Facebook Roundup: UK, Germany, India, Kids, Openbook

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Fresh news about Russia's link to Cambridge Analytica, Facebook (FB) CEO Mark Zuckerberg's comments on Holocaust denial in Germany, WhatsApp's role in misinformation-based killings in India, the promise of a proactive approach to kids' safety and a new social network called Opnebook were the top stories from last week. Here are the details-

In the UK

In a fresh round of sensationalism, CNN reported talking to Damian Collins, a British conservative member of parliament about Cambridge Analytica data being accessed from Russia. Collins reportedly said that the information was uncovered by the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO), which is Britain's data protection authority.

All but this information was shrouded in vagueness and details like what data was affected, what use it was put to and who the people were that accessed the data remain unknown.

As Aleksandr Kogan, who collected the data that was subsequently passed on to Cambridge Analytica said, it could very well have been someone at the firm checking his email while in Russia and not linked to Russian authorities at all.

CNN added to the conjecture that data was inappropriately accessed by Russian authorities by pointing out that Kogan at the time held a professorship at St. Petersburg State University and that he visited Russia in 2014 before the data collection and again in April 2016 when he started deleting and anonymizing the data.

In Germany

German authorities have objected to Zuckerberg's comments to the effect that the social network shouldn't delete Holocaust denial comments because it isn't the position of a social network to censor people's views/free speech.

German law requires that both "verbal and physical attacks on Jews as well as the denial of Holocaust" be dealt with immediately and imposes a fine of up to 50 million euros ($58 million) for not taking measures against anti-Semitism and hate messages promptly. There is no evidence that Facebook FB hasn't played by the rules in Germany although it has internally maintained a view consistent with Zuckerberg's comment.

The confusion arises because people are so stuck up on hate, which is an emotion and therefore, indefinable and subjective. There isn't anything wrong with upholding the truth on issues where millions or even thousands are affected because everything else is emotional garbage, situated in either love or hate.

It may be hard for a social network to verify the truth of all statements because there's just so much information out there, but in principle, it is a responsibility it can't deny. And until it gets the principles right, fake news will proliferate.

In India

Speaking of fake news, Facebook's WhatsApp was in the middle of a controversy that led to a number of deaths in India. Forwarded false messages about child abduction in some rural areas led suspicious elders to get together to attack strangers they doubted.

Regulatory bodies in India have demanded that Facebook act quickly to curb a recurrence, or be charged with abetting a crime. According to a statement by the country's technology ministry, "When rumors and fake news get propagated by mischief mongers, the medium used for such propagation cannot evade responsibility and accountability… If they remain mute spectators they are liable to be treated as abettors and thereafter face consequent legal action."

Since messages on the platform are encrypted, this becomes a tall order for Facebook. So the company is taking measures to slow down the spread of information on the platform instead. Therefore, Indian users will now be able to forward messages to a maximum of five people or groups at a time. The quick forward button is also being removed.

Partly because of the above and partly because some regulatory requirements are yet to be met, the country's Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MEITY) and the National Payments Corporation of India (NPCI) are holding up the countrywide launch of WhatsApp Payments. The beta version already has a million users, a small group compared to the 230 million that use the service in India.

One concern has been the storage of user data that the government now requires to be in local servers. Any delay is of course good news for local leader Paytm as well as Google's Tez and Sweden's Truecaller that are already operating in the country. But WhatsApp has a sticky user base and will likely make up lost ground.


Facebook has promised more proactive action on removing underage children from its social network after the UK's Channel 4 released a documentary displaying abusive and violent content involving them that weren't taken down within a reasonable time after being reported.

It appears that Facebook's review teams isn't trained or directed as they should be. An undercover reporter from Channel 4's Dispatches managed to get employed at Dublin's Cpl Resources, which handles most of Facebook's content moderation in the UK. He found that Facebooks claim of meeting 100% of takedown and other requests within 24 hours was false with thousands of reported posts remaining unmoderated. Moreover, reviewers were told not to take any action with respect to unreported content involving children visibly below Facebook's13-year age-limit.

Facebook has said that going forward, it will lock accounts of children when there's suspicion that the child is underage. The accounts can only be unlocked after furnishing a government-issued photo ID.

Then again, Messenger Kids, the parent-controlled social network that lets tweens text, call, video chat and use face filters, is going strong. This is a good way for Facebook to catch them young, because it gets them used to chatting and draws them into Facebook's ecosystem. It's also good for parents because it gives them a chance to decide the kind of people they can talk to and monitor their interactions.

Messenger Kids expanded to Canada and Peru in June, and has just launched in Mexico.

New Competition, Or Not

Philip Zimmermann, who created PGP, the most widely used email encryption software, and Jaya Baloo, chief information security officer for Dutch telecom company KPN Telecom have joined efforts by Joel Hernandez to launch a new social network called Openbook. The network will be built along the lines of Facebook but will not track users and have privacy as its first goal.

The network expects to make use of the data portability rules that recently came into force by virtue of the GDPR to attract entire groups of people who were put out by Facebook's role in the Cambridge Analytica scandal.

It expects to generate revenue through an online marketplace and give 30% to charity.


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