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U.S. Will Not Join Christchurch Call Against Online Extremism Over Free Speech Concerns

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  • Countries and tech companies came together in Paris on Wednesday to sign a global pledge dubbed the Christchurch Call.
  • The symbolic document lays out new efforts to combat the spread of violent extremism and terrorist content online.  
  • The White House has chosen not to endorse the pledge, citing respect for freedom of expression, but said it supports its overall goals.

The Christchurch Call

The U.S. will not join a pledge signed by over a dozen countries and major tech companies to stand against online terrorism and extremism in the wake of the deadly mosque attacks in New Zealand.

The Christchurch Call is a pledge that was unveiled Wednesday in Paris by New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and French President Emmanuel Macron. The two announced their partnership on the pledge last month, saying that they hoped to work with other countries and tech companies to agree on ways to stop social media sites from being used to promote terrorism and violent extremist content.

The pledge is named after the New Zealand city that was attacked on March 15, when a gunman killed 51 people at two mosques in Christchurch while live streaming the attack on Facebook.

The reposting and sharing of the footage was a massive issue for social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and others. Facebook, for instance, said they removed about 1.5 million copies of the footage within 24 hours.

What was pledged?

Ardern and Macron were joined by other world leaders, as well as representatives from tech giants to discuss ways to improve their current efforts to tackle online extremism.

The signatories signed a largely symbolic document, agreeing to enforce existing law on the dissemination of this type of content, while also respecting tech industry standards and government regulations.

“All action on this issue must be consistent with principles of a free, open and secure internet, without compromising human rights and fundamental freedoms, including freedom of expression,” the pledge says.

“It must also recognise the internet’s ability to act as a force for good, including by promoting innovation and economic development and fostering inclusive societies.”

The text of the initiative outlines “collective, voluntary commitments” from governments and internet companies and does not include penalties for those that do no comply.

Britain, Canada, Ireland, Jordan, Norway, Senegal, Indonesia, and other nations have backed the action, along with some of the world’s biggest tech companies: Facebook, Amazon, Google, Twitter, and Microsoft.

Supporters of the Christchurch Call

The tech giants promised to update their terms of service to “expressly prohibit the distribution of terrorist and violent extremist content” and said they would develop crisis protocols to better respond to active events like a terror attack.

The companies also said they would commit to releasing “transparency reports” on the detection and removal of extremist content and study how their algorithms sometimes promote that content.

“Terrorism and violent extremism are complex societal problems that require an all-of-society response,” the companies said in a joint statement. “For our part, the commitments we are making today will further strengthen the partnership that governments, society and the technology industry must have to address this threat.”

Why didn’t the U.S. Join?

President Trump did not attend Wednesday’s summit and the White House later released a statement announcing that the U.S. will not be signing onto the pledge.

“While the United States is not currently in a position to join the endorsement, we continue to support the overall goals reflected in the Call,” the statement said. “We will continue to engage governments, industry, and civil society to counter terrorist content on the Internet.”

The White House also cited concerns over free speech protections, saying: “We continue to be proactive in our efforts to counter terrorist content online while also continuing to respect freedom of expression and freedom of the press.”

“We maintain that the best tool to defeat terrorist speech is productive speech, and thus we emphasize the importance of promoting credible, alternative narratives as the primary means by which we can defeat terrorist messaging,” the statement continued.

The statement went on to say that tech companies should continue to enforce their terms of use policies and community standards. Macron said he wanted to get “a more concrete and formal commitment” from the U.S. but saw the country’s support of the overall goals “as a positive element.”

Facebook Already Making Changes

Before the Paris summit, Facebook released a new policy change aimed at curbing the spread of violent extremism. The company rolled out a “one-strike” policy, that blocked users who violate their community standards from using its Facebook Live feature for a set amount of time.

See what others are saying: (Time) (BBC) (The New York Times)

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U.K. Court Rules Julian Assange Can Be Extradited to U.S.

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The judgment overrules a lower court decision that blocked the WikiLeaks founder’s extradition on the grounds that his mental health was not stable enough to weather harsh conditions in the American prison system if convicted.


New Developments in Assange Extradition Battle

A British court ruled Friday that WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange can be extradited to the United States to face charges of violating the Espionage Act that could land him in prison for decades.

Prosecutors in the U.S. have accused Assange of conspiring with former army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning in 2010 to hack into a Department of Defense computer network and access thousands of military and diplomatic records on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The information obtained in the hack was later published by WikiLeaks in 2010 and 2011, a move U.S. authorities allege put lives in danger.

In addition to a charge of computer misuse, Assange has also been indicted on 17 espionage charges. Collectively, the charges carry a maximum prison sentence of 175 years.

The Friday decision from the High Court overturns a lower court ruling in January, which found that Assange’s mental health was too fragile for the harsh environment he could face in the U.S. prison system if convicted.

Notably, the January ruling did not determine whether or not Assange was guilty. In fact, District Judge Vanessa Baraitser explicitly rejected the defense’s arguments that the charges against him were politically motivated and that he should be protected under freedom of press.

However, she agreed that the defense had provided compelling evidence that Assange suffers from severe depression and that the conditions he could face in the U.S. prison system were “such that it would be oppressive to extradite him to the United States of America.”

The U.S. appealed the ruling, arguing that Assange’s mental health should not be a barrier to extradition and that the psychiatrist who examined him had been biased. 

In October, the Biden administration vowed that if Assange were to be convicted, he would not be placed in the highest-security U.S. prison or immediately sent to solitary confinement. Officials also said that the native Australian would be eligible to serve his sentence in his home country.

High Court Ruling

The High Court agreed with the administration’s arguments in its ruling, arguing that the American’s assurances regarding the conditions of Assange’s potential incarceration were “sufficient.” 

“There is no reason why this court should not accept the assurances as meaning what they say,” the ruling stated. “There is no basis for assuming that the USA has not given the assurances in good faith.”

Assange’s fiancé, Stella Moris, said in a statement that his legal team would appeal the decision to the British Supreme Court at the “earliest possible moment,” referring to the judgment as a “grave miscarriage of justice.”

The Supreme Court will now decide whether or not to hear the case based on if it believes the matter involves a point of law “of general public importance.” That decision may take weeks or even months.

If the U.K. Supreme Court court objects to hearing Assange’s appeal, he could ask the European Court of Human Rights to stay the extradition — a move that could set in motion another lengthy legal battle in the already drawn-out process.

Assange and his supporters claim he was acting as an investigative journalist when he published the classified military cables. They argue that the possibility of his extradition and prosecution represent serious threats to press freedoms in the U.S.

U.S. prosecutors dispute that Assange acted as a journalist, claiming that he encouraged illegal hacking for personal reasons.

See what others are saying: (The New York Times) (NPR) (The Washington Post)

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Early Data Indicates Omicron is More Transmissible But Less Severe

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The studies come as Pfizer and BioNTech claim that preliminary research shows a third shot of their COVID vaccine appears to provide sufficient protection against the new variant, but two doses alone may not.


More Information About Omicron

Several preliminary studies published in recent days appear to show that the new omicron COVID-19 variant may be more transmissible but less severe than previous strains.

One recent, un-peer-reviewed study by a Japanese scientist who advises the country’s health ministry found that omicron is four times more transmissible in its initial stage than delta was.

Preliminary information in countries hit hard by omicron also indicates high transmissibility. In South Africa —  where the variant was first detected and is already the dominant strain — new COVID cases have more than doubled over the last week.

Health officials in the U.K. said omicron cases are doubling every two or three days, and they expect the strain to become dominant in the country in a matter of weeks.

In a statement Wednesday, World Health Organization Director Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said that while early data does seem to show high transmissibility, it also indicates that omicron causes more mild cases than delta.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevent Director Rochelle Walensky echoed that sentiment, telling reporters that of the 40 known omicron cases in the U.S. as of Wednesday, nearly all of them were mild. One person has been hospitalized so far and none have died.

Studies on Vaccine Efficacy 

Other recent studies have shown that current COVID vaccines are effective at preventing severe illness and death in omicron patients, and boosters provide at least some added protection.

On Wednesday, Pfizer and BioNTech announced that laboratory tests have shown a third dose of their COVID-19 vaccine appears to provide sufficient protection against the omicron variant, though two doses may not.

According to the companies, researchers saw a 25-fold reduction in neutralizing antibodies for omicron compared to other strains of the virus for people who had just two Pfizer doses. 

By contrast, samples from people one month after they had received a Pfizer booster presented neutralizing antibodies against omicron that were comparable to those seen against previous variants after two doses.

Still, Pfizer’s chief executive also told reporters later in the day that omicron could increase the likelihood that people might need a fourth dose earlier than previously expected, which he had initially said was 12 months after the third shot.

Notably, the Pfizer research has not yet been peer-reviewed, and it remains unclear how omicron will operate outside a lab, but other studies have had similar findings.

See what others are saying: (The New York Times) (Bloomberg) (NBC News)

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40 Camels Disqualified From Beauty Contest After Breeders Inject Their Faces With Botox

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The animals were barred from competing for $66 million in prizes at this year’s King Abdulaziz Camel Festival in Saudi Arabia.


Camels Booted From Beauty Contest

More than 40 camels were disqualified from a beauty contest in Saudi Arabia this week after judges found artificial enhancements in their faces, marking the biggest crackdown on contestants in the competition to date.

The animals were competing for $66 million in prizes at the King Abdulaziz Camel Festival, a month-long event that is estimated to include around 33,000 camels.

However, according to The Guardian, they were forced out of the contest when authorities found that breeders had “stretched out the lips and noses of the camels, used hormones to boost the animals’ muscles, injected heads and lips with Botox to make them bigger, inflated body parts with rubber bands, and used fillers to relax their faces.”

Those types of alterations are banned since judges look at the contestant’s heads, necks, humps, posture, and other features when evaluating them.

An announcement from the state-linked Saudi Press Agency said officials used “specialized and advanced” technology to detect tampering.

“The club is keen to halt all acts of tampering and deception in the beautification of camels,” the SPA report added before warning that organizers would “impose strict penalties on manipulators.”

While it’s unclear what that actually entails, this isn’t the first time people have tried to cheat in this way.

In 2018, 12 camels were similarly disqualified from the competition for injections in their noses, lips, and jaw.

See what others are saying: (Insider) (The Guardian) (ABC News)

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