Apple U-turns again to pull HK map app under pressure from Beijing

Apple has removed the crowd-sourced app HKmap.live, favoured by the protesters in Hong Kong, from its local App Store, after being blasted by China’s state media.

The submission of the mapping app, developed on top of the web version which could enable users to instantly track the police movements, among other things on the roads, was first rejected by Apple, on the ground that “the app allowed users to evade law enforcement.” This caused strong protest from both local users in Hong Kong and politicians in the US so Apple reversed its decision and made the app available. The US Senator Josh Hawley (R-MO) told his followers on Twitter that Apple admitted it “mistakenly” failed to go through full review process the first time:

Shortly after the change of mind by Apple, the People’s Daily, one of the Chinese Communist Party’s major propaganda outlets, accused Apple of “helping HK rioters engage in more violence”. Apple quickly undertook a second reversal in days to take down the app. The company said in a statement on the decision that the app “has been used in ways that endanger law enforcement and residents in Hong Kong.” The web version is still available.

This is only one of the latest actions Apple has taken after finding itself caught in a perfect political storm. One day earlier it also removed Quartz, the online news publication, from the China App Store, following complaints from the Chinese government. Apple told Quartz that the app “includes content that is illegal in China”, reported The Verge.

Quartz believed this might refer to its discussion on VPN technologies, the use of which is illegal in China, and its coverage of and links to coverage of the ongoing protest in Hong Kong. Quartz’s website is also blocked by China’s Great Firewall. A week earlier when Apple updated its operating system, iPhone users who set their locale to  Hong Kong and Macau found the Taiwan flag had disappeared from emojis.

This is just one of the highest profile cases of global companies contorting themselves to appease local political interests, with China the centre of attention not the least because of its reputation as one of the most censorious countries, Apple vs. China only epitomises the delicate balance almost all global companies are forced to strike, and not always successfully. Whenever they enter markets that operate very differently to their domestic one, these companies, especially those from North America and Western Europe, have to make a choice between the values of their origin and market pressure.

Increasingly we have seen companies surrender to market pressure, which has led to more either remedial or even pre-emptive self-censorship. Such conflict has a long history in the digital age. Back in 2010, Google pulled out of China when it decided to no longer comply with the latter’s demand for censoring search results. In the same year, India, Indonesia, UAE, Saudi Arabia, among others, demanded access to the encrypted communication carried out by the then king of instant messaging, BlackBerry Messenger, for national security and data localisation purposes. RIM, the then owner of BlackBerry, bowed to the Saudi pressure, and Nokia, who also operated messaging services, decided to set up a local data centre in India.

Recently we have seen Google’s repeated attempts to re-enter China, by offering willingly to censor content to please the Chinese authorities, despite backlashes in its own office. Meanwhile games developer Blizzard had faced a backlash for acting against a Hong Kong protester, as has the US NBA for similar activity.

Europe steps up its censorship efforts

The European Commission wants to pay people to help ensure only the kind of information it approves of is allowed to be published online.

The initiative is being called the European Digital Media Observatory and it is the continuation of a digital censorship project the EC has been working on for some time. The stated aim is to counter ‘disinformation’, which is defined as “verifiably false or misleading information that is created, presented and disseminated for economic gain or to intentionally deceive the public.”

On the surface what’s not to like about this? Everyone knows the internet is awash with misleading and biased information that presumably, at least in part, is published with the aim of persuading the public of a certain point of view. If people are given the wrong information then they might make the wrong electoral decisions and that would be bad.

The main problem with censorship is subjectivity. Who decides what is false or misleading and who can possibly be sure of the motives for someone else’s actions? The answer to that question in this case seems to be anyone who fancies €2.5 million of European public money, because today the EC published a call for tenders to create the first core service of this new censor.

“The European Digital Media Observatory will allow fact-checkers and academic researchers to bring together their efforts and actively collaborate with media organisations and media literacy experts,” said the announcement. Don’t worry folks, the experts have got this, you’ll only get the purest, most correct information from now on.

The inclusion of the private sector in this project may be designed to create the impression of neutrality as well as expertise, but whoever wins the tender will be acutely aware of who pays their salary. Can we be sure that suspected disinformation which is helpful to the EU will be treated with the same severity as that which is harmful to it? The best counter to disinformation is public scrutiny, not censorship.

Europe wants Facebook to implement its censorship requests globally

A new ruling by the EU Court of Justice seems to compel social media companies to enact EU censorship demands even outside of its jurisdiction.

The judgment was made on the case of Eva Glawischnig-Piesczek v Facebook Ireland, in which the Austrian Green Party politician seeks to force Facebook to remove content that she feels is harmful to her reputation and anything that sounds a bit like it. The court was asked to interpret the Directive on electronic commerce and concluded it doesn’t prevent member states from imposing the following on ‘host providers’, which seems to mean all social media platforms and maybe beyond.

  • To remove information which it stores, the content of which is identical to the content of information which was previously declared to be unlawful, or to block access to that information, irrespective of who requested the storage of that information;
  • To remove information which it stores, the content of which is equivalent to the content of information which was previously declared to be unlawful, or to block access to that information, provided that the monitoring of and search for the information concerned by such an injunction are limited to information conveying a message the content of which remains essentially unchanged compared with the content which gave rise to the finding of illegality and containing the elements specified in the injunction, and provided that the differences in the wording of that equivalent content, compared with the wording characterising the information which was previously declared to be illegal, are not such as to require the host provider to carry out an independent assessment of that content (thus, the host provider may have recourse to automated search tools and technologies);
  • To remove information covered by the injunction or to block access to that information worldwide within the framework of the relevant international law, and it is up to Member States to take that law into account.

In other words, if an EU member state decides a bit of online content should be censored, there’s nothing stopping it legally compelling internet platforms to remove it and anything its algorithms consider to be similar to it on a global basis. This seems to put enormous power of censorship in the hands of EU claimants who can afford to litigate.

“This judgment has major implications for online freedom of expression around the world,” said Thomas Hughes, Executive Director of free speech campaign group Article 19. “Compelling social media platforms like Facebook to automatically remove posts regardless of their context will infringe our right to free speech and restrict the information we see online. The judgment does not take into account the limitations of technology when it comes to automated filters.

“The ruling also mean that a court in one EU member state will be able to order the removal of social media posts in other countries, even if they are not considered unlawful there. This would set a dangerous precedent where the courts of one country can control what Internet users in another country can see. This could be open to abuse, particularly by regimes with weak human rights records.”

As calls for censorship mount, the global policing of speech on the internet is becoming impossibly convoluted. Will the EU now seek to punish Facebook, or whoever, if a bit of content it doesn’t like is accessible somewhere outside of its jurisdiction, and if so how? What if courts in the other country take a different view? As ever the only solution is to not censor in the first place.

Silicon Valley drops the ball on censorship once more

Yet another set of ill-considered censorship decisions by Silicon Valley has illustrated once more the impossible position they are in.

Google has announced it will now ‘elevate original reporting in search’. On one level this is totally laudable. Modern journalism has been severely corrupted by the wholesale shift in advertising spend from print to journalism and thus put in the hands of the digital advertising platforms, of which the biggest is Google itself.

The move to digital has squeezed media margins, with advertisers looking for demonstrable ROI where once the circulation and brand of a publication was sufficient reassurance of ad money well spent. As a result the total number of journalists employed has dropped dramatically which, in combination with the explosion of digital publications, has meant each remaining hack has to produce much more content than previously.

Digital ad spend also directly rewards direct traffic in a way print never did, which means media are incentivised to publish a high volume of ‘click bait’ journalism, which is typically of a low standard and designed more to provoke than inform. Of all the companies in the world Google is easily the most directly culpable for this trend and now it’s belatedly trying to correct it.

“While we typically show the latest and most comprehensive version of a story in news results, we’ve made changes to our products globally to highlight articles that we identify as significant original reporting,” said Richard Gringras, head of Google News. “Such articles may stay in a highly visible position longer.”

There’s a lot to like about this. Prominence in Google news equals more clicks, which equals more revenue. If follows, therefore, that any tweaks to the algorithm that promote proper reporting (which is much more expensive than opinion or re-reporting) are a step in the right direction. But Gringras himself acknowledged the complexity of the situation this puts Google in, in his next paragraph.

“There is no absolute definition of original reporting, nor is there an absolute standard for establishing how original a given article is,” said Gringras. “It can mean different things to different newsrooms and publishers at different times, so our efforts will constantly evolve as we work to understand the life cycle of a story.”

In other words Google decides what news is worthy of delivering to the public. Even if we assume those decisions will always be made in good faith and that the associated algorithms will somehow be furnished, in real time, with the most exhaustive context, this is still a lot power to be put in the hands of one commercial entity.

On top of that Gringras himself was the head of digital publisher Salon before moving to Google in 2011. Salon is widely recognised to be significantly biased in favour of perspectives and issues considered to be left wing and you have to assume its long time boss is also that way inclined. How can we be sure his own political positions don’t influence the decision-making of his team? US President Donald Trump will doubtless be asking that very question before long.

What media spend hasn’t shifted to Google has been mostly hoovered up by fellow Silicon Valley giant Facebook. As a social media platform it faces an even greater censorship challenge than Google (if you just focus on the search bit, not YouTube) and has been even less consistent and coherent in its approach, leaving it open to extensive accusations of bias.

Facebook’s latest attempt to clarify its censorship policies offers little clarity or reassurance to its users. Here are the new criteria, as copied from the official announcement.

  • Authenticity: We want to make sure the content people are seeing on Facebook is authentic. We believe that authenticity creates a better environment for sharing, and that’s why we don’t want people using Facebook to misrepresent who they are or what they’re doing.
  • Safety: We are committed to making Facebook a safe place. Expression that threatens people has the potential to intimidate, exclude or silence others and isn’t allowed on Facebook.
  • Privacy: We are committed to protecting personal privacy and information. Privacy gives people the freedom to be themselves, and to choose how and when to share on Facebook and to connect more easily.
  • Dignity: We believe that all people are equal in dignity and rights. We expect that people will respect the dignity of others and not harass or degrade others. 

While privacy seems relatively easy to determine and thus police, authenticity, safety and dignity are very subjective, ill-defined concepts. Facebook could arbitrarily determine almost anything to be inauthentic or undignified, so all this announcement really does is assert Facebook’s right to unilaterally censor its platform.

The Facebook announcement comes the day after reports of it censoring a piece of content published on it that challenged the claims made in another piece concerning abortion. This isn’t the place to examine the relative merits of the positions stated, but since abortion is one of the most polarising issues out there, and that balancing the rights of the mother and infant is a uniquely challenging ethical dilemma, for Facebook to apparently pick a side in this case has inevitably led to accusations of bias.

Lastly even crowdfunding service Kickstarter is under pressure to censor projects on its platform. A comic titled ‘Always Punch Nazis’ was taken down after claims that it violated Kickstarter’s community guidelines. Slate reports that many Kickstarter employees objected to this decision, which resulted in it being reversed but also claims of recriminations against some prominent protesters. This in turn has led to moves to unionize among Kickstart staff.

Once more we see that it’s impossible for a digital platform to issue watertight ‘community guidelines’ and that arbitrary censorship decisions will always be vulnerable to accusations of bias. The comic claimed to be satirical, which should offer at least some protection, but it still falls on someone to assess that claim.

Prior to the internet there were very few opportunities for regular punters to be published, let alone to a global audience. Social media especially has revolutionised the public dissemination of information and opinion, while concentrating the policing of it in the hands of a few democratically unaccountable companies. They will continue to try to perfect their censorship policies and they will continue to fail.

YouTube flexes its editorial muscles

As video sharing service YouTube strives to censor ever more rigorously, can it still be considered a neutral platform?

Social media platforms are exempt from many of the rules and regulations that govern the media because they don’t exercise editorial control over what is published on them. Every time they move to censor some types of content and favour others, however, that status comes into question.

Last week YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki published a blog titled Preserving openness through responsibility, in which she argued that it was vital for YouTube to be as open as possible and that the only way to guarantee that was to get rid of any content it doesn’t like. Wojcicki characterised this censorship as ‘responsibility’ and explained that it’s comprised of four other Rs that are explained in the graphic below.

YouTube Rs

Clearly proud of its removal efforts, YouTube wasted little time in blogging about its removal efforts. Featuring liberal use of conveniently nebulous and ill-defined terms such as ‘inappropriate’ and ‘problematic’ the blog details YouTube’s constant meddling with its own policies and the increasing vigour with which it enforces them by taking down content and kicking creators off the platform in the name of openness.

YouTube removal

Of course YouTube does have to exercise some control over its platform, for example the removal of illegal content. The problem for creators and YouTube’s own claims of openness is thatits policies extend far beyond preventing illegality, are arbitrary and are getting stricter by the day. Protecting its advertisers by demonetizing edgy content is one thing, but there has to be a point at which the imposition of a strict and comprehensive set of editorial parameters on its creators means YouTube can no longer be considered a platform and is thus legally responsible for every piece of content it publishes.

Twitter and Facebook move to block Chinese state-backed disinformation campaign

US social media sites have announced coordinated action designed to counter a propaganda campaign apparently designed to undermine the Hong Kong democracy protests.

Twitter was the first site alerted to this activity, with some users flagging up sponsored posts from state-run media that seemed biased against the mass gatherings in Hong Kong that are protesting moves to give the Chinese state greater power over the semi-autonomous region.

Twitter also published a blog post titled Information operations directed at Hong Kong, in which it said “We are disclosing a significant state-backed information operation focused on the situation in Hong Kong, specifically the protest movement and their calls for political change.” This took the form of almost a thousand phoney accounts apparently designed to amplify messaging undermining the legitimacy of the Hong Kong protests, which have now been suspended.

Removing any doubt about censorship activity being coordinated between internet giants, Facebook then announced it is acting on a tip from Twitter to remove a few accounts suspected of ‘inauthentic behaviour’ from China. “Although the people behind this activity attempted to conceal their identities, our investigation found links to individuals associated with the Chinese government,” said the Facebook announcement.

Lastly, while not explicitly referring to China, this propaganda campaign has clearly prompted Twitter to announce it will no longer accept advertising from state-controlled news media entities. Somewhat belatedly is has dawned on Twitter that state-controlled media is sometimes a tiny bit biased towards the state that controls it, which can have direct political consequences. Who knew?

Meanwhile US President Donald Trump is persisting with his claims that Google exerted some deliberate influence against him in the 2016 US general election. He cites an unspecified report that claims up to 16 million votes were manipulated in favour of his opponent Hilary Clinton in the election and called for Google to be sued.


Clinton herself has unsurprisingly queried the validity of the claim by attacking the, still unspecified, source. A number of other media have also criticised the presumed source of the claim, most of which make no secret of their antipathy towards Trump. As ever Trump’s tweet will have an underlying tactical purpose, in this case to threaten Google and any other internet company that maybe tempted to use its platform to favour his 2020 opponent.

Trump threatens Google over claimed political bias

US President Donald Trump has directed his ire towards Silicon Valley once more, this time warning Google about meddling in the 2020 Presidential election.

As ever Trump used Twitter to fire his latest broadside at the tech sector, once more focusing on his pet topic of political bias (largely against him) facilitated by the big internet platforms. In a series of tweets Trump made reference to a whistle-blower at Google, who alleged anti-conservative bias within the company.

If Trump had more proof of these allegations than one or two whistle-blowers he would presumably be doing more than sending menacing tweets, but this seems to indicate that he’s actively looking for it. Much of the media, even the usually neutral and objective Reuters, has chosen to characterise Trumps allegation as being ‘without evidence’, but surely the public testimony of a Google employee, while not necessarily outright proof, is certainly evidence.

While we’re on Trump’s Twitter account, he also recently accused China of currency manipulation, following the fall of the value of the Yuan to historical lows. One of the core gripes with China as a global trading partner is that it devalues the Yuan in order to help its exporters and Trump’s tweets coincide with the US Department of the Treasury officially designating China as a currency manipulator.

General commentary of this move characterises it as a new front in the trade war between the US and China and is likely to lead to some kind of tit-for-tat retaliation. All this currency aggro is considered to be the main cause of a sharp global stock market decline in the past week, as investors are understandably skittish as they wait for further developments.

YouTube creators unionize to combat demonetization and censorship

In its desperation to placate corporate advertisers YouTube has antagonized many of its independent creators, but now they’re fighting back.

YouTube has to strike a delicate balance between the needs of independent creators, who generate most of its traffic, and corporate advertisers, who provide most of its revenue. For the past couple of years, whenever an advertiser has complained about a type of content, YouTube has usually moved to ensure that content has no ads served on it – demonetization. Since a cut of ad revenue is often the sole source of income for the YouTuber, this can have devastating consequences.

More rarely YouTube will also censor entire videos or even ban certain creators from the platform entirely. Recently YouTube’s apparent decision to side with Vox journalist Carlos Maza in a dispute with YouTuber Stephen Crowder, and subsequently impose fresh censorship rules, led to further claims of bias against independent creators, despite its CEO’s claims to the contrary.

Now we have the news that an obscure ‘YouTubers union’ has joined forces with IG Metall – Germany an Europe’s largest industrial union, to form the campaigning group FairTube. This is remarkable for a number of reasons, not least because the digital world has seemed to have no place for trades unions until now.

FairTube has called for the following from YouTube and given it until 23 August to engage with it, or else.

  • Publish all categories and decision criteria that affect monetization and views of videos
  • Give clear explanations for individual decisions — for example, if a video is demonetized, which parts of the video violated which criteria in the Advertiser-Friendly Content Guidelines?
  • Give YouTubers a human contact person who is qualified and authorized to explain decisions that have negative consequences for YouTubers (and fix them if they are mistaken)
  • Let YouTubers contest decisions that have negative consequences
  • Create an independent mediation board for resolving disputes (here the Ombuds Office of the Crowdsourcing Code of Conduct can offer relevant lessons)
  • Formal participation of YouTubers in important decisions, for example through a YouTuber Advisory Board

Exactly what FairTube will do if YouTube doesn’t play ball is unclear. Traditional industrial action is unlikely as it’s hard to see how they could get YouTubers to down tools in sufficient numbers to have a significant effect on YouTube traffic. But in the latter half of the video below you can see that FairTube has three avenues it thinks it could pursue to escalate.

  1. Contesting the status of YouTube creators as self-employed, thus creating a greater duty of care on YouTube towards its creators.
  2. Claiming GDPR violations due to YouTube’s refusal to give creators the data it stores about them and which it does share with advertisers.
  3. Old fashioned collective action – not so much striking as spreading the word and joining the union to put collective pressure on YouTube and its own Google.

 

Unstated but baked into this last point is the growing regulatory and antitrust pressure being put on all internet platforms, not least by US president Donald Trump. Meanwhile the European Union, while having the turning circle of a supertanker, can impose some pretty severe sanctions when it gets its act together. We’ll leave you with YouTuber Tim Pool’s analysis of the move.

 

Trump puts social media on notice after summit

US President Trump has made it clear that he considers social media censorship to be a major concern that may require fresh legislation and regulation.

As we previously reported, this unprecedented convention of social media influencers at the White House that took place yesterday was already causing controversy before it had even taken place. Many commentators were concerned by the apparent fact that most of the people invited were conspicuous Trump supporters.

Judging by the tweet Trump has pinned to the top of his Twitter account, the premise for the social media summit was Trump’s concern about independent voices being censored by the major social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. “Each of you is fulfilling a vital role in our nation,” said Trump. “You’re challenging the media gatekeepers and the corporate censors to bring the facts straight to the American people.

“Together you reach more people than any television broadcast network by far. Free Speech is a bedrock of American life. Our constitutional rights must be fiercely protected and today I’m directing my administration to explore regulatory and legislative solutions to protect free speech and the free speech rights of all Americans. We hope to see transparency, more accountability and more freedom.”

The specifics of what was discussed are thin on the ground right now, but this is a clear shot across the bows of social media companies. Trump clearly believes there is a degree of political censorship on social media and not to his benefit. At the same time he seems to value social media as a counterbalance to the mainstream media, most of which he has been at war with for years. We have seen no public response from any of the social media giants and they would be wise to do so with care. It seems inevitable that there will be increased regulatory oversight of their censorship policies and even new laws on the matter. Bizarrely a Twitter global outage coincided precisely with the the White House gathering and Trump also took the trouble to fire a warning shot to Facebook about its Libra cryptocurrency plans, which you can see below.

Much of the mainstream media seems to have reacted with hostility to the event, putting ‘social media summit’ in scare quotes and characterising the attendees as ‘right wing’. To be fair any media that Trump has dismissed as ‘fake news’ (most of it) did have fairly good reason to feel provoked if you look at the Trump Twitter thread below, send immediately in advance of the summit. Underneath we’ll leave you with the full video of Trump’s speech at the event to make your own mind up about the relevance and utility of the event.

 

Battle lines drawn ahead of White House social media summit

US President Trump has invited a number of social media commentators to a discussion about the current digital environment.

This is being largely interpreted as an anecdotal investigation into the nature of social media censorship, with Trump having repeatedly raised his concerns on the matter. The major social media platforms don’t seem to have been invited, however, instead a selection of independent journalists, commentators and activists will be asked about their online experiences.

The White House hasn’t published a list of attendees, so here’s our own, in no particular order, derived from information already in the public domain. We’ve also included the number of Twitter followers each attendee has to provide some measure of their online influence. The summit takes place tomorrow.

  • Tim Pool – YouTube Journalist – 352k
  • James O’Keefe – Independent Journalist – 548k
  • Ben Garrison – Political Cartoonist – 176k
  • Charlie Kirk – Activist – 1.16m
  • Ali Alexander – Activist – 95k
  • Scott Presler – Activist – 226k
  • Bill Mitchell – Broadcaster – 445k
  • Carpe Donctum – Activist – 122k
  • PragerU – YouTube Commentator – 271k
  • Heritage Foundation – Think Tank – 649k
  • Media Research Center – Media Watchdog – 157k
  • Christian Ziegler – Activist – 3k

It has not gone unnoticed that nearly all of those invited are at the conservative end of the US political spectrum and Trump is known to be concerned that online censorship tends to affect conservatives disproportionately. It’s presumably not a coincidence that most of these conservatives also seem to be committed Trump supporters.

The presence of the two journalists at the top of the list indicates this will be more than just a Trump supporter love-in, however. “This event will bring together digital leaders for a robust conversation on the opportunities and challenges of today’s online environment,” a White House spokesperson is widely reported to have advised.

Pool has probably been chosen due to his high-profile grilling of Twitter on the Joe Rogan podcast, in which he argued some of its rules on speech it permits  are demonstrably biased against conservatives. Similarly O’Keefe’s organisation Project Veritas has recently claimed to have exposed similar political bias at Google.

So it seems clear that at least one of the primary purposes of this summit is to enable the US government to gather evidence of bias in social media censorship. Earlier this year the White House opened a web form inviting people to submit such evidence, so it’s possible this will have influenced who was invited too.

While much commentary has focused on the perceived political agenda of this summit, the absence of not only the big tech companies but big media too indicates another angle. There is a growing body of anecdotal evidence that social media censorship is increasingly biased against independent commentators and thus in favour of corporate, institutional, establishment voices.

Leftist independent commentator David Pakman has alleged in the video below that the YouTube recommendation algorithm has been changed in order to favour corporate over independent media. Most of the independents he cites are also leftist, indicating this isn’t a predominantly political move.

 

It is well documented that YouTube has been anxious about the effect of some of its more contentious contributors on revenues for some time and has implemented broad censorship in an apparent attempt to appease big advertisers. If there is bias in the recommendation algorithm in favour of corporate media it’s probably because advertisers also favour them, but every piece of arbitrary censorship seems to create as many problems as it solves.

Meanwhile, Twitter is where Trump spends much of his time and so is probably the platform he scrutinises most closely. A US appeals court recently ruled that it’s unconstitutional for Trump to block people on Twitter, but this precedent had led to other US politicians who have blocked people on Twitter being sued. Elsewhere Twitter’s recent decision to ban any comment that ‘dehumanizes others on the basis of religion’ seems destined to raise questions about selective enforcement.

Not to be out-done Facebook recently updated its policy regarding ‘violence and incitement’ with the guidance shown in the screenshot below.

Facebook policy screen

This seems to say that it’s OK to advocate high-severity violence (un-defined) against anyone Facebook considers to be a ‘dangerous individual’ or anyone said to be a violent criminal or sexual predator. Since Facebook explicitly identified several individuals as dangerous recently, some of those people have understandably interpreted this move as hostile to them.

That there is a growing body of evidence of a deeply flawed approach by social media companies to policing their platforms is undeniable. To what extent this involves political bias remains unclear, but Trump seems to think it does and, with the next US general election imminent, he seems increasingly disposed to bring the full force of the state against any tech companies deemed to be acting against the public, and his, interest. Those companies will doubtless be following this summit with interest.

We’ll leave you with Pool’s take on the whole thing.