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Twitter is stuck between a rock and a hard place in India

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By Rishi Iyengar, CNN Business
Updated 2:38 PM ET, Wed February 10, 2021

(CNN Business) — India’s efforts to crack down on dissent have left Twitter with an impossible balancing act: protecting free speech, or risking its employees and business in one of the company’s most vital markets.

The company said in a blog post Wednesday that it was “served with several separate blocking orders” by the Indian government against hundreds of Twitter accounts in the past 10 days.
Early last week, it briefly suspended many of those accounts at the government’s behest but reinstated them a few hours later after a public outcry, including one handle with over 200,000 followers supporting the ongoing protests by farmers against new agricultural reforms and another belonging to one of the country’s most prominent magazines.
Twitter said it restored the accounts “in a manner that we believe was consistent with Indian law,” but was hit with a non-compliance notice by India’s Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology. The notice threatened Twitter’s employees with up to seven years in jail, according to a report from BuzzFeed News.
    In a statement Wednesday night local time, the Indian government said it had asked Twitter to remove tweets and accounts using hashtags that contained the phrase “farmer genocide,” as well as accounts it said were supported by separatist sympathizers and backed by India’s neighbor and rival Pakistan.
    “In India, we value freedom and we value criticism because it is part of our democracy,” the government said. “But freedom of expression is not absolute and it is subject to reasonable restrictions.”
    The government added that Twitter “is welcome to do business in India” but must respect local laws, and criticized “the manner in which Twitter has unwillingly, grudgingly and with great delay complied with the substantial parts of the order.”
    The social media company said it had taken some action against more than 500 accounts that were flagged by the government’s orders. Twitter said they were in “clear violation of its rules.” It also made several other accounts only visible outside India and restricted the visibility of certain hashtags containing harmful content.
    But Twitter also drew a line in the sand.
    “Because we do not believe that the actions we have been directed to take are consistent with Indian law, and, in keeping with our principles of defending protected speech and freedom of expression, we have not taken any action on accounts that consist of news media entities, journalists, activists, and politicians,” the company said. “We will continue to maintain dialogue with the Indian government and respectfully engage with them.”

    Who will blink first?

    With more than 700 million internet users, India is a huge and important market for global tech companies, albeit an increasingly precarious one as the government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi seeks to tighten its grip on the internet and social media.
    The Modi government has previously clashed with platforms such as Facebook and WhatsApp and has proposed regulations that would expand its ability to police content online. It also banned TikTok and dozens of other apps last year after diplomatic tensions with China escalated, and it has resorted to shutting down the internet altogether in several parts of the country to curb protests.
    Now Twitter is the latest company to find itself in the government’s crosshairs. The platform has become a key conduit for the public — and increasingly international — debate between proponents and critics of the Indian government’s farm laws.
    “The shrinking space for civil society is being mirrored by censorship and anti-democratic regulatory moves to censor users from their rights to free speech,” said Thenmozhi Soundararajan, executive director at advocacy group Equality Labs. “It is time for the world to understand how much is at risk right now and for American companies like Twitter and Facebook to act before it’s too late.”
    Twitter, for now, appears to be standing its ground against the Indian government.
    “We will continue to advocate for the right of free expression on behalf of the people we serve. We are exploring options under Indian law — both for Twitter and for the accounts that have been impacted,” the company said Wednesday. “We remain committed to safeguarding the health of the conversation occurring on Twitter, and strongly believe that the tweets should flow.”
    But if the government chooses to make good on its threats or further escalate the situation, Twitter is left with few good options.
    “There are two main risks: The first is to Twitter’s employees in India, who may be at risk if the company fails to comply with demands,” said Jillian York, Director of Freedom of Expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
    “The second risk is that Twitter continues to refuse and gets blocked in India. While this may be the right moral outcome, it’s obviously not the best outcome for the Indian people, many of whom rely on social media to get out key messages about what’s happening on the ground,” she added.

    Threading the needle

    While Twitter and the Indian government remain at an impasse with each other, both sides must also deal with external scrutiny.
    Social media companies have long faced pressure to do more to combat misinformation and hate speech on their platforms. And those issues, hotly debated in the United States, often have further reaching and more sinister consequences in countries where the companies have a smaller business footprint but a far larger impact.
    Twitter has been more proactive about policing its platform in recent months, taking down thousands of accounts linked to the conspiracy theory QAnon and banning one of its most prolific and controversial users — former US President Donald Trump. With that ban, Twitter showed a willingness to apply its policies to a world leader who violated them, albeit towards the end of his time in office. Its standoff in India also pits it against a powerful world leader in an important market.
    “Jack has shown in the past that he can lead with his values,” said Soundararajan, referring to Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey.
    But India, with more than three times the population of the United States and a very different social and political context, presents one of the trickiest challenges to Twitter outside its home country. In another apparent setback, the company also confirmed this week that its public policy head for India, Mahima Kaul, will step down in April after more than five years. (Twitter does not break down user data for India, but third-party research suggests the country is one of its larger markets.)
    “The fundamental problem is consistency … are they able to do the same kind of contextual analysis that they did around QAnon posts, hydroxychloroquine posts and Trump’s incitement?” said David Kaye, a law professor at the University of California, Irvine who previously served as the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression. “India is a really great example of how hard that is.”
    India, which bills itself as the world’s largest democracy, must also calibrate its response. Even as it battles with Twitter, the Modi government is fighting a perception battle with some of Twitter’s most prominent voices — the country’s foreign ministry recently released a statement slamming “sensationalist social media hashtags and comments, especially when resorted to by celebrities and others,” after tweets about the farmer protests by singer Rihanna and environmental activist Greta Thunberg went viral.
      “I think there’s still a risk for Modi in particular of appearing to be unable to handle sort of fundamental democratic principles like the right to peaceful assembly, the right to protest, the right to criticize and so forth,” Kaye said. “I think it’ll be interesting to see if the Biden administration and other governments, who are friendly with India but are in the democratic camp, really encourage the government to take a different approach here.”
      — CNN’s Manveena Suri and Esha Mitra contributed to this report.

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      Lyft focuses on seniors with new option to book rides by phone call

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      By Sara O’Brien, CNN Business
      Updated 12:50 PM ET, Wed February 24, 2021

      (CNN Business) — Lyft is adding an option to allow people to order a ride in a more retro way — by phone call — a year after Uber tried doing the same before shutting it down.

      The ride-hail company said Wednesday it launched a special service in dozens of Florida cities to allow people to call a number (631-201-LYFT) with a cell phone to book a car on weekdays from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. It’s geared towards seniors and those without access to its app. Once a ride is booked, Lyft (LYFT) said it will communicate updates via text message.
      The service, which Lyft said it piloted in late 2020 in Miami before expanding to more Florida cities, is similar to one Uber announced last February. Uber’s service was only available in select markets — Arizona, Florida and New York City — for rides or meal deliveries, but by the end of 2020, the company paused the program.
      An Uber (UBER) spokesperson told CNN Business Wednesday that there was declining use of the service, with only a few hundred people a month using it. Uber’s service also allowed users to order food delivery. (Those who call the Uber hotline now are told they can request rides from the mobile site or app.)
        Sam Bond, regional director for Lyft in the Southeast, said in a statement that the company looks forward to “helping seniors access transportation to essential services and resources that may be currently out of reach without a car.”
        The company didn’t directly address why it believes the program will succeed where Uber’s stalled, only reiterated that it is dedicated to serving vulnerable and underserved communities.
          On an earnings call earlier this month, Lyft president John Zimmer said the pandemic “has amplified transportation and security, especially for seniors and vulnerable communities. We are committed to ensuring that transportation access is not a barrier to beating this virus.”
          At the end of 2020, the company announced a vaccine access program with a goal to provide 60 million rides to and from vaccination sites alongside JPMorgan Chase, Anthem Inc. and United Way.

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          Facebook will restore news in Australia after talks with the government

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          By Michelle Toh and Chandler Thornton, CNN Business
          Updated 11:08 PM ET, Tue February 23, 2021

          Hong Kong (CNN Business) — Facebook will restore news pages in Australia after the government agreed on changes to a planned media code that the company said would allow it to retain greater control over what appears on its platform.

          The announcement caps months of bitter dispute between the American tech firm and Canberra, which had been working on legislation that would force tech platforms to pay publishers for news content.
          The initial version of the legislation would have allowed media outlets to bargain either individually or collectively with Facebook and Google (GOOGL) — and to enter binding arbitration if the parties couldn’t reach an agreement.
          On Tuesday, the Australian government said it would amend the code to include a provision that “must take into account whether a digital platform has made a significant contribution to the sustainability of the Australian news industry through reaching commercial agreements with news media businesses.”
            Arbitration, meanwhile, will now only be used as a “last resort” following a period of “good faith” mediation.
            Facebook’s decision to restore news came as the Australian Senate discussed the latest iteration of the media law.
            “It’s always been our intention to support journalism in Australia and around the world, and we’ll continue to invest in news globally, and resist efforts by media conglomerates to advance regulatory frameworks that do not take account of the true value exchange between publishers and platforms like Facebook,” Brown said.
            Google, meanwhile, had already been trying to get ahead of the new legislation by announcing partnerships with some of the country’s largest media organizations, including Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp (NWS) and Seven West Media. Facebook revealed its own deal with Seven on Tuesday.
              Asked about Google’s partnerships last week, Australian Treasurer Josh Frydenberg alluded to the changes that were ultimately announced Tuesday. He said that “if commercial deals are in place, then it changes the equation.”
              — Kerry Flynn contributed to this report.

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              The worldwide web as we know it may be ending

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              By Rishi Iyengar, CNN Business
              Updated 12:00 PM ET, Tue February 23, 2021

              (CNN Business) — Over the last year, the worldwide web has started to look less worldwide.

              Europe is floating regulation that could impose temporary bans on US tech companies that violate its laws. The United States was on the verge of banning TikTok and WeChat, though the new Biden administration is rethinking that move. India, which did ban those two apps as well of dozens of others, is now at loggerheads with Twitter.
              And this month, Facebook (FB) clashed with the Australian government over a proposed law that would require it to pay publishers. The company briefly decided to prevent users from sharing news links in the country in response to the law, with the potential to drastically change how its platform functions from one country to the next. Then on Tuesday, it reached a deal with the government and agreed to restore news pages. The deal partially relaxed arbitration requirements that Facebook took issue with.
              In its announcement of the deal, however, Facebook hinted at the possibility of similar clashes in the future. “We’ll continue to invest in news globally and resist efforts by media conglomerates to advance regulatory frameworks that do not take account of the true value exchange between publishers and platforms like Facebook,” Campbell Brown, VP of global news partnerships at Facebook, said in a statement Tuesday.
                But if such territorial agreements become more common, the globally-connected internet we know will become more like what some have dubbed the “splinternet,” or a collection of different internets whose limits are determined by national or regional borders.
                The stakes will only get higher if more governments jump on the bandwagon.
                “It’s kind of a game of chicken,” said Sinan Aral, a professor at the MIT Sloan School of Business and author of “The Hype Machine: How Social Media Disrupts Our Elections, Our Economy and Our Health.”
                Aral says companies such as Facebook and Google will encounter a slippery slope if they start to exit every market that asks them to pay for its news, which would “severely limit” the content they can serve their global user base.
                “They have a vested interest in trying to force any one market to not impose such regulations by threatening to pull out,” he said. “The other side is basically saying: ‘If you don’t pay for the content, you’re not going to have access to our market of consumers or the content in this market.'”

                As the internet fractures, global regulators coalesce

                A fight over news in Australia is a relatively small part of the clash between tech and governments, which has largely been focused on issues such as censorship, privacy and competition. But the response to Facebook’s move in Australia has shown that a more international effort to rein in Big Tech may be gathering momentum — and with it, the potential for additional fracturing of how internet services function from one country to the next.
                As his government faced off against Facebook last week, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison issued a warning to the social media giant: what you do here may come back to hurt you in other countries.
                “These actions will only confirm the concerns that an increasing number of countries are expressing about the behavior of Big Tech companies who think they are bigger than governments and that the rules should not apply to them,” he said in a Facebook post. “They may be changing the world, but that doesn’t mean they run it.”
                On Tuesday, Morrison said Facebook’s decision to restore news was “welcome,” adding that the government remained committed to proceeding with its legislation to ensure “Australian journalists and news organisations are fairly compensated for the original content they produce.”
                Several other countries, including the United Kingdom and Canada are now considering similar legislation against social media companies — and many of those countries are talking to each other about how best to do that.
                “It would be extremely useful if governments would come together in some kind of transnational process and come up with a treaty or some kind of standard about who gets to reach out and affect content and information outside their national territory,” Keller said, “because that’s what a lot of them are trying to do, but they haven’t, and so as a result you get this very fragmented patchwork.”
                  If that increased fragmentation is allowed to reach its natural conclusion, however, the consequences could be dire.
                  “If the eventual outcome of that is that we have social media platforms in every major country or market that are separate, then what we will have is an information ecosystem that is completely bifurcated or splintered across the globe,” Aral said. “What that portends is a citizenry that has completely different sets of information about local events, about world events, and perhaps a very splintered worldview of reality.”

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                  Former WeWork CEO in talks to get nearly $500 million in SoftBank settlement

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                  By Sara Ashley O’Brien, CNN Business
                  Updated 2:29 PM ET, Tue February 23, 2021

                  (CNN Business) — Adam Neumann, the disgraced former CEO and cofounder of WeWork, may soon have a massive payday as part of a possible settlement with SoftBank, the company’s largest investor, but the amount under discussion is far less than the golden parachute originally offered.

                  Neumann, who stepped down in late 2019 after a disastrous attempt to take WeWork public, could be eligible to sell nearly $500 million worth of his shares to SoftBank as part of a $1.5 billion stock buyback program for early WeWork employees and investors, according to a source familiar with the matter. The deal is not yet finalized.
                  The deal is part of a settlement under discussion to resolve a long-simmering legal dispute between Neumann, WeWork and SoftBank after the Japanese conglomerate walked away from a $3 billion WeWork share purchase agreement.
                  The terms of a possible settlement were first reported by the Wall Street Journal. A second source familiar with the matter told CNN Business that the deal is close to being finalized but could still fall through.
                    WeWork, SoftBank, and a representative for Neumann declined to comment.
                    The settlement is half of what was previously on the table when SoftBank agreed to bail out the co-working company after a period of turmoil. As part of the deal in fall of 2019, Neumann departed and had the chance to sell back nearly $1 billion of his shares — an opportunity that infuriated some workers.
                    Under Neumann’s leadership, WeWork raised billions of dollars, scaled its coworking operations to hundreds of cities around the world, and was valued at an eye-popping $47 billion during one investment round. But the company also failed spectacularly in its attempt to go public in large part because IPO paperwork revealed his unchecked power and numerous potential conflicts of interest, as well as WeWork’s staggering losses.
                      In April 2020, SoftBank abandoned plans to buy $3 billion in WeWork stock from Neumann and others, citing certain conditions of the deal that hadn’t been met, including the existence of pending criminal and civil investigations into the company, global restrictions related to the coronavirus, and the failure to restructure a joint venture in China. In response, Neumann and a special committee of WeWork’s board brought lawsuits.
                      News of a possible deal comes as SoftBank and WeWork attempt to turn the page on the Neumann chapter of the company. As the Journal reported, WeWork is in talks about a potential deal to merge with a special purpose acquisition company, or SPAC, to fulfill its ambitions of becoming a public company at long last.

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                      The hot new thing in tech: speaking into your phone

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                      By Kaya Yurieff and Rishi Iyengar, CNN Business
                      Updated 9:03 AM ET, Wed February 24, 2021

                      (CNN Business) — Before last year, 28-year-old Meredith Giuliani thought voice notes were “kind of weird,” and she mostly stuck to texting. But after the pandemic hit, audio messages became a daily routine for her and many of her friends.

                      “This is my way to debrief and tell everybody what’s going on,” she told CNN Business. “It’s not like it used to be where I would wait until I was going to see my friends over the course of the next week for drinks or for brunch.”
                      For years, Apple and others have offered the option to record short messages and send them via text and chat apps. But the format has gained new appeal for many in the United States during the pandemic as we approach a year of limited opportunities to socialize with friends, family and coworkers.
                      Romina Hyskaj, a 23-year-old recruiter who lives in New York City, uses them mainly to keep in touch with her parents who live six hours away, noting that “it can get your tone, attitude, or joke across.” Nick Hofstadter, a 38-year-old luxury travel adviser in Los Angeles, sends voice notes to a handful of close friends, mostly to tell funny stories with a more “dramatic effect” and to avoid sending long text messages. (He prefers using voice notes on iMessage over Instagram so he can listen to it before sending.)
                        And it’s not just voice messages. Voice is having a moment — and the tech industry is taking notice.
                        Hall said an added part of the appeal — beyond conveying more emotional nuance — is how easy voice notes are to record, store and replay.
                        “Back when we had answering machines, people used to save important messages, particularly from loved ones, sometimes for as long as the machine had space and power to store those messages,” he said. “People don’t use voicemail in the same manner, partly because the phone is not the easiest way to leave a message for another person — that would be a text.”
                          Prior to the pandemic, Giuliani said there were many friends she didn’t talk to daily. Voice notes have changed that.
                          “It’s kept some of my friends and I really close together,” she said. “We send over voice notes and we’re chatting every single day, way more than we ever did before the pandemic.” She added: “I can’t believe that we didn’t before.”

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