Stories from Abroad

Since 2010, the Benton Foundation and the New America Foundation have partnered to highlight telecommunications debates from countries outside the U.S.

Child advocacy and privacy groups to FTC: smartwatches can endanger kids

Child advocacy and privacy groups are calling on the Federal Trade Commission to investigate several smartwatch brands and the risks they pose to children, part of a global effort, they said. They also want them pulled from store shelves.

The groups, which include Consumers Union, Public Citizen and the Center for Digital Democracy, said in a filing with the FTC that the watches, essentially wearable smartphones, have "significant" security flaws and lack privacy protections. Privacy groups are filing similar complaints in Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands, Sweden, Germany and the UK. While the watches are meant to allow parents to keep up with their children, the groups said research has shown that a stranger can "take control of the watch with a few simple steps, allowing them to eavesdrop on conversations the child is having with others, track and communicate with the child, and access stored data about the child’s location."

Alphabet’s Sidewalk Labs strikes deal to turn 800 acres of Toronto into an ‘internet city’

Sidewalk Labs, the smart city subsidiary of Alphabet with the stated goal of “reimagining cities from the Internet up,” now has a very big sandbox in which to conduct its high-tech experiments. The Google spinoff announced a deal with the city of Toronto to develop 800 acres of waterfront property into its own digital utopia.

Waterfront Toronto, a city agency tasked with overseeing the development along the shore of Lake Ontario, is teaming up with Sidewalk Labs to create a new venture called Sidewalk Toronto. On Oct 17, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau joined top executives from Alphabet, including executive chairman Eric Schmidt, to announce the deal, which includes a $50 million commitment from Sidewalk Labs for the installation and testing of the company’s smart city technology. The cost of the project, currently dubbed Quayside, is likely to run over $1 billion.

As US Confronts Internet’s Disruptions, China Feels Vindicated

For years, the United States and others saw China’s heavy-handed censorship as a sign of political vulnerability and a barrier to China’s economic development. But as countries in the West discuss potential internet restrictions and wring their hands over fake news, hacking and foreign meddling, some in China see a powerful affirmation of the country’s vision for the internet.

Few would argue that China’s internet control serves as a model for democratic societies. China squelches online dissent and imprisons many of those who practice it. It blocks foreign news and information, including the website of The New York Times, and promotes homegrown technology companies while banning global services like Facebook and Twitter. At the same time, China anticipated many of the questions now flummoxing governments from the United States to Germany to Indonesia. Where the Russians have turned the internet into a political weapon, China has used it as a shield. In fact, when it comes to technology, China has prospered. It has a booming technology culture. Its internet companies rival Facebook and Amazon in heft. To other countries, China may offer an enticing top-down model that suggests that technology can thrive even under the government’s thumb.

President Trump’s threats against the press may be toothless. But they’re far from harmless.

[Commentary] President Donald Trump’s constant press attacks carry a worldwide price — they hurt America’s ability to stand for democratic freedoms around the world. “When the president consistently speaks that way, there’s a loss of U.S. influence and credibility on matters of press freedom,” said Joel Simon, executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists. Even if Trump can’t really get a network’s broadcast license revoked or libel laws changed, he can still can — and does — undermine American values, both here and abroad, when he attacks the press. And no amount of transparency-by-tweet or backslapping access for reporters can make up for that.

US withdrawal from UNESCO is blow for press freedom

The US government's decision to withdraw from the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), which has a mandate to promote "the free flow of ideas by word and image [and] to foster free, independent, and pluralistic media in print, broadcast and online," will make the world less safe for journalists.

As the lead UN agency responsible for implementing the UN Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity, support for UNESCO is intrinsically linked to ensuring that journalists can work without fear of reprisal. The joint statement called for the U.S. government to reverse its decision and instead commit to increasing UNESCO's effectiveness and impact.

Twitter deleted data potentially crucial to Russia probes

Twitter has deleted tweets and other user data of potentially irreplaceable value to investigators probing Russia’s suspected manipulation of the social media platform during the 2016 election, according to current and former government cybersecurity officials. Federal investigators now believe Twitter was one of Russia’s most potent weapons in its efforts to promote Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton, the officials say, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

By creating and deploying armies of automated bots, fake users, catchy hashtags and bogus ad campaigns, unidentified operatives launched recurring waves of pro-Trump and anti-Clinton story lines via Twitter that were either false or greatly exaggerated, the officials said. Many U.S. investigators believe that their best hope for identifying who was behind these operations, how they collaborated with each other and their suspected links to the Kremlin lies buried within the mountains of data accumulated in recent years by Twitter. By analyzing Twitter data over time, investigators could establish what one U.S. government cybersecurity consultant described as “pattern of life behavior,” determining when Russian influence operations began, and how they “were trying to nudge the narrative in a certain direction.”

US withdraws from UNESCO, the UN’s cultural organization, citing anti-Israel bias

The United States will withdraw from UNESCO at the end of 2018, the State Department said Oct 12, to stop accumulating unpaid dues and make a stand on what it said is anti-Israel bias at the U.N.’s educational, science and cultural organization. In notifying UNESCO of the decision, the State Department said it would like to remain involved as a nonmember observer state. That will allow the United States to engage in debates and activities, though it will lose its right to vote on issues.

The withdrawal follows longstanding issues the U.S. has had with UNESCO and does not necessarily foreshadow a further retrenchment of U.S. engagement with the United Nations, which the Trump administration has been pushing to bring about structural and financial reforms.

How Russian content ended up on Pinterest

Image-bookmarking site Pinterest is known as a place where people go to get ideas about home décor, fashion, and recipes. Few would associate it with politics – let alone Russian trolls. But in the run-up to the 2016 election, the site became a repository for thousands of political posts created by Russian operatives seeking to shape public opinion and foment discord in US society, the company acknowledged Oct 11.

Russian operatives don’t appear to have posted directly on Pinterest, but their influence spread to the site through users who came across Russian content elsewhere and unwittingly “pinned” it onto their Pinterest scrap boards. “We believe the fake Facebook content was so sophisticated that it tricked real Americans into saving it to Pinterest,” said Pinterest head of public policy Charlie Hale. “We’ve removed the content brought to our attention and continue to investigate.”

President Trump’s often compared to Putin, but his comments on the media once again evoke Erdogan

Framing the freedom of the press to cover what it deems important as “disgusting” is remarkable coming from any American politician, much less the president while sitting in the Oval Office. But it serves as a reminder that, for all of the focus placed on President Donald Trump’s relationship with and emulation of Russian President Vladimir Putin, there’s another autocrat with whom he has had a friendly relationship and interests in common: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Erdogan, perhaps more directly than Putin, moved early to line up allies in the Trump administration. In August of 2016, Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn’s consulting firm entered into a business arrangement with Inovo BV, a Dutch consulting firm owned by a Turkish businessman with ties to Erdogan. At the same time, Flynn was a key aide to Trump. On the day of the election itself, Nov. 8, an opinion piece written by Flynn ran at The Hill. It was titled, “Our ally Turkey is in crisis and needs our support.” “The U.S. media is doing a bang-up job of reporting the Erdogan government’s crackdown on dissidents,” Flynn wrote, “but it’s not putting it into perspective.”

Russia Has Turned Kaspersky Software Into Tool for Spying

The Russian government used a popular antivirus software to secretly scan computers around the world for classified US government documents and top-secret information, modifying the program to turn it into an espionage tool, apparently.

The software, made by the Moscow-based company Kaspersky Lab, routinely scans files of computers on which it is installed looking for viruses and other malicious software. But in an adjustment to its normal operations that the officials say could only have been made with the company’s knowledge, the program searched for terms as broad as “top secret,” which may be written on classified government documents, as well as the classified code names of US government programs, apparently.