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Federal Court Rules Trump Can’t Block Haters on Twitter

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A federal appeals court upheld a previous ruling that President Donald Trump engaged in unconstitutional discrimination by blocking dissenters on Twitter.

Manhattan’s 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals this week agreed that as long as Trump is a public official, he cannot prevent people from reading or responding to his feed simply because he disagrees with them.

In July 2017, the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University—on behalf of seven individuals blocked by Trump after criticizing his policies—sued the president.

The suit claimed that Trump’s Twitter account (@realDonaldTrump) is a public forum and official voice of the administration, and that excluding people from accessing it is a First Amendment violation.

Former White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer and White House Director of Social Media Daniel Scavino were also named in the lawsuit.

Almost a year later, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York held that the president’s Twitter account constitutes a “public forum,” and therefore cannot bar speakers on the basis of viewpoint.

Some 75 users have since been unblocked, though another 30 or so remain stonewalled—including model Chrissy Teigen and comedian Rosie O’Donnell, the Associated Press reported.

“Public officials’ social media accounts are now among the most significant forums for discussion of government policy,” Jameel Jaffer, the Knight Institute’s executive director, said in a statement.

“This decision will ensure that people aren’t excluded from these forums simply because of their viewpoints,” the attorney continued. “And that public officials aren’t insulated from their constituents’ criticism.”

Evidence of the official nature of Trump’s Twitter account—first created in 2009, now operating in tandem with the @POTUS feed—is “overwhelming.”

“Once the president has chosen a platform and opened up its interactive space to millions of users and participants, he may not selectively exclude those whose views he disagrees with,” according to the unanimous judgement.

The Department of Justice is understandably disappointed by the ruling. After all, it has now lost for a second time in a row.

“[We] are exploring possible next steps, spokesperson Kelly Laco said in a statement emailed to Geek. “As we argued, President Trump’s decision to block users from his personal twitter account does not violate the First Amendment.”

There is no word on whether the government will appeal again—by asking the panel to reconsider, or seeking a reversal from the full 2nd Circuit or the U.S. Supreme Court.

“The irony in all of this is that we write at a time in the history of this nation when the conduct of our government and its officials is subject to wide-open, robust debate,” Circuit Judge Barrington Parker wrote on behalf of the three-judge panel.

“This debate, as uncomfortable and as unpleasant as it frequently may be, is nonetheless a good thing,” he continued. “In resolving this appeal, we remind the litigants and the public that if the First Amendment means anything, it means that the best response to disfavored speech on matters of public concern is more speech, not less.”

Twitter last month introduced a new “notice” feature that hides abusive posts by verified government officials with more than 100,000 followers.

(Trump’s personal and professional accounts both qualify.)

Employees will determine what content is a matter of public interest based on certain considerations, including the immediacy and severity of potential harm, as well as whether the tweet provides unique context or perspective necessary to broader discussion.

Concealed posts will not be featured as top tweets on a user’s timeline, or in “safe search” results, “recommended tweet” push notifications, or the “Explore” page.

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Editor’s note: This article was updated at 10:35 a.m. ET with comment from the Department of Justice.

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Facebook ‘Exempts’ Politicians From Fact Checking

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Facebook relies on third-party fact checkers to curb the spread of fake news and viral misinformation.

But not all users are subject to the social network’s reviews.

Speaking at the Atlantic Festival in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, Facebook’s Vice President of Global Affairs and Communications Nick Clegg revealed that politicians are “exempt” from inspection.

“We do not submit speech by politicians to our independent fact checkers, and we generally allow it on the platform even when it would otherwise break our normal content rules,” according to Clegg.

“We don’t believe,” he wrote in an accompanying blog post, “that it’s an appropriate role for us to referee political debates and prevent a politician’s speech from reaching its audience and being subject to public debate and scrutiny.”

The policy—”on the books for over a year now”—means Facebook does not send organic content or ads from politicians to partners for review.

If a lawmaker shares previously debunked material (links, photos, videos), however, that content is demoted, replaced with related information from fact checkers, and rejected from adverts.

This is in keeping with Facebook’s newsworthiness exemption, introduced in 2016, which allows posts that break community standards “if we believe the public interest in seeing it outweighs the risk of harm,” Clegg said.

Moving forward, the popular platform will treat speech from politicians as “newsworthy content that should, as a general rule, be seen and heard.”

There are two exceptions: when speech endangers people, and when Facebook takes money (in which case posted ads must comply with community standards and advertising policies).

Clegg’s speech also covered:

  • Calls for the break-up of big tech: “Pulling apart globally successful American businesses won’t actually do anything to solve the big issues we are all grappling with—privacy, the use of data, [and] harmful content”
  • Election integrity: “It is no secret that Facebook made mistakes in 2016”
  • Deepfake videos: “We must and we will get better at identifying lightly manipulated content before it goes viral”

Twitter recently took its own stance on political speech, introducing a new notice meant to provide clarity about certain tweets that violate company rules but remain on the platform.

The feature—a sort of warning screen users must click through before seeing a tweet—applies only to verified government officials with more than 100,000 followers.

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Hacker Takes Over Smart Home Devices, Plays ‘Vulgar’ Music in Couple’s House

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A Wisconsin couple is warning smart-home owners about security issues after their in-house video system was recently disrupted by an unidentified hacker.

Lamont and Samantha Westmoreland noticed something wasn’t right when a random voice took over their Google Nest system on September 17, Newsweek reported. The pair started hearing noisy music echoing throughout their home and they realized that the thermostat was cranked all the way up to 90 degrees Fahrenheit.

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“My heart was racing,” Samantha told Fox 6 News in an interview. “I felt so violated at that point.”

The couple installed a Nest camera, thermostat, and doorbell in their home last year and didn’t have any problems until last week’s incident. Samantha initially thought the wonky thermostat reading was a glitch and switched it back to room temperature. The next 24 hours were about to get more interesting for the pair, who had no idea what they were about to experience.

The thermostat continued to rise in temperature and then a strange voice started speaking from a camera in their kitchen. The device then started playing “vulgar” songs, prompting Samantha and her husband to immediately change their passwords.

However, the hacker’s activity continued and eventually, the pair asked their internet carrier for assistance and changed their network ID. The Westmorelands believe that an individual hacked into their internet and then their Nest devices.

Fox 6 News received a statement from a Google spokesperson on the incident, which indicated that “Nest was not breached.”

“These reports are based on customers using compromised passwords (exposed through breaches on other websites),” the Google spokesperson said. “In nearly all cases, two-factor verification eliminates this type of security risk.”

They continued, “Nest users have the option to migrate to a Google Account, giving them access to additional tools and automatic security protections such as Suspicious activity detection, 2-Step Verification, and Security Checkup. Millions of users have signed up for two-factor verification.”

Lamont and Samantha wanted to share their story with other homeowners, so they can prevent hackers from taking over their smart home setups.

“People need to be educated and know that this is real, and this is happening, and it is super scary, and you don’t realize it until it’s actually happening to you,” Samantha added.

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Celebrate World Rhino Day By Playing With This 3D Model

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Happy (belated) World Rhino Day!

Researchers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and Perth Zoo in Australia teamed up to produce the world’s first accurate, publicly available 3D model of the rare southern white rhino.

Few rhinos survive outside national parks and reserves due to poaching and habitat loss; not yet extinct, the animals are vulnerable to climate change and illegal hunting.

So, while they still have a chance*, the Digital Life team at UMass traveled Down Under to photo-capture southern white rhino Bakari in his full three-dimensional glory.

They released the image on Sunday, September 22: World Rhino Day.

“Perth Zoo shares our vision about how public outreach and the scientific data gained from this model can benefit society,” UMass evolutionary biologist Duncan Irschick said in a statement.

Though fun to look at, a 3D picture of a rhinoceros doesn’t seem like the best use of researchers’ time and money.

But for some conservationists, this type of model is useful for reconstructing body composition and assessing an animal’s physical condition.

“You can’t just walk up to a rhino in the field, but using a variation of these methods … one could recreate the body shapes of such animals,” Irschick explained. “We believe it is a powerful tool with many applications beneficial to wildlife.”

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The project follows other work by Irschick & Co., who have created several “Beastcam” rigs to quickly and conveniently capture 3D animals—including live sharks underwater.

“We’ve done a fair number of frogs, lizards, and sea turtles,” Irschick said. “This rhino represents our first foray into megafauna.”

The team set up 20 cameras to take photos of Bakari in 360 degrees—from a safe, non-invasive distance, allowing the animal to remain comfortable and follow its daily routine.

CGI artist Jer Bot was then brought in to recreate and animate the rhino (“like putting Humpty Dumpty back together again,” according to Irschick). Once finished, the researchers placed the 3D image on the Sketchfab website for free, non-profit dissemination.

“It is exciting for Perth Zoo to participating in creating 3D models that can be used for wildlife conservation and education,” interpretation officer Alan Gill said.

“Our animals are ambassadors for their species,” he continued, “and we’re thrilled that Bakari can continue to advocate for southern white rhinoceros conservation programs right around the world.”

* Much like I am anxious to visit Venice before the entire city is under water.

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