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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B-I-G Time: Wild Cards Send Spelling Bee Field Above 500

“Gargantuan” might be an appropriate word to kick off this year’s Scripps National Spelling Bee.

The competition will be super-sized because of a new wild-card program that provided a path to the bee for kids who didn’t qualify by conventional means and were willing to pay their own way.

Scripps was willing to allow the bee to nearly double in size, and that’s exactly what happened: There will be 519 spellers in this year’s bee, up from 291 last year.

That means some changes to the already packed bee week schedule: Now, there will be an extra day of spelling, with competitors taking the stage for three days instead of two. Previously, after the high-stakes written spelling and vocabulary test that largely determines the top 50 or so spellers who make the finals, competitors had the rest of the day to go sightseeing in Washington and blow off steam. Now, they’ll go straight from the test to the stage, where each speller will get one word the first day and each remaining speller will get another word the second day.

“I think the only drawback might be that jam-packed schedule for three straight days,” said Mira Dedhia, who finished third in last year’s bee. “It’s just a lot of sitting on stage and waiting because it’s a much larger pool of kids.”

The wild-card program was open to anyone who won a school-level spelling bee. Scripps officials weren’t sure how many would apply, in part because of the price tag: Spellers who get wild cards have to pay a $750 entry fee and fund their own travel and lodging at the convention center outside Washington where the bee will be held the week of May 28. Sponsors cover those costs for spellers who win their regional bees.

Nonetheless, 855 kids applied for wild cards, and 241 were accepted. Spellers who’d been to nationals before got top priority, with 39 recipients falling into that category. They were followed by spellers who were running out of eligibility — the bee is open to kids through the 8th grade — and, after that, spellers who got in their applications earliest.

Previously, spellers had to win at the regional level to gain entry. There are roughly 275 regions around the country, including a handful overseas.

The wild-card program, known as “RSVBee,” was meant to provide a lifeline to spellers who happen to live in highly competitive regions. A quarter of the 11 million spellers who participate in the Scripps program are concentrated in just eight regions. The result is that kids who were talented enough to make the national finals were sometimes frozen out of the bee altogether because they were tripped up at regionals by other elite spellers.

“RSVBee has accomplished what we intended by leveling the playing field for national finals qualification, especially for students participating in large regional bees,” said Paige Kimble, the bee’s executive director.

Despite her concerns about the schedule, Mira, a 14-year-old ninth-grader who is now coaching four spellers, is a big proponent of the wild cards. One of Mira’s students — Enya Hubers of Burlington, Ontario, Canada — finished inside the top 50 in last year’s bee but saw her path to return closed off because she is home-schooled and didn’t have a sponsor this year. Enya got a wild card to return.

The program “provides a lot of opportunities to people who wouldn’t have it otherwise, whether they be home-schooled or just from a very competitive or large regional bee,” Mira said.

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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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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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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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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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