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Chinese Entities Blacklisted, Surveillance of Facebook Users, TikTok Algorithm Changes

Commerce and Treasury departments will bar investment and exports for Beijing-aligned companies.

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Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg

December 17, 2021 – President Joe Biden’s administration added several Chinese companies and research institutes to blacklists that restrict their access to U.S. investment and technology in response to their alleged support for China’s military and mass surveillance of mainly Muslim ethnic groups, the Wall Street Journal reported.

The action from the Commerce and Treasury departments targeted businesses such as an undersea fiber optic cable company, facial recognition technology developers and a commercial drone maker.

Last week, the U.S. acted to further restrict exports to major Chinese semiconductor chip manufacturer SMIC due to the company’s alleged ties to the Chinese military.

In total, more than 40 companies and other entities were added to either the Commerce Department entity list, restricting access to U.S. exports, or to a Treasury list that bans American investment in companies supporting the Chinese military.

China’s Foreign Ministry has criticized efforts to blacklist Chinese companies, with a Beijing spokesman on Thursday calling U.S. action “unwarranted suppression on Chinese companies.”

Earlier this month, the Biden administration announced initiatives with international allies to track and combat Chinese surveillance.

Meta reveals users may have been targeted by “surveillance-for-hire” campaigns

Facebook parent company Meta revealed Thursday that 50,000 of its users across 100 countries may have been targeted by “surveillance-for-hire” companies.

As the result of a months-long investigation, Meta disabled seven entities based in China, Israel, India and North Macedonia which were found to have targeted internet users on behalf of governments or private clients.

According to Meta’s blog post, targets of the surveillance efforts included “journalists, dissidents, critics of authoritarian regimes, families of opposition and human rights activists.”

The company says it shared findings about attempted attacks with security researchers, alerted targeted users and issued cease and desists to attackers.

About 1,500 Facebook and Instagram accounts were linked to the seven surveilling entities and removed.

TikTok algorithm tweaked to lessen harmful content

TikTok said it would alter its recommendation algorithm to prevent users from being shown too much of the same content on topics thought to be causing negative psychological outcomes in young users.

The company says it wants to protect against users “viewing too much of a content category that may be fine as a single video but problematic in clusters,” such as extreme dieting, sadness or breakups.

Leading up to this announcement Thursday, U.S. and international lawmakers had been scrutinizing TikTok and peers like Instagram over data-privacy concerns and potential effects of their platforms on the psyches of younger users.

In one hearing before the U.S. Senate, TikTok, Snapchat and YouTube were largely noncommittal to lawmakers requests for changes to platforms designed to protect child users.

TikTok also announced Thursday that it will allow users greater flexibility to choose videos they do or do not want to view such as by picking words or hashtags associated with content they do not want to be shown.

Reporter T.J. York received his degree in political science from the University of Southern California. He has experience working for elected officials and in campaign research. He is interested in the effects of politics in the tech sector.

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Meta Restores Trump’s Accounts, Alaska Uses AI for Mapping, Public Interest Model for Spectrum Policy

Former President Trump will face heightened penalties for future, repeated violations of Facebook’s and Meta’s policies.

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Photo of Meta President of Global Affairs Nick Clegg by Moritz Hager, used with permission

January 26, 2023 — Former President Donald Trump’s Facebook and Instagram accounts will soon be reinstated, just over two years after the platforms suspended him for inciting violence, parent company Meta announced on Wednesday.

The “serious risk to public safety” present during the Capitol riot in January 2021 has “sufficiently receded,” said Nick Clegg, Meta’s president of global affairs.

However, the company said it would put “new guardrails in place to deter repeat offenses,” including heightened penalties for repeated violations, and would potentially limit the distribution of content that “contributes to the sort of risk that materialized on January 6, such as content that delegitimizes an upcoming election or is related to QAnon” — even if such content did not explicitly violate Meta’s community standards.

Clegg’s statement also made a nod to the broader content moderation debate playing out across multiple state laws and upcoming Supreme Court cases involving online platforms and speech.

“Many people believe that companies like Meta should remove much more content than we currently do,” he said. “Others argue that our current policies already make us overbearing censors… We believe it is both necessary and possible to draw a line between content that is harmful and should be removed, and content that, however distasteful or inaccurate, is part of the rough and tumble of life in a free society.”

Alaska partners with AI company to create state broadband map

Artificial intelligence-based mapping company Ecopia AI on Tuesday announced a partnership with the State of Alaska and other companies to create a comprehensive, high-definition map of buildings and broadband serviceable locations — data that is essential for securing federal broadband funding.

“Without the data from Ecopia, the State of Alaska was at an immediate disadvantage for receiving funding to expand broadband services,” said Hillary Palmer, geospatial and technology manager at Dewberry Alaska, an engineering company involved in the mapping process. “Now we have a source of truth with which we can identify broadband serviceable locations and secure federal funding for network expansion throughout Alaska.

Prior to the partnership, less than five percent of Alaska’s buildings were mapped, according to Ecopia. The company’s artificial intelligence mapping systems leveraged satellite imagery to extract buildings in areas where reliable GIS data did not exist.

“We believe in using AI for good, and are thrilled to enable the expansion of more equitable broadband access across Alaska,” said Sean Lowery, senior director of product and business development at Ecopia.

Public Knowledge proposes public interest model for spectrum policy

A white paper published by Public Knowledge on Thursday proposes the adoption of a public interest backcasting model to guide future spectrum policy, arguing that its value-based framework will provide policymakers with a path towards universally accessible, affordable and reliable telecommunications services.

“In short, we have a chance to make the wireless future a good one, but it comes down to what we’re willing to work together to achieve – either a digitally divided society where only a privileged few benefit from new technologies, or a world where everyone does,” said Kathleen Burke, policy counsel at Public Knowledge and author of the paper, in a statement.

The paper reflects on the Spectrum Policy Task Force created 20 years ago by Michael Powell, then-chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, identifying the problems that may have hindered its success and reframing its suggestions for future spectrum efficiency and access models.

In order for future spectrum policy to succeed, it must overcome the zero-sum game fallacy currently present in the spectrum stakeholder dynamic, Burke wrote. In addition, Burke argued that spectrum policymakers should focus on preventing inequalities from happening rather than attempting to remedy them after the fact — particularly in policies addressing Tribal reservations, which remain among the most underserved areas in the U.S.

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FCC Orders Robocall Traffic Cutoff, Internet Lacking for Civil Society, Comcast Promotion

Some states’ attorneys general are suing a realtor for alleged robocall scheme.

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Ray Roundtree, Comcast's new senior vice president of Comcast's keystone region, via Comcast

January 25, 2023 – The Federal Communications Commission on Tuesday ordered telecommunications companies to cut off traffic to a dialing platform that facilitated an illegal robocall scheme targeting homeowners.

MV Realty is accused of using voice service provider Twilio Networks and the PhoneBurner dialing platform to “flood homeowners with robocalls with misleading claims about mortgages,” a press release said.

Attorneys general from Florida, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania have filed lawsuits against the real estate firm that allegedly scammed residents into mortgaging their homes in exchange for cash payments, the release said.

“Mortgage scams are some of the most pernicious types of robocalls we see,” FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel said in the release. “Sending these junk calls to financially-stressed homeowners just to offer them deceptive products and services is unconscionable. That’s why we are shutting down these calls right now.”

The commission has been taking increasingly aggressive action against illegal robocalls and their facilitators. Last month, the commission proposed a “record-breaking” $300 million fine for one robocall scheme.

And late last year, the commission expanded it’s the robocall framework by ruling that straight-to-voicemail robocalls are subject to its regulatory authority.

Survey finds civil society organizations struggle with internet access, speed and reliability

Civil society organizations are being hampered by a lack of internet access, tools, or skills among staff, according to a report Wednesday from advocacy organization Connect Humanity.

The report is based on a survey of over 7,500 of these organizations, representing and serving over 190 million people, and draws on case studies, resources and quotes directly from these organizations.

The report found that the top five concerns for these organizations are a lack of digital skills, followed by speed of the internet, reliability of the internet, affordability of devices and the internet and lack of devices.

The top five concerns for the people these organizations serve are lack of digital skills, affordable internet, availability of the internet, affordability of devices and lack of devices, the report said.

Other concerns include the availability of the internet, fear of being surveilled online or hacked, lack of relevant content, and lack of accessibility for people with disabilities.

The report notes that, over the next five years, 49 percent expect an increase in digital skills funding, 37 percent expect an increase in funding for access to hardware or software, 37 percent expect an increase in digital rights or internet policy, and 33 percent expect an increase in access to the internet.

In addition, 35 percent of these organizations surveyed said they have access to fast internet, while only 9 percent of the people they serve said so. Meanwhile, 42 percent of the organizations said they have reliable internet while only 9 percent of the people they serve said they can claim the same.

Other findings of the report include a majority of said organizations and the people they serve use a mobile provider for internet access and mobile phones are the most common devices used by people to access the internet.

Comcast announced new exec for keystone region

Ray Roundtree has been announced today as the new senior vice president of Comcast’s keystone region, based in Pittsburgh.

Roundtree will oversee the company’s operational, strategic and financial performance across areas in central and northeastern Pennsylvania, easter Ohio, northern West Virginia, and the Maryland panhandle, a press release said.

“With his industry expertise and broad experience running major markets, Ray will be a great leader for the Keystone Region,” Amy Lynch, president of Comcast’s northeast division, which includes 14 northeastern states from Maine through Virginia and the District of Columbia, said in the release. “I know Ray will be successful in continuing to deliver our innovative products and services to area homes and businesses–keeping them connected to what matters most.”

Roundtree has been with Comcast since 2000, as director of business operations for Chester and Lancaster counties and has taken on financial management leadership positions during his tenure at the company.

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Justice Department Sues Google, Big Tech’s White House Ties, TCPA Compliance Deadline

The lawsuit accuses the company of abusing a monopoly over the technology that controls the digital advertising market.

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Photo of Jeff Zients courtesy of the U.S. Department of Labor

January 24, 2023 — The U.S. Department of Justice on Tuesday filed an antitrust lawsuit against Google, accusing the company of abusing a monopoly over the technology that controls the digital advertising market.

Google operates much of the technology used to sell, purchase and serve online advertisements, and the lawsuit claims the company attempted to control all sides of the market in order to “set the rules of the game to exclude rivals,” CNBC reported.

However, Google’s share of digital ad revenues has dropped over the last few years, and the company has pointed to major industry players like Amazon and Meta to demonstrate its claims that the market is crowded and competitive.

A separate lawsuit based on Google’s alleged monopoly in the internet search market, brought by the government in 2020, is set to go to trial in September. Several state attorneys general have brought additional lawsuits against the tech giant, focusing on Google’s app marketplace challenges as well as advertising and search.

Expected White House pick has ties to Big Tech

President Joe Biden is expected to name former Facebook board member Jeff Zients as his next chief of staff, The Washington Post reported on Sunday.

The decision has been criticized by progressive groups, who have raised concerns over Zients’ potential impact on ongoing efforts to curb the power of major tech companies and pass antitrust legislation.

David Segal, founder of internet advocacy organization Demand Progress, told the Post that he had “serious concerns” about Zients’s positions on tech issues, citing “a history of worrisome financial interests, membership on Facebook’s board and policy decisions.”

Advocacy groups have previously expressed concerns about a discrepancy between the administration’s stated agenda against Big Tech and the backgrounds of its staff —  including Louisa Terrell, Biden’s director of legislative affairs, who served for two years as Facebook’s public policy director.

Adding to these concerns is the fact that Zients’ expected promotion comes just weeks after former White House advisor Tim Wu, known as an aggressive critic of Big Tech, stepped down from his role in the administration.

FCC announces July 20 compliance deadline for TCPA updates

The Federal Communications Commission on Monday announced a compliance deadline of July 20 for amendments to the Telephone Consumer Protection Act related to prerecorded calls.

The new rules, which were initially announced in December 2020, add opt-out requirements and call limits for calls that previously relied on TCPA exemptions. These include non-commercial calls, commercial calls that do not constitute telemarketing, calls from nonprofit entities and calls related to the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act.

The updates come alongside a variety of efforts from the FCC aimed at stopping robocall traffic, as well as spam text messages and automatic voicemails.

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