Bitcoin Futures Begin Trading on CME, Price Declines

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Another security based on the price of bitcoin, the digital currency that has soared in value and volatility this year, began trading on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange on Sunday.

The CME Group, which owns the exchange, opened up bitcoin futures for trading at 6 p.m. EST on Sunday. The futures contract that expires in January opened higher at $20,650, then declined steadily. The futures were trading at $18,775 at 9:00 p.m. EST, down $725.

The CME futures, like the ones that CME competitor the Cboe started trading last week, do not involve actual bitcoin. The CME’s futures will track an index of bitcoin prices pulled from several private exchanges. The Cboe’s futures track the price of bitcoin prices on the particular private exchange known as Gemini.

Each contract sold on the CME will be for five bitcoin.

As bitcoin’s price has skyrocketed on private exchanges this year, largely under its own momentum, interest on Wall Street has grown. The virtual currency was trading below $1,000 at the beginning of the year, and rose to more than $19,000 on some exchanges in the days leading up to its debut on the Cboe and CME. Bitcoin was trading at $18,417 Sunday evening on Coinbase.

But the growing interest in bitcoin has raised questions on whether its value has gotten too frothy. The Securities and Exchange Commission put out a statement last week warning investors to be careful with any investment in bitcoin or other digital currencies. Further, the Commodities Futures Trading Commission has proposed regulating bitcoin like a commodity, not unlike gold, silver, platinum or oil.

Futures are a type of contract where a buyer and seller agree on a price on a particular item to be delivered on a certain date in the future, hence the name. Futures are available for nearly every type of security out there, but are most familiarly used in commodities, like oil wheat, soy and gold.

Bitcoin is the world’s most popular virtual currency. Such currencies are not tied to a bank or government and allow users to spend money anonymously. They are basically lines of computer code that are digitally signed each time they are traded.

A debate is raging on the merits of such currencies. Some say they serve merely to facilitate money laundering and illicit, anonymous payments. Others say they can be helpful methods of payment, such as in crisis situations where national currencies have collapsed.

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Stake in Vietnam’s Top Brewer for Sale, But Bids Few

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Vietnam is set to auction up to a $5 billion stake in top brewer Sabeco on Monday, with Thai Beverage the only potential bidder to have expressed interest in a majority stake.

The keenly anticipated sale of the state-owned maker of Bia Saigon gained momentum in recent months after being hampered for years by political resistance, fickle policy-making and complications over valuations.

The government has set a minimum sale price of 320,000 dong or $14.10 a share for Saigon Beer Alcohol Beverage Corp (Sabeco), whose shares have nearly trebled to 309,200 dong since its listing a year ago.

Thai Beverage, through a partly owned Vietnam unit, is the only company that has expressed interest in owning more than 25 percent of the company, which has roughly 40 percent of the beer-loving Vietnamese market.

So far no formal bid had been made.

Vietnam’s young population and booming economy should make Sabeco an attractive asset for global brewers hoping to expand in Southeast Asia, but a high minimum bid price and foreign ownership limits appear to have turned off potential buyers.

Sabeco’s foreign ownership is capped at 49 percent. With 10 percent already in foreign hands, that leaves only 39 percent on the table for overseas buyers at Monday’s auction. Local bidders can bid for a majority stake of up to 54 percent. Heinken holds a 5 percent stake.

“There’s a disconnect between what the government wants to achieve and how international brewers view this auction,” said one person familiar with the matter. “In a normal auction, bidders are fully aware of what stake they’ll end up owning and bid for it accordingly,” said the person, who was not authorized to speak to the media.

Unlike similar sales in developed markets, where investors are whittled down over several rounds and offers can be adjusted, Sabeco bidders need to submit a single offer for a specific number of shares in a sealed envelope in one round.

Thai Bev, controlled by tycoon Charoen Sirivadhanabhakdi, was keen to acquire Sabeco as part of a strategy to expand outside its home market, sources told Reuters. The company had lined up bank guarantees to support the bid by its Vietnam unit, sources said.

There was no immediate response from Thai Bev to a query from Reuters.

Reuters previously reported that the auction was drawing the interest of brewing groups such as Anheuser-Busch InBev, Kirin Holdings, Asahi Group Holdings and San Miguel, but there is no clear sign of whether they have participated in the auction so far.

The government’s minimum price for the 54 percent stake on offer valued Sabeco at about 36 times core earnings, more than double the trading multiples of around 15 for some global peers, according to Reuters data.

Vietnam’s trade ministry is expected to announce the bidding result Monday afternoon.

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Trump Sells Republican Tax Bill to Job Seekers, Middle Class

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U.S. President Donald Trump continued to tout the Republican tax bill Saturday, saying “everybody’s going to benefit” if it is signed into law.

“But I think the greatest benefit is going to be for jobs and for the middle class, middle income,” Trump said to reporters on the White House South Lawn before departing for the presidential Camp David retreat in Maryland.

Republican Senate and House negotiators finalized a final version Friday of their compromise $1.5 trillion tax bill, after appeasing Republican Senator Marco Rubio, who demanded an expansion of the child tax credit that provides benefits for low-income families.

Republican lawmakers hammered out differences Wednesday between the House and Senate versions, and both chambers of Congress plan to vote on the final bill early next week, with the intent of submitting it to President Donald Trump for his signature before Christmas.  

Rubio said late Friday he would vote for the bill after saying one day earlier he would not support it unless it includes a more generous child tax credit, which has been  beneficial to lower-income families by partially offsetting the expenses of raising children.

The bill doubles the current child tax credit from $1,000 to $2,000 per child and allows parents to get a refund of up to $1,400 if the credit is greater than their federal income tax liability.

No Democratic support

No Democrats have publicly expressed their support for the legislation, which they have attacked as a giveaway to corporations and the wealthiest of taxpayers, including Trump, a billionaire.

The measure would cut taxes by $1.5 trillion over the next decade, heavily weighted toward lower corporate taxation, and perhaps add $1 trillion or more to the country’s long-term $20 trillion debt obligations to investors and foreign governments such as China – the largest owner of U.S. debt.

When asked about the debt, Trump responded by saying a new tax law will encourage inflows of overseas money. “This is going to bring money in. As an example, we think four trillion dollars will come flowing back into the country. That’s money that’s overseas, that’s stuck there for years and years.”

Trump administration officials say millions of individual taxpayers, but not everyone, would see their annual tax obligation to the government cut, in many cases by a few hundred dollars, or in the case of wealthy taxpayers, by thousands of dollars.

In  the final compromise bill, the individual tax rate for the highest income earners would be cut from 39.6 percent to 37 percent.

The country’s corporate tax rate, now at 35 percent and among the highest in the industrialized world, would be cut substantially to 21 percent.

With Democrat Doug Jones winning a special Senate election Tuesday in Alabama, Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer has asked that the final tax vote be delayed until January after Jones is sworn in. But Republicans appear intent on voting before then while they have one more Republican vote in the Senate.

An original version of the Senate bill was approved 51-49 with Rubio’s support. So if Rubio votes against the bill, it could still pass, though with a narrower margin.

If approved and signed into law, the tax legislation would be the first major legislative achievement of Trump’s nearly 11-month presidency after he and Republicans failed earlier this year dismantle national health care policies championed by former president Barack Obama.

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New Kind of Retirement Community: A Little India in Silicon Valley 

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With people coming from around the world to work in Silicon Valley, some struggle with the best ways to care for their aging parents.

Increasingly, the solution is an “affinity” retirement community, where older people from places like India and China can live near — but not with — their adult children. These communities break from traditional custom that parents and children live together.

“The children are so busy these days, they are all the time working, taking care of their kids, so we do not want to interfere in their lives,” said Asha RaoRane, an Indian national who wanted to move to the U.S. to be near her three daughters who had immigrated to San Francisco.

Her daughters started exploring the idea of a traditional senior retirement community, but were having trouble finding an American community they thought their mother would fit into.

In July, RaoRane, 70, moved into Priya Living, an affinity-living community, meaning it caters to people with similar interests, such as yoga and meditation.

Arun Paul founded Priya Living as a place for his parents to live. The couple moved from Los Angeles four years ago and are still in a ground floor apartment.

“In living here in America, as the son of immigrants, I’ve realized that there’s very unique needs that immigrants have,” said Paul, a real-estate developer.

“That old system was based on a different time when women were in the house, really taking care, in many cultures, of their husband’s parents,” Paul said. “Obviously the role of women in society has changed globally.”

New friends

For Bhagyashree RaoRane, 38, finding Priya Living for her mother has been a dream come true.

“We walked in and instantly it was like walking into an Indian community in India,” said RaoRane, a filmmaker. “Even the building is painted the same color as so many of the buildings in India are painted.”

This type of independent senior community came as a shock to Nagendra Prasad, 62, and Manjula Neelakantaiah, 53, who came to Priya on a two-month visit from Bangalore, India, to see their daughter, an intern at Google.

“Really, in the beginning we were surprised,” Neelakantaiah said. “In India the younger people, they definitely take care of the aged people.”

Not always a good fit

For a few residents, Priya is not the perfect fit. Dr. Byravan Viswanathan and his wife, Lakshmi, were born and raised in India but spent much of their adult lives in a small town in Pennsylvania.

“We had oodles and oodles of good friends and they were not Indians — regular Americans,” he said. “We had become so Westernized, we have to adapt to Indian living again. Look around. There are six different Indian languages spoken right now at this table, languages I have never spoken or haven’t spoken in decades.” Viswanathan’s daughter is looking into finding a more American community for them.

All are welcome

While the vast majority of residents are from India, Paul stressed that Priya Living welcomes people of all backgrounds. There are a few non-Indians who call Priya home.

Carlos McCann, an 89-year-old WW II veteran, has been living in the complex for almost 20 years, long before it was purchased and remodeled to become the primarily Indian community.

“Everything has sort of come together at this location it’s like it’s the center of the world,” he said.

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Indian Retirees Maintain Independence, Fun and Freedom Later in Life

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Young people come from around the world to work in Silicon Valley, California. As these workers build a life away from home, many struggle with how to bring their aging parents to their new community. But what happens to foreign parents entering their later years in a new country? VOA’s Deana Mitchell visits a unique community in Silicon Valley that caters to retirees from India.

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Britain Seeks ‘Bespoke’ EU Trade Deal, Pact With China

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British Finance Minister Philip Hammond said Saturday it is likely Britain will want to negotiate a bespoke arrangement for a future trade deal with the European Union, rather than copying existing arrangements like the Canada-EU deal.

The European Union agreed Friday to move Brexit talks onto trade and a transition pact, but some leaders cautioned that the final year of divorce negotiations before Britain’s exit could be fraught with peril.

Summit chairman Donald Tusk said the world’s biggest trading bloc would begin “exploratory contacts” with Britain on what London wants in a future trade relationship, as well as starting discussion on the immediate post-Brexit transition.

No off-the-shelf deal

Speaking in Beijing, Hammond it was probably not helpful to think in terms of off-the-shelf models like the Canada-EU deal.

“We have a level of trade and commercial integration with the EU 27 which is unlike the situation of any trade partner that the EU has ever done a trade deal with before,” he told reporters.

“And therefore it is likely that we will want to negotiate specific arrangements, bespoke arrangements,” Hammond added.

“So I expect that we will develop something that is neither the Canada model nor an EEA model, but something which draws on the strength of our existing relationship.”

The Brexit negotiations have been a vexed issue for the global economy as markets feared prolonged uncertainty would hit global trade and growth.

A transition period is now seen as crucial for investors and businesses who worry that a “cliff-edge” Brexit would disrupt trade flows and sow chaos through financial markets.

China visit

Hammond’s China visit is the latest installment in long-running economic talks between the two states, but it has now taken on new importance for Britain as it looks to re-invent itself as a global trading nation after leaving the EU in 2019.

China is one of the countries Britain hopes to sign a free trade agreement with once it leaves the EU, and London and Beijing have been keen to show that Britain’s withdrawal from the bloc will not affect ties.

Hammond sought to offer reassurance to Chinese firms post-March 2019 when Britain formally leaves the EU.

“We won’t technically or legally be in the customs union or in the single market, but we’re committed as a result of the agreement we’ve made this week to creating an environment which will effectively replicate the current status quo,” he said.

Addressing the press after Hammond had spoken, Chinese Vice Finance Minister Shi Yaobin said China hopes Britain and the EU can reach a win-win agreement.

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Huge Tax Bill Heads for Passage as GOP Senators Fall in Line

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After weeks of quarrels and qualms and then 11th-hour horse-trading, Republicans revealed their huge national tax rewrite late Friday, along with announcements of support that all but guarantee approval next week.

The legislation would slash tax rates for big business and lower levies on the richest Americans in a massive $1.5 trillion bill that the GOP plans to pass through Congress before the year-end break. Benefits for most other taxpayers would be smaller.

“This is happening. Tax reform under Republican control of Washington is happening,” House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin told rank-and-file members in a conference call. “Most critics out there didn’t think it could happen. … And now we’re on the doorstep of something truly historic.”

According to the 1,097-page bill, today’s 35 percent rate on corporations would fall to 21 percent, the crown jewel of the measure for many Republicans. Trump and GOP leaders had set 20 percent as their goal, but added a point to free money for other tax cuts that won over wavering lawmakers in final talks.

Party’s first achievement of 2017

The legislation represents the first major legislative achievement for the GOP after nearly a full year in control of Congress and the White House. It’s the widest-ranging reshaping of the tax code in three decades and is expected to add to the nation’s $20 trillion debt. The debt is expected to soar by at least $1 trillion more than it would without the tax measure, according to projections.

Support is now expected from all Senate Republicans, ensuring narrow approval. Democrats are expected to oppose the legislation unanimously.

“Under this bill, the working class, middle class and upper middle class get skewered while the rich and wealthy corporations make out like bandits,” said Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York. “It is just the opposite of what America needs, and Republicans will rue the day they pass this.”

The bill would drop today’s 39.6 percent top rate on individuals to 37 percent. The standard deduction, used by about two-thirds of households, would be nearly doubled.

Those who itemize their taxes face mixed results. The $1,000-per-child tax deduction would grow to $2,000. The bill makes a smaller amount — $1,400 — available to families even if they owe no income tax. The money would come in the form of a tax refund, which is why it’s called a “refundable” tax credit. In an earlier verison of the bill, the amount was $1,000.

But the deduction that millions use in connection with state and local income, property and sales taxes would be capped at $10,000. Deductions for medical expenses that lawmakers once considered eliminating would be retained.

Only on Friday did Republicans cement support for the major overhaul, securing endorsements from wavering senators.

Rubio, Corker relent

Marco Rubio of Florida relented in his high-profile opposition after negotiators expanded the child tax credit, and he said he would vote for the measure next week.

Rubio had been holding out for a bigger child tax credit for low-income families. After he got it, he tweeted that the change was “a solid step toward broader reforms which are both Pro-Growth and Pro-Worker.”

Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, the only Republican to vote against the Senate version earlier this month, made the surprise announcement that he would back the legislation. Corker, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has repeatedly warned that the nation’s growing debt is the most serious threat to national security.

Although he deemed the bill far from perfect, he said it was a once-in-a-generation opportunity.

“I realize this is a bet on our country’s enterprising spirit, and that is a bet I am willing to make,” Corker said.

Members of a House-Senate conference committee signed the final version of the legislation Friday, sending it to the two chambers for final passage next week. They have been working to blend the different versions passed by the two houses.

Republicans hold a 52-48 majority in the Senate, including two ailing senators who have missed votes this past week.

John McCain of Arizona, 81, is at a Washington-area military hospital being treated for the side effects of brain cancer treatment, and Thad Cochran, 80, of Mississippi had a non-melanoma lesion removed from his nose earlier this week. GOP leaders are hopeful they will be available next week.

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Facebook Highlights Dangers of Using Facebook

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With nearly 2 billion users, Facebook’s survival depends on people continuing to use its service. 

That’s why observers were surprised by an unusual company blog post Friday that highlighted some of the potential harm of using the social media service. 

Titled Hard Questions: Is Spending Time on Social Media Bad for Us?,

the company cited studies that suggested some of the possible downsides of using social media. 

In one study, people who passively read about others’ lives reported feeling worse about themselves. One possibility is “negative social comparison” when reading about others online, the company said, because “people’s posts are often more curated and flattering” than how they are in their real, offline lives. 

But there’s a potential solution, according to Facebook, which reported $10 billion in revenue — its highest ever — in the last quarter: Don’t be a bystander to others’ lives. Use Facebook more and with friends and family.

Facebook users who spend more time on Facebook — actually post and interact with close friends — experienced more positive effects, according to a company study conducted with Carnegie Mellon University.

“Simply broadcasting status updates wasn’t enough,” the post said. “People had to interact one-on-one with others in their network.”

New features

The Facebook post came as some former top executives have spoken about Facebook’s potential negative effects on society and individuals. Facebook exploits a “vulnerability in human psychology,” Sean Parker, Facebook’s founding president, said recently.

To aid in supporting people’s well-being while using its service, the company recently tweaked its News Feed — what people see when they sign on — to promote friendships and demote what the firm called “clickbait headlines.” 

Also, it launched a new feature called “Snooze” that lets a user hide a person, Facebook page or group for 30 days without having to “unfollow.” It gives a Facebook user more control of what he or she sees, the company said. 

Effects on kids

The company acknowledged that people are worried about the short- and long-term effects of Facebook use on young people. It pledged $1 million toward research to “better understand the relationship between media technologies, youth development and well-being.”

Observers praised the company for acknowledging that using social media may have unintended, negative consequences, but noted that it was unusual for a corporation, one that typically presents itself as a force for good, to point out some of the risks of using its service. 

One unanswered question is whether Facebook with new features and tweaks can offset potential negative effects. 

Or will people put a Snooze button on Facebook? 

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Powerful CEOs Demand DACA Fix

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Two titans of U.S. business have come together to demand that Congress find an immediate solution for DACA recipients, whose legal immigration status will come to an end in March without intervention.

Charles Koch, chairman and chief executive of Koch Industries, and Tim Cook, chief executive of Apple, wrote in an opinion piece published Thursday in The Washington Post that “we strongly agree that Congress must act before the end of the year to bring certainty and security to the lives of dreamers. Delay is not an option. Too many people’s futures hang in the balance.”

Dreamers is another term for participants in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which has protected undocumented young people who were brought to the U.S. as children and provided them with work permits.

President Donald Trump ended the DACA program in September although it will not begin to phase out until March, 2018.

His action put the ball in Congress’ court to find a long term solution for dreamers.

In their op-ed piece, the two CEOs note that both of their companies employ DACA recipients. “We know from experience that the success of our businesses depends on having employees with diverse backgrounds and perspectives. It fuels creativity, broadens knowledge and helps drive innovation.”

Koch Industries encompass a variety of companies including manufacturing and refining of oil and chemicals. Forbes Magazine lists Koch as the second largest privately held company in the U.S. Apple is the world’s largest information technology company, producing such familiar products as the iPhone and the Mac computers.

‘Firmly aligned’ on DACA issue

Koch and Cook are as different politically as their companies. Deeply conservative, Charles Koch has made significant financial contributions to rightwing causes and mostly Republican candidates. Tim Cook has been more bipartisan in his donations but did host a fundraiser for Democrat Hillary Clinton when she was running for president.

“We are business leaders who sometimes differ on the issues of the day,” the two concede in their piece. “Yet, on a question as straightforward as this one, we are firmly aligned.”

Congress seems unlikely to provide a DACA solution by the end of the year.

While some Democrats have remained firm in linking the spending legislation to a measure that would allow nearly 800,000 DACA immigrants to continue to work and study in the United States, the effort seems to have lost momentum.

Speaking Wednesday to a group of DACA recipients, Democratic Senator Richard Durbin of Illinois said he wished he could “tell you that we’re totally confident we can get it done. I can’t say that. I don’t want to mislead you.” Durbin is a co-sponsor of the DREAM Act which would protect DACA recipients.

Republican lawmakers have maintained that there is no reason to act on DACA in 2017.

“There is no emergency. The president has given us until March to address it,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, said Sunday on ABC’s This Week program. “I don’t think Democrats would be very smart to say they want to shut down the government over a nonemergency that we can address anytime between now and March.”

But that was said before a major Republican donor urged immediate action.

“We have no illusions about how difficult it can be to get things done in Washington, and we know that people of good faith disagree about aspects of immigration policy,“ Koch and Cook write.

“By acting now to ensure that dreamers can realize their potential by continuing to contribute to our country, Congress can reaffirm this essential American ideal.

“This is a political, economic and moral imperative.”

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shamo has pleaded not guilty to a dozen charges.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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German Government Says It Backs ‘Open and Free Internet’

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

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

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

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

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

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Scientists Working on Writing Five-day Forecast for Solar Storms

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

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Trump Touts Progress on Slashing Federal Regulations

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

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What Is Net Neutrality?

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

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

What is net neutrality?

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

What did the governments do about it?

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

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

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

The telcos

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

Silicon Valley

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

What happens next

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

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

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US Dismantles Internet Neutrality Regulation

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The U.S. on Thursday dismantled two-year-old “net neutrality” rules that guaranteed equal access to the internet in favor of policies that would reduce regulation of major internet service providers and hand them sweeping powers to decide what web content consumers can access.

The Federal Communications Commission voted 3-2 to adopt a plan advanced by chairman Ajit Pai, appointed to his position by President Donald Trump, for a “light touch” on regulating major telecommunication companies and end what he says is the federal government’s “micromanaging” of the internet.

The meeting was briefly interrupted for security reasons before the vote took place. A video feed of the meeting showed law enforcement officers enter the room with dogs. No reason was immediately given for the disruption.

WATCH: What is ‘net neutrality’?

Pai’s controversial changes unravel 2015 policies championed by former President Barack Obama. The overturning of net neutrality rules that treat all web traffic equally drew hundreds of public protests and more than a million calls to members of Congress in opposition to Pai’s plan. Some consumer groups vowed to file legal challenges of the new rules.

They roll back restrictions that have kept broadband providers like Comcast, Verizon and AT&T from blocking or charging fees to services they don’t like and would bar the country’s 50 states from enacting their own rules.

Pai said his plan will end unnecessary regulation and give more Americans access to the internet. It will give the large internet service providers the right to block rival apps, slow down competing services and offer faster internet connection to companies willing to pay for it.

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

Tim Berners-Lee, the British engineer and creator of the World Wide Web, opposed changing the U.S. policy. He said on the online platform Medium this week, “Net neutrality – the principle that internet service providers treat all traffic equally – underpins the internet as we know it today.”

Berners-Lee said with Pai’s rules, “ISPs will have the power to decide which websites you can access and at what speed each will load. In other words, they’ll be able to decide which companies succeed online, which voices are heard – and which are silenced.”

But a lobbyist for the major telecom firms, Jonathan Spalter, head of the trade group USTelecom, dismissed concerns of opponents of the changes.

“I genuinely look forward to the weeks, months, years ahead when none of the fire and brimstone predictions comes to pass,” Spalter said.

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Fish Farming Project Helps CAR Refugees Feed Themselves

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The United Nations says humanitarian needs in refugee camps in Cameroon are increasing, exceeding the means available to take care of the growing number of refugees. But some of the refugees have empowered themselves by making use of resources around them to earn a living for their families. At Gado refugee camp in eastern Cameroon,  200 refugee women have developed a fish pond by a river and are supplying fish not only to people in need in the camp but to surrounding villages.

More than a hundred women sing here on the side of a river at Gado near the United Nations refugee camp. It is a day of harvest and many refugees have come to buy. Among the fish farmers is 31-year-old Christine Mboula, a Central African Refugee who has been living in the camp for two years. Her laughs are indicative of how happy she is to raise money from the sale of the fish and then carry some of her catch home for her family.

Mboula says she has come to the river to collect and sell fish so as to help her family. She says the activity has kept them going.

Christine says she had been jobless and poor and could not take care of her three children. She lost her husband in the fighting in C.A.R. and relied on food aid from the United Nations, which she says was never enough.

Boniface Nyado, head of the World Food Program office in the eastern Cameroon town of Bertoua says the inland fish aquaculture program was started in the area in June 2017 by the World Food Program to attend to the needs of C.A.R. refugees and their host communities.

He says they initiated the project when they noticed that the locality had high fishing potential and at the same time there was insufficient food and a deficit in protein needed by the host communities and refugees. He says they brought groups of 200 refugees and host community members who work in the fishing area for six months, harvest and sell the fish and then create their own fish ponds to help them raise revenue and protein.

The refugees and host community members receive business training, emphasizing savings and loan best practices, technical support that includes how to produce low-cost fish food pellets, and other innovative ideas from the World Food Program.

The host communities are involved in efforts to stop any potential conflict that may arise from using water and other resources.

The W.F.P. says the savings and loan program in Gado is part of a new response to the massive displacement of people from C.A.R. to Cameroon and the effects it has on host communities.

Barely 1,000 C.A.R. refugees were here at Gado at the beginning of 2017. Today, close to 25,000 people are seeking refuge and trying to survive as tensions in the central African state continue.

Allegra Baiocchi, resident coordinator of the UN system in Cameroon says the aquaculture program was initiated to support the refugees and empower them rather than have them be dependent on resources that are overstretched and slow to come.

“Our response is underfunded. We need to remember the refugees population and the impact this has on the host communities and we need to do more,” she said. “Overall, the humanitarian response in Cameroon is 40 percent funded. When it comes to refugees, that figure comes down to 20 percent. There is not more we can do with 20 percent of the funding. After three years, what the people are asking us is to give them more long term support. To start putting them on the path of recovery and of development.”

The United Nations raised only $148 million of the 390 million dollars it needed up to the end of last September. The UN says by January, the needs of the refugees will increase to 498 million dollars.

C.A.R. plunged into turmoil in 2013 when the government of the majority Christian nation was overthrown by Muslim rebels, setting off a wave of sectarian fighting.

Christians, fearing reprisal attacks from the Muslim ex-rebels who controlled Central African Republic, fled for safety.

At least two-point-two million are finding it difficult to feed themselves and in May of this year, the U.N. refugee agency said that there were more than 500,000 internally displaced persons in the country.

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Greek Unions Strike as Bailouts to End With Austerity Blitz

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Greece’s workers walked off the job for a 24-hour general strike Thursday, as the country prepares to stop relying on European rescue loans but continues to pile more austerity measures on hard-hit taxpayers.

 

The strike halted ferry services to the islands, closed state schools, and left public hospitals accepting only emergency cases.

 

Airlines rescheduled and cancelled flights as some airport staff joined the labor action with a four-hour work stoppage, and public transport was operating only for certain hours during the day.

 

Thousands of people gathered in Athens for anti-government protests, while demonstrations were planned in more than 50 cities and towns across the country.

 

“The government is doing a dirty job at the expense of the Greek people,” said Greek Communist Party leader Dimitris Koutsoumbas, speaking at the main morning rally in central Athens, which was attended by more than 16,000 people, according to police estimates.

 

Greece has depended on international bailouts since 2010 but must return to bond markets next year when its third consecutive rescue program runs out in August.

 

The government’s borrowing rates have tumbled, and the country is on course to achieve modest economic growth in 2017. But poverty rates continue to worsen after years of cuts.

 

Household incomes have fallen by about a third since the crisis started in 2009, according to World Bank data, and inequality has risen due to high long-term unemployment.

 

Roughly half the country’s taxpayers are behind on payments, with several hundred thousand facing the threat of asset seizures.

 

Thursday’s protest was triggered by a government plan to toughen strike rules in draft legislation submitted to parliament and swiftly withdrawn.

 

Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras’ left-led coalition government has also promised to help banks clear a mountain of bad loans, speeding up auctions of homes in mortgage default.

 

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Decade Since Recession: Thriving Cities Leave Others Behind

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As the nation’s economy was still reeling from the body blow of the Great Recession, Seattle’s was about to take off.

In 2010, Amazon opened a headquarters in the little-known South Lake Union district — and then expanded eight-fold over the next seven years to fill 36 buildings. Everywhere you look, there are signs of a thriving city: Building cranes looming over streets, hotels crammed with business travelers, tony restaurants filled with diners.

 

Seattle is among a fistful of cities that have flourished in the 10 years since the Great Recession officially began in December 2007, even while most other large cities — and sizable swaths of rural America — have managed only modest recoveries. Some cities are still struggling to shed the scars of recession.

 

In Las Vegas, half-finished housing developments, relics of the housing boom, pockmark the surrounding desert. Families there earn nearly 20 percent less, adjusted for inflation, than in 2007.

 

In the decade since the recession began, the nation as a whole has staged a heartening comeback: The unemployment rate is at a 17-year low of 4.1 percent, down from 10 percent in 2009. Employers have added jobs for 86 straight months, a record streak. And last year, income for a typical U.S. household, adjusted for inflation, finally regained its 1999 peak.

 

Yet the rebound has been uneven. It’s failed to narrow the country’s deep regional economic disparities and in fact has worsened them, according to data analyzed exclusively for The Associated Press. A few cities have grown much richer, thanks to their grip on an outsize share of lucrative tech jobs and soaring home prices. Others have thrived because of surging oil and gas production.

 

But many Southern and Midwestern cities — from Greensboro, North Carolina, to Janesville, Wisconsin — have yet to recover from the loss of manufacturing jobs that have been automated out of existence or lost to competition from China, before and during the recession. Like others, they have fewer jobs and lower household incomes than before the downturn.

 

Those disparities complicate the rosy picture painted by most nationwide economic data. With the nation enduring a widening wealth gap, an overall robust U.S. economy doesn’t necessarily translate into widely shared prosperity.

 

“There’s definitely a pattern of the coasts pulling away from the middle of the country on income,” said Alan Berube, an expert on metro U.S. economies at the Brookings Institution. “There are a large number of places around the country that haven’t gotten back to where they were 15 years ago, never mind ten years ago.”

 

That said, for all the economic might the top-flight cities have gained in the past decade, many city officials and business leaders have become concerned that their success is running up against limits. Surging home prices and rents have made housing unaffordable for many. With cities like Seattle and San Francisco choked with traffic, engulfed by homeless people and requiring ever-larger incomes to live comfortably, quality of life may be at risk.

 

In the Western United States, inflation reached nearly 3 percent in October compared with a year earlier, according to government data. By contrast, inflation rose just 1.5 percent in the Midwest and New England.

 

“It’s the first time I have noticed a persistent spread between inflation in one area and the rest of the country,” says Steve Cochrane, an economist at Moody’s Analytics who has studied regional economics for 25 years.

 

Mindful of the financial burden on employees, some tech companies have decided to set up shop or expand where expenses are more manageable. Snapchat and Hulu have put down roots on the slightly more affordable west side of Los Angeles, joining outposts of Google and Facebook in an area now known as “Silicon Beach.”

 

Last year, nearly as many people moved out of Silicon Valley — defined as Santa Clara and San Mateo counties — as moved in, according to a report by Joint Venture Silicon Valley, a civic group. It was the first time since 2010 that the number of arrivals and departures have been roughly equal.

 

The trend isn’t entirely surprising given that commuting times in San Francisco have lengthened by 40 minutes a week in the past decade, the report said. The price of a typical San Francisco home has reached an eye-watering $1.2 million, according to Trulia, an online real estate data provider.

 

Housing costs, inflated by local regulations restricting home-building, can act as a barrier to opportunity. They make it harder for people in poorer areas to move for better opportunities. With fewer people able to move to places with more jobs and higher pay, the national economy tends to suffer, economists say.

 

Among the nation’s 100 largest metro areas, San Francisco experienced the biggest gain in median household income in the decade after the recession began. Adjusted for inflation, it jumped 13.2 percent, according to data compiled by Moody’s Analytics. San Jose, which is part of Silicon Valley, enjoyed the second-largest increase, at 12.7 percent, followed by Austin, Texas, with 8.8 percent.

 

By comparison, median household income in the 100 largest metro areas actually fell 2.7 percent, on average. And the income gap between the 10 richest and 10 poorest metro areas has widened in the past decade, Moody’s data shows.

 

Eight of the 10 cities with the largest income gains are “tech hubs,” with heavy concentrations of software architects, data analysts and cloud-computing engineers. They include Denver, Portland, Oregon; Provo, Utah; and Raleigh, North Carolina.

 

Pittsburgh has experienced the ninth-largest income gain, thanks to increased tech and health care jobs. Oklahoma City, where inflation-adjusted incomes are up 5.5 percent, has benefited from the oil and gas boom.

 

Most Americans haven’t received raises anywhere near that large. Data compiled by Brookings shows that 65 percent of Americans who live in urban areas _ defined as cities with populations above 65,000 _ live in places where the typical household income is still below its 1999 level.

 

Max Versace, CEO of artificial intelligence startup Neurala, who arrived in Boston in 2001 from Italy, has watched the city transform itself into a boomtown, filled with innovative companies working on robotics, AI and self-driving cars. Boston enjoyed the 11th-best income gain in the past decade, Moody’s data shows.

 

“I have never experienced a slowdown in Boston,” said Versace, whose company is based in Boston’s Seaport neighborhood, a formerly rundown industrial area now crowded with startups and high-end restaurants. “Boston is one of those bubbles  — good bubbles — that have been saved by the two locomotives of computer sciences and biotechnology.”

Versace launched Neurala in 2013, and it now has 36 employees, including eight with PhDs. While most workers across the country have endured scant pay gains, Versace estimates that salaries for AI researchers with Ph.D.’s have doubled since 2008.

 

Neurala is working to incorporate AI in drones, including one aimed at energy firms that will use its technology to spot cracks in pipelines or wind turbines without needing humans to monitor video feeds.

 

One other change Versace is happy to observe: “I no longer have to spit out espressos or pasta,” because the quality of each has improved so much since he arrived.

 

The divergence between the richest and poorest U.S. cities predates the Great Recession. But it is historically unusual. For a period of 100 years ending in the 1980s, income gaps between richer and poorer cities narrowed steadily.

 

Economists cite three reasons why such convergence ended. The nature of high-tech work, for one thing, makes it productive for higher-skilled workers to cluster in the same cities.

 

Elisa Giannone, an economist at the University of Chicago, notes that in past decades, highly paid professionals _ doctors, say _ might have congregated in cities with fewer physicians to capitalize on the lack of competition and earn more. Likewise, many companies that employed high-skilled workers would move to lower-cost cities to take advantage of cheaper labor.

 

But her research has found that both trends have been upended by the rise of highly skilled information technology work. People with such skills prefer to work in cities with their peers. And the companies that employ them seem to care just as much about the right skills as they do about lower costs. What’s more, higher educated employees typically become more efficient when they cluster together and exchange ideas.

 

“It’s more beneficial and more productive to go where there are more people like me,” Giannone says, referring to how such workers think. “I don’t want to be left out.”

 

Jed Kolko, chief economist at Indeed, the job listings website, calculates that one quarter of tech job openings in the first half of this year were located in just eight tech hubs: Baltimore, Washington, Boston, San Jose, San Francisco, Seattle, Austin and Raleigh, North Carolina.

 

A second factor is swelling home prices and rents, particularly where regulations make it harder to build more. People in poorer areas often used move to wealthier cities to find better opportunities. Now, that option is increasingly available only to those with advanced skills or education.

 

Two public policy experts, Peter Ganong and Daniel Shoag, concluded in a paper last year that both janitors and lawyers used to fare better financially in New York City than in poorer cities, even accounting for the higher cost of living.

Now, because of rocketing home prices in richer areas, that’s no longer true. Lawyers can still come out ahead. But janitors and other lower-skilled workers don’t.

 

“Skilled workers move to high cost, high productivity areas, and unskilled workers move out,” Ganong and Shoag wrote.

 

In the 10 cities with the fastest income growth, housing prices have soared by an average of 31.1 percent in the past decade, Trulia found. That compares with a national average increase of just 5.1 percent.

 

One result has been huge wealth gains for a fortunate few. A resident of San Francisco who bought a typical home, paying nearly $816,000 in the spring of 2007 — just as the housing market nationwide was collapsing — has gained $365,000 in the past decade.

 

In Cincinnati, a homeowner who bought at the same time would have paid just $143,000 but would have gained only $6,500.

 

“Geography plays a critical role in wealth building,” said Ralph McLaughlin, chief economist at Trulia.

 

A final factor behind the diversion is that the industries and occupations in slower-growing regions were leveled by the recession. Manufacturing and mining are disproportionately located in red states. So are retail jobs. All those sectors have endured weak growth since the recession.

 

Robin Brooks, an economist at the Institute of International Finance, a trade group, says those job losses have opened a gap between so-called “red” states, which voted for Donald Trump in 2016, and “blue” states.

 

About 61 percent of blue state residents have jobs, compared with roughly 59 percent in red states, Brooks found. That cuts against recent historical patterns: From the 1990s through the mild recession of 2001, there was no gap at all.

 

Despite the persistence of regional inequality, some positive trends have emerged: More tech jobs are moving out of the tech hubs and spreading around the country. Software programming jobs have migrated to Dallas, Detroit, and Charlotte, among other cities, according to Brookings data. Software increasingly plays a vital role in banking and finance, auto manufacturing, and retail.

 

But many of those tech jobs are lower- or mid-level positions, such as technical support and help desk jobs, rather than higher-paying, cutting-edge positions. Kolko notes that the most highly-skilled tech jobs — in such areas as machine learning, a form of artificial intelligence; computer vision; and database engineering — are even more concentrated in tech hubs than are tech jobs overall.

 

“There’s a spreading out of the tech economy, but it remains a different tech economy in the middle of the country than what you find in the Bay Area, Boston, New York and Austin,” Berube said.

 

Software may be more widely used, but when it comes to actually inventing new software, “that is still a phenomenon you find in only four of five places in the United States.”

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