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Too Chic for Amazon: Luxury Firms in EU Can Pick Sales Sites

Luxury goods companies may ban sales of their products on online platforms like Amazon to preserve their aura of exclusivity, the European Union’s top court said Wednesday. 

The European Court of Justice ruled in favor of the German branch of luxury cosmetics group Coty, whose brands include Calvin Klein and Marc Jacobs, which sought to keep its products from selling on non-authorized digital sale platforms. 

​The court said Coty’s effort to limit distributors “is appropriate to preserve the luxury image of those goods,” adding that it “does not appear to go beyond what is necessary.” Coty wanted to ban an authorized distributor from selling its products on Amazon.de in a case pending at a Frankfurt court, which requested a ruling from EU judges.

The Computer and Communications Industry Association said the ruling was “bad news for consumers who will face fewer choices and also less competition when they want to shop online.”

Germany’s antitrust agency said it was examining the EU court ruling, but expected it to have only a limited effect on its own decisions.

The court in Luxembourg “apparently made a great effort to limit its statements to the realm of real prestige products, where the luxurious aura is a significant part of the product itself,” said Andreas Mundt, the head of the Federal Cartel Office.

Manufacturers of goods that aren’t luxury brands “still have no carte blanche to sweepingly limit their distributors’ use of sales platforms, according to our assessment,” Mundt added.

Trump Administration Maintains Commitment to Middle East Peace Amid Criticism of Jerusalem Decision

Under heavy criticism from Arab and majority Muslim countries for a decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, the Trump administration says it is committed to the Middle East peace process. VOA diplomatic correspondent Cindy Saine looks at the broader contours of what administration officials describe as a new approach to peace and stability in the region.

Turkish President, Jordanian King Unite Against US President Over Jerusalem Move

The news of the United States’ intention to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel dominated talks Wednesday between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and King Abdullah II of Jordan. In statements to the media at the presidential palace, both leaders voiced concern.

“If the wrong step is taken regarding Jerusalem’s status, it will be the cause of indignation in the Islamic world,” Erdogan said, adding that it will “dynamite the ground for peace, igniting new tensions and clashes.”

Abdullah, underlining Jordan’s role as guardian of Muslim and Christian sites in Jerusalem, said he had spoken Tuesday with U.S. President Donald Trump, and had raised his concerns. The king said the Palestinians’ cause remains the central issue in the region and the current tensions over Jerusalem reaffirmed the need for a peace settlement.

“It is imperative now to work fast to reach a final status solution and a peace agreement between Palestinians and Israelis, and this must allow the Palestinians to establish their independent state side-by-side with Israel and its capital in East Jerusalem,” Abdullah said. “Ignoring the Palestinians and Christian rights in Jerusalem will only fuel further extremism.”

Abdullah backed the Turkish president’s call for an emergency meeting of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, OIC, in Istanbul next Wednesday. Turkey currently heads the group of 57 Muslim nations.

“I want to make the following call to the whole world from here: Any steps to change Jerusalem’s legal status should be avoided,” Erdogan said. “Such a step would only play into the hands of terrorist organizations.”

Erdogan has been speaking to Muslim leaders to lobby against any move by Washington to change Jerusalem’s status.

The Turkish president’s efforts are expected to intensify ahead of next week’s meeting of Muslim countries’ leaders in Istanbul.

Trump’s Announcement on Jerusalem Explained

What has US President Donald Trump done with respect to Israel?

Donald Trump has decided to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, the first U.S. President to do so since Israel was founded in 1948. Tel Aviv is currently home to the U.S. Embassy and many foreign embassies.

Trump plans to eventually move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, but relocation could take up to two years. U.S. law requires the president to sign a waiver every six months that leaves the embassy in Tel Aviv. This week Trump missed the latest six-month deadline, but U.S. officials say he will sign the waiver and also order the State Department to begin the relocation process.

Why has Trump recognized Jerusalem?

Trump is fulfilling a campaign promise to move the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. He adopted a strong pro-Israel position as a candidate that appealed to his large evangelical base and pro-Israel American Jews.

Trump’s promise was very popular with those two segments of his supporters, including casino tycoon Sheldon Adelson, who donated $25 million to a political action committee that supported Trump during his campaign.

U.S. administration officials say the recognition of Jerusalem acknowledges “the historical and current reality” of Jerusalem.

​Why is Jerusalem, long the source of intense contention, so significant? 

Israelis and Palestinians have made claims over Jerusalem, the seat of Israel’s government. Israel claims all of Jerusalem as its capital while the Palestinians see the city’s eastern sector, captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war, as the capital of a future Palestinian state. 

The conflict is focused on Jerusalem’s Old City, which is home to Islam’s third most holy mosque and Judaism’s holiest site and the reasons the city has been a contentious issue for Jews and Muslims throughout the world.

Although Israel controls the city, its annexation of east Jerusalem is not recognized by the global community, which wants the decades-long conflict to be settled at the negotiating table.

Jerusalem is also home to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which was built where many Christians believe Jesus was crucified and buried. The Armenian and Roman Catholic denominations and the Greek Orthodox share custody of the church, where tensions frequently escalate over control of its various quarters.

What has been the reaction to Trump’s decision?

Palestinians have reacted angrily to the Trump decision, warning that it would disrupt, if not end, U.S.-sponsored negotiations aimed at resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and creating a Palestinian state next to Israel.

The decision is being applauded by Israel, whose prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, is one of Trump’s most fervent international supporters.

Leaders of the largest Christian denominations in Jerusalem have urged Trump to reconsider his decision. They said in a letter to Trump that his decision will result in “increased hatred, conflict, violence and suffering in Jerusalem and the Holy Land.”

The letter was signed by all of Jerusalem’s major church leaders, including the Greek Orthodox patriarch and the Roman Catholic apostolic administrator.

​What are the potential ramifications?

Trump’s move overturns nearly seven decades of foreign policy and analysts warn it could threaten efforts to broker a peace deal between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

Arab leaders warn it could elicit new outbreaks of violence, prompting the White House to prepare by coordinating plans to protect Americans abroad.

Israeli security officials say they are prepared for all scenarios.

In addition to angering key allies in the in the Arab world, the move threatens to infuriate allies in the West.

Conflict in Jerusalem

The Israelis and the Palestinians maintain a discrete security relationship in the West Bank that has helped prevent an escalation in violence in recent years.

But much of the violence in Jerusalem and the West Bank has been linked to tensions in the Holy City.

Jerusalem is a largely open city, but a nearly decade-old Israeli separation barrier cuts through several Arab communities and requires tens of thousands of Palestinians to pass through crowded checkpoints to reach the city’s center.

Deadly riots broke out in Jerusalem in 1996 after Israel opened a new tunnel in the Old City. A second Palestinian eruption occurred in 2000 after then-opposition leader Ariel Sharon visited the Temple Mount, which has been revered as a holy site for thousands of years by Judaism, Islam and Christianity.

The city experienced a string of Palestinian stabbings in late 2015, partially due to an increase in the number of Jewish nationalist visitors to the Temple Mount. Last summer, Jerusalem experienced weeks of unrest when Israel attempted to install security cameras next to the Al-Aqsa Mosque after a Palestinian’s fatal shooting of two Israeli police officers.

Driverless Buses Take to Some Roads in California

Imagine the day you board a bus and it starts moving. It obeys all traffic signs and stops at signal lights. All without a driver. That’s the future, happening right now at a business park in Northern California. VOA’s Carolyn Presutti takes us on what’s probably your first ride on a driverless shuttle bus.

China Dominates Top Western Economies in Patent Applications

The U.N.’s intellectual property agency says China racked up a record 1.3 million patent applications last year, topping the combined total in the U.S., Japan, Korea and Europe.

The World Intellectual Property Organization says innovators worldwide filed 3.1 million patent applications in 2016, up 8.3 percent from a year earlier, marking the seventh-straight yearly increase.

China alone accounted for 98 percent of that increase, with its patent office receiving 236,600 more applications than in 2015.

Releasing WIPO’s annual intellectual property report Wednesday, Director-General Francis Gurry cited the “extraordinary growth numbers” that epitomize the trend of recent years.

WIPO said trademark applications shot up by 16 percent to about 7 million, and worldwide industrial design applications increased by 10.4 percent to almost 1 million, again led by growth in China.

US Records Strongest US Worker Productivity in 3 Years

U.S. worker productivity rose 3 percent in the third quarter, the best showing in three years, while labor costs fell for a second straight quarter.

The increase in productivity in the July-September quarter was double the 1.5 percent gain in the second quarter and both quarters were up significantly from a scant 0.1 percent rise in the first three months of the year. Labor costs fell 0.2 percent after an even bigger 1.2 percent decline in the second quarter.

The third quarter figure for productivity was unchanged from an initial estimate while labor costs were initially estimated to have risen by 0.5 percent.

Economists are hopeful that the upturn in productivity may be a sign that this key measure of living standards is improving after a prolonged period of weakness.

Economists believe finding ways to increase productivity, the amount of output per hour of work, is the biggest challenge facing the economy right now. They say that without an improvement, the Trump administration will have difficulty reaching its goal of doubling economic growth in coming years.

The upturn in the past two quarters reflects the fact that overall output, as measured by the gross domestic product, accelerated sharply following a weak start to the year. GDP grew at an annual rate of 3.3 percent in the third quarter, the government reported last week, and that followed a 3.1 percent rise in the second quarter. It was the first back-to-back GDP gains of 3 percent or better in three years.

Productivity actually declined in 2016, dropping 0.1 percent. It was the first annual decline in 34 years and followed a string of weak annual performances since the economy emerged from recession in mid-2009.

Productivity has averaged annual gains of just 1.2 percent from 2007 through 2016, a sharp slowdown from average annual gains of 2.6 percent from 2000 to 20007. Those increases reflected a boost from the increased use of computers and the internet in the workplace.

Rising productivity allows employers to boost wages without triggering higher inflation.

Apple CEO Hopeful Banned Apps Will Return to China Store

Apple’s chief executive said Wednesday he’s optimistic some apps that fell afoul of China’s tight internet laws will eventually be restored after being removed earlier this year.

Speaking at a business forum in southern China, CEO Tim Cook also dismissed criticism of his appearance days earlier at an internet conference promoting Beijing’s vison of a censored internet.

Cook’s high-profile appearance Sunday at the government-organized World Internet Conference drew comments from activists and U.S. politicians who say Apple should do more to push back against Chinese internet restrictions.

He said he believed strongly in freedoms but also thought that foreign companies need to play by local rules where they operate.

When asked about Chinese government policies requiring removal of apps, including ones from operators of virtual private networks that can get around the country’s internet filters, he said, “My hope over time is that some of these things, the couple things that have been pulled, come back.”

“I have great hope on that and great optimism,” he added.

Cook said he didn’t care about being criticized for working with China, because he believes change is more likely when companies participate rather than opting to “stand on the sideline and yell at how things should be.”

Flourishing Esports Eye Olympic Games Link for Extra Boost

Booming esports do not need the Olympics to maintain their explosive growth, but a link with the world’s biggest multisports event would validate gaming worldwide and give the Games a much-needed younger audience, industry leaders say.

Esports, the competitive side of electronic gaming, have an estimated 250 million players, more than several of the traditional Olympic sports federations combined.

The market is also worth about $1 billion dollars a year and growing, with lucrative tournaments springing up across the world and professional teams competing for huge prize money in front of millions of mainly young viewers online.

“This will be the biggest sport in the world within 20 years,” said Logitech CEO Bracken Darrell, whose company has been making computer and gaming equipment for decades and is now riding the wave of esports.

Logitech’s gaming division has enjoyed 25 to 35 percent growth annually in the past four years alone, Darrell told Reuters. “What has happened surprises us as much as it does everyone. Esports will probably be as big or bigger than football. The earlier the Olympics gets in the mix, the better.”

Tournaments around the world are packing arenas, with the Beijing’s Birds Nest stadium, host of the 2008 Olympics, filling up for last month’s League of Legends World Championship final, which also attracted 60 million viewers online.

Traditional sports team owners from every major league are buying into esports, eager to tap into the growing market.

Olympic recognition

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) last month recognized esports as a sport, the first clear indication to the growing industry that it wants to link up.

With the IOC’s traditional audience aging and several Olympic sports past their international sell-by date, it is desperate to attract younger people even if it means breaking with tradition.

“Esports are showing strong growth, especially within the youth demographic across different countries, and can provide a platform for engagement with the Olympic movement,” the IOC said last month.

Global audiences are expected to reach 385.5 million this year, according to research firm Newzoo, and as events multiply and interest grows, it looks like a one-way street for the IOC.

“We consider esports as entertainment with competitive and sports characteristics,” Jan Pommer, director of team and federation relations at the Electronic Sports League (ESL), a worldwide leader in organizing esports competitions, told Reuters.

“We fully recognize, though, the reservations of the traditional sports world. Esports competitors train like traditional athletes, they are very fit, they have their own nutritionists and psychologists. Esports has all the characteristics of traditional sports.”

Growth guaranteed

The lucrative young market has also attracted a multitude of other investors, such as NBA player Jonas Jerebko of the Utah Jazz, who recently acquired esports team Renegades. 

“I did some research and checked out how many people watch esports and how big they are getting,” Jerebko told Reuters. “How much prize money, how many sponsors were getting involved.

“There won’t be less esports — it’s going to continue to grow. Many of the traditional sports are losing athletes, the interest for the Olympics has probably declined with the existing sports, so they’re trying to win back this new audience.”

The benefits for the Olympics are clear, with a potential new stream of revenue through sponsorship, broadcast rights and marketing as well as a rejuvenation of their fan base.

It is not only the IOC, though, that emerges a winner in such a possible alliance, with esports shaking off its still somewhat amateur image, Darrell said.

“There is still a bit of a what-are-they-doing-in-the-basement feel to gaming,” he said. “[An Olympic association] would help validate where the whole industry has got to quietly.”

ESL’s Pommer said esports did not necessarily need to be part of the main Olympics.

“We can build bridges. We do not demand, the industry does not demand, anything from traditional sports. What we would like is a dialogue.

“In a way it could be like the International Paralympic Committee, which has an extended role to the Olympics. Esports could play a similar role,” he said. “The wide majority of the esports community would be happy with it. It would help us in terms of social acceptance if it were part of the Olympic family.”

Analysts: Maduro’s Cryptocurrency to Fare No Better Than Venezuela Itself

Venezuela’s plan to create an oil-backed cryptocurrency faces the same credibility problems that dog the ruling Socialist Party in financial markets and is unlikely to fare any better than the struggling OPEC member itself, investors and technical experts say.

President Nicolas Maduro on Sunday floated a plan to create the “petro” that would be backed by the world’s largest crude reserves, amid a crippling economic crisis worsened by U.S. sanctions that limit Venezuela’s capacity to borrow money.

Cryptocurrencies rely on confidence in clear rules and equal treatment of all involved, three experts said, adding that Venezuela is widely seen as flouting basic property rights and mismanaging its existing bolivar currency.

Without such confidence, the “petro” would neither help Venezuela raise funds nor help it avoid sanctions levied by the government of U.S. President Donald Trump.

“If any government is willing to set up a fair set of rules for a cryptocurrency, it would be a great thing,” said Sean Walsh of Redwood City Ventures, a bitcoin and blockchain-focused investment firm.

“But if an administration has a history of unfair treatment of the population, then tacking on a buzzword like ‘cryptocurrency’ isn’t going to change that behavior.”

The Information Ministry did not respond to requests for comment. In further comments on Tuesday, Maduro said Venezuela’s new virtual currency would be backed by oil from the heavy-crude Orinoco Belt, plus gold and diamonds.

Bitcoin, the world’s most popular cryptocurrency, has soared in recent weeks to nearly $12,000 in what detractors call evidence of a bubble but supporters insist is the start of a new monetary system not dependent on central banks.

Venezuela’s inflation is expected to top 1,000 percent this year, driven by unchecked expansion of the money supply and a currency control system that critics say provides favorable treatment to well-connected officials and businessmen at the expense of everyday citizens.

‘Do We Trust Venezuela?’

Under the 15-year-old foreign exchange regime, state agencies receive dollars to import food and medicine at a rate of 10 bolivars while private citizens now pay more than 108,000 per greenback on the black market. The black market rate has depreciated more than 99 percent under Maduro.

Basic food and medical items are increasingly out of reach for most citizens, fueling malnutrition and preventable diseases. Maduro says the country is victim of an “economic war” led by political adversaries with the support of Washington.

Maduro has not outlined the rules that would govern the proposed currency, including what rights its holders would have over Venezuela’s oil reserves.

“The fact that the bolivar’s value has plummeted shows that people have very little faith in Venezuela,” said Yazan Barghuthi of Jibrel Network, a blockchain development firm.

“A tokenized asset will still have the same problem: Do we trust the institution that is backing this to fulfill the promises that this token represents?”

U.S. sanctions, in response to accusations of human rights violations and undermining of democracy, have effectively blocked the country from issuing new debt and have made global banks increasingly wary of working with Venezuela.

But Venezuela is unlikely to find foreign companies willing to accept payment for food or medicine in newly minted petros and has little chance of convincing creditors to accept them in lieu of dollars when making payments on its distressed bonds, the experts said.

“Given that there is no stable judicial system in Venezuela, no one will trust anything that the government claims is backed by assets of any kind,” wrote Marshall Swatt, founder of bitcoin exchange Coinsetter, in an email. “Even if the technology were proper and prevented government meddling (impossible to imagine), it is dead on arrival.”