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.

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.

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.

Growing Levels of E-Waste Bad for Environment, Health and Economy

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A new report finds growing levels of E-waste pose significant risks to the environment and human health and result in huge economic losses for countries around the world.  Lisa Schlein reports for VOA from the launch of the International Telecommunication Union report in Geneva.

The global information society is racing ahead at top speed.  The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) reports nearly half of the world uses the internet and most people have access to mobile phones, laptops, televisions, refrigerators and other electronic devices.

But ITU E-waste Technical Expert, Vanessa Gray, said the ever-increasing expansion of technology is creating staggering amounts of electronic waste.

“In 2016, the world generated a total of 44.7 million metric tons of e-waste—that is, electronic and electrical equipment that is discarded,” Gray said. “So, that basically everything that runs on a plug or on a battery.  This is equivalent to about 4,500 Eiffel Towers for the year.” 

The report found Asia generates the greatest amounts of E-waste, followed by Europe and the Americas.  Africa and Oceania produce the least.

Gray warned improper and unsafe treatment and disposal of e-waste pose significant risks to the environment and human health.  She noted that low recycling rates also result in important economic losses, because high value materials – including gold, silver, copper – are not recovered. 

“We estimate that the value of recoverable material contained in the 2016 e-waste is no less than $55 billion US, which is actually more than the Gross Domestic Product in many of the world’s countries,” Gray said.

The report calls for the development of proper legislation to manage e-waste.  It says a growing number of countries are moving in that direction.  Currently, it says 66 percent of the world population, living in 67 countries, is covered by national e-waste management laws.

Italian Laser Device Detects Potentially Dangerous Food Fraud

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‘Food Fraud’ costs the food and beverage industry an estimated $30 billion every year. Food fraud is the deliberate substitution or misrepresentation of food products for economic gain. It can be as harmless as selling watered down olive oil, or as dangerous as substituting starch or plastic for rice. But a new laser test developed in Italy can spot the fakes with incredible accuracy. VOAs’ Kevin Enochs reports.

Trump Signs into Law US Government Ban on Kaspersky Lab Software

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President Donald Trump signed into law on Tuesday legislation that bans the use of Kaspersky Lab within the U.S. government, capping a months-long effort to purge the Moscow-based antivirus firm from federal agencies amid concerns it was vulnerable to Kremlin influence.

The ban, included as part of broader defense policy spending legislation that Trump signed, reinforces a directive issued by the Trump administration in September that civilian agencies remove Kaspersky Lab software within 90 days. The law applies to both civilian and military networks.

“The case against Kaspersky is well-documented and deeply concerning. This law is long overdue,” said Democratic Senator Jeanne Shaheen, who led calls in Congress to scrub the software from government computers. She added that the company’s software represented a “grave risk” to U.S. national security.

Kaspersky Lab has repeatedly denied that it has ties to any government and said it would not help a government with cyber espionage. In an attempt to address suspicions, the company said in October it would submit the source code of its software and future updates for inspection by independent parties.

U.S. officials have said that step, while welcomed, would not be sufficient.

In a statement on Tuesday, Kaspersky Lab said it continued to have “serious concerns” about the law “due to its geographic-specific approach to cybersecurity.”

It added that the company was assessing its options and would continue to “protect its customers from cyber threats (while) collaborating globally with the IT security community to fight cybercrime.”

On Tuesday, Christopher Krebs, a senior cyber security official at the Department of Homeland Security, told reporters that nearly all government agencies had fully removed Kaspersky products from their networks in compliance with the September order.

Kaspersky’ official response to the ban did not appear to contain any information that would change the administration’s assessment of Kaspersky Lab, Krebs said.

China Displays Clout at Internet Conference But Some Doubts Remain

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China made an impressive display of its clout in the digital economy during a three-day internet conference in Beijing last week by pulling together the participation of U.N. agencies, the World Telecom Union and CEOs of major US based IT companies like Google, Apple and Cisco System.

The conference started with a message from Chinese president Xi Jinping who said, “China would never close its doors. They will only be open wider and wider going forward.”

But at the same time, Xi and Wang Huning, one of the ruling Communist Party’s seven most powerful men, emphasized the need for “cyber sovereignty,” which allows individual countries to establish cyber boundaries to protect their respective sovereign interests.

Xi said that besides benefits, “the internet has also brought many new challenges to the sovereignty, security and development interests of nations across the world.”

The Cyber Administration of China, which organized the World Internet Conference in Wuzhen city, was trying to obtain public confirmation about its Internet policies. This was also the first time the annual conference, which started in 2014, had attracted a high-profile attendance from heads of major international companies and agencies.

Analysts are skeptical the conference helped to boost China’s quest to influence rulemaking in the digital world. Many have noted that none of the foreign speakers specifically referred to Internet controls in China, which include bans on U.S. based services like Google, Twitter, Facebook and YouTube.

“I certainly don’t see (this) as China’s role as a rule setting has expanded. The regulatory bodies and standards actually usually doesn’t apply to China,” Jacob Cooke, CEO of consulting firm, Web Presence in China told VOA. “There is actually a noticeable lack of Chinese presence… And, likewise here there is no international presence in terms of regulatory body or rules and regulations.”

 Apple’s challenge

Apple recently removed hundreds of apps from its app store in China to adhere to the Chinese great firewall of censorship. Apple CEO Tim Cook did not mention that at the conference but said Apple shared the same vision with China on open Internet.

“The theme of this conference—developing a digital economy for openness and shared benefits—is a vision we at Apple share,” Cook said adding, “We are proud to have worked alongside many of our partners in China to help build a community that will join a common future in cyberspace.”

But in the wake of Apple’s decisions to remove APPS and similar moves, questions have surfaced about whether American CEOs are indirectly endorsing China’s censorship methods in their eagerness to obtain a larger slice of the country’s lucrative market.

Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy specifically targeted the Apple chief for failing to promote freedom of expression. “Apple is clearly a force for good in China, but I also believe it and other tech companies must continue to push back on Chinese suppression of free expression,” Leahy said.

Cook responded with a statement saying, “Each country in the world decides their laws and their regulations, and so your choice is do you participate or stand on the sideline and yell at how things should be…. And my own view, very strongly, is that you show up and you participate, you go in the arena. Because nothing changes from sideline.”

Cooke of Web Presence in China agrees, adding that such questions are not Apple’s responsibility.

“If you want do to business in a country you got to obey rules and laws of that country. That’s with any business. I mean it is not up to you to criticize or change the laws that serve the politicians,” Cooke said.

Robert Elliot Kahn, regarded by many as father of the Internet for co-inventing Transmission Control Protocol (TCP) and Internet Protocol (IP) views the controversy over China’s internet restrictions in a somewhat different light.

“Governments are going to impose their own rules and regulations; that’s the way the world works,” he told VOA on the sidelines of the conference. “But if we can make it easier for people to build better products and services, to get more services to the public and is supported by people and governments around the world, I think that’s progress for humanity.”

Seeking business

It was apparent from the meeting that western businessmen, including Cook and Google CEO Sudar Pichai, were doing what they can to expand in the Chinese market. Although Google’s browser and Gmail is banned in China and the company left China more than seven years ago, Bloomberg recently reported that the company was making a comeback investing artificial intelligence. 

“A lot of work Google does is to help Chinese companies. Many small and medium-sized businesses in China take advantage of Google to get their products to many other countries outside of China,” Pichai said.

Cook pointed out that Apple’s app store has helped give China’s 1.8 million developers total earnings worth $16.9 billion, which is the highest earned by developers in any country.

In a quote widely used in state media Cook said, “many people see China as a big market, but for us the main attraction is the quality of the people.”

But in the end, analysts note that China’s influence remains limited to the extent of the market it can offer to foreign companies and this is limited by the fact that several giant Chinese companies are jostling to fill every inch of the space.