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France Fines Google $57M for Data Privacy Violation

France’s data watchdog fined Google nearly $57 million on Monday, saying the tech giant failed to provide users with transparent information on its data consumer policies and how their personal information was used to display advertising targeting them.

The French agency CNIL said U.S.-based Google made it too difficult for internet users to understand and manage their personal preferences online.

“The information provided is not sufficiently clear,” the regulatory agency said, “for the user to understand the legal basis for targeted advertising is consent, and not Google’s legitimate business interests.”

It was the first ruling using the European Union’s strict new General Data Protection Regulation since it was implemented last year, a sweeping set of rules that has set a global standard forcing large American technology firms to examine their practices or risk huge fines.

Google said it was studying the ruling to determine its next steps.

“People expect high standards of transparency and control from us,” Google said. “We’re deeply committed to meeting those expectations and the consent requirements” of the new regulations.

 

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House Democrats Eager to Bring DeVos Under Closer Oversight

House Democrats are preparing to bring Education Secretary Betsy DeVos under the sharpest scrutiny she has seen since taking office.

DeVos has emerged as a common target for Democrats as they take charge of House committees that wield oversight powers, such as the authority to issue subpoenas and call hearings.

At least four committees are expected to push DeVos on topics including her rollback of regulation on the for-profit college industry.

Rep. Bobby Scott is a Virginia Democrat leading the House education committee. He says he’ll bring DeVos forward for hearings “as often as necessary.”

DeVos is also expected to face scrutiny from committees overseeing veterans’ affairs, government oversight and appropriations.

Education Department spokeswoman Liz Hill says DeVos will work with any member of Congress who wants to rethink education.

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House Democrats Eager to Bring DeVos Under Closer Oversight

House Democrats are preparing to bring Education Secretary Betsy DeVos under the sharpest scrutiny she has seen since taking office.

DeVos has emerged as a common target for Democrats as they take charge of House committees that wield oversight powers, such as the authority to issue subpoenas and call hearings.

At least four committees are expected to push DeVos on topics including her rollback of regulation on the for-profit college industry.

Rep. Bobby Scott is a Virginia Democrat leading the House education committee. He says he’ll bring DeVos forward for hearings “as often as necessary.”

DeVos is also expected to face scrutiny from committees overseeing veterans’ affairs, government oversight and appropriations.

Education Department spokeswoman Liz Hill says DeVos will work with any member of Congress who wants to rethink education.

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King Holiday Draws out Democratic Presidential Hopefuls

As Americans commemorate Martin Luther King Jr.’s contributions to the nation, Democratic presidential hopefuls are fanning out across the country to honor the civil rights leader.

Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., used the holiday to launch a presidential campaign that, if successful, would make her the first woman and the second black candidate to become president.

 

Meanwhile, an annual rally to observe King’s birthday held in the capital of South Carolina, a critical early-voting state in the Democratic primary, will feature two senators expected to seek the White House in 2020, Cory Booker of New Jersey and Bernie Sanders of Vermont.

Former Vice President Joe Biden, who’s weighing his own presidential bid, is set to speak at a King holiday event in Washington alongside former New York mayor and possible 2020 rival Michael Bloomberg. Two candidates who have already opened exploratory committees — Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York — will also appear at King-centered events.

 

While the Democratic field for 2020 is only beginning to take shape, the year that would have marked King’s 90th birthday gives the party’s prominent members a valuable opportunity to address race and, potentially, draw a contrast between their own views and those of President Donald Trump, whose approach to questions of racial justice has sparked criticism from multiple minority groups since he took office.

 

How Democratic contenders, both those officially in the race and those still mulling campaigns, celebrated the King holiday:

 

Kamala Harris

 

Harris, a first-term senator and former California attorney general known for her rigorous questioning of Trump’s nominees, opened the holiday by declaring her bid on ABC’s “Good Morning America.” She abandoned the formality of launching an exploratory committee, instead going all in on a presidential campaign.

 

“I love my country,” she said when asked what qualifies her for the presidency. “And this is a moment in time that I feel a sense of responsibility to stand up and fight for the best of who we are. And that fight will always include, as one of the highest priorities, our national security.”

Harris, 54, is a daughter of immigrant parents who grew up in Oakland, California. She cited her years as a prosecutor in asserting: “My entire career has been focused on keeping people safe. It is probably one of the things that motivates me more than anything else.”

 

The senator plans a formal campaign launch in Oakland in a week and will have her headquarters in Baltimore. She’s already planning her first trip to an early primary state as a declared candidate. On Friday, Harris will travel to South Carolina to attend the Pink Ice Gala in Columbia, which is hosted by a South Carolina chapter of the Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, which Harris pledged as an undergraduate student at Howard University. The sorority, founded more than 100 years ago, is a stronghold in the black community.

 

 

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UK Leader Unveils Brexit Plan B, Looks a Lot Like Plan A

British Prime Minister Theresa May unveiled her Brexit Plan B on Monday — and it looks a lot like Plan A.

May launched a mission to resuscitate her rejected European Union divorce deal, setting out plans to get it approved by Parliament after securing changes from the EU to a contentious Irish border measure.

May’s opponents expressed incredulity: British lawmakers last week dealt the deal a resounding defeat, and EU leaders insist they won’t renegotiate it.

Opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn of the Labour Party accused May of being in “deep denial” about her doomed deal.

“This really does feel a bit like Groundhog Day,” he said, referring to the 1993 film starring Bill Murray, in which a weatherman is fated to live out the same day over and over again.

Outlining what she plans to do after her EU divorce deal was rejected by Parliament last week, May said that she had heeded lawmakers’ concerns over an insurance policy known as the “backstop” that is intended to guarantee there are no customs checks along the border between EU member Ireland and the U.K.’s Northern Ireland after Brexit.

May told the House of Commons that she would be “talking further this week to colleagues … to consider how we might meet our obligations to the people of Northern Ireland and Ireland in a way that can command the greatest possible support in the House.

“And I will then take the conclusions of those discussions back to the EU.”

The bloc insists that it won’t renegotiate the withdrawal agreement.

“She is wasting time calling for a revision or clarification over the backstop,” said German politician Udo Bullmann, head of the socialist group in the European Parliament.

Amendments

While May stuck doggedly to her deal, she also acknowledged that control over Brexit wasn’t entirely in her hands. She noted that lawmakers will be able to amend her plan when it comes to a vote in the House of Commons on Jan. 29, exactly two months before Britain is due to leave the EU.

Groups of “soft Brexit”-backing lawmakers — who want to keep close economic ties to the bloc — are planning to use amendments to try to rule out a “no-deal” Brexit and make May ease her insistence that leaving the EU means quitting its single market and customs union.

Britain and the EU sealed a divorce deal in November after months of tense negotiations. But the agreement has been rejected by both sides of Britain’s divide over Europe. Brexit-backing lawmakers say it will leave the U.K. tethered to the bloc’s rules and unable to forge an independent trade policy. Pro-Europeans argue it is inferior to the frictionless economic relationship Britain currently enjoys as an EU member.

After her deal was thrown out last week by a crushing 432-202 vote in Parliament, May said she would consult with lawmakers from all parties to find a new way forward.

But Corbyn called the cross-party meetings a “stunt,” and other opposition leaders said the prime minister didn’t seem to be listening.

On Monday, May rejected calls from pro-EU lawmakers to delay Britain’s departure from the bloc or to hold a second referendum on whether to leave.

In a nod to opposition parties’ concerns, she promised to consult lawmakers, trade unionists, business groups and civil society organizations “to try to find the broadest possible consensus” on future ties between Britain and the EU, and said the government wouldn’t water down protections for the environment and workers’ rights after Brexit.

May also said the government had decided to waive a 65 pound ($84) fee for EU citizens in Britain who want to stay permanently after Brexit.

Guy Verhofstadt, the head of the EU Parliament Brexit steering group, welcomed news that the fee was being dropped for 3 million EU nationals, saying it had been a “key demand” for the EU legislature.

Irish border

May’s immediate goal is to win over pro-Brexit Conservatives and her party’s Northern Irish ally, the Democratic Unionist Party. Both groups say they won’t back the deal unless the border backstop is removed.

The backstop proposes to keep the U.K. in a customs union with the EU in order to avoid checks on the Irish border. It is meant as a temporary measure that would last until a permanent solution is found. But pro-Brexit U.K. lawmakers fear Britain could become trapped in it, indefinitely bound by EU trade rules.

Polish Foreign Minister Jacek Czaputowicz broke ranks with EU colleagues Monday by suggesting the problem could be solved by setting a five-year time limit on the backstop.

The idea got a cool reception. Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney said that “putting a time-limit on an insurance mechanism, which is what the backstop is, effectively means that it’s not a backstop at all.”

Britain’s political impasse over Brexit is fueling concerns that the country may crash out of the EU on March 29 with no agreement in place to cushion the shock. That could see tariffs imposed on goods moving between Britain and the EU, sparking logjams at ports and shortages of essential supplies.

Threat of ‘no deal’

Carolyn Fairbairn, director-general of the Confederation of British Industry, said Monday was “another bleak day for business.”

“Parliament remains in deadlock while the slope to a cliff edge steepens,” she said.

Several groups of lawmakers are trying to use parliamentary rules and amendments to May’s plan to block the possibility of Britain leaving the EU without a deal.

One of those legislators, Labour’s Yvette Cooper, said May was shirking her responsibility to the country by refusing to take “no deal” off the table.

“I think she knows that she should rule out ‘no deal’ in the national interest because it would be so damaging,” Cooper told the BBC. “She’s refusing to do so, and I think she’s hoping that Parliament will do this for her. That is not leadership.” 

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For the Poor, Safety Net in a Shutdown Doesn’t Feel Safe

Doris Cochran, a disabled mother of two young boys, is stockpiling canned foods these days, filling her shelves with noodle soup, green beans, peaches and pears – anything that can last for months, or even years. Her pantry looks like she’s preparing for a winter storm. But she’s just trying to make sure her family won’t go hungry if her food stamps run out.

For those like Cochran who rely on federal aid programs, the social safety net no longer feels so safe. As the longest government shutdown in U.S. history stretches into a fifth week with no end in sight, millions of poor Americans who depend on food and rental assistance are becoming increasingly worried about the future. Most major aid programs haven’t dried up yet. But each day the stalemate in Washington drags on, the U.S. inches closer to what advocates call a looming emergency. Those dependent on the aid are watching closely under a cloud of stress and anxiety.

“I just don’t know what’s going to happen,” Cochran said, “and that’s what scares me the most.”

With no indication of an imminent compromise, the Trump administration in recent weeks has scrambled to restore some services across the government. But two agencies crucial to the federal safety net – the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Agriculture Department – remain largely shuttered.

USDA announced earlier this month that the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which provides food aid to roughly 40 million Americans, will be fully funded through February. But should the shutdown stretch into March its status is unclear: with just $3 billion in reserves, USDA won’t be able to cover the roughly $4.8 billion it pays in monthly benefits.

The department was able to stretch the program for another month based on a loophole in a spending bill. But as a result of congressional rules, food stamp benefits allotted for February are being given out early, before Jan. 20. There is no guarantee recipients will get food stamps for March, but if even if the program continues without a lapse, recipients would have to stretch their current allotment for at least six weeks, rather than four.

The impact of any lapse in these programs would be dramatic and unprecedented: USDA says there has never before been a break in food stamp benefits since the program was made permanent in 1964.

Food banks are already stretched thin thanks to a notable spike in demand from furloughed federal employees, contractors and others out of work due to the shutdown, said Carrie Calvert, the managing director for government relations at Feeding America, a hunger relief organization. For every meal Feeding America’s network of food pantries serves, federal food aid provides 12.

“This is a potentially catastrophic situation. This could be an immediate emergency that grows exponentially,” Calvert said.

Since the shutdown began, HUD has been unable to renew hundreds of contracts with private building owners who receive significant federal subsidies to provide housing to low-income families, the elderly and people with disabilities. Under these contracts, tenants pay a portion of the rent and the federal government covers the rest. But between December and the end of February, roughly 1,700 contracts are slated to expire, meaning that HUD won’t be able to make their payments. The agency has asked landlords to dip into their reserves to cover rental costs until the government reopens, with a promise of reimbursement.

Similarly, come February, 700 rental assistance contracts administered through a USDA program that offers aid to low-income people in rural areas, will also expire. A spokesman said the office “is exploring all options to mitigate any potential negative impact” to tenants.

Those unknowns are causing anxiety and anguish among America’s most vulnerable.

Eneaqua Lewis, 36, lives in a HUD-subsidized apartment on Roosevelt Island in New York City. She said she found out earlier this month her building’s HUD contract expired January 9. A single mother raising a 10-year-old, Lewis was laid off from a construction job in December. Without an income or any significant savings, Lewis said she’d be forced to drain her meager retirement fund to cover the full amount due with no rental assistance subsidy offsetting the expense.

“People are really afraid right now and just don’t know what to do,” Lewis said. “I can’t afford market rate rent here. Where would I go, where would everyone go? One side of the building is all elderly or handicapped. The other side is all families. Where would we all go?”

For Cochran, the mother stockpiling food, a disruption could throw her life into chaos.

She lives in subsidized housing in Arlington, Virginia, with her six- and eight-year-old sons. She used to drive a truck, but recent health issues have left her unable to work. She relies solely on government subsidies to survive, cobbling together just enough to support her children using social security payments, food stamps and cash assistance payments. If any one of those federal programs were to stall, Cochran could end up on the street.

Cochran said she’s trying to sell some homemade crafts, and clothes to secondhand stores to squirrel away a few extra dollars. She returned the toys she’d bought for her sons for Christmas-a Hot Wheelz racetrack for the eight-year-old, a Mighty Beanz game for the younger boy-so she could buy them shoes.

“It was hard, but you have to make choices,” she said. “I’m experiencing quite a bit of anxiety.”

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World Economy Forecast to Slow in 2019 Amid Trade Tensions

The International Monetary Fund has cut its forecast for world economic growth this year, citing heightened trade tensions and rising U.S. interest rates.

The IMF said Monday that it expects global growth this year of 3.5 percent, down from 3.7 percent in 2018 and from the 3.7 percent it had forecast for 2019 back in October.

 

“After two years of solid expansion, the world economy is growing more slowly than expected and risks are rising,” said IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde as she presented the new forecasts at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

 

The fund left its prediction for U.S. growth this year unchanged at 2.5 percent — though a continuation of the partial 31-day shutdown of the federal government poses a risk. The IMF trimmed the outlook for the 19 countries that use the euro currency to 1.6 percent from 1.8 percent.

 

Growth in emerging-market countries is forecast to slow to 4.5 percent from 4.6 percent in 2018. The IMF expects the Chinese economy — the world’s second biggest — to grow 6.2 percent this year, down from 6.6 percent in 2018 and slowest since 1990.

 

The World Bank and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development have also downgraded their world growth forecasts.

 

Britain’s messy divorce from the European Union and Italy’s ongoing financial struggles pose threats to growth in Europe.

 

And rising trade tensions pose a major risk to the wider world economy. Under President Donald Trump the United States has imposed import taxes on steel, aluminum and hundreds of Chinese products, drawing retaliation from China and other U.S. trading partners.

 

“Higher trade uncertainty will further dampen investment and disrupt global supply chains,” said IMF chief economist Gita Gopinath.

 

Rising interest rates in the U.S. and elsewhere are also pinching emerging-market governments and companies that borrowed heavily when rates were ultra-low in the aftermath of the 2007-2009 Great Recession.

 

As the debts roll over, those borrowers have to refinance at higher rates. A rising dollar is also making things harder for emerging-market borrowers who took out loans denominated in the U.S. currency.

 

 

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Russian Media Watchdog Moves Against Facebook, Twitter

Russia’s communication watchdog, Roskomnadzor, opened “administrative proceedings” Monday against Facebook and Twitter for non-compliance with country’s data laws, Interfax news agency reported.

Roskomnadzor head Alexander Zharov is quoted as saying that U.S. social media giants have a month to comply or face legal proceedings.

According to Roskomnadzor, Facebook and Twitter have not explained how and when they would comply with legislation that requires all servers used to store Russians’ personal data to be located in Russia.

Russia has introduced stricter internet laws in the past five years, among other things requiring search engines to share encryption keys with Russian security services.

In April last year, thousands rallied in Moscow in support of internet freedom after Russian authorities attempted to block access to the popular messaging app Telegram.

Telegram had refused to give state intelligence services access to private conversations which are usually encrypted.

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Moscow ‘Trump Tower’ Talks Lasted Through 2016, Lawyer Says

U.S. President Donald Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani says Trump’s discussions with Russian officials over construction of a Trump Tower in Moscow went on throughout the time he was campaigning for the White House in 2016, months longer than previously acknowledged.

“It’s our understanding that they went on throughout 2016,” Giuliani told NBC’s Meet the Press. Giuliani said there “weren’t a lot of them, but there were conversations.  Can’t be sure of the exact date.”

“Probably could be up to as far as October, November — our answers cover until the election,” Giuliani said, referring to written questions Trump has answered from special counsel Robert Mueller, who for 20 months has been investigating Trump campaign ties to Russia and whether Trump, as president, obstructed justice by trying to thwart the probe.

“So anytime during that period they could’ve talked about it,” Giuliani said. “But the president’s recollection of it is that the thing had petered out (subsided) quite a bit,” and the construction project never materialized.  During the early stages of the 2016 race for the Republican presidential nomination, Trump often said he had no business ties to Russia.

Giuliani, a former New York mayor, said that Michael Cohen, Trump’s former personal attorney, “would have a much better recollection of [the Moscow negotiations] than the president. It was much more important to him. That was his sole mission. The president was running for president of the United States.  So you have to expect there’s not going to be a great deal of concentration on a project that never went anywhere.”

‘Big news’

Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, the lead Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee that has been investigating Trump campaign ties to Russia, said on the NBC show the length of Trump’s efforts to build a Moscow skyscraper, extending into the November 2016 national election, was “news to me, and that is big news.  Why, two years after the fact, are we just learning this fact now when there’s been this much inquiry?”

Warner added, “I would think most voters — Democrat, Republican, independent, you name it — that knowing the Republican nominee was actively trying to do business in Moscow, that the Republican nominee at least at one point had offered, if he built this building, Vladimir Putin, a free-penthouse apartment, and if those negotiations were ongoing up until the election, I think that’s a relevant fact for voters to know.  And I think it’s remarkable we are two years after the fact and just discovering it today.”

Cohen has pleaded guilty to, among other offenses, lying to Congress about the extent of Trump’s involvement with the Moscow project, telling a congressional panel that Trump’s efforts ended in January 2016, just as the Republican presidential nominating contests were starting three years ago.  He has said he lied to comport with Trump’s own public comments to voters, but more recently has said he recalls the Moscow discussions extending to June 2016, a shorter time frame than Giuliani acknowledged Sunday.

The online news site BuzzFeed said last week that Trump had directed Cohen to lie to Congress about the Trump Moscow timeline, but Mueller’s office late Friday said the report was “not accurate.”  BuzzFeed said it continues to stand by the story.

In a separate interview on CNN, Giuliani said he had “no knowledge” of whether Trump talked to Cohen before his congressional testimony.

Mueller is believed to be writing a report on his findings from his lengthy investigation.  He and other federal prosecutors have secured convictions or guilty pleas from several key figures in Trump’s orbit, including former campaign chairman Paul Manafort, campaign aide Rick Gates, former national security adviser Michael Flynn, former foreign affairs adviser George Papadopoulos and Cohen.

 

 

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