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Thomson Reuters faces pressure over ICE contracts

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A group of Thomson Reuters shareholders says the company’s technology databases are being used by Immigration and Customs Enforcement to “track and arrest immigrants on a massive scale,” potentially causing reputational damage to the company.

“Companies are facing scrutiny for contracting with government agencies carrying out the Trump administration’s inhumane family separation and indefinite family detention policies at the US-Mexico border,” states the resolution from the BC Government and Service Employees’ Union (BCGEU) General Fund and its Defence Fund, both of which are in British Columbia, Canada (Thomson Reuters is based in Toronto). “The UN considers such separation and detention illegal under international law and has stated the practice constitutes ‘arbitrary and unlawful interference in family life, and is a serious violation of the rights of the child.’”

According to the resolution, ICE has more than $60 million in contracts with Thomson Reuters, and the agency relies on its CLEAR software in its efforts to track undocumented immigrants. CLEAR consolidates public records across numerous databases, such as motor vehicle and arrest records, utilities, health care provider information, cellphone records, and license plate recognition, the proposal states.

“Shareholder engagement and capital stewardship are equally important for the BCGEU—we invest and manage our members’ dues responsibly in order to grow our union and we aggressively leverage our investments to demand action from companies on the issues that matter to our members and all working people,” BCGEU president Stephanie Smith wrote in an email to The Verge. “The bottom line for us is that an ethical, activist approach to investing provides superior results over the long-term from a financial and a social justice perspective.”

Latinx grassroots organization Mijente, which has worked to push tech companies not to work with ICE, says in a blog post that Thomson Reuters “is not [just] a passive data broker that sells personal data to ICE,” but also helps the Department of Homeland Security division target people “with both automated analysis and in-house human analysts.”

Jacinta Gonzalez of Mijente said in an interview with The Verge that the role of data brokers like CLEAR in the surveillance of immigrants has been unsettling.

“While Thomson Reuters has built a brand as a trusted news source, few people realize that the news operation is largely financed by the company’s role as a data broker for agencies like ICE,” Gonzalez said. She added that there are “enormous risks” associated with working with ICE, not the least of which are human rights concerns around the agency’s detention of immigrants and the separation of families trying to enter the US at its border with Mexico.

The Canadian groups want Thomson Reuters to produce a human rights risk report and address “how Thomson Reuters assesses its role in contributing to and being directly linked to human rights impacts by end users,” and how the company “mitigates its role in contributing to adverse human rights impacts from end users.”

Thomson Reuters spokesperson Dave Moran said the company takes its role as a corporate citizen extremely seriously. “Thomson Reuters provides products and services to many parts of the U.S. government in support of the rule of law,” Moran said in an email to The Verge. “We [are] proud of the work we do with law enforcement agencies and public safety organizations and our contribution to making our communities safer.”

In its public response to the shareholder proposal, the company’s board of directors recommends shareholders reject it.

“The Board believes that producing a human rights risk report in the form contemplated by the proposal is not in the best interests of Thomson Reuters or its shareholders,” the response states. “The Board believes that our company’s current policies and practices appropriately and adequately reflect Thomson Reuters’ commitment to respecting human rights.”

Thomson Reuters is the latest big company to face backlash for working with ICE. In 2018, Microsoft employees wrote an open letter to management asking it to cancel any ICE-related contracts. Amazon was criticized for reportedly selling its Rekognition facial recognition software to ICE, and an ICE contract with Microsoft-owned Github sparked protests among developers.

According to Thomson Reuters, CLEAR is only available to “authorized professional and government subscribers that have a certified permissible use” under US state and federal laws, all customers are vetted and trained before they get access to Thomson Reuters products, and have to “certify their specific legally permissible uses prior to each time they seek access to any data.”

The company signed a contract with ICE in 2015 which is in “support of its work on active criminal investigations and priority cases involving threats to national security and/or public safety.” Moran declined to provide details about Thomson Reuters’ contracts with ICE.

Thomson Reuters’ annual shareholders meeting, being conducted virtually this year, is scheduled for June 3rd.

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Facebook and Twitter remove manipulated video from president’s accounts after DMCA complaint

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Facebook has removed a manipulated video posted on President Trump’s account after receiving a copyright complaint from the rights owners.

The manipulated video shows a black toddler running away from a white toddler, with a CNN chyron reading “terrified toddler runs from racist baby.” The original video, which went viral last year, sees the total opposite, with the two toddlers running toward each other on the sidewalk so they can hug. The video was created by Carpe Donktum, a prolific pro-Trump meme creator who the president has amplified in the past, and uploaded to both Facebook and Twitter. It arrives as protests across the country fighting against systemic racism in the United States, and on the eve of Juneteenth — a day that many people celebrate as the day slavery ended.

Facebook took the video down after “one of the children’s parents lodged a copyright claim,” according to CNN. A Facebook representative confirmed to The Verge that a complaint was received by the rights holder. It had more than four million views by the time Facebook removed it, according to CNN. Jukin Media, a third-party company that often acquires the rights from people to viral videos, told CNN that “neither the video owner nor Jukin Media gave the President permission to post the video, and after our review, we believe that his unauthorized usage of the content is a clear example of copyright infringement without valid fair use or other defense.”

“We received a copyright complaint from the rights holder of this video under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act and have removed the post,” Andy Stone, a Facebook spokesperson, told The Verge.

Jukin Media has also filed a copyright claim complaint to Twitter, according to a statement posted on the company’s account. While Twitter labeled the video as “manipulated media,” it was still active on the President’s account until Friday evening. It appeared to be the first time one of Donktum’s edits has received the “manipulated media” tag, which is usually found on deepfakes. The video has been viewed nearly 20 million times at the time of this writing. It’s still unclear whether Donktum or the president’s team will argue the meme is transformative enough that it’s allowed to exist under fair use.

“We have submitted a DMCA takedown notice on behalf of the video’s creator, and in accordance with Twitter’s policy,” Jukin’s statement reads. “Separately, in no way to we support or condone the manipulate video or the message it conveys. We hope and expect Twitter will take swift action to remove the video.”

On Friday evening, Twitter disabled the video. The video was taken down due to a DMCA notice from the rights holder.

“Per our copyright policy, we respond to valid copyright complaints sent to us by a copyright owner or their authorized representatives,” a Twitter spokesperson told The Verge.

Update June 19th 5:40pm ET: Updated to include comment from Twitter and note it was removed after a copyright complaint. The headline has also been changed to reflect the update.

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Social media bias lawsuits keep failing in court

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Social media sites can legally ban users for nearly any reason. They can ban users for off-color jokes. They can ban users for being white supremacists. They can ban users for totally arbitrary and inscrutable reasons. If you sue over a Twitter or Facebook ban, you will almost certainly lose. Despite this, people keep filing lawsuits claiming they’ve been censored on social media — and today, courts handed down another defeat.

An appeals court in Washington, DC just rejected a complaint by Laura Loomer, the conservative activist who was banned from Twitter for anti-Muslim tweets and later chained herself to the company’s headquarters in protest. Loomer argued that Facebook, Google, Twitter, and Apple had all colluded to suppress conservative content, violating Loomer’s First Amendment rights in the process. The court disagreed and threw out the suit.

It’s convenient timing, given that President Donald Trump has spent the past day excoriating Twitter for its alleged bias. Trump threatened Twitter after it applied a fact-checking label to his tweets, threatening some kind of unknown action to “strongly regulate” or close down sites that “silence conservatives’ voices.”

Anti-bias lawsuits — where people argue Twitter, Google, or Facebook are discriminating against them for political reasons and legally obligated to carry their speech — offer an illuminating look at why Trump’s boldest threats are probably bluster. Courts across the country have repeatedly defended social networks’ rights to ban at will. If Trump wanted to shut down sites that went against his wishes, he’d need to basically upend this precedent.

So let’s look at the cases.

Charles C. Johnson v. Twitter

Conservative blogger and activist Charles C. Johnson has been embroiled in multiple lawsuits, one of which accused Twitter of violating his free speech rights when it banned him in 2015. In mid-2018, a California court granted Twitter’s request to dismiss the complaint, finding that the rights at stake were Twitter’s, not Johnson’s. “It is well established that the constitutional right to free speech includes the right not to speak,” read its ruling. Twitter’s rules “clearly state that users may not post threatening tweets, and also that [Twitter] may unilaterally, for any reason, terminate a user’s account. The rules reflect [Twitter’s] exercise of free speech.”

Jared Taylor v. Twitter

Fringe far-right figure Jared Taylor, a white nationalist, sued Twitter for banning him in 2018 — claiming he’d been discriminated against because of his racist viewpoints. California judge Harold Kahn gave Taylor a surprising legal win when he allowed the case to proceed, calling it a “classic public interest lawsuit.” But Taylor’s luck didn’t last. As legal expert Eric Goldman discusses here, a California appeals court said the exact logic of Taylor’s suit didn’t matter. Twitter’s moderation choices were protected under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.

Craig Brittain v. Twitter

“Revenge porn mogul” Craig Brittain, who ran for an Arizona Senate seat in 2018, was also angry at Twitter for banning him. Brittain hit Twitter with a laundry list of claims, alleging everything from First Amendment violations to infliction of emotional distress. A California court found that Brittain’s claims hinged on treating Twitter as a publisher of his content and Section 230 clearly contradicted these claims.

Federal Agency of News v. Facebook

One unusual political lawsuit came from the Federal Agency of News (FAN), which was allegedly tied to the Russian Internet Research Agency “troll farm.” Facebook removed FAN’s page along with a lot of other propaganda in 2016. FAN then sued Facebook for First Amendment violations and breach of contract. Judge Lucy Koh slapped down the case once in 2019 and again in early 2020, following much of the reasoning described above. Although, as Goldman’s blog details, FAN had some particularly weird misconceptions about internet law, including the idea that Section 230 had an exception for political speech. For the record, it doesn’t.

Prager University v. Google

Conservative advocacy group Prager University filed one of the best-known bias suits against Google in 2017, alleging that YouTube had unfairly restricted access to some of its videos. Like Loomer, PragerU accused Google of violating the First Amendment. Among other claims, it also said Google had violated the Lanham Act with false advertising.

Neither of these arguments worked. California federal judge Lucy Koh dismissed the case in 2018, saying Google and YouTube were “private entities who created their own video-sharing social media website and make decisions about whether and how to regulate content that has been uploaded on that website,” not federal agencies or companies that functioned as an official arm of the government.

An appeals court upheld the dismissal in February of this year, saying PragerU’s censorship claim “faces a formidable threshold hurdle: YouTube is a private entity. The Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment prohibits the government — not a private party — from abridging speech.”

Tulsi Gabbard v. Google

At least one major Democratic politician has filed an anti-bias suit as well. Presidential candidate Tulsi Gabbard sued Google in 2019 after the company briefly suspended her ad account, alleging the company was trying to undercut her bid for the party’s nomination.

This suit got a blisteringly snarky dismissal in March. California district Judge Stephen Wilson noted that “Google is not now, nor (to the Court’s knowledge) has it ever been, an arm of the United States government.” He cited the case against PragerU as legal precedent, concluding again that private web platforms aren’t held to the same standards as governments.

Robert Wilson v. Twitter

In one very recent case, Twitter user Robert Wilson claimed he was banned for “freedom of speech and or heterosexual expressions” and sued for civil rights and First Amendment violations. As expected, this didn’t fly. A West Virginia court ruled against this argument just a few weeks ago, saying Twitter was clearly a private forum. “That private social media companies now host platforms which imitate the functions of public forums — in many respects more effectively than the traditional public forums of government-owned sidewalks, streets, and public parks — does not mean that the entities are state-actors,” read the ruling.

Laura Loomer v. Google, Facebook, Twitter, and Apple

Laura Loomer made one of the most complicated cases against Silicon Valley. She sued alongside conservative legal group Freedom Watch in 2018, claiming that four of the tech world’s biggest companies had violated antitrust law by conspiring to suppress conservative content on their platforms, as well as violated the First Amendment by acting as “quasi-state actors.”

The companies failed to get the suit thrown out immediately, with the DC Circuit Court of Appeals saying the claims weren’t clear enough to dismiss out of hand. But today, the actual ruling was squarely against Loomer. “The Plaintiffs raise non-trivial concerns,” the court concluded. But they “failed to state viable legal claims” to support them — including evidence that a conspiracy existed or that private websites were public spaces that operated like a government.

…and many more.

People have been suing internet platforms for banning them since long before Trump took office; back in 2009, for instance, a PlayStation Network user sued on the grounds that Sony had created a “company town.” (The user lost.) Courts have overwhelmingly concluded that social media networks can ban, limit, or otherwise suppress users’ posts.

Conversely, government figures like Trump actually face strict rules about blocking users. Last year, a court required Trump to unblock Twitter accounts that had criticized him, determining that his Twitter account specifically — not the site as a whole — constituted a public space protected by the First Amendment. Other public officials have lost similar lawsuits from constituents.

Why do these suits keep getting filed? Some look like publicity stunts: activists and politicians can raise their profile by going after a big company like Google or Twitter, even if they’re unlikely to win. Some low-profile cases come from private citizens who seem genuinely confused about the law — a situation exacerbated by politicians pushing misinformation about sites’ legal risks. And other people look for novel arguments that might get past a judge, hitting companies with a scattershot barrage of claims.

But if Trump wants Twitter legally barred from labeling his tweets or banning his supporters’ accounts — which is what his tweets imply — he’ll be changing a widely acknowledged legal standard.

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Trump wants to fight Twitter more than regulate it

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For years, Donald Trump’s fight against social media companies has been a one-man boxing match. He calls them out over bias, and they rewrite policies making him the one exception to their rules, taking care never to punch back. But on Tuesday, Twitter slapped back for the first time ever, labeling two tweets as making false and misleading claims about mail-in voting.

On Wednesday morning, predictably, Trump hit back. In a series of early morning tweets, the president said he would “strongly regulate, or close [platforms] down” before he allowed them to stifle conservative speech. Trump did not explain the ways in which the federal government could regulate or shutter social media companies in his Wednesday morning tweets, but the fresh threats are lighting a fire under the feet of conservatives who believe, unjustly, that social media companies silence conservative voices and views. Soon after his first set of tweets Wednesday, Trump said to expect a “Big action to follow.”

It’s not the first time the president has called out platforms for perceived bias against conservatives, and it certainly won’t be the last. But all of Trump’s past attempts to regulate social media platforms for ideological bias have fallen short, even as the scandals provoking them continue to escalate. The efforts have provided the Trump reelection campaign with a convenient foil in the Silicon Valley liberals and “elites” that supposedly control moderation systems. But the president has never followed through on his threats and used his considerable powers to place legal limits on how these companies operate. His fights with the tech companies last just long enough to generate headlines, but flame out before they can make a meaningful policy impact. And despite the wave of conservative anger currently raining down on Twitter, there’s no reason to think this one will be any different.

Those flameouts are most tangible in the courts. On the same day as Trump’s tweets, the US Court of Appeals in Washington ruled against the nonprofit group Freedom Watch and fringe right figure Laura Loomer in a case purporting that Facebook, Google, and Twitter conspired to suppress conservative content online, according to Bloomberg. Whether it be Loomer or Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) fighting the bias battle, the courts have yet to rule in their favor.

Trump’s own attempts to use his executive power to regulate social media platforms have also fallen short. Last fall, the Trump administration reportedly drafted an executive order titled “Protecting Americans from Online Censorship” that would empower the Federal Communications Commission with the ability to change how Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act is interpreted. Right now, that law ensures that platforms can’t be sued over content posted by their users, provided they make a good faith effort to remove posts that violate the law. FCC Chairman Ajit Pai has previously made remarks that social media companies have too much power over online speech, but agency officials argued that the administration’s order was unconstitutional. The draft order went nowhere.

Still, Republicans jumped at Trump’s comments over social media bias to push legislation that would amend Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. Soon after Trump attacked Twitter on Tuesday, Sens. Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Josh Hawley (R-MO) reinvoked the debate to change the law.

“The law still protects social media companies like Twitter because they are considered forums not publishers,” Rubio tweeted Tuesday.

“Twitter is getting subsidized by the federal government for that interference [labeling Trump’s tweets] in the form of special immunity worth billions,” Hawley said. “Time to end #BigTech sweetheart deal w/ government.”

Hawley has championed the conservative fight against Big Tech by introducing legislation to pare back Section 230, a fight that has gained him many fans on the anti-corporate left. Last year, he introduced a measure that would revoke 230’s legal shield if a platform is proven by the Federal Trade Commission to act out of favor against conservative political views. But the bill never received a hearing, and most of his other efforts have failed to pick up broad support, even among Republicans. Even if his own party backed the proposal, it seems unlikely to get through the Democrat-led House of Representatives during campaign season. Hawley also sent a letter directly to Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey Wednesday questioning the platform’s ability to fact-check Trump after “choosing. to editorialize on President Trump’s tweets.”

Even if the Trump administration and Congress can’t address their bias concerns through policy and legislation, they’ll likely continue to leverage the scandals through campaign advertising and fundraising. Earlier Wednesday, Trump’s reelection campaign released a new ad “to FIGHT BACK against” the mainstream media and “their biased coverage” of the Trump administration. Replace CNN and MSNBC with Facebook and Twitter, and the Trump campaign has a set of brand-new liberal villains treating the president unfairly. The campaign has even gone out of its way to scapegoat Yoel Roth, Twitter’s head of site integrity, over a string of old tweets. That sort of attack is as damaging to Twitter as it is profitable for Trump — but if you’re imagining this path will end in a new age of tech antitrust… you shouldn’t hold your breath.

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