Twitter’s war on bots cuts off users, Indonesia criminalizes online dissent, and US bill could block TikTok
Rumors of Ukraine disappearing from Twitter have been popping up online this week. There have been credible reports that phone numbers with a Ukrainian country code are suddenly not recognized on the platform, leaving people who use two-factor authentication iced out. Although we could submit to the wicked notion that this is Musk trying to influence the war in Russia’s favor, it may just be a result of Twitter’s “war on bots.” Platformer reported that Twitter recently blocked traffic from 30 mobile carriers around the world, including some from Russia, in a (mostly failed) effort to snuff out spammers that temporarily cut off hundreds of thousands of users. I still shudder to think of how much content Twitter might be removing or “ghost banning” with political interests in mind. With most staff who worked on such issues now gone, and its external council of independent experts recently disbanded, there seem to be few if any ways to put a check on this kind of power.
NSO Group better lawyer up in the U.S. As I mentioned a few weeks ago, the Israeli spyware firm NSO Group is being sued by WhatsApp and Apple in northern California. Now a group of journalists from El Salvador is joining the party. Represented by the Columbia University Knight Institute, the journalists from the acclaimed Salvadoran news site El Faro filed suit against NSO, arguing that the company violated U.S. laws by using computer servers (owned by U.S. companies including Apple) to infect the journalists’ mobile phones and track their movements and communications. Though there’s no smoking gun, the spyware was most likely sent at the behest of the digitally-savvy and decidedly authoritarian administration of Nayib Bukele.
Indonesia’s new criminal code will put online speech “under attack,” says Damar Juniarto, a leading media freedom advocate in Java. Most media are stuck on the ban on extramarital sex, but the digital implications are pretty significant. One section prohibits online content that could cause “humiliation to the government or state institutions.” Another criminalizes spreading “fake news,” an offense punishable with up to four years in prison. It’s easy to see how authorities might use these measures to restrict legitimate speech and journalism — even the U.N. is concerned about it. The code will dovetail with new tech-focused laws in Indonesia that will force foreign tech giants like Meta and Google to register in the country and establish robust systems for removing content at the government’s request.
US LAWMAKERS ARE COMING FOR TIKTOK (AGAIN)
Senator Marco Rubio unveiled a bill earlier this week that would block TikTok once and for all, right after the Indiana state’s attorney general filed a lawsuit against the company. Both allege that the company shares U.S.-based users’ data with Chinese authorities, a fear that lawmakers have been wringing their hands about since roughly 2019.
The specter of Chinese intelligence spying on TikTok users is not entirely unfounded — TikTok’s parent company is the Beijing-based ByteDance, and the Chinese government certainly likes its data — but the loud public concern in the U.S. has caused the company to make major efforts to cordon off users’ data, first by storing it in Singapore and now by housing it on U.S.-based servers under a contract with Oracle.
There’s no indication that TikTok is any more pernicious than your average social app. Experts at Citizen Lab took a look at the actual technology and reported that the app was not “collecting contact lists, recording and sending photos, audio, videos or geolocation coordinates without user permission.” What we also know about TikTok (thanks in part to research that I helped lead at Ranking Digital Rights) is that, just like its competitors in the U.S. and China alike, TikTok’s main objective is to make money, and it is unlikely to jeopardize its relationship with one of its biggest markets.
Many policymakers who have it in for TikTok seem to know plenty about China but not much about Chinese people. If they did, they would probably pay more attention to WeChat, the super app owned by Chinese tech giant Tencent, that has made itself utterly indispensable for people who live in or have any connection to China. Between the estimated 5.1 million people in the U.S. who identified as Chinese in the 2020 census, thousands of Chinese students in the U.S. and other people who have professional or personal ties to China, it is easy to imagine that WeChat is a rich target for Chinese government surveillance. Plus, unlike TikTok, the company has made zero effort to block state access to its data.
Although Rubio’s bill focuses heavily on TikTok, it aims to block and prohibit “all transactions from any social media company in, or under the influence of, China (including Hong Kong and Macau), Russia, Iran, North Korea, Cuba, and Venezuela.” This would of course include WeChat, alongside other big players like Russia’s VK. Again, it’s unlikely that the bill will go anywhere, but if it did, it would mean the U.S. was joining the ranks of states that do hardcore online censorship. It would shut down communication flows and chat logs for millions of people in the U.S. (some of them Chinese nationals, others U.S. citizens), who would be suddenly trapped between two superpowers determined to block each other’s technology platforms, in open disregard of their citizens’ rights.
WHAT WE’RE READING (AND LISTENING TO)
- French tech mogul Eric Leandri was once a champion of online privacy but has since decided to build digital surveillance tools to sell to foreign governments, especially African ones. POLITICO’s EU edition has a deep dive on Leandri’s new cybersurveillance company, Altrnativ, that offers highlights from thousands of internal company documents and exclusive interviews. The piece also notes that, after POLITICO contacted Leandri, “someone made dozens of attempts to hack into the online accounts of a reporter working on this story.”
- TechDirt’s most recent podcast episode looks at Facebook’s “XCheck” system, which gives special treatment to public figures and other users of note. This edition features a conversation with PEN America’s Suzanne Nossel, who is a member of Facebook’s Oversight Board, which recently issued a ruling on the system.
- Everyone’s favorite tech to hate on right now seems to be LensaAI. Curious readers can try the company’s “Magic Avatar” — just upload a bunch of selfies, and it will generate a series of artsy-looking digital portraits of you. But beware — MIT Tech Review’s Melissa Heikkilä reports that while white men seem to be enjoying fantasy illustrations where they’re summiting mountain tops or leading troops into battle, women — and especially women of color — are having another experience entirely. At Tech Review, when two female reporters of Asian descent tried it, they got back an abundance of nudes, scantily clad figures and straight-up “pornified” avatars.