China temporarily shuts down Weibo services, Facebook accused of censoring Egyptian activists, Lyft employees could be spying on riders

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

China shuts down Weibo services for a week

Images remixed by Oiwan Lam (CC BY 2.0)

The Chinese government has ordered the micro-blogging platform Sina Weibo to shut down services over objectionable content for a week. On January 27, the Cyberspace Administration of China, the country’s internet regulator, complained about ‘’vulgar and pronographic content’’ to a Weibo executive, and ordered the Chinese platform to shut down several portals including its portal on celebrities and hot searches site. The regulator also denounced content that discriminates against minorities and contradicts China’s ‘’social values.’’

Weibo is one of the most popular social media platforms in China with more than 300 million monthly active users. The Chinese government implements strict internet censorship policies. Popular non-Chinese services and platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Youtube are banned, while Chinese services such as Weibo, the instant messaging app WeChat, and the Baidu search engine operate under tight regulations that require them to monitor and take down objectionable content.

Internet, mobile, and telecommunications companies should be transparent about how they handle government requests for content restrictions and publish transparency reports on such requests that include data on the number of requests received, the number they complied with, the types of subject matter associated with these requests. Most companies evaluated in the 2017 Corporate Accountability Index lacked transparency about how they handle government requests to restrict content or accounts, and did not disclose sufficient data about the number of requests they received or complied with, or which authorities made these requests.   

Facebook accused of censoring activists

Anti-government activists in Egypt are accusing Facebook of censorsing them. Several activists told Middle East Eye that over the past year their pages have been suspended and live streams cut off after they were repeatedly flagged by other users. Pages and accounts affiliated with the April 6 Youth movement, an activist group that supports the rights of Egyptian workers and was active during the 2011 uprising that toppled the rule of former president Hosni Mubarak, were affected by these decisions. Other activists include the U.S.-based activist Bahgat Sabr who live-streams a show discussing Egyptian politics on Facebook, and Ahmed Abdel-Basit Mohamed, sentenced in absentia to death in 2016, who uses his Facebook page to advocate for political prisoners in Egypt, particularly those sentenced to death after unfair trials.

The activists believe that they were reported by pro-government trolls, according to the report. They also slammed Facebook for failing to effectively communicate with them to help them understand how they violated the company’s terms and rules.

There are more than 30 million Facebook users in Egypt. With the ongoing government crackdown on independent media and voices critical of the Sisi regime, Facebook is a key platform to debate politics and organize in the country.

Companies should be transparent about their process for enforcing their terms and rules by disclosing information such as the types of content or activities they do not allow, the processes they use to identify infringing content or accounts, and whether any government authorities receive priority consideration when flagging content for violating the companies’ terms. According to the 2017 Corporate Accountability Index, Facebook does not publish information on whether it priorities reports flagged by government authorities. Companies should also disclose and regularly publish data about the volume and nature of actions taken to restrict content or accounts that violate their rules. Research from the 2017 Index showed that most companies, including Facebook, do not publish such data. Of the 22 internet, mobile, and telecommunications companies evaluated in the 2017 Index, only three–Google, Microsoft, and Twitter–published any information at all on their terms of service enforcement.

Are Lyft employees spying on riders?

The ride-sharing service Lyft is facing accusations that its employees have been spying on some riders. According to an anonymous report posted on Blind, an app used by employees in the tech industry to complain about their companies, Lyft employees have been using data collected by the company to track  “attractive people they’ve met’ and their exes, and to spy on public figures and celebrities . TechCrunch talked to a former Lyft employee who admitted to looking up friends’ rider history. Lyft said that it is investigating the claims.

Companies should disclose information about their institutional processes to ensure the security of their products and services, including whether they have in place systems that limit and monitor employee access to user information. Most of the 22 companies evaluated in the 2017 Index were not transparent enough about these processes. Seven companies, including Facebook, Twitter and MTN, did not disclose whether they have in place systems minoring and limiting employee access to user data.

 

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