Chinese netizens anticipate VPN crackdown, Google receives historic antitrust fine from EU, and new documents released from investigation in Philando Castile’s death

Corporate Accountability News Highlights is a regular series by Ranking Digital Rights that highlights key news related to tech companies, freedom of expression, and privacy issues around the world.

Chinese internet users anticipate VPN crackdown

Image via tonynetone on Flickr (licensed CC BY 2.0)

Global Voices reports that a crackdown on Virtual Private Network (VPN) use in China may be just around the corner. Internet users in China regularly rely upon VPNs to access websites and social media sites like Facebook and Twitter that are blocked by China’s “Great Firewall.” However several VPNs appear to have recently been removed from Apple and Android app stores, according to the report, and VPN provider Green issued a statement to its users that after receiving notice from “higher authorities,” it would cease operations on July 1. In January, the Chinese Ministry of Industry and Information Technology announced that VPN providers could not operate without approval. Internet users anticipate that a majority of VPN apps will be unavailable in Chinese Android and Apple app stores as of July 1, according to Global Voices.

In the Corporate Accountability Index, we look for app store companies to report data on the number of requests they receive from governments to remove or restrict third-party apps. Of the three mobile ecosystem companies we evaluated (Apple’s iOS, Google’s Android, and Samsung’s implementation of Android), Google was the only company to disclose some of this information.

European Commission fines Google 2.4 billion Euro in antitrust suit

The European Commission has fined Google 2.4 billion Euro in an antitrust case, finding that Google Search had prioritized results from Google’s comparison shopping service and demoted similar search results from competitors. According to EU Commissioner Margrethe Vestager, “Google abused its market dominance as a search engine” by doing this. In addition to receiving the largest antitrust fine aimed at a single company in EU history, this could also lead to further regulatory action focused on other aspects of Google’s business–including Android. In April 2016, the Commission filed a separate antitrust case that Google was abusing Android’s market dominance to benefit Google Search, which the Commission said “has harmed consumers by restricting competition and innovation.” The Android investigation is still ongoing, and financial analyst Richard Windsor told Reuters that the recent fine is a “warning shot” to Google regarding the Android case.

The majority of smartphone users use an Android operating system, and it is projected to maintain about an 85% market share through 2020. Google Android, and other mobile ecosystem companies, should be transparent about their policies and practices. However, our research found that all three mobile ecosystems evaluated—Apple, Google, and Samsung—failed to sufficiently disclose policies affecting users’ freedom of expression and privacy.

Facebook pushes back on request by authorities to access users’ accounts

Facebook successfully contested warrants for two users’ account information that included a gag order preventing the company from notifying anyone about the request, newly released documents reveal. The warrants were served as part of the investigation into the death of Philando Castile, who was fatally shot by a Minnesota police officer on July 7, 2016. His girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, who was in the passenger’s seat when Castile was shot, livestreamed the immediate aftermath on Facebook live in a video that was viewed 3.2 million times in less than one day. Minnesota’s Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA) served Facebook with warrants requesting information from both Castile’s and Reynold’s Facebook accounts. Authorities also served Sprint with a warrant for Diamond Reynolds’ phone records, including call and text logs and location data.

Both of the warrants included indefinite gag orders that would prevent Facebook and Sprint from ever notifying anyone else of the requests, including Reynolds. Facebook pushed back against the gag order, and notified the BCA that it was preparing a legal filing to challenge the warrants, which were eventually rescinded. Sprint complied with the warrant and gag order. A Facebook spokesperson told Gizmodo, “Our policy is to notify people about law enforcement requests for their information before disclosure unless we’re legally barred from doing so. In this case, we decided to challenge gag orders on our ability to provide this important notice, and the authorities ultimately withdrew these warrants altogether.”

The Corporate Accountability Index looks for companies to disclose a policy that they carry out due diligence when governments or law enforcement ask for user information before deciding how to respond. We also expect companies to commit to push back on inappropriate or overbroad requests, and to notify users when government entities request their user information, and clearly disclose situations when they may be prohibited by law from notifying users. For the Facebook social network, Instagram, and Messenger, Facebook clearly disclosed that it notifies users when government authorities request their user information, but did not make the same explicit disclosure for WhatsApp.

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