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DMCA Abuse: How corporations are using US copyright law to harass and silence individuals

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The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) was unanimously passed by the United States Senate on 12th October 1998, and signed into law by President Clinton on 28th October the same year. The Act was put into law to interpret and enact two 1996 World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) treaties which dealt with copyright circumvention and providing Internet service providers (ISP) and online service providers (OSP) safe harbour against copyright liability, provided they meet specific requirements.

The DMCA criminalizes the production and dissemination of technology, devices, or services intended to circumvent measures (commonly called digital rights management) that control access to copyrighted works. Further, the DMCA also criminalizes the act of circumventing any access control, even if there is no actual infringement of the copyrighted material itself, i.e., providing a mere link to a third site where suspected copyright material exists is criminal.

The Act has extended the reach of US law beyond its traditional geographical jurisdiction. Moreover, the Act has given copyright right holders a “lethal weapon” to utilize against parties who allegedly breach their claimed copyright. That is, the ability to claim copyright breach directly against any individual. Further, the Act enables copyright holders to force ISPs and OSPs to take down any identified alleged infringing material immediately from any internet site.

However the Act doesn’t give respondents any recourse against a DMCA takedown notice before any material is taken down by the ISPs and OSPs.

Through the DMCA takedown notice procedure a copyright holder becomes a prosecuting judge. A copyright holder need only serve a takedown notice on an ISP or OSP to take down any third party’s material from the internet to have it instantly removed.

The rules and procedures of this process are prescribed under section 512 of the Act. ISPs and OSPs are given immunity from prosecution from both the copyright holders and respondents to takedown notices, if they strictly adhere to the takedown and counter-takedown notice procedures prescribed in Section 512.

This ‘safe harbor’ provision gives ISPs and OSPs incentive to cooperate with copyright holders who are in the majority corporations. Section 512 even exempts ISPs and OSPs from ‘good faith’ in the removal of any material, i.e., they may know the takedown notice is flawed in some way, providing the procedures are followed. In effect ISPs and OSPs become the agents of the copyright holders and aren’t obliged to consider the interests of their users, except through facilitating the counter-takedown notice procedure.

As mentioned above, the material identified in any takedown notice must be removed from the site identified. The respondent can only respond to the copyright holder through issuing a counter notice which identifies the person who put up the material, submits to the jurisdiction of a US court, and subjects the respondent to the laws of perjury in the response. It is the responsibility of the ISP or OSP to pass on the counter notice to the copyright holder and if legal action hasn’t been taken against the respondent in the takedown notice within 10-14 days, the ISP/OSP may reinstate the original material to their website.

The DMCA takedown notice procedure deems a respondent of a takedown notice guilty. There is no provision for a hearing from the respondent to either the purported copyright holder or ISP/OSP before the material is removed. At a minimum any material subject to a takedown notice cannot reappear for at least 14 days.

The takedown notice procedure is dreadfully biased towards the purported copyright holder. Section 512 gives copyright holders protection and power over respondents to takedown notices. For example, unlike respondents who decide to file a counter notice, the copyright holder issuing the takedown notice in the first place, need not submit itself to the jurisdiction of the US legal system. The issuer of a DMCA takedown notice may be, and is in many cases, a foreign corporation with no intention to submit itself to the jurisdiction of US law. The corporation can use the DMCA for convenience to rid the internet of some material at its own whim, where it is almost practically impossible by a respondent to make legal claim for issuing a false takedown notice.

If a respondent of a DMCA takedown notice takes a copyright holder to court, there is no guarantee that the issuer of the notice will submit itself to US law, unless it is already a US legal entity. Even within the US itself, some issuers of takedown notices have escaped jurisdiction of the US court system.

Sadly, US case law has tended to protect the issuers of false takedown notices. In 2004, the decision in Rossi V. the Motion Picture Association of America found that the DMCA takedown notice issuer had to actually know their claim was false and not merely lazy or mistaken for a respondent to succeed in their claim against a party who issued a false takedown notice.

Further, the issuer of a DMCA takedown notice bears little responsibility for false notices. Although Section 512 (f) makes the issuer of any false notice liable for damages, the cost, time and effort to take a copyright holder to court for issuing a false notice according to current case law in the United States would most likely only compensate the respondent for his or her legal costs in direct relation to the takedown notice and minimal damages.

There is nothing within Section 512 that restrains copyright holders from issuing DMCA takedown notices through the principle of fair use. The legally enshrined principle of fair use allows for the copying of small amounts of material for comment, criticism, or parody. Such use can be done without the need to get permission from the copyright holder. Section 1201 (c) states the underlying substantive copyright infringement rights, remedies, and defences, doesn’t allow the use of fair use for defence of a DMCA takedown notice. Fair use is not exempted as a circumvention action and has thus not exempted from criminality under DMCA.

This weakness in the DMCA has allowed for the exponential growth of DMCA takedown notices since the Act became law almost 18 years ago.

Twitter receives about 10,000 DMCA takedown notices per month which has grown 58% from the year before. WordPress receives about 700-800 DMCA takedown notices per month, up 55% from the year before. Google receives about 80,000 DMCA takedown notices per month, which has grown also around 50% in volume from the previous year. If the fair use provision was upheld in section 512, the number of takedown notices would be far less and more manageable by ISPs and OSPs to handle. Instead we are reaching a situation where free speech, expression, and even creativity are being stifled by the DMCA.

Earlier this year Jennifer Urban and Brianna Schofield from University of California, with Joe Karaganis of Columbia University found in a 160 page in-depth study looking at 100 million notices, that more than 32% of DMCA takedown notices were either flawed or had characteristics which raised questions about their validity. This equates to more than 35 million notices. This somewhat agrees with Twitter’s own data indicating that around 33% of notices it receives are ineffective. WordPress found 60% of the DMCA takedown notices it receives as being ineffective.

One very recent case that illustrates the above issues and highlights several sinister aspects of DMCA abusers’ behaviour relates to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and its Legal Director Howard Stupp. Howard Stupp is well known for his vigilance in protecting IOC intellectual property, and even made a ban on the use of short GIFs on social media during the recent Olympic Games.

Stupp instituted an automated system which systematically searched the internet for key words. The system was so sophisticated that winners’ names were added as key words to pick out new postings during the games. However what was apparently absent was any human interface to ensure that the system didn’t mistakenly highlight postings that didn’t breach IOC copyright. As a result in one such case, a DMCA takedown notice was sent to Twitter claiming a posting had breached IOC copyright by showing a GIF of the recent games, when in fact the Tweet was posted weeks before the games and GIF was of another sporting event not under the jurisdiction of the IOC.

DMCA1

The Tweet subject to an IOC DMCA takedown notice issues by Howard Stupp

DMCA2

A partial screen shot of the DMCA takedown notice issued by Howard Stupp

Like the example above, the use of automated systems leads to questions about accuracy and fairness in due process of copyright holders issuing DMCA takedown notices. Human interface is required to ensure copyright holders exercise a duty of care. Automated search systems have turned the DMCA takedown system into a massive fishing expedition where individuals who breach copyright may be caught along with a large group of innocent individuals.

In the case above, the recipient of the DMCA takedown notice issued by the IOC attempted to contact the organization through the email given in the takedown notice (The issuer of a DMCA notice doesn’t have to state their address like the requirement for respondents to do so) to point out their mistake, but this was to no avail. Repeated emails were just left with silence.

The fact that the IOC refuses to enter into any correspondence with respondents indicates the principle of ‘good faith’ is not being adhered to.

The IOC, like many other corporations not registered in the United States are difficult to actually locate and thus beyond the jurisdiction of US law. This makes it extremely difficult to take any legal action against parties who issue false DMCA takedown notices. The DMCA takedown notice system is allowing people like Howard Stupp to act without any duty of care and legal responsibility. The IOC must be aware that some of its DMCA are false through mistaken identification of content (i.e., no one has checked the links the automated system has identified).

Organizations like the IOC will continue to issue frivolous takedown notices in a contemptuous and arrogant manner, and ISP/OSPs like Twitter will continue to support large corporations against their own users because of the nature of the current takedown and counter notice procedures in section 512. These are all massive abuses of the system which must be corrected.

There are numerous other well reported abuses which indicate the DMCA is being used by corporations for other motives than seeking out copyright infringement. Warner Bros filed DMCA takedown notices with Google as a tool to takedown websites which would lead to possible infringing content, rather than infringing content on websites as the DMCA specifies. Sony has been trying to obtain license fees on the fair use of their copyrighted material. A web security firm used the DMCA takedown system to silence a vocal critic of its services in the guise of copyright infringement. The London Sunday Times sent a DMCA takedown notice to eliminate a critical article written in The Intercept. Some organizations have issued DMCA takedown notices against bloggers just to find out their identity. The DMCA takedown notice procedure is cheaper to utilize against critics than using defamation laws, which many corporations are taking advantage of. People with a grudge use the DMCA takedown notice procedure to attack and force suspension of their social media accounts.

The safe harbour provision of Section 512 makes the ISP and OSP willing collaborators with organizations which use DMCA takedown notices as a tool for other agenda that the Act was not intended for.

DMCA takedown notices only allege breaches of copyright infringement. DMCA takedown notices do not prove cases of copyright infringement.

This is a denial of natural justice where the takedown and counter notice procedure assumes guilt before innocence, contrary to common law.

With the large number of DMCA takedown notices coming in to ISP/OSPs, it is time consuming and costly for these organizations to deal with each individual notice. They are doing the work of copyright holders and bearing all the costs involved.

The unbalanced onuses placed upon the recipient in filing a counter notice, and fear of the costs of defending any potential action in a court of law is the probable reason why there are very few counter notices. DMCA takedown notices, as can be seen by the example above are intimidating to many people who receive them. Further, liability is unbalanced and favours copyright holders. Many corporations don’t fear suits as they aren’t within the jurisdiction of a US court unlike the respondents who must formally put themselves under US court jurisdiction in filing a counter notice.

Large corporations like Sony, Disney, Comcast, Viacom, and others used automated systems to issue DMCA takedown notices which often misidentify material. This is an injustice upon innocent parties who are at risk of having their social media accounts closed if they receive three takedown notices under the multiple offender provision of the DMCA.

The DMCA takedown notice procedure has harassed many internet and social media users, silenced critics of corporations, and disrupted people running blogs. Section 512 (f) is toothless in restraining corporations using automated software and takedown notices go on ‘fishing expeditions’ to seek out copyright infringers. Innocent peoples’ rights are being violated and in some cases damage done to them where no practical recourses exist to remedy the injustice. The Howard Stupps of the corporations are free to run their agendas disregarding the principles of ‘good faith’ and fairness. They appear immune from responsibility for their reckless actions.

Section 512 has failed to protect people from false takedown notices and allowed the DMCA to be abused by corporations for their own ends. The use of the DMCA to silence critics and eliminate articles written by journalists in all probability if challenged in a US court could even be found unconstitutional due to its incongruence with the 1st Amendment that guarantees freedom of speech and the press.

Let’s hope the US Copyright Office corrects these shortfalls of the DMCA in its current review of the legislation and considers the introduction of statutory damages and/or bonds to decrease the issuing of false notices.

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International Law

Carl Schmitt for the XXI Century

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For decades, the scholars of international relations have confused the term “New World order” in the social, political, or economic spheres. Even today, few scholars confuse the term with the information age, internet, universalism, globalization, and  American imperialism. Unlike the complex categorization of the New World Order, the concept of the Old World Order was purely a juridical phenomenon. However, from standpoint of modernity, the term New World order is a purely ideological and political phenomenon, which embodies various displays such as liberal democracy, financial capitalism, and technological imperialism.

In his Magnus Opus “The concept of the Political”, Carl Schmitt lauded a harsh criticism on liberal ideology and favored competitive decisionism over it. This is why according to Schmitt’s critics; the whole text in “The concept of the political” is filled with authoritarian overtones. Nonetheless, the fact cannot be denied that it was the radical political philosophy of Carl Schmitt that paved the way for the conservative revolution in Europe. Even today, his writings are being regarded as one of the major contributions to the field of political philosophy from the 20th century.

Throughout his major works such as “Nomos of the earth”, “the Crisis of Parliamentary democracy”, “The concept of the Political” and “Dictatorship”, Carl Schmitt frequently employs unadorned terms such as ‘actual’, ‘concrete’, ‘real’, and ‘specific’ to apprize his political ideas. However, he advances most of the core political ideas by using the metaphysical framework. For instance, in the broader political domain, Carl Schmitt anticipated the existential dimension of the ‘actual politics’ in the world today.

On the contrary, in his famous work “The Concept of the Political” readers most encounter the interplay between the abstract and ideal and, the concrete and real aspects of politics. Perhaps, understanding of Schmitt’s discursive distinctions is necessary when it comes to the deconstruction of the liberal promoted intellectual discourse. However, the point should be kept in mind that for Schmitt the concept of the political does not necessarily refer to any concrete subject matter such as “state” or “sovereignty”. In this respect, his concept of the political simply refers to the friend-enemy dialectics or distinction. To be more precise, the categorization of the term “Political” defines the degree of intensity of an association and dissociation.

In addition, the famous friend-enemy dialectics is also the central theme of his famous book “The Concept of the Political”. Likewise, the famous friend-enemy distinction in Schmitt’s famous work has both concrete and existential meaning. Here, the word “enemy” refers to the fight against ‘human totality”, which depends upon the circumstances. In this respect, throughout his work, one of the major focuses of Carl Schmitt was on the subject of  “real Politics”. According to Schmitt, friend, enemy, and battle have real meaning. This is why, throughout his several works; Carl Schmitt remained much concerned with the theory of state and sovereignty. As Schmitt writes;

I do not say the general theory of the state; for the category, the general theory of the state…is a typical concern of the liberal nineteenth century. This category arises from the normative effort to dissolve the concrete state and the concrete Volk in generalities (general education, general theory of the law, and finally general theory of the knowledge; and in this way to destroy their political order”.[1]

As a matter of the fact, for Schmitt, the real politics ends up in battle, as he says, “The normal proves nothing, but the exception proves everything”. Here, Schmitt uses the concept of “exceptionality” to overcome the pragmatism of Liberalism. Although, in his later writings, Carl Schmitt attempted to dissociate the concept of “Political” from the controlling and the limiting spheres but he deliberately failed. One of the major reasons behind Schmitt’s isolation of the concept of the political is that he wanted to limit the categorization of friend-enemy distinction. Another major purpose of Schmitt was to purify the concept of the “Political” was by dissociating it from the subject-object duality. According to Schmitt, the concept of the political was not a subject matter and has no limit at all. Perhaps, this is why Schmitt advocated looking beyond the ordinary conception and definition of politics in textbooks.

For Schmitt, it was Liberalism, which introduced the absolutist conception of politics by destroying its actual meaning. In this respect, he developed his very idea of the “Political” against the backdrop of the “human totality” (Gesamtheit Von Menschen). Today’s Europe should remember the bloody revolutionary year of 1848 because the so-called economic prosperity, technological progress, and the self-assured positivism of the last century have come together to produce long and deep amnesia. Nonetheless, the fact cannot be denied that the revolutionary events of1848 had brought deep anxiety and fear for the ordinary Europeans. For instance, the famous sentence from the year 1848 reads;

For this reason, fear grabs hold of the genius at a different time than it does normal people. the latter recognizes the danger at the time of danger; up to that, they are not secure, and if the danger has passed, then they are secure. The genius is the strongest precisely at the time of danger”.

Unfortunately, it was the intellectual predicament at the European stage in the year 1848 that caused revolutionary anxiety and distress among ordinary Europeans. Today, ordinary Europeans face similar situations in the social, political, and ideological spheres. The growing anxieties of the European public consciousness cannot be grasped without taking into account Carl Schmitt’s critique of liberal democracy. A century and a half ago, by embracing liberal democracy under the auspices of free-market capitalism, the Europeans played a pivotal role in the self-destruction of the European spirit.

The vicious technological drive under liberal capitalism led the European civilization towards crony centralism, industrialism, mechanization, and above all singularity. Today, neoliberal capitalism has transformed the world into a consumer-hyped mechanized factory in which humanity appears as the by-product of its own artificial creation. The unstructured mechanization of humanity in the last century has brought human civilization to technological crossroads. Hence, the technological drive under liberal democratic capitalism is presenting a huge threat to human civilizational identity.


[1] Wolin, Richard, Carl Schmitt, Political Existentialism, and the Total State, Theory and Society, volume no. 19, no. 4, 1990 (pp. 389-416). Schmitt deemed the friend-enemy dialectics as the cornerstone of his critique on liberalism and universalism.

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International Law

Democratic Backsliding: A Framework for Understanding and Combatting it

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Democracy is suffering setbacks around the world. Over the past decade, the number of liberal democracies has shrunk from 41 to 32. Today, 34 percent of the global population lives in 25 countries moving in the direction of autocracy. By contrast, only 16 countries are undergoing a process of democratization, representing just 4 percent of the global population. Reflecting these troubling trends, USAID Administrator Samantha Power, during her confirmation hearing, highlighted democratic backsliding – along with climate change, conflict and state collapse, and COVID-19 – as among the “four interconnected and gargantuan challenges” that will guide the Biden Administration’s development priorities.

However, defining “democratic backsliding” is far from straightforward. Practitioners and policymakers too often refer to “democratic backsliding” broadly, but there is a high degree of variation in how backsliding manifests in different contexts. This imprecise approach is problematic because it can lead to an inaccurate analysis of events in a country and thereby inappropriate or ineffective solutions.

To prevent or mitigate democratic backsliding, policymakers need a definition of the concept that captures its multi-dimensional nature. It must include the actors responsible for the democratic erosion, the groups imperiled by it, as well as the allies who can help reverse the worst effects of backsliding. 

To address this gap, the International Republican Institute developed a conceptual framework to help practitioners and policymakers more precisely define and analyze how democratic backsliding (or “closing democratic space”) is transpiring and then devise foreign assistance programs to combat it.  Shifting away from broad generalizations that a country is moving forward or backward vis-à-vis democracy—which makes it difficult, if not impossible, to derive specific solutions—the framework breaks closing democratic space into six distinct, and sometimes interrelated, subsectors or “spaces.”

Political/Electoral: Encompasses the arena for political competition and the ability of citizens to hold their government accountable through elections. Examples of closing political or electoral space range from fraudulent election processes and the arrest or harassment of political leaders to burdensome administrative barriers to political party registration or campaigning.

Economic: Refers to the relationship between a country’s economic market structure, including access and regulation, and political competition. Examples of closing economic space include selective or politically motivated audits or distribution of government licenses, contracts, or tax benefits.

Civic/Associational: Describes the space where citizens meet to discuss and/or advocate for issues, needs, and priorities outside the purview of the government. Examples of closing civic or associational space include harassment or co-optation of civic actors or civil society organizations and administrative barriers designed to hamper civil society organizations’ goals including limiting or making it arduous to access resources.

Informational: Captures the venues that afford citizens the opportunity to learn about government performance or hold elected leaders to account, including the media environment and the digital realm. h. Examples of closing informational space consist of laws criminalizing online speech or activity, restrictions on accessing the internet or applications, censorship (including self-censorship), and editorial pressure or harassment of journalists.  

Individual: Encapsulates the space where individuals, including public intellectuals, academics, artists, and cultural leaders– including those traditionally marginalized based on religious, ethnicity, language, or sexual orientation–can exercise basic freedoms related to speech, property, movement, and equality under the law. Common tactics of closing individual space include formal and informal restrictions on basic rights to assemble, protest, or otherwise exercise free speech; censorship, surveillance, or harassment of cultural figures or those critical of government actions; and scapegoating or harassing identity groups.

Governing: Comprises the role of state institutions, at all levels, within political processes. Typical instances of closing the governing space include partisan control of government entities such as courts, election commissions, security services, regulatory bodies; informal control of such governing bodies through nepotism or patronage networks; and legal changes that weaken the balance of powers in favor of the executive branch.

Examining democratic backsliding through this framework forces practitioners and policymakers to more precisely identify how and where democratic space is closing and who is affected. This enhanced understanding enables officials to craft more targeted interventions.

For example, analysts were quick to note Myanmar’s swift about-face toward autocracy.  This might be true, but how does this high-level generalization help craft an effective policy and foreign aid response, beyond emphasizing a need to target funds on strengthening democracy to reverse the trend? In short, it does not.  If practitioners and policymakers had dissected Myanmar’s backsliding using the six-part framework, it would have highlighted specific opportunities for intervention.  This systematic analysis reveals the regime has closed civic space, via forbidding large gatherings, as well as the information space, by outlawing online exchanges and unsanctioned news, even suspending most television broadcasts.  One could easily populate the other four spaces with recent examples, as well. 

Immediately, we see how this exercise leads to more targeted interventions—support to keep news outlets operating, for example, via software the government cannot hack—that, collectively, can help slow backsliding.  Using the framework also compels practitioners and policymakers to consider where there might be spillover—closing in one space that might bleed into another space—and what should be done to mitigate further closing.

Finally, using this framework to examine the strength of Myanmar’s democratic institutions and norms prior to the February coup d’etat may have revealed shortcomings that, if addressed, could have slowed or lessened the impact of the sudden democratic decline. For example, the high-profile arrest of journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo in December 2017 was a significant signal that Myanmar’s information space was closing. Laws or actions to increase protections for journalists and media outlets, could have strengthened the media environment prior to the coup, making it more difficult for the military to close the information space.

A more precise diagnosis of the problem of democratic backsliding is the first step in crafting more effective and efficient solutions. This framework provides practitioners and policymakers a practical way to more thoroughly examine closing space situations and design holistic policies and interventions that address both the immediate challenge and longer-term issue of maintaining and growing democratic gains globally.

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International Law

Authentic Justice Thus Everlasting Peace: Because We Are One

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The ceasefire in the Israeli-Palestine conflict is a good thing. We thank God for it. Be it between two individuals or institutions or nations or the internal colonial and colonized, war does not do anything except cause more immediate or future mass misery and human destruction. Our continued memories of our interpersonal and international and internal colonial and civil wars and the memorials we erect to remember them recall and record wounds and pains we never get over. 

So it becomes a bothersome puzzle as to why we human beings still just don’t get that war like oppression leads to nowhere except to more human devastation. And we should have learned by now but have not that peacemaking like ceasefires mean nothing without justice.

 It is the reason why I constantly find myself correcting those who stress Peace and Justice.No Justice No Peace is more than a cliche.It is real politic emotionally, economically, socially, and spiritually.

Our American inner cities like those in every continent where culturally different and similar people live cramped impoverished lives and nations and colonial enclaves with such unequal wealth remind us of their continued explosive potentialities when peace is once again declared but with no justice.Everyone deserves a decent quality of life which not only includes material necessities but more importantly emotional and spiritual freedoms and other liberations.Not just the victors who conquer and rule and not just the rich and otherwise privileged.

 And until such  justices are  assured to everyone peacemaking is merely a bandaid on cancerous societal or International conflictual soars which come to only benefit those who profit from wars which are bound to come around again when there is no justice and thus peace such as  family destroying divorce lawyers, blood hungry media to sell more subscriptions , arms dealers to sell more murderous technologies, politicians needing  votes so start and prolong wars, and military men and women seeking promotion while practicing their killing capacities.

So if those of us who devoutly practice our  faiths or our golden moral principles,  let us say always and pray and advocate justice and peace always  as a vital public good  and  do justice then lasting peace in our personal lives and insist that national leaders, our own and others do the same in their conduct of international affairs and affairs with those who are stateless in this global world. 

All such pleading is essential since we are all brothers and sisters in the eyes of God who created all of us  in God’s image as one humanity  out of  everlasting divine love for all of us so we should love each other as God loves all of us  leading to desiring justice and thus lasting peace for each and every one of us.

This is difficult for those in international affairs to understand who take more conventional secular approaches to historical and contemporary justice and peace challenges as if our universal spiritual connectivennes  ( not to be confused with the vast diversity of organized religions)as human beings which makes us all brothers and sisters has no relevance. But if we are going to find true enduring peace we have no alternative but to turn our backs on increasingly useless secular methods which go either way, stressing peace then justice or justice then peace and understand how much we must begin to explore and implement approaches which we look at each other as spiritually connected brothers and sisters in which it is the expectation that peace only comes and lasts when  through the equal enjoyment of justices for every human being, we restore our universal kindred rooted in the everlasting love of God and thus for each other, no matter the different ways in which we define God or positive moral principles which originate in understandings that we human beings in all our diversities are one and thus brothers and sisters.

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