How would you like to have a robot assistant in your home or at work? It might seem like a sci-fi fantasy but it may be closer to reality than you think. Boston Dynamics is planning to Boston Dynamics wants to release their first commercial robot by the end of this year, and there are already a number of companies working to make collaborative robots or co-bots, safer and more interactive with humans. Researchers from MIT have figured out an algorithm that makes these robots more efficient without compromising the safety, which has been a major concern on factory floors. And biomedical researchers from the University of Houston made a major breakthrough in the brain to computer interfaces that lets prosthetics more accurately anticipate human motion. But before we go further, make sure you’re following us over at Minds.com/subverse where we’ll be posting additional and exclusive content going forward.
Boston Dynamic’s Spot is a four-legged electric robot that can pick up and carry objects with an extendable arm positioned on its so-called “head.” It has perception sensors, stereo and depth cameras, position and force sensors, and an inertial measurement unit, which is an electronic device that measures Spot’s force. The dog-like robot was shown off at the Re:MARS conference in Las Vegas, where robotics, machine learning, and space exploration come together in one place. At the conference, two Spot bots interacted with conference attendees, controlled by two Boston Dynamics employees using modified gaming tablets. Spot can keep itself balanced on uneven terrain and even withstand kicks and shoves, but can’t yet decide for itself where to walk. Once an area is mapped out, however, Spot is able to navigate its environment autonomously, but it still does need human handlers.
At the conference, the handlers showed the crowd the simplicity of operating Spot. With a simple directional pad, the robot can be steered. The control pad allows the operator to see the real-time video feed from its front-facing cameras. Another control allows the handler to operate the robotic arm mounted on its head. As with any new technology, there are still some issues to be worked out. During the demonstration, Spot’s legs suddenly folded up and it collapsed, taking a nose dive to the floor. Boston Dynamics CEO Marc Raibert said they’re still testing Spot in a number of work environments like package delivery and surveying work. Its three-dimensional cameras give it the ability to map construction sites, identify hazards, and track progress. But Spot has a wide range of custom uses and can undertake a variety of tasks. Its arm attachment gives it the ability to manipulate objects and even open doors. At the conference, Spot picked up a toy and offered it to a police dog.
The robots used in factories and warehouses currently only perform tasks that are programmed into them, usually around the time of their creation. Robots like Spot are able to work beside humans in changing environments, reacting to dynamic conditions and other hazards. Raibert showed an example of this on stage when he presented a video of Spot overcoming man-made obstacles while trying to open a door. There are, of course, questions about the actual advantage of employing an expensive robot over a human who can perform the same tasks. Boston Dynamics began developing robots like Spot for the US military over ten years ago. This led to other countries developing their own four-legged robots, like Chinese company Unitree and Swiss company ANYbotics. Boston Dynamics now has to figure out a way to scale the production of these robots to the demand. Raibert said they’re aiming to manufacture one thousand per year, but didn’t say how much they would be charging per robot, though their commercial version will be much less expensive than their competitors’ bots and their own prototypes. He did mention they already have paying customers, including Japanese construction companies who are testing Spot as a progress overseer on worksites.
According to the Verge, Raibert said: “There’s a remarkable number of construction companies we’re talking to, but we have some other applications that are very promising, [including] in hostile environments where the cost of having people there is high.”
There are plenty of uses for Spot that would prevent human workers from operating in unsafe conditions, like disaster zones.
|Robots have been working with human workers for years on factory floors and in warehouses. According to the International Federation of Robotics, there was an average of one hundred eighty-nine robots for every ten thousand workers in the US. Industrial robots that lift and move huge pieces of material for manufacturing are often bolted down to the floor behind fences away from their organic-bodied coworkers to keep them safe. But the next generation of robots are cobots, collaborative robots, which are increasingly mobile and interactive, but opens up the possibility of unintended injuries to the humans they work with.
There are a number of engineers and companies working on new technologies to minimize the risk to humans. Massachusetts-based Veo Robotics introduced Veo FreeMove on Monday, giving robots spatial awareness for obstacles and objects within reach. The company partnered with four of the largest robot manufacturers in the world to add three-dimensional depth sensors and computer vision software to their robots, giving them a monitoring system that signals the robot to stop or slow down if a human-sized object is too close. After the obstruction passes, the robot proceeds with its task. They conducted trials with manufacturers of vehicles, appliances, and packaged-goods, using Xbox Kinect cameras while they build their own sensors for future production.
Veo Ceo and co-founder Patrick Sobalvarro told CNBC, “The collaborative power and force-limited robots have been very useful for assembly of small things. What we would like to do is extend those advantages to all robots, regardless of the size. Whether it’s a robot that can carry a car or a robot that can carry a car door or a robot that moves fast and positions things very precisely.”
Cobots are getting lighter, more versatile, and more interactive with humans, opening them up to industries outside manufacturing and into fields like food services, law enforcement, and health care. They’re not meant to replace human workers, but act more like assistants, although they can be designed to operate with limited guidance or autonomously. Demand for these bots have been growing and companies are doing their best to reduce errors and increase the quality and speed of production. Sobalvarro explained, “What we hear from every factory, every line manager is that they can’t hire enough production workers. The production labor workforce is aging out, and one of the things we see as an advantage of our system is that physical strength will no longer be required for production workers. This company is predicated on the belief that production labor continues to be tremendously important in manufacturing.”
|Although these robots are fitted with safety procedures that keep humans safe, it often comes at the expense of productivity. MIT researchers working with BMW noticed that robots were overly cautious when operating around humans and would waste a lot of time just waiting for workers to pass. So they created a new algorithm that could increase efficiency while still prioritizing safety. The algorithm improves the robots’ ability to predict the trajectory of a human worker as they move, allowing it to move around the workers’ foot traffic instead of freezing up.
According to EurekaAlert, associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics at MIT, Julie Shah, said, “This algorithm builds in components that help a robot understand and monitor stops and overlaps in movement, which is a core part of human motion. This technique is one of the many ways we’re working on robots better understanding people.” Researchers have used algorithms from music and speech processing to align sets of related data, but human motion is more variable than music or speech. Even in repetitive processes, humans make slight variations in their movement each time. Other algorithms record streaming motion data in the form of dots that represent a person’s position over a time span, comparing those dots to a library of common trajectories. These algorithms can be easily confused in some pretty common scenarios, like a person’s temporary pause while moving, because the dots bunch up in one spot. To find a workaround, Shah and her colleague Pem Lasota created a partial trajectory algorithm that aligns segments of the trajectory with a library of previous reference trajectories in real time. This gives a robot the ability to accurately anticipate overlaps and stops in a human’s path.
“Say you’ve executed this much of a motion,” Lasota explains. “Old techniques will say, ‘this is the closest point on this representative trajectory for that motion.’ But since you only completed this much of it in a short amount of time, the timing part of the algorithm will say, ‘based on the timing, it’s unlikely that you’re already on your way back, because you just started your motion.’”
The research team found that their algorithm was better at estimating a person’s progress through a trajectory compared to commonly used trajectory alignment algorithms. With their algorithm, the robot was less prone to stopping, instead resuming its task right after a human crossed its path. This technique can be used as a preprocessing step for other human-robot interaction, like action recognition and gesture detection. Shah says this algorithm will be key in enabling robots to respond to human movement and behavior patterns, not just in factories, but in homes as well. Shah said, “This technique could apply to any environment where humans exhibit typical patterns of behavior. The key is that the [robotic] system can observe patterns that occur over and over so that it can learn something about human behavior. This is all in the vein of work of the robot better understand aspects of human motion, to be able to collaborate with us better.”
|A team of biomedical engineering professors from the University of Houston published a study in eNeuro last week showing a brain to computer interface can actually sense when its user is anticipating a reward through tracking interactions between single-neuron activities and information flowing through the neurons. This is called ‘local field potential,’ and the findings allow the development of a brain-computer interface that autonomously updates, self-improves, and learns about its subject without programming. This is an exciting implication for improvements in robotic prosthetics operating more naturally, allowing the prosthetic to sense what its user wants to do, like picking up an object. According to the University of Houston’s news release, Professor of Biomedical Engineering Joe Francis claims, “This will help prosthetics work the way the user wants them to. The brain-computer interface quickly interprets what you’re going to do and what you expect as far as whether the outcome will be good or bad.” He added that this drives scientists’ abilities to predict reward outcome from mid seventy to ninety-seven percent. Francis used implanted electrodes to examine spikes in brain activity during tasks to understand how the interactions are regulated by reward expectations. Even when a task called for no movement, just passive observation, the brain-computer interface was able to determine the intention based on the neural activity pattern that resembled movement.
Francis explained, “We assume the intention is in there, and we decode that information by an algorithm and have it control either a computer cursor, for example, or a robotic arm. … This is important because we are going to have to extract this information and brain activity out of people who cannot actually move, so this is our way of showing we can still get the information even if there is no movement. This examination of reward motivation in the primary motor cortex could be useful in developing an autonomously updating brain-machine interface.”
The potential for robots and automation is both exciting and concerning.
There’s a reason that we focus on hackers, facial recognition, and data privacy at Subverse. We pay attention to the developments in emerging technologies because of the massive impact they have on society and individuals. We’re beginning to see some of the consequences of compiling massive amounts of private citizens data unfold in real time as hackers target these databases for valuable information that can be used to steal identities and generally throw a wrench of chaos into the systems of governments on local and national levels. A federal contractor’s database was recently breached, and the information was available as a free download on the dark web. Microsoft recently and quietly purged their facial recognition database, but as we all know, once something is online, it’s very difficult if not impossible, to actually scrub it from the record. And in Detroit, lawmakers and citizens are finally getting an opportunity to address the widespread use of facial recognition cameras operated in real time by law enforcement.
On Monday, US Customs officials released a statement explaining that one of their subcontractor databases had been breached by a cyber attack at the end of May. Photos of people entering and leaving one US port of entry over a month and a half were compromised, with initial reports claiming that less than one hundred thousand people were impacted. Federal officials also claimed that travel documents, passport, and identification information were not compromised. But they also claimed that none of the information had been disseminated on the dark web, however, The Register reported that a large cache of breached data from subcontractor firm Perceptics was offered as a free download on the dark web.
According to the Register, an individual using the pseudonym “Boris Bullet-Dodger” alerted them to the hack, and provided a list of files exfiltrated from Perceptics’ corporate network as proof. Perceptics makes license plate readers used by the US government and cities to identify and track citizens and immigrants. They are the sole provider of license plate readers used at land border crossing lanes in the US. According to the Register, Perceptics recently announced in a press release that is no longer on their site, they landed “a key contract by US Customs and Border Protection to replace existing LPR technology, and to install Perceptics next generation License Plate Readers (LPRs) at 43 US Border Patrol checkpoint lanes in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California.”
Almost sixty-five thousand file names fit their scope of surveillance technology, including spreadsheets with locations, zip codes, image files with names of individuals, and documents associated with federal clients like ICE. Hundreds of gigabytes of data, including business plans, financial figures, and personal information was found on the dark web. At first, Customs and Border Patrol wouldn’t give information on which Subcontractor was involved, but the public statement they sent to Washington Post reporters on Monday included the name Perceptics in the title– CBP Perceptics Public Statement. CBP said that the copies of the license plate and traveler images collected by CBP were transferred to the subcontractor’s network in violation of the federal agency’s security and privacy rules.
They say no CBP systems were compromised, and the CBP spokesperson Jackie Wren was not able to confirm if Perceptics was the source of the breach. A US official who spoke to the Washington Post anonymously said that internally it was being described as a ‘major incident.’ They said that Perceptics was trying to use the data to refine their algorithms to match license plates with the faces of the vehicle’s occupants, outside of CBP’s sanctioned use. Civil rights and privacy advocates say the theft shows that these government databases are going to be major targets for cybercriminals and hackers across the world.
Senior legislative council member at the ACLU Neema Singh Guliani said, “This breach comes just as CBP seeks to expand its massive face recognition apparatus and collection of sensitive information from travelers, including license plate information and social media identifiers. This incident further underscores the need to put the brakes on these efforts and for Congress to investigate the agency’s data practices. The best way to avoid breaches of sensitive personal data is not to collect and retain it in the first place.”
The incident also stirred panic in Congress, where lawmakers have been questioning whether federal surveillance measures are threatening individuals’ constitutional rights and risking identity theft of millions of citizens. In a statement to the Washington Post, Senator Ron Wyden said, “If the government collects sensitive information about Americans, it is responsible for protecting it — and that’s just as true if it contracts with a private company. Anyone whose information was compromised should be notified by Customs, and the government needs to explain exactly how it intends to prevent this kind of breach from happening in the future.”
Microsoft’s president, Brad Smith, appealed to Congress last year to take steps to manage that have what he called, “broad societal ramifications for potential abuse,” stating: “The only effective way to manage the use of technology by a government is for the government proactively to manage this use itself. And if there are concerns about how a technology will be deployed more broadly across society, the only way to regulate this broad use is for the government to do so. This, in fact, is what we believe is needed today – a government initiative to regulate the proper use of facial recognition technology, informed first by a bipartisan and expert commission.”
As we reported before, Microsoft blocked sales of facial recognition technology to law enforcement in California, but last week Microsoft deleted their database containing over ten million images of around one hundred thousand people. The database was the largest publicly available facial recognition data set in the world, used to train facial recognition systems by military researchers and other global tech firms. The people they pulled the photos from were not asked for consent because their photos were under a creative commons license online. Because of this, the individuals were considered ‘celebrities,’ and the database was called MS Celeb. Berlin-based researcher Adam Harvey, who revealed the database, runs a project called Megapixels which shows the details of these data sets. Harvey told the Financial Times, “Microsoft has exploited the term ‘celebrity’ to include people who merely work online and have a digital identity. Many people in the target list are even vocal critics of the very technology Microsoft is using their name and biometric information to build.”
He said even with the data set deleted, the contents are still being disseminated around the web. “You can’t make a data set disappear. Once you post it, and people download it, it exists on hard drives all over the world. Now it is completely disassociated from any licensing, rules or controls that Microsoft previously had over it. People are posting it on GitHub, hosting the files on Dropbox and Baidu Cloud, so there is no way from stopping them from continuing to post it and use it for their own purposes.” The Financial Times published an in-depth investigation in April on the technology and Microsoft’s role. Microsoft explained to them that the recent deletion was protocol, that the site was intended for academic purposes and was run by an employee who is no longer with Microsoft.
Amazon is following Microsoft in acknowledging the risks of their facial recognition services and is also calling for the federal government to put national regulations into place for the technology. The CEO of Amazon Web Services, Andy Jassy, told Kara Swisher at Vox’s Code 2019 conference: “Whether it’s private-sector companies or our police forces, you have to be accountable for your actions and you have to be held responsible if you misuse it.” Amazon Rekognition uses AI to identify faces in videos and photos. Eighty-five civil liberties groups have criticized Amazon for selling their system to governments and law enforcement and studies have shown that Amazon’s Rekognition has higher rates of misidentification for females with darker skin than males with lighter skin.
Although law enforcement in Florida and Oregon are already using facial recognition, Detroit and Chicago are the first cities in the US to use facial recognition technology with capabilities to work in real time. These are similar to systems the FBI and federal border agencies use at many US ports of entry. The system used in Detroit has a million dollar face-scanning system that allows law enforcement to identify and track residents on private and public high-def cameras at strategic locations. From these images, Detroit law enforcement can identify anyone at any time using their database consisting of hundreds of thousands of mug shots, driver’s licenses, and photos taken from social media.
Detroit Police slipped this system into place without any public hearings or announcements, and integrated the technology with their Project Green Light, an initiative started in 2016 using surveillance cameras at late-night gathering spots like gas stations and fast-food restaurants. Since then, they’ve expanded the system to apartments, lower-income housing, churches, parks, schools, hotels, and health clinics, including addiction treatment centers. Altogether, there are over five hundred Green Light locations. Detroit police defended their use of the technology, claiming it’s only used to track down suspects after a crime is committed.
Detroit Police Department’s Assistant Chief Dave LeValley told the Detroit Metro Times, “DPD does not use live streaming videos with facial recognition software. Videos fed into the Real Time Crime Center are used only to obtain still images of an individual suspected in a criminal offense for purposes of identifying the suspect. Those still images are used to search known databases or repositories of criminal mugshots, state driver’s license photographs, and state identification card photographs. Any images taken during a First Amendment-protected public event, activity, or affiliation would only be used under exigent circumstances that would require the express approval of the Chief or his designee and a report to the Board of Police Commissioners after such use.”
Local elected officials haven’t been very vocal about the initiative until now. The Detroit Police Commission is hosting a public hearing tomorrow to discuss the surveillance system, and privacy advocates are distributing flyers to inform the community about what’s going on. Michigan Representative Rashida Tlaib has been outspoken against Facial Recognition technology during public hearings in late May and early June. She believes Detroit should be more open about their public use of these systems because of the potential for abuse and the number of misidentifications. Tlaib told the Detroit Metro Times, “I’ve heard from local groups, community members, and civil rights advocates: facial recognition technology is a flawed system riddled with privacy and constitutional concerns. I support a moratorium on its use in law enforcement. The lack of public input and transparency is alarming. The use of facial recognition with little to no real oversight or research endangers all our lives directly.” There has been a major push by local and national lawmakers on both sides of the aisle to halt the use of facial recognition until a legal framework can be worked out that protects peoples’ privacy and prevents misidentification.
As always, we will continue to keep an eye on these subjects and give you updates. Stay tuned for more videos Monday through Thursday at 7 pm eastern and be sure to follow us at minds.com/subverse where you can join our online newsroom to discuss our coverage and point out stories to us that you think need more coverage. Thanks for watching, and we’ll see you next time.
America’s wettest year on record has come from months of heavy rainfall that soaked the country’s most fertile cropland. Farmland in midwestern states are trapped under inches of rain and water overflow from nearby riverbanks. Farmers in Illinois, Iowa, Indiana, South Dakota, Ohio, and Michigan lost their ability to plant a majority of their corn and wheat seeds this planting season. From the Rocky Mountains to the Ohio River Valley, Americans have experienced strenuous weather. Millions of Midwesterners have endured relentless rainfall, hundreds of tornadoes, and uncontrolled flooding that’s spilled onto farmland. Many are feeling the consequences of yet another predicament they’ve faced within the past few years. After years of low prices, the ongoing trade turmoil with China preventing America’s largest soy buyer from purchasing soy from US farmers. Now they face unrelenting rainfall impeding their ability to produce the crops that keep their farms running.
A record level of corn has gone unplanted in 2019, a combined 31 million acres across central US states. A United States Department of Agriculture report shows as of June second, only sixty-six of the country’s ninety-three million acres of corn have been planted this year. At this point, all major-corn producing states would be at least eighty to ninety percent planted according to USDA’s historical averages. This is the slowest planting pace on record; compared to the next slowest at seventy-seven percent back in 1995.
Last week, crowd-sourced content service for financial markets, Seeking Alpha published that “2019 is turning out to be a nightmare that never ends for the agriculture industry. Thanks to endless rain and unprecedented flooding, fields all over the middle part of the country are absolutely soaked right now, and this has prevented many farmers from getting their crops in the ground.”
American farmers’ livelihoods largely depend on the planting and harvesting seasons. The planting window is shortening day by day due to passing storms carrying massive amounts of rainfall. As this window closes, many farmers are losing a large portion of their yields. And as they lose their yields, their income falls.
Kevin McNew, the chief economist for Farmers Business Network claimed in an article by AGPro, “The planting pace in Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, and South Dakota are all at historically slow rates, leaving millions of acres unplanted. The current pace combined with other variables like weather and insurance-based economics should force the USDA to adjust their planted/harvest acres figures and the yield estimated in the June World Agricultural Supply and Demand Estimate.”
AccuWeather senior meteorologist, Jason Nicholls claims, “The next two weeks are critical for corn planting, most intended corn acres not planted by June 4th will likely go to soybeans or be left unplanted.”
The National Weather Service’s Storm Prediction Center reported twenty-three tornadoes last Tuesday and twenty-nine on Wednesday, breaking the all-time record for consecutive days with tornadoes. The 2019 tornado season so far has 611 documented tornadoes across the United States which have caused 38 casualties, up significantly from the ten fatalities in 2018.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration maintain 6,000 flood gauges on waterways across the country, in the upper Midwest and Central Plains 381 were above flood stage this week Much of the most severe flooding is concentrated in Kansas, Missouri, Illinois, northwest Iowa, southeastern South Dakota, and Oklahoma. Oklahoma Governor, Kevin Stitt, declared a State of Emergency for all seventy-seven counties in the state, everyone impacted by flooding from severe storms. The declaration is the first step toward seeking federal assistance. Under the executive order, state agencies can make emergency purchases and acquisitions to expedite the delivery of resources to local jurisdictions to aid disaster relief.
Some climate scientists predicted this would happen, and if this the new norm, then farmers may have to adapt to these environmental impacts. Farmers have been unable to drive tractors through their farmland because it gets stuck in the mud, so they must consider new ways to continue their operation. Unaccustomed practices like no-till farming, cover cropping, and other conservation-based methods that prevent soil erosion are transitioning into techniques that are necessary for some farms after flood waters prevented planting. Making these transitions is easier said than done, as the process requires learning new procedures, but the weather is forcing some farmers to make the shift as quickly as they can.
Ray Gaesser, a farmer from Corning, Iowa, realized he needed to make the transition in May 2010. Gaesser farms roughly three thousand acres of soybeans and is a former president of the American Soybean Association. The corn-planting season in Iowa runs ranges from two to four weeks starting in April, but many farmers weren’t able to plant their crop within the timespan this year.
Gaessar claims it only took him thirty seconds to decide it was time to start planting cereals like rye, after watching his crops topple over and the soil run-off wash away his seeds after heavy rainfall. “I’ve been farming fifty-one years now,” he said. “That was the first four-inch rain in one hour that I’d seen in my lifetime. And every year but one, since then, we’ve had that.”
Corn and soybean production in the US will be lower than the USDA estimate for 2019, and way under the 2018 yield. AccuWeather estimates the 2019 corn crop will yield fourteen point one billion bushels, compared to the USDA’s estimated fifteen billion and 2018’s total yield of 14.3 billion.
Illinois and Iowa are the top two soybean producing states in the US. The USDA’s crop progress report shows only eleven percent of Illinois corn and four percent of soybeans have been planted so far. Last year’s figures show eighty-eight percent of corn and fifty-six percent of soybeans were already in the ground by this time. Terry Davis, a farmer from Roseville, Illinois, told FarmWeekDay.com: “this, without a doubt, has been the longest, most frustrating season I’ve had in my career.”
Nebraska is the country’s third top producer of corn. Megahn Schafer, executive director of the Nebraska Farm Bureau Foundation stated that “seventy-four cities, sixty-five counties and four tribal areas have declared states of emergency.” And state officials report “The cost of the damage has surpassed one point three billion US dollars.”
The Indiana Farm Bureau posted last week, “We have never had a year quite like this before, and US food production is going to be substantially below expectations, I very much encourage everyone to get prepared for much higher food prices and a tremendous amount of uncertainty in the months ahead.”
USDA forecasts net farm income of sixty-nine point four billion dollars this year. If this prediction is accurate, it would be the third year of net income below seventy billion since 2015.
If the storms let up, farmers may be forced to work fourteen hour days to get their corn planted to make up for this year’s troublesome growing season. Scott Irwin, an agricultural economist at the University of Illinois, said to NewFoodEconomy.org, “If you plant too late, you may not get enough heat units to get the ear of corn mature and dry before you run into a severe frost in the fall, and that dramatically, as you might imagine, reduces yield. We’re about 20 percentage points behind the worst (corn planting) years of the last 40 (years), we are (headed) into uncharted territory.”
Instead of corn, many farmers may turn to soybeans, which usually gets planted later in the summer. Another option for farmers facing flooded fields is to apply for a form of crop insurance called prevented planting. Prevented planting is the failure to plant the insured crop with proper equipment by the final planting date designated in the insurance policy’s Special Provisions or during the late planting period. A recent Farm Journal Pulse poll shows thirty-four percent of corn growers plan to file for prevented plant payments on at least some of their acres this year.
Irwin estimates roughly thirty-one million acres of corn acreage will still be unplanted, a landmass that measures the size of New York state. One third will stay unplanted, meaning farmers will collect around three billion dollars in prevented planting payments. One third will be converted to soybeans and the last third be planted as corn, allowing farmers to cash in on what’s expected to be a limited supply of the crop with a very high demand price.
Corn is referred to as “yellow gold” because it’s used to make so many products and byproducts that end up circulating throughout the economy. It’s found on food store shelves and in gas pumps and industrial chemical plants. Corn is in almost everything, a majority of the corn produced in the US becomes livestock feed and ethanol fuel. The kernel is made up of four major components: starch, fiber, protein, and oil which can be processed and used in all kinds of products. In the US, a typical grocery store contains about four thousand items that list corn ingredients on its nutrition label. Many other products depend on corn as well, from paper goods and cardboard packaging to all the meat, milk, eggs, poultry and other protein products that come from corn-fed animals. According to IowaCorn, thirty-nine percent is used as feed, twenty-seven percent is used for ethanol-based fuel, sixteen percent is exported, and the remainder is put into circulation in the food industry.
Traders previously debated which crops US farmers would grow this year. But now, the question turns to how many acres will be left unplanted. Rabobank, a global leader in food and agriculture financing and sustainability-oriented banking, predicts an extraordinary number of unplanted acres of corn this growing season. A Bloomberg survey of ten traders and analysts indicates growers could file insurance claims for about six million corn acres they haven’t been able to plant, doubling the previous record in 2013.
According to Gro Intelligence, farmland that deteriorated over the past few months indicates significant corn acreage loss is a risk. Areas with the highest risk of loss include central Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, and the regions around the borders of South Dakota, Minnesota, Iowa, and Nebraska. Corn futures surpassed twenty-percent to a three-year high in the past few weeks from the fear that farmers won’t get seeds in the ground ahead of crop-insurance deadlines.
For many farmers, the motto is: risk is the only constant. Whether it’s a destructive weather season or unexpected trade turmoil, farmers believe when they have a plan, to stick to it, for better or worse.
Thanks for watching, and thanks to our viewers for pointing out stories like this that don’t get a ton of airtime elsewhere. It may not be the sexiest story, but it’s an important one and we will continue to have updates as needed. If you’re a farmer experiencing challenges from flooding, we want to hear from you so reach out to us through firstname.lastname@example.org so we can hear your perspective.
Hong Kong fell into political crisis on Sunday when over a million people took to the streets to protest a proposed extradition law that would allow criminal suspects to be sent to mainland China to face trial. The demonstration increased pressure on Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam and Hong Kong’s official representatives in Beijing. Hong Kong operates under the “one country, two systems” regime as an autonomous region with its legal system widely regarded as its strongest asset.
The proposed bill provides case-by-case extraditions to outside jurisdictions beyond the twenty states that Hong Kong already has treaties with, including mainland China. It gives the chief executive the power to approve extradition after its clearance by Hong Kong’s courts and appeal system. Many fear a pro-Beijing government in Hong Kong would approve the majority of the Chinese Communist Party’s political demands. US and European officials have already voiced their concern along with international business and human rights groups who fear the bill would impair Hong Kong’s rule of law. Opponents of the bill and several senior Hong Kong judges question the fairness and transparency of the mainland Chinese court system and worry about Chinese security forces fabricating charges.
Weeks of growing outrage in the business, diplomatic, and legal communities made Hong Kongers fear a loss of legal independence and basic judicial protections in mainland China. Opposition to the bill has united communities from business people and lawyers to students, pro-democracy figures, and religious groups. Human rights groups have cited the alleged use of torture, arbitrary detentions, forced confessions as well as difficulty accessing lawyers in China.
The Chinese government has been accused of meddling in Hong Kong on a number of occasions, denying democratic reforms and restricting freedoms, interfering with local elections, as well as being involved with the disappearance of five Hong Kong-based authors whose works were critical of Chinese leaders. All of whom appeared to be detained in China, and some had their forced confessions broadcast in Hong Kong. The movement opposing the potential bill on Sunday came amidst a series of governmental reforms to expand links between mainland China and Hong Kong.
Hong Kong officials defended their plans, they raised the threshold of extraditable offenses to crimes that carry sentences of seven years or more. They say the laws carry sufficient safeguards, including protection of independent judges who will hear cases before approval by the Hong Kong chief executive. However, individuals won’t be extradited if they face political or religious persecution or the death penalty. Lam and her officials emphasize the need to prosecute a Hong Kong man who is suspected of killing his girlfriend in Taiwan. However, Taiwanese officials claim they won’t agree to any transfer him if the bill goes into effect, citing human rights concerns.
On Sunday afternoon, protestors filled a two-mile stretch of major roads from Victoria Park in east Hong Kong to the legislative council complex. Thousands more struggled to get through packed public transport from outer Hong Kong and Kowloon in mainland China. The Hong Kong police closed metro stations, funneling people through narrow roads, prompting accusations that they deliberately tried to reduce the size of the protest.
The peaceful march descended into violence early Monday morning as hundreds of protesters clashed with police outside the city’s parliament building. Some demonstrators charged police lines trying to get to the Legislative Council building, but police pushed back with pepper spray after warning the protesters. Some police had tear gas ready to go but none was reportedly used.
Seeing the massive protests in Hong Kong, cities around the world organized their own protest against the extradition bill. Sandi Bachom and Tarik Johnson went on the ground in New York City for Subverse where hundreds of people marched from Times Square to the Chinese Consulate Building to show their support for the protest in Hong Kong and voice their concerns about the bill.
This is a story we will continue to watch and provide updates as needed. Stay tuned for more videos every Monday through Thursday at seven PM eastern and remember to follow us on Minds.com/Subverse. You can support our work by sharing our videos and leaving your thoughts in the comments below. Thanks for watching, we’ll see you next time.
Today, we’re looking at the impact these antitrust investigations had on the stock of the silicon valley giants. We’re also going to show you what the investigations from the Department of Justice, Federal Trade Commission, and the House Judiciary Committee have in store for the companies.
Morgan Stanley predicts that in a worst “bear case” scenario, Apple’s stock could fall to one hundred forty-seven dollars per share from antitrust regulations and tariffs on goods from China. Their “base case” for Apple is two hundred thirty-one dollars per share but they expect tariffs to take up to seventy-one off that, and the antitrust regulation worst-case impact could take another thirteen dollars out per share. The note from Morgan Stanley to investors addressed the recent reports that the Department of Justice might investigate anti-competitive behavior by Apple, which could cost them tens of billions of dollars in equity value. The analyst who wrote the note, Katy Huberty said the likely focus of the investigation is Spotify’s accusation of anti-competitive actions favoring Apple Music over third-party apps. Apple is already facing potential investigation by the EU on this accusation stemming from a complaint from Spotify. EU prosecutors have not yet announced what action they will take, but the scrutiny itself sets a precedent. If regulators go after the App Store, Huberty says the extreme scenario would be the company cuts its revenue from developers in half. Huberty also said that Apple’s take rate starting in 2020 would equate to lost revenue of nine point five billion dollars.
These are hypothetical projections until the DOJ takes action, but Apple CEO Tim Cook is already addressing the potential outcome. In an interview with CBS News on Monday, Cook said, “I think we should be scrutinized. But any kind of measure about ‘is Apple a monopoly or not,’ I don’t think anybody reasonable is going to come to the conclusion that Apple’s a monopoly. Our share is much more modest. We don’t have a dominant position in any market.”
Based on a report from the International Data Corporation’s Worldwide Quarterly Mobile Phone Tracker, Apple’s shipments in the first quarter of 2019 dropped thirty percent from last year, lagging behind Samsung and Huawei. “The iPhone struggled to win over consumers in most major markets as competitors continue to eat away at Apple’s market share. Price cuts in China throughout the quarter along with favorable trade-in deals in many markets were still not enough to encourage consumers to upgrade. Combine this with the fact that most competitors will shortly launch 5G phones and new foldable devices, the iPhone could face a difficult remainder of the year.”
The iPhone is not the focus of the investigation though. App developers have taken issue with the App store, accusing them of unfairly limiting rivals to their services. As we reported recently, the Supreme Court ruled that consumers should be allowed to bring lawsuits against the company over inflating the price of apps by taking thirty percent commission. Apple isn’t the only tech giant whose stocks are in jeopardy pending an antitrust investigation. Alphabet took a major hit, falling to its lowest in five months as the DOJ prepares a probe into Google. Like Apple, the probe will explore ‘anti-competitive conduct’ to see if Google is harming competition in the digital market. The indication of a probe made Alphabet stock plummet to its lowest since January at just over one thousand dollars per share. Google is currently one of the most profitable companies in history and has faced three separate antitrust investigations from the European Union since 2010. A team of Merrill Lynch analysts wrote a note to investors talking about the potential effects of an investigation by the DOJ. According to Bloomberg, Post said, “Potential implications for Google could include new regulations on business practices, or an antitrust probe leading to a breakup. It is very rare to break up a company but not unheard of.” Post thinks the investigation into Google would take at least five years, which would cause significant internal distractions, but would have a positive long-term effect on the company’s valuation and public perception. Analyst Ross Sandler of Barclays thinks the regulatory concerns are bad timing and Google is losing allies in Washington DC after siding with Democratic candidates who weren’t elected. While he thinks the investigation would be long and painful, he doesn’t believe it will result in the company being broken up.
After a report stating the FTC secured the rights to begin an antitrust investigation into Facebook, the NASDAQ composite fell one point six percent, putting it down more than ten percent from its May record low. The statement came after a bipartisan letter urging the FTC to take antitrust action addressing the huge market shares Google and Facebook have in search and advertising, as well as concerns over privacy. Republicans have also pushed for action based on the size and influence the companies have over speech online and allegations of stifling conservative voices– which the companies deny. Despite the growing concern from lawmakers and the public over the market dominance, both Facebook and Google products are extremely popular to consumers.
Makan Delrahim, the Justice Department’s antitrust chief has said there’s nothing wrong with these companies achieving market dominance through innovation. According to the Wall Street Journal, Delrahim said in a speech about digital platforms last year at the University of Chicago, “Antitrust enforcers may need to take a close look to see whether competition is suffering and consumers are losing out on new innovations as a result of misdeeds by a monopoly incumbent.” The antitrust chief answers to US Attorney General William Barr, who shared similar feelings with senators during his confirmation hearings in January, saying: “I don’t think big is necessarily bad, but I think a lot of people wonder how such huge behemoths that now exist in Silicon Valley have taken shape under the nose of the antitrust enforcers. You can win that place in the marketplace without violating the antitrust laws, but I want to find out more about that dynamic.”
The House Judiciary Committee announced its own investigation into the digital market competition, which will include hearings and information requests. The probe will also determine if the current US antitrust laws and enforcement have been able to keep up with changes in technology. According to the Wall Street Journal, Chairman of the Judiciary Committee Jerrold Nadler said, “The open internet has delivered enormous benefits to Americans, but there is growing evidence that a handful of gatekeepers have come to capture control over key arteries of online commerce, content, and communications.”
Last year, internet industries including Google, Amazon, and Facebook put a record seventy-seven point nine million dollars into lobbying in Washington DC. Alphabet spent over twenty-one million, Amazon spent over fourteen million, and Facebook spent over twelve million.
The Silicon Valley giants have also spent years building their support network in Washington DC and other areas around the country and have funded nonprofit antitrust groups across the political spectrum. A Google transparency report showed that the company funded more than thirty nonprofit groups that are in the public antitrust debate. Amazon’s investment list shows they fund many of the same groups. The FTC has been ramping up its scrutiny in recent months, announcing a task force in February that would re-evaluate past government decisions that allowed tech companies to acquire smaller companies that would have been future competitors. One of these deals is Facebook’s acquisitions of WhatsApp and Instagram. Tech advocates are arguing that actions taken against the industry giants could hurt consumers and the economy, as well as stifle growth and innovation. FTC Chairman Joe Simons is eager to figure out how the tech giants have been able to sway large parts of the economy and society.
According to the Wall Street Journal, Simons said in a speech to Georgetown University last year: “It makes sense for the antitrust authorities to look in places where there might be significant market power, to ensure that such firms compete on the merits—and that might include some of the significant high-tech platforms.”
The FTC has spent over a year investigating privacy issues and how Facebook handles user data, but that probe didn’t focus on issues of competition. Because the jurisdictional agreements between the DOJ and FTC didn’t assign a single agency the right to oversee one company for each issue, they will clear each other to work on specified issues.
These investigations are going to take lots of time, and the companies are going to stay on their toes and continue to further their interests. The outcome won’t just affect the companies– consumers and emerging tech companies will reap the consequences or the benefits, depending on how it plays out, which is why it’s so important to keep up on developments. We’ll have those updates and more here so be sure to check back for more videos. We have new videos every Monday through Thursday at 7pm, and soon we’ll be expanding our coverage to get more news to you every day of the week. You can help us out by showing your support and sharing our videos and leaving your thoughts in the comments.
DoJ plans probe for Apple
The DoJ Antitrust Division and the FTC met in recent weeks forming an agreement to give jurisdiction to undertake potential antitrust probes of Apple and Google, owned by Alphabet Inc.
DoJ has jurisdiction for a potential probe of Apple, and the FTC was given jurisdiction to look at Amazon.com Inc and Facebook Inc according to sources.
Companies like Spotify have criticized the iPhone maker’s practices, describing the company as anti-competitive in a complaint to the European Union’s antitrust regulators.
Central to Spotify’s complaint is the 30% fee Apple charges to content-based service providers to use Apple’s in-app purchase system.
The company has defended its practices, saying it only collects a commission if a good or service is sold through an app.
“Our users trust Apple – and that trust is critical to how we operate a fair, competitive store for developer app distribution,” Apple stated previously.
On Monday, the Wall Street Journal reported that the FTC will examine how Facebook’s practices affect digital competition.
The Washington Post reported over the weekend that Amazon will be probed by U.S. regulators, on Friday, the Journal reported that the DoJ is preparing a probe of Google, sending shares of parent company Alphabet down 7% Monday.
The ‘Apple tax’ accounts for a considerable amount of Apple’s services revenue, but draws angers developers who compete with Apple’s self-manufactured apps in their store.
Apple antitrust woes could worsen as US ponders major tech giant investigation
Apple shutting down iTunes
Alphabet stock drops from antitrust
FTC & DoJ plan on investigating deeper on antitrust
Explainer: Should Big Tech fear U.S. antitrust enforcers?
Google, Amazon, Facebook and Apple Could Face Antitrust Investigations. How Do Those Work?
Antitrust Troubles Snowball for Tech Giants as Lawmakers Join In
DoJ plans probe for Google
The war on fake news has a number of fronts. Governments, companies, professionals, and regular people are figuring out ways to identify and combat disinformation, deep fakes, and other kinds of manipulation. Some approaches may have consequences for free expression, while others take a less-intrusive method. Disinformation and propaganda have been around longer than the internet, but we’re seeing first hand just how quickly fake news can spread online and, with a little effort, be debunked. A Macedonian fake news writer provided a window into a publication that created and spread false stories and why it’s such a big business. A doctor in the US is taking a more professional approach to fighting health-related disinformation, and Twitter recently announced they acquired an AI startup to analyze how disinformation is shared.
Last week, the BBC released an interview with a woman in Veles, Macedonia to shed light on how fake news writers are recruited and how they create and disseminate disinformation. The writer, referred to as Tamara, was hired to take articles from right-wing US publications and rewrite them for copycat websites targeting US audiences. Tamara is a self-described liberal and said she was horrified by the content of the articles re-wrote. She shared the spreadsheets of stories she had to rewrite and the sites she pulled the content from. According to the BBC, Tamara said, “As you can see I just typed ‘Muslim attacks’ and there are so many articles about Muslims attacking people. Many of these I believe are not even true, they are just making it up.”
One of the sites Tamara used had almost a hundred pages of results for “muslim attacks,” many of which had inaccuracies and images pulled from totally different incidents. Tamara claimed she was directed to pull images from Google, even if they weren’t related to the story she was writing. Although many of the stories she produced were based on real events, they were framed in a way to provoke fear and anger and play into the readers’ prejudices. Tamara explained that even though many of the stories were fabricated, some elements were true.
She said, “That thing happened, the people were there, the place was there. So it was never fake stories” in the sense of fabricating every detail. “It was propaganda and brainwashing in the way of telling the story.”
Tamara doesn’t believe that the people who wrote the original stories believed what they were publishing either. “To even make up an article like this, you have to be very aware of what you are writing. This can’t come out of stupidity… I don’t think they believe in the stories they are writing, they know it is fake news, they know they are producing a lie. How delusional do you have to be to think that this is real?”
The stories were written to be shorter and easier for sharing on social media, which is where these pages generated revenue before being removed by facebook. Her boss, referred to as Marco, ran two fake news sites which Tamara said had a combined following of two million on Facebook. According to a 2017 CNN interview with another owner of a fake news site, the typical million-follower sensational clickbait news page made around two thousand dollars per day. Tamara made about three euros per post, around twenty-four euros per day. She claims that’s triple what she would’ve made from working a local job. You’d think that even for that kind of money, the nature of the work would weigh on her conscience, but Tamara justifies it by putting the blame on the readers. She told the BBC, “I try to split myself and my own beliefs from the stuff I was writing. So I tried to stay as out of it as I can. I just saw it as writing words. I tried not to think about writing propaganda. My take was that if people are stupid enough to believe these stories, maybe they deserve this. If they think this is the truth, then maybe they deserve this as a way of punishment.”
The site Tamara wrote for was taken down in the facebook fake news purge. She said that her boss, Marco, was shook up over having his pages and personal account shut down. She didn’t hear from him for a long time and then he called her up asking if she wanted to write for another one of his fake news sites. She declined.
Twitter is expanding its approach to combating fake news by acquiring Fabula AI, a startup that examines patterns of how disinformation is shared compared to genuine news. Twitter CTO Parag Agrawal announced in a blog on Monday, “We are excited to announce that, to help us (advance the state of machine learning), we have acquired Fabula AI, a London-based start-up, with a world-class team of machine learning researchers who employ graph deep learning to detect network manipulation. Graph deep learning is a novel method for applying powerful machine learning techniques to network-structured data. The result is the ability to analyze very large and complex datasets describing relations and interactions, and to extract signals in ways that traditional ML techniques are not capable of doing.”
The Fabula AI team is joining an internal research group led by Twitter’s head of Machine Learning and AI engineering. Fabula’s chief scientist and co-founder Michael Bronstein says they are focusing on strategic areas like natural language processing, reinforcement learning, machine-learning ethics, recommendation systems, and graph deep learning. Twitter says that the strategic investment in Fabula’s abilities will be a key driver in working to help people feel safe and see relevant information on twitter. The team believes analyzing millions of tweets, retweets, and likes per day on Twitter will help them improve the health of conversation on the platform and Twitter’s features.
Fabula AI focuses on how disinformation spreads and who is spreading it, rather than looking at the content itself, which is how others approach the issue. Fabula’s patented algorithms use geometric deep learning to detect information in datasets are so massive and complicated that traditional machine learning methods struggle with it. It’s not clear yet whether their tools will be used exclusively for Twitter or if they’ll be making them available for other platforms to utilize as well, but Fabula says they intend to offer an API for other publishers and platforms later this year. Fabula’s founders decided that being acquired Twitter gives them an opportunity to have a much larger and deeper impact than if they were to stay decentralized and open. Twitter’s plans for the technology is not clear either, but they still have the option to make it available to other platforms. When asked by TechCrunch if they would share it with other platforms, a twitter spokesperson said, “There’s more to come on how we will integrate Fabula’s technology where it makes sense to strengthen our systems and operations in the coming months. It will likely take us some time to be able to integrate their graph deep learning algorithms into our ML platform. We’re bringing Fabula in for the team, tech and mission, which are all aligned with our top priority: Health.”
Health is a top priority for others combating fake news within the medical field. Dr. Austin Chiang is an Assistant Professor of Medicine at Jefferson Health in Philadelphia. He also serves as the first Chief Medical Social Media Officer, leading the fight against fake news online. Dr. Chiang believes the best way to combat disinformation is to eradicate untrustworthy content with posts from actual medical experts that Americans can relate to and trust. On Instagram, he has over twenty thousand followers, making him a valued medical influencer.
Although his following isn’t as large as other medical influencer accounts like “Medical Medium,” a psychic with nearly two million followers, who praises vegetables as a cure for diseases ranging from depression to diabetes.
According to CNBC, Dr. Chiang believes, “This is the biggest crisis we have right now in health care. Everyone should be out there, but I realize I’m one of the few.” According to Chiang, doctors have been reluctant in the past to build their own following on social media for many reasons. Most either view it as a waste of time, lack the skills to properly run a media account, or are concerned about saying the wrong thing and facing consequences. Most online-consumers do not examine the latest scientific literature, which is why Dr. Chiang is calling upon health professionals to take time to connect with people online where they spend most of their time– social media. He is currently recruiting a group of physicians, nurses, patient advocates, and other health professionals to get online and help in the fight against misinformation. Dr. Chiang is creating instructions for doctors and other health professionals on how to use digital tools to assist in their fight, disclosing any conflicts of interest. The more transparency with ties to the industry will help doctors build trustworthy relationships with the public. He has set up a new non-profit organization for health professionals dubbed the Association for Healthcare Social Media, building campaigns to drive public awareness, including “hashtag verify healthcare” to promote ideas about disclosures, and “hashtags don’t go viral” countering anti-vaxxer content. Currently, in the US, Measles cases are growing and health professionals blame the parents who refuse to vaccinate their children. Dr. Chiang wants this to change, his purpose is to get doctors to be more active online in social media, so individuals who want access to accurate information have a reliable source.
Who dictates reliability online is quickly becoming a hot issue, which is why it’s important for individuals to make those distinctions in addition to, and not instead of, companies and institutions. We will continue to cover developments on the fake news front so be sure to check back here for further updates. We’ll have new videos every monday through thursday, and soon every day of the week.
According to the Chinese government, thirty years ago today, nothing happened in Tiananmen Square. But everywhere else, today marks the thirtieth anniversary of the deadly suppression of protests against the authoritarian policies of the Chinese Communist Government. In China, the event is known as the “June Fourth Incident,” though it has been effectively scrubbed from the internet in Mainland China. But for this anniversary, a controversial anonymous political cartoonist in China finally showed his face. This is just one of many dissidents, some of whom are taking risky measures to get around China’s Great Firewall to avoid censorship, despite some US companies helping the Chinese government.
If you’re unfamiliar, weeks of peaceful protests broke out after the death of a Communist leader who was pro-reform during a time of rapid social and economic change in the post-Mao country. Inflation and corruption were rampant, and college students demanded change. Despite the disorganization of the movement, the calls for more democracy, free speech, free press, and government accountability united about a million people in Tiananmen Square at the height of the protests. China’s leader at the time and Communist Party elders deemed the protests as a political threat and the State Council declared Martial law, sending three hundred thousand troops to Beijing. Early in the morning on June fourth, the troops advanced, killing both demonstrators and bystanders, many in their twenties and some younger, shocking the world. Although the official number of deaths is disputed, numbers are estimated to range from several hundred to thousands, with thousands more wounded. The international community and human rights organizations condemned the massacre but the Chinese government continued with the arrests of protesters and supporters of the movement. They suppressed more protests around China and expelled foreign journalists in order to control the coverage of the events. Officials who were believed to be sympathetic to the movement were demoted or purged, while police and security forces were strengthened. Progress within the government to promote more liberalized policies was halted, and the movement to end authoritarianism in China instead strengthened it.
The infamous Great Firewall of China is a combination of legislative actions that regulate internet access domestically. It’s actually called the “Golden Shield Project” by the Bureau of Public Information and Network Security Supervision. It falls under the “one country, two systems” principle, which means China’s special administrative regions like Hong Kong and Macau are not affected, but the internet use in those regions are still closely monitored. The firewall blocks a number of foreign sites, including Google, Facebook, Wikipedia, and Twitter. As a result, access to foreign information sources, internet tools, and mobile apps are limited, and companies are required to adhere to China’s strict internet regulations. China spends about one hundred eighty billion dollars a year on “domestic security.” This includes surveillance, police, and censorship tools. In 2014, a new government body called the Cyberspace Administration of China was established to be directly under President Xi Jinping’s control. This body exercises its control over the internet as a tool for surveillance and suppression. China’s tech giants used to rely on a combination of simple blacklists of banned words and teams of manual reviewers. They’re still in use, but big Chinese tech companies now have more powerful automation to help identify what to block. Tiananmen-related online content is blocked year-round in China, and for decades textbooks and state media have ignored and re-characterized the event to what’s now referred to as “the June fourth incident.” Each year’s anniversary shows signs that Chinese tech companies and the government are more meticulously policing the web. China’s popular search engine Baidu and social media platform WeChat block Tiananmen-related posts and webpages to comply with internet rules. Researchers from the University of Toronto reverse-engineered WeChat, revealing the code in a section of the app that filters images and detects banned images even if they’ve been edited. If a user tries to send the famous photo of “Tank Man” from the protests, the message may never actually reach its recipients. Since 2017, China has increased its crackdown on VPN providers and users, sending many to prison. Apple was forced to remove hundreds of VPN apps from their app store, but still, the number of citizens using VPNs is increasing.
According to Bloomberg, “in the first quarter of 2019, 35% of Chinese web users utilized a VPN, up from 31% two years ago, according to market research firm GlobalWebIndex. That compares with 60% of web users in Indonesia, the highest share of VPN users globally, and 22% in the US. More than half of Chinese VPN users do so for routine activities such as accessing better music and TV shows; 41% of them use VPNs to access social networks or blocked news sites.”
More and more Chinese citizens are breaking through the firewall to fight the censorship and communicate with other like-minded digital dissidents. Using open-source coding platforms like Github, and encrypted messaging services like Telegram and Signal, some are able to stay ahead of the Great Firewall, which continues to grow taller and wider. Some are now operating platforms that re-publish blocked social media posts, browsers that allow access to blocked sites, and blockchain based messaging that prevent controversial posts from being removed. Groups of activists are even teaching members of the persecuted Uighur Muslim-minority how to use encrypted messaging to speak with human rights groups.
US companies operating within China, like Apple and Microsoft, are helping the government censor information. The content deemed “sensitive” by the government is kept off Bing search results and LinkedIn. Other than removing hundreds of VPN apps, Apple curates its app store differently than anywhere else in the world to comply with the firewall. Human rights groups are accusing the companies of helping the government suppress rights. Lawmakers in the US and Europe have also criticized US companies for playing along with the censorship. In April, it was reported that Apple removed songs that mention political topics from Apple Music, including a song by Hong Kong pop star Jacky Chung that referenced the Tiananmen Square protests. Apple declined to comment on the reports of the music’s removal, prompting lawmakers to call the compliance disgraceful.
As we’ve reported before, Google was testing a search engine known as “Dragonfly” that would comply with the strict censorship rules of the Chinese government. The project caused an uproar within the company, with many protesting and petitioning for its development to end. Google actually used to operate within China until 2010, then stopped over concerns that the government was increasing its censorship of online speech too much.
One of the most prominent Chinese-born political cartoonists has been hiding behind anonymity for years to protect himself against repercussions from the government. Today, he revealed his identity. Badiucao is a thirty-three-year-old artist now living in Australia who circulates his work online through social media. He has been compared to Banksy because of the political commentary in his art that satirize Beijing’s leaders. Despite threats from the Chinese government, he stepped out of the shadows to show his face.
In the past, Badiucao would cover his face when he had to appear in public, or sometimes cross-dress to conceal his identity. Despite taking these measures, Chinese authorities figured out his identity and he was forced to cancel an exhibition in Hong Kong over threats to his loved ones. Badiucao believes his identity was realized through digital surveillance while preparing the exhibition in Hong Kong.
According to Reuters, Badiucao said, “I’m facing this major choice: to be silent forever, or to fight back, to confront, face to face, this situation. By stepping out on the anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre I don’t think there’s any better time for me to do that.”
The canceled art exhibition in Hong Kong was called “Gongle,” stylized to parody Google, but based on a phrase that translates to “singing for Communism.” The show included drawings celebrating a series of street protests known as the “Umbrella Movement” against China’s interference in Hong Kong’s electoral system in 2014. It featured an image portraying Xi Jinping as Winnie the Pooh in a meme-reference mocking the leader’s appearance. The meme is blocked in China. He also made pictures of Google CEO Sundar Pichai wearing a “Make Wall Great Again” hat, referencing the Great Firewall and the Dragonfly search engine.
Badiucao seeks to reveal the truth about June fourth through art, and said, “In order to pass down memory, it’s always about the next generation, how to engage them, how to awaken them from this kind of political indifference. The physical body can be crushed or damaged, but the spirit lives for much longer. I hope within my art and within my action [there] will be a way to pass on the spirit of ‘89.”
It’s been thirty years since the protests against the authoritarian policies of the Chinese government, the surveillance and censorship has gotten worse, and people are still intimidated and jailed for simple expressions of dissent. It’s a stark reminder that even though we certainly don’t have it bad here in the US, we still need to closely monitor the actions of our governments and tech companies to ensure our freedom of expression does not become compromised. We will continue to update you with news on topics like this, so be sure to stay tuned for more videos every Monday through Thursday. But soon, we’ll have videos every day. You can help make this possible by supporting our work and sharing our videos.
Dissident Chinese cartoonist shows his face on Tiananmen anniversary
digital dissidents fighting chinese censorship machine
US companies help censor internet in china
Hundreds of activists gathered Saturday to protest at the National Mall and march to the White House in a “National March To Impeach” Donald Trump. A couple dozen pro-Trump activists countered their rally, which occasionally turned into small scuffles and loud arguments, but no arrests were made. Ford Fischer of News2Share and Subverse was on the scene and spoke to both sides.
Getting back into space has been on a lot of people’s minds lately, especially world leaders. At a joint press conference in Tokyo earlier this week, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and President Donald Trump agreed to further cooperate in space exploration, which might include sending Japanese astronauts to the moon.
During the press conference, Trump said, “I am pleased to confirm that Prime Minister Abe and I have agreed to dramatically expand our nations’ cooperation in human space exploration. Japan will join our mission to send U.S. astronauts to space. We’ll be going to the moon. We’ll be going to Mars very soon. It’s very exciting.”
A fact sheet released by the State Department noted that the two leaders “agreed on the importance of a sustained human presence on and around the Moon. Building on its International Space Station experience, Japanese astronauts will strive to join American astronauts on the Moon and destinations beyond.”
NASA is accelerating their plans to put people on the moon’s surface by 2028, setting the new goal to 2024. The major roles for NASA’s international partners will largely be deferred to the second phase, focusing on establishing a sustainable human presence after the 2024 landing. The contributions for the partners would include Gateway Modules, which give countries slots on lunar landing missions similar to the way ISS partners get crew slot on the space station.
Ken Bowersox, the deputy associate administrator for human exploration and operations at NASA said during an advisory council committee meeting, “Accelerating the landing date to 2024 makes it harder for us to incorporate our international partners early. We’re still looking at working with our international partners. A lot of their elements were going to come after 2024 anyway.” Bowersox added that if international partners accelerate their contributions, they’re welcome to participate in the early phases.
One of the Japanese companies looking forward to this further cooperation with the US is iSpace, which develops commercial lunar landers as part of a team led by an American company called Draper. Draper won one of nine commercial lunar payload service agreements from NASA last year to transport payloads to the surface of the moon. In a statement to SpaceNews, iSpace founder Takeshi Hakamada said, “We are thrilled to learn that the U.S. and Japan will deepen its strong relationship in space exploration through a focused effort on lunar exploration. Alongside our American partner, Draper, iSpace is well prepared and eager to support this new endeavor between the U.S. and Japan.”
Though the accelerated plan seems ambitious, much of the equipment and hardware needed for the project are already in development or will be soon. Lucky for NASA, there are a number of companies with ideas for developing lunar landers. Earlier this month, Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin showed off their Blue Moon lunar lander in its current iteration. Blue Moon can carry three point six metric tons to the moon using a new rocket engine Blue Origin is developing that’s powered by liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen. In April, Lockheed Martin showed their concepts for lunar landers, which differed from their original lander idea. The original design was a giant single-stage reusable lander that could operate for two weeks on the moon’s surface and carry four people. Moving the deadline to 2024 forced the company to table that ambitious design for a smaller two-stage lander that could be built more quickly. The deadline shift also changed the various companies roles in the development of the landers. Before, the different companies would develop the three separate elements of the lander, the overall architecture, and integration of the components would be overseen by NASA. The new deadline puts less control in the hands of NASA and puts more of the responsibility on the companies. This gives the companies more flexibility in alternative approaches, rather than the original three-stage concept by NASA. This changes things, but it will be interesting to watch how the companies rise to the challenge. We plan on continuing our coverage on space, from the satellites orbiting our planet, to the exploration of our solar system and beyond, so stay tuned for more videos.
When mankind first stared up at the stars, they made up stories about bears, archers, crabs, and Gods. Now when people look up at the stars, they see more possibilities. Some think “we ought to have some kind of planetary defense system up there.” Other people think “can satellites make the internet better?” And some wonder, “why don’t we have a moon base yet?” Well, we’re making progress on these things.
A few weeks ago we reported on the first wave Starlink satellites launched into orbit. Starlink is SpaceX’s venture to bring low-latency broadband internet to unserved or underserved areas around the globe. SpaceX overcame plenty of obstacles leading up to that launch, but even now with the first sixty satellites in orbit, Starlink is facing criticism over the impact of cluttering the sky with false stars.
Earlier this week, SpaceX had a different kind of launch — a new website for Starlink, which details what it is and how it works. The site says that after just six launches, Starlink should be able to provide coverage to the Northern US and Canada. By the twenty-fourth launch, Starlink will have about fifteen hundred satellites in orbit to provide internet to the populated world. The end goal is around twelve thousand satellites circling the Earth. By the end of this year alone, SpaceX is aiming to have up to six launches completed. With a plan to launch sixty satellites every six to eight weeks, even if they can’t hit six launches by the end of 2019, the amount of coverage Starlink would provide in 2020 puts them way ahead of most competitors.
As we’ve mentioned before, OneWeb is still currently the closest competition to Starlink, but Amazon’s Project Kuiper, Telesat, and Leosat are two to five years away from launching their satellites. When their internet services will be available is not yet clear, but it’s going to take a while. At that point, the sky is going to be FILLED with false stars. Astronomers already have beef with Starlink, raising questions over the ethics of a single company, let alone a handful of companies, changing the appearance of the sky.
The night after the Starlink launch, amateur astronomer Marco Langbrook captured footage from the Netherlands of the train of satellites taking orbit around the Earth. According to Forbes, Langbrook said, “What I had not anticipated was how bright the objects were and how spectacular a view it would be. It really was an incredible and bizarre view to see that whole train of objects in a line moving across the sky.”
Astronomers have raised questions about how the constellations of satellites will affect ground-based astronomy and add congestion to the orbital environment. A portion of the satellites will operate at or close to the frequencies radio astronomers use to study the cosmos. According to National Geographic, Lise van Zee, chair of the National Academy of Science’s Committee on Radio Frequencies, or CORF, said: “As a general principle, radio astronomy facilities are particularly vulnerable to satellite downlinks and to airborne uses, as radio telescopes cannot be protected from high-altitude transmissions through geographical shielding alone.” van Zee says that a coordination agreement regarding Starlink is in the works to balance the interests of science and telecom companies. Although both SpaceX and OneWeb are working out these agreements with the National Science Foundation and National Radio Astronomy Observatory, Harvey List of the NRAO says they keep changing the parameters of their satellites without updating them.
Beyond radio astronomy, visual astronomers will have to deal with the satellites crossing through their research images. Musk has said before these satellites will barely be noticeable, but a few days after the launch, Musk addressed the Starlink team about reducing the reflectivity, tweeting that he “sent a note to Starlink team last week specifically regarding albedo reduction. We’ll get a better sense of the value of this when satellites have raised orbits & arrays are tracking to sun.”
The actual impact of Starlink isn’t known yet, but astronomers are preparing for streaky skies. There are currently about five thousand satellites orbiting the planet so astronomers have dealt with the occasional satellite before, but the amount is about to increase dramatically over the next few years. Starlink alone is going to triple the number. At night, the satellites are likely not going to be visible, because they will be in darkness with no sunlight to reflect, but before sunrise and after sunset, the thousands of satellites will be visible. When Starlink satellites flare their solar arrays to the right angle, the sunlight reflected toward the earth boosts their brightness close to the levels of Venus or Jupiter. Bruce Macintosh from Stanford University noted that one of the major telescopes projects of the next ten years, called the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope will probably have anywhere between one and four Starlink satellites in each image within an hour or two of twilight.
In response to the concerns of cluttering the night sky, Musk tweeted, that the satellites will be in darkness when the stars are visible. He also pointed out, “there are already forty-nine hundred satellites in orbit, which people notice around zero percent of the time. Starlink won’t be seen by anyone unless looking very carefully & will have around zero impact on advancements in astronomy. We need to move telescopes to orbit anyway. Atmospheric attenuation is terrible.”
Some pointed out that helping the billions of people without internet access is worth the price of seeing the satellites twice a day. Musk agreed, tweeting “Potentially helping billions of economically disadvantaged people is the greater good. That said, we’ll make sure Starlink has no material effect on discoveries in astronomy. We care a great deal about science.” He also entertained the idea of sending Starlink telescopes into space as well.
Regulations are on the horizon for social media platforms and other tech giants. Even though we celebrate the convenience and connectivity they’ve brought into our worlds, we also lament the scandals of data privacy and grand-scale manipulation they’ve had on our public discourse and democratic processes. One government after another has assembled committees and held hearings to figure out ways to address and fix these problems only to realize the lack of legal framework currently in place and the sweeping legislative changes that might be required. Today marked the end of a three-day session of the international grand committee on big data, privacy, and democracy, which met in Ottawa to outline the best practices to protect citizens’ data privacy rights from big tech companies.
The committee in Canada heard from experts on how governments can prevent social media companies from unauthorized use of personal information, spreading fake news, sowing division, and manipulating elections. Committee members invited representatives from Google, Twitter, Microsoft, Mozilla, Amazon, and Facebook. The meeting was hosted by the Canadian House of Commons committee on access to information, privacy, and ethics. The representatives the committee wanted from Facebook, however, caused a bit of a stir. Yesterday, Canadian lawmakers voted to issue Facebook executives Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg open-ended summons to appear before parliament the next time they enter Canada. If the two fail to honor the summons, lawmakers will hold another vote on a motion to hold them in contempt of court. If that motion is approved, it could result in jail time for the two executives. The likelihood of that happening, however, is slim. Previously, they have declined to appear before the UK parliament and other government committees around the world.
According to the Hill, Bob Zimmer, the chairman of the Committee on Access to Information, Privacy, and Ethics said, “It’s only fitting that there’s an ongoing summons, so as soon as they step foot into our country they will be served and expected to [sit in front of] our committee.”
CBC reported Zimmer also said, “I don’t think it would send a good message internationally about, you know, blowing off an entire country of 36 million people. The bottom line is that they show up and answer our questions, so my hope is that still happens.”
Committee members in Canada were quick to point out the contradiction in Zuckerberg’s attitude from an op-ed he wrote in March where he said he was looking forward to discussing these issues with lawmakers around the world. The committee itself is made up of lawmakers from more than ten countries, collectively representing about 450 million people. Facebook sent the head of public policy in Canada, Kevin Chan, and the director of public policy, Neil Potts, to attend the hearing in their place. The committee was not pleased with the alternatives because their understanding of the company’s structure is that any change is made through Zuckerberg or Sandberg. The committee unleashed a barrage of detailed criticism over Facebook’s business practices on Chan and Potts, who were separated by two empty chairs designated for the two executives.
CBC reported that Neil Potts attempted to reassure the committee that Facebook is taking the work of the members of parliament seriously, saying: “There’s been this running theme that Mr. Zuckerberg and Ms. Sandberg are not here because they are eschewing their duty. They have mandated and authorized Mr. Chan and me to appear for this committee to work with you all.”
Zimmer cut off Potts before he finished, to stress that when the committee asks two specific individuals to come, that’s exactly what they expect. “It shows a little bit of disdain from Mark Zuckerberg and Ms. Sandberg to simply choose not to come and it just shows a lack of understanding of what we do as legislators. To use you two individuals in their stead simply is not acceptable.”
Potts responded that he was not familiar with the procedures of the Canadian Parliament and what requires an appearance. Although Twitter and Google also received formal requests from Canadian Parliament earlier this month, the invitations were not necessarily directed to their top executives. Some members of parliament wondered why Zuckerberg chose to send officials in his place to deal with the lawmakers’ questions, yet will meet with world leaders elsewhere behind closed doors. The questions highlighted their skepticism over Facebook’s promise to operate more transparently than before.
In a statement on Monday, a Facebook spokesperson said, “Ultimately this is a decision for Parliament, we’re not in a position to speculate. We share the Committee’s desire to keep people safe and to hold companies like ours accountable. Right now we’re focused on engaging in meaningful dialogue with the committee… We look forward to answering their questions and remain committed to working with world leaders, governments, and industry experts to address these complex issues.”
The next day, a former Facebook advisor told lawmakers to call their bluff and shut down Facebook or other social media sites until they can be properly regulated.
According to CBC, venture capitalist Roger McNamee told the committee on Tuesday, “if your goals are to protect democracy and personal liberty, you have to be bold. You have to force a radical transformation of the business model of internet platforms.” “At the end of the day, though, the most effective path to reform would be to shut down the platforms at least temporarily. Any country can go first. The platforms have left you no choice. The time has come to call their bluff.”
McNamee pointed to the action Sri Lanka took to turn off access to social media after the Easter Sunday attacks on hundreds of people in churches and hotels. The government said at the time the actions were taken to stop the spread of fake news reports online. McNamee said, “The people at Google and Facebook are not evil. They are the products of an American business culture with few rules, where misbehavior seldom results in punishment. Smart people take what they can get and tell themselves they earned it. They feel entitled. Consequences are someone else’s problem.”
He also pointed out that companies with responsible business models will emerge to fill the gap that facebook leaves. McNamee was an early investor at Facebook but now is suggesting countries ought to end these social media platforms’ abilities to surveillance their users.
British MP Jo Stevens was extremely displeased, as this was a repeat of the Zuckerberg no-show in front of the UK Parliament in London. “He wouldn’t come to answer our questions in London at our Parliament, so we have come across the Atlantic to make it easier for him. And we can only conclude that he’s frightened of scrutiny,” Stevens said. “And for the avoidance of doubt, I am sick to death of sitting through hours of platitudes from Facebook and avoidance tactics about answering questions. I want the boss here to take responsibility.”
Kevin Chan, Canada’s Facebook Head of Public Policy said the company respects the work of the legislators and would work to comply with whatever regulations they pass, saying: “We would welcome basic standards that lawmakers can impose on the platform about what should go up and what should come down. And if lawmakers, in their wisdom, want to draw the line somewhere north or south of censorship, we would be, we would obviously [be] obliged [to follow] local law.”
In another statement after the meeting on Tuesday, a Facebook spokesperson said, “We are grateful to the Committee for the opportunity to answer their questions today and remain committed to working with world leaders, governments, and industry experts to address these complex issues. As we emphasized, we share the Committee’s desire to keep people safe and to hold companies like ours accountable.”
Both Google and Microsoft announced they support an initiative to protect the integrity of the Canadian election this fall, which includes removing fake content and fake accounts. As of tuesday morning, Twitter had not signed onto the initiative. Facebook agreed as well, committing to remove bots and fake accounts. The measures are outlined in a non-binding declaration on electoral integrity. There is a growing concern among government officials that bad actors will try to interfere with the elections.
Democratic Institutions Minister Karina Gould said Microsoft and facebook are set to intensify their efforts to combat disinformation and cybersecurity incidents, and have to explain their rules about accepting political advertising. She urged other platforms to follow suit in the coming days, referring to Twitter and Google.
According to Reuters, Gould said, “The Wild West online era cannot continue, inaction is not an option. Disinformation must not stand.” She added, “I think they have an absolute interest to be good actors in the Canadian democratic space, and if that is not the case then we will be coming back with stronger regulatory reforms.”
The non-binding aspect of the agreement raises questions on how they can ensure the compliance of the companies. Gould said that the public, the media, and political parties would hold these giants accountable in the short term. Getting this information out to the public is the first step in holding these platforms and our governments accountable, which is why we plan to continue our coverage on tech giants and their impending regulation.
Nine members of the Honorable Sacred Knights, an Indiana chapter of the Ku Klux Klan held a rally in Dayton, Ohio. Ford Fischer was on the ground to talk to the various groups that attended to protest the group.