Silicon Valley & Technology

US Drops Effort to Force Twitter to Reveal Anti-Trump Account

The U.S. government on Friday dropped its effort to force Twitter to identify users behind an account critical of President Donald Trump, the social media company said.

In response, Twitter said it was dropping a federal lawsuit against the U.S. government that challenged the request to unmask the users.

Twitter had sued just a day earlier, claiming the government overstepped its authority in issuing a summons to reveal the account owners.

The lawsuit said that the Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Customs and Border Protection had sought the identity of the users of Twitter handle @ALT-USCIS.

‘Alternative’ handles

The account describes itself as “immigration resistance.” Its creators told media outlets the account is run by current and former employees of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), which is overseen by the Department of Homeland Security.

It is one of several “alternative” handles purportedly created by current federal employees unhappy with the Trump administration.

It was not immediately clear why the government withdrew its effort to identify the Twitter users. It was also not immediately known whether the government had closed an investigation it said it was conducting into the Twitter account.

The American Civil Liberties Union praised the government’s decision to withdraw its request, saying in a tweet, “Big victory for free speech and the right to dissent.”

Arts & Entertainment

Politics Pierces Nostalgia at Rock Hall of Fame Induction

Late rapper Tupac Shakur and 1960s protest singer Joan Baez were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on Friday on a night where nostalgia was mixed with calls to political action.

Former Journey frontman Steve Perry reunited on stage with his “Don’t Stop Believin'” bandmates for the first time in 25 years to screams and hugs of joy, while Roy Wood of Electric Light Orchestra turned up for the New York ceremony 45 years after leaving the English band.

But one of the strongest moments came from Baez, 76, who linked her lifelong record of social activism and non-violence with a rallying call for resistance today.

“Let us together repeal and replace brutality and make compassion a priority. Let us build a great bridge, a beautiful bridge, to welcome the tired and the poor,” Baez told the Hall of Fame audience.

A comeback for Baez?

Baez then played an acoustic version of the traditional spiritual “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” and ended with the hope that the song’s band of angels were “coming for to carry me, you, us, even Donald Trump, home.”

Baez enjoyed a new round of fame this week with a protest song called “Nasty Man” about U.S. President Donald Trump.

It was her first songwriting effort in 25 years and has been viewed some 3.3 million times since it was posted on her Facebook page on Tuesday.

Shakur is sixth rapper to be inducted

Emotions ran high for the induction of Shakur, the Harlem-born rapper who was gunned down at age 25 in a 1996 drive-by shooting in Las Vegas that has never been resolved.

Shakur, whose songs about social and racial injustice still resonate today, was only the 6th rap act to be inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in its 30-year history.

Fellow rapper Snoop Dogg recalled he and Shakur in the early 1990s as “two black boys struggling to become men.”

“Tupac’s a part of history for a reason — because he made history. He’s hip hop history. He’s American history,” Snoop said.

“Tupac, we love you. You will always be right with us. They can’t take this away from you homie,” he said, accepting the statuette on Shakur’s behalf.

British progressive rock group Yes, and Seattle-based grunge band Pearl Jam were also among the 2017 inductees, who were chosen by more than 900 voters drawn from the music industry.

Chuck Berry, Prince also honored

Disco producer Nile Rodgers, the man behind 1970s hits like “Le Freak” and “We Are Family,” was presented with a special award for musical excellence.

Artists are eligible for induction 25 years after the release of their first recording.

Tributes were also paid on Friday to Chuck Berry, who died last month at age 90 and who was the first person ever to be inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986, and Prince, who died of an accidental painkiller overdose in April 2016.

The 2017 induction ceremony will be broadcast on cable channel HBO on April 29.


Science & Health

On World Health Day, WHO Focuses on Depression as Health Issue

The World Health Organization Friday marked World Health Day with the warning that depression is the most common cause of ill health, affecting some 300 million people worldwide. The U.N. agency is urging people to seek treatment for depression, which can lead to disability and even death.

WHO says conflict, wars and natural disasters are major risk factors for depression.  

WHO estimates one in five people affected by these events suffers from depression or anxiety. Given the magnitude of the problem, it says mental health and psychosocial assistance should be a part of all humanitarian assistance.  

Apart from these situations, WHO reports depression is the leading cause of disability. The director of WHO’s department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse, Shekhar Saxena, says depression is behind a global epidemic of death by suicide.

“All over the world, 800,000 people die because of suicide every year and this converts into a death every 40 seconds,” said Saxena. “So, while we are dealing with the number of deaths, which are of course very unfortunate in conflicts and wars, we also need to remember that there are silent epidemics going on in the world, which are also killing a very large number of people without obvious headlines and banners.”  

Saxena tells VOA there is no significant difference in the prevalence of depression between developed and developing countries. He notes the majority of people with depression lives in low- and middle-income countries.

“Depression is more common amongst the women – 5.1 percent versus 3.6 percent amongst men,” said Saxena. “Other risk factors include poverty, discrimination, and all adverse life situations – either chronic or acute, especially amongst young people.”  

Saxena says treatment usually involves psychotherapy, antidepressant medication or a combination of both. He says it is not necessary to have a specialist treat depression. He says the so-called talking cure administered by general doctors, nurses, or health care workers can be just as effective.

Economy & business

US Unemployment Rate Falls, But Economy Gains Just 98k Jobs

The U.S. economy had a net gain of 98,000 jobs in March, which is much weaker job growth than most economists expected.

Payroll growth was slowed by stormy weather in March after unusually good weather helped growth in January and February, according to economist Jed Kolko, of the job web site “Indeed.”

Friday’s report from the Labor Department also said the unemployment rate fell two-tenths of a percent, to 4.5 percent. Government data show that is the lowest level since April, 2007.  The unemployment rate has been five percent or lower for well over a year.

The slight decline in the jobless rate is due to 145,000 people entering the workforce and nearly half a million Americans finding jobs, according to S&P Global Rating’s economist Beth Ann Bovino. She says this is the latest in a series of mostly positive reports on the job market.   

PNC Bank economist Gus Faucher says the job market “is getting tighter and business are finding it more difficult to hire.”  That may force employers to raise wages to attract and keep workers.  

Job gains were found in professional and business services and mining, while retail continued to lose positions.  Faucher also said problems in retail may reflect a shift from traditional stores to on-line commerce.  That shift is evident in the announcement that several major retail chains are closing a large number of stories, according to economist Dean Baker of the Center for Economic and Policy Research.

While the report shows that the total number of unemployed Americans fell by over 300,000, there are still 7.2 million people out of work across the country.  


Science & Health

Unlocking Mysteries of a Fly’s Eye

We have radars to track flying objects, but a tiny fly may be even better at tracking and grabbing fast moving prey. Scientists at the University of Cambridge learned that not only the number of lenses in the fly’s eye, but also their variety, help it focus on fast moving objects. VOA’s George Putic reports.

Science & Health

Air Force Space Chief Open to Flying on Recycled SpaceX Rockets

The U.S. Air Force is open to buying rides on previously flown SpaceX rockets to put military satellites into orbit, a move expected to cut launch costs for the Pentagon, the head of the Air Force Space Command said on Thursday.

The idea of flying on recycled rockets became a reality a week ago when privately owned Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX, launched a communications satellite on a Falcon 9 booster that previously put a cargo ship into orbit for NASA.

That Falcon main stage had been recovered from a successful return landing on an ocean platform shortly after its maiden flight last April, then was relaunched and salvaged again last Thursday, marking a spaceflight first.

“I would be comfortable if we were to fly on a reused booster,” General John “Jay” Raymond told reporters at the U.S. Space Symposium in Colorado Springs. “They’ve proven they can do it. … It’s going to get us to lower cost.”

SpaceX has so far won three launch contracts to fly military and national security satellites – business previously awarded exclusively to United Launch Alliance, a partnership of Lockheed Martin and Boeing.

All those flights will take place on new Falcon 9 rockets.

SpaceX, owned and operated by technology entrepreneur Elon Musk, has a backlog of more than 70 missions worth more than $10 billion.

After last week’s landmark launch, Musk said the company planned to fly about 20 more rockets this year, including the debut blastoff of its new heavy-lift vehicle. Up to six of those missions, including the Falcon Heavy, will use previously flown boosters, he said.

Speaking at the symposium on Wednesday, SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell said the cost of refurbishing and reflying the Falcon 9 first stage was “substantially less than half” the cost of manufacturing a new booster – the most expensive part of the rocket. SpaceX’s website lists the cost of a basic Falcon 9 launch at $62 million.

SpaceX expects to reduce costs even further.

The company’s next goal is to launch and return a rocket and relaunch it within 24 hours. “That’s when we’ll really feel like we’ve got reusability right,” Shotwell said.

Raymond said the Air Force would need to certify that a used booster could safely deliver its satellites into orbit.

“I’m pretty comfortable we’ll get comfortable with doing it,” Raymond said. “This is just beginning.”

Silicon Valley & Technology

Twitter Refuses US Order to Reveal User Behind Anti-Trump Account

Twitter on Thursday sued to block an order by the U.S. government demanding that it reveal who is behind an account opposed to President Donald Trump’s tough immigration policies.

Twitter cited freedom of speech as a basis for not turning over records about the account, @ALT_uscis. The account is claimed to be the work of at least one federal immigration employee, according to the lawsuit filed in San Francisco federal court.

The acronym USCIS refers to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, and the account describes itself as “immigration resistance.” Trump has vowed to build a wall along the U.S. border with Mexico and has promised to deport millions of illegal immigrants.

Following Trump’s inauguration in January, anonymous Twitter feeds that borrowed the names and logos of more than a dozen U.S. government agencies appeared to challenge the president’s views on climate change and other issues. They called themselves “alt” accounts.

Twitter spokesman Nick Pacilio declined to comment on whether the government had demanded information about other accounts critical of Trump.

User privacy advocate

Twitter, which counts Trump among its active users, has a record of litigating in favor of user privacy.

“The rights of free speech afforded Twitter’s users and Twitter itself under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution include a right to disseminate such anonymous or pseudonymous political speech,” Twitter said in the lawsuit.

The Department of Homeland Security, which is a defendant in the lawsuit, declined to comment on pending litigation. The Justice Department, which typically represents federal agencies in court, and the White House had no immediate comment.

Senator Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, said in a statement that it was a waste of resources to try to uncover an anonymous critic, and he called on the Homeland Security inspector general to investigate who directed the “witch hunt.”

Esha Bhandari, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, which is representing the Twitter user, said the government’s request was highly unusual. Requests for social media account information from the U.S. government typically involve national security or criminal charges, she said.

“We have seen no reason the government has given for seeking to unmask this speaker’s identity,” Bhandari said, adding that the right to anonymous speech against the government is “a bedrock American value” strongly protected under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

Tweeter’s response

Shortly after the lawsuit became public, @ALT_uscis tweeted a copy of the First Amendment and a picture of part of the lawsuit. The account’s followers nearly tripled to 89,000 in the hours after the news broke.

For weeks the account has posted criticism of the administration. It tweeted a parody of the game bingo for “right-wing idiots,” said that some anti-immigration advocates must have been dropped on their heads at birth, and mocked Trump for not giving more of his wealth to charities.

Twitter said it received an administrative summons last month demanding that it provide records related to the account.

A copy of the summons filed with the lawsuit says the records are needed for an investigation to ensure compliance with duties, taxes and fines, and other customs and immigration matters.

It was not immediately clear how the anonymous account fit into those laws and regulations, and Twitter said the summons was an abuse of a law meant to be used to investigate imported merchandise.

Twitter might have a strong case that the summons was improper, said Paul Alan Levy, staff attorney at Public Citizen Litigation Group, who specializes in online privacy and free speech issues.

“I don’t think there is any way for the government to come out of this looking good,” Levy said.

There is no indication that the White House was aware of the summons, which was signed by a Florida-based supervisor who works in an office that investigates employee corruption, misconduct and mismanagement. The supervisor could not be reached for comment.

The summons requested, but apparently did not order, that Twitter keep the document private.

Past battles

The social media company has a history of challenging government demands for information on its users, including a 2012 demand from New York prosecutors about an Occupy Wall Street protester. In that case, Twitter was forced to hand over tweets from the protester to a judge who threatened the company with sanctions, and the protester pleaded guilty of disorderly conduct.

Twitter sued the U.S. Department of Justice in 2014, seeking permission to publicly disclose more information about requests it gets from U.S. authorities for information about its users.

The lawsuit was partly dismissed last year.

Among the lawyers representing Twitter in the latest case is Seth Waxman, a former high-ranking Justice Department official under President Bill Clinton.

Science & Health

Kentucky Coal Museum Gets Power From Solar Panels

Don’t look to the Kentucky Coal Museum to bring coal back.

The museum is installing solar panels on its roof, part of a project aimed at lowering the energy costs of one of the city’s largest electric customers. It’s also a symbol of the state’s efforts to move away from coal as its primary energy source as more coal-fired power plants are replaced by natural gas. The state legislature recently lifted its decades-old ban on nuclear power.

“It’s a little ironic or coincidental that you are putting solar green energy on a coal museum,” said Roger Noe, a former state representative who sponsored the legislation that created the coal museum. “Coal comes from nature, the sunrays come from nature, so it all works out to be a positive thing.”

The museum is in Benham, once a coal camp town whose population peaked at about 3,000, according to Mayor Wanda Humphrey, 85.  Today, it has about 500 people.

The town’s second building was a company commissary known as the “big store,” where Humphrey would visit every day after school to order an RC Cola and a bag of peanuts, charged to her father’s account. Today, that building houses the Kentucky Coal Museum, which opened in 1994 with the help of some state funding. The museum houses relics from the state’s coal mining past, including some items from the personal collection of “Coal Miner’s Daughter” country singer Loretta Lynn.

It’s also the best place in town to get the most direct sunlight, which made it an ideal location for solar panels.

“The people here are sort of in awe of this solar thing,” Humphrey said.

The Southeast Community and Technical College, which owns the museum, expects the solar panels to save between $8,000 and $10,000 a year on energy costs, according to spokesman Brandon Robinson.