LogOn: Washington state tests drones to remove hard-to-reach graffiti

A drone equipped with a painting hose is being deployed against stubborn graffiti in hard-to-reach areas. Natasha Mozgovaya has more in this week’s episode of LogOn.

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Netflix’s recipe for success includes ‘secret sauce’ spiced with tech savvy

LOS GATOS, California — Although its video streaming service sparkles with a Hollywood sheen, Netflix still taps its roots in Silicon Valley to stay a step ahead of traditional TV and movie studios.

The Los Gatos, California, company, based more than 300 miles away from Hollywood, frequently reaches into its technological toolbox without viewers even realizing it. It often just uses a few subtle twists on the knobs of viewer recommendations to help keep its 270 million worldwide subscribers satisfied at a time when most of its streaming rivals are seeing waves of cancelations from inflation-weary subscribers.

Even when hit TV series like “The Crown” or “Bridgerton” have wide appeal, Netflix still tries to cater to the divergent tastes of its vast audience. One part of that recipe includes tailoring summaries and trailers about its smorgasbord of shows to fit the personal interests of each viewer.

So, someone who likes romance might see a plot summary or video trailer for “The Crown” highlighting the relationship between Princess Diana and Charles, while another viewer more into political intrigue may be shown a clip of Queen Elizabeth in a meeting with Margaret Thatcher.

For an Oscar-nominated film like “Nyad,” a lover of action might see a trailer of the title character immersed in water during one of her epic swims, while a comedy fan might see a lighthearted scene featuring some amusing banter between the two stars, Annette Bening and Jodie Foster.

Netflix is able to pull off these variations through the deep understanding of viewing habits it gleans from crunching the data from subscribers’ histories with its service — including those of customers who signed up in the late 1990s when the company launched with a DVD-by-mail service that continued to operate until last September.

“It is a secret sauce for us, no doubt,” Eunice Kim, Netflix’s chief product officer, said while discussing the nuances of the ways Netflix tries to reel different viewers into watching different shows. “The North Star we have every day is keep people engaged, but also make sure they are incredibly satisfied with their viewing experiences.”

As part of that effort, Netflix is rolling out a redesign of the home page that greets subscribers when they are watching the streaming service on a TV screen. The changes are meant to package all the information that might appeal to a subscriber’s tastes in a more concise format to reduce the “gymnastics with their eyes,” said Patrick Flemming, Netflix’s senior director of member product.

What Netflix is doing with its previews may seem like a small thing, but it can make a huge difference, especially as people looking to save money start to limit the number of streaming services they have.

Last year, video streaming services collectively suffered about 140 million account cancelations, a 35% increase from 2022 and nearly triple the volume in 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic created a boom in demand for entertainment from people corralled at home, according to numbers compiled by the research firm Antenna.

Netflix doesn’t disclose its cancelation, or churn rate, but last year its streaming service gained 30 million subscribers — marking its second-biggest annual increase behind its own growth spurt during the 2020 pandemic lockdowns.

Part of last year’s subscription growth flowed from a crackdown on viewers who had been freeloading off Netflix subscribers who shared their account passwords. But the company is also benefiting from the technological know-how that helps it to keep funneling shows to customers who like them and make them think the service is worth the money, according to J. Christopher Hamilton, an assistant professor of television, radio and film at Syracuse University.

“What they have been doing is pretty ingenious and very, very strategic,” Hamilton said. “They are definitely ahead of the legacy media companies who are trying to do some of the same things but just don’t have the level of sophistication, experience nor the history of the data in their archives.”

Netflix’s nerdy heritage once was mocked by an entertainment industry that looked down at the company’s geekdom.

Not long after that put-down, Netflix began mining its viewing data to figure out how to produce a slate of original programming that would attract more subscribers — an ambitious expansion that forced Time Warner (now rolled into Warner Bros. Discovery) and other long-established entertainment companies such as Walt Disney Co. into a mad scramble to build their own streaming services.

Although those expansions initially attracted hordes of subscribers, they also resulted in massive losses that have resulted in management shakeups and drastic cutbacks, including the abrupt closure of a CNN streaming service. 

What Netflix is doing with technology to retain subscribers to boost its fortunes — the company’s profit rose 20% to $5.4 billion last year — now is widening the divide with rival services still trying to stanch their losses.

Disney’s 4-year-old streaming service recently became profitable after an overhaul engineered by CEO Bob Iger, but he thinks more work will be required to catch up with Netflix.

Netflix isn’t going to help its rivals by divulging its secrets, but the slicing and dicing generally starts with getting a grasp on which viewers tend to gravitate to certain genres — the broad categories include action, adventure, anime, fantasy, drama, horror, comedy, romance and documentary — and then diving deeper from there.

In some instances, Netflix’s technology will even try to divine a viewer’s mood at any given time by analyzing what titles are being browsed or clicked on. In other instances, it’s relatively easy for the technology to figure out how to make a film or TV series as appealing as possible to specific viewers.

If Netflix’s data shows a subscriber has watched a lot of Hindi productions, it would be almost a no-brainer to feature clips of Bollywood actress Alia Bhatt in a role she played in the U.S. film, “Heart of Stone” instead of the movie’s lead actress, Gal Gadot.

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US lawmakers call for scrutiny of NewsBreak app over Chinese origins

WASHINGTON AND LONDON — Three U.S. lawmakers have called for more scrutiny of NewsBreak, a popular news aggregation app in the United States, after Reuters reported it has Chinese origins and has used artificial intelligence tools to produce erroneous stories.

The Reuters story drew upon previously unreported court documents related to copyright infringement, cease-and-desist emails and a 2022 company memo registering concerns about “AI-generated stories” to identify at least 40 instances in which NewsBreak’s use of AI tools affected the communities it strives to serve.

“The only thing more terrifying than a company that deals in unchecked, artificially generated news, is one with deep ties to an adversarial foreign government,” said Senator Mark Warner, a Democrat who chairs the Intelligence Committee.

“This is yet another example of the serious threat posed by technologies from countries of concern. It’s also a stark reminder that we need a holistic approach to addressing this threat — we simply cannot win the game of whack-a-mole with individual companies,” he said.

The lawmakers expressed concerns about NewsBreak’s current and historical links to Chinese investors, as well as the company’s presence in China, where many of its engineers are based.

In response to a request from Reuters for comment about the lawmakers’ statements, NewsBreak said it was an American company: “NewsBreak is a U.S. company and always has been. Any assertion to the contrary is not true,” a spokesperson said.

NewsBreak launched in the U.S. in 2015 as a subsidiary of Yidian, a Chinese news aggregation app. Both companies were founded by Jeff Zheng, the CEO of NewsBreak, and the companies share a U.S. patent registered in 2015 for an “Interest Engine” algorithm, which recommends news content based on a user’s interests and location, Reuters reported.

Yidian in 2017 received praise from ruling Communist Party officials in China for its efficiency in disseminating government propaganda. Reuters found no evidence that NewsBreak censored or produced news that was favorable to the Chinese government.

“This report brings to light serious questions about NewsBreak, its historical relationship with an entity that assisted the CCP, and to Chinese state-linked media,” said Representative Raja Krishnamoorthi, the top Democrat on the House select committee on China, in a reference to Yidian and its former investor, state-linked media outlet Phoenix New Media.

Americans have the right to “full transparency” about any connections to the CCP from news distributors, Krishnamoorthi said, particularly with regard to the use of “opaque algorithms” and artificial intelligence tools to produce news.

Reuters reported the praise Yidian received from the Communist Party in 2017 but was unable to establish that NewsBreak has any current ties with the party.

U.S. Representative Elise Stefanik, a Republican, said IDG Capital’s backing of NewsBreak indicated the app “deserves increased scrutiny.”

“We cannot allow our foreign adversaries access to American citizen’s data to weaponize them against America’s interests,” she said.

NewsBreak is a privately held start-up, whose primary backers are private equity firms San Francisco-based Francisco Partners and Beijing-based IDG Capital, Reuters reported. In February, IDG Capital was added to a list of dozens of Chinese companies the Pentagon said were allegedly working with Beijing’s military.

IDG Capital has previously said it has no association with the Chinese military and does not belong on that list. It declined to comment on the lawmaker’s reaction.

A spokesperson for Francisco Partners, which has previously declined to answer questions from Reuters on their investment in NewsBreak, described the story as “false and misleading” but declined to provide details beyond saying the description of them as a “primary backer” of NewsBreak was incorrect because their investment was less than 10%.

They did not provide documentation to prove the size of the holding. NewsBreak has told Reuters as recently as May 13 that Francisco Partners is NewsBreak’s primary investor. NewsBreak did not respond to two requests late Friday asking for documentation supporting the assertion.

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AI ‘gold rush’ for chatbot training data could run out of human-written text

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22 Chinese nationals sentenced to prison in Zambia for cybercrimes

LUSAKA, Zambia — A Zambian court on Friday sentenced 22 Chinese nationals to long prison terms for cybercrimes that included internet fraud and online scams targeting Zambians and other people from Singapore, Peru and the United Arab Emirates.

The Magistrates Court in the capital, Lusaka, sentenced them for terms ranging from seven to 11 years. The court also fined them between $1,500 and $3,000 after they pleaded guilty to charges of computer-related misrepresentation, identity fraud and illegally operating a network or service on Wednesday. A man from Cameroon also was sentenced and fined on the same changes.

They were part of a group of 77 people, the majority of them Zambians, arrested in April over what police described as a “sophisticated internet fraud syndicate.”

Director-general of the drug enforcement commission, Nason Banda, said investigations began after authorities noticed a spike in the number of cyber-related fraud cases and many people complained about inexplicably losing money from their mobile phones or bank accounts.

Officers from the commission, police, the immigration department and the anti-terrorism unit in April swooped on a Chinese-run business in an upmarket suburb of Lusaka, arresting the 77, including those sentenced Friday. Authorities recovered over 13,000 local and foreign mobile phone SIM cards, two firearms and 78 rounds of ammunition during the raid.

The business, named Golden Top Support Services, had employed “unsuspecting” Zambians aged between 20 and 25 to use the SIM cards to engage “in deceptive conversations with unsuspecting mobile users across various platforms such as WhatsApp, Telegram, chat rooms and others, using scripted dialogues,” Banda said in April after the raid. The locals were freed on bail.

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NASA tries for third time Wednesday to launch first crewed flight of Boeing Starliner spacecraft to ISS

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LogOn: Swarms of drones can be managed by one person

The U.S. military says large groups of drones and ground robots can be managed by a single person without added stress to the operator. In this week’s episode of LogOn, VOA’s Julie Taboh reports the technologies may be beneficial for civilian uses, too. Videographer and video editor: Adam Greenbaum

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Many Americans still shying away from EVs despite Biden’s push, poll finds

Washington — Many Americans still aren’t sold on going electric for their next car purchase. High prices and a lack of easy-to-find charging stations are major sticking points, a new poll shows.  

About 4 in 10 U.S. adults say they would be at least somewhat likely to buy an EV the next time they buy a car, according to the poll by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research and the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago, while 46% say they are not too likely or not at all likely to purchase one.  

The poll results, which echo an AP-NORC poll from last year, show that President Joe Biden’s election-year plan to dramatically raise EV sales is running into resistance from American drivers. Only 13% of U.S. adults say they or someone in their household owns or leases a gas-hybrid car, and just 9% own or lease an electric vehicle.  

Caleb Jud of Cincinnati said he’s considering an EV, but may end up with a plug-in hybrid — if he goes electric. While Cincinnati winters aren’t extremely cold, “the thought of getting stuck in the driveway with an EV that won’t run is worrisome, and I know it wouldn’t be an issue with a plug-in hybrid,″ he said. Freezing temperatures can slow chemical reactions in EV batteries, depleting power and reducing driving range.

A new rule from the Environmental Protection Agency requires that about 56% of all new vehicle sales be electric by 2032, along with at least 13% plug-in hybrids or other partially electric cars. Auto companies are investing billions in factories and battery technology in an effort to speed up the switch to EVs to cut pollution, fight climate change — and meet the deadline.  

EVs are a key part of Biden’s climate agenda. Republicans led by presumptive nominee Donald Trump are turning it into a campaign issue.  

Younger people are more open to eventually purchasing an EV than older adults. More than half of those under 45 say they are at least “somewhat” likely to consider an EV purchase. About 32% of those over 45 are somewhat likely to buy an EV, the poll shows.  

But only 21% of U.S. adults say they are “very” or “extremely” likely to buy an EV for their next car, according to the poll, and 21% call it somewhat likely. Worries about cost are widespread, as are other practical concerns.  

Range anxiety – the idea that EVs cannot go far enough on a single charge and may leave a driver stranded — continues to be a major reason why many Americans do not purchase electric vehicles.  

About half of U.S. adults cite worries about range as a major reason not to buy an EV. About 4 in 10 say a major strike against EVs is that they take too long to charge or they don’t know of any public charging stations nearby.  

Concern about range is leading some to consider gas-engine hybrids, which allow driving even when the battery runs out. Jud, a 33-year-old operations specialist and political independent, said a hybrid “is more than enough for my about-town shopping, dropping my son off at school” and other uses.  

With EV prices declining, cost would not be a factor, Jud said — a minority view among those polled. Nearly 6 in 10 adults cite cost as a major reason why they would not purchase an EV.  

Price is a bigger concern among older adults.  

The average price for a new EV was $52,314 in February, according to Kelley Blue Book. That’s down by 12.8% from a year earlier, but still higher than the average price for all new vehicles of $47,244, the report said.

Jose Valdez of San Antonio owns three EVs, including a new Mustang Mach-E. With a tax credit and other incentives, the sleek new car cost about $49,000, Valdez said. He thinks it’s well worth the money.  

“People think they cost an arm and a leg, but once they experience (driving) an EV, they’ll have a different mindset,” said Valdez, a retired state maintenance worker. 

The 45-year-old Republican said he does not believe in climate change. “I care more about saving green” dollars, he said, adding that he loves the EV’s quiet ride and the fact he doesn’t have to pay for gas or maintenance. EVs have fewer parts than gas-powered cars and generally cost less to maintain. Valdez installed his home charger himself for less than $700 and uses it for all three family cars, the Mustang and two older Ford hybrids.

With a recently purchased converter, he can also charge at a nearby Tesla supercharger station, Valdez said.  

About half of those who say they live in rural areas cite lack of charging infrastructure as a major factor in not buying an EV, compared with 4 in 10 of those living in urban communities.  

Daphne Boyd, of Ocala, Florida, has no interest in owning an EV. There are few public chargers near her rural home “and EVs don’t make any environmental sense,″ she said, citing precious metals that must be mined to make batteries, including in some countries that rely on child labor or other unsafe conditions. She also worries that heavy EV batteries increase wear-and-tear on tires and make the cars less efficient. Experts say extra battery weight can wear on tires but say proper maintenance and careful driving can extend tire life.  

Boyd, a 54-year-old Republican and self-described farm wife, said EVs may eventually make economic and environmental sense, but “they’re not where they need to be” to convince her to buy one now or in the immediate future.

Ruth Mitchell, a novelist from Eureka Springs, Arkansas, loves her EV. “It’s wonderful — quiet, great pickup, cheap to drive. I rave about it on Facebook,″ she said.

Mitchell, a 70-year-old Democrat, charges her Chevy Volt hybrid at home but says there are several public chargers near her house. She’s not looking for a new car, Mitchell said, but when she does it will be electric: “I won’t drive anything else.”

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South Africa’s first retrofitted electric minibus taxi exceeds expectations

Minibus taxis are everywhere in South Africa, and all of them run on gasoline. But engineers at one university are hoping to change that as they are getting better-than-expected results from their all-electric minibus taxi. Vicky Stark has the story from Cape Town, South Africa.

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Next Boeing CEO should understand past mistakes, airlines boss says 

DUBAI — The next CEO of Boeing BA.N should have an understanding of what led to its current crisis and be prepared to look outside for examples of best industrial practices, the head of the International Air Transport Association said on Sunday.

U.S. planemaker Boeing is engulfed in a sprawling safety crisis, exacerbated by a January mid-air panel blowout on a near new 737 MAX plane. CEO Dave Calhoun is due to leave the company by the end of the year as part of a broader management shake-up, but Boeing has not yet named a replacement.

“It is not for me to say who should be running Boeing. But I think an understanding of what went wrong in the past, that’s very important,” IATA Director General Willie Walsh told Reuters TV at an airlines conference in Dubai, adding that Boeing was taking the right steps.

IATA represents more than 300 airlines or around 80% of global traffic.

“Our industry benefits from learning from mistakes, and sharing that learning with everybody,” he said, adding that this process should include “an acknowledgement of what went wrong, looking at best practice, looking at what others do.”

He said it was critical that the industry has a culture “where people feel secure in putting their hands up and saying things aren’t working the way they should do.”

Boeing is facing investigations by U.S. regulators, possible prosecution for past actions and slumping production of its strongest-selling jet, the 737 MAX.

‘Right steps’

Calhoun, a Boeing board member since 2009 and former GE executive, was brought in as CEO in 2020 to help turn the planemaker around following two fatal crashes involving the MAX, its strongest-selling jet.

But the planemaker has lost market share to competitor Airbus AIR.PA, with its stock losing nearly 32% of its value this year as MAX production plummeted this spring.

“The industry is frustrated by the problems as a result of the issues that Boeing have encountered. But personally, I’m pleased to see that they are taking the right steps,” Walsh said.

Delays in the delivery of new jets from both Boeing and Airbus are part of wider problems in the aerospace supply chain and aircraft maintenance industry complicating airline growth plans.

Walsh said supply chain problems are not easing as fast as airlines want and could last into 2025 or 2026.

“It’s probably a positive that it’s not getting worse, but I think it’s going to be a feature of the industry for a couple of years to come,” he said.

Earlier this year IATA brought together a number of airlines and manufacturers to discuss ways to ease the situation, Walsh said.

“We’re trying to ensure that there’s an open dialogue and honesty,” between them, he said.

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‘Open source’ investigators use satellites to identify burned Darfur villages

Investigators using satellite imagery to document the war in western Sudan’s Darfur region say 72 villages were burned down in April, the most they have seen since the conflict began. Henry Wilkins talks with the people who do this research about how so-called open-source investigations could be crucial in holding those responsible for the violence to account.

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Robot will try to remove nuclear debris from Japan’s destroyed reactor

TOKYO — The operator of Japan’s destroyed Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant demonstrated Tuesday how a remote-controlled robot would retrieve tiny bits of melted fuel debris from one of three damaged reactors later this year for the first time since the 2011 meltdown.

Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings plans to deploy a “telesco-style” extendable pipe robot into Fukushima Daiichi No. 2 reactor to test the removal of debris from its primary containment vessel by October.

That work is more than two years behind schedule. The removal of melted fuel was supposed to begin in late 2021 but has been plagued with delays, underscoring the difficulty of recovering from the magnitude 9.0 quake and tsunami in 2011.

During the demonstration at the Mitsubishi Heavy Industries’ shipyard in Kobe, western Japan, where the robot has been developed, a device equipped with tongs slowly descended from the telescopic pipe to a heap of gravel and picked up a granule.

TEPCO plans to remove less than 3 grams (0.1 ounce) of debris in the test at the Fukushima plant.

“We believe the upcoming test removal of fuel debris from Unit 2 is an extremely important step to steadily carry out future decommissioning work,” said Yusuke Nakagawa, a TEPCO group manager for the fuel debris retrieval program. “It is important to proceed with the test removal safely and steadily.”

About 880 tons of highly radioactive melted nuclear fuel remain inside the three damaged reactors. Critics say the 30- to 40-year cleanup target set by the government and TEPCO for Fukushima Daiichi is overly optimistic. The damage in each reactor is different, and plans must accommodate their conditions.

Better understanding the melted fuel debris from inside the reactors is key to their decommissioning. TEPCO deployed four mini drones into the No. 1 reactor’s primary containment vessel earlier this year to capture images from the areas where robots had not reached.

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New cars in California could alert drivers for breaking the speed limit

SACRAMENTO, California — California could eventually join the European Union in requiring all new cars to alert drivers when they break the speed limit, a proposal aimed at reducing traffic deaths that would likely impact motorists across the country should it become law.

The federal government sets safety standards for vehicles nationwide, which is why most cars now beep at drivers if their seat belt isn’t fastened. A bill in the California Legislature — which passed its first vote in the state Senate on Tuesday — would go further by requiring all new cars sold in the state by 2032 to beep at drivers when they exceed the speed limit by at least 16 kph.

“Research has shown that this does have an impact in getting people to slow down, particularly since some people don’t realize how fast that their car is going,” said state Sen. Scott Wiener, a Democrat from San Francisco and the bill’s author.

The bill narrowly passed Tuesday, an indication of the tough road it could face. Republican state Sen. Brian Dahle said he voted against it in part because he said sometimes people need to drive faster than the speed limit in an emergency.

“It’s just a nanny state that we’re causing here,” he said.

While the goal is to reduce traffic deaths, the legislation would likely impact all new car sales in the U.S. That’s because California’s auto market is so large that car makers would likely just make all of their vehicles comply with the state’s law.

California often throws its weight around to influence national — and international — policy. California has set its own emission standards for cars for decades, rules that more than a dozen other states have also adopted. And when California announced it would eventually ban the sale of new gas-powered cars, major automakers soon followed with their own announcement to phase out fossil-fuel vehicles.

The technology, known as intelligent speed assistance, uses GPS technology to compare a vehicle’s speed with a dataset of posted speed limits. Once the car is at least 16 kph over the speed limit, the system would emit “a brief, one-time visual and audio signal to alert the driver.”

It would not require California to maintain a list of posted speed limits. That would be left to manufacturers. It’s likely these maps would not include local roads or recent changes in speed limits, resulting in conflicts.

The bill states that if the system receives conflicting information about the speed limit, it must use the higher limit.

The technology is not new and has been used in Europe for years. Starting later this year, the European Union will require all new cars sold there to have the technology — although drivers would be able to turn it off.

The National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration estimates that 10% of all car crashes reported to police in 2021 were speeding related — including an 8% increase in speeding-related fatalities. This was especially a problem in California, where 35% of traffic fatalities were speeding-related — the second highest in the country, according to a legislative analysis of the proposal.

Last year, the National Transportation Safety Board recommended federal regulators require all new cars to alert drivers when speeding. Their recommendation came after a crash in January 2022 when a man with a history of speeding violations was traveling more than 100 miles per hour when he ran a red light and hit a minivan, killing himself and eight other people.

The NTSB has no authority and can only make recommendations.

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China’s Digital Silk Road exports internet technology, controls

washington — China promotes its help to Southeast Asian countries in modernizing their digital landscapes through investments in infrastructure as part of its “Digital Silk Road.” But rights groups say Beijing is also exporting its model of authoritarian governance of the internet through censorship, surveillance and controls.

China’s state media this week announced Chinese electrical appliance manufacturer Midea Group jointly built its first overseas 5G factory in Thailand with Thai mobile operator AIS, Chinese telecom service provider China Unicom and tech giant Huawei.

The 208,000-square-meter smart factory will have its own 5G network, Xinhua news agency reported.

Earlier this month, Beijing reached an agreement with Cambodia to establish a Digital Law Library of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Inter-Parliamentary Assembly. Cambodia’s Khmer Times said the objective is to “expand all-round cooperation in line with the strategic partnership and building a common destiny community.”

But parallel to China’s state media-promoted technology investments, rights groups say Beijing is also helping countries in the region to build what they call “digital authoritarian governance.”

Article 19, an international human rights organization dedicated to promoting freedom of expression globally and named after Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in an April report said the purpose of the Digital Silk Road is not solely to promote China’s technology industry. The report, China: The rise of digital repression in the Indo-Pacific, says Beijing is also using its technology to reshape the region’s standards of digital freedom and governance to increasingly match its own.

VOA contacted the Chinese Embassy in the U.S. for a response but did not receive one by the time of publication.

Model of digital governance

Looking at case studies of Cambodia, Malaysia, Nepal and Thailand, the Article 19 report says Beijing is spreading China’s model of digital governance along with Chinese technology and investments from companies such as Huawei, ZTE and Alibaba.

Michael Caster, Asia digital program manager with Article 19, told VOA, “China has been successful at providing a needed service, in the delivery of digital development toward greater connectivity, but also in making digital development synonymous with the adoption of PRC [People’s Republic of China]-style digital governance, which is at odds with international human rights and internet freedom principles, by instead promoting notions of total state control through censorship and surveillance, and digital sovereignty away from universal norms.”

The group says in Thailand, home to the world’s largest overseas Chinese community, agreements with China bolstered internet controls imposed after Thailand’s 2014 coup, and it notes that Bangkok has since been considering a China-style Great Firewall, the censorship mechanism Beijing uses to control online content.

In Nepal, the report notes security and intelligence-sharing agreements with China and concerns that Chinese security camera technology is being used to surveil exiled Tibetans, the largest such group outside India.

The group says Malaysia’s approach to information infrastructure appears to increasingly resemble China’s model, citing Kuala Lumpur’s cybersecurity law passed in April and its partnering with Chinese companies whose technology has been used for repressing minorities inside China.

Most significantly, Article 19 says China is involved at “all levels” of Cambodia’s digital ecosystem. Huawei, which is facing increasing bans in Western nations over cybersecurity concerns, has a monopoly on cloud services in Cambodia.

While Chinese companies say they would not hand over private data to Beijing, experts doubt they would have any choice because of national security laws.

Internet gateway

Phnom Penh announced a decree in 2021 to build a National Internet Gateway similar to China’s Great Firewall, restricting the Cambodian people’s access to Western media and social networking sites.

“That we have seen the normalization of a China-style Great Firewall in some of the countries where China’s influence is most pronounced or its digital development support strongest, such as with Cambodia, is no coincidence,” Caster said.

The Cambodian government says the portal will strengthen national security and help combat tax fraud and cybercrime. But the Internet Society, a U.S.- and Switzerland-based nonprofit internet freedom group, says it would allow the government to monitor individual internet use and transactions, and to trace identities and locations.

Kian Vesteinsson, a senior researcher for technology and democracy with rights group Freedom House, told VOA, “The Chinese Communist Party and companies that are aligned with the Chinese state have led a charge internationally to push for internet fragmentation. And when I say internet fragmentation, I mean these efforts to carve out domestic internets that are isolated from global internet traffic.”

Despite Chinese support and investment, Vesteinsson notes that Cambodia has not yet implemented the plan for a government-controlled internet.

“Building the Chinese model of digital authoritarianism into a country’s internet infrastructure is extraordinarily difficult. It’s expensive. It requires technical capacity. It requires state capacity, and all signs point to the Cambodian government struggling on those fronts.”

Vesteinsson says while civil society and foreign political pressure play a role, business concerns are also relevant as requirements to censor online speech or spy on users create costs for the private sector.

“These governments that are trying to cultivate e-commerce should keep in mind that a legal environment that is free from these obligations to do censorship and surveillance will be more appealing to companies that are evaluating whether to start up domestic operations,” he said.

Article 19’s Caster says countries concerned about China’s authoritarian internet model spreading should do more to support connectivity and internet development worldwide.

“This support should be based on human rights law and internet freedom principles,” he said, “to prevent China from exploiting internet development needs to position its services – and often by extension its authoritarian model – as the most accessible option.”

China will hold its annual internet conference in Beijing July 9-11. China’s Xinhua news agency reports this year’s conference will discuss artificial intelligence, digital government, information technology application innovation, data security and international cooperation.

Adrianna Zhang contributed to this report.

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Attempts to regulate AI’s hidden hand in Americans’ lives flounder

DENVER — The first attempts to regulate artificial intelligence programs that play a hidden role in hiring, housing and medical decisions for millions of Americans are facing pressure from all sides and floundering in statehouses nationwide.

Only one of seven bills aimed at preventing AI’s penchant to discriminate when making consequential decisions — including who gets hired, money for a home or medical care — has passed. Colorado Gov. Jared Polis hesitantly signed the bill on Friday.

Colorado’s bill and those that faltered in Washington, Connecticut and elsewhere faced battles on many fronts, including between civil rights groups and the tech industry, and lawmakers wary of wading into a technology few yet understand and governors worried about being the odd-state-out and spooking AI startups.

Polis signed Colorado’s bill “with reservations,” saying in an statement he was wary of regulations dousing AI innovation. The bill has a two-year runway and can be altered before it becomes law.

“I encourage (lawmakers) to significantly improve on this before it takes effect,” Polis wrote.

Colorado’s proposal, along with six sister bills, are complex, but will broadly require companies to assess the risk of discrimination from their AI and inform customers when AI was used to help make a consequential decision for them.

The bills are separate from more than 400 AI-related bills that have been debated this year. Most are aimed at slices of AI, such as the use of deepfakes in elections or to make pornography.

The seven bills are more ambitious, applying across major industries and targeting discrimination, one of the technology’s most perverse and complex problems.

“We actually have no visibility into the algorithms that are used, whether they work or they don’t, or whether we’re discriminated against,” said Rumman Chowdhury, AI envoy for the U.S. Department of State who previously led Twitter’s AI ethics team.

While anti-discrimination laws are already on the books, those who study AI discrimination say it’s a different beast, which the U.S. is already behind in regulating.

“The computers are making biased decisions at scale,” said Christine Webber, a civil rights attorney who has worked on class action lawsuits over discrimination including against Boeing and Tyson Foods. Now, Webber is nearing final approval on one of the first-in-the-nation settlements in a class action over AI discrimination.

“Not, I should say, that the old systems were perfectly free from bias either,” said Webber. But “any one person could only look at so many resumes in the day. So you could only make so many biased decisions in one day and the computer can do it rapidly across large numbers of people.”

When you apply for a job, an apartment or a home loan, there’s a good chance AI is assessing your application: sending it up the line, assigning it a score or filtering it out. It’s estimated as many as 83% of employers use algorithms to help in hiring, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

AI itself doesn’t know what to look for in a job application, so it’s taught based on past resumes. The historical data that is used to train algorithms can smuggle in bias.

Amazon, for example, worked on a hiring algorithm that was trained on old resumes: largely male applicants. When assessing new applicants, it downgraded resumes with the word “women’s” or that listed women’s colleges because they were not represented in the historical data — the resumes — it had learned from. The project was scuttled.

Webber’s class action lawsuit alleges that an AI system that scores rental applications disproportionately assigned lower scores to Black or Hispanic applicants. A study found that an AI system built to assess medical needs passed over Black patients for special care.

Studies and lawsuits have allowed a glimpse under the hood of AI systems, but most algorithms remain veiled. Americans are largely unaware that these tools are being used, polling from Pew Research shows. Companies generally aren’t required to explicitly disclose that an AI was used.

“Just pulling back the curtain so that we can see who’s really doing the assessing and what tool is being used is a huge, huge first step,” said Webber. “The existing laws don’t work if we can’t get at least some basic information.”

That’s what Colorado’s bill, along with another surviving bill in California, are trying to change. The bills, including a flagship proposal in Connecticut that was killed under opposition from the governor, are largely similar.

Colorado’s bill will require companies using AI to help make consequential decisions for Americans to annually assess their AI for potential bias; implement an oversight program within the company; tell the state attorney general if discrimination was found; and inform to customers when an AI was used to help make a decision for them, including an option to appeal.

Labor unions and academics fear that a reliance on companies overseeing themselves means it’ll be hard to proactively address discrimination in an AI system before it’s done damage. Companies are fearful that forced transparency could reveal trade secrets, including in potential litigation, in this hyper-competitive new field.

AI companies also pushed for, and generally received, a provision that only allows the attorney general, not citizens, to file lawsuits under the new law. Enforcement details have been left up to the attorney general.

While larger AI companies have more or less been on board with these proposals, a group of smaller Colorado-based AI companies said the requirements might be manageable by behemoth AI companies, but not by budding startups.

“We are in a brand new era of primordial soup,” said Logan Cerkovnik, founder of Thumper.ai, referring to the field of AI. “Having overly restrictive legislation that forces us into definitions and restricts our use of technology while this is forming is just going to be detrimental to innovation.”

All agreed, along with many AI companies, that what’s formally called “algorithmic discrimination” is critical to tackle. But they said the bill as written falls short of that goal. Instead, they proposed beefing up existing anti-discrimination laws.

Chowdhury worries that lawsuits are too costly and time consuming to be an effective enforcement tool, and laws should instead go beyond what even Colorado is proposing. Instead, Chowdhury and academics have proposed accredited, independent organization that can explicitly test for potential bias in an AI algorithm.

“You can understand and deal with a single person who is discriminatory or biased,” said Chowdhury. “What do we do when it’s embedded into the entire institution?”

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