US Prosecutors Move to Cash in on $8.5M in Seized Bitcoin

U.S. attorneys in Utah prosecuting a multimillion-dollar opioid drug-ring are moving quickly to sell seized bitcoin that’s exploded in value to about $8.5 million since the alleged ringleader’s arrest a year ago.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office for Utah cites the digital currency’s volatility in court documents pressing for the sale. The bitcoin cache was worth less than $500,000 when Aaron Shamo was arrested on drug charges, but the value of the digital currency has skyrocketed since then.

Bitcoin was created as a digital alternative to the traditional banking system, and is prone to swings in value based on what people believe its worth.

For federal prosecutors in Utah, sales of seized assets like cars are routine, but bitcoin is new territory, spokeswoman Melodie Rydalch said Thursday.

Shamo is accused of selling pills containing the powerful opioid fentanyl on the dark web — an area of the internet often used for illegal activity — to thousands of people all over the U.S., at one point raking in $2.8 million in less than a year.

The 500,000-pill bust ranked among the largest of its kind in the country, and authorities also found $1 million of cash stuffed into trash bags.

Shamo has pleaded not guilty to a dozen charges.

The proceeds of the bitcoin sale will be held until the case is resolved, and then decisions will be made about where the money goes, Rydalch said. Seized asset sale proceeds usually goes to the agency that investigated, like the Drug Enforcement Administration.

Defense attorney Greg Skordas is not contesting the sale of his client’s bitcoins.

Although there’s no global consensus over the status of bitcoin — debate rages whether the virtual money is an asset or a currency — that hasn’t stopped officials in the U.S. and elsewhere from cashing in on the digital hauls seized from cybercriminals.

In 2014 the U.S. Marshals Service announced the auction of nearly 30,000 bitcoins seized from notorious dark web drug marketplace Silk Road. Other seizures have since netted the American government millions of dollars in a series of sales.

Other governments — from Australia to South Korea — have set up similar auctions over the years.

Associated Press writer Raphael Satter in London contributed to this report.

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German Government Says It Backs ‘Open and Free Internet’

The German government says it backs an “open and free internet” following the U.S. decision to repeal net neutrality rules.

A spokeswoman for the Economy Ministry said Friday that Germany had “taken note” of the U.S. move but declined to comment directly on it.

However, spokeswoman Beate Baron said the German government supports rules introduced across the European Union last year forbidding discriminatory access to the internet.

Baron told reporters in Berlin that “an open and free internet is indispensable for the successful development of a digital society that everyone wants to take part in.”

The Republican-controlled U.S. Federal Communications Commission on Thursday repealed Obama-era rules requiring all web traffic to be treated equally.

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Scientists Working on Writing Five-day Forecast for Solar Storms

Charged particles from the sun are responsible for the brilliant auroras at the earth’s poles. But there can be cases of too much of a good thing. When huge solar storms push massive waves of energized particles into Earth’s path, they can wreak havoc on our satellites and electric grid. That is why researchers are trying to figure out what causes solar storms. VOA’s Kevin Enochs reports.

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Trump Touts Progress on Slashing Federal Regulations

U.S. President Donald Trump has touted progress on slashing federal regulations, which he says cost America trillions with no benefit. Speaking Thursday from the White House, the president said his administration had exceeded its goal of removing two federal regulations for every new one, by removing 22 for every new one. Opponents have criticized some of the deregulation, especially dismantling of the net neutrality rules that guarantee equal access to the internet. VOA’s Zlatica Hoke reports.

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Detroit Builds a Symbol of Resurgence on Iconic Spot

An 800-foot-tall (244-meter) centerpiece is coming to Detroit’s resurgent downtown as the city continues to build momentum about three years after exiting the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history.

The 58-story building dominating the local skyline will rise on the site of the iconic J.L. Hudson department store, whose 1983 closing epitomized Detroit’s economic downfall.

“When we lost Hudson’s, it symbolized how far Detroit had fallen,” Bedrock Detroit real estate founder Dan Gilbert said Thursday during a ceremonial groundbreaking for the new building. “When it was imploded in 1998 it was a very sad day for a lot of people.”

One of four projects

But the bad times for downtown appear to be largely over. Bedrock Detroit’s $900 million, two-building project will include a 58-story residential tower and 12-floor building for retail and conference space. Up to 450 residential units can be built in the tower.

It is one of four projects representing a $2.1 billion investment in downtown by the Detroit-based commercial real estate firm. Altogether, the projects are expected to create up to 24,000 jobs in a city that desperately needs them and generate $673 million in new tax revenue.

Mayor Mike Duggan’s office has spearheaded redevelopment programs targeting a number of city neighborhoods, but Detroit’s growth is most evident in greater downtown, where office space now is limited and available apartments are tough to come by.

A ribbon-cutting was held in August for an $860 million sports complex just north of downtown. The 20,000-seat Little Caesars Arena is the new home of the Detroit Red Wings and Pistons. It will anchor a 50-block neighborhood of offices, apartments, restaurants and shops.

A 6.6-mile-long light rail system launched earlier this year along Woodward Avenue, downtown’s main business thoroughfare.

Microsoft move

Software maker Microsoft announced in February that it plans to move its Michigan Microsoft Technology Center next year from the suburbs to downtown. In 2016, Ally Financial opened new offices downtown that the financial services company said eventually would be occupied by more than 1,500 employees and contractors.

“Bedrock building on the Hudson’s site will be an important addition to the community and the vitality and prosperity of downtown,” said John Mogk, a Wayne State University law professor whose work has included policy on economic development issues.

“It will act as an important centerpiece for continuing the overall downtown development … but much more has to be done for the entire city to feel a resurgence.”

Many residents poor

However, much work remains for a city where many residents are still poor.

Detroit’s unemployment rate was about 8 percent in April, yet far below the more than 18 percent unemployment rate during the city’s 2013 bankruptcy filing.

The city’s 2016 poverty rate was just more than 35 percent, the highest among the nation’s 20 largest cities and more than double the national poverty of 14 percent. A family of four is considered living in poverty if its annual earnings are less than $24,563.

Downtown construction projects such as the work at the Hudson’s site can help change that, some say.

“What a shame that anybody should be unemployed in Detroit when we have a need for skilled trades,” Gilbert said. “We like to say Detroit is located at the intersection of muscle and brains. We need brains to sort this all out … somebody still has to build stuff. We still need muscle.”

While Bedrock’s new building would be Detroit’s tallest, rising above the 727-foot (222-meter) Renaissance Center along the city’s riverfront, it still would be far shorter than some other U.S. towers.

One World Trade Center in New York measures 1,776 feet (541 meters). Chicago’s Willis Tower hits 1,451 feet (442 meters), while the Empire State Building in New York climbs to 1,250 feet (381 meters).

​Iconic Hudson’s

Although the 25-story Hudson’s building was once the nation’s tallest department store, it measured only about 400 feet (122 meters). It was far more famous for what was inside.

When Detroit was humming along and leading the nation in car production, the store was where auto executives and assembly line workers shopped. From household goods to clothing and furs and many things in between, it was a primary downtown destination.

There were 50 display windows, 12,000 employees and 100,000 customers per day. But as shopping tastes shifted to expansive suburban malls and Detroit’s population tumbled by more than 600,000 people between the 1950s and 1980, Hudson’s lost its luster.

“Building something of significant magnitude on the old site will provide a good deal of good feelings by older generations,” Mogk said.

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Trump Touts Progress on Rolling Back Federal Regulations

With the ceremonial flourish of oversized golden scissors slicing a giant piece of red tape, U.S. President Donald Trump symbolically cut through decades of regulations on Thursday. 

“So, this is what we have now,” the former reality television program host said, gesturing toward a 190-centimeter-high pile of what was said to be 185,000 sheets of paper. “This is where we were in 1960,” he added, referencing a smaller stack representing an estimated 20,000 pages of federal regulations.

“When we’re finished, which won’t be in too long a period of time, we will be less than where we were in 1960, and we will have a great regulatory climate,” the president added at the event in the White House Roosevelt Room.

Trump decried that an “ever-growing maze of regulations, rules and restrictions has cost our country trillions and trillions of dollars, millions of jobs, countless American factories, and devastated many industries.”

The event took place just after the Federal Communications Commission, in a 3-2 vote, repealed a rule of the previous Obama administration calling for  “net neutrality,” the principle that all internet providers treat all web traffic equally. 

Lawsuits filed

The deregulatory zeal has generated a backlash. 

The state of California has filed seven lawsuits challenging part of the administration’s deregulatory efforts dealing with the environment, education and public health. 

The administration’s “rule rollbacks risk the health and well-being of Americans and are, in many cases, illegal,” according to California Attorney General Xavier Becerra. 

In his remarks Thursday, Trump touted his executive order, signed days after he took office in January, mandating that two federal regulations must be eliminated for every new regulation put on the books. 

His administration, Trump said, has exceeded that mandate by “a lot.” 

The president, who as a real estate developer long railed against government regulation, claimed that for every new rule adopted, his administration has killed 22 — far in excess of the 2-for-1 pledge. 

For the first time in “decades, the government achieved regulatory savings,” Trump said, boasting that “we blew our target out of the water.” 

The administration, over its first 11 months, according to the president, has “canceled or delayed more than 1,500 planned regulatory actions — more than any previous president by far.” 

He called for his Cabinet secretaries, agency heads and federal workers to “cut even more regulations in 2018.”

“And that should just about do it,” he said. “I don’t know if we’ll have any left to cut.”

$570M in savings seen

The cost savings, according to administration officials, will total $570 million per year. But they say there are benefits that go beyond money. 

“When the government is interfering less in people’s lives, they have greater opportunity to pursue their goals,” Neomi Rao, the administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs in the Office of Management and Budget, told reporters following the president’s ribbon-cutting event. 

Asked whether she could verify that this is, as Trump has declared, the largest deregulatory effort in American history, Rao hedged to echo such a sweeping statement, saying, “I don’t think there’s been anything like this since [Ronald] Reagan, at least.” Reagan was president from 1981 to 1989.

The president’s former strategist, Stephen Bannon, has said a primary goal of the Trump administration, through deregulation, is achieving “deconstruction of the administrative state.” 

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Kremlin: Putin, Trump Discuss North Korea in Phone Call

Russian President Vladimir Putin discussed the crisis over North Korea’s nuclear program with U.S. counterpart Donald Trump in a phone call Thursday, the Kremlin said.

The two heads of state discussed “the situation in several crisis zones, with a focus on solving the nuclear issue on the Korean peninsula,” the Kremlin said in a statement, without elaborating.

Washington this week said it was ready to talk to North Korea — which has launched several intercontinental ballistic missiles in recent months — “without preconditions.”

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said that while the Trump administration was still determined to force Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear arsenal, it was willing to “have the first meeting without preconditions.”

Putin, in his annual press conference Thursday with hundreds of journalists in Moscow, welcomed the United States’ “awareness of reality” in the crisis.

However, he called on all sides to “stop aggravating the situation” and said Moscow did not recognize North Korea’s status as a nuclear power.

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Report: US House Speaker Ryan Eyeing Exit From Congress

Paul Ryan may be in his final term as speaker of the US House of Representatives and could leave Congress by the end of 2018, Politico reported Thursday, in a report that could set off a scramble for a successor.

The news outlet cited several people who know Ryan, including fellow lawmakers, congressional aides, conservative intellectuals and party lobbyists, saying they did not expect him to remain in Congress beyond 2018.

Asked directly after a Thursday press conference whether he would be stepping down soon, Ryan said, “I’m not … no.”

A spokeswoman for Ryan’s office, AshLee Strong, called the report “pure speculation.”

“As the speaker himself said today, he’s not going anywhere any time soon,” she added.

But the report appeared to heighten the conjecture about the Wisconsin lawmaker’s future.

Ryan, 47, made no secret about his hesitation in taking the top congressional job in 2015, after his predecessor John Boehner abruptly announced he was retiring when he faced a revolt from right-wing conservatives.

He also spoke out critically against Donald Trump during the presidential race.

But Ryan has developed a better-than-expected relationship with Trump, and has worked with him on several landmark issues including health care and the current big legislative push, tax reform.

The White House made it clear Trump wants Ryan to stay.

“The president did speak to the speaker not too long ago, and made sure that the speaker knew very clearly, in no uncertain terms, that if the news was true he was very unhappy about it,” White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said.

It is not known whether Ryan would run for his congressional seat in next November’s mid-term elections. But should he announce his departure well ahead of time, it would dramatically diminish his deal-making leverage and his ability to raise money for the party.

“Ryan’s preference has become clear: He would like to serve through Election Day 2018 and retire ahead of the next Congress,” Politico reported.

Some Republicans in Congress were already anticipating a leadership battle.

“Brace yourselves for the mother of all barn cleanings,” tweeted House conservative Thomas Massie, who has been a thorn in the Republican leadership’s side.

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What Is Net Neutrality?

“Net neutrality” regulations, designed to prevent internet service providers like Verizon, AT&T, Comcast and Charter from favoring some sites and apps over others, have been repealed. On Thursday, the Federal Communications Commission voted to dismantle Obama-era rules that have been in place since 2015, but will forbid states to put anything similar in place.

Here’s a look at what the developments mean for consumers and companies.

What is net neutrality?

Net neutrality is the principle that internet providers treat all web traffic equally, and it’s pretty much how the internet has worked since its creation. But regulators, consumer advocates and internet companies were concerned about what broadband companies could do with their power as the pathway to the internet — blocking or slowing down apps that rival their own services, for example.

What did the governments do about it?

The FCC in 2015 approved rules, on a party-line vote, that made sure cable and phone companies don’t manipulate traffic. With them in place, a provider such as Comcast can’t charge Netflix for a faster path to its customers, or block it or slow it down.

The net neutrality rules gave the FCC power to go after companies for business practices that weren’t explicitly banned as well. For example, the Obama FCC said that “zero rating” practices by AT&T violated net neutrality. The telecom giant exempted its own video app from cellphone data caps, which would save some consumers money, and said video rivals could pay for the same treatment. Pai’s FCC spiked the effort to go after AT&T, even before it began rolling out a plan to undo the net neutrality rules entirely.

A federal appeals court upheld the rules in 2016 after broadband providers sued.

The telcos

Big telecom companies hated net neutrality’s stricter regulation and have fought them fiercely in court. They said the regulations could undermine investment in broadband and introduced uncertainty about what were acceptable business practices. There were concerns about potential price regulation, even though the FCC had said it won’t set prices for consumer internet service.

Silicon Valley

Internet companies such as Google have strongly backed net neutrality, but many tech firms were more muted in their activism this year. Netflix, which had been vocal in support of the rules in 2015, said in January that weaker net neutrality wouldn’t hurt it because it’s now too popular with users for broadband providers to interfere.

What happens next

With the rules repealed, net-neutrality advocates say it will be harder for the government to crack down on internet providers who act against consumer interests and will harm innovation in the long-run. Those who criticize the rules say the repeal is good for investment in broadband networks.

But advocates aren’t sitting still. Some groups plan lawsuits to challenge the FCC’s move, and Democrats — energized by public protests in support of net neutrality — think it might be a winning political issue for them in 2018 congressional elections.

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FCC Scraps Net Neutrality Rules in US

There could soon be a major change in what Americans see on the internet after federal regulators voted Thursday to scrap traditional “net neutrality” rules. 

Thursday’s 3-2 vote by the Federal Communications Commission went along party lines, with Republican members voting to end the regulations and Democrats dissenting.

Individual states will also be barred from enacting their own rules governing the internet.

Net neutrality has been the norm since the internet was created more than 30 years ago. The FCC under former President Barack Obama formalized net neutrality rules in 2015.

The idea of net neutrality is for giant internet providers to treat all content equally. The Obama-era rules prevented them from giving preferential treatment to their own services and blocking and slowing down content from rivals.

Consumer groups and internet companies like net neutrality.

But FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, who was appointed by President Donald Trump, said the internet needs what he calls a “light touch” instead of what he believes is unnecessary government regulation.

WATCH: What is ‘net neutrality’?

“Prior to 2015, before these regulations were imposed, we had a free and open internet,” Pai told NBC ahead of the vote. “That is the future as well under a light touch, market-based approach. Consumers benefit, entrepreneurs benefit. Everybody in the internet economy is better off with a market-based approach.”

But Democratic FCC member Mignon Clyburn said the FCC was “handing the keys to the internet” to a “handful of multibillion-dollar corporations.”

British engineer Tim Berners-Lee, creator of the World Wide Web, said this week that getting rid of net neutrality rules meant internet service providers “will have the power to decide which websites you can access and at what speed each will load. In other words, they’ll be able to decide which companies succeed online, which voices are heard — and which are silenced.”

Officials in several states, including New York and Washington, said they would challenge the new rules in court.

Ken Bredemeier contributed to this report.

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