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.

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.

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.

Poroshenko: Ukraine Receives US Javelin Systems

Ukraine has received the first U.S. Javelin missiles and launch units, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said on Monday.

In March the U.S. State Department approved the possible sale of Javelin systems to Ukraine at an estimated cost of $47 million.

“I can confirm that the long-awaited weapon arrived in the Ukrainian army” Poroshenko said on Facebook.

Kiev and Washington believe that the Javelin system will help Ukraine build its long-term defense capacity.

The United States has been one of Kiev’s staunchest supporters since Moscow’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the subsequent outbreak of fighting in Ukraine’s eastern Donbass region that has killed more than 10,000 people.

But the decision to provide lethal aid was sensitive and Russia has repeatedly said supplying weapons to Ukraine would further destabilize the situation by encouraging Kyiv to use force.

In Venezuela, Huge Wage Boost Means Little

Venezuela raised its minimum wage to 1 million bolivars per month on Monday, the third increase this year that puts the figure at just $1.61 at the black market exchange rate.

President Nicolas Maduro’s announcement of the 155 percent rise — or 13 percent fall, in dollar terms — came three weeks before a presidential election. It accompanies a monthly food ticket now worth just over 1.5 million bolivars.

The once-rich OPEC country is in the midst of an economic crisis in which millions earn just a couple of dollars per month, suffer food and medicine shortages and battle soaring inflation.

Maduro blames an “economic war” waged against his government by Washington and the country’s opposition.

Migrant Caravan Remains in Limbo at US Border

A group of about 50 Central American migrants remain in limbo at a U.S. border crossing after U.S. border inspectors said the port of entry did not have enough space to accommodate them.

 

The migrants, who traveled in a caravan to try to seek asylum in the United States, awoke Monday near the border crossing facility in Tijuana, Mexico. On Sunday, the migrants were stopped from entering the San Ysidro facility because officials said it was at capacity.

 

It is not clear how long the migrants might need to wait to be seen by U.S. Customs and Border Patrol officials. Another 50 to 100 migrants camped in Tijuana say they also plan to try to cross the U.S. border and seek asylum.

Organizers of the caravan say they want the most vulnerable cases to cross the border first, including children under threat.

Many of the migrants are women and children. They are part of a group of several hundred people from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador who spent a month traveling in a caravan through Mexico.

The migrants walked Sunday to the El Chaparral pedestrian crossing wearing white arm bands to distinguish themselves from others at the busy border site.

Nicole Ramos, a lawyer working with the migrants, said they plan to tell border officials they are afraid to return to their home countries.

U.S. President Donald Trump and members of his administration have been tracking the caravan of migrants, calling it a threat to the United States, since it started March 25 in the Mexican city of Tapachula, near the Guatemala border.

Trump sent hundreds of National Guard troops to the border after railing against the migrants and pressuring Mexico to stop the caravan, going as far as to threaten the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Mexico rejected the pressure from Trump. Instead, it gave the migrants a one-month transit pass to decide if they want to seek refuge in Mexico, go back home or keep moving toward the United States.

The weeks-long journey by the so-called caravan is an annual, organized trip aimed at drawing attention to the plight of destitute Central Americans. The tradition dates back to 2010.

U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said asylum claims will be resolved “efficiently and expeditiously.” But she warned that any asylum-seekers making false claims could be prosecuted, as could anyone who assists the migrants in doing so.

Asylum seekers must demonstrate a well-founded fear of persecution at home. The vast majority of those who apply for asylum in the United States are denied. Those who pass an initial “credible fear” screening are assigned a date in immigration court that is often months away.

 

Trump administration officials say many of those migrants skip their court dates and try to live illegally in the United States. Trump has urged Congress to change what he calls “catch and release laws” to prevent migrants from entering the country before their asylum cases have been heard.

UK Housing Minister to Run Interior as Immigration Scandal Grows

Britain’s Housing Minister Sajid Javid, the son of Pakistani immigrants, was named Monday to take over the portfolio of the Home Office (interior ministry), which oversees  law enforcement, immigration, and counter-terrorism activities.

Interior minister Amber Rudd resigned Sunday amid a growing scandal over the harsh treatment of elderly immigrants who were brought to the country from the Caribbean seven decades ago.

Rudd told lawmakers last week that the government had not set targets to deport people considered illegal immigrants. But documents have since emerged contradicting her testimony.

She said in her resignation letter to Prime Minister Theresa May Sunday she “inadvertently misled” Parliament about the deportation targets.

Housing Minister Sajid Javid, the son of Pakistani immigrants, was named Monday to take over the portfolio of the Home Office (interior ministry),

May and Rudd have been under increasing fire since the so-called Windrush scandal first emerged several months ago. The scandal gets its name from the ship Empire Windrush, which in 1948 brought the first wave of immigrants from the Caribbean to Britain to help rebuild the country in the aftermath of World War II.

News reports have revealed that many of these immigrants have lost jobs, housing, access to medical care and threatened with deportation because they could not produce documents proving their right to reside in Britain, which was granted by a law passed in 1971.

The harsh treatment of the “Windrush generation” apparently stems from a policy introduced by May during her tenure as interior minister between 2010 and 2016, which called for creating a “hostile environment” for illegal immigrants.

Russians Not Turning on Kremlin Even as Latest US Sanctions Bite

The latest U.S. sanctions imposed on Russia earlier this month targeting two dozen Kremlin insiders and oligarchs close to Vladimir Putin and their companies are proving more painful than had been expected, say analysts. But they’re doing nothing at this stage in turning ordinary Russians against the Kremlin or undermining the Russian leader’s overall popularity.

 

The rouble suffered its worst week in four years in the immediate wake of the April 6 announcement of new sanctions on 24 super-wealthy Russians and 14 companies, suggesting the additions to the sanctions blacklist could have major impact on the Russian economy.

And that appears to be the case with the fortunes of the blacklisted Oleg Deripaska. He is the owner is Rusal, one of the world’s largest aluminum producers, which until the sanctions started to bite exported 82 percent of its production.

A majority of analysts and economists polled by Reuters Saturday said the latest round of U.S. sanctions against Moscow will likely limit interest rate cuts planned by Russia’s central bank, thereby slowing the country’s economic recovery, despite rising oil prices.

Retaliation

“The introduction of sanctions drastically raised uncertainty for the business environment in the Russian economy,” said Kirill Tremasov, a former Russian official and now head of research at Loko-Invest, a financial brokerage. The threat of counter-measures by the Russian parliament isn’t helping to calm turbulence, he added.

The Kremlin says the April round of sanctions, which Washington imposed after accusing Russia of “malign activities,” are unlawful and Russian officials have warned they will retaliate.

In mid-May, the lower house of the Russian parliament is set to consider legislation detailing retaliatory steps, including suspension of space and nuclear cooperation and a ban on importing U.S. agricultural produce, pharmaceuticals, tobacco and alcohol.

Some Russian lawmakers also want to suspend the intellectual rights to software developed by U.S. individuals or companies that’s used on Russian territory.

Impact on investment

When the West imposed its first sanctions on Russia, after Moscow’s annexation of Crimea and fomenting separatism in eastern Ukraine, the effect was limited, according to analyst to Nigel Gould-Davies of Britain’s Chatham House, Russia found ways to adapt.

“But America’s latest financial sanctions, announced on 6 April, are a game-changer,” he argued in a recent commentary, noting the latest sanctions have created bigger uncertainty.

“No one knows who might be targeted next,” he continued. “Russia faces a new systemic risk: expectations about U.S. sanctions are now as important as the oil price for assessing its prospects.”

The sanctions, he and other analysts argue, deter counter-parties and agencies handling payments from doing business with the blacklisted Russians, including the aluminum king Deripaska and Vladimir Bogdanov, CEO of Russia’s third largest oil company. And by targeting publicly traded companies the sanctions have stripped away protecting corporate assets by listing on foreign stock exchanges, including London, New York or Hong Kong.

The sanctions have already impacted Deripaska by locking Rusal out of the global aluminum market, roiling the market and prompting massive prices hikes. The U.S. Treasury has now said it will consider lifting sanctions on Rusal, if Deripaska divests from the company and relinquishes control, something the industrial titan has hinted he may have to do.

UK sanctions

This week, more pressure will be applied on the Russian elite, when British lawmakers start the process of introducing legislation that will block Russian oligarchs and officials linked to human rights abuses from doing business in the country and buying property in Britain.

“If foreign oligarchs and kleptocrats who’ve committed crimes or abused human rights suddenly find they can’t buy property or stash their cash in the UK, it’s going to hurt,” said British Conservative lawmaker John Penrose.

Impact on Putin?

But while the Russian elite is being roiled by U.S. sanctions targeting oligarchs, disrupting their businesses and impacting foreign investment more broadly in the country, it remains unclear whether they’re denting Putin’s popularity among Russians or will in the future.

The Kremlin has been able to maintain price stability with subsidies, cushioning the impact of sanctions by dipping into reserves and the increased revenue from oil price rises.

Analysts remain divided about whether sanctions will force the Kremlin to curtail what Washington views as aggressive foreign activity, such as the alleged poisoning in Britain of former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal, an attack Moscow denies it had a hand in.

US Says Border Crossing Didn’t Have Room for Asylum Seekers

After traveling through Mexico with great fanfare for a month under the Trump administration’s watchful eye, nearly 200 Central American migrants attempting to seek asylum in the United States were stopped in their tracks when border inspectors said that a crossing facility didn’t have enough space to accommodate them. 

Trump vowed last week to “stop” the caravan while Cabinet members said they would deliver a swift response. The asylum seekers held firm, setting up a possible showdown. 

In an anticlimactic twist, about 50 asylum seekers were allowed past a gate controlled by Mexican officials to walk across a long bridge but were stopped at the entrance to the U.S. inspection facility at the other end. They were allowed to wait outside the building, technically on Mexican soil, without word of when U.S. officials would let them claim asylum. 

Another 50 or so camped on blankets and backpacks in Tijuana outside the Mexican side of the crossing, prohibited from even getting close to the U.S. inspection building. 

The asylum-seekers began the day with anticipation, traveling in red-and-white school buses under police escort to a beachfront rally in Tijuana, where a steel fence juts out into the Pacific Ocean. They sang the Honduran national anthem, and supporters on the San Diego side of the fence waved a Honduran flag.

After a final briefing from lawyers and minutes before they were to begin a short walk to the border crossing, U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Kevin McAleenan announced that the San Ysidro border crossing, the nation’s busiest, had “reached capacity” for people without legal documents and that asylum-seekers may need to wait in Mexico temporarily. 

Trump has commented frequently on the caravan since it started in Mexico on March 25 near the Guatemala border and headed north to Tijuana. His broadsides came as his administration vowed to end what officials call “legal loopholes” and “catch-and-release” policies that allow people requesting asylum to be released from custody into the U.S. while their claims make their way through the courts, which can take years. 

Attorney General Jeff Sessions has called the caravan “a deliberate attempt to undermine our laws and overwhelm our system.” Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said asylum claims will be resolved “efficiently and expeditiously” and warned that anyone making false claims could be prosecuted.

The administration’s stern warnings left organizers in disbelief that border inspectors were not ready for them. 

“They have been well aware that a caravan is going to arrive at the border,” Nicole Ramos, an attorney working on behalf of caravan members, said at a news conference. “The failure to prepare and failure to get sufficient agents and resources is not the fault of the most vulnerable among us. We can build a base in Iraq in under a week. We can’t process 200 refugees. I don’t believe it.” 

The San Ysidro border inspection facility can hold about 300 people, according to Pete Flores, Customs and Border Protection’s San Diego field office director, suggesting the bottleneck may be short-lived. The agency processed about 8,000 asylum cases from October through February, or about 50 a day. 

Asylum-seekers are typically held for up to three days at the border and then turned over to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. If they pass an asylum officer’s initial screening, they may be detained or released into the U.S. with ankle monitors.

Asylum seekers didn’t appear to be thrown off the by the delay. 

Wendi Yaneri Garcia said she was confident she will be released while her asylum case is pending because she is traveling alone with her 2-year-old son, who has been sick. She said that police in her hometown of Atlantida, Honduras, jailed her for protesting construction of a hydroelectric plant and that she received death threats after being released. 

“All I want is a place where I can work and raise my son,” the 36-year-old said. 

Elin Orrellana, a 23-year-old pregnant woman from El Salvador, said she is fleeing the violent MS-13 street gang, a favorite target of both Sessions and Trump because of their brutal killings in communities in the United States. She said her older sister had been killed by the gang in El Salvador, so she is attempting to join other family members in the Kansas City area. 

“Fighting on is worth it,” she said as she camped out for chilly night outside the border crossing.

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.