Obama (finally) confirms drone strikes in Pakistan

Barack Obama has confirmed for the first time that US drones have been used to target individuals in Pakistan, the Telegraph reports.

In a chat with web users on Google+ and YouTube, Obama discussed for the first time the covert drone program that has dramatically escalated under the Obama administration. Previously the administration refused to discuss the strikes publicly.

Talking down the estimated civilian casualties as a result of the strikes, Obama said: “I want to make sure the people understand actually drones have not caused a huge number of civilian casualties. For the most part they have been very precise, precision strikes against Al-Qaeda and their affiliates, and we’re very careful in terms of how it’s been applied.”

The New America Foundation think tank in Washington says drone strikes in Pakistan have killed between 1,715 and 2,680 people in the past eight years, while the Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimates between 2,386 and 3,015 people have been killed including between 391 and 780 civilians and around 175 children killed. It is not known whether Obama is accepting these civilian death counts as not being a “huge number” or whether his own administration has much lower estimated death counts. Either way, human rights campaigners have expressed deep concern over increased use of drone strikes.

Obama has increased drone strikes since he came into presidency. The Telegraph has a video of Obama discussing the drone strikes for the first time.

Reflection on Newsgathering

Recently, we were tasked with a news-gathering exercise for our News and Journalism unit. We were to find out how Bournemouth University was “responding to the cold spell”, and set off across the campus to interview people. The campus was fairly empty, mainly due to a combination of the cold weather and the early start to the day. 10:15am is still seen as the crack of dawn for students, I mused. Nevertheless, we approached those that we encountered, hoping to gather quotes and information to aid our task.

At first, we felt slightly out of place. Those that we did encounter were generally wrapped up warm and rushing to their lecture or the warmth of the inside. We were also aware that our question regarding the cold weather was not the most interesting of topics. Nevertheless, we persevered and found some interesting people to talk to. It seemed as if each person had an interesting tale to tell. One of the first people we stopped was a student from Gran Canaria. She overslept and missed her first snow the previous week, when it settled on Bournemouth’s soil for a few hours. She complained that she had no money for scarves, and was keen to head inside into the warmth. We spoke to another student named Max who had a penchant for sky-diving, a Scottish visitor who said the cold weather was actually “quite nice”, and two students named Laura and Lizzy who said they were keeping their heating constantly on at home, not able to brave the cold. Afterwards, we headed into the library and spoke to a student named Ari who hailed from Northeast China and said the cold snap was “alright for him”. He told us he preferred the weather in Bournemouth, as temperatures at his hometown fell to around -31 degrees.

Although we were apprehensive at first, we quickly felt at ease speaking with people. It seemed like everyone had a story to tell, or had information to share, once asked. In doing the exercise, we spoke to many interesting and diverse people, all reacting to the cold snap in different ways. While some kept their heating on constantly, others enjoyed the ‘mild’ Bournemouth weather.

Journalism: The bridge between the truth and the lies

I’ve always been interested in writing. As I grew older, I realised that I would love to write for a living and so I was drawn to journalism. Although creative writing also inspired me, I loved the attraction of journalistic writing. For me, creative writing would be something I did in my spare time, perhaps writing the odd segment for a never-published novel, while journalism was a potential career. Journalists, we are often told, are sometimes seen as gatekeepers. The fourth estate. The bridge between those in power and those who elect them. Throughout history, the power of journalism to inform and shape debate and opinion has been shown time and again, and journalists are needed now more than ever.

Journalism attracts me because of the nature of the job – writing profusely and investigating new things, meeting new people, sharing new experiences. Although I currently don’t have much experience in journalism, I aim to gain more and improve my skills in this area. Journalism is such a broad area, which is another attraction for me. I have always been in awe, and inspired by, investigative journalists. Their work has helped inform the public, shape government police, bring to light repressive regimes and illegal activities, and countless other achievements. Journalists such as John Pilger and Greg Palast, amongst many others, were a source of inspiration for me. Other areas of journalism that interest me are war, conflict and terrorism reporting as well as political journalism. It is my aim to gain more experience in journalism, to become comfortable in the various practises and gain valuable writing skills.

Journalism is under attack at the moment, from censorship, restrictive laws, and the threat of increased regulations which could harm the freedom of press. Even the internet, a tool used for freedom of expression and connectivity, is a potential threat to journalism. The rise in ‘citizen’ journalists for example and the near-instant speed that news, images and video can be shared means that traditional journalism will have to change and adapt, or risk being damaged… However, it is also true that we need journalism now more than ever. With governments threatening to censor the internet, with oppression and conflicts still raging across the globe, with government corruption and propaganda still present, journalism is still the bridge between the rulers and the people. The gap between the truth and the lies.

Google soon to merge all user data collected across its websites

English: Google Logo officially released on Ma...

Image via Wikipedia

Google has recently announced its controversial plan to merge all user data collected across its websites into one profile, which would then be used to target users with advertising and services and to further alter Google search results.

User data from Google products – including Gmail, Youtube, Google+, Google Maps, and even Android mobile – will be collated and treated as a single set of data to be used for various targeted services and revenue-generating schemes.

The Guardian reports that “users will have no way to opt out of being tracked across the board when the search company unifies its privacy policy and terms of service for all its online offerings, including search, Gmail and Google+. The move is being criticised by privacy advocates and could attract greater scrutiny from anti-trust regulators.”

Google’s director of privacy, product and engineering, Alma Whitten, wrote in a blogpost: “Our new Privacy Policy makes clear that, if you’re signed in, we may combine information you’ve provided from one service with information from other services. In short, we’ll treat you as a single user across all our products, which will mean a simpler, more intuitive Google experience.”

“Our recently launched personal search feature is a good example of the cool things Google can do when we combine information across products. Our search box now gives you great answers not just from the web, but your personal stuff too.”

“We can make search better—figuring out what you really mean when you type in Apple, Jaguar or Pink. We can provide more relevant ads too.”

The changes take place on March 1st, and users will be unable to opt out of the changes.

“Google’s new privacy announcement is frustrating and a little frightening,” said Common Sense Media chief executive James Steyer told the Washington Post. “Even if the company believes that tracking users across all platforms improves their services, consumers should still have the option to opt out — especially the kids and teens who are avid users of YouTube, Gmail and Google Search.”

Google can store cookies on people’s computers to see which Web sites they visit or use its popular maps program to estimate their location. It can collect information about users when they activate an Android mobile phone, sign into their accounts online or enter search terms. For the first time, this data will be collated across its services into one user profile .

“There is no way anyone expected this,” said Jeffrey Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, a privacy advocacy group. “There is no way a user can comprehend the implication of Google collecting across platforms for information about your health, political opinions and financial concerns.”

 Twitter, Facebook and Myspace have launched a tool called Don’t Be Evil – which is Google’s motto – that claims to neutralise any attempt by the search engine to skew results towards its Google+ service.

Mat Honan from Gizmodo wrote: “It means that things you could do in relative anonymity today, will be explicitly associated with your name, your face, your phone number.

“If you use Google’s services, you have to agree to this new privacy policy. It is an explicit reversal of its previous policies.”

An interested TED talk on Google is posted below. In it, Eli Pariser speaks about how Google is literally changing the way we view and use the internet, and not necessarily for the better.





US rank in press freedom drops due to targeting of journalists

The United States of America has dropped 27 places in a ranking of press freedom due to targeting of journalists covering the Occupy movement.

The US is now rank 47 on the Press Freedom Index, which stated that the country “owed its fall of 27 places to the many arrests of journalist covering Occupy Wall Street protests”. The index was released on Wednesday by Reporters Without Borders’.

Journalists covering the Occupy protest in 2011 were repeatedly targeted by police. The Huffington Post reported last year that: “Since September, journalists have been arrested in Boston, Nashville, Rochester, Richmond, Milwaukee, Oakland, Atlanta, and Chapel Hill, according to Josh Stearns, associate program director of Free Press, a non-partisan media reform organization. Journalists have also reported rough treatment at the hands of the cops along with difficulties obtaining press credentials under rigid and often arbitrary rules established by police departments in big cities.”

The Huffington Post also reported that “Reporter after reporter — many using the hashtag “#mediablackout” — tweeted through the night, saying that police had either blocked them from seeing what was happening or had acted violently towards them. Some correspondents were also among the scores of people arrested by police.

“At his press conference about the raid on Tuesday morning, Mayor Michael Bloomberg said journalists were barred from covering the raid “to protect members of the press,” and “to prevent a situation from getting worse.”

Reports of beatings, arrests and harassment led the US to drop 27 places on the Press Freedom Index. Iraq (152nd) fell back 22 places, close to its 2008 position (158th). Syria also fell in the index, to 176th position, due to “total censorship, widespread surveillance, indiscriminate violence and government manipulation made it impossible for journalists to work”, the index reported.

As it released its 10th annual press freedom index, Reporters Without Borders stated: “This year’s index sees many changes in the rankings, changes that reflect a year that was incredibly rich in developments, especially in the Arab world.

“Many media paid dearly for their coverage of democratic aspirations or opposition movements. Control of news and information continued to tempt governments and to be a question of survival for totalitarian and repressive regimes. The past year also highlighted the leading role played by netizens in producing and disseminating news.”

Embryonic stem cells could help blind to see again

Two patients who received retinal stem cell implants show potential signs of improved vision – despite having an incurable eye disease.

US firm Advanced Cell Technology told The Lancet that structural evidence confirmed the cells had attached to the eye’s membrane as hoped, and continued to survive throughout the next 16 weeks of the study, with no signs of rejection or abnormal cell growth.

The operation involved implanting embryonic stem cells into the damaged retina at the back of the eye. The controversial transplants of embryonic cells is part of an ambitious attempt to utilise stem cells. Stem cells have the ability to develop into any specialised tissue of the body. Such procedures face criticism from those who belief the use of human embryonic tissue to be unethical.

Dr Dusko Ilic, Senior Lecturer in Stem Cell Science at Kings College London, said that these early findings did not necessarily hint towards a viable treatment, saying: “we should keep in mind that people are not rats.

“The number one priority of initial clinical trial is always patient safety. If everyone expects that the blind patients will see after being treated with human embryonic stem cell-derived retinal pigment epithelium, even if the treatment ends up being safe (which is what Advanced Cell Technology are trying to determine in this trial), they risk being unnecessarily disappointed.”

It is too early to make conclusions yet, though it appears as if the procedure is safe.

UK stem cell expert Chris Mason said: “We do not have a complete answer yet. But it is a valuable next step.”

The day the internet was blacked out: SOPA and PIPA online protests

Websites protest against Sopa and Pipa on 18 January 2012. Photograph: ars technica/ minecraft/mozilla/ reddit/ wired

Yesterday (18 January), thousands of websites joined in unanimous protest against proposed US legislation – the biggest online protest in history. Websites joined in protest against two controversial US bills, SOPA and PIPA, aimed at combating online piracy and protecting copyrighted materials.

Websites that joined in the blackout included Wikipedia, the 6th most visited website in the world, Wired, Reddit, Firefox and thousands of other websites who blacked-out or censored aspects of their websites in protest against US legislation – an unprecedented move. Visitors arriving at Wikipedia yesterday were greeted with a blacked-out page with the message:

“Imagine a World Without Free Knowledge.

“For over a decade, we have spent millions of hours building the largest encyclopedia in human history. Right now, the US Congress is considering legislation that could fatally damage the free and open internet.”

One of the most interesting websites to view yesterday was Wired.com, which had censored virtually every headline, link and text on its homepage as a statement. The only uncensored headline was an article stating “Why _____ Censoring Wired”. Here Wired explained why they were engaging in this day of protest:

“Under the current wording of the measures, the Attorney General would have the power to order ISPs [internet service prividers] to block access to foreign-based sites suspected of trafficking in pirated and counterfeit goods; order search engines to delist the sites from their indexes; ban advertising on suspected sites; and block payment services from processing transactions for accused sites.

“If the same standards were applied to U.S.-based sites, Wikipedia, Tumblr, WordPress, Blogger, Google and Wired could all find themselves blocked.

“Such requests would need to be reviewed and approved by a judge. But accused sites would get little notice of a pending action in U.S. courts against them, and, once blacklisted, have little effective means of appeal.”

Wired censors its homepage in protest

A full list of participants can be found at sopastrike.com. But what is SOPA and PIPA all about? And why is the internet banding together to protest against US law?

SOPA stands for the Stop Online Piracy Act, while PIPA is the Protect IP Act. The two bills are similar in nature, aiming to stop or prevent the piracy of online copyrighted material on websites outside of the US.

As the Guardian writes: “SOPA would allow copyright holders to complain to the US attorney general about a foreign website they allege is “committing or facilitating the commission of criminal violations” of copyright law. This relates mostly to pirated movies and music. Sopa would allow the movie industry, through the courts and the US attorney general, to send a slew of demands that internet service providers (ISPs) and search engine companies shut down access to those alleged violators, and even to prevent linking to those sites, thus making them “unfindable”. It would also bar internet advertising providers from making payments to websites accused of copyright violations.Sopa could, then, shut down a community-based site like YouTube if just one of its millions of users was accused of violating one US copyright.”

The US bills are an attempt to expand the US federal government’s power to impact the internet. Protestors have pointed out that the two anti-piracy bills are essentially allowing censorship of the internet, a move which is not in keeping with the notion of democracy.

Corynne McSherry, intellectual property director at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said:

“These bills propose new powers for the government and for private actors to create, effectively, blacklists of sites … then force service providers to block access to those sites. That’s why we call these the censorship bills.”

EFF’s McSherry also defiantly stated that “no one asked the internet – well, the internet is speaking now. People are really rising up and saying: ‘Don’t interfere with basic Internet infrastructure. We won’t stand for it.'”

It seems as if support for SOPA is withdrawing, but that doesn’t mean the battle is over. An anti-piracy could still be rushed through Congress.

Chris Dodd, former senator and chairman and CEO of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), slammed Wikipedia and others protest plans, calling them “dangerous” and a “gimmick”. He called on Congress to engage in meaningful efforts to combat piracy. A vote on Pipa is still expected in the senate on January 24.