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A major battle over free speech on social media is playing out in India during the pandemic

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As the coronavirus pandemic rages in India, claiming thousands of lives, many Indians are turning to social media to demand that the government handle the public health crisis better. And now, the government is silencing these critics in its latest threat to the future of free speech on the internet in the world’s second-most populous country.

In recent weeks, the Indian government has requested that companies like Twitter take down content that it says contains misinformation about the Covid-19 pandemic. But critics say that India’s political leadership under Prime Minister Narendra Modi is using the premise of misinformation to overreach and suppress criticism of the administration’s handling of the pandemic.

A similar debate has also played out in the US around how companies like Twitter and Facebook should moderate harmful speech on their platforms, particularly when that speech comes from world leaders. But the issue has taken on an increased intensity in India, where the government is more aggressively and directly pressuring tech companies to block content it takes issue with.

“Internet companies are stuck between a rock and a hard place,” said Anupam Chander, a law professor at Georgetown University who focuses on the regulation of international speech online. “They face a government that is accusing them of essentially abetting a violation of law. At the same time, there are huge free expression concerns here.”

India is the world’s biggest democracy and has a history of robust political debate. Its constitution protects people’s rights to freedom of speech and expression — with some exceptions including for content it deems defamatory.

But under the Modi administration of the past several years, the country has expanded its internet regulation laws, giving it more power to censor and surveil its citizens online. The government has several levers to pressure US-based tech companies into compliance: It could arrest Facebook and Twitter staff in India if their employers don’t follow orders. Even further, India could yank Twitter or Facebook off the local internet in India entirely, as it recently did with TikTok and several major Chinese apps in June. And the government resorted to effectively shutting down the internet in Kashmir in February 2020 when it wanted to quiet political dissent in the region.

Now, the tension between US social media companies and the Indian government has reached an all-time high because of the fierce debate around Modi’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic. And what happens next could determine whether Indians will continue to have the same kind of access to a relatively open social media environment or if the walls around what people are allowed to say online in India will close up even more. Some fear that the country may become more like China, where the government tightly controls its residents’ access to information and where US tech giants like Google and Facebook have tried — and failed — to operate successfully.

What happened with recent takedowns

In recent days, Twitter and Facebook have taken down or blocked political content that’s critical of the Indian government.

On Wednesday, Facebook confirmed that it temporarily blocked posts with a #ResignModi hashtag in India, but it later said it was a mistake because of content associated with the hashtag that violated its policies. Facebook has since restored access to the hashtag.

Facebook declined to comment on how many or what takedown requests it has received from the Indian government in recent weeks. A source familiar with the company said Facebook only took down a small portion of the total requests it received.

In sharp contrast to Facebook, Twitter is more transparent and discloses takedown requests through an outside organization, Lumen. Twitter acknowledged that the Indian government asked it to take down several dozen tweets recently, which were about the Covid-19 pandemic in India, as first reported by Indian news site MediaNama.

Recode reviewed the more than 50 tweets that Twitter blocked or deleted at the request of the Indian government in recent weeks. While some could be considered misleading — including one viral image showing devastation in India supposedly related to the pandemic which Indian fact-checker AltNews reported to be outdated — it wasn’t clear what was misleading about several other posts, which appeared to be straightforward news and political commentary.

One of the blocked tweets, for example, is a link to a Vice news article about a mass Hindu religious bathing ritual being held in the river Ganges during the most recent Covid-19 surge — which has been widely reported in other outlets as well. Another is a satirical cartoon showing a caricature of Modi making a speech over burning coffins, with the prime minister saying, “Have never seen such huge crowds at a rally.”

The Indian Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology, which issues takedown requests to social media companies on behalf of the Indian government, did not respond to a request for comment. A spokesperson for Modi’s BJP Party also did not respond to a request for comment.

In response to Recode’s questions about how Twitter decides which posts to block or take down, a spokesperson for Twitter emailed Recode the following statement:

When we receive a valid legal request, we review it under both the Twitter Rules and local law. If the content violates Twitter’s Rules, the content will be removed from the service. If it is determined to be illegal in a particular jurisdiction, but not in violation of the Twitter Rules, we may withhold access to the content in India only.

The company also said it notified account holders directly when they receive a legal order pertaining to their account.

Many free speech advocates are quick to accuse social media companies like Twitter of too easily giving in to pressure from the Indian government. In the past, the company has taken a more aggressive and public stance against the Modi administration — such as in February when it refused to block political activists and journalists who used Twitter to criticize the Indian government’s new agricultural reforms, which many farmers in India had been protesting for months.

Now, during the pandemic, companies like Twitter are again being tested about how much they’re willing to follow the Indian government’s orders — and run the risk of being shut down entirely if they disobey them.

“It’s easy for us to say Twitter shouldn’t do this. But the question is whether it wants to continue operating in the Indian market,” said Chander. “It’s a very complicated dance.”

One route US social media companies could take is to try to contest the government’s recent takedown requests in the Indian courts, which Chander said are relatively independent of Modi.

The US government, which has a close relationship with India, could also pressure Modi’s administration to loosen its grip on social media. On Monday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said that the Indian government ordering social media companies to block posts critical of the government “certainly wouldn’t be aligned with our view of freedom of speech around the world.”

The White House has other diplomatic leverage it could use, like threatening to cut off trade agreements or other diplomatic relations between the two countries. For now, the White House is focused on the larger issue of vaccine distribution in India. This week, the administration announced — under increasing global pressure — that it will reverse course and export Covid-19 vaccine materials to the country. So far there’s been no public indication that the Biden administration is considering taking any diplomatic action around the country’s stance toward social media.

Regardless, it’s clear that there’s a growing battle between the Indian government and US social media companies. What happens next will be a sign of where the future of free speech in the country seems to be heading.

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What Do Facebook Ads Have To Do With The Uyghur Genocide?

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In recent months, several reports suggested a concerning link between Facebook ads and the Uyghur genocide. In March 2021, Epoch Times reported on “evidence linking Facebook ad revenue to Chinese companies profiting from that genocide.” They indicated that one of the companies “continues selling through Facebook hair it admitted was from Uyghurs. Similar companies ‘suggested’ by the social media platform appear also to be selling Uyghur hair. Since a woman’s long hair is highly valued in Uyghur culture, the hair products being sold are almost certainly a product of the ongoing persecution, and not donated or sold freely.” These allegations come months after, in August 2020, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CPB) seized over 13 tons of human hair products from Xinjiang. 

In this photo illustration a Facebook logo seen displayed on...

In this photo illustration a Facebook logo seen displayed on a smartphone. (Photo Illustration: … [+] Rafael Henrique/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Facebook did not respond to these allegations that it profited from ads linked to Uyghur genocide. Yet it did not take long before Facebook became the centre of attention again, because of its links with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) which stands accused of committing genocide against the Uyghurs.

In April 2021, the WSJ reported that “some Facebook staff are raising concerns on internal message boards and in other employee discussions that the company is being used as a conduit for state propaganda, highlighting sponsored posts from Chinese organizations that purport to show Muslim ethnic minority Uyghurs thriving in China’s Xinjiang region, according to people familiar with the matter.” Reportedly, “a Facebook spokesman said that the ads taken out by Beijing pertaining to Xinjiang don’t violate current policies so long as the advertisers follow Facebook’s rules when purchasing them. He said the company is monitoring reports of the situation in Xinjiang ‘to help inform our approach and due diligence on this issue.’”

WSJ further reported that “Facebook hasn’t determined whether to act on the concerns, say people familiar with the matter. The company is watching how international organizations such as the United Nations respond to the situation in Xinjiang, one of the people said. The U.N. this week called on firms conducting Xinjiang-linked business to undertake “meaningful human rights due diligence” on their operations.”

Such responses to very serious allegations of benefiting from Uyghur genocide are highly inadequate. We are talking about atrocities targeting a religious group with methods including torture and abuse, rape and sexual violence, separation of children from their parents, forced sterilizations, forced abortions, forced labor and much more.

Waiting for the response from the U.N. cannot be seen as the right policy to address serious allegations of genocidal atrocities, especially considering stagnation at the U.N. and China’s powerful position there. While States and U.N. experts have been calling for action, and among others, for unfettered access to Xinjiang, this request has been ignored by the Chinese government. And so the vicious circle of impunity continues.

One would expect that Facebook would conduct a comprehensive review of the allegations and evidence in support. Ultimately, Facebook should make sure that they sever any ties with atrocities against the Uyghurs.

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Eutelsat Expands Use of Express Wi-Fi in Partnership With Facebook to Extend Wi-Fi Connectivity …

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PARIS–()–Regulatory News:

Eutelsat Communications (Paris:ETL) (Euronext Paris: ETL) is expanding its use of the Express Wi-Fi platform in partnership with Facebook to provide broadband services via satellite across several regions in Sub-Saharan Africa. With Express Wi-Fi, Eutelsat aims to connect thousands of people in rural and underserved communities spanning Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Nigeria, Côte d’Ivoire, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia, Kenya, Madagascar, South Africa, Cameroon, Ghana and Zimbabwe.

Express Wi-Fi is a platform developed by Facebook Connectivity that enables partners to build, grow and monetize their Wi-Fi businesses in a scalable way, while providing their customers with fast, affordable, and reliable internet access. Express Wi-Fi is used in more than 30 countries, including in multiple Asian, South American and African markets, helping millions of people connect over Wi-Fi.

Eutelsat and Facebook have previously conducted successful pilots in rural and underserved areas of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) enabling local businesses to offer affordable internet access to customers on a pre-paid basis. To date, Eutelsat’s use of the Express Wi-Fi platform has enabled access to affordable broadband for thousands of individuals across the DRC.

Philippe Baudrier, General Manager of Konnect Africa commented: “We are delighted to partner with Facebook in this ambitious scheme, aimed at getting more people online in the most underserved areas of sub-Saharan Africa. This initiative is the perfect example of the power of satellite connectivity to bridge the digital divide, with unmatched economic and social benefits. We are proud once again to leverage the unparalleled coverage of EUTELSAT KONNECT to satisfy this growing demand.”

“At Facebook, we’re committed to working with partners to help expand connectivity in Sub-Saharan Africa, which continues to be the region with the highest coverage gap,” said Fargani Tambeayuk, Head of Connectivity Policy for Sub-Saharan Africa, Facebook. “Connectivity is essential to ensuring access to jobs, education, healthcare and more. We’re proud to partner with Eutelsat to combine the power of the Express Wi-Fi platform and EUTELSAT KONNECT, with the goal of increasing satellite broadband coverage across rural and underserved areas of Sub-Saharan Africa.”

About Eutelsat Communications


Founded in 1977, Eutelsat Communications is one of the world’s leading satellite operators. With a global fleet of satellites and associated ground infrastructure, Eutelsat enables clients across Video, Data, Government, Fixed and Mobile Broadband markets to communicate effectively to their customers, irrespective of their location. Over 6,600 television channels operated by leading media groups are broadcast by Eutelsat to one billion viewers equipped for DTH reception or connected to terrestrial networks. Headquartered in Paris, with offices and teleports around the globe, Eutelsat assembles 1,000 men and women from 46 countries who are dedicated to delivering the highest quality of service.

For more about Eutelsat go to www.eutelsat.com

About Facebook Connectivity


Connectivity is at the heart of Facebook’s mission to give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together. Critical to this mission is high-quality internet access, which gives people a voice and creates opportunities to share knowledge that can strengthen local communities and global economies. Facebook Connectivity works closely with partners including mobile network operators, equipment manufacturers and more to develop programs and technologies—including Express WiFi, Magma and Terragraph—that increase the availability, affordability and awareness of high-quality internet access, bringing more people online to a faster internet. To learn more, visit: https://connectivity.fb.com

www.eutelsat.com – Follow us on Twitter @Eutelsat_SA

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Facebook Removes Ukraine’s ‘Fake’ Political ‘Influence-for-hire’ Network

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Facebook attributed the network to individuals and entities including politician Andriy Derkach, a pro-Russian lawmaker blacklisted by the United States.

  • Reuters
  • Last Updated:May 07, 2021, 14:04 IST
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Facebook Inc (FB.O) has taken down a network of hundreds of fake accounts and pages targeting people in Ukraine and linked to individuals previously sanctioned by the United States for efforts to interfere in U.S. elections, the company said on Thursday. Facebook said the network managed a long-running deceptive campaign across multiple social media platforms and other websites, posing as independent news outlets and promoting favourable content about Ukrainian politicians, including activity that was likely for hire. The company said it started its probe after a tip from the FBI.

Facebook attributed the activity to individuals and entities sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department including politician Andriy Derkach, a pro-Russian lawmaker who was blacklisted by the U.S. government in September over accusations he tried to interfere in the 2020 U.S. election won by President Joe Biden. Facebook said it removed Derkach’s accounts in October 2020.

Derkach told Reuters he would comment on Facebook’s investigation on Friday.

Facebook also attributed the network to political consultants associated with Ukrainian politicians Oleh Kulinich and Volodymyr Groysman, Ukraine’s former prime minister. Kulinich did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Groysman could not immediately be reached for comment.

Facebook said that as well as promoting these politicians, the network also pushed positive material about actors across the political spectrum, likely as a paid service. It said the activity it investigated began around 2015, was solely focused on Ukraine and posted anti-Russia content.

“You can really think of these operators as would-be influence mercenaries, renting out inauthentic online support in Ukrainian political circles,” Ben Nimmo, Facebook’s global influence operations threat intelligence lead, said on a call with reporters.

Facebook’s investigation team said Ukraine, which has been among the top sources of “coordinated inauthentic behaviour” that it removes from the site, is home to an increasing number of influence operations selling services.

Facebook said it removed 363 pages, which were followed by about 2.37 million accounts, and 477 accounts from this network for violating its rules. The network also spent about $496,000 in Facebook and Instagram ads, Facebook said.

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