Thursday, February 26, 2015
U.S. regulators on Thursday approved the strictest-ever rules on Internet providers, who in turn pledged to battle the new restrictions in the courts and Congress, saying they would discourage investment and stifle innovation.
The rules, which will go into effect in coming weeks, are expected to face legal challenges from multiple parties such as wireless, cable and other broadband companies and trade groups that represent them.
Experts expect the industry to seek a stay of the rules, first at the FCC and then in courts, though the chances for success of such an appeal is unclear.
The new regulations come after a year of jostling between cable and telecom companies and net neutrality advocates, which included web startups. It culminated in the FCC receiving a record 4 million comments and a call from President BarackObama to adopt the strongest rules possible.
The agency's new policy, approved as expected along party lines, reclassifies broadband, both fixed and mobile, as a more heavily regulated "telecommunications service," more like a traditional telephone service.
In the past, broadband was classified as a more lightly regulated "information service," which factored into a federal court's rejection of the FCC's previous set of rules in January 2014.
The shift gives the FCC more authority to police various types of deals between providers such as Comcast Corp (CMCSA.O) and content companies such as Netflix Inc (NFLX.O) to ensure they are just and reasonable for consumers and competitors.
Internet providers will be banned from blocking or slowing any traffic and from striking deals with content companies, known as paid prioritization, for smoother delivery of traffic to consumers.
The FCC also expands its oversight power to so-called interconnection deals, in which content companies pay broadband providers to connect with their networks. The FCC would review complaints on a case-by-case basis.
Republican FCC commissioners, who see the new rules as a government power grab, delivered lengthy dissents. Their colleagues in Congress hope to counter the new rules with legislation. All five FCC members are expected to testify in the Senate on March 18.
Large Internet providers say they support the no-blocking and no-discrimination principles of the new rules but that the FCC's regulatory path will discourage investment by lowering returns and limiting experimentation with services and business plans.
Some smaller telecoms, such as Sprint Corp (S.N) and T-Mobile US Inc (TMUS.N), have argued new rules will have little impact on investments. FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler on Thursday agreed.
"The (Internet service providers') revenue stream will be the same tomorrow as it was yesterday," he said at the FCC meeting.
"I have spent a lot of time in public policy, and today is the proudest day of my public policy life," he later told reporters.
Legal experts and industry lobbyists say corporate lawyers are waiting for the FCC to publish the specifics of the rules, a document more than 300 pages long. Lawsuits can be filed after the rules are recorded in the Federal Register, likely days later.
Wheeler sought to address in the new rules some Internet providers' concerns, proposing no price regulations, tariffs or requirements to give competitors access to networks.
Cable and telecom shares saw muted reactions on Thursday. They had jumped earlier this month when Wheeler confirmed long-bubbling expectations that he would seek a tougher regulatory regime, with some adjustments to the network needs.
“In the process of protecting yourself and in time you can eliminate those whom you do not like, and as the fight heats up, join the armed wing of your own ethnic/sectarian origin”.
Electoral rigging and horse trading at multiple levels is a major issue that lies at the root of manipulated power transfer and needs to be addressed comprehensively in a holistic manner instead of looking for piecemeal solutions.
This has been stated by former president Asif Ali Zardari while commenting on the proposal to amend the Constitution to conduct senate elections through show of hand instead of secret ballot.
It is good that the government seems to have realized that horse trading in senate elections is a serious issue that has done great disservice to the Parliament and political processes and needs to be addressed, he said.
However, rigging in elections and horse trading take place at multiple levels and need to be comprehensively addressed, he said.
One hopes that the apparent realization on the part f the government to address horse trading will not be a political gimmickry but a first step towards comprehensive electoral reforms, he said.
If the government is serious it should invite all political parties to decide on how best to prevent electoral rigging not only in the Senate but also in the National Assembly, the provincial Assemblies and now also in the local bodies polls, he said.
We recently witnessed the near break down of the civilian and political structures due to the demonstrations and protests against fraud and rigging in the 2013 general elections, the former President said. The parliament and the government were saved from total collapse by the unprecedented unity and commitment of political but it should not lull us into believing that issues in electoral fraud will not rear their ugly heads in the future, he said.
Electoral reforms and preventing horse trading should be addressed by all parties together and not by the government alone. The government should therefore convene a meeting of all political parties to address horse trading in senate elections as well as electoral fraud and rigging of all types including those recently agitated by Imran Khan’s Tehrik Insaf.
Wednesday, February 25, 2015
The second round of talks with Cuba will focus exclusively on restoring diplomatic relations, the State Department said Wednesday. A senior State Department official said the administration expects to fully establish embassies before human rights discussions will take place.
“The human rights dialogue is the first such open conversation that we’re going to have with the Cuban government. It is quite honestly premised on having diplomatic relations,” said the official, who briefed reporters on the upcoming talks. “That’s what comes first.”
The Cuban delegation is led by Josefina Vidal, director-general of the U.S. division of Cuba’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who will spend most of Friday at the State Department with the U.S. delegation, led by Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemispheric Affairs Roberta Jacobson. The two will focus on the logistics of opening embassies in both countries, conversations that began last month in Havana. The current U.S. interests section building there will become the embassy.
President Barack Obama announced in December that the U.S. and Cuba would being the process of establishing formal ties. This includes the opening of embassies, examining Cuba’s place on the U.S.’s state sponsor of terrorism list and increasing telecommunications and economic ties. The new policy does not include the formal lifting of the embargo against Cuba, an action that can only be taken by Congress.
The senior State Department official said that the process of removing Cuba from the state sponsor of terrorism list was ongoing and involved several offices within the department. The official declined to provide a target date for when the administration expected the review to be complete.
“These processes tend to be a little more complicated than they seem,” the official said.
The department also declined to provide a formal timeline for when full diplomatic relations would be restored and embassies would be operational, but negotiators hoped to “get as far as possible” Friday. It also said the terrorism sponsor review and the establishment of diplomatic relations were being treated as two separate issues.
Assistant Director for the U.S. at the Cuban Foreign Ministry Gustavo Machin said Cuba wants the embassies to be opened before the Summit of the Americas, which will be held in Panama in April. He told local media that his delegation was heading to the talks in Washington with a "constructive spirit."
Members of Congress have objected to restoration of ties, which was initiated without input from legislators. Those who oppose the move say the U.S. is rewarding President Raul Castro, whom they brand a dictator, for human rights abuses. The administration contends that an opening of ties will give the U.S. greater leverage for positive democratic influence on the island.
Secretary of State John Kerry said Tuesday in testimony before the Senate Appropriations Committee on Foreign Operations that U.S. support for democratic reform and human rights was “unequivocal.”
“[T]he change that we are making, we believe, actually assists the United States to be able to promote the democracy and the rights that we want for the people of Cuba,” Kerry said. “It will also make it harder for those who want to close the door to blame America for what is happening there, and we believe, in the end, can help create accountability for the hardships that those folks live under.”
The senior State Department official said the department hoped to discuss Friday with the Cuban delegation dates for future talks on human rights.
Curtailing cooperation between Moscow and the European Union(EU) will blunt the economic competitiveness of the European countries, Russian President VladimirPutin said Wednesday.
"Severing economic ties between the EU and Russia will inevitably lead to the loss of certain degree of competitiveness of the entire euro-zone in mid-term and long-term prospective," Putin told reporters following talks with his visiting Cypriot counterpart Nicos Anastasiades.
The EU has lost tens of billions of euros due to anti-Russia sanctions and the ensuing counter-sanctions by Russia, which boasts enormous natural wealth and holds leading positions in many other sectors such as nuclear power, he said.
Admitting that cutting ties with the EU also casts negative effect on Russia, Putin said European countries should have taken their national interests into account when imposing sanctions.
Meanwhile, the recent flare-up in the gas dispute between Russia and Ukraine would also likely to threaten Moscow's gas supplies to Europe, the president said.
Gazprom CEO Alexei Miller warned Tuesday to fully halt natural gas supplies to Ukraine in two days due to the absence of prepayments.
Russia's Gazprom and Energy Ministry "are taking energetic measures not only to inform our European partners about the problem on gas supplies but also to get them involved in trying to solve it," Interfax quoted Putin as saying.
Regular contacts were made among Russian, Ukrainian and European sides to solve the gas issues, European Commission Vice- President responsible for the Energy Union Maros Sefcovic said Wednesday.
Putin said Kiev's decision of cutting gas supplies to Donbass " looks like genocide," especially considering current humanitarian crisis there.
Under the Minsk agreements and the resolution of the UN Security Council, Kiev must ensure energy supplies to Donbass in line with the provision on the economic recovery and social restoration in eastern Ukraine, according to Putin.
Kiev last Wednesday cut off its gas supplies to Donetsk and Lugansk regions because of "critical damage" of the gas pipelines, which was seen by the rebels as a political move.
Putin on Wednesday stressed that Gazprom did not breach any contract terms on gas supplies to Ukraine through border points in eastern regions.
Russia will cut off gas supplies to Ukraine if Kiev fails to pay in “three or four days,” President Vladimir Putin said, adding that this "will create a problem" for gas transit to Europe.
“Gazprom has been fully complying with its obligations under the Ukraine gas supply contract and will continue doing that,” Putin told reporters after talks with the president of Cyprus on Wednesday. “The advance payment for gas supply made by the Ukrainian side will be in place for another three to four days. If there is no further prepayment, Gazprom will suspend supplies under the contract and its supplement. Of course, this could create a certain problem for [gas] transit to Europe to our European partners.”
However, Putin expressed the hope that it would not come to that, stressing that “it depends on the financial discipline of our Ukrainian partners.”
He noted that Russia’s ministers and the CEO of Gazprom have “actively” reminded Ukraine of the looming deadline.
On Tuesday, Gazprom's CEO Aleksey Miller reminded Ukraine’s state-owned Naftogaz of the gas prepayment. Miller said that Ukraine had not paid for March deliveries and warned that Kiev was risking an early termination of the advance settlement and a supply cutoff.
"It takes about two days to get payment from Naftogaz deposited to a Gazprom account. That's why a delivery to Ukraine of 114 million cubic meters will lead to a complete termination of Russian gas supplies as early as in two days, which creates serious risks for the transit to Europe,” Miller said.
Putin said that Gazprom had breached no contract terms of gas supplies to border points to eastern parts of Ukraine.
"It has become known to us that Kiev suspended gas supplies [to Lugansk and Donetsk regions] referring to the alleged damage to gas pipelines," Putin said.
"At the same time, Gazprom is fulfilling the contract signed back in 2009 and an addendum to it made in October last year. In full compliance with this contract, it supplies gas to Ukraine under advance payments made for the volumes, which Ukraine needs."
Putin indicated that these contracts also stipulated border points. "Gazprom is not breaching any provisions," he added.
"As for the damage to the gas pipeline, I don't know for certain, but I know that these regions are home to about 4.5 million people. Just imagine that these people may be left without gas supply during the winter period. In addition to the hunger, there as is already stated by the OSCE and the humanitarian disaster, just imagine these people may also be left without gas supply," Putin said.
He accused some Ukrainian officials of failing to understand the humanitarian issues in Ukraine’s eastern regions.
Citing the OSCE report of a “humanitarian catastrophe” in southeastern Ukraine as well as famine, President Putin said Kiev’s recent decision to switch off gas for those regions “smells like genocide.”
Ukraine’s state-owned Naftogaz suspended gas supplies to eastern regions on February 19, citing damage to a pipeline. Under the gas deal between Moscow and Kiev, Gazprom promptly launched gas supplies to Ukraine’s southeast through border gas metering stations supplying 12 million cubic meters a day.
Kiev said it restored the damage in several hours and restarted gas supplies. Naztogas has refused to pay Gazprom for the gas supplied to eastern regions from February 19. The same day, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev ordered the country’s energy minister and the head of Gazprom to prepare proposals on fuel deliveries to Ukraine’s southeast regions.
Naftogaz has also accused Russia of breaking the agreement to deliver 114 million of cubic meters of natural gas to Ukraine by delivering only 47 million cubic meters.
According to Naftogas, since February 22 Gazprom has been fulfilling only 40 percent of its requests for pre-paid gas, yet the Ukrainian company plans to get 206 million cubic meters of pre-paid gas by the end of February, RIA-Novosti reported Wednesday.
By Natalia Zinets and Anton Zverev
Ukraine came under increasing economic pressure from a collapsing currency and a threat to its gas supplies from the Kremlin on Wednesday, just as a long-awaited ceasefire took hold in the east.
As the truce appeared to be coming into force, the Ukrainian army reported no combat fatalities in the past 24 hours, but the news did nothing to halt a currency slump that forced the central bank to ban most trading before intervening to prop up the hryvnia.
In rebel-held eastern Ukraine, pro-Russian separatists were withdrawing heavy guns from the front. Kiev said it was too early to do likewise, but its acknowledgement that most of the front was quiet suggested it too could implement a truce that had appeared stillborn when the rebels launched a major offensive last week.
The cautious good news from the front has come amid dire economic consequences for a country teetering on bankruptcy.
With the hryvnia currency in free fall as investors flee, the central bank called a halt by banning nearly all commercial currency trading until the end of the week.
It later jumped into the market to buy dollars, reversing a free-fall in the hryvnia that it called "irrational".
Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk said the ban was bad for the economy. He had learned about it on the Internet and would demand an explanation from central bank chief Valeria Gontareva.
Gontareva said there was no fundamental reason for the panic in the currency market.
At the day's end the central bank announced it had bought $80 million at an official rate of 28.046 to the dollar, close to the rate at the start of the week and 12.8 percent higher than the close after a plunge on Tuesday.
Exchange kiosks in Kiev were selling limited amounts of dollars for 39 hryvnias, around 20 percent worse than rates advertised in the windows of commercial banks where dollars were not available.
A construction worker exchanging dollars at a kiosk in a grocery shop in return for a bag filled with thousands of hryvnia, laughed and told shoppers: "Soon we will have to walk around with suitcases for cash, like in the 1990s."
The hryvnia has lost at least half its value so far this year after halving over the course of 2014.
In a potential new blow, President Vladimir Putin warned that Russia would halt gas supplies to Ukraine, for the fourth time in a decade, if Moscow did not receive advance payment.
That could disrupt flows to Europe, which receives around a third of its gas from Russia, with 40 percent shipped via Ukraine. However, Russia cut off gas to Ukraine for six months last year without affecting Europe.
Criticising Ukraine for cutting off gas to eastern regions under the control of the pro-Russian separatists, Putin said: "Imagine these people will be left without gas in winter. Not only that there is famine ... It smells of genocide."
"We hope ... that gas supplies will not be interrupted. But this does not depend only on us, it depends on the financial discipline of our Ukrainian partners," Putin said.
News that no Ukrainian troops had died at the front was by far the most unambiguous signal yet that the French- and German-brokered truce is now holding.
The rebels had initially spurned the ceasefire, insisting it did not apply to their main target, the town of Debaltseve, which they stormed last week.
Kiev has since accused the separatists of reinforcing for a possible further assault deeper into territory the Kremlin calls "New Russia". But for now, the fighters appear determined to be seen to implement the agreement.
Reuters journalists, operating independently in rebel-held territory, saw columns of howitzers driven away from the front in several locations on Wednesday after initial moves on Tuesday.
A column of 24 self-propelled howitzers headed away from the front through the city of Makiyvka adjacent to the main rebel stronghold, Donetsk. Another five were spotted driving away from the front near Yenakiyve, further north.
The rebels have promised that the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe will soon be able to verify that they have removed all heavy guns.
The OSCE says it cannot yet verify the withdrawal because the sides have not provided data on how many guns were in place before the truce. The European security body reported some shelling and shooting at various locations, including near Shyrokyne, a coastal town where Kiev has also reported fighting.
The Kiev military nevertheless said the number of ceasefire violations had "significantly decreased" for a second straight night. No shooting was recorded at all in the Donetsk, Luhansk and Mariupol areas, it said. Overall, rebels had fired shells and mortars 15 times and opened fire four times with light weapons during the 24-hour period.
Ukrainian military spokesman Andriy Lysenko said: "For now there is still no order on the withdrawal of weapons, as the fighters have not yet fulfilled the first point of the Minsk agreement, to cease fire."
Kiev fears the rebels, backed by Russian troops, may now be planning to capture Mariupol, a port of 500,000 people. Moscow denies aiding its sympathisers in east Ukraine.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said additional sanctions against Russia were "teed up" should events in eastern Ukraine require a significant response.
Britain ruled out deploying combat troops to Ukraine, a day after it said it was sending 75 military trainers to help the Ukrainian army. Poland said it intended to send military instructors to train Ukrainian soldiers.