Uber CEO and transport boss had second meeting over London license battle

LONDON (Reuters) – London’s Transport Commissioner Mike Brown met Uber [UBER.UL]boss Dara Khosrowshahi in January, a freedom of information request revealed, as the Silicon Valley app fights to keep its cars on the streets of its most important European market.

FILE PHOTO – Dara Khosrowshahi, Chief Executive Officer of Uber Technologies, attends the World Economic Forum (WEF) annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland, January 23, 2018. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse/File Picture

Uber is battling a decision by the city’s transport regulator last September to strip it of its license after it was deemed unfit to run a taxi service, a ruling Uber is appealing.

Since then Uber has made a series of changes to its business model, responding to requests from regulators, including the introduction of 24/7 telephone support and the proactive reporting of serious incidents to London’s police.

Khosrowshahi flew to London in October for discussions with Brown after which Uber promised to make things right in the British capital city.

The pair had a second meeting in London in January, according to a response to a freedom of information request from Reuters.

“The Commissioner met with Dara Khosrowshahi on 3 October 2017 and 15 January 2018, both meetings took place in London,” Transport for London (TfL) said.

A TfL spokesman declined to provide an immediate comment on what was discussed at the meeting. Uber declined to comment.

Reuters had asked for a list of every meeting which had taken place between Uber and TfL’s private hire team and/or Brown since Sept. 22 but TfL declined to release such details.

“We are not obliged to supply the remainder of the information requested in relation to meetings as it … relates to information where disclosure would be likely to prejudice the exercise by any public authority of its functions ..,” it said.

A court hearing over Uber’s appeal is due this month before the substance of the appeal is heard in June.

Reporting by Costas Pitas; editing by Stephen Addison

German lawmakers to grill Facebook manager on data privacy

BERLIN (Reuters) – German lawmakers will question a senior Facebook Inc manager about data privacy in the wake of revelations that the personal information of millions of users wrongly ended up in the hands of political consultancy Cambridge Analytica.

FILE PHOTO: A 3D-printed Facebook logo is seen in front of displayed stock graph in this illustration photo, March 20, 2018. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/File Photo

Lawmakers in the Bundestag lower house of parliament will grill Joel Kaplan, Facebook’s vice president for global public policy, during a closed-door session on Friday morning.

The meeting mirrors the appearance of Facebook’s Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg before a U.S. Congressional joint hearing on April 10-11 over the scandal engulfing the world’s largest social network.

The 87 million Facebook users affected included nearly three million Europeans and Zuckerberg is also under pressure from EU lawmakers to come to Europe to shed light on the data breach.

“Facebook needs to show more openness and transparency when dealing with user data,” said Nadine Schoen, deputy leader of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative bloc in the Bundestag.

She said Facebook needed to do more than just pay lip service and it remained to be seen how serious the company was about really improving user rights.

“It is not enough to exchange the gray T-shirt and jeans for suit and tie,” she said in reference to Zuckerberg’s appearance in the U.S. Congress.

The senior lawmaker said that Facebook so far was giving the impression that it only wanted to save its business model.

“For example, the company is already rowing back in the supposedly world-wide announced implementation of the General Data Protection Regulation,” Schoen warned, referring to privacy rules that will enter force in the European Union next month.

“We no longer need excuses, but facts,” she said.

German Justice Minister Katarina Barley last month summoned executives of the firm, including European public affairs chief Richard Allan.

Misuse of data by Facebook means it will in future be bound by stricter regulations and the threat of tougher penalties for further privacy violations, Barley said after the meeting.

Reporting by Michael Nienaber; Editing by Douglas Busvine

FCC Delays Are Keeping Broadband From Rural School Kids

Woodman School is a tiny, whitewashed schoolhouse lodged in a remote clearing in Montana’s Lolo National Forest. It has a total of 35 students, and in January, all of them got the same assignment: Write a letter to local lawmakers explaining why you want internet access at school.

“If we had internet, we could do tests at our own school and not have to get bussed to Lolo and take tests on their computers,” scrawled one Woodman third grader on a sheet of looseleaf.

“We as a school are behind in our education,” wrote a seventh grade student. “It takes half an hour to load a document.”

Their teachers completed the assignment, too, describing their classroom shelves filled with unused Chromebooks and hours spent at the library checking out books for student research projects. Only about three Woodman students can access Google at a time, thanks to the overloaded and dilapidated DSL line that currently serves the school and all of its neighbors within 10 miles. Safety’s a concern too, given the entire area is a cellular dead zone. “The lack of bandwidth is affecting how I teach, but most of all it is affecting my students’ learning,” wrote one teacher named Jill Wilson. “They are frustrated and know that they don’t have the technology promised to them by our country.”

For the students at Woodman, it’s not supposed to be this way. Last summer, Montana Governor Steve Bullock visited the school to announce $2 million in state funding that he said would “close the connectivity gap” at schools like theirs. Woodman’s technology director, Jeff Crews, worked with CenturyLink, the only internet service provider in the area, to submit a request for federal funding under the so-called E-rate program, which is supposed to subsidize broadband expansion for schools.

Nearly a year later, the students of Woodman are still waiting, after being denied funding by the organization that administers E-rate. “It’s insane that we’re in 2018, but we have internet speeds that, I kid you not, are around modem speeds,” Crews says.

The Woodman School is hardly alone. Under the Trump administration, rural schools requesting funding for broadband expansion have faced record delays and denials, according to the non-profit EducationSuperHighway, which works to get schools connected to the internet. By their count, more than 60 eligible fiber projects have been unfairly denied since 2017, a rate that EducationSuperHighway CEO Evan Marwell says has spiked dramatically from years prior. Meanwhile, more than 30 schools have been waiting about a year for approval. On average, they currently wait 240 days for an answer. That’s despite state governments having put up $200 million in funds to supplement broadband expansion projects. “The table is set, and what we’ve run into is a bunch of red tape,” says Marwell.

The current issues with E-rate stem from a 2014 order that aimed to modernize the program, which has been in place since the Clinton administration. The order set aside additional funding for expanding broadband connectivity in schools, and shifted focus away from legacy systems like subsidized phone service. As part of this transition, the Universal Service Administrative Company—an offshoot of the Federal Communications Commission that oversees E-Rate—also began offering to pay upfront for “special construction” costs involved in building new fiber channels to extremely rural schools like Woodman. On top of that, it offered to match the money that states put up to pay for construction. With these two subsidies combined, a school like Woodman was looking at a 90 percent discount on brand new fiber internet service.

But because USAC now fronts more of the costs, it’s also more cautious about how that money gets spent. “One of the overriding themes you’ve seen from the Trump FCC has been eliminating waste, fraud, and abuse above all else,” says Marwell. That was FCC chairman Ajit Pai’s justification for proposing new restrictions on the Lifeline program, which supplies internet service to poor families.

Now, USAC asks E-rate applicants detailed questions about the precise cost of each fiber construction project, the route the fiber would take to get to the school, and other specifics that the small schools asking for these funds have struggled to answer. Often, the problems preventing students from getting online prove to be blandly bureaucratic.

One of many issues Woodman has faced: USAC will only pay for the fiber that the school uses. It stands to reason that the government wouldn’t want to subsidize an internet service provider’s broader business. But it’s also economically unfeasible for CenturyLink to build an entire fiber network for just one school, without picking up other customers in the area. And yet, in the application process, there’s no easy way for CenturyLink to distinguish between the cost of providing fiber to Woodman and the cost of building out the larger network. “This is a frustrating issue for both applicants and service providers alike, including CenturyLink,” said company spokesperson Linda Johnson.

Pai has himself acknowledged problems with the E-rate program. Last April, he wrote a letter to then-USAC CEO Chris Henderson, pointing out what Pai described as “serious flaws in USAC’s administration of the E-Rate program.” Henderson resigned just a month later, and has since been replaced by Department of Agriculture veteran Radha Sekar.

“Chairman Pai believes that the E-rate program is critically important to closing the digital divide for the nation’s students, particularly in rural areas,” an FCC spokesperson told WIRED. “The Chairman has directed the Universal Service Administrative Company to take steps to make the processing of all E-rate applications—including, but not limited to, fiber applications—more efficient.”

But a year since that letter was written, experts say issues with E-rate have hit an all time low. “This is the worst I think I’ve ever seen; it’s absolutely appalling,” says one industry source with decades of experience with the program.

Eric Chambers, a director of E-rate services for the Northwest Council for Computer Education, has consulted dozens of schools—including Woodman—on how to secure E-rate funding for 15 years. Before the modernization changes, Chambers estimates he only had to appeal one denial every few years. Now, it’s more like eight per year. “Small districts without a consultant usually just give up on it. It’s more work than they get benefit back,” Chambers says. “No one should have to pay me to do this work.”

Across the country, red tape has blocked 750,000 students from access to high speed internet, according to EducationSuperHighway. In Montana alone, 45,000 students live with limited connectivity. “I visited Woodman School and know that the need is there,” said Governor Bullock in a statement to WIRED. “Red tape stands in the way of closing the gap for more than 45,000 Montana students who are still without access to the high-speed internet they need to take advantage of digital learning.”

Woodman School is now appealing USAC’s denial of the school’s 2017 application. The overall cost of the project was estimated at around $980,000, 90 percent of which would have been covered by federal and state funds. According to Crews, the remaining $98,000 seemed manageable, even for a small school like Woodman. If the appeal fails, Crews says Woodman will likely look into satellite internet options, which are far slower and less reliable than fiber and run up against data usage caps each month. “Not the best solution,” Crews says, “but better than what we have now.”

Until then, the students and teachers at Woodman will continue to wait for something that the rest of the country takes for granted.

Getting the Broadband Together

'Trustjacking' Could Expose iPhones to Attack

Have you used a friend’s laptop to charge your iPhone and gotten a prompt that says, “Trust This Computer?” Say yes, and the computer will be able to access your phone settings and data while they’re connected. And while it doesn’t feel like your answer really matters—your phone will charge either way—researchers from Symantec warn that this seemingly minor decision has much higher stakes than you’d think.

In fact, the Symantec team has found that hacks exploiting that misplaced “Trust” comprise a whole class of iOS attacks they call “trustjacking.” Once a user authorizes a device, they open themselves to serious and persistent attacks while their phone is connected to the same Wi-Fi network as a hacker, or even remote attacks when the devices are separated.

Adi Sharabani, Symantec’s senior vice president of modern operating system security, and Roy Iarchy, the modern operating system research team leader, will make that case Wednesday, in a presentation at the RSA security conference in San Francisco.

“Once this trust is established, everything is possible,” Sharabani told WIRED last week. “It introduces a new vector of attack.”

Sharabani and Iarchy’s presentation focuses largely on a feature known as iTunes Wi-Fi Sync, the tool that lets iOS devices sync with desktop iTunes over Wi-Fi. For this process you physically connect a mobile device to a computer once, indicate that the iOS device can trust the computer going forward, and then enable iTunes Wi-Fi Sync from the PC. After that the two devices can sync and communicate whenever they are on the same Wi-Fi network without any further approval from the iPhone or iPad.

It’s a reasonable and useful feature when used as intended. But an attacker could also plant a malicious computer—perhaps one shaped like a charging station or external battery—and trick people into connecting their devices and granting trust out of confusion or disinterest.

Once a trusted Wi-Fi Sync connection is established, attackers can not only do basic syncing, but also take advantage of controls meant for developers to manipulate the victim iOS device. A hacker could work quickly to install malware on the phone, or initiate a backup to gather data like a victim’s photos, app information, and SMS/iMessage chats. Attackers with trust privileges could also start watching a target device’s screen in real-time by initiating screenshots on the phone and then syncing them to the attack computer. Or they could play a long game, silently retaining their trusted status until it is long forgotten, for a future attack.

“We discovered this by mistake actually,” Sharabani says. “Roy was doing research and he connected his own iPhone to his own computer to access it. But accidentally he realized that he was not actually connected to his own phone. He was connected to one of his team members’ phones who had connected their mobile device to Roy’s desktop a few weeks before. So Roy started to dig into what exactly he could do and find out if he were an attacker.”

You can imagine a number of scenarios where this could work as a targeted attack. Everyone has places they visit regularly: an office, a coffee shop, the local library. Attackers could anticipate that a victim iOS device would regularly connect to the same Wi-Fi network as the trusted attacker computer—enabling clandestine, malicious backups with iTunes Wi-Fi Sync. The researchers point out that an attacker wouldn’t necessarily be geographically limited; after gaining a foothold, they could combine trustjacking with a type of attack called “malicious profiles,” which takes advantage of how iOS manages configuration packages for apps to get around access restrictions, establish continuous remote access. Beginning in iOS 10, though, Apple started making it harder for hackers to carry out malicious profile attacks.

It’s tempting to put the onus on the iPhone owner here; you shouldn’t, after all, connect with sketchy computers an trust them in the first place. And Apple, which declined to comment for this story, seems to agree. When Sharabani and Iarchy disclosed their findings to the company, it did add a second prompt in iOS 11 to require a device’s passcode as part of authorizing a new computer as trusted. This makes it more difficult for anyone other than the device owner to establish trust.

But Sharabani and Iarchy argue that it’s unreasonable to put it entirely on the user to make the correct choice about trusting a device, especially since the authorization persists indefinitely once it’s established. There’s also currently no way to see a list of devices that have outstanding trusted status.

In these transactions, iOS’s wording is also unhelpful. The prompts say, “Trust this computer? Your settings and data will be accessible from this computer when connected,” which might seem to mean that nothing will be exposed when the devices are no longer physically connected. In fact, given that Wi-Fi sync can be enabled in desktop iTunes without any involvement of the mobile device, there’s much more potential for long-term connection than users may realize.

Consider, too, that an attacker who successfully infects a target’s PC with malware can exploit the trust a victim grants his own computer. A user will obviously trust their own computer, and their phone and PC will frequently be on the same Wi-Fi network. So an attacker who has infected a target’s computer can get a two-for-one of also having regular access to the victim’s iOS devices.

“Apple took the very quick act of adding the passcode,” Sharabani notes. “With that said, this is a design problem. They could better design the future behavior of the features, but it will take them time to implement. That’s why it’s so important to alert users and raise awareness. Users need to understand the implications.”

Sharabani and Iarchy say they haven’t seen trustjacking attacks in the wild so far, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t out there or coming. And though Apple doesn’t offer a list of the computers an iOS device trusts, it is possible to scrub the trusted computers list entirely. In iOS 11 users can go to Settings > General > Reset > Reset Location & Privacy to get a clean slate, after which people can start to be more cognizant of which computers they authorize. (Note that doing this reset also revokes all specially granted app permissions.) Another helpful defense for users is to encrypt iOS device backups with a strong password. With this turned on, an attacker abusing Wi-Fi Sync can still make their own backups of a victim device, but they will be encrypted with whatever password the target chose.

The researchers see iOS’s authorization prompts as a single point of failure, where the operating system could provide a few more prompts in exchange for more layers of defense against trustjacking. No one wants one seemingly insignificant mistake to blow up in their face weeks or months later. But while users wait for Apple to architect long-term solutions, their best defense is to become discerning and extremely selective about doling out trust.

Smartphone Safety

China's Huawei Tech retrenches in U.S. after years of criticism

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – China’s Huawei Technologies Co Ltd [HWT.UL], viewed with suspicion in congress as a potential threat to U.S. national security, has laid off five employees at its Washington office and slashed lobbying expenditures, according to sources familiar with the matter and government filings.

FILE PHOTO: The Huawei logo is seen during the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain, February 26, 2018. REUTERS/Yves Herman/File Photo

Huawei, the world’s third largest smartphone maker, let go its vice president of external affairs Bill Plummer and four other people in the Washington office, sources said. The New York Times was first to report the shake-up.

The company also slashed lobbying expenditures to $60,000 in 2017 from $348,500 in 2016, according to Huawei filings.

“Like every company, we continually evaluate our organization and align our resources to support our business strategy and objectives,” a Huawei spokesman said. “Any changes to staffing size or structure are simply a reflection of standard business optimization.”

The retrenchment comes amid a steady drip of bad news for the Chinese telecommunications company prompted by concerns by U.S. national security experts and China hawks who are loath to see equipment made by a Chinese firm installed in the U.S. telecommunications network.

In February, two Republican U.S. senators introduced legislation that would block the government from buying or leasing telecommunications equipment from Huawei or China’s ZTE Corp , citing concerns that the companies might use their access to spy on U.S. officials.

Such concerns have extended to handsets. In January, AT&T Inc was forced to scrap a plan to offer its customers Huawei handsets after some members of Congress lobbied against the idea with federal regulators.

The United States this week banned American firms from selling parts and software to ZTE for seven years. Washington accused ZTE of violating an agreement on punishing employees after the company illegally shipped U.S. goods to Iran.

Despite being hampered in getting a foothold in the U.S. market, Shenzhen-based Huawei saw net profit rise to 47.5 billion yuan ($7.3 billion) in 2017, sharply up from a 0.4 percent increase in 2016. The rise was partly the result of a 85 percent drop in net financing expenses and partly due to higher revenue.

Reporting by Diane Bartz; Editing by David Gregorio

British facial verification tech firm secures U.S. border contract

LONDON (Reuters) – A British technology firm has been awarded a contract by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to use biometric facial verification technology to improve border control, the first foreign firm to win such a contract in the United States.

London-based iProov will develop technology to improve border controls at unmanned ports of entry with a verification system that uses the traveller’s cell phone.

British trade minister Liam Fox said in a statement on Monday that the contract was “one example of our shared economic and security ties” with the United States.

IProov said it was the first non-U.S. firm to be awarded a contract under the Silicon Valley Innovation Program (SVIP), which is run by the DHS Science and Technology Directorate.

Reporting by Alistair Smout; editing by Michael Holden

EU digital chief to meet with Facebook CEO amid privacy scandal

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – The European Union’s digital chief will meet with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg in San Francisco as the world’s largest social network faces increasing scrutiny over its use of personal data.

FILE PHOTO: Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg arrives to testify before a Senate Judiciary and Commerce Committees joint hearing regarding the company’s use and protection of user data, on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, U.S., April 10, 2018. REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein/File Photo

Privacy concerns have swamped Facebook since it acknowledged last month that information about millions of users wrongly ended up in the hands of political consultancy Cambridge Analytica, a firm that has counted U.S. President Donald Trump’s 2016 electoral campaign among its clients.

Andrus Ansip, European Commission Vice President in charge of digital issues will meet with Zuckerberg on Tuesday, as well as meeting with Sundar Pichai, Google’s CEO, to discuss issues such as data protection, online privacy, illegal content and fake news.

Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg spoke to Ansip’s justice counterpart last week in what was described as an open and constructive discussion.

A tough new EU data protection law entering into force on May 25 has acquired new prominence following the Cambridge Analytica scandal, with European policymakers saying it will set a standard worldwide.

Zuckerberg has also been asked to speak before the European Parliament to explain how Europeans’ Facebook data may have been misused.

Reporting by Julia Fioretti, editing by David Evans

TED 2018: Netflix Sees Itself as the Anti-Apple

Streaming service Netflix is famous for its unique culture. The most well-known example is the company’s no-vacation policy, which allows employees to take off as many days as they choose, whenever they choose. That policy is just a symbol of a broader attitude in the company, according to CEO Reed Hastings.

“There’s a whole lot of that freedom,” Hastings said on stage Saturday, at the TED conference in Vancouver. He purposely built Netflix to have a culture of open information sharing after his first company, Pure Software, struggled because it was too obsessed with creating processes to prevent mistakes from happening. “We were trying to dummy-proof the system, and eventually only dummies wanted to work there,” he said. Workers across the company are given updates on a wide range of Netflix’s projects, not just the ones their department is working on.

The Netflix culture of information sharing builds a sense of responsibility among employees, Hastings said. “We’re like the anti-Apple. They compartmentalize, we do the opposite. Everyone gets all the information.” He added: “I find out about big decisions made all the time that I had nothing to do with.”

That’s why Hastings promotes courage as a fundamental value at the company. “We want people to speak the truth, and we say, ‘To disagree silently is disloyal.’” He added, “It’s not ok to let a decision go through without saying your piece. We’re very focused on trying to get to good decisions with a good debate.”

Netflix, which recently turned 20, has had some time to foster this culture. In contrast, Facebook, where Hastings is a board director, is 14. When asked about Facebook’s recent privacy scandal and two years of negative headlines, Hastings noted that Facebook and other social media companies “are clearly trying to grow up quickly.”

He compared social media to television, which was viewed in the 1960s as “a vast wasteland” sure to rot the minds of humanity. “It turns out everybody was fine and there was some adjustment. I think of it as, all new technology has pros and cons and social media is figuring that out,” he said.

But has Facebook been completely unfairly criticized? “Oh, it’s not completely unfairly,” he said. He added, in a show of support for Facebook’s CEO, “Mark [Zuckerberg] is leading the charge on fixing Facebook and he’s very passionate about that.”

Hastings has not withheld criticism in his capacity as a board director in the past. He questioned fellow board director Peter Thiel’s support of Donald Trump and fitness to serve on the Facebook board, even offering to resign after the communications became public, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Hastings could leave Facebook’s board for another reason. As Facebook has moved deeper into original content, including acquiring rights to stream sporting events, speculation has swirled that Hastings could step down for competitive reasons. Indeed, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg resigned from Walt Disney Co.’s board in March, citing conflicts of interest. Last spring, Hastings said his board seat had not created a “big conflict, yet” because Facebook was acquiring different types of content than Netflix.

As seemingly every tech giant converges around original video content, Netflix, the “anti-Apple” company which started out mailing people DVDs, is finding itself up against all of Silicon Valley. Last year Apple announced it would spend $1 billion acquiring and developing original content for a forthcoming streaming service. Amazon spent $4.5 billion acquiring non-sports content in 2017 and Hulu spent $2.5 billion.

But Netflix is not shrinking from the competition. The company has plans to spend around $8 billion on content with the aim of making half of that original. Hastings doesn’t think the eye-popping spending is enough. “There are so many great shows on other networks, so we have a long way to go,” he said. Besides, he added, “that’s spread globally so it’s not as much as it sounds.” (The TED audience, which included numerous billionaires, politely chuckled.)

Hastings clearly enjoys of the spoils of fierce completion. “I love competing, I love going up against Disney and HBO, that’s what gets me going,” he said. He has already taken on Hollywood—the most powerful companies in Silicon Valley are next.


More Netflix

  • Netflix is turning 20, but it’s birthday doesn’t matter
  • Disney is building its own Netflix—and so might everyone else
  • Netflix knows some very strange things about [public viewing habits(https://www.wired.com/story/netflix-streaming-in-public/?mbid=BottomRelatedStories)

Exploring the Mirror Link Between Two Geometric Worlds

Twenty-seven years ago, a group of physicists made an accidental discovery that flipped mathematics on its head. The physicists were trying to work out the details of string theory when they observed a strange correspondence: Numbers emerging from one kind of geometric world matched exactly with very different kinds of numbers from a very different kind of geometric world.

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Original story reprinted with permission from Quanta Magazine, an editorially independent publication of the Simons Foundation whose mission is to enhance public understanding of science by covering research developments and trends in mathematics and the physical and life sciences.

To physicists, the correspondence was interesting. To mathematicians, it was preposterous. They’d been studying these two geometric settings in isolation from each other for decades. To claim that they were intimately related seemed as unlikely as asserting that at the moment an astronaut jumps on the moon, some hidden connection causes his sister to jump back on earth.

“It looked totally outrageous,” said David Morrison, a mathematician at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and one of the first mathematicians to investigate the matching numbers.

Nearly three decades later, incredulity has long since given way to revelation. The geometric relationship that the physicists first observed is the subject of one of the most flourishing fields in contemporary mathematics. The field is called mirror symmetry, in reference to the fact that these two seemingly distant mathematical universes appear somehow to reflect each other exactly. And since the observation of that first correspondence—a set of numbers on one side that matched a set of numbers on the other—mathematicians have found many more instances of an elaborate mirroring relationship: Not only do the astronaut and his sister jump together, they wave their hands and dream in unison, too.

Recently, the study of mirror symmetry has taken a new turn. After years of discovering more examples of the same underlying phenomenon, mathematicians are closing in on an explanation for why the phenomenon happens at all.

“We’re getting to the point where we’ve found the ground. There’s a landing in sight,” said Denis Auroux, a mathematician at the University of California, Berkeley.

The effort to come up with a fundamental explanation for mirror symmetry is being advanced by several groups of mathematicians. They are closing in on proofs of the central conjectures in the field. Their work is like uncovering a form of geometric DNA—a shared code that explains how two radically different geometric worlds could possibly hold traits in common.

Discovering the Mirror

What would eventually become the field of mirror symmetry began when physicists went looking for some extra dimensions. As far back as the late 1960s, physicists had tried to explain the existence of fundamental particles—electrons, photons, quarks—in terms of minuscule vibrating strings. By the 1980s, physicists understood that in order to make “string theory” work, the strings would have to exist in 10 dimensions—six more than the four-dimensional space-time we can observe. They proposed that what went on in those six unseen dimensions determined the observable properties of our physical world.

“You might have this small space that you can’t see or measure directly, but some aspects of the geometry of that space might influence real-world physics,” said Mark Gross, a mathematician at the University of Cambridge.

Eventually, they came up with potential descriptions of the six dimensions. Before getting to them, though, it’s worth thinking for a second about what it means for a space to have a geometry.

Mark Gross, a mathematician at the University of Cambridge, and a colleague are putting the finishing touches on a proof that establishes a universal method for constructing one mirror space from another.

Consider a beehive and a skyscraper. Both are three-dimensional structures, but each has a very different geometry: Their layouts are different, the curvature of their exteriors is different, their interior angles are different. Similarly, string theorists came up with very different ways to imagine the missing six dimensions.

One method arose in the mathematical field of algebraic geometry. Here, mathematicians study polynomial equations—for example, x2 + y2 = 1—by graphing their solutions (a circle, in this case). More-complicated equations can form elaborate geometric spaces. Mathematicians explore the properties of those spaces in order to better understand the original equations. Because mathematicians often use complex numbers, these spaces are commonly referred to as “complex” manifolds (or shapes).

The other type of geometric space was first constructed by thinking about physical systems such as orbiting planets. The coordinate values of each point in this kind of geometric space might specify, for example, a planet’s location and momentum. If you take all possible positions of a planet together with all possible momenta, you get the “phase space” of the planet—a geometric space whose points provide a complete description of the planet’s motion. This space has a “symplectic” structure that encodes the physical laws governing the planet’s motion.

Symplectic and complex geometries are as different from one another as beeswax and steel. They make very different kinds of spaces. Complex shapes have a very rigid structure. Think again of the circle. If you wiggle it even a little, it’s no longer a circle. It’s an entirely distinct shape that can’t be described by a polynomial equation. Symplectic geometry is much floppier. There, a circle and a circle with a little wiggle in it are almost the same.

“Algebraic geometry is a more rigid world, whereas symplectic geometry is more flexible,” said Nick Sheridan, a research fellow at Cambridge. “That’s one reason they’re such different worlds, and it’s so surprising they end up being equivalent in a deep sense.”

In the late 1980s, string theorists came up with two ways to describe the missing six dimensions: one derived from symplectic geometry, the other from complex geometry. They demonstrated that either type of space was consistent with the four-dimensional world they were trying to explain. Such a pairing is called a duality: Either one works, and there’s no test you could use to distinguish between them.

Physicists then began to explore just how far the duality extended. As they did so, they uncovered connections between the two kinds of spaces that grabbed the attention of mathematicians.

In 1991, a team of four physicists—Philip Candelas, Xenia de la Ossa, Paul Green and Linda Parkes—performed a calculation on the complex side and generated numbers that they used to make predictions about corresponding numbers on the symplectic side. The prediction had to do with the number of different types of curves that could be drawn in the six-dimensional symplectic space. Mathematicians had long struggled to count these curves. They had never considered that these counts of curves had anything to do with the calculations on complex spaces that physicists were now using in order to make their predictions.

The result was so far-fetched that at first, mathematicians didn’t know what to make of it. But then, in the months following a hastily convened meeting of physicists and mathematicians in Berkeley, California, in May 1991, the connection became irrefutable. “Eventually mathematicians worked on verifying the physicists’ predictions and realized this correspondence between these two worlds was a real thing that had gone unnoticed by mathematicians who had been studying the two sides of this mirror for centuries,” said Sheridan.

The discovery of this mirror duality meant that in short order, mathematicians studying these two kinds of geometric spaces had twice the number of tools at their disposal: Now they could use techniques from algebraic geometry to answer questions in symplectic geometry, and vice versa. They threw themselves into the work of exploiting the connection.

Breaking Up Is Hard to Do

At the same time, mathematicians and physicists set out to identify a common cause, or underlying geometric explanation, for the mirroring phenomenon. In the same way that we can now explain similarities between very different organisms through elements of a shared genetic code, mathematicians attempted to explain mirror symmetry by breaking down symplectic and complex manifolds into a shared set of basic elements called “torus fibers.”

A torus is a shape with a hole in the middle. An ordinary circle is a one-dimensional torus, and the surface of a donut is a two-dimensional torus. A torus can be of any number of dimensions. Glue lots of lower dimensional tori together in just the right way, and you can build a higher dimensional shape out of them.

To take a simple example, picture the surface of the earth. It is a two-dimensional sphere. You could also think of it as being made from many one-dimensional circles (like many lines of latitude) glued together. All these circles stuck together are a “torus fibration” of the sphere—the individual fibers woven together into a greater whole.

Lucy Reading-Ikkanda/Quanta Magazine

Torus fibrations are useful in a few ways. One is that they give mathematicians a simpler way to think of complicated spaces. Just like you can construct a torus fibration of a two-dimensional sphere, you can construct a torus fibration of the six-dimensional symplectic and complex spaces that feature in mirror symmetry. Instead of circles, the fibers of those spaces are three-dimensional tori. And while a six-dimensional symplectic manifold is impossible to visualize, a three-dimensional torus is almost tangible. “That’s already a big help,” said Sheridan.

A torus fibration is useful in another way: It reduces one mirror space to a set of building blocks that you could use to build the other. In other words, you can’t necessarily understand a dog by looking at a duck, but if you break each animal into its raw genetic code, you can look for similarities that might make it seem less surprising that both organisms have eyes.

Here, in a simplified view, is how to convert a symplectic space into its complex mirror. First, perform a torus fibration on the symplectic space. You’ll get a lot of tori. Each torus has a radius (just like a circle—a one-dimensional torus—has a radius). Next, take the reciprocal of the radius of each torus. (So, a torus of radius 4 in your symplectic space becomes a torus of radius ¼ in the complex mirror.) Then use these new tori, with reciprocal radii, to build a new space.

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In 1996, Andrew Strominger, Shing-Tung Yau and Eric Zaslow proposed this method as a general approach for converting any symplectic space into its complex mirror. The proposal that it’s always possible to use a torus fibration to move from one side of the mirror to the other is called the SYZ conjecture, after its originators. Proving it has become one of the foundational questions in mirror symmetry (along with the homological mirror symmetry conjecture, proposed by Maxim Kontsevich in 1994).

The SYZ conjecture is hard to prove because, in practice, this procedure of creating a torus fibration and then taking reciprocals of the radii is not easy to do. To see why, return to the example of the surface of the earth. At first it seems easy to stripe it with circles, but at the poles, your circles will have a radius of zero. And the reciprocal of zero is infinity. “If your radius equals zero, you’ve got a bit of a problem,” said Sheridan.

This same difficulty crops up in a more pronounced way when you’re trying to create a torus fibration of a six-dimensional symplectic space. There, you might have infinitely many torus fibers where part of the fiber is pinched down to a point — points with a radius of zero. Mathematicians are still trying to figure out how to work with such fibers. “This torus fibration is really the great difficulty of mirror symmetry,” said Tony Pantev, a mathematician at the University of Pennsylvania.

Put another way: The SYZ conjecture says a torus fibration is the key link between symplectic and complex spaces, but in many cases, mathematicians don’t know how to perform the translation procedure that the conjecture prescribes.

Long-Hidden Connections

Over the past 27 years, mathematicians have found hundreds of millions of examples of mirror pairs: This symplectic manifold is in a mirror relationship with that complex manifold. But when it comes to understanding why a phenomenon occurs, quantity doesn’t matter. You could assemble an ark’s worth of mammals without coming any closer to understanding where hair comes from.

“We have huge numbers of examples, like 400 million examples. It’s not that there’s a lack of examples, but nevertheless it’s still specific cases that don’t give much of a hint as to why the whole story works,” said Gross.

Mathematicians would like to find a general method of construction—a process by which you could hand them any symplectic manifold and they could hand you back its mirror. And now they believe that they’re getting close to having it. “We’re moving past the case-by-case understanding of the phenomenon,” said Auroux. “We’re trying to prove that it works in as much generality as we can.”

Mathematicians are progressing along several interrelated fronts. After decades building up the field of mirror symmetry, they’re close to understanding the main reasons the field works at all.

“I think it will be done in a reasonable time,” said Kontsevich, a mathematician at the Institute of Advanced Scientific Studies (IHES) in France and a leader in the field. “I think it will be proven really soon.”

One active area of research creates an end run around the SYZ conjecture. It attempts to port geometric information from the symplectic side to the complex side without a complete torus fibration. In 2016, Gross and his longtime collaborator Bernd Siebert of the University of Hamburg posted a general-purpose method for doing so. They are now finishing a proof to establish that the method works for all mirror spaces. “The proof has now been completely written down, but it’s a mess,” said Gross, who said that he and Siebert hope to complete it by the end of the year.

Another major open line of research seeks to establish that, assuming you have a torus fibration, which gives you mirror spaces, then all the most important relationships of mirror symmetry fall out from there. The research program is called “family Floer theory” and is being developed by Mohammed Abouzaid, a mathematician at Columbia University. In March 2017 Abouzaid posted a paper that proved this chain of logic holds for certain types of mirror pairs, but not yet all of them.

And, finally, there is work that circles back to where the field began. A trio of mathematicians—Sheridan, Sheel Ganatra and Timothy Perutz—is building on seminal ideas introduced in 1990s by Kontsevich related to his homological mirror symmetry conjecture.

Cumulatively, these three initiatives would provide a potentially complete encapsulation of the mirror phenomenon. “I think we’re getting to the point where all the big ‘why’ questions are close to being understood,” said Auroux.

Original story reprinted with permission from Quanta Magazine, an editorially independent publication of the Simons Foundation whose mission is to enhance public understanding of science by covering research developments and trends in mathematics and the physical and life sciences.

Weibo to ban gay, violent content from platform

SHANGHAI (Reuters) – China’s Sina Weibo will remove gay and violent content, including pictures, cartoons and text posts, during a three-month clean-up campaign, the microblogging platform said.

FILE PHOTO – A man holds an iPhone as he visits Sina’s Weibo microblogging site in Shanghai May 29, 2012. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

Friday’s announcement comes amid a clampdown targeting content across social media platforms as China’s leaders look to tighten their grip on a huge and diverse cultural scene popular with the young.

Weibo announced the move on its official administrator’s account, saying the action aimed to comply with China’s new cyber security law that calls for strict data surveillance.

The post drew more than 24,000 comments, was forwarded more than 110,000 times, and prompted users to protest against the decision, using the hashtag “I am gay”.

“I am gay and I’m proud, even if I get taken down there are tens of millions like me!,” said one poster, who used the handle “rou wan xiong xiong xiong xiong” and posted a photo of himself.

Some posts were quickly blocked by the platform, with the message displayed that they contained “illegal content”.

This week, news and online content portal Toutiao, which is luring investors, was forced to pull a joke sharing app after a watchdog denounced its “vulgar and improper content”.

Award-winning gay romance “Call Me By Your Name” was also dropped from a Chinese film festival last month. Homosexuality is not illegal in China, but activists say the conservative attitudes of some parts of society have prompted occasional government clampdowns.

Weibo has so far cleared 56,243 pieces of content, shut 108 user accounts and removed 62 topics considered to have violated its standards, it added.

Reporting by Brenda Goh; Editing by Clarence Fernandez

EU privacy watchdogs to look into harvesting of data from social media

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – European Union privacy watchdogs will look deeper into the harvesting of personal data from social networks for economic or political purposes following the scandal engulfing Facebook Inc. after data from nearly 87 million users was improperly accessed.

FILE PHOTO: Men look at their mobile phones as they walk on the esplanade of La Defense in the financial and business district of La Defense, west of Paris, France March 26, 2018. REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes

“A multi-billion dollar social media platform saying it is sorry simply is not enough,” Andrea Jelinek, chair of the group of EU data protection authorities, said in a statement on Thursday.

The world’s largest social network has been rattled by the revelation that the personal data of tens of millions of Facebook users ended up in the hands of British political consultancy Cambridge Analytica – which has counted U.S. President Donald Trump’s election campaign among its clients.

“This is why we are creating a Social Media Working Group. What we are seeing today is most likely only one instance of the much wider spread practice of harvesting personal data from social media for economic or political reasons,” Jelinek said after a two-day meeting of the regulators.

The group must formulate a long-term strategy, the statement read, although it did not include any details on the kinds of steps it may take.

Britain’s Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) is leading the European probe into the Cambridge Analytica scandal.

A landmark data privacy law will enter into force in the EU on May 25, giving Europeans the right to know what data is stored on them and the right to have it deleted.

Under the new law, companies will need the explicit consent of users before using their data and they will have to be more specific about how they use it. Companies who break the law could face fines of up to 4 percent of their annual global turnover.

Reporting by Julia Fioretti; editing by Robert-Jan Bartunek and Hugh Lawson

​How many Linux users are there anyway?

I was talking to a friend the other day when he said there were no more than 0.0001 percent Linux users. So, so wrong.

True, desktop Linux has never taken off. But, even so, Linux has millions of desktop users. Don’t believe me? Let’s look at the numbers.

There are over 250 million PCs sold every year. Of all the PCs connected to the internet, NetMarketShare reports 1.84 percent were running Linux. Chrome OS, which is a Linux variant, has 0.29 percent. Late last year, NetMarketShare admitted it had been overestimating the number of Linux desktops, but they’ve corrected their analysis.

You see, NetMarketShare doesn’t simply count PCs, which connect to its network of over 40,000 websites using HitsLink Analytics and SharePost. Its methodology is to “collect data from the browsers of site visitors and it then weights the data by country. “We compare our traffic to the CIA Internet Traffic by Country table, and weight our data accordingly. For example, if our global data shows that Brazil represents 2% of our traffic, and the CIA table shows Brazil to represent 4% of global internet traffic, we will count each unique visitor from Brazil twice.”

Another analysis company, which is frequently cited for operating system numbers, is StatCounter. By its count desktop Linux has 1.48 percent, with Chrome OS coming in at 1.03 percent. StatCounter claims its numbers are derived from raw browser hits from racking code, which is installed on more than 2 million sites.

Perhaps the most unbiased numbers are from the federal government’s Digital Analytics Program (DAP). DAP’s numbers come from the billion visits over the past 90 days to over 400 US executive branch government domains. That’s about 5,000 total websites. These visitors appear to be largely US citizens. You can see this from the most popular websites: The US Postal Service, the IRS, and Medline Plus.

By DAP’s count, Linux is bundled in with 0.6 percent other. Chrome OS, according to DAP, has more users: 1.3 percent.

Still, while desktop Linux is a minority desktop operating system, it still has millions of users, and that’s a lot more than a mere fraction of 1 percent.

And, when it comes to overall end-user operating system, Linux-based Android has 70.96 percent of the mobile market by NetMarketShare’s count. By DAP’s reckoning, Android has 19.9 percent of all end-user systems, while StatCounter shows Android as even more popular than Windows by 39.49 percent to 36.62 percent.

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Zuckerberg to meet with U.S. lawmakers Monday: sources

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Facebook Inc Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg will hold meetings with some U.S. lawmakers on Monday, a day before he is due to appear at Congressional hearings over a political consultancy’s use of customer data, two congressional aides said on Sunday.

FILE PHOTO – Facebook Founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg speaks on stage during the annual Facebook F8 developers conference in San Jose, California, U.S., April 18, 2017. REUTERS/Stephen Lam

The planned meetings at Capitol Hill are expected to continue through Monday afternoon and include some lawmakers from committees before whom Zuckerberg is due to testify, said the aides, who asked not to be identified because the meetings have not been made public.

Facebook declined to comment.

Zuckerberg is scheduled to appear before a joint hearing of the U.S. Senate Judiciary and Commerce committees on Tuesday and the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee on Wednesday.

Facebook has come under fire in recent weeks after it said that the personal information of up to 87 million users, mostly in the United States, may have been improperly shared with political consultancy Cambridge Analytica.

A Facebook spokesman said on Sunday that the company plans to begin telling affected users on Monday.

London-based Cambridge Analytica, which has counted U.S. President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign among its clients, has disputed Facebook’s estimate of the number of affected users.

Zuckerberg is expected in his testimony to recognize a need to take responsibility and acknowledge an initial failure to understand how many people were affected, a person briefed on the matter, who asked for anonymity, said on Sunday.

Zuckerberg said in a conference call with reporters last week that he accepted blame for the data leak, which has angered users, advertisers and lawmakers, while also saying he was still the right person to head the company he founded.

On Friday, Facebook backed proposed legislation requiring social media sites to disclose the identities of buyers of online political campaign ads and introduced a new verification process for people buying “issue” ads.

The steps are designed to deter the kind of election meddling and online information warfare that U.S. authorities have accused Russia of pursuing, Zuckerberg said on Friday. Moscow has denied the allegations.

In February, U.S. Special Counsel Robert Mueller charged 13 Russians and three Russian companies with interfering in the 2016 U.S. presidential election by sowing discord on social media.

Zuckerberg, on the call with reporters, said Facebook should have done more to audit and oversee third-party app developers like the one hired by Cambridge Analytica in 2014.

Reporting by David Shepardson, Editing by Rosalba O’Brien

Buy This Oversold Blue-Chip Bank With A 5.4% Dividend

On April 4th, Bloomberg reported that HSBC (HSBC) is considering an exit or sale from smaller consumer operations such as Bermuda, Malta, and Uruguay. In addition, the bank plans to expand its asset management division and is currently looking at a potential merger with a rival.

In our view, the news confirms that the group’s management will remain committed to transforming HSBC into a more focused and more efficient banking institution. More importantly, even though HSBC’s operations in Bermuda, Malta, and Uruguay are small compared to the group’s total assets, we believe a potential sale of these units would have a positive impact on the bank’s capital position, supporting stock buybacks and special dividends.

The recent rise in LIBOR should support HSBC’s NIM

LIBOR has grown by more than 130bps since the beginning of the year. Such a notable increase is currently among the most widely discussed topics. Several analysts suggest that this is an early indicator of a bear market or even a severe financial crisis. In our view, the increase has been driven by idiosyncratic reasons, in particular, higher supply of short-term Treasuries and lower demand from corporates due to the US tax reform.

Source: Bloomberg

With that being said, despite the reasons of the rise in LIBOR, HSBC should benefit from higher short-term rates. As shown below, the bank discloses its NII (net interest income) sensitivity to a shift in yield curves. However, this analysis is based on a parallel shift, while yield curves in most global economies continue to flatten.

Source: Company data

What is important here is that HSBC has a variable-rate loan book. More importantly, a significant part of its credit portfolio is priced off short-term rates. This suggests to us that the rise in LIBOR should be a positive for the bank’s asset yields and its NIM.

Source: Company data

One may argue that higher short-term rates will also affect HSBC’s funding costs, especially given that wholesale sources and corporate deposits are generally tied to the short-end of the yield curve. The caveat here is that HSBC has a unique funding position. As shown below, the bank has one of the lowest LtD (loans-to-deposits) ratios among European banks. In other words, HSBC does not need expensive deposits in order to fund its loan growth. HSBC had been struggling from abundant liquidity for many years as a low interest rate environment has virtually crippled its NIM. Given that rates have started rising, the bank’s excessive liquidity is gradually turning into a positive that will protect HSBC’s NIM in a rising interest rate environment.

European banks: Loans-to-deposits ratio

Source: Bloomberg, Renaissance Research

Saudi Aramco’s IPO

Saudi Aramco (Private:ARMCO) has appointed HSBC as an adviser on its much-awaited IPO. JPMorgan (JPM) and Morgan Stanley (MS) will also act as consultants. As such, HSBC is the only non-US bank that will have a crucial role in Aramco’s IPO.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that while many US and UK investors are skeptical on Saudi Aramco’s IPO, as state-owned oil companies have been underperforming their private peers for quite a while now, Chinese investors would be interested in Aramco’s shares. Hong Kong Exchanges and Clearing (OTCPK:HKXCF) (OTCPK:HKXCY) plans to introduce the so-called Primary Connect program, which would allow mainland Chinese investors to participate in initial public offerings on the HKEX.

We believe Aramco’s IPO would strengthen HSBC’s position in the region. In our view, it would also underpin the fact that HSBC is a global banking group with unique access to Chinese investors.

Buybacks and dividends

HSBC pays a $0.51 dividend per ordinary share or $2.55 per ADR. That corresponds to a 5.4% dividend yield, based on the current ADR price. We believe that a 5.4% dividend from a global blue-chip bank with a strong presence on Asian markets looks very attractive.

Additionally, it is also worth noting that the bank has temporarily suspended its buyback program due to technical reasons related to the issuance of additional Tier 1 capital. We expect HSBC to announce a new buyback in the second half of 2018.

Final thoughts

The shares have fallen by almost 15% since January, and we believe this sell-off represents a great opportunity to buy a global bank with an attractive dividend yield. HSBC has excess capital, thanks to its US unit, and, as a result, we expect the bank to announce a new buyback program in the second half of the year.

If you would like to receive our articles as soon as they are published, consider following us by clicking the “Follow” button beside our name at the top of the page. Thank you for reading.

Disclosure: I am/we are long HSBC, JPM.

I wrote this article myself, and it expresses my own opinions. I am not receiving compensation for it (other than from Seeking Alpha). I have no business relationship with any company whose stock is mentioned in this article.

Feds Seize Backpage.com, Site Linked to Sex Trafficking

Federal and state authorities Friday seized Backpage.com, an online classifieds site frequently accused of facilitating sex trafficking, and reportedly indicted seven people. A notice on Backpage’s website said the site had been seized by the FBI and other agencies.

Nicole Navas Oxman, a spokesperson for the Department of Justice, said Friday afternoon that the agency would issue a press release after charges are unsealed, but things did not go as expected. “The Court has ruled that the case remains sealed and we have nothing to report today,” she wrote in an email Friday evening.

The banner states that the enforcement action was a collaborative effort between the FBI, US Postal Inspection Service, the criminal division of the IRS, the Department of Justice’s child exploitation and obscenity division, as well as attorneys general from Arizona, California, and Texas.

CBS News reported that an indictment had been unsealed against seven people allegedly involved in running Backpage, containing 93 criminal counts including money laundering and running a website to facilitate prostitution. The indictment, which was filed in Arizona where Backpage is maintained, names 17 victims, both adults and children, who were allegedly trafficked, according to CBS News.

On Friday morning, the FBI raided the home of Backpage cofounder Michael Lacey, and there was some activity at the home of cofounder Jim Larkin as well, according to the The Republic, a newspaper in Arizona. A year ago, the paper reported that a federal grand jury had been convened in Arizona to hear evidence against Backpage.

The move against Backpage came just days before President Trump is expected to sign a new anti-sex-trafficking bill that passed both houses of Congress with overwhelming support. The bill initially was controversial because it alters a key internet law that protects tech companies from liability for user-generated content on their platforms.

Previous criminal and civil charges against Backpage had mostly been derailed by that law, the Communications Decency Act. The bill Trump is expected to sign creates an exception for sites that “knowingly” facilitate or support online sex trafficking and explicitly grants states and victims the right to bring criminal and civil action against websites like Backpage. The bill faced opposition from tech companies, free speech advocates, and sex workers, and has already prompted online forums like Craigslist’s personal section and Reddit sections like Escorts and Sugar Daddies to shut down, rather than risk liability. Advocates for sex workers say the closures will endanger those workers, who relied on the sites to share bad date lists and verify clients.

It’s unclear why the federal agencies acted now. The Communications Decency Act did not apply to federal law enforcement agencies, said Eric Goldman, a law professor at Santa Clara University who testified against the recently passed bill. “The question is why today and why not two weeks ago before the Senate voted?” Goldman said. “The DOJ can’t turn on or off a federal prosecution on a dime, so that seems unlikely, but still the timing is so perplexing.” On Twitter, Goldman said, “It’s almost as if the government is trying to prove that all the anti-Backpage rhetoric fueling #SESTA & #FOSTA was just political theater.” (SESTA and FOSTA are acronyms for versions of the anti-sex-trafficking bill.)

Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), who cosponsored the bill, called the DOJ’s action to shut down Backpage “long overdue.”

A January 2017 Senate report accused Backpage of facilitating online sex trafficking by stripping words like “lolita,” “little girl,” and “amber alert” from ads in order to hide illegal activity before publishing the ad, as well as coaching customers on how to post “clean” ads for illegal transactions. Judges in California and Massachusetts previously cited Section 230 in dismissing cases against Backpage.

Still, some sex workers said the seizure could endanger them. “If the people who run Backpage have knowingly harmed people, they deserve to be held accountable, but the most immediate impact of the seizure of an entire website will be felt by independent consensual sex workers,” Liara Roux, a sex worker, political organizer, and adult-media producer and director, wrote to WIRED. “Without safe online advertising, which studies seem to show reduced female homicide rates nationally by 17 percent, sex workers are unable to screen clients based on emails and decide who is safe to see.”

Backpage was invoked frequently in the debate around SESTA and FOSTA. Members of the Senate were particularly moved by testimony from Yvonne Ambrose, whose 16-year-old daughter, Desiree Robinson, was killed after she was repeatedly advertised for sex on Backpage. Last year, Ambrose sued Backpage for facilitating child sex trafficking. The documentary “I Am Jane Doe,” followed families in their quest to hold Backpage accountable.

Berin Szóka, president of TechFreedom, a nonprofit that has received funding from Google, says, the timing of the enforcement shows that the vetting process for the bill was rushed. “The argument for SESTA was a sham all along.”

Free Speech or Human Trafficking?

  • Within days of the bill’s passage, Craigslist, Reddit, and others shut personals forums, as sex workers had feared.
  • The bill could have encourage tech companies to either stop moderating or censor content, opening the door to further attacks on Section 230.
  • The backlash against big tech played a role in the passage of the bill.