Google Discontinues Translate Service in Mainland China

Google has ended its Google Translate service in mainland China, citing “low usage” of one of its flagship products by mainland China users.

The move surprised users, who said they first noticed not being able to access the function over the weekend.

“The Google Translate mobile app was also discontinued a year ago in 2021,” a Google spokesperson told VOA on Monday in response to a request for further details on the company’s decision.

The translation service had been available to mainland Chinese users since 2017.

While The Associated Press reported Monday that “it is not clear how many users were using Google Translate in China,” the South China Morning Post cited an international data tracking company’s figure of 53.5 million visits to the platform in the month of August alone.

AP noted that “the translation feature built into the Google Chrome browser also no longer functions for users in China.”

Wei Jingsheng, a leading Chinese dissident living in exile in the United States, told VOA in a phone interview Monday that in his view, Google has been trying to put on a “balancing act” — maintaining its reputation and credibility as a global internet giant operating around the world while finding a space to operate in the highly restrictive environment in China.

“It is safe to anticipate that the company is constantly under pressure from the Chinese government to meet its demands,” Wei told VOA.

“We don’t know what exactly lay behind Google’s decision to pull its translation service from China. Fifty-three-point-five million is not a small number,” he said, referring to the figured quoted by South China Morning Post.

Difficult foothold

Google said its mission is to “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” But as various media have reported, the California-based internet giant’s path to spreading its wings in mainland China over the past two decades has not been smooth.

The company pulled its search engine from the Chinese market in 2010 after the company became unwilling to abide by China’s censorship rules, AP reported on Monday.

Chinese platforms must “strictly” abide by Chinese authorities’ censorship rules and “censor keywords and topics the authorities deem politically sensitive,” AP said.

AP added that China later moved to block other Google services such as Gmail and Google Maps and noted that Google was not alone in being blocked or otherwise restricted. Chinese users are also not allowed to have Facebook accounts.

Media outlets including TechCrunch — which was the first to report Google’s shutdown of the translation platform — noted that Google’s decision came two weeks before the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, scheduled to begin on October 16.

“The Chinese government has previously blocked Google services around major political events and politically sensitive anniversaries like that of the Tiananmen Square massacre,” the online publication of high-tech news said.

Google did not respond to VOA’s question about any potential connection between the translation service being discontinued and the Communist Party Congress.

Although China boasts the world’s largest internet market, when it comes to political topics, Chinese authorities are known to impose strict limitations as to what information Chinese citizens can access or have the freedom to discuss.

Official versions of political events like the upcoming Communist Party Congress are routinely disseminated from national media down to provincial, city, county, township and village levels through a vast network of state media.

Wei explained that Chinese citizens often turn to foreign sources to get a fuller picture of what goes on behind the scenes at the Congress and other news about their own country, due to a lack of trust in official media.

“They can just copy and paste foreign-language text” and get it translated into their native language with Google Translate, he said.

“People often feel that there’s better privacy protection when they use Google and other foreign companies’ products,” Wei added, since Chinese domestic companies are uniformly obligated to comply with government requests for user information.

State institutions taking notice

Although Google Maps and now Google Translate are not accessible to ordinary Chinese users, Chinese state institutions, including state media, have been paying attention to Google’s capacity.

On April 18, two months into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, People’s Daily Online, one of China’s leading state media, posted on Weibo — a Twitter- and Instagram-like social platform — a China Central Television report that Google Maps provided satellite imaging of “all of Russia’s military and strategic assets with the highest definition.”

That post received 123,000 “likes,” and was reposted more than 5,200 times. A commentator under the name of “boyfriend of the nation” wrote, “Look everyone, this is what we will encounter later on.”

A Musk Retweet: Tesla CEO Says He’ll Pay $44 Billion to Buy Twitter

The tumultuous saga of Elon Musk’s on-again, off-again purchase of Twitter took a turn toward a conclusion Tuesday after the mercurial Tesla CEO proposed to buy the company at the originally agreed-on price of $44 billion. 

Musk made the proposal in a letter to Twitter that the company disclosed in a filing Tuesday with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. It came less than two weeks before a trial between the two parties was scheduled to start in Delaware. 

In a statement, Twitter said it intends to close the transaction at $54.20 per share after receiving the letter from Musk. 

Trading in Twitter’s stock, which had been halted for much of the day pending release of the news, resumed late Tuesday and soared 22% to close at $52. 

Musk’s proposal is the latest twist in a high-profile saga involving the world’s richest man and one of the most influential social media platforms. Much of the drama has played out on Twitter itself, with Musk — who has more than 100 million followers — lamenting that the company was failing to live up to its potential as a platform for free speech. 

A letter from Musk’s lawyer dated Monday and disclosed by Twitter in a securities filing said Musk would close the merger signed in April, provided that the Delaware Chancery Court “enter an immediate stay” of Twitter’s lawsuit against him and adjourn the trial scheduled to start October 17. 

By completing the deal, Musk essentially gave Twitter what it was seeking from the court — “specific performance” of the contract with Musk, meaning he would have to go through with the purchase at the original price. The contract Musk signed also has a $1 billion breakup fee. 

Eric Talley, a law professor at Columbia University, said he’s not surprised by Musk’s turnaround, especially ahead of a scheduled deposition of Musk by Twitter attorneys starting Thursday that was “not going to be pleasant.” 

“On the legal merits, his case didn’t look that strong,” Talley said. “It kind of seemed like a pretty simple buyer’s remorse case.” 

If Musk were to lose the trial, the judge could not only force him to close the deal but also impose interest payments that would have increased its cost, Talley said. 

What did surprise Talley is that Musk doesn’t appear to be trying to renegotiate the deal. Even a modest price reduction might have given Musk a “moral victory” and the ability to say he got something out of the protracted dispute, Talley said. 

Neither Twitter nor attorneys for Musk responded to requests for comment Tuesday. 

Musk has been trying to back out of the deal for several months after signing on to buy the San Francisco company in April. Shareholders have already approved the sale, and legal experts say Musk faced a huge challenge to defend against Twitter’s lawsuit, which was filed in July. 

Musk claimed that Twitter undercounted the number of fake accounts on its platform, and Twitter sued when Musk announced the deal was off. 

Musk’s argument largely rested on the allegation that Twitter misrepresented how it measures the magnitude of “spam bot” accounts that are useless to advertisers. Most legal experts believe he faced an uphill battle to convince Chancellor Kathaleen St. Jude McCormick, the court’s head judge, that something changed since the April merger agreement that justifies terminating the deal. 

Legal experts said Musk may have anticipated that he would lose. Things haven’t been going well for him in court recently, with the judge ruling more frequently in Twitter’s favor on evidentiary matters, said Ann Lipton, an associate law professor at Tulane University. The judge denied several of Musk’s discovery requests, Lipton said. 

It’s also possible that Musk’s co-investors in the deal were starting to get nervous about how the case was proceeding, she said. 

Musk’s main argument for terminating the deal – that Twitter was misrepresenting how it measured its “spam bot” problem – also didn’t appear to be going well as Twitter had been working to pick apart Musk’s attempts to get third-party data scientists to bolster his concerns. 

Mysteriously, neither Musk nor Twitter CEO Parag Agrawal have written anything about the deal on Twitter. 

If the deal does go through, Musk may be stuck with a company he damaged with repeated statements denouncing fake accounts, Susannah Streeter, senior markets analyst for Hargreaves Lansdown in the United Kingdom, wrote in an investor note. 

“This is an important metric considered to be key for future revenue streams via paid advertising or for subscriptions on the site, and his relentless scrutiny of Twitter’s figures over the last few months is likely to prompt questions from potential advertising partners,” she wrote. 

 

Angela Merkel Wins UNHCR Nansen Award for Protecting Syrian Refugees

Former German chancellor Angela Merkel has won the prestigious Nansen Award from the U.N. refugee agency, for providing a haven for more than 1.2 million refugees and asylum seekers fleeing violence and persecution in Syria.

Angela Merkel welcomed the desperate people at the height of the Syrian conflict in 2015 and 2016, when other countries were turning their backs on them.

In announcing the award, U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi said Merkel displayed great moral and political courage by helping more than a million refugees survive and rebuild their lives.

UNHCR spokesman Matthew Saltmarsh says Merkel has helped to highlight the plight of refugees globally. He says she has shown what can be achieved when politicians work to find solutions to challenging situations rather than shifting responsibility to others.

“As well as protecting people forced to flee war, persecution and human rights abuses, the former chancellor was the driving force behind Germany’s collective efforts to receive them and to help them integrate into their new homes through education and training programs, employment schemes, and labor market integration,” said Saltmarsh.

The award is named after Norwegian explorer and humanitarian Fridtjof Nansen. It is given to an individual, group or organization that has gone above and beyond the call of duty to protect refugees.

The award selection committee also has honored four regional winners. They are an all-volunteer refugee firefighting group in Mauritania in West Africa; a refugee support cacao cooperative in Costa Rica in the Americas; humanitarian organization Meikse Myanmar that assists internally displaced people among others in Asia and the Pacific; and an Iraqi gynecologist who provides medical and psychological care to Yazidi girls and women in the Middle East and North Africa.

The Nansen award will be presented to Merkel and the four regional winners at a ceremony in Geneva October 10. For Merkel, the award carries a cash prize of $150,000. Each of the regional laureates will receive $50,000.

Turkish Journalist Groups Slam Bill to Fight Disinformation

Turkish journalists groups on Tuesday protested a draft law the government says is aimed at combating fake news and disinformation but which critics denounce as yet another attempt to stifle freedom of expression.

Parliament was set to debate a 40-article piece of legislation that amends multiple laws governing press, advertising and social media. The most controversial change is an amendment to the press law that would criminalize the spreading of “fake news” with a sentence of up to three years in prison.

Critics, including opposition lawmakers and nongovernmental organizations, say the law is too vague and could potentially be abused by the government to further crack down on independent journalism, especially media that has developed on the internet.

The government already controls most major news outlets and has been named among the world’s biggest jailers of journalists.

Representatives of various Turkish journalist associations wearing black face masks gathered outside parliament in Ankara, urging legislators not to pass the law, which was submitted to parliament in May.

“As journalists, in line with our responsibility to society, we once again warn both legislators and the public: If this law is implemented in this form, there will be no freedom of press, expression and communication in our country,” said Kemal Aktas, head of the Parliamentary Correspondents Association.

Meanwhile, main opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu claimed in a speech on Tuesday that Erdogan’s government, which faces elections in June, introduced the changes to prevent the dissemination of allegations of corruption against the government.

International media freedom organizations have also called for the dismissal of the bill, saying it puts millions of internet users at risk of criminal action for online posts the government disagrees with, could become a tool “for harassing journalists and activists” and could lead to self-censorship.

Disinformation is an important issue and needs to be combated but not at the price of restricting journalists’ rights and the public’s rights of freedom of expression,” the groups, including PEN and the Committee to Protect Journalists, said in June.

Article 29 of the bill is an amendment to the Turkish penal code mandating one to three years in prison for spreading information that is “contrary to the truth” about Turkey’s domestic and international security, public order and health for the alleged purpose of causing “public worry, fear and panic.” The sentence can be increased by a half if that crime is committed by an anonymous user or as part of an organization.

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has argued for a law to combat disinformation, saying fake news and rising “digital fascism” is a national and global security issue.

The proposal, put forth by his ruling Justice and Development Party and its nationalist ally, says fake news and its dissemination or disinformation pose a “serious threat” by preventing people to access the truth, while also undermining freedom of expression and information by “abusing certain freedoms.”

The proposal also says the internet allows ill-intentioned users to hide their identities for illegal acts and posts like attacks, slander, hate speech and discrimination, therefore requiring regulation. It says the state has the obligation to protect rights and freedoms, especially for people whose rights were violated online.

Afghan National Institute of Music Performs First Concert in New Home

Afghanistan’s National Institute of Music has performed its first concert in its new home of Lisbon, Portugal. Members of the exiled school are determined to keep Afghan music alive even though they can’t play in their homeland. VOA’s Farkhunda Paimani and Munaza Shaheed attended the concert in Lisbon and filed this report narrated by Amy Katz. Camera: Nawid Orokzai

Russian Court Sets Brittney Griner Appeal Date for October 25

A Russian court on Monday set October 25 as the date for American basketball star Brittney Griner’s appeal against her nine-year prison sentence for drug possession. 

Griner, an eight-time all-star center with the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury and a two-time Olympic gold medalist, was convicted August 4 after police said they found vape canisters containing cannabis oil in her luggage at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport. 

The Moscow region court said it will hear her appeal. 

Griner admitted that she had the canisters in her luggage but testified that she had inadvertently packed them in haste and that she had no criminal intent. Her defense team presented written statements that she had been prescribed cannabis to treat pain. 

Her February arrest came at a time of heightened tensions between Moscow and Washington, just days before Russia sent troops into Ukraine. At the time, Griner, recognized as one of the greatest players in WNBA history, was returning to Russia, where she played during the U.S. league’s offseason. 

The nine-year sentence was close to the maximum of 10 years, and Griner’s lawyers argued after the conviction that the punishment was excessive. They said in similar cases defendants have received an average sentence of about five years, with about a third of them granted parole. 

Before her conviction, the U.S. State Department declared Griner to be “wrongfully detained” — a charge that Russia has sharply rejected. 

Reflecting the growing pressure on the Biden administration to do more to bring Griner home, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken took the unusual step of revealing publicly in July that Washington had made a “substantial proposal” to get Griner home, along with Paul Whelan, an American serving a 16-year sentence in Russia for espionage. 

Blinken didn’t elaborate, but The Associated Press and other news organizations have reported that Washington has offered to exchange Griner and Whelan for Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer who is serving a 25-year sentence in the U.S. and once earned the nickname the “merchant of death.” 

The White House said it has not yet received a productive response from Russia to the offer. 

Russian diplomats have refused to comment on the U.S. proposal and urged Washington to discuss the matter in confidential talks, avoiding public statements. 

U.S. President Joe Biden met last month with Cherelle Griner, the wife of Brittney Griner, as well as the player’s agent, Lindsay Colas. Biden also sat down separately with Elizabeth Whelan, Paul Whelan’s sister. 

The White House said after the meetings that the president stressed to the families his “continued commitment to working through all available avenues to bring Brittney and Paul home safely.” 

The Biden administration carried out a prisoner swap in April, with Moscow releasing Marine veteran Trevor Reed in exchange for the U.S. releasing a Russian pilot, Konstantin Yaroshenko, convicted in a drug trafficking conspiracy. 

 

Albania Denies Police System Was Attacked by Iranian Hackers

Albanian authorities Monday denied the country’s police system was hacked after local media reported that data on people being investigated for crimes was released from an Iranian hacking group.

Albanian media reported a leaked file with a list of suspected people, from allegedly the police database, who are being probed on different crimes.

Ervin Karamuco, a criminology professor, was quoted in social media as saying a channel called Homeland Justice had published 1.7 gigabytes of criminal data from the Memex police system.

State police denied its Memex system was damaged but urged local media not to publish data from hackers.

Interior Minister Bledi Cuci said that list had not come from the criminal police database. He said Microsoft and the FBI were helping Albanian authorities recuperate the affected systems.

Speaking at the Parliament, Prime Minister Edi Rama said the list aimed at creating social disturbances by issuing a “photo-edited list mixing criminals with politicians, with journalists.”

Last month Albania cut diplomatic ties with Iran over a July 15 cyberattack that temporarily shut down numerous Albanian government digital services and websites. Rama called the disruption an act of “state aggression.”

After Tirana severed ties with Tehran, a second cyberattack from the same Iranian source struck an information system that records Albanian border entries and exits, creating delays for travelers.

NATO, the United States and the European Union denounced the attack and supported Albania’s move to cut diplomatic ties with Tehran. The U.S. government-imposed sanctions on Iran’s intelligence agency and its leadership in response to the July cyberattack.

Albania, a NATO member, is being helped by the alliance, the U.S. and the EU to investigate and install better cyber defenses.

Russian Journalist Sobchak Faces Investigation, TASS Reports

Prominent Russian journalist Ksenia Sobchak faces a criminal investigation over a story that police suspect was “fake,” state news agency TASS reported on Monday, citing an unidentified source in law enforcement. 

Sobchak, whose late father was the mayor of St. Petersburg in the 1990s and worked closely with Vladimir Putin, hosts a YouTube channel with over 3 million subscribers. She also founded a popular Telegram account which regularly shares stories critical of Russia’s mobilization efforts. 

TASS reported that Sobchak’s story related to “state funding of festivals” and that she could be charged under an article of Russian law that provides for three-year jail sentences. 

Neither Sobchak, 40, nor representatives of her news site immediately responded to a Reuters request for comment on the TASS report. 

Sobchak has so far avoided prosecution, but authorities have scrutinized her in the past for sharing so-called “LGBT propaganda” and declaring that Crimea was still Ukrainian after its annexation by Russia in 2014. 

Since invading Ukraine in February, Russia has cracked down on independent media and prosecuted numerous journalists for spreading “fake” news about what it calls its “special military operation.” 

 

UN Report: Fiscal Policies of Advanced Economies Risk Global Recession

U.N. economists warn the monetary and fiscal policies of advanced economies risk plunging the world into a recession worse than the financial crisis of 2008. UNCTAD, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development has issued its annual Trade and Development Report 2022.

The authors of the report warn the world is teetering on the edge of a recession due to bad policy decisions by advanced economies, combined with cascading crises resulting from climate change, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the war in Ukraine.

They project this year’s global growth rate of 2.5 percent will slow to 2.2 percent in 2023. This, they say, will leave a cumulative shortfall of more than $17 trillion, close to 20 percent of the world’s income.

The report finds the slowdown is hitting countries in all regions, especially developing countries. It says growth rates in the poorer countries are expected to drop below three percent, damaging development and employment prospects.

UNCTAD Secretary-General Rebeca Grynspan says middle-income countries in Latin America, as well as low-income countries in Africa, will register some of the sharpest slowdowns this year.

“In Africa, an additional 58 million people will fall into extreme poverty in 2022 adding to the 55 million already pushed into extreme poverty by the COVID-19 pandemic,” Grynspan said.

Grynspan says developing countries are facing alarming levels of debt distress and under investment. She says 46 developing countries are severely exposed to multiple economic shocks. She adds another 48 countries are seriously exposed, heightening the threat of a global debt crisis.

“So, countries that were showing signs of debt distress before COVID are taking some of the biggest hits, with climate shocks further threatening economic stability,” Grynspan said. “This is increasing the threat of a global debt crisis. So, countries urgently need real debt relief.”

Grynspan says there is still time to step back from the edge of recession if countries use available tools to calm inflation and support vulnerable groups.

Among its recommendations, UNCTAD urges a more pragmatic strategy that deploys strategic price controls, windfall taxes, anti-trust measures and tighter regulations on commodities speculation.

US Supreme Court Will Hear Social Media Terrorism Lawsuits

The U.S. Supreme Court said Monday it will hear two cases seeking to hold social media companies financially responsible for terrorist attacks. 

Relatives of people killed in terrorist attacks in France and Turkey had sued Google, Twitter and Facebook. They accused the companies of helping terrorists spread their message and radicalize new recruits. 

The court will hear the cases this term, which began Monday, with a decision expected before the court recesses for the summer, usually in late June. The court did not say when it would hear arguments, but the court has already filled its argument calendar for October and November. 

One of the cases the justices will hear involves Nohemi Gonzalez, a 23-year-old U.S. citizen studying in Paris. The Cal State Long Beach student was one of 130 people killed in Islamic State group attacks in November 2015. The attackers struck cafes, outside the French national stadium and inside the Bataclan theater. Gonzalez died in an attack at La Belle Equipe bistro. 

Gonzalez’s relatives sued Google, which owns YouTube, saying the platform had helped the Islamic State group by allowing it to post hundreds of videos that helped incite violence and recruit potential supporters. Gonzalez’s relatives said that the company’s computer algorithms recommended those videos to viewers most likely to be interested in them. 

But a judge dismissed the case and a federal appeals court upheld the ruling. Under U.S. law — specifically Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act — internet companies are generally exempt from liability for the material users post on their networks. 

The other case the court agreed to hear involves Jordanian citizen Nawras Alassaf. He died in the 2017 attack on the Reina nightclub in Istanbul where a gunman affiliated with the Islamic State killed 39 people. 

Alassaf’s relatives sued Twitter, Google and Facebook for aiding terrorism, arguing that the platforms helped the Islamic State grow and did not go far enough in trying to curb terrorist activity on their platforms. A lower court let the case proceed.