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Threat to democracy? Tech CEOs in hot seat over liability shield – Al Jazeera English

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Let the grilling begin.

The CEOs of Twitter, Facebook and Alphabet Inc are set to testify virtually before the United States Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation on Wednesday over whether to repeal a section of the 1996 Communications Decency Act that shields them from legal liability over content that users post on their platforms.

Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Twitter’s Jack Dorsey and Alphabet’s Sundar Pichai are landing in the hot seat less than a week before the US presidential election, which has been rife with reports of online interference and disinformation. Republican lawmakers have also accused the social media platforms of suppressing conservative viewpoints.

Here’s what you need to know about the law that shields the tech giants – and the role it plays in freedom of speech and expression online.

Sooo … what’s this law and who wants to change it?

The law in question is the Communications Decency Act of 1996, but it’s one section of it – Section 230 to be precise – that some Republican and Democratic lawmakers would like to change.

What is it about Section 230 that’s so controversial?

That section states that “no provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”

Okay, what does that mean in plain English?

It means that social media giants can’t be held legally responsible for objectionable words, photos or videos that people post to their platforms.

And what does that mean in practice?

In practice, it means for example that Yelp can’t be sued by a restaurant that a disgruntled diner accused of having rats in a review, or that Twitter isn’t responsible for the tweet in which someone erroneously claimed to be the person who discovered Mars.

So absolutely anything goes? No matter how awful?

There are exceptions to what’s protected – such as posts that violate criminal laws around child pornography, for example, or copyright and intellectual property statutes.

So why did lawmakers give social media a free pass when the law was passed?

They didn’t. Social media didn’t exist when the law was passed in 1996. But bloggers did. The law was written largely to shield internet service providers from bloggers, and, in turn, bloggers from the people who comment on their sites or write guest posts.

I was born in 1996. I grew up, so why hasn’t the law?

Because technology evolves at a much faster rate than the law. When Twitter and Facebook came on the scene in the early 2000s, Section 230 extended to them as well. Of course, the amount of user-generated content online has grown exponentially since 1996, because even your parents are on Facebook now.

So why bother with testimony? Why not just change the law?

Because not everyone agrees it needs to be changed.

The non-profit Electronic Frontier Foundation says that Section 230 “creates a broad protection that has allowed innovation and free speech online to flourish”. And tech companies argue that they can’t possibly police billions of posts by users around the world without curtailing some users’ freedoms.

How does Section 230 protect free speech? 

Those who want to keep the section intact argue that if big tech companies can be held legally responsible for every tweet, post and review that users write on their sites, they could choose to limit what users could publish on their platforms – which would be tantamount to censorship.

Section 230 also gives smaller websites the ability to post different viewpoints without risking being sued, say supporters.

But isn’t curbing free speech bad for democracy?

It is. But free speech is also exploited for nefarious purposes.  US intelligence agencies claim foreign governments including those of Russia, China and Iran have been actively using social media to spread disinformation and stoke fear during the 2020 US presidential election. And that is, well, bad for democracy.

But don’t the social media giants have people policing content?

Facebook, Twitter and Alphabet Inc’s Google, which also owns video platform YouTube, have teams of people dedicated to taking down offensive content, like hate speech.

But critics argue that self-policing, especially where democratically-damaging disinformation is concerned, just isn’t cutting it.

For example…?

Recently, Twitter and Facebook came under scrutiny for taking down a New York Post story based on unverified emails that claimed that US Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden’s son, Hunter, agreed to introduce his father to a Ukrainian energy executive while he was in the White House.

Twitter’s chief Jack Dorsey later said it was “wrong” to block URLs to the Post’s story without explaining to users why it had been done.

Did the story die?

The story actually ended up being widely shared after US President Donald Trump accused the platforms of “trying to protect Biden” when Twitter prevented users from sharing the story and Facebook attempted to limit its reach.

According to an Axios analysis of data from NewsWhip, a site that tracks stories’ engagement, the New York Post story received 2.59 million likes, comments and shares – more than double the next biggest story about either Trump or Biden that week. So neither outlet succeeded in containing its spread.

So what does Trump think of Section 230?

On May 28, Trump issued an executive order that attempted to limit the protections big tech companies enjoy under Section 230, which they immediately challenged in court. Trump’s executive order accused online platforms of “engaging in selective censorship that is harming our national discourse” and censoring conservative voices.

And Biden?

Biden argued Section 230 “should be revoked” in an interview with The New York Times in January, saying that Facebook “is not merely an internet company. It is propagating falsehoods they know to be false, and we should be setting standards not unlike the Europeans are doing relative to privacy.”

Wow. Is it just political interference we’re worried about here?

Public health is also a concern. The secretary-general of the World Health Organization warned in September that “rumours, untruths and disinformation” spread by social media are hindering the global fight against COVID-19.

A rumour that drinking highly concentrated alcohol called methanol could kill the coronavirus, for example, was linked to the deaths of 800 people and the hospitalisations of 5,876 over the first three months of 2020, according to a study published earlier this month in the American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene.

Is this the only beef that lawmakers have with big tech?

Hardly. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have accused tech giants of monopolising the market – driving wages down in the tech industry and stifling innovation.

And while many users view these platforms as “free” because they don’t charge a fee, it’s users’ data – and the ability to sell that data or make money off of its insights – that keeps them in business, raising privacy concerns.

So what happens next? 

Attempts to repeal Section 230 are among several ongoing battles that Alphabet Inc faces after the US Department of Justice filed an antitrust lawsuit against the company, accusing it of using Google’s search engine dominance to quash competition and thwart innovation.

Zuckerberg and Dorsey are also due back before Congress on November 17 to specifically face questions over their handling of the New York Post story about Hunter Biden after Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee accused them of censoring conservative viewpoints.

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Ontario reports record-high 1,589 new COVID-19 cases as Toronto, Peel lock down – CBC.ca

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Premier Doug Ford is scheduled to hold a news conference beginning at 1 p.m. at Queen’s Park. Ford’s office says he will be joined by several cabinet members, including the minister of health. 

You can watch it live in this story.


Ontario reported 1,589 more cases of COVID-19 on Monday, another single-day record as Toronto and Peel Region move into a second lockdown.

The new cases include 336 in Toronto, 535 in Peel and 205 in York Region. They drive the seven-day average up to 1,423 after six consecutive days of increases.

Other public health units that saw double-digit increases in today’s update were:

  • Waterloo Region: 83
  • Hamilton: 61
  • Windsor: 56
  • Halton Region: 53
  • Durham Region: 41
  • Ottawa: 40
  • Wellington-Dufferin-Guelph: 30
  • Simcoe Muskoka: 25
  • Niagara Region: 24
  • Brant County: 16
  • Thunder Bay: 16
  • Middlesex-London: 13

[Note: All of the figures used in this story are found on the Ministry of Health’s COVID-19 dashboard or in its Daily Epidemiologic Summary, which include data from up until 4 p.m. the previous day. The number of cases for any region may differ from what is reported by the local public health unit, because local units report figures at different times.]

Sixty of the new infections were school-related, including 51 students and nine staff members. A total of 676, or about  14 per cent, of Ontario’s 4,828 publicly-funded schools have reported at least one case of COVID-19. Three schools are remain closed due to the illness.

The additional cases come as Ontario’s labs processed 37,471 test samples for the novel coronavirus, and 18,394 were added to the queue to be completed. The province reported an overall test positivity rate of 4.6 per cent.

There are currently 13,004 confirmed, active cases of COVID-19 in the province, the most at any point since the outbreak began in late January. 

Nineteen more people with COVID-19 have died, the province said, pushing the official death toll to 3,505. The additional deaths include a man in his 20s, the fifth person in their 20s to die with COVID-19 in Ontario. So far this month, 360 people with infections of the novel coronavirus have died provincewide.

Meanwhile, Toronto and Peel Region have entered the most restrictive tier of Ontario’s pandemic protection plan.

It means that for at least the next 28 days, non-essential retailers can only offer curbside pickup, while restaurants are closed to all but takeout and delivery orders.

Personal services have also been forced to close, but schools and child-care centres remain open.

Premier Doug Ford announced the move on Friday, but it didn’t come into effect until 12:01 a.m. today.

That gave residents of Toronto and Peel the chance to stock up over the weekend, and many did — flooding local malls, even as those facilities extended hours in an effort to prevent too many people from coming at once.

While Toronto and Peel face the strictest measures, other areas of the province are also seeing rules tighten.

Durham Region and Waterloo joined York Region in the red classification today. The rules limit restaurants, gyms and food courts to 10 indoor patrons with social distancing, with even tighter restrictions on private gatherings.

The areas around Huron, Perth, Simcoe, Muskoka, and Windsor-Essex have moved to the orange classification, which caps gatherings at staffed businesses to 50 people indoors, or four per table at restaurants.

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Toronto and Peel Region enter lockdown for at least 28 days – CP24 Toronto's Breaking News

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Toronto and Peel are officially under the lockdown stage of Ontario’s framework for COVID-19 restrictions, meaning that all non-essential retail stores are limited to curbside pickup only and a wide swath of other businesses are closed entirely.

The hard-hit regions entered the category at 12:01 a.m. and will remain under the added restrictions associated with it for at least the next 28 days.

It means that retail stores, with some exceptions for grocers, hardware stores, discount and big box retailers selling groceries, and corner stores, will be prohibited from allowing customers into their stores. Personal care services, like barbers and salons, have also been forced to close and restaurants are now limited to takeout only.

Meanwhile, new rules have went into effect in Toronto and Peel to limit all indoor gatherings to only those who live in the household. The limit for outdoor gatherings has also been lowered from 25 to 10 people.

What is allowed and what is not under a lockdown

“The main thing people can do now is please stay home,” Mayor John Tory told CP24 on Monday morning. “It matters less in the context of achieving the result which kind of stores are close and not closed. It matters more whether people decide to follow the advice, which is if it is at all possible just stay home.”

The province announced the added restrictions for Toronto and Peel on Friday as new cases of COVID-19 continued to surge in both jurisdictions.

In anticipation of the rules going into effect, several malls extended their hours over the weekend and there were reports of long lineups at stores.

Speaking with CP24, Tory said that the strict new rules are an important, even if there is not a lot of data pointing to widespread transmission in settings like retail stores, for example.

“We don’t really know in every single case exactly where people picked up this virus, we just know it is spreading and was spreading in a fashion last week and the week before and the week before that that was clearly unacceptable in terms of the trend line we were on,” he said. “Look it is a sad day today just to see this kind of thing having to happen but again the choice was to not do these kind of things and have a much longer, much broader, much worse kind of lockdown happen latter when we had completely lost control of this thing as you have seen elsewhere in the world.”

While the lockdown will shutter a number of businesses across Toronto and Peel, schools and childcare centres will remain open as will services deemed essential like dentist offices and physiotherapists.

Industries like film production and construction that were largely shut down in the spring will also continue top operate with restrictions.

That means that several major Hollywood productions currently being shot in the GTA will not be halted, including a movie featuring comedian Kevin Hart.  

“I am a little bit concerned that this shutdown doesn’t focus on the largest area of spread. In Brampton our largest source of transmission is industrial settings. Our largest two sectors are transportation logistics and food processing and neither of those sectors are shut down because they are considered essential,” Brampton Mayor Patrick Brown told CP24 on Monday. “So this isn’t truly a lockdown for Brampton. Small businesses have been shut down but with the largest portion of our workforce being essential workers nothing has really changed.”

In addition to the new rules in Toronto and Peel, Durham Region and Waterloo have also been moved into the red category alongside York Region as of today. The rules for that category limit restaurants, gyms and food courts to 10 indoor patrons at a time.

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U.S. could begin COVID-19 vaccine rollout by mid-December, top health official says – CBC.ca

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The head of the U.S. effort to produce a coronavirus vaccine said the first inoculations could happen as soon as 24 hours after the Food and Drug Administration grants approval, which would kick off the largest inoculation campaign in U.S. history starting in mid-December.

“Within 24 hours from the approval, the vaccine will be moving and located in the areas where each state will have told us where they want the vaccine doses,” Dr. Moncef Slaoui, the chief scientific adviser for the government’s “Operation Warp Speed” vaccine program, told NBC’s Meet the Press.

The FDA’s outside advisers will meet on Dec. 10 to discuss whether to authorize the COVID-19 vaccine developed by Pfizer and German partner BioNTech for emergency use. Slaoui told CNN he expects vaccinations would begin on the second day after approval, Dec. 12.

Moderna Inc is expected to seek approval later in December for its COVID-19 vaccine.

The effort to roll out vaccines across the country of 330 million people comes as U.S. President Donald Trump has blocked the normal transition of government before the inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden on Jan. 20. Slaoui said he hoped for a smooth transition and did not expect the vaccination effort to be derailed.

Vaccines will be distributed based on each state’s population, Slaoui said. Each state will decide who gets the vaccine first with the recommendation that priority be given to health care workers, front-line workers and the elderly who face the highest risks of dying from the virus.

About 70 per cent of the country’s population needs to be immunized to achieve herd immunity, a goal the U.S. could reach by May, Slaoui said.

Millions ignoring Thanksgiving warnings

As new COVID-19 cases continue to surge, millions of Americans are ignoring federal and state warnings to stay home for Thanksgiving to prevent overwhelming already strained hospitals. Many people are trying to get tested before the holiday on Thursday, leading to long lines in New York City and elsewhere.

Testing shortages still plague many parts of the country with most pharmacies offering COVID-19 tests in suburban Chicago were fully booked ahead of Thanksgiving and long lines at state drive-through testing facilities.

Dr. Moncef Slaoui, chief adviser to ‘Operation Warp Speed,’ said about 70 per cent of the country’s population needs to be immunized to achieve herd immunity, a goal the U.S. could reach by May. (Evan Vucci/The Associated Press)

“We’re clearly involved now in a very, very difficult surge here throughout the United States and even globally,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, the country’s top infectious disease expert, told NBC.

Last week Biden called the vaccination program a “massive undertaking” and “one of the greatest challenges we will face as a nation.”

The U.S. must distribute tens of millions of vaccines while also combating misinformation about vaccines spread on social media. A recent Gallup poll showed only 58 per cent of Americans would get the vaccine, up from 50 per cent in September.

Incoming White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain said it was crucial to have a seamless flow of information between Trump’s coronavirus experts and Biden’s transition team to avoid delays in distribution after Biden takes office on Jan. 20.

WATCH | Who would get a COVID-19 vaccine first and when?

Dr. Caroline Quach-Thanh, chair of the National Advisory Committee on Immunization, discusses how vulnerable populations will be prioritized when a  COVID-19 vaccine rolls out. 9:01

Biden warned last week that “more people will die if we don’t coordinate.”

The number of U.S. coronavirus cases has surpassed 12 million and rose by more than one million cases in less than a week for the first time.

Deaths have topped 256,000, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University, with many health experts warning deaths will rise to over 2,000 a day in the coming weeks.

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