Amazon Hit With Record EU Data Privacy Fine

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Amazon.com Inc has been hit with a record $886.6 million (746 million euros) European Union fine for processing personal data in violation of the bloc’s GDPR rules, as privacy regulators take a more aggressive position on enforcement.The Luxembourg National Commission for Data Protection (CNPD) imposed the fine on Amazon in a July 16 decision, the company disclosed in a regulatory filing on Friday.Amazon will appeal the fine, according to a company spokesperson. The e-commerce giant said in the filing it believed CNPD’s decision was without merit.CNPD did not immediately respond to a request for comment.EU’s General Data Protection Regulation, or GDPR, requires companies to seek people’s consent before using their personal data or face steep fines.Globally, regulatory scrutiny of tech giants has been increasing following a string of scandals over privacy and misinformation, as well as complaints from some businesses that they abuse their market power.Alphabet’s Google, Facebook Inc, Apple Inc and Microsoft Corp have drawn heightened scrutiny in Europe.In December, France’s data privacy watchdog handed out its biggest ever fine of 100 million euros ($118.82 million) to Google for breaching the nation’s rules on online advertising trackers.

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Big Tech Companies to Allow Only Vaccinated Employees into US Offices

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Big tech companies are making it mandatory for employees in the United States to get COVID-19 vaccinations before entering campuses, as the highly infectious delta variant of the coronavirus drives a resurgence in cases.Alphabet Inc.’s Google and Facebook Inc. said on Wednesday all U.S. employees must get vaccinated to step into offices. Google is also planning to expand its vaccination drive to other countries in the coming months.According to a Deadline report, streaming giant Netflix Inc. has also implemented a policy mandating vaccinations for the cast and crew on all its U.S. productions.Apple Inc. plans to restore its mask requirement policy at most of its U.S. retail stores, both for customers and staff, even if they are vaccinated, Bloomberg News reported.Apple and Netflix did not immediately respond to requests for comments.Many tech companies, including Microsoft Corp. and Uber, have said they expect employees to return to their offices, months after pandemic-induced lockdowns forced them to shift to working from home.In April, Salesforce said it would allow vaccinated employees to return to some of its offices.Google also said on Wednesday it would extend its global work-from-home policy through Oct. 18 due to a recent rise in cases caused by the delta variant across different regions.”We’ll continue watching the data carefully and let you know at least 30 days in advance before transitioning into our full return-to-office plans,” the company said.   

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Israel’s NSO Under Fire for Spyware Targeting Journalists, Dissidents

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There is growing international criticism of Israel following allegations that software from the private security company NSO was used to spy on journalists, dissidents, and even political leaders around the world. A group of American lawmakers is urging the U.S. government to take punitive action against the company, which denies any wrongdoing. In Israel, some experts are calling for better regulation of cyber exports. Linda Gradstein reports for VOA from Jerusalem.

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Rights Groups Call on Morocco to Not Extradite Uyghur Activist

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Rights groups are urging Morocco not to extradite to China a Uyghur activist who was arrested after arriving on a flight from Turkey.

The nongovernmental group Safeguard Defenders said Yidiresi Aishan was taken into custody in response to an Interpol Red Notice issued at China’s request.

The charges against Aishan are not clear.

Morocco’s General Directorate for National Security said Tuesday the Interpol notice was linked to suspicions that Aishan belonged to “an organization on the lists of terrorist organizations.”

Amnesty International said Aishan faces “arbitrary detention and torture if he is forcibly returned to China.”

“Deporting Idris Hasan to China, where Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities are facing a horrifying campaign of mass internment, persecution and torture, would violate international law,” Amnesty International’s Crisis Response Program director, Joanne Mariner, said in a statement.

The World Uyghur Congress also demanded Moroccan authorities halt any deportation procedures. Eric Goldstein, Human Rights Watch deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa region, described the Interpol system as “tainted” and said Aishan should be given a lawyer to fight extradition.

Aishan had been living in Turkey working as a web designer and activist since 2012. He flew from Istanbul to Casablanca on July 19. 

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US Treasury Sanctions Syrian Prisons, Officials, Armed Group  

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The U.S. Treasury Department on Wednesday announced sanctions on eight Syrian prisons run by President Bashar al-Assad’s intelligence agencies, citing human rights abuses against political prisoners and other detainees.

The department also sanctioned five senior Syrian government officials who control these detention centers.

“The Assad regime has waged a ruthless war against the Syrian people, imprisoning hundreds of thousands of Syrians calling for reform and change, of whom at least 14,000 have been tortured to death,” the Treasury Department said in a statement. “More than 130,000 people reportedly remain missing or arbitrarily detained” by Syrian government security forces, the statement added.

The Treasury Department also imposed sanctions on a Syrian armed group, Ahrar al-Sharqiya, and two of its leaders for abuses against civilians.

Killings, abductions, torture

Ahrar al-Sharqiya, which is active in northern Syria, has committed numerous crimes against civilians, particularly Syrian Kurds, including unlawful killings, abductions, torture and seizures of private property, according to the Treasury.

The armed group has also incorporated former members of the Islamic State terror group into its ranks, the Treasury said.

“Today’s designations promote accountability for abuses committed against the Syrian people and deny rogue actors access to the international financial system,” said Andrea M. Gacki, director of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control.

“This action demonstrates the United States’ strong commitment to targeting human rights abuses in Syria, regardless of the perpetrator,” she added.

Rights experts said these designations showed a balanced approach by the U.S. government to what has been taking place in Syria for years.

“The Syrian regime and rebel groups such as Ahrar al-Sharqiya alike have committed grave human rights abuses across Syria. Exposing them is a very positive move by the U.S.,” said Bassam al-Ahmad, executive director of Syrians for Truth and Justice, an advocacy group that documents human rights violations in Syria.

“There are many other armed groups in Syria that have the same ideology as ISIS [IS], and the U.S. should target them as well,” he told VOA.

What is Ahrar al-Sharqiya?

Ahrar al-Sharqiya became a prominent militia in the Syrian conflict after a Turkish-led incursion into the mostly Kurdish region in October 2019. The Syrian group, along with several other Turkish-backed factions, controls parts of northern Syria.

Ahmad al-Hayes, commonly known as Abu Hatem Shaqra, one of the group’s two leaders targeted by the U.S. sanctions, is directly complicit in many of the militia’s human rights abuses, the Treasury said.

It added that al-Hayes commanded Ahrar al-Sharqiya’s prison outside Aleppo, where hundreds of detainees have been executed since 2018. He has been implicated in the trafficking of Yazidi women and children and has integrated former IS members into the ranks of Ahrar al-Sharqiya, according to the Treasury.

Aykan Erdemir, a senior analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington, said the Treasury’s designation of Ahrar al-Sharqiya sent a strong message to Ankara.

The “partnership between the [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan government and Ahrar al-Sharqiya has prompted Ankara to turn a blind eye to the militant group’s numerous crimes against humanity targeting ethnic and religious minorities in parts of northern Syria under Turkey’s direct or indirect control,” he told VOA.

Erdemir added that Washington’s designation of Ahrar al-Sharqiya showed that “the Biden administration’s patience is running thin when it comes to the Erdogan government’s utilization of former jihadists as proxies in Syria in ways that undermine U.S. efforts against ISIS.”
 

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Foreign Journalists Harassed Covering China Floods, Correspondents’ Club Says

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Journalists from several media outlets covering recent floods in China were harassed online and by local residents, with staff from the BBC and Los Angeles Times receiving death threats, according to the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China (FCCC).
 
In a statement on Tuesday, the FCCC criticised what it said was growing hostility to foreign media, some of which it said was fanned by official bodies.
 
“There must be immediate action by the Chinese government to stop these attacks which continue to endanger foreign journalists,” the BBC said in a statement on Twitter.
 
China’s foreign ministry did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the FCCC and BBC statements.
 
A spokesperson for the Los Angeles Times did not immediately respond to a request for comment sent after office hours.
 
In one incident, the local branch of the ruling Communist Party’s Youth League had asked its social media followers to report the whereabouts of a BBC reporter covering the floods, according to the FCCC statement.
 
“Rhetoric from organizations affiliated with China’s ruling Communist Party directly endangers the physical safety offoreign journalists in China and hinders free reporting,” it
 said.
 
Chinese nationals working for foreign media have also been threatened and accused of treason online, the FCCC said.
 
China’s foreign ministry has publicly criticized what it calls “fake news” from Western news outlets including the BBC.
 
One BBC journalist, John Sudworth, left the country this year citing threats of legal action, obstruction and intimidation.
 
China’s foreign ministry said at the time it had never threatened Sudworth.
 
Some Reuters journalists are members of the FCCC.

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Boko Haram Attack Kills Five Soldiers, Civilian, Cameroon Reports

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Boko Haram Islamists killed five Cameroonian soldiers and a civilian in an attack in the far north of the country, the defense ministry said Tuesday.

The attack took place on Monday night near the border with Nigeria, where operations by the Islamist group have been on the rise.

Three soldiers and one civilian were also wounded in the attack, the statement read on state radio said.

A group “of heavily armed terrorists of the Boko Haram sect, aboard several light tactical vehicles, attacked the command post … near Zigue,” a few kilometers from the border with Nigeria, the statement said.

Some militants were also killed, the statement added, without elaborating.

“Troops remain on high alert throughout the far north and across the border to prevent further attacks,” it said. The group appears to have “regained strength following internal restructuring,” it added.

Members of Boko Haram and a splinter group, the Islamic State in West Africa (ISWAP), have been mounting increasingly deadly attacks against security forces and civilians in the far north of Cameroon, as well as in neighboring Nigeria, Niger and Chad.

They frequently abduct civilians, especially women and children.

Boko Haram fighters killed eight Cameroonian soldiers on Saturday in Sagme, a few dozen kilometers from the border with Nigeria.

Their insurgency began in 2009 in northeastern Nigeria before spreading through the region.

Since then, more than 36,000 people — mainly in Nigeria — have been killed, and three million forced to flee their homes, according to U.N. estimates.

In 2016, the group split into two branches: the faction led by its long-time leader, Abubakar Shekau, and ISWAP, affiliated with the Islamic State group.

Boko Haram confirmed in mid-June that Shekau had been killed in fighting with ISWAP.

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