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Trump Administration Sued Over Social Media Screening for Visa Applicants

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Visa applicants must disclose their social media user names, a rule that grew out of Trump’s vow of “extreme vetting” of foreign visitors. A new lawsuit objects.

Visa applicants from abroad have been compelled to disclose to American consular officials all social-media handles or user names they have used on major platforms, 12 of which are based in the United States.
Credit…Jim Wilson/The New York Times

WASHINGTON — A pair of documentary film organizations sued the Trump administration on Thursday over its requirement that foreigners disclose their social media accounts — including pseudonymous ones — when they apply for visas.

The lawsuit, which raises novel issues about privacy and surveillance in the social-media era, challenged a rule the State Department put into effect this year. The requirement grew out of President Trump’s campaign promise of “extreme vetting” and his early executive orders that barred travel into the United States from several Muslim-majority nations.

In particular, the lawsuit argues, forcing people from authoritarian countries to disclose the pseudonyms they use to discuss politically sensitive matters could endanger them by creating a risk that the information gets back to their own governments. As a result, it said, they will be less likely either to express themselves on social media or to apply for visas.

“Many people use pseudonyms on social media so that they can speak anonymously about sensitive or controversial issues, and so that they can shield themselves or their families or associates from possible reprisals by state or private actors,” the plaintiffs wrote. “The registration requirement effectively conditions their eligibility for U.S. visas on their readiness to surrender their online anonymity.”

The Trump administration announced the rule in 2018 and started enforcing it this year. The State Department changed its visa application forms to require applicants to disclose all identifiers they have used on any of 20 social media platforms for the past five years, including Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. The rule covers about 14.7 million people who apply for a visa each year.

The complaint, filed in the Federal District Court for the District of Columbia, challenged both the State Department, which administers visa applications, and the Department of Homeland Security, which it says uses visa application data for other purposes, including administering immigration law.

The Trump administration did not immediately comment on the lawsuit. But in a pair of postings, Twitter expressed opposition to the State Department rule, saying it chilled free speech.

The complaint maintains that administration officials improperly developed the rule — arguing that they failed to point to evidence that it would be effective and necessary — and that it violates the Constitution by chilling rights of free speech and association.

Visa applicants “must consider the risk that a U.S. official will misinterpret their speech on social media, impute others’ speech to them, or subject them to additional scrutiny or delayed processing because of the views they or their contacts have expressed,” the lawsuit said.

Demanding the data also creates the risk that authoritarian and other rights-abusing governments, “including some U.S. allies,” may use it to unmask anonymous dissidents, it said.

“Those who use pseudonymous identifiers must take into account that they will have to relinquish their online anonymity to U.S. officials when they submit their visa applications, and they must also consider the risk that U.S. officials will disclose their social media identifiers to foreign governments, reveal the identifiers inadvertently, or fail to protect the identifiers from third parties who might access them unlawfully.”

The lawsuit was jointly developed by the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University and the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law. They are representing the two documentary film organizations — Doc Society, based in Brooklyn, and the International Documentary Association, based in Los Angeles — that host conferences and workshops that bring foreign filmmakers and social activists to American soil.

While most of the people affected by the new rule are foreigners abroad, who generally do not have constitutional rights, the lawsuit noted that the requirement also covers people with substantial ties to the United States, including people already residing on domestic soil — like foreign students and foreigners with work permits — who renew their visas while abroad.

Since the change took effect, visa applicants from abroad have been compelled to disclose to American consular officials all social-media handles or user names they have used on major platforms, 12 of which are based in the United States: Facebook, Flickr, Google , Instagram, LinkedIn, Myspace, Pinterest, Reddit, Tumblr, Twitter, Vine and YouTube.

The forms also ask about a Russian service, VK; a Belgian one, Twoo; a Latvian one, Ask.fm; and five Chinese sites: Douban, QQ, Sina Weibo, Tencent Weibo and Youku.

The forms do not require applicants to turn over their passwords to see nonpublic information. But the complaint stresses the risk created by forcing people to turn over pseudonymous accounts, citing partners of the plaintiffs who have used them to “conduct sensitive research for a film about Nazis online, including joining discussion groups and contacting members of known Nazis’ families” and a member from Syria who “uses pseudonymous accounts as a safety measure against political persecution.”

The lawsuit said some partners and members of the plaintiffs are now self-censoring, including deleting old posts that criticized the Trump administration’s policies. Others “are no longer applying for U.S. visas — and are forgoing personal, educational, and professional opportunities” because they fear the consequences of disclosing their social media accounts.

“The government simply has no legitimate interest in collecting this kind of sensitive information on this immense scale, and the First Amendment doesn’t permit it to do so,” said Jameel Jaffer, the executive director of the Knight Institute.

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5 Alternatives to Zoom App for Video Conferences From Home

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Zoom gained a huge traction in a short span of time as several people are working from home due to the coronavirus outbreak. The video conference app pulled in more than 200 million daily active users last month — significantly up from a maximum of 10 million users previously. However, despite its skyrocketing growth, Zoom has been under fire over security concerns. From schools and officials to various governments, people have been asked to refrain from using the app. The Indian government also recently warned its officials about the Zoom. Also, some of its users have alleged that the app sends data to third parties located in China.

That being said, its key features such as being able to video-conference with up to 100 people for free (up to 500 participants in paid plans) and recording support make the Zoom app a great solution for virtual meetings. The app is also available across platforms and can enable video calling through mobile devices. But if you don’t trust Zoom and are look for capable alternatives, you’re in the right place.

Here, we are listing top five free alternatives to the Zoom app to help with your video calling needs.

Cisco Webex Meetings

Cisco is offering free access to its Webex Meetings in all countries where it is available to support the work from home needs during the coronavirus outbreak. Despite being available as free, you’ll get all enterprise features including unlimited usage with no time restrictions, support for up to 100 participants, and a toll dial-in in addition to Voice-over-Internet-Protocol (VoIP) capabilities. All you need is to sign up on the Cisco Webex portal to get started with the Webex Meetings. Overall, the experience that’s been offered by Cisco is nowhere limited when comparing with Zoom.

Skype Meet Now

For users who don’t to go with an highly enterprise-focussed solution like Cisco Webex, Microsoft recently brought Skype Meet Now that serves as an alternative to Zoom. It works without requiring an account and supports up to 50 participants — all for free. You’ll also get features such as the ability to record calls, blur background before entering the call, and screen sharing. Moreover, you just need to visit the dedicated webpage to begin with Skype Meet Now.

Microsoft Teams

If you don’t want a solution just to make video calls, you can look at Microsoft Teams. It is also available for free during the pandemic. The free version brings unlimited chat and search, group and one-on-one audio and video calling, and 10GB of team file storage along with 2GB of personal file storage per person. If you already have an Office 365 account, you’ll get real-time collaboration with Office apps for Web, including Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote.

Discord

Discord has also emerged as a strong alternative to Zoom, thanks to its video conferencing capabilities that let you connect with up to 50 participants at once. The platform is popular amongst gamers, though you can use it as a tool to communicate with your office team or some friends. You can also download its mobile app to connect with your contacts using your smartphone. There are also features to share your screen or perform voice calls. Just like other free alternatives to Zoom, Discord provides video conferencing at no cost. You just need to sign up on the Discord site or through its app to get started with your virtual conferences.

Google Hangouts

If you don’t want to use Discord for any reason, you can opt for Google Hangouts, which is also a decent, free alternative to Zoom. You can make video calls with up to 10 participants or chat with up to 150 participants at once. Google also lets you host video calls or talk with your colleagues through text messages using a mobile device. Further, being a Google product, Hangouts just needs your Gmail account to let you get started. If you are open to pay, you’ll be able to increase the limit for video calls to up to 25 participants as well.

What else you can look at as an alternative to Zoom

Since video conferencing isn’t new, there are several other solutions in the market that can cater to your demand. You can get Google Hangouts Meet that is available for free for all G Suite users until July 1 and provides features such as up to 250 participants per call, live streaming for up to 100,000 viewers within a domain, and the ability to record meetings and save them to Google Drive. If a Google solution isn’t something you want for your conversations, you can consider Jitsi Meet that can be accessed through your desktop or laptop or using a mobile device. You can also connect it with your Slack. There are also paid solutions such as Zoho Meeting and GoToMeeting that you can get for free under a trial.


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6 Businesses That Are Getting Creative With Social Media During Coronavirus (COVID-19)

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Ally Kirkpatrick, owner of Old Town Books in Alexandria, VA started offering virtual book clubs, a kids reading challenge and online writing classes on Facebook. The store inspired the community to set time aside for indoor creative pursuits. Ally created printable and sharable coloring sheets of her locally famous shop dog, Scout, and then reached more people by creating various artistic challenges and art projects on Facebook.

Online writing classes became donation based, or “pay-what-you-can,” to encourage people to join the store for creative time online. Old Town Books is using the donations they received to offer programming online through May with award-winning authors.

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Millions of Social Media Users in India Set to Lose Their Anonymity

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Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and TikTok will have to reveal users’ identities if Indian government agencies ask them to, according to the country’s controversial new rules for social media companies and messaging apps expected to be published later this month. The requirement comes as governments around the world are trying to hold social media companies more accountable for the content that circulates on their platforms, whether it’s fake news, child porn, racist invective or terrorism-related content. India’s new guidelines go further than most other countries’ by requiring blanket cooperation with government inquiries, no warrant or judicial order required.

India proposed these guidelines in December 2018 and asked for public comment. The Internet and Mobile Association of India, a trade group that counts Facebook, Amazon.com, and Alphabet’s Google among its members, responded that the requirements “would be a violation of the right to privacy recognized by the Supreme Court.”

But the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology is expected to publish the new rules later this month without major changes, according to a government official familiar with the matter.

“The guidelines for intermediaries are under process,” said N.N. Kaul, the media adviser to the minister of electronics & information technology. “We cannot comment on the guidelines or changes till they are published.”

The provisions in the earlier draft had required platforms such as Google’s YouTube or ByteDance’s TikTok, Facebook or its Instagram and WhatsApp apps, to help the government trace the origins of a post within 72 hours of a request. The companies would also have to preserve their records for at least 180 days to aid government investigators, establish a brick-and-mortar operation within India and appoint both a grievance officer to deal with user complaints and a government liaison. The Ministry is still finalising the language and content.

The rules cover all social media and messaging apps with more than 5 million users. India, with 1.3 billion people, has about 500 million Internet users. It isn’t clear whether the identities of foreign users would be subject to the Indian government’s inquiries.

Law enforcement agencies around the world have been frustrated by tech companies that have refused to identify users, unlock devices or generally cooperate with government investigations, particularly in cases relating to terrorism.

In India, where the Internet — and fake news — are still relatively new phenomenon, a false report of rampant child abduction and organ harvesting circulated widely via WhatsApp, leading to mob violence and over three dozen fatal lynchings in 2017 and 2018.

WhatsApp refused a request from the government to reveal the origins of the rumours, citing its promise of privacy and end-to-end encryption for its 400 million Indian users. It instead offered to fund research into preventing the spread of fake news and mounted a public education campaign in the country, its biggest global market.

WhatsApp will “not compromise on security because that would make people less safe,” it said in a statement Wednesday, adding its global user base had reached over 2 billion. “For even more protection, we work with top security experts, employ industry leading technology to stop misuse as well as provide controls and ways to report issues — without sacrificing privacy.”

At the same time, tech companies and civil rights groups say the new rules are an invitation to abuse and censorship, as well as a burdensome requirement on new and growing companies.

In an open letter to IT minister Ravi Shankar Prasad, executives from Mozilla, GitHub, and Cloudflare said the guidelines could lead to “automated censorship” and “increase surveillance.“ In order to be able to trace the originator of content, platforms would basically be required to surveil their users, undermine encryption, and harm the fundamental right to privacy of Indian users, they said.

Companies such as Mozilla or Wikipedia wouldn’t fall under the new rules, the government official said. Browsers, operating systems, and online repositories of knowledge, software development platforms, are all exempt. Only social media platforms and messaging apps will be covered.

© 2020 Bloomberg LP

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