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Silicon Valley Blasts US Senate Proposal to Tax Startup Options

A proposal by the U.S. Senate to change the way shares in startup companies are taxed incited panic and dread in Silicon Valley on Monday, with startup founders and investors warning of nothing less than the demise of their industry should the proposal become law. The provision in the Senate's tax reform plan, which appeared to catch the industry by surprise, involves the treatment of employee stock options. These options give the holder the right to purchase shares in the future at a set price and can be very valuable if a company does well and the share price increases. Options are often a major portion of the compensation for startup employees and founders, who take lower salaries in anticipation of a big payout if their startup takes off. Options typically vest over a four-year period. Senate Republicans have now proposed taxing those stock options as they vest and before startup employees have the opportunity to cash them in, resulting in annual tax bills that could easily climb into the tens of thousands of dollars, say startup founders and venture capitalists. "If there were a single piece of legislation to adversely affect startups, it would be this," said Venky Ganesan, managing director at venture capital firm Menlo Ventures. "Everyone is freaked out." Justin Field, vice president of government affairs at the National Venture Capital Association, said that the Senate's proposed tax change would be "crippling" to the startup industry. How far the provision gets remains to be seen. The National Venture Capital Association was successful in getting a similar proposal removed from the House tax bill, although it "didn't fully appreciate" the Senate's intention to add the tax provision, Field said. The association also helped to steer lawmakers away from a proposal discussed late last year to tax venture capitalists' profits on investments at a higher rate. Republican Senator Rob Portman of Ohio, a member of the Senate Committee on Finance, has filed an amendment to repeal the provision in the tax bill, according to his spokesman. A new proposal Under current tax code, employees are taxed only when they exercise their options. Options are exercised when the price they were granted at--known as the strike price--is lower than the share price, and some shares can then be sold to pay the taxes. But the Senate proposal would require startup employees to pay regular income tax on the value gain of their stock options even before they are exercised. These options are illiquid assets, and cannot be spent or saved. "What this would mean is every month, when your equity compensation vests a little bit, you will owe taxes on it even though you can't do anything with that equity compensation," Fred Wilson, a venture capitalist with Union Square Ventures, wrote on his blog Monday. For instance, if a startup employee receives stock options at a dollar per share, and the shares increase in value by $1 every year during the four-year vesting period, the employee would have to pay income tax on $1 per share after the first year, pay again on the $1 increase in value after the second year, and so on. When that employee owns hundreds of thousands and even millions of shares, that is a hefty bill to pay. And there is always the risk the startup will eventually fail. "This reform will force the average employee to pay taxes on that bet well before they even know if it's a winning ticket," said Amanda Kahlow, founder and executive chairman of marketing data startup 6sense. For startup founders in particular, such a tax bill could be ruinous. "It would mean that I would have to sell the company," said Shoaib Makani, founder and chief executive of long-haul trucking startup KeepTruckin. "I have zero net worth aside from the common stock I hold in the company. It would be impossible. I would be in default." Some executives in the startup industry, however, have pushed for companies to move toward bigger salaries so employees are not so dependent on options to buy a house or pay for other large expenses. And when startups suffer valuation cuts, employees can end up with worthless options. The Senate's proposal came as a revenue-generating measure to help offset tax breaks in the bill. A spokesman for Senator Orrin Hatch, a Republican and chairman of the Senate Committee on Finance, did not respond to requests for comment and other Republicans on the committee were not immediately available. A spokeswoman for Senator Ron Wyden, the committee's ranking member and a Democrat, said he was aware of concerns that the provision would limit startups' ability to attract talent.

Google Broadens Takedown of Extremist YouTube Videos

Alphabet's Google in the last few months has begun removing from YouTube extremist videos that do not depict violence or preach hate, YouTube said Monday, a major policy shift as social media companies face increasing pressure from governments. The new policy affects videos that feature people and groups that have been designated as terrorist by the U.S. or British governments but lack the gory violence or hateful speech that were already barred by YouTube. A YouTube spokesperson, who asked not to be named for security reasons, confirmed the policy in response to questions. The company would not specify when the policy went into effect. As YouTube terms already barred "terrorists" from using the service, the new policy keeps out videos uploaded by others that militants likely would try to distribute if they could have accounts, according to the spokesperson. Hundreds of videos of slain al-Qaida recruiter Anwar al-Awlaki lecturing on the history of Islam, recorded long before he advocated violence against the United States, were among those removed under the new policy, the spokesperson said. Governments and human rights groups have pressed YouTube for years to crack down on extremist videos. They argue that the propaganda radicalized viewers and contributed to deadly terror attacks. British Home Secretary Amber Rudd amplified the pressure during visits with tech companies in Silicon Valley in July and a speech in Washington, D.C., last week. European Union and U.S. lawmakers this year have threatened consequences for tech companies if concerns are not addressed. Legislation could resemble a German law approved in June to fine social media companies 50 million euros ($57 million) if hateful postings are not promptly removed. Looking for balance YouTube said discussions with outside experts prompted the new policy, but it was unclear why the company decided to act only recently. In June, the company announced that "inflammatory religious or supremacist content" that did not violate its policies would be allowed with warning labels and a restriction making them ineligible for ad revenue. At the time, Google General Counsel Kent Walker said in a blog post, "We think this strikes the right balance between free expression and access to information without promoting extremely offensive viewpoints." The latest step goes farther and was praised by critics such as Paul Barrett, deputy director of the New York University Stern Center for Business and Human Rights. "If the terrorist is in the business of recruiting and inciting people to make violent attacks, you've got to the draw the line" against any of their content, Barrett said. Blurry lines The new policy does not affect news clips or educational videos about terrorism. But YouTube will not always have an easy time distinguishing, experts said, pointing to tactics such as overlaying extremist commentary on news footage to get around censors. YouTube has resisted imposing more editorial control because it fears making it harder for important videos to get a wide audience, Juniper Downs, YouTube's global director of public policy, told a San Francisco conference sponsored by the Anti-Defamation League on Monday. "We will lose something very valuable if we completely transform the way these platforms work," she said during a panel discussion. Internet freedom advocates such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation have urged tech companies to be cautious and transparent in responding to government pressure. YouTube is relying on government lists of terrorists and terrorist groups for enforcement. Content moderators check the listings and make removal decisions after fielding reports from an automated system, users or partner organizations such as the Anti-Defamation League and The Institute for Strategic Dialogue. Al-Awlaki, whom the U.S. killed in a 2011 drone strike, was designated a terrorist by the U.S. Treasury the year prior. The New York Times first reported the removal of al-Awlaki videos.

Students Fight Digital Robots and Fake Accounts on Twitter

Ash Bhat and Rohan Phadte, computer science students, recently stared at a screen in their Berkeley apartment showing the Twitter account of someone called "Red Pilled Leah." They suspected she was a "bot," short for robot. Red Pilled Leah joined Twitter in 2011 and had 165,000 followers. The majority of her 250,000 tweets were retweets on political topics. Was she a human with strong opinions or an automated account that is part of a digital army focused on riling up Americans over divisive social and political issues? Internet companies are under pressure to do more to crack down on such automated accounts, following scrutiny over Russian-backed efforts to influence the last U.S. presidential election. But companies are struggling over how to identify the malicious bots from the merely opinionated human users. The two students at the University of California, Berkeley developed a software program called botcheck.me that looks for 100 characteristics in Twitter accounts that they say are common among bots. Among them, tweeting every few minutes, gaining a lot of followers in a short time span and retweeting other accounts that are likely bots. In addition, bot accounts typically endorse polarizing political positions and propagate fake news, they say. Concern about Twitter bots Twitter says that less than five percent of its 69 million monthly active users in the U.S. are automated, but some researchers have pegged the bots at closer to 15 percent. U.S. lawmakers say that bots on Twitter played a role in trying to upend the democratic process. "Bots generated one out of every five political messages posted on Twitter over the entire presidential campaign," said Senator Mark Warner, a Democrat from Virginia. Facebook requires its users to prove their identity. To get an account on Twitter, on the other hand, a user needs a phone number. And Twitter allows automated accounts for legitimate purposes, such as for companies to provide customer service or for public safety officials to spread the word regarding a possible danger. But the company is also trying to crack down on bots and "other networks of manipulation," the company said in a blog post. Nonhuman Twitter behavior Bhat and Phadte have worked on other projects, such as developing technology to determine the political bias of a news article or to detect fake news on Facebook. They turned to Twitter after they noticed that many accounts tweeting about politics appeared to be "nonhuman," Bhat said. These accounts gained a lot of followers fast and tweeted and retweeted frequently, about five times as much as a human account. They promoted polarizing views and fake news. Launched in October, Botcheck.me has a 93.5 percent accuracy rate, the students say. However, they have heard from real people complaining that their accounts have been falsely identified as "bots." When the algorithm makes a mistake, the two students say they investigate what went wrong and improve the program. Phadte says it matters if a Twitter account is a human being or a robot. "People are seeing political, polarizing opinions that aren't accurate," Phadte said. "People are getting angry at each other about stereotypes that are not really true." Bot-like characteristics Bhat pressed a blue button next to Red Pilled Leah's Twitter account. Botcheck.me scanned a person's Twitter history and ran the tweets through an algorithm to predict if the account was actually a bot. Sure enough, Botcheck.me said Red Pilled Leah, who claims to be an entrepreneur with a master's degree in psychology, exhibits "bot-like characteristics." The students said they have contacted Twitter about their software, but haven't heard back. Twitter didn't respond to a request for comment from Voice of America. However, the company has said that it can't share details of how it's determining which accounts are bots. From their vantage point, the students say the bots are getting more sophisticated. A whole network of accounts will retweet a single tweet to spread a message quickly. And programmers can change bots' behavior as detection methods improve. But the students say that only makes it more important to determine when messages are being spread by malicious actors. "The reason why this really matters is that we formulate our views based on the information we have available to us," Bhat said of the social media content. "When certain views are propagated on the network that is very artificial, it tends to influence the way we think and act. We think it is very horrific." To use botcheck.me, users can download a Google Chrome extension, which puts the blue button next to every Twitter account. Or users can run a Twitter account through the website botcheck.me.

Modern Technology Packs, Flies, Delivers Online Purchases

Flying drones are nothing new in the skies, but online retailers have been investing in them as a way to deliver goods faster and to those in hard-to-reach rural areas. But the automation doesn't stop there. Arash Arabasadi reports.

ANYmal Has Four Legs, Good Balance, and Batteries Included

Prepare to be amazed … and possibly terrified. Engineers in Zurich have created a four-legged robot that may one day do labor that is dangerous for humans. It's also equipped with thermal cameras, which means the "ANYmal" may one day keep an eye on you. Arash Arabasadi reports.

Cambodian Netizens Face New Risks as Government Tightens Online Controls

In Cambodia, one of Asia’s poorest countries, the rapid improvement in internet connectivity and availability of affordable smartphones has been a great leveler. Many of its roughly 15 million urban and rural inhabitants have gained, in a short time, access to mobile internet and social media, which provide relatively free communication and independent, nongovernment sources of information. Some tech-savvy Cambodian activists, like Ngeth Moses, began to harness the internet to foster social change years ago. Ngeth Moses, head of the Media/ICT Unit with the Center for Alliance of Labor and Human Rights in Phnom Penh, has campaigned online through social media platforms for political freedom and human rights causes. Ngeth Moses has also trained dozens of members of NGOs and youth organizations on how to use online campaigning and online expression platforms, such as Open Cyber Talk. In the past year or so, however, the optimism among activists about the positive impact of greater internet access has given way to growing fears as the Cambodian government stepped up efforts to curtail online freedom of expression and political opposition. “I’m more cautious now before posting or commenting [on] anything political online,” Ngeth Moses said, because of the growing state scrutiny of online content and the increase in reprimands or arrests of netizens. At the same time, however, Prime Minister Hun Sen and the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) have actively raised their online profile ahead of the national elections next year in an attempt to reach millions of new social media users. Tightening online control In early 2016, a new law increased the government’s authority over the telecommunications industry to include “overbroad surveillance powers” that pose “a threat to the privacy of individual users,” according to the U.S. think tank Freedom House. The law includes punishments for several offensives, among them a prison term of seven to 15 years for threatening “national security,” a charge that the local human rights group Licadho said is vague and open to political abuse. A pending cybercrime law is also raising concerns about legal limits on what users are allowed to post on the internet. In 2016, the court used an older law to punish online dissent when it sentenced university student Kong Raiya to 18 months in prison for incitement over a Facebook post that criticized the CPP. The opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) has been increasingly targeted over online statements. Senator Hong Sok Hour was sentenced to seven years in prison for allegedly posting false documents on Facebook in 2016. On October 25, King Norodom Sihamoni pardoned him at Hun Sen’s request. Last month, a 20-year-old fruit vendor was arrested in western Cambodia and reportedly charged with incitement and public insult for Facebook posts said to defame Hun Sen and the Queen Mother Norodom Monineath Sihanouk. “The situation of internet freedom in Cambodia is of increasing concern,” said Ramana Sorn, who coordinates the Protecting Fundamental Freedoms Project of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, adding that the government’s technological ability to collect the communications and social media data from individual users has expanded exponentially. “In the current political climate, social media users must be keenly aware of the risks related to what they are posting and sharing on Facebook and other web platforms,” Ramana Sorn said. Nop Vy, media director of the Cambodian Center for Independent Media, echoed these concerns, saying, “Human rights and social workers who are using the social media platforms feel insecure in communicating and publishing their information.” ​Government plays down concerns Government spokesmen told VOA Khmer that the activists’ criticism was overblown and that prosecutions over online content concerned only those who defamed others or posed genuine threats. “We need those multiple opinions, but we do not want those insulting or organizing any subversive campaigns against other people’s reputations — they will face legal consequences,” said Phay Siphan, spokesman for the Council of Ministers. “Only those having a hidden agenda are concerned about it,” CPP spokesman Sok Eysan said. “Those who have nothing to hide, they need not worry about being surveilled or monitored.” The rising online repression comes, however, amid a nationwide crackdown on political opposition and independent media ahead of the July 2018 national elections. On September 3, CNRP Chairman Kem Sokha was arrested and charged with treason. Hun Sen announced the CNRP would be dissolved, and many party members, including deputy party leader Mu Sochua, have fled Cambodia since the first week of October, fearing arrest. Also in September: The 24-year-old independent English-language newspaper The Cambodia Daily closed after receiving a $6 million tax bill; The Phnom Penh office of U.S.-funded Radio Free Asia Khmer-language news broadcaster was closed; Local FM radio stations were ordered to stop carrying the Khmer news broadcasts by RFA and the Voice of America; some independent FM stations were shut down; And the U.S.-funded National Democratic Institute was expelled after years of operation.  This crackdown, seen as the worst in 20 years, prompted widespread international condemnation and threats of action from the European Union and the United States, but Cambodia, which relies on China’s political support and largesse, appears unmoved. ​Greater access to information Despite the broad crackdown, millions of Cambodians are now on Facebook and connected through digital communications apps, sometimes encrypted. Experts said any repressive government will find it hard to check the spread of independent information that can inform the public of politically sensitive issues. In 2015, internet/Facebook became the main information channel for Cambodians, with 30 percent of netizens using it to access information, surpassing the more state-controlled TV (29 percent) and radio (15 percent), according to an Asia Foundation report. The improved access to online information “often wakes people up and makes [them] more likely to be critical of the government,” said Mike Godwin, an internet freedom expert and a senior fellow with the U.S.-based R Street Institute. “In fact, efforts to suppress [online] dissent probably will not work as well as they had hoped because they may have the effect of awaking citizens to their unhappiness,” he said. When popular political analyst Kem Ley was assassinated last year, his funeral march in the capital, Phnom Penh, drew hundreds of thousands of people, many of whom reportedly learned of the event through online messages and posts that quickly went viral. Cambodia’s capacity and effort to control online content, however, are still less than those of its mainland Southeast Asian neighbors, according to Freedom House, which ranked the country on its 2016 Freedom on the Internet Index as “partly free.” ​Strongman seeks ‘likes’ Amid the tightening government control on online dissent, Hun Sen and his CPP have sought to expand their social media use to reach out to the public ahead of the national elections next year. In 2013 elections, the CPP narrowly beat the CNRP in a disputed result. The 65-year-old strongman has urged officials to use Facebook, and he has presented a warm, revitalized image on his Facebook page, which he began in 2015 and has 8.5 million followers. Some photos show him driving passenger cars, attending family outings and frequently exercising. Some researchers have said that the Cambodian government has formed a nationwide program with “cyberunits” run at local levels, which spread countless pro-CPP messages, denounce the opposition and attack government criticism on social media. Ngeth Moses, the tech-using activist, said the CPP’s recent embrace of social media only belied the worsening freedom of expression in Cambodia, as could be seen in the controls exercised over pro-CPP Facebook pages.  “Commenters on the prime minister’s [Facebook] page have been followed and if these comments contained inappropriate words, there were people who got the commenters to apologize,” he said. “On the surface, the internet freedom in Cambodia looks better than in some other countries in ASEAN [the Association of Southeast Asian Nations], but in practice it is not.”

Bots Battle for Ball, and Globe, in Robot Olympiad

The World Robot Olympiad, being held in Costa Rica this weekend, shows human athletes still have little to worry about: Sweat and glory do not compute well when relegated to faceless automatons. But the same may not be true for workers, especially those in menial or transport activities where robots are steadily taking over. Think factory assemblers and sorters, or even self-driving cars. Some of the technology behind the robot revolution could be seen in the Olympiad, which gathered more than 2,500 people from more than 60 countries in a vast hall on the outskirts of Costa Rica's capital, San Jose — the first time the event, now in its 14th year, has been held in the Americas. Pint-sized robots packed with sensors and rolling on plastic wheels showed their football skills by battling rivals on miniature soccer fields. Others rolled across tables seeking out blocks of certain colors and sizes to grab and place within demarcated zones. It was all more than child's play for the contestants representing their countries, aged from 6 to adult. "It's so difficult," said Hassan Abdelrahem Alqadi, 17, from the United Arab Emirates. "We have to do it in the system and make the robot take the color and go to the pieces that we want. So it's very difficult," he said. The teen, who hopes to be a mechanical engineer in the oil industry, admitted he had picked up tips from watching other competitors' practice sessions. He and other tech-savvy youngsters crowded around dozens of tables — computers or robots in their hands — to observe. Environmental theme At one table, a group of Australian teens fine-tuned their contraptions trying to win possession of a palm-sized transparent "soccer" ball containing a sensor. The robots were able to detect the ball, grab it while fending off rivals, and protect the goal area. Being at the Olympiad, surrounded by equally bright peers from around the world, was eye-opening for the teens. "We've never been to an international competition before, so it's a new experience. I can really only compare it to the competitions we've had in Australia — in Australia, we've done pretty well," said Tiernan Martin, 13. The competition over the weekend was being judged in several age categories, as well as in the football, university and open tournaments. This year, the environment was the overriding theme — an area in which Costa Rica is at the forefront. Thus, robots had to show their usefulness in sustainable tourism (identifying protected areas), carbon neutrality (planting trees) and clean energy (seeking out the best places to set up wind turbines. Robots 'help humanity' Costa Rica's science and technology minister, Carolina Vasquez Soto, told AFP her country won the right to host the Olympiad — hitherto held mostly in Asia — "for the participation we've had in sustainability, because we are contributing to that with more and bigger resources." On the larger question of what robots and artificial intelligence now represent for human workers, the national organizer for the World Robot Olympiad, Alejandra Sanchez, was upbeat. While some see robots as a threat to jobs, she said she saw them as an opportunity. "I think it's really good. It's good they replace human beings in some tasks. But we are not being discarded — we're changing the functions for human beings," she said. "Before, a human being was the one painting cars, for example. Now we have a robot painting vehicles and a human being controlling the robot. ... So, it's a personal opinion, but I believe robots are here to stay, and here to help humanity."

Grammar-Proofing Startup by Ukrainian Techies Helps Foreign Students

Some foreign students in U.S. schools find it challenging to submit grammatically correct, idiomatically accurate papers. So two former Ukrainian graduate students launched an artificial intelligence-driven grammar-proofing program that goes well beyond spell-check. Today, their 8-year-old startup, Grammarly, whose first venture round netted $110 million in May, has offices in Ukraine and the U.S. VOA Ukrainian Service correspondent Tatiana Vorozhko has the story.

Drones Increasingly Used in Police Work

Aerial surveillance can be an indispensable part of police or security work. But small police forces certainly can't afford planes or helicopters to help them do their jobs. So increasingly, drones are filling the gap and providing eyes in the sky. VOA's Kevin Enochs reports.

UN to Host Talks on Use of 'Killer Robots'

The United Nations is set to host talks on the use of autonomous weapons, but those hoping for a ban on the machines dubbed "killer robots" will be disappointed, the ambassador leading the discussions said Friday. More than 100 artificial intelligence entrepreneurs led by Tesla's Elon Musk in August urged the U.N. to enforce a global ban on fully automated weapons, echoing calls from activists who have warned the machines will put civilians at enormous risk. A U.N. disarmament grouping known as the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) will on Monday begin five days of talks on the issue in Geneva. But anything resembling a ban, or even a treaty, remains far off, said the Indian ambassador on disarmament, Amandeep Gill, who is chairing the meeting. "It would be very easy to just legislate a ban but I think ... rushing ahead in a very complex subject is not wise," he told reporters. "We are just at the starting line." He said the discussion, which will also include civil society and technology companies, will be partly focused on understanding the types of weapons in the pipeline. Proponents of a ban, including the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots pressure group, insist that human beings must ultimately be responsible for the final decision to kill or destroy. They argue that any weapons system that delegates the decision on an individual strike to an algorithm is by definition illegal, because computers cannot be held accountable under international humanitarian law. Gill said there was agreement that "human beings have to remain responsible for decisions that involve life and death." But, he added, there are varying opinions on the mechanics through which "human control" must govern deadly weapons. Machines 'can't apply the law' The International Committee of the Red Cross, which is mandated to safeguard the laws of conflict, has not called for a ban, but has underscored the need to place limits on autonomous weapons. "Our bottom line is that machines can't apply the law and you can't transfer responsibility for legal decisions to machines," Neil Davison of the ICRC's arms unit told AFP. He highlighted the problematic nature of weapons that involve major variables in terms of the timing or location of an attack — for example, something that is deployed for multiple hours and programmed to strike whenever it detects an enemy target. "Where you have a degree of unpredictability or uncertainty in what's going to happen when you activate this weapons system, then you are going to start to have problems for legal compliance," he said. Flawed meeting? Next week's U.N. meeting will also feature wide-ranging talks on artificial intelligence, triggering criticism that the CCW was drowning itself in discussions about new technologies instead of zeroing in on the urgent issue. "There is a risk in going too broad at this moment," said Mary Wareham of Human Rights Watch, who is the coordinator of the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots. "The need is to focus on lethal autonomous weapons," she told AFP. The open letter co-signed by Musk as well as Mustafa Suleyman, co-founder of Google's DeepMind, warned that killer robots could become "weapons that despots and terrorists use against innocent populations, and weapons hacked to behave in undesirable ways." "Once this Pandora's box is opened, it will be hard to close," they said.

Fighting an Ocean of Plastic With a Plucky Pump

The results of three recent separate studies are staggering, the oceans are filled with about 5 trillion bits and bobs of plastic debris. Now, one English sailing team is doing its part, skimming plastic off the ocean's surface, bucket by bucket. VOA's Kevin Enochs reports.

From Grey to Green: Smokestack Cities Power to Bright Future

Bicycle highways, urban farms and local energy hubs — just some of the ways that yesterday's smokestack cities are turning into tomorrow's green spaces. The Urban Transitions Alliance (UTA), a network that brings together cities in Germany, the United States and China, launched this week to help members learn regeneration tricks from each other. "What to do with your brownfield sites, how to transition with citizens in mind, create new jobs — these cities have a lot of challenges in common," said Roman Mendle, Smart Cities program manager at ICLEI, an international association of local governments. As up to 70 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions are generated in urban areas, cities have to play a leading role in addressing climate change. Experts from more than 20 countries met in Essen, Germany, this week to launch the UTA and thrash out how post-industrial cities can reinvent themselves in plans that will be submitted to the U.N. climate talks in Bonn this week. Essen, once a coal and steel city known as Germany's "Graue Maus" (grey mouse) for its polluted air and waterways, has gained a reputation as a trailblazer for sustainability, becoming the European Commission's European Green Capital 2017. "There is a lot of know-how in Essen on how to transition from the age of carbon to a post-carbon world," said Simone Raskob, Essen's deputy mayor and head of its environment department. "No city can do this by itself. There are a lot of challenges," Raskob, who leads the European Green City – Essen 2017 project, told Reuters. Experts praise Essen for cleaning up its waterways, creating green spaces and turning grimy industrial sites into dynamic cultural centers, such as the Zeche Zollverein, a towering UNESCO World Heritage site that arose from a disused coal mine. To ease traffic congestion, Essen built Germany's first bike highway, connecting with a 100-km (62-mile) regional network. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania Pittsburgh, once a dynamo of U.S. heavy industry, has shifted from a fossil fuel-based economy, reinventing itself as a hub for green buildings innovation and clean energy. The former steel city has been switching over to LED street lights, retro-fitting municipal buildings for energy efficiency and developing district energy initiatives. The city will also host the largest U.S. urban farm: 23 acres (9 hectares) on a site where low-income housing once stood. "One of the key things we have recognized is that becoming greener also brings economic benefits," said Grant Ervin, Pittsburgh's chief resilience officer. Founding UTA members include districts of Beijing and Shijiazhuang in China; Buffalo and Cincinnati in the United States; and Dortmund in Germany.

Frog-count App Aims for Deep Dive into Australia's Population

An Australian museum has teamed up with computer giant International Business Machines to count the country's native frog population, and they want amphibian enthusiasts to jump on board. The Australian Museum and IBM say they developed the world's first smartphone app especially designed to let users record and report frog calls, croaks and chirps — without disturbing them. Australia has 240 named native species of frog, and the museum wants to use its FrogID app to identify what it believes are dozens more still ribbiting under the radar. "One of the cool things about this is you can survey frogs just by listening," said Jodi Rowley, the museum's curator of amphibian and reptile conservation biology. "It's actually a lot more accurate than photos, and photos encourage people to handle or disturb frogs," Rowley added. She noted that every frog species has a unique call. While frog populations are in decline around the world, Australia's frogs are especially vulnerable because of a combination of climate change, pollution, introduced species and urban development, the country's Department of Environment and Energy says. According to the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act four frog varieties are extinct, five are critically endangered, 14 are endangered and a further 10 are considered vulnerable. Scientists say the presence of frogs in an ecosystem is a sign of good environmental health, but the small amphibians are highly sensitive to changes in their habitat. Rowley said she hopes campers, hikers and other serious nature lovers will help with the research, but she noted that even the humble backyard fishpond could provide valuable data. "It might allow us to figure out which areas of suburbia are really good for frogs, why they are good and hopefully help create more frog friendly habitats in suburbia," she said. Rowley said amateurs who record previously unknown frog calls may even help discover a new type of frog or determine if any introduced species have gone unnoticed. "All these things will help us — and help Australia — make sure that frogs don't croak," she said.

FBI Yet to Access Texas Shooter's Phone

The FBI has yet to gain access to data on Devin Kelley's phone four days after the former airman killed 26 churchgoers in Texas in the deadliest mass shooting in the state's history, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein said Thursday, blaming "warrant-proof encryption" for impeding criminal investigations. The FBI's San Antonio office sent Kelley's encrypted phone to the bureau's crime lab in Quantico, Virginia, earlier this week after agents were unable to unlock it, Christopher Combs, the special agent in charge of the FBI's office in San Antonio, Texas, said Tuesday. But Rosenstein, speaking at the BWI Business partnership organization in Maryland, said the FBI has been unable to access "the data inside because of encryption." "Nobody has a legitimate privacy interest in that phone," Rosenstein said. "The suspect is deceased. Even if he were alive, it would be legal for police and prosecutors to find out what is in the phone." The FBI declined to say whether the bureau had been able to unlock the phone but unable to access its encrypted data. Kelley killed 26 people and injured 20 others at a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, on Sunday before turning the gun on himself. The FBI has not identified the make or model of Kelley's phone, but the Associated Press reported on Wednesday that it was an Apple iPhone. Apple said on Wednesday that it "immediately" reached out to the FBI after "learning that investigators were trying to access a mobile phone." "We offered assistance and said we'd expedite our response to any legal process they send us," Apple said in a statement. Legal battle Rosenstein said "strong encryption is good," but he criticized technology companies for building devices and applications that make it difficult for law enforcement authorities even with a warrant to access encrypted data. A 2016 legal dispute between the FBI and Apple over the bureau's effort to gain access to the phone of San Bernardino mass shooter Syed Rizwan Farok fueled a national debate over privacy and public safety. The FBI obtained a warrant to unlock the phone, but the data was encrypted and Apple refused to help the bureau gain access to the data. The showdown ended after the FBI was able to open the device with the use of an unnamed third party. FBI officials have long expressed frustration over increasingly sophisticated encryption technology that makes it harder for law enforcement to access devices and data. In the first 11 months of the 2017 fiscal year, the FBI was unable to access the content of nearly 7,000 smartphones, more than half the total number of devices the bureau tried to access, FBI Director Christopher Wray said last week. "And that's a huge, huge problem," Wray said. "It impacts investigations across the board — narcotics, human trafficking, counterterrorism, counterintelligence, gangs, organized crime and child exploitation."

Video Games Could Be Next for Snapchat, China's Tencent Says

Chinese gaming and social media company Tencent Holdings Ltd. on Thursday flagged video games and ad sales as areas where it thinks it could help Snapchat owner Snap after acquiring a 12 percent stake in the U.S. firm. Snap disclosed in a U.S. regulatory filing on Wednesday that Tencent recently bought 145.8 million of its shares on the open market, fueling investor speculation about how the two companies might work together. The U.S. social media company has struggled since its March initial public offering to meet analyst expectations for user growth, and it is locked in fierce competition for users and ad dollars with Facebook Inc. In describing its stake, Tencent, the world's largest gaming company by revenue, implied a close relationship with Snap that could go beyond passive investing and involve assisting the U.S. company with strategy. Investors treated Tencent's new stake as an investment rather than a step toward an acquisition, while analysts viewed the move as potentially more beneficial for the Chinese company than for Snap. Shares in Snap fell 4.3 percent on Thursday to $12.35, adding to a 14.6 percent loss in the previous session. Snap went public at $17 a share. Morgan Stanley analysts late on Wednesday cut their rating on the stock to "underweight" because of competition from Facebook's Instagram, which has introduced features that mimic Snapchat's disappearing messages. A separate Morgan Stanley division was lead underwriter for Snap's IPO. Tencent's shares do not have voting power and the company will not have a board seat. Snap said in its filing on Wednesday that Tencent notified it of the share purchases this month. "The investment enables Tencent to explore cooperation opportunities with the company on mobile games publishing and newsfeed as well as to share its financial returns from the growth of its businesses and monetization in the future," Tencent said in an emailed statement. It also referred to the potential for newsfeed ads. Redesign plan It was not immediately clear if Snap has the same plan. The California-based company declined to comment beyond its filing, in which it said it was inspired by Tencent's creativity and entrepreneurial spirit and grateful to continue a productive relationship. Snapchat does not have a Facebook-style newsfeed, but said on Tuesday that it was planning a redesign that could include such a feature. Last year, PepsiCo Inc's Gatorade ran an interactive video game ad on Snapchat featuring tennis star Serena Williams. Beyond that and a few similar examples, the app has not offered mobile games. Analysts said Tencent has benefited from its social media apps for the phenomenal popularity of its smartphone games such as Honour of Kings, and will need the help of local networks to fuel overseas growth. Honour of Kings, based on Chinese historical characters, is the top-grossing mobile game in the world. It became so popular that Tencent in July curbed play time amid reports of addiction among children. Tencent also owns Epic Games, developer of League of Legends, which is the most popular computer game in the United States and Europe according to research firm Newzoo. Banned in China Like other U.S. social networks, Snapchat is banned in China, although videos originating there are visible on the network presumably because of technological workarounds. It is unlikely Snap "would ever be allowed to establish a foothold in China even if their relationship with Tencent were deeper," Brian Wieser, senior analyst at Pivotal Research Group in New York said in a client note. The companies operate on different scales. Tencent's holdings include messaging apps QQ and WeChat, both ubiquitous in China, and its market capitalization of $469 billion is among the largest in the world. Snap's is $15 billion. "The China market is in some ways more advanced in social media and messaging than the U.S. is," said Rebecca Fannin, founder of Silicon Dragon, a website about China and California's Silicon Valley. "Tencent might have teams come in and work with them," Fannin said. Tencent has global aspirations and may be buying shares with that strategy in mind, said Lindsay Conner, a Los Angeles lawyer who has represented Chinese companies in the United States. "They often invest in companies to have a seat at the table, to understand businesses better, to see where the leading edge is between technology and content, and to have an insight into technology they should adopt or license," he said. Tencent first became an investor in Snap in 2013. The total size of its investment has not been disclosed.

Philippine Outsourcing Industry Braces for Artificial Intelligence

The outsourcing industry in the Philippines, which has dethroned India as the country with the most call centers in the world, is worried that the rise of artificial intelligence (AI) will eat into the $23 billion sector. AI-powered translators could dilute the biggest advantage the Philippines has, which is the wide use of English, an industry meeting was told this week. Other AI applications could take over process-driven jobs. The Philippines' business process outsourcing (BPO) industry is an economic lifeline for the Southeast Asian nation of 100 million people. It employs about 1.15 million people and, along with remittances from overseas workers, remains one of the top two earners of foreign exchange. "I don't think our excellent command of spoken English is going to really be a protection five, 10 years from now. It really will not matter," said Rajneesh Tiwary, chief delivery officer at Sutherland Global Services. The Philippines, which was an American colony in the first half of the 20th century, overtook India in 2011 with the largest number of voice-based BPO services in the world. "There's definitely reasons to be concerned, because technology may be able to replace some of what could happen in voice," Eric Simonson, managing partner of research at Everest Group, a management consulting and research firm, told Reuters. AI, which combs through large troves of raw data to predict outcomes and recognize patterns, is expected to replace 40,000 to 50,000 "low-skilled" or process-driven BPO jobs in the next five years, said Rey Untal, president and chief executive officer of the IT & Business Process Association of the Philippines (IBPAP). Contact centers make up four-fifths of the Philippines' total BPO industry, which accounts for 12.6 percent of the global market for BPO, according to IBPAP. U.S. is biggest customer BPO firms in the Philippines list Citibank, JPMorgan, Verizon, Convergys and Genpact among their clients. While the United States remains the biggest customer for the industry, demand for BPO services from Europe, Australia and New Zealand is also growing. The Philippines' share of the global outsourcing pie, estimated to reach about $250 billion by 2022, is forecast by the industry to reach 15 percent by that year. To get there however, the Southeast Asian nation must prove to the world it has more to offer than just a pool of English-speaking talent. BPO executives said the country has to take on high-value outsourcing jobs in research and analytics and turn the headwinds from artificial intelligence into an opportunity. The key to staying relevant and ahead of the competition, they said, is to ensure workers are trained in areas like data analytics, machine learning and data mining. "You will see in the next few years more automation coming in the way we do things in IT and the BPO industry, robotic processing, the use of chat bots," Luis Pined, president of IBM Philippines, told Reuters. "If we are ahead of the game, we will be at an advantage where people will give us more work, because we are cheaper and productive," Pined said. IBM Philippines divested its voice business in 2013. IBPAP has projected a rise in the number of mid- and high-skilled jobs, or those that require abstract thinking and specialized expertise, which should bring the overall head count in the BPO sector to 1.8 million by 2022. Augmenting the English language skills of the Philippines with technology will be a "game changer," said Untal, the head of the association. "Who else can compete with us?"

Report: Russian Twitter Trolls Deflected Trump Bad News

Disguised Russian agents on Twitter rushed to deflect scandalous news about Donald Trump just before last year's presidential election while straining to refocus criticism on the mainstream media and Hillary Clinton's campaign, according to an Associated Press analysis of since-deleted accounts. Tweets by Russia-backed accounts such as "America_1st_" and "BatonRougeVoice" on October 7, 2016, actively pivoted away from news of an audio recording in which Trump made crude comments about groping women, and instead touted damaging emails hacked from Clinton's campaign chairman John Podesta. Since early this year, the extent of Russian intrusion to help Trump and hurt Clinton in the election has been the subject of both congressional scrutiny and a criminal investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller. In particular, those investigations are looking into the possibility of collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians. AP's analysis illuminates the obvious strategy behind the Russian cyber meddling: swiftly react, distort and distract attention from any negative Trump news. The AP examined 36,210 tweets from Aug. 31, 2015, to Nov. 10, 2016, posted by 382 of the Russian accounts that Twitter shared with congressional investigators last week. Twitter deactivated the accounts, deleting the tweets and making them inaccessible on the internet. But a limited selection of the accounts' Twitter activity was retrieved by matching account handles against an archive obtained by AP. "MSM [the mainstream media] is at it again with Billy Bush recording ... What about telling Americans how Hillary defended a rapist and later laughed at his victim?" tweeted the America_1st_ account, which had 25,045 followers at its peak, according to metadata in the archive. The tweet went out the afternoon of Oct. 7, just hours after The Washington Post broke the story about Trump's comments to Bush, then host of Access Hollywood, about kissing, groping and trying to have sex with women, saying, "when you're a star, they let you do it." Within an hour of the Post's story, WikiLeaks unleashed its own bombshell about hacked email from Podesta's account, a release the Russian accounts had been foreshadowing for days. "WikiLeaks' [founder Julian] Assange signals release of documents before U.S. election," tweeted both "SpecialAffair" and "ScreamyMonkey" within a second of each other on Oct. 4. "SpecialAffair," an account describing itself as a "Political junkie in action," had 11,255 followers at the time. "ScreamyMonkey," self-described as a "First frontier.News aggregator," had 13,224. Both accounts were created within three days of each other in late December 2014. Twitter handed over the handles of 2,752 accounts it identified as coming from Russia's Internet Research Agency to congressional investigators ahead of the social media giant's Oct. 31 and Nov. 1 appearances on Capitol Hill. It said 9 percent of the tweets were election-related but didn't make the tweets themselves public. That makes the archive the AP obtained the most comprehensive historical picture so far of Russian activity on Twitter in the crucial run-up to the Nov. 8, 2016, vote. Twitter policy requires developers who archive its material to delete tweets from suspended accounts as soon as reasonably possible, unless doing so would violate the law or Twitter grants an exception. It's possible the existence of the deleted tweets in the archive obtained by the AP runs afoul of those rules. Earlier activity The Russian accounts didn't just spring into action at the last minute. They were similarly active at earlier points in the campaign. When Trump reversed himself on a lie about Barack Obama's birthplace on Sept. 17, declaring abruptly that Obama "was born in the United States, period," several Russian accounts chimed in to echo Trump's subsequent false claim that it was Clinton who had started the birther controversy. Others continued to push birther narratives. The Russian account TEN_GOP, which many mistook for the official account of the Tennessee Republican Party, linked to a video that claimed that Obama "admits he was born in Kenya." But the Russian accounts weren't in lockstep. The handle "hyddrox" retweeted a post by the anti-Trump billionaire Mark Cuban that the "MSM [mainstream media] is being suckered into chasing birther stories." On Sept. 15, Clinton returned to the campaign trail following a bout with pneumonia that caused her to stumble at a 9/11 memorial service. The Russian account "Pamela_Moore13" noted that her intro music was "I Feel Good" by James Brown — then observed that "James Brown died of pneumonia," a line that was repeated at least 11 times by Russian accounts, including by "Jenn_Abrams," which had 59,868 followers at the time. According to several obituaries, Brown died of congestive heart failure related to pneumonia. Racial discord also figured prominently in the tweets, just as it did with many of the ads Russian trolls had purchased on Facebook in the months leading up to and following the election. One Russian account, "Blacks4DTrump," tweeted a Trump quote on Sept. 16 in which he declared "it is the Democratic party that is the party of slavery, the party of Jim Crow & the party of opposition." TEN_GOP, meanwhile, asked followers to "SPREAD the msg of black pastor explaining why African-Americans should vote Donald Trump!"

Zuckerberg Nears End of US Tour, Wants to Boost Small Business

What's Mark Zuckerberg's biggest takeaway as he wraps up a year of travel to dozens of U.S. states? The importance of local communities. To this end, Facebook's CEO is announcing a program to boost small businesses and give people technical skills on and off Facebook. The move shows how intertwined Facebook has become not just in our social lives, but in entrepreneurs' economic survival and growth. Facebook says 70 million small businesses use its service. Only 6 million of them advertise.   Called Community Boost, the program will visit 30 U.S. cities next year and work with local groups to train people in skills such as coding, building websites - and naturally, using Facebook for their business.   Zuckerberg says the effort is not just about Facebook's business but its core mission.  

Trump Skirts ‘Great Firewall’ to Tweet About Beijing Trip

U.S. President Donald Trump went around and over the “Great Firewall” of China in a late-night tweet in Beijing as he thanked his hosts for a rare tour of the Forbidden City and a private dinner at the sprawling, centuries-old palace complex. Many Western social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook are banned in China. A sophisticated system has been built to deny online users within China access to blocked content. That was not an issue for Trump, known for tweeting to his 42.3 million followers at any hour of the day, Wednesday, the day he arrived in Beijing. “On behalf of @FLOTUS Melania and I, THANK YOU for an unforgettable afternoon and evening at the Forbidden City in Beijing, President Xi and Madame Peng Liyuan. We are looking forward to rejoining you tomorrow morning!” Trump even changed his Twitter banner, uploading a photograph of himself and Melania with Chinese President Xi Jinping and his wife, Peng Liyuan, during a Chinese opera performance at the Forbidden City. The Twitter banner upload did not go unnoticed by Chinese state media, with state broadcaster CCTV flashing screenshots of the photograph Thursday. Trump’s visit was also the third-most talked-about topic on Chinese social media platform Weibo over the last 24 hours, trailing only the birthday of a singer in a Chinese boy band and a weekly Asian pop song chart. Many people wondered how Trump managed to evade China’s tough internet controls. “I guess he must have done it via WiFi on a satellite network,” said a user on Weibo. Many foreigners log on to virtual private networks (VPNs) to access content hosted outside of China. Another option is to sign up for a data-roaming service before leaving one’s home country. Not all of Trump’s tweets in China were bright and cheerful. ​

Congress, Silicon Valley Seek Common Ground on Social Media Interference

Executives from Google, Facebook and Twitter faced anger from lawmakers last week over their platforms' roles in Russian interference into the 2016 election. But for Silicon Valley, the biggest challenge lies ahead as tech companies look for ways to work with a U.S. Congress intent on closing legal loopholes before 2018 midterm elections. Congressional scrutiny showed U.S. law has fallen behind the rapid growth of social media. Without rules governing paid political advertising on social media, foreign agents were free to post false or inflammatory material in an attempt manipulate public opinion. But lawmakers remain optimistic about the opportunity to learn from the past. "If there is a place that has ever understood change, it's Silicon Valley. It is based on disruption. It's based on people taking risks," Representative Anna Eshoo, a California Democrat, told VOA. Greater transparency Eshoo, whose congressional district covers part of Silicon Valley, has been a longtime advocate for greater transparency in the more traditional fields of TV and print political advertising. "When citizens know who has paid for something, it has an effect on their thinking," Eshoo said. "It doesn't mean that there wouldn't still be Americans that would like that divisive ad. But at least they'll know where it comes from, and you can have a much clearer debate about who is saying what and what they are attempting to do." The HONEST Ads Act, a legislative proposal recently introduced in both houses of Congress, follows along those lines. If passed, the bill would regulate online political ads under the same rules as broadcast advertisements, requiring companies to keep a public database storing those ads and providing information about their funding. "Americans deserve to know who's paying for the online ads," Democratic Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, a co-sponsor of the bill, said last month. "Even if the Russian interference hadn't occurred, we should still be updating our laws. Our laws should be as sophisticated as those who are trying to manipulate us." "Creating a database like that is going to be hard and complicated and messy. It's a good idea that's going to have a tough execution," Dave Karpf, a professor of political communication at George Washington University, told VOA. Karpf said that while there are no perfect solutions, it's important to recognize the tech companies for what they've become. "Facebook and Google are media companies — they're just different media companies then we're used to seeing," he said. "They're not broadcasters, but they are information platforms. And they're quasi-monopolies — even a benevolent monopoly is a bad thing for public discourse and public knowledge." But none of the social media heads would fully commit to support of the bill as it now stands during their congressional testimony, appearing instead to favor a self-policing approach. Battling fake news Addressing paid political advertisements on social media platforms is just one part of the puzzle. The 2016 election revealed a vast ecosystem of fake news that will be almost impossible to police. "What's an even greater problem is that the Russians and others are setting up sites to deliberately disseminate misinformation — false news, fake news, what have you — they are not identifying themselves as Russian-sponsored," said Mark Jacobson, a professor at Georgetown University and co-author of an October 2017 report on Russian cybermeddling. "This is the larger problem for Facebook and other social media companies — how to handle the deliberate disinformation — and I'm not so sure the solution is legislative," Jacobson said. Eshoo downplayed talk that these challenges signal a downturn for tech innovators, saying it's time lawmakers, companies and citizens took on a shared responsibility. "We need to do a much better job with this," she said. "We're going to need them to cooperate with us. I don't think that there has to be a slugfest on this." She said the social media companies need to tell Congress how, in terms of their engineering and their algorithms, they can best accomplish what lawmakers set forth.

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