngwu said, “but Nigerians should be worried.”

 

WhatsApp Sues Indian Government Over Social Media Clampdown

WhatsApp
(FILES): Lionel BONAVENTURE / AFPWhatsapp

 

WhatsApp has launched legal action to stop India enforcing new social media rules that would break its privacy guarantees, the messaging platform told AFP on Wednesday.

The regulations, which took effect the same day, come at a time of growing tensions between social media giants and the Indian government, which has demanded tech companies remove content critical of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

WhatsApp told AFP it had filed a case in the Delhi High Court.

The Facebook subsidiary did not give details of the legal action but made clear its opposition to the new guidelines that would also affect Twitter, Instagram and other platforms.

The new rules demand “traceability” of messages, which requires social media companies to give details of the “first originator” of posts deemed to undermine India’s sovereignty, state security or public order.

They also require platforms to take down posts depicting nudity or manipulated photos within 24 hours of receiving a complaint.

“Requiring messaging apps to ‘trace’ chats is the equivalent of asking us to keep a fingerprint of every single message sent on WhatsApp, which would break end-to-end encryption and fundamentally undermines people’s right to privacy,” WhatsApp said in a statement.

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WhatsApp, which claims 500 million users in India, said it would keep cooperating with “valid legal requests” for information from authorities.

Facebook and Google have said they are working towards complying with the guidelines.

India’s government has said it wants rules that make social media companies more accountable and stop the spread of “fake news”.

But it has been accused of seeking to crack down on criticism from the public.

Police this week visited Twitter’s offices in New Delhi as part of an investigation into the company’s move to mark a tweet by a spokesman for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party as “manipulated media”.

Sambit Patra had shared a document that purported to be a plan from the opposition Congress party to malign the government’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Congress said the document was a fake.

The government last month ordered Twitter and Facebook to remove dozens of posts critical of Prime Minister Modi’s handling of the coronavirus crisis.

Twitter had earlier agreed to a government request to ban some accounts criticising new agricultural laws that have sparked six months of protests by disgruntled farmers.

The platform reversed the ban in February.

AFP

Dozens Of Palestinian Journalists Say Their Accounts Blocked By WhatsApp

WhatsApp
File photo showing the logo of WhatsApp mobile messaging service.  PHOTO: Lionel BONAVENTURE / AFP

 

Messaging app WhatsApp has blocked the accounts of dozens of Palestinian journalists following this month’s fighting between Israel and Gaza’s Islamist rulers Hamas, reporters said.

Shortly after a ceasefire went into effect at 2:00 am on Friday (2300 GMT Thursday) ending 11 days of deadly conflict, two journalists in AFP’s Gaza City bureau received notices from WhatsApp in Arabic informing them their accounts had been blocked.

Other journalists, in Jerusalem and the occupied West Bank as well as Gaza, said their accounts had also been blocked.

A crew from Qatar-based satellite news channel Al Jazeera said their accounts had later been restored after they lodged complaints with WhatsApp owner Facebook.

READ ALSO: UN Still Awaiting Proof That Dubai’s Sheikha Latifa Alive

The vice president of the Palestinian Journalists Syndicate, Tahseen al-Astall, said “around 100 journalists” in Gaza had seen their accounts blocked.

As a necessary part of reporting on both sides of the conflict, Gaza journalists receive Hamas statements, including via WhatsApp, even though the Palestinian militant group has been blacklisted by the European Union and the United States, accused of belonging to “groups and entities involved in terrorist acts”.

The Arab Center for the Development of Social Media said the blocking of WhatsApp accounts was not an isolated incident.

In a new report, the group, based in Israel’s third city Haifa, documented 500 cases in which Palestinian “digital rights” had been violated between May 6 and May 19.

“Content and accounts were removed, reduced and restricted, hashtags were hidden, and archived content deleted,” the report said.

Some “50% of these reports were about Instagram, 35% Facebook, 11% Twitter and 1% Tik Tok.

“Companies did not provide an explanation for the deletion or suspension in the majority of their responses to users,” the report said.

“However, the reasons presented to users included hate speech, violation of community standards, requesting proof of identity among others.”

We have seen an “escalation against digital rights of Palestinians” in recent weeks, 7amleh campaigner Mona Shtaya told AFP.

Social media remains an important tool for Palestinians, many of whom believe traditional media coverage does not sufficiently capture the reality of the crisis.

Tensions came to a boil earlier this month over the looming expulsions of Palestinian families from their homes in the occupied east Jerusalem neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah to make way for Israeli settlers.

Israeli air strikes and artillery fire on Gaza killed 253 Palestinians, including 66 children, and wounded over 1,900 people in 11 days of conflict from May 10, the health ministry in Gaza says.

Rocket and other fire from Gaza claimed 12 lives in Israel, including one child and an Arab-Israeli teenager, an Israeli soldier, one Indian and two Thais, medics say. Some 357 people in Israel have been wounded.

WhatsApp, Instagram And Facebook Messenger Suffer Downtime

This file photo taken on October 5, 2020, shows logos of US social networks Facebook, Instagram and mobile messaging service WhatsApp on the screens of a smartphone and a tablet in Toulouse, southwestern France. Lionel BONAVENTURE / AFP
This file photo taken on October 5, 2020, shows logos of US social networks Facebook, Instagram and mobile messaging service WhatsApp on the screens of a smartphone and a tablet in Toulouse, southwestern France. Lionel BONAVENTURE / AFP

 

Social media platforms WhatsApp, Instagram, and Facebook Messenger all went down in a brief outage at around 1730 GMT on Friday, according to the tech monitoring website Downdetector.

However, shortly after 1800 GMT, several WhatsApp users said on social media that they were able to again send messages on the platform.

Instagram also came back after about an hour.

READ ALSO: Twitter Seeks Users’ Opinions On How To Treat World Leaders

All three sites belong to US social giant Facebook, which attributed the outage to unspecified “technical issues” and apologized to users.

The Facebook-owned apps, which have some three billion users worldwide, report occasional outages, including one last July, which often spark an array of comments on other social platforms.

 

 

Tougher EU Privacy Rules Loom For Messenger, Zoom

whatsapp, video calling
WhatsApp is set to face stricter privacy measures in Europe.

 

 

Messaging apps such as Messenger or WhatsApp and video calls on Zoom face stricter privacy rules in Europe, after a draft law passed a key EU hurdle on Wednesday.

The EU’s 27 member states approved a proposal that was stuck since 2017, with countries split between those wanting strict privacy online and others wanting to give leeway to law enforcement and advertisers.

Portugal, which currently holds the EU’s rotating presidency, submitted a compromise proposal that was approved by qualified majority at a meeting in Brussels.

“The path to the council position has not been easy,” Portugal’s minister of infrastructure Pedro Nuno Santos said.

“But we now have a mandate that strikes a good balance between solid protection of the private life of individuals and fostering the development of new technologies and innovation.”

READ ALSO: Prince Charles Receives First Dose Of COVID-19 Vaccine

France, which wants to give its police forces stronger tools to fight terrorism, wants to limit the law’s curbs on access to private data.

The fight against child pornography was also a major concern of many member states.

But Germany supported far more robust privacy rules, with fewer exceptions.

In the approved text, member states agreed that service providers are allowed “to safeguard the prevention, investigation, detection or prosecution of criminal offences”.

In addition, companies such as Facebook and Google, can continue to process metadata of their users, but only with consent and if the information is made anonymous.

The final text also lent support to the advertising industry and abandoned a plan to ban so-called cookies that closely track user activity online.

The proposal updates existing EU rules that date back to 2002, under which strict privacy protection is only applied to text messages and voice calls provided by traditional telecoms, sparing tech giants.

Portugal will now negotiate with the European Parliament on a final version of the plan, that would then need ratification by MEPs and the 27 member states.

But the lead parliament’s rapporteur overseeing the negotiation warned that the talks would be rigorous.

“It is to be feared that the industry’s attempts to undermine the directive over the past years have borne fruit — they’ve had enough time to do that,” Birgit Sippel, a German MEP from the centre left S&D group, said.

“We must now analyse in detail whether the proposals of the member states really contribute to better protecting the private communication of users online, or instead primarily serve the business models of some digital corporations.”

AFP

WhatsApp Reassures Of Privacy As Users Flock To Telegram, Signal

WhatsApp
(FILES) In this file photo a picture taken on December 28, 2016 in Paris shows the logo of WhatsApp mobile messaging service. Facebook on June 15, 2020 added a digital payments feature to its WhatsApp messaging service, starting in Brazil but with an eye to expanding around the world.  Lionel BONAVENTURE / AFP

 

WhatsApp on Tuesday reassured users about privacy at the Facebook-owned messaging service as people flocked to rivals Telegram and Signal following a tweak to its terms.

There was “a lot of misinformation” about an update to terms of service regarding an option to use WhatsApp to message businesses, Facebook executive Adam Mosseri, who heads Instagram, said in a tweet.

WhatsApp’s new terms sparked criticism, as users outside Europe who do not accept the new conditions before February 8 will be cut off from the messaging app.

“The policy update does not affect the privacy of your messages with friends or family in any way,” Mosseri said.

The update regards how merchants using WhatsApp to chat with customers can share data with Facebook, which could use the information for targeting ads, according to the social network.

“We can’t see your private messages or hear your calls, and neither can Facebook,” WhatsApp said in a blog post.

“We don’t keep logs of who everyone is messaging or calling. We can’t see your shared location and neither can Facebook.”

Location data along with message contents is encrypted end-to-end, according to WhatsApp.

“We’re giving businesses the option to use secure hosting services from Facebook to manage WhatsApp chats with their customers, answer questions, and send helpful information like purchase receipts,” WhatsApp said in the post.

“Whether you communicate with a business by phone, email, or WhatsApp, it can see what you’re saying and may use that information for its own marketing purposes, which may include advertising on Facebook.”

– Tapping Telegram –

Encrypted messaging app Telegram has seen user ranks surge on the heels of the WhatsApp service terms announcement, said its Russia-born founder Pavel Durov.

Durov, 36, said on his Telegram channel Tuesday that the app had over 500 million monthly active users in the first weeks of January and “25 million new users joined Telegram in the last 72 hours alone.”

WhatsApp boasts more than two billion users.

“People no longer want to exchange their privacy for free services,” Durov said without directly referring to the rival app.

Encrypted messaging app Signal has also seen a huge surge in demand, helped by a tweeted recommendation by renowned serial entrepreneur Elon Musk.

In India, WhatsApp’s biggest market with some 400 million users, the two apps gained around 4 million subscribers last week, financial daily Mint reported, citing data from research firm Sensor Tower.

WhatsApp has sought to reassure worried users in the South Asian country, running full-page adverts in Wednesday’s newspapers, proclaiming that “respect for your privacy is coded into our DNA”.

Telegram is a popular social media platform in a number of countries, particularly in the former Soviet Union and Iran, and is used both for private communications and sharing information and news.

Durov said Telegram has become a “refuge” for those seeking a private and secure communications platform and assured new users that his team “takes this responsibility very seriously.”

Telegram was founded in 2013 by brothers Pavel and Nikolai Durov, who also founded Russia’s social media network VKontakte.

Telegram refuses to cooperate with authorities and handover encryption keys, which resulted in its ban in several countries, including Russia.

Last year, Russia announced that it will lift its ban on the messenger app after more than two years of unsuccessful attempts to block it.

AFP

Facebook Anti-trust Suits Seek To Separate Instagram, Whatsapp

 

US federal and state anti-trust enforcers filed suit against Facebook on Wednesday claiming the social media giant abused its dominant position with its acquisitions of messaging services Instagram and WhatsApp.

Separate suits filed by the Federal Trade Commission and a coalition of state officials called for the divestment of Instagram and WhatsApp, services which have billions of users and are part of the Facebook “family” of applications.

“Facebook’s actions to entrench and maintain its monopoly deny consumers the benefits of competition,” said Ian Conner, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Competition.

“Our aim is to roll back Facebook’s anticompetitive conduct and restore competition so that innovation and free competition can thrive.”

A separate legal action was filed by state antitrust enforcers from 48 US states and territories.

“For nearly a decade, Facebook has used its dominance and monopoly power to crush smaller rivals and snuff out competition, all at the expense of everyday users,” said New York state Attorney General Letitia James, who leads the coalition.

“Facebook used its power to suppress competition so it could take advantage of users and make billions by converting personal data into a cash cow.”

The suits allege Facebook sought to squelch competition by acquiring the messaging applications — Instagram in 2012 and WhatsApp in 2014.

The action presages a fierce court battle seeking to force Facebook to divest the apps which have become an increasingly important element of the business model of the California giant and integrated into its technology.

Facebook said it would offer a detailed response after reviewing the cases but added: “Years after the FTC cleared our acquisitions, the government now wants a do-over with no regard for the impact that precedent would have on the broader business community or the people who choose our products every day.”

Data Advantages

The case is likely to hinge not only on Facebook’s share of social media users but the vast troves of data it collects from some three billion users worldwide.

“Facebook has been spending its time surveilling users’ personal information and profiting from it,” James said.

“No company should have this much unchecked power over our personal information, and our social interactions.”

Tiffany Li, a Boston University law professor who studies the sector, said that while Facebook has rivals bidding for internet users’ attention it has a big advantage because of its access to data.

“One company owning multiple platforms is not, in itself, necessarily a bar to competition,” Li said on Twitter.

“However, one company having exclusive ownership of vast amounts of user data, with no potential for interoperability or access to competitors, can be anti-competitive.”

Li added that new startups “have an uphill battle to reach users due to network effects, even if they have better products.”

The FTC announced earlier this year it would review acquisitions made by five Big Tech firms over the past decade, opening the door to a wave of potential antitrust investigations.

The consumer protection agency said it would review deals made by Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Microsoft and Google parent Alphabet since 2010 amid growing complaints about tech platforms which have dominated key economic sectors.

The US Justice Department, which shares antitrust enforcement with the FTC, in October sued Google parent Alphabet, accusing the Silicon Valley giant of maintaining an “illegal monopoly” in online search and advertising and opening the door to a potential breakup. Eleven US states joined that case.

Scrutiny has been increasing for the large tech firms which have extended their dominance in recent years, including during the global pandemic as more people turn to internet platforms for goods and services.

China Censors Hong Kong Internet, US Tech Giants Resist

A photo taken on December 14, 2018 in Paris shows the logo of the application TikTok. - TikTok, is a Chinese short-form video-sharing app, which has proved wildly popular this year. (Photo by JOEL SAGET / AFP)
A photo taken on December 14, 2018 in Paris shows the logo of the application TikTok. – TikTok, is a Chinese short-form video-sharing app, which has proved wildly popular this year. (Photo by JOEL SAGET / AFP)

 

 

China has unveiled new powers to censor Hong Kong’s internet and access user data using its feared national security law — but US tech giants have put up some resistance citing rights concerns.

The online censorship plans were contained in a 116-page government document released on Monday night that also revealed expanded powers for police, allowing warrantless raids and surveillance for some national security investigations.

China imposed the law on semi-autonomous Hong Kong a week ago, targeting subversion, secession, terrorism and colluding with foreign forces — its wording kept secret until the moment it was enacted.

Despite assurances that only a small number of people would be targeted by the law, the new details show it is the most radical change in Hong Kong’s freedoms and rights since Britain handed the city back to China in 1997.

Late Monday, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke out against “Orwellian” moves to censor activists, schools and libraries since the law was enacted.

“Until now, Hong Kong flourished because it allowed free thinking and free speech, under an independent rule of law. No more,” Pompeo said.

– Restore stability –
Under its handover deal with the British, Beijing promised to guarantee until at least 2047 certain liberties and autonomy not seen on the authoritarian mainland.

Years of rising concerns that China’s ruling Communist Party was steadily eroding those freedoms birthed a popular pro-democracy movement, which led to massive and often violent protests for seven months last year.

China has made no secret of its desire to use the law to crush that democracy movement.

“The Hong Kong government will vigorously implement this law,” Chief Executive Carrie Lam, the city’s Beijing-appointed leader, told reporters on Tuesday.

“And I forewarn those radicals not to attempt to violate this law, or cross the red line, because the consequences of breaching this law are very serious.”

With pro-democracy books quickly pulled out of libraries and schools, the government signalled in the document released on Monday night that it would also expect obedience online.

Police were granted powers to control and remove online information if there were “reasonable grounds” to suspect the data breaches the national security law.

Internet firms and service providers can be ordered to remove the information and their equipment can be seized. Executives can also be hit with fines and up to one year in jail if they refuse to comply.

The companies are also expected to provide identification records and decryption assistance.

– Big tech unease –
However the biggest American tech companies offered some resistance.

Facebook, Google and Twitter said Monday they had put a hold on requests by Hong Kong’s government or police force for information on users.

Facebook and its popular messaging service WhatsApp would deny requests until it had conducted a review of the law that entailed “formal human rights due diligence and consultations with human rights experts,” the company said in a statement.

“We believe freedom of expression is a fundamental human right and support the right of people to express themselves without fear for their safety or other repercussions,” a Facebook spokesman said.

Twitter and Google told AFP that they too would not comply with information requests by Hong Kong authorities in the immediate future.

Twitter told AFP it had “grave concerns regarding both the developing process and the full intention of this law”.

Tik Tok, which is owned by Chinese company Byte Dance, announced it was pulling out of Hong Kong altogether.

“In light of recent events, we’ve decided to stop operations of the TikTok app in Hong Kong,” TikTok told AFP.

Tik Tok has become wildly popular amongst youngsters around the world. However many Hong Kongers have distrusted it because of its Chinese ownership.

ByteDance has consistently denied sharing any user data with authorities in China, and was adamant it did not intend to begin to agree to such requests.

In less than a week since the law was enacted, democracy activists and many ordinary people have scrubbed their online profiles of anything that China may deem incriminating.

Monday night’s document also revealed that judicial oversight that previously governed police surveillance powers in Hong Kong had been eliminated when it comes to national security investigations.

Police officers will be able to conduct a search without a warrant if they deem a threat to national security is “urgent”.

“The new rules are scary, as they grant powers to the police force that are normally guarded by the judiciary,” barrister Anson Wong Yu-yat told the South China Morning Post.

Brazil Suspends WhatsApp Digital Payments

WhatsApp
(FILES) In this file photo a picture taken on December 28, 2016 in Paris shows the logo of WhatsApp mobile messaging service. Facebook on June 15, 2020 added a digital payments feature to its WhatsApp messaging service, starting in Brazil but with an eye to expanding around the world. Lionel BONAVENTURE / AFP

 

Brazil’s central bank said Tuesday it had ordered Visa and Mastercard to suspend a joint project with WhatsApp to roll out digital payments within the popular messaging service, over fears it would be anti-competitive.

Brazil, which has the second-most WhatsApp users worldwide after India, was the pilot country for the platform’s new integrated payments feature, which it launched on June 15 with an eye to rolling it out worldwide.

But the central bank, which regulates payment systems in Brazil, put the new feature on hold indefinitely.

“The reason for the central bank’s decision is to preserve an adequate competitive environment, ensuring an interoperable, fast, secure, transparent, open and economical payment system,” it said in a statement.

It also cited data privacy concerns.

WhatsApp, which is owned by Facebook, is the most popular mobile messaging app in the world, with more than 1.5 billion monthly users globally, according to market tracker Statistica.

The in-app payment feature, which could be accessed directly within a conversation with a participating business, was free for users.

Businesses were to be charged a small fee similar to a typical credit card transaction.