India’s Government in Standoff with Twitter Over Online Speech

The government of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is in a battle with U.S. tech firms over a new set of online speech rules that it has enacted for the nation of nearly 1.4 billion.  The rules require companies to restrict a range of topics on their services, comply with government takedown orders and identify the original source of information shared. If the companies fail to comply, tech firm employees can be held criminally liable.  The escalation of tensions between Modi’s government and tech firms, activists say, could result in the curtailment of Indians’ online speech.  “Absent a change in direction, the future of free speech in the world’s largest democracy is increasingly imperiled,” said Samir Jain, director of policy at the Center for Democracy & Technology, a digital rights advocacy group. “Users will have less freedom of expression and less access to news and entertainment that is unapproved by the government. The rules will thereby undermine Indian democracy,” Jain told VOA. At the center of the battle is Twitter, which asked for a three-month extension to comply with the new IT rules that went into effect May 25.  On May 24, New Delhi police attempted to deliver a notice to Twitter’s office, which was closed at the time, and then released a video of officers entering the building and searching the offices on local TV channels. #WATCH | Team of Delhi Police Special cell carrying out searches in the offices of Twitter India (in Delhi & Gurugram)Visuals from Lado Sarai. pic.twitter.com/eXipqnEBgt— ANI (@ANI) May 24, 2021In a tweet days later, Twitter said it was “concerned by recent events regarding our employees in India and the potential threat to freedom of expression for the people we serve.”Right now, we are concerned by recent events regarding our employees in India and the potential threat to freedom of expression for the people we serve.— Twitter Public Policy (@Policy) May 27, 2021“We, alongside many in civil society in India and around the world, have concerns with regards to the use of intimidation tactics by the police in response to enforcement of our global terms of service, as well as with core elements of the new IT rules,” the company said.  Earlier this month, the government sent a letter to Twitter saying it was giving the company “one final notice” adding that if Twitter fails to comply, there will be “unintended consequences,” according to NPR, which obtained the letter.  “It is beyond belief that Twitter Inc. has doggedly refused to create mechanisms that will enable the people of India to resolve their issues on the platform in a timely and transparent manner and through fair processes by India based clearly identified resources,” the letter said. The Indian government is pushing back on criticism that its new rules restrict online speech.  “Protecting free speech in India is not the prerogative of only a private, for-profit, foreign entity like Twitter, but it is the commitment of the world’s largest democracy and its robust institutions,” India’s Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY) said in a statement. Some who are critical of the government’s new IT rules are also skeptical of the tech industry’s response.  It is “not an existential crisis as everyone will have us believe,” said Mishi Choudhary, a technology lawyer and founder of India’s Software Freedom Law Center. Choudhary said users will be forced to stay on the sidelines, rather than taking an active role in discussions about their basic rights.  “Some of the companies are still playing the game of ‘we are a sales office’ or ‘our servers are in California,’ frustrating anyone who comes to their legitimate defense as well,” Choudhary said.  India has a long tradition of free speech, and its tech savvy market is attractive for U.S. tech firms looking to expand. Although the Indian constitution protects certain rights to freedom of speech, it has restrictions. Expressions are banned that threaten “the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States, public order, decency or morality, or in relation to contempt of court, defamation or incitement to an offence.”Even before the recent tensions between tech firms and the government, India was among the top nations in the world seeking to restrict online speech. From Jan. 1, 2020, to June 1, 2020, India was one of the top five countries asking Twitter to remove content. For example, after violent protests on Jan. 26th involving farmers unhappy with new agricultural laws, the Modi government demanded Twitter block 500 accounts, including those of journalists, activists and opposition leaders. Twitter did so, and then eventually reversed course only to receive a noncompliance notice, according to a company statement. Several Indian journalists faced charges of sedition over their reporting and online posts following the protest by farmers. Among them is the executive editor of the Caravan magazine, Vinod K. Jose and although his Twitter handle is currently active, it was withheld in India this year.The official handle of @thecaravanindia is withheld in India: pic.twitter.com/2t4FV5IgM0— Vinod K. Jose (@vinodjose) February 1, 2021The government is also particularly sensitive about criticism of its handling of the coronavirus, asking that social media firms remove mention of the B.1617 variant as the “Indian variant.”  In May, the government ordered social media firms to remove any mention of the Indian variant. The variant first reported in India is now called Delta, according to the World Health Organization. Earlier this month, Twitter complied with a request from the government to block the Twitter account of Punjabi-born Jaswinder Singh Bains, alias JazzyB, a rapper. While Twitter informed him that he had been blocked for reportedly violating India’s Information Technology Act, he said he believes he was blocked for supporting the farmers in their protests, according to media reports. Jason Pielemeier, director of policy and strategy at the Global Network Initiative, an alliance of tech companies supporting freedom of expression online, wrote to the MeitY, Pielemeier calling attention to many issues with the new rules.  “Each of these concerns on its own can negatively impact freedom of expression and privacy in India,” he wrote. “Together, they create significant risk of undermining digital rights and trust in India’s regulatory approach to the digital ecosystem.” Twitter isn’t the only tech firm affected by new laws. WhatsApp, the encrypted messaging app owned by Facebook, filed a lawsuit in May against the Indian government arguing that the new rules allow for “mass surveillance.” According to the lawsuit, the new rules are illegal and “severely undermine” the right to privacy of its users.At issue for WhatsApp is that under the new rules, encryption would have to be removed, and according to The Guardian, messages would have to be in a “traceable” database. 


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Exclusive: CENTCOM Head Says US Focused on Strikes in Afghanistan That Prevent Attacks on US, Allies

New details have emerged about the expected U.S. role in Afghanistan after America’s military exit after nearly 20 years of war. Our VOA Pentagon correspondent Carla Babb is the only reporter traveling with the commander of U.S. Central Command, which oversees military operations across Afghanistan and the Middle East.


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Australia Outlines Bold Moves to Ban Single-Use Plastic and Coffee Cups

Conservationists have praised efforts by Australian authorities to drastically reduce the amount of plastic waste and eliminate some disposable coffee cups. The New South Wales state government wants to ban many common plastic items, including straws, drinks stirrers and cutlery, as well as polystyrene cups in a bid to protect the environment and reduce waste.    Lightweight plastic shopping bags could be eliminated within six months of new laws being passed.  The reforms could be approved by lawmakers this year. Other products will be phased out at different times depending on the availability of, for example, paper and bamboo alternatives.    Officials have estimated the measures will stop about 2.7 billion items of plastic from ending up in the environment and oceans over the next 20 years.    New South Wales Environment Minister Matt Kean has warned that the world is on track to have more plastic in the ocean than fish by 2050.    He told Australian television that the changes would help protect the community.  “No-one wants to be wading through plastics when they go to the beach, let alone be consuming it in their food and water, and that is what we are doing at the moment. Every day in New South Wales people are consuming over 2,000 bits of plastic. That is the equivalent of a credit card of plastic they are ingesting every week and it is largely because of the pervasiveness of single-use plastics across our environment. So, we believe that we can do something about that. Do something about it where there are alternatives available and when it does not add to cost and that is what I am looking to see,” Kean said.  In Western Australia, the state government has also announced ambitious plans to tackle waste. By the end of this year, it will ban a range of items, including single-use plastic bowls, plates, straws, polystyrene food containers and thick plastic shopping bags.  Polystyrene packaging and takeaway plastic coffee cups and their lids will be outlawed in 2022.  It is estimated that Australians throw out about a billion coffee cups each year.  The World Wildlife Fund Australia said the state governments in New South Wales and Western Australia are in a “race to the top” in waste measures and that the reforms were “a terrific outcome for the environment.”   But conservationists have warned that Tasmania and the Northern Territory were the only Australian jurisdictions “without a plan to ban problem single-use plastics.” Also, in a few weeks, it will be illegal for companies to export certain waste plastics from Australia under tough new rules. 


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Trip to Space with Jeff Bezos Sells for $28 Million

A mystery bidder paid $28 million at auction Saturday for a seat alongside Jeff Bezos on board the first crewed spaceflight of the billionaire’s company Blue Origin next month.The Amazon founder revealed this week that both he and his brother Mark would take seats on board the company’s New Shepard launch vehicle on July 20, to fly to the edge of space and back.The Bezos brothers will be joined by the winner of Saturday’s charity auction, whose identity remains unknown, and by a fourth, as yet unnamed space tourist.”The name of the auction winner will be released in the weeks following the auction’s conclusion,” tweeted Blue Origin following the sale.”Then, the fourth and final crew member will be announced — stay tuned.”Saturday’s successful bidder beat out some 20 rivals in an auction launched on May 19 and wrapped up with a 10-minute, livecast frenzy.Bidding had reached $4.8 million by Thursday, but shot up spectacularly in the final live auction, rising by million-dollar increments.The proceeds — aside from a 6% auctioneer’s commission — will go to Blue Origin’s foundation, Club for the Future, which aims to inspire future generations to pursue careers in STEM — science, technology, engineering and mathematics.Taking off from a desert in western Texas, the New Shepard trip will last 10 minutes, four of which passengers will spend above the Karman line that marks the recognized boundary between Earth’s atmosphere and space.After lift-off, the capsule separates from its booster, then spends four minutes at an altitude exceeding 100 kilometers, during which time those on board experience weightlessness and can observe the curvature of Earth.The booster lands autonomously on a pad 3.2 kilometers from the launch site, and the capsule floats back to the surface with three large parachutes that slow it down to about 1.6 kph when it lands.Lifelong dreamBezos, who announced earlier this year he is stepping down as Amazon’s chief executive to spend more time on other projects including Blue Origin, has said it was a lifelong dream to fly into space.Blue Origin’s New Shepard has successfully carried out more than a dozen uncrewed test runs from its facility in Texas’ Guadalupe Mountains.”We’re ready to fly some astronauts,” said Blue Origin’s director of astronaut and orbital sales, Ariane Cornell, on Saturday.The reusable suborbital rocket system was named after Alan Shepard, the first American in space 60 years ago.The automated capsules with no pilot have six seats with horizontal backrests placed next to large portholes, in a futuristic cabin with swish lighting. Multiple cameras help immortalize the few minutes the space tourists experience weightlessness.Private space raceBlue Origin’s maiden crewed flight comes in a context of fierce competition in the field of private space exploration — with Elon Musk’s SpaceX, and Virgin Galactic, founded by British billionaire Richard Branson, all jostling for pole position.Bezos has a very public rivalry with Musk, whose SpaceX is planning orbital flights that would cost millions of dollars and send people much further into space.SpaceX has already begun to carry astronauts to the International Space Station and is a competitor for government space contracts.Virgin Galactic, meanwhile, hopes to begin regular commercial suborbital flights in early 2022, with eventual plans for 400 trips a year.Some 600 people have booked flights, costing $200,000 to $250,000 — and there has been talk of Branson himself taking part in a test flight this summer, although no date has been set.


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Denmark’s Eriksen Taken to Hospital After Collapsing at Euro 2020

Denmark midfielder Christian Eriksen was taken to a hospital Saturday after collapsing on the field during a match at the European Championship, leading to the game being suspended for more than 90 minutes. The governing body of European soccer said Eriksen has been stabilized and the Danish soccer federation said he was awake. “Christian Eriksen is awake and is undergoing further examinations at Rigshospitalet,” the Danish federation wrote on Twitter. The Euro 2020 match between Denmark and Finland had been halted in the 43rd minute with the score 0-0 but was to resume at 8:30 p.m. local time. UEFA said both teams had held an emergency meeting before deciding to continue playing. The players came back out onto the field at around 7:15 p.m. to a huge ovation as they started warming up for a second time. Eriksen was given urgent medical attention on the field for about 10 minutes after collapsing near the end of the first half. He was then carried off on a stretcher. UEFA then announced the game had been suspended “due to a medical emergency.” Eriksen had just played a short pass when he fell face-forward onto the ground. His teammates immediately gestured for help and medics rushed onto the field. Eriksen was given chest compressions as his Denmark teammates stood around him in a shielding wall for privacy. Eriksen’s partner, Sabrina Kvist Jensen, went onto the field and was comforted by Denmark captain Simon Kjaer and goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel. The Finland players huddled by their bench and eventually walked off the field while the Inter Milan midfielder was still getting treatment, as did the referees. Eriksen was eventually carried off to a loud ovation, with his teammates walking next to the stretcher. Inter Milan team physician Piero Volpi told The Associated Press that the Italian club was in contact with the Danish soccer federation. “We’re in contact with the Danish federation, the team manager, the team physician. But we still don’t know anything yet,” Volpi said. “We heard what UEFA said and we’re all happy that he’s been stabilized. But that’s all we know.” Volpi added that Eriksen never contracted COVID-19, has no medical conditions that he’s aware of and has passed every medical exam without problem since joining Inter in January 2020 from Tottenham. “But we’ll talk about that when the time is right,” Volpi added of Eriksen’s medical history. “Right now, the important thing is that he recovers.” Eriksen is one of Denmark’s biggest stars and the incident brought an instant sense of shock to the Parken Stadium, where about 15,000 fans fell into hushed silence. Some supporters could be seen crying and hugging in the stands. As the fans in the stadium were waiting for updates, Finland supporters started chanting “Christian,” which was then answered by the Danish fans shouting “Eriksen.” A huge roar then went up from all supporters when the stadium announcer said Eriksen was “stable and awake.” 


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Israel: A Post-Netanyahu Government

Lucy Kurtzer-Ellenbogen, Director of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Program at the U.S. Institute of Peace, and Natan Sachs,  Director of the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, discuss with host Carol Castiel the new “Change Government” comprised of eight Israeli political parties from the far left to the far right and one Islamic party who united to oust long-serving Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. Can these strange political bedfellows agree on other vital internal and external policies and manage to govern? 


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COVID Vaccines for Children: How Soon?

COVID-19 vaccines for children are moving closer to availability, but access remains limited.Moderna announced late this week that it was submitting its vaccine to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for emergency use authorization in children age 12 and older.The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine has already received the go-ahead for this age group.The companies are testing their vaccines on younger age groups, down to 6 months. Results are expected in the fall.The Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines are moving into pediatric populations ahead of those from Johnson & Johnson and the University of Oxford-AstraZeneca partnership.The AstraZeneca vaccine makes up the bulk of the doses delivered through COVAX, the WHO-backed program delivering shots to low- and middle-income countries.Rare but serious blood clotting issues have slowed down the AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson vaccines. A study this week in the journal Nature Medicine found a rate of about one case per every 100,000 people who received the AstraZeneca shot.The vaccine’s benefits still far outweigh the risks, according to regulators in the United States and Europe and the World Health Organization. These kinds of blood clots can also be a complication of COVID-19, the Scottish study noted. They are also a rare side effect of other common vaccines, including those for influenza, hepatitis B and measles, mumps and rubella.As to whether this side effect will affect children, “we don’t yet know the answer to that,” said William Moss, head of the Johns Hopkins University International Vaccine Access Center. “It’s possible either way. The risk could be very similar to (that for) older adults, or the risk could be decreased.”Oxford said it has stopped enrolling children in its vaccine trial while it evaluates the blood clotting issues.Though the delay will push back availability for children, the WHO says children are not the top priority for vaccination currently.”Though they can get infected with COVID-19 and they can transmit the infection to others, they are at much lower risk of getting severe disease compared to older adults,” WHO chief scientist Soumya Swaminathan told the organization’s Science in 5 podcast.”Except for (the) very few children who are at a high risk, (they are) not considered to be a high priority right now because we have limited doses of vaccines. We need to use them to protect the most vulnerable,” including health care workers and the elderly, she said.The G-7 group of industrialized countries this week pledged 1 billion doses to global vaccination efforts, including 500 million Pfizer-BioNTech shots donated by the United States.That falls billions of doses short of what is needed, critics note, and most of the doses are not expected until next year.While the Pfizer and Moderna shots have not had the same blood clotting issues as the AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson vaccines, officials have raised concerns about their possible link to swelling of the heart or the heart’s lining.A few more patients than expected developed this side effect after receiving these vaccines, according to reports from the United States and Israel, but regulators have not determined whether the vaccines are responsible.Most recovered without incident.  


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US to Send 500 Million COVID-19 Vaccines to Poorest Countries

Issues in the News moderator Kim Lewis talks with VOA diplomatic correspondent Cindy Saine and VOA senior T.V. correspondent Chris Simkins about the top stories of the week including, in what is his first European trip as president, President Joe Biden announced the historic U.S.  donation of 500 million vaccines to the lowest income countries, also what topped his agenda at the G-7 Summit, and more.


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Criminal Organizations Hire Hackers to Look for Targets

Ransomware cases are on the rise worldwide and criminal groups based in Russia are suspected of being behind some of the biggest recent attacks. Michelle Quinn reports on the changing world of ransomware.Camera: Matt DibbleProduced by: Michelle Quinn


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Google Pledges to Resolve Ad Privacy Probe with UK Watchdog

Google has promised to give U.K. regulators a role overseeing its plan to phase out existing ad-tracking technology from its Chrome browser as part of a competition investigation into the tech giant.     The U.K. competition watchdog has been investigating Google’s proposals to remove so-called third-party cookies over concerns they would undermine digital ad competition and entrench the company’s market power.     To address the concerns, Google on Friday offered a set of commitments including giving the Competition and Markets Authority an oversight role as the company designs and develops a replacement technology.    “The emergence of tech giants such as Google has presented competition authorities around the world with new challenges that require a new approach,” Andrea Coscelli, the watchdog’s chief executive, said.     The Competition and Markets Authority will work with tech companies to “shape their behavior and protect competition to the benefit of consumers,” he said.  The promises also include “substantial limits” on how Google will use and combine individual user data for digital ad purposes and a pledge not to discriminate against rivals in favor of its own ad businesses with the new technology.     If Google’s commitments are accepted, they will be applied globally, the company said in a blog post.     Third-party cookies – snippets of code that log user info – are used to help businesses more effectively target advertising and fund free online content such as newspapers. However, they’ve also been a longstanding source of privacy concerns because they can be used to track users across the internet.     Google shook up the digital ad industry with its plan to do away with third-party cookies, which raised fears newer technology would leave even less room for online ad rivals. 


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Hire a Hacker: Criminal Organizations Work with Hackers to Look for Targets, Collect Ransom Proceeds

Ransomware cases are on the rise worldwide and criminal groups based in Russia are suspected of being behind some of the biggest recent attacks. Michelle Quinn reports on the changing world of ransomware.Camera: Matt DibbleProduced by: Michelle Quinn


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