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Silicon Valley & Technology
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Head of WhatsApp to Leave Company

The head of popular messaging service WhatsApp is planning to leave the company because of a reported disagreement over how parent company Facebook is using customers’ personal data. 

WhatsApp billionaire chief executive Jan Koum wrote in a Facebook post Monday, “It’s been almost a decade since (co-founder) Brian (Acton) and I started WhatsApp, and it’s been an amazing journey with some of the best people. But it is time for me to move on,” he said.

Koum did not give a date for his departure.

The Washington Post reported Monday that Koum is stepping down because of disagreements over Facebook’s attempts to use the personal data of WhatsApp customers, as well as efforts to weaken the app’s encryption. 

Action left the company last fall and since then has become a vocal critic of Facebook, recently endorsing a #DeleteFacebook social media campaign.

The Post, citing people familiar with internal WhatsApp discussions, said Koum was worn down by the differences in approach to privacy and security between WhatsApp and Facebook.

When WhatsApp agreed to the company’s sale to Facebook in 2014 for $19 billion, it said WhatsApp would remain an independent service and would not share its data with Facebook. 

However, 18 months later, Facebook pushed WhatsApp to change its terms of service to give the social network access to the personal data of WhatsApp users. 

WhatsApp is the largest messaging service in the world with 1.5 billion monthly users. However, Facebook has been struggling to find ways to make enough money from the app to prove its investment was worth the cost. 

Facebook has faced intense criticism since March when news broke that the personal data of millions of Facebook users had been harvested without their knowledge by Cambridge Analytica, a British voter profiling company that U.S. President Donald Trump’s campaign hired to target likely supporters in 2016.

Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg testified before Congress earlier this month and apologized for inadequately protecting the data of millions of social media platform users. 

Facebook also recently announced it would allow all its users to shut off third-party access to their apps and said it would set up “firewalls” to ensure users’ data was not unwittingly transmitted by others in their social network.

Some members of Congress said Facebook’s actions to rectify the situation did not go far enough and have called for greater regulation of the internet and social media.

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Silicon Valley & Technology
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Paper Plane Protesters Urge Russia to Unblock Telegram App

Thousands of people marched through Moscow, throwing paper planes and calling for authorities to unblock the popular Telegram instant messaging app on Monday.

Protesters chanted slogans against President Vladimir Putin as they launched the planes – a reference to the app’s logo.

“Putin’s regime has declared war on the internet, has declared war on free society… so we have to be here in support of Telegram,” one protester told Reuters.

Russia began blocking Telegram on April 16 after the app refused to comply with a court order to grant state security services access to its users’ encrypted messages.

Russia’s FSB Federal Security service has said it needs access to some of those messages for its work, that includes guarding against militant attacks.

In the process of blocking the app, state watchdog Roskomnadzor also cut off access to a slew of other websites.

Telegram’s founder, Russian entrepreneur Pavel Durov, called for “digital resistance” in response to the decision and promised to fund anyone developing proxies and VPNs to dodge the block.

More than 12,000 people joined the march on Monday, said White Counter, a volunteer group that counts people at protests.

“Thousands of young and progressive people are currently protesting in Moscow in defense of internet freedom,” Telegram’s Durov wrote on his social media page.

“This is unprecedented. I am proud to have been born in the same country as you. Your energy changes the world,” Durov wrote.

Telegram has more than 200 million global users and is ranked as the world’s ninth most popular mobile messaging service.

Iran’s judiciary has also banned the app to protect national security, Iranian state TV reported on Monday.

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Silicon Valley & Technology
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State TV: Iran’s Judiciary Bans Using Telegram App

Iran’s judiciary has banned the popular Telegram instant messaging app to protect national security, Iran’s state TV reported Monday.

“Considering various complaints against Telegram social networking app by Iranian citizens, and based on the demand of security organizations for confronting the illegal activities of Telegram, the judiciary has banned its usage in Iran,” TV reported.

The order was issued days after Iran banned government bodies from using Telegram, which is widely used by Iranian state media, politicians, companies and ordinary Iranians.

A widespread government internet filter prevents Iranians from accessing many sites on the official grounds that they are offensive or criminal.

But many Iranians evade the filter through use of VPN software, which provides encrypted links directly to private networks based abroad, and can allow a computer to behave as if it is based in another country.

“The blocking of Telegram app should be in a way to prevent users from accessing it with VPN or any other software,” Fars said. The app had over 40 million users in Iran.

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Science & Health
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Recycling Oyster Shells Improves Water Quality, Oyster Population

It’s another busy day for Tony Price, who has a list of around two dozen restaurants and other seafood businesses to visit, to pick up discarded oyster shells. 

Fast and energetic, he moves barrels of smelly shells from restaurants’ back storage areas to his truck. “We do seven pickups a week, plus events on weekends. I’d say we’re getting somewhere between 500 and even 800 bushels a week,” he says.

That’s the beginning of a recycling process, a journey for the oyster shell to return to the water. 

Price is the operation manager with Shell Recycling Alliance, a program run by the Oyster Recovery Partnership.

Last year, the program collected 33,400 bushels of oyster shells from restaurants all around the Chesapeake Bay area. Every half shell collected becomes a new home for around 10 baby oysters. 

On the menu

Oysters have been a popular item on the menu of Mike’s Crab House since 1958.

The famous seafood restaurant, in Riva, Maryland, is one of more than 330 restaurants in Maryland, Virginia and Washington D.C. that now recycle their oyster shells.

Tony Piera says he and Mike’s other owners joined the program four years ago.

“It’s a win-win for us. It’s a win-win for the environment,” he explains. “Before we did it, the trash would come and get them. Now, the Oyster Recovery comes two days a week, picks them up.”

Mike’s Crab House is one of the top ten contributors to the program this year, with more 822 bushels of recycled oyster shells in 2017.

“I think I’m getting more customers here because they know we recycle here,” Piera says. “They know it’s good for the environment, the Chesapeake Bay.”

Saving oysters, saving the bay

The Oyster Recovery Partnership began in 2010 with 22 restaurants. Spokeswoman Karis King says the program has been well received and is expanding.

“We continue to grow and expand from us basically knocking on doors, trying to get people involved,” she adds. “It’s turned out into getting requests every single day, ‘How do we become part of this program?’ ‘I’m really excited about the program.’ ‘I want to do my part.’ ‘I want to be sustainable.’”

The recycling program offers incentives to encourage more restaurants to join. “In Maryland, tax credits that restaurants can claim based on how many bushels they recycle. We also provide them with support, restaurant training to talk to the servers about what the program is and why it’s important.” 

Multi-step recycling process

Done with his day’s rounds, Tony Price heads to a facility where the first phase of the process – cleaning the shells – begins.

“The shell is taken down here, it’s aged, it sits for about a year. It dries out, sun, wind, rain,” he explains. “(It) kind of decomposes a little all the tissue that’s left. Behind me is the shell washer. There are jets of a high pressure water from a pressure water system tumbles the shells, just give it a nice cleaning. So, it comes out brilliant white as opposed to the stuff on the other side is the raw shell. It’s a little bit grayer.” 

Then, the shells go to the University of Maryland’s Center for Environmental Science Horn Point Oyster Hatchery for further processing. 

Hatchery manager, Stephanie Alexander, says her team gets tiny baby oysters, called spat, ready to be attached to the clean oyster shells. “We get the adult oysters, we spawn them and create the babies. Then, we grow those baby oysters for two to three weeks. Then they mature and we attach them to the shell to become spat on shell.”

Now firmly attached to the recycled natural shells, the spat are put back in the Chesapeake Bay. Here, they will grow and flourish, increasing the oyster population.

Alexander says new generations of oysters are crucially important for the health of the bay. They filter the water.

“That kind of makes them the bay’s kidneys,” she explains. “The cleaner water you have, the more sunlight can penetrate, the more grasses you end up having, which results in nursery area for fish and crabs when they are small and juvenile so they don’t get eaten. They also are spawning and reproducing, adding to the population. They (oyster shells) create habitat for many, many creatures. They are kind of the coral reefs of the bay.”

The success of the Recycling Shell Alliance program encourages more restaurants to join. That’s good for the bay and for people who love to eat oysters.

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Economy & business
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Ugandan Government Eyes Tax on Mobile Data Use

Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni was criticized this month when he asked the Finance Ministry to find a way to tax social media use, in order to control what he called “gossip” online. Officials have since walked back that characterization, though they say they are pushing ahead with efforts to add a daily tax on mobile data use beginning this July. For VOA, Halima Athumani reports from Kampala.

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Silicon Valley & Technology
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ISS to Get a New Commander and AI Assistant

On June 6, a few months short of its 20th birthday, the International Space Station or ISS, is scheduled to receive its newest crew, including the new commander, German astronaut Alexander Gerst. While Gerst and other members of his team are undergoing rigorous training in NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Airbus engineers are preparing the first personal assistant to fly to the space. VOA’s George Putic reports.

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Economy & business
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US Wireless Carriers T-Mobile, Sprint Announce Merger

The third and fourth biggest U.S. wireless carriers, T-Mobile and Sprint, said Sunday they plan to merge, the third attempt they’ve made to join forces against the country’s two biggest mobile device firms, Verizon and AT&T.

The deal, if it happens this time, calls for T-Mobile to buy Sprint for $26 billion in an all-stock deal.

The combined carrier would have 126 million customers, still third in the pecking order of U.S. wireless carriers, but closer to the top two. Verizon has more than 150 million customers, and AT&T more than 142 million.

The latest agreement caps four years of on-and-off talks between T-Mobile and Sprint. Sprint dropped its bid for T-Mobile more than three years ago after U.S. regulators objected and another proposed merger fell through last November.

The new deal could help the combined companies slash costs to make the new business more competitive with industry leaders. But customers could also pay more for wireless coverage because the combined company may not have to offer as many deals to attract new customers.

U.S. regulators at the Federal Communications Commission are expected to take a close look at the merger’s effects on customers and whether the deal violates antitrust laws.

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Arts & Entertainment
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A Unique Window on Being Queer in Nigeria

“Whenever I was with her, I was open. I could talk … my sexuality does not define who I am.” 

These words are from a new book, “She Called Me Woman: Nigeria’s Queer Women Speak.”

The new book, released this week, is a collection of interviews with two dozen women. It offers an unprecedented window into what it means to be a queer woman in Nigeria, where homosexuality is illegal.

Intimate interviews

The book recounts a series of intimate interviews with 25 lesbian Nigerian women of various religious and socioeconomic backgrounds.

“I’m really nervous and I’m also nervous about the reception of Nigerians to the book,” Woman A, as she asked to be referred to, told VOA.

Woman A, one of the women featured in the book, said most queer Nigerian women are like her, living in the closet.

In 2014, Nigeria banned same-sex marriage. The law is far-reaching. It also bans any cohabitation or public displays of affection, like kissing or hand holding, between same-sex partners. Anyone who breaks the law could face up to 14 years in prison. 

There is also a 10-year prison sentence for anyone who registers, operates or participates in gay clubs or organizations.

Human Rights Watch said with the law, Nigeria effectively criminalized being LGBTQ — lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer.

That’s what makes this book so groundbreaking.

One woman reveals she lives with her partner in Abuja, which is illegal. She says it’s nice to wake up in the morning and have a cup of tea ready for her. Another woman speaks with anguish about the religious dilemma she faces being queer and Christian in Nigeria. 

Azeenarh Mohammed, one of the book’s editors, helped capture the one-on-one interviews. She said discussions of homosexuality in Africa focus on men. Lesbians have been excluded.

“There was an erasure of them. We said they really need to be heard and the reason why they hadn’t been heard is because the mic had not been passed to them. So we tried to do that with the book to let them be heard in their own voice with their own words,” Mohammed told VOA.

Bracing for a backlash

The book has garnered buzz on social media. Many people say they’re worried that homosexual lifestyles may become normalized in Nigerian society. Others say they have already pre-ordered the book in anticipation.

The book was published and released in the U.K., but the book’s editors say it will soon be available in Nigeria. They are bracing for backlash. In the past, the Nigerian government has banned controversial art, including books.

“Personally I’m curious, and I’m definitely going to read this book. To hear that there’s women talking about the fact that they’re queer and what they want to do is get with other women I think, to even be talking about it, I’m excited that we’re talking about it. I think this book is needed,” said Rosemary Ajuka, a feminist and media professional based in the Nigeria’s business hub of Lagos.

The book’s release comes as authorities in Kenya ban the new film by celebrated Kenyan director Waniru Kahiu. The film, called “Rafiki,” is a coming-of-age story about two girls falling in love. It will premiere at the Cannes Film Festival in May, the first feature-length Kenyan film ever to do so.

“Inxeba,” another controversial film won six South African Film and Television Awards in March, despite campaigns to ban it by community groups and political leaders. The film portrays two boys developing a sexual attraction for each other while participating in a cultural rite of passage ceremony for young men from the Xhosa ethnic group. The film was removed from some cinemas in the South Africa.

Optimistic but cautious

An oft-repeated sentiment is that homosexuality is un-African.

“Which is ridiculous, before just look at Nigeria for instance,” Mohammed said. “Homosexuality and queer identity is portrayed in the cultures of many ethnic groups and even across Africa, there is evidence that pre-dates colonialism that people were involved in same-sex romantic relationships.”

She said she’s hopeful that attitudes will change.

Asked what impact their book may have in Nigeria, Woman A is cautious.

“I wish someday I will be able to live openly, but until then…”

Until then, she said, she will keep living “in the closet.” 

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