Mattis Urges Pakistan to Redouble Efforts Against Terrorists

Pakistani Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi on Monday insisted his country is “committed” to the war against terrorism. The comment came during a meeting in Islamabad with U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. Outwardly, there were no signs of tension between the two men. However, it’s a different story behind the scenes, reports VOA’s Bill Gallo, who is traveling with the Pentagon chief.

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Lawmaker: Support for Brazil’s Pension Reform More Organized

The government of Brazil’s President Michel Temer is far from assembling the coalition needed to pass a landmark pension reform, but potential supporters of the measure are now more organized, a key legislator said on Monday.

“We’re still enormously far (from having the needed votes), but we have a party leader committed, a party president committed, one party that’s set to commit,” Brazil’s lower house speaker, Rodrigo Maia, told journalists after an event in Rio de Janeiro.

Pension reform is the cornerstone policy in President Temer’s efforts to bring Brazil’s deficit under control. But the measure is widely unpopular with Brazilians, who are accustomed to a relatively expansive welfare net.

In order to curry support from Congress, Temer and his allies watered down their original proposal in November, requiring fewer years of contributions by private sector workers to receive a pension.

According to several government sources, Temer’s allies have grown more optimistic in the last week about the reform’s chances.

However, speed is essential for the bill’s passage. A congressional recess begins on Dec. 22, and lawmaking thereafter will be hampered by politics, as lawmakers ramp up their campaigns for 2018 elections.

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Facebook Launches Parent-controlled Messenger App for Kids

Facebook is coming for your kids.

The social media giant is launching a messaging app for children to chat with their parents and with friends approved by their parents.

The free app is aimed at kids under 13, who can’t yet have their own accounts under Facebook’s rules, though they often do.

Messenger Kids comes with a slew of controls for parents. The service won’t let children add their own friends or delete messages — only parents can do that. Kids don’t get a separate Facebook or Messenger account; rather, it’s an extension of a parent’s account.

A kids-focused experience

While children do use messaging and social media apps designed for teenagers and adults, those services aren’t built for them, said Kristelle Lavallee, a children’s psychology expert who advised Facebook on designing the service.

“The risk of exposure to things they were not developmentally prepared for is huge,” she said.

Messenger Kids, meanwhile, “is a result of seeing what kids like,” which is images, emoji and the like. Face filters and playful masks can be distracting for adults, Lavallee said, but for kids who are just learning how to form relationships and stay in touch with parents digitally, they are ways to express themselves.

Lavallee, who is content strategist at the Center on Media and Child Health at Boston Children’s Hospital and Harvard University, called Messenger Kids a “useful tool” that “makes parents the gatekeepers.” But she said that while Facebook made the app “with the best of intentions,” it’s not yet known how people will actually use it.

As with other tools Facebook has released in the past, intentions and real-world use do not always match up. Facebook’s live video streaming feature, for example, has been used for plenty of innocuous and useful things, but also to stream crimes and suicides.

Hooked on Facebook

Is Messenger Kids simply a way for Facebook to rope in the young ones?

Stephen Balkam, CEO of the nonprofit Family Online Safety Institute, said “that train has left the station.”

Federal law prohibits internet companies from collecting personal information on kids under 13 without their parents’ permission and imposes restrictions on advertising to them. This is why Facebook and many other social media companies prohibit younger kids from joining. Even so, Balkam said millions of kids under 13 are already on Facebook, with or without their parents’ approval.

He said Facebook is trying to deal with the situation pragmatically by steering young Facebook users to a service designed for them.

Facebook said Messenger Kids won’t show ads or collect data for marketing. Facebook also said it won’t automatically move users to the regular Messenger or Facebook when they get old enough, though the company might give them the option to move contacts to Messenger down the line.

Messenger Kids is launching Monday in the U.S. on Apple devices — the iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch. Versions for Android and Amazon’s tablets are coming later.

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Apple, Google at China Internet Fest Shows Lure of Market

The high-profile attendance of the leaders of Apple and Google at a Chinese conference promoting Beijing’s vision of a censored internet highlights the dilemma for Western tech companies trying to expand in an increasingly lucrative but restricted market.

 

The event in Wuzhen, a historic canal town outside Shanghai, marked the first time chiefs of two of the world’s biggest tech companies have attended the annual state-run World Internet Conference.

 

Apple CEO Tim Cook told the gathering as the conference opened Sunday that his company was proud to work with Chinese partners to build a “common future in cyberspace.”

 

His and Google CEO Sundar Pichai’s presence along with other business leaders, diplomats and other experts, some analysts say, helped bestow credibility on Beijing’s preferred version of an internet sharply at odds with Silicon Valley’s dedication to unfettered access.

 

Chinese President Xi Jinping vowed, in remarks to the conference conveyed by an official, that “China’s door to the world will never close, but will only open wider.”

 

As in previous years, organizers allowed attendees unrestricted access to the internet, contrary to official policy under which internet users face extensive monitoring and censorship and are blocked from accessing many overseas sites by the so-called Great Firewall of China.

 

Since Xi came to power in 2013, he has tightened controls and further stifled free expression, activists say.

 

Beijing’s restraints also extend to Western companies like Google, Twitter and Facebook, which have largely been shut out from the market, leaving it to homegrown internet giants like Tencent.

Apple has a large production base in China, which is one of its biggest markets, though domestic smartphone makers are catching up.

 

It has been criticized by some app developers for complying with Chinese censorship demands. In July, companies that let people get around the government’s internet filters – known as virtual private network providers – said their programs had been removed from Apple’s app store in China. One such company, ExpressVPN, said Apple was “aiding China’s censorship effort.”

 

Apple said that China began requiring this year that developers of virtual-private networks have a government license. The California-based tech giant said it had removed apps “in China that do not meet the new regulations.” Two Apple spokeswomen couldn’t be reached by phone for comment.

 

“The problem is that these companies are between a rock and a hard place,” said Rogier Creemers, a China researcher at Leiden University who attended the conference. They covet China’s huge market but if they do make it in, as in Apple’s case, local law “requires things that Western observers generally are uncomfortable with,” he said.

 

Cook’s speech drew a big crowd. He said the company supports more than 5 million jobs in China, including 1.8 million software developers who have earned more than 112 billion yuan ($17 billion).

 

It’s Apple’s responsibility to ensure that “technology is infused with humanity,” he said, avoiding mention of any sensitive topics.

 

Google shut the Chinese version of its search engine in 2010 over censorship concerns. Pichai has talked about wanting to re-enter China, and he told a panel discussion in Wuzhen that small and mid-sized Chinese businesses use Google services to get their products to other countries, according to a report in the South China Morning Post. A Google spokesman declined to comment.

 

The tech giants may have chosen to appear at the conference because the current political climate in the United States encourages a pragmatic approach in pursuing business regardless of other concerns, said Jonathan Sullivan, director of the University of Nottingham’s China Policy Institute.

 

“There has never been a time when an American company is less likely to be called out by the White House for pursuing a business-first approach,” said Sullivan.

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Portugal’s Finance Chief Tapped to Lead Eurozone Group

The finance ministers from the 19 countries that use the euro are deciding who should lead their regular meetings, with Portugal’s Mario Centeno widely tipped to take the helm of a group that has led the currency bloc’s crisis-fighting efforts.

The decision of who will succeed Dutchman Jeroen Dijsselbloem as president of the so-called eurogroup is expected later Monday. Dijsselbloem, who has held the post for nearly five years, has been one of the most high-profile European politicians during a period that saw a number of countries, notably Greece, teeter on the edge of bankruptcy and the euro currency itself come under threat.

 

Three other candidates are in the frame, too: Luxembourg’s Pierre Gramegna, Slovakia’s Peter Kazimir and Latvia’s Dana Reizniece-Ozola.

 

Whoever gets the presidency will inherit a eurozone in far better shape than the one that existed during Dijsselbloem’s tenure. The economy is growing strongly while worries over Greece’s future in the bloc have subsided and the country is poised to exit its bailout era next summer.

 

A victory for Centeno, who in Portugal has favored easing off budget austerity policies, has the potential to mark a new era for the eurozone.

 

While eurozone governments still insist that countries must keep their public finances in shape, there’s a greater acknowledgement that many people, particularly in southern Europe, have grown weary of austerity. Following the departure of long-time German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble, a Centeno victory would encapsulate that shift.

 

Portugal was one of four eurozone countries that had to be bailed out during the region’s debt crisis. In 2011, the country required a 78 billion-euro rescue after its budget deficit grew too large and bond market investors asked for hefty premiums to lend to the government. In return for the financial lifeline, Portuguese governments had to enact a series of spending cuts and economic reforms.

 

Though the strategy may have worked in bringing Portugal’s public finances into better shape, austerity accentuated a recession and raised unemployment. Since Centeno took office in the Socialist government that came to power in December 2015, Portugal’s deficit has fallen to 2 percent, the lowest in more than 40 years while the unemployment rate is down to an almost 10-year low of 8.5 percent, after peaking at a record 16.2 percent in 2013.

 

Ahead of the meeting where the vote will take place, Centeno said his aim, should he come out on top, would be to “generate consensus” in the “challenging” period ahead.

 

“We have showed everyone that we can reach consensus, we can work with other parties, we can work with institutions,” he said. “Portugal is an example of that.”

 

Dijsselbloem said keeping the eurogroup “together and united” should be the primary purpose of the eurogroup president.

 

“It’s the only way we take decisions in the eurogroup,” he said.

 

 

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Ongoing Labor Abuse Found in Pepsi’s Indonesian Palm Oil Plantations

Workers at several Indonesian palm oil plantations that supply Pepsi and Nestle suffer from a variety of labor abuses, including lower-than-minimum wages, child labor, exposure to pesticides, and union busting, according to a new report from the Rainforest Action Network (RAN).

The report covers three palm oil plantations operated by Indofood, the biggest food company in Indonesia and the country’s only producer of PepsiCo-branded snacks, and follows up on previous reports from the same groups of plantation workers. Indofood remains certified as “sustainable” by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) despite ongoing labor abuses, which activists say raises the question of what possible incentives there are for a mega-corporation to reform its labor practices.

“Since our first report in June 2016, which broke the scandal, to this one nearly one and a half years later, hardly anything has changed,” said Emma Lierley, RAN’s Communications Manager. “Pepsi hasn’t even issued a public response.”

Pepsi Co., Indofood, and RSPO could not be reached for comment.

Widespread abuse

Workers at palm oil plantations on the islands of Kalimantan and Sumatra reported the same catalog of abuses that they suffered 17 months ago, such as exposure to dangerous pesticides with inadequate protective equipment. They also complain of withheld wages and unpaid overtime, as well as frequent use of daily contract workers and unpaid laborers (like workers’ wives), which the study authors say are all also risk factors for child labor.

“We’re asking that Indofood reform labor practices on its plantations immediately,” said Lierley. “PepsiCo has a significant amount of leverage.” “Indofood could certainly move the needle” as well, she said.

But the RSPO has no clear path forward, admitted Robin Averbeck, a RAN campaigner.

“The RSPO has failed to include workers as critical stakeholders in its system since its creation up until this very day,” said Averbeck. “Fundamentally it will never address labor rights issues in a meaningful way unless workers are integrated as key constituents in the system and play an active role in monitoring and enforcing the standard themselves.”

RSPO has never revoked a company’s sustainability certification for labor violations.

“After nearly a year and a half of an official RSPO complaint containing indisputable evidence documenting widespread labor violations on multiple Indofood plantations, the RSPO has failed to sanction or suspend Indofood,” said Averbeck, who said the inaction was a “fundamental failure” and suggested that the RSPO suspend Indofood immediately.

The palm oil problem

Labor abuse in Indonesia is not unique to the palm oil industry — it has been documented widely across the garment, domestic work, and mining sectors, among others — but in recent years, palm oil has become particularly ripe for exploiting workers.

Palm oil is found in countless household products and foods, from lipstick to potato chips, and it grows very well in the tropical rainforest of Southeast Asia. It is cheap and easy to plant at great scale and swathes of the Borneo rainforest in both Indonesia and Malaysia, have been transformed in recent years into the trademark bright green grids of a palm oil plantation.

But the crop has displaced dozens of indigenous communities and employed thousands of child laborers and unpaid, underpaid, and abused workers. Global demand for palm oil shows no sign of slowing down — the industry is estimated to be worth $93 billion by 2021.

Difficulty of labor reform

The best mechanism for workers’ rights remains trade unions, but there are a number of obstacles to effective organizing among palm oil workers, according to Andriko Otang of Indonesia’s Trade Union Rights Commission.

“For one thing, there is the sheer difficulty of organizing,” said Otang. “A worker has to spend 400,000 rupiah (about $28) for a one-way ticket to the regional capital.” A roundtrip could turn out to be half their monthly salary, he said.

Another factor is the logistical barriers to organizing in places like rural Kalimantan, where there is weak cell signal and low access to information. “If you want to organize even a single strike, it’s so difficult,” said Otang.

Beyond discriminating against actual and potential union members, according to the RAN report, Indofood employs a large impermanent workforce, who cannot unionize. According to its 2016 Sustainability Report, Indofood’s plantation arm, IndoAgri, reported 38,104 permanent workers and 34,782 casual workers.

Despite the formidable odds, said Otang, there have been success stories for palm oil workers: in South Kalimantan and Palembang, workers have organized multi-company collective bargaining agreements and abolished the practice of casual work.

“As long as you have a strong independent union and solidarity between officials and members, labor reform is possible,” he said.

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Venezuela to Launch Cryptocurrency to Fight U.S. Sanctions

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro says his government will launch a cryptocurrency, or digital currency, to circumvent what he called a financial “blockade” by the U.S. government.

The new currency will be called the “petro,” the leftist leader said in his TV address Sunday. It will be backed by the socialist-run OPEC nation’s oil, gold and mineral reserves.

That will allow Venezuela to advance toward new forms of international financing for its economic and social development, Maduro said.

“Venezuela will create a cryptocurrency – the petro-currency, the petro – to advance in monetary sovereignty, to make its financial transactions, to overcome the financial blockade,” he explained. “This will allow us to move toward new forms of international financing for the economic and social development of the country. And it will be done with a cryptocurrency issue backed by reserves of Venezuelan riches of gold, oil, gas and diamonds.”

Maduro did not give any details what the new currency’s value will be, how it will work or when it will be launched.

The government also announced the creation of a “blockchain observatory” software platform for buying and selling virtual currency.

Opposition leaders objected to Maduro’s announcement, saying the currency would need congressional approval. Some questioned whether the digital currency would even be introduced in the midst of turmoil.

Venezuela’s traditional currency, the bolivar, has significantly declined in recent weeks as U.S. sanctions make it harder for the country to stay current on its foreign debt.

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Facebook Opens New London Office, to Create 800 UK Jobs

Facebook opens its new London office on Monday and said it would add 800 more jobs in the capital next year, underlining its commitment to Britain as the country prepares for Brexit.

The social network said more than half of the people working at the site in central London will focus on engineering, making it Facebook’s biggest engineering hub outside the United States.

It will also house Facebook’s first in-house start-up incubator, called LDN_LAB, designed to help kick start fledgling British digital businesses.

EMEA vice president Nicola Mendelsohn said Facebook was more committed than ever to the U.K. and supporting the growth of the country’s innovative start-ups.

“The U.K.’s flourishing entrepreneurial ecosystem and international reputation for engineering excellence makes it one of the best places in the world to build a tech company,” she said.

“And we’ve built our company here – this country has been a huge part of Facebook’s story over the past decade, and I look forward to continuing our work to achieve our mission of bringing the world closer together.”

The new jobs, which come 10 years after the company set up its first London office, will take Facebook’s total British workforce to more than 2,300 by the end of 2018, it said.

Facebook, along with other U.S. digital giants including Google and Amazon, has not been deterred from expanding in London by Britain’s decision to leave the European Union.

It announced the new headquarters last year, shortly after Google said it was building a new hub in the city that will be able to accommodate more than 7,000 employees in total.

Facebook’s new office in the capital’s West End, designed by architect Frank Gehry, will house engineers, developers, marketing and sales teams working on products like Workplace, its business product which was built in London, it said.

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Trump Tweets About Russia Probe Spark Warnings From Lawmakers

A series of tweets by U.S. President Donald Trump about the investigation into contacts between his 2016 campaign and Russia prompted concerns on Sunday among both Democratic and Republican lawmakers, with Republican Senator Lindsey Graham saying Trump could be wading into “peril” by commenting on the probe.

“I would just say this with the president: There’s an ongoing criminal investigation,” Graham said on the CBS program “Face the Nation.” “You tweet and comment regarding ongoing criminal investigations at your own peril,” he added.

On Sunday morning, Trump wrote on Twitter that he never asked former FBI Director James Comey to stop investigating Michael Flynn, the president’s former national security adviser – a statement at odds with an account Comey himself has given.

That tweet followed one on Saturday in which Trump said: “I had to fire General Flynn because he lied to the Vice President (Mike Pence) and the FBI.”

Legal experts and some Democratic lawmakers said if Trump knew Flynn lied to the Federal Bureau of Investigation and then pressured Comey not to investigate him, that could bolster a charge of obstruction of justice.

Trump’s attorney, John Dowd, told Reuters in an interview on Sunday that he had drafted the Saturday tweet and “made a mistake” when he composed it.

“The mistake was I should have put the lying to the FBI in a separate line referencing his plea,” Dowd said. “Instead, I put it together and it made all you guys go crazy. A tweet is a shorthand.”

Dowd said the first time the president knew for a fact that Flynn lied to the FBI was when he was charged.

Dowd also clouded the issue by saying that then-acting U.S. attorney general Sally Yates informed White House counsel Don McGahn in January that Flynn told FBI agents the same thing he told Pence, and that McGahn reported his conversation with Yates to Trump. He said Yates did not characterize Flynn’s conduct as a legal violation.

Dowd said it was the first and last time he would craft a tweet for the president.

“I’ll take responsibility,” he said. “I’m sorry I misled people.”

Yates did not respond to an email seeking comment, and a lawyer for McGahn did not respond to requests for comment.

The White House also did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

‘Continual tweets’

The series of tweets came after a dramatic turn of events on Friday in which Flynn pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his conversations last December with Russia’s then-ambassador in Washington, Sergei Kislyak, just weeks before Trump entered the White House.

Flynn also agreed to cooperate with prosecutors delving into contacts between Trump’s inner circle and Russia before the president took office.

Senator Dianne Feinstein, the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said she believed the indictments in the investigation so far and Trump’s “continual tweets” pointed toward an obstruction of justice case.

“I see it most importantly in what happened with the firing of Director Comey. And it is my belief that that is directly because he did not agree to lift the cloud of the Russia investigation. That’s obstruction of justice,” Feinstein said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

“The president knew [Flynn] had lied to the FBI, which means that when he talked to the FBI director and asked him to effectively drop this case, he knew that Flynn had committed a federal crime,” Adam Schiff, senior Democrat on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, told the ABC program “This Week.”

The Russia matter has dogged Trump’s first year in office, and this weekend overshadowed his first big legislative win when the Senate approved a tax bill.

Flynn was the first member of Trump’s administration to

plead guilty to a crime uncovered by Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian attempts to influence the 2016 U.S. election and potential collusion by Trump aides.

Russia has denied meddling in the election and Trump has said there was no collusion.

Comey, who had been investigating the Russia allegations, was fired by Trump in May. He told the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee in June he believed his dismissal was related to the Russia probe, and said Trump asked him to end the investigation of Flynn.

“I never asked Comey to stop investigating Flynn. Just more Fake News covering another Comey lie!” Trump said on Twitter on Sunday.

On CBS, Graham criticized Comey, saying he believed the former FBI director made some “very, very wrong” decisions during his tenure. But Graham also said Trump should be careful about his tweets.

“I’d be careful if I were you, Mr. President. I’d watch this,” Graham said.

 

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