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Under G.O.P. Pressure, Tech Giants Are Empowered by Election Agency

When Twitter decided briefly last fall to block users from posting links to an article about Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s son Hunter, it prompted a conservative outcry that Big Tech was improperly aiding Mr. Biden’s presidential campaign.

“So terrible,” President Donald J. Trump said of the move to limit the visibility of a New York Post article. Senator Josh Hawley, Republican of Missouri, said Twitter and Facebook were censoring “core political speech.” The Republican National Committee filed a formal complaint with the Federal Election Commission accusing Twitter of “using its corporate resources” to benefit the Biden campaign.

Now the commission, which oversees election laws, has dismissed those allegations, according to a document obtained by The New York Times, ruling in Twitter’s favor in a decision that is likely to set a precedent for future cases involving social media sites and federal campaigns.

The election commission determined that Twitter’s actions regarding the Hunter Biden article had been undertaken for a valid commercial reason, not a political purpose, and were thus allowable.

And in a second case involving a social media platform, the commission used the same reasoning to side with Snapchat and reject a complaint from the Trump campaign. The campaign had argued that the company provided an improper gift to Mr. Biden by rejecting Mr. Trump from its Discover platform in the summer of 2020, according to another commission document.

The election commission’s twin rulings, which were made last month behind closed doors and are set to become public soon, protect the flexibility of social media and tech giants like Twitter, Facebook, Google and Snapchat to control what is shared on their platforms regarding federal elections.

Republicans have increasingly been at odds with the nation’s biggest technology and social media companies, accusing them of giving Democrats an undue advantage on their platforms. Mr. Trump, who was ousted from Twitter and Facebook early this year, has been among the loudest critics of the two companies and even announced a lawsuit against them and Google.

The suppression of the article about Hunter Biden — at the height of the presidential race last year — was a particular flashpoint for Republicans and Big Tech. But there were other episodes, including Snapchat’s decision to stop featuring Mr. Trump on one of its platforms.

The Federal Election Commission said in both cases that the companies had acted in their own commercial interests, according to the “factual and legal analysis” provided to the parties involved. The commission also said that Twitter had followed existing policies related to hacked materials.

The rulings appear to provide social media companies additional protections for making decisions on moderating content related to elections — as long as such choices are in service of a company’s commercial interests. Federal election law is decades old and is broadly outdated, so decisions by the election commission serve as influential guideposts.

Campaign finance law “does not account for the post-broadcast world” and puts few restrictions on the behavior of social media firms, said Ciara Torres-Spelliscy, a law professor at Stetson University. “There is a real mismatch between our federal campaign finance laws and how campaigns are run.”

Still, the Republican National Committee’s complaint stretched the boundaries of campaign finance law, she added. “The choice to delete or suppress certain content on the platform is ultimately going to be viewed through the lens of the First Amendment,” Ms. Torres-Spelliscy said. “I don’t think that type of content moderation by the big platforms is going to raise a campaign finance issue.”

Some Republicans are seeking to take a broader cudgel to the big internet companies, aiming to repeal a provision of communications law that shields them from liability for what users post.

In the case of the Hunter Biden article, Twitter reversed course within a day of its decision to block distribution of the piece, and its chief executive, Jack Dorsey, has called the initial move a “mistake.”

The Federal Election Commission’s official vote on the case — the commission is split equally between three Democratic-aligned commissioners and three Republicans — is not yet public, nor are any additional statements written by commissioners. Such statements often accompany the closure of cases and can provide further insight into the commission’s reasoning.

In addition to rejecting the R.N.C. complaint, the commission dismissed other allegations that Twitter had violated election laws by “shadow banning” Republican users (or appearing to limit the visibility of their posts without providing an explanation); suppressing other anti-Biden content; and labeling Mr. Trump’s tweets with warnings about their accuracy. The commission rejected those accusations, writing that they were “vague, speculative and unsupported by the available information.”

Twitter and Snapchat declined to comment.

Emma Vaughn, an R.N.C. spokeswoman, said the committee was “weighing its options for appealing this disappointing decision from the F.E.C.” A representative for Mr. Trump did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Twitter would go on to permanently bar Mr. Trump from its platform entirely in January, citing “the risk of further incitement of violence” after the attack on the Capitol by his supporters as Congress voted to certify the 2020 election.

Out of office, Mr. Trump has sued Facebook, Twitter and Google, arguing that a provision of the Communications Decency Act known as Section 230, which limits internet companies’ liability for what is posted on their networks, is unconstitutional.

Legal experts have given little credence to Mr. Trump’s suit, the news of which the former president immediately used as a fund-raising tactic.

Section 230 has been a regular target of lawmakers who want to crack down on Silicon Valley companies. While in office, Mr. Trump signed an executive order intended to chip away at the protections offered by Section 230, and Democratic and Republican lawmakers have proposed repealing or modifying the provision.

But technology companies and free speech advocates have vocally defended it, arguing that Section 230 has been crucial for the growth of the internet. If the measure were repealed, it would stifle free speech and bury social media companies in legal bills, the companies have said.

Twitter initially said that it had prevented linking to the Hunter Biden article because of its existing policies against distributing hacked materials and private information. The article, which focused on the Bidens’ Ukrainian ties, involved correspondence that The Post suggested had been found on Hunter Biden’s laptop.

But Mr. Dorsey, Twitter’s chief executive, acknowledged in October that blocking links “with zero context as to why” had been “unacceptable.”

Soon after, Twitter said that it was changing its policy on hacked materials and would allow similar content to be posted, including a label to provide context about the source of the information.

Republicans said the damage was done — and set a poor precedent.

“This censorship manifestly will influence the presidential election,” Senator Hawley wrote in a letter to the F.E.C. last year after Twitter blocked the article and Facebook said it was “reducing its distribution” of the piece.

The commission documents reveal one reason that Twitter had been especially suspicious of the Hunter Biden article. The company’s head of site integrity, according to the commission, said Twitter had “received official warnings throughout 2020 from federal law enforcement that ‘malign state actors’ might hack and release materials associated with political campaigns and that Hunter Biden might be a target of one such operation.”

The election commission said it found “no information that Twitter coordinated” its decisions with the Biden campaign. In a sworn declaration, Twitter’s head of U.S. public policy said she was unaware of any contacts with the Biden team before the company made its decisions, according to the commission document.

Adav Noti, a senior director at the Campaign Legal Center, said that he supported the rulings but that he had concerns about the election commission’s use of what he called the “commercial rationale,” because it was overbroad.

“It encompasses almost everything for-profit corporations do,” Mr. Noti said.

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Tecnologia

The Scientist and the A.I.-Assisted, Remote-Control Killing Machine

If Israel was going to kill a top Iranian official, an act that had the potential to start a war, it needed the assent and protection of the United States. That meant acting before Mr. Biden could take office. In Mr. Netanyahu’s best-case scenario, the assassination would derail any chance of resurrecting the nuclear agreement even if Mr. Biden won.

Mohsen Fakhrizadeh grew up in a conservative family in the holy city of Qom, the theological heart of Shia Islam. He was 18 when the Islamic revolution toppled Iran’s monarchy, a historical reckoning that fired his imagination.

He set out to achieve two dreams: to become a nuclear scientist and to take part in the military wing of the new government. As a symbol of his devotion to the revolution, he wore a silver ring with a large, oval red agate, the same type worn by Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and by General Suleimani.

He joined the Revolutionary Guards and climbed the ranks to general. He earned a Ph.D. in nuclear physics from Isfahan University of Technology with a dissertation on “identifying neutrons,” according to Ali Akbar Salehi, the former head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Agency and a longtime friend and colleague.

He led the missile development program for the Guards and pioneered the country’s nuclear program. As research director for the Defense Ministry, he played a key role in developing homegrown drones and, according to two Iranian officials, traveled to North Korea to join forces on missile development. At the time of his death, he was deputy defense minister.

“In the field of nuclear and nanotechnology and biochemical war, Mr. Fakhrizadeh was a character on par with Qassim Suleimani but in a totally covert way,” Gheish Ghoreishi, who has advised Iran’s Foreign Ministry on Arab affairs, said in an interview.

When Iran needed sensitive equipment or technology that was prohibited under international sanctions, Mr. Fakhrizadeh found ways to obtain them.

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Tecnologia

Tim Cook Faces Surprising Employee Unrest at Apple

SAN FRANCISCO — Apple, known among its Silicon Valley peers for a secretive corporate culture in which workers are expected to be in lock step with management, is suddenly facing an issue that would have been unthinkable a few years ago: employee unrest.

On Friday, Tim Cook, Apple’s chief executive, answered questions from workers in an all-staff meeting for the first time since the public surfacing of employee concerns over topics ranging from pay equity to whether the company should assert itself more on political matters like Texas’ restrictive abortion law.

Mr. Cook answered only two of what activist employees said were a number of questions they had wanted to ask in a meeting broadcast to employees around the world, according to a recording obtained by The New York Times. But his response was a notable acknowledgment that the workplace and social issues that have been roiling Silicon Valley for several years have taken root at Apple.

Over the past month, more than 500 people who said they were current and former Apple employees have submitted accounts of verbal abuse, sexual harassment, retaliation and discrimination at work, among other issues, to an employee-activist group that calls itself #AppleToo, said Cher Scarlett and Janneke Parrish, two Apple employees who help lead the group.

The group has begun posting some of the anonymous stories online and has been encouraging colleagues to contact state and federal labor officials with their complaints. Their issues, as well as those of eight current and former employees who spoke to The Times, vary; among them are workplace conditions, unequal pay and the company’s business practices.

A common theme is that Apple’s secrecy has created a culture that discourages employees from speaking out about their workplace concerns — not with co-workers, not with the press and not on social media. Complaints about problematic managers or colleagues are frequently dismissed, and workers are afraid to criticize how the company does business, the employees who spoke to The Times said.

“Apple has this culture of secrecy that is toxic,” said Christine Dehus, who worked at Apple for five years and left in August. “On one hand, yes, I understand the secrecy piece is important for product security, to surprise and delight customers. But it bleeds into other areas of the culture where it is prohibitive and damaging.”

Mr. Cook and Deirdre O’Brien, Apple’s human resources chief, said in response to a question about pay equity on Friday that Apple regularly scrutinized its compensation practices to ensure it paid employees fairly.

“When we find any gaps at all, which sometimes we do, we close them,” Ms. O’Brien said.

Asked what Apple was doing to protect its employees from Texas’ abortion restrictions, Mr. Cook said that the company was looking into whether it could aid the legal fight against the new law and that its medical insurance would help pay for Apple workers in Texas if they needed to travel to other states for an abortion.

Mr. Cook’s comments received a mixed reception from Apple employees on Slack, the workplace message board, Ms. Parrish said. Some employees cheered for Mr. Cook, while others, including her, were disappointed.

Ms. Parrish said she had submitted a question about what concrete steps Apple had taken to ensure that pay gaps were resolved and that more women and people of color were being promoted to leadership roles. “With the answers Tim gave today, we weren’t heard,” she said.

Apple has about 160,000 employees around the world, and it was unclear if the newly public complaints reflected systemic problems or isolated issues that happen at many larger corporations.

“We are and have always been deeply committed to creating and maintaining a positive and inclusive workplace,” the company said in a statement. “We take all concerns seriously and we thoroughly investigate whenever a concern is raised and, out of respect for the privacy of any individuals involved, we do not discuss specific employee matters.”

While the airing of Apple’s workplace issues is remarkable to many people who have followed the company over the years, employee activism has become commonplace in Silicon Valley.

Three years ago, Google employees marched out of their offices around the world to protest sexual harassment policies. Last year, Facebook employees protested their company’s handling of posts by President Donald J. Trump. And some companies have explicitly banned discussions that aren’t work-related.

But at Apple, the rank and file had until recently appeared to be doing their jobs with little fuss. Secrecy was a trait pushed by the company’s late co-founder, Steve Jobs, who was obsessed with preventing leaks about Apple’s new products to maximize the public’s surprise when he unveiled them onstage. The employees who spoke to The Times said that, over time, that culture had extended to the broader workplace.

“Never have I met people more terrified to speak out against their employer,” said Ms. Scarlett, who joined Apple as a software engineer in April and has worked at eight other companies.

An Apple spokesman pointed to a company policy that said employees could “speak freely about your wages, hours or working conditions.”

Slack has been a key organizing tool for workers, several current and former employees told The Times. Apple’s siloed culture kept different teams of employees separate from one another, another result of efforts to prevent leaks. There was no wide-scale, popular internal message board for employees to communicate with one another, until Apple began using Slack in 2019.

When employees were told to work from home at the beginning of the pandemic, Slack became particularly popular. “For a lot of us, this was the first chance to interact with people outside our own silo,” Ms. Parrish said. Previously, “none of us were aware that anybody else was going through this.”

The complaints seem to be making an impact. When Apple this year hired Antonio García Martínez, a former Facebook manager, more than 2,000 employees signed a protest letter to management because of what they called “overtly racist and sexist remarks” in a book he had written, based in part on his time at Facebook. Within days, Apple fired him. Mr. García Martínez declined to comment on the specifics of his case.

In May, hundreds of employees signed a letter urging Apple to publicly support Palestinians during a recent conflict with Israel. And a corporate Slack channel that was set up to organize efforts to push Apple to be more flexible about remote-work arrangements once the pandemic ended now has about 7,500 employees on it.

Beyond the group activism, Apple is dealing with individual fights that are slipping into public view.

Ashley Gjovik, a former engineering program manager at Apple for six years, said she had complained to Apple for months about what she believed was inadequate testing for toxic chemicals at her office, as well as sexist comments from a manager.

After taking her complaints public this year, Ms. Gjovik was placed on leave and later fired. She said Apple had told her that she was fired for leaking product information and not cooperating with its investigation. She has filed complaints with the National Labor Relations Board, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Justice Department, she said.

Apple declined to comment on specific employees’ cases.

Ms. Dehus, who worked at Apple to mitigate the impact of mining valuable minerals in conflict zones, said she had left Apple after spending several years fighting a decision to reassign her to a role that she said had involved more work for less pay. She said Apple had begun trying to reassign her after she complained that the company’s work on the minerals was not, in some cases, leading to meaningful change in some war-torn countries.

Richard Dahan, who is deaf, said he had struggled at his former job at an Apple Store in Maryland for six years because his manager refused to provide a sign-language interpreter for him to communicate with customers, which federal law requires under some circumstances. He said that he had communicated with customers by typing on an iPad, and that some customers had refused to work with him as a result. When he told his manager, the manager said it was the customers’ right, he said.

“Would it be OK if they said they didn’t want to work with a person of color?” Mr. Dahan asked in an interview via a sign-language interpreter.

He was eventually assigned an interpreter. But by that time, he said, upper management viewed him as a complainer and refused to promote him.

“Their culture is: Drink our Kool-Aid, buy into what we’re telling you, and we’ll promote you,” he said. “But if you’re asking for anything or making noise, then they won’t.”

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Theranos Whistle-Blower Erika Cheung Concludes Her Testimony in Elizabeth Holmes Trial

SAN JOSE, Calif. — Erika Cheung, a key whistle-blower in the fraud trial of Elizabeth Holmes, the founder of the failed blood-testing start-up Theranos, wrapped up her testimony on Friday after saying the company had put a priority on speed over accuracy in its blood tests and answering hours of questions by the defense.

Over three days of testimony, Ms. Cheung, a former Theranos employee, detailed how some of the processes the company used to conduct its blood tests were problematic. While the defense sought to show that Theranos’s procedures were rigorous and complex, Ms. Cheung said on Friday that its priority was to conduct tests as quickly as possible and that its machines often failed their quality-control checks.

Ms. Cheung said Theranos’s blood tests might have been cheaper than other tests, but that did not mean “you should give people false information about their health status.”

Credit…Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic, via Getty Images

Ms. Cheung was a high-profile witness for the federal government, which is trying to make the case that Ms. Holmes intentionally misled investors, doctors and patients about how well Theranos’s blood testing technology worked. The company, once held up as a Silicon Valley success story with Ms. Holmes its shining star, collapsed in 2018. Ms. Holmes, 37, faces 12 counts of wire fraud and conspiracy to commit wire fraud, and has pleaded not guilty.

Ms. Cheung, who worked as a lab assistant at Theranos for several months in 2013 and 2014 before reporting lab testing problems to federal agents in 2015, testified this week that she had concerns about how the company deleted outliers in its data to ensure that its devices passed quality-control tests. She said her concerns had begun about a month into her employment.

During cross-examination, Lance Wade, a lawyer for Ms. Holmes, quizzed Ms. Cheung on the processes, procedures and organizational chart of Theranos’s labs. The apparent point was to show that the issues Ms. Cheung raised about inaccurate lab results applied to only one small area of the company.

While Ms. Cheung dutifully answered, recalling Theranos’s procedures and organizational structure, she countered that its blood testing machines had constantly needed recalibration and failed their quality checks. Recalibrating the machines could take days, she said.

“We had people sleeping in the car because it was taking too long,” she said.

On Friday, Mr. Wade also asked Ms. Cheung about a 2015 letter she received from Theranos’s lawyer at the time, David Boies. In the letter, which Ms. Cheung mentioned earlier in her testimony, Mr. Boies threatened litigation against her for discussing Theranos with John Carreyrou, a Wall Street Journal reporter who exposed the company’s testing problems that year.

Mr. Wade noted that Ms. Cheung had received two calls from Theranos’s human resources director before receiving the letter from Mr. Boies but had not returned them.

Ms. Cheung later said she had not returned the calls because she no longer worked at Theranos and because the “fear” in the human resources director’s voice reminded her of how scared she had been at the company.

“I had the right to not speak to them,” Ms. Cheung said.

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