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Companion Robot Responds to User’s Emotional Cues, Health Needs

The arrival of the pandemic intensified feelings of loneliness and social isolation for millions of older people, many of whom were already battling depression and other health issues. For those struggling, a robot companion might make a difference, and states like New York are starting to provide them to residents free of charge. VOA’s Julie Taboh has more. Camera: Adam Greenbaum

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Sanctions Frustrating Russian Ransomware Actors

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine appears to be having an unanticipated impact in cyberspace — a decrease in the number of ransomware attacks. 

“We have seen a recent decline since the Ukrainian invasion,” Rob Joyce, the U.S. National Security Agency’s director of cybersecurity, told a virtual forum Wednesday. 

Joyce said one reason for the decrease in ransomware attacks since the February 24 invasion is likely improved awareness and defensive measures by U.S. businesses. 

He also said some of it is tied to measures the United States and its Western allies have taken against Moscow in response to the war in Ukraine. 

“We’ve definitively seen the criminal actors in Russia complain that the functions of sanctions and the distance of their ability to use credit cards and other payment methods to get Western infrastructure to run these [ransomware] attacks have become much more difficult,” Joyce told The Cipher Brief’s Cyber Initiatives Group. 

“We’ve seen that have an impact on their [Russia’s] operations,” he added. “It’s driving the trend down a little bit.” 

Just days after Russian forces entered Ukraine, U.S. cybersecurity officials renewed their “Shields Up” awareness campaign, encouraging companies to take additional security precautions to protect against potential cyberattacks by Russia itself or by criminal hackers working on Moscow’s behalf. 

 

 

And those officials caution Russia still has the capability to inflict more damage in cyberspace. 

“Russia is continuing to explore options for potential cyberattacks,” the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency’s Matthew Hartman told a meeting of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce last week. 

“We are seeing glimpses into targeting and into access development,” Hartman said, noting Russia has for now held back from launching any major cyberattacks against the West. “We do not know at what point a calculus may change.” 

FBI cyber officials have likewise voiced concern that it could be a matter of time before the Kremlin authorizes cyberattacks targeting U.S. critical infrastructure, including against the energy, finance and telecommunication sectors. 

 

 

U.S. and NATO officials on Wednesday also cautioned that it would be a mistake to think that just because there have been few signs of “catastrophic effects” that Russia has not tried to leverage its cyber capabilities to its advantage. 

“It has been happening and it’s still happening,” said Stefanie Metka, head of the Cyber Threat Analysis Branch at NATO. “There’s a lot of cyber activity that’s happening all the time and probably we won’t know the full extent of it until we turn the computers back on.”  

Said the NSA’s Joyce: “If you look at Ukraine, they have been heavily targeted. What we’ve seen are a number of wiper viruses, seven or eight different or unique wiper viruses that have been thrown into the ecosystem of Ukraine and its near abroad.” Wiper viruses are viruses that erase a computer’s memory.

These included a cyberattack against a satellite communications company, which hampered the ability of Ukraine’s military to communicate and had spillover effects across Europe. 

 

But with help from the U.S. and other allies, Ukraine was able to mitigate the impact, Joyce said. 

“The Ukrainians have been under threat and under pressure for a number of years, and so they have continued to adapt and improve and develop their tradecraft to the point where they mount a good defense and, equally as important, they mount a great incident response,” he said.  

Some cybersecurity experts say that ability to respond might be one of the biggest take-aways, so far, from the invasion. 

“Resiliency matters,” said Dmitri Alperovitch, the founder of the Silverado Policy Accelerator and the former chief technology officer of cybersecurity firm CrowdStrike, at Wednesday’s virtual forum. “The Ukrainians have gotten really, really good at rebuilding networks, quickly mitigating damage.” 

Another key lesson, he said, is the limitations of cyber. 

“If you’ve got kinetic options, if you can create a crater somewhere, take out a substation, take out a communication system, that’s what you’re going to prefer to use,” Alperovitch said. “That’s what’s easiest [to do] to get lasting damage.” 

 

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Meta Returns with Africa Day Campaign

Meta, the company that owns Facebook, is hosting its second annual Africa Day campaign to promote Africans who are making a global impact.

The content producer for the film project, South African filmmaker Tarryn Crossman, said Meta identified eight innovators, creators and businesspeople on the continent whose stories the company wanted told for the “Made by Africa, Loved by the World” campaign.

Crossman’s company, Tia Productions, teamed up with Mashoba Media to find four fellow filmmakers in Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Their job was to make two- to three-minute documentaries about the subjects.

“So, for example we did Trevor Stuurman here in South Africa,” Crossman said. “He’s a visual artist and his line was, I just loved so much, he says: ‘Africa’s no longer the ghost writer.’ We’re telling our stories and owning our own narratives. That’s kind of the thread amongst all these characters. They all have that in common.”

Nairobi-based filmmaker Joan Kabangu made a movie about Black Rhino VR, a Kenyan virtual reality content producing company which has worked with international brands.

“They are the pioneers around creating VR content, 360 content, augmented mixed reality kind of content in Kenya, in the wider Africa. And it’s a company which is run by a young person and everybody who is working there is fairly young. And they are really getting into how tech is being used to elevate the way we are creating content in 2022, going forward,” Kabangu said.

Of Meta’s Africa Day campaign she said, “I feel it’s celebrating the good in Africa.”

In Ghana, Kofi Awuah’s movie making has been delayed by floods in the capital, Accra. But he is determined to finish. His innovator is designer Selina Beb, whose work can be seen on Instagram and is sold online, often to buyers in the U.S. and Britain.

“She’s very unique,” Awuah said. “Based on material she uses and even the processes she uses are kind of things that tell a Ghanian or African story. For instance, she uses a certain kind of stone that you can find only in the northern parts of Ghana.”

Awuah said being a part of the campaign is the chance of a lifetime.

“My manager called me to tell me that we gotten a contract from Meta and I almost, like I had a heart attack,” she said. “When that call came, I felt this is the moment for me to express myself to the millions or billions of people who are using Facebook, who are using social media.”

Meta will also be hosting free virtual training sessions throughout the week. These include training on monetization, cross-border business and branded content.

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Nigeria Becoming Destination for Africa’s Promising Tech Startups

In February, the Nigerian technology startup CrowdForce announced a big break: It had received $3.6 million from investors to expand its financial services operations to many more underserved communities.  

Co-founder and Chief Executive Officer Tomi Ayorinde said new funding will boost its mobile agent network from 7,000 to 21,000 this year.

“We were looking to scale faster and really gain market share,” Ayorinde said. “And what we’re doing is also very impact-related because we’re creating jobs, avenues for people to make extra income in their communities. So, it was also very interesting for impact investors to be part of what we’re trying to do.” 

When Ayorinde helped launch CrowdForce seven years ago, he intended it to be a data collection company. But after about two years, the company overhauled its business model when Ayorinde realized it could fill a need for bank accounts.   

“When we collected data of 4.5 million traders what we saw was, a lot of them didn’t have bank accounts and the ones that have bank accounts had a very tough time accessing the cash that was sent to them,” said Ayorinde.”That’s when we kind of realized that there’s a bigger problem to solve here.”

Experts say about 60% of Africa’s 1.2 billion people lack access to banks or financial services. Technology startups in Africa are trying to fix that, said the African Private Equity and Venture Capital Association known as AVCA.   

In a recent report, the industry group said African startups attracted $5.2 billion in venture capital last year, and that West Africa – led by Nigeria – accounted for the largest share of investments.    

AVCA research manager Alexia Alexandropoulou said investors are looking to tap into Africa’s huge population of young people.    

“Africa is the world’s most youthful population, so as the proportion of skilled labor increases, then the result will be more human capital in order to power African businesses and also the industrial development within the continent,” said Alexandropoulou.

AVCA’s report also cites increased internet penetration in Africa and more favorable government policies as contributing to increased investments in financial technology services knwoFintech.  

But Fintech Digital Marketing Expert Louis Dike said there are obstacles to overcome, such as weak currencies and policies.  

“Africa is not a perfect place because it’s still made up of virgin markets,” said Dike. “The standard of living is quite low, our regulations are not consistent, today the government will say this and tomorrow they will change the law and restrict some startup activities.”  

But with new talents emerging in technology, more startups with big dreams are emerging in Nigeria and elsewhere in Africa. 

 

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Musk: Doubt About Spam Accounts Could Scuttle Twitter Deal

Tesla CEO Elon Musk says his deal to buy Twitter can’t move forward unless the company shows public proof that less than 5% of the accounts on the social media platform are fake or spam.

Musk made the comment in a reply to another user on Twitter early Tuesday. He spent much of the previous day in a back-and-forth with Twitter CEO Parag Agrawal, who posted a series of tweets explaining his company’s effort to fight bots and how it has consistently estimated that less than 5% of Twitter accounts are fake.

In his tweet Tuesday, Musk said that “20% fake/spam accounts, while 4 times what Twitter claims, could be much higher. My offer was based on Twitter’s SEC filings being accurate.”

He added: “Yesterday, Twitter’s CEO publicly refused to show proof of 5%. This deal cannot move forward until he does.”

Twitter declined to comment.

It’s Musk’s latest salvo over inauthentic accounts, a problem he has said he wants to rid Twitter of.

At a Miami technology conference Monday, Musk estimated that at least 20% of Twitter’s 229 million accounts are spam bots, a percentage he said was at the low end of his assessment.

The battle over spam accounts kicked off last week when Musk tweeted that the Twitter deal was on on hold pending confirmation of the company’s estimates that they make up less than 5% of total users.

Also at the All In Summit, Musk gave the strongest hint yet that he would like to pay less for Twitter than the $44 billion offer he made last month.

Musk’s comments are likely to bolster theories from analysts that the billionaire either wants out of the deal or to buy the company at a cheaper price. His tweet Tuesday came in reply to one from a Tesla news site speculating that Musk “may be looking for a better Twitter deal as $44 billion seems too high.”

“Twitter shares will be under pressure this morning again as the chances of a deal ultimately getting done is not looking good now,” Wedbush Securities analyst Dan Ives, who covers both Twitter and Tesla, said in a research note. He estimated that there’s “60%+ chance” that Musk ends up walking away from the deal and paying the $1 billion breakup fee.

Musk made the offer to buy Twitter for $54.20 per share on April 14. Twitter shares have slid since then. They were down slightly in Tuesday morning trading to $37.28.

To finance the acquisition, Musk pledged some of his Tesla shares, which have slumped by about a third since the deal was announced.

In tweets on Monday, Agrawal acknowledged Twitter isn’t perfect at catching bots. He wrote that every quarter, the company has made the estimate of less than 5% spam. “Our estimate is based on multiple human reviews of thousands of accounts that are sampled at random, consistently over time,” Agrawal wrote.

Estimates for the last four quarters were all well under 5%, he wrote. “The error margins on our estimates give us confidence in our public statements each quarter.”

Twitter has put the under 5% estimate in its quarterly filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission for at least the last two years, well before Musk made his offer last month.

But in the filings, Twitter expressed doubts that its count of bot accounts was correct, conceding that the estimate may be low.

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Convicted Killer Turned Tech Whiz Confronts His Sordid Past

When he was 20 years old, Harel Hershtik planned and executed a murder, a crime that a quarter of a century later is still widely remembered for its grisly details.

Today, he is the brains behind an Israeli health-tech startup, poised to make millions of dollars with the backing of prominent public figures and deep-pocket investors.

With his company set to go public, Hershtik’s past is coming under new scrutiny, raising questions about whether someone who took a person’s life deserves to rehabilitate his own to such an extent.

“When I was young, I would say that I was stupid and arrogant,” said Hershtik, now 46. “You can be a genius and yet still be very stupid and the two don’t contradict each other.”

Today, Hershtik is the vice president of strategy and technology at Scentech Medical, a company he founded in 2018, while behind bars, which says its product can detect certain diseases through a breath test.

In a three-hour interview with The Associated Press, he repeatedly expressed remorse for his crime.

Hershtik was convicted of murdering Yaakov Sela, a charismatic snake trapper he met when he was 14. The two had a bumpy relationship.

Sela was known for having numerous girlfriends at once, one being Hershtik’s mother. Hershtik said he felt uneasy with how Sela treated some of the women, including his mother.

In early 1996, Sela discovered that Hershtik had stolen 49,000 shekels (about $15,000 at the time) from him, and the two agreed that instead of involving the police, Hershtik would pay him back double that amount. Court documents say Hershtik instead planned to murder Sela.

Pulled over during a drive to gather the money, an accomplice of Hershtik’s fired three shots at Sela, using Hershtik’s mother’s pistol. He then handed Hershtik the gun, according to the documents, and Hershtik shot Sela in the head at close range.

The pair shoved Sela’s body into the trunk and buried it in a grove in the Golan Heights, according to the documents. Weeks later, hikers saw a hand poking up from the earth, and Sela’s body was found.

The sensational crime gripped the nation.

In court documents, prosecutors say Hershtik lied repeatedly in his attempt to distance himself from the murder.

Hershtik said he was compelled to lie so that he could protect the others involved in the scheme, which included his mother.

Hershtik was sentenced to life in prison for premeditated murder and obstructing justice, among other crimes.

He would serve 25 years, during which time Hershtik earned two doctorates, in math and chemistry, and got married three separate times. He said he established 31 companies, selling six of them.

But prison was also a fraught time for Hershtik. He said he spent 11 years in quarantine because of health issues. He was punished twice for setting up internet access to his cell, in one case building a modem out of two dismantled DVD players.

Last year, a parole board determined he had been rehabilitated and no longer posed a danger to society.

As part of his early release and until 2026, he is under nightly house arrest from 11 p.m. to 6 a.m. He must wear a tracking device around his ankle at all times and is barred from leaving the country.

A free man, Hershtik sat recently with the AP in his office in the central city of Rehovot, Israel.

His start-up is waiting for regulatory approval to merge with a company called NextGen Biomed, which trades on the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange and would make Scentech public.

Hershtik said the company’s product is being finalized for detecting COVID-19 through a patient’s breath, and it is working to add other diseases such as certain cancers as well as depression. The product is meant to provide on-the-spot results in a non-invasive way.

The company has received a patent for its technology in Israel and said it is preparing to apply for FDA approval soon.

Hershtik said the merger values the company at around $250 million and that he has raised more than $25 million in funding over the last two years through private Israeli investors. A large part of the investment is from Hershtik’s own money, although he won’t say how much. Prisoners in Israel aren’t barred from doing business, but

Hershtik’s success is rare.

His company is backed by prominent Israeli names, including Yaakov Amidror, who chairs NextGen and is a former chief of the country’s National Security Council.

“According to the rules of the country, the man is allowed to rehabilitate. He paid his price and he rehabilitated. So there is no reason not to help him rehabilitate,” Amidror, who testified to the parole board on Hershtik’s behalf, told the AP.

But Hershtik’s past is already haunting him. Hershtik was demoted from CTO earlier this year to his current position, in part because he didn’t want his crime to scare away investors.

“Harel has always said if for some reason his presence is a problem and the company would be better off without him, that he’s willing to leave the company,” said Drew Morris, a board member and investor.

As Scentech seeks to take its product to market, investors will need to decide whether Hershtik’s rap sheet influences where they put their money.

Ishak Saporta, a senior lecturer at Tel Aviv University’s Coller School of Management, said he believed investors would be drawn to the company’s potential for profit rather than deterred by Hershtik’s history.

“What concerns me here is that he became a millionaire. He paid his debt to society in jail. But does he have a commitment to the victim’s family,” Saporta asked.

Tovia Bat-Leah, who had a child with Sela, suggested he help fund her daughter’s education or create a reptile museum in Sela’s name.

“He served his time but he should also make some kind of reparation,” she said.

Hershtik sees the good that could come about from the company as the ultimate form of repentance. He said he could have used his smarts to create any sort of company with no benefit to society but chose health tech instead.

“Trust me, this is not for the money,” he said.

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IBM: 6 Black Colleges Getting Cybersecurity Centers

Six historically Black universities in five Southern states will be getting the first IBM cybersecurity centers aimed at training underrepresented communities, the company said.

The schools are Xavier University of Louisiana, that state’s Southern University System, North Carolina A&T, South Carolina State, Clark Atlanta and Morgan State universities, according to a news release Tuesday.

“Technology-related services are in constant demand, and cybersecurity is paramount,” said Dr. Ray L. Belton, president of the Southern University System based in Baton Rouge.

The centers will give students, staff, and faculty access to modern technology, resources, and skills development, said Dr. Nikunja Swain, chair and professor of the Computer Science and Mathematics Department at South Carolina State, in Orangeburg.

“It will further enhance our ongoing activities on several key areas, including cybersecurity, data science analytics, cloud computing, IOT, blockchain, design thinking, quantum computing, and artificial intelligence,” he said.

IBM said it plans more than 20 such centers at historically Black colleges and universities nationwide.

The company said each school will get customized courses and access to company academic programs. They also will be able to experience simulated but realistic cyberattacks through IBM Security’s Command Center.

The company said it also will provide faculty and students free access to multiple SaaS IBM Cloud environments.

Xavier is in New Orleans, North Carolina A&T in Greensboro and Morgan State in Baltimore.

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The Next New Thing: Companies Are Building the ‘Metaverse’ but What Is It?

The “metaverse” has been touted as the next digital shift, 3-dimensional online spaces where people will shop, work, play games, and go to concerts. VOA’s Michelle Quinn is looking at what the Metaverse is or might be. VOA footage and video editing by Matt Dibble.

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Musk Says $44-billion Twitter Deal Temporarily On Hold

Elon Musk said on Friday his $44-billion deal for Twitter Inc was temporarily on hold, citing pending details on spam and fake accounts.

“Twitter deal temporarily on hold pending details supporting calculation that spam/fake accounts do indeed represent less than 5% of users,” Musk said in a tweet.

Shares of the social media company fell 20% in premarket trading. Twitter did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The company had earlier this month estimated that false or spam accounts represented fewer than 5% of its monetizable daily active users during the first quarter.

It also said it faced several risks until the deal with Musk is closed, including whether advertisers would continue to spend on Twitter.

Musk, the world’s richest man and the chief executive of Tesla Inc, had said that one of his priorities would be to remove “spam bots” from the platform.

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US, China Vie for Africa Mobile Phone Sector

Africa, in recent years, has become the new frontier where China and the United States, the world’s two biggest economic superpowers, are competing for influence in a key industry: telecommunications.

This week, Ethiopia celebrated the launch of a 5G network powered by China’s telecom giant Huawei in Addis Ababa.

Just before that, on a visit to the continent last week, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman visited U.S. mobile company Africell’s offices in Angola, where the firm has amassed some 2 million users since it was launched just over a month ago.  

“Today in Luanda, I visited @AfricellAo, an innovative, state-of-the-art U.S. company expanding 5G access in Angola with trusted technology components,” she wrote in a tweet.

Asked in a subsequent press briefing whether the tweet wasn’t a dig at Huawei – which already has a huge digital foothold in Africa but which was sanctioned in the U.S. in 2019 by then-President Donald Trump – Sherman was unequivocal.  

“It’s not about throwing shade (being critical) on Huawei. We’ve been very direct. We believe that when countries choose Huawei, they are potentially giving up their sovereignty,” she said. “They are turning over their data to another country. They may find themselves bringing in a surveillance capability they didn’t even know was there.”  

Washington has long expressed concern that Beijing is trying to monopolize networks and possibly use them for espionage, while Huawei has repeatedly denied the allegations.  

“So, we’ve been very public about our concerns about Huawei, and so we are glad that Africell can provide to the people of Angola a safe, capable tool in their hands to reach out to the world,” Sherman added.  

The deputy secretary’s comments raised ire in Beijing, where they were met with a stiff rebuke from Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian.  

“Chinese companies including Huawei have conducted mutually beneficial cooperation with many countries in Africa and the world beyond, contributed to the improvement and development of the countries’ communications infrastructure, provided advanced, quality, safe and affordable services for the local people and won great support,” he said on Chinese state media.  

“There is not a single case of cyber security accident, surveillance or wiretapping in the course of the cooperation,” he added, going on to allege that the U.S. has long been responsible for such spying activities itself.  

Zhao noted that it is up to African governments to decide with whom to cooperate.

In Angola, the company already has a significant presence, with mobile operator Unitel linked to Huawei, which is also building two technological training centers, worth $60 million, in the country in order to develop the digital economy.  

And with Huawei widely available in South Africa, only one of the five people VOA spoke to at a local shopping center was even aware of the controversy over the brand.  

Cheris Fourie, a sales consultant at a cellphone shop in Cape Town’s Blue Root Mall, said Huawei handsets aren’t that popular anymore, not because of concerns over any nefarious activities by the company, but rather because Google services are no longer on the devices. Google is no longer available because of a U.S. Huawei ban.  

David Devillieras, who was sitting at a cafe at the mall using his Samsung phone, told VOA he’d never heard of the possibility Huawei was involved in surveillance. He added that he wouldn’t buy a Huawei phone having heard that.  

“I wouldn’t go there at all, not for one second. I wouldn’t buy a Chinese phone,” he said.

One shopper, Steve Elliot-Jones, said he “wouldn’t trust anything that comes out of China,” but thought other countries could also be using mobile networks to spy.

“It wouldn’t surprise me if technology companies including the states or anywhere else for that matter… I wouldn’t say anyone’s actually innocent. I think they’re all probably all up to selling information and making money on the side and denying it if it comes out.”

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Bill Gates Says He Has COVID-19, Experiencing Mild Symptoms 

Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates said Tuesday he has tested positive for COVID-19 and is experiencing mild symptoms. 

Via Twitter, the billionaire philanthropist said he will isolate until he is again healthy. 

“I’m fortunate to be vaccinated and boosted and have access to testing and great medical care,” Gates wrote. 

The Seattle-based Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is the most influential private foundation in the world, with an endowment of about $65 billion. 

Bill Gates has been a vocal proponent for pandemic mitigation measures, specifically access to vaccines and medication for poorer countries. The Gates Foundation in October said it will spend $120 million to boost access to generic versions of drugmaker Merck’s antiviral COVID-19 pill for lower-income countries. 

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Elon Musk Says He’d Reinstate Trump’s Twitter Account

Elon Musk on Tuesday said he would reinstate former President Donald Trump’s Twitter account. 

The Tesla CEO who’s vying to buy Twitter and take it private for a reported price tag of $44 billion made the comment at the Financial Times Future of the Car conference. 

“I do think that it was not correct to ban Donald Trump,” Musk said. “I think that was a mistake because it alienated a large part of the country and did not ultimately result in Donald Trump not having a voice.”  

Musk added that Trump’s ban was “morally wrong and flat-out stupid.” 

Trump’s account was permanently banned after the January 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol, with Twitter saying his continued presence on the platform was a “risk of further incitement of violence.”  

Musk added that permanent bans should be “extremely rare” and reserved for “bots, or spam/scam accounts.”  

“Free speech is the bedrock of a functioning democracy, and Twitter is the digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated,” he said in a recent statement.  

Trump has said he does not intend to rejoin Twitter and will focus mostly on the social network he launched called Truth Social. 

Some information in this report comes from The Associated Press and Reuters. 

 

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Biden Starts Program to Provide Discounted Internet Service in US

The Biden administration announced on Monday that 20 internet companies have agreed to provide discounted service to people with low incomes, a program that could effectively make tens of millions of households across the U.S. eligible for free service through an already existing federal subsidy.

The $1 trillion infrastructure package passed by Congress last year included $14.2 billion funding for the Affordable Connectivity Program, which provides $30 monthly subsidies ($75 in tribal areas) on internet service for millions of lower-income households.

With the new commitment from the internet providers, some 48 million households will be eligible for $30 monthly plans for 100 megabits per second, or higher speed, service — making internet service fully paid for with the government subsidy if they sign up with one of the providers participating in the program.

Biden, during his White House run and the push for the infrastructure bill, made expanding high-speed internet access in rural and low-income areas a priority. He has repeatedly spoken out about low-income families that struggled finding reliable Wi-Fi, so their children could take part in remote schooling and complete homework assignments early in the coronavirus pandemic.

“If we didn’t know it before, we know now: High-speed internet is essential,” the Democratic president said during a White House event last month honoring the National Teacher of the Year.

The 20 internet companies that have agreed to lower their rates for eligible consumers provide service in areas where 80% of the U.S. population, including 50% of the rural population, live, according to the White House. Participating companies that offer service on tribal lands are providing $75 rates in those areas, the equivalent of the federal government subsidy in those areas.

Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris on Monday were set to meet with telecom executives, members of Congress and others to spotlight the effort to improve access to high-speed internet for low-income households.

The providers are Allo Communications, AltaFiber (and Hawaiian Telecom), Altice USA (Optimum and Suddenlink), Astound, AT&T, Breezeline, Comcast, Comporium, Frontier, IdeaTek, Cox Communications, Jackson Energy Authority, MediaCom, MLGC, Spectrum (Charter Communications), Starry, Verizon (Fios only), Vermont Telephone Co., Vexus Fiber and Wow! Internet, Cable, and TV.

American households are eligible for subsidies through the Affordable Connectivity Program if their income is at or below 200% of the federal poverty level, or if a member of their family participates in one of several programs, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Federal Public Housing Assistance (FPHA) and Veterans Pension and Survivors Benefit.

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Musk Gets $7B Backing for Twitter Bid From Tech Heavyweights

Billionaire Elon Musk has strengthened the equity stake of his offer to buy Twitter with commitments of more than $7 billion from a range of investors, including Silicon Valley heavy hitters like Oracle co-founder Larry Ellison.

Other investors include Sequoia Capital Fund, which pledged $800 million, and VyCapital, which pledged $700 million, according to a Thursday filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. But Ellison, who is also a and Tesla board member, is making the biggest contribution, pegged at $1 billion.

Saudi Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Bin Abdulaziz Alsaud has pledged 35 million in Twitter shares in support of Musk, according to the filing.

Musk in earlier regulatory filings revealed that he has sold roughly $8.5 billion worth of shares in Tesla to help fund the purchase. Musk later tweeted that he doesn’t plan any further sales of the company’s shares, meaning he would need outside commitments to help fund the $44 billion deal.

Because of the new funding listed in the SEC filing Thursday, Musk will cut the $12.5 billion in margin loans he was leaning on in half, to $6.25 billion. The transaction is also now being funded by $27.25 billion in cash and equities, up from $21 billion.

The Thursday filing also said that Musk is in ongoing talks with other parties including former Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, who is the second largest individual stakeholder in the company after Musk.

“This was a smart financial and strategic move by Musk that will be well received across the board and also shows the Twitter deal is now on a glide path to get done by the end of this year,” wrote analyst Dan Ives who follows Twitter for Wedbush.

Shares of Twitter Inc. have remained below the per-share offering bid by Musk of $54.20 because there are still doubts on Wall Street about whether the deal will go through.

Shares of the San Francisco social media platform rose 2% before the opening bell, to $50.10.

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Automakers, Appliance Manufacturers Struggle to Find Computer Chips Amid Shortage

Cars stuck on the assembly line. Delays in the delivery of dishwashers, refrigerators and game consoles. Consumers and businesses are feeling the pinch of the semiconductor shortage. The war in Ukraine could make the situation worse. Michelle Quinn reports.

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Technology Helps Find One of the World’s Most Sought-After Shipwrecks 

Satellite imagery and underwater robotics are among the technologies that played a crucial role in the recent discovery of the Endurance, renowned explorer Ernest Shackleton’s ship that sank in frozen Antarctic waters in 1915. VOA’s Julie Taboh has more.

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US Company Produces Drones for Ukrainian Armed Forces

BRINC, a company based in Seattle, Washington, is producing special drones to assist Ukraine’s armed forces. The drones are used in search and rescue missions and can provide eyes in places where it’s too dangerous to send people. Khrystyna Shevchenko has the story, narrated by Anna Rice.
Videographer: Khrystyna Shevchenko

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EU Says Apple Pay May Violate EU Antitrust Laws

The European Union on Monday accused Apple of abusing its dominant Apple Pay market position to prevent other companies from competing in contactless payment technologies. 

“Apple has built a closed ecosystem around its devices and its operating system, iOS. And Apple controls the gates to this ecosystem, setting the rules of the game for anyone who wants to reach consumers using Apple devices,” EU competition commissioner Margrethe Vestager said. “By excluding others from the game, Apple has unfairly shielded its Apple Pay wallets from competition.” 

The 27-nation bloc’s executive arm, the European Commission, said Apple’s practice “has an exclusionary effect on competitors and leads to less innovation and less choice for consumers for mobile wallets on iPhones.”  

The commission has not disclosed what, if any, fines could be levied against Apple should it be found in violation of antitrust laws. 

In response, Apple said it would cooperate with the Commission. 

The company said it “will continue to engage with the Commission to ensure European consumers have access to the payment option of their choice in a safe and secure environment.”  

The Commission has been investigating several aspects of Apple’s business practices in Europe since 2020, including the possibility the company violates European antitrust laws over music streaming and the app store. 

Some information in this report comes from The Associated Press. 

 

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Google Adds Ways to Keep Personal Info Private in Searches

Google has expanded options for keeping personal information private from online searches.

The company said Friday it will let people request that more types of content such as personal contact information like phone numbers, email and physical addresses be removed from search results.

The new policy also allows the removal of other information that may pose a risk for identity theft, such as confidential log-in credentials.

The company said in a statement that open access to information is vital, “but so is empowering people with the tools they need to protect themselves and keep their sensitive, personally identifiable information private.”

“Privacy and online safety go hand in hand. And when you’re using the internet, it’s important to have control over how your sensitive, personally identifiable information can be found,” it said.

Google Search earlier had permitted people to request that highly personal content that could cause direct harm be removed. That includes information removed due to doxxing and personal details like bank account or credit card numbers that could be used for fraud.

But information increasing pops up in unexpected places and is used in new ways, so policies need to evolve, the company said.

Having personal contact information openly available online also can pose a threat and Google said it had received requests for the option to remove that content, too.

It said that when it receives such requests it will study all the content on the web page to avoid limiting availability of useful information or of content on the public record on government or other official websites.

“It’s important to remember that removing content from Google Search won’t remove it from the internet, which is why you may wish to contact the hosting site directly, if you’re comfortable doing so,” it said.

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New Kenyan Fish Marketing App Aims to Reduce Sexual Exploitation of Women Fishmongers

An application developed in Kenya to improve the marketing of fish caught in Lake Victoria is helping women fishmongers fend off sex-for-fish exploitation by fishermen. The Aquarech app allows traders to buy fish without having to negotiate with fishermen – as Ruud Elmendorp reports from Kisumu, Kenya.
Videographer: Ruud Elmendorp Produced by: Henry Hernandez

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Musk’s Twitter Ambitions Likely to Collide with Europe’s Tech Rules 

A hands-off approach to moderating content at Elon Musk’s Twitter could clash with ambitious new laws in Europe meant to protect users from disinformation, hate speech and other harmful material. 

Musk, who describes himself as a “free speech absolutist,” pledged to buy Twitter for $44 billion this week, with European Union officials and digital campaigners quick to say that any focus on free speech to the detriment of online safety would not fly after the 27-nation bloc solidified its status as a global leader in the effort to rein in the power of tech giants.

“If his approach will be ‘just stop moderating it,’ he will likely find himself in a lot of legal trouble in the EU,” said Jan Penfrat, senior policy adviser at digital rights group EDRi.

Musk will soon be confronted with Europe’s Digital Services Act, which will require big tech companies like Twitter, Google and Facebook parent Meta to police their platforms more strictly or face billions in fines.

Other crackdowns

Officials agreed just days ago on the landmark legislation, expected to take effect by 2024. It’s unclear how soon it could spark a similar crackdown elsewhere, with U.S. lawmakers divided on efforts to address competition, online privacy, disinformation and more.

That means the job of reining in a Musk-led Twitter could fall to Europe — something officials signaled they’re ready for.

“Be it cars or social media, any company operating in Europe needs to comply with our rules — regardless of their shareholding,” Thierry Breton, the EU’s internal market commissioner, tweeted Tuesday. “Mr Musk knows this well. He is familiar with European rules on automotive, and will quickly adapt to the Digital Services Act.”

Musk’s plans for Twitter haven’t been fleshed out beyond a few ideas for new features, opening its algorithm to public inspection and defeating “bots” posing as real users.

France’s digital minister, Cedric O, said Musk has “interesting things” that he wants to push for Twitter, “but let’s remember that #DigitalServicesAct — and therefore the obligation to fight misinformation, online hate, etc. — will apply regardless of the ideology of its owner.” 

EU Green Party lawmaker Alexandra Geese, who was involved in negotiating the law, said, “Elon Musk’s idea of free speech without content moderation would exclude large parts of the population from public discourse,” such as women and people of color. 

Twitter declined to comment. Musk tweeted that “the extreme antibody reaction from those who fear free speech says it all.” He added that by free speech, he means “that which matches the law” and that he’s against censorship going “far beyond the law.” 

The United Kingdom also has an online safety law in the works that threatens senior managers at tech companies with prison if they don’t comply. Users would get more power to block anonymous trolls, and tech companies would be forced to proactively take down illegal content. 

Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s office stressed the need for Twitter to remain “responsible” and protect users. 

“Regardless of ownership, all social media platforms must be responsible,” Johnson spokesman Max Blain said Tuesday. 

Need seen for cleanup

Damian Collins, a British lawmaker who led a parliamentary committee working on the bill, said that if Musk really wants to make Twitter a free speech haven, “he will need to clean up the digital town square.” 

Collins said Twitter has become a place where users are drowned out by coordinated armies of “bot” accounts spreading disinformation and division and that users refrain from expressing themselves “because of the hate and abuse they will receive.” 

The laws in the U.K. and EU target such abuse. Under the EU’s Digital Services Act, tech companies must put in place systems so illegal content can be easily flagged for swift removal. 

Experts said Twitter will have to go beyond taking down clearly defined illegal content like hate speech, terrorism and child sexual abuse and grapple with material that falls into a gray zone. 

The law includes requirements for big tech platforms to carry out annual risk assessments to determine how much their products and design choices contribute to the spread of divisive material that can affect issues like health or public debate. 

“This is all about assessing to what extent your users are seeing, for example, Russian propaganda in the context of the Ukraine war,” online harassment or COVID-19 misinformation, said Mathias Vermeulen, public policy director at data rights agency AWO. 

Violations would incur fines of up to 6% of a company’s global annual revenue. Repeat offenders can be banned from the EU.

More openness 

The Digital Services Act also requires tech companies to be more transparent by giving regulators and researchers access to data on how their systems recommend content to users. 

Musk has similar thoughts, saying his plans include “making the algorithms open source to increase trust.” 

Penfrat said it’s a great idea that could pave the way to a new ecosystem of ranking and recommendation options. 

But he panned another Musk idea — “authenticating all humans” — saying that taking away anonymity or pseudonyms from people, including society’s most marginalized, was the dream of every autocrat.

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Elon Musk Quest to Scrap Deal Over 2018 Tweets is Rejected

Elon Musk’s request to scrap a settlement with securities regulators over 2018 tweets claiming he had the funding to take Tesla private was denied by a federal judge in New York.

Judge Lewis Liman on Wednesday also denied a motion to nullify subpoenas of Musk seeking information about possible violations of his settlement with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Musk had asked the court to throw out the settlement, which required that his tweets be approved by a Tesla attorney. The SEC is investigating whether the Tesla CEO violated the settlement with tweets last November asking Twitter followers if he should sell 10% of his Tesla stock.

The whole dispute stems from an October 2018 agreement with the SEC in which Musk and Tesla each agreed to pay $20 million in civil fines over Musk’s tweets about having the money to take Tesla private at $420 per share.

The funding was far from secured and the electric vehicle company remains public, but Tesla’s stock price jumped. The settlement specified governance changes, including Musk’s ouster as board chairman, as well as pre-approval of his tweets.

Musk attorney Alex Spiro contended in court motions that the SEC was trampling on Musk’s right to free speech.

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Google Investment to Help Solve Africa’s Tech Problems

California-based Google wants to get a bigger share of Africa’s growing online population, which is expected to top 800 million by 2030. 

 

The internet search giant announced this month it is setting up its first product development center on the continent, to be based in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi. It is scheduled to open next year and will employ more than 100 people. 

Charles Murito, head of government affairs and public policy for sub-Saharan Africa at Google, said the investment will create many opportunities within Africa’s tech sector.   

“The product development center is going to be one that works to create transformative products and services for people right here on the continent, as well as creating a product for the rest of the world,” he said. “So the announcement last week was really just a kick-off in terms of the hiring process for the people that are going to be working in this product development center for Africa. And that will include roles such as product managers, UX designers and researchers, and engineers, and this is really a starting point of the work we are going to be doing.” 

The multinational technology company said its mission is to make the world’s information universally accessible and create a product that works well for Africans. 

 

Bitange Ndemo, former principal secretary of Kenya’s information, communication, and technology ministry, said the government needs to train more of its youth to benefit from the Google center. 

“It’s a wonderful investment in the sense that it’s going to help reduce the problem of unemployment in this country, but what that tells the Kenyan government is they must begin to invest in skilling and reskilling young people so that they can meet the demand. Already the demand for such skills exceeds supply locally,” he said. 

Google has trained over 80,000 certified developers from Africa in the past few years. 

 

The firm is investing $1 billion in projects over the next five years to help with the development of Africa internet economy. 

 

Murito said the investment will transform Africa. 

“It’s the opportunity around creating products that work best for Africans at large and, therefore, whether you are thinking about products on financial inclusion or other sectors of the economy, we believe that by having a product development center right here on the continent, we will be able to know firsthand what challenges are and also be able to create products that will service and solve some of those challenges,” he said. 

Microsoft has also invested in Kenya, hiring hundreds of engineers from the East African nation. 

 

The continent comes with its own challenges for businesses because some countries lack good governance and the rule of law and that creates an uncertain environment for investments. Some nations have turned off the internet to silence their citizens. 

 

Murito said his organization works with African governments to encourage innovation and develop policies that will sustain innovation. 

 

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US Laboratory Innovating Electronic Vehicle Technology 

Many of the technological advances in lithium ion batteries that now power many electric vehicles began in a laboratory just outside Chicago’s city limits decades ago.  VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports on new innovations at Argonne National Laboratory preparing for the next-generation needs of drivers.
Camera: Kane Farabaugh, Mike Burke   
Produced by: Kane Farabaugh   

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Robotics Company Makes Sensor-Packed Filmmaking Equipment  

Sensor-packed robots are changing how movies and commercials are made. Deana Mitchell has the story.

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More Free Speech or More Misinformation? Reactions Mixed to Twitter Sale 

Tesla CEO Elon Musk’s $44 billion deal to buy Twitter Monday met mixed reactions as observers speculated how digital speech on the service might change under his leadership. 

Musk, a prolific Twitter user who has criticized Twitter’s management in tweets, said in the press release Monday announcing the deal that “Twitter is the digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated.”   

Musk’s takeover of Twitter was applauded by some U.S. conservatives who have alleged that internet firms — including Twitter — promote a liberal political agenda and suppress conservative voices. 

Senator Ted Cruz, a Republican from Texas, tweeted that it’s “amazing to watch the Left panic at the prospect of free speech on Twitter.”  

  

But others expressed concern that Musk’s takeover would mean less moderation of hate speech and misinformation on the site.   

Sumayyah Waheed, senior policy counsel with Muslim Advocates, a national civil rights organization, told VOA that Twitter doesn’t have a good track record of taking down hateful speech against Muslims. 

“We already face threats and regular harassment on Twitter, and a weaker content moderation system will just make that even worse,” she said.  

 

Twitter, with more than 400 million monthly active users, has a smaller audience than Facebook, with 3 billion users, and YouTube, with over 2 billion.   

Twitter is primarily used in the U.S. and Western Europe, where it is influential among journalists, political leaders, celebrities and other thought leaders. Because powerful people use Twitter, it has an outsized influence, observers say.  

Twitter allows people to post anonymously and is credited with helping marginalized voices around the world speak. Musk has talked recently of wanting to “authenticate all real humans” on the site, raising concerns among digital rights advocates that Twitter will require accounts to be tied to a person’s identity.  

Twitter under Musk 

Michael Posner, director of the New York University Stern Center for Business and Human Rights, said that Musk’s statements about free speech “are not very well developed.”  

“We have to hope that once he gets into the driver’s seat, he understands that social media platforms need to be moderated by people who own them and run them,” he told VOA. “A site where content moderation is not taken seriously is going to yield spam, pornography, hate speech and disinformation, and all kinds of things that are not good for society.”  

Emerson Brooking, a resident senior fellow at the Digital Forensic Research Lab of the Atlantic Council, a U.S. think tank, said Twitter will probably change under the new leadership.  

“Musk’s absolutist view of freedom of speech, his unfamiliarity with the challenges that many people face around the world in expressing their political points of view, these two things are going to clash,” he said in an interview with VOA. “And I expect that the Twitter of the future will look quite a bit different and quite a bit less inviting for many people.”   

Concentration of power 

Evan Greer, director of the digital rights organization Fight for the Future, said Musk’s acquisition exposes another issue: A handful of companies have a monopoly on “what can be seen, heard and done online,” she said. 

“If we want a future of free speech, it’s not a future where the richest person on Earth can purchase a platform that millions of people depend on and then change the rules to his liking,” she said in an interview with VOA.  

There’s been speculation that under Musk, former President Donald Trump, whom Twitter banned permanently in 2021, could return to the site. But Trump told Fox News prior to the announcement of the deal Monday that while he hoped that Musk would buy Twitter, he would not return to the service. Instead, he will join his own social media site, Truth Social, he said. 

For his part, Musk appeared to acknowledge the varied reactions about his new role, tweeting Monday: “I hope that even my worst critics remain on Twitter, because that is what free speech means.” 

 

 

 

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 Twitter CEO Says Company Direction Uncertain After Musk Deal 

Twitter CEO Parag Agrawal told employees Monday that he is uncertain of the direction the company will go after Tesla CEO Elon Musk takes over.    

Musk reached an agreement Monday to buy Twitter for $44 billion, promising to make the platform more supportive of free speech. The move has raised questions about how far Twitter will go to relax restrictions on users’ speech and led critics to fear new policies would make it easier for people to spread disinformation and hate speech. 

Agrawal answered employee questions Monday in a town hall that was heard by Reuters.    

The news agency reported that Agrawal told employees, “Once the deal closes, we don’t know which direction the platform will go.” The CEO was answering a question about whether former President Donald Trump would be allowed to rejoin Twitter despite his permanent suspension.  

“I believe when we have an opportunity to speak with Elon, it’s a question we should address with him,” Agrawal said.  

Twitter banned Trump after the U.S. Capitol was stormed on January 6, 2021, citing a risk of more violence.  

Musk has proposed relaxing the type of content restrictions that led Twitter to suspend the former president’s account.     

Musk, who is also CEO of rocket developer SpaceX, has said Twitter needs to become a private company so that it can realize its potential for free speech. He has described himself as a “free-speech absolutist.”     

Reuters reported that Agrawal deferred many staff questions to Musk, who he said would join Twitter staff for a question-and-answer session at a later date. 

Agrawal also told employees there were no plans for layoffs. 

Musk said in a securities filing this month that he did not have confidence in Twitter’s management.  

He said in a statement Monday that “free speech is the bedrock of a functioning democracy, and Twitter is the digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated.”   

Some information in this report came from Reuters. 

 

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Twitter’s Board Negotiates with Elon Musk Over Bid to Buy Platform

The board of Twitter is negotiating with Tesla CEO Elon Musk over his bid to buy the social media giant. 

Media reports Monday said the two sides are close to reaching a deal.  

Musk recently announced that he wants to buy the platform and later unveiled a financing package to back the acquisition.  

The Reuters news agency reported that Musk’s final offer is $43 billion in cash, citing anonymous sources familiar with the matter.

The New York Times reported that Twitter and Musk spoke into the early hours Monday and were discussing contingency plans if an agreement were to be signed and then fall apart.

Twitter shares were up more than 5% in trading Monday afternoon.  

Musk is the world’s richest person according to Forbes magazine with a nearly $279 billion fortune.

The businessman, who is also CEO of rocket developer SpaceX, has said Twitter needs to become a private company so that it can realize its potential for free speech. He has described himself as a “free-speech absolutist.”

Musk, who is a prolific tweeter with more than 83 million followers, tweeted Monday, “I hope that even my worst critics remain on Twitter, because that is what free speech means.”

He has proposed relaxing Twitter’s content restrictions, which could include rules that suspended former President Donald Trump’s account.  

Republicans cheered Musk’s possible takeover of Twitter.

“Hey, @elonmusk it’s a great week to free @realDonaldTrump,” tweeted the House Republican Conference.

Twitter banned Trump’s account after the U.S. Capitol was stormed on Jan. 6, 2021, citing a risk of more violence.

Some information in this report comes from the Associated Pres and Reuters.

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