Frances Haugen says Facebook is ‘making hate worse’

Whistleblower Frances Haugen has told MPs Facebook is “unquestionably making hate worse”, as they consider what new rules to impose on big social networks.

Ms Haugen was talking to the Online Safety Bill committee in London.

She said Facebook safety teams were under-resourced, and “Facebook has been unwilling to accept even little slivers of profit being sacrificed for safety”.

And she warned that Instagram was “more dangerous than other forms of social media”.

While other social networks were about performance, play, or an exchange of ideas, “Instagram is about social comparison and about bodies… about people’s lifestyles, and that’s what ends up being worse for kids”, she told a joint committee of MPs and Lords.

She said Facebook’s own research described one problem as “an addict’s narrative” – where children are unhappy, can’t control their use of the app, but feel like they cannot stop using it.

“I am deeply worried that it may not be possible to make Instagram safe for a 14-year-old, and I sincerely doubt that it is possible to make it safe for a 10-year-old,” she said.

The committee is fine-tuning a proposed law that will place new duties on large social networks and subject them to checks by the media regulator Ofcom.

Asked if the law was “keeping Mark Zuckerberg awake at night”, Ms Haugen said she was “incredibly proud of the UK for taking such a world-leading stance”.

“The UK has a tradition of leading policy in ways that are followed around the world.

“I can’t imagine Mark isn’t paying attention to what you’re doing.”

British English problem
Ms Haugen also warned that Facebook was unable to police content in multiple languages around the world – something which should worry UK officials, she said.

“UK English is sufficiently different that I would be unsurprised if the safety systems that they developed primarily for American English were actually under-enforcing in the UK,” she said.

And she said that dangerous misinformation in other languages affects people in Britain.

“Those people are also living in the UK, and being fed misinformation that is dangerous, that radicalises people,” she warned.

Ms Haugen also urged the committee to include paid-for advertising in its new rules, saying the current system was “literally subsidising hate on these platforms” because of their algorithmic ranking.

“It is substantially cheaper to run an angry hateful divisive ad than it is to run a compassionate, empathetic ad,” she said.

And she also urged MPs to require a breakdown of who is harmed by content, rather than an average figure – suggesting Facebook is “very good at dancing with data”, but pushes people towards “extreme content”.

“The median experience on Facebook is a pretty good experience,” she said.

“The real danger is that 20% of the population has a horrible experience or an experience that is dangerous,” she said.

“Accept under-resourcing”
She warned that employees were unable to report internal concerns at Facebook – something she called a “huge weak spot”.

“When I worked on counter-espionage, I saw things where I was concerned about national security, and I had no idea how to escalate those because I didn’t have faith in my chain of command at that point,” she told the committee.

And she warned: “We were told to accept under-resourcing.”

Similar problems plague Facebook’s Oversight Board, which can overturn the company’s decisions on content, she said. She repeated her claim that Facebook has repeatedly lied to its own watchdog, and said this is a “defining moment” for the Oversight Board to “step up”.

“I don’t know what the purpose of the Oversight Board is,” she said.

It comes as several news outlets published fresh stories based on the thousands of leaked documents Ms Haugen took with her when she left Facebook.

Facebook has characterised previous reporting as misleading, and at one point referred to the leaked documents as “stolen”.

“Contrary to what was discussed at the hearing, we’ve always had the commercial incentive to remove harmful content from our sites,” a spokesperson said, after Ms Haugen finished giving evidence.

“People don’t want to see it when they use our apps, and advertisers don’t want their ads next to it. That’s why we’ve invested $13bn (£9.4bn) and hired 40,000 people to do one job: keep people safe on our apps. “

The company said that over the last three quarters it has halved the amount of hate speech seen on Facebook, which it claims now accounts for only 0.05% of all content viewed.

“While we have rules against harmful content and publish regular transparency reports, we agree we need regulation for the whole industry so that businesses like ours aren’t making these decisions on our own,” the spokesperson said.

“The UK is one of the countries leading the way and we’re pleased the Online Safety Bill is moving forward.”

An avalanche of information emerged on Monday from leaked Facebook documents – and it was hard to keep up.

Allegations include that the social media giant is aware of its role in inciting violence all around the world, or causing harm to its users from US and UK to India and Ethiopia.

A common theme runs through each of the stories. They all suggest a tension between employees raising the alarm about their concerns and a corporate machine that does not appear to be using this to inform its policies.

Reporters and journalists have been highlighting many of these same concerns, especially for the past 18 months. I’ve investigated the human cost of online disinformation and abuse again and again and exposed the damage being done to real people offline using these sites.

But until these documents were released by Ms Haugen, it was very difficult to know how aware Facebook was of that damage.

These latest leaks reinforce the idea that it is conscious of it – although it refutes a number of the claims.

And it means pressure is mounting on policymakers around the world to do something about it.

Digicel Pacific: Australia’s Telstra buys Pacific firm ‘to block China’

The Australian government and telecoms giant Telstra are buying a Pacific telecoms company in a joint venture.

The move is being viewed as a political block to China’s influence in the region.

Telstra called the A$2.1bn ($1.6bn; £1.2bn) deal a “unique and very attractive commercial opportunity to boost our presence in the region”.

Digicel Pacific employs 1,700 people across Papua New Guinea, Fiji, Samoa, Vanuatu and Tahiti.

The company’s future has been the focus of speculation for months.

Last year Digicel denied a report that it was in talks to sell its Pacific arm to state-owned China Mobile.

According to Telstra, the Australian government approached it “to provide technical advice in relation to Digicel Pacific” which is “critical to telecommunications in the region”.

The government then agreed to finance the bulk of the bid, Telstra said.

Strategic move
Analysts say the company would otherwise be attractive to China as it seeks to assert greater authority in the region.

“Digicel is the primary player in the Pacific and Australia sees it as a strategic asset that they can’t allow to fall into the hands of China,” said Jonathan Pryke of the Lowy Institute, a Sydney-based think tank.

“They are keen to get Australian business back into the Pacific and they’ve come to the realisation that they are going to have to underwrite.”

A spokesman for Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade told newswire Reuters: “Partnering on infrastructure development is a key part of our Pacific step-up.”

Amid escalating tensions with China, Australia has ramped up its presence in the Pacific.

This includes allocating $1.5bn to investment in infrastructure projects in the region as well as joining the Quad group, with the US, India and Japan, and the Aukus security pact, with the US and UK.

It also largely funded a 4,700km (2,900-mile) Coral Sea cable in 2018 to prevent Chinese telecoms company Huawei Technologies from laying it.

It is also now helping to finance an undersea optic fibre cable for Palau.

Chinese control of telecommunications networks has long been a concern for Washington and its allies.

This has led many countries to ban Huawei and other Chinese companies from supplying phone lines and 5G networks, including the US, UK and Australia.

Ofcom orders phone networks to block foreign scam calls

Major phone networks have agreed to automatically block almost all internet calls coming from abroad if they pretend to be from UK numbers, Ofcom has confirmed.

Criminals have been using internet-based calling technology to make it look like a phone call or text is coming from a real telephone number.

Almost 45 million consumers were targeted by phone scams this summer.

Ofcom said it expected the measures to be introduced at pace as a “priority”.

So far, one operator has already implemented the new plans, the regulator told the BBC, while other phone networks are still exploring methods of making it work.

“We’ve been working with telecoms companies to implement technical solutions, including blocking at source, suspicious international calls that are masked by a UK number,” said Lindsey Fussell, Ofcom’s networks and communications group director.

“We expect these measures to be introduced as a priority, and at pace, to ensure customers are better protected.”

She added that tackling the phone scams issue was a “complex problem” that requires a coordinated effort from the police, government, other regulators and industry.

The move follows months of discussions between Ofcom and the UK telecoms industry.

Will the plans work?
Internet-based calling technology, also known as Voice Over Internet Protcol (VoIP), is used by millions of consumers globally to make phone calls free or cheaply every year.

Popular services you might recognise that use VoIP include WhatsApp, Skype, Zoom and Microsoft Teams.

The Telegraph, which first reported the story on Sunday, cited Whitehall sources that have cast doubt on Ofcom’s plans.

They say blocking traffic from foreign VoIP providers won’t work to stop scam texts and calls, because much of the UK is still relying on old copper-based ISDN networks dating back to the 1970s.

Security experts the BBC spoke to disagree, however.

Apart from consumers, many businesses also use the VoIP technology for internal corporate phone networks.

Whenever a corporate phone network makes a call, a VoIP provider hands over the call from the internet to the phone networks – a technology called “SIP trunking”.

According to Gabriel Cirlig of US cyber-security firm Human, telcos are not inspecting the traffic they receive from VoIP providers – they just let it through onto the network.

“Recently, because of the ease in implementing your own private enterprise telephone system, everybody can have access to critical telephone infrastructure,” Mr Cirlig told the BBC.

“Because of this lower barrier of entry, it is very easy for scammers to build their own systems to spoof mobile numbers – the cybercriminals are essentially pretending to be legitimate corporate telephone networks in order to have access to legitimate telco infrastructure.”

He adds that right now, it is up to the VoIP provider to check whether the calls it is handing over to telecoms networks are actually legitimate.

“This is not a regional problem or restricted to one type of infrastructure, this is a systemic issue that allows crime to cross any borders,” said Mr Cirlig.

“This feature is enabling the VoIP business model so they don’t want to stop it.”

Matthew Gribben, a former consultant to GCHQ, the UK government intelligence agency, agrees. He used to see ongoing scams while monitoring networks for GCHQ.

“It’s fundamentally the foreign VoIP providers that are technologically enabling these gangs to operate, so it will make a huge dent in this,” he told the BBC. “It doesn’t fix everything but it’s an excellent step in the right direction.”

What else can be done?

Overall, the experts agree that the only way to completely fix the problem is to implement new telephone identification protocols that enable phone networks to authenticate that all calls and text messages actually come a real telephone number.

The new protocols, known as “Stir and Shaken” in a nod to James Bond, were developed by an international standards body, the US-based Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF).

US authorities have ordered mobile operators to implement the protocols by the end of 2021, but Ofcom told the BBC in August that introducing full authentication in the UK will only be possible when the underlying technology that supports voice services is upgraded to become internet protocol-based (IP) networks, which is due to be completed by 2025.

The Body of European Regulators for Electronic Communications (BEREC) told the BBC it can require mobile operators to block, on a case-by-case basis, access to numbers or services in case of fraud. However, it cannot impose Stir and Shaken on EU operators.

“Nevertheless…these protocols are currently [being] discussed at the level of the European Conference of Postal and Telecommunications Administrations,” said a Berec spokesman.

There are also efforts being made by the UK to invest in technologies that improve overall telecoms cyber-security.

Startup Arqit was asked by BT and the government in 2017 to develop quantum encryption for satellites.

The firm, which listed on the Nasdaq in June, has developed a solution that creates “unbreakable” software encryption keys, delivered via satellite, to secure any device or cloud server.

“The encryption keys we create would take even a quantum computer more than the age of the universe to crack,” said Arqit’s founder and chief executive David Williams.

Arqit recently signed agreements with BT, Northrop Grumman, Juniper Networks and Babcock. It merged with US firm Centricus in September, following approval by the US Securities and Exchange Commission, which consulted with quantum scientists as part of its vetting process.

Will Apple be the last US tech giant left in China?

There was a time when the US tech giants were all in China – even Facebook. Today, Apple’s huge presence in the country looks increasingly conspicuous.

Last week Microsoft, which still operates in China, announced it was to shut down its social network, LinkedIn, there.

The company said having to comply with the Chinese state had become increasingly challenging – so it pulled the plug.

Apple has its own censorship problems in the country.

The BBC reported last week that two popular religious apps had been removed from Apple’s App Store.

It later emerged that Amazon-owned Audible and the Yahoo Finance app had also been taken down.

Apple Censorship, a group that monitors the App Store, says it has seen an increase in apps that have been removed this month.

So what is going on?

The great tech crackdown
It is notoriously hard to gauge what’s happening behind closed doors in Beijing.

Still, what is becoming increasingly clear is that Apple and Microsoft are embroiled in a domestic battle between the authorities and the Chinese tech industry.

China has its own big tech titans – Tencent, Alibaba and Huawei – that are enormous global companies. But the Chinese government has grown worried about the power they wield.

In April, Alibaba accepted a record $2.8bn (£2bn) fine after an investigation found that it had abused its dominant market position
In August, the Chinese government unveiled a five-year plan outlining tighter regulation of the tech economy
It’s also been cracking down on Bitcoin
American companies haven’t been spared from the “great tech crackdown”.

“The crackdown suggests that both Apple and Microsoft are very aware that their position is more tenuous than it’s been in recent years. They know they need to walk carefully,” says James Griffiths, author of The Great Firewall of China.

The straw that broke the camel’s back for Microsoft appears to be a law due to come into force on 1 November – the Personal Information Protection Law (PIPL) – which would have required the company to comply with more regulation.

Microsoft alludes to it a in statement explaining its decision to pull LinkedIn: “We’re facing a significantly more challenging operating environment and greater compliance requirements in China.”

Graham Webster, editor-in-chief of the DigiChina Project at Stanford University, said: “I think they decided it just wasn’t worth it.”

Mr Webster links the decision to say goodbye to LinkedIn to forthcoming enforcement of the PIPL.

The devil’s bargain
Apple, however, has a different set of priorities in China to Microsoft.

It is deeply entangled in the country, far more so than any other US tech company.

In the last quarter, Apple made nearly $15bn in revenue in China and Taiwan – an extraordinary figure.

Its global supply chain also depends on Chinese manufacturing. And to be in China, Apple knows it has to play by the country’s rules – even if that means censorship.

You might ask: why doesn’t Apple just sell hardware in China, and forget about the App Store?

The problem is, Apple believes the App Store and the iPhone are inseparable. It doesn’t want to set a precedent of side-loading apps, where people can download apps on an iPhone away from the App Store.

For one thing, it would make considerably less money.

So if Apple is going to sell products in China, keeping the App Store operational in that country is deemed essential.

“Apple has been removing apps and essentially censoring the App Store in one way or another for years,” Mr Webster says.

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But Mr Griffiths argues that censorship has slowly grown stricter during Apple’s time in the country.

“​Apple has set itself a devil’s bargain here,” he says.

“Once you start to agree to remove apps, it doesn’t really stop.”

Secret strategies
Other companies saw the writing on the wall earlier than Microsoft.

Google removed its search engine from China in 2010, after what it said was a Chinese hacking attack. The company said it was no longer happy to censor searches.

Rebecca Fannin, author of Silicon Dragons, believes Microsoft’s pulling of LinkedIn now makes Apple a “big target”.

But she thinks Apple is going to fight to stay in China.

“You know Apple is really one of the market leaders in China… I don’t see Apple pulling out of China over any of these issues any time soon,” she says.

What we don’t know are the conversations that are going on behind closed doors between Apple and the Chinese authorities.

Perhaps Apple does push back, and maybe many apps are still up and live on the App Store in China because Apple stood up for them. We don’t know.

Apple rarely comments on these stories, and points journalists to its human rights policy, which states it will follow the laws of the countries it operates in – even if it disagrees with them.

And in China, they’ve been doing just that.

When the authorities really want an app taken down, it gets removed.

Apple’s presence in the country now feels almost like a hangover from another era. Big Tech simply doesn’t have much of a presence in China any more.

The question now is how much regulation, how much compliance – and how much censorship – is too much?

Nearly 45 million received scam calls in three months, Ofcom says

Almost 45 million people in the UK were targeted by scam text messages or phone calls over the summer, according to telecoms regulator Ofcom.

About half reported getting a scam call or text at least once a week.

A survey of 2,000 adults in September found that almost a million people had been misled by a message or a call which they received.

Text scams are most common among 16 to 34-year-olds, with two-thirds receiving one between June and August.

The elderly are more often targeted using their landlines, with 61% of those over 75 receiving a scam phone call, but all ages are at risk.

UK residents who believe they have been targeted, or are the victim of a scam, can report a text message by forwarding it to 7726 – the numbers on the keypad that have the letters for spam on them.

However, Ofcom found that 79% of mobile phone users were unaware of that service.

Scam calls should be reported to Action Fraud.

Lindsey Fussell, Ofcom’s networks and communications group director, urged the public not to reply to messages which do not seem quite right.

“Criminals who defraud people using phone and text scams can cause huge distress and financial harm to their victims, and their tactics are becoming increasingly sophisticated,” she said.

“Stay alert to any unsolicited contact. Put the phone down if you have any suspicion that it is a scam call, and don’t click on any links in text messages you’re unsure about.”

Nearly 45 million received scam calls in three months, Ofcom says

Almost 45 million people in the UK were targeted by scam text messages or phone calls over the summer, according to telecoms regulator Ofcom.

About half reported getting a scam call or text at least once a week.

A survey of 2,000 adults in September found that almost a million people had been misled by a message or a call which they received.

Text scams are most common among 16 to 34-year-olds, with two-thirds receiving one between June and August.

The elderly are more often targeted using their landlines, with 61% of those over 75 receiving a scam phone call, but all ages are at risk.

UK residents who believe they have been targeted, or are the victim of a scam, can report a text message by forwarding it to 7726 – the numbers on the keypad that have the letters for spam on them.

However, Ofcom found that 79% of mobile phone users were unaware of that service.

Scam calls should be reported to Action Fraud.

Lindsey Fussell, Ofcom’s networks and communications group director, urged the public not to reply to messages which do not seem quite right.

“Criminals who defraud people using phone and text scams can cause huge distress and financial harm to their victims, and their tactics are becoming increasingly sophisticated,” she said.

“Stay alert to any unsolicited contact. Put the phone down if you have any suspicion that it is a scam call, and don’t click on any links in text messages you’re unsure about.”

Apple unveils new computer chips amid shortage

Apple has unveiled its M1Pro and M1Max chips used to power new MacBook Pro laptop computers.

Apple says the M1 Max chip, with 57 billion transistors is the most powerful it has ever built.

The new chips were announced almost a year after the firm revealed its first Mac computers powered by silicon of its own design.

It comes after reports that Apple cut its iPhone 13 production targets amid the global computer chip shortage.

Industry analyst Mikako Kitagawa of Gartner said “the performance boost is pretty impressive”.

Apple claims the new chips will achieve comparable performance to the latest 8-core PC laptop chip running at top speed while using 70% of the power.

Going flat-out the chip, the company claimed, would be up to 1.7 times faster than the 8-core PC chip.

Such claims have not yet been independently verified.

Apple’s chips are sometimes referred to as being ‘Arm-based’ because it licenses the instruction sets from the British-based company of that name.

These instruction sets determine how processors handle commands. However, the core processor circuits are of Apple’s own design.

For years Apple has used chips designed by Intel. The move to designing its own silicon has been positive for the firm, says Ben Wood, chief analyst of CCS Insight.

“The advent of Apple Silicon has been a shot in the arm for the MacBook line-up,” he said.

The two chips power the new 14in and 16in MacBook Pro laptops and a new operating system, macOS Monterey.

In the “Unleashed” launch presentation Apple stressed the MacBook’s power and long battery life.

There has been a sense, one analyst said, that workers in creative industries are starting to drift away from the Macbook Pro.

But they would find the new machines appealing, according to Ms Kitagawa. “Apple is really defending the creative professional market which is their core market,” she said.

The MacBooks were unveiled at a time when the company has warned of the impact of the global chip shortage.

Previously Apple boss Tim Cook said that the issue could affect products using M1 chips. Recent reports suggest that the shortage might hit iPhone 13 production.

Apple designed-silicon will not, Ben Wood says, insulate the company from the shortage.

“The fact that Apple has designed its own chips does not necessarily mean it is immune from the wider chipset shortages,” he said.

“There is little doubt it will be in a strong position to secure supply, but ultimately the overall shortage of semiconductors comes down to manufacturing capacity.”

Ms Kitagawa also noted that as dedicated graphics chips (GPUs) are in short supply, the new MacBook Pros may be “more immune to the shortage as the machine does not have discrete graphics: one less component that they need to worry about.”

MagSafe returns
The new laptops reverse a much-criticised Apple design decision.

In particular the abandonment of Magsafe – a magnetically secured power-supply that releases with a firm pull.

Ben Wood said, “many users will be ecstatic that the MagSafe power connector has returned. When you’ve invested a small fortune in a MacBook, the last thing you want is for a careless trip over a power cable to see it crashing off the desk onto the floor.”

Amazon’s Jeff Bezos ‘may have lied to Congress’

Executives at Amazon, including founder Jeff Bezos, may have misled or lied to Congress about the firm’s business practices, top US lawmakers have said.

The members of the House Judiciary Committee said they were considering referring the firm “for criminal investigation”.

It follows an investigation by Reuters that claimed Amazon copied products and rigged its search results in India to boost sales of its own brands .

Amazon strongly denies the allegations.

“Amazon and its executives did not mislead the committee, and we have denied and sought to correct the record on the inaccurate media articles in question,” a spokesperson said.

On Monday, five members of the US House Judiciary Committee wrote to Amazon boss Andy Jassy, who succeeded Mr Bezos in July.

They said “credible reporting” by Reuters and recent articles in other news outlets “directly contradicts the sworn testimony and representations of Amazon’s top executives – including former CEO Jeffrey Bezos”.

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“At best, this reporting confirms that Amazon’s representatives misled the Committee. At worst, it demonstrates that they may have lied to Congress in possible violation of federal criminal law,” the letter states.

Continued investigations
Since 2019, the House Judiciary Committee has been investigating competition in digital markets, including how Amazon uses third party seller data from its platform, and whether the company unfairly favours its own products.

In sworn testimony before the Judiciary Committee’s anti-trust subcommittee last year, Mr Bezos said the firm forbids employees using data on individual sellers to benefit Amazon’s own-brand product lines.

In another hearing in 2019, Nate Sutton, Amazon’s associate general counsel, said the firm never used such data to create its own-branded products or manipulate its search results for private gain.

“The algorithms are optimised to predict what customers want to buy regardless of the seller,” he said.

However, Reuters’ investigation – which was based on thousands of pages of internal Amazon documents leaked to the news agency – contradicted these claims.

The news agency alleged that, in India at least, Amazon had a secret policy of manipulating search results to favour Amazon’s own products, as well as copying other sellers’ goods.

Reuters also claimed that at least two senior company executives were aware of the policy.

The lawmakers’ letter also cites other recent stories in the Markup, the Wall Street Journal and the Capitol Forum about Amazon’s private-brand products and use of seller data.

The lawmakers have given Mr Jassy until 1 November to provide evidence to corroborate the company’s previous testimony and statements.

Their letter also notes that “it is criminally illegal to knowingly and wilfully make statements that are materially false, conceal a material fact, or otherwise provide false documentation in response to a congressional investigation”.

“We strongly encourage you to make use of this opportunity to correct the record… as we consider whether a referral of this matter to the Department of Justice for criminal investigation is appropriate,” the letter states.

In a statement, an Amazon spokesperson called the claims made by Reuters and other media outlets “factually incorrect and unsubstantiated”.

They added: “As we have previously stated, we have an internal policy, which goes beyond that of any other retailer’s policy that we’re aware of, that prohibits the use of individual seller data to develop Amazon private label products.

“We investigate any allegations that this policy may have been violated and take appropriate action.”

Big tech companies including Amazon, Facebook and Alphabet have been under growing scrutiny in Washington, Europe and other parts of the world.

Regulators are concerned they have too much power and are engaging in unfair practices that hurt other businesses.

The lawmakers’ letter was signed by a bipartisan group including Democrats Jerrold Nadler, David Cicilline and Pramila Jayapal, and Republicans Ken Buck and Matt Gaetz.

In India on Monday, a trade group representing thousands of brick-and-mortar retailers has urged Prime Minister Narendra Modi to take action against Amazon.

Apparently, it’s the next big thing. What is the metaverse?

The metaverse is a concept being talked about as the next big thing by tech companies, marketers, and analysts.

It’s attracting attention – and money – from some of of tech’s biggest names, such as Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Epic Games’ Tim Sweeney.

What is the metaverse?
To the outsider, it may look like a souped-up version of Virtual Reality (VR) – but some people think the metaverse could be the future of the internet.

In fact, the belief is that it could be to VR what the modern smartphone is to the first clunky mobile phones of the 1980s.

Instead of being on a computer, in the metaverse you might use a headset to enter a virtual world connecting all sorts of digital environments.

Unlike current VR, which is mostly used for gaming, this virtual world could be used for practically anything – work, play, concerts, cinema trips – or just hanging out.

Most people envision that you would have a 3D avatar – a representation of yourself – as you use it.

But because it’s still just an idea, there’s no single agreed definition of the metaverse.

Why is it suddenly a big thing?
Hype about digital worlds and augmented reality pops up every few years, but usually dies away.

However, there is a huge amount of excitement about the metaverse among wealthy investors and big tech firms, and no-one wants to be left behind if it turns out to be the future of the internet.

There’s also a feeling that for the first time, the technology is nearly there, with advancements in VR gaming and connectivity coming close to what might be needed.

Why is Facebook involved?
Facebook has made building the metaverse one of its big priorities.

It’s invested heavily in virtual reality through its Oculus headsets, making them cheaper than rivals – perhaps even at a loss, according to some analysts.

It’s also building VR apps for social hangouts and for the workplace, including ones that interact with the real world.

Despite its history of buying up rivals, Facebook claims the metaverse “won’t be built overnight by a single company” and has promised to collaborate.

It has recently invested $50m (£36.3m) in funding non-profit groups to help “build the metaverse responsibly”.

But it thinks the true metaverse idea will take another 10 to 15 years.

Who else is interested in the metaverse?
Mr Sweeney, the head of Epic Games (which makes Fortnite), has long spoken about his metaverse aspirations.

Online multiplayer games have had shared interactive worlds going back decades. They are not the metaverse, but have some ideas in common.

In recent years Fortnite expanded its product, hosting concerts, brand events, and more inside its own digital world. That impressed many with what was possible – and thrust Mr Sweeney’s vision of the metaverse into the spotlight.

Other games are getting closer to a metaverse idea, too. Roblox, for example, is a platform for thousands of individual games connected to the larger ecosystem.

Meanwhile, Unity, a 3D development platform, is investing in “digital twins” – digital copies of the real world – and the graphics company Nvidia is building its “Omniverse”, which it describes as a platform for connecting 3D virtual worlds.

So is it all about games?
No. Even though there are so many ideas about what the metaverse might be, most visions see social human interaction as the core.

Facebook, for example, has been experimenting with a VR meetings app called Workplace, and a social space called Horizons, both of which use their virtual avatar systems.

Another VR app, VRChat, is entirely focused around hanging out online and chatting – with no goal or purpose other than exploring environments and meeting people.

Other applications may be waiting out there, ready to be discovered.

Mr Sweeney recently told the Washington Post that he envisions a world where a car manufacturer trying to advertise a new model is “going to drop their car into the world in real time and you’ll be able to drive it around”.

Perhaps when you go online shopping, you’ll try on digital clothes first, and then order them to arrive in the real world.

Does the technology exist yet?
VR has come a long way in recent years, with high-end headsets which can trick the human eye into seeing in 3D as the player moves around a virtual world. It has become more mainstream, too – the Oculus Quest 2 VR gaming headset was a popular Christmas gift in 2020.

The explosion of interest in NFTs, which may provide a way to reliably track ownership of digital goods, could point to how a virtual economy would work.

And more advanced digital worlds will need better, more consistent, and more mobile connectivity – something that might be solved with the rollout of 5G.

For now, though, everything is in the early stages. The evolution of the metaverse – if it happens at all – will be fought among tech giants for the next decade, or maybe even longer.

Apple takes down Quran app in China

Apple has taken down one of the world’s most popular Quran apps in China, following a request from officials.

Quran Majeed is available across the world on the App Store – and has nearly 150,000 reviews. It is used by millions of Muslims.

The BBC understands that the app was removed for hosting illegal religious texts.

The Chinese government has not responded to the BBC’s request for comment.

The deletion of the app was first noticed by Apple Censorship – a website that monitors apps on Apple’s App Store globally.

In a statement from the app’s maker, PDMS, the company said: “According to Apple, our app Quran Majeed has been removed from the China App store because it includes content that requires additional documentation from Chinese authorities”.

“We are trying to get in touch with the Cyberspace Administration of China and relevant Chinese authorities to get this issue resolved”.

The company said it had close to one million users in China.

The Chinese Communist Party officially recognises Islam as a religion in the country.

However, China has been accused of human rights violations, and even genocide, against the mostly Muslim Uyghur ethnic group in Xinjiang.

Earlier this year the BBC reported that Uyghur imams had been targeted in China’s Xinjiang crackdown.

Apple declined to comment, but directed the BBC to its Human Rights Policy, which states: “We’re required to comply with local laws, and at times there are complex issues about which we may disagree with governments.”

However, it is not clear what rules the app has broken in China. Quran Majeed says it is “trusted by over 35 million Muslims globally”.

Last month, both Apple and Google removed a tactical voting app devised by jailed Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny.

Russian authorities had threatened to fine the two companies if they refused to drop the app, which told users who could unseat ruling party candidates.

China is one of Apple’s biggest markets, and the company’s supply chain is heavily reliant on Chinese manufacturing.

Apple chief executive Tim Cook has been accused of hypocrisy from politicians in the US for speaking out about American politics, but staying quiet about China.

Mr Cook criticised Donald Trump’s ban of seven Muslim-majority countries in 2017.

However, he is also accused of complying with the Chinese government over censorship – and not publicly criticising it for its treatment of Muslim minorities.

The New York Times reported earlier this year that Apple takes down apps in China if deemed off limits by the Chinese government. Topics that apps cannot discuss include Tiananmen Square, the Chinese spiritual movement Falun Gong, the Dalai Lama, and independence for Tibet and Taiwan.

Benjamin Ismail, project director at Apple Censorship, said: “Currently Apple is being turned into the censorship bureau of Beijing.

“They need to do the right thing, and then face whatever the reaction is of the Chinese government.”

Another popular religious app, Olive Tree’s Bible app, was also taken down this week in China. The company told the BBC they had removed the app themselves.

“Olive Tree Bible Software was informed during the App Store review process that we are required to provide a permit demonstrating our authorization to distribute an app with book or magazine content in mainland China,” said a spokesperson.

“Since we did not have the permit and needed to get our app update approved and out to customers, we removed our Bible app from China’s App Store.”

On Friday, The Mac Observer reported that Audible, the Amazon owned audiobook and podcast service, removed its app from the Apple store in mainland China last month “due to permit requirements.”

On Thursday, Microsoft said it was shutting down its social network, LinkedIn, in China, saying having to comply with the Chinese state had become increasingly challenging.

The decision was made after the career-networking site faced questions for blocking the profiles of some journalists.