An international ransomware network that extorted more than $100 million from hospitals and other organizations around the world has been brought down following a monthslong infiltration by the FBI, the Justice Department said Thursday.
The Hive ransomware group, known to operate since June 2021, targeted more than 1,500 victims, including hospitals, school districts and financial firms in more than 80 countries, DOJ and FBI officials said at a press conference. The network’s most recent victim in Florida was targeted about two weeks ago.
FBI agents, who penetrated the group’s computer networks last summer and thwarted multiple attacks, seized its two Los Angeles-based servers Wednesday night, while taking control of darknet sites used by its affiliates, officials said.
German and Dutch police took part in the international law enforcement action.
Attorney General Merrick Garland and other top law enforcement officials announced the operation.
“Cybercrime is a constantly evolving threat,” Garland said. “But as I have said before, the Justice Department will spare no resource to identify and bring to justice anyone, anywhere, who targets the United States with a ransomware attack.”
In a ransomware attack, hackers encrypt the data on a victim’s network and then demand payments in exchange for providing a decryption key.
Hive used a “ransomware-as-a-service” model in which highly skilled developers build the malware and then recruit less-sophisticated affiliates to deploy them against victims.
Garland said Hive affiliates targeted “critical infrastructure and some of our nation’s most important industries.”
In August 2021, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Hive affiliates attacked a Midwest hospital’s network, preventing the medical facility from accepting new patients, Garland said.
The hospital was able to recover its data only after paying a ransom, the attorney general said.
While no arrests have been made in connection with the operation, FBI Director Christopher Wray warned that “anybody involved with Hive should be concerned, because this investigation is very much ongoing.”
“We’re engaged in what we call ‘joint sequenced operations’ … and that includes going after their infrastructure, going after their crypto and going after the people who work with them,” Wray said.
FBI agents infiltrated Hive from July 2022 until its seizure, covertly capturing its decryption keys and sharing them with victims, saving the targets $130 million in ransom payments, officials said.
“Simply put, using lawful means, we hacked the hackers,” Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco said.
In all, the FBI provided more than 300 victims with decryption keys, Garland said, among them a Texas school district, a Louisiana hospital, and a food services company that had been asked to make millions of dollars in ransom payments. The FBI also distributed more than 1,000 additional decryption keys to previous Hive victims.
The takedown represents a win for the Biden administration’s efforts to crack down on a recent surge in ransomware attacks that cost businesses and governments around the world billions of dollars a year.
U.S. banks and financial institutions processed nearly $1.2 billion in suspected ransomware payments in 2021, more than double the amount in 2020, the Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCen) reported in November.
Roughly 75% of the ransomware attacks reported in 2021 had a nexus with Russia, its proxies or persons acting on its behalf, according to FinCen, which also says the top five highest-grossing ransomware tools used in 2021 were all connected to Russian cyberactors.
Officials would not say whether Hive had any known links to Russia.
John Bennett, a former senior FBI official who is now managing director of the Cyber Risk Business Unit at Kroll, a cybersecurity services company, noted that the seizure notice on Hive’s website, written in both English and a Slavic language, suggests it is aimed at an Eastern European audience.
“The fact that it is basically being broadcast in a [Slavic] language, I think, is telling that that’s the target audience that they’re letting know that they got this,” Bennett said in an interview.
The gang’s takedown, Bennett said, is a sign of what is coming.
“I think this is telling that law enforcement is catching up very quickly to the capabilities of getting inside of these groups,” Bennett said.
The war in Ukraine has exposed Europe’s energy dependence on Russia and is spurring the development of new, cleaner-burning biofuels. Spain is emerging as a leader in this effort, with the introduction late last year of airplane fuel made from olive pits. Marcus Harton narrates this report from Alfonso Beato in Seville.
Facebook parent Meta is reinstating former President Donald Trump’s personal account after a two-year suspension following the January 6, 2021, insurrection.
The company said in a blog post Wednesday it is adding “new guardrails” to ensure there are no “repeat offenders” who violate its rules.
“In the event that Mr. Trump posts further violating content, the content will be removed and he will be suspended for between one month and two years, depending on the severity of the violation,” said Meta, which is based in Menlo Park, California.
Trump, in a post on his own social media network, blasted Facebook’s decision to suspend his account as he praised his own site, Truth Social.
“FACEBOOK, which has lost Billions of Dollars in value since “deplatforming” your favorite President, me, has just announced that they are reinstating my account. Such a thing should never again happen to a sitting President, or anybody else who is not deserving of retribution!” he wrote.
He was suspended on January 7, a day after the deadly 2021 insurrection. Other social media companies also kicked him off their platforms, though he was recently reinstated on Twitter after Elon Musk took over the company. He has not tweeted.
Banned from mainstream social media, Trump has been relying on Truth Social, which he launched after being blocked from Twitter.
Microsoft said it’s seeing some improvement to problems with its online services including the Teams messaging platform and Outlook email system after users around the world reported outages Wednesday.
In a status update, the tech company reported “service degradation” for a number of its Microsoft 365 services.
Thousands of users reported problems with Teams, Outlook, the Azure cloud computing service and XBox Live online gaming service early Wednesday on the Downdetector website, which tracks outage reports. Many users also took to social media to complain that services were down.
By later in the morning, Downdetector showed the number of reports had dropped considerably.
“We’re continuing to monitor the recovery across the service and some customers are reporting mitigation,” the Microsoft 365 Status Twitter account said. “We’re also connecting the service to additional infrastructure to expedite the recovery process.”
It tweeted earlier that it had “isolated the problem to a networking configuration issue” and that a network change suspected to be causing the problem was rolled back.
It comes after Microsoft reported Tuesday that its quarterly profit fell 12%, reflecting economic uncertainty that the company said led to its decision this month to cut 10,000 workers.
A chatbot powered by reams of data from the internet has passed exams at a U.S. law school after writing essays on topics ranging from constitutional law to taxation and torts.
ChatGPT from OpenAI, a U.S. company that this week got a massive injection of cash from Microsoft, uses artificial intelligence (AI) to generate streams of text from simple prompts.
The results have been so good that educators have warned it could lead to widespread cheating and even signal the end of traditional classroom teaching methods.
Jonathan Choi, a professor at Minnesota University Law School, gave ChatGPT the same test faced by students, consisting of 95 multiple-choice questions and 12 essay questions.
In a white paper titled “ChatGPT goes to law school” published on Monday, he and his coauthors reported that the bot scored a C+ overall.
While this was enough for a pass, the bot was near the bottom of the class in most subjects and “bombed” at multiple-choice questions involving mathematics.
‘Not a great student’
“In writing essays, ChatGPT displayed a strong grasp of basic legal rules and had consistently solid organization and composition,” the authors wrote.
But the bot “often struggled to spot issues when given an open-ended prompt, a core skill on law school exams”.
Officials in New York and other jurisdictions have banned the use of ChatGPT in schools, but Choi suggested it could be a valuable teaching aide.
“Overall, ChatGPT wasn’t a great law student acting alone,” he wrote on Twitter.
“But we expect that collaborating with humans, language models like ChatGPT would be very useful to law students taking exams and to practicing lawyers.”
And playing down the possibility of cheating, he wrote in reply to another Twitter user that two out of three markers had spotted the bot-written paper.
“(They) had a hunch and their hunch was right, because ChatGPT had perfect grammar and was somewhat repetitive,” Choi wrote.
The U.S. Justice Department filed a lawsuit against Alphabet’s GOOGL.O Google on Tuesday over allegations that the company abused its dominance of the digital advertising business, according to a court document.
“Google has used anticompetitive, exclusionary, and unlawful means to eliminate or severely diminish any threat to its dominance over digital advertising technologies,” the government said in its antitrust complaint.
The Justice Department asked the court to compel Google to divest its Google Ad manager suite, including its ad exchange AdX.
Google did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The lawsuit is the second federal antitrust complaint filed against Google, alleging violations of antitrust law in how the company acquires or maintains its dominance. The Justice Department lawsuit filed against Google in 2020 focuses on its monopoly in search and is scheduled to go to trial in September.
Eight states joined the department in the lawsuit filed on Tuesday, including Google’s home state of California.
Google shares were down 1.3% on the news.
The lawsuit says “Google has thwarted meaningful competition and deterred innovation in the digital advertising industry, taken supra-competitive profits for itself, prevented the free market from functioning fairly to support the interests of the advertisers and publishers who make today’s powerful internet possible.”
While Google remains the market leader by a long shot, its share of the U.S. digital ad revenue has been eroding, falling to 28.8% last year from 36.7% in 2016, according to Insider Intelligence. Google’s advertising business is responsible for some 80% of its revenue.
Alphabet Inc., the parent company of tech giant Google, announced Friday it is laying off 12,000 workers across the entire company — cuts reflecting six percent of the company’s total workforce.
In an email to employees Friday, Chief Executive Officer Sundar Pichai said the company saw dramatic growth over the past two years and hired new employees “for a different economic reality than the one we face today.” He said he takes full responsibility for the decisions that led to where the company is today.
In his email, Pichai said the layoffs come following “a rigorous review across product areas and functions” to ensure the company’s employees and their roles are aligned with Google’s top priorities. “The roles we’re eliminating reflect the outcome of that review,” he said.
In the email, Pichai said U.S. employees to be laid off already have been notified, while it is going to take longer for employees in other countries because of different laws and regulations.
Google’s decision comes the same week other big tech companies, Meta Platforms Inc. – the parent company of Facebook and Instagram, Twitter Inc., Microsoft and Amazon, announced they were laying off thousands of employees.
Some information for this report was provided by The Associated Press and Reuters.your ad here
FBI Director Christopher Wray said Thursday that he was “deeply concerned” about the Chinese government’s artificial intelligence program, asserting that it was “not constrained by the rule of law.”
Speaking during a panel session at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Wray said Beijing’s AI ambitions were “built on top of massive troves of intellectual property and sensitive data that they’ve stolen over the years.”
He said that left unchecked, China could use artificial intelligence advancements to further its hacking operations, intellectual property theft and repression of dissidents inside the country and beyond.
“That’s something we’re deeply concerned about. I think everyone here should be deeply concerned about,” he said.
More broadly, he said, “AI is a classic example of a technology where I have the same reaction every time. I think, ‘Wow, we can do that?’ And then I think, ‘Oh God, they can do that.’”
Such concerns have long been voiced by U.S. officials. In October 2021, for instance, U.S. counterintelligence officials issued warnings about China’s ambitions in AI as part of a renewed effort to inform business executives, academics and local and state government officials about the risks of accepting Chinese investment or expertise in key industries.
Earlier that year, an AI commission led by former Google CEO Eric Schmidt urged the U.S. to boost its AI skills to counter China, including by pursuing “AI-enabled” weapons.
A spokesperson for the Chinese Embassy in Washington did not immediately respond to a request seeking comment Thursday about Wray’s comments. Beijing has repeatedly accused Washington of fearmongering and attacked U.S. intelligence for its assessments of China.
Software giant Microsoft on Wednesday became the latest major company in the tech sector to announce significant job cuts when it reported it would lay off 10,000 employees, or about 5% of its workforce.
Microsoft’s job cuts come just as e-commerce leader Amazon begins a fresh round of 18,000 layoffs, extending a wave of other major cuts at Twitter, Salesforce and dozens of smaller technology firms in recent weeks.
The phenomenon of job losses in the tech sector has global reach but has been keenly felt in Silicon Valley and other West Coast tech hubs in the United States. The website layoffs.fyi, which tracks job cuts in the tech industry, has identified well over 100 tech firms announcing layoffs since January 1 across North and South America, Europe, Asia and Australia. In all, the website has counted more than 1,200 firms making layoffs since the beginning of 2022.
In an interview at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, on Wednesday, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella appeared to suggest that retrenchment in the tech sector was a result of reduced consumer demand.
“During the pandemic, there was rapid acceleration,” Nadella said. “I think we’re going to go through a phase today where there is some amount of normalization in demand.”
He said the company would seek to drive growth by increasing its own productivity. The interview took place before Microsoft officially announced the layoffs.
One major focus of the layoffs, according to multiple media reports, was the division of the company that makes augmented reality systems, including the company’s HoloLens goggles and the Integrated Visual Augmentation System, which until recently were being developed in cooperation with the U.S. Army.
Later in the day in an email to employees, Nadella wrote, “These are the kinds of hard choices we have made throughout our 47-year history to remain a consequential company in this industry that is unforgiving to anyone who doesn’t adapt to platform shifts.”
However, he signaled the company would continue hiring in areas such as artificial intelligence that management believes are strategically important.
Also on Wednesday, Doug Herrington, head of Amazon’s global retail business, said his company was restructuring to meet consumers’ demands but would continue to invest in areas where it saw the potential for growth, including its grocery delivery business.
Wayne Hochwarter, who teaches business administration at Florida State University, described the layoffs at Microsoft and Amazon as examples of businesses making adjustments to their workforces in the face of a changing business climate.
“I think they overestimated the trends in personal purchasing patterns, and they thought, ‘OK, we’re going to make sure we’re not shorthanded,’” he told VOA. “And then when things softened a little bit, they realized they had hired too many people.”
He also warned against reading too much into the latest layoffs.
“I don’t think the tech sector is going to heck in a handbasket,” he said. “They may have reevaluated where things are going to go, but I don’t see this as a catalyst for sending us into economic deterioration, or anything that’s going to put a crimp on the economy.”
Looking to the future, Hochwarter said, the workforce changes are “probably going to make them stronger companies.”
Weathering the storm
Margaret O’Mara, author of the book The Code: Silicon Valley and the Remaking of America, told VOA that the current run of layoffs in the U.S. was just the latest chapter in a long cycle of booms and busts in the tech sector.
In some important respects, she said, it’s a story about more than just a misreading of trends in consumer preferences.
“It’s similar to other downturns, and there have been many — for every boom there was a bust — in that their macro[economic] conditions have shifted,” she said. “Tech is an industry that’s very much fueled by investment capital and the stock market.”
O’Mara said that over the last 10 years, with low interest rates and large amounts of cash flowing through the economy, conditions have been “extraordinary” for the growth of U.S. tech companies. As those conditions change, so does the amount of money investors want to put into tech firms.
However, O’Mara, a professor of American history at the University of Washington, said it was important not to look at conditions today as similar to the catastrophic dot-com bust of 2000.
“Tech is many orders of magnitude larger than it ever has been before,” she said. “We are talking about platform companies that are unlike the dot-coms, which were very young and very frothy, and it was easy for their value to collapse. They weren’t providing the essential services … fundamental to the rest of the economy.”
By contrast, she said, companies like Microsoft and Amazon have deep connections to the broader U.S. economy and should be able to withstand the current economic headwinds.
Difficult for H-1B visa holders
A disproportionate share of workers in the U.S. technology sector are non-citizens who hold H-1B visas, which allow companies to sponsor them. Layoffs are particularly difficult for visa holders — the overwhelming majority of whom are from India — because once their employment is terminated, they have just 60 days to find a new sponsor. Otherwise, they are required to leave the country.
Hochwarter said he thought companies would pull back on hiring H-1B visa workers, at least for the time being.
“My sense is that because that takes a great deal of effort and energy on the part of the employing organization, they’re probably going to start cutting down on those because they’re just not quite as needed,” he said.
On Wednesday, U.S. Secretary of Labor Martin Walsh, speaking at Davos, bemoaned the state of U.S. immigration law, saying it denies the U.S. the workers it needs to drive economic growth.
“We need immigration reform in America. America has always been a country that has depended on immigration. The threat to the American economy long term is not inflation, it’s immigration,” he said. “It’s not having enough workers.”
In his meeting Tuesday with Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte at the White House, U.S. President Joe Biden appeared to have made no progress persuading the Netherlands to support new U.S. restrictions on exporting chip-making technology to China, a key part of Washington’s strategy in its rivalry against Beijing.
During a brief appearance in front of reporters before their meeting, Biden said he and Rutte have been working on “how to keep a free and open Indo-Pacific” to “meet the challenges of China.”
“Simply put, our companies, our countries, have been so far just lockstep in what we’ve done, and our vision for the future. So today, I look forward to discussing how we can further deepen our relationship and securing our supply chains to strengthen our transatlantic partnership,” he added.
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said the administration will continue its efforts.
“We don’t push any of our allies or our partners. We consult with them closely, and they make their own decisions,” she said in a briefing to reporters on Tuesday.
ASML Holding NV, producer of the world’s most advanced semiconductor lithography systems required to manufacture the most advanced chips, is headquartered in Veldhoven, making the Netherlands key to Washington’s chips push against Beijing.
Ahead of Rutte’s visit, Dutch Trade Minister Liesje Schreinemacher said the Netherlands is consulting with European and Asian allies and will not automatically accept the new restrictions that the U.S. Commerce Department launched in October.
“You can’t say that they’ve been pressuring us for two years and now we have to sign on the dotted line. And we won’t,” she said.
Rutte did not mention the semiconductor issue ahead of his meeting with Biden, focusing instead on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, where the NATO allies have been working together to support Kyiv.
“Let’s stay closely together this year,” Rutte said. “And hopefully, things will move forward in a way which is acceptable for Ukraine.”
The battle for U.S. tech supremacy and Washington’s effort to cut off critical technology supplies to Chinese companies began under the administration of former President Donald Trump. Biden took it further by trying to consolidate allies behind the effort, including the Netherlands, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan — home to leading companies that play key roles in the industry’s supply chain.
Allies’ support is crucial, according to an analysis by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). If they do not implement complementary export controls, the U.S. sanctions will cause Chinese buyers to “revise their shopping lists” and replace American devices and equipment with comparable foreign components.
There’s a clear strategic interest in diversifying the supply chain, but the reality is complicated, said Sujai Shivakumar, director of the Renewing American Innovation Project at CSIS.
“This is a major shift, and so, there needs to be coordination … because this impacts a very complex supply chain that spans the world,” Shivakumar told VOA. “It’s a major realignment. It’s a major rewiring. So, there are a lot of details within that broader strategic shift that [have] to be worked out.”
Fifteen percent of ASML’s sales are in China, and the company [has] “already sacrificed,” Peter Wennink, CEO of ASML, said in a December interview with NRC newspaper. He said that following U.S. pressure, the Dutch government has restricted the company from exporting its most advanced lithography machines to China since 2019.
Last week, Biden hosted Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, who said he backs Biden’s attempt but did not agree to match the sweeping curbs targeting China’s semiconductor and supercomputing industries.
Like the U.S., Japan has launched an ambitious program to bring back cutting-edge semiconductor manufacturing domestically, part of the Kishida government’s broader strategy to respond to global supply chain disruptions and try to contain China.
U.S. officials say export restrictions on chips are necessary because China can use semiconductors to advance their military systems, including weapons of mass destruction, and to commit human rights abuses.
The October restrictions follow the U.S. Congress’ July passing of the CHIPS Act of 2022, which provides $52 billion to strengthen domestic semiconductor manufacturing, design and research, and reinforce America’s chip supply chains. The legislation also restricts companies that receive U.S. subsidies from investing in and expanding cutting-edge chipmaking facilities in China.
Beijing has invested heavily in its semiconductor industry as Washington has sought to cut it out of the semiconductor supply chain. In 2015, China laid out plans to invest $1.4 trillion in advanced technologies, aiming to achieve 70% self-sufficiency in semiconductors by 2025.
Some information for this report came from The Associated Press.
When Russia invaded Ukraine, the military and private citizens started using Elon Musk’s SpaceX Starlink, which eventually became key to Ukraine’s resistance. From Kyiv, Myroslava Gongadze tells the story of one Ukrainian engineer who volunteers to support the technology and the soldiers who use it.
Israel’s Cognyte Software Ltd won a tender to sell intercept spyware to a Myanmar state-backed telecommunications firm a month before the Asian nation’s February 2021 military coup, according to documents reviewed by Reuters.
The deal was made even though Israel has claimed it stopped defense technology transfers to Myanmar following a 2017 ruling by Israel’s Supreme Court, according to a legal complaint recently filed with Israel’s attorney general and disclosed Sunday.
While the ruling was subjected to a rare gag order at the request of the state and media cannot cite the verdict, Israel’s government has publicly stated on numerous occasions that defense exports to Myanmar are banned.
The complaint, led by high-profile Israeli human rights lawyer Eitay Mack who spearheaded the campaign for the Supreme Court ruling, calls for a criminal investigation into the deal.
It accuses Cognyte and unnamed defense and foreign ministry officials who supervise such deals of “aiding and abetting crimes against humanity in Myanmar.”
The complaint was filed on behalf of more than 60 Israelis, including a former speaker of the house as well as prominent activists, academics and writers.
The documents about the deal, provided to Reuters and Mack by activist group Justice for Myanmar, are a January 2021 letter with attachments from Myanmar Posts and Telecommunications (MPT) to local regulators that list Cognyte as the winning vendor for intercept technology and note the purchase order was issued “by 30th Dec 2020.”
Intercept spyware can give authorities the power to listen in on calls, view text messages and web traffic including emails, and track the locations of users without the assistance of telecom and internet firms.
Representatives for Cognyte, Myanmar’s military government and MPT did not respond to multiple Reuters requests for comment. Japan’s KDDI Corp and Sumitomo Corp, which have stakes in MPT, declined to comment, saying they were not privy to details on communication interception.
Israel’s attorney general did not respond to requests for comment about the complaint. The foreign affairs ministry did not respond to requests for comment about the deal, while the defense ministry declined to comment.
Two people with knowledge of Myanmar’s intercept plans separately told Reuters the Cognyte system was tested by MPT.
They declined to be identified for fear of retribution by Myanmar’s junta.
MPT uses intercept spyware, a source with direct knowledge of the matter and three people briefed on the issue told Reuters although they did not identify the vendor. Reuters was unable to determine whether the sale of Cognyte intercept technology to MPT was finalized.
Even before the coup, public concern had mounted in Israel about the country’s defense exports to Myanmar after a brutal 2017 crackdown by the military on the country’s Rohingya population while Aung San Suu Kyi’s government was in power. The crackdown prompted the petition led by Mack that asked the Supreme Court to ban arms exports to Myanmar.
Since the coup, the junta has killed thousands of people including many political opponents, according to the United Nations.
Cognyte under fire
Many governments around the world allow for what are commonly called “lawful intercepts” to be used by law enforcement agencies to catch criminals but the technology is not ordinarily employed without any kind of legal process, cybersecurity experts have said.
According to industry executives and activists previously interviewed by Reuters, Myanmar’s junta is using invasive telecoms spyware without legal safeguards to protect human rights.
Mack said Cognyte’s participation in the tender contradicts statements made by Israeli officials after the Supreme court ruling that no security exports had been made to Myanmar.
While intercept spyware is typically described as “dual-use” technology for civilian and defense purposes, Israeli law states that “dual-use” technology is classified as defense equipment.
Israeli law also requires companies exporting defense-related products to seek licenses for export and marketing when doing deals. The legal complaint said any officials who granted Cognyte licenses for Myanmar deals should be investigated. Reuters was unable to determine whether Cognyte obtained such licenses.
Around the time of the 2020 deal, the political situation in Myanmar was tense with the military disputing the results of an election won by Suu Kyi.
Norway’s Telenor, previously one of the biggest telecoms firms in Myanmar before withdrawing from the country last year, also said in a Dec. 3, 2020 briefing and statement that it was concerned about Myanmar authorities’ plans for a lawful intercept due to insufficient legal safeguards.
Nasdaq-listed Cognyte was spun off in February 2021 from Verint Systems Inc, a pioneering giant in Israel’s cybersecurity industry.
Cognyte, which had $474 million in annual revenue for its last financial year, was also banned from Facebook in 2021.
Facebook owner Meta Platforms Inc said in a report Cognyte “enables managing fake accounts across social media platforms.”
Meta said its investigation identified Cognyte customers in a range of countries such as Kenya, Mexico and Indonesia and their targets included journalists and politicians. It did not identify the customers or the targets.
Meta did not respond to a request for further comment.
Norway’s sovereign wealth fund last month dropped Cognyte from its portfolio, saying states said to be customers of its surveillance products and services “have been accused of extremely serious human rights violations.” The fund did not name any states.
Cognyte has not responded publicly to the claims made by Meta or Norway’s sovereign wealth fund.
An upcoming U.S. Supreme Court case that asks whether tech firms can be held liable for damages related to algorithmically generated content recommendations has the ability to “upend the internet,” according to a brief filed by Google this week.
The case, Gonzalez v. Google LLC, is a long-awaited opportunity for the high court to weigh in on interpretations of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996. A provision of federal law that has come under fire from across the political spectrum, Section 230 shields technology firms from liability for content published by third parties on their platforms, but also allows those same firms to curate or bar certain content.
The case arises from a complaint by Reynaldo Gonzalez, whose daughter was killed in an attack by members of the terror group ISIS in Paris in 2015. Gonzales argues that Google helped ISIS recruit members because YouTube, the online video hosting service owned by Google, used a video recommendation algorithm that suggested videos published by ISIS to individuals who displayed interest in the group.
Gonzalez’s complaint argues that by recommending content, YouTube went beyond simply providing a platform for ISIS videos, and should therefore be held accountable for their effects.
The case has garnered the attention of a multitude of interested parties, including free speech advocates who want tech firms’ liability shield left largely intact. Others argue that because tech firms take affirmative steps to keep certain content off their platforms, their claims to be simple conduits of information ring hollow, and that they should therefore be liable for the material they publish.
In its brief, Google painted a dire picture of what might happen if the latter interpretation were to prevail, arguing that it “would turn the internet into a dystopia where providers would face legal pressure to censor any objectionable content. Some might comply; others might seek to evade liability by shutting their eyes and leaving up everything, no matter how objectionable.”
Not everyone shares Google’s concern.
“Actually all it would do is make it so that Google and other tech companies have to follow the law just like everybody else,” Megan Iorio, senior counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information Center, told VOA.
“Things are not so great on the internet for certain groups of people right now because of Section 230,” said Iorio, whose organization filed a friend of the court brief in the case. “Section 230 makes it so that tech companies don’t have to respond when somebody tells them that non-consensual pornography has been posted on their site and keeps on proliferating. They don’t have to take down other things that a court has found violate the person’s privacy rights. So you know, to [say] that returning Section 230 to its original understanding is going to create a hellscape is hyperbolic.”
Experts said the Supreme Court might try to chart a narrow course that leaves some protections intact for tech firms, but allows liability for recommendations. However, because of the prevalence of algorithmic recommendations on the internet, the only available method to organize the dizzying array of content available online, any ruling that affects them could have a significant impact.
“It has pretty profound implications, because with tech regulation and tech law, things can have unintended consequences,” John Villasenor, a professor of engineering and law and director of the UCLA Institute for Technology, Law and Policy, told VOA.
“The challenge is that even a narrow ruling, for example, holding that targeted recommendations are not protected, would have all sorts of very complicated downstream consequences,” Villasenor said. “If it’s the case that targeted recommendations aren’t protected under the liability shield, then is it also true that search results that are in some sense customized to a particular user are also unprotected?”
The key language in Section 230 has been called, “the 26 words that created the internet.” That section reads as follows:
“No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher of or speaker of information provided by another information content provider.”
At the time the law was drafted in the 1990s, people around the world were flocking to an internet that was still in its infancy. It was an open question whether an internet platform that gave individual third parties the ability to post content on them, such as a bulletin board service, was legally liable for that content.
Recognizing that a patchwork of state-level libel and defamation laws could leave developing internet companies exposed to crippling lawsuits, Congress drafted language meant to shield them. That protection is credited by many for the fact that U.S. tech firms, particularly in Silicon Valley, rose to dominance on the internet in the 21st century.
Because of the global reach of U.S. technology firms, the ruling in Gonzalez v. Google LLC is likely to echo far beyond the United States when it is handed down.
The groundwork for the Supreme Court’s decision to take the case was laid in 2020, when Justice Clarence Thomas wrote in response to an appeal that, “in an appropriate case, we should consider whether the text of this increasingly important statute aligns with the current state of immunity enjoyed by internet platforms.”
That statement by Thomas, arguably the court’s most conservative member, heartened many on the right who are concerned that “Big Tech” firms enjoy too much cultural power in the U.S., including the ability to deny a platform to individuals with whose views they disagree.
Gonzalez v. Google LLC is remarkable in that many cases that make it to the Supreme Court do so in part because lower courts have issued conflicting decisions, requiring an authoritative ruling from the high court to provide legal clarity.
Gonzalez’s case, however, has been dismissed by two lower courts, both of which held that Section 230 rendered Google immune from the suit.
Politicians have been calling for reform of Section 230 for years, with both Republicans and Democrats joining the chorus, though frequently for different reasons.
Former President Donald Trump regularly railed against large technology firms, threatening to use the federal government to rein them in, especially when he believed that they were preventing him or his supporters from getting their messages out to the public.
His concern became particularly intense during the early years of the COVID-19 pandemic, when technology firms began working to limit the spread of social media accounts that featured misinformation about the virus and the safety of vaccinations.
Trump was eventually kicked off Twitter and Facebook after using those platforms to spread false claims about the 2020 presidential election, which he lost, and to help organize a rally that preceded the assault on the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021.
Major figures in the Republican Party are active in the Gonzalez case. Missouri Senator Josh Hawley and Texas Senator Ted Cruz have both submitted briefs in the case urging the court to crack down on Google and large tech firms in general.
“Confident in their ability to dodge liability, platforms have not been shy about restricting access and removing content based on the politics of the speaker, an issue that has persistently arisen as Big Tech companies censor and remove content espousing conservative political views,” Cruz writes.
Biden calls for reform
Section 230 criticism has come from both sides of the aisle. On Wednesday, President Joe Biden published an essay in The Wall Street Journal urging “Democrats and Republicans to come together to pass strong bipartisan legislation to hold Big Tech accountable.”
Biden argues for a number of reforms, including improved privacy protections for individuals, especially children, and more robust competition, but he leaves little doubt about what he sees as a need for Section 230 reform.
“[W]e need Big Tech companies to take responsibility for the content they spread and the algorithms they use,” he writes. “That’s why I’ve long said we must fundamentally reform Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which protects tech companies from legal responsibility for content posted on their sites.”
A recently published report in a U.S.-based magazine says Iran is likely using facial recognition technology to monitor women’s compliance with the country’s hijab law.
While there are other ways people can be identified, Wired magazine says Iran’s apparent use of facial recognition technology against women is “perhaps the first known instance of a government using face recognition to impose dress law on women based on religious belief.”
Iran announced late last year that it would begin to use recognition technology to monitor its women.
Wired said that since the protests that have erupted across Iran following the death of a young women who was arrested for wearing her headscarf improperly, Iranian women are reporting that they are being arrested for hijab infractions a day or two after attending protests, even though they had no interaction with police during the protests.
Tiandy, a Chinese company blacklisted by the U.S., is a likely provider of facial recognition technology to Iran, although neither it nor Iranian officials responded to a request for comment from Wired.
The company has in the past listed the Iran Revolutionary Guard Corp and other Iranian police and government agencies as customers. Tiandy also boasted on its website that its technology has helped China identify the country’s ethnic minorities, including Uyghurs.
Concerns linger over Twitter’s stance on free expression and safety since Elon Musk took over the platform in a $44 billion deal.
Since taking ownership in late October, Musk has instituted changes including dissolving an oversight review channel, laying off a large portion of the team focused on combating misinformation, and suspending the accounts of several U.S. journalists.
Two media advocacy groups on Wednesday called on Musk to reverse course and implement policies to protect the right to legitimate information and press freedom.
In a joint letter to Twitter, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) and the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) voiced “alarm” that Musk had undermined the legitimacy of Twitter by dissolving the site’s oversight review panel that checked postings for their truthfulness and laying off the majority of Twitter staff who helped combat misinformation.
The journalists’ groups also criticized Musk for “arbitrarily reinstating the accounts of nefarious actors, including known spreaders of misinformation,” and its suspension of several reporters, including VOA’s chief national correspondent, Steve Herman.
“Twitter’s policies should be crafted and communicated in a transparent manner … not arbitrarily or based on the company leadership’s personal preferences, perceptions and frustrations,” said the two organizations.
The groups also said Musk should reinstate Twitter’s Trust and Safety Council to review content posted on the site and better monitor attempts to censor information and penalize some individuals, including many journalists.
“Transparency and democratic safeguards must replace Musk’s capricious, arbitrary decision-making,” said Christophe Deloire, secretary-general of RSF.
In December, Twitter notified members of the Trust and Safety Council that the advisory group had been dissolved.
The email to the group said Twitter would work with partners through smaller meetings and regional contacts, said CPJ, a media rights organization that was a member of the council along with RSF.
“Mechanisms such as the Trust and Safety Council help platforms like Twitter to understand how to address harm and counter behavior that targets journalists,” CPJ President Jodie Ginsberg said in a statement. “Safety online can mean survival offline.”
Twitter also has continued its suspension of some journalists, saying it will restore their accounts only if certain posts are deleted.
Those suspended had tweeted about @ElonJet, an account that uses publicly available data to report on Musk’s private jet. That account was also suspended.
Musk had said on Twitter that the @Elonjet account and any accounts that linked to it were suspended because they violated Twitter’s anti-doxxing policy.
Doxxing is maliciously publishing a person’s private or identifying information — such a phone number or address — on the internet.
The @Elonjet Twitter account, however, used publicly available data. Additionally, none of the journalists who had tweeted about Musk and his shutdown of the account had tweeted location information for his plane. They did report that the @Elonjet account had moved to another platform and named the platform.
Some of the journalists have had their accounts restored after removing content. But VOA’s Herman is still suspended from the platform after refusing to remove tweets.
The veteran correspondent said he was notified this week that his appeal against the permanent suspension was denied. The reason: violating rules against “posting private information.”
Before the account was suspended, Herman had more than 111,000 followers.
“Based on what Musk has previously tweeted and recent media reports, I have concerns that if I don’t give into the demand to delete several posts and reactivate @W7VOA, my Twitter account will eventually be deleted for inactivity or auctioned off,” he told VOA.
Herman, like other journalists, migrated to other social media platforms including Mastodon, where he gained 40,000 followers. But, he said, “Neither platform has yet to achieve critical mass and thus the influence of Twitter, especially for journalists and policymakers.”