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Technology

    A Clinton-Obama sex tape using body doubles. A Facebook page promoting Texas independence riddled with grammatical mistakes. Islamic State anthems blasting out during the nightshift. The U.S. indictment centered on a Russian troll farm only scratches the surface of the St. Petersburg agency that allegedly produced online content to sway the 2016 presidential election — and glosses over how unconvincing some of its stunts could be. Many of the more eye-popping accounts of the Internet Research Agency's activities have come from former staff members. One, Alan Baskaev, told the independent Russian television channel Rain last year that the agency made a video that looked like a U.S. soldier shooting a Quran and had even hired two actors in an abortive bid to fake a sex tape of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. 'No one would buy it, clearly,' Baskaev told the broadcaster , laughing. The Associated Press couldn't confirm Baskaev's sex tape story, but a video of a purported U.S. soldier in desert camouflage firing an assault-style weapon at a Quran was posted to an American gun forum in September 2015. The fakery was screamingly obvious: The soldier's uniform was misshapen and out of date. His helmet resembled the headwear a cyclist might wear and the English he spoke was so heavily accented it was almost indecipherable. The BBC's Russian service identified the man in 2016 as a bartender in St. Petersburg, a friend of someone who worked at the troll factory. The Quran video and others like it were ignominious flops. The New York Times Magazine in 2015 identified other fake videos , including footage meant to spark panic about a chemical plant explosion in Louisiana supposedly caused by the Islamic State group. Another showed a phony shooting in Atlanta, Georgia that carried echoes of Michael Brown's fatal 2014 encounter with police in Ferguson, Missouri. The indictment that charged 13 Russians with meddling in the presidential race makes no mention of them, but the amateurish videos continued through the election. Last year The Daily Beast said it had identified 'Williams and Kalvin' — a rap duo purportedly from Atlanta that appeared in YouTube videos — as operatives of the Russian troll operation. Speaking in a thick Nigerian accent, the man who went by Williams slammed Hillary Clinton as a racist and said, 'This is time for change.' 'Let our vote go for Trump, because this man is a businessman, he's not a politician,' he continued. 'Any businessman cannot be a racist.' The cringe-inducing quality of such videos and other pieces of the trolls' work is another aspect of the alleged interference left out of the indictment — and much of the attendant media coverage. The agency did manage to organize rallies in the U.S., but turnout appears to have been microscopic. Even online, the trolls struggled with their command of English. One of the Internet Research Agency's most popular Facebook pages, the secessionist-minded Heart of Texas, was packed with malapropisms. 'Hillary Clinton behind bars is a dream of thousands of Americans and may the god this dream come true,' reads one of the Facebook posts that journalist Casey Michael eventually collected . 'Texas is a heaven of Earth, a land give to us by Lord himself!' reads another. The nonsensical quality of the work would be no surprise to former troll farm employee Baskaev. He described a slap-dash operation whose internet connections frequently failed and whose fake profiles repeatedly got spiked by Facebook administrators. When the managers had gone home, the 20-somethings working the night shift at the troll farm ran amok, he said, playing Islamic State anthems over the sound system and jokingly saluting each other with the Ukrainian nationalist greeting, 'Glory to Ukraine!' The indictment alleges that the troll farm sent operatives to the United States. Baskaev said the same to Rain last year, but added that he doubted any of them accomplished much in the U.S. 'They probably just went out boozing and partying,' he said.
  • Israel says it has successfully tested the country's advanced missile defense system capable of defending against ballistic missile threats outside the atmosphere. The Defense Ministry says Monday's successful mission test of the Arrow-3 interceptor is 'a major milestone' in Israel's ability to defend itself 'against current and future threats in the region.' Two previous tests of the system were recently called off. Arrow-3 is part of the multi-layered system Israel is developing to defend against both short- and mid-range rockets fired from the Gaza Strip and Lebanon, as well as Iran's long-range missiles. It includes Iron Dome, David's Sling, and the Arrow-2 systems. It was developed by Israel Aerospace Industries and U.S. aviation giant Boeing, and became operational in January 2017. Israel has already deployed Arrow to counter Syrian missiles.
  • Friday's election-interference indictment brought by Robert Mueller, the U.S. special counsel, underscores how thoroughly social-media companies like Facebook and Twitter were played by Russian propagandists. And it's not clear if the companies have taken sufficient action to prevent something similar from happening again. Thirteen Russians, including a businessman close to Vladimir Putin, were charged Friday in a plot to interfere in the 2016 U.S. presidential election through social media propaganda. The indictment said the Russians' conspiracy aimed, in part, to help Republican Donald Trump and harm the prospects of his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton. The alleged scheme was run by the Internet Research Agency, a troll farm based in St. Petersburg, Russia, which used bogus social media postings and advertisements fraudulently purchased in the name of Americans to try to influence the White House race. 'I created all these pictures and posts, and the Americans believed that it was written by their people,' wrote one of the defendants, Irina Kaverzina, in an email to a family member obtained by investigators. Tech companies have spent months pledging to fix their platforms ahead of the upcoming midterm elections this year, and reiterated those promises Friday. Twitter said in a Friday night statement it 'committed to addressing, mitigating, and ultimately preventing any future attempts to interfere in elections and the democratic process, and to doing so in the most transparent way possible.' Facebook thanked U.S. investigators for taking 'aggressive action' and pointed out its own role in helping the investigation. Researchers, however, noted that the companies' business incentives don't necessarily align with improved security and anti-hoaxing measures that might have frustrated Russian agents. 'I've never been convinced that these sites are motivated to fix a problem like this,' said Notre Dame business professor Timothy Carone, who added that security controls make it harder for sites like Facebook to offer users new features and keep advertisers happy. 'It's a really, really, really difficult problem.' The indictment confirms earlier findings from congressional investigations that Russian agents manipulated social media to promote social division by mimicking grassroots political activity. It also underscores that the problem wasn't just 'bots' — i.e., automated social-media accounts — but human conspirators who fine-tuned propaganda and built online relationships with American activists. 'The idea wasn't necessarily to help one political party over another, but to sow as much discord as possible,' said Melissa Ryan, a Democratic social media marketing expert who now keeps track of right-wing online activity. 'This was America that was attacked.' Social-media companies weren't the only ones subverted in the influence campaign. Federal prosecutors allege that Russian criminals used PayPal as a primary conduit to transfer money for general expenses and to buy Facebook ads aimed at influencing voters. Prosecutors say the accounts were opened using fake identities to help bypass PayPal's security measures. PayPal spokesman Justin Higgs said the San Jose, California, company has been cooperating with the Justice Department and is 'intensely focused on combatting and preventing the illicit use' of its services. In an interview with The Associated Press on Tuesday, Facebook Chief Technology Officer Mike Schroepfer outlined the complexity of preventing abuse. 'Election integrity is challenging because again, you're dealing with adversaries,' Schroepfer said during a conference in Half Moon Bay, California. 'They are trying to accomplish a goal and they have smart people who are trying to figure out their way into the system to accomplish that.' For instance, infiltrators often react immediately to countermeasures. If they figure out Facebook is checking the internet addresses of computers to identify visitors from particular countries, Schroepfer said, 'they'll take over a machine with malware in the U.S. and post from there instead. People say, 'Why don't you just check the currency or the IP address?' And as soon as you do that, literally that afternoon, they will change tactics.' Schroepfer said the company is making 'good headway' on the problem, although he declined to give specifics. 'By kind of doing a lot better job of trying to figure out the authenticity of these different actors, we can certainly stop that sort of behavior,' he said. 'There's a big focus on that.' On the other hand, now that the Russians have shown how this sort of campaign is done, the door is open for others — including American special interest groups — to use the same tactics to target disaffected voters in the right places, said David Gerzof Richard, a communications professor at Emerson College. 'This is the new norm,' he said. 'It's not going away. It's not going to be magically fixed by a Silicon Valley CEO or a group of executives saying they're going to do better.' __ AP Technology Writer Ryan Nakashima in Half Moon Bay, California contributed to this report.
  • Thirteen Russians, including a businessman close to Vladimir Putin, were charged Friday in an elaborate plot to interfere in the 2016 U.S. presidential election through social media propaganda, aimed in part at helping Republican Donald Trump and harming the prospects of his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton. The federal indictment, brought by the office of special counsel Robert Mueller, represents the most direct allegation to date of illegal Russian meddling during the campaign that sent Trump to the White House. It also marks the first criminal charges against Russians believed to have secretly worked to influence the outcome. Trump claimed vindication, noting in a tweet that Russian interference efforts alleged in the indictment began in 2014 — 'long before I announced that I would run for President.' 'The results of the election were not impacted. The Trump campaign did nothing wrong — no collusion!' he tweeted. However, the Mueller investigation continues. The collusion question, still unresolved, has been at the heart of the probe, which before Friday had produced charges against four Trump associates. The U.S. intelligence community has said the Russian government interfered to benefit Trump, including by orchestrating the hack of Democratic emails, and Mueller and his prosecutors have been assessing whether the campaign coordinated with Russia in any meddling. The latest indictment does not focus on the hacking but instead centers on a social media effort that began in 2014 and continued past the election, with the goal of producing confusion and discontent in the American political process. Trump himself has been reluctant to acknowledge the interference. Though the indictment lays out a vast and wide-ranging effort to sway political opinion during the presidential primaries and the bitterly contested general election, it does not allege that any American or Trump campaign associate knowingly participated. Trump campaign associates had only 'unwitting' contact with Russians who posed as Americans during election season, it says. It alleges that Russians working in concert with the Internet Research Agency, a St. Petersburg-based troll farm, purchased internet advertisements in the names of Americans whose identities they had stolen, staged political rallies while posing as American political activists and paid people in the U.S. to promote or disparage candidates. The indictment says the Internet Research Agency was funded by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a St. Petersburg businessman dubbed 'Putin's chef' because his restaurants and catering businesses once hosted the Kremlin leader's dinners with foreign dignitaries. The company was also funded by companies Prigozhin controlled, according to the indictment. The intent of the meddling, the indictment says, was to 'sow discord in the U.S. political system, including the 2016 presidential election.' By early-to-mid 2016, the indictment alleges, Russian efforts included supporting Trump's campaign and disparaging Democrat Clinton. The charges say that Russians also communicated with 'unwitting individuals' associated with the Trump campaign and other political activists to coordinate activities. According to the indictment, the Internet Research Agency started interfering as early as 2014 in U.S. politics, extending to the 2016 presidential election. The defendants, 'posing as U.S. persons and creating false U.S. personas,' operated social media groups designed to attract U.S. audiences by stealing U.S. identities and falsely claiming to be U.S. activists. 'Over time, these social media accounts became defendants' means to reach significant numbers of Americans for purposes of interfering with the U.S. political system,' the indictment reads. The defendants are charged with conspiring 'to obstruct the lawful functions of the United States government through fraud and deceit,' including by making expenditures in connection with the 2016 election, failing to register as foreign agents carrying out political activities and obtaining visas through false and fraudulent statements. Some of the Russians traveled to the United States 'under false pretenses' to collect intelligence, and they also used computer infrastructure based partly in the United States to hide the Russian origins of their work. ___ Associated Press writers Mary Clare Jalonick, Desmond Butler and Raphael Satter contributed to this report. Online: https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/4380517-Russia-probe-indictments.html
  • The Latest on the indictments in the special counsel's Russia probe (all times local): 10 p.m. The U.S. special counsel has accused 13 Russians of an elaborate plot to disrupt the 2016 presidential election, charging them with running a huge but hidden social media trolling campaign aimed in part at helping Republican Donald Trump defeat Democrat Hillary Clinton. The federal indictment, brought by special counsel Robert Mueller, represents the most detailed allegations to date of illegal Russian meddling during the campaign that sent Trump to the White House. The Russian organization was funded by a wealthy St. Petersburg businessman with ties to the Russian government and President Vladimir Putin. Trump is claiming vindication, but the indictment does not resolve the collusion question at the heart of the continuing Mueller probe. __ 6 p.m. A spokesman for Hillary Clinton says the indictments in the special counsel's Russia probe confirm 'what we've long known.' Nick Merrill says on Twitter, 'Time will tell us more, but Russia went to great lengths to undermine our democracy, & the President won't protect us.' The indictment by federal prosecutors alleges that Russians used bogus social media postings and ads falsely purchased in the name of Americans to sway political opinion during the campaign between Clinton and Republican Donald Trump. Merrill tweets, 'No matter your politics, it's un-American. We have an adversary that is laughing at us, who will act again.' __ 5:20 p.m. Facebook says it is doubling its security staff to 20,000 and actively working with the FBI to stop election interference by Russians and others. The company's statement is in response to the indictment of 13 Russians and three Russian organizations by federal prosecutors. The charges shed light on the extent to which Russians manipulated social media sites like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. Joel Kaplan is Facebook vice president of global policy. He says officials know they have more to do to prevent future attacks, and are committed to staying ahead of deceptive and malevolent activity. A Twitter spokeswoman said the company has no comment, and YouTube has not yet responded. ___ 3:45 p.m. President Donald Trump says 'far-fetched theories' about collusion in the 2016 election 'only serve to further the agendas of bad actors, like Russia.' Trump is reacting to news that special counsel Robert Mueller has indicted 13 Russians and three Russian organizations for plotting to influence the 2016 campaign. Trump says, 'It's time we stop the outlandish partisan attacks.' The Russians are accused of using social media propaganda aimed at helping Trump and harming the prospects of Democrat Hillary Clinton. The indictment alleges that the Russians cooperated with 'unwitting' Trump campaign staffers and outside backers who did not know their true identities. Trump says, 'We must unite as Americans to protect the integrity of our democracy and our elections.' ___ 3:40 p.m. The attorney for the California man who pleaded guilty in the Russia probe says his client made a mistake. The lawyer tells The Associated Press that Richard Pinedo's connection to Russian meddling 'is way beyond anything he could have possibly imagined' being involved in.' The lawyer says Pinedo thought he was helping people fraudulently open online bank accounts, but that Pinedo had no idea 'his customers were foreign nationals' trying to meddle in the election. Jeremy Lessem says his client will not make any public statements. Pinedo is from Santa Paula, California. He pleaded guilty earlier this month to using stolen identities to set up bank accounts that were then used by the Russians. ___ 3:30 p.m. 'No collusion.' That's the reaction of President Donald Trump to the indictment of 13 Russians and three Russian companies for plotting to meddle in the 2016 election. The president tweeted Friday that the indictment shows, 'The Trump campaign did nothing wrong - no collusion!' The Russians were charged Friday with using social media propaganda aimed at helping Trump and harming the prospects of Democrat Hillary Clinton. Trump notes that the Russian influence campaign is alleged to have started in 2014, 'long before' he declared his candidacy. He says, 'The results of the election were not impacted.' In fact, while prosecutors have not alleged that meddling altered the election's outcome, the indictment does not rule it out. ___ 3:15 p.m. The online payment company PayPal has been unexpectedly drawn into the Russia probe. Federal prosecutors allege that Russian criminals used PayPal to help pay for propaganda aimed at influencing voters in the 2016 election. Thirteen Russians and three Russian companies were charged Friday with plotting to interfere in the election. In the indictment, prosecutors allege the defendants used PayPal as a primary conduit to transfer money for general expenses as well as to buy Facebook ads. Prosecutors say the accounts were opened using fake identities to help bypass PayPal's security measures. PayPal says it is cooperating with the Justice Department. A spokesman says, 'PayPal is intensely focused on combatting and preventing the illicit use of' its services and works closely with law enforcement, including in this instance. ___ 2:40 p.m. A California man has pleaded guilty to unwittingly selling bank accounts to Russians meddling in the US elections. Richard Pinedo of Santa Paula pleaded guilty earlier this month to using stolen identities to set up bank accounts that were then used by the Russians. A Justice Department spokeswoman says Pinedo did not know at the time he was dealing with Russians. The plea deal is the third in special counsel Robert Mueller's continuing Russia probe. It was revealed the same day prosecutors charged 13 Russians and three Russian companies with an extensive scheme to meddle in the U.S. elections. ___ 2:20 p.m. A Russian businessman known as 'Putin's chef' who was indicted Friday by federal prosecutors says 'Americans are very impressionable people.' He says he's not upset to be named in the indictment. Thirteen Russians and three Russian companies were charged Friday with a plot to interfere in the 2016 U.S. presidential election through social media propaganda. The indictment says the Internet Research Agency, a Russian troll farm, started interfering as early as 2014 in U.S. politics, extending to the 2016 presidential election. The indictment says the agency was funded by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a St. Petersburg businessman dubbed 'Putin's chef' because his restaurants and catering businesses once hosted the Kremlin leader's dinners with foreign dignitaries. Prigozhin was quoted by Russia's state news agency as saying Americans 'see what they want to see.' ___ 2:05 p.m. One of those indicted in the Russia probe is a businessman with ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Yevgeny Prigozhin (pree-GOH'-zhin) is an entrepreneur from St. Petersburg who's been dubbed 'Putin's chef' by Russian media. His restaurants and catering businesses have hosted the Kremlin leader's dinners with foreign dignitaries. In the more than 10 years since establishing a relationship with Putin, his business has expanded to services for the military. Prigozhin's assets also include an oil trading firm that reportedly has been sending private Russian fighters to Syria. Prigozhin is on the list of those sanctioned by the U.S. ___ 2 p.m. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein says there's no allegation that any Americans were 'knowing participants' in what federal prosecutors call an elaborate plot to interfere in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Thirteen Russians and three Russian companies were charged Friday with plotting to meddle in the election through social media propaganda aimed at helping Republican Donald Trump and harming the prospects of Democrat Hillary Clinton. Charges were brought by the office of special counsel Robert Mueller and represented the most direct allegation to date of illegal Russian meddling during the election. Rosenstein said Friday that there is 'no allegation in this indictment' that any American was a knowing participant. ___ 1:50 p.m. The deputy attorney general says a new indictment does not allege that Russian meddling altered the outcome of presidential election. Federal prosecutors have announced charges against 13 Russians and three Russian entities with an elaborate plot to interfere in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. The indictment was brought by the office of special counsel Robert Mueller. It alleges that Russians used bogus social media postings and advertisements fraudulently purchased in the name of Americans to sway political opinion during the race between Republican Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, his Democratic opponent. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein says the indictment does not include allegations that the plot swayed the outcome of the vote. ___ 1:40 p.m. Deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein says the goal of 13 Russians and three Russian entities charged Friday was 'spreading distrust' of 2016 candidates and the political system. The indictment details an elaborate plot to interfere in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. The indictment was brought by the office of special counsel Robert Mueller. It alleges that Russians used bogus social media postings and advertisements fraudulently purchased in the name of Americans to sway political opinion during the race between Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton. ___ 1:21 p.m. Thirteen Russians and three Russian entities were charged Friday with an elaborate plot to interfere in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, federal prosecutors announced Friday. The indictment, brought by the office of special counsel Robert Mueller, alleges that Russians used bogus social media postings and advertisements fraudulently purchased in the name of Americans to sway political opinion during the race between Republican Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, his Democratic opponent. The charges are the most direct allegation to date of illegal Russian meddling in the election. The goal, the indictment says, was to 'sow discord in the U.S. political system, including the 2016 presidential election.' The charges arise from Mueller's investigation into Russian interference in the election and whether there was improper coordination between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin.
  • Facebook is forging ahead with its messaging app for kids, despite child experts who have pressed the company to shut it down and others who question Facebook's financial support of some advisers who approved of the app. Messenger Kids lets kids under 13 chat with friends and family. It displays no ads and lets parents approve who their children message. But critics say it serves to lure kids into harmful social media use and to hook young people on Facebook as it tries to compete with Snapchat or its own Instagram app. They say kids shouldn't be on such apps at all — although they often are. 'It is disturbing that Facebook, in the face of widespread concern, is aggressively marketing Messenger Kids to even more children,' the Campaign For a Commercial-Free Childhood said in a statement this week. Messenger Kids launched on iOS to lukewarm reception in December. It arrived on Amazon devices in January and on Android Wednesday. Throughout, Facebook has touted a team of advisers, academics and families who helped shape the app in the year before it launched. But a Wired report this week pointed out that more than half of this safety advisory board had financial ties to the company. Facebook confirmed this and said it hasn't hidden donations to these individuals and groups — although it hasn't publicized them, either. Facebook's donations to groups like the National PTA (the official name for the Parent Teacher Association) typically covered logistics costs or sponsored activities like anti-bullying programs or events such as parent roundtables. One advisory group, the Family Online Safety Institute, has a Facebook executive on its board, along with execs from Disney, Comcast and Google. 'We sometimes provide funding to cover programmatic or logistics expenses, to make sure our work together can have the most impact,' Facebook said in a statement, adding that many of the organizations and people who advised on Messenger Kids do not receive financial support of any kind. But for a company under pressure from many sides — Congress, regulators, advocates for online privacy and mental health — even the appearance of impropriety can hurt. Facebook didn't invite prominent critics, such as the nonprofit Common Sense Media, to advise it on Messenger Kids until the process was nearly over. Facebook would not comment publicly on why it didn't include Common Sense earlier in the process. 'Because they know we opposed their position,' said James Steyer, the CEO of Common Sense. The group's stance is that Facebook never should have released a product aimed at kids. 'They know very well our positon with Messenger Kids.' A few weeks after Messenger Kids launched, nearly 100 outside experts banded together to urge Facebook to shut down the app , which it has not done. The company says it is 'committed to building better products for families, including Messenger Kids. That means listening to parents and experts, including our critics.' One of Facebook's experts contested the notion that company advisers were in Facebook's pocket. Lewis Bernstein, now a paid Facebook consultant who worked for Sesame Workshop (the nonprofit behind 'Sesame Street') in various capacities over three decades, said the Wired article 'unfairly' accused him and his colleagues for accepting travel expenses to Facebook seminars. But the Wired story did not count Lewis as one of the seven out of 13 advisers who took funding for Messenger Kids, and the magazine did not include travel funding when it counted financial ties. Bernstein was not a Facebook consultant at the time he was advising it on Messenger Kids. Bernstein, who doesn't see technology as 'inherently dangerous,' suggested that Facebook critics like Common Sense are also tainted by accepting $50 million in donated air time for a campaign warning about the dangers of technology addiction. Among those air-time donors are Comcast and AT&T's DirecTV. But Common Sense spokeswoman Corbie Kiernan called that figure a 'misrepresentation' that got picked up by news outlets. She said Common Sense has public service announcement commitments 'from partners such as Comcast and DirectTV' that has been valued at $50 million. The group has used that time in other campaigns in addition to its current 'Truth About Tech' effort, which it's launching with a group of ex-Google and Facebook employees and their newly formed Center for Humane Technology.
  • Belgian media say a Brussels court has ordered Facebook to stop collecting data about citizens in the country or face fines for every day it fails to comply. The daily De Standaard reported Friday that the court upheld a Belgian privacy commission finding that Facebook is collecting data without users' consent. It said the court concluded that Facebook does not adequately inform users that it is collecting information, what kind of details it keeps and for how long, or what it does with the data. It has ruled that Facebook must stop tracking and registering internet usage by Belgians online and destroy any data it has obtained illegally or face fines of 250,000 euros ($311,500) every day it delays. Facebook said it intends to appeal and that it has developed tools that give people choice and control over the privacy of their data. 'We are disappointed with today's verdict,' said Richard Allan, a regional vice president of public policy for Facebook, in a statement.
  • The Environmental Protection Agency on Thursday announced a $1.2 million settlement with Amazon over the sale and distribution of illegal pesticides, one of the largest penalties assessed under federal pesticides laws. Federal regulators said the agreement settles allegations that the Seattle-based internet giant committed nearly 4,000 violations between 2013 and 2016 for selling and distributing imported pesticide products not licensed for sale in the United States. The pesticides, including insecticide in the form of chalk and cockroach bait powder, were sold by independent sellers who offered the products through Amazon's website. The products were sold through a program in which sellers provided products to Amazon, which stored them at its warehouses and shipped them after they were purchased, Chad Schulze, an EPA pesticide enforcement team lead, said at a news conference in Seattle Thursday. It's one of the first enforcement actions related to sales of illegal pesticide in the online marketplace, he added. In a statement, Amazon said complying with regulations was a 'top priority' and that it works quickly to take action when third-party sellers don't follow the rules. As part of the agreement filed in administrative court Wednesday, Amazon agreed to develop an online training course to educate sellers about pesticides. The training will be available to the public and online sellers and available in English, Spanish and Chinese. 'This settlement is a step in the right direction to protect the public health and the environment,' said Ed Kowalski, who directs compliance and enforcement for the EPA region covering the Pacific Northwest. EPA interns uncovered the illegal sales in 2014 while reviewing online marketplaces, identifying unregistered insecticide chalk being sold on Amazon.com. EPA officials purchased and analyzed those products. It then issued two orders stopping sales, once in mid-2015 for the insecticide chalk and a second time in early 2016 after finding six other unregistered pesticides. EPA officials said Amazon quickly removed the products and prohibited foreign sellers from selling the pesticides. In October 2016, the company notified people who bought the illegal pesticides and urged them to dispose of them. It also made refunds totaling about $130,000. Most were purchases by individuals. The EPA has limited tools to enforce laws against foreign sellers so regulators focus on services in the U.S. that are facilitating the sale of these products, Schulze said. Illegal pesticides are still widely available for online purchase in the U.S., the EPA said. 'This is a very difficult avenue of pesticide sales to get our hands around and that's what this action is starting to try to do,' Schulze said.
  • It was an unexpected knock on the door for those who allegedly bought drugs anonymously — or so they thought — on a darknet market place. Police and federal agents in the Netherlands and the United States paid unannounced visits Wednesday and Thursday to nearly 100 people they say are drug buyers who used the Hansa Market, an online bazaar operating in the 'darknet,' an anonymity-friendly internet netherworld used for illicit commerce and which is inaccessible to standard browsers. The alleged buyers' identities became known to law enforcement authorities when Dutch cyber detectives secretly took over the site in June and acted as its administrators, collecting usernames and passwords and logging data on thousands of drug sales. Dutch police said they visited 37 alleged buyers this week and arrested one person over the weekend on suspicion of buying 150 ecstasy pills on the darknet. Their American counterparts targeted about 50 others. 'You may be sitting in the United States buying drugs on the dark web from another country and you may think that's a safe thing to do and the message is it's not safe,' Kevin Scully, European Regional Director of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, told The Associated Press ahead of the so-called 'knock and talk' operations. 'You can't evade prosecution and you can't evade law enforcement by using the dark web. You can be identified.' U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions said last year that more than two-thirds of the quarter-million listings on Hansa Market and AlphaBay, another darknet market that was taken down shortly before Hansa, were for illegal drugs. Other illicit wares for sale included weapons, counterfeit and stolen identification and malware. Public prosecutors will decide whether to press charges for the buyers. Scully said this week's action was primarily to raise public awareness more than to make arrests. 'Buying drugs on the internet is not safe and we want to make sure people stop doing,' he said. 'It's illegal and not safe.
  • The European Commission says social media giants Facebook and Twitter have only partially responded to its demands to bring their practices into line with EU consumer law. The Commission asked the two companies a year ago to change their terms of service following complaints from people targeted by fraud or scams on social media websites. The EU's executive arm said Thursday that the firms only partly addressed 'issues about their liability and about how users are informed of possible content removal or contract termination.' It said changes proposed by Google+ appear to be in line with demands. Europe's consumer affairs commissioner, Vera Jourova, said 'it is unacceptable that this is still not complete and it is taking so much time.' She called for those flouting consumer rules to face sanctions.