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Recode Daily: WhatsApp — and free speech — are at risk of “China-style surveillance” in India

Plus: A coalition of 16 US states sues to stop Trump’s use of emergency powers to fund his border wall; China’s most popular app is a government propaganda tool built by Alibaba; Alexa and the search for the one perfect answer.

The cover of Indian magazine “India Today,” features the headline, “The Weaponisation of WhatsApp.”
The cover of Indian magazine “India Today,” features the headline, “The Weaponisation of WhatsApp.” Rumours about alleged child abusers, circulating primarily through the messaging service WhatsApp, have led to several lynchings in India.
Nick Kaiser / picture alliance via Getty Images

A coalition of 16 US states, including California and New York, have challenged President Trump in court over his plan to use emergency powers to spend billions of dollars on his border wall. The lawsuit, filed in Federal District Court in San Francisco, is part of a constitutional confrontation that Trump set off on Friday when he declared that he would spend billions of dollars more on border barriers than Congress had granted him. Meanwhile, Chinese and Iranian hackers have renewed their attacks on US companies and government agencies; security experts believe the hackers have been energized by Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal last year and his trade conflicts with China; negotiations with China resume this week. [Charlie Savage and Robert Pear / The New York Times]

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WhatsApp is at risk in India — so are free speech and encryption. Regulators in India — where both WhatsApp and parent company Facebook have more than 200 million users — are proposing a radical change to the country’s internet privacy and liability laws. The new set of rules require that internet companies proactively screen user posts and messages to ensure that people don’t share anything “unlawful.” The new rules would create a system where technology companies are suddenly the gatekeepers to what can be shared online. So it would be up to Facebook — or Twitter or WhatsApp or YouTube — to determine what content is acceptable and what content is “unlawful” before it’s ever even shared. One observer in India said the new rules would be “a sledgehammer to online free speech.” [Kurt Wagner / Recode]

Mithril Capital promised to be the “capstone” to Peter Thiel’s investment empire. But the late-stage investment firm has become a major distraction, filled with drama, disarray, and unanswered questions. Mithril had its best moment yet last week when a portfolio company, Auris Health, sold to Johnson & Johnson for more than $3 billion — returning at least $500 million to the fund. But behind the scenes, Mithril has been a slow-burning mess for the past several months, angering current and former employees, limited partners, and, crucially, Thiel himself. It’s a classic Silicon Valley story of big celebrities, big paydays, and what can happen when you pair big money with little accountability. [Theodore Schleifer / Recode]

Blackstone Group CEO Steven Schwarzman was criticized by a group of students and faculty from the Massachusetts Institute Technology, who asked the school to cancel a celebration of a new computing center named for him. Schwarzman’s work as an adviser to President Trump, his opposition to an affordable housing bill in California, and his hosting of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman were cited as reasons for the protest in an op-ed in The Tech, a campus newspaper, which raised concerns about the ethics of the school accepting Schwarzman’s donation of $350 million toward the Stephen A. Schwarzman College of Computing. [Tiffany Kary / Bloomberg]

Apple is shaking up leadership and reordering priorities across its services, artificial intelligence, hardware, and retail divisions as the company works to reduce its reliance on iPhone sales in favor of emphasizing services and potentially transformative technologies. The changes, which include high-profile hires, noteworthy departures, meaningful promotions, and consequential restructurings, have rattled rank-and-file employees unaccustomed to frequent leadership changes and led Apple to put several projects on hold. Meanwhile, the reliable Apple analyst Ming-Chi Kuo says that Apple will release new iPads, a new 16-inch MacBook Pro, a 31-inch 6K monitor, iPhones with bilateral charging, and more in 2019. [Tripp Mickle / The Wall Street Journal]

The most popular smartphone app in China — a Chinese government propaganda tool that some have nicknamed “the Little Red App” — was developed by e-commerce giant Alibaba at a time when China’s tech firms are under global scrutiny over their ties to Beijing. Downloaded more than 43.7 million times since its January launch, “Xuexi Qiangguo” — which literally translates as “Study to make China strong” — focuses on the thoughts of President Xi Jinping, the country’s leader. At least part of the app’s runaway popularity can be attributed to directives issued by local governments and universities that require people in China’s expansive party member network to download it. [Pei Li and Cate Cadell / Reuters]

Top stories from Recode

The UK Parliament wants to regulate Facebook. So does everybody else. The UK’s Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee called Facebook a “digital gangster” — but it’s not the only group of regulators out for blood. [Kurt Wagner]

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