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Morning news brief

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

President Biden is in Poland today, where he'll be giving a speech at the site of the historic Royal Castle.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Biden spoke near this very same site last year at the start of Russia's war in nearby Ukraine. Now he's back and asserting that after a year of war, the cause of democracy has only grown stronger.

FADEL: NPR White House correspondent Asma Khalid joins us now from Warsaw. Good morning, Asma.

ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: Good morning, Leila.

FADEL: OK, so it's a bit of a strange split screen today. You have the president of the U.S. speaking on democracy in Poland, and then hundreds of miles away in Russia, Vladimir Putin is making a case for Russians to oppose this Western order, right?

KHALID: It is, I will say, a bit of a disconnect, right? I mean, the White House believes that the world is at a critical moment in this big battle between authoritarianism and democracy. Biden himself, last year in Poland, described this as a fight between a rules-based order and brute force. And he sees Putin's invasion of Ukraine as part of that broader struggle.

I just got off a call that White House National Security adviser Jake Sullivan held with reporters. And he said that the president intends today to put the Ukraine war in a larger context, that the president's speech will make the case that democracies have grown stronger over the course of the last year. Biden is also expected to touch on Russian brutality in the war. And over the weekend, the U.S. formally accused Russia of committing crimes against humanity in a speech that Vice President Kamala Harris delivered at the Munich Security Conference.

You know, I will say it is noteworthy that Biden is returning to the very scene where he tried to rally the world for this fight about a year ago. You know, here we are, back in Poland on the Eastern Flank of NATO, and the war is continuing to rage on.

FADEL: Yeah. And a year in, the U.S. has provided a lot of support, more than $112 billion to Ukraine. What else is Biden pledging at this point?

KHALID: Well, when he went to Kyiv yesterday, he announced an additional half a billion dollars of military aid. The Biden administration's also announcing new sanctions against Russia. It's worth pointing out that Ukraine's president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, has asked the U.S. for F-16s. But the Biden White House, to date, has been noncommittal about sending those warplanes. You know, throughout this conflict, the White House has been cautious about supplying more military equipment that it fears could potentially escalate the conflict. But some experts and some lawmakers say that time is very critical.

Yesterday, in fact, South Carolina Republican Senator Lindsey Graham issued a statement praising Biden for making that secret trip to Ukraine. He said that it sent the right signal at the right time. But he also said, words must be followed by powerful actions. And he called on the White House to provide Ukraine with advanced fighter jets.

FADEL: Now, this trip has been quite the statement - I mean, like you mentioned, Biden just showing up in Kyiv in this surprise visit. Tell us a bit about how that happened and the message he was sending.

KHALID: You know, it was a real logistical challenge. Biden took a train overnight from Poland into Kyiv. It was about some 10 hours each way. And, you know, we're told from the White House that this plan for the trip was going on for some months. One key difficulty is that this covert trip was not like the ones that former presidents have taken into U.S. war zones, like Afghanistan or Iraq. You know, the U.S. does not have boots on the ground in Ukraine. It doesn't control the critical infrastructure. So it was risky. In an attempt to reduce risk, the White House says it gave Russia a heads up that Biden would make this trip.

You know, I will say fundamentally, that trip to Ukraine, also the big speech here in Poland today - all of this is about sending a message to Russians and Ukrainians, of course, but it's also about sending a message to European allies and American voters at home that the U.S. will stand with Ukraine for as long as it takes.

FADEL: NPR's Asma Khalid in Warsaw. Thanks, Asma.

KHALID: Happy to do it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FADEL: It used to be free, but now Facebook and Instagram will charge about $12 a month to get verified.

INSKEEP: Where have we heard this before? The Meta verification service, of course, is similar to the one unveiled recently at Twitter, which is also changing its paid services to try to make some more money to pay off Elon Musk's debts. Beginning next month, only users who pay a monthly fee will have access to certain account security features on Facebook and Instagram. Digital rights advocates say that could put some users in danger.

FADEL: To talk about this, we have Wall Street Journal reporter Tim Higgins joining us. Good morning.

TIM HIGGINS: Good morning.

FADEL: So first off, why are Meta and Twitter unveiling these paid services?

HIGGINS: Well, these subscription services are all about money. The digital ad market has been suffering or struggling in the past year. And this is a way to try to squeeze more money out of the services. And what Elon Musk has identified is this - there's a potential value in being verified, having that blue check mark next to your name. And he is trying to sell it off. And we see Facebook here kind of trying to follow that path and see if they can make money. Now, the question is, you know, how many people actually want to pay this money for this kind of blue check mark?

FADEL: But does it then make people who don't want to pay or don't have the money to pay less safe online on these platforms?

HIGGINS: Yeah, it's interesting. The change that we saw in the last few days from Twitter takes it a step further. It's not just the blue check mark, but they're adding another part to their subscription service where if you want to do two-factor authentication, that's where - through your cellphone, through text messaging, this is where you get a code to enter in when you're trying to log in to your account. Now you'll have to pay for that, and that's troubling to some observers because this was a service that was free in the past, trying to make the system as safe as possible. Now, if you want to do text messaging verification, authentication, you've got to pay for it. Though there are still apps out there where you can do it for free. So the question is, will users be able to kind of easily change over to those apps? Some people are worried that'll be too hard.

FADEL: Now, only a small fraction of Twitter users have turned to the paid service so far, right? So how will these companies turn these services into solid revenue streams?

HIGGINS: Yeah, very few. So the question - you look at Meta and Facebook as they try to kind of chase this idea, it's hard to imagine, in the near term, that it's going to be a huge business for them. One of the things, though, it seems as if it will help perhaps content creators, in part because of the verification, but also the company is saying that it will increase their postings' prominence in areas such as search and recommendations. And all of a sudden, we're kind of changing the paradigm for social media. Prior, previously, it was all about creating cool content that went viral, and now you can almost pay to play to try to kind of boost your content.

FADEL: Now, Meta seems to be following in Twitter's footsteps, Musk's bigger vision here. So what are the differences between what the two companies are offering with what you're paying for?

HIGGINS: Yeah, with the announcement over the weekend for Meta, this is about the blue check mark being authenticated. This is not about two-factor authentication, that code that you get sent by text message. This is all about the blue check mark and the ability to have more customer service access and having your posts have greater prominence. For Twitter, this is an - additionally to the verification, this is also about the security authentication.

FADEL: That's Wall Street Journal reporter Tim Higgins. Thanks so much.

HIGGINS: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FADEL: Today and tomorrow, the U.S. Supreme Court hears arguments in two cases that could revolutionize the world of social media and the internet. At issue is a law enacted more than 25 years ago that shields internet platforms from being sued for material that appears on their sites. This week's cases are asking the court to eliminate some or all of those protections. That could be a game changer for American law, society and business. Joining me now to talk more about this is NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg. Good morning, Nina.

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: Morning.

FADEL: So, Nina, these cases were brought by families whose relatives were killed in terrorist attacks. Can you tell us more about why they're suing?

TOTENBERG: The first of these cases was brought by the family of Nohemi Gonzalez, a 23-year-old American studying abroad. She was among 130 people killed in 2015 during coordinated ISIS attacks across Paris. And her family is suing YouTube, which is owned by Google. They allege that the company aided and abetted Ms. Gonzalez's death by recommending ISIS videos to people who might be interested in them, thus promoting ISIS recruitment and attacks.

FADEL: OK. How does that involve Section 230, the law that's at issue here?

TOTENBERG: Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act was passed by Congress when internet platforms were in their infancy, and it drew a distinction between interactive computer service providers and other purveyors of information. So, for instance, while you and I and NPR can be sued for what we say and write as journalists, Section 230 instead treats interactive internet platforms differently. They're treated as passive conveyor belts of information, not publishers or speakers. And the lower courts have uniformly ruled that they're immune from almost all civil lawsuits for damages. Of course, at the same time, the law encourages social media companies to remove material that's obscene, excessively violent, harassing or otherwise objectionable.

FADEL: OK, but isn't that kind of a contradiction, then?

TOTENBERG: Yes, it is.

FADEL: Yeah.

TOTENBERG: But this week's cases attempt to thread that needle. The Gonzalez family and others contend that Google, Twitter, Facebook and other social media companies aided and abetted violations of the Federal Anti-Terrorism Act. They contend they did more than just provide platforms for communication. Rather, they were recommending terrorist videos to increase their ad revenue.

Eric Schnapper, who's representing the families in this week's cases, notes that when Section 230 was enacted, the economic model for interactive websites was to get more subscribers. But now the economic model is very different. Here he is.

ERIC SCHNAPPER: Now most of the money is made by advertisements, and social media companies make more money the longer you are online.

TOTENBERG: And one way to do that, he maintains, is by algorithms that recommend other related material to keep users online. Google vehemently denies any such wrongdoing and says that the company has invested heavily in identifying and removing terrorist material. But the company says Congress was very clear in enacting 230, and if the law is to change at all, it should be done by Congress and not the courts.

FADEL: NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg. Thank you so much, Nina.

TOTENBERG: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.