Why India is the world leader of internet shutdowns

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Protesters in Assam would have struggled to read a tweet from the PM telling them all was well last week

As protests over a controversial citizenship law rage across India, authorities resorted to shutting down the internet in cities where demonstrators flooded the streets. It was one more episode of a shutdown in a country which has seen the highest number of internet blocks in the world so far this year.

“I want to assure my brothers and sisters of Assam that they have nothing to worry after the passing of the Citizenship Amendment Bill. I want to assure them – no one can take away your rights, unique identity and beautiful culture. It will continue to flourish and grow,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted on 12 December amid violent protests in the north-eastern state last week.

The only problem? There was no internet there on that day so it’s unclear whether any of the thousands of people protesting against a controversial citizenship law were able to read his tweet.

The irony of the situation caused a lot of comment, especially as it came alongside news that India is the world leader in internet shutdowns.

The internet has been shut down 93 times so far this year, according to the Internet Shutdown Tracker, a portal which tracks such incidents across the country.

Authorities usually order internet service providers to suspend services citing worsening law and order situation.

Ongoing protests against the citizenship law saw the internet not only blocked in Assam, but also in districts in West Bengal state as well as in the northern city of Aligarh in the last few weeks alone.

Officials in Delhi, which also witnessed violent protests, have not shut down internet services so far. The Indian capital is the political hub and also has a large number of businesses, and that could be the reason that officials have been reluctant to suspend internet services.

With protests showing little signs of abating, there is every chance that this number could increase before the end of the year.

But the shutdowns of the last few weeks have at least been temporary.

Broadband and mobile data services have been blocked for more than four months in Indian-administered Kashmir, with no signs of the situation changing.

Officials have said that it is necessary to “keep the peace” in the region, which was recently stripped of its semi-autonomous status, divided into two federally-governed territories and saw many of its political leaders detained.

Longer internet blackouts than this have occurred only in countries like China and Myanmar.

But it’s not just this year that India has led the way in blocking off access to the net.

It also saw the highest number of shutdowns in 2018 with 134 reported incidents. To put this in perspective, the second-highest country on the list was Pakistan – which saw 12 shutdowns last year.

Many Indians – who are part of one of the fastest growing internet markets in the world – have criticised what they perceive to be a clampdown on free speech and a “regressive” leadership whose knee-jerk reaction at the first sign of unrest is to suspend the internet.

Part of the criticism is sparked by the fact that Mr Modi made internet connectivity a major election plank before he won his first term as prime minister in 2014.

In fact, he championed a government initiative called Digital India, aimed at strengthening the country’s digital infrastructure.

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I dream of a Digital India where access to information knows no barriers.

Mr Modi also said he wanted more than a billion Indians online and wanted to take cheap, high-speed broadband to rural areas to achieve this.

But the increasing number of shutdowns since he came to power in 2014 has prompted many to question whether this is what he means when he says he is “digitising India”.

India’s longest shutdowns:

  • 136 days and counting: Internet services were suspended on 4 August in Jammu and Kashmir this year
  • 133 days: An internet shutdown in Indian-administered Kashmir which lasted from 8 July to 19 November in 2016
  • 99 days: Authorities shut off the internet in India’s West Bengal state from 18 June to 25 September in 2017

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Ofcom proposes locked-handset ban

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Telecoms watchdog Ofcom is proposing a ban on the sale of locked handsets, to make it easier for consumers to switch between mobile phone networks.

It says BT/EE, Tesco Mobile and Vodafone are among providers that sell mobiles that cannot be used with alternative operators without being “unlocked”.

This requires a code provided by the original network.

And Ofcom says “nearly half” of customers find the process difficult.

Some operators charge for the service. Tesco, for example, charges £10 to unlock a pay-as-you-go handset that is less than a year old.

O2, Sky, Three and Virgin do not restrict customers to locked devices.

“By freeing mobile users from locked handsets, our plans would save people time, effort and money – and help them unlock a better deal,” Ofcom consumer group director Lindsey Fussell said.

Ofcom is now running a consultation on the proposals.

Three said it welcomed the plan and “urged” Ofcom to introduce it as soon as possible.

The watchdog also wants to make switching broadband provider easier, in line with new EU regulations.

Last week consumer group Which? said customers could save £120 a year by making a change.

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YouTuber PewDiePie to take break from platform as ‘very tired’

YouTuber PewDiePie has announced he will be taking a break from the video-sharing platform, saying he is “very tired”.

With 102 million subscribers, the Swedish vlogger and comedian was for many years the platform’s most popular star but was overtaken earlier this year by T-Series, an Indian record label which now has around 120 million subscribers.

PewDiePie, whose real name is Felix Kjellberg, is known for his video-game commentary, but has also been the centre of controversy due to accusations of racism and antisemitism.

Sharing his decision in a video, PewDiePie said: “I am taking a break from YouTube next year,” he said. “I wanted to say it in advance because I made up my mind. I’m tired. I’m feeling very tired. I don’t know if you can tell. Just so you know, early next year I’ll be away for a little while. I’ll explain that later but I wanted to give a heads-up.”

In 2017, he used the n-word against another player during a live gaming stream. He apologised, saying he “didn’t mean that in a bad way”.

In the same year, Disney ended its joint venture with Kjellberg after antisemitic references were found in several of his videos – including people holding up a sign that read: “Death to all Jews.”

He responded by saying he was “trying to show how crazy the modern world is”, adding that he had paid two men from India through Fiverr, a freelance marketplace, to make the sign.

The YouTuber has been embraced by the far right, including the Christchurch shooter, who killed 51 people in a New Zealand mosque while livestreaming and telling viewers to “subscribe to PewDiePie”.

The 30-year-old said that he felt “absolutely sickened” to be mentioned by the gunman. He removed some of his videos following the shooting, saying he now understood some of his jokes to be “ultimately offensive”.

This year, following backlash against his offensive content, the vlogger promised to donate $50,000 (£37,500) to the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), a non-profit that fights antisemitism. However, he then withdrew the pledge after his fans spread conspiracy theories that he had been forced to make the donation.

“I made the mistake of picking a charity that I was advised to instead of picking a charity that I’m personally passionate about,” Kjellberg said in a video. “Which is 100% my fault.”

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Facebook scraps phone number friend recommendations

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Facebook is to stop using members’ phone numbers in its friends recommendation system in 2020 following concern about privacy implications.

Users can choose to have a code sent to their mobile phones when logging in to make access harder for hackers.

But Facebook admitted it also fed the numbers into targeted advertising and friend recommendation systems.

The company says it will have completed the changes – part of a settlement with US regulators – during 2020.

What did Facebook do?

Most of the social networks now offer two-factor authentication – also known as two-step authentication – to enhance account security.

It makes it harder for attackers to break into an online account because they need both the password and a one-off code sent to the account-holder’s mobile phone.

But in 2018, it was revealed that Facebook was also using the phone numbers to target advertising – and to power its People You May Know feature, which recommends potential Facebook friends.

Privacy advocates and security researchers criticised the social network, saying the practice was deceptive and could erode trust in two-factor authentication.

How does People You May Know work?

People You May Know is designed to identify people you might want to add to your Facebook friends list.

It uses a variety of signals to work out whether you have met somebody, including:

  • having lots of mutual friends on Facebook
  • being tagged in a photo together
  • being in the same “network”, such as a workplace or school

However, Facebook and Messenger can also collect contact information from your smartphone’s address book.

That means Facebook can identify people who have saved your number in their address book, and can encourage you to add them as a friend.

It used the phone numbers people provided for two-factor authentication to make these connections.

When will Facebook stop doing this?

Facebook has promised to make privacy changes as part of a $5bn (£3.8bn) settlement with the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC).

It said it had stopped using members’ security phone numbers for advertising in June 2019.

It will stop using the numbers for friend suggestions in Cambodia, Ecuador, Ethiopia, Libya and Pakistan in the next few days.

Facebook told the news agency Reuters that the change would take effect globally in 2020.

However, anybody who has already set up two-factor authentication will have to disable it and delete their phone number from the system, and then switch it back on.

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Jeff Bezos warns US military it risks losing tech supremacy

Jeff Bezos has warned American military leaders that the US risks losing its superiority in technologies that have been key to its national security.

Speaking at the Reagan National Defense Forum, an annual gathering of US military leaders and defence contractors, the Amazon chief executive officer suggested that China’s attempt to steal an edge in important technologies represented a new type of threat to US military supremacy, which has been based for decades on a clear technological superiority.

“Do you really want to plan for a future where you have to fight with someone who is as good as you are?” he asked the annual gathering at the Reagan Presidential Library. “This is not a sporting competition. You don’t want to fight fair.”

The Amazon boss singled out space as one area where US leadership was in doubt. “We’ve had an advantage in space — I’m very nervous that it’s changing rapidly,” he said. Mr Bezos has been pouring around $1bn year of his Amazon fortune into Blue Origin, his personal space company, which has set its sights on eventually selling launch services to the US Department of Defense.

Commenting on the US space sector, he said: “They’re facing adversaries who are good at innovating. If you’re facing adversaries who are good at innovating, you have to do it more.”

Mr Bezos’ appearance before top US military leaders came two weeks after he sued the Pentagon for failing to award a contract to Amazon Web Services, his company’s cloud computing arm, worth up to $10bn.

The contract, to operate a single data platform to support all US military operations, went instead to Microsoft after an eleventh-hour intervention by President Donald Trump — a decision that Amazon claims was the result of bias. Mr Bezos is also the owner of the Washington Post, which has been fiercely critical of the president.

The Amazon boss did not comment on the Jedi contract. But he struck a strong position in support of the US military, arguing that making the country’s top private sector technology available to the Pentagon was essential to the preservation of freedom and democracy. That was in contrast to some other tech companies, most notably Google, which have steered away from some types of military work after complaints from workers.

“My view is, if Big Tech is going to turn their back on national defence, this country is in trouble,” Mr Bezos said. Referring to the protests from some tech workers, he added: “I understand people are emotional. But there is truth in the world. We’re the good guys.”

Satya Nadella, chief executive of Microsoft, has taken a similar stance, even though he has faced protests from some employees over his company’s work for the US government on national security.

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Ericsson to pay US more than $1bn over foreign bribery

Ericsson has agreed to pay more than $1bn to settle US criminal and civil investigations into foreign corruption involving high-level executives that spanned almost two decades.

The Swedish telecommunications group admitted to a long-running scheme to use agents and consultants to bribe government officials in Djibouti, China, Vietnam, Indonesia and Kuwait.

The settlement announced on Friday draws a line under investigations by the US Department of Justice and Securities and Exchange Commission, and was in line with the company’s previously disclosed provisions.

“Ericsson’s corrupt conduct involved high-level executives and spanned 17 years and at least five countries, all in a misguided effort to increase profits,” said Brian Benczkowski, head of the criminal division of the justice department, in a statement.

Mr Benczkowski had signalled the deal in a speech earlier this week, where he said the justice department had recovered $1.6bn in corporate resolutions of foreign bribery cases in 2019, beating the previous record of $1.3bn set in 2016 under the Obama administration.

As part of the settlement, Ericsson struck a three-year deferred prosecution agreement and a subsidiary pleaded guilty to conspiracy to violate the US Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.

The conduct admitted by the company between 2000 and 2016 ranged from cash bribes disguised as sham contracts to in-kind bribes for government officials and “off-the-books slush funds” used to make payments to customers who would ordinarily not pass its due diligence processes.

In Djibouti, from 2010 to 2014, an Ericsson subsidiary paid $2.1m in bribes to top government officials to win a contract with the country’s state-owned telecoms company, according to the company’s admissions.

Over 17 years in China, subsidiaries funded tens of millions of dollars of gifts, travel and entertainment for officials, while in Vietnam and Indonesia the bribery involved millions of dollars to consulting companies to form slush funds, the company admitted.

The admitted conduct in Kuwait involved an Ericsson subsidiary that won a $182m contract after an employee received inside information on the tender; it paid the source’s consulting company $450,000.

Steve Peikin, co-director of the SEC’s enforcement division, said Ericsson had “engaged in an egregious bribery scheme for years, spanning multiple continents, by surreptitiously using slush funds and funnelling money through sham intermediaries”.

The settlement involved a $520m criminal penalty due to the justice department and the return of $540m in ill-gotten gains, payable to the SEC, as well as the imposition of an outside monitor for three years. The SEC’s case included alleged bribery in Saudi Arabia.

Though Ericsson had co-operated with the investigations, the justice department said the company had failed to voluntarily disclose the conduct, provide all materials in a timely manner, and did not take “adequate disciplinary measures” with some employees involved in the scheme.

Börje Ekholm, Ericsson’s chief executive, said in a statement he was “upset by these past failings”, adding that the company had “not always met our standards in doing business the right way”.

“We have worked tirelessly to implement a robust compliance programme. This work will never stop,” he said.

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Uber passengers reported over 3,000 sexual assaults last year

More than 3,000 Uber passengers reported sexual assaults in 2018, the ride-sharing company revealed in its first-ever safety report on Friday. Nine passengers were murdered and 58 riders were killed in crashes last year, the report said.

These incidents, which include 229 rapes, represent just a fraction of the more than 1.3bn rides Uber facilitated in the US in the past year, but they come at a time when the company is increasingly under scrutiny for worker and rider safety conditions.

“The numbers are jarring and hard to digest,” Tony West, Uber’s chief legal officer, told the New York Times. “What it says is that Uber is a reflection of the society it serves.”

In 2017, the company counted 2,936 reported sexual assaults during 1bn US trips. Uber bases its numbers on reports from riders and drivers, meaning the actual numbers could be much higher. Sexual assaults commonly go unreported.

The ride-hailing company noted that drivers and riders were both attacked, and that some assaults occurred between riders.

“I suspect many people will be surprised at how rare these incidents are; others will understandably think they’re still too common,” Uber’s CEO, Dara Khosrowshahi, tweeted about the report. “Some people will appreciate how much we’ve done on safety; others will say we have more work to do. They will all be right.”

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Russians charged over global bank internet fraud

US and UK officials announced charges against two Russian nationals accused of running an organised cyber crime syndicate that stole hundreds of millions of dollars from victims in over 40 countries.

Maksim Yakubets and Igor Turashev were accused on Thursday of using a notorious piece of hacking software called “Bugat” or “Dridex” to steal online banking credentials in an alleged criminal conspiracy that began in 2009.

Officials from the US Department of Justice and the UK National Crime Agency called the pair prolific cybercriminals who had effectively committed bank robberies from their computers in Russia.

The US Treasury department separately sanctioned “Evil Corp”, the criminal syndicate allegedly run by Mr Yakubets and Mr Turashev, and claimed Mr Yakubets had provided “direct assistance to the Russian government’s malicious cyber efforts” through his alleged work for Russian intelligence.

Mr Yakubets and Mr Turashev were both indicted in the US in relation to the “Bugat” malware, while Mr Yakubets was additionally charged with a scheme involving another type of malware known as “Zeus”.

Brian Benczkowski, head of the US justice department’s criminal division, said Mr Yakubets was “responsible for two of the worst computer hacking and bank fraud schemes of the past decade”.

Rob Jones, director of the cyber crime unit at the UK’s NCA, said the two men had targeted “thousands of victims” in 43 countries, stealing hundreds of millions of dollars to fund their “cash-rich, fast cars” lifestyle.

Undated handout photo issued by National Crime Agency of a police officer speaking to Maksim Yakubets, 32, from Moscow, accused of running the world's most harmful cyber crime group which used computer viruses to cheat UK victims out of hundreds of millions of pounds, is facing charges for hacking and fraud. PA Photo. Issue date: Thursday December 5, 2019. Yakubets, from Moscow, who is said to run the group Evil Corp, has been indicted in the US over two international computer hacking and bank fraud schemes in operation since 2009, officials announced at a press conference in Washington DC on Thursday. See PA story POLICE Cyber. Photo credit should read: National Crime Agency/PA Wire NOTE TO EDITORS: This handout photo may only be used in for editorial reporting purposes for the contemporaneous illustration of events, things or the people in the image or facts mentioned in the caption. Reuse of the picture may require further permission from the copyright holder.
A photo issued by the UK National Crime Agency of Maksim Yakubets and his car © PA

Investigators had identified online accounts associated with the men that showed them “behaving and acting like very flamboyant and extravagant millionaires”, said Mr Jones at a joint press conference in Washington DC.

The NCA released pictures of what it said was Mr Yakubets’ customised Lamborghini “with a personalised number plate that translates to ‘Thief’”.

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Check out the companies making headlines in midday trading

Etsy — Shares of e-commerce company Etsy fell 1.4% after Morgan Stanley downgraded the e-commerce website company to underweight from ‘equal weight. The bank said it sees slowing gross merchandise sales that will result in negative earnings revisions.

ViacomCBS — ViacomCBS shares rallied more than 3% after it announced on Wednesday evening the completion of the merger between CBS and Viacom. The new company is expected to focus on quality content as rivals like Disney, Apple and Amazon ramp up their own streaming and original shows and films.

Biogen – The biotechnology company’s stock rose 3.3% after Biogen released new data about its late-stage Alzheimer’s drug called aducanumab. While the data did not offer any significant differences from data Biogen released in October, analysts believe the lack of negatives in the most recent report means the company will soon bring the drug’s data to the Food and Drug Administration.

Signet Jewelers — Shares of the jewelry company popped more than 9% in midday trading after the company reported a smaller-than-expected loss and topped analysts’ sales expectations in the third quarter. Despite a larger net loss than the year-ago period, the owner of Kay, Zales and Jared issued better fiscal 2020 guidance thanks to the success of its transformation plan, according to CEO Virginia Drosos.

Acadia Pharmaceuticals — Shares of the pharmaceutical company jumped 14.8% on positive trial results for its pimavanserin drug, which aims to treat psychosis on patients with Alzheimer’s disease. Acadia also said serious adverse effects were low during the trials.

Sage Therapeutics — Sage’s stock plunged nearly 60% after the company announced its oral depression therapy failed in a late-stage trial. After 15 days, the treatment did not produce significant improvements across 17 parameters, including anxiety.

Restoration Hardware – The furniture company’s stock surged more than 10% after reporting better-than-expected third quarter earnings. RH earned $2.79 per share on $677 million. Wall Street expected $2.23 per share on revenue of $676 million, according to Refinitiv. The company also raised its full year earnings guidance.

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Saudi Aramco raises $25.6bn in world’s biggest IPO

Saudi Aramco has priced its long-awaited initial public offering at the top end of its range, making it the world’s largest new listing.

The state oil giant raised $25.6bn, surpassing Chinese ecommerce group Alibaba’s 2014 $25bn share sale in the US, giving Saudi Aramco a valuation of $1.7tn. This is more than the combined market capitalisation of the five biggest international oil companies.

Two people familiar with the matter said shares had priced at 32 SAR ($8.53) each, which is at the top end of the 30-32 SAR indicative price range the company announced last month. Saudi Aramco declined to comment.

Despite the record breaking figure, the regional share sale is a scaled-back version of the kingdom’s initial ambitions.

The flotation will rely heavily on local money after Saudi Arabia decided against marketing the listing outside the Gulf amid lukewarm demand from overseas institutions that baulked at the valuation expectations of the kingdom’s officials.

The pricing at the top end of the range, sought after by the kingdom’s leadership, came even as some bankers working on the deal had argued that a more prudent approach would be to issue at the middle of the range to encourage buying in the after-market and for shares to trade higher later, one person close to the process said. “The banks advised the client to play it safe,” the person said. “There is a risk to the lenders if the shares trade down.”

Saudi Arabia had sought to raise $25bn from a sale of 1.5 per cent of the state oil company — the country’s biggest revenue generator — on Riyadh’s Tadawul stock exchange, hoping to secure a valuation of up to $1.7tn.

For much of the past four years, since plans for the listing were first disclosed by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the kingdom had pushed to raise $100bn from a sale of 5 per cent at a $2tn valuation.

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