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June 2018
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Egyptian Gov't Arrests Journalist Who Exposed Brutality; Will Use Social Media Suspensions As Evidence Against Him

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As in any country, the limits of free speech are determined by the ruling party. While we have a Constitution that (mostly) holds our representatives at bay, many countries only pay lip service to rights they have previously declared inviolable. Egypt's government has long suppressed dissent and strangled communications. It deployed an internet kill switch in 2011, cutting off access to millions of Egyptians. A regime change followed and the former president was fined for nuking the country's internet access.

Despite this power shift, nothing much changed. The current government cares no more for dissent and criticism than the previous one. Egyptian journalist Wael Abbas, who exposed police brutality and government torture, has provided his fellow residents an invaluable service: an unfiltered, ground-level view of government atrocities. His work even resulted in the rare conviction of Cairo police officers.

But he's fought censorship at home -- as well as abroad -- every step of the way. YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter have all suspended his accounts, supposedly for policy violations. Most of these were reversed after US activists intervened on his behalf, but his accounts are always just another perceived violation away from being shut down permanently.

And that's just on the US side. Egypt's government has tried to silence him on the homefront, convicting him in 2010 for "providing telecommunications service to the public without permission of the authorities." That was under the previous regime -- the one that deployed an internet kill switch to disrupt the communications of its many critics and opponents.

The new regime, as noted above, is no better. As Jillian York reports for the EFF, Abbas has been detained by Egyptian police, apparently for the crime of exposing government misdeeds.

Abbas was taken at dawn on May 23 by police to an undisclosed location, according to news reports which quote his lawyer, Gamal Eid. The Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI) reported that Abbas was not shown a warrant or given a reason for his arrest. He appeared in front of state security yesterday and was questioned and ordered by prosecutors to be held for fifteen days. According to the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE), Abbas was charged with “involvement in a terrorist group”, “spreading false news” and “misuse of social networks.”

The details of the charges really don't matter. Much like "resisting arrest," the charges are catch-all crimes meant to show the charged the importance of kowtowing to public displays of power. Unfortunately, the prosecution -- if it evens needs the help -- will be using actions taken by US social media companies as evidence against Abbas.

It seems clear that the messaging around Abbas' detention is that his arrest was connected to his posts on Facebook and Twitter, and that the prosecution and media are using his suspension by these services as part of the evidence for his guilt.

This is more than merely unfortunate. US social media platforms have played a part in anti-government uprisings around the world. In some cases, platforms have exercised caution when dealing with accounts caught in the middle of government violence, taking extra steps to protect the humans behind pseudonymous accounts. But Abbas has received none of these protections and his documentation of government brutality has resulted in multiple suspensions. The self-proclaimed guardians of worldwide free speech are providing evidence to government censors with their sometimes careless moderation efforts. When you treat certain content as offensive and treat it with blanket moderation policies, you strip the "offensive" content of its context. In cases like this, blanket moderation could mean the difference between freedom and a lengthy prison sentence. If social media platforms want to continue to operate in countries where governments are openly oppressive, they need to do a much better job protecting those who expose government abuse.

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Judge OKs Class Action Status For Illinoisans Claiming Facebook Violated State Privacy Law

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The last time we discussed Illinois' Biometric Information Pirvacy Act, a 2008 law that gives citizens in the state rights governing how companies collect and protect their biometric data, it was when a brother/sister pair attempted to use the law to pull cash from Take-Two Interactive over its face-scanning app for the NBA2K series. In that case, the court ruled that the two could not claim to have suffered any actual harm as a result of using their avatars, with their real faces attached, in the game's online play. One of the chief aspects of the BIPA law is that users of a service must not find their biometric data being used in a way that they had not intended. In this case, online play with these avatars was indeed the stated purpose of uploading their faces and engaging in online play to begin with.But now the law has found itself in the news again, with a federal court ruling that millions of Facebook users can proceed under a class action with claims that Facebook's face-tagging database violates BIPA. Perhaps importantly, Facebook's recent and very public privacy issues may make a difference compared with the Take-Two case.

A federal judge ruled Monday that millions of the social network’s users can proceed as a group with claims that its photo-scanning technology violated an Illinois law by gathering and storing biometric data without their consent. Damages could be steep — a fact that wasn’t lost on the judge, who was unsympathetic to Facebook’s arguments for limiting its legal exposure.Facebook has for years encouraged users to tag people in photographs they upload in their personal posts and the social network stores the collected information. The company has used a program it calls DeepFace to match other photos of a person. Alphabet’s cloud-based Google Photos service uses similar technology and Google faces a lawsuit in Chicago like the one against Facebook in San Francisco federal court.
Both companies have argued that none of this violates BIPA, even when this face-data database is generated without users' permission. That seems to contradict BIPA, where fines between $1,000 and $5,000 can be assessed with every use of a person's image without their permission. Again, recent news may come into play in this case, as noted by the lawyer for the Facebook users in this case.
“As more people become aware of the scope of Facebook’s data collection and as consequences begin to attach to that data collection, whether economic or regulatory, Facebook will have to take a long look at its privacy practices and make changes consistent with user expectations and regulatory requirements,” he said.
Now, Facebook has argued in court against this moving forward as a class by pointing out that different users could make different claims of harm, impacting both the fines and outcomes of their claims. While there is some merit to that, the court looked at those arguments almost purely as a way for Facebook to try to get away from the enormous damages that could potentially be levied under a class action suit, and rejected them.As in the Take-Two case, Facebook is doing everything it can to set the bar for any judgement on the reality of actual harm suffered by these users, of which the company claims there is none.
The Illinois residents who sued argued the 2008 law gives them a “property interest” in the algorithms that constitute their digital identities. The judge has agreed that gives them grounds to accuse Facebook of real harm. Donato has ruled that the Illinois law is clear: Facebook has collected a “wealth of data on its users, including self-reported residency and IP addresses.” Facebook has acknowledged that it can identify which users who live in Illinois have face templates, he wrote.
We've had our problems with class actions suits in the past, but it shouldn't be pushed aside that this case has the potential for huge damages assessed on Facebook. It's also another reminder that federal privacy laws are in sore need of modernization, if for no other reason than to harmonize how companies can treat users throughout the United States.

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