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Main article: Government

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Facebook will verify the location of U.S. election ad buyers by mailing them postcards

09:07 | 19 February

Facebook’s global director of policy programs says it will start sending postcards by snail mail to verify buyers of ads related to United States elections. Katie Harbath, who described the plan at a conference held by the National Association of Secretaries of State this weekend, didn’t reveal when the program will start, but told Reuters that it would be before the Congressional midterm elections in November.

The cards will be sent to people who want to purchase ads that mention candidates running for federal offices, but not issue-based political ads, Harbath said, and contain a code that buyers need to enter to verify that they are in the U.S. The program is similar to ones used by Google My Business and Nextdoor when they need to verify business owners or users who want to join closed neighborhood groups, respectively.

Harbath told Reuters that the postcards “won’t solve everything,” but were the most effective method the company came up with to prevent people from using false identities to purchase ads. In October, Facebook vice president of ads Rob Goldman published a blog post saying that the platform planned to create more transparency around ads by taking steps that include a searchable archive of federal-election ads and requiring political advertisers to verify their identity.

Facebook, Twitter and Google executives were called to testify in front of Senate last fall about how Russians used their platforms to spread misinformation intended to sway the outcome of the 2016 U.S. presidential election campaign. The companies have been criticized for not doing enough to prevent false advertising. The issue escalated last week when U.S. special counsel Robert Mueller handed down a set of indictments charging 13 Russian citizens and three Russian organizations, including a bot farm, with interfering in the presidential election through operations including fake social media accounts.

Featured Image: Elena Pezzini Photography/Getty Images

 


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Under Russian pressure to remove content, Instagram complies but YouTube holds off

02:33 | 16 February

Instagram has taken down content posted by Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny under pressure from a government agency, while YouTube has yet to do so. Navalny and others have criticized Instagram for complying to what they call a politically-motivated move to silence him.

The issue is around a video accusing a Russian official, deputy prime minister Sergei Prikhodko, of accepting a bribe from prominent businessman Oleg Deripaska — in the form of a trip on a yacht populated with upscale escorts. It uses footage posted (and later removed) by one of the alleged escorts to Instagram.

Deripaska sued in a local court, which turned around and ordered that the material be removed web-wide, recruiting the Russian communications regulator Roskomnadzor to enforce the order. The deadline was yesterday.

Among the sites and services complying with the order to remove the content in question is Instagram, which was the target of swift rebuke upon doing so, from Navalny and his supporters.

.@instagram decided to comply with Russian illegal censorship requests and deleted some content about oligarch Deripaska. Shame on you, @instagram! This content was spotlighted by our corruption investigation https://t.co/Pa4xVQE8MQ

— Alexey Navalny (@navalny) February 15, 2018

I’ve asked both YouTube and Instagram for comment on their actions (or future actions). Facebook confirmed to the BBC that it had complied with the regulator’s order, but did not offer any more than a blanket statement regarding how it handles government content takedown requests.

In addition to the Instagram and YouTube posts, the Russian court also ordered that Navalny’s own website be blocked, after he refused to take down the content in question. He and his supporters consider this a blatant attempt to silence him ahead of next month’s election, which Navalny was organizing a boycott of.

 


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UK accuses Russia of 2017’s NotPetya ransomware attacks

17:40 | 15 February

The UK government has directly accused Russia of being behind the so called NotPetya ransomware attack last year — which quickly spread around the globe, including affecting businesses in Spain, France and India, demanding payment in Bitcoin to unlock infected machines. It initially appeared to be targeted at Ukrainian networks.

“We have entered a new era of warfare, witnessing a destructive and deadly mix of conventional military might and malicious cyber-attacks,” UK defense secretary Gavin Williamson is quoted as saying (via The Guardian). “Russia is ripping up the rulebook by undermining democracy, wrecking livelihoods by targeting critical infrastructure and weaponising information… We must be primed and ready to tackle these stark and intensifying threats.”

Russia has made various military incursions into Ukrainian territory since 2014, when it annexed Crimea. Ukraine has also suffered a sustained cyberwarfare campaign apparently waged by Kremlin agents — though of course Russia denies all charges — including, in 2015, a cyber attack against the local energy grid that temporarily disrupted electricity supplies in the depths of winter.

Russia has denied Williamson’s latest charge too — as it also did last year, when the UK prime minister directly accused Vladimir Putin of seeking to weaponize information in order to sew social division and influence elections in the West, via the medium of fake news posted to social media platforms.

“We categorically dismiss such accusations; we consider them unsubstantiated and groundless. It’s not more than a continuation of the Russophobic campaign which is not based on any evidence,” a Kremlin spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, told the BBC.

The UK foreign office backed up Williamson’s remarks, with Lord Ahmad saying in a statement (via Reuters): “The decision to publicly attribute this incident underlines the fact that the UK and its allies will not tolerate malicious cyber activity.

“The UK government judges that the Russian government, specifically the Russian military, was responsible for the destructive NotPetya cyber attack. Its reckless release disrupted organisations across Europe costing hundreds of millions of pounds. The Kremlin has positioned Russia in direct opposition to the West yet it doesn’t have to be that way.”

“We call upon Russia to be the responsible member of the international community it claims to be rather then secretly trying to undermine it,” he added.

While the NotPetya malware was initially thought to be a strain of the Petya ransomware it turned out to be a new variant that reused only some code. (Hence NotPetya.) It also included code known as Eternal Blue — which is widely believed to have been stolen from the NSA, as was the exploit that fueled last year’s WannaCry/WannaCrypt attack.

UK parliamentarians are currently investigating the impact of Russian-backed Brexit meddling in the UK’s 2016 EU referendum, as part of a wider enquiry into fake news.The UK Electoral Commission is also looking into digital campaigning activity funded by Russia during the referendum.

Last month the UK government also announced plans to set up a dedicated national security unit to combat state-led disinformation campaigns.

Featured Image: Bryce Durbin

 


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FCC looks to approve SpaceX’s satellite internet plan

20:54 | 14 February

SpaceX is planning to send up a pair of its own satellites in this weekend’s launch, in order to test a proposed space-based broadband internet service. But if you want get into the broadband business, first you have to get past its U.S. gatekeepers: the FCC. Fortunately for SpaceX, Chairman Ajit Pai is all for it.

Pai issued a statement today saying that satellite internet might be able to “help reach Americans who live in rural or hard-to-serve places where fiber optic cables and cell towers do not reach.”

Satellite internet is nothing new, of course, and has its own considerable limitations. But a new generation of the technology is certainly worth pursuing — especially if it’s from a U.S. company. Pai wrote:

Following careful review of this application by our International Bureau’s excellent satellite engineering experts, I have asked my colleagues to join me in supporting this application and moving to unleash the power of satellite constellations to provide high-speed Internet to rural Americans.  If adopted, it would be the first approval given to an American-based company to provide broadband services using a new generation of low-Earth orbit satellite technologies.

The SpaceX application was filed late in 2016, and the Chairman’s enthusiasm now suggests it’s soon to be considered and, with luck, approved. No doubt we’ll hear when it happens.

 


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Tumblr also lousy with Russia-backed US election trolls: Report

18:57 | 7 February

The meme-laden Tumblr platform is the latest social media and blogging outlet to be unmasked as a distribution channel for Russian agents to rip at America’s societal fault lines and seek to influence citizens’ voting habits, according to a report by BuzzFeed News.

Facebook and Twitter have been firmly in the spotlight on this issue since the shock result of the 2016 US presidential election. Google has also self-reported on Russian disinformation on its platforms. But the role of other social platforms in spreading Kremlin propaganda has faced less scrutiny thus far.

BuzzFeed worked with researcher, Jonathan Albright, from the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University, to identify Russian-backed account activity on Tumblr. It says the analysis reveals “a powerful, largely unrevealed network of Russian trolls focused on black issues and activism” and which dates back to early 2015.

Some of the Russian-linked blogging activity on Tumblr was apparently aimed at boosting support for Bernie Sanders at the expense of eventual Democratic candidate nominee Hillary Clinton. The Democratic nominee process concluded in July 2016. While the US presidential election itself was held on November 8, 2016.

“The evidence we’ve collected shows a highly engaged and far-reaching Tumblr propaganda-op targeting mostly teenage and twenty-something African Americans,” Albright is quoted as saying.

“This appears to have been part of an ongoing campaign since early 2015,” he added.

We’ve reached out to Tumblr owner Oath‘s press office with questions about the research — at the time of writing the company has not replied. (For the record Tumblr owner Oath is also TechCrunch’s parent company.)

Oath did not respond to BuzzFeed’s requests for comment on its research.

The methodology it used for unmasking Russian agents on Tumblr appears to be a pretty simple one: The researchers cross-referenced Tumblr accounts that used “the same, or very similar” usernames from a list of known Internet Research Agency (IRA) accounts, previously submitted by Twitter to congressional investigators. (The IRA being one of the confirmed Russian trollfarms; others are also known to exist.)

Incidentally, last month Twitter updated this Russian bot list — saying it had now identified an additional 13k Russian-linked bots that had made election-related tweets, pushing the total number to more than 50,000. (Of those it said about 3,800 were linked to the IRA.)

In January it also said it now thought that 1.4M people had engaged with Russian trolls during the US election.

The most successful of the Russian-linked Tumblr accounts identified by BuzzFeed’s analysis had apparently created multiple posts generating hundreds of thousands of “notes” on Tumblr (aka totaled likes, reblogs, replies etc).

The research also found Russian-linked Tumblr accounts cross-posting content from other social platforms — including Twitter and Instagram.

According to BuzzFeed, most of the accounts linked to the IRA are no longer active on Tumblr, although it specifies that two are still sharing content on the platform (though it describes the content as “completely unrelated”, and speculates it’s possible that account ownership has since changed).

In terms of the types of socially divisive content being shared via these Russian-linked Tumblrs, BuzzFeed cites examples that sought to link Clinton to a former KKK leader; complained about unfair media coverage of a Sanders rally; and decried racial injustice and police violence in the US.

After Clinton won the Democratic nomination, some of the Russian-linked Tumblrs that had been backing Sanders apparently started pushing pro-Trump content.

The research also unearthed a network of links out from Tumblr to “thousands of still-remaining Twitter posts, black culture blogs, at least several hundred still-remaining Facebook posts, sign-ups for online petitions, and a number of Reddit threads related to pro-Bernie news, Hillary conspiracies, and in-classroom racial matters”.

Given the cross-referencing method used to ID Russian activity it’s entirely possible other Russian-backed Tumblr accounts existed on the platform (and/or still exist) which have yet to be identified.

 


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UK outs plan to bolster gig economy workers rights

15:57 | 7 February

The UK government has announced a package of labor market reforms to respond to changes in working patterns including those driven by the rise of gig economy platforms and apps like Uber and Deliveroo.

It’s billing the move as an expansion of workers rights — saying “millions” of workers will get new day-one rights, as well as touting tighter enforcement of sick and holiday pay rights.

“We recognise the world of work is changing and we have to make sure we have the right structures in place to reflect those changes, enhancing the UK’s position as one of the best places in the world to do business,” said prime minister Theresa May in a statement.

“We are proud to have record levels of employment in this country but we must also ensure that workers’ rights are always upheld. Our response to this report will mean tangible progress towards that goal as we build an economy that works for everyone.”

The reforms — which the government has dubbed a ‘Good Work Plan’, saying it will for the first time be “accountable for good quality work as well as quantity of jobs” — follow rising criticism of conditions for workers in the gig economy, and a number of legal challenges including by a group of UK Uber drivers who used an employment tribunal in 2016 to successfully challenge the company’s classification of them as self-employed contractors.

It also follows a government-commissioned independent review of modern working practices, conducted by Matthew Taylor and published last summer. The government says it’s acting on all but one of the Taylor report recommendations.

(The one exception being changes to tax rates which, unsurprisingly given its prior U-turn, is confirmed as entirely off the table. “The employment status consultation makes very clear that changes to the rates of tax or NICs for either employees or the self-employed are not in scope,” it emphasizes on that.)

“The Taylor Review said that the current approach to employment is successful but that we should build on that success, in preparing for future opportunities,” said business secretary Greg Clark in a supporting statement. “We want to embrace new ways of working, and to do so we will be one of the first countries to prepare our employment rules to reflect the new challenges.”

The government claims it’s going further than Taylor’s recommendations — specifically by planning to enforce

  • vulnerable workers’ holiday and sick pay for the first time
  • a list of day-one rights including holiday and sick pay entitlements and a new right to a payslip for all workers, including casual and zero-hour workers
  • a right for all workers, not just zero-hour and agency, to request a more stable contract, providing more financial security for those on flexible contracts

The 2016 employment tribunal judgment that reclassified the group of UK Uber drivers as workers gave them entitlement to benefits such as holiday pay and sick pay.

The ruling also paves the way for other legal challenges to be brought by gig economy workers. And while Uber continues to appeal against it the company has also responded to rising legal risk and political pressure over gig economy working conditions by introducing some subsidized insurance products for workers on its platforms. So, in case law terms, the direction of travel for legal liabilities in this area seems fairly clear.

As well as tightening up the enforcement of workers rights, the government said it will be raising fines for employers that show “malice, spite or gross oversight”, as well as considering raising penalties for employers who have previously lost similar cases.

It will also be introducing a new naming — and, clearly, shaming — scheme for employers who fail to pay employment tribunal awards.

While the government is very clearly signaling an intent to bolster gig economy workers rights, plenty of questions about its reform plan remain at this stage — such as, for example, how it intends to define “vulnerable” workers, and how explicitly it will codify the planned changes and/or write them into law.

Responding to its announcement today unions were generally critical, arguing it’s not going far enough.

Some also accused the government of seeking to kick the problem into the long grass. In a response statement, IWGB union general secretary, Dr Jason Moyer-Lee, added: “Similar to the Taylor review itself, the announcement is big on grandiose claims, light on substance.”

The reforms certainly lack detail at this stage — not least because the government has announced no less than four consultations to, as it puts it, “inform what the future of the UK workforce looks like” — so it’s not possible to determine what will be the final shape of employment law in this area. (Nor, therefore, assess impacts on gig economy platforms.)

Among the consultations announced today is one on employment status, and another on measures to increase transparency in the labor market — with the government committing to define ‘working time’ for flexible workers who find jobs through apps or online “so that they know when they should be being paid”.

How to define working time for gig economy workers who may be simultaneously logged onto multiple apps has been a bone of contention in legal challenges in this area. So the government providing clarity would certainly be welcome. Though how exactly it will clear up that issue when platforms and apps can be so variable remains unclear.

Discussing the overall reform plan, Sean Nesbitt, a litigator on employment issues at law firm Taylor Wessing, told us: “The government is looking to make a big statement about their commitment to reforming and making fit for purpose modern work for the 21st century but, although there’s a broad commitment and a big statement, there’s not too much detail as to what they’re proposing.

“I don’t think they are booting it into the long grass… I think there’s still a desire there to make a large correction. I don’t think it’s necessary a big change but a large correction to make sure the market understands how work is to be run in the UK.

“But I also think that, as is characteristic of this government, they’re cautious about rocking the boat and they’re trying to build consensus — so four separate consultations is a way of managing the risk that they take too strong a position and can’t deliver it.”

“Keeping up momentum is good,” he added. “But it’s hard for business to judge when implementation will occur and precisely what.”

Also today the government said it will work with industry “over the coming months” to look at ways to encourage the development of online tools for self-employed people — to “come together and discuss issues that are affecting them”. So more details should emerge soon.

While the full implications of the reform are not yet clear, Nesbitt believes case law gives a strong steer — perhaps especially in the instance of Uber. Given that judges in Europe have pretty consistently ruled against the company’s claims it’s just a tech platform or a dispatching agency in recent years.

“It is hard to see the detail of the shape. What we can see is that the government, like Taylor and like the parliamentary committee that made 11 recommendations recently, all intend to keep the three statuses of employee, worker and dependent contractor. So that shape we can see staying,” he told TechCrunch.

“There is then intended to be clarification as to how you tell the difference. That isn’t clear what that clarification will look like but I believe it will be based on existing case law — including of course, notably, the Uber litigation.”

“I feel there is quite a lot of certainty around the determining features of those three [employment] statuses are already,” he added. “Where I think the really useful piece could come is if the government regulates to define what working time is for platforms. They say they’re going to.”

Nesbitt points out that many platforms don’t accept the view that a worker being logged onto their app and waiting time constitutes ‘working’. So if the government were to legislate on it it could help inject a little more certainty into the gig economy — for players on both sides.

“The government could find a way forward and say well it isn’t necessary being logged on that’s the determining feature — you have to be actively working or at least committed to the exclusion of other opportunities,” Nesbitt suggested. “So they could find a way to do it — but it’s not clear when and how they’re going to do it.”

“The judge in the Uber case said… working time is when the driver for Uber is logged onto the app and is available for a ride. Now lots of other apps — your Deliveroos, your JustEats, your healthcare or beauty services apps, catering apps — will say obviously if they’re logged onto five of us, being logged on or available on its own can’t be working,” he continued.

“If you’re on JustEast or Deliveroo or a restaurant’s own waiting app, you’re not doing anything and you’re not excluding the others — especially if their terms of service don’t punish you for logging out or for not taking a job.

“It’s quite possible the government could legislate to say… it isn’t necessarily being logged on that’s the determining feature. You have to be actively working or at least committed to the exclusion of other opportunities. And I think that would enable both views to be upheld.”

“The judge in Uber basically said the key reason I say that being logged on for Uber counts as working time is essentially that they are so dominant in the market that it makes it very hard to take any other jobs without risk of falling foul of their benching provisions that log you out if you don’t take jobs. And because they are so dominant. Where there is more competition it may be that logging on is not to be considered working time,” he added.

The government’s timeframe for running its four consultations and firming up the shape of the reform isn’t clear. But such consultations rarely take less than three months — if not six.

By which time the next round of Uber’s appeal against the 2016 tribunal ruling will have reached the UK Appeals Court and there will likely be more case law for it to draw on to feed its thinking.

“What I don’t see in the government press release is any attempt to short circuit or override the litigation process,” added Nesbitt. “It’s almost as if this consultation process is designed to run in parallel to the court process — the sort of privatized testing of what the law is that Uber and the unions are engaged in.”

So don’t expect a more finely detailed employment law reform plan to emerge before fall.

 


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Amazon settles tax optimization dispute with French authorities

20:50 | 5 February

Amazon has signed an undisclosed deal with the French tax authorities, Amazon told the AFP. From 2006 to 2010, Amazon operated in France using its subsidiary in Luxembourg. This way, the company could pay less taxes. But French authorities think French sales should be taxed in France. That’s why they were asking for $252 million in unpaid taxes (€203 million).

Both Amazon and the French government didn’t comment on the amount of the fine. It’s possible that Amazon eventually paid less than $252 million.

According to the company, Amazon has created a subsidiary in France since then so that French revenue is taxed in France. So the Luxembourg issue shouldn’t come up again.

The company also told the AFP that it has spent quite a bit of money in France. 5,500 people work for Amazon in France. Amazon has invested $2 billion in France in total.

It’s interesting to see that tax authorities managed to avoid a public fight. The main issue with those big fines for tax optimization is that they can damage the reputation of a country. It’s hard to invest in a country where you get fined.

And yet, if only big tech companies paid taxes in each country where they operate… European Finance Ministers have been working on a new piece of legislation to force tech companies a bit.

According to the AFP, we’ll hear more about this new regulation in March 2018. Early drafts suggested that European tax authorities will look at overall revenue and not just profit.

For instance, if a big tech company such as Google, Amazon or Facebook reports $2 billion in revenue in Germany but only $10 million in profit, it doesn’t add up — when you look at earnings report, you can see that tech companies have quite a big gross margin. So tax authorities will use the bigger figure to calculate fair taxes.

With that upcoming change and today’s news, Google is probably relieved. The company has been facing a huge $1.3 billion fine for tax noncompliance in France. It seems like the French government now wants to settle those issues behind closed doors.

Featured Image: David Ryder/Getty Images

 


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FCC gets ready to kick off $2 billion rural broadband fund

00:41 | 3 February

The FCC has taken the final steps towards finally opening up its long-delayed Connect America Fund II, which will disburse $2 billion in federal money over ten years support new broadband infrastructure in rural areas throughout the country. A date for bidding and the final documentation of the process were finally released today — though a bit of official infighting acted as a reminder that not all is well at the agency.

CAF II works like many other government reverse auctions — the agency or whoever publicizes the tasks and locations it will subsidize work in, and companies submit bids to fulfill them. In this case the task is deploying broadband and the location is thousands of census units outside of the generally well-served urban areas. You can view a full map here, but the excerpt below is representative:

The purple parts are census “groups” that would be bid on while the orange parts are census blocks that would need to be served. That means you can’t just serve one or two of the most lucrative ones.

Accelerating CAF II is one of the FCC’s legitimate claims to progress over the last year, which it rightfully gave pole position in Chairman Pai’s highly selective summary of the agency’s 2017  accomplishments. The fund was proposed back in 2013 but for various reasons never saw the light of day. Pai made it an official priority of his upon taking the Chairman office, and to his credit he and the others have made good on his promise to get it out the door in 2018.

“With our decisions today, we jump the last big hurdle before holding a first-of-its-kind universal service reverse auction,” said Chairman Pai in an accompanying statement. ” And I’ll remind
everyone that CAF II is only the beginning. In 2019, we will move on to the Remote Areas Fund for
those areas still without high-speed broadband. Rural America has waited long enough.”

The Connect America Fund auction will take place in July, but if you’re a broadband provider (or aspire to be one) you’ll need to indicate your intention to participate by the end of March, presumably so there’s plenty of time for vetting and getting all the necessary paperwork settled.

The decision to go ahead was met with nearly unanimous agreement by the various Commissioners, who all filed their own statements.

“This effort has been many years in the making. It’s exciting—because with these decisions we are taking steps into the future of high-cost universal service,” wrote Commissioner Rosenworcel, who has had some choice words for other agency’s decisions recently. “We are experimenting with new opportunities for providers to build broadband in some of our most rural communities that have been among our most challenging places to serve. This forward-thinking effort has my support.”

With hundreds of millions yearly planned to go out the door to local broadband deployment firms and their friends in infrastructure, we could see some real improvements to connectivity off the beaten paths, though it will take time.

Back to business as usual

It’s good that the FCC still functions well for this kind of important work, but a significant detail led to a bit of inter-office conflict that reminds us that this is still a sharply divided office.

Commissioner Clyburn noted in her accompanying statement that “despite our unified desire as a Commission to spur deployment on Tribal lands, we do not take any action here” although Tribal lands in rural areas are disproportionately less connected.

“What’s the hold up?” she asked in a separate statement. “Chairman Pai repeatedly claims that closing the digital divide is among his top priorities, yet nearly a year has elapsed since a proposal was first put forward to help improve connectivity for Native communities and still no action.”

Pai responded, saying that an order to increase federal funding for development in Tribal areas had been presented last February:

So what was the hold up? Despite having formally voted for the item, Commissioner Clyburn’s office had privately and repeatedly threatened to withdraw her critical third vote in favor of the order if we moved to bring this item across the finish line. It is worth noting that her threat had nothing to do with what is actually contained in the order. Then, this morning, she carried through on that threat and withdrew her critical third vote in favor of the order.

If Commissioner Clyburn believes as I do that the Commission should take action to expand broadband access on Tribal lands, the way forward is simple.  Instead of quietly changing her vote on a Friday morning and issuing a Friday afternoon press release designed to shift the blame, she should cast her vote in favor of an order that will increase federal funding for broadband infrastructure on Tribal lands.  It’s that simple.

Not one to let Pai have the last word, Clyburn shot back:

Maybe I missed it. I thought my role as Acting Chair of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) ended in November 2013? But if the authority implied by Chairman Pai’s statement is one I possess, then the Tribal broadband item would be adopted by close of business today.

Correction: I did not withdraw my vote. My vote on the initial item was cast seven months ago and in case you missed it, I’m currently in the minority. I’m the holdup? How is voting to approve the entire text of the item but dissenting in part, as I did today, because it did not go far enough to support our tribal communities, delaying the vote?

I await Chairman Pai’s retort.

Featured Image: Flickr UNDER A CC BY 2.0 LICENSE

 


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Sure looks like China has a ship-mounted railgun

22:18 | 2 February

Ever since Eraser, everyone wants a railgun. Turns out China is no exception. Some photos posted by Dafeng Cao, a Twitter user who keeps close tabs on Chinese military developments, show a ship-mounted gun that could very well be the country’s very own homegrown electromagnetically propelled mass driver.

Railguns, or coil guns, accelerate solid metal projectiles using ultra-strong electromagnets, firing them well above speeds achieved by conventional ballistic methods. We’re talking Mach 6 here. The U.S. has been working on them for years, and has produced some very cool test videos, but I haven’t heard about any of them being mounted on ships.

But Arnold can dual-wield them.

It’s all speculation — not like the Chinese military would confirm, although apparently the railgun research is an open secret — but a few things point to the idea that this isn’t just an ordinary deck-mounted gun with a special fairing.

First, its relatively short barrel tucked deep in that housing suggests that the acceleration components are all under there, much like the functioning American guns we’ve seen demonstrated. No sense having all that surface area unless it’s protecting something, otherwise you might as well paint a target on it.

Second, the ship it’s on isn’t China’s standard test bed ship, the Type 909, despite those vessels being quite new and created for at-sea testing. Dafeng Cao cites a former Chinese Navy officer who says that this is likely because the power output of the 909 not high enough nor flexible enough to sustain the enormous power load necessary to fire these guns. The Type 072, which was used, is more easily retrofitted with…

…The third clue, a set of shipping containers mounted just aft of the gun; if it’s anything the railguns we’ve seen, there’s a bunch of power and operational infrastructure that wouldn’t fit inside that fairing, but would fit in a couple containers.

Last, a banner has just been raised on the ship that reads, roughly, “Providing first class weapons and equipment for building the best navy in the world.” So it sounds like this is a sort of

If China has managed to mount its railgun on a ship, that means they’ve gone to great means to miniaturize and modularize this sophisticated and extremely heavy piece of equipment. Like the U.S. one, it’s almost certainly nowhere near ready for deployment (conventional munitions are far more practical right now), but it may yet be — unlike ours, which has apparently fallen out of favor with naval authorities and will likely never see combat.

Featured Image: Dafeng Cao / Twitter

 


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At the State of the Union, Trump touts tax cuts and immigration deal

06:32 | 31 January

With a president as mercurial as Trump, it was anyone’s guess what would happen during his first State of the Union address. The appearance is the president’s most high profile public speaking moment of the year and Trump was expected to touch on some of the issues of the moment, including funding for a border wall, infrastructure and an immigration deal.

While less likely if things went according to plan though totally possible if he veered off script, it wasn’t clear if Trump would dig into the white-hot topic of the ongoing Russia investigation being conducted by Special Counsel Robert Mueller. That scenario would have proved a nightmare for his legal team and the White House, though with the speech done, they should be able to rest easy (for now).

As the address began, Trump hit a series of surprisingly hopeful notes, with declarations of “a new tide of optimism” and praise for the nation including an unusually ego-less assertion that “our state of the union is strong because our people are strong.”

As he moved deeper into the speech, Trump waded into some familiar ideological territory, chiding those who kneel during the national anthem as an act of protest.

In a portion of his speech touching on the tax cuts, Trump touched on Apple’s recent announcement that it would bring much of its tax-sheltered wealth abroad back to American shores thanks to a friendlier tax rate:

“Since we passed tax cuts, roughly three million workers have already gotten tax cut bonuses. Many of them, thousands and thousands of dollars per worker and it’s getting more every month, every week. Apple has just announced it plans to invest a total of $350 billion in America, and hire another 20,000 workers.”

Trump was widely expected to tout the Republican tax cut plan, his only significant legislative win from a year spent navigating the process of lawmaking with a fully Republican-controlled Congress.

A bit later, Trump detoured into an portion of the speech on the pharmaceutical industry, declaring the “injustice” of high U.S. drug prices as one of his “top priorities for the year.”

“In many other countries, these drugs cost far less than what we pay in the United States and it is very, very unfair,” Trump said.

As expected, Trump announced plans for a $1.5 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill “tapping into private sector investment.”

Toward the end of the speech, Trump launched into the four pillars of a plan that would resolve the congressional gridlock around creating a path to citizenship for DACA-recipients. Expectedly, the path of the Dreamers is tied directly to “building a great wall on the southern border,” which in all likelihood will look more like a patchwork of physical barriers and surveillance technology.

Trump also announced an end to the Visa lottery system in favor of a “merit-based” system of immigration, “a program that randomly plans out green cards without regard for skill, merit, for the safety of American people,” in the president’s words.

“Time to begin moving toward a merit based immigration system, one that admits people who are skilled, who want to work, who will contribute to our society,” Trump said. He also announced plans to limit immigration sponsorships to “spouses and minor children.”

To see how the American public responded to the big speech, Google pulled together some search trends to depict what people were searching for as the address went on.

Popular search terms during the speech included “steve scalise,” “who is sitting behind trump,” “trump party planner, “live fact check trump” and, oddly, “trump clapping,” possibly a reference to what appear to have been his own very amplified claps into the microphone following major talking points.

All told, the speech was a mix of style — rousing the base, hitting the right anecdotes — and a bit of substance around actual policy proposals like the immigration deal. Given the potential nightmare scenarios here, Republicans and White House officials are likely to be pleased with the president’s performance.

By any other presidency’s standards, the speech had some wildly controversial moments — particularly an alarming call to remove federal workers who “undermine the public trust or fail the American people” while rewarding the loyal — but by 2018 standards, and Trump standards, it was fairly safe.

Featured Image: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

 


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