Category Archives: Technology

silicon valley & technology news

Facebook Widens Probe Into Alleged Russian Meddling in Brexit

Facebook Inc said on Wednesday it would conduct a new, comprehensive search of its records for possible propaganda that Russian operatives may have spread during the run-up to Britain’s 2016 referendum on EU


Some British lawmakers had complained that the world’s largest social media network had done only a limited search for evidence that Russians manipulated the network and interfered with the referendum debate.

Russia denies meddling in Britain’s vote to exit the European Union, known as Brexit, or in the 2016 U.S. elections.

Facebook, Twitter Inc and Alphabet Inc’s Google and YouTube have been under intense pressure in Europe and the United States to stop nations from using tech services to meddle in another country’s elections, and to investigate when evidence of such meddling arises.

Facebook’s new search in Britain will require the company’s security experts to go back and analyze historical data, Simon Milner, Facebook’s UK policy director, wrote in a letter on Wednesday to Damian Collins, chair of the British parliament’s Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee.

“We would like to carry out this work promptly and estimate it will take a number of weeks to complete,” Milner wrote.

Facebook said in December that it had found just 97 cents worth of advertising by Russia-based operatives ahead of Britain’s vote to leave the EU. Its analysis, though, involved only accounts linked to the Internet Research Agency, a suspected Russian propaganda service.

Collins last month described Facebook’s initial Brexit-related search as inadequate, and said on Wednesday he welcomed the company’s latest response.

“They are best placed to investigate activity on their platform,” he said in a statement. “I look forward to seeing the results of this investigation, and I’m sure we will want to question Facebook about this when we know the outcome.”

Facebook told U.S. lawmakers last year that it had found 3,000 ads bought by suspected Russian agents posing as Americans and seeking to spread divisive messages in the United States about race, immigration and other political topics.

In France last year, Facebook suspended 30,000 accounts in the days before the country’s presidential election to try to stop the spread of fake news, misinformation and spam.

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Apple to Build 2nd Campus, Hire 20,000 in $350B Pledge

Apple is planning to build another corporate campus and hire 20,000 workers during the next five years as part of a $350 billion commitment to the U.S. economy.

The pledge announced Wednesday is an offshoot from the sweeping overhaul of the U.S. tax code championed by President Donald Trump and approved by Congress last month.


Besides dramatically lowering the standard corporate tax rate, the reforms offer a one-time break on cash being held overseas.


Apple plans to take advantage of that provision to bring back more than $250 billion in offshore cash, generating a tax bill of roughly $38 billion.


The Cupertino, California, company says it will announce the location of a second campus devoted to customer support later this year.



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Technology Developers Call on Others to Make Use of It

The world’s biggest Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas is over but this year’s battle for consumers and their pocketbooks has only began. As smaller companies do not have the resources for research and development, big companies, such as Samsung, Canon and others, have a common message for them – let your imagination tell you how to use our technologies. VOA’s George Putic reports.

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Clean Energy Investment Rose to $333.5B in 2017, Research Shows

New clean energy investment worldwide rose by 3 percent last year to $333.5 billion from a year earlier, driven by a surge in solar photovoltaic (PV) installations, research showed on Tuesday.

The figure is below 2015’s record amount of $360.3 billion, Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF) said in an annual report.

Solar investment totaled $160.8 billion in 2017, up 18 percent from the previous year even though technology costs have fallen. Just over half of that was spent in China, the research showed.

“The 2017 total is all the more remarkable when you consider that capital costs for the leading technology — solar — continue to fall sharply. Typical utility-scale PV systems were about 25 percent cheaper per megawatt last year than they were two years earlier,” said Jon Moore, the chief executive of BNEF.

Chinese investment in clean energy as a whole totaled $132.6 billion last year, up 24 percent from a year earlier to a record high.

Europe invested $57.4 billion, down 26 percent from the previous year, and the United States invested $56.9 billion, up 1 percent on 2016.

Meanwhile, $127.9 billion changed hands last year — the highest amount ever — as organizations purchased and sold clean energy projects and companies and refinanced existing project debt.

Private equity buy-outs reached a record high of $15.8 billion, six times higher than the previous year. The largest acquisition transaction of 2017 was Brookfield Asset Management’s purchase of a stake in U.S. TerraForm Power for $4.7 billion, the report said.

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US Net Neutrality Move May Lead to Trade War with Chinese Internet Firms

A recent decision by the United States’ Federal Communications Commission to repeal net neutrality, which are rules designed to prevent the selective blocking or slowing of websites, has wide-ranging implications for China, which never believed in net neutrality and banned hundreds of foreign websites. The decision could result in a major trade war involving Chinese telecom and Internet companies, which are interested in accessing the U.S. market, analysts said.

The move will allow American telecom service providers to charge differential prices for various services and even examine the data of their customers. Though this aspect has stirred controversy in the United States, the situation there is still very different from the realities in China.

“In China, the government is monitoring and controlling the networks whereas [in U.S.] it is, at least so far, it is telecommunication companies. At this point, the government does not have access, we know it does not have access to manipulating the flow of traffic in the U.S. Internet,” Aija Leiponen, a professor at Cornell University’s Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management, said.

The FCC decision could help U.S. telecom service providers offer high-priced premium services.

Trade war

But this would also open up an opportunity for U.S. service providers to charge high rates from foreign customers. At present, foreign companies can easily access the U.S. cyber market without facing the kind of resistance American companies encounter in China and elsewhere.

“I think it (FCC decision) has an impact potentially for Chinese technology companies that want to do business in the U.S.,” said Benjamin Cavender, a senior analyst at the Shanghai-based China Market Research Group (CMR). “You are asking about companies like Alibaba or Tencent, what this means for them in the U.S. markets– and I could very possibly see this being used as a trade war tool–and the U.S. government saying, ‘Look, we are going to restrict access to companies to our ISPs and force them to pay a lot of money.”

U.S. telecom companies are getting increasing integrated with content providers and might look at foreign players as a source of serious competition. They might go further and even consider blocking some foreign players, including Chinese Internet giants, he said.

“I can also see this happening that they (Chinese Internet firms) just get completely blocked because of the U.S. using this more as a trade tool trying to get more access to the Chinese market because if you are a U.S. technology company you are working at a great disadvantage in the Chinese market. I do see this being used as a trade tool,” Cavender said.

The point is about applying pressure on China to open up its Internet market to American players in exchange for similar treatment in the United States. Washington has usually avoided this kind of tit-for-tat game, but the situation may be changing under the Trump administration, analysts said.

“They (U.S. telecom companies) could at some point say, ‘Look, if you want to have confidential, fast access to the U.S. you have to kind of allow us to do the same thing, allow us to invest more heavily in Chinese firms.’ I could see that happening,” Cavender said.

Moral high ground

China has been advocating the idea of ‘Internet sovereignty,’ which allows governments to create boundaries in cyber space and block foreign sites that it perceives as potential threats to security. Proponents of ‘open Internet’ have been protesting against the idea of ‘Internet sovereignty.’

The Obama administration lobbied and argued with China for nearly a decade to open up Internet access for American companies like YouTube, Twitter and Netflix. It was an important aspect of the annual strategic economic dialogue between the two countries.

The FCC decision coupled with the controversy over alleged cyber spying by Russia is a moral boost of support for China’s online restrictions, which include a ban on major sites like Google, YouTube and Twitter. The moral high ground enjoyed by the United States under the past administration may be at risk, analysts said.

“Even democracies are beginning to think about the need to regulate content. So the Chinese, you know, might take a little comfort in that,” James Lewis, senior vice president of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said. “When you look at Europeans talking about blocking each other’s content, when you look at the U.S. talking about blocking Russian political warfare, the Internet cannot be the wild west that it’s been for a couple of decades. So, everyone’s moving in this direction and I guess the Chinese can take comfort from that.”

Meanwhile, Chinese experts are protesting a new bill introduced in the U.S. Congress that would prevent branches of the U.S. government from working with service providers that use any equipment from two Chinese companies, Huawei and ZTE, for security reasons.

“This (prejudice towards Chinese companies) seems like a problem that can’t be solved, at least not in the short term,” Liu Xingliang, head of the Data Center of China Internet, told the Global Times newspaper in Beijing.

At the same time, “Chinese firms can’t give up the U.S. market and just focus on smaller countries if they want to really achieve their global goals,” Liu Dingding, an independent tech expert told the paper.

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Palestinians to Get 3G in West Bank, After Israel Lifts Ban

Palestinians in the West Bank are finally getting high-speed mobile data services, after a yearslong Israeli ban that cost their fragile economy hundreds of millions of dollars, impeded tech start-ups and denied them simple conveniences enjoyed by the rest of the world.


Palestinian cell phone providers Wataniya and Jawwal are expected to launch 3G broadband services in the West Bank by the end of this month, Palestinian officials said, after Israel assigned frequencies and allowed the import of equipment.


“It’s about time,” Wataniya CEO Durgham Maraee said of the anticipated launch, speaking to The Associated Press at company headquarters in the West Bank last week. “It has taken a very, very long time.”


The belated move to 3G comes a decade after Palestinian operators first sought Israeli permits and at a time when faster 4G is increasingly available in the Middle East.


This keeps Palestinian mobile companies at a continued disadvantage, including in competition with Israeli companies that offer 3G and 4G coverage to Palestinian customers in the West Bank through towers installed in Israeli settlements. The World Bank has criticized this state of affairs because the Israeli firms do not pay license fees or taxes to the Palestinian authorities.


The Israeli ban on 3G also remains in place in the Gaza Strip, making that Palestinian territory, dominated by the militant group Hamas, one of the last without such services across the globe. Mobile internet is available in far-flung places, from the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan to the Atlantic’s volcanic rock island of Ascension.


In blocking 3G for years, Israel has cited security concerns, without going into details. Officials suggest, for example, that high-speed mobile data could make it easier for Palestinian militants to communicate while reducing the risk of Israeli surveillance.


Israel’s Shin Bet security agency declined comment Sunday.


COGAT, an Israeli Defense Ministry branch, said it worked on implementing a 2015 memorandum of understanding with the Palestinians on 3G, and that it expects a launch in two to three weeks. Officials did not respond to questions about Israel’s yearslong ban on 3G.


Israel has delayed approval for Palestinian economic development projects in the past, leading to efforts by high-level international efforts to try to speed things along. Most recently, President Donald Trump’s Mideast team has urged Israel to make economic gestures to the Palestinians.


Palestinian officials have said they suspect such projects are being used as political leverage.


At the same time, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has called for so-called “economic peace” with the Palestinians, as he stepped back from offers by predecessors to negotiate the terms of an independent Palestinian state on lands Israel captured in 1967.


At Wataniya headquarters, where employees got 3G as part of pre-launch tests, the mood was upbeat.


The CEO said the 3G launch and the company’s recent expansion into Gaza, after Israel lifted restrictions on importing equipment, could translate into profits in 2018 — the first since Wataniya began operations in 2009 as the second Palestinian cellphone provider.


“The future is bright,” Maraee said.


But the company’s struggles also illustrate the difficulties faced by Palestinian entrepreneurs, large and small, as they operate under Israeli obstacles to trade, movement and access.


Israel has kept a tight grip on the daily lives of Palestinians since its 1967 capture of the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem, areas sought for a Palestinian state.


It annexed east Jerusalem and retains overall control of the West Bank. The Palestinian Authority, a self-rule government, administers 38 percent of the West Bank, while the remaining area, home to 400,000 Israeli settlers, is largely off-limits to Palestinian economic development.


Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005, but has enforced a border blockade, along with Egypt, since Hamas seized the strip in 2007. The West Bank-based Palestinian Authority of President Mahmoud Abbas is trying to regain a foothold in Gaza in stop-and-go reconciliation talks with Hamas.


The World Bank has repeatedly urged Israel to unshackle the Palestinian economy to allow private sector growth, essential for lowering double-digit Palestinian unemployment.


In 2016, the bank said the Palestinian mobile phone sector lost more than $1 billion in potential earnings over the previous three years, largely due to Israeli restrictions.


It noted that Israeli providers siphoned off as much as 30 percent of the potential Palestinian customer base in the West Bank with offers of 3G and 4G services.


Maraee said Wataniya has stayed afloat in part because of the continued support of its main investors — the Qatar-based telecommunications company Ooredoo and the self-rule government’s Palestinian Investment Fund.


Wataniya is now at the break-even point, but that it once suffered losses of as much as $20 million a year, he said.


“If it wasn’t for the commitment of the PIF and the Ooredoo Group … to the Palestinian economy, probably Wataniya would not have survived under these trying circumstances,” he said.


Smaller Palestinian entrepreneurs also expect an immediate 3G bump in business.


Ali Taha launched Rocab, an online taxi booking service, last July, but has so far captured only a tiny slice of the market. He expects a significant increase with 3G, since customers would be able to summon a ride from anywhere, instead of having to search for a location with WiFi.


Shadi Atshan, founder of the Palestinian start-up accelerator FastForward, said he expects app development to flourish and generate more Palestinian tech jobs.


For ordinary Palestinians, everyday life will get just a little easier.


Alaa Amouri, 20, a student, said she gets 4G from an Israeli provider that offers only partial coverage in the West Bank.


Mobile data from a Palestinian provider would offer real-time updates on potential trouble on the roads, said Amouri, who commutes between east Jerusalem and her West Bank university, passing through the crowded Israeli-run Qalandiya crossing almost daily.


“It (3G) helps in getting news updates,” she said. “Sometimes when we are at the Qalandiya crossing, we find it blocked without knowing why.”


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Uganda Considering Launching Its Own Social Media Platforms

[Uganda is mulling over the idea of creating its own social media platforms. But social media users and government critics see this as a potential effort to control free expression.

Facebook and Twitter should brace themselves for competition from Uganda. With no name yet or date on when the new services will be operational, the Uganda Communications Commission is planning to launch its own social media platforms.

Commission Director Godfrey Mutabazi says Uganda has many young people who have come up with innovations and applications that can be deployed to serve the population.

“There is open information for everything. We have got over almost 70 percent penetration,” he said. “We are moving into digital era, data communication. We are hope that by the end of this year 20-25 percent, maybe 30 percent of Ugandans will be on data communication. So we shall access the information, education-wise, research, name it, will be available.”

Nicholas Opiyo executive director of Chapter Four Uganda, a local civil liberties organization, says Uganda is not seeking to develop its own social media space because it appreciates the innovative power of social media. He fears a darker purpose.

“One I don’t believe they can do it, but if they want to do it, it’s not for the best of intentions,” he said. “Recent studies have shown that the government of Uganda is now involved in active filtering of particular information. Namely; information about corruption, information about same sex relations, critical government policies on the first family, that’s what they are trying to do. That’s what they are trying to do, because the biggest threat to this government now, is an informed citizenry.”

In 2016, the Ugandan government shut down social media twice — on Election Day and during President Yoweri Museveni’s swearing in ceremony. For social media users like Jackie Kemigisa, a move by the government regulator to set up its own social media is cause to worry.

“As a person who uses social media and whose source of employment, everything that I do is online, it was a horrible idea. At first I thought it was a joke. So, counting on the sad part of it that they don’t have the money, and if they do, well then, Ugandans will have to re-strategize, go back to the drawing board and see how we can still fight for our freedoms,” said Kemigisa.

Critics say a social media platform controlled by the government will put Uganda in the same league as countries such as Iran, China and North Korea. But the Uganda Communications Commission has described those who see this innovation as eroding freedom of speech as patronizing. The government agency insists they just want to keep hate speech out of Ugandan social media, and says the new platforms are going to be positive.


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Vietnam Seeks Upper Hand on Dissent with Rules On Foreign Internet Services

Vietnam is adding pressure on foreign internet firms to keep data on local users and be more accessible to the country’s authorities as the country tightens control over online dissent.

A bill that the Southeast Asian country’s Ministry of Public Security offered to legislators this month would require foreign internet services to open representative offices if they have at least 10,000 Vietnamese users or if otherwise requested, official media say.

The bill being reviewed by the National Assembly also calls for making the same foreign companies store data on Vietnamese users in Vietnam, VnExpress International reported Jan. 11. 

Those providers should collect “important data collected or generated from activities in the country,” the report adds.

Legislation on normally free-wheeling foreign internet firms such as Facebook and Google, both popular among Vietnamese, extend the Communist country’s tightening of control over online dissent after initial moves over the past two years, analysts say.

“In recent years Vietnam has witnessed a boom on the Internet and social media plays a very important role in Vietnamese citizens’ lives, and so I think that the government is aware of the importance of social media,” said Trung Nguyen, international relations dean at Ho Chi Minh University of Social Sciences and Humanities.

“That’s the reason why they want to establish their presence, because they want to control social media,” he said.

Trend of tightening

A series of arrests of bloggers in 2016 and 2017 bared the Vietnamese government’s sensitivity to public views about graft and inefficiency among officials, experts believe. 

Those views weigh increasingly on state-to-people relations despite Vietnam’s fast economic growth that has brought perks such as job creation.

In June 2017 the Ministry of Public Security initially proposed the law to give it more power over prohibited content, including cyber-crime, and anti-government activities. 

Owners of Internet cafes had already been asked to install monitoring software and make customers show identification that inspectors could check.

But Vietnam lacks an Internet censorship scheme like its Communist neighbor China. Vietnam does not, for example, routinely filter websites for provocative keywords or block foreign social media networks. Authorities are, however, allowed to stop content that includes “propaganda against the state.”

About 70 percent of Vietnam’s total 92 million people use the internet, with 53 million on social media sites, government figures show. The country lacks widespread, homegrown social media, steering people instead toward foreign-registered services.

Officials also hope the law, now it its fifth draft, will also ease “fake news,” curb internet fraud and stop hacking that has hit 18,000 Vietnam-registered websites including that of the country’s chief airline, said Lam Nguyen, country manager with market research firm IDC. Risk of internet crime is particularly high in Vietnam, he said.

The representative offices required under the law would force foreign Internet firms to pay taxes and follow local regulations that they can avoid now by basing offshore.

Still, a chief mission of the pending legislation is to keep dissent offline, Trung Nguyen said.

“Obviously some things they feel sensitive about,” said Yee Chung Seck, partner with the international law form Baker & McKenzie (Vietnam). “And there’s such a degree of what’s the level of sensitivity — does it somehow cross the line into being abusive.”

Foreign firms expected to comply

Facebook and Google are expected to follow the new law once passed. Neither American internet giant replied to a request for comment for this report, but Vietnam’s Ministry of Information and Communications said Friday it had gotten initial compliance from both.

Google and YouTube have blocked or removed “many harmful and unlawful video clips,” though they still appear on Facebook, the ministry said in a statement. Facebook, it said, has taken down more than 670 of about 5,000 accounts that Vietnam said are “false” or “spread defamation, obscenity and violence.”

Facebook has closed 159 anti-government accounts and Google has removed 4,500 videos containing “bad or toxic content from YouTube,” VnExpress International said.

“The minister stressed that Vietnam was particularly concerned about information that incites anti-government and anti-Party sentiment, violence, or smears the regime, and called for Facebook’s collaboration to deal with the problem,” said the statement, which followed a meeting between the minister and Facebook’s regional regulatory affairs head Damien Yeo.

Internet firms are likely to comply as long as they can avoid hurting overall business.

“I think to a certain degree, probably, if it’s not too much of a cost and not so much disruption to their current business in Vietnam, they would probably try to comply,” Lam Nguyen said.

The Facebook legal affairs official pledged to work with authorities in “dealing with bad information in the global scale,” the ministry website said.

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How Tech Affects Kids a Concern at Consumer Electronics Show

Kathryn Green and her husband prevented their young son from playing on screen devices until he was 2 years old.

Then they handed him a Square Panda, a screen that sounds out letters. He loved it.

“It was pretty incredible and actually scary in some ways to see how quickly he was drawn to it and knew what to do,” said Green, who works at Square Panda.

Square Panda, in many parents’ eyes, would qualify as good screen time. It teaches young children early literacy while also engaging them with fun sounds and cartoonlike figures. The company was among thousands last week exhibiting at CES, the large consumer electronics show that took place in Las Vegas.

WATCH: Tech’s Effects on Kids a Concern at Consumer Electronics Show

Worries about kids and screens

But while there was a lot of excitement at CES about the latest in drones, robots and wearable devices, there was also some ambivalence about how the digital life might be affecting children.

“We need to start to set our own rules,” said Robin Raskin, with Living in Digital Times, a firm that creates tech conferences. “And I don’t think you can depend on the industry to set them for you. But I think you can depend on them to make the tools so you can set your rules easily.”

Should Apple help parents?

Tech executives have also sounded the alarm, and earlier this month, two large Apple shareholders wrote to the iPhone maker to express their concerns.

They asked the company to do more to help parents who want to restrict their children’s use of mobile phones and requested that Apple fund research looking into the effects of smartphones and other technologies on children. 

“Eighth-graders who are heavy users of social media have a 27 percent higher risk of depression, while those who exceed the average time spent playing sports, hanging out with friends in person, or doing homework have a significantly lower risk,” the investors wrote.

“Wait Until 8th,” a parent group, invites parents to hold out until the eighth grade before letting their adolescents have their own smartphones. The organizers say that smartphones are addictive, affect sleep and interfere with schoolwork and friendships.

At CES, some exhibitors aimed their products at anxious parents worried that screens are upending play.

Games beyond screens

When John Shi’s older two children received laptops, “they just disappeared behind screens,” said the long-time tech executive.

Inspired to do something differently with his third child, he created Beyond Screen, a company that makes interactive games that do not rely on screens. He says tech executives should make products and services they would let their own kids use.

“I’m not going to make all these things that will just simply suck in our children’s time, without providing benefits, that really take them away from social interactions, take them away from parents and teachers, make them feel lonely,” Shi said. “I’ll make products my children will actually use.”

An opportunity for tech

Raskin says the growing ambivalence is a chance for the tech industry to do something new.

“The industry has a big opportunity to say, ‘We will educate you, trust us, we got you covered,’” she said. “And they really do owe it to people.’’

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