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Europe is adopting stricter rules on surveillance tech

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The European Union has agreed to stricter rules on the sale and export of cyber-surveillance technologies like facial recognition and spyware. After years of negotiations, the new regulation will be announced today in Brussels. Details of the plan were reported in Politico last month.

The regulation requires companies to get a government license to sell technology with military applications; calls for more due diligence on such sales to assess the possible human rights risks; and requires governments to publicly share details of the licenses they grant. These sales are typically cloaked in secrecy, meaning that multibillion-dollar technology is bought and sold with little public scrutiny.

“Today is a win for human rights globally, and we set an important precedent for other democracies to follow suit,” said Markéta Gregorová, a member of the European Parliament who was one of the lead negotiators on the new rules, in a statement. “The world’s authoritarian regimes will not be able to secretly get their hands on European cyber-surveillance anymore.”

Human rights groups have long urged Europe to reform and strengthen the rules on surveillance technology. European-made surveillance tools were used by authoritarian regimes during the 2011 Arab Spring and continue to be sold to dictatorships and democracies around the world today; news headlines and political pressure have had little noticeable impact. 

The main thing the new regulation achieves, according to its backers, is more transparency. Governments must either disclose the destination, items, value, and licensing decisions for cyber-surveillance exports or make public the decision not to disclose those details. The goal is to make it easier to publicly shame governments that sell surveillance tools to dictatorships. 

The regulation also includes guidance to member states to “consider the risk of use in connection with internal repression or the commission of serious violations of international human rights and international humanitarian law,” but that is nonbinding.

It remains to be seen, therefore, how much of a difference the new rules will make. Human rights workers and independent experts have been skeptical, and even some negotiators who hammered out this deal over the course of several years expressed doubts in conversations with MIT Technology Review, though none was willing to speak on the record.

The regulation’s effectiveness will depend on Europe’s national governments, which will be responsible for much of the implementation. Germany currently controls the presidency of the European Council and pushed to have this regulation agreed to before its term is up in December. The country showed how enforcement of these rules could work last month when German authorities raided the offices of the spyware maker FinFisher for allegedly selling surveillance tools to oppressive regimes.

The new regulation mentions some specific surveillance tools, but it’s written to be more flexible and expansive than both Europe’s own previous regulation and even the Wassenaar Arrangement, one of the most important global export control agreements for weapons and dual-use technologies.

The new rules include a “catch-all” provision for cyber-surveillance items even if they’re not explicitly listed. For instance, facial recognition is not mentioned in the regulation but, one negotiator says, clearly falls under it. Still, how the rules are actually applied remains to be seen.

Another obvious weakness of the new regulation is that it only covers EU member states. 

Europe does boast some of the most famous surveillance tech companies, including Gamma Group in the United Kingdom and Italy’s Hacking Team, which became Memento Labs. But other countries, including Israel and the United States, have their own thriving surveillance technology industries. 

The lawmakers who worked on the new European regulation say they aim to create a global coalition of democracies willing to more tightly control the export of surveillance technologies. It’s widely agreed, even within the spyware industry itself, that reform makes sense—but this regulation is only the beginning.

Lyron Foster is a Hawaii based African American Musician, Author, Actor, Blogger, Filmmaker, Philanthropist and Multinational Serial Tech Entrepreneur.

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Pinterest tests online events with dedicated ‘class communities’

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Pinterest is getting into online events. The company has been spotted testing a new feature that allows users to sign up for Zoom classes through Pinterest, while creators use Pinterest’s class boards to organize class materials, notes and other resources, or even connect with attendees through a group chat option. The company confirmed the test of online classes is an experiment now in development, but wouldn’t offer further details about its plans.

The feature itself was discovered on Tuesday by reverse engineer Jane Manchun Wong, who found details about the online classes by looking into the app’s code.

Currently, you can visit some of these “demo” profiles directly — like “@pinsmeditation” or “@pinzoom123,” for example — and view their listed Class Communities. However, these communities are empty when you click through. That’s because the feature is still unreleased, Wong says.

When and if the feature is later launched to the public, the communities would include dedicated sections where creators will be able to organize their class materials — like lists of what to bring to class, notes, photos and more. They could also use these communities to offer a class overview and description, connect users to a related shop, group chat feature and more.

Creators are also able to use the communities — which are basically enhanced Pinterest boards — to respond to questions from attendees, share photos from the class and otherwise interact with the participants.

When a user wants to join a class, they can click a “book” button to sign up, and are then emailed a confirmation with the meeting details. Other buttons direct attendees to download Zoom or copy the link to join the class.

It’s not surprising that Pinterest would expand into the online events space, given its platform has become a popular tool for organizing remote learning resources during the coronavirus pandemic. Teachers have turned to Pinterest to keep track of lesson plans, get inspiration, share educational activities and more. In the early days of the pandemic, Pinterest reported record usage when the company saw more searches and saves globally in a single March weekend than ever before in its history, as a result of its usefulness as a online organizational tool.

This growth has continued throughout the year. In October, Pinterest’s stock jumped on strong earnings after the company beat on revenue and user growth metrics. The company brought in $443 million in revenue, versus $383.5 million expected, and grew its monthly active users to 442 million, versus the 436.4 million expected. Outside of the coronavirus impacts, much of this growth was due to strong international adoption, increased ad spend from advertisers boycotting Facebook and a surge of interest from users looking for iOS 14 home screen personalization ideas.

Given that the U.S. has failed to get the COVID-19 pandemic under control, many classes, events and other activities will remain virtual even as we head into 2021. The online events market may continue to grow in the years that follow, too, thanks to the kickstart the pandemic provided the industry as a whole.

“We are experimenting with ways to help creators interact more closely with their audience,” a Pinterest spokesperson said, when asked for more information.

Pinterest wouldn’t confirm additional details about its plans for online events, but did say the feature was in development and the test would help to inform the product’s direction.

Pinterest often tries out new features before launching them to a wider audience. Earlier this summer, TechCrunch reported on a Story Pins feature the company had in the works. Pinterest then launched the feature in September. If the same time frame holds up for online events, we could potentially see the feature become more widely available sometime early next year.

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SpaceX targeting next week for Starship’s first high-altitude test flight

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SpaceX looks ready to proceed to the next crucial phase of its Starship spacecraft development program: A 15km (50,000 feet) test flight. This would far exceed the max height that any prior Starship prototype has achieved so far, since the current record-setting hop test maxed out at around 500 feet. Elon Musk says that SpaceX will look to make its first high-altitude attempt sometime next week.

This tentative date (these are always subject to change) follows a successful static test fire of the current SN8 generation prototype — essentially just firing the test spacecraft’s Raptor engines while it remains stationary on the pad. That’s a crucial step that paves the way for any actual flight, since it proves that the spacecraft can essentially hold together and withstand the pressures of active engines before it leaves the ground.

SpaceX’s SN8 prototype is different from prior versions in a number of ways, most obviously because it has an actual nosecone, along with nose fins. The prototypes that did the short test hops, including SN6, had what’s known as a mass simulator up top, which weighs as much as an actual Starship nose section but looks very different.

Musk added that the chances of an SN8 high-altitude flight going to plan aren’t great, estimating that there’s “maybe a 1/3 chance” given how many things have to work correctly. He then noted that that’s the reason SpaceX has SN9 and SN10 ready to follow fast, which is a theme of Starship’s development program to date: building successive generations of prototypes rapidly in parallel in order to test and iterate quickly.

We’ll likely get a better idea of when the launch will take place due to alerts filed with local regulators, so watch this space next week as we await this major leap forward in SpaceX’s Starship program.

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Police case filed against Netflix executives in India over ‘A Suitable Boy’ kissing scene

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Netflix, which has invested more than $500 million to gain a foothold in India in recent years, is slowly finding out just about what all could upset some people in the world’s second-largest internet market: Apparently everything.

A police case has been filed this week against two top executives of the American streaming service in India after a leader of the governing party objected to some scenes in a TV series.

The show, “A Suitable Boy,” is an adaptation of the award-winning novel by Indian author Vikram Seth that follows the life of a young girl. It has a scene in which the protagonist is seeing kissing a Muslim boy at a Hindu temple.

Narottam Mishra, the interior minister of the central state of Madhya Pradesh, said a First Information Report (an official police complaint) had been filed against Monika Shergill, VP of Content at Netflix and Ambika Khurana, Director of Public Policies for the firm, over objectionable scenes in the show that hurt the religious sentiments of Hindus.

“I had asked officials to examine the series ‘A Suitable Boy’ being streamed on Netflix to check if kissing scenes in it were filmed in a temple and if it hurt religious sentiments. The examination prima facie found that these scenes are hurting the sentiments of a particular religion,” he said.

Gaurav Tiwari, a BJP youth leader who filed the complaint, demanded an apology from Netflix and makers of the series (directed by award-winning filmmaker Mira Nair), and said the film promoted “love jihad,” an Islamophobic conspiracy theory that alleges that Muslim men entice Hindi women into converting their religion under the pretext of marriage.

Netflix declined to comment.

In recent days, a number of people have expressed on social media their anger at Netflix over these “objectionable” scenes. Though it is unclear if all of them — if any — are a Netflix subscriber.

The incident comes weeks after an ad from the luxury jewelry brand Tanishq — part of the 152-year-old salt-to-steel conglomerate — which celebrated interfaith marriage received intense backlash in the country.

For Netflix, the timing of this backlash isn’t great. The new incident comes days after the Indian government announced new rules for digital media, under which the nation’s Ministry of Information and Broadcasting will be regulating online streaming services. Prior to this new rule, India’s IT ministry oversaw streaming services, and according to a top streaming service executive, online services enjoyed a great degree of freedom.

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