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The US Has a Plan to Document Human Rights Violations in Ukraine

The US Has a Plan to Document Human Rights Violations in Ukraine

The US announced today that it will fund data-gathering on the conflict in Ukraine. In addition to laying the groundwork for war-crime prosecutions, the move would share critical, real-time data with humanitarian organizations.

The newly established Conflict Observatory will use open source investigation techniques and satellite imagery to monitor the conflict in Ukraine and collect evidence of possible war crimes. Outside organizations and international investigators would be able access the resulting database, a US State Department spokesperson confirmed in an email.

Partners for the Conflict Observatory include Yale University’s Humanitarian Research Lab, the Smithsonian Cultural Rescue Initiative, artificial intelligence company PlanetScape Ai, and Esri, a geographic information systems company, according to a State Department press release. The Observatory will have access to commercial satellite data and imagery from the US government, which will “allow civil society groups to move at a faster pace, towards a speed once reserved for US intelligence,” says Nathaniel Raymond, a lecturer at Yale’s Jackson School of Global Affairs and a coleader of the Humanitarian Research Lab.

Raymond himself is no stranger to using technology to investigate conflicts and crises. More than a decade ago he was the director of operations for the Satellite Sentinel Project, cofounded by actor George Clooney, which used satellite imagery to monitor the conflict in South Sudan and documented human rights abuses. It was the first initiative of its kind but would be too costly and resource-intensive for other organizations to replicate.

“This kind of work is very labor-intensive,” says Alexa Koenig, executive director at the Human Rights Center at UC Berkeley School of Law. “I think on the money and capacity side, we’re at a moment where a lot of these organizations do need to be thinking about the information environment in which they’re working. Open source information can be invaluable at the preliminary investigation stage, as you’re planning either humanitarian relief or to conduct a legal investigation.”

None of the data the Observatory will use and disseminate is classified; the satellite imagery will be taken from the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency’s commercial contracts with private companies. But having access to many types of data in one place, rather than spread across many different entities, and the ability to analyze it, would make it powerful. Although the Observatory would be using publicly available data, it does not plan to make its data open source, unlike many other humanitarian projects, according to Raymond.

“The level of detail and how fast, in some cases, imagery data can be collected means that it could have value for those seeking to target civilians and protected infrastructure like hospitals and shelters,” he says.

Raymond is particularly aware of these kinds of risks. While he was at Satellite Sentinel, a report that the group published may have led to the kidnapping of a group of Chinese road workers by the South Sudan People’s Liberation Army. Though the image had been de-identified by removing longitude and latitude, Raymond says locals could have recognized the terrain and identified where the road crew was.

Alas, Elon Musk May Have a Point About Trump’s Twitter Ban

Alas, Elon Musk May Have a Point About Trump’s Twitter Ban

From the moment Elon Musk announced his intention to buy Twitter and impose upon it his version of free speech, speculation swirled about whether he would let Donald Trump, the ultimate Twitter scofflaw, return to the platform. Well, the suspense is over. On Tuesday, Musk confirmed what most people suspected, announcing at a Financial Times conference that he would “reverse the permanent ban” of the former president’s account. Trump, you will recall, got booted from Twitter on January 6, 2021, after his tweets during the Capitol riot were deemed to violate Twitter’s rules against glorifying violence.

As usual, the precise logic of Musk’s reasoning is hard to follow. He previously suggested that, under his ownership, Twitter would allow any content that doesn’t violate the law. But on Tuesday, he said that Twitter should still suppress tweets or temporarily suspend accounts “if they say something that is illegal or otherwise just, you know, destructive to the world.” In case that was too precise, he added, “If there are tweets that are wrong and bad, those should be either deleted or made invisible, and a suspension—a temporary suspension—is appropriate, but not a permanent ban.” 

If anything, deleting tweets that are “wrong and bad” suggests a broader, more easily abused standard of content moderation than Twitter currently deploys. (Wrong and bad according to whom?) The most likely explanation for Musk’s conflicting statements is that he’s simply making this up as he goes and has not given any serious thought to how content rules should work on the social platform that he’s trying to spend $44 billion to buy. And yet, buried in Musk’s free-speech word salad is a crouton of wisdom worth chewing on. Maybe Twitter really should rethink the use of permanent bans—not just for Trump, but for everyone.

The Trump Twitter ban has always been tough to analyze. A set of equally valid competing values point in conflicting directions. On the one hand, Twitter is a private company that can do what it wants. On the other hand, it holds an important role in American politics and public debate, such that its choices have broad consequences that bear on how democracy functions in the US. On the one hand, the public has an especially strong interest in hearing what political figures have to say; if the president has deranged or odious beliefs, that’s important information to know. On the other hand, there is something unseemly about exempting the most powerful members of society from rules that ordinary people have to abide by. Especially since rule violations by someone in Trump’s position are more dangerous than by some random Twitter user.

Getting rid of permanent bans offers one way to square these seemingly incompatible positions: In general, don’t hand out lifetime bans for average users or political figures. A permanent ban from Twitter is a harsh sentence. The platform occupies a unique place in American political life, which is precisely why Trump and other political figures are so obsessed with it. It’s where the hyper-educated “elite” who disproportionately make up the political class, especially the media, spend way too much of their time and attention. 

This is unfortunate, but it’s reality. If you want important people in media and politics to pay attention to your ideas, the best, most direct way to do that is to get into their Twitter feeds. Cutting someone off from Twitter—or from other major social platforms—can seriously constrain their ability to participate in public debate. As the Supreme Court held in 2016, “to foreclose access to social media altogether is to prevent the user from engaging in the legitimate exercise of First Amendment rights.” That was referring to an act of government, not a private enforcement decision. That distinction matters for legal purposes, but from the user perspective, the impact is the same regardless of who’s doing the banning. (Facebook at first shut Trump’s account “indefinitely” after the riot, but later agreed to the Facebook Oversight Board’s recommendation to revisit his case after a two-year suspension. YouTube has not said anything about whether or when it will let Trump back on its platform.)

Washington State Passed a Contentious New Gig Worker Law

Washington State Passed a Contentious New Gig Worker Law

James Childers says he really likes his job driving for Uber and Lyft in Spokane, a city in Washington State. But since he started working for ride-hailing companies in 2017, he’s seen drivers’ shares of each fare slip. Once, three-quarters of each trip went right into his pocket, he says, and now the companies use formulas that can see drivers earn just $9 per hour before sometimes spotty tips, below the state’s minimum wage.

But Childers only became involved with Drivers Union—an advocacy group affiliated with the local Teamsters labor union—after an intransigent passenger’s accusation of racism got him temporarily kicked off the Uber app. (The company relented when he showed the company a dashcam recording of the incident, he says.) “Uber and Lyft do not care,” he says. “They have other drivers waiting in the wings.” The company declined to comment on the specific incident.

Now Childers is hoping that a new state law governing ride-hailing drivers, signed by Washington governor Jay Inslee on Thursday, will give drivers more recourse against the companies, and pay that at least equals what it was five years ago. The bill, which was the result of negotiations between Uber, Lyft, and the local affiliate of the Teamsters, maintains the independent contractor status of drivers in the state—and protects ride-hailing companies’ core business model.

Drivers statewide will receive new rights. They will accrue sick pay and receive minimum pay guarantees based on the time and distance they spend on each trip, though the guarantees will only apply to the time they are carrying or picking up passengers. Drivers generally report they spend 40 to 60 percent of their time without people in their cars. They can also choose to use a new 15 cent passenger fee to fund a drivers’ resource center, which could provide recourse to those who are kicked off the companies’ apps. But drivers will not get the full set of traditional benefits that come with being staff members, including health care. And ride-hailing companies will still not pay into unemployment insurance programs, a factor that frustrated many drivers during the pandemic, when rides suddenly dried up.

In a statement, Ramona Prieto, Uber’s head of policy in the western US, said the bill allowed drivers “to stay independent while gaining historic new benefits and protections.” Lyft’s head of government relations, Jen Hensley, said the law gives drivers the “flexibility, independence, benefits, and protections they want and deserve.”

At the eleventh hour on Thursday, the National Teamsters labor union’s newly appointed president, Sean O’Brien, publicly called for the state’s governor to veto the bill, saying that it would usher in standards that could erode existing workers’ rights in other sectors.

The Teamsters’ local chapter, which helped draft the bill, disagrees. “Uber and Lyft drivers—like all workers—deserve a labor movement that will respect their right to self-determination to set their own priorities, stand in solidarity with them in their struggles, and never give up the fight for fairness and justice,” union secretary-treasurer John Scearcy said in a statement.

Amazon Union Election Stalls As Ballots Are Challenged

Amazon Union Election Stalls As Ballots Are Challenged

After the vote count was announced Thursday, the outcome of the election to unionize Amazon’s Bessemer, Alabama, warehouse still hung in the balance. The tally stands at 993 votes against unionizing and 875 in favor; however 416 ballots remain challenged, mostly on the grounds of voter eligibility.

The National Labor Relations Board will hold a hearing in the next few weeks to determine if any of the challenged ballots should be counted. Afterwards, it will release a final count that will determine which party wins the election.

Meanwhile, the Amazon Labor Union leads in an election to unionize a Staten Island warehouse, which is expected to conclude tomorrow.

The election was held again in March after the union lost the original vote 1,798 to 738 last year, and Amazon was later found to have violated labor law by installing a mailbox on its premises and using “Vote no” paraphernalia to poll workers.

The gap between yes and no votes narrowed considerably this year, but not enough so far to alter the outcome. Roughly 2,300 out of 6,100 eligible voters cast ballots this year, a turnout rate of 38 percent. This was down from last year’s turnout rate of 52 percent.

The union has filed unfair labor practice charges with the National Labor Relations Board and has until April 7 to file objections to the conduct of the election. If the board determines that Amazon’s behavior interfered with a free and fair election, it could overturn the results once again, leading to a third election round. The charges include allegations that Amazon instituted a rule change limiting workers’ access to the facility during nonwork hours, and that it removed pro-union fliers from break rooms. The company denies these claims.

The vote count caps off a two-year-long effort that drew congressional attention, celebrity endorsements, a presidential pronouncement, and renewed focus on US labor law, which favors employers in union elections.It echoed far beyond a single warehouse. As one of the world’s largest employers and the second largest in the US, Amazon is seen as a standard setter for working conditions across industries. Many in the labor movement see unionization as vital to curb what they describe as a harsh work environment. Amazon, for its part, urged its employees to vote against the union, saying that it already offers everything workers are demanding.

In a statement about the Bessemer facility, which Amazon calls “BHM1,” company spokesperson Kelly Nantel wrote, “We invest in both pay and benefits for our team—regular full-time BHM1 employees earn at least $15.80 an hour and have access to health care on day one, a 401k with company match, and more.”

The effort began humbly enough. In 2020, a warehouse worker named Darryl Richardson, who had previously been a union member at an automobile factory, performed a Google search for a union who could represent Amazon workers. The Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union (RWDSU) surfaced in the results, so he filled out a form on its website.

Sky-High Gas Prices Push Europe’s Gig Workers to Strike

Sky-High Gas Prices Push Europe’s Gig Workers to Strike

A year ago, Anna (not her real name) would spend eight hours a day driving for food delivery platforms Just Eat and Deliveroo to earn £150 ($200 USD) a day in her home city of Belfast, Northern Ireland. Now to get close to that figure, Anna says she has to work 12-hour days. That’s before she subtracts tax, insurance, and fuel out of her earnings.

Like many platform workers, Anna—who asked that we not use her real name because she’s worried Just Eat could terminate her account—says she is trapped between pay cuts made by delivery platforms, increased competition for jobs, and the rising cost of fuel. Anna relies on diesel, which spiked this month to a UK record of 179 pence per liter ($8.95 per gallon), partly in response to the war in Ukraine. 

“The increase of fuel and all living costs have just gone through the roof,” she says. “During this time, Just Eat has dropped their prices, and it’s just not right.”

Platform workers who say their wages are being eroded by rising costs are going on strike this week. Anna is planning to join other Just Eat, Deliveroo, and Uber drivers to take part in a six-hour strike in Belfast on Wednesday, organized by the App Drivers and Couriers Union (ADCU). “We’re just trying to get the price back up to somewhere where we’re not working on a loss,” she says.

The ADCU claims Just Eat has slashed its fees by 25 percent, a figure Just Eat disputes, although the company has provided no alternative number. That pay cut brings its fees in line with the “already abysmally low” rate paid by other companies operating in the city, including Deliveroo, according to the union. Deliveroo declined to comment on the impact of rising fuel prices on its workers’ earnings.

Similar grievances among Just Eat workers are not only being raised in Belfast, where the company only uses self-employed couriers—they follow other protests already taking place across the UK. In March, Just Eat drivers in the southern English region of Kent also went on strike, demanding higher wages to compensate for soaring fuel prices. Just Eat and Deliveroo drivers held several strikes in another town in the eastern English region of Essex.

“Everything is going up, but the amount they are paying us is decreasing, and they are hiring more people, so it is becoming oversaturated, and there are not enough jobs,” Just Eat driver Jimmy Zane told local news.

The fuel crisis is sparking protests in another important European market for the gig economy: Germany. Workers for the Just Eat subsidiary Lieferando also went on strike on Tuesday in response to rising fuel costs. “Lieferando pays above-average mileage allowances with 30 cents per kilometer, which is the highest possible amount for tax-free payments,” says Nora Walraph, a spokesperson for the company. But this amount is no longer enough, according to Oğuz Alyanak, the lead Germany researcher for the Fairwork Foundation, a group that scores labor practices at platform companies. “With the increasing gas prices, this is now untenable,” he says. “This is way below the accumulating costs for a lot of the workers.”