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.

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.

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.

 

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.”

As ‘Net Neutrality’ Vote Nears, Some Brace for Long Fight

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As the federal government prepares to unravel sweeping net-neutrality rules that guaranteed equal access to the internet, advocates of the regulations are bracing for a long fight.

The Thursday vote scheduled at the Federal Communications Commission could usher in big changes in how Americans use the internet, a radical departure from more than a decade of federal oversight. The proposal would not only roll back restrictions that keep broadband providers like Comcast, Verizon and AT&T from blocking or collecting tolls from services they don’t like, it would bar states from imposing their own rules.

The broadband industry promises that the internet experience isn’t going to change, but its companies have lobbied hard to overturn these rules. Protests have erupted online and in the streets as everyday Americans worry that cable and phone companies will be able to control what they see and do online.

That growing public movement suggests that the FCC vote won’t be the end of the issue. Opponents of the move plan legal challenges, and some net-neutrality supporters hope to ride that wave of public opinion into the 2018 elections.

Concern about FCC plan

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai says his plan eliminates unnecessary regulation that stood in the way of connecting more Americans to the internet. Under his proposal, the Comcasts and AT&Ts of the world will be free to block rival apps, slow down competing service or offer faster speeds to companies who pay up. They just have to post their policies online or tell the FCC.

The change also axes consumer protections, bars state laws that contradict the FCC’s approach, and largely transfers oversight of internet service to another agency, the Federal Trade Commission.

After the FCC released its plan in late November, well-known telecom and media analysts Craig Moffett and Michael Nathanson wrote in a note to investors that the FCC plan dismantles “virtually all of the important tenets of net neutrality itself.”

That could result in phone and cable companies forcing people to pay more to do what they want online. The technology community, meanwhile, fears that additional online tolls could hurt startups who can’t afford to pay them — and, over the long term, diminish innovation.

“We’re a small company. We’re about 40 people. We don’t have the deep pockets of Google, Netflix, Amazon to just pay off ISPs to make sure consumers can access our service,” said Andrew McCollum, CEO of streaming-TV service Philo.

ISPs: Trust us

Broadband providers pooh-pooh what they characterize as misinformation and irrational fears. “I genuinely look forward to the weeks, months, years ahead when none of the fire and brimstone predictions comes to pass,” said Jonathan Spalter, head of the trade group USTelecom, on a call with reporters Wednesday.

But some of these companies have suggested they could charge some internet services more to reach customers, saying it could allow for better delivery of new services like telemedicine. Comcast said Wednesday it has no plans for such agreements.

Cable and mobile providers have also been less scrupulous in the past. In 2007, for example, the Associated Press found Comcast was blocking or throttling some file-sharing. AT&T blocked Skype and other internet calling services on the iPhone until 2009. They also aren’t backing away from subtler forms of discrimination that favor their own services.

There’s also a problem with the FCC’s plan to leave most complaints about deceptive behavior and privacy to the FTC. A pending court case could leave the FTC without the legal authority to oversee most big broadband providers. That could leave both agencies hamstrung if broadband companies hurt their customers or competitors.

Critics like Democratic FTC commissioner Terrell McSweeny argue that the FTC won’t be as effective in policing broadband companies as the FCC, which has expertise in the issue and has the ability to lay down hard-and-fast rules against certain practices.

Public outcry

Moffett and Nathanson, the analysts, said that they suspect the latest FCC rules to be short-lived. “These changes will likely be so immensely unpopular that it would be shocking if they are allowed to stand for long,” they wrote.

There have been hundreds of public protests against Pai’s plan and more than 1 million calls to Congress through a pro-net neutrality coalition’s site. Smaller tech websites such as Reddit, Kickstarter and Mozilla put dramatic overlays on their sites Tuesday in support of net neutrality. Twitter on Wednesday was promoting #NetNeutrality as a trending topic. Other big tech companies were more muted in their support.

Public-interest groups Free Press and Public Knowledge are already promising to go after Pai’s rules in the courts. There may also be attempts to legislate net neutrality rules, which the telecom industry supports. Sen. John Thune, a South Dakota Republican, on Tuesday called for “bipartisan legislation” on net neutrality that would “enshrine protections for consumers with the backing of law.”

But that will be tough going. Democrats criticized previous Republican attempts at legislation during the Obama administration for gutting the FCC’s enforcement abilities. Republicans would likely be interested in proposing even weaker legislation now, and Democrats are unlikely to support it if so.

Some Democrats prefer litigation and want to use Republican opposition to net neutrality as a campaign issue in 2018. “Down the road Congress could act to put in place new rules, but with Republicans in charge of the House, Senate, and White House the likelihood of strong enforceable rules are small,” Rep. Mike Doyle, a Pennsylvania Democrat, wrote on Reddit last week. “Maybe after the 2018 elections, we will be in a stronger position to get that done.”

A future FCC could also rewrite net-neutrality regulation to be tougher on the phone and cable industry. That could bring a whole new cycle of litigation by broadband companies.

Blockchain — The New Must-Know Word

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There is a new word in the English language that all internet users should learn, because it may define the next stage in global financial transactions. It may not be translatable to many other languages so it may become an international term, much like “computer” or “internet,” used and understood around the world. The word is “blockchain,” and VOA’s George Putic explains its meaning.

Microsoft Updates Bing Search to Highlight Reputable Results

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Microsoft on Wednesday rolled out new features on its Bing search engine powered by artificial intelligence, including one that summarizes the two opposing sides of contentious questions, and another that measures how many reputable sources are behind a given answer.

Tired of delivering misleading information when their algorithms are gamed by trolls and purveyors of fake news, Microsoft and its tech-company rivals have been going out of their way to show they can be purveyors of good information — either by using better algorithms or hiring more human moderators.  

Second-place search engine 

Microsoft is also trying to distinguish its 2nd-place search engine from long-dominant Google and position itself as an innovator in finding real-world applications for the latest advances in artificial intelligence.

“As a search engine we have a responsibility to provide answers that are comprehensive and objective,” said Jordi Ribas, Microsoft’s corporate vice president for AI products.

Bing’s new capabilities are designed to give users more confidence that an answer is correct and save them time so they don’t have to click through multiple links to validate it themselves. 

“You could be asking, ‘Is coffee good for you?’ We know that there are no good answers for that,” Ribas said. But the new search features side-by-side opposing perspectives. One source emphasizes coffee’s ability to increase metabolism and another shows it can raise blood pressure. Similar questions can also be asked on more sensitive topics, such as whether the death penalty is a good idea.

Digestible doses

On more complicated questions — is there a god? — Bing doesn’t have enough confidence to provide a pro-con perspective. But on questions that involve numbers, it boils information down into digestible doses. Iraq, for instance, is described as “about equal to the size of California.”

Search engines have evolved since Google took the lead at the turn of the 21st century, when rankings were based on “link analysis” that assigned credibility to sites based on how many other sites linked to them. As machines get better at reading and summarizing paragraphs, users expect not just a list of links but a quick and authoritative answer, said Harry Shum, who leads Microsoft’s 8,000-person research and AI division. To test its technology, the company has compared its machine-reading skills to the verbal score on the SAT.

“We are not at 800 yet, but we bypassed President Bush a long time ago,” Shum jokes.

Sophisticated searches

 The demand for more sophisticated searches has also grown as people have moved from typing questions to voicing them on the road or in their kitchen.

“If you use Bing or Google nowadays you recognize that more and more often you’ll see direct answers on the top of search result pages,” Shum said. “We’re getting to the point that for probably about 10 percent of those queries we’ll see answers.”

Shum is hesitant to over-promise Bing’s new features as an antidote to the misinformation flooding the internet. 

“At the end of the day, people have their own judgments,” he said.

The search engine features were announced along with updates to Microsoft’s voice assistant Cortana and a new search partnership with the popular online forum Reddit.

US Central Bank Raises Interest Rate Slightly

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The U.S. central bank raised its key interest rate slightly Wednesday, but left the level low enough to continue stimulating economic growth.

The Federal Reserve pushed up rates a quarter of a percent to a range between 1.25 and 1.5 percent. The increase leaves the benchmark rate below historic averages.      

The Fed slashed rates nearly to zero during the recession in a bid to boost the economy and fight unemployment by making it cheaper to borrow the money needed to build factories, buy equipment and hire people.

Janet Yellen, at her last press conference as chair of the Federal Reserve, said economic growth is “solid” as business investment and overseas demand grow. She said the impact of tax changes working their way through Congress is “uncertain” but would probably give a “modest lift” to the economy over the next few years. Fed officials are expected to continue raising interest rates gradually.

The recession ended and expansion resumed in 2009. Unemployment was cut from 10 percent to the current 4.1 percent and the Fed eventually decided the recovering economy needed less assistance and started raising rates. Leaving interest rates too low for too long could overstimulate the economy and spark a sharp increase in prices.  

The newest U.S. inflation data came out Wednesday, showing that prices rose 2.2 percent during the past 12 months. Outside the volatile areas of food and energy, the overall economy expanded at a 1.7 percent annual rate. That so-called “core” rate remains below the 2 percent rate that Fed experts think is best for economic growth.

Some analysts predict the Fed will raise rates a couple more times next year as experts balance the need to boost growth against worries that inflation could jump out of control.

 

Trump Administration Calls for Government IT to Adopt Cloud Services

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The White House said Wednesday the U.S. government needs a major overhaul of information technology systems and should take steps to better protect data and accelerate efforts to use cloud-based technology.

“Difficulties in agency prioritization of resources in support of IT modernization, ability to procure services quickly, and technical issues have resulted in an unwieldy and out-of-date federal IT infrastructure,” the White House said in a report.

The report outlined a timeline over the next year for IT reforms and a detailed implementation plan. The report said one unnamed cloud-based email provider has agreed to assist in keeping track of government spending on cloud-based email migration.

President Donald Trump in April signed an executive order creating a new technology council to overhaul the U.S. government’s information technology systems.

The report said the federal government must eliminate barriers to using commercial cloud-based technology. “Federal agencies must consolidate their IT investments and place more trust in services and infrastructure operated by others,” the report found. Government agencies often pay dramatically different prices for the same IT item, the report said, sometimes three or four times as much.

Amazon.com Inc, Microsoft Corp, Alphabet Corp’s Google and Intel Corp are making big investments in the fast-growing cloud computing business.

A 2016 U.S. Government Accountability Office report estimated the U.S. government spends more than $80 billion on IT annually but said spending has fallen by $7.3 billion since 2010.

In 2015, there were at least 7,000 separate IT investments by the U.S. government. The $80 billion figure does not include Defense Department classified IT systems and 58 independent executive branch agencies, including the Central Intelligence Agency.

The GAO report said U.S. government IT investments “are becoming increasingly obsolete: many use outdated software languages and hardware parts that are unsupported.”

The GAO report found some agencies are using systems that have components that are at least 50 years old.

Agencies typically buy their own IT systems independently, the White House said Wednesday. A “lack of common standards and lack of coordination drives costly redundancies and inefficiencies.”

The White House said in June that most of the government’s 6,100 data centers can be consolidated and moved to a cloud-based storage system.

Various U.S. government systems have been the target of hacking and data breaches in recent years. In September, the Securities and Exchange Commission, America’s chief stock market regulator, said cybercriminals may have used data stolen last year.

Sweet Victory: French Candymakers Win China Legal War

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Revenge is sweet for the makers of France’s traditional “calisson” candies, who have won a months-long legal battle with a businessman who trademarked the product’s name in China.

The lozenge-shaped sweets, made of a mixture of candied fruit and ground almonds topped with icing, are widely enjoyed in France’s southern Aix-en-Provence region.

Their makers were none too pleased when Chinese entrepreneur Ye Chunlin spotted a sweet opportunity in 2015 to register the “Calisson d’Aix” name for use at home, as well as its Mandarin equivalent, “kalisong”.

The trademark was set to be valid until 2026, sparking angst among Provence’s sweetmakers who worried Ye’s move could have barred them from entering the huge Chinese market.

But China’s copyright office rejected Ye’s claim to the brand name in a decision seen by AFP on Wednesday, which said his request to use the label “could confuse consumers on the origin of the products”.

Laure Pierrisnard, head of the union of calisson makers in Aix, hailed the news as “a real victory”.

The union has fought the case for months in the name of 12 sweetmakers, accusing Ye of “opportunism.”

It is not uncommon for Western brands to try to crack the Chinese market only to find that their name or trademark has been registered by a local company.

An enterprising Chinese businessman in 2007 registered the brand name “IPHONE” for use in leather products, to the great displeasure of Apple, which lost a court case against him.

The courts similarly backed a Chinese company that wanted to use the name of sneaker brand New Balance.

Ye, who is from the eastern province of Zhejiang, did not respond to the French sweetmakers’ objections to Chinese authorities.

But he insisted in late 2016 that he acted in good faith, telling AFP he was “a salesman who does business within the rules.”

As far as French producers are aware, calissons have never rolled off a factory line in China.

Some makers, dreaming of the international success enjoyed by their rival the macaron, are seeking to expand abroad, including to the enticing Chinese market.

The Roy Rene chain – owned by Olivier Baussan, the entrepreneur behind Province’s best known brand internationally, L’Occitane cosmetics — has stores in Miami and Canada, and is eyeing Dubai.

The company says it has been contacted by several investors over the course of the Chinese court case seeking to bring the sweets to China.

The affair has also re-energized makers of the dainty candies in their bid for special European status as a product that comes specifically from Provence.

Beijing has already recognized the status of 10 such European foods, including France’s Comte and Roquefort cheeses and Italy’s Parma ham, as well as 45 different wines from Bordeaux.

Aix-en-Provence produces about 800 tons of calissons every year.