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US funds software for Russians to slip past censors

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US backed anti-censorship software is being used by Russian citizens to access independent news about the country's invasion of Ukraine
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A US-backed campaign is giving Russians access to anti-censor software to dodge Moscow’s crackdown on dissent against its invasion of Ukraine, involved groups told AFP.

Russia has intensified its restrictions on independent media since attacking its neighbor in February, with journalists under threat of prosecution for criticizing the invasion or for even referring to it as a war.

The US government-backed Open Technology Fund is paying out money to a handful of American firms providing virtual private networks (VPNs) free of charge to millions of Russians, who can then use them to visit websites blocked by censors. 

Traditional VPN software creates what is effectively a private tunnel on the internet for data, typically encrypted, to flow safeguarded from snooping — and their use has boomed in Russia since the invasion.

“Our tool is primarily used by people trying to access independent media, so that funding by the OTF has been absolutely critical,” said a spokesman for Lantern, one of the involved companies.

Tech firms Psiphon and nthLink have also been providing sophisticated anti-censorship applications to people in Russia, with OTF estimating that some four million users in Russia have received VPNs from the firms.

Psiphon saw a massive surge in Russian users, with the number soaring from about 48,000 a day prior to the February 24 invasion to more than a million a day by mid-March, said a company senior advisor Dirk Rodenburg.

The firm’s tools in Russian now average nearly 1.5 million users daily, he added.

While some, like Ukraine’s leadership, have called for Russia to be cut off from the internet, others have noted access is key for opposition groups. 

“It’s so very important for Russians to be connected to the whole world wide web, to keep resistance going,” said Natalia Krapiva, tech legal counsel at rights group Access Now, which is not involved in the OTF effort.

“All kinds of initiatives are happening and to keep them alive you need the internet because you can’t gather in person, or because activists are scattered around the world,” she added.

Keeping VPNs running and accessible was relatively straightforward in the early days of the war, said Lucas, the spokesman for Lantern, who spoke on condition that only his first name be used.

“They weren’t ready to block anything,” Lucas said. “Over time, Russia learned how to block the easy stuff but Lantern and Psiphon are still up and running.”

– Lesson from China, Myanmar –

Censors try to cut VPN software off from servers they rely on to function or stop people from getting to websites where the tools can be downloaded.

As a result, crackdowns on internet freedom typically result in people sharing VPNs through guerrilla tactics such as word-of-mouth.

However, groups like Lantern have adopted methods like hiding VPN installers in online platforms too vital for the government to block, and building a network so users can share the technology with others, Lucas said.

“Lantern and Psiphon are different in that we do all sorts of much more sophisticated stuff to hide our traffic and get around our servers being detected,” he said.

People in Russia are benefitting from the VPN makers honing their tools while battling censorship in countries such as China and Myanmar.

“There was a moment about two years ago when China really upped the level of their game, when it came to the lengths they were going to block stuff,” Lucas said. 

“We raised the level of our game a whole lot,” he added.

US government funding provided through OTF has been important to the operations since costs jumped and revenue vanished for VPN makers in Russia, as sanctions kicked in and companies pulled out of the country.

OTF said it typically spends $3-4 million annually funding VPNs, but that figure was ramped up due to censorship in Russia.

Psiphon has been receiving US government funding for more than 14 years, with the money generally going to improve tools to counter new tactics used by authoritarian regimes, the company told AFP.

Despite the efforts to get VPN technology to those who want it, many people still don’t have access.

“The use of virtual private networks and other methods have increased significantly in Russia, but it still only represents a small percentage of the population,” Krapiva, from Access Now, told AFP.

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Biden signs major semiconductors investment bill to compete against China

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President Joe Biden signs the CHIPS and Science Act to support domestic semiconductor production, new high-tech jobs and scientific research
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President Joe Biden signed into law Tuesday a multibillion dollar bill boosting domestic semiconductor and other high-tech manufacturing sectors that US leaders fear risk being dominated by rival China.

The Chips and Science Act includes around $52 billion to promote production of microchips, the tiny but powerful and relatively hard-to-make components at the heart of almost every modern piece of machinery.

Tens of billions of dollars more are allocated for scientific research and development.

The White House says the government commitment to bolstering high-tech industries is already drawing in large-scale private investors, with some $50 billion in new semiconductor investment alone. The lion’s share of that is a plan announced by US firm Micron to put $40 billion into domestic expansion by 2030.

Biden said at a White House speech that the cash injection from the Chips Act will help “win the economic competition in the 21st century.”

Entrepreneurs are “the reason why I’m so optimistic about the future of our country,” he said, and “the Chips and Science Act supercharges our efforts to make semiconductors here in America.”

One of the Democrat’s key themes since he took office has been the need to revamp US leadership in cutting-edge innovation and rebuild the homegrown industrial base in the face of China’s mammoth state-backed investments.

Semiconductors are of particular concern because they are vital to everything from washing machines to sophisticated weapons and nearly all are made abroad.

Although the semiconductor was invented in the United States, the country only produces around 10 percent of global supply, according to the White House, with some 75 percent of US supplies coming from east Asia.

Biden is also counting on the Chips Act to generate enthusiasm among voters, as his Democratic party tries to defend a thin congressional majority from a Republican takeover in this November’s midterm elections.

He told Americans that studies show the expansion of factories will create around a million construction jobs over the next six years — and these will be “union jobs” that pay “the prevailing wage.”

On Wednesday, Biden will sign another bill increasing funding for military veterans exposed to toxins. Like the Chips bill, this won bipartisan support in the usually bitterly divided Congress.

Shortly, Biden is also expected to be signing an enormous domestic investment bill — backed only by Democrats — aimed at fighting climate change and reducing health care costs.

Reflecting on the string of successes in Congress and the sudden momentum for his long stalled agenda, Biden predicted that “people will look back at this week and all we passed, and all we moved on, that we met the moment at this inflection point in history.”

“We bet on ourselves, believed in ourselves and recaptured the story, the spirit and the soul of this nation,” he said.

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US regulators clear Boeing to resume 787 deliveries

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The FAA has approved changes Boeing made to production of its 787 Dreamliner which will allow deliveries to resume
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After more than a year, aviation giant Boeing will be allowed to resume deliveries of its 787 Dreamliner aircraft “in the coming days,” after the company made changes to its manufacturing process, US air safety regulators announced Monday.

Deliveries of the top-selling widebody plane have been halted since spring 2021, so the news will be welcomed by US airlines and travelers who have suffered from massive delays and canceled flights in recent weeks, partly due to the shortage of aircraft.

“Boeing has made the necessary changes to ensure that the 787 Dreamliner meets all certification standards,” the Federal Aviation Administration said in a statement.

The plane’s travails date to late summer 2020, when the company uncovered manufacturing flaws with some jets. Boeing subsequently identified additional issues, including with the horizontal stabilizer.

The difficulties curtailed deliveries between November 2020 and March 2021. Boeing suspended deliveries later in spring 2021 after more problems surfaced.

Acting FAA Administrator Billy Nolen met with safety inspectors in South Carolina last week to confirm they were satisfied with the company’s improvements, which were made to ensure they comply with standards and to identify potential risks after defects were uncovered on the plane.

“The FAA will inspect each aircraft before an airworthiness certificate is issued and cleared for delivery,” the statement said. “We expect deliveries to resume in the coming days.”

– Cleared for takeoff –

A company spokesman told AFP that Boeing will “continue to work transparently with the FAA and our customers toward resuming 787 deliveries,” but did not confirm the firm had received final FAA approval.

During a July 27 earnings conference call, Chief Executive Dave Calhoun described the company was “on the verge” of garnering approval, though he declined to give a precise target date.

At the end of June, Boeing had 120 Dreamliner planes in inventory and was producing the jet “at very low rates,” the company said in a filing.

The company’s stock price gained ground on the news, closing 0.5 percent higher.

Inability to deliver the Dreamliner has dragged down Boeing’s profits, which plunged 67 percent in the second quarter. And the manufacturing changes have led to billions in additional costs for the company.

The firm has delivered just over 1,000 of the planes since it was first introduced in 2004.

The enhanced regulatory scrutiny of the 787 and other Boeing planes comes on the heels of a pair of crashes in 2018 and 2019 on the 737 MAX, which led to aircraft being banned from the skies globally for more than a year.

But the MAX has since returned to service, enabling Boeing to ramp up production of the planes, collect meaningful revenues and announce significant new orders at the Farnborough Airshow earlier this month.

Even so, Boeing’s backlog of orders in the pipeline lags behind that of archrival Airbus.

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No recession in Switzerland this year: chief economist

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The Swiss economy is 'doing well' despite the impact of the war in Ukraine on energy prices, the country's chief economist said
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Switzerland does not expect to dip into recession this year despite the threat of an energy supply squeeze, the government’s chief economist said Sunday.

The Swiss economy is “doing well” despite the impact of the war in Ukraine on energy prices, Eric Scheidegger told the SonntagsZeitung newspaper.

He said it was down to companies to steel themselves for the possibility of power shortages in the winter months.

“We may have to revise our economic forecast downwards for next year. The revised forecast will be published on September 20. However, we do not expect a recession for this year,” Scheidegger said.

“We run the risk of an energy supply bottleneck in winter. If there are persistent production interruptions in the EU and we ourselves have a gas shortage, it becomes problematic.

“In our negative scenario, we expect zero growth for 2023 instead of growth of almost two percent.”

Despite the threat of power shortages and the effects of the war in Ukraine, Scheidegger does not see a serious economic crisis heading towards Switzerland.

“At present, the economy is still doing well. Current indicators show that the economy in this country also developed well in the second quarter — after the outbreak of the war in Ukraine,” he said.

“Economic support measures such as general perks or tax relief are currently therefore neither necessary nor helpful,” he added.

– ‘Foreseeable events’ –

Scheidegger said the Swiss economy was less susceptible to high energy prices than other European countries as gas accounted for only five percent of its total energy consumption.

He said the government would discuss possible measures to curb high energy prices in the coming weeks, which could involve reducing health insurance premiums for low-income households.

The State Secretariat for Economic Affairs official said the help for businesses during the Covid-19 pandemic could not become the norm during economic downturns.

“It’s been known since spring that there can be a power shortage in winter. Companies have time to prepare for this,” he said.

“Companies can, and must, take this operational risk into account… it is up to companies to prepare for foreseeable events.”

As for inflation, he said Switzerland was “an island of bliss” compared to the United States, and inflation was likely to fall before the end of the year.

“At 3.4 percent, inflation is much lower here than in other countries.  Core inflation — inflation excluding fresh food, energy and fuel — is at two percent,” he said.

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