New Twitter CEO Steps From Behind the Scenes to High Profile 

Newly named Twitter CEO Parag Agrawal has emerged from behind the scenes to take over one of Silicon Valley’s highest-profile and politically volatile jobs. 

But his prior lack of name recognition, coupled with a solid technical background, appears to be what some big company backers were looking for to lead Twitter out of its current morass. 

A 37-year-old immigrant from India, Agrawal comes from outside the ranks of celebrity CEOs, which include the man he’s replacing, Jack Dorsey, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg or SpaceX and Tesla’s Elon Musk. Those brand-name company founders and leaders have often been in the news — and on Twitter — for exploits beyond the day-to-day running of their companies.

Having served as Twitter’s chief technology officer for the past four years, Agrawal’s appointment was seen by Wall Street as a choice of someone who will focus on ushering Twitter into what’s widely seen as the internet’s next era — the metaverse. 

Agrawal is a “‘safe’ pick who should be looked upon as favorably by investors,” wrote CFRA Research analyst Angelo Zino, who noted that Twitter shareholder Elliott Management Corp. had pressured Dorsey to step down. 

Elliott released a statement Monday saying Agrawal and new board chairman Bret Taylor were the “right leaders for Twitter at this pivotal moment for the company.” Taylor is president and chief operating officer of the business software company Salesforce. 

Agrawal joins a growing cadre of Indian American CEOs of large tech companies, including Sundar Pichai of Google parent Alphabet, Microsoft’s Satya Nadella and IBM’s Arvind Krishna. 

He joined San Francisco-based Twitter in 2011, when it had just 1,000 employees, and has been its chief technical officer since 2017. At the end of last year, the company had a workforce of 5,500. 

Agrawal previously worked at Microsoft, Yahoo and AT&T in research roles. At Twitter, he’s worked on machine learning, revenue and consumer engineering and helping with audience growth. He studied at Stanford and the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay. 

While Twitter has high-profile users like politicians and celebrities and is a favorite of journalists, its user base lags far behind old rivals like Facebook and YouTube and newer ones like TikTok. It has just over 200 million daily active users, a common industry metric.

As CEO, Agrawal will have to step beyond the technical details and deal with the social and political issues Twitter and social media are struggling with. Those include misinformation, abuse and effects on mental health. 

Agrawal got a fast introduction to life as CEO of a high-profile company that’s one of the central platforms for political speech online. Conservatives quickly unearthed a tweet he sent in 2010 that read “If they are not gonna make a distinction between muslims and extremists, then why should I distinguish between white people and racists.”

As some Twitter users pointed out, the 11-year-old tweet was quoting a segment on “The Daily Show,” which was referencing the firing of Juan Williams, who made a comment about being nervous about Muslims on an airplane.

Twitter did not immediately respond to a message for comment on the tweet. 

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Twitter Founder and CEO Jack Dorsey Steps Down

Twitter founder and CEO Jack Dorsey is stepping down as the company’s leader.  

In a news release, Twitter said Dorsey would be replaced by Parag Agrawal, who has been the company’s chief technology officer since 2017. The move is effective immediately.  

“I’ve decided to leave Twitter because I believe the company is ready to move on from its founders. My trust in Parag as Twitter’s CEO is deep. His work over the past 10 years has been transformational. I’m deeply grateful for his skill, heart, and soul. It’s his time to lead,” Dorsey said in a statement.

Dorsey’s most recent tweet, posted Sunday, simply said, “I love twitter.”

Dorsey, 45, founded the microblogging platform in 2006 and was CEO until 2008 when he was pushed aside only to return to the top spot in 2015.  

Last year, Elliott Management, a major stakeholder in the company, wanted Dorsey to choose between being CEO of Twitter or CEO of Square, a digital payment company he founded.  

Twitter’s stock rose on the news, but trading of the shares was suspended.

Some information in this report came from Reuters.

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Australian Government Vows to Unmask Online Trolls

Australia’s government said Sunday it will introduce legislation to unmask online trolls and hold social media giants like Facebook and Twitter responsible for identifying them.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison, whose conservative coalition government faces an election in the first half of 2022, said the law would protect Australians from online abuse and harassment.

“The online world should not be a wild west where bots and bigots and trolls and others can just anonymously go around and harm people and hurt people, harass them and bully them and sledge them,” Morrison told reporters.

“That is not what can happen in the real world, and there is no case for it to be able to be happening in the digital world.”

Attorney General Michaelia Cash said the legislation, reportedly to be introduced to parliament by early 2022, is needed to clarify that the social media platforms, and not the users, were responsible for defamatory comments by other people.

Confusion had been sown by a High Court ruling in September that found Australian media, as users managing their own pages on a social network, could be held liable for defamatory third-party comments posted on their pages, Cash said.

Under the planned Australian legislation, the social media companies themselves would be responsible for such defamatory content, not the users, she said.

It would also aim to stop people making defamatory comments without being identified, she said.

“You should not be able to use the cloak of online anonymity to spread your vile, defamatory comments,” the attorney general said.

The legislation would demand that social media platforms have a nominated entity based in Australia, she said.

The platforms could defend themselves from being sued as the publisher of defamatory comment only if they complied with the new legislation’s demands to have a complaints system in place that could provide the details of the person making the comment, if necessary, Cash said.

People would also be able to apply to the High Court for an “information disclosure order” demanding a social media service provide details “to unmask the troll,” the attorney general said.

In some cases, she said, the “troll” may be asked to take down the comment, which could end the matter if the other side is satisfied.

Australia’s opposition leader Anthony Albanese said he would support a safer online environment for everyone.

But he said the government had failed to propose action to stop the spread of misinformation on social media and accused some of the government’s own members of spreading misinformation about COVID and vaccinations.

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Burkina Faso Internet Shutdown Continues into Fourth Day

The shutdown of internet access via mobile phone networks that began Saturday dragged on for a fourth day Tuesday. The government said in a statement the shutdown is in the interest of national defense and public security and will last until around 10 p.m. tonight.

VOA talked to some Burkinabes on the streets of Ouagadougou to ask how the shutdown was affecting them and what they thought of the government’s decision.

Alexi Sawadogo, a physician, spoke outside a bank on one of the city’s busy boulevards. He said he was there to check his account balance as the shutdown meant he could no longer do so online. 

“It disconnects us from our friends who are outside the country, with whom we communicate regularly,” he says. He notes that he understands that it is because of the French convoy that was blockaded in the north, but says insecurity is not a valid reason and that the government needs to review its strategy. 

The shutdown has come in the wake of protests in recent days that have blocked a French military supply convoy that is attempting to travel from Ivory Coast to Niger. Protesters say they want an end to French military intervention in the regional war against Islamist militants. 

There have also been protests against the government’s handling of security, after a terrorist group believed to be associated with al-Qai da killed more than 50 military police in an assault on a base in northern Burkina Faso on November 14th. 

Ali Dayorgo, a university student, said the shutdown has affected his ability to work and learn the latest news.

He says he doesn’t understand why the shutdown is happening, but he hears the voice of the Burkinabe youth. “I feel the anger of the youth,” he expressed, adding that even if he doesn’t join protests against insecurity, he supports them.

A funeral for some of the victims of the attack is taking place in Ouagadougou today. 

Drabo Mahamadou is the national executive secretary of the “Save Burkina Faso Movement,” one of the protest groups that is calling for President Roch Kabore to resign. He said they have called on the population to attend Tuesday’s funeral and to attend a protest on Saturday.

He says, because the government is insensitive to pain, we are calling on the population to come out en masse on the 27th. We want [protesters] to prove that this government is not helping Burkina Faso. It is the government that is causing harm to the Burkinabé people.

A government spokesperson could not be reached for comment.

Eloise Bertrand is a research fellow at the University of Portsmouth who focuses on Burkina Faso. She thinks the restrictions on the internet are unwise; pointing out that “this shutdown may well backfire against the government. We can see that civil society groups and stakeholders who were not really involved in protests against the French convoy are annoyed and angered by this internet shutdown.”

Reports suggest the French military convoy is now waiting in the town of Zinaire, about 30 kilometers north of the capital. Protests are also said to be taking place in the town.

With the demonstrations continuing, it remains to be seen if the government will lift the internet shutdown tonight. Further protests are scheduled for Saturday.

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Apple Sues Israeli Spyware Company NSO Group 

Apple says it is suing Israeli NSO Group, maker of the controversial Pegasus spyware. 

Apple will be the second company to sue NSO after Facebook, now Meta, sued over similar concerns that Pegasus was targeting WhatsApp users. Meta owns WhatsApp. The case is still working its way through the courts. 

Apple says the spyware specifically targeted its users. It also wants to prevent NSO from using any Apple product or service, which would be a massive blow to the company that sells governments the ability to hack iPhones and Android phones in order to gain full access. 

Apple says it has created a software patch to protect devices from Pegasus. 

The Cupertino, California-based company says it is seeking undisclosed damages it says it incurred because of NSO. It says it would donate any award money to organizations that investigate and expose spyware.

One such company, Citizen Lab, was central in uncovering how Pegasus worked. 

“This is Apple saying: If you do this, if you weaponize our software against innocent users, researchers, dissidents, activists or journalists, Apple will give you no quarter,” Ivan Krstic, head of Apple security engineering and architecture, said in an interview Monday with the New York Times. 

Earlier this month, the U.S. put NSO along with three other software companies on a blacklist that places severe restrictions on their ability to do business in the U.S. 

It said the companies “developed and supplied spyware to foreign governments” and that the spyware was used “to maliciously target government officials, journalists, businesspeople, activists, academics and embassy workers.” 

NSO did not immediately comment on the lawsuit, but has previously said it takes precautions to prevent the abuse of its products. 

The pressure against NSO appears to be working, as many news outlets reported the company was at risk of defaulting on its loans. 

Some information in this report comes from Reuters. 

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Robot Waiter Eases Labor Shortages in Australia’s Hospitality Industry

A Sydney restaurant is using a Chinese-made, multi-lingual hospitality robot to address chronic staff shortages as Australia’s economy begins to recover from COVID-19 lockdowns and border closures. 

The robot waiter is programmed to know the layout of the tables and delivers food from the kitchen. It is also multi-lingual, programmed to communicate in English and Mandarin. The so-called BellaBot is built by the Chinese firm PuduTech. 

Each machine costs about $17,000. They can be leased for $34 per day for each device, or the equivalent of two hours’ wages for restaurant staff. The devices are in use in other Australian restaurants and imports into Australia appear to be unaffected by recent trade tensions between the two countries. 

Liarne Schai, the co-owner of the Matterhorn Restaurant in Sydney, is delighted with her new mechanical staff member. 

“Ah, love the robot. Love the robot, she makes my life a lot easier. It is like a tower that has got four trays. It will carry eight of our dinner plates in one go. She is geo-mapped to the floor (customer names, location of tables, etc.) The robot knows where all our tables are,” Schai said.  

Australia’s hospitality workforce has traditionally relied on international students. They have, however, been restricted from entering after Australia closed its borders to most foreign nationals in March 2020 in an effort to curb the spread of the coronavirus.  

Labor shortages are affecting not only hospitality in Australia, but a range of industries from construction to information technology.  

Liarne Schai says she has tried for months without success to recruit workers. 

“It is the biggest issue we have at the moment. We have been running ads for chefs, for waiters, for kitchen hands for six months and we have had zero applicants. We are offering above award wages, we are offering bonuses, we are offering everything you can think of to attract appropriate staff and I am not even getting inappropriate staff, or untrained staff. I am just getting nobody.” 

Labor shortages should ease when Australia reopens its borders to foreign nationals, but analysts expect many vacancies will remain unfilled.  

Employer groups have demanded that Australia increase its intake of migrant workers. 

Australia’s official unemployment rate stands at 5.2%.   

But with more than 700,000 Australians without a job, there are calls for the government to boost domestic training programs and wages. 

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Australian Mining Magnate to Help Publishers Strike Content Deal With Google, Facebook

Australian mining billionaire Andrew Forrest’s philanthropic organization will help 18 small news publishers in the country to negotiate collectively with Google and Facebook to secure licensing deals for the supply of news content.

Forrest’s Minderoo Foundation on Monday said it would submit an application with the country’s competition regulator, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC), allowing the publishers to bargain without breaching competition laws.

Forrest, Australia’s richest man, is the chairman and the largest shareholder of iron ore miner Fortescue Metals Group. He has a net worth of around A$27.2 billion ($19.7 billion), according to the Australian Financial Review.

Facebook and Alphabet Inc’s Google have been required since March to negotiate with Australian media outlets for content that drives traffic and advertising to their websites. If they don’t, the government may take over the negotiation.

Both companies have since struck licensing deals with most of Australia’s main media companies, but they have not entered into agreements with many small firms. The federal government is scheduled to begin a review of the law’s effectiveness in March.

Frontier Technology, an initiative of Minderoo, said it would assist the publishers.

“Small Australian publishers who produce public interest journalism for their communities should be given the same opportunity as large publishers to negotiate for use of their content for the public benefit,” Emma McDonald, Frontier Technology’s director of policy, said in a statement.

Google and Facebook did not immediately respond to requests seeking comment.

The 18 small publishers include online publications that attract multicultural audiences and focus on issues at a local or regional level, McDonald said.

The move comes after ACCC late last month allowed a body representing 261 radio stations to negotiate a content deal.

News organizations, which have been losing advertising revenue to online aggregators, have complained for years about the big technology companies using content in search results or other features without payment.

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NASA’s Mars Helicopter Ingenuity Still in Action 

As researchers at U.S space agency NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory prepare for the 16th flight of Ingenuity, the Mars helicopter, the team has used recently downloaded data from the Mars mission to create the best video yet of one of Ingenuity’s previous flights. 

The 1.8-kilogram aircraft arrived on the planet packed away on NASA’s Perseverance rover when it landed on Mars in February. Originally designed to be a simple demonstration project to prove flight was possible in the thin Martian atmosphere, the aircraft has far exceeded expectations and has completed 15 flights. 

JPL scientists say Ingenuity’s 16th flight is scheduled to take place no earlier than Saturday. In the meantime, they have been examining the video footage taken by Perseverance of the helicopter’s 13th flight on September 4, which they say provides the most detailed look yet of the Martian aircraft in action. 

The Ingenuity team said the helicopter is providing NASA with data to guide the Perseverance rover. They said the 2 minutes, 40.5 seconds Flight 13 was one of Ingenuity’s most complicated. It involved flying into varied terrain within a geological feature known as the “Séítah” and taking images of an outcrop from multiple angles for the rover team. 

The images, taken from an altitude of 8 meters, complement those collected during Ingenuity’s previous flights, providing valuable insight for Perseverance scientists and rover drivers. 

The video was captured by the rover’s two-camera Mastcam-Z. One video clip of Flight 13 shows most of Ingenuity’s flight profile. The other provides a closeup of takeoff and landing, which was acquired as part of a science observation intended to measure the dust plumes generated by the helicopter. 

Justin Maki, JPL’s Mastcam-Z principal operator, said the video shows the value of the camera system, and while the helicopter is little more than a speck in the wide view, “It gives viewers a good feel for the size of the environment that Ingenuity is exploring.” 

Ingenuity’s performance will guide how future missions will be designed and how those missions will utilize aircraft to help determine where rovers should go and where they cannot. 

Aside from solar batteries, a camera and a transmitter, Ingenuity carries no scientific instruments. 

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After Promise, Musk Sells $1.1 Billion in Tesla Shares to Pay Taxes

After making a promise on Twitter, Tesla CEO Elon Musk has sold about 900,000 shares of the electric car maker’s stock, netting over $1.1 billion that will go toward paying tax obligations for stock options. 

The sales, disclosed in two regulatory filings late Wednesday, will cover tax obligations for stock options granted to Musk in September. He exercised options to buy just over 2.1 million shares for $6.24 each. The company’s stock closed Wednesday at $1,067.95 per share.  

The transactions were “automatically effected” as part of a trading plan adopted on Sept. 14 to sell options that expire next year, according to forms filed with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. That was nearly two months before he floated the idea of the sale on Twitter. 

After the transactions, Musk still owns about 170 million Tesla shares. 

Musk was Tesla’s largest shareholder as of June, owning about 17% of the company, according to data provider FactSet. He’s the wealthiest person in the world, according to Forbes, with a net worth of around $282 billion, most of it in Tesla stock. 

Last weekend, Musk said he would sell 10% of his holdings in the company, worth more than $20 billion, based on the results of a poll he conducted on Twitter. The sale tweets caused a sell off of the stock Monday and Tuesday, but it recovered some on Wednesday. The shares were up 2.6% to $1,096 in extended trading Wednesday, and they have risen more than 50% this year. 

Wedbush Analyst Daniel Ives said it appears Musk will start selling shares as the year ends. “The question will be for investors if he sells his full 10% ownership stake over the coming months or is it done piece-by-piece during 2022,” Ives wrote in a note to investors. 

Ives calculated that Musk has about $10 billion in taxes coming due on stock options that vest next summer. 

The sometimes abrasive and unpredictable Musk said he proposed selling the stock as some Democrats have been pushing for billionaires to pay taxes when the price of the stocks they hold goes up, even if they don’t sell any shares. However, the wording on unrealized gains, also called a “billionaires tax,” was removed from President Joe Biden’s budget, which is still being negotiated.  

“Much is made lately of unrealized gains being a means of tax avoidance, so I propose selling 10% of my Tesla stock,” he tweeted Saturday afternoon. “Do you support this?” 

Tesla does not pay Musk a cash salary, but has received huge stock options. “I only have stock, thus the only way for me to pay taxes personally is to sell stock,” Musk tweeted. 

Tesla Inc. is based in Palo Alto, California, although Musk has announced it will move its headquarters to Texas. 

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US, China Surprise Climate Summit With Joint Declaration

The United States and China surprised the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow on Wednesday with a joint declaration to take action to limit global warming over the next decade.

The declaration came as delegates entered the final hours of negotiations to agree on a final text at the conference that will outline how the world will limit global warming to less than 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

China and the United States are the world’s two biggest polluters, and scientists say their future actions are critical in the fight against climate change. The absence of Chinese leader Xi Jinping from the summit last week was strongly criticized by U.S. President Joe Biden.

U.S. climate envoy John Kerry told reporters in Glasgow on Wednesday that the joint declaration builds on statements made by both countries in April.

“We also expressed a shared desire for success at this COP on mitigation, adaptation, support and, frankly, all of the key issues which will result in the world raising ambition and being able to address this crisis. Now, with this announcement, we’ve arrived at a new step, a road map for our present and future collaboration on this issue,” Kerry said at a press conference.

“The United States and China have no shortage of differences, but on climate, cooperation is the only way to get this job done. This is not a discretionary thing, frankly. This is science. It’s math and physics that dictate the road that we have to travel,” Kerry added.

China’s chief climate negotiator, Xie Zhenhua, echoed those sentiments.

“Climate change is a challenge, a common challenge, faced by humanity,” Xie told reporters. “It bears on the well-being of future generations. Now, climate change is becoming increasingly urgent and severe, making it a future challenge into an existential crisis. In the area of climate change, there is more agreement between China and the U.S. than divergence, making it an area with huge potential for our cooperation. We are two days away from the end of the Glasgow COP, so we hope that this joint declaration can make a China-U.S. contribution to the success of COP26.”

Among the joint pledges were cooperation on controlling methane emissions, tackling illegal deforestation, enhancing renewable energy generation and speeding up financial support for poorer nations. But the declaration did not include many specific dates or targets.

Cautious welcome

After the joint declaration, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres tweeted, “I welcome today’s agreement between China and the USA to work together to take more ambitious #ClimateAction in this decade. Tackling the climate crisis requires international cooperation and solidarity, and this is an important step in the right direction.”

Climate activists offered a cautious welcome to the declaration.

“This announcement comes at a critical moment at COP26 and offers new hope that with the support and backing of two of the world’s most critical voices, we may be able to limit climate change to 1.5 degrees,” Genevieve Maricle, director of U.S. climate policy action at the World Wildlife Fund, wrote in an email to VOA. “But we must also be clear-eyed about what is still required if the two countries are to deliver the emission reductions necessary in the next nine years. 1.5C-alignment will require a whole-of-economy response.”

Momentum

The joint declaration has given new momentum to the negotiations as delegates try to agree on a final text, officially known as the “cover decision,” by the end of the conference on Friday. The text details how parties to the COP26 summit will limit global warming to no more than 1.5 degrees C in Earth’s average temperatures above pre-industrial levels — the target agreed on at the Paris climate summit in 2015.

The first draft text of the decision, published Wednesday, urges countries to “revisit and strengthen” their targets on cutting emissions before the end of 2022. It says rich countries should go beyond the pledge to pay poorer nations $100 billion a year. The draft text calls on governments to phase out coal and fossil fuels, but with no fixed dates.

The COP26 host, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, urged delegates to “grasp the opportunity.”

“We’re now finding things are tough, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. It doesn’t mean that we can’t keep 1.5 alive,” Johnson said. “I think with sufficient energy and commitment, and with leaders from around the world now ringing up their negotiators and asking them to move in the ways that they know they can move and should move, I still think we can achieve it. But I’m not going to pretend to you that it is by any means a done deal.”

Jennifer Morgan, executive director of Greenpeace International, told VOA that the language of the draft text was weak.

“This is not a plan to address the climate emergency. It’s a bit like a pledge and a wink and a hope,” Morgan said. “Countries need to commit to actually come back to increase and strengthen their targets and their actions. That’s clearly one thing. The text does include that coal will be phased out and fossil fuel subsidies will be phased out. I think optimally, you would have dates by which time they would be phased out, but it’s important that they’re there.”

Climate finance

Delegates are also negotiating how much — and quickly — richer nations should pay poorer countries to help them deal with the impact of climate change and de-carbonize their economies. While richer countries are responsible for the majority of greenhouse gas emissions, developing countries tend to suffer greater impacts of climate change. A pledge first made in 2009 by richer nations to pay $100 billion annually — and renewed at the Paris climate summit in 2015 — has still not been fulfilled.

“It’s very frustrating to see countries that have spent six years conspicuously patting themselves on the back for signing that promissory note in Paris, quietly edging towards default now that vulnerable nations and future generations are demanding payment here now in Glasgow,” Johnson said Wednesday.

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Countries Agree to Create Green Shipping Lanes in Pursuit of Zero Carbon

A coalition of 19 countries including Britain and the United States on Wednesday agreed to create zero emissions shipping trade routes between ports to speed up the decarbonization of the global maritime industry, officials involved said. 

Shipping, which transports about 90% of world trade, accounts for nearly 3% of the world’s CO2 emissions.

U.N. shipping agency the International Maritime Organization (IMO) has said it aims to reduce overall greenhouse gas emissions from ships by 50% from 2008 levels by 2050. The goal is not aligned with the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change and the sector is under pressure to be more ambitious.

The signatory countries involved in the ‘Clydebank Declaration’, which was launched at the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, agreed to support the establishment of at least six green corridors by 2025, which will require developing supplies of zero emissions fuels, the infrastructure required for decarbonization and regulatory frameworks.

“It is our aspiration to see many more corridors in operation by 2030,” their mission statement said.

Britain’s maritime minister Robert Courts said countries alone would not be able to decarbonize shipping routes without the commitment of private and non-governmental sectors.

“The UK and indeed many of the countries, companies and NGOs here today believe zero emissions international shipping is possible by 2050,” Courts said at the launch.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said the declaration was “a big step forward for green shipping corridors and collective action”.

Buttigieg added that the United States was “pressing for the IMO to adopt a goal of zero emissions for international shipping by 2050”.

The IMO’s Secretary General Kitack Lim said on Saturday “we must upgrade our ambition, keeping up with the latest developments in the global community”.

Industry needs regulatory help

Jan Dieleman, president of ocean transportation with agri business giant Cargill, one of the world’s biggest ship charterers, said “the real challenge is to turn any statements (at COP26) into something meaningful”.

“The majority of the industry has accepted we need to decarbonize,” he told Reuters.

“Industry leadership needs to be followed up with global regulation and policies to ensure industry-wide transformation. We will not succeed without global regulation.”

Christian Ingerslev, chief executive of Maersk Tankers, which has over 210 oil products tankers under commercial management, said it had spent over $30 million over the last three years to bring their carbon emissions down through digital solutions.

“We need governments to not only back the regulatory push but also to help create the zero emissions fuels at scale,” he said.

“The only way this is going to work is to set a market-based measure through a carbon tax.”

Other signatory countries are Australia, Belgium, Canada, Chile, Costa Rica, Denmark, Fiji, Finland, France, Germany, Republic of Ireland, Japan, Marshall Islands, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway and Sweden.

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Facebook Plans to Remove Thousands of Sensitive Ad-Targeting Options

Facebook Inc. said on Tuesday it plans to remove detailed ad-targeting options that refer to “sensitive” topics, such as ads based on interactions with content around race, health, religious practices, political beliefs or sexual orientation. 

The company, which recently changed its name to Meta and which makes the vast majority of its revenue through digital advertising, has been under intense scrutiny over its ad-targeting abilities and rules in recent years. 

In a blog post, Facebook gave examples of targeting categories that would no longer be allowed on its platforms, such as “Lung cancer awareness,” “World Diabetes Day,” “LGBT culture,” “Jewish holidays” or political beliefs and social issues. It said the change would take place starting Jan. 19, 2022. 

The company has been hit with criticisms around its micro-targeting capabilities, including over abuses such as advertisers discriminating against or targeting vulnerable groups. In 2019, it agreed to make changes to its ads platform as part of a settlement over housing discrimination issues. 

“We’ve heard concerns from experts that targeting options like these could be used in ways that lead to negative experiences for people in underrepresented groups,” Graham Mudd, the company’s vice president of product marketing for ads, said in the post. 

Its tailored ad abilities are used by wide-ranging advertisers, including political campaigns and social issue groups, as well as businesses. 

“The decision to remove these Detailed Targeting options was not easy, and we know this change may negatively impact some businesses and organizations,” Mudd said in the post, adding that some advertising partners were concerned they would not be able to use these ads to generate positive social change. 

Advertisers on Facebook’s platforms can still target audiences by location, use their own customer lists, reach custom audiences who have engaged with their content and send ads to people with similar characteristics to those users. 

The move marks a key shift for the company’s approach to social and political advertising, though it is not expected to have major financial implications. CEO Mark Zuckerberg estimated in 2019, for example, that politicians’ ads would make up less than 0.5% of Facebook’s 2020 revenue. 

The issue of political advertising on social media platforms, including whether the content of politicians’ ads should be fact-checked, provoked much debate among the public, lawmakers and companies around the U.S. presidential election. 

Twitter in 2019 banned political ads altogether, but Facebook had previously said it would not limit how political advertisers reached potential voters. 

Facebook, which now allows users to opt to see fewer ads related to topics like politics and alcohol, said on Tuesday it would early next year give people more controls over the ads they see, including ones about gambling and weight loss. 

 

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Australia Plans Electric Car Boost With 50,000 New Home Charging Stations

Australia’s electric car industry has criticized the government’s new policy to build thousands of charging stations as “far too little, too late.” The Australian government Tuesday pledged $132 million to speed up the rollout of hydrogen refueling and electric charging stations. 

The Electric Vehicles Council says an Australian government plan to build electric vehicle charging stations and hydrogen-powered vehicle fueling stations doesn’t include subsidies, tax incentives or minimum fuel standards, and leaves Australia lagging the rest of the world. 

Transport accounts for one-fifth of Australia’s emissions. Prime Minister Scott Morrison says electric- and hydrogen-powered vehicles are key in efforts to decarbonize the economy. There’s a plan to build 50,000 home charging stations and increase the government’s fleet of electric vehicles.  

Morrison says it’s a bold strategy.   

“Our plan, which is another key part of the overall national plan to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050 — this is one of the key building blocks, the future fuels and the take-up of electric vehicles driven by Australians’ choices,” Morrison said.

The government has forecast that electric and hybrid electric vehicles will make up about a third of annual new car and light truck sales by 2030. Sales hit a record 8,688 in the first half of this year but made up a fraction — about 1.5% — of total sales. 

During the 2019 election campaign, Morrison derided electric cars, insisting they would “end the weekend” because they wouldn’t be able to tow trailers or boats to go camping.    

His stance has changed as environmental pressures grow on governments around the world. 

But critics say the Australian strategy lacks ambition and does nothing to improve affordability of electric cars, which are more expensive than gasoline or diesel models. Morrison insists that costs will come down as technologies improve. 

Opposition Labor leader Anthony Albanese says other countries are leaving Australia behind.    

“There is this massive shift around the world to electric vehicles. Australia’s uptake last year was under 2%. In Norway, it was 70%. In the United Kingdom, it was 15% and rising. We are falling way behind,” Albanese said. 

Australia has some of the world’s highest emissions per person and is a huge exporter of fossil fuels. Despite a pledge to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, the Morrison government said its coal and gas industries would not be phased out. 

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Original Apple Built by Jobs and Wozniak to be Auctioned 

An original Apple computer, hand-built by company founders Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak 45 years ago, goes under the hammer in the United States on Tuesday. 

The functioning Apple-1, the great, great grandfather of today’s sleek chrome-and-glass Macbooks, is expected to fetch up to $600,000 at an auction in California. 

The so-called “Chaffey College” Apple-1, is one of only 200 made by Jobs and Wozniak at the very start of the company’s odyssey from garage start-up to megalith worth $2 trillion. 

What makes it even rarer is the fact it is encased in koa wood — a richly patinated wood native to Hawaii. Only a handful of the original 200 were made in this way. 

Apple-1s were mostly sold as component parts by Jobs and Wozniak. One computer shop that took delivery of around 50 units decided to encase some of them in wood, the auction house said 

“This is kind of the holy grail for vintage electronics and computer tech collectors,” Apple-1 expert Corey Cohen told the Los Angeles Times. “That really makes it exciting for a lot of people.” 

Auctioneers John Moran say the device, which comes with a 1986 Panasonic video monitor, has only ever had two owners. 

“It was originally purchased by an electronics professor at Chaffey College in Rancho Cucamonga, California, who then sold it to his student in 1977,” a listing on the auction house’s website says. 

The Los Angeles Times reported the student — who has not been named — paid just $650 for it at the time. 

That student now stands to make a pretty penny: A working Apple-1 that came to the market in 2014 was sold by Bonhams for more than $900,000. 

“A lot of people just want to know what kind of a person collects Apple-1 computers and it’s not just people in the tech industry,” Cohen said. 

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Costs, Literacy and Design: The Invisible Barriers to Tackling the Digital Divide

Connecting everyone in the world to the web will not single-handedly bridge the digital divide, tech experts at the Web Summit said this week, citing other invisible barriers like high costs, low digital literacy and complicated user interfaces.

The so-called “digital divide” refers to the gap between those who have access to computers and the internet and those who don’t, with the latter group made up of nearly half the world’s population, according to the United Nations.

With many essential services like schooling and banking moving online, the coronavirus pandemic has brought new urgency to global efforts to get the unconnected online by bringing internet coverage to remote or deprived areas.

“(COVID-19) made us clearly understand that what used to be seen as a ‘nice-to-have’ technology is now a ‘must-have’,” said ‘Gbenga Sesan, executive director of Paradigm Initiative, a pan-African social enterprise working on digital inclusion.

Reaching everyone can be a daunting task.

Even identifying where exactly internet access is needed is no easy feat in parts of the globe, said Sophia Farrar, who leads a program that uses satellite imagery and other data to locate offline schools and get them connected.

“No one actually knows how many schools there are in the world,” Farrar, of the U.N. children’s agency UNICEF, told a panel at Europe’s biggest tech conference in Lisbon.

“What we aim to achieve through the mapping is even just setting what that baseline target is.”

Increased mobile penetration has accelerated the process.

 

The number of active mobile broadband subscriptions worldwide jumped more than 75% to nearly 6 billion, including people with multiple accounts, between 2015 and 2020, according to the International Telecommunication Union.

Only about 450 million people live in areas not covered by mobile broadband, according to telecoms lobby group GSMA.

But even where there is coverage, more than 3 billion are not online, largely because they lack tools, skills and money to make use of it, said Robert Opp, chief digital officer at the U.N. Development Program (UNDP).

“If you just connect somebody with infrastructure, it doesn’t mean that you’re going to have productive use of your internet connection,” told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview.

Cost is one major barrier, he noted.

There are only a few developing countries where internet prices are in line with the U.N.’s target of less than 2% of the national average monthly income, Opp said.

Even in rich nations like Britain or the United States poor people often can’t afford to buy data, an issue that has sparked calls for price caps and motivated some countries to declare the internet an essential public service during the pandemic.

Others might not have the skills to navigate often complex, jargon-filled websites and applications, Opp added.

The problem has come to the fore with COVID-19 vaccine rollouts, as the elderly and the frail in countries from Sweden to South Africa report having trouble booking their shots online.

 

Lack of digital literacy also leaves people exposed to risks such as misinformation and loss of privacy, said Opp.

While education is key to helping people protect themselves online, designing digital tools that are easier to understand and tailored for the communities they are meant to serve is also essential, said Howard Pyle, a digital designer turned social entrepreneur.

“Most websites and mobile apps are designed for digitally privileged users who already know how to use those tools – typically the most profitable users that companies will get most traction with,” Pyle said in an interview at the Web Summit.

“But this excludes people who have different needs or different abilities, for example, those who are older or lack experience with technology or lower income users who have limits in terms of the types of devices they have access to.”

Pyle’s social enterprise, ExperienceFutures, looks to help firms and governments make their web services more accessible by cutting jargon and complexity and involving the communities they are trying to serve at the design stage.

“At the moment, there is too much emphasis on trying to create one-size-fits-all tools and expect users to learn how to use them,” he said.

“We have to evolve to a place where the technology is flexible enough that individuals can understand it based on their abilities.”

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Alleged Russian Hacks of Microsoft Service Providers Highlight Cybersecurity Deficiencies

Cybersecurity experts say Microsoft’s recent disclosure that alleged Russian hackers successfully attacked several IT service providers this year is a sign that many U.S. IT companies have underinvested in security measures needed to protect themselves and their customers from intrusions.

But a U.S.-based association of IT professionals says the industry’s efforts to combat foreign hacking attacks are hampered by their customers not practicing good cyber habits and by the federal government not doing enough to punish and deter the hackers.

In an October 24 blog post, Microsoft said a Russian nation-state hacking group that it calls Nobelium spent three months attacking companies that resell, customize and manage Microsoft cloud services and other digital technologies for public and private customers. Microsoft said it informed 609 of those companies, known as managed service providers, or MSPs, that they had been attacked 22,868 times by Nobelium from July 1 to October 19 this year.

‘Well-known techniques’

As of its October 24 blog post, Microsoft said it determined that “as many as 14” of the resellers and service providers had been compromised in the Nobelium attacks, which it said involved the use of “well-known techniques, like password spray and phishing, to steal legitimate credentials and gain privileged access.”

Nobelium is the same group that Microsoft said was responsible for last year’s cyberattack on U.S. software company SolarWinds. That attack involved inserting malicious code into SolarWinds’ IT performance monitoring system, Orion, and gave the hackers access to the networks of thousands of U.S. public and private organizations that use Orion to manage their IT resources.

The White House said in April that it believed the perpetrators of the SolarWinds hack were part of the Russian foreign intelligence service, or SVR.

In an October 29 statement published by Russian network RBC TV, Russia’s foreign ministry dismissed as “groundless” Microsoft’s accusation that SVR was behind the recent cyberattacks on IT companies. It also said Microsoft should have shared data on the attacks with the Russian government’s National Coordination Center for Computer Incidents to aid a “professional and effective dialogue to … identify those involved.”

VOA asked Microsoft whether the company had communicated with Moscow regarding the latest hacking incidents, but Microsoft declined to comment.

It also has not disclosed the names or locations of any of the targeted or compromised IT companies.

Charles Weaver, chief executive of the U.S.-based International Association of Cloud and Managed Service Providers, also known as MSPAlliance, told VOA that he had not heard of any of his organization’s members being affected by the latest Nobelium attacks.

MSPAlliance describes itself as the world’s largest industry group for people who manage hardware, software and cloud computing services for customers. It says it has more than 30,000 members worldwide, about two-thirds of them based in North America.

Insufficient attention

The apparently successful cyberattacks on Microsoft-linked IT companies are a sign that U.S. MSPs are not putting enough priority on cybersecurity, said Jake Williams, a chief technology officer at U.S. cybersecurity company BreachQuest and a former U.S. National Security Agency elite hacking team member.

“The profit margins for MSPs are often razor-thin, and in the majority of cases, they compete purely on cost,” Williams told VOA in an interview. “Any work they do that doesn’t directly translate to additional revenue is generally not happening.”

One cybersecurity practice that more MSPs should adopt is the sharing of information with U.S. authorities about hacking incidents, said James Curtis, a cybersecurity program director at Webster University in Missouri, in a conversation with VOA’s Russian Service.

Curtis, a retired U.S. Air Force cyber officer and a former IT industry executive, said MSPs do not like to admit they have been hacked.

“They don’t want to share that their users’ information has been stolen, because it may hurt their bottom line and may hurt their stock prices, and so they try to handle that internally,” he said.

“The MSP community is not perfect,” Weaver said. “Our members face a lot of cyberattacks and their job is to protect their customers against these things. For 21 years, MSPAlliance has strived to promote best practices for our global community, and we will continue to incrementally improve as fast and as often as we can.”

But Weaver said criticism of MSPs for not devoting enough attention to cybersecurity is misplaced.

Customer practices

“MSPs have been urging their customers to make easy and inexpensive fixes such as adopting multifactor authentication to back up their data to the cloud,” Weaver said. “But I personally have witnessed a lot of nonconformity amongst the customers. They have to be the ones that ultimately pay for and allow MSPs to deploy those fixes.”

The Biden administration also has used a variety of tools this year to try to protect U.S. targets from Russian and other foreign hackers. In May, President Joe Biden issued an executive order for U.S. authorities to tighten cybersecurity contractual requirements for IT companies that work with the federal government. The order said the companies should be required to share more information with federal agencies about cyber incidents impacting the IT services provided to those agencies.

In an earlier action in April, the Biden administration sanctioned six Russian technology companies for providing support to what it called malicious cyber  activities of Russia’s intelligence services.

Senior U.S. officials also have used diplomacy to try to expand international participation in a Counter-Ransomware Initiative (CRI). A U.S. National Security Council statement issued Wednesday said deputy national security adviser Anne Neuberger briefed representatives of 35 countries Tuesday on the outcome of last month’s first CRI meeting of experts from law enforcement, cybersecurity, financial regulators and foreign affairs ministries.

Chris Morgan, an intelligence analyst at Britain-based cybersecurity company Digital Shadows, told VOA the stronger cybersecurity practices mandated by the U.S. government for federal contractors will not necessarily be voluntarily adopted by IT companies working in the private sector. One such mandated practice is for federal contractors to adopt a “zero-trust” security model, in which users who log in to a network are not automatically trusted to do whatever they like within that network but must instead undergo continual authentication.

Larger government role

“Implementing zero-trust is a real change in the way that your network is managed and comes with significant costs. I think that’s the reason why a lot of companies are quite hesitant to do so,” Morgan said. “I think a lot of people would like the U.S. government to take a more active role in combating cybercrime [through promoting measures like zero-trust].”

Weaver, of MSPAlliance, said applying federal cybersecurity regulations to the entire private sector is not a good idea because different industries, such as banking, health care and energy, have different IT needs.

He also said the U.S. government could effectively curb ransomware attacks by doing more to hold the perpetrators accountable.

“Cyberattacks are a big business, yet the hackers are in countries beyond the reach of our law enforcement,” Weaver said. “So you have a business model that has no disincentive to stop. And all we have are the IT guardians against those attacks. I just don’t think that putting regulations on the guardians is going to solve this.”

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