Exclusive: Instagram, Whatsapp down for thousands of users: Downdetector

(Reuters) – Facebook Inc’s platforms including WhatsApp, Messenger and Instagram were down for thousands of users on Thursday, according to outage tracking website Downdetector.com.

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Wales election: Fears over ‘anonymous’ social media adverts

Voters could see political adverts on social media during the Senedd election campaign without knowing who is behind them.

Leaflets and print adverts must say who has produced and paid for them.

Campaigners said the Welsh government “missed an opportunity” to update election laws so the same rules applied to digital advertising for May’s vote.

The Welsh government said it wanted to work with other governments to create new regulations.

Mandatory digital imprints, which make clear who is responsible for the political adverts, will be introduced for Westminster general elections under plans outlined by the UK government.

That would mean voters could see who was trying to influence them and help watchdogs keep track of campaign spending.

Although ministers in Cardiff support the idea, it is too late for the Senedd to change the law before the election on 6 May.

Digital imprints are being made compulsory in Scotland, where devolved elections are happening on the same day.

Online advertising spending has risen sharply in British elections since 2010.

It is thought to have accounted for more than half of campaign spending at the 2019 general election and social media is predicted to be even more important now that Covid has restricted traditional canvassing.

Electoral Reform Society Cymru director Jess Blair said: “It’s a real missed opportunity that the Welsh government haven’t legislated around digital imprints for the Senedd elections this year.

“We’ve seen Scotland go ahead and do this for their elections. The legislation isn’t perfect but it’s a lot better than what we have in place in Wales.”

She said the Welsh government should not wait for UK government legislation

“You shouldn’t be waiting for the slowest person in the race,” she said.

“You should be trying to win that race and actually deliver better democracy and better transparency in our elections.”

Campaigners say the Welsh government has "missed an opportunity" to update election laws
image captionCampaigners say the Welsh government has “missed an opportunity” to update election laws

The Welsh government said it was “committed to fair and transparent elections and digital campaigning has become an increasingly significant portion of democratic engagement from political groups”.

A spokesman said it was not possible to legislate in time for May’s election, but “we will be working closely with the other administrations of the UK to ensure there will be a robust and transparent system in the future”.

The UK government said its legislation on digital imprints would “increase transparency” and “ensure greater scrutiny”.

Cabinet Office minister Chloe Smith said it was a “complex” issue, adding: “We need to be mindful not to impose excessive regulation of free speech by individuals, nor force campaigners to publish their home addresses as part of the imprint requirement.”

The Electoral Commission previously said it was “disappointed” the rules were not changed in time for May’s Senedd election.

It has launched a campaign to help voters “think critically” about political advertising. 

Spokesman Craig Westwood said: “Political adverts are an important part of how voters find out about who are standing as candidates, and what they think about key issues, but we know that people are increasingly concerned about online adverts, if they can’t easily tell who is targeting them, and why.”

Facebook said it was “constantly working to increase ad transparency and election integrity” on its platforms.

“We do not allow political ads to run without a disclaimer providing more information about who is running them,” a spokesman said.

“This includes ensuring anyone running a political ad goes through a verification process to prove who they are and that they are based in the UK, and that ads carry a ‘paid for’ disclaimer if targeting people in the UK.”

Plaid Cymru said: “Plaid Cymru will support any move to make our elections more open and transparent and digital imprints would play a key role in upholding the integrity of our elections.”

The Welsh Conservatives said the party supported digital imprints.

Welsh Liberal Democrats leader, Jane Dodds, said the party supported “transparency and fairness” in digital campaigning.

She added: “We would also, however, urge platform-owners, such as Facebook and Twitter, to make available digital imprint tools to easier facilitate this process.”

By Daniel Davies
BBC Wales political correspondent

Facebook launches Instagram Lite in 170 lower bandwidth countries

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Facebook said on Wednesday it was launching a “lite” version of Instagram in 170 countries that will enable people with poor internet to access the photo and video sharing social networking service.

Instagram Lite will be available for Android-based phones and require less bandwidth than the traditional version.

The app itself requires just 2 megabytes (MB) – versus 30 MB for Instagram – and runs even on slower 2G networks, allowing customers in parts of India, Africa, Asia and Latin America with older internet infrastructure to access the service.

“These are the markets where there is the greatest need,” said Tzach Hadar, director of product management at Facebook in Tel Aviv, where the app was largely developed.

“It uses a lot less data so if you have a small data package you are not going to run out when you use the service. But the aim is for us to give the same breadth of experience you get on Instagram,” he told Reuters.

Hadar, who heads Facebook’s R&D in Israel, said 170 countries did not represent a full global launch, but “it’s a step on the way.”

He noted that other than TV and reels – for creating and sharing short video clips – Instagram Lite retained most key features of Instagram.

A lite version of Facebook itself has been available globally for five years.

In addition to the lite versions, Facebook in Tel Aviv also developed the Express WiFi service to bring internet access to some 20 countries in Africa, Asia, and South America.

Hadar said his team was now working on a digital wallet for Facebook. “You have close to 2 billion people that have no access or limited access to banks and financial services and there are tens of billions of dollars being spent just for fees for migrants wanting to send money back to their families,” he said.

Another initiative, he said, was Facebook Shops for small businesses to sell products online.

Facebook’s R&D centre in Tel Aviv opened in 2013 after it bought Israeli mobile app-maker Onavo for an estimated $150-$200 million.

Pete Evans: Instagram ban for Australian chef over conspiracy theories

Australian celebrity chef Pete Evans has been banned from Instagram, weeks after his Facebook page was removed for repeatedly sharing misinformation about the coronavirus.

Facebook, which owns Instagram, said: “We don’t allow anyone to share misinformation about Covid-19.”

Mr Evans’ Facebook account was deleted in December but he had continued to post in Instagram.

The chef was a judge for 10 seasons on the Australian show My Kitchen Rules.

But he has attracted controversy in recent years for not only sharing debunked theories about the coronavirus but also promoting pseudo-science about diets and cancer cures.

Last November, he lost several business sponsorships after he shared a meme on social media that featured a neo-Nazi symbol.

Facebook confirmed on Wednesday that Mr Evans had been removed from its popular picture-sharing platform.

In similar comments made when it banned Mr Evans from Facebook in December, the social media giant said: “We removed Pete Evans’s account for repeatedly sharing debunked claims about the coronavirus or vaccines.

“We don’t allow anyone to share misinformation about Covid-19 that could lead to imminent physical harm or about Covid-19 vaccines that have been debunked by public health experts.”

Mr Evans, who had about 1.5 million Facebook followers and some 278,000 Instagram followers, had shared a range of debunked theories about the severity of the virus, mask-wearing and vaccines, as well as incorrect claims about 5G telecom networks.

There was no comment from him on Wednesday, but he had said after the Facebook ban that he was “very glad to be one of the catalysts for a conversation about such an important topic… freedom of speech”.

Mr Evans last week announced he planned to run for federal parliament as a candidate for the Great Australia Party, a new party set up by former One Nation senator Rod Culleton.

‘I was scammed out of £17,000 on Instagram’

“I was following this guy on Instagram and he always posts with his car, a rose gold Maserati, saying that he’s rich and self-made and really young, he’s only 21,” says Jonathan Reuben, 24, an accountant.

He discovered a foreign exchange trade investment scheme through an account he followed on Instagram. 

“At first I put in £1,000 and once I saw I was getting money I deposited a bit more and more. In the end I was scammed out £17,000,” he told the BBC’s Money Box programme.

Jonathan is one of a rising number of Instagram users who have lost money to alleged fraudsters posting on the social networking service.

Since the coronavirus outbreak began last year, the average number of Instagram frauds reported each month has increased by more than 50%, according to new figures by Action Fraud, the UK police national reporting centre for fraud and cyber crime.

There’s also been a rise in the reported amount of money lost. Before the pandemic it averaged £60,000 a month, but it has now risen to about £200,000 a month.

Gurvin Singh
image captionGurvin Singh claims he got rich quick through foreign exchange trading

Jonathan said the alleged fraudster, Gurvin Singh, a man from Plymouth, claimed he got rich quick through foreign exchange trading. Mr Singh then offered users who follow him on Instagram the chance to follow his get-rich-quick trades.

“He said any trade he does will be copied to my account when I signed up.”

Jonathan said he was promised almost immediate profits and given access to a trading platform called Infinox, where he could analyse his investment’s performance. 

At first, his profits rose and he invested more money. But he became suspicious after a few months, when he saw his funds plummet over two days. 

“I did attempt to withdraw, but it just said withdrawal failed. I asked them for an explanation and their excuse was that the profits dropped because of Brexit. After a few days all my money was gone and I could no longer contact Gurvin or anyone involved,” Jonathan said. “I’ve reported it to the police, my banks and Instagram.”

‘People are sucked in’

Jake Moore, a cyber security specialist, says that with a lot of young people looking at social media every day, scams like this are becoming more common.

“People are sucked in and want to believe it and want that lifestyle, especially these days, with young people struggling to get jobs,” he said. “You definitely see more people looking at different and newer ways to make more money.”

“There are billions of social media accounts and algorithms aren’t sophisticated enough yet, we can’t rely on computers to do this. Social media companies have got a steep wall up against them.”

He urged social media users to never part with money when they are dealing with somebody they don’t know. 

“There are accounts out there offering these wonderful schemes where you can double, triple, quadruple your money. These are scams,” he said. 

Money

Facebook, which owns Instagram, says it fights proactively against this type of content with spam detection technology and is investigating Mr Singh’s account.

“There’s no place for fraudulent or inauthentic behaviour on Instagram. We have a safety and security team of 35,000 people working to keep our platforms safe and we block millions of inauthentic accounts every day,” a Facebook company spokesperson said.

The Financial Conduct Authority (FCA), which regulates financial markets in the UK, said Mr Singh had been added to a list of unauthorised traders targeting people in the UK.

It strongly advised investors to only deal with financial firms that are authorised by the FCA.

Action Fraud’s National Fraud Intelligence Bureau said the activities of Mr Singh were being investigated, but said there was no criminal inquiry. 

Mr Singh did not respond to the BBC’s request for comment.

A spokesperson from Infinox, the platform Jonathan used, said any suggestion that it had acted without integrity or breached any rules was rejected. The spokesperson said it could not comment on the activities of Gurvin Singh as they did not relate to any services Infinox provides.

By Darin Graham
Money Box reporter

Trump Twitter ban ‘raises regulation questions’ – Hancock

Bans imposed by Twitter, Facebook and Instagram on Donald Trump’s accounts raise a “big question” about how social media is regulated, Matt Hancock says.

The companies acted after supporters of the US president stormed Washington DC’s Capitol building on Wednesday.

The health secretary said the bans showed they were now “taking editorial decisions”.

Campaigners want social media to be treated as “publishers”, rather than “platforms”, meaning more regulation.

But opponents of the idea argue that it could allow governments to limit debate.

Mr Trump faces an impeachment charge, with Democrats accusing the Republican president of encouraging the Washington riots, in which five people died.

Twitter permanently suspended his @realDonaldTrump account on Saturday, citing the “risk of further incitement of violence”.

But Mr Trump called this an attack on free speech and suggested he would look at “building out our own platform in the future”.

Choosing voices’

There has been a long-running debate over whether social media companies should be treated in law as “publishers”, with greater responsibility for dealing with libellous, discriminatory, misleading or incendiary content posted by users.

Mr Hancock, a former culture secretary, told BBC One’s Andrew Marr Show: “The scenes, clearly encouraged by President Trump – the scenes at the Capitol – were terrible – and I was very sad to see that because American democracy is such a proud thing.

“But there’s something else that has changed, which is that social media platforms are making editorial decisions now. That’s clear because they’re choosing who should and shouldn’t have a voice on their platform.”

Mr Hancock said that development was likely to have “consequences”.

Trump image

Asked earlier about Twitter’s decision to ban Mr Trump’s account, he told Sky News: “I think it raises a very important question, which is it means that the social media platforms are taking editorial decisions.

“And that is a very big question because then it raises questions about their editorial judgements and the way that they’re regulated.”

Twitter’s ban on Mr Trump’s account followed the increasing use of warning labels on his posts referring to the coronavirus pandemic and the result of the US presidential election.

In a blog on Friday, the company said its public interest framework existed “to enable the public to hear from elected officials and world leaders directly”.

It added: “However, we made it clear going back years that these accounts are not above our rules and cannot use Twitter to incite violence. We will continue to be transparent around our policies and their enforcement.”

Facebook and Instagram banned Mr Trump “indefinitely” on Thursday, with Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg saying this sanction would not be lifted until at least 20 January, when Joe Biden is sworn in as the new US president.

Covid travel: Why Instagram is still full of celebrities ‘on holiday’

If you’re a reality television fan who follows your favourite stars online, chances are you have seen some of them jetting off to luxury destinations in recent weeks – despite rising infection rates and restrictions across the UK.

Stock image of a woman on a jetty in exotic sea resort
image captionThe UK government is said to be considering new measures restricting travel

With much of England first plunged into tier four and now lockdown, many seem to be wondering how all of these glamorous breaks have been able to go ahead at a time when millions are being told to stay at home.

From a Love Island star facing charges for alleged Covid breaches in Barbados, to football team Celtic drawing Scottish government criticism for travelling to Dubai for a training camp – tabloids and social media have been full of scrutiny of these trips in recent days.

So, what is going on and what do the rules say?

Before Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced strict new restrictions starting on 5 January, England was under a tier system across different regions.

The reality is that some of the stars posting their travel on social media in recent weeks may have left the country for their winter breaks when their local area was still under tiers two or three – when the advice about travelling was less strict.

Guidance urged people to stay local and carefully consider whether they must fly abroad, but did not ban trips explicitly.

Collage of Chloe Ferry, James Lock and Yazmin Oukellou, Eve Gale, Francesca Allen and Georgia Steel
image captionSome Geordie Shore, The Only Way is Essex and Love Island stars are among those in Dubai (file photos)

The rules were stronger for those who were plunged into the very highest tier four – which was first announced for London and parts of the south east on 19 December before being extended to millions elsewhere last week. In those areas, people were instructed to stay at home by law unless they had a reasonable and legal excuse to leave including for work, shopping or caring responsibilities.

Guidance said people living under tier four could only travel internationally – or indeed elsewhere in the UK – if they first qualified under one of the strictly defined legally permitted reasons to leave home.

Some influencers and celebrities have been tagging brands and talent agencies in their posts – indicating their content shared abroad is sponsored or paid work. And travelling overseas was permitted for work reasons under tier four, when your job could not be done at home.

Trending Travel is a holiday company that specialises in using celebrities to promote trips which customers can then book and experience for themselves. CEO Keith Herman launched the company last year and points out that this period – December to March – is a key time for those in the hard-hit travel industry to market summer holidays.

“Travel agents and Tour Operators alike are all in the same boat, we need to get through these tough times and especially the next few months which is a critical sales period,” he told the BBC. And it’s not just his firm and influencers promoting bookings – summer holiday marketing is rife across the industry, including Ryanair marketing flights with slogans such as “jab and go” and “vaccines are coming”.

Mr Herman’s company had a number of well-known figures, including Love Island stars with over 1m followers, sharing posts from the Maldives and Dubai in recent days – but he says he has now asked them to stop tagging them in light of the seriousness of the new lockdown. “We will just have to be creative and find new ways of promoting ourselves for the next couple of months,” he said on Tuesday.

Why these destinations?

TikTok and other social media platforms have been filled with people mocking the amount of reality stars visiting Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, in particular. A glance at comments on their pages in recent weeks shows the backlash some have received from followers stuck dealing with restrictions at home. Some commenters accused celebrities of being out of touch with their fans or trying to exploit loopholes in the rules.

But with commercial flights still flying, it’s not just high-profile influencers who have been going abroad. One British holidaymaker told the BBC she and her partner were able to fly out to Dubai last Friday, following negative tests as per UAE entrance conditions, without being asked about their reasons for leaving tier four. She had booked the trip at short notice and described the flight as busy.

Fireworks explode from the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world, during New Year"s Eve celebrations in Dubai
image captionDubai is always a hotspot for tourists wanting to celebrating New Year’s Eve

At the time of writing, a quick check online shows tickets still available for flights departing from the UK to Dubai in the next couple of days for just a few hundred pounds.

Asked by the BBC about people who have broken tier four rules for non-essential travel, a government spokesman said: “No one is above the law and those who are breaking the rules are putting friends, family and the wider public at serious risk.”

They pointed to rules that state all travellers must fill out a Passenger Locator Form or be liable for a fine, and said that anyone returning from countries not on the travel corridor list must self-isolate for 10 days.

“Our measures are designed to keep us all safe and we are looking at what additional measures should be taken as we start the vaccination programme to keep people safe,” he added.

Both the UAE and the Maldives currently remain on the travel corridor list, meaning people travelling home from there currently do not have to quarantine. The UAE was added to the list in November, which is why we may have all seen an uptick in holiday pictures from there on our social media timelines since.

And although many places severed travel links to the UK following growing international concern about a new virus variant spreading here in December, a number of luxury destinations popular with influencers and celebrities never did.

While other countries dissuaded visitors with measures like mandatory quarantines and other strict rules in place for arrivals, Dubai has been trying to court tourists back since the summer. 

Am airline staffer (In July) wearing protective gear looks on as tourists get a medical screening upon arrival at Terminal 3 at Dubai airport, in the United Arab Emirates
image captionAll passengers arriving into Dubai must have a recent negative result and may be tested in the airport

Sameer Hashmi, a BBC business reporter based there, points out that travel and tourism contributes more than 11% to Dubai’s GDP. He says that safety measures in place and the relative ease of travel there has been a “big driver for tourists”.

“When they began the Visit Dubai campaign in July, Dubai Tourism got down a lot of top influencers to promote the campaign,” he says. “I think that also helped in attracting a lot of younger travellers. They have also spent a lot on the global marketing campaign, which I am sure has worked at some level.”

A couple of weeks ago former X-Factor pop duo Jedward hit out at the upsurge of celebrities promoting travel to the emirate.

View original tweet on Twitter

In spite of its growing popularity as a tourist destination, the UAE continues to face criticism for its human rights record.

The rapid rise of development in Dubai, where luxury resorts and attractions are a key draw for tourists, has been fuelled by a workforce made up mostly of migrant workers. Human rights groups say the kafala (visa-sponsorship) system they work under – which sees visas tied to employment – leaves many vulnerable to abuse and exploitation. 

“Those who leave their employers without permission faced punishment for ‘absconding’ including fines, prison, and deportation,” Human Rights Watch said of the UAE in their World Report 2020. “Many low-paid migrant workers remain acutely vulnerable to forced labour.”

What will happen now?

Social media has been rife with speculation that the latest lockdown could leave reality stars and celebrities stuck abroad as flights get cancelled – but (based on their posts) some seem in no rush to return. 

In their lockdown guidance for England, the government says UK residents currently abroad do not need to fly back immediately – but urges people to check with their travel operator for arrangements. 

Cabinet minister Michael Gove confirmed on Tuesday that the government was looking at further options to restrict international travel in the days ahead. There is speculation that negative tests may soon be required for travellers entering the UK.

British Airways, in a statement to the BBC, confirmed they were reviewing their current flight schedule in light of the national lockdown restrictions, and urged travellers to check their website for the latest flight information.

By Kelly-Leigh Cooper
BBC News

Tech Tent: Breaking up Facebook

In a landmark lawsuit, US regulators have accused Facebook of buying up rivals in order to stifle competition.

They have made it clear they will seek a drastic remedy – the sale of Instagram and WhatsApp. On this week’s Tech Tent we ask whether it is really likely that the social media giant’s empire will be dismantled.

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New York Attorney General Letitia James could hardly have been clearer in her denunciation as she outlined the case she and more than 45 other state and federal regulators are bringing against Facebook.

“For nearly a decade, Facebook has used its dominance and monopoly power to crush smaller rivals, and snuff out competition, all at the expense of everyday users,” she said.

‘A key moment’

Among the remedies the regulators are seeking from the courts for what they describe as Facebook’s “buy or bury” strategy towards potential rivals are “the divestiture or restructuring of illegally acquired companies”.

And that could mean selling off Instagram, bought for $1bn in 2012 when it had just 13 employees, and WhatsApp, for which it paid $16bn – which seemed an outlandish price in 2014.

Since that purchase, the price of Facebook shares has risen more than fourfold, and the company is now worth nearly $800bn.

“This is a key moment,” Damian Collins, the British MP who chaired a parliamentary inquiry severely critical of Facebook, tells Tech Tent.

“It was always going to take leadership by the authorities in America to bring the anti-trust case against Facebook and to make the case for some form of separation of the different businesses.”

Mr Collins believes some of the documents uncovered during his select committee inquiry provided evidence reinforcing the US regulators’ case.

“What these documents showed was how Facebook used its market power to put pressure on other companies to do deals on data that favoured Facebook; to give privileged access to data to companies that were important to Facebook and spent a lot of money with them; how it used data to analyse the apps people use, so it could determine which apps were potentially a threat.”

But Facebook has made it clear it will mount a fierce legal battle against any moves to break it up.

Because its purchases of WhatsApp and Instagram were not blocked by regulators at the time it’s accusing the government of wanting “a do-over”, which will harm the broader business community.

And one leading expert on competition regulation tells Tech Tent he thinks Facebook will probably avoid a break-up.

‘Politics, not law’

“The US Supreme Court has been very sceptical about monopoly cases,” says John Fingleton, former head of the UK’s Office of Fair Trading. He watched the regulators outlining their case with some scepticism.

“Saying that they want to break up the business before they get through the court process seemed to me to be more about the politics of it than about the economics and the law.”

Still, both John Fingleton and Damian Collins believe that a long legal battle will have an impact on the way Facebook and others do business. The MP hopes the social media giant will now be unable to buy or squash smaller rivals and that will mean more innovation. 

And the competition expert says the case shows a major shift in US competition policy, which has previously focused solely on the immediate impact on consumers in the form of higher prices.

“In the last 30 or 40 years,” says Mr Fingleton, “we’ve seen competition has been about protecting consumers, not protecting competitors. But a lot of the cases one sees more recently have much more of a flavour of protecting competitors.”

Perhaps what happened in a previous clash between a US tech giant and the regulators is a foretaste of what will happen to Facebook. 

Microsoft spent many years fighting the US Department of Justice which wanted to break it up.

It avoided that outcome, but the world moved on and the software giant, no longer seen as an anti-competitive menace, is thriving without attracting much attention from the regulators. 

Facebook may hope that history repeats itself.

Rory Cellan-Jones
Technology correspondent