Clinton urges China to free activists

WASHINGTON, April  8, 2011 (AFP) - US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Friday urged China to free dozens of government critics rounded up this year and said the Asian power's human rights record has been worsening.

The State Department's annual survey said that China's human rights record was on a "negative trend" in 2010, with clampdowns at sensitive points of the year and "severe repression" in the Tibet and Xinjiang regions.

Presenting the report, Clinton voiced alarm at developments in 2011 as China -- apparently alarmed over a pro-democracy wave of protests sweeping the Middle East -- launches its most sweeping crackdown on dissent in years.

"In China, we've seen negative trends that are appearing to worsen in the first part of 2011," Clinton told reporters.

"As we have said repeatedly, the United States welcomes the rise of a strong and prosperous China," she said.

"However, we remain deeply concerned about reports that since February, dozens of people including public-interest lawyers, writers, artists, intellectuals and activists have been arbitrarily detained and arrested," she said.

She mentioned the case of Ai Weiwei, an outspoken artist who helped design the Bird's Nest Olympic Stadium for the 2008 Beijing Games. He was detained on Sunday for unspecified "economic crimes."

"Such detention is contrary to the rule of law, and we urge China to release all of those who have been detained for exercising their internationally recognized right to free expression and to respect the fundamental freedoms and human rights of all of the citizens of China," Clinton said.

China has warned foreign nations not to "interfere" over Ai's case. China often bristles at the annual State Department report on human rights, hitting back that the United States also has concerns it needs to address.

In the latest report, the State Department said that China stepped up efforts to rein in civil society, to limit freedom of speech and to control the media.

The State Department said that China imposed tight restrictions on citizens' rights to assemble, travel and practice their religions.

"The government continued its severe cultural and religious repression of ethnic minorities in Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region and Tibetan areas," it said.

The report quoted a Human Rights Watch report saying that hundreds of men from Xinjiang's indigenous Uighur community went missing following 2009 clashes with China's majority Han ethnicity.

The study said that China also denied passports or restricted travel to many ethnic Tibetans, part of a clampdown since mass protests in the predominantly Buddhist region in 2009.

The State Department also said that many Chinese -- possibly tens of thousands -- were involuntarily committed to psychiatric hospitals including members of the Falungong, the spiritual movement banned by Beijing in 1999.

The report comes one month before Clinton and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner are due to meet in Washington with senior Chinese leaders for the annual Strategic and Economic Dialogue, a key forum between the world's two largest economies.

Clinton's comments come after criticism from activists at the beginning of her tenure, when she said that human rights concerns with China would not interfere with cooperation on other issues such as the global economy.

The outgoing US ambassador to China, Jon Huntsman, defended Ai in unusually blunt remarks on Wednesday. He saluted the artist, jailed Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo and others who "challenge the Chinese government to serve the public in all cases and at all times."

YouTube adds stage for live events

SAN FRANCISCO, April  8, 2011 (AFP) - YouTube on Friday added a stage for live events as the world's leading video-sharing website continued its effort to woo viewers away from television programming.

YouTube Live launched online at youtube.com/live, letting people subscribe to watch shows or events streamed by the Google-owned operation's partners.

A "Digitour" performance by top YouTube musicians was schedule for live streaming at 7:00 pm (0200 GMT Saturday).

YouTube planned to gradually roll out a test version of a platform that would allow established video contributors with accounts in good standing to stream their own real-time shows.

YouTube has live-streamed concerts, sporting events and interviews in the past on an intermittent basis. The Live platform would make real-time programming a standard part of the service.

"The goal is to provide thousands of partners with the capability to live stream from their channels in the months ahead," product manager Joshua Siegel and product marketing manager Christopher Hamilton said in a blog post.

More than two billion videos are viewed daily at YouTube, which has been gradually modifying its service to get people to spend more time at the website and less time staring at television screens.

Google $700 million ITA buy approved with conditions

WASHINGTON, April  8, 2011 (AFP) - The US Justice Department on Friday approved Google's $700 million purchase of flight data company ITA Software, but imposed a number of strict conditions to allow the deal to go ahead.

The Justice Department said a proposed legal settlement with Google, which will need the approval of a US District Court, requires the Internet search giant to notably develop and license travel software to other companies.

"The acquisition, as originally proposed, would have substantially lessened competition among providers of comparative flight search websites in the United States, resulting in reduced choice and less innovation for consumers," the department said in a statement.

"The proposed settlement will protect competition for airfare comparison and booking websites and ensure those websites using ITA's software will be able to power their websites to compete against any airfare website Google may introduce," it said.

US deputy assistant attorney general Joseph Wayland, said the settlement "promotes robust competition for airfare websites by ensuring those websites will continue to have access to ITA's pricing and shopping software.

"The proposed settlement assures that airfare comparison and booking websites will be able to compete effectively, providing benefits to consumers," Wayland said.

ITA Software, a 500-person firm founded in 1996 by Massachusetts Institute of Technology computer scientists, specializes in organizing airline data, including flight times, availability and prices.

The Justice department said Google will be required to continue to license ITA's QPX software to airfare websites on "commercially reasonable terms" and will also be required to offer ITA's next generation InstaSearch product to the sites.

The department said Google will also be barred from "entering into agreements with airlines that would inappropriately restrict the airlines' right to share seat and booking class information with Google's competitors."

In addition, Google will also be required to build a "firewall" that will prevent it from gaining access to competitors' proprietary software code which runs on ITA servers.

Several online travel sites, including Expedia, Kayak and Travelocity had been seeking to block the Google-ITA deal, claiming it would give Google too much control over the lucrative online travel sector and lead to higher prices and fewer choices for consumers.

ITA flight data software is used by many US airlines and a number of leading online travel sites, including Expedia's Hotwire and TripAdvisor, Kayak, Orbitz and Microsoft's Bing search engine.

Google has said the ITA acquisition would help it create new tools that will make it easier for consumers to search for travel, compare flight options and prices and drive more customers to online travel agencies.

The Mountain View, California-based company has said it has no plans to sell airline tickets or set airfare prices.

Google has drawn increasing government scrutiny as it has grown from a scrappy startup into the dominant player in Internet search.

The US Federal Trade Commission reached a settlement with Google last week over Google Buzz, the social networking tool rolled out last year which spawned a slew of privacy complaints.

Under the settlement announced by the US regulator, Google is required to implement a comprehensive privacy program and will be subject to independent privacy audits every two years for the next 20 years.

US says China rights on 'negative trend'

WASHINGTON, April  8, 2011 (AFP) - China's human rights record is on a "negative trend" with growing restrictions on freedom of speech and "severe repression" in the Tibet and Xinjiang regions, a US report said Friday.

The State Department's annual survey said that China clamped down at key points in 2010, particularly after dissident Liu Xiaobo won the Nobel Peace Prize, but that human rights problems were widespread and persistent.

"A negative trend in key areas of the country's human rights record continued," the report said.

"The government took additional steps to rein in civil society, particularly organizations and individuals involved in rights advocacy and public interest issues, and increased attempts to limit freedom of speech and to control the press, the Internet and Internet access," it said.

The report said that Chinese authorities stepped up efforts "to silence political activists and public interest lawyers" last year, including by placing family members under house arrest.

The State Department said that China imposed tight restrictions on citizens' rights to assemble, travel and practice their religions.

"The government continued its severe cultural and religious repression of ethnic minorities in Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region and Tibetan areas," it said.

The report quoted a Human Rights Watch report saying that hundreds of men from Xinjiang's indigenous Uighur community went missing following 2009 clashes with China's majority Han ethnicity.

The study said that China also denied passports or restricted travel to many ethnic Tibetans, part of a clampdown since mass protests in the predominantly Buddhist region in 2009.

The State Department said that many Chinese -- possibly tens of thousands -- were involuntarily committed to psychiatric hospitals including members of the Falungong, the spiritual movement banned by Beijing in 1999.

Such annual reports have often caused friction with China, which bristles at foreign criticism of its human rights record and hits back that the United States has its own problems it needs to address.


China speaks better English than India: study

NEW DELHI, April  8, 2011 (AFP) - Emerging market giant China has pipped neighbouring rival India in English language proficiency skills, despite the South Asian nation's strong anglophone tradition, according to a new study.

Both countries were given a "low-proficiency" score, with China standing 29th, one place ahead of India in a list of 44 countries rated according to an English proficiency index.

The study was carried out by EF Education (EF), the world's largest privately held education company that specialises in language training and other education areas.

"Despite its British colonial legacy, extensive use of English for administrative purposes and vibrant English media, India is now no more proficient in English than rapidly improving China," the study said.

A large English-speaking population has been one of the key factors behind the boom in outsourcing to India which has seen Western companies set up IT back-up or call centres in cities such as Bangalore and Hyderabad.

But numerous experts have warned that India is losing this linguistic edge to its giant neighbour which is pouring far more resources into English-language teaching.

The study used data from 2.4 million adults globally who took free online English tests between 2007 and 2008, and EF acknowledged that the results could not be "guaranteed" to be representative of any country as a whole.

Only people wanting to learn English or curious about their English skills would have participated and the fact that the tests were online excluded those without Internet access.

Nevertheless the findings published earlier this month were similar to a 2009 British Council report that highlighted a "huge shortage" of English teachers and quality institutions in India.

The report concluded that China "may already have more people who speak English than India."
And India's own National Knowledge Commission has admitted that no more than one percent of the population uses English as a second language.

The EF study said there were currently more than 100,000 native English speaking teachers working in China where the private English training market is estimated to be worth three billion dollars.

"The ability to communicate in English (in China) has become synonymous with better professional opportunities and higher income levels. English is regarded as a key criterion in white collar job hunting," it said.

Out of 44 countries rated in the EF index, Norway boasted the highest level of English proficiency, while Kazakhstan was at the bottom of the list.

Russian security service wants to ban Skype, Gmail

MOSCOW, April  8, 2011 (AFP) - The Russian security service has proposed banning Skype, Hotmail and Gmail as their "uncontrolled use" could pose a security threat, a service official said during a government meeting Friday.

The comments from the head of the service's information and special communication centre Alexander Andreyechkin were disowned by the Kremlin but come amid mounting concern over state meddling in the Internet in Russia.

The Federal Security Service (FSB) is "increasingly concerned" by the mass use of these services, which use foreign-made encryption technology, Andreyechkin said, RIA Novosti agency reported.

"Uncontrolled usage of these services may lead to massive threat to Russia's security," he said at a meeting of the government's communication and technology committee.

Control of Internet traffic through these services is done from servers outside Russia, and so they are often used by extremist organizations, Andreyechkin was reported as saying before the meeting continued without the press.

Deputy Minister of Communications Ilya Massukh later said that recommendations regarding regulation of mass usage of encryption technology will be given to the government by October 1.

The FSB would like to ban these services in Russia because "security authorities cannot access them," Massukh was reported as saying.

Russian agencies quoted a Kremlin source later Friday as saying that Andreyechkin's statements are "his own opinion and don't reflect the government's decision regarding development of the Internet."

"Andreyechkin overstepped his authorities and made hasty remarks about these popular services," the source said, RIA Novosti reported. "State policy in the sphere of Internet technology is not set by security services."

His comments came in the same week that the LiveJournal blogging site, hugely popular in Russia, fell victim to cyber-attack that bloggers blamed on the Russian security services.

President Dmitry Medvedev, who prides himself on his use of Twitter and also maintains a LiveJournal weblog, called the attack "outrageous and illegal".

The secretive FSB, which is a successor to the Soviet KGB, has denounced the popular non-Russian Internet services in the past.

Earlier this year a leaked memo from Sverdlovsk regional government asked municipalities to ban Skype for work use and use only Russian programmes for email communication, citing FSB analysis of foreign programmes.

Using security as a pretext to lobby for control of state purchases of communications equipment in Russia has been done in the past, but this is the first time the FSB appears to propose restrictions on a national level, said security analyst Andrei Soldatov.

"This is definitely alarming," he told AFP. Even if they don't actually block access, "the goal may be to bargain with these services to disclose at least partially their encryption technology," so that it is more accessible.

Russian social networking sites like VKontakte.Ru have recently started requiring users to provide their cell phone number in order to register or invite their friends.

Russian security services have wide-reaching powers but remain notoriously closed from any public scrutiny, including of their budget.

Hong Kong restricts mainland babies

HONG KONG, April  8, 2011 (AFP) - Hong Kong said Friday its public hospitals would not accept women arriving from China to give birth in the territory which has been struggling to cope with the tens of thousands who land each year.

The number of mainland women who opt to deliver across the border in the glitzy financial hub has been growing and reportedly accounted for nearly half of Hong Kong's 88,000 births in 2010.

Hong Kong's Hospital Authority said public hospitals would not accept non-local pregnant women with immediate effect up to the end of the year to ensure sufficient places for local women, with the number of Hong Kong mothers expected to increase.

"The increasing trend of local pregnant women giving birth in public hospitals is projected to continue this year," a spokesman said in a statement.

"In the light of this increasing trend, proactive measures have to be implemented to ensure that the available capacity in public hospitals would be sufficient to meet the demand from local pregnant women."

The government has come under pressure in recent weeks after doctors made a rare public call for a cap on the number of babies delivered in the city as resources for local mothers are stretched thin.

Mainland mothers are keen to give birth in Hong Kong, a city of seven million that maintains a semi-autonomous status within China, because it will entitle their child to rights of abode and education.

The government is already considering regulations to limit the number of mainland women giving birth in Hong Kong.

Health secretary York Chow said Wednesday the government would set a quota for mainland mothers based on available facilities, manpower and demand at the city's hospitals.

The new regulations, to be finalised in coming months, will apply to eight public hospitals and 10 private hospitals with maternity units in the southern Chinese city.

Inside Japan's nuclear exclusion zone on video

TOKYO, April  8, 2011 (AFP) - A Japanese video journalist has become one of the first to document the scene inside an exclusion zone around a radiation-belching nuclear plant.

Cattle roam deserted streets as packs of dogs yap at one of the only humans they have seen since thousands of people were ordered to evacuate a 20-kilometre (12-mile) area around the crippled Fukushima Daiichi atomic power station.

The scene emerged in footage posted on video-sharing website YouTube by Tetsuo Jimbo, who drove and then walked to within 1.5 kilometres of the plant, the scene of the worst nuclear emergency since Chernobyl.

Radiation monitors beep constantly, their pitch and intensity increasing as Jimbo gets closer to the power station, where workers are battling to cool runaway reactors.

"Is it a bit risky?" Jimbo says in the video as a monitor indicates 94.2 microsieverts per hour of radiation in the air around him -- meaning that he gets the same level of radiation in a day that people normally get in a year.

At one point, the monitor indicates a level as high as 112 microsieverts, a level too high for people to stay for an extended period.

The footage was shot on April 3, showing Jimbo apparently 1.5 kilometres from the power plant, which has been releasing radioactive materials since it was damaged by the March 11 earthquake and deadly tsunami that killed more than 12,500 people and left nearly 15,000 missing.

The 12-minute clip shows the journalist, who founded videonews.com and was accompanied by a colleague, driving through streets all but deserted since the government mandated the evacuation.

Occasionally he drives past other cars, seemingly being driven by people in protective gear -- possibly plant workers. Jimbo wore only a face mask.

A herd of cows is seen grazing in a field, others congregate on a roadside, abandoned by farmers whose livelihood has been shattered by the radiation leak, their stock unsellable.

The 9.0-magnitude quake and the towering tsunami that followed caused streets to sink, wrecked houses and tossed cars aside, the video shows.

Silt clogs what appear to be empty rice fields that had been waiting for the planting season in spring.

Jimbo later told the Wall Street Journal he had consulted a radiation expert before his mission and stayed in the area for two-and-a-half hours, 30 minutes longer than he was advised.

The video footage, which frequently shows readings on two different radiation monitors, appears to bear out worries that the zone around the plant is currently uninhabitable.

Government rules prevent residents from returning to their homes to collect personal items to ease their extended stay at evacuation centres.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano has asked residents to be patient, while the government mulls ways to allow temporary visits for people wearing protective clothing and escorted by officials.

Local media have reported thieves have taken valuables from vacant houses in the area, adding to the frustration for already stressed evacuees.

Singapore start investigation into casinos

SINGAPORE, April  8, 2011 (AFP) - Singapore said Friday it has kicked off a probe into alleged "illegal activities" in the city-state's two casinos, including claims about unlicensed "junket" operators.

The Casino Regulatory Authority (CRA) said in a statement it "has to-date received some information alleging illegal activities in the casinos".

"The authorities take these allegations seriously and have initiated investigations. It would be inappropriate at this time to comment further on this matter."

The Business Times said Thursday that Sheldon Adelson, who owns the Marina Bay Sands (MBS) casino complex in Singapore, had raised concerns about junket operators after uncovering a mystery $5 million-dollar transfer between Macau and Singapore through Marina Bay Sands.

The money was for a person who was not on the high-roller list, which prompted him to suspect that junket operators were involved.

Junket operators offer clients free trips to a casino provided they will gamble for a specific period or wager a specific amount of money.

Singapore's CRA has not licensed anyone to operate junket tours to the two local casinos and has vowed to prosecute those engaging in these activities.

The CRA said US gaming tycoon Adelson had informed the regulator of his concerns over the allegations and that it has asked him and Marina Bay Sands to "provide further information".

Officials from Marina Bay Sands were not available to comment immediately when contacted by AFP.

Malaysian-controlled Resorts World Sentosa, Singapore's other casino complex, said: "We do not wish to comment on baseless allegations such as those made by Mr Adelson.

"However, we have read in the papers of certain investigations commenced against his companies.

"Resorts World Sentosa holds in high regard the casino regulatory regime, and works closely with CRA on all compliance matters."

The two casinos opened just last year and have proved a huge success and have largely been credited with turning around Singapore's tourism sector with new drawcards.

Tourist arrivals in Singapore last year hit a record 11.6 million.

Singapore to conserve historic railway stations

SINGAPORE, April  8, 2011 (AFP) - Two railway stations to be returned by Malaysia to Singapore will be conserved as historic sites, officials announced Friday following a citizens' campaign to save the buildings from destruction.

There were fears that the Tanjong Pagar Railway Station, located on prime real estate on the fringes of the central business district, would be turned into yet another shopping mall or condominium in construction-mad Singapore.

A government statement said the art deco-style terminal would be a national monument, while the smaller Bukit Timah station close to the Malaysian border would also be conserved, in recognition of their "deep historical significance".

Both were built during British colonial rule over the two countries as part of a railway line that serviced Singapore, Malaya and Thailand.

The Malaysian federation retained ownership of railway land and structures within Singapore after the two countries separated in 1965, and the stations became part of a long-running spat that periodically strained relations.

In May 2010, both countries agreed Malaysia would cede ownership of the land in exchange for real estate in two of Singapore's most expensive districts.

The agreement sparked concerns that the Singapore government would convert the shabby buildings to commercial use, triggering an online petition to save the buildings for posterity.

Carolyn Seet, an information technology specialist who started the petition, welcomed the government's announcement on the Tanjong Pagar station.

"Needless to say, I'm very happy. Hopefully, they will keep it open to the public. My wish is basically it will be a transportation museum like the one in London," she told AFP.

She also suggested the station can be "a place for people to reminisce, and see how far Singapore has come, from the humble rickshaw to the modern driverless" train system.

Google, Justice Department near deal on ITA: WSJ

WASHINGTON, April  7, 2011 (AFP) - Google and the US Justice Department are close to reaching a legal settlement over the Internet giant's acquisition of flight data company ITA Software, The Wall Street Journal reported Thursday.

The proposed settlement would avert a court challenge to the $700 million purchase and would allow for some government anti-trust monitoring of Google's operations for the first time, the newspaper said.

The Journal, quoting "people familiar with the matter," said the settlement could be just days away although it could be delayed because of the possible US government shutdown at the end of the week.

The newspaper cautioned that outstanding issues could cause the talks to founder, sending the matter to court, or Google could abandon the acquisition.

The proposed settlement calls for Google to provide a commitment that it will continue to provide ITA's services to online travel competitors "under fair and reasonable terms," the Journal said.

A compulsory licensing system would be introduced to ensure that Google does so and it would be monitored by the government, the newspaper said.

Google would also be required to construct a "firewall" that would prevent it from having access to competitors' proprietary software code which runs on ITA servers, the Journal said.

Several online travel sites, including Expedia, Kayak and Travelocity are seeking to block the Google-ITA deal, claiming it would give Google too much control over the lucrative online travel sector and lead to higher prices and fewer choices for consumers.

ITA Software, a 500-person firm founded in 1996 by Massachusetts Institute of Technology computer scientists, specializes in organizing airline data, including flight times, availability and prices.

ITA flight data software is used by many US airlines and a number of leading online travel sites, including Expedia's Hotwire and TripAdvisor, Kayak, Orbitz and Microsoft's Bing search engine.

Google has said the ITA acquisition would help it create new tools that will make it easier for consumers to search for travel, compare flight options and prices and drive more customers to online travel agencies.

The Mountain View, California-based company has said it has no plans to sell airline tickets or set airfare prices.

Google has drawn increasing government scrutiny as it has grown from a scrappy startup into the dominant player in Internet search.

The US Federal Trade Commission reached a settlement with Google last week over Google Buzz, the social networking tool rolled out last year which spawned a slew of privacy complaints.

Under the settlement announced by the US regulator, Google is required to implement a comprehensive privacy program and will be subject to independent privacy audits every two years for the next 20 years.

US senator tweets Ai Weiwei demand for Hu

WASHINGTON, April  7, 2011 (AFP) - A US senator charged Thursday that Chinese President Hu Jintao had cast detained artist Ai Weiwei into a "dungeon" and demanded to know where he was being held.

Republican Senator Chuck Grassley, a devoted user of Twitter, issued the appeal on his official feed, http://twitter.com/ChuckGrassley, in the abbreviated language of text messages.

"Chairman Hu I demand to know inwhich dungeon u hv dumped Ai Weiwei. Freedom loving people aronnd the world hv right to know," Grassley tweeted.

The official Xinhua news agency has said that Ai -- who was detained Sunday at Beijing's international airport while awaiting a flight to Hong Kong -- was being investigated for suspected economic crimes.

Ai, a widely respected artist and the son of a poet revered by China's early Communist leaders, helped design the Bird's Nest Olympic Stadium for the 2008 Beijing Games, but has since irritated the government with his social activism.

He probed the collapse of schools in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, looked into a Shanghai high-rise fire last November that killed dozens, and says police beat him when he tried to testify on behalf of another activist in 2009.

Facebook makes data centers greener and cheaper

PALO ALTO, April  7, 2011 (AFP) - Facebook on Thursday presented an Internet-obsessed world with a gift -- greener, cheaper data centers to more efficiently power online services.

The social networking star custom-designed hardware, power supply, and architecture of a new US data center that is 38 percent more power efficient and costs 24 percent less than the industry average.

Schematics and designs for Facebook's revolutionary data center in the Oregon city of Prineville were made available to the world as part of an Open Compute Project announced by founder Mark Zuckerberg.

"We found a lot of stuff mass manufacturers were putting out wasn't what we needed, so we customized it to better fit social applications," Zuckerberg said during a press conference at Facebook's campus in Palo Alto, California.

"We are trying to foster this ecosystem where developers can easily build startups."

A shift to hosting software applications as services in the Internet "cloud" is driving enormous growth of data centers globally, according to Graham Weston, chairman and founder of US computer network hosting giant Rackspace.

Cheaper data centers should translate into lower costs for Internet startups that typically rent computing capacity, providing a "turbo-charge" for innovation, according to Dell computer vice president of server platforms Forrest Norrod.

"Facebook's design is really a leap forward, because it is much simpler, cheaper and greener," Weston said. "I think it's the biggest reduction in server infrastructure cost in a decade."

San Francisco-based social game sensation Zynga is looking to use Facebook's technology in its data centers, which host popular online games such as "FarmVille" and "Zynga Poker."

"We think it is going to make a big difference in how we bring play to the Internet," Zynga chief technology officer Allen Leinwand said while taking part in the Facebook press conference.

"It should be fun for people to play on the Internet, but you need a lot of infrastructure behind that," he said. "We are really intrigued by what is going on here.

The power efficiency gains of the Open Compute Project design promises to shave millions of dollars off the electricity bill of a typical large data center, according to Weston.

If a quarter of the data centers in the United States switched to the new model it would save enough energy to power more than 160,000 homes, Facebook estimated.

"It's time to stop treating data centers like 'Fight Club' and demystify what is going on in there," Facebook vice president of technical operations Jonathan Heilinger said in a playful reference to a film based on secret gatherings for bare-knuckle matches.

Other Internet firms such as Google build their own data centers, but haven't made designs freely available as Facebook has at the website opencompute.org.

Developing countries where outdated and inefficient data centers are common could be prime beneficiaries of the free Facebook technology.

India, China and other countries are racing into an Internet Age that demands data centers, Dell's Norrod noted.

"There will be the opportunity for Internet companies in the developing world to take a leap forward, jumping over the past 15 years of learning," Norrod said. "That's going to happen."

Computer makers Dell and Hewlett-Packard along with chip companies Intel and Advanced Micro Devices worked with Facebook to develop the data center technology.

Facebook engineers hoped to get feedback and ideas to improve the designs.

"It is like the launch of the (Toyota) Prius, only you gave people the plans on how to make the Prius," said Intel data center group general manager Jason Waxman. "There are a lot of places around the world that could benefit from this kind of information."

ASEAN finance ministers to discuss hot money

NUSA DUA, April  8, 2011 (AFP) - Southeast Asian finance ministers meet Friday for talks expected to focus on capital controls to shield the region's booming economies from destabilising "hot money" inflows.

With Europe's sovereign debt crisis spreading to Portugal and much of the developing world's economies still in the doldrums after the global financial crisis, Asia has become a magnet for capital seeking better returns.

But much of the foreign capital has been in the form of volatile portfolio investments which can be withdrawn just as quickly as they were injected, raising fears for stability in economies that are leading the global recovery.

"We can intervene but we don't know exactly how to do so. In the past few days the inflows have been huge," Indonesian central bank Deputy Governor Hartadi Sarwono told reporters on Thursday.

"The capital inflows are so massive, and they don't just flow to Indonesia but in the region."

Indonesia's rupiah hit four-year highs against the greenback earlier this week and inflation is running at more than 6.5 percent, underlining concerns that the region's more successful economies may be close to boiling point.

Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono is expected to open the meeting of finance ministers from the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) on the resort island of Bali.

ASEAN chief Surin Pitsuwan will attend, as will World Bank managing director Sri Mulyani Indrawati -- a former Indonesian finance minister -- and officials from the International Monetary Fund and Asian Development Bank.

Indonesia, which holds the current chair of ASEAN, has said the ministers will also discuss food security and progress toward a planned common market in the region of more than 500 million people by 2015.

The ASEAN region grew at around five percent last year, up from 1.5 percent in 2009 in the aftermath of the global credit crunch.

The block includes Brunei, Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.

Analysts say Asia's emerging economies are poised for another year of solid growth in 2011 even if the impact of the catastrophic earthquake and tsunami in Japan remains unclear.

But inflation is a key concern for the region, which faces tighter monetary policies as authorities seek to temper price rises including in food staples such as rice.

The ADB warned this week that some developing economies were showing signs of "potential overheating" and said more flexible exchange rates and capital controls could help curb soaring prices.

Governments have tried a range of responses to hot money but capital controls, such as transaction taxes and currency restrictions, have until recently been scorned by economists as unnecessary interference.

In February the IMF recognised that such controls were justified in the face of destabilising imbalances in the global economy.

In a recent report on Asian economies, Standard and Poor's ratings agency said regional central banks might consider further capital controls and other actions to prevent risky asset bubbles.

Within Southeast Asia, it said Singapore's growth would moderate sharply to 4.5-5.0 percent from 14.5 percent last year, Malaysia would expand 4.8-5.3 percent and Indonesia would grow 5.9-6.4 percent from 6.1 percent.

The Philippines was forecast to grow 5.1-5.6 percent from 7.3 percent and Thailand's growth would ease to 4.0-4.5 percent from 7.8 percent.

Canberra blocks Australia-Singapore bourse merger

SYDNEY, April  8, 2011 (AFP) - Australian Treasurer Wayne Swan officially blocked the proposed merger of the Australian and Singapore stock exchanges Friday, branding it a takeover that would damage national interests.

"Let's be clear here: this is not a merger. It's a takeover that would see Australia's financial sector become a subsidiary to a competitor in Asia," he said.

"It was a no-brainer that this deal is not in Australia's national interest."

Swan said Australia's "economic and regulatory sovereignty over the ASX would be at risk" if the deal went through, making Australia's bourse a junior partner.

"(This) could only be justified if there were very substantial benefits for our nation, such as greatly enhanced opportunities for Australian businesses and investors to access capital markets.

"Given the size and nature of the SGX, the opportunities that were offered under the proposal were clearly not sufficient to justify this loss of sovereignty."

The ASX and Singapore Exchange Limited announced plans last October to create one of the world's largest and most diversified financial trading hubs in a Aus$8.4 billion ($8.7 billion) deal.

But the proposal hit hurdles in Australia, where concerns over foreign ownership and Singapore's democracy and rights record were raised.

Swan's decision was the first time since 2001 that an application has been rejected by the Foreign Investment Review Board and the Treasurer was at pains to make clear that Australia welcomed foreign investment.

"The Australian government's longstanding policy is to welcome foreign investment," he said.

"Such investments are subject to review on a case-by-case basis ... which allows the Treasurer to prohibit a particular acquisition on national interest grounds.

"It is important to emphasise that this occurs very rarely."

Nevertheless, Australia's attitude to the merger could see the ASX fall behind its peers, analysts say, amid a climate of global consolidation among exchanges.

Last week, the Nasdaq and Intercontinental Exchange joined forces to make an $11.3 billion bid for NYSE Euronext.

The London Stock Exchange has meanwhile proposed merging with the Toronto bourse to create one of the world's biggest trading platforms.

Swan though said the Australian Treasury, the Reserve Bank of Australia, and the Australian Securities and Investments Commission had all raised concerns about regulatory oversight when it came to SGX's takeover bid.

"It is important that we continue to build Australia's standing as a global financial services centre in Asia to take best advantage of the benefits of our superannuation savings system," he said.

"I had strong concerns that the proposed acquisition would be contrary to these objectives. "

In coming to a decision, he said he had to consider the proposal's potential benefits and implications for Australian businesses, investors and the community, and decided they were not enough to green-light the deal.

In particular, he pointed to the SGX being a smaller regional exchange, based on the number of companies listed and the value of those listings, and he was not prepared for the ASX to effectively become "a junior partner".

"At the end of the day this takeover was more about growing Singapore's financial sector than Australia's," he said.

"The deal just doesn't stack up whatever yardstick you use."

Singapore bourse seeks 'other opportunities'

SINGAPORE, April  8, 2011 (AFP) - The Singapore stock exchange said Friday it would seek growth opportunities elsewhere after Canberra rejected a proposed merger with the Australian bourse.

Singapore Exchange (SGX) said in a statement that as a regional "gateway", the exchange "is well-positioned to leverage on opportunities within Asia's vibrant and dynamic economies".

"Asia will remain the world's growth engine in the coming decades," it said.

SGX issued the statement after Australian Treasurer Wayne Swan officially blocked the proposed merger of the Australian and Singapore stock exchanges, describing it instead as a takeover that would damage national interests.

"Let's be clear here: this is not a merger. It's a takeover that would see Australia's financial sector become a subsidiary to a competitor in Asia," Swan said.

SGX said it will look for opportunities elsewhere as well as other forms of cooperation with the Australia Securities Exchange (ASX).

"As Asia's most international exchange, we will continue to pursue organic as well as other strategic growth opportunities, including further dialogue with ASX on other forms of co-operation," SGX said.

Singapore, which registered Asia's fastest growth rate at nearly 15 percent last year, is a global financial centre and is the headquarters of thousands of multinational corporations doing business in the Asia-Pacific region.


Hong Kong moves to restrict mainland babies

HONG KONG, April  7, 2011 (AFP) - Hong Kong says it will restrict the number of mainland Chinese women allowed to give birth in the city's hospitals which are struggling to cope with the tens of thousands who arrive each year.

The number of mainland women who opt to deliver across the border in the glitzy financial hub has been growing and reportedly accounted nearly half of Hong Kong's 88,000 births in 2010.

Hong Kong's government has come under pressure in recent weeks after doctors made a rare public call for a cap on the number of babies delivered in the city as resources for local mothers are stretched thin.

Mainland mothers are keen to give birth in Hong Kong, a city of seven million that maintains a semi-autonomous status within China, because it will entitle their child to right of abode and education.

Following the pressure, Secretary for Food and Health York Chow announced Wednesday the government would set a quota for mainland mothers based on available facilities, manpower and demand at the city's hospitals.

"I think there is a need to control the number of mainland pregnant women coming to Hong Kong," Chow said in a statement, adding the number of local mothers giving birth is expected to increase.

"The total number of deliveries in Hong Kong has to be set at a certain limit so that we can maintain the professional standards and also the quality of care," he added.

Chow said the government would finalise details in coming months, and that the new regulations would apply to eight public hospitals and 10 private hospitals with maternity units in the southern Chinese city.

Asia's Hottest Clubs Open at Marina Bay Sands in July

SINGAPORE, April 7, 2011 /PRNewswire-Asia/ -- Just months before the celebrities and jetsetters fly into Singapore for Formula 1's only night race, the Singapore Grand Prix, Marina Bay Sands announces the opening of Asia's much-anticipated nightclubs in July. Emerging from Marina Bay and enclosed in the distinctive glass crystal pavilion, Pangaea and Avalon , two of the hottest nightclub brands in the U.S. and Europe, will captivate partygoers in Singapore and from around the world with its innovative concepts, music and premium service.

Pangaea, the ultra-lounge bottle club that swiftly attracted celebrity followers in New York, Miami and London, has hosted A-listers including Madonna, Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Moss and Will Smith. Occupying 6,000 square feet, Pangaea is on the first level of the southern Crystal Pavilion. Patrons can access the club through the underwater tunnel connected to The Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands. The ultra-lounge will be able to host up to 400 partygoers at one time or over a thousand a night.

Pangaea operator Michael Ault said, "When we first announced our plans to open this club, the structure was not even built. We only had our imagination and a few wild ideas. Today, piercing the waters of Marina Bay, the crystal pavilion is one of the most stunning and perhaps the best venues in Singapore. We said from day one that we will create something the world has never seen and with the formulae of great architecture and our experience in successfully operating the best clubs in leading international cities, we simply cannot wait to open our doors and put Singapore on the global party map."

The second and with a completely distinct concept from Pangaea will be Avalon. Across two levels and over 12,000 square feet, entertainment at Marina Bay Sands will reach a whole new high with Avalon. The club will feature an exciting line-up of leading international DJ's, live concerts and high profile events.

Avalon co-founder and club guru Steven Adelman said, "Avalon has hosted virtually every celebrity - The Black Eyed Peas, Ashton Kutcher, Cameron Diaz, Drew Barrymore, Pink, to name a few. Parties at our club in L.A have included the annual Grammy after-party hosted by Justin Timberlake. Here in Singapore, we are building the most ambitious and state-of-the-art visual, sound and light system we're aware of anywhere. The combination of Avalon's star power and Marina Bay Sands' iconic structure will set the stage for the biggest party in Asia," said Steven.

The Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands Executive Director, Mr. John Postle, said, "We have discovered two of the most leading and sought-after club operators in the world. With the creative genius of both Michael Ault and Steven Adelman, we are creating an entertainment hotspot like no other in Asia. Floating on Marina Bay and set in the stunning crystal pavilion, Marina Bay Sands will be home to every guest looking for the best energy in town."

Japan considers wider nuclear evacuation zone

TOKYO, April  7, 2011 (AFP) - Japan said Thursday it is considering expanding the area covered by a compulsory evacuation order, with no immediate end in sight to the world's worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl.

As emergency workers began pumping nitrogen into the quake-damaged Fukushima Daiichi plant to prevent further explosions, the government said it was seeking advice from experts on whether more areas should be evacuated.

Residents within a 20-kilometre (12-mile) radius of the nuclear power plant have already been ordered to leave, while those living up to 10 kms beyond that have only been told to stay indoors.

Evacuation orders are currently issued when residents are at risk of receiving radiation of at least 50 millisieverts, but the government said that arrangement assumed only brief exposure.

"The standard does not take into account the effects of accumulative exposure," Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano said. "We are discussing what standards to use for accumulative radiation."

Edano said a procedure to inject nitrogen gas, designed to reduce the risk of a hydrogen explosion, was "proceeding smoothly."

In the days after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami crippled the plant, large explosions resulted from hydrogen accumulation near the reactors, damaging the outer buildings housing them.

Radiation from the plant has leaked into the sea and air, contaminating vegetables and raising fears over marine life in a country where the national diet depends heavily on seafood.

Google to reorganize YouTube channels: report

NEW YORK, April  7, 2011 (AFP) - US Internet giant Google is preparing a major overhaul of video sharing website YouTube by creating "channels" to compete with broadcast and cable TV, The Wall Street Journal reported Thursday.

Under a plan costing as much as $100 million, the YouTube homepage will highlight different channels focused on topics like arts and sports, the Journal said, citing people familiar with the matter.

About 20 of the channels will present several hours of original programming produced professionally each week, while other channels would use content already available on the site.

The launch will be phased over time, starting before the end of the year, and YouTube is hiring help to implement the initiatives.

In recent weeks, YouTube was also said to have held meetings with Hollywood talent agencies, which the newspaper said were more likely to produce deals with directors of production companies than with movie stars and other celebrities.

YouTube, already the third most viewed website in the world, hopes the plan will further boost traffic to the site and take a bite out of the $70 billion US television advertising market.

Executives of the site told the Journal they want people to "watch YouTube" the same way they "watch TV."

Under fire, US eyes Internet to reach Chinese

WASHINGTON, April  7, 2011 (AFP) - The US broadcasting agency said Wednesday that it saw the Internet as the future for reaching the Chinese public as it came under fire from lawmakers for slashing short-wave radio service.

Under a budget proposal for next year, Voice of America would close its longtime radio and television broadcasts in Mandarin and eliminate its Cantonese service entirely, cutting 45 jobs and saving $8 million.

The belt-tightening comes as China ramps up global distribution of its own state-run radio and television, an effort symbolized by the official Xinhua news agency's efforts to secure a spot in New York's Times Square.

Representative Dana Rohrabacher, a staunch critic of China, called a congressional hearing to voice alarm at the cuts and questioned if President Barack Obama's administration was trying to curry favor with Beijing.

"The $8 million 'saved' will do far more to weaken our efforts in a dictatorial and belligerent China than it will to balance the budget," said Rohrabacher, a Republican from California.

He questioned the shift to an Internet platform, noting that China has worked tirelessly to build a firewall that blocks out online searches for politically sensitive topics.

But S. Enders Wimbush, a board member of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, an autonomous US government agency, testified to lawmakers that the budget proposal was only a nod to "common sense."

The board "did not plan to make it easier on Chinese authorities. In fact, we plan to make it more difficult for them," Wimbush said.

"We are going heavily into digital because that is where the audience is and, particularly, that's where the demographic is that we seek to reach," he said.

Launched in 1942, Voice of America was active during the Cold War as the US government's international broadcaster. It stopped live broadcasts in Russian in 2008.

The 2012 budget still funds radio and Internet broadcasts in Mandarin and Cantonese by Radio Free Asia, a separate service founded after China's Tiananmen Square crackdown that focuses on providing news within closed Asian societies.

China raises petrol, diesel prices

BEIJING, April  6, 2011 (AFP) - China raised wholesale petrol prices by 500  yuan ($76) per ton and diesel by 400 yuan a ton late Wednesday, the third rise since December in the world's second-largest fuel consuming nation.

The petrol hike marked about a 5.6 percent rise, while diesel rose 4.9 percent and was announced after Brent oil hit $123 for the first time since late 2008 as traders mulled the outlook for supplies amid unrest in Libya.

The rise would see the benchmark retail price of petrol increase by 0.37 yuan per litre and diesel by 0.34 yuan per litre starting Thursday, the National Development Reform Commission said in a statement.

In Beijing 93-octane petrol costs 7.45 yuan ($1.13) per litre.

China last increased petrol prices on February 22, after government-set fuel prices rose in in December, October and April.

Inflation has become Beijing's top economic concern as it struggles to keep a lid on rising costs of food and other key items to head off public unrest.

Consumer prices rose at a stubbornly high 4.9 per cent in February, unchanged from January, and above the government's annual inflation target of four percent.


US envoy defends detained Chinese artist

SHANGHAI, April  6, 2011 (AFP) - US ambassador Jon Huntsman Wednesday defended detained Chinese artist Ai Weiwei for challenging Beijing to better serve the people, in his final public speech before a possible presidential bid.

Huntsman also urged the Chinese government not to use the Internet to create distrust and warned misperceptions in the United States and China threaten to lead to policies that could undermine their relationship.

US Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke has been nominated to replace Huntsman, who is due to leave Beijing later this month as he flirts with seeking the Republican nomination to challenge Barack Obama for the presidency next year.

Huntsman said future ambassadors would press Beijing on human rights, citing jailed Noble Peace Laureate Liu Xiaobo, blind Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng and Ai -- the latest to be rounded up in a crackdown on dissent.

"They will continue to speak up in defence of social activists, like Liu Xiaobo, Chen Guangcheng and now Ai Weiwei, who challenge the Chinese government to serve the public in all cases and at all times," he said.

The 53-year-old artist -- known as much for his art as for activist work that frequently takes aim at the ruling Communist Party -- has not been heard from since Sunday, when he was detained at Beijing's airport while trying to board a flight to Hong Kong.

Huntsman was in Shanghai to give a speech on US-China relations and made no mention of his future plans at the event.

The former Republican governor of Utah and one-time deputy US trade representative who took up his post in China in August 2009, has said he will step down as of April 30.

He stirred speculation about a possible bid for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012 with a Newsweek interview late last year in which he suggested he had one political run left in him.

Huntsman suggested China should open up its Internet, which is fenced in by an ever-expanding system of control and censorship dubbed the "Great Firewall of China", aimed at snuffing out information the government deems a threat.

"Use the tools we have available to us, including, especially, the Internet. But use them to share information, increase understanding and build relationships, not to erect barriers or foment distrust," he said.

Twitter hits some technical turbulence

SAN FRANCISCO, April  6, 2011 (AFP) - Twitter appeared to be grappling with technical troubles on Tuesday, disabling a new home page as well as a "Trends" feature at the popular microblogging service.

"We're disabling #NewTwitter," the startup's support team said in a message tweeted at 4 pm (2300 GMT). "Our engineers are working on re-enabling it."

Twitter earlier said it was working to resolve problems displaying timelines and "elevated error rates."

Three hours later, Twitter sent out word that it had disabled a Trends feature for all users.

The problems came a day after Twitter introduced homepage improvements that included letting people follow accounts based on interests.

Previously, searches were based on keywords and Twitter accounts were suggested on a list if they contained the search terms.

"When you search for a topic, you can now discover accounts that are relevant to that particular subject," Twitter spokeswoman Carolyn Penner said in a blog post.

"You can search for general topics, like funny or sports, or be more specific -- try Manchester United, NASCAR or Formula One."

Bob Dylan set to make China debut

BEIJING, April  6, 2011 (AFP) - Counter-culture legend Bob Dylan was set to make his long-awaited China debut Wednesday, finally getting approval to bring his charged songs of protest and struggle to a nation bent on quelling dissent.

Dylan will play the Worker's Gymnasium in central Beijing before a show in Shanghai on Friday and two more in Hong Kong next week -- commemorating his first major performance on April 11, 1961 in New York, promoters said.

After Dylan was reportedly banned from playing here last year, China's culture ministry said last month he could perform, but only "strictly according to an approved programme" -- which means his songs will be vetted by censors.

Dylan is best known for the politically-inspired songs of his early career, including "The Times They Are A-Changin'" and his anti-war anthem "Blowin' in the Wind".

"Bob Dylan is very famous in China, especially among music fans -- his albums have been on sale here for years," Zhou Yan, a spokeswoman for the promoters of the Beijing and Shanghai shows, told AFP on Wednesday.

"The Beijing show is nearly sold out and sales for the Shanghai show are going well."

State media are widely covering Dylan's concerts, with the current edition of the influential Lifeweek magazine running a cover story on the soon-to-be 70-year-old singer entitled "The Answer Is Still Blowin' in the Wind".

The article follows Dylan's career as a folk singer influenced by Woody Guthrie and continues through his influential role in the American civil rights movement and anti-Vietnam war era in the 1960s.

"Bob Dylan is playing in Beijing, an iconic voice of dissent in a nation that values harmony," the English-language Global Times said in its take on the iconic singer's appearances.

"The subject of Dylan's songs, from drugs to racial equality to human dignity to war, are not on the radar of the average Chinese person."

An eight-page article on Dylan in the Beijing News on Wednesday documented the singer's failed attempt to perform here last year, while naming other "counter-culture" rock bands who have been banned in China.

Chinese authorities are widely presumed to be squeamish about Western rock and its counter-culture references to politics and sex.

The culture ministry reportedly nixed the Rolling Stones' sex-and-drugs anthem "Brown Sugar" from the set list when they played Shanghai in 2006.

Iceland's Bjork closed a 2008 Shanghai show by shouting "Tibet!" at the end of her song "Declare Independence".

In comments to the Beijing News, Chinese musician Zuoxiao Zuzhou called Dylan the "most gifted and talented folk and rock musician of the 1960s".

"He was sharply critical of the government and he saw rock and roll musicians as being the voice of the weak and of the lower classes.... I am very thankful of the influence he has had on me," he said.

On Sunday, Zuoxiao was questioned by police in connection with the detention of outspoken artist Ai Weiwei, a close friend whose disappearance comes as part of an ongoing government crackdown on dissidents and activists.

Dylan is scheduled to perform in Vietnam's Ho Chi Minh City on Sunday -- between the shows in Shanghai and Hong Kong.

Japan plugs leak from nuclear plant

TOKYO, April  6, 2011 (AFP) - Workers at Japan's crippled atomic power plant on Wednesday plugged a hole spewing highly radioactive water into the ocean, boosting efforts to contain the world's worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl.

But in an illustration of how fragile progress is at the Fukushima plant, operator Tokyo Electric Power said it was concerned a build-up of hydrogen gas at a different reactor could cause another explosion at the site.

The water leak was thought to be a source of spiking radiation levels in the sea, which prompted Japan to announce its first seafood radiation safety standards following the discovery of fish with high levels of contamination.

TEPCO workers had injected sodium silicate, a chemical agent known as "water glass", to solidify soil near a cracked pit where water was escaping into the Pacific.

The pit, which has a 20-centimetre (8-inch) crack in its wall, is linked to the plant's reactor No. 2, one of several that had their cooling systems disabled by a catastrophic earthquake-tsunami disaster on March 11.

Several unsuccessful attempts had been made to try to stop the leak, including an effort to seal the crack with cement.

Despite the rare sign of progress at the plant, shares in TEPCO continued to tumble on Wednesday, closing down 6.9 percent at 337 yen, a new record low, amid expectations of huge compensation claims.

TEPCO, whose shares have lost around 85 percent of their pre-quake value, has said it may need state help to meet claims some analysts say could reach 10 trillion yen ($118 billion).

On Wednesday, the government promised compensation for the fishing industry, a day after increasing unease about the contamination led it to impose a legal limit for radioactive iodine in seafood for the first time.

Levels of radioactive iodine-131 and caesium in seawater immediately outside the plant have spiked, raising fears over marine life in a country whose diet depends heavily on seafood.

TEPCO officials are also concerned that a hydrogen build-up in the housing around reactor No. 1 could react violently with oxygen, creating an explosion.

On Wednesday they announced plans to begin introducing nitrogen, an inert gas abundant in the atmosphere, which they hope will displace the oxygen.

"We are considering injecting nitrogen into the container of the reactor number 1 because hydrogen gas has possibly accumulated in the container," a TEPCO official said.

Public broadcaster NHK, citing unnamed sources, said TEPCO could start the nitrogen injection at reactor number 1 on Wednesday evening and was mulling the same procedure at reactors 2 and 3.

In the days after the earthquake and tsunami crippled the plant, large explosions resulted from hydrogen accumulation near the reactors, damaging the outer buildings housing them.

A 20-kilometre (13-mile) exclusion zone around the plant has forced tens of thousands of people to evacuate.

The plant has emitted radioactive material into the air, contaminating drinking water and farm produce, with radioactive iodine above legal limits detected in vegetables, dairy products and mushrooms.

Nuclear concerns continue to distract from the March 11 disaster that has left more than 12,000 dead and over 15,000 missing.

TEPCO continued a separate operation to release 11,500 tonnes of lower-level radioactive water into the sea to free up urgently needed storage space for water so toxic that it is hampering crucial repair work.

The dumping has angered the fishing industry and on Wednesday Ikuhiro Hattori, the head of Japan Fisheries Cooperatives, visited the company's headquarters to protest.

Meanwhile, new government figures showed the crisis has slashed the number of foreigners travelling to Japan's two main airports by two-thirds to a daily average of just over 5,000.

The wider economic fallout from the quake, tsunami and nuclear crisis is likely to drive the country into recession in the coming months, many economists now say.

Even the brewing industry has been hit, after many Japanese opted to forego the traditional alcohol-fuelled picnics held at this time of year to celebrate the cherry blossom, fearing the parties would be inappropriate.

A series of YouTube appeals from brewers in the worst-hit northeast of the country urged Japanese people to support the northeastern region by drinking sake at 'hanami' (flower viewing) parties.

Japan nuclear scare boosts renewables lobby

SINGAPORE, April  6, 2011 (AFP) - A global scare sparked by Japan's stumbling efforts to contain a nuclear crisis is encouraging promoters of renewable energy, but defenders of atomic power insist it has a long-term future.

Until the giant earthquake and tsunami that struck northeastern Japan on March 11 damaged the Fukushima plant, nuclear power was emerging as one of the main choices for countries looking at cleaner, alternative energy options.

Because it is free from carbon emissions, atomic power has been held up as a major plank in the battle to fight global warming, and now accounts for about 14 percent of the world's electricity supply.

But daily television images of the struggle to cool down overheated reactors at Fukishima have generated concern in countries that import Japanese food and other products, and reinforced long-held fears over nuclear technology.

"The Fukushima crisis may result in significant changes in energy policy in Asia, reducing plans for nuclear energy and boosting liquefied natural gas and renewables," said Rajiv Biswas, chief Asia economist at IHS Global Insight.

"It will refocus government efforts to boost renewable energy sources including solar, wind and geothermal energy," the Singapore-based economist said.

In cases where democratic governments insist on building nuclear power plants, "the public can force them to reconsider", he added.

Globally, there are more than 440 active commercial nuclear power reactors in 30 countries, producing 377,000 megawatts of electricity, according to the World Nuclear Association.

Of 62 reactors currently being built around the world, 40 are in Asia, and 96 of the 158 being planned are also in the region, the association's figures show.

Samantha Smith, leader for global climate and energy initiative at the environmental group WWF International, which opposes atomic power, said Fukushima has prompted "a resurgence in support for alternatives to nuclear".

She cited the decision of European leaders to carry out "stress tests" for the continent's nuclear plants, China's cutting of nuclear power targets and a German moratorium on further operation of older reactors as evidence of the changing mood.

In addition, the market values of many companies and utilities involved with, and investing in, nuclear power have dropped, while share prices of some renewable energy firms have risen, she told AFP.

"Investing in clean, renewable energy is clearly preferable to the unacceptable human, environmental and financial risks posed by nuclear power," Smith said.

However, Fatih Birol, chief economist of the International Energy Agency (IEA), conversely warned that a slowdown in the growth of nuclear power worldwide will seriously hamper the fight against climate change.

Since Fukushima, the IEA modelled the consequences if its earlier projection of 360 gigawatts of additional power from nuclear plants by 2035 is halved to 180 gigawatts, due to the more cautious attitude towards atomic plants.

Using coal, natural gas and "renewables" to take up the slack from nuclear energy would result in additional carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions of 500 million tonnes, Birol told AFP by telephone from the IEA's office in Paris.

It will also push up electricity prices -- due to higher demand for coal and gas to compensate for lost nuclear capacity -- and affect global energy security, he said.

Ian Hore-Lacy, a spokesman for the World Nuclear Association, said that when the high emotions sparked by Japan's nuclear crisis calmed down, the world will still need to look for energy sources to meet growing demand, and nuclear power will remain an option.

"When all this is sorted, world energy demand will be just the same as last week, the demand for reliable electricity supply will still be on a path to doubling in two decades," he told AFP.

"The options for meeting that demand will be just the same."

Russian bloggers accuse authorities of cyberwar

MOSCOW, April  6, 2011 (AFP) - The LiveJournal blogging site, hugely popular in Russia, on Wednesday fell victim to a major cyber attack that bloggers said appeared an attempt to to silence political discussion ahead of elections.

The attack, which began earlier this week, was a so-called distributed denial of service (DDoS), which overloads a website's bandwidth by making thousands of computers access it repeatedly, its owner said.

SUP, the company that now owns LiveJournal, has said the recent series of attacks are the worst in the service's history and have started to target the entire service rather than specific blogs.

"Somebody really wants LiveJournal to cease to exist" and its popular users to switch to standalone platforms that are easier to destroy, wrote SUP's development manager Ilya Dronov on his blog after the site was offline for several hours on Monday.

The site was inaccessible again on Wednesday morning.

The problem started with DDoS attacks on Alexei Navalny, who has used his blog to talk about corruption in the government and the ruling United Russia party, said Maria Garnayeva, an expert at Internet security company Kaspersky Lab, who posted information about the attack on her blog.

Navalny started targeting United Russia earlier this year calling them "the party of swindlers and thieves" which turned into an Internet meme. Shortly after, spammers started inundating all of his posts with derogatory comments.

Last month bloggers found ads on freelancing websites that invited people to leave hundreds of spam comments on Navalny's blog for 14,000 rubles per month, however the advertisement was not traced to any organization.

Cyber attacks have been used against bloggers before, notably during the brief 2008 war between Russia and Georgia against Cyxymu, a Georgian blogger whose blog, Facebook and Twitter accounts were attacked, crashing the platforms for several hours.

Many bloggers said the attacks are most likely orchestrated by the authorities through Nashi, a pro-Kremlin movement believed to act on the orders of influential Kremlin advisor Vladislav Surkov.

There is almost "total correspondence in goals and times between public acts by Surkov's proteges and the attacks of the cyber criminals," wrote popular blogger and Internet entrepreneur Anton Nossik in a comment on Snob.ru.

LiveJournal, which was created in 1999 by a US college student, became immensely popular in Russia not just as a blogging tool but a platform for creative and political discussion.

In 2007 however the service was sold to Russian company SUP, which was criticized by many bloggers who feared that the platform would now be more vulnerable to pressure from the authorities.

Most of Russia's opposition figures and social activists keep blogs on LiveJournal that they use to rally support and comment on current events.

"LiveJournal is really a zone of freedom, and the attack on it is preparation for parliamentary and presidential elections. It is pure politics," opposition figure Boris Nemtsov said on Finam FM radio this week.

"Hardly anyone could have done this other than the security services," he said after the site's problems kept him from posting an entry about his pamphlet "Putin. Corruption."

"Seems like both times LiveJournal was downed by Kremlin people as a rehearsal of some "X hour" to break communication among the active part of society," political analyst Mikhail Delyagin wrote on his blog.

Japan quake moved sea bed 24 metres: coastguard

TOKYO, April  6, 2011 (AFP) - The seabed near the epicentre of the massive earthquake that rocked Japan last month was shifted 24 metres (79 feet) by the tremor, the country's coastguard said Wednesday.

Sensors found that one part of the ocean floor had been stretched to a point 24 metres east-southeast of its position before the 9.0 undersea quake, which triggered a massive tsunami that engulfed large areas of Japan's northeast coast.

The undersea movement is more than four times bigger than any observed on land, where part of the Oshika peninsula in Miyagi prefecture was found to have shifted 5.3 metres.

The US Geological Survey (USGS) said in March that the force of the quake moved Honshu -- Japan's main island -- by 2.4 metres.

Taiwan to impose tax to curb home prices

TAIPEI, April  6, 2011 (AFP) - A planned "luxury tax" that aims to rein in property speculation in Taiwan came a step nearer on Wednesday when it breezed through its first reading.

The Finance Committee gave the go-ahead to the first draft of the bill after President Ma Ying-jeou ordered legislators in his Kuomintang party, which holds a majority on the committee, to help push it through.

The move comes as house prices in Taiwan have soared, leading to tensions over the widening gap between the island's rich and poor that has seen Taipei become one of Asia most expensive cities.

"The approval of the bill today marks a triumph of social justice ... hopefully it will help crack down on short-term speculation," Kuomintang legislator Fei Hung-tai, a committee convenor, told reporters.

Fei expected the committee to pass the second and third and final reading of the bill before it is voted on by parliament towards the end of the month.

Under the provisions of the bill anyone who sells non-residential properties and vacant land within two years of buying it will face a levy of up to 15 percent.

It also includes plans for a 10 percent special sales tax on luxury goods such as yachts, private jets, furs and high-end furniture.

The bill was introduced as various government data indicate Taiwan, once a relatively equal society, is gradually seeing a more unequal distribution of wealth, with property prices emerging as a key public bugbear.

The most prosperous 20 percent in Taiwan reported average disposable incomes of Tw$1.79 million ($60,700) in 2009, more than six times that of the poorest 20 percent -- the largest gap since 2001.

At the end of October, the average price of property in Taipei hit $4,614 per square metre ($430 per square foot), up 15 percent from last year, according to property agency Taiwan Realty.

'Softie' Singaporean soldier counselled

SINGAPORE, April  5, 2011 (AFP) - A Singaporean soldier who was photographed with a maid carrying his rucksack has undergone counselling and is "remorseful" over his behaviour, the defence ministry said.

The picture, circulated by local media then seen around the world after spreading on the Internet, had sparked outrage and concern that recruits to Singapore's armed forces are "softies".

"The serviceman concerned has identified himself to his commander," defence ministry director of public affairs Colonel Desmond Tan said in a letter published in the Straits Times on Tuesday.
"He has been counselled and continues his training."

Tan said the soldier was "remorseful for his actions and realises that it was wrong for him to have allowed this".

The photograph showed the young soldier in fatigues and combat boots walking on a footpath, with his female domestic helper following behind with his military-issue rucksack.

Singapore maintains a conscript-based military and its armed forces are among the best equipped in Asia. Every able-bodied male citizen and permanent resident 18 years old and above must undergo two years of military training.

There has been criticism that current training drills are not as tough compared with what older generations had to undergo because of complaints from parents.

Analysts, however, said the rucksack photograph was not a fair representation of today's armed forces.

First ban on all Japanese food over nuclear crisis

TOKYO, April  5, 2011 (AFP) - India banned all food imports from Japan Tuesday, the first country to impose a blanket block over radiation from a stricken nuclear plant, as shares in its operator plunged to an all-time low.

With workers pumping toxic water from the Fukushima atomic plant into the Pacific Ocean for a second day Japan imposed a legal limit for radioactive iodine in fish, adding it would look at widening tests to cover a larger area.

Raised levels of radioactive iodine had been discovered in a fish caught off Ibaraki prefecture, south of the crippled plant.

An Indian government statement said all food imports from Japan "stand suspended with immediate effect" for three months, or until "credible information is available that the radiation hazard has subsided to acceptable limits".

The move by India, which imports small amounts of fruits, vegetables and processed food, is the first nationwide ban, while several countries including China, Singapore and the United States have blocked food from some Japanese prefectures.

Shares in Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) plunged to a new low of 362 yen -- their lowest ever level -- amid concerns the firm, which operates the power station, will face huge compensation bills.

The embattled company has lost more than 80 percent of its value since the March 11 quake and tsunami knocked out reactor cooling systems at the Fukushima nuclear plant, triggering explosions and releasing radiation.

On Monday, its operators began releasing low-level radioactive water into the sea to free up urgently needed safe storage space for water so toxic that it is halting crucial repair work.

The company has said it needs to dump 11,500 tonnes, or more than four Olympic pools' worth, of the radioactive liquid, raising concerns about marine life in the island nation, where seafood is a key source of protein.

Some radioactive runoff has already leaked into the Pacific Ocean, raising levels of iodine-131 to over 4,000 times the legal limit in one measurement.

On Tuesday, government chief spokesman Yukio Edano announced a legal limit of 2,000 becquerels per kilogram for radioactive iodine in seafood, the first time such restriction for fish.

"The government has decided to temporarily adopt the same limit as for vegetables," he told a press conference.

The move came after radioactive iodine of more than double that concentration was detected in a variety of small fish known as konago, or sand lance, caught off Ibaraki, south of the plant.
Fishing of the species was stopped locally, reports said.

Radioactive iodine above legal limits has been detected in vegetables, dairy products and mushrooms, triggering shipping bans, but officials had said seafood was less at risk as ocean currents and tides dilute dangerous isotopes.

Fishermen in the area expressed outrage over the decision to dump radioactive water into the ocean.

"We heard radioactive material was leaking into the sea," said Yoshihiro Niizuma of the Fukushima Fisheries cooperative. "Now they are dumping contaminated water on purpose."

Seoul also questioned the decision, saying the proximity of the two neighbours made Japan's action "a pressing issue" for South Korea.

Fishing has been banned within 20 kilometres (12 miles) of the stricken plant, matching the radius of the evacuation zone on land, where tens of thousands of residents have been moved out.

The dumping of radioactive water into the sea has also cast concerns on the earnings of the fishery industry, and some analysts estimate TEPCO could face compensation claims of more than 10 trillion yen ($120 billion).

TEPCO last week said it had secured two trillion yen in funding but warned that this would not be enough.

The company said Tuesday it had offered 10 municipalities in Fukushima prefecture whose residents have had to evacuate "consolation" payments of 20 million yen ($237,500), separate to future compensation.

One of them, Namie, rejected the offer, with a muncipality spokeswoman saying: "The town has a population of over 20,000, so the amount to be received by each resident would be less than 1,000 yen."
The money had been refused "so that we can leave room for speaking strongly against the company," she added.

The wider economic fallout from Japan's triple calamity -- the massive March 11 earthquake, giant tsunami and the nuclear crisis -- is likely to drive the country into recession in coming months, said a survey of economists.

The disaster, which has left more than 12,000 dead and over 15,000 missing, has also hit exports, business confidence and consumer spending, the Nikkei daily said in the survey of 11 major private economic institutions.

Taiwan, China plan nuclear safety pact: report

TAIPEI, April  5, 2011 (AFP) - Taiwan and China are planning to cooperate more closely on nuclear power safety and disaster preparedness in the wake of Japan's atomic crisis, a report said Tuesday.

The two sides plan to sign an agreement at the next round of talks between their top negotiators later this year to set up an official communication channel in the event of a nuclear disaster, said the state Central News Agency.

Under the deal, Taiwan's Atomic Energy Council and its Chinese counterpart would alert each other if disaster struck and cooperate to limit the damage, the report said, quoting the council.

Such a deal is necessary as the majority of China's nuclear facilities are located in its southeast coast which is only 100-200 kilometres (62-124 miles) from the island, it said.

The council's officials were not immediately available for comment.

Taiwan's President Ma Ying-jeou has urged the two sides to discuss cooperation in nuclear safety, especially as China has previously announced plans for more than 20 new plants.

Anti-nuclear sentiments rose in Taiwan after a nuclear power plant in Japan's Fukushima prefecture was critically damaged in the March 11 earthquake and tsunami.

Recent polls indicated that a majority of Taiwanese are worried about the safety of the island's three nuclear plants while thousands of people took to the streets last month to demand the government stop building a new one.

Taiwan, like Japan, is in an earthquake-prone part of the Pacific basin.

Electricity generated by the three nuclear plants accounts for 20 percent of Taiwan's power supply.


Singapore widens Japanese food ban

SINGAPORE, April  5, 2011 (AFP) - Singapore suspended fruit and vegetable imports from another Japanese prefecture after radiation levels on a sample of cabbage shipped from the region were found to have exceeded normal levels.

In a statement issued late Monday, the Agri-Food & Veterinary Authority of Singapore (AVA) said it had banned produce from Hyogo.

"Following the latest detection of radioactive contaminants in a sample of cabbage imported from the Hyogo prefecture, the AVA will extend its suspension on the import of fruits and vegetables to include Hyogo with immediate effect," it stated.

Singapore had earlier banned imports from ten Japanese prefectures including Fukushima and Tokyo.

Japan on Monday dumped low-level radioactive water into the Pacific as part of emergency operations to stabilise its Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, which was crippled by the giant quake and tsunami that struck northeastern Japan on March 11.

Plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Company said the release of the water -- the equivalent of more than four Olympic sized swimming pools -- would not harm marine life or seafood safety but lingering fears remained.

Obama turns to social media again for 2012 bid

WASHINGTON, April  4, 2011 (AFP) - US President Barack Obama launched his reelection campaign with a social media barrage Monday, turning once again to the online tools that helped propel him to the White House three years ago.

Obama, 49, announced his 2012 candidacy with a message on Twitter, a status update on his Facebook page and an email blast to his millions of supporters, all of which provided a link to his BarackObama.com campaign website.

"Today, we're filing papers to launch our 2012 campaign," the Democrat told the 7.28 million followers of the @barackobama account on Twitter.

The Twitter message, Barack Obama page on Facebook and email all urged voters to "Say that you're in" and provided a link to barackobama.com where they could provide an email address and a zip code.

The website invites supporters to make a donation to the campaign, volunteer and offers a new range of branded merchandise, including 2012 badges, bumper stickers, water bottles and T-shirts.

The new campaign logo featured on the items includes the celebrated image of a rising sun used in 2008, but this time nestled in the "0" of 2012.

An "Are You In?" application on Facebook lets members of the social network write a message of support for Obama's candidacy and invite friends and family to do the same.

"I am so IN!," wrote Facebook user and Obama backer Debra Wilhoite.

"Of course I am in just like I was in 2008!" said another, Elizabeth Boergert.

Obama also released a two-minute YouTube video that did not feature the candidate himself speaking but a diverse range of supporters explaining why he should be given another four years in the White House in the November 2012 elections.

Obama relied heavily on the Internet during his 2008 presidential campaign for organizing, fundraising and communicating and Monday's launch made it clear he plans on doing so again, building a grassroots campaign online.

In his message to supporters, Obama said "the politics we believe in does not start with expensive TV ads or extravaganzas, but with you -- with people organizing block-by-block, talking to neighbors, co-workers, and friends.

"The work of laying the foundation for our campaign must start today," Obama said, adding that he was counting on his supporters "forging a new organization that we'll build together in cities and towns across the country.

"We'll start by doing something unprecedented: coordinating millions of one-on-one conversations between supporters across every single state, reconnecting old friends, inspiring new ones to join the cause, and readying ourselves for next year's fight," Obama said.

Nancy Scola, an associate editor at TechPresident.com, a blog which covers technology and politics, said Obama's reelection campaign announcement was "baked through with the spirit of a social, collective effort."

"Are You In?" -- could be the tag line for any number of geo-social start-ups," Scola said in a blog post.

"Clearly, Team Obama is really hoping to drive home the message that the 2012 campaign is meant to be a group project," Scola said, noting complaints that "the Obama presidency has been one run without the sort of grassroots collaboration implied by the '08 campaign."

US eagle webcam becomes internet sensation

WASHINGTON, April  4, 2011 (AFP) - Cameras installed high in a tree in the US state of Iowa have made an internet sensation of a family of bald eagles, whose nest is streamed online live day and night.

"Why viral, I'm not really sure," Bob Anderson, director of the Raptor Resource Project, said of the success of the eagle webcam.

"The world just likes to hear something good instead of negative," he said. "This is all positive, this makes people feel good."

Anderson had been transmitting live images of the nest, 80 feet high in Docorah, Iowa, mainly for schools and universities.

But this year, using a new site, UStream, the eagles are challenging the likes of troubled actor Charlie Sheen for internet popularity. There have been 11 million online views, according to the project's website.

Some 150,000 viewers at a time check out the live action, captured by two cameras installed on branches five feet above the nest.

The male and female eagles have been together since the winter of 2007-08, the project's website explained. They have successfully hatched and fledged eaglets each year since.

Interest spiked in late February when the mother laid three eggs, two of which have hatched. The third is expected to hatch any day now.

Most days viewers can see the wind pushing about the feathers of the eagles, as well as spot the remains of a muskrat, rabbit, crow and trout lying in the nest.

"Our dream always has been to provide an insight to wildlife, as a science tool for school," Anderson said. "It's a wonderful education tool, people are learning the good and the bad of nature."

"Now," he continued, "kids are learning that animals do eat other animals and that is the way of life. They are gaining a great insight to Mother Nature."

Anonymous vows payback for case against PS3 hacker

SAN FRANCISCO, April  5, 2011 (AFP) - Internet vigilante group Anonymous has vowed retribution against Sony for taking legal action against hackers that cracked PlayStation 3 (PS3) defenses to change console operating software.

A message signed by Anonymous at website anonnews.org on Monday announced an "Operation Payback" campaign aimed at the Japanese consumer electronics titan because of its cases against George "GeoHot" Hotz and Alexander Egorenkov.

"Your recent legal actions against fellow internet citizens, GeoHot and Graf_Chokolo (Egorenkov) have been deemed an unforgivable offense against free speech and Internet freedom," the message read.

Anonymous argued that people who bought PS3 consoles have the right to do what they wish with them, including modify them in whatever manner they wish.

The hacker group threatened to retaliate against Sony by attacking the company's websites.

Sony went to court early this year to stop hackers that figured out how to "jailbreak" PS3 consoles to operate on software other than that originally installed by the firm.

A judge granted Sony a restraining order against Hotz, a 23-year-old New Jersey resident, and opposing sides are wrangling over the company's request to have the case heard in a federal district court in California.

Sony wants Hotz taken task for violations of the US Digital Millennium Copyright Act and a Computer Fraud Abuse Act. The case against Egorenkov, who also maintains his innocence, is playing out in Germany.

Hotz has denied doing anything wrong. Sony has reportedly tried to find out whether other hackers helped Hotz or if he shared his PS3 breakthrough with others.

Google product chief leaves as Page takes helm

SAN FRANCISCO, April  4, 2011 (AFP) - Larry Page's first day as Google chief executive on Monday was marked with the resignation of the executive in charge of search, Android and other major products at the Internet powerhouse.

Google confirmed that Jonathan Rosenberg, the company's chief of product development, announced his resignation internally after being unable to assure Page that he was committed to his role for the long haul.

"We tried to hire Jonathan multiple times because he was the only person we could imagine doing the job," Page said in a statement released by Google.

"It's lucky we were so persistent because he's built an amazing team -- hiring great people, who've created amazing products that have benefited over a billion users around the world."

Rosenberg, 49, has been open about his plan to remain at Google only until his daughter is ready to attend college in about two years.

Page met with top executives on Monday, his first day on the job as chief executive at the Mountain View, California-based company he launched in 1998 with then Stanford University classmate Sergey Brin.

Page wanted to make sure top executives planned to be at Google as he executes his plan for the firm.

Rosenberg decided to step down after being unable to make a long-term commitment, according to Google.

Rosenberg will leave his position about mid-year and return to Google as a consultant after taking off an unspecified amount of time.

Rosenberg also planned to collaborate with recently-departed chief executive Eric Schmidt on a book about Google's management culture.

"Jonathan is phenomenal -- hugely energetic, strategic, a man of real principle who always puts the user first," Schmidt said in a release.

"He's been crucial to our success over the last nine years and I cannot thank him enough for everything he's done."

Page, an engineer with a keen interest in Google products and an inclination to be hands-on, had yet to decide what will become of Rosenberg's position.

US banks, companies issue warning after email hack

WASHINGTON, April  4, 2011 (AFP) - Computer hackers gained access to the email addresses of customers of several large US banks and other companies in a potentially huge data breach at US online marketing firm Epsilon.

Banking firms Citigroup, JPMorgan Chase and Capital One, retailers Best Buy and Kroger and home entertainment provider TiVo were among those informed by Epsilon that some customer email addresses had been compromised.

Hilton Worldwide and the College Board, which administers nationwide scholastic tests, were also among those informing customers of the breach.

The Irving, Texas-based Epsilon, a marketing vendor used by 2,500 companies around the world to send more than 40 billion emails a year, said the hackers obtained email addresses and customer names but no other information.

"A subset of Epsilon clients' customer data were exposed by an unauthorized entry into Epsilon's email system," the company said in a brief statement.

"The information that was obtained was limited to email addresses and/or customer names only," it said. "A rigorous assessment determined that no other personal identifiable information associated with those names was at risk."

Epsilon said it detected the breach on March 30 and that an investigation is under way.

Citi told customers that "no account information or other information was compromised" and Capital One said it had been told the compromised files did not include any personally identifiable or customer financial information.

JPMorgan Chase said it had been "advised by Epsilon that the files that were accessed did not include any customer financial information, but are actively investigating to confirm this."

Hilton Worldwide told its customers that the most likely impact of the data breach "if any, would be receipt of unwanted emails."

The College Board said Epsilon did not have access to social security numbers or credit card data but "it is possible you may receive spam email messages as a result (of the data breach)."

Online travel site TripAdvisor said last month that hackers stole a portion of its email member list.