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App-Based Delivery Men Highlight India's Growing Gig Economy

Wed, 02/20/2019 - 12:30
Suraj Nachre works long hours and regularly misses meals but he treasures his job as a driver for a food delivery startup -- working in a booming industry that highlights India's expanding apps-based gig-economy. The 26-year-old is one of hundreds of thousands of young Indians who, armed with their smartphones and motorcycles, courier dinners to offices and homes ordered at the swipe of a finger. A surge in the popularity of food-ordering apps like Uber Eats and Swiggy provides a welcome source of income for many as India's unemployment rate sits at a reported 45-year high. But they also shine a spotlight on the prevalence of short-term contracts in the economy, raising questions about workers' rights and conditions and the long-term viability of the jobs. "(These delivery workers) are treated as independent contractors so labor laws governing employees are not applicable and they lack job security," Gautam Ghosh, a human resources consultant, told AFP. "While jobs created by food delivery apps are crucial, they may not exist in 10 years so for the majority of youngsters they are a stopgap arrangement," he added. India's army of food delivery drivers, mostly men but some women too, became a talking point on social media late last year when a rider for the Zomato platform was filmed sampling a customer's order. The video, apparently shot on a mobile phone, showed the man taking bites from several food parcels before wrapping them again. It sparked anger online and he was promptly sacked. Rushing around Many internet users rallied to his defense, however. They insisted that the two-minute clip showed he was hungry and desperate, and said Zomato had acted harshly in dismissing him. "It is a challenging job," said Nachre, expressing sympathy for the unnamed delivery man who was working in the southern city of Madurai before being fired. "We work 12 hours straight in soaring heat and heavy rains. Sometimes I don't even have time to eat," he added. Nachre drives for the Scootsy platform. He leaves home at 9:00 am and does not return until after 1:00 am. Navigating Mumbai's abysmal traffic makes work stressful, he says.  "We're always in a rush to deliver and customers keep calling us. We know we have to be on our toes all the time or customers might complain and we may lose our jobs," Nachre told AFP. India's food delivery apps, backed by major international investment, are offering new avenues of employment for Indian youngsters who lack higher education but possess a driving license. Their importance to the likes of Nachre was highlighted recently when a leaked government report said India's unemployment rate was 6.1 percent in 2017-18, the highest since the 1970s. "This job is lucrative," said Nachre, who has no post-school qualifications and earns a minimum of 18,000 rupees ($253) a month.  In his previous job running errands at an office he made only 8,000 rupees. The app-based food delivery industry is worth an estimated $7 billion to Asia's third-largest economy, according to market research firm Statista, and is expanding rapidly. Swiggy announced at the end of last year that it had received $1 billion in funding from foreign backers including South Africa's Naspers and China's Tencent. Foreign investment That put the valuation of the five-year-old company, headquartered in Bangalore, at more than $3 billion. Zomato, Swiggy's nearest challenger for market dominance, is being aggressively backed by Alibaba's Ant Financial. The Chinese giant recently pumped in $210 million, valuing the Delhi-based startup at $2 billion.  The food delivery platforms are soaring as India's growing middle classes take advantage of better smartphone connectivity and cheap data plans that are fueling a gig economy centered on technology. Informal, casual labor has long been the bedrock of India's economy but now Indians can access a host of services on their phones from hiring a rickshaw to booking a plumber or yoga teacher. FlexingIt, a global consulting agency, estimates the country's gig economy has the potential to grow up to $30 billion by 2025. Analysts say it is time the government started to regulate the sector. "There is no regulator overlooking this sector. Working conditions definitely need to get better for these workers," Anurag Mahur, a partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers told AFP. Thirty-year-old Tushar Khandagale, who delivers for Zomato, is the sole breadwinner in his family. With millions of youngsters entering India's workforce every year and looking for a job, Khandagale would relish a long-term contract that offered him some security. "I hope to stay in this job. It pays well and my family depend on me," he said.

Tech Enables Holocaust Survivors to Engage in Conversations Beyond the Grave

Wed, 02/20/2019 - 10:03
The life history of Holocaust survivors is being kept alive in a very real and personal way with the help of technology. Imagine speaking to a video image of a genocide survivor and getting answers back as if you’re having a conversation with the real person. That is now possible with a project called Dimensions in Testimony developed by the University of Southern California Shoah Foundation.  VOA’s Elizabeth Lee has the details on how it works.

Future Styles: Could Virtual Clothes Reduce Damage of Fast Fashion?

Wed, 02/20/2019 - 06:00
Striking a pose in the mirror, Swedish model and stylist Lisa Anckarman shows off a new jacket with a difference on Instagram – though it fits her perfectly in the photo, it's a virtual design that does not exist in real life. She is among a number of trendsetters embracing cutting-edge technology that offers the opportunity to sate appetites for fast fashion while dramatically slashing the emissions, pollution and labor abuses linked to the garment industry. "I really liked the idea and the aspect that it's good for the environment," Anckarman told the Thomson Reuters Foundation as she discussed her virtual styling. Actually I think it maybe looked too good because people didn't really get that it was digital." "People were asking me 'Where did you buy this?' and I was saying, 'It's digital', and they were like, 'No, at what shop did you buy it?'" Fashion is one of the world's most damaging industries – it is responsible for about 10 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions, sucks up scarce water and creates vast amounts of pollution and waste. But the desire for the latest look is only increasing. Global fashion sales grew by about 4.5 percent to $1.7 trillion in 2018, found analysts at McKinsey and Company, who said social media is bringing trends to consumers at an ever swifter pace. Some businesses are now looking to meet the demand for new styles through digital designs, with Scandinavian fashion firm Carlings convincing its customers to pay real cash for virtual clothes that are digitally "fitted" onto users' photographs. "It was kind of scary (launching it) but the response was so overwhelming that we were convinced we were on to something," said Ronny Mikalsen, the firm's brand director. The first Carlings designs, costing between 10 euros ($11) and 30 euros, sold out and a second digital collection is due to be released in spring 2019. High fashion, low emissions Digital clothes create far lower emissions than physical clothes as they cut out the long, labor-intensive process of sourcing materials, producing fabrics, making garments and shipping them worldwide. While virtual styles may still be niche, experts say they are set to grow as technology seeps into more aspects of human lives. Younger generations in particular are keen to curate their online personas as much as their real-life image, said Matthew Drinkwater, the head of the Fashion Innovation Agency based at the London College of Fashion. On Instagram you have to ask "how much of that is a real person and how much is an enhanced version or a way they wish to portray themselves?" he said. The increasing use of filters on social media that can add cute dog ears or a flower crown on top of a photo or edit video in real time to make people vomit rainbows shows how people are already using digital effects to play with their image, he said. "In a very simple sense people are beginning to enhance or alter the way that they look," he said. "You can begin to see a drift towards this merging of physical and digital." Shopping habits are already changing to meet the demands of online images: nearly one in 10 people have bought clothes to wear once, with the aim of sharing their outfit on social media, according to a survey of 2,000 Britons by finance firm Barclaycard last summer. "If you get caught wearing the same clothes too many times it's seen as a bad thing," said Morten Grubak from the Virtue creative agency, who came up with the Carlings campaign. "One of the worst things you can write under images is 'Not again', making the hint they have posted that outfit before." 'Physics-defying' outfits Some involved in virtual fashion said they had set out to offer a new solution to the industry's climate damage and waste rather than trying to persuade consumers to buy less. "Right now (environmental campaigns) are always about, like, how much water did we save producing these jeans and people don't care about that," said Grubak. "Instead of getting angry with people doing fashion on Instagram, how can we innovatively solve that problem by adding a new platform?" Other companies said they had taken a deliberate decision to avoid the traditional fashion market entirely. "We've made a very clear point of never wanting to be a physical fashion brand," said Kerry Murphy of Dutch digital fashion house The Fabricant, which creates only virtual designs. "We believe the world does not need more clothing. It's an incredibly wasteful and polluting industry. That's why we very consciously said we want to re-imagine fashion." Digital design also opens up new possibilities to play with fashion, from using fabrics like rubber which would be relatively uncomfortable in real life through to dabbling in exotic skins or even physics-defying fantasies. "Clothing will definitely have a different meaning because it does not have the same functionality as physical clothing," Murphy said. "People can wear fire or they wear rain or they can be a dinosaur, so the possibilities are limitless." Those involved in the digital design industry said it will not offer a complete solution to fashion's emissions and waste problems, but it can help by encouraging people to update their existing wardrobes with virtual flourishes. And as technology advances, virtual fashion could sashay into the mainstream, said Drinkwater. Within a decade, people could regularly wear high-tech glasses that can apply digital effects over what the wearer sees in real life, he predicted, meaning virtual clothes will no longer be restricted to a computer or phone screen. "Could you imagine a point where your existing clothes could be constantly updated through digital design? Could we be downloading content that could portray ourselves differently? Would that stop us from simply buying more product?" he asked. "That potential is really quite exciting." ($1 = 0.8834 euros)

Twitter Tightens EU Political Ad Rules Ahead of Election

Wed, 02/20/2019 - 00:04
Twitter said Tuesday it is tightening up rules for European Union political ads ahead of bloc-wide elections this spring, following similar moves by fellow tech giants Facebook and Google. The social media company said it is extending restrictions already in place for federal elections in the United States. Under the new rules, which will also apply in Australia and India, political advertisers will need to be certified. It's also taking steps to increase transparency. Ads, in the form of "promoted tweets," from the past seven days will be stored in a publicly accessible database showing how much was spent, how many times it was seen and the demographics of the people who saw it. Facebook and Google have put in similar systems ahead of the EU vote in May, as the U.S. tech companies respond to criticism they didn't do enough to prevent misuse of their platforms by malicious actors trying to sway previous elections around the world. "This is part of our overall goal to protect the health of the public conversation on our service and to provide meaningful context around all political entities who use our advertising products," the company said in a blog post . Hundreds of millions of people are set to vote for more than 700 European Union parliamentary lawmakers. Political advertisers can start applying now for certification under Twitter's stricter ad rules, which take effect March 11, by providing more information such as photo ID or a company identification number. Twitter defines political ads as those bought by a party or candidate or that advocate for or against a candidate or party.

Artists Create Contemporary Take on Ancient Art Form

Tue, 02/19/2019 - 20:15
Levitating objects and plastic boxes may not seem to have anything to do with landscape painting, but they are the contemporary take on an ancient Chinese art style called "shan shui hua" or mountain water painting. Dating back more than 1,000 years, this style of landscape painting, which uses brush and ink, has evolved over time. The art form is evolving once again in an exhibit called "Lightscapes: Re-envisioning the Shanshuihua" at the Chinese American Museum in Los Angeles. The goal of Nick Dong and Chi-Tsung Wu, the two artists in the exhibit, is to connect the new, digital generation to this traditional type of art and to capture its essence in a new way through modern technology.  The exhibit forces the viewer to slow down and experience a different world. That’s one of the objectives of the ancient masters of Chinese shan shui paintings. Escape from reality “Actually, it was for all these artists to create a world which they want to hide, avoid, escape from reality. So, they create a mountain (and) imagine they could live there,” said Dong, an artist born in Taiwan who now lives in Northern California. Trained in both Chinese and Western art styles, Dong and Wu use experimental materials and light in the various art pieces in the exhibit.  In a contemporary approach to what’s real and what is not, one installation involves a slowly moving light directed at clear plastic boxes attached to a wall. “If we see this through the light, through the different perspective, we could see there’s another world behind that,” Wu said about his installation called Crystal City. That other world Wu referenced are shadows that look more real and solid than the actual plastic boxes. Wu said the art installation is symbolic of the modern digital age. “We spend most of our time in our daily life, no matter to work or to our social life or our entertainment, all on this cyberspace,” he said. That space is an escape for many people similar to the landscape paintings. Philosophy and the spiritual To capture the philosophical elements of the landscape painting, magnets are used to levitate objects to show that there is a force between everything in nature. Another art piece in the exhibit is a take on one's relationship with the universe. To view Dong’s representation of heaven, one has to step into a room filled with mirrors from ceiling to floor. There is a stool in the middle of the room. “We’re all searching. We’re all longing for growth, become better and, ultimately, good enough to go to heaven. So, in my mind, heaven is a place of selfless, so eventually once you’ve entered the installation, at first you’ll see a lot of your reflection. But once you sit down, you trigger the mechanism of the room. The mirror actually starts to reflect, and you yourself will disappear within the space. You vanish. All you have is this empty, wide-open space. For me, it’s the ultimate evolution,” Dong explained. The art pieces in the exhibit are ways the artists hope the modern-day viewer will be able to experience what the ancient artists of the landscape paintings were trying to achieve.  “They (ancient scholars) were able to say, 'We’re seeking a spiritual outlet. We’re seeking a way to refine the spirit and refine the soul.' This work, today, it’s hard to have that experience with the traditional artwork because they’re such a contained device. You see them in a museum under glass, and they’re hard to approach,” said Justin Hoover curator of the Chinese American Museum, Los Angeles. Contemporary artists hope their use of lighting and experimental materials will make an ancient art form more tangible and real in the 21st century.

Artists Emulate Ancient Art With Modern Technology

Tue, 02/19/2019 - 20:08
Dating back more than 1000 years ago, the style of Chinese landscape painting that uses brush and ink has evolved over time. This traditional art form is evolving once again in an exhibit called "Lightscapes: Re-envisioning the Shanshuihua." It is on display at the Chinese American Museum in Los Angeles. The goal: to connect the new, digital generation to this type of art and capture its essence in a new way. VOA’s Elizabeth Lee has the details

Nigerian Center Teaches Coding to Conflict-Displaced Kids

Tue, 02/19/2019 - 15:51
Nigeria's internal conflicts have displaced nearly 2 million people, according to the United Nations, with 60 percent of them being children. A program in the Nigerian capital is trying to teach internally displaced children technology skills, including computer coding, with a mobile laboratory. Twelve-year-old Michael Oladimeji fled with his family from Nigeria’s Borno State two years ago to escape Boko Haram terrorist attacks.  Over 10,000 people are living in camps in Abuja struggling for food, water, health care and education.  But Oladimeji was lucky - he became one of 100 students his age learning computer coding and animation at a mobile laboratory. The tech curriculum includes writing code with a program known as Scratch. "At home I used to play with my daddy's phone but it's not enough for me to do my coding and to do my Scratch. So since we started this program, I've got the chance to do Scratch and make cartoons,” Oladimeji said. Children like Oladimeji make up the majority of Nigeria's 1.8 million displaced people.  But Nigeria's Civic Innovation Lab – a technology hub - runs the initiative, which is shaping children's futures, according to program facilitator Angu Kingsley.  "Judging from where they came from, they have little knowledge about computers and education generally. So what we're trying to do is improve on what they already have, the knowledge they already have and build on it,” Kingsley said. While only a hundred or so displaced kids have benefited so far, the project hopes to expand – if it can secure funding, says program head Fanto Foday. "We only have few tablets and few computers so we've been having difficulties in the areas of giving assignment because when we leave we have to take the equipment, although the truck is there, they have access to the lab but they don't really have access to the gadgets,” Foday said. But for conflict-displaced students like Oladimeji, the chance to learn computer coding could be a game-changer. 

Nigerian Center Teaches Coding to Conflict-Displaced Kids

Tue, 02/19/2019 - 10:37
Nigeria's internal conflicts have displaced nearly two million people, according to the United Nations, 60 percent of them children. A program in the Nigerian capital is trying to teach internally displaced children technology skills, including computer coding, with a mobile laboratory. Timothy Obiezu reports from Abuja.

Amazon Aims to Cut Its Carbon Footprint

Tue, 02/19/2019 - 03:54
Amazon, which ships millions of packages a year to shopper's doorsteps, says it wants to be greener. The online retail giant announced plans Monday to make half of all its shipments carbon-neutral by 2030. To reach that goal, the online retail giant says it will use more renewable energy like solar power; have more packages delivered in electric vans; and push suppliers to remake their packaging. McDonald's, Coca-Cola and other big companies that generate lots of waste have announced similar initiatives, hoping to appeal to customers concerned about the environment. Amazon is calling its program "Shipment Zero," and plans to publicly publish its carbon footprint for the first time later this year. Seattle-based Amazon said it spent the past two years mapping its carbon footprint and figuring out ways to reduce carbon use across the company. "It won't be easy to achieve this goal, but it's worth being focused and stubborn on this vision and we're committed to seeing it through," said Dave Clark, Amazon's senior vice president of worldwide operations.

Facebook Voids Accounts Targeting Moldovan Election

Tue, 02/19/2019 - 02:54
Facebook said on Thursday it had disrupted an attempt to influence voters in Moldova, increasing concerns that EU elections in May could be prey to malign activity. Employees of the Moldovan government were linked to some of the activity, the California-based social media company said. Authorities in Chisnau, capital of the tiny former Soviet republic, denied knowledge. Facebook said it dismantled scores of pages and accounts designed to look like independent opinion pages and to impersonate a local fact-checking organization ahead of Moldova's elections later this month. "So they created this feedback loop," Nathaniel Gleicher, Facebook's head of cybersecurity policy, told reporters in Brussels. "We did assess that there were links between some of that activity and individuals associated with the Moldovan government." The government said it welcomed any initiative to combat "fake news", saying it did not check the private accounts of its more than 200,000 state employees. "They have different political views and opinions, and the state is obliged to maintain the boundary between fighting the phenomenon of Fake News and guaranteeing the freedom of expression for citizens," it said. Facebook said it removed 168 accounts, 28 pages and eight Instagram accounts involved in "inauthentic behavior." Some 54,000 accounts followed at least one of these Facebook pages. The owners of pages and accounts typically posted about local news and political issues such as requirements for Russian- or English-language education and potential reunification with Romania, the company said. Guarding elections Facebook stepped up efforts to combat disinformation, including accounts in Russia, Iran and Indonesia, over the last year after coming under public scrutiny for not doing enough to stem the spread extremism and propaganda online. The vulnerabilities exposed in Moldova, sandwiched between EU member Romania and Ukraine on the fringes of the bloc, were a warning ahead of polls in neighboring Ukraine and for the European legislature. The European Union has pushed tech companies to do more to stop what it fears are Russian attempts to undermine Western democracies with disinformation campaigns that sow division. Russia has repeatedly denied any such actions. The sheer perception of manipulation can damage polls, Gleicher warned. "We are starting to see actors try to create the impression that there is manipulation without owning lots and lots of accounts," he said. "We already have the teams up and running and focused on the European parliamentary elections and that is only going to grow as the elections get closer and the pace of threats increases." Dogged by scandal, Moldova's pro-Western government has failed to lift low living standards. That has driven many voters towards the Socialists, who favor closer ties with Russia. The European Parliament called Moldova a "state captured by oligarchic interests" in November, and there are concerns whether the parliamentary election on February 24 will be fair. The election is likely to produce a hung parliament, which could set the scene for months of wrangling or possibly further elections.

China Accuses US of Trying to Block its Tech Development

Tue, 02/19/2019 - 01:15
China's government on Monday accused the United States of trying to block its industrial development by alleging that Chinese mobile network gear poses a cybersecurity threat to countries rolling out new internet systems.   And in a potential blow to the U.S.'s effort to rally its allies on the issue, British media reported that the country's intelligence agencies have found it's possible to limit the security risks of using Chinese equipment in so-called 5G networks.   The U.S. argues that Beijing might use Chinese tech companies to gather intelligence about foreign countries. The Trump administration has been putting pressure on allies to shun networks supplied by Huawei Technologies, threatening the company's access to markets for next-generation wireless gear.   The company, the biggest global maker of switching gear for phone and internet companies, denies accusations it facilitates Chinese spying and said it would reject any government demands to disclose confidential information about foreign customers.   The U.S. government is trying to "fabricate an excuse for suppressing the legitimate development" of Chinese enterprises, said the spokesman for the Chinese foreign ministry, Geng Shuang. He accused the United States of using "political means" to interfere in economic activity, "which is hypocritical, immoral and unfair bullying."   U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, speaking last weekend in Germany, urged European allies to take seriously "the threat" he said was posed by Huawei as they look for partners to build the new 5G mobile networks.   The 5G technology is meant to vastly expand the reach of networks to support internet-linked medical equipment, factory machines, self-driving cars and other devices. That makes it more politically sensitive and raises the potential cost of security failures.   Pence said Huawei and other Chinese telecom equipment makers provide Beijing with "access to any data that touches their network or equipment." He appealed to European governments to "reject any enterprise that would compromise the integrity of our communications technology or our national security systems."   In what could amount to a turning point for the U.S. effort to isolate Huawei, Britain's National Cyber Security Centre has found that the risk of using its networks is manageable, according to the Financial Times and several other British media outlets.   The reports cited anonymous sources as saying that there are ways to limit cybersecurity risks, and that the U.K.'s decision would carry weight with European allies who are also evaluating the safety of their networks.   The British government is to finish a review of its policies on the safety of 5G in March or April. The office of British Prime Minister Theresa May said Monday that "no decisions have been taken.''   If eventually confirmed, "such a decision by the U.K. would be a strong message and could be influential in the medium term," said Lukasz Olejnik, a research associate at Oxford University's Center for Technology and Global Affairs.   The British review "could inevitably serve as an input or a reference point in other countries' risk assessments," he added.   European officials, including a vice president of the European Union, have expressed concern about Chinese regulations issued last year that require companies to cooperate with intelligence agencies. No country in Europe, however, has issued a blanket veto on using Huawei technology in the way the U.S. has urged.   The U.S. Justice Department last month unsealed charges against Huawei, its chief financial officer — who had been arrested in Canada — and several of the companies' subsidiaries, alleging not only violation of trade sanctions but also the theft of trade secrets.   The United States has not, however, released evidence to support its accusations that Huawei and other Chinese tech companies allow the Chinese government to spy through their systems. That has prompted some industry analysts to suggest Washington is trying to use security concerns to handicap Chinese competitors.   "China has not and will not require companies or individuals to collect or provide foreign countries' information for the Chinese government by installing backdoors or other actions that violate local laws," said Geng.   Britain's National Cyber Security Centre admitted last summer that it had concerns about the engineering and security of Huawei's networks. While not commenting Monday on the media reports, it added: "We have set out the improvements we expect the company to make."   Huawei said in a statement Monday that it's open to dialogue and that "cybersecurity is an issue which needs to be addressed across the whole industry."

'Digital Gangsters': UK Wants Tougher Rules for Facebook

Mon, 02/18/2019 - 19:33
British lawmakers issued a scathing report Monday that calls for tougher rules on Facebook to keep it from acting like "digital gangsters" and intentionally violating data privacy and competition laws. The report on fake news and disinformation on social media sites followed an 18-month investigation by Parliament's influential media committee. The committee recommended that social media sites should have to follow a mandatory code of ethics overseen by an independent regulator to better control harmful or illegal content.   The report called out Facebook in particular, saying that the site's structure seems to be designed to "conceal knowledge of and responsibility for specific decisions."   "It is evident that Facebook intentionally and knowingly violated both data privacy and anti-competition laws," the report states. It also accuses CEO Mark Zuckerberg of showing contempt for the U.K. Parliament by declining numerous invitations to appear before the committee. "Companies like Facebook should not be allowed to behave like 'digital gangsters' in the online world, considering themselves to be ahead of and beyond the law," the report added.   U.K. parliamentary committee reports are intended to influence government policy, but are not binding. The committee said it hopes its conclusions will be considered when the government reviews its competition powers in April.   And while the U.K. is part of the 28-country European Union, it is due to leave the bloc in late March, so it is unclear whether any regulatory decisions it takes could influence those of the EU.   Facebook said it shared "the committee's concerns about false news and election integrity" and was open to "meaningful regulation."   "While we still have more to do, we are not the same company we were a year ago," said Facebook's U.K. public policy manager, Karim Palant.   "We have tripled the size of the team working to detect and protect users from bad content to 30,000 people and invested heavily in machine learning, artificial intelligence and computer vision technology to help prevent this type of abuse."   Facebook and other internet companies have been facing increased scrutiny over how they handle user data and have come under fire for not doing enough to stop misuse of their platforms by groups trying to sway elections.   The report echoes and expands upon an interim report with similar findings issued by the committee in July . And in December , a trove of documents released by the committee offered evidence that the social network had used its enormous trove of user data as a competitive weapon, often in ways designed to keep its users in the dark. Facebook faced its biggest privacy scandal last year when Cambridge Analytica, a now-defunct British political data-mining firm that worked for the 2016 Donald Trump campaign, accessed the private information of up to 87 million users.      

Gone in a New York Minute: How the Amazon Deal Fell Apart

Sun, 02/17/2019 - 01:19
In early November, word began to leak that Amazon was serious about choosing New York to build a giant new campus. The city was eager to lure the company and its thousands of high-paying tech jobs, offering billions in tax incentives and lighting the Empire State Building in Amazon orange. Even Governor Andrew Cuomo got in on the action: “I’ll change my name to Amazon Cuomo if that’s what it takes,” he joked at the time. Then Amazon made it official: It chose the Long Island City neighborhood of Queens to build a $2.5 billion campus that could house 25,000 workers, in addition to new offices planned for northern Virginia. Cuomo and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, Democrats who have been political adversaries for years, trumpeted the decision as a major coup after edging out more than 230 other proposals. But what they didn’t expect was the protests, the hostile public hearings and the disparaging tweets that would come in the next three months, eventually leading to Amazon’s dramatic Valentine’s Day breakup with New York. Immediately after Amazon’s Nov. 12 announcement, criticism started to pour in. The deal included $1.5 billion in special tax breaks and grants for the company, but a closer look at the total package revealed it to be worth at least $2.8 billion. Some of the same politicians who had signed a letter to woo Amazon were now balking at the tax incentives. “Offering massive corporate welfare from scarce public resources to one of the wealthiest corporations in the world at a time of great need in our state is just wrong,” said New York State Sen. Michael Gianaris and New York City Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer, Democrats who represent the Long Island City area, in a joint statement. The next day, CEO Jeff Bezos was on the cover of The New York Post in a cartoon-like illustration, hanging out of a helicopter, holding money bags in each hand, with cash billowing above the skyline. “QUEENS RANSOM,” the headline screamed. The New York Times editorial board, meanwhile, called the deal a “bad bargain” for the city: “We won’t know for 10 years whether the promised 25,000 jobs will materialize,” it said. Anti-Amazon rallies were planned for the next week. Protesters stormed a New York Amazon bookstore on the day after Thanksgiving and then went to a rally on the steps of a courthouse near the site of the new headquarters in the pouring rain. Some held cardboard boxes with Amazon’s smile logo turned upside down. In this Nov. 14, 2018 file photo, protesters hold up anti-Amazon signs during a coalition rally and press conference of elected officials, community organizations and unions opposing Amazon headquarters getting subsidies to locate in New York. They had a long list of grievances: the deal was done secretively; Amazon, one of the world’s most valuable companies, didn’t need nearly $3 billion in tax incentives; rising rents could push people out of the neighborhood; and the company was opposed to unionization. The helipad kept coming up, too: Amazon, in its deal with the city, was promised it could build a spot to land a helicopter on or near the new offices. At the first public hearing in December, which turned into a hostile, three-hour interrogation of two Amazon executives by city lawmakers, the helipad was mentioned more than a dozen times. The image of high-paid executives buzzing by a nearby low-income housing project became a symbol of corporate greed. Queens residents soon found postcards from Amazon in their mailboxes, trumpeting the benefits of the project. Gianaris sent his own version, calling the company “Scamazon” and urging people to call Bezos and tell him to stay in Seattle. At a second city council hearing in January, Amazon’s vice president for public policy, Brian Huseman, subtly suggested that perhaps the company’s decision to come to New York could be reversed. “We want to invest in a community that wants us,” he said. Then came a sign that Amazon’s opponents might actually succeed in derailing the deal: In early February, Gianaris was tapped for a seat on a little-known state panel that often has to approve state funding for big economic development projects. That meant if Amazon’s deal went before the board, Gianaris could kill it. “I’m not looking to negotiate a better deal,” Gianaris said at the time. “I am against the deal that has been proposed.” Cuomo had the power to block Gianaris’ appointment, but he didn’t indicate whether he would take that step. Meanwhile, Amazon’s own doubts about the project started to show. On Feb. 8, The Washington Post reported that the company was having second thoughts about the Queens location. On Wednesday, Cuomo brokered a meeting with four top Amazon executives and the leaders of three unions critical of the deal. The union leaders walked away with the impression that the parties had an agreed upon framework for further negotiations, said Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail Wholesale and Department Store Union. “We had a good conversation. We talked about next steps. We shook hands,” Appelbaum said. An Amazon representative did not respond to a request for comment for this story. The final blow landed Thursday, when Amazon announced on a blog post that it was backing out, surprising the mayor, who had spoken to an Amazon executive Monday night and received “no indication” that the company would bail. Amazon still expected the deal to be approved, according to a source familiar with Amazon’s thinking, but that the constant criticism from politicians didn’t make sense for the company to grow there. “I was flabbergasted,” De Blasio said. “Why on earth after all of the effort we all put in would you simply walk away?”

Amazon's Exit Could Scare Off Tech Companies From New York

Sat, 02/16/2019 - 00:37
Amazon jilted New York City on Valentine's Day, scrapping plans to build a massive headquarters campus in Queens amid fierce opposition from politicians angry about nearly $3 billion in tax breaks and the company's anti-union stance. With millions of jobs and a bustling economy, New York can withstand the blow, but experts say the decision by the e-commerce giant to walk away and take with it 25,000 promised jobs could scare off other companies considering moving to or expanding in the city, which wants to be seen as the Silicon Valley of the East Coast. "One of the real risks here is the message we send to companies that want to come to New York and expand to New York," said Julie Samuels, the executive director of industry group Tech: NYC. "We're really playing with fire right now." In November, Amazon selected New York City and Crystal City, Virginia, as the winners of a secretive, yearlong process in which more than 230 North American cities bid to become the home of the Seattle-based company's second headquarters. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio and Gov. Andrew Cuomo heralded the city's selection at the time as the biggest boon yet to its burgeoning tech economy and underscored that the deal would generate billions of dollars for improving transit, schools and housing. Opposition came swiftly though, as details started to emerge. Critics complained about public subsidies that were offered to Amazon and chafed at some of the conditions of the deal, such as the company's demand for access to a helipad. Some pleaded for the deal to be renegotiated or scrapped altogether. "We knew this was going south from the moment it was announced," said Thomas Stringer, a site selection adviser for big companies. "If this was done right, all the elected officials would have been out there touting how great it was. When you didn't see that happen, you knew something was wrong." Stringer, a managing director of the consulting firm BDO USA LLP, said city and state officials need to rethink the secrecy with which they approached the negotiations. Community leaders and potential critics were kept in the dark, only to be blindsided when details became public. "It's time to hit the reset button and say, "What did we do wrong?"' Stringer said. "This is fumbling at the 1-yard line." Amazon said in a statement Thursday its commitment to New York City required "positive, collaborative relationships" with state and local officials and that a number of them had "made it clear that they oppose our presence and will not work with us to build the type of relationships that are required to go forward." Not that Amazon is blameless, experts say. Joe Parilla, a fellow at the Brookings Institution's Metropolitan Policy Program, said the company's high-profile bidding process may have stoked the backlash. Companies usually search for new locations quietly, in part to avoid the kind of opposition Amazon received. "They had this huge competition, and the media covered it really aggressively, and a bunch of cities responded," Parilla said. "What did you expect? It gave the opposition a much bigger platform." Richard Florida, an urban studies professor and critic of Amazon's initial search process, said the company should have expected to feel the heat when it selected New York, a city known for its neighborhood activism. "At the end of the day, this is going to hurt Amazon," said Florida, head of the University of Toronto's Martin Prosperity Institute. "This is going to embolden people who don't like corporate welfare across the country." Other tech companies have been keeping New York City's tech economy churning without making much of a fuss. Google is spending $2.4 billion to build up its Manhattan campus. Cloud-computing company Salesforce has plastered its name on Verizon's former headquarters in midtown, and music streaming service Spotify is gobbling up space at the World Trade Center complex. Despite higher costs, New York City remains attractive to tech companies because of its vast, diverse talent pool, world-class educational and cultural institutions and access to other industries, such as Wall Street capital and Madison Avenue ad dollars. No other metropolitan area in the U.S. has as many computer-related jobs as New York City, which has 225,600, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But San Francisco, San Jose, Seattle, Washington, Boston, Atlanta and Dallas each have a greater concentration of their workers in tech. In the New York area, the average computer-related job pays roughly $104,000 a year, about $15,000 above the national average. Still, that's about $20,000 less than in San Francisco. Even after cancelling its headquarters project, Amazon still has 5,000 employees in New York City, not counting Whole Foods. "New York has actually done a really great job of growing and supporting its tech ecosystem, and I'm confident that will continue," Samuels said. "Today we took a step back, but I would not put the nail in the coffin of tech in New York City."

Mars Opportunity Rover Ends Nearly 15 Years of Discovery

Fri, 02/15/2019 - 15:25
The Mars Opportunity Rover landed on the Red Planet's surface in 2004 for a 90-day mission of exploration. More than 14 years later, NASA has finally closed the book on this tiny rover that wandered across Mars sending back troves of information. VOA's Kevin Enochs reports.

Report: Facebook, FTC Discuss Multibillion Dollar' Fine

Fri, 02/15/2019 - 09:58
A report says Facebook and the Federal Trade Commission are negotiating a “multibillion dollar” fine for the social network's privacy lapses. The Washington Post said Thursday that the fine would be the largest ever imposed on a tech company. Citing unnamed sources, it also said the two sides have not yet agreed on an exact amount.  Facebook has had several high-profile privacy lapses in the past couple of years. The FTC has been looking into the Cambridge Analytica scandal since last March. The data mining firm accessed the data of some 87 million Facebook users without their consent.  At issue is whether Facebook is in violation of a 2011 agreement with the FTC promising to protect user privacy. Facebook and the FTC declined to comment.

‘Fintech’ Could Help Mexicans Abroad Send Money Home

Fri, 02/15/2019 - 07:33
Mexico's new government is trying to slash the cost of sending cash home for Mexican families living abroad and is hoping competition from “fintechs” (financial technology) will encourage banks and services like Western Union to reduce commissions and improve exchange rates. Deputy Finance Minister Arturo Herrera said the government did not plan to place new regulations on the flow of remittances, one of the country's largest sources of foreign currency and a lifeline for millions of poor families. Sending remittances However, the former World Bank executive envisaged that the increasing use of money transfer apps would help bring down the cost of sending remittances. Currently, the commission charged and the foreign exchange rates imposed together take a bite out of each remittance of 8 percent on average. Herrera said that should be brought down to 5 percent. "That is to say, the cost of transactions must come down by about 40 percent. That is something the fintechs are probably in a better position to do than traditional actors such as banks," Herrera told Reuters in an interview earlier this week.  "Their great advantage is that they can operate in a more efficient and direct way and at lower costs, which should lead to lower commissions,” Herrera said. President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who took office on Dec. 1, has made fighting poverty and inequality a centerpiece of his administration. Herrera said bringing down the cost for financial services like remittances would help many of the nation's neediest. Banking costs are a sensitive issue in Mexico. When Lopez Obrador's ruling MORENA party introduced a bill last year to limit banking fees it triggered a selloff in the stock market. Lopez Obrador distanced himself from the bill. Calm investors Other changes were better received, with credit ratings agency Fitch saying a bill introduced by Lopez Obrador to loosen restrictions on pension fund managers could lead to better returns and payouts for beneficiaries. Lopez Obrador has also tried to calm investors' nerves by saying there would be no modifications to the legal framework relating to economic, financial and fiscal matters in the first three years of his tenure. The government says 24 million Mexicans live in the United States, by far the largest source of money sent home. Mexicans sent a record $33.5 billion in remittances in 2018, a 10.5 percent jump from a year earlier, Mexican central bank data show. Mexico is already home to 75 startups that specialize in payments and remittances, data from fintech platform Finnovista show, while remittance apps like Remitly and Xoom have been gaining popularity. Herrera said banks and Western Union would have to make their services cheaper to compete with money transfer apps. He did not say how quickly that would happen. "I wish we could make it happen immediately," he said. No comment from Western Union Western Union and its closest rival Moneygram did not respond to requests for comment. The Mexican Banking Association declined to comment on the topic. Turning to fintechs for change is part of a broader strategy aimed at decreasing the use of the cash in Mexico, Herrera said. He said the Finance Ministry planned to reveal additional measures at the annual Banking Convention in March. Ninety percent of transactions in Mexico are made in cash, in a system that he said is inefficient and expensive and creates ample opportunities for corruption and money laundering.

Google to Invest $13 Billion in New US Offices, Data Centers

Thu, 02/14/2019 - 10:36
Google plans to invest more than $13 billion this year on new and expanded data centers and offices across the U.S. CEO Sundar Pichai announced the news in a blog post Wednesday , emphasizing the company's growth outside its Mountain View, California, home and across the Midwest and South. "2019 marks the second year in a row we'll be growing faster outside of the (San Francisco) Bay Area than in it," he wrote. Google will build new data centers in Nevada, Texas, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Ohio, South Carolina and Virginia. Pichai estimated the construction of the new centers will employ 10,000 workers. It makes good political sense for Google to highlight its expansions outside coastal cities, said CFRA Research analyst Scott Kessler.  U.S. legislators have paid increasing attention to Google and other big tech companies in the past year, and are considering passing privacy laws to regulate the companies' reach. Investing more widely across the U.S. could help it curry favor with federal politicians and officials, he said. Google is focused on expanding its cloud-computing business, a market where it faces stiff competition from larger rivals Amazon and Microsoft. The company will have a physical presence in 24 states by the end of the year. It currently has locations in 21 states, and is expanding into Nevada, Ohio and Nebraska. Its expansion is likely also a way to attract new employees, Kessler said. Google will add an office in Georgia, and expand its offices in several cities including in Seattle and Chicago. Google said it spent more than $9 billion on similar expansions across the country last year.  Google did not give an exact number of employees it expects to hire as a result of the 2019 expansions, but said it would be "tens of thousands" of full-time workers.

China's Huawei Soft Power Push Raises Hard Questions

Thu, 02/14/2019 - 02:02
As a nasty diplomatic feud deepens between the two countries over the tech company, involving arrests and execution orders, it hasn't gone unnoticed that Huawei's bright red fan-shaped logo is plastered prominently on the set of "Hockey Night in Canada." TV hosts regularly remind the 1.8 million weekly viewers that program segments are “presented by Huawei smartphones.” The cheery corporate message contrasts with the standoff over the arrest of Huawei Chief Financial Officer Meng Wanzhou on a U.S. warrant. In what looks like retaliation, China detained two Canadians and plans to execute a third — heavy-handed tactics that, because they leave some Canadians with the impression the privately owned company is an arm of the Chinese government, give its sponsorship a surreal quality. The TV deal is one of many examples of how Huawei, the world's biggest telecom gear producer and one of the top smartphone makers, has embarked on a global push to win consumers and burnish its brand. It sponsors Australian rugby, funds research at universities around the world, and brings foreign students to China for technical training. It has promoted classical music concerts in Europe and donated pianos to New Zealand schools . Its efforts are now threatened by the dispute with Canada and U.S. accusations that it could help China's authoritarian government spy on people around the world. “Huawei's marketing plan up until Dec. 1 (when Meng was arrested) was working very well,” said Guy Saint-Jacques, a former Canadian ambassador to China. Now, “public opinion is changing toward China and Huawei.” At stake for Huawei are lucrative contracts to provide new superfast mobile networks called 5G. The U.S. says Meng helped break sanctions and accuses Huawei of stealing trade secrets. It also says the company could let the Chinese government tap its networks, which in the case of 5G would cover massive amounts of consumer data worldwide. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo pressed that point to European allies on a tour this week. Huawei, which did not respond to requests for comment for this story, has previously rejected the allegations. The Chinese government says Huawei's critics were fabricating threats. Still, the headlines have been relentlessly negative. “At some point there could be a majority of Canadians that will say `We don't think the government should do business with Huawei,”' said Saint-Jacques. There's no evidence of sinister intentions behind Huawei's marketing, which isn't unlike that of Western multinationals, although its efforts have been unusually strong for a company from China, where brands have struggled to capture global attention. Rogers Communications, which broadcasts “Hockey in Night in Canada” and also sells Huawei smartphones, said it has no plans to change its sponsorship deal, which started in 2017 and runs to the end of 2020. In Australia, the Canberra Raiders rugby team indicated it would renew a Huawei sponsorship deal this year despite a government ban on using its equipment in 5G networks. Huawei has also ventured into high culture by using its smartphone artificial intelligence to complete the remaining movements in German composer Franz Schubert's “Symphony No. 8,” known as the “Unfinished Symphony.” It held a symphony orchestra concert in London this month to perform the completed score. And Huawei has a vast network of relationships with universities around the world through research partnerships and scholarships. It has helped fund a 25 million pound ($32 million) joint research project at Britain's Cambridge University. Some universities have begun to rethink their collaborations, although there's no allegation of wrongdoing by Huawei. Universities point out that companies that fund research don't automatically own any resulting patents. Britain's Oxford University stopped accepting Huawei's money last month. Stanford University followed suit after U.S. prosecutors unsealed nearly two dozen charges against the company, as did the University of California at Berkeley, which also removed an off-campus videoconferencing set-up donated by Huawei based on guidance from the Department of Defense. Faced with these setbacks, Huawei has responded by stepping up its public relations efforts. Its normally reclusive chairman, Ren Zhengfei, last month held three media briefings, fielding questions from Western, Japanese and Chinese journalists. The company will be out in force this month at the Mobile World Congress, a major telecom industry gathering in Barcelona, Spain. It's expected to unveil its latest smartphone, a 5G device with a folding screen. Company executives are scheduled to brief analysts and give presentations on 5G technology. Huawei is a corporate sponsor of the show and Ren is expected to attend to help win business deals, though U.S. officials are reportedly expected to turn out in force to lobby against Huawei. The company last week hosted a Lunar New Year reception in Brussels for the European Union diplomatic community, in a ballroom commissioned by Belgium's King Leopold II. There was a piano concert, a jazz performance, a bubble tea bar, and a speech by Huawei's chief EU representative, Abraham Liu. “We are shocked or sometimes feel amused by those ungrounded and senseless allegations,” Liu told the reception guests, adding that the company is “willing to accept the supervision” from governments in Europe, Huawei's biggest market after China. Huawei plans to open a cybersecurity center in Brussels next month, he said. To attract top talent, Huawei runs a program called “Seeds for the Future,” under which it sends students from more than 100 countries to China to study Mandarin and get technical training at its headquarters. Shanthi Kalathil, director of the National Endowment for Democracy's International Forum for Democratic Studies, sees Huawei's charm offensive dovetailing with broader efforts by China to influence the global debate on the government's surveillance and censorship it uses. “It's not like an afterthought. That is the foundation of the entire system,” she said. Whether or not Huawei is linked to the Chinese government or merely defended as a corporate champion, the fight over the company shows how world powers see technology as the front line in the fight for economic supremacy. “Today's innovation economy is based on IP (intellectual property) and data,” said Jim Balsillie, the former chairman and co-CEO of BlackBerry-maker Research in Motion. “So soft power is the best tool for advancing national interests because the battle is not about armies and tanks.”

Google, Apple Face Calls to Pull Saudi App Allowing Men to Monitor Wives

Thu, 02/14/2019 - 00:45
A Saudi Arabian government app that allows men in the country to monitor and control their female relatives' travel at the click of a button should be removed from Google and Apple's online stores, a U.S. politician and activists said on Wednesday. Human rights campaigners argued the tech giants are enabling abuses against women and girls in the ultra-conservative kingdom by hosting the app. The free Absher app, created by the Saudi interior ministry, allows men to update or withdraw permissions for their wives and female relatives to travel internationally and get SMS updates if their passports are used, said human rights researchers. The app is available in the Saudi version of the Google and Apple online stores. "Part of the app's design is to discriminate against women," said Rothna Begum, an expert in women's rights in the Middle East at Human Rights Watch. "The complete control that a male guardian has is now facilitated with the use of modern technology and makes the lives of men ultimately easier and restricts women's lives that much more.” Begum said a few women had turned the app to their advantage by gaining access to their guardian's phone and changing the settings to grant themselves freedom, but such cases were rare. Neither Apple nor Google were immediately available for comment. Apple CEO Tim Cook told U.S. public radio NPR yesterday that he had not heard of Absher but pledged to "take a look at it". Saudi women must have permission from a male relative to work, marry, and travel under the country's strict guardianship system, which human rights groups have criticized as abusive. U.S. Senator Ron Wyden has publicly called on both Apple and Google to remove it from their stores, arguing it promotes "abusive practices against women" in a Twitter post. However, Suad Abu-Dayyeh, a spokesman on the Middle East for women's rights group Equality Now, raised doubts over whether the companies would take action. "Power and money talks, unfortunately, without giving any attention to the violations of human rights," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. "I really hope they take a concrete stand towards removing these apps but I am not really hopeful.” Saudi Arabia, one of the world's most gender-segregated nations, is ranked 138 of 144 states in the 2017 Global Gender Gap, a World Economic Forum study on how women fare in economic and political participation, health and education. Its guardianship system came under fresh scrutiny after Saudi teenager Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun fled from her family and was granted asylum in Canada in January. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman indicated last year he favored ending the guardianship system but stopped short of backing its annulment. But any moves toward gender equality have been accompanied by a crackdown on dissent, including the arrest and alleged torture of women's rights activists as well as Muslim clerics.  

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