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US Official Voices Broad Concerns Over China-Based Companies

Fri, 04/12/2019 - 02:01
Lin Feng contributed to this report WASHINGTON — A senior official in the U.S. Department of State said Wednesday the security concerns the government has raised related to Chinese telecommunications firms Huawei and ZTE extend to all companies headquartered in China, saying they are effectively "under direction" of the Chinese Communist Party. "It's very important to distinguish how Western democracies operate relative to their private sector companies and vendors, and how the Chinese government operates with its companies," Ambassador Robert L. Strayer, deputy assistant secretary for Cyber and International Communications and Information Policy, said during a conference call with reporters.  Chinese companies don't have the ability to mount a legal challenge to directives from the government, he said.  "They don't have the ability to go to court," he said. "They're basically under direction — what we call extra-judicial command — of the Communist Party of China ... to take actions, when requested by the government. There's not the same rule of law that we consider a part of our daily lives and all of our business dealings in Western democracies." Strayer has been the point person in the Trump administration's effort to block Chinese firms, and Huawei in particular, from participating in the global rollout of 5G mobile communications technology, insisting that Chinese law requires the companies to cooperate with Beijing's intelligence services.  Strayer and other officials have warned that Chinese telecommunications firms could give Beijing intelligence services secret "back-door" access to sensitive communications networks, or that in a crisis, they could disrupt communications on command. His comments were among the administration's most comprehensive justification for trying to block Huawei's entry into the U.S. and European 5G markets. The push has included warnings that the United States may restrict the kind of intelligence it shares, even with close allies, if Washington is not satisfied that communications networks are secure. To this point, the U.S. has failed to produce hard evidence of Huawei or ZTE engaging in espionage for the Chinese government. However, both firms have been charged with theft of intellectual property from rival companies, and Huawei has been charged with conspiracy to violate U.S. sanctions against Iran. Huawei and ZTE have consistently denied they ever have or will act as an arm of Chinese intelligence services.  Ren Zhengfei, Huawei's 74-year-old founder and president, recently told the BBC that to do so would be economic suicide. "Our sales revenues are now hundreds of billions of dollars," he said. "We are not going to risk the disgust of our country and our customers all over the world because of something like that. We will lose all our business. I'm not going to take that risk." Samm Sacks, cybersecurity policy and China digital economy fellow at the New America Foundation, said, "The reality is the Communist Party of China uses the law selectively as an instrument as it sees fit." "What does worry me is this hypothetical situation of what Huawei would be employed to do by the Chinese government," she told VOA. "I think we have to look at what Huawei as a commercial company needing to succeed in global markets have in its interest. And I'd say right now, it's not in its interests to use those vulnerabilities. But that could change in another scenario." The U.S. effort so far has achieved only limited success in its efforts to get allies to impose blanket restrictions on the use of equipment made by Huawei and ZTE in cutting edge, high-speed, next-generation infrastructure. However, Strayer said that as countries around the world begin looking closely at the risks, he believes an eventual ban on the two firms' products is inevitable. He cited a recent analysis of Huawei equipment by government investigators in the United Kingdom, which found myriad security flaws and engineering deficiencies in devices meant to support the rollout of 5G in that country. In Germany, he said, a set of strict security standards under consideration would amount to a de facto ban on Chinese-made 5G equipment. The proposed German standards would require that telecommunications systems "be sourced from trustworthy suppliers whose compliance with national security regulations and provisions for the secrecy of telecommunications and for data protection is assured." Given the legal requirement that Chinese companies assist the intelligence services —and keep that assistance secret — "It's hard to see how Chinese technology would meet that standard for protection of data," he said. Strayer said the U.S. is encouraging all countries to consider similar regulations. "We have encouraged countries to adopt risk-based security frameworks," Strayer said. "And we think that a rigorous application of those frameworks, if they include supply chain security risk and the consideration of the relationship between a 5G vendor and their government, will lead, inevitably, to the banning of Huawei and  ZTE." In his remarks Wednesday, Strayer focused on the issue of 5G infrastructure, but at times broadened his critique of Chinese government policies to encompass all firms based in China that deal with sensitive technology. "We think it's very important that countries deploying 5G networks consider the relationship between a foreign government, where a vendor is headquartered, and the companies themselves and that country," he said. "When we look at the Chinese laws, relative to intelligence and national security, those allow the Chinese government to direct the actions of companies for their national interest of China, as well as require that companies to maintain secrecy, about the actions they've taken at the direction of the Chinese Communist Party." He also echoed a common complaint from Western countries that Chinese government policies provide advantages to domestic firms that give them an unfair competitive advantage when they move into international markets.  "The Chinese government, through state-owned banks and other sources, has provided in some cases zero percent interest, 20-year loan offers, which are not commercially reasonable," he said. "That kind of unfair playing field is not one that Western technology should have to compete with. It should be a level playing field for technology vendors." In addition, he said, government-supported "cross subsidization" allows Chinese firms another avenue by which they can undercut the prices of Western firms.  "They can get large profits on what they sell into the Chinese market, which they largely have under their control through the government, and then use those subsidies to then offer lower prices in our markets in the West."  

3D Laser Imaging Shines New Light on 'Last Supper' Site

Fri, 04/12/2019 - 00:36
The arched stone-built hall in Jerusalem venerated by Christians as the site of Jesus' Last Supper has been digitally recreated by archaeologists using laser scanners and advanced photography. The Cenacle, a popular site for pilgrims near Jerusalem's walled Old City, has ancient, worn surfaces and poor illumination, hampering a study of its history. So researchers from Israel's Antiquities Authority and European research institutions used laser technology and advanced photographic techniques to create richly detailed three-dimensional models of the hall built in the Crusader era. The project helped highlight obscure artwork and decipher some theological aspects of the second-floor room, built above what Jewish tradition says is the burial site of King David. "We managed, in one of the... holiest places in Jerusalem, to use this technology and this is a breakthrough," Amit Re'em, Jerusalem district archaeologist at the Israel Antiquities Authority, told Reuters of the project, which began in 2016. Re'em pointed to reliefs of what he described as the symbols of the "Agnus Dei," a lamb that is an emblem of Christ, and the "Lion of Judah" on keystones in the hall's vaulted ceiling. "It tells the story of this room," Re'em said. "It delivers the message of the Last [Supper] Room, Christ as a Messiah, as victorious, as a victim — and the lion, the lion is a symbol of the Davidic dynasty. They combine together in this room." Some archaeologists have questioned whether the room is the actual venue of the Last Supper, the final meal which the New Testament says Jesus shared with disciples before his crucifixion. Ilya Berkovich, a historian at the INZ research institute of the Austrian Academy of Sciences who worked on the project, said the endeavor opens "incredibly new horizons" with enormous potential.      

Dutch Firm ASML Says It Suffered IP Theft, Rejects 'Chinese' Link

Thu, 04/11/2019 - 21:50
Dutch ASML said on Thursday it had been the victim of corporate espionage in 2015 involving employees from countries including China but said it had not been the target of any "national conspiracy." ASML said the perpetrators took "large files" on memory sticks from its Silicon Valley software subsidiary that develops software for machine optimization. It said it had since taken action to make such theft much more difficult. Following publication of a story in Dutch daily newspaper Financieele Dagblad (FD) that said ASML had been struck by Chinese espionage, the company took issue with that label. "The suggestion that we were somehow victim of a national conspiracy is wrong," CEO Peter Wennink said in a statement. "We resent any suggestion that this event should have any implication for ASML conducting business in China. Some of the individuals (involved) happened to be Chinese nationals," he added. The Dutch company welcomed a Sino-European agreement earlier this week, which promised that Beijing would no longer force foreign companies to share sensitive know-how when operating in China. "Can we prudently do business in China? Yes of course. This was a rotten apple," ASML said in an earlier statement. ASML is the dominant maker of lithography systems, used to trace out the circuitry of semiconductor chips. Its sales to China more than doubled to 1.8 billion euros ($2 billion) in 2018 as Beijing drives growth of its domestic semiconductor industry, now accounting for about a sixth of ASML's total sales. California case The FD story was based in part on ASML sources and in part on documents from the Santa Clara, California Superior Court that showed six former ASML employees, all with Chinese names, breached their employment contract by sharing information on ASML software processes with a company called XTAL Inc. The FD reported that XTAL, which makes electrical design automation for semiconductor systems, is a subsidiary of a China-based company called Dongfang Jingyuan, which it said in turn has ties to the Chinese Ministry of Science and Technology. In its reaction, ASML said XTAL's funding came from "South Korea and China." It said the aim of the theft was to create a competing product and sell it to an existing ASML customer in South Korea. The company confirmed the FD's report that the court had awarded ASML $223 million in damages. "It is unclear to what extent these damages can be collected from the now bankrupt company XTAL," ASML said. ASML shares slipped 1.5 percent by 1210 GMT to the bottom of a flat European technology index. ASML's major customers include Samsung of South Korea, TSMC of Taiwan and Intel of the United States. The Dutch intelligence agency has included warnings in its annual threat assessments for the past several years, saying that China is targeting tech companies in the Netherlands, as it does in other countries, for intellectual property theft. In a reaction, the intelligence agency AIVD said it could not comment on individual cases. "In a broader sense, the greatest threat of economic espionage comes from China," it said in an email to Reuters. "The Netherlands is an attractive target, other countries are interested in our information in science and technical expertise."

Bezos: Amazon Will Take Risks, Learn From Failures

Thu, 04/11/2019 - 20:38
Amazon challenged its retail rivals to raise their wages and improve benefits, saying the competition will help everyone. CEO and founder Jeff Bezos said in a letter to shareholders Thursday that as Amazon grows, so does the size of its "failed experiments." He said Amazon is willing to continue to take risks and learn from its failures, while simultaneously supporting successful areas of its business like its third-party sellers and retail locations. Bezos named the Fire phone as a failure, but Echo and Alexa as successes. He also touted third-party sales of $160 billion and Amazon Go stores, saying Amazon is "excited about the future."

Startup Incubator Aims to Spawn Companies to Fight Climate Change

Thu, 04/11/2019 - 19:42
The world will need new breakthroughs to tackle the growing threat of climate change. Whoever comes up with them stands to make a lot of money. And the places where those entrepreneurs do business will reap the benefits. Greentown Labs outside Boston, Massachusetts, wants to play a major role in spawning new clean technology. VOA's Steve Baragona went to have a look.

Facebook Cracks Down on Groups Spreading Harmful Information

Thu, 04/11/2019 - 01:27
Facebook says it is rolling out a wide range of updates aimed at combatting the spread of false and harmful information on the social media site. The updates will limit the visibility of links found to be significantly more prominent on Facebook than across the web as a whole. The company is also expanding its fact-checking program with outside expert sources, including The Associated Press, to vet videos and other material posted on Facebook. Facebook groups will also be more closely monitored to prevent the spread of fake information. The company has been facing criticism for the spread of extremism and misinformation on its flagship site and on Instagram. Congress members questioned a company representative Tuesday about how Facebook prevents violent material from being uploaded and shared on the site.

US Praises German 5G Standards as Huawei Battle Simmers

Wed, 04/10/2019 - 22:47
The top U.S. diplomat for cybersecurity policy has praised Germany's draft security standards for next generation mobile networks, which he said could effectively shut out China's Huawei. Rob Strayer said Wednesday the standards published last month were a "positive step." They call for mobile providers to use "trustworthy" telecom equipment suppliers that comply with national security regulations covering secrecy of communications and data protection. The U.S. has been lobbying European allies to ban Huawei from new 5G networks over concerns China's communist leaders could force the company to use its equipment for cyberespionage. While no European countries have issued blanket bans, Strayer said a "risk-based" approach to evaluating telecom suppliers, including their relationship with their national government, would "lead inevitably" to banning Huawei.

White Supremacist Content Challenges Social Media Companies

Wed, 04/10/2019 - 10:21
The live-streamed video of the Christchurch, New Zealand, mosque shooting last month highlighted the continuing struggle by social media companies to police extremist content on their platforms. Facebook and Google representatives told U.S. lawmakers Tuesday the effort to balance free speech with oversight of white supremacist content is ongoing. VOA’s congressional correspondent Katherine Gypson has more from Capitol Hill.

Green Machines? Flying Taxis Could Slash Emissions for Long Journeys

Wed, 04/10/2019 - 10:20
Futuristic electric flying taxis like those seen in the movie "Blade Runner" could offer a more sustainable - and much faster - way to travel long distances than traditional car journeys, academics at the University of Michigan said on Tuesday. Several firms are working to develop car-sized vertical takeoff and landing aircraft (VTOLs) that can lift passengers above congestion, cruise at over 100 miles per hour (160 km), and land in small spaces within crowded urban centers. The vehicles could slash greenhouse gas emissions in half for three people on a 100-km (62-mile) trip, said researchers, though much of the savings come by assuming passengers will be more willing to share their space than they are in cars. "It was very surprising to see that VTOLs were competitive with regard to energy use and greenhouse gas emissions in certain scenarios," said Gregory Keoleian, from the university's Center for Sustainable Systems, in a statement. "VTOLs with full occupancy could outperform ground-based cars for trips from San Francisco to San Jose or from Detroit to Cleveland, for example." Academics working with researchers at the carmaker Ford found that VTOLs require a large amount of energy to take-off and climb but they were more efficient than cars once cruising. As a result, they produced more emissions than land vehicles over short trips of the type which account for most journeys, but were more efficient over longer distances, according to the study in the journal Nature Communications. Researchers also argued each seat in a flying taxi is likely to be sold separately, as is the case with planes, meaning they would normally be fully occupied unlike cars which have an average occupancy of about between one and two people. A flying taxi holding one pilot and three passengers could make a 100-km trip in about 27 minutes, said researchers. It would produce about 52 percent less greenhouse gas per passenger than two petrol-powered vehicles making the same journey by road, they calculated, and 6 percent less than two electric cars. However, if the VTOL had just one occupant, the emissions savings would be reduced to 35 percent compared to one petrol car and would be 28 percent higher than one electric vehicle. Despite the appeal of flying cars, it is "a fantasy" to imagine they could offer sustainable mass transport, said Jemilah Magnusson of the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy. "A much more efficient and easier way to improve the state of long-distance car travel is to provide public transit options and to provide incentives for people to not drive solo in their cars," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. The University of Michigan study did not offer a timeline of when to expect VTOLs to take passengers on their first flights.

Facebook Tweaks Tools for Remembering Dead Friends

Wed, 04/10/2019 - 10:15
Facebook says it will use artificial intelligence to help find profiles of people who have died so their friends and family members won't get, for instance, painful reminders about their birthdays.   The social network said Tuesday that it is also adding a "tributes" section to accounts that have been memorialized, that is, designated as belonging to someone who has died. Friends and family members will be able to write posts and share photos in this section to remember their loved one.   Facebook is also tightening its rules around who can memorialize an account. Until now, anyone could do this by sending the company proof that someone had died, such an obituary. Now, it will have to be a friend or family member.   The company made the changes in response to users' experiences with seeing their loved ones' profiles pop up on Facebook after they had died. Sometimes, the company said people might not be ready to memorialize a person's profile immediately after their death — it can feel like a big step they are not ready to take. Facebook says it will use AI to prevent that profile from showing up in places it might cause distress, such as in birthday reminders.   Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg, whose husband died unexpectedly in 2015, is one of those users. She said seeing tributes to her late husband on Facebook have helped her cope with her grief.   "I want his memory to stay alive," she said. "Remember specific and wonderful things."

Young Coding Wiz Creates Game to Teach Other Kids to Code

Wed, 04/10/2019 - 09:47
A Silicon Valley coding prodigy, 10, who’s been coding since age 6, has created two new board games to teach other kids to code. VOA's Deana Mitchell reports from Santa Clara, California.

Virgin Galactic's 1st Test Passenger Gets Commercial Astronaut Wings

Wed, 04/10/2019 - 07:45
Virgin Galactic's first test passenger received her commercial astronaut wings from the U.S. aviation regulator on Tuesday after flying on the company's rocket plane to evaluate the customer experience in February. Virgin Galactic's chief astronaut instructor, Beth Moses, who is a former NASA engineer, became the first woman to fly to space on a commercial vehicle when she joined pilots David Mackay and Mike Masucci on SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity. The wings were presented to the three-person crew at the 35th Space Symposium in Colorado by the Federal Aviation Administration's associate administrator for commercial space, Wayne Monteith. "Commercial human space flight is now a reality,” he said. The February test flight nudged Richard Branson’s space travel company closer to delivering suborbital flights for the more than 600 people who have paid Virgin Galactic about $80 million in deposits. Branson has said he hopes to be the first passenger on a commercial flight in 2019. The 90-minute flight, during which passengers will be able to experience a few minutes of weightlessness and see the Earth’s curvature, costs $250,000 -- a price that the company said will increase before it falls. Jeff Bezo’s Blue Origin and Elon Musk’s SpaceX are also in the space tourism race. Blue Origin has launched its New Shepard rocket to space, but its trips have not yet carried humans. SpaceX last year named Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa as its first passenger on a voyage around the moon, tentatively scheduled for 2023. Moses, who as a NASA engineer worked on the assembly of the International Space Station, is designing a three-day training program for Virgin Galactic's future space tourists. “I gleaned a lot of firsthand information that we can roll into the design and then also into the training," she said on her return to earth in Mojave, California, in February. The passengers, some of whom have been signed up since 2004, will train in a mock-up cabin at New Mexico's Spaceport America before their flights. Moses told Reuters she aims for customers to arrive in space "not wondering what noise they just heard or being surprised by the G they just felt." Virgin Galactic's Branson will also receive the annual Space Achievement Award at the symposium in recognition of the company's two crewed test flights, the first from U.S. soil since the final Space Shuttle mission in 2011.

US Senators Introduce Social Media Bill to Ban 'Dark Patterns' Tricks

Wed, 04/10/2019 - 02:29
Two U.S. senators introduced a bill on Tuesday to ban online social media companies like Facebook Inc. and Twitter Inc. from tricking consumers into giving up their personal data. | The bill from Mark Warner, a Democrat, and Deb Fischer, a Republican, would also ban online platforms with more than 100 million monthly active users from designing addicting games or other websites for children under age 13. The bill takes aim at practices that online platforms use to mislead people into giving personal data to companies or otherwise trick them. The so-called "dark patterns" were developed using behavioral psychology. "Misleading prompts to just click the 'OK' button can often transfer your contacts, messages, browsing activity, photos, or location information without you even realizing it," Fischer said in a statement issued by both senators. Restrictions on how social media companies collect information about users could hurt their ability to sell advertisements, a key source of profit. A website aimed at tracking dark patterns identifies behavior, such as a website or app showing that a user has new notifications when they do not. Warner said in an interview on CNBC that the legislation could be included in a federal privacy bill that lawmakers in the Senate Commerce Committee are drafting. Congress has been expected to take up privacy legislation after California passed a strict privacy law that goes into effect next year. Warner noted that Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg, Google and others have expressed support for privacy regulation. "The platform companies are now going to have an opportunity to put their money where their mouth is, to see if they support this legislation and other approaches," he said. The bill would bar companies from choosing groups of people for behavioral experiments unless the companies get informed consent. Under the terms of the bill, social media companies would create a professional standards body to create best practices to deal with the issue. The Federal Trade Commission, which investigates deceptive advertising, would work with the group. Facebook, Google, Twitter and other free online services rely on advertising for revenue, and use data collected on users to more effectively target those ads.  

Senate Republican Leader Calls Net Neutrality Bill 'Dead On Arrival'

Wed, 04/10/2019 - 02:03
U.S. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said on Tuesday a Democratic bid to restore the 2015 net neutrality rules is "dead on arrival in the Senate." The U.S. House of Representatives is set to vote later on Tuesday on a Democratic plan to reinstate the Obama-era rules and overturn a December 2017 decision by the Federal Communications Commission to reverse the rules and hand sweeping authority to internet providers to recast how Americans access the internet. The bill mirrors an effort last year to reverse the FCC's order, approved on a 3-2 vote, that repealed rules barring providers from blocking or slowing internet content or offering paid "fast lanes." The reversal of net neutrality rules was a win for internet providers such as Comcast Corp, AT&T Inc. and Verizon Communications Inc., but was opposed by companies like Facebook Inc., Amazon.com Inc and Alphabet Inc. On Monday, the White House told Congress that if the bill were approved, President Donald Trump's advisers would recommend he veto it. The White House "strongly opposes" the measure that would "return to the heavy-handed regulatory approach of the previous administration," it said in a statement. The bill would repeal the order introduced by FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, bar the FCC from reinstating it or a substantially similar order and reinstate the 2015 net neutrality order. The House will also consider a series of amendments. Representative Mike Doyle, a Democrat, said Tuesday the bill "puts a cop on the beat to make sure our internet service providers aren't acting in an unjust, unreasonable or discriminatory way."  

Capitol Hill Hearing on Online Hate Sees it Firsthand

Tue, 04/09/2019 - 23:50
A congressional hearing on online hate turned into a vivid demonstration of the problem Tuesday when a YouTube livestream of the proceedings was bombarded with racist and anti-Semitic comments. YouTube disabled the live chat section of the streaming video about 30 minutes into the hearing because of what it called "hateful comments." The incident came as executives at Google and Facebook appeared before the House Judiciary Committee to answer questions about the companies' role in the spread of hate crimes and the rise of white nationalism in the U.S.  They were joined by leaders of such human rights organizations as the Anti-Defamation League and the Equal Justice Society. Neil Potts, Facebook director of public policy, and Alexandria Walden, counsel for free expression and human rights at Google, condemned the spread of hate crimes and defended company policies that prohibit material that incites violence or hate. "There is no place for terrorism or hate on Facebook," Potts testified. "We remove any content that incites violence." The hearing was prompted by the mosque shootings last month in Christchurch, New Zealand, that left 50 people dead. The gunman livestreamed the attacks on Facebook and published a long post online that espoused white supremacist views.  But controversy over white nationalism and hate speech has dogged online platforms such as Facebook and Google's YouTube for years.  In 2017, following the deadly violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, tech giants began banishing extremist groups and individuals espousing white supremacist views and support for violence. In March, Facebook extended its ban to white nationalists. Despite the ban, accounts such as one with the name Aryan Pride were still visible as of late Monday. The account read: "IF YOUR NOT WHITE friend ur own kind cause Im not ur friend." On Wednesday a Senate subcommittee will hold a hearing on allegations that companies such as Facebook, Google and Twitter are biased against conservatives, an allegation leveled by political figures from President Donald Trump on down.  The companies have denied any such bias.  

EU: Facebook Changes Terms so Users Know it Sells Their Data

Tue, 04/09/2019 - 20:06
The European Commission says Facebook has changed the fine print in its terms of service to clearly explain that it makes money by selling access to users' data. The social media giant modified its terms after discussions with the commission and consumer protection authorities.   European Union Consumer Commissioner Vera Jourova said Tuesday, "Now users will clearly understand that their data is used by the social network to sell targeted ads."   EU authorities stepped up scrutiny of Facebook's terms after the Cambridge Analytica data privacy scandal, in which the data on 87 million Facebook users was allegedly improperly harvested.   The changes are part of broader global efforts to rein in social media companies amid concerns about privacy breaches, harmful content and other online abuses.

Big Tech Feels the Heat as US Moves to Protect Consumer Data

Tue, 04/09/2019 - 04:30
Momentum is gaining in Washington for a privacy law that could sharply rein in the ability of the largest technology companies to collect and distribute people's personal data. A national law, the first of its kind in the U.S., could allow people to see or prohibit the use of their data. Companies would need permission to release such information. If it takes effect, a law would also likely shrink Big Tech's profits from its lucrative business of making personal data available to advertisers so they can pinpoint specific consumers to target. Behind the drive for a law is rising concern over private data being compromised or distributed by Facebook, Google and other tech giants that have earned riches from collecting and distributing consumer information. The industry traditionally has been lightly regulated and has resisted closer oversight as a threat to its culture of free-wheeling innovation. Support for a privacy law is part of a broader effort by regulators and lawmakers to lessen the domination of companies like Facebook, Google and Amazon. Some, including Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a Democratic presidential candidate, have called for the tech giants to be split up. The Trump White House has said in the past that it could endorse a broad data privacy law. The big tech companies have been nervously eyeing a tough privacy law taking effect next year in California. That measure will allow Californians to see the personal data being collected on them and where it's being distributed and to forbid the sale of it. With some exceptions, consumers could also request that their personal information be deleted entirely.    Whatever federal privacy law eventually emerges is expected to be less stringent than the California measure and to supersede it. As a result, the tech industry is trying to help shape any national restrictions. "This is the first time ever that the industry wants legislation," said Jeffrey Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, a privacy advocacy group. "The industry is terrified." On Tuesday, a House committee will press Google and Facebook executives about another urgent concern involving Big Tech: Whether they're doing enough to curb the spread of hate crimes and white nationalism through online platforms. The Judiciary Committee hearing follows a series of violent incidents fueled in part by online communication. Zuckerberg: New rules needed Facebook, used by 2-billion-plus people including over 200 million in the U.S., has been a particular lightning rod for industry critics. Having had its reputation tarnished over data privacy lapses, a tide of hate speech and a spread of disinformation that allowed Russian agents to target propaganda campaigns, Facebook appears ready to embrace a national privacy law. Facebook's founder and CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, published a column last month in the Washington Post calling for tighter regulations to protect consumer data, control harmful content and ensure election integrity and data portability. "The internet," Zuckerberg wrote, "needs new rules." Amazon says it has built its business on protecting people's information, "and we have been working with policymakers on how best to do that." "There is real momentum to develop baseline rules of the road for data protection," Google's chief privacy officer, Keith Enright, has said in a policy paper. "Google welcomes this and supports comprehensive, baseline privacy regulation." A sweeping "privacy shield" law in the European Union, covering how tech companies handle personal data in the 28-country bloc, should be a model, Zuckerberg wrote. EU regulators recently fined Google $1.7 billion for freezing out rivals in the online ad business — their third penalty against the search giant in two years. The EU watchdogs have also ordered Apple and Amazon to pay back taxes and fined Facebook for providing misleading information in its acquisition of WhatsApp. Advertising revenue On Monday, Britain unveiled plans to vastly increase government oversight of social media companies, with a watchdog that could fine executives or even ban companies that fail to block such content as terrorist propaganda and images of child abuse. The entire debate cuts to the heart of Big Tech's hugely profitable commerce in online users' personal data. The companies gather vast data on what users read and like and leverage it to help advertisers target their messages to the individuals they want to reach. Facebook drew 99% of its revenue from advertising last year. For Google's parent Alphabet, it was 85%, according to Scott Kessler of the research firm CFRA. Amazon, too, doesn't just sell products online; it provides ad space, too. The company doesn't say how much but has said that the "other" revenue in its financial reports is mainly from ads. Its "other" revenue topped $10 billion last year, more than double what it was in 2017. The tech giants' problematic relationship with advertisers was spotlighted by action regulators took last month. The Department of Housing and Urban Development filed civil charges against Facebook, accusing it of allowing landlords and real estate brokers to exclude certain racial or ethnic groups from seeing ads for houses and apartments. Facebook could face penalties. The company has separately agreed to overhaul its ad targeting system and end some of the practices noted by HUD to prevent discrimination in housing listings as well as credit and employment ads. That move was part of a settlement with the American Civil Liberties Union and other activists. Besides crafting a bipartisan data-privacy measure in Congress, lawmakers are considering restoring Obama-era rules that formerly barred internet providers — like AT&T, Verizon and Comcast — from discriminating against certain technologies and services. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., has proposed fines and jail time for executives of companies guilty of data breaches. Allegations of bias The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Business Roundtable, representing CEOs of major companies, have presented their own proposals to curb privacy abuses. At the same time, President Donald Trump has echoed complaints from some conservative lawmakers and commentators that the big tech platforms are politically tilted against them. "Facebook, Twitter and Google are so biased toward the Dems it is ridiculous!" he has tweeted. And he told a rally crowd, "We're not going to let them control what we can and cannot see, read and learn from." Tech executives and many Democrats have rejected those assertions as themselves politically biased. Still, Trump has threatened to push regulators to investigate whether Google has abused its role as an internet gateway to stifle competition. And referring to Amazon, Facebook and Google, Trump told Bloomberg News, "Many people think it is a very antitrust situation, the three of them." Among the tech giants that are trying to shape any final restrictions is the chipmaker Intel, which has developed its own legislative proposal. "I think it's likely we are going to pass a national privacy law by the end of 2020," David Hoffman, Intel's associate general counsel and global privacy officer, said in an interview. By then, the privacy measure emerging in California will have taken effect. "The California bill is responsible for 90% of the lobbying and political pressure to pass a national law," said Robert Atkinson of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, whose board includes tech executives. Four senators — Republicans Roger Wicker of Mississippi and Jerry Moran of Kansas and Democrats Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and Brian Schatz of Hawaii — are working on a national measure. They say it would protect consumers from the abuse of their data and provide legal certainty to ensure that tech companies continue to hire and innovate. "It would be nice," said Wicker, who leads the key Senate Commerce Committee, "to have it on the president's desk this year."

Pinterest Sets Conservative Pricing After Lyft Drop

Mon, 04/08/2019 - 23:50
Pinterest, among the gaggle of tech companies hoping to go public this year, set a conservative price range Monday for its initial public offering. It hopes to raise as much as $1.5 billion in its initial offering of shares. The digital scrapbooking site said in a regulatory filing that it will put about 75 million shares up for sale at a price between $15 and $17 each. That, at the higher end, could put the value of the company at around $9 billion. But it falls below the estimated $12 billion value from earlier sales of shares to private investors, according to reports two years ago. Companies set their price range for an initial public offering with a tricky calculus set by investment banks and underwriters. They don’t want to set the bar too low, but going too high can lead to a sell-off. And those tech companies still planning to go public this year may be treading more carefully following the debut of Lyft 11 days ago. After a much ballyhooed debut , the stock slumped for two days. While its shares bounced back from their lows last week, they remain far below the heights reached in the flurry of first-day trading, and they fell 3% Monday, again dipping under the initial offering price. The Lyft drop was a “major gut check time for Lyft and the tech IPO world to see how this stock trades given it was the first one out of the box,” said Wedbush Securities analyst Dan Ives after Lyft shares tumbled. Other tech companies pushing to go public this year include Uber, Lyft’s rival, the messaging app Slack and the video conferencing company Zoom are expected to make their debut soon. Pinterest claims more than 250 million active monthly users and more than 2 billion monthly searches. The platform allows people to search for and “pin” images that interest them, whether it’s fashion, sports, pets or travel. Pinterest has long shunned the label of being a social network. It doesn’t push users to add friends or build connections. That means it’s avoided the privacy tangles that have ensnared companies like Facebook. Pinterest makes advertising revenue when businesses promote pins in users’ feeds. The San Francisco company had revenue of $756 million last year, a 60% bump from 2017. It had a loss of $63 million in 2018, compared with a loss of $130 million in 2017. Pinterest was founded in 2010 by Ben Silbermann and Evan Sharp, who are the company’s CEO and chief product officer, respectively. The company has been working on developing its artificial intelligence search, which allows people to take a photo or upload a screenshot of an item and find similar products on Pinterest. Pinterest’s stock will list on the New York Stock Exchange under the “PINS” ticker symbol.

EU Says AI Must Be Accountable, Sets Ethical Guidelines

Mon, 04/08/2019 - 22:03
Companies working with artificial intelligence need to install accountability mechanisms to prevent its being misused, the European Commission said on Monday, under new ethical guidelines for a technology open to abuse. AI projects should be transparent, have human oversight and secure and reliable algorithms, and they must be subject to privacy and data protection rules, the commission said, among other recommendations. The European Union initiative taps in to a global debate about when or whether companies should put ethical concerns before business interests, and how tough a line regulators can afford to take on new projects without risking killing off innovation. "The ethical dimension of AI is not a luxury feature or an add-on. It is only with trust that our society can fully benefit from technologies," the Commission digital chief, Andrus Ansip, said in a statement. AI can help detect fraud and cybersecurity threats, improve healthcare and financial risk management and cope with climate change. But it can also be used to support unscrupulous business practices and authoritarian governments. The EU executive last year enlisted the help of 52 experts from academia, industry bodies and companies including Google , SAP, Santander and Bayer to help it draft the principles. Companies and organizations can sign up to a pilot phase in June, after which the experts will review the results and the Commission decide on the next steps. IBM Europe Chairman Martin Jetter, who was part of the group of experts, said guidelines "set a global standard for efforts to advance AI that is ethical and responsible." The guidelines should not hold Europe back, said Achim Berg, president of BITKOM, Germany's Federal Association of Information Technology, Telecommunications, and New Media. "We must ensure in Germany and Europe that we do not only discuss AI but also make AI," he said.

Adventurous Dutchman and His Electric Car Complete Historic 3-Year Journey

Mon, 04/08/2019 - 06:17
Three years ago, a Dutchman climbed into his electric car and set out on a journey. Sunday, a motorcade of electric vehicles escorted him and his converted Volkswagen across an iconic bridge in Australia as he finished his record-setting adventure. VOA's Arash Arabasadi takes us for a ride.