NASA’s Mars Helicopter Ingenuity Still in Action 

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As researchers at U.S space agency NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory prepare for the 16th flight of Ingenuity, the Mars helicopter, the team has used recently downloaded data from the Mars mission to create the best video yet of one of Ingenuity’s previous flights. 

The 1.8-kilogram aircraft arrived on the planet packed away on NASA’s Perseverance rover when it landed on Mars in February. Originally designed to be a simple demonstration project to prove flight was possible in the thin Martian atmosphere, the aircraft has far exceeded expectations and has completed 15 flights. 

JPL scientists say Ingenuity’s 16th flight is scheduled to take place no earlier than Saturday. In the meantime, they have been examining the video footage taken by Perseverance of the helicopter’s 13th flight on September 4, which they say provides the most detailed look yet of the Martian aircraft in action. 

The Ingenuity team said the helicopter is providing NASA with data to guide the Perseverance rover. They said the 2 minutes, 40.5 seconds Flight 13 was one of Ingenuity’s most complicated. It involved flying into varied terrain within a geological feature known as the “Séítah” and taking images of an outcrop from multiple angles for the rover team. 

The images, taken from an altitude of 8 meters, complement those collected during Ingenuity’s previous flights, providing valuable insight for Perseverance scientists and rover drivers. 

The video was captured by the rover’s two-camera Mastcam-Z. One video clip of Flight 13 shows most of Ingenuity’s flight profile. The other provides a closeup of takeoff and landing, which was acquired as part of a science observation intended to measure the dust plumes generated by the helicopter. 

Justin Maki, JPL’s Mastcam-Z principal operator, said the video shows the value of the camera system, and while the helicopter is little more than a speck in the wide view, “It gives viewers a good feel for the size of the environment that Ingenuity is exploring.” 

Ingenuity’s performance will guide how future missions will be designed and how those missions will utilize aircraft to help determine where rovers should go and where they cannot. 

Aside from solar batteries, a camera and a transmitter, Ingenuity carries no scientific instruments. 

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After Promise, Musk Sells $1.1 Billion in Tesla Shares to Pay Taxes

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After making a promise on Twitter, Tesla CEO Elon Musk has sold about 900,000 shares of the electric car maker’s stock, netting over $1.1 billion that will go toward paying tax obligations for stock options. 

The sales, disclosed in two regulatory filings late Wednesday, will cover tax obligations for stock options granted to Musk in September. He exercised options to buy just over 2.1 million shares for $6.24 each. The company’s stock closed Wednesday at $1,067.95 per share.  

The transactions were “automatically effected” as part of a trading plan adopted on Sept. 14 to sell options that expire next year, according to forms filed with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. That was nearly two months before he floated the idea of the sale on Twitter. 

After the transactions, Musk still owns about 170 million Tesla shares. 

Musk was Tesla’s largest shareholder as of June, owning about 17% of the company, according to data provider FactSet. He’s the wealthiest person in the world, according to Forbes, with a net worth of around $282 billion, most of it in Tesla stock. 

Last weekend, Musk said he would sell 10% of his holdings in the company, worth more than $20 billion, based on the results of a poll he conducted on Twitter. The sale tweets caused a sell off of the stock Monday and Tuesday, but it recovered some on Wednesday. The shares were up 2.6% to $1,096 in extended trading Wednesday, and they have risen more than 50% this year. 

Wedbush Analyst Daniel Ives said it appears Musk will start selling shares as the year ends. “The question will be for investors if he sells his full 10% ownership stake over the coming months or is it done piece-by-piece during 2022,” Ives wrote in a note to investors. 

Ives calculated that Musk has about $10 billion in taxes coming due on stock options that vest next summer. 

The sometimes abrasive and unpredictable Musk said he proposed selling the stock as some Democrats have been pushing for billionaires to pay taxes when the price of the stocks they hold goes up, even if they don’t sell any shares. However, the wording on unrealized gains, also called a “billionaires tax,” was removed from President Joe Biden’s budget, which is still being negotiated.  

“Much is made lately of unrealized gains being a means of tax avoidance, so I propose selling 10% of my Tesla stock,” he tweeted Saturday afternoon. “Do you support this?” 

Tesla does not pay Musk a cash salary, but has received huge stock options. “I only have stock, thus the only way for me to pay taxes personally is to sell stock,” Musk tweeted. 

Tesla Inc. is based in Palo Alto, California, although Musk has announced it will move its headquarters to Texas. 

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US, China Surprise Climate Summit With Joint Declaration

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The United States and China surprised the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow on Wednesday with a joint declaration to take action to limit global warming over the next decade.

The declaration came as delegates entered the final hours of negotiations to agree on a final text at the conference that will outline how the world will limit global warming to less than 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

China and the United States are the world’s two biggest polluters, and scientists say their future actions are critical in the fight against climate change. The absence of Chinese leader Xi Jinping from the summit last week was strongly criticized by U.S. President Joe Biden.

U.S. climate envoy John Kerry told reporters in Glasgow on Wednesday that the joint declaration builds on statements made by both countries in April.

“We also expressed a shared desire for success at this COP on mitigation, adaptation, support and, frankly, all of the key issues which will result in the world raising ambition and being able to address this crisis. Now, with this announcement, we’ve arrived at a new step, a road map for our present and future collaboration on this issue,” Kerry said at a press conference.

“The United States and China have no shortage of differences, but on climate, cooperation is the only way to get this job done. This is not a discretionary thing, frankly. This is science. It’s math and physics that dictate the road that we have to travel,” Kerry added.

China’s chief climate negotiator, Xie Zhenhua, echoed those sentiments.

“Climate change is a challenge, a common challenge, faced by humanity,” Xie told reporters. “It bears on the well-being of future generations. Now, climate change is becoming increasingly urgent and severe, making it a future challenge into an existential crisis. In the area of climate change, there is more agreement between China and the U.S. than divergence, making it an area with huge potential for our cooperation. We are two days away from the end of the Glasgow COP, so we hope that this joint declaration can make a China-U.S. contribution to the success of COP26.”

Among the joint pledges were cooperation on controlling methane emissions, tackling illegal deforestation, enhancing renewable energy generation and speeding up financial support for poorer nations. But the declaration did not include many specific dates or targets.

Cautious welcome

After the joint declaration, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres tweeted, “I welcome today’s agreement between China and the USA to work together to take more ambitious #ClimateAction in this decade. Tackling the climate crisis requires international cooperation and solidarity, and this is an important step in the right direction.”

Climate activists offered a cautious welcome to the declaration.

“This announcement comes at a critical moment at COP26 and offers new hope that with the support and backing of two of the world’s most critical voices, we may be able to limit climate change to 1.5 degrees,” Genevieve Maricle, director of U.S. climate policy action at the World Wildlife Fund, wrote in an email to VOA. “But we must also be clear-eyed about what is still required if the two countries are to deliver the emission reductions necessary in the next nine years. 1.5C-alignment will require a whole-of-economy response.”

Momentum

The joint declaration has given new momentum to the negotiations as delegates try to agree on a final text, officially known as the “cover decision,” by the end of the conference on Friday. The text details how parties to the COP26 summit will limit global warming to no more than 1.5 degrees C in Earth’s average temperatures above pre-industrial levels — the target agreed on at the Paris climate summit in 2015.

The first draft text of the decision, published Wednesday, urges countries to “revisit and strengthen” their targets on cutting emissions before the end of 2022. It says rich countries should go beyond the pledge to pay poorer nations $100 billion a year. The draft text calls on governments to phase out coal and fossil fuels, but with no fixed dates.

The COP26 host, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, urged delegates to “grasp the opportunity.”

“We’re now finding things are tough, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. It doesn’t mean that we can’t keep 1.5 alive,” Johnson said. “I think with sufficient energy and commitment, and with leaders from around the world now ringing up their negotiators and asking them to move in the ways that they know they can move and should move, I still think we can achieve it. But I’m not going to pretend to you that it is by any means a done deal.”

Jennifer Morgan, executive director of Greenpeace International, told VOA that the language of the draft text was weak.

“This is not a plan to address the climate emergency. It’s a bit like a pledge and a wink and a hope,” Morgan said. “Countries need to commit to actually come back to increase and strengthen their targets and their actions. That’s clearly one thing. The text does include that coal will be phased out and fossil fuel subsidies will be phased out. I think optimally, you would have dates by which time they would be phased out, but it’s important that they’re there.”

Climate finance

Delegates are also negotiating how much — and quickly — richer nations should pay poorer countries to help them deal with the impact of climate change and de-carbonize their economies. While richer countries are responsible for the majority of greenhouse gas emissions, developing countries tend to suffer greater impacts of climate change. A pledge first made in 2009 by richer nations to pay $100 billion annually — and renewed at the Paris climate summit in 2015 — has still not been fulfilled.

“It’s very frustrating to see countries that have spent six years conspicuously patting themselves on the back for signing that promissory note in Paris, quietly edging towards default now that vulnerable nations and future generations are demanding payment here now in Glasgow,” Johnson said Wednesday.

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Countries Agree to Create Green Shipping Lanes in Pursuit of Zero Carbon

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A coalition of 19 countries including Britain and the United States on Wednesday agreed to create zero emissions shipping trade routes between ports to speed up the decarbonization of the global maritime industry, officials involved said. 

Shipping, which transports about 90% of world trade, accounts for nearly 3% of the world’s CO2 emissions.

U.N. shipping agency the International Maritime Organization (IMO) has said it aims to reduce overall greenhouse gas emissions from ships by 50% from 2008 levels by 2050. The goal is not aligned with the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change and the sector is under pressure to be more ambitious.

The signatory countries involved in the ‘Clydebank Declaration’, which was launched at the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, agreed to support the establishment of at least six green corridors by 2025, which will require developing supplies of zero emissions fuels, the infrastructure required for decarbonization and regulatory frameworks.

“It is our aspiration to see many more corridors in operation by 2030,” their mission statement said.

Britain’s maritime minister Robert Courts said countries alone would not be able to decarbonize shipping routes without the commitment of private and non-governmental sectors.

“The UK and indeed many of the countries, companies and NGOs here today believe zero emissions international shipping is possible by 2050,” Courts said at the launch.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said the declaration was “a big step forward for green shipping corridors and collective action”.

Buttigieg added that the United States was “pressing for the IMO to adopt a goal of zero emissions for international shipping by 2050”.

The IMO’s Secretary General Kitack Lim said on Saturday “we must upgrade our ambition, keeping up with the latest developments in the global community”.

Industry needs regulatory help

Jan Dieleman, president of ocean transportation with agri business giant Cargill, one of the world’s biggest ship charterers, said “the real challenge is to turn any statements (at COP26) into something meaningful”.

“The majority of the industry has accepted we need to decarbonize,” he told Reuters.

“Industry leadership needs to be followed up with global regulation and policies to ensure industry-wide transformation. We will not succeed without global regulation.”

Christian Ingerslev, chief executive of Maersk Tankers, which has over 210 oil products tankers under commercial management, said it had spent over $30 million over the last three years to bring their carbon emissions down through digital solutions.

“We need governments to not only back the regulatory push but also to help create the zero emissions fuels at scale,” he said.

“The only way this is going to work is to set a market-based measure through a carbon tax.”

Other signatory countries are Australia, Belgium, Canada, Chile, Costa Rica, Denmark, Fiji, Finland, France, Germany, Republic of Ireland, Japan, Marshall Islands, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway and Sweden.

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Pfizer Asks US Regulators to Expand Booster Shot of COVID-19 Vaccine to All Adult Americans

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U.S.-based drugmaker Pfizer is seeking to make a booster shot of its COVID-19 vaccine available to all adult Americans 18 years of age and older.

Pfizer filed the request Tuesday with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, citing a new clinical trial involving 10,000 volunteers who received a third injection of the two-dose vaccine, which it developed in collaboration with German-based BioNTech. According to Pfizer, the preliminary results show the third shot boosted a person’s protection against the virus to about 95%.

The request comes just weeks after the FDA and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention authorized a third shot of the Pfizer vaccine for Americans 65 and older, adults at a high risk of severe illness, plus front-line workers such as teachers, health care workers and others whose jobs place them at greater risk of contracting COVID-19. The Pfizer booster shot is available for people regardless of whether they initially received the two-shot Moderna vaccine or the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which offers less protection than either the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines.

Astra-Zeneca’s separate unit

British-Swedish drugmaker Astra-Zeneca announced Tuesday that it is creating a separate unit entirely devoted to developing and manufacturing COVID-19 vaccines and treatments. The company’s two-shot vaccine, developed in collaboration with the University of Oxford, had a troubled rollout due to manufacturing delays and confirmation of a link between the vaccine and rare, possibly fatal blood clots, prompting some governments to limit its use among certain age groups.

But the AstraZeneca vaccine is cheaper and easier to use because it does not need to be stored at ultra-cold temperatures than either the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines. The vaccine makes up the bulk of the vaccine supply of COVAX, the international vaccine sharing mechanism for the world’s poorest nations supported by the United Nations and the health organizations Gavi and CEPI.

Meanwhile, the current surge of new COVID-19 infections in Germany prompted Dr. Christian Drosten, the head of virology at Berlin’s Charite Hospital, to issue a warning Wednesday that 100,000 people could die if the vaccination rate does not pick up quickly, and that Germany faces “a very tough winter with new shutdown measures.”

Drosten’s warning coincided with an announcement by the country’s Robert Koch Institute of 39,676 new COVID-19 infections across Germany, a new one-day record. Charite Hospital announced Tuesday that it is postponing all non-critical operations due to the growing rate of new COVID-19 patients.

In a related matter, the country’s vaccine advisory committee Wednesday recommended that people 30 years of age and under be vaccinated only with the Pfizer vaccine. The committee cited a higher risk of younger people developing a rare side effect of myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart, from the Moderna vaccine than the Pfizer version.

NFL vaccination

In the U.S. sports world, quarterback Aaron Rodgers of the National Football League’s Green Bay Packers franchise acknowledged “misleading” the public about his vaccination status shortly before the start of the current season.

Rodgers has been under intense criticism since last week’s revelation that he had tested positive for COVID-19, contradicting his earlier claims back in August that he had been “immunized.” Rodgers told radio sports host Pat McAfee after his diagnosis that he had not taken any of the approved vaccines because of concerns about adverse side effects, and instead relied on homeopathic treatments as an alternative.

In a follow-up interview with McAfee Tuesday, Rodgers said he took “full responsibility” for his comments back in August, but also said that he continued to stand by his concerns about the vaccines. He also said he expects to be cleared to rejoin the Packers in time for Sunday’s game against the Seattle Seahawks.

The NFL has fined Rodgers and teammate Allen Lazard $14,650 each for violating the league’s COVID-19 protocols for unvaccinated players when they attended a Halloween party despite their status. The Packers were also fined $300,000 for failing to discipline the players and for not reporting the violations to NFL officials.

Some information for this report came from the Associated Press and Reuters.

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‘Build Back Better World’ to Launch 50 Projects, White House Says

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White House officials are on a development-minded world tour and have been scouting several corners of the globe to identify about 50 projects that focus on topics such as climate, health, digital technology and gender equality. 

Daleep Singh, the deputy national security adviser for international economics, recently wrapped up a tour of West Africa, visiting Ghana and Senegal as part of President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better World initiative, known as B3W. 

Biden unveiled the plan during the June G-7 summit, with the goal of creating “a values-driven, high-standard and transparent infrastructure partnership” to help finance projects in developing countries.

 

“This was the first B3W listening session in Africa, demonstrating President Biden’s commitment to strengthening our ties in the region and to narrowing the global gaps in physical, digital, and human infrastructure that have been widened by the COVID-19 pandemic,” National Security Council spokesperson Emily Horne said in a statement this week. 

These listening sessions in Africa followed a similar trip Singh led in October, when he took an interagency delegation to Colombia, Ecuador and Panama. 

He will turn next to Southeast Asia, a senior administration official said. So far, the official said, the delegation has identified some 50 projects in those five countries alone. The official did not give a cost estimate but described some of the projects.

“For example, in climate, we had quite a few discussions about how we could help finance renewable energy projects in solar and hydro and wind,” the senior administration official said. “Also projects that could help reduce the rate of deforestation, which creates a carbon sink and helps these countries meet their emission reduction targets.”

Many analysts see this initiative as a counter to Beijing’s multitrillion-dollar Belt and Road initiative. That international development program has financed infrastructure projects in Asia, Africa and Latin America and has made inroads even in Europe. 

 

‘Democracies’ only 

And whereas China takes a firm stance against weighing in on recipient nation politics — making Chinese investments especially appealing for countries with poor human rights records and high levels of corruption — Biden’s initiative draws a different line. 

The president “asked us to build this product with our democratic values front and center,” the administration official said. “So transparency, collaboration with the host countries, inclusivity, so that the benefits are spread across all segments, and also sustainability, with no strings attached.”

But critics say this may be a weakness. 

“It will be difficult to create a sentiment in international markets that the BBBW is a viable, commercially credible alternative approach to financially supporting projects if it is viewed that only nations which the USG (U.S. government) defines as ‘democratic’ will be eligible to participate in it,” said Marc Mealy, senior vice president of policy at the US-ASEAN Business Council. 

Dalibor Rohac, a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, also said that showing preference to democracies could raise problems. 

“The emphasis on democracy might be good and valuable in its own right,” he told VOA. “But it might not be the best framing if you are trying to build relationships and build some sort of broader coalitions to counter China’s influence in say, Southeast Asia, where, by necessity, you need to sort of work with countries that fall short of Western liberal democratic standards.”

It’s all in the details 

But, analysts say, what mostly hurts the marketing of the American push is its lack of detail. 

When asked if he had any criticisms of the plan, Mealy simply replied: “Can’t criticize a plan which has not been made public.”

“It’s one thing to say, ‘Oh, the world needs $40 trillion in infrastructure, and we’re going to help out,’ ” Rohac said. “Like how that maps exactly into specific funding decisions, specific loan decisions, you know, which regions and which countries, which sectors — it’s all a bit vague. And most importantly, is this just a gimmick or are there going to be real resources put behind it by countries?” 

A formal B3W launch event is planned for early next year and will include details about the projects.

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Facebook Plans to Remove Thousands of Sensitive Ad-Targeting Options

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Facebook Inc. said on Tuesday it plans to remove detailed ad-targeting options that refer to “sensitive” topics, such as ads based on interactions with content around race, health, religious practices, political beliefs or sexual orientation. 

The company, which recently changed its name to Meta and which makes the vast majority of its revenue through digital advertising, has been under intense scrutiny over its ad-targeting abilities and rules in recent years. 

In a blog post, Facebook gave examples of targeting categories that would no longer be allowed on its platforms, such as “Lung cancer awareness,” “World Diabetes Day,” “LGBT culture,” “Jewish holidays” or political beliefs and social issues. It said the change would take place starting Jan. 19, 2022. 

The company has been hit with criticisms around its micro-targeting capabilities, including over abuses such as advertisers discriminating against or targeting vulnerable groups. In 2019, it agreed to make changes to its ads platform as part of a settlement over housing discrimination issues. 

“We’ve heard concerns from experts that targeting options like these could be used in ways that lead to negative experiences for people in underrepresented groups,” Graham Mudd, the company’s vice president of product marketing for ads, said in the post. 

Its tailored ad abilities are used by wide-ranging advertisers, including political campaigns and social issue groups, as well as businesses. 

“The decision to remove these Detailed Targeting options was not easy, and we know this change may negatively impact some businesses and organizations,” Mudd said in the post, adding that some advertising partners were concerned they would not be able to use these ads to generate positive social change. 

Advertisers on Facebook’s platforms can still target audiences by location, use their own customer lists, reach custom audiences who have engaged with their content and send ads to people with similar characteristics to those users. 

The move marks a key shift for the company’s approach to social and political advertising, though it is not expected to have major financial implications. CEO Mark Zuckerberg estimated in 2019, for example, that politicians’ ads would make up less than 0.5% of Facebook’s 2020 revenue. 

The issue of political advertising on social media platforms, including whether the content of politicians’ ads should be fact-checked, provoked much debate among the public, lawmakers and companies around the U.S. presidential election. 

Twitter in 2019 banned political ads altogether, but Facebook had previously said it would not limit how political advertisers reached potential voters. 

Facebook, which now allows users to opt to see fewer ads related to topics like politics and alcohol, said on Tuesday it would early next year give people more controls over the ads they see, including ones about gambling and weight loss. 

 

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SpaceX Returns 4 Astronauts to Earth, Ending 200-Day Flight

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Four astronauts returned to Earth on Monday, riding home with SpaceX to end a 200-day space station mission that began last spring.

Their capsule streaked through the late night sky like a dazzling meteor before parachuting into the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Pensacola, Florida. Recovery boats quickly moved in with spotlights.

“On behalf of SpaceX, welcome home to Planet Earth,” SpaceX Mission Control radioed from Southern California. Within an hour, all four astronauts were out of the capsule, exchanging fist bumps with the team on the recovery ship.

Their homecoming — coming just eight hours after leaving the International Space Station — paved the way for SpaceX’s launch of their four replacements as early as Wednesday night.

The newcomers were scheduled to launch first, but NASA switched the order because of bad weather and an astronaut’s undisclosed medical condition. The welcoming duties will now fall to the lone American and two Russians left behind at the space station.

Before Monday afternoon’s undocking, German astronaut Matthias Maurer, who’s waiting to launch at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, tweeted it was a shame the two crews wouldn’t overlap at the space station but “we trust you’ll leave everything nice and tidy.” His will be SpaceX’s fourth crew flight for NASA in just 1 1/2 years.

NASA astronauts Shane Kimbrough and Megan McArthur, Japan’s Akihiko Hoshide and France’s Thomas Pesquet should have been back Monday morning, but high wind in the recovery zone delayed their return.

“One more night with this magical view. Who could complain? I’ll miss our spaceship!” Pesquet tweeted Sunday alongside a brief video showing the space station illuminated against the blackness of space and the twinkling city lights on the nighttime side of Earth.

From the space station, NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei — midway through a one-year flight — bid farewell to each of his departing friends, telling McArthur “I’ll miss hearing your laughter in adjacent modules.”

Before leaving the neighborhood, the four took a spin around the space station, taking pictures. This was a first for SpaceX; NASA’s shuttles used to do it all the time before their retirement a decade ago. The last Russian capsule fly-around was three years ago. 

It wasn’t the most comfortable ride back. The toilet in their capsule was broken, and so the astronauts needed to rely on diapers for the eight-hour trip home. They shrugged it off late last week as just one more challenge in their mission.

The first issue arose shortly after their April liftoff; Mission Control warned a piece of space junk was threatening to collide with their capsule. It turned out to be a false alarm. Then in July, thrusters on a newly arrived Russian lab inadvertently fired and sent the station into a spin. The four astronauts took shelter in their docked SpaceX capsule, ready to make a hasty departure if necessary.

Among the upbeat milestones: four spacewalks to enhance the station’s solar power, a movie-making visit by a Russian film crew and the first-ever space harvest of chile peppers.

The next crew will also spend six months up there, welcoming back-to-back groups of tourists. A Japanese tycoon and his personal assistant will get a lift from the Russian Space Agency in December, followed by three businessmen arriving via SpaceX in February. SpaceX’s first privately chartered flight, in September, bypassed the space station.

NASA’s Kathy Lueders, head of space operations, said engineers would evaluate the lagging inflation of one of the four main parachutes, something seen in testing when the lines bunch together. Overall, though, “the return looked spotless.” 

“I can’t tell you how excited I am to see all four of the crew members back on Earth,” she added, “and I’m looking forward to launching another set of four this week.”

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Australia Plans Electric Car Boost With 50,000 New Home Charging Stations

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Australia’s electric car industry has criticized the government’s new policy to build thousands of charging stations as “far too little, too late.” The Australian government Tuesday pledged $132 million to speed up the rollout of hydrogen refueling and electric charging stations. 

The Electric Vehicles Council says an Australian government plan to build electric vehicle charging stations and hydrogen-powered vehicle fueling stations doesn’t include subsidies, tax incentives or minimum fuel standards, and leaves Australia lagging the rest of the world. 

Transport accounts for one-fifth of Australia’s emissions. Prime Minister Scott Morrison says electric- and hydrogen-powered vehicles are key in efforts to decarbonize the economy. There’s a plan to build 50,000 home charging stations and increase the government’s fleet of electric vehicles.  

Morrison says it’s a bold strategy.   

“Our plan, which is another key part of the overall national plan to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050 — this is one of the key building blocks, the future fuels and the take-up of electric vehicles driven by Australians’ choices,” Morrison said.

The government has forecast that electric and hybrid electric vehicles will make up about a third of annual new car and light truck sales by 2030. Sales hit a record 8,688 in the first half of this year but made up a fraction — about 1.5% — of total sales. 

During the 2019 election campaign, Morrison derided electric cars, insisting they would “end the weekend” because they wouldn’t be able to tow trailers or boats to go camping.    

His stance has changed as environmental pressures grow on governments around the world. 

But critics say the Australian strategy lacks ambition and does nothing to improve affordability of electric cars, which are more expensive than gasoline or diesel models. Morrison insists that costs will come down as technologies improve. 

Opposition Labor leader Anthony Albanese says other countries are leaving Australia behind.    

“There is this massive shift around the world to electric vehicles. Australia’s uptake last year was under 2%. In Norway, it was 70%. In the United Kingdom, it was 15% and rising. We are falling way behind,” Albanese said. 

Australia has some of the world’s highest emissions per person and is a huge exporter of fossil fuels. Despite a pledge to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, the Morrison government said its coal and gas industries would not be phased out. 

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Original Apple Built by Jobs and Wozniak to be Auctioned 

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An original Apple computer, hand-built by company founders Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak 45 years ago, goes under the hammer in the United States on Tuesday. 

The functioning Apple-1, the great, great grandfather of today’s sleek chrome-and-glass Macbooks, is expected to fetch up to $600,000 at an auction in California. 

The so-called “Chaffey College” Apple-1, is one of only 200 made by Jobs and Wozniak at the very start of the company’s odyssey from garage start-up to megalith worth $2 trillion. 

What makes it even rarer is the fact it is encased in koa wood — a richly patinated wood native to Hawaii. Only a handful of the original 200 were made in this way. 

Apple-1s were mostly sold as component parts by Jobs and Wozniak. One computer shop that took delivery of around 50 units decided to encase some of them in wood, the auction house said 

“This is kind of the holy grail for vintage electronics and computer tech collectors,” Apple-1 expert Corey Cohen told the Los Angeles Times. “That really makes it exciting for a lot of people.” 

Auctioneers John Moran say the device, which comes with a 1986 Panasonic video monitor, has only ever had two owners. 

“It was originally purchased by an electronics professor at Chaffey College in Rancho Cucamonga, California, who then sold it to his student in 1977,” a listing on the auction house’s website says. 

The Los Angeles Times reported the student — who has not been named — paid just $650 for it at the time. 

That student now stands to make a pretty penny: A working Apple-1 that came to the market in 2014 was sold by Bonhams for more than $900,000. 

“A lot of people just want to know what kind of a person collects Apple-1 computers and it’s not just people in the tech industry,” Cohen said. 

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Costs, Literacy and Design: The Invisible Barriers to Tackling the Digital Divide

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Connecting everyone in the world to the web will not single-handedly bridge the digital divide, tech experts at the Web Summit said this week, citing other invisible barriers like high costs, low digital literacy and complicated user interfaces.

The so-called “digital divide” refers to the gap between those who have access to computers and the internet and those who don’t, with the latter group made up of nearly half the world’s population, according to the United Nations.

With many essential services like schooling and banking moving online, the coronavirus pandemic has brought new urgency to global efforts to get the unconnected online by bringing internet coverage to remote or deprived areas.

“(COVID-19) made us clearly understand that what used to be seen as a ‘nice-to-have’ technology is now a ‘must-have’,” said ‘Gbenga Sesan, executive director of Paradigm Initiative, a pan-African social enterprise working on digital inclusion.

Reaching everyone can be a daunting task.

Even identifying where exactly internet access is needed is no easy feat in parts of the globe, said Sophia Farrar, who leads a program that uses satellite imagery and other data to locate offline schools and get them connected.

“No one actually knows how many schools there are in the world,” Farrar, of the U.N. children’s agency UNICEF, told a panel at Europe’s biggest tech conference in Lisbon.

“What we aim to achieve through the mapping is even just setting what that baseline target is.”

Increased mobile penetration has accelerated the process.

 

The number of active mobile broadband subscriptions worldwide jumped more than 75% to nearly 6 billion, including people with multiple accounts, between 2015 and 2020, according to the International Telecommunication Union.

Only about 450 million people live in areas not covered by mobile broadband, according to telecoms lobby group GSMA.

But even where there is coverage, more than 3 billion are not online, largely because they lack tools, skills and money to make use of it, said Robert Opp, chief digital officer at the U.N. Development Program (UNDP).

“If you just connect somebody with infrastructure, it doesn’t mean that you’re going to have productive use of your internet connection,” told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview.

Cost is one major barrier, he noted.

There are only a few developing countries where internet prices are in line with the U.N.’s target of less than 2% of the national average monthly income, Opp said.

Even in rich nations like Britain or the United States poor people often can’t afford to buy data, an issue that has sparked calls for price caps and motivated some countries to declare the internet an essential public service during the pandemic.

Others might not have the skills to navigate often complex, jargon-filled websites and applications, Opp added.

The problem has come to the fore with COVID-19 vaccine rollouts, as the elderly and the frail in countries from Sweden to South Africa report having trouble booking their shots online.

 

Lack of digital literacy also leaves people exposed to risks such as misinformation and loss of privacy, said Opp.

While education is key to helping people protect themselves online, designing digital tools that are easier to understand and tailored for the communities they are meant to serve is also essential, said Howard Pyle, a digital designer turned social entrepreneur.

“Most websites and mobile apps are designed for digitally privileged users who already know how to use those tools – typically the most profitable users that companies will get most traction with,” Pyle said in an interview at the Web Summit.

“But this excludes people who have different needs or different abilities, for example, those who are older or lack experience with technology or lower income users who have limits in terms of the types of devices they have access to.”

Pyle’s social enterprise, ExperienceFutures, looks to help firms and governments make their web services more accessible by cutting jargon and complexity and involving the communities they are trying to serve at the design stage.

“At the moment, there is too much emphasis on trying to create one-size-fits-all tools and expect users to learn how to use them,” he said.

“We have to evolve to a place where the technology is flexible enough that individuals can understand it based on their abilities.”

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Alleged Russian Hacks of Microsoft Service Providers Highlight Cybersecurity Deficiencies

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Cybersecurity experts say Microsoft’s recent disclosure that alleged Russian hackers successfully attacked several IT service providers this year is a sign that many U.S. IT companies have underinvested in security measures needed to protect themselves and their customers from intrusions.

But a U.S.-based association of IT professionals says the industry’s efforts to combat foreign hacking attacks are hampered by their customers not practicing good cyber habits and by the federal government not doing enough to punish and deter the hackers.

In an October 24 blog post, Microsoft said a Russian nation-state hacking group that it calls Nobelium spent three months attacking companies that resell, customize and manage Microsoft cloud services and other digital technologies for public and private customers. Microsoft said it informed 609 of those companies, known as managed service providers, or MSPs, that they had been attacked 22,868 times by Nobelium from July 1 to October 19 this year.

‘Well-known techniques’

As of its October 24 blog post, Microsoft said it determined that “as many as 14” of the resellers and service providers had been compromised in the Nobelium attacks, which it said involved the use of “well-known techniques, like password spray and phishing, to steal legitimate credentials and gain privileged access.”

Nobelium is the same group that Microsoft said was responsible for last year’s cyberattack on U.S. software company SolarWinds. That attack involved inserting malicious code into SolarWinds’ IT performance monitoring system, Orion, and gave the hackers access to the networks of thousands of U.S. public and private organizations that use Orion to manage their IT resources.

 

The White House said in April that it believed the perpetrators of the SolarWinds hack were part of the Russian foreign intelligence service, or SVR.

In an October 29 statement published by Russian network RBC TV, Russia’s foreign ministry dismissed as “groundless” Microsoft’s accusation that SVR was behind the recent cyberattacks on IT companies. It also said Microsoft should have shared data on the attacks with the Russian government’s National Coordination Center for Computer Incidents to aid a “professional and effective dialogue to … identify those involved.”

VOA asked Microsoft whether the company had communicated with Moscow regarding the latest hacking incidents, but Microsoft declined to comment.

It also has not disclosed the names or locations of any of the targeted or compromised IT companies.

Charles Weaver, chief executive of the U.S.-based International Association of Cloud and Managed Service Providers, also known as MSPAlliance, told VOA that he had not heard of any of his organization’s members being affected by the latest Nobelium attacks.

MSPAlliance describes itself as the world’s largest industry group for people who manage hardware, software and cloud computing services for customers. It says it has more than 30,000 members worldwide, about two-thirds of them based in North America.

Insufficient attention

The apparently successful cyberattacks on Microsoft-linked IT companies are a sign that U.S. MSPs are not putting enough priority on cybersecurity, said Jake Williams, a chief technology officer at U.S. cybersecurity company BreachQuest and a former U.S. National Security Agency elite hacking team member.

“The profit margins for MSPs are often razor-thin, and in the majority of cases, they compete purely on cost,” Williams told VOA in an interview. “Any work they do that doesn’t directly translate to additional revenue is generally not happening.”

One cybersecurity practice that more MSPs should adopt is the sharing of information with U.S. authorities about hacking incidents, said James Curtis, a cybersecurity program director at Webster University in Missouri, in a conversation with VOA’s Russian Service.

Curtis, a retired U.S. Air Force cyber officer and a former IT industry executive, said MSPs do not like to admit they have been hacked.

“They don’t want to share that their users’ information has been stolen, because it may hurt their bottom line and may hurt their stock prices, and so they try to handle that internally,” he said.

“The MSP community is not perfect,” Weaver said. “Our members face a lot of cyberattacks and their job is to protect their customers against these things. For 21 years, MSPAlliance has strived to promote best practices for our global community, and we will continue to incrementally improve as fast and as often as we can.”

But Weaver said criticism of MSPs for not devoting enough attention to cybersecurity is misplaced.

Customer practices

“MSPs have been urging their customers to make easy and inexpensive fixes such as adopting multifactor authentication to back up their data to the cloud,” Weaver said. “But I personally have witnessed a lot of nonconformity amongst the customers. They have to be the ones that ultimately pay for and allow MSPs to deploy those fixes.”

The Biden administration also has used a variety of tools this year to try to protect U.S. targets from Russian and other foreign hackers. In May, President Joe Biden issued an executive order for U.S. authorities to tighten cybersecurity contractual requirements for IT companies that work with the federal government. The order said the companies should be required to share more information with federal agencies about cyber incidents impacting the IT services provided to those agencies.

In an earlier action in April, the Biden administration sanctioned six Russian technology companies for providing support to what it called malicious cyber  activities of Russia’s intelligence services.

Senior U.S. officials also have used diplomacy to try to expand international participation in a Counter-Ransomware Initiative (CRI). A U.S. National Security Council statement issued Wednesday said deputy national security adviser Anne Neuberger briefed representatives of 35 countries Tuesday on the outcome of last month’s first CRI meeting of experts from law enforcement, cybersecurity, financial regulators and foreign affairs ministries.

Chris Morgan, an intelligence analyst at Britain-based cybersecurity company Digital Shadows, told VOA the stronger cybersecurity practices mandated by the U.S. government for federal contractors will not necessarily be voluntarily adopted by IT companies working in the private sector. One such mandated practice is for federal contractors to adopt a “zero-trust” security model, in which users who log in to a network are not automatically trusted to do whatever they like within that network but must instead undergo continual authentication.

Larger government role

“Implementing zero-trust is a real change in the way that your network is managed and comes with significant costs. I think that’s the reason why a lot of companies are quite hesitant to do so,” Morgan said. “I think a lot of people would like the U.S. government to take a more active role in combating cybercrime [through promoting measures like zero-trust].”

Weaver, of MSPAlliance, said applying federal cybersecurity regulations to the entire private sector is not a good idea because different industries, such as banking, health care and energy, have different IT needs.

He also said the U.S. government could effectively curb ransomware attacks by doing more to hold the perpetrators accountable.

“Cyberattacks are a big business, yet the hackers are in countries beyond the reach of our law enforcement,” Weaver said. “So you have a business model that has no disincentive to stop. And all we have are the IT guardians against those attacks. I just don’t think that putting regulations on the guardians is going to solve this.”

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Exodus of Foreign Internet Giants Strengthens China’s Homegrown Ecosystem

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China now depends almost entirely on its own online content providers, as the number of big foreign companies in the market, such as Yahoo and LinkedIn, keeps dwindling, giving the government a boost in controlling the internet, analysts say.

On Monday the Silicon Valley internet service provider Yahoo closed all of its services in China, following LinkedIn’s pullout announcement in October and earlier blockages of Google content.

In an e-mailed statement, Yahoo cited an “increasingly challenging business and legal environment in China.” Many Yahoo services were largely blocked in China, where the email and search engine provider has operated since 1999.

“My first reaction was, I didn’t know Yahoo was still alive in China,” said Danny Levinson, Beijing-based head of technology at the seed investment firm Matoka Capital.

Domestic services flourish

Chinese netizens seldom use Yahoo or other major Silicon Valley internet services, especially for media and communications, as domestic rivals have flourished over the past two decades. The government can handily monitor local providers for what it considers subversive content by calling in company managers for discipline.

Chinese use China-based WeChat for the bulk of their daily communication, watch TikTok videos instead of YouTube and check China’s Baidu.com rather than Wikipedia. Alibaba, headquartered in Hangzhou, takes care of e-commerce, although foreign rivals can still get into China given their trade’s lack of political sensitivity.

“They had all the ingredients in place,” said Kaiser Kuo, a U.S.-based podcaster who has worked in Chinese tech. “You had a really large, very fast-growing market. There was a need for people to come in with services that were catered to Chinese language users and Chinese tastes. On top of that, it was so cutthroat that foreign internet companies just couldn’t compete very well.”

The roughly 1 billion Chinese who use the internet have spawned an industry with an operating revenue of about $155 billion in the first 11 months of 2019, up 22.4% over the same months of 2018, according to Caixin Globa, a Chinese economic news-focused website.

Chinese mass media have said the country aims to become technologically self-sufficient by 2030 and get around U.S. government bans on doing business with some of its flagship companies.

Chinese netizens contacted this week say they’re unfazed by Yahoo’s withdrawal. Many Chinese have never visited Yahoo’s homepage, one veteran Beijing internet user said.

Laws discourage foreign providers

China has monitored the internet for two decades, by blocking websites and filtering social feeds, to intercept anti-government material. Its latest effort, the Data Security Law, restricts outflows of sensitive data from China and requires internet operators to give their internal data to law enforcement agencies.

Getting around that law can be costly and upset users outside China who oppose censorship, some analysts say.

“If there was a platform that was willing to go into China and completely cede control to the Chinese government and regulators to manage that, I think there would be an opportunity to grow, but so far most companies have chosen not to,” said Zennon Kapron, director of the finance industry research firm Kapronasia.

China previously blocked Facebook, Google and most other global social media sites and search engines as well as flagship Western news websites. Foreign media content providers “haven’t been really there for a long time in force,” said Ma Rui, founder of the San Francisco-based consultancy Tech Buzz China.

Users in China can still access foreign internet content by using a virtual private network, but authorities search out and block overseas-based VPNs that are not authorized for specific companies doing business in China. The “efficacy” of VPNs to stop filtering or blocking of content has declined over the years, Levinson said.

Emailing can still take care of Chinese people’s overseas business matters, Ma said, while foreign companies active in China normally use WeChat. China, however, does not allow end-to-end encrypted e-mail or chats.

“The email gets through, but based on the originating DNS [domain name system], it might get blocked, and it might get filtered. So it’s not a 100 percent panacea, but for normal business communication it’ll be fine,” Levinson said.

China’s constitution affords its citizens freedom of speech and press, but authorities target web content that the government believes will expose state secrets or might endanger the country, according to the Council on Foreign Relations, a research group.

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China Hits Reset on Belt and Road Initiative

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Green energy is the new focus of China’s one-of-a-kind Belt and Road Initiative or BRI, that aims to build a series of infrastructure projects from Asia to Europe.

The eco-friendlier version of BRI has caught the attention of some 70 other countries that are getting new infrastructure from the Asian economic powerhouse in exchange for expanding trade.

The reset on China’s eight-year-old, $1.2 trillion effort comes after leaving a nagging layer of smog in parts of Eurasia, where those projects operate.

Now the county that’s already mindful of pollution at home is preparing a new BRI that will focus on greener projects, instead of pollution-generating coal-fired plants. It would still further China’s goal of widening trade routes in Eurasia through the initiative’s new ports, railways and power plants.

The Second Belt and Road announced in China on October 18, coincides with the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference, or COP26, which runs from Sunday through November 12 in Glasgow, Scotland. China could use the forum to detail its plans.

“China’s policy shift towards a more green BRI reflects China’s own commitment to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2060 and its efforts to implement a green transition within China’s domestic economy,” said Rajiv Biswas, Asia-Pacific chief economist with the market research firm IHS Markit.

“Furthermore, China’s policy shift…also reflects the increasing policy priority being given towards renewable energy and sustainable development policies by most of China’s BRI partner countries,” he said.

The Belt and Road helps lift the economies of developing countries from Kazakhstan to more modern ones, such as Portugal. BRI also unnerves China’s superpower rival, the United States, which has no comparable program.

History of focusing on fossil fuel

China has a history of putting billions of dollars in fossil fuel projects in other countries since 2013, the American research group Council on Foreign Relations says in a March 2021 study.

From 2014 to 2017, it says, about 90% of energy-sector loans by major Chinese banks to BRI countries were for fossil fuel projects and China was “involved in” 240 coal plants in just 2016. In 2018, the study adds, 40% of energy lending went to coal projects. Those investments, the group says, “promise to make climate change mitigation far more difficult.”

South and Southeast Asia are the main destinations for coal-fired projects at 80% of the total Belt and Road portfolio, the Beijing-based research center Global Environmental Institute says.

Global shift toward green energy

Chinese President Xi Jinping said last year China would try to peak its carbon dioxide emissions before 2030. The Second Belt and Road calls for working with partner countries on “energy transition” toward more wind, solar and biomass, the National Energy Administration and Shandong provincial government said in an October 18 statement. 

Some countries are pushing China to offer greener projects due to environmental pressure at home, though some foreign leaders prefer the faster, cheaper, more polluting options to prove achievements while in office, said Jonathan Hillman, economics program senior fellow at the Center for International & Strategic Studies research organization.

“There was a period in the first phase of the Belt and Road where projects were being shoveled out the door and with not enough attention to the quality of those projects,” he said.

Poorer countries are pressured now to balance providing people basic needs against environmental issues, said Song Seng Wun, an economist in the private banking unit of Malaysian bank CIMB. The basics still “take priority,” he said, and newer coal-fired plants help.

“Although I would say environmental issues (are) important, I think a lot of people don’t realize how much more efficient these more modern coal plants are, so I think we must have a balance,” Song said.

In the past few years however, cancellation rates of coal-fired projects have exceeded new approvals, Hillman said. “The action honestly has come more from participating countries,” he said. “They’ve decided that’s not the direction they want to go.”

In February, Chinese officials told the Bangladesh Ministry of Finance they would no longer consider coal mining and coal-fired power stations. Greece, Kenya, Pakistan and Serbia have asked China to dial back on polluting projects, Hillman said.

“The next decade will show to what extent the Belt and Road will drive green infrastructure,” London-based policy institute Chatham House says in a September 2021 report.

Belt-and-Road renewable energy investments reached a new high last year of 57% of its total for energy projects in 2020, according to IHS data.

New pledges at COP26?

COP26 is expected to showcase the environmental achievements of participating countries as they try to meet U.N. Paris Climate Change commitments, Biswas said.

China’s statements ahead of the conference so far differ little from past statements. But China’s energy administration said on October 18 that its second Belt and Road “emphasizes the necessity of increased support for developing countries” in terms of money, technology and ability to carry out green energy projects.

Chinese companies on BRI projects may eventually be required to reduce environmental risks, Biswas said. Those companies would in turn follow principles released in 2018 to ensure that their projects generate less carbon. A year later, as international criticism grew, Chinese President Xi added a slate of Belt and Road mini-initiatives, including some that touched on green projects.

But the 2019 plans were non-binding and untransparent, Hillman said. At COP26, he said, “I would take any big announcements with more than a grain of salt.”

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US Lawmakers Vote to Tighten Restrictions on Huawei, ZTE

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The U.S. Senate voted unanimously on Thursday to approve legislation to prevent companies that are deemed security threats, such as Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd. or ZTE Corp., from receiving new equipment licenses from U.S. regulators. 

The Secure Equipment Act, the latest effort by the U.S. government to crack down on Chinese telecom and tech companies, was approved last week by the U.S. House in a 420-4 vote and now goes to President Joe Biden for his signature. 

“Chinese state-directed companies like Huawei and ZTE are known national security threats and have no place in our telecommunications network,” Republican Senator Marco Rubio said. The measure would prohibit the Federal Communications Commission from reviewing or issuing new equipment licenses to companies on its “Covered Equipment or Services List.” 

In March, the FCC designated five Chinese companies as posing a threat to national security under a 2019 law aimed at protecting U.S. communications networks. 

The affected companies included the previously designated Huawei and ZTE, as well as Hytera Communications Corp., Hangzhou Hikvision Digital Technology Co., and Zhejiang Dahua Technology Co. 

The FCC in June had voted unanimously to advance a plan to ban approvals for equipment in U.S. telecommunications networks from those Chinese companies even as lawmakers pursued legislation to mandate it. 

The FCC vote in June drew opposition from Beijing. 

“The United States, without any evidence, still abuses national security and state power to suppress Chinese companies,” Zhao Lijian, a spokesperson at China’s Foreign Ministry, said in June. 

Under proposed rules that won initial approval in June, the FCC could also revoke prior equipment authorizations issued to Chinese companies. 

A spokesperson for Huawei, which has repeatedly denied it is controlled by the Chinese government, declined to comment Thursday but in June called the proposed FCC revision “misguided and unnecessarily punitive.” 

FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr said the commission has approved more than 3,000 applications from Huawei since 2018. Carr said Thursday the bill “will help to ensure that insecure gear from companies like Huawei and ZTE can no longer be inserted into America’s communications networks.” 

On Tuesday, the FCC voted to revoke the authorization for China Telecom’s U.S. subsidiary to operate in the United States, citing national security concerns. 

 

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Facebook Inc. Rebrands as Meta to Stress ‘Metaverse’ Plan

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Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said his company is rebranding itself as Meta in an effort to encompass its virtual-reality vision for the future — what Zuckerberg calls the ” metaverse.” 

Skeptics point out that it also appears to be an attempt to change the subject from the Facebook Papers, a leaked document trove so dubbed by a consortium of news organizations that include The Associated Press. Many of these documents, first described by former Facebook employee-turned-whistleblower Frances Haugen, have revealed how Facebook ignored or downplayed internal warnings of the negative and often harmful consequences its social network algorithms created or magnified across the world.

“Facebook is the world’s social media platform and they are being accused of creating something that is harmful to people and society,” said marketing consultant Laura Ries. She compared the name Meta to when BP rebranded to “Beyond Petroleum” to escape criticism that it harmed the environment. “They can’t walk away from the social network with a new corporate name and talk of a future metaverse.”

What is the metaverse? Think of it as the internet brought to life, or at least rendered in 3D. Zuckerberg has described it as a “virtual environment” you can go inside of — instead of just looking at on a screen. Essentially, it’s a world of endless, interconnected virtual communities where people can meet, work and play, using virtual reality headsets, augmented reality glasses, smartphone apps or other devices.

It also will incorporate other aspects of online life such as shopping and social media, according to Victoria Petrock, an analyst who follows emerging technologies.

Zuckerberg says he expects the metaverse to reach a billion people within the next decade. It will be a place people will be able to interact, work and create products and content in what he hopes will be a new ecosystem that creates millions of jobs for creators.

The announcement comes amid an existential crisis for Facebook. It faces heightened legislative and regulatory scrutiny in many parts of the world following revelations in the Facebook Papers.

In explaining the rebrand, Zuckerberg said the name “Facebook” just doesn’t encompass everything the company does anymore. In addition to its primary social network, that now includes Instagram, Messenger, its Quest VR headset, its Horizon VR platform and more.

“Today we are seen as a social media company,” Zuckerberg said. “But in our DNA, we are a company that builds technology to connect people.”

Facebook the app, along with Instagram, WhatsApp and Messenger, are here to stay; the company’s corporate structure also won’t change. But on December 1, its shares will start trading under a new ticker symbol, “MVRS.”

Metaverse, he said, is the new way. Zuckerberg, who is a fan of classics, explained that the word “meta” comes from the Greek word “beyond.”

A corporate rebranding won’t solve the myriad problems at Facebook revealed by thousands of internal documents in recent weeks. It probably won’t even get people to stop calling the social media giant Facebook — or a “social media giant,” for that matter.

But that isn’t stopping Zuckerberg, seemingly eager to move on to his next big thing as crisis after crisis emerges at the company he created.

Just as smartphones replaced desktop computers, Zuckerberg is betting that the metaverse will be the next way people will interact with computers — and each other. If Instagram and messaging were Facebook’s forays into the mobile evolution, Meta is its bet on the metaverse.

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US State Department Creates Bureau to Tackle Digital Threats

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The State Department is creating a new Bureau of Cyberspace and Digital Policy to focus on tackling cybersecurity challenges at a time of growing threats from opponents. There will also be a new special envoy for critical and emerging technology, who will lead the technology diplomacy agenda with U.S. allies.

On Wednesday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the organizational changes underscore the need for a robust approach for dealing with cyber threats. 

“We want to make sure technology works for democracy, fighting back against disinformation, standing up for internet freedom, and reducing the misuse of surveillance technology,” Blinken said in a speech on modernizing American diplomacy. 

Blinken said the new bureau will be led by an ambassador-at-large. The chief U.S. diplomat is also seeking a 50% increase in State Department’s information technology budget. 

The announcement comes as hackers backed by foreign governments, such as Russia and China, continue to attack U.S. infrastructures and global technology systems to steal sensitive information.

Earlier this year, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence said that more countries are relying on cyber operations to steal information, influence populations and damage industry, but the U.S. is most concerned about Russia, China, Iran and North Korea.

The U.S. technology giant Microsoft said on Monday that the same Russia-backed hackers responsible for the 2020 SolarWinds breach of corporate computer systems are continuing to attack global technology systems, this time targeting cloud service resellers.

A senior State Department official told reporters on Wednesday that Washington has been clear with Moscow that cyber criminals targeting the U.S. is “not acceptable.” The United States has asked the Russian government to “take action against that type of criminal behavior.” 

Confronting cyberattacks continues to be “a high priority” in U.S. relations with Russia, the senior official said.

China is also considered to be one of the United States’ main cyber adversaries, having coordinated teams both inside and outside of the government conducting cyberespionage campaigns that were large-scale and indiscriminate, according to analysts.

Over the past year, experts have attributed notable hacks in the U.S., Europe and Asia to China’s Ministry of State Security, the nation’s civilian intelligence agency, which has taken the lead in Beijing’s cyberespionage, consolidating efforts by the People’s Liberation Army. 

In addition to expanding the State Department’s capacity on cybersecurity, Blinken also unveiled other steps to modernize American diplomacy, including the launch of a new “policy ideas channel” that allows American diplomats to share their policy ideas directly with senior leadership, building and retaining a diverse workforce, as well as a plan to “reinvigorate the in-person diplomacy and public engagement.” 

The organization changes to beef up resources and staffers to tackle international cybersecurity challenges came after the State Department completed an extensive review of cyberspace and emerging technology.

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Five Things Facebook Has to Worry About After Whistleblower Disclosures

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The past several weeks have been difficult for the social media behemoth Facebook, with a series of whistleblower revelations demonstrating that the company knew its signature platform was exacerbating all manner of social ills around the globe, from human trafficking to sectarian violence.   

The tide shows no sign of receding. New revelations this week have demonstrated that the company’s supposed commitment to freedom of expression takes a back seat to its bottom line when repressive governments, like Vietnam’s, demand that dissent be silenced. They showed that Facebook knew its algorithms were steering users toward extreme content, such as QAnon conspiracy theories and phony anti-vaccine claims, but took few steps to remedy the problem.

 

In statements to various media outlets, the company has defended itself, saying it dedicates enormous resources to assuring safety on its platform and asserting that much of the information provided to journalists and government officials has been taken out of context.   

In a conference call to discuss the company’s quarterly earnings on Monday, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg claimed that recent media coverage is painting a misleading picture of his company.   

“Good faith criticism helps us get better,” Zuckerberg said. “But my view is that what we are seeing is a coordinated effort to selectively use leaked documents to paint a false picture of our company. The reality is that we have an open culture, where we encourage discussion and research about our work so we can make progress on many complex issues that are not specific to just us.”   

The revelations, as well as unrelated business challenges, mean that Facebook, which also owns Instagram and the messaging service WhatsApp, has a lot of things to worry about in the coming weeks and months. Here are five of the biggest. 

A potential SEC investigation 

Whistleblower Frances Haugen, a former product manager with the company, delivered thousands of pages of documents to lawmakers and journalists last month, prompting the wave of stories about the company’s practices. But the documents also went to the Securities and Exchange Commission, raising the possibility of a federal investigation of the company. 

Haugen claims the documents provide evidence that the company withheld information that might have affected investors’ decisions about purchasing Facebook’s stock. Among other things, she says that the documents show that Facebook knew that its number of actual users — a key measurement of its ability to deliver the advertising it depends on for its profits — was lower than it was reporting.   

 

The SEC has not indicated whether or not it will pursue an investigation into the company, and a securities fraud charge would be difficult to prove, requiring evidence that executives actively and knowingly misled investors. But even an investigation could be harmful to the company’s already bruised corporate image. 

In a statement provided to various media, a company spokesperson said, “We make extensive disclosures in our S.E.C. filings about the challenges we face, including user engagement, estimating duplicate and false accounts, and keeping our platform safe from people who want to use it to harm others . . . All of these issues are known and debated extensively in the industry, among academics and in the media. We are confident that our disclosures give investors the information they need to make informed decisions.”   

Antitrust suit 

Facebook is already being sued by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which claims that between the company’s main site, Instagram, and WhatsApp, Facebook exercises monopoly power in the social media market. The agency is demanding that the three platforms be split up.   

Facebook has publicly claimed it does not have monopoly power, but internal documents made available by Haugen demonstrate that the company knows it is overwhelmingly dominant in some areas, potentially handing the FTC additional ammunition as it attempts to persuade a federal judge to break up the company.  

Legislative action 

Congress doesn’t agree on much these days, but Haugen’s testimony in a hearing last month sparked bipartisan anger at Facebook and Instagram, especially over revelations that the latter has long been aware that its platform is harmful to the mental health of many teenage users, particularly young girls. 

Several pieces of legislation have since been introduced, including a proposal to create an “app ratings board” that would set age and content ratings for applications on internet-enabled devices.  

  

Others seek to make social media companies like Facebook liable for harm done by false information circulating on the platform, or to force the company to offer stronger privacy protections and to give users the right to control the spread of content about themselves. 

Ramya Krishnan, a staff attorney at the Knight First Amendment Institute and a lecturer in law at Columbia Law School, is one of many academics who have been pushing for lawmakers to require Facebook and other social media platforms to allow researchers and journalists better access to data about their audiences and their engagement.   

“We’ve seen increased interest among lawmakers and regulators in expanding the space for research and journalism focused on the platform, reflecting the understanding that in order to effectively regulate the platforms we need to better understand the effect that they are having on society and democracy,” she told VOA.

 

Internal dissent 

One of the most striking things about the documents released this week is the amount of anger inside Facebook over the company’s public image. The disclosures include reams of internal messages and other communications in which Facebook employees complain about the company’s unwillingness to police content on the site.   

“I’m struggling to match my values to my employment here,” one employee wrote in response to the assault on the U.S. Capitol on January 6, which was partly organized on Facebook. “I came here hoping to effect change and improve society, but all I’ve seen is atrophy and abdication of responsibility.”  

The documents show that the company is losing employees — particularly those charged with combating hate speech and misinformation — because they don’t believe their efforts have the support of management. 

Advertiser boycott 

Last year the Anti-Defamation League organized a campaign to pressure companies to “pause” their advertising on Facebook in protest over its failure to eliminate hateful rhetoric on the platform. In a statement given to VOA, Jonathan A. Greenblatt, the group’s CEO, said it is preparing to do so again. 

“Mark Zuckerberg would have you believe that Facebook is doing all it can to address the amplification of hate and disinformation,” Greenblatt said. “Now we know the truth: He was aware it was happening and chose to ignore internal researchers’ recommendations and did nothing about it. So we will do something about it, because literally, lives have been lost and people are being silenced and killed as a direct result of Facebook’s negligence.”   

He continued, “We are in talks to decide what the best course of action is to bring about real change at Facebook, whether it’s with policymakers, responsible shareholders, or advertisers,” he said. “But make no mistake: We’ve successfully taken on Facebook’s hate and misinformation machine before, and we aren’t afraid to do it again. It’s time to rein in this rogue company and its harmful products.” 

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