US Bans Huawei, ZTE Equipment Sales, Citing National Security Risk

The Biden administration has banned approvals of new telecommunications equipment from China’s Huawei Technologies HWT.UL and ZTE 000063.SZ because they pose “an unacceptable risk” to U.S. national security.

The U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) said Friday it had adopted the final rules, which also bar the sale or import of equipment made by China’s surveillance equipment maker Dahua Technology Co 002236.SZ, video surveillance firm Hangzhou Hikvision Digital Technology Co Ltd 002415.SZ and telecoms firm Hytera Communications Corp Ltd 002583.SZ.

The move represents Washington’s latest crackdown on the Chinese tech giants amid fears that Beijing could use Chinese tech companies to spy on Americans.

“These new rules are an important part of our ongoing actions to protect the American people from national security threats involving telecommunications,” FCC Chairperson Jessica Rosenworcel said in a statement.

Huawei declined to comment. ZTE, Dahua, Hikvision and Hytera did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Rosenworcel circulated the proposed measure — which effectively bars the firms from selling new equipment in the United States — to the other three commissioners for final approval last month.

The FCC said in June 2021 it was considering banning all equipment authorizations for all companies on the covered list.

That came after a March 2021 designation of five Chinese companies on the so-called “covered list” as posing a threat to national security under a 2019 law aimed at protecting U.S. communications networks: Huawei, ZTE, Hytera Communications Corp Hikvision and Dahua.

All four commissioners at the agency, including two Republicans and two Democrats, supported Friday’s move.

Musk Plans to Relaunch Twitter Premium Service, Again

Elon Musk said Friday that Twitter plans to relaunch its premium service that will offer different colored check marks to accounts next week, in a fresh move to revamp the service after a previous attempt backfired.

It’s the latest change to the social media platform that the billionaire Tesla CEO bought last month for $44 billion, coming a day after Musk said he would grant “amnesty” for suspended accounts and causing yet more uncertainty for users.

Twitter previously suspended the premium service, which under Musk granted blue-check labels to anyone paying $8 a month, because of a wave of imposter accounts. Originally, the blue check was given to government entities, corporations, celebrities and journalists verified by the platform to prevent impersonation.

In the latest version, companies will get a gold check, governments will get a gray check, and individuals who pay for the service, whether or not they’re celebrities, will get a blue check, Musk said Friday.

“All verified accounts will be manually authenticated before check activates,” he said, adding it was “painful, but necessary” and promising a “longer explanation” next week. He said the service was “tentatively launching” Dec. 2.

Twitter had put the revamped premium service on hold days after its launch earlier this month after accounts impersonated companies including pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly & Co., Nintendo, Lockheed Martin, and even Musk’s own businesses Tesla and SpaceX, along with various professional sports and political figures.

It was just one change in the past two days. On Thursday, Musk said he would grant “amnesty” for suspended accounts, following the results of an online poll he conducted on whether accounts that have not “broken the law or engaged in egregious spam” should be reinstated.

The yes vote was 72%. Such online polls are anything but scientific and can easily be influenced by bots. Musk also used one before restoring former U.S. President Donald Trump’s account.

“The people have spoken. Amnesty begins next week. Vox Populi, Vox Dei,” Musk tweeted Thursday using a Latin phrase meaning “the voice of the people, the voice of God.”

The move is likely to put the company on a crash course with European regulators seeking to clamp down on harmful online content with tough new rules, which helped cement Europe’s reputation as the global leader in efforts to rein in the power of social media companies and other digital platforms.

Zach Meyers, senior research fellow at the Centre for European Reform think tank, said giving blanket amnesty based on an online poll is an “arbitrary approach” that’s “hard to reconcile with the Digital Services Act,” a new EU law that will start applying to the biggest online platforms by mid-2023.

The law is aimed at protecting internet users from illegal content and reducing the spread of harmful but legal content. It requires big social media platforms to be “diligent and objective” in enforcing restrictions, which must be spelled out clearly in the fine print for users when signing up, Meyers said.

Britain also is working on its own online safety law.

“Unless Musk quickly moves from a ‘move fast and break things’ approach to a more sober management style, he will be on a collision course with Brussels and London regulators,” Meyers said.

European Union officials took to social media to highlight their worries. The 27-nation bloc’s executive Commission published a report Thursday that found Twitter took longer to review hateful content and removed less of it this year compared with 2021.

The report was based on data collected over the spring — before Musk acquired Twitter — as part of an annual evaluation of online platforms’ compliance with the bloc’s voluntary code of conduct on disinformation. It found that Twitter assessed just over half of the notifications it received about illegal hate speech within 24 hours, down from 82% in 2021.

The numbers may yet worsen. Since taking over, Musk has l aid off half the company’s 7,500-person workforce along with an untold number of contractors responsible for content moderation. Many others have resigned, including the company’s head of trust and safety.

Recent layoffs at Twitter and results of the EU’s review “are a source of concern,” the bloc’s commissioner for justice, Didier Reynders tweeted Thursday evening after meeting with Twitter executives at the company’s European headquarters in Dublin.

In the meeting, Reynders said he “underlined that we expect Twitter to deliver on their voluntary commitments and comply with EU rules,” including the Digital Services Act and the bloc’s strict privacy regulations known as General Data Protection Regulation, or GDPR.

Another EU commissioner, Vera Jourova, tweeted Thursday evening that she was concerned about news reports that a “vast amount” of Twitter’s European staff were fired.

“If you want to effectively detect and take action against #disinformation & propaganda, this requires resources,” Jourova said. “Especially in the context of Russian disinformation warfare.”

Twitter, Others Slip on Removing Hate Speech, EU Review Says

Twitter took longer to review hateful content and removed less of it in 2022 compared with the previous year, according to European Union data released Thursday.

The EU figures were published as part of an annual evaluation of online platforms’ compliance with the 27-nation bloc’s code of conduct on disinformation.

Twitter wasn’t alone; most other tech companies signed up to the voluntary code also scored worse. But the figures could foreshadow trouble for Twitter in complying with the EU’s tough new online rules after owner Elon Musk fired many of the platform’s 7,500 full-time workers and an untold number of contractors responsible for content moderation and other crucial tasks.

The EU report, carried out over six weeks in the spring, found Twitter assessed just over half of the notifications it received about illegal hate speech within 24 hours, down from 82% in 2021.

In comparison, the amount of flagged material Facebook reviewed within 24 hours fell to 64%, Instagram slipped to 56.9%, and YouTube dipped to 83.3%. TikTok came in at 92%, the only company to improve.

The amount of hate speech Twitter removed after it was flagged slipped to 45.4% from 49.8% the year before. TikTok’s removal rate fell by a quarter to 60%, while Facebook and Instagram saw only minor declines. Only YouTube’s takedown rate increased, surging to 90%.

“It’s worrying to see a downward trend in reviewing notifications related to illegal hate speech by social media platforms,” European Commission Vice President Vera Jourova tweeted. “Online hate speech is a scourge of a digital age and platforms need to live up to their commitments.”

Twitter didn’t respond to a request for comment. Emails to several staff on the company’s European communications team bounced back as undeliverable.

Musk’s $44 billion acquisition of Twitter last month fanned widespread concern that purveyors of lies and misinformation would be allowed to flourish on the site. The billionaire Tesla CEO, who has frequently expressed his belief that Twitter had become too restrictive, has been reinstating suspended accounts, including former President Donald Trump’s.

Twitter faces more scrutiny in Europe by the middle of next year, when new EU rules aimed at protecting internet users’ online safety will start applying to the biggest online platforms. Violations could result in huge fines of up to 6% of a company’s annual global revenue.

France’s online regulator Arcom said it received a reply from Twitter after writing to the company earlier this week to say it was concerned about the effect that staff departures would have on Twitter’s “ability maintain a safe environment for its users.”

Arcom also asked the company to confirm that it can meet its “legal obligations” in fighting online hate speech and that it is committed to implementing the new EU online rules. Arcom said that it received a response from Twitter and that it will “study their response,” without giving more details.

Tech companies that signed up to the EU’s disinformation code agree to commit to measures aimed at reducing disinformation and file regular reports on whether they’re living up to their promises, though there’s little in the way of punishment.

Musk Restores Trump’s Twitter Account After Online Poll

Elon Musk reinstated Donald Trump’s account on Twitter on Saturday, reversing a ban that has kept the former president off the social media site since a pro-Trump mob attacked the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, as Congress was poised to certify Joe Biden’s election victory.

Musk made the announcement in the evening after holding a poll that asked Twitter users to click “yes” or “no” on whether Trump’s account should be restored. The “yes” vote won, with 51.8%.

“The people have spoken. Trump will be reinstated. Vox Populi, Vox Dei,” Musk tweeted, using a Latin phrase meaning “the voice of the people, the voice of God.”

Shortly afterward, Trump’s account, which had earlier appeared as suspended, reappeared on the platform complete with his former tweets, more than 59,000 of them. His followers were gone, at least initially.

It is not clear whether Trump would return to Twitter. An irrepressible tweeter before he was banned, Trump has said in the past that he would not rejoin even if his account was reinstated. He has been relying on his own, much smaller social media site, Truth Social, which he launched after being blocked from Twitter.

And on Saturday, during a video speech to a Republican Jewish group meeting in Las Vegas, Trump said that he was aware of Musk’s poll but that he saw “a lot of problems at Twitter,” according to Bloomberg.

“I hear we’re getting a big vote to also go back on Twitter. I don’t see it because I don’t see any reason for it,” Trump was quoted as saying by Bloomberg. “It may make it, it may not make it,” he added, apparently referring to Twitter’s recent internal upheavals.

The prospect of restoring Trump’s presence to the platform follows Musk’s purchase last month of Twitter — an acquisition that has fanned widespread concern that the billionaire owner will allow purveyors of lies and misinformation to flourish on the site. Musk has frequently expressed his belief that Twitter had become too restrictive of freewheeling speech.

His efforts to reshape the site have been both swift and chaotic. Musk has fired many of the company’s 7,500 full-time workers and an untold number of contractors who are responsible for content moderation and other crucial responsibilities. His demand that remaining employees pledge to “extremely hardcore” work triggered a wave of resignations, including hundreds of software engineers.

Users have reported seeing increased spam and scams on their feeds and in their direct messages, among other glitches, in the aftermath of the mass layoffs and worker exodus. Some programmers who were fired or resigned this week warned that Twitter may soon fray so badly it could crash.

Musk’s online survey, which ran for 24 hours before ending Saturday evening, concluded with 51.8% of more than 15 million votes favoring the restoration of Trump’s Twitter’ account. It comes four days after Trump announced his candidacy for the presidency in 2024.

Trump lost his access to Twitter two days after his supporters stormed the Capitol, soon after the former president had exhorted them to “fight like hell.” Twitter dropped his account after Trump wrote a pair of tweets that the company said cast further doubts on the legitimacy of the presidential election and raised risks for the Biden presidential inauguration.

After the Jan. 6 attack, Trump was also kicked off Facebook and Instagram, which are owned by Meta Platforms, and Snapchat. His ability to post videos to his YouTube channel was also suspended. Facebook is set to reconsider Trump’s account suspension in January.

Throughout his tenure as president, Trump’s use of social media posed a significant challenge to major social media platforms that sought to balance the public’s interest in hearing from public officials with worries about misinformation, bigotry, harassment and incitement of violence.

But in a speech at an auto conference in May, Musk asserted that Twitter’s ban of Trump was a “morally bad decision” and “foolish in the extreme.”

Earlier this month, Musk, who completed the $44 billion takeover of Twitter in late October, declared that the company wouldn’t let anyone who had been kicked off the site return until Twitter had established procedures on how to do so, including forming a “content moderation council.”

On Friday, Musk tweeted that the suspended Twitter accounts for the comedian Kathy Griffin, the Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson and the conservative Christian news satire website Babylon Bee had been reinstated. He added that a decision on Trump had not yet been made. He also responded “no” when someone on Twitter asked him to reinstate the conspiracy theorist Alex Jones’ account.

In a tweet Friday, the Tesla CEO described the company’s new content policy as “freedom of speech, but not freedom of reach.”

He explained that a tweet deemed to be “negative” or to include “hate” would be allowed on the site but would be visible only to users who specifically searched for it. Such tweets also would be “demonetized, so no ads or other revenue to Twitter,” Musk said.

Botswana Records Surge in Lithium Batteries Theft as Global Demand Soars

Authorities in Botswana are reporting increased thefts of lithium batteries from mobile phone towers amid a surge in global demand for the battery in electric vehicles. The southern African nation’s biggest mobile network operator says it has lost more than $100,000 worth of lithium batteries in the past week alone.

Botswana police spokesperson Diteko Motube said most of the stolen batteries are being smuggled across the border to Zimbabwe.

Motube said five suspects from Zimbabwe and a Botswanan national were arrested this week while in possession of batteries worth more than $100,000.

The batteries were stolen from Botswana’s leading mobile network service provider, Mascom.

Company spokesperson Tebogo Lebotse-Sebego said the thefts are derailing their service delivery.

“This issue is certainly a crisis and it is affecting our quality of services ambitions,” said Lebotse-Sebego. “We are working closely with the relevant law enforcement offices and other administrators, including the community to find sustainable solutions to arrest the situation.”

Electric cars fuel demand

There is a surge in global demand for lithium batteries – and their components – due to their use in electric cars.

However, Zimbabwean-born UK based economic and political analyst Zenzo Moyo said the thefts in Botswana could be the result of the frequent power outages experienced in some southern African countries.

“It is not surprising that these lithium batteries are in high demand now mainly because of the load shedding that is being experienced in southern Africa especially in Zimbabwe and South Africa,” said Moyo.

Some households use lithium batteries for solar lighting, while light industries also rely on them.

Moyo said there is a huge market for the batteries in countries — such as Zimbabwe — that are turning to alternative energy sources.

“The economic hardships that Zimbabwe face cannot be used as an excuse for any kind of theft whether these are batteries or not,” he said. “If you look at the numbers that (the police) intercepted — these are huge numbers — it indicates that the people who were carrying these batteries are either runners or were selling them. There is a huge market for them understandably but the people that were carrying these batteries cannot be people who are starving but selling because there is a market.”

Demand greater than supply

Lithium’s price has risen 13-fold in the last two years, with global demand for the metal rapidly outpacing supply.

Benchmark Mineral Intelligence, a London-based price reporting agency, projects, that the lithium mining market will almost double in the next eight years to nearly $6.4 billion in 2030.

Taiwan’s APEC Envoy at the Center of Processor Chip Tension

Taiwan’s envoy to a gathering of Asia-Pacific leaders is the 91-year-old billionaire founder of a computer chip manufacturing giant that operated behind the scenes for decades before being thrust into the center of U.S.-Chinese tension over technology and security.

Morris Chang’s hybrid role highlights the clash between Taiwan’s status as one of China’s top tech suppliers and Beijing’s threats to attack the self-ruled island democracy of 22 million people, which the mainland’s ruling Communist Party says it part of its territory.

Taiwan’s decision to send Chang instead of a political leader to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Thailand reflects the island’s unusual status. The United States and other governments have agreed to Chinese demands not to have official relations with Taiwan or have their leaders meet its president.

Chang transformed the semiconductor industry when he founded Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Corp. in 1987 as the first foundry to produce chips only for customers without designing its own. That allowed smaller designers to compete with industry giants without spending billions of dollars to build a factory.

TSMC has grown into the biggest chip producer, supplying Apple Inc., Qualcomm Inc. and other customers and turning Taiwan into a global tech center. TSMC-produced chips are in millions of smartphones, automobiles and high-end computers.

Despite that, TSMC ranks high on any list of the biggest companies that are unknown outside their industries.

Chang, a Texas Instruments Inc. veteran who served as TSMC chairman until 2018, represented then-President Chen Shui-bian at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in 2006. He was re-appointed to the same job in 2018, 2019 and 2020 by President Tsai Ing-wen.

“Taiwan’s semiconductor industry, especially TSMC, plays a pivotal role in the domestic and even the world economy,” Tsai told reporters on Oct. 20. “At this important moment, Chang is an irreplaceable candidate to serve as the representative of our country’s APEC leaders.”

Britain’s trade minister, Greg Hands, said London wants closer cooperation with Taiwan on semiconductors during a visit this month. Britain is home to Arm, a leading chip designer.

Taiwan is in a “very challenging environment” and APEC is the “most important international conference venue for Taiwan,” Chang said at the Oct. 20 briefing with Tsai.

“Taiwan needs to build a secure and resilient supply chain with trusted partners, especially in the electronics sector,” he said.

Last year, Chang warned support was eroding for globalization and free markets that helped TSMC prosper.

“Globalization seems to be a bad word and ‘free market economy’ is beginning to carry conditions,” Chang said while accepting an award from the Asia Society.

“Many companies in Asia and America face challenges as to how to operate in the new environment,” Chang said. “Still, I’m confident that solutions will be found.”

TSMC was thrust into geopolitics in 2020 when then U.S. President Donald Trump blocked the company and other vendors from using U.S. technology to make chips for Chinese tech giant Huawei Technologies Ltd., which produces smartphones and network gear for phone and internet carriers. American officials say Huawei is a security threat and might enable Chinese spying, an accusation the company denies.

Most of the world’s smartphones and other consumer electronics are assembled in Chinese factories. But they need components and technology from the United States, Europe and Asian suppliers — especially Taiwan, the biggest chip exporter.

Huawei, China’s first global tech brand, designs chips but needs TSMC and other contractors to make them. Their foundries need American manufacturing technology, which gives Washington leverage to disrupt Chinese high-tech industry.

Processor chips are China’s biggest import at $300 billion a year, ahead of oil. The ruling Communist Party sees that as a strategic weakness and is spending heavily to create its own chip producers, but they are generations behind TSMC and other global leaders.

Trump’s successor, Joe Biden, left Trump’s curbs in place and imposed more restrictions that extend to other Chinese companies.

TSMC, headquartered in Hsinchu, adjacent to the Taiwan capital, Taipei, says it made 12,302 different products last year for 535 customers. The company reported an $18.7 billion profit last year on $49.8 billion in revenue.

Chang was born in Ningbo, south of Shanghai, and moved to Hong Kong after a civil war on the mainland ended with the Communist Party taking power in 1949.

The mainland’s former ruling Nationalist Party fled to Taiwan. The two sides have been ruled separately since then. They have no official relations but are linked by billions of dollars of trade and investment.

Chang studied at Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology before receiving a Ph.D. in electrical engineering from Stanford University in 1964.

Chang spent a quarter-century at Texas Instruments, rising to become a vice president in charge of its semiconductor business, before being invited to Taiwan in the 1980s to lead a technology research institute.

In 1988, TSMC became Taiwan’s first company traded on the New York Stock Exchange. Chang’s stake in the company is worth $1.6 billion.

EXPLAINER: Nasa’s New Mega Moon Rocket, Orion Crew Capsule

NASA is kicking off its new moon program with a test flight of a brand-new rocket and capsule.

Liftoff was slated for early Wednesday from Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The test flight aims to send an empty crew capsule into a far-flung lunar orbit, 50 years after NASA’s famed Apollo moonshots.

The project is years late and billions over budget. The price tag for the test flight: more than $4 billion.

A rundown of the new rocket and capsule, part of NASA’s Artemis program, named after Apollo’s mythological twin sister:

Rocket power

At 322 feet (98 meters), the new rocket is shorter and slimmer than the Saturn V rockets that hurled 24 Apollo astronauts to the moon a half-century ago. But it’s mightier, packing 8.8 million pounds (4 million kilograms) of thrust. It’s called the Space Launch System rocket, SLS for short, although a less clunky name is under discussion. Unlike the streamlined Saturn V, the new rocket has a pair of side boosters refashioned from NASA’s space shuttles. The boosters peel away after two minutes, just like the shuttle boosters. The core stage keeps firing before crashing into the Pacific. Less than two hours after liftoff, an upper stage sends the capsule, Orion, racing toward the moon.

Moonship

NASA’s high-tech, automated Orion capsule is named after the constellation, among the night sky’s brightest. At 11 feet (3 meters) tall, it’s roomier than Apollo’s capsule, seating four astronauts instead of three. For the test flight, a full-size dummy in an orange flight suit occupies the commander’s seat, rigged with vibration and acceleration sensors. Two other mannequins made of material simulating human tissue — heads and female torsos, but no limbs — measure cosmic radiation, one of the biggest risks of spaceflight. Unlike the rocket, Orion has launched before, making two laps around Earth in 2014. For the test flight, the European Space Agency’s service module was attached for propulsion and solar power via four wings.

Flight plan

Orion’s flight is set to last 25 days from its Florida liftoff to Pacific splashdown, about the same as astronaut trips. It takes nearly a week to reach the moon. After whipping closely around the moon, the capsule enters a distant orbit with a far point of close to 40,000 miles (64,000 kilometers). That would put Orion about 270,000 miles (435,000) from Earth, farther than Apollo. The big test comes at mission’s end, as Orion hits the atmosphere at 25,000 mph (40,000 kph) on its way to a splashdown in the Pacific. The heat shield uses the same material as the Apollo capsules to withstand reentry temperatures of 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit (2,750 degrees Celsius). But the advanced design anticipates the faster, hotter returns by future Mars crews.

Hitchhikers

Besides three test dummies, the test flight includes a slew of stowaways for deep space research. Ten shoebox-size satellites pop off once Orion is hurtling toward the moon. NASA expects some to fail, given the low-cost, high-risk nature of these mini satellites. In a back-to-the-future salute, Orion carries a few slivers of moon rocks collected by Apollo 11’s Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin in 1969, and a bolt from one of their rocket engines, salvaged from the sea a decade ago.

Apollo vs. Artemis

More than 50 years later, Apollo still stands as NASA’s greatest achievement. Using 1960s technology, NASA took just eight years to go from launching its first astronaut, Alan Shepard, and landing Armstrong and Aldrin on the moon. By contrast, Artemis already has dragged on for more than a decade, despite building on the short-lived moon exploration program Constellation. Twelve Apollo astronauts walked on the moon from 1969 through 1972, staying no longer than three days at a time. For Artemis, NASA will draw from a diverse astronaut pool and is extending the time crews spend on the moon to at least a week. The goal is to create a long-term lunar presence that will grease the skids for sending people to Mars.

What’s next

There’s a lot more to be done before astronauts step on the moon again. A second test flight will send four astronauts around the moon and back, perhaps as early as 2024. A year or so later, NASA aims to send another four up, with two of them touching down at the lunar south pole. Orion doesn’t come with its own lunar lander like the Apollo spacecraft did, so NASA has hired Elon Musk’s SpaceX to provide its Starship spacecraft for the first Artemis moon landing. Two other private companies are developing moonwalking suits. The sci-fi-looking Starship would link up with Orion at the moon and take a pair of astronauts to the surface and back to the capsule for the ride home. So far, Starship has only soared six miles (10 kilometers).

FBI Says It has ‘National Security Concerns’ About TikTok

FBI Director Christopher Wray said on Tuesday that the bureau has “national security concerns” about popular short-form video hosting app TikTok as the Chinese-owned company seeks U.S. government approval to continue operating in the country.

Speaking during a U.S. House of Representatives Homeland Security Committee hearing on “worldwide threats to the homeland,” Wray said the FBI’s concerns about TikTok include “the possibility that the Chinese government could use it to control data collection on millions of users.”

There is also concern, Wray said in response to a question, that the Chinese government could “control the recommendation algorithm, which could be used for influence operations … or to control software on millions of devices, which gives the opportunity to potentially technically compromise personal devices.”

In written testimony, Wray called the foreign intelligence and economic threat from China “the greatest long-term threat to our nation’s ideas, innovation, and economic security.”

But he declined to answer in an open session a lawmaker’s question about whether the Chinese government has been leveraging TikTok to collect data about U.S. citizens.

Concerns about ties to Chinese government

TikTok’s ties to the Chinese government have been a flashpoint among U.S. lawmakers and officials for years. The app grew in popularity in recent years after its parent company, ByteDance, a China-based company with suspected ties to the Chinese government, bought and later absorbed Musical.ly, which allowed users to create and share lip-sync videos.

Citing national security concerns, then-President Donald Trump issued an executive order in 2020 that would effectively ban TikTok in the United States. But the social platform sued to block Trump’s executive order.

Last year President Joe Biden revoked the Trump directive, asking the Treasury Department to examine security concerns associated with the app.

The Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS), an interagency body headed by the Treasury Department that reviews the national security implications of foreign investments in U.S. companies, has been examining TikTok’s proposal to continue to remain active in the U.S. market and the risks associated with it.

Noting that the FBI’s foreign investment unit is part of the CFIUS review process, Wray said that “our input would be taken into account in any agreements that might be made to address the issue.”

U.S. lawmakers question how data used

Although TikTok has denied having ties to China’s ruling Communist Party, U.S. lawmakers have long expressed concern about the Chinese government’s ability to access U.S. user data collected by the app.

Questioning Wray during Tuesday’s hearing, Republican Representative Diana Harshbarger cited a recent Forbes article that reported ByteDance “planned to use the TikTok app to track the physical location of specific American citizens.”

TikTok later dismissed the allegation raised in the article, saying in a statement it “does not collect precise GPS location information from U.S. users.”

In a June letter, TikTok sought to reassure U.S. lawmakers about its data security, writing that it now stores “100% of US user data, by default, in the Oracle cloud environment.”

‘Spinach’ vs. ‘opium’ versions

Last week, the U.S. TV news magazine “60 Minutes” reported that TikTok has two versions — a limited, educational “spinach version” for Chinese consumers, and an addictive “opium version” for the rest of the world.

While the version used in the West “has kids hooked for hours at a time,” in China, children under 14 years can use TikTok for only 40 minutes per day and view only videos about science experiments, museum exhibits, patriotic videos and educational videos, according to “60 Minutes.”

Wray said the online “threat to our youth is something we’re always concerned about.” The FBI is just as concerned about the way the Chinese government uses its laws as “an aggressive weapon against companies, both U.S. companies and Chinese companies,” he said.

“Under Chinese law, Chinese companies are required to essentially — and I’m going to shorthand here — basically do what the Chinese government wants them to do, in terms of sharing information or serving as a tool of the Chinese government,” Wray said. “And so, that’s plenty of reason by itself to be concerned.”

Beijing has denied similar allegations in the past.

40 States Settle Google Location-tracking Charges for $392 Million

Search giant Google has agreed to a $391.5 million settlement with 40 states to resolve an investigation into how the company tracked users’ locations, state attorneys general announced Monday. 

The states’ investigation was sparked by a 2018 Associated Press story, which found that Google continued to track people’s location data even after they opted out of such tracking by disabling a feature the company called “location history.” 

The attorneys general called the settlement a historic win for consumers, and the largest multistate settlement in U.S history dealing with privacy. 

It comes at a time of mounting unease over privacy and surveillance by tech companies that has drawn growing outrage from politicians and scrutiny by regulators. The Supreme Court’s ruling in June ending the constitutional protections for abortion raised potential privacy concerns for women seeking the procedure or related information online. 

“This $391.5 million settlement is a historic win for consumers in an era of increasing reliance on technology,” Connecticut Attorney General William Tong said in a statement. “Location data is among the most sensitive and valuable personal information Google collects, and there are so many reasons why a consumer may opt-out of tracking.” 

Google, based in Mountain View, California, said it fixed the problems several years ago. 

“Consistent with improvements we’ve made in recent years, we have settled this investigation, which was based on outdated product policies that we changed years ago,” company spokesperson Jose Castaneda said in a statement. 

Location tracking can help tech companies sell digital ads to marketers looking to connect with consumers within their vicinity. It’s another tool in a data-gathering toolkit that generates more than $200 billion in annual ad revenue for Google, accounting for most of the profits pouring into the coffers of its corporate parent, Alphabet — which has a market value of $1.2 trillion. 

In its 2018 story, the AP reported that many Google services on Android devices and iPhones store users’ location data even if they’ve used a privacy setting that says it will prevent Google from doing so. Computer-science researchers at Princeton confirmed these findings at the AP’s request. 

Storing such data carries privacy risks and has been used by police to determine the location of suspects. 

The AP reported that the privacy issue with location tracking affected some 2 billion users of devices that run Google’s Android operating software and hundreds of millions of worldwide iPhone users who rely on Google for maps or search. 

The attorneys general who investigated Google said a key part of the company’s digital advertising business is location data, which they called the most sensitive and valuable personal data the company collects. Even a small amount of location data can reveal a person’s identity and routines, they said. 

Google uses the location information to target consumers with ads by its customers, the state officials said. 

The attorneys general said Google misled users about its location tracking practices since at least 2014, violating state consumer protection laws. 

As part of the settlement, Google also agreed to make those practices more transparent to users. That includes showing them more information when they turn location account settings on and off and keeping a webpage that gives users information about the data Google collects. 

The shadowy surveillance brought to light by the AP troubled even some Google engineers, who recognized the company might be confronting a massive legal headache after the story was published, according to internal documents that have subsequently surfaced in consumer-fraud lawsuits. 

Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich filed the first state action against Google in May 2020, alleging that the company had defrauded its users by misleading them into believing they could keep their whereabouts private by turning off location tracking in the settings of their software. 

Arizona settled its case with Google for $85 million last month, but by then attorneys general in several other states and the District of Columbia had also pounced on the company with their own lawsuits seeking to hold Google accountable for its alleged deception. 

 

Musk Touches on Twitter Criticism, Workload at G20 Forum

It’s not easy being Elon Musk.

That was the message the new Twitter owner and billionaire head of Tesla and SpaceX had for younger people who might seek to emulate his entrepreneurial success.

“Be careful what you wish for,” Musk told a business forum in Bali on Monday when asked what an up-and-coming “Elon Musk of the East” should focus on.

“I’m not sure how many people would actually like to be me. They would like to be what they imagine being me, which is not the same,” he continued. “I mean, the amount that I torture myself, is the next level, frankly.”

Musk was speaking at the B-20 business forum ahead of a summit of the Group of 20 leading economies taking place on the Indonesian resort island. He joined the conference by video link weeks after completing his heavily scrutinized takeover of Twitter.

He had been expected to attend the event in person, but Indonesian government minister Luhut Binsar Pandjaitan, who’s responsible for coordinating preparations for the summit, said Musk could not attend because he’s preparing for a court case later in the week.

He’s got plenty else to keep himself busy.

“My workload has recently increased quite a lot,” he said with a chuckle in an apparent reference to the Twitter deal. “I mean, oh, man. I have too much work on my plate, that is for sure.”

The businessman appeared in a darkened room, saying there had been a power cut just before he connected.

His face, projected on a large screen over the summit hall, appeared to glow red as it was reflected in what he said was candlelight – a visage he noted was “so bizarre.”

While Musk was among the most anticipated speakers at the business forum, his remarks broke little new ground. Only the moderator was able to ask questions.

The Tesla chief executive said the electric carmaker would consider making a much cheaper model when asked about lower-cost options for developing countries like India and G-20 host Indonesia. 

“We do think that making a much more affordable vehicle would make a lot of sense and we should do something,” he said.

Musk also reiterated a desire to significantly boost the amount and length of Twitter’s video offerings, and share revenue with people producing the content, though he didn’t provide specifics.

He bought Twitter for $44 billion last month and quickly dismissed the company’s board of directors and top executives.

He laid off much of the rest of the company’s full-time workforce by email on Nov. 4 and is now eliminating the jobs of outsourced contractors who are tasked with fighting misinformation and other harmful content.

Musk has vowed to ease restrictions on what users can say on the platform.

He’s reaped a heap of complaints — much on Twitter itself — and has tried to reassure companies that advertise on the platform and others that it won’t damage their brands by associating them with harmful content.

In his appearance Monday, Musk acknowledged the criticism.

“There’s no way to make everyone happy, that’s for sure,” he said.

Musk’s Latest Twitter Cuts: Outsourced Content Moderators

Twitter’s new owner Elon Musk is further gutting the teams that battle misinformation on the social media platform as outsourced moderators learned over the weekend they were out of a job.

Twitter and other big social media firms have relied heavily on contractors to track hate and enforce rules against harmful content.

But many of those content watchdogs have now headed out the door, first when Twitter fired much of its full-time workforce by email on Nov. 4 and now as it moves to eliminate an untold number of contract jobs.

Melissa Ingle, who worked at Twitter as a contractor for more than a year, was one of a number of contractors who said they were terminated Saturday. She said she’s concerned that there’s going to be an increase in abuse on Twitter with the number of workers leaving.

“I love the platform and I really enjoyed working at the company and trying to make it better. And I’m just really fearful of what’s going to slip through the cracks,” she said Sunday.

Ingle, a data scientist, said she worked on the data and monitoring arm of Twitter’s civic integrity team. Her job involved writing algorithms to find political misinformation on the platform in countries such as the U.S., Brazil, Japan, Argentina and elsewhere.

Ingle said she was “pretty sure I was done for” when she couldn’t access her work email Saturday. The notification from the contracting company she’d been hired by came two hours later.

“I’ll just be putting my resumes out there and talking to people,” she said. “I have two children. And I’m worried about being able to give them a nice Christmas, you know, and just mundane things like that, that are important. I just think it’s particularly heartless to do this at this time.”

Content-moderation expert Sarah Roberts, an associate professor at the University of California, Los Angeles who worked as a staff researcher at Twitter earlier this year, said she believes at least 3,000 contract workers were fired Saturday night.

Twitter hasn’t said how many contract workers it cut. The company hasn’t responded to media requests for information since Musk took over.

At Twitter’s San Francisco headquarters and other offices, contract workers wore green badges while full-time workers wore blue badges. Contractors did a number of jobs to help keep Twitter running, including engineering and marketing, Roberts said. But it was the huge force of contracted moderators that was “mission critical” to the platform, said Roberts.

Cutting them will have a “tangible impact on the experience of the platform,” she said.

Musk promised to loosen speech restrictions when he took over Twitter. But in the early days after Musk bought Twitter for $44 billion in late October and dismissed its board of directors and top executives, the billionaire Tesla CEO sought to assure civil rights groups and advertisers that the platform could continue tamping down hate and hate-fueled violence.

That message was reiterated by Twitter’s then-head of content moderation, Yoel Roth, who tweeted that the Nov. 4 layoffs only affected “15% of our Trust & Safety organization (as opposed to approximately 50% cuts company-wide), with our front-line moderation staff experiencing the least impact.”

Roth has since resigned from the company, joining an exodus of high-level leaders who were tasked with privacy protection, cybersecurity and complying with regulations.

Researchers Identify More Potential Hydro Energy Storage Sites 

Australian researchers have identified 1,500 additional locations across the country that could be used as pumped storage hydropower facilities. They have said it should reduce Australia’s reliance on fossil fuels.

Academics at the Australian National University have said pumped storage hydropower is a “low-cost, mass storage option” that could help Australia reach its emissions reduction targets.

Emeritus Professor Andrew Blakers at the university’s College of Engineering, Computing and Cybernetics told VOA the process involves transferring water between two reservoirs or lakes at different elevations.

He said water is pumped to the higher reservoir when there are plentiful supplies of wind and solar energy. The water is then released at night, or at other times when it is not windy or sunny, maximizing the use of the stored energy in the reservoirs.

“We have two reservoirs; one at the top of a hill and the other down in a valley connected with a pipe or tunnel,” he said. “On sunny and windy days, the pump turbine pumps water uphill to the upper reservoir and then in the middle of the night the water is allowed to come back down through the turbine to recover the energy that was stored. So, the same water goes up and down between the two reservoirs for 100 years. So, if you want large-scale storage, you go to pumped hydro.”

Researchers studied the area near every reservoir in Australia looking for a potential site for another reservoir that could be used as pumped storage hydropower.

They identified 1,500 locations that could help Australia store the energy it generates from wind and solar projects.

Blakers says Australia is becoming a world leader in the field.

“All Australian governments and companies are focused on very rapid construction of solar and wind, and equally rapid construction of new transmission to bring the new power to the cities, and pumped hydro and battery storage to balance the variable solar and wind. Australia is the global pathfinder. We are leading in every department,” he said.

Australia has a target of producing 82% of its electricity from renewable sources by 2030.

Because of the country’s heavy reliance on coal and natural gas, it has been one of the world’s worst emitters of greenhouse gases, per capita.

Those fossil fuels continue to generate much of Australia’s electricity, but researchers believe that the country’s path toward a cleaner energy future is well underway.

The Australian National University study released Friday follows the team’s identification of 530,000 potential pumped-storage hydro sites across the world.

Crypto Firm FTX Files for Bankruptcy, Bankman-Fried Exits

Crypto exchange FTX filed for U.S. bankruptcy proceedings on Friday and founder Sam Bankman-Fried stepped down as CEO, in a stunning downfall that has sent shock waves through markets and drawn calls for better regulation of the digital industry.

The distressed crypto trading platform had been struggling to raise billions in funds to stave off collapse after traders rushed to withdraw $6 billion from the platform in just 72 hours and rival exchange Binance abandoned a proposed rescue deal.

The company said in a statement shared on Twitter on Friday that FTX, its affiliated crypto trading firm Alameda Research and about 130 other companies have commenced voluntary Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings in Delaware.

FTX had raised $400 million from investors in January, valuing the company at $32 billion. It attracted money from investors such as Singapore state investor Temasek and the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan as well as celebrities and sports stars.

Bankman-Fried, 30, known for his trademark shorts and T-shirt attire, has morphed from being the poster child of crypto’s successes to the protagonist of the industry’s highest-profile blowup.

“The shock was that this guy was the face of the crypto industry, and it turned out that the emperor had no clothes,” said Thomas Hayes, managing member at Great Hill Capital LLC in New York.

The week’s turmoil hit already-struggling cryptocurrency markets, sending bitcoin to two-year lows. Bitcoin dropped after FTX’s announcement and was down 4.3% at $16,803 on Friday afternoon.

Shares of cryptocurrency and blockchain-related firms also dropped on the news.

FTX’s token FTT plunged 30% on Friday to $2.57, facing an 88% weekly loss.

Bankman-Fried, whose net worth was estimated as high as $26.5 billion by Forbes a year ago, repeatedly apologized.

“I’m really sorry, again, that we ended up here,” he said in a series of tweets.

Bankman-Fried did not respond to requests for comment.

Possible contagion effect

In its bankruptcy petition, FTX Trading said it has $10 billion to $50 billion in assets, $10 billion to $50 billion in liabilities, and more than 100,000 creditors. John J. Ray III, a restructuring expert, has been appointed to take over as CEO.

“The next question is how wide of a contagion effect this is going to have on other exchanges and where the next potential losses can occur,” said John Griffin, founder of Integra FEC, which consults on financial fraud investigations.

FTX was scrambling to raise about $9.4 billion from investors and rivals, Reuters reported, citing sources as the exchange sought to save itself after customer withdrawals.

“The Chapter 11 filing is a necessary step to allow the company to assess the situation and develop plans to move forward for the benefit of stakeholders,” Ray said in a Slack memo to FTX staff seen by Reuters.

Ray, 63, oversaw the liquidation of Enron after its bankruptcy filing and served as the senior officer of what became Enron Creditors Recovery Corp. He also oversaw the bankruptcy restructuring at Nortel Networks.

He did not respond to a request for comment.

Some investors, including Sequoia and SoftBank, had already marked FTX investments to zero. SkyBridge Capital is working to buy back its FTX stake, the alternative investment firm’s founder, Anthony Scaramucci, said in an interview with CNBC on Friday.

The reverberation went beyond the financial markets where the exchange has a significant presence, with the Mercedes Formula One team suspending its partnership agreement ahead of the season’s penultimate race in Brazil.

‘The writing was on the wall’

As FTX’s troubles mounted, regulators around the world stepped in.

FTX is under investigation by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, the U.S. Justice Department and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, according to a source familiar with the investigations.

“Once Binance walked away from buying FTX after only 24 hours of due diligence the writing was on the wall for FTX,” said Antoni Trenchev, co-founder of crypto lender Nexo.

“Now we enter the next phase of the fallout, where we witness the second order effects and discover which entities were exposed to FTX and Alameda.”

Musk Halts Twitter’s Blue Check Fee Program Amid Flood of Impostors

Twitter paused its recently announced $8 blue check subscription service Friday as fake accounts mushroomed and new owner Elon Musk brought back the “official” badge to some users of the social media platform.

The coveted blue check mark was previously reserved for verified accounts of politicians, famous personalities, journalists and other public figures. But a subscription option, open to anyone prepared to pay, was rolled out earlier this week to help Twitter grow revenue as Musk fights to retain advertisers.

The flip-flop is part of a chaotic two weeks at Twitter since Musk completed his $44 billion acquisition. Musk has fired nearly half of Twitter’s workforce, removed its board and senior executives, and raised the prospect of Twitter’s bankruptcy. The U.S. Federal Trade Commission said Thursday it was watching Twitter with “deep concern.”

Several users reported Friday that the new subscription option for the blue verification check mark had disappeared, while a source told Reuters the offering has been dropped.

Twitter did not reply to a request for comment.

Fake accounts purporting to be big brands have popped up with the blue check since the new roll-out, including Musk’s Tesla TSLA.O and SpaceX, as well as Roblox, Nestle NESN.S and Lockheed Martin LMT.N.

“To combat impersonation, we’ve added an ‘Official’ label to some accounts,” Twitter’s support account – which has the “official” tag – tweeted on Friday.

The label was originally introduced Wednesday, but “killed” by Musk just hours later.

Drugmaker Eli Lilly and Co LLY.N issued an apology after an impostor account tweeted that insulin would be free, amid the political backlash and scrutiny of the high prices of the medicine.

“We apologize to those who have been served a misleading message from a fake Lilly account,” the company said, reiterating the name of its Twitter handle.

A number of misleading tweets about Tesla from a verified account with the same profile picture as the company’s official account were also being circulated on the platform.

“Twitter has over the past several years worked to try to improve that (misinformation). And it seems like Elon Musk has unraveled it within a matter of weeks,” said A.J. Bauer, a professor at the University of Alabama.

Musk had said Twitter users engaging in impersonation without clearly specifying it as a “parody” account would be permanently suspended without a warning. Several fake brand accounts, including those of Nintendo 7974.T and BP BP.L, have been suspended.

On Thursday, in his first company-wide email, Musk warned that Twitter would not be able to “survive the upcoming economic downturn” if it failed to boost subscription revenue to offset falling advertising income, three people who saw the message told Reuters.

Many companies, including General Motors GM.N and United Airlines UAL.O, have paused or pulled back from advertising on the platform since Musk took over. In response, the billionaire said Wednesday he aimed to turn Twitter into a force for truth and stop fake accounts.

Meta Layoffs Deepen Silicon Valley’s Jobs Losses

The widespread retrenchment in the U.S. technology industry has thrown thousands of workers in Silicon Valley out of work, a trend greatly amplified on Wednesday by Meta Platforms, the parent company of Facebook, which announced it would eliminate 13% of its workforce, amounting to more than 11,000 jobs.

The announcement followed on the heels of major layoffs at other tech firms, most recently Twitter, which is restructuring in the aftermath of its takeover by Tesla founder Elon Musk, and also business software firm Salesforce and social media giant Snap, Inc.

Other major tech firms, including Apple, Amazon and Alphabet, the parent company of Google, have said that they will slow or curtail new hiring.

Announcing the job cuts, Facebook founder and Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg admitted he had made an error in judgment by assuming the sharp growth in online commerce that coincided with the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic signaled a permanent change in consumer habits.

“I want to take accountability for these decisions and for how we got here,” Zuckerberg said in a statement released Wednesday. “I know this is tough for everyone, and I’m especially sorry to those impacted.”

Market reacts

The move by Meta to cut costs was applauded by many investors, some of whom have been calling on the company to pay more attention to its bottom line.

Brad Gerstner, founder of Altimeter Capital and a vocal proponent of change at Meta, used Twitter to voice his approval of Zuckerberg’s announcement on Wednesday morning.

Calling the move an “important first step,” he wrote, “Innovation wins when companies are healthy and fit. The cultural mindset shift from the dangerous era of excess/free money will define the next [generation] of winners.”

Meta’s share price, which had plunged from more than $345 last November to below $89 last week, got a boost from the news. After closing at $96.48 on Tuesday, Meta shares opened the day above $100, and closed up 5% at $101.47.

Other layoffs

Employees leaving Meta and seeking other employment in the tech sector will enter a challenging environment, given the sudden layoffs of thousands of their fellow workers across the sector.

Last week, Twitter announced it would lay off about 3,700 people, or approximately half of its workforce. The layoffs occurred in Twitter offices around the world but were concentrated in the United States. The company has reportedly asked some of the workers originally let go to return, but the overwhelming majority are expected to remain separated from the company.

San Francisco-based Salesforce announced Monday it would lay off approximately 2,500 people. That revelation came just weeks after the company’s largest competitor, software giant Microsoft, eliminated nearly 1,000 jobs in October.

This continues a trend that has been accelerating since early this year as a parade of other tech firms, including Seagate, Snap, Intel, Netflix, Shopify, Lyft and others have either cut jobs or restricted hiring.

Some perspective

Representative Ro Khanna, the Democratic member of Congress who represents a district including large segments of Silicon Valley, was asked during an interview with Bloomberg Television on Monday whether he thought the region would be able to “survive” the economic shock of the thousands of layoffs.

Khanna said some perspective was in order, noting that his district alone is home to companies with $10 trillion in market value and would be able to bounce back, though perhaps not without a broader economic recovery.

“I think we’re a leading indicator of some of the slowing in the economy,” Khanna said. “But I have no doubt that these companies are very resilient and we’ll come back.”

Visa holders

The impact of the layoffs will be particularly harsh on immigrants working at U.S. tech firms. Many hold H-1B visas, which means their ability to remain in the U.S. is dependent on continued employment by a company willing to sponsor their visa applications.

H-1B visa holders, in general, face a 60-day deadline to find a new job. If they fail to do so, they are required to leave the country.

According to data compiled by the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, the overwhelming majority of H-1B visa holders work in the technology field. In 2019, the agency reported that of the 387,492 H-1B visa holders in the country whose occupations were known, 256,226, or 66%, worked in “computer-related fields.”

H-1B visas are disproportionately issued to citizens of India, who held 71.7% of outstanding visas in 2019. The next largest recipient are citizens of China, who held 13% of H-1B visas in 2019. Canada came in third at 1.2% and no other country’s citizens held more than 1% of the total.

In his public statement, Zuckerberg acknowledged that “this [workforce reduction] is especially difficult if you’re here on a visa.” He said Meta would have dedicated immigration specialists available “to help guide you based on what you and your family need.”

Global impact

The layoffs in Silicon Valley-based tech firms have also echoed around the world, particularly at Twitter, where staff at several international offices were let go en masse.

Bloomberg News reported that Twitter laid off some 90% of its employees in India, the majority in the company’s product and engineering teams. In Ghana, the site of the company’s only office on the African continent, nearly all of the company’s 20 employees received termination notices.

Meta has several hundred employees in India, spread across Facebook and Instagram and WhatsApp, two other social media companies it owns. It was unclear Wednesday how the layoffs would affect staff there.

Facebook Parent Company Meta Reportedly Planning Large-scale Layoffs

Facebook parent company Meta is preparing to begin large-scale layoffs this week, according to U.S. media reports. 

The layoffs, which were first reported by The Wall Street Journal, are expected to affect thousands of employees and would be the company’s first job cuts of this scale in its 18-year history. 

The job cuts are expected to come as early as Wednesday.  

Meta has not commented on the news reports.  

The expected layoffs would follow a string of job cuts at technology companies in recent months, including Twitter, Microsoft, Lyft and Stripe. 

Meta’s chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, said in his company’s last earnings call in October that “we expect to end 2023 as either roughly the same size, or even a slightly smaller organization than we are today.” 

He said the company would focus its investments on a small number of “high priority growth areas” while most other teams would “stay flat or shrink over the next year.” 

Meta, along with other technology firms, are facing economic pressures on several fronts, including slowing economic growth, rising interest rates that force digital advertisers to cut back, and increasing interest rates, which make it more expensive for companies like Meta to borrow money.  

Social media companies are also facing growing competition from newer rivals like TikTok and Snapchat.  

Twitter cut around half of its staff last week after Tesla billionaire Elon Musk took over the company. 

Bloomberg News is reporting that Twitter is now reaching out to dozens of recently fired employees and asking them to return.  

It said some employees were let go by mistake while others were laid off before management realized their skills would be useful for the company’s plans. 

Some information in this report came from Reuters. 

 

Facebook Parent Meta Is Preparing Large-scale Layoffs This Week, Say Media

Meta Platforms Inc. is planning to begin large-scale layoffs this week that will affect thousands of employees, The Wall Street Journal reported on Sunday, citing people familiar with the matter, with an announcement planned as early as Wednesday.

Meta declined to comment on the WSJ report.

Facebook parent Meta in October forecasted a weak holiday quarter and significantly more costs next year wiping about $67 billion off Meta’s stock market value, adding to the more than half a trillion dollars in value already lost this year.

The disappointing outlook comes as Meta is contending with slowing global economic growth, competition from TikTok, privacy changes from Apple, concerns about massive spending on the metaverse and the ever-present threat of regulation.

Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg has said he expects the metaverse investments to take about a decade to bear fruit. In the meantime, he has had to freeze hiring, shutter projects and reorganize teams to trim costs.

“In 2023, we’re going to focus our investments on a small number of high priority growth areas. So that means some teams will grow meaningfully, but most other teams will stay flat or shrink over the next year. In aggregate, we expect to end 2023 as either roughly the same size, or even a slightly smaller organization than we are today” Zuckerberg said on the last earnings call in late October.

The social media company had in June cut plans to hire engineers by at least 30%, with Zuckerberg warning employees to brace for an economic downturn.

Meta’s shareholder Altimeter Capital Management in an open letter to Zuckerberg had previously said the company needs to streamline by cutting jobs and capital expenditure, adding that Meta has lost investor confidence as it ramped up spending and pivoted to the metaverse.

Several technology companies, including Microsoft Corp., Twitter and Snap have cut jobs and scaled back hiring in recent months as global economic growth slows due to higher interest rates, rising inflation and an energy crisis in Europe.

South Korea’s DRX Crowned League of Legends World Champions

South Korean team DRX were crowned League of Legends world champions on Saturday after scoring a surprise 3-2 victory over compatriots T1 in a thrilling final of the eSports tournament in San Francisco.

T1, the most successful team in eSports history, started as favorites and took the lead in the first round of the competition.

But DRX took command after many upsets, in particular thanks to 19-year-old Kim “Zeka” Geon-woo.

Their win, the team’s first-ever, was highly anticipated for talented 26-year-old Kim “Deft” Hyuk-kyu, who started competing in 2014 but had only made it past the quarterfinals once, also in 2014.

No player so “old” had ever won the world championships until this year.

The final took place at the Chase Center in San Francisco, home to the Golden State Warriors NBA team, in front of some 16,000 spectators.

The League of Legends World Championship is considered one of the most prestigious eSports tournaments. 

UN Urges Musk to Ensure Twitter Respects Human Rights

U.N. rights chief Volker Turk on Saturday urged Twitter’s new owner, Elon Musk, to make respect for human rights central to the social network after he sacked around half the company’s employees.

Reports of Musk laying off the platform’s entire human rights team were “not, from my perspective, an encouraging start,” Turk said in an open letter.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights said he was writing with “concern and apprehension about our digital public square and Twitter’s role in it.”

He warned against propagating hate speech and misinformation and highlighted the need to protect user privacy.

Musk, the richest person in the world, took control of the platform a week ago in a contentious deal.

After completing his mammoth $44 billion acquisition, Musk quickly set about dissolving Twitter’s board and sacking its chief executive and top managers.

Twitter on Friday fired roughly half of its 7,500-strong workforce.

“Like all companies, Twitter needs to understand the harms associated with its platform and take steps to address them,” wrote Turk.

“Respect for our shared human rights should set the guardrails for the platform’s use and evolution. In short, I urge you to ensure human rights are central to the management of Twitter under your leadership.”

Turk posted the open letter on Twitter, where he has more than 25,000 followers.

Turk, an Austrian longtime U.N. official who took up his post as the U.N. rights chief on Oct. 17, spelt out some fundamental human rights principles, urging Musk to put them at the heart of Twitter’s management going forward.

‘Horrific’ consequences

Turk urged Twitter to stand up for the rights to privacy and free expression to the fullest extent possible, under relevant laws, and to transparently report on government pressures that would infringe those rights.

But he said free speech “is not a free pass,” saying that the viral spread of harmful disinformation, as seen during the COVID-19 pandemic, resulted in real-world harm.

“Twitter has a responsibility to avoid amplifying content that results in harms to people’s rights,” Turk said.

“There is no place for hatred that incites discrimination, hostility or violence on Twitter.

“Hate speech has spread like wildfire on social media… with horrific, life-threatening consequences.”

Twitter should therefore continue to bar such hatred on the platform, while every effort should be made to remove such content promptly, said Turk.

He also said free speech depended on the effective protection of privacy.

“It is vital that Twitter refrain from invasive user tracking and amassing related data and that it resist, to the fullest extent possible under applicable laws, unjustified requests from governments for user data,” Turk said.

He said research was essential to understand the impact of social media on societies, and therefore urged Musk to maintain access to Twitter’s data through its open application programming interfaces.

Finally, he stressed that Twitter should have content moderation capacity in all languages and contexts, not just in the United States or in English-language content. 

Twitter Offers $7.99 Monthly Subscription That Includes Checkmark

Twitter on Saturday launched a subscription service for $7.99 a month that includes a blue check now given only to verified accounts as new owner Elon Musk overhauls the platform’s verification system just ahead of the U.S. midterm elections.

In an update to Apple iOS devices, Twitter said users who “sign up now” can receive the blue check next to their names “just like the celebrities, companies and politicians you already follow.” So far, verified accounts do not appear to be losing their checks.

Anyone being able to get the blue check could lead to confusion and the rise of disinformation ahead of Tuesday’s elections if impostors decide to pay for the subscription and co-opt the names of politicians and election officials. Along with widespread layoffs that began Friday, many fear the social platform that public agencies, election boards, police departments and news outlets use to keep people reliably informed could become lawless if content moderation and verification are chipped away.

The change represents the end of Twitter’s current verification system, which was launched in 2009 to prevent impersonations of high-profile accounts such as celebrities and politicians. Before the overhaul, Twitter had about 423,000 verified accounts, many of them rank-and-file journalists from around the globe that the company verified regardless of how many followers they had.

Experts have raised grave concerns about upending the platform’s verification system that, while not perfect, has helped Twitter’s 238 million daily users determine whether the accounts they were getting information from were authentic. Current verified accounts include celebrities, athletes, influencers and other high-profile public figures, along with government agencies and politicians worldwide, journalists and news outlets, activists and businesses and brands.

The update Twitter made to the iOS version of its app does not mention verification as part of the new blue check system.

Musk, who had earlier said that he wants to “verify all humans” on Twitter, has floated that public figures would be identified in ways other than the blue check. Currently, for instance, government officials are identified with text under names stating that they are posting from an official government account.

President Joe Biden’s @POTUS account, for example, says in gray letters it belongs to a “United States government official.”

Co-founder Dorsey apologizes for job losses

The change comes a day after Twitter began laying off workers to cut costs and as more companies are pausing advertising on the platform as a cautious corporate world waits to see how it will operate under its new owner.

About half of the company’s staff of 7,500 was let go, tweeted Yoel Roth, Twitter’s head of safety and integrity.

He said the company’s front-line content moderation staff was the group the least affected by the job cuts and that “efforts on election integrity — including harmful misinformation that can suppress the vote and combating state-backed information operations — remain a top priority.”

Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey Saturday took blame for the widespread job losses. He had two runs as CEO of Twitter, with the most recent stretching from 2015 into 2021.

“I own the responsibility for why everyone is in this situation: I grew the company size too quickly,” he tweeted. “I apologize for that.”

Musk tweeted late Friday that there was no choice but to cut jobs “when the company is losing over $4M/day.” He did not provide details on the daily losses at Twitter and said employees who lost their jobs were offered three months’ pay as a severance.

Revenue already falling

Meanwhile, Twitter has already seen “a massive drop in revenue” because of pressure from activist groups on advertisers to get off the platform, Musk tweeted Friday. That hits Twitter hard because of its heavy reliance so far on advertising to make money. During the first six months of this year, nearly $92 of every $100 it made in revenue came from advertising.

United Airlines Saturday became the latest major brand to pause advertising on Twitter, confirming the move but declining to discuss the reasons for it or what it would need to see to resume advertising on the platform.

It joined the growing list of big companies pausing ads on Twitter, including General Motors, REI, General Mills and Audi.

Musk tried to reassure advertisers last week, saying Twitter would not become a “free-for-all hellscape” because of what he calls his commitment to free speech.

But concerns remain about whether a lighter touch on content moderation at Twitter will result in users sending out more offensive tweets. That could hurt companies’ brands if their advertisements appear next to them.

Widespread Twitter Layoffs Begin, Worry Advertisers, Civic Groups

Twitter began widespread layoffs Friday as new owner Elon Musk overhauls the company, raising grave concerns about chaos enveloping the platform and its ability to fight disinformation just days ahead of the U.S. midterm elections.

The speed and size of the cuts also opened Musk and Twitter to lawsuits. At least one was filed Thursday in San Francisco alleging Twitter has violated federal law by not providing fired employees the required notice.

The company had told workers by email that they would find out Friday if they had been laid off. It did not say how many of the roughly 7,500 employees would lose their jobs.

Musk blames activists for drop in advertising

Musk didn’t confirm or correct investor Ron Baron at a Friday conference in New York when he asked the billionaire Tesla CEO how much money he would save after he “fired half of Twitter.”

Musk responded by talking about Twitter’s cost and revenue challenges and blamed activists who urged big companies to halt advertising on the platform. Musk hasn’t commented on the layoffs themselves.

“The activist groups have been successful in causing a massive drop in Twitter advertising revenue, and we’ve done our absolute best to appease them and nothing is working,” he said.

No other social media platform comes close to Twitter as a place where public agencies and other vital service providers — election boards, police departments, utilities, schools and news outlets — keep people reliably informed. Many fear Musk’s layoffs will gut it and render it lawless.

Several employees who tweeted about losing their jobs said Twitter also eliminated their entire teams, including one focused on human rights and global conflicts, another that checks Twitter’s algorithms for bias in how tweets get amplified, and an engineering team devoted to making the social platform more accessible for people with disabilities.

Fear that disinformation spreads ‘like wildfire’

Eddie Perez, a Twitter civic integrity team manager who quit in September, said he fears the layoffs so close to the midterms could allow disinformation to “spread like wildfire” during the post-election vote-counting period in particular.

“I have a hard time believing that it doesn’t have a material impact on their ability to manage the amount of disinformation out there,” he said, adding that there simply may not be enough employees to beat it back.

Perez, a board member at the nonpartisan election integrity nonprofit OSET Institute, said the post-election period is particularly perilous because “some candidates may not concede and some may allege election irregularities, and that is likely to generate a new cycle of falsehoods.”

Workers laid off worldwide

Twitter’s employees have been expecting layoffs since Musk took the helm. He fired top executives, including CEO Parag Agrawal, and removed the company’s board of directors on his first day as owner.

As the emailed notices went out, many Twitter employees took to the platform to express support for each other — often simply tweeting blue heart emojis to signify its blue bird logo — and salute emojis in replies to each other.

The sweeping layoffs will jeopardize content moderation standards, according to a coalition of civil rights groups that escalated their calls Friday for brands to pause advertising buys on the platform. The layoffs are particularly dangerous ahead of the elections, the groups warned, and for transgender users and other groups facing violence inspired by hate speech that proliferates online.

Leaders with the organizations Free Press and Color of Change said they spoke with Musk on Tuesday, and he promised to retain and enforce election integrity measures already in place. But the mass layoffs suggest otherwise, according to Jessica Gonzalez, co-CEO of Free Press.

“When you lay off reportedly 50% of your staff — including teams who are in charge of actually tracking, monitoring and enforcing content moderation and rules — that necessarily means that content moderation has changed,” Gonzalez said.

The layoffs affected Twitter’s offices around the world. In the United Kingdom, Twitter would be required by law to give employees notice, said Emma Bartlett, a partner specializing in employment and partnership law at CM Murray LLP.

In the case of mass firings, failure to notify the government could “have criminal penalties associated with it,” Bartlett said, adding that whether criminal sanctions are ever applied is another question.

The speed of the layoffs could also open Musk and Twitter up to discrimination claims if it turns out, for instance, that they disproportionally affected women, people of color or older workers.

Employment lawyer Peter Rahbar said most employers “take great care in doing layoffs of this magnitude” to make sure they are justified and don’t unfairly discriminate or bring unwanted attention to the company.

The layoffs come at a tough time for social media companies, as advertisers are scaling back and newcomers — mainly TikTok — are threatening older platforms like Twitter and Facebook.

In a tweet Friday, Musk blamed activists for what he described as a “massive drop in revenue” since he took over Twitter late last week. He did not say how much revenue had dropped.

Big companies including General Motors, REI, General Mills and Audi have all paused ads on Twitter because of questions about how it will operate under Musk. Volkswagen Group said it is recommending its brands, which include Audi, Lamborghini and Porsche, pause paid activities until Twitter issues revised brand safety guidelines.

Musk last week sought to convince advertisers that Twitter wouldn’t become a “free-for-all hellscape,” but many remain concerned about whether content moderation will remain as stringent and whether staying on Twitter might tarnish their brands.

In his tweet, Musk said “nothing has changed with content moderation.”

But Twitter advertisers have steadily declined since Musk agreed to buy Twitter in April, according to MediaRadar, which tracks ad buys. Between January and April, the average number of advertisers on Twitter was 3,350. From May through September, the number dropped to 3,100. Prior to July, more than 1,000 new advertisers were spending on Twitter every month. In July and August, that number dropped to roughly 200.

Twitter Temporarily Closes Offices as Layoffs Begin

Twitter Inc temporarily closed its offices on Friday after telling employees they would be informed by email later in the day about whether they are being laid off.

The move follows a week of uncertainty about the company’s future under new owner Elon Musk.

The social media company said in an email to staff it would tell them by 9 a.m. Pacific time on Friday (12 p.m. EDT/1600 GMT) about staff cuts.

“In an effort to place Twitter on a healthy path, we will go through the difficult process of reducing our global workforce on Friday,” said the email sent on Thursday, seen by Reuters.

Musk, the world’s richest person, is looking to cut around 3,700 Twitter staff, or about half the workforce, as he seeks to slash costs and impose a demanding new work ethic, according to internal plans reviewed by Reuters this week.

The company’s content moderation team is expected to be a target of the cuts, tweets from Twitter employees suggested on Friday. Musk has promised to restore free speech while preventing it from descending into a “hellscape.”

Twitter did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Twitter employees vented their frustrations about the layoffs on the social network, using the hashtag #OneTeam.

User Rachel Bonn tweeted: “Last Thursday in the SF (San Francisco) office, really the last day Twitter was Twitter. 8 months pregnant and have a 9 month old. Just got cut off from laptop access.”

Responding to the #OneTeam thread, Twitter’s Head of Safety & Integrity Yoel Roth, said: “Tweeps: My DMs (direct message routes) are always open to you. Tell me how I can help.”

Roth was the most senior executive to message publicly with a tweet of support for staff who are losing their jobs. He also appeared to still have his job. Last week, Musk endorsed Roth, citing his “high integrity” after he was called out over tweets critical of former U.S. President Donald Trump years earlier.

Roth did not respond to a request for comment.

Twitter said in the email that its offices would be temporarily closed and all badge access suspended in order “to help ensure the safety of each employee as well as Twitter systems and customer data.”

The company’s office in Piccadilly Circus, London, appeared deserted on Friday, with no employees in sight.

Inside, any evidence the social media giant had once occupied the building had been erased. Security staff said there were ongoing refurbishments, refusing to comment further.

The company said employees who were not affected by the layoffs would be notified via their work email addresses. Staff who had been laid off would be notified with next steps to their personal email addresses, the memo said.

A member of security staff at Twitter’s EMEA headquarters in Dublin told reporters that nobody was coming into the office on Friday and employees had been told to stay home.

Another member of the security staff locked the revolving doors at the front of the building where around 500 members of staff worked before the layoffs began.

Some employees tweeted their access to the company’s IT system had been blocked and feared that suggested they had been laid off.

“Looks like I’m unemployed y’all. Just got remotely logged out of my work laptop and removed from Slack,” tweeted a user with the account @SBkcrn, whose profile is described as former senior community manager at Twitter.

A class action lawsuit was filed on Thursday against Twitter by its employees, who argued the company was conducting mass layoffs without providing the required 60-day advance notice, in violation of federal and California law.

The lawsuit also asked the San Francisco federal court to issue an order to restrict Twitter from soliciting employees being laid off to sign documents without informing them of the pendency of the case.

Musk has directed Twitter’s teams to find up to $1 billion in annual infrastructure cost savings, according to two sources familiar with the matter and an internal Slack message reviewed by Reuters.

He has already cleared out the company’s senior ranks, firing its chief executive and top finance and legal executives. Others, including those sitting atop the company’s advertising, marketing and human resources divisions, have departed throughout the past week.

Musk’s first week as Twitter’s owner has been marked by chaos and uncertainty. Two company-wide meetings were scheduled, only to be canceled hours later. Employees told Reuters they were left to piece together information through media reports, private messaging groups and anonymous forums.

The layoffs, which were long expected, have chilled Twitter’s famously open corporate culture that has been lauded by many of its employees.

“If you are in an office or on your way to an office, please return home,” Twitter said in the email on Thursday.

Shortly after the email landed in employee in boxes, hundreds of people flooded the company’s Slack channels to say goodbye, two employees told Reuters. Someone invited Musk to join the channel, the sources said.

UN: Agricultural Automation Can Boost Global Food Production

A new U.N. report finds agricultural automation can boost global food production and be a boon for small-scale farmers in developing countries.

The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, FAO, has just released The State of Food and Agriculture 2022 report. The report’s authors said automation is rapidly changing the face of agriculture. New technologies, they say, are quickly leaving behind some of the old larger-type tractors and large machinery in ways that could benefit small holders in developing countries.

Parallels can be drawn with the introduction of cellphones. The World Bank, among other observers, notes African and other developing countries can harness digital technologies to boost their economies by advancing from landlines to smartphones.

FAO said automation can play an important role in making food production more efficient and more environmentally friendly.

Chief FAO economist Maximo Torero said many emerging technologies would have been unimaginable years ago. He cited as examples fruit-picking robots that use artificial intelligence and sensors that monitor plants and animals.

“Automation allows agriculture to be more productive, efficient, resilient, and sustainable and can improve working conditions,” Torero said. “However, as with any technological change, automation also implies disruption to the agricultural systems. The risk is that the automation could exacerbate inequalities if we are not careful on how it is being done and developed and deployed.”

The report looks at 27 case studies from all over the world. They represent technologies at different stages of readiness suitable for large or small agricultural producers of varying levels of income.

Torero said the report investigates the drivers of these technologies and identifies barriers preventing their adoption, particularly by small-scale producers. The report, he said, also looks at one of the most common concerns about automation — that it creates unemployment.

“While it concludes that such fears are overblown, it acknowledges that agricultural automation can lead to unemployment in places where rural labor is abundant, and wages are low,” he said. “It is important to understand that in a continent like sub-Saharan Africa, where there is an enormous amount of youth population, we can build the skill sets of these people to be able to have access to these technologies.”

In areas where cheap labor is abundant, the FAO urges policymakers to avoid subsidizing automation while creating an enabling environment for its adoption. At the same time, the report said governments should provide social protection to the least skilled workers who are likely to lose their jobs during the transition.

LogOn: Experts Worry Digital Footprints Will Incriminate US Patients Seeking Abortions

The U.S. Supreme Court’s overturning of protections for abortion rights has intensified scrutiny of the personal data that technology firms collect. For women who live in states where most abortions are now illegal, their smartphones and devices could be used against them. Tina Trinh reports. Camera: Saqib Ul Islam, Greg Flakus

Observers: China’s Chip Talent Hurdle Worsens After Layoffs at US Firm Marvell

Santa Clara, California-based chip producer Marvell Technology has confirmed that it is eliminating research and development staffs in China – the third U.S. chipmaker that has done so this year as the U.S.-China tech rivalry intensifies.

Observers say this will hobble China’s chip ambitions and worsen its talent shortfall in the field of designing and manufacturing cutting-edge computer chips.

“China is definitely going to be at a loss when it comes to American companies like Marvell essentially redesigning their workforce, because China still hasn’t reached a point where it’s able to pump out the same level of chip talent as America or the UK or Israel,” Abishur Prakash, a co-founder at Center for Innovating the Future (CIF) in Canada told VOA over the phone.

China becoming off-limits

These tech giants are aware the era when companies could set up supply chains and move talent around the globe freely is coming to an end and “China is becoming off-limits for Western companies,” added Prakash, the author of five books including the latest one, titled “The World is Vertical: How Technology Is Remaking Globalization.”

Marvell’s decision came weeks after the Biden administration, in early October, imposed additional curbs on China-bound exports of advanced chips, as well as the technology and equipment to produce 14-nanometer chips or better. 

The new rules also prohibited “U.S. persons” including U.S. citizens and green card holders from working at Chinese chip firms, in an apparent move to stem the flow of U.S.-trained tech talent to China. 

“In China, we will focus our R&D [research and development] investments on local customers and the China market,” Stacey Keegan, vice president of Corporate Marketing at Marvell told Reuters in a statement last Thursday. “As a part of this realignment, several of our business units and functions are announcing changes to their global location strategy that will result in the elimination of roles in China,” he added without specifying how many staff it is cutting.

U.S. memory chip giant Micron announced in January it would close its 100-member DRAM design operations in Shanghai, while Texas Instruments in May moved its microcontroller unit R&D team in Shanghai to India.

And more companies may follow suit to downsize their China operations, CIF’s Prakash said.

‘Unplugging from China’

“The worst is yet to come because China is going to be forced to adapt to the new design of globalization that’s emerging. And American companies are essentially at the precipice of a new phase, where instead of plugging into China, they’re unplugging from China,” he added.

Prakash argued that global chipmakers face multiple conundrums. First, they’re forced to take the U.S. side in political disputes because they use American tools and systems. Secondly, they have to deal with multiple regions in the world, including the EU, India and even Saudi Arabia, which want to become global chip hubs. 

That leads to their third problem: how to insulate themselves from U.S.-China geopolitical tensions while ensuring profitability in China?

“The way to do that is to build a dual-track strategy, one for within China and one for outside of China. But it’s not just going to be dual-track. There’s going to be far more tracks because multiple countries are there, not just China,” Prakash said.

China lacks leverage

The tech analyst said the possibility can’t be ruled out that Beijing may make a drastic move and ban American companies that comply with U.S. sanctions on selling to China. 

But Frank Lee, a senior partner of Blue Ocean Capital in Beijing, says such a move would be a “bad idea, which will only serve the U.S.’s purposes,” that is, a U.S.-China tech de-coupling.

He said China has been hit badly by the U.S. sanctions that first cut off chip supplies to China and now limit China’s access to top-tier chip talent.  

Lee formerly served as an executive at China’s Lenovo Group, the world’s largest maker of personal computers.

In the short run, he says, China, whose chip sector is still lagging behind its U.S. rival by at least 20 years, will face an uphill battle in fighting a chip war with the U.S.  

“The biggest problem is that China doesn’t have too much leverage to retaliate against the U.S. when it comes to chips,” Lee told VOA.

Lee said that China may one day leapfrog the U.S., though, because some Chinese firms enjoy advantages in the development of future devices, powered by 5G or 6G mobile chips.

Citing a Beijing Daily report, Lee said a Chinese firm, Zhongke Xintong Microelectronics, is slated to mass-produce next-generation, super-fast photonics chips in 2023. That would potentially free the company and some of its peers from reliance on extreme ultraviolet machines currently needed to make advanced chips. The EUV machines are made by a Dutch firm, ASML, which is honoring the U.S. sanctions.

Without such a breakthrough, China can neither produce advanced chips nor incubate local talents because it takes years for engineers to master the equipment and the production of advanced chips, said Lin Tsungnan, professor of electrical engineering at National Taiwan University in Taipei.

“Amid heightened U.S.-China tech rivalry, when its access to top-tier talent is limited, China will have a shortage. China can certainly train its local talent, but that’s only possible for mid- to low-end chip talent,” Lin told VOA over the phone.

This article originated in VOA’s Mandarin Service.

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